The profoundly mortified William glanced back over his shoulder, bestowing upon Jane a look in which bitterness was mingled with apprehension. But she remained where she was, and did not follow. That was a little to be thankful for, and he found some additional consolation in believing that Miss Pratt had not caught the frightful words, “papa’s cane,” at the beginning of the interview. He was encouraged to this belief by her presently taking from his hand the decoration in question and examining it with tokens of pleasure. “’Oor pitty walk’-’tick,” she called it, with a tact he failed to suspect. And so he began to float upward again; glamors enveloped him and the earth fell away.
He was alone in space with Miss Pratt once more.
The pale end of sunset was framed in the dining-room windows, and Mr. and Mrs. Baxter and the rehabilitated Jane were at the table, when William made his belated return from the afternoon’s excursion. Seating himself, he waived his mother’s references to the rain, his clothes, and probable colds, and after one laden glance at Jane denoting a grievance so elaborate that he despaired of setting it forth in a formal complaint to the Powers—he fell into a state of trance. He took nourishment automatically, and roused himself but once during the meal, a pathetic encounter with his father resulting from this awakening.
“Everybody in town seemed to be on the streets, this evening, as I walked home,” Mr. Baxter remarked, addressing his wife. “I suppose there’s something in the clean air after a rain that brings ’em out. I noticed one thing, though; maybe it’s the way they dress nowadays, but you certainly don’t see as many pretty girls on the streets as there used to be.”
William looked up absently. “I used to think that, too,” he said, with dreamy condescension, “when I was younger.”
Mr. Baxter stared.
“Well, I’ll be darned!” he said.
“Papa, papa!” his wife called, reprovingly.
“When you were younger!” Mr. Baxter repeated, with considerable irritation. “How old d’ you think you are?”
“I’m going on eighteen,” said William, firmly. “I know plenty of cases—cases where—” He paused, relapsing into lethargy.
“What’s the matter with him?” Mr. Baxter inquired, heatedly, of his wife.
William again came to life. “I was saying that a person’s age is different according to circumstances,” he explained, with dignity, if not lucidity. “You take Genesis’s father. Well, he was married when he was sixteen. Then there was a case over in Iowa that lots of people know about and nobody thinks anything of. A young man over there in Iowa that’s seventeen years old began shaving when he was thirteen and shaved every day for four years, and now—”
He was interrupted by his father, who was no longer able to contain himself. “And now I suppose he’s got whiskers!” he burst forth. “There’s an ambition for you! My soul!”