"But what the deuce," he exclaimed at once, "brings you at this hour to the Palace Hotel and Restaurant?"
"I, too," quoted Varney, "have not been idle."
As they walked back to the Gazette building, where Peter had still various details to attend to, he gave a terse epitome of his afternoon's experiences. At the news that he, too, had sought to buy the paper which was so determinedly on their trail, Peter chuckled and started to speak; but when he learned in the next sentence that Hammerton had their secret at his mercy, his face grew suddenly grave.
"The rub is," he summed up meditatively, "he may take his walking-papers rather than let go of such a scoop as that. Of course, he knows that the New York papers would trample each other to death trying to snatch it away from him. However, we can fix it somehow. We've got to—that's all."
"He'll listen to reason, I dare say," said Varney briefly. "What put it into your head to try to buy the paper, Peter?"
They sat in the business manager's little office at the rear of the long counting-room downstairs, where Peter had thoughtfully paused and snapped on all the lights. At this question an annoyed look settled instantly on the new owner's open countenance.
"No brains of mine," he said shortly. "It's a queer thing."
He paused to light his battered pipe, which he produced ready-filled from his pocket, and then said abruptly:
"Remember that old sneak named Higginson I mentioned to you yesterday? Well, I bagged the idea from him. When I hit town this afternoon the first thing I heard was that Higginson was going to buy the Gazette—had bought it, some said."
"Higginson!" Varney stared. "What the mischief did he want with the Gazette?"
"Echo answers. No good to us, you can bet," said Peter grimly. "Gave it out, I believe, that he was acting for a syndicate of New Yorkers who expected flush times with the change of administration, and were rushing to get in on the ground floor. You can believe that if you want to. To me it sounds too fishy to do even a beginner credit. You could wake me up in the middle of the night and I could put over a better one than that. However," he continued, frowning, "to get back to my story. When I heard what Higginson was up to, it naturally flashed into my mind that it would be a mighty convenient thing if I owned the Gazette myself, instead of him. I raced off to Smith on the chance, shot an offer at him from the door and to my surprise he accepted it—right off the bat, cool as though the deal were for half a dozen copies of yesterday's issue—"
"You got in ahead of Higginson, then?"
"On the contrary," said Peter. "And that's another queer thing—about Smith, I mean. Higginson had been in and made him an offer an hour ahead of me, and the fellow had turned him down flat. Yet I happen to know that the price I offered was under Higginson's by a pretty good year's income. Now what d' you think of that?"
Varney was silent a moment. "Smith wants a new deal all around, I imagine," he said slowly. "He knew that you would make the Gazette an honest paper; he didn't know anything of the sort about the other man. Probably he knew just the contrary. Bully for Smith, I say! But what do you make of this chap Higginson?"
"Search me," said Peter, rather impatiently. "He's clearly imported by Ryan for some definite purpose, but just what his game is beats me. There'll be more developments, of course. After I'd signed up with Smith I spent half an hour of valuable time looking for the rascal, but couldn't find a footprint anywhere. He seems to have a special gift for appearing and disappearing. If he decides to stay with us, though, he'll explain himself to me to-morrow, or I'll know the reason why."
"Well, you've already pulled his teeth, haven't you? This little purchase of yours knocks the wind out of his sails in any event."
"I wish I could be sure of that."
"And, by the way, that reminds me. Of course I'm in on this, you understand—on what you paid for the Gazette."
"Not on my account," said Peter frankly. "When this town starts booming, as it will in eight days from date—Higginson had that part of it right, anyway—the Gazette's going to be the prettiest little property you ever saw in your life. I saw it first and you will kindly back away off the grass. By the bye," he went on, "the lunch to-morrow. Hare and his sister both accepted—two o'clock. You ought to have seen Hare's face when I told him we owned this little old Gazette. Worth the price of admission alone—he'd been hot as a stove all day about that story this morning. I asked Mrs. Marne whether Miss Carstairs had happened to say anything about coming, but she hadn't seen her to-day at all. I guess there won't be any trouble in that quarter, though, when she gets through reading the paper's apologies to-morrow."
"I don't know," said Varney. "I am going to her house to-night to find out."
"Why?" said Peter, surprised. "What do you think we bought this paper for, anyway?"
"The great trouble is that she may not believe the paper. This is important, you see. The whole thing hinges on whether or not she is coming to lunch with us. The only way I can be certain that she is coming is to have her tell me so."
Peter jingled his keys. "Of course, we don't want to take chances, but—"
"Another thing," said Varney. "She promised to lunch with Stanhope—the celebrity—not me, you know."
"H'm," said Peter cogitatively, and added: "I guess you're right. I'm sure everything's all serene, but it'll do no harm to press a call. Well! I must fly upstairs for a while and see how things are going."
"What about the Daily?"
"That's what I've got to do right now—settle the Daily and dictate a strong Gazette story for to-morrow's issue, stripping the socks off the Stanhope lie and all that. I've got to show the boys upstairs exactly how we want the whole thing, handled."
"Fire away, old top."
"It's all sketched out in my mind," continued Peter, rising. "Did it at the hotel over my chuck-steak. I won't be long. You wait here for me, will you? I've chartered an automobile for a week and I'll run you up to the Carstairs house and wait outside till you're ready to go back to the yacht."
"Why these civilities, my son?"
"The fact is," said Peter, a little reluctantly, "that story this morning seems to have pulled open a lot of old sores, just as it was meant to. Hare's picked up some loose odds and ends of talk about town to-day. I noticed two men hanging around here as we came in just now who didn't look right to me. I can't get it out of my head that there's something in the wind to-night, and Higginson's back of it. Anyway, there's no use of running needless risks, now that we've practically got a strangle-hold on the whole proposition."
Varney glanced at his watch. "Right for you. It's too early to call yet, anyway. I'll wait."
"Correct," said Peter at the door. "One last item of news. Stanhope himself, the real one, is coming to-morrow."
Peter nodded. "The caretaker of his cottage told Hare—told him not to tell a soul. But I don't believe he'll stay long. The fellow's clearly a fool as well as a dog."
"We ought to warn him how things stand here," said Varney, "no matter what kind of person he is. You and I know that we 've made matters a good deal worse for him."
"He's made them a good deal worse for us, also. But I'll see that he's promptly advised to leave while the leaving's good. Back in an hour at the farthest."
Peter tramped off down the passageway, banging the front door behind him; and Varney was left alone in the little office to attend his return. At once it came to him that this was exactly what he had been doing ever since he had been in Hunston,—waiting for Peter.
"I am the greatest waiter that the human race has yet produced," he thought, despondently, and dropping down into a chair, stared long at the shut door.
What a day it had been!—beginning with cut-and-dried little plans that seemed sure, running off in the middle into black depths of hopeless complications, blossoming suddenly into unlooked-for triumph. Yes, complete triumph at last. The visit that he meant to pay a little later was merely an added precaution; he felt no doubts as to how matters would turn out now. To-morrow, the Gazette, Peter's paper, would set him square before all Hunston, and Mary Carstairs, sorry for the wrong she had done him, would come to the yacht as she had engaged to do. With the clairvoyance born of his swift revulsion of feeling, he knew that his victory was already won. Yet he did not feel now as a conqueror feels. In the loneliness of the tight-shut little office, he confronted the knowledge that he did not think of Uncle Elbert's daughter as his enemy, and that it mattered to him that she was to hate him and worse....
Suddenly in the entire stillness, he heard a sound close by, and straightened up sharply. Some one was gently trying the front door. He felt quite sure of it. He got up quickly and quietly, and hurried down the passageway to the front; but there was nothing to be seen.
Outside, the street, from the brilliantly-lighted room, looked inky black. He stood a moment listening intently. He thought he heard footsteps not far away, swiftly receding, but he could not be sure. Then he remembered the men that Peter had seen in the street a little while before, and understood.
Somebody was watching him, apparently waiting for a chance. Those whom Stanhope had wronged had been spurred to square the old account, and the Gazette's canard had not been undone yet. He yearned to dash after those retreating footsteps and find out who was the prudent proprietor of them. But even to stand here was hardly fair to Elbert Carstairs.
"How can I go sailing to-morrow," he said aloud, musingly, "if I'm laid up in a hospital, or laid out in the morgue?"
He went back to his office, shut himself in again; and with the closing of the door he shut out all thought of the enemies of Ferris Stanhope. Soon his mind broke away from him, and went galloping off to the morrow. Great vividness marked the pictures that danced before the eye of his thought. Now the luncheon, the planned and fought for, was over. They were there, strung out gayly along deck,—Mrs. Marne, Hare, Peter, Mary Carstairs, and he. Then, by some deft stratagem, the others were gone and he was sitting alone by Mary at the rail. The Cypriani was slowly moving, as though for a ten-minute spin down the river. And then, as she gathered headway, he turned suddenly to Mary and told her everything: how he had deceived and tricked her, and how she would not go back to Hunston that afternoon....
It might have been ten minutes that he sat like this. It might have been half an hour. But after a time he heard, suddenly and distinctly, that noise at the door again.
There was the less doubt about it this time, in that the shutting of the door was now clearly audible, and there followed the distinct sound of some one moving in the main office. Then the door in the passageway swung open and footsteps pattered, coming nearer. The light firm steps drew nearer, halted; and there came a small rap upon his door.
"Come in," he called loudly, encouragingly. "I'm here, all right. Come in."
The door opened, a little slowly, as though not quite certain whether it was going to open or not, and Mary Carstairs stood upon the threshold, silhouetted in the sudden frame.
WHEREIN SEVERAL LARGE DIFFICULTIES ARE SMOOTHED AWAY
He had sat upright, his hands over his chair-arms, his mind and muscle tense; but at that unbelievable sight, he fell back in his chair relaxed, staring and dazed like one who sees a goddess in a vision.
"Good evening," said this goddess, looking decidedly embarrassed and remarkably pretty. "I—I am so glad that we've found you."
"You were looking for me?" he said incredulous, utterly mystified; and the instinct of long training, working on with no guidance from him, impelled him to rise with a stiff and somewhat belated bow.
"Yes. And there are two men with me who are anxious to help...."
Her fragrant presence seemed to fill and transform the dingy office; and he was at once aware that her manner had lost that cool remoteness which at their last meeting had set him so far away.
He pulled himself sharply together, entirely missing the implication in her speech, and struck abruptly to the one point that mattered.
"Some one has convinced you since last night that I am not that man."
"Yes," she answered, looking away from him with faintly heightened color. "I—I must ask you to forgive me for—last night."
He bowed stiffly from behind the table.
"But who—if I may know—persuaded you, where I appeared so—"
"My mother," she said, simply. "She caught a glimpse of you on the street yesterday. I did not know of it till to-day—never dreamed that she knew you. I'm glad," she added hurriedly, resolutely contrite, "of the chance to—to say this—"
"It is extraordinarily kind," said Varney. He looked at her steadily, as far from understanding the mystery of her coming as ever.
"But I came," she went on at once, as though reading the question in his eyes, "for quite another reason. We happened to stop just now at poor Jim Hackley's."
The name riveted his attention. A quality in her voice had already told him that something troubled her.
She stood just behind Peter's deserted chair and rested her ungloved right hand upon it. He noticed, as though it were a matter which was going to be vital to him later on, that she wore no rings, and that there was a tiny white spot on the nail of her thumb.
"Some men are waiting on this dark street somewhere, Mr. Varney," she began hurriedly, "waiting, I'm afraid, for you to come out—four or five—I don't know how many. You know—what that means. But oh, it isn't their fault!—they don't know any better, you see!—"
The sudden anxiety in her voice cleared his wits and braced him like a tonic: and so he came front to front with the fact that it was to help him—to help him—that Uncle Elbert's daughter had come to the Gazette office that night.
"I appreciate that perfectly, of course. But—the rest is not so clear. I don't quite understand—how did you happen to learn of this?"
"I? Oh, my learning about it was the purest chance. It was told me two minutes ago by a visitor here, a Mr. Higginson, whom I met last night. He is outside in the car now, and—"
"Mr. Higginson!" echoed Varney, astounded.
"You know him, perhaps?"
"I? Oh, no—no. But I interrupted you. Do go on and tell me—"
She began to speak rapidly and earnestly:
"This afternoon I went motoring, I and a friend of mine—Mr. John Richards. We took a wrong turn coming back, and of course were horribly late. But at the edge of the square we stopped a minute to inquire about Mrs. Hackley, who was taken quite ill yesterday afternoon. Just as I was getting back into the car, up ran this Mr. Higginson, very much flustered and excited. You see, he had just found out about all this—this plot—even to knowing where you were; he had seen poor Jim Hackley, it seems, not at all himself, and overheard him talking. Of course, we saw that you must be warned at once, so we took him in the car, and all three of us ran back here."
She paused a moment, and he prompted her with a close-clipped: "Yes?"
"I wanted him to—come in and tell you about it," she said hesitatingly—"but he wouldn't do it. He is a most agreeable old man, but, I imagine—of a very nervous temperament. So," she added with a hurried little laugh, "as I was the only one who—knew you, I said that I would come in and tell you myself."
"It was most kind—most kind of you all."
He turned away sharply to hide his sudden rush of indignation and resentment. Turbulently he longed to get his hands upon the sly Higginson, who had had the effrontery to dispatch a woman to protect him, and this woman of all others that lived in Hunston.... Protect him? Hardly. That an attack had been planned against his person was, indeed, likely enough, but not that any hireling of Ryan's should rush forward hysterically to pluck him from his peril. What move in that mysterious game, what strange plot within a plot was here?...
"Did Mr. Higginson happen to explain why he took such a generous, and I fear very troublesome, interest in my welfare?"
Genuinely anxious for light, he tried to iron all suggestion of a sneer out of his voice, but evidently he did not quite succeed.
"Oh, I don't think you ought to speak that way! Surely he has done only what anybody would do for any stranger who was in danger and didn't know it."
She looked at him rather shyly out of her somewhat spectacular eyes.
"That explains me, too—if you wish."
"Maginnis and I," said Varney immediately, "are not going out for some time yet. Oh, a long, long time! These poor fellows you speak of will tire of waiting long before that. And when we do go—"
"You must not go together."
"I don't think I understand you."
"Don't you see," she said, speaking very earnestly, "that that is exactly what they are hoping for? This ambuscade didn't just happen—it is manufactured—it is politics. Men like these haven't the initiative, or whatever you call it, to get up a thing of this sort. Some one has done it for them. Don't you know why? They want to get rid of Mr. Maginnis. But they can't hurt him alone—without having it brought right home to them—to the politicians. With you—it is—different—"
"Yes, yes—I see. But forgive my asking—did Mr. Higginson explain the situation to you in just this way?"
"Mr. Higginson?" she said, plainly surprised at his harking back to that. "It was not necessary. I understood the situation very well, from what Mr. Hare has told me. Mr. Higginson simply gave us the facts about these men hiding out there—there was no time for anything more."
He was staring at her with unconscious steadiness, and now his face took on a slow faint smile, which she was very far from understanding. Blurry as it all still was, light was beginning to break through upon him. Of course, that was all that Mr. Higginson had told her. Of course. The last thing desired by that clever rogue, who used petticoats for stalking-horses and was not above hiding behind them for the safety of his own skin, was for the engineered "attack" to go off prematurely, landing only Varney and failing to "get" Maginnis. Warnings that the two should not go out together from Higginson? Hardly.
"I understand perfectly. Maginnis is quite safe without me, but not at all safe with me. You may count upon me absolutely. I'll give him the slip and leave here alone."
"You mustn't do anything of the kind," said Mary sharply.
She looked at him, unsmiling, eye to eye like a man; but she looked from under a fantastic and exceedingly becoming little hat, swathed all about with a wholly fascinating gray veil. Her skin was of an exquisite freshness, which threw into sharp relief the vivid coloring of her lips; the modeling of her cheek and throat was consummate, beyond improvement; and her eyes—he told himself that they could have no match anywhere.
Varney laughed shortly. "I am not to go out with Maginnis. I am not to go out without him. May I ask if I am expected to spend thnight prudently curled up under the office table here?"
The situation was odious to him; he knew that his manner betrayed it; but if she was aware of this she gave no sign. On the contrary her face all at once became miraculously sweet.
"You aren't thinking that there's any question of courage mixed up in this, Mr. Varney? Indeed, indeed, there is not. They would fight in the dark; they would fight from behind. The very bravest men would have no chance, and very brave men don't take foolish risks, do they? I know by Mr. Hare. Mr. Varney, I have a little plan."
"Indeed? Do tell me."
"Our car is at the door, you know—Mr. Richards's car. We'd both like it very much if you would come with us."
"Well—I thought that perhaps you'd come to my house. Only to get rid of these men and not to—get them into any trouble. Of course, no one in Hunston would annoy you when you were with me."
If he had hated the thought of accepting protection from Mary Carstairs less intensely, he might have laughed aloud. As Higginson's catspaw, she was certainly the most screaming failure that the whole world could have yielded. What, oh what, would the old gum-shoe have said if he could have heard that invitation?
"Thank you, but that is quite impossible."
"I am awfully sorry."
There was a faint stiffening in her manner. She began to draw on her right glove, slowly tucking out of sight the thumb with the tiny white spot on the nail.
"I hoped that perhaps you might come to dinner with us. I haven't had any yet. May I—suggest another way out of all this, then? There is a back gate to this place, leading into a kind of alley, you know. I am sure that they—these poor men—haven't thought of that. Couldn't you please go out—"
"Certainly," said Varney. "Certainly. Yes, indeed. I'll do anything—anything in the wide world to avoid getting thumped on the head with Mr. Hackley's walking-stick."
Her face told him that she found his tone and manner somewhat disconcerting, but she took no notice of it otherwise.
"I hope it won't be necessary to do anything more than that. But if it should be, I hope you'll do it. I'm afraid I've failed to make you see that this is really serious. Good-night."
But Varney, having a question to ask her, could not let her go yet.
"But—but," he said, hastily, "you must allow me to thank you—you and Mr. Higginson—"
"The thanks are all Mr. Higginson's. I'm only a messenger—and besides, you aren't grateful at all, you know! You think we've all been extremely intrusive!" She smiled brightly, bowed, and then was suddenly checked by a new thought. "Oh—I wonder if you would tell me something before I go?"
"By all means," said Varney, having no idea whether he would or not.
But the loud jangling whir of a telephone bell from the adjoining room cut into the air, drowning out conversation; and it rang on and on and on as though Central had had her orders.
"I suppose I'll have to answer that to shut them up," he said. "Excuse me for the merest second, won't you?"
He passed through into the brightly-lit business office beyond, and found the telephone, still ringing away on a desk at the farther end. Behind him the door swung shut, a circumstance for which he later had reason to be glad.
"Well?" he called impatiently.
"You, Larry?" asked a familiar voice.
"Yes. What's the matter?"
"Matter enough," said Peter in a guarded undertone. "Hammerton's loose."
"It's a fact. God knows how he did it; but he's just phoned in here from a house a long way down the road. Wanted to let the city editor know he was flying in with the one best bet of the year. Luckily he gave no details."
Varney's lips tightened; he spoke in a low voice. "He mustn't arrive—not till I've seen him first. Did you find out how he's coming—river or road?"
"Trust Uncle Dudley. He's borrowed a bicycle and is burning up the River road with it."
"Good. How soon will you be through?"
"About three minutes."
"You've hired a motor, you said? Get it and run back here as soon as you can, will you?"
He rapidly explained the situation, though making no mention of Higginson: how somebody had plotted to get them together in the darkness of Main Street, how Miss Carstairs and her friend had kindly stopped to warn them, and how he had humored her by promising to take all sorts of precautions.
"Right-O," said Peter. "I'll be in the alley at the back in no time. Come quick when I honk three times."
Varney came back into the little office where Mary Carstairs waited, fresh from more cheap plotting in which she was the innocent central figure; and faced her, uncomfortable, ill at ease, disquieted inwardly as a conspirator taken red-handed.
"It was Maginnis—upstairs," he explained awkwardly.
"Yes?" she said indifferently, and resumed the buttoning of her glove. "And will you tell me something now? It has been on my mind since last night."
"Who was it that spoke of me to you and made you think that I was a little girl?"
He was entirely taken aback by the question; but he could have parried it easily, and he knew it. However, he was heartily sick of subterfuge for that night.
"It was your father," he said bluntly.
"My father!" She stood silent a moment, slim hands interlocked before her, heavily fringed eyes lowered. "So you know them both—my mother and my father. Then—the mistake—about my age," she added with something of an effort, "was natural enough. I have not seen my father for many years."
"I see him," said he, "constantly. Your father and I are great chums." A sudden insane hope overwhelmed him, and he went on with a rush: "You know, or rather probably you don't know, that he and my mother were old friends; and I am proud to have fallen heir to the friendship. You say that you have not seen him for some time? He is growing older very fast this last year or two; he is much changed of late. And then, Miss Carstairs, he is desperately lonely, all by himself in that great house of his—"
"Stop!" cried Mary Carstairs, with quick passionateness. "Stop! You are trying to make me feel sorry for my father."
"Well," he said, as stormy as she, "you ought to! But your friends are waiting. I must not detain you any longer."
At the curtness of his speech a very faint wave of color ran up her cheek; and when he saw this he was sorry and glad in a single breath. At least, she could not say afterwards that he had ever tried to make himself falsely civil and lyingly agreeable. "Yes, I have stayed very much too long already. You've promised that you will be careful, haven't you? I'm really too sorry," she said, from the door, "that your visit to Hunston should have been made disagreeable in all these ways."
"In the name of heaven," he said, stung into momentary recklessness, "you don't suppose that I came here expecting any fun!"
"Why—I had understood that it was purely a pleasure-trip that brought you here!"
He made no answer to this, but stepped forward and swung open the door for her.
"Maginnis," he said, "is to call for me immediately in a motor. We shall leave by the unobtrusive back alley. Two men, a motor, and a dark rear exit. You will scarcely imagine that there is any danger now. But may I thank you again for giving us warning when there was, perhaps, some danger?"
"So you think there is a 'perhaps'? If you take precautions, it is only to humor a—"
"I withdraw that 'perhaps,'" he broke out in a rush. "I blot it out, annihilate it. Who am I to catch at tatters of self-respect? Are you blind? Can't you see that every fiber of me is tingling with the knowledge that there was real danger, and that you saved me from it?"
The quick bitterness in his voice, which there was no missing, was the last straw, breaking through her reserve, demolishing her dainty aloofness. She shook the swinging gray veil back out of her eyes and looked up at him, openly and frankly bewildered, looking very young and immeasurably alluring.
"Will you tell me why you speak in that way? Will you tell me why it is the worst thing that has happened to you in Hunston to have been helped a little by me?"
They faced each other at the open door, not an arm's length between them; and the moment of his reckoning for the quarter of an hour he had spent with her that night was suddenly upon him. He met her eyes, which were darkly blue, stared down into them; and as he did so, the spell of her beauty treacherously closed round him, piping away his self-control, deadening him to the iron fact of who she was and who he was, shutting out all knowledge except that of her fragrant nearness.
"It is absurd," he answered her suddenly, "but to save my life I can't decide whether you are tall or short."
The front door came open with a bang; the noise brought him sharply to himself; and the next moment a pleasant impatient masculine voice called out:
"I say, Miss Carstairs! Er—everything all right?"
"Oh!—yes, Mr. Richards!" she called penitently. "I'm coming this minute. No, please don't go out with me, Mr. Varney. Don't let anybody see that you are here."
"Certainly not," said he, struggling for a poise which he could not quite recapture. "Then will you be good enough to convey my gratitude to Mr. Higginson and say that I hope to have the opportunity of thanking him personally to-morrow?"
"Yes, of course. Good-night once more—and good luck!"
But he detained her long enough to put the plain business question which had been torturing his soul for the last twenty-four hours.
"We shall see you at luncheon to-morrow?"
He strove to give his remark the air of a mere commonplace of farewell; but at it, he saw her look break away from his and the warm color stream into her face.
"Why—I—I'll come with pleasure. We don't get the chance to lunch on yachts every day in Hunston. Oh, but please," she exclaimed, her embarrassment suddenly melting in a very natural and charming smile—"never let my mother dream that we've not been introduced!"
He bowed low so that she might not see the burlesque of polite pleasure on his face.
* * * * *
The back alley exit proved all that the most timorous could have desired. Peter approached it by an elusive detour; Varney appeared promptly at the sound of his three honks; and the rendezvous was effected in a black darkness which they seemed to have entirely to themselves. Not a hand was raised to them, not a threatening figure sprang up to dispute their going, not a fierce curse cursed them. The would-be assassins, if such there were, presumably still lurked in some Main Street cranny, patiently and stupidly waiting, entirely unaware that they had been neatly outwitted by the clever strategies of Miss Mary Carstairs.
The car rolled noiselessly out of the alley, skimmed off through the southern quarter of the town and bowled into the rough and rutty River road toward the yacht. Once there, since a sharp lookout for the reporter was necessary, they slowed down and down until the smooth little car, with all lights out, crawled along no faster than a vigorous man will walk.
"What're you going to do when we catch him?" asked Peter. "Want to haul him on back to the yacht?"
"No. I'm—only going to talk to him a little. Go on with the story."
"Well," resumed Peter, taking one hand from the driving-wheel to remove a genuine Connecticut Havana, "the first thing was a wire from the Daily firing Hammerton. That assisted a little, of course. Then, they asked us to give them a new, good man at once, and meantime to push along all the story we had. We answered with a wire that was a beauty, if I do mention it myself, telling them exactly how they'd been sold a second-hand gold brick by a corrupt paper which was trying to play politics. It simply knocked the pins from under them. It took 'em quite a while to come back with inquiries about the name off the yacht, Varney's air of mystery and all that line of slush. My response was vigorous, yet gentlemanly, straining the truth for all she'd stand, and even bu'sting her open here and there, I gravely fear. However, it was a clincher. It crimped them right. Not a peep have we had from 'em since."
"I suppose they'll run four lines on the thirteenth page to-morrow explaining it was all a mistake."
"But that wasn't the serious part of the thing—not by a mile-walk," continued Peter, the shine of victory in his honest eyes. "Am I still in the road? Sing out if you see me taking to the woods, will you? The more I think of what you and I have missed by a shave, the more I'm likely to feel sick in the stomach. You know those rascals had already begun asking for orders all over the country—they were so sure they'd have a hot story to send out. Not only that, but a lot of papers wired for it without being asked. It looked as if every newspaper office in America that had got a glimpse at the Daily this morning instantly got dead stuck on that story. I stood at the telegraph desk and watched the accursed things come in, like this: '500 words story involving Stanhope, Rochester Tribune.' 'No. 3.—' That was the number of our story on the query list.—'No. 3.—Full details, Chicago Ledger.' 'No. 3—1000 words, Philadelphia Journal.' And so on and on. It looked uncanny, I tell you—all those far-away people calling for information about our affairs just like old friends. Will you kindly let your mind play about that a minute, Laurence? Will you kindly think of a situation like that with Ryan and Coligny Smith handling it as their little whimseys dictated?"
"I'd rather not. You wired those papers that the story was a canard and all that, I suppose?"
"No!" roared Peter, "I did something a whole lot better than that. I had one of the men write a hot political story about the Gazette and the change of management and the sudden rise of Reform. There's news in that, don't you see?—and it was the Stanhope-Varney story, too—the real one. When I left the office, they were selling it like hot cakes, all over the country—all over the world—"
"Hold on!" said Varney, sharply. "Here's Hammerton, I think—bringing in a whole lot better story than yours!"
The road here was straight as a string stretched tight. Far down it, they saw a single small light, dancing towards them a foot or two above the ground.
Peter threw off his clutch, clapped on his brakes and stopped short. Varney slid out of the seat and stood waiting in the black inkiness beside the unlighted car. In the sudden stillness they could hear the rattle of the bicycle chain and even the crunch of the hard-blown tires, spinning rapidly over the road. Now the light was perhaps a hundred yards away.
"Blow!" hispered Varney.
The horn's honk cut the silent air hoarsely. Instantly the speed of the oncoming light was checked. It advanced steadily, but much more slowly, as though the rider sensed that his road might be blocked, but could not yet determine where the hidden obstacle might be.
"Hello!" called a lusty young voice suddenly. "Who's there?"
There was no answer. The light came on more slowly still. Now it was fifty yards away, now twenty, now ten. Varney stepped out of the blackness, directly in front of it, and seized both handle-bars in fingers that gripped like a vise. The shock of the sudden stopping all but cost the rider his seat.
"May I detain you one moment, please, Mr. Hammerton?"
The little light of the bicycle lamp was all concentrated downward. Above that round yellow ray, faces were unrecognizable in the pitchy blackness. The voice, however, was unmistakable. Hammerton was off the back of his wheel in the wink of an eye, on a sudden desperate bolt for the woods.
Peter, still on the driver's seat, and seeing neither his friend nor his enemy, saw the light with the bicycle behind it go over with a crash. That was when Varney's hands let go of the handle-bars. The next instant they fell upon Hammerton's withdrawing figure and brought it up with a sharp jerk.
Peter heard the ensuing struggle, but saw nothing. He paid Varney the tribute of sitting still in his seat and saying not a word. The contest was bitter, but brief. Hammerton fought wildly, but Varney's arms presently closed round him, squeezing the life out of him. Locked fast in each other's arms, they fell heavily, Hammerton underneath. Varney freed his legs with a swift wrench, swung round and came up riding upon the other's chest.
Charlie Hammerton was beaten and knew it. His body lay along the rocky road, inert and unresisting. He breathed in convulsive gasps, but apart from that, now that he was down, he never moved. He was as tired as a man well could be. Varney sitting closely upon him, holding him fast, felt that the reporter's clothes were wringing wet. However, he had him, and the Cypriani's great secret was once more in captivity.
The eyes of the two men strained into the dark where each other's faces must be, but they saw nothing.
"It's all up with you, Hammerton," said Varney presently. "The Daily fired you an hour ago."
"Thanks to you," said Hammerton doggedly. "But if you think that lets you out, you're a bigger fool than I thought."
"That is not all," said Varney slowly. "The Gazette has fired you, too."
The reporter swore bitterly beneath his breath: curiously enough, he did not seem to question the statement for a moment. "What of it?" he cried. "You don't think that'll stop my mouth, do you—you devil!"
"There is still something more. Maginnis has bought the Gazette. He and I own the news of this town now. Coligny Smith is fired, too. The Gazette starts an honest life to-morrow, and the old dirty regime is over forever."
"Liar!" cried Hammerton, hoarsely. "Liar!" but there was no conviction in the mad resentment of his voice.
"No," said Varney, without anger. "I am telling you the truth and you know it."
"Well—there are other papers,—other towns," cried Hammerton passionately. "What I've got on you will sell anywhere. Why, damn you, damn you, damn you—don't you know you'll have to kill me to hush this up?"
"No," said Varney, "I'm going to do better than that. I'm going to make a friend of you. I'm going to make you editor of the Gazette in Smith's place with double your present salary and an interest in the paper."
There was black silence, more thrilling than any speech.
"Will you take it?" asked Varney.
Then the boy's overstrained self-command snapped like a bow-string and his breast shook with sudden hysteria. "Will I take it?" he cried with a gasping laugh that was rather more like a sob. "Will I take the Court of St. James? Will I take money from home? Oh, my God, will I take it!"
"Hooray!" rang Peter's great voice out of the gloom. "Hip, hip, hooray for Editor Hammerton!"
Peter's tribute, in reality, was not so much for Hammerton's acceptance as for the astonishing neatness with which Varney had disposed of the editorship of his paper. But to Varney, rising limply from Hammerton's chest at the edge of the dark road, that cheer meant only that he had kicked the last obstacle out of his path and that he and Mary were going to New York to-morrow.
A LITTLE LUNCHEON PARTY ON THE YACHT "CYPRIANI"
The expectation appeared thoroughly conservative: not a cloud so large as a man's hand any longer darkened the horizon. At two o'clock next day Mr. Carstairs's Cypriani rode gayly at her old anchorage. At the rail stood Varney and Maginnis, hosts of pleasant and guileless mien, their eyes upon the trim gig which came dancing over the water toward them. In the gig sat J. Pinkney Hare and his sister, Mrs. Marne, blithely coming to lunch aboard with their two new friends.
The yacht's return to Hunston had been in all ways different from her going. She had slipped away like the hunted thing she was, running to cover with a hold full of fears, shying at every craft that passed, and yelled after from the shore by a stoutish young man with inimical opinions in his eye. She had steamed back, early this morning, not merely without fear, but proudly, her whistle screaming for the lime-light, her fore-truck flying, so to say, the burgee of vindication; and the stoutish and inimical young man had come aboard for breakfast with his new employer at nine o'clock sharp. Such was the measure of the whitewashing work accomplished by three columns in Mr. Maginnis's Gazette that morning.
Of the "news value" of those astonishing columns, "the author's double" (as the Gazette's converted reporters felicitously dubbed him) had had abundant evidence in the many glances that followed him upon the streets of Hunston that morning. Varney's errand in town had had to do with Tommy Orrick. Some search was needed to find the transient tenant of Kerrigan's loft; but when he was finally located the matter of homes in New York was discussed and settled in the most satisfactory way in the world. It was decided that Tommy should remove his Penates to the city that very evening, where he was to be met at Forty-second Street by a Mr. Horace O'Hara, an interesting personage who had once been a burglar but was now in the fish and vegetable way at Fulton Market. Together they would make their way to the Home. Future plans had to do with an educative course at the graded schools and other matters so strange and exalted that one could not hear them mentioned without experiencing the most benumbing abashment.
The two good friends parted with a handshake, enforced by the young man—a unique ceremonial which filled the small breast of Thomas with a conflict of strange emotions; and Varney, having dispatched a telegram to Mr. O'Hara, and another to Mrs. Marie Duval, who had the home with no boys in it on 117th Street, had at once turned his face back to the yacht. He chose the woodland path for his walk, which struck straight down from the handsome residence street and skirted the river at a point near the Cypriani's anchorage; and here an incident of interest befell him. As he sauntered down the path, conscious of a sudden curious loss of spirits, his attention was caught by the blurred sound of voices from the street, some fifty yards behind him; and presently the vague rumble crystallized into something like this:
"... Infernal absence of livery ... Far ... station-master fellow say it was, Henry?"
The voice was masculine, carefully modulated, decidedly elegant. A different sort of voice gave answer:
"'E said, sir ... mile, but knowing the hodd way they count distances away from the cities, sir, I'm 'ardly 'oping to see it under two mile—hif that."
Varney idly turned. The woods were thick just ahead of him, cutting off all view of the street; but further on, to the north, there was a break in the leafy wall, revealing a small slit of patent cement sidewalk. Soon, as he watched, two pedestrians stepped into view within this frame of foliage: a tall immaculate-looking man swinging a trim cane, and behind him a stocky, middle-sized, black-garbed fellow struggling along under two suit-cases and a roll of umbrellas. In three steps they had passed across the little open space and were again lost behind the trees, their voices running once more into an indistinguishable rumble.
Varney, halting in the path, had little doubt who the tall man was. It was Ferris Stanhope, returning to the home of his boyhood and sublimely unaware of the nature of the reception which awaited him.
Cordially as Varney loathed the great author, he had no wish to see him taken by surprise and beaten to a pulp by mob-law. Moreover, if anything like that happened, he and Peter would be largely responsible, since the present excitement of feeling had been largely worked up for their benefit. He had half a mind to go straight after the insouciant visitor now, unpleasant as it would be to have to speak to him, and give him the fair warning he was entitled to. But he dismissed the impulse as plainly overdoing his duty: the man was in no possible danger in broad daylight, and Peter had already promised that he would attend to the warning business himself.
Now, as they stood calmly chatting at the rail under the brilliant sky, he told Peter of the author's arrival, and dutifully reminded him of that promise. Peter renewed it, without enthusiasm. His eyes rested on the approaching gig with a kind of fascination; and Varney followed his gaze.
"Isn't Hare dressy, though! Frock-coat and all that ..."
"Yes ... He'll add a needed touch of elegance to the somber setting of the drama."
"By the way," said Varney presently, "how did Hammerton get away last night? I believe Ferguson's been dodging me all day, but the fact is I've never given it a thought."
"He's sharp as a tack, that boy is. He played dead till old Ferguson got first interested, then nervous, and lastly careless. Lay there two hours without moving; breathed as little as he could do with, and at long intervals fluttered one eyelid and took a peep how the land lay. After a while there came a time when the door was left wide open and only one deckhand in sight. Hammerton floored him with a chair from behind, and jumped over the rail. She happened to be moving close inshore at the time, and he was in the woods before the fatheads even got a boat down."
Varney echoed his laugh absently. All morning, since his return from Hunston, he had felt himself enfolded by a mysterious despondency, which he had seemed unable either to account for or to shake off. But now, as the final climax of his business drew near to summon him, he felt his spirits inexplicably rising again. A certain excitement possessed him; he was glad that at last his hour had come.
Hardly listening to Peter, he was running over in the most business-like way the little scheme, mapped out and rehearsed together that morning, by which the two superfluous guests, the mere "sleepers" in the orchestra, were to be detached at the proper moment. Yes, certainly; it was sound and would hold water. So would everything else. Peter's things had gone ashore two hours before, for he was to remain in Hunston. Everything had been provided for; the last detail systematically arranged. A surer scheme and a clearer coast could not possibly have been contrived or desired.
"At breakfast," continued Peter, "Hammerton suddenly blurted out that, while he wasn't crazed with conscientiousness as a rule, one thing had kept him awake last night. Demanded whether we had the nerve to think that we had simply bought him off with a job. 'Perish the thought, Charlie,' said I, looking kind of hurt at the bare suggestion. 'Thank you, Maginnis,' said he, dignified as the President. 'It's an honest fact that I gave up the chase because I felt all along that you two fellows couldn't possibly be mixed up in anything underhanded.' Aha! thinks me to myself ... Eh, Laurence?"
"Well, cheer up. It's done every day by our best families. And speaking of doing underhanded things," said Peter, "our guests approach rapidly. Up, guards, and at them!"
He took off his terrible Panama and waved it in a friendly manner.
"How-de-do, Mrs. Marne! Morning, candidate! Welcome aboard."
The sister and brother came up the stair, and were cordially greeted by their hosts.
"Ashore again!" ordered Varney over the side. "There is another guest."
"So we have not kept you waiting after all," cried Mrs. Marne, flashing a triumphant eye upon her brother. "Mary is not here yet—the prinker!"
She was dark, vivacious for a chaperon, easily on the correct side of thirty, and arrayed in very light mourning indeed. She had a will: for it was she who had baited J. Pinkney Hare with sociology and politics to abandon the law in New York, at which he was doing rather well, and follow her to Hunston. This was when her husband, a member of Hunston's oldest family—for there was aristocracy in the town—had left her widowed the year of their marriage.
"Three times," Hare elucidated to Varney, "did she tell me, 'I'll be ready in a minute.' And a ten-minute interval elapsed each time, by my grandfather's trusted chronometer."
"Oh, well," said Varney, "who'd put any trust in a woman who was ready when she said she'd be? Let's get into the shade."
"Pinky," said Mrs. Marne, sister-wise, as she turned with Varney, "gets his ideas about women from the comic weeklies."
They sauntered aft, Peter and Hare in the rear.
"Committee meeting at five-thirty?"
"Precisely. And by the bye," began Hare....
The candidate, in his tiny frock coat, with pale gray spats and scarf to match, looked overdressed in the brilliant sunshine. Yet probably Peter, whose purple tie blossomed too gorgeously above a blue silk "fancy vest" of a cut a good deal affected in the early nineties, looked the more striking of the two.
"He's a fool," declared Peter presently. "The chances are that Ryan has a barrel of votes salted down where we'll have the devil's own time tapping them. You can't smoke out a skunk in a minute, I tell you."
Mrs. Marne, in a cushioned chair, was being markedly agreeable to her host.
"It's my debut on a yacht," she was rattling away. "Is there any special etiquette? Coach me from time to time when you see me fumbling, won't you? And if there is a code, there is one thing that I move shall go into it, here and now. Politics is—or are—barred for the day! Will you make it a rule that whoever mentions it—or them—forfeits butter, Mr. Varney?"
Varney laughed. "A rank outsider myself," said he, "I'm absolutely willing. But I fear that in a division the nays would have it."
"You and I," she said, "against Mr. Maginnis and Pinky. A tie. Mary would have the deciding vote."
"Then you'd lose out," said her brother, whose social manner, it was developing, differed somewhat from that of his official moments.
"I know women," said Mrs. Marne. "I could lobby Mary over in exactly two minutes, Mr. Varney. Besides, she is absent at roll-call, you know."
"The point is well taken," said Varney, to whom the thought was anything but a novelty.
"There she is now," said Peter over their shoulders.
Varney turned and looked ashore at the point where the gig was patiently waiting. There was no sign of anybody there.
"Upstream," added Peter, and the sudden honk of a motor-horn punctuated the observation like a full stop.
Two hundred yards above them, a narrow driveway circled down to the river to an ancient boat-house, and here the gaze of the little party turned. Where the road curved at the water's edge, there stood a great white touring-car, shining in the sun like a new pin. Upon the driver's seat sat a bare-headed young man with a brown face and light sunburned hair, brushed back. On the farther side of him, gloved hand holding to the seat back, stood a young girl in a blue linen dress and a rather conspicuously large hat, also of blue. Both of them were looking off toward the Cypriani. Now the horn tooted again in salutation; and the girl, catching their eyes, waved her hand and smiled, making a little gesture indicative of her lack of equipment to navigate the intervening stretch of water.
Mrs. Marne answered the salute in kind. Reassuring gesticulations were duly wafted ashore.
"Who's the new swain, Pinky?" demanded Mrs. Marne thoughtfully.
Pinky did not know. The sailing-master, at a word from Varney, hurled an order to the gig ashore. Then he swept his megaphone upstream, pointing it straight at the motor:
"The gig is on the way to you now, Miss."
"That's an awfully sweet hat she's wearing," said Mrs. Marne. "I wonder where she found that shape."
Miss Carstairs nodded her thanks to the sailing-master. The bare-headed young man sprang down, assisted her to descend, waited with her at the water's edge, assisted her most thoroughly into the Cypriani's gig. He was a handsome boy. He stood on the shore looking after the departing boat, laughing and calling out something.
"We wanted to have luncheon on deck," said Varney, abruptly, to Mrs. Marne, "as the day is so uncommonly fine. But about noon there came up a little cloud no larger than a man's hand—it took a telescope to see it—and the steward, a pronounced conservative, begged us not to trifle with our luck. It seems too bad to go indoors on such a glorious day."
"But if we were to stay outdoors," she laughed, "would it have been such a glorious day? These are the questions that make cynics of us all. I am unhappy, Mr. Varney, because I have to fly the moment luncheon is over. The Married Women's Culture Club meets at four o'clock. Only fancy!—I am to read a paper on Immanuel Kant."
Peter, who had known no women in his life and was oppressed with the thought that Hare's sister was his personal responsibility for the day, was strolling moodily about the deck, hands thrust deep in his trousers pocket. Hare hung at the rail, his neat glasses turned upstream.
The gig came alongside and Miss Carstairs mounted the steps, the party gathered at the head of them to meet her. Peter, as it chanced, greeted her first. He had been introduced to her, in passing, the night of the meeting, but now he was dimly conscious that he had rather underestimated her appearance.
"I am dreadfully sorry to be late," she said. "We went for the shortest little drive, and all at once it was two o'clock and we were three miles away."
"You must have done something to the speed-limit, madam," said Peter in his stiffest manner, "for you are in ample time."
"How do you do, Mr. Hare?"
"Excellently well, thank you, Mary. It is supererogatory to ask you."
"Pinky," said Mrs. Marne, "have that word and I met? I don't seem to recognize it."
"Good-morning, Mr. Varney." Mary offered him her hand; but, greeting her, he had turned to pull a chair out of her way, and so missed seeing it.
"It is a great pleasure to welcome you aboard the yacht, Miss Carstairs."
"If I seem at all addicted to melancholia to-day," said Mary, "you won't be surprised, will you? My mother isn't well—really! When I left her an hour ago, you might have supposed that we were parting for a year. And then, besides I had an omen—a mysterious warning...."
Varney's gaze became fixed. "A warning?"
She laughed. "A rather queer and scary one! I'll tell you presently."
"My dear," said Mrs. Marne, when Varney had turned to explain the working of the boat-falls to Hare, "who is he? He is simply cunning!"
Mary laughed. Hare, who was listening to boat matters with one ear only, thought it was rather a conscious laugh.
"Only John Richards. He came up in his car yesterday to spend a day with us. How do you like my hat?"
"It's a love," said Mrs. Marne. "A great big love."
"I trimmed it myself. You recognize the feather, of course?"
They went down to luncheon. The ladies cried out with pleasure at the prettiness of the little saloon.
The room was darkened, through half-drawn shades, to a pleasant dimness. The table was round, red, and bare. It was a splendid mass of flowers. In the center was a great blossoming thing in a silver basket-frame, so large and high that when they were seated, Hare, who was neither, could just see Mary over the top of it. About it were four tall vases of cut roses, two of white, two of red. Button-holes in white and red lay at three covers, gigantic American Beauties, red, with flowing white ribbons, at two. And napery, silver, iridescent glass, all the materialities, were well worthy of so pretty a floral setting.
In short, it was a most alluring bait that Uncle Elbert's yacht had flung out for Uncle Elbert's daughter.
"These roses," said Mary, raising hers to her lips, "were never grown in Hunston."
"I want to explain a rule that Mr. Varney and I adopted just now, Mr. Maginnis," said Mrs. Marne. "Did you hear it? It concerns the two subjects of butter and politics."
Hare lifted a glass of the Cypriani's excellent sherry and caught his host's eye. "Mr. Varney! By a pleasant coincidence, we happen to be gathered here within a day or two of the birthday of one member of our charming party. The little discrepancy of date is immaterial—am I right? Why may I not propose the health and great happiness of Miss Carstairs?"
"Standing!" cried Mrs. Marne, pushing back her chair. "Bravo!"
They stood, glasses raised, turned toward Miss Carstairs, bowing, saluting her according to their several kinds; and she sat, looking up at them, laughing, flushed, prettily pleased by the little rite. For Varney, conscious of the mockery of his felicitations, there had been no escape. But Hare, who noticed everything, observed that he did not touch his glass to his lips.
The luncheon progressed merrily. It was evident from the beginning that it was to be a pronounced success. Only Peter was stiff and bored; and even he grew somewhat enlivened before the ceremonies ended. There was Scotch and soda for the gentlemen, and he did not spurn it when the decanters passed. Varney, whose want of appetite pained McTosh, was a conversational tower of strength. But his talk was false-faced talk, his mirth was lying mirth, his smile a painted smile. Uncle Elbert's daughter sat at his left, as befitted a guest of honor. Her eyes, when she looked at him, were kind and friendly, but it early became his habit not to meet them; for he always saw behind that—saw them changed as he was destined to see them within the hour....
"So you're quite alive and well to-day!" she said to him presently. "Will you believe that I picked up the Gazette this morning with fear and trembling?"
"Oh—thank you—yes! We eluded Mr. Hackley's well-meant attentions with marvelous dexterity and success."
"Ah, you still don't take it seriously, I see. I'm going to make one more effort to frighten you to-day—but I'm afraid you are one of these terribly reckless people who think being safe is too tame to be interesting. What do you think of our poor little city, Mr. Varney?"
"I? I assure you," he said, turning a gay face toward her, "I think it positively the most exciting town I ever saw in my life. But then, of course, I 've had unusual privileges. What is much more important—what do you think of it?"
"Of course, I love it. My mother went here to boarding school a great, great many years ago. No, not that—some years ago. She fell in love with the place on account of the scenery, and the air, which she says is fresher than you can get in other places. Personally, I believe that the same quality can be had elsewhere, but she says not at all. So when we—left New York, nothing would do for her but to come straight here."
"But don't you find it a little dull?"
"Dull! Why," she cried, after a moment, "you talk exactly the way she does."
"May I offer you an olive?"
She took it daintily in her fingers, bit it and resumed: "I suppose your metropolitan idea is that a person would be buried alive in Hunston?"
A sunny shaft broke in from without and became entangled with her hair, which was in some ways so curiously like it. McTosh, whose eye was everywhere, promptly lowered a shade two inches—the one blunder he made that day.
"That would depend altogether on the person."
"I do think so, decidedly."
"Really you and my mother would be very congenial."
"McTosh, the bread," said Peter's cool voice.
Mrs. Marne, who had been interested by Peter's taciturnity and fascinated by his waistcoat, had been leading that ordinarily masterful man something of a conversational dance. Detached for the moment by his demand for provender, she called across the table: "Mary, I herewith invite you to attend the Culture Club meeting at four o'clock this afternoon, to lead the applause for my paper on Immanuel Kant. Pinky wrote it and—"
"Before any court in the land," said Hare, lifting his glance above squab en casserole, "I am prepared to establish my innocence of this charge."
"If he positively will not take no for an answer," continued Mrs. Marne, "you may bring John Richards along. No claret, thank you, Mr. Maginnis. Men, it is true, are not admitted to the sacred mysteries, but I will arrange to have him seated on the piazza where he may eavesdrop the whole thing through the long French window."
"Unfortunately," said Mary, "he has to go to Albany this afternoon, I believe."
"To resume our conversation, Mrs. Marne," said Peter.
"I shouldn't if I were you," Hare recommended. "If memory serves, it was hardly worth it. Why not, instead, permit me to tell the story of the seven fat men of Kilgore?"
McTosh, of the gum-shoe tread, shuffled courses dextrously. An under-steward assisted in the presentation of the viands, another manipulated dishes in the hidden precincts of the pantry. The service was swift and noiseless, but not more so than the passage of time. The hands of the little clock fastened against the forward bulkhead already stood at quarter after three.
Mary's eyes, which had been resting on the candidate, turned back to Varney, and they were shining. "Seriously, Mr. Varney," she said in a lowered voice—"how could any one possibly be buried in a town where Mr. Hare is?"
She nodded. "Because he is so alive! Why just to live in the same town with him is an inspiration. To be friends with him—well, that is all you ever need to keep from feeling buried alive! He isn't listening, is he?"
"No," said Varney, "he is, I believe, telling the story of the seven fat men of Kilgore."
"If you wish to hand bouquets to Pinky for a while," called Mrs. Marne, aside, "I will see that you are not disturbed, Mary."
"Thank you, Elsie, but it's your sisterly duty to listen to the story. Mr. Hare," she presently went on, to Varney, "had a great career ahead of him in New York—Judge Prentiss told me so—and he kicked it over without a quiver and came up here where there isn't any glitter or fireworks, but only plain hard work. Politics is only an incident with him. No one will ever understand all that he has done for Hunston, without any thought of return—working with all his heart and his head and his hands."
"Ha! Ha!" said Peter down the table. "That reminds me—"
"You have known him a long time, I suppose?" asked Varney.
"Yes," she laughed, "but he has known me longer—ever since I was a very little girl. That is why he calls me by my name, which gives him a great moral advantage. I call him Mister because I didn't know him when he was a very little boy. I have figured it all out, and I couldn't have, because he was thirteen when I was born. Besides, you can't begin to know people till you have reached a certain age. Can you?"
"Not to say know, I should think."
"Say six," said Miss Carstairs. "That's liberal, I think. Well, he was nineteen then, and I never even saw him till seven years afterwards, anyway. That made him twenty-six, which was much too late. Now he says that I should call him by his name, but of course I'm not going to do it."
"It is hard to change an old habit in a thing like that."
"Oh, I don't mind the hardness of it. But whoever heard of calling a Mayor by his first name? Call a Mayor Pinky! The thought is ridiculous. Isn't it, Mr. Hare?"
But Hare was engrossed with a conversation of his own, now turned upon economic lines.
"Everything in the world that goes up must come down," he was saying didactically, "except prices. They alone defy the laws of gravity."
Peter challenged the aphorism, wordily. Mrs. Marne smiled at Mary across the flower-sweet table.
"No," answered Hare presently. "Money isn't everything, but it is most. It makes the mare go; also the nightmare. It talks, it shouts, and in the only language that needs no interpreter. I may describe it, without fear of contradiction, as the Esperanto of commerce."
"Clever, Pinky!" called his sister, derisively. "Confess that you rehearsed this before a mirror."
The luncheon ended. If anything had been wanting to prove how agreeable it had been, it appeared now in the pretty reluctance with which the ladies rose. There was the customary pushing back of chairs, smoothing down of garments, recovering of handkerchiefs from beneath the board. The room and the table were the objects of new compliments, given in farewell.
"Who would have dreamed," said Mary, looking back from the door at her father's perfectly appointed room, "that yachts were as nice as this?"
"And to think," said Mrs. Marne, "that it was all done by a Mere Man."
McTosh, the mere man in question, blushed violently behind his deft hand.
They stepped up on deck into the shade of a great striped awning, and loitered along the side, caught by the beauty of the late summer scene. Sky and water and green wood blended into practised perfectness. The rippling water was blue as the heavens, which was very blue indeed. The sun kissed it like a lover.
"Will some one kindly tell me," demanded Hare, referring to his sister's remark, "how the superstition arose that men have no taste?"
"I have read," said Mary idly, her back against the rail, "that it was invented by the authority who started the slander about women's having no sense of humor."
"Why, they haven't, have they?"
"You're wrong there, Hare," said Peter, out of his fathomless ignorance. "For my part I think that women are often more amusing than men."
"Of course, Maginnis, of course. The point is that it never dawns on them."
They were strung out along the after deck, a gay and friendly company, exactly as Varney had pictured them in his thoughts. From the hatch emerged the stewards, in stately processional, bearing coffee and cigars, their paraphernalia and appurtenances. Twenty feet away, on the other side, was to be seen the sailing-master's wife, sitting under orders, sedate, matronly, knitting a pale blue shawl and giving to the bright scene an air of indescribable domesticity.
"Women," said Mrs. Marne to Varney, "have a splendid sense of humor. I am a woman and I know. True, we keep a tight grip on our wit when we are with men, because, whatever men may say in moments like these, they do loathe and despise a comical woman. But when we are alone together—ah, dearie me, what funny things we do say! Don't we, Mary?"
Varney, to show himself how cool he was, was lighting a cigarette, and had just perceived with annoyance that his hand shook.
"At least," he answered easily, "no man will ever disprove that, since no man has ever had the pleasure of being present when women are alone together. I can recommend the Invincibles, Hare."
Peter, as one sensitive to the duties of host, now begged Mrs. Marne to let him show her something of the yacht. He mentioned the crew's quarters and the—er—butler's pantry as points which he particularly desired to bring to her attention.
"I'd love to see them! Oh—I must take just one peep before I fly."
The trio started forward in a whirl of her animated talk, Peter leading with a dutiful face, Hare strutting solemnly along in the rear. Mary glanced at Varney.
"Aren't you going to show me your butler's pantry, too?"
"Rather!" he said, starting with her up the deck. "But I want you to see the whole ship, you know, much more thoroughly than Mrs. Marne has time for—and to take a little spin—"
He was interrupted by an exaggerated cry from the lady last mentioned, who, happening to glance down at her watch, had stopped short at the cabin-hatch in great dismay.
Now she turned back to Varney crying: "Oh! oh! Mr. Varney, it's twenty minutes to four! I must fly to my Culture this instant!"
At that, for Varney, the little party lost the last traces of its false good-fellowship and stood out for what it was. Mrs. Marne's hurried departure slightly dislocated his carefully-laid plans; it was evident that her brother had no intention of going with her. Over her unconscious head, his eye caught Peter's in a faint sweep which indicated the little candidate.
"Oh—must you, Mrs. Marne?" said Varney, with civil regret.
"I must! I wish—oh, how I wish!—that culture had never been invented. The world lasted a long time without it, I'm sure. I detest to eat and run, yet what else can possibly be done by the author of 'Ideals of Immanuel Kant'?"
"It is too bad," said Varney, "but if duty really calls, I suppose there is nothing for it but to have your boat ready at once."
"I ought to go, too," said Mary.
A chorus of protests annihilated the thought. Mrs. Marne declared that she would never, no, never, forgive herself if she broke up so delightful a party. It was unanimously decided that the other guests were to remain long enough to be shown something of the yacht. Mention of a little spin down the river was once more casually thrown out.
Events moved swiftly. The gig was manned, waiting. Varney under cover of issuing orders, found opportunity to say a hurried word to Peter. Mrs. Marne approached Mary, who was discussing yachts with Hare, to make adieu. Suddenly the large face of Maginnis loomed over her shoulder.
"Good-bye, Miss Carstairs—you'll excuse me, won't you?" said he, briefly. "I—I thought perhaps I'd just walk in with Mrs. Marne."
Mary repressed an inclination to smile. "Certainly, Mr. Maginnis. Good-bye. I've enjoyed it a great, great deal." And to Pinkney Hare she added: "You are going over the yacht with us, of course?"
Mrs. Marne embarked in a shower of farewells. Peter, however, loitered at the head of the stairs, and the gig waited at the foot of them. Varney stood at Miss Carstairs's elbow, cool, smiling, controlling the situation with entire and easy mastery.
"It occurs to me, Miss Carstairs," he said, "that I should begin our tour by showing you our sailing-master's wife, Mrs. Ferguson—decidedly the cultured member of the ship's household. She reads Shakespeare. She recites Browning. I dare say that she even sings a little Tennyson. You would enjoy meeting her, I am sure. Will you step around the other side for a moment?"
"How exceedingly interesting," murmured Hare, falling in beside them. "Years ago, I used to read quite a bit of poetry myself."
The gig still waited at the foot of the stairs. Mrs. Marne, waving upward last adieus to Mary and Varney, called: "Do hurry, Mr. Maginnis. I'm outrageously late."
But Peter, who had more important matters than Kant on his mind at that moment, answered in a low, hurried voice: "Don't be alarmed, Mrs. Marne—but I must see your brother at once about—a critical matter. Oh, I say, Hare."
The candidate, now some distance up the deck with the others, stopped and looked back.
"May I have a word with you, please?"
Hare turned, with only a polite show of reluctance to his host and Miss Carstairs, and drew near. Politics interested him far more than the staunchest ship that ever sailed.
Five minutes later when Varney, having launched Miss Carstairs and the sailing-master's wife upon a strictly innocuous conversation, came around the deck-house again, neither the candidate nor his sister was anywhere to be seen. Peter—he who had engaged to accompany the lady—stood alone on the sunny deck, staring off at the returning gig, his great hands clenched in his coat-pockets. He met his friend with a calm face.
"It's all over but the shouting," he said. "They've just landed. I told Hare that there was a plot on against your life—which is very likely true by the way—said he and I must have a conference at once without alarming Miss Carstairs. I had to draw it pretty strong, you can bet, to make him go without telling her good-bye."
"You've got the letters," said Varney hurriedly. "Go to see Mrs. Carstairs the first thing—make the explanations. Call up Uncle Elbert and tell him six-thirty for the carriage at the dock. Be sure to explain to Hare and Mrs. Marne at once—prearranged visit to her father, kept quiet for—any good reason."
"Of course," said Peter. "Well, I must hurry along. I promised to overtake them in the woods. Oh, the lies I've told in this ten minutes!"
He turned and picked up his hat and cane to go.
To Varney, the simple act drove home with great force the stark fact that he was face to face with his business at last. Peter, holding out his hand to say good-bye, was struck to speculation by the look of that eye.
"Well, good luck, Larry!"
"In heaven's name—what does that mean?"
"Hanged if I know," said Peter, frankly. "I'll see you in New York—if not sooner." With which cryptic observation he clattered down the stairs to the gig.
Varney beckoned the sailing-master from the quarter-deck.
"I am returning to New York, as I told you, Ferguson, with the young lady, Mr. Carstairs's daughter. Start as soon as possible."
The sailing-master stared at the deck. "Ready at once, sir."
Mrs. Ferguson's fondness for classical poetry was no part of any stage make-believe. Varney, having found her the day before sitting on a coil of rope with Mr. Pope's Odyssey from the ship's library, had conceived a veneration for her taste. Now, as he drew near them again, she was telling Mary that though Tennyson was fine for the purty language, it was really Browning who understood the human heart. And down in the engine room they had everything ready for the bell.
"Have you two settled the poets' hash yet?" asked Varney. "I hope you didn't make the mistake of preferring Tennyson to Browning, Miss Carstairs? Thank you very much for entertaining our guest so nicely, Mrs. Ferguson."
"What a wonder that woman is!" said Mary, looking back at her as they walked away. "I had thought that I was rather good at liking poetry, but she leaves me feeling like the dunce at the kindergarten."
She turned and looked out over the water, caught anew by the shining landscape. They stood side by side in the shade of the wide low awning. Half a mile to their left huddled the town, whither the others were already on their way; a few hundred yards behind them stood the big white Carstairs house, handsomely cresting the hill. From many miles to the northward a breeze danced down the river, and played capriciously over their faces, and so whisked on about its business. All the world looked smiling and very good.
Suddenly a bell tinkled. There was a slight splash, a faint rumble and quiver.
Varney laughed. "The passion for poetry," said he, "is a curious and complex thing. Its origin is shrouded in the earliest dawn of civilization. It appears in man's first instinctive gropings toward written self-expression—"
"Why," said Mary, in sudden surprise, "we are going!"
So Elbert Carstairs's dream had come true, and his daughter was going home to him at his desire. She stood on his yacht, as truly a prisoner as though she wore a ball and chain; and the beat of the engines, already gathering speed, was driving her straight toward that dock in Harlem whither he, within a very short time, would be driving down to meet her.
"Going? Of course we are," said Varney.
He leaned against the rail and, looking at Mary, almost laughed at the thought of how easy and simple it was.
"The point of being on a yacht, Miss Carstairs, is to see her go. Otherwise, one might as well sit in the den at home and look at pictures of them in the encyclopedia."
"But I—didn't expect to go," she said, gazing at him doubtfully—"only to look around a little. I'm really afraid I haven't time for a sail."
"Well, you know," he said cheerfully, "as far as looking around is concerned, going doesn't necessarily take any longer than staying. In one case, you stay and look around: in the other you go and look around. That is really all the difference, isn't it?"
"Well, then, it must be a little go and a short look around. Where does one begin, in looking around a yacht?"
It would have been plain to a far duller plotter that they should be fully clear of Hunston before he explained the situation to her more definitely.
"Suppose," said Varney, "we begin with a few general remarks of a descriptive nature. This vessel, Miss Carstairs, is what is known as a schooner-rigged steam-yacht. She stands a good bit under a hundred tons. She is ninety feet long, eighteen feet in the beam and she draws ten feet—"
"I don't understand a word of that except ninety feet long, but it all has a perfectly splendid sound! But where can Mr. Hare be? Please send for him like a good host, and begin back at the beginning again. He just told me that yachts interested him intensely."
"But, unfortunately, Mr. Hare is no longer with us."
"Not with us? Why—did he get off?"
"He certainly did. He and Maginnis are a great pair, aren't they? Not a minute to give to pleasure or anything of that sort. I believe they slipped off to Hare's house for another of their eternal private talks."
"But—" Mary stared astoundedly. "He said he was going around with us! I asked him and he accepted. And besides," she went on, rolling up the count against the unhappy candidate, "he's got my parasol!"
"We detached that from him before he left. It's around on the other side. I'll send for it at once."
But her puzzled frown lingered. "I have known Mr. Hare well for six years," she said, "and this is the first time I ever knew him to do such an uncivil thing."
"It wasn't his fault, depend upon it. Maginnis called him back, you know, and no doubt hauled him off bodily, positively refusing to let him pause for good-byes. A man of ruthless determination, is Maginnis."
She glanced up the deck with vague uneasiness, disquieted by the unexpected situation. Forty feet away sat the sailing-master's wife still placidly knitting at her pale blue shawl, the perfect portrait of secure propriety. The sight of her there was somehow reassuring.
"So is Mr. Hare, I always believed. But never mind. How fast we are going already!"
"Yes, the C—this yacht goes fast."
"What is considered fast for a yacht? How long would it take us to get to New York?"
"Three hours. Why not go?"
A white-clad steward noiselessly approached with her parasol. She took it and smiled at Varney's idle pleasantry.
"Thank you, I have too many responsibilities this afternoon. First of all, we—have a guest at home. Then I simply must go to Mrs. Thurston's to see about some sewing at five. Last obstacle of all—my mamma! What would she think had happened?"
"Don't you suppose that she would guess?"
"Do you think I'm the daughter of a clairvoyant, Mr. Varney? No, she would not guess. She would simply stand at the front window in a Sister Ann position all the afternoon, crying her pretty, eyes red. But—this is a schooner-something steam-yacht, ninety feet long, I believe you said. What comes after that?"
They had left the town dock behind and were scudding swiftly. There was no longer any reason, even any pretext, for waiting. Every pulse of the Cypriani's machinery was beating into his brain: "Tell her now! Tell her now!"
But all at once he found it very hard to speak.
"There is time enough for that. There is something that I must tell you first—in fairness to Hare. The fact is that I—I made Peter take him away because I wanted to be alone with you."
The crude speech plainly embarrassed her; she became suddenly engrossed in examining the carved handle of her parasol, as though never in her life had she seen it before.
Varney turned abruptly from her and looked out at the flying shore.
"Last night," said he, "you may remember that you asked me a question. You asked me why I objected to accepting help from you."
"Yes, but that was last night," she interrupted, her instinct instantly warning her away from the topic—"and you didn't tell me, you know! Really—we must turn around in two minutes, and so I haven't time to talk about a thing but yachts."
"I fear that you must find time."
"Must, Mr. Varney?"
"Must. This is a matter in which you are directly concerned."
She faced him in frank wonderment. "Why, what on earth can you mean?"
"Now you must! Now you must!" sang the Cypriani's staunch little engines.
But he made the mistake of looking at her, and this move betrayed him. There was no doubt of him in her upturned, perplexed face, no shadow of distrust to give him strength. His earlier dread of this moment, strangely faded for a while, closed in on him once more with deadly force.
"Don't you see that I am trying to tell you and that I am finding it—hard?" he said quietly.
There was a moment's silence; then she said hurriedly: "Of course I am all in the dark as to what you—are talking about—but tell me another time, won't you? Not now, please. And oh—meantime," she sped on, with the air of hailing a new topic with acclaim, "I have something to tell you, Mr. Varney!—mystery seems to be in the air to-day. You must hear the strange thing that happened to me this morning. I haven't had a chance to tell you before."
"Ah, yes! That mysterious warning."
He clutched at the respite like a drowning man at straws, though no drowning man would have felt his sudden rush of self-contempt.
"Who gave it to you, and what was it about?"
Free of his hidden restraints, she had quite thrown off the embarrassment which she had felt settling down upon her a moment before, and laughed lightly and naturally.
"It was about coming to this beautiful luncheon to-day—about not coming, I mean—and it was given to me—don't be angry—by Mr. Higginson, the old man, you know, who helped you last night."
"Ah!... Mr. Higginson."
"Tell me!" she said impulsively, her eyes upon his face—"I saw last night that you distrusted him—do you know anything about him?"
With an obvious effort he wrenched his thought from his present urgency, and brought it to focus upon a puzzle which now seemed oddly like an echo from a distant past.
"Not yet," he said, with an impassive face. "But I trust—"
"Oh, I don't like the way you say that! I don't see how you can be so suspicious of such a patently well-meaning old dear. And yet—"
"Well, then, tell me what he said to you and convert me."
"I suppose I must—I have had it on my mind a little, and you have a right to know. Yet I don't want to at all! For I must say it seems just a little to—to support your view. Well, then," she said, some perplexity showing beneath her smile, "it happened about eleven o'clock this morning as I was going down the street to see Elsie Marne—never dreaming of mysteries. I met Mr. Higginson walking towards our house, and we stopped, so I thought, for a friendly word. For he and I made friends last night. Oh, you have a right to think I am too free, too easy, in the way I—I make friends with strangers, and yet really this—is not like me at all. And there is something very winning about this old man. Well, he asked me point-blank—begged me—not to come to your lunch-party to-day. What have you to say to that?"
He continued to look at her as from a distance, not answering her little laugh. Behind the grave mask of his face he cursed himself heartily for his self-absorption of the morning, which had led him entirely to lose sight of Mr. Higginson's activities last night. He had fully meant to search out that "winning" old man on his excursion to the town, but in his engrossment over the more important duty of the day, the matter had dropped completely from his mind. That the old spy had somehow ferreted out their secret was now too plain to admit a doubt. But what conceivable use did he mean to make of it? To interfere with the Cypriani's homegoing was beyond his power now. Did it better suit his mysterious purpose to hold back until the thing was done, in order to raise the dogs of scandal afterwards?...
For the moment his mind attacked the problem with curiously little spirit; but one thing at least was instantly clear. He must return to Hunston to-night, by the first train after his arrival in New York, find Higginson and call him to his well-earned reckoning. Meantime ... here was this girl, this daughter of Uncle Elbert, whom the old sneak had for the second time failed to bend to his mean uses....
"But what reason," he said mechanically, "did he give for his rather unusual request?"
"He wouldn't give any! That's what makes it all so ridiculous—don't you see? Naturally I asked, but he only said in his nervous apologetic way that he wasn't at liberty to tell, but that after last night I ought to consider whether you—your surroundings were likely to be quite safe. I said: 'But oughtn't you to give me some idea and, if there is any danger, warn Mr. Varney and Mr. Maginnis? You can't mean that there is another plot, involving the yacht this time—the likelihood of a naval battle on the Hudson?' And then he wrung his hands and said that he couldn't tell me what he meant, but that I'd certainly regret it if I came. There! Oh, I know he thought he was doing somebody a kindness—you and me both, I believe! And yet—that was just a little creepy, wasn't it?"
He made no answer to this; hardly heard what she said. Mr. Higginson, his works and ways, had once more slipped wholly from his mind. Something in the look of her face, its young trustfulness, its utter lack of suspicion, had already laid paralyzing hold upon him. Now a new thought possessed him; and all at once his breast was in a tumult.
"And yet," he said, with sudden fierce exultation, "you came!"
She colored slightly under his look and tone and, to cover it, gave a light laugh.
"Oh, yes.. dauntless person that I am! Have you the remotest idea what he was talking about?... But oh, really we must turn around now! Indeed we must—I hadn't noticed how far we have come. And you can show me things as we go back, can't you?"
He started at her speech; asked himself suddenly and wildly what was wrong with him. A better opening for his crushing announcement could not have been desired. Yet he stood dumb as a man of stone. One blurted phrase would commit him irrevocably, but his lips would not say it. And he was glad.
He stared over the water thinking desperately what this might mean.
In that first meeting, radiant as it had somehow seemed to him, he knew that, given this chance, he could have carried his business through without a quiver. Even last night when, he thought, things to make it harder had piled one on another like Ossa on Pelion, it would not have been impossible. Now his lips appeared sealed by a new and overwhelming reluctance; a resistless weakness saturated him through and through, seducing his will, filching away his very voice.
The Cypriani rattled and wheezed, and her speed sharply slackened, but he did not notice it. His mind fastened on the stark fact of his impotence like a key in a lock: his heart leapt up to meet it. He turned slowly and looked at her.
She leaned lightly upon the rail, her eyes on the water, her lashes on her cheek like a silken veil. At her breast nodded his favor, the Cypriani's perfect rose. In her youth, her beauty, and, most of all, her innocent helplessness, there was something indescribably wistful, indescribably compelling: it sprang at him and possessed him. Even in permitting him her acquaintance, she had trusted him far past what he had any right to expect; and now, with his own sickening game at the touch, she gave this crowning proof of confidence in him—dashing it full in the face of the whispering and hinting Higginson, full in his own face too. Could anything in all the world matter beside the fact that this girl believed in him, that she had trusted him not only against convention, not only against his cowardly enemy, but last and biggest, against himself?
And she should not be disappointed. His pledge to her father was a Jephthah's oath, honorable only in the breaking. His mission, all his hours in Hunston, took changed shape before the eye of his whirling mind, monstrous, accusing, unbelievably base. Reward that trust with treachery, that faith with betrayal? Never while he lived.
Out of his turmoil came peace and light, flooding the far reaches of his soul.
In crises thought moves with the speed of light. The young man's mental revolution was over and done with in a second's time; the pause was infinitesimal. Almost as she finished her last remark, Mr. Carstairs's daughter turned from the rail and took a step forward upon the deck, as though to jog her host toward that promised tour of the yacht which had now flagged so long.
"I thought you ought to know this," she was saying, apparently quite unaware of his descent into the psychological deeps, "though perhaps you will think it not worth repeating. But before we go on, do tell me —won't you?—is Mr. Higginson merely—seeing things—a sort of he-Cassandra, you know—or really do you think there is any danger?"
"No!" answered Varney, so promptly as to give the air of having waited long for just that question. "There is no danger now, thank God!"
A heavy step sounded near, approaching. Starting to speak, he broke off, turned and saw the sailing-master coming towards him. Over the intervening stretch of deck the two men looked at each other, the master nervously, Varney victoriously.
It was one of those critical moments whose importance no one can gauge until after the time for guaging is past. However, as it fell out, it was the master who spoke first.
"Very sorry, sir, indeed," he began, with a curiously uneasy and hang-dog expression. "The gear's broke down again—in another place. Couldn't possibly have been foreseen, sir. We can—hem—manage to beat about without any trouble, but I fear it would not be safe to try to push on to New York."
"To New York!" said Mary Carstairs, looking at Varney and laughing at the man's stupidity. "It certainly would not be safe at all!"
Even the furtive-glancing sailing-master was conscious of the tide of gladness that had broken into his young master's eyes.
"Put about this instant, man!" he cried imperiously. "Miss Carstairs wishes to return to Hunston as soon as possible."
"Right, sir," stammered the astonished Ferguson, backing away. "At once, sir."
Varney met the man's amazement steadily, laughed into it, and so turned again to his old friend's daughter. She was conscious of thinking that this was the first happy smile she had seen on his face since the night when he lit the lamp at Mr. Stanhope's.