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The Blue Castle

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CHAPTER XI

Meanwhile the dinner in its earlier stages was dragging its slow length along true to Stirling form. The room was chilly, in spite of the calendar, and Aunt Alberta had the gas-logs lighted. Everybody in the clan envied her those gas-logs except Valancy. Glorious open fires blazed in every room of her Blue Castle when autumnal nights were cool, but she would have frozen to death in it before she would have committed the sacrilege of a gas-log. Uncle Herbert made his hardy perennial joke when he helped Aunt Wellington to the cold meat—"Mary, will you have a little lamb?" Aunt Mildred told the same old story of once finding a lost ring in a turkey's crop. Uncle Benjamin told his favourite prosy tale of how he had once chased and punished a now famous man for stealing apples. Second Cousin Jane described all her sufferings with an ulcerating tooth. Aunt Wellington admired the pattern of Aunt Alberta's silver teaspoons and lamented the fact that one of her own had been lost.

"It spoiled the set. I could never get it matched. And it was my wedding-present from dear old Aunt Matilda."

Aunt Isabel thought the seasons were changing and couldn't imagine what had become of our good, old-fashioned springs. Cousin Georgiana, as usual, discussed the last funeral and wondered, audibly, "which of us will be the next to pass away." Cousin Georgiana could never say anything as blunt as "die." Valancy thought she could tell her, but didn't. Cousin Gladys, likewise as usual, had a grievance. Her visiting nephews had nipped all the buds off her house-plants and chivied her brood of fancy chickens—"squeezed some of them actually to death, my dear."

"Boys will be boys," reminded Uncle Herbert tolerantly.

"But they needn't be ramping, rampageous animals," retorted Cousin Gladys, looking round the table for appreciation of her wit. Everybody smiled except Valancy. Cousin Gladys remembered that. A few minutes later, when Ellen Hamilton was being discussed, Cousin Gladys spoke of her as "one of those shy, plain girls who can't get husbands," and glanced significantly at Valancy.

Uncle James thought the conversation was sagging to a rather low plane of personal gossip. He tried to elevate it by starting an abstract discussion on "the greatest happiness." Everybody was asked to state his or her idea of "the greatest happiness."

Aunt Mildred thought the greatest happiness—for a woman—was to be "a loving and beloved wife and mother." Aunt Wellington thought it would be to travel in Europe. Olive thought it would be to be a great singer like Tetrazzini. Cousin Gladys remarked mournfully that her greatest happiness would be to be free—absolutely free—from neuritis. Cousin Georgiana's greatest happiness would be "to have her dear, dead brother Richard back." Aunt Alberta remarked vaguely that the greatest happiness was to be found in "the poetry of life" and hastily gave some directions to her maid to prevent any one asking her what she meant. Mrs. Frederick said the greatest happiness was to spend your life in loving service for others, and Cousin Stickles and Aunt Isabel agreed with her—Aunt Isabel with a resentful air, as if she thought Mrs. Frederick had taken the wind out of her sails by saying it first. "We are all too prone," continued Mrs. Frederick, determined not to lose so good an opportunity, "to live in selfishness, worldliness and sin." The other women all felt rebuked for their low ideals, and Uncle James had a conviction that the conversation had been uplifted with a vengeance.

"The greatest happiness," said Valancy suddenly and distinctly, "is to sneeze when you want to."

Everybody stared. Nobody felt it safe to say anything. Was Valancy trying to be funny? It was incredible. Mrs. Frederick, who had been breathing easier since the dinner had progressed so far without any outbreak on the part of Valancy, began to tremble again. But she deemed it the part of prudence to say nothing. Uncle Benjamin was not so prudent. He rashly rushed in where Mrs. Frederick feared to tread.

"Doss," he chuckled, "what is the difference between a young girl and an old maid?"

"One is happy and careless and the other is cappy and hairless," said Valancy. "You have asked that riddle at least fifty times in my recollection, Uncle Ben. Why don't you hunt up some new riddles if riddle you must? It is such a fatal mistake to try to be funny if you don't succeed."

Uncle Benjamin stared foolishly. Never in his life had he, Benjamin Stirling, of Stirling and Frost, been spoken to so. And by Valancy of all people! He looked feebly around the table to see what the others thought of it. Everybody was looking rather blank. Poor Mrs. Frederick had shut her eyes. And her lips moved tremblingly—as if she were praying. Perhaps she was. The situation was so unprecedented that nobody knew how to meet it. Valancy went on calmly eating her salad as if nothing out of the usual had occurred.

Aunt Alberta, to save her dinner, plunged into an account of how a dog had bitten her recently. Uncle James, to back her up, asked where the dog had bitten her.

"Just a little below the Catholic church," said Aunt Alberta.

At that point Valancy laughed. Nobody else laughed. What was there to laugh at?

"Is that a vital part?" asked Valancy.

"What do you mean?" said bewildered Aunt Alberta, and Mrs. Frederick was almost driven to believe that she had served God all her years for naught.

Aunt Isabel concluded that it was up to her to suppress Valancy.

"Doss, you are horribly thin," she said. "You are all corners. Do you ever try to fatten up a little?"

"No." Valancy was not asking quarter or giving it. "But I can tell you where you'll find a beauty parlor in Port Lawrence where they can reduce the number of your chins."

"Val-an-cy!" The protest was wrung from Mrs. Frederick. She meant her tone to be stately and majestic, as usual, but it sounded more like an imploring whine. And she did not say "Doss."

"She's feverish," said Cousin Stickles to Uncle Benjamin in an agonised whisper. "We've thought she's seemed feverish for several days."

"She's gone dippy, in my opinion," growled Uncle Benjamin. "If not, she ought to be spanked. Yes, spanked."

"You can't spank her." Cousin Stickles was much agitated. "She's twenty-nine years old."

"So there is that advantage, at least, in being twenty-nine," said Valancy, whose ears had caught this aside.

"Doss," said Uncle Benjamin, "when I am dead you may say what you please. As long as I am alive I demand to be treated with respect."

"Oh, but you know we're all dead," said Valancy, "the whole Stirling clan. Some of us are buried and some aren't—yet. That is the only difference." "Doss," said Uncle Benjamin, thinking it might cow Valancy, "do you remember the time you stole the raspberry jam?"

Valancy flushed scarlet—with suppressed laughter, not shame. She had been sure Uncle Benjamin would drag that jam in somehow.

"Of course I do," she said. "It was good jam. I've always been sorry I hadn't time to eat more of it before you found me. Oh, look at Aunt Isabel's profile on the wall. Did you ever see anything so funny?"

Everybody looked, including Aunt Isabel herself, which of course, destroyed it. But Uncle Herbert said kindly, "I—I wouldn't eat any more if I were you, Doss. It isn't that I grudge it—but don't you think it would be better for yourself? Your—your stomach seems a little out of order."

"Don't worry about my stomach, old dear," said Valancy. "It is all right. I'm going to keep right on eating. It's so seldom I get the chance of a satisfying meal."

It was the first time any one had been called "old dear" in Deerwood. The Stirlings thought Valancy had invented the phrase and they were afraid of her from that moment. There was something so uncanny about such an expression. But in poor Mrs. Frederick's opinion the reference to a satisfying meal was the worst thing Valancy had said yet. Valancy had always been a disappointment to her. Now she was a disgrace. She thought she would have to get up and go away from the table. Yet she dared not leave Valancy there.

Aunt Alberta's maid came in to remove the salad plates and bring in the dessert. It was a welcome diversion. Everybody brightened up with a determination to ignore Valancy and talk as if she wasn't there. Uncle Wellington mentioned Barney Snaith. Eventually somebody did mention Barney Snaith at every Stirling function, Valancy reflected. Whatever he was, he was an individual that could not be ignored. She resigned herself to listen. There was a subtle fascination in the subject for her, though she had not yet faced this fact. She could feel her pulses beating to her finger-tips.

Of course they abused him. Nobody ever had a good word to say of Barney Snaith. All the old, wild tales were canvassed—the defaulting cashier-counterfeiter-infidel-murderer-in-hiding legends were thrashed out. Uncle Wellington was very indignant that such a creature should be allowed to exist at all in the neighbourhood of Deerwood. He didn't know what the police at Port Lawrence were thinking of. Everybody would be murdered in their beds some night. It was a shame that he should be allowed to be at large after all that he had done.

"What has he done?" asked Valancy suddenly.

Uncle Wellington stared at her, forgetting that she was to be ignored.

"Done! Done! He's done everything."

"What has he done?" repeated Valancy inexorably. "What do you know that he has done? You're always running him down. And what has ever been proved against him?"

"I don't argue with women," said Uncle Wellington. "And I don't need proof. When a man hides himself up there on an island in Muskoka, year in and year out, and nobody can find out where he came from or how he lives, or what he does there, that's proof enough. Find a mystery and you find a crime."

"The very idea of a man named Snaith!" said Second Cousin Sarah. "Why, the name itself is enough to condemn him!"

"I wouldn't like to meet him in a dark lane," shivered Cousin Georgiana.

"What do you suppose he would do to you?" asked Valancy.

"Murder me," said Cousin Georgiana solemnly.

"Just for the fun of it?" suggested Valancy.

"Exactly," said Cousin Georgiana unsuspiciously. "When there is so much smoke there must be some fire. I was afraid he was a criminal when he came here first. I felt he had something to hide. I am not often mistaken in my intuitions."

"Criminal! Of course he's a criminal," said Uncle Wellington. "Nobody doubts it"—glaring at Valancy. "Why, they say he served a term in the penitentiary for embezzlement. I don't doubt it. And they say he's in with that gang that are perpetrating all those bank robberies round the country."

"Who say?" asked Valancy.

Uncle Wellington knotted his ugly forehead at her. What had got into this confounded girl, anyway? He ignored the question.

"He has the identical look of a jail-bird," snapped Uncle Benjamin. "I noticed it the first time I saw him."

"'A fellow by the hand of nature marked,
Quoted and signed to do a deed of shame',"

declaimed Uncle James. He looked enormously pleased over managing to work that quotation in at last. He had been waiting all his life for the chance.

"One of his eyebrows is an arch and the other is a triangle," said Valancy. "Is that why you think him so villainous?"

Uncle James lifted his eyebrows. Generally when Uncle James lifted his eyebrows the world came to an end. This time it continued to function.

"How do you know his eyebrows so well, Doss?" asked Olive, a trifle maliciously. Such a remark would have covered Valancy with confusion two weeks ago, and Olive knew it.

"Yes, how?" demanded Aunt Wellington.

"I've seen him twice and I looked at him closely," said Valancy composedly. "I thought his face the most interesting one I ever saw."

"There is no doubt there is something fishy in the creature's past life," said Olive, who began to think she was decidedly out of the conversation, which had centred so amazingly around Valancy. "But he can hardly be guilty of everything he's accused of, you know."

Valancy felt annoyed with Olive. Why should she speak up in even this qualified defence of Barney Snaith? What had she to do with him? For that matter, what had Valancy? But Valancy did not ask herself this question.

"They say he keeps dozens of cats in that hut up back on Mistawis," said Second Cousin Sarah Taylor, by way of appearing not entirely ignorant of him.

Cats. It sounded quite alluring to Valancy, in the plural. She pictured an island in Muskoka haunted by pussies.

"That alone shows there is something wrong with him," decreed Aunt Isabel.

"People who don't like cats," said Valancy, attacking her dessert with a relish, "always seem to think that there is some peculiar virtue in not liking them."

"The man hasn't a friend except Roaring Abel," said Uncle Wellington. "And if Roaring Abel had kept away from him, as everybody else did, it would have been better for—for some members of his family."

Uncle Wellington's rather lame conclusion was due to a marital glance from Aunt Wellington reminding him of what he had almost forgotten—that there were girls at the table.

"If you mean," said Valancy passionately, "that Barney Snaith is the father of Cecily Gay's child, he isn't. It's a wicked lie."

In spite of her indignation Valancy was hugely amused at the expression of the faces around that festal table. She had not seen anything like it since the day, seventeen years ago, when at Cousin Gladys' thimble party, they discovered that she had got—SOMETHING—in her head at school. Lice in her head! Valancy was done with euphemisms.

Poor Mrs. Frederick was almost in a state of collapse. She had believed—or pretended to believe—that Valancy still supposed that children were found in parsley beds.

"Hush—hush!" implored Cousin Stickles.

"I don't mean to hush," said Valancy perversely. "I've hush—hushed all my life. I'll scream if I want to. Don't make me want to. And stop talking nonsense about Barney Snaith."

Valancy didn't exactly understand her own indignation. What did Barney Snaith's imputed crimes and misdemeanours matter to her? And why, out of them all, did it seem most intolerable that he should have been poor, pitiful little Cecily Gay's false lover? For it did seem intolerable to her. She did not mind when they called him a thief and a counterfeiter and jail-bird; but she could not endure to think that he had loved and ruined Cecily Gay. She recalled his face on the two occasions of their chance meetings—his twisted, enigmatic, engaging smile, his twinkle, his thin, sensitive, almost ascetic lips, his general air of frank daredeviltry. A man with such a smile and lips might have murdered or stolen but he could not have betrayed. She suddenly hated every one who said it or believed it of him.

"When I was a young girl I never thought or spoke about such matters, Doss," said Aunt Wellington, crushingly.

"But I'm not a young girl," retorted Valancy, uncrushed. "Aren't you always rubbing that into me? And you are all evil-minded, senseless gossips. Can't you leave poor Cissy Gay alone? She's dying. Whatever she did, God or the Devil has punished her enough for it. You needn't take a hand, too. As for Barney Snaith, the only crime he has been guilty of is living to himself and minding his own business. He can, it seems, get along without you. Which is an unpardonable sin, of course, in your little snobocracy." Valancy coined that concluding word suddenly and felt that it was an inspiration. That was exactly what they were and not one of them was fit to mend another.

"Valancy, your poor father would turn over in his grave if he could hear you," said Mrs. Frederick.

"I dare say he would like that for a change," said Valancy brazenly.

"Doss," said Uncle James heavily, "the Ten Commandments are fairly up to date still—especially the fifth. Have you forgotten that?"

"No," said Valancy, "but I thought you had—especially the ninth. Have you ever thought, Uncle James, how dull life would be without the Ten Commandments? It is only when things are forbidden that they become fascinating."

But her excitement had been too much for her. She knew, by certain unmistakable warnings, that one of her attacks of pain was coming on. It must not find her there. She rose from her chair.

"I am going home now. I only came for the dinner. It was very good, Aunt Alberta, although your salad-dressing is not salt enough and a dash of cayenne would improve it."

None of the flabbergasted silver wedding guests could think of anything to say until the lawn gate clanged behind Valancy in the dusk. Then—

"She's feverish—I've said right along she was feverish," moaned Cousin Stickles.

Uncle Benjamin punished his pudgy left hand fiercely with his pudgy right.

"She's dippy—I tell you she's gone dippy," he snorted angrily. "That's all there is about it. Clean dippy."

"Oh, Benjamin," said Cousin Georgiana soothingly, "don't condemn her too rashly. We must remember what dear old Shakespeare says—that charity thinketh no evil."

"Charity! Poppy-cock!" snorted Uncle Benjamin. "I never heard a young woman talk such stuff in my life as she just did. Talking about things she ought to be ashamed to think of, much less mention. Blaspheming! Insulting us! What she wants is a generous dose of spank-weed and I'd like to be the one to administer it. H-uh-h-h-h!" Uncle Benjamin gulped down the half of a scalding cup of coffee.

"Do you suppose that the mumps could work on a person that way?" wailed Cousin Stickles.

"I opened an umbrella in the house yesterday," sniffed Cousin Georgiana. "I knew it betokened some misfortune."

"Have you tried to find out if she has a temperature?" asked Cousin Mildred.

"She wouldn't let Amelia put the thermometer under her tongue," whimpered Cousin Stickles.

Mrs. Frederick was openly in tears. All her defences were down.

"I must tell you," she sobbed, "that Valancy has been acting very strangely for over two weeks now. She hasn't been a bit like herself—Christine could tell you. I have hoped against hope that it was only one of her colds coming on. But it is—it must be something worse."

"This is bringing on my neuritis again," said Cousin Gladys, putting her hand to her head.

"Don't cry, Amelia," said Herbert kindly, pulling nervously at his spiky grey hair. He hated "family ructions." Very inconsiderate of Doss to start one at his silver wedding. Who could have supposed she had it in her? "You'll have to take her to a doctor. This may be only a—er—a brainstorm. There are such things as brainstorms nowadays, aren't there?"

"I—I suggested consulting a doctor to her yesterday," moaned Mrs. Frederick. "And she said she wouldn't go to a doctor—wouldn't. Oh, surely I have had trouble enough!"

"And she won't take Redfern's Bitters," said Cousin Stickles.

"Or anything," said Mrs. Frederick.

"And she's determined to go to the Presbyterian church," said Cousin Stickles—repressing, however, to her credit be it said, the story of the bannister.

"That proves she's dippy," growled Uncle Benjamin. "I noticed something strange about her the minute she came in today. I noticed it before today." (Uncle Benjamin was thinking of "m-i-r-a-z-h.") "Everything she said today showed an unbalanced mind. That question—'Was it a vital part?' Was there any sense at all in that remark? None whatever! There never was anything like that in the Stirlings. It must be from the Wansbarras."

Poor Mrs. Frederick was too crushed to be indignant.

"I never heard of anything like that in the Wansbarras," she sobbed.

"Your father was odd enough," said Uncle Benjamin.

"Poor Pa was—peculiar," admitted Mrs. Frederick tearfully, "but his mind was never affected." "He talked all his life exactly as Valancy did today," retorted Uncle Benjamin. "And he believed he was his own great-great grandfather born over again. I've heard him say it. Don't tell me that a man who believed a thing like that was ever in his right senses. Come, come, Amelia, stop sniffling. Of course Doss has made a terrible exhibition of herself today, but she's not responsible. Old maids are apt to fly off at a tangent like that. If she had been married when she should have been she wouldn't have got like this."

"Nobody wanted to marry her," said Mrs. Frederick, who felt that, somehow, Uncle Benjamin was blaming her.

"Well, fortunately there's no outsider here," snapped Uncle Benjamin. "We may keep it in the family yet. I'll take her over to see Dr. Marsh tomorrow. I know how to deal with pig-headed people. Won't that be best, James?"

"We must have medical advice certainly," agreed Uncle James.

"Well, that's settled. In the meantime, Amelia, act as if nothing had happened and keep an eye on her. Don't let her be alone. Above all, don't let her sleep alone."

Renewed whimpers from Mrs. Frederick.

"I can't help it. Night before last I suggested she'd better have Christine sleep with her. She positively refused—and locked her door. Oh, you don't know how she's changed. She won't work. At least, she won't sew. She does her usual housework, of course. But she wouldn't sweep the parlour yesterday morning, though we always sweep it on Thursdays. She said she'd wait till it was dirty. 'Would you rather sweep a dirty room than a clean one?' I asked her. She said, 'Of course. I'd see something for my labour then.' Think of it!"

Uncle Benjamin thought of it.

"The jar of potpourri"—Cousin Stickles pronounced it as spelled—"has disappeared from her room. I found the pieces in the next lot. She won't tell us what happened to it."

"I should never have dreamed it of Doss," said Uncle Herbert. "She has always seemed such a quiet, sensible girl. A bit backward—but sensible."

"The only thing you can be sure of in this world is the multiplication table," said Uncle James, feeling cleverer than ever.

"Well, let's cheer up," suggested Uncle Benjamin. "Why are chorus girls like fine stock raisers?"

"Why?" asked Cousin Stickles, since it had to be asked and Valancy wasn't there to ask it.

"Like to exhibit calves," chuckled Uncle Benjamin.

Cousin Stickles thought Uncle Benjamin a little indelicate. Before Olive, too. But then, he was a man.

Uncle Herbert was thinking that things were rather dull now that Doss had gone.





CHAPTER XII

Valancy hurried home through the faint blue twilight—hurried too fast perhaps. The attack she had when she thankfully reached the shelter of her own room was the worst yet. It was really very bad. She might die in one of those spells. It would be dreadful to die in such pain. Perhaps—perhaps this was death. Valancy felt pitifully alone. When she could think at all she wondered what it would be like to have some one with her who could sympathise—some one who really cared—just to hold her hand tight, if nothing else—some one just to say, "Yes, I know. It's dreadful—be brave—you'll soon be better;" not some one merely fussy and alarmed. Not her mother or Cousin Stickles. Why did the thought of Barney Snaith come into her mind? Why did she suddenly feel, in the midst of this hideous loneliness of pain, that he would be sympathetic—sorry for any one that was suffering? Why did he seem to her like an old, well-known friend? Was it because she had been defending him—standing up to her family for him?

She was so bad at first that she could not even get herself a dose of Dr. Trent's prescription. But eventually she managed it, and soon after relief came. The pain left her and she lay on her bed, spent, exhausted, in a cold perspiration. Oh, that had been horrible! She could not endure many more attacks like that. One didn't mind dying if death could be instant and painless. But to be hurt so in dying!

Suddenly she found herself laughing. That dinner had been fun. And it had all been so simple. She had merely said the things she had always thought. Their faces—oh, their faces! Uncle Benjamin—poor, flabbergasted Uncle Benjamin! Valancy felt quite sure he would make a new will that very night. Olive would get Valancy's share of his fat hoard. Olive had always got Valancy's share of everything. Remember the dust-pile.

To laugh at her clan as she had always wanted to laugh was all the satisfaction she could get out of life now. But she thought it was rather pitiful that it should be so. Might she not pity herself a little when nobody else did?

Valancy got up and went to her window. The moist, beautiful wind blowing across groves of young-leafed wild trees touched her face with the caress of a wise, tender, old friend. The lombardies in Mrs. Tredgold's lawn, off to the left—Valancy could just see them between the stable and the old carriage-shop—were in dark purple silhouette against a clear sky and there was a milk-white, pulsating star just over one of them, like a living pearl on a silver-green lake. Far beyond the station were the shadowy, purple-hooded woods around Lake Mistawis. A white, filmy mist hung over them and just above it was a faint, young crescent. Valancy looked at it over her thin left shoulder.

"I wish," she said whimsically, "that I may have one little dust-pile before I die."





CHAPTER XIII

Uncle Benjamin found he had reckoned without his host when he promised so airily to take Valancy to a doctor. Valancy would not go. Valancy laughed in his face.

"Why on earth should I go to Dr. Marsh? There's nothing the matter with my mind. Though you all think I've suddenly gone crazy. Well, I haven't. I've simply grown tired of living to please other people and have decided to please myself. It will give you something to talk about besides my stealing the raspberry jam. So that's that."

"Doss," said Uncle Benjamin, solemnly and helplessly, "you are not—like yourself."

"Who am I like, then?" asked Valancy.

Uncle Benjamin was rather posed.

"Your Grandfather Wansbarra," he answered desperately.

"Thanks." Valancy looked pleased. "That's a real compliment. I remember Grandfather Wansbarra. He was one of the few human beings I have known—almost the only one. Now, it is of no use to scold or entreat or command, Uncle Benjamin—or exchange anguished glances with Mother and Cousin Stickles. I am not going to any doctor. And if you bring any doctor here I won't see him. So what are you going to do about it?"

What indeed! It was not seemly—or even possible—to hale Valancy doctorwards by physical force. And in no other way could it be done, seemingly. Her mother's tears and imploring entreaties availed not.

"Don't worry, Mother," said Valancy, lightly but quite respectfully. "It isn't likely I'll do anything very terrible. But I mean to have a little fun."

"Fun!" Mrs. Frederick uttered the word as if Valancy had said she was going to have a little tuberculosis.

Olive, sent by her mother to see if she had any influence over Valancy, came away with flushed cheeks and angry eyes. She told her mother that nothing could be done with Valancy. After she, Olive, had talked to her just like a sister, tenderly and wisely, all Valancy had said, narrowing her funny eyes to mere slips, was, "I don't show my gums when I laugh."

"More as if she were talking to herself than to me. Indeed, Mother, all the time I was talking to her she gave me the impression of not really listening. And that wasn't all. When I finally decided that what I was saying had no influence over her I begged her, when Cecil came next week, not to say anything queer before him, at least. Mother, what do you think she said?"

"I'm sure I can't imagine," groaned Aunt Wellington, prepared for anything.

"She said, 'I'd rather like to shock Cecil. His mouth is too red for a man's.' Mother, I can never feel the same to Valancy again."

"Her mind is affected, Olive," said Aunt Wellington solemnly. "You must not hold her responsible for what she says."

When Aunt Wellington told Mrs. Frederick what Valancy had said to Olive, Mrs. Frederick wanted Valancy to apologise.

"You made me apologise to Olive fifteen years ago for something I didn't do," said Valancy. "That old apology will do for now."

Another solemn family conclave was held. They were all there except Cousin Gladys, who had been suffering such tortures of neuritis in her head "ever since poor Doss went queer" that she couldn't undertake any responsibility. They decided—that is, they accepted a fact that was thrust in their faces—that the wisest thing was to leave Valancy alone for a while—"give her her head" as Uncle Benjamin expressed it—"keep a careful eye on her but let her pretty much alone." The term of "watchful waiting" had not been invented then, but that was practically the policy Valancy's distracted relatives decided to follow.

"We must be guided by developments," said Uncle Benjamin. "It is"—solemnly—"easier to scramble eggs than unscramble them. Of course—if she becomes violent——"

Uncle James consulted Dr. Ambrose Marsh. Dr. Ambrose Marsh approved their decision. He pointed out to irate Uncle James—who would have liked to lock Valancy up somewhere, out of hand—that Valancy had not, as yet, really done or said anything that could be construed as proof of lunacy—and without proof you cannot lock people up in this degenerate age. Nothing that Uncle James had reported seemed very alarming to Dr. Marsh, who put up his hand to conceal a smile several times. But then he himself was not a Stirling. And he knew very little about the old Valancy. Uncle James stalked out and drove back to Deerwood, thinking that Ambrose Marsh wasn't much of a doctor, after all, and that Adelaide Stirling might have done better for herself.





CHAPTER XIV

Life cannot stop because tragedy enters it. Meals must be made ready though a son dies and porches must be repaired even if your only daughter is going out of her mind. Mrs. Frederick, in her systematic way, had long ago appointed the second week in June for the repairing of the front porch, the roof of which was sagging dangerously. Roaring Abel had been engaged to do it many moons before and Roaring Abel promptly appeared on the morning of the first day of the second week, and fell to work. Of course he was drunk. Roaring Abel was never anything but drunk. But he was only in the first stage, which made him talkative and genial. The odour of whisky on his breath nearly drove Mrs. Frederick and Cousin Stickles wild at dinner. Even Valancy, with all her emancipation, did not like it. But she liked Abel and she liked his vivid, eloquent talk, and after she washed the dinner dishes she went out and sat on the steps and talked to him.

Mrs. Frederick and Cousin Stickles thought it a terrible proceeding, but what could they do? Valancy only smiled mockingly at them when they called her in, and did not go. It was so easy to defy once you got started. The first step was the only one that really counted. They were both afraid to say anything more to her lest she might make a scene before Roaring Abel, who would spread it all over the country with his own characteristic comments and exaggerations. It was too cold a day, in spite of the June sunshine, for Mrs. Frederick to sit at the dining-room window and listen to what was said. She had to shut the window and Valancy and Roaring Abel had their talk to themselves. But if Mrs. Frederick had known what the outcome of that talk was to be she would have prevented it, if the porch was never repaired.

Valancy sat on the steps, defiant of the chill breeze of this cold June which had made Aunt Isabel aver the seasons were changing. She did not care whether she caught a cold or not. It was delightful to sit there in that cold, beautiful, fragrant world and feel free. She filled her lungs with the clean, lovely wind and held out her arms to it and let it tear her hair to pieces while she listened to Roaring Abel, who told her his troubles between intervals of hammering gaily in time to his Scotch songs. Valancy liked to hear him. Every stroke of his hammer fell true to the note.

Old Abel Gay, in spite of his seventy years, was handsome still, in a stately, patriarchal manner. His tremendous beard, falling down over his blue flannel shirt, was still a flaming, untouched red, though his shock of hair was white as snow, and his eyes were a fiery, youthful blue. His enormous, reddish-white eyebrows were more like moustaches than eyebrows. Perhaps this was why he always kept his upper lip scrupulously shaved. His cheeks were red and his nose ought to have been, but wasn't. It was a fine, upstanding, aquiline nose, such as the noblest Roman of them all might have rejoiced in. Abel was six feet two in his stockings, broad-shouldered, lean-hipped. In his youth he had been a famous lover, finding all women too charming to bind himself to one. His years had been a wild, colourful panorama of follies and adventures, gallantries, fortunes and misfortunes. He had been forty-five before he married—a pretty slip of a girl whom his goings-on killed in a few years. Abel was piously drunk at her funeral and insisted on repeating the fifty-fifth chapter of Isaiah—Abel knew most of the Bible and all the Psalms by heart—while the minister, whom he disliked, prayed or tried to pray. Thereafter his house was run by an untidy old cousin who cooked his meals and kept things going after a fashion. In this unpromising environment little Cecilia Gay had grown up.

Valancy had known "Cissy Gay" fairly well in the democracy of the public school, though Cissy had been three years younger than she. After they left school their paths diverged and she had seen nothing of her. Old Abel was a Presbyterian. That is, he got a Presbyterian preacher to marry him, baptise his child and bury his wife; and he knew more about Presbyterian theology than most ministers, which made him a terror to them in arguments. But Roaring Abel never went to church. Every Presbyterian minister who had been in Deerwood had tried his hand—once—at reforming Roaring Abel. But he had not been pestered of late. Rev. Mr. Bently had been in Deerwood for eight years, but he had not sought out Roaring Abel since the first three months of his pastorate. He had called on Roaring Abel then and found him in the theological stage of drunkenness—which always followed the sentimental maudlin one, and preceded the roaring, blasphemous one. The eloquently prayerful one, in which he realised himself temporarily and intensely as a sinner in the hands of an angry God, was the final one. Abel never went beyond it. He generally fell asleep on his knees and awakened sober, but he had never been "dead drunk" in his life. He told Mr. Bently that he was a sound Presbyterian and sure of his election. He had no sins—that he knew of—to repent of.

"Have you never done anything in your life that you are sorry for?" asked Mr. Bently.

Roaring Abel scratched his bushy white head and pretended to reflect. "Well, yes," he said finally. "There were some women I might have kissed and didn't. I've always been sorry for that."

Mr. Bently went out and went home.

Abel had seen that Cissy was properly baptised—jovially drunk at the same time himself. He made her go to church and Sunday School regularly. The church people took her up and she was in turn a member of the Mission Band, the Girls' Guild and the Young Women's Missionary Society. She was a faithful, unobtrusive, sincere, little worker. Everybody liked Cissy Gay and was sorry for her. She was so modest and sensitive and pretty in that delicate, elusive fashion of beauty which fades so quickly if life is not kept in it by love and tenderness. But then liking and pity did not prevent them from tearing her in pieces like hungry cats when the catastrophe came. Four years previously Cissy Gay had gone up to a Muskoka hotel as a summer waitress. And when she had come back in the fall she was a changed creature. She hid herself away and went nowhere. The reason soon leaked out and scandal raged. That winter Cissy's baby was born. Nobody ever knew who the father was. Cecily kept her poor pale lips tightly locked on her sorry secret. Nobody dared ask Roaring Abel any questions about it. Rumour and surmise laid the guilt at Barney Snaith's door because diligent inquiry among the other maids at the hotel revealed the fact that nobody there had ever seen Cissy Gay "with a fellow." She had "kept herself to herself" they said, rather resentfully. "Too good for our dances. And now look!"

The baby had lived for a year. After its death Cissy faded away. Two years ago Dr. Marsh had given her only six months to live—her lungs were hopelessly diseased. But she was still alive. Nobody went to see her. Women would not go to Roaring Abel's house. Mr. Bently had gone once, when he knew Abel was away, but the dreadful old creature who was scrubbing the kitchen floor told him Cissy wouldn't see any one. The old cousin had died and Roaring Abel had had two or three disreputable housekeepers—the only kind who could be prevailed on to go to a house where a girl was dying of consumption. But the last one had left and Roaring Abel had now no one to wait on Cissy and "do" for him. This was the burden of his plaint to Valancy and he condemned the "hypocrites" of Deerwood and its surrounding communities with some rich, meaty oaths that happened to reach Cousin Stickles' ears as she passed through the hall and nearly finished the poor lady. Was Valancy listening to that?

Valancy hardly noticed the profanity. Her attention was focussed on the horrible thought of poor, unhappy, disgraced little Cissy Gay, ill and helpless in that forlorn old house out on the Mistawis road, without a soul to help or comfort her. And this in a nominally Christian community in the year of grace nineteen and some odd!

"Do you mean to say that Cissy is all alone there now, with nobody to do anything for her—nobody?"

"Oh, she can move about a bit and get a bite and sup when she wants it. But she can't work. It's d——d hard for a man to work hard all day and go home at night tired and hungry and cook his own meals. Sometimes I'm sorry I kicked old Rachel Edwards out." Abel described Rachel picturesquely.

"Her face looked as if it had wore out a hundred bodies. And she moped. Talk about temper! Temper's nothing to moping. She was too slow to catch worms, and dirty—d——d dirty. I ain't unreasonable—I know a man has to eat his peck before he dies—but she went over the limit. What d'ye sp'ose I saw that lady do? She'd made some punkin jam—had it on the table in glass jars with the tops off. The dawg got up on the table and stuck his paw into one of them. What did she do? She jest took holt of the dawg and wrung the syrup off his paw back into the jar! Then screwed the top on and set it in the pantry. I sets open the door and says to her, 'Go!' The dame went, and I fired the jars of punkin after her, two at a time. Thought I'd die laughing to see old Rachel run—with them punkin jars raining after her. She's told everywhere I'm crazy, so nobody'll come for love or money."

"But Cissy must have some one to look after her," insisted Valancy, whose mind was centred on this aspect of the case. She did not care whether Roaring Abel had any one to cook for him or not. But her heart was wrung for Cecilia Gay.

"Oh, she gits on. Barney Snaith always drops in when he's passing and does anything she wants done. Brings her oranges and flowers and things. There's a Christian for you. Yet that sanctimonious, snivelling parcel of St. Andrew's people wouldn't be seen on the same side of the road with him. Their dogs'll go to heaven before they do. And their minister—slick as if the cat had licked him!"

"There are plenty of good people, both in St. Andrew's and St. George's, who would be kind to Cissy if you would behave yourself," said Valancy severely. "They're afraid to go near your place."

"Because I'm such a sad old dog? But I don't bite—never bit any one in my life. A few loose words spilled around don't hurt any one. And I'm not asking people to come. Don't want 'em poking and prying about. What I want is a housekeeper. If I shaved every Sunday and went to church I'd get all the housekeepers I'd want. I'd be respectable then. But what's the use of going to church when it's all settled by predestination? Tell me that, Miss."

"Is it?" said Valancy.

"Yes. Can't git around it nohow. Wish I could. I don't want either heaven or hell for steady. Wish a man could have 'em mixed in equal proportions."

"Isn't that the way it is in this world?" said. Valancy thoughtfully—but rather as if her thought was concerned with something else than theology.

"No, no," boomed Abel, striking a tremendous blow on a stubborn nail. "There's too much hell here—entirely too much hell. That's why I get drunk so often. It sets you free for a little while—free from yourself—yes, by God, free from predestination. Ever try it?"

"No, I've another way of getting free," said Valancy absently. "But about Cissy now. She must have some one to look after her——"

"What are you harping on Sis for? Seems to me you ain't bothered much about her up to now. You never even come to see her. And she used to like you so well."

"I should have," said Valancy. "But never mind. You couldn't understand. The point is—you must have a housekeeper."

"Where am I to get one? I can pay decent wages if I could get a decent woman. D'ye think I like old hags?"

"Will I do?" said Valancy.





CHAPTER XV

"Let us be calm," said Uncle Benjamin. "Let us be perfectly calm."

"Calm!" Mrs. Frederick wrung her hands. "How can I be calm—how could anybody be calm under such a disgrace as this?"

"Why in the world did you let her go?" asked Uncle James.

"Let her! How could I stop her, James? It seems she packed the big valise and sent it away with Roaring Abel when he went home after supper, while Christine and I were out in the kitchen. Then Doss herself came down with her little satchel, dressed in her green serge suit. I felt a terrible premonition. I can't tell you how it was, but I seemed to know that Doss was going to do something dreadful."

"It's a pity you couldn't have had your premonition a little sooner," said Uncle Benjamin drily.

"I said, 'Doss, where are you going?' and she said, 'I am going to look for my Blue Castle.'"

"Wouldn't you think that would convince Marsh that her mind is affected?" interjected Uncle James.

"And I said, 'Valancy, what do you mean?' And she said, 'I am going to keep house for Roaring Abel and nurse Cissy. He will pay me thirty dollars a month.' I wonder I didn't drop dead on the spot."

"You shouldn't have let her go—you shouldn't have let her out of the house," said Uncle James. "You should have locked the door—anything——"

"She was between me and the front door. And you can't realise how determined she was. She was like a rock. That's the strangest thing of all about her. She used to be so good and obedient, and now she's neither to hold nor bind. But I said everything I could think of to bring her to her senses. I asked her if she had no regard for her reputation. I said to her solemnly, 'Doss, when a woman's reputation is once smirched nothing can ever make it spotless again. Your character will be gone for ever if you go to Roaring Abel's to wait on a bad girl like Sis Gay.' And she said, 'I don't believe Cissy was a bad girl, but I don't care if she was.' Those were her very words, 'I don't care if she was.'"

"She has lost all sense of decency," exploded Uncle Benjamin.

"'Cissy Gay is dying,' she said, 'and it's a shame and disgrace that she is dying in a Christian community with no one to do anything for her. Whatever she's been or done, she's a human being.'"

"Well, you know, when it comes to that, I suppose she is," said Uncle James with the air of one making a splendid concession.

"I asked Doss if she had no regard for appearances. She said, 'I've been keeping up appearances all my life. Now I'm going in for realities. Appearances can go hang!' Go hang!"

"An outrageous thing!" said Uncle Benjamin violently. "An outrageous thing!"

Which relieved his feelings, but didn't help any one else.

Mrs. Frederick wept. Cousin Stickles took up the refrain between her moans of despair.

"I told her—we both told her—that Roaring Abel had certainly killed his wife in one of his drunken rages and would kill her. She laughed and said, 'I'm not afraid of Roaring Abel. He won't kill me, and he's too old for me to be afraid of his gallantries.' What did she mean? What are gallantries?"

Mrs. Frederick saw that she must stop crying if she wanted to regain control of the conversation.

"I said to her, 'Valancy, if you have no regard for your own reputation and your family's standing, have you none for my feelings?' She said, 'None.' Just like that, 'None!'"

"Insane people never do have any regard for other people's feelings," said Uncle Benjamin. "That's one of the symptoms."

"I broke out into tears then, and she said, 'Come now, Mother, be a good sport. I'm going to do an act of Christian charity, and as for the damage it will do my reputation, why, you know I haven't any matrimonial chances anyhow, so what does it matter?' And with that she turned and went out."

"The last words I said to her," said Cousin Stickles pathetically, "were, 'Who will rub my back at nights now?' And she said—she said—but no, I cannot repeat it."

"Nonsense," said Uncle Benjamin. "Out with it. This is no time to be squeamish."

"She said"—Cousin Stickles' voice was little more than a whisper—"she said—'Oh, darn!'"

"To think I should have lived to hear my daughter swearing!" sobbed Mrs. Frederick.

"It—it was only imitation swearing," faltered Cousin Stickles, desirous of smoothing things over now that the worst was out. But she had never told about the bannister.

"It will be only a step from that to real swearing," said Uncle James sternly.

"The worst of this"—Mrs. Frederick hunted for a dry spot on her handkerchief—"is that every one will know now that she is deranged. We can't keep it a secret any longer. Oh, I cannot bear it!"

"You should have been stricter with her when she was young," said Uncle Benjamin.

"I don't see how I could have been," said Mrs. Frederick—truthfully enough.

"The worst feature of the case is that Snaith scoundrel is always hanging around Roaring Abel's," said Uncle James. "I shall be thankful if nothing worse comes of this mad freak than a few weeks at Roaring Abel's. Cissy Gay can't live much longer."

"And she didn't even take her flannel petticoat!" lamented Cousin Stickles.

"I'll see Ambrose Marsh again about this," said Uncle Benjamin—meaning Valancy, not the flannel petticoat.

"I'll see Lawyer Ferguson," said Uncle James.

"Meanwhile," added Uncle Benjamin, "let us be calm."





CHAPTER XVI

Valancy had walked out to Roaring Abel's house on the Mistawis road under a sky of purple and amber, with a queer exhilaration and expectancy in her heart. Back there, behind her, her mother and Cousin Stickles were crying—over themselves, not over her. But here the wind was in her face, soft, dew-wet, cool, blowing along the grassy roads. Oh, she loved the wind! The robins were whistling sleepily in the firs along the way and the moist air was fragrant with the tang of balsam. Big cars went purring past in the violet dusk—the stream of summer tourists to Muskoka had already begun—but Valancy did not envy any of their occupants. Muskoka cottages might be charming, but beyond, in the sunset skies, among the spires of the firs, her Blue Castle towered. She brushed the old years and habits and inhibitions away from her like dead leaves. She would not be littered with them.

Roaring Abel's rambling, tumble-down old house was situated about three miles from the village, on the very edge of "up back," as the sparsely settled, hilly, wooded country around Mistawis was called vernacularly. It did not, it must be confessed, look much like a Blue Castle.

It had once been a snug place enough in the days when Abel Gay had been young and prosperous, and the punning, arched sign over the gate—"A. Gay, Carpenter," had been fine and freshly painted. Now it was a faded, dreary old place, with a leprous, patched roof and shutters hanging askew. Abel never seemed to do any carpenter jobs about his own house. It had a listless air, as if tired of life. There was a dwindling grove of ragged, crone-like old spruces behind it. The garden, which Cissy used to keep neat and pretty, had run wild. On two sides of the house were fields full of nothing but mulleins. Behind the house was a long stretch of useless barrens, full of scrub pines and spruces, with here and there a blossoming bit of wild cherry, running back to a belt of timber on the shores of Lake Mistawis, two miles away. A rough, rocky, boulder-strewn lane ran through it to the woods—a lane white with pestiferous, beautiful daisies.

Roaring Abel met Valancy at the door.

"So you've come," he said incredulously. "I never s'posed that ruck of Stirlings would let you."

Valancy showed all her pointed teeth in a grin.

"They couldn't stop me."

"I didn't think you'd so much spunk," said Roaring Abel admiringly. "And look at the nice ankles of her," he added, as he stepped aside to let her in.

If Cousin Stickles had heard this she would have been certain that Valancy's doom, earthly and unearthly, was sealed. But Abel's superannuated gallantry did not worry Valancy. Besides, this was the first compliment she had ever received in her life and she found herself liking it. She sometimes suspected she had nice ankles, but nobody had ever mentioned it before. In the Stirling clan ankles were among the unmentionables.

Roaring Abel took her into the kitchen, where Cissy Gay was lying on the sofa, breathing quickly, with little scarlet spots on her hollow cheeks. Valancy had not seen Cecilia Gay for years. Then she had been such a pretty creature, a slight, blossom-like girl, with soft, golden hair, clear-cut, almost waxen features, and large, beautiful blue eyes. She was shocked at the change in her. Could this be sweet Cissy—this pitiful little thing that looked like a tired, broken flower? She had wept all the beauty out of her eyes; they looked too big—enormous—in her wasted face. The last time Valancy had seen Cecilia Gay those faded, piteous eyes had been limpid, shadowy blue pools aglow with mirth. The contrast was so terrible that Valancy's own eyes filled with tears. She knelt down by Cissy and put her arms about her.

"Cissy dear, I've come to look after you. I'll stay with you till—till—as long as you want me."

"Oh!" Cissy put her thin arms about Valancy's neck. "Oh—will you? It's been so—lonely. I can wait on myself—but it's been so lonely. It—would just be like—heaven—to have some one here—like you. You were always—so sweet to me—long ago."

Valancy held Cissy close. She was suddenly happy. Here was some one who needed her—some one she could help. She was no longer a superfluity. Old things had passed away; everything had become new.

"Most things are predestinated, but some are just darn sheer luck," said Roaring Abel, complacently smoking his pipe in the corner.





CHAPTER XVII

When Valancy had lived for a week at Roaring Abel's she felt as if years had separated her from her old life and all the people she had known in it. They were beginning to seem remote—dream-like—far-away—and as the days went on they seemed still more so, until they ceased to matter altogether.

She was happy. Nobody ever bothered her with conundrums or insisted on giving her Purple Pills. Nobody called her Doss or worried her about catching cold. There were no quilts to piece, no abominable rubber-plant to water, no ice-cold maternal tantrums to endure. She could be alone whenever she liked, go to bed when she liked, sneeze when she liked. In the long, wondrous, northern twilights, when Cissy was asleep and Roaring Abel away, she could sit for hours on the shaky back verandah steps, looking out over the barrens to the hills beyond, covered with their fine, purple bloom, listening to the friendly wind singing wild, sweet melodies in the little spruces, and drinking in the aroma of the sunned grasses, until darkness flowed over the landscape like a cool, welcome wave.

Sometimes of an afternoon, when Cissy was strong enough, the two girls went into the barrens and looked at the wood-flowers. But they did not pick any. Valancy had read to Cissy the gospel thereof according to John Foster: "It is a pity to gather wood-flowers. They lose half their witchery away from the green and the flicker. The way to enjoy wood-flowers is to track them down to their remote haunts—gloat over them—and then leave them with backward glances, taking with us only the beguiling memory of their grace and fragrance."

Valancy was in the midst of realities after a lifetime of unrealities. And busy—very busy. The house had to be cleaned. Not for nothing had Valancy been brought up in the Stirling habits of neatness and cleanliness. If she found satisfaction in cleaning dirty rooms she got her fill of it there. Roaring Abel thought she was foolish to bother doing so much more than she was asked to do, but he did not interfere with her. He was very well satisfied with his bargain. Valancy was a good cook. Abel said she got a flavour into things. The only fault he found with her was that she did not sing at her work.

"Folks should always sing at their work," he insisted. "Sounds cheerful-like."

"Not always," retorted Valancy. "Fancy a butcher singing at his work. Or an undertaker."

Abel burst into his great broad laugh.

"There's no getting the better of you. You've got an answer every time. I should think the Stirlings would be glad to be rid of you. They don't like being sassed back."

During the day Abel was generally away from home—if not working, then shooting or fishing with Barney Snaith. He generally came home at nights—always very late and often very drunk. The first night they heard him come howling into the yard, Cissy had told Valancy not to be afraid.

"Father never does anything—he just makes a noise."

Valancy, lying on the sofa in Cissy's room, where she had elected to sleep, lest Cissy should need attention in the night—Cissy would never have called her—was not at all afraid, and said so. By the time Abel had got his horses put away, the roaring stage had passed and he was in his room at the end of the hall crying and praying. Valancy could still hear his dismal moans when she went calmly to sleep. For the most part, Abel was a good-natured creature, but occasionally he had a temper. Once Valancy asked him coolly:

"What is the use of getting in a rage?"

"It's such a d——d relief," said Abel.

They both burst out laughing together.

"You're a great little sport," said Abel admiringly. "Don't mind my bad French. I don't mean a thing by it. Jest habit. Say, I like a woman that ain't afraid to speak up to me. Sis there was always too meek—too meek. That's why she got adrift. I like you."

"All the same," said Valancy determinedly, "there is no use in sending things to hell as you're always doing. And I'm not going to have you tracking mud all over a floor I've just scrubbed. You must use the scraper whether you consign it to perdition or not."

Cissy loved the cleanness and neatness. She had kept it so, too, until her strength failed. She was very pitifully happy because she had Valancy with her. It had been so terrible—the long, lonely days and nights with no companionship save those dreadful old women who came to work. Cissy had hated and feared them. She clung to Valancy like a child.

There was no doubt that Cissy was dying. Yet at no time did she seem alarmingly ill. She did not even cough a great deal. Most days she was able to get up and dress—sometimes even to work about in the garden or the barrens for an hour or two. For a few weeks after Valancy's coming she seemed so much better that Valancy began to hope she might get well. But Cissy shook her head.

"No, I can't get well. My lungs are almost gone. And I—don't want to. I'm so tired, Valancy. Only dying can rest me. But it's lovely to have you here—you'll never know how much it means to me. But Valancy—you work too hard. You don't need to—Father only wants his meals cooked. I don't think you are strong yourself. You turn so pale sometimes. And those drops you take. Are you well, dear?"

"I'm all right," said Valancy lightly. She would not have Cissy worried. "And I'm not working hard. I'm glad to have some work to do—something that really wants to be done."

"Then"—Cissy slipped her hand wistfully into Valancy's—"don't let's talk any more about my being sick. Let's just forget it. Let's pretend I'm a little girl again—and you have come here to play with me. I used to wish that long ago—wish that you could come. I knew you couldn't, of course. But how I did wish it! You always seemed so different from the other girls—so kind and sweet—and as if you had something in yourself nobody knew about—some dear, pretty secret. Had you, Valancy?"

"I had my Blue Castle," said Valancy, laughing a little. She was pleased that Cissy had thought of her like this. She had never suspected that anybody liked or admired or wondered about her. She told Cissy all about her Blue Castle. She had never told any one about it before.

"Every one has a Blue Castle, I think," said Cissy softly. "Only every one has a different name for it. I had mine—once."

She put her two thin little hands over her face. She did not tell Valancy—then—who had destroyed her Blue Castle. But Valancy knew that, whoever it was, it was not Barney Snaith.





CHAPTER XVIII

Valancy was acquainted with Barney by now—well acquainted, it seemed, though she had spoken to him only a few times. But then she had felt just as well acquainted with him the first time they had met. She had been in the garden at twilight, hunting for a few stalks of white narcissus for Cissy's room when she heard that terrible old Grey Slosson coming down through the woods from Mistawis—one could hear it miles away. Valancy did not look up as it drew near, thumping over the rocks in that crazy lane. She had never looked up, though Barney had gone racketting past every evening since she had been at Roaring Abel's. This time he did not racket past. The old Grey Slosson stopped with even more terrible noises than it made going. Valancy was conscious that Barney had sprung from it and was leaning over the ramshackle gate. She suddenly straightened up and looked into his face. Their eyes met—Valancy was suddenly conscious of a delicious weakness. Was one of her heart attacks coming on?—But this was a new symptom.

His eyes, which she had always thought brown, now seen close, were deep violet—translucent and intense. Neither of his eyebrows looked like the other. He was thin—too thin—she wished she could feed him up a bit—she wished she could sew the buttons on his coat—and make him cut his hair—and shave every day. There was something in his face—one hardly knew what it was. Tiredness? Sadness? Disillusionment? He had dimples in his thin cheeks when he smiled. All these thoughts flashed through Valancy's mind in that one moment while his eyes looked into hers.

"Good-evening, Miss Stirling."

Nothing could be more commonplace and conventional. Any one might have said it. But Barney Snaith had a way of saying things that gave them poignancy. When he said good-evening you felt that it was a good evening and that it was partly his doing that it was. Also, you felt that some of the credit was yours. Valancy felt all this vaguely, but she couldn't imagine why she was trembling from head to foot—it must be her heart. If only he didn't notice it!

"I'm going over to the Port," Barney was saying. "Can I acquire merit by getting or doing anything there for you or Cissy?"

"Will you get some salt codfish for us?" said Valancy. It was the only thing she could think of. Roaring Abel had expressed a desire that day for a dinner of boiled salt codfish. When her knights came riding to the Blue Castle, Valancy had sent them on many a quest, but she had never asked any of them to get her salt codfish.

"Certainly. You're sure there's nothing else? Lots of room in Lady Jane Grey Slosson. And she always gets back some time, does Lady Jane."

"I don't think there's anything more," said Valancy. She knew he would bring oranges for Cissy anyhow—he always did.

Barney did not turn away at once. He was silent for a little. Then he said, slowly and whimsically:

"Miss Stirling, you're a brick! You're a whole cartload of bricks. To come here and look after Cissy—under the circumstances."

"There's nothing so bricky about that," said Valancy. "I'd nothing else to do. And—I like it here. I don't feel as if I'd done anything specially meritorious. Mr. Gay is paying me fair wages. I never earned any money before—and I like it." It seemed so easy to talk to Barney Snaith, someway—this terrible Barney Snaith of the lurid tales and mysterious past—as easy and natural as if talking to herself.

"All the money in the world couldn't buy what you're doing for Cissy Gay," said Barney. "It's splendid and fine of you. And if there's anything I can do to help you in any way, you have only to let me know. If Roaring Abel ever tries to annoy you——"

"He doesn't. He's lovely to me. I like Roaring Abel," said Valancy frankly.

"So do I. But there's one stage of his drunkenness—perhaps you haven't encountered it yet—when he sings ribald songs——"

"Oh, yes. He came home last night like that. Cissy and I just went to our room and shut ourselves in where we couldn't hear him. He apologised this morning. I'm not afraid of any of Roaring Abel's stages."

"Well, I'm sure he'll be decent to you, apart from his inebriated yowls," said Barney. "And I've told him he's got to stop damning things when you're around."

"Why?" asked Valancy slily, with one of her odd, slanted glances and a sudden flake of pink on each cheek, born of the thought that Barney Snaith had actually done so much for her. "I often feel like damning things myself."

For a moment Barney stared. Was this elfin girl the little, old-maidish creature who had stood there two minutes ago? Surely there was magic and devilry going on in that shabby, weedy old garden.

Then he laughed.

"It will be a relief to have some one to do it for you, then. So you don't want anything but salt codfish?"

"Not tonight. But I dare say I'll have some errands for you very often when you go to Port Lawrence. I can't trust Mr. Gay to remember to bring all the things I want."

Barney had gone away, then, in his Lady Jane, and Valancy stood in the garden for a long time.

Since then he had called several times, walking down through the barrens, whistling. How that whistle of his echoed through the spruces on those June twilights! Valancy caught herself listening for it every evening—rebuked herself—then let herself go. Why shouldn't she listen for it?

He always brought Cissy fruit and flowers. Once he brought Valancy a box of candy—the first box of candy she had ever been given. It seemed sacrilege to eat it.

She found herself thinking of him in season and out of season. She wanted to know if he ever thought about her when she wasn't before his eyes, and, if so, what. She wanted to see that mysterious house of his back on the Mistawis island. Cissy had never seen it. Cissy, though she talked freely of Barney and had known him for five years, really knew little more of him than Valancy herself.

"But he isn't bad," said Cissy. "Nobody need ever tell me he is. He can't have done a thing to be ashamed of."

"Then why does he live as he does?" asked Valancy—to hear somebody defend him.

"I don't know. He's a mystery. And of course there's something behind it, but I know it isn't disgrace. Barney Snaith simply couldn't do anything disgraceful, Valancy."

Valancy was not so sure. Barney must have done something—sometime. He was a man of education and intelligence. She had soon discovered that, in listening to his conversations and wrangles with Roaring Abel—who was surprisingly well read and could discuss any subject under the sun when sober. Such a man wouldn't bury himself for five years in Muskoka and live and look like a tramp if there were not too good—or bad—a reason for it. But it didn't matter. All that mattered was that she was sure now that he had never been Cissy Gay's lover. There was nothing like that between them. Though he was very fond of Cissy and she of him, as any one could see. But it was a fondness that didn't worry Valancy.

"You don't know what Barney has been to me, these past two years," Cissy had said simply. "Everything would have been unbearable without him."

"Cissy Gay is the sweetest girl I ever knew—and there's a man somewhere I'd like to shoot if I could find him," Barney had said savagely.

Barney was an interesting talker, with a knack of telling a great deal about his adventures and nothing at all about himself. There was one glorious rainy day when Barney and Abel swapped yarns all the afternoon while Valancy mended tablecloths and listened. Barney told weird tales of his adventures with "shacks" on trains while hoboing it across the continent. Valancy thought she ought to think his stealing rides quite dreadful, but didn't. The story of his working his way to England on a cattle-ship sounded more legitimate. And his yarns of the Yukon enthralled her—especially the one of the night he was lost on the divide between Gold Run and Sulphur Valley. He had spent two years out there. Where in all this was there room for the penitentiary and the other things?

If he were telling the truth. But Valancy knew he was.

"Found no gold," he said. "Came away poorer than when I went. But such a place to live! Those silences at the back of the north wind got me. I've never belonged to myself since."

Yet he was not a great talker. He told a great deal in a few well-chosen words—how well-chosen Valancy did not realise. And he had a knack of saying things without opening his mouth at all.

"I like a man whose eyes say more than his lips," thought Valancy.

But then she liked everything about him—his tawny hair—his whimsical smiles—the little glints of fun in his eyes—his loyal affection for that unspeakable Lady Jane—his habit of sitting with his hands in his pockets, his chin sunk on his breast, looking up from under his mismated eyebrows. She liked his nice voice which sounded as if it might become caressing or wooing with very little provocation. She was at times almost afraid to let herself think these thoughts. They were so vivid that she felt as if the others must know what she was thinking.

"I've been watching a woodpecker all day," he said one evening on the shaky old back verandah. His account of the woodpecker's doings was satisfying. He had often some gay or cunning little anecdote of the wood folk to tell them. And sometimes he and Roaring Abel smoked fiercely the whole evening and never said a word, while Cissy lay in the hammock swung between the verandah posts and Valancy sat idly on the steps, her hands clasped over her knees, and wondered dreamily if she were really Valancy Stirling and if it were only three weeks since she had left the ugly old house on Elm Street.

The barrens lay before her in a white moon splendour, where dozens of little rabbits frisked. Barney, when he liked, could sit down on the edge of the barrens and lure those rabbits right to him by some mysterious sorcery he possessed. Valancy had once seen a squirrel leap from a scrub pine to his shoulder and sit there chattering to him. It reminded her of John Foster.

It was one of the delights of Valancy's new life that she could read John Foster's books as often and as long as she liked. She could read them in bed if she wanted to. She read them all to Cissy, who loved them. She also tried to read them to Abel and Barney, who did not love them. Abel was bored and Barney politely refused to listen at all.

"Piffle," said Barney.





CHAPTER XIX

Of course, the Stirlings had not left the poor maniac alone all this time or refrained from heroic efforts to rescue her perishing soul and reputation. Uncle James, whose lawyer had helped him as little as his doctor, came one day and, finding Valancy alone in the kitchen, as he supposed, gave her a terrible talking-to—told her she was breaking her mother's heart and disgracing her family.

"But why?" said Valancy, not ceasing to scour her porridge pot decently. "I'm doing honest work for honest pay. What is there in that that is disgraceful?"

"Don't quibble, Valancy," said Uncle James solemnly. "This is no fit place for you to be, and you know it. Why, I'm told that jail-bird, Snaith, is hanging around here every evening."

"Not every evening," said Valancy reflectively. "No, not quite every evening."

"It's—it's insufferable!" said Uncle James violently. "Valancy, you must come home. We won't judge your harshly. I assure you we won't. We will overlook all this."

"Thank you," said Valancy.

"Have you no sense of shame?" demanded Uncle James.

"Oh, yes. But the things I am ashamed of are not the things you are ashamed of." Valancy proceeded to rinse her dishcloth meticulously.

Still was Uncle James patient. He gripped the sides of his chair and ground his teeth.

"We know your mind isn't just right. We'll make allowances. But you must come home. You shall not stay here with that drunken, blasphemous old scoundrel——"

"Were you by any chance referring to me, Mister Stirling?" demanded Roaring Abel, suddenly appearing in the doorway of the back verandah where he had been smoking a peaceful pipe and listening to "old Jim Stirling's" tirade with huge enjoyment! His red beard fairly bristled with indignation and his huge eyebrows quivered. But cowardice was not among James Stirling's shortcomings.

"I was. And, furthermore, I want to tell you that you have acted an iniquitous part in luring this weak and unfortunate girl away from her home and friends, and I will have you punished yet for it——"

James Stirling got no further. Roaring Abel crossed the kitchen at a bound, caught him by his collar and his trousers, and hurled him through the doorway and over the garden paling with as little apparent effort as he might have employed in whisking a troublesome kitten out of the way.

"The next time you come back here," he bellowed, "I'll throw you through the window—and all the better if the window is shut! Coming here, thinking yourself God to put the world to rights!"

Valancy candidly and unashamedly owned to herself that she had seen few more satisfying sights than Uncle James' coat-tails flying out into the asparagus bed. She had once been afraid of this man's judgment. Now she saw clearly that he was nothing but a rather stupid little village tin-god.

Roaring Abel turned with his great broad laugh.

"He'll think of that for years when he wakes up in the night. The Almighty made a mistake in making so many Stirlings. But since they are made, we've got to reckon with them. Too many to kill out. But if they come here bothering you I'll shoo 'em off before a cat could lick its ear."

The next time they sent Dr. Stalling. Surely Roaring Abel would not throw him into asparagus beds. Dr. Stalling was not so sure of this and had no great liking for the task. He did not believe Valancy Stirling was out of her mind. She had always been queer. He, Dr. Stalling, had never been able to understand her. Therefore, beyond doubt, she was queer. She was only just a little queerer than usual now. And Dr. Stalling had his own reasons for disliking Roaring Abel. When Dr. Stalling had first come to Deerwood he had had a liking for long hikes around Mistawis and Muskoka. On one of these occasions he had got lost and after much wandering had fallen in with Roaring Abel with his gun over his shoulder.

Dr. Stalling had contrived to ask his question in about the most idiotic manner possible. He said, "Can you tell me where I'm going?"

"How the devil should I know where you're going, gosling?" retorted Abel contemptuously.

Dr. Stalling was so enraged that he could not speak for a moment or two and in that moment Abel had disappeared in the woods. Dr. Stalling had eventually found his way home, but he had never hankered to encounter Abel Gay again.

Nevertheless he came now to do his duty. Valancy greeted him with a sinking heart. She had to own to herself that she was terribly afraid of Dr. Stalling still. She had a miserable conviction that if he shook his long, bony finger at her and told her to go home, she dared not disobey.

"Mr. Gay," said Dr. Stalling politely and condescendingly, "may I see Miss Stirling alone for a few minutes?"

Roaring Abel was a little drunk—just drunk enough to be excessively polite and very cunning. He had been on the point of going away when Dr. Stalling arrived, but now he sat down in a corner of the parlour and folded his arms.

"No, no, mister," he said solemnly. "That wouldn't do—wouldn't do at all. I've got the reputation of my household to keep up. I've got to chaperone this young lady. Can't have any sparkin' going on here behind my back."

Outraged Dr. Stalling looked so terrible that Valancy wondered how Abel could endure his aspect. But Abel was not worried at all.

"D'ye know anything about it, anyway?" he asked genially.

"About what?"

"Sparking," said Abel coolly.

Poor Dr. Stalling, who had never married because he believed in a celibate clergy, would not notice this ribald remark. He turned his back on Abel and addressed himself to Valancy.

"Miss Stirling, I am here in response to your mother's wishes. She begged me to come. I am charged with some messages from her. Will you"—he wagged his forefinger—"will you hear them?"

"Yes," said Valancy faintly, eyeing the forefinger. It had a hypnotic effect on her.

"The first is this. If you will leave this—this——"

"House," interjected Roaring Abel. "H-o-u-s-e. Troubled with an impediment in your speech, ain't you, Mister?"

"—this place and return to your home, Mr. James Stirling will himself pay for a good nurse to come here and wait on Miss Gay."

Back of her terror Valancy smiled in secret. Uncle James must indeed regard the matter as desperate when he would loosen his purse-strings like that. At any rate, her clan no longer despised her or ignored her. She had become important to them.

"That's my business, Mister," said Abel. "Miss Stirling can go if she pleases, or stay if she pleases. I made a fair bargain with her, and she's free to conclude it when she likes. She gives me meals that stick to my ribs. She don't forget to put salt in the porridge. She never slams doors, and when she has nothing to say she don't talk. That's uncanny in a woman, you know, Mister. I'm satisfied. If she isn't, she's free to go. But no woman comes here in Jim Stirling's pay. If any one does"—Abel's voice was uncannily bland and polite—"I'll spatter the road with her brains. Tell him that with A. Gay's compliments."

"Dr. Stalling, a nurse is not what Cissy needs," said Valancy earnestly. "She isn't so ill as that, yet. What she wants is companionship—somebody she knows and likes just to live with her. You can understand that, I'm sure."

"I understand that your motive is quite—ahem—commendable." Dr. Stalling felt that he was very broad-minded indeed—especially as in his secret soul he did not believe Valancy's motive was commendable. He hadn't the least idea what she was up to, but he was sure her motive was not commendable. When he could not understand a thing he straightway condemned it. Simplicity itself! "But your first duty is to your mother. She needs you. She implores you to come home—she will forgive everything if you will only come home."

"That's a pretty little thought," remarked Abel meditatively, as he ground some tobacco up in his hand.

Dr. Stalling ignored him.

"She entreats, but I, Miss Stirling,"—Dr. Stalling remembered that he was an ambassador of Jehovah—"I command. As your pastor and spiritual guide, I command you to come home with me—this very day. Get your hat and coat and come now."

Dr. Stalling shook his finger at Valancy. Before that pitiless finger she drooped and wilted visibly.

"She's giving in," thought Roaring Abel. "She'll go with him. Beats all, the power these preacher fellows have over women."

Valancy was on the point of obeying Dr. Stalling. She must go home with him—and give up. She would lapse back to Doss Stirling again and for her few remaining days or weeks be the cowed, futile creature she had always been. It was her fate—typified by that relentless, uplifted forefinger. She could no more escape from it than Roaring Abel from his predestination. She eyed it as the fascinated bird eyes the snake. Another moment—

"Fear is the original sin," suddenly said a still, small voice away back—back—back of Valancy's consciousness. "Almost all the evil in the world has its origin in the fact that some one is afraid of something."

Valancy stood up. She was still in the clutches of fear, but her soul was her own again. She would not be false to that inner voice.

"Dr. Stalling," she said slowly, "I do not at present owe any duty to my mother. She is quite well; she has all the assistance and companionship she requires; she does not need me at all. I am needed here. I am going to stay here."

"There's spunk for you," said Roaring Abel admiringly.

Dr. Stalling dropped his forefinger. One could not keep on shaking a finger forever.

"Miss Stirling, is there nothing that can influence you? Do you remember your childhood days——"

"Perfectly. And hate them."

"Do you realise what people will say? What they are saying?"

"I can imagine it," said Valancy, with a shrug of her shoulders. She was suddenly free of fear again. "I haven't listened to the gossip of Deerwood teaparties and sewing circles twenty years for nothing. But, Dr. Stalling, it doesn't matter in the least to me what they say—not in the least."

Dr. Stalling went away then. A girl who cared nothing for public opinion! Over whom sacred family ties had no restraining influence! Who hated her childhood memories!

Then Cousin Georgiana came—on her own initiative, for nobody would have thought it worth while to send her. She found Valancy alone, weeding the little vegetable garden she had planted, and she made all the platitudinous pleas she could think of. Valancy heard her patiently. Cousin Georgiana wasn't such a bad old soul. Then she said:

"And now that you have got all that out of your system, Cousin Georgiana, can you tell me how to make creamed codfish so that it will not be as thick as porridge and as salt as the Dead Sea?"

* * * * * * *

"We'll just have to wait," said Uncle Benjamin. "After all, Cissy Gay can't live long. Dr. Marsh tells me she may drop off any day."

Mrs. Frederick wept. It would really have been so much easier to bear if Valancy had died. She could have worn mourning then.





CHAPTER XX

When Abel Gay paid Valancy her first month's wages—which he did promptly, in bills reeking with the odour of tobacco and whiskey—Valancy went into Deerwood and spent every cent of it. She got a pretty green crêpe dress with a girdle of crimson beads, at a bargain sale, a pair of silk stockings, to match, and a little crinkled green hat with a crimson rose in it. She even bought a foolish little beribboned and belaced nightgown.

She passed the house on Elm Street twice—Valancy never even thought about it as "home"—but saw no one. No doubt her mother was sitting in the room this lovely June evening playing solitaire—and cheating. Valancy knew that Mrs. Frederick always cheated. She never lost a game. Most of the people Valancy met looked at her seriously and passed her with a cool nod. Nobody stopped to speak to her.

Valancy put on her green dress when she got home. Then she took it off again. She felt so miserably undressed in its low neck and short sleeves. And that low, crimson girdle around the hips seemed positively indecent. She hung it up in the closet, feeling flatly that she had wasted her money. She would never have the courage to wear that dress. John Foster's arraignment of fear had no power to stiffen her against this. In this one thing habit and custom were still all-powerful. Yet she sighed as she went down to meet Barney Snaith in her old snuff-brown silk. That green thing had been very becoming—she had seen so much in her one ashamed glance. Above it her eyes had looked like odd brown jewels and the girdle had given her flat figure an entirely different appearance. She wished she could have left it on. But there were some things John Foster did not know.

Every Sunday evening Valancy went to the little Free Methodist church in a valley on the edge of "up back"—a spireless little grey building among the pines, with a few sunken graves and mossy gravestones in the small, paling-encircled, grass-grown square beside it. She liked the minister who preached there. He was so simple and sincere. An old man, who lived in Port Lawrence and came out by the lake in a little disappearing propeller boat to give a free service to the people of the small, stony farms back of the hills, who would otherwise never have heard any gospel message. She liked the simple service and the fervent singing. She liked to sit by the open window and look out into the pine woods. The congregation was always small. The Free Methodists were few in number, poor and generally illiterate. But Valancy loved those Sunday evenings. For the first time in her life she liked going to church. The rumour reached Deerwood that she had "turned Free Methodist" and sent Mrs. Frederick to bed for a day. But Valancy had not turned anything. She went to the church because she liked it and because in some inexplicable way it did her good. Old Mr. Towers believed exactly what he preached and somehow it made a tremendous difference.

Oddly enough, Roaring Abel disapproved of her going to the hill church as strongly as Mrs. Frederick herself could have done. He had "no use for Free Methodists. He was a Presbyterian." But Valancy went in spite of him.

"We'll hear something worse than that about her soon," Uncle Benjamin predicted gloomily.

They did.

Valancy could not quite explain, even to herself, just why she wanted to go to that party. It was a dance "up back" at Chidley Corners; and dances at Chidley Corners were not, as a rule, the sort of assemblies where well-brought-up young ladies were found. Valancy knew it was coming off, for Roaring Abel had been engaged as one of the fiddlers.

But the idea of going had never occurred to her until Roaring Abel himself broached it at supper.

"You come with me to the dance," he ordered. "It'll do you good—put some colour in your face. You look peaked—you want something to liven you up."

Valancy found herself suddenly wanting to go. She knew nothing at all of what dances at Chidley Corners were apt to be like. Her idea of dances had been fashioned on the correct affairs that went by that name in Deerwood and Port Lawrence. Of course she knew the Corners' dance wouldn't be just like them. Much more informal, of course. But so much the more interesting. Why shouldn't she go? Cissy was in a week of apparent health and improvement. She wouldn't mind staying alone in the least. She entreated Valancy to go if she wanted to. And Valancy did want to go.

She went to her room to dress. A rage against the snuff-brown silk seized her. Wear that to a party! Never. She pulled her green crêpe from its hanger and put it on feverishly. It was nonsense to feel so—so—naked—just because her neck and arms were bare. That was just her old maidishness. She would not be ridden by it. On went the dress—the slippers.

It was the first time she had worn a pretty dress since the organdies of her early teens. And they had never made her look like this.

If she only had a necklace or something. She wouldn't feel so bare then. She ran down to the garden. There were clovers there—great crimson things growing in the long grass. Valancy gathered handfuls of them and strung them on a cord. Fastened above her neck they gave her the comfortable sensation of a collar and were oddly becoming. Another circlet of them went round her hair, dressed in the low puffs that became her. Excitement brought those faint pink stains to her face. She flung on her coat and pulled the little, twisty hat over her hair.

"You look so nice and—and—different, dear," said Cissy. "Like a green moonbeam with a gleam of red in it, if there could be such a thing."

Valancy stooped to kiss her.

"I don't feel right about leaving you alone, Cissy."

"Oh, I'll be all right. I feel better tonight than I have for a long while. I've been feeling badly to see you sticking here so closely on my account. I hope you'll have a nice time. I never was at a party at the Corners, but I used to go sometimes, long ago, to dances up back. We always had good times. And you needn't be afraid of Father being drunk tonight. He never drinks when he engages to play for a party. But—there may be—liquor. What will you do if it gets rough?"

"Nobody would molest me."

"Not seriously, I suppose. Father would see to that. But it might be noisy and—and unpleasant."

"I won't mind. I'm only going as a looker-on. I don't expect to dance. I just want to see what a party up back is like. I've never seen anything except decorous Deerwood."

Cissy smiled rather dubiously. She knew much better than Valancy what a party "up back" might be like if there should be liquor. But again there mightn't be.

"I hope you'll enjoy it, dear," she repeated.

Valancy enjoyed the drive there. They went early, for it was twelve miles to Chidley Corners, and they had to go in Abel's old, ragged top-buggy. The road was rough and rocky, like most Muskoka roads, but full of the austere charm of northern woods. It wound through beautiful, purring pines that were ranks of enchantment in the June sunset, and over the curious jade-green rivers of Muskoka, fringed by aspens that were always quivering with some supernal joy.

Roaring Abel was excellent company, too. He knew all the stories and legends of the wild, beautiful "up back," and he told them to Valancy as they drove along. Valancy had several fits of inward laughter over what Uncle Benjamin and Aunt Wellington, et al., would feel and think and say if they saw her driving with Roaring Abel in that terrible buggy to a dance at Chidley Corners.

At first the dance was quiet enough, and Valancy was amused and entertained. She even danced twice herself, with a couple of nice "up back" boys who danced beautifully and told her she did, too.

Another compliment came her way—not a very subtle one, perhaps, but Valancy had had too few compliments in her life to be over-nice on that point. She overheard two of the "up back" young men talking about her in the dark "lean-to" behind her.

"Know who that girl in green is?"

"Nope. Guess she's from out front. The Port, maybe. Got a stylish look to her."

"No beaut but cute-looking, I'll say. 'Jever see such eyes?"

The big room was decorated with pine and fir boughs, and lighted by Chinese lanterns. The floor was waxed, and Roaring Abel's fiddle, purring under his skilled touch, worked magic. The "up back" girls were pretty and prettily dressed. Valancy thought it the nicest party she had ever attended.

By eleven o'clock she had changed her mind. A new crowd had arrived—a crowd unmistakably drunk. Whiskey began to circulate freely. Very soon almost all the men were partly drunk. Those in the porch and outside around the door began howling "come-all-ye's" and continued to howl them. The room grew noisy and reeking. Quarrels started up here and there. Bad language and obscene songs were heard. The girls, swung rudely in the dances, became dishevelled and tawdry. Valancy, alone in her corner, was feeling disgusted and repentant. Why had she ever come to such a place? Freedom and independence were all very well, but one should not be a little fool. She might have known what it would be like—she might have taken warning from Cissy's guarded sentences. Her head was aching—she was sick of the whole thing. But what could she do? She must stay to the end. Abel could not leave till then. And that would probably be not till three or four in the morning.

The new influx of boys had left the girls far in the minority and partners were scarce. Valancy was pestered with invitations to dance. She refused them all shortly, and some of her refusals were not well taken. There were muttered oaths and sullen looks. Across the room she saw a group of the strangers talking together and glancing meaningly at her. What were they plotting?

It was at this moment that she saw Barney Snaith looking in over the heads of the crowd at the doorway. Valancy had two distinct convictions—one was that she was quite safe now; the other was that this was why she had wanted to come to the dance. It had been such an absurd hope that she had not recognised it before, but now she knew she had come because of the possibility that Barney might be there, too. She thought that perhaps she ought to be ashamed for this, but she wasn't. After her feeling of relief her next feeling was one of annoyance with Barney for coming there unshaved. Surely he might have enough self-respect to groom himself up decently when he went to a party. There he was, bareheaded, bristly-chinned, in his old trousers and his blue homespun shirt. Not even a coat. Valancy could have shaken him in her anger. No wonder people believed everything bad of him.

But she was not afraid any longer. One of the whispering group left his comrades and came across the room to her, through the whirling couples that now filled it uncomfortably. He was a tall, broad-shouldered fellow, not ill-dressed or ill-looking but unmistakably half drunk. He asked Valancy to dance. Valancy declined civilly. His face turned livid. He threw his arm about her and pulled her to him. His hot, whiskied breath burned her face.

"We won't have fine-lady airs here, my girl. If you ain't too good to come here you ain't too good to dance with us. Me and my pals have been watching you. You've got to give us each a turn and a kiss to boot."

Valancy tried desperately and vainly to free herself. She was being dragged out into the maze of shouting, stamping, yelling dancers. The next moment the man who held her went staggering across the room from a neatly planted blow on the jaw, knocking down whirling couples as he went. Valancy felt her arm grasped.

"This way—quick," said Barney Snaith. He swung her out through the open window behind them, vaulted lightly over the sill and caught her hand.

"Quick—we must run for it—they'll be after us."

Valancy ran as she had never run before, clinging tight to Barney's hand, wondering why she did not drop dead in such a mad scamper. Suppose she did! What a scandal it would make for her poor people. For the first time Valancy felt a little sorry for them. Also, she felt glad that she had escaped from that horrible row. Also, glad that she was holding tight to Barney's hand. Her feelings were badly mixed and she had never had so many in such a brief time in her life.

They finally reached a quiet corner in the pine woods. The pursuit had taken a different direction and the whoops and yells behind them were growing faint. Valancy, out of breath, with a crazily beating heart, collapsed on the trunk of a fallen pine.

"Thanks," she gasped.

"What a goose you were to come to such a place!" said Barney.

"I—didn't—know—it—would—be like this," protested Valancy.

"You should have known. Chidley Corners!"

"It—was—just—a name—to me."

Valancy knew Barney could not realise how ignorant she was of the regions "up back." She had lived in Deerwood all her life and of course he supposed she knew. He didn't know how she had been brought up. There was no use trying to explain.

"When I drifted in at Abel's this evening and Cissy told me you'd come here I was amazed. And downright scared. Cissy told me she was worried about you but hadn't liked to say anything to dissuade you for fear you'd think she was thinking selfishly about herself. So I came on up here instead of going to Deerwood."

Valancy felt a sudden delightful glow irradiating soul and body under the dark pines. So he had actually come up to look after her.

"As soon as they stop hunting for us we'll sneak around to the Muskoka road. I left Lady Jane down there. I'll take you home. I suppose you've had enough of your party."

"Quite," said Valancy meekly. The first half of the way home neither of them said anything. It would not have been much use. Lady Jane made so much noise they could not have heard each other. Anyway, Valancy did not feel conversationally inclined. She was ashamed of the whole affair—ashamed of her folly in going—ashamed of being found in such a place by Barney Snaith. By Barney Snaith, reputed jail-breaker, infidel, forger and defaulter. Valancy's lips twitched in the darkness as she thought of it. But she was ashamed.

And yet she was enjoying herself—was full of a strange exultation—bumping over that rough road beside Barney Snaith. The big trees shot by them. The tall mulleins stood up along the road in stiff, orderly ranks like companies of soldiers. The thistles looked like drunken fairies or tipsy elves as their car-lights passed over them. This was the first time she had even been in a car. After all, she liked it. She was not in the least afraid, with Barney at the wheel. Her spirits rose rapidly as they tore along. She ceased to feel ashamed. She ceased to feel anything except that she was part of a comet rushing gloriously through the night of space.

All at once, just where the pine woods frayed out to the scrub barrens, Lady Jane became quiet—too quiet. Lady Jane slowed down quietly—and stopped.

Barney uttered an aghast exclamation. Got out. Investigated. Came apologetically back.

"I'm a doddering idiot. Out of gas. I knew I was short when I left home, but I meant to fill up in Deerwood. Then I forgot all about it in my hurry to get to the Corners."

"What can we do?" asked Valancy coolly.

"I don't know. There's no gas nearer than Deerwood, nine miles away. And I don't dare leave you here alone. There are always tramps on this road—and some of those crazy fools back at the Corners may come straggling along presently. There were boys there from the Port. As far as I can see, the best thing to do is for us just to sit patiently here until some car comes along and lends us enough gas to get to Roaring Abel's with."

"Well, what's the matter with that?" said Valancy.

"We may have to sit here all night," said Barney.

"I don't mind," said Valancy.

Barney gave a short laugh. "If you don't, I needn't. I haven't any reputation to lose."

"Nor I," said Valancy comfortably.