THE moment she entered the dining-room she knew she was incorrectly dressed. But the head waiter had shot ahead of her at her first inquiry for the Bartlett party, and she had reached the table, and was being introduced to the dozen or so men and girls gathered around it, before she had a chance to consider retreat. Except for Fairlee Ormsbee, whom she knew but slightly, the party consisted of strangers to Edna. As she bowed and smiled, and repeated a few of their names before taking the chair waiting for her, she was aware that the women were scrutinizing her from head to toe. The men, too, for that matter.
She saw the big one, in the dark gray flannel shirt, glance down at the rhinestone and onyx buckles on her satin slippers. They were inappropriate, of course. But there had been no one to instruct her. Also, the afternoon gown she had finally decided upon as her safest choice was distinctly out of place. It was simple enough,—long, transparent sleeves, a V-shaped neck,—but the girls were dressed in rakish flannel shirts and wore mannish ties. Oh, if only Nina had been there to tell her what to wear! She could hardly converse, her mistake troubled her so keenly.
This was the fourth season that this particular group of men and girls had managed to meet together, here in the heart of the snow-covered mountains, for a week of winter sports over "the twenty-second." A summer hotel opened for the entire month of February to accommodate such enthusiasts. Instead of tennis rackets, and golf clubs, and mountain staffs, its halls and verandas were filled with skis, skates, snow-shoes and toboggans. It was through her friendship with Nina Borst that Edna Miller found herself one of the Bartlett party this year. Nina was a charter member, and an enthusiastic one, too.
It was last summer when Nina had been describing the delights of the winter woods to Edna Miller, who was convalescing from one of her frequent operations, detailing to her the peculiar joy there was in skimming over the tops of barbed wire fences on snow-shoes, nosing about the alders on the level of last year's birds' nests, following luring trails—when sometimes one had to glance down on the trunks of the trees, instead of up, to find the blaze—that the frail little invalid's eyes had lit up, and she had exclaimed, "Oh, couldn't you take me along, Nina? I adore snow-shoeing, and this new doctor says that exercise is the best thing in the world for me."
"Of course! Why not?" said good-hearted, impulsive Nina Borst. Last year Ollie Bartlett herself was recovering from an appendix operation, and wasn't allowed to climb anything stiffer than a rolling cow pasture. Two operations wouldn't have kept Ollie from her yearly glimpse of Washington covered with snow, that she got from the carriage road on the way from the station to the hotel. Everybody did as he pleased in the Bartlett party. Edna could paddle about the fields and over the brooks by herself—and with her, Nina. Of course she couldn't do any of the real tramps. The men hated to be delayed on a climb by someone who wasn't in climbing condition.
"But I shall be there to say 'when' to you," Nina assured her.
But she wasn't! She wasn't there to say "when," nor "how," nor "which." She was in southern California, daily practicing the Australian crawl in warm Pacific waters, instead of in the heart of the White Mountains, saving Edna Miller from horrible mistakes, such as rhinestone buckles on high satin slippers, and a glimpse of pearls on a V-shaped bit of bare neck.
Nina Borst was as irresponsible as she was good-hearted. The fact probably was that not once since the exciting invitation to spend three months in California had reached her had she thought of Edna Miller and the snow-shoeing party. If she had, she had apparently dismissed it with the conclusion that Edna would not consider joining the snow-shoers without her. It was way back in October that she had asked Ollie Bartlett, official chaperon and manager of the party, to write and ask Edna Miller—"a little kid friend of mine I want to bring along in my pocket," she had explained.
"And so, naturally, I did as I was told," announced Ollie Bartlett, remonstrating with the other half-dozen Amazonian creatures gathered in her room, two or three hours after Edna Miller had made her first appearance in light gray chiffon cloth, "and here she is—pearls, rhinestones and all."
The others laughed.
"Nina hasn't got any more sense than to do a thing like that," announced one of the brawniest of the young oxen. "Did you see the expression on Bord Mathewson's face after dinner, before the fire there, when Miss Miller was explaining to us how she adored snow-shoeing, and how much of it she had been doing this winter in the pasture back of her house? Bord was slumped down, as usual, in one of those old office arm chairs, with his pipe in his mouth, and apparently reading the paper. But when she announced that she thought that snow-shoe tracks on freshly fallen snow were as pretty as lace, he looked just sick! He glanced up a moment, caught me looking at him, and gave me a big, slow wink."
"Oh, Nina makes me tired," took up Fairlee Ormsbee, "depositing her invalids on us! Why, when I saw this Edna Miller two years ago, it was at a hotel, and she was done up in a pink worsted shawl and was being wheeled around in a chair by a trained nurse. If she had any sense at all, she'd know she would be out of place here."
But Fairlee Ormsbee had not seen what hopes and aspirations had been concealed beneath that pink worsted shawl. Always, as Edna Miller had been convalescing from her various operations, bolstered up in bed by her window, or half-reclined in a rocking-chair on a hotel veranda, it was the passing girl with the tennis racket, or golf clubs—low-heeled, white-footed, lean, sleek, tanned and weathered—the girl who could sail a boat, ride a horse, run a car, whom Edna envied, and longed in the secret of her heart to become.
There was a dream that sometimes visited her in her deep sleep which intoxicated her for days afterward. In it she could feel her body thrill with vitality, as she swam, with strong and vigorous stroke through cold waters, or ran like an antelope over vast spaces, or performed with marvelous skill with tennis racket, golf club, paddle or oar. When the last doctor had said there was no reason why she might not some day partake of sports with other girls, it was, to her, promise of the fulfillment of her dream. She decided not to allow Nina's absence to rob her of the golden opportunity of joining a party of winter mountain-climbers. All winter she had been snow-shoeing an afternoon or so a week in preparation for this great event. She felt herself quite an adept at it. She had been taking skating lessons, too!
But after she closed her bedroom door that first night and locked it, she walked over to the bureau and stood gazing at herself in the mirror.
"Too bad!" she whispered. "Too bad!"
She had spent weeks in providing herself with proper sporting paraphernalia, her trunk was filled with outfits. She snatched off the offending pearls and cast them aside, then tossed her head defiantly.
"But I'll show them in the morning!" she exclaimed.
Ten minutes later the gray dress lay upon the bed, and Edna Miller, standing on a chair in front of the bureau, was gazing at the reflection of a plaid-skirted little figure wearing a bright green coat, known as a sport-coat in the department store where she bought it—very jaunty, with enormous white enamel buttons; and on her head there was a gay little cap to match, with a tassel at the end of a long worsted cord. A fluffy halo of brown hair framed her face.
"I guess I'll do now," she reflected with satisfaction and, hopping down from the chair, she added, "I'll show that big fellow in the gray flannel shirt that he can't wink at me again."
That was funny, of course. The fellow in the gray flannel shirt was Bord Mathewson, and everyone knew how intolerant he was of anything weak, frail or effeminate. He wasn't intentionally scornful. He was a man of generous qualities—"the salt of the earth" his friends called him. He was a big, massive fellow, who never got tired or cold or hungry, when other human creatures did.
He had done a good deal of serious climbing in Switzerland at one time, and a dozen years ago he was one of a party of explorers in arctic regions. The women in the Bartlett party considered his condescension in joining them every year a marked compliment to their prowess. Every one of them was eager to prove herself worthy of following in the trail that Bord Mathewson broke for them over what to him must have been toy mountains. For he always broke trail for the Bartlett party when he was one of them in a day's tramp. He wasn't always one of them, however. Even with such proficient snow-shoers as Ollie Bartlett, Fairlee Ormsbee and Nina Borst, Bord Mathewson and one of the more experienced of the men usually went off by themselves to climb something real, they said.
When Edna came down-stairs in the morning, she found that the women were dressed in mannish Oxford coats and knickerbockers to match—not bloomers, but frankly and undisguisedly knickerbockers, made of rough, tweedy stuff of nondescript color, buttoned trimly at the knee. And she had demurred over a twelve-inch skirt! As she followed the members of the Bartlett party out of the dining-room that morning she felt as if she were the only female creature among them. Well, she must make the best of it. She mustn't allow clothes to interrupt—a triviality like that!
When the women appeared on the hotel veranda, half an hour after breakfast, equipped for the morning's tramp in brown canvas, multi-pocketed hunting jackets, tin drinking-cups strapped about their waists, feet buried in roomy, rubber-soled affairs, hair entirely concealed inside tight and unbecoming caps, Edna's decorative appearance almost choked her at first. But she recovered. Gayly, cheerfully, she leaned and buckled her snow-shoes over the shapely, high tan boots, which the dapper clerk in the shoe store at home assured her were the correct thing. Valiantly she set out near the front of the long single file of snow-shoers, across the road, and over a fence, and up a gentle rise on the other side, toward the woods beyond, determined to prove that it isn't always clothes that make a good sportsman.
On this first morning the women were taking a stroll by themselves. "Going to mosey through the woods," they said, "for an hour or so, and back in time for luncheon. Just to warm up, and get into trim for the men to-morrow."
Edna Miller started near the front of the file. She returned at the end of it. One after another of those behind had crunched along close in her wake for five minutes or so, and then at her timid, "You better go ahead. I'm not very fast," had passed beyond. At first Edna attempted to make her enthusiasm her excuse for stopping so frequently. "Isn't that mountain over there just wonderful?" she'd gasp, struggling for the very breath it took to say it. "I've simply got to stop and admire it," or, sitting down abruptly on a fallen log. "Oh, see those pines! See that glorious stretch of snow!" she'd exclaim.
As time went on, she welcomed a loose strap on her snow-shoe, or even the barbed wire fences catching on her plaid skirt, as a chance for a moment's plausible delay. What to the others was a little mosey in the woods was to Edna the supreme physical exertion of her life. After the first half hour, the morning's stroll became an interminable series of jerks and stops—a dozen steps forward, and then a moment of standing still, when her heart, which seemed to be located somewhere in the region of her throat, made a noise in her head that was like an enormous sledge-hammer pounding on something soft like flesh—her flesh; when, to fill her lungs, she had to fight as if she were drawing in the air through several thicknesses of finely woven cloth, and the throbbing, and the choking, and the aching, all together, blinded and staggered her.
But she wouldn't give up. She had heard that a man got his second wind after a while. No doubt she'd get hers, if she'd just hold on. And she did hold on—quarter-hour after quarter-hour, conquering interminable ascents, accomplishing countless athletic feats down snowy slides, along edges of rocky precipices (she dreamed of them all night in hair-raising nightmares), and once the haven of the hotel was reached, showing herself game, after luncheon, for the toboggan slide, with the horrible crash at the foot that sent each time a familiar pain zigzagging up through her troublesome backbone.
She was aching and sore the next morning. She hadn't slept very much. There hadn't been enough covers on the bed; the thermometer had taken a sudden drop; it was fearfully cold. She had prayed for storm—rain, snow, hail—anything to give her twenty-four hours' respite from another day's such effort. But there wasn't a cloud in the pale winter-blue sky which she glimpsed through the bit of glass free from frost on her bedroom window. There was nothing, as far as she could see, to interrupt the plan, discussed the night before, of eating a picnic dinner half-way up a mountain five miles away, to the foot of which a pair of horses would carry the Bartlett party, both men and girls this time, and meet them on the other side in the afternoon, thence to another hotel for the night, and a tramp back to headquarters the second day.
Ollie Bartlett had suggested to Edna that she need not feel obliged to join them.
"You know everybody does just as he pleases in this crowd, and you may not care for picnics in the snow, and such strenuous tramps."
Oh, yes, I do!" Edna assured her. "I think they're great fun. Of course I'll come along. Naturally!" Now that she was one of the Bartlett party, surely she must fall in with its program; surely she must not so soon prove to be that mean and contemptible creature, a quitter. "Oh, I'll come!" she nodded, and smiled.
"And she will, too!" complained Ollie to her husband that night, after doors were closed. "She just will. You can count on that. But don't ask me to unhook her from the barbed wire fences, and tighten her straps. I've had one day of it. I don't know how Bord Mathewson will stand it."
At the start Edna had eagerly chosen the last place in the line as her position. Several of the men, studiously courteous, were inclined to stay behind with her at first. But with gentle persistence she succeeded, at last, in sending them all forward. She wanted to be free to hold on to her throbbing throat with both hands when she stopped for breath; she wanted to be able to close her eyes tight and lean her head against a tree; she wanted the opportunity to moan out loud a little, just as during some of those long nights of pain of hers she used to devise errands for the nurse that would take her out of the room, so she might indulge in a few relieving tears. But the excuse she gave was none of these.
"You see," blithely she explained, "if I come along alone behind, I can stop and admire all the views I want, and not keep any one waiting."
She had, on the contrary, kept every one waiting. Around every curve the single-file trail left behind on the snow's white surface by the Bartlett party that day widened out into a circular mass of tracks, where the snow-shoers had gathered to wait for Miss Miller. There was an attempt made at first to avoid unkind comment, but anybody who has ever climbed knows the annoyance of delays—especially when the days are short and a close watch must be kept of the sun—and finally somebody's impatience got the best of him. It was the facetious man of the party who broke the tension—mercifully, the rest of them thought. During a particularly long wait he humorously remarked, "The view must have overcome our little friend completely this time."
"She's the most irritating little creature!" murmured one of the women. "Evidently she never saw a mountain before in her life!"
"She's seen the sporting-window of a department store, anyhow!" laughed Fairlee Ormsbee, as the green coat hove in sight.
Bord Mathewson shook his head over Fairlee's contribution, and smiled at her in appreciation. He had made no comment, as yet, on the day's fiasco, but everybody knew that he was not enjoying the morning. Every time the splotch of green appeared around a curve, or at the crest of an ascent, and replied to the party's signal with a shrill hello, he looked disgusted. When he spoke at last, it was briefly and to the point. He had his watch in his hand and was looking at the place where the sun ought to be. The sky had gradually lost its blue.
"Look here," he said, "you can't carry out your plan at this rate." (They had all feared as much. They had been waiting for Miss Miller this time for fully three minutes.) "I'll take her back."
"Oh, no! Oh, not you, Bord! Surely not you!" half a dozen of the women's voices broke out. They always tried to save Bord Mathewson from acting as nurse to anybody.
But he wasn't to be dissuaded.
"I'll go," he cut them all off shortly. "That's settled. I'd hoped to climb to the summit after lunch, but it's too late for that now, anyhow. I'll take her back to that farmhouse we passed on the road, and telephone the hotel to send a horse over for her. Perhaps I'll join you to-night. Perhaps not. I'll see. You go ahead and have your picnic at the half-way hut, as you planned, and hurry about it, too. It looks as if it might snow this afternoon."
As he proceeded to repack his rucksack with luncheon for two he made no effort to conceal his contempt for Miss Miller. It was when he was slicing off a hunk of bacon from the supply that Fairlee Ormsbee had been carrying, that he remarked, "This ought to keep your department-store sport from starvation," and he gave her one of his slow, droll winks.
He found Miss Miller a quarter of a mile down the trail, leaning against a tree, apparently admiring a bleak expanse of mountainside, laid bare by wood-cutters. She had selected a terribly exposed spot for her contemplations. Even through several layers of wool, one of corduroy, and one of canvas Bord Mathewson could feel the sharp biting wind strike home. But as he approached Miss Miller she was smiling.
"Are you all right?" he called.
"I guess so," she replied. It was the first time the little counterfeit had shown any doubt. "But," she stammered as he drew nearer, and he observed now that her voice was anything but steady, "but I'm afraid I can't quite make it, after all."
"Well," he replied generously, "I've had enough, too. We'll go back together."
"I'm awfully sorry," she went on. (Oh, why did it have to be the man who had winked at her!) "I'm ashamed, too—but I—my ankle, you see—is sort of turned, or something, I think." A sprained ankle, she well knew, was as detestable as fainting spells, in this age. She would be despised now forever. "I'm so stupid! I was enjoying it till then," bravely she assured him. "But on that log, back there, my foot got caught some way—and—" Bord Mathewson was kneeling now.
"Let's see it," he said, fumbling with the straps. "Hurt?" he called up to her.
"Not much," she replied brightly. "Not very—" She stopped abruptly and, to Bord Mathewson's amazement, toppled over in the snow.
When Edna drifted back into consciousness, she was lying down on a couch somewhere. There was no wind, no snow, no pounding in her head. Her breath came easily, rhythmically, like music. It felt as if it had been oiled. She dared not stir for fear this blessed, half-awake state might vanish. She knew the wisdom of lying still under such circumstances. It was when one turned one's head, lifted one's hand, asked for water, that the piercing realities shoved themselves in. She didn't move as much as her little finger.
There were green-stained rafters overhead, splotchy flowered cretonne at the windows. There was a cane-backed rocking chair beside her, with black and pink and gray ribbons hung over it. Edna gazed at the ribbons a long while, fascinated. There was something familiar about them. She groped for an instant, fumbling. They were not ribbons! She remembered now. She was on a snow-shoeing trip, of course. They were stockings! Hers! She had put on as many pairs as she could crowd inside her high tan boots that morning. She had overheard the women mention the number of stockings they wore, and she had followed suit as well as she could. Hers were not lumbermen's socks. Where did one buy such things? They were pink and gray silk, and black lisle—all her trunk produced. But if they were there on the chair, what had she on now? She moved a toe. With electric response a sudden sharp twinge of pain made everything clear.
Edna was lying on her back, her feet raised higher than her head. She glanced horizontally along the flowered coverlet, which, she discovered, was several pairs of cretonne curtains, stripped from the windows, and caught a glimpse of her feet extending beyond, enormous in gray and white woolen socks. Wrapped around her ankles appeared her yellow silk sweater, and her coral Shetland wool, both of which she had worn underneath the green coat. She moved her fingers. They came in contact with unfamiliar corduroy and canvas.
As Edna lay conjecturing, she heard a door open abruptly, and in the instant before she closed her eyes to pretend sleep she caught a glimpse of Mr. Mathewson with his arms filled with firewood. It was when he was kneeling before a stone fireplace, piling birch bark for kindling on a pile of somebody's last year's ashes, his back toward her, that Edna decided to speak.
"Hello!" she called.
He rose quickly, and came over to her.
"Hello! Feeling better?" he said.
"Is this your coat I've got on?" Edna asked.
"Whose house are we in?" she went on.
"I don't know whose house it is. It's somebody's summer place. I had to knock in a window."
Then it had been as she feared. Mr. Mathewson had established her here beneath the flowered cretonne curtains. Mr. Mathewson had taken off her outside things, and in their place put on some of his own warmer ones. No use pretending that she was a sportsman before him any more. He knew how absurdly outfitted she was. He had discovered her ridiculous devices—the newspapers she had sat up late last night to sew inside the inadequate green coat, the pair of stockings with their feet cut off she had used for wristers, the China silk shirtwaist she had wound tightly around her neck for an extra muffler, the fragment of knitting from her workbag she had pinned across her chest . . . Oh, he could wink with good reason now—sprained ankle, fainting spell, and all!
"Oh, well," she sighed, resigned, and made an attempt to shrug. It wasn't successful. It ended in a contorted smile.
"Are you in pain?" inquired Bord Mathewson.
"Oh, don't worry," Edna retorted. "I'm all right. I'm just where I belong now. This is my natural position—on my back. I'm used to it," bitterly she announced. Then, "Tell me how you got me here, and how you're going to get me out. Oh, I'm a great sort of a sportsman!"
It was not until after Edna had partaken of bread and hot bacon, apple pie and cheese, fed to her bit by bit, as if she was a ridiculous young bird in a nest (Mr. Mathewson gruffly forbade her to sit up, told her she had practically walked herself out, and had got to take it easy), that he explained to her their predicament. It had taken him, it seemed, almost two hours to locate this small cottage and carry her to it. In the meanwhile it had begun to snow. The wind was in the northeast. It would be unwise to attempt to find the way down the mountainside at night in a snowstorm, under any circumstances. As far as he could see, the members of the Bartlett party would have no reason to suspect that he and Miss Miller had not arrived safely at the hotel, and certainly there was no one at the hotel to suppose that any of the climbers had decided to turn back.
So there they were! But there was some food left from the supply he had brought, and he had discovered in the pantry of the cottage a can of tea, a package of cereal, a small bucket of flour, and actually several cans of condensed cream. They needn't starve. As soon as the others returned to the hotel, which according to the original plan ought to be the next night, a searching party, doubtless, would be sent out, if, in the meanwhile, the storm had not cleared sufficiently for him to reach the road at the foot of the mountain, and the farmhouse a mile or two farther on.
"The chief difficulty," he said, "is that ankle of yours. It ought to be fixed up as soon as possible. It looks to me more serious than a sprain. I've taken several courses in first aid. I might make a mess of it, you know; but I fixed up a man's ankle once when I was off in the woods, and it was all right."
"Very well, then," said Edna. "Go ahead and try your luck on mine."
It was dark by this time, and the operation was performed by roaring firelight. The cottage failed to produce a drop of any kind of oil for its lamps, and there wasn't a candle to be found. It was by firelight that Bord Mathewson witnessed Edna Miller's glorious exhibition of endurance, more stirring to him than any skill in athletics that she could have exhibited to him, even in her wildest dreams.
Afterward he had to go outdoors and stand a moment in the face of the buffeting storm to pull himself together. He had been unskillful, awkward, cruelly slow, but she hadn't protested, she hadn't made a whimper beneath his torturing hands. There had been fine little beads of perspiration on the bridge of her nose, the upturned hand which lay across her closed eyes had been tightly clenched, but she had not flinched. The crooked smile just given him, and the savage, "If you're through, for goodness' sake, please go," flung at him without sob or tears, after he had finished hurting her, gripped hold of his feelings, somehow.
When he joined her again he said, "I felt like a brute, hurting you like that."
"Oh, never mind," Edna replied flippantly. "It hurts to cure most anything, I suppose—bones, as well as foolish ambitions, and my ankle isn't the only thing you've helped to cure."
Humorous and sharp retorts to solicitous doctors, she had long ago discovered, proved her safest defense against tears. And now to Bord Mathewson she went on tartly, "I saw you wink at my expense that first night, and though it hurt a little at the time it has accomplished its purpose. For years I've nursed ambition to make of myself some day an all-round good sport. Silly, I know. I'm cured completely of it now—thank you kindly." And then, as Mr. Mathewson made no reply, simply stood and stared at her, she exploded, "Won't you please remove those absurd articles from the back of that chair, and stuff them out of sight somewhere?"
"I'm sorry," he murmured.
"I don't know what for," snapped Edna.
He had ridiculed this girl! She had seen him! "I'm sorry," he murmured again, and went out of the room.
He stuffed the stockings into a wood-box behind the stove in the kitchen. They were not absurd. No! All her pitiful defenses against the weather, discovered beneath the green coat, were not amusing to him. They were added evidence of her fighting spirit. He wanted to tell her so, but instead he remained in the kitchen and busily kindled a fire in the small stove. Good heavens, you wouldn't think a little soft thing like that was made of such stuff!
For two days and nights, Bord Mathewson and Edna Miller were imprisoned on the mountainside. All through the second day, an impenetrable white fury—shrieking wind, sweeping snow—raged round the secure little mountain cottage, holding in its grip not only Bord Mathewson and Edna Miller but, on the other side of the mountain in a small hotel, the other members of the Bartlett party.
For two days and nights, Bord Mathewson, who had never spent more than an hour at a time alone with a girl before in his life, found himself in the constant company of one, and one for whom, in spite of himself, a consuming sort of tenderness would possess him every third or fourth hour or so, in disturbing fashion, unexpectedly—when he was preparing her food or cutting fresh firewood in the shed with the light of her beckoning fire making the window-panes dance, or in the midst of a game of cribbage (a pack of cards had been discovered) when he was about to win, and she, glancing up at him and smiling gamely, in spite of pain, would hiss, "Beast!"
She suffered horribly. He knew that. Not only from the ankle. There seemed to be some difficulty with her back, too. She confessed to it finally, when he observed how cautiously she moved her arms.
"You're right. No use pretending," she had laughed. "It's a foolish backbone—about as appropriate for snow-shoeing as that paper-lined coat of mine."
Bord Mathewson seldom observed a woman's charms, and Edna Miller's were not of the kind to attract attention; but, strangely enough, their illusive quality was what caught him. The faint color in her cheeks was as evasive as sunshine on a cloudy day; and her blue eyes had a way of getting dark and starry when he, usually so loath to talk of his own affairs, found himself describing to her some of the hairbreadth escapes on the arctic trip. He persuaded himself that no man could be blind to the fine velvety texture of the girl's skin. That such a lovely creature could possess heroic qualities, too, jogged Bord Mathewson out of his usual indifference. She was like a tapering fishing-rod, exquisitely made, but with resistance concealed in her slenderness. She was like a maidenhair fern, frail, but with what a tough little stem! She was like a flag of fine silk, soft, you could crush it in your hand, but in the battle line, in the face of the wind, how stiffly it could wave!
Yes, Bord Mathewson had got to the point of thinking about Edna Miller in similes by the second day, when the searchers from the hotel discovered the missing pair, spotting them miles away by the ribbon of smoke from their open fire.
But it wasn't until Edna was established at the hotel that she learned Bord Mathewson's opinion of her. And then it was brought to her John Alden-wise, by the facetious man of the party.
"You ought to hear the bouquets Bord's throwing at you down-stairs," he said. "You've got the women all green with envy."
Edna was in a private sitting-room on the second floor, half reclining in a morris chair by an open fire, with a steamer rug thrown over her knees. It was some hours since her arrival. The doctor, speedily summoned and awaiting her, had long since left, and had given permission to the Bartlett party to see Miss Miller and offer their sympathy. They had all done so, men as well as girls. Of course everybody was excited. Nothing so thrilling as this had ever taken place in their midst. Edna had been riddled with questions.
They had found her looking flushed and startlingly pretty. She had on a pink fluffy thing, low in the neck. ("Imagine bringing that sort of a negligee up here!" had whispered one of the women.) Her manner had been apologetic, self-deprecatory, in the face of the women's thrusts at her, ill-concealed beneath their solicitous questions. She was so ashamed, she said. She had caused a lot of trouble. Oh, yes, Mr. Mathewson had been very kind about it all; but she realized how she'd interrupted his good time. She couldn't say how sorry she was.
"Oh, I'll wager Bord Mathewson is more disgusted with the sex than ever now," had concluded Fairlee Ormsbee after the interview.
"Cooped up with a helpless little creature like that for two days, I should say so!" had laughed Ollie.
It wasn't until after dinner that night that Bord made the quiet little speech which silenced the women and sent the facetious man, who was a kind-hearted one too, up-stairs, casually to report to Miss Miller the tribute paid her.
Bord had been spending the four or five hours since his return to the hotel at the station, where the clearest long-distance connection could be made with a certain Boston specialist on bones. He wasn't, therefore, available for an inquisition until dinner time. And then he did not prove at all satisfying. "He never makes a good story out of anything," complained one of the women. He was accommodating enough in answering all direct questions put him, about food and fuel and that sort of thing. It was when a question bordered on Miss Miller that he became so irritatingly non-committal.
"But, of course, he's got to be a gentleman," said Ollie. "To say nothing is probably the only civil thing he can do."
But Bord was simply waiting for a propitious moment in which to send off his fireworks. It didn't come until after coffee, over pipes and cigars and cigarettes, before the office fireplace. He chanced to be occupying the same big arm chair where four nights ago he had winked at Miss Miller's expense. All of the party, except Edna herself, were gathered round him.
"Well, girls," he drawled abruptly, in that patronizing way, he sometimes assumed, "I guess you've got about the whole story now. All you haven't got is my humble opinion of Miss Miller," he said, and he smiled drolly. Everybody's eyes were upon him.
He took his pipe out of his mouth. "Miss Miller," he announced casually, as if he were saying nothing very extraordinary, "has got any man I know beaten to a frazzle, when it comes to pluck." He stopped a second. "I've knocked around a good deal," he went on, "with all sorts and kinds—Indian guides, Finlanders, Swedes, toughened, weathered old customers—but I don't know that I've ever run up against any one who had more to fuss about, and yet made less of a fuss about it, than Miss Miller." The women's mouths were figuratively hanging open. "If we had had to starve to death, she'd have been sandy about it," he tucked in. He pulled on his pipe a moment reflectively. Nobody spoke. Then, "Miss Miller is as good a sport as I ever hope to meet," he announced quietly.
"Oh, but you didn't mean it," belittled Edna an hour later, when he sought her up-stairs. (For, "I've just been telling Miss Miller the things you've been saying about her," gayly sung out the facetious man as Bord came into the room, and as he went out.) "You didn't mean it," she laughed, alone with Mr. Mathewson. "You said it just to be nice—to make up for that wink. I understood. You didn't mean it."
"I did mean it," replied Bord, his eyes fastened upon her.
He had never seen her in anything but his canvas jacket. She was like a flower in that soft pink thing. A sudden vision of the cottage—of her, like this in the cottage on the mountainside, with the storm raging outside, possessed him.
"I did mean it," he said fiercely.
And then, as he became aware from her puzzled expression that his voice and eyes, in spite of him, were implying something even more astonishing, he turned away and began fingering something on the mantel. Even his clumsy fingers were shaking. He held one hand up for her to see, then shrugged and smiled.
"It's usually as steady as a lighthouse," he told her.