To this there came no reply.
"I suppose you, like me," he continued courteously, "are an unlucky wayfarer who had to choose hastily between trespassing and being drowned."
Inevitably he found himself wondering what this lady who shared his stolen refuge could be like. That she was a lady her voice left no doubt. His eye strained off into the Ethiopian blackness, but could make neither heads nor tails of it.
"Voices always go by contraries," he thought. "She's fifty-two and wears glasses."
Aloud he said: "But please tell me quite frankly—am I intruding?"
"Not at all," said the lady, only that and nothing more.
"Perhaps then you won't object if I find a seat? Leaning against a door is so dull, don't you think?"
He groped forward, hands outstretched before him, stumbled against the stairway which he sought, and sat down uncomfortably on the next-to-the-bottom step. Then suddenly the oddness of his situation rushed over him, and, vexed though he was with the chain of needless circumstances which had brought him into it, he with difficulty repressed a laugh.
An hour ago he had been lounging at peace upon the yacht, looking forward to nothing more titillating than bed at the earliest respectable hour. Now he was sitting with a strange lady of uncertain age in an unlighted cottage on a lonely country road, while a howling thunderstorm raved outside imprisoning him for nobody could say how long. In the interval between these two extremes, he had discovered that he was a "double," been threatened with violence, hopelessly lost Peter, and found Mary Carstairs. Surely and in truth, a pretty active hour's work!
On the tin roof of the cottage the rain beat a wild tattoo. Within, the silence lengthened. Under the circumstances, Varney considered reserve on the lady's part not unnatural; but a little talk, as he viewed the matter, would tend to help the dreary evening through.
He cleared his throat for due notice and began with a laugh.
"I was industriously chasing two men from town when the storm caught me. You know what I mean—not drumming them out of the city, but merely pursuing them in this general direction. I wonder if by any chance you happened to pass them on the road?"
"N-no, I believe not."
"A very small man, very well-dressed, and a very large man, very badly dressed, wearing a kind of curious, rococo straw hat. I know," he mused, "that you could not have forgotten that hat. Once seen—"
"Oh!" she exclaimed with sudden evidences of interest—"do tell me—is the smaller man you mention Mr. Hare?"
"He is indeed," he answered surprised. "You know him? Oh, yes,—certainly! In Hunston—"
"Know him!" said she in tones of hardly suppressed indignation. "It is he who is responsible for my being caught in this—this annoying predicament."
At something in the way the lady said that, Varney unconsciously chipped twenty years off her age and conceded that she might be no more than thirty-two.
"I'm sorry to hear that," he said with a laugh. "I should say that Mr. Hare has already had quite enough troubles for one night."
"Oh—then you have seen him this evening?"
"I had the pleasure of meeting him on the square not half an hour ago."
Each waited for the other to say more; and it was the lady who yielded. She went on hesitatingly, yet somehow as if she were not unwilling to justify herself to this stranger in the curious position in which she found herself.
"It—is very strange—and unlike him," she said doubtfully. "He was to call for me—at quarter past seven—and take me home. I was at the seamstress's, perhaps quarter of a mile up the road. I waited and waited—and then—Oh—what was that, do you know?"
"Only this old floor cracking. Don't flatter it by noticing. How odd to find, meeting in this way, that we are both searching for the same man. Isn't it?"
"It—seems to me even odder to find that he is not searching for me."
She was sitting, so he judged from the sound, about fifteen feet away. There was coldness in her voice as she spoke of the candidate. Varney felt sorry for that young man when he next held converse with her. From her voice he had also gathered that the dark rather frightened her, and that the presence of an unknown man had not allayed her uneasiness; though something of her reserve had vanished, he thought, when she found that the intruder knew Mr. Hare.
"Oh, but he was—is!" he cried encouragingly.
"I'm positive that he's searching for you at this minute. Why, of course—certainly! That would explain the whole thing."
Sitting damply on the dark stairway, he told of J. Pinkney Hare's evidently impromptu experiences in the public square, which had undoubtedly knocked from his mind all memory of his engagement at the seamstress's; and of the sudden recollection of it, which, there could be no question, was what had sent him and his new friend bursting out of the house and tearing for dear life up the road.
"I'll bet," said he, "that not a minute after you turned into shelter, they raced by here after you. Now they're kicking their heels at the sewing-lady's, probably soaked through, and wild to know if you got home safely. Oh, he's being punished for his sins, never fear."
"I—am sorry for your friend," her voice replied. "And I believe that I forgive Mr. Hare—now that I know what detained him. I think I must have heard them go by—just after I got in. Once I was sure I heard voices, but, of course, I was expecting Mr. Hare to be alone."
"Ha!" thought Varney. "A Hunston romance!"
"You don't know Maginnis," he answered gloomily. "Nobody in the world ever stays alone long when Maginnis can possibly get to him."
He heard something that he thought might be a faint laugh. And immediately ten years more came off the lady's age, and she stood at twenty-two. The young man began to consider with less distaste his obvious duty of escorting her home.
In the momentary silence, wood somewhere near them once more creaked loudly and scarily.
"Oh!" came her voice out of the blackness. "Would you mind striking a match and seeing if there isn't a lamp or something we could light?"
"But I haven't a match—that's just it! If I had—! Why I assure you I've been wishing for nothing so much as a light ever since you—ever since I came in."
"If I were a man—" she began, vexedly, but suddenly checked herself. "Are you quite sure you haven't a single one?"
"I'll gladly look again in all my twenty-seven pockets. I've been doing it ever since I arrived, and I've gotten rather to like it. But I'm awfully afraid it's a wild goose chase."
Crack! Crack! went the mysteriously stirring woodwork, for all the world like a living thing; and the lady again said "Oh!" And after that she said: "You are not—in this room, are you?"
"I'm sitting quietly on the steps digging around for matches," he said. "Would you prefer to have me come in there?"
"Would you mind—? Not that I'm in the least frightened, but—"
"It will give me great pleasure to come—faithfully searching my pockets as I grope forward. Thus," he said, laughing, "I must grope only with my head and feet, which is a slightly dangerous thing to do. Ouch! Where are you, please?"
"'Here' is not very definite, you know. I have nothing to steer by but my ear. Would you mind talking a good deal for a while?"
"It is not often," she said, with further signs of a thawing in her manner, "that a woman gets an invitation like that."
"Opportunity knocks at your door, golden, novel, and unique."
"The luck of it is that I can't think of anything to say. Would you care to have me hum something?"
Off came the lady's glasses, never to be donned again in fancy or in life; and Varney was ready to admit that there might be ladies in Hunston who were worse-looking than she by far. In the Stygian blackness he collided with a chair and paused, leaning upon the back of it.
"I'd like extremely to have you hum. From your voice, I—I'm sure that you do it div—awfully well. But since you seem to leave it to me, I'd honestly rather have you do something else."
Larry laughed. "It's a game. A—an evening pastime—a sort of novel guessing contest. Played by strangers in the dark. You see—I must tell you that ever since you first spoke, my mind has been giving me little thumbnail sketches—each one different from the last—of what you look like."
She said nothing to this; so he laughed again.
"Oh, it's not mere curiosity, you know. It's purely a scientific matter with me. The science of deduction. The voice, you know, tells little or nothing. I may say that I have made something of a study of voices, and have discovered that they always go by contraries. For this reason," he laughed gayly, "when you first spoke, I—but perhaps I am simply tiring you?"
There was a small pause, and then the lady spoke, with apparent reluctance:
"I am not tired."
Varney smiled into the great darkness. "Well, when I first heard your voice—ha, ha!—I made up my mind that you could not possibly be less than fifty-two."
He was rewarded with a faint laugh: this time there could be no doubt of it.
"You remember that mythological tunnel where everybody went in old and came out young. This conversation has been like that. Since we have talked," said Varney, "I have knocked thirty years off your age. But much remains to be told—and that is the game. Are you dark?"
"Are you punning?"
"This is no punning matter," he said; and began his third exploration of himself for a match. And above them the water continued to thud upon the roof like a torrent broken out of a dam.
"This is too bad!" breathed the lady impatiently, and plainly she was not speaking to Varney. "I believe it's coming down harder and harder every minute!"
"Yes," he answered cheerfully, "the good old rain is at it in earnest. We're probably fixed for hours and hours. I might argue, you know," he added, "that I have a right to know these things. The box of matches I just gave away like a madman would have told me, and no questions asked. Matches and lamps you have none, but such as you have—"
"Could you not talk of something else, please?"
Varney laughed. "Certainly, if I must. Only I've been rather generous about this, I think, showing you my hand and giving you the chance to laugh at me. You see, for all I know you may be fifty-two, after all. Or even sixty-two—Oh, glory! Hallelujah!"
"What on earth is the matter?"
"Oh, nothing! Nothing at all! Just I have found a match. That's all!"
"A match! Splendid!" she cried, and her voice suddenly seemed to come from a higher point in the darkness, as though she had risen. "Just one! Oh, we—you must be extremely careful with it."
"The trouble is," he said with exaggerated dejection, "it's pretty wet. I don't know whether it will strike or not."
"You must make it strike. Oh, it will be—unpardonable—if you don't make it strike!"
"Then I'll throw my soul into the work. I'll concentrate my whole will-power upon it. On the back of this chair here—shall I?"
"All right. I'll concentrate too. Are—you ready?"
"Ready it is," said Varney.
Gently he drew the match across the rough wood of the chair-back, his ear all eager expectancy—and nothing happened. Thrice he did this fruitless thing, and something told him that a large section of the sulphur had been rubbed away into eternity.
"It's nip and tuck," he breathed, stifling an impulse to laugh. "Nip and tuck!"
Pressing the match's diminished head firmly against the wood, he drew it downward vigorously and long. There was a faint crackle, a little splutter, and—glory of glories!—a tiny flame faltered out into the darkness.
Varney cupped his hand about the little flare, and for a moment ceased to breathe. Then it caught more fully, and it was evident to both that the victory was won.
He had meant to look instantly about for lamp or candle to light; but if all his future happiness had hinged upon it, it seemed to him that he could not have helped one glance at the lady who shared that shelter and that match with him.
She stood a few feet away, regarding him breathlessly, hatted, gloved, all in white, one hand resting lightly on the center-table, one folded about the crook of a dainty draggled parasol. The match threw a small and ghostly light, but he saw her, and she wore no veil.
"Oh, quick! There's a lamp just behind you."
He caught himself with a start. By incredible luck a lamp was at his very elbow; as it was the match died on the wick. He put back the chimney and shade, turned up the wick, and the room was bathed in golden light.
It was a good-sized room, evidently newly furnished and as neat as a bandbox. The empty book-case on which the lamp rested was of handsome quartered oak, which transiently struck him as curious. But in the next instant he turned away and forgot all about it.
The lady stood where she had risen and was regarding him without a word. The lamplight fell full upon her. He came nearer, and his waning assurance shook him like a pennant in the wind and was suddenly gone. The sense of camaraderie which the dark had given faded; his easy friendliness left him; and he was an embarrassed young man face to face with a girl whose sudden beauty seemed to overwhelm him with the knowledge that he did not so much as know her name.
"None of my thumbnail sketches," he faltered, "made you look like this."
She had rested her wet parasol against the table, where a slow pool gathered at the ferrule, and was pulling on more trimly her long white gloves. Now she looked at him rather quizzically, though her young eyes reflected something of his own unsteadying embarrassment.
"No," she said, "I shall not be sixty-two for—for some time yet. But of course it was a game—a pastime—where I had a—little the advantage. Do you know, I—I am not entirely surprised, after all."
"Oh, aren't you?" he said, completely mystified, but as charmed by her smile as he was by the subtle change in her manner which had come with the lighting of that match.
"And it was nice of you to tell me that polite story at the beginning," she said. "And quick—and clever. When I heard the front door burst open, the first thing I thought of, really, was that it must be you."
"I can't think," he said, unable to take his eyes off her, "what in the world you are talking about."
She laughed with something of an effort, and sat down exquisitely in a cruel cane chair. "Well, then—do you forgive me for taking possession of your house like this? You will, won't you? I can't be silly, now, and pretend not to know you. But really I never dreamed that you—"
"Is it possible," he broke in stormily, "that you are mistaking me for that insufferable Stanhope?"
She looked at him startled, dumfounded; in her eyes amazement mingled with embarrassment; then her brow wrinkled into a slow, doubtful smile.
"Oh-h—I beg your pardon! I—did n't understand. But is it my fault that I've seen your picture a hundred times? Yes, I suppose it is; for, at the risk of making you crosser still, I'll confess that I—I cut it out and framed it."
Varney leaned his elbow on the mantel and faced her.
"You have made a mistake," he said. "I am not Mr. Stanhope."
"You mean," she laughed, very pretty and pink, "that it is no affair of mine that you are."
A kind of desperation seized him. It was evident that she did not believe him, just as Coligny Smith had not believed him, and the plump young woman of the grocery who had used his Christian name. He was almost ready not to believe himself. However, there were cards in his pocket; he got one of them out, and coming nearer, handed it to her.
"My name is Laurence Varney," he said mechanically, for that slogan seemed fated to meet skeptics everywhere. "I am from New York and have happened to come up here on a friend's yacht to—to spend a few days. You have made a mistake."
She took the card, held it lightly in her gloved hand, bowed to him with mocking courtesy.
"I am very glad to meet you—Mr. Laurence Varney! I—I am from New York, too, and have happened to come up here on the New York Central with my mother to spend a few years. And I live in a white house half a mile down the road, where I ought to have been an hour ago. And I am Mary Carstairs, who has read all your books and thinks that they—Oh"—she broke off all at once: for there was no missing the look in his astounded face. "What in the world have I said now?"
"You—can't be—Mary Carstairs!" he cried.
"Is—that so terrible?" she laughed, a little uncertainly.
IN WHICH MARY CARSTAIRS IS INVITED TO THE YACHT "CYPRIANI"
But he recovered in a flash, aware of the criticalness of that moment, and met her bewildered gaze steadily.
"Terrible? Certainly not. Your name surprised me a little. That was all. I thought, you see, that you were somebody else."
"I really—do not know exactly. Do forgive my stupidity, won't you? As I say, I was just a little surprised."
"You would explain to a man," she said, "and don't you think you ought to to me? If you did not know exactly who you thought I was, why should my name surprise you so?"
He picked up a hideous china swan from a smart little oak stand and examined it with excessive interest.
"It was merely that I happen to know some one in New York who had mentioned you—and done it in a way to make me think you were not—very old. In fact, I had supposed that Miss Mary Carstairs wore short dresses and a plait down her back. You see," he said, with a well-planned smile, "how absurdly wrong I was. And then, just now, somebody pointed out your house to me. There was a girl standing in the doorway—a small, dark girl, with—"
A peal like chimes cut him short. "Dear Jenny Thurston! Our seamstress's little girl. She is spending the day with my mother, while I've been spending most of the day with her mother! Turn about! But I wish you'd tell me," she said, "who it is that could have spoken of me—to you. How interesting that we have a friend in common!"
"Not a friend," he said grimly, at the window. "Only a former— acquaintance of yours—somebody that I imagine you have pretty well forgotten. I'll tell you—another time. But I see it has stopped raining, Miss—Miss—Miss Carstairs. Perhaps we had better take advantage of the lull to start?—for I hope you are going to let me act for Mr. Hare, and walk home wih you."
"Oh—would you! Then indeed we had!" she said rising at once. "I am horribly late now: I know my mother is frantic. I don't mind your not telling me that, really! But—it is odd that you should have spoken of my age twice to-night. Shall I tell you something, Mr. Stanhope—to show you why I have had to give up pigtails? This is my birthday: I am nineteen to-day!"
She raised her eyes, shining, heavy-fringed, deep as the sea and bluer, and looked at him. His own fell instantly. A shade of annoyance flitted across his still face.
"It is a delightful surprise," he said, mechanically. "But you must not call me Mr. Stanhope, please, Miss Carstairs."
"Why—mayn't I call you by your name?"
"My name," said Varney, "in fairly legible print, is on the card which you hold in your hand."
She raised her eyes and looked at him, perplexed, hesitating, a little mortified, like one who has encountered an unlooked-for rebuff. "Forgive me," she ventured rather shyly, "but do you think it would be possible for you to—to keep an incog here—where you must have so many friends? If you want to do that—to try it—of course I'll not tell a soul. But I'd like it very much if you could trust—me, who have known you through your books for so long."
"I should be quite willing to trust you, Miss Carstairs, but there is nothing to trust you about. I am not incog. I am not the author. I have written no books whatever—"
"Ah! Then good-bye," she said with a swift change of manner, starting at once for the door. "I shall not trouble you to walk home with me. Thank you again for giving me shelter and light during the storm."
"Will you be good enough to wait one minute?"
She paused with one gloved hand on the knob, cool, resolute, a little angry, the blue battery of her eyes fixing him across her white embroidered shoulder. But he had turned away, hands thrust deep into the pockets of his coat, brow rumpled into a frown, jaw set to anathema of the plight in which a needless fortune had plunged him.
If he let Uncle Elbert's daughter go like this, he might as well put the Cypriani about at once for New York, for he knew that he would never have the chance to talk with her again. With engaging young friendliness which overrode reserve, she had been moved to ask his confidence, and he had angered her, even hurt her feelings, it seemed, by appearing to withhold it. In return she had thrown down the issue before him, immediate and final. Abstract questions of morals, and there were new ones of great seriousness now, would have to wait. Should he allow her to think that he was another man, or should he bid her good-bye and abandon his errand?
There was no alternative: she had made that unmistakable. His oath to her father came suddenly into his mind. After all, was it not a little absurd to boggle over one small deception when the whole enterprise, as now suddenly revealed, was to be nothing but one continuous and colossal one?
"Miss—Miss Carstairs," said Varney, "with you I shall not argue this. I am going to let you think I am whoever you want. We needn't say anything more about it, need we? Only—I'll ask you to call me by the name I gave you, please, and, so far as you can, to regard me that way. Is that—a bargain?"
Mary Carstairs stood at the threshold of the lighted room, looking at him from under her wide white hat, eyes shining, lips smiling, cheeks faintly flushed with a sense of the triumph she had won.
"Of course," she said. "And I don't think you'll need ever be sorry for having trusted me—Mr. Varney!"
He bowed stiffly. "If you will kindly open the door, I will blow out the lamp and give myself the pleasure of taking you home."
They left the hospitable cottage of Ferris Stanhope, and went out into the night, side by side, Varney and Mary Carstairs. The young man's manner was deceptively calm, but his head was in a whirl. However, the one vital fact about the situation stood out in his mind like a tower set on a hill. This was that Uncle Elbert's daughter was walking at his elbow, on terms of acquaintanceship and understanding. The thing had happened with stunning unexpectedness, but it had happened, and the game was on. The next move was his own, and what better moment for making it would he ever have?
The road was dark and wet. Rain-drops from the trees fell upon them as they walked, gathered pools splashed shallowly under their feet. Suddenly Varney said:
"Do you happen to be interested in yachts, Miss Carstairs? Mine is anchored just opposite your house, I believe, and it would be a pleasure to show her to you sometime."
CONCERNING MR. FERRIS STANHOPE, THE POPULAR NOVELIST; ALSO PETER, THE QUIET ONLOOKER
Peter had not yet returned to the yacht when Varney went to bed that night. Like the Finnegan of song, he was gone again when Varney rose next morning. Indeed, it was only too clear that his Celtic interests had been suddenly engrossed by matters much nearer his heart than the prospect, as he saw the thing, of spanking a naughty child.
"He was off by half-past eight, sir," the steward, McTosh, told Varney at breakfast. "He said to tell you to give yourself no uneasiness, sir; that he was only going to Mr. Hare's—I think was the name—for a short call, and would return by ten o'clock."
"What else did he say?"
"Well, sir, he was saying how the poltix of the village is not all they might be, but he seemed very cheerful, sir, and took three times to the chops."
At dinner-time last night such extraordinary behavior from his fellow-conspirator would have both disturbed and angered Varney. At breakfast-time this morning it hardly interested him. He had employed his walk from the cottage of refuge to the Carstairs front gate to unbelievable advantage. In fact, his mission in Hunston seemed to be all over but the shouting, and until the moment of final action arrived, there appeared no reason why Peter should not employ his time in any way he saw fit.
The heavy storm had scoured the air, and the world was bright as a new pin. In the shaded solitude of the after-deck, Mr. Carstairs's agent sat in an easy-chair with a cigarette, and thought over the remarkable happenings of his first night in Hunston. In retrospect young Editor Smith seemed to be but the ordered instrument of fate, dispatched in a rowboat to draw him against his will from the yacht to the town, where all his business was neatly arranged for his doing. Certainly it appeared as if the hand of intelligent destiny must have been in it somewhere. No mere blind luck could have driven him half a mile into the country to the one spot in all Hunston—impossibly unlikely as it was—where he could become acquainted with Uncle Elbert's daughter without the formality of an introduction.
Uncle Elbert! How desperately the old man must desire his daughter to have planned a mad scheme like this with a subterfuge at the expense of his best friend cunningly hidden away in the heart of it. Yet, after the first staggering flash, Varney had found it impossible to be angry with Mr. Carstairs. He only felt sorry for him, sorrier than he had ever felt for anybody in his life. The old man's madness and his deceit were but the measure of his desire for his daughter. And the more he desired her, so it seemed to Varney, the more he was entitled to have her.
Interrupting his meditations, the steward approached on silent feet, bearing a flat brown-paper package in his hand. It appeared that the under-steward had just returned from a marketing tour in Hunston, had met Mr. Maginnis on the street, and been ordered to take back the parcel to Mr. Varney.
"All right, McTosh," said Varney.
He broke the string with some curiosity and pulled off the wrappers. Within was nothing but a copy of a current literary monthly.
A present of a magazine from Peter! This was a delicate apology for his remissness, indeed. "He will be sending me chocolates next," thought Varney, not a little puzzled.
He turned the pages curiously. Soon, observing a bit of brown wrapping-paper sticking out between the leaves, he opened the magazine at that point and found himself looking at a picture; and he sat still and stared at it for a long time.
It was the full-page portrait of a young man of some thirty years: a rather thin young man with a high forehead, a straight nose, and a smallish chin. The face was good-looking, but somehow not quite attractive. About the eyes was an expression faintly unpleasant, which the neat glasses did not hide. On the somewhat slack lip was a slight twist, not agreeable, which the well-kept mustache could not conceal. Still it was an interesting face, clever, assured, half-insolent. To Varney, it was exceptionally interesting; for removing the mustache and eye-glasses, it might have passed anywhere for his own.
Below the portrait was printed this legend:
The popular author of "Rosamund," etc., who will reopen the old Stanhope cottage near Hunston, New York, and spend the autumn there upon a new novel.
Mr. Stanhope's health has not been good of late, and his physicians have recommended an extended stay in this quiet Hudson River country.
* * * * *
Here was that "Mr. Ferris," whom the young lady of the grocery had coyly saluted; the "Beany," whom the pale young editor had bluntly bidden to leave town; and the literary celebrity whom Miss Mary Carstairs so evidently and so warmly admired. Varney stared at the portrait with a kind of fascination. Now he saw many points of difference between the face of "the popular author" and his own. The resemblance was only general, after all. Still it was undoubtedly strong enough to warrant all kinds of mistakes.
What a very extraordinary sort of thing to have happen!
Suddenly his eye fell upon a penciled line in the white margin above the picture which had at first escaped him:
"On no account leave the yacht till I come back. Vitally important."
Varney pitched the magazine across the deck with an irritated laugh. Peter—utterly ignorant of how matters stood—attempting to fire off long-distance orders and direct his movements. The splendid gall!
As it chanced, he had no occasion to leave the yacht, either before or after Peter got back. His work was done. He made himself comfortable with morning papers and a novel—not one of Mr. Stanhope's—and began to seek beguilement.
But his reading went forward rather fitfully. There were long intervals when his book, "eleventh printing" though it was, slipped forgotten to his knees, and he sat staring thoughtfully over the sunny water....
Peter failed to keep his promise about returning to the yacht at ten o'clock. In fact, it was four o'clock that afternoon when he arrived, and at that, the manner in which he sprang up the stair indicated him as a man who had but few moments to spare to yachts and that sort of thing.
Varney, at his ease upon the transom, watched his friend's approach with a quizzical eye.
"Greetings, old comrade! How did you leave them all in Hunston?"
Peter, who, truth to tell, had been looking forward to bitter personal denunciation, looked somewhat relieved, and laughed. However, his manner suggested little of hang-dog consciousness of guilt; it was far too absorbed and business-like for that. He dropped down into a chair by Varney and swabbed the back of his neck with a damp-looking handkerchief.
"Larry, who'd have dreamed last night that we were parting for all this time?"
"Well, not I for one."
"Awfully sorry about it all, and I know you'll think I'm acting like a funny kind of helper. I hadn't the faintest idea of bottling you up on the yacht all day like this, but—well, you might say, Larry, that a man couldn't help it to save his life. I certainly meant to be back by the time you had finished breakfast and explain the whole situation to you—there are a deuced lot of complications, you know—but one thing led right on to another and—good Lord! I couldn't find a minute with a fine-tooth comb."
"It's all right, statesman. You don't hear me making any complaints. All I ask is a little resume of what you've been doing since you so cleverly lost me. In Reform to the ears, I suppose?"
Peter again looked rather surprised at his chief's easy indifference.
"You want that part of it first? Well," he said rapidly, "I've been trying to do four days' work for Reform in one, and a pinch it's been to make both ends meet, I can tell you. At it practically without a break since I left you last night. J. Pinkney took me right in and bared his soul. Said he was down and out and beaten to a fluid. A clever little devil fast enough, but no more idea of how to play the game than a baby baboon. When he caught on to what I wanted to do for him, he would have fallen on my neck except that he isn't that kind. That was this morning. I worked out my idea in the still watches: couldn't sleep for thinking of it. It just means this: if my plans carry through Hare gets the biggest hearing to-night that this old town can give. And I think they'll carry all right. You wouldn't be interested in the details. Now this other thing—"
"Oh, but I would, though! Give me at least a peep behind the scenes before you dash on. What about these plans of yours?"
Peter laid down the newspaper with which he had been busily fanning himself. A sudden light came into his eyes.
"I'll tell you just how it all happened," he said in an eager voice. "Only I'll have to hurry, as I'm due back in town right away—that is, of course, unless you should need me for anything. Well, I left Hare last night after only a couple of hours' talk, listening to the same old story of boss-rule, and giving him, if I do say it, some cracking good practical pointers. By the way, we were interrupted at that. Hadn't got started before Hare remembered that he'd promised to bring some girl home from somewhere, and dragged me off a mile down the road, only to find out afterwards that she'd gone home with somebody else. Made me tired. I left him about ten o'clock and started down Main Street for the river, meaning to come straight back here. But as I was footing it along, thinking over my talk with Hare and attending to my own business, who should brace me but that pale-faced rascal we saw playing dead in the rowboat. This time the poseur was lying flat on some packing-cases in front of a store, and who do you suppose he turned out to be?"
"The brains of the machine," said Varney.
He told briefly of his own meeting with Coligny Smith at the same spot two hours earlier, and of the editor's stagey warnings.
"Exactly the way he did me!" cried Peter. "Saved the announcement of who he was for the grand finale in Act V. I got mad as a wet hen, told him what I thought of him in simple language, and then when the grafter twitted me to go and do something about it, I broke loose and swore that I'd make Hare Mayor of Hunston if I had to buy the little two-by-twice town to do it. Told him to pack his trunk, for all the crooks would soon be traveling toward the timber. So then I turned right around, hiked back to Hare's, told him what I'd done, gave him my hand on it, and pulled out the old family check-book. This morning I went to him and laid before him the greatest scheme that ever was. You know Hare can't get a hall to speak in for love or money—nobody dares rent him one; he can't buy an inch of space in the Gazette; he can't put spreads on the billboards without having 'em pasted out in the night. To-night the whole thing's been done for him—Ryan's big town-meeting. Well, we're going to try to swipe that meeting—do you see? I'm getting in some husky fellows from New York to see fair play, and so on. Oh, it's a bully chance—you can see! I've spent a nice bunch of father's money working the scheme up, and, by George! I believe we are going to get by with it. If we do—well, we give this town the biggest shock it's had in years, and that's the way reform begins, Larry. Shock!"
Something of his contagious enthusiasm spread to and fired Varney. Fate had thrown in their way a plucky and honest man engaged in an apparently hopeless fight against overwhelming powers of darkness. He deserved help. And what possible risk was there now when the Cypriani's work was practically done?
"I can't say," continued Peter dutifully, "that this is exactly playing the quiet onlooker, as my orders read. As I said last night, I consider that this excursion into politics will help our little business, not interfere with it. It will divert attention. It will seem to explain why we are here. But if you don't agree with me, if you want me to drop it—"
"No," said Varney, slowly. "I don't."
"Good for you, old sport!" cried Peter, evidently relieved. "Needless to say, I'm right on the job whenever you need me. And nothing's going to happen. Trust me. Now as to this other matter. You got that magazine I sent this morning?"
"Yes. Thanks for the picture of my twin brother. But why couldn't I leave the yacht till you got back?"
Peter stared. "Why, just that, of course. Deuced unfortunate coincidence, isn't it? Everybody in town is going to think that you are this fellow Stanhope."
"Well? Oh, I forgot—you haven't heard. Well, from the stories that are floating round town to-day, Stanhope is a cad of the original brand. He was born here—lived here until he was twenty-one or two. Women were his trouble. The climax came about twelve years ago. The girl was named Orrick—Mamie Orrick, I believe. Nobody knows exactly what became of her, but they practically ran Stanhope out of the town then. Well—there it is."
He paused long enough to light one of his Herculean cigars, employing his hat as a wind-shield, and rapidly continued: "It's very curious and strange, and all that, but there it is. A month or so ago the Gazette announced that Stanhope was coming back to Hunston. Last night you were seen on the square, and now the news has spread like wildfire that the author has arrived. Hare heard a lot of gossip on the street to-day. He's lived here only a few years and doesn't know anything personally; but he says the old feeling against Stanhope seems to have revived as though it had all happened yesterday. Orrick, the girl's father, a half-witted old dotard, was heard to say that he would shoot on sight. There are three or four others besides Orrick who've got personal grudges too. If any of these meet you, there is almost sure to be trouble. How is that for a little complication?"
"And this was the reason you sent me word to lock myself up on the Cypriani? You're a bird, Peter. Not that it made any difference, but I ventured to suppose that my leaving before you got back would interfere with some plans you had been making for me, and—"
"It would interfere with some plans I have been making for you, in a general way, to have you assassinated."
"Stuff. Ten to one all these stories that somebody has been so careful to have get back to you are right out of the whole cloth—"
"What's the use of setting up your cranky opinions against the hard facts? The plain truth is that everybody who ever heard of Stanhope is going to give you the cold shoulder for a dog; we can depend absolutely on that."
But Varney had his own reasons for depending on nothing of the sort.
"You've been imposed upon, Peter. In fact, one of the population mistook me for the author last night, and instead of giving me the cold shoulder, as you say, she seemed to think that being Stanhope was the best credentials that a man could have."
"She? Who're you talking about?"
"I'm talking about Uncle Elbert's daughter, Miss Mary Carstairs. I had the pleasure of meeting her last night."
"The devil you did!" cried Peter, laughing with astonishment. "You certainly walk off with the prize for prompt results. How in the world did you manage it?"
Varney told him succinctly how he had managed it.
"Fine! Fine! Honestly, I was getting afraid that you never could do it at all, with the rotten reputation they've pinned on you here. Good enough! Still it's absurd to cite the opinion of a little child in a matter like this."
"It depends upon what you call a little child, doesn't it? Miss Carstairs is nineteen years old."
Peter straightened in his chair with a jerk, and stared at him as though one or the other had suddenly gone mad.
"Nineteen! Why, I thought she was twelve."
"So did I."
"Why, how in Sam Hill did you ever make such an asinine mistake?"
Varney gave an impatient laugh.
"What difference does that make now? My impression was that the separation took place about eight years ago. It may have been twelve. My other impression was that the girl was about four at the time. She may have been eight instead. If it's of any interest to you, I should say that the mistake was natural enough. Besides, Uncle Elbert rather helped it along."
"Uncle Elbert rather lied to you—that's what he did," said Peter with the utmost quietness.
There was a considerable silence. Peter pulled frowningly at his cigar; it had gone out but he was too absorbed to notice it, and mechanically pulled on. Presently he raised his head and looked at Varney.
"Well? This ends it, I suppose? You'll go back to New York this afternoon?"
"No," said Varney, "I'm going to stay and carry it through just as I expected."
Peter tapped the chair-arm with his heavy fingers. "Why?"
"Because—well, I promised to, and on the strength of my promise, Uncle Elbert has gone to trouble and expense for one thing, and has pinned high hopes on me, for another. I had my chance to ask questions and make terms and stipulations—and I didn't do it. That was my fault. I am not even sure that he meant to deceive me. I have no right to break a contract because I find that my part in it is going to be harder than I thought."
"This business about her age changes everything. Carstairs has no legal rights over a nineteen-year-old daughter."
"Legal rights! My dear Peter, you never supposed I thought I was doing anything legal, did you? No, no; the moral part of it has been my prop and stay all along, and that still holds. I promised without conditions, and I'll go ahead on the same terms."
"Give me a match," said Peter thoughtfully. "Maybe you are right, Larry," he added presently. "I only wanted to point out another way of looking at it. I stand absolutely by your decision. You think that this girl is wrong-headed and obstinate, and that her father has a moral right to have her, over age or not. This—discovery makes it a pretty serious business, but of course you've thought of all that. But—will it be possible now?"
"I have invited her," said Varney, with a light laugh, "to lunch on the Cypriani on Thursday with two or three other Hunston friends."
"She accepted with every mark of pleasure. Great men like Stanhope, it seems, require no introduction: it beats me. The point now is to find the other Hunston friends."
"Hare and his sister, Mrs. Marne—the very thing!—chaperon and all! I'll invite them to-night. Then the whole thing's done!" Peter sat silent a moment, looking at Varney. "I've been awfully rushed to-day," he resumed, "because if I was going to help Hare at all, I didn't dare lose this one big opportunity. But remember, anything that has to be done from now on—I'm your man."
"There'll be nothing more now until Thursday. The thing's practically done."
Peter was still looking at him steadily. "It's going to be dirt easy, provided we don't weaken. You can't do things to your friends, but you can emphatically do them to your enemies. We have got to remember always that this girl, who has been so heartless to her old fool of a father, is our enemy."
"Yes, that is what we have got to remember."
"Good Lord!" cried Peter, looking at his watch. "Twenty minutes past four, and I must be at the hall at four-thirty sharp. I'll have to sneak right away. You're going to sit tight on the yacht, of course?"
"Never! I like to have a little of the fun myself. I must certainly take in this meeting to-night, and watch you put your heel on their necks and all that."
"Don't! With what you've got to do, you can't afford to expose yourself. What's the use of running risks, even little ones, when there is nothing to gain?"
"Satan reproving sin! Fudge! Free yourself once for all, my dear sir, that I'm starring in The Prisoner on the Yacht for the next three days, or anything of that sort."
"Well, if you will go," said Peter, reluctantly, "here's a reserved seat ticket—a peacherine, right up at the front."
"Great! Count on me to lead the applause."
Peter rose. His engrossed brow advertised the fact that his thought had already flown back to his own private maelstrom of new concerns.
"If Hare gets his chance to-night," he meditated out loud, "you can rely on him to make the most of it. He'll make good; he's a man, sound in wind and limb, head and heart. I do wish, though, he wasn't so—somehow innocent—so easy—so confoundedly affable and handshaking with everybody that comes along. There's a sneaky-looking stranger at the hotel—rubber-heeled fellow named Higginson, with one of these black felt hats pulled down over his eyes like a stage villain—that Hare never laid eyes on till to-day. For all he knows the man may be an agent of Ryan's, a hired spy imported to—By Jove! That's just what he is, I'll bet!" he cried suddenly; and after a frowning pause, hurried warmly on: "Don't you remember last night, just after we hit the town, I said there was a man following us—sneaked up the alley when he saw me looking at him?"
"I believe I do, Peter. But the fact is that I met so many exciting people last night—"
"It's the same man—it was Higginson!" said Peter positively. "I'm sure of it! I didn't get a look at his face last night, but it's the same hat, same figure—everything. I'll bet anything he's on Ryan's payroll; and there's little Hare hobnobbing with him as friendly as though they'd been classmates at college! That kind of free-for-all geniality doesn't go, you know! A reformer in a rotten town like this," said Peter vehemently "would do well to cultivate a profound distrust of strangers."
Varney burst out laughing.
"You yourself have known Hare from the cradle, I believe?"
"I'm different," said Peter without a smile. "Well! I must move. Now let's see—that lunch. What time shall I ask Hare and Mrs. Marne for?"
"Two o'clock, Thursday. I didn't have the nerve," Varney explained, "to ask Miss Carstairs for to-day—rather lucky I didn't—and she was engaged for Thursday."
"Right. I'll arrange it all. Well, for the Lord's sake take care of yourself to-night, Larry, and trust me to keep out of trouble. So long."
Varney looked after Peter's disappearing back, and envied him all the fun he was having. His own lot was certainly far less entertaining. However, it was his own; and here he resembled his friend in one respect at least. His thoughts, like Peter's, had a way just now of reverting at short notice to the matters in which he himself was most closely concerned.
He lay back idly among the cushions, and let his mind once more run over the unexpected problems of his situation.
The new graveness of what he was pledged to do had, of course, been strongly present in his mind from the first moment of revelation. Kidnapping a nineteen-year-old girl was certainly, as Peter had pointed out, a pretty serious business. He perceived that it would not look well in the papers in the least. Also if she cared to raise a row afterwards, there might be an aftermath which would not be wholly a laughing matter.
Nevertheless, this side of the question seemed remote and of minor interest to him just now. The problem appeared to be a personal one, not a question of statutes and judges. In his talk with Miss Carstairs before he knew her by name, he had failed to notice anything that suggested the spoiled and wilful child he had come to find. He could remember nothing she had said or done that helped him at all to think of her as his enemy. The fact was that it was all quite the other way. And this helped him to understand now, as he had not understood before, why Uncle Elbert had begged a solemn oath from him with such a piteous look on his handsome, haggard old face.
VARNEY MEETS WITH A GALLING REBUFF, WHILE PETER GOES MARCHING ON
Peter's pronounced views as to Mr. Stanhope were not, it appeared, purely of the stuff that dreams are made of. Testimony to the author's lack of popularity in his native town came to Varney with unexpected promptness.
In the corner of the square, as he swung along toward the Academy Theatre that evening, he found himself suddenly confronted by a man who, lounging against the fence of a shabby dwelling, straightened dramatically at his approach and bent a sharp gaze upon him. He was a tall, shambling fellow with a white cloth swathed about the top of his head; and Varney, in the act of passing, suddenly recognized him as the dog man, whom Peter had knocked out the night before. His gaze was a wanton challenge for the young man to stop, and Varney cheerfully accepted it.
"Why, it's—Mr.—er—Hackley, isn't it?"
The man's bandage left only one eye free to operate, and he kept this upon Varney with a curious unwinking stare.
"Yes," said he slowly, "I'm Hackley."
"How'd the dog come out?" asked Varney.
"Dead," said Hackley, as quiet in mien as the Hackley of last night was bellicose. "Dead an' buried."
"I'm sorry," said Varney, his glance on the head-cloth. "The man who did the kicking was a friend of mine, and he wouldn't want you to lose your dog without some compensation. Er—please accept this with his compliments and regrets."
Hackley, his single washed-out eye starting with pleasure, accepted the proffered note with a gesture resembling a clutch, investigated its size in the dim light with hardly concealed delight, and pinned it into his waistcoat pocket with a large brass safety-pin. Then he raised his head slowly and looked at Varney.
"Why n't you leave town to-night, Stanhope?" he inquired casually.
Varney started. Almost to the very language this was exactly what Editor Smith had suggested to him the night before.
"Why do you call me Stanhope, Hackley? My name happens to be Laurence Varney."
Mr. Hackley's gaze never relaxed. "Chuck it," he said without emotion. "A sensible and eddicated man," he added impersonally, "never lies when a lie couldn't do him no good. If I was you, Stanhope, I wouldn't lose a minute in cuttin' loose from this town."
"If I were Stanhope, I daresay I wouldn't either. But suppose I were," he added, "why shouldn't I stay here if I wanted to?"
"For one reason," said Mr. Hackley deliberately, "there's me. When I'm a-feelin' myself, there ain't a cammer, a more genteel nor lor-abidin' citizen in Hunston. As for fussin' and fightin', I'd no more think of it than a dyin' inverlid in the orspitle. But only throw a few drinks under my belt like last night, and I'm a altogether different creetur. And I'm mighty afraid that the next time I over-drink myself and don't rightly know what I'm doin', I'll go out after you with a club. And then there'll be trouble."
"But why should you want to go after Stanhope with a club? What did he ever do to you?"
"Don't you know? I married Mamie Orrick's little sister!"
"Most interesting," said Varney, "as a bit of genealogy, but what's it got to do with Stanhope and the club?"
But Mr. Hackley said again, cryptically: "Chuck it." Then, softened by the young man's pleasant ways, and by the windfall of a fortune pinned into his vest: "Be sensible, Stanhope," he added amiably. "I ain't the only one. Old Orrick's heard that you've hit the town and is totin' a gun and talk-in' wild. And, of course, there's others. Don't jump off no tall buildin's, I say, expectin' Providence to land you soft. There's a train to Noo York at eight-ten. Cut while you can!"
"Why, thanks," said Varney, laughing and starting on. "If I should see Mr. Stanhope at any time, I won't fail to pass him the friendly tip."
"And if you should see that friend o' yourn," called Hackley after him, "him that gimme the paste in the jor—you c'n just tell him that Jim Hackley is goin' to fix you both, good!"
"At your convenience, Hackley."
The young man passed on, undisturbed by the dog man's quaint menaces. He did not exactly see himself and Peter getting into trouble at the hands of a crack-brained village humorist.
Streams of people, converging from all directions, guided him easily to the theatre. Pushing his way in, he found the stage empty and the proceedings not yet begun; and he stood for a minute at the inner door, glancing over the house. It was crowded. Oratory is a real inducement in societies seldom blessed with that attraction. Even lemonade is a magnet if you get it seldom and never to surfeit. Already men were sitting in the long low windows which ran down either side of the building; and a score of ushers, singularly alert-looking men, were hurriedly distributing camp-chairs to accommodate the overflow. Certainly, Peter could have desired no better setting for his daring adventure for reform.
Thanks to the reserved seat which his friend's reluctant liberality had furnished him, Varney was in no hurry to join the throng inside. Presently, to get clear of the rush at the doors, he strolled into the lobby and idly stood at one side, watching the people streaming by.
Thus, by sheer luck, he became witness to the crucial episode of the evening. An oily Teutonic voice spoke just at his elbow:
"Id's eight o'clock, I zee. We'd better go back und gif Taylor his speech, I guess."
The young man turned. He happened to be standing just in front of the little cubby of a box-office. In it stood two men, one large and fat and blonde, the other short and stocky and dark. This latter, looking up from a typewritten manuscript, spoke briefly:
"No hurry. Find Smith if you can and send him here."
The fat oily person departed obediently. Immediately there stepped through the door of the box-office a rough-looking man in a slouch hat, with three days' stubble stippling a grimy chin. He shut the door carefully and came near. Varney, from where he stood, could see and hear everything.
The stocky, dark man nodded. Aha! thought Varney.
"Then step outside a minute, will yer? There's a genaman wants to speak to you right away on a matter as concerns you close."
Ryan coldly looked the man over: "Then tell him to come in here. No! I ain't got no time to fool with him now. Tell him to go to the devil."
The stranger never moved a muscle. "There's a reason w'y he can't come in here—you'll see when you come outside, all right." Then bringing his dark face sharply a foot nearer, he went on in a hasty undertone: "Hey, you! Ever hear of a man named Maginnis?"
Ryan had: Peter's fame had traveled far in Hunston that day.
"Well, listen! There's a game on to bust this meetin' to-night and put the hook into you good and hard. Maginnis has spent a thousand to do it. D'yer savvy? Now will yer step lively?"
The boss considered a moment and then stepped lively. Varney, falling in behind, stepped lively too, his curiosity strongly stirred. But outside, before the theatre, there was no sign of a gentleman awaiting an audience: only the people pouring on into the Academy.
"Around the corner," whispered the dark man hoarsely. "He dassen't wait here. Quick!"
Around the corner the pair hurried, Varney close in their wake. In the silent alley, half-hidden in the shadows of the building, stood a large carriage with a pair of strapping bays tugging at their traces. They halted before it, and the stranger, who had considerately taken Ryan's arm, flung open the door.
"Here he is, Jim—Mr. Ryan. Now you c'n tell him—"
The sentence died unended. At the same moment the sound of a violent scuffle smote the nocturnal air. It appeared that Jim, presumably laboring under an unfortunate misapprehension, had not received his visitor with that refined hospitality due from one gentleman to another. Even more inexplicable, it looked in the deceitful darkness, remarkably as though the boss's guide, suddenly dropping that gentleman's arm, had laid forcible hold upon his outraged and madly protesting legs.
It was all over in a minute. There was a faint yell, quickly and violently muffled. Then the carriage door banged, leaving nobody on the sidewalk, and the horses, responding to an acutely painful lash from the strong arm on the box, sprang forward at the gallop.
Varney stood in the dark alley, looking after the vanishing carriage with mingled admiration and amazement. Swift footsteps sounded near him; and the next moment a strong hand seized him and pulled him back into the shadow of the wall.
"Sh-h! It's me! Anybody see it?"
"Hello! Not a soul but me."
Peter leaned against the wall and drew a deep breath.
"He can never prove it on me—not to save his soul!—and I hold his meeting in the hollow of my hand. Do you see that lighted window at the back there? That's my last bridge. Waiting in there are the chairman of the meeting and the mayor, who's the orator of the evening. I'm going in and make 'em take me on as one of the platform speakers. I'll pass out a few remarks and call on Hare—"
"But how will you make them—"
"They daren't refuse me anything," said Peter swiftly, and tapped his breast-pocket. "I've papers here that mean stripes for them both. Mind your eye, Larry, and be good!"
He disappeared through the little gate toward the dressing-room, where the officials of the meeting waited vainly for last instructions from their lord. Varney looked after him with a sigh. In Hunston only twenty-four hours and already to be running the town!
He emerged from the alley feeling rather gloomy, and halted on the sidewalk in front of the theatre, idly watching the people as they poured in. The spectacle of this steady stream made a fitting background for his meditations; for he was thinking, absently, of the extreme boldness of Peter's course. Certainly, there was little here to suggest the quiet onlooker. But all at once something happened which checked the current of his thought as effectually as a slap upon the cheek.
In that shifting, waste of strange faces, his vagrant eye suddenly fell upon a familiar one—two, three familiar ones—and his flagging interest sprang to life. There approached, side by side, J. Pinkney Hare, who, though few knew it, might prove the brilliant hero of the night's proceedings; the child, little Jenny Something, who had spent yesterday at the Carstairs house, leading strangers to think that she was somebody else; and Miss Carstairs herself, a fair flower in that moving tangle of weeds.
Hare saw Varney and bowed in his stiff affected way. But Varney's eyes had already gone on to Miss Carstairs, and he did not return that greeting. Seeing the little candidate lift his hat, her look followed his, and so her eye met Varney's.
When this happened her expression did not change, except that, so he thought, she faintly colored. Varney awaited her bow; he half bowed himself: a stiff smile was ready on his lips. But he never gave it. Her eyes rested full upon him for a second, with no sign of recognition, and then moved away; and the next moment she swept past him into the theatre.
There was no shadow of doubt about it. She who only last night had treated him with such marked kindness, had unmistakably cut him. It hardly seemed possible. Why, they had parted like friends!
But he understood instantly what had happened. To her, he was Ferris Stanhope; he himself had given her the right to think that. Since they had parted, some of that unpleasant gossip about Stanhope—of which she had known nothing last night—had made its way to her; and she had believed it as to him, Laurence Varney. Yes, she had believed it as to him. Peter was right, after all. A self-respecting girl owed it to herself, it seemed, not to recognize him. Curiously, so strong was his sense of the personal meaning of the insult that its more practical aspects for the moment altogether escaped him.
But that was only for the moment. In the next breath, it rushed over him that with that cool glance the luncheon engagement upon which his whole mission depended stood canceled; and with that thought he felt his will hardening into iron. What she thought of him, personally, was of course nothing; but no power should keep him from carrying through his plans precisely as he had arranged them. He elbowed his way into the lobby to find Uncle Elbert's daughter and make her retract that look.
But it gradually became evident that Uncle Elbert's daughter was not in the lobby: the most systematic exploration failed to reveal any trace of her. In fact, it was certain that she had passed straight on to her seat within the hall; whence a loud roar presently gave warning to stragglers that the oratory had begun.
* * * * *
Two hours later Varney rose from his seat, at once marveling over the splendor of Peter's coup and bewildered by the blaze of publicity which it had turned upon his comrade and co-schemer. The well-laid plans had carried through to brilliant success, and Ryan's meeting had been converted into a triumph for Ryan's deadly enemy, J. Pinkney Hare.
The candidate had sat unobtrusively down in the audience with his friend Miss Carstairs and the child Jenny,—spectators all: that was the way they had arranged it. Peter, on the contrary, sat in the great white light of a front seat on the stage, where he had masterfully intruded himself in the galaxy of "other prominent citizens." And sure enough, when the set speeches were over, it was the honorable chairman who presented "a Mr. Maginnis of New York" to the meeting, doubtless having been satisfactorily convinced beforehand that it was to his advantage to do so. But, doubtless also convinced that there would be an accounting to his master for this night's work, he rose to his duty only after Mr. Maginnis had glared at him through a noticeable stage-wait, and then made the introduction as prejudicial as he dared.
Mr. Maginnis did not appear disconcerted in the least. He began speaking with a pertinence and ease which rather surprised his friend Varney down in the audience, and with words which instantly let the dullest know that something unusual was taking place. However, he had not proceeded far when, the house having become very still, he was suddenly interrupted by a sharp hiss from the rear of the hall, and a raucous voice which shouted:
"Sit down, you! Nobody wants yer!"
Laughter followed and various murmurs, some approving, a few protesting. Ryan's good and faithful servants were evidently settling down to work.
Peter's eye roved over the audience, seemed to catch something and lit up with a faint signal.
"The gentleman who made that remark," he said in tones of great gentleness, "will kindly leave the hall at once."
A ripple of merriment ran through the crowd, breaking in many places into ostentatious guffaws. To those who knew the underside of those meetings, the mild request appeared so ineffectual as to be merely ridiculous. The honorable chairman, on the stage, hid a sinister smile behind his hand.
Then a strange thing happened. Four "ushers" moved silently down the side-aisle, halted at the end of the sixth row from the rear, laid hands upon an angry and wriggling little man who screamed to high heaven that he hadn't done nothing, and dropped him out of the open window, which was just five feet above the ground.
It was rather a clean-cut piece of work, the moral effect of which was in no wise weakened by the strong probability that they had ejected the wrong man. It proved the turning-point in the evening's proceedings. Ryanism seemed paralyzed by the mysterious absence of its chief, and a few further essays by the faithful, more and more half-hearted in their nature, made it plain that the control of that meeting had passed into other hands. Peter, apologizing for the little interruption, told simply but vividly how, coming to Hunston a stranger, he had instantly seen that something was badly wrong with the town: how he had looked about at the dirty streets, the dead business, the empty stores, the good men idling, the good wives suffering for the money that streamed into the big red saloon—
"That's right!" called a shrill, scared woman's voice. "That's right, Mister!"
"No!" Peter answered steadily. "It's the wrongest thing that ever was—God help you poor women!"
Then a burst of hand-clapping, unforced by the faithful hirelings from New York, ran unexpectedly through the house.
Peter told how easy it had been to find out what was choking the life out of Hunston. His open countenance, democratic manners, and pungent speech produced a most favorable impression, and it was undeniable that, for the moment at least, he had the house with him when he swung into his peroration.
"You know we are told," he said, "that it is the truth that makes us free. Well, you are going to hear the truth to-night, at last. There is a man listening to me at this moment who knows everything there is to be known. Like me, he has no axe to grind, no special interest to promote, no ambition but the manly wish to loose this town from the bonds with which a dishonest boss has shackled it. He has sacrificed much to the hope that he might help you, and for months he has been fighting against big odds, just to get a chance to tell you the facts. To-night he has got his chance, and you may be very sure that he will make the most of it.
"Relieving your honorable chairman of the trouble of rising for the purpose, I take pleasure in introducing to you Mr. J. Pinkney Hare, who is, with your consent, the next mayor of Hunston."
Back in the center of the house, a foot scraped upon the floor, and there was J. Pinkney Hare standing out in the aisle, his little black bag stuffed with documents swinging in his hand. And then there arose, to the surprise of everybody (barring those good fellows who had been well paid for their work and were earnestly determined to earn it) a deafening roar of applause, starting in the rear of the house, taken up at certain definite points all through it, and gradually spreading almost everywhere, many people joining in because they liked Peter greatly and others without having any idea why. The roar subsided a little as Hare drew near to the stage, mounted it, and deposited his little bag upon the table. Then it broke again, more loudly, as he came forward a step, looking out upon the crowded house—he who could not hire a hall for himself—a little pale, a little awed by the bigness of his chance, but with neither tremor nor uncertainty on his small, cool face....
Hare spoke for an hour and a half, and not a soul left the hall. It was impossible to call him off or cry him down: the plain sentiment of the house was, "Give the little man his show." Afterwards, Chairman Bates had made a desperate effort to overcome the damning effect of that address, calling on various Ryanites of aggressive manners, and making a second speech himself, but with little avail. Even the free fight which broke out during the distribution of the ice-cream of the Neapolitans (the announcement of which addition to the regular menu evoked the loudest spontaneous applause of the evening) resulted, until the police checked it, decidedly in favor of the strangers from New York.
This part of the evening's pleasures Varney did not see. He rose with many others when the published tidings of refreshment gave notice that the speechmaking was over, and turned his face toward the door against a stream of ushers entering with alluring trays. Already all sense of the daring brilliance of Peter's stroke had faded and dropped from his mind. His own concerns crowded instantly upon his attention, and all his thought was of finding Mary Carstairs immediately and compelling her to recognize him for the man he was.
She, too, had risen to leave the hall. While he listened to the fierce philippic of J. Pinkney Hare, Varney's eye had carefully marked her seat: it was empty now. Once, as he pushed his way slowly toward the door, he caught a brief glimpse of her over in the other aisle, some distance ahead of him; but he hardly saw her before she was lost to him again, swallowed up in the jostling throng. The theatre was in an uproar: all was noise and bustle and movement. And the wide lobby, when at length he reached it, was no better; it looked scarcely more promising to his quest than the traditional haystack to the searcher of needles.
Here were set the ice-cream freezers and the other paraphernalia of delight, and about them was a struggling mob. Varney circled the throng with a roving eye. Of the lady he saw no sign anywhere. But presently, on the outer fringe of the cohorts which stormed the freezers, he came upon the child Jenny, and knew that he had found a guide according to his heart's desire.
He touched her on the elbow. "Do you want to get some ice-cream?"
She turned her homely little face up towards him, and said shyly:
"Yes, sir. But they won't let me get near. And they say the chocolate is going fast."
"They'll let me get near," said Varney heartily. "Chocolate is it, then? Lemonade, of course. And a thought of the cake with icing, shall we say? Good! But you're not here alone, are you?"
"No, sir. I'm here with Miss Mary—over there in that corner."
"Well, you just run over there with her and wait. Trust everything here to me."
He emerged from the ruck a few moments later, disheveled but triumphant. Hat under his arm and both hands heavily laden, he made a gingerly progress to the place of his tryst, a comparatively unpopulated corner near the door. And there she stood, her comely youth brought into sharp relief by her surroundings, side by side with the living hunger and thirst of Jenny, whose yearning eyes summoned the young man like a beacon.
Miss Carstairs happened to be looking in another direction. Varney, standing before her, calmly took up their acquaintance where he had left it last night at her mother's gate.
"Good evening, Miss Carstairs. I bear refreshment for your little friend. What a magnificent evening for Hare and Reform, isn't it?"
She turned, startled at the sound of his voice, looked at him, and looked at once away.
"Oh ... yes, indeed. I—am waiting for Mr. Hare now. Jenny, are you sure you haven't seen him come out?"
"Yessum," said Jenny, her eyes all for the tall stranger.
Unable to resist their imploring appeal, he turned at once and delivered his burden.
"Ice-cream—lemonade—" he made inventory—"cake with icing—tin spoon—paper napkin in my pocket. Is there anything else?"
"I think," said Jenny, conscientiously, "there's figs."
"You do not wish any figs to-night, Jenny," declared Miss Carstairs, rather more severely than mere figs seemed to warrant.
"No'm! I thought maybe he might want some."
"I doubt if I'll take any figs to-night, either," laughed Varney. "But mayn't I get something for you, Miss Carstairs? I'm happy to say that the chocolate is holding out better than we feared."
"Thank you," she said, apparently addressing the child, "I don't believe I wish anything."
Jenny here produced and handed around a small, rather dangerous-looking paper-bag, which proved, upon investigation, to contain marshmallows. Miss Carstairs declined. Varney, to show how unimpeachable he considered his standing with the party, gratefully accepted.
"I'm afraid," he said, looking at Miss Carstairs, "that Mr. Hare's admirers are likely to detain him some time. If you don't care to wait so long, perhaps you would again give me the pleasure of supplanting him and taking you home—you and Miss—Miss Jenny?"
"No, thank you—I am sure he will be out soon ... You look awfully trampled on and—mashed, Jenny," she continued, twitching the child's hat on straight. "And my dear! Don't eat so fast."
Despite himself, Varney felt his blood rising a little. "Miss Carstairs," he said slowly, "I must tell you that I came with Miss Jenny on purpose to see you. There is something that I wanted to say."
She raised her eyes then, and though their look was very young and embarrassed, he felt himself lose something of his composure under it.
"You wanted to say something—to me?"
"A good deal. I have an explanation to make—"
"I'm afraid that I have not time to—listen—Mr. Hare—"
"You must listen—to be fair," he said slowly. "I have to blame myself for it, but you are doing me an injustice at this moment. I am not—that man."
She made no answer. Beside them, Miss Jenny ate ice-cream succulently. All around them were people jostling this way and that, laughing, shouting: but they might have been alone on a mountain-top for all either was aware of them.
"Since I have been in Hunston—just a day," Varney said easily, "I seem to have done nothing but explain over and over that I am not Mr. Stanhope. I got awfully tired of it, Miss Carstairs; it seemed so horribly useless. Like the others, you insisted that I was he. You candidly didn't believe me—"
"No," she said, "that is true."
"I shall make you believe me now," said Varney.
A great hullabaloo suddenly arose around them. Four or five men broke pellmell, and for the most part backwards, out of the swing-doors, evidently ejected from within. A lonely-looking policeman, on guard at the entrance, charged them. The lobby was already thronged; now people retreating before that violent infusion of arms and legs crowded them close.
Varney, standing in front of Miss Carstairs, shielded her from the press, her capable buffer. Soon he noticed that that part of the wall upon which she leaned was not a wall, but a door. He reached past her, turned the knob, revealed a brilliantly-lit little room.
"Ah!... A haven, Miss Carstairs."
She stepped backward, into the tiny box-office where Ryan had stood two hours before and cynically waited for his sport to begin. It was empty now, offering a perfect refuge. Varney followed and stood with his hand on the knob just inside the door.
"Thank you," said Miss Carstairs, breathing a little rapidly. "The meetings have never been as bad as this before. But—I must not lose sight of Jenny."
"I'm here, Miss Mary," gurgled an ice-creamy voice at the door.
"I think I had better wait outside after all," said Mary. "Mr. Hare will hardly know where to look for me."
"Miss Jenny will be his clew: he couldn't miss her," said Varney. "Let me go on, while I have time. Miss Carstairs, it is not fair to either of us to let matters stay like this. In the cottage last night, you forced me to let you think I was—another man—"
"That is absurd," she said. "How could I possibly force you to say what was not—the fact?"
"Did I really say anything that was not—the fact? I tried particularly not to. But I did let you deceive yourself about it: that is quite true and I'm sorry. I did it because—well, because if I hadn't done it, you were not going to let me walk home with you."
She leaned against the little desk at which the Academy man sat to sell tickets, and hesitated, almost imperceptibly. "Then why," she asked, "should you wish to undeceive me now?"
"You know why," he answered. "If I don't, something tells me that you are not going to speak to me any more."
Her silence conceded the truth of this. It began to be evident how difficult he had made matters for himself.
Varney laughed. "I am determined to make you believe me, yet just how am I to go about it? It's rather an absurd position, when you come to think of it—this arguing with somebody as to who one is. Suppose I were that fellow, Miss Carstairs. How could I possibly hope to come back to my old hometown and persuade people to believe that I am somebody else?"
Her eyes had wandered out through the little grated window, and she made no reply.
"You see how preposterous that would be. A mere resemblance is not enough to condemn a man upon, Miss Carstairs."
She turned her head with a sudden gesture of annoyance. "What difference can it possibly make whether I speak to you or not, Mr. St—"
"Don't!" he interrupted swiftly. "You know my name. You shall not call me by that one."
Hare's neat pink face appeared at the ticket-window, for all the world like a belated theatre-goer, anxious for several in the orchestra.
"Ah, Mary! There you are! Whenever you are ready—"
"I have been waiting for you a long time," said Miss Carstairs. "It was so splendid, Mr. Hare! Is Jenny there? We'll go at once."
She turned to Varney, cool as a dewy rose, and came forward a short step. "I—I must say this before I go: has no one told you that you are in danger here?"
Under her tone and her look, his plan of being the easy master of the situation grew increasingly difficult. "Everybody has told me," he said rather shortly. "It's gotten to be a bore."
"Then—won't you—won't you please go away before—anything happens?"
"I am going on Thursday afternoon," he answered, stung by her beauty, which was so remote, and by the sudden compassion in her voice. "My engagements will keep me here till that day, you remember? I promise you, since you are so good as to interest yourself in the matter, that I shall leave Hunston directly after that—"
"Your engagements on Thursday?" she repeated, looking away. "Are—you speaking of—"
"The luncheon on my yacht. We are inviting Mr. Hare and his sister to meet you."
"I am sorry," began Miss Carstairs, not looking at him, "but—I—I find that I shall n—"
"Er—Mary?" said the candidate's voice through the window.
She turned toward the door at once, as though welcoming a summons which so opportunely relieved her from embarrassing explanations: but Varney, who happened to have duties to her father to discharge, stood before her, not moving.
"Just now in the theatre," he said pleasantly, "you cut me. That was for him. I understood. But is there any valid reason why you should not stay on speaking terms with—Laurence Varney?"
To his surprise, a vivid red swept up her face from throat to hair and her eyes fluttered and fell.
"Please," she said, "don't ask me to discuss this any more."
Varney stood aside, bowing, to let her pass out.
"I shall bring you proofs of my identity to-morrow, since that seems necessary," he said with a laugh. "You won't refuse to see me, if you care anything about being fair. But shall I tell you something, Miss Carstairs? In your heart you believe me now!"
At the outer door, Varney all but collided with a man listlessly entering, and, glancing up, saw that it was the pale young editor, Coligny Smith.
"I hope you enjoyed the meeting," flung out Varney in passing.
"Why, greetings—greetings!" said Mr. Smith, a mocking smile on his thin lips. "I've just been out to buy your picture, Beany."
With which singular rejoinder, he slipped by into the lobby.
* * * * *
J. Pinkney Hare lingered some time in the theatre after Miss Carstairs joined him, enveloped in a heartening whirl of new popularity. To the candidate it seemed that his star had changed with stunning swiftness. His advance to the door had been a Roman progress; and when he finally reached the lobby he was still the focus of a coterie of enthusiasts who would not be shaken off. Here a new halt was made: new people surrounded him; more hand-shakings and back-slappings took place; and everything seemed merry as a marriage-bell.
But Peter, coming out of the hall a moment after Varney had left, saw hovering about this intimate circle an elderly man of a faded exterior and shabby clothes, who wore a black felt hat pulled down over wary-looking eyes. Even at that moment of splendid triumph, Peter was annoyed to recognize in him the man Higginson, of whose too friendly interest in the candidate's doings he had complained to Varney a few hours earlier. Whether he was, in truth, the man who had followed them on the street the night before, he was not ready to make affidavit. But undoubtedly there was something furtive in the man's appearance and manner; and Peter, watching him from the door, was highly irritated to see Hare present the fellow to Miss Carstairs, who smiled on him as upon one of her friend's good friends.
"The sneak!" thought Peter. "I'll just drop him a quiet hint to butt out before he gets hurt."
But his "head-usher" due to vanish back to New York by the ten-forty-five claimed him just then for a business talk, and when Peter had time to think of Mr. Higginson again, he found that the man had disappeared.
THE EDITOR OF THE GAZETTE PLAYS A CARD FROM HIS SLEEVE
Varney slept badly. The night was long, like art and the lanes that have no turning; and interludes punctuated it, now and again, when he lay wide-eyed in his bunk, staring into the darkness. At these times without exception, he thought how, early in the morning, he would climb the hill to the white house, blandly proffering letters to show that he was no cad, no cur, but Laurence Varney, whom ladies need not flee from as from the plague; suavely putting Uncle Elbert's daughter so utterly in the wrong that he himself would grow merciful towards her abashment, and sorry.
He fell asleep, woke again, rehearsed once more what he would say to her. At last he saw the dawn break along the horizon and the gray of a new day meet and mingle with the receding darkness. It was Wednesday. To-morrow would be Thursday, and he could go away, his business done. The prospect was rich recompense for everything. It came to him, suddenly and for the first time, that he hated his mission in Hunston with a disheartening and sickening hatred. And formulating this thought, polishing it to aphorism and sharpening it to epigram, he slumbered and slept for the last time that night.
But on the heels of the morning came Peter, bursting in half-dressed, a newspaper flaunting in his hand, an unfastened suspender flapping behind him like a pennant on a clubhouse.
"Oh, you're awake, are you?" said he, looking very keen and wide-awake himself. "Good! You'd hardly want to be dead to the world while this kind of thing is going on."
Varney, on an elbow, sleepily surprised at this vehemence, said: "What's up?"
"The jig!" cried Peter succinctly. "At least it looks that way. It's that rascal Smith."
He sat down on the edge of Varney's bunk, the folded newspaper in his hand, and continued: "I ran out before I was dressed to look at this contemptible Gazette, because I wanted to see how they handled the meeting last night. But the minute I picked it up, I saw this, and—well, by George! Look at it!"
He whipped open the Gazette with a movement which all but shredded it and thrust it into Varney's hand. Varney sat up in bed and smoothed it out upon the coverlet.
Coligny Smith was clever and his eye ranged wide. He saw all the chances that there were, and what he saw he made the most of. For his front-page "picture feature" that morning, he had selected a two-column half-tone of a good-looking, though not altogether pleasant-faced young man; and beneath it had indited in bold capitals which the most casual eye could not miss: "Mr. Ferris Stanhope, Author and Former Hunstonian, Who Has Just Arrived in Town."
"I see," said Varney, slowly. "Meaning me." Beside the portrait ran a "story," which said in part:
"It leaked out yesterday that the 'mysterious stranger' who suddenly appeared off Hunston in an elegant private yacht on Monday night, is none other than Ferris Stanhope, well-known author of novels of the pink-tea type....
"Mr. Stanhope is a native of Hunston, and is well remembered here. As the result of certain escapades which need not be detailed in a home paper like the Gazette, he left town, somewhat hurriedly, one night twelve years ago. Until Monday he has never been back since. The news of his arrival has not been received with general expressions of pleasure. Predictions were freely made about the streets yesterday that if certain old and respected citizens of Hunston should chance to meet the author, trouble is sure to arise.
"Why Mr. Stanhope should have elected to come back to Hunston has not yet been ascertained. Some say that it is the result of a bet, friends having wagered that he would not venture to return for a month's stay here. These declare that he is using the yacht as base of operations to reconnoiter and determine whether it is safe to land. Color is lent to this theory by the pains which the distinguished author is taking to conceal his identity. The name of the yacht has been carefully erased, and he is using, it is said, an assumed name.
"The secret of Mr. Stanhope's identity came out too late last night for the Gazette to obtain an interview. With him on the yacht is a 'Mr. Maginnis,' representing himself as a wealthy New Yorker and a 'student of government.' Both gentlemen, it is said, are claimed as allies by Hunston's new 'Reform party.'"
Peter broke out the moment Varney laid down the paper, but Varney, staring absently out of the porthole, did not listen. This, then, was the meaning of the pale young editor's enigmatical remark last night. Here was no idle malice. Diabolically resourceful and without shame, young Mr. Smith had circulated this lie to discredit reform and drive off its new champion. And this was the way that he, Varney, had kept the coming of the Cypriani quiet in Hunston!
"And think of the cursed bull luck of it!" cried Peter. "The most the rascal hoped to do was to ruin my plans for helping Hare by these dirty hints about both of us—at the best to scare us away from Hunston. He never dreamed that he was knocking the bottom out of any private plans of yours!"
Varney stretched and yawned. "Well, he isn't."
"Doubtless I am a stupid ass and all that," said Peter, staring, "but with the Gazette publishing it about the countryside that you are a yellow dog of the worst nature, I don't grasp how you expect Miss Carstairs to come on this yacht and lunch with you."