"Thank God you got her," she said. "I failed with Harry; I don't deserve her and I dare not claim responsibility. But I'll see that she inherits what I possess – "
"Madame! I beg you will not occupy yourself with such matters. I am perfectly able to provide sufficiently – "
"Good Lord! Are you trying to tell me again how to draw my will?" she demanded.
"I am not. I am simply requesting you not to encumber this child with any unnecessary fortune. There is no advantage to her in any unwieldy inheritance; there is, on the contrary, a very real and alarming disadvantage."
"I shall retain my liberty to think as I please, do as I please, and differ from you as often as I please," she retorted hotly.
They glared upon each other for a moment; Meacham's burnt-out gaze travelled dumbly from one to the other.
Suddenly Miss Quest smiled and stretched out her hand to Cleland.
"Thank God," she said again, "that it is you who have the child. Teach her to think kindly of me, if you can. I'll come sometimes to see her – and to disagree with you."
Cleland, bare-headed, took her out to her taxicab. She smiled at him when it departed.
There came the time when Easter vacation was to be reckoned with. Cleland wrote to Jim that he had a surprise for him and that, as usual, he would be at the station to meet the school train.
During the intervening days, at moments fear became an anguish. He began to realize what might happen, what might threaten his hitherto perfect understanding with his only son.
He need not have worried.
Driving uptown in the limousine beside his son, their hands still tightly interlocked, he told him very quietly what he had done, and why. The boy, astonished, listened in silence to the end. Then all he said was:
"For heaven's sake, Father!"
There was not the faintest hint of resentment, no emotion at all except a perfectly neutral amazement.
"How old is she?"
"Oh. A kid. Does she cry much?"
"They don't cry at eleven," explained his father, laughing in his relief. "You didn't squall when you were eleven."
"No. But this is a girl."
"Don't worry, old chap."
"No. Do you suppose I'll like her?"
"Of course, I hope you will."
"Well, I probably sha'n't notice her very much, being rather busy… But it's funny… A kid in the house! … I hope she won't get fresh."
"Be nice to her, Jim."
"Sure… It's funny, though."
"It really isn't very funny, Jim. The little thing has been dreadfully unhappy all her life until I – until we stepped in."
"You and I, Jim. It's our job."
After a silence the boy said:
"What was the matter with her?"
The boy's incredulous eyes were fastened on his father's.
"Cold, hunger, loneliness, neglect. And drunken parents who beat her so mercilessly that once they broke two of her ribs… Don't talk about it to her, Jim.
The boy's eyes were still dilated with horror, but his features were set and very still.
"We've got to look out for her, old chap."
"Yes," said the boy, flushing.
Cleland Senior, of course, expected to assist at the first interview, but Stephanie was not to be found.
High and low Janet searched; John Cleland, troubled, began a tour of the house, calling:
"Steve! Where are you?"
Jim, in his room, unstrapping his suitcase, felt rather than heard somebody behind him; and, looking up over his shoulder saw a girl.
She was a trifle pale; dropped him a curtsey:
"I'm Steve," she said breathlessly.
Boy and girl regarded each other in silence for a moment; then Jim offered his hand:
"How do you do?" he said, calmly.
"I – I'm very well. I hope you are, too."
Another pause, during a most intent mutual inspection.
"My tennis bat," explained Jim, with polite condescension, "needs to be re-strung. That's why I brought it down from school… Do you play tennis?"
Cleland Senior, on the floor below, heard the young voices mingling above him, listened, then quietly withdrew to the library to await events.
Janet looked in later.
"Do they like each other?" he asked in a low, anxious voice.
"Mr. Cleland, sor, Miss Steve is on the floor listenin' to that blessed boy read thim pieces he has wrote in the school paper! Like two lambs they do be together, sor, and the fine little gentleman and little lady they are, God be blessed this April day!"
After a while he went upstairs, cautiously, the soft carpet muffling his tread.
Jim, seated on the side of his bed, was being worshipped, permitting it, accepting it. Stephanie, cross-legged on the floor, adored him with awed, uplifted gaze, her clasped hands lying in her lap.
"To be a writer," Jim condescended to explain, "a man has got to work like the dickens, study everything you ever heard of, go out and have adventures, notice everything that people say and do, how they act and walk and talk. It's a very interesting profession, Steve… What are you going to be?"
"I don't know," she whispered, " – nothing, I suppose."
"Don't you want to be something? Don't you want to be celebrated?"
She thought, hesitatingly, that it would be pleasant to be celebrated.
"Then you'd better think up something to do to make the world notice you."
"I shouldn't know what to do."
"Father says that the thing you'd rather do to amuse yourself is the proper profession to take up. What do you like to do?"
"Ought I to try to write, as you do?"
"You mustn't ask me. Just think what you'd rather do than anything else."
The girl thought hard, her eyes fixed on him, her brows slightly knitted with the effort at concentration.
"I – I'd honestly really rather just be with dad – and you– "
The boy laughed:
"I don't mean that!"
"No, I know. But I can't think of anything… Perhaps I could learn to act in a play – or do beautiful dances, or draw pictures – ?" her voice continuing in the rising inflection of inquiry.
"Do you like to draw and dance and act in private theatricals?"
"Oh, I never acted in a play or danced folk-dances, except in school. And I never had things of my own to make pictures with – except once I had a piece of blue chalk and I made pictures on the wall in the hall."
"It was a very dirty hall. I was punished for making pictures on the wall."
"Oh," said the boy, soberly.
After a moment the boy jumped up:
"I'm hungry. I believe luncheon is nearly ready. Come on, Steve!"
The child could scarcely speak from pride and happiness when the boy condescended to take her hand and lead her out of that enchanted place into the magic deeps below.
At nine-thirty that evening Stephanie made the curtsey which had been taught her, to Cleland Senior, and was about to repeat the process to Cleland Junior, when the latter laughed and held out his hand.
"Good night, Steve," he said reassuringly. "You've got to be a regular girl with me."
She took his hand, held it, drew closer. To his consternation, he realized that she was expecting to kiss him, and he hastily wrung her hand and sat down.
The child's face flushed: she turned to Cleland Senior for the kiss to which he had accustomed her. Her lips were quivering, and the older man understood.
"Good night, darling," he said, drawing her close into his arms, and whispered in her ear gaily: "You've scared him, Steve. He's only a boy, you know."
Her head, buried against his shoulder, concealed the starting tears.
"You've scared him," repeated Cleland Senior. "All boys are shy about girls."
Suddenly it struck her as funny; she smiled; the tears dried in her eyes. She twisted around, and, placing her lips against the elder man's ear, she whispered:
"I'm afraid of him, but I do like him!"
"He likes you, but he's a little afraid of you yet."
That appealed to her once more as exquisitely funny. She giggled, snuggled closer, observed by Jim with embarrassment and boredom. But he was too polite to betray it.
Stephanie, with one arm around Cleland's neck, squeezed herself tightly against him and recounted in a breathless whisper her impressions of his only son:
"I do like him so much, Dad! He talked to me upstairs about his school and all the boys there. He was very kind to me. Do you think I'm too little for him to like me? I'm growing rather fast, you know. I'd do anything for him, anything. I wish you'd tell him that. Will you?"
"Yes, I will, dear. Now, run upstairs to Janet."
"Shall I say good night to Jim again?"
"If you like. But don't kiss him, or you'll scare him."
They both had a confidential and silent fit of laughter over this; then the child slid from his knees, dropped a hasty, confused curtsey in Jim's direction, turned and scampered upstairs. And a gale of laughter came floating out of the nursery, silenced as Janet shut the door.
The subdued glow of a lamp fell over father and son; undulating strata of smoke drifted between them from the elder man's cigar.
"Do you like her?"
"She's a – funny girl… Yes, she's a rather nice little kid."
"We'll stand by her, won't we, Jim?"
"Make up to her the lost days – the cruellest injustice that can be inflicted – the loss of a happy childhood."
"All right, old chap. Now, tell me all about yourself and what has happened since you wrote."
"I had a fight."
"With whom, Jim?"
"With Oswald Grismer, of the first form."
"What did he do to you?" inquired his father.
"He said something – about a girl."
"I don't know her."
"Nothing… Except I told him what I thought of him."
"For what? For speaking disrespectfully about a girl you never met?"
"Oh. Go on."
"Nothing more, sir… Except that we mixed it."
"I see. Did you – hold your own?"
"They said – I think I did, sir."
"Grismer is – your age? Younger? Older?"
"Yes, sir, older."
"How do you and he weigh in?"
"He's – I believe – somewhat heavier."
"First form boy. Naturally. Well, did you shake hands?"
"That's bad, Jim."
"I know it. I – somehow – couldn't."
"Do it next term. No use to fight unless to settle things."
The boy remained silent, and his father did not press the matter.
"What shall we do to-morrow, Jim?" inquired Cleland Senior, after a long pause.
"Do you mean just you and me, Father?"
"Oh, yes. Steve will be busy with her lessons. And, in the evening, nine-thirty is her bedtime."
The boy said, with a sigh of unconscious relief:
"I need a lot of things. We'll go to the shops first. Then we'll lunch together, then we can take in a movie, then we'll dine all by ourselves, and then go to the theatre. What do you say, Father?"
"Fine!" said his father, with the happy thrill which comes to fathers whose growing sons still prefer their company to the company of anybody else.
To Cleland Senior it seemed as though Jim's Easter vacation ended before it had fairly begun; so swiftly sped the blessed days together.
Already the morning of his son's departure for school had dawned, and he realized it with the same mental sinking, the same secret dismay and painful incredulity which he always experienced when the dreaded moment for parting actually arrived.
As usual, he prepared to accompany his son to the railway station. It happened not to occur to him that Stephanie might desire to go.
At breakfast, his son sat opposite as usual, Stephanie on his right, very quiet, and keeping her grey eyes on her plate so persistently that the father finally noticed her subdued demeanour, and kept an eye on her until in her momentarily lifted face he detected the sensitive, forced smile of a child close to tears.
All the resolute composure she could summon did not conceal from him the tragedy of a child who is about to lose its hero and who feels itself left out – excluded, as it were, from the last sad rites.
He was touched, conscience stricken, and yet almost inclined to smile. He said casually, as they rose from the table:
"Steve, dear, tell Janet to make you ready at once, if you are going to see Jim off."
"Am —I– going!" faltered the child, flushing and tremulous with surprise and happiness.
"Why, of course. Run quickly to Janet, now." And, to his son, when the eager little flying feet had sped out of sight and hearing: "Steve felt left out, Jim. Do you understand, dear?"
"Also, she is inclined to take your departure very seriously. You do understand, don't you, my dear son?"
The boy said that he did, vaguely disappointed that he was not to have the last moments alone with his father.
So they all went down town together in the car, and there were other boys there with parents; and some recognitions among the other people; desultory, perfunctory conversations, cohesion among the school boys welcoming one another with ardour and strenuous cordiality after only ten days' separation.
Chiltern Grismer, father of Oswald, came over and spoke to Cleland Senior:
"Our respective sons, it appears, so far forgot their Christian principles as to indulge in a personal encounter in school," he said in a pained voice. "Hadn't they better shake hands, Cleland?"
"Certainly," replied John Cleland. "If a fight doesn't clean off the slate, there's something very wrong somewhere … Jim?"
Cleland Junior left the group of gossiping boys; young Grismer, also, at his father's summons, came sauntering nonchalantly over from another group.
"Make it up with young Cleland!" said Chiltern Grismer, tersely. "Mr. Cleland and I are friends of many years. Let there be no dissension between our sons."
"Offer your hand, Jim," added Cleland Senior. "A punch in the nose settles a multitude of sins; doesn't it, Grismer?"
The ceremony was effected reluctantly, and in anything but a cordial manner. Stephanie, looking on, perplexed, caught young Grismer's amber-coloured eyes fixed on her; saw the tall, sandy-haired boy turn to look at her as he moved away to rejoin his particular group; saw the colour rising in his mischievous face when she surprised him peeping at her again over another boy's shoulder.
Several times, before the train left, the little girl became conscious that this overgrown, sandy-haired boy was watching her, sometimes with frankly flattering admiration, sometimes furtively, as though in sly curiosity.
"Who is that kid?" she distinctly heard him say to another boy. She calmly turned her back.
And was presently aware of the elder Grismer's expressionless gaze concentrated upon herself.
"Is this the little girl?" he said to Cleland Senior in his hard, dry voice.
"That is my little daughter, Stephanie," replied Cleland coldly, discouraging any possible advances on Grismer's part. For there would never be any reason for bringing Stephanie in contact with the Grismers; and there might be reasons for keeping her ignorant of their existence. Which ought to be a simple matter, because he never saw Grismer, except when he chanced to encounter him quite casually here and there in town.
"She's older than I supposed," remarked Grismer, staring steadily at her, where she stood beside Jim, shyly conversing with a group of his particular cronies. Boy-like, they all were bragging noisily for her exclusive benefit, talking school-talk, and swaggering and showing off quite harmlessly as is the nature of the animal at that age.
"I don't observe any family resemblance," mused Grismer, pursing his slit-like lips.
"No?" inquired Cleland drily.
"No, none whatever. Of course, the connection is remote – m-m-m'yes, quite remote. I trust," he added magnanimously, "that you will be able to render her life comfortable and pleasant; and that the stipend you purpose to bestow upon her may, if wisely administered, keep her from want."
Cleland, who was getting madder every moment, turned very red now.
"I think," he said, managing to control his temper, "that it will scarcely be a question of want with Stephanie Quest. What troubles me a little is that she's more than likely to be an heiress."
"It looks that way."
"Do you – do you mean, Cleland, that – that any legal steps to re-open – "
"Good Lord, no!" exclaimed Grismer, contemptuously. "She wouldn't touch a penny of Grismer money – not a penny! I wouldn't lift a finger to stir up that mess again, even if it meant a million for her!"
Grismer breathed more easily, though Cleland's frank and unconcealed scorn left a slight red on his parchment-like skin.
"Our conception of moral and spiritual responsibility differs, I fear," he said, " – as widely as our creeds differ. I regret that my friend of many years should appear to be a trifle biassed – m-m-m'yes, a trifle biassed in his opinion – "
"It's none of my affair, Grismer. We're different, that's all. You had, perhaps, a legal right to your unhappy sister's share of the Grismer inheritance. You exercised it; I should not have done so. It's a matter of conscience – to put it pleasantly."
"It is a matter of creed," said Grismer grimly. "It was God's will."
"Let it go at that. Anyway, you needn't worry over any possible action that might be brought against you or your heirs. There won't be any. What I meant was that the child's aunt, Miss Rosalinda Quest, seems determined to leave little Stephanie a great deal more money than is good for anybody. It isn't necessary. I don't believe in fortunes. I'm wary of them, afraid of them. They change people – often change their very natures. I've seen it too many times – observed the undesirable change in people who were quite all right before they came into fortunes. No; I am able to provide for her amply; I have done so. That ought to be enough."
Grismer's dry, thin lips remained parted; he scarcely breathed; and his remarkable eyes continued to bore into Cleland with an intensity almost savage.
Finally he said, in a voice so dry that it seemed to crackle:
"This is – amazing. I understood that the family had cast out and utterly disowned the family of Harry Quest – m-m-m'yes, turned him out completely – him and his. So you will pardon my surprise, Cleland… Is – ah – the Quest fortune – as it were – considerable?"
"Several millions, I believe," replied Cleland carelessly, moving away to rejoin his son and Stephanie, where they stood amid the noisy, laughing knot of school-boys.
Grismer looked after him, and his face, which had become drawn, grew almost ghastly. So this was it! Cleland had fooled him. Cleland, with previous knowledge of what this aunt was going to do for the child, had cunningly selected her for adoption – doubtless designed her, ultimately, for his son. Cleland had known this; had kept the knowledge from him. And that was the reason for all this philanthropy. Presently he summoned his son, Oswald, with a fierce gesture of his hooked forefinger.
The boy detached himself leisurely from his group of school-fellows and strolled up to his father.
"Don't quarrel with young Cleland again. Do you hear?" he said harshly.
"Well, I – "
"Do you hear? – you little fool!"
"Yes, sir, but – "
"Be silent and obey! Do as I order you. Seek his friendship. And, if opportunity offers, become friends with that little girl. If you don't do as I say, I'll cut your allowance. Understand me, I want you to be good friends with that little girl!"
Oswald cast a mischievous but receptive glance toward Stephanie.
"I'll sure be friends with her, if I have a show," he said. "She's easily the prettiest kid I ever saw. But Jim doesn't seem very anxious to introduce me. Maybe next term – " He shrugged, but regarded Stephanie with wistful golden eyes.
After the gates were opened, and when at last the school boys had departed and the train was gone, Stephanie remained tragically preoccupied with her personal loss in the departure of Cleland Junior. For he was the first boy she had ever known; and she worshipped him with all the long-pent ardour of a lonely heart.
Memory of the sandy youth with golden eyes continued in abeyance, although he had impressed her. It had, in fact, been a new experience for her to be noticed by an older boy; and, although she considered young Grismer homely and a trifle insolent, there remained in her embryonic feminine consciousness the grateful aroma of incense swung before her – incense not acceptable, but still unmistakably incense – the subtle flattery of man.
As for young Grismer, reconciliation between him and Jim having been as pleasantly effected as the forcible feeding of a jailed lady on a hunger strike, he sauntered up to Cleland Junior in the car reserved for Saint James School, and said amiably:
"Who was the little peach you kissed good-bye, Jim?"
The boy's clear brown eyes narrowed just a trifle.
"She's – my – sister," he drawled. "What about it?"
"She's so pretty – for a kid – that's all."
Jim, eyeing him menacingly, replied in the horrid vernacular:
"That's no sty on your eye, is it?"
"F'r heaven's sake!" protested Grismer. "Are you still carrying that old chip on your shoulder? I thought it was all squared."
Jim considered him for a few moments.
"All right," he said; "it's squared, Oswald… Only, somehow I can't get over feeling that there are some more fights ahead of us… Have a caramel?"
Chiltern Grismer joined Cleland Senior on the way to the street, and they strolled together toward the station entrance. Stephanie walked in silence beside Cleland, holding rather tightly to his arm, not even noticing Grismer, and quite overwhelmed by her own bereavement.