When George did stop, it was abruptly, during one of these intervals of sobriety, and he and Miss Pratt came out of the house together rather quietly, joining one of the groups of young people chatting with after-dinner languor under the trees. However, Mr. Crooper began to revive presently, in the sweet air of outdoors, and, observing some of the more flashing gentlemen lighting cigarettes, he was moved to laughter. He had not smoked since his childhood—having then been bonded through to twenty-one with a pledge of gold—and he feared that these smoking youths might feel themselves superior. Worse, Miss Pratt might be impressed, therefore he laughed in scorn, saying:
"Burnin' up ole trash around here, I expect!" He sniffed searchingly. "Somebody's set some ole rags on fire." Then, as in discovery, he cried, "Oh no, only cigarettes!"
Miss Pratt, that tactful girl, counted four smokers in the group about her, and only one abstainer, George. She at once defended the smokers, for it is to be feared that numbers always had weight with her. "Oh, but cigarettes is lubly smell!" she said. "Untle Georgiecums maybe be too 'ittle boy for smokings!"
This archness was greeted loudly by the smokers, and Mr. Crooper was put upon his mettle. He spoke too quickly to consider whether or no the facts justified his assertion. "Me? I don't smoke paper and ole carpets. I smoke cigars!"
He had created the right impression, for Miss Pratt clapped her hands. "Oh, 'plendid! Light one, Untle Georgiecums! Light one ever 'n' ever so quick! P'eshus Flopit an' me we want see dray, big, 'normous man smoke dray, big, 'normous cigar!"
William and Johnnie Watson, who had been hovering morbidly, unable to resist the lodestone, came nearer, Johnnie being just in time to hear his cousin's reply.
"I—I forgot my cigar-case."
Johnnie's expression became one of biting skepticism. "What you talkin' about, George? Didn't you promise Uncle George you'd never smoke till you're of age, and Uncle George said he'd give you a thousand dollars on your twenty-first birthday? What 'd you say about your 'cigar-case'?"
George felt that he was in a tight place, and the lovely eyes of Miss Pratt turned upon him questioningly. He could not flush, for he was already so pink after his exploits with unnecessary nutriment that more pinkness was impossible. He saw that the only safety for him lay in boisterous prevarication. "A thousand dollars!" he laughed loudly. "I thought that was real money when I was ten years old! It didn't stand in MY way very long, I guess! Good ole George wanted his smoke, and he went after it! You know how I am, Johnnie, when I go after anything. I been smokin' cigars I dunno how long!" Glancing about him, his eye became reassured; it was obvious that even Johnnie had accepted this airy statement as the truth, and to clinch plausibility he added: "When I smoke, I smoke! I smoke cigars straight along—light one right on the stub of the other. I only wish I had some with me, because I miss 'em after a meal. I'd give a good deal for something to smoke right now! I don't mean cigarettes; I don't want any paper—I want something that's all tobacco!"
William's pale, sad face showed a hint of color. With a pang he remembered the package of My Little Sweetheart All-Tobacco Cuban Cigarettes (the Package of Twenty for Ten Cents) which still reposed, untouched, in the breast pocket of his coat. His eyes smarted a little as he recalled the thoughts and hopes that had accompanied the purchase; but he thought, "What would Sydney Carton do?"
William brought forth the package of My Little Sweetheart All-Tobacco Cuban Cigarettes and placed it in the large hand of George Crooper. And this was a noble act, for William believed that George really wished to smoke. "Here," he said, "take these; they're all tobacco. I'm goin' to quit smokin', anyway." And, thinking of the name, he added, gently, with a significance lost upon all his hearers, "I'm sure you ought to have 'em instead of me."
Then he went away and sat alone upon the fence.
"Light one, light one!" cried Miss Pratt. "Ev'ybody mus' be happy, an' dray, big, 'normous man tan't be happy 'less he have his all-tobatto smote. Light it, light it!"
George drew as deep a breath as his diaphragm, strangely oppressed since dinner, would permit, and then bravely lit a Little Sweetheart. There must have been some valiant blood in him, for, as he exhaled the smoke, he covered a slight choking by exclaiming, loudly: "THAT'S good! That's the ole stuff! That's what I was lookin' for!"
Miss Pratt was entranced. "Oh, 'plendid!" she cried, watching him with fascinated eyes. "Now take dray, big, 'normous puffs! Take dray, big, 'NORMOUS puffs!"
George took great, big, enormous puffs.
She declared that she loved to watch men smoke, and William's heart, as he sat on the distant fence, was wrung and wrung again by the vision of her playful ecstasies. But when he saw her holding what was left of the first Little Sweetheart for George to light a second at its expiring spark, he could not bear it. He dropped from the fence and moped away to be out of sight once more. This was his darkest hour.
Studiously avoiding the vicinity of the smokehouse, he sought the little orchard where he had beheld her sitting with George; and there he sat himself in sorrowful reverie upon the selfsame fallen tree. How long he remained there is uncertain, but he was roused by the sound of music which came from the lawn before the farmhouse. Bitterly he smiled, remembering that Wallace Banks had engaged Italians with harp, violin, and flute, promising great things for dancing on a fresh-clipped lawn—a turf floor being no impediment to seventeen's dancing. Music! To see her whirling and smiling sunnily in the fat grasp of that dancing bear! He would stay in this lonely orchard; SHE would not miss him.
But though he hated the throbbing music and the sound of the laughing voices that came to him, he could not keep away—and when he reached the lawn where the dancers were, he found Miss Pratt moving rhythmically in the thin grasp of Wallace Banks. Johnnie Watson approached, and spoke in a low tone, tinged with spiteful triumph.
"Well, anyway, ole fat George didn't get the first dance with her! She's the guest of honor, and Wallace had a right to it because he did all the work. He came up to 'em and ole fat George couldn't say a thing. Wallace just took her right away from him. George didn't say anything at all, but I s'pose after this dance he'll be rushin' around again and nobody else 'll have a chance to get near her the rest of the afternoon. My mother told me I ought to invite him over here, out I had no business to do it; he don't know the first principles of how to act in a town he don't live in!"
"Where'd he go?" William asked, listlessly, for Mr. Crooper was nowhere in sight.
"I don't know—he just walked off without sayin' anything. But he'll be back, time this dance is over, never you fear, and he'll grab her again and—What's the matter with Joe?"
Joseph Bullitt had made his appearance at a corner of the house, some distance from where they stood. His face was alert under the impulse of strong excitement, and he beckoned fiercely. "Come here!" And, when they had obeyed, "He's around back of the house by a kind of shed," said Joe. "I think something's wrong. Come on, I'll show him to you."
But behind the house, whither they followed him in vague, strange hope, he checked them. "LOOK THERE!" he said.
His pointing finger was not needed. Sounds of paroxysm drew their attention sufficiently—sounds most poignant, soul-rending, and lugubrious. William and Johnnie perceived the large person of Mr. Crooper; he was seated upon the ground, his back propped obliquely against the smoke-house, though this attitude was not maintained constantly.
Facing him, at a little distance, a rugged figure in homely garments stood leaning upon a hoe and regarding George with a cold interest. The apex of this figure was a volcanic straw hat, triangular in profile and coned with an open crater emitting reddish wisps, while below the hat were several features, but more whiskers, at the top of a long, corrugated red neck of sterling worth. A husky voice issued from the whiskers, addressing George.
"I seen you!" it said. "I seen you eatin'! This here farm is supposed to be a sanitary farm, and you'd ought of knew better. Go it, doggone you! Go it!"
George complied. And three spectators, remaining aloof, but watching zealously, began to feel their lost faith in Providence returning into them; their faces brightened slowly, and without relapse. It was a visible thing how the world became fairer and better in their eyes during that little while they stood there. And William saw that his Little Sweethearts had been an inspired purchase, after all; they had delivered the final tap upon a tottering edifice. George's deeds at dinner had unsettled, but Little Sweethearts had overthrown—and now there was awful work among the ruins, to an ironical accompaniment of music from the front yard, where people danced in heaven's sunshine!
This accompaniment came to a stop, and Johnnie Watson jumped. He seized each of his companions by a sleeve and spoke eagerly, his eyes glowing with a warm and brotherly light. "Here!" he cried. "We better get around there—this looks like it was goin' to last all afternoon. Joe, you get the next dance with her, and just about time the music slows up you dance her around so you can stop right near where Bill will be standin', so Bill can get her quick for the dance after that. Then, Bill, you do the same for me, and I'll do the same for Joe again, and then, Joe, you do it for Bill again, and then Bill for me—and so on. If we go in right now and work together we can crowd the rest out, and there won't anybody else get to dance with her the whole day! Come on quick!"
United in purpose, the three ran lightly to the dancing-lawn, and Mr. Bullitt was successful, after a little debate, in obtaining the next dance with the lovely guest of the day. "I did promise big Untle Georgiecums," she said, looking about her.
"Well, I don't think he'll come," said Joe. "That is, I'm pretty sure he won't."
A shade fell upon the exquisite face. "No'ty. Bruvva Josie-Joe! The Men ALWAYS tum when Lola promises dances. Mustn't be rude!"
"Well—" Joe began, when he was interrupted by the Swedish lady named Anna, who spoke to them from the steps of the house. Of the merrymakers they were the nearest.
"Dot pick fella," said Anna, "dot one dot eats—we make him in a petroom. He holler! He tank he neet some halp."
"Does he want a doctor?" Joe asked.
"Doctor? No! He want make him in a amyoulance for hospital!"
"I'll go look at him," Johnnie Watson volunteered, running up. "He's my cousin, and I guess I got to take the responsibility."
Miss Pratt paid the invalid the tribute of one faintly commiserating glance toward the house. "Well," she said, "if people would rather eat too much than dance!" She meant "dance with ME!" though she thought it prettier not to say so. "Come on, Bruvva Josie-Joe!" she cried, joyously.
And a little later Johnnie Watson approached her where she stood with a restored and refulgent William, about to begin the succeeding dance. Johnnie dropped into her hand a ring, receiving one in return. "I thought I better GET it," he said, offering no further explanation. "I'll take care of his until we get home. He's all right," said Johnnie, and then perceiving a sudden advent of apprehension upon the sensitive brow of William, he went on reassuringly: "He's doin' as well as anybody could expect; that is—after the crazy way he DID! He's always been considered the dumbest one in all our relations—never did know how to act. I don't mean he's exactly not got his senses, or ought to be watched, anything like that—and of course he belongs to an awful good family—but he's just kind of the black sheep when it comes to intelligence, or anything like that. I got him as comfortable as a person could be, and they're givin' him hot water and mustard and stuff, but what he needs now is just to be kind of quiet. It'll do him a lot o' good," Johnnie concluded, with a spark in his voice, "to lay there the rest of the afternoon and get quieted down, kind of."
"You don't think there's any—" William began, and, after a pause, continued—"any hope—of his getting strong enough to come out and dance afterwhile?"
Johnnie shook his head. "None in the world!" he said, conclusively. "The best we can do for him is to let him entirely alone till after supper, and then ask nobody to sit on the back seat of the trolley-car goin' home, so we can make him comfortable back there, and let him kind of stretch out by himself."
Then gaily tinkled harp, gaily sang flute and violin! Over the greensward William lightly bore his lady, while radiant was the cleared sky above the happy dancers. William's fingers touched those delicate fingers; the exquisite face smiled rosily up to him; undreamable sweetness beat rhythmically upon his glowing ears; his feet moved in a rhapsody of companionship with hers. They danced and danced and danced!
Then Joe danced with her, while William and Johnnie stood with hands upon each other's shoulders and watched, mayhap with longing, but without spite; then Johnnie danced with her while Joe and William watched—and then William danced with her again.
So passed the long, ineffable afternoon away—ah, Seventeen!
"… 'Jav a good time at the trolley-party?" the clerk in the corner drug-store inquired that evening.
"Fine!" said William, taking his overcoat from the hook where he had left it.
"How j' like them Little Sweethearts I sold you?"
"FINE!" said William.