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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Portygee - Chapter 19
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The Portygee - Chapter 19 Post by :Norman Category :Long Stories Author :Joseph Crosby Lincoln Date :May 2012 Read :3319

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The Portygee - Chapter 19

CHAPTER XIX

While dressing in the cold light of dawn his perturbations of the previous night appeared in retrospect as rather boyish and unnecessary. His sudden and unexpected meeting with Helen and their talk together had tended to make him over-sentimental, that was all. He and she were to be friends, of course, but there was no real danger of his allowing himself to think of her except as a friend. No, indeed. He opened the bureau drawer in search of a tie, and there was the package of "snapshots" just where he had tossed them that night when he first returned home after muster-out. Helen's photograph was the uppermost. He looked at it--looked at it for several minutes. Then he closed the drawer again and hurriedly finished his dressing. A part, at least, of his resolve of the night before had been sound common-sense. His brain was suffering from lack of exercise. Work was what he needed, hard work.

So to work he went without delay. A place to work in was the first consideration. He suggested the garret, but his grandmother and Rachel held up their hands and lifted their voices in protest.

"No, INDEED," declared Olive. "Zelotes has always talked about writin' folks and poets starvin' in garrets. If you went up attic to work he'd be teasin' me from mornin' to night. Besides, you'd freeze up there, if the smell of moth-balls didn't choke you first. No, you wait; I've got a notion. There's that old table desk of Zelotes' in the settin' room. He don't hardly ever use it nowadays. You take it upstairs to your own room and work in there. You can have the oil-heater to keep you warm."

So that was the arrangement made, and in his own room Albert sat down at the battered old desk, which had been not only his grandfather's but his great-grandfather's property, to concentrate upon the first of the series of stories ordered by the New York magazine. He had already decided upon the general scheme for the series. A boy, ragamuffin son of immigrant parents, rising, after a wrong start, by sheer grit and natural shrewdness and ability, step by step to competence and success, winning a place in and the respect of a community. There was nothing new in the idea itself. Some things his soldier chum Mike Kelley had told him concerning an uncle of his--Mike's--suggested it. The novelty he hoped might come from the incidents, the various problems faced by his hero, the solution of each being a step upward in the latter's career and in the formation of his character. He wanted to write, if he could, the story of the building of one more worth-while American, for Albert Speranza, like so many others set to thinking by the war and the war experiences, was realizing strongly that the gabbling of a formula and the swearing of an oath of naturalization did not necessarily make an American. There were too many eager to take that oath with tongue in cheek and knife in sleeve. Too many, for the first time in their lives breathing and speaking as free men, thanks to the protection of Columbia's arm, yet planning to stab their protectress in the back.

So Albert's hero was to be an American, an American to whom the term meant the highest and the best. If he had hunted a lifetime for something to please and interest his grandfather he could not have hit the mark nearer the center. Cap'n Lote, of course, pretended a certain measure of indifference, but that was for Olive and Rachel's benefit. It would never do for the scoffer to become a convert openly and at once. The feminine members of the household clamored each evening to have the author read aloud his day's installment. The captain sniffed.

"Oh, dear, dear," with a groan, "now I've got to hear all that made-up stuff that happened to a parcel of made-up folks that never lived and never will. Waste of time, waste of time. Where's my Transcript?"

But it was noticed--and commented upon, you may be sure--by his wife and housekeeper that the Transcript was likely to be, before the reading had progressed far, either in the captain's lap or on the floor. And when the discussion following the reading was under way Captain Zelotes' opinions were expressed quite as freely as any one's else. Laban Keeler got into the habit of dropping in to listen.

One fateful evening the reading was interrupted by the arrival of Mr. Kendall. The reverend gentleman had come to make a pastoral call. Albert's hero was in the middle of a situation. The old clergyman insisted upon the continuation of the reading. It was continued and so was the discussion following it; in fact, the discussion seemed likely to go on indefinitely, for the visitor showed no inclination of leaving. At ten-thirty his daughter appeared to inquire about him and to escort him home. Then he went, but under protest. Albert walked to the parsonage with them.

"Now we've started somethin'," groaned the captain, as the door closed. "That old critter'll be cruisin' over here six nights out of five from now on to tell Al just how to spin those yarns of his. And he'll talk--and talk--and talk. Ain't it astonishin' how such a feeble-lookin' craft as he is can keep blowin' off steam that way and still be able to navigate."

His wife took him to task. "The idea," she protested, "of your callin' your own minister a 'critter'! I should think you'd be ashamed. . . . But, oh, dear, I'm afraid he WILL be over here an awful lot."

Her fears were realized. Mr. Kendall, although not on hand "six nights out of five," as the captain prophesied, was a frequent visitor at the Snow place. As Albert's story-writing progressed the discussions concerning the growth and development of the hero's character became more and more involved and spirited. They were for the most part confined, when the minister was present, to him and Mrs. Snow and Rachel. Laban, if he happened to be there, sat well back in the corner, saying little except when appealed to, and then answering with one of his dry, characteristic observations. Captain Lote, in the rocker, his legs crossed, his hand stroking his beard, and with the twinkle in his eyes, listened, and spoke but seldom. Occasionally, when he and his grandson exchanged glances, the captain winked, indicating appreciation of the situation.

"Say, Al," he said, one evening, after the old clergyman had departed, "it must be kind of restful to have your work all laid out for you this way. Take it to-night, for instance; I don't see but what everything's planned for this young feller you're writin' about so you nor he won't have to think for yourselves for a hundred year or such matter. Course there's some little difference in the plans. Rachel wants him to get wrecked on an island or be put in jail, and Mother, she wants him to be a soldier and a poet, and Mr. Kendall thinks it's high time he joined the church or signed the pledge or stopped swearin' or chewin' gum."

"Zelotes, how ridiculous you do talk!"

"All right, Mother, all right. What strikes me, Al, is they don't any of 'em stop to ask you what YOU mean to have him do. Course I know 'tain't any of your business, but still--seems 's if you might be a little mite interested in the boy yourself."

Albert laughed. "Don't worry, Grandfather," he said. "I'm enjoying it all very much. And some of the suggestions may be just what I'm looking for."

"Well, son, we'll hope so. Say, Labe, I've got a notion for keepin' the minister from doin' all the talkin.' We'll ask Issy Price to drop in; eh?"

Laban shook his head. "I don't know, Cap'n Lote," he observed. "Sounds to me a good deal like lettin' in a hurricane to blow out a match with. . . . Um-hm. Seems so to me. Yes, yes."

Mr. Kendall's calls would have been more frequent still had Helen not interfered. Very often, when he came she herself dropped in a little later and insisted upon his making an early start for home. Occasionally she came with him. She, too, seemed much interested in the progress of the stories, but she offered few suggestions. When directly appealed to, she expressed her views, and they were worth while.

Albert was resolutely adhering to his determination not to permit himself to think of her except as a friend. That is, he hoped he was; thoughts are hard to control at times. He saw her often. They met on the street, at church on Sunday--his grandmother was so delighted when he accompanied her to "meeting" that he did so rather more frequently, perhaps, than he otherwise would--at the homes of acquaintances, and, of course, at the Snow place. When she walked home with her father after a "story evening" he usually went with them as additional escort.

She had not questioned him concerning Madeline since their first meeting that morning at the parsonage. He knew, therefore, that some one--his grandmother, probably--had told her of the broken engagement. When they were alone together they talked of many things, casual things, the generalities of which, so he told himself, a conversation between mere friends was composed. But occasionally, after doing escort duty, after Mr. Kendall had gone into the house to take his "throat medicine"--a medicine which Captain Zelotes declared would have to be double-strength pretty soon to offset the wear and tear of the story evenings--they talked of matters more specific and which more directly concerned themselves. She spoke of her hospital work, of her teaching before the war, and of her plans for the future. The latter, of course, were very indefinite now.

"Father needs me," she said, "and I shall not leave him while he lives."

They spoke of Albert's work and plans most of all. He began to ask for advice concerning the former. When those stories were written, what then? She hoped he would try the novel he had hinted at.

"I'm sure you can do it," she said. "And you mustn't give up the poems altogether. It was the poetry, you know, which was the beginning."

"YOU were the beginning," he said impulsively. "Perhaps I should never have written at all if you hadn't urged me, shamed me out of my laziness."

"I was a presuming young person, I'm afraid," she said. "I wonder you didn't tell me to mind my own business. I believe you did, but I wouldn't mind."

June brought the summer weather and the summer boarders to South Harniss. One of the news sensations which came at the same time was that the new Fosdick cottage had been sold. The people who had occupied it the previous season had bought it. Mrs. Fosdick, so rumor said, was not strong and her doctors had decided that the sea air did not agree with her.

"Crimustee!" exclaimed Issachar, as he imparted the news to Mr. Keeler, "if that ain't the worst. Spend your money, and a pile of money, too, buyin' ground, layin' of it out to build a house on to live in, then buildin' that house and then, by crimus, sellin' it to somebody else for THEM to live in. That beats any foolishness ever come MY way."

"And there's some consider'ble come your way at that, ain't they, Is?" observed Laban, busy with his bookkeeping.

Issachar nodded. "You're right there has," he said complacently. "I . . . What do you mean by that? Tryin' to be funny again, ain't you?"

Albert heard the news with a distinct feeling of relief. While the feeling on his part toward Madeline was of the kindliest, and Madeline's was, he felt sure, the same toward him, nevertheless to meet her day after day, as people must meet in a village no bigger than South Harniss, would be awkward for both. And to meet Mrs. Fosdick might be more awkward still. He smiled as he surmised that the realization by the lady of that very awkwardness was probably responsible for the discovery that sea air was not beneficial.

The story-writing and the story evenings continued. Over the fourth story in the series discussion was warm, for there were marked differences of opinion among the listeners. One of the experiences through which Albert had brought his hero was that of working as general assistant to a sharp, unscrupulous and smooth-tongued rascal who was proprietor of a circus sideshow and fake museum. He was a kind-hearted swindler, but one who never let a question of honesty interfere with the getting of a dollar. In this fourth story, to the town where the hero, now a man of twenty-five, had established himself in business, came this cheat of other days, but now he came as a duly ordained clergyman in answer to the call of the local church. The hero learned that he had not told the governing body of that church of his former career. Had he done so, they most certainly would not have called him. The leading man in that church body was the hero's patron and kindest friend. The question: What was the hero's duty in the matter?

Of course the first question asked was whether or not the ex-sideshow proprietor was sincerely repentant and honestly trying to walk the straight path and lead others along it. Albert replied that his hero had interviewed him and was satisfied that he was; he had been "converted" at a revival and was now a religious enthusiast whose one idea was to save sinners.

That was enough for Captain Zelotes.

"Let him alone, then," said the captain. "He's tryin' to be a decent man. What do you want to do? Tell on him and have him chucked overboard from one church after another until he gets discouraged and takes to swindlin' again?"

Rachel Ellis could not see it that way.

"If he was a saved sinner," she declared, "and repentant of his sins, then he'd ought to repent 'em out loud. Hidin' 'em ain't repentin'. And, besides, there's Donald's (Donald was the hero's name) there's Donald's duty to the man that's been so good to him. Is it fair to that man to keep still and let him hire a minister that, like as not, will steal the collection, box and all, afore he gets through? No, sir, Donald ought to tell THAT man, anyhow."

Olive was pretty dubious about the whole scheme. She doubted if anybody connected with a circus COULD ever become a minister.

"The whole--er--er--trade is so different," she said.

Mr. Kendall was not there that evening, his attendance being required at a meeting of the Sunday School teachers. Helen, however, was not at that meeting and Captain Zelotes declared his intention of asking her opinion by telephone.

"She'll say same as I do--you see if she don't," he declared. When he called the parsonage, however, Maria Price answered the phone and informed him that Helen was spending the evening with old Mrs. Crowell, who lived but a little way from the Snow place. The captain promptly called up the Crowell house.

"She's there and she'll stop in here on her way along," he said triumphantly. "And she'll back me up--you see."

But she did not. She did not "back up" any one. She merely smiled and declared the problem too complicated to answer offhand.

"Why don't you ask Albert?" she inquired. "After all, he is the one who must settle it eventually."

"He won't tell," said Olive. "He's real provokin', isn't he? And now you won't tell, either, Helen."

"Oh, I don't know--yet. But I think he does."

Albert, as usual, walked home with her.

"How are you going to answer your hero's riddle?" she asked.

"Before I tell you, suppose you tell me what your answer would be."

She reflected. "Well," she said, "it seems to me that, all things being as they are, he should do this: He should go to the sideshow man--the minister now--and have a very frank talk with him. He should tell him that he had decided to say nothing about the old life and to help him in every way, to be his friend--provided that he keep straight, that is all. Of course more than that would be meant, the alternative would be there and understood, but he need not say it. I think that course of action would be fair to himself and to everybody. That is my answer. What is yours?"

He laughed quietly. "Just that, of course," he said. "You would see it, I knew. You always see down to the heart of things, Helen. You have the gift."

She shook her head. "It didn't really need a gift, this particular problem, did it?" she said. "It is not--excuse me--it isn't exactly a new one."

"No, it isn't. It is as old as the hills, but there are always new twists to it."

"As there are to all our old problems."

"Yes. By the way, your advice about the ending of my third story was exactly what I needed. The editor wrote me he should never have forgiven me if it had ended in any other way. It probably WOULD have ended in another way if it hadn't been for you. Thank you, Helen."

"Oh, you know there was really nothing to thank me for. It was all you, as usual. Have you planned the next story, the fifth, yet?"

"Not entirely. I have some vague ideas. Do you want to hear them?"

"Of course."

So they discussed those ideas as they walked along the sidewalk of the street leading down to the parsonage. It was a warm evening, a light mist, which was not substantial enough to be a fog, hanging low over everything, wrapping them and the trees and the little front yards and low houses of the old village in a sort of cozy, velvety, confidential quiet. The scent of lilacs was heavy in the air.

They both were silent. Just when they had ceased speaking neither could have told. They walked on arm in arm and suddenly Albert became aware that this silence was dangerous for him; that in it all his resolves and brave determinations were melting into mist like that about him; that he must talk and talk at once and upon a subject which was not personal, which--

And then Helen spoke.

"Do you know what this reminds me of?" she said. "All this talk of ours? It reminds me of how we used to talk over those first poems of yours. You have gone a long way since then."

"I have gone to Kaiserville and back."

"You know what I mean. I mean your work has improved wonderfully. You write with a sure hand now, it seems to me. And your view is so much broader."

"I hope I'm not the narrow, conceited little rooster I used to be. I told you, Helen, that the war handed me an awful jolt. Well, it did. I think it, or my sickness or the whole business together, knocked most of that self-confidence of mine galley-west. For so much I'm thankful."

"I don't know that I am, altogether. I don't want you to lose confidence in yourself. You should be confident now because you deserve to be. And you write with confidence, or it reads as if you did. Don't you feel that you do, yourself? Truly, don't you?"

"Well, perhaps, a little. I have been at it for some time now. I ought to show some progress. Perhaps I don't make as many mistakes."

"I can't see that you have made any."

"I have made one . . . a damnable one."

"Why, what do you mean?"

"Oh, nothing. I didn't mean to say that. . . . Helen, do you know it is awfully good of you to take all this interest in me--in my work, I mean. Why do you do it?"

"Why?"

"Yes, why?"

"Why, because--Why shouldn't I? Haven't we always talked about your writings together, almost since we first knew each other? Aren't we old friends?"

There it was again--friends. It was like a splash of cold water in the face, at once awakening and chilling. Albert walked on in silence for a few moments and then began speaking of some trivial subject entirely disconnected with himself or his work or her. When they reached the parsonage door he said good night at once and strode off toward home.

Back in his room, however, he gave himself another mental picking to pieces. He was realizing most distinctly that this sort of thing would not do. It was easy to say that his attitude toward Helen Kendall was to be that of a friend and nothing more, but it was growing harder and harder to maintain that attitude. He had come within a breath that very night of saying what was in his heart.

Well, if he had said it, if he did say it--what then? After all, was there any real reason why he should not say it? It was true that he had loved, or fancied that he loved, Madeline, that he had been betrothed to her--but again, what of it? Broken engagements were common enough, and there was nothing disgraceful in this one. Why not go to Helen and tell her that his fancied love for Madeline had been the damnable mistake he had confessed making. Why not tell her that since the moment when he saw her standing in the doorway of the parsonage on the morning following his return from New York he had known that she was the only woman in the world for him, that it was her image he had seen in his dreams, in the delirium of fever, that it was she, and not that other, who--

But there, all this was foolishness, and he knew it. He did not dare say it. Not for one instant had she, by speech or look or action, given him the slightest encouragement to think her feeling for him was anything but friendship. And that friendship was far too precious to risk. He must not risk it. He must keep still, he must hide his thoughts, she must never guess. Some day, perhaps, after a year or two, after his position in his profession was more assured, then he might speak. But even then there would be that risk. And the idea of waiting was not pleasant. What had Rachel told him concerning the hosts of doctors and officers and generals who had been "shining up" to her. Some risk there, also.

Well, never mind. He would try to keep on as he had been going for the present. He would try not to see her as frequently. If the strain became unbearable he might go away somewhere--for a time.

He did not go away, but he made it a point not to see her as frequently. However, they met often even as it was. And he was conscious always that the ice beneath his feet was very, very thin.

One wonderful August evening he was in his room upstairs. He was not writing. He had come up there early because he wished to think, to consider. A proposition had been made to him that afternoon, a surprising proposition--to him it had come as a complete surprise--and before mentioning it even to his grandparents he wished to think it over very carefully.

About ten o'clock his grandfather called to him from the foot of the stairs and asked him to come down.

"Mr. Kendall's on the phone," said Captain Zelotes. "He's worried about Helen. She's up to West Harniss sittin' up along of Lurany Howes, who's been sick so long. She ain't come home, and the old gentleman's frettin' about her walkin' down from there alone so late. I told him I cal'lated you'd just as soon harness Jess and drive up and get her. You talk with him yourself, Al."

Albert did and, after assuring the nervous clergyman that he would see that his daughter reached home safely, put on his hat and went out to the barn. Jessamine was asleep in her stall. As he was about to lead her out he suddenly remembered that one of the traces had broken that morning and Captain Zelotes had left it at the harness-maker's to be mended. It was there yet. The captain had forgotten the fact, and so had he. That settled the idea of using Jessamine and the buggy. Never mind, it was a beautiful night and the walk was but little over a mile.

When he reached the tiny story-and-a-half Howes cottage, sitting back from the road upon the knoll amid the tangle of silverleaf sprouts, it was Helen herself who opened the door. She was surprised to see him, and when he explained his errand she was a little vexed.

"The idea of Father's worrying," she said. "Such a wonderful night as this, bright moonlight, and in South Harniss, too. Nothing ever happens to people in South Harniss. I will be ready in a minute or two. Mrs. Howes' niece is here now and will stay with her until to-morrow. Then her sister is coming to stay a month. As soon as I get her medicine ready we can go."

The door of the tiny bedroom adjoining the sitting room was open, and Albert, sitting upon the lounge with the faded likeness of a pink dog printed on the plush cover, could hear the querulous voice of the invalid within. The widow Howes was deaf and, as Laban Keeler described it, "always hollered loud enough to make herself hear" when she spoke. Helen was moving quietly about the sick room and speaking in a low tone. Albert could not hear what she said, but he could hear Lurania.

"You're a wonder, that's what you be," declared the latter, "and I told your pa so last time he was here. 'She's a saint,' says I, 'if ever there was one on this earth. She's the nicest, smartest, best-lookin' girl in THIS town and . . .' eh?"

There had been a murmur, presumably of remonstrance, from Helen.

"Eh?"

Another murmur.

"EH? WHO'D you say was there?"

A third murmur.

"WHO? . . . Oh, that Speranzy one? Lote Snow's grandson? The one they used to call the Portygee? . . . Eh? Well, all right, I don't care if he did hear me. If he don't know you're nice and smart and good-lookin', it's high time he did."

Helen, a trifle embarrassed but laughing, emerged a moment later, and when she had put on her hat she and Albert left the Howes cottage and began their walk home. It was one of those nights such as Cape Codders, year-rounders or visitors, experience three or four times during a summer and boast of the remainder of the year. A sky clear, deep, stretched cloudless from horizon to horizon. Every light at sea or on shore, in cottage window or at masthead or in lighthouse or on lightship a twinkling diamond point. A moon, apparently as big as a barrel-head, hung up in the east and below it a carpet of cold fire, of dancing, spangled silver spread upon the ocean. The sound of the surf, distant, soothing; and for the rest quiet and the fragrance of the summer woods and fields.

They walked rather fast at first and the conversation was brisk, but as the night began to work its spell upon them their progress was slower and there were intervals of silence of which neither was aware. They came to the little hill where the narrow road from West Harniss comes to join the broader highway leading to the Center. There were trees here, a pine grove, on the landward side, and toward the sea nothing to break the glorious view.

Helen caught her breath. "Oh, it is beautiful, beautiful!" she said.

Albert did not answer. "Why don't you talk?" she asked. "What are you thinking about?"

He did not tell her what he was thinking about. Instead, having caught himself just in time, he began telling her of what he had been thinking when his grandfather called him to the telephone.

"Helen," he said, "I want to ask your advice. I had an astonishing proposal made to me this afternoon. I must make a decision, I must say yes or no, and I'm not sure which to say."

She looked up at him inquiringly.

"This afternoon," he went on, "Doctor Parker called me into his office. There was a group of men there, prominent men in politics from about the country; Judge Baxter from Ostable was there, and Captain Warren from South Denboro, and others like them. What do you suppose they want me to do?"

"I can't imagine."

"They offer me the party nomination for Congress from this section. That is, of course, they want me to permit my name to stand and they seem sure my nomination will be confirmed by the voters. The nomination, they say, is equivalent to election. They seem certain of it. . . . And they were insistent that I accept."

"Oh--oh, Albert!"

"Yes. They said a good many flattering things, things I should like to believe. They said my war record and my writing and all that had made me a prominent man in the county--Please don't think I take any stock in that--"

"But _I do. Go on."

"Well, that is all. They seemed confident that I would make a good congressman. I am not so sure. Of course the thing . . . well, it does tempt me, I confess. I could keep on with my writing, of course. I should have to leave the home people for a part of the year, but I could be with them or near them the rest. And . . . well, Helen, I--I think I should like the job. Just now, when America needs Americans and the thing that isn't American must be fought, I should like--if I were sure I was capable of it--"

"Oh, but you are--you ARE."

"Do you really think so? Would you like to have me try?"

He felt her arm tremble upon his. She drew a long breath.

"Oh, I should be so PROUD!" she breathed.

There was a quiver in her voice, almost a sob. He bent toward her. She was looking off toward the sea, the moonlight upon her face was like a glory, her eyes were shining--and there were tears in them. His heart throbbed wildly.

"Helen!" he cried. "Helen!"

She turned and looked up into his face. The next moment her own face was hidden against his breast, his arms were about her, and . . . and the risk, the risk he had feared to take, was taken.

They walked home after a time, but it was a slow, a very slow walk with many interruptions.

"Oh, Helen," he kept saying, "I don't see how you can. How can you? In spite of it all. I--I treated you so badly. I was SUCH an idiot. And you really care? You really do?"

She laughed happily. "I really do . . . and . . . and I really have, all the time."

"Always?"

"Always."

"Well--well, by George! And . . . Helen, do you know I think--I think I did too--always--only I was such a young fool I didn't realize it. WHAT a young fool I was!"

"Don't say that, dear, don't. . . . You are going to be a great man. You are a famous one already; you are going to be great. Don't you know that?"

He stooped and kissed her.

"I think I shall have to be," he said, "if I am going to be worthy of you."

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