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The Early Bird: A Business Man's Love Story By George Randolph Chester Characters: 12383

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

On that very same evening Hollis Creek came over to the bowling tournament, and Miss Stevens, arriving with young Hollis, promptly lost that perfervid young man, who had become somewhat of a nuisance in his sentimental insistence. Mr. Turner, watching her from afar, saw her desert the calfly smitten one, and immediately dashed for the breach. He had watched from too great a distance, however, for Billy Westlake gobbled up Miss Josephine before Sam could get there, and started with her for that inevitable stroll among the brookside paths which always preceded a bowling tournament. While he stood nonplussed, looking after them, Miss Hastings glided to his side in a matter of course way.

"Isn't it a perfectly charming evening?" she wanted to know.

"It is a regular dear of an evening," admitted Sam savagely.

In his single thoughtedness he was scrambling wildly about within the interior of his skull for a pretext to get rid of Miss Hastings, but it suddenly occurred to him that now he had a legitimate excuse for following the receding couple, and promptly upon the birth of this idea, he pulled in that direction and Miss Hastings came right along, though a trifle silently. With all her vivacious chattering, she was not without shrewdness, and with no trouble whatever she divined precisely why Sam chose the path he did, and why he seemed in such almost blundering haste. They were a little late, it was true, for just as they started, Billy and Miss Stevens turned aside and out of sight into the shadiest and narrowest and most involved of the shrubbery-lined paths, the one which circled about the little concealed summer-house with a dove-cote on top, which was commonly dubbed "the cooing place." Following down this path the rear couple suddenly came upon a tableau which made them pause abruptly. Billy Westlake, upon the steps of the summer-house, was upon his knees, there in the swiftly blackening dusk, before the appalled Miss Stevens; actually upon his knees! Silently the two watchers stole away, but when they were out of earshot Miss Hastings tittered. Sam, though the moment was a serious one for him, was also compelled to grin.

"I didn't know they did it that way any more," he confessed.

"They don't," Miss Hastings informed him; "that is, unless they are very, very young, or very, very old."

"Apparently you've had experience," observed Sam.

"Yes," she admitted a little bitterly. "I think I've had rather more than my share; but all with ineligibles."

Sam felt a trace of pity for Miss Hastings, who was of polite family, but poor, and a guest of the Westlakes, but he scarcely knew how to express it, and felt that it was not quite safe anyhow, so he remained discreetly silent.

By mutual, though unspoken impulse, they stopped under the shade of a big tree up on the lawn, and waited for the couple who had been found in the delicate situation either to reappear on the way back to the house, or to emerge at the other end of the path on the way to the bowling shed. It was scarcely three minutes when they reappeared on the way back to the house, and both watchers felt an instant thrill of relief, for the two were by no means lover-like in their attitudes. Billy had hold of Miss Josephine's arm and was helping her up the slope, but their shoulders were not touching in the process, nor were arms clasped closely against sides. They passed by the big tree unseeing, then, as they neared the house, without a word, they parted. Miss Stevens proceeded toward the porch, and stopped to take a handkerchief from her sleeve and pass it carefully and lightly over her face. Billy Westlake strode off a little way toward the bowling shed, stopped and lit a cigarette, took two or three puffs, started on, stopped again, then threw the cigarette to the ground with quite unnecessary vigor, and stamped on it. Miss Hastings, without adieus of any sort, glided swiftly away in the direction of Billy, and then a dim glimmer of understanding came to Sam Turner that only Miss Stevens had stood in the way of Miss Hastings' capture of Billy Westlake. He wasted no time over this thought, however, but strode very swiftly and determinedly up to Miss Josephine.

"I'm glad to find you alone," he said; "I want to make an explanation."

"Don't bother about it," she told him frigidly. "You owe me no explanations whatsoever, Mr. Turner."

"I'm going to make them anyhow," he declared. "You saw me twice this afternoon in utterly asinine situations."

"I remember of no such situations," she stated still frigidly, and started to move on toward the house.

"But wait a minute," said Sam, catching her by the arm and detaining her. "You did see me in silly situations, and I want you to know the facts about them."

"I'm not at all interested," she informed him, now with absolute north pole iciness, and started to move away again.

He held her more tightly.

"The first time," he went on, "was when Miss Hastings slipped on the rocks and I had to catch her to keep her from falling."

"Will you kindly let me go, Mr. Turner?" demanded Miss Josephine.

"No, I will not!" he replied, and pulled her about a trifle so that she was compelled to face him. "I don't choose to have anybody, least of all you, think wrongly of me."

"Mr. Turner, I do not choose to be detained against my will," declared Miss Josephine.

"Mr. Turner," boomed a deep-timbered voice right behind them, "the lady has requested you to let her go. I should advise you to do so."

Mr. Turner was attempting to frame up a reasonable answer to this demand when Miss Josephine prevented him from doing so.

"Mr. Princeman," said she to the interrupting gallant, "I thank you for your interference on my behalf, but I am quite capable of protecting myself," and leaving the two stunned gentlemen together, she once more took her handkerchief from her sleeve and walked swiftly up to the porch, brushing the handkerchief lightly over her face again.

"Well, I'll be damned!" said Princeman, looking after her in more or less bewilderment.

"So will I," said Sam. "Have you a cigarette about you?"

Princeman gave him one and they took a li

ght from the same match, then, neither one of them caring to discuss any subject whatever at that particular moment, they separated, and Sam hunted a lonely corner. He wanted to be alone and gloom. Confound bowling, anyhow! It was a dull and uninteresting game. He cared less for it as time went on, he found; less to-night than ever. He crept away into the dim and deserted parlor and sat down at the piano, the only friend in which he cared to confide just then. He played, with a queer lingering touch which had something of hesitation in it, and which reduced all music to a succession of soft chords, The Maid of Dundee and Annie Laurie, The Banks of Banna and The Last Rose of Summer, then one of the simpler nocturnes of Chopin, and, following these, a quaint, slow melody which was like all of the others and yet like none.

"Bravo!" exclaimed a gentle voice in the doorway, and he turned, startled, to see Miss Stevens standing there. She did not explain why she had relented, but came directly into the room and stood at the end of the piano. He reached up and shook hands with her quite naturally, and just as naturally and simply she let her hand lie in his for an instant. How soft and warm her palm was, and how grateful the touch of it!

"What a pleasant surprise!" she said. "I didn't know you played."

"I don't," he confessed, smiling. "If you had stopped to listen you would have known. You ought to hear my kid brother play though. He's a corker."

"But I did listen," she insisted, ignoring the reference to his "kid brother." "I stood there a long time and I thought it beautiful. What was that last selection?"

He flushed guiltily.

"It was-oh, just a little thing I sort of put together myself," he told her.

"How delightful! And so you compose, too?"

"Not at all," he hastily assured her. "This is the only thing, and it seemed to come just sort of naturally to me from time to time. I don't suppose it's finished yet, because I never play it exactly as I did before. I always seem to add a little bit to it. I do wish that I had had time to know more of music. What little I play I learned from a pianola."

"A what?" she gasped.

He laughed in a half-embarrassed way.

"A pianola," he repeated. "You see I've always been hungry for music, and while my kid brother was still in college I began to be able to afford things, and one of the first luxuries was a pianola. You know the machine has a little lever which throws the keys in or out of engagement, so that you can play it as a regular piano if you wish, and if you leave the keys engaged while you are playing the rolls, they work up and down; so by watching these I gradually learned to pick out my favorite tunes by hand. I couldn't play them so well by myself as the rolls played them, but somehow or other they gave me more satisfaction."

Miss Stevens did not laugh. In some indefinable way all this made a difference in Sam Turner-a considerable difference-and she felt quite justified in having deliberately come to the conclusion that she had been "mean" to him; in having deliberately slipped away from the others as they were all going over to the bowling alleys; in having come back deliberately to find him.

"Your favorite tunes," she repeated musingly. "What was the first one, I wonder? One of those that you have just been playing?"

"The first one?" he returned with a smile. "No, it was a sort of rag-time jingle. I thought it very pretty then, but I played it over the other day, the first time in years, and I didn't seem to like it at all. In fact, I wonder how I ever did like it."

Rag-time! And now, left entirely to his own devices and for his own pleasure, he was playing Chopin! Yes, it made quite a difference in Sam Turner. She was glad that she had decided to wear his roses, glad even that he recognized them. At her solicitation Sam played again the plaintive little air of his own composition-and played it much better than ever he had played it before. Then they walked out on the porch and strolled down toward the bowling shed. Half way there was a little side path, leading off through an arbor into a shady way which crossed the brook on a little rustic bridge, which wound about between flowerbeds and shrubbery and back by another little bridge, and which lengthened the way to the bowling shed by about four times the normal distance-and they took that path; and when they reached the bowling alley they were not quite ready to go in.

[Illustration: Sam played again the plaintive little air]

There seemed no reasonable excuse for staying out longer, however, for the bowling had already started, and, moreover, young Tilloughby happened to come to the door and spied them. Princeman was just getting up to bowl for the honor and glory of Meadow Brook, and within one minute later Miss Stevens was watching the handsome young paper manufacturer with absorbed interest. He was a fine picture of athletic manhood as he stood up, weighing the ball, and a splendid picture of masculine action as he rushed forward to deliver it. Sam had to acknowledge that himself, and out of fairness he even had to join in the mad applause when Princeman made strike after strike. They had Princeman up again in the last frame, and it was a ticklish moment. The Hollis Creek team was fifty points ahead. Dramatic unities, under the circumstances, demanded that Princeman, by a tremendous exercise of coolness and skill, overcome that lead by his own personal efforts, and he did, winning the tournament for Meadow Brook with a breathless few points to spare.

But did Sam Turner care that Princeman was the hero of the hour? More power to Princeman, for from the bevy of flushed and eager girls who flocked about the Adonis-like victor, Miss Josephine Stevens was absent. She was there, with him, in Paradise! Incidentally Sam made an engagement to drive with her in the morning, and when, at the close of that delightful evening, the carryall carried her away, she beamed upon him; gave him two or three beams in fact, and said good-by personally and waved her hand to him personally; nobody else was there in all that crowd but just they two!

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