Slowly, day by day, Charles regained Mart's interest and a measure of his confidence. Having learned what to avoid and what to emphasize, he now deplored the drink habits of his brothers, and gently suggested that the old father needed help. They played cards occasionally during such times as household cares drew Bertha away, and held much discussion of mines and mining—though here Mart was singularly reticent, and afforded little information about his own affairs. His trust in Charles did not go so far as that. With Crego, however, he freely discussed his condition, for the lawyer had written his new will, and was in possession of it.
"I'm like a battered old tin can," he said once. "Did ye ever try to put a tin can back into shape ? Ye cannot. If ye push it back here, it bulges there. The doctors are try-in hard to take the kinks out o' me, but 'tis impossible—I see that—but I may live on for a long time. Already me mind misgives me about Bertie—she's too young to be tied up to a shoulder-shotten old plug like mesilf."
To this Crego soothingly responded. "I don't think you need to worry. She's as happy as a blackbird in spring."
Once he said to Bertha: "I niver intended to limp around like this. I niver thought to be the skate I am this day," and his despondency darkened his face as he spoke. "I could not blame you if you threw me out. I'm only a big nuisance."
"You will be if you talk like that," she briskly answered, and that is all she seemed to make of his protest. She had indeed been reared in an atmosphere of loyalty to marriage as well as of chastity, and she never for a moment considered her vows weakened by her husband's broken frame.
This fidelity Charles discovered to his own confusion one night as he came home inflamed by liquor and reckless of hand, to find her sitting alone in the library writing a letter. It was not late, but Mart, feeling tired, had gone to bed, and Mrs. Gilman was in Sibley.
Bertha looked up as he entered, and without observing that he was drunk, went on with her writing, which was ever a painful ceremony with her. Dropping his coat where he stood, and with his hat awry on the red globe of his head, the dastard staggered towards her, his eyes lit with a glare of reckless desire.
"Say," he began, "this is luck. I want 'o talk with you, Bertie. I want 'o find out why you run away from me? What's the matter with me, anyhow?"
She realized now the foul, satyr-like mood of the man, and sprang up tense and strong, silently confronting him.
He mumbled with a grin: "You're a peach! What's the matter? Why don't you like me? Ain't I all right? I'm a gentleman."
His words were babble, but the look in his eyes, the loose slaver of his lips, both scared and angered her, and as he pushed against her, clumsily trying to hook his arm about her waist, she struck him sharply with the full weight of her arm and shoulder, and he tottered and fell sprawling. With a curse in his teeth he caught at a chair, recovered his balance, and faced her with a look of fury that would have appalled one less experienced than she.
"You little fool," he snarled, "don't you do that again!"
"Stop!" She did not lift her voice, but the word arrested him. "Do you want to die?" The word die pierced the mist of his madness. "What do you think Mart will say to this?"
He shivered and grew pale under the force of his brother's name uttered in that tone. He began to melt, subsiding into a jelly-mass of fear.
"Don't tell Mart, for Christ's sake! I didn't mean nothing. Don't do it, I beg—I beg!"
She looked at him and seemed to grow in years as she searched his wretched body for its soul. "If you don't pull out of this house to-morrow I'll let him know just the kind of dead-head boarder you are. You haven't fooled me any—not for a minute. I've put up with you for his sake, but to-night settles it. You go! I've stood a lot from you, but your meal-ticket is no good after to-morrow morning—you sabef It's you to the outside to-morrow. Now get out, or I call Mart."
He turned and shuffled from the room, leaving his battered hat at her feet.
She waited till she heard him close his door; then, with a look of disgust on her face, picked up his hat and coat, and hung them on the rack in the hall. "I'm sorry for Mart," she said to herself. "He was company for him, but I can't stand the loafer a day longer. I hope I never see him again."
He did not get down to breakfast, and for this she was glad; but he sought opportunity a little later to plead for clemency. "Give me another chance. I was drunk. I didn't mean it."
She remained inexorable. "Not for a second," she succinctly replied. "I don't care how you fix it with Mart. Smooth it up as best you can, but fly this coop." And her face expressed such contempt that he crept away, flabby and faltering, to his brother.
"I've been telegraphed for, and must go," he said. "And, by the way, I need a little ready mon to carry me to the little old town. As soon as I get to work I'll send you a check."
Mart handed him the money in silence, and waited till he had folded and put away the bills. Then he said: "Charles, you was always the smart one of the family, and ye'd be all right now if ye'd pass the booze and get down to hard work. It's time ye were off, for ye've done nothin' but loaf and drink here. I've enjoyed your talk—part of the time; but I can see ye'd grow onto me here like a wart, and that's bad for you and bad for me, and so I'm glad ye're going."
"Can't you—" He was going to ask for a position— something easy with big pay—when he saw that such a request would make his telegram a lie.
As he hesitated Mart continued: "No, I'll back no play for ye. I'm a gambler, but I take no chances of that kind. If you see the old father, write and tell me how he is."
Charles, though filled with rising fury, was sober enough to know in what danger he stood, and forcing a smile to his face, shook hands and went out to his carriage—alone.
As Mart met Bertha a few minutes later he remarked, with calm directness: "There goes a cheap rounder and a sponge. I've been a gambler and a saloon-keeper, but I never got the notion that I could live without doin' something. Charles was a smart lad, but the divil has him by the neck, and to give money is to give him drink."
Bertha remained silent, her own indictment was so much more severe.