Chapter XVII. Intrigue

"Hi!--Mr. Kendrick!--I say, Mr. Kendrick! Wait a minute!"

The car, about to leave the curb in front of one of Kendrick & Company's great city stores, halted. Its driver turned to see young Ted Gray tearing across the sidewalk in hot pursuit.

"Well, well--glad to see you, Ted, boy. Jump in and I'll take you along."

Ted jumped in. He gave Richard Kendrick's welcoming hand a hard squeeze. "I haven't seen you for an awful while," said he reproachfully. "Aren't you ever coming to our house any more?"

"I hope so, Ted. But, you see," explained Richard carefully, "I'm a man of business now and I can't have much time for calls. I'm in Eastman most of the time. How are you, Ted? Tell me all about it. Can you go for a spin with me? I had to come into town in a hurry, but there's no great hurry about getting back. I'll take you out into the country and show you the prettiest lot of apple trees in full bloom you ever saw in May."

"I'd like to first-rate, but could you take me home first? I have to let mother know where I am after school."

"All right." And away they flew. But Richard turned off the avenue three blocks below the corner upon which stood Ted's home and ran up the street behind it. "Run in the back way, will you, Ted?" he requested. "I want to do a bit of work on the car while you're in."

So while Ted dashed up through the garden to the back of the house Richard got out and unscrewed a nut or two, which he screwed again into place without having accomplished anything visible to the eye, and was replacing his wrench when the boy returned.

"This is jolly," Ted declared. "I'll bet Rob envies me. This is her Wednesday off from teaching, and she was just going for a walk. She wanted me to go with her, but of course she let me go with you instead. I--I suppose I could ride on the running board and let you take her if you want to," he proposed with some reluctance.

"I'd like nothing better, but she wouldn't go."

"Maybe not. Perhaps Mr. Westcott is coming for her. They walk a lot together."

"I thought Mr. Westcott practised law with consuming zeal."

"With what? Anyhow, he's here a lot this spring. About every Wednesday, I think. I say, this is a bully car! If I were Rob I'd a lot rather ride with you than go walking with old Westcott--especially when it's so warm."

"I'm afraid," said Richard soberly, "that walking in the woods in May has its advantages over bowling along the main highway in any kind of a car."

Nevertheless he managed to make the drive a fascinating experience to Ted and a diverting one to himself. And on the way home they stopped at the West Wood marshes to gather a great bunch of trilliums as big as Ted's head.

"I'll take 'em to Rob," said her younger brother. "She likes 'em better than any spring flower."

"Take my bunch to Mrs. Stephen Gray then. And be sure you don't get them mixed."

"What if I did? They're exactly the same size." Ted held up the two nosegays side by side as the car sped on toward home.

"I know, but it's of the greatest importance that you keep them straight. That left-hand one is yours; be sure and remember that."

Ted looked piercingly at his friend, but Richard's face was perfectly grave.

"Must be you don't like Rob, if you're so afraid your flowers will get to her," he reflected. "Or else you think so much of Rosy you can't bear to let anybody else have the flowers you picked for her. I'll have to tell Steve that."

"Do, by all means. Mere words could never express my admiration for Mrs. Stephen."

"She is pretty nice," agreed Ted. "I like her myself. But she isn't in it with Rob. Why, Rosy's afraid of lots of things, regularly afraid, you know, so Steve has to laugh her out of them. But Rob--she isn't afraid of a thing in the world."

"Except one."

"One?" Ted pricked up his ears. "What's that? I'll bet she isn't really afraid of it--just shamming. She does that sometimes. What is it? Tell me, and I'll tell you if she's shamming."

"I'd give a good deal to know, but I'm afraid I can't tell you what it is."

"Why not? If she isn't really afraid of it she won't mind my knowing. And if she is maybe I can laugh her out of it, the way Steve does Rosy."

"I don't believe you're competent to treat the case, Ted. It's not a thing to be laughed out of, you see. The thing for you to remember is which bunch of trilliums you are to give Mrs. Stephen Gray from me."

"This one." Ted waved his left arm.

"Not a bit of it. The left one is yours."

"No, because mine was a little the biggest, and you see this right one is."

"You are mistaken," Richard assured him positively. "You give Mrs. Stephen the right one, and I'll take the consequences."

"Did yours have a red one in?"

"Has that right one?"

"No, the left one has. I remember seeing you pick it."

"But afterward I threw it out. You picked one and left it in. The right is mine."

"You've got me all mixed up," vowed Ted discontentedly, at which his companion laughed, delight in his eye. The left-hand bunch was unquestionably his own, but if he could only convince Ted of the contrary he should at least have the satisfaction of knowing that the flowers he had plucked had reached his lady, though they would have no significance to her. When the lad jumped out of the car at his own rear gate he had agreed that the bunch with the one deep red trillium was to go to Roberta.

Ted turned to wave both white clusters at his friend as the car went on, then he proceeded straight to his sister's room. Finding her absent, he laid one great white-and-green mass in a heap upon her bed and went his way with the other to Mrs. Stephen's room. Here he found both Roberta and Rosamond playing with little Gordon and Dorothy, whom their nurse had just brought in from an airing.

"Here's some trilliums for you, Rosy," announced Ted. "Mr. Kendrick sent 'em to you. I left yours on your bed, Rob. I picked yours; at least I think I did. He was awfully particular that his went to Rosy, but we got sort of mixed up about which picked which, so I can't be sure. I don't see any use of making such a fuss about a lot of trilliums, anyhow."

Roberta and Rosamond looked at each other. "I think you are decidedly mixed, Ted," said Rosamond. "It was Rob Mr. Kendrick meant to send his to."

Ted shook his head positively. "No, it wasn't. He said something about you that I told him I was going to tell Steve, only--I don't know as I can remember it. Something about his admiring you a whole lot."

"Delightful! And he didn't say anything about Rob?"

"Not very much. Said she was afraid of something. I said she wasn't afraid of anything, and he said she was--of one thing. I tried to make him say what it was, because I knew he was all off about that, but he wouldn't tell."

"Evidently you and Mr. Kendrick talked a good deal of nonsense," was Roberta's comment, on her way from the room.

She found the mass of green and white upon her bed and stood contemplating it for a moment. The one deep red trillium glowed richly against its snowy brethren, and she picked it out and examined it thoughtfully, as if she expected it to tell her whereof Richard Kendrick thought she was afraid. But as it vouchsafed no information she gathered up the whole mass and disposed it in a big crystal bowl which she set upon a small table by an open window.

"If I thought that really was the bunch he picked," said she to herself, "I should consider he had broken his promise and I should feel obliged to throw it away. Perhaps I'd better do it anyhow. Yet--it seems a pity to throw away such a beautiful bowlful of white and green, and--very likely they were of Ted's picking after all. But I don't like that one red one against all the white."

She laid fingers upon it to draw it out. But she did not draw it out. "I wonder if that represents the one thing I'm afraid of?" she considered whimsically. "What does his majesty mean--himself? Or--myself? Or--of--of--Yes, I suppose that's it! Am I afraid of it?"

She stood staring down at the one deep red flower, the biggest, finest bloom of them all. It really did not belong there with the others in their cool, chaste whiteness. Quite suddenly she drew it out. She made the motion of throwing it out the window, but it seemed to cling to her fingers.

"Poor little flower," said she softly, "why should you have to go? Perhaps you're sorry because you're not white like the rest. But you can't help it; you were made that way."

If Richard Kendrick could have seen her standing there, staring down at the flower he had picked, he would have found it harder than ever to go on his appointed course. For this was what she was thinking:

"I ought--I ought--to like best the white flowers of intellect--and ability--and training--and every sort of fitness. I try and try to like them best. But, oh!--they are so white--compared with this red, red one. I like the white ones; they are pure and cool and beautiful. But--the red one is warm, warm! Oh, I don't know--I don't know. And how am I going to know? Tell me that, red flower. Did he pick you? Shall I keep you--on the doubt? Well--but not where you will show. Yes, I'll keep you, but away down in the middle, where no one will see you, and where you won't distract my attention from the beautiful white flowers that are so different from you."

She bent over the bowlful of snowy spring blossoms, drew them apart, and sunk the red flower deep among them, drawing them together again so that not a hint of their alien brother should show against their whiteness.

"There," said she, turning away with a little laugh, but speaking over her shoulder, "you ought to be satisfied with that. That's certainly much better than being thrown out of the window, to wilt in the sun!"