Page images
PDF
EPUB

THE PUNISHMENT.

THE quivering leaves of the birch in the center of the

clearing shone light green in the brilliant air, against the sparkling violet of the sunlit lake beyond. On either side the dark spruces, quietly dignified, stood back in the shadow. A dull brown wood-pile was heaped shaggily against the white stem of the birch. Comfortable in my flannel shirt, I leaned back against our log-built hut, and looked, and breathed. The neat little nose of a red squirrel peeped from the corner of the wood-pile, and then disappeared, at the muffled rattling of a newspaper behind me.

"Don't you think you've been carrying things a little far with Anna Lee?" rolled Johnnie's heavy voice.

"You're a nice one to talk about that,” I replied. "What’ve you been doing yourself?”

“But leaving me out of the question, don't you really think you have?”

"I guess Miss Lee is old enough to take care of herself," I said coldly. I did not feel like talking. We were silent for several minutes.

"Here's something that might interest you,” said John in a polite tone.

"Lord, that paper's three days old, and what's more, I don't want to hear anything about New York just now."

For an answer he shuffled out, and stuck the thing under my nose.

From force of habit, I read: "Mr. and Mrs. Francis S. Lee have announced the engagement of their daughter, Miss Anna McMasters, to Mr. Courtney Strong of-"

I jumped up and threw the paper on the ground. Johnnie stretched out his hand. “Let me congratulate you, Court," he said, grinning.

mistake!" I exclaimed. “It's some other Miss Lee, or at least some other Strong.

"Did you read it all?" he remarked sardonically, as he respectfully handed me the paper.

"It's a

I read again:

--- of this city. Mrs. and Miss Lee are at present sojourning in the Adirondacks, at the PleasantView. It is understood that Mr. Strong and a friend, Mr. John Wilton, are camping in the woods nearby.”

I looked hard at the pupil of John's right eye. “You don't mean to say that girl took all that jolly seriously!"

“I don't mean to say anything," rumbled John pleasantly, as he looked away. “By the way,” he added carelessly, “I saw them last night in the village, when I got the mail, and I invited them over to see the camp this morning. Said they'd be here by half past ten.”

I shut my mouth tightly, looked at my watch, scanned the lake, stared at John, and then away again. I took out my pipe, lit it with the fourth match, and began to express my feelings in smoke. He wandered down the path to the landing. Had I been a Hamlet, I should have produced a wonderful soliloquy. Anna Lee certainly was a pippingreat on looks—could flirt like, well, like a lot of girls— knew something toom but she couldn't be so foolish–the paper stared at me uncompromisingly from my hand—“Mr. and Mrs."—what would my father say?-what an infernal

mess.

"Oh, Court!" bellowed Johnnie from the distance. “Better come down and help land!"

I put my pipe in my pocket and plunged down the path. At the end of our little wharf I almost pushed John overboard.

"You take Mrs.," I whispered energetically. “I've got to straighten this thing out."

“All right,” he answered in an irritatingly loud tone.

Then we conversed no more, as the boat was already rippling close. I saw its three occupants as a man in a football game sees things. In the stern Mrs. Lee, attractive as usual in her light costume; in the center, the nondescript guide; and in the bow, Anna Lee. I could not have told how she was dressed, but I remember distinctly how she said “Hello, John," and then, in her low-modulated voice,

as it seemed to me with peculiar emphasis, "Hello, Courtney." I bowed to Mrs. Lee and grasped the bow, while John swung the stern around. Hardly daring to look at Anna, I offered her my hand, which she accepted with a firm pressure as she stepped out. Johnnie and Mrs. Lee walked ahead; Anna turned to look at the lake, and then we followed.

“Isn't it beautiful!" she said, softly.
“Yes," I replied.
She took my arm as we clambered up the stony path.

“Is that your camp?” she asked, pointing to our shack, which showed through the trees.

"Yes," I said.
"Oh, how charming!"
"Yes."

We went on in silence. I at once saw my mistake. John should have taken Anna, John should have explained. Perhaps it was not too late now. When we reached the clearing, he and Mrs. Lee were just coming out of the cabin. “Let me show you our quarters," said he to Anna. Rejoiced at being relieved, I delivered a quite astonishing bit of oratory about the view to Mrs. Lee, but suddenly remembered my position again. My speech sank down with a gulp, like a stone into water. Mrs. Lee looked at me rather suspiciously, I thought, and that increased my discomfiture. And so, when Johnnie and Anna laughed behind us, I eagerly turned.

"Mrs. Lee, shall we go up to the look-out?" asked he in such a solemn voice that I knew he was enjoying the hunior of the situation immensely.

Just then Anna's inspirited eyes flashed to mine a deeply trustful inquiry that under any other circumstances I should have rejoiced to see. Her mouth, curved from the spirit of her forgotten smile, gave her a sort of touching dignity. Her head bent forward a little, as if she were eagerly intent upon something. Then she dropped her eyes, and began to dig the soft black dirt with the white tip of her parasol. Before I knew it, the other two showed far among the trees on the hill path, and she stood alone with me.

“Let's not go up there," she said with a little sigh, "I am so tired." Then she looked up and smiled, but not with her eyes. When people smile with their eyes, the joke is on you; when they smile with their mouths, they want to be pleasant. “Come and sit on this log, won't you?” And then she sat down on the log, in the prettiest possible fashion, and smiled up at me again. I lumbered over, and squatted down beside her, with a crackling of bark and rotten wood. We gazed in silence, as if enjoying the picture. Perhaps she did. But for me the situation became worse every second. At first I had been troubled on my own account; now my conscience began to get in its work. Poor girl! how embarrassing it would be for her! And if she really were in love with me-Heavens! the longer I waited the worse I felt.

"Do you remember our er-conversation of Saturday evening?” I asked in a very matter-of-fact tone.

Yes—dear." She laughed softly. “Out in the orchard, when I cut five dances? How could I forget it? I have thought of nothing else since.”

What could I say? She became more tantalizing every minute. But I firmly resolved not to make the misunderstanding any worse. I started with a new line.

“Tell me, have you ever flirted much before?” She cast an amused side glance at me. Then she sighed.

"Yes, some, but oh, it was so different.” She laughed again, softly, and leaned towards me. “Jealous already?” she half whispered, slightly lifting her eyebrows.

Again we were silent.

“Do you know,” she said in a low, serious tone, “although I should feel complimented if you were jealous on my account, still in a way I should feel better never to have you

For there is something between two people who—care for each other, which is too deep, too—well, I don't know how to express it, but I am sure you must feel it.” She turned, and looked full at me, seriously, and trustfully. It was awful. Before I could think, she had started again. Her voice vibrated with emotion as she spoke.

SO.

"And, although I have flirted some, I never could have enjoyed it unless I knew the other person was just as much fooling as I was. It's all right to have a good time, but when it comes down to the reality of affection, I wouldn't have the heart to make any one suffer so much as he would suffer when disillusioned. And really, although you may think I am too sentimental in my standards, if I had, through any foolishness, allowed a man whom I did not care for to think he was engaged to me, I should have felt it my duty to hold to the contract. But then, let's not think about those disagreeable things. That couldn't happen now!" She siniled at me, and then turned away and began to dig the earth with her parasol again. At first I had seen some slight humor in the situation; now it was positively terrifying. She had risen to heights which I had never imagined her capable of reaching. To her attractiveness was added a quality which demanded the highest admiration. I felt that I was taking things that did not belong to me. My duty was clear. I must tell her, plainly, at once. The opinion of me which she would hold afterwards I felt to be a suitable punishment for my indiscretion.

"There is something which I must tell you at once," I began. "I am afraid”

"Oh do look at that dear little squirrel, Courtney !" She pointed to the wood-pile, and then her hand fell in my open palm. She did not draw it away. As if by instinct, my hand closed over it. She jumped up quickly.

“Come, let's be going back to the boat. I hear them coming."

So we rattled down the path. "Oh my ankle!" she exclaimed, and seized my arm. I had to nearly carry her the rest of the way, réproaching myself bitterly the while. It did not seem the proper situation in which to explain.

The guide slouched on the end of the wharf, reading a paper. We dropped on a board overturned for drying, near him. A headline in the paper seemed to catch her eye.

30

« PreviousContinue »