BERTHA was astir early the next morning, and quite ready to join the Fordyces as soon as breakfast was over; but they did not come. She waited and watched the whole forenoon, and when at twelve o'clock they had neither called nor sent word, her day suddenly sank into nothingness, like a collapsed balloon, and she faced her tasks with a weakness of will not native to her.
Haney and Williams were both down street discussing some business matter with Crego, and this left her hours the more empty and unsatisfactory. As the dinner-hour drew near she drove to fetch her husband, hoping for a glimpse of the Fordyces on the way, but even this comfort was denied her, and she ached with dull pain which she could not analyze.
As Haney settled himself in the carriage, he said: "Well, little woman, did ye have a good ride?"
"I didn't go," she responded, with curt emphasis.
"Ye did not— Why not?"
"I had too much to do." This was a prevarication which she instantly repented. "Besides, they didn't turn up."
"I'm sorry. I was hoping you'd had a good try at the new horse. Ye must mount him for me to see this afternoon." Later he said: "I'm feeling better each day now; soon I'll be able to take that trip East. Do you get ready at your ease."
The thought of this trip, hitherto so wonderful in its possibilities, afforded her no pleasure; it scarcely interested her. And when another day went by with no further call or word from Ben Fordyce, she began to lose faith in her new-found friends and in herself.
"They had enough of me," she said, bitterly. "I'm not their style." And in this lay her first acknowledgment of money's inefficiency: it cannot buy the friends you really care for.
On the third day Fordyce called her up on the 'phone to say that Alice had been ill. "Our ride that day was a little too much for her," he explained, "but she will be all right again soon. I think we can go again tomorrow."
This explanation brought sunshine back into the Haney castle, and its mistress went about the halls singing softly. In the afternoon, as she and Mart were starting on their "constitutional" she proposed that they call to see how Alice was. This Haney was glad to do. "I liked the little woman," said he; "she's sharp as a tack. And, besides, she listened to me gabble," he added.
Miss Heath was stopping in the home of a friend—a rather handsome house, in the midst of thick shrubbery; and they found her wrapped in a blanket and sitting on the porch in a steamer-chair, with Ben reading to her. They were both instant and cordial in their demands that the Captain alight and come in, and Ben went down the walk to get him, while Alice, with envious, wistful eyes answered the glowing girl: "Oh no, I don't think the ride did me any harm. I have these little back-sets now and then. I'm glad you came."
"How thin her hands are," thought Bertha. And she saw, too, that the delicate face was wrinkled and withered.
Reading compassion in the girl's glance, Alice continued, brightly: "I'll be up to-morrow. I'm like a cork—nothing permanently depresses me. I'm suffering just now from an error of thought!"
Bertha only smiled, and the gleam of her teeth, white and even as rows of corn, produced in her face the effect of innocent humor like that of a child. Then she said: "I've bought a new horse."
"Have you, indeed?"
"Yes, and I've been expecting you to ride up to the line fence and call me out—I wanted to show him to you. He's a cracker-jack, all right."
"We'll come over in a day or two. I never stay down more than three days."
Haney, lumbering round the corner of the house, called out, mellowly: "' Here you are! Now don't move a hair." He bent and offered a broad white hand. "How are ye the day?"
"Better, thank you. Ben, put a chair beside me; I want to talk to Captain Haney. He was interrupted the other night in the very middle of one of his best stories, and I'm going to insist on his finishing it."
Haney faced Bertha with a look of humorous amazement on his face. "Think o' that, now! She remembers one of my best."
"Indeed I do, Captain, and I can tell you just where you left off. You had just sighted the camp of the robbers."
Haney clicked with his tongue, as if listening to a child. "There now! I must have been taking more grape-juice than was good for me to start on that story, for it's all about meself and the great man thought I was in those days."
"I love to hear about people who can ride a hundred miles in a night, and live on roots and berries, and capture men who bristle with revolvers. Please go on. Ben, you needn't listen if you don't want to. You can show Mrs. Haney the automobile or the garden."
Ben laughed. "I like to hear Captain Haney talk quite as well as anybody, but I'll be glad to show Mrs. •laney any of your neighbors' things she cares to see."
Alice turned to Bertha. "I suppose the Captain's ^ales are all old songs in your ears?"
"No, they're mostly all new to me. The Captain never tells stories to me."
Haney winked. "She knows me too well. She wouldn't believe them."
"Go on, please," said Alice. And so Haney took up the thread, though he protested. "'Tis a tale for candle-light," he explained.
Ben was studying Bertha with renewed admiration. "Where did she get that exquisite profile ?" he thought.
The story was again interrupted by a group of callers, among them Mrs. Crego, and though Alice loyally stood by the Haneys and introduced them boldly, Mrs. Crego's cold nod and something that went out from the eyes of her companions made Bertha suffer, and she went away with a feeling of antagonism in her heart. Did these people consider her beneath their respect ?
Haney remarked as they rode away: "If black eyes could freeze, sure we'd be shiverin' this minute. Did ye see Mrs. Crego pucker up when she sighted us?"
"I did, and it settled her for me," replied Bertha.