24. Rosebud's Fortune
Something of the old spirit seemed to have gone out of Rosebud when Seth rode back to her. A strange fascination held her; and now, as he came up, she had no thought of questioning him, no desire. She was ready to obey. She watched the emaciated figure as it drew near with eyes that told a story which only he could have misinterpreted. She was ready for a scolding, a scolding which she felt she merited. But Seth made no attempt to blame her. And this very fact made her wish that he would.
"Say, Rosie, gal, I guess we'll be gettin' back," he said, in a manner which suggested that they had been out together merely, and that it was time for returning.
There was unusual humility in the reply. It may have been that the girl remembered that scene in the woods so many months ago. Perhaps the scene she had just witnessed had told her something that no explanations could have made so clear. Seth was always the dominating factor in their intercourse, but this outward submission was quite foreign to the girl.
They rode off together, the man's horse leading slightly. Neither spoke for a while, but Rosebud noticed that almost imperceptibly they had branched off and were heading for the bridge by unfrequented by-paths which frequently demanded their riding in Indian-file.
Seth displayed no haste and no inclination to talk, and the silence soon began to jar on the girl. It was one thing for her to give ready obedience, but to be led like some culprit marching to execution was something which roused her out of her docility. At the first opportunity she ranged her horse alongside her companion's and asserted her presence.
"I want you to answer me a question, Seth," she said quietly. "How did you get wounded?"
The man's face never relaxed a muscle, but there was a dryness in the tone of his reply.
"Guess some bussock of a feller got monkeyin' with a gun an' didn't know a heap."
Rosebud favored him with a little knowing smile. They were still amidst the broken woodlands, and she was quick to observe her companion's swift-moving eyes as they flashed this way and that in their ceaseless watchfulness.
"I'm not to be cheated. Some one shot at you who meant--business."
"Guess I ain't aware jest how he figgered, Rosie." A smile accompanied Seth's words this time.
"Well, who did it?"
"I never seen him; so I can't rightly say."
"But you guess?"
"I ain't good at guessin'."
The girl laughed.
"Very well, I won't bother you."
Then after a little silence the man spoke again.
"Those letters of yours was mortal fine," he said. "Seems to me I could most find my way around London, with its stores an' nigglin' trails. It's a tol'ble city. A mighty good eddication, travelin'."
"I suppose it is." Rosebud seemed to have lost her desire for conversation.
"Makes you think some," Seth went on, heedless of the girl's abstraction. "Makes you feel as the sun don't jest rise and set on your own p'tickler patch o' ploughin'. Makes you feel you're kind o' like a grain o' wheat at seedin' time. I allow a man don't amount to a heap noways."
Rosebud turned on him with a bright smile in her wonderful eyes.
"That depends, Seth. I should say a man is as he chooses to make himself. I met a lot of men in England; some of them were much better than others. Some were extremely nice."
"Ah." Seth turned his earnest eyes on the girl's face. He lost the significance of the mischievous down-turning of the corners of her mouth. "I guess them gilt-edge folk are a dandy lot. Y' see them 'lords' an' such, they've got to be pretty nigh the mark."
"Why, yes, I suppose they have."
There was another brief pause while the man's eyes glanced keenly about.
"Maybe you mixed a deal with them sort o' folk," he went on presently.
"Oh, yes." The violet eyes were again alight.
"Pretty tidy sort o' fellers, eh?"
"Rather. I liked one or two very much--very much indeed. There was Bob--Bob Vinceps, you know--he was a splendid fellow. He was awfully nice to me. Took auntie and me everywhere. I wonder how he's getting on. I must see if there's a letter from him at Beacon. He asked me if he might write. And wasn't it nice of him, Seth? He came all the way from London to Liverpool to see me, I mean us, off. It's a long way--a dreadful long way."
"Ah, mebbe when I go into Beacon Crossing I'll fetch that letter out for you, Rosie."
But Seth's simple-heartedness--Rosebud called it "stupidity,"--was too much. The girl's smile vanished in a second and she answered sharply.
"Thanks, I'll get my own letters." Then she went on demurely. "You see if there happened to be a letter from Bob I shouldn't like auntie to see it. She is very--very--well, she mightn't like it."
Seth looked squarely into the face beside him.
"She thinks--well, you see, she says I'm very young, and--and----"
"Ah, I tho't mebbe ther's suthin' agin him. You see, Rosie, ther' mustn't be anythin' agin the man you marry. He's got to be a jo-dandy clear thro'. I----"
"But I'm not going to marry Lord Vinceps, you silly, at least--I don't think so. Besides," as an afterthought, "it's nothing to you who I marry."
"Wal, no. Mebbe that's so, only ef you'd get hitched, as the sayin' is, to some mule-headed son of a gun that wa'n't squar' by you, I'd git around an' drop him in his tracks, ef I had to cross the water to do it."
Rosebud listened with a queer stirring at her heart, yet she could not repress the impatience she felt at the calm matter-of-fact manner in which the threat was made. The one redeeming point about it was that she knew one of Seth's quiet assurances to be far more certain, far more deadly, than anybody's else wildest spoken threats. However, she laughed as she answered him.
"Well, you won't have to cross the ocean to find the man I marry. I'm not going to England again, except, perhaps, on a business visit. I intend to stay here, unless Pa and Ma turn me out."
Seth caught his breath. For a second his whole face lit up.
"Say, I didn't jest take you right," he said. "You're goin' to stay right here?"
Rosebud gave a joyous little nod. She had stirred Seth out of his usual calm. There was no mistaking the light in his hollow eyes. He made no movement, he spoke as quietly as ever, but the girl saw something in his eyes that set her heart beating like a steam hammer. The next moment she was chilled as though she had received a cold douche.
"Wal, I'm sorry," he went on imperturbably. "Real sorry. Which I mean lookin' at it reas'nable. 'Tain't right. You belong ther'. Ther's your folk an' your property, an' the dollars. You jest ought to fix up wi' some high soundin' feller----"
"Seth, mind your own business!"
Rosebud's exasperation broke all bounds. If a look could have withered him Seth would have shriveled to bare bones. The next moment the girl's lips trembled and two big tears rolled slowly down her cheeks. She urged her horse ahead of her companion and kept that lead until they had crossed the bridge. Seth's eyes, busy in every other direction, had failed to witness her distress, just as he failed to take any heed of her words.
"You see, Rosie, ther's a heap o' trouble comin' along here," he said presently, when he had drawn level.
"Yes," the girl replied, without turning her head; "and I'm going to stay for it. Auntie can go back when she likes, but this is my home, and--Seth, why do you always want to be rid of me?"
Seth remained silent for a moment. Then he spoke in a voice that was a little unsteady.
"I don't want to be rid of you, Rosie. No; I'm jest thinkin' of you," he added.
The old impulsive Rosebud was uppermost in an instant. She turned on him, and reached out a hand which he took in both of his.
"Seth, you are a dear, and I'm sorry for being so rude to you. It's always been like this, hasn't it? You've always thought of me, for me. I wish, sometimes, you wouldn't think--for me."
She withdrew her hand, and, touching her horse with her heel, galloped on toward the farm, leaving Seth to come on behind. She gave him no chance of overtaking her this time.
Supper-time brought a lively scene with it. Rosebud, for some unexplained reason, was in a more than usually contradictory mood. Mrs. Rickards had thoroughly enjoyed her day in spite of the sloppy condition of everything outside the house. She was a woman who took a deep interest in life. She was worldly and practical in all matters which she considered to be the business of a woman's life, but her mental vision was not bounded by such a horizon.
Everything interested her, provided her personal comfort was not too much disturbed. The farm was strange, new, and as such was welcome, but Ma Sampson was a study which fascinated her. She was in the best of spirits when the little family gathered for the evening meal. This had been much elaborated by Ma in her visitors' honor.
At this repast came her first real chance of observing Seth. She studied him for some time in silence while the others talked. Then she joined in the conversation herself, and quickly contrived to twist it into the direction she required.
They were laughing over Rosebud's attempt to scare her cousin with her threat of the Indians.
"You see, auntie," the girl said roguishly, "you are a 'tenderfoot.' It is always the privilege of 'old hands' to ridicule newcomers. In your world there is little for you to learn. In ours you must be duly initiated."
"In my world?" Mrs. Rickards smiled and raised her eyebrows. She had a pleasant smile which lit up her round fat face till she looked the picture of hearty good-nature. And she was on the whole decidedly good-natured. Only her good-nature never ran away with her. "My dear, why not your world also? This is not your world any longer."
Ma smiled down upon the teapot, while the men waited expectantly. With all their simplicity, these people understood Rosebud as far as it was possible to understand her. Without appearing too keen, each watched the violet eyes as they opened wide and wondering by upon the cousin.
"Why, auntie! I--I don't understand."
"You belong to the same world as I do. Dakota no longer claims you."
"You mean--England." Rosebud laughed; and at least three people understood that laugh.
Mrs. Rickards turned to Ma.
"You know, Mrs. Sampson, Rosebud has never yet regarded her position seriously. She is curiously situated--but pleasantly, if she will only enter into the spirit of her father's will. Has she told you about it?"
Ma shook her head. The men went on with their meal in silence. At this point the subject of her aunt's talk broke in.
"Go on, auntie, you tell the story. You are the prosecution, I am the defendant, and these are the judges. I'll have my say last, so fire ahead." There was a look of determination in the girl's eyes as she laughingly challenged her aunt.
Mrs. Rickards smiled indulgently.
"Very well, my dear; but for goodness' sake don't be so slangy. Now Mrs. Sampson and--gentlemen of the jury. Is that right, Rosie?" The girl nodded, and her aunt went on. "You must quite understand I am entirely disinterested in Rosie's affairs. My only interest is that I have found it possible to--er--tolerate this madcap, and she has found it possible to put up with me; in fact I am her nominal guardian--by mutual choice."
"You've hit it dead centre, auntie," interrupted the girl mischievously.
"Don't interrupt or--I'll clear the court. Well, the child comes to me fresh from the prairie. She is good as good can be; but she is quite helpless in her new life. And more than this she is burdened--I say it advisedly--with great wealth under, what I consider, an extraordinary will. How the colonel came to make such a will I cannot understand. The only thing I can think of is that when that will was made he feared there might be some person or persons, possibly relatives, into whose hands she might fall, when she was young, and who might misuse her fortune. This is surmise. Anyway, after providing for her mother he leaves everything to Rosebud. But the legacy is not to take effect until the day she marries.
"Further, the property left to her mother devolved upon her at her mother's death. This, of course, she has already inherited; the rest still remains in trust. Now, of course, as the child's social mother, it is my first duty to watch the men with whom she comes into contact. I have given her every opportunity to meet the most eligible bachelors. Men of title and wealth. Men who cannot possibly be charged with fortune-hunting. What is the result? She sends them all to the right-about. She is positively rude to them--little barbarian. And the others--the undesirables--well, she just encourages them outrageously."
"Wait a minute. The prosecution has not done yet. Now, Mrs. Sampson, I ask you, what am I to do? The truth is she can marry whom she pleases. I have no power over her. I feel sure she will throw herself away on some dreadful, undesirable fortune-hunter. She is in such a position that no poor man can ask her to marry him without becoming a fortune-hunter. Why, out of all the people she has met since she has been with me, who do you think she encourages? Quite the worst man I know. Lord Vinceps. He's a peer, I know; but he's poor, and up to his neck in debts. She is a great trial."
She smiled fondly at the girl whose shortcomings were causing her so much anxiety. But there was no answering smile to meet hers. Rosebud's face was serious for once, and her beautiful eyes quite cold. Mrs. Rickards had addressed herself to Ma, but the girl knew well enough, and resented the fact, that her words were meant for another. Rube and Seth still remained silent. But the impeachment was not allowed to pass unchallenged. Rosebud was up in arms at once.
"About Lord Vinceps, auntie; you know that is all nonsense. I don't care if I never see him again. I understood him within five minutes of our meeting. And that understanding would never permit me to think twice about him. He is a cheerful companion; but--no, auntie, count him out. As for the others--no, thanks. The man I marry will have to be a man, some one who, when I do wrong, can figuratively take me across his knee. The man I marry must be my master, auntie. Don't be shocked. I mean it. And I haven't met such a man under your roof. You see all my ideas are savage, barbarous."
The girl paused. Ma's smile had broadened. Rosebud had not changed. Rube listened in open-mouthed astonishment. He was out of his depth, but enjoying himself. Seth alone gave no sign of approval or otherwise.
"Now, look here, auntie," Rosebud had gathered herself together for a final blow. One little hand was clenched, and it rested on the edge of the table ready to emphasize her words. "I do regard my position seriously. But I have to live my life myself, and will not be trammeled by any conventions of your social world. I'll marry whom I please, because I want to, and not because the world says I ought to do so. Rest assured, I won't marry any fortune-hunter. The man I marry I shall be able to love, honor, and obey, or I'll not marry at all."
The girl suddenly rose from her seat. Her color heightened. There was something in her manner that kept her aunt's eyes fixed upon her in wondering anticipation. She watched her move round the table and lean over and kiss Ma on the crown of the head, and then pass on to Rube, round whose neck she gently placed her arms. Thus she stood for a second looking smilingly over the great rough head across at Ma, who, like the others, was wondering what was coming.
"Furthermore I am not going back to England any more unless I am turned out of here. You won't turn me out, Pa, will you?" She bent down and softly rubbed her cheek against Rube's bristling face.
There was a dead silence. Then Mrs. Rickards broke in weakly.
"I arranged that with Mr. Irvine before I came out. It's no use, auntie, I am quite determined. That is--you won't--you won't turn me out, Pa, will you? I'll be so good. I'll never do anything wrong, and I'll--I'll even hoe potatoes if any one wants me to."
The girl's laughing eyes shot a mischievous glance in Seth's direction. Rube raised one great hand and drew her face to his and kissed her.
"Guess this is your home if you've a notion to it, Rosie, gal. Guess Ma wants you, jest as we all do."
Ma nodded and beamed through her glasses. Seth smiled in his slow fashion.
"An' I guess I ain't bustin' fer you to hoe p'taters neither," he said.
For a moment Mrs. Rickards looked about her helplessly; she hardly knew what to say. Then, at last, she, too, joined in the spirit which pervaded the party.
"Well, you are the strangest creature--but there, I said you were a little savage, and so did Mr. Seth."