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    Chapter 20

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    Chapter 20
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    Throughout that afternoon adult members of the Atwater family connection made futile efforts to secure all the copies of the week's edition of The North End Daily Oriole. It could not be done.

    It was a trying time for "the family." Great Aunt Carrie said that she had the "worst afternoon of any of 'em," because young Newland Sanders came to her house at two and did not leave until five; all the time counting over, one by one, the hours he'd spent with Julia since she was seventeen and turned out, unfortunately, to be a Beauty. Newland had not restrained himself, Aunt Carrie said, and long before he left she wished Julia had never been born--and as for Herbert Illingsworth Atwater, Junior, the only thing to do with him was to send him to some strict Military School.

    Florence's father telephoned to her mother from downtown at three, and said that Mr. George Plum and the ardent vocalist, Clairdyce, had just left his office. They had not called in company, however, but coincidentally; and each had a copy of The North End Daily Oriole, already somewhat worn with folding and unfolding. Mr. Clairdyce's condition was one of desperate calm, Florence's father said, but Mr. Plum's agitation left him rather unpresentable for the street, though he had finally gone forth with his hair just as he had rumpled it, and with his hat in his hand. They wished the truth, they said: Was it true or was it not true? Mr. Atwater had told them that he feared Julia was indeed engaged, though he knew nothing of her fiance's previous marriage or marriages, or of the number of his children. They had responded that they cared nothing about that. This man Crum's record was a matter of indifference to them, they said. All they wanted to know was whether Julia was engaged or not--and she was!

    "The odd thing to me," Mr. Atwater continued to his wife, "is where on earth Herbert could have got his story about this Crum's being a widower, and divorced, and with all those children. Do you know if Julia's written any of the family about these things and they haven't told the rest of us?"

    "No," said Mrs. Atwater. "I'm sure she hasn't. Every letter she's written to any of us has passed all through the family, and I know I've seen every one of 'em. She's never said anything about him at all, except that he was a lawyer. I'm sure I can't imagine where Herbert got his awful information; I never thought he was the kind of boy to just make up such things out of whole cloth."

    Florence, sitting quietly in a chair near by, with a copy of "Sesame and Lilies" in her lap, listened to her mother's side of this conversation with an expression of impersonal interest; and if she could have realized how completely her parents had forgotten (naturally enough) the details of their first rambling discussion of Julia's engagement, she might really have felt as little alarm as she showed.

    "Well," said Mr. Atwater, "I'm glad our branch of the family isn't responsible. That's a comfort, anyhow, especially as people are reading copies of Herbert's dreadful paper all up and down the town, my clerk says. He tells me that over at the Unity Trust Company, where young Murdock Hawes is cashier, they only got hold of one copy, but typewrote it and multigraphed it, and some of 'em have already learned it by heart to recite to poor young Hawes. He's the one who sent Julia the three fivepound boxes of chocolates from New York all at the same time, you remember."

    "Yes," Mrs. Atwater sighed. "Poor thing!"

    "Florence is out among the family, I suppose?" he inquired.

    "No; she's right here. She's just started to read Ruskin this afternoon. She says she's going to begin and read all of him straight through. That's very nice, don't you think?"

    He seemed to muse before replying.

    "I think that's very nice, at her age especially," Mrs. Atwater urged. "Don't you?"

    "Ye-es! Oh, yes! At least I suppose so. Ah--you don't think--of course she hasn't had anything at all to do with this?"

    "Well, I don't see how she could. You know Aunt Fanny told us how Herbert declared before them all, only last Sunday night, that Florence should never have one thing to do with his printing-press, and said they wouldn't even let her come near it."

    "Yes, that's a fact. I'm glad Herbert made it so clear that she can't be implicated. I suppose the family are all pretty well down on Uncle Joseph?"

    "Uncle Joseph is being greatly blamed," said Mrs. Atwater primly. "He really ought to have known better than to put such an instrument as a printing-press into the hands of an irresponsible boy of that age. Of course it simply encouraged him to print all kinds of things. We none of us think Uncle Joseph ever dreamed that Herbert would publish, anything exactly like this, and of course Uncle Joseph says himself he never dreamed such a thing; he's said so time and time and time again, all afternoon. But of course he's greatly blamed."

    "I suppose there've been quite a good many of 'em over there blaming him?" her husband inquired.

    "Yes--until he telephoned to a garage and hired a car and went for a drive. He said he had plenty of money with him and didn't know when he'd be back."

    "Serves him right," said Mr. Atwater. "Does anybody know where Herbert is?"

    "Not yet!"

    "Well----" and he returned to a former theme. "I am glad we aren't implicated. Florence is right there with you, you say?"

    "Yes," Mrs. Atwater replied. "She's right here, reading. You aren't worried about her, are you?" she added.

    "Oh, no; I'm sure it's all right. I only thought----"

    "Only thought what?"

    "Well, it did strike me as curious," said Mr. Atwater; "especially after Aunt Fanny's telling us how Herbert declared Florence could never have a single thing to do with his paper again----"

    "Well, what?"

    "Well, here's her poem right at the top of it, and a very friendly item about her history mark of last June. It doesn't seem like Herbert to be so complimentary to Florence, all of a sudden. Just struck me as rather curious; that's all."

    "Why, yes," said Mrs. Atwater, "it does seem a little odd, when you think of it."

    "Have you asked Florence if she had anything to do with getting out this week's Oriole?"

    "Why, no; it never occurred to me, especially after what Aunt Fanny told us," said Mrs. Atwater. "I'll ask her now."

    But she was obliged to postpone putting the intended question. "Sesame and Lilies" lay sweetly upon the seat of the chair that Florence had occupied; but Florence herself had gone somewhere else.

    She had gone for a long, long ramble; and pedestrians who encountered her, and happened to notice her expression, were interested; and as they went on their way several of them interrupted the course of their meditations to say to themselves that she was the most thoughtful looking young girl they had ever seen. There was a touch of wistfulness about her, too; as of one whose benevolence must renounce all hope of comprehension and reward.

    Now, among those who observed her unusual expression was a gentleman of great dimensions disposed in a closed automobile that went labouring among mudholes in an unpaved outskirt of the town. He rapped upon the glass before him, to get the driver's attention, and a moment later the car drew up beside Florence, as she stood in a deep reverie at the intersection of two roads.

    Uncle Joseph opened the door and took his cigar from his mouth. "Get in, Florence," he said. "I'll take you for a ride." She started violently; whereupon he restored the cigar to his mouth, puffed upon it, breathing heavily the while as was his wont, and added, "I'm not going home. I'm out for a nice long ride. Get in."

    "I was takin' a walk," she said dubiously. "I haf to take a whole lot of exercise, and I ought to walk and walk and walk. I guess I ought to keep on walkin'."

    "Get in," he said. "I'm out riding. I don't know when I'll get home!"

    Florence stepped in, Uncle Joseph closed the door, and the car slowly bumped onward.

    "You know where Herbert is?" Uncle Joseph inquired.

    "No," said Florence, in a gentle voice.

    "I do," he said. "Herbert and your friend Henry Rooter came to our house with one of the last copies of the Oriole they were distributing to subscribers; and after I read it I kind of foresaw that the feller responsible for their owning a printing-press was going to be in some sort of family trouble or other. I had quite a talk with 'em and they hinted they hadn't had much to do with this number of the paper, except the mechanical end of it; but they wouldn't come out right full with what they meant. They seemed to have some good reason for protecting a third party, and said quite a good deal about their fathers and mothers being but mortal and so on; so Henry and Herbert thought they oughtn't to expose this third party--whoever she may happen to be. Well, I thought they better not stay too long, because I was compromised enough already, without being seen in their company; and I gave 'em something to help 'em out with at the movies. You can stay at movies an awful long time, and if you've got money enough to go to several of 'em, why, you're fixed for pretty near as long as you please. A body ought to be able to live a couple o' months at the movies for nine or ten dollars, I should think."

    He was silent for a time, then asked, "I don't suppose your papa and mamma will be worrying about you, will they, Florence?"

    "Oh, no!" she said quickly. "Not in the least! There was nothin' at all for me to do at our house this afternoon."

    "That's good," he said, "because before we go back I was thinking some of driving around by way of Texas."

    Florence looked at him trustfully and said nothing. It seemed to her that he suspected something; she was not sure; but his conversation was a little peculiar, though not in the least sinister. Indeed she was able to make out that he had more the air of an accomplice than of a prosecutor or a detective. Nevertheless, she was convinced that far, far the best course for her to pursue, during the next few days, would be one of steadfast reserve. And such a course was congenial to her mood, which was subdued, not to say apprehensive; though she was sure her recent conduct, if viewed sympathetically, would be found at least Christian. The trouble was that probably it would not be viewed sympathetically. No one would understand how carefully and tactfully she had prepared the items of the Oriole to lead suavely up to the news of Aunt Julia's engagement and break it to Noble Dill in a manner that would save his reason.

    Therefore, on account of this probable lack of comprehension on the part of the family and public, it seemed to her that the only wise and good course to follow would be to claim nothing for herself, but to allow Herbert and Henry to remain undisturbed in full credit for publishing the Oriole. This involved a disappointment, it is true; nevertheless, she decided to bear it.

    She had looked forward to surprising "the family" delightfully. As they fluttered in exclamation about her, she had expected to say, "Oh, the poem isn't so much, I guess--I wrote it quite a few days ago and I'm writing a couple new ones now--but I did take quite a lot o' time and trouble with the rest of the paper, because I had to write every single word of it, or else let Henry and Herbert try to, and 'course they'd just of ruined it. Oh, it isn't so much to talk about, I guess; it just sort of comes to me to do things that way."

    Thirteen attempts to exercise a great philanthropy, and every grown person in sight, with the possible exception of Great-Uncle Joseph, goes into wholly unanticipated fits of horror. Cause and effect have no honest relation: Fate operates without justice or even rational sequence; life and the universe appear to be governed, not in order and with system, but by Chance, becoming sinister at any moment without reason.

    And while Florence, thus a pessimist, sat beside fat Uncle Joseph during their long, long drive, relatives of hers were indeed going into fits; at least, so Florence would have described their gestures and incoherences of comment. Moreover, after the movies, straight into such a fitful scene did the luckless Herbert walk when urged homeward by thoughts of food, at about six that evening. Henry Rooter had strongly advised him against entering the house.

    "You better not," he said earnestly. "Honest, you better not, Herbert!"

    "Well, we got apple dumplings for dinner," Herbert said, his tone showing the strain of mental uncertainty. "Eliza told me this morning we were goin' to have 'em. I kind of hate to go in, but I guess I better, Henry."

    "You won't see any apple dumplings," Henry predicted.

    "Well, I believe I better try it, Henry."

    "You better come home with me. My father and mother'll be perfectly willing to have you."

    "I know that," said Herbert. "But I guess I better go in and try it, anyhow, Henry. I didn't have anything to do with what's in the Oriole. It's every last word ole Florence's doing. I haven't got any more right to be picked on for that than a child."

    "Yes," Henry admitted. "But if you go and tell 'em so, I bet she'd get even with you some way that would probably get me in trouble, too, before we get through with the job. I wouldn't tell 'em if I was you, Herbert!"

    "Well, I wasn't intending to," Herbert responded gloomily; and the thought of each, unknown to the other, was the same, consisting of a symbolic likeness of Wallie Torbin at his worst. "I ought to tell on Florence; by rights I ought," said Herbert; "but I've decided I won't. There's no tellin' what she wouldn't do. Not that she could do anything to me, particyourly----"

    "Nor me, either," his friend interposed hurriedly. "I don't worry about anything like that! Still, if I was you I wouldn't tell. She's only a girl, we got to remember."

    "Yes," said Herbert. "That's the way I look at it, Henry; and the way I look at it is just simply this: long as she is a girl, why, simply let her go. You can't tell what she'd do, and so what's the use to go and tell on a girl?"

    "That's the way I look at it," Henry agreed. "What's the use? If I was in your place, I'd act just the same way you do."

    "Well," said Herbert, "I guess I better go on in the house, Henry. It's a good while after dark."

    "You're makin' a big mistake!" Henry Rooter called after him. "You won't see any apple dumplings, I bet a hunderd dollars! You better come on home with me."

    Herbert no more than half opened his front door before he perceived that his friend's advice had been excellent. So clearly Herbert perceived this, that he impulsively decided not to open the door any farther, but on the contrary to close it and retire; and he would have done so, had his mother not reached forth and detained him. She was, in fact, just inside that door, standing in the hall with one of his great-aunts, one of his aunts, two aunts-by-marriage, and an elderly unmarried cousin, who were all just on the point of leaving. However, they changed their minds and decided to remain, now that Herbert was among them.

    The captive's father joined them, a few minutes later, but it had already become clear to Herbert that The North End Daily Oriole was in one sense a thing of the past, though in another sense this former owner and proprietor was certain that he would never hear the last of it. However, on account of the life of blackmail and slavery now led by the members of the old regime, the Oriole's extinction was far less painful to Herbert than his father supposed; and the latter wasted a great deal of severity, insisting that the printing-press should be returned that very night to Uncle Joseph. Herbert's heartiest retrospective wish was that the ole printing-press had been returned to Uncle Joseph long ago.

    "If you can find him to give it to!" Aunt Harriet suggested. "Nobody knows where he goes when he gets the way he did this afternoon when we were discussing it with him! I only hope he'll be back to-night!"

    "He can't stay away forever," Aunt Fanny remarked. "That garage is charging him five dollars an hour for the automobile he's in, and surely even Joseph will decide there's a limit to wildness some time!"

    "I don't care when he comes back," Herbert's father declared grimly. "Whenever he does he's got to take that printing-press back--and Herbert will be let out of the house long enough to carry it over. His mother or I will go with him."

    Herbert bore much more than this. He had seated himself on the third step of the stairway, and maintained as much dogged silence as he could. Once, however, they got a yelp of anguish out of him. It was when Cousin Virginia said: "Oh, Herbert, Herbert! How could you make up that terrible falsehood about Mr. Crum? And, think of it; right on the same page with your cousin Florence's pure little poem!"

    Herbert uttered sounds incoherent but loud, and expressive of a supreme physical revulsion. The shocked audience readily understood that he liked neither Cousin Virginia's chiding nor Cousin Florence's pure little poem.

    "Shame!" said his father.

    Herbert controlled himself. It could be seen that his spirit was broken, when Aunt Fanny mourned, shaking her head at him, smiling ruefully:

    "Oh, if boys could only be girls!"

    Herbert just looked at her.

    "The worst thing," said his father;--"that is, if there's any part of it that's worse than another--the worst thing about it all is this rumour about Noble Dill."

    "What about that poor thing?" Aunt Harriet asked. "We haven't heard."

    "Why, I walked up from downtown with old man Dill," said Mr. Atwater, "and the Dill family are all very much worried. It seems that Noble started downtown after lunch, as usual, and pretty soon he came back to the house and he had a copy of this awful paper that little Florence had given him, and----"

    "Who gave it to him?" Aunt Fanny asked. "Who?"

    "Little Florence."

    "Why, that's curious," Cousin Virginia murmured. "I must telephone and ask her mother about that."

    The brooding Herbert looked up, and there was a gleam in his dogged eye; but he said nothing.

    "Go on," Aunt Harriet urged. "What did Noble do?"

    "Why, his mother said he just went up to his room and changed his shoes and necktie----"

    "I thought so," Aunt Fanny whispered. "Crazy!"

    "And then," Mr. Atwater continued, "he left the house and she supposed he'd gone down to the office; but she was uneasy, and telephoned his father. Noble hadn't come. He didn't come all afternoon, and he didn't go back to the house; and they telephoned around to every place he could go that they know of, and they couldn't find him or hear anything about him at all--not anywhere." Mr. Atwater coughed, and paused.

    "But what," Aunt Harriet cried;--"what do they think's become of him?"

    "Old man Dill said they were all pretty anxious," said Mr. Atwater. "They're afraid Noble has--they're afraid he's disappeared."

    Aunt Fanny screamed.

    Then, in perfect accord, they all turned to look at Herbert, who rose and would have retired upstairs had he been permitted.

    As that perturbing evening wore on, word gradually reached the most outlying members of the Atwater family connection that Noble Dill was missing. Ordinarily, this bit of news would have caused them no severe anxiety. Noble's person and intellect were so commonplace--"insignificant" was the term usually preferred in his own circle--that he was considered to be as nearly negligible as it is charitable to consider a fellow-being. True, there was one thing that set him apart; he was found worthy of a superlative when he fell in love with Julia; and of course this distinction caused him to become better known and more talked about than he had been in his earlier youth.

    However, the eccentricities of a person in such an extremity of love are seldom valued except as comedy, and even then with no warmth of heart for the comedian, but rather with an incredulous disdain; so it is safe to say that under other circumstances, Noble might have been missing, indeed, and few of the Atwaters would have missed him. But as matters stood they worried a great deal about him, fearing that a rash act on his part might reflect notoriety upon themselves on account of their beautiful relative--and The North End Daily Oriole. And when nine o'clock came and Mrs. Dill reported to Herbert's father, over the telephone, that nothing had yet been heard of her son, the pressure of those who were blaming the Oriole more than they blamed Julia became so wearing that Herbert decided he would rather spend the remaining days of his life running away from Wallie Torbin than put in any more of such a dog's evening as he was putting in. Thus he defined it.

    He made a confession; that is to say, it was a proclamation. He proclaimed his innocence. He began history with a description of events distinctly subsequent to Sunday pastimes with Patty Fairchild, and explained how he and Henry had felt that their parents would not always be with them, and as their parents wished them to be polite, they had resolved to be polite to Florence. Proceeding, he related in detail her whole journalistic exploit.

    Of the matter in hand he told the perfect and absolute truth--and was immediately refuted, confuted, and demonstrated to be a false witness by Aunt Fanny, Aunt Carrie, and Cousin Virginia, who had all heard him vehemently declare, no longer ago than the preceding Sunday evening, that he and his partner had taken secure measures to prevent Florence from ever again setting foot within the Newspaper Building. In addition, he was quite showered with definitions; and these, though so various, all sought to phrase but the one subject: his conduct in seeking to drag Florence into the mire, when she was absent and could not defend herself. Poor Florence would answer later in the evening, he was told severely; and though her cause was thus championed against the slander, it is true that some of her defenders felt stirrings of curiosity in regard to Florence. In fact, there was getting to be something almost like a cloud upon her reputation. There were several things for her to explain;--among them, her taking it upon herself to see that Noble received a copy of the Oriole, and also her sudden departure from home and rather odd protraction of absence therefrom. It was not thought she was in good company. Uncle Joseph had telephoned from a suburb that they were dining at a farmhouse and would thence descend to the general region of the movies.

    "Nobody knows what that man'll do, when he decides to!" Aunt Carrie said nervously. "Letting the poor child stay up so late! She ought to be in bed this minute, even if it is Saturday night! Or else she ought to be here to listen to her own bad little cousin trying to put his terrible responsibility on her shoulders."

    One item of this description of himself the badgered Herbert could not bear in silence, although he had just declared that since the truth was so ill-respected among his persecutors he would open his mouth no more until the day of his death. He passed over "bad," but furiously stated his height in feet, inches, and fractions of inches.

    Aunt Fanny shook her head in mourning. "That may be, Herbert," she said gently. "But you must try to realize it can't bring poor young Mr. Dill back to his family."

    Again Herbert just looked at her. He had no indifference more profound than that upon which her strained conception of the relation between cause and effect seemed to touch;--from his point of view, to be missing should be the lightest of calamities. It is true that he was concerned with the restoration of Noble Dill to the rest of the Dills so far as such an event might affect his own incomparable misfortunes, but not otherwise. He regarded Noble and Noble's disappearance merely as unfair damage to himself, and he continued to look at this sorrowing great-aunt of his until his thoughts made his strange gaze appear to her so hardened that she shook her head and looked away.

    "Poor young Mr. Dill!" she said. "If someone could only have been with him and kept talking to him until he got used to the idea a little!"

    Cousin Virginia nodded comprehendingly. "Yes, it might have tided him over," she said. "He wasn't handsome, nor impressive, of course, nor anything like that, but he always spoke so nicely to people on the street. I'm sure he never harmed even a kitten, poor soul!"

    "I'm sure he never did," Herbert's mother agreed gently. "Not even a kitten. I do wonder where he is now."

    But Aunt Fanny uttered a little cry of protest. "I'm afraid we may hear!" she said. "Any moment!"
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