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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Captain's Toll-gate - Chapter 6. Mr. Claude Locker
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The Captain's Toll-gate - Chapter 6. Mr. Claude Locker Post by :JuvioSuccess Category :Long Stories Author :Frank R Stockton Date :May 2012 Read :1142

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The Captain's Toll-gate - Chapter 6. Mr. Claude Locker

CHAPTER VI. Mr. Claude Locker

The Foxes arrived at Broadstone at the exact hour of the morning at which they had been expected. They always did this; even trains which were sometimes delayed when other visitors came were always on time when they carried the Foxes. They were both perfectly well and happy, as they always were.

As rapidly as it was possible for human beings to do so they absorbed the extraordinary advantages of the house and it surroundings, and they said the right things in such a common-sense fashion that their hostess was proud that she owned such a place, and happy that she had invited them to see it.

In their hearts they liked everything about the place except Olive, and they wondered how they were going to get along with such a glum young person, but they did not talk about her to Mrs. Easterfield; there was too much else.

Mr. Claude Locker was expected on the train by which the Foxes had come, but he did not arrive; and this made it necessary to send again for him in the afternoon.

Mrs. Easterfield tried very hard to cheer up Olive, and to make her entertain the Foxes in her usual lively way, but this was of no use; the young person was not in a good humor, and retired for an afternoon nap. But as this was an indulgence she very seldom allowed herself, it was not likely that she napped.

Mr. Fox spoke to Mrs. Fox about her. "A queer girl," he said; "what do you suppose is the matter with her?"

"The symptoms are those of green apples," replied Mrs. Fox, "and probably she will be better to-morrow."

The carriage came back without Mr. Locker. But just as the soup-plates were being removed from the dinner-table he arrived in a hired vehicle, and appeared at the dining-room door with his hat in one hand, and a package in the other. He begged Mrs. Easterfield not to rise.

"I will slip up to my room," said he, "if you have one for me, and when I come down I will greet you and be introduced."

With this he turned and left the room, but was back in a moment. "It was a woman," he said, "who was at the bottom of it. It is always a woman, you know, and I am sure you will excuse me now that you know this. And you must let me begin wherever you may be in the dinner."

"I have heard of Mr. Locker," said Mr. Fox, "but I never met him before. He must be very odd."

"He admits that himself," said Mrs. Easterfield, "but he asserts that he spends a great deal of his time getting even with people."

In a reasonable time Mr. Locker appeared and congratulated himself upon having struck the roast.

"As a matter of fact," he said, "we will now all begin dinner together. What has gone before was nothing but overture. If I can help it I never get in until the beginning of the play."

He bowed parenthetically as Mrs. Easterfield introduced him to the company; and, as she looked at him, Olive forgot for a moment her uncle and his visitor.

"Don't send for soup, I beg of you," said Mr. Locker, as he took his seat. "I regard it as a rare privilege to begin with the inside cut of beef."

Mr. Locker was not allowed to do all the talking; his hostess would not permit that; but under the circumstances he was allowed to explain his lateness.

"You know I have been spending a week with the Bartons," he said, "and last night I came over from their house to the station in a carriage. There is a connecting train, but I should have had to take it very early in the evening, so I saved time by hiring a carriage."

"Saved time?" exclaimed Mrs. Easterfield.

"I saved all the time from dinner until the Bartons went to bed, which would have been lost if I had taken the train. Besides, I like to travel in carriages. One is never too late for a carriage; it is always bound to wait for you."

In the recesses of his mind Mr. Fox now said to himself, "This is a fool." And Mrs. Fox, in the recesses of her mind, remarked, "I am quite sure that Mr. Fox will look upon this young man as a fool."

"I spent what was left of the night at a tavern near the station," continued Mr. Locker, "where I would have had to stay all night if I had not taken the carriage. And I should have been in plenty of time for the morning train if I had not taken a walk before breakfast. Apparently that is a part of the world where it takes a good deal longer to go back to a place than it does to get away from it."

"But where did the woman come in?" asked Mrs. Easterfield.

"Oh, she came in with some tea and sandwiches in the middle of the afternoon," said Mr. Locker. "I was waiting in the parlor of the tavern. She was fairly young, and as I ate she stood and talked. She talked about Horace Walpole." At this even Olive smiled. "It was odd, wasn't it?" continued Mr. Locker, glancing from one to the other. "But that is what she did. She had been reading about him in an old book. She asked me if I knew anything about him, and I told her a great deal. It was so very interesting to tell her, and she was so interested, that when the train arrived I was too much occupied to think that it might start again immediately, but it did that very thing, and so I was left. However, the Walpole young woman told me there was a freight-train along in about an hour, and so we continued our conversation. When this train came I asked the engineer how many cigars he would take to let me ride in the cab. He said half a dozen, but as I only had five, I promised to send him the other by mail. However, as I smoked two of his five, I suppose I ought to send him three."

"This young man," said Mr. Fox to himself, "is trying to appear more of a fool than he really is."

"I have no doubt," said Mrs. Fox to herself, "that Mr. Fox is of the opinion that this young man is making an effort to appear foolish."

That evening was a dull one. Mrs. Easterfield did her best, Claude Locker did his best, and Mr. and Mrs. Fox did their best to make things lively, but their success was poor. Miss Raleigh, the secretary, sat ready to give an approving smile to any liveliness which might arise, and Mrs. Blynn, with the dark eyes and soft white hair, sat sewing and waiting; never before had it been necessary for her to wait for liveliness in Mrs. Easterfield's house. A mild rain somewhat assisted the dullness, for everybody was obliged to stay indoors.

Early the next morning Olive Asher went down-stairs, and stood in the open doorway looking out upon the landscape, glowing in the sunshine and brighter and more odorous from the recent rain. Some time during the night this young woman had made up her mind to give no further thought to her uncle who kept the toll-gate. There was no earthly reason why he, or anything he wanted to do, or did not want to do, or did, should trouble and annoy her. A few months before she had scarcely known him, not having seen him since she was a girl; and, in fact, he was no more to her now than he was before she went to his house. If he chose to offer her any explanation of his strange conduct, that would be very well; if he did not choose, that would also be very well. The whole affair was of no consequence; she would drop it entirely from her mind.

Olive's bounding spirits now rose very high, and when Claude Locker came in with his shoes soaked from a tramp in the wet grass she greeted him in such a way that he could scarcely believe she was the grumpy girl of the day before. As they went into breakfast Mrs. Fox remarked to her husband in a low voice that Miss Asher seemed to have recovered entirely from her indisposition.

In the course of the morning Mr. Locker found an opportunity to speak in private with Mrs. Easterfield. "I am in great trouble," he said; "I want to marry Miss Asher."

"You show unusual promptness," said Mrs. Easterfield.

"Not at all," replied Locker. "This sort of thing is not unusual with me. My mind is a highly sensitive plate, and receives impressions almost instantaneously. If it were a large mind these impressions might be placed side by side, and each one would perhaps become indelible. But it is small, and each impression claps itself down on the one before. This last one, however, is the strongest of them all, and obliterates everything that went before."

"It strikes me," said Mrs. Easterfield, "that if you were to pay more attention to your poems and less to young ladies it would be better."

"Hardly," said Mr. Locker; "for it would be worse for the poems."

The general appearance of Mr. Locker gave no reason to suppose that he would be warranted in assuming a favorable issue from any of the impressions to which his mind was so susceptible. He was small, rather awkwardly set up, his head was large, and the features of his face seemed to have no relation to each other. His nose was somewhat stubby, and had nothing to do with his mouth or eyes. One of his eyebrows was drawn down as if in days gone by he had been in the habit of wearing a single glass. The other brow was raised over a clear and wide-open light-blue eye. His mouth was large, and attended strictly to its own business. It transmitted his odd ideas to other people, but it never laughed at them. His chin was round and prominent, suggesting that it might have been borrowed from somebody else. His cheeks were a little heavy, and gave no assistance in the expression of his ideas.

His profession was that of a poet. He called himself a practical poet, because he made a regular business of it, turning his poetic inspirations into salable verse with the facility and success, as he himself expressed it, of a man who makes boxes out of wood. Moreover, he sold these poems as readily as any carpenter sold his boxes. Like himself, Claude Locker's poems were always short, always in request, and sometimes not easy to understand.

The poem he wrote that night was a word-picture of the rising moon entangled in a sheaf of corn upon a hilltop, with a long-eared rabbit sitting near by as if astonished at the conflagration.

"A very interesting girl, that Miss Asher," said Mr. Fox to his wife that evening. "I do not know when I have laughed so much."

"I thought you were finding her interesting," said Mrs. Fox. "To me it was like watching a game of roulette at Monte Carlo. It was intensely interesting, but I could not imagine it as having anything to do with me."

"No, my dear," said Mr. Fox, "it could have nothing to do with you."

After Mrs. Easterfield retired she sat for a long time, thinking of Olive. That young person and Mr. Locker had been boating that afternoon, and Olive had had the oars. Mr. Locker had told with great effect how she had pulled to get out of the smooth water, and how she had dashed over the rapids and between the rocks in such a way as to make his heart stand still.

"I should like to go rowing with her every day," he had remarked confidentially. "Each time I started I should make a new will."

"Why a new one?" Mrs. Easterfield had asked.

"Each time I should take something more from my relatives to give to her," had been the answer.

As she sat and thought, Mrs. Easterfield began to be a little frightened. She was a brave woman, but it is the truly brave who know when they should be frightened, and she felt her responsibility, not on account of the niece of the toll-gate keeper, but on account of the daughter of Lieutenant Asher, whom she had once known so well. The thing which frightened her was the possibility that before anybody would be likely to think of such a thing Olive might marry Claude Locker. He was always ready to do anything he wanted to do at any time; and for all Mrs. Easterfield knew, the girl might be of the same sort.

But Mrs. Easterfield rose to the occasion. She looked upon Olive as a wild young colt who had broken out of her paddock, but she remembered that she herself had a record for speed. "If there is to be any running I shall get ahead of her," she said to herself, "and I will turn her back. I think I can trust myself for that."

Olive slept the sound sleep of the young, but for all that she had a dream. She dreamed of a kind, good, thoughtful, and even affectionate, middle-aged man; a man who looked as though he might have been her father, and whom she was beginning to look upon as a father, notwithstanding the fact that she had a real father dressed in a uniform and on a far-away ship. She dreamed ever so many things about this newer, although elder, father, and her dream made her very happy.

But in the morning when she woke her dream had entirely passed from her mind, and she felt just as much like a colt as when she had gone to bed.

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