The lion’s share, by Octave Thanet—A Project Gutenberg eBook (2022)

The Project Gutenberg eBook of The lion's share, by Octave Thanet

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Title: The lion's share

Author: Octave Thanet

Illustrator: Edmund Marion (E. M.) Ashe

Release Date: August 30, 2022 [eBook #68875]

Language: English

Produced by: David E. Brown and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team at https://www.pgdp.net (This file was produced from images generously made available by The Internet Archive)

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The lion’s share, by Octave Thanet—A Project Gutenberg eBook (1)

The lion’s share, by Octave Thanet—A Project Gutenberg eBook (2)

“Yes,” he said quietly, “you are right, it is blood.” Page 99

The lion’s share, by Octave Thanet—A Project Gutenberg eBook (3)

THE LION’S SHARE

By
OCTAVE THANET
Author of
The Man of the Hour, Stories of a Western Town
The Missionary Sheriff
A Book of True Lovers, etc.

With Illustrations by
E. M. ASHE

INDIANAPOLIS
THE BOBBS-MERRILL COMPANY
PUBLISHERS

Copyright 1907
The Bobbs-Merrill Company

October

ROBERT DRUMMOND COMPANY, PRINTERS, NEW YORK

CONTENTS

CHAPTERPAGE
I The Man with the Moles 1
II Aunt Rebecca 25
III The Train Robbers 46
IV The Vanishing of Archie 70
V Blind Clues 83
VI The Voice in the Telephone 100
VII The Haunted House 118
VIII Face to Face 138
IX The Agent of the Fireless Stove 152
X The Smoldering Embers 171
XI The Charm of Jade 195
XII A Blow 212
XIII Whose Feet Were Shod with Silence 245
XIV From Mrs. Melville’s Point of View 254
XVThe Light That Never was 265
XVI The Real Edwin Keatcham 290
XVII In Which the Puzzle Falls Into Place 321
XVIII Casa Fuerte 343
XIX Extract from a Letter 371

Serene, indifferent to fate,

Thou sittest by the Western gate,

Thou seest the white seas fold their tents,

Oh, warder of two continents.

Thou drawest all things small and great

To thee beside the Western gate.

[1]

THE LION’S SHARE

CHAPTER I
THE MAN WITH THE MOLES

The first time that Colonel Rupert Winter sawCary Mercer was under circumstances calculatedto fix the incident firmly in his memory. In theyear 1903, home from the Philippines on furlough,and preparing to return to a task bigenough to attract him in spite of its exile andhardships, he had visited the son of a friend atHarvard. They were walking through the corridorsof one of the private dormitories where theboy roomed. Rather grimly the soldier’s eyeswere noting marble wainscoting and tiled floors,and contrasting this academic environment withhis own at West Point. A caustic comment roseto his lips, but it was not uttered, for he heard thesharp bark of a pistol, followed by a thud, and acrackle as of breaking glass.

“Do you fellows amuse yourselves shooting up[2]the dormitory?” said he. The boy halted; he hadgone white.

“It came from Mercer’s room!” he cried, andran across the corridor to a door with the usuallabeling of two visiting cards. The door was notlocked. Entering, they passed into a vestibule,thence through another door which stood open.For many a day after the colonel could see justhow the slender young figure looked, the shouldersin a huddle on the study table, one armswinging nerveless; beside him, on the floor,a revolver and a broken glass bottle. The lattermust have made the crackling sound. Some darkred liquid, soaking the open sheets of a newspaper,filled the room with the pungent odor of alcohol.Only the top of the lad’s head showed—a curly,silky, dark brown head; but even before the colonellifted it he had seen a few thick drops mattingthe brown curls. He laid the head back gentlyand his hand slipped to the boy’s wrist.

“No use, Ralph,” he said in the subdued tonesthat the voice takes unconsciously in the presenceof death.

“And Endy was going to help him,” almostsobbed Ralph. “He told me he would. Oh, whycouldn’t he have trusted his friends!”

[3]The colonel was looking at the newspaper—“Wasit money?” said he; for a glance at thedabbled sheet had brought him the headings ofthe stock quotations: “Another Sharp Break inStocks. New Low Records.” It had been money.Later, after what needed to be done was over,after doctors and officers of the law were gone,Colonel Winter heard the wretched story. Ayoung, reckless, fatally attractive Southerner,rich friends, college societies, joyous times; nothingreally wicked or vicious, only a surrender toyouth and friendship and pleasure, and then theday of reckoning—duns, college warnings, themenace of black disgrace. The young fellow wasan orphan, with no near kindred save one brothermuch older than he. The brother was reputed tobe rich, according to Southern standards, andyoung Mercer, who had just come into a modestpatrimony of his own, invested in his brother’sventures. As to the character of these ventures,whether flimsy or substantial, the colonel’s informantswere absolutely ignorant. All they knewof the elder Mercer was that he was often in NewYork and had “a lot to do with Wall Street.” Hewasn’t a broker; no, he was trying to raise moneyto hang on to some big properties that he had;[4]and the stocks seemed to be going at remarkablerates just now, the bottom dropping out of themarket. If a certain stock of the Mercers’—theydidn’t know the name—could be kept abovetwenty-seven he would pull through. ColonelWinter made no comment, but he rememberedthat when he had studied the morning’s stock-marketpages for himself, he had noted “badslump in the Southern steels,” and “Tidewateron the toboggan slide; off three to four points,declining from twenty-seven and a fraction totwenty-three.”

“Another victim of the Wall Street pirates,”was the colonel’s silent judgment on the tragedy.“Lucky for her his mother’s dead.”

The next morning he had returned and hadgone to his young friend’s rooms.

The boy was still full of the horror of the daybefore. Mercer’s brother was in Cambridge, hesaid—arrived that morning from New York.“Endy is going to fetch him round to get him outof the reporters’ way sometime this evening;maybe there’s something I can do”—this in explanationof his declining to dine with the colonel.As the two entered the rooms, Winter was a littlein advance, and caught the first glimpse of a man[5]sitting in a big mission arm-chair, his head sunkon his breast. So absorbed was this man in hisown distempered musings that the new-comers’approach did not arouse him. He sat with knittedbrows and clenched hands, staring into vacancy;his rigid and pallid features set in a ghastly intensityof thought. There was suffering in thelook; but there was more: the colonel, who hadbeen living among the serpent passions of theOrient, knew deadly anger when he saw it; it wasbranded on the face before him. Involuntarily hefell back; he felt as if he had blundered in on anaked soul. Noiselessly he slipped out of therange of vision. He spoke loudly, halting to asksome question about the rooms; this made a moment’spause.

It was sufficient; in the study they found aquiet, calm, although rather haggard-looking man,who greeted Winter’s companion courteously,with a Southern accent, and a very good manner.He was presented to the colonel as Mr. Mercer.He would have excused himself, professing thathe was just going, but the colonel took the wordsout of his mouth: “Ralph, here, has a cigar forme—that is all I came for; see you at the Touraine,Ralph, to-morrow for luncheon, then.” He[6]did not see the man again; neither did he seeRalph, although he made good, so far as in himlay, his fiction of an engagement at the Touraine.But Ralph could not come; and Winter hadlunched, instead, with an old friend at his club,and had watched, through a stately Georgian window,the shifting greenery of the Common in aneast wind.

All through the luncheon the soldier’s mindkept swerving from the talk in hand to CaryMercer’s face. Yet he never expected to see itagain. Three years later he did see it; and thissecond encounter, of which, by the way, Mercerwas unconscious, was the beginning of an absorbingchapter in his life. A short space of time thatchapter occupied; yet into it crowded mystery,peril, a wonderful and awful spectacle, the keenesthappiness and the cruelest anxiety. Let his daysbe ever so many, the series of events which followedMercer’s reappearance will not be blurredby succeeding experiences; their vivid and hauntingpictures will burn through commoner andlater happenings as an electric torch flares throughlayers of mist.

Nothing, however, could promise adventureless than the dull and chilly late March evening[7]when the chapter began. Nor could any one beless on the lookout for adventure, or even interest,than was Rupert Winter. In truth, he waslistless and depressed.

When he alighted from his cab in the greatcourt of the Rock Island Station he found Haley,his old orderly, with a hand on the door-hasp.Haley’s military stoicism of demeanor could notquite conceal a certain agitation—at least notfrom the colonel’s shrewd eye, used to catch themoods of his soldiers. He strangled a kind ofsigh. “Doesn’t like it much more than I,” thoughtRupert Winter. “This is mighty kind of you,Haley,” he said.

“Yes, sor,” answered Haley, saluting. Thecolonel grinned feebly. Haley, busy repelling ayouthful porter, did not notice the grin; he strodeahead with the colonel’s world-scarred hand-luggage,found an empty settee beside one of thesquare-tiled columns of the waiting-room and disposedhis burden on the iron-railed seat next thecorner one, which he reserved for the colonel.

“The train ain’t in yet, Colonel,” said he. “I’llbe telling you—”

“No, Haley,” interrupted the colonel, whose liptwitched a little; and he looked aside; “best say[8]good-by now; don’t wait. The fact is, I’m thinkingof too many things you and I have gonethrough together.” He held out his hand; Haley,with a stony expression, gazed past it and saluted,while he repeated: “Yes, sor; I’ll be back to takethe bags whin the train’s made up.” Whereuponhe wheeled and made off with speed.

“Just the same damned obstinate way he’s alwayshad,” chuckled the colonel to himself.Nevertheless, something ached in his throat as hefrowned and winked.

“Oh, get a brace on you, you played-out oldsport!” he muttered. “The game’s on the last fourcards and you haven’t established your suit; you’llhave to sit back and watch the other fellowsplay!” But his dreary thoughts persisted. Rupertwas a colonel in the regular army of theUnited States. He had been brevetted a brigadier-generalafter the Spanish War, and had commanded,not only a brigade, but a division at onecritical time in the Philippines; but for reasonsprobably known to the little knot of politicianswho “hung it up,” although incomprehensible tomost Americans, Congress had failed to pass thebill giving the wearers of brevet titles the right tokeep their hard-won and empty honors; wherefore[9]General Winter had declined to ColonelWinter.

He had more substantial troubles, including awound which would probably make him limpthrough life and possibly retire him from serviceat fifty. It had given him a six months’ sick leave(which he had not wanted), and after spendinga month on the Atlantic coast, he was going forthe spring to the Pacific. Haley, whose own termof service had expired, had not reënlisted, but hadfollowed him, Mrs. Haley and the baby uncomplaininglybringing up the rear. It was not fairto Haley nor to Mrs. Haley, the colonel felt. Hehad told Haley so; he had found a good situationfor the man, and he had added the deed for a littlehouse in the suburbs of Chicago.

If Haley wouldn’t reënlist—there never was abetter soldier since he had downed a foolish younghankering for wild times and whisky—if hewouldn’t go back to the army, where he belonged,let him settle down, take up the honest carpenter’strade that he had abandoned, be a good citizenand marry little Nora to some classmate in thehigh school, who might make a fortune and buildher a Colonial mansion, should the Colonial stillobtain in the twentieth century.

[10]The colonel had spread a grand prospect beforeHaley, who listened unresponsively, a dumb painin his wide blue Irish eyes. The colonel hated it;but, somehow, he hated worse the limp look ofHaley’s back as he watched it dwindle downMichigan Avenue.

However, Mrs. Haley had been more satisfactory,if none the less bewildering. She seemedvery grateful over the house and the three hundreddollars for its furnishing. A birthday present,he had termed it, with a flicker of humorbecause the day was his own birthday. His fiftiethbirthday it happened to be, and it occurred to himthat a man ought to do something a little notableon such an anniversary. This rounding of thehalf-century had attributes apart; it was no mereannual birthday; it marked the last vanishing flutterof the gilded draperies of youth; the witheringof the garlands; the fading tinkle of the lightmusic of hope. It should mark a man’s solidachievements. Once, not so long ago, Winter hadbelieved that his fiftieth birthday would see wideand beneficent and far-reaching results in theprovince where he ruled. That dream was shattered.He was generous of nature, and he couldhave been content to behold another reap the fields[11]which he had sown and tilled; it was the harvest,whether his or another’s, for which he worked;but his had been the bitter office to have to standaside, with no right to protest, and see his workgo to waste because his successor had a feeblebrain and a pusillanimous caution in place ofhis own dogged will. For all these reasons, aswell as others, the colonel found no zest in hisfiftieth birthday; and his reverie drifted dismallyfrom one somber reflection to another until itbrought up at the latest wound to his heart—hisfavorite brother’s death.

There had been three Winter brothers—Rupert,Melville and Thomas. During the past yearboth Thomas Winter and his wife had died, leavingone child, a boy of fourteen, named Archibaldafter his father’s uncle. Rupert Winter and theboy’s great-aunt, the widow of the great-uncle forwhom he had been named, were appointed jointguardians of the young Archie. To-night, in hisjaded mood, he was assailed by reproaches becausehe had not seen more of his ward. Why, he hadn’tso much as looked the little chap up when hepassed through Fairport—merely had sent him aletter and some truck from the Philippines; niceguardian he was! By a natural enough transition,[12]his thoughts swerved to his own brief and not altogetherhappy married life. He thought of thegraves in Arizona where he had left his wife andhis two children, and his heart felt heavy. Toescape musings which grew drearier every second,he cast his eyes about the motley crowdshuffling over the tiled floors or resting in themassive dark oaken seats. And it was then thathe saw Cary Mercer. At first he did not recognizethe face. He only gazed indifferently at twowell-dressed men who sat some paces away fromhim in the shadow of a great tiled column similarto his own. There was this difference, it happened:the mission lantern with its electric bulbsabove the two men was flashing brightly, and bysome accident that above the colonel was dark.He could see the men, himself in the shadow.

The men were rather striking in appearance;they were evidently gentlemen; the taller one wasyoung, well set-up, clean-shaven and quietly butmost correctly dressed. His light brown hairshowed a slight curl in its closely clipped locks;his gray-blue eyes had long lashes of browndarker than his hair; his teeth were very white,and there was a dimple in his cheek, plain whenhe smiled. Had his nose been straight he would[13]have been as handsome as a Greek god, but thenose was only an ordinary American nose, rathertoo broad at the base; moreover, his jaw was alittle too square for classic lines. Nevertheless, hewas good to look upon, as well as strong and cleanand wholesome, and when his gray-blue eyesstrayed about the room the dimple dented hischeek and his white teeth gleamed in a kind ofmerry good-nature pleasant to see. But it was theother man who held the colonel’s eye. This manwas double the young man’s age, or near that; hewas shorter, although still of fair stature, andslim of build. His face was oval in contour anddelicate of feature. Although he wore no glasses,his brow had the far pucker of a near-sighted man.There was a mole on his cheek-bone and anotherjust below his ear. Both were small, rather thanlarge, and in no sense disfiguring; but the colonelnoted them absently, being in the habit of photographinga man in a glance. The face had beauty,distinction even, yet about it hung some association,sinister as a poison label.

“Now, where,” said the colonel to himself,“where have I seen that man?” Almost instantlythe clue came to him. “By Jove, it’s the brother!”he exclaimed. Three years ago, and he had almost[14]forgotten; but here was Cary Mercer—the namecame to him after a little groping—here he wasagain; but who was the pleasant youngster withhim? And what were they discussing with so littleapparent and so much real earnestness?

One of the colonel’s physical gifts was an extraordinaryacuteness of hearing. It passed themark of a faculty and became a marvel. Part ofthis uncanny power was really due, not to hearingalone, but to an alliance with another sense,because Winter had learned the lip language inhis youth; he heard with his eyes as well as hisears. This combination had made an unintentionaland embarrassed eavesdropper out of anhonest gentleman a number of times. To set offsuch evil tricks it had saved his life once on theplains and had rescued his whole command anothertime in the Philippines. While he studiedthe two faces a sentence from the younger mangripped his attention. It was: “I don’t mind therisk, but I hate taking such an old woman’smoney.”

“She has a heap,” answered the other mancarelessly; “besides—” He added something withaverted head and in too low a voice to reach thelistener unassisted. But it was convincing, evidently,[15]since the young man’s face grew bothgrave and stern. He nodded, muttering: “Oh, Iunderstand; I wasn’t backing water; I know wehave lost the right to be squeamish. But I say,old chap, how long since Mrs. Winter has seenyou? Would she recognize you?”

The colonel, who had been about to abandonhis espionage as unbecoming a soldier and a gentleman,stowed away all his scruples at the mentionof the name. He pricked up his ears andsharpened his eyes, but was careful lest theyshould catch his glance. The next sentence, owingto the speaker’s position, was inaudible and invisible;but he clearly caught the young man’sresponse:

“You’re sure they’ll be on this train?”

And he saw the interlocutor’s head nod.

“The boy’s with them?”

An inaudible reply, but another nod.

“And you’re sure of Miss Smith?”

This time the other’s profile was toward thelistener, who heard the reply, “Plumb sure. Iwish I were as sure of some other things. Havewe settled everything? It is better not to be seentogether.”

“Yes, I think you’ve put me wise on the main[16]points. By the way, what is the penalty for kidnapping?”

Again an averted head and hiatus, followed bythe younger man’s sparkling smile and exclamation:“Wow! Riskier than foot-ball—and evenmore fun!” Something further he added, but hisarms hid his mouth as he thrust them into hisgreatcoat, preparing to move away. He wentalone; and the other, after a moment’s gloomymeditation, gathered up coat and bag and followed.During that moment of arrested decision,however, his features had dropped into sinisterlines which the colonel remembered.

“Dangerous customer, or I miss my guess,”mused the soldier, who knew the passions of men.“I wonder—they couldn’t mean my Aunt Rebecca?She’s old; she has millions of money—butshe’s not on this train. And there’s no MissSmith in our deck. I’m so used to plotting I gooff on fake hikes! Probably I’m getting old anddotty. Mercer, poor fellow, may have his brainturned and be an anarchist or a bomb-thrower ora dirty kidnapper for revenge; but that boy’s adecent chap; I’ve licked too many second lieutenantsinto shape not to know something of youngsters.”

The lion’s share, by Octave Thanet—A Project Gutenberg eBook (4)

“By the way what is the penalty for kidnapping?” Page 16

[17]He pushed the idea away; or, rather, his ownproblems pushed it out of his mind, which wentback to his ward and his single living brother.Melville had no children, only his wife’s daughters,who were both married—Melville havingmarried a widow with a family, an estate and amind of her own. Melville was a professor in astate university, a mild, learned man whom natureintended for science but whom his wife was determinedto make into the president of the university.

“Even money which will win,” chuckled RupertWinter to himself. “Millicent hasn’t muchtact; but she has the perseverance of the saints.She married Mel; he doesn’t know, but she surelydid. And she bosses him now. Well, I supposeMel likes to be bossed; he never had any strenuousopinions except about the canals of Mars—Valgamedios!”

With a gasp the colonel sprang to his feet.There before him, in the flesh, was his sister-in-law.Her stately figure, her Roman profile, hergracefully gesticulating hand, which indicated thecolonel’s position to her heavily laden attendant,a lad in blue—these he knew by heart just as heknew that her toilet for the journey would be in[18]the latest mode, and that she would have the latestfashion of gait and mien. Millicent studied suchthings.

She waved her luggage into place—an excellentplace—in the same breath dismissing the porterand instructing him when he must return.Then, but not until then, did she turn graciouslyto her brother-in-law.

“I hoped that I should find you, Bertie,” shesaid in a voice of such creamy richness that it washard to credit the speaker with only three shorttrips to England. “Melville said you were to takethis train; and I was so delighted, so relieved! Iam in a most harassing predicament, my dearBertie.”

“That’s bad,” murmured the colonel withsympathetic solicitude: “what’s the trouble?Couldn’t you get a section?”

“I have my reservations, but I don’t knowwhether I shall go to-night.”

“Maybe I’m stupid, Millicent, but I confess Idon’t know what you mean.”

“Really, there’s no reason why you should,Bertie. That’s why I was so anxious to see you—intime, so that I might explain to you—mightput you on your guard.”

[19]“Yes?” the colonel submitted; he never hurrieda woman.

“I’m going to visit dear Amy—you remembershe was married two years ago and lives in Pasadena;she has a dear little baby and the loveliesthome! It’s charming. And she was so delightedwith your wedding gift, it was so original. Amynever did care for costly things; these simple,unique gifts always pleased her. Of course, mymain object is to see the dear child, but I shall notgo to-night unless Aunt Rebecca Winter is on thetrain. If for any reason she waits over until to-morrowI shall wait also.”

“Ah,” sighed the colonel very softly, not stirringa muscle of his politely attentive face; “anddoes Aunt Rebecca expect to go on the train?”

“They told me at the Pullman office that shehad the drawing-room, the state-room and twosections. Of course, she has her maid with herand Archie—”

“Does he go, too?” the colonel asked, his eyesnarrowing a little.

“Yes, she’s taking him to California; he doesn’tseem well enough, she thinks, to go to school, sohe is to have a tutor out there. I’m a little afraidAunt Rebecca mollycoddles the boy.”

[20]“Aunt Rebecca never struck me as a molly-coddler.I always considered her a tolerablycynical old Spartan. But do you mean there isany doubt of their going? Awfully good of youto wait to see if they don’t go, but I’m sure AuntRebecca wouldn’t want you to sacrifice your section—”

Mrs. Melville lifted a shapely hand in a Delsartiangesture of arrest; her smiling words werethe last the colonel had expected. “Hush, dearBertie; Aunt Rebecca doesn’t know I am going.I don’t want her to know until we are on thetrain.”

“Oh, I see, a surprise?” But he did not see;and, with a quiet intentness, he watched the colorraddle Mrs. Melville’s smooth cheeks.

“Hardly,” returned the lady. “The truth is,Bertie, Melville and I are worried about Aunt Rebecca.She, we fear, has fallen under the influenceof a most plausible adventuress; I supposeyou have heard of her companion, Miss Smith?”

“Can’t say I have exactly,” said the colonelplacidly, but his eyes narrowed again. “Who isthe lady?”

“I thought—I am sure Melville must havewritten you. But— Oh, yes, he wrote yesterday[21]to Boston. Well, Bertie, Miss Smith is a Southerner;she says she is a South Carolinian, butAunt Rebecca picked her up in Washington,where she was with a kind of cousin of ours whowas half crazy. Miss Smith took care of her andshe died”—she fixed a darkling eye on the soldier—“shedied and she left Miss Smith money.”

“Much?”

“A few thousands. That is how Aunt Rebeccamet her, and she pulled the wool over auntie’seyes, and they came back together. She’s awfullyclever.”

“Young? Pretty?”

“Oh, dear, no. And she’s nearer forty thanthirty. Just the designing age for a woman whenshe’s still wanting to marry some one but beginningto be afraid that she can’t. Then such creaturesalways try to get money. If they can’tmarry it, and there’s no man to set their caps for,they try to wheedle it out of some poor foolwoman!” Millicent was in earnest, there was nodoubt of that; the sure sign was her unconsciousreturn to the direct expressions of her early lifein the Middle West.

“And you think Miss Smith is trying to influenceAunt Rebecca?”

[22]“Of course she is; and Aunt Rebecca is eighty,Rupert. And often while people of her age showno other sign of weakening intellect, they are notwell regulated in their affections; they take fanciesto people and get doting and clinging. She isgetting to depend on Miss Smith. Really, thatwoman has more influence with her than all therest of us together. She won’t hear a word againsther. Why! when I tried to suggest how little weknew about Miss Smith and that it would be betternot to trust her too entirely, she positively resentedit. Of course I used tact, too. I was sohurt, so surprised!” Mrs. Millicent was plainlyaggrieved.

The colonel, who had his own opinion of thetact of his brother’s wife, was not so surprised;but he made an inarticulate sound which mightpass for sympathy.

“We’ve been worried a good deal,” pursuedMrs. Melville, “about the way Aunt Rebecca hasacted. She wouldn’t stay in Fairport, where wecould have some influence over her. She wasalways going south or going to the sea-shore or goingsomewhere. Sometimes I suspect Miss Smithmade her, to keep her away from us, you know.”

“Well, as long as I have known Aunt Rebecca—anyhow,[23]ever since Uncle Archibald died—shehas been restless and flying about.”

“Not as she is now. And then she only had hermaid—”

“Oh, yes, Randall; she’s faithful as they make’em. What does she say about Miss Smith?”

“Bertie, she’s won over Randall. Randallswears by her. Oh, she’s deep!”

“Seems to be. But—excuse me—what’s yourgame, Millicent? How do you mean to protectour aged kinswoman and, incidentally, of course,the Winter fortune?”

“I shall watch, Bertie; I shall be on my guardevery waking hour. That deluded old woman isin more danger, perhaps, than you dream.”

“As how?”

“Miss Smith”—her voice sank portentously—“wasa trained nurse.”

“What harm does that do—unless you thinkshe would know too much about poisons?” Thecolonel laughed.

“It’s no laughing matter, Bertie. Rebecca is sorich and this other woman is so poor, and, in myestimation, so ambitious. I make no insinuations,I only say she needs watching.”

“You may be right about that,” said the colonel[24]thoughtfully. “There is Haley and the boy foryour bags!”

The boy picked up the big dress-suit case, thesmaller dress-suit case and the hat case, hegrabbed the bundle of cloaks, the case of umbrellas,and the lizard-skin bag. Dubiously heeyed the colonel’s luggage, as he tried to disengagea finger.

“Niver moind, young feller,” called Haley, peremptorilywhisking away the nearest piece, “I’llhelp you a bit with yours, instead; you’ve a load,sure!”

Mrs. Melville explained in an undertone: “Itake all the hand-luggage I possibly can; the over-weightcharges are wicked!”

“Haley, they won’t let you inside without aticket,” objected the colonel. But Haley, unheeding,strode on ahead of the staggering youth.

“I have an English bath-tub, locked, of course,and packed with things, but he has put that in thecar,” said Mrs. Melville.

“Certainly,” said the colonel absently; he wasthinking: Mrs. Winter, the boy, Miss Smith—howridiculously complete! Decidedly somethingwill bear watching.

[25]

CHAPTER II
AUNT REBECCA

No sooner was Mrs. Melville ushered into hersection than the colonel went through the train.He was not so suspicious as he told himself hemight have been, with such a dovetailing of circumstancesinto his accidentally captured information;he couldn’t yet read villainy on that collegelad’s frank face. But no reason, therefore, to neglectprecautions. “Hope the best of men and preparefor the worst,” was the old campaigner’smotto.

A walk through the cars showed him no signsof the two men. It was a tolerably complete inspection,too. There was only one drawing-roomor state-room of which he did not manage to geta glimpse—the closed room being the property ofa very great financial magnate, whose private carwas waiting for him in Denver. His door wasfast, and the click of the type-writer announcedthe tireless industry of our rulers.

But if he did not find the college boy or the man[26]with the moles he did get a surprise for his walk;namely, the sight of the family of Haley, andHaley himself beside their trig, battered luggage,in a section of the car next his own. Mrs.Haley turned a guilty red, while Haley essayed astolid demeanor.

“What does this mean?” demanded the colonel.

“Haley felt he would have to go with you, Colonel,”replied Mrs. Haley, who had timid, wide,blue eyes and the voice of a bird, but a courageunder her panic, as birds have, too, when theirnests are in peril. “We’ve rinted the house to agood man with grown-up children, and Haley canget a job if you won’t want him.”

“Yis, sor,” mumbled Haley. He was standingat attention, as was his wife, the toddling Norabeing held in the posture of respect on the plushseat.

“And I suppose you took the furniture moneyto buy tickets?”

“Yis, sor.”

“And you’re bound to go with me?”

“Yis, sor,” said Haley.

“You ought to be ashamed of yourself, Sergeant,”said the colonel; but he was glad at theheart of him for this mutinous loyalty.

[27]“Yis, sor,” said Haley.

“Well, since you are here, I engage you fromto-day, you understand.”

“Yis, sor,” said Haley. Mrs. Haley whimpereda blessing; but the only change in the soldier wasthat his military stolidity became natural and realinstead of forced.

“Sit down on this seat over here with me andI’ll tell you what I want. You fraud, letting mesay good-by to you—”

“I didn’t want to take the liberty, sor, but youmade me shake hands. I was afraid you’d catchon, sor. ’Tis a weight off me moind, sor.”

“I dare say. You always have your way withme, you old mule. Now listen; I want you to beon the watch for two men”—thereupon the coloneldescribed his men, laying special stress on themoles on the face of one, and the other’s dimple.

Having set Haley his tasks, he went back to hiscar in better spirits.

By this time the train was moving. He hadseen his kinswoman and her party enter; and hefound the object of Mrs. Melville’s darksomewarnings sitting with a slender lad in the mainbody of the car. Aunt Rebecca was in the drawing-room,her maid with her. Mrs. Melville, who[28]had already revealed her presence, sat across theaisle. She presented the colonel at once.

Miss Smith did not look formidable; she looked“nice,” thought the colonel. She was of mediumheight; she was obviously plump, although wellproportioned; her presence had an effect of radiantcleanliness, her eyes were so luminous and herteeth so fine and her white shirt-waist so immaculate.There was about her a certain soft illuminationof cheerfulness, and at the same time a restfulrepose; she moved in a leisurely fashion andshe sat perfectly still. “I never saw any one wholooked less of an adventuress,” Winter was thinking,as he bowed. Then swiftly his glance wentto the lad, a pale young fellow with hazel eyes anda long slim hand which felt cold.

The boy made a little inarticulate sound in histhroat and blushed when Colonel Winter addressedhim. But he looked the brighter for theblush. It was not a plain face; rather an interestingone in spite of its listlessness and its sicklypallor; its oval was purely cut, the delicate mouthwas closed firmly enough, and the hazel eyes withtheir long lashes would be beautiful were they notso veiled.

“He has the Winter mouth, at least,” noted the[29]colonel. He felt a novel throb at his heart. Hadhis own boy lived, the baby that died when it wasborn, he would be only a year older than Archie.At least, this boy was of his own blood. Withoutfather or mother, but not alone in the world; and,if any danger menaced, not without defenders.The depression which had enveloped him liftedas mist before the sun, burned away by the merethought of possible difficulties. “We will see ifany one swindles you out of your share,” saidRupert Winter, compressing the Winter mouthmore firmly, “or if those gentlemanly kidnappersmean you.”

His ebbing suspicion of the boy’s companionrevived; he would be on his guard, all right.

“Aunt Rebecca wants to see you,” Mrs. Melvillesuggested. “She is in the drawing-room withher solitaire.”

“Still playing Penelope’s Web?”

“Oh, she always comes back to it. But sheplays bridge, too; Rupert, I hear your game is awonder. Archie’s been learning, so he could playwith you.”

“Good for Archie!”—he shot a glance and asmile at the lad’s reddening face—“we’ll have agame.”

[30]“Lord, I wish he didn’t look quite so ladylike,”he was grumbling within, as he dutifully made hisway to his aunt’s presence.

The electric lights flooded the flimsy railwaytable on which were spread rows of small-sizedcards. An elderly lady of quality was musingover the pasteboard rows. A lady of quality—thatwas distinctly the phrase to catch one’s fancyat the first glimpse of Mrs. Winter. Not an agedlady, either, for even at eighty that elegantlymoulded, slim figure, that abundance of silveryhair—parted in the middle and growing thickly oneach side in nature’s own fashion, which art cannot counterfeit, as well as softly puffed andmassed above—that exquisitely colored and texturedskin, strangely smooth for her years, withtiny wrinkles of humor, to be sure, about the eyes,but with cheeks and skin unmarred; that fine,firmly carved profile, those black eyebrows andlashes and still brilliant dark eyes; most of all thaterect, alert, dainty carriage, gave no impressionof age; but they all, and their accessories of toiletand manner, and a little prim touch of an older,more reticent day in both dress and bearing, recalledthe last century phrase.

A soft gray bunch of chinchilla fur lay where[31]she had slipped it on her soft gray skirts; onehand rested in the fur—her left hand—and on thethird finger were the only rings which she wore, aband of gold, worn by sixty years, and a wonderfulruby, wherein (at least such was Rupert’sphantasy) a writhing flame was held captive byits guard of diamond icicles. The same rings admiredby her nephew ever since he was a cadet—justthe same smiling, inscrutable, high-bred, unchangingold dame!

“Good evening, Aunt Rebecca; not a dayolder!” said the colonel.

“Good evening, Bertie,” returned the lady, extendinga hand over the cards; “excuse my notrising to greet you; I might joggle the cards. Ofcourse I’m not a day older; I don’t dare to growolder at my age! Sit down. I’m extremely gladto see you; I’ve a heap to talk to you about. Doyou mind if I run this game through first?”

The colonel didn’t mind. He raised the profferedhand to his lips; such homage seemed quitethe most natural act in the world with Mrs. Winter.And he unobtrusively edged his own lean andwiry person into the vacant seat opposite her.

“How far are you going?” said she, after a fewmoves of the cards.

[32]“My ticket says Los Angeles; but it had to saysomething, so I chose Los Angeles for luck; I’man irresponsible tramp now, you know; and I maydrop off almost anywhere. You are for southernCalifornia, aren’t you?”

“Eventually; but we shall stop at San Franciscofor two or three weeks.”

“Do you mind if I stop off with you? I wantto get acquainted with my ward,” said the colonel.

“That’s a good idea, Bertie.”

“He seems rather out of sorts; you aren’t worriedabout—well, tuberculosis or that sort ofthing?”

“I am worried about just that sort of thing;although the doctor says nothing organic at all isthe matter with him; but he is too melancholy fora boy; he needs rousing; losing his father andmother in one year, you know, and he was devotedto them. I can’t quite make him out, Bertie; hehasn’t the Winter temperament. I suppose he hasa legal right to his mother’s nature; but it is veryannoying. It makes him so much harder to understand—notthat she wasn’t a good woman whomade Tom happy; but she wasn’t a Winter.However, Janet has brightened him up considerably—you’ve[33]seen Janet—Miss Smith? What doyou think of her?”

Winter said honestly that she was very nice-lookingand that she looked right capable; he fellinto the idiom of his youth sometimes when witha Southerner.

“She is,” said Aunt Rebecca.

“Where did you find her?” asked the colonelcarelessly, inspecting the cards.

Aunt Rebecca smiled. “I thought Millicentwould have given you all the particulars. She wasnurse, secretary, companion and diet cook toCousin Angela Nelson; when she died I got her.Lucky for me.”

“So I should judge,” commented the colonelpolitely.

“I presume Millicent has told you that she is anadventuress and after my money and a heap morestuff. If she hasn’t she will. Get a notion once inMillicent’s head and a surgical operation is necessaryto dislodge it! Janet is the only mortal personwho could live with poor Cousin Angela, whohad enough real diseases to kill her and enoughimaginary ones to kill anybody who lived withher! Janet made her comfortable, would notstand everything on earth from her—though she[34]did stand a heap—and really cared for her. Whenshe died Cousin Angela left her some money; notvery much, but a few thousands. She would haveleft her more, but Janet wouldn’t let her. She leftsome to some old servants, who surely deserved itfor living with her, some to charities and the restto her sisters, who hadn’t put a foot inside thehouse for fifteen years, but naturally resented hernot giving them everything. I reckon they filledMillicent up with their notions.” She pushed theoutspread cards together.

“You had several moves left,” said the colonel.

“Four. But then, I was finished. Bertie, youplay bridge, of course; and I used to hear of yourwhist triumphs; how did you happen to take towhist?”

“To fill up the time, I reckon. I began it yearsago. Now a soldier’s life is a great deal morevaried, because a man will be shifted around andget a show of the different kinds of service. Andthere are the exams, and the Philippines—oh,plenty of diversions. But in the old days a man inthe line was billed for an awfully stupid time. Ididn’t care to take to drink; and I couldn’t read asyou do if I’d had books, which I hadn’t, so I tookto playing cards. I played skat and poker and[35]whist, and of late years I’ve played bridge. Millicentplays?”

“Millicent is a celebrated player. She was agreat duplicate-whist player, you know. To seeMillicent in her glory, one should play duplicatewith her. I’m only a chump player; my sole objectis to win tricks.”

“What else should it be?”

Aunt Rebecca smiled upon him. “To give informationto your partner. The main object ofthe celebrated American-leads system is signalinginformation to your partner. Incidentally, onetells the adversaries, as well as one’s partner,which, however, doesn’t count really as much asyou might think; for most people don’t noticewhat their partners play very much, and don’tnotice what their adversaries play at all. Millicentis always so busy indicating things to her partnerand watching for his signals and his indicationsthat you can run a cross ruff in on her without hersuspecting. She asked me once if she didn’t playan intelligible game, and I told her she did; a babein arms could understand it. She didn’t seemquite pleased.”

“How about Archie? Can he play a goodgame?”

[36]“Very fair for a boy of fourteen; he was fondof whist until his troubles came,” said Mrs. Winter,with a faint clouding of her keen gaze.“Since then he hasn’t taken much interest in anything.Janet has brightened him up more thanany one; and when he heard you were comingthat did rouse him. You are one of his heroes.He’s that sort of a boy,” she added, with a tingeof impatience in her soft Southern voice. As ifto divert her thoughts, she began deftly movingthe cards before her. Her hands showed the blueveins more prominently than they show in younghands. This was their only surrender to time;they were shapely and white, and the slim fingerswere as straight as when the beaux of FairfaxCounty would have ridden all day for a chance tokiss them.

The colonel watched the great ruby wink andglow. The ruby was a part of his memories ofhis aunt; she had always worn it. He rememberedit, when she used to come and visit him atthe hotel at West Point, dazzling impartially officers,professors, cadets and hotel waiters. Wasthat almost forty years ago? Well, thirty-four,anyhow! She had been very good, very generousto all the young Winters, then. Indeed, although[37]she never quite forgave him for not marrying thewife of her selecting, she had always been kindand generous to Rupert; yet, somehow, while hehad admired and found a humorous joy in hisAunt Rebecca, he wondered if he had ever lovedher. She was both beautiful and brilliant whenshe was young, a Southern belle, a Northern societyleader; her life was full of conquests; herfootsteps, which had wandered over the world,had left a phosphorescent wake of admiration.She had always been a personage. She was apower in Washington after the war; they hadfound her uniquely delightful in royal courts longbefore Americans were the fashion; she had beenof importance in New York, and they had lovedher epigrams in Boston; now, in her old age, sheheld a veritable little court of her own in the provincialWestern city which had been her husband’shome. He went to Congress from Fairport;he had made a fortune there, and when hedied, many years ago, in Egypt, back to his Westernhome, with dogged determination and lavishexpenditures of both money and wit, his widowhad brought him to rest. The most intense andsolemn experience of a woman she had missed,for no children had come to them, but her husband[38]had been her lover so long as he lived, andshe had loved him. She had known great men;she had lived through wonderful events; andoften her hand had been on those secret leverswhich move vast forces. She had been in tragedies,if an inviolable coolness of head, perhaps ofheart, had shielded her from being of them. Thehusband of her youth, the nearest of her blood, thefriends of her middle life—all had gone into thedark; yet here she sat, with her smooth skin andher still lustrous eyes and her fragrant hands,keenly smiling over her solitaire. The colonelwondered if he could ever reconcile himself withsuch philosophy to his own narrowed and emptiedlife; she was older than he, yet she could stillfind a zest in existence. All the great passionsgone; all the big interests; and still her clevermind was working, happy, possibly, in its mereexercise, disdaining the stake, she who had hadevery success. What a vitality! He looked ather, puzzling. Her complexity bewildered him,he not being of a complex nature himself. As helooked, suddenly he found himself questioningwhy her face, in its revival of youthful smoothnessand tint, recalled some other face, recentlystudied by him—a face that had worn an absolutely[39]different expression; having the same delicateaquiline nose, the same oval contour, thesame wide brows—who? who? queried the colonel.Then he nodded. Of course; it was the manwith the moles, the brother. He looked enoughlike Mrs. Winter to be her kinsman. At once heput his guess to the test. “Aunt Becky,” said he,“have you any kin I don’t know about?”

“I reckon not. I’m an awfully kinless oldparty,” said she serenely. “I was a Winter, bornas well as married, and so you and Mel and Archieare double kin to me. I was an only child, so Ihaven’t anything closer than third or fourthcousins, down in Virginia and Boston.”

“Have you, by chance, any cousin, near or far,named Mercer?”

Resting her finger-tips on the cards, Aunt Rebeccaseemed to let her mind search amid Virginianand Massachusetts genealogical tables.“Why, certainly,” she answered after a pause,“there was General Philemon Mercer—Confederatearmy, you know—and his son, Sam Nelson;Phil was my own cousin and Sam Nelson my second,and Sam Nelson’s sons would be my third,wouldn’t they? Phil and Sam are both dead, andWinnie Lee, the daughter, is dead, and poor Phil—the[40]grandson, you know—poor boy, he shothimself while at Harvard; but his brother Cary isalive.”

“Do you know him?”

“Never saw him but once or twice. He hasvery good manners.”

“Is he rich?”

“He was, but after he had spent his youthworking with incredible industry and a great dealof ability to build up a steel business and had putit into a little combination—not a big trust, justa genuine corporation—some of the financialprinces wanted it for a club—to knock down biggergame, I reckon—and proceeded to cheapenthe stock in order to control it. Cary held on desperately,bought more than he could hold, mortgagedeverything else; but they were too big forhim to fight. It was in 1903, you know, whenthey had an alleged financial panic, and scared thebanks. Cary went to the wall, and Phil with him,and poor Phil killed himself. Afterward Cary’swife died; he surely did have a mean time. And,to tell you the truth, Bertie, I think there has beena little kink in Cary’s mind ever since.”

“Did you hold any of Cary’s stock?” He waspiecing his puzzle together.

[41]“Yes, but my stock was all paid for, and I heldon to it; now it is over par and paying dividends.Oh, the property was all right, had it been keptin honest hands and run for itself. The troublewith Cary was that in order to keep control of theproperty he bought a lot of shares on margins,and when they began to run downhill, he wasobliged to borrow money on his actual holdingsto protect his fictitious ones. The stock went solow that he was wiped out. He wouldn’t take myadvice earlier in the game; and I knew that itwould only be losing money to lend it to him,later—still, sometimes I have been rather sorryI didn’t. Would I better try the spade, Bertie, orthe diamond?”

The colonel advised the spade. He wonderedwhether he should repeat to his aunt the fewsentences which he had overheard from Mercerand his companion; but a belief that old age worrieseasily, added to his natural man’s disinclinationto attack the feminine nerves, tipped thescales against frankness. So, instead, he began totalk about Archie; what was he like? was he fondof athletics? or was he a bookish lad? Aunt Rebeccareported that he had liked riding and golf;but he was not very rugged, and since his father’s[42]death he had seemed listless to a degree. “Buthe is better now,” she added with a trace of eagernessquite foreign to her usual manner. “JanetSmith has roused him up; and what do you supposeshe has done? But really, you are the cause.”

“I?” queried the colonel.

“Just you. Archie, Janet argued, is the kind ofnature that must have some one to be devoted to.”

“And has he taken a fancy to her? Or to you?”

Aunt Rebecca’s eyes dulled a little and her delicatelips were twisted by a smile which had morewistfulness than humor in it. “I’m not a lovableperson; anyhow, he does not love easily. We areon terms of the highest respect, even admiration,but we haven’t got so far as friendship, far lesscomradeship. Janet is different. But I don’t meanJanet; she has grown absurdly fond of him; andI think he’s fond of her; but what she did was tomake him fond of you. You, General RupertWinter; why, that boy could pass an examinationon your exploits and not miss a question. Janetand he have a scrap-book with every printed wordabout you, I do believe. And she has been amazinglyshrewd. We didn’t know how to get theyoungster back to his sports while he was out ofschool; and, in fact, an old woman like me is[43]rather bewildered by such a young creature, anyhow;but Janet rode with him; you are a remarkablerider; I helped there, because I rememberedsome anecdotes about you at West Point—”

“But, my dear Aunt—”

“Don’t interrupt, Bertie, it’s a distinctly Americanhabit. And we read in the papers that youhad learned that Japanese trick fighting—jiu-jitsu—andwere a wonder—”

“I’m not, I assure you; that beast of a newspaperman—”

“Never mind, if you are not a wonder, you’llhave to be; you can take lessons in Los Angeles;there are quantities of Japs there. Why, even inChicago, Janet picked up one, and we importedhim, and Archie took lessons, and practises everyday. There’s a book in my bag, in the rack there,a very interesting book; Janet and I have bothread it so we could talk to Archie. You wouldbetter skim it over a little if you really aren’t anexpert, enough so you can talk jiu-jitsu, anyhow;we can’t be destroying Archie’s ideals until hegets a better appetite.”

“Well, upon my word!” breathed the colonel.“Do you expect me to be a fake hero? I nevertook more than two lessons in my life. That reporter[44]interviewed my teacher, who was killed inthe Japanese War, by the way; he went to thearmy after my second lesson. He didn’t know anyEnglish beyond ‘yes’ and ‘if you please’; and heused them both on the reporter, who let his ownfancy go up like a balloon. Well, where is thebook?”

He found it easily; and with a couple of volumesof another kidney, over which he grinned.

The Hound of the Baskervilles and TheLeavenworth Case! I’ve read them, too,” he said;“they’re great! And do you still like detectivestories? You would have made a grand sleuthyourself, Aunt Becky.” Again he had half a mindto speak of the occurrence at the station; againhe checked the impulse. “I remember,” he added,“that you used to hold strenuous opinions.”

“You mean my thinking that the reason crimesescape discovery is not that criminals are sobright, but that detectives in general are soparticularly stupid? Oh, yes, I think that still.So does Sir Conan Doyle. And I have oftenwished I could measure my own wits, once, witha really fine criminal intellect. It would be worththe risk.”

“God forbid!” said the colonel hastily.

[45]There came a tap on the door.

“Millicent!” groaned Aunt Rebecca. “I knowthe creaking of her stays. No, don’t stay, Bertie;go and get Janet and a rescue bridge party asquick as you can!”

“The original and only Aunt Rebecca,” thoughtthe colonel at the door, smiling. But, somehow,the handsome old dame never had seemed sonearly human to him before.

[46]

CHAPTER III
THE TRAIN ROBBERS

When the colonel awoke next morning thetrain was running smoothly over the Iowa prairies,while low hills and brick factory chimneysannounced Council Bluffs. The landscape waswide and monotonous; a sweep of illimitable cornfieldsin their winter disarray, or bleakly freshfrom the plow, all painted with a palette holdingonly drabs and browns; here and there a dab ofred in a barn or of white in windmill or house;but these livelier tints so scattered that they wereno more than pin spots on the picture. The verysky was as dimly colored as the earth, lighter,yet of no brighter hue than the fog which smokedup from the ground. Later in the spring this samelandscape would be of a delicate and charmingbeauty; in summer or autumn it would make thebeholder’s pulses throb with its glorious fertility;but on a blurred March morning it was as drearyas the reveries of an aging man who has failed.

[47]Nevertheless, Rupert Winter’s first conscioussensation was not depression, only a little tingleof interest and excitement, such as stings pleasantlyone who rises to a prospect of conflict inwhich he has the confidence of his own strength.“By Jove!” he wondered, “whatever makes mefeel so kiddish?”

His first impulse was to peep through his curtainsinto the car. It wore its early morning aspectof muffled berths and stuffy curtains, amongwhich Miss Smith’s trig, carefully finished presencein a fresh white shirt-waist, attended by thepleasant whiffs of cologne water, gave the beholdera certain refreshing surprise. One hand(white and firm and beautifully cared for) helda wicker bottle, source of the pleasant whiffs;her sleek back braids were coiled about her comelyhead, and the hair grew very prettily in a bluntedpoint on the creamy nape of her neck. It wasreally dark brown hair, but it looked black againstthe whiteness of her skin. She had very capable-lookingshoulders, the colonel noted, and a flatback; perhaps she wasn’t pretty, but in a longwhile he had not seen a more attractive-lookingwoman. She made him think of a Bonne Celinerose, somehow. He could hear her talking to some[48]one behind the berth’s curtains. Could those dolefulmoans emerge from Archie? Could a Winterboy be whimpering about the jar of the train inthat fashion? Immediately he was aware that thesufferer was Randall, for Miss Smith spoke:“Drink the tea, and lie down again, I’ll attend toMrs. Winter. Don’t you worry!”

“Getting solid with Randall,” commented thecolonel. “Which is she—kind-hearted, or an accomplishedvillainess? Well, it’s interesting, anyhow.”

By the time he had made his toilet the trainwas slacking speed ready to halt in CouncilBluffs, and all his suspicions rushed on deckagain at the sight of Miss Smith and Archiewalking outside.

He joined them, and he had to admit that MissSmith looked as pleased as Archie at his appearance.Nor did she send a single furtive glance,slanting or backward, while they walked in thecrisp, clean air. Once the train had started andMiss Smith was in the drawing-room, breakfastingwith Mrs. Winter and Archie, he politely attendedMrs. Millicent through the morning mealin the dining-car. It was so good a meal that henaturally, although illogically, thought better of[49]Miss Smith’s prospects of innocence; and cheerilyhe sought Haley. He found him in the smokingcompartment of the observation-car, having forcompanions no less personages than the magnateand a distinguished-looking New Englander, who,Rupert Winter made no doubt, was a Harvardprofessor of rank and renown among his learnedkind. He knew the earmarks of the species. TheNew Englander’s pencil was flying over a littleimprovised pad of telegraph blanks, while helistened with absorbed interest to Haley’s richIrish tones. There was a little sidewise lunge ofHaley’s mouth, a faint twinkle of Haley’s frankand simple eyes which the colonel appraised atvery nearly their real value. He knew that itisn’t in Irish-American nature to perceive a wide-openear and not put something worth hearinginto it. Besides, his sharp ears had broughthim a key to the discourse, a sorrowful remark ofthe sergeant’s as he entered: “Yes, sor, thimwather torchures is terrible!”

He glanced suspiciously from one of Haley’saudience to the other. The newspaper cartoonisthad pictured on all kinds of bodies of preyingcreatures, whether of the earth or air, the highbrows, the round head, the delicate features, the[50]thin cheeks, the straight line of the mouth, andthe mild, inexpressive eyes of the man beforehim. He had been extolled as a far-sighted benefactorof the world, and execrated picturesquelyas the king of pirates who would scuttle the businessof his country without a qualm.

Winter, amid his own questionings and problems,could not help a scrutiny of a man whosepower was greater than that of medieval kings.He sat consuming a cigarette, more between hisfingers than his lips; and glancing under droopingeyelids from questioner to narrator. At thecolonel’s entrance he looked up, as did Haley,who rose to his feet with an unconscious salute.“I’d be glad to spake wid youse a minnit, if Imight, General,” said Haley, “about where I putyour dress-shute case, sor.”

The colonel, of course, did not expect any remarksabout a suit case when he got Haley byhimself at the observation end of the car; butwhat he did get was of sufficient import to driveout of his mind a curt lecture about blackening thereputation of the army with lies about the Philippines.Haley had told him that he had seen theman with the two moles on his face jump out ofhis own car at Council Bluffs. He had simply[51]stood on the platform, looking to right and leftfor a moment; then he had swung himself backon the car. Haley had watched him walk downthe aisle and enter the drawing-room. He didnot come out; Haley had found out that the drawing-roombelonged to Edwin S. Keatcham, “thebig railroad man, sor.”

“It doesn’t seem likely that he would be an accompliceof a kidnapper,” mused the colonel.“The man might have gone in there while he wasout.”

“Sure, he might, sor; ’twas mesilf thinking thatsame; and I wint beyant to the observation-car,and there the ould gintleman was smoking.”

“And you stopped to tell yarns to that othergentleman instead of getting back and following—”

“No, sor, I beg your pardon, sor; I was kapingme eyes open and on him; for himsilf was in theobservation-car where you are now, sor, until wecome in, and thin he walked back, careless like, tohis own car. Will I be afther following him?”

“Yes; don’t lose him.”

They did not lose him; they both saw him enterthe drawing-room and almost immediately comeout and sit down in one of the open sections.

[52]“See if you can’t find out from the conductorwhere he is going,” the colonel proposed to Haley;and he frowned over his thoughts for a badquarter of an hour at the window. The precipitateof all this mental ferment was a determinationto stick close to the boy, saying nothing.He hoped that when they stopped over night atSalt Lake City, according to Aunt Rebecca’s plan,they might shake off the “brother’s” company.The day passed uneventfully. He played bridgewith Mrs. Millicent and Miss Smith and Archie,while Aunt Rebecca kept up her French with oneof Bentzon’s novels.

Afterward she said grimly to him: “I thinkyou must have been converted out in the Philippines;you never so much as winced, that lasthand; no, you sat there smiling over your ruinas sweetly as if you enjoyed it.”

The colonel smiled again. “Ah, but, you see,I did enjoy it; didn’t you notice the hand? No?Well, it was worth watching. It was the rubbergame; they were twenty-four and we were twenty-sixand we were on the seventh round; MissSmith had made it hearts. She sat on my left,dummy on my right. Millicent had the lead. Shehad four little spades, a little club, the queen of[53]hearts and a trey; dummy had the queen, the tenand the nine of spades, it had the king of heartsand three clubs with the jack at the top. I hada lovely diamond suit which I hadn’t had a chanceto touch, top sequence, ace, king, queen; I hadthe jack of trumps and the jack of spades; andthe queen and a little club. I hadn’t a lead, youunderstand; Millicent had taken five tricks andthey had taken one; they needed six to win thegame, we needed two; see? Well, Millicent hadn’tany diamonds to lead me, and unhappily she didn’tthink to lead trumps through dummy, whichwould have made a world of difference. She leda club; dummy put on the jack. I knew MissSmith had the ace and one low heart; no clubs,a lot of low diamonds, and she might or mightnot have a spade. I figured that she had the aceand a little one; if she would trump in with thelittle one, as ninety-nine out of a hundred womenwould have done, her ace and her partner’s kingwould fall together; or, at worst, he would haveto trump her diamond lead, after she had led outher king of spades, and lead spades, which I couldtrump and bring in all my diamonds. Do you takein the situation?”

“You mean that Janet had the king of spades[54]alone, the ace and the little trump and four worthlessdiamonds? I see. It is a chance for the grandcoup; I reckon she played it.”

“She did!” cried the colonel with unction.“She slapped that ace on the trick, she modestlyled her king of spades, gathered in my jack, then‘she stole, she stole my child away,’ my little jackof trumps; it fell on dummy’s king, and dummyled out his spades and I had to see that wholediamond suit slaughtered. They made their sixtricks, the game and the rubber; and I wanted toclap my hands over the neatness of it.”

“She is a good player,” agreed Aunt Rebecca,“and a very pleasant person. You remember theepitaph, don’t you, Bertie? ‘She was so pleasant.’Yet Janet has had a heap of trouble; but, afterall, happiness is not a condition but a temperament;I suppose Janet has the temperament. She’sa good loser, too; and she never takes advantageof the rules.”

“She certainly loves a straight game,” reflectedthe colonel. “I confess I don’t like the kind ofwoman that is always grabbing a trick if someone plays out of the wrong hand.”

He said something of the kind to Millicent,obtaining but scant sympathy in that quarter.

[55]“She’s deep, Bertie; I told you that,” was theonly reply, “but I’m watching. I have reason formy feeling.”

“Maybe you have been misinformed,” venturedher brother-in-law with proper meekness.

“Not at all,” retorted she sharply. “I happento know that she worked against me with theDaughters.”

“Daughters,” the colonel repeated inanely,“your daughters?”

“Certainly not! The Daughters of the Revolution.”

“It’s a mighty fine society, that; did a lot duringthe Spanish War. And you are the statepresident, aren’t you?”

“No, Rupert,” returned Mrs. Melville withdignity, “I am no longer state regent. By methodsthat would shame the most hardened men politiciansI was defeated; why! didn’t you read aboutit?”

“You know I only came back from the Philippinesin February.”

“It was in all the Chicago papers. I was interviewedmyself. I assure you the other candidates(there were two) tried the very lowestpolitical methods. Melville said it was scandalous.[56]There were at least three luncheons given againstme. It wasn’t the congress, it was the lobbydefeated me. And their methods! I would notbelieve that gentlewoman could stoop to such infamyof misrepresentation.” The colonel chewedhis mustache; he felt for that reporter of theChicago paper; he was evidently getting a phonographicrecord now; he made an inarticulaterumble of sympathy in his throat which was asthe clucking of the driver to the mettled horse.Mrs. Melville gesticulated with Delsartian grace,as she poured forth her woes.

“They accused me of a domineering spirit;they said I was trying to set up a machine. I!I worked for them, many a time, half the night,at my desk; never was a letter unanswered; I didhalf the work of the corresponding secretary; yetat the crucial moment she betrayed me! I learnedmore in those two days of the petty jealousy, thepitiless malevolence of some women than I hadknown all my life before; but at the same time,to the faithful band of friends”—the colonel hadthe sensation of listening to the record again—“whosefidelity was proof against ridicule andcruel misrepresentation, I return a gratitude thatwill never wane. Rupert”—she turned herself in[57]the seat and waved the open palm of her hand ina graceful and dramatic gesture, “—those womennot only stooped to malignant falsehoods, theynot only trampled parliamentary law underfoot,but they circulated through the hall a cartooncalled the Making of the Slate. Of course, wehad our quarters at a hotel, and after the eveningmeeting, after I had retired, in fact, a bell-boybrought me a message; it was necessary tohave a meeting at once, to decide for the secretaryship,as we had found out Mrs. Ellennerewas false. The ladies in the adjoining rooms andthe others of us on the board who were loyal cameinto my chamber. Rupert, will you believe it,those women, had a grotesque picture of us, withfaces cut out of the newspapers—of course, all ourpictures were in the papers—and they had theaudacity and the meanness to picture me in—inthe garments of night!”

“That was pretty tough. But where does MissSmith come in?”

“She was at the convention. She is a Daughter.I’ve always said we are too lax in our admissions.”

“Who drew the picture?”

“It may not be Miss Smith, but—she does[58]draw. I’m sure that she worked against me; shecovered up her footprints so that I have no proof;but I suspect her. She’s deep, Bertie, she’s deep.But she can’t hoodwink me. I’ll find her out.”

The colonel experienced the embarrassmentthat is the portion of a rash man trying to defendone woman against another; he retreated becausehe perceived defense was in vain; but he did notfeel his growing opinion of Miss Smith’s innocencemenaced by Mrs. Melville’s convictions.

She played too square a game for a kidnapper—andSmith was the commonest of names. No,there must be some explanation; Rupert Winterhad lived too long not to distrust the plausiblesurface clue. “It is the improbable that alwayshappens, and the impossible most of the time,”Aunt Rebecca had said once. He quite agreedwith her whimsical phrase.

Nothing happened to arouse his suspicions thatday. Haley reported that Cary Mercer was goingon to San Francisco. The conductor did notknow his name; he seemed to know Mr. Keatchamand was with him in his drawing-room most ofthe time. Had the great man a secretary withhim? Yes, he seemed to have, a little fellow whohad not much to say for himself, and jumped[59]whenever his boss spoke to him. There was alsoa valet, an Englishman, who did not respondproperly to conversational overtures. They wereall going to get off at Denver.

Haley was not misinformed, as the colonelperceived with his own eyes—and he saw CaryMercer bow in parting to the great man, whorequited the low salute with a gruff nod. Herewas an opportunity for a nearer glimpse of Mercer,possibly for that explanation in which Winterstill had a lurking hope. He caught Mercer justin the car doorway, and politely greeted him:“Mr. Mercer, I think? You may not rememberme, Colonel Winter. I met you in Cambridge,three years ago—”

It seemed a brutal thing to do, to recall a meetingunder such circumstances; but if Mercer couldgive the explanation he would excuse him; it wasbetter than suspecting an innocent man. Butthere was no opportunity for explanation. Mercerturned a blank and coldly suspicious facetoward him. “I beg pahdon,” he said in his Southernway, “I think you have made a mistake inthe person.”

“And are you not Mr. Cary Mercer?” Thecolonel felt the disagreeable resemblance of his[60]own speeches to those made in newspaper storiesby the gentleman who wishes his old friend tochange a fifty-dollar bill or to engage in an amusinggame with a thimble. Mercer saw it as wellas he. “Try some one from the country,” he remarkedwith an unpleasant smile, brushing past,while the color mounted to the colonel’s tannedcheek. “The next time you meet me,” RupertWinter vowed, “you’ll know me.”

A new porter had come on at Denver; a lightbrown, chubby, bald man with a face that radiatedfriendliness. He was filled with the desire forconversation, and he had worked on the road foreight years, hence could supplement Over theRange and the other guide-books with personalgossip. He showed marked deference to thecolonel, which that unassuming and direct mancould not quite fathom, until Archie enlightenedhim. Archie smiled, a queer, chewed-up smilewhich the colonel hailed with:

“Why are you making fun of me, youngman?”

“It’s Lewis, the porter; he follows you roundand listens to you in such an awestruck way.”

“But why?”

“Why, Sergeant Haley told him about you;[61]and I told him a little, and he says he wishesyou’d been on the train when they had the hold-ups.This is an awful road for hold-ups, he says.He’s been at five hold-ups.”

“And what does he advise?”

“Oh, he says, hold up your hands and theywon’t hurt you.”

“Well, I reckon his advice is sound,” laughedthe colonel. “See you follow it, Archie.”

“Shall you hold up your hands, Uncle Bertie?”asked Archie.

“Much the wisest course; these fellows shoot.”

Archie looked disappointed. “I suppose so,”he sighed. “I’m afraid I’d want to, if they werepointing pistols at me. Lewis was on the trainonce when a man showed fight. He wouldn’t putup his hands, and the bandit plugged him, like aflash; he fell crosswise over the seat and the bloodspurted across Lewis’ wrist; he said it was like ahot jet of water.”

The homely and bizarre horror of the picturehad evidently struck home to Archie; he halfshivered.

“Too much imagination,” grumbled the colonelto himself. “A Winter ought to take to fightinglike a duck to water!” He betook himself[62]to Miss Smith; and he was uneasily consciousthat he was going to her for consoling. But hefelt better after a little talk about Archie withher. Plainly she thought Archie had plenty ofspirit; although, of course, he hadn’t told herabout the bandits. The negro was “kidding” thepassengers; and women shouldn’t be disturbed bysuch nonsense. The colonel had old-fashionedviews of guarding his womankind from the harshways of the world. Curious, he reflected, whatsense Miss Smith seemed to have; and how sheunderstood things. He felt better acquainted withher than a year’s garrison intercourse would havemade him with any other woman he knew.

That afternoon, they two sat watching thefantastic cliffs which took grotesque semblanceof ruined castles crowning their barren hillsides;or of deserted amphitheaters left by some vanishedrace to crumble. They had talked of manythings. She had told him of the sleepy old SouthCarolinian town where she was born, and the plantationand the distant cousin who was like hermother, and the hospital where she had beentaught, and the married sister who had died.Such a narrow, laborious, innocent existence asshe described! How cheerfully, too, she had[63]shouldered her burdens! They talked of theSouth and of the Philippines; a little they talkedof Archie and his sorrow and of the eternalproblems that have troubled the soul of man sincefirst death entered the world. As they talked, thecolonel’s suspicions faded into grotesque shadows.“Millicent is ridiculous,” quoth he. Then he fellto wondering whether there had been a romancein Miss Smith’s past life. “Such a handsomewoman would look high,” he sighed. Only twenty-fourhours ago he had called Miss Smith “nice-looking,”with careless criticism. He was quiteunconscious of his change of view. That nighthe felt lonely, of a sudden; the old wound in hisheart ached; his future looked as bleak as themountain-walled plains through which he wasspeeding. After a long time the train stoppedwith a jar and rattle, ending in a sudden shock.He raised the curtain to catch the flash of theelectric lights at Glenwood. Out of the deepdefile they glittered like diamonds in a pool ofwater. Why should he think of Miss Smith’seyes? With an impatient sigh, he pulled downthe curtain and turned over to sleep.

His thoughts drifted, floated, were submergedin a wavering procession of pictures; he was back[64]in the Philippines; they had surprised the fort;how could that be when he was on guard? Butthey were there— He sat up in his berth. Instinctivelyhe slipped the revolver out of his bagand held it in one hand, as he peeped through thecrevice of the curtains. There was no motion, nosound of moving; but heads were emerging betweenthe curtains in every direction; and Archiewas standing, his hands shaking above his tumbledbrown head and pale face. A man in a softhat held two revolvers while another man waspounding on the drawing-room door, grufflycommanding those inside to come out. “No, weshall not come out,” responded Aunt Rebecca’scomposed, well-bred accents, her neat enunciationnot disturbed by a quiver. “If you want tokill an old woman, you will have to break downthe door.”

“Let them alone, Shay, it takes too long; let’sfinish here, first,” called the man with the revolver;“they’ll come soon enough when we wantthem. Here, young feller, fish out! Nobody’llget hurt if you keep quiet; if you don’t you’ll geta dose like the man in number six, two years ago.Hustle, young feller!”

The colonel was eying every motion, every[65]shifting from one foot to the other. Let them onceget by Archie—

The boy handed over his pocket-book.

“Now your watch,” commanded the brigand;“take it, Shay!”

“Won’t you please let me keep that watch?”faltered Archie; “that was papa’s watch.”

The childish name from the tall lad made therobber laugh. “And mama’s little pet wants tokeep it, does he? Well, he can’t. Get a move onyou!”

The colonel had the sensation of an electricshock; as the second robber grabbed at the fobin the boy’s belt, Archie struck him with the edgeof his open hand so swiftly and so fiercely underthe jaw that he reeled back against his companion.The colonel’s surprise did not disturb the automaticaim of an old fighter of the plains; his revolverbarked; and he sprang out, on the man heshot. “Get back in the berths, all of you,” heshouted; “give me a chance to shoot!”

The voice of the porter, whose hands had beenturning up the lights not quite steadily, nowpealed out with camp-meeting power, “Dat’s it;give de colonel a chance to do some killing!”

Both bandits were sprawling on the floor of[66]the aisle, one limp and moaning; but the othergot one hand up to shoot; only to have Archiekick the revolver out of it, while at the same instantan umbrella handle fell with a wicked whackon the man’s shoulder. The New England professorwas out of his berth. He had been a baseballman in his own college days; his bat was afrail one, but he hit with a will; and a groan toldof his success. Nevertheless, the fellow scrambledto his feet. Mrs. Melville was also out of herberth, thanks to which circumstance he was ableto escape; as the colonel (who had grappled withthe other man and prevented his rising) mustneeds have shot through his sister-in-law to hitthe fleeing form.

The lion’s share, by Octave Thanet—A Project Gutenberg eBook (5)

Miss Smith was sitting beside Archie, holding the watch. Page 67

“What’s the matter?” demanded Mrs. Melville,while the New Englander used an expressionwhich, no doubt, as a good church-member,he regretted, later, and the colonel thundered:“All the women back into their berths. Don’tanybody shoot! You, professor, look after thatfellow on the floor.” He was obeyed; instinctively,the master of the hour is obeyed. The portercame forward and helped the New Englanderbind the prostrate outlaw, with two silk handkerchiefsand a pair of pajamas, guard mount[67]being supplied by three men in very startling costumes;and a kind of seraglio audience behind thecurtains of the berth being enacted by all thewomen in the car, only excepting Aunt Rebeccaand Miss Smith. Aunt Rebecca, in her admirabletraveling costume of a soft gray silk wrapper,looked as undisturbed as if midnight alarms werean every-night feature of journeys. Miss Smith’sblack hair was loosely knotted; and her facelooked pale, while her dark eyes shone. They allheard the colonel’s revolver; they all saw the twomen who had met him at the car door spring offthe platform into the dark. The robbers hadhorses waiting. The colonel got one shot; he sawthe man fall over his horse’s neck; but the horsegalloped on; and the night, beyond the little splashof light, swallowed them completely.

After the conductor and the engineer had bothconsulted him, and the express messenger had appeared,armed to the teeth, a little too late forthe fray, but not too late for lucid argument, Wintermade his way back to the car. Miss Smithwas sitting beside Archie; she was holding thewatch, which had played so important a part inthe battle, up under the electric light to examinean inscription. The loose black sleeves of her[68]blouse fell back, revealing her arms; they werewhite and softly rounded. She looked up; and thesoldier felt the sudden rush of an emotion that hehad not known for years; it caught at his throatalmost like an invisible hand.

“Well, Archie,” he said foolishly, “good forjiu-jitsu!”

Archie flushed up to his eyes.

“Why didn’t you obey orders, young man,and hold up your hands?” said Colonel RupertWinter. “You’re as bad as poor Haley, who isnearly weeping that he had no chance, but onlybroke away from Mrs. Haley in time to see therobbers make off.”

“I—I did at first; but I got so mad I forgot,”stammered Archie happily. “Afterward you weremy superior officer and I had to do what yousaid.”

All the while he chaffed the boy, he was watchingfor that beautiful look in Janet Smith’s eyes;and wondering when he could get her off by herselfto brag to her of the boy’s courage. Whenhis chance at a few words did come he chuckled:“Regular fool Winter! I knew he would act injust that absurd, reckless way.” Then he caughtthe look he wanted; it surely was a lovely, womanly[69]look; and it meant—what in thunder did itmean? As he puzzled, his pulses gave the sameunaccountable, smothering leap; and he felt as theboy of twenty had felt, coming back from his firstbattle to his first love.

[70]

CHAPTER IV
THE VANISHING OF ARCHIE

“In my opinion,” said Aunt Rebecca, criticallyeying her new drawing-room on the train to SanFrancisco; “the object of our legal methods seemsto be to defend the criminal. And a very efficientmeans to this end is to make it so uncomfortableand costly and inconvenient for any witness ofa crime that he runs away rather than endureit. Here we have had to stay over so long in SaltLake we nearly lost our drawing-room. But nevermind, you got your man committed. Did you findout anything about his gang?”

The colonel shook his head. “No, he’s a toughcountry boy; he has the rural distrust of lawyersand of sweat-boxes. He does absolutely nothingbut groan and swear, pretending his wound hurtshim. But I’ve a notion there are bigger peopleback of him. It’s most awfully good of you,Aunt Rebecca, to stick to me this way.”

“Of course, I stick to you; I’m too old to be[71]fickle. Did you ever know a Winter who wouldn’tstand by his friends? I belong to the old régime,Bertie; we had our faults—glaring ones, I daresay—but if we condoned sin too readily, we nevercondoned meanness; such a trick as that upstartKeatcham is doing would have been impossible tomy contemporaries. You saw the morning papers;you know he means to eat up the Midland?”

“Yes, I know,” mused the colonel; “and turnTracy, the president, down—the one who gavehim his start on his bucaneering career. Tracydeclines to be his tool, being, I understand, avery decent sort of man, who has always runhis road for his stock-holders and not for thestock-market. A capital crime, that, in these days.So Keatcham has, somehow, by one trick oranother, got enough directors since Baneleighdied to give him the control; though he couldn’tget enough of the stock; and now he means tograb the road to use for himself. Poor Tracy,who loves the road as a child, they say, will haveto stand by and see it turned into a Wall Streetfoot-ball; and the equipment run down as fastas its reputation. I think I’m sorry for Tracy. Besides,it’s a bad lookout, the power of such fellows;men who are not captains of industry, not[72]a little bit; only inspired gamblers. Yet they arerunning the country. I wonder where is the classthat will save us.”

“I don’t know. I don’t admire the present century,Bertie. We had people of quality in my day;we have only people of culture in this. I confessI prefer the quality. They had robuster nervesand really asked less of people, although theymay have appeared to ask more. We used to becontented with respect from our inferiors andcourtesy from our equals—”

“And what from your betters, Aunt Rebecca?”drawled the colonel.

“We had no betters, Rupert; we were the best.I think partly it was our assurance of our position,which nobody else doubted any more thanwe, that kept us so mannerly. Nowadays, nobodyhas a real position. He may have wealthand a servile following, who expect to make somethingout of him, but he hasn’t position. Thenewspapers can make fun of him. The commonpeople watch him drive by and never think ofremoving their caps. Nobody takes him seriouslyexcept his toadies and himself. And as for thesentiments of reverence and loyalty, very usefulsentiments in running a world, they seem to have[73]clean disappeared, except”—she smiled a half-reluctantsmile—“except with youngsters likeArchie, who would find it agreeable to be choppedinto bits for you, and the women who have notlived in the world, like Janet, who makes a heroineout of me—upon my word, Bertie, je t’ai faitrougir!”

“Not at all,” said the colonel; “an illusion ofthe sunset; but what do you mean when you saypeople of quality required less than people of culture?”

“Oh, simply this; all we demanded was deference;but your cultivated gang wants admirationand submission, and will not let us possess oursecret souls, even, in peace. And, then, the qualitydespised no one, but the cultivated despise everyone. Ah, well—

‘Those good old times are past and gone,

I sigh for them in vain,—’

Janet, I wish Archie would fish his mandolin outand you would sing to me; I like to hear the songsof my youth. Not rag-time, or coon-songs, butdear old Foster’s melodies; Old Kentucky Home,and Massa’s in the Col’, Col’ Ground, and NellieWas a Lady—what makes that so sad, I wonder?—‘Nellie[74]was a lady, las’ night she died;’ it’sall in that single line; I think it is because itrepresents the pathetic idealization of love; Nelliewas that black lover’s ideal of all that was lovely,and she was dead. Is the orchestra ready—andthe choir? Yes, shut the door; we are for art’ssake only, not for the applause of the cold worldin the car.”

Afterward, when he was angry over his ownfolly, his own blind, dogged, trustfulness againstall the odds of evidence, Rupert Winter laid hisweakness to that hour; to a woman’s sweet, untrained,tender voice singing the simple melodiesof his youth. They sang one song after anotherwhile the sun sank lower and stained the westernsky. Through the snow-sheds they could catchglimpses of a wild and strange nature; austere,yet not repelling; vistas of foot-hills bathed in theevening glow; rank on rank of firs, tall, straight,beautiful, not wind-tortured and maimed, like thewoeful dwarfs of Colorado; and wonderful snow-cappedmountain peaks, with violet shadows andglinting streaks of silver. Snow everywhere: onthe hillsides; on the close thatch of the firs; on theice-locked rivers; snow freshly fallen, softly tinted,infinitely, awesomely pure.

[75]Presently they came out into a lumber countrywhere the mills huddled in the hollows, over thestreams. Huge fires were blazing on the river-banks.Their tawny red glare dyed the snow fora long distance, making entrancing tints of roseand yellow; and the dark green of the pines,against this background, looked strangely fresh.And then, without warning, they plunged intothe dimness of another long wooden tunnel andemerged into lovely spring. The trees were inleaf, and not alone the trees; the undulating swellsof pasture land and roadside by the mountainswere covered with a tender verdure; and therewere innumerable vines and low glossy shrubswith faintly colored flowers.

“This is like the South,” said Miss Smith.

Archie was devouring the scene. “Doesn’t itjust somehow make you feel as if you couldn’tbreathe, Miss Janet?” said he.

“Are you troubled with the high altitude?”asked Millicent anxiously; “I have prepared alittle vial of spirits of ammonia; I’ll fetch it foryou.”

The colonel had some ado to rescue Archie;but he was aided by the porter, who was now passingthrough the car proclaiming: “You all have[76]seen Dutch Flat Mr. Bret Hahte wrote ’bout; nex’station is Shady Run; and eve’ybody look andsee the greates’ scenic ’traction of dis or anyodder railroad, Cape Hohn!”

Instantly, Mrs. Melville fished her guide-bookand began to read:

“‘There are few mountain passes more famousthan that known to the world as Cape Horn. Theapproach to it is picturesque, the north fork ofthe American River raging and foaming in itsrocky bed, fifteen hundred feet below and parallelwith the track—’”

“Do you mind, Millicent, if we look insteadof listen?” Aunt Rebecca interrupted, and Mrs.Melville lapsed into an injured muteness.

Truly, Cape Horn has a poignant grandeurthat strikes speech from the lips. One can notlook down that sheer height to the luminous ghostof a river below, without a thrill. If to pass alongthe cliff is a shivering experience, what must theactual execution of that stupendous bit of engineeringhave been to the workmen who hewedthe road out of the rock, suspended over theabyss! Their dangling black figures seem tosway still as one swings around the curve.

Our travelers sat in silence, until the “Cape”[77]was passed and again they could see their road-bedon the side. Then Mrs. Melville made a politeexcuse for departure; she had promised a“Daughter” whom she had met at various “biennials”that she would have a little talk with her.Thus she escaped. They did not miss her. Hardlyspeaking, the four sat in the dimly lighted, tinyroom, while mountains and fields and star-sownskies drifted by. Unconsciously, Archie drewcloser to his uncle, and the older man threw anarm about the young shoulders. He looked up tomeet Janet’s eyes shining and sweet, in the flashof a passing station light. Mrs. Winter smiled,her wise old smile.

With the next morning came another shift ofscene; they were in the fertile valleys of California.At every turn the landscape became moresoftly tinted, more gracious. Aunt Rebecca wasin the best of humor and announced herself ashaving the journey of her life. The golden greenof the grain fields, the towering palms, the pepper-treeswith their fascinating grace, the round topsof the live-oaks, the gloss of the orange groves,the calla-lily hedges and the heliotrope and geraniumtrees which climbed to the second story ofthe stucco houses, filled her with the enthusiasm[78]of a child. She drank in the cries of the enterprisingyoung liar who cried “Fresh figs,” monthsout of season, and she ate fruit, withered in coldstorage, with a trustful zest. No less than threebooks about the flora of California came out ofher bag. A certain vine called the Bougainvillea,she was trying to find, if only the carswould not go so fast; as for poinsettias, she certainlyshould raise her own for Christmas. Shewas learned in gardens and she discoursed withMiss Smith on the different kinds of trumpet-vine,and whether the white jasmine trailingamong the gaudy clusters was of the same familyas that jasmine which they knew in the pine forests.But she disparaged the roses; they lookedshop-worn. The colonel watched her in amazement.

“Bertie, I make you think of that little dwarfof Dickens’, don’t I?” she cried. “Miss Muffins,Muggins? what was her name? You are expectingme to exclaim, ‘Ain’t I volatile?’ ThankHeaven, I am. I could always take an interest intrifles. It has been my salvation to cultivate aninterest in trifles, Bertie; there are a great manymore trifles than crises in life. Where has Janetgone? Oh, to give the porter the collodion for[79]his cut thumb. People with troubles, big or little,are always making straight for Janet. Bertie,have you made your mind up about her?”

“Only that she is charming,” replied the colonel.He did not change color, but he was uneasilyconscious that he winced, and that the shrewd oldcritic of life and manners perceived it. But shewas mercifully blind to all appearance; she wenton with the little frown of the solver of a psychologicalenigma. “Yes, Janet is charming; andwhy? She is the stillest creature. Have you noticed?Yet you never have the sense that shehasn’t answered you. She’s the best listener in theworld; and there’s one thing about her unusualin most listeners—her eyes never grow vacant.”

Rupert had noticed; he called himself a dodderingold donkey silently, because he had assumedthat there was anything personal in the interestof those eyes when he had spoken. Ofcourse not; it was her way with every one, evenMillicent, no doubt. His aunt’s next words werelost, but a sentence caught his ear directly: “Forall she’s so gentle, she has plenty of spirit. Bertie,did I ever tell you about the time our preciouscousin threw our great-great-grandfather’s goldsnuff-box at her? No? It was funny. She flew[80]into one of her towering rages, and shrieking,‘Take that!’ hurled the snuff-box at Janet. Janetwasn’t used to having things thrown at her. Shecaught the box, then she rang the bell. ‘Thankyou very much,’ says Janet; and when old AuntPhrosie came, she handed the snuff-box to her,saying it had just been given to her as a present.But she sent it that same day to one of the sisters.There was never anything else thrown at her, Ican tell you.”

They found a wonderful sunset on the bay whenSan Francisco was reached. Still in her goldenhumor, as they rattled over the cobblestones ofthe picturesque streets to the Palace Hotel, Mrs.Winter told anecdotes of Robert Louis Stevenson,obtained from a friend who had known hismother. Mrs. Winter had chosen the Palace inpreference to the St. Francis, to Mrs. Melville’shigh disgust.

“She thinks it more typical,” sneered Millicent;“myself, I prefer cleanliness and comfort totypes.”

Their rooms were waiting for them and twobell-boys ushered Mrs. Winter into her suite.Randall was lodged on the same floor, and Mrs.Melville, who was to spend a few days with her[81]aunt on the latter’s invitation, was on a lowerfloor. The colonel had begged to have Archienext to him; and he examined the quarters withapprobation. His own room was the last of thesuite; to the right hand, between his room andArchie’s, was their bath; then the parlor of Mrs.Winter’s suite next her room and bath, and last,to the right, Miss Smith’s room.

Archie was sitting by the window lookingout on the street; only the oval of his soft boyishcheek showed. The colonel went by him to theparlor beyond, where he encountered his aunt,her hands full of gay postal cards.

Souvenirs de voyage,” she answered hisglance; “I am going to post them.”

“Can’t I take them for you?”

“No, thanks, I want the exercise.”

“May I go with you?”

“Indeed, no. My dear Bertie, I’m only aged,I’m not infirm.”

“You will never be aged,” responded the colonelgallantly. He turned away and walked alongthe arcade which looked down into the great courtof the hotel. Millicent was approaching him; Millicentin something of a temper. Her room washideously draughty and she could not get any one,[82]although she had rung and telephoned to the officeand tried every device which was effectual ina well-conducted hotel; but this, she concludedbitterly, was not well-conducted; it was onlytypical.

“There’s a lovely fire in Aunt Rebecca’s parlor,”soothed the colonel; “come in there.”

Afterward it seemed to him that this whole interviewwith Millicent could not have occupiedmore than four minutes; that it was not more thanseven minutes since he had seen Archie’s shapelycurly head against the curtain fall of the window.

But when he opened the door, Miss Smithcame toward them. “Is Archie with Aunt Rebecca?”said she.

The colonel answered that he had left him inthe parlor; perhaps he had stepped into his ownroom.

But neither in Archie’s nor the colonel’s nor inany room of the party could they find the boy.

[83]

CHAPTER V
BLIND CLUES

“But this is preposterous,” cried Mrs. Melville,“you must have seen him had he come out of theroom; you were directly in front of the doors allthe time.”

“I was,” admitted the colonel; “can—can theboy be hiding to scare us?” He spoke to MissSmith. She had grown pale; he did not knowthat his own color had turned. Millicent staredfrom one to the other.

“How ridiculous!” she exclaimed; “of coursenot; but he must be somewhere; let me look!”

Look as they might through all the staring,empty rooms, there was no vestige of the boy. Hewas as clean vanished as if he had fallen out ofthe closed and locked windows. The colonel examinedthem all; had there been one open, hewould have peered outside, frightened as he hadnever been when death was at his elbow. But itcertainly wasn’t possible to jump through a window,and not only shut, but lock it after one.

[84]Under every bed, in every closet, he prowled;he was searching still when Mrs. Winter returned.By this time Mrs. Melville was agitated,and, naturally, irritated as well. “I think it is unpardonablein Archie to sneak out in this fashion,”she complained.

“I suppose the boy wanted to see the town abit,” observed Aunt Rebecca placidly. “Rupert,come in and sit down; he will be back in a moment;smoke a cigar, if your nerves need calming.”

Rupert felt as if he were a boy of ten, calledback to common sense out of imaginary horrorsof the dark.

“But, if he wanted to go out, why did he leavehis hat and coat behind him?” asked Miss Smith.

“He may be only exploring the hotel,” saidMrs. Winter. “Don’t be so restless, Bertie; sitdown.”

The colonel’s eye was furtively photographingevery article of furniture in the room; it lingeredlongest on Mrs. Winter’s wardrobe-trunk, whichwas standing in her room. Randall had been despatchedfor a hot-water bottle in lieu of onewhich had sprung a leak on the train; so the trunkstood, its door ajar.

[85]“Maybe he is doing the Genevra stunt in there—isthat what you are thinking?” she jeered.“Well, go and look.”

Light as her tone was, she was not unaffectedby the contagion of anxiety about her; after a moment,while Rupert was looking at the wardrobe-trunk,and even profanely exploring the swathedgowns held in rigid safety by bands of rubber,she moved about the rooms herself.

“There isn’t room for a mouse in that box,”growled the colonel.

“Of course not,” said his aunt languidly, sinkinginto the easiest chair; “but your mind is easier.Archie will come back for dinner; don’t worry.”

“How could he get by me?” retorted the colonel.

“Perhaps he went into one of the neighboringrooms,” Miss Smith suggested. “Shall I go outand rap on the door of the next room on the left?”On the right the last room of the party was acorner room.

“Why, you might,” acquiesced Aunt Rebecca;but Mrs. Melville cut the ends of her words.

“Pray let me go, Aunt Rebecca,” she begged,suiting the action to the words, and was out ofthe door almost ahead of her sentence.

[86]The others waited; they were silent; little flecksof color raddled Mrs. Winter’s cheeks. Theycould hear Millicent’s knock reverberating. Therewas no answer. “Telephone to the adjacentrooms,” proposed the colonel.

“I’ll telephone,” said Mrs. Winter, and rangup the number of the next room. There was noresponse; but when she called the number of theroom adjoining, she seemed to get an answer, forshe announced her name. “Have you seen ayoung lad?” she continued, after an apology fordisturbing them. “He belongs to our party; hashe by chance got into your room? and is hethere?” In a second she put down the receiverwith a heightened color, saying, “They might bea little civiler in their answers, if it is Mr. Keatcham’ssuite.”

“What did the beggar say?” bristled the colonel.

“Only that it was Mr. Keatcham’s suite—Mr.E. S. Keatcham—as if that put getting into itquite out of the question. Some underling, I presume.”

“There is the unoccupied room between. Thatis not accounted for. But it shall be. I will findout who is in there.” Rupert rose as he spoke,[87]pricked by the craving for action of a man accustomedto quick decision. He heard his auntbrusquely repelling Millicent’s proposal of the police,as he left the room. Indeed, she called himback to exact a promise that he would not makeArchie’s disappearance public. “We want to findhim,” was her grim addendum; “and we can’thave the police and the newspapers hindering us.”

In the office, he found external courtesy and arather perfunctory sympathy, based on a suppressed,but perfectly visible conviction that theboy had stolen out for a glimpse of the city, andwould be back shortly.

The manager had no objection to telling ColonelWinter, whom he knew slightly, that the occupantof the next room was a New England ladyof the highest respectability, Mrs. WinthropWigglesworth. If the young fellow didn’t turnup for dinner, he should be glad to ask Mrs. Wigglesworthto let Mrs. Winter examine her room;but he rather thought they would be seeing youngWinter before then—oh, his hat? They usuallycarried caps in their pockets; and as to coats—boysnever thought of their coats.

The manager’s cheeriness did not especially upliftthe colonel. He warmed it over dutifully,[88]however, for his womankind’s benefit. MissSmith had gone out; why, he was not told, anddid not venture to ask. Mrs. Melville kept makingcautious signals to him behind his aunt’s back;otherwise she was preserving the mien of sympatheticsolemnity which she was used to show atfunerals and first visits of condolence and congratulationto divorced friends. Mrs. Winter, asusual, wore an inscrutable composure. She wasstill firmly opposed to calling in the aid of the police.

Did she object to his making a few inquiriesamong the hotel bell-boys, the elevator boy andthe people in the restaurant or in the office?

Not at all, if he would be cautious.

So he sallied out, and, in the midst of his fruitlessinquisition, Millicent appeared.

Forcing a civil smile, he awaited her pleasure.“Go on, don’t mind me,” said she mournfully;“you will feel better to have done everything inyour power.”

“But I shall not discover anything?”

“I fear not. Has it not occurred to you that hehas been kidnapped?”

“Hmn!” said the colonel.

“And did you notice how perturbed Miss Smith[89]seemed? She was quite pale; her agitation wasquite noticeable.”

“She is tremendously fond of Archie.”

“Or—she knows more than she will say.”

“Oh, what rot!” sputtered the colonel; then hebegged her pardon.

“Wait,” he counseled, and his man’s resistanceto appearances had its effect, as masculine immobilityalways has, on the feminine effervescencebefore him. “Wait,” was his word, “at least untilwe give the boy a chance to turn up; if he hasslipped by us, he is taking a little pasear on hisown account; lads do get restless sometimes ifthey are held too steadily in the leash, especially—ifyou will excuse me—by, well, by ladies.”

“If he has frightened us out of our wits—well,I don’t know what oughtn’t to be done to him!”

“Oh well, let us wait and hear his story,” repeatedthe soldier.

But the last streaks of red faded out of thewest; a chill fog smoked up from the darkeninghills, and Archie had not come. At eight, Mrs.Winter ordered dinner to be served in theirrooms. Miss Smith had not returned. The colonelattempted a military cheerfulness, which hisaunt told him bluntly, later in the evening, reminded[90]her of a physician’s manner in criticalcases where the patient’s mind must be kept absolutelyquiet.

But she ate more than he at dinner; althoughher own record was not a very good one. Millicentavowed that she was too worried to eat, butshe was tempted by the strawberries and carp,and wondered were the California fowls reallyso poor; and gave the sample the benefit of impartialand fair examination, in the end makinga very fair meal.

It is not to be supposed that Winter had beenidle; before dinner he had put a guard in the halland had seen Haley, who reported that his wifeand child had gone to a kinswoman in Santa Barbara.

“Sure the woman has a fine house intirely, andshe’s fair crazy over the baby that’s named aftherher, for she’s a widdy woman with never a childexcipt wan that’s in hivin, a little gurrl; and shewudn’t let us rist ’til she’d got the cratur’. NorI wasn’t objictin’, for I’m thinking there’ll besomething doin’ and the wimin is onconvanient,thim times.”

The colonel admitted that he shared Haley’sopinion. He questioned the man minutely about[91]Mercer’s conduct on the train. It was absolutelycommonplace. If he had any connection (as thecolonel had suspected) with the bandits, he madeno sign. He sent no telegrams; he wrote no letters;he made no acquaintances, smoking hissolitary cigar over a newspaper. Indeed, absolutelythe only matter of note (if that were one)was that he read so many newspapers—buyingevery different journal vended. At San Franciscohe got into a cab and Haley heard him givethe order: “To the St. Francis.” Having hiswife and child with him, the sergeant couldn’tfollow; but he went around to the St. Francislater, and inquired for Mr. Mercer, for whom hehad a letter (as was indeed the case—the colonelhaving provided him with one), but no such nameappeared on the register. Invited to leave the letterto await the gentleman’s arrival, Haley saidthat he was instructed to give it to the gentlemanhimself; therefore, he took it away with him.He had carried it to all the other hotels or boarding-placesin San Francisco which he could find,aided greatly thereto by a friend of his, formerlyin “the old —th,” a sergeant, now stationed at thePresidio. Thanks to him, Haley could say definitelythat Mercer was not at any of the hotels[92]or more prominent boarding-houses in the city, atleast under his own name.

“And you haven’t seen him since he got intothe cab at the station?” the colonel summed up.

Haley’s reply was unexpected: “Yes, sor, Iseen him this day, in the marning, in this samehotel.”

“Where?”

“Drinking coffee at a table in th’ coort. Hewint out, havin’ paid the man, not a-signin’, an’he guv the waiter enough to make him say,‘Thank ye, sor,’ but not enough to make himsmile and stay round to pull aff the chair. I folliedhim to the dure, but he got into an autymobile—”

“Get the number?”

“Yis, sor. Number—here ’tis, sor, I wrote itdown to make sure.” He passed over to the colonelan old envelope on which was written a number.[A]“M. 20139,” read the colonel, carefully notingdown the number in his own memorandum-book.And he reflected, “That is a Massachusettsnumber—humph!”

Haley’s information ended there. He heard of[93]Archie’s disappearance with his usual stolid mien,but his hands slowly clenched. The colonel continued:

“You are to find out, if you can, by scrapingacquaintance with the carriage men, if that auto—youhave written a description, I see, as wellas the number—find out if that auto left this hotelthis afternoon between six and seven o’clock.Find out who were in it. Find out where it iskept and who owns it. Get H. Birdsall, Merchants’Exchange Building, to send a man to helpyou. Wait, I’ve a card ready for you to give himfrom me; he has sent me men before. Report bytelephone as soon as you know anything. If I’mnot here, speak Spanish and have them write itdown. Be back here to-night by ten, if you can,yourself.”

Haley dismissed, and his own appetite for dinnereffectually dispelled by his report, Winterjoined his aunt. Should he tell her his suspicionsand their ground? Wasn’t he morally obliged,now, to tell her? She was co-guardian with himof the boy, who, he had no doubt, had been spiritedaway by Mercer and his accomplice; andhadn’t she a right to any information on the matterin his possession?

[94]Reluctantly he admitted that she did have sucha right; and, he admitted further, being a manwho never cheated at solitaire, that his object inkeeping the talk of the two men from her hadnot been so much the desire to guard her nerves(which he knew perfectly well were of a robusterfiber than those of most women twenty or fortyyears younger than she); no, he admitted itgrimly, he had not so much spared his aunt asJanet Smith; he could not bear to direct suspiciontoward her. But how could he keep silent longer?Kicking this question about in his mind, hespoiled the flavor of his after-dinner cigar, althoughhis aunt graciously bade him smoke it inher parlor.

And still Miss Smith had not returned; really,it was only fair to her to have her present whenhe told his story to his aunt; no, he was not grabbingat any excuse for delay; if he could watchthat girl’s face while he told his story he would—well,he would have his mind settled one way oranother.

Here the telephone bell rang; the manager informedColonel Winter that Mrs. Wigglesworthhad returned.

“Wigglesworth? what an extraordinary name!”[95]cried Millicent when the colonel shared his information.

“Good old New England name; I know someextremely nice Wigglesworths in Boston,” Mrs.Winter amended with a touch of hauteur; and, atthis moment, there came a knock at the door.

There is all the difference in the world betweenknocks; a knock as often as not conveys a mostunintentional hint in regard to the character ofthe one behind the knuckles; and often, also, themood of the knocker is reflected in the soundwhich he makes. Were there truth in this, onewould judge that the person who knocked at thismoment must be a woman, for the knock was notloud, but almost timidly gentle; one might evenguess that she was agitated, for the tapping wasin a hurried, uneven measure.

“I believe it is Mrs. Wigglesworth herself,” declaredAunt Rebecca. “Bertie, I’m going into theother room; she will talk more freely to you. Shewould want to spare my nerves. That is thenuisance of being old. Now open the door.”

She was half-way across the threshold beforeshe finished, and the colonel’s fingers on the door-knobwaited only for the closing of her door toturn to admit the lady in waiting.

[96]A lady she was beyond doubt, and any one whohad traveled would have been sure that she was alady from Massachusetts. She wore that littleclose bonnet which certain elderly Boston gentlewomencan neither be driven nor allured to abandon;her rich and quiet black silken gown mighthave been made any year within the last five, andher furs would have graced a princess. She hadbeautiful gray hair and a soft complexion andwore glasses. Equally evident to the observer wasthe fact of her suppressed agitation.

She waved aside the colonel’s proffered chair,introducing herself in a musical, almost tremulousvoice with the crisp enunciation of her section ofthe country. “I am Mrs. Wigglesworth; I understand,Colonel Winter—you?—y-yes, no, thankyou, I will not sit. I—I understood Mrs. Winter—ah,your aunt, is an elderly woman.”

“This is my sister-in-law, Mrs. Melville Winter,”explained the colonel. “My aunt is elderlyin years, but in nothing else.”

Mrs. Wigglesworth smiled a faint smile; thecolonel could see a tremble of the hand that wasunconsciously drawing her fur collar more tightlyabout her throat. “How very nice—yes, to besure,” she faltered. “But you will understand that[97]I did not wish to alarm her. I heard that youwanted to speak to me, and that the little boy waslost.”

“Or stolen,” Mrs. Melville said crisply.

The colonel, in a few words, displayed the situation.He had prevailed upon his visitor to sitdown, and while he spoke he noticed that herhands held each other tightly, although she appearedperfectly composed and did not interrupt.She answered his questions directly and quietly.She had been away taking tea with a friend; shehad remained to dine. Her maid had gone outearlier to spend the day and night with a sister inthe city; so the room was empty between six andseven o’clock.

“The chambermaid wasn’t there, then?”

“I don’t think so. She usually does the roomand brings the towels for the bath in the morning.But I asked her, to make sure, and she says thatshe was not there since morning. She seems agood girl; I think she didn’t—but I have foundsomething. At least I am af—I may have foundsomething. I thought I might see Mrs. Winter’sniece about it”—she glanced toward Millicent,who said, “Certainly,” at a venture; and lookedfrightened.

[98]“And you found—?” said the colonel.

“Only this. I went to my rooms, turned on thelight and was taking off my gloves before I untiedmy bonnet. One of my rings fell on the floor.It went under a rug, and I at once remarked thatit was a different place for the rug to the onewhere it had been before. Before, it was in frontof the dresser, a very natural place, but now it ison the carpet to one side, a place where thereseemed no reason for its presence. These detailsseem trivial, but—”

“I can see they are not,” said the colonel.“Pray proceed, Madam. The ring had rolled underthe rug!”

Mrs. Wigglesworth gave him a grateful nod.

“Yes, it had. And when I removed the rug Isaw it; but as I bent to pick it up I saw somethingelse. In one place there was a stain, as large asthe palm of my hand, a little pool of—it lookslike blood.”

Mrs. Melville uttered an exclamation of horror.

The colonel’s face stiffened; but there was nochange in his polite attention.

“May we be permitted to see this—ah, stain?”said he.

The three stepped through the corridor to the[99]outside door, and went into the chamber. Therug was flung to one side, and there on the grayvelvet nap of the carpet was an irregular, sprawlingstain about which were spattered other stains,some crimson, some almost black.

Millicent recoiled, shuddering. The colonelknelt down and examined the stains. “Yes,” hesaid very quietly, “you are right, it is blood.”

There was a tap on the door, which was openedimmediately without waiting for a permission.Millicent, rigid with fright, could only stare helplesslyat the erect figure, the composed, pale faceand the brilliant, imperious eyes of her aunt.

“What did you say, Bertie?” said Rebecca Winter.“I think I have a right to the whole truth.”

[100]

CHAPTER VI
THE VOICE IN THE TELEPHONE

“Well, Bertie?” Mrs. Winter had gone back toher parlor in the most docile manner in the world.Her submission struck Rupert on the heart; it wasas if she were stunned, he felt.

He was sitting opposite her, his slender, rathershort figure looking shrunken in the huge, ugly,upholstered easy-chair; he kept an almost constrainedattitude of military erectness, of whichhe was conscious, himself; and at which he smiledforlornly, recalling the same pose in Haley wheneverthe sergeant was disconcerted.

“But, first,” pursued his aunt, “who was thatred-headed bell-boy with whom you exchangedsignals in the hall?”

The colonel suppressed a whistle. “AuntBecky, you’re a wonder! Did you notice? Andhe simply shut the palm of his hand! Why, it’sthis way: I was convinced that Archie must beon the premises; he couldn’t get off. So I telephoned[101]a detective that I know here, a privateagency, not the police, to send me a sure man towatch. He is made up as a bell-boy (with thehotel manager’s consent, of course); either I, orMillicent, or that boy has kept an eye on theKeatcham doors and the next room ever since Ifound Archie was gone. No one has gone outwithout our seeing him. If any suspicious persongoes out, we have it arranged to detain him longenough for me to get a good look. I can tell youexactly who left the room.”

“It is you who are the wonder, Bertie,” saidAunt Rebecca, a little wearily, but smiling. “Whohas gone out?”

“At seven Mr. Keatcham’s secretary went downto the office and ordered dinner, very carefully.I didn’t see him, but my sleuth did. He had thesecretary and the valet of the Keatcham partypointed out to him; he saw them. They had onevisitor, young Arnold, the Arnold’s son—”

“The one who has all the orange groves andrailways? Yes, I knew his father.”

“That one; he only came a few moments since.Mr. Keatcham and his secretary dined together,and Keatcham’s own man waited on them; butthe waiter for this floor brought up the dishes. At[102]nine the dishes were brought out and my manhelped Keatcham’s valet to pile them a little fartherdown the corridor in the hall.”

These items the colonel was reading out of hislittle red book.

“You have put all that down. Do you think itmeans anything?”

“I have put everything down. One can’t weeduntil there is a crop of information, you know.”

“True,” murmured Aunt Rebecca, nodding herhead thoughtfully. “Well, did anything else happen?”

“The secretary posted a lot of letters in theshute. They are all smoking now. Yes—” hewas on his feet and at the door in almost a singlemotion. There had been just the slightest tattooon the panel. When the door was opened thecolonel could hear the rattle of the elevator. Hewas too late to catch it, but he could see the inmates.Three gentlemen stood in the car. One wasKeatcham, the other two had their backs to Winter.One seemed to be supporting Keatcham, wholooked pale. He saw the colonel and darted athim a single glance in which was somethinglike a poignant appeal; what, it was too brief forthe receiver to decide, for in the space of an eye-blink[103]a shoulder of the other man intervened,and simultaneously the elevator car began tosink.

There was need to decide instantly who shouldfollow, who stay on guard. Rupert bade the boygo down by the stairs, while, with a kind of bulldoginstinct, he clung to the rooms. The lad wasto fetch the manager and the keys of the Keatchamsuite.

Meanwhile Rupert paced back and forth beforethe closed doors, whence there penetrated therustle of packing and a murmur of voices. PresentlyKeatcham’s valet opened the farther door.He spoke to some one inside. “Yes, sir,” he said,“the porter hought to be ’ere now.”

The porter was there; at least he was comingdown the corridor which led to the elevator, trundlinghis truck before him. He entered the roomsand busied himself about the luggage.

Doggedly the colonel stuck to his guard untilthe valet and another man, a clean-shaven, fresh-facedyoung man whom the watcher had neverseen before, came out of the room. The valetsuperintended the taking of two trunks, acceptingtickets and checks from the porter with a thoroughlyAnglican suspicion and thoroughness of[104]inspection, while the young man stood tapping hisimmaculate trousers-leg with the stick of his admirablyslender umbrella.

“It’s all right, Colvin,” he broke in impatiently;“three tickets to Los Angeles, drawing-room, onelower berth, one section, checks for two trunks;come on!”

Very methodically the man called Colvinstowed away his green and red slips, first in anenvelope, then in his pocket-book, finally buttoningan inside pocket over all. He was the imageof a rather stupid, conscientious English servingcreature. Carefully he counted out a liberal butnot lavish tip for the porter, and watched thatfunctionary depart. Last of all, he locked thedoor.

With extreme courtesy of manner Winter approachedthe young man.

“Pardon me,” said he. “I am Colonel Winter;my aunt, Mrs. Winter, has the rooms near yours,and she finds that she needs another room or two.Are you leaving yours?”

“These are Mr. Keatcham’s rooms, not mine,”the young man responded politely. “He is leavingthem.”

“When you give up your keys, would you mind[105]asking the clerk to send them up to me?” pursuedthe colonel. “Room three twenty-seven.”

“Certainly,” replied the young man, “or wouldyou like to look at them a moment now?”

“Why—if it wouldn’t detain you,” hesitatedWinter; he was hardly prepared for the offer ofadmittance.

“Get the elevator and hold it a minute, Colvin,”said the young man, and he instantly fitted the keyto the door, which he flung open.

“Excuse me,” said he, as they stood in theroom, “but aren’t you the Colonel Winter whoheld that mountain pass to let the other fellowsget off, after your ammunition was exhausted?”

“I seem to recall some such episode, only itsounds rather gaudy the way you put it.”

“I read about you in the papers; you swam ariver with Funston; did all kinds of stunts—”

“Or the newspaper reporter did. You don’thappen to know anything about the price of theserooms, I suppose?”

The young man did not know, but he showedthe colonel through all the rooms with vast civility.He seemed quite indifferent to the colonel’sinterest in closets, baths and wardrobes; he onlywanted to talk about the Philippines.

[106]The colonel, who always shied like a mettledhorse from the flutter of his own laurels, grewred with discomfort and rattled the door-knobs.

“There the suite ends,” said the young man.

“Oh, we don’t want it all, only a room or two,”Colonel Winter demurred. “Any one of theserooms would do. Well, I will not detain you. Theelevator boy will be tired, and Mr. Keatcham willgrow impatient.”

“Not at all; he will have gone. I—I’m so veryglad to have met you, Colonel—”

In this manner, with mutual civilities, theyparted, the young man escorting the colonel to hisown door, which the latter was forced to enter bythe sheer demands of the situation.

But hardly had the door closed than he poppedout again. The young man was swinging roundthe corner next the elevator.

“Is he an innocent bystander or what?” puzzledthe soldier. He resumed his march up and downthe corridor. The next room to the Keatchamsuite was evidently held by an agent of the FirelessCooking Stove, since one of his samples hadstrayed into the hall and was mutely proclaimingits own exceeding worth in very black letters ona very white placard.

[107]“If the young man and the valet are straightgoods, the key will come up reasonably soon fromthe office,” thought the watcher.

Sure enough, the keys, in the hands of Winter’sown spy, appeared before he had waited threeminutes. He reported that the old gentleman gotinto a cab with his secretary and the valet, and theother gentlemen took another cab. The secretarypaid the bill. Had he gone sooner than expected?No; he had engaged the rooms until Thursdaynight; this was Thursday night.

The colonel asked about the next room, whichwas directly on the cross corridor leading to theelevator. The detective had been instructed towatch it. How long had the Fireless CookingStove man had it? There was no meat for suspicionin the answer. The stove man had comethe day before the Keatcham party. He was aperfectly commonplace, good-looking young man,representing the Peerless Fireless Cooking Stovewith much picturesque eloquence; he had sold alot of stoves to people in the hotel, and he triedwithout much success to tackle “old Keatcham”;he had attacked even the sleuth himself. “Hegave me a mighty good cigar, too,” chuckled thered-headed one.

[108]“Hmn, you got it now?”

“Only the memory,” the boy grinned.

“You ought to have kept it, Birdsall would tellyou; you are watching every one in these rooms.Did it have a necktie? And did you throw thataway?”

“No, sir, I kept that; after I got to smoking, Ijust thought I’d keep it.”

When he took the tiny scrap of paper from hispocket-book the colonel eyed it grimly. “‘A deVillar y Villar,’” he read, with a slight ironicinflection. “Decidedly our young Fireless Stovepromoter smokes good cigars!”

“Maybe Mr. Keatcham gave it to him. He wasin there.”

“Was he? Oh, yes, trying to sell his stove—butnot succeeding?”

“He said he was trying to get past the valetand the secretary; he thought if he could only getat the old man and demonstrate his stove he couldmake the sale. He could cook all right, thatfeller.”

The colonel made no comment, and presentlybetook himself to his aunt. She was waiting forhim in the parlor, playing solitaire. Through theopen door the white bed that ought to have been[109]Archie’s was gleaming faintly. The colonel’sbrows met.

“Well, Bertie? Did you find anything?” Mrs.Winter inquired smoothly.

“I’m afraid not; but here is the report.” Hegave it to her, even down to the cigar wrapper.

“It doesn’t seem likely that Mr. Keatcham hasanything to do with it,” said she. “He, no doubt,has stolen many a little railway, but a little boyis too small game.”

“Oh, I don’t suspect Keatcham; but I wish Ihad caught the elevator to-night. He looked atme in a mighty queer way.”

“Did you recognize his secretary as any onewhom you ever saw before?” asked Mrs. Winter.

“I can’t say,” was the answer, given with alittle hesitation. “I’m not sure.”

“I don’t think I quite understand you, Bertie;better make a clean breast of all you know. I’mgetting a little worried myself.”

The colonel reached across the cards and tappedhis aunt’s arm affectionately. He felt the warmestimpulse toward sympathy for her that he hadever known; it glistened in his eyes. Mrs. Winter’scheeks slowly crimsoned; she turned herhead, exclaiming, did she hear a noise; but the[110]colonel’s keen ears had not been warned. “Poorwoman,” he thought, “she is worried to death,but she will not admit it.”

“Now, Bertie,” said Mrs. Winter calmly, buther elbow fell on her cards and spoiled a verypromising game of Penelope’s Web, “now, Bertie,what are you keeping back?”

Then, at last, the colonel told her of his experiencein Chicago. She heard him quite withoutcomment, and he could detect no shift of emotionin her demeanor of absorbed but perfectly calmattention, unless a certain tension of attitude andfeature (as if, he phrased it, she were “holdingherself in”) might be so considered. And he wasnot sure of this. When he came to the wordswhich stuck in his throat, the sentence about MissSmith, she smiled frankly, almost laughed.

At the end of the recital—and the colonel hadnot omitted a word or a look in his memory—shemerely said: “Then you think Cary Mercer haskidnapped Archie, and the nice-looking Harvardboy is helping him?”

“Don’t you think it looks that way, yourself?”

She answered that question by another one:“But you don’t think, do you, that Janet is theMiss Smith mentioned?”

[111]His reply came after an almost imperceptiblehesitation: “No!”

Again she smiled. “That is because you knowJanet; if you didn’t know her you would thinkthe chances were in favor of their meaning her?Naturally! Well, I know Cary a little. I knewhis father well. I don’t believe he would harm ahair of Archie’s head. He isn’t a cruel fellow—atleast not toward women and children. I’ve a notionthat what he calls his wrongs have upset hiswits a bit, and he might turn the screws on theWall Street crowd that ruined him. That is, ifhe had a chance; but he is poor; he would needmillions to get even a chance for a blow at them.But a child, a lad who looks like his brother—no,you may be sure he wouldn’t hurt Archie! Hecouldn’t.”

“But—the name, Winter; it is not such a commonname; and the words about a lady of—of—”The polite soldier hesitated.

“An old woman, do you mean?” said Aunt Rebecca,with a little curving of her still unwrinkledupper lip.

“It sounds so complete,” submitted her nephew.

“Therefore distrust it,” she argued dryly.“Gaboriau’s great detective and Conan Doyle’s[112]both have that same maxim—not to pick out easyanswers.”

Winter smiled in his own turn. “Still, sometimesthe easy answers are right. Now, here isthe situation: I hear this conversation at thedepot. I find one of the men on the same trainwith me. He, presumably, if he is Cary Mercer,and I don’t think I can be mistaken in his identity—”

“Unless another man is making up as Cary!”

“It may seem conceited, but I don’t think Icould be fooled. This man had every expressionof the other’s, and I was too struck by the—I mayalmost call it malignant—look he had, not to recognizehim. No, it was Mercer; he would certainlyrecognize you, and he would know who Iam; he would not be called upon to snub me as apossible confidence man.”

“That rankles yet, Bertie?”

He made a grimace and nodded.

“But,” he insisted, “isn’t it so? If he is up tosome mischief, any mischief—doesn’t care to havehis kin meet him—that is the way he would act,don’t you think?”

“He might be up to mischief, yet have no designson his kin.”

[113]“He might,” said the colonel musingly. Athought which he did not confide to the shrewdold woman had just flipped his mind. But hewent on with his plea.

“He avoids you; he avoids me. He is seen goinginto Keatcham’s drawing-room; that meanssome sort of an acquaintance with Keatcham,enough to talk to him, anyway. How much, Ican’t say. Then comes the attack by the robbers;he is in another car, so there is no call for him todo anything; there is no light whatever onwhether he had anything to do with the robbery.

“Then we come here. Keatcham has the roomnext but one. Archie goes into his own room; wesee him go; I am outside, directly outside; it issimply impossible for him to go out into the hallwithout my seeing him; besides, I found the doorsoutside all locked except the one to the right wherewe entered your suite; then we may assume thathe could not go out. He could not climb out oflocked windows on the third floor down a sheerdescent of some forty or fifty feet. Your lastroom to the right, Miss Smith’s bedroom, is acorner room; besides, she was in it; that excludesevery exit except that to the left. We find Mrs.Wigglesworth was absent, and there were evidences[114]of—an—an attack of some kind carefullyhidden, afterward. But there is no sign of theboy. I watch the rooms. If he is hidden somewherein Keatcham’s rooms, the chances are, afterKeatcham goes, they will try to take him off. Idon’t think it probable that Keatcham knows anythingabout the kidnapping; in fact, it is wildlyimprobable. Well, Keatcham goes; immediatelyI get into the room. The valet and the young manvisiting Keatcham, young Arnold, let me in withoutthe slightest demur. Either they know nothingof the boy or somehow they have got himaway, else they would not let me in so easily.Maybe they are ignorant and the boy is gone,both. We go to the rooms very soon after; thereis not the smallest trace of Archie.”

“How did he get out?”

“They must have outwitted me, somehow,” thecolonel sighed, “and it looks as if he went voluntarily;there was no possible carrying away byforce. And there was no odor of chloroformabout; that is very penetrating; it would get intothe halls. They must have persuaded him to go—buthow?”

“If they have kidnapped him,” said Mrs. Winter,“they will send me some word, and if they[115]have persuaded him to run away, plainly he mustbe able to walk, and that—mess in Mrs. Wigglesworth’sroom doesn’t mean anything bad.”

“Of course not,” said the colonel firmly.

Then, in as casual a tone as he could command:“By the way, where is Miss Smith? She is back,isn’t she?”

“Oh, a long time ago,” said Mrs. Winter. “Isent her to bed.”

“I’ve been frank with you. You will reciprocateand tell me why, for what, you sent her out?”

Mrs. Winter made not the least evasion. Sheanswered frankly: “I sent her with a carefullyworded advertisement—but you needn’t tell Millicent,who has also gone to bed, thank Heaven—Isent her with a carefully worded advertisement toall the papers. This is the advertisement. It willreach the kidnappers, and it will not reach anyone else. See.” She handed him a slip of paperfrom her card-case. He read:

“To the holders of Archie W: Communicatewith R. S. W., same address as before, and youwill hear of something to your advantage. Perfectlysafe.”

The colonel read it thoughtfully, a little puzzled.Before he had time to speak, his quick ears[116]caught the sharp ring of his room telephone bell.He excused himself to answer it. His room wasthe last of the suite, but he shut the door on hisway to the telephone.

He expected Haley; nor was he disappointed.Haley reported—in Spanish—that he had tracedthe automobile; it was the property of young Mr.Arnold, son of the rich Mr. Arnold. Young Arnoldhad been at Harvard last year, and he tookout a Massachusetts license; he had a Californiaone, too. Should he (Haley) look up young Arnold?And should he come to report that night?

The colonel thought he could wait till morning,and, a little comforted, hung up the receiver.Barely was it out of his hand when the bellshrilled again, sharply, vehemently. Winter putthe tube to his ear.

“Does any one want Colonel Winter, PalaceHotel?” he asked.

A sweet, eager, boyish voice called back: “UncleBertie! Uncle Bertie, don’t you worry; I’mall right!”

Archie!” cried the colonel. “Where are you?

But there was no answer. He called again, anda second time; he told the lad that they weredreadfully anxious about him. He got no response[117]from the boy; but another voice, a woman’svoice, said, with cold distinctness, as if tosome one in the room: “No, don’t let him; it isimpossible!” Then a dead wall of silence and Central’simpassive ignorance. He could get nothing.

Rupert Winter stood a moment, frowning andthinking deeply. Directly, with a shrug of theshoulders, he walked out of his own outside door,locking it, and went straight to Miss Smith’s.

He knocked, at first very gently, then morevigorously. But there was no answer. He wentaway from the door, but he did not reënter hisroom. He did not bear to his aunt the news which,with all its meagerness and irritating incompleteness,had been an enormous relief to him. Hesimply waited in the corridor. Five minutes, tenminutes passed; then he heard the elevator whir,and, standing with his hand on the knob of hisopen door, he saw his aunt’s companion, dressedfor the street, step out and speed down the corridorto her own door.

The other voice—the woman’s voice—had beenJanet Smith’s.

[118]

CHAPTER VII
THE HAUNTED HOUSE

A mud-splashed automobile runabout containingtwo men was turning off Van Ness Avenuedown a narrower and shadier side street in theafternoon of the Sunday following the disappearanceof Archie Winter. One of the occupantsseemed to be an invalid whom the brilliant Marchsunshine had not tempted out of his heavy wrappingsand cap; the other was a short, thick-set,corduroy-jacketed chauffeur. One marked therunabout at a glance as a hardly used livery motor-car;but a moment’s inspection might haveshown that it was running with admirable smoothnessand quiet. The chauffeur wore goggles,hence his eyes were shielded, but he turned abroad smile upon the pallid cheeks and sharpenedprofile beside him.

“Colonel, as a health-seeker who can’t keepwarm enough, you’re great!” he cried. “Lord,but you look the part!”

[119]“If I can’t shed some of these confoundedmufflers soon,” growled the pale sufferer addressed,“I’ll get so red with heat it will comethrough my beautiful powder. I hope those fellowswon’t see us, for they will be on to us, allright.”

“Our own mothers wouldn’t be on to us in theserigs,” the chauffeur replied cheerily; he seemed tobe in a hopeful mood; “and let us once get intothe house, and surprise ’em, and there’ll be somethingdrop. But I haven’t really had a chance totell you the latest—having to pick you up at adrug store this way. Now, let’s sum things up!You think the boy got out through Keatcham’sapartment? Or Mrs. Wigglesworth’s?”

“How else?” said the colonel, “he can’t fly,and if he could, he couldn’t fly out and then lockthe windows from the inside.”

“I see”—the chauffeur appeared thoughtful—“andthe Wigglesworth door was locked. Youthink that Keatcham is in it, someway?”

“Not Keatcham,” said the colonel. “Therewas another man in the car—Atkins they calledhim, though he has disappeared. But Mercer remains.His secretary and that valet of his; Ithink the secretary is Cary Mercer. The boy[120]might have slipped out in those few moments wewere hunting for him inside. Afterward, eitherMrs. Melville Winter or I was on guard untilyour man came. He might go to the FirelessStove man, slip out of his rooms, and round thecorner to the elevator in a couple of seconds.Then, of course, I might see their rooms—”

“Provided, that is, the Fireless Stove drummeris in the plot, too.”

“The Fireless Stove drummer who smokes Villary Villar cigars? He is in it, I think, Birdsall.”

“Well, I’ll assume that. Next thing: you getthe telephone call. And you say the voice soundedchipper; didn’t look like he was being hurt orbothered anyway, did it?”

“Not at all. Besides, you know the letter MissSmith got this morning?”

“I think I’d like another peek at that; will youdrive her a minute, while I look at the letteragain?” The instant his hands were free Birdsallpulled out the envelope from his leather-rimmedpocket.

It was rectangular in shape and smaller thanthe ordinary business envelope. The paper waslinen of a common diamond pattern, having noengraved heading. The detective ran his eyes[121]down the few lines written in an unformed boyishhand. There was neither date nor place; onlythese words:

Dear Miss Janet—Don’t you or auntie be woried aboutme because I am well and safe and having a good time. Ihad the nose bleed that is why I spoted the carpet. TellAuntie to please pay for it out of my next week’s allowance.Be sure and don’t wory.

Your aff. friend,
Archibald Page Winter.

“You’re sure this is the boy’s writing?” wasthe detective’s comment.

“Sure. And his spelling, too.”

“Now,” said Birdsall, watching the colonel’skeen, aquiline profile as he spoke, “now you noticethere’s no heading or mark on the paper;and the water-mark is only O. K. E., Mass., 1904.And that amounts to nothing; those folks sell allover the country. But you notice that it is notthe ordinary business paper; it looks rather ladylikethan commercial, doesn’t it?”

The colonel admitted that it did look so.

“Now, assuming that this letter was sent withthe connivance of the kidnappers, it looks as ifour young gentleman wasn’t in any particulardanger of having a hard time. To me, it looks[122]pretty certain he must have skipped himself;tolled along someway, maybe, but not makingany resistance. Now, is there anybody that youknow who has enough influence over him for that?How about the lady’s maid?”

“Randall has been a faithful servant for twentyyears, a middle-aged, serious-minded, decentwoman. Out of the question.”

“This Miss Smith, your aunt’s companion, whois she? Do you know?”

“A South Carolinian; good family; she haslived with my aunt as secretary and companionfor a year; my aunt is very fond of her.”

“That all you know? Well I have found outa little more; she used to live with a Mrs. JamesS. Hastings, a rich Washington woman. Thelady’s only son fell in love with her; somehowthe marriage was broken off.”

“What was his name?”

“Lawrence. They call him Larry. He went toManila. Maybe you’ve met him there.”

“Yes, I knew him; I don’t believe he ever wasaccepted by her.”

“I don’t know. I have only had two days onher biography. Later, she went to Johns HopkinsHospital. One of the doctors was very attentive[123]to her—but it did not come to anything. Shedidn’t graduate. Don’t know why. Then shewent to live with Miss Angela Nelson, who diedand left her money, away from her own family.There was talk of breaking the will; but it wasn’tdone. Then she came to Mrs. Winter.”

The colonel was silent; there was nothing discreditablein these details. He had known beforethat Janet Smith was poor; that she had beenthrown on the world early; that she must earnher own livelihood; yet, somehow, as Birdsallmarshaled the facts, there was an insidious, malarioushint of the adventuress, bandied from placeto place, hawking her attractions about, wheedling,charming for hire, entrapping imbecileyoung cubs—Larry Hastings wasn’t more thantwenty-two—somehow he felt a revolt againstthe picture and against the man submitting it—and,confound Millicent!

The detective changed the manner of his questionsa little. “I suppose your aunt is pretty advancedin years, though she is as well preservedan old lady as I have ever met, and asshrewd. Say, wouldn’t she be likely to leave theboy a lot of money?”

“I dare say.” The colonel was conscious of an[124]intemperate impulse to kick Birdsall, who hadbeen such a useful fellow in the Philippines.

“If anything was to happen to him, who wouldget the money?”

“Well, Mrs. Melville and I are next of kin,”returned the colonel dryly. “Do you suspect us?”

“I did look up Mrs. Melville,” answered theunabashed detective, “but I guess she’s straightgoods all right. But say, how about Miss Smith?”

The colonel stared, then he laughed. “Birdsall,”said he, “there’s somewhat too much mentionof ladies’ names to suit my Virginian taste.But if you mean to imply that Miss Smith is goingto kill Archie to get my aunt’s money, I can tellyou you are ’way off! Your imagination is tooactive for your profession. You ought to hireout to the yellow journals.”

His employer’s satire did not even flick thedust off Birdsall’s complacency; he grinned cheerfully.“Oh, I’m not so bad as that; I don’t supposeshe did kill the boy; I think he’s alive, allright. But say, Colonel, I’ll give it to you straight;I do think the señora coaxed the boy off. Youadmit, don’t you, he went off. Well, then he wascoaxed, somehow. Now, who’s got influenceenough to coax him? You cross out the maid;[125]so do I. You cross out Mrs. Melville Winter; sodo I. I guess we both cross out the old lady.Well, there’s you and the señora left. I don’tsuspect you, General.”

“Really? I don’t see why. I stand to makemore than anybody else, if you are digging upmotives. And how about the chambermaid?”

Birdsall flashed a glance of reproach on hiscompanion. “Now, Colonel, do you think I ain’tlooked her up? First thing. Nothing in it. DecentVermont girl, three years in the hotel. Camefor her lungs. She ain’t in it. But let’s get backto Miss Smith. Did you know she is CaryMercer’s sister-in-law?”

He delivered his shot in a casual way, and thecolonel took it stonily; nevertheless, it went tothe mark. Birdsall continued. “Now, question is,was Mercer the secretary? You didn’t see the manin the elevator, except his back. Had he twomoles?”

“I couldn’t see. He had different clothes;but still there was something like Mercer aboutthe shoulders.”

“Burney didn’t get a chance to take a snapshot,but he did snap the stove man. Here it is. Pullthat book out of my pocket.”

[126]Obeying, the colonel lifted a couple of smallprints which he scrutinized intently, at the end,admitting, “Yes, it is he all right. Now do youknow what I think?”

Birdsall couldn’t form an idea.

“I think the Keatcham party is in it; and Ithink they are after bigger game than Archie.Maybe the train robbers were a part of thescheme—although I’m not so sure of that.”

“Oh, the robbers were in it all right. But nowcome to Miss Smith; where does she come in?Or are you as sure of her as Mercer was in Chicago?”

If he had expected to get a spark out of theWinter tinder by this scraping stroke, he wasmistaken; the soldier did not even move his broodinggaze fixed on the hills beyond the houseroofs; and he answered in a level tone: “Did youget that story from my aunt, or was it Mrs. Melville?I’m pretty certain you got your biographyfrom that quarter. My aunt might have told her.”

“That would be betraying a lady’s confidence.I’m only a detective, whose business is to pry,but I never go back on the ladies. And I think,same’s you, that the lady in question is a realnice, high-toned lady; but I can’t disregard the[127]evidence. I never give out my system, but I’vegot one, all the same. Look here, see this paper?”—hehad replaced the envelope in his pocket;he pulled it out again; or rather, so the colonelfancied, until Birdsall turned the envelope over,revealing it to be blank. “There’s a sheet ofpaper inside; take it out. Look at the water-mark,look at the pattern; then compare it with thisletter”—handing the colonel the original envelope.“Same exactly, ain’t they?”

The colonel, who had studied the two sheetsof paper silently, nodded as silently; and he hada premonition of Birdsall’s next sentence beforeit came. “Well, Mrs. Melville Winter, this morning,took me to Miss Smith’s desk, where wefound this and a lot more like it.”

“You seem to be right in thinking the paperwidely distributed,” observed the colonel.

“And you don’t think that suspicious?”

“I should think it more suspicious if the paperwere not out on her desk. If she is such a deepone as you seem to think, she would hide such anincriminating bit of evidence.”

“She didn’t know we suspected her. Of course,you haven’t shadowed her a little bit?”

“There is a limit to detective duty in the case[128]of a gentleman,” returned the colonel haughtily.“I have not.”

Little Birdsall sighed; then in a propitiatorytone: “Well, of course, we both think there areother people in the job; I don’t know exactly whatyou mean by bigger game, but I can make a staggerat it. Now, say, did you get any answer whenyou wrote to Keatcham himself?”

“Yes,” said the colonel grimly, “I heard. Youknow the sort of letter I wrote; telling him of ourdreadful anxiety and about the lad’s being anorphan; don’t you think it was the sort of letter adecent man would answer, no matter how busyhe might be?”

“Sure. Didn’t you get an answer?”

“I did.” The colonel extricated himself fromhis wrappings enough to find a pale blue envelope,which he handed to Birdsall, at the same timetaking the motor handle. “You see; type-written,very polite, chilly sort of letter, kind to make aman hot under the collar and swear at Keatcham’sheartlessness. Mr. Keatcham unable to answer,having been ill since he left San Francisco. Didnot see anything of any boy. Probably boy ranaway. Has no information of any kind to afford.And the writer is very sincerely mine. The minute[129]I read it I was sure Mercer wrote it; and hewrote it to make me so disgusted with KeatchamI wouldn’t pursue the subject with him. Just thesame way he snubbed my aunt; and, for that matter,just the way he tried to snub me on the train.But he missed his mark; I wired every hotel inSanta Barbara and every one in Los Angeles;and Keatcham isn’t there and hasn’t been there.He has a big bunch of mail at Santa Barbarawaiting for him, forwarded from Los Angeles,but he hasn’t shown himself.”

Birdsall shot a glance of cordial admirationat the colonel. “You’re all there, General,” hecried with unquenchable familiarity. “I’ve beentrying to call up the Keatcham outfit, and Icouldn’t get a line, either. They haven’t used thetickets they bought—their reservations wentempty to Los Angeles. Now, what do you makeout of that?”

“I make out that Archie is only part of theirgame,” replied the soldier. “Now see, Birdsall,you are not going to get a couple of rich youngcollege fellows to do just plain kidnapping andscaring women out of their money—”

“Lord, General,” interrupted Birdsall, “thosecollege guys don’t turn a hair at kidnapping;[130]they regularly steal the president of the freshmanclass, and the things they do at their hazing beesand initiations would make an Apache Indian situp and take notice. I tell you, General, they’rethe limit for deviltry.”

“Some kinds. Not that kind; it’s too dirty.Arnold was one of the cleanest foot-ball playersat Harvard. And I don’t know anything abouthuman nature if that other youngster isn’t decent.But Mercer—es un loco; you can look out foranything from him. Now, see the combination.Arnold was at Harvard! I have traced the motor-carthey used to him; and then, if you add thathis father is away safe in Europe and he has anempty house, off to one side, with a quantity ofspace around it and the reputation of beinghaunted, why—”

“It looks good to me. And I understand mymen have got around it on the quiet all right.How’s your man Haley got on, hiring out to theJap in charge?”

“Well enough; the Jap took him on to mow,but either Mr. Caretaker doesn’t know anythingor he won’t tell. He’s bubbling over with conversationabout the flowers and the country and thePhilippines, where he used to be; but he only[131]knows that the honorable family are all awayand he is to shun the house. Aren’t we almostthere?”

“Just around the corner. I guess when yousee it you’ll think it’s just the patio a spook oftaste would freeze to.”

Why is it haunted?”

“Now you have me. I ain’t on to such dreamstuff. Gimme five cards. Mrs. Arnold died off inEurope, so ’tain’t her; and the house has onlybeen built two years; but the neighbors have seenlights and heard groans and a pick chopping atthe stones. Some folks say the land belongedto an old miner and he died before he could tellwhere he’d buried his mazuma; so he is taking alittle buscar after it. There’s the house, General.”

The street climbed a gentle hill, and on itscrest a large house, in mission style, looked overa pleasant land. Its position on a corner and theunusual size of the grounds about it gave the mansionan effect of space. Of almost rawly recenterection though it was, the kindly climate had sofostered the growth of the pines, acacias and live-oaks,the eucalypti and the orange-trees, whichmade a rich blur of color on the hillside, had solavishly tended the creeping ivies and Bougainvilleas[132]which masked the rounded lantern archesof the stern gray façade, and so sumptuously blazonedthe flower-beds in the garden on the onehand, yet, on the other, had so cunningly dulledthe greenish gray of the cobblestones from Californiaarroyos in chimney and foundation, andhad so softly streaked the marble of the gardenstatues and the plaster of walls and mansion withtiny filaments of lichens or faint green moss, thatthe beholder might fancy the house to be the ancienthome of some Spanish hidalgo, handed downwith an hereditary curse, through generations, tothe last of his race. One was tempted to such aflutter of fancy because of the impression givenby the mansion. A sullen reticence hung about theplace. The windows, for the most part, wereheavily shuttered. Not a pane of glass flashedback at the sunlight; even those casements notshuttered turned blank dark green shades, likebandaged eyes, on the court and the beautiful terracesand the lovely sweep of hillsides where thewonderful shadows swayed and melted.

The bent figure of a man raking, distorted bythe perspective, was visible just beyond the highpillars of the gateway. He paid no attention tothe motions of the motor-car, nor did he answer[133]a hail until it was repeated. Then he approachedthe car. Birdsall was in the roadway trying tounlock the gate. The man, whose Japanese featureswere quite distinguishable, bowed; he explainedthat the honorable owners were not athome; his insignificant self was the only keeperof the grounds. He spoke sufficiently good Englishwith the accompaniment of a deprecatory,amiable smile. Birdsall, in turn, told him that hisown companion was a very great gentleman fromthe East who belonged to a society of vast powerwhich was investigating spectral appearances, andthat he had come thousands of miles to see theghost.

The Japanese extended both hands, while theappeal of his smile deepened. “Too bad, velly,”he murmured, “but not leally any g’lost, no, nev’.”

“Don’t you believe in the ghost?” asked ColonelWinter.

“No, me Clistian boy, no believe not’ing.”

“All the samee,” said the colonel, laboriouslyswinging himself from his vantage-ground of themotor seat to the flat top of the wall, thence droppingto the greensward below, “allee samee, likego in house hunt ghost.” He crackled a bank-notein the palm of the slim brown hand, smiling and[134]nodding as if to break the force of his brusque action.Meanwhile, Birdsall had safely shut off hisengine before he placed himself beside the otherswith an agility hardly to be expected of his rotundbuild.

As for the caretaker, whether because he perceivedhimself outnumbered, or because he wasreally void of suspicion, he accepted the moneywith outward gratitude and proffered his guidancethrough the garden and the orchards. Heslipped into the rôle of cicerone with no atom ofresistance; he was voluble; he was gracious; hewas artlessly delighted with his señors. In spiteof this flood of suavity, however, there seemed tobe no possibility of persuading him to admit themto the house.

Assured of this, the two fell back for a second,time for the merest eyeflash from the detectiveto the soldier, who at once limped briskly up tothe Jap, saying: “We are very much obliged toyou; this is a beautiful house, beautiful gardens;but we want to see the ghost; and if you can giveme young Mr. Arnold’s address I will see him—orwrite, and we can come back.”

The gardener, with many apologies and smiles,did not know Mr. Arnold’s honorable address, but[135]he drew out a soiled card, explaining that it borethe name of the gentleman in charge of the property.Birdsall, peering over the Jap’s shoulders,added that it was the card of a well-known legalfirm.

“Then,” said the colonel with deliberation, “wewill thank you again for your courtesy, and—what’sthat?”

The Jap turned; they all started at the barkingdetonation of some explosion; while they gazedabout them there came another booming sound,and they could see smoke pouring from the chimneyand leaking through the window joints of aroom in the rear of the house. Like a hare, notbreaking his wind by a single cry, the Jap spedtoward the court. The others were hard on hisheels, though the colonel limped and showed signsof distress by the time they reached the great irondoor.

The Jap pulled out a key; he turned it andswung the door barely wide enough to enter, callingon them to stay out; he would tell them if heneeded them.

“Augustly stay; maybe honolable t’ieves!” hecried.

But the detective had interposed a stalwart leg[136]and shoulder. Instantly the door swung open; heacted as if he had lost his wits with excitement.“You’re burning up! Lord! you’re burning!Fire! Fire!” he bawled, and rushed boldly into theroom.

Winter followed him, also calling aloud in astrident voice. And it was to be observed, beingsuch an unusual preparation for a conflagration,that he had drawn a heavy revolver and ran withit in his hand. Before he jumped out of the carhe had discarded his thick top-coat and all hiswrappings.

An observer, also (had there been one near),would have taken note of a robust Irishman, whohad been weeding the flower-beds, and would haveseen him straighten at the first peal of the explosion,stare wildly at the chimneys before anydistinct smoke was to be seen, then run swiftlyand climb up to a low chimney on a wing of thehouse, watering-pot in hand. He would have seenhim empty his inadequate fire extinguisher andrapidly descend the ladder, while the smoke volleyedforth, as if defying his puny efforts; later,he would have seen the watering-pot bearer pursuethe others into the house, emitting noble yellsof “Fire!” and “Help!”

The lion’s share, by Octave Thanet—A Project Gutenberg eBook (6)

The detective had interposed a stalwart leg and shoulder. Page 135

[137]Further, this same observer, had he been an intimatefriend of Sergeant Dennis Haley, certainlywould have recognized that resourceful man ofwar in the amateur fireman.

[138]

CHAPTER VIII
FACE TO FACE

When the two men got into the house the dimrooms made them stumble for a moment afterthe brilliant sunshine of the outer skies; but ina second Birdsall’s groping hand had found anelectric push-button and the room was floodedwith light. They were in a small office off thekitchen, apparently. Smoke of a peculiarly pungentodor and eye-smarting character blurred allthe surroundings; but during the moment the Japhalted to explore its cause the others perceived twodoors and made for them. One was locked, butthe other must have been free to open, since Haley,with his watering-can, bounded through itwhile they were tugging at the other. Almost immediately,however, Haley was back again shoutingand pointing down the dark passage.

“The fire’s there,” screamed the detective. “Ican smell smoke! The smoke comes through thekeyhole!” But while the Jap fitted a key in the[139]lock and swung back the door, and Haley, whohad paused to replenish his watering-can at a convenientfaucet, darted after the other two, thecolonel stood listening with every auditory nervestrained to catch some sound. He yelled “Fire!help!” at the top of his voice, but not moving amuscle. “Too far off,” he muttered, then heyelled again and threw a heavy chair as if he hadstumbled against it. Another pause; he got downon his knees to put his ear to the floor. Directlyhe rose; he did not speak, but the words that hesaid to himself were only: “Just possible. Someone down cellar; but not under here.” Meanwhilehe was hurrying in pursuit of the others as swiftlyas his stiff knee would allow. He found them ina side hall with tiled or brick floor, gathered abouta water-soaked heap of charred red paper.

“’Tis terrible!” announced Haley, “a bum forsure! a dinnermite bum!”—fishing out somethinglike a tin tomato can from the sodden mass.

“Anyhow, there goes the real thing,” observedthe colonel coolly, as a formidable explosionjarred the air.

“If you blow us up, I kill you flist!” hissed theJap, and his knife flashed.

Chito, Chito!” soothed the colonel, lifting his[140]revolver almost carelessly. Simultaneously twobrawny arms pinioned the Jap’s own arms at hissides.

“Shure, Mister Samurai, ’tis the ongratefulchap youse is,” expostulated Haley. “I hate toreshtrain ye, but if ye thry any jehujits on me’twill be sahanara wid youse mighty quick.”

“No understan’,” murmured the Jap plaintively.“Why you hult me?”

“Come, put out the fire first,” said the colonel;“you know the house, you go ahead.”

The Jap darted on ahead so swiftly that theyhad some ado to follow; which seemed necessary,since he might have clashed a bolt on them at anyturn. The colonel’s stiff leg kept him in the rear,but Haley was never a hand’s-breadth behind therunner.

They found smoke in two places, but they easilyextinguished the tiny flames. In both cases thebombs turned out to be no more dangerous thana common kind of fireworks yielding a suffocatingsmoke in an inclosure, but doing no especial damageon safe and fire-proof ground, like a hearth.They were quickly extinguished. In their searchthey passed from one luxurious room to another,the Jap leading, until he finally halted in a spacious[141]library hung in Spanish leather, with ancient,richly carved Spanish tables and entrancingSpanish chairs of turned wood and age-mellowedcane, and bookcases sumptuously tempting abook-lover. But the colonel cared only for the soulof a book, not its body; the richest and clearest ofblack letter or the daintiest of tooling had lefthim cold; moreover, every fiber in him was strungby his quest; and Haley, naturally, was immune;strangely enough, it was the cheerful, vulgar littledetective who gave a glance, rapid but full of admiration,at the shelves and pile of missals on thetable, incongruously jostled by magazines of theday.

Winter faced the Jap, who was sheathed againin his bland and impassive politeness. “Where isMr. Mercer?” said he.

The Jap waved his hands in an eloquent orientalgesture. He assured the honorable questionerthat he did not know any Mr. Mercer.There was no one in the house.

The colonel had seated himself in a pricelessarm-chair in Cordova stamped leather; he nolonger looked like an invalid. “Show your star,please,” he commanded Birdsall, and the latter silentlyflung back the lapel of his coat.

[142]“I ought to tell you,” continued Rupert Winter,“that the game is up. It would do no goodfor you to run that poisoned bit of steel of yoursinto me or into any of us; we have only to stayhere a little too long and the police of San Franciscowill be down on you—oh, I know all aboutwhat sort they are, but we have money to spendas well as you. You take the note I shall write toMr. Mercer, or whatever you choose to call him,and bring his answer. We stay here until hecomes.”

Having thus spoken in an even, gentle voice, hescribbled a few words on a piece of paper whichhe took out of his note-book. This he proffered tothe Jap.

On his part, the latter kept his self-respect; heabated no jot of his assurance that they were alonein the house; he insinuated his suspicion that theywere there for no honest purpose; finally he waswilling to search the house if they would staywhere they were.

“I am not often mistaken in people,” was thecolonel’s rather oblique answer, “and I think youare a gentleman who might kill me if you had achance, but would not break his word to me. Ifyou will promise to play fair with us, do no harm[143]to my nephew, take this letter and bring me an answer—ifyou find any one—on your word ofhonor as a Japanese soldier and gentleman, youmay go; we will not signal the police. Is it abargain?”

The Jap gravely assented, still in the languageof the East, “saving his face” by the declarationof the absence of his principals. And he went offas gracefully and courteously as if only the highestcivilities had passed between them.

“Won’t he try some skin game on us?” the detectivequestioned; but Winter only motioned towardthe telephone desk. “Listen at it,” he said,“you can tell if the wires are cut; and he knowsyour men are outside hiding, somewhere; hedoesn’t know how many. You see, we have theadvantage of them there; to be safe they don’tdare to let many people into their secret. We canhave a whole gang. We haven’t many, but theymay think we have.”

Birdsall, who had lifted the receiver to his ear,laid it down with an appeased nod. Immediatelyhe proceeded to satisfy his professional conscienceby a search in every nook and cranny of the apartment.But no result appeared important enough tojustify the production of his red morocco note-book[144]and his fountain-pen. He had paused in disgustwhen the colonel sat up suddenly, erect in hischair; his keener ears had caught some soundwhich made him dart to all the windows in succession.He called Haley (whom he had postedoutside to guard the door) and despatched himacross the hall to reconnoiter. “I am sure it wasthe sound of wheels,” he explained, “but Haleywill be too late; we are on the wrong side of thehouse.”

As he spoke the buzz of an electric bell jarredtheir ears. “Somebody is coming in the frontdoor,” hazarded Birdsall.

“Evidently,” returned the colonel dryly. “Howcan our absent friends get in otherwise—at leasthow can they let us understand they have comein? I think we are going to have the pleasure ofan interview with the elusive Mr. Mercer.”

They waited. The colonel motioned Birdsall toa seat by the table, within breathing distance ofthe telephone. He himself fluttered the loosejournals and magazines, his ironic smile creasinghis cheek. “Our Japanese friend reads the newspapers,”he remarked. “Here are to-day’s papers;yes, Examiner and Chronicle, unfolded andsmoked over. Cigar, too, not cigarette, for here[145]is a stump—decidedly our cherry-blossom friendsare getting civilized!”

“Oh, there is somebody in here all right,”grunted Birdsall. “Say, Colonel, you are sureMrs. Winter has had no answer to her ad? Nokind of notice about sending money?”

“I haven’t seen her for a few hours, but I sawMrs. Melville Winter; she was positive no wordhad come. She thought my aunt was more worriedthan she would admit, and Miss Smith lookedpale, although she seemed hopeful.”

“She didn’t really want to give me the letter, Ithought,” said the detective. The colonel gavehim no reply save a black look. A silence fell. Afootfall outside broke it, a firm, in nowisestealthy footfall. Birdsall slipped his hand insidehis coat. The colonel rose and bowed gravely toCary Mercer.

On his part, Mercer was not in the least flurried;he looked at the two men, not with the arrogantsuspicion which had stung Winter on thetrain, but with the melancholy courtesy of hisbearing at Cambridge, three years before.

“This, I think, is Colonel Winter?” he said, returningthe bow, but not extending his hand,which hung down, slack and empty at his side.

[146]“I am glad you recognized me this time, Mr.Mercer.”

“I am sorry that I did not recognize you before,”answered Mercer. “Will you gentlemen beseated? I am not the owner of the house nor hisson; I am not even a friend, only a casual acquaintanceof the young man, but I seem to berather in the position of host, so will you beseated, and may I offer you some Scotch andShasta—Mr.—ah—”

“Mr. Horatio Birdsall, of the Birdsall andGwen Detective Agency,” interposed Winter.Birdsall bowed. Mercer bowed. “Excuse me ifI decline for us both; our time is limited—no,thank you, not a cigar, either. Now, Mr. Mercer,to come to the point, I want my nephew. I understandhe is in this house.”

“You are quite mistaken,” Mercer respondedwith unshaken calm. “He is not.”

“Where is he, then?”

“I do not know, Colonel Winter. What Ishould recommend is for you to go back to thePalace, and if you do not find him there—why,come and shoot us up again!” His eye strayedfor a second to the blackened, reeking mass onthe great stone hearth.

[147]“Have you sent him home? Is that what youmean to imply?”

“I imply nothing, Colonel; I don’t dare to withsuch strenuous fighters as you gentlemen; onlygo and see, and if you do find the young gentlemanhas had no ill treatment, no scare—only alittle adventure such as boys like, I hope you willcome out here, or wherever I may be, and havethat cigar you are refusing.”

The colonel was frankly puzzled. He couldn’tquite focus his wits on this bravado which hadnothing of the bravo about it, in fact had a tingeof wistfulness in its quiet. One would have saidthe man regretted his compulsory attitude of antagonism;that he wanted peace.

Mercer smiled faintly. “You ought to knowby this time when a man is lying, Colonel,” hecontinued, “but I will go further. I may havedone plenty of wrong things in my life, somethings, maybe, which the law might call a crime;but I have never done anything which would debarme from passing my word of honor as a gentleman;nor any one else from taking it. I giveyou my word of honor that I have meant and Ido mean no slightest harm to Archie Winter; andthat, while I do not know where he is at this[148]speaking, I believe you will find him safe underyour aunt’s protection when you get back to thePalace.”

“Call up the Palace Hotel, Mr. Birdsall,” wasthe colonel’s reply. “Mr. Mercer, I do not distrustthat you are speaking exactly, but you knowyour Shakespeare; and there are promises whichkeep their word to the ear but break it to thesense.”

“I don’t wonder at your mistake; but you aremistaken, suh.”

Birdsall was phlegmatically ringing up Mrs.Winter, having the usual experience of the rashperson who intrudes his paltry needs on the complexworkings of a great hotel system.

“No, I don’t know the number, I haven’t thebook here, but you know, Palace Hotel. Wellgive me Information, then—Busy? Well, giveme another Information, then—yes, I want thePalace Hotel—P-a-l-a-c-e—yes, yes, Palace Hotel;yes, certainly. Yes? Mrs. Archibald Winter.Yes—line busy? Well, hold on until it is disengaged.Say, Miss Furber, that you? This isBirdsall and Gwen. Yes. Give me Mrs. Winter,will you, 337? This Mrs. Winter? Oh! Whenwill she be back? Is Mrs. Melville Winter in?[149]Well, Miss Smith in? She’s gone, too? Has MasterArchibald got back, yet, to the hotel? Hasn’t?Thank you—eh?” in answer to the colonel’s interruption.“What say, Colonel?”

“Tell her to call up this number,”—the colonelread it out of the telephone book—“when MasterArchie does get back, will you? I am afraid, Mr.Mercer, that you will have to allow us to trespasson your hospitality for a little longer.”

He suspected that Mercer was annoyed, althoughhe answered lightly enough: “As youplease, Colonel Winter. I am sure you will hearvery soon. Now, there is another matter, yourmachine; I understand you left it outside. Willyou ring for Kito, Colonel? Under the circumstancesyou may prefer to do your own ringing.I will ask him to attend to the car.”

The colonel made proper acknowledgments.He was thinking that had Mercer cared to confiscatethe motor, he would have done it withoutringing; on the other hand, did he desire somespecial intercourse with his retainer, wherein, undertheir very noses, he could issue his orders—well,possibly they might get a whiff of the secretthemselves were he allowed to try. At present thegame baffled him. Therefore he nodded at Birdsall’s[150]puckered face behind Mercer’s shoulder.And he rang the bell.

The Jap answered it with suspicious alacrity.

“Kito,” said Mercer, “will you attend to GeneralWinter’s car? Bring it up to the court.”

Absolutely harmless, to all appearances, butBirdsall, from his safe position behind master andman, looked shrewd suspicion at the soldier.

“Shall your man in the hall go with him?”asked Mercer.

The colonel shook his head. “No,” he saidquietly, “we have other men outside if he needshelp. Call Skid, please.” But when Birdsall attemptedto get Central there was no response.

The colonel merely shrugged his shoulders, althoughBirdsall frowned with vexation. “What apity!” said Winter softly. “Now the fellows willcome when the time is up; we can’t call them off.”

Mercer smiled faintly. “There are two moretelephones in the house,” he observed. “You cancall off your dogs easily any time you wish. Alsoyou can hear from the Palace. Will you come up-stairswith me? I assure you I have not the leastintention to harm you or the honest sergeant.”

“You take the first trick, Mercer,” said the colonel.“I supposed the bell was your signal to have[151]the wires cut. But about going; no, I think wewill stay here. There is a door out on the courtwhich, if you will open—thank you. A charmingprospect! Excuse me if I send Haley out there;and may I go myself?”

Anticipating the answer, he stepped under thelow mission lintel into a fairy-like Californiancourt or patio of pepper-trees and palms and amoss-grown fountain. There was the usual colonnadewith a stone seat running round the wall.Mercer, smiling, motioned to one of them. “Iwish I could convince you, Colonel, that you arein no need of that plaything in your hand, andthat you are going to dine with your boy—isn’the a fine fellow?”

The colonel did not note either his admissionthat he had seen Archie, nor a curious warmingof his tone; he had stiffened and grown rigid likea man who receives a blow which he will notadmit. He stole a glance at the detective and metan atrocious smirk of complacency. They bothhad caught a glimpse of a figure flitting into adoor of the court. They both had seen a woman’sprofile and a hand holding a little steel tool whichhad ends like an alligator’s nose. And both menhad recognized Miss Smith.

[152]

CHAPTER IX
THE AGENT OF THE FIRELESS STOVE

The time was two hours later. Rupert Winterwas sitting on one of the stone benches of thecolonnade about the patio. The court was suffusedwith the golden glow presaging sunset.Warm afternoon shadows lay along the flags;wavering silhouettes of leafage or plant; blurredreflections from the bold has-reliefs of Spanishwarriors and Spanish priests sculptured betweenthe spandrels of the arches. Winter’s dull eyeshardly noted them: the exotic luxuriance of foliage,the Spanish armor and Spanish cowls wereall too common to a denizen of a Spanish colonyin the tropics, to distract his thoughts from hisown ugly problem. He had been having it outwith himself, as he phrased it. And there hadbeen moments during those two hours, when hehad ground his teeth and clenched his fists becauseof the futile and furious pain in him.

When he recognized Janet Smith, by that same[153]illuminating flash he recognized that this womanwho had been tricking him was the woman thathe loved. He believed that he had said his lastword to love, but love, after seeming to accept thecurt dismissal, was lightly riding his heart again.“Fooled a second time,” he thought with inexpressiblebitterness, recalling his unhappy marriedlife and the pretty, weak creature who hadcaused him such humiliation. Yet with herthere had been no real wrong-doing, only absolutelack of discretion and a childish craving for gaietyand adulation. Poor child! what a woeful endingfor it all! The baby, the little boy who wastheir only living child, to die of a sudden accessof an apparently trifling attack of croup, whilethe mother was dancing at a post ball! He wasEast, taking his examination for promotion. Thefrantic drive home in the chill of the dawn hadgiven her a cold which her shock and grief left herno strength to resist—she was always a frail littlecreature, poor butterfly!—and she followed herbaby inside of a month. Had she lived, her husbandmight have found it hard to forgive her, foralready a sore heart was turning to the child forcomfort; but she was dead, and he did not let histhoughts misuse her memory. Now—here was another,[154]so different but just as false. Then, hebrought himself up with a jerk; he would be fair;he would look at things as they were; many a manhad been fooled by the dummy. He would notjump at conclusions because they were cruel, anymore than he would because they were kind.There was such a thing, he knew well, as creduloussuspicion; it did more harm than creduloustrust. Meanwhile, he had his detail. He was tofind Archie; therefore, he waited. They were inthe house; it were only folly to give up their advantageunder the stress of any of Mercer’s plausiblelurings to the outside.

Moreover, by degrees, he became convincedthat Mercer, certainly to some extent, was sincerein his profession of belief in Archie’s absence andsafety. This, in spite of hearing several times thatArchie was not returned. Mercer did all thespeaking, but he allowed Birdsall to hold the receiverand take the message from Mrs. Winter.

The telephone was in an adjoining room, butby shifting his position a number of times thecolonel was able to catch a murmur of the conversation.He heard Mercer’s voice distinctly. Hehad turned away and was following the detectiveout of the room. “I don’t understand it any more[155]than you do, Mr. Birdsall,” he said; “you won’tbelieve me, suh, but I am right worried.”

“Of course I believe you,” purred the detectiveso softly that the colonel knew he did not believeany more than Mercer suspected. “Of course Ibelieve you; but I don’t know what to do. It ain’ton the map. I guess it’s up to you to throw alittle light. I’ve called the boys off twice alreadyand told ’em to wait an hour or a half-hour longer.I got to see the colonel.”

“I can trust my intuitions, or I can trust thecircumstantial evidence,” thought the colonel. Hejumped up and began to pace the court.

“Seems to be like a game of bridge before onecan see the dummy,” he complained; and as sooften happens in the crises of life, a trivial illustrationstruck a wavering mind with the force ofan argument. His thoughts reverted whimsicallyto the card-table; how many times had he hesitatedover the first lead between evenly balancedsuits of four; and how often had he regretted orwon, depending solely upon whether his card instincthad been denied or obeyed! It might be instinct,this much-discussed “card instinct,” or itmight be a summing up of logical deductions soswift that the obscure steps were lost, and the[156]reasoner was unconscious of his own logical processes.“Now,” groaned Rupert Winter, “I am upagainst it. She looks like a good woman; sheseems like a good woman; but I have only myimpressions and Aunt Rebecca’s against the apparentfacts in the case. Well, Aunt Rebecca is ashrewd one!” He sat down and thought harder.Finally he rose, smiling. He had threshed out hisproblem; and his conclusion, inaudibly but verydistinctly uttered to himself, was: “Me for myown impressions! If that girl is in with this gang,either what they are after isn’t so bad—or theyhave made her believe it isn’t bad.”

He looked idly about him at the arched doorwayof the outer court. It was carved with a favoritemission design of eight-pointed flowerswith vase-like fluting below. There was a tinycrack in one of the flowers, the tiniest crack inthe world. He looked at it without seeing it, orseeing it with only the outer half of his senses,but—he could not have told how—into his effortto pierce his own tangle there crept a sudden interest,a sudden keenness of scrutiny of this minute,insignificant crack in the stone. He became awarethat the crack was singularly regular, preservingthe form of the flower and the fluting beneath.[157]Kito, the Japanese, who was sitting at the farend of the court, conversing in amity with Haley,just here rose and came to this particular pillar.The Irishman sat alone, rimmed by the sunsetgold, little spangles of motes drifting about him;for the merest second Winter’s glance lingeredon him ere it went to the Jap, who passed him,courteously saluting.

After he had passed, the colonel looked againat the column and the crack—it was not there.

Chito, chito!” muttered the colonel. Carelesslyhe approached the column and took thesame posture as the Jap. Unobtrusively his fingersstrayed over the stone. He scratched thesurface; not stone, but cement. He tapped cautiously,keeping his hand well hidden by his body;no hollow sound rewarded him; but all at oncehis groping fingers touched a little round objectunder the bold point of an eight-pointed flower.He didn’t dare press on it; instead he resumed hiscautious tapping. It seemed to him that the soundhad changed. He glanced about him. Save forHaley he was alone in the patio. He pressed onthe round white knob, and what he had half expectedhappened: a segment of the columnswung on inner hinges, disclosing the hollow[158]center of the engaged columns on either side.He looked down. Nothing but darkness was visible,but while he stood, tensely holding his breath,his abnormally sensitive auricular nerve caughtdistinctly the staccato breath of that kind of sighwhich is like a groan, and a voice said more wearilythan angrily: “Oh, damn it all!”

Almost simultaneously, he heard the faint footfallsof the men within; he must replace hismovable flower. The column was intact, and hewas bending his frowning brows on the stylobateof another when Birdsall and Mercer enteredtogether, Mercer, with a shrug of his shoulders atthe detective’s dogged suspicion, preceding thelatter.

“Well,” said the colonel, “did you get myaunt?”

“Yes, suh, I got your aunt herself,” respondedMercer, with his Virginian survival of the formalcivility of an earlier generation. “Yes, suh; butI regret to say Archie is not there.”

“Where is he?” The soldier’s voice was curt.

“Honestly,” declared Mercer, “I wish I knew,suh, I certainly do. But—” Mercer’s jaw fell;he turned sharply at the soft whir of an electric[159]stanhope gently entering the patio through thegreat arched gateway. It stopped abreast of thegroup, and its only occupant, a handsome youngman, jumped nimbly out of the vehicle. He greetedthem with a polite removal of his cap, a bow,and a flashing smile which made the circuit ofthe beholders. Birdsall and the colonel recognizedthe traveling enthusiast of the FirelessStove.

The colonel took matters into his own hands.

“I think you’re the young gentleman who tookmy nephew away,” said he. “Will you kindlytell us where he is?”

“And don’t get giddy, young gentleman,”Birdsall chimed in, “because we know perfectlywell that you are not the agent of the PeerlessFireless Stove.”

“I’ve got one here on trial, and I’ve come backto see if they like it,” explained the young man,in silken accents, but with a dancing gleam of theeyes.

“We are going to keep it,” said Mercer.“Kito,” calling the unseen Jap, “fetch that FirelessStove this gentleman left us, and show it tothis gentleman here.”

“Oh, cut it out!” Birdsall waved him off.[160]“It’s only ten minutes before our fellows willcome. You can put the police court wise withall that. Try it on them; it don’t go with us.”

“Where is the boy?” said the colonel.

“Tell him, if you know,” said Mercer. “Thisgentleman,” he explained, “left a stove with usto test. He was here about it this morning, and wegave Archie to him to take to the Palace Hotel.”

“And he is there now,” said the young man.

“Did you leave him there?” asked the colonel.

“Yes, did you?” insisted Mercer.

The young man looked from Mercer to theother two men. There was no visible appeal tothe Southerner, but Winter felt sure of twothings: one, that the new-comer was Mercer’sconfederate whom he was striving to shield bypretending to disavow; the other, that for somereason Mercer was as anxious for the answer aswere they.

“Why-y,” hesitated the stove promoter, “yousee, Mr.—ah, gentlemen, you see, I was told totake the boy to the Palace Hotel, and I set out todo it. We weren’t going at more than an eight-mile-an-hourclip, yet some foozler of a coparrested us for speeding. It was perfectly ridiculous,and I tried to shake him, but it was no use.[161]They carried us off to a police court and stuckme for ten dollars. Meanwhile my machine andmy passenger were outside. When I got outsideI couldn’t find them. I skirmished around, andfinally did get the machine. I’d taken the precautionto fix it so it couldn’t be run before Ileft it—took the key out, you know—it musthave been trundled off by hand somewhere!—butI couldn’t find the boy. Naturally, I was abit worried; but after I had looked up the forceand the neighborhood, it occurred to me to ’phoneto the Palace. I did, and I was told he was there.”

“Who told you?” The question came simultaneouslyout of three throats.

“Why, Mrs. Winter—that’s what she calledherself.”

“But not three minutes ago Mrs. Winter toldme that he wasn’t there,” remarked Mercer coldly.“When did you telephone?”

“It was at least fifteen minutes ago,” the youngman said dolefully. “I say, wouldn’t you bettercall them up again? There may be some explanation.I shouldn’t have come back without the kidif I hadn’t been sure he was safe.”

“Was it Mrs. Melville or Mrs. Winter yougot?” This came from the colonel. “Did she by[162]chance have an English accent, or was it Southern?”

“Oh, no, not Southern,” protested the youngman. “Yes, I should say it was English—or tryingto be.”

“It would be exactly like Millicent,” thoughtthe colonel wrathfully, “to try to fool the kidnappers,who had apparently lost Archie, by pretendinghe was at the hotel!”

He made no comment aloud, but he nodded assentto Mercer’s proposal to telephone; and thenhe walked up to the stove man.

“The game is up,” he said quietly. “We havea lot of men waiting outside. If we signal, theywill come any minute; if we don’t signal, theywill come in ten minutes. Give us a chance tobe merciful to you. This is no kind of a scrapefor your father’s son—or for Arnold’s.”

Shot without range though it was, Winterwas sure that it went home under all the youngfellow’s assumed bewilderment. He continued,looking kindly at him:

“You look now, I’ll wager, about as you used tolook in the office when you called on the dean—byinvitation—and were wondering just wherethe inquiry was going to light!”

[163]The dimple showed in the young man’s cheek.“I admit,” he replied, “that I didn’t take advantageas I should of my university opportunities.Probably that is why I have to earn a strenuouslivelihood boosting the Only Peerless FirelessStove. By the way, have you ever seen the Firelessin action? Just the thing for the army! Fillsa long-felt want. I should be very pleased todemonstrate. We have a stove here.”

The colonel grinned responsively. “You do itvery well,” said he. “Can’t you let me into thegame?”

There was the slightest waver in the promoter’sglance, although he smiled brilliantly as heanswered: “I’ll take it into consideration, but—willyou excuse me? I want to speak to Mr. Mercerabout the stove.”

The moment he had removed his affable youngpresence Birdsall approached his employer. Ithad been a difficult quarter of an hour with thedetective. Vague instinct warned him not to touchthe subject of Miss Smith; he felt in no way assuredabout anything else. The result had beenthat he had fidgeted in silence. But the accumulatedflood could no longer be held.

“I’ve found out one thing,” exploded Birdsall,[164]puffing in the haste of his utterance. “The boyis on the premises.”

“Think so?” was all the colonel’s answer.

“I’m sure of it. Say, I overheard Mercer talkingdown a speaking-tube.”

“What did he say?”

“Talked French, damn him! But say, what’sgorge?”

“Throat.”

“What’s cupillo gorge?”

“Sure he wasn’t talking of a carriage, or didhe say je le couperai la gorge?”

“Maybe. I wouldn’t swear to it. I don’t parlezfrançais a little bit.”

“Did you hear any other noises? Where werethey?”

Birdsall thought he had heard other noises,and that they were down cellar. “And anyhow,Colonel, I’m dead-to-rights sure those guys aregiving us hot stuff to get us out of the house.I’m for getting our men in now and rushing thehouse. It’s me for the cellar.”

While the colonel was rolling Birdsall’s informationaround in his mind, he heard the echo ofsteps on the flagging which preceded Mercer andthe other man.

[165]There was that in the bearing and the look ofthem that made the watcher, used to the signs ofdecision on men’s faces, instantly sure that theirwhole course of plans and action was changed.

Mercer spoke first and in a low tone to thecolonel.

“I have no right,” said he, “to ask so muchtrust from you, but will you trust me enoughto step aside with this young man and me for amoment only—out of ear-shot? I give you myword of honor I mean no slightest harm to you.I want to be frank. I will go alone if you desire.”

The colonel eyed him intently for the briefestspace. “I’ll trust you,” said he. Then: “I thinkyou have the key to this queer mix-up. At yourservice. And let your friend come, too. He is aningenuous sort, and he amuses me.”

Birdsall looked distinctly sullen over the requestto wait, intimating quite frankly that hisemployer was walking into a trap. “I won’tstand here more than fifteen minutes,” he grumbled.“I’ve given those fellows poco tiente longenough.” But the colonel insisted on twenty minutes,and reluctantly Birdsall acquiesced.

Mercer conducted the others to the library.[166]When they were seated he began in his composed,melancholy fashion:

“I earnestly beg of you to listen to me, andto believe me, for your nephew’s sake. I am goingto tell you the absolute truth. It is the onlyway now. When you came, we handed him overto this gentleman, exactly as we have said. I donot know why he should have been stopped. Ido not know why he left the machine—”

“Might he not have been carried away?” saidWinter.

“He might; but I don’t know what motive—”

“What motive had you? You kidnapped him!”

“Not exactly. We had no intention of harminghim. He came accidentally into the room betweenMrs. Winter’s and Mr. Keatcham’s suites.Standing in that room, trying to stanch the bleedingof a sudden hemorrhage of the nose, he overheardme and my friend—”

You?” asked the colonel laconically of theyoung Harvard man.

“I,” smilingly confessed the latter. “I amready to own up. You are a decent fellow, andyou are shrewd. You ought to be on our side,not fighting us. I tell you, you don’t want to havethe boy turn up safe and sound any more than I[167]do. Mr. Mercer was talking to me, and the kidoverheard. We heard him and went into theroom—”

“How?”

“Knocked on the door and he opened it. Andwe jumped on him. It was life and death for usnot to be blown on; so, as we didn’t wish to killthe kid, and as we didn’t know the youngster wellenough to trust him then—although we might,for he is game and the whitest chap!—but wedidn’t know—why, we just told him he wouldhave to stay with us a while until our rush wasover. That was all we meant; and we let him’phone you.”

“How about his great-aunt—the cruel anxiety—”

“Anxiety nothing!” began the other man, buta glance from Mercer cut him short.

The Southerner took the word in his slow, gentlevoice. “I tried to reassure our aunt, ColonelWinter. I think I succeeded. She telephoned andI told her it was all right. As for Archie,after we talked with him, he was willing enoughto go. He stole out with my friend inside offive minutes, while you all were searching yourrooms. It was he insisted on calling you up, lest[168]you should be worried. He said you were rightafraid of kidnappers, and you would be sendingthe police after us. You can call Mrs. Winter upand find out if I am not telling you the exactfacts.”

“Very well, I will,” said Winter. They metthe sullen detective at the door. Cary Mercer,with his mirthless smile, led the way. Mercerrang up the hotel for Winter, himself. To thecolonel’s vast relief Aunt Rebecca answered thecall.

Est-ce que c’est vous-même, mon neveu?”said she dryly.

Mais oui, ma tante. Why are you speakingso formally in foreign tongues? Is Millicent ondeck?”

“In her room,” came the answer, still inFrench. “Well, you have got us in a pretty mess.Where is my boy?”

“I only wish I knew! Tell me now, though, isMercer’s story straight?”

“Absolutely. You may trust him.”

“What’s his real game, then? The one he wasafraid Archie would expose?”

“Ask him.”

“But you are in it, aren’t you?”

[169]“Enough to ask that you abandon the chase—immediately!Unless you wish to ruin me!”

“You’ll have to speak plainer. I’ve been keptin the dark as long as I can stand in this matter.”

But before he could finish the sentence.“Pas ici, pas maintenant—c’est trop de péril,”she cried, and she must have gone, for he couldget no more from her. When he rang again,Randall responded:

“Mrs. Winter says, sir, will you please comeup here as quick as you can. She’s gone out. Shethought she caught sight of Mr. Archie on thestreet.”

To the colonel’s demand, “Where, how didshe see him?” he obtained no answer, and on hisvicious pealing of the bell there came, eventually,mellow Anglican accents which asked: “Yes?Whom do you wish to see?” It is an evidence ofthe undisciplined nature of the sex that the soldiermade a face and—hung up the receiver.

He found himself—although this to a reallyopen mind is no excuse—in a muddle of conflictingimpulses. He was on edge to get into thestreet for the search after the boy; he was clutchedin a vise by his conviction that the clue to Archie’swhereabouts lay in Mercer’s hands, and[170]that the Southerner meant no harm to the lad.And all the while he could feel Birdsall tuggingat the leash.

“It’s on the cards,” he grumbled, with a wryface, “quite on the cards that he may bolt in spiteof me, and do some foolish stunt of his own thatwill make a most awful muddle.”

Not nearly so composed as he looked, therefore,he turned to Mercer. However, his ammunitionwas ready, and to Mercer’s inquiry, was he satisfied?he replied calmly: “Well, not entirely. IfArchie isn’t in the house, who is it whose throatyou wish to cut? Who is hidden here?”

It could not have been an unexpected questionor Mercer hardly had answered so readily: “Youknow who it is,” said he. “It is Mr. Keatcham.”

[171]

CHAPTER X
THE SMOLDERING EMBERS

If Mercer’s avowal surprised the colonel, therewas no trace of such emotion in his face or hismanner. “I rather thought it might be,” he said.“And our young friend who is promoting FirelessStoves with the solemn energy he learned doingDicky stunts?”

“Mr. Endicott Tracy.” Mercer had the mannerof a ceremonious introduction. Tracy flavoredthe customary murmur of pleasure with his radiantsmile.

“Pleased, I am sure,” said the colonel in turn,bowing. “Your father, I suppose, is the presidentof the Midland; and Mr. Keatcham will, I suppose,not be able to prevent his reëlection to-morrow.Is that the game?”

Mr. Tracy’s son admitted that it might be.

“Ah, very clever,” said the colonel, “very.Any side-show, for example?”

“I did not go into this for money.” Mercer’s[172]level gaze did not relax, and he kept his drearyeyes unflinchingly on Winter’s. A peculiar lookin the eyes recalled some tragic and alien memory,just what, Rupert could not capture; it flittedhazily through his thoughts ere the next wordsdrove it off. “Nevertheless, it is true that if wewin out I shall have enough to pay back to allthe people who trusted me the money they lostwhen they were frightened into selling their stockin the Tidewater, and your aunt and Mr. Tracystand to make money.”

“How do you expect to make it?”

“The M. and S. stock is away down becauseof rumors Keatcham is likely to control it. Whenit is settled it is not to be looted by him, the stockwill rise—we are sure of the ten points; we maymake twenty—”

“And my aunt has financed your scheme, hasshe?—paid all your expenses?”

The Harvard man laughed out. “Our expenses?Oh, yes, she has grub-staked us, allright; but she has done a good deal more—shehas furnished more than half a million to us forour gamble.”

The colonel considered; then: “But why didyou keep him here so long beforehand?” said he.

[173]“It was not long beforehand,” said Mercer.“The meeting was adjourned for a day—wedon’t know why—we fancy that his partners suspectsomething. It is called for to-morrow, inspite of their efforts to have it put off a week.But we want more; we want to induce Keatchamto vote his own stock for us, and to call off hisdogs himself.”

“And you can’t force him to do it?”

“We shall force him, easily enough,” returnedMercer, “but we don’t trust him. We want hisprivate code book to be sure he is playing fair.In fact, we have to have it, because nothing getsany attention that isn’t, so to speak, properly introduced.”

“And he will not give it to you?”

“Says he has lost it.”

“Perhaps he has,” mused the soldier. “Butnow, all this is not my concern, except that Ihave no right, as a soldier, even passively to aidin breaking the laws. It is my duty to rescue andfree Mr. Keatcham.”

But before he could speak further Mercer lifteda hand in apologetic interruption. Would ColonelWinter excuse him, but he must ask Mr. Tracyto go back to the patio and have an eye on the[174]detective. Endicott only exchanged a singleglance before he obeyed. Mercer’s eyes followedhim. “It was not to be helped,” he said, half tohimself, “but I have been sorry more than oncethat I had to take him into this.”

Winter looked at him, more puzzled than hewanted to admit to himself; indeed, he was ratherglad to have the next word come from Mercer.

“I have a few things I want to say to you;they go easier when we are alone—but won’t yousit down?” When the colonel had seated himselfhe went on: “I’d like to explain things a bit.”

“I’d like to have you,” answered the soldier.“I think you have the clue to Archie’s whereaboutsand don’t recognize it yourself; so put mewise, as the slang goes.”

Then, without preface, in brief, nervous sentences,spoken hardly with a quiver of a muscleor a wavering cadence of the voice, yet neverthelessinstinct with a deadly earnestness, Mercerbegan to talk. He told of his struggling youthon the drained plantation, mortgaged so that afterthe interest was paid there was barely enough toget the meagerest living for his mother and sisterand little brother; of his accidental discovery ofiron ore on the place; of his working as a common[175]laborer in the steel mills; of his being “rooster,”“strand-boy,” “rougher,” “heater,” “roller,”during three years while he was waiting for hischance; of his heart-draining toil; of his solitarystudies.

“I never was the kind of fellow to makefriends,” he said, in his soft, monotonous voice,“so I expect I was the fonder of my own kin.I’d a mighty good mother, sir, and sister; andthere was Phil—my little brother. We were righthappy all together on the old place that’s beenin our family for a hundred years, and it was allwe asked to stay there; but it had every dollarof mortgage it could stand, and the soil all worn-out,needing all kinds of things; and I wish youcould have seen the makeshifts we had for machines!I was blacksmith and carpenter andpainter—just sixteen, and not an especiallybright chap, but mighty willing to work; and mymother and Sis and I—we did a heap. When Istumbled on the ore I couldn’t be sure, but Iwrote to Aunt Rebecca Winter. She sent a mandown. He looked up things. It would take a heapof money to work the mines, but it might be abig thing. She paid off the mortgage and tookanother. First to last, she’s been mighty kind to[176]us. She would have done more had we let her.So I went to Pittsburgh and learned my trade,and I made enough to pay interest, and the peopleat home got a fairly good living. When I wastwenty-one I was back home, and got a companystarted and put up a mill. You know how thosethings have to creep up. But there was ore, allright, and I understood my business and taughtthe hands. We’d a right sweet little mill. Well,I don’t want to take up your time, suh. Thosenext ten or twelve years were right hard work,but they were happy, too. We prospered; wehelped the whole county prosper. We paid AuntBecky. We were in good shape. We wentthrough ’93 paying our dividends just as regular,and making them, too, though we didn’t muchmore—it was close sailing. But we were honest;we made a mighty good article; and everybodytrusted us. Then came the craze for mergers,and a number of us got together. Still we weren’tvery big, but we were big enough to be listed.I didn’t want it, but some of the men thought itwas a terrible fine thing to be ‘Iron Kings.’ Thatwas how. Keatcham was looking over the countryfor fish for his net; he somehow heard that herewas a heap of good ore and new mills. The first[177]intimation we had was his secretary coming as aNorthern invalid—why, he stayed at our housebecause we were so sorry for him, the hotel beingin new hands and not right comfortable. Heseemed so interested in our mills, and boughtsome stock, and sent presents to Phil and mymother after he went.”

“That was Keatcham’s private secretary, yousay?”

“Yes, suh, Atkins. You met him on the train—assleek and deadly a little scoundrel as evergot rich quick. Oh, he’s deep. Well, suh, youknow the usual process. Convinced of the valueof the property, Keatcham and one or two othersset out to buy it. They got little blocks of ithere and there. Then Atkins wrote me in confidencethat some men were after the controllinginterest and meant to squeeze us all out—offeredto lend me money to buy—of course, on a margin.And I was plumb idiot enough to be tolledinto his trap! I, who had never speculated witha dollar before, I didn’t borrow his money, but Itook all I could raise myself, and I boughtenough to be sure I could control the next election.Then—the slump came, and after the slumpthe long, slow crumbling. I controlled the election[178]all right, of course, but before the next onecame I was ruined, and Keatcham put his ownmen in. I went desperately to New York. Ididn’t know how to fight those fellows; it was anew game. I didn’t find Atkins. Maybe becausethat wasn’t his name when I had known him. Iwas so sure that the property was good—as ifthat mattered! As if anything mattered withthese gamblers who play with loaded dice anddope the horses they bet against! Phil had allhis property in the mills; we all had. We mortgagedthe house; we had to, to protect our stock.You know how the fight ended, and what happenedat Cambridge. That isn’t all. My wife—”He stood a little straighter, and the light wentout of his eyes. “I told you I don’t make friendseasily, and I am not the kind of man women taketo; all the same, the loveliest girl in the Southloved me ever since I jumped over the mill-damto save her rag doll, once, when she was visitingher aunt near us. I’d married, when we seemedprosperous. Now, understand me, I don’t sayit was my ruin and Phil’s death that killed herand the baby; she had pneumonia, and it may bethat seeing that paper by accident didn’t turn thescale; but I do say that she had her last hours[179]embittered by it. That’s enough for me. WhenI got home with—with Phil, she was dead.”

“Tough,” said the colonel. He began to revisehis impressions of Mercer.

“Wasn’t it?” the other asked, with a simplicityof appeal that affected the listener more than anythinghe had heard. He jumped out of his chairand began pacing the room, talking more rapidly.“You’re a man; you know what I wanted to do.”

“Kill somebody, I suppose. I should.”

“Just that. I ran Atkins to cover after a whilethrough Endicott Tracy. That boy is one of thenoblest fellows that ever lived; yes, suh. He wasgoing to help poor Phil, Phil’s room-mate hadtold him. All those boys—look a-here, ColonelWinter, if ever anybody talks to you about Harvardfellows being indifferent—”

“I shall tell him he can’t get under the Americansurface. A Harvard boy will do anything onearth for his friends.”

“They were mighty good to me. It was Endyfound out about Atkins, just from my descriptionof him. I found out about Keatcham for myself.And you are quite right—for a little whileI wanted to kill them both. Looked like I justnaturally had to kill them! But there was my[180]mother. There was nobody to take care of herbut Sis and me, and a trial for murder is terriblyexpensive. Of course, anybody can get offwho has got money and can spend it; but it takessuch an awful heap of money. And we were allruined together, for what little was left was allin the company, and that promptly stopped payingdividends. I couldn’t risk it. I had to wait. Ihad to go to work to support my mother, to paySis and her back, don’t you see? We came here.I got a job, a well-paid one, too, through Endy’sfather, reporting on the condition of the mills—akind of examiner. And the job was forKeatcham.”

“Why did you take it? I know, though. Youdid it to familiarize him with your appearance,so that he would not be warned when yourchance came.”

“How did you know that?”

“A man I knew in the Philippines—a Filipino—waswronged by a white man, who took hiswife and threw her aside when he tired of her.The girl killed herself. Her husband watchedhis chance for a year, found it at last—thanksto that very fact that his victim wasn’t on guardagainst him—and sent his knife home. He’d[181]been that fellow’s servant. I picked the dead manup. That Filipino looked as you looked a minuteago.”

“What became of the Filipino?” inquired hislistener.

The colonel had not told the story quite withoutintention. He argued subconsciously, thatif Mercer were a good sort under all, he wouldhave a movement of sympathy for a more cruellywronged man than he; if not, he would driveahead to his purpose, whatever that might be.His keen eyes looked a little more gentle as heanswered: “He poisoned himself. The best wayout, I reckon. I should hate to have had himshot after I knew the story. But there was reallyno option. But I’m interrupting you. You didyour work well and won Keatcham’s confidence?”

“He isn’t a very confiding man. I didn’t seehim often. My dealings were with Atkins. Hedidn’t know that I had found him out; he thoughtthat he had only to explain his two names, andexpected gratitude for his warning, as he calledit. He is slimy; but I was able to repay a littleof my score with him. I was employed by morethan Keatcham, and I saw a good many industrialback-yards. Just by chance, I came on a clue, and[182]Endy Tracy and I worked it up together. Atkinswas selling information to Keatcham’s enemies.We did not make out a complete case, but enoughof one to make Keatcham suspect him, and atthe right time. But that happened later—you see,I don’t know how to tell a story even with somuch at stake.” He pulled out his handkerchief,and Winter caught the gleam of the beads on hissallow forehead. “It was this way,” he went on.“At first I was only looking about for a safechance to kill him, and to kill that snake of anAtkins; but then it grew on me; it was all tooeasy a punishment—just a quick death, when hisvictims had years of misery. I wanted him towade through the hell I had to wade through.I wanted him to know why he was condemned.Then it was I began to collect just the cases Iknew about—just one little section of the horribleswath of agony and humiliation and poverty andsin he and his crowd had made—the one I knewevery foot of, because I’d gone over it every nightI wasn’t so dead tired I had to sleep. God! do youknow what it is to have the people who used tobe running out of their houses just to say howdyto you, curse you for a swindler or a fool orturn out of one street and down the other not[183]to pass you? Did you ever have a little womanwho used to give you frosted cake when you werea boy push her crape veil off her gray hair andhand you the envelope with her stock, with yourhandwriting on the envelope, and beg you—tryingso hard not to cry, ’twas worse than if shehad—beg you to lend her just half her interestmoney—and you couldn’t do it? Did you—nevermind. I said I waded through hell. I did! Not Ialone—that was the worst—all the people that hadtrusted me! And just that some rich men shouldbe richer. Why should they have the lion’s share?The lion’s share belongs to the lion. They arenothing but jackals. They’re meaner than jackals,for the jackals take what the lion leaves, andthese fellows steal the lion’s meat away fromhim. We made honest money; we paid honestwages; folks had more paint on their housesand more meat in their storehouses, and wore betterclothes Sunday, and there were more school-housesand fewer saloons, and the negroes werelearning a trade instead of loafing. The wholecounty was the better off for our prosperity, andthere isn’t a mill in the outfit—and I know whatI’m talking about—there isn’t a shop or a minethat’s as well run or makes as big an output now[184]as it did when the old crowd was in. You findit that way everywhere; and that’s what is goingto break things down. We saw to all the littleaffairs; they were our affairs, don’t you know?But Keatcham’s new men draw their salaries andlet things slide. Yet Keatcham is a great managerif he would only take the time; only he’s too busystealing to develop his businesses; there’s moremoney in stealing a railway than in building oneup. Oh, he isn’t a fool; if I could once get himwhere he would have to listen, I know I couldmake him understand. He’s pretty cold-blooded,and he doesn’t realize. He only sees straightahead, not all round, like all these superhumanlyclever thieves; they have mighty stupid streaks.Well, I’ve got him now, and it is kill or cure forhim. He can’t make a riffle. I knew I couldn’tdo anything alone; I had to wait. I had to havestronger men than I am to help. By and by theytried their jackal business on a real lion—onTracy. They wanted to steal his road. I got onto them first. I see a heap of people in a heap ofdifferent businesses—the little people who talk.They notice all right, but they can see only theirown little patch. I was the fellow riding roundand seeing the township. I pieced together the[185]plot and I told Endy Tracy. He wouldn’t believeme at first, because his father had given Keatchamhis first start and done a hundred things for him.To be sure, his father has been obliged as an honestman to oppose Keatcham lately, but Keatchamcouldn’t mean to burn him out that way. But hesoon found that was precisely what Keatchamdid mean. Then he was glad enough to help mesave his father. The old man doesn’t know athing; we don’t mean he ever shall know. We lethim put up the best sort of a fight a man can withhis hands tied while the other fellow is free. Myhands are free, too. I don’t respect the damnedimbecile laws that let me be plundered any morethan they do; and since my poor mother died lastsummer I am not afraid of anything; they are;that’s where I have the choice of weapons. I tellyou, suh, nobody is big enough to oppress a desperateman! Keatcham had one advantage—hehad unlimited money. But Aunt Rebecca helpedus out there. Colonel, I want you to know I didn’task her for more than the bare grub-stake; it wasshe herself that planned our stock deal.”

“She is a dead game sport,” the colonelchuckled. “I believe you.”

“And I hope you don’t allow that I was willing[186]to have her mix herself in our risks. She wouldcome; she said she wanted to see the fun—”

“I believe you again,” the colonel assured him,and he remembered the odd sentence which hisaunt had used the first night of their journey,when she expressed her hankering to match herwits against those of a first-class criminal.

“We didn’t reckon on your turning up, or thecomplication with Archie. I wish to God we’dtaken the boy’s own word! But, now you knowall about it, will you keep your hands off? That’sall we ask.”

“Well,”—the colonel examined his finger-nails,rubbing his hands softly, the back of one over thepalm of the other—“well, you haven’t quite toldme all. Don’t, unless you are prepared to have itused against you, as the policemen say before thesweat-box. What did you do to Keatcham to gethim to go with you so like Mary’s little lamb?”

“I learned of a little device that looks like atiny currycomb and is so flat and small you canbind it on a man’s arm just over an artery. Justpress on the spring and give the least scratch, andthe man falls down in convulsions. I showed hima rat I had had fetched me, and killed it like aflash. He had his choice of walking out quietly[187]with me—I had my hand on his arm—or droppingdown dead. He went quietly enough.”

“That was the meaning of his look at me, wasit?” Winter thought. He said only: “Did EndicottTracy know about that?”

“Of course not,” Mercer denied. “Do youreckon I want to mix the boy up in this more thanI have? And Arnold only knew I was tryingsome kind of bluff game.”

“I will lay odds, though,” the colonel venturedin his gentlest tone, “that Mr. Samurai, as Haleycalls him, knew more. But when did you get ridof Atkins?”

“Mr. Keatcham discharged him at Denver. Imet Mr. Keatcham here; it was arranged on thetrain. We had it planned out. If that plan hadfailed I had another.”

“Neat. Very neat. And then you became thesecretary?”

Mercer flushed in an unexpected fashion. “Certainlynot!” he said with emphasis. “Do you thinkI would take his wages and not do the work faithfully?No, suh. I assumed to be his secretary inthe office; that gave me a chance to arrange everything.But I did it to oblige him. I never toucheda cent of his money. I paid, in fact, for our board[188]out of our own money. It would have burned myfingers, suh!”

“And the valet? Was he in your plot? Don’tanswer if you—”

“He was not, suh,” replied Cary Mercer. “Heis a right worthy fellow, and he thought, after hehad seen to the tickets—which he did very carefully—andgiven them to me, he could go off onthe little vacation which came to him by his masterthrough me.”

“That’s a little bit evasive. However, I haven’tthe right to ask you to give away your partners,anyhow.” He was peering at Mercer’s face behindhis glasses, but the pallid, tired features returnedhim no clue to the thoughts in the headabove them. “What have you done with Mr.Keatcham?” he concluded suddenly.

The question brought no change of expression,and Mercer answered readily: “I put him off byhimself, where he sees no one and hears nothing.I read a good deal about prisons and the mosteffectual way of taming men, and solitary confinementis recommended by all the authorities.His meals are handed to him by—by a mechanicaldevice. He has electric light some of the time,turned on from the outside. He has a comfortable[189]room and his own shower-bath. He has comfortablemeals. And he is supplied with reading.”

“Reading?” repeated the colonel, his surprisein his voice.

For the first time he saw Mercer smile, but itwas hardly a pleasant smile. “Yes, suh, reading,”he said. “I have had type-written copies made ofall the cases which I discovered in regard to hisstealing our company. I reasoned that when hewould get absolutely tired of himself and his ownthoughts he would just naturally be obliged toread, and that would be ready for him. He toreup one copy.”

“Hmn—I can’t say I wonder. What did youdo?”

“I sent him another. I expected he would dothat way. After a while he will go back to it, becauseit will draw him. He’ll hate it, but he willwant to know them all. I know his nature, yousee.”

“What are you going to do with him?”

“Let him go, after he does what we want andpromises never to molest any of us.”

“But can you trust him?”

“He never breaks his word,” replied Mercerindifferently, “and besides, he knows he will be[190]killed if he should. He isn’t given to being scared,but he’s scared of me, all right.”

“What do you want him to do?”

“Promise to be a decenter man and to let Mr.Tracy alone in future; meanwhile, to send a wirein his secret code saying he has changed his mind.It will not surprise his crowd. He never confidesin them, and he expects them to obey blindly anythingin that code language. I reckon other telegramsare just for show, and they don’t noticethem much.”

The colonel took a turn around the room topack away this information in an orderly fashionin his mind. Mercer waited patiently; he had saidtruly that he was used to waiting. Perhaps hesupposed that Winter was trying the case in hisown mind; but in reality Rupert was seeking onlyone clue, as little diverted from his purpose as abloodhound. He began to understand the manwhose fixed purpose had his own quality, butsharpened by wrong and suffering. This man hadnot harmed Archie; as much as his warped andfevered soul could feel softer emotions, he waskindly intentioned toward the lad. Who had carriedhim away, then? Or was he off on his ownaccount, really, this time? Or suppose Atkins,[191]the missing secretary discharged at Denver, comingback for another appeal to his employer, findingKeatcham gone, but, let one say, stumblingon some trace of mystery in his departure; supposehim to consider the chance of his having hispast condoned and a rosy future given him if hissuspicions should prove true and he should releasethe captive—wouldn’t such a prospect spur on aman who was as cunning as he was unprincipled?Mightn’t he have watched all possible clues, andmightn’t he have heard about Archie and plottedto capture the child, thinking he would be easilypumped? That would presuppose that Atkinsknew that Archie was at the Arnolds’ or—no, hemight only have seen the boy on the street; heknew him by sight; the colonel remembered thatseveral times Archie had been with him in Keatcham’scar. It was worth considering, anyhow. Hespoke out of his thoughts: “Do you think Keatchamcould have told the truth, and that code ofhis be lost or stolen? Why couldn’t Atkins havestolen it? He had the chance, and he isn’t hamperedby principle, you say.”

Mercer frowned; it was plain the possibilityhad its argument for him. “He might,” he conceded,“but I doubt it. Why hasn’t he done something[192]with it? He hasn’t. They wouldn’t havepostponed that meeting if he had wired his proxyand his directions in the code. He’d have votedhis employer’s stock. He’s got too much at stake.I happen to know he thought it a sure tip to sellshort, and he has put almost all he has on it. Yousee, Keatcham was banking on that; he knew it.He thought Atkins wouldn’t dare give any of hissecrets away or go against him in this deal, becausethey were in the same boat.”

“Still, I reckon I’ll have to see Keatcham.”

Mercer shook his head, gently but with decision.“I hate to refuse you, Colonel, but unlessyou promise not to interfere, it is impossible. ButI’ll gladly go with you to see if we can find anytrace of Archie. I’ll risk that much. And if youwill promise—”

“Such a promise would be impossible to an officerand a gentleman,” the colonel urged lightly,smiling. “Besides, don’t you see I have all thecards? I have only to call in my men. I’d hate todo it, but if you force me, you would have nochance resisting.”

“We shouldn’t resist, Colonel, no, suh; yourforce is overwhelming. But it would do no good;you couldn’t find him.”

[193]“We could try; and we may be better sleuthsthan you imagine.”

“Then it would be the worse for him; for if youfind him, you will find him dead.”

There was something so chilling in his leveltones that Winter broke out sharply: “Are youfooling with me? Have you been such an incrediblemadman as to kill him already?”

Mercer’s faint smile made the colonel feel boyishand impetuous. “Of course not, suh,” he answered.“I told you he was alive, myself. I reckonedyou knew when a man is lying and when heis telling the solemn truth. You know I have toldyou the truth and treated you on the square. But,just the same, if you try to take that man away,you’ll only have his dead body. He can’t do anymore harm then, and a dead man can’t vote.”

The colonel, who had taken out his cigarette case,opened it and meditatively fingered the rubberband. “Do you reckon,” he suggested, in hismost amiable voice, “do you reckon young Arnoldand Endicott Tracy will stand for such frillsin warfare as assassination?”

“I do not, suh,” replied Mercer gravely, and ashe spoke he pushed back the heavy tapestry hidinga window opposite the colonel’s head, “but[194]they can both prove an alibi. Mr. Arnold is inPasadena, and there goes Mr. Tracy now in hismachine—to try to find Archie. Do you see?”

The colonel saw. He inclined his head, at thesame time proffering his case.

“I rather think, Mr. Mercer, that I was wrong.You have the last trump.”

[195]

CHAPTER XI
THE CHARM OF JADE

It was no false lure to distract pursuit, that hurriedsentence of Randall’s which had met the colonel’sangry appeal for information. The womanwas not only repeating Mrs. Winter’s message;the message itself described a fact. As she stoodat her room telephone, Aunt Rebecca had happenedto glance at Randall, supplementing the perfunctorydusting of the hotel maid with her ownsanitary, dampened, clean cloth; Randall’s eyessuddenly glazed and bulged in such startling transformationthat, instead of questioning her, Mrs.Winter stepped swiftly to the window where shewas at work, to seek the cause of her agitation.

“Oh, Lord! Oh, Mrs. Winter!” gasped Randall.“Ain’t that Master Archie?”

Mrs. Winter saw for herself; the face at a cabwindow, the waving of a slim hand—Archie’sface, Archie’s hand. Brief as was the Space of hispassing (for the two horses in the cab were trotting[196]smartly), she was sure of both. “Give me mybonnet,” she commanded, “any bonnet, anygloves! And my bag with some money!”

It was as she flung through the door that shethrew her message to the colonel back exactly asRandall had submitted it. Miss Smith was comingalong the loggia. “Don’t stop me!” said Mrs.Winter sternly. “I’ve seen Archie; I’m afterhim.”

“Stop!” cried Miss Smith—but it was to theelevator boy who was whizzing below them in hiscage, not to her employer; and she boarded theelevator with the older woman. “I’ll go withyou,” she said. There was no vibration in hereven tones, although a bright red flickered up inher cheek.

But Rebecca Winter caught savagely at herbreath, which was coming fast. “It is not withthe running; you needn’t think it, Janet,” shepanted sharply, in a second. “It was the sight ofhis face—so suddenly; I never expected any facewould make my heart pump like that again. Allof which shows”—she was speaking quite naturallyand placidly again—“that women may growtoo old for men to make fools of them, but neverfor children. Come; it was a shabby sort of hack[197]he was in, drawn by two horses with auburn tails.Here’s the office floor.”

Not a word did Janet Smith say; she was not awoman of words in any case. Moreover, the pacewhich Mrs. Winter struck was too rapid for commentsor questions; it swept them both past thepalm-shaded patio into the side hall, out on thenoisy, dazzling, swaying street. Looking beforeher, Miss Smith could see the dusty body of ahack a block away. Mrs. Winter had stepped upto a huge crimson motor-car, in the front seat ofwhich lounged the chauffeur, his forehead andeyes hunched under his leather visor. The machinewas puffing, with the engine working, readyto leap forward at a touch of the lever.

“Twenty dollars an hour if you let me get innow!” said Mrs. Winter, lightly mounting by hisside as she spoke.

“Hey, me? what!” gurgled the chauffeur,plucked out of a half-doze. “Oh, say, beg yourpardon, lady, but this is hired, it belongs—”

“I don’t care to whom it belongs, I have to haveit,” announced Mrs. Winter calmly. “Whoeverhired it can get another. I’ll make it all right.You start on and catch that hack with the auburn-tailedhorses—”

[198]I’ll make it right with your fare!” Miss Smithcut in before the chauffeur could answer. “It’s acase of kidnapping. You catch that cab!” Shewas standing on the curb, and even as she spokean elderly man and his wife came out of a shop.They stared from her to the automobile, and intheir gaze was a proprietary irritation. This wasinstantly transfused by a more vivid emotion. Thewoman looked shocked and compassionate. “Oh,pa!” she gasped, “did you hear that?”

The man was a country banker from Iowa. Hehad a very quick, keen eye; it flashed. “Case ofkidnapping, hey?” snapped he, instantly graspingthe character of the speakers and jumping at thesituation. “Take the auto, Madam. Get a moveon you, Mr. Chauffeur!”

“Oh, I’m moving, all right,” called the chauffeur,as he skilfully dived his lower wheels underthe projecting load of a great wagon and obliquelybumped over the edge of a street-car fender, pursuedby the motorman’s curses. “I see ’em, lady;I see the red tails; I’ll catch ’em!”

His boast most likely had been made good(since for another block they bore straight ontheir course) but for an orange-wagon which hadbeen overturned. There was a rush of pursuit of[199]the golden balls from the sidewalk; a policemancame to the rescue of traffic and ordered everythingto halt until the cart was righted. The boysand girls in the street chased back to the sidewalk.The episode took barely a couple of minutes, buton the edge of the last minute the cab turned acorner. The motor-car turned the same corner,but saw no guiding oriflamme of waving redhorsehair. The cross street next was equally bare.They were obliged to explore two adjacent highwaysbefore they came upon the hack again. Thistime it was in distant perspective, foreshortened toa blur of black and a swish of red. And even asthey caught sight of it the horses swung roundinto profile and turned another corner. In theturn a man wearing a black derby hat stuck hisarm and head out of the window in order to givesome direction to the driver. Then he turned halfaround. It was almost as if he looked back at hispursuers; yet this, Mrs. Winter argued, hardlycould be, since he had not expected pursuit, andanyhow, the chances were he could not know herby sight.

It was a mean street, narrow and noisome, butfull of shipping traffic and barred by tramways—aheartbreaking street for a chase. The chauffeur[200]was a master of his art; he jumped his great craftat every vacant arm’s-length; he steered it throughincredibly narrow lanes; he progressed sometimesby luffs, like a boat under sail when the forwardpassage must be reached in such indirect fashion;but the crowd of ungainly vehicles, loaded dizzilyabove his head, made the superior speed of themotor of no avail. In spite of him they could seethe red tails lessening. Again and yet again, thehack turned; again, but each time with a loss, themotor struck its trail. By now the street waschanged; the dingy two-story buildings lining itwere brightened by gold-leaf and vermilion; orientalarms and garbs and embroidery spangledthe windows and oriental faces looked inscrutablyout of doorways. There rose the blended odorsof spice, sandalwood and uncleanliness that announcethe East, reeking up out of gratings andpuffing out of shops.

“Ah,” said Mrs. Winter softly to herself, “Chinesequarter, is it? Well.” Her eyes changed;they softened in a fashion that would have amazedone who only knew the surface of Mrs. Winter,the eccentric society potentate. She looked pastthe squalid, garish scene, past the shining sand-hillsand the redwood trees, beyond into a stranger[201]landscape glowing under a blinder glare of sun.Half mechanically she lifted a tiny gold chain thathad slipped down her throat under the gray gown.Raising the yellow thread and the carven jadeornament depending therefrom, she let it lie outsideamid the white lace and chiffon.

“We’re making good now,” called the chauffeur.“Will I run alongside and hail ’em, orwhat?”

She told him quietly to run alongside. But herlips twitched, and when she put up her hand topress them still, she smiled to discover that thehand was bare. She had forgotten to pull on herglove. She began to pull it on now.

“The road is narrow,” said she. “Run aheadof the hack and block its way. You can do itwithout hitting the horses, can’t you?”

“Well, I guess,” returned the chauffeur, instantlyaccomplishing the manœuver in fine style.

But he missed his deserved commendation; indeed,he forgot it himself; because, as he lookedback at the horses rearing on the sudden checkand tossing their auburn manes, then ran his scrutinybehind them to the hack, he perceived no lifein it; and when his own passenger jumped withamazing nimbleness from her seat and flung the[202]crazy door wide open, she recoiled, exclaiming:“Where are they? Where did you leave them?”

“Leave who?” queried the hackman. “Say,what you stoppin’ me fur? Runnin’ into me withyour devil-wagon! Say!”—then his wrath trailedinto an inarticulate mutter as he appreciated betterthe evident quality of the gentlewoman beforehim.

“You may be mixed up in a penitentiary offense,my man,” said she placidly. “It is a caseof kidnapping. Where did you leave that boywho was in the cab? If you give us informationthat will find him, there’s five dollars; if you foolus—well, I have your number. Where did youleave the boy?”

“Why, there was a cop with ’im—a cop anda gentleman. Ain’t you got hold of the wrongparty, lady?”

“A brown-haired boy in a gray suit with a bluecravat—you know he was in your cab. And howdo you know it was a real policeman?”

“Or he wasn’t helping on the deviltry if itwas?” sneered the chauffeur, who had now becomea full-fledged partizan. “Ain’t you lived inthis burg long enough to find out how to make alittle mazuma on the side? You’re too good for[203]’Frisco. Heaven is your home, my Christianfriend.”

“Cut it out!” retorted the man. “I guess Iknow how to find my way round as well as thenext man—”

“Certainly you do,” soothed Mrs. Winter, whowas fingering a crisp new five-dollar bank-note,“and you are no kidnapper, either; you made nobargain with those men—”

“Sure I didn’t,” agreed the hackman, “nor Iain’t standin’ for kidnapping, neither. Why, I gotkids of my own, and my woman she’d broom meouter the house if I was to do them games. Say,I’ll tell you all I knows. They got off, them three,at that there corner, and I was to drive fast ’s Icould three blocks ahead and then git home anyold way. And that’s God’s truth, I—”

“You didn’t see where they went?” Mrs. Winterwas quietly insistent.

“No, I didn’t. I guess I was a dumb fool notter notice, but they paid me well, and I’d a badthirst, and I was hiking to a place I know forbeer; and that’s—”

“Did the boy seem willing?”

“He didn’t do no kicking as I seen.”

A few more questions revealed that the man[204]had unpacked his full kit of information. He hadnever seen either of the men before. The gentleman—yes,he was sure he was a gentleman; hewasn’t no swell confidence guy; he was the regularthing—gentleman engaged him to take a partyto the Chinese quarter; he’d tell where to stop;didn’t need a guide; only wanted to make a fewpurchases, he said, and he knew where the thingswas; yes, ma’am, that was all; only down thereon Market Street, or maybe—why, somewherenear by—he stuck his head out and told him toturn the corner, and then he kept telling him toturn corners, until finally he told him to stop andthey got out.

Mrs. Winter gave the man the bank-note, counselinghim to keep his eyes open for the two menand the boy, and to report to her at the PalaceHotel, giving his number, should he see eitherman or boy. It would be very well worth hiswhile.

The chauffeur did not interrupt, but he shookhis head over the departing hack. “He’d ought tohave known it wan’t on the square, but these hackdrivers ain’t got good sense even when they’re, soto speak, sober, which ain’t often,” he soliloquized.“Well, lady, if they’ve took to the Chinese[205]quarter, we’d better be looking up a Chinkto help us, I guess. I know a fairly decent one—”

“I think I know a better,” interrupted Mrs.Winter, with a faint smile. She had detected asuppressed pity in the man’s regard. “Motorslowly along the street. There is a shop, if I canfind it, where there ought to be a man—”

“Man you know? Say, lady, I guess I better goin with you, if you don’t mind—”

“No; stay in your car. You don’t know howsafe I am. Not only my gray hair protects me,but I have only to say a few words and any ofthese men will fight for me if necessary. But thisis in confidence—just between us, you understand.You are not to repeat it, ever.”

She looked at him with a frank smile, and involuntarilyhis hand went up to his cap. “Whatyou say goes, lady. But jest remember I’m righthere, spark going all the time, ready to throw herwide open when you step in; and”—his voicesank—“I ain’t absolutely unprepared for a scrap,either.”

“I understand,” said she, looking at himkeenly, and a few moments later she steppedbriskly into the shop before which he halted witha little lightening of the heart because of this uncouth[206]knight of the lever. The shop itself waslike any one of a score on the street, crowdedwith oriental objects, bizarre carvings of ivoryand jade, daggers and strings of cash, swords,gorgeous embroidered robes of silk and gold in ahuddle over a counter or swinging and gleamingin the dusky background, squat little green andbrown gods with puffy eyelids, smiling inscrutablyamid shoes and fans and Chinese lanterns of glassand bronze, glittering with beads—in all these,like the score about it; yet the clean windows anda certain order within gave it a touch out of thecommon. A man and a boy served the shop, bothin the American dress, with their pigtails tuckedunder visorless caps. Both greeted her in theserene oriental fashion, bowing and smiling, theirobsequious courtesy showing no smallest sign ofthe surprise which the sight of an unattendedwoman must have given them.

Nevertheless, Mrs. Winter was aware that both,under their lowered eyelids, took cognizance ofthat soft-carven disk of jade among the laces onher breast. She asked the man if he had seen a ladand an older man, or it might be two older men,one a policeman, come into that or any otherneighboring shop. She explained that the lad was[207]her grand-nephew and was lost (she eschewed theharsher word, for she had no desire to set afloat arumor which might bring the police upon her).She named a sum large enough to kindle a suddengleam in the boy’s eyes, as the reward awaitingthe lucky man who might put her on the righttrack. But her words struck no responsive sparkfrom the Chinaman’s veiled gaze. In perfectEnglish and a very soft voice he avowed ignoranceand sympathy with the same breath.

And all the while she could feel his glance slantdown at the jade ornament.

“Send the boy to look in the shop next door,”said she. As she spoke she raised the charm betweenher thumb and first two fingers, looking athim directly. Her tone was that of command, notrequest. He frowned very slightly, making an almostimperceptible gesture, to which she returneda single Chinese phrase, spoken so low that hadhe not expected the words they had been indistinguishableto his ear. Instantly he addressed theboy rapidly in their own language. The boy wentout. The master of the shop returned to Mrs.Winter. His manner had utterly changed; thetradesman’s perfunctory deference was displacedby an almost eager humility of bearing. He would[208]have her sit—there were a few cane-seated Americanarm-chairs, in grotesque contrast to all theiraccompaniments—he prostrated himself beforeher; he put himself at her service; still to hertrained eye there was a corner of his mind whereincredulity wrestled with a stronger emotion.

“Do not fear,” she said gently. “It is really myown, and he gave it to me himself, almost thirtyyears ago. He was hardly thirty years old himselfthen. You see, my husband had been so fortunateas to do him a kindness. It was he whohad it first. When he died it came to me, and nowfor the second time in my life I am using it. Iknew you belonged. I saw the sign. Will youhelp me find my boy?”

“Did your ladyship know he is he’e, in SanFlancisco?”

If she had not already dissipated any doubt inhis mind, her evident relief blew the last shredaway now. “Haven’t you such a thing as a telephonesomewhere?” cried Rebecca Winter. “Timeis precious. Can’t you speak to him—have himcome here?”

It appeared that there was a telephone, and ina moment she was put into communication by theshopkeeper. He stood in an attitude of deep respect[209]while she talked. He heard with unsmilingattention her first Chinese words; he listened asshe returned to English, speaking very quietly,but with a controlled earnestness, explaining thatshe was Archibald Winter’s widow, giving datesand places, in nowise alluding to the service whichhad won the charm about her neck. Yet as he listened,insensibly the Chinaman grew certain thatshe had spoken the truth. Presently she turned tohim. “He wishes to speak to you,” she said, andwent back to the shop. She sighed as one sighsfrom whose heart a great burden rolls. “To findhim here, and still grateful!” she was thinking.“What wonderful good fortune!”

She sat down, and her face grew dreamy. Shewas no longer thinking of Archie. Her vision wason another face, another scene, a time of peril,when almost against her reason her instinctivewoman’s recoil of pity for a fellow-creature indanger of unthinkable torture had been so intensethat she had more than acquiesced in her husband’splan of risking both their lives to save him;she had impelled him to it; she had overcome histerror of the risks on her account. “It is onlydeath we have to fear, at worst,” she had argued.“We have the means to escape in a second, both[210]of us, from anything else; and if we run awayand leave this poor wretch, who hasn’t done anythingbut love his country, just as we love ours,and be too civilized for his trifling, ornery, pusillanimouscountry-people to understand, to getslashed to pieces by their horrible ling-ling—whateverthey call it—Archibald Winter, don’tyou reckon we shall have nightmares as long aswe live?”

Thirty years ago—yet it seemed like yesterday.Distinctly she could hear her husband’s voice; ithad not come back to her with such reality foryears; it was more real than the cries of the streetoutside; and her heart was beating faster for hiswords: “Becky, there never was a woman likeyou! You could make a dead man hop up andfight, bless you!”

“Your ladyship”—it was the shopkeeper backagain; he had lived in England, and he offeredthe most respectful western title of his knowledge—“yourladyship may be chee’ful. All will bedone of the best. The young gentleman will beback fo’ to-night. If your ladyship will now letu’nto the hotel.”

The lion’s share, by Octave Thanet—A Project Gutenberg eBook (7)

It took only a moment to transfer a passenger. Page 211

Mrs. Winter bowed slightly; she was quite herself-possessed self again. “I will go certainly,”[211]she said, “but I shall hope to see you, also, to-night;and meanwhile, will you accept, as a tokenfrom a friend who trusts you, this?” She took alittle gem-encrusted watch from her fob andhanded it to him. Her manner was that of aqueen who rewards her general. And she lefthim bowing low. She entered the motor-car. Itwas no longer a lone motor. Another car steamedand snorted near by, in which sat the amiablebanker from Iowa, his wife and Janet Smith.

It took only a moment to transfer a passenger,to explain that she hoped to find the boy who hadbeen lost—no, she would not use such a strenuousword as kidnapped—and would they completetheir kindness by not mentioning the affair to anyone? One hated so to get into the papers. Andwould they let her see them again to thank them?Then, as she sank back on the cushions, she remarked,as much to the expectant chauffeur as toJanet: “Yes, I think it is all right. I think weshall see Archie to-night.”

[212]

CHAPTER XII
A BLOW

There was no one but Mrs. Winter to welcomethe colonel when, jaded, warm and dusty, hetapped on Aunt Rebecca’s parlor door. Mrs. Millicentwas bristling with a sense of injury; onecouldn’t touch her conversationally without riskof a scratch. The colonel put up the shield of hisunsuitable appearance, his fatigue and his deplorableneed of a bath, and escaped into his ownapartment. But he made his toilet with recklesshaste. All the time he was questioning his recentexperience, trying to sort over his theories, whichhad been plunged into confusion by Mercer’s confession.“I suppose,” he reflected, “that I had noright to give Mercer that hint at the door.” Thehint had been given just as they parted. It wasin a single sentence:

“By the way, Mercer, if that pillar in the patiois of importance in your combination, you wouldbetter keep an eye on it; it has a trick of cracking.”

“The devil it has!” grunted Mercer. Then he[213]thanked him, with a kind of reluctant admirationin his tone.

“You are sure you don’t object to my detective’sstaying?” questioned the colonel.

“No, suh; prefer to have him. You told him tohave his men in and overhaul the house?”

“I did. I warned you I should have to. Youpromise there shall be no racket? But I—I thinkI’ll take Haley.”

“Thank you. That’s right kind of you, suh.Good-by, suh.”

This had been the manner of their parting—assuredlya singular one, after the sinister suspicionsand the violent promises which the soldier hadmade himself in regard to this very man. Afterleaving, he had motored into town, down tothe police courts, to discover no records of thearrest and no trace of Archie. Thence, discouraged,perplexed and more worried than he likedto admit, he had repaired to the hotel. His auntwas gone, Miss Smith was gone, and Randallcould only relate how Mrs. Winter “had flewedlike a bird, sir, into a big red motor-car and goneoff, and then Miss Smith and a lady and gentlemanhad got into a white car and gone off in thesame direction.”

[214]He was meditating on his next step, when Birdsallwas announced below. The detective lookedas warm and as tired as the colonel had felt anhour before. Rupert was not eager to see him,but neither was he anxious for the tête-à-tête withMillicent which awaited him in the parlor. Betweenthe two he chose Birdsall.

“Well,” he greeted him, “did you find any traceof the boy?”

“Of course I did,” growled Birdsall. “Theydidn’t try to hide ’im. They had him lodged in adandy room with his own bath. Of course, heleft his tooth-brush. They’d got him some automobiletogs, too, and he’d left some leggings whenhe packed, and a letter begun on a pad to MissSmith—‘Dear Miss Janet,’ it begins, ‘I am havinga bully time. I can steer the machine, only Ican’t back’—that’s all. Say, the young dog hasbeen having it fat while we were in the frying-panfor fear somebody was bothering him.”

“But he is not in the house now?”

“No, nor nothing else.”

Nobody hidden away? Where did the groansyou heard come from?” queried the colonelpolitely.

Birdsall flushed. “I do believe that slick deceiver[215]you call Mercer put up a game on us outof meanness—just to git me guessing.”

“That sort of thing looks more like the collegeboys.”

“Say, it might have been. This thing is givingme nervous prostration. Say, why didn’t you seethe thing out with me?”

The colonel shamelessly told the truth to deceive.“I was called here. I was told that Mrs.Winter, my aunt, had seen Archie in the street.”

“She was just getting out of a machine as Icame up. Miss Smith was with her, and they hadtheir hands full of candy boxes. They werelaughing. I made sure the boy had been found.”

“Not to my knowledge,” said the colonel. Butin some excitement he walked into the parlor.The ladies had arrived; they stood in the centerof the room while Randall took away the boxes.

“Candy for Archie,” explained Aunt Rebecca,and these were the first words to reach RupertWinter’s ears. “I expect him to dinner.”

“Aunt Rebecca,” proclaimed Millicent, “I neverhave been one to complain, but there are limits tohuman endurance. I am a modern person, a civilizedEpiscopalian, accustomed to a regular andwell-ordered life, and for the last few days I seem[216]to have been living in a kind of medieval mystery,with kidnappers, and blood-stains, and, for anythingI know, somebody ready to stick a knife intoany one of us any time! You people may enjoythis sort of thing—you seem to—but I don’t.And I tell you frankly that I am going to applyto the police, not to any private detective inquiryoffice, as like as not in league with the criminals”—thusungratefully did Mrs. Millicent slur themotives of her only truly interested auditor—“butreal policemen. I shall apply—”

She did not tell where she should apply, thewords being snapped out of her mouth by thesharp tinkle of the telephone bell.

Aunt Rebecca responded to the call. “Send himup,” was her answer to the inaudible questioner.

She laid down the receiver. Then she put itback. Then she stood up, her silver head in theair, her erect little figure held motionless.

Janet Smith’s dark eyes sought hers; her lipsparted only to close firmly again.

Even the detective perceived the electric intensityof the moment, and Rupert shut his fiststight, with a quickened beating of the heart; butemotional vibrations did not disturb Mrs. MelvilleWinter’s poise. She continued her plaint.

[217]“This present situation is unbearable, unprecedentedand un—un—unexpected,” she declaimed,rather groping for a climax which escaped her.Aunt Rebecca raised her hand.

“Would you be so very kind, Millicent,” saidshe, “as to wait a moment? I am trying to listen.”

Like a response to her words, the knob of thedoor was turned, the door swung, and Archie enteredthe room, smiling his odd little chewed-upsmile.

Janet uttered a faint cry and took a single step,but, as if recognizing a superior right, hung backwhile the boy put his arm about his great-aunt’swaist and rather bashfully kissed her cheek.

She received the salute with entire composure,except for a tiny splash of red which crept up toeach cheek-bone. “Is it really you, Archie?” saidshe. “You are a little late for dinner day beforeyesterday, but quite in time for to-day. Sit downand tell us where you have been.”

“Quite so!” exclaimed Mrs. Millicent. “Goodheavens! Do you know how we have suffered?Where have you been? Why did you run away?”

But Archie, who had surrendered one-half ofhim to be hugged by Miss Smith and the other tobe clapped on the shoulder by his uncle, seemed[218]to think a vaguely polite “How-de-do, Aunt Millicent;I’m sorry to have worried you!” to be answerenough. Only when the question was repeatedby Mrs. Winter herself did he reply: “I’mawfully sorry, Aunt Rebecca, but I’ve promisednot to say anything about it. But, truly, I didn’tmean to bother you.”

Millicent exploded in an access of indignation:“And do you mean that you expect us to acceptsuch a ridiculous promise—after all we have beenthrough?”

“Quite so,” remarked Aunt Rebecca, with aprecise echo of her niece’s most Anglican utterance—thegift of mimicry had been one of Mrs.Winter’s most admired and distrusted social giftsfrom her youth.

Rupert Winter hastened to distract Millicent’sattention by saying decisively: “If the boy haspromised, that ends it; he can’t break his parole.Anyhow, they don’t seem to have hurt you, oldson?”

“Oh, they treated me dandy, those fellows,”said Archie. “Miss Janet, I know how to run anelectric motor-car, except backing.”

“I’ll bet you do,” muttered the detective.

Here the colonel came to the boy’s relief a second[219]time and drew Birdsall aside. “Best let mepump the chap a little. You get down-stairs andsee how he got here, who brought him. They’llget clean away. It is late for that as it is. Youcan report to-morrow.”

It was the colonel, also, who eliminated Mrs.Millicent by the masterly stratagem of suggestingthat she pass the news to Mrs. Wigglesworth. Heartfully added that it would require tact to let thelady from Boston understand that the lad hadbeen found without in any way gratifying hernatural curiosity in regard to the manner of findingor the cause of disappearance. “I’ll have toleave that to you,” he concluded. “Maybe you cansee a way out; I confess my hands are in the air.”

Millicent thus relegated to the ambassador’sshelf, the colonel slipped comfortably into his petarm-chair facing his nephew on the lounge betweenAunt Rebecca and Miss Smith. Miss Smithlooked frankly, charmingly happy. Aunt Rebeccalooked rather tired.

“Of course,” remarked he, “I understand, oldman, that you have promised secrecy to—well, tothe Fireless Stove gang, as we’ll call them; but theother kidnappers, the crowd that held up your carand then switched you off on a side track while[220]young Fireless was detained—they haven’t anyhold on you?”

“No, sir,” said Archie; “but—you see, thatstrange gentleman and Aunt Millicent—I wasscared lest I’d give something away.”

“They’re not here now. All friends here. Supposeyou make a clean breast of your second kidnapping.It may be important you should.”

Nothing loath, Archie told his story. Left outsidewhile Tracy went into the office with a policeman,to whom he gave his assumed name, heremained for hardly two minutes before a gentlemanand a “cop” came up to him, and the latterordered him to descend from the machine—butnot until they had found it impossible to movethe vehicle. When they did discover that the keywas out and gone, the man in citizen’s clotheshailed a cab and the officer curtly informed Archiethat Gardiner (Tracy’s traveling name) had beentaken to another court and he was to follow. Hedidn’t suspect anything beyond a collision withthe speed regulations of the city, but had he seena chance to dive under his escort’s arm the boywould have taken it. Such chance was not affordedhim, and all he was able to do was to leanout suddenly as they passed the Palace and to[221]wave at Randall. “I wanted them to stop and letme get some one to pay my fine,” said Archie,“but they said I was only a witness. Theywouldn’t let me stop; they run down the curtain—atleast so far as it would run. It was like allthose hack curtains, you know—all out of order.”

“Archie,” the colonel interjected here, “was oneof the men a little fellow, clean-shaven, with around black head, blue eyes—one of his eyeswinks a little faster than the other?”

“Yes, sir. How did you know?”

“I didn’t know; I guessed. Well, get on; theywanted to pump you when they got you safely outof sight?”

“Yes,” Archie said, “they put me into thesweat-box, all right.”

“Did you tell them anything?” asked Mrs. Winter.

Archie looked at her reproachfully. Did shethink that he had gone to boarding-school fornothing? He explained that, being a stranger inthe town, he could not tell anything about wherehe’d been. There was an agent at the house tryingto sell stoves, and they let him take him off backto the hotel. The man seemed to know all aboutwho he (Archie) was, and about his having gone[222]away. The men asked him an awful lot of questionsabout how he was taken away. He said hedidn’t know, and he’d promised not to tell. Hecouldn’t tell. They said he would have to go tojail if he didn’t tell, because the men who had himwere such bad men. But he didn’t tell.

“Did they try to frighten you—to make youtell?” said Mrs. Winter.

“Oh, they bluffed a little,” returned Archie carelessly,yet the keen eyes on him—eyes bothworldly-wise and shrewd—noted that the lad’scolor shifted and he winced the least in the worldover some remembrance.

“But they didn’t hurt you? They didn’t burnyou or cut you or twist your arms, or try anyother of their playful ways?” Mrs. Winter demanded;and Janet began feeling the boy’s arms,breathing more quickly. The colonel only looked.

“No, they didn’t do a thing. I knew theywouldn’t, too,” Archie assured her earnestly. “Itold them if they did anything, Uncle Rupert andyou would make them pay.”

“And you weren’t frightened, away from everyone—in that hideous quarter?” cried Miss Smith.“Oh, my dear!” She choked.

“Well, maybe I was a little scared. I kept thinking[223]of a rotten yarn of Kipling’s; something happenedto him, down in the underground quarter,in just such a hot, nasty-smelling hole, I guess, asI was in; you remember, Miss Janet, about thegame of cards and the Mexican stabbing a Chinkfor cheating, and how Kipling jumped up and ranfor his life, never looked around; and don’t youremember that nasty bit, how he felt sure theyhad dealt with the greaser their own way and he’dnever get up to the light again—”

“I’ve been remembering that story all this afternoon,”answered Miss Smith with a shudder.

“Agreeable little tale,” said Aunt Rebeccadryly. “Archie, you must have had a right nastyquarter of an hour; what stopped it?”

“Why, a Chink came and called the little manoff; and there was a lot of talking which I couldn’thear, and the cop was swearing; I think theydidn’t like it. But, in a minute the Chinaman—hewas an awful nice little feller—he came up tome and took me out, led me all sorts of ways, nota bit like the way I came in, and got me out tothe street. The other fellows were very polite;they told me that they were my friends and onlywanted to find a clue to my kidnappers; and theburning holes in me was only a joke to give me[224]an excuse to break my word under compulsion—why,they wouldn’t hurt me for the world! Ipretended to be fooled, and said it was all right,and looked pleasant; but—I’d like to scare themthe same way, once, all the same.”

The boy caught at his lip which was trembling,and ended with a shaky laugh. Miss Smithclenched the fist by her side; but she dropped thearm near Archie, and said in a matter-of-fact,sprightly tone: “Archie, you really ought to godress—and wash for dinner; excuse me for mentioningit, but you have no idea how grimy youare.”

The commonplace turn of thought did its errand.Archie, who had been bracing himself anewagainst the horror which he remembered, droppedback into his familiar habits and jumped up consciously.“It’s the dust, motoring,” he offeredbashfully. “I ought to have washed before I cameup. Well, that’s all; we came straight here. Now,may I go take a bath?”

Aunt Rebecca was fingering a curious jadelocket on her neck. She watched the boy run tothe open door.

“I wish you’d go into your room, Colonel,”said Miss Smith, “and see that nothing happens[225]to him. It’s silly, but I am expecting to see himvanish again!”

The sentence affected the colonel unpleasantly;why need she be posing before him, as if that firstdisappearance had had any real fright in it? Ofcourse she didn’t know yet (although Aunt Rebeccamight have told her—she ought to have toldher and stopped this unnecessary deceit) thathe was on to the game; but—he didn’t like it.Unconsciously, his inward criticism made his tonedrier as he replied with a little bow that he imaginedArchie was quite safe, now, and he wouldask to be excused, as he had to attend to somethingbefore dinner.

Was it his fancy that her face changed and hereyes looked wistful? It must have been. Hewalked stiffly away. Hardly had he entered hisroom and turned his mind on the changed situationbefore the telephone apprised him that agentleman, Mr. Gardiner, who represented theFireless Cook Stove, said that he had an appointmentwith Colonel Winter to explain the stove;should he be sent up?

Directly, Endicott Tracy entered, smiling.“Where’s the kid? I know he’s back,” were hisfirst words; and he explained that he had been[226]hunting the kidnappers to no purpose. “Exceptthat I learned enough to know they put up a jobwith the justice, all right; I got next to that gamewithout any Machiavellian exertions. But theygot away. Who is it? Any of Keatcham’s gang?”

“Atkins,” said the colonel concisely.

Tracy whistled and apologized. “It’s a blow,”he confessed. “That little wretch! He has brainsto burn and not an ounce of conscience. Youknow he has been mousing round at the hotelsafter Keatcham’s mail—”

“He didn’t get it?”

“No, Cary had covered that point. Cary hasthought this all out very carefully, but Atkinshas got on to the fact that Cary was here in thishotel with Keatcham. But he doesn’t know wherewe come in; whether Keatcham’s gang is justlying low for some game of its own, or whetherwe’ve got him. At least, I don’t believe heknows.”

“You ought not to be talking so freely to me;I haven’t promised you anything, you know,”warned the colonel.

“But you’ve got your nephew back all right;we have been on the square with you; why shouldyou butt in? I know you won’t.”

[227]“I don’t seem to have a fair call to,” observedthe colonel.

“And I think the old boy is going to give in;he has made signals of distress, to my thinking.Wanted his mail; and wanted to write; and informedCary—he saw him for the first time to-day—thathe had bigger things on deck than theMidland; and wanted to get at them. We’regoing to win out all right.”

“Unless Atkins gets at him to-night,” thecolonel suggested. “You oughtn’t to have comehere, Gardiner. Don’t go home, now. Wait untillater, and let me rig you up in another lot of togsand give you my own motor-car. Better.”

Tracy was more than impressed by the proposal;he was plainly grateful. He entered withenthusiasm into the soldier’s masquerade—Tracyhad always had a weakness for theatricals andsome of his Hasty Pudding Portraits of UnknownPeople We Know had won him fame at Cambridge.Ten minutes later, there sat opposite thecolonel a florid-faced, mustached, western commercialtraveler whose plaided tweeds, being anill-advised venture of Haley’s which the colonelhad taken off his hands and found no subject ofcharity quite obnoxious enough to deserve them,[228]naturally did not fit the present wearer, but suitedhis inane complacence of bearing and might passfor a bad case of ready-made purchase.

“Now,” said the adviser, “I’ll notify Haleyto have my own hired motor ready for you andyou can slip out and take it after you’ve hadsomething to eat. Here’s the restaurant card.Haley will be there. Leave it at the drug storeon Van Ness Street—Haley will give you thenumber—and get home as unobtrusively as possible.You can peel off these togs in the motorif necessary. You’ve your own underneath exceptyour coat. Wrap that in a newspaper andcarry it. I don’t know that Atkins has any oneon guard at the hotel, but I think it more thanlikely he suspects some connection between ourparty and Keatcham’s. But first, tell me aboutAtkins; what do you know about him? It’s anAmerican name.”

“America can take all the glory of him, I fancy,”said Tracy. “He’s been Keatcham’s secretary forsix years. He seems awfully mild and useful andtimid. He’s not a bit timid. He’s full of resource;he’s sidled suggestions into Keatcham’s ear andhas been gradually working to make himself absolutelynecessary. I think he aimed at a partnership;[229]but Keatcham wouldn’t stand for it. Ithink it was in revenge that he sold out some ofKeatcham’s secrets. Cary got on to that and has ascore of his own to settle with him, besides. Idon’t know how he managed, but he showed himup; and Keatcham gave him the sack in his owncold-blooded way. I know him only casually.But my cousin, Ralph Schuyler, went to prep.school with him, so I got his character straightoff the bat. His father was a patent-medicineman from Mississippi, who made a fair pile, acouple of hundred thousand which looked goodto that section, you know. I don’t know anythingabout his people except that his father made the‘Celebrated Atkins’ Ague Busters’; and that Atkinswas ashamed of his people and shook hismarried sisters who came to see him, in rathera brutal fashion; but I know a thing or two abouthim; he was one of those bounders who curryfavor with the faculty and the popular boys andnever break rules apparently, but go off and havesly little bats by themselves. He never was popular,yet, somehow, he got into things; he knewwhere to lend money; and he was simply sickeninglyclever; in math. he was a wonder. Ralphhated him. For one thing, he caught him in a[230]dirty lie. Atkins hated him back and contrived toprevent his being elected class president, and whenhe couldn’t prevent Ralph’s making his senior societythe happy thought struck Atkins to get onthe initiation committee. They had a cheery littlebranding game to make the fellows quite sure theybelonged, you know, and he rammed his cigarstump into Ralph’s arm so that Ralph had blood-poisoningand a narrow squeak for his life. Yousee that I’m not prepossessed in the fellow’s favor.He’s got too vivid an imagination for me!”

“Seems to have,” acquiesced the colonel.

“I think, you know”—Tracy made an effortto be just—“I think Atkins was rather soured.Some of the fellows made fun of the ‘Ague Busters’;he had a notion that the reason it wassuch uphill work for him in the school, was hisfather’s trade. No doubt he did get nasty licks,at first; and he’s revengeful. He hasn’t got onin society outside, either—this he lays to his notbeing a university man. You see his father lostsome of his money and put him to work insteadof in college. He was willing enough at the time—Ithink he wanted to get married—but afterward,when he was getting a good salary and pilingup money on his tips, he began to think that[231]he had lost more than he had bargained for.Altogether, he’s soured. Now, what he wantsis to make a thundering big strike and to pullout of Wall Street, buy what he calls ‘a seaton the James’ and set-up for a Southern gentleman.He’s trying to marry a Southern girl, theysay, who is kin to the Carters and the Byrds andthe Lees and the Carys—why, you know her,she’s Mrs. Winter’s secretary.”

“Does—does she care for him?” The colonelsuddenly felt his mouth parched; he was savagelyconscious of his mounting color. What a fiendishtrick of fate! he had never dreamed of this!Well, whether she cared for him or not, the manwas a brute; he shouldn’t get her. That was onecertainty in the colonel’s mind.

“Why, Cary vows she doesn’t, that it was onlya girlish bit of nonsense up in Virginia, that timehe was prospecting, you know. But I don’t feelso safe. She’s too nice for such a cur. But youknow what women are; the nicest of them seemto be awfully queer about men. There’s no bettingon them.”

“I’m afraid not,” remarked the colonel lightly.But he put his fingers inside his collar andloosened it, as if he felt choked.

[232]Because he had a dozen questions quarrelingfor precedence in his head, he asked not one.He only inquired regarding the situation; discoveringthat both Mercer and Tracy were equallyin the dark with himself as to Atkins’ plans, Atkins’store of information, Atkins’ resources.How he could have waylaid Tracy and the boywithout knowing whence they came was puzzling;it was quite as puzzling, however, assumingthat he did know their whereabouts, to decidewhy he was so keen to interrogate the boy. Infact, it was, as Tracy said, “too much like ProfessorSanta Anna’s description of a German definitionof metaphysics, ‘A blind man hunting in adark room for a black cat that isn’t there.’”

“In any event, you would better keep awayfrom me,” was the colonel’s summing up of thesituation; “I don’t want to be inhospitable, butthe sooner you are off, and out of the hotel, thesafer for your speculation.”

“Friends will please accept the intimation,”said Tracy good-humoredly. “Very well, it’stwenty-three for me. I’m hoping you’ll see yourway clear to run over as soon as the old man hassurrendered; I’m going to invite him to make usa proper visit, then, and see the country. I’m always[233]for letting the conquered keep their side-arms.”

He went away smiling his flashing smile, andturned it up at the hotel as he walked out; thecolonel made no sign of recognition from thewindow whence he observed him. Instead, hedrew back quickly, frowning; it might be a mereaccident that only a hand’s-breadth of space fromthe young Harvard man was a dapper little shapein evening clothes, a man still young, with around black head; if so, it was an accident not tothe colonel’s liking.

“Damn you!” whispered Rupert Winter verysoftly. “What is your little game?”

At once he descended, having telephoned Haleyto meet him at the court. When he enteredand sent his glance rapidly among the little tables,by this time filled with diners, he experienced adisagreeable surprise. It did not come from thesight of Sergeant Haley in his Sunday civilianclothes, stolidly reading the Call; it came from avision of Atkins standing, bowing, animatedlytalking with Janet Smith.

Instead of approaching Haley, Winter fell backand scribbled a few words on a page of his note-book,while safely shielded by a great palm. The[234]note he despatched to Haley, who promptlyjoined him. While they stood, talking on apparentlyindifferent subjects, Miss Smith passedthem. Whether because he was become suspiciousor because she had come upon him suddenly, shecolored slightly. But she smiled as she salutedhim and spoke in her usual tranquil tone. “Youare going to dine with us, aren’t you, Colonel?”said she. “I think dinner is just about to beserved.”

The colonel would be with them directly.

Haley’s eyes followed her; he had returned hernod and inquiry for his wife and little Nora witha military salute and the assurance that they wereboth wonderfully well and pleased with the country.

“Sure, ain’t it remarkable the way that lady dokeep names in her mind?” cried he. “An’ don’tshe walk foine and straight? Oi’ve been alwaystowld thim Southern ladies had the gran’ waywid ’em; Oi see now ’tis thrue.” The unusualrichness of Haley’s brogue was a sure sign of feeling.The colonel only looked grim. After he hadtaken Haley to a safe nook for his confidence, anook where there were neither ears nor eyes tobe feared, he would have made his way up-stairs;[235]but half-way down the office he was hailed bythe manager. The manager was glad to hear thatthe young gentleman was safely back. He let thefaint radiance of an intelligent, respectfully tactfulsmile illumine his words and intimate thathis listener would have no awkward questions toparry from him. The colonel felt an ungratefulwrath, a reprehensible snare of temper which didnot show in his confidentially lowered voice, as hereplied: “Mighty lucky, too, we are; the boy’s allright; but San Francisco is no place for an innocentkid even to take the safest-looking walk.What sort of a police system have you, anyhow?”

The manager shook his head. “I’m not braggingabout it; nor about the Chinese quarter,either. I confess I’ve felt particularly uncomfortable,myself, the last day. Well—if you’ll excusethe advice—least said, you know.”

The colonel nodded. He proffered his cigar-case;the manager complimented its contents, ashe selected a cigar; and both gentlemen bowed.A wandering, homesick Frenchman, who viewedtheir parting, felt refreshed as by a breath fromhis own land of admirable manners. Meanwhile,the colonel was fuming within: “Confound hisinsinuating curiosity! but I reckon I headed him[236]off. And who would have thought,” he wonderedforlornly, “that I could be going to dine with theboy safe and sound and be feeling so like awhipped hound!”

But none of this showed during the dinner atwhich Millicent was in high good humor, havingobtained information about most astounding bargainsin the Chinese quarter from Mrs. Wigglesworth.Her good humor extended even to MissSmith, who received it without enthusiasm, albeitcourteously; and who readily consented to be hercompanion for the morning sally on the distressedOrientals, whose difficulties with the customs hadreduced them to the necessity of sales at any cost.Aunt Rebecca listened with an absent smile, whileArchie laughed at every feeblest joke of his unclein a boyish interest so little like his former apathythat often Miss Smith’s eyes brightened and halftimidly sought the uncle’s, as if calling his attentionto the change. Only a few hours back, hiswould have brightened gratefully in answer;now, he avoided her glances. Yet somehow, hisheart felt heavier when they ceased. For his part,he was thankful to have his aunt request his companyin a little promenade around the “loggia,” asshe termed it, overlooking the great court.

[237]She took him aside to tell him her afternoonexperience, and to ask his opinion of the enigmaticalappearance of Atkins. He was strongly tempted,in return, to question her frankly about MissSmith, to tell her of seeing the latter with Atkinsonly that evening. He knew that it was thesensible thing to do—but he simply could not doit. To frame his suspicions past or present ofthe woman he loved; to discuss the chances ofher affection for a man loathsomely unworthy ofher; worse, to balance the possibilities of herturning betrayer in her turn and chancing anydamage to her benefactress and her kinsman forthis fellow’s sake—no, it was beyond him. Hehad intended to discuss his aunt’s part in thewaylaying of Keatcham, with calmness and withthe deference due her, but unsparingly; he meantto show her the legal if not moral obliquity ofher course, to point out to her the pitfalls besettingit, to warn her how hideous might be the consequencesof a misstep. Somehow, however, hismiserable new anxiety about Miss Smith had disturbedall his calculations and upset his wits; andhe could not rally any of the poignant phraseswhich he had prepared. All he was able to saywas something about the rashness of the business;[238]it was like the Filipinos with their bows and arrowsfighting machine-guns.

“Or David with his ridiculous little sling goingagainst Goliath,” added she. “Very well put,Bertie; only the good advice comes too late; thequestion now is, how to get out with a wholeskin. Surprising as it may be, I expect to—withyour help.”

“Honored, I’m sure,” growled Bertie.

“There is one thing I meant to ask you—Ihaven’t, but I shall now. Instead of making itimpossible for me to sleep to-night, as you virtuouslyintended in order to clear your consciencebefore you tried to pull me out of the trap I’veset for myself, suppose you do me a favor, rightnow.”

“You put it so well, you make me ashamed ofmy moral sense, Aunt Becky; what is it youwant?”

“Oh, nothing unbefitting a soldier and a gentleman,dear boy; just this: Cary has to have somemoney. I meant to give it to Stoves, but youhustled him off in such a rush that I didn’t getat him. You know where he is, don’t you? Youhaven’t sent him straight back?”

“I can find him, I reckon.”

[239]“Then I’ll give you the money, at once.”

How weak a thing is man! Here was an eminentlycool-headed, reasonable man of affairswho knew that paws which had escaped from thefire unsinged had no excuse to venture back forother people’s chestnuts; he had expressed himselfclearly to this effect to young Tracy; now,behold him as unable to resist the temptation of aconflict and the chance to baffle Atkins as if hewere a hot-headed boy in plain shoulder-straps!

“I’ll do better for you, Aunt Rebecca,” said he.“I’ll not only take Fireless the money, I’ll go withhim to the house. I can make a sneak from here;and Atkins is safely down-stairs at this moment.He may be shadowing Fireless; if he is, perhapsI can throw him off the track.”

Thus it befell that not an hour later RupertWinter was guiding the shabby and noisy runabouta second time toward the haunted house.

“Nothing doin’,” said the joyous apprenticeto crime; “I called old Cary up and got a furiousslating for doing it; but he said there wasn’t awatch-dog in sight; and the old man had surrendered.He was going to let him into thelibrary on parole.”

“You need a guardian,” growled the colonel;[240]“where did you telephone? Not in the drugstore?”

“Oh, dear, no, not in such a public place; I’vea shrinking nature that never did intrude itsprivate, personal affairs on the curious world.I used the ’phone of that nice quiet little restaurantwhere they gave me a lovely meal but wereso long preparing it, I used up all the literaturein sight, which was the Ladies’ Home Journal anda tract on the virtues of Knox’s Gelatine. WhenI couldn’t think of anything else to do I routedout Cary—I’d smoked all my cigarettes and allmy cigars but one which I was keeping for afterdinner. And Cary rowed me good and plenty.There wasn’t a soul in the room.”

“Has any one followed you?”

“Not a man, woman or child, not even a yellowdog. I kept looking round, too.”

“It was a dreadfully risky thing to do; youdon’t deserve to escape; but perhaps you did.Atkins may have come to the Palace for someother purpose and never have noticed you.”

“My own father wouldn’t have got on to mein that dinky rig.”

Winter was not so easy in his mind. But hehoped for the best, since there was nothing else[241]for him to do. They were in sight of the housenow, which loomed against the dim horizon,darker, grimmer than ever. Where the upperstories were pierced with semicircular arches, thestar-sown sky shone through with an extraordinaryeffect of depth and mystery. All the lighterfeatures of the architecture, carving on pedimentor lintel or archivolt, delicate iron tracery ofrejas, relief of arcature and colonnade—all thesethe dusk blurred if it did not obliterate; the greatdark bulk of the house with its massive buttresses,its pyramidal copings and receding upper stories,was the more boldly silhouetted on the violet sky;yet because of the very flatness of the picture, thevery lack of shadow and projection, it seemed unsubstantial,hardly more of reality than the giantshadow it cast upon the hillside. Electric lightswavered and bristled dazzling beams on eitherside of the street; not a gleam, red, white or yellow,leaked through the shuttered windows ofthe house. In its blackness, its silence, its determinedisolation it renewed, but with a greaterforce, the first sinister thrill which the sight ofit had given the man who came to rifle it of itssecrets.

“Lonesome-looking old shanty, isn’t it?” said[242]the Harvard boy; “seems almost indecorous tospeak out loud. Here’s where we cache the carand make a gentle detour by aid of the shrubberyup the arroyo to the north side of the patio. See?”

He directed the colonel’s course through analmost imperceptible opening in the hedge alongsharp turns and oblique and narrow ways into asmall vacant space where the vines covered anadobe hut. Jumping out, Tracy unlocked the doorof this tiny building so that the colonel couldrun the car inside; and after Winter had emergedagain, he re-locked the door. As there was nowindow, the purpose of the hut was effectuallyconcealed.

“Very neat,” the colonel approved; whereatTracy flashed his smile at him in the moonlightand owned with ingenuous pride that he himselfwas the contriver of this reticent garage.

From this point he took the lead. Neitherspoke. They toiled up the hill, in this part of thegrounds less of the nature of a hill than of anarroyo or ravine through which rocks had thrusttheir rugged sides and over which spiked semi-tropicalcacti had sprawled, and purple and whiteflowered vines had made their own untendedtangle. Before they reached the level the colonel[243]was breathing hard, every breath a stab. Tracy, afamous track man who had won his H in a wonderfulcross-country run, felt no distress—untilhe heard his companion gasp.

“Jove! But that hill’s fierce!” he breathed explosively.“Do you mind resting a minute?”

“Hardly,”—the colonel was just able to holdhis voice steady—“I have a Filipino bullet in myleg somewhere which the X-ray has never beenable to account for; and I’m not exactly a mountaingoat!”

“Why, of course, I’m a brute not to let you runup the drive in the machine. Not a rat watchingus to-night, either; but I wanted you to see theplace; and you seem so fit—”

“You oughtn’t to give away your secrets tome, an outsider—”

“You’re no outsider; I consider you the treasurerof the band,” laughed Tracy. They hadsomehow come to an unexpressed but perfectlyunderstood footing of sympathy. The coloneleven let the younger man help him up the laststiff clamber of the path. He forgot his first chill,as of a witness approaching a tragedy; there wasa smile on his lips when the two of them passedinto the patio. It lingered there as he stood in the[244]flower-scented gloom. It was there as Tracy stumbledto a half-remembered push-button, wonderingaloud what had become of Cary and Kito thatthey shouldn’t have answered his whistle; it wasthere, still, when Tracy slipped, and grumbled:“What sticky stuff has Kito spilled on this floor?”—andinstantly flooded the court with light.Then—he saw the black, slimy pool and the longslide of Tracy’s nailed sole in it; and just toone side, almost pressing against his own foot, hesaw a man in a gray suit huddled into the shapeof a crooked U, with his arms limp at his sideand his head of iron-gray fallen back askew.The light shone on the broad bald dome of theforehead. He had been stabbed between the shoulders,in the back; and one side of the gray coatwas ugly to see.

“Good God!” whispered Tracy, growing white.“It’s Keatcham! they’ve killed him! Oh, whydidn’t I come back before!”

[245]

CHAPTER XIII
WHOSE FEET WERE SHOD WITH SILENCE

“Get out your revolver,” ordered the colonel;“look sharp! there may be some one here.”

But there was not a sign of life revealed bythe search. Meanwhile, Winter was examiningthe body. His first thought was that Keatchamhad tried to escape and had been struck down inhis flight. Kito would not scruple at such a deed;nor for that matter, Mercer. But why leave theman thus? Why not dispose of the body—unless,indeed, the assassins had been interrupted. Anyhow,what a horrid mess this murder would makeof the affair! and how was he to keep the womenout of it! All at once, in the examination whichhe had been making (while a dozen gruesomepossibilities tumbled over one another in hismind) he stopped; he put his ear to the man’sheart.

“Isn’t he dead?” asked Tracy under his breath.

“No, he is not dead, but I’m afraid he’ll never[246]find it out,” returned the colonel, shrugging hisshoulders. “However, any brandy handy? Andget me some water.”

“I know where there is some brandy—I’ll getit; there is some water in the fountain right—Cary!

“What’s the matter?” demanded Cary Mercerin one of the arcade doorways of the patio.“What’s happened? The devil! Who did this?”He strode up to the kneeling soldier.

“You are in a position to know much betterthan I,” said the colonel dryly. “We came thismoment; we found this.”

“Cary, did you do it?”—the young man laid hishand on Cary’s shoulder; his face was ashy buthis voice rang full and clear. “If you did, I amsure you had a reason; but I want to know;we’re partners in this thing to the finish.”

“Thank you, boy,” said Cary gently, “that’sgood to hear. But I didn’t hurt him, Endy. Whyshould I? We’d got what we wanted.”

Who did?” asked the colonel.

“I didn’t and Kito didn’t. He went away tosee his only brother who is sick. He hasn’t gotback. I don’t know who did it; but whoeverstabbed him must have done it without warning[247]him; for I didn’t hear a sound. I was in thelibrary.”

“He’s breathing a little, I think,” murmuredthe young man, who was sopping the gray maskof a face while Winter trickled brandy drop bydrop into the sagging mouth, “and—look! somebodyhas tried to rob him; that’s a money belt!”

The waistcoat was open and Winter could see,beneath, a money belt with buttoned pockets,which had been torn apart with such haste thatone of the buttons had been wrenched off.

“They seem to have been after money,” saidhe; “see! the belt is full of bills; there’s only onepocket empty.”

“Perhaps he was interrupted,” explained Mercer.“Push the brandy, Colonel, he’s moving hiseyelids, suh!”

“We’ve got to do something to that hole inhim, first,” said the colonel. “Is there any doctor—”

“I daren’t send for one.”

“Tony Arnold might know one we could trust,”suggested Tracy. “I can get him over the longdistance.”

“We want somebody now, this minute,” declaredthe colonel.

[248]“There’s Janet Smith,” said Mercer, “my sister-in-law;she’s Mrs. Winter’s companion; sheused to be a trained nurse and a mighty good one;she could be trusted.”

Could she? And how the terms of his distrusthad changed! He had fought against an answerin the affirmative this morning; now his heartwas begging for it; he was cold with fear lestshe wasn’t this conspirator’s confederate.

“Send for them both,” said he with no sign ofemotion.

“I’ll call up Aunt Rebecca,” said Mercer.“Isn’t he reviving? No? Best not move him tillwe get the wound dressed, don’t you reckon,Colonel?”

But the colonel was already making a roughtourniquet out of his handkerchief and a pencilto stanch the bleeding. The others obeyed his curtdirections; and it was not until the still unconsciousman was disposed in a more comfortableposture on the cushions which Tracy brought,that Winter sent the latter to the telephone; andthen he addressed Mercer. He took a sealed packagefrom an inner pocket and tendered it, saying:“You know who sent it. Whatever happens,you’re a Southern gentleman, and I look to you[249]to see that she—they are kept out of this nastymess—absolutely.”

“Of course,” returned Mercer, with a traceof irritation; “what do you take me for? Now,hadn’t I better call Janet?”

“But if this were to be discovered—”

She wouldn’t have done anything; she is onlynursing a wounded man whom she doesn’t know,at my request.”

“Very well,” acquiesced the colonel, with along sigh as he turned away.

He sat down, cross-legged, like a Turk, on theflags beside the wounded man. Mercer was standinga little way off. It was to be observed thathe had not touched Keatcham, nor even approachedhim close enough to reach him by anoutstretched hand. Winter studied his face, hisattitude—and suppressed the slightest of starts;Mercer had turned his arm to light another electricbulb and the action revealed some crimsonspots on his cuff and a smear on his light trousersabove the knee. The lamp was rather high andhe was obliged to raise his arm, thus lifting theskirts of his coat which had previously hiddenthe stain. He did not seem aware that his actionhad made any disclosure. He was busy with the[250]light. “That’ll be better,” said he; “I’ll go call upSister Janet.”

How had those stains come? Mercer professedjust to have entered. Vainly Winter’s brain triedto labor through the crazy bewilderment of it all;Mercer spoke like an honest man—but look at hiscuffs! How could any outside assassin enter thatlocked and guarded house?—yet, if Mercer hadnot lied, some one must have stolen in and struckKeatcham. Kito? But the Jap was out of thehouse—perhaps! And Janet Smith, what was shedoing talking to Atkins? Had she given that reptileany clue? Could he—but it was his opportunityto rescue Keatcham, not to murder him—whata confounded maze!

And what business had he, Rupert Winter, whohad supposed himself to be an honorable man,who had sworn to support the Constitution andthe laws of the United States, what business hadhe to help law-breakers and murderers escape thejust punishment of their deeds? He almostground his teeth. Oh, well, there was one way out,and that was to resign his commission. He woulddo it this very night, he resolved; and he sworemiserably at himself, at his venerable aunt whomust be protected at such a sacrifice, at Atkins,[251]at the feebly moaning wretch whom he had notceased all this while to ply carefully with drops ofbrandy. “You everlasting man-eater, if you dareto die, I’ll kill you!” he snorted.

Thereupon he went at the puzzle again. Beforeany answer could come to the telephone calls, alow, mournful, inhuman cry penetrated the thickwalls. It was repeated thrice; on the third call,Tracy ran quickly through the patio to a sidedoor, barred and locked like all the entrances,released and swung it open and let in Kito. Afew murmured words passed between them. TheJap uttered a startled exclamation. “But how canit to be? How? no one can get in! And whoshall stab him? For why?”

He examined the wounded man, after a gravelycourteous salute to Winter; and frowned andsighed. “What did it?” said he; “did whostabbed, take it ’way, he must give stlong pull!”

“Whoever did it,” said the colonel, “must haveput a knee on the man’s back and pulled a strongpull, as you say.” In speaking the words he felt ashiver, for he seemed to see that red smear aboveMercer’s knee.

He felt the shiver again when Mercer returnedand he glanced at him; there was not a stain on[252]his shining white cuffs; he had changed them;he had also changed his suit of clothes and hisshoes. His eyes met the colonel’s; and Winterfancied there was a glint of defiance in them; hemade no comment, for no doubt a plausible excusefor the fresh clothes was ready. Well, he(Winter) wouldn’t ask it. Poor devil! he had hadprovocation.

For the next half-hour they were all busy withKeatcham.

“He is better,” pronounced the Jap; “he willnot live, maybe, but he will talk, he can say whohult him.”

“If he can only do that!” cried Mercer. “Itis infernal to think any one can get in here and dosuch a thing!”

“Rotten,” Tracy moaned.

The colonel said nothing.

They were all still working over Keatchamwhen a bell pealed. Tracy started; but Mercerlooked a shade relieved. “They’ve come,” said he.

They?” repeated the colonel. He scrambled tohis feet and gasped.

Miss Smith was coming down the colonnade,but not Miss Smith alone. Aunt Rebecca walkedbeside her, serene, erect and bearing a small hand-bag.[253]Miss Smith carried a larger bag; and Tracyhad possessed himself of a dress-suit case.

“Certainly, Bertie,” remarked his aunt in hersoftest tone, “I came with Janet. My generationbelieved in les convenances.”

All the colonel could articulate was a feeble,“And Archie? and Millicent?”

“Haley is staying in your room with Archie.Millicent had retired; if she asks for us in themorning we shall not be up. She has an appointmentwith Janet, but it isn’t until half-past eleven.Randall has her instructions.”

“But—but—how did you get here?”

Aunt Rebecca drew herself up. “I trust now,Bertie, you will admit that I am as fit as any ofyou to rough it. If there is one mode of transitI abominate, it is those loathsome, unsanitary,uncivil, joggly street-cars; we came as far as thecorner in the street-cars, then we walked. Did wewant to give the number to a cab-man, do yousuppose? Bertie, have you such a thing as a matchabout you? I think Janet wants to heat a teaspoonfulof water for a strychnine hypodermic.”

[254]

CHAPTER XIV
FROM MRS. MELVILLE’S POINT OF VIEW

The Palace Hotel,
San Francisco, March 24, 1906.

My dear Husband:

Although I sent you a postal yesterday, I amwriting again to-day to try to keep you in touchwith our extraordinary series of events. Nothinghas been heard from Archie except the letter—ifhe wrote it—which tells nothing except thathis kidnappers use the same kind of writing paperas Miss Janet Smith. I grow more suspicious ofher all the time. You ask (but of course youwrote before the recent mysterious and tragicaloccurrences) you ask do I like Miss Smith anybetter, now that I am thrown with her so closely.No, Melville, I have not the fatal credulity of theWinters! I distrust her more. She has, I admit,an engaging personality; there is a superficialamiability that would be dangerous to one not onher guard. But I am never off my guard with[255]her. I’m sorry to say, however, that your brotherseems deceived by her plausible ways. And, ofcourse, our poor aunt is still her blind dupe.Aunt Rebecca has failed a good deal this last year;she is quite irritable with me, sometimes; and Isuppose it is the insensibility of age, but she doesnot appear to realize the full horror of this kidnapping.Miss Smith actually seems to suffermore; she looks pale and haggard and has noappetite. I do not think it all pretense, either; Idare say much of it is remorse! The situation isdreadful. Sometimes I think Aunt Rebecca willnot yield to the demands of these wretches whohave our poor boy, and that he will be mutilatedor murdered; sometimes I think that they havemurdered him already and are writing forged lettersto throw us off the track. You can imaginehow my nerves are shaken! I have seen hardlyanything of the city; and of course have not goneinto society at all. Indeed, I have met only onepleasant person; that was the secretary of the greatfinancier, Mr. Edwin Keatcham, who was here,next to us. The secretary is a pleasing personquite comme it faut in appearance. I met him herein the court where he nearly knocked me over;and he apologized profusely—and really very[256]nicely, using my name. That surprised me, buthe explained that they had been on the train withus. Then I remembered him. His name is HoratioAtkins; and he is very polite. He is on a twoweeks’ vacation and came here to see Mr.Keatcham, not knowing he was gone. He wasreally most agreeable and so sympathetic aboutpoor dear Archie. He agreed with me that such anervous temperament as Archie’s suffers muchmore from unkindness. I could see, in spite ofhis assumed hopefulness, that he shared my fears.He has met quite a number of our friends. Hemay (through Mr. Keatcham) be a most valuableacquaintance. Didn’t you tell me, once, thatKeatcham was the leading benefactor of the university?

He (Mr. Atkins) got his vacation on accountof his health; and he is going to Southern California.I don’t wonder. I have never sufferedmore than in this land of sunshine! It is not somuch the cold of the air as the humidity! Dopray be cautious about changing to your summerunderwear. Don’t do it! I nearly perished, in thebleak wind yesterday, when I tried to visit a fewshops. Be sure and take the cough medicine onthe second shelf of our bath-room medicine closet;[257]don’t mistake rheumatism liniment for it; theyare both on the same shelf; you would bettersort them out. You are so absent-minded, Melville,I haven’t a peaceful day when I’m awayfrom you; and do for Heaven’s sake try to bowto Mrs. Farrell and call her by her right name!You certainly have been to the president’s houseoften enough to know his wife on the street; andI don’t think that it was a good excuse whichyou gave to Professor Dale for calling “Goodmorning, Katy!” to Mrs. Dale (who was born aSchuyler and is most punctilious) that you mistookher for our cook!

I miss you very much. Give my love to allour friends and be sure to wear your galoshes(your rubbers, you know) when the campus iswet, whether it is raining or not.

Your aff. wife,
M. Winter.

THE SAME TO THE SAME

The Palace Hotel, March 25, ten P. M.

My dear Husband:

What do you think has happened? I am almosttoo excited to write. Archie is back! Yes, back[258]safe and sound, and absolutely indifferent, toall appearances, to all our indescribable sufferingson his account! He walked into theparlor about six or a little after, grinning likean ape, as if to disappear from the face of theearth and come back to it were quite the usualthing. And when we questioned him, he professedto be on his word not to tell anything. And Bertieupheld him in this ridiculous position! However,I was told by the detective whom Bertieemployed, rather a decent, vulgar, little man, thatthey (Bertie and he) had cornered the kidnappersand “called their bluff,” as he expressed it;but I’m inclined to think they got their ransomfrom our unfortunate, victimized aunt who is tooproud to admit it, and that they probably managedit through Miss S—. I know they called up theroom to know if the boy was back; and I puzzledthem well, I fancy, by saying he was. I may havesaved our poor aunt some money by that; but Ican’t tell, of course. Melville, I am almost surethat Miss J. S— is at the bottom of it, whateverthe mystery is. I am almost sure that, not contentwith blackmailing and plundering auntie, MissS— is now making a dead set at poor, blind, simple-heartedBertie! I have reasons which I[259]haven’t time to enumerate. Bertie will hardlybear a word of criticism of her patiently; in fact,I have ceased to criticize her to him or to AuntRebecca—ah, it is a lonely, lonely lot to be clear-sighted;but noblesse oblige. But often during thelast few days I have thought that Cassandrawasn’t enough pitied.

Your aff. wife,
M.

THE SAME TO THE SAME

Casa Fuerte, San Francisco, Cal.,
Wednesday.

Dear Husband:

This heading may surprise you. But we aremaking a visit to Mr. Anthony Arnold (theArnold’s son) in his beautiful house in the suburbsof the city. It was far more convenientfor me at the Palace where I found Mrs. Wigglesworthmost attentive and congenial andfound some great bargains; but you know I cannot be false to my Trust. To watch Aunt RebeccaWinter (without seeming to watch, of course, forthe aged always resent the care which they need)is my chief object in this trip; therefore when Mr.[260]Arnold (whose father she knows, but the old gentlemanis traveling in Europe with his marrieddaughter and her family) when the young Arnoldurged us all to come and spend a couple ofweeks with him, I could not very well refuse.Though a stranger to me, he is not to Auntie orBertie. The house is his own, left him by hismother, who died not very long ago. At first, Iremained at the Palace with Bertie and Archie;Bertie seemed so disturbed at the idea of my goingand Aunt Rebecca was very liberal, insisting thatI was just as much her guest as before, it wasonly she who was running away; and the end ofit was (she has such a compelling personality,you know) that she went with Randall and J. S.to Casa Fuerte (Strong House—and you wouldcall it well-named could you see it; it is a massivestructure!) while we others remained until Sunday.On account of what I have hinted in regardto the designs of a certain lady I was not sorryto have Bertie under another roof. He has a fortuneof his own, you know, and a reputation aswell. Wealth and position at one blow certainlywould appeal to her, an obscure dependent probablyof no family (it is not a romantic name), andBertie is very well-bred and rather handsome with[261]his black eyebrows and gray hair and aquilinenose. I have been very, very worried, but I feelrelieved as to that. Melville, she is flying at highergame! In this house is a multimillionaire, in factthe fourth richest man in the United States, EdwinS. Keatcham. He is ill—probably with appendicitiswhich seems to be the common lot. Iasked the doctor—of course, very delicately—andhe said, “Well, not exactly, but—” and smiledvery confidentially; and begged me not to mentionMr. Keatcham’s illness or even that he was in thehouse. “You know,” he said, “that when thesegreat financiers sneeze, the stock-market shakes;so absolute secrecy, please, my dear madam.”Don’t mention it to a soul, will you? Of courseI haven’t seen the invalid; but I’ve seen his valet,who is very English; and I have seen his nurse.Who do you suppose she is? Janet Smith! Yes;you know she has been a trained nurse. Was thereever a more artful creature! But Mr. K. is noneof my affairs; he will have to save himself or belost. Once she is his wife we are safe from thatdesigning woman. I am quite willing to admit hisdanger and her fascination. Now, Melville, foronce admit that I can be just to a woman whom Idislike.

[262]This house is sumptuous; I’ve a lovely bath-roomand a beautiful huge closet with a window.It must have cost a mint of money. I have beentold that Arnold père made a present of it to hiswife; he let the architect and her draw all theplans of it, but he insisted on attending to theconstruction himself; he said he was not going tohave any contract work or “scamping,” such as Iam reliably informed has been common in thesetowering new buildings in San Francisco; hepicked out all the materials himself and inspectedthe inspector. It has what they call “reinforcedconcrete” and all the beams, etc., are steel and thelower story is enormously thick as to walls, in thegenuine Mission style. He said he built for earthquakes.The house is all in the Spanish hidalgofashion. I wish you could see the bas-reliefs andthe carved furniture with cane seats of the seventeenthcentury, all genuine; and the stampedleather and the iron grille work—rejas they call it—allcopied from famous Spanish models fromToledo; you know the ancient Spaniards were renownedfor their rejas. The pictures are fine—allSpanish; I don’t know half the names of theartists, but they are all old and imposing and someof them wonderfully preserved. The electric[263]lights are all in the shape of lanterns. The patio,as they call the court around which the house isbuilt, reminded me of the court in Mrs. Gardiner’spalace in Boston, only it was not so crowded withobjets and the pillars are much thicker and thetropical plants and vines more luxuriant—on accountof the climate, I suppose. It is all certainlyvery beautiful.

There is a great arched gateway for carriages—whichreminds me, do be sure to send the horsesinto the country to rest, one at a time; and haveErastus clean the stable properly while they aregone. You can keep one horse for golf; but don’tuse the brougham ever; and why not send the surreyto be done over while I am gone? Is thepiazza painted yet? How does the new cook do?Insist upon her cooking you nourishing food.You might have the Bridge Club of an evening—thereare only the four of you—and she might,with Emily’s help, get you a nice repast of lobsterà la Newburg, sandwiches and chicken salad; butbe sure you don’t touch the lobster! You knowwhat happened the last time; and I shan’t be thereto put on mustard-plasters and give you Hunyadiwater. If Erastus needs any more chamois skinsEmily knows where they are, but admonish him[264]to be careful with them; I never saw mortal mango through chamois skins the way he can; sometimesI think he gives them to the horses to eat!

Good-by,
Your aff. wife,
M.

[265]

CHAPTER XV
“THE LIGHT THAT NEVER WAS”

The changes which Mrs. Melville had acceptedso philosophically, the metamorphosis of the tragicand lonely house of mystery into a luxuriouscountry villa, the flinging open of the shutters, themarshaling of servants, the turning, one may say,of the lime-light on a rich man’s ordinary life—allthis had occurred as swiftly and with as littlewarning as a scene shifts on the stage.

Mrs. Rebecca Winter may have the credit forthis bouleversement of plans. By an astonishinglyearly hour, the next morning, she was awake anddown-stairs, where Kito and Tracy were makingcoffee, toasting bread and admiring the oatmealwhich had cooked, while they slept, in the FirelessStove. Tracy had planned a surprise of brownbread, but through no fault of the Fireless, owingsolely to his omitting what he called “the pick-me-up,”commonly known as soda—an accident,as he truly said, which might happen to any lady—the[266]bread was “rather too adhesive.” Thebreakfast, notwithstanding, was a cheerful one,because Miss Smith reported the patient a shadebetter. She looked smiling, although rather heavy-eyed.Mercer and the colonel had taken turns sittingin the adjoining room to bring her ice or hotwater or be of service outside.

The colonel had suggested calling a doctor, butAunt Rebecca had demurred: “Janet can doeverything; it is just a question of his heart; andshe has digitalis and nitroglycerin and strychnine,the whole outfit of whips. She has dressed thewound with antiseptics. To-morrow will be soonenough for the medical talent.” It was she, however,who, as soon as breakfast was over, took firstMercer and Tracy, then the colonel apart, andproposed calling up Keatcham’s confidential associateson the long-distance telephone. “Strike,but hear me, nephew,” she said languidly, smilingat his bewilderment. “Our only chance now is toexhaust trumps. Yesterday the game was won.Keatcham had surrendered, he had told his partnersin the deal to make no fight on Tracy’s election;they could get what they wanted withoutthe Midland; he advised them to cover their shortsand get ready for a bull market—”

[267]“How did he do all that when he had lost hisprivate code book?”

“How would you do it? You would use thelong distance telephone. We caught them at Seattle,where his men had gone for the meeting.I don’t understand why they needed me to suggestthat. There the poor man was, as yourHarvard stove agent calls it, rubbering about thelibrary, trying to find The Fortunes of Nigel inthe edition Darley had illustrated; of course, itwasn’t there. He had lost it just before he cameto the Palace, he thought. It seems his old cipherneeds a particular book, that kind. No doubt inmy mind that your theory is right and that Atkinsstole it and perhaps thought he stole the key, butdidn’t get it. He took a memorandum of cipherswhich looked like a key. There Keatcham was,with millions hanging on his wires and his modernsubstitute for the medieval signet-ring thatwould enforce the message quite lost. What todo? Why, there was nothing to do but get anothercipher! They made up a temporary one,right in that library, yesterday afternoon.”

“But how could Mercer be sure Keatchamwould not play a trick on him? Did he hear theconversation?”

[268]“Certainly not. He took Keatcham’s word.Whatever his faults, Keatcham has always kepthis word. Mercer was sure he would keep it. Hewent out of the room. He was in the library whenKeatcham was stabbed.”

The colonel drew a long, difficult breath.“Then you don’t believe Mercer did it?”

“I’m sure he didn’t. He didn’t hurt him. Whyshould he kill him after he had surrendered? Hehad nothing to gain and considerable to risk, ifnot to lose. We want that bull market.”

“But who did then? Atkins? But he is tryingto rescue him.”

“Is he? How do we know? The rescue wasonly our supposition. I’m only certain none ofour crowd did it.”

“Kito?”

“No, Kito keeps absolutely within his orders;he knew how things stood when he went away.Mercer saw him go. He couldn’t get in, either;he had to signal to be let in. They were as carefulas that. Now, assuming they all are innocent, isn’tit the best plan to telephone to Seattle to Keatcham’snext friend there?”

“He hasn’t any family, has he? His wife diedand there were no children, I think.”

[269]“No, and if he ever had any brothers or sistersthey died when they were little; his business associatesare the only people Cary knows about.He is anxious to have word sent at once, becausethere are important things to do in Keatcham’sown interest; he came to California and he hasemployed Cary in a big Portland cement investment;Cary has been working all the time on itfor him—I beg your pardon—” for the colonelhad raised his hand with a little gasp.

“Do you mean,” said he, “that Mercer has beenacting as Keatcham’s agent, working in his interestall the time he was holding him a prisoner andready to kill him rather than let him go?”

“Why not? Cary is a man of honor. This cementdeal is a perfectly fair one which will givea fair price to the present owners and make agreat business proposition. There are otherschemes, too, very large ones, which need the manat the wheel. Now, I have talked with Cary andEndicott Tracy and my plan is to call up Warnebold,his next friend, who knows Mercer has beenemployed by Keatcham and knows his voice andknows he is a trusty man (for Mercer has donesome inquiries for him and saved him once frombuying a water-logged steel plant) to call him[270]up and—tell him the truth. We can say Mr.Keatcham was mysteriously stabbed; we can askwhat is best to do. By that time we can reportthat we have the best medical assistance—youngArnold will get his family physician, who can betrusted. Warnebold will instruct Mercer, Ireckon, to keep the fact of the assault a secret, noteven mention that Mr. Keatcham is ill; and verylikely he or some one else will come straight onhere. Meanwhile, young Arnold can open thehouse, hire some servants who won’t talk—I canget them for him; we all say nothing of the magnate’spresence. And the bull market will comeall right.”

After a little reflection the colonel agreed thatthe bold course would be the safest. Thus it cameabout, with amazing rapidity, that the hauntedhouse was opened; that sleek, smiling Chinamenwhisked brooms and cleaning cloths at open windows;and Haley and Kito frankly told any curiousinquirers who hailed them over the lawn andthe flower-beds that young Mr. Arnold was cominghome and going to have a house-party offriends. The servants had been carefully selectedby Mrs. Winter’s powerful Chinese friend; theyhad no dread of white spooks, however they might[271]cringe before yellow ones. Mrs. Winter and Randallleft their hotel, after all the appropriate ceremonies,amid the lavish bows and smiles ofliberally paid bell-boys and porters. They gaveout that they were to visit friends; and the colonel,who remained, was to take charge of their mail;hence, with no appearance of secrecy, the trailtook to water and was lost, since the motor-carwhich carried them was supplied by Birdsall anddriven by a safe man of his own.

Regarding the detective, Rupert Winter hadhad what he called “a stiff think;” he could notafford even the remote risk of his going with thepicturesque assortment of information which hehad obtained about Casa Fuerte and Mercer, intoAtkins’ employ; therefore he hired him, still, himself.He made a partial but absolutely truthfulstatement of the case; he said frankly: “Birdsall,I’m not going to treat you fair, for I’m not goingto tell you all I know, because—well, for onething, I don’t feel sure how much I do know myself.But all I’m going to ask of you is to watchthe house, day and night, without seeming towatch it. You will oblige Mr. Keatcham as wellas me. There is a big game going on, but it isn’twhat you thought. Mr. Keatcham’s best helpers[272]are right in that house. Mercer and I and youngFireless and Arnold are doing our best to guardhim, not hurt him. Now, there is big money foryou if you will watch out for us.”

Birdsall reflected a moment before he answered,but he did answer, screwing up his face: “I don’tlike these jobs in the dark; but I like you, Colonel,and it’s a go.”

Keatcham’s valet was next summoned from hisvacation and became, in Tracy’s phrase, “a dandysub-nurse.”

The Tracys’ family physician came twice a day.He was known to be visiting one of the guestswho had fallen ill. Mercer sent three or four telegramsa day to Seattle and to New York, toKeatcham’s associates. Several times he held aconversation of importance over the telephonewith the man who acted as distributer of intelligence.Warnebold, himself, came on to San Franciscofrom Seattle, and was received with everycourtesy. He questioned Kito, questioned Mercer,questioned the colonel. Tracy had effacedhimself and was in Pasadena for a day or two.

The colonel was the star witness (at least thiswas young Arnold’s verdict). His narrative wasto the effect that he had gone out to see Mercer,[273]who was a family connection; no, he was notalone, he had a young friend with him; confidentially,he would admit that the friend was Mr.Tracy’s son; and, while he could not be sure, hehad reason to suspect that he, “young Tracy,”had been conducting some delicate negotiationswith Mr. Keatcham. At this point the interlocutornodded slightly; he was making the deductionsexpected and explaining to himself Keatcham’sastonishing communication over the telephone.So, he was surmising shrewdly, that was the clue;the old man had been making some sort of a dealwith Tracy through the son; well, they were protected,thanks to Keatcham’s orders. Likely as notthey never would know all the reasons for thisside-stepping.

“I understand, then,” he said, as one who holdsa clue but has no notion of letting it slip out of hisown fingers, “you and young Tracy got here andyou found Mr. Keatcham? How did you get in?Did Mr. Mercer let you in? How did it happen hedidn’t discover Mr. Keatcham instead of you, ordid you come in on the side?”

Mrs. Winter who was in the room had a diversionready, but it was not needed; the colonelanswered unhesitatingly, with a frank smile:[274]“No, we came in ourselves; young Tracy had akey.”

“Oh, he had, had he?” returned Warneboldwith a shrug of the shoulders.

“He is a great friend of young Arnold’s; theywere at Harvard together, belonged to the samesocieties.”

“Yes, I understand; well—”

The rest of the interview was clear sailing.Mrs. Winter’s presence was explained in her veryown words. “Of course I was put out a good dealat first,” added the colonel, “by the women gettingmixed up in it; but Miss Smith undoubtedly savedMr. Keatcham’s life. I never saw any one whoseemed to think of so many things to do. Half adozen times, that first night, he seemed to be fadingaway; but every time she brought him back.I was anxious to have a doctor called in; butMercer seemed opposed to making a stir—”

“He knew his business thoroughly,” interjectedKeatcham’s confidant, “he undoubtedly had hisinstructions to keep Keatcham’s presence herea secret.”

“He had,” said Mrs. Winter; “besides, MissSmith is his sister-in-law and he knew that shecould be trusted to do everything possible. And,[275]really, it didn’t look as if anything could helphim. I hardly believed that he could live an hourwhen I saw him.”

“Nor I,” the colonel corroborated.

Warnebold, plainly impressed by Mrs. Winter’sgrand air, assured them both that he felt thateverything that could be done had been done;Miss Smith was quite wonderful; and he wouldadmit (of course, confidentially) that Mr. Keatchamdid have a heart trouble; Mr. Mercer had recalledone or two fainting fits; there was somecongestion; and the doctor found a sad absence ofreaction; he believed that there had been a—er—syncopeof some sort before the stabbing; Mr.Keatcham himself, although he was still too weakto talk much, had no recollection of anything excepta very great faintness. Mr. Mercer’s theoryseemed to cover the ground.

“Except as to who did the stabbing,” said thecolonel.

“Has Mr. Keatcham any bitter enemies?”asked Aunt Rebecca thoughtfully.

“What man who has made a great fortunehasn’t?” demanded Warnebold with a saturninewrinkle of the lips. “But our enemies don’t stabor shoot us, nowadays.”

[276]“They do out West,” said the colonel genially;“we’re crude.”

“Are you in earnest?”

“Entirely. I know a man, a mine superintendent,who got into a row with his miners becausehe discharged a foreman, one of the union lights,for stealing ore. In consequence he got a bigstrike on his hands, found a dynamite bomb underhis front piazza, and was shot at twice. Thesecond time he was too quick for them; he shotback and killed one of them. He thought it wastime to put a stop to so much excitement, so hesent for the second assassin—”

“And had him arrested?”

“Oh, dear, no; he wasn’t in Massachusetts; Itold you he wanted the thing stopped. No, he sentfor him and told him that he had no special illfeeling toward him, but that the next time anythingof the kind happened he had made arrangementsto have not him, or any other thug whowas doing the work, but the two men who were atthe bottom of the whole business, killed withintwenty-four hours. They took the hint and kindfeeling now prevails.”

Warnebold grunted; he declared it to be abeastly creepy situation; he said he never wanted[277]to sit down without a wall against his back; andhe intimated that the president of the UnitedStates was to blame for more than he realized. “Ihope you have some one watching the house,” hefumed, “and that he—well, he doesn’t belong tothe police force.”

“No, he’s an honest mercenary,” said the colonel;“I’ll introduce him to you.”

“And you haven’t found any method of enteringthe house?” fumed the financier.

“No,” said Aunt Rebecca.

“Yes,” said the colonel.

He laughed as they both whirled round on him.

“You speak first, my dear aunt,” he proposed politely;“I’ll explain later.”

Mrs. Winter said that a most careful examinationhad been made not only by Mercer and thecolonel together, but also by young Arnold. Theyfound everything absolutely secure; all the windowswere bolted and all the cellar gratings firmand impossible to open.

“Now, you?” said Warnebold.

“I only found out to-day,” apologized the colonel,“or I should have spoken of it. I got tothinking; and it occurred to me that in a housebuilt, as I understood from Arnold, by a very[278]original architect, there might be some queer features,such as secret passages. With that in mymind, I induced the young gentleman to hunt upthe architect, as he lives in San Francisco. He notonly showed us some very pretty secret passagesabout the house, but one that led into it. Shall Ishow it to you?”

On their instantly expressed desire to see thehidden way, the colonel led them to the patio.He walked to the engaged column which oncebefore had interested him; he pressed a concealedspring under the boldly carved eight-pointedflower; instantly, the entire side of the columnsswung as a door might swing. As they peeredinto the dusky space below, the colonel, who hadput down his arm, pressed an electric button andthe white light flooded the shaft, revealing an ingeniousladder of cleats fitted into steel uprights.

“Here,” said the colonel, “is a secret way fromthe patio to the cellar. The cellar extends a littlebeyond the patio and there is a way down from theyard to the cellar—I can quickly show you, if youlike.”

“No, thank you,” replied Warnebold, who wasa man of full habit and older than the colonel, “Iwill take your personal experience instead.”

[279]“Then if you will go out into the yard with meI will show you where a charming pergola endsin a vine-wreathed sun-dial of stone that youmay tug at and not move; but press your foot ona certain stone, the whole dial swings round on aconcealed turn-table such as they have in garages,you know. You will have no difficulty in findingthe right stone, because an inscription runs roundthe dial: Más vale tarde que nunca; and the stoneis directly opposite nunca. When you have movedaway your dial you will see a gently inclining tunnel,high enough for a man to walk in withoutstooping, wide enough for two, and much betterventilated than the New York subway. That tunnelleads to a secret door opening directly into thecellar, so skilfully contrived that it looks like anair-shaft. This door is only a few feet from theshaft to the patio. We have found a bolt and putit on this entrance, but there wasn’t any before;nor did any one in the house know of the secretpassage.”

The colonel went on to say that on questioningthe architect he averred that he had never mentionedthe secret passage to his knowledge—exceptthat very recently, only a few days before,at a dinner, he had barely alluded to it; and one[280]of the gentlemen present, an Easterner, had askedhim where he got a man to make such a contrivance—itmust take skill. He had mentioned thename of the workman. The colonel had huntedup the artisan mentioned, only to find that he hadleft town to take a job somewhere; no one seemedto know where. Of course he had inquired ofeverybody. The name of the Easterner was Atkins.

“Atkins,” cried Warnebold, at this turn of thenarrative, “Keatcham’s secretary? Why, he’s theboldest and slyest scoundrel in the United States!He started a leak in Keatcham’s office that madehim a couple of hundred thousands and lost us amillion, and might have lost us more if Mercerhadn’t got on to him. Keatcham wouldn’t believehe had been done to the extent he was at first—youknow the old man hates to own to any one’sgetting the better of him; it’s the one streak ofvanity I’ve ever been able to discover in him.Otherwise, he’s cold and keen as a razor on afrosty morning. He was convinced enough, however,to discharge Atkins; the next news I had,he was trying to send him to the pen. Gave usinstructions how to get the evidence. No allusionto his past confidence in the fellow, simply the orders—as[281]if we knew all the preliminaries. Wonderfulman, Mr. Keatcham, Colonel Winter.”

“Very,” agreed the colonel dryly.

By this time the warrior and the man of financewere on easy terms. Warnebold remained threedays. Before he left the patient had been pronouncedout of danger and had revived enough togive some succinct business directions. Mercerhad been sent to look out for the cement deal;and Keatcham appeared a little relieved andbrighter when he was told that Mercer was onhis way.

“He will put it through if it can be put,” hehad said weakly to Warnebold; “he’s moderatelysmart and perfectly honest.” Such words, Warneboldexplained later to Mrs. Winter, coming fromKeatcham might be regarded almost as extravagantcommendation. “Your cousin’s fortune ismade,” he pronounced solemnly; “he can get Atkins’place, I make no doubt.”

Mrs. Winter thought that Mercer was a veryvaluable man.

“Only always so melancholy; I’ve been afraidhe had something serious the matter with his digestion.It’s these abominable quick lunches thatare ruining the health of all our steady young[282]men. I don’t know but they are almost as badas chorus girls and late suppers. Well, Mrs. Winter,I’m afraid we shall not have another chanceat bridge until I see you in New York. But, anyhow,we stung the colonel once—and with MissSmith playing her greatest game, too. Pity shecan’t induce Mr. Keatcham to play; but he nevertouches a card, hardly ever takes anything todrink, doesn’t like smoking especially, takes a cigaretteonce in a while only, never plays the races orbets on the run of the vessel—positively such icyvirtue gives an ordinary sinner the cramps! Verygreat man though, Mrs. Winter, and a man weare all proud to follow; he may be overbearing;and he doesn’t praise you too much, but somehowyou always have the consciousness that he seesevery bit of good work you do and is marking itup in your favor; and you won’t be the loser.There is no question he has a hold on his associates;but he certainly is not what I call a genialman.”

Only on the day of his departure did Warnebold,in young Arnold’s language, “loosen up”enough to tell Arnold and the colonel a vital incident.The night of the attack a telegram wassent to Warnebold in Keatcham’s confidential[283]cipher, directing the campaign against Tracy tobe pushed hard, ordering the dumping of some bigblocks of stock on the market and arranging fortheir dummy purchasers. The naming of Atkinsas the man in charge was plausible enough, presumingthere had been no knowledge of the breakin his relations with Keatcham. The message wascouched in Keatcham’s characteristic crisp phraseology.But for the receiver’s knowledge of thebreak and but for the previous long-distance conversation,it had reached its mark. The associatesof Keatcham were puzzled. The hands were thehands of Esau but the voice was the voice ofJacob. There had been a hurried consultation intowhich the second long-distance telephone fromSan Francisco broke like a thunderclap. It decidedthe hearers to keep to their instructions anddisregard the cipher despatch.

“And didn’t you send any answer?” the colonelasked.

“Oh, certainly; we had an address given, ThePalace Hotel, Mr. John G. Makers. We wiredMr. Makers—in cipher. ‘Despatch received. Willattend to it,’ I signed. And I wired to the managerof the hotel to notice the man who took thedespatch. It wasn’t a man, it was a lady.”

[284]“A lady?”

“Yes, she had an order for Mr. Makers’ telegrams.Mr. Makers gave the order. Mr. Makershimself only stopped one night and went away inthe morning and nobody seemed to remember himparticularly; he was a nondescript sort of party.”

“But the lady?” The colonel’s mouth felt dry.

“The lady? She was tall, fine figure, welldressed, dark hair, the telegraph girl thought, butshe didn’t pay any special attention. She had avery pleasant, musical voice.”

“That doesn’t seem to be very definite,” remarkedthe colonel with a crooked smile.

It didn’t look like a clue to Warnebold, either;but he was convinced of one thing, namely, thatit would pay to watch the ex-secretary.

“And,” chuckled he, “there’s a cheerful side tothe affair. Atkins is loaded to the guards withshort contracts; and the Midland is booming; ifthe rise continues, he can’t cover without losingabout all he has. By the way, we got another wirelater in the day demanding what we were about,what it all meant that we hadn’t obeyed instructions.Same address for answer. This time wethought we had laid a nice trap. But you can’treckon on a hotel; somehow, before we got warning,[285]Mr. Makers had telephoned for his despatchand got it.”

“Where did he telephone from?”

“From his room in the Palace.”

“I thought he had given up his room?”

“He had. But—somebody telephoned to thetelegraph office from somewhere in the hotel andgot Mr. Makers’ wire. You can get pretty mucheverything except a moderate bill out of a hotel.”

“I see,” said the colonel and immediately in hisheart compared himself to the immortal “blindman;” for his wits appeared to him to be trampinground futilely in a maze; no nearer the exitthan when the tramp began.

That night, after Warnebold had departed,leaving most effusive thanks and expressions ofconfidence, Winter was standing at his windowabsently looking at the garden faintly colored bythe moonlight, while his mind was plying backand forth between half a dozen contradictions.

He went over the night of the attack on Keatcham;he summoned every look, every motion ofJanet Smith; in one phase of feeling he cudgeledhimself for a wooden fool who had been absolutelybrutal to a defenseless woman who trustedhim; he hated himself for the way he would not[286]see her when she looked toward him; no wonderat last she stiffened, and now she absolutelyavoided him! But, in a swift revulsion againsthis own softness he was instantly laying on theblows as lustily because of his incredible, pig-headedcredulity. How absolutely simple thething was! She cared for this scoundrel of an Atkinswho had first betrayed his employer and thentried to murder him. Very likely they had beenhalf engaged down there in Virginia; and he hadcrawled out of his engagement; it would be quitelike the cur! Later he found that just such a distinguished,charming woman, who had familyand friends, was what he wanted; it would be easyenough for him to warm up his old passion, cursehim! Then, he had met her and run in a bunchof plausible lies that had convinced her that hehad been a regular angel in plain clothes; hadn’tdone a thing to Cary or to her. Atkins was sucha smooth devil! Winter could just picture himwhining to the girl, putting his life in her handsand all that rot; and making all kinds of a tool ofher—why, the whole hand was on the board! Soshe was ready to throw them all overboard tosave Atkins from getting his feet wet. That waswhy she looked so pale and haggard of a morning[287]sometimes, in spite of that ready smile of hers;that was why her eyes were so wistful; she wasn’ta false woman and she sickened of her squalidpart. She loved Aunt Rebecca and Archie—allthe same, she would turn them both down forhim; while as to Rupert Winter, late of the UnitedStates army, a worn-out, lame, elderly idiot whohad flung away the profession he loved and everychance of a future career in order to have hishands free to keep her out of danger—where werethere words blistering enough for such puppy-dogfolly! At this point in his jealous imaginings thepain in him goaded him into motion; he beganfuriously pacing the room, although his lame leg,which he had been using remorselessly all day,was sending jabs and twists of agony throughhim. But after a little he halted again before thecasement window.

The wide, darkening view; the great, silent citywith its myriad lights; the shining mist of thebay; the foot-hills with their sheer, straw-coloredstreaks through the forests and vineyards; the illimitabledepths of star-sown, violet sky—all thesetouched his fevered mood with a sudden calm.His unrest was quieted, as one whose senses arecooled by a running stream.

[288]“You hot-headed Southerner!” he upbraidedhimself, “don’t get up in the air without any realproof!”

Almost in the flitting of the words through hisbrain he saw her. The white gown, which was herconstant wear in the sick-room, defined her figureclearly against a clump of Japan plum-trees.Their purplish red foliage rustled; and an unseenfountain beyond made a delicate tinkle of watersplashing a marble basin. Her face was hidden;only the moonlight gently drew the oval of hercheek. She was standing still, except that one footwas groping back and forth as if trying to findsomething. But, as he looked, his face growingtender, she knelt on the sod and pulled somethingout of the ground. This something she seemed todust off with her handkerchief—he could not seethe object, but he could see the flutter of the handkerchief;and when she rose the white linen partlyhid the thing in her hand. Only partly, becausewhen she passed around the terrace wall the glowfrom an electric lantern, in an arch, fell full uponher and burnished a long, thin blade of steel.

He looked down on her from his unlightedchamber; and suddenly she looked up straight atthe windows of the room where she thought he[289]was sleeping; and smiled a dim, amused, weary,tender smile. Then she sped by, erect and light offoot; and the deep shadow of the great gatewaytook her. All he could see was the moonlight onthe bluish green lawn; and the white electric lighton the gleaming rubber-trees and dusty palms.

He sat down. He clasped his hands over hisknee. He whistled softly a little Spanish air. Helaughed very gently. “My dear little girl,” saidhe, “I am going to marry you. You may be swindledinto helping a dozen murderers; but I amgoing to marry you!”

[290]

CHAPTER XVI
THE REAL EDWIN KEATCHAM

One Sunday after Mrs. Melville Winter andArchie came to Casa Fuerte, Mr. Keatcham sentfor the colonel. There was nothing unusual insuch a summons. From the beginning of his illnesshe had shown a curious, inexpressive desirefor the soldier’s company. He would have himsit in the room, although too weak to talk to him,supposing he wished to talk, which was not at allsure. “I like-to-see-him-just-sitting-there,” he falteredto his nurse, “can’t-he-read-or-play-solitaire-like-the-old-lady?”

Sometimes Winter would be conscious that thefeeble creature in the bed, with the bluish-whiteface, was staring at him. Whether the glassy eyesbeheld his figure or went beyond him to unfinishedcolossal schemes that might change the fate of acontinent, or drifted backward to the poverty-strickenhome, the ferocious toil and the unendingself-denial of Keatcham’s youth on the Pacific[291]slope, the dim gaze gave no clue. All that wasapparent was that it was always on Winter, as hecurled his legs under his chair, wrote or knittedhis brow over rows of playing-cards.

At the very first, Keatcham’s mind had wandered;he used to shrink from imaginary peoplewho were in the room; he would try to talk tothem, distressing himself painfully, for he was soweak that his nurses turned his head on the pillow;he would feebly motion them away. In such aberrationshe would sometimes appeal, in a changed,thin, childish voice, to the obscure, toil-wornpioneer woman who had died while he was a lad.“Mother, I was a good boy; I always got up whenyou called me, didn’t I? I helped you iron whenthe other boys were playing—mother, please don’tlet that old woman stay and cry here!” Or hewould plead: “Mother, tell her, say, you tell herI didn’t know her son would kill himself—Icouldn’t tell—he was a damn coward, anyhow—excuseme, mama, I didn’t mean to swear, butthey make me so awful mad!” There was a girlwho came, sometimes, from whose presence heshrank; a girl he had never seen; nor, indeed, hadhe ever known in the flesh any of the shapeswhich haunted him. They had lived; but never[292]had his eyes fallen on them. Nevertheless, theirpresence was as real to him as that of the peopleabout him whom he could hear and touch and see.It did not take Winter’s imagination long to pieceout the explanation of these apparitions: theywere specters of the characters in those dramasof ruthless conquest which Mercer had culled outof newspaper “stories” and affidavits and courtreports and forced upon Keatcham’s attention.Miss Smith helped him to the solution, althoughher own ignorance of Mercer’s method was puzzling.“How did he ever know old Mrs. Ferris?”she said. “He called her Ferris and he talks abouther funny dress—she always did wear a queer littlebasque and full skirt after all the world wentinto blouses—but how did he ever come acrossher? They had a place on the James that hadbeen in the family a hundred years and had tolose it on account of the Tidewater; and NelsonFerris blew his brains out.”

“Don’t you know how?” asked the colonel.“Well, I’ll tell you my guess sometime. Who isthe girl who seems to make him throw a fit so?”

“I’m not sure; I imagine it is poor Mabel Ray;there were two of them, sisters; they made moneyout of their Tidewater stock and went to New[293]York to visit some kin; and they got scared whenthe stock fell and the dividends stopped; and theysold out at a great loss. They never did comeback; they had persuaded all their kin to invest;and the stopping of the dividends made it difficultfor some of the poor ones—Mabel said shecouldn’t face her old aunts. She went on the stagein New York. She was very pretty; she wasn’tvery strong. Anyway, you can imagine the endof the story. I saw her in the park last winterwhen Mrs. Winter was in New York; she turnedher face away—poor Mabel!”

Through Janet Smith’s knowledge of her deadsister’s neighbors, Winter got a dozen pitiful recordsof the wreckage of the Tidewater. “Mightyinteresting reading,” he thought grimly, “buthardly likely to make the man responsible forthem stuck on himself!” Then he would look atthe drawn face on the pillow and listen to the babblingsof the boy who had had no childhood; andthe frown would melt off his brow.

He did not always talk to his mother when hismind wandered; several times he addressed an invisiblepresence as “Helen” and “Dear” with anaccent of tenderness very strange on those inflexiblelips. When he talked to this phantasm he was[294]never angry or distressed; his turgid scowlcleared; the austere lines chiseling his cheeks andbrow faded; he looked years younger. But forthe most part, it was to no unreal creature that heturned, but to Colonel Rupert Winter. He wouldaddress him with punctilious civility, but as onewho was under some obligation to assist him, saying,for instance, “Colonel Winter, I must begyou not to let those persons in the room again.They annoy me. But you needn’t let Mercer knowthat. Please attend to it yourself, and get themaway. Miss Smith says you will. Explain to themthat when I get up I will investigate their claims.I’m too sick now!”

Conscious and free from fever, he was barelyable to articulate, but when delirious fancies possessedhim he could talk rapidly, in a good voice.Very soon it was clear that he was calmer for thecolonel’s presence. Hence, the latter got into thehabit of sitting in the room. He would requestimaginary ruined and desperate beings to leaveKeatcham in peace; he would gravely rise andclose the door on their departure. He never wassurprised nor at a loss; and his dramatic nervenever failed. Later, as the visions faded, a moodyreserve wrapped the sick man. He lay motionless,[295]evidently absorbed by thought. In one way hewas what doctors call a very good patient. Heobeyed all directions; he was not restless. Butneither was he ever cheerful. Every day he askedfor his pulse record and his temperature and hisrespiration. After a consultation with the doctor,Miss Smith gave them to him.

“It is against the rules,” grumbled the doctor,“but I suppose each patient has to make his ownrules.” On the same theory he permitted the colonel’svisits.

Therefore, with no surprise, Winter receivedand obeyed the summons. Keatcham greeted himwith his usual stiff courtesy.

“The doctor says I can have the—papers—willyou pick out—the—one—day after I wasstabbed.”

Miss Smith indicated a pile on a little table,placed ready at hand. “I kept them for him,” shesaid.

“Read about—the Midland,” commanded thefaint, indomitable voice.

“Want the election and the newspaper sentiments?”asked the colonel; he gave it all, consciousthe while of Janet Smith’s compassionate,perplexed, sorrowful eyes.

[296]“Don’t skip!” Keatcham managed to articulateafter a pause.

The colonel gave him a keen glance. “Want itstraight, without a chaser?”

Keatcham closed his eyes and nodded.

The colonel read about the virtually unanimouselection of Tracy; the astonishment of the outsidersamong the supposed anti-Tracy element;the composed and impenetrable front of the menclosest to Keatcham; the reticence and amiabilityof Tracy himself, in whose mien there could bedetected no hint either of hostility or of addedcordiality toward the men who had been expected“to drag his bleeding pride in the dust;” finally ofthe response of the stock-market in a phenomenalrise of Midland.

Keatcham listened with his undecipherablemask of attention; there was not so much as theflicker of an eyelid or the twitch of a muscle. Allhe said was: “Now, read if there is anythingabout the endowment of the new fellowships insome medical schools for experimental research.”

“Who gives the endowment?”

“Anonymous. In memory of Maria WarrenKeatcham and Helen Bradford Keatcham. Findanything?”

[297]The colonel found a great deal about it. Thepaper was full of this munificent gift, amountingto many millions of dollars and filling (withmost carefully and wisely planned details) analmost absolute vacuum in the American schemeof education. The dignity and fame of the chairsand fellowships endowed were ample to tempt thebest ability of the profession. The reader grew enthusiasticas he read.

“Why, it’s immense! And we have alwaysneeded it!” he exclaimed.

“There are some letters about it, there,”—Keatchamfeebly motioned to a number of neatlyopened, neatly assorted letters on a desk. “Thedoctor said I might have the letters read to me.Miss Smith got him to. For fear of exciting you,the doctors usually let you worry your head offbecause you don’t know about things. I’ve got tocarry a few things through if it kills me. Don’tyou see?”

“I see,” said the colonel, “you shall.”

The next time he saw the financier, althoughonly a few days had elapsed, he was muchstronger; he was able to breathe comfortably, hespoke with ease, in his ordinary voice; in fine, helooked his old self again, merely thinner and paler.[298]Hardly was the colonel seated before he saidwithout preface—Keatcham never made approachesto his subject, regarding conversationalroad-making as waste of brains for a busy man:

“Colonel, Miss Smith hasn’t time to be mynurse and secretary both. I won’t have one sentfrom New York; will you help her out?”

The colonel’s lips twitched; he was thinkingthat were Miss Smith working for Atkins, shecouldn’t have a better chance to make a killing.“But I’ll bet my life she isn’t,” he added; “shemay be trying to save his life, but she isn’t playinghis game!”

He said aloud: “I will, Mr. Keatcham, if youwill let me do it as part of the obligation of thesituation; and there is no bally rot about compensation.”

“Very well,” said Keatcham. He did not hesitate;it was (as the colonel had already discovered)the rarest thing in the world for him tohesitate; he thought with astonishing rapidity;and he formulated his answer while his interlocutortalked; before the speech was over the answerwas ready. Another trait of his had struck thesoldier, namely, the laborious correctness of hisspeech; it was often formal and old-fashioned;[299]Aunt Rebecca said that he talked like DanielWebster’s speeches; but it had none of the homelyand pungent savor one might expect from a manwhose boyhood had scrambled through miners’camps into a San Francisco stock office; who hadnever gone to school in his life by daylight; whohad been mine superintendent, small speculatorand small director in California until he becamea big speculator and big railway controller inNew York.

“You might begin on the morning mail,”Keatcham continued. “Let me sort them first.”He merely glanced at the inscriptions on the envelopes,opening and taking out one which he readrather carelessly, frowning a little before heplaced it to one side.

A number of the letters concerned the endowmentsof the experimental chairs at the universities.Keatcham’s attention was not lightened byany ray of pleasure. Once he said: “That fellowhas caught my idea,” and once: “That’s right,”but there was no animation in his voice, no interestin his pallid face. Stealing a furtive scrutinyof it, now and then, Rupert Winter was impressedwith its mystical likeness to that of Cary Mercer.There was no physical similarity of color or feature;[300]it was a likeness of the spirit rather than theflesh. The colonel’s eyes flashed.

“I have it!” he exclaimed within, “I have it;they are fanatics, both of them; Keatcham’s afanatic of finance and Mercer is a fanatic of anothersort; but fanatics they both are, ready to goany length for their principles or their ambitionsor their revenge! J’ai trouvé le mot d’énigme,as Aunt Becky would say—I wonder whatshe’ll say to this sudden psychological splurge ofmine.”

“The business hour is up,”—it was Miss Smithentering with a bowl on a white-covered tray; thesun glinted the lump of ice in the milk and thesilver spoon was dazzling against the linen—“yourbiscuit and milk, Mr. Keatcham. Didn’tyou have it when you were a boy?”

“I did, Miss Janet,”—and Keatcham actuallysmiled. “I used to think crackers and milk thenicest thing in the world.”

“That is because you never tasted corn poneand milk; but you are going to.”

“When you make it for me. I’m glad you’resuch a good cook. It’s one of your ways I like.My mother was a very good cook. She couldmake better dishes out of almost nothing than[301]these mongrel chefs can make with the wholeworld.”

“I reckon she could,” said Miss Smith; she wasspeaking sincerely.

“When my father didn’t strike pay dirt, mymother would open her bakery and make pies forthe miners; she could make bread with potatoyeast or ‘salt-emptins’—can you make salt-risingbread?”

“I can—shall I make you some, to-morrow?”

“I’d like it. My mother used to make moremoney than my father; sometimes when we childrenwere low in clothes and dad owed a biggerlot of money than usual, we had a laundry at ourhouse as well as a bakery. Yet, in spite of all thework, my mother found time to teach all of us;and she knew how to teach, too; for she was principalof a school when my father married her.She was a New Englander; so was he; but theywent West. We’re forty-niners. I saw the placewhere our little cloth-and-board shack used tostand. After the big fire, you know. It burned usall up; we had saved a good deal and my motherhad a nice bakery. She worked too hard; it killedher. Work and struggle and losing the children.”

“They died?” said Miss Janet.

[302]“Diphtheria. They didn’t know anything aboutthe disease then. We all had it; and my little sisterand both my brothers died; but I’m tough.I lived. My mother fell into what they called adecline. I was making a little money then—I wassixteen; but I couldn’t keep her from working.Perhaps it made no difference; but it did make adifference her not having the—the right kind offood. Nobody knew anything about consumptionthen. I used to go out in the morning and beafraid I’d find her dead when I got back. Onenight I did.” He stopped abruptly, crimsoning upto his eyes—“I don’t know why I’m telling youall this.”

“I call that tough,”—as the colonel blurted outthe words, he was conscious of a sense of repetition.When had he said those very same wordsbefore, to whom? Of all people in the world, toCary Mercer. “Mighty tough,” murmured hesoftly.

“Yes,” said Keatcham, “it was.” He did notsay anything more. Neither did the colonel.Keatcham obediently ate his milk and biscuit;and very shortly the colonel took his leave.

The next morning after an uneventful hour ofsorting, reading and answering letters for Miss[303]Smith to copy on the traveling type-writer,Keatcham gave his new secretary a sharp sensation;he ordered in his quiet but peremptoryfashion: “Now put that trash away; sit down;tell me all you know of Cary—real name is CaryMercer, isn’t it?”

The colonel said it was; he asked him if hewanted everything.

“Everything. Straight. Without a chaser,”snapped Keatcham.

The colonel gave it to him. He began withhis own acquaintance; he told about Phil Mercer;he did not slur a detail; neither did he underscoreone; Keatcham got the uncolored facts. He heardthem impassively, making only one comment:“A great deal of damage would be saved in thisworld if youngsters could be shut up until theyhad sense enough not to fool with firearms.”When Winter came to Mercer’s own expositionof his motives and his design if successful in hisraid on the kings of the market, Keatcham grunted;at the end he breathed a noiseless jet of asigh. “You don’t think Mercer is at all”—hetapped the side of the head.

“No more than you are.”

“Or you?”

[304]“Oh, well,” the colonel jested, “we all have aprejudice in favor of our own sanity. What Imeant was that Mercer is a bit of a fanatic; hishard luck has—well, prejudiced him—”

Keatcham’s cold, firm lips straightened into hispeculiar smile, which was rather of perceptionthan of humor.

One might say of him—Aunt Rebecca Winterdid say of him—that he saw the incongruous,which makes up for humor, but he never enjoyedit; possibly it was only another factor in his contemptof mankind.

“Colonel,” said Keatcham, “do you think WallStreet is a den of thieves?”

“I do,” said the colonel promptly. “I shouldlike to take a machine gun or two and clean youall out.”

Keatcham did not smile; he blinked his eyesand nodded. “I presume a good many peopleshare your opinion of us.”

“Millions,” replied the colonel.

Again Keatcham nodded. “I thought so,” saidhe. “Of course you are all off; Wall Street is asnecessary to the commonwealth as the pores toyour skin; they don’t make the poison in the systemany more than the pores do; they only let it[305]escape. And I suppose you think that big financierswho control the trusts and the railwaysand—”

“Us,” the colonel struck in, “well?”

“You think we are thieves and liars and murderersand despots?”

“All of that,” said the colonel placidly; “alsofools.”

“You certainly don’t mince your words.”

“You don’t want me to. What use would myopinion be in a one-thousandth attenuation?You’re no homeopath; and whatever else you maybe, you’re no coward.”

“Yet, you think I surrendered to Mercer? Youthink I did it because I was afraid he wouldkill me? I suppose he would have killed me if Ihadn’t, eh?”

“He can speak for himself about that; heseems—well, an earnest sort of man. But I don’tthink you gave in because you were afraid, if thatis what you mean. You are no more afraid than hewas! You wanted to live, probably; you had bigthings on hand. The Midland was only a trumpin the game; you could win the odd trick withsomething else; you let the Midland go.”

“Pretty close,”—Keatcham really smiled—“but[306]there is a good deal more of it. I was shut up withthe results of my—my work. He did it verycleverly. I had nothing to distract me. Therewere the big type-written pages about the foolishpeople who had lost their money, in some casesreally through my course, mostly because theygot scared and let go and were wiped out when,if they had had confidence in me and held on, theywould be very much better off, now. But theydidn’t, and they were ruined and they starved andtook their boys out of college and mortgaged theirconfounded homes that had been in their familiesever since Adam; and the old people died ofbroken hearts and the girls went wrong and someof the idiotic quitters killed themselves—it wasnot the kind of crowd you would want shut upwith you in the dark! I was shut up with them.He had some sort of way of switching off thelights from the outside. I never saw a face orheard a voice. I would have to sit there in thedark after he thought I had read enough tooccupy my mind. It—was unpleasant. Perhapsyou suppose that brought me round to his way ofthinking?”

The colonel meditated. “I’ll tell you honestly,”he said after a pause, “I was of that opinion, or[307]something of the kind, until I talked your caseover with my aunt—”

“The old dame is not a fool; what did she say?”

“She said no, he didn’t convert you; but heconvinced you how other people looked at yourmethods. You couldn’t get round the fact that amajority of your countrymen think your type offinancier is worse than smallpox, and more contagious.”

“Oh, she put it that way, did she? I wish shewould write a prospectus for me. Well, youthink she was nearer right than you?”

“I think you do; I myself think it was a littleof both. You’ve got a heart and a conscienceoriginally, though they have got pretty welltanned out in the weather; you didn’t want to besorry for those people, but you are. They havebothered you a lot; but it has bothered you moreto think that instead of going down the ages as acolossal benefactor and empire builder, you arehung up on the hook to see where you’re at;and where you will be if the people get thoroughlyaroused. You all are building bigger balloonswhen it ought to be you for the cyclone cellar!But you are different. You can see ahead. I giveyou credit for seeing.”

[308]“Have you ever considered,” said Keatchamslowly, “that in spite of the iniquitous greed ofthe men you are condemning, in spite of theiroppression of the people, the prosperity of thecountry is unparalleled? How do you explain it?”

“Crops,” said the colonel; “the crops were toobig for you.”

“You might give us a little credit—your auntdoes. She was here to-day; she is a manufacturerand she comprehended that the methods of businesscan not be revolutionized without somebody’sgetting hurt. Yet, on the whole, the changemight be immensely advantageous. Now, why,in a nutshell, do you condemn us?”

“You’re after the opinion of the average man,are you?”

“I suppose so, the high average.”

The colonel crossed his legs and uncrossedthem again; he looked straight into the other’seyes; his own narrowed with thought.

“I’ll tell you,” said he. “I don’t know muchabout the Street or high finance or industrial development.I’m a plain soldier; I’m not a manufacturerand I’m not a speculator. I understandperfectly that you can’t have great changes withoutsomebody’s getting hurt in the shuffle. It[309]is beyond me to decide whether the new industrialarrangements with the stock-jobber on topinstead of the manufacturer will make for betteror for worse—but I know this; it is against thefundamental law to do evil that good may come.And you fellows in Wall Street, when, to get richquick, you lie about stocks in order to buycheap and then lie another way to sell dear; whenyou make a panic out of whole cloth, as you didin 1903, because, having made about all you canout of things going up, you want to make all youcan out of them going down; when you play foot-ballwith great railway properties and insuranceproperties, because you are as willing to rob thedead as the living; when you do all that, andwhen your imitators, who haven’t so much brainsor so much decency as you, when they buy uplegislatures and city councils; and their imitatorsrun the Black Hand business and hold people upwho have money and are not strong enough,they think, to hunt them down—why, not beinga philosopher but just a plain soldier, I call it bad,rotten bad. What’s more, I can tell you the Americanpeople won’t stand for it.”

“You think they can help themselves?”

“I know they can. You fellows are big, but[310]you won’t last over night if the American peopleget really aroused. And they are stirring in theirsleep and kicking off the bed-clothes.”

“Yet you ought to belong to the conservatives.”

“I do. That’s why the situation is dangerous.You as an old San Franciscan ought to rememberhow conservative was that celebrated VigilanceCommittee. It is when the long-suffering, pusillanimous,conservative element gets fighting madthat something is doing.”

“Maybe,” muttered Keatcham thoughtfully. “Ibelieve we can manage for you better than youcan for yourselves; but when the brakes arebroken good driving can’t stop the machine; allthe chauffeur can do is to keep the middle of theroad. I like to be beaten as little as any of them;but I’m not a fool. Winter, you are used to accomplishingthings; what is your notion of thesecret?”

“Knowing when to stop exhausting trumps, Ireckon—but you don’t play cards.”

“It is the same old game whatever you play,”said the railway king. He did not pursue thediscussion; his questions, Winter had found, invariablyhad a purpose, and that purpose wasnever argument. He lay back on the big leather[311]cushions of the lounge, his long, lean fingersdrumming on the table beside him and an oddsmile playing about the corners of his mouth;his next speech dived into new waters. He said:“Have those men from New York got Atkins,yet?”

“They couldn’t find him,” answered the colonel.“I have been having him shadowed, on myown idea—I think he stabbed you, though I haveno proof of it; I take it you have proof of yourmatter.”

“Plenty,” said Keatcham. “I was going tosend him to the pen in self-defense. It isn’t safefor me to have it creep out that my secretarymade a fortune selling my secrets. Besides, Idon’t want to be killed. You say they can’t findhim?”

“Seems to have gone to Japan—”

“Seems? What do you mean?”

“I am not sure. He was booked for a steamer;and a man under his name, of his build and color,did actually sail on the boat,” announced thecolonel blandly.

“Hmn! He’s right here in San Francisco; readthat note.”

Winter read the note, written on Palace Hotel[312]note-paper, in a sharp, scrawling, Italian hand.The contents were sufficiently startling.

Dear friend Hoping this find you well. Why do youdisregard a true Warning? We did write you afore oncefor say you give that money or we shal be unfortunatelycompel to kill you quick. No? You laff. God knows we gothave that twenty-five thousan dol. Yes. And now becauseof such great expence it is fifty thousan you shall pay. Wedid not mean kill you dead only show you for sure thereis no place so secret you can Hide no place so strong candefend you. Be Warn. You come with $50000.00 in $100bills. You go or send Mr. Mercer to the Red Hat; askfor Louis. Say to Louis For the Black Hand. Louis willsay For the Black Hand. You follow him. No harm willcome to you. You will be forgive all heretobefores. Elsewaysyou must die April 15-20. This is sure. You havefelt our dagger the other is worse.

You well wishing Fren,
The Black Hand.

“Sounds like Atkins pretending to be a Dago,”said the colonel dryly. “I could do better myself.”

“Very likely,” said Keatcham.

“Does he mean business? What’s he after?”

“To get me out of the way. He knows he isn’tsafe until I’m dead. Then he hasn’t been cleanedout, but he has lost a lot of money in this Midlandbusiness. The cipher he has is of no use to him,there, or in the other things which unluckily he[313]knows about. With me dead and the cipher in hishands, he could have made millions; even withoutthe cipher, if he knows I’m dead before the rest ofthe world, he ought to make at least a half-million.I think you will find that he has put everythinghe has on the chance. I told you he wasslick. And unstable. What do you anticipate hewill do? Straight, with no chaser, as you say.”

“Well, straight with no chaser, I should say abomb was the meanest trick in sight, so, naturally,he will choose a bomb.”

“I agree with you. You say the house ispatrolled?”

“The whole place. But we’ll put on a biggerforce; I’ll see Birdsall at once. Atkins wouldhave to hire his explosive talent, wouldn’t he?”questioned the colonel.

“Oh, he knows plenty of the under-world rascals;and besides, for a fellow of his habits, thereis a big chance for loot. Mrs. Millicent Wintertells me that your aunt has valuable jewels withher. If she told me, she may have told other people,and Atkins may know. He will use otherpeople, but he will come, too, in my opinion.”

“I see,” said the colonel; “to make sure theydon’t foozle the bomb. But he’ll have his alibi[314]ready all right. Mr. Keatcham, did they sendyou a previous letter?”

“Oh, dear no; that’s only part of the game;makes a better story. So is using the hotel paper;if it throws suspicion on anybody it would beyour party; you see Atkins knew Mercer had agrudge against me as well as him. He was countingon that. I rather wonder that he didn’t fixup some proof for you to find.”

“By Jove!” cried the colonel; “maybe he did.”

“And you didn’t find it?”

“Well, you see I was too busy with you; theothers must have overlooked it. Hard on Atkinsafter he took so much trouble, wasn’t it?”

“I told you he was too subtle. But it is notwise to underrate him, or bombs either; we mustget the women and those boys out of the house.”

“But how? You are not really acquainted withmy aunt, Mrs. Rebecca Winter, I take it.”

“You think she wouldn’t go if there was anychance of danger?”

“You couldn’t fire her unless out of a cannon;but she would help get Archie away; Mrs. Melvilleand Miss Smith—”

“Well—ur—Miss Smith, I am afraid, will notbe easy to manage; you see, she knows—”

[315]“Knows? Did you tell her?” asked ColonelWinter anxiously.

“Well, not exactly. As the children say, it tolditself. There has been a kind of an attempt, already.A box came, marked from a man I knowin New York, properly labeled with express company’slabels. Miss Smith opened it; I could seeher, because she was in the bath-room with thedoor open. There was another box inside,wrapped in white tissue paper. Very neatly. Sheexamined that box with singular care and thenshe drew some water in the lavatory basin, halfopened the box and put the whole thing underwater in the basin. Then I thought it was timefor me and I asked her if it was a bomb. Do youknow that girl had sense enough not to try todeceive me? She saw that I had seen every moveshe had made. She said merely that it was safeunder water. It was an ingenious little affairwhich had an electrical arrangement for touchingoff a spark when the lid of the box would belifted.”

“Ah, yes. Thoughtful little plan to amuse aninvalid by letting him open the box, himself, tosee the nice surprises from New York. Veryneat, indeed. What did you do with the box?”

[316]“Nothing, so far. It only came about an hourago.”

“Do you reckon some of the Black Hands areout on the street, rubbering to see if there are anysigns of anything doing?”

“Perhaps; you might let Birdsall keep a watchfor anything like that. But they hear, somehow;there is a leak somewhere in our establishment.It is not your aunt; she can hold her tongue aswell as use it; the boy, Archie, does not knowanything to tell—”

“He wouldn’t tell it if he did,” interruptedthe colonel; and very concisely but with evidentpride he gave Archie’s experience in the Chinesequarter.

Keatcham’s comment took the listener’s breathaway; so far afield was it and so unlike his experienceof the man; it was: “Winter, a son likethat would be a good deal of a comfort, wouldn’the?”

“Poor little chap!” said Winter. “He hasn’tany father to be proud of him—father and motherboth dead.”

Keatcham eyed Winter thoughtfully a moment,then he said: “You’ve been married and lostchildren, your aunt says. That must be hard.[317]But—did you ever read that poem of JamesWhitcomb Riley’s to his friend whose child wasdead? It’s true what he says—they were betteroff than he ‘who had no child to die.’”

Rupert was looking away from the speakerwith the instinctive embarrassment of a man whosurprises the deeper feelings of another. Hecould see out of the window the lovely April gardenand Janet Smith amid the almond blossoms.Only her shining black head and her white shouldersand bodice rose above the pink clusters.She looked up and nodded, seeing him; her facewas a little pale, but she was smiling.

“I don’t know,” he said, “it’s hard enougheither way for a man.”

“I never lost any children”—Keatcham’s tonewas dry, still, but it had not quite the formerdesiccated quality—“but I was married, for alittle while. If it’s as bad to lose your childrenas it is to lose the hope of having them, it mustbe hard. You lost your wife, too?”

“Yes,” said Rupert Winter.

At this moment he became conscious thatKeatcham was avoiding his gaze in the verymanner of his avoiding of Keatcham’s a momentago; and it gave him a bewildering sensation.

[318]“I wanted to marry my wife for seven yearsbefore we were married,” Keatcham continuedin that carefully monotonous voice. “She was thedaughter of the superintendent of the mine whereI was working. I was only eighteen when I firstsaw her. I was twenty-five when we were married.She used to give me lessons; she was educatedand accomplished. She did more than iseasy telling, for me. Of course, her parents wereopposed at first because they looked higher for her,but she brought them round by her patience andher sweetness and her faith in me. Six monthsafter we were married, she had an accident whichleft her a helpless invalid in a wheeled chair, atthe best; at the worst, suffering—you’ve knownwhat it is to see anybody, whom you care for, inhorrible pain and trying not to show it when youcome near?”

“I have,” said Winter; “merry hell, isn’t it?”

“I have seen that expression,” said Keatcham;“I never recognized its peculiar appropriatenessbefore. Yes, it is that. Yet, Winter, those twoyears she lived afterwards were the happiest ofmy whole life. She said, the last night she waswith me, that they had been the happiest of hers.”The same flush which once before, when he had[319]seemed moved, had crept up to his temples, burnedhis hollow cheeks. He was holding the edge ofthe table with the tips of his fingers and the bloodsettled about the nails with the pressure of hisgrip. There was an intense moment during whichWinter vainly struggled to think of something tosay and looked more of his sympathy than he wasaware; then: “Cary Mercer needn’t think that hehas had all the hard times in the world!” saidKeatcham in his usual toneless voice, relaxinghis hold and leaning back on his pillows. Thecolor ebbed away gradually from his face.

“I don’t wonder you didn’t marry again,” saidWinter.

“You would not wonder if you had knownHelen. She always understood. Of course, now,at sixty-one, I could buy a pretty, innocent, younggirl who would do as her parents bade her, andcry her eyes out before the wedding, or a handsomeand brilliant society woman with plenty ofmatrimonial experience—but I don’t want them.I should have to explain myself to them; I don’tknow how to explain myself; you see I can’t halfdo it—”

“I reckon I understand a little.”

“I guess you do. You are different, too. Well,[320]let’s get down to business, think up some way ofgetting the women out of the house; and get yoursleuths after Atkins. It is ‘we get him, or he getsus!’”

The amateur secretary assented and preparedto go, for the valet was at the door, ready to relievehim; but opposite Keatcham, he paused asecond, made a pretense of hunting for his hat,picked it up in his left hand and held out theright hand, saying, “Well, take care of yourself.”

Keatcham nodded; he shook the hand with agood firm pressure. “Much obliged, Winter,”said he.

“Well,” meditated the soldier as he went hisway, “I never did think to take that financialbucaneer by the hand; but—it wasn’t the bucaneer,it was the real Edwin Keatcham.”

[321]

CHAPTER XVII
IN WHICH THE PUZZLE FALLS INTO PLACE

While the colonel was trying to decipher histragical puzzle, while Edwin Keatcham wasbusied with plans that affected empires and incidentallywere to save and to extinguish somehuman lives, while Janet Smith had her owntroubles, while Mrs. Rebecca Winter enjoyeda game more exciting and deadly than Penelope’sWeb, Mrs. Millicent Winter and the younger peoplefound the days full of joyous business. Thehousehold had fallen into normal ways of living.Although the secret patrol watched every rodof approach to the house, the espial was so unobtrusivethat guests came and went, tradesmenrattled over the driveways; the policemen, themselves,slumbered by day and loitered majesticallyby night without the Casa Fuerte portals, neversuspecting. Little Birdsall had his admirablepoints; they were now in evidence. To all outward[322]seeming, a pleasant house-party was enjoyingthe lavish Californian hospitality of CasaFuerte; and Black Care was bundled off to thecloset with the family skeleton, according to thetraditions of mannerly people. Arnold had openedhis garage and his stables. There was bridge ofan evening; and the billiard-balls clinked on thepool-table. Archie could now back the electricmotor into almost any predicament. The newChinese chef was a wonder and Tracy was initiatinghim into the possibilities of the Fireless, despitea modest shrinking on the part of the orientalartist who considered it to be a new kind ofbomb.

Millicent, encouraged by Arnold, had had Mrs.Wigglesworth and two errant Daughters, whosehusbands were state regents for Melville’s university,to luncheon and to dinner; the versatileKito donning a chauffeur’s livery and motoringthem back to the city in the Limousine, on bothoccasions; all of which redounded to Millicent’sown proper glory and state.

Indeed, about this time, Millicent was in highgood humor with her world. Even Janet Smithwas no longer politely obliterated as “the nurse,”but became “our dear Miss Janet”; and was presented[323]with two of Mrs. Melville’s last year’sChristmas gifts which she could not contriveto use; therefore carried about for general decorativegenerosity. One was a sage-green linenhandkerchief case, quite fresh, on which wasetched, in brown silk, the humorous inscription:“WIPE ME BUT DO NOT SWIPE ME!” The otherwas a white celluloid brush-broom holder bedeckedwith azure forget-me-nots enframing acomplicated monogram which might just as wellstand for J. B. B. S. (Janet Byrd BrandonSmith) as for M. S. W. (Millicent Sears Winter)or any other alphabetical herd. These unpretendingbut (considering their source) distinguishedgifts she bestowed in the kindest manner. Janetwas no doubt grateful; she embroidered half adozen luncheon napkins with Mrs. Melville’s monogramand crest, in sign thereof; and very prettily,she being a skilful needle-woman. On herpart, Mrs. Mellville was so pleased that she remarkedto her brother-in-law, shortly after, thatshe believed Cousin Angela’s sisters hadn’t beenjust to Miss Smith; she was a nice girl; and ifshe married (which is quite possible, insinuatedMrs. Melville archly), she meant to give a tea inher honor.

[324]“Now, that’s right decent of you, Millie,” criedthe colonel; and he smiled gratefully after Mrs.Melville’s beautifully fitted back. Yet a scant fiveminutes before he had been pursuing that samecharming back through the garden terraces, ina most unbrotherly frame, resolved to give his sister-in-lawa “warning with a fog-horn.” The causeof said warning was his discovery of her acquaintancewith Atkins. For days a bit of informationhad been blistering his mind. It came from thegirl at the telegraph office at the Palace, not in abee-line, but indirectly, through her chum, thegirl who booked the theater tickets. It could notbe analyzed properly because the telegraph girlwas gone to Southern California. But before shewent she told the theater girl that the lady whoreceived Mr. Makers’ wires was one of Mrs.Winter’s party! This bit of information was likea live coal underfoot in the colonel’s mind; wheneverhe trod on it in his mental excursions hejumped.

“Who else but Janet?” he demanded. But bydegrees he became first doubtful, then daring. Hehad Birdsall fetch the telegraph girl back to SanFrancisco. A ten minutes’ interview assured himthat it was his brother’s wife who had called for[325]Mr. Makers’ messages, armed with Mr. Makers’order.

Aunt Rebecca was not nearly so vehement as hewhen he told her. She listened to his angry criticismwith a lurking smile and a little shrug ofher shoulders.

“Of course she has butted in, as you terselyexpress it, in the language of this mannerless generation;Millicent always butts in. How did sheget acquainted with this unpleasant, assassinating,poor white trash? My dear child, she didn’tprobably; he made an acquaintance with her. Hepumped her and lied to her. We know he wantedto find out Mr. Keatcham’s abode; he may havegot his clue from her; she knew young Arnoldhad been to see him. There’s no telling. I onlyknow that in the interest of keeping a roof overour heads and having our heads whole insteadof in pieces from explosives, I butted in a fewdays ago when somebody wanted Mrs. MelvilleWinter on the telephone. I answered it. The personasked if I was Mrs. Melville Winter; it wasa strange man’s voice. I don’t believe in ChristianScience or theosophy or psychics, but I do believeI felt in my bones that here was an occasionto be canny rather than conscientious. You know[326]I can talk like Millicent—or anybody else; so Iintoned through the telephone in her silkenAnglican accents, ‘Do you want Mrs. MelvilleWinter or Aunt Rebecca, Madam Winter?’ Ihate to be called Madam Winter, and she knowsit, but Millicent is catty, you know, and shealways calls me Madam Winter behind my back.The fellow fell into the trap at once—recognizedthe voice, I dare say, and announced that it wasMr. Makers; Mr. Atkins, who had left for Japan,had not been able to pay his respects and say good-by;but he had left with him an embroideredChinese kimono for Professor Winter, whom hehad admired so much; and if it wouldn’t be toomuch trouble for her to pay a visit to her friend—oneof those women she had to luncheon, who’sat the St. Francis—he would like to show herseveral left by Mr. Atkins, for her to select one.Then in the most casual way, he asked after Mr.Keatcham’s health. I believed he was improving;had had a very good night. I fancy it didn’tplease him, but he made a good pretense. Thenhe went off into remarks about its being such apity Mr. Atkins had left Mr. Keatcham; buthe was so conscientious, a Southern gentleman Iknew; yet he really thought a great deal still of[327]Mr. Keatcham, who had many fine qualities; onlyon account of the unfortunate differences—Atkinswas so proud and sensitive; he was anxiousto hear, but not for the world would he haveany one know that he had inquired; so would Ibe very careful not to let any one know he hadasked. Of course I would be; I promised effusively;and said I quite understood. I think Ido, too.”

“They are keeping tab on us through Millicent,”fumed the colonel. “I dare say she gaveit away that Arnold was visiting Keatcham atthe hotel; and it wouldn’t take Atkins long topiece out a good deal more, especially if his spyoverheard Tracy’s ’phone. Well, I shall warnMillicent—with a fog-horn!”

The way he warned Millicent has been related.But from Millicent he deflected to another subject—theimpulse of confession being strong uponhim. He freed his mind about the stains on CaryMercer’s cuffs; and, when at last he sought Millicenthe was in his soul praising his aunt for awise old woman. After justice was disarmed byhis miscomprehension of Millicent’s words, hetook out his cigarette case and began pacing thegarden walks, smoking and humming a little[328]Spanish love song, far older than the statehood ofCalifornia.

La noche está serena, tranquilo el aquilon;

Tu dulce centinella te guarda el corazon.

Y en al as de los céfiros, que vagan par doquier,

Volando van mis suplicas, á ti, bella mujer!

Volando van mis suplicas, á ti, bella mujer!

De un corazon que te ama, recibe el tierno amor;

No aumentes mas la llama, piedad, á an trobador.

Y si te mueve á lastima eterno padecer,

Como te amo, amama, bellissima mujer!

Como te amo, amama, bellissima mujer![B]

[329]The words belonged to the air which he hadwhistled a weary week ago. Young Tracy camealong, and caught up the air, although he wasinnocent of Spanish; he had his mandolin on hisarm; he proffered it to the colonel.

“Miss Janet has been singing coon-songs to hisnibs, who is really getting almost human,” heobserved affably; “well, a little patience and interestwill reveal new possibilities of the FirelessStove! In man or metal. Shall we get underhis nibs’ window and give him the Bedouin LoveSong and I Picked Me a Lemon in the Garden ofLove and the Sextette from Lucia and otherchoice selections? He seemed to be sitting up andtaking notice; let’s lift him above the sordidthoughts of Wall Street and his plans for bustingother financiers.”

The soldier gave this persiflage no answer; hisown thoughts were far from gay. He stood drinkingin the beauty of the April night. The air waswonderfully hushed and clear; and the play ofthe moonlight on the great heliotrope bushes andthe rose-trees, which dangled their clusters ofyellow and white over the stone parapets of thebalconies, tinted the leafage and flickered delicatelyover the tracery of shadow on the gray[330]walls. Not a cloud flecked the vast aërial landscape—onlystars beyond stars, through unfathomabledepths of dim violet, and beneath thestars a pale moon swimming low in the heavens;one could see it between the spandrels of thearches spanning the colonnade.

“Looks like a prize night-scene on the stage,doesn’t it?” said Tracy. “Jolly good shadows—andaren’t these walls bulging out at the bottombully? I used to know the right name for sucharchitectural stunts when I was taking Fine ArtsFour—dreadful to neglect your educational advantagesand then forget all the little you didn’tneglect, ain’t it? I say, get on to those balconies—thatisn’t the right word for the mission style,I guess; but never mind; aren’t they stunning?Do you see the ladies up there? Is that Archiesniggering? What do you think of the hauntedhouse, now, Colonel?”

Tracy’s gay eyes sought the other’s gaze to findit turn somber. Winter couldn’t have told why;but a sudden realization of the hideous perildogging the warm, lighted, tenanted house, submergedhim and suffocated him like a foul gas.Let their guards be vigilant as fear, let theirwonderful new search-light flood rock and slope[331]and dusky Chaparral bush; and peer as it mightthrough the forest aisles beyond; yet—yet—whocould tell!

But he forced an equal smile in a second forthe college boy; and chatted easily enough asthey climbed up the stepped arches to the balconyand the little group looking seaward.

Aunt Rebecca in black lace and jewels wastilting with the world in general and MillicentWinter in particular; she displayed her mostcynical mood. She had demolished democracy;had planted herself firmly on the basic doctrinethat the virtues cultivated by slavery far outnumberits inseparable vices; and that most people,if not all, need a master; had been picturesquelyand inaccurately eloquent on the subject of dynamite(which she pronounced the logical fourthdimension of liberty, fraternity and equality); hadput the yellow rich where they belonged; and thered anarchists mainly under the sod; and she hadabolished the Fourth of July to the last sputterof fire-cracker; thence by easy transitions shehad extolled American art (which American patronswere too ignorant to appreciate), deploredAmerican music (“The trouble isn’t that it iscanned,” says she, “but that it was spoiled before[332]they canned it!”) and was now driving a chariotof fire through American literature; as for theAcademics, they never said what they thought,but only what they thought they ought to think;and they always mistook anemia for refinement,as another school mistook yelling and perspiringfor vigor.

Just as Winter modestly entered the arena, noless a personage than Henry James was under thewheels. Janet Smith had modestly confessed tobelieving him a consummate artist; and Millicentin an orotund voice declared that he went deep,deep down into the mysteries of life.

“I don’t deny it; he ought to get down deep,”returned Aunt Rebecca in her gentlest, softestutterance; “he’s always boring.”

Mrs. Melville’s suppressed agitation made herstays creak.

“Do you really think that James is not a greatartist?” she breathed.

“I think he is not worth while.”

“Wow!” cried Tracy. “Oh, I say—”

“Aunt Rebecca; you can not mean—” this wasMrs. Melville, choking with horror.

“His style,” repeated the unmoved iconoclast,“his style has the remains of great beauty; all his[333]separate phrases, if you wish, are gems; and he isa literary lapidary; but his sentences are so subtle,so complex, so intricately compounded, and sodiscursive that I get a pain in the back of my neckbefore I find out what he may mean; and then—Idon’t agree with him! Now is it worth while toput in so much hard reading only to be irritated?”

“I beg pardon,” Winter interposed, with masculinepusillanimity evading taking sides in thequestion at issue, “I thought we were going tohave some music; why don’t you boys give ussome college songs? Here is a mandolin.”

Aunt Rebecca’s still luminous eyes went fromthe speaker to Janet Smith in the corner. Shesaid something about hearing the music betterfrom the other side of the balcony. Now (as Mrs.Millicent very truly explained) there was not aha’pennyworth’s difference in favor of one sideover the other; but she followed in the wake ofher imperious aunt.

The colonel drew nearer to Janet Smith; inorder to sink his voice below disturbing the music-lovershe found it necessary to sit on a pile ofcushions at her feet.

“Did you know Mercer will be back to-night?”he began, a long way from his ultimate object.[334]He noticed that leaning back in the shadow herready smile had dropped from her face, whichlooked tired. “I want to tell you a little storyabout Mercer,” he continued; “may I? It won’ttake long.”

He was aware, and it gave him a twinge ofpain to see it, that she sat up a little straighter,like one on guard; and oh, how tired her face wasand how sweet! He told her of all his suspicionsof her brother-in-law; of the blood-stains and thechanging of clothes; she did not interrupt him bya question, hardly by a motion, until he told of theconversation with Keatcham and the note signed“The Black Hand.” At this her eyes lighted; sheexclaimed impetuously: “Cary Mercer never didsend that letter!” She drew a deep intake ofbreath. “I don’t believe he touched Mr. Keatcham!”

“Neither do I,” said the colonel, “but wait!”He went on to the theater girl’s report of the receiverof the telegrams. Her hands, which claspedher knee, fell apart; her lips parted and closedfirmly.

“Did I think it was you?” said he. “Why, yes,I confess I did fear it might be and that you mightbe trying to shield Atkins.”

[335]“I!” she exclaimed hotly; “that detestable villain!”

Isn’t he?” cried the colonel. “But—well, Icouldn’t tell how he might strike a lady,” he endedlamely.

“I reckon he would strike a lady if she weresilly enough to marry him and he got tired of her.He is the kind of man who will persecute a girlto marry him, follow her around and importuneher and flatter her and then, if he should prevail,never forgive her for the bother she has givenhim. Oh, I never did like him; I’m afraid of him—awfully.”

“Not you?”—the colonel’s voice was cheerful,as if he had not shivered over his own forebodingvision. “I’ve seen you in action already, youknow.”

“Not fighting bombs. I hate bombs. There areso many pieces to hit you. You can’t run away.”

“Well, you’ll find them not so bad; besides, youdid fight one this very morning, and you werecool as peppermint!”

“That was quite different; I had time to think,and the danger was more to me than to any oneelse; but to think of Mrs. Winter and Archie andy—all of you; that scares me.”

[336]“Now, don’t let it get on your nerves,” hesoothed—of course it is necessary to take a girl’shand to soothe her when she is frightened. ButMiss Smith calmly released her hand, only reddeninga little; and she laughed. “Where—wherewere we at?” she asked in her unconscious Southernphraseology.

“Somewhere around Atkins, I think,” said thecolonel; he laughed in his turn,—he found it easyto laugh, now that he knew how she felt towardAtkins. “You see, after I talked with KeatchamI couldn’t make anything but Atkins out of thewhole business. But there were those stained cuffsand his changing his clothes—”

“Yes,” said she.

“How explain? There was only one explanation:that was, that perhaps Mercer had discoveredKeatcham before we did, unconsciouslyspotted his cuffs, been alarmed by our approachand hidden, lest it should be the murderers returning.He might have wanted a chance to drawhis revolver. Say he did that way, he might foolishlypretend to enter for the first time. If hemade that mistake and then discovered the conditionof his cuffs and the spots on his knee, whatwould be his natural first impulse? Why, to[337]change them, trusting that they hadn’t been noticed.Maybe, then, he would wash them out—”

“No,” murmured Miss Smith meekly, witha little twinkle of her eye; “I did that; he hidthem. How ridiculous of me to get in such afright! But you know how Cary hated Mr.Keatcham; and you—no, you don’t know thelengths that such a temperament as his will go.I did another silly thing: I found a dagger, oneof those Moorish stilettoes that hang in the library;it was lying in the doorway. When noone was looking I hid it and carried it off. Istuck it in one of the flower-beds; I stuck it inthe ferns; I have stuck that wretched thing allover this yard. I didn’t dare carry it back andput it in the empty place with the others becausesome one might have noticed the place. And Ididn’t dare say anything to Cary; I was rightmiserable.”

“So was I,” said the colonel, “thinking youwere trying to protect the murderer. But do youknow what I had sense to do?”

“Go to Mrs. Winter? Oh, I wanted to!”

“Exactly; and do you know what that deadgame sport said to me? She said she found thosewashed and ironed cuffs and the trousers neatly[338]cleaned with milka—what’s milka?—and themilka cleaned the spots so much cleaner than therest that she had her own suspicions started. Butsays she, ‘Not being a plumb idiot, I went straightto Cary and he told me the whole story—’”

“Which was like your story?”

“Very near. And you see it would be like Atkinsto leave incriminating testimony round loose.That is, incriminating testimony against Mercerand Tracy. The dagger, Tracy remembers, wasnot in the library; it was in the patio. Right tohand. Atkins must have got in and found Mr.Keatcham on the floor in a faint. Whether hemeant to make a bargain with him or to kill him,perhaps we shall never know; but when he sawhim helpless before him he believed his chancewas come to kill him and get the cipher key, removinghis enemy and making his fortune at ablow, as the French say. Voilà tout!

“Do you think”—her voice sank lower; sheglanced over her shoulder—“do you reckon Atkinshad anything to do with that train robbery?Was it a mere pretext to give a chance to murderMr. Keatcham, fixing the blame on ordinary bandits?”

“By Jove! it might be.”

[339]“I don’t suppose we shall ever know. But,Colonel Winter, do you mind explaining to mejust what Brother Cary’s scheme with Mr.Keatcham was? Mrs. Winter told me youwould.”

“She told me,” mused the colonel, “that youdidn’t know anything about this big game whichhas netted them millions. They’ve closed out theirdeals and have the cash. No paper profits forAuntie! She said that she would not risk yourbeing mixed up in it; so kept you absolutely inthe dark. I’m there, too. Didn’t you know Mercerhad kidnapped Archie?”

“No; I didn’t know he was with Mr. Keatchamat the hotel. It would have saved me a heap ofsuffering; but she didn’t dare let me know forfear, if anything should happen, I would be mixedup in it. It was out of kindness, Colonel Winter,truly it was. Afterward when she saw that I wasworried she gave me hints that I need not worry,Archie was quite safe.”

“And the note-paper?”

“I suppose she gave it to them,” answered MissSmith.

“And the voice I heard in the telephone?” Heexplained how firmly she had halted the conversation[340]the time Archie would have reassured him.“You weren’t there, of course?” said he.

“No, I was down-stairs in the ladies’ entranceof the court in the hotel; I had come in a littlewhile before, having carried an advertisement tothe paper; I wonder why she—maybe it was tocommunicate with them without risking a letter.”

“But how did your voice get into my ’phone?”he asked.

She looked puzzled only a second, then laughedas he had not heard her laugh in San Francisco—anatural, musical, merry peal, a girlish laugh thatmade his heart bound.

“Why, of course,” said she, “it is so easy!There was a reporter who insisted on interviewingMrs. Winter about her jewelry; and I wasshooing him away. Somehow the wires must havecrossed.”

“Do you remember—this is very, very pretty,don’t you think? Just like a puzzle falling intoplace. Do you remember coming here on the dayArchie was returned?”

“I surely do; my head was swimming, for Mrs.Winter sent me and I began then to suspect. Shetold me Brother Cary was in danger; of course Iwanted to do anything to help him; and I carried[341]a note to him. I didn’t go in, merely gave the noteand saw him.”

I saw you.”

“You? How?”

“Birdsall and I; we were here, in the patio;we, my dear Miss Janet, were the Danger! Youhad on a brown checked silk dress and you wereholding a wire clipper in your hand.”

“Yes, sir. I saw it on the grass and picked itup.”

She laughed a little; but directly her cheeks reddened.“What must you have thought of me!”she murmured under her breath; and bit the lipthat would have quivered.

“I should like to tell you—dear,” he answered,“if you will—O Lord, forgive young men for living!If they are not all coming back to ask me tosing! But, Janet, dear, let me say it in Spanish—yes,yes if you really won’t be bored; throw methat mandolin.”

Aunt Rebecca leaned back in the arm-chair,faintly smiling, while the old, old words thatthousands of lovers have thrilled with pain andhopes and dreams beyond their own power ofspeech and offered to their sweethearts, rose,winged by the eternal longing:

[342]

Y si te mueve á lastima mi eterno padecer,

Como te amo, amame, bellissima mujer!

Como te amo, amame, bellissima mujer!

“And what does it mean in English, Bertie?”said Mrs. Melville. “Can’t you translate it?”

“Shall I?” said the colonel, his voice was carelessenough, but not so the eyes which looked upat Janet Smith.

“Not to-night, please,” said she. “I—I thinkMr. Keatcham is expecting me to read to him alittle. Good night. Thank you, Colonel Winter.”

She was on her feet as she spoke; and Winterdid not try to detain her; he had held her hand;and he had felt its shy pressure and caught afleeting, frightened, very beautiful glance. Hisdark face paled with the intensity of his emotion.

Janet moved away, quietly and lightly, withno break in her composure; but as she passed Mrs.Winter she bent and kissed her. And when Archiewould have run after her a delicate jeweledhand was laid on his arm. “Not to-night, laddie;I want you to help me down the steps.”

With her hand on the boy’s shoulder she cameup to Rupert, and inclined her handsome head inJanet’s direction. “I think, by rights, that kissbelonged to you, mon enfant,” said she.

[343]

CHAPTER XVIII
CASA FUERTE

Winter would have said that he was too old aman to stay awake all night, when he had a normaltemperature; yet he saw the stars come outand the stars fade on that fateful April night. Heentered his room at the hour when midnightbrushes the pale skirts of dawn and misguidedcocks are vociferating their existence to an indifferentworld. Before he came there had been along council with Mercer and his aunt. Mercer,who had been successful in his mission, had barelyseen his chief for a moment before a gentle butimperious nurse ordered him away. Wintercaught a queer, abrupt laugh from the financier.The latter beckoned to him. “See you are as obedientas I am when your time comes,” hechuckled; and he chuckled again when both thesoldier and Miss Smith blushed over his awkwardjocoseness. Yet, the next moment he extendedhis hand with his formal, other-generation courtesy[344]and took Miss Janet’s shapely, firm fingersin his own lean and nervous grasp. “Allow me tooffer you both my sincere congratulations,” beganhe, and halted, his eyes, which seemed soincurious but were so keen, traveling from thewoman’s confusion to the man’s. “I beg yourpardon; I understood—Archie who was here,gave me to understand—and I heard you singing;you will hardly believe it, but years ago Isang that to my wife.”

“So far as I am concerned, it is settled,” saidthe colonel steadily.

“We are all,” Keatcham continued, no longerwith any trace of embarrassment, as he touchedthe hand which he still held with his own otherhand, “we are all, as you know, my dear younglady, in considerable personal peril; I regret thatit should be on my account; but it really is not myfault; it is because I will not relax my pursuit ofa great scoundrel who is dangerous to all decentpeople. But being in such danger, I think you willbe glad afterward if you are generously frank,and give up something of the sex’s prerogativeto keep a lover on the anxious seat. Excuse me if—ifI presume on my age and my privileges as apatient.”

[345]Janet lifted her sweet eyes and sent one glanceas fleeting and light as the flash of a bird’s wing.“I—I—reckon it is settled,” murmured she; butimmediately she was the nurse again. “Mr.Keatcham, you are staying awake much too late.Here is Colvin, who will see to anything youwant. Good night.”

It was then that Mr. Keatcham had taken thecolonel’s breath away by kissing Janet’s hand;after which he shook hands with the colonel witha strange new cordiality, and watched them bothgo away together with a look on his gaunt faceunlike any known to Colvin.

Only three minutes in the hall, with the moonthrough the arched window; and his arm abouther and the fragrance of her loosened hair againsthis cheek and her voice stirring his heartstringswith an exquisite pang. Only time for the immemorialquestions of love: “Are you sure, dear,it is really I?” and “When did you first—” Tothis last she had answered with her half-humorous,adorable little lilt of a laugh. “Oh, I reckonit was—a—little—all along, ever since I readabout your saving that poor little Filipino boy,like Archie; the one who was your servant inManila, and going hungry for him on the march[346]and jumping into the rapids to save him—whenyou were lame, too—”

Here the colonel burst in with a groan: “Oh,that monstrous newspaper liar! The ‘dear littleFilipino boy’ was a married man; and I didn’tgo hungry for him, and I didn’t jump into theriver to save him. It wasn’t more than wadingdepth—I only swore at him for an idiot and toldhim to walk out when he tipped over his boat andwas floundering about. And he did! He was thelimit as a liar—”

To his relief, the most sensible as well as themost lovable woman in the world had burst intoa delicious fit of laughter; and returned: “Oh,well, you would have jumped in and saved himif the water had been deep; it wasn’t your faultit was shallow!” And just at this point Mercerand Aunt Rebecca must needs come with a mostunusual premonitory racket, and Janet had fled.

Afterward had come the council. All the coilhad been unraveled. Birdsall appeared in person,as sleek, smiling and complacent over his blundersas ever. One of his first sentences was a declarationof trust in Miss Smith.

“I certainly went off at half-cock there,” saidhe amiably; “and just because she was so awful[347]nice I felt obliged to suspect her; but I’ve got thereal dog that killed the sheep this time; it’s surethe real Red Wull!” It appeared that he had, ofa verity, been usefully busy. He had secured themechanic who had given Atkins a plan of thesecret passages of Casa Fuerte. He had foundthe policeman who had arrested Tracy (he sworebecause he was going too fast) and the magistratewho had fined him; and not only that, he had capturedthe policeman, a genuine officer, not a criminalin disguise, who had been Atkins’ instrumentin kidnapping Archie. This man, whom Birdsallknew how to terrify completely, had confessedthat it was purely by chance that Atkins had seenthe boy, left outside in the motor-car. Atkins, sohe said, had pretended that the boy was a tool ofsome enemies of Keatcham’s, whose secretary hewas, trading, not for the only time, on his pastposition. In reality, Birdsall had come to believeAtkins knew that Keatcham was employing Mercerin his place.

“Why, he knew the old gentleman was just offquietly with Mr. Mercer and some friends; knewthey were all friendly, just as well as you or me,”declared Birdsall. He had seen Archie on thetrain, for, as the colonel remembered, he had been[348]in the Winters’ car on the night of the robbery.Somehow, also, Atkins had found out aboutArchie’s disappearance from the hotel.

“I can’t absolutely put my finger on his information,”said Birdsall; “but I suspect Mrs.Melville Winter; I know she was talking to him,for one of my men saw her. The lady meant noharm, but she’s one of the kind that is alwaysslamming the detectives and being took in by therascals.”

He argued that Mrs. Winter and Miss Smithknew where the boy was; for some reason theyhad let him go and were pretending not to knowwhere he was. “Ain’t that so?” the detective appealedto Aunt Rebecca, who merely smiled, saying:“You’re a wonder, Mr. Birdsall!” Accordingto Birdsall’s theory, Atkins was puzzled by Archie’spart in the affair. But he believed could hefind the boy’s present hosts he would find EdwinKeatcham. It would not be the first time Keatchamhad hidden himself, the better to spin his webfor the trapping of his rivals. That Mercer waswith his employer the ex-secretary had no mannerof doubt, any more than he doubted that Mercer’sscheme had been to oust him and to build his ownfortunes on Atkins’ ruin. He knew both Tracy[349]and young Arnold very well by sight. When hecouldn’t frighten Archie into telling anything,probably he went back to his first plan of shadowingthe Winter party at the Palace. He must haveseen Tracy here. He penetrated his disguise.(“He’s as sharp as the devil, I tell you, Colonel.”)He either followed him himself or had him followed;and he heard about the telephone. (“Somebodyharking in the next room, most likely.”)Knowing Tracy’s intimacy with Arnold it was nothard for so clever and subtle a mind as Atkins’ tojump to the conclusion and test it in the nearesttelephone book. (“At least that is how I figure itout, Colonel.”) Birdsall had traced the clever mechanicwho was interrogated by the Eastern gentlemanabout to build; this man had given the lavishand inquisitive Easterner a plan of the secretpassages—to use in his own future residence.Whether Atkins went alone or in company to theCasa Fuerte the detective could only surmise. Hecouldn’t tell whether his object would be mereblackmail, or robbery of the cipher, or assassination.Perhaps he found the insensible man in thepatio and was tempted by the grisly opportunity;victim and weapon both absolutely to his hand;for it was established that the dagger had been[350]shown Tracy by Mercer as a curio, and left onthe stone bench.

Perhaps he had not found the dagger, but hadhis own means to make an end of his enemy andhis own terror. Birdsall believed that he had accomplices,or at least one accomplice, with him.He conceived that they had lain in ambush watchinguntil they saw Kito go away. Then an entryhad been made. “Most like,” Birdsall concluded,“he jest flung that dagger away for you folks tofind and suspect the domestics, say Kito, ’causehe was away.” But this was not all that Birdsallhad to report. He had traced Atkins to the hauntsof certain unsavory Italians; he had struck thetrail, in fine. To be sure, it ran underground andwas lost in the brick-walled and slimy-timberedcellars of Chinatown which harbored every sinand crime known to civilization or to savagery.What matter? By grace of his aunt’s powerfulfriend they could track the wolves even throughthose noisome burrows.

“Yes,” sighed the colonel, stretching out hisarms, with a resonant breath of relief, “we’re outof the maze; all we have to do now is to keepfrom being killed. Which isn’t such a plain propositionin ’Frisco as in Massachusetts! But I[351]reckon we can tackle it! And then—then, mydarling, I shall dare be happy!”

He found himself leaning on his window-silland staring like a boy on the landscape, lost in thelovely hallucinations of moonlight. It was noscene that he knew, it was a vision of old Spain;and by and by from yonder turret the princess,with violets in her loosened hair and her softcheek like satin and snow, would lean and look.

Y si te mueve á lastima mi eterno padecer.

Como te amo, amame, bellissima mujer!

“Ah, no, little girl,” he muttered with a shakeof the head, “I like it better to have you a plain,American gentlewoman, as Aunt Becky wouldsay, who could send me to battle with a nice littlequivery smile—sweetheart! Oh, I’m not goodenough for you, my dear, my dear.” He felt animmense humility as he contrasted his own lotwith the loneliness of Keatcham and Mercer andthe multitude of solitaries in the world, who hadlost, or sadder still, had never possessed, the divinedream that is the only reality of the soul. Assuch thoughts moved his heart, suddenly in thefull tide of hope and thankfulness, it stood still,chilled, as if by the glimpse of an iceberg in summer[352]seas. Yet how absurd; it was only that hehad recalled his stoical aunt’s most unexpectedtouch of superstition. Quite in jest he had askedher if she felt any presentiments or queer thingsin her bones to-night. He expected to be answeredthat Janet had driven every other anxiety out ofher mind; and how was she to break it to Millicent?—orwith some such caustic repartee. Instead,she had replied testily: “Yes, I do, Bertie.I feel—horrid! I feel as if something out of thecommon awful were going to happen. It isn’t exactlyAtkins, either. Do you reckon it could bethe I Suey When, that bamboo-shoots mess wehad for dinner?”

Although they spent a good twenty minutesafter that, joking over superstitions, and he hadrepeated to her some of Tracy’s and Arnold’s mostingenious “spooky stunts,” to make the neighborhoodkeep its distance from Casa Fuerte, and theyhad laughed freely, she as heartily as he, neverthelesshe divined that her smile was a pretense.Suddenly, an unruly tremor shook his own firmspirits. Looking out on the stepped and lanternedarches of the wing, he was conscious of the sametragic endowment of the darkened pile, which hadoppressed him that night, weeks before, when he[353]had stood outside on the crest of the hill; andthe would-be murderers might have been skulkingin the shadows of the pepper-trees. He triedvainly to shake off this distempered mood. Althoughhe might succeed for a moment in a lover’sabsorption, it would come again, insidiously, seepingthrough his happiness like a fume. After futileattempts to sleep he rose, and still at the biddingof his uncanny and tormenting impulse he took hisbath and dressed himself for the day. By thistime the ashen tints of dawn were in his chamberand on the fields outside. He stood looking atthe unloveliest aspect of nature, a landscape on thesunless side, before the east is red. The air feltlifeless; there were no depths in the pale sky; theazure was a flat tint, opaque and thin, like a poorwater-color. While he gazed the motionless trees,live-oaks and olives and palms, were shaken as bya mighty wind; the pepper plumes tossed andstreamed and tangled like a banner; the great elmsalong the avenue bent over in a breaking strain.Yet the silken cord of the Holland window-shadedid not so much as swing. There was not a wing’sbreath of air. But gradually the earth and cloudvibrated with a strange grinding noise which hasbeen described a hundred times, but never adequately;[354]a sickening crepitation, as of the rocks inthe hills scraping and splintering. Before themind could question the sound, there succeededan anarchy of uproar. In it was jumbled the crashof trees and buildings, the splintering crackle ofglass, the boom of huge chimneys falling and ofvast explosions, the hiss of steam, the hurling oftimbers and bricks and masses of stone or sand,and the awful rush of frantic water escaping fromengine or main.

“’Quake, sure’s you’re born!” said the colonelsoftly.

Now that his invisible peril was real, was uponhim, his spirits leaped up to meet it. He lookedcoolly about him, noting in his single glance thatthe house was standing absolutely stanch, neitherreeling nor shivering; and that the chimney justopposite his eye had not misplaced a brick. Inthe same instant he caught up his revolver andran at his best pace from the room. The hall wasfirm under his hurrying feet. As he passed thegreat arched opening on the western balcony hesaw an awful sight. Diagonally across from CasaFuerte was the great house of the California magnatewho did not worry his contractor with demandsfor Colonial honesty of workmanship as[355]well as Colonial architecture. The stately mansionwith its beautiful piazzas and delicate harmonyof pillar and pediment, shone white andplacid on the eye for a second; then rocked inghastly wise and collapsed like a house of cards.Simultaneously a torchlike flame streamed intothe air. A woeful din of human anguish piercedthe inanimate tumult of wreck and crash.

“Bully for Casa Fuerte!” cried the soldier, whonow was making a frenzied speed to the otherside of the house. He cast a single glance towardthe door which he knew belonged to Janet’s room;and he thought of the boy, but he ran first to hisold aunt. He didn’t need to go the whole way. Shecame out of her door, Janet and Archie at herside. They were all perfectly calm, although invery light and semi-oriental attire. Archie plainlyhad just plunged out of bed. His eyes were dancingwith excitement.

“This house is a dandy, ain’t it, Uncle Bertie?”he exclaimed. “Mr. Arnold told me all about theway his father built it; he said it wouldn’t bat itseye for an earthquake. It didn’t either; but thathouse opposite is just kindling-wood! Say! here’sCousin Cary; and—look, Uncle Bertie, Mr.Keatcham has got up and he’s all dressed. Hullo,[356]Colvin! Don’t be scared. It’s only a ’quake!”Colvin grinned a sickly grin and stammered,“Yes, sir, quite so, sir.” Not an earthquake couldshake Colvin out of his manners.

“Are you able to do this, Mr. Keatcham?”young Arnold called breathlessly, plunging intothe patio to which they had all instinctively gravitated.Keatcham laughed a short, grunting laugh.“Don’t you understand, this is no little every-day’quake? Look out! Is there a way you can lookand not see a spout of flame? I’ve got to godown-town. Are the machines all right?”

“We must find Randall; the poor soul has amortal terror of ’quakes—” Aunt Rebecca’s well-bredaccents were unruffled; she appeared athought stimulated, nothing more; danger alwaysacted as tonic on Winter nerves—“Archie, yougo put your clothes on this minute, honey. AndI suppose we ought to look up Millicent.”

The colonel, however, had barely set foot onthe threshold when Mrs. Melville appeared, propellingRandall, whom she had rescued from themaid’s closet where she was cowering behindher neat frocks, momently expecting death,but decently ready for it in gown and shoes. Mrs.Melville herself, in the disorder of the shock, had[357]merely added her best Paris hat and a skeletonbustle to her dainty nightgear. She had not forgottenher kimono; she had only forgotten to donit; and it draggled over her free arm. But herdignity was intact. The instant she beheld herkindred she demanded of them, as if they wereresponsible, whether this was a sample of theCalifornian climate. Keatcham blushed and fledwith Colvin and the giggling Arnold and Archie,who were too polite to giggle.

Mrs. Winter put on her eye-glasses. “Millicent,”said she in the gentlest of tones, “yourbustle is on crooked.”

One wild glance at the merciless mirror in thecarved pier-glass did Mrs. Melville give, and,then, without a word, she fled.

“Randall,” said Mrs. Winter, “you look verynice; come and help me dress. There will mostlikely be some more shocks.”

Randall, trembling in every limb, but instinctivelyassuming a composed mien, followed theundaunted old lady.

The colonel was going in another direction,having heard a telephone bell. He was most anxiousto put himself into communication with Birdsall,because not even during the earthquake had[358]he forgotten an uglier peril; and it had occurredto him that Atkins was of a temper not to befrightened by the convulsions of order; but ratherto make his account of it. Nor did the messagethrough the telephone tend to reassure him.

The man at the other end of the telephone wasBirdsall. No telling how long the telephone servicewould keep up, he reported; wires were downaround the corner; worse, the water mains werespouting; and from where he stood since he feltthe first shock he had counted thirty-six fires.Ten of them were down in the quarter where someof his men had homes; and a field-glass had shownthat the houses were all tossed about there; hecouldn’t keep his men steady; it seemed inhumanto ask them to stay when their wives and childrenmight be dying; of course it was his damnluck to have all married men from down there.

“Well, I reckon you will have to let them go;but watch out,” begged the colonel, “for youknow the men we are after will take advantageof general disorder to get in their dirty work.Now is the most dangerous time.”

Birdsall knew it; he had had intimations thatsome men were trying to sneak up the hill; theyhad been turned back. They pretended to be some[359]wandering railway workers; but Birdsall distrustedthem. He—No use to ring! Vain to tapthe carriage of the receiver! The telephone wasdead, jarred out of existence somewhere beyondtheir ken.

By this time the cold sunlight of the woefulestday that San Francisco had ever seen was spreadover the earth. The city was spotted with blood-redspouts of flames. The ruin of the earthquakehad hardly been visible from their distance, althoughit was ugly enough and of real importance;but, even in the brief space which they inCasa Fuerte had waited before they should setforth, fires had enkindled in all directions, mostdreadful to see; nor did there seem to be anycheck upon them.

Tracy had waked the domestic staff, and, dazedbut stoical, they were getting breakfast. ButKeatcham could not wait; he was in a cold furyof haste to get to the town.

He had consented to wait for his breakfast underMiss Smith’s representation that it would beready at once and her assurance that he couldn’twork through the day without it.

“Happily, Archie,” explained Tracy, whose unquenchablecollege levity no earthquake could affect,[360]“happily my domestic jewel has been stockedup with rice and oatmeal, two of the most nutritiousof foods; and Miss Janet is making coffeeon her traveling coffee pot for the Boss. That’salcohol, and independent of gas-mains. Lucky;for the gas-range is out of action, and we have totry charcoal. Notice one interesting thing, Archie?Old Keatcham, whom we were fightingtooth and nail three weeks ago, is now bossingus as ruthlessly as a foot-ball coach; and CousinCary is taking his slack talk as meek as a freshman.Great old boy, Keatcham! And—oh, I say!has any one gone to the rescue of the Rogerses?I saw Kito speeding over that way from the garageand Haley hiking after him. I hope the ninesmall yellow domestics are not burned at the stakewith Rogers; the bally fire-trap is blazing like atar-barrel!”

As it happened, the colonel had despatched asmall party to their neighbor’s aid. Haley andKito were not among them; they were to guardthe garage which was too vital a point in theirhousehold economy to leave unprotected. Nevertheless,Haley and Kito did both run away, leavinga Mexican helper to watch; and when theyreturned they were breathless and Haley’s face[361]was covered with blood. He was carefully carryingsomething covered with a carriage-robe in hishand.

“I’ve the honor to report, sir,” Haley mumbled,stiff and straight in his military posture, a verygrimy and blood-stained hand at salute, “I’ve thehonor to report, sor, that Private Kito and mediscovered two sushpicious characters making upthe hillside by the sekrut road. We purshooedthim, sor, and whin they wu’dn’t halt we fired onthim, sor, ixploding this here bum which wintoff whin the hindmost man tumbled.”

Kito smilingly flung aside the carriage-robe,disclosing the still smoking shell of an ingeniousround bomb, very similar to those used in fireworks.

The colonel examined it closely; it was anugly bit of dynamite craft.

“Any casualties, Sergeant?” the colonel askedgrimly.

“Yes, sor. The man wid the bum was kilt bethe ixplosion; the other man was hit by PrivateKito and wounded in the shoulder but escaped. Imesilf have a confusion on me right arrum, meankle is sprained; and ivery tooth in me head isin me pockit! That’s all.”

[362]“Report to Miss Smith at the hospital, Sergeant.Any further report?”

“I wu’d like to riccommind Private Kito forhonorable minshun for gallanthry.”

“I shall certainly remember him; and you also,Sergeant, in any report that I may make. Lookafter the garage, Kito.”

Kito bowed and retired, beaming, while Haleyhobbled into the house. The consequences of theattack made on the garage did not appear at once.One was that young Arnold had already broughtthe touring-car into the patio in the absence ofHaley and Kito. Another was that he and Tracyand Kito all repaired to the scene of the explosionto examine the dead man’s body. They returnedalmost immediately, but for a few moments therewas no one of the house in the court. The colonelwent to Keatcham in a final effort to dissuade himfrom going into the city until after he himself hadgone to the Presidio and returned with a guard.He represented as forcibly as he could the dangerof Keatcham’s appearance during a time of suchtumult and lawlessness.

“We are down to the primeval passions now,”he pleaded. “Do you suppose if it had been Haleyinstead of that dago out there who was killed that[363]we could have punished the murderer? Not unlesswe did it with our own hands. They aremaybe lying in wait at the first street-corner now.If you will only wait—”

Keatcham chopped off his sentence withoutceremony, not irritably, but with the brusquerieof one whose time is too precious for dilatoryamenities.

“Will the fire wait?” he demanded. “Will thethieves and toughs and ruffians whom we have tocrush before they realize their strength, will theywait? This is my town, Winter, the only town Icare a rap for; and I propose to help save it. Ican. Danger? Of course there is danger; thereis danger in every battle; but do you keep out ofbattles where you belong because you may getkilled? This is my affair; if I get killed it is inthe way of business, and I can’t help it! No, Arnold,I won’t have your father’s son mixed up inmy fights; you can’t go.”

“Somebody has to run the machine, sir,” insinuatedyoung Arnold with a coaxing smile;“and I fancy I shouldn’t be my father’s son if Ididn’t look after my guest—not very long; he’dcut me out. Tracy is going, too, he’s armed—”

“You are not both going,” said the colonel;[364]“somebody with a head on him must stay here toguard the ladies.”

He would have detailed both Tracy and Mercer;but Mercer could really help Keatcham betterthan any one in any business arrangements whichmight need to be made. And Keatcham plainlywished his company. Had not the situation beenso grimly serious Winter could have laughed atthe grotesque reversal of their conditions; Tracyand Arnold did laugh; they were all taking theirorders from the man who had been their defeatedprisoner a little while back. Mercer alone kepthis melancholy poise; he had obtained the aim ofyears; he was not sure but his revenge was subtlerand completer than he had dared to hope. Beinga zealot he was possessed by his dreams. Supposehe had converted this relentless and tremendouspower to his own way of faith; what mightn’t hehope to accomplish? Meanwhile, so far as thebusiness in hand was concerned, he believed inKeatcham and in Keatcham’s methods of help; hebowed to the innate power of the man; and hewas as simply obedient and loyal as Kito wouldhave been to his feudal lord.

In a very brief time all the arrangements weremade; the four men went into the patio to enter[365]the touring-car. They walked up to the emptymachine. The colonel stepped into the front seatof the machine. Something in the noise of theengine which was panting and straining againstits control, some tiny sibilant undertone which anyother ear would have missed, warned his; he bentquickly. A dark object gyrated above the headsof the other two just mounting the long step; itlanded with a prodigious splash in the fountain,flying into a multitude of sputtering atoms andhurling a great column of water high up in air.Unheeding its shrieking clamor, the soldiersprang over the side of the car, darted throughthe great arched doorway out upon the terracetoward a clump of rubber-trees. He fired; againhe fired.

In every catastrophe the spectators’ minds losesome parts of the action. There are blanks to besupplied by no one. Every one of the men andwomen present on that fatal morning had a differentstory. Colvin was packing; he could onlyremember the deafening roar and the shouting;and when he got down-stairs and saw—he turneddeadly sick; his chief impression is the backs ofpeople and the way their hands would shake.Janet Smith, inside, dressing Haley’s wounds,[366]was first warned by the tumult and cries; she aswell as Archie and Haley who were with hercould see nothing until they got outside. AllMrs. Melville saw was the glistening back of thecar and Mercer stepping into the car and instantlylurching backward. The explosion seemed to hersimultaneous with Mercer’s entering the car. ButMrs. Rebecca Winter, who perhaps had the coolesthead of all, and who was standing on the daisof the arcade exactly opposite the car, distinctlysaw Keatcham with an amazing exertion of vigorfor a man just risen from a sick-bed, and with akind of whirling motion, literally hurl Mercer outof the car. She is sure of this because of onehomely little detail, sickening in its very homeliness.As he clutched Mercer Keatcham’s softgray hat dropped off and the light burnished thebald dome of his head. In the space of that glanceshe heard a crackle and a roar and Kito screamedin Japanese, running in from the carriage side.She can not tell whether Tracy or Arnold reachedthe mangled creature on the pavement first. Arnoldonly remembers how the carriage-robeflapped in Tracy’s shaking hands before he flungit over the man. Tracy’s fair skin was a streaky,bluish white, and his under jaw kept moving up[367]and down like that of a fish out of water, whilehe gasped, never uttering a sound.

Young Arnold was trembling so that his handsshook when he would have raised the woundedman. Mercer alone was composed althoughdeathly pale. He had the presence of mind tothrow the harmless fragments of the bomb intothe fountain and to examine the interior of thecar lest there should be more of destruction hiddentherein. Then he approached the heap on theflags; but Keatcham was able to motion himaway, saying in his old voice, not softened in theleast: “Don’t you do that! I’m all in. No use.They got me. But it won’t do them any good;you boys know that will you witnessed; it gives afifty thousand for the arrest and conviction or thekilling of Atkins; his own cutthroats will betrayhim for that. But—where’s Winter? You damncareless fools didn’t let him get hurt?”

“Shure, sor, he didn’t let himsilf git hurted,”Haley blurted out; he had run in after MissSmith, brandy bottle in hand; “’tis the murderingdagoes is gettin’ hurted off there behind the bigrubber-trees; I kin see the dead legs of thim, thisminnit. ’Tis a grand cool shot the colonel is, sor.”

“Bring him in, let them go; they were only[368]tools,” panted Keatcham weakly; but the brandyrevived him; and his lips curled in a faint smileas Janet Smith struck a match to heat the teaspoonfulof water for her hypodermic. “Make itgood and strong, give me time to say somethingto Mercer and Winter—there he comes; goodrunners those boys are!”

The lion’s share, by Octave Thanet—A Project Gutenberg eBook (8)

He kept death at bay by the sheer force of his will. Page 368

Tracy and Arnold, acting on a common unspokenimpulse, had dashed after Winter andwere pushing him forward between them. Keatchamwas nearly spent, but he rallied to say thewords in his mind. He kept death at bay by thesheer force of his will. When Winter knelt downbeside him, with a poignant memory of anothertime in the same place when he had knelt besidea seemingly dying man, and gently touched theunmarred right hand lying on the carriage-robe,he could still form a smile with his stiff lips andmutter: “Only thing about me isn’t in tatters;of course you touched it and didn’t try to lift mewhere I’m all in pieces. You always understood.Listen! You, too, Mercer. Winter knows thethings I’m bound to have go through. I’ve explainedthem to him. You’ll be my executors andtrustees? A hundred thousand a year; not toobig a salary for the work—you can do it. It’s a[369]bigger job than the army one, Winter. Warneboldwill look after the other end. He’s narrowbut he is straight. I’ve made it worth his while.Some loose ends—it can’t be helped now. Maybeyou’ll find out there are more difficulties in administeringa big fortune than you fancied; andthat it isn’t the easiest thing in the world helpingfools who can’t ... help themselves. Thereare all those Tidewater idiots ... made meread about ... you’ll have to attend to them,Mercer ... old woman in the queer clothes... chorus girl ... those old ladies whohad one egg between them for breakfast ...you’ll see to them all?”

“Yes,” said Mercer, looking down on theshrunken features with a look of pain and bewilderment.“Yes, suh, I’ll do my best.”

“And—we’re even?”

“I reckon I am obliged to call it so, suh,” returnedMercer with a long, gasping sigh, “but—myLord! you’d better have let me go!”

“Very likely,” said Keatcham dryly, “the cityneeds me. Well, Winter, you must look afterthat. I’ve been thinking why a man throws hislife away as I did; he has to, unless he’s a poltroon.He can’t count whether he’s more useful[370]than the one he saves ... he has simply gotto save him ... you were a good deal right,Winter, about not doing the evil thing to get thegood. No, it’s a bad time for me to be taken; butit’s an honorable discharge.... Helen willbe glad ... you know I’m not a pig, Winter... do what I tried to do ... where’s mykind nurse?” Janet was trying by almost imperceptiblemovements to edge a pillow under hisshoulders; he was past turning his head, but hiseyes moved toward her. “I’ve left you ... awedding gift ... if I lived ... given toyou; but made it safe, anyhow. Mercer?”

His voice had grown so feeble and came in suchgasps from his torn and laboring chest that Mercerbent close to his lips to hear the strugglingsentences. “Mercer,” he whispered, “I want ...just ... to tell you ... you didn’t convertme!”

Thus, having made amends to his own will,having also, let us humbly hope, made amendsto that greater and wiser Will which is of moremerciful and wider vision that our weakness cancomprehend, Edwin Keatcham very willinglyclosed his eyes on earth.

[371]

CHAPTER XIX
EXTRACT FROM A LETTER

From Mrs. Rebecca Winter to Mrs. John S. G.Winslow,

Fairport, Iowa.

And it was delightful to discover that you wereso distressed about me. I must be getting a triflemaudlin in my old age, for I have had a lump inmy throat every time I have thought of Johnnyand you actually starting out to find me; I amthankful my telegram (Please, Peggy, do notcall it a wire again—to me! I loathe these verbalindolences) reached you at Omaha in time to stopyou.

Really, we have not had hardships. Thanks toIsrael Putnam Arnold! I have a very admiringgratitude for that man! In these days of degeneracyhe builded a stanch enduring house. Withunion labor, too! I don’t see how he contrived todo it. Generally, when they build houses here,[372]they scamp the underpinning and weaken thejoists and paint over the dirt instead of washingit off; and otherwise deserve to be killed. The unfortunateman opposite had just that kind ofhouse, which tumbled down and burned up, atonce; but, alas! it killed some of the people in it,not the guilty masons and carpenters.

Our chimneys have been inspected and we arenow legally as well as actually sound; but we didnot suffer. We cooked out on the sidewalk, andsupplemented our cooking with young Tracy’sstove.

I told you of Janet’s engagement. Confidentially,my dear Peggy, I am a bit responsible.They met by chance on the train; and I assureyou, although chance might have parted us, I didnot let it. I clung to Nephew Bertie. I’m sure hewondered why. I knew better than to let himsuspect. But a success you can’t share is like arose without a smell. So I confess to you, I havemade this match. But when you see Millicent shewill tell you that she helped things along. Shehas abused Janet like a pickpocket; but now, sinceshe has discovered Janet didn’t draw the Daughters’caricature of her, she regards her as one ofthe gems of the century.

[373]We are recovering from the terrible events ofwhich we wrote. It is certainly a relief that Atkinsis killed. He was one of the two scoundrelswho sneaked into the patio and put the bombsinto the automobile. Bertie shot him. You haveno doubt heard all about Mr. Keatcham’s death.He was killed by the man whose wickedness hehad unconsciously fostered. He did not know it,but I make no doubt his swollen fortune and theunscrupulous daring of its acquiring had a greatinfluence in corrupting his secretary.

And his corruption was his master’s undoing.I must say I sympathize with young Tracy, whosaid last night: “I feel as if I had been put to soakin crime! That bomb was the limit. In future,me for common or garden virtue; it may be tamebut I prefer tameness to delirium tremens!”

I used to think that I should like to match mywits against a first-class criminal intellect; Godforgive me for the wish! I have been matchingwits for the last month; and never putting on myshoes without looking in them for a baby bombletor feeling a twinge of indigestion without darklysuspecting the cook—who is really the best creaturein the world, sent Mr. Arnold by a goodChinese friend of mine. (I had a chance to do a[374]good turn to my friend, by the way, during theearthquake and thus repay some of his to me.)

Archie is well and cheerful. Isn’t it like theWinter temperament to lose its melancholy insuch horrors as we have seen? Archie is distinctlyhappier since he came to California. Asfor Janet and Rupert—oh, well, my dear, youand Johnny know! The house has been full ofpeople, and we have had several friends of ourown for a day or two. I got a recipe for a delicioustea-cake from Mrs. Wigglesworth of Boston.She didn’t save anything but her furs andher kimono and a bridge set, besides what shehad on; she packed her trunk with great care andnobody would take it down-stairs. Of course shesaved her bag of jewels, which reminds me thatpoor Mr. Keatcham left Janet some pearls—thatis, the money for them. He was very much attachedto her.

We buried him on the crest of the hill; later,when more settled times shall come, he may takeanother and last journey to that huge mausoleumwhere his wife and mother are buried. Poorthings! it is to be hoped they had no taste livingor else that they can’t see now how hideous andflamboyant is their last costly resting place. But[375]if Keatcham hadn’t a taste for the fine arts he hadcompensating qualities. I shall never forget thenight of his burial. It was a “wonderful greatnight of stars,” as Stevenson says. A poor littletired-out clergyman, in a bedraggled surplice,who had been reading prayers over people for thelast ten hours and was fit to drop, hurried throughthe service; and the town the dead man loved wasflaming miles beyond miles. About the grave wasnone of his blood, none of his ancient friends, butthe men I believe he would have chosen—menwho had fought him and then had fought for himfaithfully. They were haggard and spent withfighting the fire; and they went from his burialback to days and nights of desperate effort. Hehad fought and lost and yet did not lose at thelast, but won, snatching victory out of defeat ashe was wont to do all his life. The heavy burdenswhich have dropped from his shoulders theseothers whom he chose will carry, maybe morehumbly, perhaps not so capably, but quite as courageously.And it is singular how his influence persists,how it touches Kito and Haley, as well asthe others.

“Shure,” said honest Haley (whose wit you arelikely to sample in the near future, for he has[376]elected to be the Rupert Winters’ chauffeur; theydon’t know it yet, but they will when it is time);“shure,” says he, “whin thot man so mashed upthere ye cudn’t move him for fear ye’d lose themain parrt of him, whin he was thinkin’ of thetown and nothin’ else, I hadn’t the heart to becomplainin’ for the loss of a few teeth and a fewlimps about me! An’ I fair wu’ked like the divil.So did Kito, who’s a dacint Jap gintleman and nohaythin at all.”

Poor Keatcham, he had no childhood and hiswife died too soon to revive the fragrance of hisyouth; but I can’t help but think he had a reticent,awkward, shy sort of heart somewhere about him.Well, he was what Millicent would call “a compellingpersonality.” I use plain language and Icall him a great man. He won the lion’s share becausehe was the lion. And yet, poor Lion, hisshare was a lonely life and a tragic death.

THE END

FOOTNOTES:

[A] Of course, no allusions are made to any real M. 20139.

[B]

So still and calm the night is,

The very winds asleep,

My heart’s so tender sentinel

His watch and ward doth keep.

And on the wings of zephyrs soft

That wander how they will,

To thee, O woman fair, to thee

My prayers go fluttering still.

Oh, take the heart’s love to thy heart

Of one that doth adore!

Have pity, add not to the flame

That burns thy troubadour!

And if compassion stirs thy breast

For my eternal woe,

Oh, as I love thee, loveliest

Of women, love me so!

TRANSCRIBER’S NOTES:

Obvious typographical errors have been corrected.

Inconsistencies in hyphenation have been standardized.

Archaic or variant spelling has been retained.

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