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XXV

INTERLUDE

The fifteen mill superintendents of the Halket Company, the general superintendent, and the president of the company had sat two hours in conference; the meeting was nearly at an end, and Floyd was summing up his final instructions.

"The main thing for us to remember," he concluded, "is to stand firm, but not to be aggressive. Let all your foremen know and through them try to spread the information that we don't contemplate bringing in strike-breakers or outsiders to start the mills. Make them see that we mean to look after all our old men and keep their places for them whenever they get ready to return to work. But let them know, too, that we're prepared to remain idle for a year, if need be, and incur any amount of loss rather than yield one of the points on which we've been insisting. You might intimate also that if any man chooses to return to work, he shall have the special protection of the management, and that any attempt to prevent him will only call out special efforts for his protection. I want to carry this matter through without any violence. No doubt the shut-down will be protracted, and very likely I could hurry matters to a crisis and compel an early surrender by bringing in new men. But that I will not do. There has been enough bitterness of feeling roused already, and there must be no step taken that may endanger a single life."

"We're to give it out, Mr. Halket, that we will take back the mischief-makers—Tustin, Caskey, and so on?" asked one of the superintendents reluctantly.

"Yes, even them. But we'll discriminate against them to this extent, it will be understood that they return upon sufferance, and that immediate discharge will be the penalty for any further agitation. Tustin's a man of ability, and if he would take hold the right way instead of the wrong, he could make himself very useful here; I'm willing that he should have another chance."

"Well," said the superintendent who had before spoken, "I look on Tustin as a good deal of a sow's ear myself."

There was a laugh in which Floyd joined. Even so," he said tolerantly, "maybe we can sometime induce him to suffer a sea-change into something new and strange."

"The only way you can do that," retorted the superintendent, "is by putting him first at the bottom of the sea.

"You wait," said Floyd. "We'll make a leather pocket-book out of him yet."

"All right—so long as we don't fill it with bank-notes," answered the superintendent, and the conference broke up in laughter. It had leaked out that the week before a walking delegate who had threatened to call a strike at some steel works in Avalon had been bought off by the manufacturer.

Among the superintendents and heads of departments there had grown up a genuine admiration for Floyd; they liked him and had confidence in him, and after the too indulgent policy that had for so long existed in the mills, they found his firm control invigorating. They were themselves all picked men, loyal and devoted to the company's service, privileged to comment and criticise, accustomed to show a good grace if overruled. Floyd for his part usually came away from the weekly conference with them in a better humor than that in which he had gone to it.

Now, after the others had all left the room, Floyd and Gregg remained.

"There are one or two small matters that I want to arrange with you, Mr. Gregg," Floyd said. "There's the case of Tibbs, for instance. He must be thinking I've done him a poor service to bring him on here from East Liverpool, where he had a good job, and then lock him out of the mills. I want you to see that his wages are continued as long as this trouble lasts. And see that the same is done for Farrell. Neither of those men is likely to participate to any large extent in the strike benefits of the union—and I feel it's the company's duty to take care of them."

"Yes, I'll attend to that," Gregg answered. "They'll have judgment enough, I suppose, not to talk about it."

"The other thing," Floyd said, with a faint smile, "is this. Unless you object very strongly, I'm going to give myself a three days' leave of absence."

"I don't see why not. Things here are quiet enough; there's not likely to be anything urgent very soon."

"That's what I think. And I have a matter up in New Hampshire that I want to attend to. I can leave to-night and get back Friday morning—only three days away. So if you're willing, I'll go."

"Yes, indeed—good thing for you. When you come back, you'll find us standing pat; there won't be anything else to do. Why don't you make it a week, Mr. Halket? You need a vacation, and we'll rub along."

Floyd shook his head. "Three days will be enough, I think. Wish me luck and I'll be back here Thursday morning."

He bade the superintendent good-by; downstairs he paused at the telegraph operator's desk to send a dispatch. He addressed it to Marion Clark at Westlake, New Hampshire. "Shall be in Westlake to-morrow afternoon; hope to see you," he wrote.

Though he was careful to make the visit seem so casual, it was for that alone that he was setting out upon the journey. The resolution had sprung suddenly alive that morning out of restlessness. The day before, some one at the club, talking with him about Stewart's inexplicable vagaries, had mentioned the fact that Lydia had come home. It was a fact which Floyd considered afterwards, rather sadly. The summer had had for him no lighter side. It had not only been a season of sorrow and of harassing cares; it had also been one of solitary living. In the daily performance of his duties, he had hardly realized his loneliness, his isolation, but now that the works were shut down and he found his employment diminished, if not, like that of his men, quite cut off, he could not keep reflection at bay any longer. It exhibited his life to him as pale and joyless, and rebuked him for allowing it to be so. When he had been told of Lydia's return, his first thought was that he would go to her and experience the agreeable sensation of being in her presence; nothing could inspirit him quite so much as the society and charm of a woman whom he liked—the woman whom he most liked. But other considerations checked this enthusiastic impulse. In the estrangement existing between himself and Stewart, it was impossible that he should remain on an unchanged footing with Stewart's wife. If she believed the charges that Stewart was making, her good opinion of Floyd must be tarnished; and Floyd realized that he must submit to the injustice of this rather than defend himself to her and so perhaps awaken a distrust of her husband. In short, their intimacy was at an end. If he went to see Lydia, she would ask why he should not yield the points on which Stewart was attacking him, why he and her husband should be so deplorably at loggerheads; and then he must either condemn himself or set forth the groundlessness of Stewart's accusations. She might, she doubtless would, hear other versions than that which Stewart would give her; but it was her duty to believe in her husband as far and as long as possible, and it would be easier for her to maintain her belief, Floyd thought, if he himself remained away.

In this moment of renunciation, his mind turned to Marion Clark, who had once pointed out to him the virtue of a light touch in women; it was something now that he would have very much appreciated, if there had only been some one at hand who could administer it sympathetically. It occurred to him that Marion herself would have been a good comrade at such a time. Occasionally, when he had leisure to be discontented with his life, he had suggested to himself the query—would it be more tolerable at this moment if Marion were sharing it? His answer had been invariably a qualified affirmative; at just these particular moments she would probably be a help, he admitted,—but for the rest of the time—he hardly thought her necessary. The shadow of Lydia had always lurked discouragingly in the background of his thoughts. But on this evening the shadow of Lydia ceased to be a resource and lingered only as a persecution. "If it were n't for having always been in love, I suppose I could fall in love now," he sighed. " And that would be a great thing for me—if the girl was willing." But then he went to bed feeling that he was in a weak and silly mood, and having no doubt that when he awoke in the morning he would be more normal.

Somewhat to his surprise, as he sat at breakfast the idea of Marion and her light touch returned to occupy his brain. It was attractive, it began to grow exciting. In the middle of the morning he decided abruptly that he would at once make a short visit of inspection. "She need n't know what I'm up to, and if I cool right off the moment I see her she need never know," Floyd thought. "And it's about a hundred to one that's what will happen." Then he had the additional thought, "But if I only could! I believe it would be a great thing for me." He wavered between an almost ecstatic recollection of her light touch and an almost utter repugnance for her overconfident, positive point of view. Displeased by his weakness, he commanded himself to drop the subject and await the test of a meeting.

Late the following afternoon he got off the train at the little country station. He was vaguely considering to which one of the two competing and decrepit carryalls he should intrust himself when he became aware that farther down the platform a young woman in a brown driving-coat was signaling to him from the high seat of her trap. She wore a brown veil, pushed up above her eyes; it was hardly a valid excuse for Floyd's uncertainty and hesitation in recognizing her as the person whom he sought. Then he hastened to her.

"Yes, I know you'd probably be safer behind either of those horses," she said, reaching a hand down to him. "But I hope you'll pretend you are n't afraid and get in here with me. Put your bag in behind."

"This flatters me very much," Floyd said as he obeyed her commands. "Am I to suppose that you've been watching and waiting for me on every train?"

"Of course I should have done that," she answered, laughing, "if it had been necessary. But as we have only one afternoon train here from anywhere, it was n't difficult to guess when you'd arrive. I think it's about the best hour of the day, too, for a visitor to come and get his first impression—just when the shadows are growing long. Don't you think it's a pretty country?"

"I do," Floyd assured her. "You know, to a fellow fresh—or stale—from Avalon, there's something uncanny about all this stillness—and peacefulness."

"Dear me," she said mildly, "do you find peacefulness uncanny? What shall I do to reassure you? When we make that turn just ahead, you'll see our mountain and lake—they are n't very tremendous, but we like them as well as if they were."

The road led at the turn out upon an exposed high place commanding a view down the valley—a valley of little hills on which rugged farms alternated with forest. Near at hand, however, rose one great conical peak that dominated all the others; no settler's axe had made an indentation on its majestic slope; here and there masses of early-changing foliage flashed like brilliant orange and red pennons among the climbing hosts of sober green. At the base of the mountain was the narrow line of the lake, sapphire blue in the clear light; a spire, the roofs of four or five houses emerged above the trees and indicated the settlement on the shore.

"Yes," said Floyd. "I should think you would like your mountain and your lake." But though he had been impressed by the beauty which the sudden opening up of the valley had revealed, he was more interested in glancing away from it to his companion's face. He wondered if the arrangement of the brown veil, drawn up above her eyes, contributed in some curious way to an expression softer than any he had hoped for—or whether such a look came upon her face in the presence of something that, like the mountain, she loved. When she spoke her voice seemed gentler; the feeling expanded in him that she was, unreservedly, a very pleasant person to be with.

She turned in at a white pillared gateway and drove up an avenue of maple-trees to a large white colonial house; an old-fashioned garden blooming with asters was laid out in front of it; the low box hedges stretched away across the lawn almost to the edge of the lake.

"You're going to stay with us," Marion said. "When I told the family you were coming, they insisted I should go after you and bring you here."

"Thank you; I'd like to stay—if you did n't go after me unwillingly. Your saying your family insisted—"

"Oh," she answered, with a laugh, "a girl can make her family the scapegoat for a great many of her own forward acts. I'll have you shown to your room, and then you must hurry down and have a cup of tea with me."

Floyd, following the butler up the staircase, was decidedly of the opinion that a girl who would always rise at once to one's little joke and carry it on so naturally was a pleasant person to be with.

When he came downstairs, she was standing by a window and looking out at a small catboat that was careening on the farther side of the lake. "Papa and his new toy," she explained. "He's perfectly daft over it; the only way we ever get him ashore is by going out and screaming at him through the megaphone. Mamma's out driving, so you and I will have to drink our tea by ourselves."

He suggested, when this ceremony had been finished, that she show him the garden.

"It's only the tag end of it," she said; "it's hardly worth seeing. It was pretty a month ago."

They walked together along the box-bordered paths; in the centre he paused to read the motto on the sun-dial, "I know none but sunny hours."

Then he said abruptly,—

"Is there a train for New York to-night?"

"Good gracious," she cried, "what a question! What's the matter with your room? Are you mad? either kind of mad—angry or insane—which?"

"I may have to go back to-night," he answered. "Very likely you don't know, but I left things at the works in rather an unsettled state; I don't like to be away. I came on to see you—to talk with you for about an hour, maybe—and then go back."

He looked for a moment in grave silence at her face. It had perhaps a little less color now than when she had left the house, but she showed no sign of emotion, hardly even surprise. As she waited for him to speak, she stood with the clear-eyed look of an interested young boy, erect, motionless, with her hands thrust into the pockets of her long coat.

"It's a pretty intimate unbosoming of myself that I've got to ask you to listen to," Floyd said. "I'm likely to make a mess of it however I begin, so I'll start right off by saying that I've been for a good while dissatisfied with my life, and never so much so as this summer. We'll omit the business situation; that is n't what I mean. But the going home at the end of the day to that big forlorn house of my grandfather's, with a lot of servants imposing on me the ceremony and formality that they and I have been brought up to—all that for myself alone—and I have n't felt as if it would be right to make a change; the poor creatures are dependent on that for their living, they're trying to be useful, and I can't turn them off—it's all they can do. But I don't care for such solitary state; it bores me; it bores me to do everything; it bores me to eat. The only thing that gets me through my meals is an interesting habit I've taken up of counting the number of times I chew each mouthful—and keeping a record in a little book; and that's not a very intellectual amusement, is it?"

"Not very; but it must be a healthful one. You look extremely well."

"Do I? Then I'm sorry to hear it, for I'm really in a very bad way and I want sympathy. I've come to you for sympathy," Floyd said solemnly. "I hope you'll give it." He hesitated a moment, then he continued with more genuine seriousness, "Of course the whole trouble is, I'm not satisfied to be a bachelor. I never have been satisfied, since I was old enough to—to care about a girl. There's one girl that I'd have married if I could, but Stewart Lee came in ahead of me. I ought n't to have gone on caring for her, but I did; I suppose I always shall, in some sort of way. At the same time I feel that that need n't prevent me from caring for my wife, if I were lucky enough to have a wife, and if she could overlook the fact of—of this other girl."

"Whom you really love," said Marion.

"Ah, it's hardly fair—or true—to say that," he answered, and he met her eyes with a gentle smile. "I care for you so very much, Marion; you're the only girl except Lydia for whom I've ever cared, and I—I should n't be asking you to be my wife if I did n't very much want you—"

"You're asking me, yet it's Lydia that you really love?"

He quailed a little under the reproach in Marion's voice, under the unfaltering yet not wholly ungentle look in her blue eyes.

"Ah," he pleaded, "truly you must not think that. I suppose it's not a very flattering way to propose marriage to a girl. I wanted to be honest. If you could take me in spite of Lydia, you would make me very happy."

"But what consideration do you offer me?" she said. She looked away towards the lake with speculative eyes; her composure remained undisturbed. "Of course I understand that your house is a large one, and you find it requires a great deal of care, which is annoying to you personally and which you would like to transfer to a woman's shoulders; and you find yourself at times rather lonely, and so you want to marry me! I can see why a wife might appear to you a desirable convenience; but, if you don't love the woman, what, besides your big house and your heavy cares and your name, have you to offer her? Not yourself."

"Yes, myself!" cried Floyd earnestly. He faced her with a sudden ardor. "That is n't much to offer, I know; I'm not witty or clever or especially interesting or handsome; but all there is of me goes to you, if you'll have it. To whom else would it go? Not to Lydia—not the smallest part; you don't think that? Why, when I've been downhearted this summer, isn't it you that I've turned to in my mind? and thought—if you were at hand to brace me up! A man cares a great deal for a girl if he keeps thinking of her when he's in trouble. And I don't feel as if it would only be trouble that I'd be bringing you if you would marry me. I don't think I'm an altogether selfish person. I believe that much as I should like being cheered up by you, it would n't be half so agreeable as feeling that now and then I could cheer you up. It would be a very pleasant thing for me if I knew that when I needed it I might always have your sympathy; but even better, I should like knowing that you would always be glad to have mine and would turn to me for it. If I care for you that way, Marion, have n't I a right to ask you to be my wife?"

"If you care for me that way,"—she spoke slowly, looking at the ground, and then she raised her eyes to his,—"why did your conscience find it necessary to say that you loved some one else?"

"That means—you will?"

She smiled and held out both hands. "I care for you so very much—myself."

He took her hands and drew her to him and kissed her, without a word; his speechlessness piqued her a little even in that first warm fluttering moment, but when he let her go and she looked up into his face, she was satisfied with what she saw.

"Ah, Floyd," she said, and her eyes lighted up with a gleam of humor through the mist of emotion and affection, "if you have any other confessions that you think you ought to make to me,—don't make them,—never make them."

He continued to look at her in silence, but there was something in the steadfastness of the look which stirred her heart exultantly.

"You've made me very, very happy," he said at last firmly. "Happier than I ever thought I'd be."

"It seems to me a very restrained happiness that you permit yourself," she answered with equal firmness. "But some day you will be really happy—for you are going to love me—and you are going to love only me."

He smiled and took her hand, but he wished that she had not said this; it was the first little speech in which had rung the jarring note of aggressive confidence.