"You're always getting into hay or getting out of it!" accused Diane.
Philip admitted with regret that this might be so and Diane stared hopelessly at his immaculate linen. Heaven alone knew by what ingenuity Mr. Poynter, handicapped by the peculiar limitations of a hay-camp, contrived to manage his wardrobe. What mysterious toilet paraphernalia lay beneath the hay, what occasional laundry chores Ras did by brook and river, what purchases Mr. Poynter made in every village, and finally what an endless trail of shirts and cuffs and collars lay behind him, doomed, like the cheese and buns, as he feelingly put it, to one-night stands, only Ras and Philip knew; but certainly the hay-nomad combined the minimum of effort with the maximum of efficiency to the marvel of all who beheld him. Ras's problem was infinitely simpler. He never changed. There was much of the original load of hay, Philip said, dispersed about his ears and pockets and fringing the back of his neck.
"Where did you get tomatoes?" inquired Diane at supper.
"Well," said Philip, "I hate to tell you. I strongly suspect Ras of spearing 'em with a harpoon he made. Made it in his sleep, too. It's pretty long and he can spear whatever he wants from the wagon seat. Lord help the rabbits!" He lazily sprinkled salt upon a large tomato and bit into it with relish. "But why should I worry?" he commented smiling. "They're mighty good. Johnny, old top, see if you can rustle up a loaf of bread to lend me for breakfast, will you? I'm willing to trade three cucumbers for it. And tell Ras when you take his supper over that there's a herring under the seat for Dick Whittington's supper. Tell me," he added humorously to Diane, "just how do you contrive to remember bread and salt?"
"I don't," said Diane, smiling. "Johnny does. Did the storm get you last night, Philip?"
"It did indeed. It's the third load of hay we've had this week. We're perpetually furling up the tarpaulin or unfurling it or skinning the mattress or watching the clouds. I'm a wreck."
"Where have you been all day?"
"Haying!" said Philip promptly.
"Sleeping!" corrected Diane with a critical sniff.
Mr. Poynter fancied they were synonyms.
"Do you know," he added pointedly, "I imagine I'd find ever so much more romance and adventure about it if I only had some interesting ailment and a music-mill. I did think I had a bully cough, but it was only a wisp of hay in my throat."
Philip's powers of intuition were most fearful. Diane colored.
"Just what do you mean?" she inquired cautiously.
"Nothing at all," replied Philip with a charming smile. "I never do. Why mean anything when words come so easy without? It has occurred to me," he added innocently, "that it takes an uncommonly thick-skinned and unromantic dub to tour about covered with hay. Fancy sleeping through this wild and beautiful country when I might be grinding up lost chords to annoy the populace."
Diane had heard something of this sort before from quite another source. Acutely uncomfortable, she changed the subject. There was something uncanny in Philip's perfect comprehension of the minstrel's tactics.
A little later Mr. Poynter produced a green bug mounted eccentrically upon a bit of birch bark.
"I found a bug," he said guilelessly. "He was a very nice little bug. I thought you'd like him."
Diane frowned. For every flower the minstrel brought, Philip contrived a ridiculous parallel.
"How many times," she begged hopelessly, "must I tell you that I am not collecting ridiculous bugs?"
Philip raised expressive eyebrows.
"Dear me!" said he in hurt surprise. "You do surprise me. Why, he's the greenest bug I ever saw and he matches the van. He's a nomad with the wild romance of the woodland bounding through him. I did think I'd score heavily with him."
Diane discreetly ignored the inference. Whistling happily, Mr. Poynter poured the coffee and leaned back against a tree trunk. Watching him one might have read in his fine eyes a keener appreciation of nomadic life—and nomads—than he ever expressed.
There was idyllic peace and quiet in this grove of ancient oaks shot with the ruddy color of the sunset. Off in the heavier aisles of golden gloom already there were slightly bluish shadows of the coming twilight. Hungry robins piped excitedly, woodpeckers bored for worms and flaming orioles flashed by on golden wings. Black against the sky the crows were sailing swiftly toward the woodland.
With the twilight and a young moon Philip produced his wildwood pipe and fell to smoking with a sigh of comfort.
"Philip!" said Diane suddenly.
"Mademoiselle!" said Philip, suspiciously grave and courtly of manner. The girl glanced at him sharply.
"It annoys me exceedingly," she went on finally, finding his laughing glance much too bland and friendly to harbor guile, "to have you trailing after me in a hay-wagon."
"I'll buy me a rumpus machine," said Philip.
"It would bother me to have you trailing after me so persistently in any guise!" flashed the girl indignantly.
"It must perforce continue to bother you!" regretted Philip. "Besides," he added absently, "I'm really the Duke of Connecticut in disguise, touring about for my health, and the therapeutic value of hay is enormous."
Now why Diane's cheeks should blaze so hotly at this aristocratic claim of Mr. Poynter's, who may say? But certainly she glanced with swift suspicion at her tranquil guest, who met her eyes with supreme good humor, laughed and fell to whistling softly to himself. Despite a certain significant silence in the camp of his lady, Mr. Poynter smoked most comfortably, puffing forth ingenious smoke-rings which he lazily sought to string upon his pipestem and busily engaging himself in a variety of other conspicuously peaceful occupations. All in all, there was something so tranquil and soothing in the very sight of him that Diane unbent in spite of herself.
"If you'd only join a peace tribunal as delegate-at-large," she said, "you'd eliminate war. I meant to freeze you into going home. I do wish I could stay indignant!"
"Don't," begged Philip humbly. "I'm so much happier when you're not.
"There is another way of managing me," he said hopefully a little later. "I meant to mention it before—"
"What is it?" implored Diane.
"Philip!" exclaimed the girl with delicate disdain, "the moon is on your head—"
"Yes," admitted Philip, "it is. It does get me. No denying it. Doesn't it ever get you?"
"No," said Diane. "Besides, I never bumped my brain—"
"That could be remedied," hinted Philip, "if you think it would alter matters—"
Diane was quite sure it would not and later Philip departed for the hay-camp in the best of spirits. In the morning Diane found a conspicuous placard hung upon a tree. The placard bore a bombastic ode, most clever in its trenchant satire, entitled—"To a Wild Mosquito—by One who Knows!"
Since an ill-fated occasion when Mr. Poynter had found a neatly indited ode to a wild geranium written in a flowing foreign hand, his literary output had been prodigious. Dirges, odes, sonnets and elegies frequently appeared in spectacular places about the camp and as Mr. Poynter's highly sympathetic nature led him to eulogize the lowlier and less poetic life of the woodland, the result was frequently of striking originality.
Convinced that Mr. Poynter's eyes were upon her from the hay-camp, Diane read the ode with absolute gravity and consigned it to the fire.
The minstrel's attitude toward the hay-nomad might be one of subtle undermining and shrugging ridicule, but surely with his imperturbable gift of satire, Mr. Poynter held the cards!
Still another morning Diane found a book at the edge of her camp.
"I am dropping this accidentally as I leave," read the fly leaf in Philip's scrawl. "I don't want you to suspect my classic tastes, but what can I do if you find the book!"
It was a volume of Herodotus in the original Greek!
Buckwheat was cut, harvest brooded hazily over the land and the fields were bright with goldenrod when Diane turned sharply across Virginia to Kentucky.
"It is already autumn," she wrote to Ann Sherrill. "The summer has flown by like a bright-winged bird. For days now the forests have been splashed with red and gold. The orchards are heavy with harvest apples, the tassels of the corn are dark and rusty, and the dooryards of the country houses riot gorgeously in scarlet sage and marigold, asters and gladiolas. The twilight falls more swiftly now and the nights are cooler but before the frost sweeps across the land I shall be in Georgia.
"For all it is autumn elsewhere, here in this wonderful blue grass land, it is spring again, a second spring. The autumn sunlight over the woods and pastures is deeply, richly yellow. There are meadow larks and off somewhere the tinkle of a cow bell. Oh, Ann, how good it is to be alive!
"Ages ago, in that remote and barbarous past when I lived with a roof above my head, there were times when every pulse of my body cried and begged for life—for gypsy life and gypsy wind and the song of the roaring river! Now, somehow, I feel that I have lived indeed—so fully that a wonderful flood tide of peace and happiness flows strongly in my veins. I am brown and happy. Each day I cook and tramp and fish and swim and sleep—how I sleep with the leaves rustling a lullaby of infinite peace above me! Would you believe that I lived for two days and nights in a mountain cave? I did indeed, but Johnny was greatly troubled. Aunt Agatha stuffed his head with commands.
"The South thrills and calls. After all, though I was born in the Adirondacks, I am Southern, every inch of me. The Westfalls have been Florida folk since the beginning of time.
"There is an interesting nomad in a picturesque suit of corduroy who crosses my path from time to time with an eccentric music-machine. Sometimes I see him gravely organ-grinding for a crowd of youngsters, sometimes—with an innate courtliness characteristic of him—for a white-haired couple by a garden gate. He is wandering about in search of health. Oddly, his way lies, too, through Kentucky and Tennessee, to Florida. He—and Ann, dear, this confidence of his I must beg you to respect, as I know you will—is a Hungarian nobleman, picturesquely disguised because of some political quarrel with his country. He writes excellent verse in French and Latin, is a clever linguist, and has a marvelous fund of knowledge about birds and flowers. Altogether he is a cultured, courtly, handsome man whom I have found vastly entertaining. Romantic, isn't it?
"A letter to Eadsville, Kentucky, will reach me if you write as soon as this reaches you.
Let him who is more versed in the science of a nomad's mind than I, say why there was no mention of the hay-camp!
Ann's answer came in course of time to Eadsville. As Ann talked in sprightly italics, so was her letter made striking and emphatic by numberless underlinings.
"How very romantic!" ran a part of it. "I am mad about your nobleman! Isn't it wonderful to have such unique and thrilling adventures? I suppose you hung things up on the walls of the cave and built a delightfully smoky fire and that the Hungarian—bless his heart!—trimmed his corduroy suit with an ancestral stiletto, and paid his courtly respects to the beautiful gypsy hermit and fell desperately in love with her, as well he might. I would myself!
"Diane, I simply must see him! I'm dying for a new sensation. Ever since Baron Tregar's car was stolen from the farm garage and his handsome secretary mysteriously disappeared (by the way, it's Philip Poynter—Carl knows him—do you?) and then reappeared with a most unsatisfactory explanation which didn't in the least explain where he had been—only to up and disappear again as strangely as before, and the very next morning—life has been terribly monotonous. And mother had a rustic seizure and made us stay at the farm all summer. Imagine! Dick's aeroplaned the tops off all the trees!
"Do beg your Hungarian to join us at Palm Beach in January. It would be most interesting and novel and I'll swear on the ancestral stiletto to preserve his incognito! You remember you solemnly promised to come to me in January, no matter where you were! My enthusiasm grows as I write—it always does. I'm planning a fete de nuit—masked of course. Do please induce the romantic musician to attend. I must have him. I'm sure he'll enjoy a few days of conventional respectability and so will you. I'll lend you as many gowns as you need, you dear, delightful gypsy!"
To which Diane's answer was eminently satisfactory.
"Last night as Johnny was getting supper," she wrote, "our minstrel appeared with a great bunch of silver-rod and I begged him to stay to supper. He was greatly gratified and when later I confessed my indiscreet revelation to you—and your invitation—he accepted it instantly. He will be honored to be your guest, he said, provided of course he may depend upon us to preserve his incognito. That is very important. Do you know it is astonishing how I find myself keyed up to the most amazing pitch of interest in him—he's so mysterious and romantic and magnetic.
"Your constant craving for new and original sensations brings back a lot of memories. Will you never get over it?
"I shall probably leave the van with Johnny at Jacksonville and go down by rail. There are certain spectacular complications incident to an arrival at Palm Beach in the van which would be very distasteful, to say the least. Besides, I'd be later than we planned."
For most likely, reflected Diane, nibbling intently at the end of her pen, most likely Palm Beach had never seen a hay-camp and much Mr. Poynter would care!
THE LONELY CAMPER
The west was yellow. High on the mountain where a mad little waterfall sprayed the bushes of laurel and rhododendron with quicksilver, the afterglow of the sunset on the tumbling water made a streak of saffron. The wings of a homing eagle were golden-black against the sky. Over there above the cornfields to the west there was a cliff and a black and bushy ravine over which soared a buzzard or two. Presently when the moon rose its splendid alchemy would turn the black to glowing silver.
A Kentucky brook chuckled boisterously by the hay-camp, tumbling headlong over mossy logs and stones and a tangled lacery of drenched ferns.
Philip laid aside a bow and arrow upon which he had been busily working since supper and summoned Dick Whittington. Beyond, through oak and poplar, glowed the camp fire of his lady.
"Likely we'll tramp about a bit, Richard, if you're willing," said he. "Somehow, we're infernally restless to-night and just why our lady has seen fit to pile that abominable silver-rod in such a place of honor by her tent, we can't for the life of us see. It's nothing like so pretty as the goldenrod. By and by, Whittington," Philip felt for his pipe and filled it, "we'll have our wildwood bow and arrows done and we fancy somehow that our gypsy's wonderful black eyes are going to shine a hit over that. Why? Lord, Dick, you do ask foolish questions! Our beautiful lady's an archer and a capital one too, says Johnny—even if she does like beastly silver-rod."
Somewhat out of sorts the Duke of Connecticut set off abruptly through the trees with the dog at his heels.
Having climbed over log and boulder to a road which cleft the mountain, he kept on to the north, descending again presently to the level of the camp, smoking abstractedly and whistling now and then for Richard Whittington, who was prone to ramble. Philip was debating whether or not he had better turn back, for the moon was already edging the black ravine with fire, when a camp fire and the silhouette of a lonely camper loomed to the west among the trees. Philip puffed forth a prodigious cloud of smoke and seated himself on a tree stump.
"My! My!" said he easily. "Must be our invalid and his rumpus machine. Whittington, we're just in the mood to-night, you and I, to wander over there and tell him that he's not getting half so much over on us as he thinks he is. I've a mind to send you forward with my card."
Philip's eyes narrowed and he laughed softly. Tearing a sheet of paper from a notebook he took from his pocket, he scribbled upon it the following astonishing message:
"The Duke of Connecticut desires an audience. Do not kick the courier!"
Accustomed by now to carry birch-bark messages to Diane, Richard Whittington waggled in perfect understanding and trotted off obediently toward the fire with Philip close at his heels.
Conceivably astonished, the camper presently picked up the paper which Mr. Whittington dropped at his feet, and read it. As Philip stepped lazily from the trees he turned.
It was Baron Tregar. Both men stared.
"The Duke of Connecticut!" at length rumbled the Baron with perfect gravity. "I am overwhelmed."
Philip, much the more astonished of the two, laughed and bowed.
"Excellency," said he formally, "I am indeed astonished."
"Pray be seated!" invited the Baron, his eyes more friendly than those of his guest. "I, too, have taken to the highway, Poynter, on yonder motorcycle and I have lost my way." He sniffed in disgust. "I am dining," he added dryly, "if one may dignify the damnable proceeding by that name, on potatoes which I do not in the least know how to bake without reducing them to cinders. I bought them a while back at a desolate, God-forsaken farmhouse. Heaven deliver me from camping!"
With which pious ejaculation the Baron inspected his smudged and blistered fingers and read again the entertaining message from the Duke of Connecticut.
"Why take to the highway," begged Philip guilelessly, "when the task is so unpleasant?"
"Ah!" rumbled the Baron, more sombre now, "there is a man with a music-machine—"
"There is!" said Philip fervently.
The Baron looked hard at His Highness, the Duke of Connecticut. The latter produced his cigarette case and opening it politely for the service of his chief, smiled with good humor.
"There is," said he coolly, "a man with a music-machine, a mysterious malady, a stained skin and a volume of Herodotus! Excellency knows the—er—romantic ensemble?"
Excellency not only knew him, but for days now, taking up the trail at a certain canal, he had traveled hard over roads strangely littered with hay and food and linen collars—to find that romantic ensemble. He added with grim humor that he fancied the Duke of Connecticut knew him too. The Duke dryly admitted that this might be so. His memory, though conveniently porous at times, was for the most part excellent.
"What is he doing?" asked the Baron with an ominous glint of his fine eyes.
"Excellency," said Philip, staring hard at the end of his cigarette, "by every subtle device at his command, he is making graceful love to Miss Westfall, who is sufficiently wholesome and happy and absorbed in her gypsy life not to know it—yet!"
The Barents explosive "Ah!" was a compound of wrath and outraged astonishment. Philip felt his attitude toward his chief undergoing a subtle revolution.
"His discretion," added Philip warmly, "has departed to that forgotten limbo which has claimed his beard."
The Baron was staring very hard at the camp fire.
"So," said he at last,—"it is for this that I have been—" he searched for an expressive Americanism, and shrugging, invented one, "thunder-cracking along the highway in search of the man Themar saw by the fire of Miss Westfall. 'It is incredible—it can not be!' said I, as I blistered about, searching here, searching there, losing my way and thunder-cracking about in dead of night—all to pick up the trail of a green and white van and a music-machine! 'It is unbelievable—it is a monstrous mistake on the part of Themar!' But, Poynter, this love making, in the circumstances, passes all belief!" The Baron added that twice within the week he had passed the hay-camp but that by some unlucky fatality he had always contrived to miss the music-machine.
"Days back," rumbled the Baron thoughtfully, "I assigned to Themar the task of discovering the identity of the man who—er—acquired a certain roadster of mine and who, I felt fairly certain, would not lose track of Miss Westfall but Themar, Poynter, came to grief—"
"Yes?" said Philip coolly. "You interest me exceedingly."
"He made his way back to me after many weeks of illness," said the Baron slowly, "with a curious tale of a terrible thrashing, of a barge and mules, of rough men who kicked him about and consigned him to a city jail under the malicious charge of a mule-driver who swore that he loved not black-and-tans—"
"Lord!" said Philip politely; "that was tough, wasn't it?"
"Just what, Poynter," begged the Baron, "is a black-and-tan?"
Mr. Poynter fancied he had heard the term before. It might have reference to the color of a man's skin and hair.
An uncomfortable silence fell over the Baron's camp. The Baron himself was the first to break it.
"Poynter," said he bluntly, "the circumstances of our separation at Sherrill's have engendered, with reason, a slight constraint. There was a night when you grievously misjudged me—"
"I am willing," admitted Philip politely, "to hear why I should alter my views."
"Mon Dieu, Poynter!" boomed the Baron in exasperation, "you are maddening. When you are politest, I fume and strike fire—here within!"
"Mental arson!" shrugged the Duke of Connecticut, relighting his cigarette with a blazing twig. "For that singular crime. Excellency, my deepest apologies."
The Baron stared, frowned, and laughed. One may know very little of one's secretary, after all.
"You are a curious young man!" said he.
The Duke of Connecticut admitted that this might be so. Hay, therapeutically, had effected an astonishing revolution in a nature disposed congenitally to peace and trustfulness. Local applications of hay had made him exceedingly suspicious and hostile. So much so indeed that for days now he had slept by day, to the total wreck of his aesthetic reputation, and watched by night, convinced that Miss Westfall's camp was prone to strange and dangerous visitors. Excellency no doubt remembered the knife and the bullet.
The Baron sighed.
"Poynter," he said simply, "to a man of my nature and diplomatic position, a habit of candor is difficult. I wonder, however, if you would accept my word of honor as a gentleman that I know as little of this treacherous bullet as you; that for all I am bound to secrecy, my sincerest desire is to protect Miss Westfall from the peculiar consequences of this damnable muddle, to clear up the mystery of the bullet, and for more selfish reasons to protect her from the romantic folly of the man with the music-machine!"
Philip, his frank, fine face alive with honest relief, held out his hand.
"Excellency," said he warmly, "one may learn more of his chief over a camp fire, it seems, than in months of service. Our paths lie parallel." There was a subtle compact in the handshake.
"What," questioned the Baron presently, "think you, are my fine gentleman's plans, Poynter?"
"Excellency," he admitted, "I have definite information of his plans which I did not seek."
"And the source?"
"Miss Westfall's servant."
"There are certain atmospheric conditions," regretted Philip, "intensely bad for hay-camps, wherefore I found myself obliged to seek an occasional understudy who would not only blaze the trail for me but do faithful sentry duty in my absence. And Johnny, Excellency, whom I pledged to this secret service, uncomfortably insists upon reporting to me much unnecessary detail. He has developed a most unreasoning dislike for music-machines and musical gypsies."
"There appears to be a general prejudice against them," admitted the Baron grimly.
"A while back, then," resumed Philip, "Johnny chanced upon the information that in January Miss Westfall will be a guest of Ann Sherrill's at Palm Beach. So will our minstrel—still incognito—"
"Excellent!" rumbled the Baron with relish. "Excellent. If all this be true," he added, muddling an Americanism, "we have then, of the horse another color!"
"Later," said Philip, "when Miss Westfall returns to her house on wheels, I imagine he too will take to the road again—and resume his charming erotics."
"That," said the Baron with decision, "is most undesirable."
"I agree with you!" said Philip feelingly.
"I too have promised to be a guest at Miss Sherrill's fete de nuit!" purred the Baron suavely. "And you, Poynter?"
"Unfortunately Miss Sherrill knows absolutely nothing of my whereabouts."
"Sherrill days ago entrusted me with a cordial invitation for you. He was unaware of our disagreement and expected you to accompany me. As my official secretary, Poynter, for, let us say the month of January, it is possible for me to command your attendance at Palm Beach."
"Excellency," said Philip slowly, "singular as it may seem in my present free lance state, I am greatly desirous of hearing such a command."
"Poynter," boomed the Baron formally, "in January I shall be overweighted with diplomatic duties at Palm Beach. I regret exceedingly that I am forced to command your attendance. This frivoling about must cease." He shook suddenly with silent laughter. "Doubtless," said he, meeting Philip's amused glance with level significance, "doubtless, Poynter, we can—"
"Yes," said Philip with much satisfaction, "I think we can."
They fell to chatting in lower voices as the fire died down.
"Meanwhile," shrugged the disgusted Baron a little later, "I shall abandon that accursed music-machine to its fate, and rest. God knows I am but an indifferent nomad and need it sorely. Night and day have I thunder-cracked the highways, losing my way and my temper until I loathe camps and motor machines and dust and wind and baked potatoes. I sincerely hope, Poynter, that you can find me the road to an inn and a bed, a bath and some iced mint—to-night."
Philip could and did. Presently standing by his abominated motorcycle on a lonely moonlit road, the Baron adjusted his leather cap and stroked his beard.
"Do you know, Poynter," said he slowly, "this is a most mysterious motorcycle. It was crated to me from an unknown village in Pennsylvania by the hand of God knows whom!"
"Excellency," said Philip politely as he cordially shook hands with his chief, "The world, I find, is full of mystery."
Rumbling the Baron mounted and rode away. With a slight smile, Philip watched him thunder-cracking disgustedly along the dusty road back to civilization.
A DECEMBER SNOW STORM
As the dusty wanderers wound slowly down into southern Georgia on a mild bright day, a December snow storm broke with flake and flurry over the Westfall farm. Whirling, crooning, pirouetting, the mad white ghost swept down from the hills and hurled itself with a rattle of shutters and stiffened boughs against the frozen valley. By nightfall the wind was wailing eerily through the chimneys; but the checkerboard panes of light one glimpsed through the trees of the Westfall lane were bright and cheery.
In the comfortable sitting room of the farmhouse, Carl rose and drew the shades, added a log to the great, open fireplace and glanced humorously at his companion who was industriously playing Canfield.
"Well, Dick," said he, "on with your overcoat. Now that supper's done, we've a tramp ahead of us."
"Oh, Lord, Carl!" he exclaimed. "Hear the wind!" He rose and drew aside the shade. "The lane's thick with snow. Heavens, man, it's no night for a tramp. Allan's coming in with the mail and he looks like a snow man."
"You promised," reminded Carl inexorably. "How long since you've had a drink, Dick?"
"Nine weeks!" said Wherry, his boyish face kindling suddenly with pride.
"And your eyes and skin are clear and you're lean and hard as a race horse. But what a fight! What a fight!" Carl slipped his arm suddenly about the other's broad shoulders. "Come on, Dick," he urged gently. "It's discipline and endurance to-night. I want you to fight this icy wind and grit your teeth against it. Every battle won makes a force furrow in your will."
He met Wherry's eyes and smiled with a flash of the irresistible magnetism which somehow awoke unconscious response in those who beheld it. It flamed now in Wherry's clear young eyes, a look of dumb fidelity such as one sees now and then in the eyes of a faithful animal. Such a look had flashed at times in the bloated face of Hunch Dorrigan, in the eyes of young Allan Carmody here at the farm, and—in early manhood when Carl had lazily set a college by the ears—in the eyes of Philip Poynter. It was the nameless force which the faculty had dreaded, for it sent men flocking at the heels of one whose daring whims were as incomprehensible as they were unexpected and original.
Young Allan brought the mail in and Carl smilingly tossed a letter to Wherry, who colored and slipped it in his pocket with an air of studied indifference.
Carl slit the two directed to himself and rapidly scanned their contents. One was from Ann Sherrill jogging his memory about a promise to come to Palm Beach in January, the other from Aunt Agatha, whose trip to her cousin's in Indiana Carl had encouraged with a great flood of relief, for it had made possible this nine weeks with Wherry at the Glade Farm.
Two steps at a time, Wherry bounded up to his room. When he returned he was in better spirits than he had been for months.
"Come on, Carl," he exclaimed boyishly. "I'll walk down any gale to-night. And Allan says we're in for a blizzard."
Breasting the biting gale, the two men swung out through the snowy lane to the roadway.
Carl watched his companion in silence. It was a test—this wind—to see how much of a man had been made from the flabby, drunken wreck he had dragged to the Glade Farm weeks ago with a masterful command. It had been a bitter fight, with days of heavy sullenness on Wherry's part and swift apology when the mood was gone, days of hard riding and walking, of icy plunges after a racking grind of exercise for which Carl himself with his splendid strength inexorably set the pace, days of fierce rebellion when he had calmly thrashed his suffering young guest into submission and locked him in his room, days of horrible choking remorse and pleading when Carl had grimly turned away from the pitiful wreck Starrett had made of his clever young secretary.
Once Starrett had motored up officiously to bully Wherry into coming back to him. Carl smiled. Starrett had stumbled back to his waiting motor with a broken rib and a bruised and swollen face. Starrett was a coward—he would not come again.
Carl glanced again at Wherry. It was a man who walked beside him to-night. The battle was over. Chin up, shoulders squared against the bitter wind, he walked with the free, full stride of health and new endurance, tossing the snow from his dark, heavy hair with a laugh. There was clear red in his face and his eyes were shining.
Five miles in the teeth of a sleety blizzard and every muscle ached with the fight.
"Dick," said Carl suddenly, "I'm proud of you."
Wherry swung sturdily on his heel.
"But you won for me, Carl," he said quietly. "I'll not forget that."
In silence they tramped back through the heavy drifts to the farmhouse and left their snowy coats in the great warm kitchen where the Carmodys—old Allan and young Allan, young, shy, pretty Mary and old Mary, the sole winter servants of the Glade—were mulling cider over a red-hot stove.
By the fire in the sitting room Dick faced his host with hot color in his face.
"Carl," he said with an effort, "my letter to-night—it's from a girl up home in Vermont. I—I've never spoken of her before—I wasn't fit—"
"Yes?" said Carl.
"She's a little bit of a girl with wonderful eyes," said Wherry, his eyes gentle. "We used to play a lot by the brook, Carl, until I went away to college and forgot. I—I wrote her the whole wretched mess," he choked. "She says come back."
"Yes," said Carl sombrely, "there are fine, big splendid women like that. I'm glad you know one. God knows what the world of men would do without them. You'll go back to her?"
Wherry gulped courageously.
"If—if you think I'm fit," he said, his face white. "If you feel you can trust me, I'll go in the morning."
"I know I can trust you," said Carl with his swift, ready smile. "I know, old man, that you'll not forget."
"No," said Dick, "I can't forget."
"Tell me," Carl bent and turned the log. "What will you do now, Dick? I know your head was turned a bit by the salary Starrett gave you, but you'll not go back to that sort of work for a while anyway, will you?"
"No," said Dick. "If I knew something of scientific farming," he added after a while, "I think I'd stay home. Dad's a doctor, a kindly, old-fashioned chap. I—I'd like to have you know him, Carl—he's a bully sort. He's living up there in Vermont on a farm that's never been developed to its full possibilities. It's the best farm in the valley, but, you see, he hasn't the time and he's growing old—"
"Why not take a course at an agricultural college?"
"I haven't the money, Carl," he acknowledged honestly. "Most of Dad's savings went to see me through college. I've a little—"
"Would a thousand a year see you through, with what you've got?" asked Carl quietly.
But Wherry did not answer. He had walked away to the window, shaking. Presently he turned back to the table, but his face was white and his eyes dark with agony. Dropping into a chair he buried his face in his hands, unnerved at the end of his fight by Carl's offer.
Wisely the man by the fire let him fight it out by himself and for an interval there was no sound in the quiet room save the crackle of the log and the great choking breaths of the boy by the table, whose head had fallen forward on his outstretched arms.
Carl threw his cigar into the fire and rose.
"Brace up, Dick!" he said at length. "We've been touching the high spots up here and you were strung to a tension that had to break." He crossed to Wherry and laid his hand heavily on the boy's heaving shoulder. "Now, Dick, I want you to listen to me. I'm going to see you through an agricultural college and you're not going to tell me I can't afford it. I know it already. But I've four thousand a year and that's so far off from what I need to live in my way—that a thousand or so one way or the other wouldn't make any more difference than a snowflake in hell. I owe you something anyway—God knows!—for supplying the model that sent you to perdition. If you hadn't paid me the ingenuous compliment of unremitting imitation, you'd have been a sight better off. . . . And you're going to marry the white little girl with the beautiful eyes and the wonderful, sweet forgiving decency of heart, and bring up a crowd of God-fearing youngsters, make over the old doctor's farm for him—and likely his life—and begin afresh. That's all I ask. Now to bed with you."
Wherry wrung Carl's hand, and after a passionate, incoherent storm of gratitude stumbled blindly from the room.
The old house grew very quiet. Presently to the crackle of the fire and the wild noise of the wind outside was added the soft and melancholy lilt of a flute. There was no mockery or impudence in the strain to-night. It was curiously of a piece with the creaking loneliness of the ancient farmhouse and so soft at times that the clash of the frozen branches against the house engulfed it utterly.
Sombre, swayed by a surge of deep depression, the flutist lay back in his chair by the fire, piping moodily upon the friend he always carried in his pocket. To-morrow Dick would be off to the girl in Vermont—
The clock struck twelve. The rural world was wrapped in slumber. Above-stairs Dick was sleeping the sound, dreamless sleep of healthy weariness, and most likely dreaming of the girl by the brook. A cleansed body and a cleansed mind, thank God! So had he slept for nights while the inexorable master of his days, with no companion but his flute, drank and drank until dawn, climbing up to bed at cockcrow—sometimes drunk and morose, sometimes a grim and conscious master of the bottle.
Carl had been drinking wildly, heavily for months. That in flagellating Wherry's body day by day he spared not himself, was characteristic of the man and of his will. That he preached and dragged a man from the depths of hell by day and deliberately descended into infernal abysses by night, was but another revelation of the wild, inconsistent humors which tore his soul, Youth and indomitable physique gave him as yet clear eyes and muscles of iron, for all he abused them, but the humors of his soul from day to day grew blacker.
Kronberg, a new servant Carl had brought with him to the Glade for personal attendance, presently brought in his nightly tray of whiskey.
Carl glanced at the bottle and frowned.
"Take it away!" he said curtly.
A little later, white and very tired, Carl went up to bed.
Dick went in the morning. At the door, after chatting nervously to cover the surge of emotion in his heart, he held out his hand. Neither spoke.
"Carl," choked Wherry at last, meeting the other's eyes with a glance of wild imploring, "so help me God, I'll run straight. You know that?"
"Yes," said Carl truthfully, "I know it."
An interval of desperate silence, then: "I—I can't thank you, old man, I—I'd like to but—"
"No," said Carl. "I wish you wouldn't."
And Wherry, wildly wringing his hand for the last time, was off to the sleigh waiting in the lane, a lean, quivering lad with blazing eyes of gratitude and a great choke in his throat as he waved at Carl, who smiled back at him with lazy reassurance through the smoke of a cigarette.
Carl's day was restless and very lonely. By midnight he was drinking heavily, having accepted the tray this time and dismissed Kronberg for the night. Though the snow had abated some the night before, and ceased in the morning, it was again whirling outside in the lane with the wild abandon of a Bacchante. The wind too was rising and filling the house with ghostly creaks.
It was one of those curious nights when John Barleycorn chose to be kind—when mind and body stayed alert and keen. Carl lazily poured some whiskey in the fire and watched the flame burn blue. He could not rid his mind of the doctor's farm and the girl in Vermont.
Again the wind shook the farmhouse and danced and howled to its crazy castanetting. There was a creak in the hallway beyond. Last night, too, when he had been talking to Wherry, there had been such a creak and for the moment, he recalled vividly, there had been no wind. Then, disturbed by Dick's utter collapse, he had carelessly dismissed it. Now with his brain dangerously edged by the whiskey and his mind brooding intently over a series of mysterious and sinister adventures which had enlivened his summer, he rose and stealing catlike to the door, flung it suddenly back.
Kronberg, his dark, thin-lipped face ashen, fell headlong into the room with a revolver in his hand.
With the tigerish agility which had served him many a time before Carl leaped for the revolver and smiling with satanic interest leveled it at the man at his feet.
"So," said he softly, "you, too, are a link in the chain. Get up!"
Sullenly Kronberg obeyed.
"If you are a good shot," commented Carl coolly, "the bullet you sent from this doorway would have gone through my head. That was your intention?"
Kronberg made no pretense of reply.
"You've been here nine weeks," sympathized Carl, "and were cautious enough to wait until Wherry departed. What a pity you were so delayed! Caution, my dear Kronberg, if I may fall into epigram, is frequently and paradoxically the mother of disaster. As for instance your own case. I imagine you're a blunderer anyway," he added impudently; "your fingers are too thick. If you hadn't been so anxious to learn when Wherry was likely to go," guessed Carl suddenly, "you wouldn't have listened and creaked at the keyhole last night. And more than likely you'd have gotten that creak over on me to-night."
Kronberg's shifting glance roved desperately to the doorway.
"Try it," invited Carl pleasantly. "Do. And I'll help you over the threshold with a little lead. Do you know the way to the attic door in the west wing?"
Kronberg, gulping with fear, said he did not. He was shaking violently.
"Get the little lamp on the mantel there," commanded Carl curtly, "and light it. Bring it here. Now you will kindly precede me to the door I spoke of. I'll direct you. If you bolt or cry out, I'll send a bullet through your head. So that you may not be tempted to waste your blood and brains, if you have any, and my patience, pray recall that the Carmodys are snugly asleep by now in the east wing and the house is large. They couldn't hear you."
It was the older portion of the house and one which by reason of its draughts was rarely used in winter, to which Carl drove his shaking prisoner. In summer it was cool and pleasant. In winter, however, it was cut off from heat and habitation by lock and key.
At Carl's curt direction Kronberg turned the key in the door and passed through the icy file of rooms beyond to the second floor, thence to a dusty attic where the sweep of the wind and snow seemed very close, and on to an ancient cluster of storerooms. Years back when the old farmhouse had been an inn, shivering servants had made these chill and dusty rooms more habitable. Now with the deserted wing below and the wind-feet of the Bacchante on the roof above, they were inexpressibly lonely and dreary.
Kronberg bit his lip and shuddered. His fear of the grim young guard behind him had been subtly aggravated by the desolation of his destined jail.
Halting in the doorway of an inner room, Carl held the light high and nodded with approval.
Its dim rays fell upon dust and cobwebs, trunks and the nondescript relics of years of hoarding. There were no windows; only a skylight above clouded by the whirl of the storm.
Carl seated himself upon a trunk, placed the lamp beside him and directed his guest to a point opposite. Kronberg, with dark, fascinated eyes glued upon the glittering steel in his jailer's hand, obeyed.
"Kronberg," said Carl coldly, "there's a lot I want to know. Moreover, I'm going to know it. Nor shall I trust to drunken jailers as I did a while back with a certain compatriot of yours. Late last spring when you sought employment at my cousin's town-house, you were already, I presume, a link in the chain. If my memory serves me correctly, you were dismissed after ten days of service, through no fault of your own. The house was closed for the summer. You came to me again this fall with a letter of recommendation from Mrs. Westfall. Knowing my aunt," reflected Carl dryly, "that is really very humorous. What were you doing in the meantime?"
Carl shifted the lamp that its pale fan of light might fall full upon the other's face.
"Let me tell you—do!" said he. "For I'm sure I know. During the summer, my dear Kronberg, I was the victim of a series of peculiar and persistent attacks. To a growing habit of unremitting vigilance and suspicion, I may thank my life. As for the peaceful monotony of the last nine weeks, doubtless I may attribute that to the constant companionship of Wherry, the fact that you were much too unpopular with the Carmodys as a foreigner to find an opportunity of poisoning my food, and that I've fallen into the discreet and careful habit of always drinking from a fresh bottle, properly sealed. There was a chance even there, but you were not clever enough to take it. You're overcautious and a coward. But how busy you must have been before that," he purred solicitously, "bolting about in various disguises after me. How very patient! Dear, dear, if Nature had only given you brains enough to match your lack of scruples—"
The insolent purr of his musical voice whipped color into Kronberg's cheeks. Abruptly he shifted his position and glared stonily.
"Venice," murmured Carl impudently, "Venice called them bravi; here in America we brutally call them gun-men, but honestly, Kronberg, in all respect and confidence, you really haven't brains and originality enough for a clever professional murderer. Amateurish killing is a sickly sort of sport. And the danger of it! Take for instance that night when you fancied you were a motor bandit and waylaid me on the way to the farm. I was very drunk and driving madly and I nearly got you. A pretty to-do that would have been! To be killed by an amateur and you a paid professional! My! My! Kronberg, I blush for you. I really do!"
He rose smiling, though his eyes were dangerously brilliant.
"Just when," said he lazily, "did you steal the paper I found in the candlestick? It's gone—"
He had struck fire from the stone man at last. A hopeless, hunted look flamed up in Kronberg's eyes and died away.
"Ah!" guessed Carl keenly, "so you're in some muddle there, too, eh?" Kronberg stared sullenly at the dusty floor.
"A silence strike?" inquired Carl. "Well we'll see how you feel about that in the morning. As for the skylight, Kronberg, if you feel like skating down an icy roof to hell, try it."
Whistling softly, Carl backed to the door and disappeared. An instant later came the click of a key in the lock. He had taken the lamp with him.
Groping desperately about, Kronberg searched for some covering to protect him from the icy cold. His search was unsuccessful. When the skylight grayed at dawn, he was pacing the floor, white and shaking with the chill.
The key clicked in the lock. Kronberg, huddled in a corner, stirred and cunningly hid the flimsy coverings of chintz he had unearthed from an ancient trunk. For three days he had not spoken, three days of bitter, biting cold, three days of creaking, lonely quiet, of mournful wind and shifting lights above the glass overhead, of infernal visitations from one he had grown to fear more than death itself. With heavy chills racking his numb body, with flashes of fever and clamping pains in his head, his endurance was now nearing an end.
Bearing a tray of food, Carl entered and closed the door.
"I'm still waiting, Kronberg," he reminded coolly, "for the answers to those questions."
For answer Kronberg merely pushed aside the tray of food with a shudder. There was a dreadful nausea to-day in the pit of his stomach.
"So?" said Carl. "Well," he regretted, "there are always the finger stretchers. They're crude, Kronberg, and homemade, but in time they'll do the work."
Kronberg's face grew colorless as death itself as his mind leaped to the torture of the day before. A clamp for every finger tip, a metal bar between—the hell-conceived device invented by his jailer forced the fingers wide apart and held them there as in vise until a stiffness bound the aching cords, then a pain which crept snakelike to the elbow—and the shoulder. Then when the tortured nerves fell wildly to telegraphing spasmodic jerkings of distress from head to toe, the shrugging devil with the flute would talk vividly of roaring wood fires and the comforts awaiting the penitent below. Yesterday Kronberg had fainted. To-day—
Carl presently took the singular metal contrivance from his pocket, deftly clamped the fingers of his victim and sat down to wait, rummaging for his flute.
The tension snapped.
Choking, Kronberg fell forward at his jailer's feet, his eyes imploring.
"Mercy," he whispered. "I—I can not bear it."
"Then you will answer what I ask?"
Carl unsnapped the infernal finger-stretcher and dropped it in his pocket.
"Come," said he not unkindly and led his weak and staggering prisoner to a room in the west wing where a log fire was blazing brightly in the fireplace.
With a moan Kronberg broke desperately away from his grasp and flung himself violently upon his knees by the fire, stretching his arms out pitifully to the blaze and chattering and moaning like a thing demented. Carl walked away to the window.
Presently the man by the fire crept humbly to a chair, a broken creature in the clutch of fever, eyes and skin unnaturally bright.
"Here," said Carl, pouring him some brandy from a decanter on the table. "Sit quietly for a while and close your eyes. Are you better now?" he asked a little later.
"Yes," said Kronberg faintly.
"What is your real name?"
"When you took service with my aunt in the spring, you were looking for a certain paper?"
"Did you find it during your ten days in the town-house?"
"How did you discover its whereabouts?"
"One night I watched you replace it in a secret drawer in your room. Before I could obtain it, the house was closed for the summer and I was dismissed. I had succeeded, however, in getting an impression of the desk lock."
"You went back later?"
"Yes. It was a summer day—very hot. The front door was ajar. I opened it wider. Your aunt sat upon the floor of the hall crying—"
"I spoke of passing and seeing the door ajar. She recognized me as one of the servants and begged me to call a taxi. I assisted her to the taxi and went back, having only pretended to lock the door."
"And having disposed of her," supplied Carl, "you flew up the stairs, applied the key made from the impression—and stole the paper?"
"Beautiful!" said Carl softly. "How cleverly you tricked me!"
"It was very simple."
"Where is the paper now?" he inquired.
Themar's face darkened.
"When later I looked in the pocket of my coat," he admitted, "the paper had disappeared utterly. Nor have I found it since. It is a very great mystery—"
"Ah!" said Carl. "So," he mused, "as long as the paper was in my possession, my life was safe, for you must watch me to find it. Therefore I was not poisoned or stabbed or shot at during your original ten days of service. Later, even though you could not lay your own hands upon the paper, things began to happen. Knowing what I did, I had lived too long as it was."
"Suppose you begin at the beginning—and tell me just what you know."
It was a halting, nervous tale poorly told. Carl, with his fastidious respect for a careful array of facts, found it trying. By a word here or a sentence there, he twisted the mass of imperfect information into conformity and pieced it out with knowledge of his own.
"So," said he coldly, "you thought to stab me the night of the storm and stabbed Poynter. Fool! Why," he added curtly, "did you later spy upon my cousin's camp when Tregar had expressly forbidden it?"
It was an unexpected question. Themar flushed uncomfortably. Carl had a way of reading between the lines that was exceedingly disconcerting. His information, he said at length after an interval of marked hesitancy, had been too meager. He had listened at the door once when the Baron had spoken of Miss Westfall to his secretary. A housemaid had frightened him away and he had bolted upstairs—to attend to something else while they were both safely occupied. Rather than work blindly as he needs must if he knew no more, he had sought to add to his information by spying on her camp.
It was unconvincing.
"So," said Carl keenly, "Baron Tregar does not trust you!"
Themar's lip curled.
"The Baron knew of your ten days in my cousin's house?"
Again the marked hesitancy—the flush.
"Yes," said Themar.
"You're lying," said Carl curtly. "If you wish to go back—"
Themar moistened his dry lips and shuddered.
"No," he whispered, "he did not know."
Themar fell to trembling. This at least he must keep locked from the grim, ironic man by the window.
"You're playing double with Tregar and with me," said Carl hotly. "I thought so. Very well!" Smiling infernally, he drew from his pocket the finger-stretchers.
"Excellency!" panted Themar.
"Why did you serve in my cousin's house without the knowledge of the Baron?"
"If—if the secret was harmful to Houdania," blurted Themar desperately, spurred to confession by the clank of the metal in Carl's hand, "I—I could sell the paper to Galituria!"
The nature of the admission was totally unexpected. Carl whistled softly.
"Ah!" said he, raising expressive eyebrows.
"My mother," said Themar sullenly, "was of Galituria. There is hatred there for Houdania—a century's feud—"
"And you in the employ of the rival province hunting this to earth! What a mess—what a mess!"
Followed a battery of merciless questions punctuated by the diabolic clank of metal.
Themar had been deputed solely to report to Baron Tregar—
"And murder me!" supplemented Carl curtly.
"Yes," said Themar. "Under oath I was to obey Ronador's commands without question. But he did not even trust me with the cipher message of instruction. That was mailed to the Baron's Washington address written in an ink that only turned dark with the heat of a fire. I too was sent to Washington. Ronador knew nothing of the Baron's trip to Connecticut."
By spying before he had sailed, Themar added, at a question from Carl, he had learned of the cipher.
"You read the paper of course when you stole it from my desk?"
"There was a noise," said Themar dully, his face bitter; "I ran for the street. Later the paper was gone."
"What were Tregar's intentions about the paper?"
Themar chewed nervously at his lips.
"His Excellency spoke to me of a paper. He said that I must discover its whereabouts, if possible, but that none but he must steal it. Anything written which you would seem to have hidden would be of interest to him. He bound me by a terrible oath not to touch or read it."
"After a time I swore that I had seen you burn it—"
"Clumsy! Still if he believed it, it left me, in the event of Miss Westfall's complete ignorance of all this hubbub, the sole remaining obstacle."
But Themar had not heard. He was shaking again in the clutch of a heavy chill. Presently, his sentences having trailed off once or twice into peculiar incoherency, he fell to talking wildly of a hut in the Sherrill woods in which he had lived for days in the early autumn, of a cuff in a box buried in the ground beneath the planking. For weeks, he said, he had vainly tried to solve its cipher, stealing away from the farm by night to pore over it by the light of a candle. It was fearfully intricate—
"But you—you that know all," he gasped painfully, "you will get it and read and tell me—"
Moaning he fell back in his chair.
Carl rang for Mrs. Carmody. It was young Mary, however, who answered, her round blue eyes lingering in mystification upon the fire Carl had built in the deserted wing.
"Mary," said Carl carelessly, "you'd better phone for a doctor and a nurse. Kronberg has returned and I fear he's in for a spell of pneumonia."
Later in the Sherrill hut, Carl ripped a board from the floor and found in the dirt beneath, a box containing a soiled cuff covered with an intricate cipher.
"Odd!" said he with a curious smile as he dropped the cuff into his pocket; "it's very odd about that paper."
THE SONG OF THE PINE-WOOD SPARROW
With the dawn a laggard breeze came winging drowsily in from the southern sea, the first thing astir in the spectral world of palm and villa. Warm and deliciously fragrant, it swept the stiff wet Bermuda grass upon the lawn of the Sherrill villa at Palm Beach, rustled the crimson hedge of hibiscus, caught the subtle perfume of jasmine and oleander and swept on to a purple-flowered vine on the white walls of the villa, a fuller, richer thing for the ghost-scent of countless flowers.
Into this gray-white world of glimmering coquina and dew-wet palm rode presently the slim, brisk figure of a girl astride a fretful horse. A royal palm dripped cool gray rain upon her as she galloped past to the shell-road looming out of the velvet stillness ahead like a dim, white ghost-trail.
The gray ocean murmured, the still gray lagoon was asleep! Here and there a haunting, elusive splash of delicate rose upon the silver promised the later color of a wakening world. It was a finer, quieter world, thought Diane, than the later day world of white hot sunlight.
With pulses atune to the morning's freshness, the girl galloped rapidly along the shell-road, the clattering thud of her horse's hoofs startling in the quiet. As yet only a sleepy bird or two had begun to twitter. There was a growing noise of wind in the grass and palms.
A century back it seemed to this girl in whom the restless gypsy tide was subtly fretting, she had left Johnny and the van at Jacksonville to come into this sensuous, tropical world of color, fashionable life and lazy days.
Coloring delicately, the metallic gray bosom of the lake presently foretold the sunrise with a primrose glow. When at length the glaring white light of the sun struck sparks from the dew upon the pine and palmetto, Diane was riding rapidly south in quest of the Florida flat-woods. There was a veritable paradise of birds in the pine barren, Dick Sherrill had said, robins and bluebirds, flickers and woodpeckers with blazing cockades, shrikes and chewinks.
It was an endless monotony of pine trees, vividly green and far apart, into which Diane presently rode. A buzzard floated with uptilted wings above the sparse woodland to the west. A gorgeous butterfly, silver-spangled, winged its way over the saw palmetto and sedge between the trees to an inviting glade beyond, cleft by a shallow stream. Swamp, jungle, pine and palmetto were vocal with the melody of many birds.
Diane reined in her horse with a thrill. This was Florida, at last, not the unreal, exotic brilliance of Palm Beach. Here was her father's beloved Flowerland which she had loved as a child. Here were pines and tall grass, sun-silvered, bending in the warm wind, and the song of a pine-wood sparrow!
From the scrub ahead came his quiet song, infinitely sweet, infinitely plaintive like the faint, soft echo of a fairy's dream. A long note and a shower of silver-sweet echoes, so it ran, the invisible singer seeming to sing for himself alone. So might elfin bells have pealed from a thicket, inexpressibly low and tender.
Diane sat motionless, the free, wild grace of her seeming a part of the primeval quiet. For somehow, by some twist of singer's magic, this Florida bird was singing of Connecticut wind and river, of dogwood on a ridge, of water lilies in the purple of a summer twilight, of a spot named forever in her mind—Arcadia.
Now as the girl listened, a beautiful brown sprite of the rustling pine wood about her, a great flood of color crept suddenly from the brown full throat to the line of her hair, and the scarlet that lingered in her cheeks was wilder than the red of winter holly.
Surely—surely there was no reason under Heaven why the little bird should sing about a hay-camp!
But sing of it he did with a swelling throat and a melodic quiver of nerve and sinew, and a curious dialogue followed.
"A hay-camp is a very foolish thing, to be sure!" sang the bird with a dulcet shower of plaintive notes.
"To be sure," said the voice of the girl's conscience, "to be sure it is. But how very like him!"
"But—but there was the bullet—"
"I have often thought of it," owned the Voice.
"A gallant gentleman must see that his lady comes to no harm. 'Tis the way of gallant gentlemen—"
"And he never once spoke of his discomfort on the long hot road, though a hay-camp is subject to most singular mishaps."
"I—I have often marveled."
"He is brave and sturdy and of charming humor—"
"A superlative grain of humor perhaps, and he's very lazy—"
"And fine and frank and honorable. One may not forget Arcadia and the rake of twigs."
"One may not forget, that is very true. But he seeks to make himself out such a very great fool—-"
"He cloaks each generous instinct with a laughing drollery. Why did you hum when you cooked his supper and called to him through the trees?"
"I—I do not know."
"'Twas the world-old instinct of primitive woman!"
"No! No! No! It was only because I was living the life I love the best. I was very happy."
"Why were you happier after the storm?"
"I—I do not know."
"You have scolded with flashing eyes about the hay-camp—"
"But—I—I did not mind. I tried to mind and could not—"
"That is a very singular thing."
"Why have you not told him of the tall sentinel you have furtively watched of moonlit nights among the trees, a sentinel who slept by day upon a ridiculous bed of hay that he might smoke and watch over the camp of his lady until peep o' day?"
"I—do not know."
"You are sighing even now for the van and a camp fire—for the hay-camp through the trees—"
"No!" with a very definite flash of perversity.
"Where is this persistent young nomad of the hay-camp anyway?"
"I—I have wondered myself."
But with a quiver of impatience the horse had pawed the ground and the tiny bird flew off to a distant clump of palmetto.
Diane rode hurriedly off into the flat-woods.
THE NOMAD OF THE FIRE-WHEEL
It had been an unforgettable day, this day in the pine woods. Diane had forded shallow streams and followed bright-winged birds, lunched by a silver lake set coolly in the darkling shade of cypress and found a curious nest in the stump of a tree. Now with a mass of creeping blackberry and violets strapped to her saddle she was riding slowly back through the pine woods.
Though the sun, which awhile back had filled the hollow of palmetto fronds with a ruddy pool of light, had long since dropped behind the horizon, the girl somehow picked the homeward trail with the unerring instinct of a wild thing. That one may be hopelessly lost in the deceptive flatwoods she dismissed with a laugh. The wood is kind to wild things.
It was quite dark when through the trees ahead she caught the curious glimmer of a cart wheel of flame upon the ground, hub and spokes glowing vividly in the center of a clearing. Curiously the girl rode toward it, unaware that the picturesque fire-wheel ahead was the typical camp fire of the southern Indian, or that the strange wild figure squatting gravely by the fire in lonely silhouette against the white of a canvas-covered wagon beyond in the trees, was a vagrant Seminole from the proud old turbaned tribe who still dwell in the inaccessible morasses of the Everglades.
The realization came in a disturbed flash of interest and curiosity. Though the Florida Indian harmed no one, he still considered himself proudly hostile to the white man. Wherefore Diane wisely wheeled her horse about to retreat.
It was too late. Already the young Seminole was upon his feet, keen of vision and hearing for all he seemed but a tense, still statue in the wildwood.
Accepting the situation with good grace, Diane rode fearlessly toward his fire and reined in her horse. But the ready word of greeting froze upon her lips. For the nomad of the fire-wheel was a girl, tall and slender, barbarically arrayed in the holiday garb of a Seminole chief. The firelight danced upon the beaten band of silver about her brilliant turban and the beads upon her sash, upon red-beaded deerskin leggings delicately thonged from the supple waist to the small and moccasined foot, upon a tunic elaborately banded in red and a belt of buckskin from which hung a hunting knife, a revolver and an ammunition pouch.
But Diane's fascinated gaze lingered longest upon the Indian girl's face. Her smooth, vivid skin was nearer the hue of the sun-dark Caucasian than of the red man, and lovelier than either, with grave, vigilant eyes of dusk, a straight, small nose and firm, proud mouth vividly scarlet like the wild flame in her cheeks.
Aloof, impassive, the Indian girl stared back.
"I wish well to the beautiful daughter of white men!" she said at length with native dignity. The contralto of her voice was full and rich and very musical, her English, deliberate and clear-cut.
Immensely relieved—for the keen glance of those dark Indian eyes had suddenly softened—Diane leaped impetuously from her horse; across the fire white girl and Indian maid clasped hands.
"Do forgive me!" she exclaimed warmly. "But I saw your fire and turned this way before I really knew what I was doing." Just as Diane won the confidence of every wild thing in the forest, so now with her winsome grace and unaffected warmth, she won the Indian girl.
Some subtle, nameless sympathy of the forest leaped like a spark from eye to eye—then with a slow, grave smile in which there was much less reserve, the Seminole motioned her guest to a seat by the fire.
Nothing loath, Diane promptly tethered her horse and squatted Indian fashion by the cartwheel fire, immensely thrilled and diverted by her picturesque adventure.
"My name," she offered presently with her ready smile, "is Diane."
"Di-ane," said the Indian girl majestically. And added naively, "She was the Roman goddess of light—and of hunting, is it not so?"
Diane looked very blank.
"Where in the world—" she stammered, staring, and colored.
The Indian girl smiled.
"From so high," she said shyly, "I have been taught by Mic-co. Like the white student of books, I know many curious things that he has taught me."
"And your name?" asked Diane, heroically mastering her mystified confusion. "May I—may I not know that too?"
"Shock-kil-law," came the ready reply.
"That readily becomes Keela!" exclaimed Diane smiling.
The girl nodded.
"So Mic-co has said. And so indeed he calls me."
"Tell me, Keela, what does it mean?"
"Red-winged blackbird," said Keela.
It was eminently fitting, thought Diane, and glanced at Keela's hair and cheeks.
There was a wild duck roasting in the hub of coals—from the burning spokes came the smell of cedar. The Indian girl majestically broke a segment of koonti bread and proffered it to her companion. With faultless courtesy Diane accepted and presently partook with healthy relish of a supper of duck and sweet potatoes.
The silence of the Indian girl was utterly without constraint.
"I wonder," begged Diane impetuously, "if you'll tell me who Mic-co is? I'm greatly interested. He taught you about Rome?"
Nodding, the Indian girl said in her quaint, deliberate English that Mic-co was her white foster father. The Seminoles called him Es-ta-chat-tee-mic-co—chief of the White Race. Most of them called him simply Mic-co. He was a great and good medicine man of much wisdom who dwelt upon a fertile chain of swamp islands in the Everglades. The Indians loved him.
Still puzzled, Diane diffidently ventured a question or two, marveling afresh at the girl's beauty and singular costume.
"I am of no race," said Keela sombrely. "My father was a white man; my mother not all Indian; my grandfather—a Minorcan. Six moons I live with my white foster father. And I live then as I wish—like the daughter of white men. Six moons I dwell with the clan of my mother. Such is my life since the old chief made the compact with Mic-co. Come!" she added and led the way to the Indian wagon.
"When the night-winds call," she said wistfully, "I grow restless—for I am happiest in the lodge of Mic-co. Then the old chief bids me travel to the world of white men and sell." There was gentle pathos in her mellow voice.
Pieces of ancient pottery, quaint bleached bits of skeleton, beads and shells and trinkets of gold unearthed from the Florida sand mounds, moccasins and baskets, koonti starch and plumes, such were the picturesque wares which Keela peddled when the stir of her mingled blood drove her forth from the camp of her forbears.
Diane bought generously, harnessed her saddle with clanking relics and regretfully mounted her horse.
"Let me come again to-morrow!" she begged.
"Uncah!" granted the girl in Seminole and her great black eyes were very friendly.
Looking back as she rode through the flat-woods, Diane marveled afresh. It was a far cry indeed from the camp of a Seminole to the legends of Rome.
But the primeval flavor of the night presently dissolved in the glare of acetylenes from a long gray car standing motionless by the roadside ahead. The climbing moon shone full upon the face of a bareheaded motorist idly smoking a cigarette and waiting.
Diane reined in her horse with a jerk and a clank of relics.
"Philip Poynter!" she exclaimed.
The driver laughed.
"I wonder," said he, "if you know what a shock you've thrown into your aunt by staying out in the flat-woods until dark. She once knew a man who lost himself. Incidentally they are mighty deceptive to wander about in. The trees are so far apart that one never seems to get into them. And then, having meanwhile effectively got in without knowing it, one never seems to get out."
"Where," demanded Diane indignantly, "did you come from anyway?"
"If you hadn't been so ambitious," Philip assured her with mild resentment, "you'd have seen me at breakfast. I arrived at Sherrill's last night. As it is, I've been sitting here an hour or so watching you swap wildwood yarns with the aborigine yonder. And Ann Sherrill sent me after you in Dick's speediest car. Ho, uncle!"
An aged negro appeared from certain shadows to which Philip had lazily consigned him.
"Uncle," said Philip easily, "will ride your horse back to Sherrill's for you. I picked him up on the road. You'll motor back with me?"
Diane certainly would not.
"Then," regretted Philip, "I'm reduced to the painful and spectacular expedient of just grazing the heels of your fiery steed with Dick's racer all the way back to Sherrill's and matching up his hoof-beats on the shell-road with a devil's tattoo on the horn."
Greatly vexed, Diane resigned her horse to the waiting negro, who rode off into the moonlight with a noisy clank. Mr. Poynter's face was radiant.
"And after running the chance of a night in the pine barrens," he mused admiringly, "you amble out of the danger zone in the most matter-of-fact manner with your saddle clanking like a bone-yard. I don't wonder your aunt fusses. What made the racket?"
"Bones and shells and things."
"Well, for such absolute irresponsibility as you've developed since you've been out of the chastening jurisdiction of the hay-camp, I'd respectfully suggest that you marry the very first bare-headed motorist, smoking a cigarette, whom you happened to see as you rode out of the pine-woods."
"Philip," said Diane disdainfully, "the moon—"
"Is on my head again," admitted Philip. "I know. It always gets me. We'd better motor around a bit and clear my brain out. I'd hate awfully to have the Sherrills think I'm in love."
Almost anything one could say, reflected Diane uncomfortably, inspired Philip's brain to fresh fertility.
The camp of Keela, domiciled indefinitely in the flat-woods to sell to winter tourists, proved a welcome outlet for the fretting gypsy tide in Diane's veins. She found the Indian girl's magnetism irresistible.
Proud, unerringly truthful, fastidious in speech and personal habit, truly majestic and generous, such was the shy woodland companion with whom Diane chose willfully to spend her idle hours, finding the girl's unconstrained intervals of silence, her flashes of Indian keenness, her inborn reticence and naive parade of the wealth of knowledge Mic-co had taught her, a most bewildering book in which there was daily something new to read.
There was a keen, quick brain behind the dark and lovely eyes, a faultless knowledge of the courtesies of finer folk. Mic-co had wrought generously and well. Only the girl's inordinate shyness and the stern traditions of her tribe, Diane fancied, kept her chained to her life in the Glades.
Keela, strangely apart from Indian and white man, and granted unconventional license by her tribe, hungered most for the ways of the white father of whom she frequently spoke.
Diane learned smoke signals and the blazing and blinding of a trail, an inexhaustible and tragic fund of tribal history which had been handed down from mouth to mouth for generations, legends and songs, wailing dirges and native dances and snatches of the chaste and oathless speech of the Florida Indian.
"Diane, dear!" exclaimed Ann Sherrill one lazy morning, "what in the world is that exceedingly mournful tune you're humming?"
"That," said Diane, "is the 'Song of the Great Horned Owl,' my clever little Indian friend taught me. Isn't it plaintive?"
"It is!" said Ann with deep conviction. "Entirely too much so. I feel creepy. And Nathalie says you did some picturesque dance for her and your aunt—"
"The 'Dance of the Wild Turkey,'" explained Diane, much amused at the recollection. "Aunt Agatha insisted that it was some iniquitous and cunningly disguised Seminole species of turkey trot. She was horribly shocked and grew white as a ghost at my daring—"
"Fiddlesticks!" said Ann Sherrill. "She ought to have all the shock out of her by now after bringing up you and Carl! I'm going to ride out to the flat-woods with you, for I'm simply dying for a new sensation. Dick's as stupid as an owl. He does nothing but hang around the Beach Club. And Philip Poynter's tennis mad. He looks hurt if you ask him to do anything else except perhaps to trail fatuously after you. It's the flat-woods for mine."
Ann returned from her visit to the Indian camp scintillant with italics and enthusiasm.
"My dear," she said, "I'm wild about her—quite wild! . . . I'm going again and again! . . . If I knew half as much and were half as lovely— Why, do you know, Diane, she set me right about some ridiculous quotation, and I never try to get them straight, for half the time I find my own way so much more expressive. . . . There's Philip Poynter with a tennis racquet again! Diane, I'm losing patience with him."
From her madcap craving for new sensation, Ann was destined to evolve an inspiration which with customary energy and Diane's interested connivance she swept through to fruition, unaware that Fate marched, leering, at her heels.
THE BLACK PALMER
Curious things may happen when masked men hold revel under a moonlit sky.
Thus in a tropical garden of palm and fountain, of dark, shifting shadows and a thousand softly luminous Chinese lanterns swaying in a breeze of spice, a Bedouin talked to an ancient Greek.
"He is here?" asked the Bedouin with an accent slightly foreign.
"Yes," said the Greek. "He is here and immensely relieved, I take it, to be rid of the jurisdiction of the hay-camp."
"I fancied he would not dare—"
"A man in love," commented the Greek dryly, "dares much for the sake of his lady. One may conceivably lack discretion without forfeiting his claim to courage."
"The disguise of his stained and shaven face," hinted the Bedouin grimly, "has made him over-confident. Having tested it with apparent success upon you—"
"Even so. But he has forgotten that few men have such striking eyes."
"If he has taken the pains to assure himself of my whereabouts," rumbled the Bedouin, "as he surely has, I am of course still blistering in extreme southern Florida, hunting tarpon. I have a permanent Washington address which I have taken pains to notify of my interest in tarpon and to which he writes. These incognito days," added the Bedouin with a slight smile, "my cipher communications cross an ocean and return immediately by trusted hands to America, though I, of course, know nothing of it. Those from my charming minstrel to me—make similar tours."
"You—my secretary—having spent a few days with the Sherrills on your way to join me after months of frivoling with a hay-camp, have been forced by telegram to depart before the fete de nuit to which Miss Sherrill begged our attendance. Rest assured he knows that too. Therefore, to unmask unobtrusively and slip away to his room, and in the absence of other guests to linger for a week of incognito quiet—voila! he is quite safe though imprudent!"
Greek and Bedouin fell silent, watching the laughing pageant in the garden.
Venetian lamps glowed like yellow witch-lights in the branches; fountains tossed moon-bright sprays of quicksilver aloft and tinkled with the splash; the waters of a sunken pool, jeweled in stars, glimmered darkly green through files of cypress. All in all, an entrancing moon-mad world of mystery and dusk-moths, heavy with the scent of jasmine and orange. And the moon played brightly on curious folk, on spangles and jewels and masked and laughing eyes.
A gray mendicant monk with sombre, thin-lipped face beneath a grayish mask slipped furtively by with a curious air of listening intently to the careless chatter about him; a fat and plaintive Queen Elizabeth followed, talking to a stout courtier who was over-trusting the seams of his satin breeches.
"I doubt if you'll believe me," puffed Queen Elizabeth dolorously, "but every day since that time she deliberately went out and lost herself all day in the flat-woods and stopped to look at that ridiculous cart with the wheel of flame when I was sure a buzzard had bitten her—No! No! I don't know, Jethro; I'm sure I don't. How should I know why it was burning? But it was. She said plainly that it was a cart wheel of fire and if it was a wheel it must certainly have been on something and what on earth would a wheel be on but a cart? Certainly one wouldn't buy a bale of cart wheels to make fires in the flat-woods. Well, it's the strangest thing, Jethro, but nearly every day since, she's visited the flat-woods and wandered about with that terrible Indian girl who isn't an Indian girl. Seems that she's a most extraordinary girl with a foster-father and she sells sand mounds—no, that's not it—the things they find in them besides the sand—and she has a queer, wild sort of culture and her father was white. Like as not Diane will come home some night scalped and she has such magnificent hair, Jethro. To her knees it is and so black! And what must she and Ann do to-night but—there, I promised Diane faithfully to keep it a secret, for they've been working for days and days and she is distractingly lovely. With the Sherrill topazes too. And now that she's sold all the sand mounds, or whatever it is, do you know, Jethro, she's going to drive Diane north to Jacksonville in the Indian wagon. They start to-morrow morning. I think it's because they're both so mad about trees and things—I can't for the life of me make it out. Jethro, Diane will drive me mad—she will indeed. Well, all I can say, Jethro, is that if you don't know what I'm talking about you must be very stupid to-night. No! No! do I ever know, Jethro? He may be here and he may not. He may be off in Egypt shooting scarabs by now. He was at the farm when he wrote to me in Indiana. Well, collecting scarabs, then, Jethro. Why do you fuss so about little things? Isn't it funny—strangest thing!"
Queen Elizabeth passed on with her aged dandy.
A dark figure by the cypress pool laughed and shrugged. He was a singular figure, this man by the pool, with a hint of the Orient in his garb. His robe was of black, with startling and unexpected flashes of scarlet lining when he walked. Black chains clanked drearily about his waist and wrists. There was a cunningly concealed light in his filmy turban which gave it the singular appearance of a dark cloud lighted by an inner fire. As he wandered about with clanking chains, he played strange music upon a polished thing of hollow bones. Sometimes the music laughed and wooed when eyes were kind; sometimes when eyes were over-daring it was subtly impudent and eloquent. Sometimes it was so unspeakably weird and melancholy that along with the clanking chains and the strangely luminous turban, many a careless stroller turned and stared. So did a slender, turbaned Seminole chief with a minstrel at his heels.
It was upon this picturesque young Seminole that the eyes of the Greek by the hibiscus lingered longest, but the eyes of the Bedouin scanned every line of the minstrel's ragged corduroy with grim amusement.
"A romantic garb, by Allah!" said the Bedouin dryly.
"It has served its purpose," reminded the Greek sombrely. And laughed with relish.
For the Seminole chief had fled perversely through the lantern-lit trees, her soft, mocking laughter proclaiming her sex and her mood.
"And still he follows!" boomed the Bedouin. "With or without the music-machine, he is consistently fatuous."
The man with the luminous turban spoke suddenly to a girl in trailing satin with a muff of flowers in her hand. Shoulders and throat gleamed superbly above the line of golden satin; there were flashing topazes in her hair and about her throat; and the slender, arched foot in the satin slipper was small and finely moulded.
"Tell me," he begged insistently, "who you are! You've grace and poise enough for a dozen women. And who taught you how to walk? Few women know how."
The girl, with a delicate air of hauteur, flung back her head imperiously and turned away.
"And you've wonderful eyes—black and wistful and tragic and beautiful!" persisted the man impudently. "Wonderful, sparkling lady of gold and black, tell me who you are!"
"Who," said the girl gravely in a clear, rich contralto, "who are you?"
The man laughed but his eyes lingered on the firm, proud scarlet lips and the small even teeth.
"Call me the 'Black Palmer,'" said he. "There's a tremendous significance in my rig to be sure, but it's only for one man."
"What," asked the girl seriously, "is a palmer?"
Mystified the Black Palmer stared.
"You honestly mean that you don't know?"
"I speak ever the truth," said the proud scarlet lips below the golden mask. "When I ask, I mean that I do not know."
"And this in a world of sophistication!" murmured the man blankly, but the girl was moving off with graceful majesty through the trees, the jewels in her hair alive in the lantern-lit dusk. The Black Palmer sprang after her.
"Tell me, I beg of you," he exclaimed earnestly, "you who are so grave and beautiful and apart from this world of mine, like a fresh keen wind in a scorching desert, in Heaven's name tell me who you are!"
But the girl's dark, fine eyes flashed quick rebuke.
Nothing daunted the Black Palmer impudently stripped the golden mask from her face. The soft yellow light of the Venetian lamp in the tree above her fell full upon the lovely oval of a face so peculiar in its striking beauty of line and vivid coloring that he fell back staring.
"Lord, what a face!" exclaimed the Greek, too taken aback to resent the Palmer's insolence.
And the Bedouin rumbled: "Exquisite! But she is not of your land. Italian, Spanish, or some bizarre mingling of strange races, but none of your colder lands!"
Now as the Black Palmer stared at the dark, accusing eyes of the girl, a singular thing occurred. His cloak of impudence fell suddenly from his shoulders and returning the golden mask, he bowed and begged her pardon with unmistakable deference.
"Let a humbled Palmer," he said quietly, "pay his sincerest homage to the most beautiful woman he has even seen." And as the girl moved proudly away, the strain of fantastic music which followed her was subtly deferential.
At midnight a mellow chime rang somewhere by the cypress pool. Laughing and jesting, calling to one another, the masked crowd moved off to the vine-hung villa ahead, gleaming moon-white through the shrubbery.
Somewhat reluctantly the minstrel followed. It had been his intention to unmask in some secluded corner whence, presently, he might slip away to his room, but finding himself jostled and pushed on by a Greek and a Bedouin who, to do them justice, seemed quite unaware of their importunities, he surrendered to the press about him and presently found himself in an unpleasantly conspicuous spot in the great room which the Sherrills occasionally used as a ballroom.
All about him girls and men were unmasking amid a shower of laughing raillery. That the Seminole chief with her tunic and beaded sash and her brilliant turban was very near him, was a pleasant and altogether accidental mitigation of his mishap. That a Greek and a Bedouin were just behind him—a fact not in the least accidental—and that a gray monk was slipping about among the guests whispering to receptive ears, did not interest him in the least. A string orchestra played softly in an alcove. The leader's eyes, oddly enough, were upon the ancient Greek.
Now suddenly a curious hush swept over the room. Uncomfortably aware that he was a spectacular object of interest by reason of his mask and that every unmasked eye was full upon him, the minstrel, following the lines of least resistance, removed the bit of cambric from his eyes. After all, in the sea of faces before him, there were none familiar.
As the mask dropped—the ancient Greek thoughtfully adjusted his tunic.
Instantly without pause or warning the soft strain of the orchestra swept dramatically into a powerful melody of measured cadences. It was the tune Carl had played upon his flute to Jokai of Vienna months before. The minstrel, mask in hand, stared at the orchestra, blanched and bit his lip.
"God bless my soul!" exclaimed Queen Elizabeth to Jethro, "it's the immigrant, Jethro, and there he was on the lace spread with his feet tied and gurgling. I'll never forget his eyes."
"Jokai of Vienna!" said the Black Palmer, whistling. "By Jove, they've trapped him nicely."
For an uncomfortable instant, the silence continued, then came the saving stir of laughter and chatting.
The Bedouin with an unrelenting air of dignity and command, removed his mask and bowed low; to Diane in whose startled eyes below the Seminole turban flashed sympathy and acute regret.
"Miss Westfall," said he gravely, "permit me to present to you, Prince Ronador of Houdania."
White and stern, his fine eyes flashing imperially, Ronador bowed.
"Rest assured, Miss Westfall," he said, "that I know you have not betrayed my confidence. Baron Tregar is an ardent patriot who by virtue of his office must needs object to democratic masquerading."
The Baron stroked his beard.
"For inspiring the musical ceremony due your rank, Prince," he said dryly, "I crave indulgence."
Smiling, the ancient Greek at the Baron's elbow unmasked, to show the cheerful face of Mr. Poynter.
"Prince," said Mr. Poynter, "I sincerely trust I have made no error in transcribing the Regent's Hymn for our excellent musicians. Having heard it so many times in your presence in Houdania, I could not well forget. At your service," with a glance at his Grecian attire, "Herodotus, father of nomads!"
But Ann Sherrill in the gorgeous raiment of a Semiramis was already at hand, sparkling italics upon her royal guest, and Philip moved aside.
"I am overwhelmed!" whispered Ann a little later. "I am indeed! I was not in the least aware that our mysterious incognito was a prince, were you, Diane?"
"Yes," said Diane. Her color was very high and she deliberately avoided the imploring eyes of Mr. Poynter.
"What in the world is it all about?" begged Ann helplessly. "And who was the grayish monk who flitted about so mysteriously telling us that the minstrel was a prince! It spread like wildfire. As for you, Philip Poynter, it's exactly like you! To depart night before last and suddenly reappear is quite of a piece with your mysterious habit of fading periodically out of civilization. Baron Tregar, how exceedingly delightful of you to come this way and surprise me when I fancied you were so keen about those horrid tarpon that you wouldn't leave them for all I wrote and wrote."
There was a sprightly nervousness in Ann's manner. She was uncomfortably aware of a subtle undercurrent.
"And I've another unexpected guest," she added to Diane. "Carl's here. Wandering in from Heaven knows where, as he always does. He's making his peace with your aunt—"
Herodotus, who had been trying for some time to get into friendly communication with his lady, suddenly murmured "Frost in Florida!" with audible regret and moved off good-humoredly to look for Carl.
He found that young man listening attentively to his aunt's reproaches.
"And that costume, Carl," fluttered Queen Elizabeth in aggrieved disapproval. "Why, dear me, it's enough to make a body shudder, it's so sort of sinister—it is indeed! And I do hope you don't set your hair on fire with that extraordinary light in your turban. Is it a candle or an electric bulb?"
"A forty horse power glowworm!" Carl assured her gravely, and the portly Jethro sniggered to the danger of his seams.
Philip's hand came down heavily upon the Palmer's broad shoulder and Carl wheeled. In that instant as he grasped Philip's hand in a silence more eloquent than words, every finer instinct of his queerly balanced nature flashed in his face. The two hands tightened and fell apart.
"Come, smoke!" invited Carl, smiling. "I'm glad you're here. I haven't been ragged and abused for so long there's a lonely furrow in my soul."
But Dick Sherrill, looking very warm and disgruntled in a costume he informed them bitterly was meant for Claude Duval, came up as they were turning away and insisted upon presenting Carl to the guest of the evening.
"Ann sent me," he added. "And you've got to come. And I want to say right now that Ann makes me tired. She's as notional as a lunatic. She planned this rig and now she doesn't like it. And if I don't look like a highwayman you can wager your last sou I feel like one, and that's sufficient. The whole trouble is that Ann's been so busy with hair-dressers and manicurists and corsetieres and dressmakers and the Lord knows what not over that stunning Indian girl, who'll likely run off with the family topazes, that she's had no time for her brother, and rubs it in now by laughing at the shape of my legs. What's the matter with my legs, Carl?"
"Too ornamental," said Carl. "Curvilinear grace is all very well but—"
"Shut up!" said Sherrill viciously. "Have you ever met this king-pin I'm exploiting?"
"I've seen him," said Car. "Once when he was riding up the mountain road to Houdania with a brilliant escort and one—er—other time. Think I told you I'd spent a month or so in a Houdanian monastery several years ago, didn't I, Dick?"
"Yes," said Dick. "That's why I asked. Poynter, who in blue blazes are you looking for?"
"Dry up!" he advised. "You're grouchy."
Sherrill was still heatedly denying the charge when they halted near the Baron.
"You wear a singular costume," suggested Ronador stiffly, when the formalities of presentation were at an end. He glanced at the luminous turban and thence to the chains. Carl, though he had primarily intended the singular rig for the eyes of Tregar, had subtly invited the remark. His eyes were darkly ironic.
"Prince," he said guilelessly, "it is a silent parable."
"I am 'The Ghost of a Man's Past!'" explained the Palmer lightly—and clanked his chains. The level glances of the two met with the keenness of invisible swords.
"The heavy, sinister black," suggested the Palmer, "the flashes of forbidden scarlet—the hours of a man's past are scarlet, are they not?—the cloud above the head, with a treacherous heart of fire, the clanking chains of bondage—they are all here. And the skeleton in the closet—Sire—behold!" He laughed and flung back his mantle, revealing a perfect skeleton cunningly etched in glaring white upon a close-fitting garment of black.
Did the Baron's eyes flash suddenly with a queer dry humor? Philip could not be sure.
With a clank of symbolic chains Carl bowed and withdrew, and coming suddenly upon his cousin, halted and stared. Long afterward Diane was to remember that she had caught a similar look in the eyes of Ronador.
"Well?" she begged, slightly uncomfortable.
Carl smiled. Once more his fine eyes were impassive. With ready grace he admired the delicately-thonged tunic and the beaded sash, the bright turban with the beaten band of silver and the darkly lovely face beneath it.
"It's a duplicate of the rig my little Indian friend wears," she explained, smiling. "Hasn't Ann told you? She's quite wild about it."
"Ann's very busy soothing Dick," laughed Carl and to the malicious satisfaction of that worthy Greek who had been trailing along in his wake, presented Herodotus. Diane nodded, smiled politely—and sought delicately to ignore the ancient Greek. It was a hopeless task. Mr. Poynter insisted upon considering himself included in every word she uttered.
"Isn't mother a dear!" exclaimed Ann Sherrill joining them. "After ragging me desperately for days about Keela, until I threatened to kill myself, and giving me an exceedingly horrid little book on the advisability of curbing one's most interesting impulses, she's taken her under her wing to-night and they're excellent friends. Philip, dear, go unruffle Dick. He's horribly fussed up about something or other. Carl, I want you to meet Keela. It's the most interesting thing I've dared in ages and Dad's been very decent about it. Dad always did understand me. He has a sense of humor."
Diane and Carl followed, laughing, at her heels. Ann presently found her mother and Keela and unaware of the astonished interest in Carl's eyes, presented him.
"The Black Palmer!" said Keela naively.
"Lady of Gold and Black!" said Carl and bowed profoundly.
The reckoning of Ronador and the Baron came by the cypress pool.
"It is useless to rave and storm," said Tregar quietly. "I hold the cards."
"Was it necessary to humiliate me in the presence of Miss Westfall?" demanded Ronador bitterly. With all his sullenness there was in his tone a marked respect for the older man.
"It was necessary to end this romantic masquerade!" insisted Tregar. "Why are you here?"
"I—I came in a flash of panic. It seemed to me that after all I—I could not trust to other hands when the dead thing stirred." Ronador's face was white and haggard. In that instant his forty-four years lay heavily upon his shoulders.
"Have I ever misplaced your trust?" reminded Tregar sombrely. "Have I not even kept your secret from your father?"
"Then tell me," asked the Baron bluntly, "why you must come to America and hysterically complicate this damnable mess by—a bullet!"
Greatly agitated, Ronador fell to pacing to and fro. Heavy cypress shadows upon the water moved like pointing fingers.
"Is there nothing I may keep from you?" broke from him a little bitterly.
"Why," insisted the older man, "have you seen fit to conduct yourself with the irrationality of a madman by trundling a music-machine about the country and making love to a girl you tried in a moment of fright and frenzy—to kill?"
"I—I lost my head," said the Prince with an effort. "It—it seemed at first that she must die. The other, I thought to myself, I will leave to Themar and the Baron. This I must do for myself. They will spare her and years hence the thing may stir again. I—I can not bear to think of it even now, Tregar. I have paid heavily for my moment of madness. For nights after, I did not sleep. Even now the memory is unspeakable torture!" And Ronador admitted with stiff, white lips that some nameless God of Malice had made capital of his bullet, stirring his heart into admiration for the fearless girl who had stood so gallantly by the fire in a storm-haunted wood. In the heart of the forest a happier solution had come to him and eliminated the sinister thought of murder.
The Baron coldly heard the passionate avowal through to the end.
"And the Princess Phaedra?" he begged formally. "What of her? What of the marriage that is to dissolve the bitter feud of a century between Houdania and Galituria, this marriage to which already you are informally bound?"
"It is nothing to me. I shall marry Miss Westfall."
"So!" The Baron matched his heavy fingertips. "So! And this is another infernal complication of the freedom of marital choice we grant our princes!"
"Ten years ago," flamed Ronador passionately, "you and my father picked a wife for me! Is not that enough? Now that she is dead, I shall marry whom I choose. Has it not occurred to you that after all it is the sanest way out of this horrible muddle?"
"It is one way out," admitted Tregar, "and by that way lies war with Galituria." He fell silent, plucking at his beard. "I fancy," he said at last, "that you will not go back to the music-machine."
"It was—and is—my only means of following her."
"Do so again," said the Baron dryly, "and the American yellow papers shall blazon your identity to the world. 'Son of a prince regent—nephew of a king—trundles a music-machine about to win a beautiful gypsy!' And Galituria and the Princess Phaedra will read with interest." Then he blazed suddenly with one of his infrequent outbursts of passion, "Is it not enough to have Galituria laughing at a mad king whose claim to the throne by our laws may not be invalidated by his madness? A king so mad that the affairs of a nation must be administered by a prince regent—your father? Must you add to all this the disgrace of breaking faith with Galituria and plunging your country into war? Your father is an old man. With but his life and the life of an aging madman between you and the throne, it behooves you to walk with a full recognition of your future responsibilities. Your father knows you are here in America?"
"No. There was an Arctic expedition. He thinks I have gone hunting with that. At first I thought I could come to America and return with no one the wiser."
"Having murdered Miss Westfall!" completed the Baron quietly.
Ronador's face was ashen.
"Excellency," he choked suddenly, "my little son—"
"Yes," said Tregar with sudden kindness, "I know. Your great love and ambition for the boy drove you to madness." He paused. "You are fully decided to break faith with Phaedra, knowing what may come of it?"
"Yes. Even if my great love for Miss Westfall did not drive me on—"
"To indiscretion!" supplied the Baron dryly.
"As you will. Even then, to me it is now the one way out. With Granberry dead, with the treacherous paper in my possession—"
"It has been burned."
Ronador did not hear.
"With Miss Westfall my wife," he finished, "even if the dead thing stirs again, it can make no difference."
"Then," said the Baron formally, "I am through with it all, quite through. The task was never of my choosing, as you know. When the dead hand reached forth from the grave to taunt you, Ronador, I was willing at first to stoop to unutterable things to save you—and Houdania—from dishonor, but more and more there has been distaste in my heart for the blackness of the thing. Days back I warned you by letter that I would not see Miss Westfall coldly sacrificed for a muddle of which she knew absolutely nothing. There are things a man may not do even for his country—one is murdering women. Now, though I pledged myself through loyalty to my country, my king, my regent and yourself to spying and murder and petty thievery, with a consequent chain of discomfort and misunderstandings for myself, I am through and mightily glad of it!"