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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesPeter: A Novel Of Which He Is Not The Hero - Chapter 16
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Peter: A Novel Of Which He Is Not The Hero - Chapter 16 Post by :beetee Category :Long Stories Author :Francis Hopkinson Smith Date :May 2012 Read :2312

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Peter: A Novel Of Which He Is Not The Hero - Chapter 16

CHAPTER XVI

Miss Felicia kept her promise to Ruth. Before that young woman, indeed, tired out with anxiety, had opened her beautiful eyes the next morning and pushed back her beautiful hair from her beautiful face--and it was still beautiful, despite all the storms it had met and weathered, the energetic, old lady had presented herself at the front door of Mrs. Hicks's Boarding Hotel (it was but a step from MacFarlane's) and had sent her name to the young man in the third floor back.

A stout person, with a head of adjustable hair held in place by a band of black velvet skewered by a gold pin, the whole surmounted by a flaring mob-cap of various hues and dyes, looked Miss Felicia all over and replied in a dubious tone:

"He's had a bad mash-up, and I don't think--"

"I am quite aware of it, my dear madam, or I would not be here. Now, please show me the way to Mr. Breen's room--my brother was here last night and--"

"Oh, the bald-headed gentleman?" exclaimed Mrs. Hicks. "Such a dear, kind man; and it was as much as I could do to get him to bed and he a--"

But Miss Felicia was already inside the sitting-room, her critical eyes noting its bare, forbidding furnishing and appointment--she had not yet let down her skirts, the floor not being inviting. As each article passed in review--the unsteady rocking-chairs upholstered in haircloth and protected by stringy tidies, the disconsolate, almost bottomless lounge, fly-specked brass clock and mantel ornaments, she could not but recall the palatial entrance, drawing-room, and boudoir into which Parkins had ushered her on that memorable afternoon when she had paid a visit to Mrs. Arthur Breen--(her "last visit" the old lady would say with a sly grimace at Holker, who had never forgiven "that pirate, Breen," for robbing Gilbert of his house).

"And this is what this idiot has got in exchange," she said to herself as she peered into the dining-room beyond, with its bespattered table-cloth flanked by cheap china plates and ivory napkin rings--the castors mounting guard at either end.

The entrance of the lady with the transferable hair cut short her revery.

"Mr. Breen says come up, ma'am," she said in a subdued voice. It was astonishing how little time it took for Miss Felicia's personality to have its effect.

Up the uncarpeted stairs marched the great lady, down an equally bare hall lined on either side by bedroom doors, some marked by unblacked shoes others by tin trays holding fragments of late or early breakfasts, the flaring cap obsequiously pointing the way until the two had reached a door at the end of the corridor.

"Now I won't bother you any more," said Miss Felicia. "Thank you very much. Are you in here Mr. Breen?" she called in a cheery voice as she pushed open the door, and advanced to his bedside:-- "Oh, you poor fellow! Oh, I AM so sorry!"

The boy lay on a cot-bed pushed close to the wall. His face was like chalk; his eyes deep set in his head; his scalp one criss- cross of bandages, and his right hand and wrist a misshapen lump of cotton wadding and splints.

"No, don't move. Why, you did not look as bad as this yesterday," she added in sympathetic tones, patting his free hand with her own, her glance wandering over the cramped little room with its meagre appointments.

Jack smiled faintly and a light gleamed in his eyes. The memory of yesterday evidently brought no regrets.

"I dared not look any other way," he answered faintly; "I was so afraid of alarming Miss Ruth." Then after a pause in which the smile and the gleam flickered over his pain-tortured face, he added in a more determined voice: "I am glad I went, though the doctor was furious. He says it was the worst thing I could have done--and thought I ought to have had sense enough to--But don't let's talk any more about it, Miss Felicia. It was so good of you to come. Mr. Grayson has just left. You'd think he was a woman, he is so gentle and tender. But I'll be around in a day or two, and as soon as I can get on my feet and look less like a scarecrow than I do, I am coming over to see you and Miss Ruth and--yes, and UNCLE PETER--" Miss Felicia arched her eyebrows: "Oh, you needn't look!--that's what I am going to call him after this; we settled all that last night."

A smile overspread Miss Felicia's face. "Uncle Peter, is it? And I suppose you will be calling me Aunt Felicia next?"

Jack turned his eyes: "That was just what I was trying to screw up my courage to do. Please let me, won't you?" Again Miss Felicia lifted her eyebrows, but she did not say she would.

"And Ruth--what do you intend to call that young lady? Of course, without her permission, as that seems to be the fashion." And the old lady's eyes danced in restrained merriment.

The sufferer's face became suddenly grave; for an instant he did not answer, then he said slowly:

"But what can I call her except Miss Ruth?"

Miss Felicia laughed. Nothing was so delicious as a love affair which she could see into. This boy's heart was an open book. Besides, this kind of talk would take his mind from his miseries.

"Oh, but I am not so sure of that," she rejoined, in an encouraging tone.

A light broke out in Jack's eyes: "You mean that she WOULD let me call her--call her Ruth?"

"I don't mean anything of the kind, you foolish fellow. You have got to ask her yourself; but there's no telling what she would not do for you now, she's so grateful to you for saving her father's life."

"But I did not," he exclaimed, an expression as of acute pain crossing his brows. "I only helped him along. But she must not be grateful. I don't like the word. Gratitude hasn't got anything to do with--" he did not finish the sentence.

"But you DID save his life, and you know it, and I just love you for it," she insisted, ignoring his criticism as she again smoothed his hand. "You did a fine, noble act, and I am proud of you and I came to tell you so." Then she added suddenly: "You received my message last night, didn't you? Now, don't tell me that that good-for-nothing Peter forgot it."

"No, he gave it to me, and it was so kind of you."

"Well, then I forgive him. And now," here she made a little salaam with both her hands--"now you have Ruth's message."

"I have what?" he asked in astonishment.

"Ruth's message." She still kept her face straight although her lips quivered with merriment.

Jack tried to lift his head: "What is her message?" he asked with expectant eyes--perhaps she had sent him a letter!

Miss Felicia tapped her bosom with her forefinger.

"ME!" she cried, "I am her message. She was so worried last night when she found out how ill you were that I promised her to come and comfort you; that is why it is ME. And now, don't you think you ought to get down on your knees and thank her? Why, you don't seem a bit pleased!"

"And she sent you to me--because--because--she was GRATEFUL that I saved her father's life?" he asked in a bewildered tone.

"Of course--why shouldn't she be; is there anything else you can give her she would value as much as her father's life, you conceited young Jackanapes?"

She had the pin through the butterfly now and was watching it squirm; not maliciously--she was never malicious. He would get over the prick, she knew. It might help him in the end, really.

"No, I suppose not," he replied simply, as he sank back on his pillow and turned his bruised face toward the wall.

For some moments he lay in deep thought. The last half-hour in the arbor under the palms came back to him; the tones of Ruth's voice; the casual way in which she returned his devouring glance. She didn't love him; never had loved him; wouldn't ever love him. Anybody could carry another fellow out on his back; was done every day by firemen and life-savers,--everybody, in fact, who happened to be around when their services were most needed. Grateful! Of course the rescued people and their friends were grateful until they forgot all about it, as they were sure to do the next day, or week, or month. Gratitude was not what he wanted. It was love. That was the way he felt; that was the way he would always feel. He who loved every hair on Ruth's beautiful head, loved her wonderful hands, loved her darling feet, loved the very ground on which she walked "Gratitude!" eh! That was the word his uncle had used the day he slammed the door of his private office in his face. "Common gratitude, damn you, Jack, ought to put more sense in your head," as though one ought to have been "grateful" for a seat at a gambling table and two rooms in a house supported by its profits. Garry had said "gratitude," too, and so had Corinne, and all the rest of them. Peter had never talked gratitude; dear Peter, who had done more for him than anybody in the world except his own father. Peter wanted his love if he wanted anything, and that was what he was going to give him--big, broad, all-absorbing LOVE. And he did love him. Even his wrinkled hands, so soft and white, and his glistening head, and his dabs of gray whiskers, and his sweet, firm, human mouth were precious to him. Peter--his friend, his father, his comrade! Could he ever insult him by such a mean, cowardly feeling as gratitude? And was the woman he loved as he loved nothing else in life--was she--was Ruth going to belittle their relations with the same substitute? It was a big pin, that which Miss Felicia had impaled him on, and it is no wonder the poor fluttering wings were nigh exhausted in the struggle!

Relief came at last.

"And now what shall I tell her?" asked Miss Felicia. "She worries more over you than she does over her father; she can get hold of him any minute, but you won't be presentable for a week. Come, what shall I tell her?"

Jack shifted his shoulders so that he could move the easier and with less pain, and raised himself on his well elbow. There was no use of his hoping any more; she had evidently sent Miss Felicia to end the matter with one of her polite phrases,--a weapon which she, of all women, knew so well how to use.

"Give Miss Ruth my kindest regards," he said in a low voice, still husky from the effects of the smoke and the strain of the last half-hour--"and say how thankful I am for her gratitude, and--No, --don't tell her anything of the kind. I don't know what you are to tell her." The words seemed to die in his throat.

"But she will ask me, and I have got to say something. Come,--out with it." Her eyes were still on his face; not a beat of his wings or a squirm of his body had she missed.

"Well just say how glad I am she is at home again and that her father is getting on so well, and tell her I will be up and around in a day or two, and that I am not a bit worse off for going to the station yesterday."

"Anything else?"

"No,--unless you can think of something."

"And if I do shall I add it?"

"Yes."

"Oh,--then I know exactly what to do,--it will be something like this: 'Please, Ruth, take care of your precious self, and don't be worried about me or anything else, and remember that every minute I am away from you is misery, for I love you to distraction and-- '"

"Oh, Miss Felicia!"

"No--none of your protests, sir!" she laughed. "That is just what I am going to tell her. And now don't you dare to move till Peter comes back," and with a toss of her aristocratic head the dear lady left the room, closing the door behind her.

And so our poor butterfly was left flat against the wall--all his flights ended. No more roaming over honeysuckles, drinking in the honey of Ruth's talk; no more soaring up into the blue, the sunshine of hope dazzling his wings. It made no difference what Miss Felicia might say to Ruth. It was what she had said to HIM which made him realize the absurdity of all his hopes. Everything that he had longed for, worked for, dreamed about, was over now-- the long walks in the garden, her dear hand in his, even the song of the choir boys, and the burst of joyous music as they passed out of the church door only to enter their own for life. All this was gone--never to return--never had existed, in fact, except in his own wild imagination. And once more the disheartened boy turned his tired pain-racked face toward the bare wall.

Miss Felicia tripped downstairs with an untroubled air, extended two fingers to Mrs. Hicks, and without more ado passed out into the morning air. No thought of the torment she had inflicted affected the dear woman. What were pins made for except to curb the ambitious wings of flighty young men who were soaring higher than was good for them. She would let him know that Ruth was a prize not to be too easily won, especially by penniless young gentlemen, however brave and heroic they might be.

Hardly had she crossed the dreary village street encumbered with piles of half-melted snow and mud, than she espied Peter picking his way toward her, his silk hat brushed to a turn, his gray surtout buttoned close, showing but the edge of his white silk muffler, his carefully rolled umbrella serving as a divining rod the better to detect the water holes. No one who met him and looked into his fresh, rosy face, or caught the merry twinkle of his eyes, would ever have supposed he had been pouring liniment over broken arms and bandaged fingers until two o'clock in the morning of the night before. It had only been when Bolton's sister had discovered an empty "cell," as Jack called the bedroom next to his, that he had abandoned his intention of camping out on Jack's disheartened lounge, and had retired like a gentleman carrying with him all his toilet articles, ready to be set out in the morning.

Long before that time he had captured everybody in the place: from Mrs. Hicks, who never dreamed that such a well of tenderness over suffering could exist in an old fellow's heart, down to the freckled-faced boy who came for his muddy shoes and who, after a moment's talk with Peter as to how they should be polished, retired later in the firm belief that they belonged to "a gent way up in G," as he expressed it, he never having waited on "the likes of him before." As to Bolton, he thought he was the "best ever," and as to his prim, patient sister who had closed her school to be near her brother--she declared to Mrs. Hicks five minutes after she had laid her eyes on him, that Mr. Breen's uncle was "just too dear for anything,"--to which the lady with the movable hair and mob-cap not only agreed, but added the remark of her own, "that folks like him was a sight better than the kind she was a-gettin'."

All these happenings of the night and early hours of this bright, beautiful morning--and it was bright and sunny overhead despite the old fellow's precautionary umbrella--had helped turn out the spick and span gentleman who was now making his way carefully over the unpaved road which stood for Corklesville's principal street.

Miss Felicia saw him first.

"Oh! there you are!" she cried before he could raise his eyes. "Did you ever see anything so disgraceful as this crossing--not a plank--nothing. No--get out of my way, Peter; you will just upset me, and I would rather help myself."

In reply Peter, promptly ignoring her protest, stepped in front of her, poked into several fraudulent solidities covering unfathomable depths, found one hard enough to bear the weight of Miss Felicia's dainty shoe--it was about as long as a baby's hand--and holding out his own said, in his most courtly manner:

"Be very careful now, my dear: put your foot on mine; so! now give me your hand and jump. There--that's it." To see Peter help a lady across a muddy street, Holker Morris always said, was a lesson in all the finer virtues. Sir Walter was a bungler beside him. But then Miss Felicia could also have passed muster as the gay gallant's companion.

And just here the Scribe remarks, parenthetically, that there is nothing that shows a woman's refinement more clearly than the way she crosses a street.

Miss Felicia, for instance, would no more have soiled the toes of her shoes in a puddle than a milk-white pussy would have dampened its feet in the splash of an overturned bowl: a calm survey up and down; a taking in of the dry and wet spots; a careful gathering up of her skirts, and over skimmed the slender, willowy old lady with a one--two--and three--followed by a stamp of her absurd feet and the shaking out of ruffle and pleat. When a woman strides through mud without a shiver because she has plenty of dry shoes and good ones at home, there are other parts of her make-up, inside and out, that may want a looking after.

Miss Felicia safely landed on the dry and comparatively clean sidewalk, Peter put the question he had been framing in his mind since he first caught sight of that lady picking her way among the puddles.

"Well, how is he now?"

"His head, or his heart?" she asked with a knowing smile, dropping her still spotless skirts. "Both are broken; the last into smithereens. It is hopeless. He will never be any better. Oh, Peter, what a mess you have made of things!"

"What have I done?" he laughed.

"Got these two people dead in love with each other,--both of them --Ruth is just as bad--and no more chance of their ever being married than you or I. Perfectly silly, Peter, and I have always told you so--and now you will have to take the consequences."

"Beautiful--beautiful!" chuckled Peter; "everything is coming my way. I was sure of Jack, for he told me so, but Ruth puzzled me. Did she tell you she loved him?"

"No, stupid, of course she did not. But have I not a pair of eyes in my head? What do you suppose I got up for this morning at such an unearthly hour and went over to--Oh, such an awful place!--to see that idiot? Just to tell him I was sorry? Not a bit of it! I went to find out what was going on, and now I know; and what is to become of it all nobody can tell. Here is her father with every penny he has in the world in this work--so Holker tells me--and here are a lot of damages for dead men and Heaven knows what else; and there is Jack Breen with not a penny to his name except his month's wages; and here is Ruth who can marry anybody she chooses, bewitched by that boy--and I grant you she has every reason for he is as brave as he can be, and what is better he is a gentleman. And there lies Henry MacFarlane blind as a bat as to what is going on! Oh!--really, Peter, there cannot be anything more absurd."

During the outbreak Peter stood leaning on his umbrella, a smile playing over his smooth-shaven face, his eyes snapping as if at some inwardly suppressed fun. These were the kind of outbursts Peter loved. It was only when Felicia was about to come over to your way of thinking that she talked like this. It was her way of hearing the other side.

"Dreadful!--dreadful!" sighed Peter, looking the picture of woe. "Love in a garret--everybody in rags,--one meal a day--awful situation! Something's got to be done at once. I'll begin by taking up a collection this very day. In the meantime, Felicia, I'll just keep on to Jack's and see how his arm's getting on and his head. As to his heart,--I'll talk to Ruth and see--"

"Are you crazy, Peter? You will do nothing of the kind. If you do, I will--"

But Peter, his hat in the air, was now out of hearing. When he reached the mud line he turned, drew his umbrella as if from an imaginary scabbard, made a military salute, and, with a suppressed gurgle in his throat, kept on to Jack's room.

Somehow the sunshine had crept into the old fellow's veins this morning. None of Miss Felicia's pins for him!

Ruth, from her place by the sitting-room window, had seen the two talking and had opened the front door, before Miss Felicia's hand touched the bell. She had already subjected Peter to a running fire of questions while he was taking his coffee and thus had the latest intelligence down to the moment when Peter turned low Jack's light and had tucked him in. He was asleep when Peter had peered into his cramped room early this morning, and the bulletin therefore could go no further.

"And how is he, aunty?" Ruth asked in a breathless tone before the front door could be closed.

"Getting on splendidly, my dear. Slept pretty well. It is a dreadful place for any one to be in, but I suppose he is accustomed to it by this time."

"And is he no worse for coming to meet us, Aunt Felicia?" Ruth asked, her voice betraying her anxiety. She had relieved the old lady of her cloak now, and had passed one arm around her slender waist.

"No, he doesn't seem to be, dearie. Tired, of course--and it may keep him in bed a day or two longer, but it won't make any difference in his getting well. He will be out in a week or so."

Ruth paused for a moment and then asked in a hesitating way, all her sympathy in her eyes:

"And I don't suppose there is anybody to look after him, is there?"

"Oh, yes, plenty: Mrs. Hicks seems a kind, motherly person, and then Mr. Bolton's sister runs in and out." It was marvellous how little interest the dear woman took in the condition of the patient. Again the girl paused. She was sorry now she had not braved everything and gone with her.

"And did he send me any message, aunty?" This came quite as a matter of form--merely to learn all the details.

"Oh, yes,--I forgot: he told me to tell you how glad he was to hear your father was getting well," replied Miss Felicia searching the mantel for a book she had placed there.

Ruth bit her lips and a certain dull feeling crept about her heart. Jack, with his broken arm and bruised head rose before her. Then another figure supplanted it.

"And what sort of a girl is that Miss Bolton?" There was no curiosity--merely for information. "Uncle Peter was so full of her brother and how badly he had been hurt he hardly mentioned her name"

"I did not see her very well; she was just coming out of her brother's room, and the hall was dark. Oh, here's my book--I knew I had left it here."

"Pretty?" continued Ruth, in a slightly anxious tone.

"No,--I should say not," replied the old lady, moving to the door.

"Then you don't think there is anything I can do?" Ruth called after her.

"Not now."

Ruth picked up Miss Felicia's wrap from the chair where that lady had thrown it, mounted the stairs, peered from between the pots of geraniums screening a view of the street with the Hicks Hotel dominating one corner, wondered which window along the desolate front gave Jack light and air, and with whispered instructions to the nurse to be sure and let her know when her father awoke, shut herself in her room.

As for the horrible old ogre who had made all the trouble, nipping off buds, skewering butterflies and otherwise disporting herself after the manner of busybodies who are eternally and forever poking their thin, pointed noses into what doesn't concern them, no hot, scalding tears, the Scribe regrets to say, dimmed her knowing eyes, nor did any unbidden sigh leap from her old heart. Foolish young people ought to thank her really for what she had done--what she would still try to do--and they would when they were a year older.

Poor, meddling Miss Felicia! Have you forgotten that night thirty years ago when you stood in a darkened room facing a straight, soldierly looking man, and listened to the slow dropping of words that scalded your heart like molten metal? Have you forgotten, too, the look on his handsome face when he uttered his protest at the persistent intermeddling of another, and the square of his broad shoulders as he disappeared through the open door never to return again?

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CHAPTER XVThe street lamps were already lighted on the following afternoon-- when Ruth, with Peter and Miss Felicia, alighted at the small station of Corklesville. All through the day she had gone over in her mind the words of the despatch: Explosion in tunnel. MacFarlane hurt--serious--will recover. Break news gently to daughter. Bolton Asst. Engineer Other despatches had met the party on the way down; one saying, "No change," signed by the trained nurse, and a second one from Bolton in answer to one of Peter's: "Three men killed--others escaped. MacFarlane's operation successful. Explosion premature." Their anxiety only increased: Why hadn't
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