Chapter XI. Miss Arabella's "Affair"
 

It was the lot of Miss Arabella Simpkins to have lived for over forty years without one real affair of the heart. There were reasons for this, well known to all the people of Hillcrest. Not only had her father, a lumberman of considerable repute in his day, been very particular as to the young men who visited the house, but Miss Arabella herself was the chief objection. She was by no means handsome, and in addition she was possessed of a sharp tongue, and, as Captain Josh truly said, "a long nose which was always prying into other people's business." These frailties naturally increased as she grew older until she became a dread not only to her brother, Tom, but to all her neighbours, especially the children.

She had two redeeming features, however: a generous heart for those she liked, and considerable money. This latter had its influence, and made her tolerated in the company of others, where she was indulged with a certain amount of good humour.

But a real romance had never come into Miss Arabella's life, and this was her great trial. No suitor had ever sought her out, and with languishing eyes had watched her as she moved among the other maidens of the parish. Friends of her girlhood days had been more fortunate. They were married, and had families around them, while she alone had been left "like the last rose of summer," as she often told herself.

But Miss Arabella never let people know about her trial. On the contrary, she wished them to believe that her heart had once been won by a handsome and gallant young man. Just what had become of him, or what had occurred to cause the separation, she would never tell, and only hinted mysteriously with a deep sigh whenever the subject of matrimony was discussed. People knowing her, always smiled, and among themselves often spoke of Miss Arabella's "affair."

The Simpkins' house was close to the river, and about a quarter of a mile from the rectory by means of a short-cut through the field, though much longer by the main highway. Rod took the short route, and in a few minutes reached the place. His heart beat fast as he drew near, for he dreaded meeting Miss Arabella, whose sharp tongue he had good reason to fear.

Tom Simpkins met him at the door, and ushered him into the sitting-room where Miss Arabella was lying upon a sofa near the window. She was somewhat paler than usual, and very weak. A look of disappointment appeared upon her face as the door opened and Rod entered.

"Oh, it's only you," she complained. "What brought you here?"

"I came for the key, Miss Arabella," Rod pantingly explained, keeping as close to the door as possible.

"H'm, I should think you would not only be afraid but ashamed to come near me after doing such a mean thing as you did this afternoon," and the invalid fixed her piercing eyes upon the boy.

"W-what did I do?" Rod stammered.

"Do! Didn't you put that key down my neck, which gave me such a terrible shock?"

"But it brought you back to life, Miss Arabella, and it stopped your nose bleeding. Captain Josh said that was the best thing to do, and I guess he was right."

"Oh, that was what you did it for, was it?"

"Sure. I never thought of scaring you. I only wanted to do a good turn, that's all."

"But what did you say such things about my nose for, tell me that?"

"Why, did you hear me? I thought you didn't know anything."

"Then you were mistaken. I heard and knew more than you imagined."

"The men thought that you were almost dead, Miss Arabella, and they felt very bad."

"Did they?" the woman questioned, and her voice was softer than usual. Then she remained silent for a few seconds, looking absently before her. "See here, Rod," and she smiled upon the boy for the first time in her life, "I will forgive you for what you said about my nose if you will tell me something."

"What is it?"

"You remember that fine looking man, with the blue eyes, and hair streaked with grey."

"Can't say that I do, Miss Arabella."

"He was the one who held me in his arms while you dropped that horrid key down my neck."

"Oh, yes, I know now."

"Well, Rod, do you think he cared much that I was hurt?"

"Yes, I think he did."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes. He looked awful scared when you tumbled into the ditch."

"Ah, I knew it," and the invalid closed her eyes, while a smile overspread her face. "I felt from the first that he cared," she murmured.

Then she lay so perfectly still that Rod thought she had fainted. He stepped to her side, and touched her hand.

"Miss Arabella," he began, "have you fainted?"

"Oh, I thought that he was standing by my side," she simpered. "I must have been dreaming."

"No, it's only me, and I would like to have the key. They can't have the wedding till I get back."

"What wedding?" and the invalid sat suddenly bolt upright.

"Why, Bill Stebbins and Susie Sanders want to get married, and they can't get into the church 'cos you have the key down your neck."

"A wedding! What thoughts of bliss come to my mind at that word," and Miss Arabella clasped her hands, while her eyes rolled up to the ceiling.

Rod was now becoming very impatient. He thought of the crowd waiting before the rectory, and Parson Dan's anxiety.

"The key, Miss Arabella," he insisted. "Will you please----"

"And you think he cared?" the woman interrupted.

"Yes. But, Miss----"

"And did he look at me much with those splendid blue eyes?"

"I think he did, Miss Arabella. But will you please give me the key. They are waiting----"

"And do you think he will come back, Rod? He said that he would return soon. But men are so fickle."

A new idea suddenly shot into Rod's mind.

"Give me the key, Miss Arabella, and I will go after that man. It will be my good turn."

"Oh, will you?" and the woman's face lighted up with joy. "Don't tell him that I sent you."

"No, I won't. But the key, where is it? If it's down your neck, I'll go out of the room until you find it."

"And you will hurry, Rod?"

"Yes, yes, but----"

"And you think you can find him?"

"I'll try if you'll give me the key, Miss Arabella. But if you keep me waiting any longer I won't go one step."

"Well, it's on that shelf over there. Take it, and hurry."

Rod wasted no time. He sprang for the key, seized it, and darted out of the room. Over the field he sped as fast as his nimble feet would carry him, and never paused until he had handed it to the anxiously waiting clergyman.

Having performed this task, Rod turned his attention to Miss Arabella's "man." The wedding was of little interest to him, so he strolled down the road with not the least idea how he was going to bring back that man with the "splendid blue eyes." With hands thrust deep into his pockets he walked along whistling a merry tune. His mind was really upon Whyn, and the book he had left at the Anchorage. He would much rather have gone back there, but he knew that he must do his duty to the love-sick woman first.

He had not gone very far ere he saw a man coming toward him, leading a horse, which he knew to be the one which had run away. He recognised the man, and he was overjoyed at seeing him.

"Hello! Have you come to give a hand?" the man accosted as he drew near.

"Yes, sir. I was looking for you," Rod replied, as he walked along by the man's side.

"Thought I had run away with the horse, did you? Well, we had a hard chase, but found her at last, with the wagon all smashed to bits. We tried to lead the horse behind the car, but couldn't get her anywhere near it, so I had to foot it the whole way."

"Miss Arabella will be glad to see you, sir."

"Will she, eh? I suppose there'll be the Old Harry to pay. You said something about her tongue, didn't you? I expect to know more of it shortly."

"Oh, she won't scold you, sir. She thinks a lot of you."

"Of me?"

"Yes, sir. She thinks you are great. I really believe she is in love with you, that's all."

"Whew!" and the man whistled softly, while an amused light shone in his eyes. "Did she send you after me?" he inquired.

"I promised, sir, that I wouldn't tell."

"Oh, I see," and the man relapsed into silence. A picture of Miss Arabella's angular figure, thin face, and long sharp nose rose before him. And to think that she was in love with him! It was almost too good to be true, and he longed to laugh outright. What a story he would have to relate when he got home.

Miss Arabella was lying just where Rod had left her when John Markham and the boy entered. She gave a little squeak of joy when the stranger stepped to her side.

"I knew you would come back," she murmured. "I was certain that you would not forsake me."

"Not until I had found the horse, madam," was the reply. "I regret very much that the wagon is broken, but I shall make good your loss."

"Don't mention such a thing," and the invalid feebly waved her thin hands. "Such material matters don't count for anything to a heart over-flowing with gratitude."

"Yes, you were most fortunate to escape as you did, madam. You might have been seriously injured, nay, you might have been killed, and so I can understand how grateful you must feel."

"Oh, I don't mean that," and Miss Arabella raised her soulful eyes to the man's face. "I am so thankful that you have come back."

"You didn't imagine that I would run away with your horse, did you, madam? She is certainly a fine beast, and it is lucky that she did not receive any serious damage. I am much pleased that I have been able to deliver her to you with so few scratches upon her. A little treatment will make her all right. You will find Bickmore's Gall Cure very good."

"It's not that, not that, I assure you," and again Miss Arabella flapped her hands in agony of soul. "What does a horse amount to when the heart is affected?"

"Oh, is that what's the matter?" and Mr. Markham assumed an expression of great solicitude. "It was the fall, no doubt, which did it. Have you had trouble there before?"

"It wasn't the fall that caused it," and Miss Arabella covered her face with her hand. "It goes deeper than that."

"Dear me, madam, you must certainly see the doctor. It is very serious, and you must not delay any longer. I believe the doctor lives down the road. Shall I call on him on my way home, and tell him to come at once?"

Before Miss Arabella could reply, a raucous honk outside arrested their attention.

"It's merely the car," Mr. Markham explained. "I must be going now."

"What, so soon? Must you leave me again?" and the invalid raised her eyes appealingly to the man's face.

"Yes, I must be off. My wife will be wondering what----"

"Your wife!" Miss Arabella shrieked, sitting bolt upright. "Do you tell me that you have a wife!"

"Certainly. She is waiting for me with some friends down the road. Several of us men took a spin this afternoon so that the women could have a little chat together. It is getting late now, and we must hurry back to the city. This accident has delayed us. So, good-bye, madam. I trust you soon will be well. I shall see about the carriage at once."

With that, he left the house, closely followed by Rod, leaving Miss Arabella speechless upon the sofa.