Mrs. Congdon explained meanwhile that Frank had made the big centre-table of plank, and the bookshelves as well. "He likes to tinker at such things," she said. "Whenever he gets blue or cross I set him to shifting the dresser or making a book-shelf, and he cheers up like mad. He's a regular kid anyway— always doing the things he ought not to do."
In this way she tried to put her guest at her ease, while Bertha sat looking at her in an absent-minded way, apparently neither frightened nor embarrassed— on the contrary, she seemed to be thinking of something else. At last, to force a reply, Mrs. Congdon asked: "How do you like my husband's portrait of Mr. Haney?"
"I don't know," she slowly replied. "It looks like him, and then again it don't. I guess I'm not up to hand paintin's. Enlarged photographs are about my size."
"You're disappointed, then?"
"Well, yes, I don't know but I am. I didn't think it was going to look just that way. Mr. Congdon says blue shadows are under anybody's ears in the light, but I can't see 'em on the Captain, and I do see 'em in the picture; that's what gets me twisted. When I look at the picture I can't see nothin' else."
Her hostess laughed. "I know just how you feel, but that's the insolence of the painter—he puts on canvas what he sees, not what his patron sees. The more money you pay for a portrait the more insolent the artist."
At this moment Mrs. Crego came in, and (as she said afterwards) was presented to the gambler's wife "as though I were a nobody and she a visiting countess." Bertha rose, offered her hand, like a bov. in silence: she stood very straight, with very cold and unmistakably suspicious face. And Alice Heath, who entered with Mrs. Crego, shared this chill reception.
Bertha, in truth, instantly and cordially hated Mrs. Crego; but she pitied the younger woman, in whom she detected another fugitive fighting a losing battle with disease. Miss Heath was very fair and very frail, with burning deep-blue eyes and a lovely mouth. She greeted Bertha with such sincere pleasure that the girl inclined to her instantly, and they went out on the porch together. Alice put her hand on Bertha's arm, saying: "I've wanted to meet you, Mr. Congdon has told us so much of you. Your life seems very romantic to me."
The men all rose to meet Mrs. Congdon, and before Bertha had time to recover from the effect of the girl's words she found herself confronted by Ben Fordyce, who looked like a college boy, athletic and smiling. He was tall and broad-chested, with a round blond face and yellow hair. His manner was frank, and his voice deep. His hand, broad and strong, was hardened by the tennis-racket and calloused by the golf-stick, and somehow its leathery clasp pleased the girl. The roughness of his palm made him less alien than either Congdon or Crego.
They went out to dinner immediately, and as she walked beside Mart she felt the young athlete's eyes resting upon her face, and the knowledge of this troubled her unaccountably. Mrs. Congdon seated him opposite her at the table, and he continued to stare at her with the frankest curiosity. She returned his gaze at last with a certain defiance, but found no offence in his eyes, which were round as his face, and of a sincere, steady gray. He was smooth-shaven, and his blond hair was rather short. All these peculiarities appeared one by one in the intervals between her attentions to Mart and her study of the furnishings of the table, which was decorated with candles and flowers in a way quite new to her.
Fordyce was as fine as he looked. Nothing equivocal was in "that magnificent boy," as his friends called him, and his interest in little Mrs. Haney was that of the Easterner who, having been told that strange things take place in the West, is disappointed if they do not happen under his nose. He had heard much of the Haneys from Congdon, and had been especially impressed with the story of Bertha's midnight ride to the bedside of the dying gambler. The wedding in the saloon, her devotion to the wounded man, their descent upon the Springs, and their domestication in a stone palace—all appealed to his imagination. Such things could not happen in Chester; they were of the mountain West, and most satisfying to his taste.
Bertha, on her part, had to admit that the people at the table were most kindly, even considerate. They made her husband the centre of interest, and passed politely over all his disastrous attempts to use his left hand. There were no awkward pauses, for, excepting one or two slips of tongue, Haney rose to the occasion. He was big enough and self-contained enough not to apologize for what he had been or what he was, and under Congdon's skilful guidance told of his experiences as amateur miner and gambler, growing humorous as the wine mellowed and lightened his reminiscences. He felt the sympathy of his audience. All listened delightedly with no accusation in their eyes—except in the case of Mrs. Crego, who still breathed, so it seemed to Bertha, a certain contempt and inner repugnance.
Young Fordyce glowed with delight in these tales, reading beneath the terse lines of Haney's slang something epic, detecting a perfect willingness to take any chance. The fact that his bravery led to nothing conventionally noble or moral did not detract from the inherent interest of the tale; on the contrary, the young fellow, being of unusual imaginative reach and freedom, took pleasure in the thought that a man would risk his life again and again merely for the excitement of it. Occasionally he glanced at Judge Crego, to find him looking upon Haney with thoughtful glance. It was a little like listening to a prisoner's confession of guilt (as he afterwards said), but to him, as to Congdon, it was a most interesting monologue.
It added enormously to the romance, so far as Ben Fordyce was concerned, to look across the table at the grave, watchful face of the girl who unfolded her husband's napkin or cut up his roast with deft hand— always careful not to interrupt his talk.