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Blue-Bird Weather Part 7

"Father is sorry, and asks you to please excuse him," he said.

Marche had picked up the boy's schoolbook and was looking at the writing on the flyleaf again. Then he raised his head, eyes narrowing on the boy as though searching for some elusive memory connected with him--with his name in the Latin book--perhaps with the writing, which, somehow, had stirred in him, once more, the same odd and uncomfortable sensation which he had experienced when he first saw it.

[Illustration: "'Jim,' he said, 'where did you live?'"]

"Jim," he said, "where did you live when you lived in New York?"

"In Eighty-seventh Street."

"West?"

"Yes, sir."

"Do you remember the house--the number?"

"No, sir."

"Was it a private house?"

"I don't know. It was very tall. We lived on one floor and used an elevator."

"I see. It was an apartment house."

The boy stood, with blonde head lowered, silently turning over the leaves of an old magazine.

Marche walked out to the porch; his brows were bent slightly inward, and he bit the end of his unlighted cigarette until the thing became useless. Then he flung it away. A few stars watched him above the black ramparts of the pines; a gentle wind was abroad, bringing inland the restless voice of the sea.

In Marche's mind a persistent thought was groping in darkness, vainly striving to touch and awaken memories of things forgotten. What was it he was trying to remember? What manner of episode, and how connected with this place, with the boy's book, with the portrait of his mother in its oval frame? Had he seen that portrait before? Perhaps he had seen it here, five years ago; yet that could not be, because Herold had not been here then.

Was it the writing on the flyleaf that had stirred some forgotten memory? It had seemed to him familiar, somehow--yet not like the handwriting in Herold's business letters to him. Yet it _was_ Herold's writing--"Jim, from Daddy"--that was the inscription. And that inscription had riveted his attention from the first moment he saw it.

Who was Herold? Who was this man whose undoubtable breeding and personal cultivation had stamped his children with the same unmistakable distinction?

Somehow or other there had been a great fall in the world for him--a terrible tumble from higher estate to land him here in this desolation of swamp-bound silence--here where only the dark pines broke the vast sky line, where the only sound was the far rumor of the sea. Sick, probably with coast fever, poor, dependent, no doubt, on the salary Marche paid him, isolated from all in the world that made the world endurable to intelligence, responsible for two growing children--one already a woman--what must be the thoughts of such a man on a night like this, for instance?

"I want to see that man," he kept repeating to himself. "I want to see him; and I'm going to."

Restless, but now always listening for the sound of a light tread which he had come to know so well--alas!--he began to walk to and fro, with keen glances toward the illuminated kitchen window every time he passed it. Sometimes his mind was chaotic; sometimes clear. The emotions which had awakened in him within the week were complex enough to stagger a more intelligent man. And Marche was not a fool; he was the typical product of his environment--the result of school and college, and a New York business life carried on in keenest competition with men as remorseless in business as the social code permitted. Also, he went to church on Sundays, read a Republican newspaper, and belonged to several unexceptionable clubs.

That was the kind of a man he had been only a week ago--a good fellow in the usual sense among men, acceptable to women, kind hearted, not too cynical, and every idea in his head modeled upon the opinions he heard expressed in that limited area wherein he had been born and bred.

That was the kind of a man he had been a week ago. What was he now--to-night--here in this waste corner of the world with the light from a kitchen window blazing on him as though it were the flashing splendor streaming through the barred portals of paradise? Was it possible that he, John Benton Marche, could be actually in love--in love with the daughter of his own game warden--with a girl who served him at supper in apron and gingham, who served him further in hip boots and ragged jacket--this modern Rosalind of the marshes, as fresh and innocent, as modest and ardent, as she of the Arden glades?

The kitchen door opened, and Molly Herold came down the steps and straight toward him, unthinkingly, almost instinctively, laying her hands in his as he met her under the leafless China tree in the yard.

"I was longer than usual to-night," she said, "trying to soften my hands with that cold cream you so kindly sent for." She lifted them in the starlight with a little laugh. "They're a trifle better, I think," she said, "but they're always in water, you know, either there," she glanced around at the kitchen, "or yonder with the decoys. But thank you all the same," she added brightly. "Are you going to have another delightful talk, now?"

"Do you care to?"

"Of course. The idea of my not caring to talk to you," she said, laughing at the absurdity. "Shall we go into the sitting room, or walk in the starlight? There are no snakes out, yet," she assured him, "though if this weather holds, the moccasins will come out."

"We'll walk down to the shore," he said.

"One moment, then." She turned and sped to the house, reappearing, after a few minutes, wearing her ragged shooting coat.

"Is your father comfortable?" he asked.

"Yes, thank you."

"Do you think he might want you?"

"No. Jim sleeps next to him, and he is preparing for bed, now." She smiled. "What a darling my brother is, isn't he, Mr. Marche?"

"He's a fine boy."

They moved on together, down the rutted lane, between dismantled fences and ragged, leafless hedges. She was lithe and light and sure footed, but once or twice, as they skirted puddles, he supported her; and the touch of his hand on her body almost unnerved him. Never had he dreamed that contact with any woman could so thrill, so exquisitely shock. And every instant he was falling deeper and deeper in love with her. He knew it--realized it--made no effort to avoid it, fight it off, control it.

It was only his speech and manner that he held desperately under bit and curb, letting his heart go to everlasting smash and his reason run riot.

And what on earth would be the end he could not imagine, for he was leaving for the North in the morning, and he had not yet told her.

As they came out upon the shore, the dory loomed up, beached, a dark silhouette against the starlit water. She laid her hands on the stern and vaulted lightly to her perch, sliding along to make room for Marche.

From far away in the sound came the confused murmur of wild fowl feeding. Except for that, and the ceaseless monotone of the outer sea, there was no sound, not even the lap of water against the bow.

Marche, who had been leaning forward, head bent as though watching the water, turned to the girl abruptly. "I want to do something for--Jim,"

he said.

The girl looked up at him, not understanding.

"Will your father let me?"

"I don't know what you mean."

"I mean that I want to send him to a good school--a good boys' school in the North."

She caught her breath, was silent for a moment, then, amazed: "_Would_ you do that? Oh, I've wished for it--dreamed of it! But--how can you?

You are so kind--so good to us--but how could we--accept?"

"That's why I want to see your father."

"For _that_! Was it really for that, Mr. Marche?"

"Yes--partly." He swallowed and looked the other way, for the girl's excited face was very near his own as she bent forward to search his eyes for the least change of expression--bent nearer as though to reassure herself that he meant it seriously. For an instant her soft breath made the night air fragrant; he felt it, faint and fresh on his cheek, and turned sharply, biting his lips lest he lose all self-control.

"Could you and your father spare him?" he asked carelessly.

"Oh, if you only would give him that chance!" she cried. "But--tell me--_how_ can we accept such a thing of you? Is it possible?"

"Would _you_ accept it?" he asked, turning toward her.

Chapter end

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