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And yet I know past all doubting truly, A knowledge greater than grief can dim, I know as he loved, he will love me duly, Yea, better, e'en better, than I love him. --Jean Ingelow

While O'mie and Lettie were acting out their little drama in the store that afternoon, Judson was up in Mrs. Whately's parlor driving home matters of business with a hasty and masterful hand. Marjie had slipped away at his coming, and for the second time since I had left Springvale she took the steep way up to our "Rockport." Had she known what was going on at home she might have stayed there in spite of her prejudices.

"It's just this way, Mrs. Whately," Judson declared, when he had formally opened the conference, "it's just this way. With all my efforts in your behalf, your business interest in the store has been eaten up by your expenditures. Of course I know you have always lived up to a certain kind of style whether you had the money or not; and I can understand, bein' a commercialist, how easy those things go. But that don't alter the fact that you'll have no more income from the store in a very few months. I'm planning extensive changes in the Winter for next Spring, and it'll take all the income. Do you see now?"

"Partly," Mrs. Whately replied faintly.

She was a sweet-spirited, gentle woman. She had been reared in a home of luxury. Her own home had been guarded by a noble, loving husband, and her powers of resource had never been called out. Of all the women I have ever known, she was least fitted to match her sense of honor, her faith in mankind, and her inexperience and lack of business knowledge against such an unprincipled, avaricious man as the one who domineered over her affairs.

Judson had been tricky and grasping in the day of his straightened circumstances, but he might never have developed into the scoundrel he became, had prosperity not fallen upon him by chance. Sometimes it is poverty, and sometimes it is wealth that plays havoc with a man's character and leads an erring nature into consummate villainy.

"Well, now, if you can see what I'm tellin' you, that you are just about penniless (you will be in a few months; that's it, you will be soon), then you can see how magnanimous a man can be, even a busy merchant, a--a commercialist, if I must use the word again. You'll not only be poor with nobody to support you, but you'll be worse, my dear woman, you'll be disgraced. That's it, just disgraced. I've kept stavin' it off for you, but it's comin'--ugly disgrace for you and Marjory."

Mrs. Whately looked steadily at him with a face so blanched with grief only a hard-hearted wretch like Judson could have gone on.

"I've been gettin' you ready for this for months, have laid my plans carefully, and I've been gradually puttin' the warnin' of it in your mind."

This was true. Judson had been most skilfully paving the way, else Mrs. Whately would not have had that troubled face and burdened spirit after each conference. The intimation of disaster had grown gradually to dreaded expectation with her.

"Do tell me what it is, Amos. Anything is better than this suspense. I'll do anything to save Marjie from disgrace."

"Now, that's what I've been a-waitin' for. Just a-waitin' till you was ready to say you'd do what's got to be done anyhow. Well, it's this. Whately, your deceased first husband"--Judson always used the numeral when speaking of a married man or woman who had passed away--"Whately, he made a will before he went to the war. Judge Baronet drawed it up, and I witnessed it. Now that will listed and disposed of an amount of property, enough to keep you and Marjie in finery long as you lived. That will and some other valuable papers was lost durin' the war (some says just when they was taken, but they don't know), and can't nowhere be found. Havin' entire care of the business in his absence, and bein' obliged to assoom control on his said demise at Chattanoogy, I naturally found out all about his affairs. To be short, Mrs. Whately, he never had the property he said he had. Nobody could find the money. There was an awful shortage. You can't understand, but in a word, he was a disgraced, dishonest man--a thief--that's it."

Mrs. Whately buried her face in her hands and groaned aloud.

"Now, Mrs. Whately, you mustn't take on and you must forget the past. It's the present day we're livin' in, and the future that's a-comin'. Nobody can control what's comin', but me." He rose up to his five feet and three inches, and swelled to the extent of his power. "Me." He tapped his small chest. "I'll come straight to the end of this thing. Phil Baronet's been quite a friend here, quite a friend. I've explained to you all about him. Now you know he's left town to keep from bein' mixed up in some things. They's some business of his father's he was runnin' crooked. You know they say, I heard it out at Fingal's Creek, that he left here on account of a girl he wanted to get rid of. And if they'd talk that way about one girl, they'll say Marjie was doin' wrong to go with him. You've all been friends of the Baronets. I never could see why; but now--well, you know Phil left. Now, it rests with me"--more tapping on that little quart-measure chest--"with me to keep things quiet and save his name from further talk, and save Marjie, too. Many a man, a business man, now, wouldn't have done as I'm doin'. I'll marry Marjie. That saves you from poverty. It saves Irving Whately's name from lastin' disgrace, and it saves Baronet's boy. I can control the men that's against Baronet, in the business matter--some land case--and I know the girl that the talk's all about; and it saves Marjory's name bein' mixed up with this boy of Judge Baronet's."

Had Judson been before Aunt Candace, she would have thrust him from the door with one lifting of her strong, shapely hand. Dollie Gentry would have cracked his head with her rolling pin before she let him go. Cris Mead's wife would have chased him clear to the Neosho; she was Bill Mead's own mother when it came to whooping things; but poor, gentle Mrs. Whately sat dumb and dazed in a grief-stricken silence.

"Give me your consent, and the thing's done. Marjie's only twenty. She'll come to me for safety soon as she knows what you do. She'll have to, to save them that's dearest to her. You and her father and her friendship for the Baronets ought to do somethin'; besides, Marjie needs somebody to look after her. She's a pretty girl and everybody runs after her. She'd be spoiled. And she's fond of me, always was fond of me. I don't know what it is about some men makes girls act so; but now, there's Lettie Conlow, she's just real fond of me." (Oh, the popinjay!) "You'll say yes, and say it now." There was a ring of authority in his last words, to which Mrs. Whately had insensibly come to yield.

She sat for a long time trying to see a way out of all this tangled web of her days. At last, she said slowly: "Marjie isn't twenty-one, but she's old for her years. I won't command her. If she will consent, so will I, and I'll do all I can."

Judson was jubilant. He clapped his hands and giggled hysterically.

"Good enough, good enough! I'll let it be quietly understood we are engaged, and I'll manage the rest. You must use all the influence you can with her. Leave nothing undid that you can do. Oh, joy! You'll excuse my pleasure, Mrs. Whately. The prize is as good as mine right now, though it may take a few months even to get it all completely settled. I'll go slow and quiet and careful. But I've won."

Could Mrs. Whately have seen clear into the man's cruel, cunning little mind, she would have been unutterably shocked at the ugly motives contending there. But she couldn't see. She was made for sunshine and quiet ways. She could never fathom the gloom. It was from her father that Marjie inherited all that strong will and courage and power to walk as bravely in the shadows as in the light, trusting and surefooted always.

Judson waited only until some minor affairs had been considered, and then he rose to go.

"I'm so sure of the outcome now," he said gleefully, "I'll put a crimp in some stories right away; and I'll just let it be known quietly at once that the matter's settled, then Marjie can't change it," he added mentally. "And you're to use all your influence. Good-evening, my dear Mrs. W. It'll soon be another name I may have for you."

Meanwhile, Marjie sat up on "Rockport," looking out over the landscape, wrapped in the autumn peace. Every inch of the cliff-side was sacred to her. The remembrance of happy childhood and the sweet and tender memories of love's young dream had hallowed all the ground and made the view of the whole valley a part of the life of the days gone by. The woodland along the Neosho was yellow and bronze and purple in the afternoon sunshine, the waters swept along by verdant banks, for the fall rains had given life to the brown grasses of August. Far up the river, the shapely old cottonwood stood in the pride of its autumn gold, outlined against a clear blue sky, while all the prairie lay in seas of golden haze about it. On the gray, jagged rocks of the cliff, the blood-red leaves of the vines made a rich warmth of color.

For a long time Marjie sat looking out over the valley. Its beauty appealed to her now as it had done in the gladsome days, only the appeal touched other depths of her nature and fitted her sadder mood. At last the thought of what might have been filled her eyes with tears.

"I'll go down to our post-office, as O'mie suggested," she declared to herself. "Oh, anything to break away from this hungry longing for what can never be!"

The little hidden cleft was vine-covered now, and the scarlet leaves clung in a lacework about the gray stone under which the crevice ran back clean and dry for an arm's length. It was a reflex action, and not a choice of will, that led Marjie to thrust her hand in as she had done so often before. Only cold stone received her touch. She recalled O'mie's picture of Lettie, short-necked, stubby Lettie, down there in the dark trying to stretch her fat arm to the limit of the crevice, and as she thought, Marjie slipped her own arm to its full length, down the cleft. Something touched her hand. She turned it in her fingers. It was paper--a letter--and she drew it out. A letter--my letter--the long, loving message I had penned to her on the night of the party at Anderson's. Clear and white, as when I put it there that moonlit midsummer night, when I thrust it in too far for my little girl to find without an effort.

Marjie carried it up to "Rockport" and sat down. She had no notion of when it was put there. She only knew it was from my pen.

"It's his good-bye for old times' sake," she mused.

And then she read it, slowly at first, as one would drink a last cup of water on the edge of a desert, for this was a voice from the old happy life she had put all away now. I had done better than I dreamed of doing in that writing. Here was Rachel Melrose set in her true light, the possibility of a visit, and the possibility of her words and actions, just as direct as a prophecy of what had really happened. Oh! it cleared away every reason for doubt. Even the Rockport of Rachel's rapturous memory, I declared I detested because only our "Rockport" meant anything to me. And then she read of her father's dying message. It was the first time she had known of that, and the letter in her trembling hands pulsed visibly with her strong heart-throbs. Then came the closing words:

"Good-night, my dear, dear girl, my wife that is to be, and know now and always there is for me only one love. In sunny ways or shadow-checkered paths, whatever may come, I cannot think other than as I do now. You are life of my life; and so again, good-night."

The sun was getting low in the west when Marjie with shining face came slowly down Cliff Street toward her home. Near the gate she met my father. His keen eyes caught something of the Marjie he had loved to see. Something must have happened, he knew, and his heartbeats quickened at the thought. Down the street he had met Judson with head erect walking with a cocksure step.

The next day the word was brought directly to him that Amos Judson and Marjory Whately were engaged to be married.

       *       *       *       *       *

In George Eliot's story of "The Mill on the Floss," the author gives to one chapter the title, "How a Hen Takes to Stratagem." The two cases are not parallel; and yet I always think of this chapter-heading when I recall what followed Amos Judson's admonition to Mrs. Whately, to use her influence in his behalf. When Marjie's mother had had time to think over what had come about, her conscience upbraided her. Away from the little widower and with Marjie innocent of all the trouble--free-spirited, self-dependent Marjie--the question of influence did not seem so easy. And yet, she knew Amos Judson well enough to know that he was already far along in fulfilling his plans for the future. For once in her life Mrs. Whately resolved to act on her own judgment, and to show that she had been true to her promise to use all her influence.

"Daughter, Judge Baronet wants to see you this afternoon. I'm going down to his office now on a little matter of business. Will you go over and see how Mary Gentry's arm is, and come up to the courthouse in about half an hour?"

Mrs. Whately's face was beaming, for she felt somehow that my father could help her out of any tangle, and if he should advise Marjie to this step, it would surely be the right thing for her to do.

"All right, mother, I'll be there," Marjie answered.

The hours since she found that precious letter had been alternately full of joy and sadness. There was no question in her mind about the message in the letter. But now that she was the wrong-doer in her own estimation, she did not spare herself. She had driven me away. She had refused to hear any explanation from me, she had returned my last note unopened. Oh, she deserved all that had come to her. And bitterest of all was the thought that her own letter that should have righted everything with me, I must have taken from the rock. How could I ever care for a girl so mean-spirited and cruel as she had been to me? Lettie couldn't get letters out, O'mie had said; and in the face of what she had written, she had still refused to see me, had shown how jealous-hearted and narrow-minded she could be. What could I do but leave town? So ran the little girl's sad thoughts; and then hope had its way again, for hers was always a sunny spirit.

"I can only wait and see what will come. Phil is proud and strong, and everybody loves him. He will make new friends and forget me."

And then the words of my letter, "In sunny ways, or shadow-checkered paths, I cannot think of you other than as I do now. You are life of my life," she read over and over. And so with shining eyes and a buoyant step, she went to do her mother's bidding that afternoon.

Judge Baronet had had a hard day. Coupled with unusual business cares was the story being quietly circulated regarding Judson's engagement. He had not thought how much his son's happiness could mean to him.

"And yet, I let him go to discipline him. Oh, we are never wise enough to be fathers. It is only a mother who can understand," and the memory of the woman glorified to him now, the one love of all his years, came back to him.

It was in this mood that Mrs. Whately found him.

"Judge Baronet, I've come to get you to help me." She went straight to her errand as soon as she was seated in the private office. "Marjie will be here soon, and I want you to counsel her to do what I've promised to help to bring about. She loves you next to her own father, and you can have great influence with her."

And then directly and frankly came the whole story of Judson's plan. Mrs. Whately did not try to keep anything back, not even the effort to shield my reputation, and she ended with the assurance that it must be best for everybody for this wedding to take place, and Amos Judson hoped it might be soon to save Irving's name.

"I've not seen Marjie so happy in weeks as she was last night," she added. "You know Mr. Tillhurst has been paying her so much attention this Fall, and so has Clayton Anderson. And Amos has been going to Conlow's to see Lettie quite frequently lately. I guess maybe that has helped to bring Marjie around a little, when she found he could go with others. It's the way with a girl, you know. You'll do what you can to make Marjie see the right if she seems unwilling to do what I've agreed she may do. For after all," Mrs. Whately said thoughtfully, "I can't feel sure she's willing, because she never did encourage Amos any. But you'll promise, won't you, for the sake of my husband? Oh, could he do wrong! I don't believe he did, but he can't defend himself now, and I must protect Marjie's name from any dishonor."

It was a hard moment for the man before her, the keen discriminating intelligent master of human nature. The picture of the battle field at Missionary Ridge came before his eyes, the rush and roar of the conflict was in his ears, and Irving Whately was dying there. "I hope they will love each other. If they do, give them my blessing." Clearly came the words again as they sounded on that day. And here was Irving Whately's wife, Marjie's mother, in the innocence of her soul, asking that he should help to give his friend's daughter to a man whom he was about to call to judgment for heinous offences. And maybe,--oh, God forbid it,--maybe the girl herself was not unwilling, since it was meant for the family's welfare. What else could that look on her face last night have meant? Oh, he had been a foolish father, over-fond, maybe, of a foolish boy; but somehow he had hoped that sweet smile and the light in Marjie's eyes might have meant word from Fort Wallace. What he might have said to the mother, he never knew, for Marjie herself came in at that moment, and Mrs. Whately took her leave at once.

Marjie was never so fair and womanly as now. The brisk walk in the October air had put a pink bloom on her cheeks. Her hair lay in soft fluffy little waves about her head, and her big brown eyes, clear honest eyes, were full of a radiant light. My father brought my face and form back to her as he always did, and the last hand-clasp in that very room, the last glance from eyes full of love; and the memory was sweet to her.

"Mother said you wanted to see me," she said, "so I came in."

My father put her in his big easy-chair and sat down near her. His back was toward the window, and his face was shadowed, while his visitor's face was full in the light.

"Yes, Marjie, your mother has asked me to talk with you." I wonder at the man's self-control. "She is planning, or consenting to plans for your future, and she wants me to tell you I approve them. You seem very happy to-day."

A blush swept over the girl's face, and then the blood ebbed back leaving it white as marble. Men may abound in wisdom, but the wisest of them may not always interpret the swift bloom that lights the face of a girl and fades away as swiftly as it comes.

"She is consenting," my father assumed.

"If you are satisfied with the present arrangement, I do not need to say anything. I do not want to, anyhow. I only do it for the sake of your mother, for the sake of the wife of my best friend. For his sake too, God bless his memory!"

Marjie's confusion deepened. The words of my letter telling of her father's wishes were burning in her brain. With the thought of them, this hesitancy on the part of Judge Baronet brought a chill that made her shiver. Could it be that her mother was trying to influence my father in her favor? Her good judgment and the knowledge of her mother's sense of propriety forbade that. So she only murmured,

"I don't understand. I have no plans. I would do anything for my father, I don't know why I should be called to say anything," and then she broke down entirely and sat white and still with downcast eyes, her two shapely little hands clenched together.

"Marjie, this is very embarrassing for me," my father said kindly, "and as I say, it is only for Irving's sake I speak at all. If you feel you can manage your own affairs, it is not right for anybody to interfere," how tender his tones were, "but, my dear girl, maybe years and experience can give me the right to say a word or two for the sake of the friendship that has always been between us, a friendship future relations will of necessity limit to a degree. But if you have your plans all settled, I wish to know it. It will change the whole course of some proceedings I have been preparing ever since the war; and I want to know, too, this much for the sake of the man who died in my arms. I want to know if you are perfectly satisfied to accept the life now opening to you."

Marjie had seen my father every day since I left home. Every day he had spoken to her, and a silent sort of parental and filial love had grown up between the two. The sudden break in it had come to both now.

Women also may abound in wisdom but the wisest of them may not always interpret correctly.

"He had planned for Phil to marry Rachel, had sent him East on purpose. He was so polite to her when she was here. I have broken up his plans and his friendship is to be limited." So ran the girl's thoughts. "But I have no plans. I don't know what he means. Nothing new is opening to me."

A new phase of womanhood began suddenly for her, a call for self-dependence, for a judgment of her own, not the acceptance of events. When she spoke again, her sweet voice had a clear ring in it that startled the man before her.

"Judge Baronet, I do not know what you are talking about. I do not know of any plans for the future. I do not know what mother said to you. If I am concerned in the plans you speak of, I have a right to know what they are. If you are asked to approve of my doing, I certainly ought to know of what you mean to approve."

She had risen from her chair and was standing before him. Oh, she was pretty, and with this grace of womanly self-control, her beauty and her dignity combined into a new charm.

"Sit down, Marjie," my father said in kind command. "You know the purpose of Amos Judson's visit with your mother yesterday?"

"Business, I suppose," Marjie answered carelessly, "I am not admitted to these conferences." She smiled. "You know I wanted to talk with you about some business affairs some time ago, but--"

"Yes, I know, I understand," my father assured her. They both remembered only too well what had happened in that room on her last visit. For she had not been inside of the courthouse since the day of Rachel's sudden appearance there.

"Judge Baronet thinks I have nothing to bring Phil. I've heard everywhere how Phil wants a rich wife, and yet the Baronets have more property than anybody else here." So Marjie concluded mentally and then she asked innocently:

"How can Amos Judson's visit make this call here necessary?"

At last the light broke in. "She doesn't know anything yet, that's certain. But, by heavens, she must know. It's her right to know," my father thought.

"Marjie, your mother, in the goodness of her heart, and because of some sad and bitter circumstances, came here to-day to ask me to talk with you. I do this for her sake. You must not misunderstand me." He laid his hand a moment on her arm, lying on the table.

And then he told her all that her mother had told to him. Told it without comment or coloring, sparing neither Phil, nor himself nor her father in the recital. If ever a story was correctly reported in word and spirit, this one was.

"She shall have Judson's side straight from me first, and we'll depend on events for further statement," he declared to himself.

"Now, little girl, I'm asked to urge you for your own good name, for your mother's maintenance, and your own, for the sake of that boy of mine, and for my own good, as well, and most of all for the sake of your father's memory, revered here as no other man who ever lived in Springvale--for all these reasons, I'm asked to urge you to take this man for your husband."

He was standing before her now, strong, dignified, handsome, courteous. Nature's moulds hold not many such as he. Before him rose up Marjie. Her cloak had fallen from her shoulders, and lay over the arm of her chair. Looking steadily into his face with eyes that never wavered in their gaze, she replied:

"I may be poor, but I can work for mother and myself. I'm not afraid to work. You and your son may have done wrong. If you have, I cannot cover it by any act of mine, not even if I died for you. I don't believe you have done wrong. I do not believe one word of the stories about Phil. He may want to marry a rich girl," her voice wavered here, "but that is his choice; it is no sin. And as to protecting my father's name, Judge Baronet, it needs no protection. Before Heaven, he never did a dishonest thing in all his life. There has been a tangling of his affairs by somebody, but that does not change the truth. The surest way to bring dishonor to his name is for me to marry a man I do not and could not love; a man I believe to be dishonest in money matters, and false to everybody. It is no disgrace to work for a living here in Kansas. Better girls than I am do it. But it is a disgrace here and through all eternity to sell my soul. As I hope to see my father again, I believe he would not welcome me to him if I did. Good and just as you are, you are using your influence all in vain on me."

Judge Baronet felt his soul expand with every word she uttered. Passing round the table, he took both her cold hands in his strong, warm palms.

"My daughter," neither he nor the girl misunderstood the use of the word here, "my dear, dear girl, you are worthy of the man who gave up his life on Missionary Ridge to save his country. God bless you for the true-hearted, noble woman that you are." He gently stroked the curly brown locks away from her forehead, and stooping kissed it, softly, as he would kiss the brow of a saint.

Marjie sank down in her seat, and as she did so my letter fell from the pocket of the cloak she had thrown aside. As Judge Baronet stooped to pick it up, he caught sight of my well-known handwriting on the envelope. He looked up quickly and their eyes met. The wild roses were in her cheeks now, and the dew of teardrops on her downcast lashes. He said not a word, but laid the letter face downward in her lap. She put it in her pocket and rose to go.

"If you need me, Marjie, I have a force to turn loose against your enemies, and ours. And you will need me. As a man in this community I can assure you of that. You never needed friends as you will in the days before you now. I am ready at your call. And let me assure you also, that in the final outcome, there is nothing to fear. Good-bye."

He looked down into her upturned face. Something neither would have put into words came to both, and the same picture came before each mind. It was the picture of a young soldier out at Fort Wallace, gathering back the strength the crucial test of a Plains campaign had cost him.

"There'll be the devil to pay," my father said to himself, as he watched Marjie passing down the leaf-strewn walk, "but not a hair of her head shall suffer. When the time comes, I'll send for Judson, as I promised to do."

And Marjie, holding the letter in her hand thrust deep in her cloak pocket, felt strength and hope and courage pulsing in her veins, and a peace that she had not known for many days came with its blessing to her troubled soul.