Robert Grant Burns turned harshly to the two women. "Now then, you two go through that scene again. And when you put out your hand to stop Muriel, don't grab at her, Mrs. Gay. Hesitate! You want your son to get the warning, but you've got your doubts about letting her take the risk of going. And, Gay, when you read the letter, try and show a little emotion in your face. You saw how that girl looked --see if you can't get that hurt, bitter look GRADUALLY, as you read. The way she got it. Put in more feeling and not so much motion. You know what I mean; you saw the girl. That's the stuff that gets over. Ready? Camera!"
Jean was just returning wet-lashed from burying the little brown bird under a wild-rose bush near the creek. She had known all along that it would die; everything that she took any interest in turned out badly, it seemed to her. The wonder was that the bird had lived so long after she had taken it under her protection.
All that day her Aunt Ella had worn a wet towel turban-wise upon her head, and the look of a martyr about to enter a den of lions. Add that to the habitual atmosphere of injury which she wore, and Aunt Ella was not what one might call a cheerful companion. Besides, the appearance of the wet towel was a danger signal to Jean's conscience, and forbade any thought of saddling Pard and riding away from the Bar Nothing into her own dream world and the great outdoors. Jean's conscience commanded her instead to hang her riding-clothes in the closet and wear striped percale and a gingham apron, which she hated; and to sweep and dust and remember not to whistle, and to look sympathetic,--which she was not, particularly; and to ask her Aunt Ella frequently if she felt any better, and if there was anything Jean could do for her. There never was anything she could do, but conscience and custom required her to observe the ceremony of asking. Aunt Ella found some languid satisfaction in replying dolorously that there was nothing that anybody could do, and that her part in life seemed to be to suffer.
You may judge what Jean's mood was that day, when you are told that she came to the point, not an hour before the bird died, of looking at her aunt with that little smile at the corners of her eyes and just easing her lips. "Well, you certainly play your part in life with a heap of enthusiasm," she had replied, and had gone out into the kitchen and whistled when she did not feel in the least like whistling. Her conscience knew Jean pretty well, and did not attempt to reprove her for what she had done.
Then she found the bird dead in the little nest she had made for it, and things went all wrong.
She was returning from the burial of the bird, and was trying to force herself back to her normal attitude of philosophic calm, when she saw her Uncle Carl sitting on the edge of the front porch, with his elbows resting loosely upon his knees, his head bowed, and his boot-heel digging a rude trench in the hard-packed earth.
The sight of him incensed her suddenly. Once more she wished that she might get at his brain and squeeze out his thoughts; and it never occurred to her that she would probably have found them extremely commonplace thoughts that strayed no farther than his own little personal business of life, and that they would easily be translated to the dollar sign. His attitude was one of gloomy meditation, and her own mood supplied the subject. She watched him for a minute or two, and his abstraction was so deep that he did not feel her presence.
"Uncle Carl, just how much did the Lazy A cost you?" she asked so abruptly that she herself was surprised at the question. "Or putting it another way, just how many dollars and cents did you spend in defending dad?"