A Romance of Billy-Goat Hill by Alice Hegan Rice
During the rest of the week the rainstorm, that had started all the trouble, continued to hover ominously, breaking forth day after day in fierce, petulant showers. Out at Thornwood the aspect was most dreary; the low-lying ground in front of the house was under water for a quarter of a mile, trees, limp and draggled, stood disconsolate in an unfamiliar lake, the bridge below the dam was washed away, and horses going to the creek for water were constantly being caught by the current, and having to be rescued by ropes. In the flower garden dirty-faced little blossoms lay in the mud, vines trailed across the paths, all the fragrance and color seemed to be soaked out of everything by those continuous, pelting showers.
Within the house it was not much gayer. The front hall, with its steep, narrow stairway, and floor-covering of highly ornate landscape oilcloth, was in a perpetual twilight. An occasional glint from white woodwork, or the gold molding of a picture, strove in vain to dispel the gloom. The parlor, at the right of the hall, was sepulchral with its window cracks stuffed with paper, and the shutters securely closed. To be sure, the living-room on the other side of the hall did its best to look cheerful, but even that comfortable spot with its low ceiling and battered mahogany furniture, its high cupboards flanking the wide, stone fireplace, and its friendly litter of every-day necessities, was not equal to the occasion.
One afternoon when the Colonel came in from the chicken yard where he and Uncle Jimpson had constituted themselves a salvage corps, he surprised Miss Lady sitting in the dusk on the floor before the empty fireplace, with suspicious traces of tears upon her face.
"Make a light," blustered the Colonel; "you mustn't sit around in the dark like this, you know. Where's my pipe?"
She sprang up and found the missing article, and with a great show of cheerfulness lit the lamp and held the match out for him to light his pipe.
"What's the matter?" asked the Colonel; "sort of trembly, ain't you?"
"Me? Watch me!" She held the match very straight and very tight, then as it wavered, blew it out and dropped it down his sleeve. "There's some mail over there on the table for you, Daddy dear. Noah brought it down from town in his buggy."
She said it very carelessly, and even enumerated the contents as she handed it to him:
"Two circulars, a letter from the seed man, the Confederate Veteran and the newspapers."
"Nothing for you?"
Under his scrutiny Miss Lady's eyes fell, and she turned abruptly to the window, while the Colonel, mouth open, pipe in hand, watched her.
He had never seen his girl like this in her life! What business had her lip to tremble in the middle of a sentence, or her eyes to brim with sudden tears, making her turn her back on her adoring Dad, and busy herself with the window curtain?
Of course it is upsetting to have a friend, whom you have been seeing daily for a couple of weeks, get into trouble such as young Donald Morley had fallen into. It made even the Colonel feel bad, he didn't deny it. But what business had the kitten to be taking it all so to heart? Why was she called upon to champion this young stranger's cause so hotly, to resent every insinuation, and to contend! passionately that he would be able to explain everything? Morley had not explained. Three days had dragged past and nothing had been heard from him. Nothing probably would be heard from him! The Colonel wanted to feel victorious, but he did! not. Instead, he cast anxious and sympathetic glances at the back of his daughter's head, and surreptitiously wiped his small snub nose on the corner of his red-bordered handkerchief.
He had a good mind to give up his trip to Virginia! To be sure, he had looked forward for months to celebrating Founders' Day at the old college. If it weren't for seeing all the old boys, he would stay at home. By George! the little girl came first; he would stay at home anyhow!
"Those gloves," he burst out by way of breaking the news; "the thin ones I told you to mend. Well, you needn't mend them."
"I haven't," said Miss Lady, "but I'll do it now."
"Needn't mind. Won't need 'em. Fact is, I ain't going."
"Yes you are," said Miss Lady, adding inconsequently, "Why not?"
"Needed here at home. Roads washed out, everything out of fix. Decided to stay at home." Miss Lady wheeled from the window where she had been tracing the raindrops on the pane, and made a rush for him, establishing herself on his lap, as far as one could establish oneself on such a perpendicular surface.
"You are not going to do anything of the kind. Uncle Jimpson is going to drive you in to town to catch the first train in the morning."
"I ain't going," insisted the Colonel, shaking his head doggedly.
"Yes you are. Where's your traveling bag?"
"On the top shelf of the cupboard. But I'm not going." He said it firmly, but the next instant he asked, "Did Jimpson press my gray suit?"
"Oh! Squire Daddy, I'm so sorry I forgot to tell him! I'll tell him now."
"Too late!" the Colonel sighed in resignation; "no use talking any more about it."
"Yes there is! Your enthusiasm's just gotten damp like everything else. I am going to tell Uncle Jimpson to make a little fire to cheer us up, then we'll all go to work to get you ready."
It seemed to be a relief to her to bustle about and set things in motion. In a short while she had a cheerful blaze going on the hearth, and the curtains drawn against the dreary twilight without.
The Colonel sat in the middle of the room, watching Uncle Jimpson and Aunt Caroline collect his scattered wardrobe, keeping a vigilant eye meanwhile upon Miss Lady. He simply did not intend to have her unhappy! It was preposterous! Altogether out of the question! His little girl crying around in corners where he couldn't see her? The idea of such a thing! If she must cry, what was the matter with his shoulder?
"You ain't got but four hankchiefs in de wash, Cunnel," announced Aunt Caroline from her knees beside a large wicker basket. "Don't look lak dat's enough fer a white gem-man to start off on a trip wif."
"Jimpson," the Colonel looked up reproachfully, "did you hear that? You have actually let me get down to four handkerchiefs."
"And socks," continued Caroline, enjoying the opportunity of emphasizing the shortcomings of her lesser half, "'bout sebenteen, all singles. No two scarcely de same color."
"Miss Lady, she been 'cumulatin' 'em to darn 'em," explained Jimpson, glad to shift responsibility. "She 'low she gwine to tak a day off some o' dese days, an' mend up ever'thing in de house."
The Colonel glanced around: "Where is Miss Lady?"
"Out in de hall, readin' de evenin' paper. Nebber did see dat chile tek so much notice ob de newspaper. Yas, sir, I'll call her."
"Any later news of the shooting?" asked the Colonel casually, when she returned.
"Yes, Mr. Dillingham was indicted and arraigned before the court. The case was passed until June first."
"And Sheeley? What of his condition?"
"The paper says he will lose his eye, but that he will probably get well."
"And--and nothing has been heard of Morley?"
After supper, when all the preparations for the trip were completed, and the cheerful presence of Uncle Jimpson and Aunt Caroline removed, the Colonel and Miss Lady sat before the dying fire, and tried to make conversation. Outside wet branches swept the windows, and sudden gusts of rain beat against the panes.
"Thirty years since I saw some of the old boys," the Colonel said, trying to warm up to his coming journey. "I'll miss old Professor Queerington, but John Jay will be there. We are planning to come home together. Fine man, he is, fine man!"
"Who? Oh, yes, Doctor Queerington."
"Just a little boy when I boarded at his father's. He can't be much over forty now. The smartest man the old college ever turned out! And just as good as he's smart. A little too much book learning maybe, and not any too much common sense, but there ain't many heads built to carry both. He's sound though, sound to the core, and that's saying a good deal these days. What's the matter? Sleepy?"
"No, just the fidgets. Say, Daddy, what do you suppose they will do with Mr. Dillingham, if he is convicted?"
"Penitentiary offense, I hear. But Noah says they'll get him off. Old General Dillingham has plenty of money, and friends at court. He'll take care of his grandson."
"But if he is cleared," began Miss Lady, "that throws the guilt on--"
"Now see here," interrupted the Colonel, "you stop bothering your little head about that trial. Go over there and play me a couple of good old tunes, and then we'll both trot to bed."
Miss Lady's soft untrained voice began bravely enough. She described with feeling the charms of Annie Laurie, and was half way through Robin Adair before she faltered, started anew, stumbled again, then came to an ignominious halt.
"Tut! tut!" said the Colonel fussily, getting himself out of his chair in an incredibly short time for so stout a gentleman. "This won't do, you know; this ain't right!"
"It's that silly old piece!" said Miss Lady petulantly. "It always works on my feelings."
"But it wouldn't make you cry like this. Come, tell me."
"There's nothing to tell--that is--"
"Well, never mind then. Just cry it out. That's right. Don't mind me. Just your old Dad." And with much fussing and petting and foolish assurances that he was her Daddy, he got her over to the sofa. Sitting on the floor with her arms across his knees, she wept with the abandonment of a child, while his short, stubby fingers tenderly stroked her shining hair. At last when the storm had subsided and she was able to look up, he took her face between his hands.
"Out with it, kitten!" he demanded. "What's troubling you? Don Morley business?"
She kissed his nearest hand.
"Thought so. You--you got to like him pretty well, eh?"
She nodded between her sobs.
"Better 'n most anybody?" he asked it jealously, but unflinchingly.
"Except you, Daddy." It was a faint whisper, but it was reassuring.
"And what about him?" the Colonel continued.
Another burst of tears, then a resolute effort at self-control.
"He meant to do what's right. I know he did! He promised to give up drinking and gambling and go to work."
"He made a good start!" The Colonel knocked the ashes from his pipe. "And after he got into the fracas, what in thunder did he run away for? Why didn't he stay and face it out? Any fool would know that if Dillingham is cleared, the suspicion would all be on him."
"But, Daddy, we haven't heard his side yet. If I could just hear from him, or see him."
"See him!" he exploded. "What in the name of the devil do you want to see him for? No siree! Not while Bob Carsey's got any buckshot left in his gun! Do you think there's any chance of his prowling 'round here while I'm gone? That settles it! I'll not budge an inch. Tell Jimpson! Tell Caroline! Unpack my things."
"But, Daddy, wait! He is probably out at the coast by this time. Besides, he hasn't written or sent any word. How do we know that... that he wants to come back?" "He'll try it all right. I saw how things were going. I saw how he looked at you. The impudent young hound!"
"Daddy! Please don't! You don't know him. He will explain everything when he writes, I know he will!"
"But he won't write! He won't have the face to. The idea of his going straight off from my girl, and getting mixed up in a scrape like this! You've got to promise me never to speak to the young scoundrel again!"
"But if he explains?"
"Why hasn't he done so? Because he can't. Besides, I don't want him to. We are through with him from now on. Promise me never to have anything more to do with him."
She hesitated, and the Colonel began to fling the things out of his bag in great agitation.
"Please, Squire Daddy!" She caught his hands, and looked at him, and something in her pleading eyes and quivering lips was so reminiscent of another face he had loved, that he broke down completely and had to have recourse to one of his four clean handkerchiefs that were still in the bag.
He was an old fool, he declared between violent blowings of his nose, and clearings of his throat. Was only doing what he thought was his duty. Didn't mean to make her unhappy. Didn't have sense enough to bring up a girl. Had tried to, though! Always would try. Only she mustn't be unhappy; he couldn't stand that. It would kill him if she dared to be unhappy!
And Miss Lady with her arms about his neck, making futile dabs at his streaming eyes with her little wet knot of a handkerchief, passionately declared that she would promise him anything under the sun, that she was going to be happy, that she was happy!
"Not yet," said the Colonel, with much mopping of his brow; "but you will be! We'll straighten it out. Soon as I get back, I'll take the matter up. Sift it clean to the bottom. We'll give Morley every chance to square himself. But 'til then, you won't see him if you can help it, or read his letters, if he writes? You don't mind promising me that much, do you?"
"I promise, Daddy."
Oh! the promises made for a day, and kept through the years, what a lot of tangled lives they have to answer for!
Miss Lady put the Colonel's things back in his bag, and stooped to kiss him good night.
"Sure you don't mind my going?", he asked, studying her face. "I'll be back Saturday night."
"All right. Good-by, I won't be up in the morning when you start. Have a good time, Daddy dear, and--and don't worry about me."
He lit her candle for her and carried it to the steps where he kissed her again.
"My little girl," he whispered.
The house grew still. Out on the landing the tall clock ticked off the hours to midnight; the fire died to an ember; from the porch without came the drip, drip, drip of the gutter. Still the Colonel sat in his split-bottom chair, his little eyes like watch fires in the gloom, listening for the faintest sound of restlessness from the room above.