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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Captain's Toll-gate - Chapter 24. Mr. Tom Arrives At Broadstone
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The Captain's Toll-gate - Chapter 24. Mr. Tom Arrives At Broadstone Post by :Truman Category :Long Stories Author :Frank R Stockton Date :May 2012 Read :1172

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The Captain's Toll-gate - Chapter 24. Mr. Tom Arrives At Broadstone

CHAPTER XXIV. Mr. Tom arrives at Broadstone

After the conclusion of the game of tennis in which Olive and three of her lovers participated, Claude Locker, returning from a long walk, entered the grounds of Broadstone. He had absented himself from that hospitable domain for purposes of reflection, and also to avoid the company of Mr. Du Brant. Not that he was afraid of the diplomat, but because of the important interview appointed for the latter part of the morning. He very much wished that no unpleasantness of any kind should occur before the time for that interview.

Having found that he had given himself more time than was necessary for his reflections and his walk, he had rested in the shade of a tree and had written two poems. One of these was the serenade which he would have roared out on the night air on a very recent occasion if he had had time to prepare it. It was, in his opinion, far superior to the impromptu verses of which he had been obliged to make use, and it pleased him to think that if things should go well with him after the interview to which he was looking forward, he would read that serenade to its object, and ask her to substitute it in her memory for the inharmonic lines which he had used in order to smother the degenerate melody of a foreign lay. The other poem was intended for use in case his interview should not be successful. But on the way home Mr. Locker experienced an entire change of mind. He came to believe that it would be unwise for him to arrange to use either of those poems on that day. For all he knew, Miss Asher might like foreign degenerate lays, and she might be annoyed that he had interfered with one. He remembered that she had told him that if he had insisted on an immediate answer to his proposition it would have been very easy to give it to him. He realized what that meant; and, for all he knew, she might be quite as ready this morning to act with similar promptness. That Du Brant business might have settled her mind, and it would therefore be very well for him to be careful about what he did, and what he asked for.

About half an hour before luncheon, when he neared the house and perceived Miss Asher on the lawn, it seemed to him very much as if she were looking for him. This he did not like, and he hurried toward her.

"Miss Asher," said he, "I wish to propose an amendment."

"To what?" asked Olive. "But first tell me where you have been and what you have been doing? You are covered with dust, and look as hot as if you had been pulling the boat against the rapids. I have not seen you the whole morning."

"I have been walking," said he, "and thinking. It is dreadful hot work to think. That should be done only in winter weather."

"It would be a woeful thing to take a cold on the mind," said Olive.

"That is so!" he replied. "That is exactly what I am afraid of this morning, and that is the reason I want to propose my amendment. I beg most earnestly that you will not make this interview definitive. I am afraid if you do I may get chills in my mind, soul, and heart from which I shall never recover. I have an idea that the weather may not be as favorable as it was yesterday for the unveiling of tender emotions."

"Why so?" asked Olive.

"There are several reasons," returned Mr. Locker. "For one thing, that musical uproar last night. I have not heard anything about that, and I don't know where I stand."

Olive laughed. "It was splendid," said she. "I liked you a great deal better after that than I did before."

"Now tell me," he exclaimed hurriedly, "and please lose no time, for here comes a surrey from the station with a gentleman in it--do you like me enough better to give me a favorable answer, now, right here?"

"No," said Olive. "I do not feel warranted in being so precipitate as that."

"Then please say nothing on the subject," said Locker. "Please let us drop the whole matter for to-day. And may I assume that I am at liberty to take it up again to-morrow at this hour?"

"You may," said Olive. "What gentleman is that, do you suppose?"

"I know him," said Locker, "and, fortunately, he is married. He is Mr. Easterfield."

"Here's papa! Here's papa!" shouted the two little girls as they ran out of the front door.

"And papa," said the oldest one, "we want you to tell us a story just as soon as you have brushed your hair! Mr. Rupert has been telling us stories, but yours are a great deal better."

"Yes," said the other little girl, "he makes all the children too good. They can't be good, you know, and there's no use trying. We told him so, but he doesn't mind."

There was story-telling after luncheon, but the papa did not tell them, and the children were sent away. It was Mrs. Easterfield who told the stories, and Mr. Tom was a most interested listener.

"Well," said he, when she had finished, "this seems to be a somewhat tangled state of affairs."

"It certainly is," she replied, "and I tangled them."

"And you expect me to straighten them?" he asked.

"Of course I do," she replied, "and I expect you to begin by sending Mr. Hemphill away. You know I could not do it, but I should think it would be easy for you."

"Would you object if I lighted a cigar?" he asked.

"Of course not," she said. "Did you ever hear me object to anything of the kind?"

"No," said he, "but I never have smoked in this room, and I thought perhaps Miss Raleigh might object when she came in to do your writing."

"My writing!" exclaimed Mrs. Easterfield. "Now don't trifle! This is no time to make fun of me. Olive may be accepting him this minute."

"It seems to me," said Mr. Easterfield, slowly puffing his cigar, "that it would not be such a very bad thing if she did. So far as I have been able to judge, he is my favorite of the claimants. Du Brant and I have met frequently, and if I were a girl I would not want to marry him. Locker is too little for Miss Asher, and, besides, he is too flighty. Your young professor may be good enough, but from my limited conversation with him at the table I could not form much of an opinion as to him one way or another. I have an opinion of Hemphill, and a very good one. He is a first-class young man, a rising one with prospects, and, more than that, I think he is the best-looking of the lot."

"Tom," said Mrs. Easterfield, "do you suppose I sent for you to talk such nonsense as that? Can you imagine that my sense of honor toward Olive's parents would allow me even to consider a marriage between a high-class girl, such as she is--high-class in every way--to a mere commonplace private secretary? I don't care what his attributes and merits are; he is commonplace to the backbone; and he is impossible. If what ought to be a brilliant career ends suddenly in Rupert Hemphill I shall have Olive on my conscience for the rest of my life."

"That settles it," said Mr. Tom Easterfield; "your conscience, my dear, has not been trained to carry loads, and I shall not help to put one on it. Hemphill is a good man, but we must rule him out."

"Yes," said she, "Olive is a great deal more than good. He must be ruled out."

"But I can't send him away this afternoon," Tom continued. "That would put them both on their mettle, and, ten to one, he would considerately announce his engagement before he left."

"No," said she. "Olive is very sharp, and would resent that. But now that you are here I feel safe from any immediate rashness on their part."

"You are right," said Mr. Tom. "My very coming will give them pause. And now I want to see the girl."

"What for?" asked Mrs. Easterfield.

"I want to get acquainted with her. I don't know her yet, and I can't talk to her if I don't know her."

"Are you going to talk to her about Hemphill?"

"Yes, for one thing," he answered.

"Well," said she, "you will have to be very circumspect. She is both alert, and sensitive."

"Oh, I'll be circumspect enough," he replied. "You may trust me for that."

It was not long after this that Mrs. Easterfield, being engaged in some hospitable duties, sent Olive to show Mr. Tom the garden, and it was rather a slight to that abode of beauty that the tour of the rose-lined paths occupied but a very few minutes, when Mr. Easterfield became tired, and desired to sit down. Having seated themselves on Mrs. Easterfield's favorite bench, Olive looked up at her companion, and asked:

"Well, sir, what is it you brought me here to say to me?"

Mr. Tom laughed, and so did she.

"If it is anything about the gentlemen who are paying their addresses to me, you may as well begin at once, for that will save time, and really an introduction is not necessary."

Mr. Easterfield's admiration for this young lady, which had been steadily growing, was not decreased by this remark. "This girl," said he to himself, "deserves a nimble-witted husband. Hemphill would never do for her. It seems to me," he said aloud, "that we are already well enough acquainted for me to proceed with the remarks which you have correctly assumed I came here to make."

"Yes," said she, "I have always thought that some people are born to become acquainted, and when they meet they instantly perceive the fact, and the thing is accomplished. They can then proceed."

"Very well," said he, "we will proceed."

"I suppose," said Olive, "that Mrs. Easterfield has explained everything, and that you agree with her and with me that it is a sensible thing for a girl in my position to marry, and, having no one to attend wisely to such a matter for me, that I should endeavor to attend to it myself as wisely as I can. Also, that a little bit of pique, caused by the fact that I am to have an old schoolfellow for a stepmother, is excusable."

"And it is this pique which puts you in such a hurry? I did not exactly understand that."

"Yes, it does," said she. "I very much wish to announce my own engagement, if not my marriage, before any arrangements shall be made which may include me. Do you think me wrong in this?"

"No, I don't," said Mr. Easterfield. "If I were a girl in your place I think I would do the same thing myself."

Olive's face expressed her gratitude. "And now," said she, "what do you think of the young men? I feel so well acquainted with you through Mrs. Easterfield that I shall give a great deal of weight to your opinion. But first let me ask you one thing: After what you have heard of me do you think I am a flirt?"

Mr. Tom knitted his brows a little, then he smiled, and then he looked out over the flower-beds without saying anything.

"Don't be afraid to say so if you think so," said she. "You must be perfectly plain and frank with me, or our acquaintanceship will wither away."

Under the influence of this threat he spoke. "Well," said he, "I should not feel warranted in calling you a flirt, but it does seem to me that you have been flirting."

"I think you are wrong, Mr. Easterfield," said Olive, speaking very gravely. "I never saw any one of these young men before I came here except Mr. Hemphill, and he was an entirely different person when I knew him before, and I have given no one of them any special encouragement. If Mr. Locker were not such an impetuous young man, I think the others would have been more deliberate, but as it was easy to see the state of his mind, and as we are all making but a temporary stay here, these other young men saw that they must act quickly, or not at all. This, while it was very amusing, was also a little annoying, and I should greatly have preferred slower and more deliberate movements on the part of these young men. But all my feelings changed when my father's letter came to me. I was glad then that they had proposed already."

"That is certainly honest," said Mr. Tom.

"Of course it is honest," replied Olive. "I am here to speak honestly if I speak at all. Now, don't you see that if under these peculiar circumstances one eligible young man had proposed to me I ought to have considered myself fortunate? Now here are three to choose from. Do you not agree with me that it is my duty to try to choose the best one of them, and not to discourage any until I feel very certain about my choice?"

"That is business-like," said Mr. Easterfield; "but do you love any one of them?"

"No, I don't," answered Olive, "except that there is a feeling in that direction in the case of Mr. Hemphill. I suppose Mrs. Easterfield has told you that when I was a schoolgirl I was deeply in love with him; and now, when I think of those old times, I believe it would not be impossible for those old sentiments to return. So there really is a tie between him and me; even though it be a slight one; which does not exist at all between me and any one of the others."

For a moment neither of them spoke. "That is very bad, young woman," thought Mr. Tom. "A slight tie like that is apt to grow thick and strong suddenly." But he could not discourse about Mr. Hemphill; he knew that would be very dangerous. He would have to be considered, however, and much more seriously than he had supposed.

"Well," said he, "I will tell you this: if I were a young man, unmarried, and on a visit to Broadstone at this time, I should not like to be treated as you are treating the young men who are here. It is all very well for a young woman to look after herself and her own interests, but I should be very sorry to have my fate depend upon the merits of other people. I may not be correct, but I am afraid I should feel I was being flirted with."

"Well, then," said Olive, giving a quick, forward motion on the bench, "you think I ought to settle this matter immediately, and relieve myself at once from the imputation of trifling with earnest affection?"

"Oh, no, no, no!" cried Mrs. Easterfield. "Not at all! Don't do anything rash!"

Olive leaned back on the bench, and laughed heartily. "There is so much excellent advice in this world," she said, "which is not intended to be used. However, it is valuable all the same. And now, sir, what is it you would like me to do? Something plain; intended for every-day use."

Mr. Tom leaned forward, his elbows on his knees. "It does not appear to me," he said, "that you have told me very much I did not know before, for Mrs. Easterfield put the matter very plainly before me."

"And it does not seem to me," said Olive, "that you have given me any definite counsel, and I know that is what you came here to do."

"You are mistaken there," he said. "I came here to find out what sort of a girl you are; my counsels must depend on my discoveries. But there is one thing I want to ask you; you are all the time talking about three young men. Now, there are four of them here."

"Yes," she answered quickly. "But only three of them have proposed; and, besides, if the other were to do so, he would have to be set aside for what I may call family reasons. I don't want to go into particulars because the subject is very painful to me."

For a moment Mr. Tom did not speak. Then, determined to go through with what he had come to do, which was to make himself acquainted with this girl, he said: "I do not wish to discuss anything that is painful to you, but Mrs. Easterfield and I are very much disturbed for fear that in some way your visit to Broadstone created some misunderstanding or disagreeable feeling between you and your uncle. Now, would you mind telling me whether this is so, or not?"

She looked at him steadily. "There is an unpleasant feeling between me and my uncle, but this visit has nothing to do with it. And I am going to tell you all about it. I hate to feel so much alone in the world that I can't talk to anybody about what makes me unhappy. I might have spoken to Mrs. Easterfield, but she didn't ask me. But you have asked me, and that makes me feel that I am really better acquainted with you than with her."

This remark pleased Mr. Tom, but he did not think it would be necessary to put it into his report to his wife. He had promised to be very circumspect; and circumspection should act in every direction.

"It is very hard for a girl such as I am," she continued, "to be alone in the world, and that is a very good reason for getting married as soon as I can."

"And for being very careful whom you marry," interrupted Mr. Easterfield.

"Of course," said she, "and I am trying very hard to be that. A little while ago I had a father with whom I expected to live and be happy, but that dream is over now. And then I thought I had an uncle who was going to be more of a father to me than my own father had ever been. But that dream is over, too."

"And why?" asked Mr. Easterfield.

"He is going to marry a woman," said Olive, "that is perfectly horrible, and with whom I could not live. And the worst of it all is that he never told me a word about it."

As she said this Olive looked very solemn; and Mr. Tom, not knowing on the instant what would be proper to say, looked solemn also.

"You may think it strange," said she, "that I talk in this way to you, but you came here to find out what sort of girl I am, and I am perfectly willing to help you do it. Besides, in a case like this, I would rather talk to a man than to a woman."

Mr. Tom believed her, but he did not know at this stage of the proceedings what it would be wise to say. He was also fully aware that if he said the wrong thing it would be very bad, indeed.

"Now, you see," said she, "there is another reason why I should marry as soon as possible. In my case most girls would take up some pursuit which would make them independent, but I don't like business. I want to be at the head of a household; and, what is more, I want to have something to do--I mean a great deal to do--with the selection of a husband."

The conversation was taking a direction which frightened Mr. Tom. In the next moment she might be asking advice about the choice of a husband. It was plain enough that love had nothing to do with the matter, and Mr. Tom did not wish to act the part of a practical-minded Cupid. "And now let me ask a favor of you," said he. "Won't you give me time to think over this matter a little?"

"That is exactly what I say to my suitors," said Olive, smiling.

Mr. Tom smiled also. "But won't you promise me not to do anything definite until I see you again?" he asked earnestly.

"That is not very unlike what some of my suitors say to me," she replied. "But I will promise you that when you see me again I shall still be heart-free."

"There can be no doubt of that," Mr. Tom said to himself as they arose to leave the garden. "And, my young woman, you may deny being a flirt, but you permitted the addresses of two young men before you were upset by your father's letter. But I think I like flirts. At any rate, I can not help liking her, and I believe she has got a heart somewhere, and will find it some day."

When Mr. Tom returned to the house he did not find his wife, for that lady was occupied somewhere in entertaining her guests. Now, although it might have been considered his duty to go and help her in her hospitable work, he very much preferred to attend to the business which she had sent for him to do. And walking to the stables, he was soon mounted on a good horse, and riding away southward on the smooth gray turnpike.

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