Fair Exchange and No Robbery by Lucy Maud Montgomery
Katherine Rangely was packing up. Her chum and roommate, Edith Wilmer, was sitting on the bed watching her in that calm disinterested fashion peculiarly maddening to a bewildered packer.
"It does seem too provoking," said Katherine, as she tugged at an obstinate shawl strap, "that Ned should be transferred here now, just when I'm going away. The powers that be might have waited until vacation was over. Ned won't know a soul here and he'll be horribly lonesome."
"I'll do my best to befriend him, with your permission," said Edith consolingly.
"Oh, I know. You're a special Providence, Ede. Ned will be up tonight first thing, of course, and I'll introduce him. Try to keep the poor fellow amused until I get back. Two months! Just fancy! And Aunt Elizabeth won't abate one jot or tittle of the time I promised to stay with her. Harbour Hill is so frightfully dull, too."
Then the talk drifted around to Edith's affairs. She was engaged to a certain Sidney Keith, who was a professor in some college.
"I don't expect to see much of Sidney this summer," said Edith. "He's writing another book. He is so terribly addicted to literature."
"How lovely," sighed Katherine, who had aspirations in that line herself. "If only Ned were like him I should be perfectly happy. But Ned is so prosaic. He doesn't care a rap for poetry, and he laughs when I enthuse. It makes him quite furious when I talk of taking up writing seriously. He says women writers are an abomination on the face of the earth. Did you ever hear anything so ridiculous?"
"He is very handsome, though," said Edith, with a glance at his photograph on Katherine's dressing table. "And that is what Sid is not. He is rather distinguished looking, but as plain as he can possibly be."
Edith sighed. She had a weakness for handsome men and thought it rather hard that fate should have allotted her so plain a lover.
"He has lovely eyes," said Katherine comfortingly, "and handsome men are always vain. Even Ned is. I have to snub him regularly. But I think you'll like him."
Edith thought so too when Ned Ellison appeared that night. He was a handsome off-handed young fellow, who seemed to admire Katherine immensely, and be a little afraid of her into the bargain.
"Edith will try to make Riverton pleasant for you while I am away," she told him in their good-bye chat. "She is a dear girl--you'll like her, I know. It's really too bad I have to go away now, but it can't be helped."
"I shall be awfully lonesome," grumbled Ned. "Don't you forget to write regularly, Kitty."
"Of course I'll write, but for pity's sake, Ned, don't call me Kitty. It sounds so childish. Well, bye-bye, dear boy. I'll be back in two months and then we'll have a lovely time."
* * * * *
When Katherine had been at Harbour Hill for a week she wondered how upon earth she was going to put in the remaining seven. Harbour Hill was noted for its beauty, but not every woman can live by scenery alone.
"Aunt Elizabeth," said Katherine one day, "does anybody ever die in Harbour Hill? Because it doesn't seem to me it would be any change for them if they did."
Aunt Elizabeth's only reply to this was a shocked look.
To pass the time Katherine took to collecting seaweeds, and this involved long tramps along the shore. On one of these occasions she met with an adventure. The place was a remote spot far up the shore. Katherine had taken off her shoes and stockings, tucked up her skirt, rolled her sleeves high above her dimpled elbows, and was deep in the absorbing process of fishing up seaweeds off a craggy headland. She looked anything but dignified while so employed, but under the circumstances dignity did not matter.
Presently she heard a shout from the shore and, turning around in dismay, she beheld a man on the rocks behind her. He was evidently shouting at her. What on earth could the creature want?
"Come in," he called, gesticulating wildly. "You'll be in the bottomless pit in another moment if you don't look out."
"He certainly must be a lunatic," said Katherine to herself, "or else he's drunk. What am I to do?"
"Come in, I tell you," insisted the stranger. "What in the world do you mean by wading out to such a place? Why, it's madness."
Katherine's indignation got the better of her fear.
"I do not think I am trespassing," she called back as icily as possible.
The stranger did not seem to be snubbed at all. He came down to the very edge of the rocks where Katherine could see him plainly. He was dressed in a somewhat well-worn grey suit and wore spectacles. He did not look like a lunatic, and he did not seem to be drunk.
"I implore you to come in," he said earnestly. "You must be standing on the very brink of the bottomless pit."
He is certainly off his balance, thought Katherine. He must be some revivalist who has gone insane on one point. I suppose I'd better go in. He looks quite capable of wading out here after me if I don't.
She picked her steps carefully back with her precious specimens. The stranger eyed her severely as she stepped on the rocks.
"I should think you would have more sense than to risk your life in that fashion for a handful of seaweeds," he said.
"I haven't the faintest idea what you mean," said Miss Rangely. "You don't look crazy, but you talk as if you were."
"Do you mean to say you don't know that what the people hereabouts call the Bottomless Pit is situated right off that point--the most dangerous spot along the whole coast?"
"No, I didn't," said Katherine, horrified. She remembered now that Aunt Elizabeth had warned her to be careful of some bad hole along shore, but she had not been paying much attention and had supposed it to be in quite another direction. "I am a stranger here."
"Well, I hardly thought you'd be foolish enough to be out there if you knew," said the other in mollified accents. "The place ought not to be left without warning, anyhow. It is the most careless thing I ever heard of. There is a big hole right off that point and nobody has ever been able to find the bottom of it. A person who got into it would never be heard of again. The rocks there form an eddy that sucks everything right down."
"I am very grateful to you for calling me in," said Katherine humbly. "I had no idea I was in such danger."
"You have a very fine bunch of seaweeds, I see," said the unknown.
But Katherine was in no mood to converse on seaweeds. She suddenly realized what she must look like--bare feet, draggled skirts, dripping arms. And this creature whom she had taken for a lunatic was undoubtedly a gentleman. Oh, if he would only go and give her a chance to put on her shoes and stockings!
Nothing seemed further from his intentions. When Katherine had picked up the aforesaid articles and turned homeward, he walked beside her, still discoursing on seaweeds as eloquently as if he were commonly accustomed to walking with barefooted young women. In spite of herself, Katherine couldn't help listening to him, for he managed to invest seaweeds with an absorbing interest. She finally decided that as he didn't seem to mind her bare feet, she wouldn't either.
He knew so much about seaweeds that Katherine felt decidedly amateurish beside him. He looked over her specimens and pointed out the valuable ones. He explained the best method of preserving and mounting them, and told her of other and less dangerous places along the shore where she might get some new varieties.
When they came in sight of Harbour Hill, Katherine began to wonder what on earth she would do with him. It wasn't exactly permissible to snub a man who had practically saved your life, but, on the other hand, the prospect of walking through the principal street of Harbour Hill barefooted and escorted by a scholarly looking gentleman discoursing on seaweeds was not to be calmly contemplated.
The unknown cut the Gordian knot himself. He said that he must really go back or he would be late for dinner, lifted his hat politely, and departed. Katherine waited until he was out of sight, then sat down on the sand and put on her shoes and stockings.
"Who on earth can he be?" she said to herself. "And where have I seen him before? There was certainly something familiar about his appearance. He is very nice, but he must have thought me crazy. I wonder if he belongs to Harbour Hill."
The mystery was solved when she got home and found a letter from Edith awaiting her.
"I see Ned quite often," wrote the latter, "and I think he is perfectly splendid. You are a lucky girl, Kate. But oh, do you know that Sidney is actually at Harbour Hill, too, or at least quite near it? I had a letter from him yesterday. He has gone down there to spend his vacation, because it is so quiet, and to finish up some horrid scientific book he is working at. He's boarding at some little farmhouse up the shore. I've written to him today to hunt you up and consider himself introduced to you. I think you'll like him, for he's just your style."
Katherine smiled when Sidney Keith's card was brought up to her that evening and went down to meet him. Her companion of the morning rose to meet her.
"You!" he said.
"Yes, me," said Miss Rangely cheerfully and ungrammatically. "You didn't expect it, did you? I was sure I had seen you before--only it wasn't you but your photograph."
When Professor Keith went away it was with a cordial invitation to call again. He did not fail to avail himself of it--in fact, he became a constant visitor at Sycamore Villa. Katherine wrote all about it to Edith and cultivated Professor Keith with a dear conscience.
They got on capitally together. They went on long expeditions up shore after seaweeds, and when seaweeds were exhausted they began to make a collection of the Harbour Hill flora. This involved more long, companionable expeditions. Katherine sometimes wondered when Professor Keith found time to work on his book, but as he made no reference to the subject, neither did she.
Once in a while, when she had time to think of them, she wondered how Ned and Edith were getting on. At first Edith's letters had been full of Ned, but in her last two or three she had said little about him. Katherine wrote and jokingly asked Edith if she and Ned had quarreled. Edith wrote back and said, "What nonsense." She and Ned were as good friends as ever, but he was getting acquainted in Riverton now and wasn't so dependent on her society, etc.
Katherine sighed and went on a fern hunt with Professor Keith. It was getting near the end of her vacation and she had only two weeks more. They were sitting down to rest on the side of the road when she mentioned this fact inconsequently. The professor prodded the harmless dust with his cane. Well, he supposed she would find a return to work pleasant and would doubtless be glad to see her Riverton friends again.
"I'm dying to see Edith," said Katherine.
"And Ned?" suggested Professor Keith.
"Oh yes. Ned, of course," assented Katherine without enthusiasm. There didn't seem to be anything more to say. One cannot talk everlastingly about ferns, so they got up and went home.
Katherine wrote a particularly affectionate letter to Ned that night. Then she went to bed and cried.
When Professor Keith came up to bid Miss Rangely good-bye on the eve of her departure from Harbour Hill, he looked like a man who was being led to execution without benefit of clergy. But he kept himself well in hand and talked calmly on impersonal subjects. After all, it was Katherine who made the first break when she got up to say good-bye. She was in the middle of some conventional sentence when she suddenly stopped short, and her voice trailed off in a babyish quiver.
The professor put out his arm and drew her close to him. His hat dropped under their feet and was trampled on, but I doubt if Professor Keith knows the difference to this day, for he was fully absorbed in kissing Katherine's hair. When she became cognizant of this fact, she drew herself away.
"Oh, Sidney, don't!--think of Edith! I feel like a traitor."
"Do you think she would care very much if I--if you--if we--" hesitated the professor.
"Oh, it would break her heart," cried Katherine with convincing earnestness. "I know it would--and Ned's too. They must never know."
The professor stooped and began hunting for his maltreated hat. He was a long time finding it, and when he did he went softly to the door. With his hand on the knob, he paused and looked back.
"Good-bye, Miss Rangely," he said softly.
But Katherine, whose face was buried in the cushions of the lounge, did not hear him and when she looked up he was gone.
* * * * *
Katharine felt that life was stale, flat and unprofitable when she alighted at Riverton station in the dusk of the next evening. She was not expected until a later train and there was no one to meet her. She walked drearily through the streets to her boarding house and entered her room unannounced. Edith, who was lying on the bed, sprang up with a surprised greeting. It was too dark to be sure, but Katherine had an uncomfortable suspicion that her friend had been crying, and her heart quaked guiltily. Could Edith have suspected anything?
"Why, we didn't think you'd be up till the 8:30 train, and Ned and I were going to meet you."
"I found I could catch an earlier train, so I took it," said Katherine, as she dropped listlessly into a chair. "I am tired to death and I have such a headache. I can't see anyone tonight, not even Ned."
"You poor dear," said Edith sympathetically, beginning a search for the cologne. "Lie down on the bed and I'll bathe your poor head. Did you have a good time at Harbour Hill? And how did you leave Sid? Did he say anything about coming up?"
"Oh, he was quite well," said Katherine wearily. "I didn't hear him say if he intended to come up or not. There, thanks--that will do nicely."
After Edith had gone down, Katherine tossed about restlessly. She knew Ned had come and she did not want to see him. But, after all, it was only putting off the evil day, and it was treating him rather shabbily. She would go down for a minute.
There were two doors to the parlour, and Katherine went by way of the library one, over which a portiere was hanging. Her hand was lifted to draw it back when she heard something that arrested the movement.
A woman was crying in the room beyond. It was Edith--and what was she saying?
"Oh, Ned, it is all perfectly dreadful! I couldn't look Catherine in the face when she came home. I'm so ashamed of myself and I never meant to be so false. We must never let her suspect for a minute."
"It's pretty rough on a fellow," said another voice--Ned's voice--in a choked sort of a way. "Upon my word, Edith, I don't see how I'm going to keep it up."
"You must," sobbed Edith. "It would break her heart--and Sidney's too. We must just make up our minds to forget each other, Ned, and you must marry Katherine."
Just at this point Katherine became aware that she was eavesdropping and she went away noiselessly. She did not look in the least like a person who has received a mortal blow, and she had forgotten her headache altogether.
When Edith came up half an hour later, she found the worn-out invalid sitting up and reading a novel.
"How is your headache, dear?" she asked, carefully keeping her face turned away from Katherine.
"Oh, it's all gone," said Miss Rangely cheerfully.
"Why didn't you come down then? Ned was here."
"Well, Ede, I did go down, but I thought I wasn't particularly wanted, so I came back."
Edith faced her friend in dismay, forgetful of swollen lids and tear-stained cheeks.
"Don't look so conscience stricken, my dear child. There is no harm done."
"Some surprising speeches. So you and Ned have gone and fallen in love with one another?"
"Oh, Katherine," sobbed Edith, "we--we--couldn't help it--but it's all over. Oh, don't be angry with me!"
"Angry? My dear, I'm delighted."
"Yes, you dear goose. Can't you guess, or must I tell you? Sidney and I did the very same, and had just such a melancholy parting last night as I suspect you and Ned had tonight."
"Yes, it's quite true. And of course we made up our minds to sacrifice ourselves on the altar of duty and all that. But now, thank goodness, there is no need of such wholesale immolation. So just let's forgive each other."
"Oh," sighed Edith happily, "it is almost too good to be true."
"It is really providentially ordered, isn't it?" said Katherine. "Ned and I would never have got on together in the world, and you and Sidney would have bored each other to death. As it is, there will be four perfectly happy people instead of four miserable ones. I'll tell Ned so tomorrow."