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

Those who have pursued the coy goddess of happiness through the mazes of the labyrinth of life, know well how she invites her victim on from point to point, only to evade capture at the end.  Mr. Opp rose with each summer dawn, radiant, confident, and expectant, and each night he sat in his window with his knees hunched, and his brows drawn, and wrestled with that old white-faced fear.

Two marauders were harassing the editor these days, dogging his footsteps, and snapping at him from ambush.  One was the wolf that howls at the door, and the other was the monster whose eyes are green.

Since the halcyon days that had wafted Miss Guinevere Gusty back to the shore of the Cove, Mr. Opp had not passed a serene hour out of her presence.  His disposition, though impervious to the repeated shafts of unkind fortune, was not proof against the corrosive effect of jealousy.

If he could have regarded Willard Hinton in the light of a hated rival, and met him in fair and open fight, the situation would have been simplified.  But Hinton was the friend of his bosom, the man who, he had declared to the town, “possessed the grandest intelligence he had ever encountered in a human mind.”  He admired him, he respected him, and, in direct contradiction to the emotion that was consuming him, he trusted him.

Concerning Miss Guinevere Gusty’s state of mind, Mr. Opp permitted himself only one opinion.  He fiercely denied that she was absent-minded and listless when alone with him; he refused to believe his own eyes when he saw a light in her face when she looked at Hinton that was never there for him.  He preferred to exaggerate to himself her sweetness, her gentleness, her loyalty, demanding nothing, and continuing to give all.

His entire future happiness, he assured himself, hung upon the one question of little Miss Kippy.  For four months the problem had been a matter for daily, prayerful consideration, but he was still in the dark.

When he was with Guinevere the solution seemed easy.  In explaining away the difficulties to her, he explained them away to himself, also.  It was only a matter of time, he declared, before the oil-well would yield rich profit.  When that time arrived, he would maintain two establishments, the old one for Miss Kippy, and a new and elegant one for themselves.  Mr. Opp used the hole in the ground as a telescope through which he viewed the stars of the future.

But when he was alone with Kippy, struggling with her whims, while he tried to puzzle out the oldest and most universal of conundrums, that of making ends meet, the future seemed entirely blotted out by the great blank wall of the present.

The matter was in a way complicated by the change that had come over Miss Kippy herself.  Two ideas alternately depressed and elated her.  The first was a fixed antipathy to the photograph of Miss Guinevere Gusty which Mr. Opp had incased in a large hand-painted frame and installed upon his dresser.  At first she sat before it and cried, and later she hid it and refused for days to tell where it was.  The sight of it made her so unhappy that Mr. Opp was obliged to keep it under lock and key.  The other idea produced a different effect.  It had to do with Hinton.  Ever since his visit she had talked of little else.  She pretended that he came to see her every day, and she spread her doll dishes, and repeated scraps of his conversation, and acted over the events of the dinner at which he had been present.  The short gingham dresses no longer pleased her; she wanted long ones, with flowing sleeves like the blue merino.  She tied her hair up in all manner of fantastic shapes, and stood before the glass smiling and talking to herself for hours.  But there were times when her mind paused for a moment at the normal, and then she would ask frightened, bewildered questions, and only Mr. Opp could soothe and reassure her.

“D.,” she said one night suddenly, “how old am I?”

Mr. Opp, whose entire mental and physical powers were concentrated upon an effort to put a new band on his old hat, was taken off his guard.  “Twenty-six,” he answered absently.

A little cry brought him to her side.

“No,” she whispered, shivering away from him, yet clinging to his sleeve, “that’s a lady that’s grown up!  Ladies don’t play with dolls.  But I want to be grown up, too.  D., why am I different?  I want to be a lady; show me how to be a lady!”

Mr. Opp gathered her into his arms, along with his hat, a pair of scissors, and a spool of thread.

“Don’t, Kippy!” he begged.  “Now, don’t cry like that!  You are getting on elegant.  Hasn’t brother D. learned you to read a lot of pieces in your first reader?  And ain’t we going to begin on handwriting next?  Wouldn’t you like to have a slate, and a sponge to rub out with?”

In an instant her mood veered.

“And a basket?” she cried eagerly.  “The children carry a basket, too.  I see them when I peep through the shutters.  Can I have a basket, too?”

The network of complexities that was closing in upon Mr. Opp apparently affected his body more than his spirits.  He seemed to shrivel and dwindle as the pressure increased; but the fire in his eyes shone brighter than before.

“None of his folks live long over forty,” said Mrs. Fallows, lugubriously; “they sorter burn themselves out.”

Hinton, meanwhile, utterly unaware of being the partial cause of the seismic disturbance in the editorial bosom, pursued the monotonous routine of his days.  It had taken him only a short time to adapt himself to the changes that the return of the daughter of the house had brought about.  He had anticipated her arrival with the dread a nervous invalid always feels toward anything that may jolt him out of his habitual rut.  He held a shuddering remembrance of her musical accomplishments, and foresaw with dread the noisy crowd of young people she might bring about the house.

But Guinevere had slipped into her place, an absent-minded, dreamy, detached damsel, asserting nothing, claiming nothing, bending like a flower in the high winds of her mother’s wrath.

Hinton watched the dominating influence nip every bud of individuality that the girl ventured to put forth, and he determined to interfere.  During the long months he had spent with Mrs. Gusty he had discovered a way to manage her.  The weak spot in her armor was pride of intellect; she acknowledged no man her superior.  By the use of figurative language, and references to esoteric matters, he was always able to baffle and silence her.  His joy in handling her in one of her tempers was similar to that of controlling a cat-boat in squally weather.  Both experiences redounded to his masculine supremacy.

One hot August day, he and Mrs. Gusty had just had an unusually sharp round, but he had succeeded, by alternate compliment and sarcasm, in reducing her to a very frustrated and baffled condition.

It was Sunday, the day the Cove elected for a spiritual wash-day.  In the morning the morals of the community were scrubbed and rinsed in the meeting-house, and in the afternoon they were hung out on the line to dry.  The heads of the families sat in their front yards and dutifully tended the children, while their wives flitted from house to house, visiting the sick and the afflicted, and administering warnings to the delinquent.  It was a day in which Mrs. Gusty’s soul reveled, and she demanded that Guinevere’s soul should revel likewise.

It was with the determination that Guinevere should occasionally be allowed the privilege of following her own inclinations that Hinton hurled himself into the breach.

“I’ll go, Mother,” said Guinevere; “but it’s so hot.  We went to see everybody last Sunday.  I thought I’d rather stay home and read, if you didn’t mind.”

Mrs. Gusty tossed her head in disgust, and turned to Hinton.

“Now, ain’t that a Gusty for you!  I never saw one that didn’t want to set down to the job of living.  Always moping around with their nose in a book.  I never was a reader, never remember wasting a’ hour on a book in my life, and yet I never saw the time that I wasn’t able to hold my own with any Gusty living.”

“In short,” said Hinton, sympathetically, “to quote a noted novelist, you have never considered it necessary to add the incident of learning to the accident of brains.”

Mrs. Gusty tied her bonnet-strings in a firmer knot as she looked at him uncertainly, then, not deigning to cast another glance in the direction of her daughter, who was disappearing up the stairs, swept out of the house.

Hinton looked at his watch; it was not yet two o’clock.  The afternoon threatened to be a foretaste of eternity.  He went out on the porch and lay in the hammock, with his hands clasped across his eyes.  He could no longer see to read or to write.  The doctor said the darkness might close in now at any time, after that the experiment of an operation would be made, and there was one chance in a hundred for the partial restoration of the sight.

Having beaten and bruised himself against the bars of Fate, he now lay exhausted and passive in the power of his jailer.  He had tried to run his own life in his own way, and the matter had been taken out of his hands.  He must lie still now and wait for orders from headquarters.  The words of Mr. Opp, spoken in the low-ceiled, weird old dining-room, came vividly back to him:  “What the fight is concerning, or in what manner the general is a-aiming to bring it all correct in the end, ain’t, according to my conclusion, a particle of our business.”

And Hinton, after a year of rebellion and struggle and despair, had at last acknowledged a superior officer and declared himself ready to take whatever orders came.

As he lay in the hammock he turned his head at every noise within the house, and listened.  He had become amazingly dependent upon a soft, drawling voice which day after day read to him for hours at a time.  At first he had met Guinevere’s offers of help with moody irritability.

“Pray, don’t bother about me,” he had said.  “I am quite able to look after myself; besides, I like to be alone.”

But her unobtrusive sympathy and childish frankness soon conquered his pride.  She read to him from books she did not understand, played games with him, and showed him new walks in the woods.  And incidentally, she revealed to him her struggling, starving, wistful soul that no one else had ever discovered.

She never talked to him of her love affair, but she dwelt vaguely on the virtues of duty and loyalty and self-sacrifice.  The facts in the case were supplied by Mrs. Gusty.

Hinton looked at his watch again, and groaned when he found it was only a quarter past two.  Feeling his way cautiously along the porch and down the steps, he moved idly about the yard.  He could not distinguish Menelaus from Paris now, and Helen of Troy was no longer to be recognized.

At long intervals a vehicle rattled past, leaving a cloud of dust behind.  The air shimmered with the heat, and the low, insistent buzzing of bees beat on his ears mercilessly.  He wondered impatiently why Guinevere did not come down, then checked himself as he remembered the constant demands he made upon her time.

At three o’clock he could stand it no longer.  He felt a queer, dull sensation about his head, and he constantly drew his hand across his eyes to dispel the impression of a mist before them.

“Oh, Miss Guinevere!” he called up to her window.  “Would you mind coming down just for a little while!”

Guinevere’s head appeared so promptly that it was evident it had been lying on the window-sill.

“Is it time for your medicine?” she asked guiltily.  “Mother said it didn’t come till four.”

“Oh, no,” said Hinton, with forced cheerfulness; “it isn’t that.  You remember the old song, don’t you, ’When a man’s afraid, a beautiful maid is a cheering sight to see’?”

She disappeared from the window, and in a moment joined him behind the screen of honeysuckles on the porch.  The hammock hung, inviting ease, but neither of them took it.  She sat primly on the straight-backed, green settee, and he sat on the step at her feet with his hat pulled over his eyes.

“What an infernal nuisance I have been to you!” he said ruefully; “but no more than I have been to myself.  The only difference was that I had to stand it, and you stood it out of the goodness of that kind little heart of yours.  Well, it’s nearly over now; I’m expecting to go to the city any day.  I guess you’ll not be sorry to get rid of me, will you, Miss Guinevere?”

Instead of answering, she drew a quick breath and turned her head away.  When she did speak, it was after a long pause.

“I like the way you say my name.  Nobody says it like that down here.”

“Guinevere?” he repeated.

She nodded.  “When you say it like that, I feel like I was another person.  It makes me think of flowers, and poetry, and the wind in the trees, and all those things I’ve been reading you out of your books.  Guin-never and Guinevere don’t seem the same at all, do they?”

“They aren’t the same,” he said, “and you aren’t the same girl I met on the boat last March.  I guess we’ve both grown a bit since then.  You know I was rather keen on dying about that time, ’in love with easeful death,’ well, now I am not keen about anything, but I am willing to play the game out.”

They sat in silence for a while, then he said slowly, without raising his eyes:  “I am not much good at telling what I feel, but before I go away I want you to know how much you’ve helped me.  You have been the one light that was left to show me the way down into the darkness.”

A soft touch on his shoulder made him lift his head.  Guinevere was bending toward him, all restraint banished from her face by the compassion and love that suffused it.

Instinctively he swayed toward her, all the need of her crying out suddenly within him, then he pulled himself sharply together, and, resolutely thrusting his hands in his pockets, rose and took a turn up and down the porch.

“Do you mind reading to me a little?” he asked at length.  “There are forty devils in my head to-day, all hammering on the back of my eyeballs.  I’ll get my Tennyson; you like him better than you do the others.  Wait; I’m going.”

But she was up the steps before him, eager to serve, and determined to spare him every effort.

Through the long afternoon Guinevere read, stumbling over the strange words and faltering through the difficult passages, but vibrant to the beauty and the pathos of it all.  On and on she read, and the sun went down, and the fragrance of dying locust bloom came faintly from the hill, and overhead in the tree-tops the evening breeze murmured its world-old plaint of loneliness and longing.

Suddenly Guinevere’s voice faltered, then steadied, then faltered again, then without warning she flung her arms across the back of the bench, and, dropping her head upon them, burst into passionate sobs.

Hinton, who had been sitting for a long time with his hands pressed over his eyes, sprang up to go to her.

“Guinevere,” he said, “what’s the matter?  Don’t cry, dear!” Then, as he stumbled, a look of terror crossed his face and he caught at the railing for support.  “Where are you?” he asked sharply.  “Speak to me!  Give me your hand!  I can’t see I can’t oh, my God, it has come!”