Page:O Henry Prize Stories of 1924.djvu/284

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the papers, Jem Brown, listlessly investigating an iron stain on the rock wall below the spring, came upon his first appreciable find; for several days he examined certain details of his discovery and stood at last scowling down at the mat of floating gold particles in his pan, or staring with narrowed eyes at the place from which he had taken it. Here was fortune knocking! What answer should he make?

Irrelevantly half-forgotten scraps of overheard conversations between gold-hungry prospectors loitering about the trading-posts came back to him: cities, women, liquor, shop-worn girls, grimy pleasures. These were the prizes purchasable when money was plentiful; easy gifts of easy gains; frowning, he thought it over. Some instinct, which had made him detest towns and crave the austerities of the mountains, drew fastidiously back from contemplation of the proposed orgy. Meg Brown had only been his mother.

A little breeze stirred the trees and moved the blue gentians at his feet and, like a message, Jenny’s eyes looked up at him. “Remember—you promised!” came back her voice.

What had he promised? Oh, yes! To visit those palaces and cathedrals of which she had read to him. “But, Jenny, I was only a-jokin’! I wouldn’t a-promised if I’d thought I’d ever a-found this!” he expostulated aloud.

The gentians fluttered their fringed edges in the breeze. Jem Brown groaned. “I won’t be bullied! . . . But if I go back on my word I s’pose you’ll be a-remindin’ me of it from every foot of ground!”

The gentians were very still, very blue. “Oh, well, I’ll go!” he said, resignedly.

So commenced a pathetic odyssey. Amazed clerks in railroad and steamship offices listened to his terse stipulations, glimpsed his abundant moneys—and quickly arranged his itinerary.

He made a strange figure against the Old World backgrounds; his baggy readymade clothes attracted curious glances in the hotels which he patronized, accepting without comment, paying without question, for the quarters assigned him; and all the time dumbly enduring the smothering restrictions of four walls and a ceiling, or wandering, confused and miserable, through the clamorous babel of the cities. Of the other frequenters of fashionable hostelries he was en-