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    Chapter 5

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    Chapter 5
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    Although Noble had saluted the old couple so crossly, thus unconsciously making them, as he made the sidewalk, proxy for Mr. Atwater, so to speak, yet the sight of them penetrated his outer layers of preoccupation and had an effect upon him. In the midst of his suffering his imagination paused for a shudder: What miserable old gray shadows those two were! Thank Heaven he and Julia could never be like that! And in the haze that rose before his mind's eye he saw himself leading Julia through years of adventure in far parts of the world: there were glimpses of himself fighting grotesque figures on the edge of Himalayan precipices at dawn, while Julia knelt by the tent on the glacier and prayed for him. He saw head-waiters bowing him and Julia to tables in "strange, foreign cafes," and when they were seated, and he had ordered dishes that amazed her, he would say in a low voice: "Don't look now, but do you see that heavy-shouldered man with the insignia, sitting with that adventuress and those eight officers who are really his guards? Don't be alarmed, Julia, but I am here to get that man! Perhaps you remember what your father once said of me? Now, when what I have to do here is done, perhaps you may wish to write home and mention a few things to that old man!" And then a boy's changing voice seemed to sound again close by: "He said he just could stand the smell of some cigarettes, but if you burned any more o' yours on his porch----" And Noble came back miserably to town again.

    From an upper window of a new stucco house two maidens of nineteen peered down at him. The shade of a striped awning protected the window from the strong sun and the maidens from the sight of man--the latter protection being especially fortunate, since they were preparing to take a conversational afternoon nap, were robed with little substance, and their heads appeared to be antlered; for they caught sight of Noble just as they were preparing to put silk-and-lace things they called "caps" on their heads.

    "Who's that?" the visiting one asked.

    "It's Noble Dill; he's kind of one of the crowd."

    "Is he nice?"

    "Oh, sort of. Kind of shambles around."

    "Looks like last year's straw hat to me," the visiting one giggled.

    "Oh, he tries to dress--lately, that is--but he never did know how."

    "Looks mad about something."

    "Yes. He's one of the ones in love with that Julia Atwater I told you about."

    "Has he got any chance with her?"

    "Noble Dill? Mercy!"

    "Is he much in love with her?"

    "'Much'? Murder!"

    The visiting one turned from the window and yawned. "Come on: let's lie down and talk about some of the nice ones!"

    The second house beyond this was--it was the house of Julia!

    And what a glamour of summer light lay upon it because it was the house of Julia! The texture of the sunshine came under a spell here; glowing flakes of amber were afloat; a powder of opals and rubies fell silently adrizzle through the trees. The very air changed, beating faintly with a fairy music, for breathing it was breathing sorcery: elfin symphonies went tinkling through it. The grass in the next yard to Julia's was just grass, but every blade of grass in her yard was cut of jewels.

    Julia's house was also the house of that person who through some ungovernable horseplay of destiny happened to be her father: and this gave the enchanted spot a background of lurking cyclone--no one could tell at what instant there might rise above the roseate pleasance a funnel-shaped cloud. With young Herbert's injurious narrative fresh in his mind, Noble quickened his steps; but as he reached the farther fence post, marking the southward limit of Mr. Atwater's property, he halted short, startled beautifully. Through the open front door, just passed, a voice had called his name; a voice of such arresting sweetness that his breath stopped, like his feet.

    "Oh, Noble!" it called again.

    He turned back, and any one who might have seen his face then would have known what was the matter with him, and must have been only the more sure of it because his mouth was open. The next instant the adequate reason for his disorder came lightly through the open door and down to the gate.

    Julia was kind, much too kind! She had heard that her Aunt Harriet and her Uncle Joe were frequently describing Mr. Atwater's most recent explosion to other members of the extensive Atwater family league; and though she had not discovered how Aunt Harriet and Uncle Joe had obtained their material, yet, in Julia's way of wording her thoughts, an account of the episode was "all over town," and she was almost certain that by this time Noble Dill had heard it. And so, lest he should suffer, the too-gentle creature seized the first opportunity to cheer him up. That was the most harmful thing about Julia; when anybody liked her--even Noble Dill--she couldn't bear to have him worried. She was the sympathetic princess who wouldn't have her puppy's tail chopped off all at once, but only a little at a time.

    "I just happened to see you going by," she said, and then, with an astounding perfection of seriousness, she added the question: "Did you mind my calling to you and stopping you, Noble?"

    He leaned, drooping, upon the gatepost, seeming to yearn toward it; his expression was such that this gatepost need not have been surprised if Noble had knelt to it.

    "Why, no," he said hoarsely. "No, I don't have to be back at the office any particular time. No."

    "I just wanted to ask you----" She hesitated. "Well, it really doesn't amount to anything--it's nothing so important I couldn't have spoken to you about it some other time."

    "Well," said Noble, and then on the spur of the moment he continued darkly: "There might not be any other time."

    "How do you mean, Noble?"

    He smiled faintly. "I'm thinking of going away." This was true; nevertheless, it was the first time he had thought of it. "Going away," he repeated in a murmur. "From this old town."

    A shadowy, sweet reproach came upon Julia's eyes. "You mean--for good, Noble?" she asked in a low voice, although no one knew better than she what trouble such performances often cost her, later. "Noble, you don't mean----"

    He made a vocal sound conveying recklessness, something resembling a reckless laugh. "I might go--any day! Just as it happens to strike me."

    "But where to, Noble?"

    "I don't----Well, maybe to China."

    "China!" she cried in amazement. "Why, Noble Dill!"

    "There's lots of openings in China," he said. "A white man can get a commission in the Chinese army any day."

    "And so," she said, "you mean you'd rather be an officer in the Chinese army than stay--here?" With that, she bit her lip and averted her face for an instant, then turned to him again, quite calm. Julia could not help doing these things; she was born that way, and no punishment changed her.

    "Julia----" the dazzled Noble began, but he stopped with this beginning, his voice seeming to have exhausted itself upon the name.

    "When do you think you'll start?" she asked.

    His voice returned. "I don't know just when," he said; and he began to feel a little too much committed to this sudden plan of departure, and to wonder how it had come about. "I--I haven't set any day--exactly."

    "Have you talked it over with your mother yet, Noble?"

    "Not yet--exactly," he said, and was conscious of a distaste for China as something unpleasant and imminent. "I thought I'd wait till--till it was certain I would go."

    "When will that be, Noble?" And in spite of herself, Julia spoke in the tone of one who controls herself to ask in calmness: "Is my name on the list for the guillotine?"

    "Well," he said, "it'll be as soon as I've made up my mind to go. I probably won't go before then; not till I've made up my mind to."

    "But you might do that any day, mightn't you?"

    Noble began to feel relieved; he seemed to have hit upon a way out. "Yes; and then I'd be gone," he said firmly. "But probably I wouldn't go at all unless I decided to." This seemed to save him from China, and he added recklessly: "I guess I wouldn't be missed much around this old town if I did go."

    "Yes, you would," Julia said quickly. "Your family'd miss you--and so would everybody."

    "Julia, you wouldn't----"

    She laughed lightly. "Of course I should, and so would papa."

    Noble released the gatepost and appeared to slant backward. "What?"

    "Papa was talking about you this very morning at breakfast," she said; and she spoke the truth. "He said he dreamed about you last night."

    "He did?"

    Julia nodded sunnily. "He dreamed that you and he were the very greatest friends!" This also was true, so far as it went; she only omitted to state that Mr. Atwater had gone on to classify his dream as a nightmare. "There!" she cried. "Why, of course he'd miss you--he'd miss you as much as he'd miss any friend of mine that comes here."

    Noble felt a sudden rush of tenderness toward Mr. Atwater; it is always possible to misjudge a man for a few hasty words. And Julia went on quickly:

    "I never saw anybody like you, Noble Dill!" she exclaimed. "I don't suppose there's anybody in the United States except you that would be capable of doing things like going off to be an officer in the Chinese army--all just any minute like this. I've always declared you were about the most reckless man I know!"

    Noble shook his head. "No," he said judicially. "I'm not reckless; it's just that I don't care what happens."

    Julia became grave. "Don't you?"

    "To me," he said hurriedly. "I mean I don't care what happens to myself. I mean that's more the way I am than just reckless."

    She was content to let his analysis stand, though she shook her head, as if knowing herself to be wiser than he about his recklessness. A cheerfulness came upon them; and the Chinese question seemed to have been settled by these indirect processes;--in fact, neither of them ever mentioned it again. "I mustn't keep you," she said, "especially when you ought to be getting on downtown to business, but----Oh!" She gave the little cry of a forgetful person reminded. "I almost forgot what I ran out to ask you!"

    "What was it, Julia?" Noble spoke huskily, in a low voice. "What is it you want me to do, Julia?"

    She gave a little fluttering laugh, half timid, half confiding. "You know how funny papa is about tobacco smoke?" (But she hurried on without waiting for an answer.) "Well, he is. He's the funniest old thing; he doesn't like any kind very much except his own special cheroot things. He growls about every other kind, but the cigars Mr. Ridgely smokes when he comes here, papa really does make a fuss over! And, you see, I don't like to say 'No' when Mr. Ridgely asks if he can smoke, because it always makes men so uncomfortable if they can't when they're sitting on a veranda, so I wondered if I could just tactfully get him to buy something different from his cigars?--and I thought the best thing would be to suggest those cigarettes you always have, Noble. They're the ones papa makes the least fuss about and seems to stand the best--next to his own, he seems to like them the most, I mean--but I'd forgotten the name of them. That's what I ran out to ask you."

    "Orduma," said Noble. "Orduma Egyptian Cigarettes."

    "Would you mind giving me one--just to show Mr. Ridgely?"

    Noble gave her an Orduma cigarette.

    "Oh, thank you!" she said gratefully. "I mustn't keep you another minute, because I know your father wouldn't know what to do at the office without you! Thank you so much for this!" She turned and walked quickly halfway up the path, then paused, looking back over her shoulder. "I'll only show it to him, Noble," she said. "I won't give it to him!"

    She bit her lip as if she had said more than she should have; shook her head as in self-chiding; then laughed, and in a flash touched the tiny white cylinder to her lips, waved it to him;--then ran to the veranda and up the steps and into the house. She felt satisfied that she had set matters right, this kind Julia!
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