Though the succeeding days and weeks dragged wearily for Darrell, he applied himself anew to work and study, and only the lurking shadows within his eyes, the deepening lines on his face, the fast multiplying gleams of silver in his dark hair, gave evidence of his suffering.
And if to Kate the summer seemed suddenly to have lost its glory and music, if she found the round of social pleasures on which she had just entered grown strangely insipid, if it sometimes seemed to her that she had quaffed all the richness and sweetness of life on that wondrous first night till only the dregs remained, she gave no sign. With her sunny smile and lightsome ways she reigned supreme, both in society and in the home, and none but her aunt and Darrell missed the old-time rippling laughter or noted the deepening wistfulness and seriousness of the fair young face.
Her father watched her with growing pride, and with a visible satisfaction which told of carefully laid plans known only to himself, whose consummation he deemed not far distant.
Acting on the suggestion of his sister, he had been closely observant of both Kate and Darrell, but any conclusions which he formed he kept to himself and went his way apparently well satisfied.
At the close of an unusually busy day late in the summer Darrell was seated alone in his office, reviewing his life in the West and vaguely wondering what would yet be the outcome of it all, when Mr. Underwood entered from the adjoining room. Exultation and elation were patent in his very step, but Darrell, lost in thought, was hardly conscious even of his presence.
"Well, my boy, what are you mooning over?" Mr. Underwood asked, good-naturedly, noting Darrell's abstraction.
"Only trying to find a solution for problems as yet insoluble," Darrell answered, with a smile that ended in a sigh.
"Stick to the practical side of life, boy, and let the problems solve themselves."
"A very good rule to follow, provided the problems would solve themselves," commented Darrell.
"Those things generally work themselves out after a while," said Mr. Underwood, walking up and down the room. "I say, don't meddle with what you can't understand; take what you can understand and make a practical application of it. That's always been my motto, and if people would stick to that principle in commercial life, in religion, and everything else, there'd be fewer failures in business, less wrangling in the churches, and more good accomplished generally."
"I guess you are about right there," Darrell admitted.
"Been pretty busy to-day, haven't you?" Mr. Underwood asked, abruptly, after a short pause.
"Yes, uncommonly so; work is increasing of late."
"That's good. Well, it has been a busy day with us; rather an eventful one, in fact; one which Walcott and I will remember with pleasure, I trust, for a good many years to come."
"How is that?" Darrell inquired, wondering at the pleasurable excitement in the elder man's tones.
"We made a little change in the partnership to-day: Walcott is now an equal partner with myself."
Darrell remained silent from sheer astonishment. Mr. Underwood evidently considered his silence an indication of disapproval, for he continued:
"I know you don't like the man, Darrell, so there's no use of arguing that side of the question, but I tell you he has proved himself invaluable to me. You might not think it, but it's a fact that the business in this office has increased fifty per cent. since he came into it. He is thoroughly capable, responsible, honest,—just the sort of man that I can intrust the business to as I grow older and know that it will be carried on as well as though I was at the helm myself."
"Still, a half-interest seems pretty large for a man with no more capital in the business than he has," said Darrell, determined to make no personal reference to Walcott.
"He has put in fifty thousand additional since he came in," Mr. Underwood replied.
Darrell whistled softly.
"Oh, he has money all right; I'm satisfied of that. I'm satisfied that he could have furnished the money to begin with, only he was lying low."
"Well, he certainly has nothing to complain of; you've done more than well by him."
"No better proportionately than I would have done by you, my boy, if you had come in with me last spring when I asked you to. I had this thing in view then, and had made up my mind you'd make the right man for the place, but you wouldn't hear to it."
"That's all right, Mr. Underwood," said Darrell; "I appreciate your kind intentions just the same, but I am more than ever satisfied that I wouldn't have been the right man for the place."
Both men were silent for some little time, but neither showed any inclination to terminate the interview. Mr. Underwood was still pacing back and forth, while Darrell had risen and was standing by the window, looking out absently into the street.
"That isn't all of it, and I may as well tell you the rest," said Mr. Underwood, suddenly pausing near Darrell, his manner much like a school-boy who has a confession to make and hardly knows how to begin. "Mr. Walcott to-day asked me—asked my permission to pay his addresses to my daughter—my little girl," he added, under his breath, and there was a strange note of tenderness in the usually brusque voice.
If ever Darrell was thankful, it was that he could at that moment look the father squarely in the face. He turned, facing Mr. Underwood, his dark eyes fairly blazing.
"And you gave your permission?" he asked, slowly, with terrible emphasis on each word.
"Most assuredly," Mr. Underwood retorted, quickly, stung to self-defence by Darrell's look and tone. "I may add that I have had this thing in mind for some time—have felt that it was coming; in fact, this new partnership arrangement was made with a view to facilitate matters, and he was enough of a gentleman to come forward at once with his proposition."
Darrell gazed out of the window again with unseeing eyes. "Mr. Underwood," he said, in a low tone, "I would never have believed it possible that your infatuation for that man would have led to this."
"There is no infatuation about it," the elder man replied, hotly; "it is a matter of good, sound judgment and business calculation. I know of no man among our townspeople, or even in the State, to whom I would give my daughter as soon as I would to Walcott. There are others who may have larger means now, but they haven't got his business ability. With what I can give Puss, what he has now, and what he will make within the next few years, she will have a home and position equal to the best."
"Is that all you think of, Mr. Underwood?"
"Not all, by any means; but it's a mighty important consideration, just the same. But the man is all right morally; you, with all your prejudice against him, can't lay your finger on one flaw in his character."
"Mr. Underwood," said Darrell, slowly, "I have studied that man, I have heard him talk. He has no conception of life beyond the sensual, the animal; he is a brute, a beast, in thought and act. He is no more fit to marry your daughter, or even to associate with her, than——"
"Young man," interrupted Mr. Underwood, laughing good-humoredly, "I have only one thing against you: you are not exactly practical. You are, like my friend Britton, inclined to rather high ideals. We don't generally find men built according to those ideals, and we have to take 'em as we find 'em."
"But you will, of course, allow your daughter to act according to her own judgment? You surely would not force her into any marriage distasteful to her?" Darrell asked, remembering Kate's aversion for Walcott.
"A young girl's judgment in those matters is not often to be relied upon. Kate knows that I consider only her best interests, and I think her judgment could be brought to coincide with my own. At any rate, she knows her father's will is law."
As Darrell, convinced that argument would be useless, made no reply, Mr. Underwood added, after a pause,—
"I know I can trust to your honor that you will not influence her against Walcott?"
"I shall not, of course, attempt to influence her one way or the other. I have no right; but if I had the right,—if she were my sister,—that man should never so much as touch the hem of her garment!"
"My boy," said Mr. Underwood, rather brusquely, extending one hand and laying the other on Darrell's shoulder, "I understand, and you're all right. We all consider you one of ourselves, and," he added, somewhat awkwardly, "you understand, if conditions were not just as they are——"
"But conditions are just as they are," Darrell interposed, quickly, "so there is no use discussing what might be were they different."
The bitterness in his tones struck a chord of sympathy within the heart of the man beside him, but he knew not how to express it, and it is doubtful whether he would have voiced it had he known how. The two clasped hands silently; then, without a word, the elder man left the room.
Not until now had Darrell realized how strong had been the hope within his breast that some crisis in his condition might yet reveal enough to make possible the fulfilment of his love. The pleasant relations between himself and Kate in many respects still remained practically unchanged. True, his sense of honor forbade any return to the tender familiarities of the past, but there yet existed between them a tacit, unspoken comradeship, beneath which flowed, deeply and silently, the undercurrent of love, not to be easily diverted or turned aside. But this he now felt would soon be changed, while all hope for the future must be abandoned.
With a heavy heart Darrell awaited developments. He soon noted a marked increase in the frequency of Walcott's calls at The Pines, and, not caring to embarrass Kate by his presence, he absented himself from the house as often as possible on those occasions.
Walcott himself must have been very soon aware that in his courtship Mr. Underwood was his sole partisan, but he bore himself with a confidence and assurance which would brook no thought of defeat. Mrs. Dean, knowing her brother as she did, was quick to understand the situation, and silently showed her disapproval; but Walcott politely ignored her disfavor as not worth his consideration.
At first, Kate, considering him her father's guest, received him with the same frank, winning courtesy which she extended to others, and he, quick to make the most of every opportunity, exerted himself to the utmost in his efforts to entertain his young hostess and her friends. To a certain extent he succeeded, in that Kate was compelled to admit to herself that he could be far more agreeable than she had ever supposed. He had travelled extensively and was possessed of good descriptive powers; his voice was low and musical, and his eyes, limpid and tender whenever he fixed them upon her face, held her glance by some irresistible, magnetic force, and invariably brought the deepening color to her cheeks.
With the first inkling, however, of the nature of his visits, all her old abhorrence of him returned with increased intensity, but her ill-concealed aversion only furnished him with a new incentive and spurred him to redouble his attentions.
The only opposition encountered by him that appeared in the least to disturb his equanimity, was that of Duke, which was on all occasions most forcibly expressed, the latter never failing to greet him with a low growl, meeting all overtures of friendship with an ominous gleam in his intelligent eyes and a display of ivory that made Mr. Walcott only too willing to desist.
"Really, Miss Underwood," Walcott remarked one evening when Duke had been more than usually demonstrative, "your pet's attentions to me are sometimes a trifle distracting. Could you not occasionally bestow the pleasure of his society upon some one else—Mr. Darrell, for instance? I imagine the two might prove quite congenial to each other."
"Please remember, Mr. Walcott, you are speaking of a friend of mine," Kate replied, coldly.
"Mr. Darrell? I beg pardon, I meant no offence; but since he and Duke seem to share the same unaccountable antipathy towards myself, I naturally thought there would be a bond of sympathy between them."
Kate had been playing, and was still seated at the piano, idly waiting for Walcott, who was turning the pages of a new music-book, to make another selection. She now rose rather wearily, and, leaving the piano, joined her father and aunt upon the veranda outside.
Walcott pushed the music from him, and, taking Kate's mandolin from off the piano, followed. Throwing himself down upon the steps at Kate's feet in an attitude of genuine Spanish abandon and grace, he said, lightly,—
"Since you will not favor us further, I will see what I can do."
He possessed little technical knowledge of music, but had quite a repertoire of songs picked up in his travels in various countries, to which he could accompany himself upon the guitar or mandolin.
He strummed the strings carelessly for a moment, then, in a low voice, began a Spanish love-song. There was no need of an interpreter to make known to Kate the meaning of the song. The low, sweet cadences were full of tender pleading, every note was tremulous with passion, while the dark eyes holding her own seemed burning into her very soul.
But the spell of the music worked far differently from Walcott's hopes or anticipations. Even while angry at herself for listening, Kate could scarcely restrain the tears, for the tender love-strains brought back so vividly the memory of those hours—so brief and fleeting—in which she had known the pure, unalloyed joy of love, that her heart seemed near bursting. As the last lingering notes died away, the pain was more than she could endure, and, pleading a slight headache, she excused herself and went to her room. Throwing herself upon the bed, she gave way to her feelings, sobbing bitterly as she recalled the sudden, hopeless ending of the most perfect happiness her young life had ever known. Gradually the violence of her grief subsided and she grew more calm, but a dull pain was at her heart, for though unwilling to admit it even to herself, she was hurt at Darrell's absence on the occasions of Walcott's visits.
"Why does he leave me when he knows I can't endure the sight of that man?" she soliloquized, sorrowfully. "If he would stay by me the creature would not dare make love to me. Oh, if we could only just be lovers until all this dreadful uncertainty is past! I'm sure it would come out all right, and I would gladly wait years for him, if only he would let me!"
As she sat alone in her misery she heard Walcott take his departure. A little later Darrell returned and went to his room, and soon after she heard her aunt's step in the hall, followed by a quiet knock at her door.
"Come in, auntie," she called, wondering what her errand might be.
"Have you gone to bed, Katherine, or are you up?" Mrs. Dean inquired, for the room was dark.
"I'm up; why, auntie?"
"Your father said to tell you he wanted to see you, if you had not retired."
Mrs. Dean stopped a moment to inquire for Kate's headache, and as she left the room Kate heard her sigh heavily.
A happy thought occurred to Kate as she ran downstairs,—she would have her father put a stop to Walcott's attentions; if he knew how they annoyed her he would certainly do it. She entered the room where he waited with her sunniest smile, for the stern, gruff-voiced man was the idol of her heart and she believed implicitly in his love for her, even though it seldom found expression in words.
But her smile faded before the displeasure in her father's face. He scrutinized her keenly from under his heavy brows, but if he noted the traces of tears upon her face, he made no comment.
"I did not suppose, Kate," he said, slowly, for he could not bring himself to speak harshly to her,—"I did not suppose that a child of mine would treat any guest of this house as rudely as you treated Mr. Walcott to-night. I sent for you for an explanation."
"I did not mean to be rude, papa," Kate replied, seating herself on her father's knee and laying one arm caressingly about his neck, "but he did annoy me so to-night,—he has annoyed me so often of late,—I just couldn't endure it any longer."
"Has Mr. Walcott ever conducted himself other than as a gentleman?"
"Why, no, papa, he is gentlemanly enough, so far as that is concerned."
"I thought so," her father interposed; "I should say that he had laid himself out to entertain you and your friends and to make it pleasant for all of us whenever he has been here. It strikes me that his manners are very far from annoying; that he is a gentleman in every sense of the word; he certainly carried himself like one to-night in the face of the treatment you gave him."
"Well, I'm sorry if I was rude. I have no objection to him as a gentleman or as an acquaintance, if he would not go beyond that; but I detest his attentions and his love-making, and he will not stop even when he sees that it annoys me."
"No one has a better right to pay his attentions to you, for he has asked and received my permission to do so."
Kate drew herself upright and gazed at her father with eyes full of horror.
"You gave him permission to pay attention to me!" she exclaimed, slowly, as though scarcely comprehending his meaning; then, springing to her feet and drawing herself to her full height, she demanded,—
"Do you mean, papa, that you intend me to marry him?"
For an instant Mr. Underwood felt ill at ease; Kate's face was white and her eyes had the look of a creature brought to bay, that sees no escape from the death confronting it, for even in that brief time Kate, knowing her father's indomitable will, realized with a sense of despair the hopelessness of her situation.
"I suppose your marriage will be the outcome,—at least, I hope so," her father replied, quickly recovering his composure, "for I certainly know of no one to whom I would so willingly intrust your future happiness. Listen to me, Kate: have I not always planned and worked for your best interests?"
"You always have, papa."
"Have I not always chosen what was for your good and for your happiness?"
Kate gave a silent assent.
"Very well; then I think you can trust to my judgment in this case."
"But, papa," she protested, "this is different. I never can love that man; I abhor him—loathe him! Do you think there can be any happiness or good in a marriage without love? Would you and mamma have been happy together if you had not loved each other?"
No sooner had she spoken the words than she regretted them as she noted the look of pain that crossed her father's face. In his silent, undemonstrative way he had idolized his wife, and it was seldom that he would allow any allusion to her in his presence.
"I don't know why you should call up the past," he said, after a pause, "but since you have I will tell you that your mother when a girl like yourself objected to our marriage; she thought that we were unsuited to each other and that we could never live happily together. She listened, however, to the advice of those older and wiser than she, and you know the result." The strong man's voice trembled slightly. "I think our married life was a happy one. It was for me, I know; I hope it was for her."
A long silence followed. To Kate there came the memory of the frail, young mother lying, day after day, upon her couch in the solitude of her sick-room, often weeping silently, while she, a mere child, knelt sadly and wistfully beside her, as silently wiping the tear-drops as they fell and wondering at their cause. She understood now, but not for worlds would she have spoken one word to pain her father's heart.
At last Mr. Underwood said, rising as though to end the interview, "I think I can depend upon you now, Kate, to carry out my wishes in this matter."
Kate rose proudly. "I have never disobeyed you, papa; I will treat Mr. Walcott courteously; but even though you force me to marry him I will never, never love him, and I shall tell him so."
Her father smiled. "Mr. Walcott, I think, has too much good sense to attach much weight to any girlish whims; that will pass, you will think differently by and by."
As she stopped for her usual good-night kiss she threw her arms about her father's neck, and, looking appealingly into his face, said,—
"Papa, it need not be very soon, need it? You are not in a hurry to be rid of your little girl?"
"Don't talk foolishly, child," he answered, hastily; "you know I've no wish to be rid of you, but I do want to see you settled in a home of your own—equal to the best, and, as I said a while ago, and told Mr. Darrell in talking the matter over with him, I know of no one in whose hands I would so willingly place you and your happiness as Mr. Walcott's. As for the date and other matters of that sort," he added, playfully pinching her cheeks, "I suppose those will all be mutually arranged between the gentleman and yourself."
Kate had started back slightly. "You have talked this over with Mr. Darrell?" she exclaimed.
"Yes, why not?"
"What did he think of it?"
"Well," said her father, slowly, "naturally he did not quite fall in with my views, for I think he is not just what you could call a disinterested party. I more than half suspect that Mr. Darrell would like to step into Mr. Walcott's place himself, if he were only eligible, but knowing that he is not, he is too much of a gentleman to commit himself in any way."
Mr. Underwood scanned his daughter's face keenly as he spoke, but it was as impassive as his own. To Kate, Darrell's absences of late were now explained; he understood it all. She kissed her father silently.
"You know, Puss, I am looking out for your best interests in all of this," said her father, a little troubled by her silence.
"I know that is your intention, papa," she replied, with gentle gravity, and left the room.
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