Miss Dabney made the necessary show of interest.
“What is it this time—too much business, or not enough?”
Norman rose and went to the edge of the veranda to flick his cigar ash into the flower border. When he came back he took a chair on that side of Miss Dabney farthest from the Major, who was dozing peacefully in a great flat-armed rocker.
“I declare I don’t know, Miss Dabney; he’s got me guessing harder than ever,” he said, lowering his voice. “Since the night when the office burned he’s been miles beyond me. While the carpenters were knocking together the shack we’re in now, he put in the time wandering around the plant and looking as if he had lost something and forgotten what it was. Now that we’ve got into the new office, he shuts himself up for hours on end; won’t see anybody—won’t talk—scamps his meals half the time, and has actually got old Captain Caleb scared stiff.”
“How singular!” said Ardea; but in her heart there was a great pity. “Do you suppose it was his loss in the fire?” she asked.
The manager shook his head.
“No; that was next to nothing, and we’re doing a good business. It was something else; something that happened about the same time. If I can’t find out what it is, I’ll have to quit. He’s freezing me out.”
Ardea was inconsistent enough to oppose the alternative.
“No,” she objected. “You mustn’t do that, Mr. Norman. It is a friend’s part to stand by at such times, don’t you think?”
“Oh, I’m willing,” was the generous reply. “Only I’m a little lonesome; that’s all.”
At another time Norman told her of the mysterious walking delegate, who was admitted to the private office when an anxious and zealous business manager was excluded. Later still, he made a half-confidence. Caleb, in despair at the latest transformation in his son, had finally unfolded his doubts and fears, business-wise, to the manager. The Farleys were returning; a legal notice of a called meeting of the Chiawassee Consolidated had been published; and it was evident that Colonel Duxbury meant to take hold with his hands. And Tom seemed to have forgotten that there was a battle to be fought.
Norman’s recounting of this to Miss Dabney was the merest unburdening of an overloaded soul, and he was careful to garble it so that the prospective daughter-in-law of Colonel Duxbury might not be hurt. But Ardea read between the lines. Could it be possible that Tom’s lifelong enmity for the Farleys, father and son, had even a little justification in fact? She put the thought away, resolutely setting herself the task of disbelieving. Yet, in the conversation which followed, Mr. Frederic Norman was very thoroughly cross-questioned without his suspecting it. Ardea meant to cultivate the open mind, and she did not dream that it was the newly-discovered love which was prompting her to master the intricacies of the business affair.