FICTION

The Peregrine Twins

Hulbert Footner April 1 1911
FICTION

The Peregrine Twins

Hulbert Footner April 1 1911

The Peregrine Twins

Hulbert Footner

I HAVE written what follows at the request of the young people principally concerned in the story. All the names have been changed, of course, and five years have passed; and since no one found it out at the time, there is small chance at this late day of the events being brought home to the real actors; and if they should be, it is no great matter now.

I was walking up the Avenue from the office on a gorgeous afternoon in October, when Bdb Vesey hailed me from a taxi, and, making his chauffeur come about, drew up beside me at the curb, and commanded me to jump in. I obeyed, not a little surprised and flattered. Vesey and I had been pals at college, but, upon graduating, had set sail upon different courses. We still hung out at the same club, and were continually meeting here and there, but we had long since ceased to be at all intimate. The gilded favorite of fortune, with his good looks, his high spirits, and his millions, could hardly be expected to have much in common with a plodder like me. But I had never ceased to be fond of him, and from my humble corner had enjoyed the spectacle of his gay and triumphant progress. He was not conspicuous for modesty after five years of this, and they said he carried things with a high hand—but how could anything different have been expected?

Bob lost no time in coming to the point: “Orford, you have a tungsten mine in Colorado, haven’t you?”

“Merely a good prospect,” I said. “What’s holding it back?”

“I need a good man to go out there,” I said. “Can’t go myself, and can’t afford to hire the right kind.”

He flicked his gloves on his knee with

a touch of diffidence that seemed strange

in him. “Suppose I went in with you on the deal; would you—would you call me a good man to go out there?”

I stared. “What!” I exclaimed. “And leave all this?” I waved my hand over the splendid, passing show. The lovely ladies were singling out our cab with an eager kindness they did not display when I rode alone.

“Sure thing I” he said.

I suppose X continued to look incredulous.

“It’s not just a case of sore head,” he went on. “It’s been stewing for a long time. ‘All this,’ as you call it, has got on my nerves. I’m sick of the empty bustle, the futile bumming about from noon until sunrise. The Avenue and the Great White Way don’t represent life. I want to get down to tacks.”

“Good business!” I said encouragingly. He looked at me frankly, almost shyly. “I’m going to keep at you till I prove I’m in earnest. Any way, I hope we can see more of each other. We’ve sort of drifted apart lately, but I’ve always admired you, Tom. You stand on your own bottom. Hope you don’t think I’m balmy—talking like this. The fact is, I’ve had a change of heart, as they say. It’s been coming on a long time, and something clinched it. I’ll tell you some time.”

“Cherchez la femme ” I said to myself. Bob was as good as his word, and during the next few days we saw a lot of each other. Frank and boyish as ever, he was for no half-measures, but gave me his confidence completely. He looked into tungsten, and offered to take a half-interest on the spot, but I wanted to hold off until I was sure this was more than a passing impulse. One learns to be indulgent with the rich.

ll was aboul lwo weeks later that we .••id at the Omlerdonk cotillion, the first affair of the season, given to introduce some niece or another. We made our bows togother, and once more it was mude clear lo me that my social quotations jumped twenty points when 1 was in company with Bob Vesey.

"Mr. Vesey, Mr. Orford, so good of you to come!” said Mrs. Omlerdonk, that superb matron—bracketing us to save time. “You must both come L ick to me by and by, for I want to introunce you to my mece, Miss Bush rod, of Virginia, who is going to turn all your heads! Beautiful, spirited, and distractingly unconventional —so look out for yourselves!”

With the usual inane smiles, we backed away from her large, playful forefinger, and Bob, slipping his arm through mine, led me downstairs again. He knew I he house.

“The bright particular star of the evening is evidently late in rising,” he said carelessly. “We ll have half an hour before the jamboree commences. Let’s have some smoke and talk.”

We found two padded chairs in the corner of the vast,, dim billiard-room, and lit up.

“Still strong for the higher things of life?” I queried, facetiously.

“Still leery of ine, I see,” he returned. He drew his chair closer to mine. “Look here, Tom, I’m going to tell you what happened to me last month,” he said impulsu ely. You’re the only one I care to have know about it.”

. ^ *re away ! I said, more pleased with his confidence than I would show. His story follows.

I went up to Wanaque in August spend a month with my family. As matter of fact, I stayed only three da\ and they are all sore on me—but thaï where the story comes in. I was motorir o\er to Tuxedo to play polo when it ha pened. Do you know that country Bather decent roads. I burst a tire ha wav up a long hill over the Rarnapo Moui tains and was stalled for an hou God-forsaken country; hills, stones an scrub no house in miles. Well, there ■'a ' s.m°kmg, and cursing my luck an envying Trudeau while he worked—he

my mechanician, and he gets a heap more out of life on his twenty-five per than I do on my twenty-five hundred—when suddenly I heard a woman’s voice below.

It was one of those rich mezzos that draw the very heart out of your breast, and the song was a teasing, dreamy Southern lullaby—’pon my word, Tom, it made a shiver of delight run up and down my spine. I looked over my shoulder and saw an old white horse drawing a shabby wagon, like a grocer’s delivery, come slowly around a bend in the road. The. song was suddenly called in. You can imagine how eagerly I waited for the outfit to come up.

Presently I made out that two youngsters sat on the seat—boy and girl. They looked very much alike, both slim, dark, and ardent; brother and sister undoubtedly, and probably twins; but while he was only a boy, she was woman complete— and such a woman ! By Gad ! when she raised her eyes they shone like two fireflies in the dusk, and her mouth was the most perfect shape of red in the world. She carried a three-seasons-old hat like a crown, and wore a faded print dress like a blooming creation. It was her eyes that got you; brave, defiant, and clear; they were the eyes oí a youngster who would dare anything.

As they drove by, she glanced at me with perfect candor and blankness, while the boy kept his eyes self-consciously in front of him. The wagon had a dingy white canvas top without any lettering, and different-shaped bundles stuck out behind, as if the young couple were moving. The horse was a good horse, and well fed, but old. I can see the outfit now I’

Have you ever had a perfectly insane impulse, and given way to it? Probably not. You must remember I was sitting there absolutely disgusted with the world as I found it when this lovely young creature with the celestial voice came along in her old clothes, giving off the joy of living like a radiator in a frosty room. Without a second thought, I grabbed my suitcase—I was going to stay to dinner and «lanee and hopped out on the road.

\v hen you get her blown up, take the car back,” I said to Trudeau. “I’ll walk.

It s only a few miles.”

I overtook the grocer’s wagon before it got to the top of the hill. As I came

alongside, the girl looked at me sidewise with a little twinkle. I suppose I made a comical figure, walking along in my polo togs, with a white blanket coat over all, but I didn’t care, because I saw that she liked me—you can’t mistake that look. It keyed up my nerve.

“How do you do?” I said, lifting my cap to Brother. “I am Robert Vesey. I’m on my way to Tuxedo to play polo, and my car has broken down. Will you give me a lift?”

The boy pulled up. He was inclined to be suspicious of me, but was perfectly polite. “We are going to New City,” he said ; “but we can put you half way along your road.” •

He insisted on giving up his place to me, while he sat on the footboard, with his feet on the shafts. He was diffident and ill at ease, but the girl beside me made friends instantly, like a fearless, well-bred child.

“We have heard of you, Mr. Robert Vesey,” she said, a little mockingly.

“In the newspapers,” added her brother.

“You mustn’t believe all you read,” I said, a bit anxiously.

She laughed. “I’m glad to have had a look at you,” she said.

In order to change the subject, I remarked about the song I had heard.

“Did you like it?” she said carelessly.

I begged her to go on with it, and without any fuss she lifted her breast, and poured out those warm, velvety tones, while I sat beside her, quite foolish with delight.

‘Hoin in the chorus, Pen,” she said, prodding her brother.

He had a boyish baritone, not quite past the reedy stage, but fresh and true.

“Do you sing?” she asked me abruptly, when she had come to the end.

I saw it was as sure a way as any to win their hearts, and I promptly gave them the Mermaid, and taught them the rollicking chorus. I followed it up by teaching them the glees we sang at college, and long before the old white horse reached the fork of the roads we were singing and laughing together like three old chums. The boy forgot his diffidence, and, climbing astride the old horse, faced us and beat time. The woods rang with our fool-

ish laughter—hers was like a peal of golden bells, Tom. I tell you there is nothing to break the ice like singing together.

I suppose it’s because I’m a kid at heart myself that I know how to win them. Any way, when we got to the dividing of the roads, they made no secret of their regret. To delay the moment of parting, they asked me to share their lunch, and down we sat in the grass, and ate bread and jelly, gingersnaps and apples. Never tasted anything so good in my life.

You can imagine I was full of curiosity concerning my charming young friends —who and what they were—but on that subject they were mum. They seemed like our kind right enough, but, then, there were the shabby old clothes to account for, and, besides, you could hardly imagine any of our youngsters being allowed to gypsy it on the roads, however they might want to. Finally, part of the secret came out.

“That Mermaid song would be a good thing to work in when we strike the seaside,” remarked the girl.

“Work in?” I queried.

“We havn’t introduced ourselves, have we?” she said, with her provoking smile. “We’re the Peregrines’ traveling show: moving pictures, plantation melodies, and palmistry. We show in New City to-night, Haverstraw Wednesday, Tompkins Cove Thursday, Highland Falls Friday, and Cornwall on Saturday—just the little places.”

That was kind of a knockout blow, Tom. The thought of such a jolly, wandering life was in itself maddeningly attractive at that moment—and then to be with her all day! ’Pon my word, for a moment I was, as the story-tellers say, dumb with longing. Then I had insane impulse number two. I should have hesitated before trying it on with sophisticated grown-ups, but youngsters have open minds.

“Take me with you,” I stammered.

The boy looked startled, the girl demure.

“You have to play polo this afternoon,” said she.

“It was only a practice game—they can get a dozen in my place,” I said. “I can telephone or wire from the first town.”

“Would you come in those clothes?” she asked tensingly.

“Sure thing I” I said. “It would call attention to the show.”

She laughed.

“I have evening clothes in the bag, that 1 could wear at the concerts,” I added. “I’ll sing, and take tickets, and work the picture machine. I’ll travel ahead of the show and make arrangements. You simply can’t get along without me.”

The boy turned me down flat. It was his sister he was thinking of, I could see, and I respected him for it. Nevertheless, I was determined to go. I wheedled and cajoled and made him laugh. He was a manly kid, but he was no match for one so much older. No one can resist me when my heart is set on a thing. I beat him down with my good humor, and he legan to weaken at last.

“We make very little,” he objected, with a frown.

“Good heavens! I don’t want to make anything!” I cried.

“If you did come, we should insist on your taking your share,” he said stiffly.

I saw it would be useless to press that point. “Very well,” I said; “but not a whole third, for you are supplying the outfit. I’ll take one-fifth, and you twofifths each.”

“Let me consult with my sister,” he said.

u JumPed up and left them together. I had no doubts about what she would say, for I thought she was pretty strong for me. Ye gods! what a delightful time I was promising myself on the road! Presently they called me back, and I saw that it was all right. I was engaged for a week’s trial, and we hit the trail for

AU ntVmWitl1 nuil1 lau"hter and song. Well, Tom. I made good at the very

hrst stand. My polo togs alone created a sensation in that humble village, and a crowd followed me whenever I stepped out-of-doors At night we’d have had to hang out S. R. O. sign—onlv there wasn’t any. It was the most thev had taken in anywhere, they said.

The program opened with the pictures and I made myself useful clawing rag off

ZT iBefT t.hat * seems, thev

had had only a banjo. Then came the

musical numbers. Oh, you should have seen that precious pair of kids tipped back in their chairs on the little stage, strumming banjos, and crooning their lazy, darky songs 1 (The boy wore a tight dress-suit of the vintage of 1870 or thereabouts, and the girl had on a muslin dress with red ribbons, almost as oldfashioned, but mighty becoming. Without the awful hat she had worn in the cart, she looked doubly adorable. I closed the bill with the Mermaid, and afterwards Peggy, in a gypsy make-up, read the yokels’ palms for a quarter a throw. Did I tell you her brother called her Peggy?

The only blot on our enjoyment was the hotel. All village hotels are much alike. However, when we set out in the early sunshine, that was all forgotten. The finest thing was camping at noon. On this day we chose the summit of a grassy hill, with half of Rockland County spread at our feet, in a hazy green panorama. I built a fire, and Peggy baked scones in a frying-pan before it. How sweet it was to lie in the grass and watch her bustling about! She was conscious of my admiring eyes, and a little confused, but she liked it.

Pen and I were the best of friends, too. The nicest thing about those youngsters was the implicit way in which, having once taken me into partnership, they trusted me. Surely that was the best defense their inexperience could have had, for none but an out-and-out ruffian could have dreamed of betraying their confidence. At the same time, when I realized the extent of their innocence, I was glad it was I that was looking after them, instead of some of the men I knew.

That was my life for three delightful weeks. Business was uniformly good. In Haverstraw, particularly, we did so well that I arranged to play a return date, and we opened an account in the local bank. The jumps between villages were short, so we loafed all day on the road, footing it for the most part, and lingering in our noonday camps. Often we got innocently drunk on fresh air and sunshine, and on deserted stretches of road would give ourselves up to foolishness, singing at the top of our lungs, and laughing just for the sake of laughing. Other times we bs-

came as serious, and evolved weighty theories of life over the camp-fire.

It seemed to me that I found something I had lost for years; that I had not really lived before since I was a kid. And to read the papers you’d think that Mrs. Onderdonk’s cotillion represented the quintessence of life. What a delusion ! Give me the woods and the green fields and my wilful Peggy to make love to— all the while making believe not to. I was just drifting; I felt sure I had only to hold up my finger and she would come to me, but I held off; it was such fun to tease her by pretending I didn’t care.

In one way my young friends were as reticent as they were frank in another. Tempt them as I might with confidence of my own, I never got anything about their antecedents from them in return. I did not even succeed in learning their name. Whenever I addressed Peggy as Miss Peregrine, she merely showed all her beautiful white teeth in a provoking smile. I made up my mind they must have come of first-rate old stock, which had dropped out of the race. There are lots like that —salt of the earth, you know, but poor and obscure, and no longer able to keep up appearances.

Meailwhile the weather continued fine, and the young September moon began to come out o’ nights. In one village, which shall be nameless, we finally reached the limit in the way of a hotel. One sniff was enough for Peggy.

“I will not sleep in such a beery, sawdusty, stale-cabbagy hole, and that’s flat!” she announced.

“There’s no help for it,” said Pen.

“The stores are still open,” said Peggy. “You can buy blankets. We’ll camp out, and I’ll cook for you. I’ll sleep in the wagon, and you two can roll up by the fire.”

“Bravo!” I cried. I was thinking of the moonlight.

But when I saw how genuinely distressed young Pen was at the idea, I had not the heart to encourage her any further. I left them to have it out between them—secretly hoping that she would get her way. It was a hotly-contested battle —they were very much alike, and evenly matched—but in the end the blankets were bought. Then my conscience did

reproach me for not having thrown the weight of my influence on his side. It was a harum-scarum thing to do; but, as you have guessed, we were all slightly mad by this time, and no longer able to see things straight. And, really, the prospect of camping out with Peggy was so enchanting, I had not the strength of mind to oppose it. Any way, the proprieties were duly observed as long as her brother was along—at least, that was what I told myself.

Having won the first engagement, Peggy followed up her advantage, and for three nights running we camped out. Oh, Tom, what nights—the happiest of my life! Once we pitched at the edge of a meadow, with a grove of pine trees behind us; once with a little river making a pleasant song beyond the fire, and once on top of a hill, with a whole sea of moonlight beneath us. It was so fine we could not bear to go to bed ; only Pen, who, like most boys of his age, was a good sleeper, would always drop off after supper, leaving Peggy and me to talk by the fire.

There she would sit with a coat thrown over her shoulders, her arms around her knees, and the firelight rosy on her face. I suddenly found that unexpected forces were at work within me; that I was being pulled up by the very roots. I lost my serene feeling of mastery; It was now she who had me on the run. In the midst of our slang and laughter, a terrible hunger for her would strike me dumb. I forgot about the difference in our positions. I only wanted her.

And she was clever, Tom! One night I said, “Peggy, I’m getting sentimental.”

“Don't, Bob !” she said. “I hate taffy !”

She had made an effort to keep up the forms, but on the road together as we had been, it was impossible. It was “Peggy” and “Bob” by this time.

“I’m the taffy' and you’re the fire,” I said. “If they put me near you, I must begin to bubble.”

“Well, don’t boil over, or you’ll get burnt,” she said calmly ; “and burnt taffy has a horrid smell!”

The last night was the camp on the hill. You should have heard the crickets and the katydids and the whip-poor-wills, and all the little bugs and birds in their symphony concert. Peggy seemed gent-

1er this night, and I felt more sure of myself, and able to lord it over her again. We were disputing about her palmistry stunt ; she never could be got to admit that there was any faking in it :

“Dare you to read mine,” I said, holding it out.

“Can’t see it,” she said evasively. “The fire flickers so.”

I put on a hardwood stick that presently made a clear, bright flame. “Now try!” I said.

She still shook her head. “I don’t like to read the hands of people I know. I confuse what I know about them in other ways, with what I see in their hands.”

“I don’t care,” I said. “Tell me what you know about me, however you’ve learned it.”

She looked at me oddly. “Do you want the truth?” she asked.

“Go as far as you like,” I said.

She bent her head over my hand. She did not take it in hers, as I hoped she would. There was something remote and inscrutable in her face; I had the feeling that some goddess had dropped down from her star to tell me my fate—-but, goddess or not, I meant to pay her with a kiss.

This is the gist of what she told me, Tom : “I see good fortune—health, wealth and many friends. A greater capacity for receiving friendship is indicated, than for returning it. This is the hand of a dabbler in life, of one who has never been obliged to form a steady purpose and to stick to it. Many amiable qualities are shown, but the directing Will is absent. Ynnity is strong—the insidious kind of vanity that affects to despise the flattery it thrives upon.”

You see. I have not spared myself, Iom, in telling you. But fancy the daring of a girl of nineteen to tell me that to my face! And 1 thought she was in love with me! It was like an icy shower, and I shivered unHer it. Then the reaction >et in. and I tingled all over. I was furious, hut she met my eyes unflitehinglv.

"It’s true.” she said..

In my heart I loved her a hundred imes more for her courage. She was no longer a pretty youngster to he indulged hut the one woman in the world for me.

I braced mv shoulders.

“Give me credit for taking it like a man,” I said.

She looked at me in a startled way. “Don’t you hate me for telling you?” she asked.

I shook my head. “I think you’re the pluckiest woman I ever met,” I said. And then—well, with all the eloquence I could muster, I asked her to marry me.

She turned me down, Tom. She said, “I would never marry the kind of man who takes women for granted.”

“I’ve had my lesson,” I said. “No danger of that now.”

“There’s another reason—more important,” she said. “I will never marry outside of my own position in life.”

I’ll spare you the rest of it. I expect I acted a good deal like the spoiled child who is denied the moon. She never wavered; the best she would say was that if we ever met as perfect equals, I might ask her again.

That’s the end of the story. I left them next morning. But the lesson I learned is still strongly before me. That’s why I’m going to Colorado to work.

When Bob finished his story, we sat smoking in silence. We had the big billiard-room entirely to ourselves now. There was nothing I could say that would improve the situation, so I simply clapped him on the shoulder to show my sympathy.

Presently little Jennison came bustling up to us, puffing out his cheeks like a chipmunk. In our hearts we cursed him.

“Been looking all over the house for you,” he said importantly. “Mrs. Onderdon k asked me to bring you to her—you and Orford.”

Lome on, let’s get it over with,1 whispered; and we went upstairs.

The debutante had her back to us as we entered the room. It was a slim and beautiful back, and on the top of it poised a little, black-wreathed head as graceful as a flower. She was clad in a wonderful arrangement of dark blue and silver. As Mrs. Onderdonk spoke our names, the girl turned with a dazzling smile—not for me!

Bob’s hands dropped to his sides, and he went perfectly white—then crimson.

“You!” he stammered.

She dropped him a funny little curtsey.

“Mr. Vesey and I are old friends,” she said to Mrs. Onderdonk.

As they walked away together, I heard Bob say, “You witch! did you know all the time that you would meet me here?”

She said, “I decline to answer.”

I had no more speech with Bob during the evening, though, Heaven knows, I heard of nothing else. His devotion to the beautiful Miss Bushrod furnished sensational matter to the wagging tongues. Towards morning, as I was getting my things in the dressing-room, I ran into him.

“I assume the Colorado trip is off,” I said slyly.

Bob was in a kind of happy trance. “Not on your life!” he said, squeezing my hand until the bones cracked. “Only—I can’t go quite so soon. I—I’ve got to get married first. She’s coming, too.”

I clapped him on both shoulders this time.

“Orford,” he said, trying to be very stiff and formal, but beaming all over, “if you have formed any inferences from what I told you to-night, I’m sure I can depend on you to keep them to yourself.” I laughed and beat him on the back again.