BUT at second glance—was it Jeff? This man was tanned to a thick even brown in which his eyes were startlingly white. His hands were burned red; there was a scar across one of them; and he was standing with them cockily at his hips, all unlike the sleekly, noisily quiet Jeff of Brooklyn. He was in corduroy trousers and belted corduroy jacket, with a khaki-colored flannel shirt.
But his tranquilly commanding smile was Jeff's, and his lean grace; and Jeff's familiar amused voice greeted her paralyzed amazement with:
"Hello, pard! Ain't I met you some place in Montana?"
"Just landed from Alaska. Had to run up there from California. How are you, little princess?"
His hand was out to her, then both hands, beseechingly, but she did not run to him, as she had at Flathead Lake. She stalked him cautiously, and shook hands—much too heartily. She sought cover in the wing-chair and—much too cordially—she invited:
"Tell me all about it."
He was watching her. Already his old pursuing determination, his steady dignity, were beginning to frighten her. But he calmly dropped into a straight chair, and obliged:
"It's really been quite a lively journey. Didn't know I could like roughing-it so well. And it was real roughing-it, pretty much. Oh, not dangerous at all, but rather vigorous. I had to canoe up three hundred miles of a shallow river, with one Indian guide, making a portage every ten miles or so, and we got tipped over in the rapids now and then—the Big Chief almost got drowned once—and we camped at night in the original place where they invented mosquitoes—and one morning I shot a black bear just in time to keep him from eating my boots."
"Oh!" she sighed in admiration, and "Oh!" again, uneasily.
Nothing had been said about it; Jeff was the last person in the world to spoil his triumph by commenting on it; but both of them knew that they had violently changed places; that now it was she who was the limp indoor-dweller, and he who was the ruddy ranger; that as he had admired her at Flathead Lake, so now it was hers to admire, and his to be serenely heroic.
She was not far from the worshiping sub-deb in her sighing, "How did you get the scar?"
"That? Oh, nothing."
"Please tell me."
"Really and truly. Nothing at all. Just a drunken fellow with a knife, playing the fool. I didn't have to touch him—quite sure he could have given me a frightful beating and all that sort of thing. It was the Big Chief who got rid of him."
"He—cut you? With a kniiiiiife? Ohhhhhhh!"
She ran to him, pityingly stroked the scar, looked down at him with filmy eyes. Then she tried to retreat, but he retained her hand, glanced up at her as though he knew her every thought. She felt weak. How could she escape him? "Please!" she begged flutteringly.
If he held her hand another moment, she trembled, she'd be on his lap, in his arms—lost. And he was holding it. He was——
Oh, he was too old for her. Yes, and too paternal. But still—— Life with Jeff would be protected, kindly, honorable.
Yet all the time she wanted, and stormily knew she wanted, to be fleeing to the boy Milt, her mate; to run away with him, hand in hand, discovering all the colored world, laughing at life, not afraid of losing dignity. In fear of Jeff's very kindliness and honor, she jerked her hand free. Then she tried to smile like a clever fencer.
As she retreated to her chair she stammered, "Did you—— Was Alaska interesting?"
He did not let her go, this time. Easy, cat-like for all his dry gravity, he sauntered after her, and with a fine high seriousness pleaded his case:
"Claire dear, those few weeks of fighting nature were a revelation to me. I'm going to have lots more of it. As it happens, they need me there. There's plenty of copper, but there's big transportation and employment problems that I seem better able to solve than the other chaps—though of course I'm an absolute muff when it comes to engineering problems. But I've had certain training and—I'm going to arrange things so that I get up there at least once a year. Next summer I'll make a much longer trip—see the mountains—oh, glorious mountains—and funny half-Russian towns, and have some fishing—— Wandering. The really big thing. Even finer than your superb plucky trip through——"
"Wasn't plucky! I'm a cry baby," she said, like a bad, contradictory little girl.
He didn't argue it. He smiled and said "Tut!" and placidly catalogued her with, "You're the pluckiest girl I've ever seen, and it's all the more amazing because you're not a motion-picture Tomboy, but essentially exquisite——"
"I'm a grub."
"Very well, then. You're a grub. So am I. And I like it. And when I make the big Alaskan trip next year I want you to go along! Claire! Haven't you any idea how terribly close to me the thought of you has been these weeks? You've guided me through the wilderness——"
"It's—— I'm glad." She sprang up, beseeching, "Jeff dear, you're going to stay for tea? I must run up and powder my nose."
"Not until you say you're glad to see me. Child dear, we've been ambling along and—— No. You aren't a child any more. You're a woman. And if I've never been quite a man, but just a dusty office-machine, that's gone now. I've got the wind of the wilderness in my lungs. Man and woman! My woman! That's all I'm going to say now, but—— Oh my God, Claire, I do need you so!"
He drew her head to his shoulder, and for an instant she rested there. But as she looked up, she saw coming age in the granulated skin of his throat.
"He needs me—but he'd boss me. I'd be the cunning child-wife, even at fifty," she worried, and "Hang him, it's like his superiority to beat poor Milt even at adventuring—and to be such a confounded Modest Christian Gentleman about it!"
"You'd—you're so dreadfully managing," she sighed aloud.
For the first time in all their acquaintanceship, Jeff's pride broke, and he held her away from him, while his lips were pathetic, and he mourned, "Why do you always try to hurt me?"
"Oh, my dear, I don't."
"Is it because you resent the decent things I have managed to do?"
"I don't understand."
"If I have an idea for a party, you think I'm 'managing.' If I think things out deeply, you say I'm dull."
"Oh, you aren't. I didn't mean——"
"What are you? A real woman, or one of these flirts, that love to tease a man because he's foolish enough to be honestly in love?"
"I'm not—hon-estly I'm not, Jeff. It's—— You don't quite make me—— It's just that I'm not in love with you. I like you, and respect you terribly, but——"
"I'm going to make you love me." His clutching fingers hurt her arm, and somehow she was not angry, but stirred. "But I'm not going to try now. Forget the Alaskan caveman. Remember, I haven't even used the word 'love.' I've just chatted about fjords, or whatever they are, but one of these days—— No. I won't do it. I want to stay here in Seattle a few days, and take you on jolly picnics, but—— Would you rather I didn't even do that? I'm——" He dropped her arm, kneaded his forehead with the heel of his palm. "I can't stand being regarded as a bothersome puppy. I can't stand it! I can't!"
"Please stay, Jeff! We'll have some darling drives and things. We'll go up Rainier as far as we can."
He stayed. He was anecdotal and amusing at tea, that afternoon. Claire saw how the Gilsons, and two girls who dropped in, admired him. That made her uneasy. And when Mrs. Gilson begged him to leave his hotel and stay with them, he refused with a quick look at Claire that hurt her.
"He wants me to be free. He's really so much more considerate than Milt. And I hurt him. Even his pride broke down. And I've spoiled Milt's life by meddling. And I've hurt the Gilsons' feelings. And I'm not much of a comfort to father. Oh, I'm absolutely no good," she agonized.