Chapter XVIII
 

"You might have thought it no great concern of his--you might have imagined all our efforts as only a part of a play, and his interest merely the interest of a looker-on." There was an indignant rasp in Roger's voice, and he looked across to his father with a protesting scowl. "He almost made me feel as if I had never learned the alphabet."

David Marshall fixed an intent and anxious gaze on his son's face, and ran his hand tremulously along the arm of his chair. He knew about how Roger felt; Truesdale had more than once made him feel the same way himself.

The old man had remained at home throughout the day. Too ill and nervous for the store, and too resourceless for the house, he had worried through twelve hours as wearing as any he could recollect. He had never been more unfitted for business, yet never (as he made it seem) more demanded by it. He imagined himself as still the king-pin of the Marshall & Belden Company--indeed, he found in that belief some consolation for his difficulty in reconciling himself to the style and title that the course of the business had finally evolved. He tormented himself with thoughts of odds and ends of work left over from yesterday or from last week, or with the apprehension of some fresh step taken, some new course entered upon by the younger and more ardent men of whom the company was largely composed. He had laughed more than once over the joke of business acquaintances who told him they had had to take young men into partnership because it was impossible to pay the salaries they demanded; yet something more radical had happened to himself: the young men had not only come in, but they were showing a disposition to get things into their own hands. Their former manager, their credit man, several heads of departments--all these had rallied under Belden, and together seemed to be trimming the sails to as speculative a course as a craft essentially conservative in its nature could well be made to take. Marshall had not formulated so clearly as this the practical primacy of Belden, but he felt the necessity of his own presence, and chafed under the temporary withdrawal of his own guiding hand.

But more than the course of affairs at the store, more than the avalanche of complicated minutiae involved in the progress of the new house, more than the dawning risks attendant upon Roger's widening operations in land, more than the amiable persecutions of friends whose ambitions for him were greater than his own, did the courses of his younger son and all their threatening consequences disturb his days and harass his nights--haunting alike the hours set apart for work and for sleep, and even the few brief intervals between. He would rise in the morning haggard and dry-eyed after a sleepless night; he would toil through the weary and perplexing hours of a dragging day; and he would spend his evenings, usually, in a miserable and solitary contemplation of all his thickening annoyances and ills.

"Poor pa," Jane would say to her mother, as she watched his bent and lagging steps moving towards the recess of the bay-window; "there he goes worrying, all off by himself again."

Her mother, over her sewing or the evening paper, perhaps, would check the girl's impulse to follow. "Don't chase after your father, Jane; he's got enough things to bother him already." So that, except for the occasional charitable moment when Jane, unimpeded, perched on the arm of his chair and attempted to divert his wearing thoughts from their ever-deepening channel, the old man spent his evenings largely--too largely--alone.

The rare visits of Roger, never highly ameliorative, were none the more so now; the grisly wrestling with realities does little to promote the exudation of balm. Roger was tough and technical and litigious; his was the hand to seize, not to soothe.

Roger had had a second and more explicit interview with Truesdale, before Truesdale had taken an airy and irresponsible flitting from town. He had also prosecuted various inquiries of his own in various directions, and these inquiries had resulted in his coming to look up Truesdale's frothy suggestion with more seriousness, and upon Truesdale himself with more consideration, if not with more respect--that he still withheld.

"He isn't a complete fool, after all," admitted Roger.

"I never thought he was," responded his father, dully.

"He has some little sense, I acknowledge."

"If it were only common-sense," said the old man, with a mournful, dragged-out smile.

Roger looked forth streetward, pondering. A long passenger-train shifted its line of glimmering squares rapidly southward; two or three couples passed by on the pavement, respiring the suave air of an early June evening.

"It means money," said Roger, presently.

"As much as is necessary," replied his father, tremulously; "though I never could spare it worse than now."

"And more--well, more dirty work for me." He thought of the Van Horn matter, now as good as abandoned. "Never mind, though; I'm getting used to it."

"You are the only help I have, Roger--the only one to save us from this disgrace."

There were tears in his eyes, and a feeble tremor ran through the fore-arm and fingers that he advanced towards Roger's shoulder.

"Father is not the man he used to be," thought Roger. He felt that his sympathy was largely qualified by the impatience and aversion which must always move a young man when he observes the first signs of physical and mental impairment in an older one, and he regretted that it was so. And he was almost ashamed to feel relieved when his father withdrew his hand.

Besides Roger and his father, only Mrs. Marshall and Jane were at home. Rosamund was in Wisconsin, and no one was sorry to have her away. She was a guest of Mrs. Bates at Lake Geneva--the central figure of a house-party, in fact. Mrs. Bates's fondness for nature did not stop with flowers; it led her to the fields and woods where they grew. No sooner was the back of the winter fairly broken than she began to preach the gospel of country life. She took the cream of June, and left to later comers the skimmed milk of July and August. She always saw that her Wisconsin place was ready for her by the middle of May; then for the next five months she passed back and forth between town and country, according to the nature of her engagements and the character of the weather.

Truesdale was in Wisconsin, too--but not of the house-party. "You know, my dear," Mrs. Bates said to Jane, "I had meant to have your brother, but--"

Jane bowed her head and never thought of venturing to ask her how she knew. That same night Jane slowly tore her plans for the working-girls' home into long strips and burned them in the gas, one at a time. "Pa'll never listen to a word about anything like this now."

Truesdale left behind no precise indications of his movements. The only person to whom he announced anything like a programme was Arthur Fasten, who met him on the way to the station, with his bag in one hand and his kit in the other.

"Off, are you?" called Paston. "Don't you begin the season rather early?"

"Just for a few days," replied Truesdale; "a little sketching tour up North. Change of scene and air, you know."

"Where are you going?"

"Oh, 'most anywhere. I shall be at Bellagio to-morrow, and at Pontresina the day after. Then I shall dip down towards Scheveningen. And Zante, if possible--I have always wanted to try Zante." He smiled jovially. "I hear there's a lovely ruined abbey at Fort Atkinson--everybody does it; and they say, too, that the capital at Madison is a grand old structure."

He gave a hitch to his light valise and moved on with a diminished smile.

"Of course you've got your Cook's ticket and your meal coupons?" called Paston, grinning broadly.

"Don't," protested Truesdale, turning back; "you never looked less like a gentleman."

"I hope your ticket takes in Geneva," said Paston, in no degree offended. "If it does, I may meet you there; I'm going up to stay over Sunday."

"I can't tell without looking," replied Truesdale; "it's away at the bottom of my trunk." And he moved on. "Rosy's there, though," he called back. He did this largely under the promptings of a sense of justice: Paston was as much entitled to push one project as he himself was to push another.

"Yes, I know," said Paston.

This ubiquitous and ever-welcome person made his presence known throughout Geneva with no loss of time. He caused himself to be remembered by Mrs. Bates for a small dance on Saturday night, and also secured himself from forgetfulness in connection with her steam-yacht excursion for Sunday morning. This active and well-intentioned woman was the prime mover in a poor children's camp which was in process of construction near the far end of the lake. She could not expect her dozen young people to take an absorbing interest in her middle-aged philanthropies; but she knew that an excursion was none the worse for having an objective point, and she did not feel that she was likely to please her guests the less by giving a little incidental pleasure to herself.

"I've got to have something to do," she explained to Paston. "I couldn't be content to come up here and pass the summer in mere idleness." They were sitting on a pair of camp-stools up near the bow. Paston, looking backward, saw Rosamund and William Bates together near the stern.

"It must be a terrible thing to be cursed with ambition and executive ability," observed Paston. "I'm awfully glad I haven't got any."

"Well, there it is," she responded. "I've got to have something on hand. I've got to engineer. I've got to manage."

Paston brought back his eyes from William Bates and Rosamund. "Everybody knows what a capable manager you are." He said this, as he said so many other things, with a frank and bold directness that made any suspicion of an arriere-pensee almost an impossibility.

"Well, don't commit yourself until you get there; then you can make your own observations." She took his remark as almost anybody else would have felt obliged to take it--just for what it sounded. Nobody understood better than Paston the deceptive quality resident in a truth plumply told.

"Shall I see Cecilia Ingles there?" Paston was stopping with the Ingleses, and had rowed across immediately after breakfast. "I think I heard them speak about driving down. I say," he added, "it's a rum go for her."

"I don't see why," rejoined Susan Bates, disputatiously. "She is old enough to take things seriously; she has got far enough along to begin to be in earnest. The first thing she asked me was how much money I wanted. 'I don't want any of your money at all,' I told her; 'for such a cause as this I can scoop up all the money I want by the shovelful. No; what I want is your personal interest.' That's about the hardest thing to get in cases like this."

"Well, I believe you've got it," declared Paston, hitching about on his seat. "She has given up all hope of escaping from you. You're a tyrant--an inexorable tyrant, she says. She's going to do as you direct."

"All right," returned Susan Bates; "only don't be so sticky about it." She pronounced this epithet very distinctly and deliberately; she had long meant to use it with Paston, some time or other--ever since Jane had imparted it to her, in fact.

"Sticky!" cried the young man. "Me--sticky?"

"Yes--fussy, critical, disagreeable, censorious." She moved her fingers as if disentangling them from a sheet of fly-paper. "It's one of your own words, isn't it?"

"Yes, but what it means is stiff, poky, awkward; and nobody else has ever called me that!"

Susan Bates, with a slight touch of mortification, at once set the whole matter aside. "Cecilia is good enough at heart," she went on, instantly. "No, I don't want her money," she ploughed rapidly ahead, "except as a visitor. Every visitor must give something, and the first must give the most. You are the first."

"I?" stammered Paston, with an uneasy laugh.

"All of you, I mean." She waved her hand over the whole yacht. "Feel for your dollars; you will find a contribution-box fastened to the first tree, at the landing."

"Really?" said Paston, vastly ill at ease.

Susan Bates merely laughed, feeling that she had regained the upperhand. She had not been so tickled since the day when Minnie Peters had put into her hands the official notification that she was at length a member of that obdurate and exacting musical society. "But, poor fellow," she said to herself, "I mustn't tease him!" She looked back the length of the boat towards Rosy; Rosy, at the same moment, was looking forward the length of the boat towards her. A pause had apparently come in William Bates's careful enumeration of the country-seats which covered the wooded slopes of either shore. Many of them were the residences of people whom Rosy had met for the first time during the past winter, and their interest was therefore biographical as well as topographical. But now the interest, of whatever kind, was running a bit thinly; Rosy gave a careless word now and then to another young girl beside her or to a new young man sprawling at her feet, but her eyes turned every few minutes towards the bow.

"You catch the idea?" Mrs. Bates was saying. "We bring them out on the train in two hours, and give them a ride on the public steamer to the camp; we keep them a week. We start in with a fresh lot every Monday morning, right through the summer."

"Where do you get them?" asked Pasten, making talk industriously. "Do you set traps for them? Or perhaps you go to the Bureau of Child Labor and say: So many tons of orphans, to be delivered on the fifth instant, at nine-thirty A.M., sharp; eh?" He had quite recovered his spirits.

"Get them? Dear me, there are plenty to be got. I expect we shall have to enlarge the dormitories before the summer is half over."

"And what is Mrs. Ingles to do with them after they are got?" he asked, with his eye on the foam and bubbles of the wake. "Is she to take the kinks out of their hair every morning by early candle-light? Is she to wash all their little porringers and hang them up in rows on their little hooks? Is she to keep tab when they go in paddling and check them off as they come out, to see how many have been carried away by the undertow?"

Mrs. Bates declined to consider the undertow. "See; there it is." The yacht had rounded a small wooded promontory and now approached a shallow shore, where a gingerly landing was to be effected at a rude and rickety little pier.

A grove of oak and maple came almost to the water's edge, and within it a number of barrack-like structures of clean yellow pine were taking shape and substance. The odor of the pine mingled with the earthy smells of the grove; now and then a little pile of sawdust was taken swirlingly by the breeze, and here and there a long, fresh shaving was seen caught upon the prickly branches of some June rose.

Paston helped Mrs. Bates out on to the pier with a cautious gallantry, and immediately betook himself to the younger members of the party; he considered the courtesies due from a guest as now amply accomplished. He attached himself at once to Rosamund; he helped her over the loose litter of lumber; he steadied ladders for her at every fresh feint of mounting; he bestirred himself to a rapacious culling of wild-flowers for the mere opportunity of tying them together with a shaving. Once he sprinkled them over with a handful of sawdust, after the manner of a florist extemporizing a heavy dew. Rosy laughed and nodded, and thrust the flowers into her belt.

"You will never be serious," she protested.

"Oh yes, I shall. I am always a good deal more serious than people suppose." He bestowed upon her a look serious enough to match his words. It was as serious as any one could have wished, and Rosy dropped her eyes and was distinctly pensive for a minute or two.

Presently the Ingleses came picking their way through the grove in a surrey. Cecilia Ingles alighted with the air of one somewhat at sea. She greeted Rosy quite pleasantly, but seemed to be looking about for the captain. The dry, shrewd, middle-aged face of her husband adjusted its expression readily enough to the matter before them. He was a born manager and manipulator. When he could not juggle with a dollar for profit, he was content to juggle with a penny for pleasure.

Susan Bates hastened up to his wife at once, and kissed her roundly. "So good of you to come! And on Sunday, too!"

"Never mind," said Ingles; "we can put twice as much on the plate next Sunday."

Mrs. Ingles at once appropriated William Bates for a walk through the framework of the unfinished dormitories. Ingles followed with Mrs. Bates.

"Things are going first-rate," declared Susan Bates. "We shall be under cover in a week, and ready for the painters."

"No plaster?" asked Ingles.

"Dear me, no. Two coats of paint will be quite warm enough."

Rosy, meanwhile, sat upon a pack of shingles under a young maple-tree which grew within a few steps of the water. Paston lay at her feet and dug in the sand with a split shingle drawn from the pack, while the other young people tramped and frolicked with shrill cries through the dismantled grove and unfinished buildings.

"It was at her house, you remember, that I first met you," said Paston. He nodded to Mrs. Ingles, who was just moving by with the reluctant William Bates.

"And a handsome house, too," declared Rosy. "Still, I suppose that hers, or even Mrs. Bates's, can't be compared with some in London."

"Don't be so sure," rejoined Paston. He thought of "10, King's-gate Gardens, S. Kensington"; he would have been the last to force a comparison between that and the town-house of Cecilia Ingles. "A house is no better for being more than a home," he said, somewhat ruefully.

Rosy was far from subscribing to this. Her ideal home was one that had been immemorially a palace and a show-place, with troops of servants to show the troops of tourists through.

"All these places around here are nice enough," she acknowledged, "but--new. That one over there, now." She pointed across the lake to the roofs and gables of a large country-seat set on a wooded hill-top. "They have had to stain it green to make it look old and mossy."

"Sometimes the appearance of age is to be preferred to the reality," observed Paston, thoughtfully. His mind was on "Boxton Park, Witham, Essex," and he was wishing devoutly enough that means were available for keeping that in a state of fresh repair equal to the state of the house where he was now staying.

But Rosy was entertaining her own vision of Boxton Park. It was a spacious and glorious domain, and its noble manor house was a perfect commingling of old-time picturesqueness and modern comfort. And the peacocks paraded again on the terrace.

Rosy shifted her seat on the pile of shingles in order to take a more general view of the landscape. She shrugged her shoulders slightly. "No lanes, no hedge-rows, no weirs, no coppices..."

"What's the matter with these maples?" asked Fasten, abandoning himself to the American idiom. "And where are there handsomer elms than right here in Wisconsin? And what have you against those hills?" He thought of the wide flatness of Essex; what would not Boxton Park give for a foothold on such a shore, a prospect over such a sheet of rippling blue?

But Rosy had her own conception of Essex. In some miraculous way it combined the sweetness of Devonshire, the fatness of Warwick, the boldness of Westmorland, the severity of Cornwall. And through this enchanting tract the fox-hounds ever sped in full, re-echoing cry.

Paston gave a sudden dig with his shingle, and a lump of damp sand fell with a splash far out upon the water. "But, after all, it's dear old England," he said, plaintively.

"The dearest land in all the world, I'm sure," sighed Rosy, sympathetically. She dug her toe at a single tuft of coarse grass in the midst of the sand, and wondered over his "after all."

"Indeed, it is. You would like it, I'm sure."

"I know I should. I shall never be happy until I've seen it."

"But think of me--four thousand miles away from it."

"I do," said Rosy, softly.

"We younger sons," sighed Paston, in a tone of great self-commiseration.

"We younger daughters," echoed Rosy, with an implication that all the drawbacks were not on one side.

The rest of the party came flocking down to the shore; the Ingleses among them--to see the others off.

"I suppose you go back as you came?" said Ingles, to Paston.

"Pretty nearly," replied Paston, in the cheery tone he usually adopted for general converse. And back he went, with this small difference: that on the return he occupied the place of William Bates.