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Chapter 12

New Life in the Old Home

On the following Saturday, as Darrell ascended the long driveway leading to The Pines, he was startled at the transformation which the place had undergone since last he was there. The rolling lawn seemed carpeted with green velvet, enlivened here and there with groups of beautiful foliage plants. Fountains were playing in the sunlight, their glistening spray tinted with rainbow lights. Flowers bloomed in profusion, their colors set off by the gray background of the stone walls of the house. The syringas by the bay-windows were bent to the ground with their burden of snowy blossoms, whose fragrance, mingled with that of the June roses, greeted him as he approached. He forgot his three weeks' absence and the rapid growth in that high altitude; the change seemed simply magical. Then, as he caught a glimpse through the pines of a slender, girlish figure, dressed in white, darting hither and thither, he wondered no longer; it was but the fit accompaniment of the young, joyous life which had come to the old place.

As he came out into the open, he saw a young girl romping up and down before the house with a fine Scotch collie, and he could not restrain a smile as he recalled Mrs. Dean's oft-repeated declaration that there was one thing she would never tolerate, and that was a dog or a cat about the house. She had not yet seen him; but when she did, the frolic ceased and she started towards the house. Then suddenly she stopped, as though she recognized some one or something, and stood awaiting his approach, her lips parted in a smile, two small, shapely hands shading her eyes from the sun. As he came nearer, he had time to note the lithe, supple figure, just rounding into the graceful outlines of womanhood; the full, smiling lips, the flushed cheeks, and the glint of gold in her brown hair; and the light, the beauty, the fragrance surrounding her seemed an appropriate setting to the picture. She was a part of the scene.

Darrell, of course, had no knowledge of his own age, but at that moment he felt very remote from the embodiment of youth before him; he seemed to himself to have been suddenly relegated to the background, among the elder members of the family.

The collie had been standing beside his mistress with his head on one side, regarding Darrell with a sharp, inquisitive look, and he now broke the silence, which threatened to prove rather embarrassing, with a short bark.

"Hush, Duke!" said the girl, in a low tone; then, as Darrell dismounted, she came swiftly towards him, extending her hand.

"This is Mr. Darrell, I know," she said, speaking quite rapidly in a clear, musical voice, without a shade of affectation, "and you probably know who I am, so we will need no introduction."

"Yes, Miss Underwood," said Darrell, smiling into the beautiful brown eyes, "I would have recognized you anywhere from your picture."

"And you have Trix, haven't you?" she exclaimed, turning to caress the mare. "Dear old Trix! Just let her go, Mr. Darrell; she will go to the stables of her own accord and Bennett will take care of her; that was the way Harry taught her. Go find Bennett, Trix!"

They watched Trix follow the driveway and disappear around the corner, then both turned towards the house.

"Auntie is out just now," said the girl; "she had to go down town, but I am expecting her back every minute. Will you go into the house, Mr. Darrell, or do you prefer a seat on the veranda?"

"The veranda looks inviting; suppose we sit here," Darrell suggested.

They had reached the steps leading to the entrance. On the top step the collie had seated himself and was now awaiting their approach with the air of one expecting due recognition.

"Mr. Darrell," said the young girl, with a merry little laugh, "allow me to present you to His Highness, the Duke of Argyle!"

The collie gave his head a slight backward toss, and, with great dignity, extended his right paw to Darrell, which the latter, instantly entering into the spirit of the joke, took, saying, with much gravity,—

"I am pleased to meet His Highness!"

The girl's brown eyes danced with enjoyment.

"You have made a friend of him for life, now," she said as they seated themselves, Duke stationing himself at her side in such a manner as to show his snow-white vest and great double ruff to the best possible advantage. "He is a very aristocratic dog, and if any one fails to show him what he considers proper respect, he is greatly affronted."

"He certainly is a royal-looking fellow," said Darrell, "but I cannot imagine how you ever gained Mrs. Dean's consent to his presence here. You must possess even more than the ordinary powers of feminine persuasion."

"Aunt Marcia?" laughed the girl; "oh, well, you see it was a case of 'love me, love my dog.' Wherever I go, Duke must go, so auntie had to submit to the inevitable."

Darrell found the situation far less embarrassing than he had expected. His young companion, with keen, womanly intuition, had divined something of his feeling, and tactfully avoiding any allusion to their previous meeting, of which he had no recollection, kept the conversation on subjects within the brief span of his memory. She seemed altogether unconscious of the peculiar conditions surrounding himself, and the brown eyes, meeting his own so frankly, had in their depths nothing of the curiosity or the pity he had so often encountered, and had grown to dread. She appeared so childlike and unaffected, and her joyous, rippling laughter proved so contagious, that unconsciously the extra years which a few moments before seemed to have been added to his life dropped away; the grave, tense lines of his face relaxed, and before he was aware he was laughing heartily at the account of some school-girl escapade or at some tricks performed by Duke for his especial entertainment.

In the midst of their merriment they heard the sound of hoof-beats, and, turning, saw the family carriage approaching, containing both Mr. Underwood and his sister.

"You two children seem to be enjoying yourselves!" was Mr. Underwood's comment as the carriage stopped.

Darrell sprang to Mrs. Dean's assistance as she alighted, while Kate Underwood ran down the steps to meet her father. Both greeted Darrell warmly, but Mrs. Dean retained his hand a moment as she looked at him with genuine motherly interest.

"I'm glad the truant has returned," she said, with her quiet smile; "I only hope it seems as good to you to come home as it does to us to have you here!"

Darrell was touched by her unusual kindness. "You can rest assured that it does, mother," he said, earnestly. He was astonished at the effect of his words: her face flushed, her lips trembled, and as she passed on into the house her eyes glistened with tears.

Darrell looked about him in bewilderment. "What have I said?" he questioned; "how did I wound her feelings?"

"She lost a son years ago, and she's never got over it," Mr. Underwood explained, briefly.

"You did not hurt her feelings—she was pleased," Kate hastened to reassure him; "but did she never speak to you about it?"

"Never," Darrell replied.

"Well, that is not to be wondered at, for she seldom alludes to it. He died years ago, before I can remember, but she always grieves for him; that was the reason," she added, reflectively, half to herself, "that she always loved Harry better than she did me."

"Better than you, you jealous little Puss!" said her father, pinching her cheek; "don't you have love enough, I'd like to know?"

"I can never have too much, you know, papa," she answered, very seriously, and Darrell, watching, saw in the brown eyes for the first time the wistful look he had seen in the two portraits.

She soon followed her aunt, but her father and Darrell remained outside talking of business matters until summoned to dinner. On entering the house Darrell saw on every hand evidences of the young life in the old home. There was just a pleasant touch of disorder in the rooms he had always seen kept with such precision: here a bit of unfinished embroidery; there a book open, face down, just where the fair reader had left it; the piano was open and sheets of music lay scattered over it. From every side came the fragrance of flowers, and in the usually sombre dining-room Darrell noted the fireplace nearly concealed by palms and potted plants, the chandelier trimmed with trailing vines, the epergne of roses and ferns on the table, and the tiny boutonnières at his plate and Mr. Underwood's. With a smile of thanks at the happy young face opposite, he appropriated the one intended for himself, but Mr. Underwood, picking up the one beside his plate, sat twirling it in his fingers with a look of mock perplexity.

"Puss has introduced so many of her folderols I haven't got used to them yet," he said. "How is this to be taken,—before eating, or after?" he inquired, looking at her from under heavy, frowning brows.

"To be taken! Oh, papa!" she ejaculated; "why don't you put it on as Mr. Darrell has his? Here, I'll fix it for you!"

With an air of resignation he waited while she fastened the flowers in the lapel of his coat, giving the latter an approving little pat as she finished.

"There!" she exclaimed; "you ought to see how nice you look!"

"H'm! I'm glad to hear it," he grunted; "I feel like a prize steer at a county fair!"

In the laughter which followed Kate joined as merrily as the rest, and no one but Darrell observed the deepening flush on her cheek or heard the tremulous sigh when the laughter was ended.

After dinner they adjourned to the large sitting-room, Mr. Underwood with his pipe, Mrs. Dean with her knitting, and Darrell, while conversing with the former, watched with a new interest the latter's placid face, wondering at the depth of feeling concealed beneath that calm exterior.

As the twilight deepened and conversation began to flag, there came from the piano a few sweet chords, followed by one of Chopin's dreamy nocturnes. Mr. Underwood began to doze in his chair, and Darrell sat silent, his eyes closed, his whole soul given up to the spell of the music. Unconscious of the pleasure she was giving, Kate played till the room was veiled in darkness; then going to the fireplace she lighted the fire already laid—for the nights were still somewhat chilly—and sat down on a low seat before the fire, while Duke came and lay at her feet. It was a pretty picture; the young girl in white, her eyes fixed dreamily on the glowing embers, the firelight dancing over her form and face and lighting up her hair with gleams of gold; the dog at her feet, his head thrown proudly back, and his eyes fastened on her face with a look of loyal devotion seldom seen even in human eyes.

Happening to glance in Mr. Underwood's direction Darrell saw pride, pleasure, and pain struggling for the mastery in the father's face as he watched the picture in the firelight. Pain won, and with a sudden gesture of impatience he covered his eyes with his hand, as though to shut out the scene. It was but a little thing, but taken in connection with the incident before dinner, it appealed to Darrell, showing, as it did, the silent, stoical manner in which these people bore their grief.

Mrs. Dean's quiet voice interrupted his musings and broke the spell which the music seemed to have thrown around them.

"You will have some one now, Katherine, to accompany you on the violin, as you have always wanted; Mr. Darrell is a fine violinist."

Kate was instantly all animation. "Oh, that will be delightful, Mr. Darrell!" she exclaimed, eagerly; "there is nothing I enjoy so much as a violin accompaniment; it adds so much expression to the music. I think a piano alone is so unsympathetic; you can't get any feeling out of it!"

"I'm afraid, Miss Underwood, I will prove a disappointment to you," Darrell replied; "I have never yet attempted any new music, or even to play by note, and don't know what success I would have, if any. So far I have only played what drifts to me—some way, I don't know how—from out of the past."

The unconscious sadness in his voice stirred the depths of Kate's tender heart. "Oh, that is too bad!" she exclaimed, quickly, thinking, not of her own disappointment, but of his trouble of which she had unwittingly reminded him; then she added, gently, almost timidly,—

"But you will, at any rate, let me hear you play, won't you?"

"Certainly, if it will give you any pleasure," he replied, with a slight smile.

"Very well; then we will arrange it this way," she continued, her cheerful manner restored; "you will play your music, and, if I am familiar with it, I will accompany you on the piano. I will get out Harry's violin to-morrow, and while auntie is taking her nap and papa is engaged, we will see what we can accomplish in a musical way."

Before Darrell could reply, Mr. Underwood, who had started from his revery, demanded,—

"What engagement are you talking about, you chatterbox?"

"I can't say, papa," she replied, playfully seating herself on the arm of his chair; "I only know that when I asked your company for a walk to-morrow afternoon, you pleaded a very important engagement. Now, how is that?" she asked archly; "have you an engagement, really, or didn't you care for my society?"

"Why, yes, to be sure; it had escaped my mind for the moment," her father answered, rather vaguely she thought; then, looking at Darrell, he said,—

"Walcott is coming to-morrow for my final decision in that matter."

Darrell bowed in token that he understood, but did not feel at liberty to inquire whether the decision was to be favorable to Mr. Walcott, or otherwise. Kate glanced quickly from one to the other, but before she could speak her father continued:

"I rather think if he consents to two or three conditions which I shall insist upon, that my answer will be in the affirmative."

"I thought that quite probable from your conversation the other day," Darrell replied.

"See here, papa!" Kate exclaimed, mischievously, "you needn't talk over my head! You used to do so when I was little, but you can't any longer, you know. Who is this 'Walcott,' and what is this important decision about?"

Mr. Underwood, who did not believe in taking what he called the "women folks" into his confidence regarding business affairs, looked quizzically into the laughing face beside him.

"Didn't I hear you arranging some sort of a musical programme with Mr. Darrell?" he inquired.

"Yes; what has that to do with your engagement?" she queried.

"Nothing whatever; only you carry out your engagement and I will mine, and we'll compare notes afterwards."

For an instant her face sobered; then catching sight of her father's eyes twinkling under their beetling brows, she laughingly withdrew from his side, saying,—

"That's all very well; you can score one this time, papa, but don't you think we won't come out pretty near even in the end!"

Upon learning from Darrell that the violin she expected him to use was in his room at the mining camp, she then proposed a stroll to the summit of the pine-clad mountain for the following afternoon, and having secured his promise that he would bring the violin with him on his next visit, she waltzed gayly across the floor, turned on the light, and seating herself at the piano soon had the room ringing with music and laughter while she sang a number of college songs.

To Darrell she seemed more child than woman, and he was constantly impressed with her unlikeness to her father or aunt. She seemed to have absolutely none of their self-repression. Warm-hearted, sympathetic, and demonstrative, every shade of feeling betrayed itself in her sensitive, mobile face and in the brown eyes, one moment pensive and wistful, the next luminous with sympathy or dancing with merriment.

As Darrell took leave of Mrs. Dean that night, he said, looking frankly into her calm, kindly face,—

"I am very sorry if I wounded your feelings this afternoon; it was wholly unintentional, I assure you."

"You did not in the least," she answered; "it is so long since I have been called by that name it took me by surprise, but it sounded very pleasant to me. My boy, if he had lived, would have been just about your age."

"It seemed pleasant to me to call you 'mother,'" said Darrell; "it made me feel less like an outsider."

"You can call me so as often as you wish; you are no outsider here; we consider you one of ourselves," she responded, with more warmth in her tones than he had ever heard before.

The following morning Darrell accompanied the ladies to church. After lunch he lounged for an hour or more in one of the hammocks on the veranda, listening alternately to Mr. Underwood's comments as he leisurely smoked his pipe, and to the faint tones of a mandolin coming from some remote part of the house. Mr. Underwood grew more and more abstracted, the mandolin ceased, and Darrell, soothed by his surroundings to a temporary forgetfulness of his troubles, swung gently back and forth in a sort of dreamy content. After a while, Kate Underwood appeared, dressed for a walk, and, accompanied by Duke, the two set forth for their mountain ramble, for the time as light-hearted as two children.

Upon their return, two or three hours later, while still at a little distance from the house, they saw Mr. Underwood and a stranger standing together on the veranda. The latter, who was apparently about to take his departure, and whom Darrell at once assumed to be Mr. Walcott, was about thirty years of age, of medium height, with a finely proportioned and rather muscular form, erect and dignified in his bearing, with a lithe suppleness and grace in all his movements. He was standing with his hat in his hand, and Darrell, who had time to observe him closely, noting his jet-black hair, close cut excepting where it curled slightly over his forehead, his black, silky moustache, and the oval contour of his olive face, remembered Mr. Underwood's remark of the probability of Spanish blood in his veins.

As they came near, Duke gave a low growl, but Kate instantly hushed him, chiding him for his rudeness. At the sound, the stranger turned towards them, and Mr. Underwood at once introduced Mr. Walcott to his daughter and Mr. Darrell. He greeted them both with the most punctilious courtesy, but as he faced Darrell, the latter saw for an instant in the half-closed, blue-black eyes, the pity tinged with contempt to which he had long since become accustomed, yet which, as often as he met it, thrilled him anew with pain. The look passed, however, and Mr. Walcott, in low, well-modulated tones, conversed pleasantly for a few moments with the new-comers, the three young people forming a striking trio as they stood there in the bright sunshine amid the June roses; then, with a graceful adieu, he walked swiftly away.

As soon as he was out of hearing Mr. Underwood, turning to Darrell, said,—

"It is decided; the papers will be drawn to-morrow."

Then taking his daughter's flushed, perplexed face between his hands, he said,—

"Mr. Walcott and I are going into partnership; how do you like the looks of my partner, Puss?"

She looked incredulous. "That young man your partner!" she exclaimed; "why, he seems the very last man I should ever expect you to fancy!" Then she added, laughing,—

"Oh, papa, I think he must have hypnotized you! Does Aunt Marcia know? May I tell her?" And, having gained his consent, she ran into the house to impart the news to Mrs. Dean.

"That's the woman of it!" said Mr. Underwood, grimly; "they always want to immediately tell some other woman! But what do you think of my partner?" he asked, looking searchingly at Darrell, who had not yet spoken.

Darrell did not reply at once; he felt in some way bewildered. All the content, the joy, the sunshine of the last few hours seemed to have been suddenly blotted out, though he could not have told why. The remembrance of that glance still stung him, but aside from that, he felt his whole soul filled with an inexplicable antagonism towards this man.

"I hardly know yet just what I do think of him," he answered, slowly; "I have not formed a definite opinion of him, but I think, as your daughter says, he somehow seems the last man whom I would have expected you to associate yourself with."

Mr. Underwood frowned. "I don't generally make mistakes in people," he said, rather gruffly; "if I'm mistaken in this man, it will be the first time."

Nothing further was said on the subject, though it remained uppermost in the minds of both, with the result that their conversation was rather spasmodic and desultory. At the dinner-table, Kate was quick to observe the unusual silence, and, intuitively connecting it in some way with the new partnership, refrained alike from question or comment regarding either that subject or Mr. Walcott, while it was a rule with Mrs. Dean never to refer to her brother's business affairs unless he first alluded to them himself.

The evening passed more pleasantly, as Kate coaxed her father into telling some reminiscences of his early western life, which greatly interested Darrell. Something of the old restlessness had returned to him, however. He spent a wakeful night, and was glad when morning came and he could return to his work.

As he came out of the house at an early hour to set forth on his long ride he found Kate engaged in feeding Trix with lumps of sugar. She greeted him merrily, and as he started down the avenue he was followed by a rippling laugh and a shower of roses, one of which he caught and fastened in his buttonhole, but on looking back over his shoulder she had vanished, and only Duke was visible.