A knock sounded on the stateroom door, and McTosh entered, announcing two telegrams for Mr. Varney.
Varney, wondering a little who had known his whereabouts, took the yellow envelopes, nodded to the steward not to wait, broke them open, read the typewritten words within, read them again.
Then he looked up and found Peter gazing at him more or less expectantly.
Varney laughed. "Do you remember that night at the club my saying to you, as a great inducement: 'Suppose the New York papers get on to this'?"
Varney handed him the yellow slips; then he arose and pushed the service button.
"McTosh," he said, "send to town at once and get me copies of the Sun, the Times, the Daily and the Herald—all the New York papers. No, go yourself, and don't stay longer than is absolutely necessary."
Peter, meantime, with a heart beating as it had not beat the night before when he had overthrown Ryan and stolen his meeting, was reading the following:
Daily story has got us all guessing. If it's really you, what the devil are you up to, anyway? R. E. TOWNES.
The other was in a similar vein:
Alarming story in Daily to-day. Absolute secrecy a prerequisite as explained. Reporters tried to reach me to-night. Trust you fully, but implore you to proceed with utmost caution. ELBERT CARSTAIRS.
"The plot thickens," said Peter when Varney turned back, "till I, for one, can't see the drift. However—you've sent for the Daily?"
Varney nodded. "I told him to get three or four others, too, for a blind."
"Politics," said Peter, in his calmest fighting manner, "is all off. I'm not the least interested in it. We'll give the morning to studying yellow journalism. But about Miss Carstairs. How can you possibly—"
"By heaven," said Varney, with a sudden burst of anger, "I'll make her know who I am, if I have to drag in her own mother to introduce me."
He went off to his bath, dressed hurriedly, dawdled a moment at the breakfast-table, where he found Peter discussing a cereal not without a certain solemn pleasure, and went above grappling with the thought that all this would mean a postponement of his call at the Carstairs house, and maybe something more serious still. The morning was sunny and crisp. He walked to the bow, briskly, by way of a constitutional, turned and started down again. As he did this, his eye fell upon a strange figure which had at first escaped him. Toward the stern of the Cypriani, near the wheel, a little runt of a boy hung over the rail, and made the air noxious with the relicts of a low-born cigar. He was an aged, cynical boy, with a phlegmatic mien and a face of the complexion and general appearance of a hickory-nut.
A little surprised by the sudden apparition, Varney came down the deck and dropped into a chair near him.
"Well, my lad! I'm happy to see you and your cigar again. But to what do we owe the pleasure of this call from you two old friends?"
The boy turned his back to the rail and faced him impassively. In the brilliant sunshine, he looked singularly worn and wise.
"I brung dem wires," he said courageously plying the cigar. "Any answer?"
"I'll see, after a while," said Varney, hastily lighting a pipe as counter-irritant. "So you're the telegraph boy, are you?"
"Nawser. Odjobbin' I do. Anythink as comes handy. They don't deliver no wires down here. I handles 'em sometimes for wut dere is in it."
"Oh! Well, I won't fail to see that there is something in it for you this time. And do you make much money odd-jobbing?"
"I git along awright. Summertimes I do. Wintertimes there ain't no odjobbin' much."
"How old are you, my boy?"
"Twelve year old."
"Twelve! I thought you were sixteen, at least."
A faint look of gratification crossed the boy's face, but he only said stoically: "Twelve year's my age."
"What do you do in the wintertime when there isn't much odd-jobbing? How do you get along then?"
"I git along awright. Sometimes I git help. Off a lady here, a frien' o' mine."
"What lady? What's her name?"
"Name o' Miss Mary. Miss Carstair, some calls her. I git money and clo's off her. I'd 'a' had some bum winters, hadn't ben for her."
There was a pause, and then Varney said: "What's your name, my boy?"
Again the boy hesitated. "Tommy," he said presently.
Varney started. Of all the sordid Hunston of the natives, that was the one name which meant anything to him. It was rather a curious coincidence.
"Then I suppose old Sam Orrick," he said kindly, "is your father's father."
"Nawser," he answered slowly. And he added presently, "He wuz me mudder's father."
After that, the silence lengthened. Varney looked off down the river. Tommy Orrick, whose father was named something else, clapped his hand suddenly to his lip, because his cigar just then scorched it unbearably.
"What is your father's name, Tommy?" asked Varney, in a low voice.
His back toward Varney, his fragment of a cigar poised, reluctantly ready to drop, the boy shook his head. "I don't rightly know," he said in his husky little voice.
But Varney knew that name: and he said it now slowly over to himself in a dull and futile anger.
From the shore a boat put out hurriedly and the faithful steward came flying over the water with meritorious speed. With him he was bringing the papers that might settle the Cypriani's mission, but Varney, for the moment, hardly gave him a thought. His own affairs were blotted from his mind just then by the tragedy of the little waif before him, luckless victim of another's sin, small flotsam which barely weathered the winters when odd-jobbing was scarce, and only one lady cared.
"Where do you live, Tommy?"
"Kerrigan's loft mostly—w'en Kerrigan ain't dere."
"This morning," said Varney rapidly, "I'm just as busy as a bee. But this afternoon, or to-morrow morning anyway, I want to come down to Kerrigan's and call on you."
"Wut about?" the boy demanded with an instant suspiciousness which was rather pathetic.
"About you, Tommy. I have got a little plan in my head, and there isn't any time to talk about it now. What would you say to having a home with some nice people I know in another city—in New York?"
A sudden dumbness seized Tommy. His head slowly lowered and he did not answer. Around the deck-house from the port-side hurried McTosh, his arm embracing a bundle of papers, his brow beady with the honest toil of speed wrung out of country paths.
"Ah, steward! You made good time. Ask Mr. Maginnis if he won't come on deck when he is at leisure. Thomas, you're for the shore, aren't you? Forward, there!"
He got up and stood by the side of grave little Tommy Orrick, who was staring silently down at the white deck.
"Down in New York, Tommy, I know a nice woman who has a home and no boys at all to put in it. A long time ago she used to be the nurse of a boy I knew, but he grew up; and now her husband's dead and she's all alone. And here in Hunston is a boy with no home to put himself in. That's you, Tommy, and I—but here's your boat. I'll come to see you to-morrow at Kerrigan's—sure, and we'll talk it all over. Good-bye. And remember that you and I are just the best friends going."
He held out his hand, to shake, but Tommy, in an excess of stage-fright at the unwonted ceremonial, nimbly turned his back; and the next instant he slipped over the rail like an acrobat and dropped into the waiting dinghy. Safely there, he glanced tentatively upward; but seeing that the tall man above was still standing at the rail and was smiling down upon him, looked tactfully away again. And Varney heard him say to the oarsman in a snappy, impatient voice: "Pull for all you know, dere! I got bizness dat won't keep."
Varney sat down with the bundle of papers. Within the minute, Peter appeared, replete but characteristically alert.
"Read it yet?"
"No, but I've found it. It wasn't hard."
He handed Peter the paper, his thumb crooked to indicate the place, which was superfluous; for near the middle of the front page, top of column and in the strong type of captions, the words leaped out to Peter's eye as though hand-illumined in many colors:
FERRIS STANHOPE OR LAURENCE VARNEY
Mystery Surrounding Young Man On Yacht Near Hunston.
He Says He's Varney—Natives say He's Stanhope and Trouble Feared—Yacht is Elbert Carstairs's, with Her Name Painted Out—Mr. Varney's Movements Unknown to Friends Here.
Peter read the story aloud in a guarded undertone. In general, it closely followed the story in the Gazette; so closely indeed as to show at a glance that both productions came from one brain and pen. But toward the end, the new story took a different turn. It said:
"The above is a sample of the gossip which is agitating this usually quiet little town. Late to-night there are two distinct factions. One holds that the young 'stranger' is Ferris Stanhope, reconnoitring under an alias. The other contends that he is really Laurence Varney, or somebody else, up here on some secret mission. Unless the stranger leaves town before, the facts will doubtless be brought out to-morrow. The gossips promise that a sensation of no mean order is forthcoming."
Below this, some one in the Daily office had added:
"A certain air of mystery surrounds Laurence Varney's recent movements. At his bachelor apartments, in the Arvonia, it was learned last night that Mr. Varney was out of the city, but the man-servant there had no idea of his master's whereabouts. From other sources, however, it was learned that Mr. Varney left New York several days ago on the Cypriani, a handsome steam yacht belonging to Elbert Carstairs of No. 00 Fifth Avenue. An attempt was made to reach Mr. Carstairs at his home, but the hour was late, and he could not be interviewed. A telegram sent to Ferris Stanhope's last known address, Camp Skagway in the Adirondacks, was unanswered up to the hour of going to press."
Peter let the paper drop upon his knees, and whistled father shamefacedly. Here was a pretty kettle of fish indeed, and it was all of his brewing. If he had kept his fingers out of the affairs of Hunston, as both his enemy and his friend had warned him to do, the unscrupulous editor would have had no interest in attacking him, over his captain's shoulders, and this damaging story would never have been concocted and spread broadcast as a feast for gossips. He had been brought to Hunston to help Varney—and here was the front-page result.
If a similar thought flashed across Varney's mind in this disturbing moment, he instantly forgot it for others more practical. He sat curled up in a folding deck-chair, swiftly weighing what this new issue might mean, and a moment of rather heavy silence ensued.
The cat was all but out of the bag: this fatal hint at "some secret mission" made that plain. A little carelessness, some more shrewd probing into his affairs, and the jig would be up, indeed. This was the one way that their enemies in Hunston could interfere with him—insisting on knowing why he had come there; and Coligny Smith had had the bull luck, as Peter put it, to stumble on it.
Thus it fell out that he, Varney, who had needed to seek the dark and unobtrusive ways, found himself thrust suddenly into the full glare of the calcium. He who was guarding an errand which nobody should know about was now to be asked by everybody who read newspapers just what that errand was.
It was so absurd that all at once he laughed aloud. However, it was becoming quite serious, and he saw that, too.
"Damn him!" broke out Peter, compactly, and he added presently: "Think of his throwing a bomb in the air like that, and smoking out poor old Carstairs!"
Varney looked up, knocked out his pipe against his heel, and restored it thoughtfully to his pocket. "Yes. Did you notice the difference between those two stories? He doesn't want Hunston even to suspect that I may be myself. His game here is to know I'm Stanhope, whom the whole town is sore on. In New York, he tries both stories, not knowing which will hurt the most. However, theories will keep. The facts are plain. They've started out to run us down—that's all. The point is now to decide what we are going to do about it."
He stood up, tall and cool, his jaw shut tightly, his brow puckered into a long frown, thinking rapidly.
"As I see it," he said slowly, "it works about like this. Probably the Gazette is the local news bureau for this town. At any rate, it is evident that somebody on it is the correspondent of the Daily. The Gazette, we know, wants to run you out of town in order to have a free hand in slaughtering Hare. Last night they supposed that my looking like Stanhope was the best card they had. This morning they will guess that there may be a still better one lying around somewhere. The Daily tells them that I'm Varney, and, what is much more interesting, that I'm using Elbert Carstairs's yacht. Mrs. Elbert Carstairs lives in Hunston. Putting two and two together, and adding the painted-out name and a dash of seeming furtiveness on my part, you have all the materials for a nice, yellow mystery. I haven't the slightest doubt that when that telegraph editor in New York gets down to his office about one o'clock to-day, the very first thing he does, after hanging his coat on the nail, is to wire his correspondent to begin operating on me."
Peter nailed the alternative. "If he doesn't, the Gazette will attend to the job, anyway."
"Yes, the press is on our trail, in any case. The fact that this is the Carstairs yacht will mean more to the Gazette than it could to the Daily. It will be a kind of connecting link for them. Of course, they'll jump at it like wildfire. If they can make anything at all out of it, they'll play it up to-morrow so that nobody in this town can possibly miss seeing it."
"Pray heaven," said Peter, referring to Mary Carstairs, "that she won't see the Daily this morning!"
"Yes. Her father's name would naturally start her to thinking, which would make things awkward."
"Larry, the Gazette is going to print his name to-morrow morning as sure as Smith is a lying sneak."
"We've still got to-day, haven't we? By Jove, it's nearly eleven already. A reporter may be down on us at almost any minute. We can't stand being cross-examined. No searchlight of journalism playing about on the Cypriani just now, thank you. My own idea is—"
"To grab him, to batter the face off him—"
"No, to elude him. Not to be here. In short, to run away."
"What? You can't mean that you are going to let that dog drive you back to New York?"
"Well, hardly. But I do mean to make him think he has! I mean to run down the river a few miles and anchor where they can't find us, simply to get out of the way. Then we'll run back to-morrow in time for the luncheon. What do you think of that?"
Peter, his forehead rumpled like a corduroy road, stared at him fixedly and thought it over. "I think it's the best thing in sight," he said judicially. "An exceedingly neat little idea."
"If we're being watched, it may persuade them that we've gone. Anyway, it will give us time to decide what next," said Varney. And he hurried off to confer with the sailing-master.
Presently the engine-room bell rang out a signal. Orders were given and repeated above and below. Men began moving about swiftly. The noise of coal scraped hurriedly out of bunkers smote the air. The Cypriani's hold throbbed with sudden life.
Varney, running hastily through the two newspaper stories again to make sure that they had missed nothing that might be important to them, was presently joined by Peter, who was looking at his watch every third minute and swearing softly every time he looked. Something had been discovered amiss with the machinery, it seemed. The captain was sure he would have the plaguy thing all right in another half-hour, but you never could tell. For his part he'd swear that a yacht was worse than an old-style motor car: you could absolutely count on her to be out of order at any moment when you positively had to have her.
To be delayed until somebody appeared to challenge their going was to lose half the battle. Varney went off to the sailing-master and spoke with him again, concisely. The sailing-master, a sensitive man to criticism, once more apologized, very technically, and redoubled his energies. He went below himself to superintend the repairs and to prod the laggards to their utmost endeavors. In less than three quarters of an hour, by Peter's watch, he was up again, in a shower of falling perspiration, to announce that all was ready.
However, valuable moments had been lost. It was now nearly half-past twelve, or, in Peter's indignant summary, "just an hour and a half too late."
Varney glanced toward the bridge.
"All ready there?" he called.
"All ready, sir," said the sailing-master, and sprang for the indicator.
"Hold on," said Peter suddenly. "We're getting visitors. There's some one signaling us from the shore."
Varney's heart bounded. He turned with an exclamation; but in the next breath, he ordered: "Let her go, Ferguson."
Upon the shore, at the spot where the Cypriani's boat ordinarily landed, stood a tallish, stocky young man, looking at them cheerfully and swabbing his brow with a large blue handkerchief. Catching Varney's eye, he waved his hand with the handkerchief in it, and said, for the second time:
"Hello, aboard the Cypriani!"
Varney stepped to the rail, a faint smile on his lip. "Hello, there! What can we do for you?"
"Hot as merry hell, isn't it?" said the young man pleasantly. "Send a boat over for me, will you? I'm Hammerton, of the Gazette and the New York Daily, and I want to come aboard for a little talk."
"Never in this world!" breathed Peter, sotto voce.
Varney smiled, grimly. "Sorry, Mr. Hammerton. You're just too late. We are starting away from Hunston this very minute."
The Cypriani shuddered like a live thing and slid slowly forward.
WHICH SHOWS THE HERO A FUGITIVE
Four miles downstream, the river's banks grew a long mile apart, and the scenery was lonesome and a little wild. Here, as it chanced, there was flung across the water a thin, rocky island, well-wooded and of a respectable length. It lay nearest the western shore; and not a hamlet or even a house, it seemed, commanded it from either side.
They recognized it from afar as ideal anchorage for a yacht which wanted to be let alone. So they slowed down into the island's curving shore and dropped anchor in the lee of it, out of sight of the Hunston side of the river and in little evidence from any point in midstream above or below.
Securely hidden from the probing eye of the press, they were now in something of a quandary as to what their next step should be. The hour set for the luncheon, upon which their mission hung, was only twenty-four hours away: and they had no idea whether the guest of honor intended to come or stay away. Varney was torn between the necessity of keeping clear of reporters, and the even more pressing necessity of calling upon Mary Carstairs. If to go to town was a risk, not to go to town was a much greater one.
They finally decided that Peter should go to Hunston first, at once and alone. He would walk in, lest the use of the Cypriani boat should betray them; and there take charge of the situation and see what could be done.
"You sit tight," Peter urged, "and give me a chance at it first. The Gazette has got nothing on me, you know; they can camp on my shirt-tail till they get good and tired. Meantime, I'll spread it around that you've gone away and that I'm hanging on a day or two longer to help Hare. You only came on a pleasure trip, and all these sensational lies spoiled your pleasure: so you pulled out. That's plausible and reasonably true, you see. Then I'm going to find that fellow Hammerton and try to bluff him off."
"I'd much like to give him money, but it's never safe to try that with reporters. Oh, I'll hobnob with the fellow, hand him cigars, jolly him along about the neat way they got revenge on us for the meeting, and sort of take it for granted that the incident ended when they chased you away from town. If he seems dubious and acts as if he meant to work on the 'secret mission' idea just the same, I'll go in and call on Coligny Smith. Oh, I'm not going to hit him. If I hadn't known that would be the worst possible tactics, I'd have gone uptown at nine o'clock this morning and yanked him out of bed by his long, lying ears. I'm only going to talk to him in a kindly way. He told us himself that he was out for the hard money, you know."
"All right," said Varney.
Peter hesitated. "You've got to go in, I suppose? It's hard luck. Here we are working overtime to build up the popular idea that you've quit and gone back to New York. It'll be deuced awkward if that reporter nabs you the minute you set foot in Hunston."
"I've got to risk it. I'll wait a while, though, and give them a chance to drop the trail. And when I do go in, I'm not going with a brass band."
"There's not the least hurry," said Peter. "You've got all the rest of the day—to-morrow morning, too, for that matter. Wait here till you hear from me, will you? Maybe I can turn up something which will save you from having to go in at all."
Varney grinned. "Remember yesterday, Peter?—when you were coming back at ten o'clock and came at four? No more unlimited contracts from me. It is twenty minutes past one now. You can get in by two thirty if you hustle. I must start in by half-past four. It wouldn't be safe to wait any longer."
"Give me a show, will you? Make it five, anyway."
"Five, then. If you're not back on the dot, in I start for my call. Till we meet again."
Peter started down the stair, hesitated, turned and came back again. "Larry," he said, with sudden gruffness, "of course, we 've both been thinking that if it hadn't been for me, none of this mess would have happened. I kick myself when I think—"
"Drop it, Peter. Nobody in the world could have foreseen—"
"Every ass in the United States," said Maginnis, his ponderous foot on the ladder, "could have foreseen it but me. I just want you to know that politics is absolutely sidetracked now. Before I'll let this deal of ours fall through, I'll see Hare licked till they can't scrape him together afterward with a fine-tooth comb."
It was deadly quiet on the yacht after Peter left. At two o'clock Varney went down to a solitary luncheon. At quarter past, followed by the reproachful gaze of McTosh, he came out again. In the pit of his stomach reposed a great emptiness, but it was not hunger. He felt restless, high-strung, all made of nerves. He wanted to do something of a violent, physical sort, the more grueling the better; and his task was to loll in an easy-chair under a pretty awning and inspect the landscape.
The port side of the Cypriani was jammed as close into the island as the science of navigation made possible. Varney went over to the other side and sat down to wait. In front of him, a hundred yards away, the western bank rose abruptly from the water's edge, reaching here and there to loftiness. There were woods upon it, thick and silent, which looked as if the defiling hand of man had never entered there. At his back was the still, empty little island; at either side stretched the deserted river.
He thought it as lonely a spot as could have been found in a day's journey, but a moment later he discovered his mistake. It was suddenly borne in upon him that the tall, thin object which nestled so closely among the trees a mile to the south that it was scarcely distinguishable from them, was in reality the spire of some church; and he knew that he was much closer to his kind than he had thought.
And then, in time, he noticed other things. Before a great while, he saw a boat with one person in it—a woman he thought—put out from the shore at about where the village must be and start across to the other bank. And later, as the afternoon wore on, he caught sight of a canoe, a few hundred yards upstream, rocking idly down with the current. An elderly-looking man sat in it, with a short brown beard and sun-goggles showing under his soft hat—for the water burned under a brilliant sky—stolidly fishing and reading a book. He looked like a rusticating college professor—of Greek, say—and this theory seemed to be supported by his obvious ignorance as to how to keep a canoe on the popular side of the water.
And later still a row-boat came swinging briskly up the quiet channel where the yacht lay and passed her at fifty yards. A man and a woman sat in it, presumably bound for Hunston, and they stared at the hidden, detected Cypriani with a degree of frank interest which suggested that they would not fail to mention the strange sight to every acquaintance they met in town.
"That's the beauty about a yacht," thought Varney, annoyed. "You might as well try to hide an elephant in a hall room."
But his mind soon strayed from the pair of bumpkins and went off to other and more pressing matters. He had now, not one great difficulty to meet and overcome, but two. One of them was to make Uncle Elbert's daughter keep her engagement with him. The other was to prevent the Gazette from linking the name of the Cypriani with the name of Carstairs to-morrow morning. About the first of these he allowed himself no doubts. If the worst came to the worst, he would turn to Mrs. Carstairs. Brutal it might be to compel the mother to introduce the kidnapper to his quarry, her daughter; but that was no fault of his. He would do his duty by Mrs. Carstairs's husband, no matter who got hurt. Miss Carstairs should come to the Cypriani to-morrow as she had promised. In heaven or earth, on land or sea, there was no power which should keep him from having his will there.
But then there was the Gazette. Smith, the clever, would doubt that the Cypriani had really gone back to New York. Suppose, since he could not find her, he would venture a few shrewd guesses in his paper to-morrow morning connecting that "secret mission" the Daily had mentioned with Mrs. Elbert Carstairs. Miss Carstairs would see what the Gazette said; and what questions would she have to ask him before she would come as his guest to the yacht?...
A ripple of water fell across the young man's thought, and he glanced up. The college professor, whom the current had washed much nearer now, fancying, it appeared, that he had got a bite, had suddenly thrown himself far over the edge of his canoe, stretching his rod to the farthest reach. The slender birch-bark tipped so violently that even he noticed it; and the next instant, he sprang back again, rocking at a great rate.
"Simpleton!" thought Varney. "He will go over in a minute...."
Now her face rose before him as he had seen it first last night at Stanhope's cottage, radiant as a dream come true—looking at him and saying: "I'd like it very much if you could just trust me!" And he saw her again when she had looked at him, eye to eye over the many heads before the theatre, with only blank unrecognition in her glance, or had there been, after all, a sort of latent sorrowfulness there? And then he saw her once more, as she stood in the little box-office, her cheeks suddenly stained red, when she begged him, please, not to ask her to discuss it any more....
A sudden sharp thought came to him, putting all his imaginings to flight, a thought so vital and so obvious that it was incredible that it had not once crossed his mind before. If the Gazette doubted that he had returned to New York, if it was still on his trail and still wanted to embarrass him, it would send a man straight to Mrs. Carstairs.
How could he possibly have overlooked that? With the secret of the Cypriani's ownership out, of course that would be the first thing Smith would think of: to ask Mrs. Carstairs what had brought her husband's yacht to Hunston. And when the reporter went, who could say what damaging admission he might surprise out of the poor lady, or at the least what inklings to hang diabolical guesses upon? Worst of all, he might see Miss Carstairs herself—awaken no one knew what suspicions in her already perplexed mind.
He sprang up and glanced at his watch. It was twenty minutes past four. Every minute had become precious now, and waiting for Peter was of course not to be thought of. While he loitered ineffectually here, Coligny Smith, four miles away, might be doing his plans the irremediable injury. And he started for the cabin swiftly to get his hat.
But there came an interruption which stopped him short. A quick loud splashing and sudden cries arose from the water near at hand; and he divined instantly what had happened. The college professor, like the ass he was, had upset his canoe.
Varney halted, strode back to the rail. The professor came up spluttering, blowing quarts of water from his mouth and nose, making feeble strokes with his ineffective, collegiate arms.
"Help!" he called in a thin watery voice. "Help! I can't swim." Whereon, he immediately bobbed under again.
Of course, there was nothing to do but accede to that request.
"Lay hold of the canoe," called Varney impatiently, when the poor fellow reappeared. "I'll send a boat down for you."
There had been no chance of his drowning: for the overturned canoe was staunch, and floated, a splendid life-belt, not a foot away from him. At Varney's word, he seized hold of it feebly, with both hands. The crew were quick. One or two of them had been watching the madman's antics for some time, it appeared; and they had a boat down and over to him in no time.
Sopping with water, dripping it from his clothes and his hair and his brown academic beard, a dazed and pitiable-looking object, he came up the ladder not without nimbleness, and stepped through the gangway upon the deck.
Varney took it that his own duties in the matter were now at an end. "Hold your places," he called to the boat crew. "I shall need you myself at once."
Then he turned hurriedly to the man he had rescued, who stood silently on the deck, wringing cups of water from the skirts of his black cutaway coat.
"I'll have them bring you dry clothes," he said swiftly, "and anything else you need. You'll excuse me? I am compelled to—"
But at that he stopped dead; for the brown beard of the college professor suddenly loosened and fell upon the deck. The professor, not at all discomposed by the extraordinary accident, kicked it carelessly to one side, and pitching his large hat and goggles after it, faced Varney with a jovial smile.
"You don't happen to have a thimble-full of redeye about, do you, Mr. Varney?" he asked chattily. "I'm Hammerton, of the Gazette and the Daily, you know, and that river down there is wet."
A YELLOW JOURNALIST SECURES A SCOOP BUT FAILS TO GET AWAY WITH IT
Garbed in a suit of Varney's clothes, warmed beneath his belt by a libation from the Cypriani's choicest stock, eased as to his person by a pillow beneath his head and a comfortable rest for his feet, Charlie Hammerton threw back his head and laughed.
"I'm not crazy about those grand-stand plays as a rule," he said. "Because in the first place they're yellow, and in the second place they're a darned lot of bother. But I just had to see you—I guess you know why—and I couldn't think of anything else that struck me as really sure. How'd I do it? Fair imitashe, hey? And I only told one lie, which is pretty good for a proposition of this sort. I can swim, Mr. Varney. Like a blooming duck."
Varney laughed. "You're half an hour too late in telling me that, you know! But tell me how you managed all this: it was so clever! And do try one of these cigars."
They sat at ease on the awninged after-deck, a wicker table between them convivial with decanters and their recognized appurtenances, like two old friends met for a happy reunion. The Gazette's star reporter was as different from one's conception of a dangerous adversary as it is possible for a man to be. He seemed only a pleasant-faced, friendly boy of twenty-three or four, with an honest eye and a singularly infectious laugh.
"Don't mind if I do—thanks!" said Hammerton, to the proffer of cigars. "Well, it wasn't so very hard. After you steamed off, and left me gazing nervously out to sea like a deserted fisher's wife, I—"
"No, you don't!" laughed Varney. "Begin way back at the beginning. I'm as ignorant as a baby about all this, you know."
Hammerton rather liked the idea of lolling on a luxurious yacht and explaining to the outwitted owner just how he had done it.
"Well," he said, "it's like this. When you fellows jumped in and kidnapped Ryan and banged the administration in the eye and slapped the Gazette some stinging ones on the wrist, of course, we couldn't just sit still and go quietly on with our knitting. Nay, nay! So we played up that gossip about you as strong as we could, sort of guessing that it might hurt your feelings a little. I'm going to be frank with you, you see! And then another idea came to us that wasn't half bad. You said you were Mr. Laurence Varney of New York. Well, whether that was true or not—begging your pardon, of course!—that gave it a New York interest, don't you see? So Mr. Smith, more by way of a feeler than anything else, wired it off to the Daily—"
"Why," interrupted Varney, "I thought you were the correspondent of the Daily?"
"So I am. But this time it was only nominal. He's pretty fond of doing it himself, Smith is. Well, as soon as I got down this morning, he called me in and showed me the Daily. You've seen it, I suppose? Of course, we were struck with the way our story had caught on, and particularly with the postscript about Elbert Carstairs and the mystery idea. Smith said: 'There appears to be more in this than meets the eye, Charles. Hustle you down to the Cypriani, or ever the birds be flown.' So I hustled. But then I did a fool thing that nearly gummed the game entirely. Just at the edge of the woods, I met a boy coming up the hill.
"Maybe you remember that kid, Mr. Varney—the telegraph boy? He was just on his way back from the yacht when I ran into him."
"Come to think of it, I believe I did see that boy hanging around here."
"As hard a little nut," said Hammerton, "as you ever saw in your life. When he saw me, he stopped short and asked where I was going. I told him to the yacht. ''T ain't no use,' he said—I won't try to give his lingo—'they've gone.' And the little devil actually went on to tell me how he had overheard the two gentlemen talking—guys he called you—and how you had decided to return to New York at once, and how he had looked back from the shore and seen the yacht already steaming away."
Thus Varney learned that he had one friend in Hunston who was true to him, according to his poor little lights; and he felt that that kindly lie of Tommy Orrick's, if it was ever set down against him anywhere, must be the kind that is blotted out again in tears.
"Why, I've been good to that kid," said Hammerton, "giving him cigar-ends nearly every time I see him and that sort of thing. I never thought he had so much pure malice in him. Well, like a fool, I turned right around and went back. I felt so pleased about it—for of course that was just what the Gazette wanted—that I dropped in at the Ottoman for an eye-opener, and by Jove! it was nearly an hour before I got back to the office."
He laughed, at first ruefully, then merrily—for had not everything turned out in the most satisfactory way in the world?
"Smith's a beaut," he said, shaking his head reminiscently. "I don't believe anything ever got away from him since he was big enough to sit in front of a desk. When I told him that you fellows had gone back to New York, he never batted an eye. He just pulled a telescope out of the bottom drawer of his desk and went up to the roof. In two minutes he was down again. 'Charles,' he said in that quiet biting way of his, 'God may have put bigger fools than you into this world, but in his great mercy he has not sent them to retard the work of the Gazette. The yacht lies precisely where she has lain for these two days. Will it be quite convenient for you to drop down there and have a talk, or do you design to wait until the gentlemen call at your desk and beg the privilege of telling you all?'"
He laughed again, this time without a trace of resentment; and so merry and spontaneous was this laugh that Varney could not help joining in.
"I suppose old Smith can tell you to go-to-hell more politely, yet more thoroughly, than any man that ever lived. I ran—and I was just in time at that, hey? Well, when you fellows steamed off, I kind of suspected that you weren't going very far. So I got a boy and had him trail you down the old River road on a wheel. By the time he got back and told me that I had sized it up about right, I had my plans arranged and my make-up all ready. That make-up was rather neat, I thought, what? Meantime, a long wire had come in from the Daily office, which made me keener than ever to see you. So I hired another wheel, ran on down, borrowed a canoe from a man I know here, and I guess you know the rest."
"I should say I did," said Varney. "Ha, ha! I should rather say I did."
One reason why it was so advantageous to make the boy talk was that it gave one a chance to think. All the time that he had listened so pleasantly to this garrulous chatter, Varney had been swiftly planning. Now he had the situation pretty well analyzed and saw all the ways that there were.
He might send the reporter away convinced that there was nothing in this new theory, after all, that the Gazette's trump card in fighting Maginnis and Reform was still his own unhappy resemblance to the outlawed author. Or he might send him off with enough of a new theory to make him think it unnecessary to go to Mrs. Carstairs or her daughter—the fatal possibility. Or, if both of these proved impracticable as they almost certainly would, there was only one course left: he would not let Hammerton go away at all.
"But have another little drop or two, won't you? Those dips with your clothes on aren't a bit good for the health."
"Well, just a little tickler," said Charlie Hammerton. But he permitted himself to be helped quite liberally, with no protesting "when." "My regards, Mr. Varney! Also my compliments and thanks for accepting the situation like such a genuine game one."
Varney nodded. "The fortunes of war, Mr. Hammerton. But do go on. You have no idea how interesting the newspaper game is to an outsider, particularly—ha, ha!—when it walks right across his own quiet career. As I understand it, you're on the regular staff of the Gazette, and then are a special correspondent of the Daily, besides?"
Hammerton, cocksure of his game and pleasantly cheered by the potent draught, thought that he had never interviewed so agreeable a man.
"That's it exactly. Then, besides, we run a little news-bureau at the Gazette, you know—sell special stuff, whenever there's anything doing, to papers all over the country. The bureau didn't touch this story last night—why, I thought it was too 'it-is-understood' and 'rumor-has-it' and all that, to go even with the Daily—in your old own town. It'll be different to-night, all right. We'll query our whole string on it now—unless," he added with frank despondency, "the darned old Associated Press decides to pinch it."
"Query them, Mr. Hammerton?"
"Yes, wire them a brief, kind of piquant outline of the story, you know, and ask them if they don't want it. And I sort of guess they'll all want it, all right!"
"We'll see about that in a minute," laughed Varney. "There's lots of time. Tell me about that brilliant young editor of yours, Mr. Smith. The men in the office all like him and sympathize with his policies, I suppose?"
Hammerton laughed, doubtfully. "Well, they all look up to him and respect him as one of the cleverest newspaper men in the country. Personally, I like old Smith fine, though nobody ever gets close to him a bit. He's mighty good to me—lets me write little editorials two or three times a week, and says I'm not so awful at it. As for sympathizing with his policies—well, you know I'm not sure Smith sympathizes with 'em much himself. I have a kind of private hunch that he's gotten sore on his job and would sell out if somebody—well, suppose we say our friend Ryan—would offer him his price. No, I'm not so keen for these indirect methods, Mr. Varney. At the same time, it's part of the game, I suppose, and I always believe in playing a game right out to the end, for everything there is in it."
At the unmistakable significance in his tone, Varney looked up and found the reporter's eyes fixed upon him in an odd gaze which made him look all at once ten years older and infinitely difficult to baffle: a gaze which made it plain, in fact, that the wearer of it was not to be put off with anything short of the whole truth. The next second that look broke into an easy laugh, and Hammerton was a chattering boy again.
But Varney's mood rose instantly to meet the antagonism of the reporter's look, and hung there. He pulled a silver case from his pocket, selected a cigarette with care and lit it with deliberation. He had learned everything that he wanted to know; the conversation was beginning to grow tiresome; and he found the boy's careless self-confidence increasingly exasperating.
"But as for undercutting Hare," laughed Hammerton, "I don't like it a—"
"Tell me this," Varney interrupted coolly. "When the Gazette prepared its story about me last night, did it believe for one moment that I was this man Stanhope?"
"Why, I'm not the Gazette, of course," said Hammerton, a little taken aback by the cool change of both topic and manner, "but my private suspicion is that it entertained a few doubts on the subject. What do we think now? Look here, Mr. Varney," the boy said amiably, "you've been white about this business, and I do really want to show that I appreciate it."
He fumbled in the side-pocket of his wet coat, which hung on a near-by chair, produced a damp paper of the familiar yellow, smoothed it out and handed it across the table.
"I guess I won't keep any secrets from you, Mr. Varney."
Varney, taking the telegram with a nod, read the following:
Varney-Stanhope story good stuff, but lacking details, vague and inaccurate. Stanhope located in Adirondacks, though not reached. See Daily to-day. Man on yacht Varney. Apparent secrecy surrounding departure from here. Interview him sure and secure full statement as to business which brought him to Hunston. Also interview Mrs. Elbert Carstairs in Hunston. She separated from husband years ago. His yacht there with name erased suggests mystery. Rush fullest details day-rate if necessary. Pictures made. Expect complete story and interviews early to-night sure. S. P. STOKES.
"Now," said Charlie Hammerton, when Varney looked up, "you see why I went to such a lot of trouble to get hold of you."
"Yes," said Varney, slowly, his eye upon him, "I see."
He folded the telegram, laid it at Hammerton's elbow, got up and stood with his hands on the back of his chair, looking down. At the thought that he had ever hoped to call the reporter off, to stop this deadly machinery of journalism, once it had been started, he could have laughed. The Daily telegram showed how impossible that had always been. Now it was suddenly and overwhelmingly plain that to force a fight on Hammerton, which had been his favorite purpose from the beginning, even to seize and lock him up, would be of no avail whatever. Other reporters in endless procession, waited behind him, ready to step into his place; and the pitiless machinery, in which he, Varney, happened to be caught at the moment, would go steadily grinding on till it had crushed out the heart of the hidden truth.
He saw no way out at all. His mind revolved at fever heat, while he said calmly: "Go back to your employers, Mr. Hammerton, and report that you have no story to sell them. Say further that since they knowingly printed a lying slander about me this morning, you, as an honorable man, insist upon their making full retractions and apologies to-morrow."
Hammerton, who had taken his interview as a foregone conclusion, looked momentarily astounded; but on top of that his manner changed again, to meet Varney's changed one, in the wink of an eye.
"You can't mean," he said briskly, ignoring Varney's last remark entirely, "that you decline to make a statement for our readers?"
"Why should I encourage your readers to stick their infernal noses into my business?"
"For your own sake, Mr. Varney—because everybody has started asking questions. To refuse to answer them, from your point of view, is the worst thing you could do. As you know, newspapers always have other sources of information, and also ways of making intelligent guesses. While these guesses are usually surprisingly accurate, it sometimes happens that we work out a theory that is a whole lot worse than the truth."
"Of course," said Varney, with sudden absentness. "That's the way you sell your dirty papers, is n't it?"
"Mr. Varney, why did you come—?" began Hammerton, but stopped short, perceiving that the other no longer listened, and quite content to leave him to a little reflection.
For Varney, struck by a thought so new that it was overwhelming, had unexpectedly turned away. He leaned upon the rail and looked out over the blue, sunny water. A brilliant plan had flashed into his mind—a big daring plan which, far more than anything else he had thought of, might be effective and final. Instead of making an enemy of Hammerton, which could accomplish nothing, it would turn him into a champion, which meant victory.
It was a desperate solution, but it was a solution.
After all, what else remained? To dismiss the boy with nothing would be to send him straight to the Carstairs house with no one knew what results. To manhandle him would be simply to start another sleuth on the trail. But this plan, if it worked, would avoid that, and every other, risk of trouble. And if it failed, he would be no worse off than he was now; for in that case he would not allow Hammerton to go back to the Gazette at all that day.
He dropped his cigarette over the side, turned and found the eye of the press firmly fastened upon him.
"Mr. Varney," said Hammerton, with swift acuteness, "maybe I'm not as bad a fellow as you think. Why can't you trust me with this story—of what brought you to Hunston, and what made you run away this morning and hide? If it's really something that newspapers haven't got anything to do with, I'll go straight back to the office and make them leave you alone. Oh, I have enough influence to do it, all right! And if it's something different and—well, a little unusual, I'll promise to put you in the best light possible. Why don't you trust me with it?"
"Well," said Varney with a stormy smile, "suppose I do, then!"
"Good!" cried Hammerton cordially, observing him, however, with some intentness. "Honestly, it's the very best thing you could do."
Varney rested upon the back of his chair again and stood staring down at the reporter for some time in silence.
"Mr. Hammerton," he began presently, "I know that the great majority of newspaper men are fair and honorable and absolutely trustworthy. I know that it is a part of their capital to be able to keep a secret as well as to print one. For this reason, I have upon reflection decided to confide—certain facts to you, feeling sure that they will never go any further—"
"Of course, Mr. Varney," the reporter interrupted, "you understand that I can't make any promises in advance."
"Let the risk be mine," said Varney. "I am certain that when you have heard what I have to tell you, you will report to your papers that my 'mysterious errand' turns out to be simply a matter of personal and private business, with which the public has no concern, and whose publication at this time would hopelessly ruin it. Mr. Hammerton, I came to Hunston to see Miss Mary Carstairs."
A gleam came into Hammerton's eye. Varney, watching that observant feature, knew that no detail of his story, or of his manner in telling it, would escape a most critical scrutiny.
"The fewer particulars the better," he said grimly. "I shall tell the substance because that seems now, after all, the best way to protect the interests of those concerned. Mr. Hammerton, as the Daily told you, Mr. Carstairs and his wife have separated, though they are still on friendly terms with each other. Their only child remains with the mother. Mr. Carstairs is getting old. He is naturally an affectionate man, and he is very lonely. In short, he has become most anxious to have his daughter spend part of her time with him. Mrs. Carstairs entirely approves of this. The daughter, however, absolutely refuses to leave her mother, feeling, it appears, that nothing is due her father from her. Arguments are useless. Well, what is to be done? Mr. Carstairs, because his great need of his daughter grows upon him, conceives an unusual plan. He will send an ambassador to Hunston—unaccredited, of course, a man, young, not married, who—don't think me a coxcomb—but who might be able to arouse the daughter's interest. This ambassador is to go on Mr. Carstairs's own yacht, the name, of course, being erased, so that the daughter may not recognize it. He is to meet the young lady, cultivate her, make friends with her—all without letting her dream that he comes from her father, for that would ruin everything. And, then—"
He broke off, paused, considered. In Hammerton's eye he saw a light which meant sympathy, kindly consideration, human interest. He knew that the battle was half won. He had only to say: "And then talk to her about her poor old father, who loves her, and who is growing old in a big house all by himself; and tell her how he needs her so sorely that old grudges ought to be forgotten; and ask her, in the name of common kindness, to come down and pay him a visit before it is too late." He had only to say that, and he knew, for he read it in Hammerton's whole softened expression, that the boy would go away with his lips locked.
But he couldn't say that, the reason being that it was not true.
"And then," he said, with a truthfulness so bold that he was sure the reporter would not follow it, "and then—don't you see? he is to try to make her go down to New York and pay a visit to that lonely old father who needs her so badly. Since she is so obstinate about it, he must find some way to make her go before it is too late. Now do you understand, Mr. Hammerton? Now do you perceive why the thought of having all this pitiful story scareheaded in a penny paper is insufferable to me?"
He towered above Hammerton, crisp words falling like leaden bullets, stern, insistent, determined to be believed. But he saw a look dawn on the younger man's face which made him instantly fear that he had told too much.
And then suddenly Hammerton sprang to his feet, keen eyes shot with light, ruddy cheek paled a little with excitement, fronting Varney in startled triumph over the drinks they had shared.
"Make her!" he blurted in a high shrill voice. "Mr. Varney, you came up here to kidnap her!"
The two men stared at each other in a moment of horrified silence. Something in the reporter's air of victory, in the kind of thrilling joy with which he pounced upon the carefully guarded little secret and dragged it out into the light, made him all at once loathsome in Varney's eyes, a creature unspeakably repellent.
Suddenly he leaned across the little table and struck Hammerton lightly across the mouth with the back of his hand.
"You cad," he said whitely.
But Hammerton, never to be stopped by details now, ignored both the insult and the blow. He was on the rail like a cat, ready to swim for it, hot to take his great scoop to Mrs. Carstairs, to Coligny Smith, to readers of newspapers all over the land.
The table was between them, and it went over with a crash. Quick as he was, Varney was barely in time. His hand fell upon the reporter's coat when another fraction of a second would have been too late. Then he flung backward with a wrench, and Hammerton came toppling heavily to the deck.
Smarting with the pain of the fall, hot with anger at last, the reporter was up in an instant, spitting blood, and they clenched with the swiftness of lightning. Then they broke away, violently, and went at it in grim earnest.
It was the fight of a lifetime for each of them and they were splendidly matched. Hammerton was two inches the shorter, but he had twenty pounds of solid weight to offset that; and in close work, especially, his execution was polished. They had it up and down the deck, hammer and tongs, swinging, landing, rushing, sidestepping. At the first crash of broken glass on the deck, the crew had begun to appear, unobtrusively from all directions. Now cabin-hatch, galley-hatch, deck-house, every coign of vantage along the battlefield held its silent cluster of wondering figures. But McTosh, familiar old family retainer, slipped nearer at the first opportunity and whispered, in just that eager tone with which he pressed a side-dish upon one's notice:
"Can't I give you a little help, sir?"
"Keep away, steward," said Varney, between clenched teeth, "or you'll get hurt."
Saying which, he received a savage blow on the point of the chin and struck the deck with a thud.
"Oh, my Gawd, sir!" breathed McTosh.
But his young master was on his feet like a tiger, in a whirl of crazy passion. He had resolved all along that Hammerton would have to kill him before he should get away with that secret. Now it came to him like a divine revelation that the way to avoid this was to kill Hammerton. To that pleasant end, he goaded his adversary with a light blow, side-stepped his rush, uppercutted and the reporter went down, almost head first, and cruelly hard.
He came up dazed, game but very wild, and Varney got another chance promptly, which was just as well. Hammerton went down again, head on once more, and this time he did not come up at all.
The crew, unable to repress themselves, let out a cheer, and came crowding on the deck. But Varney, standing over Hammerton's limp body, waved them back impatiently.
"Hold your noise!" he ordered. "And stand back! I'm attending to this job!"
He picked Hammerton up in his arms, staggered with him to his own stateroom, and laid him down on the bunk. The boy did not stir, gave no visible sign of life. But when Varney put his hand over the other's heart, he found it beating away quite firmly. His breathing and pulse were regular—everything was quite as it should be. He would come round in half an hour, and be as good a man as ever. And he would have a long, idle time to rest, and look after his bruises and get back his strength again.
Varney took the key from the door, put it in outside, turned it and came on deck again. The crew had vanished to their several haunts. Two deck-hands in blouses and red caps had just completed the rehabilitation of the deck, and at sight of him discreetly vanished forward.
"Ferguson," called Varney, "a word with you, please."
The grizzled sailing-master came quickly, obviously curious for an explanation of these strange matters.
Rapidly Varney explained to him that the incarcerated man was a reporter who thought that he had got hold of a scandalous story about Mr. Carstairs, and was most anxious to get ashore so that he could publish this scandal all over the country.
"I am obliged to go to town immediately," he continued. "Rumors of this ugly story have already been started, and I must do everything I can to nail them. I am going to trust the responsibility here to you. As soon as I leave the yacht, I want you to start her down the river. That is to get the gentleman and the yacht out of the way. Go straight ahead for two or three hours and then come back. Make your calculations so that you'll get back here at—say ten o'clock to-night—here, mind you, not the old anchorage. I'll be ready to come aboard by that time. Have two men guard that stateroom constantly every minute. Give the gentleman every possible attention, but don't let him make any noise, and don't let him get out. No matter what he says or does, don't let him get out. Do you follow me?"
"I do, sir. To the menootest detail."
"If you carry the matter through, you may rely upon Mr. Carstairs's gratitude. If, on the other hand, you fail—"
"Oh, I'll not fail, sir. Have no fear of that."
"I am speaking to you man to man, Ferguson, when I say, for God's sake don't."
He walked away to arrange himself a little for the town, seeing clearly that there was but one possible way out of all this for him now. The sailing-master stared after him with a very curious expression upon his weather-beaten face.
At about the same moment, in a tiny room four miles away, an elderly, melancholy man sat bowed over a telegraph board and drowsily plied his keys. He was the Gazette's special operator, and, having his orders from Mr. Parker, who looked after the news bureau when Hammerton was away, he was methodically going through his list like this:
Ferris Stanhope or Laurence Varney? Baffling mystery surrounding prominent men, one of whom now hiding here. Probable scandal, one thousand words.
Ferris Stanhope or Laurence Varney? Baffling mystery—
VARNEY MEETS HIS ENEMY AND IS DISARMED
Varney crossed the square in the gathering dusk and went slowly up Main Street, looking about him as he walked. He had wrenched his ankle slightly in one of his falls upon the Cypriani's deck, and the four-mile walk over the ruts of the River road to the town had done it no good. Worse yet, it had made the trip down from the yacht laboriously slow, and he was harried with the fear that the irreparable damage might already have been done.
If it had not, if no reporter had yet gone to the Carstairs house, his one possible hope of escape stood before him like a palm-tree in a plain. Stiffened and strengthened by all his difficulties, his resolve to win throbbed and mounted within him; but he faced the knowledge that the odds now were heavily against him. On the long chance, he had played a desperate game, had come within an ace of winning, and had lost. His great secret which, beyond any other purpose, he had meant to guard to the end, was glaringly out. Now it was the iron heart of his will that it should go no further. Talkative young Hammerton had given him the hint how that might be accomplished; and if the method was extreme, it would be sure. Whatever the cost, it would be a small price to pay for keeping his name, and Uncle Elbert's, out of ruinous headlines in to-morrow's papers.
Two blocks further on he came opposite a neat, three-story brick building, across the width of which was a black and gold signboard, lettered THE GAZETTE. Below it was the large plate-glass window of a counting-room, now dark. On the left was a lighted doorway, leading upstairs.
Varney crossed, climbed the stairs, found himself in a narrow upstairs hall, rapped upon a closed ground-glass door bearing the legend "Editorial." From within, a voice of unenthusiasm bade him enter, and he went in, closing the door behind him.
In a swivel-chair by an open roller-top desk, a young man sat, idly smoking a cigarette, his back to the door, his languorous feet hung out of the window. There were electric lights in the room, but they were not lit. All the illumination that there was came from a single dingy gas-fixture stuck in the wall near the desk, but that was enough.
Varney came closer. "Smith," said he.
"Well," said Smith.
"I have come to see you."
"Well—look away," said Smith.
There was not a trace of the "Hast thou found me?" in the editor's voice or his manner. If he expected assassination, he did not appear to mind. He sat on without turning, staring apathetically out of the window, just as he had done when he watched Varney cross and come in at his door.
"I have come," said Varney, "because I understand that you are the sole owner, as well as the editor, of this paper. Am I right?"
Smith lit a fresh cigarette, flipped the old one out of the window and paused to watch the boys outside fight for it. Half-smoked stubs came frequently out of that window when Mr. Smith sat there and many boys in Hunston knew it.
"Assuming that you are?" queried he.
"Assuming that," said Varney, "I'll say that I have come to buy this paper. And to discharge you from the editorship."
Smith drew in his feet, and swung slowly around. The two men measured each other in an interval of intelligent silence. On the whole, upon this close view, Varney found it harder to think of Smith as a contemptible cur who circulated lying slanders for profit than as the young man who wrote the famous editorials.
"And still they come," said Smith, enigmatically. "Three of them in one day—well, well!" And he added musingly: "So I have stung you as hard as that, have I?"
"Let us say rather," said Varney, whose present tack was diplomacy, "that I have some loose money which I want to stow away in a paying little enterprise."
"I am the last man in the world to boast of a kindness," continued Smith, in his faintly mocking manner, "but I gave you fair warning to leave town."
"Instead I stayed. And an exceedingly interesting town I have found it. Something doing every minute. But, as I just remarked, I have looked in to buy your paper."
"If I were like some I know," meditated Smith, "I'd be thinking: 'The Lord has delivered him into my hand, aye, delivered dear old Beany.' I'd embarrass you with questions, make you blush with catechisms. But I am a merciful man, and observe that I ask you nothing. You want to buy the Gazette for an investment. Let it stand at that. So you're the money-grubbing sort that supposes that everything on God's hassock has its price?"
"I believe it's street knowledge that the Gazette has its. But I called really not so much to discuss ethics, as to ascertain your figure."
Smith gave a sigh which was not without its trace of mockery. "'Fortunately, I am hardened to insults. Editors are expected to stand anything. Times are dull—nothing much to do—drop around and kick the editor. You've no idea what we have to put up with from spring poets alone. Rejoice, B——, that is, Mr.—er—Blank, that the Gazette is never to be yours."
"You can't mean that you decline to sell?"
"When I implied to you just now that I was sole owner of the Gazette, I was, of course, speaking rather reminiscently than in the strict light of present facts."
"What do you mean by that?"
"That I sold the Gazette at four o'clock this afternoon."
For an instant the room whirled and Varney saw nothing in it but the odd eyes of Coligny Smith steadily fixing him. By the shock of that blow, he realized that, after all, he had wholly counted upon succeeding in this. From the moment when he had turned his stateroom key on unconscious Charlie Hammerton, he had recognized it as his one chance. And now he was too late. Clever Ryan, who missed nothing, doubtless suspecting that the faithless editor who had sold out once to him might now be planning to do it again to a higher bidder, had outstripped him. And the Gazette to-morrow would damn him utterly.
But Varney's face, as these thoughts came to him, wore a faint, non-committal smile. "That is final, I suppose?"
"As death, so far as I am concerned. I leave Hunston permanently to-morrow morning."
"Who was the buyer?"
"There is really no reason why I should divulge his confidence that I know of; but, curses on me, I'll do it if you'll tell me this: Where is Charles Hammerton?"
Varney laid his hat and stick on the table, to rid his hands of them, and faced Mr. Smith, leaning lightly against it.
"I came here, Smith, to ask questions, not to answer them. On second thoughts, I withdraw my last one, for I can guess the answer. But before we proceed further, I want you to tell me this: what made you sell?"
The editor pitched another cigarette-end out of the window. Again a shout from the street indicated that it had become a bone of bitter contest among the town's smokers of the sub-rosa class.
"Suppose I were to tell you," said Smith slowly, "that I anticipate a shakeup here which will cut the backbone out of my profits? What would you say to that?"
"I suppose I should say that it was ever the custom of rats to desert a sinking ship. So that was your mainspring, was it?"
"On the contrary," said Smith. "I am taking what is technically known as a small rise out of you. You ask why I sold. It was a man with the price. Money," began Mr. Smith, "screams. The cash on my desk was this man's way of doing business, and a good deal it was. However, it'll net him six per cent year in and out, at that—a good rate in these lean times. I, of course, did better. I got—shall we say?—pickings. The past tense already, heigho! Well, it's been a most instructive life. My father taught me to write. He was esteemed a good editor, and he was, but at eighteen I was correcting his leaders for him. Hand Greeley a soft pencil and a pass at the encyclopedia, so he used to say, and he could prove anything under the sun. I am like that, except that—well, I don't believe I need the encyclopedia. It wasn't Greeley who made the remark, of course. It's a rule on the press to pin all journalistic anecdotes on Greeley. You sign the pledge when you go in. To be accounted strictly moral," continued Smith, "an editor must be blind in one eye and astigmatic in the other. Then he rings the bull's-eye of Virtue ten times out of ten, and the clergy bleats with delight. You can't find spiritual candor anywhere with a telescope, except in the criminal classes. There are no Pharisees there, God be praised! For my part, I see both sides of every question that was ever asked, and usually—don't you think?—both of them are right. I first adopt my point of view and subsequently prove it. Obviously, this is where the pickings come in. My grandfather started this paper on two hundred and fifty dollars, fifty dollars of which, I have heard, was his own. I could knock off for life as an idle member of the predatory classes, I suppose, but after all, I was made for an editor. In years past, I have, of course, had my offers from New York. Two of them were left open forever, and a little while ago, I telegraphed down and took the best. A grateful wire came in five minutes ahead of you. And that," he concluded wearily, in the flattest tones of a curiously flat voice, "is the life story of C. Smith, editor, up to the hour of going to press."
Varney, who had never once been tempted to interrupt this strange apologia, struggled with an impulse to feel desperately sorry for Mr. Smith, and almost overcame it.
"Smith," he said, in a moment, "why don't you tell me why you sold?"
The editor got up and stared out of the window. Presently he turned, an odd faint flush tingeing his ordinarily colorless cheek. His air of smooth cynicism was gone, for once; and Varney saw then, as he had somehow suspected before, that the editor of the Gazette wore polished bravado as a cloak and that underneath it he carried a rather troubled soul.
"You are right," said Smith, "I—was twigging you again. Let us say," he added, looking at Varney with a kind of shamefaced defiance, "that a man gets tired of living on pickings after a while."
If he had been ten times a liar, ten times a slanderer and assassin of character, a man would have known that the young editor spoke the truth then. That knowledge disarmed Varney. To have sold the Gazette to one who would prostitute it still further was hardly a noble act; but for Smith it meant unmistakably that he wanted to cut loose from the old evil walks where he had done ill by his honor and battened exceedingly.
"All along," said Varney slowly, "I have had a kind of sneaking feeling that there was a spark left in you yet."
He picked up his hat and stick again, and faced the pale young editor.
"Smith, you have done me a devilish wrong. You have knowingly printed a vile slander about me, aware that the natural result of your falsehood was that some poor drunken fool would shoot me down from behind. When I walked in here five minutes ago, I had two purposes in mind. One was to buy your paper. The other was to throw you down the front stairs. I am leaving now without doing either. I abandoned the first because I had to; I abandon the second, voluntarily, because—I don't quite know why—but I think it is because it seems inappropriate to hit a man when he is down and something is just driving him to try to scramble up."
He put on his hat and started to go; but Smith stopped him with a gesture. He let his eye, from which all sign of emotion had faded, run slowly over Varney's slender figure.
"I wasn't such a slouch in my younger days," he said. "Football at my prep school, football and crew at my college. Boxed some at odd moments; was counted fair to middling. Some offhand practice since with people I've roasted—agents, actors, and the like. As to that throwing downstairs proposition now, if you'd care to try it on—"
Varney shook his head. "I don't know that I can explain it—and no one regrets it more than I—but all the wish to smash you, Smith, has gone away somewhere. The bottom has dropped out of it. Good-bye."
"You are going? So am I," said Smith, with a fair imitation of his usual lightness. "Going away for good. I hope you will come through this all right. I'll never see you again. Shake hands, will you? You couldn't know it, of course, but—it—is possible that I owe something to—you two fellows."
He stood motionless, half turned away, thin hands hanging loosely at his sides.
Varney, who had colored slightly, took a last look at him. "No," he said, suddenly much embarrassed, "I—I'm afraid I couldn't do it in the way you mean, and so there wouldn't be any point in it. But I—I do wish you luck with all my heart."
He shut the door, and started down the stairway; and he straightway forgot Smith in the returning tide of his own difficulties. He saw clearly that there was no longer any hope; his plans were wrecked past mending. Persuading Miss Carstairs to keep her engagement to-morrow, his one great problem this morning, had become an unimportant detail now. Charlie Hammerton, with his merciless knowledge, filled the whole horizon like a menacing mirage.
It would not be enough to close the boy's month till after the luncheon and then let it open to babble. For Elbert Carstairs had flatly drawn the line at a yellow aftermath of sensation. He would count a tall-typed scandal the day after to-morrow, when his daughter was with him, fully as bad as the same affliction now. And, the newspaper finally lost to them, there was no conceivable way in which that scandal could be averted now.
But about the moment when his foot hit the bottom of the worn stairs, the door at the head of them burst open, and a curiously stirred voice, which he had some difficulty in recognizing as Smith's, called his name.
"Varney! oh, Varney! I—really meant to tell you—and then I forgot."
He turned and saw the editor's pale face hanging over the banisters.
"It was Maginnis I sold the Gazette to, you know—Peter Maginnis. I wouldn't have sold it to anybody else. You'll find him at the hotel eating supper."
Varney, looking at him, knew then what it was that Smith thought he owed to him and Maginnis.
He went back up the stairs and the two men shook hands in rather an agitated silence.
CONFERENCE BETWEEN MR. HACKLEY, THE DOG MAN, AND MR. RYAN, THE BOSS
At half past six o'clock, or thereabouts, James Hackley dragged slowly up Main Street. He was garbed in his working suit of denim blue, trimmed with monkey wrench and chisel, and he wore, further, an air of exaggerated fatigue. A rounded protuberance upon his cheek indicated that the exhilaration of the quid was not wanting to his inner man, but the solace he drew from it appeared pitifully trifling. Now and then he would pause, rest his person against a lamp-post, or the front of some emporium, and shake his head despondently, like one most fearful of the consequences of certain matters.
Since four o'clock that afternoon, in fact, Mr. Hackley had been out upon a reluctant stint of lawn-mowing, reluctant because he hated all work with a Titanic hatred and sedulously cultivated the conviction that his was a delicate health. In view of the magnificent windfall in connection with the killing of his dog, it had not been his design to accept any more retainers for a long time to come. That occurrence had lifted him, as by the ears, from the proletariat into the capitalistic leisure class; and the map of the world had become but the portrait of his oyster.
But at noon as he lolled upon his rear veranda, chatting kindly with his wife as she hung the linen of quality upon her drying lines, a lady had knocked upon his door, beautiful and insistent, to wheedle his will from him. It was only a tiny bit of a lawn, she had reiterated imploringly, hardly a constitutional to cut, and there was not one tall fellow in all Hunston whom she would permit to touch it but Hackley. Dead to all flattery as he was, his backbone ran to water at the clinging beauty of her smile, and so incredibly betrayed him into yielding. And now, at hard upon half after six o'clock, post-meridian, the dangerous dews of night already beginning to fall, he leaned against a lamp-post, a physical wreck, with a long block and a half still separating him from the comforts of home.
At the next corner but one above rose the red brick Ottoman, its inviting side stretching for many yards down the street towards him. Windows cut it here and there along its length, and over their green silk half-curtains, poured forth a golden light which was hospitality made visible. Yet, so strange are the ways of life, the proprietor of all these luxuries, who stood at the furthest window, beyond Hackley's range, did not look happy in their possession. His eyes gleamed fiercely; his heavy chin protruded savagely, as though deliberately insulting Main Street and the northward universe. Even his small derby, which he seldom doffed save at the hour for taps, contrived to bespeak a certain ferocity.
The Ottoman bar was bare of customers, all Hunston now verging towards its evening meal. Ryan rested his elbow upon its polished surface, and glared into the twilight. He was, as luck had it, in a terrible ill-humor. For he knew himself to-day for a man who had been physically flouted, a boss whose supremacy had been violently assailed, a king who felt his throne careen sickeningly beneath him.
Last night, when four men whom he had never seen before, three of them masked, had borne him off on a long wild drive, and dropped him at ten o'clock in a lonely bit of country eight miles from the Academy Theatre, there had at least been action to give point to his choler. All but out of his mind with passion, he had besought them all, singly or quadruply, to descend from their carriage and meet him in combat, thirsting sorely to kill or be killed. But they had only laughed at him, silently, and galloped away, leaving him screaming out futile curses on the empty night air.
Two hours later, when he had got back to Hunston, after an interminable nightmare of running over rough ground with unaccustomed limbs, and stumbling heavily to earth, and rising up to struggle again, he had learned to what uses his enemies had put that absence. Smith had related the story in the fastness of his office, and in wholly different guise from that which it wore next morning in the columns of his newspaper. And Ryan, listening, had slowly calmed, calmed to the still fury of implacable hate.
But he and Smith had quarreled violently. He was for publishing the story of his taking off in type as black as the dastardly act. Smith had a difficult time in holding him down, however much he pointed out that Ryan had no shadow of proof against his new adversary on the yacht, and that public sympathy in an affair of this sort was always with the successful. In the end Smith had carried his point, because he was, of those two men, both the more wise and the more resolute. But this morning they had conferred again and quarreled even more bitterly.
Yet Ryan, plotting in the window of his splendid gin-palace, his eye always sweeping the evening street as though a-search, was not thinking of the young editor now. Two other policies for the days to come monopolized his attention. One of these was crushing victory at the polls. The other was revenge. Probably in thinking of these, he put them at the moment in reverse order.
"Damn him!" he suddenly exploded: and it was not little Hare that he cursed. "Damn his soul!"
In the next breath, the boss suddenly ducked, and disappeared from the half-curtained window altogether. A moment later, he appeared outside his swinging door, yawning and stretching himself, as one who, wearied with the tedium of life indoors, would see what beguilement might await him abroad.
The boss looked first up the street and permitted his beady eye to range casually over the view. Then his gaze came slowly down and rested in time upon the person of James Hackley, now almost directly opposite. The boss's countenance lit up with a smile of pleased surprise.
"Why, hello, Jim!" he called out. "Where you been hidin' yourself lately? Ain't seen you for a week o' Sundays. Come across and pass the time of day!"
Mr. Hackley, who had been debating whether or not he should pause for inspiration at the Ottoman, and had just virtuously declared for the negative, shambled over.
Ryan eyed him sympathetically. "You look kind o' played out, Jim. What you been doin' with yourself? Come in and take a drop of somethin' to hearten you up some. On the house."
"Well," said Mr. Hackley, unable to resist the novel fascination of liquoring gratis, "just a weeny mite for to cut the dust out o' my windpipe."
Ryan went behind the bar and served them himself, selecting with care a bottle which he described as the primest stuff in the house. From this he poured Hackley a remarkably stiff potation, slightly wetting the bottom of his own glass the while. The bottle he left standing ready on the bar.
"Here's how, friend Jim!"
Whatever Mr. Hackley's foibles, he was a man at his cups. His platform was the straight article uncontaminated by ice or flabby sparkling-water; and chasers and the like of those he left to schoolboys.
"Ain't took a drink for days," he said, holding up his glass to the electric light and squinting through it. "Cut it out religious, I have. Been settin' around the house, an' settin', under physic'an's orders, tryin' fer to get my health back so's I could go to moldin' agin. But Lordamussy, what's the use of torkin'! I ain't no more fitten fer work than a noo-born baby. Well, here's luck, Ryan!"
He set his glass down and involuntarily smacked his lips. The fiery liquid percolated through him down to his very toes. He felt better at once, more ambitious, less conscious of his constitution. And simultaneously, he lost something of that indolent good-nature which was the badge of all his sober hours.
Ryan regarded him with friendly anxiety. "You gotter be more careful with yourself, honest! Here—strengthen your holt a little. One little swallow ain't no help to a man as beat out as you are."
"As yer like, Dennis," said Mr. Hackley, listlessly. "What I reely need is a good long rest, like in a 'orspittle."
Kindly Mr. Ryan filled the small glass almost to the brim; and Hackley, though he had modestly stipulated for "on'y a drap" tossed it all off thirstily at a single practised toss.
"That'll fix you up nice. But ain't I glad," said his host with a sly chuckle, "that nobody sees you taking these drinks on the quiet, which we know you need bad for your health."
Mr. Hackley set down his glass again, this time with something of a bang. "How's that?" he demanded suspiciously.
Ryan laughed deprecatingly. While doing so, he manipulated the tall dark bottle again.
"Shuh!" said he. "It's only the boys' fun, of course. Don't you mind them, Jim."
"What're you drivin' at?" asked Hackley, bristling a bit. "If you got anything worth sayin' to me, spit it out plain, I say."
"Well," laughed Ryan, "if some of the boys was to see you in here putting away a harmless drink or so, o' course they'd say that you was gettin' up your Dutch courage. He, he!"
"Dutch courage!" cried Mr. Hackley, indignantly. "An' wot the hell fer?"
"Sh! Not so loud, Jim. Why, it's only their little joke, o' course. They'd say you was gettin' up your nerve to meet them two friends of yours from New York! Hey? He, he!"
"Wot friends?" asked Hackley again, hotly.
Ryan observed the mounting color on the other's cheek and brow, and his eye, which was like a small, glossy shoe-button, gleamed.
"Why, that 'un that killed that dog o' yours, and put you to sleep before the crowd, and that 'un that sent Mamie Orrick to Gawd knows where. But shucks! Drop it, Jim. I wouldn't have allooded to it, on'y I thought you'd see the fun of the thing."
It takes a philosopher to perceive humor in taunts at his own personal courage, and Mr. Hackley, with three drinks of the Ottoman's choicest beneath his tattered waistcoat, was not that kind of man at all.
He leaned forward against the bar with a belligerence suggesting that he wished to push it over, pinning his pleasant-spoken host to the wall, and pounded the top of it till the glasses tingled.
"Fill her up with the same!" he ordered loudly, looking suddenly, and for the first time, very much like the rough-looking customer who had tackled Peter Maginnis in defense of his dog. "An' I'll have you know, Mister Ryan—I'll have you know, my fine, big, bouncin' buck, that Jim Hackley ain't afeared of anythink that walks."
Ryan filled her up again, though this time more conservatively. He was a keen man and an excellent judge of what was enough.
"Shuh! Don't I know that, Jim! Why, after that big bloke licked the stuffin' out of you the other night, the boys said: 'Well, that's the last o' that little differculty! Jim Hackley'll never foller that up none,' they says. And what'd I say?"
"Well, what'd you say?"
"I says, 'Hell!' I says. 'You boys don't know Jim Hackley!'"
"I'll interdooce myself to 'em!" said Hackley savagely. "And whoever says that Maginnis licked me's a liar. You hear me? Tripped my toe on a rock, I did, and banged all the sense outen my head—"
"I understand, Jim," interrupted Ryan suavely. "Just what I told the boys. O' course, just between you an me, I have been kinder took by surprise that you've waited so long to get your evens. Why, this morning when the piece came out in the Gazette, tellin' the whole town that the feller's side-partner was that yellow cur-dog Stanhope, I says to the boys, first thing: 'Boys, we gotter watch Jim Hackley mighty careful to-day,' says I. 'I'm afeard there'll be gun-play before sunset.' 'Gun-play!' says they. 'F'om Hackley! Hell,' says they. 'You boys,' says I, 'don't know old Jim like I do!' And then o' course,—he, he!—as the whole day slipped by and nothin' doin' at all—why, o' course, I won't deny that they ain't been jollyin' me some."
Hackley leaned far over the bar, and shook his fist in the boss's face. "I ain't a man," he shouted, "to be pushed an' a-nagged at in a deal like this. I takes my time, I makes my plans, I decides on the ways I'll do it. Do yer pipe to that? An' now I've got ever'think fixed and I'm ready. Do yer see!"
The boss, who had retreated a step before that menacing fist, glanced out of the window and instantly started, this time with an amazement that was genuine.
"Why, blast my eyes," he cried, raising a pudgy arm, "if there ain't that dog Stanhope now!"
Hackley, following the pointing finger, peered over the green silk curtain out into the darkening street. A young man, tall and rather thin, in a blue suit and wide gray-felt hat, was walking slowly and with a slight limp up the cross street, evidently heading for the Palace Hotel.
The two men watched him intently, in a moment of perfect silence. Then the boss, who was not without a certain dramatic sense, said slowly:
"Mamie Orrick's old friend!"
A baleful light leaped into Hackley's eyes. He broke away from the bar with a movement that was like a wrench, and started for the door.
"I'll fix him," he muttered dourly. "Fix him good."
But Ryan, who wanted something much better than that, sprang around the bar like lightning, and caught Hackley roughly by the shoulder, at the door.
"What, here in the square!" he hissed sharply. "With the po-lice in sight a'most! Why, you fool, it'll mean the pen for you as sure as your name's Jim Hackley!"
Hackley paused, his resolution unsettled by the other's superior knowledge of the law.
"No, no, Jim—it won't do," went on Ryan with bland decisiveness. "What you want is the two of them together, hey?—on a nice dark stretch o' road, and old Orrick and a few good fellows along to help. You ain't the only one that's got it in for Stanhope, are you? An' you want Maginnis too, I guess? Come on in the orfice and talk about it over a seegar."
IN WHICH VARNEY DOES NOT PAY A VISIT, BUT RECEIVES ONE
Coligny Smith had told the truth. Peter Maginnis had bought the Gazette, and the Cyprianl's troubles, from this source at any rate, were at an end.
Varney found the new proprietor at the hotel, completing a hurried supper, and Peter hailed him with astonishment and delight. All afternoon he had been bursting with his great news, eager to get word of it to Varney on the yacht. But there had been no trustworthy messenger to send; his own time had been rilled to overflowing, with contracts, bills of sale and deeds; and, besides, his certain knowledge that everything was all right made it seem a minor matter that Varney should know it too.