Hampton’s, July 1910
AFTER three minutes of silent and intense thought, John Barton gave out the statement that the moonlight on the terrace was pretty. Aline Ellison said, “Yes, very pretty.”
“But, I say, by Jove,” said a voice behind them, “you should see some of the moonlight effects on the Mediterranean, Barton. You really should. They would appeal to you. There is nothing like them, is there, Miss Ellison?”
Homicidal feelings surged up within John’s bosom. This was the fourth time that day that Lord Bertie Fendall had butted in just as he had got Aline alone. It was maddening. Man, in his dealings with the more attractive of the opposite sex, is either a buzzer or a thinker. John was a thinker. In ordinary circumstances a tolerable conversationalist, he became when in the presence of Aline Ellison a thinker of the most pronounced type, practically incapable of speech. What he wanted was time. He was freight, not express. But he had perseverance, and, provided the line was kept clear, was bound to get somewhere in the end.
The advent of Lord Bertie had blocked the line. From the moment when Mr. Keith, their host, had returned from New York bringing with him the son and heir of the Earl of Stockleigh, John’s maneuvers had received a check. In Lord Bertie he had a rival, and a rival who was a buzzer. The Englishman had the gift of conversation, and a course of travel had provided him with material for small-talk. Aline, her father being rich and her mother a sort of female Ulysses, had gone over much of the ground which Lord Bertie had covered; and the animation with which she exchanged views of European travel with him made John moist with agony. John was no fool—members of the New York Stock Exchange would have testified to that—but he had never been east of the Statue of Liberty; and, in conversations dealing with the views from the summit of the Jungfrau or the paintings of obscure Dagoes in Florentine picture-galleries, this handicapped him.
On the present occasion he accepted defeat with moody resignation. His opportunity had gone. The conversation was now dealing with Monte Carlo, and Lord Bertie had plainly come to stay. His high-pitched voice rattled on and on. Aline seemed absorbed.
With a muttered excuse John turned into the house. It was hard. To-morrow he was leaving for New York, owing to the sudden illness of his partner. True, he would be coming back in a week or so; but in that time the worst, probably, would have happened. He went to bed so dispirited that, stubbing his toe against a chair in the dark, he merely sighed.
As he paced the terrace after breakfast, waiting for the automobile, Keggs, the Keiths’ butler, approached.
At the beginning of his visit Keggs had inspired John with an awe amounting at times to positive discomfort. He had suffered terribly under the butler’s dignified gaze, until one morning the latter, with the air of a high-priest conferring with an underling on some point of ritual, had asked him whether in his opinion he would be doing rightly in putting his shirt on Mumblin’ Mose in a forthcoming handicap, as he had been advised to do by a metropolitan friend who claimed to be in the confidence of the trainer. John, recovering from the shock, answered in the affirmative; and a long and stately exchange of ideas on the subject of Current Form ensued. At dinner, a few days later, the butler, leaning over John to help him to sherry, murmured softly: “Romped ’ome, sir, thanking you, sir,” and from that moment had intimated by his manner that John might consider himself promoted to the rank of an equal and a friend.
“Hexcuse me, sir,” said the butler, “but Frederick, who ’as charge of your packing, desired me to ask you what arrangements you wished made with regard to the dog, sir.”
The animal in question was a beautiful bulldog, Reuben by name. John had brought him to the country at the special request of Aline, who had met him in New York and fallen an instant victim to his rugged charms.
“The dog?” he said. “Oh, yes. Tell Frederick to put his leash on. Where is he?”
“Gruffling at ’is lordship, sir,” said Keggs tranquilly, as if he were naming some customary and recognized occupation for bulldogs.
“Gruffling at—? What!”
“ ’Is lordship, sir, ’ave climbed a tree, and Reuben is at the foot, gruffling at ’im very fierce.”
“ ’Is lordship, sir,” continued Keggs, “ ’as halways been uncommon afraid of dogs, from boy’ood hup. I ’ad the honor to be hemployed as butler some years ago by ’is father, Lord Stockleigh, and was enabled at that time to hobserve Lord ’Erbert’s hextreme aversion for hanimals of that description. ’Is huneasiness in the presence of even ’er ladyship’s toy Pomeranian was ’ighly marked and much commented on in the servants’ ’all.”
“So you had met Lord Herbert before?”
“I was butler at the castle a matter of six years, sir.”
“Well,” said John, with some reluctance, “I guess we must get him out of that tree. Fancy being afraid of old Reuben! Why, he wouldn’t hurt a fly.”
“ ’E ’ave took a huncommon dislike to ’is lordship, sir,” said Keggs.
“Where’s the tree?”
“Hat the lower end of the terrace, sir. Beyond the nood statoo, sir.”
John ran in the direction indicated, his steps guided by an intermittent sound as of one gargling. Presently he came in view of the tree. At the foot, with his legs well spread and his massive head raised, stood Reuben. From a branch some little distance from the ground peered down the agitated face of Lord Bertie Fendall. His lordship’s aristocratic pallor was intensified. He looked almost green.
“I say,” he called, as John appeared, “do for Heaven’s sake take that bally dog away. I’ve been up here the dickens of a time. It isn’t safe with that animal about. He’s a bally menace.”
Reuben, glancing over his shoulder, recognized his master, and, having no tail to speak of, wagged his body in a welcoming way. He looked up at Lord Bertie, and back again at John. As clearly as if he had spoken the words his eye said: “Come along, John. You and I are friends. Be a sport and pull him down out of that.”
“Take the brute away!” cried his lordship.
“He’s quite good-natured, really. He won’t hurt you.”
“He won’t get the bally chance,” replied Lord Bertie with acerbity. “Take him away.”
John stooped and grasped the dog’s collar.
“Come on, Reuben, you old fool,” he said. “We shall be missing that train.”
The automobile was already at the door when he got back. Mr. Keith was there, and Aline.
“Too bad, Barton,” said Mr. Keith, “your having to break your visit like this. You’ll come back, though? How soon, do you think?”
“Inside of two weeks, I hope,” said John. “Hammond has had these influenza attacks before. They never last long. Have you seen Reuben’s leash anywhere?”
Aline Ellison uttered a cry of anguish.
“Oh, you aren’t taking Reuben, Mr. Barton! You can’t! You mustn’t!”
John cleared his throat.
What he wanted to say was, “Miss Ellison, your lightest wish is law. I love you—and not with the weak two-by-four imitation of affection such as may be offered to you by certain knock-kneed members of the British peerage. Take Reuben. And when you look upon him, think, if but for a moment, of one who, though far away, is thinking always of you.”
What he said was: “Er, I——”
And that, mind you, was going some for John.
“Oh, thank you!” cried Aline. “Thank you so much, Mr. Barton. It’s perfectly sweet of you, and I’ll take such care of him. I won’t let him out of my sight for a minute.”
“ . . .,” said John brightly. Mathematicians do not need to be informed that “ . . . ” is the algebraical sign representing a blend of wheeze, croak, and hiccough.
And the automobile rolled off.
It was about an hour later that Lord Bertie Fendall, finding Aline seated under the shade of the trees, came to a halt beside her.
“Barton went off in the car just now, didn’t he?” he inquired casually.
“Yes,” said Aline.
Lord Bertie drew a deep breath of relief and began to buzz.
“Do you know, Miss Ellison——”
A short cough immediately behind him made him look round. His voice trailed off. His eyeglass fell with a jerk and bounded on the end of its cord. He sprang to his feet.
“Come here, Reuben,” said Aline. “What have you been doing to your nose? It’s all muddy. Aren’t you fond of dogs, Lord Herbert? I love them.”
“Eh? I beg your pardon?” said his lordship, revolving warily on his own axis, as the animal lumbered past him. “Oh, yes. Yes. That is to say—oh, yes. Very.”
Aline was removing the mud from Reuben’s nose with the corner of her pocket-handkerchief.
“Don’t you think you can generally tell a man’s character by whether dogs take to him or not? They have such wonderful instinct.”
“Wonderful,” agreed his lordship, meeting Reuben’s rolling eye and looking hastily away.
“Mr. Barton was going to take Reuben with him, but that would have been silly for such a short while, wouldn’t it?”
“Yes. Oh, yes,” said Lord Bertie. “I suppose,” he went on, “he will spend most of his time in the stables and so on, don’t you know? Not in the house, I mean, don’t you know, what?”
“The idea!” cried Aline indignantly. “Reuben’s not a stable dog. I’m never going to let him out of my sight.”
“No?” said Lord Bertie, a little feverishly. “No? Oh, no. Quite so.”
“There,” said Aline, giving Reuben a push, “now you’re tidy. What were you saying, Lord Herbert?”
Reuben moved a step forward and wheezed slightly.
“Saying?” said his Lordship, backing. “Oh, yes. Yes, I was saying—good dog! Good old fellow! I was saying—would you excuse me, Miss Ellison,—good dog, then!—I have just recollected an important—there’s a good boy!—an important letter I meant to have written.”
The announcement of his proposed departure may have been somewhat abrupt, but at any rate no fault could be found with his manner of leaving. It was ceremonious in the extreme. He moved out of her presence backwards, as if she had been royalty.
Aline saw him depart with a slightly aggrieved feeling. She had been in the mood for company. For some reason which she could not define she was conscious of quite a sensation of loneliness. It was absurd to think that John’s departure could have caused this. And yet somehow it did leave a blank. Perhaps it was because he was so big and silent. You grew used to his being there just as you grew used to the scenery, and you missed him when he was gone. That was all. If the Metropolitan tower were removed, one would feel lonely in Madison Square.
Lord Bertie, meanwhile, having reached the smoking room, where he proposed to brood over the situation with the assistance of a series of cigarettes, found Keggs there, arranging the New York morning papers on a side table. He flung himself into an armchair, and, with a scowl at the butler’s back, struck a match.
“I ’ope your lordship is suffering no hill effects from the adventure?” said Keggs, finishing the disposal of the papers.
“What?” said Lord Bertie coldly. He disliked Keggs.
“I was halluding to your lordship’s encounter with the dog Reuben this morning.”
Lord Bertie started.
“What do you mean?”
“I observed that your lordship ’ad climbed a tree to elude the hanimal.”
“You saw it?”
“Then why the devil, you silly old idiot,” demanded his lordship explosively, “didn’t you come and take the brute away?”
It had been the practice in the old days both of Lord Bertie and of his father to address the butler in moments of agitation with a certain aristocratic vigor.
“I ’ardly liked to hinterfere, your lordship, beyond hinforming Mr. Barton. The hanimal being ’is.”
Lord Bertie flung his cigarette out of the window and kicked a footstool. Keggs regarded these evidences of an overwrought soul sympathetically.
“I can happreciate your lordship’s emotion,” he said, “knowing ’ow haverse to dogs your lordship ’as always been. It seems only yesterday,” he continued reminiscently, “ that your lordship, then a boy at Heton, ’ome for the ’olidays, ’anded me a package of Rough on Rats, and hinstructed me to poison ’er ladyship your mother’s toy Pomeranian with it.”
Lord Bertie started for the second time since he had entered the room. He screwed his eyeglass firmly into his eye and looked keenly at the butler. Keggs’ face was expressionless. Lord Bertie coughed. He looked round at the door. It was closed.
“You didn’t do it,” he said.
“The honorarium which your lordship hoffered,” said the butler deprecatingly, “was only six postage stamps and a ’arf share in a white rat. I did not consider it hadequate in view of the undoubted riskiness of the proposed hact.”
“You’d have done it if I had offered more?”
“That, your lordship, it is himpossible to say after this lapse of time.”
The Earl of Stockleigh had at one time the idea of attaching his son and heir to the diplomatic service. Lord Bertie’s next speech may supply some clue to his father’s reasons for abandoning that scheme.
“Keggs,” he said, leaning forward, “what will you take to poison that damned dog, Reuben?”
The butler raised a hand in pained protest.
“Your lordship, reely!”
Keggs seemed to waver.
“I’ll give you a hundred and fifty,” said his lordship.
Before the butler could reply, the door opened and Mr. Keith entered.
“The New York papers, sir,” said Keggs deferentially, and passed out of the room.
It was a few days later that he presented himself again before Lord Bertie. His lordship was in low spirits. He was not in love with Aline—he would have considered it rather bad form to be in love with anyone—but he found her possessed of attractions and wealth sufficient to qualify her for an alliance with a Stockleigh; and he had concentrated his mind, as far as it was capable of being concentrated on anything, upon bringing the alliance about. And up to a point everything had seemed to progress admirably. Then Reuben had come to the fore and wrecked the campaign. How could a fellow keep up an easy flow of conversation with one eye on a bally savage bulldog all the time? And the brute never left her. Wherever she went, he went, lumbering along like a cart horse, with a nasty look out of the corner of his eye whenever a fellow came up and tried to say a word. The whole bally situation, decided his lordship, was getting dashed impossible, and if something didn’t happen to change it he would get out of the place and go back to New York.
“Might I ’ave a word, your lordship?” said Keggs.
“I ’ave been thinking over your lordship’s hoffer——”
“Yes?” said Lord Bertie eagerly.
“Ham I to understand that it ’olds good irrespective of the manner in which the hobject is achieved?”
“What do you mean?”
“The method of heliminating the hanimal which your lordship indicated would ’ardly do, I fear. Hawkward questions would be asked, and a public hexpose would inevitably ensue. Hif your lordship would permit me to make a halternative suggestion——?”
“I was reading a article in the newspaper, your lordship, on ’ow sparrows an’ such is painted up to represent bullfinches, canaries, hand so on, hand I says to myself ‘Why not?’ ”
“Why not what?” demanded his lordship irritably.
“Why not substitoot for Reuben hanother dog painted to appear hidentically similar?”
His lordship looked fixedly at him.
“Do you know what you are, Keggs?” he said. “A blithering idiot.”
“Your lordship halways ’ad a spirited manner of speech,” said Keggs, deprecatingly.
“You and your sparrows and canaries and bullfinches! Do you think Reuben’s a bally bird?”
“I see no flaw hin the idea, your lordship. ’Orses and such is frequent treated that way. I was talking the matter hover with Roberts, the chauffeur——”
“What! And how many more people have you discussed my affairs with?”
“Honly Roberts, your lordship. It was hunavoidable. Roberts being the owner of a dog which could be painted up to be the living spit of Reuben, your lordship.”
“For a hadequate honorarium, your lordship.”
Lord Bertie’s manner became excited.
“Where is he? No, not Roberts. I don’t want to see Roberts. This dog, I mean.”
“Hat Roberts’ cottage, your lordship. ’E is a great favorite with the children.”
“Is he, by Jove? Good-tempered animal, eh?”
“Hextremely so, your lordship.”
“Show him to me, then. There might be something in this.”
“And the honorarium, your lordship?”
“Oh, that. Oh, I’ll remember Roberts all right.”
“I was no thinking hexclusively of Roberts, your lordship.”
“Oh, I’ll remember you, too.”
“Thank you, your lordship. About ’ow hextensively, your lordship?”
“I’ll see that you get ten dollars apiece. That’ll be all right.”
“I fear,” said Keggs, shaking his head, “it could ’ardly be done at the price. Hin a heartier conversation your lordship mentioned a ’undred and fifty.”
“A hundred and fifty!”
“That was the hexact figure your lordship mentioned. That, ’owever, was for the comparatively simple task of poisoning the hanimal. The substitootion would be more hexpensive, owing to the nature of the process. I was thinking of five ’undred, your lordship.”
“Don’t be a fool, Keggs.”
“I fear Roberts could not be induced to do it for less. The process bein’ hexpensive.”
“Five hundred! No, it’s dashed absurd. I won’t do it.”
“Very good, your lordship.”
“Here, stop. Don’t go. Look here, I’ll give you two hundred and fifty.”
“I fear it could not be done, your lordship.”
“Three hundred. Four—. Here, don’t go. Oh, very well, then, five.”
“I thank you, your lordship. If your lordship will be at the bend hin the road in ’arf an hour’s time the hanimal will be there.”
Lord Bertie was a little early at the tryst, but he had not been waiting long when a party of three turned the corner. One of the party was Keggs. The second he recognized as Roberts, the chauffeur, a wooden-faced man who wore a permanent air of melancholy. The third, who waddled along at the end of a rope, was a dingy white bulldog.
The party came to a halt before him. Roberts touched his hat, and eyed the dog sadly. The dog sniffed at his lordship with apparent amiability. Keggs did the honors.
“The hanimal, your lordship.”
Lord Bertie put up his glass and inspected the exhibit.
“The hanimal I mentioned, your lordship.”
“That?” said Lord Bertie. “Why, dash it all, that bally milk-colored brute isn’t like Reuben.”
“Not at present, your lordship. But your lordship is forgetting the process. Hin two days Roberts will be able to treat that hanimal so that Reuben’s hown mother would be deceived.”
Lord Bertie looked with interest at the artist.
“No, really? Is that a fact?”
Roberts, an economist in speech, looked up, touched his hat again in a furtive manner, and fixed his eye once more on the dog.
“Well, he seems friendly all right,” said Lord Bertie, as the animal endeavored to lick his hand.
“ ’E ’as the most placid disposition,” Keggs assured him. “A great himprovement on Reuben, your lordship. Well worth the five ’undred.”
“Well, go ahead, then.”
“And the five ’undred, your lordship?”
“I’ll give it to you when you’ve made the change.”
“Very good, your lordship,” said Keggs.
Roberts touched his hat.
Hope fought with scepticism in Lord Bertie’s mind during the days that followed. There were moments when the thing seemed possible, and moments when it seemed absurd. Of course, Keggs was a silly old fool; but, on the other hand, there were possibilities about Roberts. The chauffeur had struck his lordship as a capable-looking sort of man. And, after all, there were cases on record of horses being painted and substituted for others, so why not bulldogs? Nevertheless Lord Bertie congratulated himself on his wisdom in withholding payment till the goods had been delivered.
It was absolutely necessary that some step be taken shortly, unless he wished his campaign to end in complete disaster. As his conversation failed, Aline had become more and more distant. His jerky manner and abrupt retreats were getting on her nerves.
“Look here, Keggs,” he said on the third morning, “I can’t wait much longer. If you don’t bring on that dog soon, the whole thing’s off.”
“I ’ave already heffected the change, your lordship. The delay ’as been due to the fact that Roberts wished to make a hespecial good job of it.”
“And has he?”
“That I will leave your lordship to decide. The hanimal his now asleep on the porch.”
He led the way to where a brown heap lay in the sunshine. His lordship followed with some diffidence.
“A extraordinary likeness, your lordship.”
Lord Bertie put up his eyeglass.
“By Jove, I should say it was. Do you mean to tell me——?”
“If your lordship will step forward and prod the hanimal——”
“Prod him yourself,” said Lord Bertie.
Keggs did so. The slumberer raised his head dreamily and rolled over again. Lord Bertie was satisfied. He came forward and took a prod. With Reuben this would have led to a scene of extreme activity. The excellent substitute merely flopped back on his side again.
“By Jove, it’s wonderful,” he said.
“And if your lordship ’appens to ’ave a check-book ’andy——”
“You’re in a bally hurry,” said Lord Bertie complainingly.
“It’s Roberts, your lordship,” sighed Keggs. “ ’E is a poor man, hand ’e ’as a wife and children.”
After lunch Aline was plaintive.
“I can’t make out,” she said, “what is the matter with Reuben. He doesn’t seem to care for me any more. He won’t come when I call. He wants to sleep all the time.”
“Oh, he’ll get used—I mean,” added Lord Bertie hastily, “he’ll soon get over it. I expect he has been in the sun too much, don’t you know.”
The substitute’s lethargy continued during the rest of that day, but on the following morning after breakfast Lord Bertie observed him rolling along the terrace behind Aline. Presently the two settled themselves under the big sycamore tree, and his lordship sallied forth.
“And how is Reuben this morning?” he inquired brightly.
“He’s not very well, poor old thing,” said Aline. “He was rather sick in the night.”
“No, by Jove, really?”
“I think he must have eaten something that disagreed with him. That’s why he was so quiet yesterday.”
Lord Bertie glanced sympathetically at the brown mass on the ground. How wary one should be of judging by looks. To all appearances that dog there was Reuben, his foe. But beneath that Reubenlike exterior beat the gentle heart of the milk-colored substitute, with whom he was on terms of easy friendship.
“Poor old fellow!” he said.
He bent down and gave the animal’s car a playful tweak. . . .
It was a simple action, an action from which one hardly would have expected anything in the nature of interesting by-products; yet it undoubtedly produced them. What exactly occurred Lord Bertie could not have said. There was a sort of explosion. The sleeping dog seemed to uncurl like a released watch-spring, and the air became full of a curious blend of sniff and snarl. An eminent general has said that the science of war lies in knowing when to fall back. Something, some instinct, seemed to tell Lord Bertie that the moment was ripe for falling back; and he did so, over a chair.
He rose, with a scraped shin, to find Aline holding the dog’s collar with both hands, her face flushed with the combination of wrath and muscular effort.
“What did you do that for?” she demanded fiercely. “I told you he was ill!”
“I—I—I—” stammered his lordship.
The thing had been so sudden. The animal had gone off like a bomb.
“Run!” she panted. “I can’t hold him. Run! Run!”
Lord Bertie cast one look at the bristling animal, and decided that her advice was good and should be followed.
He had reached the road before he slowed to a walk. Then, feeling safe, he was about to light a cigarette when the match fell from his fingers and he stood gaping.
Round the bend of the road, from the direction of Roberts’ cottage, there had appeared a large bulldog of a dingy white color.
Keggs, swathed in a green-baize apron, was meditatively polishing Mr. Keith’s silver in his own private pantry, humming an air as he worked, when Frederick, the footman, came to him. Frederick was a supercilious young man with long legs and a receding chin.
“Polishing the silver, old top?” he inquired genially.
“In answer to your question, Frederick,” replied Keggs with dignity, “I ham polishing the silver.”
Frederick, in Keggs’ opinion, needed to be kept in his place.
“His nibs is asking for you,” said Frederick.
“You hallude to——?”
“Bertie,” said Frederick definitely.
“If,” said Keggs, “Lord Herbert Fendall desires to see me, I will go to ’im at once.”
“Another bit of luck for ’Erbert,” said Frederick cordially. “ ’E’s in the smoking room.”
“Your lordship wished to see me?”
Lord Bertie, who was rubbing his shin reflectively with his back to the door, wheeled and glared banefully at the saintly figure before him.
“You bally old swindler!” he cried.
“Don’t stand there pretending not to know what I mean.”
“If your lordship would hexplain, I ’ave no doubt——”
“Explain! By Jove, I’ll explain, if that’s what you want. What do you mean by doping Reuben and palming him off on me as another dog? Is that plain enough?”
“The words is hintelligible,” conceded Keggs, “but the haccusation is hoverwhelming.”
“Do you deny it?”
“Your lordship,” said Keggs soothingly, “ ’ave been deceived, has I predicted, by the reely hextraordinary likeness. Roberts ’as hundoubtedly eclipsed ’imself.”
“Do you mean to tell me that dog is the one you showed me in the road? Then how do you account for this? I saw that milk-colored brute of Roberts’ out walking only a moment ago.”
“Roberts ’as two, your lordship.”
“The himage of one another, your lordship.”
“Twins, your lordship,” added the butler softly.
Lord Bertie upset a chair.
“Your lordship,” said Keggs, “if I may say so, ’as halways from boy’ood up been a little too ’asty at jumping to conclusions. If your lordship will recollect, it was your Lordship’s ’asty hassertion, as a boy, that you ’ad seen me hoccupied in purloining ’is lordship your father’s port wine that led to my losing the excellent situation, which I might be still ’olding, of butler at Stockleigh Castle.”
Lord Bertie stared.
“So that was why?” he said.
“Been trying to get a bit of your own back, what?”
“Your lordship! I ’ave done nothing. ’Appily I can prove it.”
The butler bowed.
“The resemblance between the two hanimals is hextraordinary, but not habsolutely complete. Reuben ’as a full set of teeth, but Roberts’ dog ’as the last tooth but one at the back missing. If your lordship,” he went on with the dignity that makes the good man, wronged, so impressive, “wishes to disprove my hassertions, the modus hoperandi is puffectly simple. All your lordship ’as to do is to hopen the hanimal’s mouth and submit ’is back teeth to a pussonal hinspection.”
John Barton alighted from the automobile, and, in answer to Keggs’ respectful inquiry, replied that he was quite well.
“Where is everybody?” he asked.
“Mr. Keith is hout walking, sir. ’Is lordship ’as left. Miss——”
“ ’Is lordship was compelled to leave a few days back, sir, ’avin’ business in New York.”
“Ah? Returning soon, I suppose?”
“Hon that point, sir, ’is lordship seemed somewhat huncertain.”
“How is Reuben?”
“Reuben ’ave enjoyed good ’ealth, sir. ’E is down by the lake, I fancy, sir, at the present moment, with Miss Ellison.”
“I guess I might as well go and see him,” said John awkwardly.
“I fancy ’e would happreciate it, sir.”
John turned away. The lake was some distance from the house. The nearer he got to it, the more poignant did his nervousness become.
Aline was standing at the water’s edge, encouraging Reuben to growl at a duck. Both suspended operations and turned to greet him, Reuben effusively, Aline with the rather absent composure which always deprived him of the power of speech.
“I’ve taken great care of Reuben, Mr. Barton,” she said.
Something neat and epigrammatic should have proceeded from John. It did not.
“I’d like to have you all for my own, wouldn’t I, darling?” she went on, bending over the snuffling Reuben and kissing him fondly in the groove between his eyes.
It was a simple action, but it had a remarkable effect on John. Something inside him seemed suddenly to snap. In a moment he had become very cool and immensely determined. Conversation is a safety-valve. Deprive a man of the use of it for a long enough time, and he is liable to explode at any moment. It is the general idea that the cave-man’s first advance to the lady of his choice was a blow on the head with his club. This is not the case. He used the club because, after hanging round for a month or so trying to think of something to say, it seemed to him the only way of disclosing his affection. John was a lineal descendant of the cave-man. He could not use a club, for he had none. But he did the next best thing. Stooping swiftly, he seized Aline round the waist, picked her up, and kissed her.
She stood staring at him, her lips parted, her eyes slowly widening till they seemed to absorb the whole of her face.
A minute before, John would have wilted beneath that stare. But now the spirit of the cave-man was strong in him. He seized her hands and pulled her slowly toward him.
“You’re going to have us both,” he said.
Reuben gave an approving snuffle.