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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Debtor: A Novel - Chapter 14
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The Debtor: A Novel - Chapter 14 Post by :danstore Category :Long Stories Author :Mary E Wilkins Freeman Date :May 2012 Read :1381

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The Debtor: A Novel - Chapter 14

Chapter XIV

It was about a week later when Anderson, going into the drug store one evening, found young Eastman in the line in front of the soda-fountain. A girl in white was with him, and Anderson thought at first glance that she was Charlotte Carroll, as a matter of course--he had so accustomed himself to think of the two in union by this time. Then he looked again and saw that the girl was much larger and fair-haired, and recognized her as Bessy Van Dorn, William Van Dorn's daughter. The girl's semi-German parentage showed in her complexion and high-bosomed, matronly figure, although she was so young. She had a large but charming face, full of the sweetest placidity; her eyes, as blue as the sky, looked out upon the world with amiable assent to all its conditions. It required no acuteness to predict this as an ideal spouse for a man of a nervous and irritable temperament; that there was in her nature that which could supply cushioned fulnesses to all the exactions of his. She sat on a high stool and sipped her ice-cream soda with simple absorption in the pleasant sensation. She paid no attention whatever to her escort beside her, who took his soda with his eyes fixed on her. Her chin overlapping in pink curves like a rose, was sunken in the lace at her neck as she sipped. She did not sit straight, but rested in her corsets with an awkward lassitude of enjoyment. It was a very warm night, but she paid no attention to that. She was without a hat, and the beads of perspiration stood all over her pink forehead, and her thin white muslin clung to her plump neck and arms. There was something almost indecent about the girl's enjoyment of her soda. Hardly a man in the shop but was watching her. Anderson gazed at her also, but with covert disgust and a resentment which was absurd. He scowled at the young fellow with her. He felt like a father whose daughter has been flouted by the man of her choice. "What the devil does the boy mean, taking soda here with that Van Dorn girl?" he asked himself. He felt like a reckoning with him, and chafed at the impossibility of it. When the couple rose to go Anderson met the young man's salutation with such a surly response and such a stern glance that he fairly started. The men stared as the two went out, their shoulders touching as they passed through the door. The girl was round-shouldered from careless standing, but she moved with a palpitating grace of yielding, and the smooth, fair braids which bound her head shone like silver.

"Guess that's a go," a man said, with a chuckle; "a narrower door would have suited them just as well."

"Mighty good-looking girl," said Amidon.

"Healthy girl," said another. "If more young fellows had the horse-sense to marry girls like that, I'd give up medicine and go on a ranch." The Banbridge doctor said that. He was rather young, and had been in the village about five years. He had taken the practice of an old physician, a distant relative who had died six months before. Dr. Wilson was called a remarkably able man in his profession. He had been having several prescriptions filled, and kept several waiting. He was a large man with a coarsely handsome physique and a brutal humor with women. He was not liked personally, but the people rather bragged about their great physician and were proud when he was called to the towns round about.

"There's no getting Dr. Wilson, for a certainty, he has such an enormous practice!" they said, with pride.

"That girl is as handsome and healthy as an Alderney cow," he added, now, and the men laughed.

"She's a stunner," said Amidon.

Anderson went out abruptly without waiting to make his purchase. He felt as repelled as only a man of his temperament can feel. No woman could equal his sense of utter disgust, first with the quite innocent girl herself, next with the young physician for his insistence upon the subject. His wrath against young Eastman, his unreasoning and ridiculous wrath, swelled high as he dwelt upon the outrage of his desertion of a girl like his little Charlotte, that little creature of fire and dew, for this full-blown rose of a woman--the outrage to her and to himself. When he got home, his mother inquired anxiously what the matter was.

"Nothing, dear," he replied, brusquely.

"You look as if something worried you," said she. She had been taking a little evening toddle on her tiny, slippered feet out in the old-fashioned flower-garden beside the house, and she had a little bunch of sweet herbs, which she dearly loved, in her hand. She fastened a sprig of thyme in his coat as she stood talking to him, and the insistent odor seemed as real as a presence when he breathed. "nothing has gone wrong with your business, has there?" she inquired, lovingly.

"No, mother," he replied, and moved away from her gently, with the fragrance of the thyme strong in his consciousness.

His mother put her sweet nosegay in water. Then she went to bed, and Anderson sat on the stoop. Young Eastman and the Van Dorn girl passed after he sat there, and he thought with a loving passion of protection of poor little Charlotte alone at home. "I'll warrant the poor child is watching for that good-for-nothing scoundrel this minute," he told himself. He would have liked to knock young Eastman down; it would have delighted his soul to kick him; he would have given a good deal to have had him at the top of the steps.

The weather was intensely warm. He heard his mother fling her bedroom blinds wide open to catch all the air. The sky was clear, but all along the northwest horizon was a play of lightning from a far-distant storm.

Anderson lit another cigar. The night seemed to grow more and more oppressive. When a breath of wind came, it was like a hot breath of some fierce sentiency. A disagreeable odor from something was also borne upon it. The odors of the flowers seemed in abeyance. The play of blue-and-rosy light along the northwest horizon continued. Anderson got a certain pleasure from watching it. Nature's spectacularity diverted him, as if he had been a child, from his own affairs, which seemed to give him a dull pain. Between the flashes he asked himself why.

"It is just right," he told himself; "just what I desired. Why do I feel this way?"

Presently he decided with self-deception that it was because of the recent scene in the drug store. He remembered quite distinctly the young man's gaze at the stout, blue-eyed girl. "What right had the fellow to look at another girl after that fashion?" he said to himself. Then it struck him suddenly as being perhaps impossible for him ever to look at Charlotte in just that fashion. He thought with a thrill of indignant pride that there was a maiden who would have the best of love as her right. Then sitting there he heard a quick tread and a trill of whistle as meaningless as that of a robin, and young Eastman himself came alongside. He stopped before the gate.

"Hullo!" he said, suddenly.

"Hullo!" responded Anderson.

"Got a match?" said Eastman.

"Sure."

Eastman sprang up the steps until he came in reach of Anderson's proffered handful of matches. "Hotter 'n blazes," he remarked, as he scratched a match on his trousers leg.

"Hottest night of the season so far, I think," responded Anderson.

"I'm about beat out with it," said Eastman, lighting his cigar with no difficulty in the dead atmosphere. He threw himself sprawling on the step at Anderson's feet, without any invitation. "Whew!" he sighed.

"It 'll be hotter than hades in the City to-morrow," he remarked, after a moment's silence.

Anderson muttered an assent. He was considering as nervously as a woman whether he should say anything to this boy. While he was hesitating, young Eastman himself led up to it.

"Saw you in the drug store just now," he remarked.

"Yes; you were with--"

"Bessy Van Dorn--yes. Pretty girl?" Eastman spoke with the insufferable air of patronizing criticism of extreme masculine youth towards the opposite sex.

"Very," replied Anderson, dryly.

The young fellow gave a furious puff at his cigar. The smoke came full in Anderson's face. "Passed here the other evening with two other young ladies while you were sitting here," young Eastman remarked, in a curious tone. It was full of pain, but it had a reckless, devil-may-care defiance in it also.

"Yes," said Anderson, "I think you did. About a week ago, wasn't it?"

"Week ago yesterday. Well, I suppose you've heard the news. It's all over town."

"You mean--"

"She's engaged."

Anderson felt bewildered. "Yes?" he replied, questioningly.

"She's engaged," the young fellow repeated, with a sobbing sigh, which he ended in a laugh. "They all do it, sir."

Anderson was too puzzled to say anything.

"Suppose you've heard about the man?" said Eastman, in a nonchalant voice. He inhaled the smoke from his cigar with an air of abstract enjoyment.

Anderson unassumedly stared at him. "Why, I thought it was--"

"Who?" asked the young fellow, eagerly.

Anderson hesitated.

"Who did you think it was?" Eastman persisted. He had a pitiful wistfulness in his face upturned to the older man. It became quite evident that he had a desire to hear himself named as the accepted suitor.

"Why, I thought that you were the man!" Anderson answered.

"Everybody thought so, I guess," the young fellow said, with an absurd and childlike pride in the semblance in the midst of his grief over the reality. "But--" He hesitated, and Anderson waited, looking above at the play of lightning in the sky and smoking. "She's gone and got engaged to a man old enough to be her father. Lord! I guess he's older than her father--old enough to be her grandfather!" cried the young fellow, with a burst of grief and rage and shame. "Yes, sir, old enough to be her grandfather," he repeated. His voice shook. His cigar had gone out. He struck a match and the head flew off. He swore softly and struck another. Sometimes a match refusing to ignite changes mourning to wrath and rebellion. The third match broke short in two and the burning head flew down on the sidewalk. "Wish I had hold of the man that made 'em," young Eastman said, viciously; and in the same breath: "What can the girl be thinking of, that she flings herself away like that? Hang it all, is a woman a devil or a fool?"

Anderson removed his cigar long enough to ask a question, then replaced it. "Who is the man?" he inquired, in a slow, odd voice.

"Oh, he is an old army officer, a major--Major Arms, I believe his name is. He's somebody they've known a long time. He lives in Kentucky, I believe, in the same place where the Carrolls used to live and where she went to school. Oh, it's a good match. They're just tickled to death over it. Her sister feels rather bad, I guess, but, Lord! she'd do the same thing herself, if she got the chance. They're all alike." The boy said the last with a cynical bitterness beyond his years. He sneered effectively. He crossed one leg over the other and puffed his relighted cigar. The last match had ignited. Anderson said nothing. He was accommodating his ideas to the change of situation. Presently young Eastman spoke again. "Well," he said, in a tone of wretched conceit, "girls are as thick as flowers, after all, and a lot alike. Bessy Van Dorn is a beauty, isn't she?"

"I don't think she's much like the other," said Anderson, shortly.

"She's full as pretty."

Anderson made no reply.

"I don't believe Bessy would go and marry a man old enough to be her grandfather," said the boy, with a burst of piteous challenge. Then suddenly he tossed his cigar into the street and flung up his hands to his head with a despairing gesture. "Oh, my God!" he groaned.

"Be a man," Anderson said, in a kind voice.

"I am a man, ain't I? What do you suppose I care about it? I don't want to marry and settle down yet, anyway. I like to fool with the girls, but as for anything else-- I am a--man. If you think I am broken up over this, if anybody thinks I am-- Lord--" The young fellow rose and squared his shoulders. He looked down at Anderson. "There's one thing I want to say," he added. "I don't want you to think--I don't want to give the impression that she--that she has been flirting, or anything like that. She hasn't. Of course she might have been a little franker, I will admit that, for I have been there a good deal, but I don't suppose she thought it was anything serious, and it wasn't. She was right. But she did not flirt. Those girls are not that sort. Great Scott! I should like to see a man venture on any little familiarities with them--holding hands, or a kiss, or anything. They respect themselves, those girls do. They have been brought up better than the Banbridge girls. Oh no, she hasn't treated me badly or anything, and of course I don't care a damn about her getting married, only I'll be hanged if I like, on general principles, to see a pretty young girl throwing herself away on a man old enough to be her father. It's wrong--it's indecent, you know." Again the boy's voice seemed bursting with wrath and grief and shame.

Anderson rose, went into the house, and was out again in a few seconds. He had a cigar-box in his hand. "Try one of these," he said. "It's a brand new to me, and I think it fine. I think you'll agree with me."

"Thanks," said Eastman, with a sound in his voice like a heart-broken child's. He almost sobbed, but he took the cigar gratefully. "Well, I must be going," he said. "Mother 'll wonder where I am. It was too deuced hot to go to bed, so I've been strolling around. But I've got to turn in sometime. These nights are too hot to sleep, anyhow."

"Yes, they are pretty tough," said Anderson. "Wish we could have a shower."

"So do I. Say, this cigar is a dandy."

"I thought you'd like it. Of course it isn't a cigar that everybody would like. It requires some taste, perhaps a cultivated taste."

"Yes, that's so," replied the boy, with a pleased air. "I guess it does. I shouldn't say every man would appreciate this."

"Have another," said Anderson, and he pressed a couple into the hot young hand, which was greedily reached out for a little solace for its owner's wounded heart and self-love.

"Thanks. I suppose I have quite a good taste for a good cigar. I don't believe it would be very easy to palm off a cheap grade on me. Good-night, Mr. Anderson."

"Good-night," said Anderson, and was conscious of pity and amusement as the boy went away and his footsteps died out of hearing. As for himself, he was in much the same case as before, only the time had evidently arrived for him to dismiss his dreams and the lady of them. He did not think so hardly of her for being willing to marry the older man as the disappointed young man did. He considered himself as comparatively old, and he had a feeling of sympathy for the other old fellow who doubtless loved her. He was prepared to think that she had done a wiser thing than to engage herself to young Eastman, especially if the man was rich enough to take care of her. The position would be good, too. He thought generously of that consideration, although it touched him in his tenderest spot of vanity. "She will do well to marry an ex-army officer," he thought. "She will have the entree to any society." Presently he arose and went up-stairs to bed. He passed roughly by the nook where he had so often fancied her sitting, and closed, as it were, the door of his fancy against her with a bang. He set a lamp on a table at the head of his bed and read his political economy until dawn. It was, in fact, too hot for any nervous person to sleep. Now and then his thoughts wandered, the incessant drone of the night insects outside seemed to distract his attention from his book like some persistent clamor of nature recalling him to his leading-strings in which she had held him from the first. But resolutely he turned again to his book. At dawn he fell asleep, and woke an hour later to another steaming day.

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