In July the sun is still an early riser, but long before he was up next day a succession of raps on the door woke Gethryn, and a voice outside inquired, "Are you going fishing with me today, you lazy beggar?''
"Colonel!'' cried Rex, and springing up and throwing open the door, he threatened to mingle his pajamas with the natty tweeds waiting there in a loving embrace. The colonel backed away, twisting his white mustache. "How do, Reggy! Same boy, eh? Yes. I drove from Schicksalsee this morning.''
"This morning? Wasn't it last night?'' said Rex, looking at the shadows on the opposite mountain.
"And I am going to get some trout,'' continued the colonel, ignoring the interruption. "So's Daisy. See my new waterproof rig?''
"Beautiful, but -- is it quite the thing to wear a flower in one's fishing coat?''
"I'm not aware -- '' began the other stiffly, but broke down, shook his seal ring at Rex, and walking over to the glass, rearranged the bit of wild hyacinth in his buttonhole with care.
"And now,'' he said, "Daisy and I will give you just three quarters of an hour.'' Rex sent a shower from the water basin across the room.
"Look out for those new waterproof clothes, Colonel.''
"I'll take them out of harm's way,'' said the colonel, and disappeared.
Before the time had expired Rex stood under the beech tree with his rod case and his creel. The colonel sat reading a novel. Mrs. Dene was pouring out coffee. Ruth was coming down a path which led from a low shed, the door of which stood wide open, suffering the early sunshine to fall on something that lay stretched along the floor. It was a stag, whose noble head and branching antlers would never toss in the sunshine again.
"Only think!'' cried Ruth breathlessly, "Federl shot a stag of ten this morning at daybreak on the Red Peak, and he's frightened out of his wits, for only the duke has a right to do that. Federl mistook it for a stag of eight. And they're in the velvet, besides!'' she added rather incoherently. " What luck! Poor Federl! I asked him if that meant strafen, and he said he guessed not, only zanken.''
"What's `strafen' and what's `zanken,' Daisy?'' asked the Colonel, pronouncing the latter like "z'' in buzz.
Ruth went up to her father and took his face between her hands, dropping a light kiss on his eyebrow.
"`Strafen is when one whips bad boys and t--s-- zanken is when one only scolds them. Which shall we do to you, dear? Both?''
"We'll take coffee first, and then we'll see which there's time for before we leave you hemming a pocket handkerchief while Rex and I go trout fishing.''
"Such parents!'' sighed Ruth, nestling down beside her father and looking over her cup at Rex, who gravely nodded sympathy.
After breakfast, as Ruth stood waiting by the table where the fishing tackle lay, perfectly composed in manner, but unable to keep the color from her cheek and the sparkle of impatience from her eye, Gethryn thought he had seldom seen anything more charming.
A soft gray Tam crowned her pretty hair. A caped coat, fastened to the throat, hung over the short kilt skirt, and rough gaiters buttoned down over a wonderful little pair of hobnailed boots.
"I say Ruth! What a stunner you are!'' cried he with enthusiasm. She turned to the rod case and began lifting and arranging the rods.
"Rex,'' she said, looking up brightly, "I feel about sixteen today.''
"Or less, judging from your costume,'' said her mother. "Schicksalsee isn't Rangely, you know. I only hope the good people in the little ducal court won't call you theatrical.''
"A theatrical stunner!'' mused Ruth, in her clearest tones. "It is good to know how one strikes one's friends.''
"The disciplining of this young person is to be left to me,'' said the colonel. "Daisy, everything else about you is all wrong, but your frock is all right.''
"That is simple and comprehensive and reassuring,'' murmured Ruth absently, as she bent over the fly-book with Gethryn.
After much consultation and many thoughtful glances at the bit of water which glittered and dashed through the narrow meadow in front of the house, they arranged the various colored lures and leaders, and standing up, looked at Colonel Dene, reading his novel.
"What? Oh! Come along, then!'' said he, on being made aware that he was waited for, and standing up also, he dropped the volume into his creel and lighted a cigar.
"Are you going to take that trash along, dear?'' asked his daughter.
"What trash? The work of fiction? That's literature, as the gentleman said about Dante.''
"Rex,'' said Mrs. Dene, buttoning the colonel's coat over his snowy collar, "I put this expedition into your hands. Take care of these two children.''
She stood and watched them until they passed the turn beyond the bridge. Mr. Statia watched them too, from behind the curtains in his room. His leer went from one to the other, but always returned and rested on Rex. Then, as there was a mountain chill in the morning air, he crawled back into bed, hauling his night cap over his generous ears and rolling himself in a cocoon of featherbeds, until he should emerge about noon, like some sleek, fat moth.
The anglers walked briskly up the wooded road, chatting and laughing, with now and then a sage and critical glance at the water, of which they caught many glimpses through the trees. Gethryn and Ruth were soon far ahead. The colonel sauntered along, switching leaves with his rod and indulging in bursts of Parisian melody.
"Papa,'' called Ruth, looking back, "does your hip trouble you today, or are you only lazy?''
"Trot along, little girl; I'll be there before you are,'' said the colonel airily, and stopped to replace the wild hyacinth in his coat by a prim little pink and white daisy. Then he lighted a fresh cigar and started on, but their voices were already growing faint in the distance. Observing this, he stopped and looked up and down the road. No one was in sight. He sat down on the bank with his hand on his hip. His face changed from a frown to an expression of sharp pain. In five minutes he had grown from a fresh elderly man into an old man, his face drawn and gray, but he only muttered "the devil!'' and sat still. A big bronze-winged beetle whizzed past him, z--z--ip! "like a bullet,'' he thought, and pressed both hands now on his hip. "Twenty-five years ago -- pshaw! I'm not so old as that!'' But it was twenty-five years ago when the blue-capped troopers, bursting in to the rescue, found the dandy "---th,'' scorched and rent and blackened, still reeling beneath a rag crowned with a gilt eagle. The exquisite befeathered and gold laced "---th.'' But the shells have rained for hours among the "Dandies'' -- and some are dead, and some are wishing for death, like that youngster lying there with the shattered hip.
Colonel Dene rose up presently and relighted his cigar; then he flicked some dust from the new tweeds, picked a stem of wild hyacinth, and began to whistle. "Pshaw! I'm not so old as all that!'' he murmured, sauntering along the pleasant wood-road. Before long he came in sight of Ruth and Gethryn, who were waiting. But he only waved them on, laughing.
"Papa always says that old wound of his does not hurt him, but it does. I know it does,'' said Ruth.
Rex noted what tones of tenderness there were in her cool, clear voice. He did not answer, for he could only agree with her, and what could be the use of that?
They strolled on in silence, up the fragrant forest road. Great glittering dragonflies drifted along the river bank, or hung quivering above pools. Clouds of lazy sulphur butterflies swarmed and floated, eddying up from the road in front of them and settling down again in their wake like golden dust. A fox stole across the path, but Gethryn did not see him. The mesh of his landing net was caught just then in a little gold clasp that he wore on his breast.
"How quaint!'' cried Ruth; "let me help you; there! One would think you were a French legitimist, with your fleur-de-lis.''
"Thank you'' -- was all he answered, and turned away, as he felt the blood burn his face. But Ruth was walking lightly on and had not noticed. The fleur-de-lis, however, reminded her of something she had to say, and she began again, presently --
"You left Paris rather suddenly, did you not, Rex?''
This time he colored furiously, and Ruth, turning to him, saw it. She flushed too, fearing to have made she knew not what blunder, but she went on seriously, not pausing for his answer:
"The year before, that is three years ago now, we waited in Italy, as we had promised to do, for you to join us. But you never even wrote to say why you did not come. And you haven't explained it yet, Rex.''
Gethryn grew pale. This was what he had been expecting. He knew it would have to come; in fact he had wished for nothing more than an opportunity for making all the amends that were possible under the circumstances. But the possible amends were very, very inadequate at best, and now that the opportunity was here, his courage failed, and he would have shirked it if he could. Besides, for the last five minutes, Ruth had been innocently stirring memories that made his heart beat heavily.
And now she was waiting for her answer. He glanced at the clear profile as she walked beside him. Her eyes were raised a little; they seemed to be idly following the windings of a path that went up the opposite mountainside; her lips rested one upon the other in quiet curves. He thought he had never seen such a pure, proud looking girl. All the chivalry of a generous and imaginative man brought him to her feet.
"I cannot explain. But I ask your forgiveness. Will you grant it? I won't forgive myself!''
She turned instantly and gave him her hand, not smiling, but her eyes were very gentle. They walked on a while in silence, then Rex said:
"Ever since I came, I have been trying to find courage to ask pardon for that unpardonable conduct, but when I looked in your dear mother's face, I felt myself such a brute that I was only fit to hold my tongue. And I believed,'' he added, after a pause, "that she would forgive me too. She was always better to me than I deserved.''
"Yes,'' said Ruth.
"And you also are too good to me,'' he continued, "in giving me this chance to ask your pardon.'' His voice took on the old caressing tone in which he used to make peace after their boy and girl tiffs. "I knew very well that with you I should have a stricter account to settle than with your mother,'' he said, smiling.
"Yes,'' said Ruth again. And then with a little effort and a slight flush she added:
"I don't think it is good for men when too many excuses are made for them. Do you?''
"No, I do not,'' answered Rex, and thought, if all women were like this one, how much easier it would be for men to lead a good life! His heart stopped its heavy beating. The memories which he had been fighting for two years faded away once more; his spirits rose, and he felt like a boy as he kept step with Ruth along the path which had now turned and ran close beside the stream.
"Now tell me something of your travels,'' said Ruth. "You have been in the East.''
"Yes, in Japan. But first I stopped a while in India with some British officers, nice fellows. There was some pheasant shooting.''
"Pheasants! No tigers?''
"You shot him! Oh! tell me about it!''
"No, I only saw him.''
"In a jungle.''
"Did you fire?''
"No, for he was already dead, and the odor which pervaded his resting place made me hurry away as fast as if he had been alive.''
"You are a provoking boy!''
Rex laughed. "I did shoot a cheetah in China.''
"A dead one?''
"No, he was snarling over a dead buck.''
"Then you do deserve some respect.''
"If you like. But it was very easy. One bullet settled him. I was fined afterward.''
"Fined! for what?''
"For shooting the Emperor's trained cheetah. After that I always looked to see if the game wore a silver collar before I fired.''
Ruth would not look as if she heard.
Rex went on teasingly: "I assure you it was embarrassing, when the pheasants were bursting cover, to be under the necessity of inquiring at the nearest house if those were really pheasants or only Chinese hens.''
"Rex,'' exclaimed Ruth, indignantly, "I hope you don't think I believe a word you are saying.''
They had stopped to rest beside the stream, and now the colonel sauntered into view, his hands full of wild flowers, his single eyeglass gleaming beside his delicate straight nose.
"Do you know,'' he asked, strolling up to Ruth and tucking a cluster of bluebells under her chin, "do you know what old Hugh Montgomery would say if he were here?''
"He'd say,'' she replied promptly, "that `we couldn't take no traout with the pesky sun a shinin' and a brilin' the hull crick.'''
"Yes,'' said Rex. "Rise at four, east wind, cloudy morning, that was Hugh. But he could cast a fly.''
"Couldn't he!'' said the colonel. "`I cal'late ter chuck a bug ez fur ez enny o' them city fellers, 'n I kin,' says Hugh. Going to begin here, Rex?''
"What does Ruth think?''
"She thinks she isn't in command of this party,'' Ruth replied.
"It will take us until late in the afternoon to whip the stream from here to the lowest bridge.'' Rex smiled down at her and pushed back his cap with a boyish gesture.
She had forgotten it until that moment. Now it brought a perfect flood of pleasant associations. She had seen him look that way a hundred times when, in their teens, they two had lingered by the Northern Lakes. Her whole face changed and softened, but she turned away, nodding assent, and went and stood by her father, looking down at him with the bantering air which was a family trait. The lively colonel had found a sunny log on the bank, where he was sitting, leisurely joining his rod.
"Hello!'' he cried, glancing up, "what are you two amateurs about? As usual, I'm ready to begin before Rex is awake!'' and stepping to the edge he landed his flies with a flourish in a young birch tree. Rex came and disengaged them, and he received the assistance with perfect self-possession.
"Now see the new waterproof rig wade!'' said Ruth, saucily.
"Go and wade yourself and don't bully your old father!'' cried the colonel.
"Old! this child old!''
"Oh! come along, Ruth!'' called Rex, waiting on the shore and falling unconsciously into the tone of sixteen speaking to twelve.
For answer she slipped the cover from her slender rod and dexterously fitted the delicate tip to the second joint.
"Hasn't forgotten how to put a rod together! Wonderful girl!''
"Oh, I knew you were waiting to see me place the second joint in the butt first!'' She deftly ran the silk through the guides, and then scientifically knotting the leader, slipped on a cast of three flies and picked her way daintily to the river bank. As she waded in, the sudden cold made her gasp a little to herself, but she kept straight on without turning her head, and presently stepped on a broad, flat rock over which the water was slipping smoothly.
Gethryn waited near the bank and watched her as she sent the silk hissing thirty feet across the stream. The line swished and whistled, and the whole cast, hand fly, dropper and stretcher settled down lightly on the water. He noticed the easy motion of the wrist, the boyish pose of the slender figure, the serious sweet face, half shaded by the soft woolen Tam.
Swish--h--h! Swish--h--h! She slowly spun out forty feet, glancing back at Gethryn with a little laugh. Suddenly there was a tremendous splash, just beyond the dropper, answered by a turn of the white wrist, and then the reel fairly shrieked as the line melted away like a thread of smoke. Gethryn's eyes glittered with excitement, and the colonel took his cigar out of his mouth. But they didn't shout, "You have him! Go easy on him! Want any help!'' They kept quiet.
Cautiously, and by degrees, Ruth laced her little gloved fingers over the flying line, and presently a quiver of the rod showed that the fish was checked. She reeled in, slowly and steadily for a moment, and then, whiz--z--z! off he dashed again. At seventy feet the rod trembled and the trout was still. Again and again she urged him toward the shore, meeting his furious dashes with perfect coolness and leading him dexterously away from rocks and roots. When he sulked she gave him the butt, and soon the full pressure sent him flying, only to end in a furious full length leap out of water, and another sulk.
The colonel's cigar went out.
At last she spoke, very quietly, without looking back.
"Rex, there is no good place to beach him here; will you net him, please?'' Rex was only waiting for this; he had his landing net already unslung and he waded to her side.
"Now!'' she whispered. The fiery side of a fish glittered just beneath the surface. With a skillful dip, a splash, and a spatter the trout lay quivering on the bank.
Gethryn quickly ended his life and held him up to view.
"Beautiful!'' cried the colonel. "Good girl, Daisy! But don't spoil your frock!'' And picking up his own rod he relighted his cigar and essayed some conscientious casting on his own account. But he soon wearied of the paths of virtue and presently went in search of a grasshopper, with evil intent.
Meanwhile Ruth was blushing to the tips of her ears at Gethryn's praises.
"I never saw a prettier sight!'' he cried. "You're -- you're splendid, Ruth! Nerve, judgment, skill -- my dear girl, you have everything!''
Ruth's eyes shone like stars as she watched him in her turn while he sent his own flies spinning across a pool. And now there was nothing to be heard but the sharp whistle of the silk and the rush of the water. It seemed a long time that they had stood there, when suddenly the colonel created a commotion by hooking and hauling forth a trout of meagre proportions. Unheeding Rex's brutal remarks, he silently inspected his prize dangling at the end of the line. It fell back into the water and darted away gayly upstream, but the colonel was not in the least disconcerted and strolled off after another grasshopper.
"Papa! are you a bait fisherman!'' cried his daughter severely.
The colonel dropped his hat guiltily over a lively young cricket, and standing up said "No!'' very loud.
It was no use -- Ruth had to laugh, and shortly afterward he was seated comfortably on the log again, his line floating with the stream, in his hands a volume with yellow paper covers, the worse for wear, bearing on its back the legend "Calman Levy, Editeur.''
Rex soon struck a good trout and Ruth another, but the first one remained the largest, and finally Gethryn called to the colonel, "If you don't mind, we're going on.''
"All right! Take care of Daisy. We will meet and lunch at the first bridge.'' Then, examining his line and finding the cricket still there, he turned up his coat collar to keep off sunburn, opened his book, and knocked the ashes from his cigar.
"Here,'' said Gethryn two hours later, "is the bridge, but no colonel. Are you tired, Ruth? And hungry?''
"Yes, both, but happier than either!''
"Well, that was a big trout, the largest we shall take today, I think.''
They reeled in their dripping lines, and sat down under a tree beside the lunch basket, which a boy from the lodge was guarding.
"I wish papa would come,'' said Ruth, with an anxious look up the road. "He ought to be hungry too, by this time.''
Rex poured her a cup of red Tyroler wine and handed her a sandwich. Then, calling the boy, he gave him such a generous "Viertel'' for himself as caused him to retire precipitately and consume it with grins, modified by boiled sausage. Ruth looked after him and smiled in sympathy. "I wonder how papa got rid of the other one with the green tin water-box.''
"I know; I was present at the interview,'' laughed Rex. "Your father handed him a ten mark piece and said, `Go away, you superfluous Bavarian!'''
"Yes, and he must have understood, for he grinned and went.''
It was good to hear the ring of Ruth's laugh. She was so happy that she found the smallest joke delightful, and her voice was very sweet. Rex lighted a cigarette and leaned back against a tree, in great comfort. Ruth, perched on a log, watched the smoke drift and curl. Gethryn watched her. They each cared as much for the hours they had spent in the brook, and for their wet clothing, as vigorous, happy, and imprudent youth ever cares about such things.
"So you are happy, Ruth?''
"Perfectly. And you? -- But it takes more to make a spoiled young man happy than -- ''
"Than a spoiled young woman? I don't know about that. Yes, I -- am -- happy.'' Was the long puff of smoke ascending slowly responsible for the pauses between his words? A slight shadow was in his eyes for one moment. It passed, and he turned on her his most charming smile, as he repeated, "Perfectly happy!''
"Still no colonel!'' he went on; "when he comes he will be tired. We don't want any more trout, do we? We have eighteen, all good ones. Suppose we rest and go back all together by the road?'' Ruth nodded, smiling to see him fondle the creel full of shining fish, bedded on fragrant leaves.
Rex's cap lay beside him, his head leaned back against the tree, his face was turned up to the bending branches. Presently he closed his eyes.
It might have been one minute, or ten. Ruth sat and watched him. He had grown very handsome. He had that pleasant air of good breeding which some men retain under any and all circumstances. It has nothing to do with character, and yet it is difficult to think ill of a man who possesses it. When she had seen him last, his nose was too near a snub to inspire much respect, and his mustache was still in the state of colorless scarcity. Now his hair and mustache were thick and tawny, and his features were clear and firm. She noticed the pleasant line of the cheek, the clean curve of the chin, the light on the crisp edges of his close-cut hair -- the two freckles on his nose, and she decided that that short, straight nose, with its generous and humorous nostrils, was wholly fascinating. As girls always will, she began to wonder about his life -- idly at first, but these speculations lead one sometimes farther than one was prepared to go at the start. How much of his delightful manner to them all was due to affection, and how much to kindliness and good spirits? How much did he care for those other friends, for that other life in Paris? Who were the friends? What was the life? She looked at him, it seemed to her, a long time. Had he ever loved a woman? Was he still in love, perhaps, with someone? Ruth was no child. But she was a lady, and a proud one. There were things she did not choose to think about, although she knew of their existence well enough. She brought herself up at this point with a sharp pull, and just then Gethryn, opening his eyes, smiled at her.
She turned quickly away; to her perfect consternation her cheeks grew hot. Bewildered by her own confusion, she rose as she turned, and saying how lovely the water looked, went and stood on the bridge, leaning over. Rex was on his feet in an instant, so covered with confusion too, that he never saw hers.
"I say, Ruth, I haven't been such a brute as to fall asleep! Indeed I haven't! I was thinking of Braith.''
"And if you had fallen asleep you wouldn't be a brute, you tired boy! And who is Braith?''
Ruth turned smiling to meet him, restored to herself and thankful for the diversion.
"Braith,'' said Rex earnestly. "Braith is the best man in this wicked world, and my dearest friend. To whom,'' he added, "I have not written one word since I left him two years ago.''
Ruth's face fell. "Is that the way you treat your dearest friends?'' -- and she thought: "No wonder one is neglected when one is only an old playmate!'' -- but she was instantly ashamed of the little bitterness, and put it aside.
"Ah! you don't know of what we are capable,'' said Gethryn; and once more a shadow fell on his face.
A familiar form came jauntily down the road. Ruth hastened to meet it. "At last, Father! You want your luncheon, poor dear!''
"I do indeed, Daisy!''
The colonel came as gallantly up as if he had thirty pounds of trout to show instead of a creel that contained nothing but a novel by the newest and wickedest master of French fiction. He made a mild attempt to perjure himself about a large fish that had somehow got away from him, but desisted and merely added that a caning would be good for Rex.
Tired he certainly was, and when he was seated on the log and Ruth was bringing him his wine, he looked sharply at her and said, "You too, Daisy; you've done enough for the first day. We'll go home by the road.''
"It is what I was just proposing to her,'' said Rex.
"Yes, you are both right,'' said Ruth. "I am tired.''
"And happy?'' laughed Rex. But perhaps Ruth did not hear, for she spoke at the same time to her father.
"Dear, you haven't told Rex yet how you got the invitation to shoot.''
"Oh, yes! It was at an officers' dinner in Munich. The duke was there and I was introduced to him. He spoke of it as soon as they told him we were stopping here.''
"He's a brick,'' said Rex, rising. "Shall we start for home, Colonel? Ruth must be tired.''
When they turned in at the Forester's door, the colonel ordered Daisy to her room, where Mrs. Dene and their maid were waiting to make her luxuriously comfortable with dry things, and rugs, and couches, and cups of tea that were certainly not drawn from the Frau Förster's stores. Tea in Germany being more awful than tobacco, or tobacco more awful than tea, according as one cares most for tea or tobacco.
The colonel and Rex sat after supper under the big beech tree. Ruth, from her window, could see their cigars alight, and, now and then, hear their voices.
Rex was telling the colonel about Braith, of whom he had not ceased thinking since the afternoon. He went to his room early and wrote a long letter to him.
It began: "You did not expect to hear from me until I was cured. Well, you are hearing from me now, are you not?''
And it ended: "Only a few more weeks, and then I shall return to you and Paris, and the dear old life. This is the middle of July. In September I shall come back.''
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