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    Chapter 18

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    Chapter 18
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    They went satirically down the street, their chumminess with one another bountifully increased by their common derision of the outsider on the porch; and even at a distance they still contrived to make themselves intolerable; looking back over their shoulders, at intervals, with say-not-so expressions on their faces. Even when these faces were far enough away to be but yellowish oval planes, their say-not-so expressions were still bitingly eloquent.

    Now a northern breeze chilled the air, as the hateful three became indistinguishable in the haze of autumn dusk, whereupon Florence stopped swinging her foot, left the railing, and went morosely into the house. And here it was her fortune to make two discoveries vital to her present career; the first arising out of a conversation between her father and mother in the library, where a gossipy fire of soft coal encouraged this proper Sunday afternoon entertainment for man and wife.

    "Sit down and rest, Florence," said her mother. "I'm afraid you play too hard when Patty and the boys are here. Do sit down quietly and rest yourself a little while." And as Florence obeyed, Mrs. Atwater turned to her husband, resuming: "Well, that's what I said. I told Aunt Carrie I thought the same way about it that you did. Of course nobody ever knows what Julia's going to do next, and nobody needs to be surprised at anything she does do. Ever since she came home from school, about four-fifths of all the young men in town have been wild about her--and so's every old bachelor, for the matter of that!"

    "Yes," Mr. Atwater added. "And every old widower, too."

    His wife warmly accepted the amendment. "And every old widower, too," she said, nodding. "Rather! And of course Julia's just done exactly as she pleased about everything, and naturally she's going to do as she pleases about this."

    "Well, of course it's her own affair, Mollie," Mr. Atwater said mildly. "She couldn't be expected to consult the whole Atwater family connection before she----"

    "Oh, no," she agreed. "I don't say she could. Still, it is rather upsetting, coming so suddenly like this, when not one of the family has ever seen him--never even heard his very name before."

    "Well, that part of it isn't especially strange, Mollie. He was born and brought up in a town three hundred miles from here. I don't see just how we could have heard his name unless he visited here or got into the papers in some way."

    Mrs. Atwater seemed unwilling to yield a mysterious point. She rocked decorously in her rocking-chair, shook her head, and after setting her lips rigidly, opened them to insist that she could never change her mind: Julia had acted very abruptly. "Why couldn't she have let her poor father know at least a few days before she did?"

    Mr. Atwater sighed. "Why, she explains in her letter that she only knew it, herself, an hour before she wrote."

    "Her poor father!" his wife repeated commiseratingly.

    "Why, Mollie, I don't see how father's especially to be pitied."

    "Don't you?" said Mrs. Atwater. "That old man, to have to live in that big house all alone, except a few negro servants?"

    "Why, no! About half the houses in the neighbourhood, up and down the street, are fully occupied by close relatives of his: I doubt if he'll be really as lonely as he'd like to be. And he's often said he'd give a great deal if Julia had been a plain, unpopular girl. I'm strongly of the opinion, myself, that he'll be pleased about this. Of course it may upset him a little at first."

    "Yes; I think it will!" Mrs. Atwater shook her head forebodingly. "And he isn't the only one it's going to upset."

    "No, he isn't," her husband admitted seriously. "That's always been the trouble with Julia; she never could bear to seem disappointing; and so, of course, I suppose every one of 'em has a special idea that he's really about the top of the list with her."

    "Every last one of 'em is positive of it," said Mrs. Atwater. "That was Julia's way with 'em!"

    "Yes, Julia's always been much too kind-hearted for other people's good." Thus Mr. Atwater summed up Julia; and he was her brother. Additionally, since he was the older, he had known her since her birth.

    "If you ask me," said his wife, "I'll really be surprised if it all goes through without a suicide."

    "Oh, not quite suicide, perhaps," Mr. Atwater protested. "I'm glad it's a fairly dry town though."

    She failed to fathom his simple meaning. "Why?"

    "Well, some of 'em might feel that desperate at least," he explained. "Prohibition's a safeguard for the disappointed in love."

    This phrase and a previous one stirred Florence, who had been sitting quietly, according to request, and "resting", but not resting her curiosity. "Who's disappointed in love, papa?" she inquired with an explosive eagerness that slightly startled her preoccupied parents. "What is all this about Aunt Julia, and grandpa goin' to live alone, and people committing suicide and prohibition and everything? What is all this, mamma?"

    "Nothing, Florence."

    "Nothing! That's what you always say about the very most inter'sting things that happen in the whole family! What is all this, papa?"

    "It's nothing that would be interesting to little girls, Florence. Merely some family matters."

    "My goodness!" Florence exclaimed. "I'm not a 'little girl' any more, papa! You're always forgetting my age! And if it's a family matter I belong to the family, I guess, about as much as anybody else, don't I? Grandpa himself isn't any more one of the family than I am, I don't care how old he is!"

    This was undeniable, and her father laughed. "It's really nothing you'd care about one way or the other," he said.

    "Well, I'd care about it if it's a secret," Florence insisted. "If it's a secret I'd want to know it, whatever it's about."

    "Oh, it isn't a secret, particularly, I suppose. At least, it's not to be made public for a time; it's only to be known in the family."

    "Well, didn't I just prove I'm as much one o' the family as----"

    "Never mind," her father said soothingly. "I don't suppose there's any harm in your knowing it--if you won't go telling everybody. Your Aunt Julia has just written us that she's engaged."

    Mrs. Atwater uttered an exclamation, but she was too late to check him.

    "I'm afraid you oughtn't to have told Florence. She isn't just the most discreet----"

    "Pshaw!" he laughed. "She certainly is 'one of the family', however, and Julia wrote that all of the family might be told. You'll not speak of it outside the family, will you, Florence?"

    But Florence was not yet able to speak of it, even inside the family; so surprising, sometimes, are parents' theories of what will not interest their children. She sat staring, her mouth open, and in the uncertain illumination of the room these symptoms of her emotional condition went unobserved.

    "I say, you won't speak of Julia's engagement outside the family, will you, Florence?"

    "Papa!" she gasped. "Did Aunt Julia write she was engaged?"

    "Yes."

    "To get married?"

    "It would seem so."

    "To who?"

    "'To whom,' Florence," her mother suggested primly.

    "Mamma!" the daughter cried. "Who's Aunt Julia engaged to get married to? Noble Dill?"

    "Good gracious, no!" Mrs. Atwater exclaimed. "What an absurd idea! It's to a young man in the place she's visiting--a stranger to all of us. Julia only met him a few weeks ago." Here she forgot Florence, and turned again to her husband, wearing her former expression of experienced foreboding.

    "It's just as I said. It's exactly like Julia to do such a reckless thing!"

    "But as we don't know anything at all about the young man," he remonstrated, "how do you know it's reckless?"

    "How do you know he's young?" Mrs. Atwater retorted crisply. "All in the world she said about him was that he's a lawyer. He may be a widower, for all we know, or divorced, with seven or eight children."

    "Oh, no, Mollie!"

    "Why, he might!" she insisted. "For all we know, he may be a widower for the third or fourth time, or divorced, with any number of children! If such a person proposed to Julia, you know yourself she'd hate to be disappointing!"

    Her husband laughed. "I don't think she'd go so far as to actually accept 'such a person' and write home to announce her engagement to the family. I suppose most of her swains here have been in the habit of proposing to her just as frequently as she was unable to prevent them from going that far; and while I don't think she's been as discouraging with them as she might have been, she's never really accepted any of 'em. She's never been engaged before."

    "No," Mrs. Atwater admitted. "Not to this extent! She's never quite announced it to the family before, that is."

    "Yes; I'd hate to have Julia's job when she comes back!" Julia's brother admitted ruefully.

    "What job?"

    "Breaking it to her admirers."

    "Oh, she isn't going to do that!"

    "She'll have to, now," he said. "She'll either have to write the news to 'em, or else tell 'em, face to face, when she comes home."

    "She won't do either."

    "Why, how could she get out of it?"

    His wife smiled pityingly. "She hasn't set a time for coming home, has she? Don't you know enough of Julia's ways to see she'll never in the world stand up to the music? She writes that all the family can be told, because she knows the news will leak out, here and there, in confidence, little by little, so by the time she gets home they'll all have been through their first spasms, and after that she hopes they'll just send her some forgiving flowers and greet her with manly hand-clasps--and get ready to usher at the wedding!"

    "Well," said Mr. Atwater, "I'm afraid you're right. It does seem rather like Julia to stay away till the first of the worst is over. I'm really sorry for some of 'em. I suppose it will get whispered about, and they'll hear it; and there are some of the poor things that might take it pretty hard."

    "'Take it pretty hard!'" his wife echoed loudly. "There's one of 'em, at least, who'll just merely lose his reason!"

    "Which one?"

    "Noble Dill."

    At this, the slender form of Florence underwent a spasmodic seizure in her chair, but as the fit was short and also noiseless, it passed without being noticed.

    "Yes," said Mr. Atwater thoughtfully. "I suppose he will."

    "He certainly will!" Mrs. Atwater declared. "Noble's mother told me last week that he'd got so he was just as liable to drop a fountain-pen in his coffee as a lump of sugar; and when any one speaks to him he either doesn't know it, or else jumps. When he says anything, himself, she says they can scarcely ever make out what he's talking about. He was trying enough before Julia went away; but since she's been gone Mrs. Dill says he's like nothing in her experience. She says he doesn't inherit it; Mr. Dill wasn't anything like this about her."

    Mr. Atwater smiled faintly. "Mrs. Dill wasn't anything like Julia."

    "No," said his wife. "She was quite a sensible girl. I'd hate to be in her place now, though, when she tells Noble about this."

    "How can Mrs. Dill tell him, since she doesn't know it herself?"

    "Well--perhaps she ought to know it, so that she could tell him. Somebody ought to tell him, and it ought to be done with the greatest tact. It ought to be broken to him with the most delicate care and sympathy, or the consequences----"

    "Nobody could foretell the consequences," her husband interrupted:--"no matter how tactfully it's broken to Noble."

    "No," she said, "I suppose that's true. I think the poor thing's likely to lose his reason unless it is done tactfully, though."

    "Do you think we really ought to tell Mrs. Dill, Mollie? I mean, seriously: Do you?"

    For some moments she considered his question, then replied, "No. It's possible we'd be following a Christian course in doing it; but still we're rather bound not to speak of it outside the family, and when it does get outside the family I think we'd better not be the ones responsible--especially since it might easily be traced to us. I think it's usually better to keep out of things when there's any doubt."

    "Yes," he said, meditating. "I never knew any harm to come of people's sticking to their own affairs."

    But as he and his wife became silent for a time, musing in the firelight, their daughter's special convictions were far from coinciding with theirs, although she, likewise, was silent--a singularity they should have observed. So far were they from a true comprehension of her, they were unaware that she had more than a casual, young-cousinly interest in Julia Atwater's engagement and in those possible consequences to Noble Dill just sketched with some intentional exaggeration. They did not even notice her expression when Mr. Atwater snapped on the light, in order to read; and she went quietly out of the library and up the stairs to her own room.

    * * * * * * *

    On the floor, near her bed, where Patty Fairchild had left her coat and hat, Florence made another discovery. Two small, folded slips of paper lay there, dropped by Miss Fairchild when she put on her coat in the darkening room. They were the replies to Patty's whispered questions in the game on the steps--the pledged Truth, written by Henry Rooter and Herbert Atwater on their sacred words and honours. The infatuated pair had either overestimated Patty's caution, or else each had thought she would so prize his little missive that she would treasure it in a tender safety, perhaps pinned upon her blouse (at the first opportunity) over her heart. It is positively safe to say that neither of the two veracities would ever have been set upon paper had Herbert and Henry any foreshadowing that Patty might be careless; and the partners would have been seized with the utmost horror could they have conceived the possibility of their trustful messages ever falling into the hands of the relentless creature who now, without an instant's honourable hesitation, unfolded and read them.

    "Yes if I got to tell the truth I know I have got pretty eyes," Herbert had unfortunately written. "I am glad you think so too Patty because your eyes are too Herbert Illingsworth Atwater, Jr."

    And Mr. Henry Rooter had likewise ruined himself in a coincidental manner:

    "Well Patty my eyes are pretty but suppose I would like to trade with yours because you have beautiful eyes also, sure as my name is Henry Rooter."

    Florence stood close to the pink-shaded electric drop-light over her small white dressing-table, reading again and again these pathetically honest little confidences. Her eyelids were withdrawn to an unprecedented retirement, so remarkably she stared; while her mouth seemed to prepare itself for the attempted reception of a bulk beyond its capacity. And these plastic tokens, so immoderate as to be ordinarily the consequence of nothing short of horror, were overlaid by others, subtler and more gleaming, which wrought the true significance of the contortion--a joy that was dumfounding.

    Her thoughts were first of Fortune's kindness in selecting her for a favour so miraculously dovetailing into the precise need of her life; then she considered Henry and Herbert, each at this hour probably brushing his hair in preparation for the Sunday evening meal, and both touchingly unconscious of the calamity now befalling them; but what eventually engrossed her mind was a thought about Wallie Torbin.

    This Master Torbin, fourteen years of age, was in all the town the boy most dreaded by his fellow-boys, and also by girls, including many of both sexes who knew him only by sight--and hearing. He had no physical endowment or attainment worth mention; but boys who could "whip him with one hand" became sycophants in his presence; the terror he inspired was moral. He had a special over-development of a faculty exercised clumsily enough by most human beings, especially in their youth; in other words, he had a genius--not, however, a genius having to do with anything generally recognized as art or science. True, if he had been a violinist prodigy or mathematical prodigy, he would have had some respect from his fellows--about equal to that he might have received if he were gifted with some pleasant deformity, such as six toes on a foot--but he would never have enjoyed such deadly prestige as had actually come to be his. In brief, then, Wallie Torbin had a genius for mockery.

    Almost from his babyhood he had been a child of one purpose: to increase by burlesques the sufferings of unfortunate friends. If one of them wept, Wallie incessantly pursued him, yelping in horrid mimicry; if one were chastised he could not appear out-of-doors for days except to encounter Wallie and a complete rehearsal of the recent agony. "Quit, Papa! Pah-puh, quee-yet! I'll never do it again, Pah-puh! Oh, lemme alone, Pah-puh!"

    As he grew older, his insatiate curiosity enabled him to expose unnumbered weaknesses, indiscretions, and social misfortunes on the part of acquaintances and schoolmates; and to every exposure his noise and energy gave a hideous publicity: the more his victim sought privacy the more persistently he was followed by Wallie, vociferous and attended by hilarious spectators. But above all other things, what most stimulated the demoniac boy to prodigies of satire was a tender episode or any symptom connected with the dawn of love. Florence herself had suffered at intervals throughout her eleventh summer because Wallie discovered that Georgie Beck had sent her a valentine; and the humorist's many, many squealings of that valentine's affectionate quatrain finally left her unable to decide which she hated the more, Wallie or Georgie. That was the worst of Wallie: he never "let up"; and in Florence's circle there was no more sobering threat than, "I'll tell Wallie Torbin!" As for Henry Rooter and Herbert Illingsworth Atwater, Jr., they would as soon have had a Head-hunter on their trail as Wallie Torbin in the possession of anything that could incriminate them in an implication of love--or an acknowledgment (in their own handwriting!) of their own beauty.

    The fabric of civilized life is interwoven with blackmail: even some of the noblest people do favours for other people who are depended upon not to tell somebody something that the noblest people have done. Blackmail is born into us all, and our nurses teach us more blackmail by threatening to tell our parents if we won't do this and that--and our parents threaten to tell the doctor--and so we learn! Blackmail is part of the daily life of a child. Displeased, his first resort to get his way with other children is a threat to "tell," but by-and-by his experience discovers the mutual benefit of honour among blackmailers. Therefore, at eight it is no longer the ticket to threaten to tell the teacher; and, a little later, threatening to tell any adult at all is considered something of a breakdown in morals. Notoriously, the code is more liable to infraction by people of the physically weaker sex, for the very reason, of course, that their inferiority of muscle so frequently compels such a sin, if they are to have their way. But for Florence there was now no such temptation. Looking to the demolition of Atwater & Rooter, an exposure before adults of the results of "Truth" would have been an effect of the sickliest pallor compared to what might be accomplished by a careful use of the catastrophic Wallie Torbin.

    * * * * * * *

    On Sunday evening it was her privileged custom to go to the house of fat old Great-Uncle Joseph and remain until nine o'clock, in chatty companionship with Uncle Joseph and Aunt Carrie, his wife, and a few other relatives (including Herbert) who were in the habit of dropping in there, on Sunday evenings. In summer, lemonade and cake were frequently provided; in the autumn, one still found cake, and perhaps a pitcher of clear new cider: apples were a certainty.

    This evening was glorious: there were apples and cider and cake, with walnuts, perfectly cracked, and a large open-hearted box of candy; for Uncle Joseph and Aunt Carrie had foreseen the coming of several more Atwaters than usual, to talk over the new affairs of their beautiful relative, Julia. Seldom have any relative's new affairs been more thoroughly talked over than were Julia's that evening; though all the time by means of symbols, since it was thought wiser that Herbert and Florence should not yet be told of Julia's engagement; and Florence's parents were not present to confess their indiscretion. Julia was referred to as "the traveller"; other makeshifts were employed with the most knowing caution, and all the while Florence merely ate inscrutably. The more sincere Herbert was placid; the foods absorbing his attention.

    "Well, all I say is, the traveller better enjoy herself on her travels," said Aunt Fanny, finally, as the subject appeared to be wearing toward exhaustion. "She certainly is in for it when the voyaging is over and she arrives in the port she sailed from, and has to show her papers. I agree with the rest of you: she'll have a great deal to answer for, and most of all about the shortest one. My own opinion is that the shortest one is going to burst like a balloon."

    "The shortest one," as the demure Florence had understood from the first, was none other than her Very Ideal. Now she looked up from the stool where she sat with her back against a pilaster of the mantelpiece. "Uncle Joseph," she said;--"I was just thinking. What is a person's reason?"

    The fat gentleman, rosy with firelight and cider, finished his fifth glass before responding. "Well, there are persons I never could find any reason for at all. 'A person's reason'? What do you mean, 'a person's reason,' Florence?"

    "I mean: like when somebody says, 'They'll lose their reason,'" she explained. "Has everybody got a reason, and if they have, what is it, and how do they lose it, and what would they do then?"

    "Oh! I see!" he said. "You needn't worry. I suppose since you heard it you've been hunting all over yourself for your reason and looking to see if there was one hanging out of anybody else, somewhere. No; it's something you can't see, ordinarily, Florence. Losing your reason is just another way of saying, 'going crazy'!"

    "Oh!" she murmured, and appeared to be disturbed.

    At this, Herbert thought proper to offer a witticism for the pleasure of the company.

    "You know, Florence," he said, "it only means acting like you most always do." He applauded himself with a burst of changing laughter ranging from a bullfrog croak to a collapsing soprano; then he added: "Espeshually when you come around my and Henry's Newspaper Building! You cert'nly 'lose your reason' every time you come around that ole place!"

    "Well, course I haf to act like the people that's already there," Florence retorted, not sharply, but in a musing tone that should have warned him. It was not her wont to use a quiet voice for repartee. Thinking her humble, he laughed the more raucously.

    "Oh, Florence!" he besought her. "Say not so! Say not so!"

    "Children, children!" Uncle Joseph remonstrated.

    Herbert changed his tone; he became seriously plaintive. "Well, she does act that way, Uncle Joseph! When she comes around there you'd think we were runnin' a lunatic asylum, the way she takes on. She hollers and bellers and squalls and squawks. The least little teeny thing she don't like about the way we run our paper, she comes flappin' over there and goes to screechin' around you could hear her out at the Poor House Farm!"

    "Now, now, Herbert," his Aunt Fanny interposed. "Poor little Florence isn't saying anything impolite to you--not right now, at any rate. Why don't you be a little sweet to her just for once?"

    Her unfortunate expression revolted all the manliness in Herbert's bosom. "Be a little sweet to her?" he echoed with poignant incredulity, and then in candour made plain how poorly Aunt Fanny inspired him. "I just exackly as soon be a little sweet to an alligator," he said.

    "Oh, oh!" said Aunt Carrie.

    "I would!" Herbert insisted. "Or a mosquito. I'd rather, to either of 'em, 'cause anyway they don't make so much noise. Why, you just ought to hear her," he went on, growing more and more severe. "You ought to just come around our Newspaper Building any afternoon you please, after school, when Henry and I are tryin' to do our work in anyway some peace. Why, she just squawks and squalls and squ----"

    "It must be terrible," Uncle Joseph interrupted. "What do you do all that for, Florence, every afternoon?"

    "Just for exercise," she answered dreamily; and her placidity the more exasperated her journalist cousin.

    "She does it because she thinks she ought to be runnin' our own newspaper, my and Henry's; that's why she does it! She thinks she knows more about how to run newspapers than anybody alive; but there's one thing she's goin' to find out; and that is, she don't get anything more to do with my and Henry's newspaper. We wouldn't have another single one of her ole poems in it, no matter how much she offered to pay us! Uncle Joseph, I think you ought to tell her she's got no business around my and Henry's Newspaper Building."

    "But, Herbert," Aunt Fanny suggested;--"you might let Florence have a little share in it of some sort. Then everything would be all right."

    "It would?" he said. "It woo-wud? Oh, my goodness, Aunt Fanny, I guess you'd like to see our newspaper just utterably ruined! Why, we wouldn't let that girl have any more to do with it than we would some horse!"

    "Oh, oh!" both Aunt Fanny and Aunt Carrie exclaimed, shocked.

    "We wouldn't," Herbert insisted. "A horse would know any amount more how to run a newspaper than she does. Soon as we got our printing-press, we said right then that we made up our minds Florence Atwater wasn't ever goin' to have a single thing to do with our newspaper. If you let her have anything to do with anything she wants to run the whole thing. But she might just as well learn to stay away from our Newspaper Building, because after we got her out yesterday we fixed a way so's she'll never get in there again!"

    Florence looked at him demurely. "Are you sure, Herbert?" she inquired.

    "Just you try it!" he advised her, and he laughed tauntingly. "Just come around to-morrow and try it; that's all I ask!"

    "I cert'nly intend to," she responded with dignity. "I may have a slight supprise for you."

    "Oh, Florence, say not so! Say not so, Florence! Say not so!"

    At this, she looked full upon him, and already she had something in the nature of a surprise for him; for so powerful was the still balefulness of her glance that he was slightly startled. "I might say not so," she said. "I might, if I was speaking of what pretty eyes you say yourself you know you have, Herbert."

    It staggered him. "What--what do you mean?"

    "Oh, nothin'," she replied airily.

    Herbert began to be mistrustful of the solid earth: somewhere there was a fearful threat to his equipoise. "What you talkin' about?" he said with an effort to speak scornfully; but his sensitive voice almost failed him.

    "Oh, nothin'," said Florence. "Just about what pretty eyes you know you have, and Patty's being pretty, too, and so you're glad she thinks yours are pretty, the way you do--and everything!"

    Herbert visibly gulped. He believed that Patty had betrayed him; had betrayed the sworn confidence of "Truth!"

    "That's all I was talkin' about," Florence added. "Just about how you knew you had such pretty eyes. Say not so, Herbert! Say not so!"

    "Look here!" he said. "When'd you see Patty again between this afternoon and when you came over here?"

    "What makes you think I saw her?"

    "Did you telephone her?"

    "What makes you think so?"

    Once more Herbert gulped. "Well, I guess you're ready to believe anything anybody tells you," he said, with palsied bravado. "You don't believe everything Patty Fairchild says, do you?"

    "Why, Herbert! Doesn't she always tell the truth?"

    "Her? Why, half the time," poor Herbert babbled, "you can't tell whether she's just makin' up what she says or not. If you've gone and believed everything that ole girl told you, you haven't got even what little sense I used to think you had!" So base we are under strain, sometimes--so base when our good name is threatened with the truth of us! "I wouldn't believe anything she said," he added, in a sickish voice, "if she told me fifty times and crossed her heart!"

    "Wouldn't you if she said you wrote down how pretty you knew your eyes were, Herbert? Wouldn't you if it was on paper in your own handwriting?"

    "What's this about Herbert having 'pretty eyes'?" Uncle Joe inquired, again bringing general attention to the young cousins; and Herbert shuddered. This fat uncle had an unpleasant reputation as a joker.

    The nephew desperately fell back upon the hopeless device of attempting to drown out his opponent's voice as she began to reply. He became vociferous with scornful laughter, badly cracked. "Florence got mad!" he shouted, mingling the purported information with hoots and cacklings. "She got mad because I and Henry played some games with Patty and wouldn't let her play! She's tryin' to make up stories on us to get even. She made it up! It's all made up! She----"

    "No, no," Mr. Atwater interrupted. "Let Florence tell us. Florence, what was it about Herbert's knowing he had 'pretty eyes'?"

    Herbert attempted to continue the drowning out. He bawled. "She made it up! It's somep'n she made up herself! She----"

    "Herbert," said Uncle Joseph;--"if you don't keep quiet, I'll take back the printing-press."

    Herbert substituted a gulp for the continuation of his noise.

    "Now, Florence," said Uncle Joseph, "tell us what you were saying about how Herbert knows he has such 'pretty eyes'."

    Then it seemed to Herbert that a miracle befell. Florence looked up, smiling modestly. "Oh, it wasn't anything, Uncle Joseph," she said. "I was Just trying to tease Herbert any way I could think of."

    "Oh, was that all?" A hopeful light faded out of Uncle Joseph's large and inexpressive face. "I thought perhaps you'd detected him in some indiscretion."

    Florence laughed, "I was just teasin' him. It wasn't anything, Uncle Joseph."

    Hereupon, Herbert resumed a confused breathing. Dazed, he remained uneasy, profoundly so: and gratitude was no part of his emotion. He well understood that in conflicts such as these Florence was never susceptible to impulses of compassion; in fact, if there was warfare between them, experience had taught him to be wariest when she seemed kindest. He moved away from her, and went into another room where his condition was one of increasing mental discomfort, though he looked over the pictures in his great-uncle's copy of "Paradise Lost." These illustrations, by M. Gustave Dore, failed to aid in reassuring his troubled mind.

    When Florence left the house, he impulsively accompanied her, maintaining a nervous silence as they walked the short distance between Uncle Joseph's front gate and her own. There, however, he spoke.

    "Look here! You don't haf to go and believe everything that ole girl told you, do you?"

    "No," said Florence heartily. "I don't haf to."

    "Well, look here," he urged, helpless but to repeat. "You don't haf to believe whatever it was she went and told you, do you?"

    "What was it you think she told me, Herbert?"

    "All that guff--you know. Well, whatever it was you said she told you."

    "I didn't," said Florence. "I didn't say she told me anything at all."

    "Well, she did, didn't she?"

    "Why, no," Florence replied, lightly. "She didn't say anything to me. Only I'm glad to have your opinion of her, how she's such a story-teller and all--if I ever want to tell her, and everything!"

    But Herbert had greater alarms than this, and the greater obscured the lesser. "Look here," he said, "if she didn't tell you, how'd you know it then?"

    "How'd I know what?"

    "That--that big story about my ever writin' I knew I had"--he gulped again--"pretty eyes."

    "Oh, about that!" Florence said, and swung the gate shut between them. "Well, I guess it's too late to tell you to-night, Herbert; but maybe if you and that nasty little Henry Rooter do every single thing I tell you to, and do it just exackly like I tell you from this time on, why maybe--I only say 'maybe'--well, maybe I'll tell you some day when I feel like it."

    She ran up the path and up the veranda steps, but paused before opening the front door, and called back to the waiting Herbert:

    "The only person I'd ever think of tellin' about it before I tell you would be a boy I know." She coughed, and added as by an afterthought, "He'd just love to know all about it; I know he would. So, when I tell anybody about it I'll only tell just you and this other boy."

    "What other boy?" Herbert demanded.

    And her reply, thrilling through the darkness, left him demoralized with horror.

    "Wallie Torbin!"
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