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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Little Lady Of The Big House - Chapter 25
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The Little Lady Of The Big House - Chapter 25 Post by :ausmm Category :Long Stories Author :Jack London Date :February 2011 Read :909

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The Little Lady Of The Big House - Chapter 25

Paula on the Fawn, and Dick on the Outlaw, rode out from the Big House
as nearly side by side as the Outlaw's wicked perversity permitted.
The conversation she permitted was fragmentary. With tiny ears laid
back and teeth exposed, she would attempt to evade Dick's restraint of
rein and spur and win to a bite of Paula's leg or the Fawn's sleek
flank, and with every defeat the pink flushed and faded in the whites
of her eyes. Her restless head-tossing and pitching attempts to rear
(thwarted by the martingale) never ceased, save when she pranced and
sidled and tried to whirl.

"This is the last year of her," Dick announced. "She's indomitable.
I've worked two years on her without the slightest improvement. She
knows me, knows my ways, knows I am her master, knows when she has to
give in, but is never satisfied. She nourishes the perennial hope that
some time she'll catch me napping, and for fear she'll miss that time
she never lets any time go by."

"And some time she may catch you," Paula said.

"That's why I'm giving her up. It isn't exactly a strain on me, but
soon or late she's bound to get me if there's anything in the law of
probability. It may be a million-to-one shot, but heaven alone knows
where in the series of the million that fatal one is going to pop up."

"You're a wonder, Red Cloud," Paula smiled.

"Why?"

"You think in statistics and percentages, averages and exceptions. I
wonder, when we first met, what particular formula you measured me up
by."

"I'll be darned if I did," he laughed back. "There was where all signs
failed. I didn't have a statistic that applied to you. I merely
acknowledged to myself that here was the most wonderful female woman
ever born with two good legs, and I knew that I wanted her more than I
had ever wanted anything. I just had to have her--"

"And got her," Paula completed for him. "But since, Red Cloud, since.
Surely you've accumulated enough statistics on me."

"A few, quite a few," he admitted. "But I hope never to get the last
one--"

He broke off at sound of the unmistakable nicker of Mountain Lad. The
stallion appeared, the cowboy on his back, and Dick gazed for a moment
at the perfect action of the beast's great swinging trot.

"We've got to get out of this," he warned, as Mountain Lad, at sight
of them, broke into a gallop.

Together they pricked their mares, whirled them about, and fled, while
from behind they heard the soothing "Whoas" of the rider, the thuds of
the heavy hoofs on the roadway, and a wild imperative neigh. The
Outlaw answered, and the Fawn was but a moment behind her. From the
commotion they knew Mountain Lad was getting tempestuous.

Leaning to the curve, they swept into a cross-road and in fifty paces
pulled up, where they waited till the danger was past.

"He's never really injured anybody yet," Paula said, as they started
back.

"Except when he casually stepped on Cowley's toes. You remember he was
laid up in bed for a month," Dick reminded her, straightening out the
Outlaw from a sidle and with a flicker of glance catching the strange
look with which Paula was regarding him.

There was question in it, he could see, and love in it, and fear--yes,
almost fear, or at least apprehension that bordered on dismay; but,
most of all, a seeking, a searching, a questioning. Not entirely
ungermane to her mood, was his thought, had been that remark of his
thinking in statistics.

But he made that he had not seen, whipping out his pad, and, with an
interested glance at a culvert they were passing, making a note.

"They missed it," he said. "It should have been repaired a month ago."

"What has become of all those Nevada mustangs?" Paula inquired.

This was a flyer Dick had taken, when a bad season for Nevada pasture
had caused mustangs to sell for a song with the alternative of
starving to death. He had shipped a trainload down and ranged them in
his wilder mountain pastures to the west.

"It's time to break them," he answered. "And I'm thinking of a real
old-fashioned rodeo next week. What do you say? Have a barbecue and
all the rest, and invite the country side?"

"And then you won't be there," Paula objected.

"I'll take a day off. Is it a go?"

They reined to one side of the road, as she agreed, to pass three farm
tractors, all with their trailage of ganged discs and harrows.

"Moving them across to the Rolling Meadows," he explained. "They pay
over horses on the right ground."

Rising from the home valley, passing through cultivated fields and
wooded knolls, they took a road busy with many wagons hauling road-
dressing from the rock-crusher they could hear growling and crunching
higher up.

"Needs more exercise than I've been giving her," Dick remarked,
jerking the Outlaw's bared teeth away from dangerous proximity to the
Fawn's flank.

"And it's disgraceful the way I've neglected Duddy and Fuddy," Paula
said. "I've kept their feed down like a miser, but they're a lively
handful just the same."

Dick heard her idly, but within forty-eight hours he was to remember
with hurt what she had said.

They continued on till the crunch of the rock-crusher died away,
penetrated a belt of woodland, crossed a tiny divide where the
afternoon sunshine was wine-colored by the manzanita and rose-colored
by madronos, and dipped down through a young planting of eucalyptus to
the Little Meadow. But before they reached it, they dismounted and
tied their horses. Dick took the .22 automatic rifle from his saddle-
holster, and with Paula advanced softly to a clump of redwoods on the
edge of the meadow. They disposed themselves in the shade and gazed
out across the meadow to the steep slope of hill that came down to it
a hundred and fifty yards away.

"There they are--three--four of them," Paula whispered, as her keen
eyes picked the squirrels out amongst the young grain.

These were the wary ones, the sports in the direction of infinite
caution who had shunned the poisoned grain and steel traps of Dick's
vermin catchers. They were the survivors, each of a score of their
fellows not so cautious, themselves fit to repopulate the hillside.

Dick filled the chamber and magazine with tiny cartridges, examined
the silencer, and, lying at full length, leaning on his elbow, sighted
across the meadow. There was no sound of explosion when he fired, only
the click of the mechanism as the bullet was sped, the empty cartridge
ejected, a fresh cartridge flipped into the chamber, and the trigger
re-cocked. A big, dun-colored squirrel leaped in the air, fell over,
and disappeared in the grain. Dick waited, his eye along the rifle and
directed toward several holes around which the dry earth showed widely
as evidence of the grain which had been destroyed. When the wounded
squirrel appeared, scrambling across the exposed ground to safety, the
rifle clicked again and he rolled over on his side and lay still.

At the first click, every squirrel but the stricken one, had made into
its burrow. Remained nothing to do but wait for their curiosity to
master caution. This was the interval Dick had looked forward to. As
he lay and scanned the hillside for curious heads to appear, he
wondered if Paula would have something to say to him. In trouble she
was, but would she keep this trouble to herself? It had never been her
way. Always, soon or late, she brought her troubles to him. But, then,
he reflected, she had never had a trouble of this nature before. It
was just the one thing that she would be least prone to discuss with
him. On the other hand, he reasoned, there was her everlasting
frankness. He had marveled at it, and joyed in it, all their years
together. Was it to fail her now?

So he lay and pondered. She did not speak. She was not restless. He
could hear no movement. When he glanced to the side at her he saw her
lying on her back, eyes closed, arms outstretched, as if tired.

A small head, the color of the dry soil of its home, peeped from a
hole. Dick waited long minutes, until, assured that no danger lurked,
the owner of the head stood full up on its hind legs to seek the cause
of the previous click that had startled it. Again the rifle clicked.

"Did you get him?" Paula queried, without opening her eyes.

"Yea, and a fat one," Dick answered. "I stopped a line of generations
right there."

An hour passed. The afternoon sun beat down but was not uncomfortable
in the shade. A gentle breeze fanned the young grain into lazy
wavelets at times, and stirred the redwood boughs above them. Dick
added a third squirrel to the score. Paula's book lay beside her, but
she had not offered to read.

"Anything the matter?" he finally nerved himself to ask.

"No; headache--a beastly little neuralgic hurt across the eyes, that's
all."

"Too much embroidery," he teased.

"Not guilty," was her reply.

All was natural enough in all seeming; but Dick, as he permitted an
unusually big squirrel to leave its burrow and crawl a score of feet
across the bare earth toward the grain, thought to himself: No, there
will be no talk between us this day. Nor will we nestle and kiss lying
here in the grass.

His victim was now at the edge of the grain. He pulled trigger. The
creature fell over, lay still a moment, then ran in quick awkward
fashion toward its hole. Click, click, click, went the mechanism.
Puffs of dust leaped from the earth close about the fleeing squirrel,
showing the closeness of the misses. Dick fired as rapidly as he could
twitch his forefinger on the trigger, so that it was as if he played a
stream of lead from a hose.

He had nearly finished refilling the magazine when Paula spoke.

"My! What a fusillade.--Get him?"

"Yea, grandfather of all squirrels, a mighty graineater and destroyer
of sustenance for young calves. But nine long smokeless cartridges on
one squirrel doesn't pay. I'll have to do better."

The sun dropped lower. The breeze died out. Dick managed another
squirrel and sadly watched the hillside for more. He had arranged the
time and made his bid for confidence. The situation was as grave as he
had feared. Graver it might be, for all he knew, for his world was
crumbling about him. Old landmarks were shifting their places. He was
bewildered, shaken. Had it been any other woman than Paula! He had
been so sure. There had been their dozen years to vindicate his
surety....

"Five o'clock, sun he get low," he announced, rising to his feet and
preparing to help her up.

"It did me so much good--just resting," she said, as they started for
the horses. "My eyes feel much better. It's just as well I didn't try
to read to you."

"And don't be piggy," Dick warned, as lightly as if nothing were amiss
with him. "Don't dare steal the tiniest peek into Le Gallienne. You've
got to share him with me later on. Hold up your hand.--Now, honest to
God, Paul."

"Honest to God," she obeyed.

"And may jackasses dance on your grandmother's grave--"

"And may jackasses dance on my grandmother's grave," she solemnly
repeated.

The third morning of Graham's absence, Dick saw to it that he was
occupied with his dairy manager when Paula made her eleven o'clock
pilgrimage, peeped in upon him, and called her "Good morning, merry
gentleman," from the door. The Masons, arriving in several machines
with their boisterous crowd of young people, saved Paula for lunch and
the afternoon; and, on her urging, Dick noted, she made the evening
safe by holding them over for bridge and dancing.

But the fourth morning, the day of Graham's expected return, Dick was
alone in his workroom at eleven. Bending over his desk, signing
letters, he heard Paula tiptoe into the room. He did not look up, but
while he continued writing his signature he listened with all his soul
to the faint, silken swish of her kimono. He knew when she was bending
over him, and all but held his breath. But when she had softly kissed
his hair and called her "Good morning, merry gentleman," she evaded
the hungry sweep of his arm and laughed her way out. What affected him
as strongly as the disappointment was the happiness he had seen in her
face. She, who so poorly masked her moods, was bright-eyed and eager
as a child. And it was on this afternoon that Graham was expected,
Dick could not escape making the connection.

He did not care to ascertain if she had replenished the lilacs in the
tower room, and, at lunch, which was shared with three farm college
students from Davis, he found himself forced to extemporize a busy
afternoon for himself when Paula tentatively suggested that she would
drive Graham up from Eldorado.

"Drive?" Dick asked.

"Duddy and Fuddy," she explained. "They're all on edge, and I just
feel like exercising them and myself. Of course, if you'll share the
exercise, we'll drive anywhere you say, and let him come up in the
machine."

Dick strove not to think there was anxiety in her manner while she
waited for him to accept or decline her invitation.

"Poor Duddy and Fuddy would be in the happy hunting grounds if they
had to cover my ground this afternoon," he laughed, at the same time
mapping his program. "Between now and dinner I've got to do a hundred
and twenty miles. I'm taking the racer, and it's going to be some dust
and bump and only an occasional low place. I haven't the heart to ask
you along. You go on and take it out of Duddy and Fuddy."

Paula sighed, but so poor an actress was she that in the sigh,
intended for him as a customary reluctant yielding of his company, he
could not fail to detect the relief at his decision.

"Whither away?" she asked brightly, and again he noticed the color in
her face, the happiness, and the brilliance of her eyes.

"Oh, I'm shooting away down the river to the dredging work--Carlson
insists I must advise him--and then up in to Sacramento, running over
the Teal Slough land on the way, to see Wing Fo Wong."

"And in heaven's name who is this Wing Fo Wong?" she laughingly
queried, "that you must trot and see him?"

"A very important personage, my dear. Worth all of two millions--made
in potatoes and asparagus down in the Delta country. I'm leasing three
hundred acres of the Teal Slough land to him." Dick addressed himself
to the farm students. "That land lies just out of Sacramento on the
west side of the river. It's a good example of the land famine that is
surely coming. It was tule swamp when I bought it, and I was well
laughed at by the old-timers. I even had to buy out a dozen hunting
preserves. It averaged me eighteen dollars an acre, and not so many
years ago either.

"You know the tule swamps. Worthless, save for ducks and low-water
pasturage. It cost over three hundred an acre to dredge and drain and
to pay my quota of the river reclamation work. And on what basis of
value do you think I am making a ten years' lease to old Wing Fo Wong?
TWO thousand an acre. I couldn't net more than that if I truck-farmed
it myself. Those Chinese are wizards with vegetables, and gluttons for
work. No eight hours for them. It's eighteen hours. The last coolie is
a partner with a microscopic share. That's the way Wing Fo Wong gets
around the eight hour law."

* * * * *

Twice warned and once arrested, was Dick through the long afternoon.
He drove alone, and though he drove with speed he drove with safety.
Accidents, for which he personally might be responsible, were things
he did not tolerate. And they never occurred. That same sureness and
definiteness of adjustment with which, without fumbling or
approximating, he picked up a pencil or reached for a door-knob, was
his in the more complicated adjustments, with which, as instance, he
drove a high-powered machine at high speed over busy country roads.

But drive as he would, transact business as he would, at high pressure
with Carlson and Wing Fo Wong, continually, in the middle ground of
his consciousness, persisted the thought that Paula had gone out of
her way and done the most unusual in driving Graham the long eight
miles from Eldorado to the ranch.

"Phew!" he started to mutter a thought aloud, then suspended utterance
and thought as he jumped the racer from forty-five to seventy miles an
hour, swept past to the left of a horse and buggy going in the same
direction, and slanted back to the right side of the road with margin
to spare but seemingly under the nose of a run-about coming from the
opposite direction. He reduced his speed to fifty and took up his
thought:

"Phew! Imagine little Paul's thoughts if I dared that drive with some
charming girl!"

He laughed at the fancy as he pictured it, for, most early in their
marriage, he had gauged Paula's capacity for quiet jealousy. Never had
she made a scene, or dropped a direct remark, or raised a question;
but from the first, quietly but unmistakably, she had conveyed the
impression of hurt that was hers if he at all unduly attended upon any
woman.

He grinned with remembrance of Mrs. Dehameny, the pretty little
brunette widow--Paula's friend, not his--who had visited in the long
ago in the Big House. Paula had announced that she was not riding that
afternoon and, at lunch, had heard him and Mrs. Dehameny arrange to
ride into the redwood canyons beyond the grove of the philosophers.
And who but Paula, not long after their start, should overtake them
and make the party three! He had smiled to himself at the time, and
felt immensely tickled with Paula, for neither Mrs. Dehameny nor the
ride with her had meant anything to him.

So it was, from the beginning, that he had restricted his attentions
to other women. Ever since he had been far more circumspect than
Paula. He had even encouraged her, given her a free hand always, had
been proud that his wife did attract fine fellows, had been glad that
she was glad to be amused or entertained by them. And with reason, he
mused. He had been so safe, so sure of her--more so, he acknowledged,
than had she any right to be of him. And the dozen years had
vindicated his attitude, so that he was as sure of her as he was of
the diurnal rotation of the earth. And now, was the form his fancy
took, the rotation of the earth was a shaky proposition and old Oom
Paul's flat world might be worth considering.

He lifted the gauntlet from his left wrist to snatch a glimpse at his
watch, In five minutes Graham would be getting off the train at
Eldorado. Dick, himself homeward bound west from Sacramento, was
eating up the miles. In a quarter of an hour the train that he
identified as having brought Graham, went by. Not until he was well
past Eldorado did he overtake Duddy and Fuddy and the trap. Graham sat
beside Paula, who was driving. Dick slowed down as he passed, waved a
hello to Graham, and, as he jumped into speed again, called cheerily:

"Sorry I've got to give you my dust. I'll beat you a game of billiards
before dinner, Evan, if you ever get in."

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"This can't go on. We must do something--at once."They were in the music room, Paula at the piano, her face turned up toGraham who stood close to her, almost over her."You must decide," Graham continued.Neither face showed happiness in the great thing that had come uponthem, now that they considered what they must do."But I don't want you to go," Paula urged. "I don't know what I want.You must bear with me. I am not considering myself. I am pastconsidering myself. But I must consider Dick. I must consider you.I... I am so unused to such a situation," she concluded with
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As luck would have it, beyond chance guests for lunch or dinner, theBig House was empty. In vain, on the first and second days, did Dicklay out his work, or defer it, so as to be ready for any suggestionfrom Paula to go for an afternoon swim or drive.He noted that she managed always to avoid the possibility of beingkissed. From her sleeping porch she called good night to him acrossthe wide patio. In the morning he prepared himself for her eleveno'clock greeting. Mr. Agar and Mr. Pitts, with important mattersconcerning the forthcoming ranch sale of stock still unsettled, Dickpromptly cleared
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