Chapter XX. Side Lights
 

Louis Gray sat in a capacious willow easy-chair beside the high white iron hospital bed upon which lay Hugh Benson, convalescing from his attack of fever. "Pretty comfortable they make you here," Louis observed, glancing about. "I didn't know their private rooms were as big and airy as this one."

Benson smiled. "I don't imagine they all are. I didn't realize what sort of quarters I was in till I began to get better and mother told me. According to her I have the best in the place. That's Rich. Whatever he looks after is sure to be gilt-edged. I wonder if you know what a prince of good fellows he is, anyway."

"I always knew he was a good fellow," Louis agreed. "He has that reputation, you know--kind-hearted and open-handed. I should know he would be a substantial friend to his college classmate and business partner."

"He's much more than that." Benson's slow and languid speech took on a more earnest tone. "Do you know, I think if any young man in this city has been misjudged and underrated it's Rich. I know the reputation you speak of; it's another way of calling a man a spendthrift, to say he's free with his money among his friends. But I don't believe anybody knows how free Rich Kendrick is with it among people who have no claim on him. I never should have known if I hadn't come here. One of my nurses has told me a lot of things she wasn't supposed ever to tell; but once she had let a word drop I got it out of her. Why, Louis, for three years Rich has paid the expenses of every sick child that came into this hospital, where the family was too poor to pay. He's paid for several big operations, too, on children that he wanted to see have the best. There are four special private rooms he keeps for those they call his patients, and he sees that whoever occupies them has everything they need--and plenty of things they may not just need, but are bound to enjoy--including flowers like those."

He pointed to a splendid bowlful of blossoms on a stand behind Louis, such blossoms as even in June grow only in the choicest of gardens.

"All this is news to me," declared Louis; "mighty good news, too. But how has he been able to keep it so quiet?"

"Hospital people all pledged not to tell; so of course you and I mustn't be responsible for letting it out, since he doesn't want it known. I'm glad I know it, though, and I felt somehow that you ought to know. I used to think a lot of Rich at college, but now that he's my partner I think so much more I can't be happy unless other people appreciate him. And in the business--I can't tell you what he is. He's more like a brother than a partner."

His thin cheeks flushed, and Louis suddenly bethought himself. "I'm letting you talk too much, Hugh," he said self-accusingly. "Convalescents mustn't overexert themselves. Suppose you lie still and let me read the morning paper to you."

"Thank you, my nurse has done it. Talking is really a great luxury and it does me good, a little of it. I want to tell you this about Rich--"

The door opened quietly as he spoke and Richard Kendrick himself came in. Quite as usual, he looked as if he had that moment left the hands of a most scrupulous valet. No wonder Louis's first thought was, as he looked at him, that people gave him credit for caring only for externals. One would not have said at first glance that he had ever soiled his hands with any labour more tiring than that of putting on his gloves. And yet, studying him more closely in the light of the revelations his friend had made, was there not in his attractive face more strength and force than Louis had ever observed before?

"How goes it this morning, Hugh?" was the new-comer's greeting. He grasped the thin hand of the convalescent, smiling down at him. Then he shook hands with Louis, saying, "It's good of such a busy man to come in and cheer up this idle one," and sat down as if he had come to stay. But he had no proprietary air, and when a nurse looked in he only bowed gravely, as if he had not often seen her before. If Louis had not known he would not have imagined that Richard's hand in the affair of Benson's illness had been other than that of a casual caller.

Louis Gray went away presently, thinking it over. He was thinking of it again that evening as he sat upon the big rear porch of the Gray home, which looked out upon the lawn and tennis court where he and Roberta had just been having a bout lasting into the twilight.

"I heard something to-day that surprised me more than anything for a long time," he began, and when his sister inquired what the strange news might be he repeated to her as he could remember it Hugh Benson's outline of the extraordinary story about Richard Kendrick. When she had heard it she observed:

"I suppose there is much more of that sort of thing done by the very rich than we dream of."

"By old men, yes--and widows, and a few other classes of people. But I don't imagine it's so common as to be noticeable among the young men of his class, do you?"

"Perhaps not. Though you do hear of wonderful things the bachelors do at Christmas for the poor children."

"At Christmas--that's another story. Hearts get warmed up at Christmas, that, like old Scrooge's, are cold and careless the rest of the year. But for a fellow like Rich Kendrick to keep it up all the year round--you'll find that's not so commonplace a tale."

"I don't know much about rich young men."

"You've certainly kept this one at a distance," Louis observed, eying his sister curiously in the twilight. She was sitting in a boyish attitude, racket on lap, elbows on knees, chin on clasped hands, eyes on the shadowy garden. "He's been coming here evening after evening until now that his grandfather has gone home, and never once has anybody seen you so much as standing on the porch with him, to say nothing of strolling into the garden. What's the matter with you, Rob? Any other girl would be following him round and getting into his path. Not that you would need to, judging by the way I've seen him look at you once or twice. Have you drawn an imaginary circle around yourself and pointed out to him the danger of crossing it? I should take him for a fellow who would cross it then anyhow!"

"Imaginary circles are sometimes bigger barriers than stone walls," she admitted, smiling to herself, "Besides, Lou, I thought somebody else was the person you wanted to see walking in the garden with me."

"Forbes? The person I expected to see, you mean. Well, I don't know about Forbes Westcott. He's a mighty clever chap, but I sometimes think his blood is a little thin--like his body. I can't imagine his bothering about a sick child at a hospital, can you? I've never seen him take a minute's notice of Steve's pair; and they're little trumps, if ever children were. Corporations are more in his line than children."

       *       *       *       *       *

One thing leads to another in this interesting world. It was not two days after this talk that Roberta herself had a private view of a little affair which proved more illuminating to her understanding of a certain fellow mortal than might have been all the evidence of other witnesses than her own eyes.

Returning from school on one of the last days of the term, weary of walls and longing for the soothing stillness and refreshment of outdoors, Roberta turned aside some distance from her regular course to pass through a large botanical park, originally part of a great estate, and newly thrown open to the public. It was, as yet, less frequented than any other of the city parks. Much of it, according to the decree of its donor, a nature lover of discrimination, had been left in a state not far removed from wildness, and it was toward this portion that Roberta took her way; experiencing, with each step along a winding, secluded path she had recently discovered, that sense of escape into luxurious freedom which comes only after enforced confinement when the world outside is at its most alluring.

At a point where the path swept high above a long, descending slope, at the foot of which lay a tiny pool surrounded by thick and beautifully kept turf, Roberta paused, and after looking about her for a minute to make sure that there was no one near, turned aside from the path and threw herself down beside a great clump of ferns, breathing a deep sigh of restful relief. She sat gazing dreamily down at the pool, in which was mirrored an exquisite reflection of tree and sky, the scene as silent and still as though drawn upon canvas. She had many things to think of, in these days, and a place like this was an ideal one in which to think.

Was it? Far below her she heard the low hum of a motor. None could come near her, but the road beneath wound near the pool, though out of sight except at one point. In spite of this, the girl drew back further into the shelter of the tall ferns, thinking as she did so that it was the first time she had seen this remoter part of the park invaded by either motorist or pedestrian. Watching the point at which the car must appear she saw it come slowly into sight and stop. There were two occupants, a man and a boy, but at the distance she could not discern their faces. The man stepped out, and coming around to the other side of the car put out his arms and lifted the boy. He did not set him down, but carried him, seeming to hold him with peculiar care, and brought him through the surrounding trees and shrubbery to the pool itself, coming, as he did so, into full view of the unseen eyes above.

Roberta experienced a sudden strange leap of the heart as she saw that the supple figure of the man was Richard Kendrick's own, and that the slight frame he bore was that of a crippled child. She could see now the iron braces on the legs, like pipe stems, which stuck straight out from the embrace of the strong young arm which held them. She could discern clearly the pallor and emaciation of the small face, in pitiful contrast to the ruggedly healthy one of the child's bearer. Fascinatedly she watched as Richard set his burden carefully down upon the grass, close to the edge of the pool, the boy's back against a big white birch trunk. The two were not so far below her but that she could see the expression on their faces, though she could not hear their words.

Richard ran back to the car, returning with a rug and something in a long and slender case. He arranged a cushion behind the little back. Roberta judged the boy to be about eight or nine years old, though small for his age, as such children are. Richard undid the case and produced a small fishing-rod, which he fell to preparing for use, talking gayly as he did so, watched eagerly by his youthful companion. Evidently the boy was to have a great and unaccustomed pleasure.

Well, it was certainly in line with that which Roberta had heard of this young man, but somehow to see something of it with her own eyes was singularly more convincing. She could not bring herself to get up and go away--surely there could be no need to feel that she was spying if she stayed to watch the interesting scene. If Richard had chosen a spot which he fancied entirely secluded from observation, it was undoubtedly wholly on the boy's own account. She could easily imagine how such a child as this one would shrink from observation in a public place, particularly when he was to try the dearly imagined but wholly unknown delight of fishing. It was plain that he was very shy, even with this kind friend, for it was only now and then that he replied in words to Richard's talk, though the response in the white face and big black eyes was eloquent enough.

It seemed in every way remarkable that a young man of Richard Kendrick's sort should devote himself to a poor and crippled child as he was doing now. Not a gesture or act of his was lost upon the girl who watched. Clearly he was taking all possible pains to please and interest his little protege, and he was doing it in a way which showed much skill, suggesting previous practice in the art. This was no such interest as he had shown in Gordon and Dorothy Gray, whose beauty had been so powerful an appeal to his fancy. There was nothing about this child to take hold upon any one except his helplessness and need. But Richard was as gentle with him, as patient with his awkward attempts at holding the light rod in the proper position for fishing, and as full of resources for entertaining him when the fish--if there were any--failed to bite, as he could have been with a small brother of his own.

There was another thing which it was impossible not to note: Never had Roberta seen this young man in circumstances so calculated to impress upon her the potency of his personality. Unconscious of the scrutiny of any other human being, wholly absorbed in the task of making a small boy happy, he was naturally showing her himself precisely as he was. In place of his usual careful manners when in her presence was entire freedom from restraint and therefore an effect uncoloured by conventional environment. The tones of his voice, the frank smile upon his lips, the touch of his hand upon the little lad's--all these combined to set him before Roberta in a light so different from any she had seen him in before that she must needs admit she had been far from knowing him.

She stole away at length, feeling suddenly that she had seen enough, and that her defences against the siege being made upon her heart and judgment were weakening perilously. If she were to hold out before it she must hear of no more affairs to Richard Kendrick's credit, especially such affairs as these. Not all his efforts at establishing a successful career in the world of achievement could touch her imagination as did the knowledge of his brotherly kindness toward the unfortunate. That was what meant most to Roberta, in a world which she had early discovered to be a hard place for the greater part of its inhabitants. Forgetfulness of self, devotion to the need of others--these were the qualities she most strove to cultivate in herself, and most rejoiced at seeing developed in those for whom she cared.

Unluckily for his cause, if there had been a possible chance for its success, Forbes Westcott chose the evening of this same day to come again to Roberta Gray with his question burning on his lips. He arrived at a moment when, to his temporary satisfaction, Roberta was said to be playing a set of singles in the court with Ruth by the light of a fast-fading afterglow; and he took his way thither without delay. It was a simple matter, of course, to a man of his resource, to dispose of the young sister, in spite of the elder's attempt to foil him at his own game. So presently he had Roberta to himself, with every advantage of time and place and summer beauty all about.

Louis Gray, looking down the lawn from the rear porch, upon whose steps he sat with Rosamond and Stephen, descried the tall figure strolling by their sister's side along a stretch of closely shaven turf between rows of slim young birches.

"Forbes is persistent, eh?" he observed. "Think he has a fighting chance?"

"Oh, I hope not!" cried Rosamond impulsively.

Stephen's grave eyes followed the others, to dwell upon the distant pair. "Forbes stands to win a big place among men," was his comment.

"Oh, really big?" Rosamond's tender eyes came to meet her husband's. "Stephen, do you think he is quite--scrupulous?--wholly honourable?"

"I have no reason to think otherwise, Rosy."

She shook her head. "Somehow I--could never quite trust him. He would live strictly by the letter of the law--but the spirit--"

"Expect people to live by the spirit--these days, little girl?" inquired Louis, with an affectionate glance at her.

She gazed straight back. "Yes. You do it--and so does Stephen--and Father Gray--and Uncle Calvin."

The eyes of the brothers met above her fair head, and they smiled.

"That's high distinction, from you, dear," said her husband. "But you must not do Westcott injustice. He has the reputation of being sharp as a knife blade, and of outwitting men in fair contest in court and out of it, but no shadow has ever touched his character."

Still she shook her head. "I can't help it. I don't want Rob to marry him."

The young men laughed together, and Rosamond smiled with them.

"There you have it," said Louis. "There's no going behind those returns. The county votes no, and the candidate is defeated. Let him console himself with the vote from other counties--if he can."

The three were still upon the porch half an hour later, with others of the family, when the two figures came again up the stretch of lawn between the slim white birches, showing ghostlike now in the June moonlight. They came in silence, as far as any sound of their voices reached the porch, and they disappeared like two shades toward the front of the house.

"He's not coming even to speak to us," whispered Rosamond to Stephen. "That's very unlike him. Do you suppose--"

"It may be a case of the voice sticking in the throat," returned her husband, under his breath. "I fancy he'll take it hard when Rob disposes of him--as she certainly ought to do by this time, if she's not going to take him. But she'd better think twice. He's a brilliant fellow, and he has no rivals within hailing distance, in his line."

But Rosamond shook her head again. "He would never make her happy," she breathed, with conviction. "Oh, I hope--I hope!"

Her hopes grew with Roberta's absence. Westcott had gone, for Ruth, appearing at Rosamond's side, announced that Roberta was in her own room, and would not be down again to-night.

"I think she has a headache," said the little sister. "Queer, for I never knew Rob to have a headache before."

"The headache," murmured Louis, in Rosamond's ear, "is the feminine defence against the world. A timely headache, now and then, is suffered by the best of men--and women. Well--let her rest, Rufus. She'll be all right in the morning."

Above them, by her open window, sat Roberta, for a little while, elbows on sill, chin in hands. Then, presently, she stole downstairs again, out by a side entrance, and away among the shrubbery, to the furthest point of the grounds--not far, in point of actual distance, but quite removed by its environment from contact with the world around. Here, stretched upon the warm turf, her arms outflung, her eyes gazing up at the star-set heavens above her, the girl rested from her encounter with a desperate besieging force.

For a time, the last words she had heard that evening were ringing in her ears--sombre words, uttered in a deep tone of melancholy, by a voice which commanded cadences that had often reached the minds and hearts of men and swayed them. "Is that all--all, Roberta? Must I go away with that?"

She had sent him away, and her heart ached for him, for she could not doubt the depth and sincerity of his feeling for her. Being a woman, with a warm and kindly nature, she was sad with the disquieting thought that anywhere under that starry sky was one whose spirit was heavy to-night because of her. But--there had been no help for it. She knew now, beyond a doubt, that there had been no help.