Chapter XIV. Rapid Fire
 

"Well, now, we're glad to see you at our place, Mr. Kendrick," was Mr. Rufus Gray's hearty greeting. He had heard the sound of the motor-car as it came to a standstill just outside his window, and was in the doorway to receive his guests. "As for Hugh, he knows he's always welcome, though it's a good while since he took advantage of it. Sit down here by the fire and warm up before we send you out again. You see," he explained enjoyingly, "we have instructions what to do with you."

Richard Kendrick noted the pleasant room with its great fireplace roaring with logs ablaze; he noted also its absence of occupants. Only Aunt Ruth, coming forward with an expression of warm hospitality on her face, was to be discovered. "They're all down at the river, skating," she told the young men. "Forbes Westcott is just home again, and he and Robby had so much to talk over we asked him out to supper. He and the girls--and Anna Drummond, one of our neighbours' daughters," she explained to Kendrick, "were taken with the idea of going skating. They didn't wait for you, because they wanted to get a fire built. When you're warmed up you can go down."

"There'll be a girl apiece for you," observed Uncle Rufus. "Hugh knows Anna--went to school with her. She's a fine girl, eh, Hugh?"

"She certainly is," agreed Benson heartily. "But I don't see how either of us is to skate with her or with anybody without--"

"Oh, that's all right. Look there," and Uncle Rufus pointed to a long row of skates lying on the floor in a corner. "All the nieces and nephews leave their skates here to have 'em handy when they come."

So presently the two young men were rushing down the winding, snowy road which led through pasture and meadow for a quarter of a mile toward a beckoning bonfire.

"I don't know when I've gone skating," said Hugh Benson.

"The last time I skated was two years ago on the Neva at St. Petersburg. Jove! but it was a carnival!" And Richard's thoughts went back for a minute to the face of the girl he had skated with. He had not cared much for skating since that night. All other opportunities had seemed tame after that.

"You've travelled a great deal--had a lot of experiences," Benson said, with a suppressed sigh.

"A few. But they don't prevent my looking forward to a new one to-night. I never went skating on a river in the country before. How far can you go?"

"Ten miles, if you like, down. Two miles up. There they are, coming round the bend four abreast. Westcott has more than his share of girls."

"More than he wants, probably. He'll cling to one and joyfully hand over the others."

"You'll like Anna Drummond; we're old school friends. Forbes and Miss Roberta naturally seem to get together wherever they are. And Miss Ruth is a mighty nice little girl."

Across the blazing bonfire two men scrutinized each other: Forbes Westcott, one of the cleverest attorneys of a large city, a man with a rising reputation, who held himself as a man does who knows that every day advances his success; Richard Kendrick, well-known young millionaire, hitherto a travelled idler and spender of his income, now a newly fledged business man with all his honours yet to be won. They looked each other steadily in the eye as they grasped hands by the bonfire, and in his inmost heart each man recognized in the other an antagonist.

Richard skated away with Miss Drummond, a wholesomely gay and attractive girl who could skate as well as she could talk and laugh. He devoted himself to her for half an hour; then, with a skill of which he was master from long exercise, he brought about a change of partners. The next time he rounded the bend into a path which led straight down the moonlight it was in the company he longed for.

Richard's heart leaped exultantly as he skated around the river bend in the moonlight with Roberta. And when his hands gathered hers into his close grasp it was somehow as if he had taken hold of an electric battery. He distinctly felt the difference between her hands and those of the other girl. It was very curious and he could not wholly understand it.

"What kind of gloves do you wear?" was his first inquiry. He held up the hand which was not in Roberta's muff and tried to see it in the dim light.

"You are deep in the new business, aren't you?" she mocked. "Whatever they are, will you put them into your stock?"

"Don't you dare make fun of my new business. I'm in it for scalps and have no time for joking. Of course I want to put this make in stock. I never took hold of so warm a hand on so cold a night. The warmth comes right through your glove and mine to my hand, runs up my arm, and stirs up my circulation generally. It was running a little cold with some of the things Miss Drummond was telling me."

"What could they be?"

"About how all the rest of you know each other so well. She described all sorts of good times you have all had together on this river in the summer. It seems odd that Benson never told me about any of them while we were together at college."

"They have happened mostly in the last two summers, since Mr. Benson left college. We always spend at least part of our summers here, and we have had worlds of fun on the river and beside it--and in it."

"I'm glad I'm a business man in Eastman. I can imagine what this river is like in summer. It's wonderful to-night, isn't it? Let's skate on down to the mouth and out to sea. What do you say?"

"A beautiful plan. We have a good start; we must make time or it will be moonset before we come to the sea."

"This is a glorious stroke; let's hit it up a little, swing a little farther--and make for the mouth of the river. No talking till we come in sight. We're off!"

It was ten miles to the mouth of the river, as they both understood, so this was nonsense of the most obvious sort. But the imagination took hold of them and they swung away on over the smooth, shining floor with the long vigorous strokes which are so exhilarating to the accomplished skater. In silence they flew, only the warm, clasped hands making a link between them, their faces turned straight toward the great golden disk in the eastern heavens. Richard was feeling that he could go on indefinitely, and was exulting in his companion's untiring progress, when he felt her slowing pull upon his hands.

"Tired?" he asked, looking down at her.

"Not much, but we've all the way back to go--and we ought not to be away so long."

"Oughtn't we? I'd like to be away forever--with you!"

She looked straight up at him. His eyes were like black coals in the dim light. His hands would have tightened on hers, but she drew them away.

"Oh, no, you wouldn't, Mr. Richard Kendrick," said she, as quietly as one can whose breath comes with some difficulty after long-sustained exertion. "By the time we reached--even the mouth of the river, you'd be tired of my company."

"Should I? I think not. I've thought of nothing but you since the day I saw you first."

"Really? That's--how long? Was it November when you came to help Uncle Calvin? This is February. And you've never spent so much as a whole hour alone with me. You see, you don't even know me. What a foolish thing to say to a girl you barely know!"

"Foolish, is it?" He felt his heart racing now. What other girl he knew would have answered him like that? "Then you shall hear something that backs it up. I've loved you since that day I saw you first. What will you do with that?"

She was silent for a moment. Then she turned, striking out toward home. He was instantly after her, reached for her hands, and took her along with him. But he forced her to skate slowly.

"You'll trample on that, too, will you?" said he, growing wrathful under her silence.

But she answered, quite gently, now: "No, Mr. Kendrick, I don't trample on that. No girl would. I simply--know you are mistaken."

"In what? My own feeling? Do you think I don't know--"

"I know you don't know. I'm not your kind of a girl, Mr. Kendrick. You think I am, because--well, perhaps because my eyes are blue and my eyelashes black; just such things as that do mislead people. I can dance fairly well--"

He smothered an angry exclamation.

"And skate well--and play the 'cello a little--and--that's nearly all you know about me. You don't even know whether I can teach well--or talk well--or what is stored away in my mind. And I know just as little about you."

"I've learned one thing about you in this last minute," he muttered. "You can keep your head."

"Why not?" There was a note of laughter in her voice. "There needs to be one who keeps her head when the other loses his--all because of a little winter moonlight. What would the summer moonlight do to you, I wonder?"

"Roberta Gray"--his voice was rough--"the moonlight does it no more than the sunlight. Whatever you think, I'm not that kind of fellow. The day I saw you first you had just come in out of the rain. You went back into it and I saw you go--and wanted to go with you. I've been wanting it ever since."

They moved on in silence which lasted until they were within a quarter-mile of the bonfire, whose flashing light they could see above the banks which intervened. Then Roberta spoke:

"Mr. Kendrick"--and her voice was low and rich with its kindest inflections--"I don't want you to think me careless or hard because I have treated what you have said to-night in a way that you don't like. I'm only trying to be honest with you. I'm quite sure you didn't mean to say it to me when you came to-night, and--we all do and say things on a night like this that we should like to take back next day. It's quite true--what I said--that you hardly know me, and whatever it is that takes your fancy it can't be the real Roberta Gray, because you don't know her!"

"What you say is," he returned, staring straight ahead of him, "that I can't possibly know what you really are, at all; but you know so well what I am that you can tell me exactly what my own thoughts and feelings are."

"Oh, no, I didn't mean--"

"That's precisely what you do mean. I'm so plainly labelled 'worthless' that you don't have to stop to examine me. You--"

"I didn't--"

"I beg your pardon. I can tell you exactly what you think of me: A young fool who runs after the latest sensation, to drop it when he finds a newer one. His head turned by every pretty girl--to whom he says just the sort of thing he has said to you to-night. Superficial and ordinary, incapable of serious thought on any of the subjects that interest you. As for this business affair in Eastman--that's just a caprice, a game to be dropped when he tires of it. Everything in life will be like that to him, including his very friends. Come, now--isn't that what you've been thinking? There's no use denying it. Nearly every time I've seen you you've said some little thing that has shown me your opinion of me. I won't say there haven't been times in my life when I may have deserved it, but on my honour I don't think I deserve it now."

"Then I won't think it," said Roberta promptly, looking up. "I truly don't want to do you an injustice. But you are so different from the other men I have known--my brothers, my friends--that I can hardly imagine your seeing things from my point of view--"

"But you can see things from mine without any difficulty!"

"It isn't fair, is it?" Her tone was that of the comrade, now. "But you know women are credited with a sort of instinct--even intuition--that leads them safely where men's reasoning can't always follow."

"It never leads them astray, by any chance?"

"Yes, I think it does sometimes," she owned frankly. "But it's as well for the woman to be on her guard, isn't it? Because, sometimes, you know, she loses her head. And when that happens--"

"All is lost? Or does a man's reasoning, slower and not so infallible, but sometimes based on greater knowledge, step in and save the day?"

"It often does. But, in this case--well, it's not just a case of reasoning, is it?"

"The case of my falling in love with a girl I've only known--slightly--for four months? It has seemed to me all along it was just that. It's been a case of the head sanctioning the heart--and you probably know it's not always that way with a young man's experiences. Every ideal I've ever known--and I've had a few, though you might not think it--every good thought and purpose, have been stimulated by my contact with the people of your father's house. And since I have met you some new ideals have been born. They have become very dear to me, those new ideals, Miss Roberta, though they've had only a short time to grow. It hurts to have you treat me as if you thought me incapable of them."

"I'm sorry," she said simply, and her hands gave his a little quick pressure which meant apology and regret. His heart warmed a very little, for he had been sure she was capable of great generosity if appealed to in the right way. But justice and generosity were not all he craved, and he could see quite clearly that they were all he was likely to get from her as yet.

"You think," he said, pursuing his advantage, "we know too little of each other to be even friends. You are confident my tastes and pleasures are entirely different from yours; especially that my notions of real work are so different that we could never measure things with the same footrule."

He looked down at her searchingly.

She nodded. "Something like that," she admitted. "But that doesn't mean that either tastes or notions in either case are necessarily unworthy, only that they are different."

"I wonder if they are? What if we should try to find out? I'm going to stick pretty closely to Eastman this winter, but of course I shall be in town more or less. May I come to see you, now and then, if I promise not to become bothersome?"

It was her turn to look up searchingly at him. If he had expected the usual answer to such a request, he began, before she spoke, to realize that it was by no means a foregone conclusion that he should receive usual answers from her to any questioning whatsoever. But her reply surprised him more than he had ever been surprised by any girl in his life.

"Mr. Kendrick," said she slowly, "I wish that you need not see me again till--suppose we say Midsummer Day,[A] the twenty-fourth of June, you know."

[Footnote A: Midsummer comes at the time of the summer solstice, about June 21st, but Midsummer Day, the Feast of St. John the Baptist, is the 24th of June.]

He stared at her. "If you put it that way," he began stiffly, "you certainly need not--"

"But I didn't put it that way. I said I wished that you need not see me. That is quite different from wishing I need not see you. I don't mind seeing you in the least--"

"That's good of you!"

"Don't be angry. I'm going to be quite frank with you--"

"I'm prepared for that. I can't remember that you've ever been anything else."

"Please listen to me, Mr. Kendrick. When I say that I wish you would not see me--"

"You said 'need not.'"

"I shall have to put it 'would not' to make you understand. When I say I wish you would not see me until Midsummer I am saying the very kindest thing I can. Just now you are under the impression--hallucination--that you want to see much of me. To prove that you are mistaken I'm going to ask this of you--not to have anything whatever to do with me until at least Midsummer. If you carry out my wish you will find out for yourself what I mean--and will thank me for my wisdom."

"It's a wish, is it? It sounds to me more like a decree."

"It's not a decree. I'll not refuse to see you if you come. But if you will do as I ask I shall appreciate it more than I can tell you."

"It is certainly one of the cleverest schemes of getting rid of a fellow I ever heard. Hang it all! do you expect me not to understand that you are simply letting me down easy? It's not in reason to suppose that you're forbidding all other men the house. I beg your pardon; I know that's none of my business; but it's not in human nature to keep from saying it, because of course that's bound to be the thing that cuts. If you were going into a convent, and all other fellows were cooling their heels outside with me, I could stand it."

"My dear Mr. Kendrick, you can stand it in any case. You're going to put all this out of mind and work at building up this business here in Eastman with Mr. Benson. You will find it a much more interesting game than the old one of--"

"Of what? Running after every pretty girl? For of course that's what you think I've done."

She did not answer that. He said something under his breath, and his hands tightened on hers savagely. They were rounding the last bend but one in the river, and the bonfire was close at hand.

"Can't you understand," he ground out, "that every other thought and feeling and experience I've ever had melts away before this? You can put me under ban for a year if you like; but if at the end of that time you're not married to another man you'll find me at your elbow. I told you I'd make you respect me; I'll do more, I'll make you listen to me. And--if I promise not to come where you have to look at me till Midsummer, till the twenty-fourth of June--heaven knows why you pick out that day--I'll not promise not to make you think of me!"

"Oh, but that's part of what I mean. You mustn't send me letters and books and flowers--"

"Oh--thunder!"

"Because those things will help to keep this idea before your mind. I want you to forget me, Mr. Kendrick--do you realize that?--forget me absolutely all the rest of the winter and spring. By that time--"

"I'll wonder who you are when we do meet, I suppose?"

"Exactly. You--"

"All right. I agree to the terms. No letters, no books, no--ye gods! if I could only send the flowers now! Who would expect to win a girl without orchids? You do, you certainly do, rate me with the light-minded, don't you? Music also is proscribed, of course; that's the one other offering allowed at the shrine of the fair one. All right--all right--I'll vanish, like a fairy prince in a child's story. But before I go I--"

With a dig of his steel-shod heel he brought himself and Roberta to a standstill. He bent over her till his face was rather close to hers. She looked back at him without fear, though she both saw and felt the tenseness with which he was making his farewell speech.

"Before I go, I say, I'm going to tell you that if you were any other girl on the old footstool I'd have one kiss from you before I let go of you if I knew it meant I'd never have another. I could take it--"

She did not shrink from him by a hair's breadth, but he felt her suddenly tremble as if with the cold.

"--but I want you to know that I'm going to wait for it till--Midsummer Day. Then"--he bent still closer--"you will give it to me yourself. I'm saying this foolhardy sort of thing to give you something to remember all these months--I've got to. You'll have so many other people saying things to you when I can't that I've got to startle you in order to make an impression that will stick. That one will, won't it?"

A reluctant smile touched her lips. "It's quite possible that it may," she conceded. "It probably would, whoever had the audacity to say it. But--to know a fate that threatens is to be forewarned. And--fortunately--a girl can always run away."

"You can't run so far that I can't follow. Meanwhile, tell me just one thing--"

"I'll tell you nothing more. We've been gone for ages now--there come the others--please start on."

"Good-bye, dear," said he, under his breath. "Good-bye--till Midsummer. But then--"

"No, no, you must not say it--or think it."

"I'm going to think it, and so are you. I defy you to forget it. You may see that lawyer Westcott every day, and no matter what you're saying to him, every once in a while will bob up the thought--Midsummer Day!"

"Hush! I won't listen! Please skate faster!"

"You shall listen--to just one thing more. Just halfway between now and Midsummer may I come to see you--just once?"

"No."

"Why?"

"Because--I shall not want to see you."

"That's good," said he steadily. "Then let me tell you that I should not come even if you would let me. I wanted you to know that."

A little, half-smothered laugh came from her in spite of herself, in which he rather grimly joined. Then the others, calling questions and reproaches, bore down upon them, and the evening for Richard Kendrick was over. But the fight he meant to win was just begun.