Chapter XV. A Matter of Business.
 

The weeks that followed the coming of Betty Jo to the little log house by the river passed quickly for Brian Kent. Perhaps it was the peculiar circumstances of their first meeting that made the man feel so strongly that he had known her for many years, instead of for only those few short weeks. That could easily have been the reason, because the young woman had stepped so suddenly into his life at a very critical time;--when his mental faculties were so confused by the turmoil and suffering of his emotional self that the past was to him, at the moment, far more real than the present.

And Betty Jo had not merely come into his life casually, as a disinterested spectator; but, by the peculiar appeal of herself, she had led Brian to take her so into his confidence that she had become immediately a very real part of the experience through which he was then passing, and thus was identified with his past experience out of which the crisis of the moment had come.

Again Betty Jo, in the naturalness of her manner toward him, and by her matter-of-fact, impersonal consideration of his perplexing situation, had brought to his unsettled and chaotic mind a sense of stability and order; and by subtly insinuating her own practical decisions as to the course he should follow, had made herself a very literal part of his inner life. In fact, Betty Jo knew Brian Kent more intimately at the close of their first meeting than she could have known him after years of acquaintanceship under the ordinary course of development.

Brian's consciousness of this would naturally cause him to feel toward the young woman as though she had long been a part of his life. Still other causes might have contributed to the intimate companionship that so quickly became to them both an established and taken-for-granted fact; but, the circumstances of their first meeting, given, of course, their peculiar individualities, were, really, quite enough. The fact that it was springtime might also have had something to do with it.

The morning after her arrival, Betty Jo set to work typing the manuscript. Brian went to his work on the timbered hillside. In the evenings, Brian worked over the typewitten pages,--revising, correcting, perfecting,--and then, as Betty Jo made the final copy for the printers, they went critically over the work together.

So the hours flew past on busy wings, and the days of the springtime drew toward summer. The tender green of the new-born leaves and grasses changed to a stronger, deeper tone. The air, which had been so filled with the freshness and newness of bursting buds and rain-blessed soil, and all the quickening life of tree and bush and plant, now carried the perfume of strongly growing things,--the feel of maturing life.

To Brian, the voices of the river brought a fuller, deeper message, with a subtle undertone of steady and enduring purpose.

From the beginning, Betty Jo established for herself the habit of leaving her work at the typewriter in the afternoons, and going for a walk over the hills. Quite incidentally, at first, her walks occasionally led her by way of the clearing where Brian was at work with his ax, and it followed, naturally, that as the end of the day drew near, the two would go together down the mountain-side to the evening meal. But long before the book was finished, the little afternoon visit and the walk together at the day's close had become so established as a custom that they both accepted it as a part of their day's life; and to Brian, at least, it was an hour to which he looked forward as the most delightful hour of the twenty-four. As for Betty Jo,--well, it was really Betty Jo who established the custom and developed it to that point where it was of such importance.

Auntie Sue was too experienced from her life-long study of boys and girls not to observe the deepening of the friendship between the man and the woman whom she had brought together. But if the dear old lady felt any twinges of an apprehensive conscience, when she saw the pair day after day coming down the mountain-side through the long shadows of the late afternoon, she very promptly banished them, and, quite consistently, with what Brian called her "River philosophy," made no attempt to separate these two life currents, which, for the time at least, seemed to be merging into one.

And often, as the three sat together on the porch after supper to watch the sunsets, or later in the evening as Auntie Sue sat with her sewing while they were busy with their work and unobserving, the dear old lady would look at them with a little smile of tender meaning, and into the gentle eyes would come that far-away look that was born of the memories that had so sweetened the long years of her life, and of the hope and dream of a joy unspeakable that awaited her beyond the sunset of her day.

In her long letter to Betty Jo, asking the girl to come, Auntie Sue had told the young woman the main facts of Brian's history as she knew them, omitting only the man's true name and the name of the bank. She had even mentioned her conviction that there had been a woman in his trouble. But Auntie Sue had not mentioned in her letter the money she had lost; nor did she now know that Brian had himself told Betty Jo at the time of their first meeting.

On the day that Betty Jo typed the last page, and the book was ready for the printers, the young woman went earlier than usual to the clearing where Brian was at work. The sound of his ax reached her while she was yet some distance away, and guided her to the spot where he was chopping a big white oak.

Brian, with his eyes fixed on the widening cut at the base of the tree, did not notice the girl, who stood watching him. She was smiling to herself at his ignorance of her presence and in anticipation of the moment when he should discover her, and there was in her eyes a look of wholesome womanly admiration for the man who swung his ax with such easy strength. In truth, Brian Kent at his woodman's labor made a picture not at all unattractive.

Swiftly, the cut in the tree-trunk widened as the ax bit deeply at every skilful stroke, and the chips flew about the chopper's feet. The acrid odor of the freshly cut oak mingled with the woodland perfume. The sun warmly flooded the clearing with its golden light, and, splashing through the openings in the forest foliage, formed pools of yellow beauty amid the dark, rich green of the shadowy undergrowth. The air was filled with the sense of life, vital and real, and strong and beautiful.

And the young woman, as she stood smiling there, was keenly conscious of it all. Most of all, perhaps, Betty Jo was conscious of the man, who worked with such vigor at his manly task.

Slowly, accurately, the bright ax sank deeper and deeper into the heart of the tree. The chips increased in scattered profusion. And then, as Betty Jo watched, the swinging ax cut through the last fibre of the tree's strength, and the leafy top swayed gently toward its fall. Almost imperceptibly, at first, it moved while Betty Jo watched breathlessly. Brian swung his ax with increasing vigor, now, while the wood, still remaining, cracked and snapped as the weight of the tree completed the work of the chopper. Faster and faster the towering mass of foliage swung in a wide graceful arc toward the ground. The man with the ax stepped back, his eyes fixed on the falling tree as, with swiftly increasing momentum, its great weight swept swiftly downward to its crashing end.

Betty Jo clapped her hands in triumph; and Brian, turning, saw her standing there. His face was flushed and glistening with perspiration; his broad chest heaved with the deep breathing gained by his exertion, and his eyes shone with the gladness of her presence.

"You are early, to-day!" he cried. "Have you finished? Is it actually completed?"

"All finished," she returned; and, going to the fallen tree, she put her hands curiously on the trunk, which lay a little higher than her waist. "Help me up," she commanded.

Brian set his ax against the stump, and, laughingly, lifted her to the seat she desired. Then he stood watching her face as she surveyed the tangled mass of branches.

"It looks so strange from here, doesn't it?" she said.

"Yes; and I confess I don't like to see it that way;" he returned. "I wish they didn't have to be cut. I feel like a murderer,--every one I fall."

She looked down into his eyes, as she returned: "I know you must. YOU would, of course. But, after all, it has to be, and I don't suppose the tree minds so much, do you?"

"No; I don't suppose it feels it much." He laughed, and, throwing aside his hat, he ran his fingers through his tumbled hair for all the world like a schoolboy confused by being caught in some sentimental situation which he finds not only embarrassing, but puzzling as well.

"I like you for feeling that way about it, though," Betty Jo confessed with characteristic frankness. "And I am sure it must be a very good thing for the world that every one is not so intensely practical that they can chop down trees without a pang. And that reminds me: Speaking of the practical, now that the book is finished, what are we going to do with it?"

"Send it to some publisher, I suppose," answered Brian, soberly; "and then, when they have returned it, send it to some other publisher."

"Have you any particular publisher to whom you will send it first?" she asked.

"They are all alike, so far as my experience goes," he returned.

"I suppose it would be best if you could take your book East, and interview the publishers personally, don't you think?"

Brian shook his head: "I am not sure that it would make any difference, and, in any case, I couldn't do it."

"I know," said Betty Jo, "and that is what I wanted to get at. Why don't you appoint me your agent, and let me take your book East, and make the publishing arrangements for you?"

Brian looked at her with such delighted surprise that Betty Jo smiled back at him well pleased.

"Would you really do it?" he demanded, as though he feared she was jesting.

"You are sure that you don't mean 'COULD I do it'?"--she returned,--"sure you could trust me?"

To which Brian answered enthusiastically: "You could do anything! If you undertake the job of landing a publisher for my stuff, it is as good as done."

"Thank you," she said, jumping down from the tree-trunk. "Now that we have settled it, let us go to the house and tell Auntie Sue, and I will start in the morning."

As they went down the hill, they discussed the matter further, and, later, at the house, Brian took a moment, when Auntie Sue was in her room, to hand an envelope to his assistant. "Your salary," he said, hurriedly, "and expense money for the trip."

"Oh!" Betty Jo's exclamation was one of surprise. Then she said, in her most matter-of-fact, businesslike tone: "Thank you. I will render a statement of my account, but--" For once, Betty Jo seemed at a loss for words. "You don't mind if I ask--is--is this money--?"

Brian's face was a study. "Yes," he said, "it is really Auntie Sue's money; but it is all I have, and I can't return it to her--without her knowing--so I--"

Betty Jo interrupted: "I understand. It is all we can do,--forgive me?"

Brian Kent did not know that Betty Jo, a few minutes later, buried the envelope he had given her deep in the bottom of her trunk without even opening it.

The next day, Brian drove to Thompsonville with Betty Jo, who took the noon train for the East.

The two were rather quiet as "Old Prince" jogged soberly along the beautiful river road. Only now and then did they exchange a few words of the most commonplace observation.

They were within sight of the little Ozark settlement when Brian said, earnestly: "I wish I could tell you, Miss Williams, just what your coming to help me with this work has meant to me."

"It has meant a great deal to me, too, Mr. Burns," she returned. Then she added quickly: "I suppose the first real work one does after finishing school always means more than any position following could possibly mean, don't you think? Just like your book. No matter how many you may write in the future, this will always mean more to you than any one of them."

"Yes," he said slowly. "This book will always mean more to me than all the others I may write."

For a moment their eyes met with unwavering frankness. Then Betty Jo turned her face away, and Brian stiffened his shoulders, and sat a little straighter in the seat beside her. That was all.

Very brave they were at the depot purchasing Betty Jo's ticket and checking her trunk. With brave commonplaces they said good-bye when the train pulled in. Bravely she waved at him from the open window of the coach. And bravely Brian stood there watching until the train rounded the curve and disappeared from sight between the hills.

The world through which Brian Kent drove that afternoon on his way back to Auntie Sue and Judy in the little log house by the river was a very dull and uninteresting world indeed. All its brightness and its beauty seemed suddenly to have vanished. And as "Old Prince" jogged patiently on his way, sleepily content with thoughts of his evening meal of hay and grain, the man's mind was disturbed with thoughts which he dared not own even to his innermost self.

"Circumstances to a man," Auntie Sue had said, "always meant a woman." And Brian Kent, while he never under any pressure would have admitted it, knew within his deepest self that it was a woman who had set him adrift on the dark river that dreadful night when he had cursed the world which he thought he was leaving forever.

"Circumstances" in the person of Auntie Sue had saved him from destruction, and, in the little log house by the river, had brought about his Re-Creation.

And then, when that revelation of his crime toward Auntie Sue had come, and the labor of months, with all that it implied of the enduring salvation of himself and the happiness of Auntie Sue, hung wavering in the balance, it was the "Circumstances" of Betty Jo's coming that had set him in the right current of action again.

What waited for him around the next bend in the river, Brian wondered,--calm and peaceful waters, with gently flowing currents, or the wild tumult of dangerous rapids wherein he would be forced to fight for his very existence? Would Betty Jo succeed as his agent to the publishers? If she did succeed in finding a publisher to accept his book, would the reading public receive his message? And if that followed, what then? When Betty Jo's mission in the East was accomplished, she was to return to Auntie Sue for the summer. Then--?

"Old Prince," of his own accord, was turning in at the gate, and Brian awoke from his abstraction to see Auntie Sue and Judy waiting for him.

All during the evening meal and while he sat with Auntie Sue on the porch overlooking the river, as their custom was, Brian was preoccupied and silent; while his companion, with the wisdom of her seventy years, did not force the conversation.

It was the time of the full moon, and when Auntie Sue at last bade him good-night, Brian, saying that the evening was too lovely to waste in sleep, remained on the porch. For an hour, perhaps, he sat there alone; but his thoughts were not on the beauties of the scene that lay before him in all its dreamy charm of shadowy hills and moonlit river. He had no ear for the soft voices of the night. The gentle breeze carried to him the low, deep-toned roar of the crashing waters at Elbow Rock; but he did not hear. Moved at last by a feeling of restless longing, and the certainty that only a sleepless bed awaited him in the house, he left the porch to stroll along the bank of the river.