Chapter IX. Auntie Sue's Proposition.
 

During the next few days, Brian Kent rapidly regained his strength. No one seeing the tall, self-possessed gentleman who sat with Auntie Sue on the porch overlooking the river, or strolled about the place, could have imagined him the wretchedly repulsive creature that Judy had dragged from the eddy so short a time before. And no one,--exempting, perhaps, detective Ross,--would have identified this bearded guest of Auntie Sue's as the absconding bank clerk for whose arrest a substantial reward was offered.

But Mr. Ross had departed from the Ozarks, to report to the Empire Consolidated Savings Bank that, to the best of his knowledge and belief, Brian Kent had been drowned. Homer T. Ward, himself, wrote Auntie Sue about the case, for the detective had told the bank president about his visit to the little log house by the river, and the banker knew that his old teacher would wish to hear the conclusion of the affair.

The facts upon which the detective based his conclusion that Brian Kent was dead, were, first of all, the man's general character, temperament, habits, and ambitions,--aside from his thefts from the bank,--prior to the time of his exposure and flight, and his known mental and physical condition at the time he disappeared from the hotel in the little river town of Borden.

The detective reasoned (and there are thousands of cases that could be cited to support his contention) that by such a man as Brian Kent,--knowing, as he must have known, the comparative certainty of his ultimate arrest and conviction, and being in a mental and nervous condition bordering on insanity, as a result of his constant brooding over his crime and the excessive drinking to which he had resorted for relief,--by such a man, death would almost inevitably be chosen rather than a life of humiliation and disgrace and imprisonment.

Acting upon the supposition, however, that the man had gone down the river in that missing boat, and that the appearance of suicide was planned by the fugitive to trick his pursuers, the detectives ascertained that he had provided no supplies for a trip down the river. The man would be compelled to seek food. The mountain country through which he must pass was sparsely settled, and for a distance that would have taken a boat many days to cover, the officers visited every house and cabin and camp on either side of the river without finding a trace of the hunted man. The river had been watched night and day. The net set by the Burns operatives touched every settlement and village for many miles around. And, finally, the battered and broken wreck of the lost boat had been found some two miles below Elbow Rock.

". . . And so, my dear Auntie Sue," Banker Ward wrote, in conclusion, "you may rest in peace, secure in the certainty that my thieving bank clerk is not lurking anywhere in your beautiful Ozarks to pounce down upon you unawares in your little house beside the river. The man is safely dead. There is no doubt about it. I regret, more than I can express, that you have been in any way disturbed by the affair. Please think no more about it.

"By the way, you made a great impression upon detective Ross. He was more than enthusiastic over your graciousness and your beauty. I never heard him talk so much before in all the years I have known him. Needless to say, I indorsed everything he said about the dearest old lady in the world, and then we celebrated by dining together and drinking a toast to Auntie Sue. . . ."

Auntie Sue went with the letter to Brian, and acquainted him with that part of the banker's communication which related to the absconding clerk; but, about her relation to the president of the Empire Consolidated Savings Bank, she said nothing.

"Isn't it splendid!" she finished, her face glowing with delight.

"Splendid?" he echoed, looking at her with grave, questioning eyes.

"Why, yes, of course!" she returned. "Aren't you glad to be so dead, under the circumstances? Think what it means! You are free, now. No horrid old detectives dogging your steps, or waiting behind every bush and tree to pounce upon you. There is nothing, now, to prevent your being the kind of man that you always meant to be,--and really ARE, too,--except for your--your accidental tumble in the river," she finished with her low chuckling laugh. "And, some day," she went on, with conviction, "when you have established yourself,--when you have asserted your REAL self, I mean,--and have paid back every penny of the money, Homer T. Ward and Mr. Ross and everybody will be glad that they didn't catch you before you had a chance to save yourself."

"And you, Auntie Sue?" Brian's voice was deep with feeling: "And you?"

"Me? Oh, I am as glad, now, as I can ever be, because, you see, to me it is already done."

For a long minute he looked at her without speaking, then turned his face away to gaze out over the river and the hills; but his eyes were the eyes of one who looks without seeing.

Slowly, he said: "I wish I could be sure. There was a time when I was--when I believed in myself. It seems to me, now, that it was years and years ago. I thought, then, that nothing could shake me in my purpose; that nothing could check me in my ambition. I saw myself going straight on to the goal I had set for myself as certainly as--well, as your river ever there goes on to the sea. But now--" He shook his head sadly.

Auntie Sue laughed. "You foolish boy. My river out there doesn't go straight at all. It meets all sorts of obstacles, and is beset by all sorts of conflicting influences, and so is forced to wind and twist and work its way along; but, the big, splendid thing about the river is that it keeps going on. It never stops to turn back. No matter what happens to it, it never stops. It goes on and on and on unto the very end, until it finally loses itself in the triumph of its own achievement,--the sea."

"And you think that I can go on?" he asked, doubtingly.

"I know you can go on," she answered with conviction.

"But, why are you so sure?"

"Perhaps," she returned, smiling, "seventy years makes one sure of some things."

Ho exclaimed passionately: "But you do not know--you cannot know--how my life, my dreams, my plans, my hopes, my--everything--has been broken into bits!"

She answered calmly, pointing to Elbow Rock: "Look there, Brian. See how the river is broken into bits. See how its smoothly flowing, onward sweep is suddenly changed to wild, chaotic turmoil; how it rages and fumes and frets and smashes itself against the rocks. But it goes on just the same. Life cannot be always calm and smoothly flowing like the peaceful Bend. But life can always go on. Life must always go on. And you will find, my dear boy, that a little way below Elbow Rock there is another quiet stretch."

When he spoke again there was a note of almost reverence in his voice.

"Auntie Sue, was there ever a break in your life? Were your dreams and plans ever smashed into bits?"

For a little, she did not answer; then she said, bravely: "Yes, Brian; several times. Once,--years and years ago,--I do not know how I managed to go on. I felt, then, as you feel now; but, somehow, I managed, and so found the calm places. The last hard spot came quite recently." She paused, wondering what he would do if she were to tell him how he himself had made the hard spot. "But, now," she continued, "I am hoping that the rest of the way will be calm and untroubled."

"I wish I could help to make it so!" he cried impulsively.

"Why, you can," she returned quickly. "Of course you can. Perhaps that is why the current landed your boat at my garden, instead of carrying you on down the rapids to Elbow Rock. Who can say?"

A new light kindled in the man's eyes as his sensitive nature took fire at Auntie Sue's words. "I could do anything for a woman like you, Auntie Sue," he said quietly, but with a conviction that left no room for doubt. "But you must tell me what I am to do."

She answered: "You are simply to go on with your life--just as if no Elbow Rock had ever disturbed you; just as the river goes on--to the end."

She left him, then, to think out his problem alone; for the teacher of so many years' experience was too wise not to know when a lesson was finished.

But when the end of the day was come, they again sat together on the porch and watched the miracle of the sunset hour. And no word was spoken by them, now, of life and its problems and its meanings. As one listens to the song of a bird without thought of musical notes or terms; as one senses the fragrance of a flower without thought of the chemistry of perfume; as one feels the presence of spring in the air without thought of the day of the week, so they were conscious of the beauty, the glory, and the peace of the evening.

Only when the soft darkness of the night lay over the land, and river and mountain and starry sky were veiled in dreamy mystery, did Auntie Sue speak: "Oh, it is so good to have some one to share it with,--some one who understands. I am very lonely, sometimes, Brian. I wonder if you know?"

"Yes, Auntie Sue, I know, for I have been lonely, too."

And so the old gentlewoman, whose lifework was so nearly finished, and the man in the flush of his manhood years, whose life had been so nearly wrecked, were drawn very close by a something that came to them out of the beauty and the mystery of that hour.

The next day, Brian told Auntie Sue that he would leave on the morrow.

"Leave?" she echoed in dismay. "Why, Brian, where are you going?"

"I don't exactly know," he returned; "but, of course, I must go somewhere, out into the world again."

"And why must you 'go somewhere, out into the world again'?" she demanded.

"To work," he answered, smiling. "If I am to go on, as you say, I must go where I can find something to do."

"If that isn't just like you--you child!" cried the old teacher. "You are all alike,--you boys and girls. You all must have something to do; always, it is 'something to do'."

"Well," he returned, "and must we not have something to do?"

"You will do something, certainly," she answered; "but, before you can DO anything that is worth doing, you must BE something. Life isn't DOING;--it is BEING."

"I wonder if that was not the real reason for my wretched failures," said Brian, thoughtfully.

"It is the real reason for most of our failures," she returned. "And so you are not going to fail again. You are not going away somewhere, you don't know where, to do something you don't know what. You are going to stay right here, and just BE something. Then, when the time comes, you will do whatever is yours to do as naturally and as inevitably as the birds sing, as the blossoms come in the spring, or as the river finds its way to the sea."

And more than ever Brian Kent felt in the presence of Auntie Sue as a little boy to whom the world had grown suddenly very big and very wonderful.

But, after a while, he shook his head, smiling wistfully. "No, no, Auntie Sue, that sounds all true and right enough, but it can't be. I must go just the same."

"Why can't it be, Brian?"

"For one thing," he returned, "I cannot risk the danger to you. After all, as long as I am living, there is a chance that my identity will be discovered, and you--no, no; I must not!"

"As for that," she answered quickly, "the chances of your being identified are a thousand times greater if you go into the world again too soon. Some day, of course, you must go; but you are safer now right here. And"--she added quickly--"it would be no easier for me, dear boy, to--to--have it happen somewhere away from me. You are mine, you know, no matter where you go."

"But, Auntie Sue," he protested, "I am not a gentleman of means that I can do nothing indefinitely; neither am I capable of living upon your hospitality for an extended period. I must earn my bread and butter."

The final sentence came with such a lifting of his head, such a look of stern decision, and such an air of pride, that the gentle old school-teacher laughed until her eyes were filled with tears; and Judy, at the crack in the kitchen door, wondered if the mistress of the little log house by the river were losing her mind.

"Oh, Brian! Brian!" cried Auntie Sue, wiping her eyes. "I knew you would come to the 'bread and butter' at last. That is where all our philosophies and reasonings and arguments come at last, don't they? Just 'bread and butter,' that is all. And I love you for it. Of course you can't live upon my hospitality,--and I couldn't let you if you would. And if you WOULD, I wouldn't let you if I could. I am no more a lady of means, my haughty sir, than you are a gentleman of independent fortune. The fact is, Brian, dear, I suspect that you and I are about the two poorest people in the world,--to be anything like as pretentiously respectable and properly proud as we are."

When the man could make no reply, but only looked at her with a much-puzzled and still-proud expression, she continued, half-laughingly, but well pleased with him: "Please, Brian, don't look so haughtily injured. I had no intention of insulting you by offering charity. Far from it."

Instantly, the man's face changed. He put out his hands protestingly, and his blue eyes filled, as he said, impulsively. "Auntie Sue, after what you have done for me, I--"

She answered quickly: "We are considering the future. What has been, is past. Our river is already far beyond that point in its journey. Don't let us try to turn the waters back. I promise you I am going to be very, very practical, and make you pay for EVERYTHING."

Smiling, now, he waited for her to explain.

"I must tell you, first," she began, "that, except for a very small amount in the--in a savings bank, I have nothing to provide for my last days except this little farm."

"What a shame," Brian Kent exclaimed, "that a woman like you can give her life to the public schools for barely enough salary to keep her alive during her active years, and then left in her old age with no means of support. It is a national disgrace."

Auntie Sue chuckled with appreciation of the rather grim humor of the situation. What would Brian Kent, indignant at the public neglect of the school-teacher, say of the man who had robbed her of the money that was to provide for her closing years? "After all, most public sins are only individual sins at the last," she said, musingly.

"I beg your pardon," said Brian, not in the least seeing the relevancy of her words.

Auntie Sue came quickly back to her subject: "Only thirty acres of my little farm is under cultivation. The remaining fifty acres is wild timberland. If I could have that fifty acres also in cultivation, with the money that the timber would bring,--which would not be a great deal,--I would be fairly safe for the--for the rest of my evening," she finished with a smile. "Do you see?"

"You mean that I--that you want me to stay here and work for you?"

"I mean," she answered, "that, if you choose to stay for awhile, you need not feel that you would be accepting my hospitality as charity," she returned gently. "I am not exactly offering you a job: I am only showing you how you could, without sacrificing your pride, remain in this quiet retreat for awhile before returning to the world."

"It would be heaven, Auntie Sue," he returned earnestly. "I want to stay so bad that I fear myself. Let me think it over until to-morrow. Let me be sure that I am doing the right thing, and not merely the thing I want to do."

She liked his answer, and did not mention the subject again until Brian himself was ready. And, strangely enough, it was poor, twisted Judy who helped him to set matters straight.