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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Portygee - Chapter 4
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The Portygee - Chapter 4 Post by :leonard063083 Category :Long Stories Author :Joseph Crosby Lincoln Date :May 2012 Read :2018

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The Portygee - Chapter 4

CHAPTER IV

The next morning, with much the same feeling that a convict must experience when he enters upon a life imprisonment, Albert entered the employ of "Z. Snow and Co., Lumber and Builders' Hardware." The day, he would have sworn it, was at least a year long. The interval between breakfast and dinner was quite six months, yet the dinner hour itself was the shortest sixty minutes he had ever known. Mr. Keeler had not yet returned to his labors, so there was no instruction in bookkeeping; but his grandfather gave him letters to file and long dreary columns of invoice figures to add. Twice Captain Zelotes went out and then, just as Albert settled back for a rest and breathing spell, Issachar Price appeared, warned apparently by some sort of devilish intuition, and invented "checking up stock" and similar menial and tiresome tasks to keep him uncomfortable till the captain returned. The customers who came in asked questions concerning him and he was introduced to at least a dozen citizens of South Harniss, who observed "Sho!" and "I want to know!" when told his identity and, in some instances, addressed him as "Bub," which was of itself a crime deserving capital punishment.

That night, as he lay in bed in the back bedroom, he fell asleep facing the dreary prospect of another monotonous imprisonment the following day, and the next day, and the day after that, and after that--and after that--and so on--and on--and on--forever and ever, as long as life should last. This, then, was to be the end of all his dreams, this drudgery in a country town among these commonplace country people. This was the end of his dreams of some day writing deathless odes and sonnets or thrilling romances; of treading the boards as the hero of romantic drama while star-eyed daughters of multi-millionaires gazed from the boxes in spellbound rapture. This . . . The thought of the star-eyed ones reminded him of the girl who had come into the office the afternoon of his first visit to that torture chamber. He had thought of her many times since their meeting and always with humiliation and resentment. It was his own foolish tongue which had brought the humiliation upon him. When she had suggested that he might be employed by Z. Snow and Co. he had replied: "Me? Work HERE! Well, I should say NOT!" And all the time she, knowing who he was, must have known he was doomed to work there. He resented that superior knowledge of hers. He had made a fool of himself but she was to blame for it. Well, by George, he would NOT work there! He would run away, he would show her, and his grandfather and all the rest what was what. Night after night he fell asleep vowing to run away, to do all sorts of desperate deeds, and morning after morning he went back to that office.

On the fourth morning the prodigal came home, the stray lamb returned to the fold--Mr. Keeler returned to his desk and his duties. There was a premonition of his return at the Snow breakfast table. For three days Mrs. Ellis had swathed her head in white and her soul in black. For three days her favorite accompaniment to conversation had been a groan or a sigh. Now, on this fourth morning, she appeared without the bandage on her brow or the crape upon her spirit. She was not hilarious but she did not groan once, and twice during the meal she actually smiled. Captain Lote commented upon the change, she being absent from table momentarily.

"Whew!" he observed, in an undertone, addressing his wife. "If it ain't a comfort to see the wrinkles on Rachel's face curvin' up instead of down. I'm scared to death that she'll go out some time in a cold spell when she's havin' one of them sympathetics of hers, and her face'll freeze that way. Well, Albert," turning to his grandson, "the colors'll be h'isted to the truck now instead of half-mast and life'll be somethin' besides one everlastin' 'last look at the remains.' Now we can take off the mournin' till the next funeral."

"Yes," said Olive, "and Laban'll be back, too. I'm sure you must have missed him awfully, Zelotes."

"Missed him! I should say so. For one thing, I miss havin' him between me and Issy. When Labe's there Is talks to him and Labe keeps on thinkin' of somethin' else and so it don't worry him any. I can't do that, and my eardrums get to wearin' thin and that makes me nervous. Maybe you've noticed that Issy's flow of conversation ain't what you'd call a trickle," he added, turning to Albert.

Albert had noticed it. "But," he asked, "what makes Rachel--Mrs. Ellis--so cheerful this morning? Does she know that Mr. Keeler will be back at work? How does she know? She hasn't seen him, has she?"

"No," replied the captain. "She ain't seen him. Nobody sees him, far's that goes. He generally clears out somewheres and locks himself up in a room, I judge, till his vacation's over. I suppose that's one way to have fun, but it ain't what I'd call hilarious."

"Don't, Zelotes," said Mrs. Snow. "I do wish you wouldn't call it fun."

"I don't, but Laban seems to. If he don't do it for fun I don't know what he does it for. Maybe it's from a sense of duty. It ain't to oblige me, I know that."

Albert repeated his question. "But how does she know he will be back to-day?" he asked.

His grandmother shook her head. "That's the mysterious part about it," she whispered. "It makes a person think there may be somethin' in the sympathetic notion she talks so much about. She don't see him at all and yet we can always tell when he's comin' back to work by her spirits. If he ain't back to-day he will be to-morrow, you'll see. She never misses by more than a day. _I think it's real sort of mysterious, but Zelotes laughs at me."

Captain Lote's lip twitched. "Yes, Mother," he said, "it's about as mysterious as the clock's strikin' twelve when it's noon. _I know it's morally sartin that Labe'll be back aboard to-day or to-morrow because his sprees don't ever last more than five days. I can't swear to how she knows, but that's how _I know--and I'm darned sure there's no 'sympathy' about my part." Then, as if realizing that he had talked more than usual, he called, brusquely: "Come on, Al, come on. Time we were on the job, boy."

Sure enough, as they passed the window of the office, there, seated on the stool behind the tall desk, Albert saw the diminutive figure of the man who had been his driver on the night of his arrival. He was curious to see how the delinquent would apologize for or explain his absence. But Mr. Keeler did neither, nor did Captain Snow ask a question. Instead the pair greeted each other as if they had parted in that office at the close of business on the previous day.

"Mornin', Cap'n Lote," said Laban, quietly.

"Mornin', Labe," replied the captain, just as calmly.

He went on and opened his own desk, leaving his grandson standing by the door, not knowing whether to speak or offer to shake hands. The situation was a little difficult, particularly as Mr. Keeler gave no sign of recognition, but, after a glance at his employer's companion, went on making entries in the ledger.

Captain Zelotes looked up a moment later. His gray eyes inspected the pair and the expression on Albert's face caused them to twinkle slightly. "Labe," he said, "this is my grandson, Albert, the one I told you was comin' to live with us."

Laban turned on the stool, regarded Albert over his spectacles, and extended a hand.

"Pleased to meet you," he said. "Yes, yes . . . Yes, yes, yes. . . Pleased to meet you. Cap'n Lote said you was comin'--er--er--Alfred. Howdy do."

They shook hands. Mr. Keeler's hand trembled a little, but that was the only symptom of his recent "vacation" which the youth could notice. Certain vivid remembrances of his father's bad humor on mornings following convivial evenings recurred to him. Was it possible that this odd, precise, dried-up little man had been on a spree for four days? It did not seem possible. He looked more as if he might be expected to rap on the desk and ask the school to come to order.

"Albert's goin' to take hold here with us in the office," went on Captain Lote. "You'll remember I spoke to you about that when we talked about his comin'. Al, Labe--Mr. Keeler here--will start you in larnin' to bookkeep. He'll be your first mate from now on. Don't forget you're a fo'mast hand yet awhile and the way for a fo'mast hand to get ahead is to obey orders. And don't," he added, with a quiet chuckle, "do any play-actin' or poetry-makin' when it's your watch on deck. Laban nor I ain't very strong for play-actin', are we, Labe?"

Laban, to whom the reference was anything but clear, replied rather vaguely that he didn't know as he was, very. Albert's temper flared up again. His grandfather was sneering at him once more; he was always sneering at him. All right, let him sneer--now. Some day he would be shown. He scowled and turned away. And Captain Zelotes, noticing the scowl, was reminded of a scowl he had seen upon the face of a Spanish opera singer some twenty years before. He did not like to be reminded of that man.

He went out soon afterward and then Laban, turning to Albert, asked a few questions.

"How do you think you're goin' to like South Harniss, Ansel?" he asked.

Albert was tempted to reply that he, Keeler, had asked him that very question before, but he thought it best not to do so.

"I don't know yet," he answered, carelessly. "Well enough, I guess."

"You'll like it fust-rate bimeby. Everybody does when they get used to it. Takes some time to get used to a place, don't you know it does, Ansel?"

"My name is Albert."

"Eh? Yes, yes, so 'tis. Yes, yes, yes. I don't know why I called you Ansel, 'less 'twas on account of my knowin' an Ansel Olsen once . . . Hum . . . Yes, yes. Well, you'll like South Harniss when you get used to it."

The boy did not answer. He was of the opinion that he should die long before the getting used process was completed. Mr. Keeler continued.

"Come on yesterday's train, did you?" he asked.

Albert looked at him. Was the fellow joking? He did not look as if he was.

"Why no," he replied. "I came last Monday night. Don't you remember?"

"Eh? Oh, yes . . . Yes, yes, yes . . . Last Monday night you come, eh? On the night train, eh?" He hesitated a moment and then asked. "Cap'n Lote fetch you down from the depot?"

Albert stared at him open-mouthed.

"Why, no!" he retorted. "You drove me down yourself."

For the first time a slight shade of embarrassment crossed the bookkeeper's features. He drew a long breath.

"Yes," he mused. "Yes, yes, yes. I kind of thought I--yes, yes,--I--I thought likely I did . . . Yes, yes, course I did, course I did. Well, now maybe we'd better be startin' you in to work--er--Augustus. Know anything about double-entry, do you?"

Albert did not, nor had he the slightest desire to learn. But before the first hour was over he foresaw that he was destined to learn, if he remained in that office, whether he wanted to or not. Laban Keeler might be, and evidently was, peculiar in his ways, but as a bookkeeper he was thoroughness personified. And as a teacher of his profession he was just as thorough. All that forenoon Albert practiced the first principles of "double entry" and, after the blessed hour for dinner, came back to practice the remainder of the working day.

And so for many days. Little by little he learned to invoice and journalize and "post in the ledger" and all the rest of the detail of bookkeeping. Not that his instructor permitted him to do a great deal of actual work upon the books of Z. Snow and Co. Those books were too spotless and precious for that. Looking over them Albert was surprised and obliged to admit a grudging admiration at the manner in which, for the most part, they had been kept. Page after page of the neatest of minute figures, not a blot, not a blur, not an erasure. So for months; then, in the minor books, like the day-book or journal, would suddenly break out an eruption of smudges and scrawls in the rugged handwriting of Captain Zelotes. When he first happened upon one of these Albert unthinkingly spoke to Mr. Keeler about it. He asked the latter what it meant.

Laban slowly stroked his nose with his thumb and finger, a habit he had.

"I cal'late I was away for a spell then," he said, gravely. "Yes, yes . . . Yes, yes, yes. I was away for a little spell."

He went soberly back to his desk. His new assistant, catching a glimpse of his face, felt a pang of real pity for the little man. Of course the reason for the hiatus in the books was plain enough. He knew about those "little spells." Oddly enough Laban seemed to feel sorry for them. He remembered how funny the bookkeeper had appeared at their first meeting, when one "spell" was just developing, and the contrast between the singing, chirruping clown and the precise, grave little person at the desk struck even his youthful mind as peculiar. He had read "Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," and now here was an example of something similar. He was beginning to like Laban Keeler, although he was perfectly sure that he should never like bookkeeping.

He did not slave at the books all the time, of course. For stretches, sometimes lasting whole days, his slavery was of another sort. Then he was working in the lumber yard with Issachar, or waiting on customers in the hardware shop. The cold of winter set in in earnest now and handling "two by fours" and other timber out where the raw winds swept piercingly through one's overcoat and garments and flesh to the very bone was a trying experience. His hands were chapped and cracked, even though his grandmother had knit him a pair of enormous red mittens. He appreciated the warmth of the mittens, but he hated the color. Why in the name of all that was inartistic did she choose red; not a deep, rich crimson, but a screeching vermilion, like a fireman's shirt?

Issachar, when he had the opportunity, was a hard boss. It suited Mr. Price to display his superior knowledge and to find fault with his helper's lack of skill. Albert's hot temper was at the boiling point many times, but he fought it down. Occasionally he retorted in kind, but his usual and most effective weapon was a more or less delicate sarcasm. Issachar did not understand sarcasm and under rapid fire he was inclined to lose his head.

"Consarn it!" he snapped, irritably, on one occasion. "Consarn it, Al, why don't you h'ist up on t'other end of that j'ist? What do you cal'late you're out here along of me for; to look harnsome?"

Albert shook his head. "No, Is," he answered, gravely. "No, that wouldn't be any use. With you around nobody else has a look-in at the 'handsome' game. Issy, what do you do to your face?"

"Do to it? What do you mean by do to it?"

"What do you do to it to make it look the way it does? Don't tell me it grew that way naturally."

"Grew! Course it grew! What kind of talk's that?"

"Issy, with a face like yours how do you keep the birds away?"

"Eh? Keep the birds away! Now look here, just--"

"Excuse me. Did I say 'birds,' Issy? I didn't mean birds like--like crows. Of course a face like yours would keep the crows away all right enough. I meant girls. How do you keep the girls away? I should think they would be making love all the time."

"Aw, you shut up! Just 'cause you're Cap'n Lote's grandson I presume likely you think you can talk any kind of talk, don't ye?"

"Not any kind, Is. I can't talk like you. Will you teach me?"

"Shut up! Now, by Crimus, you--you furriner--you Speranzy--"

Mr. Keeler appeared at the office window. His shrill voice rose pipingly in the wintry air as he demanded to know what was the trouble out there.

Mr. Price, still foaming, strode toward the window; Albert laughingly followed him.

"What's the matter?" repeated Laban. "There's enough noise for a sewin' circle. Be still, Is, can't you, for a minute. Al, what's the trouble?"

"Issy's been talking about his face," explained Albert, soberly.

"I ain't neither. I was h'istin' up my end of a j'ist, same as I'm paid to do, and, 'stead of helpin' he stands there and heaves out talk about--about--"

"Well, about what?"

"Aw, about--about me and--and girls--and all sorts of dum foolishness. I tell ye, I've got somethin' else to do beside listen to that kind of cheap talk."

"Um. Yes, yes. I see. Well, Al, what have you got to say?"

"Nothing. I'm sure I don't know what it is all about. I was working as hard as I could and all at once he began pitching into me."

"Pitchin' into you? How?"

"Oh, I don't know. Something about my looks he didn't like, I guess. Wanted to know if I thought I was as handsome as he was, or something like that."

"Eh? I never neither! All I said was--"

Mr. Keeler raised his hand. "Seems to be a case for an umpire," he observed. "Um. Seem's if 'twas, seems so, seems so. Well, Captain Lote's just comin' across the road and, if you say the word, I'll call him in to referee. What do you say?"

They said nothing relevant to the subject in hand. Issachar made the only remark. "Crimus-TEE!" he ejaculated. "Come on, Al, come on."

The pair hurried away to resume lumber piling. Laban smiled slightly and closed the window. It may be gathered from this incident that when the captain was in charge of the deck there was little idle persiflage among the "fo'mast hands." They, like others in South Harniss, did not presume to trifle with Captain Lote Snow.

So the business education of Alberto Miguel Carlos Speranza progressed. At the end of the first six weeks in South Harniss he had learned a little about bookkeeping, a little about selling hardware, a little about measuring and marking lumber. And it must be admitted that that little had been acquired, not because of vigorous application on the part of the pupil, but because, being naturally quick and intelligent, he could not help learning something. He liked the work just as little as he had in the beginning of his apprenticeship. And, although he was forgetting his thoughts of running away, of attempting fortune on his own hook, he was just as rebellious as ever against a future to be spent in that office and at that work.

Outside the office and the hateful bookkeeping he was beginning to find several real interests. At the old house which had for generations been called "the Snow place," he was beginning to feel almost at home. He and his grandmother were becoming close friends. She was not looking for trouble, she never sat for long intervals gazing at him as if she were guessing, guessing, guessing concerning him. Captain Zelotes did that, but Olive did not. She had taken the boy, her "Janie's boy," to her heart from the moment she saw him and she mothered him and loved him in a way which--so long as it was not done in public--comforted his lonely soul. They had not yet reached the stage where he confided in her to any great extent, but that was certain to come later. It was his grandmother's love and the affection he was already beginning to feel for her which, during these first lonesome, miserable weeks, kept him from, perhaps, turning the running away fantasy into a reality.

Another inmate of the Snow household with whom Albert was becoming better acquainted with was Mrs. Rachel Ellis. Their real acquaintanceship began one Sunday forenoon when Captain Zelotes and Olive had gone to church. Ordinarily he would have accompanied them, to sit in the straight-backed old pew on a cushion which felt lumpy and smelt ancient and musty, and pretend to listen while old Mr. Kendall preached a sermon which was ancient and musty likewise.

But this Sunday morning he awoke with a headache and his grandmother had pleaded for him, declaring that he ought to "lay to bed" a while and get over it. He got over it with surprising quickness after the church bell ceased ringing, and came downstairs to read Ivanhoe in the sitting room. He had read it several times before, but he wanted to read something and the choice of volumes in the Snow bookcase was limited. He was stretched out on the sofa with the book in his hand when the housekeeper entered, armed with a dust-cloth. She went to church only "every other" Sunday. This was one of the others without an every, and she was at home.

"What are you readin', Albert?" she asked, after a few' minutes vigorous wielding of the dust-cloth. "It must be awful interestin', you stick at it so close."

The Black Knight was just then hammering with his battle-axe at the gate of Front de Buef's castle, not minding the stones and beams cast down upon him from above "no more than if they were thistle-down or feathers." Albert absently admitted that the story was interesting. The housekeeper repeated her request to be told its name.

"Ivanhoe," replied the boy; adding, as the name did not seem to convey any definite idea to his interrogator's mind: "It's by Walter Scott, you know."

Mrs. Ellis made no remark immediately. When she did it was to the effect that she used to know a colored man named Scott who worked at the hotel once. "He swept out and carried trunks and such things," she explained. "He seemed to be a real nice sort of colored man, far as ever I heard."

Albert was more interested in the Black Knight of Ivanhoe than the black man of the hotel, so he went on reading. Rachel sat down in a chair by the window and looked out, twisting and untwisting the dust-cloth in her lap.

"I presume likely lots and lots of folks have read that book, ain't they?" she asked, after another interval.

"What? Oh, yes, almost everybody. It's a classic, I suppose."

"What's that?"

"What's what?"

"What you said the book was. A class-somethin' or other?"

"Oh, a classic. Why, it's--it's something everybody knows about, or--or ought to know about. One of the big things, you know. Like--like Shakespeare or--or Robinson Crusoe or Paradise Lost or--lots of them. It's a book everybody reads and always will."

"I see. Humph! Well, I never read it. . . . I presume likely you think that's pretty funny, don't you?"

Albert tore himself away from the fight at the gate.

"Why, I don't know," he replied.

"Yes, you do. You think it's awful funny. Well, you wouldn't if you knew more about how busy I've been all my life. I ain't had time to read the way I'd ought to. I read a book once though that I'll never forget. Did you ever read a book called Foul Play?"

"No. . . . Why, hold on, though; I think I have. By Charles Reade, wasn't it?"

"Yes, that's who wrote it, a man named Charles Reade. Laban told me that part of it; he reads a lot, Laban does. I never noticed who wrote it, myself. I was too interested in it to notice little extry things like that. But ain't that a WONDERFUL book? Ain't that the best book you ever read in all your LIFE?"

She dropped the dust-cloth and was too excited and enthusiastic to pick it up. Albert did his best to recall something definite concerning Foul Play. The book had been in the school library and he, who read almost everything, had read it along with the others.

"Let me see," he said musingly. "About a shipwreck--something about a shipwreck in it, wasn't there?"

"I should say there was! My stars above! Not the common kind of shipwreck, neither, the kind they have down to Setuckit P'int on the shoals. No sir-ee! This one was sunk on purpose. That Joe Wylie bored holes right down through her with a gimlet, the wicked thing! And that set 'em afloat right out on the sea in a boat, and there wan't anything to eat till Robert Penfold--oh, HE was the smart one; he'd find anything, that man!--he found the barnacles on the bottom of the boat, just the same as he found out how to diffuse intelligence tied onto a duck's leg over land knows how many legs--leagues, I mean--of ocean. But that come later. Don't you remember THAT?"

Albert laughed. The story was beginning to come back to him.

"Oh, sure!" he exclaimed. "I remember now. He--the Penfold fellow--and the girl landed on this island and had all sorts of adventures, and fell in love and all that sort of stuff, and then her dad came and took her back to England and she--she did something or other there to--to get the Penfold guy out of trouble."

"Did somethin'! I should say she did! Why, she found out all about who forged the letter--the note, I mean--that's what she done. 'Twas Arthur Wardlaw, that's who 'twas. And he was tryin' to get Helen all the time for himself, the skinner! Don't talk to me about that Arthur Wardlaw! I never could bear HIM."

She spoke as if she had known the detested Wardlaw intimately from childhood. Young Speranza was hugely amused. Ivanhoe was quite forgotten.

"Foul Play was great stuff," he observed. "When did you read it?"

"Eh? When? Oh, ever and ever so long ago. When I was about twenty, I guess, and laid up with the measles. That's the only time I ever was real what you might call down sick in my life, and I commenced with measles. That's the way a good many folks commence, I know, but they don't generally wait till they're out of their 'teens afore they start. I was workin' for Mrs. Philander Bassett at the time, and she says to me: 'Rachel,' she says, 'you're on the mendin' hand now, wouldn't you like a book to read?' I says, 'Why, maybe I would.' And she fetched up three of 'em. I can see 'em now, all three, plain as day. One was Barriers Burned Away. She said that was somethin' about a big fire. Well, I'm awful nervous about fires, have been from a child, so I didn't read that. And another had the queerest kind of a name, if you'd call it a name at all; 'twas She."

Albert nodded.

"Yes," he said. "I've read that."

"Have you? Well, I begun to, but my stars, THAT wasn't any book to give to a person with nerve symptoms. I got as far as where those Indians or whatever they was started to put red-hot kettles on folks's heads, and that was enough for ME. 'Give me somethin' civilized,' says I, 'or not at all.' So I commenced Foul Play, and I tell you I kept right on to the end.

"I don't suppose," she went on, "that there ever was a much better book than that wrote, was there?"

Albert temporized. "It is a good one," he admitted.

"Don't seem to me there could be much better. Laban says it's good, though he won't go so far as to say it's the very best. He's read lots and lots of books, Laban has. Reads an awful lot in his spare time. He's what you'd call an educated person, which is what I ain't. And I guess you'll say that last is plain enough without bein' told," she added.

Her companion, not exactly knowing how to answer, was silent for a moment. Rachel, who had picked up and was again twisting the dust-cloth, returned to the subject she so delighted in.

"But that Foul Play book," she continued, "I've read till I've pretty nigh wore the covers off. When Mrs. Bassett saw how much I liked it she gave it to me for a present. I read a little bit in it every little while. I kind of fit the folks in that book to folks in real life, sort of compare 'em, you know. Do you ever do that?"

Albert, repressing a chuckle, said, "Sure!" again. She nodded.

"Now there's General Rolleson in that book," she said. "Do you know who he makes me think of? Cap'n Lote, your grandpa, that's who."

General Rolleson, as Albert remembered him, was an extremely dignified, cultured and precise old gentleman. Just what resemblance there might be between him and Captain Zelotes Snow, ex-skipper of the Olive S., he could not imagine. He could not repress a grin, and the housekeeper noticed it.

"Seems funny to you, I presume likely," she said. "Well, now you think about it. This General Rolleson man was kind of proud and sot in his ways just as your grandpa is, Albert. He had a daughter he thought all the world of; so did Cap'n Lote. Along come a person that wanted to marry the daughter. In the book 'twas Robert Penfold, who had been a convict. In your grandpa's case, 'twas your pa, who had been a play-actor. So you see--"

Albert sat up on the sofa. "Hold on!" he interrupted indignantly. "Do you mean to compare my father with a--with a CONVICT? I want you to understand--"

Mrs. Ellis held up the dust-cloth. "Now, now, now," she protested. "Don't go puttin' words in my mouth that I didn't say. I don't doubt your pa was a nice man, in his way, though I never met him. But 'twan't Cap'n Lote's way any more than Robert Penfold's was General Rolleson's."

"My father was famous," declared the youth hotly. "He was one of the most famous singers in this country. Everybody knows that--that is, everybody but Grandfather and the gang down here," he added, in disgust.

"I don't say you're wrong. Laban tells me that some of those singin' folks get awful high wages, more than the cap'n of a steamboat, he says, though that seems like stretchin' it to me. But, as I say, Cap'n Lote was proud, and nobody but the best would satisfy him for Janie, your mother. Well, in that way, you see, he reminds me of General Rolleson in the book."

"Look here, Mrs. Ellis. Tell me about this business of Dad's marrying my mother. I never knew much of anything about it."

"You didn't? Did your pa never tell you?"

"No."

"Humph! That's funny. Still, I don't know's as 'twas, after all, considerin' you was only a boy. Probably he'd have told you some day. Well, I don't suppose there's any secret about it. 'Twas town talk down here when it happened."

She told him the story of the runaway marriage. Albert listened with interest and the almost incredulous amazement with which the young always receive tales of their parents' love affairs. Love, for people of his age or a trifle older, was a natural and understandable thing, but for his father, as he remembered him, to have behaved in this way was incomprehensible.

"So," said Rachel, in conclusion, "that's how it happened. That's why Cap'n Lote couldn't ever forgive your father."

He tossed his head. "Well, he ought to have forgiven him," he declared. "He was dead lucky to get such a man for a son-in-law, if you ask me."

"He didn't think so. And he wouldn't ever mention your pa's name."

"Oh, I don't doubt that. Anybody can see how he hated Father. And he hates me the same way," he added moodily.

Mrs. Ellis was much disturbed. "Oh, no, he don't," she cried. "You mustn't think that, Albert. He don't hate you, I'm sure of it. He's just kind of doubtful about you, that's all. He remembers how your pa acted--or how he thinks he acted--and so he can't help bein' the least mite afraid the same thing may crop out in you. If you just stick to your job over there at the lumber yards and keep on tryin' to please him, he'll get all over that suspicion, see if he don't. Cap'n Lote Snow is stubborn sometimes and hard to turn, but he's square as a brick. There's some that don't like him, and a good many that don't agree with him--but everybody respects him."

Albert did not answer. The housekeeper rose from her chair.

"There!" she exclaimed. "I don't know when I've set down for so long. Goodness knows I've got work enough to do without settin' around talkin'. I can't think what possessed me to do it this time, unless 'twas seein' you readin' that book." She paused a moment and then said: "Albert, I--I don't want you and your grandpa to have any quarrels. You see--well, you see, I used to know your mother real well, and--and I thought an awful sight of her. I wish--I do wish when you and the cap'n have any trouble or anything, or when you think you're liable to have any, you'd come and talk it over with me. I'm like the feller that Laban tells about in his dog-fight yarn. This feller was watchin' the fight and when they asked him to stop it afore one or t'other of the dogs was killed, he just shook his head. 'No-o,' he says, kind of slow and moderate, 'I guess I shan't interfere. One of 'em's been stealin' my chickens and the other one bit me. I'm a friend to both parties,' he says. Course I don't mean it exactly that way," she added, with a smile, "but you know what I do mean, I guess. WILL you talk things over with me sometimes, Albert?"

His answer was not very enthusiastic, but he said he guessed so, and Rachel seemed satisfied with that. She went on with her dusting, and he with his reading, but the conversation was the first of many between the pair. The housekeeper appeared to consider his having read her beloved Foul Play a sort of password admitting him to her lodge and that thereafter they were, in consequence, to be confidants and comrades. She never hesitated to ask him the most personal questions concerning his work, his plans, the friends or acquaintances he was making in the village. Some of those questions he answered honestly and fully, some he dodged, some he did not answer at all. Mrs. Ellis never resented his not answering. "I presume likely that ain't any of my business, is it?" she would say, and ask about something else.

On the other hand, she was perfectly outspoken concerning her own affairs. He was nearly overcome with hilarious joy when, one day, she admitted that, in her mind, Robert Penfold, the hero of Foul Play, lived again in the person of Laban Keeler.

"Why, Mrs. Ellis," he cried, as soon as he could trust himself to speak at all, "I don't see THAT. Penfold was a six-footer, wasn't he? And--and athletic, you know, and--and a minister, and young--younger, I mean--and--"

Rachel interrupted. "Yes, yes, I know," she said. "And Laban is little, and not very young, and, whatever else he is, he ain't a minister. I know all that. I know the outside of him don't look like Robert Penfold at all. But," somewhat apologetically, "you see I've been acquainted with him so many years I've got into the habit of seein' his INSIDE. Now that sounds kind of ridiculous, I know," she added. "Sounds as if I--I--well, as if I was in the habit of takin' him apart, like a watch or somethin'. What I mean is that I know him all through. I've known him for a long, long while. He ain't much to look at, bein' so little and sort of dried up, but he's got a big, fine heart and big brains. He can do 'most anything he sets his hand to. When I used to know him, when I was a girl, folks was always prophesyin' that Laban Keeler would turn out to be a whole lot more'n the average. He would, too, only for one thing, and you know what that is. It's what has kept me from marryin' him all this time. I swore I'd never marry a man that drinks, and I never will. Why, if it wasn't for liquor Labe would have been runnin' his own business and gettin' rich long ago. He all but runs Cap'n Lote's place as 'tis. The cap'n and a good many other folks don't realize that, but it's so."

It was plain that she worshiped the little bookkeeper and, except during the periods of "vacation" and "sympathetics," was tremendously proud of him. Albert soon discovered that Mr. Keeler's feeling for her was equally strong. In his case, though, there was also a strong strain of gratitude.

"She's a fine woman, Al," he confided to his assistant on one occasion. "A fine woman. . . . Yes, yes, yes. They don't make 'em any finer. Ah hum! And not so long ago I read about a passel of darn fools arguin' that the angels in heaven was all he-ones. . . . Umph! . . . Sho, sho! If men was as good as women, Ansel--Alfred--Albert, I mean--we could start an opposition heaven down here most any time. 'Most any time--yes, yes."

It was considerable for him to say. Except when on a vacation, Laban was not loquacious.

Each Sunday afternoon, when the weather was pleasant, he came, dressed in his best black cutaway, shiny at elbows and the under part of the sleeves, striped trousers and a pearl gray soft hat with a black band, a hat which looked as much out of place above his round, withered little face as a red roof might have looked on a family vault, and he and the housekeeper went for a walk.

Rachel, in her Sunday black, bulked large beside him. As Captain Zelotes said, the pair looked like "a tug takin' a liner out to sea."

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CHAPTER VOutside of the gates of the Snow place Albert was making many acquaintances and a few friends. After church on Sundays his grandmother had a distressful habit of suddenly seizing his arm or his coat-tail as he was hurrying toward the vestibule and the sunshine of outdoors, and saying: "Oh, Albert, just a minute! Here's somebody you haven't met yet, I guess. Elsie"--or Nellie or Mabel or Henry or Charlie or George, whichever it happened to be--"this is my grandson, Albert Speranza." And the young person to whom he was thus introduced would, if a male, extend a hesitating hand,
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CHAPTER IIIA brisk rap on the door; then a man's voice. "Hello, there! Wake up." Albert rolled over, opened one eye, then the other and raised himself on his elbow. "Eh? Wh-what?" he stammered. "Seven o'clock! Time to turn out." The voice was his grandfather's. "Oh--oh, all right!" he answered. "Understand me, do you?" "Yes--yes, sir. I'll be right down." The stairs creaked as Captain Zelotes descended them. Albert yawned cavernously, stretched and slid one foot out of bed. He drew it back instantly, however, for the sensation was that of having thrust it into a bucket of cold water. The
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