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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Captain's Toll-gate - Chapter 3. Mrs. Easterfield
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The Captain's Toll-gate - Chapter 3. Mrs. Easterfield Post by :Ndoki Category :Long Stories Author :Frank R Stockton Date :May 2012 Read :1292

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The Captain's Toll-gate - Chapter 3. Mrs. Easterfield

CHAPTER III. Mrs. Easterfield

On the side of the mountain, a few miles to the west of the gap to which the turnpike stretched itself, there was a large estate and a large house which had once belonged to the Sudley family. For a hundred years or more the Sudleys had been important people in this part of the country, but it had been at least two decades since any of them had lived on this estate. Some of them had gone to cities and towns, and others had married, or in some other fashion had melted away so that their old home knew them no more.

Although it was situated on the borders of the Southern country, the house, which was known as Broadstone, from the fact that a great flat rock on the level of the surrounding turf extended itself for many feet at the front of the principal entrance, was not constructed after ordinary Southern fashions. Some of the early Sudleys were of English blood and proclivities, and so it was partly like an English house; some of them had taken Continental ideas into the family, and there was a certain solidity about the walls; while here and there the narrowness of the windows suggested southern Europe. Some parts of the great stone walls had been stuccoed, and some had been whitewashed. Here and there vines climbed up the walls and stretched themselves under the eaves. As the house stood on a wide bluff, there was a lawn from which one could see over the tree tops the winding river sparkling far below. There were gardens and fields on the open slopes, and beyond these the forests rose to the top of the mountains.

The ceilings of the house were high, and the halls and rooms were wide and airy; the trees on the edge of the woods seemed always to be rustling in a wind from one direction or another, and a lady; Mrs. Easterfield; who several years before had been traveling in that part of the country; declared that Broadstone was the most delightful place for a summer residence that she had ever seen, either in this country or across the ocean. So, with the consent and money of her husband, she had bought the estate the summer before the time of our story, and had gone there to live.

Mr. Easterfield was what is known as a railroad man, and held high office in many companies and organizations. When his wife first went to Broadstone he was obliged to spend the summer in Europe, and had agreed with her that the estate on the mountains would be the best place for her and the two little girls while he was away. This state of affairs had occasioned a good deal of talk, especially in Glenford, a town with which the Easterfields had but little to do, and which therefore had theorized much in order to explain to its own satisfaction the conduct of a comparatively young married woman who was evidently rich enough to spend her summers at any of the most fashionable watering-places, but who chose to go with her young family to that old barracks of a house, and who had a husband who never came near her or his children, and who, so far as the Glenford people knew, she never mentioned.

Mrs. Margaret Easterfield was a very fine woman, both to look at and to talk to, but she did not believe that her duty to her fellow-beings demanded that she should devote her first summer months at her new place to the gratification of the eyes and ears of her friends and acquaintances, so she had gone to Broadstone with her family--all females--with servants enough, and for the whole of the summer they had all been very happy.

But this summer things were going to be a little different at Broadstone, for Mrs. Easterfield had arranged for some house parties. Her husband was very kind and considerate about her plans, and promised her that he would make one of the good company at Broadstone whenever it was possible for him to do so.

So now it happened that he had come to see his wife and children and the house in which they lived; and, having had some business at a railroad center in the South, he had come through Glenford, which was unusual, as the intercourse between Broadstone and the great world was generally maintained through the gap in the mountains.

With his wife by his side and a little girl on each shoulder, Mr. Tom Easterfield walked through the grounds and the gardens and out on the lawn, and looked down over the tops of the trees upon the river which sparkled far below, and he said to his wife that if she would let him do it he would send a landscape-gardener, with a great company of Italians, and they would make the place a perfect paradise in about five days.

"It could be ruined a great deal quicker by an army of locusts," she said, "and so, if you do not mind, I think I will wait for the locusts."

It was not time yet for any of the members of the house parties to make their appearance, and it was the general desire of his family that Mr. Easterfield should remain until some of the visitors arrived, but he could not gratify them. Three days after his arrival he was obliged to be in Atlanta; and so, soon after breakfast one fine morning, the Easterfield carriage drove over the turnpike to the Glenford station, Mr. and Mrs. Easterfield on the back seat, and the two little girls sitting opposite, their feet sticking out straight in front of them.

When they stopped at the toll-gate Captain Asher came down to collect the toll--ten cents for two horses and a carriage. Olive was sitting in the little arbor, reading. She had noticed the approaching equipage and saw that there was a lady in it, but for some reason or other she was not so anxious as she had been to collect toll from ladies. If she could have arranged the matter to suit herself she would have taken toll from the male travelers, and her Uncle John might attend to the women; she did not believe that men would have such absurd ideas about people or ask ridiculous questions.

There was no conversation at the gate on this occasion, for the carriage was a little late, but as it rolled on Mrs. Margaret said to Mr. Tom:

"It seems to me as though I have just had a glimpse of Dresden. What do you suppose could have suggested that city to me?"

Mr. Tom could not imagine, unless it was the dust. She laughed, and said that he had dust and ballast and railroads on the brain; and when the oldest little girl asked what that meant, Mrs. Margaret told her that the next time her father came home she would make him sit down on the floor and then she would draw on that great bald spot of his head, which they had so often noticed, a map of the railroad lines in which he was concerned, and then his daughters would understand why he was always thinking of railroad-tracks and that sort of thing with the inside of his head, which, as she had told them, was that part of a person with which he did his thinking.

"Don't they sell some sort of annual or monthly tickets for this turnpike?" asked Mr. Tom. "If they do, you would save yourself the trouble of stopping to pay toll and make change."

"I so seldom use this road," she said, "that it would not be worth while. One does not stop on returning, you know."

But notwithstanding this speech, when Mrs. Easterfield returned from the Glenford station, one little girl sitting beside her and the other one opposite, both of them with their feet sticking out, she ordered her coachman to stop when he reached the toll-gate.

Olive was still sitting in the arbor, reading. The captain was not visible, and the wooden-faced Jane, noticing that the travelers were a lady and two little girls, did not consider that she had any right to interfere with Miss Olive's prerogatives; so that young lady felt obliged to go to the toll-gate to see what was wanted.

"You know you do not have to pay going back," she said.

"I know that," answered Mrs. Easterfield, "but I want to ask about tickets or monthly payments of toll, or whatever your arrangements are for that sort of thing."

"I really do not know," said Olive, "but I will go and ask about it."

"But stop one minute," exclaimed Mrs. Easterfield, leaning over the side of the carriage. "Is it your father who keeps this toll-gate?"

For some reason or other which she could not have explained to herself, Olive felt that it was incumbent upon her to assert herself, and she answered: "Oh, no, indeed. My father is Lieutenant-Commander Alfred Asher, of the cruiser Hopatcong."

Without another word Mrs. Easterfield pushed open the door of the carriage and stepped to the ground, exclaiming: "As I passed this morning I knew there was something about this place that brought back to my mind old times and old friends, and now I see what it was; it was you. I caught but one glimpse of you and I did not know you. But it was enough. I knew your father very well when I was a girl, and later I was with him and your mother in Dresden. You were a girl of twelve or thirteen, going to school, and I never saw much of you. But it is either your father or your mother that I saw in your face as you sat in that arbor, and I knew the face, although I did not know who owned it. I am Mrs. Easterfield, but that will not help you to know me, for I was not married when I knew your father."

Olive's eyes sparkled as she took the two hands extended to her. "I don't remember you at all," she said, "but if you are the friend of my father and mother--"

"Then I am to be your friend, isn't it?" interrupted Mrs. Easterfield.

"I hope so," answered Olive.

"Now, then," said Mrs. Easterfield, "I want you to tell me how in the world you come to be here."

There were two stools in the tollhouse, and Olive, having invited her visitor to seat herself on the better one, took the other, and told Mrs. Easterfield how she happened to be there.

"And that handsome elderly man who took the toll this morning is your uncle?"

"Yes, my father's only brother," said Olive.

"A good deal older," said Mrs. Easterfield.

"Oh, yes, but I do not know how much."

"And you call him captain. Was he also in the navy?"

"No," said Olive, "he was in the merchant service, and has retired. It seems queer that he should be keeping a toll-gate, but my father has often told me that Uncle John does not care for appearances, and likes to do things that please him. He likes to keep the tollhouse because it brings him in touch with the world."

"Very sensible in him," said Mrs. Easterfield. "I think I would like to keep a toll-gate myself."

Captain Asher had seen the carriage stop, and knew that Mrs. Easterfield was talking to Olive, but he did not think himself called upon to intrude upon them. But now it was necessary for him to go to the tollhouse. Two men in a buggy with a broken spring and a coffee bag laid over the loins of an imperfectly set-up horse had been waiting for nearly a minute behind Mrs. Easterfield's carriage, desiring to pay their toll and pass through. So the captain went out of the garden-gate, collected the toll from the two men, and directed them to go round the carriage and pass on in peace, which they did.

Then Mrs. Easterfield rose from her stool, and approached the tollhouse door, and, as a matter of course, the captain was obliged to step forward and meet her. Olive introduced him to the lady, who shook hands with him very cordially.

"I have found the daughter of an old friend," said she, and then they all went into the tollhouse again, where the two ladies reseated themselves, and after some explanatory remarks Mrs. Easterfield said:

"Now, Captain Asher, I must not stay here blocking up your toll-gate all the morning, but I want to ask of you a very great favor. I want you to let your niece come and make me a visit. I want a good visit--at least ten days. You must remember that her father and I, and her mother, too, were very good friends. Now there are so many things I want to talk over with Miss Olive, and I am sure you will let me have her just for ten short days. There are no guests at Broadstone yet, and I want her. You do not know how much I want her."

Captain Asher stood up tall and strong, his broad shoulders resting against the frame of the open doorway. It was a positive delight to him to stand thus and look at such a beautiful woman. So far as he could see, there was nothing about her with which to find fault. If she had been a ship he would have said that her lines were perfect, spars and rigging just as he would have them. In addition to her other perfections, she was large enough. The captain considered himself an excellent judge of female beauty, and he had noticed that a great many fine women were too small. With Olive's personal appearance he was perfectly satisfied, although she was slight, but she was young, and would probably expand. If he had had a daughter he would have liked her to resemble Mrs. Easterfield, but that feeling did not militate in the least against Olive. In his mind it was not necessary for a niece to be quite as large as a daughter ought to be.

"But what does Olive say about it?" he asked.

"I have not been asked yet," replied Olive, "but it seems to me that I--"

"Would like to do it," interrupted Mrs. Easterfield. "Now, isn't that so, dear Olive?"

The girl looked at the captain. "It depends upon what you say about it, Uncle John."

The captain slightly knitted his brows. "If it were for one night, or perhaps a couple of days," he said, "it would be different. But what am I to do without Olive for nearly two weeks? I am just beginning to learn what a poor place my house would be without her."

At this minute a man upon a rapidly trotting pony stopped at the toll-gate.

"Excuse me one minute," continued the captain, "here is a person who can not wait," and stepping outside he said good morning to a bright-looking young fellow riding a sturdy pony and wearing on his cap a metal plate engraved "United States Rural Delivery."

The carrier brought but one letter to the tollhouse, and that was for Captain Asher himself. As the man rode away the captain thought he might as well open his letter before he went back. This would give the ladies a chance to talk further over the matter. He read the letter, which was not long, put it in his pocket, and then entered the tollhouse. There was now no doubt or sign of disturbance on his features.

"I have considered your invitation, madam," said he, "and as I see Olive wants to visit you, I shall not interfere."

"Of course she does," cried Mrs. Easterfield, springing to her feet, "and I thank you ever and ever so much, Captain Asher. And now, my dear," said she to Olive, "I am going to send the carriage for you to-morrow morning." And with this she put her arm around the girl and kissed her. Then, having warmly shaken hands with the captain, she departed.

"Do you know, Uncle John," said Olive, "I believe if you were twenty years older she would have kissed you."

With a grim smile the captain considered; would he have been willing to accept those additional years under the circumstances? He could not immediately make up his mind, and contented himself with the reflection that Olive did not think him old enough for the indiscriminate caresses of young people.

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