The Petrified Man
The Petrified Man
By George Weston
DOWN the road that winds along the slope of Mt. Aurora rolled an automobile. To the right was the mountain, looming over the car as the flank of an elephant might loom over a crawling fly. To the left a low wall was all that stood between the road and a drop so deep that the trees below looked like bushes and the cows were painted toys from a child's Noah's ark. On such a road, one might have thought, a car would proceed with caution, but the automobile with which our story opens first swung to the right and then to the left as though upon destruction bent.
A glance inside the car, however, would have explained it all. On the back seat were two suitcases, shining with newness; and on the front seat were two newly weds, shining with newness too, and acting quite—quite—quite in the immemorial manner. Nor was that all. Watching them through the back window of the car was a character so strange that you will never understand it unless we go right back to the beginning of things and tell this story properly.
YOU know the way most mothers boast about the beauty of their babies? When Herbert Peterson was eight years old he heard his mother telling a visitor what a beautiful child her Oliver had been, and how, when she took him out in his gocart, perfect strangers had stopped her on the street and cried, "Oh! Oh! What a lovely child!"
"Say, mom," said Herbert when the visitor had departed, "wasn't I a pretty baby too?"
Herbert was in his mother's black books that day. The night before she had caught him reading in bed with the lamp precariously balanced on the edge of the mattress. So when he asked for information about the beauty of his babyhood he courted a truthful answer; and, what is more, he got it.
"No, Herbert," said his mother. "You were a strong, healthy baby—I'll say that for you; but I used to pull your little cap down over your face whenever I took you out. Your Uncle Andrew used to say that your head reminded him of an apple dumpling that somebody had sat on—Uncle Andrew was always a great joker. But you were a good baby—I'll say that for you."
Herbert swallowed hard and went back to his lessons. He had always been a quiet boy, but he was just a bit quieter than ever after that.
When he was eleven years old, he was standing in the school yard one day when Egbert Guerin proposed a new game. First of all he took Fatty Hubbard into his confidence, and then he lined the other boys against the school-house wall.
"You fellows are all to be flies," he told them. "I'll whisper each one of you the kind of fly you are, and then I'll call the roll, and then I'll show you the game."
After he had told them their names he disappeared for a minute into the basement of the school, and when he came back he had a particularly innocent look and very round cheeks. He and Fatty Hubbard started to walk down the row of boys, and Fatty called the roll.
"What sort of fly are you?"
"What sort of fly are you?"
Herb Peterson was the letter fly, and as you probably know—if you have ever played it—Egbert's cheeks were full of water. It is the conceit of the game that "Letter fly" can also"be construed as "Let her fly!"
And the moment the fatal syllables were spoken Egbert did it.
The young are cruel. Herbert of the apple-dumpling countenance had always kept to himself a lot; but he kept to himself a whole lot more after that. It was the same when he entered high school. The elements of popularity were simply not in him, and although in his second year he made one final effort to break his shell, all he got was a memory that made him blush for years afterward whenever he happened to think about it.
On the Saturday before, a young cousin from over Hell Hollow way had visited the Petersons, and because all the youths from over Hell Hollow way prided themselves upon their wickedness, he had taught Herbert one of those Rabelaisian rimes which country cousins sometimes scribble on white-painted bridges. The city cousin thought it rich, and when he reached school the next Monday morning he wrote it on a slip of paper and passed it to Fatty Hubbard, who sat next to him. Fatty snorted with applause and again passed it on. Indeed, the verse had attained a gratifying circulation when Egbert Guerin made such a noise over it that Miss Brown swooped over and had it like a hawk.
"Peterson," she said when she had read it, "this is your writing?"
"Yes'm," said the miserable Herb.
"I am ashamed of you. When the others have gone to-night you will write this verse ten times upon the blackboard. And then you will go down stairs and fetch Mr. Haven to see what you have done."
Mr. Haven was the principal—grim-visaged, but with a heart of gold—and when he went up to the high-school room in the wake of Master Peterson, this is the verse that stared at him from every side:
Oh, the devils had a ball—had a ball—had a ball!
In the Devils' Hall! In the Devils' Hall!
There was one little devil there nice and fat
And all she wore was a fireman's hat!
Herbert had always been bashful, but after that he developed a hair-trigger blush and shunned the girls as though they were leaves of the upas tree.
In his third year at high school, however, he began to get his bearings. His class started the study of geology, and right from the first there was a quality in it that seemed to stir him—as a note of the piano will sometimes set one vase vibrating and leave everything else in the room alone.
"The history of the earth is written in its rocks."
There was something rugged and noble about that—a strong, silent nut worthy of strong, silent cracking—a challenge that had something stupendous in it. Fiery flames and molten masses, volcanoes and earthquakes, glaciers, tides and primal ooze—even the terms fascinated him and made him hunger and thirst for more.
In the first week he sprang to the head of his class and stayed there, inviolable, invulnerable. Indeed, carried high upon the crest of this geological wave, he won the Chapman Scholarship, which entitled him to four years in Old Buckeye, and after that there is only one word which will describe Herbert Peterson's frame of mind. He considered himself predestined.
"What Maeterlinck is to the bees and Fabre is to the insects—that's what I'm going to be to the history of the earth," quoth he.
That summer, though he shaved his lip, he let a little down grow in the front of each ear—the outward visible sign of future greatness.
DURING his four years at college Herbert so distinguished himself at his favorite study that when he had earned the nickname of the Petrified Man and the right to put "B. A." after his name, it was suggested that he might like to hop off from among the students and hop on among the instructors. He hopped on and stayed on for two years—chafing always to get away and make real friends of the mountains—and then his Uncle Andrew died and left him twenty-five thousand dollars invested in securities which netted just twenty-five dollars a week. After he had studied the question with the same care with which he studied everything else, young Professor Peterson resigned from the faculty and did a most peculiar thing. He bought a secondhand car, and though of course this was only chance, the car was a sporting model.
First he learned to run it, and then he began to equip it; and if you had been there to watch his preparations you would have seen that this was no short trip that the Petrified Man was planning, but a cruise of the first magnitude.
The rear deck of the car was taken out, and in its place a large specimen box was installed. A glass cracker box made a pantry; and a lean-to tent, folded and strapped to the running board, served as collapsible cabin. Maps were laid in, a blank log book, a compass, a camera, a folio of government geological surveys, a knock-down stove that was more ingenious than many a conjuring trick, and such a collection of other things that even an auctioneer with breath a mile long would have been driven in despair to have referred to them as other articles too numerous to mention.
"Twenty-five dollars a week," thought the young professor the morning he set out upon his voyage of discovery. "I am sure that I can purchase the few provisions I need for that—not to forget the very necessary gasoline and an occasional tire. Certainly I shall have no rent to pay—no car fare. The farms will be convenient for milk and eggs. I can sojourn South for the winter months, Canada for the summer months, White Mountains, Rocky Mountains, the Laurentian Range——"
Almost breathless with excitement, he ran round to the front of the car and gave the crank such a merry-go-round that she caught on the first turn.
The engine roared, the fenders rattled, the exhaust popped; and in this noise, comparable to that which might conceivably accompany the birth of a new world, young Professor Peterson steered boldly forth and headed for the great unknown.
UP AND DOWN the continent, then, roamed the young Petrified Man, tapping the rocks with his hammer as though in search of an imprisoned goddess and forever making notes in a book that resembled a ledger. The first winter he spent on the lower Sierras, the next summer in the Canadian Rockies. Coming south again in September, he swung to the east and made a visit to Mt. Aurora, which was only fifty miles north of his native Fairfield. Halfway down the mountain he caught sight of a light-colored ledge, and after he had scaled up to it and secured his specimen he happened to look round, and there near the top of the mountain he saw a beautiful face looking at him—a face which Time had carved in the granite—peaceful, grand and calm.
"Aurora herself," thought Professor Peterson with a smile as he took a snapshot of it. "Something tells me that this is an omen of good fortune."
Farther down the road, half an hour later, another outcropping stratum caught his eye and, stopping his car almost without thinking, he chipped off a sample.
"M-m-m-m—Jurassic," he told himself, "and five hundred feet farther up I found Silurian." At this he beetled bis brows, with scholarly satisfaction. "Now when the older rock is on the top," he reasoned, "and a newer stratum is underneath, may it not safely be deduced that some part of this mountain is upside down? Ah, yes! And what a mighty force of nature it must have been to tip Aurora over! What a moment to witness in the history of the earth!"
Whereupon he polished his horn spectacles with a singular air of satisfaction and started down the slope again. It was then that he noticed the conduct of the car ahead.
First it veered to the right and then to the left, lurching from one side of the road to the other as though bent upon destruction, but always checking itself upon the brink of disaster and heading back for the center of the highway.
"Something must be radically wrong with his steering gear," thought the young professor. "It is unbelievable that he does not stop—ah, yes, I thought he would!"
A break in the side of the mountain formed a bay in the road, and in this shelter the car ahead came to a tremulous stop. The professor almost came to a stop, about to offer his services, but it only needed a single glance to see the cause of the trouble. On the back seat of the other car was a pair of suitcases, shining with newness, and on the front seat was a pair of newly weds, shining with newness, too, and acting quite in the immemorial manner.
"Poor things—it's all they know!" thought the young Petrified Man as he hastily stepped upon his accelerator. "Well, after all, that's his life. He will wake up some day, and then it may be too late."
At the foot of the mountain he found a grove of pines by the side of the road.
"Six o'clock," he thought. "I think I will camp here. From the slope of the land I cannot be far from water."
He backed his car off the road, and there he sat for a while, going over his notes for the day while the light was still good, but keeping one eye on the road for the car which had fooled him so.
"Thank heaven that sort of thing has never bothered me," he devoutly congratulated himself, "or that would be the end of my book!" He said this with emotion, as a friendly god upon Olympus might say "Or that would be the end of the world."
Car after car swirled by and, busy as he was, he continued to give each one a look, half fearing that the newly weds might stop in that same grove.
"Poor things, it's all they know," he said again. "Still," he reflected, "if some men didn't fall that way it would be harder for the rest of us to make our marks in the world." Quite a procession of cars went by then, afraid to pass each other because of the twists of the road. "Upon further study, it would almost seem that most men fall that way," he added more thoughtfully. "Every one of those cars had a female in it—of some age or other."
He laughed a little to himself, as he might have laughed, for instance, if you had told him that the movement of the earth might possibly make the tides without assistance from the moon.
"My system is certainly superior to theirs," said he. "My girl is a good one—uniquely so. I hit her with my geological hammer and she tells me her secrets; and when she has told me all she knows I am going to write a book that will make me famous. She never cries or answers back or makes demands or tells me that I can't go here or can't go there; and, best of all, she lets me live on the twenty-five dollars a week that Uncle Andrew left me. Twenty-five dollars a week! I wonder, indeed, if a sum so small would even buy clothes for the one I passed on the hill! Half an hour of daylight left," he broke off, noticing the shadows. "I think it would be wise to find that water before it grows too dark."
Putting a collapsible pail over his arm, he followed the slope of the land to the gully which he was sure he would find not far away. The farther he went the closer grew the trees and the thicker the brush.
"It cannot be much farther," he told himself. "The land rises immediately ahead. Hello! What's that?"
He stopped, his head on one side, listening again for that sound which can affect a man in more different ways than any other noise produced by human agency.
"There, I thought that's what it was!" he exclaimed to himself as the prickle went over his scalp again.
He hurried forward a few steps and suddenly came to a spring. By the side of it lay the figure of a girl. Her face was buried in her arm, and she was sobbing away as though her heart would break.
" I BEG your pardon," said Professor Peterson, "but can I be of service to you in any way?"
The girl lifted a tear-stained face, and though it disclosed Tragedy, he was vaguely aware that Beauty was looking at him too.
"I've broken my ankle, I think," she sobbed.
She was wearing, he noticed, a pair of those high affairs which give a girl the vague effect of being associated with the dragoons, and when he knelt to look at the injured ankle he found that though the shoe had been unlaced the foot was swollen so badly that it looked like a silk-covered toy balloon trying to burst through a leather casing.
"Do you live far from here?" he asked.
"We're staying at the hotel—the Aurora House," she said, looking at him as though she were wondering if she hadn't seen him before. But, for that matter, it may be that she looked at him because he was worth a second look. Study had given him a certain austerity of expression that was far removed from apple dumplings—an austerity intensified by his horn spectacles and the length of his hair. But against this the sun and the wind had tanned him and exercise had hardened him, so that if you can imagine a studious young Indian in modern costume trying to puzzle out some such problem as the self-determination of nations you will gain some slight idea of Professor Peterson's appearance.
"My car is near the road," he told her. "But I shall have to carry you, I am afraid."
It may have been his scientific manner or it may have been because he said "I am afraid." Whatever it was, she didn't want to be carried.
"I'm sure I can hop along somehow," she said. So he let her try it, keeping her perpendicular as well as he could. But she didn't hop far.
"Ah, yes; I'm afraid I shall have to carry you," said he. "Just a moment, please."
While he was filling his pail at the spring he studied the question of how best to carry a young lady through the woods, studying it with the same seriousness that he might have bestowed upon the reconstruction of a fossil. Reaching a satisfactory conclusion, he returned to the girl and bent forward a little, very precisely and in a very detached and academic manner.
"Please put your arms round my neck," said he, "and I will carry you as though you were an infant. It isn't very far."
For a time he carried her in silence.
"How did it happen?" he asked at last, just a little bit out of breath. "Did you turn it on a stone?"
"Yes. I was walking through the woods when I noticed two men behind me. So I slipped out of sight as soon as I could and ran toward the road. At first I thought I heard them running after me, but I guess I must have thrown them off the track. And then when I tried to jump over the brook I turned my ankle."
Their faces were very close together, so that he could hardly help looking at her, even if he had wished to do so. So, you see, he couldn't very well help noticing the childlike, innocent eyes that so gravely looked into his and the full curved lips with which she was telling her news. A remarkable idea came to him then—remarkable, that is, for Petrified Man.
"A beautiful face," he thought, "exquisite both in lines and coloring," and for some strange reason he looked at it again.
"Are you comfortable?" he asked with a note that hadn't been in his voice before.
"Oh, I'm all right," she said. "It's you I'm thinking of."
At that they exchanged a glance which seemed to make them both thoughtful, and had hardly finished this when they turned the last thicket and came in sight of the car.
Two rough-looking huskies were standing in front of it. One was spinning the crank and the other was evidently catching his breath from over-indulgence in that same exercise a moment before.
"Oh!" breathed the girl in the young professor's ear. "They are the two I ran away from."
He gently seated her against the foot of a tree and, straightening his shoulders, he drew his geologist's hammer out of his pocket and stole forward like a shadow.
He was only ten yards away when one of the men caught sight of him. There was a cry of warning, a sudden scurry, a hurtling crank handle, but through it all the young professor charged grandly forward.
At the end of his rush he swung his arm twice, and the huskies went down like pins in a bowling alley. Presently they struggled to their feet and went away, one of them holding his head between his hands as though, without such aid, it might roll off into the brush and so be lost to history.
"Now!" said Professor Peterson, returning to the girl; and, giving her a smile that was not without its pride, he bent his neck for her arms.
There is always something boyish in a proud smile, and a flash of recognition went over her.
"Listen!" she said. "Aren't you Herbert Peterson, who used to live in Fairfield?"
As everyone knows, that sort of thing is catching, one flash starting another.
"And you are Marion Hubbard!" he answered. "Fatty—I mean Nelson Hubbard's sister!"
"Oh!" she cried. "If this isn't the most wonderful thing that ever happened!" Which is one of the three most dangerous beliefs that any girl can entertain. And as she placed her arms round his neck she gave him such a smile that it haunted him long after he had taken her to the hotel where she was stopping.
"I—er—I think I had better get away from here to-morrow," he told himself after he had made camp for the second time. And when he had eaten his supper he suddenly roused himself from a dreamy reverie, lit a flash lamp in something like a panic and drew his notebook from under the seat.
"During the movements by which mountain masses have been upheaved," he wrote, "many seeming miracles have taken place; but of all these it may safely be said that the greatest is—M—Marion—Odamdamdam—the greatest is—Marion Hubbard."
WHEN Professor Peterson woke in the morning he said to himself: "At four o'clock this afternoon I shall be a hundred miles from here."
But he wasn't. At four o'clock that afternoon he was calling on Marion Hubbard—to see how she was—and wishing he had brought a box of candy with him. As you can guess, they found plenty to talk about—that is to say, Marion found plenty to talk about and the professor found just as much to listen to. The next afternoon he took some candy with him, but was too bashful to give it to her. On his third visit, however, he boldly gave her the candy, and when he saw her eating—the selfsame candy that he had just given her—he looked like a learned scientist who had just made a wonderful discovery, beaming behind his spectacles and rubbing his hands with scholarly satisfaction.
"How—how would you like to take a ride this evening?" he asked her.
"Fine!" she said. "I think I can limp down to the car somehow."
Easy, oh, so easy, is the fall to Avernus!
As soon as he left her Herbert found a barber shop; and while the artist there was lathering him and scraping him and trimming him he closed his eyes and had it out with himself.
"Twenty-five dollars a week," thought he. "That's all I've got. By camping out and living the way I do I just manage to make it suffice. But as for getting married or buying a ring or doing anything—er—of a foolish nature like that, it is ab-so-lute-ly out of the question. I will call for Miss Marion to-night, because I promised her I would do so; but to-morrow morning early I am going to get away from here just as quick as I can go."
"Lilac or violet water?" asked the barber.
"Lilac," he groaned.
"Did I hurt you?"
"No, no, not that! The way I feel—that's all."
The moon was shining when Marion Hubbard and young Professor Peterson started up Aurora that evening—shining on the side of the mountain and on the far-flung view below. It may have been because the noise seemed to jar upon such a scene; but whatever it was, he stopped the car on the side of the road and cast an appreciative glance at the towering magnificence above and the silvery splendor below.
"Isn't it a beautiful night!" said he, unconsciously adopting an immemorial formula.
"I love it!" she gently exclaimed, half turned toward the view below. "I don't know what it is, but there is something about to-night that simply thrills me!"
For a fraction of a second Herbert looked up over his shoulder at Aurora, rising crest upon crest, crown upon crown, green ravine and towering cliff. One might have thought that with the mountain so near a young geologist would have thought of nothing else.
"The history of the world is written in its rocks"; and here was an inverted mountain, silently bearing witness to cooling crusts and molten masses, earthquakes and volcanoes and all those cosmic forces which engrave the records of time and make men look like such insignificant nincompoops. Just one look at Aurora, though, was all that the young professor could spare at the moment—a look half wistful and half pleading—and then his glance was back on Marion again.
Under the magic of the moonlight her eyes were veiled wells of mystery in which a man could see whatever he wished to see—Romance and Beauty—Larks and Laughter—My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose and I've Lived for Love and Die. One of her hands was on her knee, the fingers curling a little, as the tendrils of ivy might curl if the castle wall weren't there to twine upon.
The young professor looked at this hand and frowned to himself, beetling his brows as he had done a few days before upon discovering the Jurassic rock in a stratum below the Silurian.
"Now I wonder what the result would be," you could imagine him thinking, "if I were to reach over and take her hand. Something—something seems to be urging me on to try it."
Obviously there was only one way to try it. He reached over. It may have been that Marion was altogether absorbed in the view. At least she made no sign. And still Aurora frowned above them, rising crest on crest and crown on crown.
"Now what is the net result of this?" you could imagine Herbert asking himself, his head on one side and a look of scholarly inquiry behind his spectacles. Gradually then he began to nod his head, as you sometimes see an epicure do just before he begins to smack his lips, and he seemed to tell himself, "The net result is—er—good—very good!"
Easy—oh, so easy—is that fatal descent! For the first time then he noticed the distance between them on the seat.
"It seems to me," you could almost imagine him thinking then, "that I have heard it said that—that it is somewhat pleasant if—er—er—a young gentleman and a young lady—er—sit rather closely together. I wonder if there is any basis of truth, however remote, in—er—er—a hypothesis so apparently absurd?"
Possibly just to solve the problem, he eliminated the distance between them, and again after a few minutes he nodded his head as he had probably nodded it when he had first reasoned out for himself the seven great subdivisions of geology.
"Do you know," said Marion, still looking over the valley, "I have often wondered why so many stones are found on hills and mountains. You'd wonder how they got up there, wouldn't you?"
"Childlike and innocent," he breathed to himself, and a fine deepening feeling of protection swept over him like a wave.
"You would almost think they had climbed up there, wouldn't you?" she continued.
The Petrified Man drew a breath that was like a sigh.
"No—I'll tell you," he began in his gentlest voice. "In—in the beginning—in the beginning"—again he drew one of those deep breaths. "Marion," he said, "I—I want to tell you something. I—love you, Marion. Please don't be angry, dear."
At first they didn't speak much, but before they left he told her about Uncle Andrew's money and the twenty-five dollars a week.
"Of course I know that we can't get married on that," said he, "and though I could probably find some educational opening in time, I would much prefer to embark upon one of those commercial careers of which the magazines sometimes speak, where fortunes are made with such wonderful speed."
Again they didn't speak much, and in the silence it gradually came to young Professor Peterson for the first time just what had taken place.
"I've done it!" he thought, as many and many a man has thought before. And again as they went down the road a little later, "I've done it!" he repeated to himself with a sinking heart.
He glanced over his shoulder at the mountain, towering over them still, crest on crest and crown on crown, like some majestic milestone of the ages.
"Aye, look!" Aurora seemed to say. "I thought you had real metal in you once. Now go your way; you've made your choice. You'll soon find what you've got."
"This old mountain makes me feel creepy," whispered Marion. She leaned for a moment against his shoulder. "You'll always love me, Herbert?" she asked, as though she sensed the heavy feeling at his heart.
"Always! Always! Forever and ever!" he fervently assured her.
"Ah, yes," Aurora seemed to say, "but just you wait, young lady, till he yearns for me!"
WHEN Marion went back to Fairfield, Herbert went with her. If he could find an opening anywhere, he could find one there. So why try anywhere else where Marion wasn't?
For the first two weeks he walked round, dropping in upon old classmates and noting with growing surprise how well they seemed to be doing. Marion's brother, Fatty, who had studied law, already had a suite of offices in one of his father's buildings, with the line "Attorney and Counselor" under his name. Egbert Guerin had come back from an Eastern college two years before with a whole headful of new ideas and had opened a handsome place over Smith's drug store—"Egbert Guerin, Real Estate"—mahogany railings, a pale cashier in a gilded cage, doors lettered "Private" and everything else in keeping. Walter Hollaway had opened a wet-wash laundry and was making money so fast that he was building a modern residence on Beverley Place. Tommy Baxter had gone into partnership with his father in the wholesale produce business, and had a car with such a long wheel base that when it turned a corner it reminded Herbert of a hook-and-ladder truck, and he half expected to see a fireman perched on the rear end to steer the back wheels.
"It certainly seems easy enough to get along in the world of commerce," thought the young professor. "I am sure I ought to find something—somewhere."
He did. Marion's father, Major Hubbard, was not only the largest real-estate owner in Fairfield; he was also the leading war horse of the town, and whenever he pawed the earth all the lesser chargers shied round and whinnied. Because of the major's influence, Herbert got a job as assistant paying teller of the National Gold Bank—and lasted there two weeks. His cutting off was due to that scythe of circumstance which is sometimes known as a lady. She wanted a check cashed when her account was overdrawn, and because Herbert wasn't tactful enough to turn her down and make her feel that she was getting a handful of money at the same time, she went out with a red face and told her husband that never before in all her life had she been so insulted and mortified before a whole bankful of people. Her husband, being a pepperbox by nature, immediately started an enjoyable time by going off at half cock and calling on the president of the National Gold Bank.
They called Herbert in—and Herbert listened. And he looked at the plump little president, all fussed up and breathing hard, with his whiskers trimmed like problems from Euclid. And he looked at Little Pepperbox, so earnest in his wrath. And he thought of the woman who had caused it all, her voice trembling with anger and red spots on her cheeks. And then somehow he began to think of the life he had given up—the sunny wind-swept days and starry nights, the clean, sweet distances which were his to command, that intoxicating feeling of imminent discovery which sometimes fell upon him just before finding a rare specimen—Cape Eternity on the Saguenay, Mount Washington from Crawford Notch, and, finally, Aurora herself, rising crest on crest and crown on crown, a monument to those stupendous forces compared to which mankind is such an insignificant nincompoop and all his works are dust.
"Are you listening, Mr. Peterson?" the president indignantly asked.
"To tell you the truth—er—I'm afraid I wasn't," said Herbert. "I was thinking of something else."
Which marked the end of a financial career that was never really promising.
"I guess I wasn't cut out for business," thought the young professor with a heavy heart as he left the bank. His next thought was almost incoherent, but because it is a reflection which comes to nearly all men sooner or later, it may as well be set down here. "And all for what?" he morosely asked himself, and felt perhaps as Adam felt when first the perspiration stood upon his brow.
He hadn't gone much farther when he saw Marion approaching on the other side of the street, walking as though to music which only she could hear, looking as though she were thinking of immortal poetry—Sunset and Evening Star and The Beautiful Annabel Lee. She was wearing a slate-blue velvet hat, with a scarf thrown over her shoulder in a manner that hinted at romance—Carmen redivivus and those other breathless epics of love which are the songs of the ages.
"Yes, you bet it's worth it!" thought Herbert, and quickly crossed the street.
His next position was as outside salesman for a mill-supply company in which the major was interested. In that he lasted exactly one month, his gross sales amounting to one gallon of heavy lubricating oil, and nothing else whatsoever.
"I'm afraid I wasn't cut out for a salesman," he bleakly confessed to the major when this had come to an end.
The major snorted.
"My boy," said he, "I'll give you one more chance. When I was young I learned to swim by being thrown in the water. I guess you know that I own a little real estate round here?"
"Well, suppose you start in the real-estate business. It won't cost you much to see what you can do. If you make out well you'll soon have all the business you can handle. But if you fail in that too——"
He bristled his mane, and Herbert knew very well what failure meant. When he reached home he found Aurora's picture and placed it on his bureau opposite Marion's photograph.
"I've noticed that nearly everyone has a mascot," he told himself. "Egbert has that silver-mounted rabbit's foot on his desk, and the president of the bank used to think that his paper weight was lucky—that queer little image with the large feet. Yes, even the major has a horseshoe in the top drawer of his desk. Perhaps that has been my trouble," he smiled, pleased at the fancy. "I have had no mascot. Certainly the mountains have always been lucky for me, so I think I'll take Aurora, and just as soon as my new office is open I'll set her in place upon my desk and we'll see if she brings me luck."
It was imagination, of course—imagination pure and simple—but for the first time Aurora didn't appear to be looking at him. Her stony eyes seemed to be turned to the left—fixed upon Marion's photograph at the other end of the bureau.
THE location of Herbert's new office could hardly have been better; but when that is said all is said. It was a small store built in a cañon between two large cliff buildings, a small store that had just been vacated by a plumber, but it was plenty large enough for the one small safe, the two small desks and the half-dozen kitchen chairs which were bought from a second-hand dealer. While these were being set in place a sign painter was busy on the window.
"Herbert A. Peterson," he printed—in a curve like an archway—and underneath this in three lines, as though he were designing a triple-decked subway: "Real Estate. Insurance. Investments."
Across the street in Egbert's office Fatty Hubbard found humor in the sign. But Egbert didn't. For some time that wide-awake young man had had one eye on Fatty's sister Marion and his other eye on Major Hubbard's real-estate business. So far as Marion was concerned, Herbert hadn't been back a week when Egbert knew who was calling Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday to see Marion at the major's handsome residence on Pride's Hill; and so far as the major's real-estate business was concerned, the sign across the street was a disconcerting straw to show which way the wind was blowing.
"'Investments,'" chuckled Fatty, still drawing humor from the sign. "Remember the time he was the letter fly, Bert? I'll say he's got a great little head for investments, especially watered stock—eh, Bert?"
It only needed the word "stock" to give Egbert a really Napoleonic idea.
"Did you get a call from a stock salesman yesterday?" he suddenly asked Fatty.
"A smooth old article with something or other in Mexico?"
"Sure I did! He walked right in and he walked right out. Why?"
"Let's round him up and steer him against Herb Peterson—shall we? Then we'll see what sort of a financier we've got across the street."
They looked at each other as they used to look in the old letter-fly days, and when they left the office together a few minutes later you might almost have thought that they had gone for the water.
"Quick worker, all right," said Fatty as they reached the street. "He's got a customer already."
This first client of Herbert's was a querulous old boy with a piping voice who wanted to sell his farm in Hell Hollow. For reasons of his own he didn't say that for years he had haunted the real-estate offices of Fairfield without success.
Herbert took down the particulars, and as soon as his client had gone he put a sign in the window:
"For Sale—Desirable farm in Hell Hollow. Small sum of cash buys this farm. Particulars inside."
The passers-by had many a smile at that, but it remained for Major Hubbard to explain the joke to Herbert.
"To speak of a desirable farm in Hell Hollow," said he, "is the same as speaking of a cool place in Hades. Have you ever seen this farm?"
"No, sir. I've been near the Hollow, but never in it."
"Then take my advice and go. If I were you I would always do that. Go and examine a property yourself and then you'll know what it amounts to."
The major hadn't been gone long when three other visitors entered. The first was Egbert, the second was Fatty and the third shall speak for himself.
IT MAY indeed be true, as the ancient writers had it, that man is the noblest work of creation. But so far as modern records go, it would sometimes seem that the claim is not yet proved. A man may be nobler than a mountain, but who shall stand before Mount McKinley and claim a greater measure of nobility? Shall any of the three, for instance, who called on Herbert Peterson that afternoon?
"Mr. Peterson," began the stranger, "if you can give me just five minutes of your time I think I can promise that you will never regret it as long as you live."
"Sit down," said Herbert, impressed by the other's earnestness, the white edging of his waistcoat and his chamois gloves.
They all sat down, Egbert and Fatty taking seats where they could commune with each other unobserved.
"Mr. Peterson," said the stranger, "my name is Hawkes. But I don't want you to think of me as Hawkes. I want you to think of me as Opportunity. Mister Opportunity—that is my name, sir—and perhaps it will serve as introduction that both these gentlemen believe in me, or they wouldn't have brought me here."
Unobserved, Fatty and Egbert exchanged winks, but otherwise preserved the solemnity of their features.
"It is true in a sense that I am selling an investment," continued the stranger, "but in a larger sense I am selling an independent future and freedom from all future financial worries. I will tell you frankly that before I consented to sell a single share of the stock which I represent I bought for myself and my family every share that I could afford to buy. Nay, more. I mortgaged my home and bought shares with that. Nay, more. I borrowed on my life insurance and bought shares with that. I tell you all this quite frankly. I am not a rich man, Mr. Peterson, as you business men of Fairfield would describe a rich man. The utmost that I could scrape together was twenty-four thousand dollars. But every last cent of that went into shares of the Porfirio Gold and Rubber Company, of Mexico; and when I tell you, Mr. Peterson, the names of some of the men who are our largest stockholders, I think you can begin to appreciate one of the sources of my enthusiasm."
"If I could only talk business like that!" thought Herbert. "Did you buy any?" he asked, turning to Egbert.
"Yes, I bought some."
"And you, Nelson?"
"All I could afford."
"Mr. Peterson," continued Opportunity, his eyes never leaving Herbert's face, "I am going to show you something that very few people have seen. I am going to show you maps and photographs of our property, facsimiles of a contract which we have made with a European Power, and a telegram received this very morning telling me of a rich gold strike which has just been made upon our property and ordering me not to sell a single share of Porfirio stock after five o'clock to-day. What time is it now? It is now four-thirty-six. Opportunity still has twenty-four minutes to talk to you, Mr. Peterson. I will open my valise."
Before he closed it again Herbert had bought fifteen thousand dollars' worth of Porfirio stock.
"In less than three months that ought to bring me in a thousand dollars a week," he thought, quoting from Old Opportunity's words after his visitors had gone. "And even if he exaggerated four hundred per cent and it only brings me in a thousand dollars a month, Marion and I can easily be married on that."
Golden dreams followed—golden dreams that might have been dimly associated with Aurora. At least Herbert turned to her picture once.
"You good old mascot," said he, "see what you've done for me already!"
"Yes," she seemed to tell him with an even glance, "I see."
Over in Egbert's office they probably saw it too.
"I wish he hadn't gone down into his roll so deep," said Fatty uneasily.
Even Egbert looked thoughtful.
"Well, anyhow," he said at last, "that's the sort of a financier he is."
HERBERT bought his stock upon a Wednesday. On the following Saturday Egbert sauntered over the street, his face doleful and altogether looking like one who brings sad tidings from afar.
"Say, Herb," he began, "that guy Hawkes with the Mexican stock—I'm sorry he stung you so hard."
"Why?" demanded the other, his heart contracting.
"We've just found out he's a faker and his stock isn't worth a cent. Lucky for Fatty and me we couldn't afford to buy much—just a few hundred shares at ten cents a share. Too bad you let yourself in so deep. I tried to catch your eye and tip you off at the time, but you were so excited——"
"Oh, well," said the young professor, smiling uncertainly, "it might have been worse. I suppose——"
For the next ten minutes he sat at his desk, as the victim of a tornado, miraculously saved himself, might sit among the ruins of his easy-chair and stare at the wreckage around him.
"What a fool Marion will think I am!" he thought.
The farther this sunk in the more it hurt him. For whether it's instinct, reason or vanity, there are few men who like to be the butt of the play when Beauty's looking on.
"Spotlight! Spotlight!" the aspiring lover cries in his heart—and then to have the clown sneak behind him and hit him with a slap stick while the audience jeers and the horn goes "Bla-a-a-a!"
"It seems to me that I have always been—unfortunate," thought Herbert with a growing feeling of dreary helplessness—"all my life—ever since I can remember; always trying to do something, and something else always pulling me back." Whereupon he voiced another of those reflections which probably began with Adam and have come right down the ages: "Everybody's fool—that's me."
He chewed on this for a while in bitter rumination, but it was not until his next thought that he caught the full flavor: "I suppose I had better go and see Marion to-night—and get it over with."
He stopped there, because from away down deep in his breast the sound of a sob rose. He listened for a moment with a sorrowful countenance, and then "You stop that!" he exclaimed, as though to some invisible, subconscious self. After another muffled explosion or two he drew a deep breath and knew that the music was over. Aurora's picture suddenly caught his eye.
"Damn you, anyway!" he cried, and threw it in the wastebasket. "Call yourself a mascot!" Aurora lay there, face upward, in her fallen estate, but still looked at the young professor with tranquil eyes.
"If I could only go back to where I was before I met Marion," he thought, voicing another world-old reflection. "But, for one thing, I know how much I'm going to miss her; and for another thing, I only just managed to get along on twenty-five dollars a week. I couldn't begin to do it on ten."
At that he drew another deep breath and mournfully closed his desk.
"Done all the way round," he thought, and a minute later, when he locked the door, he probably felt a measure of astonishment that the sun was still shining and the life of Main Street going on as though Old Opportunity had never passed that way.
"I wonder what Major Hubbard will say?" he asked himself, and the question reminded him that he hadn't been over to Hell Hollow yet to look at that desirable farm.
"Perhaps I'd feel better if I rode out in the country," he thought. "I can run over that way, and then if he happens to ask me I can tell him, 'Yes, I've been there.'"
It was nearly an hour later when he stopped his car at the brink of Hell Hollow—a low-lying, flat piece of land, roughly bordered by a circle of hills. Outside of this circle the grass grew green and the farms were prosperous; but in the Hollow itself the vegetation had a sickly look, and the neighbors had already told him that the water there had such a brackish taste that even some of the calves that were born in the Hollow wouldn't drink it but had to be sold as soon as they were old enough to be turned out to grass.
"Glacial formation apparently," thought Herbert, viewing the scene with lackluster eyes. "Sandy soil. Taste of the water probably due to alkali. Now I wonder which of these farms belongs to that old man?"
He was carefully steering his way along the road when he came to a flat stone sticking up at an angle by the side of the brush.
"A homemade gravestone," he thought, stopping his car, "but what a queer place for it."
He found that the stone was thicker than he had thought.
"A piece of ledge apparently," he told himself after trying to budge it. "Funny—I never heard of stone round here."
Discovering next that it shelled off easily, he broke off a specimen, and if you had been there then you would have seen a young geologist in action. He looked at the specimen, blinked his eyes, felt it, rubbed it, smelled it and, finally, like the skipper of the We're Here, he verily tasted it, and rolled up his eyes like a high-school girl eating her first toasted marshmallows.
"Desirable? " he breathed. "I'll say it's desirable!"
And all that afternoon he spent browsing round Hell Hollow.
WHEN Fatty Hubbard saw the sign in Herbert's window the following Monday morning he stopped short and stared at it with eyes and mouth equally wide open.
"Hell Hollow Development Company," read the placard. "Shares for sale here. One dollar each."
"Going crazy, I guess," said Fatty to himself, and hurried across the street to Egbert's office. Five minutes later they both came out.
"Say, Herb, what's this Hell Hollow business?" asked Egbert. "You're going to have the whole town guessing before night unless you loosen up."
"I'm sure there's nothing to guess at," said Herbert primly enough. "I was there the other day, and I believe that the property can be developed. I either bought or acquired options on all the farms in the Hollow—there are only five, to be exact—and I am firmly of the opinion that with proper management the land can be made to pay attractive dividends."
"Going to farm it?"
"I am not quite sure of its ultimate use. In that, of course, I should expect to confer with the stockholders."
"Oh! You've got some stockholders, then?"
Egbert nearly choked at that.
"Have you tried Major Hubbard?" he asked.
"Not yet. The fact is, I have been very busy. Naturally, the first requirement of the Hollow is an adequate supply of suitable drinking water, and I have been over to Colfax hiring an outfit—I believe they call it an outfit—to bore an artesian well. Now to business. My name is Opportunity, and I would like to sell you gentlemen some stock in my new company."
"Nothing doing," said Egbert with a meaning glance. "I lost all I could afford in that Mexican company. Say, Herbert, you aren't trying to make up your Mexican losses in this Hell Hollow business, are you?"
"Certainly not! But just as certainly I am going to do all I can to get you and Nelson interested in my company."
He was as good as his word. In season and out of season, both publicly and privately, he urged Egbert and Fatty to become shareholders in Hell Hollow—an invitation which both gentlemen turned down with increasing impatience.
"What do you take me for?" Egbert indignantly asked on the last occasion, when he was offered a full half interest in the company for a thousand dollars. "Do I look like a bonehead who would put good money into a joke?"
For that was what the Hell Hollow Company had become—the town joke—and it wasn't long before Herbert Peterson was included with the company. When he had first returned to Fairfield to make his fortune he had tried to look as businesslike as possible, but since his first visit to the Hollow he had let his hair grow and resumed his horn spectacles. Major Hubbard nearly reared up on his hind legs at the sight of him.
Even Marion began to look worried at the tales she heard. Along toward the end of the month one might have thought that the scholarly Herbert had some vague idea of trying to stampede the public into an orgy of buying.
"Buy Now—To-day," he added to his sign. "To-morrow May be Too Late."
The next evening Egbert was sitting with his feet at ease on the veranda rail of the Fairfield House when a car came rushing down the street.
"Great guns! Who's this wild Indian?" thought Egbert. "He'll be pinched if he isn't careful."
It turned out to be Fatty Hubbard and, catching sight of Egbert, he stepped on his brake and brought the car to a shuddering stop in front of the hotel.
"Got any loose money?" he demanded as soon as Egbert joined him.
"A little. Why?"
"Come on then! Maybe it isn't too late!"
As the car gathered speed again Fatty began an excited explanation.
"I was coming past Hell Hollow-quarter of an hour ago—when I heard a noise as if the whole top of the world was blowing off. Say! You know that fool Herbert Peterson isn't a fool at all? No, sir! It's oil that he's been drilling for—not water—and they've struck a gusher the very first clip! I gave one of the drill men a ride coming home and dropped him at his boarding house. I think he's come in to tell Herb the news, but wanted to change his clothes first. He says it looks like fifteen thousand barrels a day to him—and crude oil's fetching eight dollars a barrel! Figure it out for yourself!"
Evidently they both figured it out, for a moment later they both swore under their breath in concert.
"You're right!" said Fatty. "And all the time we thought it was him who was the darned fool, and everybody knows how he offered each of us a half interest in the whole business for a thousand dollars! Say, Bert, do you know that we'll never hear the last of this as long as we live? Gosh, I hope he doesn't know about it yet and has still got that big sign in the window offering it at a dollar a share!"
Yes, the sign was still there.
"Buy Now—To-day," it closed. "To-Morrow May be Too Late!"
Just as they stopped the young professor came out of his office with a bottle of red ink in one hand and a marking brush in the other, his horn spectacles never so conspicuous, his expression never so gravely precise.
"How do you do?" he said to the two in the car. "I'll be with you in a moment."
They watched him with fascinated eyes, some of the passers-by stopping, too, as he dipped his brush in the ink.
"Too Late!" he slowly printed at the top of the sign; and again at the bottom, "Too Late!"
DOWN the road that winds along the slope of Mt. Aurora rolled an automobile—a lordly make, with fittings worthy of a royal coach. To the right was the mountain, and to the left was a drop so deep that the trees below resembled bushes and the cows were painted toys from a child's Noah's ark. On such a road, and with such a car, you might have thought that the driver would proceed with caution, but the automobile with which this story ends first swung to the right and then to the left as though upon destruction bent.
A glance inside the car, however, would have explained it all. On the back seat were two suitcases shining with newness; and on the front seat were young Professor Peterson and Marion, acting quite—quite—quite in the immemorial manner.
"Hey, you!" suddenly shouted a voice behind them. "Ain't you got any sense?"
The young professor swung over to the right, and as a runabout roared past them he caught sight of the driver—a frowning young man with a small square trunk fastened to the seat by his side.
"Why, he seems to be touring alone," said Marion in surprise.
"Poor thing, it's all he knows," said Herbert as he started comfortably down the mountain again with Marion snuggled against his shoulder. "He'll wake up some day. I only hope he won't wake up too late."