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    Chapter 6

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    Chapter 6
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    Before she thus set matters right with Noble he had been unhappy and his condition had been bad; now he was happy, but his condition was worse. In truth, he was much, much too happy; nothing rational remained in his mind. No elfin orchestra seemed to buzz in his ears as he went down the street, but a loud, triumphing brass band. His unathletic chest was inflated; he heaved up with joy; and a little child, playing on the next corner, turned and followed him for some distance, trying to imitate his proud, singular walk. Restored to too much pride, Noble became also much too humane; he thought of Mr. Atwater's dream, and felt almost a motherly need to cherish and protect him, to be indeed his friend. There was a warm spot in Noble's chest, produced in part by a yearning toward that splendid old man. Noble had a good home, sixty-six dollars in the bank and a dollar and forty cents in his pockets; he would have given all for a chance to show Mr. Atwater how well he understood him now, at last, and how deeply he appreciated his favour.

    Students of alcoholic intoxication have observed that in their cups commonplace people, and not geniuses, do the most unusual things. So with all other intoxications. Noble Dill was indeed no genius, and some friend should have kept an eye upon him to-day; he was not himself. All afternoon in a mood of tropic sunrise he collected rents, or with glad vagueness consented instantly to their postponement. "I've come about the rent again," he said beamingly to one delinquent tenant of his father's best client; and turned and walked away, humming a waltz-song, while the man was still coughing as a preliminary to argument.

    Late in the afternoon, as the entranced collector sat musing alone near a window in his father's office, his exalted mood was not affected by the falling of a preternatural darkness over the town, nor was he roused to action by any perception of the fact that the other clerks and the members of the firm had gone home an hour ago; that the clock showed him his own duty to lock up the office and not keep his mother "waiting dinner"; and that he would be caught in a most outrageous thunderstorm if he didn't hurry. No; he sat, smiling fondly, by the open window, and at times made a fragmentary gesture as of some heroic or benevolent impulse in rehearsal.

    Meanwhile, paunchy with wind and wetness, unmannerly clouds came smoking out of the blackened west. Rumbling, they drew on. Then from cloud to cloud dizzy amazements of white fire staggered, crackled and boomed on to the assault; the doors of the winds were opened; the tanks of deluge were unbottomed; and the storm took the town. So, presently, Noble noticed that it was raining and decided to go home.

    With an idea that he was fulfilling his customary duties, he locked the doors of the two inner rooms, dropped the keys gently into a wastebasket, and passing by an umbrella which stood in a corner, went out to the corridor, and thence stepped into the street of whooping rain.

    Here he became so practical as to turn up his collar; and, substantially aided by the wind at his back, he was not long in leaving the purlieus of commerce behind him for Julia's Street. Other people lived on this street--he did, himself, for that matter; and, in fact, it was the longest street in the town; moreover, it had an official name with which the word "Julia" was entirely unconnected; but for Noble Dill (and probably for Newland Sanders and for some others in age from nineteen to sixty) it was "Julia's Street" and no other.

    It was a tumultuous street as Noble splashed along the sidewalk. Incredibly elastic, the shade-trees were practising calisthenics, though now and then one outdid itself and lost a branch; thunder and lightning romped like loosed scandal; rain hissed upon the pavement and capered ankle-high. It was a storm that asked to be left to itself for a time, after giving fair warning that the request would be made; and Noble and the only other pedestrian in sight had themselves to blame for getting caught.

    This other pedestrian was some forty or fifty yards in advance of Noble and moved in the same direction at about the same gait. He wore an old overcoat, running with water; the brim of his straw hat sagged about his head, so that he appeared to be wearing a bucket; he was a sodden and pathetic figure. Noble himself was as sodden; his hands were wet in his very pockets; his elbows seemed to spout; yet he spared a generous pity for the desolate figure struggling on before him.

    All at once Noble's heart did something queer within his wet bosom. He recognized that figure, and he was not mistaken. Except the One figure, and those of his own father and mother and three sisters, this was the shape that Noble would most infallibly recognize anywhere in the world and under any conditions. In spite of the dusk and the riot of the storm, Noble knew that none other than Mr. Atwater splashed before him.

    He dismissed a project for seizing upon a fallen branch and running forward to walk beside Mr. Atwater and hold the branch over his venerated head. All the branches were too wet; and Noble feared that Mr. Atwater might think the picture odd and decline to be thus protected. Yet he felt that something ought to be done to shelter Julia's father and perhaps save him from pneumonia; surely there was some simple, helpful, dashing thing that ordinary people couldn't think of, but that Noble could. He would do it and not stay to be thanked. And then, to-morrow evening, not sooner, he would go to Julia and smile and say; "Your father didn't get too wet, I hope, after all?" And Julia: "Oh, Noble, he's talked of you all day long as his 'new Sir Walter Raleigh'!"

    Suddenly will-o'-the-wisp opportunity flickered before him, and in his high mood he paused not at all to consider it, but insanely chased it. He had just reached a crossing, and down the cross street, walking away from Noble, was the dim figure of a man carrying an umbrella. It was just perceptible that he was a fat man, struggling with seeming feebleness in the wind and making poor progress. Mr. Atwater, moving up Julia's Street, was out of sight from the cross street where struggled the fat man.

    Noble ran swiftly down the cross street, jerked the umbrella from the fat man's grasp; ran back, with hoarse sounds dying out behind him in the riotous dusk; turned the corner, sped after Mr. Atwater, overtook him, and thrust the umbrella upon him. Then, not pausing the shortest instant for thanks or even recognition, the impulsive boy sped onward, proud and joyous in the storm, leaving his beneficiary far behind him.

    In his young enthusiasm he had indeed done something for Mr. Atwater. In fact, Noble's kindness had done as much for Mr. Atwater as Julia's gentleness had done for Noble, but how much both Julia and Noble had done was not revealed in full until the next evening.

    That was a warm and moonshiny night of air unusually dry, and yet Florence sneezed frequently as she sat upon the "side porch" at the house of her Great-Aunt Carrie and her Great-Uncle Joseph. Florence had a cold in the head, though how it got to her head was a process involved in the mysterious ways of colds, since Florence's was easily to be connected with Herbert's remark that he wouldn't ever be caught takin' his death o' cold sittin' on the damp grass in the night air just to listen to a lot o' tooty-tooty. It appeared from Florence's narrative to those interested listeners, Aunt Carrie and Uncle Joseph, that she had been sitting on the grass in the night air when both air and grass were extraordinarily damp. In brief, she had been at her post soon after the storm cleared on the preceding evening, but she had heard no tooty-tooty; her overhearings were of sterner stuff.

    "Well, what did Julia say then?" Aunt Carrie asked eagerly.

    "She said she'd go up and lock herself in her room and stuff cushions over her ears if grandpa didn't quit makin' such a fuss."

    "And what did he say?"

    "He made more rumpus than ever," said Florence. "He went on and on, and told the whole thing over and over again; he seemed like he couldn't tell it enough, and every time he told it his voice got higher and higher till it was kind of squealy. He said he'd had his raincoat on and he didn't want an umberella anyhow, and hadn't ever carried one a single time in fourteen years! And he took on about Noble Dill and all this and that about how you bet he knew who it was! He said he could tell Noble Dill in the dark any time by his cigarette smell, and, anyway, it wasn't too dark so's he couldn't see his skimpy little shoulders, and anyway he saw his face. And he said Noble didn't hand him the umberella; he stuck it all down over him like he was somep'n on fire he wanted to put out; and before he could get out of it and throw it away this ole fat man that it belonged to and was chasin' Noble, he ran up to grandpa from behind and took hold of him, or somep'n, and they slipped, and got to fussin' against each other; and then after a while they got up and grandpa saw it was somebody he knew and told him for Heaven's sake why didn't he take his ole umberella and go on home; and so he did, because it was raining, and I guess he proba'ly had to give up; he couldn't out-talk grandpa."

    "No," said Uncle Joe. "He couldn't, whoever he was. But what happened about Noble Dill?"

    Florence paused to accumulate and explode a sneeze, then responded pleasantly: "He said he was goin' to kill him. He said he often and often wanted to, and now he was. That's the reason I guess Aunt Julia wrote that note this morning."

    "What note?" Aunt Carrie inquired. "You haven't told us of that."

    "I was over there before noon," said Florence, "and Aunt Julia gave me a quarter and said she'd write a note for me to take to Noble Dill's house when he came home for lunch, and give it to him. She kind of slipped it to me, because grandpa came in there, pokin' around, while she was just finishin' writin' it. She didn't put any envelope on it even, and she never said a single thing to me about its bein' private or my not readin' it if I wanted to, or anything."

    "Of course you didn't," said Aunt Carrie. "You didn't, did you, Florence?"

    "Why, she didn't say not to," Florence protested, surprised. "It wasn't even in an envelope."

    Mr. Joseph Atwater coughed. "I hardly think we ought to ask what the note said, even if Florence was--well, indiscreet enough to read it."

    "No," said his wife. "I hardly think so either. It didn't say anything important anyhow, probably."

    "It began, 'Dear Noble,'" said Florence promptly. "Dear Noble'; that's the way it began. It said how grandpa was just all upset to think he'd accepted an umberella from him when Noble didn't have another one for himself like that, and grandpa was so embarrassed to think he'd let Noble do so much for him, and everything, he just didn't know what to do, and proba'ly it would be tactful if he wouldn't come to the house till grandpa got over being embarrassed and everything. She said not to come till she let him know."

    "Did you notice Noble when he read it?" asked Aunt Carrie.

    "Yessir! And would you believe it; he just looked too happy!" Florence made answer, not wholly comprehending with what truth.

    "I'll bet," said Uncle Joseph;--"I'll bet a thousand dollars that if Julia told Noble Dill he was six feet tall, Noble would go and order his next suit of clothes to fit a six-foot man."

    And his wife complemented this with a generalization, simple, yet of a significance too little recognized. "They don't see a thing!" she said. "The young men that buzz around a girl's house don't see a thing of what goes on there! Inside, I mean."

    Yet at that very moment a young man was seeing something inside a girl's house a little way down that same street. That same street was Julia's Street and the house was Julia's. Inside the house, in the library, sat Mr. Atwater, trying to read a work by Thomas Carlyle, while a rhythmic murmur came annoyingly from the veranda. The young man, watching him attentively, saw him lift his head and sniff the air with suspicion, but the watcher took this pantomime to be an expression of distaste for certain versifyings, and sharing that distaste, approved. Mr. Atwater sniffed again, threw down his book and strode out to the veranda. There sat dark-haired Julia in a silver dress, and near by, Newland Sanders read a long young poem from the manuscript.

    "Who is smoking out here?" Mr. Atwater inquired in a dead voice.

    "Nobody, sir," said Newland with eagerness. "I don't smoke. I have never touched tobacco in any form in my life."

    Mr. Atwater sniffed once more, found purity; and returned to the library. But here the air seemed faintly impregnated with Orduma cigarettes. "Curious!" he said as he composed himself once more to read--and presently the odour seemed to wear away and vanish. Mr. Atwater was relieved; the last thing he could have wished was to be haunted by Noble Dill.

    Yet for that while he was. Too honourable to follow such an example as Florence's, Noble, of course, would not spy or eavesdrop near the veranda where Julia sat, but he thought there could be no harm in watching Mr. Atwater read. Looking at Mr. Atwater was at least the next thing to looking at Julia. And so, out in the night, Noble was seated upon the top of the side fence, looking through the library window at Mr. Atwater.

    After a while Noble lit another Orduma cigarette and puffed strongly to start it. The smoke was almost invisible in the moonlight, but the night breeze, stirring gently, wafted it toward the house, where the open window made an inward draft and carried it heartily about the library.

    Noble was surprised to see Mr. Atwater rise suddenly to his feet. He smote his brow, put out the light, and stamped upstairs to his own room.

    His purpose to retire was understood when the watcher saw a light in the bedroom window overhead. Noble thought of the good, peculiar old man now disrobing there, and he smiled to himself at a whimsical thought: What form would Mr. Atwater's embarrassment take, what would be his feeling, and what would he do, if he knew that Noble was there now, beneath his window and thinking of him?

    In the moonlight Noble sat upon the fence, and smoked Orduma cigarettes, and looked up with affection at the bright window of Mr. Atwater's bedchamber. Abruptly the light in that window went out.

    "Saying his prayers now," said Noble. "I wonder if----" But, not to be vain, he laughed at himself and left the thought unfinished.
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