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   Chapter 4 No.4

The Desired Woman By Will N. Harben Characters: 13906

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:06


As Mostyn's train ascended the grade leading up to the hamlet of Ridgeville, within a mile of which lay the little farm to which he was going, he sat at an open window and viewed the scene with delight, drawing into his lungs with a sense of restful content the crisp, rarefied air. To the west, and marking the vicinity of Drake's farm, the mountain loomed up in its blended coat of gray and green, growing more and more indistinct as the range gradually extended into the bluish haze of distance.

"I'm going to like it," he said, almost aloud, with the habit he had of talking to himself when alone. "I feel as if I shall never want to look inside a bank again. This is life, real, sensible life. I have, after all, always had a yearning for genuine simplicity. It must have come to me from my pioneer, Puritan ancestry. That man over there plowing corn with his mule and ragged harness is happier than I ever was down there in that God-forsaken turmoil. The habit of wanting to beat other men in the expert turning over of capital is as dangerous, once it clutches you, as morphine. I must call a halt. That last narrow escape shall be a lesson. I am getting normal again, and I must stay so. What are Alan Delbridge's operations to me? He has no nerves nor imagination. He could have slept through that last tangle of mine which came within an inch of laying me out stiff and stark. I wonder how all the Drakes are, especially Dolly. She must be fully grown now. Saunders says she is beautiful and as wise as Socrates. I suppose there are a dozen mountain boys after her by this time. For a little girl she was astonishingly mature in manner and thought. I ought not to have talked to her as I did. I have never forgotten her face and voice as I saw and heard them that last night. I see the wonderful eyes and mouth, the like of which I have never run across since. I am ashamed to think that I acted as I did, and she only an inexperienced child; but I really couldn't help it. I seemed to be in a dream. It was really an unpardonable thing-and proves that I do lack character-for me to tell her that I would often think of her. But the worst of all, really the most cowardly, considering her unsuspecting innocence and exaggerated faith in me, was my kissing her as I did there in the moonlight. How exquisite was her vow that she'd never kiss any other man as long as she lived! Lord, I wonder what ails me. Surely I am not silly enough to be actually-"

Mostyn's meditations were interrupted by a shrill shriek from the locomotive. Leaning out of the window, he saw the little old-fashioned brick car-shed ahead and heard the grinding of the brakes on the smooth wheels beneath the car. Grasping his bag in his hand, he made his way out and descended to the ground.

He saw the long white three-story hotel close by with its green blinds, extensive veranda, and blue-railed balustrade, the row of stores and law-offices, forming three sides of a square of which the car-shed, depot, and railway made the fourth. In the open space stood some canvas-covered mountain-wagons containing produce for shipment to the larger markets, and the usual male loungers in straw hats, baggy trousers, easy shoes, and shirts without coats.

A burly negro porter hastened down the steps of the hotel and approached swinging his slouch hat in his hand, his eyes on the traveler's bag.

"All right, boss-Purcell House, fus'-class hotel, whar all de drummers put up. Good sample-rooms an' fine country cookin'."

Mostyn held on to his bag, which the swarthy hands were grasping. "No,

I'm not going to stop," he explained. "I'm going out to Drake's farm."

"Oh, is you? Well, suh, Mr. John Webb is in de freight depot. I done hear 'im say he fetched de buggy ter tek somebody out."

At this juncture the florid and flushed face of Webb was seen as he emerged from the doorway of the depot. He was bent under a weighty bag of flour, and smiled and waved his hat by way of salutation as he advanced to a buggy at a public hitching-rack and deposited his burden in the receptacle behind the single seat. This done, he came forward, brushing the sleeve of his alpaca coat and grinning jovially.

"How are you?" He extended a fat, perspiring hand luckily powdered with flour. "I reckon you won't mind riding out with me. Tom said he'd bet you'd rather walk to limber up your legs, but Lucy made me fetch the buggy along, as some said you wasn't as well as common. But you look all right to me-that is, as well as any of you city fellers ever do. The last one of you look as white as convicts out o' jail. I reckon thar is so much smoke over your town that the sun don't strike it good and straight."

"Oh, I'm all right," Mostyn said, good-naturedly, "just a little run down from overwork, that's all."

"Run down?" Webb seemed quite concerned with getting at the exact meaning of the statement, and as he took Mostyn's bag and put it in with the flour he eyed the banker attentively. "Run down?" he repeated, with his characteristic emphasis. "I don't see how a man as big an' hearty as you look an' weighin' as much could git sick or even tired without havin' any more work to do than you have. I've always meant to ask you or Mr. Saunders what you fellers do, anyway. I reckon banks are the same in big towns as in little ones. They haven't got a regular bank here in Ridgeville, but I've been to the one in Darley. I went in with Tom when he wanted to draw the cash on a cotton check. Talk about hard work-I'll swear I couldn't see it. Me 'n' Tom had been up fully three hours knockin' about the streets tryin' to kill the best part o' the day before that shebang opened up for business, an' then somebody said they shet up at three o'clock an' went home to take a nap or whiz about in their automobiles. The whole thing's bothered me a sight, for I do like to understand things. How could a checker-playin' business like that tire anybody?"

"It's head-work," Mostyn obligingly explained, as he followed John into the buggy and sat beside him. "Head-work," Webb echoed, the cloud still on his brow. He clucked to his horse and gently shook the reins. "To save me I don't see how head-work-if there is such a thing-could tire out a man's legs and arms and body."

"There is a good deal of worry attached to it," Mostyn felt impelled to say. "Nowadays they are saying that worry will kill a man quicker than any sort of physical ailment. You see, good sound sleep is necessary, and when a man is greatly bothered he simply can't sleep."

"Oh, I see, I see," Webb's blue eyes flashed. "Thar may be something in that, but it does seem like a man would have more gumption 'an to worry hisse'f to death about something that won't be of use to 'im after he dies. That's common sense, ain't it?"

Mostyn was compelled to admit the truth of the remark. They had driven out of the village square and were now in the open country.

"Thar is

one more thing about town folks an' country folks that I've always wanted to know," John began again after a silence of several minutes, "and that is why town folks contend that country folks is green. As I look at it it is an even swap. Now, you are a town man, an' I'm a country feller. I could take you to the edge o' that cotton-field whar it joins on to the woods on that slope thar, an' point out a spot whar you couldn't make cotton grow more'n six inches high though it will reach four feet everywhar else in the field. Now, I'd be an impolite fool to lie down thar betwixt the rows an' split my sides laughin' at you for not knowin' what I jest got on to by years an' years o' farm life. The truth is that cotton won't take any sort o' root within twenty feet of a white-oak tree."

"I didn't know that," Mostyn said.

"I knowed you didn't, an' that's why I fetched it up," Webb went on, blandly, "an' me nor no other farmer would poke fun at you about it, but it is different in town. Jest let a spindle-legged counter-jumper at a store with his hair parted in the middle git a joke on a country feller, an' the whole town will take a hand in it. Oh, I know, for they've shore had me on the run."

"I'm surprised at that," Mostyn answered, smiling. "You seem too shrewd to be taken in by any one."

"Humph, I say!" Webb laughed reminiscently. "I supplied all the fun Darley had one hot summer day when all hands was lyin' round the stores and law-offices tryin' to git cool by fannin' and sprinklin' the sidewalks. Did you ever hear tell of the Tom Collins gag?"

"I think not," the banker answered.

"Well, I have-you bet I have," John said, dryly, "an" it is one thing that makes me afraid sometimes that a country feller railly hain't actually overloaded with brains. Take my advice; if anybody ever tells you that a feller by the name o' Tom Collins is lookin' for you an' anxious to see you about something important, just skin your eye at 'im, tell 'im right out that you don't give a dang about Tom Collins. La me, what a fool-what a fool I was! A feller workin' at the cotton-compress told me that a man by the name o' Tom Collins wanted to see me right off, an' that he was up at the wholesale grocery. Fool that I was, I hitched my hosses an' struck out lickity-split for the grocery. I axed one of the storekeepers standin' in front if Tom Collins was anywhars about, and, as I remember now, he slid his hand over his mouth an' sorter turned his face to one side and yelled back in the store:

"'Say, boys, is Tom Collins back thar?' An' right then, Mr. Mostyn, if I had had the sense of a three-year-old baby I'd have smelt a mouse, for fully six clerks, drummers, and all the firm hurried to whar I was at an' stood lookin' at me, their eyes dancin'. 'He was here, but he's just left,' a clerk said. 'He went to the hotel to git his grip. He was awfully put out. He's been all over town lookin' for you.' Well, as I made a break for the hotel, wonderin' if somebody had died an' left me a hunk o' money, the gang at the grocery stood clean out on the sidewalk watchin' me. When I inquired at the hotel, the clerk an' two nigger waiters said Tom was askin' about me an' had just run over to the court-house, whar I'd be shore to find him."

"I see the point," Mostyn laughed.

"I'm glad you do so quick, for I had to have it beat into me with a sledge-hammer," Webb said, dryly. "I was so mad I could have chawed nails, but I blamed myself more'n anybody else, for they was just havin' their fun an' meant no harm."

"I suppose not," Mostyn said.

"Well, I can't complain; they have their sport with one another. Dolph Wartrace, you know, that keeps the cross-roads store nigh us, clerked in Darley before he went in on his own hook out here, an' I've heard 'im tell of a lot o' pranks that they had over thar. He said thar was an old bachelor that, kept a dry-goods store who never had had much to do with women. He was bashful-like, but thar was one young woman that he had his eye on, an' now an' then he'd spruce up an' go to see 'er or take 'er out to meetin', but Jeff said he was too weak-kneed to pop the question, an' the gal went off on a visit to Alabama and got married. Now, the old bach' had a gang o' friends that was always in for fun, an' with long, sad faces they went about askin' everybody they met if they had heard that Bob Hadley-that was the feller's name-if they had heard that he was dead. Bob knowed what they was sayin' an' tried to put a pleasant face on it, but it must have been hard work, considerin' all that happened.

"Well, one thing added to another till a gang of Bob's friends met the next night in a grocery store after he had gone to bed and still with sad, solemn faces declared that, considerin' his untimely end, it was their bounden duty to bury 'im in a respectable way. So they went to the furniture store close by an' borrowed a coffin an' picked out pall-bearers. A feller that slept with Bob in the little room cut off at the end o' his store was in the game, an' he had a key an' unlocked the door, an' the solemn procession marched in singin' some sad hymn or other with every man-jack of 'em wipin' his eyes an' snufflin'. Now, that was all well an' good as far as it went, but thar was a traitor in the camp. Somebody had let the dead man in on the job, an' when the gang got to the door of the little room he jumped out o' bed with a surprised sort o' grunt an' let into firin' blank-cartridges straight at 'em. Folks say that thar was some o' the tallest runnin' an' jumpin' an' hidin' under counters an' bustin' show-cases that ever tuck place out of a circus. After that night Jeff said the whole town was meetin' the gang an' tellin' 'em that thar must 'a' been some mistake about the report of Bob Hadley's death anyway."

Mostyn laughed heartily. Indeed, he was conscious of a growing sense of deep content and restfulness. The turmoil of business and city life seemed almost dreamlike in its remoteness from his present more rational existence. With the handle of his whip Webb pointed to the roof of the farmhouse, the fuzzy gray shingles of which were barely showing above the trees by which it was shaded.

"You haven't told me how the family are," Mostyn said, "I suppose the children are much larger now. Dolly, at least, must be a young lady, from what Saunders tells me of her school-work."

Webb's blue eyes swept the face of the banker with a steady scrutiny.

There was a faint twinkle in their mystic depths as he replied.

"Yes, she's full grown. She's kin folks o' mine, an' it ain't for me to say, but I'd be unnatural if I wasn't proud of 'er. She's the head of that shebang, me included. What she says goes with young or old. She ain't more'n eighteen, if she's that, an' yet she furnishes brains for us an' mighty nigh all the neighborhood. You wait till you see 'er an' hear 'er talk, an' you will know what I mean."

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