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In spite of Mr. Slocum's stipulations respecting the frequency of Margaret's visits to the studio, she was free to come and go as she liked. It was easy for him to say, Be good friends, and nothing beyond; but after that day in the workshop it was impossible for Richard and Margaret to be anything but lovers. The hollowness of pretending otherwise was clear even to Mr. Slocum. In the love of a father for a daughter there is always a vague jealousy which refuses to render a coherent explanation of itself. Mr. Slocum did not escape this, but he managed, nevertheless, to accept the inevitable with very fair grace, and presently to confess to himself that the occurrence which had at first taken him aback was the most natural in the world. That Margaret and Richard, thrown together as they had been, should end by falling in love with each other was not a result to justify much surprise. Indeed, there was a special propriety in their doing so. The Shackfords had always been reputable people in the village,--down to Lemuel Shackford, who of course as an old musk-rat. The family attributes of amiability and honesty had skipped him, but they had reappeared in Richard. It was through his foresight and personal energy that the most lucrative branch of the trade had been established. His services entitled him to a future interest in the business, and Mr. Slocum had intended he should have it. Mr. Slocum had not dreamed of throwing in Margaret also; but since that addition had suggested itself, it seemed to him one of the happy features of the arrangement. Richard would thus be doubly identified with the yard, to which, in fact, he had become more necessary than Mr. Slocum himself.
"He has more backbone with the men than I have," acknowledged Mr. Slocum. "He knows how to manage them, and I don't."
As soft as Slocum was a Stillwater proverb. Richard certainly had plenty of backbone; it was his only capital. In Mr. Slocum's estimation it was sufficient capital. But Lemuel Shackford was a very rich man, and Mr. Slocum could not avoid seeing that it would be decent in Richard's only surviving relative if, at this juncture, he were to display a little interest in the young fellow's welfare.
"If he would only offer to advance a few thousand dollars for Richard," said Mr. Slocum, one evening, to Margaret, with whom he had been talking over the future--"the property must all come to him some time,--it would be a vast satisfaction to me to tell the old man that we can get along without any of his ill-gotten gains. He made the bulk of his fortune during the war, you know. The old sea-serpent," continued Mr. Slocum, with hopeless confusion of metaphor, "had a hand in fitting out more than one blockade-runner. They used to talk of a ship that got away from Charleston with a cargo of cotton that netted the share-holders upwards of two hundred thousand dollars. He denies it now, but everybody knows Shackford. He'd betray his country for fifty cents in postage-stamps."
"Oh, papa! you are too hard on him."
In words dropped cursorily from time to time, Margaret imparted to Richard the substance of her father's speech, and it set Richard reflecting. It was not among the probabilities that Lemuel Shackford would advance a dollar to establish Richard, but if he could induce his cousin even to take the matter into consideration, Richard felt that it would be a kind of moral support to him circumstanced as he was. His pride revolted at the idea of coming quite unbacked and disowned, as well as empty-handed, to Mr. Slocum.
For the last twelve months there had been a cessation of ordinary courtesies between the two cousins. They now passed each other on the street without recognition. A year previously Mr. Shackford had fallen ill, and Richard, aware of the inefficient domestic arrangements in Welch's Court, had gone to the house out of sheer pity. The old man was in bed, and weak with fever, but at seeing Richard he managed to raise himself on one elbow.
"Oh, it's you!" he exclaimed, mockingly. "When a rich man is sick the anxious heirs crowd around him; but they're twice as honestly anxious when he is perfectly well."
"I came to see if I could do anything for you!" cried Richard, with a ferocious glare, and in a tone that went curiously with his words, and shook to the foundations his character of Good Samaritan.
"The only thing you can do for me is to go away."
"I'll do that with pleasure," retorted Richard bitterly.
And Richard went, vowing he would never set foot across the threshold again. He could not help having ugly thoughts. Why should all the efforts to bring about a reconciliation and all the forbearance be on his side? Thenceforth the crabbed old man might go to perdition if he wanted to.
And now here was Richard meditating a visit to that same house to beg a favor!
Nothing but his love for Margaret could have dragged him to such a banquet of humble-pie as he knew was spread for his delectation, the morning he passed up the main street of Stillwater and turned into Welch's Court.
As Richard laid his hand on the latch of the gate, Mr. Shackford, who was digging in the front garden, looked up and saw him. Without paying any heed to Richard's amicable salutation, the old man left the shove sticking in the sod, and walked stiffly into the house. At another moment this would have amused Richard, but now he gravely followed his kinsman, and overtook him at the foot of the staircase.
"Cousin Shackford, can you spare me five or ten minutes?"
"Don't know as I can," said Mr. Shackford, with one foot on the lower stair. "Time is valuable. What do you want? You want something."
"Certainly, or I wouldn't think of trespassing on your time."
"Has Slocum thrown you over?" inquired the old man, turning quickly. A straw which he held between his thin lips helped to give him a singularly alert expression.
"No; Mr. Slocum and I agree the best in the world. I want to talk with you briefly on certain matters; I want to be on decent terms with you, if you will let me."
"Decent terms means money, doesn't it?" asked Mr. Shackford, with a face as wary and lean as a shark's.
"I do wish to talk about money, among other things," returned Richard, whom this brutal directness disconcerted a little,--"money on satisfactory security."
"You can get it anywhere with that."
"So I might, and be asking no favor; but I would rather get it of you, and consider it an obligation."
"I would rather you wouldn't."
"Listen to me a moment."
"Well, I'm listening."
Mr. Shackford stood in an attitude of attention, with his head canted on one side, his eyes fixed on the ceiling, and the straw between his teeth tilted up at an angle of forty degrees.
"I have, as you know, worked my way in the marble yard to the position of general manager," began Richard.
"I didn't know," said Mr. Shackford, "but I understand. You're a sort of head grave-stone maker."
"That is taking a rather gloomy view of it," said Richard, "but no matter. The point is, I hold a responsible position, and I now have a chance to purchase a share in the works."
"Slocum is willing to take you in, eh?"
"Then the concern is hit."
"Slocum is going into bankruptcy."
"You are wrong there. The yard was never so prosperous; the coming year we shall coin money like a mint."
"You ought to know," said Mr. Shackford, ruminatively. "A thing as good as a mint must be a good thing."
"If I were a partner in the business, I could marry Margaret."
"Mr. Slocum's daughter."
"That's where the wind is! Now how much capital would it take to do all that?" inquired Mr. Shackford, with an air of affable speculation.
"Three or four thousand dollars,--perhaps less."
"Well, I wouldn't give three or four cents to have you marry Slocum's daughter. Richard, you can't pull any chestnuts out of the fire with my paw."
Mr. Shackford's interrogation and his more than usual conciliatory manner had lighted a hope which Richard had not brought with him. Its sudden extinguishment was in consequence doubly aggravating.
"Slocum's daughter!" repeated Mr. Shackford. "I'd as soon you would marry Crazy Nan up at the work-house."
The association of Crazy Nan with Margaret sent a red flush into Richard's cheek. He turned angrily towards the door, and then halted, recollecting the resolve he had made not to lose his temper, come what would. If the interview was to end there it had better not have taken place.
"I had no expectation that you would assist me pecuniarily," said Richard, after a moment. "Let us drop the money question; it shouldn't have come up between us. I want you to aid me, not by lending me money, but by giving me your countenance as the head of the family,--by showing a natural interest in my affairs, and seeming disposed to promote them."
"By just seeming?"
"That is really all I desire. If you were to propose to put capital into the concern, Mr. Slocum would refuse it."
"Slocum would refuse it! Why in the devil should he refuse it?"
"Because"--Richard hesitated, finding himself unexpectedly on delicate ground--"because he would not care to enter into business relations with you, under the circumstances."
Mr. Shackford removed the straw from his mouth, and holding it between his thumb and forefinger peered steadily through his half-closed eyelids at Richard.
"I don't understand you."
"The dispute you had long ago, over the piece of meadow land behind the marble yard. Mr. Slocum felt that you bore on him rather heavily in that matter, and has not quite forgiven you for forcing him to rebuild the sheds."
"Bother Slocum and his sheds! I understand him. What I don't understand is you. I am to offer Slocum three or four thousand dollars to set you up, and he is to decline to take it. Is that it?"
"That is not it at all," returned Richard. "My statement was this: If you were to propose purchasing a share for me in the works, Mr. Slocum would not entertain the proposition, thinking--as I don't think--that he would mortify you by the refusal of your money."
"The only way Slocum could mortify me would be by getting hold of it. But what are you driving at, anyhow? In one breath you demand several thousand dollars, and in the next breath you tell me that nobody expects it, or wants it, or could be induced to have it on any terms. Perhaps you will inform me what you are here for?"
"That is what you will never discover!" cried Richard. "It is not in you to comprehend the ties of sympathy that ought to hold between two persons situated as we are. In most families this sympathy binds closely at times,--at christenings, or burials, or when some member is about to take an important step in life. Generally speaking, blood is thicker than water; but your blood, cousin Shackford, seems to be a good deal thinner. I came here to consult with you as my sole remaining kinsman, as one authorized by years and position to give me wise counsel and kindly encouragement at the turning point in my fortune. I didn't wish to go among those people like a tramp, with neither kith nor kin to say a word for me. Of course you don't understand that. How should you? A sentiment of that kind is something quite beyond your conception."
Richard's words went into one ear and out the other, without seeming for an instant to arrest Mr. Shackford's attention. The idea of Slocum not accepting money--anybody's money--presented itself to Mr. Shackford in so facetious a light as nearly to throw him into good humor. His foot was on the first step of the staircase, which he now began slowly to mount, giving vent, as he ascended, to a serious of indescribable chuckles. At the top of the landing he halted, and leaned over the rail.
"To think of Slocum refusing,--that's a good one!"
In the midst of his jocularity a sudden thought seemed to strike Mr. Shackford; his features underwent a swift transformation, and as he grasped the rail in front of him with both hands a malicious cunning writhed and squirmed in every wrinkle of his face.
"Sir!" he shrieked, "it was a trap! Slocum would have taken it! If I had been ass enough to make any such offer, he would have jumped at it. What do you and Slocum take me for? You're a pair of rascals!"
Richard staggered back, bewildered and blinded, as if he had received a blow in the eyes.
"No," continued Mr. Shackford, with a gesture of intense contempt, "you are less than rascals. You are fools. A rascal has to have brains!"
"You shameless old man!" cried Richard, as soon as he could get his voice.
To do Mr. Shackford justice, he was thoroughly convinced that Richard had lent himself to a preposterous attempt to obtain money from him. The absence of ordinary shrewdness in the method stamped it at once as belonging to Slocum, of whose mental calibre Mr. Shackford entertained no flattering estimate.
"Slocum!" he muttered, grinding the word between his teeth. "Family ties!" he cried, hurling the words scornfully over the banister as he disappeared into one of the upper chambers.
Richard stood with one hand on the newel-post, white at the lip with rage. For a second he had a wild impulse to spring up the staircase, but, controlling this, he turned and hurried out of the house.
At the gate he brushed roughly against a girl, who halted and stared. It was a strange thing to see Mr. Richard Shackford, who always had a pleasant word for a body, go by in that blind, excited fashion, striking one fist into the palm of the other hand, and talking to his own self! Mary Hennessey watched him until he wheeled out of Welch's Court, and then picking up her basket, which she had rested on the fence, went her way.
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