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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesA Bicycle Of Cathay: A Novel - Chapter 16. An Icicle
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A Bicycle Of Cathay: A Novel - Chapter 16. An Icicle Post by :rlscott Category :Long Stories Author :Frank R Stockton Date :May 2012 Read :2637

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A Bicycle Of Cathay: A Novel - Chapter 16. An Icicle


My room at the hotel was as dreary as a stubble-field upon a November evening. The whole house was new, varnished, and hard. My bedroom was small. A piece of new ingrain carpet covered part of the hard varnished floor. Four hard walls and a ceiling, deadly white, surrounded me. The hard varnished bedstead (the mattress felt as if it were varnished) nearly filled the little room. Two stiff chairs, and a yellow window-shade which looked as if it were made of varnished wood, glittered in the feeble light of a glass lamp, while the ghastly grayish pallor of the ewer and basin on the wash-stand was thrown into bold relief by the intenser whiteness of the wall behind it.

I put out my light as soon as possible and resolutely closed my eyes, for a street lamp opposite my window would not allow the room to fade into obscurity, and, as long as the hardness of the bed prevented me from sleeping, my thoughts ran back to the chamber of the favored guest, but my conscience stood by me. Cathay is a country where it is necessary to be very careful.

I did not leave Waterton until after nine o'clock the next day, for, although I was early at the shop to which my bicycle had been sent, it was not quite ready for me, and I had to wait. Fortunately no Willoughby came that way.

But when at last I mounted my wheel I sped away rapidly towards the north. I had ordered my baggage expressed to a town fifty miles away, and I hoped that if I rode steadily and kept my eyes straight in front of me I might safely get out of Cathay, for the boundaries of that fateful territory could not extend themselves indefinitely.

Towards the close of the afternoon I saw a female in front of me, her back to me, walking, and pushing a bicycle.

"Now," said I to myself, "she is doing that because she likes it, and it is none of my business." I gazed over the fields on the other side of the road, but as I passed her I could not help giving a glance at her machine. The air was gone from the tire of the hind wheel.

"Ah," said I to myself, "perhaps her pump is out of order, or it may be that she does not know how to work it. It is getting late. She may have to go a long distance. I could pump it up for her in no time. Even if there is a hole in it I could mend it." But I did not stop. I had steeled my heart against any more adventures in Cathay.

But my conscience did not stand by me. I could not forget that poor woman plodding along the weary road and darkness not far away. I went slower and slower, and at last I turned.

"It would not take me five minutes to help her," I said. "I must be careful, but I need not be a churl." And I rode rapidly back.

I came in sight of her just as she was turning into the gateway of a pretty house yard. Doubtless she lived there. I turned again and spun away faster than I had gone that day.

For more than a month I journeyed and sojourned in a beautiful river valley and among the low foot-hills of the mountains. The weather was fair, the scenery was pleasing, and at last I came to believe that I had passed the boundaries of Cathay. I took no tablets from my little box. I did not feel that I had need of them.

In the course of time I ceased to travel north-ward. My vacation was not very near its end, but I chose to turn my face towards the scene of my coming duties. I made a wide circuit, I rode slowly, and I stopped often.

One day I passed through a village, and at the outer edge of it a little girl, about four years old, tried to cross the road. Tripping, she fell down almost in front of me. It was only by a powerful and sudden exertion that I prevented myself from going over her, and as I wheeled across the road my machine came within two feet of her. She lay there yelling in the dust. I dismounted, and, picking her up I carried her to the other side of the road. There I left her to toddle homeward while I went on my way. I could not but sigh as I thought that I was again in Cathay.

Two days after this I entered Waterton. There was another road, said to be a very pleasant one, which lay to the westward, and which would have taken me to Walford through a country new to me, but I wished to make no further explorations in Cathay, and if one journeys back upon a road by which he came he will find the scenery very different.

I spent the night at the hotel, and after breakfast I very reluctantly went to call upon the Willoughbys. I forced myself to do this, for, considering the cordiality they had shown me, it would have required more incivility than I possessed to pass through the town without paying my respects. But to my great joy none of the ladies was at home. I hastened from the house with a buoyant step, and was soon speeding away, and away, and away.

The road was dry and hard, the sun was bright, but there was a fresh breeze in my face, and I rolled along at a swift and steady rate. On, on I went, until, before the sun had reached its highest point, I wheeled out of the main road, rolled up a gravel path, and dismounted in front of the Holly Sprig Inn.

I leaned my bicycle against a tree and went in-doors. The place did not seem so quiet as when I first saw it. I had noticed a lady sitting under a tree in front of the house. There was a nurse-maid attending a child who was playing on the grass. Entering the hall, I glanced into the large room which I had called the "office," and saw a man there writing at a table.

Presently a maid-servant came into the hall. She was not one I had noticed before. I asked if I could see Mrs. Chester, and she said she would go and look for her. There were chairs in the hall, and I might have waited for her there, but I did not. I entered the parlor, and was pleased to find it unoccupied. I went to the upper end of the room, as far as possible from the door.

In a few minutes I heard a step in the hall. I knew it, and it was strange how soon I had learned to know it. She stopped in front of the office, then she went on towards the porch, and turning she came into the parlor, first looking towards the front of the room and then towards the place where I stood.

The light from a window near me fell directly upon her as she approached me, and I could see that there was a slight flush on her face, but before she reached me it had disappeared. She did not greet me. She did not offer me her hand. In fact, from what afterwards happened, I believe that she did not consider me at that moment a fit subject for ordinary greeting. She stood up in front of me. She gazed steadfastly into my face. Her features wore something of their ordinary pleasant expression, but to this there was added a certain determination which I had never seen there before. She gave her head a little quick shake.

"No, sir!" she said.

This reception amazed me. I had been greatly agitated as I heard her approach, turning over in my mind what I should first say to her, but now I forgot everything I had prepared. "No what?" I exclaimed.

(Illustration: "'NO, SIR,' SHE SAID")

"'No' means that I will not marry you."

I stood speechless. "Of course you are thinking," she continued, "that you have never asked me to marry you. But that isn't at all necessary. As soon as I saw you standing there, back two weeks before your vacation is over, and when I got a good look at your face, I knew exactly what you had come for. I was afraid when you left here that you would come back for that, so I was not altogether unprepared. I spoke promptly so as to spare you and to make it easier for me."

"Easier!" I repeated. "What do you mean?"

"Easier, because the sooner you know that I will not marry you the better it will be for you and for me."

Now I could restrain myself no longer. "Why can't I marry you?" I asked, speaking very rapidly, and, I am afraid, with imprudent energy. "Is it any sort of condition or circumstance which prevents? Do you think that I am forcing myself upon you at a time when I ought not to do it? If so, you have mistaken me. Ever since I left here I have thought of scarcely anything but you, and I have returned thus early simply to tell you that I love you! I had to do that! I could not wait! But as to all else, I can wait, and wait, and wait, as long as you please. You can tell me to go away and come back at whatever time you think it will be right for you to give me an answer."

"This is the right time," she said, "and I have given you your answer. But, unfortunately, I did not prevent you from saying what you came to say. So now I will tell you that the conditions and circumstances to which you allude have nothing to do with the matter. I have a reason for my decision which is of so much more importance than any other reason that it is the only one which need be considered."

"What is that?" I asked, quickly.

"It is because I keep a tavern," she answered. "It would be wrong and wicked for you to marry a woman who keeps a tavern."

Now my face flushed. I could feel it burning. "Keep a tavern!" I exclaimed. "That is a horrible way to put it! But why should you think for an instant that I cared for that? Do you suppose I consider that a dishonorable calling? I would be only too glad to adopt it myself and help you keep a tavern, as you call it."

"That is the trouble!" she exclaimed. "That is the greatest trouble. I believe you would. I believe that you think that the life would just suit you."

"Then sweep away the tavern!" I exclaimed. "Banish it. Leave it. Put it out of all thought or consideration. I can wait for you. I can make a place and a position for you. I can--"

"No, you cannot," she interrupted. "At least, not for a long time, unless one of your scholars dies and leaves you a legacy. It is the future that I am thinking about. No matter what you might sweep away, and to what position you might attain, it could always be said, 'He married a woman who used to keep a tavern.' Now, every one who is a friend to you, who knows what is before you, if you choose to try for it, should do everything that can be done to prevent such a thing ever being said of you. I am a friend to you, and I am going to prevent it."

I stood unable to say one word. Her voice, her eyes, even the manner in which she stood before me, assured me that she meant everything she said. It was almost impossible to believe that such an amiable creature could turn into such an icicle.

"I do not want you to feel worse than you can help," she said, "but it was necessary for me to speak as firmly and decidedly as I could, and now it is all settled."

I knew it was all settled. I knew it as well as if it had been settled for years. But, with my eyes still ardently fixed on her, I remembered the little flush when she came into the room.

"Tell me one thing," said I, "and I will go. If it were not for what you say about your position in life, and all that--if there had not been such a place as this inn--then could you--"

She moved away from me. "You are as great a bear as the other one!" she exclaimed, and turning she left the room by a door in the rear. But in the next moment she ran back, holding out her hand. "Good-bye!" she said.

I took her hand, but held it not a second. Then she was gone. I stood looking at the door which she had closed behind her, and then I left the house. There was no reason why I should stay in that place another minute.

As I was about to mount my bicycle the boy came around the corner of the inn. Upon his face was a diabolical grin. The thought rushed into my mind that he might have been standing beneath the parlor window. Instinctively I made a movement towards him, but he did not run. I turned my eyes away from him and mounted. I could not kill a boy in the presence of a nurse-maid.

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