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Chapter 24

"If Amanda would only marry me!" sighed Colonel A Pepper, as he stacked the few dishes on the cupboard shelf and surveyed his untidy little kitchen with disparaging eyes.

The once-contented Colonel was being consumed by two great fires--remorse and love. For more years than he could remember he had been a victim of a deplorable habit. Then two soft eyes shone into his life, and in their light he saw things differently, and he tried to redeem himself.

Even good fortune, in the shape of some half-forgotten meadow property suddenly becoming valuable, had not revived his once genial spirits. Remorse was with him because Miss Hill refused to marry him till he overcame the habit which had earned him undesirable fame.

So day by day poor Colonel Pepper grew sicker of his lonely rooms, his lonely life, and of himself.

"If Amanda only would," he murmured for the thousandth time, and taking his hat he went out. The sunshine was bright, but did not give him the old pleasure. He walked and walked, taking no interest in anything. Presently he found himself on the outskirts of Middleville within sound of the muffled roar of the flooded river, and he wandered in its direction. At sight of the old wooden bridge he remembered he had read that it was expected to give way to the pressure of the rushing water. On the levee, which protected the low-lying country above the city, were crowds of people watching the river.

"Ye've no rivers loike thot in Garminy," observed a half-drunken Irishman. He and several more of his kind evidently were teasing a little German.

Colonel Pepper had not stood there long before he heard a number of witticisms from these red-faced men.

After the manner of his kind the German had stolidly swallowed the remarks about his big head, and its shock of stubby hair, and his checked buff trousers; but at reference to his native country his little blue eyes snapped, and he made a remark that this river was extremely like one in Germany.

At this the characteristic contrary spirit of the Irishman burst forth.

"Dutchy, I'd loike ye to know ye're exaggeratin'," he said. "Garminy ain't big enough for a river the loike o' this. An' I'll leave it to me intilligint-lookin' fri'nd here."

Colonel Pepper, thus appealed to, blushed, looked embarrassed, coughed, and then replied that he thought Germany was quite large enough for such a river.

"Did ye study gographie?" questioned the Irishman with fine scorn.

Colonel Pepper retired within himself.

The unsteady and excitable fellow had been crowded to the rear by his comrades, who evidently wished to lessen, in some degree, the possibilities of a fight.

"Phwat's in thim rivers ye're spoutin' about?" asked one.

"Vater, ov course."

"Me wooden-shoed fri'nd, ye mane beer--beer."

"You insolt me, you red-headed----"

"Was that Dutchman addressin' of me?" demanded the half-drunken Irishman, trying to push by his friends.

"It'd be a foiner river if it wasn't yaller," said a peacemaker, holding his comrade.

In the slight scuffle which ensued one of the men unintentionally jostled the German. His pipe fell to the ground. He bent to recover it.

Through Colonel Pepper's whole being shot the lightning of his strange impulse, a tingling tremor ran over him; a thousand giants lifted and swung his arm. He fought to check it, but in vain. With his blood bursting, with his strength expending itself in one irresistible effort, with his soul expanding in fiendish, unholy glee he brought his powerful hand down upon the bending German.

There was a great shout of laughter.

The German fell forward at length and knocked a man off the levee wall. Then the laughter changed to excited shouts.

The wall was steep but not perfectly perpendicular. Several men made frantic grabs at the sliding figure; they failed, however, to catch it. Then the man turned over and rolled into the river with a great splash. Cries of horror followed his disappearance in the muddy water, and when, an instant later, his head bobbed up yells filled the air.

No one had time to help him. He tried ineffectually to reach the levee; then the current whirled him away. The crowd caught a glimpse of a white despairing face, which rose on the crest of a muddy wave, and then was lost.

In the excitement of the moment the Colonel hurried from the spot. Horror possessed him; he felt no less than a murderer. Again he walked and walked. Retribution had overtaken him. The accursed habit that had disgraced him for twenty years had wrought its punishment. Plunged into despair he plodded along the streets, till at length, out of his stupefaction, came the question--what would Amanda say?

With that an overwhelming truth awakened him. He was free. He might have killed a man, but he certainly had killed his habit. He felt the thing dead within him. Wildly he gazed around to see where he was, and thought it a deed of fate that he had unconsciously traveled toward the home of his love. For there before his eyes was Amanda's cottage with the red geranium in her window. He ran to the window and tapped mysteriously and peered within. Then he ran to the door and knocked. It opened with a vigorous swing.

"Mr. Pepper, what do you mean--tapping on my window in such clandestine manner, and in broad daylight, too?" demanded Miss Hill with a stern voice none of her scholars had ever heard.

"Amanda, dear, I am a murderer!" cried Pepper, in tones of unmistakable joy. "I am a murderer, but I'll never do it again."

"Laws!" exclaimed Miss Hill

He pushed her aside and closed the door, and got possession of her hands, all the time pouring out incoherent speech, in which only it was distinguishable.

"Man alive! Are you crazy?" asked Miss Hill, getting away from him into a corner. But it happened to be a corner with a couch, and when her trembling legs touched it she sat down.

"Never, never again will I do it!" cried the Colonel, with a grand gesture.

"Can you talk sense?" faltered the schoolmistress.

Colonel Pepper flung himself down beside her, and with many breathless stops and repetitions and eloquent glances and applications of his bandana to his heated face, he finally got his tragic story told.

"Is that all?" inquired Miss Hill, with a touch of sarcasm. "Why, you're not a murderer, even if the man drowns, which isn't at all likely. You've only fallen again."

"Fallen. But I never fell so terribly. This was the worst."

"Stuff! Where's the chivalry you tried to make me think you were full of? Didn't you humiliate me, a poor helpless woman? Wasn't that worse? Didn't you humiliate me before a crowd of people in a candy-store? Could anything be more monstrous? You did it, you remember?"

"Amanda! Never! Never!" gasped the Colonel.

"You did, and I let you think I believed your lies."

"Amanda! I'll never do it again, never to any one, so long as I live. It's dead, same as the card tricks. Forgive me, Amanda, and marry me. I'm so fond of you, and I'm so lonely, and those meadow lots of mine, they'll make me rich. Amanda, would you marry me? Would you love an old duffer like me? Would you like a nice little home, and an occasional silk dress, and no more teaching, and some one to love you--always? Would you, Amanda, would you?"

"Yes, I would," replied Amanda.

Zane Grey

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