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THE IMP DISPOSES

 

 

 

THE IMP DISPOSES


NOTHING was so pleasing to the Imp as an invitation to accompany Miss Eleanor on some expedition or other. He adored her, and her conquest was the more noteworthy in that her hair was not red, but a dark, dark brown. Generally speaking the Imp lost his heart to red-haired femininity. There was the little cash-girl in the department store, there was—but the list could only cover the ladies with embarrassment and serves no present end. When it comes to that, who cares a particle where the snows of yester-year may be? It is polite, doubtless, to bewail them, but like most polite performances, hollow at the core.

Enough that since that hot afternoon when, weary and cross with a long stage drive the Imp had stumbled up the steps of the hotel piazza and bumped into a brilliant scarlet dress so violently that it collapsed with him and they sank to the floor together, he had worshipped the dress and the wearer. On that occasion he had been drenched in mortification. He had hardly dared to lift his eyes above the waist of the scarlet dress. In fact he burrowed obstinately into the lap of it and refused to move. As he lay there, sobbing with rage and shame and sleepiness, clutching a ruffle like grim death, utterly oblivious to the hasty rush of masculine feet, the pulling of feminine fingers, the anxious "Has he hurt you? Let me help you up! Come here, child—let go!" he felt his hot little hand actually strengthened in its grasp on the ruffle by a cool, soft one, that came from under a surge of scarlet; he heard above the confusion a voice very near his own bowed head, a voice not rough, but with a strange sweet little shake in it that made the other women's voices sound high and thin.

"Let us alone, please! Don't you see how mortified we are? Please go away! We can help each other up, can't we, Boy?"

When angels out of heaven speak, it is in that tone, beyond the shadow of a doubt.

As the Imp lay there, and the footsteps gradually retreated, the murmur of voices softened, he became aware that the air around him was strangely sweet. His nose, pressed against the scarlet crêpe, sniffed inquiringly, his head raised a little. Instantly another cool hand slipped under his neck and he was pulled a little higher into the red lap. At first he resisted, but as the hand pressed his head closer, again he wriggled up involuntarily—it was sweeter yet! Up among a nest of fluffy softness it was sweetest of all, and there the Imp hid his head. Later he stole a glance at her chin, which was very close, and as she was absolutely silent, he even went so far as her nose. Still she made no sign. The Imp felt a flood of renewed self-respect rise within him. He drew a long sigh, lifted his eyes and faced her.

Then he realized that he had known her always—she lived in a picture frame in his Aunt Gertrude's room.

"Oh, do you live here?" he said wonderingly.

She nodded. "Will you help me up?" she asked in a matter-of-fact way, and he scrambled up and benevolently assisted her. He had really forgotten how she came to fall. I cannot describe her any better.

From time to time he heard strange things said of her. Grown people express themselves most oddly, when you consider their remarks seriously. The very day after the scene I have described, as he was waiting for the luncheon bell to ring, he heard two ladies discussing her.

"Ah, she's perfectly wonderful, my dear, beyond a doubt. Do you know another woman who'd have carried an affair off like that? To be butted down before a whole piazza-full! I should have died at her age."

"And the way she sat and held him, afterward! The men went perfectly wild over it. Mr. Florian took a snap-shot of it, they tell me. He mounted it, and wrote The Madonna of the Piazza under it, and sent it to her after breakfast."

"Well, she did look very sweet sitting there. Her skirt fell very well. It's the accordeon-pleating, I suppose."

"Yes. Mr. Bishop said this morning that he understood Turkish furnishing as never before. He said that if women knew more they'd sit on the floor more—what do you think of that, my dear?"

"Oh, well, she's simply done herself good by it, instead of being made ridiculous, as any one else would have been. The men like her even better."

That evening the Imp annoyed his mother by replying calmly, when she chided him for tagging about after Miss Eleanor too much—his devotion was scandalous—"Oh, it didn't hurt her; she said she was all right. She told you herself. And anyway, it did her good."

"Did her good! What on earth do you mean?"

"The men like her better!"

"Good heavens! Do you suppose, Donald, we can get our cottage next week? If we have to stay here much longer I sha'n't dare let that child out of my sight!"

A rule was finally announced that threatened to darken his days for the rest of the summer, had he not been confident of Miss Eleanor's assistance in the matter. He was not to follow her about without an invitation. When the young gentleman in white flannels, and Mr. Florian with his everlasting camera, and Mr. Bishop, who said such foolish things that the best thing to do was to turn away with dignity and let the rest laugh if they wished, and Mr. Hunter, who played the guitar when she asked, but would never so much as imitate a drum on the bass strings for the Imp—when all these, I say, gathered round her and shuffled each other about and suggested errands for each other and the Imp, he was not to worm his way through the group and cuddle her hand and grin at them triumphantly. Personal and particular summons must precede such action on his part.

So he lurked on the outside of the ring that always surrounded her and cast such glances as would have melted a harder heart than the one that beat under the sweet-smelling red chiffons. Sometimes on such occasions she would single him out and they would start for a walk alone, the group dissolving behind her as quickly as it had formed. And this, as I said, was particularly pleasing to the Imp.

To-day, however, things went wrong in the very beginning. Miss Eleanor had a headache and asked him please not to step all the time on her skirt; he had been sent from the breakfast-table for rudeness to the waiter, which rankled still at ten o'clock; it appeared that their walk was to end at the big tree half way through the wood that separated the North Beach from the South Beach. This was hardly enough to stretch
 
P 132--The imp and the angel.jpg

So he lurked on the outside of the ring that always surrounded her.

 
one's legs—and he had boasted to one of his friends that he would have walked all of three miles, probably, before his return! So when Miss Eleanor stopped under the big tree, sat down, and took out a book, he groaned aloud with disgust and disappointment.

"Dear, dear!" she said, sitting back comfortably, "you sigh as if you were in love! Not that I ever knew anybody to sigh under such circumstances—it's indigestion mostly, they say. Are you in love?"

"Huh?" said the Imp inquiringly.

"Because if you are, I am sorry for you," she went on. "It's not worth it, Perry, take my word for it."

"I love cream," announced the Imp, with a reminiscent glare—it was in the matter of cream that he and the waiter had recently disagreed. Miss Eleanor laughed.

"Cream!" she said. "A good, safe object, I'm sure. Stick to it, dear, and be happy. If it isn't so exciting at first, at least it isn't horrid and troublesome at the end. It has no nasty, suspicious tempers—not that tempers are the worst things in the world. It's far worse to have them and control them. To be sarcastic and cool—Oh, so cool!"

"Ice-cream is cold," said the Imp argumentatively, "dreadful cold. But I love it, just the same. I love it more. It stings my eyes and aches my nose—the top part—and I us'ally scream right out. We have it here quite often, don't we?"

"Coldness is all very well in ice-cream, but very different in—in other things one likes—has liked," Miss Eleanor continued decidedly. "You aren't blamed if it is cold. You aren't informed that so long as you act as—as you do act it will continue to be cold—as if you were a child of twelve! If ice-cream is cold, it's not your fault."

"'Tis too," rejoined the Imp stubbornly, "if you freeze it! It don't freeze itself, does it?"

"Ah!" said Miss Eleanor softly, "Ah-h!" as if it hurt her to breathe.

"Let it alone, if you don't want it to freeze," pursued the Imp instinctively. He had no idea what they were talking about, but he was not by way of analyzing conversational plans; he took sentences as he found them. Indeed, experience had taught him that this was his only practical method of joining a general conversation. Questions or contradictions were fatal to his social schemes. In order to avoid the subsequent embarrassment of suppression or even expulsion, he had become an adept at plunging directly up to his neck in the stream of talk, dispensing easily with preliminary assumptions and final conclusions.

"Did you know that the ice they put around the thing that holds it while it's freezing is awful to eat?" he added confidentially. "I always eat out of the ice-cart at home, while the man is tak- it in the house—little bits on the floor of the wagon, you know. You can lick off the sawdust and they taste very good. Last Sunday morning I took a few little pieces out of one of those tall red pails out in the back—" he paused and scowled reminiscently, "I had to swallow them, because I began to, but they made me feel awfully—awfully!"

Miss Eleanor was looking over his head, through the wood. Her eyes were very soft and dark. She made no reply and he knew perfectly that she had not been listening. His sense of ill-treatment returned.

"I don't think it's any fun to sit still here!" he burst out. "You said you'd walk, and you aren't walking, and you don't talk, either. If Mr. Florian was here, with that camera, you'd talk! If Mr. Hunter was here——"

"Perry Stafford, you are a very disagreeable little boy, and a saucy one, too," interrupted Miss Eleanor coldly. He started—not at her words, he knew his conduct occasionally merited reproach—but at her tone. He had never heard that tone from her. It was like that of a great many other people: it indicated that he and she were of different sorts—she a grown person, he the kind of creature known as a little boy. His lip quivered, he rubbed his shoes together till they squeaked again.

"For heaven's sake, Perry, stop that hideous noise!" she cried nervously. "I should not talk if Mr. Florian were here! I came out here to get away from him, and all the others, too. I am to go, I suppose, all my life, with my mouth closed and my eyes shut. Of course if I laugh and talk, I am perfectly happy! Of course, because I don't snap people up and act like a bear, I am the greatest flirt that ever lived. Of course I care for nothing but admiration and flattery! Oh, what fools men are!"

Miss Eleanor's cheeks were very red, she breathed deep and looked so strangely at the Imp that he felt actually embarrassed, and dropped his eyes to his offending boots.

"Not that I care," she added in a lower voice, "not that I care at all. Naturally I couldn't, being perfectly heartless and preferring the admiration of a dozen men to the—Oh, dear! I wish I had never been born!"

At this point she slipped down under the tree, turned over with her face on her arms and lay perfectly still.

The Imp regarded her for a moment, but as she paid no attention to him and seemed to be asleep, he got up softly and walked away on his tiptoes. He felt distinctly depressed. So low, indeed, were his spirits, that he utterly forgot that he was every minute moving farther away from the big tree that a too-thoughtful Providence seemed to have established at just the point to satisfy his mother's idea of a boundary to his unaccompanied strolls.

A passing chipmunk caught his eye and he instinctively stepped out of the beaten track to follow it. It went very slowly, so that one's hand was almost close to it before it gave a little bound and escaped. It was evidently lame, and the hope of capturing it and teaching it tricks in a cage lured the Imp from the path and duty alike, and it was only after an hour of wandering that he woke up to the fact that he was a lost and culpable boy. He called to mind the tales of people who had been lost in these woods and how they had gone round and round helplessly, always coming out just where they started. He remembered the bear that once lived there. True, it was many, many years ago—perhaps a hundred—but who knew how long a bear might live? A friend of his had assured him that a very fierce animal would become as gentle as a kitten if you stared straight into its eyes and showed no fear; but the Imp greatly doubted his ability to do this. It was appallingly quiet in these woods: hardly a leaf stirred. It occurred to the Imp that in just about three seconds he should feel quite certain he was lost and behave accordingly, when he heard a faint sound of tramping through the undergrowth. It drew nearer; it turned aside; it was growing fainter——

"Oh! come here! come here!" cried the Imp desperately. The footsteps ceased utterly.

"Call again!" shouted a deep voice.

"O-o-o-o-o-h-h-h!" trumpetted the Imp like a frightened foghorn, too excited to stop even when a tall man hurried through the trees and shook him rapidly to stop the amazing noise.

"There, there! It's all right—let up on that yelling! It's really almost unnecessary, I assure you," he begged. "We're saved—land is in sight!" And he hurried the breathless Imp off to the left. The exigencies of the human mechanism forced his captive to fill his lungs, and by the time he had recovered himself they were in sight of another road and another centre of civilization.

It was a solitary house, built like an enormous log cabin of rough timbers. But it was far from rough in other respects. Wide piazzas with polished floors ran all round it; hammocks and bright rugs, tables filled with books and pipes, two beautiful golden setters and an enormous bull-dog, gave it an air of great comfort. The man led the Imp up to one of the big willow chairs, plumped out the pillows that half filled it and waved his hand hospitably.

"Welcome to Benedick's Inn!" he said. "I gather that you have momentarily lost your bearings?"

"I lost the chipmunk," returned the Imp cautiously.

The man laughed. "Same thing," he said. "You came from the North Beach, I suppose?"

"I live in the hotel," replied the Imp with dignity. "It is bigger than this, a great deal."

"Ah?" said the man politely. "This is not a hotel, however. It is large enough for the Benedicks. And they do not give parties."

"Why not?" asked the Imp promptly. "We do, and we have ice-cream and lanterns."

"I don't doubt you do," rejoined the man, "and that is just what we wish to avoid. Ice-cream means women, and women mean trouble and dress clothes. We came here to be by ourselves and be happy. Perfectly happy. And we are, of course. We have not a care or sorrow. We dress not, neither do we dance. I for instance, moi, qui vous parle, am a perfectly happy man!"

"Humph!" said the Imp.

"Do you doubt it?" demanded his host. "Why that vague and scornful smile? You are too young to be cynical. Why should I not be happy? Have I not proved my point? Was I not perfectly right in the most important affair of my very important existence? You may be ignorant of the facts, but take my word for it, I was. I was wise in time. Is not that enough to make a man happy?"

For some reason this speech struck the Imp as humorous and he laughed, chewing the edge of his cap in his embarrassment.

"Good heavens! You doubt that, too?" cried the man. "What a generation is growing up under our nose! Allow me to show you this watch, by which you may judge, without trusting me to any degree whatever, that it is high time we started back for the North Beach if you want to dine there."

He laid an open watch ostentatiously in the Imp's lap. In the cover was a face the Imp knew well.

"She don't know where I am!" he chuckled to himself.

"She! Who?" demanded the owner of the watch.

The Imp pointed to the picture. The man laughed loud and long.

"I don't believe she does," he said shortly. "Who do you think it is?

"It is the Countess Potocka," he added after a pause, "and she cares very little, presumably, where you are—or where I am either! It is a famous picture. I love art, and therefore I am in the habit of associating myself with masterpieces."

"That's not her name at all," said the Imp, decidedly. His Aunt Gertrude had insisted on this very same thing with regard to the picture in her room, and it seemed to him a puerile attempt to confuse him. He knew well enough who it was.

"No? She lived under an assumed name, then?" inquired the man with a surprised air. "However, that is a pedantic distinction, as it is by that name she has become dear to so many of us. Don't disturb the popular idea, I beg of you!"

He shut the watch and took an elaborate fishing-rod from a corner of the piazza.

"Come on," he said, holding out his hand, "we'll start, for I shouldn't wonder if you'd be in demand, a little later."

They struck out into the wood, hand in hand.

"I trust you left your friend the Countess in good health?" inquired the man.

There was in his question no apparent rudeness, but the Imp recognized the tone perfectly. His Uncle Stanley employed that tone very frequently.

"She was asleep," he returned briefly, and fingered the rod with deep admiration.

"Indeed! Is she as popular as ever? She is reported to have been very attractive to the men—like her namesake!" he added quickly. "Do they hover about her and paint her portrait and write waltzes for her? Poor men—what fools they are!"

"That's what she says," the Imp agreed.

The man stared at him.

"Oh, she does!" he said. "Well, she ought to know, I'm sure. And yet it seems rather unjust to make a man a fool and then laugh at him for it, doesn't it, now? Have you ever noticed that injustice is their most pronounced quality—always excepting their absurd attractiveness? 'Oh, yes, indeed,' they say, 'I love you, and you only, and since you know that, I feel perfectly free to reduce as many of your companions as possible to your state. If you object, you are ridiculously jealous.' Has that occurred to you, my young friend?"

"I am jealous," the Imp announced. "I am as jealous as can be. My mother says she should think I'd be yellow all over me, I'm so jealous. She says a little is all very well, but too much is childish. It tires anybody to death. They get cross."

"They do indeed," the man returned fervently. "They get almighty cross. That shows their conscience is not clear."

"It shows you don't deserve anybody to be nice to you," contradicted the Imp promptly. "So I don't go till I'm asked—I wait. But Mr. Florian never waits," he scowled. "Mrs. Bishop says she pities my wife," he concluded proudly.

The man burst out laughing.

"She does, does she?" he said. "And why, in heaven's name?"

"Because I'm so jealous," replied the Imp, tranquilly. "She says an angel would get out of temper with me."

The man made no remark for some time after this. It was as well that he did not, for he strode along so fast that the Imp panted in his efforts to keep up, and would never have been able to answer any. Finally he spoke.

"Do you believe that?" he asked. "Do you believe that a fellow should put up with anything and everything?"

"Huh?" said the Imp.

"If the only girl you ever—if the Countess Potocka, we'll say—" here the Imp scowled again—"treated everybody just as she treated you—"

"But she don't, she don't!" interrupted the Imp, quite out of patience with the haste and the obstinate allusion to the Countess. "I can hold her hand, and wear her ring, and I can kiss her—if I'm good. Nobody else can. She don't treat me the same!"

The man stopped abruptly and drew a long breath. He shut his eyes and it seemed to the Imp that he stood still for an hour. Presently he appeared to wake up.

"Will you say that again?" he requested. The Imp stuck out his lip and started on by himself. This man was worse than his Uncle Stanley.

"I say she don't treat me the same!" he flung back. Suddenly he caught the glimmer of a red parasol.

"There she is! There's Miss Eleanor, now!" he cried.

The man dragged him back. The rod clattered to the ground.

"My good child," he said in a low, hurried voice, "will you be so exceptionally kind as to inform me if the person you refer to is called Miss Eleanor Whitney?"

"Yes, she is," grunted the Imp, struggling to escape. "You let me go, will you?"

"No," the man replied calmly, "not till I memorialize my gratitude and affection. Let me beg your acceptance," he continued, untwisting the Imp from around his legs and holding him fast with one hand while he picked up the fishing tackle with the other, "of this elegant rod and all its appurtenances. It seems to have caught your fancy, and if you will keep it intact for a few years, I assure you that your evident appreciation of its qualities will not diminish. For it is an excellent rod."

He handed it over with an unmistakable gesture, and the Imp, doubting the evidence of his senses, took it in silence.

They stepped out of the wood. Miss Eleanor's back was turned to them and only as they reached her did she lift her head.

"Oh, Elmer!" she cried softly, "how—where—"

The Imp dashed ahead and squatted down beside her.

"See what he gave me! I got lost and I was at a Benedick Inn, and you've been here all the time!"

"Eleanor," said the man, standing tall behind the Imp, "I was utterly and entirely wrong and unreasonable. I beg your pardon. An angel would have been out of temper with me."

"Oh, no!" said Miss Eleanor, softly, "no, indeed. Because I was. And I'm not an angel. Whatever you were that was—was not nice, I made you be. It was my fault."

"Then—then—" the man stopped. He seemed to expect some remark, but none was forthcoming. Miss Eleanor patted the Imp's brown little hand and stared at the rod.

"Won't you be wanting your dinner?" asked the man abruptly, stooping down and lifting the Imp bodily from the ground. Grasping his rod the Imp started to explain that he would wait for Miss Eleanor, but when he looked around before resuming his seat beside her, it was gone.

"And when you do go," continued the man easily, "don't say anything about where we are, or anything at all, in fact," he concluded sweepingly. "Can you keep a secret?"

"I'll have to tell my mother about the rod," the the Imp demurred.

"Oh, tell your nice mother about it all," said Miss Eleanor—"I mean," she added, "I mean—" the man caught her hand.

"Good-by!" he called to the Imp, "hurry up, or they'll be through dinner—good-by!"

"But she wants her dinner, too," began the Imp doubtfully. "I can wait a little longer—"

"Good-by, Perry dear," said Miss Eleanor decidedly, "I am very glad you came with me—good-by!"

He looked back once or twice hesitatingly, but they did not call him.