Read CHAPTER XII of Mr. Opp , free online book, by Alice Hegan Rice, on ReadCentral.com.

The visit of the capitalists marked the beginning of a long and profitable spell of insomnia for the Cove.  The little town had gotten a gnat in its eye when Mr. Opp arrived, and now that it had become involved in a speculation that threatened to develop into a boom, it found sleep and tranquillity a thing of the past.

The party of investigators had found such remarkable conditions that they were eager to buy up the ground at once; but they met with unexpected opposition.

At a meeting which will go down to posterity in the annals of Cove City, the Turtle Creek Land Company, piloted by the intrepid Mr. Opp, had held its course against persuasion, threats, and bribes.  There was but one plank in the company’s platform, and that was a determination not to sell.  To this plank they clung through the storm of opposition, through the trying calm of indifference that followed, until a truce was declared.

Finally an agreement was reached by which the Turtle Creek Land Company was to lease its ground to the capitalists, receive a given per cent. of the oil produced, and maintain the right to buy stock up to a large and impossible amount at any time during the ensuing year.

Close upon this contract came men and machinery to open up a test well.  For weeks hauling was done up the creek bottom, there being no road leading to the oil spring where the first drilling was to be done.

The town watched the operations with alternate scorn and interest.  It was facetious when water and quicksands were encountered, and inclined to be sarcastic when work was suspended on account of the weather.  But one day, after the pipe had been driven to a considerable depth and the rock below had been drilled for six inches, the drill suddenly fell into a crevice, and upon investigation the hole was found to be nearly full of petroleum.

The Cove promptly went into a state of acute hysteria.  Speculation spread like the measles, breaking out in all manner of queer and unexpected places.  Everybody who could command a dollar promptly converted it into oil stock.  Miss Jim Fenton borrowed money from her cousin in the city, and plunged recklessly; the Missionary Band raffled off three quilts and bought a share with the proceeds; Mr. Tucker foreclosed two mortgages on life-long friends in order to raise more money; while the amount of stock purchased by Mr. D. Webster Opp was limited only by his credit at the bank.

The one note of warning that was sounded came from Mrs. Fallows, who sat on the porch of Your Hotel, and, like the Greek Chorus, foretold the disasters that would befall, and prophesied nothing but evil for the entire enterprise.  Even the urbane Jimmy became ruffled by her insistent iteration, and declared that she “put him in mind of a darned old whip-o’-will.”

But Mrs. Fallows’s piping note was lost in the gale of enthusiasm.  Farmers coming into town on Saturday became infected and carried the fever into the country.  The entire community suspended business to discuss the exciting situation.

These were champagne days for Mr. Opp.  Life seemed one long, sparkling, tingling draft and he was drinking it to Guinevere.  If her eyes drooped and she met his smile with a sigh, he saw it not, for the elixir had gone to his head.

Compelled to find some outlet for his energy, he took advantage of the Cove’s unwonted animation and plunged into municipal reform.  “The Opp Eagle” demanded streets, it demanded lamp-posts, it demanded temperance.  The right of pigs to take their daily siesta in the middle of Main Street was questioned and fiercely denied.  Dry-goods boxes, which for years had been the only visible means of support for divers youths of indolent nature, were held up to such scathing ridicule that the owners were forced to remove them.

The policies suggested by Mr. Opp, the editor, were promptly acted upon by Mr. Opp, the citizen.  So indignant did he become when he read his own editorials that nothing short of immediate action was to be considered.  He arranged a reform party and appointed himself leader.  Mat Lucas, he made Superintendent of Streets; Mr. Gallop, chairman of the Committee on City Lights.  In fact, he formed enough committees to manage a Presidential campaign.

The attitude of the town toward him was that of a large lump of dough to a small cake of yeast.  It was willing to be raised, but doubtful of the motive power.

“I’d feel surer,” said Jimmy Fallows, “if his intellect was the standard size.  It appears so big to him he can’t get his language ready-made; he has to have it made to order.”

But since the successful management of the oil-wells, Mr. Opp’s opinion was more and more considered.  In the course of a short time the office of “The Opp Eagle” became the hub about which the township revolved.

One afternoon in March the editor was sitting before his deal table, apparently in the most violent throes of editorial composition.

Nick, who was impatiently waiting for copy, had not dared to speak for an hour, for fear of slipping a cog in the intricate machinery of creation.  The constant struggle to supply “The Opp Eagle” with sufficient material to enable it to fly every Thursday was telling upon the staff; he was becoming irritable.

“Well?” he said impatiently, as Mr. Opp finished the tenth page and gathered the large sheets into his hand.

“Yes, yes, to be sure,” said Mr. Opp, guiltily; “I am at your disposal.  Just finishing a little private correspondence of a personal nature that couldn’t wait over.”

“Ain’t that copy?” demanded Nick, fixing him with an indignant eye.

“Well, no,” said Mr. Opp, uneasily.  “The fact is, I haven’t been able to accomplish any regular editorial this week.  Unusual pressure of outside business and er ”

“How long is she going to stay down in Coreyville?” Nick asked, with a contemptuous curl of his lip.

Mr. Opp paused in the act of addressing the envelop, and gave Nick a look that was designed to scorch.

“May I inquire to who you refer?” he asked with dignity.

Nick’s eyes dropped, and he shuffled his feet.  “I just wanted to put it in the paper.  We got to fill up with something.”

“Well,” said Mr. Opp, slightly conciliated, “you can mention that she has gone back to attend the spring term at the Young Ladies’ Seminary.”

“Gone back to school again?” exclaimed Nick, unable to control his curiosity.  “What for?”

“To attend the spring term,” repeated Mr. Opp, guardedly.  Then he added in a burst of confidence:  “Nick, has it ever occurred to you that Mrs. Gusty was what you might term a peculiar woman?”

But Nick was not interested in the psychological idiosyncrasies of the Gusty family.  “The Opp Eagle” was crying for food, and Nick would have sacrificed himself and his chief to fill the vacancy.

“See here, Mr. Opp, do you know what day it is?  It’s Monday, and we’ve got two columns to fill.  New subscriptions are coming in all the time.  We’ve got to live up to our reputation.”

“Extremely well put,” agreed Mr. Opp; “the reputation of the paper must be guarded above all things.  I like to consider that after my mortal remains has returned to dust, my name will be perpetuated in this paper.  That no monument in marble will be necessary, so long as ’The Opp Eagle’ continues to circulate from home to home, and to promulgate those ”

“Can’t you write some of it down?” suggested Nick; “it would fill up a couple of paragraphs.  Part of it you used before, but we might change it around some.”

“Never,” said Mr. Opp.  “On no consideration would I repeat myself in print.  I’ll just run through my box here, and see what new material I have.  Here’s something; take it down as I dictate.

“’Pastor Joe Tyler is holding divine service every second Sunday in Cove City.  He has had thirty conversions, and on Saturday was presented with a $20.00 suit of clothing from and by this community, and a barrel of flour, which fully attests what a general church awakening will accomplish in the direction of good.  No one should think of endeavoring to rear their children or redeem society without the application of the gospel twice per month.’”

“Now, if you can keep that up,” said Nick, hopefully, “we’ll get through in no time.”

But Mr. Opp had gone back to his letter, and was trying to decide whether it would take one stamp or two.  When he felt Nick’s reproachful eye upon him, he put the envelop resolutely in his pocket.

“You’ve already said that work would be resumed at the oil-wells as early as the inclemency of the weather would permit, haven’t you?”

“We’ve had it in every issue since last fall,” said Nick.

“Well, now, let’s see,” said Mr. Opp, diving once more into his reserve box.  “Here, take this down:  ’Mr. Jet Connor had his house burnt last month, it being the second fire he has had in ten years.  Misfortunes never come single.’”

“All right,” encouraged Nick.  “Now can’t you work up that idea about the paper offering a prize?”

Mr. Opp seized his brow firmly between his palms and made an heroic effort to concentrate his mind upon the business at hand.

“Just wait a minute till I get it arranged.  Now write this:  ’"The Opp Eagle” has organized a club called the B.B.B.  Club, meaning the Busy Bottle-Breakers Club.  A handsome prize of a valued nature will be awarded the boy or girl which breaks the largest number of whisky and beer bottles before the first of May.’  The boats to Coreyville run different on Sunday, don’t they, Nick?”

Nick, who had unquestioningly taken the dictation until he reached his own name, glanced up quickly, then threw down his pen and sighed.

“I’m going up to Mr. Gallop’s,” he said in desperation; “he’s got his mind on things here in town.  I’ll see what he can do for me.”

Mr. Opp remorsefully allowed him to depart, and gazed somewhat guiltily at the unaccomplished work before him.  But instead of making reparation for recent delinquency, he proceeded to make even further inroads into the time that belonged to “The Opp Eagle.”

Moving stealthily to the door, he locked it, then pulled down the shade until only a strip of light fell across his table.  These precautions having been observed, he took from his pocket a number of letters, and, separating a large typewritten one from several small blue ones, arranged the latter in a row before him according to their dates, and proceeded, with evident satisfaction, to read them through twice.  Then glancing around to make quite sure that no one had crawled through the key-hole, he unlocked a drawer, and took out a key which in turn unlocked a box from which he carefully took a small object, and contemplated it with undisguised admiration.

It was an amethyst ring, and in the center of the stone was set a pearl.  He held it in the narrow strip of light, and read the inscription engraved within:  “Guinevere forever.”

For Miss Guinevere Gusty, ever plastic to a stronger will, had succumbed to the potent combination of absence and ardor, and given her half-hearted consent for Mr. Opp to speak to her mother.  Upon that lady’s unqualified approval everything would depend.

Mr. Opp had received the letter a week ago, and he had immediately written to the city for a jeweler’s circular, made his selection, and received the ring.  He had written eight voluminous and eloquent epistles to Guinevere, but he had not yet found the propitious moment in which to call upon Mrs. Gusty.  Every time he started, imperative business called him elsewhere.

As he sat turning the stone in the sunlight and admiring every detail, the conviction oppressed him that he could no longer find any excuse for delay.  But even as he made the decision to face the ordeal, his eye involuntarily swept the desk for even a momentary reprieve.  The large typewritten letter arrested his attention; he took it up and reread it.

Dear Opp:  Do you know any nice, comfortable place in your neighborhood for a man to go blind in?  I’ll be in the hospital for another month, and after that I am to spend the summer out of doors, in joyful anticipation of an operation which I am assured beforehand will probably be unsuccessful.  Under the peculiar circumstances I am not particular about the scenery, human or natural; the whole affair resolves itself into a matter of flies and feather-beds.  If you know of any place where I can be reasonably comfortable, I wish you’d drop me a line.  The ideal place for me would be a neat pine box underground, with a dainty bunch of daisies overhead.

Yours gratefully,

Willard Hinton.

P.S.  I sent you a box of my books last week.  Chuck out what you
don’t want.  The candy was for your sister.

Mr. Opp, with the letter still in his hand, suddenly saw a way out of his difficulty:  he would make Hinton’s request an excuse for a call upon Mrs. Gusty.  No surer road to her good graces could he travel than by seeking her advice.

Replacing the ring in the drawer and the letters in his pocket, he buttoned up his coat, and with a stern look of determination went out of the office.  At the Gusty gate he encountered Val, who was on all fours by the fence, searching for something.

“What’s the matter, Val?” asked Mr. Opp.  “Lost something?”

Val raised a pair of mournful eyes.  “Yas, sir; you bet I is.  Done lost a penny Mr. Jimmy Fallows gimme for puttin’ my fisty in my mouf.”

“Putting your fist in your mouth!” repeated Mr. Opp, surprised.  “Can you perform that act?”

Val promptly demonstrated; but just as he was midway, a peremptory voice called from a rear window: 

“Val!  You Val!  You better answer me this minute!”

Val cowered lower behind the fence, and violently motioned Mr. Opp to go on.

“Is er is Mrs. Gusty feeling well to-day?” asked Mr. Opp, still lingering at the gate.

“Jes tolerable,” said Val, lying flat on his back and speaking in guarded tones.  “Whenever she gits to beatin’ de carpets, an’ spankin’ de beds, and shakin’ de curtains, I keeps outen de way.”

“Do you think er that er I better go in?” asked Mr. Opp, sorely in need of moral support.

“Yas, sir; she’s ‘spectin’ yer.”

This surprising announcement nerved Mr. Opp to open the gate.

It is said that the best-drilled soldiers dodge when they first face the firing-line, and if Mr. Opp’s knees smote together and his body became bathed in profuse perspiration, it should not be attributed to lack of manly courage.

In response to his knock, Mrs. Gusty herself opened the door.  The signs that she had been interrupted in the midst of her toilet were so unmistakable that Mr. Opp promptly averted his eyes.  A shawl had been hastily drawn about her shoulders, on one cheek a streak of chalk awaited distribution, and a single bristling curl-paper, rising fiercely from the top of her forehead, gave her the appearance of a startled unicorn.

“You’ll have to excuse me, Mr. Opp,” she said firmly, putting the door between them.  “I can’t come out, and you can’t come in.  Did you want anything?”

“Well, yes,” said Mr. Opp, looking helplessly at the blank door.  “You see, there is a matter I have been considering discussing with you for a number of weeks.  It’s a ”

“If it’s waited this long, I should think it could wait till to-morrow,” announced the lady with decision.

Mr. Opp felt that his courage could never again stand the strain of the last few moments.  He must speak now or never.

“It’s immediate,” he managed to gasp out.  “If you could arrange to give me five or ten minutes, I won’t occupy more than that.”

Mrs. Gusty considered.  “I am looking for company myself at five o’clock.  That wouldn’t give you much time.”

“Ample,” urged Mr. Opp; “it’s just a little necessary transaction, as it were.”

Mrs. Gusty reluctantly consented.

“You go on in the parlor, then,” she said.  “I’ll be in as quick as I can.  You won’t more than have time to get started, though.”

Mr. Opp passed into the parlor and hung his hat on the corner of a large, unframed canvas that stood on the floor with its face to the wall.  The room had evidently been prepared for a visitor, for a fire was newly kindled and a vase of flowers adorned the table.  But Mr. Opp was not making observations.  He alternately warmed his cold hands at the fire, and fanned his flushed face with his handkerchief.  He was too nervous to sit still, yet his knees trembled when he moved about.  It was only when he touched the little packet of letters in his breast pocket that his courage revived.

At last Mrs. Gusty came in with a rustle of garments suggestive of Sunday.  Even in his confusion Mr. Opp was aware that there was something unusual in her appearance.  Her hair, ordinarily drawn taut to a prim knot at the rear, had burst forth into curls and puffs of an amazing complexity.  Moreover, her change of coiffure had apparently affected her spirits, for she, too, was flurried and self-conscious and glanced continually at the clock on the mantel.

“I’ll endeavor not to intrude long on your time,” began Mr. Opp, politely, when they were seated side by side on the horse-hair sofa.  “You er can’t be in total ignorance of the subject that er I mean to bring forward.”  He moistened his lips, and glanced at her for succor, but she was adamant.  “I want to speak with you,” he plunged on desperately “that is, I thought I had better talk with you about Mr. Hinton.”

“Who?” blazed forth Mrs. Gusty in indignant surprise.

“Mr. Hinton,” said Mr. Opp, breathlessly, “a young friendly acquaintance of mine.  Wants to get board for the summer, you know; would like a nice, quiet place and all that, Mrs. Gusty.  I thought I’d consult you about it, Mrs. Gusty, if you don’t mind.”

She calmly fixed one eye upon him and one upon the clock while he went into particulars concerning Mr. Hinton.  When he paused for breath, she folded her arms and said: 

“Mr. Opp, if you want to say what you come to say, you haven’t got but four minutes to do it in.”

“Oh, yes,” said Mr. Opp, gratefully, but helplessly; “I was just coming to that point.  It’s a matter that er well you might say it is in a way pertaining to ”

“Guin-never!” snapped Mrs. Gusty, unable longer to stand his hesitation.  “I’d have been a deaf-mute and a fool to boot not to have known it long ago.  Not that I’ve been consulted in the matter.”  She lifted a stiffened chin, and turned her gaze upward.

“You have,” declared Mr. Opp, earnestly; “that is, you will be.  Everything is pending on you.  There has been no steps whatever taken by Miss Guin-never or I rather I might say by her.  I can’t say but what I have made some slight preliminary arrangements.”  He paused, then went on anxiously:  “I trust there ain’t any personal objections to the case.”

Mrs. Gusty made folds in her black-silk skirt and creased them down with her thumb-nail.  “No,” she said shortly; “far as I can see, Guin-never would be doing mighty well to get you.  You’d be a long sight safer than a good-looking young fellow.  Of course a man being so much older than a girl is apt to leave her a widow.  But, for my part, I believe in second marriages.”

Mr. Opp felt as if he had received a hot and cold douche at the same time; but the result was a glow.

“Then you don’t oppose it, Mrs. Gusty,” he cried eagerly.  “You’ll write her you are willing?”

“Not yet,” said Mrs. Gusty; “there’s a condition.”

“There ain’t any condition in the world I won’t meet to get her,” he exclaimed recklessly, his fervor bursting its bounds.  “You don’t know how I feel about that young lady.  Why, I’d live on bread and water all the rest of my life if it would make her happy.  There hasn’t been a hour since I met her that she hasn’t held my soul as you might say in the pa’m of her hand.”

“People don’t often get it so bad at our age,” remarked Mrs. Gusty, sarcastically, and Mr. Opp winced.

“The condition,” went on Mrs. Gusty, “that I spoke about, was your sister.  Of course I never would consent to Guin-never living under the same roof with a crazy person.”

The hope which was carrying Mr. Opp to the dizziest heights dropped to earth at this unexpected shaft, and for a moment he was too stunned to speak.

“Kippy?” he began at last, and his voice softened at the name.  “Why, you don’t understand about her.  She’s just similar to a little child.  I told Miss Guin-never all about her; she never made any objections.  You you wouldn’t ask me to make any promises along that line?” Abject entreaty shone from Mr. Opp’s eyes; it was a plea for a change of sentence.  She had asked of him the only sacrifice in the world at which he would have faltered.  “Don’t don’t put it like that!” he pleaded, laying his hand on her arm in his earnestness.  “I’m all she’s got in the world; I’ve kind of become familiar with her ways, you know, and can manage her.  She’ll love Miss Guin-never if I tell her to.  She shan’t be a bit of care or trouble; I and Aunt Tish will continue on doing everything for her.  You won’t refuse your consent on that account, will you?  You’ll promise to say yes, now won’t you, Mrs. Gusty?”

A slight and ominous cough in the doorway caused them both to start.  Mr. Tucker, in widower’s weeds, but with a jonquil jauntily thrust through his buttonhole, stood with his hand still on the knob, evidently transfixed by the scene he had witnessed.

For a moment the company was enveloped in a fog of such dense embarrassment that all conversation was suspended.  Mrs. Gusty was the first to emerge.

“Howdy, Mr. Tucker,” she said, rustling forward in welcome.  “I didn’t think you’d get here before five.  Mr. Opp just dropped in to consult me about about boarding a friend of his.  Won’t you draw up to the fire?”

Mr. Tucker edged forward with a suspicious eye turned upon Mr. Opp, who was nervously searching about for his hat.

“There it is, by the door,” said Mrs. Gusty, eager to speed his departure; and as they both reached for it, the picture upon which it hung toppled forward and fell, face upward, on the floor.  It was the portrait of Mr. Tucker mourning under the willow-tree which Miss Jim had left with Mrs. Gusty for safe-keeping.

Mr. Opp went home across the fields that evening instead of through the town.  He was not quite up to any of his roles editor, promoter, or reformer.  In fact, he felt a desperate need of a brief respite from all histrionic duties.  A reaction had set in from the excitement of the past week, and the complication involved in Mrs. Gusty’s condition puzzled and distressed him.  Of course, he assured himself repeatedly, there was a way out of the difficulty; but he was not able to find it just yet.  He had observed that Mrs. Gusty’s opinions became fixed convictions under the slightest opposition, whereas Guinevere’s firmest decision trembled at a breath of disapproval.  He sighed deeply as he meditated upon the vagaries of the feminine mind.

Overhead the bare trees lifted a network of twigs against a dull sky, a cold wind stirred the sedge grass, and fluttered the dry leaves that had lain all winter in the fence corners.  Everything looked old and worn and gray, even Mr. Opp, as he leaned against a gaunt, white sycamore, his head bent, and his brows drawn, wrestling with his problem.

Suddenly he lifted his head and listened, then he smiled.  In the tree above him a soft but animated conversation was in progress.  A few daring birds had braved the cold and the wind, and had ventured back to their old trysting-place to wait for the coming of the spring.  No hint of green had tinged the earth, but a few, tiny, pink maple-buds had given the secret away, and the birds were cuddled snugly together, planning, in an ecstasy of subdued enthusiasm, for the joyous days to come.

Mr. Opp listened and understood.  They were all whispering about one thing, and he wanted to whisper about it, too.  It was the simple theme of love without variations love, minus problems, minus complications, minus consequences.  He took out his little packet of letters and read them through; then, unmindful of the chill, he stretched himself under the tree and listened to the birds until the twilight silenced them.

When he reached home at last, Miss Kippy met him at the door with a happy cry of welcome.

“D.,” she said, with her arm through his, and her cheek rubbing his sleeve, “I’ve been good.  I’ve let my hair stay up all day, and Aunt Tish is making me a long dress like a lady.”  She looked at him shyly and smiled, then she pulled his head down and whispered, “If I’m very good, when I grow up, can I marry Mr. Hinton?”

Miss Kippy, too, had been listening to the bird-song.