"But you live like such a fool--of course you're bored!" drawled the Older Man, rummaging listlessly through his pockets for the ever-elusive match.
"Well, I like your nerve!" protested the Younger Man with unmistakable asperity.
"Do you--really?" mocked the Older Man, still smiling very faintly.
For a few minutes then both men resumed their cigars, staring blinkishly out all the while from their dark green piazza corner into the dazzling white tennis courts that gleamed like so many slippery pine planks in the afternoon glare and heat. The month was August, the day typically handsome, typically vivid, typically caloric.
It was the Younger Man who recovered his conversational interest first. "So you think I'm a fool?" he resumed at last quite abruptly.
"Oh, no--no! Not for a minute!" denied the Older Man. "Why, my dear sir, I never even implied that you were a fool! All I said was that you--lived like a fool!"
Starting to be angry, the Younger Man laughed instead. "You're certainly rather an amusing sort of chap," he acknowledged reluctantly.
A gleam of real pride quickened most ingenuously in the Older Man's pale blue eyes. "Why, that's just the whole point of my argument," he beamed. "Now--you look interesting. But you aren't! And I--don't look interesting. But it seems that I am!"
"You--you've got a nerve!" reverted the Younger Man.
Altogether serenely the Older Man began to rummage again through all his pockets. "Thank you for your continuous compliments," he mused. "Thank you, I say. Thank you--very much. Now for the very first time, sir, it's beginning to dawn on me just why you have honored me with so much of your company--the past three or four days. I truly believe that you like me! Eh? But up to last Monday, if I remember correctly," he added drily, "it was that showy young Philadelphia crowd that was absorbing the larger part of your--valuable attention? Eh? Wasn't it?"
"What in thunder are you driving at?" snapped the Younger Man. "What are you trying to string me about, anyway? What's the harm if I did say that I wished to glory I'd never come to this blasted hotel? Of all the stupid people! Of all the stupid places! Of all the stupid--everything!"
"The mountains here are considered quite remarkable by some," suggested the Older Man blandly.
"Mountains?" snarled the Younger Man. "Mountains? Do you think for a moment that a fellow like me comes to a God-forsaken spot like this for the sake of mountains?"
A trifle noisily the Older Man jerked his chair around and, slouching down into his shabby gray clothes, with his hands thrust deep into his pockets, his feet shoved out before him, sat staring at his companion. Furrowed abruptly from brow to chin with myriad infinitesimal wrinkles of perplexity, his lean, droll face looked suddenly almost monkeyish in its intentness.
"What does a fellow like you come to a place like this for?" he asked bluntly.
"Why--tennis," conceded the Younger Man. "A little tennis. And golf--a little golf. And--and--"
"And--girls," asserted the Older Man with precipitous conviction.
Across the Younger Man's splendidly tailored shoulders a little flicker of self-consciousness went crinkling. "Oh, of course," he grinned. "Oh, of course I've got a vacationist's usual partiality for pretty girls. But Great Heavens!" he began, all over again. "Of all the stupid--!"
"But you live like such a fool--of course you're bored," resumed the Older Man.
"There you are at it again!" stormed the Younger Man with tempestuous resentment.
"Why shouldn't I be 'at it again'?" argued the Older Man mildly. "Always and forever picking out the showiest people that you can find--and always and forever being bored to death with them eventually, but never learning anything from it--that's you! Now wouldn't that just naturally suggest to any observing stranger that there was something radically idiotic about your method of life?"
"But that Miss Von Eaton looked like such a peach!" protested the Younger Man worriedly.
"That's exactly what I say," droned the Older Man.
"Why, she's the handsomest girl here!" insisted the Younger Man arrogantly.
"That's exactly what I say," droned the Older Man.
"And the best dresser!" boasted the Younger Man stubbornly.
"That's exactly what I say," droned the Older Man.
"Why, just that pink paradise hat alone would have knocked almost any chap silly," grinned the Younger Man a bit sheepishly.
"Humph!" mused the Older Man still droningly. "Humph! When a chap falls in love with a girl's hat at a summer resort, what he ought to do is to hike back to town on the first train he can catch--and go find the milliner who made the hat!"
"Hike back to--town?" gibed the Younger Man. "Ha!" he sneered. "A chap would have to hike back a good deal farther than 'town' these days to find a girl that was worth hiking back for! What in thunder's the matter with all the girls?" he queried petulantly. "They get stupider and stupider every summer! Why, the peachiest debutante you meet the whole season can't hold your interest much beyond the stage where you once begin to call her by her first name!"
Irritably, as he spoke, he reached out for a bright-covered magazine from the great pile of books and papers that sprawled on the wicker table close at his elbow. "Where in blazes do the story-book writers find their girls?" he demanded. Noisily with his knuckles he began to knock through page after page of the magazine's big-typed advertisements concerning the year's most popular story-book heroines. "Why--here are no end of story-book girls," he complained, "that could keep a fellow guessing till his hair was nine shades of white! Look at the corking things they say! But what earthly good are any of 'em to you? They're not real! Why, there was a little girl in a magazine story last month--! Why, I could have died for her! But confound it, I say, what's the use? They're none of 'em real! Nothing but moonshine! Nothing in the world, I tell you, but just plain made-up moonshine! Absolutely improbable!"
Slowly the Older Man drew in his long, rambling legs and crossed one knee adroitly over the other.
"Improbable--your grandmother!" said the Older Man. "If there's--one person on the face of this earth who makes me sick it's the ninny who calls a thing 'improbable' because it happens to be outside his own special, puny experience of life."
Tempestuously the Younger Man slammed down his magazine to the floor.
"Great Heavens, man!" he demanded. "Where in thunder would a fellow like me start out to find a story-book girl? A real girl, I mean!"
"Almost anywhere--outside yourself," murmured the Older Man blandly.
"Eh?" jerked the Younger Man.
"That's what I said," drawled the Older Man with unruffled suavity. "But what's the use?" he added a trifle more briskly. "Though you searched a thousand years! A 'real girl'? Bah! You wouldn't know a 'real girl' if you saw her!"
"I tell you I would!" snapped the Younger Man.
"I tell you--you wouldn't!" said the Older Man.
"Prove it!" challenged the Younger Man.
"It's already proved!" confided the Older Man. "Ha! I know your type!" he persisted frankly. "You're the sort of fellow, at a party, who just out of sheer fool-instinct will go trampling down every other man in sight just for the sheer fool-joy of trying to get the first dance with the most conspicuously showy-looking, most conspicuously artificial-looking girl in the room--who always and invariably 'bores you to death' before the evening is over! And while you and the rest of your kind are battling together--year after year--for this special privilege of being 'bored to death,' the 'real girl' that you're asking about, the marvelous girl, the girl with the big, beautiful, unspoken thoughts in her head, the girl with the big, brave, undone deeds in her heart, the girl that stories are made of, the girl whom you call 'improbable'--is moping off alone in some dark, cold corner--or sitting forlornly partnerless against the bleak wall of the ballroom--or hiding shyly up in the dressing-room--waiting to be discovered! Little Miss Still-Waters, deeper than ten thousand seas! Little Miss Gunpowder, milder than the dusk before the moon ignites it! Little Miss Sleeping-Beauty, waiting for her Prince!"
"Oh, yes--I suppose so," conceded the Younger Man impatiently. "But that Miss Von Eaton--"
"Oh, it isn't that I don't know a pretty face--or hat, when I see it," interrupted the Older Man nonchalantly. "It's only that I don't put my trust in 'em." With a quick gesture, half audacious, half apologetic, he reached forward suddenly and tapped the Younger Man's coat sleeve. "Oh, I knew just as well as you," he affirmed, "oh, I knew just as well as you--at my first glance--that your gorgeous young Miss Von Eaton was excellingly handsome. But I also knew--not later certainly than my second glance--that she was presumably rather stupid. You can't be interesting, you know, my young friend, unless you do interesting things--and handsome creatures are proverbially lazy. Humph! If Beauty is excuse enough for Being, it sure takes Plainness then to feel the real necessity for--Doing.
"So, speaking of hats, if it's stimulating conversation that you're after, if you're looking for something unique, something significant, something really worth while--what you want to do, my young friend, is to find a girl with a hat you'd be ashamed to go out with--and stay home with her! That's where you'll find the brains, the originality, the vivacity, the sagacity, the real ideas!"
With his first sign of genuine amusement the Younger Man tipped back his head and laughed right up into the green-lined roof of the piazza. "Now just whom would you specially recommend for me?" he demanded mirthfully. "Among all the feminine galaxy of bores and frumps that seem to be congregated at this particular hotel--just whom would you specially recommend for me? The stoop-shouldered, school-marmy Botany dame with her incessant garden gloves? Or?--Or--?" His whole face brightened suddenly with a rather extraordinary amount of humorous malice: "Or how about that duddy-looking little Edgarton girl that I saw you talking with this morning?" he asked delightedly. "Heaven knows she's colorless enough to suit even you--with her winter-before-spring-before-summer-before-last clothes and her voice so meek you'd have to hold her in your lap to hear it. And her--"
"That 'duddy-looking' little Miss Edgarton--meek?" mused the Older Man in sincere astonishment. "Meek? Why, man alive, she was born in a snow-shack on the Yukon River! She was at Pekin in the Boxer Rebellion! She's roped steers in Oklahoma! She's matched her embroidery silks to all the sunrise tints on the Himalayas! Just why in creation should she seem meek--do you suppose--to a--to a--twenty-five-dollar-a-week clerk like yourself?"
"'A twenty-five-dollar-a-week clerk like myself?'" the Younger Man fairly gasped. "Why--why--I'm the junior partner of the firm of Barton & Barton, stock-brokers! Why, we're the biggest--"
"Is that so?" quizzed the Older Man with feigned surprise. "Well--well--well! I beg your pardon. But now doesn't it all go to prove just exactly what I said in the beginning--that it doesn't behoove a single one of us to judge too hastily by appearances?"
As if fairly overwhelmed with embarrassment he sat staring silently off into space for several seconds. Then--"Speaking of this Miss Edgarton," he resumed genially, "have you ever exactly sought her out--as it were--and actually tried to get acquainted with her?"
"No," said Barton shortly. "Why, the girl must be thirty years old!"
"S--o?" mused the Older Man. "Just about your age?"
"I'm thirty-two," growled the Younger Man.
"I'm sixty-two, thank God!" acknowledged the Older Man. "And your gorgeous Miss Von Eaton--who bores you so--all of a sudden--is about--?"
"Twenty," prompted the Younger Man.
"Poor--senile--babe," ruminated the Older Man soberly.
"Eh?" gasped the Younger Man, edging forward in his chair. "Eh? 'Senile'? Twenty?"
"Sure!" grinned the Older Man. "Twenty is nothing but the 'sere and yellow leaf' of infantile caprice! But thirty is the jocund youth of character! On land or sea the Lord Almighty never made anything as radiantly, divinely young as--thirty! Oh, but thirty's the darling age in a woman!" he added with sudden exultant positiveness. "Thirty's the birth of individuality! Thirty's the--"
"Twenty has got quite enough individuality for me, thank you!" asserted Barton with some curtness.
"But it hasn't!" cried the Older Man hotly. "You've just confessed that it hasn't!" In an amazing impulse of protest he reached out and shook his freckled fist right under the Younger Man's nose. "Twenty, I tell you, hasn't got any individuality at all!" he persisted vehemently.
"Twenty isn't anything at all except the threadbare cloak of her father's idiosyncrasies, lined with her mother's made-over tact, trimmed with her great-aunt somebody's short-lipped smile, shrouding a brand-new frame of--God knows what!"
"Eh? What?" questioned the Younger Man uneasily.
"When a girl is twenty, I tell you," persisted the Older Man--"there's not one marrying man among us--Heaven help us!--who can swear whether her charm is Love's own permanent food or just Nature's temporary bait! At twenty, I tell you, there's not one man among us who can prove whether vivacity is temperament or just plain kiddishness; whether sweetness is real disposition or just coquetry; whether tenderness is personal discrimination or just sex; whether dumbness is stupidity or just brain hoarding its immature treasure; whether indeed coldness is prudery or just conscious passion banking its fires! The dear daredevil sweetheart whom you worship at eighteen will evolve, likelier than not, into a mighty sour prig at forty; and the dove-gray lass who led you to church with her prayer-book ribbons twice every Sunday will very probably decide to go on the vaudeville stage--when her children are just in the high school; and the dull-eyed wallflower whom you dodged at all your college dances will turn out, ten chances to one, the only really wonderful woman you know! But at thirty! Oh, ye gods, Barton! If a girl interests you at thirty you'll be utterly mad about her when she's forty--fifty--sixty! If she's merry at thirty, if she's ardent, if she's tender, it's her own established merriment, it's her own irreducible ardor, it's her--Why, man alive! Why--why--"
"Oh, for Heaven's sake!" gasped Barton. "Whoa there! Go slow! How in creation do you expect anybody to follow you?"
"Follow me? Follow me?" mused the Older Man perplexedly. Staring very hard at Barton, he took the opportunity to swallow rather loudly once or twice.
"Now speaking of Miss Edgarton," he resumed persistently, "now, speaking of this Miss Edgarton, I don't presume for an instant that you're looking for a wife on this trip, but are merely hankering a bit now and then for something rather specially diverting in the line of feminine companionship?"
"Well, what of it?" conceded the Younger Man.
"This of it," argued the Older Man. "If you are really craving the interesting why don't you go out and rummage around for it? Rummage around was what I said! Yes! The real hundred-cent-to-the-dollar treasures of Life, you know, aren't apt to be found labeled as such and lying round very loose on the smugly paved general highway! And astonishingly good looks and astonishingly good clothes are pretty nearly always equivalent to a sign saying, 'I've already been discovered, thank you!' But the really big sport of existence, young man, is to strike out somewhere and discover things for yourself!"
"Is--it?" scoffed Barton.
"It is!" asserted the Older Man. "The woman, I tell you, who fathoms heroism in the fellow that every one else thought was a knave--she's got something to brag about! The fellow who's shrewd enough to spy unutterable lovableness in the woman that no man yet has ever even remotely suspected of being lovable at all--God! It's like being Adam with the whole world virgin!"
"Oh, that may be all right in theory," acknowledged the Younger Man, with some reluctance. "But--"
"Now, speaking of Miss Edgarton," resumed the Older Man monotonously.
"Oh, hang Miss Edgarton!" snapped the Younger Man. "I wouldn't be seen talking to her! She hasn't any looks! She hasn't any style! She hasn't any--anything! Of all the hopelessly plain girls! Of all the--!"
"Now see here, my young friend," begged the Older Man blandly. "The fellow who goes about the world judging women by the sparkle of their eyes or the pink of their cheeks or the sheen of their hair--runs a mighty big risk of being rated as just one of two things, a sensualist or a fool."
"Are you trying to insult me?" demanded the Younger Man furiously.
Freakishly the Older Man twisted his thin-lipped mouth and one glowering eyebrow into a surprisingly sudden and irresistible smile.
"Why--no," he drawled. "Under all existing circumstances I should think I was complimenting you pretty considerably by rating you only as a fool."
"Eh?" jumped Barton again.
"U-m-m," mused the Older Man thoughtfully. "Now believe me, Barton, once and for all, there 's no such thing as a 'hopelessly plain woman'! Every woman, I tell you, is beautiful concerning the thing that she's most interested in! And a man's an everlasting dullard who can't ferret out what that interest is and summon its illuminating miracle into an otherwise indifferent face--"
"Is that so?" sniffed Barton.
Lazily the Older Man struggled to his feet and stretched his arms till his bones began to crack.
"Bah! What's beauty, anyway," he complained, "except just a question of where Nature has concentrated her supreme forces--in outgrowing energy, which is beauty; or ingrowing energy, which is brains! Now I like a little good looks as well as anybody," he confided, still yawning, "but when I see a woman living altogether on the outside of her face I don't reckon too positively on there being anything very exciting going on inside that face. So by the same token, when I see a woman who isn't squandering any centric fires at all on the contour of her nose or the arch of her eyebrows or the flesh-tints of her cheeks, it surely does pique my curiosity to know just what wonderful consuming energy she is busy about.
"A face isn't meant to be a living-room, anyway, Barton, but just a piazza where the seething, preoccupied soul can dash out now and then to bask in the breeze and refreshment of sympathy and appreciation. Surely then--it's no particular personal glory to you that your friend Miss Von Eaton's energy cavorts perpetually in the gold of her hair or the blue of her eyes, because rain or shine, congeniality or noncongeniality, her energy hasn't any other place to go. But I tell you it means some compliment to a man when in a bleak, dour, work-worn personality like the old Botany dame's for instance he finds himself able to lure out into occasional facial ecstasy the _amazing_ vitality which has been slaving for Science alone these past fifty years. Mushrooms are what the old Botany dame is interested in, Barton. Really, Barton, I think you'd be surprised to see how extraordinarily beautiful the old Botany dame can be about mushrooms! Gleam of the first faint streak of dawn, freshness of the wildest woodland dell, verve of the long day's strenuous effort, flush of sunset and triumph, zeal of the student's evening lamp, puckering, daredevil smile of reckless experiment--"
"Say! Are you a preacher?" mocked the Younger Man sarcastically.
"No more than any old man," conceded the Older Man with unruffled good-nature.
"Old man?" repeated Barton, skeptically. In honest if reluctant admiration for an instant, he sat appraising his companion's extraordinary litheness and agility. "Ha!" he laughed. "It would take a good deal older head than yours to discover what that Miss Edgarton's beauty is!"
"Or a good deal younger one, perhaps," suggested the Older Man judicially. "But--but speaking of Miss Edgarton--" he began all over again.
"Oh--drat Miss Edgarton!" snarled the Younger Man viciously. "You've got Miss Edgarton on the brain! Miss Edgarton this! Miss Edgarton that! Miss Edgarton! Who in blazes is Miss Edgarton, anyway?"
"Miss Edgarton? Miss Edgarton?" mused the Older Man thoughtfully. "Who is she? Miss Edgarton? Why--no one special--except--just my daughter."
Like a fly plunged all unwittingly upon a sheet of sticky paper the Younger Man's hands and feet seemed to shoot out suddenly in every direction.
"Good Heavens!" he gasped. "Your daughter?" he mumbled. "Your daughter?" Every other word or phrase in the English language seemed to be stricken suddenly from his lips. "Your--your--daughter?" he began all over again. "Why--I--I--didn't know your name was Edgarton!" he managed finally to articulate.
An expression of ineffable triumph, and of triumph only, flickered in the Older Man's face.
"Why, that's just what I've been saying," he reiterated amiably. "You don't know anything!"
Fatuously the Younger Man rose to his feet, still struggling for speech--any old speech--a sentence, a word, a cough, anything, in fact, that would make a noise.
"Well, if little Miss Edgarton is--little Miss Edgarton," he babbled idiotically, "who in creation--are you?"
"Who am I?" stammered the Older Man perplexedly. As if the question really worried him, he sagged back a trifle against the sustaining wall of the house, and stood with his hands thrust deep in his pockets once more. "Who am I?" he repeated blandly. Again one eyebrow lifted. Again one side of his thin-lipped mouth twitched ever so slightly to the right. "Why, I'm just a man, Mr. Barton," he grinned very faintly, "who travels all over the world for the sake of whatever amusement he can get out of it. And some afternoons, of course, I get a good deal more amusement out of it--than I do others. Eh?"
Furiously the red blood mounted into the Young Man's cheeks. "Oh, I say, Edgarton!" he pleaded. Mirthlessly, wretchedly, a grin began to spread over his face. "Oh, I say!" he faltered. "I _am_ a fool!"
The Older Man threw back his head and started to laugh.
[Illustration: 'I am riding,' she murmured almost inaudibly]
At the first cackling syllable of the laugh, with appalling fatefulness Eve Edgarton herself loomed suddenly on the scene, in her old slouch hat, her gray flannel shirt, her weather-beaten khaki Norfolk and riding-breeches, looking for all the world like an extraordinarily slim, extraordinarily shabby little boy just starting out to play. Up from the top of one riding-boot the butt of a revolver protruded slightly.
With her heavy black eyelashes shadowing somberly down across her olive-tinted cheeks, she passed Barton as if she did not even see him and went directly to her father.
"I am riding," she murmured almost inaudibly.
"In this heat?" groaned her father.
"In this heat," echoed Eve Edgarton.
"There will surely be a thunder-storm," protested her father.
"There will surely be a thunder-storm," acquiesced Eve Edgarton.
Without further parleying she turned and strolled off again.
Just for an instant the Older Man's glance followed her. Just for an instant with quizzically twisted eyebrows his glance flashed back sardonically to Barton's suffering face. Then very leisurely he began to laugh again.
But right in the middle of the laugh--as if something infinitely funnier than a joke had smitten him suddenly--he stopped short, with one eyebrow stranded half-way up his forehead.
"Eve!" he called sharply. "Eve! Come back here a minute!"
Very laggingly from around the piazza corner the girl reappeared.
"Eve," said her father quite abruptly, "this is Mr. Barton! Mr. Barton, this is my daughter!"
Listlessly the girl came forward and proffered her hand to the Younger Man. It was a very little hand. More than that, it was an exceedingly cold little hand.
"How do you do, sir?" she murmured almost inaudibly.
With an expression of ineffable joy the Older Man reached out and tapped his daughter on the shoulder.
"It has just transpired, my dear Eve," he beamed, "that you can do this young man here an inestimable service--tell him something--teach him something, I mean--that he very specially needs to know!"
As one fairly teeming with benevolence he stood there smiling blandly into Barton's astonished face. "Next to the pleasure of bringing together two people who like each other," he persisted, "I know of nothing more poignantly diverting than the bringing together of people who--who--" Mockingly across his daughter's unconscious head, malevolently through his mask of utter guilelessness and peace, he challenged Barton's staring helplessness. "So--taken all in all," he drawled still beamingly, "there's nothing in the world--at this particular moment, Mr. Barton--that could amuse me more than to have you join my daughter in her ride this afternoon!"
"Ride with me?" gasped little Eve Edgarton.
"This afternoon?" floundered Barton.
"Oh--why--yes--of course! I'd be delighted! I'd be--be! Only--! Only I'm afraid that--!"
Deprecatingly with uplifted hand the Older Man refuted every protest. "No, indeed, Mr. Barton," he insisted. "Oh, no--no indeed--I assure you it won't inconvenience my daughter in the slightest! My daughter is very obliging! My daughter, indeed--if I may say so in all modesty--my daughter indeed is always a good deal of a--philanthropist!"
Then very grandiloquently, like a man in an old-fashioned picture, he began to back away from them, bowing low all the time, very, very low, first to Barton, then to his daughter, then to Barton again.
"I wish you both a very good afternoon!" he said. "Really, I see no reason why either of you should expect a single dull moment!"
[Illustration: "I would therefore respectfully suggest as a special topic of conversation the consummate cheek of--yours truly, Paul Reymouth Edgarton"]
Before the sickly grin on Barton's face his own smile deepened into actual unctuousness. But before the sudden woodeny set of his daughter's placid mouth his unctuousness twisted just a little bit wryly on his lips.
"After all, my dear young people," he asserted hurriedly, "there's just one thing in the world, you know, that makes two people congenial, and that is--that they both shall have arrived at exactly the same conclusion--by two totally different routes. It's got to be exactly the same conclusion, else there isn't any sympathy in it. But it's got to be by two totally different routes, you understand, else there isn't any talky-talk to it!"
Laboriously one eyebrow began to jerk its way up his forehead, and with a purely mechanical instinct he reached up drolly and pulled it down again. "So--as the initial test of your mutual congeniality this afternoon," he resumed, "I would therefore respectfully suggest as a special topic of conversation the consummate cheek of--yours truly, Paul Reymouth Edgarton!"
Starting to bow once more, he backed instead into the screen of the office window. Without even an expletive he turned, pushed in the screen, clambered adroitly through the aperture, and disappeared almost instantly from sight.
Very faintly from some far up-stairs region the thin, faint, single syllable of a laugh came floating down into the piazza corner.
Then just as precipitous as a man steps into any other hole, Barton stepped into the conversational topic that had just been so aptly provided for him.
"Is your father something of a--of a practical joker, Miss Edgarton?" he demanded with the slightest possible tinge of shrillness.
For the first time in Barton's knowledge of little Eve Edgarton she lifted her eyes to him--great hazel eyes, great bored, dreary, hazel eyes set broadly in a too narrow olive face.
"My father is generally conceded to be something of a joker, I believe," she said dully. "But it would never have occurred to me to call him a particularly practical one. I don't like him," she added without a flicker of expression.
"I don't either!" snapped Barton.
A trifle uneasily little Eve Edgarton went on. "Why--once when I was a tiny child--" she droned.
"I don't know anything about when you were a tiny child," affirmed Barton with some vehemence. "But just this afternoon--!"
In striking contrast to the cool placidity of her face one of Eve Edgarton's boot-toes began to tap-tap-tap against the piazza floor. When she lifted her eyes again to Barton their sleepy sullenness was shot through suddenly with an unmistakable flash of temper.
"Oh, for Heaven's sake, Mr. Barton!" she cried out. "If you insist upon riding with me, couldn't you please hurry? The afternoons are so short!"
"If I 'insist' upon riding with you?" gasped Barton.
Disconcertingly from an upper window the Older Man's face beamed suddenly down upon him. "Oh, don't mind anything she says," drawled the Older Man. "It's just her cunning, 'meek' little ways."
Precipitately Barton bolted for his room.
Once safely ensconced behind his closed door a dozen different decisions, a dozen different indecisions, rioted tempestuously through his mind. To go was just as awkward as not to go! Not to go was just as awkward as to go! Over and over and over one silly alternative chased the other through his addled senses. Then just as precipitately as he had bolted to his room he began suddenly to hurl himself into his riding-clothes, yanking out a bureau drawer here, slamming back a closet door there, rummaging through a box, tipping over a trunk, yet in all his fuming haste, his raging irritability, showing the same fastidious choice of shirt, tie, collar, that characterized his every public appearance.
Immaculate at last as a tailor's equestrian advertisement he came striding down again into the hotel office, only to plunge most inopportunely into Miss Von Eaton's languorous presence.
"Why, Jim!" gasped Miss Von Eaton. Exquisitely white and cool and fluffy and dainty, she glanced up perplexedly at him from her lazy, deep-seated chair. "Why, Jim!" she repeated, just a little bit edgily. "Riding? Riding? Well, of all things! You who wouldn't even play bridge with us this afternoon on account of the heat! Well, who in the world--who can it be that has cut us all out?"
Teasingly she jumped up and walked to the door with him, and stood there peering out beyond the cool shadow of his dark-blue shoulder into the dazzling road where, like so many figures thrust forth all unwittingly into the merciless flare of a spot-light, little shabby Eve Edgarton and three sweating horses waited squintingly in the dust.
"Oh!" cried Miss Von Eaton. "W-hy!" stammered Miss Von Eaton. "Good gracious!" giggled Miss Von Eaton. Then hysterically, with her hand clapped over her mouth, she turned and fled up the stairs to confide the absurd news to her mates.
With a face like a graven image Barton went on down the steps into the road. In one of his thirty-dollar riding-boots a disconcerting two-cent sort of squeak merely intensified his unhappy sensation of being motivated purely mechanically like a doll.
Two of the horses that whinnied cordially at his approach were rusty roans. The third was a chunky gray. Already on one of the roans Eve Edgarton sat perched with her bridle-rein oddly slashed in two, and knotted, each raw end to a stirrup, leaving her hands and arms still perfectly free to hug her mysterious books and papers to her breast.
"Good afternoon again, Miss Edgarton," smiled Barton conscientiously.
"Good afternoon again, Mr. Barton," echoed Eve Edgarton listlessly.
With frank curiosity he nodded toward her armful of papers. "Surely you're not going to carry--all that stuff with you?" he questioned.
"Yes, I am, Mr. Barton," drawled Eve Edgarton, scarcely above a whisper.
Worriedly he pointed to her stirrups. "But Great Scott, Miss Edgarton!" he protested. "Surely you're not reckless enough to ride like that? Just guiding with your feet?"
"I always--do, Mr. Barton," singsonged the girl monotonously.
"But the extra horse?" cried Barton. With a sudden little chuckle of relief he pointed to the chunky gray. There was a side-saddle on the chunky gray. "Who's going with us?"
Almost insolently little Eve Edgarton narrowed her sleepy eyes.
"I always taken an extra horse with me, Mr. Barton--Thank you!" she yawned, with the very faintest possible tinge of asperity.
"Oh!" stammered Barton quite helplessly. "O--h!" Heavily, as he spoke, he lifted one foot to his stirrup and swung up into his saddle. Through all his mental misery, through all his physical discomfort, a single lovely thought sustained him. There was only one really good riding road in that vicinity! And it was shady! And, thank Heaven, it was most inordinately short!
But Eve Edgarton falsified the thought before he was half through thinking it.
She swung her horse around, reared him to almost a perpendicular height, merged herself like so much fluid khaki into his great, towering, threatening neck, reacted almost instantly to her own balance again, and went plunging off toward the wild, rough, untraveled foot-hills and--certain destruction, any unbiased onlooker would have been free to affirm!
Snortingly the chunky gray went tearing after her. A trifle sulkily Barton's roan took up the chase.
Shade? Oh, ye gods! If Eve Edgarton knew shade when she saw it she certainly gave no possible sign of such intelligence. Wherever the galloping, grass-grown road hesitated between green-roofed forest and devastated wood-lot, she chose the devastated wood-lot! Wherever the trotting, treacherous pasture faltered between hobbly, rock-strewn glare and soft, lush-carpeted spots of shade, she chose the hobbly, rock-strewn glare! On and on and on! Till dust turned sweat! And sweat turned dust again! On and on and on! With the riderless gray thudding madly after her! And Barton's sulky roan balking frenziedly at each new swerve and turn!
It must have been almost three miles before Barton quite overtook her. Then in the scudding, transitory shadow of a growly thunder-cloud she reined in suddenly, waited patiently till Barton's panting horse was nose and nose with hers, and then, pushing her slouch hat back from her low, curl-fringed forehead, jogged listlessly along beside him with her pale olive face turned inquiringly to his drenched, beet-colored visage.
"What was it that you wanted me to do for you, Mr. Barton?" she asked with a laborious sort of courtesy. "Are you writing a book or something that you wanted me to help you about? Is that it? Is that what Father meant?"
"Am I writing a--book?" gasped Barton. Desperately he began to mop his forehead. "Writing a book? Am--I--writing--a--book? Heaven forbid!"
"What are you doing?" persisted the girl bluntly.
"What am I doing?" repeated Barton. "Why, riding with you! Trying to ride with you!" he called out grimly as, taking the lead impetuously again, Eve Edgarton's horse shied off at a rabbit and went sidling down a sand-bank into a brand-new area of rocks and stubble and breast-high blueberry bushes.
Barton liked to ride and he rode fairly well, but he was by no means an equestrian acrobat, and, quite apart from the girl's unquestionably disconcerting mannerisms, the foolish floppity presence of the riderless gray rattled him more than he could possibly account for. Yet to save his life he could not have told which would seem more childish--to turn back in temper, or to follow on--in the same.
More in helplessness than anything else he decided to follow on.
"On and on and on," would have described it more adequately.
Blacker and blacker the huddling thunder-caps spotted across the brilliant, sunny sky. Gaspier and gaspier in each lulling tree-top, in each hushing bird-song, in each drooping grass-blade, the whole torrid earth seemed to be sucking in its breath as if it meant never, never to exhale it again.
Once more in the midst of a particularly hideous glare the girl took occasion to rein in and wait for him, turning once more to his flushed, miserable countenance a little face inordinately pale and serene.
"If you're not writing a book, what would you like to talk about, Mr. Barton?" she asked conscientiously. "Would you like to talk about peat-bog fossils?"
"What?" gasped Barton.
"Peat-bog fossils," repeated the mild little voice. "Are you interested in peat-bog fossils? Or would you rather talk about the Mississippi River pearl fisheries? Or do you care more perhaps for politics? Would you like to discuss the relative financial conditions of the South American republics?"
Before the expression of blank despair in Barton's face, her own face fell a trifle. "No?" she ventured worriedly. "No? Oh, I'm sorry, Mr. Barton, but you see--you see--I've never been out before with anybody--my own age. So I don't know at all what you would be interested in!"
"Never been out before with any one her own age?" gasped Barton to himself. Merciful Heavens! what was her "own age"? There in her little khaki Norfolk and old slouch hat she looked about fifteen years old--and a boy, at that. Altogether wretchedly he turned and grinned at her.
"Miss Edgarton," he said, "believe me, there's not one thing to-day under God's heaven that does interest me--except the weather!"
"The weather?" mused little Eve Edgarton thoughtfully. Casually, as she spoke, she glanced down across the horses' lathered sides and up into Barton's crimson face. "The weather? Oh!" she hastened anxiously to affirm. "Oh, yes! The meteorological conditions certainly are interesting this summer. Do you yourself think that it's a shifting of the Gulf Stream? Or just a--just a change in the paths of the cyclonic areas of low pressure?" she persisted drearily.
"Eh?" gasped Barton. "The weather? Heat was what I meant, Miss Edgarton! Just plain heat!--DAMNED HEAT--was what I meant--if I may be so explicit, Miss Edgarton."
"It is hot," conceded Eve apologetically.
"In fact," snapped Barton, "I think it's the hottest day I ever knew!"
"Really?" droned Eve Edgarton.
"Really!" snapped Barton.
It must have been almost half an hour before anybody spoke again. Then, "Pretty hot, isn't it?" Barton began all over again.
"Yes," said Eve Edgarton.
"In fact," hissed Barton through clenched teeth, "in fact I know it's the hottest day I ever knew!"
"Really?" droned Eve Edgarton.
"Really!" choked Barton.
Creakily under their hot, chafing saddles the sweltering roans lurched off suddenly through a great snarl of bushes into a fern-shaded spring-hole and stood ankle-deep in the boggy grass, guzzling noisily at food and drink, with the chunky gray crowding greedily against first one rider and then the other.
Quite against all intention Barton groaned aloud. His sun-scorched eyes seemed fairly shriveling with the glare. His wilted linen collar slopped like a stale poultice around his tortured neck. In his sticky fingers the bridle-rein itched like so much poisoned ribbon.
Reaching up one small hand to drag the soft flannel collar of her shirt a little farther down from her slim throat, Eve Edgarton rested her chin on her knuckles for an instant and surveyed him plaintively. "Aren't--we--having--an--awful time?" she whispered.
Even then if she had looked woman-y, girl-y, even remotely, affectedly feminine, Barton would doubtless have floundered heroically through some protesting lie. But to the frank, blunt, little-boyishness of her he succumbed suddenly with a beatific grin of relief. "Yes, we certainly are!" he acknowledged ruthlessly.
"And what good is it?" questioned the girl most unexpectedly.
"Not any good!" grunted Barton.
"To any one?" persisted the girl.
"Not to any one!" exploded Barton.
With an odd little gasp of joy the girl reached out dartingly and touched Barton on his sleeve. Her face was suddenly eager, active, transcendently vital.
"Then oh--won't you please--please--turn round--and go home--and leave me alone?" she pleaded astonishingly.
"Turn round and go home?" stammered Barton.
The touch on his sleeve quickened a little. "Oh, yes--please, Mr. Barton!" insisted the tremulous voice.
"You--you mean I'm in your way?" stammered Barton.
Very gravely the girl nodded her head. "Oh, yes, Mr. Barton--you're terribly in my way," she acknowledged quite frankly.
"Good Heavens," thought Barton, "is there a man in this? Is it a tryst? Well, of all things!"
Jerkily he began to back his horse out of the spring-hole, back--back--back through the intricate, overgrown pathway of flapping leaves and sharp, scratchy twigs.
"I am very sorry, Miss Edgarton, to have forced my presence on you so!" he murmured ironically.
"Oh, it isn't just you!" said little Eve Edgarton quite frankly. "It's all Father's friends." Almost threateningly as she spoke she jerked up her own horse's drizzling mouth and rode right at Barton as if to force him back even faster through the great snarl of underbrush. "I hate clever people!" she asserted passionately. "I hate them--hate them--hate them! I hate all Father's clever friends! I hate--"
"But you see I'm not clever," grinned Barton in spite of himself. "Oh, not clever at all," he reiterated with some grimness as an alder branch slapped him stingingly across one eye. "Indeed--" he dodged and ducked and floundered, still backing, backing, everlastingly backing--"indeed, your father has spent quite a lot of his valuable time this afternoon assuring me--and reassuring me--that--that I'm altogether a fool!"
Unrelentingly little Eve Edgarton's horse kept right on forcing him back--back--back.
"But if you're not one of Father's clever friends--who are you?" she demanded perplexedly. "And why did you insist so on riding with me this afternoon?" she cried accusingly.
"I didn't exactly--insist," grinned Barton with a flush of guilt. The flush of guilt added to the flush of heat made him look suddenly very confused.
Across Eve Edgarton's thin little face the flash of temper faded instantly into mere sulky ennui again.
"Oh, dear--oh, dear," she droned. "You--you didn't want to marry me, did you?"
Just for one mad, panic-stricken second the whole world seemed to turn black before Barton's eyes. His heart stopped beating. His ear-drums cracked. Then suddenly, astonishingly, he found himself grinning into that honest little face, and answering comfortably:
"Why, no, Miss Edgarton, I hadn't the slightest idea in the world of wanting to marry you."
"Thank God for that!" gasped little Eve Edgarton. "So many of Father's friends do want to marry me," she confided plaintively, still driving Barton back through that horrid scratchy thicket. "I'm so rich, you see," she confided with equal simplicity, "and I know so much--there's almost always somebody in Petrozavodsk or Broken Hill or Bashukulumbwe who wants to marry me."
"In--where?" stammered Barton.
"Why--in Russia!" said little Eve Edgarton with some surprise. "And Australia! And Africa! Were you never there?"
"I've been in Jersey City," babbled Barton with a desperate attempt at facetiousness.
"I was never there!" admitted little Eve Edgarton regretfully.
Vehemently with one hand she lunged forward and tried with her tiny open palm to push Barton's horse a trifle faster back through the intricate thicket. Then once in the open again she drew herself up with an absurd air of dignity and finality and bowed him from her presence.
"Good-by, Mr. Barton," she said. "Good-by, Mr. Barton."
"But Miss Edgarton--" stammered Barton perplexedly. Whatever his own personal joy and relief might be, the surrounding country nevertheless was exceedingly wild, and the girl an extravagantly long distance from home. "But Miss Edgarton--" he began all over again.
"Good-by, Mr. Barton! And thank you for going home!" she added conscientiously.
"But what will I tell your father?" worried Barton.
"Oh--hang Father," drawled the indifferent little voice.
"But the extra horse?" argued Barton with increasing perplexity. "The gray? If you've got some date up your sleeve, don't you want me to take the gray home with me, and get him out of your way?"
With sluggish resentment little Eve Edgarton lifted her eyes to his. "What would the gray go home with you for?" she asked tersely. "Why, how silly! Why, it's my--mother's horse! That is, we call it my mother's horse," she hastened to explain. "My mother's dead, you know. She's almost always been dead, I mean. So Father always makes me buy an extra place for my mother. It's just a trick of ours, a sort of a custom. I play around alone so much you know. And we live in such wild places!"
Casually she bent over and pushed the protruding butt of her revolver a trifle farther down into her riding boot. "S'long--Mr. Barton!" she called listlessly over the other, and started on, stumblingly, clatteringly, up the abruptly steep and precipitous mountain trail--a little dust-colored gnome on a dust-colored horse, with the dutiful gray pinking cautiously along behind her.
By some odd twist of his bridle-rein the gray's chunky neck arched slightly askew, and he pranced now and then from side to side of the trail as if guided thus by an invisible hand.
With an uncanny pucker along his spine as if he found himself suddenly deserting two women instead of one, Barton went fumbling and squinting out through the dusty green shade into the expected glare of the open pasture, and discovered, to his further disconcerting, that there was no glare left.
Before his astonished eyes he saw sun-scorched mountain-top, sun-scorched granite, sun-scorched field stubble turned suddenly to shade--no cool, translucent miracle of fluctuant greens, but a horrid, plushy, purple dusk under a horrid, plushy, purple sky, with a rip of lightning along the horizon, a galloping gasp of furiously oncoming wind, an almost strangling stench of dust-scented rain.
But before he could whirl his horse about, the storm broke! Heaven fell! Hell rose! The sides of the earth caved in! Chaos unspeakable tore north, east, south, west!
Snortingly for one single instant the roan's panic-stricken nostrils went blooming up into the cloud-burst like two parched scarlet poinsettias. Then man and beast as one flesh, as one mind, went bolting back through the rain-drenched, wind-ravished thicket to find their mates.
Up, up, up, everlastingly up, the mountain trail twisted and scrambled through the unholy darkness. Now and again a slippery stone tripped the roan's fumbling feet. Now and again a swaying branch slapped Barton stingingly across his straining eyes. All around and about them tortured forest trees moaned and writhed in the gale. Through every cavernous vista gray sheets of rain went flapping madly by them. The lightning was incredible. The thunder like the snarl of a glass sky shivering into inestimable fragments.
With every gasping breath beginning to rip from his poor lungs like a knifed stitch, the roan still faltered on each new ledge to whinny desperately to his mate. Equally futilely from time to time, Barton, with his hands cupped to his mouth, holloed--holloed--holloed--into the thunderous darkness.
Then at a sharp turn in the trail, magically, in a pale, transient flicker of light, loomed little Eve Edgarton's boyish figure, drenched to the skin apparently, wind-driven, rain-battered, but with hands in her pockets, slouch hat rakishly askew, strolling as nonchalantly down that ghastly trail as a child might come strolling down a stained-glassed, Persian-carpeted stairway to meet an expected guest.
In vaguely silhouetted greeting for one fleet instant a little khaki arm lifted itself full length into the air.
Then more precipitately than any rational thing could happen, more precipitately than any rational thing could even begin to happen, could even begin to begin to happen, without shock, without noise, without pain, without terror or turmoil, or any time at all to fight or pray--a slice of living flame came scaling through the darkness--and cut Barton's consciousness clean in two!