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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Captain's Toll-gate - Chapter 13. Mr. Lancaster's Backers
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The Captain's Toll-gate - Chapter 13. Mr. Lancaster's Backers Post by :add2it Category :Long Stories Author :Frank R Stockton Date :May 2012 Read :1906

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The Captain's Toll-gate - Chapter 13. Mr. Lancaster's Backers

CHAPTER XIII. Mr. Lancaster's Backers

Olive found Mr. Hemphill under a tree upon the lawn. He was sitting on a low bench with one little girl upon each knee. He was not a stranger to the children, for they had frequently met him during their winter residences in cities. He was telling them a story when Olive approached. He made an attempt to rise, but the little girls would not let him put them down.

"Don't move, Mr. Hemphill," said Olive; "I am going to sit down myself." And as she spoke she drew forward a low bench. "I am so glad to see you are fond of children, Mr. Hemphill," she continued; "you must have changed very much."

"Changed!" he exclaimed. "I have always been fond of them."

"Excuse me," said Olive, "not always. I remember a child you did not care for, on whom you did not even look, who was absolutely nothing to you, although you were so much to her."

Mr. Hemphill stared. "I do not remember such a child," said he.

"She existed," said Olive. "I was that child." And then she told him how she had seen him come to her father's house.

Mr. Hemphill remembered Lieutenant Asher, he remembered going to his house, but he did not remember seeing there a little girl.

"I was not so very little," said Olive; "I was fourteen, and I was just at an age to be greatly attracted by you. I thought you were the most beautiful young man I had ever beheld. I don't mind telling you, because I can not look upon you as a stranger, that I fell deeply in love with you."

As Mr. Hemphill sat and listened to these words his face turned redder than the reddest rose, even his silky whiskers seemed to redden, his fine-cut red lips were parted, but he could not speak. The two little girls had been gazing earnestly at Olive. Now the elder one spoke.

"I am in love," she said.

"And so am I," piped up the younger one.

"She's in love with Martha's little Jim," said the first girl, "but I am in love with Henry. He's eight. Both boys."

"I wouldn't be in love with a girl," said the little one contemptuously.

This interruption was a help to Mr. Hemphill, and his redness paled a little.

"Of course you could not be expected to know anything of my feelings for you," said Olive, "and perhaps it is very well you did not, for business is business, and the feelings of girls should not be allowed to interfere with it. But my heart went out to you all the same. You were my first love."

Now Mr. Hemphill crimsoned again worse than before. He had not yet spoken a word, and there was no word in the English language which he thought would be appropriate for the occasion.

"You may think I am a little cruel to plump this sort of thing upon you," said Olive, "in such a sudden way, but I am not. All this was seven years ago, and a person of my age can surely speak freely of what happened seven years ago. I did not even know you when I met you, but Mrs. Easterfield told me about you, and now I remember everything, and I think it would have been inhuman if I had not told you of the part you used to play in my life. You have a right to know it."

If Mr. Hemphill could have reddened any more he would have done so, but it was not possible. The thought flashed into his mind that it might be well to say something about her having found him very much changed, but in the next instant he saw that that would not do. How could he assume that he had ever been beautiful; how could he force her to say that he was not beautiful now, or that he still remained so?

"I am very glad I have met you," said Olive, "and that I know who you are. And I am glad, too, to tell you that I forgive you for not taking notice of me seven years ago."

"Is that all of your story?" asked the elder little girl.

"Yes," said Olive, laughing, "that is all."

"Well, then, let Mr. Hemphill go on with his," said she.

"Oh, certainly," said Olive, jumping up; "and you must all excuse me for interfering with your story."

Mr. Hemphill sat still, a little girl on each knee. He had not spoken a word since that beautiful girl had told him she had once loved him. And he could not speak now.

"You look as if you had a plaster taken off," said the younger little girl. And, after waiting a moment for an answer, she slipped off his knee; the other followed; and the story was postponed.

When Mrs. Easterfield heard Olive's account of this incident she was utterly astounded. "What sort of a girl are you" she exclaimed. "What are you going to do about it now?"

"Do?" said Olive quietly. "I have done."

Mrs. Easterfield was in a state of great perplexity. She had already asked Mr. Hemphill to stay until Saturday, three days off, and she could not tell him to go away, and the awkwardness of his remaining in the same house with Olive was something not easy to deal with.

During Olive's interview with Mr. Hemphill and the little girls Claude Locker had been sitting alone at a distance, gazing at the group. He was waiting for an opportunity of social converse, for this was not forbidden him even if the time did not immediately precede the luncheon hour. He saw Hemphill's blazing face, and deeply wondered. If it had been the lady who had flushed he would have bounced upon the scene to defend her, but Olive was calm, and it was the conscious guilt of the man that made his face look like a freshly painted tin roof. This was an affair into which he had no right to intrude himself, and so he sat and sighed, and his heart grew heavy. How many ante-luncheon avowals would have to be made before she would take so much interest in him, one way or the other!

Mr. Du Brant also sat at a distance. He was reading, or at least appearing to read; but he was so unaccustomed to holding a book in his hands that he did it very awkwardly, and Miss Raleigh, who was looking at him from the library window, made up her mind that if he dropped it, as she expected him to do, she would get the book and rub the dirt off the corners before it was put back into the bookcase. But when Olive left Mr. Hemphill she went so quickly into the house that the Austrian was unable to join her, and he, therefore, went to his room to prepare for dinner.

Dick Lancaster had also been waiting, although not watching. He had hoped that he might have a chance for a little talk with Olive. But there was really no good reason to expect it, for he knew that two, and perhaps three, young men had stayed at home that afternoon in the hope that they might have the same opportunity. The odds against him were great.

He began to think that perhaps he was engaged in a foolish piece of business, and was in danger of making himself disagreeably conspicuous. The other young men were guests at Broadstone, but if he came there every day as he had been doing, and as he wanted to do, it might be thought that he was taking advantage of Mrs. Easterfield's kindness. At that moment he heard the rustle of skirts, and, glancing up, saw Mrs. Easterfield, who was looking for him.

Mrs. Easterfield's regard for Lancaster was growing, partly on account of the confidence she had already reposed in him. In her present state of mind she would have been glad to give him still more, for she did not know what to do about Olive and Mr. Hemphill, and there was no one with whom she could talk upon the subject; even if she had known Dick better her loyalty to Olive would have prevented that.

"Have you found out anything about the captain and Olive?" she asked. "Has he spoken of her return?"

"No," replied Dick; "he has not said a word on the subject, but I am very sure he would be overjoyed to have her come back. Every day when the postman arrives I believe he looks for a letter from her, and he shows that he feels it when he finds none. He is good-natured, and pleasant, but he is not as cheerful as when I first came."

"Every day," said Mrs. Easterfield, as they walked together, "I love Olive more and more."

"So do I," thought Dick.

"But every day I understand her less and less," she continued. "She is truly a navy girl, and repose does not seem to be one of her characteristics. From what she has told me, I believe she has never lived in domestic peace and quiet until she came to stay with her uncle. It would delight me to see her properly married. I wish you would marry her."

Dick stopped, and so did she, and they stood looking at each other. He did not redden, for he was not of the flushing kind; his face even grew a little hard.

"Do you believe," said he, in a very different tone from his ordinary voice, "that I have the slightest chance?"

"Of course I do," she answered. "I believe you have a very good chance, or I should not have spoken to you. I flatter myself that I have excellent judgment concerning young men, and I am very fond of Olive."

"Mrs. Easterfield," exclaimed Dick, "you know I am in love with her. I suppose that has been easy enough to see, but it has all been very quick work with me; in fact, I have had very little to say to her, and have never said anything that could in the slightest degree indicate how I felt toward her. But I believe I loved her the second day I met her, and I am not sure it did not begin the day before."

"I think that sort of thing is always quick work where Olive is concerned," said Mrs. Easterfield. "I think it likely that many young men have fallen in love with her, and that they have to be very lively if they want a chance to tell her so. But don't be jealous. I know positively that none of them ever had the slightest chance. But now all that is passed. I know she is tired of an unsettled life, and it is likely she may soon be thinking of marrying, and there will be no lack of suitors. She has them now. But I want her to marry you."

"Mrs. Easterfield," exclaimed Dick, "you have known me but a very little while----"

"Don't mention that," she interrupted. "I do quick work as well as other people. I never before engaged in any matchmaking business, but if this succeeds, I shall be proud of it to the end of my days. You are in love with Olive, and she is worthy of you. I want you to try to win her, and I will do everything I can to help you. Here is my hand upon it."

As Dick held that hand and looked into that face a courage and a belief in himself came into his heart that had never been there before. By day and by night his soul had been filled with the image of Olive, but up to this moment he had not thought of marrying her. That was something that belonged to the future, not even considered in his state of inchoate adoration. But now that he had been told he had reason to hope, he hoped; and the fact that one beautiful woman told him he might hope to win another beautiful woman was a powerful encouragement. Henceforth he would not be content with simply loving Olive; if it were within his power he would win, he would have her.

"You look like a soldier going forth to conquest," said Mrs. Easterfield with a smile.

"And you," said he impulsively, "you not only look like, but you are an angel."

This was pretty strong for the young professor, but the lady understood him. She was very glad, indeed, that he could express himself impulsively, for without that power he could not win Olive.

As Dick started away from Broadstone on his walk to the toll-gate he heard quick steps behind him and was soon overtaken by Claude Locker.

"Hello," said that young man, "if you are on your way home I am going to walk a while with you. I have not done a thing to-day."

When Dick heard these words his heart sank. He was on his way home accompanied by Olive--Olive in his heart, Olive in his soul, Olive in his brain, Olive in the sky and all over the earth--how dared a common mortal intrude himself upon the scene?

"There is another thing," said Locker, who was now keeping step with him. "My soul is filled with murderous intent. I thirst for human life, and I need the restraints of companionship."

"Who is it you want to kill?" asked Dick coldly.

"It is an Austrian," replied the other. "I will not say what Austrian, leaving that to your imagination. I don't suppose you ever killed an Austrian. Neither have I, but I should like to do it. It would be a novel and delightful experience."

Dick did not think it necessary that he should be told more; he perfectly understood the state of the case, for it was impossible not to see that this young man was paying marked attention to Olive, while Mr. Du Brant was doing the same thing. But still it seemed well to say something, and he remarked:

"What is the matter with the Austrian?"

"He is in love with Miss Asher," said Locker, "and so am I. I am beginning to believe he is positively dangerous. I did not think so at first, but I do now. He has actually taken to reading. I know that man; I have often seen him in Washington. He was always running after some lady or other, but I never knew him to read before. It is a dangerous symptom. He reads with one eye, while the other sweeps the horizon to catch a glimpse of her. By the way, that would be a splendid idea for a district policeman; if he stood under a lamp-post in citizen's dress reading a book, no criminal would suspect his identity, and he could keep one eye on the printed page, and devote the other to the cause of justice. But to return to our sallow mutton, or black sheep, if you choose. That Austrian ought to be killed!"

Dick smiled sardonically. "He is not your only obstacle," he said.

"I know it," replied Locker. "There's that Chinese laundried fellow, smooth-finished, who came up this morning. He must be an old offender, for I saw her giving it to him hot this morning. I am sure she was telling him exactly what she thought of him, for he turned as red as a pickled beet. So he will have to scratch pretty hard if he expects to get into her good graces again, and I suppose that is what he came here for. But I am not so much afraid of him as I am of that Austrian. If he keeps on the literary lay, and reads books with her, looking up the words in the dictionary, it is dangerous."

"I do not see," said Lancaster, somewhat loftily, "why you speak of these things to me."

"Then I'll tell you," said Locker quickly. "I speak of them to you because you are just as much concerned in them as I am. You are in love with Miss Asher--anybody can see that--and, in fact, I should think you were a pretty poor sort of a fellow if you were not, after having seen and talked with her. Consequently that Austrian is just as dangerous to you as he is to me. And as I have chosen you for my brother-in-arms, it is right that I tell you everything I know."

"Brother-in-arms?" ejaculated Dick.

"That is what it is," said Locker, "and I will tell you how it came about. The Austrian looked upon you with scorn and contempt because you rode a horse wearing rolled-up trousers and low shoes. As you did not see him and could not return the contempt, I did it for you. Having done this, a fellow feeling for you immediately sprang up within me. That is what always happens, you know. After that the feeling became a good deal stronger, and I said to myself that if I found I could not get Miss Asher; and it's seventy-six I don't, for that's generally the state of my luck; I would help you to get her, partly because I like you, and partly because that Austrian must be ousted, no matter what happens or how it is done. So I became your brother-in-arms, and if I find I am out of the race, I am going to back you up just as hard as I can, and here's my hand upon it."

Dick stopped as he had stopped half an hour before, and gazed upon his companion.

"Now don't thank me," continued Locker, "or say anything nice, because if I find I can come in ahead of you I am going to do it. But if we work together, I am sure we need not be afraid of that Austrian, or of that fiery-faced model for a ready-made-clothes shop. It is to be either you or me--first place for me, if possible."

Dick could not help laughing. "You are a jolly sort of a fellow," said he, "and I will be your brother-in-arms. But it is to be first place for me, if possible." And they shook hands upon the bargain.

That evening Mr. Hemphill found Olive alone. "I have been trying to get a chance to speak to you, Miss Asher," said he. "I want to ask you to help me, for I do not know what in the world to do."

Olive looked at him inquiringly.

"Since you spoke to me this afternoon," he went on, "I have been in a state of most miserable embarrassment; I can not for the life of me decide what I ought to say or what I ought to do, or what I ought not to say or what I ought not to do. If I should pass over as something not necessary to take into consideration the--the--most unusual statement you made to me, it might be that you would consider me as a boor, a man incapable of appreciating the--the--highest honors. Then again, if I do say anything to show that I appreciate such honors, you may well consider me presumptuous, conceited, and even insulting. I thought a while ago that I would leave this house before it would be necessary for me to decide how I should act when I met you, but I could not do that. Explanations would be necessary, and I would not be able to make them, and so, in sheer despair, I have come to you. Whatever you say I ought to do I will do. Of myself, I am utterly helpless."

Olive looked at him with serious earnestness. "You are in a queer position," she said, "and I don't wonder you do not know what to do. I did not think of this peculiar consequence which would result from my revelation. As to the revelation itself, there is no use talking about it; it had to be made. It would have been unjust and wicked to allow a man to live in ignorance of the fact that such a thing had happened to him without his knowing it. But I think I can make it all right for you. If you had known when you were very young, in fact, when you were in another age of man, that a young girl in short dresses was in love with you, would you have disdained her affection?"

"I should say not!" exclaimed Rupert Hemphill, his eyes fixed upon the person who had once been that girl in short dresses.

"Well, then," said Olive, "there could have been nothing for her to complain of, no matter what she knew or what she did not know, and there is nothing he could complain of, no matter what he knew or did not know. And as both these persons have passed entirely out of existence, I think you and I need consider them no longer. And we can talk about tennis or bass fishing, or anything we like. And if you are a fisherman you will be glad to hear that there is first-rate bass fishing in the river now, and that we are talking of getting up a regular fishing party. We shall have to go two or three miles below here where the water is deeper and there are not so many rocks."

That night Mr. Hemphill dreamed hard of a girl who had loved him when she was little, and who continued to love him now that she had grown to be wonderfully handsome. He was going out to sail with her in a boat far and far away, where nobody could find them or bring them back.

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