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CHAPTER XIV

In which, at last, we find a Hero


ILL-ADVISED, for many a week to come, was the man who mentioned piracy within the four gates of Chamboro.

Not that Lonely and his followers lost all that ancient and timeless exuberance of animal spirits which clings eternally to youth,—as the fire in the Barrisons' stable-loft, and the blowing up of old Witherspoon's garden wheel-barrow, with gunpowder, eloquently enough testified.

But in Chamboro, just between early harvest apple-time and the muskmelon season, there was one particular spot round which the thoughts and fancies of the boy-mind invariably and ever wistfully centred.

This spot was Cap'n Steiner's orchard. For in that well-guarded little riverside domain bloomed the one tree of Chamboro's forbidden fruit, a strange and legendary thing, of more than earthly trunk and leaves, which made the old Captain's high board fence, militantly surmounted by a many-pronged barbed wire, seem strangely like the wall which once shut the children of Adam out of the Garden of Eden.

Some thirty years ago, while pottering about among his fancy fruit-trees, Cap'n Steiner had made an experiment. On a bough of one of his vigorous young Strawberry Reds he had grafted the sprig of a Brandywine pear. Then he had carefully bound up the wound with grafting-wax and a piece of Miss Arabella's old flannel petticoat—Arabella, in those days, the older men held, was rarely comely and rosy-cheeked—and waited somewhat doubtfully for the outcome.

The strange marriage of aliens was an unlooked-for success. The Strawberry Red took kindly to the Brandywine pear, and before so many years had slipped away the good people of Chamboro beheld a wonder growing up in their very midst, a miraculous tree, one side of which bore abundant harvests of Strawberry Red apples, while the boughs of the other side were weighed down with a succulent wealth of Brandywine pears.

Nor was this all. Into the mellow and luscious mealiness of the one strangely blended and mingled the buttery and melting juices of the other, so that for years the divided youth of Chamboro had disputed as to which was finer, the Brandy wines from the south side, or the Strawberry Reds from the north side. These arguments were always accompanied by much pensive smacking of lips, and year in and year out many a young mouth had watered at vivid descriptions of old Cap'n Steiner's forbidden fruit.

Due word of this wondrous tree set Lonely O'Malley to thinking. In time these continuously rapt and highly embellished recountals even prompted him to action.

But there were difficulties. For twenty years and more, every boy in the village had nursed designs on old Cap'n Steiner's apples. Men who were growing slightly bald still rubbed their vests and told ruefully how near, such and such a night, they came to getting a hatful of the old fellow's Strawberry Reds. So powerful a magnet had this tree stood to predaceous youth that the old Captain had grown schooled in craft, and in time had learned all the arts and tricks and dodges of his besiegers. Now, town tradition undeviatingly held, the old Captain sat at an open window throughout the month of August, with a spy-glass in one hand and a shot-gun loaded with rock salt in the other. There were signal wires, too, the town boys said, running mysteriously into the house, where so much as the touch of an intruding foot rang a little alarm-bell and brought forth the owner and the shot-gun.

All this did not serve to discourage Lonely. If anything, it only tended to make him more fixed in purpose. He first spent several afternoons in reconnoitring, guardedly exploring the fence and prodding about for possible loop-holes. None was to be found; so, foiled here, he resorted to strategy.

He dug up and washed a goodly sized bunch of horse-radish, and, placing this neatly in the bottom of a basket, boldly opened the great, sagging front gate, and as boldly went down the dilapidated old board-walk. He wore, as he did so, his meekest and most wistful look of innocence.

But close beside his straight and narrow path he noticed a score or two of mellow red astrachans, still lying seductively ruddy against the dark green of the orchard grass.

The temptation was too much for Lonely.


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WITH A SPY-GLASS AND A SHOT-GUN


He side-stepped nimbly in under the tree, and, looking furtively about to see that he was unobserved, quickly thrust four of the finest apples down into his blouse-front.

Then he went on his way, innocently and calmly whistling his cheery discords. He stopped only when he found himself confronted by the suspicious and belligerent eye of Miss Arabella. Even then he did not quail, only he remembered, at the time, that certain small girls in the village, holding Miss Arabella to be a witch, always passed her with crossed fingers and scuttled away at her threatened approach.

"I was wonderin' if you 'd like to buy some horse-radish?" Lonely looked back at her boldly, thrusting up one shoulder and squinting blandly, although his sharp eyes had already caught sight of an immense hedge of horse-radish not a hundred yards away from him, against the east fence.

"Stop that squintin'!" said Miss Arabella, in a shrilly stentorian voice.

"Yes, ma'm!" said Lonely, meekly.

"An' stop hunchin'!"

"Yes, ma'm!" answered the boy, steadying himself up against the cistern pump.

"Now, are n't you Lonely O'Malley?" demanded the old lady suspiciously.

The boy nodded, wondering what was to come next. He was hoping, as sometimes had happened, that it might be a slice of bread and butter, with peach jam on it.

Miss Arabella looked at the basket, and sniffed aloud.

"You 're Lonely O'Malley, are you? Then you just get out of this orchard, as fast as them young legs can carry you!"

Lonely's jaw dropped in sheer astonishment.

"Travel now!" she cried, "or I 'll Lonely O'Malley you!"

And with a celerity quite unexpected in one of her years Miss Arabella reached in through the open door, and made after the fleeing Lonely with a broom.

Now, the less designing type of boy would have bolted for the gate. But Lonely had not accomplished his purpose; and having the utmost confidence in his dodging and sprinting ability, he made audacious tracks for the river, circling well in through the orchard and keeping a sharp look-out for one particular tree, the Strawberry Red. In this way, pursued by the irate maiden lady, he made three fleet tours of the orchard, during each circuit audaciously picking up a red astrachan and storing it away in his blouse.


PURSUED BY THE IRATE MAIDEN LADY
Then he dodged aside and slipped out through the gate, A minute or two later he heard it slammed and locked after him. He had not discovered the forbidden fruit, but a new thought had come to him. The way to storm his enemy's position was obviously from the water-front.

He spent the rest of the next morning along the river-bank, just above the old Captain's orchard. There, while looking over the ground and perfecting his plans, he came unexpectedly upon Pauline Augusta Persons, sailing chip-boats at the river-edge.

"You 'd better get home out o' this!" he commanded, scowling darkly down at her. "Git!" he repeated.

Pauline Augusta, beholding her old-time enemy thus threatening her, fled pell-mell to the near-by shelter of a clump of burdocks, amid which she pushed and squatted, quite motionless, somewhat after the fashion of a very young robin. Her enemy scowled over toward her once or twice; but vaster concerns preoccupied his mind. A raft of elm logs lay close in to the shore, waiting for the screaming mill-saw to rip them up into two-inch planks. Watching his chance, when the mill-men were away at dinner, he quietly loosened the piece of logging-chain which held the lower end of the boom, and then silently poled the raft downstream. Opposite the upper corner of the old Captain's orchard he worked it close in to the bank again, making it fast to a young willow.

Before him lay the open Garden of Eden, the garden wherein grew the forbidden fruit, and wherein lurked, he grimly reminded himself, a very shrill-voiced serpent. The logs drifted down the languid current and filled up the boom space. One escaping truant he rescued just in time. Then he made sure that the others were safe, calmly studying his would-be course, should his escape prove a hurried one.

Finally he stept ashore, and crawled up the grassy bank that sloped so gently down to the water's edge. Here, he felt, was an adventure worthy of his steel.

Lonely looked about, gopher-like, dropping flat on his stomach as the side door of the Captain's house opened. It was his one-time stay and support in things of the spirit, Miss Mehetabel Wilkins, bidding a voluble good-day to Miss Arabella.

When the coast was once more clear he crept as far as he dared up the sloping river-bank. There he studied the situation at closer range. Tree by tree, his squinting young eyes went over the orchard, until, at last, he caught sight of the forbidden fruit itself.

There stood the old tree, halfway between the Captain's trim little boat-landing and his wide-open back door.

On the one side Lonely could see the russet yellow of the Brandywine pears, on the other, the streaked crimson and yellow of the Strawberry Reds.

Then, after the fashion of all famous hunters and scouts, he dropped prone on the grass, face downward, and stealthily, foot by foot, wormed his circuitous way nearer and nearer the tree. At intervals he lay motionless, a brown spot on the parched brown of the open orchard grass. The busy rattle of dishes floated out to him, warning the intruder that Miss Arabella was "washing up." Then whiffs of the old Captain's pipe-smoke drifted lazily through an open window. The guinea-fowl down in the chicken-yard cluttered and screamed. The sawmill whistled for one o'clock.

As that brazen wail of sound died away, Lonely's arms closed about the rough trunk of the old Strawberry Red. The next second he was shinning nimbly up into its shadowy boughs.

He swung his lithe body across a comfortable-looking crotch, where he sat straddle and gazed in round-eyed wonder at the wealth about him, within reach of his hand, his to capture and devour, with only a few hornets buzzing appreciatively at one or two of the ripest pears.

"Yum! Yum!" said Lonely O'Malley aloud, in rapt anticipation.


First he tasted an apple. He tried to make the resulting smack inaudible, but that was out of the question. Never could one of the apples of the Hesperides have tasted sweeter on the lips of Hercules himself than did that Strawberry Red to the mouth of Lonely O'Malley. Never had he bitten rapturously into fruit like unto this of Cap'n Steiner's.

Then he tried a Brandy wine pear. His eyes rolled up ecstatically, his lips clucked and smacked, as he licked the too opulent juices from his sticky fingers. He reached for another and then another, selecting those round which the hornets buzzed thickest, the ripest and sweetest and juiciest, going back to the apples once more, and still unable for the life of him to decide which were the better, the Brandywines or the Strawberry Reds themselves.

Then something happened, something as unlooked for as it was disconcerting. This surprise took the form of Miss Arabella herself, calmly and methodically propping the back of Cap'n Steiner's old canvas camp-chair against the trunk of the tree in which Lonely sat perched. A moment later the old Captain himself appeared, and Miss Arabella went over to the side veranda for her rocking-chair.

The old Captain stretched himself out for his customary noonday nap. Miss Arabella put on her spectacles, opened her "Family Guardian," and asserted that she was ready for a good long spell o' reading before she was going to get settled down after that young varmint's leading her such a chase—the young whipper-snapper!

The young varmint and whipper-snapper at this pricked up his guilty young ears.

The old Captain, leaning back in his chair, swore softly behind his red bandanna, spread over his face to keep away the flies.

"The young limb!" he mumbled, wrathfully. "If I had him here! If I—"

"There 's no use getting het up, Silas, about that boy. He ain't here, so what 's the good o' swearing that way and saying what you 'd do?"

Miss Arabella was on the point of continuing her discourse when a mealy Strawberry Red, falling apparently from its mother bough, smote her sharply on the head.

"Goodness gracious me!" said Miss Arabella, feeling the spot. "'Bout time this fruit was gettin' canned!"

But the irate old Captain sat up, waving his stick. He was about to enter into a detailed and impassioned account of what he would do, once the fit and proper occasion presented itself, when his eye chanced to fall on some half-dozen apple-cores lying scattered at his feet. His mouth remained open, but this time in silent wonder; and he looked from the tree to the cores, and from the cores back to the tree, and then at Miss Arabella.

Lonely, peering carefully down through the leafy shadows, could make out the strange look, but could not guess at its cause.


STRETCHED HIMSELF OUT FOR HIS NAP
"Arabelly Steiner, somebody 's been a-eating these Strawberry Reds!" he announced, sternly, stooping forward and examining one of the tell-tale cores, turning it over critically with the end of his stick.

"Tommyrot!" said Miss Arabella, deep in her "Family Guardian."

"Don't tommyrot me, ma'm! I say somebody's been at my tree!"

And in proof of his assertion he thrust a well-munched core before her skeptical eyes.

"An' the cannin' factory buyin' this fruit at four dollars a bushel!" he went on, indignantly.

But the spirit of peace had already taken possession of Miss Arabella's soul.

"Well, what 's an apple or two, anyway, Silas? I s'pose it 's been that O'Malley kid, or some other young thief!"

A large ripe apple fell and went into a dozen pieces on the back of Miss Arabella's rocker.

"And it 's time them Strawberry Reds were picked, anyway!" she announced, with decision.

She turned again to her "Family Guardian." The old Captain, finding his muttered thunderings elicited no response, settled himself back in his chair, and was soon sending forth sonorous and rhythmical snores. Miss Arabella now and then turned a page. Lonely began to itch, and scratched himself cautiously. It was hot and close up among the dense foliage, and his legs were getting stiff and cramped. He wished he could get away and go in for a good swim. The hornets buzzed noisily about him; one even settled on the calf of his leg, and in a sudden terror of fear he wondered if it would sting him; and if so, could he keep from hollering.

It seemed to get hotter as time wore on. By stretching his neck carefully he could catch a glimpse of the limpid and cool-looking river water, ruffling and shimmering in the afternoon sunlight. He scratched himself once more, and even wished he could go to sleep. The blue flies buzzed; the bees and hornets hummed, the leaves stirred lazily; the relaxing little bare leg fell forward. A moment later Lonely was fast asleep up among Captain Steiner's Strawberry Reds.

His head drooped lower and lower; his body sagged comfortably down in the wide tree-crotch. The old Captain wakened, removed his red bandanna, and was gazing dreamily and contentedly up into the gloomy and cool-looking shadows of the tree, when suddenly a boy's hat fell, as from an open sky, into his startled lap.

The old Captain examined that hat carefully; then he tiptoed cautiously over to Miss Arabella, who whispered back to the Captain, and shook her head in unison with him, and then hurried to the wood-shed for the garden-rake.

Mounting perilously on the edge of his chair, the old Captain pushed back the screening boughs, and revealed the unconscious form of the apple-thief, deep in his innocent dreams.

The old Captain chortled wickedly, and rubbed his hands together. He left Miss Arabella on guard, and hobbled houseward for a clothes-line.

"He-he, the young rapscallion! The pirootin' young womper—we 've got him! My cookie-pie, we 've got him now!" he chuckled, as he emerged with the hempen emblem of bondage. But about the sleeping boy the impending knot of bondage was never tied.

The old Captain was suddenly startled by the shrill and terrified voice of Miss Arabella. His first thought was that Lonely had made good his escape.

"Silas! Silas! Quick! On them logs, there—there, above the landing! It's Pauline Augusta! Be careful, child! Oh, be careful!"

Miss Arabella was already hurrying toward the river-bank. The strands of hemp rope dropped from the old Captain's fingers.

"Stand steady, child, stand steady! Be still!" screamed Miss Arabella. Her fifty years of life beside that quiet old river and its rafts had taught her a little of the darker history of its shimmering, glinting midsummer water, and of the treachery of the sullen logs that floated so lazily on its shadowy surface.

"Don't move, child! Don't move till I get the boat!" she cried again. And already one or two of the closer neighbors, wondering what could be the meaning of such outcries from the quiet old orchard home, were hurrying in through the high-posted gateway.

But Pauline Augusta, herself surprised at so much noise and half-afraid to advance or retreat along the narrow boom-timber on which she stood, decided, in her moment of new-born doubt, to make for dry land. The round logs lay crowded together, providing a path between her and the grassy bank. As a new sense of terror took hold of her, she stepped recklessly from the squared and solid boom-timber to the logs that lay nearest her.

Lonely, wakened suddenly out of an uneasy sleep, in which he had dreamed his flying-machine was breaking down on a cruise half-way to the moon, dazedly parted the thick apple branches and glanced down toward the river.

He heard the child's sudden, sharp little cry; he saw the log tip and roll and spin. A second later Pauline Augusta had disappeared from sight.

A groan went up from the women, helpless with the horror of it all. The old Captain tremblingly flung off his alpaca coat, and was tugging resolutely at his waistcoat.

"No, no, brother!" Miss Arabella cried, clinging to him madly. "You 're too old, too old,—you must n't do it!"

The old Captain broke away from her.

"By gad, ma'm—"

But that was as far as he got, for a sudden crisp little splash fell on the ears of the frantic group. A darting shadow, crowned with an unkempt halo of russet brown, had sped down the sloping bank and cut arrow-like into the quiet water. It had seemed like the swoop and dip of a kingfisher.

The watching group waited, motionless, speechless, as the arrow-like figure dove straight for the little line of bubbles that drifted out from under the lower end of the raft.

A moment later a hand appeared above the water, then a sandy head, then a face. It took one short breath, and with an adroit kick of the heels went down again. He had missed her.

The group on the bank gasped. After all, it would be too late. The seconds sped away; he had not found her.

Then a sudden sign of commotion disturbed the surface of the quiet river. Hands appeared, and two heads, scratching and clutching and fighting hands, and two threshing bodies, strangely tangled together.

"By gad, he 's got her!" shrilled the old Captain. The sound of a woman's hysterical wailing rose through the quiet orchard, weirdly, uncannily.

Inch by inch the boy was fighting his way toward the bank, all the while striving to keep that rolling head with the streaming and matted hair above the surface of the water.

"Git a barrel!" he panted, as his knee struck the oozy bottom.

A dozen, hands were ready and waiting to help them out.

"Git a barrel!" ordered the boy again, before even his feet were on the grassy slope.

"Yes, sir," cried Miss Arabella, insanely, as she flew to the wood-shed and staggered weakly back with an empty apple-barrel. Two of the children had already been sent off for old Doctor Ridley.

Once, in Cowansburg, Lonely had witnessed and assisted in the time-honored and ancient method of resuscitation by barrel. And it was not until he had seen Pauline Augusta none too gently turned upside down, and well dipped and prodded, and then rolled in hot blankets and given a sip or two of cherry brandy, that he gave any thought to himself.

"Gee whittaker," he said, weakly, "I—I feel kind o' funny!" And with that he plumped down on the grass, helplessly, with his eyelids quivering, and his toes twitching spasmodically.

Whether or not Lonely was about to faint, history will never record. Whether or not it was the stern old face of Cap'n Steiner which brought back a rush of very recent memories and caused that artful simulation of utter weariness, far be it from his present biographer to say.

But he was promptly given a generous, an almost too generous, drink of cherry brandy, and even before Pauline Augusta was carried off to bed in the quiet, cool house, his old-time self-content had returned to him. Yet he was glad to be let alone. He lay in the sun, steaming, alone and forgotten, dreamily watching the open sky and inwardly remarking what fine, warm-feeling stuff cherry brandy really was.

Half an hour later. Doctor Ridley came out of the quiet and muffled house, his faded old eyes unnaturally bright, his fingers meditatively feeling through the two capacious pockets hidden away under his black coat-tails. For once in his life that almost unfailing supply of horehound drops and peppermints, which had brought happiness to many a dozen children, was found to be exhausted. He had been hearing a thing or two about Lonely O'Malley. Again he felt fruitlessly in the depths of his pockets, looking short-sightedly about for the boy himself.

He suddenly stood transfixed, in his quest for his modest young hero, both puzzled and startled by the scene which met his eyes.

On the river-bank, outlined against the afternoon glare of the quiet water, stood Lonely and Cap'n Steiner, speechless, each vindictively eyeing the other.

The Captain's oak stick was in his upraised hand; his body shook with the stress of some strange emotion. This, the wondering Doctor took note, appeared to be one of rage when he confronted the glowering boy. Yet when his face was turned away, in the direction of the Doctor, it seemed one of sternly repressed hilarity.

"You—you young limb!" gasped the Captain, faintly, looking from Lonely to his tree of Strawberry Reds, and then back to the squinting and hunching Lonely once more.

"You rapscallion! You—you pirooting young varmint! I 'm a-going to whale the hide off you!"

"Well, do it!" said Lonely, sulkily, looking as though he would be much relieved at such a procedure.

"Silas!" cried Miss Arabella from the side door. "Silas! Don't you be hard on that poor child!"

"He-he! He-he! Hard on him—the worst young limb in all Chamboro! Why, whalin' 's too easy for him!"


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EACH VINDICTIVELY EYEING THE OTHER

 
"I declare to goodness, Silas Steiner, you 're a worse old tyrant than I ever took you for! You leave off pesterin' that boy and let him come in and git some dry clothes and something good to eat!"

The Doctor walked slowly over and put his kindly old hand on Lonely's sandy, bedraggled, and very unhappy head.

"Lonely, I 'm proud of you!" was all he said. But it was enough. He looked down into the boy's rebellious and unfathomable eyes, still slightly unsteady from the effects of Miss Arabella's too potent cherry brandy. Then he looked out at the quiet river, and at the huddled logs and the spot over which had hovered so closely the wing of tragedy. "You 're not cut out for a hero, my boy, but you almost made one!" he repeated, solemnly.

Lonely grew even more uncomfortable. This being torn between the opposing forces of kindness and wrath was too much for him. He wished he could get away, and make tracks for the cave or the swimming-hole. Even the approach of Miss Arabella, with a glass of cider and a large slice of fruit-cake, did not alleviate his inward unrest.

"Proud of him! A hero! Why, dammit, sir," roared the old Captain, "d' you know that young limb has been a-stealin' my Strawberry Reds—the first young varmint to git at that fruit o' mine this thirteen year back—and under my very nose, sir!"

"Tut, tut!" said the old Doctor.

"I could have overlooked that! But when he comes a-struttin' up to me and tells me, cool as a cowcumber, that he 's been at 'em—the—then I 've just got to let out!"

"Fiddlesticks!" said the old Doctor.

"Yes, fiddlesticks!" repeated Miss Arabella. And she placed the cake and cider on the sundial, and stooped down over Lonely, unexpectedly putting her maiden arms hungrily about the sodden figure.

The boy himself looked about furtively, wondering if any of the women folks had seen it. The two old men walked slowly away, arm in arm, under the shadowy apple-trees. The Captain chuckled quietly, deep down in his throat.

"Why, Doc, I believe I would a-bawled—a-bawled like a demned baby, if I had n't a-gone for him that fashion!"

"Fiddlesticks!" said the old Doctor again.

Yet the two old cronies continued to pace up and down together, arm in arm, under the fruit-laden trees, looking after the sandy-headed boy as he was led away into the strange, shadowy house.

There Miss Arabella and the Widow Starbottle buzzed solicitously about him, imagining that his all too obvious unhappiness was something of the body, and not of the soul. Even Lionel Clarence's mother wanted to know if Lonely did not feel proud of himself, and asked him for the fourth time just how he did it, and patted him on the head, and said he was one of Nature's little noblemen.

"What t' ell 's all this rumpus about?" was the bewildered question which Nature's little nobleman was asking himself in vain.

Then a door that led into the darkened bedroom opened quietly, and Pauline Augusta's mother appeared on the threshold.

Lonely edged closer to Miss Arabella.

"Say, Mis' Steiner," he muttered, under his breath, guardedly, "are we square 'bout those Strawberry Reds?"

Miss Arabella had completely forgotten. Yet she sighed a little as she looked into the shrewd, the guilty, and the altogether unhappy face of Lonely,—sighed as one might over a stain in a fine new gown, or at a cloud on the sky-line of a perfect day.

"Yes, of course. Lonely! Don't you see, you 're a hero now! And there 's Mrs. Persons hunting all round for you!"

Lonely looked relieved, and as the grateful mother of the girl he had dragged from under the raft came over to him, he batted his eyes solemnly, and tried to look wistful, and puffed out his chest with a new sense of dignity.

The pale-browed mother took the thin and sunburned face between her two trembling hands. Twice she essayed to speak and twice she failed, the quiet tears welling up to her eyes, and rolling unheeded down her cheeks. Then she deliberately bent over and kissed the worst young limb in all Chamboro, on his hot and perspiring young brow.

"My hero!" she murmured, inadequately.

Her arms were locked about the still sodden and shrinking little figure, to whom love was so alien and so unknown. He tried to writhe and twist away, but could not.

"Ah, Lonely, Lonely, how shall I ever pay you back for this?" asked the woman, sobbingly, with relaxing and sorrowful happiness.

Bitterly, heroically, Lonely fought and struggled against the implacable tide of emotion that seemed engulfing him. His lips quivered; a smarting tear-drop or two coursed down over a freckly pathway.

"What is it, dear?" asked the woman, bending over him.

"I—I wan't to go swimmin'," murmured Lonely, huskily, inadequately, but honestly.


And at this precise point, Master Lonely O'Malley, I must leave you at last, a hero,—hybrid of good and bad, as are all earth's heroes at heart. It may be only for your brief little day, but still I leave you, a hero. For to-morrow, I know, the eternal boy will reassert itself, the old blood will break out, the glory will be faded, the halo will be either sadly awry or altogether missing, the saint will be fallen from its snowy niche.

To-morrow, alas! you will be knee-deep in the old restless wickednesses,—yes, up to your generous young ears in all the old evils, tripping and stumbling and falling with the same restless young feet over the same old inexorable temptations, a child of those wayward impulses and dreams which make you so sadly unsatisfying, so human, and, I dare say, so commonplace!

 

The Riverside Press
Electrotyped and Printed by H. O. Houghton & Co.
Cambridge, Mass., U. S. A.