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Before the walk was over, Io knew Banneker as she had never before, in her surrounded and restricted life, known any man; the character and evolution and essence of him. Yet with all his frankness, the rare, simple, and generous outgiving of a naturally rather silent nature yielding itself to an unrecognized but overmastering influence, he retained the charm of inner mystery. Her sudden understanding of him still did not enable her to place him in any category of life as she knew it to be arranged.
The revelation had come about through her description of her encounter with the queer and attentive bird of the desert.
"Oh," said Banneker. "You've been interviewing a cactus owl."
"Did he unwind his neck carefully and privately after I had gone?"
"No," returned Banneker gravely. "He just jumped in the air and his body spun around until it got back to its original relation."
"How truly fascinating! Have you seen him do it?"
"Not actually seen. But often in the evenings I've heard them buzzing as they unspin the day's wind-up. During the day, you see, they make as many as ten or fifteen revolutions until their eyes bung out. Reversing makes them very dizzy, and if you are around when they're doing it, you can often pick them up off the sand."
"And doesn't it ever make you dizzy? All this local lore, I mean, that you carry around in your head?"
"It isn't much of a strain to a practiced intellect," he deprecated. "If you're interested in natural history, there's the Side-hill Wampus--"
"Yes; I know. I've been West before, thank you! Pardon my curiosity, but are all you creatures of the desert queer and inexplicable?"
"Not me," he returned promptly if ungrammatically, "if you're looking in my direction."
"I'll admit that I find you as interesting as the owl--almost. And quite as hard to understand."
"Nobody ever called me queer; not to my face."
"But you are, you know. You oughtn't to be here at all."
"Where ought I to be?"
"How can I answer that riddle without knowing where you have been? Are you Ulysses--"
"'Knowing cities and the hearts of men,'" he answered, quick to catch the reference. "No; not the cities, certainly, and very little of the men."
"There, you see!" she exclaimed plaintively. "You're up on a classical reference like a college man. No; not like the college men I know, either. They are too immersed in their football and rowing and too afraid to be thought high-brow, to confess to knowing anything about Ulysses. What was your college?"
"This," he said, sweeping a hand around the curve of the horizon.
"And in any one else," she retorted, "that would be priggish as well as disingenuous."
"I suppose I know what you mean. Out here, when a man doesn't explain himself, they think it's for some good reason of his own, or bad reason, more likely. In either case, they don't ask questions."
"I really beg your pardon, Mr. Banneker!"
"No; that isn't what I meant at all. If you're interested, I'd like to have you know about me. It isn't much, though."
"You'll think me prying," she objected.
"I think you a sort of friend of a day, who is going away very soon leaving pleasant memories," he answered, smiling. "A butterfly visit. I'm not much given to talking, but if you'd like it--"
"Of course I should like it."
So he sketched for her his history. His mother he barely remembered; "dark, and quite beautiful, I believe, though that might be only a child's vision; my father rarely spoke of her, but I think all the emotional side of his life was buried with her." The father, an American of Danish ancestry, had been ousted from the chair of Sociology in old, conservative Havenden College, as the logical result of his writings which, because they shrewdly and clearly pointed out certain ulcerous spots in the economic and social system, were denounced as "radical" by a Board of Trustees honestly devoted to Business Ideals. Having a small income of his own, the ex-Professor decided upon a life of investigatory vagrancy, with special reference to studies, at first hand, of the voluntarily unemployed. Not knowing what else to do with the only child of his marriage, he took the boy along. Contemptuous of, rather than embittered against, an academic system which had dispensed with his services because it was afraid of the light--"When you cast a light, they see only the resultant shadows," was one of his sayings which had remained with Banneker--he had resolved to educate the child himself.
Their life was spent frugally in cities where they haunted libraries, or, sumptuously, upon the open road where a modest supply of ready cash goes a long way. Young Banneker's education, after the routine foundation, was curiously heterodox, but he came through it with his intellectual digestion unimpaired and his mental appetite avid. By example he had the competent self-respect and unmistakable bearing of a gentleman, and by careful precept the speech of a liberally educated man. When he was seventeen, his father died of a twenty-four hours' pneumonia, leaving the son not so much stricken as bewildered, for their relations had been comradely rather than affectionate. For a time it was a question whether the youngster, drifting from casual job to casual job, would not degenerate into a veritable hobo, for he had drunk deep of the charm of the untrammeled and limitless road. Want touched him, but lightly; for he was naturally frugal and hardy. He got a railroad job by good luck, and it was not until he had worked himself into a permanency that his father's lawyers found and notified him of the possession of a small income, one hundred dollars per annum of which, they informed him, was to be expended by them upon such books as they thought suitable to his circumstances, upon information provided by the deceased, the remainder to be at his disposal.
Though quite unauthorized to proffer advice, as they honorably stated, they opined that the heir's wisest course would be to prepare himself at once for college, the income being sufficient to take him through, with care--and they were, his Very Truly, Cobb & Morse.
Banneker had not the smallest idea of cooping up his mind in a college. As to future occupation, his father had said nothing that was definite. His thesis was that observation and thought concerning men and their activities, pointed and directed by intimate touch with what others had observed and set down--that is, through books--was the gist of life. Any job which gave opportunity or leisure for this was good enough. Livelihood was but a garment, at most; life was the body beneath. Furthermore, young Banneker would find, so his senior had assured him, that he possessed an open sesame to the minds of the really intelligent wheresoever he might encounter them, in the form of a jewel which he must keep sedulously untarnished and bright. What was that? asked the boy. His speech and bearing of a cultivated man.
Young Banneker found that it was almost miraculously true. Wherever he went, he established contacts with people who interested him and whom he interested: here a brilliant, doubting, perturbed clergyman, slowly dying of tuberculosis in the desert; there a famous geologist from Washington who, after a night of amazing talk with the young prodigy while awaiting a train, took him along on a mountain exploration; again an artist and his wife who were painting the arid and colorful glories of the waste places. From these and others he got much; but not friendship or permanent associations. He did not want them. He was essentially, though unconsciously, a lone spirit; so his listener gathered. Advancement could have been his in the line of work which had by chance adopted him; but he preferred small, out-of-the-way stations, where he could be with his books and have room to breathe. So here he was at Manzanita. That was all there was to it. Nothing very mysterious or remarkable about it, was there?
Io smiled in return. "What is your name?" she asked.
"Errol. But every one calls me Ban."
"Haven't you ever told this to any one before?"
"Why should I?"
"I don't know really," hesitated the girl, "except that it seems almost inhuman to keep one's self so shut off."
"It's nobody else's business."
"Yet you've told it to me. That's very charming of you."
"You said you'd be interested."
"So I am. It's an extraordinary life, though you don't seem to think so."
"But I don't want to be extraordinary."
"Of course you do," she refuted promptly. "To be ordinary is--is--well, it's like being a dust-colored beetle." She looked at him queerly. "Doesn't Miss Van Arsdale know all this?"
"I don't see how she could. I've never told her."
"And she's never asked you anything?"
"Not a word. I don't quite see Miss Camilla asking any one questions about themselves. Did she ask you?"
The girl's color deepened almost imperceptibly. "You're right," she said. "There's a standard of breeding that we up-to-date people don't attain. But I'm at least intelligent enough to recognize it. You reckon her as a friend, don't you?"
"Why, yes; I suppose so."
"Do you suppose you'd ever come to reckon me as one?" she asked, half bantering, half wistful.
"There won't be time. You're running away."
"Perhaps I might write you. I think I'd like to."
"Would you?" he murmured. "Why?"
"You ought to be greatly flattered," she reproved him. "Instead you shoot a 'why' at me. Well; because you've got something I haven't got. And when I find anything new like that, I always try to get some of it for myself."
"I don't know what it could be, but--"
"Call it your philosophy of life. Your contentment. Or is it only detachment? That can't last, you know."
He turned to her, vaguely disturbed as by a threat. "Why not?"
"You're too--well, distinctive. You're too rare and beautiful a specimen. You'll be grabbed." She laughed softly.
"Who'll grab me?"
"How should I know? Life, probably. Grab you and dry you up and put you in a case like the rest of us."
"Perhaps that's why I like to stay out here. At least I can be myself."
"Is that your fondest ambition?"
However much he may have been startled by the swift stab, he gave no sign of hurt in his reply.
"Call it the line of least resistance. In any case, I shouldn't like to be grabbed and dried up."
"Most of us are grabbed and catalogued from our birth, and eventually dried up and set in our proper places."
"Not you, certainly."
"Because you haven't seen me in my shell. That's where I mostly live. I've broken out for a time."
"Don't you like it outside, Butterfly?" he queried with a hint of playful caress in his voice.
"I like that name for myself," she returned quickly. "Though a butterfly couldn't return to its chrysalis, no matter how much it wanted to, could it? But you may call me that, since we're to be friends."
"Then you do like it outside your shell."
"It's exhilarating. But I suppose I should find it too rough for my highly sensitized skin in the long run.... Are you going to write to me if I write to you?"
"What about? That Number Six came in making bad steam, and that a west-bound freight, running extra, was held up on the siding at Marchand for half a day?"
"Is that all you have to write about?"
Banneker bethought himself of the very private dossier in his office. "No; it isn't."
"You could write in a way all your own. Have you ever written anything for publication?"
"No. That is--well--I don't really know." He told her about Gardner and the description of the wreck.
"How did you happen to do that?" she asked curiously.
"Oh, I write a lot of things and put them away and forget them."
"Show me," she wheedled. "I'd love to see them."
He shook his head. "They wouldn't interest you." The words were those of an excuse. But in the tone was finality.
"I don't think you're very responsive," she complained. "I'm awfully interested in you and your affairs, and you won't play back the least bit."
They walked on in silence for a space. He had, she reflected, a most disconcerting trick of silence, of ignoring quite without embarrassment leads, which in her code imperatively called for return. Annoyance stirred within her, and the eternal feline which is a component part of the eternal feminine asserted itself.
"Perhaps," she suggested, "you are afraid of me."
"No; I'm not."
"By that you mean 'Why should I be'?"
"Something of the sort."
"Didn't Miss Van Arsdale warn you against me?"
"How did you know that?" he asked, staring.
"A solemn warning not to fall in love with me?" pursued the girl calmly.
He stopped short. "She told you that she had said something to me?"
"Don't be idiotic! Of course she didn't."
"Then how did you know?" he persisted.
"How does one snake know what another snake will do?" she retorted. "Being of the same--"
"Wait a moment. I don't like that word 'snake' in connection with Miss Van Arsdale."
"Though you're willing to accept it as applying to me. I believe you are trying to quarrel with me," accused Io. "I only meant that, being a woman, I can make a guess at what another woman would do in any given conditions. And she did it!" she concluded in triumph.
"No; she didn't. Not in so many words. But you're very clever."
"Say, rather, that you are very stupid," was the disdainful retort. "So you're not going to fall in love with me?"
"Of course not," answered Banneker in the most cheerfully commonplace of tones.
Once embarked upon this primrose path, which is always an imperceptible but easy down-slope, Io went farther than she had intended. "Why not?" she challenged.
"Brass buttons," said Banneker concisely.
She flushed angrily. "You can be rather a beast, can't you!"
"A beast? Just for reminding you that the Atkinson and St. Philip station-agent at Manzanita does not include in his official duties that of presuming to fall in love with chance passengers who happen to be more or less in his care."
"Very proper and official! Now," added the girl in a different manner, "let's stop talking nonsense, and do you tell me one thing honestly. Do you feel that it would be presumption?"
"To fall in love with you?"
"Leave that part of it out; I put my question stupidly. I'm really curious to know whether you feel any--any difference between your station and mine."
"Yes; I do," she answered honestly, "when I think of it. But you make it very hard for me to remember it when I'm with you."
"Well, I don't," he said. "I suppose I'm a socialist in all matters of that kind. Not that I've ever given much thought to them. You don't have to out here."
"No; you wouldn't. I don't know that you would have to anywhere.... Are we almost home?"
"Three minutes' more walking. Tired?"
"Not a bit. You know," she added, "I really would like it if you'd write me once in a while. There's something here I'd like to keep a hold on. It's tonic. I'll make you write me." She flashed a smile at him.
"By sending you books. You'll have to acknowledge them."
"No. I couldn't take them. I'd have to send them back."
"You wouldn't let me send you a book or two just as a friendly memento?" she cried, incredulous.
"I don't take anything from anybody," he retorted doggedly.
"Ah; that's small-minded," she accused. "That's ungenerous. I wouldn't think that of you."
He strode along in moody thought for a few paces. Presently he turned to her a rigid face. "If you had ever had to accept food to keep you alive, you'd understand."
For a moment she was shocked and sorry. Then her tact asserted itself. "But I have," she said readily, "all my life. Most of us do."
The hard muscles around his mouth relaxed. "You remind me," he said, "that I'm not as real a socialist as I thought. Nevertheless, that rankles in my memory. When I got my first job, I swore I'd never accept anything from anybody again. One of the passengers on your train tried to tip me a hundred dollars."
"He must have been a fool," said Io scornfully.
Banneker held open the station-door for her. "I've got to send a wire or two," said he. "Take a look at this. It may give some news about general railroad conditions." He handed her the newspaper which had arrived that morning.
When he came out again, the station was empty.
Io was gone. So was the newspaper.
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