It was a very determined, square-jawed young man that alighted at the Beldingsville station late that Saturday night. And it was an even more determined, square-jawed young man that, before ten o'clock the next morning, stalked through the Sunday-quiet village streets and climbed the hill to the Harrington homestead. Catching sight of a loved and familiar flaxen coil of hair on a well-poised little head just disappearing into the summerhouse, the young man ignored the conventional front steps and doorbell, crossed the lawn, and strode through the garden paths until he came face to face with the owner of the flaxen coil of hair.
"Jimmy!" gasped Pollyanna, falling back with startled eyes. "Why, where did you—come from?"
"Boston. Last night. I had to see you, Pollyanna."
"To—see—m-me?" Pollyanna was plainly fencing for time to regain her composure. Jimmy looked so big and strong and dear there in the door of the summerhouse that she feared her eyes had been surprised into a telltale admiration, if not more.
"Yes, Pollyanna; I wanted—that is, I thought—I mean, I feared—Oh, hang it all, Pollyanna, I can't beat about the bush like this. I'll have to come straight to the point. It's just this. I stood aside before, but I won't now. It isn't a case any longer of fairness. He isn't crippled like Jamie. He's got feet and hands and a head like mine, and if he wins he'll have to win in a fair fight. I've got some rights!"
Pollyanna stared frankly.
"Jimmy Bean Pendleton, whatever in the world are you talking about?" she demanded.
The young man laughed shamefacedly.
"No wonder you don't know. It wasn't very lucid, was it? But I don't think I've been really lucid myself since yesterday—when I found out from Jamie himself."
"Found out—from Jamie!"
"Yes. It was the prize that started it. You see, he'd just got one, and—"
"Oh, I know about that," interrupted Pollyanna, eagerly. "And wasn't it splendid? Just think—the first one—three thousand dollars! I wrote him a letter last night. Why, when I saw his name, and realized it was Jamie—our Jamie —I was so excited I forgot all about looking for my name, and even when I couldn't find mine at all, and knew that I hadn't got any—I mean, I was so excited and pleased for Jamie that I—I forgot—er—everything else," corrected Pollyanna, throwing a dismayed glance into Jimmy's face, and feverishly trying to cover up the partial admission she had made.
Jimmy, however, was too intent on his own problem to notice hers.
"Yes, yes, 'twas fine, of course. I'm glad he got it. But Pollyanna, it was what he said afterward that I mean. You see, until then I'd thought that—that he cared—that you cared—for each other, I mean; and—"
"You thought that Jamie and I cared for each other!" exclaimed Pollyanna, into whose face now was stealing a soft, shy color. "Why, Jimmy, it's Sadie Dean. 'Twas always Sadie Dean. He used to talk of her to me by the hour. I think she likes him, too."
"Good! I hope she does; but, you see, I didn't know. I thought 'twas Jamie—and you. And I thought that because he was—was a cripple, you know, that it wouldn't be fair if I—if I stayed around and tried to win you myself."
Pollyanna stooped suddenly, and picked up a leaf at her feet. When she rose, her face was turned quite away.
"A fellow can't—can't feel square, you know, running a race with a chap that—that's handicapped from the start. So I—I just stayed away and gave him his chance; though it 'most broke my heart to do it, little girl. It just did! Then yesterday morning I found out. But I found out something else, too. Jamie says there is—is somebody else in the case. But I can't stand aside for him, Pollyanna. I can't—even in spite of all he's done for me. John Pendleton is a man, and he's got two whole feet for the race. He's got to take his chances. If you care for him—if you really care for him—"
But Pollyanna had turned, wild-eyed.
"John Pendleton! Jimmy, what do you mean? What are you saying—about John Pendleton?"
A great joy transfigured Jimmy's face. He held out both his hands.
"Then you don't—you don't! I can see it in your eyes that you don't—care!"
Pollyanna shrank back. She was white and trembling.
"Jimmy, what do you mean? What do you mean?" she begged piteously.
"I mean—you don't care for Uncle John, that way. Don't you understand? Jamie thinks you do care, and that anyway he cares for you. And then I began to see it—that maybe he did. He's always talking about you; and, of course, there was your mother—"
Pollyanna gave a low moan and covered her face with her hands. Jimmy came close and laid a caressing arm about her shoulders; but again Pollyanna shrank from him.
"Pollyanna, little girl, don't! You'll break my heart," he begged. "Don't you care for me—any? Is it that, and you don't want to tell me?"
She dropped her hands and faced him. Her eyes had the hunted look of some wild thing at bay.
"Jimmy, do you think—he cares for me—that way?" she entreated, just above a whisper.
Jimmy gave his head an impatient shake.
"Never mind that, Pollyanna,—now. I don't know, of course. How should I? But, dearest, that isn't the question. It's you. If you don't care for him, and if you'll only give me a chance—half a chance to let me make you care for me—" He caught her hand, and tried to draw her to him.
"No, no, Jimmy, I mustn't! I can't!" With both her little palms she pushed him from her.
"Pollyanna, you don't mean you do care for him?" Jimmy's face whitened.
"No; no, indeed—not that way," faltered Pollyanna. "But—don't you see?—if he cares for me, I'll have to—to learn to, someway."
"Don't! Don't look at me like that, Jimmy!"
"You mean you'd marry him, Pollyanna?"
"Oh, no!—I mean—why—er—y-yes, I suppose so," she admitted faintly.
"Pollyanna, you wouldn't! You couldn't! Pollyanna, you—you're breaking my heart."
Pollyanna gave a low sob. Her face was in her hands again. For a moment she sobbed on, chokingly; then, with a tragic gesture, she lifted her head and looked straight into Jimmy's anguished, reproachful eyes.
"I know it, I know it," she chattered frenziedly. "I'm breaking mine, too. But I'll have to do it. I'd break your heart, I'd break mine—but I'd never break his!"
Jimmy raised his head. His eyes flashed a sudden fire. His whole appearance underwent a swift and marvelous change. With a tender, triumphant cry he swept Pollyanna into his arms and held her close.
"Now I know you care for me!" he breathed low in her ear. "You said it was breaking your heart, too. Do you think I'll give you up now to any man on earth? Ah, dear, you little understand a love like mine if you think I'd give you up now. Pollyanna, say you love me—say it with your own dear lips!"
For one long minute Pollyanna lay unresisting in the fiercely tender embrace that encircled her; then with a sigh that was half content, half renunciation, she began to draw herself away.
"Yes, Jimmy, I do love you." Jimmy's arms tightened, and would have drawn her back to him; but something in the girl's face forbade. "I love you dearly. But I couldn't ever be happy with you and feel that—Jimmy, don't you see, dear? I'll have to know—that I'm free, first."
"Nonsense, Pollyanna! Of course you're free!" Jimmy's eyes were mutinous again.
Pollyanna shook her head.
"Not with this hanging over me, Jimmy. Don't you see? It was mother, long ago, that broke his heart—my mother. And all these years he's lived a lonely, unloved life in consequence. If now he should come to me and ask me to make that up to him, I'd have to do it, Jimmy. I'd have to. I couldn't refuse! Don't you see?"
But Jimmy did not see; he could not see. He would not see, though Pollyanna pleaded and argued long and tearfully. But Pollyanna, too, was obdurate, though so sweetly and heartbrokenly obdurate that Jimmy, in spite of his pain and anger, felt almost like turning comforter.
"Jimmy, dear," said Pollyanna, at last, "we'll have to wait. That's all I can say now. I hope he doesn't care; and I—I don't believe he does care. But I've got to know. I've got to be sure. We'll just have to wait, a little, till we find out, Jimmy—till we find out!"
And to this plan Jimmy had to submit, though it was with a most rebellious heart.
"All right, little girl, it'll have to be as you say, of course," he despaired. "But, surely, never before was a man kept waiting for his answer till the girl he loved, and who loved him, found out if the other man wanted her!"
"I know; but, you see, dear, never before had the other man wanted her mother," sighed Pollyanna, her face puckered into an anxious frown.
"Very well, I'll go back to Boston, of course," acceded Jimmy reluctantly. "But you needn't think I've given up—because I haven't. Nor I sha'n't give up, just so long as I know you really care for me, my little sweetheart," he finished, with a look that sent her palpitatingly into retreat, just out of reach of his arms.