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Nan was polishing the tumblers at the pantry window, outside of which John Osborne was leaning among the vines. His arms were folded on the sill and his straw hat was pushed back from his flushed, eager face as he watched Nan's deft movements.
Beyond them, old Abe Stewart was mowing the grass in the orchard with a scythe and casting uneasy glances at the pair. Old Abe did not approve of John Osborne as a suitor for Nan. John was poor; and old Abe, although he was the wealthiest farmer in Granville, was bent on Nan's making a good match. He looked upon John Osborne as a mere fortune-hunter, and it was a thorn in the flesh to see him talking to Nan while he, old Abe, was too far away to hear what they were saying. He had a good deal of confidence in Nan, she was a sensible, level-headed girl. Still, there was no knowing what freak even a sensible girl might take into her head, and Nan was so determined when she did make up her mind. She was his own daughter in that.
However, old Abe need not have worried himself. It could not be said that Nan was helping John Osborne on in his wooing at all. Instead, she was teasing and snubbing him by turns.
Nan was very pretty. Moreover, Nan was well aware of the fact. She knew that the way her dark hair curled around her ears and forehead was bewitching; that her complexion was the envy of every girl in Granville; that her long lashes had a trick of drooping over very soft, dark eyes in a fashion calculated to turn masculine heads hopelessly. John Osborne knew all this too, to his cost. He had called to ask Nan to go with him to the Lone Lake picnic the next day. At this request Nan dropped her eyes and murmured that she was sorry, but he was too late—she had promised to go with somebody else. There was no need of Nan's making such a mystery about it. The somebody else was her only cousin, Ned Bennett, who had had a quarrel with his own girl; the latter lived at Lone Lake, and Ned had coaxed Nan to go over with him and try her hand at patching matters up between him and his offended lady-love. And Nan, who was an amiable creature and tender-hearted where anybody's lover except her own was concerned, had agreed to go.
But John Osborne at once jumped to the conclusion—as Nan had very possibly meant him to do—that the mysterious somebody was Bryan Lee, and the thought was gall and wormwood to him.
"Whom are you going with?" he asked.
"That would be telling," Nan said, with maddening indifference.
"Is it Bryan Lee?" demanded John.
"It might be," said Nan reflectively, "and then again, you know, it mightn't."
John was silent; he was no match for Nan when it came to a war of words. He scowled moodily at the shining tumblers.
"Nan, I'm going out west," he said finally.
Nan stared at him with her last tumbler poised in mid-air, very much as if he had announced his intention of going to the North Pole or Equatorial Africa.
"John Osborne, are you crazy?"
"Not quite. And I'm in earnest, I can tell you that."
Nan set the glass down with a decided thud. John's curtness displeased her. He needn't suppose that it made any difference to her if he took it into his stupid head to go to Afghanistan.
"Oh!" she remarked carelessly. "Well, I suppose if you've got the Western fever your case is hopeless. Would it be impertinent to inquire why you are going?"
"There's nothing else for me to do, Nan," said John, "Bryan Lee is going to foreclose the mortgage next month and I'll have to clear out. He says he can't wait any longer. I've worked hard enough and done my best to keep the old place, but it's been uphill work and I'm beaten at last."
Nan sat blankly down on the stool by the window. Her face was a study which John Osborne, watching old Abe's movements, missed.
"Well, I never!" she gasped. "John Osborne, do you mean to tell me that Bryan Lee is going to do that? How did he come to get your mortgage?"
"Bought it from old Townsend," answered John briefly. "Oh, he's within his rights, I'll admit. I've even got behind with the interest this past year. I'll go out west and begin over again."
"It's a burning shame!" said Nan violently.
John looked around in time to see two very red spots on her cheeks.
"You don't care though, Nan."
"I don't like to see anyone unjustly treated," declared Nan, "and that is what you've been. You've never had half a chance. And after the way you've slaved, too!"
"If Lee would wait a little I might do something yet, now that Aunt Alice is gone," said John bitterly. "I'm not afraid of work. But he won't; he means to take his spite out at last."
"Surely Bryan isn't so mean as that," she stammered. "Perhaps he'll change his mind if—if—"
Osborne wheeled about with face aflame.
"Don't you say a word to him about it, Nan!" he cried. "Don't you go interceding with him for me. I've got some pride left. He can take the farm from me, and he can take you maybe, but he can't take my self-respect. I won't beg him for mercy. Don't you dare to say a word to him about it."
Nan's eyes flashed. She was offended to find her sympathy flung back in her face.
"Don't be alarmed," she said tartly. "I shan't bother myself about your concerns. I've no doubt you're able to look out for them yourself."
Osborne turned away. As he did so he saw Bryan Lee driving up the lane. Perhaps Nan saw it too. At any rate, she leaned out of the window.
"John! John!" Osborne half turned. "You'll be up again soon, won't you?"
His face hardened. "I'll come to say goodbye before I go, of course," he answered shortly.
He came face to face with Lee at the gate, where the latter was tying his sleek chestnut to a poplar. He acknowledged his rival's condescending nod with a scowl. Lee looked after him with a satisfied smile.
"Poor beggar!" he muttered. "He feels pretty cheap I reckon. I've spoiled his chances in this quarter. Old Abe doesn't want any poverty-stricken hangers-on about his place and Nan won't dream of taking him when she knows he hasn't a roof over his head."
He stopped for a chat with old Abe. Old Abe approved of Bryan Lee. He was a son-in-law after old Abe's heart.
Meanwhile, Nan had seated herself at the pantry window and was ostentatiously hemming towels in apparent oblivion of suitor No. 2. Nevertheless, when Bryan came up she greeted him with an unusually sweet smile and at once plunged into an animated conversation. Bryan had not come to ask her to go to the picnic—business prevented him from going. But he meant to find out if she were going with John Osborne. As Nan was serenely impervious to all hints, he was finally forced to ask her bluntly if she was going to the picnic.
Well, yes, she expected to.
Oh! Might he ask with whom?
Nan didn't know that it was a question of public interest at all.
"It isn't with that Osborne fellow, is it?" demanded Bryan incautiously.
Nan tossed her head. "Well, why not?" she asked.
"Look here, Nan," said Lee angrily, "if you're going to the picnic with John Osborne I'm surprised at you. What do you mean by encouraging him so? He's as poor as Job's turkey. I suppose you've heard that I've been compelled to foreclose the mortgage on his farm."
Nan kept her temper sweetly—a dangerous sign, had Bryan but known it.
"Yes; he was telling me so this morning," she answered slowly.
"Oh, was he? I suppose he gave me my character?"
"No; he didn't say very much about it at all. He said of course you were within your rights. But do you really mean to do it, Bryan?"
"Of course I do," said Bryan promptly. "I can't wait any longer for my money, and I'd never get it if I did. Osborne can't even pay the interest."
"It isn't because he hasn't worked hard enough, then," said Nan. "He has just slaved on that place ever since he grew up."
"Well, yes, he has worked hard in a way. But he's kind of shiftless, for all that—no manager, as you might say. Some folks would have been clear by now, but Osborne is one of those men that are bound to get behind. He hasn't got any business faculty."
"He isn't shiftless," said Nan quickly, "and it isn't his fault if he has got behind. It's all because of his care for his aunt. He has had to spend more on her doctor's bills than would have raised the mortgage. And now that she is dead and he might have a chance to pull up, you go and foreclose."
"A man must look out for Number One," said Bryan easily, admiring Nan's downcast eyes and rosy cheeks. "I haven't any spite against Osborne, but business is business, you know."
Nan opened her lips to say something but, remembering Osborne's parting injunction, she shut them again. She shot a scornful glance at Lee as he stood with his arms folded on the sill beside her.
Bryan lingered, talking small talk, until Nan announced that she must see about getting tea.
"And you won't tell me who is going to take you to the picnic?" he coaxed.
"Oh, it's Ned Bennett," said Nan indifferently.
Bryan felt relieved. He unpinned the huge cluster of violets on his coat and laid them down on the sill beside her before he went. Nan flicked them off with her fingers as she watched him cross the lawn, his own self-satisfied smile upon his face.
A week later the Osborne homestead had passed into Bryan Lee's hands and John Osborne was staying with his cousin at Thornhope, pending his departure for the west. He had never been to see Nan since that last afternoon, but Bryan Lee haunted the Stewart place. One day he suddenly stopped coming and, although Nan was discreetly silent, in due time it came to old Abe's ears by various driblets of gossip that Nan had refused him.
Old Abe marched straightway home to Nan in a fury and demanded if this were true. Nan curtly admitted that it was. Old Abe was so much taken aback by her coolness that he asked almost meekly what was her reason for doing such a fool trick.
"Because he turned John Osborne out of house and home," returned Nan composedly. "If he hadn't done that there is no telling what might have happened. I might even have married him, because I liked him very well and it would have pleased you. At any rate, I wouldn't have married John when you were against him. Now I mean to."
Old Abe stormed furiously at this, but Nan kept so provokingly cool that he was conscious of wasting breath. He went off in a rage, but Nan did not feel particularly anxious now that the announcement was over. He would cool down, she knew. John Osborne worried her more. She didn't see clearly how she was to marry him unless he asked her, and he had studiously avoided her since the foreclosure.
But Nan did not mean to be baffled or to let her lover slip through her fingers for want of a little courage. She was not old Abe Stewart's daughter for nothing.
One day Ned Bennett dropped in and said that John Osborne would start for the west in three days. That evening Nan went up to her room and dressed herself in the prettiest dress she owned, combed her hair around her sparkling face in bewitching curls, pinned a cluster of apple blossoms at her belt, and, thus equipped, marched down in the golden sunset light to the Mill Creek Bridge. John Osborne, on his return from Thornhope half an hour later, found her there, leaning over the rail among the willows.
Nan started in well-assumed surprise and then asked him why he had not been to see her. John blushed—stammered—didn't know—had been busy. Nan cut short his halting excuses by demanding to know if he were really going away, and what he intended to do.
"I'll go out on the prairies and take up a claim," said Osborne sturdily. "Begin life over again free of debt. It'll be hard work, but I'm not afraid of that. I will succeed if it takes me years."
They walked on in silence. Nan came to the conclusion that Osborne meant to hold his peace.
"John," she said tremulously, "won't—won't you find it very lonely out there?"
"Of course—I expect that. I shall have to get used to it."
Nan grew nervous. Proposing to a man was really very dreadful.
"Wouldn't it be—nicer for you"—she faltered—"that is—it wouldn't be so lonely for you—would it—if—if you had me out there with you?"
John Osborne stopped squarely in the dusty road and looked at her. "Nan!" he exclaimed.
"Oh, if you can't take a hint!" said Nan in despair.
It was all of an hour later that a man drove past them as they loitered up the hill road in the twilight. It was Bryan Lee; he had taken from Osborne his house and land, but he had not been able to take Nan Stewart, after all.
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