"But he's going to give that up, he says." He hadn't said this, but she was sure he would. "His income is a hundred thousand dollars a year. Think of that!"
"I don't want to think of it," the girl answered, frowning slightly. "It makes my head ache. Nobody has a right to so much money. How did he get it?"
"Out of his mine—and oh, Bertie, he says if you'll speak the word we needn't do another day's work in this hot, greasy old place! The house is his, anyway. Did you know that?"
Bertha eyed her mother closely—with cool, bright, accusing eyes—for a moment, then she softened. "Poor old mammy, it's pretty tough lines on you—no two ways about that. You've got the heavy end of the job. I'd marry most anybody to give you a rest— but, mother, Captain Haney is forty, if he's a day, and he's a hard citizen. He has been a gambler all his life. You can't expect me to marry a sport like him. And then there's Ed."
The mother's face changed. "A barber!" she exclaimed, scornfully.
"Yes, he's a barber now, but he's going to make a break soon and get into something else."
"Don't bank on Ed, Bertie; he'll never be anything more than he is now. No man ever got anywhere who started in as a barber."
"Would you rather I married a gambler and a sure-shot? They tell me Haney has killed his man."
"That may be all talk. Well, anyhow, he wants to see you and talk it over; and oh, Bertie, it does seem a wonderful chance—and my heart's so bad to-day it seems as though I couldn't see to another meal! I don't want you to marry him if you don't want to— I'm not asking you to. You know I'm not. But he is a noble-looking man—and I get awfully discouraged sometimes. It scares me to think of dying and leaving you without any security."
One of the waiters, half-dead with curiosity, was edging near, under pretense of brushing the table, and so the mistress rose and took up the burdens of her stewardship.
"But we'll talk it over to-night. Don't be hasty." "I won't," replied the girl.
She was by no means as unmoved as she gave out. She had always admired and liked Captain Haney, though he never moved her in the same way that the young barber did (for Ed Winchell had youth as well as comeliness, and there is a divine suppleness in youth), yet he had been a welcome guest. A hundred thousand dollars a year! And yet he's been coming to our little hotel for a year—to see me!"
This consideration was the one that moved her most. All the bland words, the jocular phrases of his singular wooing came back to her now, weighted with deep significance. She had called it "joshing," and had put it all aside, just as she had parried the rude jests of the brakemen of her acquaintance. Now she saw that he had been in earnest.
She was wise beyond her years, this calm-faced, keen-eyed girl, trained by adversity to take care of herself. She knew instinctively that she lived surrounded by wolves, and, much as she admired the big frame and bold profile of Captain Haney, she had placed him among her enemies. His coming always pleased her but at the same time put her upon the defensive.
Strange to say, she enjoyed her position there in her battered little hotel. "If it weren't for poor old mother—" She arrested herself and went back to the counter with a certain timidity, a self-consciousness new to her, fearing to face the gambler now that she knew his intent was honorable.
The room was empty, all the men having gone out upon the walk to escape the heat, and she took her seat behind her desk and gave herself up to a consideration of the life to which the possession of so much wealth would introduce her. She could have unlimited new gowns, she could travel, and she could rescue her mother from drudgery and worry. These things she could discern—but of the larger life which money could open to her she could only vaguely dream.
The first effect of marrying Marshall Haney would be to cut short her life in Sibley; the second, the establishment of a home in the great camps about them.
As she looked around the dingy room buzzing with flies, she experienced a premonitory pang of the pain she would suffer in going out of its doors forever.
When Haney came back an hour later, he read in the cold, serious look she gave him a warning, therefore he spoke but a few words on commonplace subjects, and returned to his seat on the walk to await a change in her mood.
This meekness on the part of a powerful man moved the girl, and a little later she went to the doorway and said to the crowd generally, " It's a wonder some fellow wouldn't open a cantaloupe or something."
Haney put his finger to his mouth and whistled to the grocer opposite. He came on the run, alert for trade.
"Roll up a couple of big melons," called Haney, largely. "We're all drying to cinders over here."
The loafers cheered, but the girl said, in a lower voice, "I was only joking."
"What you say goes," he replied, with significance.
She did not stay to see the melons cut, but went back to her desk, and he brought a choice slice in to her.
She took it, but she said, "You mustn't think you own me—not yet." Her tone was resentful. "I don't want you to say things like that—before people."
"Like what?" he asked.
She did not answer.
He went on: "I don't mean to assume anything, God knows. I'm only waitin' and hopin'. I'll go away if you want me to and let you think it over alone."
"I wish you would," she said, realizing that this committed her to at least a consideration of his proposal.
He held out his hand. " Good-bye—till next Saturday."
She put her small, brown hand in his. He crushed it hard and his bold face softened. "I need you, my girl. Sure I do!" And in his eyes was something very winning.