Chapter XIV. Betty Jo Considers.
 

The most careless eye would have seen instantly that the newcomer was not a native of that backwoods district. She was not a large woman, but there was, nevertheless, a full, rounded strength, which saved her trim and rather slender body from appearing small. Neither would a discriminating observer describe her by that too-common term "pretty." She was more than that. In her large, gray eyes, there was a look of frank, straightforward interest that suggested an almost boyish good-fellowship, while at the same time there was about her a general air of good breeding; with a calm, self-possessed and businesslike alertness which, combined with a wholesome dignity, commanded a feeling of respect and confidence. Her voice was clear and musical, with an undertone of sympathetic humor. One felt when she spoke that while she lacked nothing of intelligent understanding and sympathetic interest, she was quite ready to laugh at you just the same.

When the two stood speechless, she said, looking straight at Brian: "It seems to me, sir, that the young lady has all the best of the argument. But I really think she should have some dry clothes as well."

She turned to the dripping and dishevelled Judy: "You poor child. Aren't you cold! It is rather early in the season for a dip in the river, I should think. Let me take whatever you have there, and you make for the house as fast as you can go,--the run will warm you."

As she spoke, she went to the mountain girl, holding out her hand to take the manuscript, and smiling encouragingly.

But Judy backed away, her stealthy, oblique gaze fixed with watchful surprise on the fair stranger.

"This here ain't none of your put-in," and her shrill drawling monotone contrasted strangely with the other's pleasing voice. "Where'd you-all happen from, anyhow? How'd you-all git here?"

"I came over the bluff by the path," answered the other. "You see, I left the train from the south at White's Crossing because I knew I could drive up from there by the river road quicker than I could go by rail away around through the hills to Thompsonville, and then make the drive down the river from there. When I reached Elbow Rock, I was in such a hurry, I took the short cut, while the man with my trunk and things went by the road over Schoolhouse Hill, you know. I arrived here just as this gentleman was pulling you from the water."

Before Brian could speak, Judy returned with excitement: "I know who you-all be now. I ought ter knowed the minute I set eyes on you. You-all are the gal with that there no-'count name, an' you've come ter work for him, there,"--she pointed to Brian,--"a-helpin' him ter write his book, what ain't his'n no more, nohow, 'cause he done throwed hit away,--plumb inter the river."

"I am Miss Williams," returned the other. "My 'no-'count name,' I suppose, is Betty Jo." She laughed kindly. "Perhaps it won't seem so 'no'count' when we are better acquainted, Judy. Won't you run along to the house, and change to some dry clothes? You will catch your death of cold if you stand here like this."

"How'd you-all know I was Judy?"

"Why, Auntie Sue wrote me about you, of course."

"An' you knowed me 'cause I'm so all crooked an' ugly, I reckon," came the uncompromising return.

Betty Jo turned to Brian: "You are Mr. Burns, are you not, for whom I am to work?"

Brian made no reply,--he really could not speak. "And this,"--Betty Jo included Judy, the manuscript, and the river in a graceful gesture,--"this, I suppose, is the result of what is called 'the artistic temperament'?"

Still the man could find no words. The young woman's presence and her reference to his work brought to him, with overwhelming vividness, the memory of all to which he had so short a time before looked forward, and which was now so hopelessly lost to him. He felt, too, a sense of rebellion that she should have come at such a moment,--that she could stand there with such calm self-possession and with such an air of competency. Her confidence and poise in such contrast to the chaotic turmoil of his own thoughts, and his utter helplessness in the situation which had so suddenly burst upon him, filled him with unreasoning resentment.

Betty Jo must have read in Brian Kent's face something of the suffering that held him there dumb and motionless before her, and so sensed a deeper tragedy than appeared on the surface of the incident; and her own face and voice revealed her understanding as she said, with quiet, but decisive, force: "Mr. Burns, Judy must go to the house. Won't you persuade her?"

Brian started as one aroused from deep abstraction, and went to Judy; while Betty Jo drew a little way apart, and stood looking out over the river.

"Give me the manuscript, Judy," said Brian gently, "and go on to the house."

"You-all ain't a-goin' ter sling hit inter the river again?" The words were half-question and half-assertion.

"No," said Brian. "I promise not to throw it into the river again."

As Judy gave him the manuscript, she turned her beady eyes in a stealthy, oblique look toward Betty Jo, and whispered: "You-all best tell her 'bout hit. I sure hate her poison-bad; but hit's easy ter see she'd sure know what ter do."

"Be careful that Auntie Sue doesn't see you like this, Judy," was Brian's only answer; and Judy started off for her much-needed change to dry clothing.

When the mountain girl was gone, Brian stood looking at the water-stained volume of manuscript in his hand. He had no feeling, now, of more than a curious idle interest in this work to which, during the months just past, he had given so without reserve the best of himself. It was, he thought, strange how he could regard with such indifference a thing for which a few hours before he would have given his life. Dumbly, he was conscious of the truth of Judy's words,--that the book was no longer his. Judy was right--this book which he had called his had always been, in reality, Auntie Sue's. So the matter of his work, at least so far as he had to do with it, was settled--definitely and finally settled.

But what of himself? What was to become of him? Of one thing only he was certain about himself;--he never could face Auntie Sue again. Knowing, now, what he had done, and knowing that she knew;--that all the time she was nursing him back to health, all the time she had been giving him the inspiration and strength and peace of her gentle, loving companionship, in the safe and quiet harbor of her little house by the river, she had known that it was he who had--A clear, matter-of-fact, but gentle, voice interrupted his bitter thoughts: "Is it so very badly damaged, Mr. Burns?"

He had forgotten Betty Jo, who now stood close beside him.

"Let me see?" She held out her hand as he turned slowly to face her.

Without a word, he gave her the manuscript.

Very businesslike and practical, but with an underlying feeling of tenderness that was her most compelling charm, Betty Jo examined the water-stained volume.

"Why, no," she announced cheerfully; "it isn't really hurt much. You see, the sheets being tied together so tightly, the water didn't get all the way through. The covers and the first and last pages are pretty wet, and the edges of the rest are rather damp. It'll be smudged somewhat, but I don't believe there is a single word that can't be made out. It is lucky it didn't prolong its bath, though, isn't it? All we need to do, now, is to put it in the sun to dry for a few minutes."

Selecting a sunny spot near by, she arranged the volume against a stone and deftly separated the pages so that the air could circulate more freely between them; and one would have said, from her manner of ready assurance, that she had learned from long experience exactly how to dry a manuscript that had been thrown in the river and rescued just in the nick of time. That was Betty Jo's way. She always did everything without hesitation,--just as though she had spent the twenty-three years of her life doing exactly that particular thing.

Kneeling over the manuscript, and gently moving the wet sheets, she said, without looking up: "Do you always bath your manuscripts like this before you turn them over to your stenographer to type, Mr. Burns?"

In spite of his troubled state of mind, Brian smiled.

The clear, matter-of-fact voice went on, while the competent hands moved the drying pages. "You see, I never worked for an author before. I suspect I have a lot to learn."

She looked up at him with a Betty Jo smile that went straight to his heart, as Betty Jo's smiles had a curious way of doing.

"I hope you will be very patient with me, Mr. Burns. You will, won't you? There is no real danger of your throwing ME in the river when the 'artistic temperament' possesses you, is there?"

It was no use. When Betty Jo set out to make a man talk, that man talked. Brian yielded not ungracefully: "I owe you an apology, Miss Williams," he said.

"Indeed, no," Betty Jo returned, giving her attention to the manuscript again. "It is easy to see that you are terribly upset about something; and everybody is so accustomed to being upset in one way or another that apologies for upsetments are quite an unnecessary bother, aren't they?"

That was another interestingly curious thing about Betty Jo,--the way she could finish off a characteristic, matter-of-fact statement with a question which had the effect of making one agree instantly whether one agreed or not.

Brian felt himself quite unexpectedly feeling that "upsetments" were quite common, ordinary, and to be expected events in one's life. "But I am really in very serious trouble, Miss Williams," he said in a way that sounded oddly to Brian himself, as though he were trying to convince himself that his trouble really was serious.

Betty Jo rose to her feet, and looked straight at him, and there was no mistaking the genuineness of the interest expressed in those big gray eyes.

"Oh, are you? Is it really so serious? I am so sorry. But don't you think you better tell me about it, Mr. Burns? If I am to work for you, I may just as well begin right here, don't you think?"

There it was again,--that trick-question. Brian felt himself agreeing in spite of himself, though how he was to explain his painful situation to this young woman whom, until a few minutes before, he had never even seen, he did not know. He answered cautiously, speaking half to himself: "That is what Judy said."

Betty Jo did not understand, and made no pretense,--she never made a pretense of anything. "What did Judy say?" she asked.

"That I had better tell you about it," he answered.

And the matter-of-fact Betty Jo returned: "Judy seems to be a very particular and common-sensing sort of Judy, doesn't she?"

And Brian realized all at once that Judy was exactly what Betty Jo said.

"But,--I--I--don't see how I CAN tell you, Miss Williams."

"Why?" laughed Betty Jo. "It is perfectly simple, Mr. Burns, here, now, I'll show you: You are to sit down there on that nice comfortable rock,--that is your big office-chair, you know,--and I'll sit right here on this rock,--which is my little stenography-chair,--and you will just explain the serious business proposition to me with careful attention to details. I must tell you that 'detailing' is one of my strong points, so don't spare me. I really should have my notebook, shouldn't I?"

Again, in spite of himself, Brian smiled; also, before he was aware, they were both seated as Betty Jo had directed.

"But this is not a business matter, Miss Williams," he managed to protest half-heartedly.

Betty Jo was looking at her watch in a most matter-of-fact manner, and she answered in a most matter-of-fact voice: "Everything is more or less a business matter, isn't it, Mr. Burns?"

And Brian, if he had answered, would have agreed.

Betty Jo slipped her watch back into her pocket, and continued: "You will have plenty of time before that man with my trunk and things can get away 'round over Schoolhouse Hill and down again to Auntie Sue's. He will be obliged to stop at neighbor Tom's, and tell them all about me, of course. We mustn't let him beat us to the house, though; so, perhaps, you better begin, don't you think?"

That "don't-you-think?" so characteristic of Betty Jo, did its work, as usual; and so, almost before Brian Kent realized what he was doing, it had been decided for him that to follow Judy's advice was the best possible thing he could do, and he was relating his whole wretched experience to this young woman, about whom he knew nothing except that she was a niece of an old pupil of Auntie Sue's, and that she had just finished a course in a business college in Cincinnati.

At several points in his story Betty Jo asked straightforward questions, or made short, matter-of-fact comments; but, always with her businesslike air of competent interest. Indeed, she managed to treat the situation as being wholly impersonal; while at the same time the man was never for a moment made to feel that she was lacking in sincere and genuine sympathy. Only when he told her that his name was Brian Kent, and mentioned the Empire Consolidated Savings Bank, did she for the moment betray excited surprise. When she saw that he had noticed, she said quickly: "I read of the affair in the papers, of course."

Auntie Sue had indeed taken a big chance when she decided for Betty Jo to come to help Brian with his book. But Auntie Sue had taken no chance on Betty Jo herself. Perhaps it was, in fact, the dear old teacher's certainty about Betty Jo herself that had led her to accept the risk of sending for the niece of her friend and pupil under such a peculiar combination of circumstances.

When Brian had finished his story with the account of his discovery of the distressing fact that he had robbed Auntie Sue and that she knew he had robbed her, Betty Jo said: "It is really a sad story, isn't it, Mr. Burns? But, oh, isn't Auntie Sue wonderful! Was there ever such another woman in the world! Don't you love her? And couldn't you do anything--anything that would make her happy? After all, when you think of Auntie Sue, and how wonderful she has been, this whole thing isn't so bad, is it?"

"Why, I--I--don't think I see what you mean," Brian replied, puzzled by the unexpected turn she had given to the situation, yet convinced by that little question with which she finished that she was somehow right.

"Well, I mean wouldn't YOU love to do for some one what Auntie Sue has done for you? I should if I were only big enough and good enough. It seems to me it would make one the happiest and contentedest and peacefulest person in the world, wouldn't it?"

Brian did not answer. While he felt himself agreeing with Betty Jo's view, he was wondering at himself that he could discuss the matter so calmly. It was not that he no longer felt deeply the shame of this terrible thing that he had done; it was not that he had ceased to suffer the torment that had caused his emotional madness, which had found expression in his attempt to destroy his manuscript; it was only that this young woman somehow made it possible for him to retain his self-control, and instead of venting his emotions in violent and wholly useless expressions of regret, and self-condemnation, and in irrational, temperamental action, to consider coolly and sanely what he must do. He was strangely possessed, too, of an instinctive certainty that Betty Jo knew exactly how he felt and exactly what she was doing.

While he was thinking these things, or, rather, feeling them, Betty Jo went to see how the manuscript was drying. She returned to her seat on the rock presently, saying: "It is doing very nicely,--almost dry. I think it will be done pretty soon. In the meantime, what are we going to do about everything? You have thought of something for you to do, of course!"

"I fear I have felt rather more than I have thought," returned Brian.

She nodded. "Yes, I know; but feeling alone never arrives anywhere. An excess of thoughtless feeling is sheer emotional extravagance. I sound like a book, don't I?" she laughed. "It is so just the same, Mr. Burns. And now that you have--ah--been properly--not to say gloriously--extravagant at poor Judy's expense, we had better do a little thinking, don't you think?"

The man's cheeks reddened at her words; but the straightforward, downright sincerity of those gray eyes, that looked so frankly into his, held him steady; while the interrogation at the end of her remark carried its usual conviction.

"There is only one possible thing left for me to do, Miss Williams," he said earnestly.

"And what is that?" A smile that sent a glow of courage to Brian Kent's troubled heart accompanied the flat question.

"I can't face Auntie Sue again, knowing what I know now." He spoke with passion.

"Of course you would expect to feel that way, wouldn't you?" came the matter-of-fact answer.

"The only thing I can do," he continued, "is to give myself up, and go to the penitentiary; arranging, somehow, to do it in such a way that the reward will go to Auntie Sue. God knows she deserves it! Sheriff Knox would help me fix that part, I am sure."

For a moment there was a suspicious moisture in Betty Jo's gray eyes. Then she said, "And you would really go to prison for Auntie Sue?"

"It is the least I can do for her now," he returned.

And Betty Jo must have felt the sincerity of his purpose, for she said, softly: "I am sure that it would make Auntie Sue very happy to know that you would do that; and"--she added--"I know that you could not possibly make her more unhappy and miserable than by doing it, could you?"

Again she had given an unexpected turn to the subject with the usual convincing question-mark.

"But what can I do?" he demanded, letting himself go a little.

Betty Jo steadied him with: "Well, suppose you listen while I consider? Did I tell you that 'considering' was another of my strong points, Mr. Burns? Well, it is. You may consider me while I consider, if you please.

"The first thing is, that you must make Auntie Sue happy,--as happy as you possibly can do at any cost. The second thing is, that you must pay her back that money, every penny of it. Now, it wouldn't make her happy for you to go to prison, and the reward wouldn't pay back all the money; and if you were in prison, you never could pay the rest; besides, if you were wasting your time in prison, she would just die of miserableness, and she wouldn't touch a penny of that reward-money--not if she was to die for want of it. So that settles that, doesn't it?"

And Brian was forced to admit that, as Betty Jo put it, it did.

"Very well, let us consider some more: Dear Auntie Sue has been wonderfully, gloriously happy in doing what she has for you this past winter,--meaning your book and all. I can see that she must have been. No one could help being happy doing such a thing as that. So you just simply can't spoil it all, now, by letting her know that you know what you know."

Brian started to speak, but she checked him with: "Please, Mr. Burns, I must not be interrupted when I am considering. Next to the prison,--which we have agreed won't do at all,--you could do nothing that would make Auntie Sue more unhappy than to spoil the happiness she has in your not knowing what you have done to her. That is very clear, isn't it? And think of her miserableness if, after all these weeks of happy anticipation, your book should never be published. No, no, no; you can't rob Auntie Sue of her happiness in you just because you stole her money, can you?"

And Brian knew in his heart that she was right.

"So, you see," Betty Jo continued, "the only possible way to do is to go right along just as if nothing had happened. And there is this final consideration,--which must be a dark secret between you and me,--when the book is finished, you must see to it that every penny that comes from it goes to Auntie Sue until she is paid back all that she lost through you. Now, isn't that pretty fine 'considering,' Mr. Burns?"

And Brian was convinced that it was. "But," he suggested, "the book may not earn anything. Nothing that I ever wrote before did."

"You never wrote one before just like this, did you?" came the very matter-of-fact answer. "And, besides, if your book never earns a cent, it will do Auntie Sue a world more good than your going to prison for her. That would be rather silly, now that you think of it, wouldn't it? And now that we have our conspiracy all nicely conspired, we must hurry to the house before that man arrives with my things."

She went for the manuscript as she spoke. "See," she cried, "it is quite dry, and not a bit the worse for its temperamental experience!" She laughed gleefully.

"But, Miss Williams," exclaimed Brian, "I--I--can't understand you! You don't seem to mind. What I have told you about myself doesn't seem to--to--make any difference to you--I mean in your attitude toward me."

"Oh, yes, it does," she returned. "It makes me very interested in you, Mr. Burns."

"But, how can you have any confidence--How can you help me with my book now that you know what I am?" he persisted, for he was sincerely puzzled by her apparent indifference to the revelation he had made of his character.

"Auntie Sue,"--she answered,--"just Auntie Sue. Come,--we must go."

"How in the world can I ever face her!" groaned Brian.

"You won't get the chance at her, for awhile, with me around;--she will be so busy with me that she won't notice anything wrong with you. So you will get accustomed to the conspiracy feeling before you are even suspected of conspiring. You know, when one has once arrived at the state of not feeling like a liar, one can lie with astonishing success. Haven't you found it so?"

They laughed together over this as they went toward the house.

As they reached the porch, Betty Jo whispered a last word of instruction: "You better find Judy, and fix her the first thing;--fix her good and hard. Here is Auntie Sue now. Don't worry about her noticing anything strange about you. I'll attend to her."

And the next minute, Betty Jo had the dear old lady in her arms.