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Without possessing his sensitiveness to impression, Carry was, on her part, quite as vaguely ill at ease. She saw before her one of those men whom the sex would vaguely generalize as "nice," that is to say, correct in all the superficial appointments of style, dress, manners, and feature. Yet there was a decidedly unconventional quality about him: he was totally unlike anything or anybody that she could remember; and as the attributes of originality are often as apt to alarm as to attract people, she was not entirely prepossessed in his favor.
"I can hardly hope," he began pleasantly, "that you remember me. It is eleven years ago, and you were a very little girl. I am afraid I cannot even claim to have enjoyed that familiarity that might exist between a child of six and a young man of twenty-one. I don't think I was fond of children. But I knew your mother very well. I was editor of the AVALANCHE in Fiddletown when she took you to San Francisco."
"You mean my stepmother; she wasn't my mother, you know," interposed Carry hastily.
Mr. Prince looked at her curiously. "I mean your stepmother," he said gravely. "I never had the pleasure of meeting your mother."
"No; MOTHER hasn't been in California these twelve years."
There was an intentional emphasizing of the title and of its distinction that began to interest coldly Prince after his first astonishment was past.
"As I come from your stepmother now," he went on with a slight laugh, "I must ask you to go back for a few moments to that point. After your father's death, your mother--I mean your stepmother-- recognized the fact that your mother, the first Mrs. Tretherick, was legally and morally your guardian and, although much against her inclination and affections, placed you again in her charge."
"My stepmother married again within a month after father died, and sent me home," said Carry with great directness, and the faintest toss of her head.
Mr. Prince smiled so sweetly, and apparently so sympathetically, that Carry began to like him. With no other notice of the interruption he went on, "After your stepmother had performed this act of simple justice, she entered into an agreement with your mother to defray the expenses of your education until your eighteenth year, when you were to elect and choose which of the two should thereafter be your guardian, and with whom you would make your home. This agreement, I think, you are already aware of, and, I believe, knew at the time."
"I was a mere child then," said Carry.
"Certainly," said Mr. Prince, with the same smile. "Still the conditions, I think, have never been oppressive to you nor your mother; and the only time they are likely to give you the least uneasiness will be when you come to make up your mind in the choice of your guardian. That will be on your eighteenth birthday--the twentieth, I think, of the present month."
Carry was silent.
"Pray do not think that I am here to receive your decision, even if it be already made. I only came to inform you that your stepmother, Mrs. Starbottle, will be in town tomorrow, and will pass a few days at the hotel. If it is your wish to see her before you make up your mind, she will be glad to meet you. She does not, however, wish to do anything to influence your judgment.
"Does Mother know she is coming?" said Carry hastily.
"I do not know," said Prince gravely. "I only know that if you conclude to see Mrs. Starbottle, it will be with your mother's permission. Mrs. Starbottle will keep sacredly this part of the agreement, made ten years ago. But her health is very poor; and the change and country quiet of a few days may benefit her." Mr. Prince bent his keen, bright eyes upon the young girl, and almost held his breath until she spoke again.
"Mother's coming up today or tomorrow," she said, looking up.
"Ah!" said Mr. Prince with a sweet and languid smile.
"Is Colonel Starbottle here too?" asked Carry, after a pause.
"Colonel Starbottle is dead. Your stepmother is again a widow."
"Dead!" repeated Carry.
"Yes," replied Mr. Prince. "Your stepmother has been singularly unfortunate in surviving her affections."
Carry did not know what he meant, and looked so. Mr. Prince smiled reassuringly.
Presently Carry began to whimper.
Mr. Prince softly stepped beside her chair.
"I am afraid," he said with a very peculiar light in his eye, and a singular dropping of the corners of his mustache--"I am afraid you are taking this too deeply. It will be some days before you are called upon to make a decision. Let us talk of something else. I hope you caught no cold last evening."
Carry's face shone out again in dimples.
"You must have thought us so queer! It was too bad to give you so much trouble."
"None whatever, I assure you. My sense of propriety," he added demurely, "which might have been outraged had I been called upon to help three young ladies out of a schoolroom window at night. was deeply gratified at being able to assist them in again." The doorbell rang loudly, and Mr. Prince rose. "Take your own time, and think well before you make your decision." But Carry's ear and attention were given to the sound of voices in the hall. At the same moment, the door was thrown open, and a servant announced, "Mrs. Tretherick and Mr. Robinson."
The afternoon train had just shrieked out its usual indignant protest at stopping at Genoa at all as Mr. Jack Prince entered the outskirts of the town, and drove toward his hotel. He was wearied and cynical. A drive of a dozen miles through unpicturesque outlying villages, past small economic farmhouses, and hideous villas that violated his fastidious taste, had, I fear, left that gentleman in a captious state of mind. He would have even avoided his taciturn landlord as he drove up to the door; but that functionary waylaid him on the steps. "There's a lady in the sittin'-room, waitin' for ye." Mr. Prince hurried upstairs, and entered the room as Mrs. Starbottle flew toward him.
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Harte's Short Stories -by- Bret Harte