Chapter XXV. The River.
 

Brian Kent recovered quickly from the effects of his experience in the Elbow Rock rapids, and was soon able again to take up his work on the little farm. Every day he labored in the garden, or in the clearing, or at some task which did not rightly fall to those who rented the major part of Auntie Sue's tillable acreage.

Auntie Sue had told him about her visit to the President of the Empire Consolidated Savings Bank, and of the arrangement made by the banker--as she understood it--for Brian's protection. But while the dear old lady explained that Homer T. Ward was one of her pupils, she did not reveal the relation between Brian's former chief and Betty Jo. Neither Auntie Sue nor Betty Jo, for several very good reasons, was ready for Brian to know the whole truth about his stenographer. It was quite enough, they reasoned, for him to love his stenographer, and for his stenographer to love him, without raising any more obstacles in the pathway of their happiness.

As the busy weeks passed, several letters came from the publishers of Brian's book,--letters which made the three in the little log house by the river very happy. Already, in the first reception of this new writer's work, those who had undertaken to present it to the public saw many promises of the fulfillment of their prophecies as to its success. When the third letter came, a statement of the sales to date was enclosed, and, that afternoon, Betty Jo went to Brian where he was at work in the clearing.

When they were comfortably, not to say cozily, seated on a log in the shade at the edge of the forest, she announced that she had come for a very serious talk.

"Yes?" he returned; but he really looked altogether too happy to be exceedingly serious.

"Yes," she continued, "I have. As your accredited business agent and--" she favored him with a Betty Jo smile--"shall I say manager?"

"Why not managing owner?" he retorted.

"I am glad you confirm my promotion so readily," she returned, with a charming touch of color in her cheeks, "because that, you see, helps me to present what I have to say for the good of the firm."

"I am listening, Betty Jo."

"Very well; tell me, first, Brian, just exactly how much do you owe that bank, reward-money and all, and Auntie Sue, interest and everything?"

Brian went to his coat, which lay on a near-by stump, and returned with a small pocket account-book.

"I have it all here," he said, as he seated himself close beside her again. And, opening the book, he showed her how he had kept a careful record of the various sums he had taken from the bank, with the dates.

"Oh, Brian, Brian!" she said with a little cry of delight, "I am so glad,--so glad you have this! It is exactly what I want for my wedding present. It was so thoughtful of you to fix it for me."

Thus by a characteristic, Betty Jo turn she made the little book of painful memories a book of joyous promise.

When they again returned to the consideration of business matters, Brian gave her the figures which answered her questions as to his total indebtedness.

Again Betty Jo exclaimed with delight: "Brian, do you see? Take your pencil and figure quick your royalties on the number of books sold as given in the publishers' statement."

Brian laughed. "I have figured it."

"And your book has already earned more than enough to pay everything," said Betty Jo. "Isn't that simply grand, Brian?"

"It is pretty 'grand,' all right," he agreed. "The only trouble is, I must wait so long before the money is due me from the publishers."

"That is exactly what I came to talk about," she returned quickly. "I tried to have it different when I made the arrangements with them, but the terms of payment in the contract are the very best I could get; and so I have planned a little plan whereby you--that is, we--won't need to wait for your freedom until the date of settlement with the publishers."

"You have a plan which will do that?" Brian questioned, doubtfully.

She nodded vigorously, with another Betty Jo smile. "This is the plan, and you are not to interrupt until I have finished everything: I happen to have some money of my very, very own, which is doing nothing but earning interest--"

At the look on Brian's face, she stopped suddenly; but, when he started to speak, she put her hand quickly over his mouth, saying: "You were not to say a single word until I have finished. Play fair, Brian, dear; please!"

When he signified that he would not speak, she continued in her most matter-of-fact and businesslike tone: "There is every reason in the world, Brian, why you should pay off your debt to the bank and to Auntie Sue at the earliest possible moment. You can think of several reasons yourself. There is me, for instance.

"Very well. You have the money to your credit with the publishers; but you can't use it yet. I have money that you can just as well use. You will make an assignment of your royalties to me, all in proper form, to cover the amount you need. You will pay me the same interest my money is now earning where it is.

"I will arrange for the money to be sent to you in the form of a cashier's cheque, payable to the banker, Homer T. Ward, so the name Brian Kent does not appear before we are ready, you see. You will make believe to Auntie Sue that the money is from the publishers. You will send the cheque to Mr. Bank President personally, with a statement of your indebtedness to him properly itemized, interest figured on everything. You will instruct him to open an account for you with the balance. And then--then, Brian, you will give dear Auntie Sue a cheque for what you owe her, with interest of course. And we will all be so happy! And--and--don't you think I am a very good managing owner? You do, don't you?"

When he hesitated, she added: "And the final and biggest reason of all is, that I want you to do as I have planned more than I ever wanted anything in the world, except you, and I want this so because I want you. You can't really refuse, now, can you?"

How, indeed, could he refuse?

So they worked it out together as Betty Jo had planned; and when the time came for the last and best part of the plan, and Brian confessed to Auntie Sue how he had robbed her, and had known for so long that she was aware of his crime against her, and finished his confession by giving her the cheque, it is safe to say that there was nowhere in all the world more happiness than in the little log house by the river.

"God-A'mighty sure helped me to do one good turn, anyway, when I jumped inter the river after that there book when Mr. Burns done throw'd hit away," commented the delighted Judy.

And while they laughed together, Betty Jo hugged the deformed mountain girl, and answered: "God Almighty was sure good to us all that day, Judy, dear!"

It was only a day later when Auntie Sue received a letter from Homer T. Ward which sent the dear old lady in great excitement to Betty Jo. The banker was coming for his long-deferred vacation to the log house by the river.

There was in his letter a kindly word for his former clerk, Brian Kent, should Auntie Sue chance to see him; much love for his old teacher and for the dearest girl in the world, his Betty Jo.

But that part of Homer T. Ward's letter which most excited Auntie Sue and caused Betty Jo to laugh until she cried was this: The great financier, who, even in his busy life of large responsibilities, found time for some good reading, had discovered a great book, by a new and heretofore unknown writer. The book was great because every page of it, Homer T. Ward declared, reminded him of Auntie Sue. If the writer had known her for years, he could not have drawn a truer picture of her character, nor presented her philosophy of life more clearly. It was a remarkable piece of work. It was most emphatically the sort of writing that the world needed. This new author was a genius of the rarest and best sort. Mr. Ward predicted boldly that this new star in the literary firmament was destined to rank among those of the first magnitude. Already, among the banker's closest book friends, the new book was being discussed, and praised. He would bring a copy for Auntie Sue and Betty Jo to read. It was not only the book of the year;--it was, in Homer T. Ward's opinion, one of the really big books of the Century.

"Well," commented Betty Jo, when they had read and reread that part of the letter, "dear old Uncle Homer may be a very conservative banker, but he certainly is more than liberal when he touches on the question of this new author. Won't we have fun, Auntie Sue! Oh, won't we!"

Then they planned the whole thing, and proceeded to carry out their plan.

Brian was told only that Mr. Ward was coming to visit Auntie Sue, and that he must be busy somewhere away from the house when the banker arrived, and not come until he was sent for, because Auntie Sue must make a full confession to her old pupil of the part she had played in the Re-Creation of Brian Kent before Homer T. Ward should meet his former clerk.

Brian, never dreaming that there were other confessions to be made, smilingly agreed to do exactly as he was told.

When the momentous day arrived, Betty Jo met her uncle in Thompsonville, and all the way home she talked so continuously of her school, and asked so many questions about his conduct and life and their many Chicago friends, that the helpless bank president had no chance whatever of asking her a single embarrassing question. But, when dinner was over (Brian had taken his lunch with him to the clearing), Homer T. Ward wanted to know things.

"Was Brian Kent still working in the neighborhood?"

Auntie Sue informed him that Brian was still working in the neighborhood.

"Betty Jo had seen the bank clerk?" Betty Jo's uncle supposed. "What did she think of the fellow?"

Betty Jo thought Brian Kent was a rather nice fellow.

"And how had Betty Jo been amusing herself while her old uncle was slaving in the city?"

Betty Jo had been doing a number of things: Helping Auntie Sue with her housework; learning to cook; keeping up her stenographic work; reading.

"Reading?" That reminded him, and forthwith Mr. Ward went to his room, and returned with the book.

And then those two blessed women listened and admired while he introduced them to the new genius, and read certain favorite passages from the great book, and grew enthusiastic on the new author, saying all that he had written in his letter and many things more, until Betty Jo could restrain herself no longer, but ran to him, and took the book from his hands, and, with her arms around his neck, told him that he was the dearest uncle in the world, because she was going to marry the man who wrote the book he so admired.

There were long explanations after that: How the book so highly valued by Banker Ward had actually been written in that very log house by the river; how Auntie Sue had sent for Betty Jo to assist the author with her typewriting; how the author, not knowing who Betty Jo was, had fallen in love with his stenographer, and, finally, how Betty Jo's author-lover was even then waiting to meet her guardian, still not knowing that her guardian was the banker Homer T. Ward.

"You see, uncle, dear," explained Betty Jo, "Auntie Sue and I were obliged to conspire this little conspiracy against my man, because, you know, authors are funny folk, and you never can tell exactly what they are going to do. After giving your heart to a genius as wonderful as you yourself know this one to be, it would be terrible to have him refuse you just because you were the only living relative of a rich old banker;--it would, wouldn't it, uncle, dear?"

And, really, Homer T. Ward could find reason in Betty Jo's argument, which ended with that fatal trick question.

Taking his agreement for granted, Betty Jo continued: "And, you see, Auntie Sue and I were simply forced to conspire a little against you, uncle, dear, because you know perfectly well that, much as I needed the advantage of associating with such an author-man in the actual writing of his book, you would never, never have permitted me to fall in love with him before you had discovered for yourself what a great man he really is, and I simply had to fall in love with him because God made me to take care of a genius of some sort. And if you don't believe that, you can ask Judy. Judy has found out a lot about God lately.

"You won't think I am talking nonsense, or am belittling the occasion will you, uncle, dear?" she added anxiously. "I am not,--truly, I am not,--I am very serious. But I can't help being a little excited, can I? Because it is terrible to love a banker-uncle, as I love you, and at the same time to love a genius-man, as I love my man, and--and--not know what you two dearest men in the world are going to do to each other."

And, at this, the girl's arms were about his neck again, and the girl's head went down on his shoulder; and he felt her cheek hot with blushes against his and a very suspicious drop of moisture slipped down inside his collar.

When he had held Betty Jo very close for a while, and had whispered comforting things in her ear, and had smiled over her shoulder at his old teacher, the banker sent the girl to find her lover while he should have a serious talk with Auntie Sue.

The long shadows of the late afternoon were on the mountain-side when Brian Kent and Betty Jo came down the hill to the little log house by the river.

The girl had said to him simply, "You are to come, now, Brian;--Auntie Sue and Mr. Ward sent me to tell you."

She was very serious, and as they walked together clung closely to his arm. And the man, too, seeming to feel the uselessness of words for such an occasion, was silent. When he helped her over the rail-fence at the lower edge of the clearing, he held her in his arms for a little; then they went on.

They saw the beautiful, tree-clad hills lying softly outlined in the shadows like folds of green and timeworn velvet, extending ridge on ridge into the blue. They saw the river, their river, making its gleaming way with many a curve and bend to the mighty sea, that was hidden somewhere far beyond the distant sky-line of their vision; and between them and the river, at the foot of the hill, they saw the little log house with Auntie Sue and Homer T. Ward waiting in the doorway.

When the banker saw the man at Betty Jo's side, his mind was far from the clerk whom he had known more than a year before in the city. His thoughts were on the author, the scholar, the genius, whose book had so compelled his respect and admiration. This tall fellow, with the athletic shoulders and deeply tanned face, who was dressed in the rude garb of the backwoodsman, with his coat over his arm, his ax on his shoulder, and his dinner-pail in his hand,--who was he? And why was Betty Jo so familiar with this stranger,--Betty Jo, who was usually so reserved, with her air of competent self-possession? Homer T. Ward turned to look inquiringly at Auntie Sue.

His old teacher smiled back at him without speaking.

Then, Betty Jo and Brian Kent were standing before him.

"Here he is, Uncle Homer," said the girl.

Brian, hearing her speak those two revealing words, and seeing her go to the bank president, who put his arm around her with the loving intimacy of a father, stood speechless with amazement, looking from Homer T. Ward and Betty Jo to Auntie Sue and back to the banker and the girl.

Mr. Ward, still not remembering the bank clerk in this re-created Brian Kent, was holding out his hand with a genial smile.

As the bewildered Brian mechanically took the hand so cordially extended, the older man said: "It is an honor, sir, to meet a man who can do the work you have done in writing that book. It is impossible to estimate the value of such a service as you have rendered the race. You have a rare and wonderful gift, Mr. Burns, and I predict for you a life of remarkable usefulness."

Brian, still confused, but realizing that Mr. Ward had not recognized him, looked appealingly at Betty Jo and then to Auntie Sue.

Auntie Sue spoke: "Mr. Ward is the uncle and guardian of Betty Jo, Brian."

"'Brian'!" ejaculated the banker.

Auntie Sue continued: "Homer, dear, Betty Jo has presented HER author, Mr. Burns;--permit me to introduce MY Brian Kent!"

And Judy remarked that evening, when, after supper, they were all on the porch watching the sunset: "Hit sure is dad burned funny how all tangled an' snarled up everythin' kin git 'fore a body kin think most, an', then, if a body'll just keep a-goin' right along, all ter onct hit's all straightened out as purty as anythin'."

They laughed happily at the mountain girl's words, and the dear old teacher's sweet voice answered: "Yes, Judy; it is all just like the river, don't you see?"

"Meanin' as how the water gits all tangled an' mixed up when hit's a-boilin' an' a-roarin' like mad down there at Elbow Rock, an' then all ter onct gits all smooth an' calm like again," returned Judy.

"Meaning just that, Judy," returned Auntie Sue. "No matter how tangled and confused life seems to be, it will all come straight at the last, if, like the river, we only keep going on."

And when the dreamy Indian-summer days were come and the blue haze of autumn lay softly over the brown and gold of the beautiful Ozark hills, the mountain folk of the Elbow Rock neighborhood gathered one day at the little log house by the river.

It was a simple ceremony that made the man and the woman, who were so dear to Auntie Sue, husband and wife. But the backwoods minister was not wanting in dignity, though his dress was rude and his words plain; and the service lacked nothing of beauty and meaning, though the guests were but humble mountaineers; for love was there, and sincerity, and strength, and rugged kindliness.

And when the simple wedding feast was over, they all went down to the river-bank, at the lower corner of the garden, where, at the eddy landing, a staunch John-boat waited, equipped and ready.

When the last good-byes were spoken, and Brian and Betty Jo put out from the little harbor into the stream, Auntie Sue, with Judy and Homer T. Ward, went back to the porch of the little log house, there to watch the beginning of the voyage.

With Brian at the oars, the boat crossed the stream to the safer waters close to the other shore, and then, with Betty Jo waving her handkerchief, and the neighbor men and boys running shouting along the bank, swept down the river, past the roaring turmoil of the Elbow Rock rapids into the quiet reaches below, and away on its winding course between the tree-clad hills.

"I am so glad," said Auntie Sue, her dear old face glowing with love, and her sweet voice tremulous with feeling, "I am so glad they chose the river for their wedding journey."