Chapter XVI. Encounters
 

"By the way, Rob, I saw Rich Kendrick to-day." Louis Gray detained his sister Roberta on the stairs as they stopped to exchange greetings on a certain evening in March. "It struck me suddenly that I hadn't seen him for a blue moon, and I asked him why he didn't come round when he was in town. He said he was sticking tight to that new business of his up in Eastman, but he admitted he was to be here over Sunday. I invited him round to-night, but to my surprise he wouldn't come. Said he had another engagement, of course--thanked me fervently and all that--but there was no getting him. It made me a bit suspicious of you, Bobby."

"I can't imagine why." But, in spite of herself, Roberta coloured. "He came here when he was helping Uncle Calvin. There's no reason for his coming now."

Her brother regarded her with the observing eye which sisters find it difficult to evade. "He would have taken a job as nursemaid for Rosy, if it would have given him a chance to go in and out of this old house, I imagine. Rosy stuck to it, it was his infatuation for the home and the members thereof, particularly Gordon and Dorothy. He undoubtedly was struck with them--it would have been a hard heart that wasn't touched by the sight of the boy--but if it was the kiddies he wanted, why didn't he keep coming? Steve and Rosy would have welcomed him."

"You had better ask him his reasons, next time you see him," Roberta suggested, and escaped.

It was two months since she had seen Richard Kendrick. He seemed never so much as to pass the house, although it stood directly on his course when he drove back and forth from Eastman in his car. She wondered if he really did make a detour each time, to avoid the very chance of meeting her. It was impossible not to think of him, rather disturbingly often, and to wonder how he was getting on.

The month of March in the year of this tale was on the whole an extraordinarily mild and springlike piece of substitution for the rigorous, wind-swept season it should by all rights have been. On one of its most beguiling days Roberta Gray was walking home from Miss Copeland's school. Usually she came by way of the broad avenue which led straight home. To-day, out of sheer unwillingness to reach that home and end the walk, she took a quite different course. This led her up a somewhat similar street, parallel to her own but several blocks beyond, a street of more than ordinary attractiveness in that it was less of a thoroughfare than any other of equal beauty in the residential portion of the city.

She was walking slowly, drawing in the balmy air and noting with delight the beds of crocuses which were beginning to show here and there on lawns and beside paths, when a peculiar sound far up the avenue caught her ear. She recognized it instantly, for she had heard it often and she had never heard another quite like it. It was the warning song of a coming motor-car and it was of unusual and striking musical quality. So Roberta knew, even before she caught sight of the long, low, powerful car which had stood many times before her own door during certain weeks of the last year, that she was about to meet for the first time in two months the person upon whom she had put a ban.

Would he see her? He could hardly help it, for there was not another pedestrian in sight upon the whole length of the block, and the March sunshine was full upon her. As the car came on the girl who walked sedately to meet it found that her pulses had somehow curiously accelerated. So this was the route he took, not to go by her home.

Did he see her? Evidently as far away as half a block, for at that distance his motor-cap was suddenly pulled off, and it was with bared head that he passed her. At the moment the car was certainly not running as fast as it had been doing twenty rods back; it went by at a pace moderate enough to show the pair to each other with distinctness. Roberta saw clearly Richard Kendrick's intent eyes upon her, saw the flash of his smile and the grace of his bow, and saw--as if written upon the blue spring sky--the word he had left with her, "Midsummer." If he had shouted it at her as he passed, it could not have challenged her more definitely.

He was obeying her literally--more literally than she could have demanded. Not to slow down, come to a standstill beside her, exchange at least a few words of greeting--this was indeed a strict interpretation of her edict. Evidently he meant to play the game rigorously. Still, he had been a compellingly attractive figure as he passed; that instant's glimpse of him was likely to remain with her quite as long as a more protracted interview. Did he guess that?

"I wonder how I looked?" was her first thought as she walked on--a purely feminine one, it must be admitted. When she reached home she glanced at herself in the hall mirror on her way upstairs--a thing she seldom took the trouble to do.

A figure got hastily to its feet and came out into the hall to meet her as she passed the door of the reception-room. "Miss Roberta!" said an eager voice.

"Why, Mr. Westcott! I didn't know you were in town!"

"I didn't intend to be until next month, as you knew. But this wonderful weather was too much for me."

He held her hand and looked down into her face from his tall height. He told her what he thought of her appearance--in detail with his eyes, in modified form with his lips.

"In my old school clothes?" laughed Roberta. "How draggy winter things seem the first warm days. This velvet hat weighs like lead on my head to-day." She took it off. "I'll run up and make myself presentable," said she.

"Please don't. You're exactly right as you are. And--I want you to go for a walk if you're not too tired. The road that leads out by the West Wood marshes--it will be sheer spring out there to-day. I want to share it with you."

So Roberta put on her hat again and went to walk with Forbes Westcott out the road that led by the West Wood marshes. There was not a more romantic road to be found in a long way.

When they were well out into the country he began to press a question which she had heard before, and to which he had had as yet no answer.

"Still undecided?" said he, with a very sober face. "You can't make up your mind as to my qualifications?"

"Your qualifications are undoubted," said she, with a face as sober as his. "They are more than any girl could ask. But I--how can I know? I care so much for you--as a friend. Why can't we keep on being just good friends and let things develop naturally?"

"If I thought they would ever develop the way I want them," he said earnestly, "I would wait patiently a great while longer. But I don't seem to be making any progress. In fact, I seem to have gone backward a bit in your good graces. Since I saw that young prince of shopkeepers in your company over at Eastman, I've been wondering--"

"Prince of shopkeepers! What an extraordinary characterization! I thought he was a most amateurish shopkeeper. He didn't even know the name of his own batiste, much less where it was kept."

"He knew how to skate and to take you along with him. I beg your pardon! But ever since that night I've been experiencing a most disconcerting sense of jealousy whenever I think of that young man. He was such a magnificent figure there in the firelight; he made me feel as old as the Pyramids. And when you two were gone so long and came back with such an odd look, both of you--oh, I beg your pardon again! This is most unworthy of me, I know. But--set me straight if you can! Have you seen much of him since that night?"

"Absolutely nothing," said Roberta quickly, with a sense of great relief. "To-day he passed me in his car, on my way home from school, over on Egerton Avenue, and didn't even stop."

He scanned her face closely. "And you are not even interested in him?"

"Mr. Forbes Westcott," said Roberta desperately, "I have told you often and often that I'm not interested in any man except as one or two are my very good friends. Why can't all girls be allowed to live along in peace and comfort until they are at least thirty years old? You didn't have anybody besieging you to marry before you were thirty. If anybody had you'd have said 'No' quickly enough. You had that much of your life comfortably to yourself."

He bit his lip, but he was obliged to laugh. His thin, keen face was more attractive when he laughed, but there was an odd, tense expression on it which did not leave it even then.

"I can see you are still hopeless," he owned. "But so long as you are hopeless for other men I can endure it, I suppose. I really meant not to speak again for a long time, as I promised you. But the thought of that embryo plutocrat making after you, as he has after so many girls--"

"How many girls, I wonder?" queried Roberta quite carelessly. "Do you happen to know? Has his fame spread so far?"

"I know nothing about him, of course, except that he's a gay young spendthrift. It goes without saying that he's made love to every pretty face, for that kind invariably do."

"If it goes without saying, why say it?--particularly as you don't know it. I dare say he has--what serious harm? I presume it's quite as likely they've run after him. I'm sure it's a matter of no concern to me, for I know him very little and am likely to know him much less now that he doesn't come to work with Uncle Calvin any more. Let's go back, Mr. Westcott. I came out to look for pussy-willows, not for Robby-will-you's!"

With which piece of audacity she dismissed the subject. It certainly was not a subject which harmonized well with that of Midsummer Day, and the thought of Midsummer Day, quickened into active life by the unexpected sight of the person who had made a certain preposterous prophecy concerning it, was a thought which was refusing to down.