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Chapter 15

Through the hours of that night Frances heard the strong north wind about the house, singing the song of vibrant trees on the mountain-tops or the low tones of the rolling hills and narrow valleys. All night she knew the world outside grew cold and colder, while the mist clouds which had condensed into rain in the early evening were swept from the sky. As the fire in her grate burned low and the insistent wind rattled at window and door and blew in gusty breaths down the chimney's mouth, the furniture contracting and snapping, made weird noises which mingled with the clashings of the maples on the quadrangle.

Whether she slept or whether she waked, it was the same mood of restless excited happiness. It seemed but a reflection of it from the world outside when she flung open[Pg 197] her heavy shutters in the morning and saw the sky clear as crystal, bluish green at its zenith and, over above the houses opposite, flushed red as a rose. The maples rocked in the wind, along the corridor across the way the shallow rain pools in the worn pavement had turned to ice, making shimmer and shine but perilous footing. The wind and the rocking and the singing were her own restless mood, which made her vibrant to a song which she knew not for joy or for some feeling yet unnamable.

It was not wholly joy, for her first thought of others struck her with dismay. Susan, before she had dressed, came into the room, a great box in her hands.

"Dat boy done said p'intidly dis time 'twas for yuh. He 'low dat Mr. Lawson call Mr. Cook up to de 'phone las' night an' said as how dey was to be hyar befor' sun up dis mornin'."

"Oh!" cried Frances with a long ecstatic sigh, as she uncovered the sweet red roses and buried her blushing face in their fragrant hearts, "how beautiful, how sweet, how—"[Pg 198]—"thoughtful" she was about to add, when she remembered Susan and her secret.

But Susan could read the tale of that shy, sweet delight in Frances' face and her own grew more anxious and wrinkled.

"Yuh'd bettah hurry up an' dress," she said, grumpily. "'Tis nigh upon eight o'clock and yo' pa won't eben think his breakfast taste good if yuh isn't there." It was the first shot she could think of, but it told.

Frances laid down the great handful of beauties she had been holding ecstatically close to her face. "I will be down in a moment," she said soberly, and, then, as Susan still lingered, "you had better hurry yourself and see that everything is ready."

As she brushed the rebellious dark hair into the waves above her forehead she saw her reflected face through a mist of tears; once, twice, in the happy evening before, the thought of her father had come like a stab through the joy still only half believed in and shyly dreamed of. She had not dared follow that thought to the end. It would[Pg 199] show her the deep sorrow of her own heart were she to leave him to live her life many hundred miles away amongst people and surroundings not of his kind and beyond his ken; it would show her, what was harder still, the desolation of his loneliness without her. She could not face it yet, but must put it away from her with all the tremulous uncertainties quivering into life in her heart, and must live in the moment.

She fastened a great red rose in her dainty waist and then picked up a smaller bud. "This is for you," she declared, as she hastened into the library before the breakfast bell had rung, and found her father waiting a trifle impatiently before the fire.

So it was that a young man, hurrying across the campus in gay mood, gave a start of astonishment when he met the professor, and guessed the rose in his coat to be one of those he had dedicated to this first happy day of a love striven for against long odds and won.

It was not the better part of him that had triumphed the day before, and it may have[Pg 200] been the fight within which made him so readily resentful and so quick to show it, when he paused at the window of the professor's house to greet the gay trio there. And it was some baser part of him which, when he read Frances' tell-tale face, the faint flush, the droop of the lids, while he talked gayly with Elizabeth Martin, urged him to see how far he might torment her. Having played the daring game once, he must play it again and again in the few short stormy days which followed. Prompted by some unknown devil within him, bred of the fight which he lacked the courage to face and to decide, he must watch her tell-tale face to see how he had aroused feelings Frances had never dreamed of and hated while she suffered them—must laugh and talk with Elizabeth Martin with admiration in his eyes and flattery on his lips, and to see, meanwhile, the wonder in Frances' eyes, and the pride which in the end concealed it—must seek, at last, some hour alone with her, man?uvre for that hour, and watch the resentment she disdained to name,[Pg 201] die away beneath the magnetism of his love-making.

Even then a fierce joy ruled him, prompting him to a lavish generosity in which the whole household shared.

"Ise done sick o' seein' dat flower boy," declared Susan, savagely, to Frances, in a kitchen interview. "Sho' as de brekkus bell rings, he rings de nex', an' he's gettin' sassy as if he run de whole business an' brung 'em heself."

Frances only laughed.

"An' if yuh eats much mo' dat candy layin' erroun', I'll be plumb scared o' yuh eatin' yo' vittles."

"You shall have a box for yourself," teased Frances.

"Me! De Lawd knows I don't want none! I'd ruther hab one o' dem plump partridges Marse Edward brought yestiddy dan all de choclits yuh can rake and scrape."

"You shall have that, too; broil them for supper."

"Who's gwine be hyar?"

"No one but us."

[Pg 202]

"Humph! dyar'll be jes' ernuff." Susan was not going to serve the game one young man had taken a long tramp to shoot, for another who did not stand so high in her graces. Young Montague had been in the day before.

With some intuitive understanding of Frances, her excited mood and Lawson's manner, when he saw them together, left him desperately anxious and heart-sick. It was a story he could not read, nor the actors themselves. But he divined that, in spite of the brilliancy he had never seen so great in her before, Frances was unhappy. He saw enough, also, to fear the drift of her life was to a love which would not bring her peace, and which would leave him desolate. He saw that the professor was just beginning to wake to a vague uneasiness, and his resolve to befriend her, no matter at what cost to himself, was strengthened.

The next day he came in for the observatory party, which was to be the last gayety of the visitors, who were going on the early train of the morning following. Lawson[Pg 203] had arranged the expedition, and had ordered the big drag from the stables for the ride up the mountain in the moonlight just beginning to tinge the highest peaks. A whispered word placed Elizabeth Martin on the driver's seat beside him; Montague was quick to seize the opportunity of seating himself by Frances' side, and was thankful for the chance. Frances, herself, was wrapt in the beautiful moonlit world through which they rode. Her dreamy eyes saw the rolling hills and the distant lights bespeaking home; her fine listening heard the song of the night winds in the oaks, as they wound up the mountain side, and the music of the rustling leaves under wheel and hoof-beats. As the road mounted higher she turned to watch the lights in the valley, the clustering sparkle of them in the town, and, above the crests of the Ragged Mountains, the moon, swinging over all and flooding the world with mystic light.

On the mountain crest the world seemed strangely hushed. The observatory gleamed ghostly in the shadowings of the oaks; the[Pg 204] red light shining from the window of the work-room and the young man it shone on inside were a human touch distinctly needed. His welcome, the glowing stove in the room, the bright lamp-light shining on book-shelves and easy chairs and tables, were a cheer for which the chilled visitors were grateful.

"You had better keep your wraps on," he cautioned them, as the women began to unfasten furs and coats, "I think it is a little colder in the observatory than outside."

An icy blast through the door he opened confirmed him. The metallic sides of the great telescope gleamed in the cold white light as they entered. Frances waited as her visitors mounted the frail-looking stairs and peered through the great instrument at the moon they had seen rising over the mountain, so small, so far away, now, through this medium, swinging in space a great globe of light.

She herself was never tired of the marvel, nor of the long look through the huge telescope at the circling rim of the luminary,[Pg 205] broken with deep craters and wrapped in luminous mists.

The student, seeing her enthusiasm, dropped his alphabetic talk, and began telling of some juxtaposition of the stars they were watching.

"Would you care to see it?" he asked, as he commenced to swing the top of the great dome about and the telescope with it.

"You are not going to stay long?" questioned one of the young women.

"It's so cold, Frances, we'll wait in the other room by the fire."

Frances, deeply interested, scarcely knew when they were gone or how long she lingered; for there were other things to be shown eager eyes, writ in such entrancing language on the heavens, that the young man whose duty it was to keep watch of them was glad to show the manner of their writing.

When, half frozen, they hurried back to the working-room, they found a comfortable group waiting them. Mary Rowan and Edward Montague and one other man were huddled together about the stove. Further[Pg 206] away, apart, by one of the tables were Elizabeth Martin and Lawson. The lamp-light shone full on her face. She was looking up at him. It might have been coquetry that brought the expression Frances saw as she opened the door, but at least it was in response to something of language or look in the man who leaned over her. So much Frances told herself instantly. The thought sent a sickening feeling from head to foot. She reeled slightly; Montague, watching her, sprang to her assistance.

"How cold you are! You can hardly walk! Sit here!" as he pulled forward an easy chair. "Take off your wraps as soon as you are warm," he cautioned, "or you will not feel them when you go out."

Lawson, hearing the solicitous speech, frowned and turned so as he could see them; but he saw only a supple figure cuddled in the depths of a chair, the face turned from him. He came up to the fire. "It's beastly cold," he declared, "I don't see how you stood it so long."

Frances never lifted her lids. She was[Pg 207] absorbed in warming her icy, trembling fingers. Once and again he strove for a word with her, but she was coldly indifferent. At the side of the drag he took matters in his own hands. "You are going to drive down with me," he declared.

"No!" said Frances, coldly.

"But there is something I want to say to you; Miss Martin, Miss Frances is going to drive back on the seat with me." He was frightened, and anxious to make his peace; there was something he had just settled with Elizabeth, and she was frightened too.

"Of course," she assented quickly; "Mr. Montague, I am going back with you." She gave Frances no time for remonstrance, as she claimed Montague's help at once and sprang into the drag. The others were already seated. Frances must go as Lawson demanded, perforce. She was angered at the scene she had come upon and angered at being so managed.

The young man beside her found her simply and icily civil, and that the words he must say to her were most difficult to frame; but[Pg 208] well down the mountain-side, the rest talking gayly, he felt he must seize his chance. With his free hand he felt for hers under the buffalo robe, and found it. Frances did not withdraw it, nor was there a thrill of life or love in its touch.

He was manly enough to be quite open as to what he had to say. "I am going to Richmond to-morrow." The fingers quivered slightly; from the lips came no sound.

"Do you know how near Christmas it is?" he questioned.

Montague, behind him, caught the tone and clenched his fists, even while he was answering Elizabeth Martin's raillery.

"I am going to search the shops."

There was still no answer.

"I am going to see what the jewellers have—"

He left her to find out for herself what she had already divined. When she drove with her guests to the station next morning she found him waiting.

He took the same train.



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