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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesPeter: A Novel Of Which He Is Not The Hero - Chapter 17
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Peter: A Novel Of Which He Is Not The Hero - Chapter 17 Post by :beetee Category :Long Stories Author :Francis Hopkinson Smith Date :May 2012 Read :1321

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Peter: A Novel Of Which He Is Not The Hero - Chapter 17

CHAPTER XVII

Some of the sunshine that had helped dry the muddy road, making possible the path between Jack's abode and MacFarlane's hired villa--where there was only room for Miss Felicia, Peter still occupying his cell at Mrs. Hicks's, but taking his meals with Ruth, so that he could be within call of MacFarlane when needed-- some of this same sunshine, I say, may have been responsible for the temporary drying up of Ruth's tears and the establishing of various ways of communication between two hearts that had for some days been floundering in the deeps. Or, perhaps, the rebound may have been due to the fact that Peter had whispered something in Jack's ear, or that Ruth had overheard Miss Felicia praising Jack's heroism to her father--it was common talk everywhere--or it may have been that the coming of spring which always brings hope and cheer--making old into new, may have led to the general lighting up of the gloom that had settled over the house of MacFarlane and its dependents; but certain it is that such was the case.

MacFarlane began by taking a sudden change for the better--so decided a change that he was out of his room and dressed on the fifth day (although half his coat hid his broken arm, tightly bandaged to his side). He had even talked as far as the geraniums in the window, through which he could not only see Jack's hotel, but the big "earth fill" and mouth of The Beast beyond.

Then Bolton surprised everybody by appearing outdoors, his hand alone in a sling. What was left of the poor shanty men, too, had been buried, the dreadful newspaper articles had ceased, and work was again in full blast.

Jack, to be sure, was still in his room, having swallowed more gas and smoke than the others, badly scorching his insides, as he had panted under the weight of MacFarlane's body. The crisis, however, brought on by his imprudence in meeting Ruth at the station, had passed, and even he was expected to be out in a few days.

As for Miss Felicia, although she had blown hot and blown cold on Ruth's heart, until that delicate instrument stood at zero one day and at fever heat the next, she had, on the whole, kept up an equable temperature, and meant to do so until she shook the dust of Corklesville from her dainty feet and went back to the clean, moist bricks of her garden.

And as for Peter! Had he not been a continuous joy; cheering everybody; telling MacFarlane funny stories until that harassed invalid laughed himself, unconscious of the pain to his arm; bringing roses for the prim, wizened-up Miss Bolton, that she might have a glimpse of something fresh and alive while she sat by her brother's bed. And last, and by no means least, had he not the morning he had left for New York, his holiday being over, taken Ruth in his arms and putting his lips close to her ear, whispered something into its pink shell that had started northern lights dancing all over her cheeks and away up to the roots of her hair; and had she not given him a good hug and kissed him in return, a thing she had never done in her whole life before? And had he not stopped on his way to the station for a last hand-shake with Jack and to congratulate him for the hundredth time for his plucky rescue of MacFarlane--a subject he never ceased to talk about-- and had he not at the very last moment, told Jack every word of what he and Ruth talked about, with all the details elaborated, even to the hug, which was no sooner told than another set of northern lights got into action at once, and another hug followed; only this time it took the form of a hearty hand-shake and a pat on Peter's back, followed by a big tear which the boy tried his best to conceal? Peter had no theories detrimental to penniless young gentlemen, pursued by intermeddling old ladies.

And yet with all this there was one corner deep down in Ruth's heart so overgrown with "wonderings" and "whys," so thick with tangled doubts and misgivings, that no cheering ray of certainty had yet been able to pierce it. Nor had any one tried. Miss Felicia, good as she was and loving as she had been, had done nothing in the pruning way--that is, nothing which would let in any sunshine radiating from Jack. She had talked about him, it is true; not to her, we may be sure, but to her father, saying how handsome he had grown and what a fine man he was making of himself. She had, too, more than once commented--and this before everybody--on his good manners and his breeding, especially on the way he had received her the first morning she called, and to his never apologizing for his miserable surroundings, meagre as they were--just a theodolite, his father's portrait and half a dozen books alone being visible, the white walls covered with working plans. But when the poor girl had tried to draw from her some word that was personal to himself, or one that might become personal-- and she did try even to the verge of betraying herself, which would never have done--Miss Felicia had always turned the subject at once or had pleaded forgetfulness. Not a word could she drag out of this very perverse and determined old lady concerning the state of the patient, nothing except that he was "better," or "doing nicely," or that the bandage was being shortened, or some other commonplace. Uncle Peter had been kinder. He understood--she saw that in his eyes. Still even Uncle Peter had not told her all that she wanted to know, and of course she could not ask him.

Soon a certain vague antagonism began to assert itself toward the old lady who knew so much and yet who said so little! who was too old really to understand--no old person, in fact, could understand--that is, no old woman. This proved, too, that this particular person could never have loved any other particular person in her life. Not that she, Ruth, loved Jack--by no manner of means--not in that way, at least. But she would have liked to know what he said, and how he said it, and whether his eyes had lost that terrible look which they wore when he turned away at the station to go back to his sick bed in the dingy hotel. All these things her Aunt Felicia knew about and yet she could not drag a word out of her.

What she ought to have done was to go herself that first night, bravely, honestly, fearlessly as any friend had a right to do; go to him in his miserable little hotel and try to cheer him up as Miss Felicia, and perhaps Miss Bolton, had done. Then she might have found out all about it. Exactly what it was that she wanted to find out all about--and this increased her perplexity--she could not formulate, although she was convinced it would help her to bear the anxiety she was suffering. Now it was too late; more than a week had passed, and no excuse for going was possible.

It was not until the morning after Peter's departure,--she, sitting alone, sad and silent in her chair at the head of her father's breakfast table (Miss Felicia, as was her custom, had her coffee in her room), that the first ray of light had crept into her troubled brain. It had only shone a brief moment,--and had then gone out in darkness, but it held a certain promise for better days, and on this she had built her hopes.

"I am going to send for Breen to-morrow, Ruth," her father had said as he kissed her good-night. "There are some things I want to talk over with him, and then I want to thank him for what he did for me. He's a man, every inch of him; I haven't told him so yet, --not to his face,--but I will to-morrow. Fine fellow is Breen; blood will always tell in the end, my daughter, and he's got the best in the country in his veins. Looks more like his father every day he lives."

She had hardly slept all night, thinking of the pleasure in store for her. She had dressed herself, too, in her most becoming breakfast gown--one she had worn when Jack first arrived at Corklesville, and which he said reminded him of a picture he had seen as a boy. There were pink rosebuds woven in its soft texture, and the wide peach-blossom ribbon that bound her dainty waist contrasted so delightfully, as he had timidly hinted, with the tones of her hair and cheeks.

It was the puffy, bespectacled little doctor who shut out the light.

"No, your father has still one degree of fever," he grumbled, with a wise shake of his bushy head. "No--nobody, Miss MacFarlane,--do you understand? He can see NOBODY--or I won't be responsible," and with this the crabbed old fellow climbed into his gig and drove away.

She looked after him for a moment and two hot tears dropped from her eyes and dashed themselves to pieces on the peach-blossom ribbon.

But the sky was clearing again--she didn't realize it,--but it was. April skies always make alternate lights and darks. The old curmudgeon had gone, but the garden gate was again a-swing.

Ruth heard the tread on the porch and drawing back the curtains looked out. The most brilliant sunbeams were but dull rays compared with what now flashed from her eyes. Nor did she wait for any other hand than her own to turn the knob of the door.

"Why, Mr. Breen!"

"Yes, Miss Ruth," Jack answered, lifting his hat, an unrestrained gladness at the sight of her beauty and freshness illumining his face. "I have come to report for duty to your father."

"But you cannot see him. You must report to me," she laughed gayly, her heart brimming over now that he was before her again. "Father was going to send for you to-day, but the doctor would not let him. Hush! he musn't hear us."

"He would not let me go out either, but as I am tired to death of being cooped up in my room, I broke jail. Can't I see him?" he continued in a lower key. He had his coat off and had hung it on the rack, she following him into the sitting-room, absorbing every inch of his strong, well-knit body from his short-cropped hair where the bandages had been wound, down to the sprained wrist which was still in splints. She noted, too, with a little choke in her throat, the shadows under the cheek bones and the thinness of the nose. She could see plainly how he had suffered.

"I am sorry you cannot see father." She was too moved to say more." He still has one degree of fever."

"I have two degrees myself," Jack laughed softly,--"one records how anxious I was to get out of my cell and the other how eager I was to get here. And now I suppose I can't stay."

"Oh, yes, you can stay if you will keep as still as a mouse so father can't hear you," she whispered, a note of joy woven in her tones.

She was leading him to the sofa as she spoke. He placed a cushion for her, and took his place beside her, resting his injured hand, which was in a sling, on the arm. He was still weak and shaking.

"Daddy is still in his room," she rattled on nervously, "but he may be out and prowling about the upstairs hall any minute. He has a heap of things to talk over with you--he told me so last night-- and if he knew you were here nothing would stop him. Wait till I shut the door. And now tell me about yourself," she continued in a louder voice, regaining her seat. "You have had a dreadful time, I hear--it was the wrist, wasn't it?" She felt she was beginning badly; although conscious of her nervous joy and her desire to conceal it, somehow it seemed hard for her to say the right thing.

"Oh, I reckon it was everything, Miss Ruth, but it's all over now." He was not nervous. He was in an ecstasy. His eyes were drinking in the round of her throat and the waves of glorious hair that crowned her lovely head. He noticed, too, some tiny threads that lay close to her ears: he had been so hungry for a glimpse of them!

"Oh, I hope so, but you shouldn't have come to the station that day," she struggled on. "We had Uncle Peter with us, and only a hand-bag, each of us,--we came away so suddenly."

"I didn't want you to be frightened about your father. I didn't know that Uncle Peter was with you; in fact, I didn't know much of anything until it was all over. Bolton sent the telegram as soon as he got his breath."

"That's what frightened us. Why didn't YOU send it?" she was gaining control of herself now and something of her old poise had returned.

"I hadn't got MY breath,--not all of it. I remember his coming into my room where they were tying me up and bawling out something about how to reach you by wire, and he says now that I gave him Mr. Grayson's address. I cannot remember that part of it, except that I--Well, never mind about that--" he hesitated turning away his gaze--the memory seemed to bring with it a certain pain.

"Yes,--tell me," she pleaded. She was too happy. This was what she had been waiting for. There was no detail he must omit.

"It was nothing, only I kept thinking it was you who were hurt," he stammered.

"Me!" she cried, her eyes dancing. The ray of light was breaking-- one with a promise in it for the future!

"Yes,--you, Miss Ruth! Funny, isn't it, how when you are half dead you get things mixed up." Oh, the stupidity of these lovers! Not a thing had he seen of the flash of expectation in her eyes or of the hot color rising to her cheeks. "I thought somebody was trying to tell your father that you were hurt, and I was fighting to keep him from hearing it. But you must thank Bolton for letting you know."

Ruth's face clouded and the sparkle died out in her eyes. What was Mr. Bolton to her, and at a time like this?

"It was most kind of Mr. Bolton," she answered in a constrained voice. "I only wish he had said something more; we had a terrible day. Uncle Peter was nearly crazy about you; he telegraphed and telegraphed, but we could get no answer. That's why it was such a relief to find you at the station."

But the bat had not finished banging his head against the wall. "Then I did do some good by going?" he asked earnestly.

"Oh, indeed you did." If he did not care whether she had been hurt or not, even in his delirium, she was not going to betray herself. "It was the first time anybody had seen Uncle Peter smile; he was wretched all day. He loves you very dearly, Mr. Breen."

Jack's hand dropped so suddenly to his side that the pain made him tighten his lips. For a moment he did not answer.

"Then it was only Uncle Peter who was anxious, was it? I am glad he loves me. I love him, too," he said at last in a perfunctory tone--"he's been everything to me."

"And you have been everything to him." She determined to change the subject now. He told me only--well,--two days ago--that you had made him ten years younger."

"Me?--Miss Ruth!" Still the same monotonous cadence.

"Yes."

"How?"

"Well,--maybe because he is old and you are young." As she spoke her eyes measured the width of his shoulders and his broad chest-- she saw now to what her father owed his life--" and another thing; he said that he would always thank you for getting out alive. And I owe you a debt of gratitude, too, Mr. Breen;--you gave me back my dear daddy," she added in a more assured tone. Here at last was something she could talk unreservedly about. Something that she had wanted to say ever since he came.

Jack straightened and threw back his shoulders: that word again! Was that all that Ruth had to say?

"No, Miss Ruth, you don't." There was a slight ring of defiance now. "You do not owe me anything, and please don't think so, and please--please--do not say so!"

"I don't owe you anything! Not for saving my father's life?" This came with genuine surprise.

"No! What would you have thought of me, what would I have thought of myself had I left him to suffocate when I could just as well have brought him out? Do you think I could ever have looked you in the face again? You might not have ever known I could have saved him--but I should have hated myself every hour of my life. Men are not to be thanked for these things; they are to be despised if they don't do them. Can't you see the difference?"

"But you might have been killed, too!" she exclaimed. Her own voice was rising, irritation and disappointment swaying it. "Everybody says it was a miracle you were not."

"Not a miracle at all. All I was afraid of was stumbling over something in the dark--and it was nearly dark--only a few of the rock lights burning--and not be able to get on my feet again. But don't let us talk about it any more."

"Yes--but I will, I MUST. I must feel right about it all, and I cannot unless you listen. I shall never forget you for it as long as I live." There was a note of pathos in her voice. Why did he make it so hard for her, she thought. Why would he not look in her face and see? Why would he not let her thank him? "Nothing in the world is so precious to me as daddy, and never will be," she went on resolutely, driving back the feeling of injustice that surged up in her heart at his attitude--"and it is you, Mr. Breen, who have given him back to me. And daddy feels the same way about it; and he is going to tell you so the minute he sees you," she insisted. "He has sent you a lot of messages, he says, but they do not count. Please, now. won't you let me thank you?"

Jack raised his head. He had been fingering a tassel on the end of the sofa, missing all the play of feeling in her eyes, taking in nothing but the changes that she rang on that one word "gratitude." Gratitude!--when he loved the ground she stepped on. But he must face the issue fairly now:

"No,--I don't want you to thank me," he answered simply.

"Well, what do you want, then?" She was at sea now,--compass and rudder gone,--wind blowing from every quarter at once,--she trying to reach the harbor of his heart while every tack was taking her farther from port. If the Scribe had his way the whole coast of love would be lighted and all rocks of doubt and misunderstanding charted for just such hapless lovers as these two. How often a twist of the tiller could send them into the haven of each other's arms, and yet how often they go ashore and stay ashore and worse still, stay ashore all their lives.

Jack looked into her eyes and a hopeless, tired expression crossed his face.

"I don't know," he said in a barely audible voice:--"I just-- please, Miss Ruth, let us talk of something else; let me tell you how lovely your gown is and how glad I am you wore it to-day. I always liked it, and--"

"No,--never mind about my gown; I would rather you did not like anything about me than misunderstand me!" The tears were just under the lids;--one more thrust like the last and they would be streaming down her cheeks.

"But I haven't misunderstood you." He saw the lips quiver, but it was anger, he thought, that caused it.

"Yes, you have!"--a great lump had risen in her throat. "You have done a brave, noble act,--everybody says so; you carried my dear father out on your back when there was not but one chance in a thousand you would ever get out alive; you lay in a faint for hours and once they gave you up for dead; then you thought enough of Uncle Peter and all of us to get that telegram sent so we wouldn't be terrified to death and then at the risk of your life you met us at the station and have been in bed ever since, and yet I am to sit still and not say a word!" It was all she could do to control herself. "I do feel grateful to you and I always shall feel grateful to you as long as I live. And now will you take my hand and tell me you are sorry, and let me say it all over again, and with my whole heart? for that's the way I mean it."

She was facing him now, her hand held out, her head thrown back, her dark eyes flashing, her bosom heaving. Slowly and reverently, as a devotee would kiss the robe of a passing priest, Jack bent his head and touched her fingers with his lips.

Then, raising his eyes to hers, he asked, "And is that all, Miss Ruth? Isn't there something more?" Not once had she mentioned his own safety--not once had she been glad over him--"Something more?" he repeated, an ineffable tenderness in his tones--"something--it isn't all, is it?"

"Why, how can I say anything more?" she murmured in a lowered voice, withdrawing her hand as the sound of a step in the hall reached her ear.

The door swung wide: "Well, what are you two young people quarrelling about?" came a soft, purring voice.

"We weren't quarrelling, Aunty. Mr. Breen is so modest he doesn't want anybody to thank him, and I just would."

Miss Felicia felt that she had entered just in time. Scarred and penniless heroes fresh from battle-fields of glory and desirable young women whose fathers have been carried bodily out of burning death pits must never be left too long together.

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CHAPTER XVIMiss 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
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