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THE FORELOCK OF TIME
One morning not long after the incidents just related, Brewster lay in bed, staring at the ceiling, deep in thought. There, was a worried pucker on his forehead, half-hidden by the rumpled hair, and his eyes were wide and sleepless. He had dined at the Drew's the evening before and had had an awakening. As he thought of the matter he could recall no special occurrence that he could really use as evidence. Colonel and Mrs. Drew had been as kind as ever and Barbara could not have been more charming. But something had gone wrong and he had endured a wretched evening.
"That little English Johnnie was to blame," he argued. "Of course, Barbara had a right to put any one she liked next to her, but why she should have chosen that silly ass is more than I know. By Jove, if I had been on the other side I'll warrant his grace would have been lost in the dust."
His brain was whirling, and for the first time he was beginning to feel the unpleasant pangs of jealousy. The Duke of Beauchamp he especially disliked, although the poor man had hardly spoken during the dinner. But Monty could not be reconciled. He knew, of course, that Barbara had suitors by the dozen, but it had never occurred to him that they were even seriously considered. Notwithstanding the fact that his encounter with "The Censor" had brought her into undesirable notice, she forgave him everything after a moment's consideration. The first few wrenches of resentment were overbalanced by her American appreciation of chivalry, however inspired. "The Censor" had gone for years unpunished; his coarse wit being aimed at every one who had come into social prominence. So pungent and vindictive was his pen that other men feared him, and there were many who lived in glass houses in terror of a fusilade. Brewster's prompt and sufficient action had checked the pernicious attacks, and he became a hero among men and women. After that night there was no point to "The Censor's" pen. Monty's first qualms of apprehension were swept away when Colonel Drew himself hailed him the morning after the encounter and, in no unmeasured terms, congratulated him upon his achievement, assuring him that Barbara and Mrs. Drew approved, although they might lecture him as a matter of form.
But on this morning, as he lay in his bed, Monty was thinking deeply and painfully. He was confronted by a most embarrassing condition and he was discussing it soberly with himself. "I've never told her," he said to himself, "but if she doesn't know my feeling she is not as clever as I think. Besides, I haven't time to make love to her now. If it were any other girl I suppose I'd have to, but Babs, why, she must understand. And yet — damn that Duke!"
In order to woo her properly he would be compelled to neglect financial duties that needed every particle of brain-energy at his command. He found himself opposed at the outset by a startling embarrassment, made absolutely clear by the computations of the night before. The last four days of indifference to finance on one side, and pampering the heart on the other, had proved very costly. To use his own expression, he had been "set back" almost eight thousand dollars. An average like that would be ruinous.
"Why, think of it," he continued. "For each day sacrificed to Barbara I must deduct something like twenty-five hundred dollars. A long campaign would put me irretrievably in the hole; I'd get so far behind that a holocaust couldn't put me even. She can't expect that of me, yet girls are such idiots about devotion, and of course she doesn't know what a heavy task I'm facing. And there are the others — what will they do while I am out of the running? I cannot go to her and say, 'Please, may I have a year's vacation? I'll come back next September.' On the other hand, I shall surely neglect my business if she expects me to compete. What pleasure shall I get out of the seven millions if I lose her? I can't afford to take chances. That Duke won't have seven millions next September, it's true, but he'll have a prodigious argument against me, about the twenty-first or second."
Then a brilliant thought occurred to him which caused him to ring for a messenger-boy with such a show of impatience that Rawles stood aghast. The telegram which Monty wrote was as follows:
May I marry and turn all property over to wife, providing she will have me?
"Why isn't that reasonable?" he asked himself after the boy had gone. "Making property over to one's wife is neither a loan nor is it charity. Old Jones might call it needless extravagance, since he's a bachelor, but it's generally done because it's good business." Monty was hopeful.
Following his habit in trouble, he sought Margaret Gray, to whom he could always appeal for advice and consolation. She was to come to his next dinner-party, and it was easy to lead up to the subject in hand by mentioning the other guests.
"And Barbara Drew," he concluded, after naming all the others. They were alone in the library, and she was drinking in the details of the dinner as he related them.
"Wasn't she at your first dinner?" she asked, quickly.
He successfully affected mild embarrassment.
"She must be very attractive." There was no venom in Peggy's heart.
"She is attractive. In fact, she's one of the best, Peggy," he said, paving the way.
"It's too bad she seems to care for that little Duke."
"He's a bounder," he argued.
"Well, don't take it to heart. You don't have to marry him," and Peggy laughed.
"But I do take it to heart, Peggy," said Monty, seriously. "I'm pretty hard hit, and I want your help. A sister's advice is always the best in a matter of this sort."
She looked into his eyes dully for an instant, not realizing the full importance of his confession.
"You, Monty?" she said, incredulously.
"I've got it bad, Peggy," he replied, staring hard at the floor. She could not understand the cold, gray tone that suddenly enveloped the room. The strange sense of loneliness that came over her was inexplicable. The little something that rose in her throat would not be dislodged, nor could she throw off the weight that seemed pressing down upon her. He saw the odd look in her eyes and the drawn, uncertain smile on her lips, but he attributed them to wonder and incredulity. Somehow, after all these years, he was transformed before her very eyes; she was looking upon a new personality. He was no longer Montgomery, the brother, but she could not explain how and when the change crept over her. What did it all mean? "I am very glad if it will make you happy, Monty," she said slowly, the gray in her lips giving way to red once more. "Does she know?"
"I haven't told her in so many words, Peggy, but — but I'm going to this evening," he announced, lamely.
"I can't wait," Monty said as he rose to go. "I'm glad you're pleased, Peggy; I need your good wishes. And Peggy," he continued, with a touch of boyish wistfulness, "do you think there's a chance for a fellow? I've had the very deuce of a time over that Englishman."
It was not quite easy for her to say, "Monty, you are the best in the world. Go in and win."
From the window she watched him swing off down the street, wondering if he would turn to wave his hand to her, his custom for years. But the broad back was straight and uncompromising. His long strides carried him swiftly out of sight, but it was many minutes before she turned her eyes, which were smarting, a little from the point where he was lost in the crowd. The room looked ashen to her as she brought her mind back to it, and somehow things had grown difficult.
When Montgomery reached home he found this telegram from Mr. Jones.
New York City.
to your knitting, you damned fool.