Chapter XX. Brian and Betty Jo Keep House.
 

When Brian went to the barn the next morning he found "Old Prince" standing at the gate. While he was still trying to find some plausible explanation of the strange incident, after unharnessing the horse and giving him his morning feed, an excited call from Betty Jo drew his attention. With an answering shout, he started for the house. The excited girl met him halfway, and gave him Auntie Sue's note.

When Brian had read the brief and wholly inadequate message, they stood looking at each other, too mystified for speech. Brian read the note, again, aloud, speaking every word with slow distinctness. "Well, I'll be hanged!" he ejaculated, at the close of the remarkable communication, staring at Betty Jo.

"It wouldn't in the least surprise me if we were both hanged before night," returned Betty Jo. "After this from Auntie Sue, I am prepared for anything. What on earth DO you suppose has happened?"

Brian shook his head: "It is too much for me!"

Together they went to the house, and the place seemed strangely deserted. Every possible explanation that suggested itself, they discussed and rejected.

"One thing we can depend upon," said Brian, at last, when they had exhausted the resources of their combined imaginations: "Auntie Sue knows exactly what she is doing, and she is doing exactly the right thing. I suppose we will know all about it when she returns."

Betty Jo looked again at the note: "'I will be back in a few days,'" she read slowly. "'Be good children, and take care of things.'"

Again, they regarded each other wonderingly.

Then Betty Jo broke the silence with an odd little laugh: "I feel like we were cast away on some desert island, don't you?"

"Something like that," Brian returned. Then, to relieve the strain of the situation, he added: "I suppose 'Bess' will have to be milked and the chores finished just the same."

"And I'll get breakfast for us," agreed Betty Jo, as he started back to the barn.

In the safe seclusion of the stable, with no one but "Old Prince" and "Bess" to witness his agitation, Brian endeavored to bring his confused and unruly thoughts under some sort of control.

"Several days; several days." The words repeated themselves with annoying persistency. And they--Betty Jo and he, Brian Kent--were to "take care of things";--they were to keep house together;--they were to live together, alone,--in the log house by the river,--alone. She was even then preparing their breakfast. They would sit down at the table alone. And there would be dinner and supper; and the evening,--just for them. He would work about the place. She would attend to her household duties. He would go to his meals, and she would be there expecting him,--waiting for him. And when the tasks of the day were finished, they would sit on the porch to watch the coming of the night,--Betty Jo and he, Brian Kent--"What in God's name," the man demanded of the indifferent "Bess," did Auntie Sue mean by placing him in such a situation? Did she think him more than human?

It had not been easy for Brian to maintain that barrier between himself and Betty Jo, even with the constant help of Auntie Sue's presence. Many, many times he had barely saved himself from declaring his love; and, now, he was asked to live with her in the most intimate companionship possible.

For the only time in his life Brian Kent was almost angry at Auntie Sue. "By all that was consistent, and reasonable, and merciful, and safe," he told himself, "if it was absolutely necessary for the dear old lady to disappear so mysteriously, why had she not taken Betty Jo along?"

In the meantime, while Brian was confiding his grievances to his four-footed companions in the barn, Betty Jo was expressing herself in the kitchen.

"Betty Jo," she began, as she raked the ashes from the stove preparatory to building the fire, "it appears to me that you have some serious considering to do, and"--with a glance toward the barn, as she went out to empty the ash-pan--"you must do it quickly before that man comes for his breakfast. You were very right, last night, in your decision, to go away. It is exactly what you should have done. I am more than ever convinced of that, this morning. But you can't go now. Even if Auntie Sue had not taken your pocket-book and every penny in it, you couldn't run away with Auntie Sue herself gone. If she hadn't wanted you to stay right here for some very serious reason, Betty Jo, she would have taken you with her last night. Auntie Sue very pointedly and definitely expects you to be here when she returns. And she will be away several days,--several days, Betty Jo." She repeated the words in a whisper. "And during those several days, you are to keep house for the man you love;--the man who loves you;--the man whom you must keep from telling you his love,--no matter how your heart pleads for him to tell you, you must not permit him to speak. He will be coming in to breakfast in a few minutes, and you will sit down at the table with him,--across the table from him,--facing him,--Betty Jo,--just like--"

She looked in the little mirror that hung beside the kitchen window, and, with dismay, saw her face flushed with color that was not caused by the heat of the stove. "And you will be forced to look at him across the table, and he will look at you,--and--and you must not,--" she stamped her foot,--"you dare not look like THAT, Betty Jo.

"And then there will be the dinner that you will cook for him, and the supper; and the evenings on the porch. O Lord! Betty Jo, what ever will you do? How will you ever save the fineness of your love? If you were afraid to trust yourself with the help of Auntie Sue's presence, what in the world can you do without her--and you actually keeping house with him? Oh, Auntie Sue! Auntie Sue!" she groaned, "you are the dearest woman in the world and the best and wisest, but you have blundered terribly this time! Why DID you do such a thing! It is not fair to him! It is not fair to me! It is not fair to our love!

"All of which,"--the practical Betty Jo declared a moment later, wiping her eyes on the corner of her apron, and going into the other room to set the table for breakfast,--"all of which, Betty Jo, does not in the least help matters, and only makes you more nervous and upset than you are.

"One thing is certain sure," she continued, while her hands were busy with the dishes and the table preparations: "If we can endure this test, we need never, never, never fear that anything nor anybody can ever, ever make us doubt the genuineness of our love. Auntie Sue has certainly arranged it most beautifully for Brian Kent and Betty Jo Williams to become thoroughly acquainted."

Betty Jo suddenly paused in her work, and stood very still: "I wonder," she said slowly,--"can it be,--is it possible,--what if Auntie Sue has brought about this situation for that very reason?"

"Breakfast ready?" cried Brian at the kitchen-door, and his voice was so hearty and natural that the girl answered as naturally: "It will be as soon as you are ready for it. I forget, do you like your eggs three minutes or four?"

They really managed that breakfast very well, even if they did sit opposite each other so that each was forced to look straight across the table into the face of the other. Or, perhaps, it was because they looked at each other so straight and square and frankly honest that the breakfast went so well.

And because the breakfast went so well, they managed the dinner and the supper also.

"I have been thinking," said Brian at the close of their evening meal, looking straight into the gray eyes over the table, "perhaps it might be better for you to stay at neighbor Tom's until Auntie Sue returns. I'll hitch up 'Old Prince' and drive you over, if you say. Or, we might find some neighbor woman to come here to live with us, if you prefer."

"You don't like my housekeeping, then?" asked Betty Jo.

"Like it!" exclaimed Brian; and the tone of his voice approached the danger-point.

Betty Jo said quickly: "I'll tell you exactly what I think, Mr. Burns: Auntie Sue said we were to be good children, and take care of things until she returned. She did not say for me to shirk my part by going to neighbor Tom's or by having any one come here. Don't you think we can do exactly what Auntie Sue said?"

"Yes," returned Brian, heartily; "I am sure we can. And do you know,--come to think about it,--I believe the dear old lady would be disappointed in us both if we dodged our--well,--" he finished with emphasis,--"our responsibilities."

And after that, somehow, the evening on the porch went as well as the breakfast and dinner and supper had gone.

It was the second day of their housekeeping that Betty Jo noticed smoke coming from the stone chimney of the clubhouse up the river. She reported her observation to Brian when he came in from his work for dinner. During the afternoon, they both saw boats on the quiet waters of The Bend, and at supper told each other what they had seen. And in the evening they together watched the twinkling lights of the clubhouse windows, and once they heard voices and laughter from somewhere on the river as though a boating party were making merry.

Two days later, Brian and Betty Jo were just finishing dinner when a step sounded on the porch, and a man appeared in the open doorway.

The stranger was dressed in the weird and flashy costume considered by his class to be the proper thing for an outing in the country, and his face betrayed the sad fact that, while he was mentally, spiritually, and physically greatly in need of a change from the unclean atmosphere that had made him what he was, he was incapable of benefiting by more wholesome conditions of living. He was, in fact, a perfect specimen of that type of clubman who, in order to enjoy fully the beautiful life of God's unspoiled world, must needs take with him all of the sordid and vicious life of that world wherein he is most at home.

With no word of greeting, he said, with that superior air which so many city folk assume when addressing those who live in the country: "Have you people any fresh vegetables or eggs to sell?"

Brian and Betty Jo arose, and Brian, stepping forward, said, with a smile: "No, we have nothing to sell here; but I think our neighbor, Mr. Warden, just over the hill, would be glad to supply you. Won't you come in?"

The man stared at Brian, turned an appraising eye on Betty Jo; then looked curiously about the room.

"I beg your pardon," he said, removing his cap, "I thought, when I spoke, that you were natives. My name is Green,--Harry Green. There is a party of us stopping at the clubhouse, up the river, there;--just out for a bit of a good time, you know. We are from St. Louis,--first time any of us were ever in the Ozarks,--friends of mine own the clubhouse."

"My name is Burns," returned Brian. "We noticed your boats on the river. You are enjoying your outing, are you?"

Again the man looked curiously from Brian to Betty Jo. "Oh, yes; we can stand it for awhile," he answered. "We're a pretty jolly bunch, you see;--know how to keep things going. It would kill me if I had to live here in this lonesome hole very long, though. Don't you find it rather slow, Mrs. Burns?"

Poor Betty Jo's face turned fairly crimson. She could neither answer the stranger nor meet his gaze, but stood with downcast eyes;--then looked at Brian appealingly.

But Brian was as embarrassed as Betty Jo; while the stranger, as he regarded them, smiled with an expression of insolent understanding.

"I guess I have made another mistake," he said, with a meaning laugh.

"You have," returned Brian, sharply, stepping forward as he spoke; for the man's manner was unmistakable. "Be careful, sir, that you do not make another."

Mr. Green spoke quickly, with an airy wave of his hand: "No offense; no offense, I assure you." Then as he moved toward the door, he added, still with thinly veiled insolence: "I beg your pardon for intruding. I understand, perfectly. Good-afternoon, Mr. Burns! Good-afternoon, miss!"

Brian followed him out to the porch; and the caller, as he went down the steps, turned back with another understanding laugh: "I say, Burns, you are a lucky devil. Don't worry about me, old man. I envy you, by Jove! Charming little nest. Come over to the club some evening. Bring the little girl along, and help us to have a good time. So-long!"

Mr. Harry Green probably never knew how narrowly he escaped being manhandled by the enraged but helpless Brian.

Brian remained on the porch until he saw the man, in his boat, leave the eddy at the foot of the garden and row away up the river.

In the house, again, the two faced each other in dismay.

Betty Jo was first to recover: "I am sure that it is quite time for Auntie Sue to come home and take charge of her own household again. Don't you think so, Mr. Burns?"

And Brian Kent most heartily agreed.