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Chapter 20
Susan, as she told her troubles for another's healing, thought of them as past and gone. There was a fresh sorrow at her door. She asked for an afternoon's holiday, got it, and went away. She came back, ashy and shaken.

"Marse Robert," she told him, soon as he and Frances came in the hall door, "Ise gwine leab yuh."

They stood too astonished for speech.

"Ise gwine leab yuh!" The old woman steadied herself against the frame of the library door. "Bill—he's come back!"

"He has!" said the professor testily.

"An' he's sick, an' he's got no home."

"And you feel yourself called on to take care of him?"

"Who else gwine do it? Ise gwine tek him home!"

[Pg 251]

"Out there!" exclaimed Frances, in dismay, and then she asked practically. "What's the matter with him?"

"De Lawd only knows! He's jes' all crippled up, an' his— Lawd! Lawd!" The old woman broke into loud sobbing.

"Now, Susan!" comforted Frances, "don't worry; of course you want to go, and you shall."

"I done sont word to Roxie to come hyar an' cook fur you."

"I'm glad of that!" said the professor. He had little sympathy with the prodigal who only came back to be a care.

"I'll carry you both out to-morrow," declared Frances, "but don't you think you ought to go and warm the place up and get everything comfortable?"

"He ain't so bad as he was," said Susan meekly, "he been in de horsepittle a month, he said."

"And now they have discharged him, he's come down here on you!"

"Marse Robert, he said—" She stopped, knowing the flimsiness of Bill's excuses,[Pg 252] "He's de onliest chile Ise got," she added sullenly.

"All right! all right." The professor took off his hat and coat and hung them up carefully.

"I specs yuh thinks ernough o' yours!" blazed the old woman.

"There, father!" Frances laughed as she slipped her hand through his arm, "you haven't a word to say!"

The professor was cornered. "That's so!" he acknowledged, as he looked proudly at Frances' bright cheeks and eyes—not so careless as he had seen their glances, but with a sweeter thoughtfulness looking out of their dark, gray depths.

"Well, Susan, you'll come back some day, I suppose?"

"Soon as he gits well!"

"Then, if there's anything you need—"

Frances looked back over her shoulder and laughed. She had already begun to say, "Susan, you must take sheets and blankets—"

"I got plenty dyar."

"But they must be damp and musty."

[Pg 253]

"Bill says 'twas de rhumatiz," put in his mother.

"And take what you need right away out of the pantry."

"Miss Frances, if yuh'll jes' go into town an' buy me some things, Ise got plenty o' money, Marse Robert so good to me, an' he pays me my wages steady; Ise jis' been savin' 'em up. Here's ten dollars now." She felt in the folds of her turban and brought out the bill.

Frances' hands were full for many days; she had to take the old woman and Bill out to the cabin, to help straighten it, and air it, and stock it with provisions, to go out day by day at first, and then whenever she could; and to straighten out household affairs with Roxie at the helm.

"How dat Roxie doing?" asked Susan anxiously on one of Frances' visits.

Frances hesitated. "Fairly well!" she answered doubtfully.

"H'm! Ise glad I taught yuh to cook."

"So am I!" declared Frances devoutly, remembering some of her late experiences.

[Pg 254]

"Don't yuh let her gib Marse Robert sech po' vittels he'll git sick!"

"One pet at a time, Susan, is enough," teased Frances with a glance through the opened cabin door at Bill warming his "rhumatiz" limbs before a glowing fire and looking the picture of lazy comfort.

Susan turned away discomfited, but only for an instant. "Hi-yi!" she cried, "who's dat comin' down de lane? 'Fore de Lawd if 'tain't Marse Edward. I 'clar'," she went on, watching Frances' reddening cheek with satisfaction, "he suttinly has been good to us. We's been hyar nigh 'pon fo' weeks, an' ebery now an' den— Mornin', Marse Edward."

Frances walked quickly down the narrow pathway to where Starlight was fastened to the fence.

"Yuh needn't be in sech a hurry!" grumbled Susan.

"Wait!" called young Montague, who had seen the man?uvre. "I'm going into town for my mail!" he declared, soon as he flung himself from the horse; "don't you want to[Pg 255] ride Lady? Here, Susan, I shot this, this morning; you can make Bill his rabbit stew now!"

"La, Marse Edward, Bill suttinly will be glad."

"How is he? You will wait a moment?" he hurried into the cabin and out again. The valley below lay bathed in misty sunshine, the green of the grass by the stream and the red tips of the branches on bordering willow and shrub showed where the February sun shone longest and strongest. To young Montague, valley and hazy mountain peaks and the hillside cabin were a fair winter's scene, and the girl waiting there by the gray weather-worn fence was the heart of it.

"I will be ready in a moment," he declared, as with deft fingers he unbuckled the saddle-girth from his horse.

"Is there anything else Bill would like?" he questioned, as he fastened Starlight's saddle on his own horse.

Susan hesitated for a moment.

"Any game?"

[Pg 256]

"Bill, he did say," the old woman answered hesitatingly, "as how he was honing for a 'possum. Dey ain't good much now."

"But a 'possum he shall have. Are you ready?" to Frances.

He held his hand and tossed her into the saddle. "Good-by!" Frances called. "I'll be out again soon. Good-by!"

The old darkey stood watching them. "Lawd, if eber two folks was made fer one 'nother," she said to herself, "dyar dey is; Miss Frances she's jis' naturally born to rule some man in dat sassy, sweet way she got, an' Marse Edward he look lak he suttinly would lak to be dat man; but Miss Frances," the old darkey shook her head, "I don't know 'bout her, dat I don't."

Miss Frances was putting Lady through her paces, despite red clay and mire and shallow pools where the water yet stood. Heavy black clouds were shouldering above the mountain peaks; the wind was from the east and stung sharply against their faces.

"It's going to rain," declared Frances, anxiously.

[Pg 257]

"Oh, not to-day." Montague was seeing nothing of brown sodden fields or long stretch of red road; he was wondering, wondering if he dared translate to speech the wild beatings of his heart.

But the swift ride and Frances' gay speeches gave him little chance; the cloud, forming long out of sight and coming up with ominous swiftness, made fast riding imperative; the red clay splashed them from head to foot; the wind, strong and damp and chill, whipped the loosened tendrils of Frances' hair about her face and billowed her short riding-skirt. Before they reached town the first drops were falling.

"We had better ride straight to the stables," Frances suggested.

"No, I'll send up for Lady at once. I'm going for my mail."

"Then you'd better go that way; I'll take this road." Frances bent above the saddle; the rain was lashing her face.

When Montague reached the University the rain had become a steady downpour. Frances had to leave him to entertain [Pg 258]himself while she straightened the household affairs, which Roxie had tangled in her absence. The professor, coming in, was delighted to find him in the library.

"I declare," he said, "I was just wishing you were here. There are some things I want to ask you about, and I have a leisure afternoon. We can go down town after dinner."

"In this storm?" protested Frances, who had just come in through the dining-room door.

"Pooh! What does that matter? Edward is too good a countryman for that."

Truth was, the professor was intent on investing money in a new stock company forming in town for putting up an ice plant; and as he had been bitten once or twice, and as he had a good opinion of Montague's shrewd business judgment and enjoyed also the companionship with him, he had been hoping for some such chance. They were off soon as the meal was over. From office to bank, from investor to stock floater they went. Once in town the weather did not[Pg 259] matter; but coming back on the long walk from the cars across the grounds, the storm struck them squarely, lashed and drenched them. At his door the professor drew a long breath. "Pretty severe," he declared. "Edward, you'd better stay in to-night. Telephone to the stables about your horse, and stay. We'll take care of you gladly enough."

The wind and rain lashing along the corridor and across the quadrangle argued with him.

"I scarcely know," said Montague slowly, as they thankfully closed the door behind them.

Frances, coming down the stairway, heard. There was a line of anxiety on her forehead. "I have been thinking of Susan," she began, as she reached the last stair.

"She's safe enough."

"But it's so dreary, and the wind and rain are beating so furiously."

"Just look at us! Edward, I'd offer you a suit, only—" The older man measured the younger's height with a laughing glance.

[Pg 260]

"No matter," Montague assured him, "and as for Susan," to Frances, "you need not be uneasy. The cabin looked comfortable enough to-day, and it has weathered many storms."

Frances' real fear was of the stream at the foot of the hill that must be a raging torrent now, of the narrow bridge, and the tale her father had told her that moonlit night as she drove across.

"This is one of the most dangerous places in the country," he had said; "Mason was drowned here; he rode into town one day, and a heavy storm came up. When he rode back at dusk he saw the water out and ventured on. He was swept away. Miss Marion too; she would have gotten over safely, but she mistook the bridge;" and Frances, shivering at his side, had begged him to hush. Now she seemed to hear it over and over again, through the howling of the wind and the lashing of the rain.

"You will not venture home to-night?" she asked young Montague anxiously.

Edward, looking into her eyes, dark and[Pg 261] grave and troubled as they were, lost his head. "Not if you say so," he began unsteadily. Frances, startled at his tone, and the sudden flashing light of his blue eyes, shrank back.

"If you say—" he began again.

"Come into the fire, man; don't stay out there in the cold, wet as you are." The professor's knees were already smoking before the hot coals.

He had lost his opportunity; but slow to decide and swift to act, once the decision was made, he resolved to find it once more—to make it if necessary. He made it. In the evening Frances pushed back her chair. "I must go and see Roxie about breakfast," she said reluctantly. The group about the fireside, the fire, the bright lights, while the storm beat without, were very attractive.

Edward rose too. "I wanted to ask you," he began as he walked across the room and held aside the portière, letting it fall behind them, and closing the door likewise, "I wanted to ask you," as if it were an [Pg 262]everyday matter at first, but then his tone suddenly changed, "to marry me!"

A ripple of laughter, half hysterical, broke from Frances' lips. She had expected a question of his domestic affairs. It was, but not of the kind she thought. She steadied herself against the dining-table. "I thought you wanted—"

"I want your—self," he insisted.

The crucial winter days had taught Frances a bitter humility and distrust of herself. Her lip trembled. "I am not worth giving."

"You will trust me to decide," coming a step nearer, a light of hope in his face, and then, seeing that her own nervous fear was greater than his, he took his reticence in both hands.

"I love you," he said very low, for remembrance of that other who might be auditor. "You know it!" She shook her head. "You should! I think I have loved you from that moment when I held you." Unconscious of the gesture, he held out his arms and looked down upon his breast. Frances, remembering how she had been sheltered, saved there,[Pg 263] felt the hot tears stinging under her drooping lids.

"Don't think of me," she pleaded, none the less wildly for her whispering, "don't think of it. I—I will be—"

"Don't talk of friendship! Don't dare! I'll never be your friend!"

Frances shrank back, hurt, affrighted.

He came closer to her, leaned over, his eyes searching her face. "Because I shall always love you, always, and I'll never give you up either. Never! I shall always hope, strive for you, unless," he added brokenly, "the day comes when you marry some other man. But," he pleaded, "you will not, you will not." He slipped his hand over hers where it rested on the table, "And I love you, will love you always!" He waited a second in silence, straightened himself, and, though he was deathly white, smiled at her. Then he turned on his heel and went softly out of the room.

Before Frances could waken Roxie, asleep before the kitchen fire, she heard the outer door slam. She ran out into the hall. Her[Pg 264] father stood there, anxious perplexity in his face.

"Edward has gone!" he cried in dismay.

"Gone! Father, why did you let him? Why didn't you make him stay?"

"He didn't give me a chance"—the professor was thoroughly provoked—"just said he was going! Listen!" as door and window rattled in a great gust and they could hear the rain lashing across the quadrangle and beating on corridor and house-top.

Frances could find no word to say of the horror and fear which possessed her, remembering all the way he would go through the storm homewards, the desolate road and wind-whipped, bleak fields and woods, and, down there between the hills, the narrow valley, torrent-riven.



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