The Red Sport Cabriolet
Concerning the appalling tribulations of a “gimme” flapper and the sad struggle of the smitten male to achieve wisdom
MARTHA BANNING THOMAS
MISS OW was no larger than a man’s hand— certainly no larger than Duncan’s, yet like the proverbial cloud, her influence spread to unbeievable proportions. Miss Ow was a toy Pekinese.
Now the name of her mistress was as lovely as the curve of a lyric—Lallie Moore. This invitation to the tongue had incited more or less verse on the part of several young men in town, but none of these spasms ever seemed to advance beyond the fifth line. Lallie was like that; even writing words about her made you unhappy in a sweet, yearning way. You just sat . . . and allowed soft mists of confusion to envelope you.
Negligible as they might be, Lallie had a father and mother and a sister. Her father was quite the usual sort of parent making the usual sort of complaints which emanate from the mouths of those who not only have produced young, but are constantly pained and startled by the activities of same.
Mr. Moore admitted to his wife that though Lallie was darned attractive, she terrified him with her calculating intelligence. He said he felt unequal to any more battles; his recent losses depressed him. “Frankly,” he said, “it gives me an inferiority complex to review my list of defeats with Lallie. Now Betsy and I can have a hard, clean scrap and feel none the worse for it, but Lallie is different. Her regal reactions to a negative have nearly ruined my business. She got her threehundred dollar Pekinese,” here Mr. Moore was wont to wave his hand in the manner of an after-dinner speaker, “and we went without a new car this year. I tell you, Emily, I’m through! Completely and absolutely through! I’m done with her. I don’t care what you do or don’t do, but keep her away from me. Don’t let her utter a squeak in my presence . . . not a squeak! If you do, you’ll be sorry. I’m through !”
“Why, Jim, I saw you playing with Miss Ow last evening!”
“That is entirely beside the point, my dear. Miss Ow has nothing to do with the bitter determination of my daughter to get what she wants . . . and to want extravagant luxuries.”
“My dear, I wonder why your mother never tried to train that ridiculous cowlick you have on the top of your head? The hair rares up like a schoolboy’s. Here, just let me brush it down with a little brilliantine.” “No!” thundered the parent of Lallie, “No! And if she palavers around me on the subject of a red, sport cabriolet, I’ll pop her into a convent so fast . . . !” Continued rumblings from the mouth of the male parent, to which Mrs. Moore answered nothing, but she smiled a secret woman’s smile.
rT'HE subject under discussion was in the garden. It was a warm, still evening, about dark. Bright garlands of fireflies glowed above the pool. There was a new moon. A tiny screech-owl complained delicately from a tree in the next yard. The plop-plop of drops from the fountain was like the far tinkle of small bells. Lallie heard all these sounds vaguely; .they drained through the aura of a bright, new desire. This desire glowed through her and about her like a shaded light.
She was sitting at the wheel of a new, red, sport cabriolet. She saw herself wave carelessly to a group of young people on the clubhouse porch. She wore a black velvet coat and a pleated crimson skirt. Miss Ow was seated beside her, long, silken ears flapping in the breeze.
“Where’d you get it?” yelled the gang as she drew easily to a full stop. “Oh, just one of father’s latest whims. Said he simply could not bear to see me trundle along another instant in the family covered wagon!” And they laughed uproariously.
Really, reflected Lallie coming back to the present, a girl had to have her own car these days. It was hardly decent not to. Betsy would be nasty about it, of course, and expect to ride with regiments of youngsters clinging to the sides, but this could be regulated by bribes and odd quarters for sodas. Decidedly one must drive one’s own car.
At this point in the girl’s dreaming, Miss Ow, who was sitting on the grass near the pool, gave a series of explosive barks and bounced up the path leading to the house. Lallie sighed.
“Are you there, Lallie?”
A tall young man with football shoulders emerged from the shadows.
“Oh, more or less,” replied the girl, “One has to be somewhere, I suppose. Come here, Miss Ow!”
“May I sit down with you?” asked the young man. His voice was slow and husky. It might at times be said to have certain vibrations which almost amounted to muted strings; to-night was one of the times.
“Of course. Don’t be absurd, Duncan! Miss Ow, will you come here?”
Miss Ow firmly declined. She had returned to her position by the side of the pool.
“That’s only a firefly, darling. You wouldn’t like it.”
Miss Ow, the merest shadow in the dusk, vainly tried with a short paw to bring down a glowworm.
“Gosh, this is a great evening,” breathed Duncan, settling himself beside Lallie. “Isn’t that a screech-owl, that funny little wail over there in the next yard?”
“Probably. Beastly lonesome sound, I think.”
Duncan smiled in the dark. “Not a lonesome sound to me,” he said. “Not here ... in this garden . . . with you.”
Dune drooled on like this almost every evening. He had become an old but uninteresting friend. She had known him all summer. She was actually more intrigued by Johnny Blake just now. Johnny was a former flame lately fanned into a blaze, probably, she thought frankly to herself, because he had been rather snooty lately. Duncan was a nice old muffin, but too utterly simple.
Miss Ow, intent on her ambition, sprang at a glowworm, missed . . . and fell into the pool.
“Sweetheart!” cried Lallie and leaped toward the fountain.
Miss Ow was considerably startled but by no means confused. The night was warm, the pool shallow. She sat down directly under the small fountain, and panted.
“Precious . . . come here!” demanded Lallie. “Poor little thing!”
“I’ll get her,” offered Duncan.
This statement was so clearly expected that Lallie made no comment. Yet the situation was not entirely simple. As Duncan’s long arms approached Miss Ow, she softly retreated just out of reach.
“She’s bad and wicked,” cooed Lallie indulgently.
“Bad and wicked!” Then turning to Duncan, “Miss Ow is delicate, you know. I’m afraid she’ll get cold sitting there that way.”
“Poor little rat must be hot under all that fur,” sympathized Duncan. “Why not let her stay in and cool off?”
This was neither a wise nor tactful suggestion.
“How brutal of you !” Lallie was kicking off her slippers. “I’ll wade in and get her myself.”
Duncan pushed her aside. “Let me. It’s nothing.” He deposited his white tennis shoes on the rim of the pool; he peeled off his socks; he rolled up his trousers to his knees.
“Look out for the plug thing in the middle where the fountain spurts up!” warned Lallie. “You might stub your toe. Darling . . . wait for Duncan !”
Miss Ow, perceiving that her worst fears were realized, and that there was now no hope of staying agreeably damp, slowly scrambled up the far side of the pool. She shook herself thoroughly on the grass and ran wriggling with pride toward her mistress. She was instantly caught up in that lady’s arms, much in the manner of a child just rescued from a watery grave,
“You’ll have to excuse me while I take Miss Ow into the house and dry her off, Duncan. I’m afraid she’ll have a chill.”
The young man said nothing. He merely stood in the centre of the pool and watched Lallie’s slim back disappear in the direction of the house. His immaculate trousers were ruined, the perfect moment spoiled, but he would stay. He had come to say something very serious to Lallie—more serious, that is, than anything said up to date.
He stepped from the water and went back to the bench without even hunting for his shoes and socks. And there came a hot moment jn his reflections when he began to hate Miss Ow with more than ordinary hatred.
Duncan jumped. Betsy, by all the gods!
“How’s swimming in the Hellespont?”
“Come here and shut up!” growled Duncan.
“Isn’t Miss Ow the dearest, little lamb pet you ever saw?” continued the mocking voice.
“She’s the world’s wettest flop!” declared the gentleman in the garden.
“Wait till I tell Lallie them heartfelt words! Your foot slipped then, young man. Too bad . . . and college opens so soon, too. Hardly time to get yourself squared again.”
Duncan was desperate. “Do come here and sit down,” he implored. “Maybe you’re not such a bad kid after all.”
She laughed. “Maybe not . . who can tell? But your evenings in the garden are swiftly drawing to a close, old dear. Pity, isn’t it?”
“Oh, cut it. for Heaven’s sake!” Duncan had come to the garden full of self-esteem and sentiment. He was now ready to leave in bitterness and anguish.
Betsy’s slight figure wormed its way through the thick foliage of the lilac bush. She was almost as tall as Lallie but had none of her grace and poise. She was thin and awkward. Every movement was a jerk—usually in the wrong direction. To-night she was dressed in white and carried a tennis racket in her hand.
“May I sit down with you?” She gave a ponderous but recognizable imitation of Duncan’s first request in the garden that evening.
“Do, for cat’s sake! And lay off the vaudeville stuff!”
“Is that a screech-owl, that funny, little . . .?” she began again.
Duncan clapped a hand over her mouth. “Cut it, or I’ll give you a ducking in the pool !”
Smothered gurglings came from Betsy’s lips.
She nodded, and Dune removed his hand.
Swiftly Betsy suffered a relapse from the comic. She was floundering in a sweet fog of feeling. Secretly she adored Duncan, anti had woven several romances about him, in which she figured often and rather prominently.
Her heart gave a swift somersault, and she seemed to wilt a little in the dusk.
“Honestly, Betsy, you’re the limit!” remonstrated the man beside her; “you haven’t got the refinement of a goat. What in thunder makes you act like such a little nit-wit?”
Betsy looked off over the lilac hedge and solemnly swung her tennis racket between her hands.
“Wait till you grow up and know what ...” He paused.
“Yes?” encouraged the girl in a small voice.
“What,” he was stumbling over the tender embarrassment of four letters, “What love really is.”
Betsy threw her racket on the ground and clasped one knee in her thin hands.
“Tell me,” she begged in a mild, guarded voice.
Duncan suspected further treason but continued nevertheless. “I know you don’t mean to spoil everything the way you do, Betsy,” he said in a low voice. “You just don’t know any better. You think it’s funny to snoop around and listen and mimic what you see and hear. But it’s cheap stuff, kid. Low comedy ...” slapstick . . . burlesque. Your kind of humor is about as funny as a sock in the eye.”
He reached in his pocket for a cigarette. In so doing his hand accidentally touched Betsy’s. The skin was still damp from his recent endeavors in the pool. Betsy quivered at the contact and turned her hand away. He lighted his cigarette and then continued.
“I’m dead in love with Lallie. You’ve probably guessed it. It’s hit me so hard I can’t eat or sleep. I’m a fool about her. But she doesn’t like me very much,” he added simply; “not as much as she seemed to at the beginning of the summer.”
Betsy trembled with acute sympathy. “I was hoping to-night,” said Duncan in a yet lower voice with all the muted strings vibrating at once, “to find out if she couldn’t like me, if I gave her lots of time.”
He drew deeply on his cigarette until it glowed brightly in the dark. “I was going to ask her to marry me, you see.”
Betsy gasped, half from surprise, half from a new romantic pain which got her just under the ribs. “Oh,” she breathed. “Oh . . . were you?” Her silly words seemed to float off on the evening air. They were gone, and she had nothing more to say.
Duncan tossed his cigarette away and grew practical. “I’ve got one more year at college, but I thought that would give her plenty of time to decide. I had the thing all doped out . . . going to spring it to-night, when that darned dog fell into the pool and bunted up the atmosphere. Then you came along with your perverted wit . . . and everything was off. Lovely, rotten evening, I call it.”
Betsy tried to assemble words. Gosh, what a shame, she thought. Dune was a good egg. Looking at him now she could trace the line of his huge shoulder against the background of lilacs . . . the silhouette of his fine, well-shaped head. Right here she decided something. She would be big; she would be generous. She would help Dune.
“Lallie’s a selfish beast!”
“Don’t say that. I just don’t register with her, that’s all.”
Betsy moved nearer the dismal young man. The screech-owl dropped several dreary notes; the little wind had died; there was no sound in the garden but the musical plopping of drops flung down by the fountain.
“I’ll help you, Duncan,” said Betsy quietly. “I know a great deal more about this love stuff than you realize. I’ve been reading—” she paused effectively—“I’ve been reading in psychology. I found I really needed a little brushing up in dealing with my family.”
Duncan almost laughed. Then he said gravely: “That’s awfully good of you, but I’m afraid that doesn’t dispose of Miss Ow. I somehow feel—and, mind you, this is in the strictest confidence—that that dog stands between me and happiness. Dashed silly, isn’t it?”
Betsy changed her tone. She became brisk and adult. “Miss Ow may be the very key to the situation,” she said. “We’ll think up something. Well, I guess I’d better toddle along now, or some one will be yelping for me.”
Her voice was careless but at the thought of leaving, an outrageous shyness overtook her. She stooped awkwardly for her racket, tripped on nothing whatever, and then tore off like a speed-boat for the house.
“Good-night!” she called over her shoulder.
But Duncan had already forgotten her. Betsy climbed straight to her room by way of the^back stairs. There she knelt down by the window and resting her arms on the sill, gazed down in the garden where she could see the dim whiteness of Dune’s trousers. The warm night air cooled her cheeks. She felt it stirring faintly in her hair.
“Darling!” she whispered. “Darling!” She buried her head in her arms.
Eventually she went to sleep on the floor and was unceremoniously awakened by Lallie. “Get up, child! What are you doing here? It’s nearly twelve o’clock. Duncan has just gone. We had some dancing downstairs with the radio . . . didn’t you hear us?”
“No,” growled Betsy. She got up stiffly. “Did you dance much with Duncan?” “Naturally. What a dumb question! See here,” Lallie’s voice became more personal. “Will you let Miss Ow sleep on your bed to-night? It’s so late, I asked one of the girls to stay here; she’ll have to sleep with me, and the precious Peke sometimes snores . . . might disturb her. You wouldn’t mind, though—not the way you knit up the raveled skein, etc.” Betsy just saved herself from a violent negative. A thought, a beautiful thought, silvery as the breast of a sea-gull, winged down to her through the groggy rim of her consciousness. Having Miss Ow get the habit of sleeping on her bed might help toward the solution of Dune’s problems. Just how, she could not tell . . . but a good idea. “Oh, I don’t mind,” she yawned. “Father’s really a splendid snorer, too. I wonder if he’d like the same accommodations?”
A few minutes later Lallie, with Miss Ow tucked under her arm, returned to Betsy’s room. “Here’s Ow,” she said. “Just throw down a coat or something on your bed and she’ll be quiet as a mouse. Better climb in fast yourself, duckydoodles. It’s late for little girls to be up.” Betsy snorted. “Thanks, I will, guzzygosling ! And when I get my pet ant-eater I’ll park him on your chaise-longue when it’s too rainy to keep him in the garden. Hope you don’t mind !”
And after this it rather grew into an accepted thing that Miss Ow spent a great deal of time curled up at the foot of Betsy’s bed, not only at night, but during the day when her mistress was busy.
NEXT morning Mr. Moore wakened with an agreeable sense of peace. It followed him through a solitary breakfast and shed a mild radiance on his toast. He even squandered three or four minutes growling with Miss Ow, who took him up in fine form and did her best to make a battle of it.
“Why are you up so early, shrimpet?” he enquired of the tiny creature “Usually you snooze later than anyone.” Had he known the correct answer to her presence in the hall, his placid outlook for the day would have been shivered into splinters. Both his daughters were already up and out of the house, though Miss Ow couldn’t, of course, tell him that !
Thus Mr. Moore, bland and blissful, clapped his hat on his head and was soon on his way to work in the family car.
A cool, clear day with a westerly wind. The car bowled along as smoothly as if it had not been three years old with an eighty-thousand mileage.
“Really don’t need a new one,” he mused, “but it makes a darn good argument.”
Four blocks down the street his peace of mind collapsed like a house of cards. At first, when he caught sight of her, he blinked vaguely behind his bi-focals. Then, growing apprehensive, he craned his neck far out of the car and missed a collision with a truck by three inches. His eldest daughter was spinning along the street in a very new, very red, sport cabriolet! There was no doubt about it. He saw her for only an instant, yet he had the distinct impression of a young man in mechanic’s garb sitting beside her. His daughter was driving.
“Thunder!” exploded Mr. Moore. But that was by no means all he said. He drove slowly in order to allow himself five minutes of intensive comment before he entered the office.
Betsy also observed her sister’s morning drive. Strangely enough, Lallie turned the red, sport cabriolet into the same garage Betsy was leaving, but the younger girl managed to hide behind a large sign until her sister had disappeared into the dark interior. “The nerve of that woman!” she hissed. “The nerve!” And she hurried home hot-foot to tell her mother.
It happened that Mrs. Moore was early at her accounts; she was balancing the cheque book and looking thoughtfully at the stub which represented the price of Miss Ow.
“Mother . . . Lallie’s cruising around town in a new, red roadster! Trying it out. What’s the big idea?”
Mrs. Moore looked up from her figures. “I do wish you wouldn’t use such obvious slang, Betsy ! It gets to be very brackish after a while.”
“But, mother ...”
“Undoubtedly your sister was in a new, red car. From something your father said the other day I suspected that Lallie already had her eye on a particular roadster, or whatever it is. But I’m afraid she’ll have to be content with her eye.”
“Oh, you’ll give in,” said Betsy gloomily. “You always do. Lallie’s at the top of her profession for getting what she wants. Duncan’s finding it out, too. She was mad about him the first of the summer, but she’s dumped him in favor of Johnny Blake. Lallie just can’t bear not to lap up all the admiration in sight. I feel darn sorry for Dune.”
Mrs. Moore regarded her daughter in some surprise. “I thought you made all manner of fun of Duncan. I remember your saying only a few weeks ago that his shoes were large enough to hold a picnic in. Why the sudden change?”
Betsy shrugged her shoulders. “Oh, nothing special, but it gives me a pain to see Lallie growing piggier and piggier every day of her life, and all the time throwing such putrid swank. Mother,” she came nearer and bent a sober regard upon her parent, “don’t you think Dune has a voice, well, a voice something like an orchestra?”
“I hadn’t noticed it, dear, hut maybe he has. I’ll listen carefully next time he comes.” Betsy turned away from her mother’s amused smiling.
“Oh, well, if you’re going to be snooty ...” She left and went to her room. She had an appointment with her mind.
Mr. Moore came home to lunch, almost at a boil. His wife was prepared for him and drew him into the study before he could say a word. “Don’t tangle your nerves up in a snarl, Jim,” she soothed him. “I’ve already heard about the roadster, and I’ll deal with it. Betsy happened to see Lallie driving around, too. She doesn’t know you did, but I can see you’re ready to explode and I presume Lallie is the reason. Don’t make arrangements with the convent yet for a few days, dear. I’ll let you know in plenty of time. Just leave things to me.”
Mr. Moore succumbed to his wife’s pleading. He agreed to keep silent . . . if he could.
Lallie had seen her father when she was driving in the red roadster, and she expected a cloudburst of criticism at lunch time. She had her umbrella ready, a waterproof scheme ribbed with fourteen invincible arguments. But she was given no opportunity to raise it. Even Betsy said nothing, though she fixed her sister with a long, unblinking stare when the rest of the family wasn’t looking. Lallie pretended not to notice these portentous signals and was her most agreeable self. The roadster was not mentioned, though it dwelt in the midst of them like an invisible but gathering storm.
For two days after this Duncan failed to make his customary appearance at the Moore home. Instead he played around with a blonde girl named Selma, whom he shortly grew to dislike even more than her mediocrity warranted. At night he thought about Lallie. He browsed long and drearily on his memories and lost three pounds.
Once during this period of self-imposed separation from Lallie he came upon Betsy. She hailed him with excited pantomime into a path running between two streets—Middleton was a small town struggling to be a big one—and here they held brief but violent argument. At the end of the discussion Betsy left with wordless scorn. Duncan felt a tremor of sorrow for her mistaken ideas; she was a good kid but absolutely impossible.
On the third evening Selma was definitely abandoned. Dune was too low in his mind to handle the fatuous coin of conversational exchange. So he slipped out of the Blake house with no explanations to Johnny, who was going to a dance anyway—with Lallie, he supposed —and walked beyond the town where he sat down on a fallen log in a field. Here he reviewed the depressing history of the last ten weeks. „
Duncan had come to Middleton at the beginning of the summer to visit his college friend, Johnny Blake. He had fitted into the vacation crowd of young people and stayed on and on—much longer than he had either planned or been invited for. Now there remained a scant two weeks before college opened. This summer so gorgeously begun was fast petering out into very small potatoes indeed. Lallie had taken him up immediately upon his arrival and quickly made a place for him in the younger set.
It gave him tender misery to dwell upon the first time he had seen her. The whole thing happened just two hours after he arrived in the town. It was in the early evening, just about now, he reflected. He and Johnny were setting out on a general scouting expedition to hunt up some girls and maybe dance somewhere. As they turned the corner into the main thoroughfare they noticed an open roadster speeding toward them at a rate which would have sent the town constable—had he been present—into one of his most serious rages.
At first glance the appearance of the car was very curious. Then Duncan realized that the apex rising from the rear was no less than a girl standing high above the seat. She was balanced on the folded top of the roadster, and as the car swept nearer, he saw that she was braced against the wind, her arms outstretched, holding fast to the hands of two youths in the seat below her.
“Gosh!” breathed Duncan. “Who’s that?”
Johnny smiled. “That,” he said, with civic pride, “is Lallie Moore, the greatest little animal trainer in town !”
The car flew by. Lallie loosed one hand to wave at Johnny. Her short yellow dress dragged at her knees, her short, dark hair blew back in fluttering curls; her body curved like a slender bow.
“Gosh!” murmured Duncan again.
“Lallie used to be rather fond of me,” said Johnny carelessly, “but she needs intelligent handling ... a little rough stuff ... a little high-hatting . . . improves her behavior. Too sure of her line.”
Dune had met her later in the evening. Johnny was good-natured about that. She was quite different then, though no less alluring. Quiet—her eyes shadowed softly by the curly cloud of hair. She told him, in her low, caressing voice, dragging the consonants like water breaking over stones, that she had particularly noticed him on the sidewalk when she waved to Johnny from the car. “You’re so very tall,” she said, measuring him with her slow, fluttering glance, “You’d stand out anywhere. Do you play football?”
“Yes,” said Duncan, and omitted to tell her that his name was fairly well-known on the gridirons in the East. But during their third dance together she pieced out enough history to place him, and subsequently told him with a soft glow in her eyes that she had seen him the very day he had turned the tide to victory for his college. “I go to school in New York,” she informed him, and I see quite a number of important games.”
Duncan smiled grimly to himself here in the wide, shadowy fields, as he thought of the infatuated weeks which followed. Lallie encouraged him with subtle, halfstatements, enhanced by a slow lifting of her incredibly long lashes. She chose him alone of all the clamoring dozens to escort her everywhere. Yet gradually, almost imperceptibly, Duncan observed a darkening of her favor. Lallie grew bored, frankly careless of his attentions. He looked for a rival but found none, unless it was Johnny Blake; but Johnny already had several strings to his bow.
None of the crowd suspected his secret humiliation; outwardly, everything was the same. Dune and Lallie were taken for granted as a unit of two for all parties. Then Johnny had acquired a car, and Lallie directed toward him all the charm she had poured on his classmate. Up to date she hadn’t made much progress. Johnny was enjoying the game and running her on . . . with others. He had confessed as much to Duncan, and they had both laughed a little in male appreciation of female tactics. No, it could not seriously be Johnny.
Yet far worse than a possible affair with his friend was the presence of Miss Ow. At first he liked the silly little dog until it dawned on him that she was more of a rival than Johnny. Dune’s humor failed him here. Suddenly he fished with a forefinger in his left-side vest pocket, pushing out a small wad of tissue paper. This he unfolded, regarding the contents more by memory than sight in the starsprinkled darkness. He smiled coldly and flipped the small token into a bed of ferns.
“There goes the pansy she gave me the first night I met her,” he muttered aloud. She had selected two from the corsage at her waist. “Let’s each keep one to show one another after ten years,” she had suggested, and there was such a look of Eve in her eyes that he blushed, thinking his own thoughts.
Well, that was all over. All over, by gad! Best way out, probably. Maybe he had grown a little tired of her, anyway. Maybe that was it, only he did not recognize the symptoms. This thought cheered him up enormously. He’d pack up his stuff and leave to-morrow morning. Tell Johnny he’d had a wire from his father asking him to come home. Lallie could go completely to the deuce!
He picked himself up, and with sombre resolution bent his footsteps toward the Blake house.
Then it occured to him that leaving without good-by was very shabby business. In spite of the nauseating way things had turned out, the Moores had been very nice to him. He would call, josh Betsy a bit, and take his final curtain with an easy wave of the hand. He was beginning to see now what a mistake it was to reveal his chagrin the way he had been doing. He’d play up to Betsy. This would show Lallie how grotesquely little she mattered in his life. Decidedly this was the line.
When he reached the Moore home he hardly waited for his ring to be answered, before he flung open the door with a “Hey !... Betsy ! Hey ! Where’s everybody?” This had been his usual manner of entering in the past.
Like a soft, perfumed whirlwind he found himself smothered in pink chiffon and clung to by white, slim arms. A dark, curly head buried itself on his striped necktie just under his chin. “Duncan! . . . oh . . . I’m so . . . glad! I’m so . . . glad you’ve come! Now I know something will be done!”
It was Lallie. She was crying. He .could feel her body quivering with sobs. All his false cheer collapsed. “Why?” he said weakly, and stood there stupid as an owl. Even his arms, which might have been put to good purpose, hung limp at his sides. “Why . . what . . . ?”
“I said you’d come,” wailed the lady on his chest. “I just knew you would !”
One of her hands crept down and found his. It was hot and feverish. He felt the small fingers twining in his own.
A slight sound came from the door leading into the dining room. He glanced up over Lallie’s shoulder. Betsy was looking at him. She regarded him with a perfectly expressionless face. Then she gave a long, sly , sinful wink. After which she disappeared without word or sound.
Duncan tried not to think of Betsy and that wink. What the thundering blazes did she mean? He led Lallie to a sofa.
“Tell me,” he begged softly. “Tell me what it is that is making you feel so badly.”
She sank into a nest of pillows and buried her face. “Miss Ow,” she gurgled, “is lost.”
Duncan suffered a distinct shock. He stiffened and looked straight ahead, seeing nothing.
Then he spoke. “Lallie, please try to control yourself.” He drew her toward him and her head rested on his shoulder.
“Lend me your hankie, Dune,” she choked. “I’m going to cry a lot more.” He produced a somewhat wrinkled but capacious square of linen into which Lallie spilled half a pint of genuine tears.
“She’s so little, so precious . . . out alone somewhere in the great world . . . poor, sweet . . . darling . . . little Miss Ow!”
“I’m so sorry, dear,” whispered Duncan. And he was. Really, truly sorry. His lonely hour in the field was washed away by Lallie’s tears.
“Some one stole her. I know someone stole her. And has taken her away, and will sell her for hundreds and hundreds and hun ...” The crescendo rose to a heart-rending squeal.
“When did this happen?”
“About two hours ago . . . maybe three. How can I tell? I can’t think.” “Maybe she’s tucked off somewhere asleep, Lallie.”
He was doing his best not to think of Betsy. What was it she had said that night in the garden about Miss Ow being the key to the situation?
“No, I’ve looked everywhere. So has Betsy. She really has tried to help a lot. Father and Mother have gone down to the constable to see if any tramp or strange person has been about.”
Duncan fought through the clouds of apprehension which hung over his mind. Here was Lallie as pliable as wax. Here was opportunity fairly hurled at him. He could hardly bear to recall the thought he had had of her earlier in the evening, and to think how he had nearly missed this divine hour.
Steps were heard on the piazza. Mr. and Mrs. Moore entered the living room a trifle wearily. “We’ve left a complaint, Lallie,” said Mr. Moore. “Mr. Towser says he will keep an eye out. He remembers a questionable looking man lurking about the Town Hall to-day. If he sees him he will put him under examination.” Lallie leaped from the couch. “If he sees him!” she blazed. “He must make it his business to see him. I will go at once
“You’ll do nothing of the kind!” Mrs. Moore removed her hat and smoothed her hair. “Everything possible is being done to locate Miss Ow. You must not work yourself up into such a hysterical mood. I see Duncan is here ready to do anything he can to help.”
Duncan was the author of several affirmative noises on the subject. “I don’t believe a tramp took Miss Ow,” he said slowly. “How could a tramp know how valuable she is?”
Duncan gradually got the impression that the Moores as a family were looking to him as a deliverer from trouble. They turned to him as their last hope, not altogether, he gathered, as the rescuer of Miss Ow, but as a mitigator of Lallie’s violent despair.
He rose from the sofa. “I’ll be getting along,” he said, “and see what I can do. Count on me, Lallie, to the last ditch. I feel sure we can find Miss Ow !”
She went with him as far as the sidewalk. Here in the shadow of a large bush, she again clung to him. “Duncan!” she whispered.
“Don’t worry, dear. I will find Miss Ow. Go back to the house and sleep. I feel it in my bones you’ll have your little dog soon.”
“I know you’ll find her,” breathed the girl, “You fine, big, man-thing!”
She kissed him lightly on the mouth. “Good-night and good luck!”
Duncan was wafted home on dizzy heights of unbelief. Lallie’s curly hair brushing against his face; the fragrance of herself close to him; her small hot fingers twined in his. She turned to him in trouble. Dear, broken, little girl!
He let himself in with the latch-key Johnny had given him. The house was dark. Not a soul at home. He hurried upstairs to his room. He wanted to sit alone in the night and brood on Lallie for hours and hours. Probably until morning.
He opened the door and flung his hat on the bed. A surprised, small bark shredded the silence; then snuf flings of a tiny and adenoid nature. Duncan snapped on the light. In the exact centre of his bed sat Miss Ow. She blinked pleasantly and waved her plume of a tail.
Duncan swore solemnly. Betsy . . . the little son of a gun !
For one blind moment Duncan thought of catching her up and bearing her swiftly to Lallie. The echo of her last words chimed in his ear.
Then he noticed an envelope pinned to his pillow. “Duncan” was printed across its face. He picked it up and tore open the flap.
“Dear Dune,” (it read), “take the hound home and win the lady’s love.
P.S. She snores, in case you keep her overnight.”
Instantly Duncan abandoned his soaring balloon of hope. No, he couldn’t take Miss Ow home; that was too easy. He’d be letting Betsy down. If he said he had found Miss Ow on the street, he would immediately be involved in a lot of questions and might wreck himself with too much explaining. Besides, had she been on the street someone else would have found her long ago. She was the only dog of her kind in the town.
Duncan sat down and did some rapid thinking. He must decide now and pretty fast just what he would do before any of the Blakes came home. They mustn’t find out, of course. That would make things worse than ever.
He would keep Miss Ow all night. But where? By to-morrow he could think up some watertight plan, but he needed time.
Miss Ow, finding herself entirely unappreciated, went to sleep again. Snores issued regularly from her tiny, squashed nose. Duncan went to the window and looked carefully up and down the street. Nobody in sight. An idea came to him—a possible hiding-place for Miss Ow, at least for a few hours. He returned to the bed and deftly scooping the dog up under his arm he quietly descended the backstairs.
MR. MOORE was also wakeful that night. Lallie had given them a trying evening. She somehow managed to make those around her feel guilty and responsible for her distresses. Mr. Moore was worn down by her dramatics. He couldn’t sleep. Next day would be a repetition . . . unless something were done. Business at the office would suffer.
Then tentatively Mr. Moore offered a certain suggestion to his wife. “You will be very foolish, James. I told you I would try to manage everything, but you have no patience. You are very foolish and very weak.”
“Undoubtedly my dear, undoubtedly. But I can’t stand all this confounded racket around the house. Anything to stop the wailing and bring peace.”
“If that isn’t the inevitable reactions of a man! No reasoning at all, just a blind instinct to escape trouble.”
“Nonsense,” sputtered Mr. Moore. And by this he meant that his wife was quite right—as usual.
Mrs. Moore found a soothing hollow for her bristling head and went gently to sleep. Her husband stared into the dark until two a.m. By that time he had fully made up his mind to be weak. Being weak smoothed out complications. After this decision he fell asleep calmly, but he was up at half past six and out of the house without disturbing anyone. He had started forth on his masculine campaign for straightening out family disturbances.
At half past eight of the same morning Mrs. Moore’s maid admitted a caller. “Yes, Mrs. Moore was just finishing breakfast. No, Miss Lallie was having a nap upstairs; she had been up all night waiting for someone to come with the little lost dog. Mr. Moore had gone out early. Miss Betsy? She was settin’ on the back porch helping cook shell peas for cannin’.”
Duncan said in a low voice that he would not disturb anyone. He’d just step around to the garden and speak to Miss Betsy a moment. He found her in the sunshine happily surrounded by green hills of empty pea-pods.
She was rattling the peas down into a large pan, and for a moment, this spectacle of domestic serenity made Duncan choke with rage.
“S-s-st!” he gave a discreet whistle.
Betsy looked up. Her thin, dark face broke into a quick smile. “Hello!” she called in hearty greeting. “Want to help me shell these peas?”
Duncan glowered. “Could you come here a moment?” he asked in an ominous voice.
Betsy set down her pan, shook out her apron and came. She was still smiling, and her face reflected a certain eager excitement. Duncan drew her into a small opening in the lilac bush where they could talk unobserved. “Say,” he began, “Say —how in thundering blazes did you think I was going to account for that dog being in the middle of my bed?”
Betsy stared at him.
“Of course, I couldn’t bring her home to Lallie, you little nit-wit ! I recognize your motives as high and noble, but I thought we scrapped the brainless scheme when you first proposed it. I had no idea you’d carry it through.”
Betsy’s expression altered. Black clouds of wrath shadowed her eyes.
“You mean to stand there like a great big boob and tell me you didn’t bring Miss Ow home here this morning?” She clenched her hands. Her chin came forward belligerently.”
“You poor fish, of course I didn’t! Be yourself, whatever that is! Use your bean. How could I do anything without letting you down?”
Betsy gave him a long, incredulous look. A flame of anger enveloped her. She blinked rapidly to keep the tears of rage from streaming down her face.
“You’re a bum, a yellow bum, Duncan Saunders ! I wonder your mother took the trouble to bring you up ! Do you mean to stand there like a complete idiot and tell me you ... a football captain, didn’t have the nerve to bring back that dumb dog to Lallie, after I’d done all the dirty work for you, and made things easy?”
“I did not.” Duncan leaned nearer. “And gosh-darn lucky for you I had sense enough to save you from your own foolishness. Where would you have been the rest of your life with Lallie, if she got on to this thing? Think that over, young woman . . . think that over!”
Betsy seemed to grow tall. In spite of her anger, in spite of the crisis to be met, Duncan found something very sporting in the girl as she stood there growling at him.
“I suppose now I’ll have to steal the dog from you again, lose it, and let you find it in some safe and convenient back yard!”
“Very kind of you to take so much trouble on my behalf, I’m sure,” said Duncan stiffly; “but unfortunately you’re too late.”
“What?” the giri leaned toward him, her dark eyes snapping with sparks of fire. “What’s this you’re saying?”
“I . . . haven’t . . . got the . . . dog. She’s been . . . stolen!” He separated his words carefully to let their full meaning penetrate.
Betsy brushed her hair oack from her forehead in a nervous sweep of the hand. “Say it again,” she demanded.
“I took Miss Ow out to the Blake’s barn last night after I found her on my bed. I was afraid she’d bark in the house and wake everybody up. I left her in a box stall on a blanket in an unused part of the garage. This morning I went out early to see her and she was gone.”
“Good grief . . . what a mess!” Betsy’s anger fell away from her. She was quiet a moment, scowling over her thoughts. “Well,” she said slowly, “there is just one thing left for you to do, and do it fast. Hop down to the garage on Main Street and get that red sport cabriolet that Lallie’s so wild about. Drive her around in it and hunt for Miss Ow. I went specially to that garage one day to enquire about it; I thought it might come in handy to know something about that car—in case of complications. There’s only one in town and Lallie’s mad about it. If you drive up in that car, and later find Miss Ow, your name is millions. Take it from me, bo!”
Duncan looked at Betsy as if he were seeing her for the first time. Her color was high, her vivid face full of spirit. “Why are you so anxious for hie to go big with Lallie?” he asked curiously. “Why all the fuss on my account?”
Betsy looked away from him. “Oh, it’s nothing to me,” she shrugged her shoulders carelessly. “I just thought you liked her, that’s all. Hated to see you so sunk . . . Johnny Blake’s a poor prune, anyway—beside you.”
“I was ready to brain you, kid, this morning, but I’ll say you’re rather decent, after all. Let’s get moving, before we’re discovered.”
They walked up the path toward the kitchen door. “Safe to be seen talking together?” whispered Duncan.
“I don’t think the gossips will ruin our reputations!” flung back the girl sarcastically.
The sharp bark of a horn sounded in front of the house. Both plotters happened to look up at the same time and observed Lallie’s head poked out of her bedroom window. Her hair was tangled and tumbled most becomingly. She wore a black mandarin coat embroidered in gold dragons, and she looked like a design plucked from a Chinese screen.
The horn barked again. Lallie leaned out perilously farther, caught a glimpse of something which brought a shriek of joy to her lips. She withdrew her head and in a moment Dune could hear her mules clattering down the front stairs.
“Miss Ow has been found!” declared Betsy and looked desolate. “Wouldn’t that ...”
They both ran forward, reaching the corner of the house, just as Lallie was flying down the steps, her mandarin coat blowing about her slight figure, her bare feet clapping noisily in the satin mules.
“Father,” she screamed, “Father . . . you darling, daddy-dums!”
But it wasn’t Miss Ow. It was a new, glittering red, sport cabriolet. Seated at the wheel was Mr. Moore. He was a monument of bleak relief, but certainly there were no indications about him of dragging Lallie off to a convent.
That young woman leaped to the running-board and flung white and lovely arms about her father’s neck. “You perfectly sweet, precious thing!” she chanted, “You don’t mean darling, that this is for . . . me !”
“I do,” said Mr. Moore in a hollow voice. “It is a sop to alleviate the sufferings of the family caused by the loss of Miss Ow. I felt we could bear no more.”
Betsy was the author of a coarse ejaculation. She and Duncan exchanged a despairing look.
Lallie, mandarin coaswirling stiffly, hair very much tumbled, cheeks quite pink with pleasure, stepped into the car. Her father gloomily moved out from the other side. “This marks my second defeat this summer,” he said, and passed into the house.
“Look,” gasped Betsy, clutching at Duncan’s sleeve. “Will you clamp your eyes on what’s coming down the street! Can you beat the combination that’s against us?”
Duncan looked where directed. Utter stupefaction spread over his face. Johnny Blake—whom he had taken peculiar pains to avoid that morning, was striding along with something under one arm. An auburn plume of a tail waved beyond the point of his elbow. It was Miss Ow.
“Hey!” bellowed Johnny from afar, “Hey . . . look, Lallie!” He held Miss Ow aloft in his right hand and waved her joyfully. “Found her in my barn last night,” he yelped at the top of his lungs. “Heard her barking. Stowed away in a stall we never use . . . some tramp must have parked her there for the night, and then was afraid to come for her in the morning.”
Dune and Betsy watched the disgusting restoration of Miss Ow to the arms of her mistress, whom they could see plainly through two spindles on the porch railing.
“Mom’s . . precious darling!”
squealed Lallie, as Miss Ow was handed over the side of the car.
She kissed the dog. Then she turned to Johnny. Her manner melted to a sweet gravity. “You great, big, fine manthing!” she said, and kissed him lightly on the mouth. “Get in, Johnny, and let’s take a spin out by the country club. Hope you don’t mind my costume ... we won’t get out, but some of the gang may be there for morning golf.”
They shot down the street and swiftly disappeared in a shining point of light.
“Did you ever see such sickening, putrid luck!” gulped Betsy. She was crying, hot tears of disappointment and nervousness. “Lallie skims the cream as usual . . . gets a dog and a car . . . and Johnny Blake.”
“Oh, let’s forget it,” said Dune roughly. “I’ll help you shell peas on the back porch.”
They proceeded silently to the rear of the house. Dune was again rehearsing that easy wave of the hand when he took his final curtain in Middleton. Then he said suddenly: “Say, kid, if you ever get east, wanta see a football game?”