When Barton recovered the severed parts of his consciousness again and tried to pull them together, he found that the Present was strangely missing.
The Past and the Future, however, were perfectly plain to him. He was a young stock-broker. He remembered that quite distinctly! And just as soon as the immediate dizzy mystery had been cleared up he would, of course, be a young stock-broker again! But between this snug conviction as to the Past, this smug assurance as to the Future, his mind lay tugging and shivering like a man under a split blanket. Where in creation was the Present? Alternately he tried to yank both Past and Future across the chilly interim.
"There was--a--green and white piazza corner," vaguely his memory reminded him. "Never again!" some latent determination leaped to mock him. And there had been--some sort of an argument--with a drollish old man--concerning all homely girls in general and one very specially homely little girl in particular. And the--very specially homely little girl in particular had turned out to be the old man's--daughter!--"Never again!" his original impulse hastened to reassure him. And there had been a horseback ride--with the girl. Oh, yes--out of some strained sense of--of parental humor--there had been a forced horseback ride. And the weather hadbeen--hot--and black--and then suddenly very yellow. Yellow? Yellow? Dizzily the world began to whir through his senses--a prism of light, a fume of sulphur! Yellow? Yellow? What was yellow? What was anything? What was anything? Yes! That was just it! Where was anything?
Whimperingly, like a dream-dazed dog, the soul of him began to shiver with fear. Oh, ye gods! If returning consciousness would only manifest itself first by some one indisputable proof of a still undisintegrated body, some crisp, reassuring method of outlining one's corporeal edges, some sensory roll-call, as it were of--head, hands, feet, sides! But out of oblivion, out of space abysmal, out of sensory annihilation, to come vaporing back, back, back,--headless, armless, legless, trunkless, conscious only of consciousness, uncertain yet whether the full awakening prove itself--this world or the next! As sacred of Heaven--as--of hell! As--!
Then very, very slowly, with no realization of eyelids, with no realization of lifting his eyelids, Barton began to see things. And he thought he was lying on the soft outer edges of a gigantic black pansy, staring blankly through its glowing golden center into the droll, sketchy little face of the pansy.
And then suddenly, with a jerk that seemed almost to crack his spine, he sensed that the blackness wasn't a pansy at all, but just a round, earthy sort of blackness in which he himself lay mysteriously prone. And he heard the wind still roaring furiously away off somewhere. And he heard the rain still drenching and sousing away off somewhere. But no wind seemed to be tugging directly at him, and no rain seemed to be splashing directly on him. And instead of the cavernous golden crater of a supernatural pansy there was just a perfectly tame yellow farm-lantern balanced adroitly on a low stone in the middle of the mysterious round blackness.
And in the sallow glow of that pleasant lantern-light little Eve Edgarton sat cross-legged on the ground with a great pulpy clutter of rain-soaked magazines spread out all around her like a giant's pack of cards. And diagonally across her breast from shoulder to waistline her little gray flannel shirt hung gashed into innumerable ribbons.
To Barton's blinking eyes she looked exceedingly strange and untidy. But nothing seemed to concern little Eve Edgarton except that spreading circle of half-drowned papers.
"For Heaven's sake--wha--ght are you--do'?" mumbled Barton.
Out from her flickering aura of yellow lantern-light little Eve Edgarton peered forth quizzically into Barton's darkness. "Why--I'm trying to save--my poor dear--books," she drawled.
"Wha--ght?" struggled Barton. The word dragged on his tongue like a weight of lead. "Wha--ght?" he persisted desperately. "Wh--ere?--For--Heaven's sake--wha--ght's the matter--with us?"
Solicitously little Eve Edgarton lifted a soggy magazine-page to the lantern's warm, curving cheek.
"Why--we're in my cave," she confided. "In my very own--cave--you know--that I was headed for--all the time. We got--sort of--struck by lightning," she started to explain. "We--"
"Struck by--lightning?" gasped Barton. Mentally he started to jump up. But physically nothing moved. "My God! I'm paralyzed!" he screamed.
"Oh, no--really--I don't think so," crooned little Eve Edgarton.
With the faintest possible tinge of reluctance she put down her papers, picked up the lantern, and, crawling over to where Barton lay, sat down cross-legged again on the ground beside him, and began with mechanically alternate fist and palm to rubadubdub and thump-thump-thump and stroke-stroke-stroke his utterly helpless body.
"Oh--of--course--you've had--an awfully close call!" she drummed resonantly upon his apathetic chest. "But I've seen--three lightning people--a lot worse off than you!" she kneaded reassuringly into his insensate neck-muscles. "And--they--came out of it--all right--after a few days!" she slapped mercilessly into his faintly conscious sides.
Very slowly, very sluggishly, as his circulation quickened again, a horrid suspicion began to stir in Barton's mind; but it took him a long time to voice the suspicion in anything as loud and public as words.
"Miss--Edgarton!" he plunged at last quite precipitately. "Miss Edgarton! Do I seem to have--any shirt on?"
"No, you don't seem to, exactly, Mr. Barton," conceded little Eve Edgarton. "And your skin--"
From head to foot Barton's whole body strained and twisted in a futile effort to raise himself to at least one elbow. "Why, I'm stripped to my waist!" he stammered in real horror.
"Why, yes--of course," drawled little Eve Edgarton. "And your skin--" Imperturbably as she spoke she pushed him down flat on the ground again and began, with her hands edged vertically like two slim boards, to slash little blissful gashes of consciousness and pain into his frigid right arm. "You see--I had to take both your shirts," she explained, "and what was left of your coat--and all of my coat--to make a soft, strong rope to tie round under your arms so the horse could drag you."
"Did the roan drag me--'way up here?" groaned Barton a bit hazily.
With the faintest possible gasp of surprise little Eve Edgarton stopped slashing his arm and, picking up the lantern, flashed it disconcertingly across his blinking eyes and naked shoulders. "The roans are in heaven," she said quite simply. "It was Mother's horse that dragged you up here." As casually as if he had been a big doll she reached out one slim brown finger and drew his under lip a little bit down from his teeth. "My! But you're still blue!" she confided frankly. "I guess perhaps you'd better have a little more vodka."
Again Barton struggled vainly to raise himself on one elbow. "Vodka?" he stammered.
Again the lifted lantern light flashed disconcertingly across his face and shoulders. "Why, don't you remember--anything?" drawled little Eve Edgarton. "Not anything at all? Why, I must have worked over you two hours--artificial respiration, you know, and all that sort of thing--before I even got you up here! My! But you're heavy!" she reproached him frowningly. "Men ought to stay just as light as they possibly can, so when they get into trouble and things--it would be easier for women to help them. Why, last year in the China Sea--with Father and five of his friends--!"
A trifle shiveringly she shrugged her shoulders. "Oh, well, never mind about Father and the China Sea," she retracted soberly. "It's only that I'm so small, you see, and so flexible--I can crawl 'round most anywhere through port-holes and things--even if they're capsized. So we only lost one of them--one of Father's friends, I mean; and I never would have lost him if he hadn't been so heavy."
"Hours?" gasped Barton irrelevantly. With a wry twist of his neck he peered out through the darkness to where the freshening air, the steady, monotonous slosh-slosh-slosh of rain, the pale intermittent flare of stale lightning, proclaimed the opening of the cave.
"For Heaven's sake, wh-at--what time is it?" he faltered.
"Why, I'm sure I don't know," said little Eve Edgarton. "But I should guess it might be about eight or nine o'clock. Are you hungry?"
With infinite agility she scrambled to her knees and went darting off on all fours like a squirrel into some mysterious, clattery corner of the darkness from which she emerged at last with one little gray flannel arm crooked inclusively around a whole elbowful of treasure.
"There," she drawled. "There. There. There."
Only the soft earthy thud that accompanied each "There" pointed the slightest significance to the word. The first thud was a slim, queer, stone flagon of vodka. Wanly, like some far pinnacle on some far Russian fortress, its grim shape loomed in the sallow lantern light. The second thud was a dust-colored basket of dates from some green-spotted Arabian desert. Vaguely its soft curving outline merged into shadow and turf. The third thud was a battered old drinking-cup--dully silver, mysteriously Chinese. The fourth thud was a big glass jar of frankly American beef. Familiarly, reassuringly, its sleek sides glinted in the flickering flame.
"Supper," announced little Eve Edgarton.
As tomboyishly as a miniature brigand she crawled forward again into the meager square of lantern-tinted earth and, yanking a revolver out of one boot-leg and a pair of scissors from the other, settled herself with unassailable girlishness to jab the delicate scissors-points into the stubborn tin top of the meat jar.
As though the tin had been his own flesh the act goaded Barton half upright into the light--a brightly naked young Viking to the waist, a vaguely shadowed equestrian Fashion Plate to the feet.
"Well--I certainly never saw anybody like you before!" he glowered at her.
With equal gravity but infinitely more deliberation little Eve Edgarton returned the stare. "I never saw anybody like you before, either," she said enigmatically.
Barton winced back into the darkness. "Oh, I say," he stammered. "I wish I had a coat! I feel like a--like a--"
"Why--why?" droned little Eve Edgarton perplexedly. Out from the yellow heart of the pansy-blackness her small, grave, gnomish face peered after him with pristine frankness. "Why--why--I think you look--nice," said little Eve Edgarton.
With a really desperate effort Barton tried to clothe himself in facetiousness, if in nothing else. "Oh, very well," he grinned feebly. "If you don't mind--there's no special reason, I suppose, why I should."
Vaguely, blurrishly, like a figure on the wrong side of a stained-glass window, he began to loom up again into the lantern light. There was no embarrassment certainly about his hunger, nor any affectation at all connected with his thirst. Chokingly from the battered silver cup he gulped down the scorching vodka. Ravenously he attacked the salty meat, the sweet, cloying dates.
Watching him solemn-eyed above her own intermittent nibbles, the girl spoke out quite simply the thought that was uppermost in her mind. "This supper'll come in mighty handy, won't it, if we have to be out here all night, Mr. Barton?"
"If we have to be out here--all night?" faltered Barton.
Oh, ye gods! If just their afternoon ride together had been hotel talk--as of course it was within five minutes after their departure--what would their midnight return be? Or rather their non-return? Already through his addled brain he heard the monotonous creak-creak of rocking-chair gossip, the sly jest of the smoking-room, the whispered excitement of the kitchen--all the sophisticated old worldlings hoping indifferently for the best, all the unsophisticated old prudes yearning ecstatically for the worst!
"If we have to stay out here all night?" he repeated wildly. "Oh, what--oh, what will your father say, Miss Edgarton?"
"What will Father say?" drawled little Eve Edgarton. Thuddingly she set down the empty beef-jar. "Oh, Father'll say: What in creation is Eve out trying to save to-night? A dog? A cat? A three-legged deer?"
"Well, what do you expect to save?" quizzed Barton a bit tartly.
"Just--you," acknowledged little Eve Edgarton without enthusiasm. "And isn't it funny," she confided placidly, "that I've never yet succeeded in saving anything that I could take home with me--and keep! That's the trouble with boarding!"
In a vague, gold-colored flicker of appeal her lifted face flared out again into Barton's darkness. Too fugitive to be called a smile, a tremor of reminiscence went scudding across her mouth before the brooding shadow of her old slouch hat blotted out her features again.
"In India once," persisted the dreary little voice, "in India once, when Father and I were going into the mountains for the summer, there was a--there was a sort of fakir at one of the railway stations doing tricks with a crippled tiger-cub--a tiger-cub with a shot-off paw. And when Father wasn't looking I got off the train and went back--and I followed that fakir two days till he just naturally had to sell me the tiger-cub; he couldn't exactly have an Englishwoman following him indefinitely, you know. And I took the tiger-cub back with me to Father and he was very cunning--but--" Languorously the speech trailed off into indistinctness. "But the people at the hotel were--were indifferent to him," she rallied whisperingly. "And I had to let him go."
"You got off a train? In India? Alone?" snapped Barton. "And went following a dirty, sneaking fakir for two days? Well, of all the crazy--indiscreet--"
"Indiscreet?" mused little Eve Edgarton. Again out of the murky blackness her tilted chin caught up the flare of yellow lantern-light. "Indiscreet?" she repeated monotonously. "Who? I?"
"Yes--you," grunted Barton. "Traipsing 'round all alone--after--"
"But I never am alone, Mr. Barton," protested the mild little voice. "You see I always have the extra saddle, the extra railway ticket, the extra what-ever-it-is. And--and--" Caressingly a little gold-tipped hand reached out through the shadows and patted something indistinctly metallic. "My mother's memory? My father's revolver?" she drawled. "Why, what better company could any girl have? Indiscreet?" Slowly the tip of her little nose tilted up into the light. "Why, down in the Transvaal--two years ago," she explained painstakingly, "why, down in the Transvaal--two years ago--they called me the best-chaperoned girl in Africa. Indiscreet? Why, Mr. Barton, I never even saw an indiscreet woman in all my life. Men, of course, are indiscreet sometimes," she conceded conscientiously. "Down in the Transvaal two years ago, I had to shoot up a couple of men for being a little bit indiscreet, but--"
In one jerk Barton raised himself to a sitting posture.
"You 'shot up' a couple of men?" he demanded peremptorily.
Through the crook of a mud-smeared elbow shoving back the sodden brim of her hat, the girl glanced toward him like a vaguely perplexed little ragamuffin. "It was--messy," she admitted softly. Out from her snarl of storm-blown hair, tattered, battered by wind and rain, she peered up suddenly with her first frowning sign of self-consciousness. "If there's one thing in the world that I regret," she faltered deprecatingly, "it's a--it's--an untidy fight."
Altogether violently Barton burst out laughing. There was no mirth in the laugh, but just noise. "Oh, let's go home!" he suggested hysterically.
"Home?" faltered little Eve Edgarton. With a sluggish sort of defiance she reached out and gathered the big wet scrap-book to her breast. "Why, Mr. Barton," she said, "we couldn't get home now in all this storm and darkness and wash-out--to save our lives. But even if it were moonlight," she singsonged, "and starlight--and high-noon; even if there were--chariots--at the door, I'm not going home--now--till I've finished my scrap-book--if it takes a week."
"Eh?" jerked Barton. "What?" Laboriously he edged himself forward. For five hours now of reckless riding, of storm and privation, through death and disaster, the girl had clung tenaciously to her books and papers. What in creation was in them? "For Heaven's sake--Miss Edgarton--" he began.
"Oh, don't fuss--so," said little Eve Edgarton. "It's nothing but my paper-doll book."
"Your PAPER-DOLL BOOK?" stammered Barton. With another racking effort he edged himself even farther forward. "Miss Edgarton!" he asked quite frankly, "are you--crazy?"
[Illustration: "Your PAPER-DOLL BOOK?" stammered Barton]
"N--o! But--very determined," drawled little Eve Edgarton. With unruffled serenity she picked up a pulpy magazine-page from the ground in front of her and handed it to him. "And it--would greatly facilitate matters, Mr. Barton," she confided, "if you would kindly begin drying out some papers against your side of the lantern."
"What?" gasped Barton.
Very gingerly he took the pulpy sheet between his thumb and forefinger. It was a full-page picture of a big gas-range, and slowly, as he scanned it for some hidden charm or value, it split in two and fell soggily back to its mates. Once again for sheer nervous relief he burst out laughing.
Out of her diminutiveness, out of her leanness, out of her extraordinary litheness, little Eve Edgarton stared up speculatively at Barton's great hulking helplessness. Her hat looked humorous. Her hair looked humorous. Her tattered flannel shirt was distinctly humorous. But there was nothing humorous about her set little mouth.
"If you--laugh," she threatened, "I'll tip you over backward again--and--trample on you."
"I believe you would!" said Barton with a sudden sobriety more packed with mirth than any laugh he had ever laughed.
"Well, I don't care," conceded the girl a bit sheepishly. "Everybody laughs at my paper-doll book! Father does! Everybody does! When I'm rearranging their old mummy collections--and cataloguing their old South American birds--or shining up their old geological specimens--they think I'm wonderful. But when I try to do the teeniest--tiniest thing that happens to interest me--they call me 'crazy'! So that's why I come 'way out here to this cave--to play," she whispered with a flicker of real shyness. "In all the world," she confided, "this cave is the only place I've ever found where there wasn't anybody to laugh at me."
Between her placid brows a vindictive little frown blackened suddenly. "That's why it wasn't specially convenient, Mr. Barton--to have you ride with me this afternoon," she affirmed. "That's why it wasn't specially convenient to--to have you struck by lightning this afternoon!" Tragically, with one small brown hand, she pointed toward the great water-soaked mess of magazines that surrounded her. "You see," she mourned, "I've been saving them up all summer--to cut out--to-day! And now?--Now--? We're sailing for Melbourne Saturday!" she added conclusively.
"Well--really!" stammered Barton. "Well--truly!--Well, of all--damned things! Why--what do you want me to do? Apologize to you for having been struck by lightning?" His voice was fairly riotous with astonishment and indignation. Then quite unexpectedly one side of his mouth began to twist upward in the faintest perceptible sort of a real grin.
"When you smile like that you're--quite pleasant," murmured little Eve Edgarton.
"Is that so?" grinned Barton. "Well, it wouldn't hurt you to smile just a tiny bit now and then!"
"Wouldn't it?" said little Eve Edgarton. Thoughtfully for a moment, with her scissors poised high in the air, she seemed to be considering the suggestion. Then quite abruptly again she resumed her task of prying some pasted object out of her scrap-book. "Oh, no, thank you, Mr. Barton," she decided. "I'm much too bored--all the while--to do any smiling."
"Bored?" snapped Barton. Staring perplexedly into her dreary, meek little face, something deeper, something infinitely subtler than mere curiosity, wakened precipitately in his consciousness. "For Heaven's sake, Miss Edgarton!" he stammered. "From the Arctic Ocean to the South Seas, if you've seen all the things that you must have seen, if you've done all the things that you must have done--WHY SHOULD YOU LOOK SO BORED?"
Flutteringly the girl's eyes lifted and fell. "Why, I'm bored, Mr. Barton," drawled little Eve Edgarton, "I'm bored because--I'm sick to death--of seeing all the things I've seen. I'm sick to death of--doing all the things I've done." With little metallic snips of sound she concentrated herself and her scissors suddenly upon the mahogany-colored picture of a pianola.
"Well, what do you want?" quizzed Barton.
In a sullen, turgid sort of defiance the girl lifted her somber eyes to his. "I want to stay home--like other people--and have a house," she wailed. "I want a house--and--the things that go with a house: a cat, and the things that go with a cat; kittens, and the things that go with kittens; saucers of cream, and the things that go with saucers of cream; ice-chests, and--and--" Surprisingly into her languid, sing-song tone broke a sudden note of passion. "Bah!" she snapped. "Think of going all the way to India just to plunge your arms into the spooky, foamy Ganges and 'make a wish'! 'What do you wish?' asks Father, pleased-as a Chessy-puss. Humph! I wish it was the soap-suds in my own wash-tub!--Or gallivanting down to British Guiana just to smell the great blowsy water-lilies in the canals! I'd rather smell burned crackers in my own cook stove!"
"But you'll surely have a house--some time," argued Barton with real sympathy. Quite against all intention the girl's unexpected emotion disturbed him a little. "Every girl gets a house--some time!" he insisted resolutely.
"N--o, I don't--think so," mused Eve Edgarton judicially. "You see," she explained with soft, slow deliberation, "you see, Mr. Barton, only people who live in houses know people who live in houses! If you're a nomad you meet--only nomads! Campers mate just naturally with campers, and ocean-travelers with ocean-travelers--and red-velvet hotel-dwellers with red-velvet hotel-dwellers. Oh, of course, if Mother had lived it might have been different," she added a trifle more cheerfully. "For, of course, if Mother had lived I should have been--pretty," she asserted calmly, "or interesting-looking, anyway. Mother would surely have managed it--somehow; and I should have had a lot of beaux--young men beaux I mean, like you. Father's friends are all so gray!--Oh, of course, I shall marry--some time," she continued evenly. "Probably I'm going to marry the British consul at Nunko-Nono. He's a great friend of Father's--and he wants me to help him write a book on 'The Geologic Relationship of Melanesia to the Australian Continent'!"
Dully her voice rose to its monotone: "But I don't suppose--we shall live in a--house," she moaned apathetically. "At the best it will probably be only a musty room or two up over the consulate--and more likely than not it won't be anything at all except a nipa hut and a typewriter-table."
As if some mote of dust disturbed her, suddenly she rubbed the knuckles of one hand across her eyes. "But maybe we'll have--daughters," she persisted undauntedly. "And maybe they'll have houses!"
"Oh, shucks!" said Barton uneasily. "A--a house isn't so much!"
"It--isn't?" asked little Eve Edgarton incredulously. "Why--why--you don't mean--"
"Don't mean--what?" puzzled Barton.
"Do--you--live--in--a--house?" asked little Eve Edgarton abruptly. Her hands were suddenly quiet in her lap, her tousled head cocked ever so slightly to one side, her sluggish eyes incredibly dilated.
"Why, of course I live in a house," laughed Barton.
"O--h," breathed little Eve Edgarton. "Re--ally? It must be wonderful." Wiltingly her eyes, her hands, drooped back to her scrap-book again. "In--all--my--life," she resumed monotonously, "I've never spent a single night--in a real house."
"What?" questioned Barton.
"Oh, of course," explained the girl dully, "of course I've spent no end of nights in hotels and camps and huts and trains and steamers and--But--What color is your house?" she asked casually.
"Why, brown, I guess," said Barton.
"Brown, you 'guess'?" whispered the girl pitifully. "Don't you--know?"
"No, I wouldn't exactly like to swear to it," grinned Barton a bit sheepishly.
Again the girl's eyes lifted just a bit over-intently from the work in her lap.
"What color is the wall-paper--in your own room?" she asked casually. "Is it--is it a--dear pinkie-posie sort of effect? Or just plain--shaded stripes?"
"Why, I'm sure I don't remember," acknowledged Barton worriedly. "Why, it's just paper, you know--paper," he floundered helplessly. "Red, green, brown, white--maybe it's white," he asserted experimentally. "Oh, for goodness' sake--how should I know!" he collapsed at last. "When my sisters were home from Europe last year, they fixed the whole blooming place over for--some kind of a party. But I don't know that I ever specially noticed just what it was that they did to it. Oh, it's all right, you know!" he attested with some emphasis. "Oh, it's all right enough--early Jacobean, or something like that--'perfectly corking,' everybody calls it! But it's so everlasting big, and it costs so much to run it, and I've lost such a wicked lot of money this year, that I'm not going to keep it after this autumn--if my sisters ever send me their Paris address so I'll know what to do with their things."
Frowningly little Eve Edgarton bent forward.
"'Some kind of a party?'" she repeated in unconscious mimicry. "You mean you gave a party? A real Christian party? As recently as last winter? And you can't even remember what kind of a party it was?" Something in her slender brown throat fluttered ever so slightly. "Why, I've never even been to a Christian party--in all my life!" she said. "Though I can dance in every language of Asia!
"And you've got sisters?" she stammered. "Live silk-and-muslin sisters? And you don't even know where they are? Why, I've never even had a girl friend in all my life!"
Incredulously she lifted her puzzled eyes to his. "And you've got a house?" she faltered. "And you're not going to keep it? A real--truly house? And you don't even know what color it is? You don't even know what color your own room is? And I know the name of every house-paint there is in the world," she muttered, "and the name of every wall-paper there is in the world, and the name of every carpet, and the name of every curtain, and the name of--everything. And I haven't got any house at all--"
Then startlingly, without the slightest warning, she pitched forward suddenly on her face and lay clutching into the turf--a little dust-colored wisp of a boyish figure sobbing its starved heart out against a dust-colored earth.
"Why--what's the matter!" gasped Barton. "Why!--Why--Kid!" Very laboriously with his numbed hands, with his strange, unresponsive legs, he edged himself forward a little till he could just reach her shoulder. "Why--Kid!" he patted her rather clumsily. "Why, Kid--do you mean--"
Slowly through the darkness Eve Edgarton came crawling to his side. Solemnly she lifted her eyes to Barton's. "I'll tell you something that Mother told me," she murmured. "This is it: 'Your father is the most wonderful man that ever lived,' my mother whispered to me quite distinctly. 'But he'll never make any home for you--except in his arms; and that is plenty Home-Enough for a wife--but not nearly Home-Enough for a daughter! And--and--"
"Why, you say it as if you knew it by heart," interrupted Barton.
"Why, of course I know it by heart!" cried little Eve Edgarton almost eagerly. "My mother whispered it to me, I tell you! The things that people shout at you--you forget in half a night. But the things that people whisper to you, you remember to your dying day!"
"If I whisper something to you," said Barton quite impulsively, "will you promise to remember it to your dying day?"
"Oh, yes, Mr. Barton," droned little Eve Edgarton.
Abruptly Barton reached out and tilted her chin up whitely toward him. "In this light," he whispered, "with your hat pushed back like--that!--and your hair fluffed up like--that!--and the little laugh in your eyes!--and the flush!--and the quiver!--you look like an--elf! A bronze and gold elf! You're wonderful! You're magical! You ought always to dress like that! Somebody ought to tell you about it! Woodsy, storm-colored clothes with little quick glints of light in them! Paquin or some of those people could make you famous!"
As spontaneously as he had touched her he jerked his hand away, and, snatching up the lantern, flashed it bluntly on her astonished face.
For one brief instant her hand went creeping up to the tip of her chin. Then very soberly, like a child with a lesson, she began to repeat Barton's impulsive phrases.
"'In this light,'" she droned, "'with your hat pushed back like that--and your hair fluffed up like that--and the--the--'" More unexpectedly then than anything that could possibly have happened she burst out laughing--a little low, giggly, school-girlish sort of laugh. "Oh, that's easy to remember!" she announced. Then, all one narrow black silhouette again, she crouched down into the semi-darkness.
"For a lady," she resumed listlessly, "who rode side-saddle and really enjoyed hiking 'round all over the sticky face of the globe, my mother certainly did guess pretty keenly just how things were going to be with me. I'll tell you what she said to sustain me," she repeated dreamily, "'Any foolish woman can keep house, but the woman who travels with your father has got to be able to keep the whole wide world for him! It's nations that you'll have to put to bed! And suns and moons and stars that you'll have to keep scoured and bright! But with the whole green earth for your carpet, and shining heaven for your roof-tree, and God Himself for your landlord, now wouldn't you be a fool, if you weren't quite satisfied?'"
"'If--you--weren't--quite satisfied,'" finished Barton mumblingly.
Little Eve Edgarton lifted her great eyes, soft with sorrow, sharp with tears, almost defiantly to Barton's.
"That's--what--Mother said," she faltered. "But all the same--I'd RATHER HAVE A HOUSE!"
"Why, you poor kid!" said Barton. "You ought to have a house! It's a shame! It's a beastly shame! It's a--"
Very softly in the darkness his hand grazed hers.
"Did you touch my hand on purpose, or just accidentally?" asked Eve Edgarton, without a flicker of expression on her upturned, gold-colored face.
"Why, I'm sure I don't know," laughed Barton. "Maybe--maybe it was a little of each."
With absolute gravity little Eve Edgarton kept right on staring at him. "I don't know whether I should ever specially like you--or not, Mr. Barton," she drawled. "But you are certainly very beautiful!"
"Oh, I say!" cried Barton wretchedly. With a really desperate effort he struggled almost to his feet, tottered for an instant, and then came sagging down to the soft earth again--a great, sprawling, spineless heap, at little Eve Edgarton's feet.
Unflinchingly, as if her wrists were built of steel wires, the girl jumped up and pulled and tugged and yanked his almost dead weight into a sitting posture again.
"My! But you're chock-full of lightning!" she commiserated with him.
Out of the utter rage and mortification of his helplessness Barton could almost have cursed her for her sympathy. Then suddenly, without warning, a little gasp of sheer tenderness escaped him.
"Eve Edgarton," he stammered, "you're--a--brick! You--you must have been invented just for the sole purpose of saving people's lives. Oh, you've saved mine all right!" he acknowledged soberly. "And all this black, blasted night you've nursed me--and fed me--and jollied me--without a whimper about yourself--without--a--" Impulsively he reached out his numb-palmed hand to her, and her own hand came so cold to it that it might have been the caress of one ghost to another. "Eve Edgarton," he reiterated, "I tell you--you're a brick! And I'm a fool--and a slob--and a mutt-head--even when I'm not chock-full of lightning, as you call it! But if there's ever anything I can do for you!"
"What did you say?" muttered little Eve Edgarton.
"I said you were a brick!" repeated Barton a bit irritably.
"Oh, no, I didn't mean--that," mused the girl. "But what was the--last thing you said?"
"Oh!" grinned Barton more cheerfully. "I said--if there was ever anything that I could do for you, anything--"
"Would you rent me your attic?" asked little Eve Edgarton.
"Would I rent you my attic?" stammered Barton. "Why in the world should you want to hire my attic?"
"So I could buy pretty things in Siam--or Ceylon--or any other queer country--and have some place to send them," said little Eve Edgarton. "Oh, I'd pay the express, Mr. Barton," she hastened to assure him. "Oh, I promise you there never would be any trouble about the express! Or about the rent!" Expeditiously as she spoke she reached for her hip pocket and brought out a roll of bills that fairly took Barton's breath away. "If there's one thing in the world, you know, that I've got, it's money," she confided perfectly simply. "So you see, Mr. Barton," she added with sudden wistfulness, "there's almost nothing on the face of the globe that I couldn't have--if I only had some place to put it." Without further parleying she proffered the roll of bills to him.
"Miss Edgarton! Are you crazy?" Barton asked again quite precipitously.
Again the girl answered his question equally frankly, and without offense. "Oh, no," she said. "Only very determined."
"Determined about what?" grinned Barton in spite of himself.
"Determined about an attic," drawled little Eve Edgarton.
With an unwonted touch of vivacity she threw out one hand in a little, sharp gesture of appeal; but not a tone of her voice either quickened or deepened.
"Why, Mr. Barton," she droned, "I'm thirty years old--and ever since I was born I've been traveling all over the world--in a steamer trunk. In a steamer trunk, mind you. With Father always standing over every packing to make sure that we never carry anything that--isn't necessary. With Father, I said," she re-emphasized by a sudden distinctness. "You know Father!" she added significantly.
"Yes--I know 'Father,'" assented Barton with astonishing glibness.
Once again the girl threw out her hand in an incongruous gesture of appeal.
"The things that Father thinks are necessary!" she exclaimed softly. Noiselessly as a shadow she edged herself forward into the light till she faced Barton almost squarely. "Maybe you think it's fun, Mr. Barton," she whispered. "Maybe you think it's fun--at thirty years of age--with all your faculties intact--to own nothing in the world except--except a steamer trunkful of the things that Father thinks are necessary!"
Very painstakingly on the fingers of one hand she began to enumerate the articles in question. "Just your riding togs," she said, "and six suits of underwear--and all the United States consular reports--and two or three wash dresses and two 'good enough' dresses--and a lot of quinine--and--a squashed hat--and--and--" Very faintly the ghost of a smile went flickering over her lips--"and whatever microscopes and specimen-cases get crowded out of Father's trunk. What's the use, Mr. Barton," she questioned, "of spending a whole year investigating the silk industry of China--if you can't take any of the silks home? What's the use, Mr. Barton, of rolling up your sleeves and working six months in a heathen porcelain factory--just to study glaze--if you don't own a china-closet in any city on the face of the earth? Why--sometimes, Mr. Barton," she confided, "it seems as if I'd die a horrible death if I couldn't buy things the way other people do--and send them somewhere--even if it wasn't 'home'! The world is so full of beautiful things," she mused. "White enamel bath-tubs--and Persian rugs--and the most ingenious little egg-beaters--and--"
"Eh?" stammered Barton. Quite desperately he rummaged his brain for some sane-sounding expression of understanding and sympathy.
"You could, I suppose," he ventured, not too intelligently, "buy the things and give them to other people."
"Oh, yes, of course," conceded little Eve Edgarton without enthusiasm. "Oh, yes, of course, you can always buy people the things they want. But understand," she said, "there's very little satisfaction in buying the things you want to give to people who don't want them. I tried it once," she confided, "and it didn't work.
"The winter we were in Paraguay," she went on, "in some stale old English newspaper I saw an advertisement of a white bedroom set. There were eleven pieces, and it was adorable, and it cost eighty-two pounds--and I thought after I'd had the fun of unpacking it, I could give it to a woman I knew who had a tea plantation. But the instant she got it--she painted it--green! Now when you send to England for eleven pieces of furniture because they are white," sighed little Eve Edgarton, "and have them crated--because they're white--and sent to sea because they're white--and then carried overland--miles and miles and miles--on Indians' heads--because they're white, you sort of want 'em to stay white. Oh, of course it's all right," she acknowledged patiently. "The Tea Woman was nice, and the green paint by no means--altogether bad. Only, looking back now on our winter in Paraguay, I seem to have missed somehow the particular thrill that I paid eighty-two pounds and all that freightage for."
"Yes, of course," agreed Barton. He could see that.
"So if you could rent me your attic--" she resumed almost blithely.
"But my dear child," interrupted Barton, "what possible--"
"Why--I'd have a place then to send things to," argued little Eve Edgarton.
"But you're off on the high seas Saturday, you say," laughed Barton.
"Yes, I know," explained little Eve Edgarton just a bit impatiently. "But the high seas are so dull, Mr. Barton. And then we sail so long!" she complained. "And so far!--via this, via that, via every other stupid old port in the world! Why, it will be months and months before we ever reach Melbourne! And of course on every steamer," she began to monotone, "of course on every steamer there'll be some one with a mixed-up collection of shells or coins--and that will take all my mornings. And of course on every steamer there'll be somebody struggling with the Chinese alphabet or the Burmese accents--and that will take all my afternoons. But in the evenings when people are just having fun," she kindled again, "and nobody wants me for anything, why, then you see I could steal 'way up in the bow--where you're not allowed to go--and think about my beautiful attic. It's pretty lonesome," she whispered, "all snuggled up there alone with the night, and the spray and the sailors' shouts, if you haven't got anything at all to think about except just 'What's ahead?--What's ahead?--What's ahead?' And even that belongs to God," she sighed a bit ruefully.
With a quick jerk she edged herself even closer to Barton and sat staring up at him with her tousled head cocked on one side like an eager terrier.
"So if you just--could, Mr. Barton!" she began all over again. "And oh, I know it couldn't be any real bother to you!" she hastened to reassure him. "Because after Saturday, you know, I'll probably never--never be in America again!"
"Then what satisfaction," laughed Barton, "could you possibly get in filling up an attic with things that you will never see again?"
"What satisfaction?" repeated little Eve Edgarton perplexedly. "What satisfaction?" Between her placid brows a very black frown deepened. "Why, just the satisfaction," she said, "of knowing before you die, that you had definitely diverted to your own personality that much specific treasure out of the--out of the--world's chaotic maelstrom of generalities."
"Eh?" said Barton. "What? For Heaven's sake say it again!"
"Why--just the satisfaction--" began Eve Edgarton. Then abruptly the sullen lines grayed down again around her mouth.
"It seems funny to me, Mr. Barton," she almost whined, "that anybody as big as you are--shouldn't be able to understand anybody as little as--I am. But if I only had an attic!" she cried out with apparent irrelevance. "Oh, if just once in my whole life I could have even so much as an atticful of home! Oh, please--please--please, Mr. Barton!" she pleaded. "Oh, please!"
Precipitously she lifted her small brown face to his, and in her eyes he saw the strangest little unfinished expression flame up suddenly and go out again, a little fleeting expression so sweet, so shy, so transcendently lovely, that if it had ever lived to reach her frowning brow, her sulky little mouth, her--!
Then startlingly into his stare, into his amazement, broke a great white glare through the opening of the cave.
"My God!" he winced, with his elbow across his eyes.
"Why, it isn't lightning!" laughed little Eve Edgarton. "It's the moon!" Quick as a sprite she flashed to her feet and ran out into the moonlight. "We can go home now!" she called back triumphantly over her shoulder.
"Oh, we can, can we?" snapped Barton. His nerves were strangely raw. He struggled to his knees, and tottered there watching the cheeky little moonbeams lap up the mystery of the cave, and scare the yellow lantern-flame into a mere sallow glow.
Poignantly from the forest he heard Eve Edgarton's voice calling out into the night. "Come--Mother's--horse! Come--Mother's--horse H--o--o, hoo! Come--come--come!" Softly above the crackle of twigs, the thud of a hoof, the creak of a saddle, he sensed the long, tremulous, answering whinny. Then almost like a silver apparition the girl's figure and the horse's seemed to merge together before him in the moonlight.
"Well--of--all--things!" stammered Barton.
"Oh, the horse is all right. I thought he'd stay 'round," called the girl. "But he's wild as a hawk--and it's going to be the dickens of a job, I'm afraid, to get you up."
Half walking, half crawling, Barton emerged from the cave. "To get me up?" he scoffed. "Well, what do you think you're going to do?" Limply as he asked he sank back against the support of a tree.
"Why, I think," drawled Eve Edgarton, "I think--very naturally--that you're going to ride--and I'm going to walk--back to the hotel."
"Well, I am not!" snapped Barton. "Well, you are not!" he protested vehemently. "For Heaven's sake, Miss Edgarton, why don't you go scooting back on the gray and send a wagon or something for me?"
"Why, because it would make--such a fuss," droned little Eve Edgarton drearily. "Doors would bang--and lights would blaze--and somebody'd scream--and--and--you make so much fuss when you're born," she said, "and so much fuss when you die--don't you think it's sort of nice to keep things as quietly to yourself as you can all the rest of your days?"
"Yes, of course," acknowledged Barton. "But--"
"But NOTHING!" stamped little Eve Edgarton with sudden passion. "Oh, Mr. Barton--won't you please hurry! It's almost dawn now! And the nice hotel cook is very sick in a cot bed. And I promised her faithfully this noon that I'd make four hundred muffins for breakfast!"
"Oh, confound it!" said Barton.
Stumblingly he reached the big gray's side.
"But it's miles!" he protested in common decency. "Miles!--and miles! Rough walking, too, darned rough! And your poor little feet--"
"I don't walk particularly with my 'poor little feet,'" gibed Eve Edgarton. "Most especially, thank you, Mr. Barton, I walk with my big wanting-to-walk!"
"Oh," said Barton. "O--h." The bones in his knees began suddenly to slump like so many knots of tissue-paper. "Oh--all right--Eve!" he called out a bit hazily.
Then slowly and laboriously, with a very good imitation of meekness, he allowed himself to be pulled and pushed and jerked to the top of an old tree-stump, and from there at last, with many tricks and tugs and subterfuges, to the cramping side-saddle of the restive, rearing gray. Helplessly in the clear white moonlight he watched the girl's neck muscles cord and strain. Helplessly in the clear white moonlight he heard the girl's breath rip and tear like a dry sob out of her gasping lungs. And then at last, blinded with sweat, dizzy with weakness, as breathless as herself, as wrenched, as triumphant, he found himself clinging fast to a worn suede pommel, jogging jerkily down the mountainside with Eve Edgarton's doll-sized hand dragging hard on the big gray's curb and her whole tiny weight shoved back aslant and astrain against the big gray's too eager shoulder--little droll, colorless, "meek" Eve Edgarton, after her night of stress and terror, with her precious scrap-book still hugged tight under one arm striding stanchly home through the rough-footed, woodsy night to "make four hundred muffins for breakfast!"
At the first crook in the trail she glanced back hastily over her shoulder into the rustling shadows. "Good-by, Cave!" she called softly. "Good-by, Cave!" And once when some tiny woods-animal scuttled out from under her feet she smiled up a bit appealingly at Barton. Several times they stopped for water at some sudden noisy brook. And once, or twice, or even three times perhaps, when some blinding daze of dizziness overwhelmed him, she climbed up with one foot into the roomy stirrup and steadied his swaying, unfeeling body against her own little harsh, reassuring, flannel-shirted breast.
Mile after mile through the jet-black lattice-work of the tree-tops the August moon spotted brightly down on them. Mile after mile through rolling pastures the moon-plaited stubble crackled and sucked like a sheet of wet ice under their feet, then roads began--mere molten bogs of mud and moonlight; and little frail roadside bushes drunk with rain lay wallowing helplessly in every hollow.
Out of this pristine, uninhabited wilderness the hotel buildings loomed at last with startling conventionality. Even before their discreetly shuttered windows Barton winced back again with a sudden horrid new realization of his half-nakedness.
"For Heaven's sake!" he cried, "let's sneak in the back way somewhere! Oh Lordy!--what a sight I am to meet your father!"
"What a sight you are to--meet my father?" repeated Eve Edgarton with astonishment. "Oh, please don't insist on waking up Father," she begged. "He hates so to be waked up. Oh, of course if I'd been hurt it would have been courteous of you to tell him," she explained seriously. "But, oh, I'm sure he wouldn't like your waking him up just to tell him that you got hurt!"
Softly under her breath she began to whistle toward a shadow in the stable-yard. "Usually," she whispered, "there's a sleepy stable-boy lying round here somewhere. Oh--Bob!" she summoned.
Rollingly the shadow named "Bob" struggled to its very real feet.
"Here, Bob!" she ordered. "Come help Mr. Barton. He's pretty badly off. We got sort of struck by lightning. And two of us--got killed. Go help him up-stairs. Do anything he wants. But don't make any fuss. He'll be all right in the morning."
Gravely she put out her hand to Barton, and nodded to the boy.
"Good night!" she said. "And good night, Bob!"
Shrewdly for a moment she stood watching them out of sight, shivered a little at the clatter of a box kicked over in some remote shed, and then swinging round quickly, ripped the hot saddle from the big gray's back, slipped the bit from his tortured tongue, and, turning him loose with one sharp slap on his gleaming flank, yanked off her own riding-boots and went scudding off in her stocking-feet through innumerable doors and else till, reaching the great empty office, she caromed off suddenly up three flights of stairs to her own apartment.
Once in her room her little traveling-clock told her it was a quarter of three.
"Whew!" she said. Just "Whew!" Very furiously at the big porcelain washbowl she began to splash and splash and splash. "If I've got to make four hundred muffins," she said, "I surely have got to be whiter than snow!"
Roused by the racket, her father came irritably and stood in the doorway.
"Oh, my dear Eve!" he complained, "didn't you get wet enough in the storm? And for mercy's sake where have you been?"
Out of the depths of her dripping hair and her big plushy bath-towel little Eve Edgarton considered her father only casually.
[Illustration: "Don't delay me!" she said, "I've got to make four hundred muffins."]
"Don't delay me!" she said, "I've got to make four hundred muffins! And I'm so late I haven't even time to change my clothes! We got struck by lightning," she added purely incidentally. "That is--sort of struck by lightning. That is, Mr. Barton got sort of struck by lightning. And oh, glory, Father!" her voice kindled a little. "And, oh, glory, Father, I thought he was gone! Twice in the hours I was working over him he stopped breathing altogether!"
Palpably the vigor died out of her voice again. "Father," she drawled mumblingly through intermittent flops of bath-towel; "Father--you said I could keep the next thing I--saved. Do you think I could--keep him?"