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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesWest Wind Drift - Book 2 - Chapter 13
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West Wind Drift - Book 2 - Chapter 13 Post by :cshawl Category :Long Stories Author :George Barr Mccutcheon Date :May 2012 Read :1735

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West Wind Drift - Book 2 - Chapter 13

BOOK II CHAPTER XIII

As he swung jauntily down the road in the direction of his "office," all the world might have seen that it was a beautiful place for him. He passed children hurrying to school, and shouted envious "hurry-ups" to them. Men and women, going about the morning's business, felt better for the cheery greetings he gave them. Even Manuel Crust, pushing a crude barrow laden with fire-wood, paused to look after the strutting figure, resuming his progress with an annoyed scowl on his brow, for he had been guilty of a pleasant response to Percival's genial "good-morning." Manuel went his way wondering what the devil had got into both of them.

Olga Obosky was peering from a window as he passed her hut. He waved his hand at her,--and then shook his head. He had passed her three dancing-girls some distance down the road, romping like children in the snow.

Buck Chizler was waiting for him outside the "office." The little jockey had something on his mind,--something that caused him to grin sheepishly and at the same time look furtively over his shoulder.

"Can I see you for a coupla minutes, A. A.?" he inquired, following the other to the door.

"Certainly, Buck,--as many minutes as you like."

Buck discovered Randolph Fitts and Michael Malone seated before the fire. He drew back.

"I'd like to see you outside," he said nervously.

"Well, what is it?" asked Percival, stepping outside and closing the door.

Buck led him around the corner of the hut.

"It ain't so windy here," he explained. "Awful weather, ain't it?"

"What's troubling you, Buck? Put on your cap, you idiot. You'll take cold."

"Plumb nervousness," said Buck. "Same as if I was pulling up to the start with fifty thousand on the nag. I want to ask your advice, A. A. Just a little private matter. Oh, nothing serious. Nothing like that, you know. I just thought maybe you'd--Gosh, I never saw it snow like this up home, did you? Funny, too, when you think how tropical we ought to be. There was a bad blizzard a coupla years ago in Buenos Aires, but--"

"Come to the point, Buck. What's up?"

Buck lowered his voice. "Well, you see it's this way. I'm thinking of getting married. Tomorrow, if possible. Don't laugh! I don't see anything to laugh at in--"

"I beg your pardon, old chap. I couldn't help laughing. It's because I'm happy. Don't mind me. Go ahead. You're thinking of getting married, eh? Well, what's to prevent?"

"Do you approve of it? That's what I want to know."

"Sure. Of course, I approve of it."

"I just thought I'd make sure. You see, nobody's ever got married here before, and I didn't know what you'd think of me--er--sort of breaking the ice, don't you see."

"She's finally said 'yes,' has she? Good girl! Congratulations, old chap,--thousands of 'em'--millions."

"Well, that takes some of the load off my mind," said Buck, as they shook hands. "Now, there's one or two things more. First, she says she won't come and live in a hut where five men besides myself are bunking. I don't blame her, do you? Second, she says if we ever get rescued from this island, she won't let me go to the war,--not a step, she swears. I put up a holler right away. I says to her I was on my way to the war before I ever met her, and then she says I ain't got anything on her. She was going over to nurse. But she says if she gets married she's going to claim exemption, or whatever they call it, and she says I got to do the same,--'cause we'll both have dependents then. Then I says the chances are the war's over by this time anyhow, and she says a feller in the Argentine told her on his word of honour it wouldn't be over for five years or more. But that's a minor point. What's rusting me is this: how am I going to get rid of them five guys in my cabin?"

"Have you told them you're going to be married?"

"Oh, hell, they're the ones that told me."

"It's pretty rough weather to turn men out into the cold, unfeeling world, Buck."

Buck scratched his ear in deep perplexity. "Well, it's got me guessing." He slumped into an attitude of profound dejection. "What we'd ought to have done, A. A., was to build a hotel or something like that. If we had a hotel here, there'd be so blamed many weddings you couldn't keep track of 'em. That's the only thing that's holding people back. Why, half the unmarried fellers here are thinking about getting married. They're thinking, and thinking, and thinking, morning, noon and night. And they've got the girls thinking, too,--and most of the widders and old maids besides. I don't see how a smart feller like you, A. A., happened to overlook the possibility of just this kind of thing happening."

"Good Lord, what have I got to do with it?"

"Why, darn it all, you'd ought to have put up a few huts with 'For Rent' signs on 'em, or else--"

"By George, Buck! I've got it," cried Percival excitedly. "Have you thought of a wedding journey?"

"A what?"

"Wedding trip,--honeymoon."

"Well, we might walk up and down the main street here a coupla times," said Buck sarcastically. "Or take a stroll along the beach or something like that."

"What's the matter with a nice long sea voyage?"

"Say, I'm not kidding about this thing," exclaimed Mr. Chizler, bristling. "I'm in dead earnest."

"Has it occured to you that the Doraine is lying out there in the harbour--Here! Look out! I don't like being hugged by--"

"My gosh, A. A! Oh, my gosh!" barked the ecstatic bridegroom-apparent. "How did you happen to think of such a beautiful, wonderful--"

"How did I happen to think of it?" shouted Percival, just as ecstatically. "Why, darn your eyes, why shouldn't I think of it? Why did old Noah think of the Ark? Why, I ask you?"

"He didn't," said Buck succinctly. "The feller that wrote the Bible thought of it."

"What time is it? Oh, Lord, nearly three hours yet before school is out."

"Say, are you off your base,--lemme smell your breath. You act like--Wait a second! There's something else I want to speak to you about. Is it--is it all right for me to get married? She says I'll have to get your O. K. before she'll move an inch. She says nobody can do anything around here without you say so. So I--"

"You tell her I give my consent gladly, Buck, my boy. Give her a good kiss for me, and say I'll speak to Captain Trigger this afternoon about passage on the Doraine. By George, I--I think I'll go and speak to him about it now."

"Much obliged, boss. By gosh, you are a brick. There ain't anything you won't do for a friend, is there?"

Percival blushed and stammered. "I--I've got to see him anyhow, Buck,--so don't thank me. By the way, while I'm about it, I suppose I might as well speak to Parson Mackenzie, eh? Or is it to be Father Francisco? And that reminds me, I'll have to see Malone and find out about the legality,--got to have the law on our side, you see, Buck. Something in the form of a license,--United States of America and all that,--and also see about fixing up desirable quarters on board the Doraine. I may have to transfer quite a lot of--er--furniture and so forth from my hut to the ship, and--"

"Gee whiz, A. A., you mustn't go to so blamed much trouble for me," gasped the delighted Buck.

"Eh? What? Oh, the devil take you! Beat it now. I'm going to be mighty busy this morning."

"I'll do as much for you, A. A., if you ever get married," cried Buck, once more wringing the other's hand. Then he was off up the road like a schoolboy.

Shortly before the noon recess, Percival returned from the Doraine. By this time, the news had spread through the camp that there was to be a wedding. Every one he met hailed him with the excited question:

"Say, have you heard the news?"

"What news?"

"There's going to be a wedding."

"Good Lord!" said Percival to himself. "They must have been peeping through those windows after all."

Finding that he had ten minutes to spare before school was out, he decided to call upon Mrs. Spofford. That lady received him with icy politeness.

"I have been expecting you," she said. "Your friend Mr. Shay honoured us with a visit yesterday. My niece is at the school. Will you sit down and wait for her, or--"

"I beg your pardon. What was that you said about Shay?"

"I said he came to see us."

Percival stared, "He did?"

"Please sit down, Mr. Percival. Do not ask me to tell you anything more about Mr. Shay," she went on hurriedly, and in some confusion. "I don't believe he would like it,--and as he is a dangerous character, I beg of you not to--"

"If Soapy Shay dared to intrude--"

"I implore you, do not think anything more about it. He was most courteous and polite and all that."

He remained standing, his gaze fixed upon her face. Somehow, he guessed the nature of Soapy's visit.

"I suppose he came as a tale-bearer."

"I must decline to discuss the matter, Mr. Percival."

"Mrs. Spofford," he began, with all the dignity of a courtier, "I have come to request the hand of your niece in marriage. I have loved her from the very--"

"Oh, God!" groaned the trembling lady. "It has come at last! It has come,--just as I feared. For pity's sake, Mr. Percival, spare her! She is--"

"I beg your pardon," he broke in, flushing. "I think you misunderstand me. I am asking your consent to marry her. I believe it is still customary among gentlemen to consult the--"

"Permit me to interrupt you, Mr. Percival," said she, regaining her composure and her austerity. "What you ask is quite impossible. My niece is,--ah,--I may say tentatively engaged. I am sorry for you. Perhaps it would be just as well if you did not wait for her to come in. She will be--"

"Mrs. Spofford, I am obliged to confess to you that I have already spoken to Miss Clinton, and I may add that she is not tentatively engaged. She has promised to be my wife."

She drew back as if struck. She was silent for many seconds.

"It would appear that my consent is not necessary, Mr. Percival," she said at last, "Why do you come to me?"

"Because, while you may not suspect it, I was born a gentleman," said he stiffly.

She received this with a slight nod of the head and no more.

"My niece, no doubt in her excitement, has neglected to ask you one or two very important questions," she said levelly. "First of all, have you any means of convincing us that you do not already possess a wife?"

He started. "You are right," he said. "That is an important question, and she has not asked it. I have no means of convincing you that I have never been married, Mrs. Spofford. My word of honour is the only thing I can offer."

She regarded him narrowly. "Do you consider that sufficient, Mr. Percival?"

"I do," said he simply. She waited for him to go on, and was distinctly impressed by his failure to do so. So far as he was concerned, there was nothing more to be added.

"How are we to know what your past life contains? You may have left your homeland in disgrace, you may even have been a fugitive from justice. We have no means of knowing. You were a stowaway on board the Doraine. That much, at least, we do know. We know nothing more. You are smart, you are clever. Surely you must see yourself that under other circumstances, under normal conditions, my niece would not have condescended to notice you, Mr. Percival. We are on an undiscovered island, remote from the environment, the society, the--"

"Permit me to remind you, Mrs. Spofford," he interrupted, a trifle coldly, "that you just remarked that you know nothing whatever about me. Isn't it barely possible that my life may contain something desirable in the shape of family, position and environment?"

"I recall that Mr. Gray did speak of knowing the Percival family. My niece never allows me to forget it."

"Mr. Gray did not know my family. He knew of my family, Mrs. Spofford, if that conveys anything to you. Not that they would not have been proud to have known him, for he was a gentleman. As for my own case, I can only say that I am not a fugitive from justice, nor have I done anything more disgraceful than the average young man who has been through college and who, ignoring the counsel of his father, proceeds to find out for himself the same things that his father had found out a great many years before,--and his father before him, and so on back to the beginning of man. My great-great-grandfather on my mother's side was a comparatively recent settler in America. He didn't come over from Scotland until about 1750. My father's people came over in the days of Lord Baltimore. Most of my remote ancestors were very wicked men. You will find that one of them was executed in the Tower of London the same week that Lady Jane Grey went to her death, and another was openly in love with Mistress Nell Gwyn, thereby falling into disgrace with a monarch named Charles. I admit that I come of very bad stock."

A fleeting twinkle lurked in her eyes.

"You are very adroit, Mr. Percival."

"Which is as much as to say that I have an agreeable and interesting way of lying. Is that what you wish to imply, Mrs. Spofford?"

"Not at all. I say you are adroit because you place me in an embarrassing position. If I believe your confession that you come of bad stock, I must also believe that you come of an exceedingly good old Maryland family." He bowed very low. "My niece, Mr. Percival, is an orphan. I am and have been her protector since she was fourteen years of age. She is the possessor of a large fortune in her own right. Her father,--who was my brother,--gave her into my care when he was on his death-bed. I leave you to surmise just what were his dying words to me. She was his idol. I have not failed him in any respect. You ask me to give my consent to your marriage. I cannot do so. No doubt you will be married, just as you have planned. She loves you. I have known it for months. I have seen this day and hour coming,--yes, I have seen it even more clearly than she, for while she struggled desperately to deceive herself she has never been able to deceive me. You are a strong, attractive man. The glamour of mystery rests upon you. You have done prodigious deeds here, Mr. Percival. All of this I recognize, and I should be unfair to my own sense of honour were I to deny you my respect and gratitude. I must be fair. Fear has been the cause of my attitude toward you,--not fear of you, sir, but fear for my niece. Now I am confronted by the inevitable. The thing I have tried so hard to avoid has come to pass. In these circumstances, I am forced to confess that I have not been without a real, true admiration for you. I admit that I have felt a great security with you in command of our camp. But, even so, you are not the man I would have chosen to be Ruth's husband. The time is surely coming when we will be delivered from this island prison, when we will return to the life and the people and the conditions we knew before catastrophe made a new world for us. I am thinking of that time, Mr. Percival, and not of the present. I fear my niece is thinking only of the present and not of the future."

He had listened with grave deference. "Forgive me if I appear impertinent, Mrs. Spofford, but is it not, after all, the past you are thinking about?"

She did not answer at once. His question had startled her.

"Youth does not live in the past," he went on quietly. "It deals only with the present. I love Ruth Clinton,--I love her with the cleanest love a man can feel for a woman. It will not alter when we leave this island. If we are fated to spend the rest of our lives here, it will endure to the end."

"You are speaking for yourself," she said. "Can you speak for Ruth?"

"No, I cannot," he admitted. "Nor can you," he added boldly. "That is what I meant when I asked if you were not thinking chiefly of the past. I cannot say that Ruth will love me always, but I can say this: she loves me now, as I love her, and in her heart she has said just what I said to you a moment ago,--that her love will endure."

"I daresay I do think more of the past than of the present, Mr. Percival. You are right about the future. It is a blank page, to be glorified or soiled by what is set down upon it. Fate has thrown you two together. Perhaps it was so written in the past that you despise. A single turn of the mysterious wheel of fortune brought you into her life. Half a turn,--the matter of minutes,--and you would never have seen each other, and you would have gone your separate ways to the end of time without even knowing that the other existed. No doubt you both contend that you cannot live without each other. It is the usual wail of lovers. But are you quite as certain in your minds that you would have perished if you had never seen each other?"

The note of irony did not escape him. He smiled. "In that case, Mrs. Spofford, we should not have existed at all."

She shook her head despairingly. "You are too clever for me," she said. "I warn you, however, that I shall do everything in my power to persuade Ruth to reconsider her promise to you."

"Nothing could be fairer than that," said he, without rancor. "If she comes to me this afternoon and says she has changed her mind and cannot marry me, I shall not ask her again. Will you be kind enough, Mrs. Spofford, to include that in your argument? It may spare her a lot of worry and anxiety."

He bowed ceremoniously and took his departure. She went to the window and, drawing aside the curtain, watched him until he disappeared down the road. Then, as the curtain fell into place, she said to herself:

"Their children will be strong and beautiful."

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