English Literature

The Purple Parasol by George Barr McCutcheon

The Purple Parasol by George Barr McCutcheon.jpg

Young Rossiter did not like the task. The more he thought of it as he whirled northward on the Empire State Express the more distasteful it seemed to grow.

“Hang it all,” he thought, throwing down his magazine in disgust, “it’s like police work. And heaven knows I haven’t wanted to be a cop since we lived in Newark twenty years ago. Why the dickens did old Wharton marry her? He’s an old ass, and he’s getting just what he might have expected. She’s twenty-five and beautiful; he’s seventy and a sight. I’ve a notion to chuck the whole affair and go back to the simple but virtuous Tenderloin. It’s not my sort, that’s all, and I was an idiot for mixing in it. The firm served me a shabby trick when it sent me out to work up this case for Wharton. It’s a regular Peeping Tom Job, and I don’t like it.”

It will require but few words to explain Sam Rossiter’s presence in the north-bound Empire Express, but it would take volumes to express his feelings on the subject in general. Back in New York there lived Godfrey Wharton, millionaire and septuagenarian. For two years he had been husband to one of the prettiest, gayest young women in the city, and in the latter days of this responsibility he was not a happy man. His wife had fallen desperately, even conspicuously, in love with Everett Havens, the new leading man at one of the fashionable playhouses. The affair had been going on for weeks, and it had at last become the talk of the town. By “the town” is meant that vague, expansive thing known as the “Four Hundred.” Sam Rossiter, two years out of Yale, was an attachment to, but not a component part of, the Four Hundred. The Whartons were of the inner circle.

Young Rossiter was ambitious. He was, besides, keen, aggressive, and determined to make well for himself. Entering the great law offices of Grover & Dickhut immediately after leaving college, he devoted himself assiduously to the career in prospect. He began by making its foundation as substantial as brains and energy would permit. So earnest, so successful was he that Grover & Dickhut regarded him as the most promising young man in New York. They predicted a great future for him, no small part of which was the ultimate alteration of an office shingle, the name of Rossiter going up in gilt, after that of Dickhut. And, above all, Rossiter was a handsome, likable chap. Tall, fair, sunny-hearted, well groomed, he was a fellow that both sexes liked without much effort.

The Wharton trouble was bound to prove startling any way one looked at it. The prominence of the family, the baldness of its skeleton, and the gleeful eagerness with which it danced into full view left but little for meddlers to covet. A crash was inevitable; it was the clash that Grover & Dickhut were trying to avert. Old Wharton, worn to a slimmer frazzle than he had ever been before his luckless marriage, was determined to divorce his insolent younger half. It was to be done with as little noise as possible, more for his own sake than for hers. Wharton was proud in, not of, his weakness.

It became necessary to “shadow” the fair débutante into matrimony. After weeks of indecision Mr. Wharton finally arose and swore in accents terrible that she was going too far to be called back. He determined to push, not to pull, on the reins. Grover & Dickhut were commanded to get the “evidence”; he would pay. When he burst in upon them and cried in his cracked treble that “the devil’s to pay,” he did not mean to cast any aspersion upon the profession in general or particular. He was annoyed.

“She’s going away next week,” he exclaimed, as if the lawyers were to blame for it.

“Well, and what of it?” asked Mr. Grover blandly.

“Up into the mountains,” went on Mr. Wharton triumphantly.

“Is it against the law?” smiled the old lawyer.

“Confound the law! I don’t object to her going up into the mountains for a rest, but—”

“It’s much too hot in town for her, I fancy.”

“How’s that?” querulously. “But I’ve just heard that that scoundrel
Havens is going to the mountains also.”

“The same mountain?”

“Certainly. I have absolute proof of it. Now, something has to be done!”

And so it was that the promising young lawyer, Samuel W. Rossiter, Jr., was sent northward into the Adirondacks one hot summer day with instructions to be tactful but thorough. He had never seen Mrs. Wharton, nor had he seen Havens. There was no time to look up these rather important details, for he was off to intercept her at the little station from which one drove by coach to the quiet summer hotel among the clouds. She was starting the same afternoon. He found himself wondering whether this petted butterfly of fashion had ever seen him, and, seeing him, had been sufficiently interested to inquire, “Who is that tall fellow with the light hair?” It would be difficult to perform the duties assigned to him if either she or Havens knew him for what he was. His pride would have been deeply wounded if he had known that Grover & Dickhut recommended him to Wharton as “obscure.”

“They say she is a howling beauty as well as a swell,” reflected Rossiter, as the miles and minutes went swinging by. “And that’s something to be thankful for. One likes novelty, especially if it’s feminine. Well, I’m out for the sole purpose of saving a million or so for old Wharton, and to save as much of her reputation as I can besides. With the proof in hand the old duffer can scare her out of any claim against his bank account, and she shall have the absolute promise of ‘no exposure’ in return. Isn’t it lovely? Well, here’s Albany. Now for the dinky road up to Fossingford Station. I have an hour’s wait here. She’s coming on the afternoon train and gets to Fossingford at eleven-ten to-night. That’s a dickens of a time for a young woman to be arriving anywhere, to say nothing of Fossingford.”

Loafing about the depot at Albany, Rossiter kept a close lookout for Mrs. Wharton as he pictured her from the description he carried in his mind’s eye. Her venerable husband informed him that she was sure to wear a white shirt-waist, a gray skirt, and a Knox sailor hat, because her maid had told him so in a huff. But he was to identify her chiefly by means of a handsome and oddly trimmed parasol of deep purple. Wharton had every reason to suspect that it was a present from Havens, and therefore to be carried more for sentiment than protection.

A telegram awaited him at Fossingford Station. Fossingford was so small and unsophisticated that the arrival of a telegraphic message that did not relate to the movement of railroad trains was an “occasion.” Everybody in town knew that a message had come for Samuel Rossiter, and everybody was at the depot to see that he got it. The station agent had inquired at the “eating-house” for the gentleman, and that was enough. With the eyes of a Fossingford score or two upon him, Rossiter read the despatch from Grover & Dickhut.

“Too bad, ain’t it?” asked the agent, compassionately regarding the newcomer. Evidently the contents were supposed to be disappointing.

“Oh, I don’t know,” replied Rossiter easily. But just the same he was troubled in mind as he walked over and sat down upon his steamer trunk in the shade of the building. The telegram read:

“She left New York five-thirty this evening. Stops over night Albany.
Fossingford to-morrow morning. Watch trains. Purple parasol. Sailor hat.
Gray travelling suit.

“G. and D.”

It meant that he would be obliged to stay in Fossingford all night—but where? A general but comprehensive glance did not reveal anything that looked like a hotel. He thought of going back to Albany for the night, but it suddenly occurred to him that she might not stop in that city, after all. Pulling his wits together, he saw things with a new clearness of vision. Ostensibly she had announced her intention to spend the month at Eagle Nest, an obscure but delightful hotel in the hills; but did that really mean that she would go there? It was doubtless a ruse to throw the husband off the track. There were scores of places in the mountains, and it was more than probable that she would give Eagle Nest a wide berth. Rossiter patted his bump of perceptiveness and smiled serenely until he came plump up against the realization that she might not come by way of Fossingford at all, or, in any event, she might go whisking through to some station farther north. His speculations came to an end in the shape of a distressing resolution. He would remain in Fossingford and watch the trains go by!

After he had dashed through several early evening trains, the cheerful, philosophical smile of courage left his face and trouble stared from his eyes. He saw awkward prospects ahead. Suppose she were to pass through on one of the late night trains! He could not rush through the sleepers, even though the trains stopped in Fossingford for water.

Besides, she could not be identified by means of a gray suit, a sailor hat, and a purple parasol if they were tucked away in the berth. At eleven o’clock he was pacing the little depot platform, waiting for the eleven-ten train, the last he was to inspect for the night. He had eaten a scanty meal at the restaurant nearby, and was still mad about it. The station agent slept soundly at his post, and all the rest of the town had gone to bed.

The train pulled in and out again, leaving him at the far end of the platform, mopping his harassed brow. He had visited the chair-cars and had seen no one answering the description. A half-dozen passengers huddled off and wandered away in the darkness.

“I’ll bet my head she’s in one of those sleepers,” he groaned, as he watched the lights on the rear coach fade away into the night. “It’s all off till to-morrow, that’s settled. My only hope is that she really stopped in Albany. There’s a train through here at three in the morning; but I’m not detective enough to unravel the mystery of any woman’s berth. Now, where the deuce am I to sleep?”

As he looked about dismally, disconsolately, his hands deep in his pockets, his straw hat pulled low over his sleepy eyes, the station agent came up to him with a knowing grin on his face.

“‘Scuse me, boss, but she’s come,” he said, winking.

“She? Who?”

“Her. The young lady. Sure! She’s lookin’ fer you over in the waitin’-room. You mus’ ‘a’ missed her when she got off—thought she wasn’t comin’ up till to-morrer. Mus’ ‘a’ changed her mind. That’s a woming all over, ain’t it?”

Rossiter felt himself turn hot and cold. His head began to whirl and his courage went fluttering away. Here was a queer complication. The quarry hunting for the sleuth, instead of the reverse. He fanned himself with his hat for one brief, uncertain moment, dazed beyond belief. Then he resolutely strode over to face the situation, trusting to luck to keep him from blundering his game into her hands. Just as he was about to put his foot upon the lamp-lit door-sill the solution struck him like a blow. She was expecting Havens to meet her!

There was but one woman in the room, and she was approaching the door with evident impatience as he entered. Both stopped short, she with a look of surprise, which changed to annoyance and then crept into an nervous, apologetic little smile; he with an unsuppressed ejaculation. She wore a gray skirt, a white waist, and a sailor hat, and she was surpassingly good to look at even in the trying light from the overhead lamp. Instinctively his eye swept over her. She carried on her arm the light gray jacket, and in one hand was the tightly rolled parasol of—he impertinently craned his neck to see—of purple! Mr. Rossiter was face to face with the woman he was to dog for a month, and he was flabbergasted. Even as he stopped, puzzled, before her, contemplating retreat, she spoke to him.

“Did that man send you to me?” she asked nervously, looking through the door beyond and then through a window at his right, quite puzzled, he could see.

“He did, and I was sure he was mistaken. I knew of no one in this God-forsaken place who could be asking for me,” said he, collecting his wits carefully and herding them into that one sentence. “But perhaps I can help you. Will you tell me whom I am to look for?”

“It is strange he is not here,” she said a little breathlessly. “I wired him just what train to expect me on.”

“Your husband?” ventured he admirably.

“Oh, dear, no!” said she quickly.

“I wish she’d wired me what train to expect her on,” thought he grimly. “She doesn’t know me. That’s good. She was expecting Havens and he’s missed connections somehow,” shot rapidly through his brain. At the same time he was thinking of her as the prettiest woman he had seen in all his life. Then aloud: “I’ll look on the platform. Maybe he’s lost in this great city. What name shall I call out?”

“Please don’t call very loudly. You’ll wake the dead,” she said, with a pathetic smile. “It’s awfully good of you. He may come at any minute, you know. His name is—is”—she hesitated for a second, and then went on determinedly—”Dudley. Tall, dark man. I don’t know how I shall thank you. It’s so very awkward.”

Rossiter darted from her glorious but perplexed presence. He had never seen Havens, but he was sure he could recognize an actor if he saw him in Fossingford. And he would call him Dudley, too. It would be wise. The search was fruitless. The only tall, dark object he saw was the mailcrane at the edge of the platform, but he facetiously asked if its name was Dudley. Receiving no answer, he turned back to cast additional woe into the heart of the pretty intriguer. She was standing in the door, despair in her eyes. Somehow he was pleased because he had not found the wretch. She was so fair to look upon and so appealing in her distress.

“You couldn’t find him? What am I to do? Oh, isn’t it awful? He promised to be here.”

“Perhaps he’s at a hotel.”

“In Fossingford?” in deep disgust. “There’s no hotel here. He was to drive me to the home of a friend out in the country.” Rossiter leaned against the wall suddenly. There was a long silence. He could not find his tongue, but his eyes were burning deep into the plaintive blue ones that looked up into his face.

“I’ll ask the agent,” he said at last.

“Ask him what?” she cried anxiously.

“If he’s been here. No, I’ll ask if there’s a place where you can sleep to-night. Mr. Dudley will surely turn up to-morrow.”

“But I couldn’t sleep a wink. I feel like crying my eyes out,” she wailed.

“Don’t do that!” exclaimed he, in alarm. “I’ll take another look outside.”

“Please don’t. He is not here. Will you please tell me what I am to do?”—very much as if it was his business to provide for her in the hour of need.

Rossiter promptly awoke the agent and asked him where a room could be procured for the lady. Doxie’s boarding-house was the only place, according to the agent, and it was full to overflowing. Besides, they would not “take in” strange women.

“She can sleep here in the waiting-room,” suggested the agent. “They’ll let you sleep in the parlor over at Doxie’s, mister—maybe.”

Rossiter did not have the heart to tell her all that the agent said. He merely announced that there was no hotel except the depot waiting-room.

“By the way, does Mr. Dudley live out in the country?” he asked insidiously. She flushed and then looked at him narrowly.

“No. He’s visiting his uncle up here.”

“Funny he missed you.”

“It’s terribly annoying,” she said coldly. Then she walked away from him as if suddenly conscious that she should not be conversing with a good-looking stranger at such a time and place and under such peculiar circumstances. He withdrew to the platform and his own reflections.

“He’s an infernal cad for not meeting her,” he found himself saying, her pretty, distressed face still before him. “I don’t care a rap whether she’s doing right or wrong—she’s game. Still, she’s a blamed little fool to be travelling up here on such an outlandish train. So he’s visiting an uncle, eh? Then the chances are they’re not going to Eagle Nest. Lucky I waited here—I’d have lost them entirely if I’d gone back to Albany. But where the deuce is she to sleep till morn—” He heard rapid footsteps behind him and turned to distinguish Mrs. Wharton as she approached dimly but gracefully. The air seemed full of her.

“Oh, Mr.—Mr.—” she was saying eagerly.

“Rollins.”

“Isn’t there a later train, Mr. Rollins?”

“I’ll ask the agent.”

“There’s the flyer at three-thirty A. M.,” responded the sleepy agent a minute later.

“I’ll just sit up and wait for it,” she said coolly. “He has got the trains confused.”

“Good heavens! Till three-thirty?”

“But my dear Mr. Rollins, you won’t be obliged to sit up, you know.
You’re not expecting any one, are you?”

“N-no, of course not.”

“By the way, why are you staying up?” He was sure he detected alarm in the question. She was suspecting him!

“I have nowhere to go, Miss—Mrs.—er—” She merely smiled and he said something under his breath. “I’m waiting for the eight o’clock train.”

“How lovely! What time will the three-thirty train get here, agent?”

“At half-past three, I reckon. But she don’t stop here!”

“Oh, goodness! Can’t you flag it—her, I mean?”

“What’s the use?” asked Rossiter. “He’s not coming on it, is he?”

“That’s so. He’s coming in a buggy. You needn’t mind flagging her, agent.”

“Well, say, I’d like to lock up the place,” grumbled the agent. “There’s no more trains to-night but Number Seventeen, and she don’t even whistle here. I can’t set up here all night.”

“Oh, you wouldn’t lock me out in the night, would you?” she cried in such pretty despair that he faltered.

“I got to git home to my wife. She’s—”

“That’s all right, agent,” broke in Rossiter hastily. “I’ll take your place as agent. Leave the doors open and I’ll go on watch. I have to stay up anyway.”

There was a long silence. He did not know whether she was freezing or warming toward him, because he dared not look into her eyes.

“I don’t know who you are,” she said distinctly but plaintively. It was very dark out there on the platform and the night air was growing cold.

“It is the misfortune of obscurity,” he said mockingly. “I am a most humble wayfarer on his way to the high hills. If it will make you feel any more comfortable, madam, I will say that I don’t know who you are. So, you see, we are in the same boat. You are waiting for a man and I am waiting for daylight. I sincerely trust you may not have as long to wait as I. Believe me, I regard myself as a gentleman. You are quite as safe with me as you will be with the agent, or with Mr.—Mr. Dudley, for that matter.”

“You may go home to your wife, Mr. Agent,” she said promptly. “Mr.
Rollins will let the trains through, I’m sure.”

The agent stalked away in the night and the diminutive station was left to the mercy of the wayfarers.

“And now, Mr. Rollins, you may go over in that corner and stretch out on the bench. It will be springless, I know, but I fancy you can sleep. I will call you for the—for breakfast.”

“I’m hanged if you do. On the contrary, I’m going to do my best to fix a comfortable place for you to take a nap. I’ll call you when Mr. Dudley comes.”

“It’s most provoking of him,” she said, as he began rummaging through his steamer trunk. “What are you doing?”

“Hunting out something to make over into a mattress. You don’t mind napping on my clothes, do you? Here’s a soft suit of flannels, a heavy suit of cheviot, a dress suit, a spring coat, and a raincoat. I can rig up a downy couch in no time if—”

“Ridiculous! Do you imagine that I’m going to sleep on your best clothes?
I’m going to sit up.”

“You’ll have to do as I say, madam, or be turned out of the hotel,” said he, with an infectious grin.

“But I insist upon your lying down. You have no reason for doing this for me. Besides, I’m going to sit up. Good-night!”

“You are tired and ready to cry,” he said, calmly going on with his preparations. She stood off defiantly and watched him pile his best clothes into a rather comfortable-looking heap on one of the long benches. “Now, if you don’t mind, I’ll make a pillow of these negligée shirts. They’re soft, you know.”

“Stop! I refuse to accept your—” she was protesting.

“Do you want me to leave you here all alone?” he demanded. “With the country full of tramps and—”

“Don’t! It’s cowardly of you to frighten me. They say the railroads are swarming with tramps, too. Won’t you please go and see if Mr. Dudley is anywhere in sight?”

“It was mean of me, I confess. Please lie down. It’s getting cold. Pull this raincoat over yourself. I’ll walk out and—”

“Oh, but you are a determined person. And very foolish, too. Why should you lose a lot of sleep just for me when—?”

“There is no reason why two men should fail you to-night, Mrs.—Miss—”

“Miss Dering,” she said, humbled.

“When you choose to retire, Miss Dering, you will find your room quite ready,” he said with fine gallantry, bowing low as he stood in the doorway. “I will be just outside on the platform, so don’t be uneasy.”

He quickly faded into the night, leaving her standing there, petulant, furious, yet with admiration in her eyes. Ten minutes later he heard her call. She was sitting on the edge of the improvised couch, smiling sweetly, even timidly.

“It must be cold out there. You must wear this.”

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Categories: English Literature

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