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   Chapter 4 No.4

The Everlasting Whisper By Jackson Gregory Characters: 16902

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

At first, King was taken aback by Mrs. Ben's youthfulness. Or look of youth, as he understood presently. He knew that she was within a few years of Ben's age, and yet certainly she showed no signs of it to his eyes, which, though keen enough, were, after a male fashion, unsophisticated. She was a very pretty woman, petite, alert, and decidedly winsome. He understood in a flash why Ben should have been attracted to her; how she had held him to her own policies all these years, largely because they were hers. She was dressed daintily; her glossy brown hair was becomingly arranged about the bright, smiling face. She chose to be very gracious to her husband's life-long friend, giving him a small, plump hand in a welcoming grip, establishing him in an instant, by some sleight of femininity which King did not plumb, as a hearthside intimate most affectionately regarded. His first two impressions of her, arriving almost but not quite simultaneously, were of youthful prettiness and cleverness.

She slipped to a place on the arm of Gaynor's chair, her hand, whose well-kept beauty caught and held King's eyes for a moment, toying with her husband's greying hair.

"She loves old Ben," thought King. "That's right."

Mrs. Ben Gaynor was what is known as a born hostess very charming. Hostess to her husband, of whom she saw somewhat less each year than of a number of other friends. She had always the exactly proper meed of intimacy to offer each guest in accordance with the position he had come to occupy, or which she meant him to occupy, in her household. Akin to her in instinct were those distinguished ladies of the colourful past of whom romantic history has it that in the salons of their doting lords and masters they gave direction, together with impetus or retardation, to muddy political currents. Clever women.

Not that cleverness necessarily connotes heartlessness. She adored Ben; you could see that in her quick dark eyes, which were always animated with expression. If she was not more at his side, the matter was simply explained; she adored their daughter Gloria no less, and probably somewhat more, and Gloria needed her. Surely Gaynor's needs, those of a grown man, were less than those of a young girl whose budding youth must be perfected in flower. And if Mrs. Ben was indefatigable in keeping herself young while Ben quietly accepted the gathering years, it was with no thought of coquetting with other men, but only that she might remain an older sister to her daughter, maintain the closer contact, and see that Gloria made the most of life. Any small misstep which she herself had made in life her daughter must be saved from making; all of her unsatisfied yearnings must be fulfilled for Gloria. She constituted herself cup-bearer, wine-taster and handmaiden for their daughter. If it were necessary to engrave another fine line in old Ben's forehead in order to add a softer tint to Gloria's rose petals, she was sincerely sorry for Ben, but the desirable rose tints were selected with none the less steady hand.

Ben Gaynor's eyes followed his wife pridefully when, at the end of fifteen pleasant, sunny minutes, she left them, and then went swiftly to his friend's face, seeking approbation. And he found it. King had risen as she went out, holding himself with a hint of stiffness, as was his unconscious way when infrequently in the presence of women; now he turned to Ben with an odd smile.

"Pretty tardy date to congratulate you, old man," he said with a laugh.

"Don't believe I ever remembered it before, did I?"

Ben glowed and rubbed his long hands together in rich contentment.

"She's a wonder, Mark," he said heartily.

Mark nodded an emphatic approval. Words, which Ben perhaps looked for, he did not add. Everything had been said in the one word "congratulate."

"Sprang from good old pioneer stock, too, Mark," said Gaynor. "Wouldn't think now, to look at her, that she was born at Gold Run in a family as rugged as yours and mine, would you? With precious few advantages until she was a girl grown, look at what she has made of herself! While you and I and the likes of us have been content to stay pretty much in the rough, she hasn't. There's not a more accomplished, cultured little woman this or the other side Boston, even if she did hail from Gold Run. And as for Gloria, all her doing; why," and he chuckled, "she hasn't the slightest idea, I suppose, that she ever had a grandfather who sweated and went about in shirt-sleeves and chewed tobacco and swore!"

"Have to go all the way back to a grandfather?" laughed King.

"Look at me!" challenged Gaynor, thrusting into notice his immaculate attire. He chuckled. "One must live down his disgraceful past for his daughter, you know."

From without came a gust of shouts and laughter from the Gaynor guests skylarking along the lake shore.

"Come," said Ben. "You'll have to meet the crowd, Mark. And I want you to see my little girl; I've told her so many yarns about you that she's dying of curiosity."

King, though he would have preferred to tramp ten miles over rough trails, gleaning small joy from meeting strangers not of his sort who would never be anything but strangers to him, accepted the inevitable without demur and followed his host. He would shake hands, say a dozen stupid words, and escape for a good long talk with Ben. Then, before the lunch-hour, he would be off.

Gaynor led the way toward a side door, passing through a hallway and a wide sun-room. Thus they came abreast of a wide stairway leading to the second storey. Down the glistening treads, making her entrance like the heroine in a play, just at the proper instant, in answer to her cue, came Gloria.

"Gloria," called Gaynor.

"Papa," said Miss Gloria, "I wanted--Oh! You are not alone!"

Instinctively King frowned. "Now, why did she say that?" he asked within himself. For she had seen him coming to the house. Straight-dealing himself, circuitous ways, even in trifles, awoke his distrust.

"Come here, my dear," said Ben. "Mark, this is my little girl. Gloria, you know all about this wild man. He is Mark King."

"Indeed, yes!" cried Gloria. She came smiling down the stairway, a fluffy pink puffball floating fairy-wise. Her two hands were out, ingenuously, pretty little pink-nailed hands which had done little in this world beyond adorn charmingly the extremities of two soft round arms. For an instant King felt the genial current within him frozen as he stiffened to meet the girl he had watched in the extravagant dance down to the lake.

Then, getting his first near view of her, his eyes widened. He had never seen anything just like her; with that he began realizing dully that he was straying into strange pastures. He took her two hands because there was nothing else to do, feeling just a trifle awkward in the unaccustomed act. He looked down into Gloria's face, which was lifted so artlessly up to his. Hers were the softest, tenderest grey eyes he had ever looked into. He had the uneasy fear that his hard rough hands were rasping the fine soft skin of hers. Yet there was a warm pleasurable thrill in the contact. Gloria was very much alive and warm-bodied and beautiful. She was like those flowers which King knew so well, fragrant dainty blossoms which lift their little faces from the highest of the old mountains into the rarest of skies, growths seeming to partake of some celestial perfection; hardy, though they clothed themselves in an outward seeming of fragile delicacy. Physically-he emphasized the word and barricaded himself behind it as though he were on the defence against her!-she came nearer perfection than he had thought a girl could come, and nowhere did he find a conflicting detail from the tendril of sunny brown hair touching the curve of the sweet young face to the little feet in their clicking high-heeled shoes. Thus from the beginning he thought of her in superlatives. And thus did Gloria, like the springtime coquetting with an aloof and silent wilderness, make her bright entry into Mark King's life.

"I have been acting-up like a Comanche Indian outside," laughed Gloria. It was she who withdrew her hands; King started inwardly, wondering how long he had been holding them, how long he would have held them if she had not been so serenely mistress of the moment. "My hair was all tumbling down and I had to run upstairs to fight it back where it be

longs. Isn't a girl's hair a terrible affliction, Mr. King? One of these days, when papa's back is turned, I'm going to cut it off short, like a boy's."

An explanation of her presence in the house while her guests were still in the yard; why explain so trifling a matter? A suggestion that she retained that lustrous crown of hair just to please her papa, whereas one who had not been told might have been mistaken in his belief that this should be one of her greatest prides. Two little fibs for Miss Gloria; yet, certainly, very small fibs which hurt no one.

Gloria's eyes, despite their soft tenderness, were every whit as quick as Mark King's when they were, as now, intrigued. Of course both she and King had heard countless references, one of the other, from Ben Gaynor, but neither had been greatly interested. King had known that there was a baby girl, long ago; that fact had been impressed on him with such rare eloquence that it had created a mental picture which, until now, had been vivid and like an indelible drawing; he had known, had he ever paused for reflection, which he had not, that a baby would not stay such during a period of eighteen years. She had heard a thousand tales of "my good friend, Mark." Mark, thus, had been in her mind a man of her father's age, and about such a young girl's romantic ideas do not flock. But from the first glimpse of the booted figure among the trees she had sensed other things. King would have blushed had he known how picturesque he bulked in her eyes; how now, while she smiled at him so ingenuously, she was doing his thorough-going masculinity full tribute; how the ruggedness of him, the very scent of the resinous pines he bore along with him, the clear manlike look of his eyes and the warm dusky tan of face and hands-even the effect of the careless, worn boots and the muscular throat showing through an open shirt-collar-put a delicious little shiver of excitement into her.

Miss Gloria had a pretty way of commanding, half beseeching and yet altogether tyrannical. King, having agreed to stay to luncheon, was in the bathroom off Gaynor's room, shaving. Gloria had caught her father and dragged him off into a corner. "Oh, papa, he is simply magnificent! Why didn't you tell me? Why, he isn't a bit old and--" And she made him repaint for her the high lights of an episode of Mark King making a name for himself and a fortune at the same time in the Klondike country. She danced away, singing, to her abandoned friends, who were returning to the house. "It's the Mark King, my dears!" she told them triumphantly, not unconscious of the depressing result of her disclosures upon a couple of boys of the college age who adored openly and with frequent lapses from glorious hope to bleak despair. "The man who made history in the Klondike. The man who fought his way alone across fifteen hundred miles of snow and ice and won-oh-I don't know what kind of a fight. Against all kinds of odds. The very Mark King! He's papa's best friend, you know."

"Let him be your dad's friend, then," said the young fellow with the pampered pompadour, his eyes showing a glint of sullen jealousy. "That's no reason--"

"Why, Archie!" cried Gloria. "You are making yourself just horrid. You don't want to make me sorry I ever invited you here, do you?" And a brief half-hour ago Archie had flattered himself that Gloria's dancing had been chiefly for him.

They were all of Gloria's "set" with one noteworthy exception. Him she called "Mr. Gratton" while the others were Archie and Teddy and Georgia and Evelyn and Connie. It was to this "Mr. Gratton" that she turned, having made a piquant face at the dejected college youth.

"You will like him immensely, I know," she said, while the ears of poor Archie reddened even as he was being led away by the not very pretty but extremely comforting Georgia. "He's a real man, every inch of him." ["Every inch a King!" she thought quickly, unashamed of the pun.] "A big man who does big things in a big way," she ran on, indicating that she, too, after that brief meeting had been lured into superlatives.

"Mr. Gratton," smiled urbanely. For his own part he might have been called every inch a concrete expression of suavity. He was clad in the conventional city-dweller's "outdoor rig." Shining puttees lying bravely about the shape of his leg; brown outing breeches, creased, laced at their abbreviated ends; shirt of the sport effect; a shrewd-eyed man of thirty-five with ambitions, a chalky complexion, and a very weak mouth with full red lips.

"Miss Gloria," he whispered as he managed to have her all to himself a moment, "you'll make me jealous."

She was used to him saying stupid things. Yet she laughed and seemed pleased. Gratton egotistically supposed her thought was of him; King would have been amazed to know that she was already watching the house for his coming. And he would have been no end amazed and bristling with defence had he glimpsed the astonishing fact that Gloria already fully and clearly meant to parade him before her summer friends as her latest and most virile admirer. Gratton's heavy-lidded pale eyes trailed over her speculatively.

That forenoon King shook hands with Archie, Teddy, Gratton, and the rest, made his formal bows to Gloria's girl friends, and felt relief when the inept banalities languished and he was free to draw apart. Gratton, with slender finger to his shadowy moustache, bore down upon him. King did not like this suave individual; he had the habit of judging a man by first impressions and sticking stubbornly to his snap judgment until circumstance showed him to be in error. He liked neither the way Gratton walked nor talked; he had no love for the cut of his eye; now he resented being approached when there was no call for it. Never was there a more friendly man anywhere than Mark King when he found a soul-brother; never a more aloof at times like this one.

"I have been tremendously interested," Gratton led off ingratiatingly, "in the things I have heard of you, Mr. King. By George, men like you live the real life."

The wild fancy came booming upon King to kick him over the verandah railing.

"Think so?" he said coolly, wondering despite himself what "things" Gratton had heard of him. And from whom? His spirit groaned within him at the thought that old Ben Gaynor had been lured into paths along which he should come to hobnob with men like Gratton. He was sorry that he had promised to stay to lunch. His thoughts all of a sudden were restive, flying off to Swen Brodie, to Loony Honeycutt, to what he must get done without too much delay. Gratton startled him by speaking, bringing his thoughts back from across the ridges to the sunny verandah overlooking Lake Gloria.

Gratton was nobody's fool, save his own, and both marked and resented King's attitude. His heavy lids had a fluttering way at times during which his prominent eyes seemed to flicker.

"What's the chance with Gus Ingle's 'Secret' this year, Mr. King?" he demanded silkily.

King wheeled on him.

"What do you know about it?" he said sharply. "And who has been talking to you?"

Gratton laughed, looked wise and amused, and strolled away.

At luncheon Mrs. Gaynor placed her guests at table out on the porch, conscious of her daughter's watchful eye. When all were seated, Mark King found himself with Miss Gloria at his right and an unusually plain and unattractive girl named Georgia on his left. Everybody talked, King alone contenting himself with brevities. Over dessert he found himself drifting into tête-á-tête with Miss Gloria. They pushed back their chairs; he found himself still drifting, this time physically and still with Gloria as they two strolled out through the grove at the back of the log house. There was a splendid pool there, boulder-surrounded; a thoroughly romantic sort of spot in Gloria Gaynor's fancies, a most charming background for springtime loitering. The gush and babble of the bright water tumbling in, rushing out, filled the air singingly. Gloria wanted to ask Mr. King about a certain little bird which she had seen here, a little fellow who might have been the embodiment of the stream's joy; she knew from her father that King was an intimate friend of wild things and could tell her all about it. They sat in Gloria's favourite nook, very silent, now and then with a whisper from Gloria, awaiting the coming of the bird.

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