Chapter XXI. Sympathies Misplaced
 

The first time Mr. Smith saw Frank Blaisdell, after Miss Maggie's news of the forty-thousand-dollar loss, he tried, somewhat awkwardly, to express his interest and sympathy. But Frank Blaisdell cut him short.

"That's all right, and I thank you," he cried heartily. "And I know most folks would think losing forty thousand dollars was about as bad as it could be. Jane, now, is all worked up over it; can't sleep nights, and has gone back to turning down the gas and eating sour cream so's to save and help make it up. But me--I call it the best thing that ever happened."

"Well, really," laughed Mr. Smith; "I'm sure that's a very delightful way to look at it--if you can."

"Well, I can; and I'll tell you why. It's put me back where I belong-- behind the counter of a grocery store. I've bought out the old stand. Oh, I had enough left for that, and more! Closed the deal last night. Gorry, but I was glad to feel the old floor under my feet again!"

"But I thought you--you were tired of work, and--wanted to enjoy yourself," stammered Mr. Smith.

Frank Blaisdell laughed.

"Tired of work--wanted to enjoy myself, indeed! Yes, I know I did say something like that. But, let me tell you this, Mr. Smith. Talk about work!--I never worked so hard in my life as I have the last ten months trying to enjoy myself. How these folks can stand gadding 'round the country week in and week out, feeding their stomachs on a French dictionary instead of good United States meat and potatoes and squash, and spending their days traipsing off to see things they ain't a mite interested in, and their nights trying to get rested so they can go and see some more the next day, I don't understand."

Mr. Smith chuckled.

"I'm afraid these touring agencies wouldn't like to have you write their ads for them, Mr. Blaisdell!"

"Well, they hadn't better ask me to," smiled the other grimly. "But that ain't all. Since I come back I've been working even harder trying to enjoy myself here at home--knockin' silly little balls over a ten- acre lot in a game a healthy ten-year-old boy would scorn to play."

"But how about your new car? Didn't you enjoy riding in that?" bantered Mr. Smith.

"Oh, yes, I enjoyed the riding well enough; but I didn't enjoy hunting for punctures, putting on new tires, or burrowing into the inside of the critter to find out why she didn't go! And that's what I was doing most of the time. I never did like machinery. It ain't in my line."

He paused a moment, then went on a little wistfully:--

"I suspect, Mr. Smith, there ain't anything in my line but groceries. It's all I know. It's all I ever have known. If--if I had my life to live over again, I'd do different, maybe. I'd see if I couldn't find out what there was in a picture to make folks stand and stare at it an hour at a time when you could see the whole thing in a minute--and it wa'n't worth lookin' at, anyway, even for a minute. And music, too. Now, I like a good tune what is a tune; but them caterwaulings and dirges that that chap Gray plays on that fiddle of his--gorry, Mr. Smith, I'd rather hear the old barn door at home squeak any day. But if I was younger I'd try to learn to like 'em. I would! Look at Flora, now. She can set by the hour in front of that phonygraph of hers, and not know it!"

"Yes, I know," smiled Mr. Smith.

"And there's books, too," resumed the other, still wistfully. "I'd read books--if I could stay awake long enough to do it--and I'd find out what there was in 'em to make a good sensible man like Jim Blaisdell daft over 'em--and Maggie Duff, too. Why, that little woman used to go hungry sometimes, when she was a girl, so she could buy a book she wanted. I know she did. Why, I'd 'a' given anything this last year if I could 'a' got interested--really interested, readin'. I could 'a' killed an awful lot of time that way. But I couldn't do it. I bought a lot of 'em, too, an' tried it; but I expect I didn't begin young enough. I tell ye, Mr. Smith, I've about come to the conclusion that there ain't a thing in the world so hard to kill as time. I've tried it, and I know. Why, I got so I couldn't even kill it eatin'-- though I 'most killed myself tryin' to! An' let me tell ye another thing. A full stomach ain't in it with bein' hungry an' knowing a good dinner's coming. Why, there was whole weeks at a time back there that I didn't know the meaning of the word 'hungry.' You'd oughter seen the jolt I give one o' them waiter-chaps one day when he comes up with his paper and his pencil and asks me what I wanted. 'Want?' says I. 'There ain't but one thing on this earth I want, and you can't give it to me. I want to want something. I'm tired of bein' so blamed satisfied all the time!'"

"And what did--Alphonso say to that?" chuckled Mr. Smith appreciatively.

"Alphonso? Oh, the waiter-fellow, you mean? Oh, he just stared a minute, then mumbled his usual 'Yes, sir, very good, sir,' and shoved that confounded printed card of his a little nearer to my nose. But, there! I guess you've heard enough of this, Mr. Smith. It's only that I was trying to tell you why I'm actually glad we lost that money. It's give me back my man's job again."

"Good! All right, then. I won't waste any more sympathy on you," laughed Mr. Smith.

"Well, you needn't. And there's another thing. I hope it'll give me back a little of my old faith in my fellow-man."

"What do you mean by that?"

"Just this. I won't suspect every man, woman, and child that says a civil word to me now of having designs on my pocketbook. Why, Mr. Smith, you wouldn't believe it, if I told you, the things that's been done and said to get a little money out of me. Of course, the open gold-brick schemes I knew enough to dodge, 'most of 'em (unless you count in that darn Benson mining stock), and I spotted the blackmailers all right, most generally. But I was flabbergasted when a woman tackled the job and began to make love to me--actually make love to me!--one day when Jane's back was turned. Gorry! do I look such a fool as that, Mr. Smith? Well, anyhow, there won't be any more of that kind, nor anybody after my money now, I guess," he finished with a sage wag of his head as he turned away.

To Miss Maggie that evening Mr. Smith said, after recounting the earlier portion of the conversation: "So you see you were right, after all. I shall have to own it up. Mr. Frank Blaisdell had plenty to retire upon, but nothing to retire to. But I'm glad--if he's happy now."

"And he isn't the only one that that forty-thousand-dollar loss has done a good turn to," nodded Miss Maggie. "Mellicent has just been here. You know she's home from school. It's the Easter vacation, anyway, but she isn't going back. It's too expensive."

Miss Maggie spoke with studied casualness, but there was an added color in her cheeks--Miss Maggie always flushed a little when she mentioned Mellicent's name to Mr. Smith, in spite of her indignant efforts not to do so.

"Oh, is that true?"

"Yes. Well, the Pennocks had a dance last night, and Mellicent went. She said she had to laugh to see Mrs. Pennock's efforts to keep Carl away from her--the loss of the money is known everywhere now, and has been greatly exaggerated, I've heard. She said that even Hibbard Gaylord had the air of one trying to let her down easy. Mellicent was immensely amused."

"Where was Donald Gray?"

"Oh, he wasn't there. He doesn't move in the Pennock crowd much. But Mellicent sees him, and--and everything's all right there, now. That's why Mellicent is so happy."

"You mean--Has her mother given in?"

"Yes. You see, Jane was at the dance, too, and she saw Carl, and she saw Hibbard Gaylord. And she was furious. She told Mellicent this morning that she had her opinion of fellows who would show so plainly as Carl Pennock and Hibbard Gaylord did that it was the money they were after."

"I'm afraid--Mrs. Jane has changed her shoes again," murmured Mr. Smith, his eyes merry.

"Has changed--oh!" Miss Maggie's puzzled frown gave way to a laugh. "Well, yes, perhaps the shoe is on the other foot again. But, anyway, she doesn't love Carl or Hibbard any more, and she does love Donald Gray. He hasn't let the loss of the money make any difference to him, you see. He's been even more devoted, if anything. She told Mellicent this morning that he was a very estimable young man, and she liked him very much. Perhaps you see now why Mellicent is--happy."

"Good! I'm glad to know it," cried Mr. Smith heartily. "I'm glad--" His face changed suddenly. His eyes grew somber. "I'm glad the loss of the money brought them some happiness--if the possession of it didn't," he finished moodily, turning to go to his own room. At the hall door he paused and looked back at Miss Maggie, standing by the table, gazing after him with troubled eyes. "Did Mellicent say-- whether Fred was there?" he asked.

"Yes. She said he wasn't there. He didn't come home for this vacation at all. She said she didn't know why. I suspect Mellicent doesn't know anything about that wretched affair of his."

"We'll hope not. So the young gentleman didn't show up at all?"

"No, nor Bessie. She went home with a Long Island girl. Hattie didn't go to the Pennocks' either. Hattie has--has been very different since this affair of Fred's. I think it frightened her terribly--it was so near a tragedy; the boy threatened to kill himself, you know, if his father didn't help him out."

"But his father did help him out!" flared the man irritably.

"Yes, I know he did; and I'm afraid he found things in a pretty bad mess--when he got there," sighed Miss Maggie. "It was a bad mess all around."

"You are exactly right!" ejaculated Mr. Smith with sudden and peculiar emphasis. "It is, indeed, a bad mess all around," he growled as he disappeared through the door.

Behind him, Miss Maggie still stood motionless, looking after him with troubled eyes.

As the spring days grew warmer, Miss Maggie had occasion many times to look after Mr. Smith with troubled eyes. She could not understand him at all. One day he would be the old delightful companion, genial, cheery, generously donating a box of chocolates to the center-table bonbon dish or a dozen hothouse roses to the mantel vase. The next, he would be nervous, abstracted, almost irritable. Yet she could see no possible reason for the change.

Sometimes she wondered fearfully if Mellicent could have anything to do with it. Was it possible that he had cared for Mellicent, and to see her now so happy with Donald Gray was more than he could bear? It did not seem credible. There was his own statement that he had devoted himself to her solely and only to help keep the undesirable lovers away and give Donald Gray a chance.

Besides, had he not said that he was not a marrying man, anyway? To be sure, that seemed a pity--a man so kind and thoughtful and so delightfully companionable! But then, it was nothing to her, of course--only she did hope he was not feeling unhappy over Mellicent!

Miss Maggie wished, too, that Mr. Smith would not bring flowers and candy so often. It worried her. She felt as if he were spending too much money--and she had got the impression in some way that he did not have any too much money to spend. And there were the expensive motor trips, too--she feared Mr. Smith was extravagant. Yet she could not tell him so, of course. He never seemed to realize the value of a dollar, anyway, and he very obviously did not know how to get the most out of it. Look at his foolish generosity in regard to the board he paid her!

Miss Maggie wondered sometimes if it might not be worry over money matters that was making him so nervous and irritable on occasions now. Plainly he was very near the end of his work there in Hillerton. He was not getting so many letters on Blaisdell matters from away, either. For a month now he had done nothing but a useless repetition of old work; and of late, a good deal of the time, he was not even making that pretense of being busy. For days at a time he would not touch his records. That could mean but one thing, of course; his work was done. Yet he seemed to be making no move toward departure. Not that she wanted him to go. She should miss him very much when he went, of course. But she did not like to feel that he was staying simply because he had nowhere to go and nothing to do. Miss Maggie did not believe in able-bodied men who had nowhere to go and nothing to do-- and she wanted very much to believe in Mr. Smith.

She had been under the impression that he was getting the Blaisdell material together for a book, and that he was intending to publish it himself. He had been very happy and interested. Now he was unhappy and uninterested. His book must be ready, but he was making no move to publish it. To Miss Maggie this could mean but one thing: some financial reverses had made it impossible for him to carry out his plans, and had left him stranded with no definite aim for the future.

She was so sorry!--but there seemed to be nothing that she could do. She had tried to help by insisting that he pay less for his board; but he had not only scouted that idea, but had brought her more chocolates and flowers than ever--for all the world as if he had divined her suspicions and wished to disprove them.

That Mr. Smith was trying to keep something from her, Miss Maggie was sure. She was the more sure, perhaps, because she herself had something that she was trying to keep from Mr. Smith--and she thought she recognized the symptoms.

Meanwhile April budded into May, and May blossomed into June; and June brought all the Blaisdells together again in Hillerton.