"Come in and see the house," said Bertha, in brusque invitation. "It isn't ship-shape yet. I wanted to do it all myself, but I find it's a big proposition to go up against. It sure is. But I like it. I'd like nothing better than running a big hotel—not too big, but just big enough. I tell the Captain that when our mines 'pinch out' I'll go to Denver and start a hotel."
She was quite communicative, but not at ease as she led them from room to room. Her manner was rather that of one seeking to conceal trepidation, and her fluency seemed a little out of character.
In fact, she was trying to make the best possible impression on these people, whose sincere interest she felt; but with Ben's eyes fixed upon her so constantly, and a knowledge of Alice's delicate wit to trouble, she was more deeply embarrassed than ever before in her life. It was not her habit to blush or stammer, and she did not do so now, but she was carried out of her wonted reticence.
"As I say, we bought the place for the porch. I didn't realize what I was being let into—if I had I might have shied. We're practically lost in the place. Except when some of the people come down from camp, we're alone. My mother helps out some, but she's up at the ranch a good deal." She opened the library door, and led the way before an easel, on which stood a huge canvas. "Here's the picture Mr. Congdon is paintin' of the Captain. I wanted him taken with his hat on, but Mr. Congdon said no, and his word went. I don't know whether I like this or not. It's got me twisted."
Congdon had been after psychology rather than costume, that was evident at a glance, for the clothing counted for little in the portrait. Out of the shadow the face peered sadly, yet with a kind of ferocity, too— a look which made Alice Heath recoil from the man. In a certain way the artist had taken advantage of Mart's helplessness and loneliness. He had caught the sadness, sullenness, and remorselessness of his sitter rather than his gay, good-tempered smile. The face of this man was concerned with the past, not with the future; and yet on its surface it was a good likeness, as Ben said, and had both power and distinction. "I think it a cracker-jack piece of work," he ended.
Bertha replied: "I suppose it is, and yet I can't see it. I'd rather it looked the way the Captain used to when he came down to the Junction. I'm sorry to have his sickness painted in that way."
"That can't be helped. These artists are queer cattle; you can't drive 'em," Ben remarked.
Bertha smiled. "He wants to paint me now. 'Not on your life' says I. ' You'd be doing double stunts with my freckles, and I won't stand for it.'" She laughed. "No sir-ree, I don't let any artist tip my freckles edgewise just to see how flip he is at it. I like Mr. Congdon, but I don't trust him—he's too much of a joker."
Thereupon she led the way to the second floor, and showed them the furniture, which was mostly very costly and very bad, and at last said: "The third story is pretty empty yet. I don't know just what I'm going to do with it." She was looking at Alice. "I wish you'd come over and help me decide some day."
"What fun!" cried Alice, speaking on the impulse. "I'd like to very much."
"You see," Bertha went on, "my folks have always been purty poor, and I've lived in jay towns all my life; and when I came here I didn't know any more about life in a city than a duck does of mining. I had it all to learn, and they's a whole lot yet that I don't know."
She smiled quaintly, then grew sober. "And what's worse, I haven't any one to tell me—except Mr. Congdon, and he's such a josher I don't trust him. He did give me a few points on the library, which ain't so bad, we think; but all the rest of it I had to dig out myself, and it's slow work. But I guess we better go down; my horse will be here in a few minutes." Then, with lowered voice, she added: "I can't stay out but a little while. The Captain dreads to have me leave him even to go down-town. I hadn't ought to go at all."
Ben began to perceive a real slavery in her life, and reassured her. "I'm glad you're coming. It will do you good, and it will be a pleasure to us too. We'll only be away an hour."
As they returned to the porch, Bertha put her hand on Haney's shoulder, in the manner of one man to another, saying: "I'm going for a little ride with these people, Captain, if you don't mind."
"Not a whiff," he answered. "I'll be here when you come back." Again a subtle cadence in his voice so belied his smile that Alice's heart responded to it.
Bertha's horse proved to be a spirited animal, but she mounted him with the ease and celerity of a boy— riding astride, in the mountain fashion. "I haven't a long skirt," she carelessly remarked to Alice. That was all the explanation she offered, and Ben thought he had never seen anything more alert, more graceful, than her slim figure poised alertly in the saddle, her face glowing, her hair blown across her face.
Alice, a timid rider, admired them both from her position, which was always behind, though they tried to accommodate their pace to hers. A pang of envy that was almost jealousy pierced her heart as she looked at them—so young, so vigorous, and so blithe.
"I should be sitting with Captain Haney on the porch," she thought, with bitterness. "I am out of place here."
The words which passed between Bertha and her cavalier meant little, but their glances meant much. It was, indeed, a fateful ride. The liking, the deep interest, born of their first meeting, swept irresistibly into admiration. Their faces turned towards each other, youth to youth, as naturally as flowers swing towards the light.
They fell into argument over saddles, over the difference between his manner of riding and her own. Her speech, so direct, so full of quaint slang, enchanted him, and Alice soon found herself the third party. And when they were for pushing into a gallop she acknowledged herself a clog. Concealing her disgust of herself under a bright smile, she called out: "Why don't you people gallop ahead, and let me jog along at my own gait?"