"They took green country boys durin' the war—"
"During the war. Don't drop your g's, my dear."
"—during the war, and learned 'em—"
"—taught them to be soldiers in six months. Well, I'm strong as a horse, and I've got a brain, and I'm quick at pickin'—I mean I pick up things quick—"
"You pick them up quickly. Quickly is an adverb; quick is an—"
Allie's dark eyes grew darker. Imperiously she cried: "All right! But let me say this my own way. It won't be right or elegant, but you'll understand. And that's what we got to have first off—a good understanding. After I've said it, you can rub it down and curry it. I been watching you like a hawk, Miz' Ring, and you're just what he said you was. You got everything I want, but—I can't go so slow; I got to get it quick—quickly. You been teaching me to read and talk, and how to laugh, and how to set—sit—but we been playing. We got to work! Oh, I know I'm forgetting everything for a minute. Miz' Ring, I gotta learn how to act pretty and talk pretty and look pretty. And I gotta learn how, quick."
"You are a fine-looking girl as it is, Allegheny."
"Oh, I guess I look dressed up, but I'm awkward. I'm stiff as a hired hand, and I fall over my feet. Look at 'em. Biggest live things in the world without lungs! I got to get slim and graceful—"
"I'll teach you a setting-up routine, if you wish, although it is scarcely in my line. Goodness knows you don't need physical culture."
"But I do," cried the girl.
"Very well. Riding is a smart accomplishment. Can you ride a horse?"
"Pshaw! I can carry a horse."
"You'd look well in a habit, and with baths, massage, dancing, and a little diet I dare say you can reduce."
"I'll starve," Allie asserted, fiercely. "But that ain't half enough. You gotta give me more studyin'. I got callouses on my hands and I'm used to work. We'll get up at daylight-"
"Good heavens!" Mrs. Ring exclaimed, faintly.
"You learn me how to do the sitting-up things first off, then I'll do 'em alone. Ride me hard, Miz' Ring. I'll remember. I'll work; you won't have to tell me twice. But I gotta make speed. I 'ain't got the time other girls have."
"My dear child, all this cannot be done in a day, a week, a month."
"How long you allow it will take?"
The elder woman shrugged. "Years, perhaps."
"Real culture, social accomplishments, are the results of generations of careful training. I'm not a miracle worker. But why this impatience?"
"I have a reason. I can't take a generation; I'd be too late."
"Too late for what?"
But Allie refused to answer. "We'll start in to-day and we'll work double tower till one of us plays out. What d'you say?"
At first Mrs. Ring took this energetic declaration with some reserve, but before long she realized with consternation that Allie Briskow was in deep earnest and that this was not a soft berth. Instead of obtaining a rest she was being worked as never before. Allie was a thing of iron; she was indefatigable; and her thirst for knowledge was insatiate; it grew daily as she gained fuller understanding of her ignorance. There was a frantic eagerness to her efforts, almost pitiful. As time went on she began to hate herself for her stupidity and to blame her people for her condition. She was a harder taskmaster than her teacher. Most things she apprehended readily enough, but when she failed to learn, when mental or physical awkwardness halted progress, then she flew into a fury. Her temper appalled Mrs. Ring.
At such times Allie was more than disagreeable. Hate flamed in her eyes, she beat herself with her fists, she kicked the furniture, and she broke things. Once she even butted her head against the wall, uttering language meanwhile that all but caused her companion to swoon.
Mrs. Ring resigned after this final exhibition, but, lacking the courage to face Allie in a mood like that, she went to Gus Briskow.
"It is simply impossible to remain," she told him. "Already I'm a physical wreck, for I never get a moment's rest. The salary is attractive, but Allegheny is too much for me. She saps every ounce of vitality I have; she keeps me going every hour. And her terrific tempers are actually—dangerous."
"She don't ever get mad at you, does she?"
"Oh no! And she repents quickly enough. As a matter of fact, I am afraid she is overdoing her studies, but there's no holding her back."
"You're kinda worked up, Miz' Ring. Mebbe I can make it pleasanter for you."
"In what way, may I ask?"
"Well, by payin' you more."
"You are generous. The salary we agreed upon isn't low."
"I wouldn't feel right to accept more."
"Try it, ma'am, for a little while. Mebbe it won't bother you so much after you get used to it. Allie likes you."
"And I—I am interested in her. She is progressing, too; in fact, I have never seen anyone learn more rapidly. But—she is so unusual. Still, perhaps I am the one—perhaps it is my duty, under the circumstances—"
With this disposition to compromise the father had little difficulty in dealing, so the daily routine was continued. Allie applied herself to the cultivation of the ordinary social niceties with the same zeal that she followed her studies and her physical exercises. Fortunately these exercises afforded outlet for the impatience and the scorn that she felt for herself. Otherwise there would have been no living with her. As it was she showed herself no mercy. Daylight found her stirring, her Swedish drill she took with a vigor that fairly shook the floor, and, having finished this, she donned sweater and boots and went for a swift walk over the hills. At this hour she had the roads to herself and was glad of it, for she felt ridiculous. At breakfast, although she had a ravenous appetite, she ate sparingly. The day was spent in reading aloud, in lessons in deportment, voice modulation, conversation, and the like; in learning how to enter and how to leave a room, how to behave at a tea or a reception, how to accept and how to make an introduction, how to walk, how to sit, how to rise. Allie did sums in arithmetic, she studied grammar and geography and penmanship—in short, she took an intensified common-school course. Here was where her tutoress had trouble, for when the girl's brain became weary or confused she relieved her baffled rage in her most natural way, the while Mrs. Ring stopped her ears and moaned. It was a regimen that no ordinary woman could have endured; it would have taxed the strength of an athlete.
Late in the afternoon Allie went riding, and here was one accomplishment in which she required no coaching. Frequently she vented her spite upon her horse, and more than once she brought it home with its mouth bleeding and its flanks white with lather. She rode with a magnificent recklessness that finally caused comment among the other guests.
Allie was sitting alone in her room one evening, fagged out from a hard day. Some people were talking on the veranda outside her window, and she heard one say:
"The girl can look really stunning."
"Exactly. I don't understand where she gets her looks, for her parents are—impossible. Wouldn't you know what they were?"
Allie needed no clearer indication of who was under discussion. Instinctive resentment at the reference to her father and mother was followed by amazement, delight, at the compliment to herself—the first she had ever received. She leaned forward, straining to hear more. What mattered it how these contemptuous outsiders referred to her parents? They agreed that she was "stunning," which was their way of saying that she was pretty, nay, more—beautiful, perhaps.
"She's a glorious rider," the first speaker was saying. "She passed me the other day, going like sin, with her face blazing and that big, lively chestnut running flat. The way she took that curve above the Devil's Slide brought my heart into my mouth."
The breathless eavesdropper felt a hot wave of delight pour over her, her very flesh seemed to ripple like the fur of a cat when it is stroked.
"Oh, she's a picture, mounted! Seems to have complete confidence in herself; and the strength of a giantess, too. But—my God! when she's on her feet! And have you heard her talk?" Evidently the other speaker had, for there came the sound of low laughter, a sound that stabbed Allie Briskow like a bayonet and left her white and furious. She sat motionless for a long time, and something told her that as long as she lived she would never forget, never forgive, that laughter.
She was unusually silent and somber for the next three or four days; she went through her exercises without vim; at her studies she was both stupid and sullen. When Mrs. Ring's patience was exhausted and her frayed nerves finally gave out, Allie rounded upon her with a violence unparalleled. Those previous exhibitions of temper were tame as compared with this one; the girl spat scorn and bitterness and hatred; she became a volcano in active eruption.
In a panic Mrs. Ring sought out Gus Briskow and again resigned. By this time, however, the novelty of her resignation had largely worn off, for seldom did more than two weeks elapse without a hysterical threat to quit. But this one required more than the usual amount of persuasion, and it was not without long and patient pleading, coupled with the periodical raise, that the father induced her to change her mind. Gus told himself somberly that the price of Allegheny's education was mounting so rapidly that it might be the part of economy to take Mrs. Ring in as a full partner in the Briskow oil wells. He decided, after some consideration, to wire Calvin Gray and offer to pay his traveling expenses if he would come to Burlington Notch for a few days.
One accomplishment that Allegheny mastered with gratifying ease was dancing. It came naturally to her, for both she and Buddy were full of music. At first she had been extremely self-conscious; Professor Delamater had found her to be as heavy as stone and as awkward as a bear; but later, as her embarrassment became less painful, she relaxed. She regained her power of speech, also, and in time she voiced an eager desire to learn all there was to learn.
Having quickly schooled her in the simpler forms of ballroom dancing, Delamater suggested a course in the deeper intricacies of fancy dancing.
"You're getting on," he told her, one day. "That last was splendid—top hole, absolutely."
Delamater, who was quite thoroughly American, affected at times an English turn to his conversation, believing that it gave him an air. It went particularly well, he thought, with light trousers, spats, and an afternoon coat cut close at the waist.
"Don't fool me," panted the red-faced Juno. "You must have iron feet."
"My word! Spoof you, indeed! Not for worlds, if you know what I mean? I shall expect to see you in the ballroom every evening."
But Allie's confidence forsook her at this. "I'd—be scared stiff. Folks would laugh. They haven't got—haven't anything to do but laugh at other folks, and I don't like to be laughed at."
"Laugh at you! Fancy that! You're too modest." Delamater adopted the cooing note of a dove. "'Pon my word, you're too modest. If you could hear the things I hear—" He paused, not knowing exactly what to say he had heard, but his vagueness, the very eloquence of his hesitation, caused Allie's face to light up. This was the second compliment paid her since her arrival at the Notch, therefore when the phonograph resumed its melodious measures she yielded herself with abandon to the arms of her partner, and her red lips were parted, her somber eyes were shining. That day she began a course of exhibition dancing.
It was on that afternoon that Delamater had told the clerk of discovering Ma Briskow alone in the woods. There was an open golf tournament at the Notch, prominent amateurs and professionals were competing, and the hotel was crowded to its capacity with players, fashionable followers of the game and a small army of society reporters and sport writers. This being the height of the season, social doings at the resort were featured in all the large Eastern papers, for famous names were on the register and the hotel switch was jammed with private cars.
Allie Briskow was in one of her trying moods to-day, for the out-of-doors called to her. Sounds of laughter and gayety, strains of music, had distracted her from her studies, her monotonous routine had become hopelessly unbearable all at once. From her window she could see young people, hear young voices, and envy flamed in her soul. Those girls were her age; those men, easy, immaculate, different from anything she had ever seen—except Calvin Gray—they, too, were young and they courted those girls. Contemplation of the chattering throngs showed Allie more clearly than ever the chasm separating her from these people, and reawakened in her that black resentment which at times made her so difficult to manage. She was thankful that her mother had disappeared and that her father was at the livery stable; she hoped they would stay away all day. At least, they were safe from ridicule. She wondered if she might not induce them to dine in their rooms that evening, and thus spare herself the embarrassment she always suffered when she accompanied them into the public dining room.
It seemed to her that whenever they went to dinner—Gus in his baggy pepper-and-salt sack suit, his loose, lay-down collar, and his wide-toed shoes, Ma in one of her giddy, gaudy dinner dresses—it seemed as if the entire assemblage was stricken dumb and as if every eye was turned upon them in mockery and amusement. Even the waiters, Allie felt sure, noted the difference between the Briskows and the other guests, and only with difficulty concealed their contempt.
The occasional presence of Mrs. Ring, handsome, dignified, unruffled, intensified that contrast and fairly shouted the humiliating announcement that here were three nobodies who wanted to be somebodies, but never could.
Invariably when they went out in public together Mrs. Ring made Allie feel as if she belonged to a lower, cruder order of animal life; as if she were an inhabitant of another sphere. And yet, Mrs. Ring was poor; she worked for wages! Allie could not understand this phenomenon; thought of it now caused her resentment to kindle.
Of course it was the lot of the hapless tutoress to select such a moment as this in which to sweetly chide the girl for some lapse of form. Allie exploded. She reduced the elder woman to tears, then, ashamed of herself, she flung blindly out of the room, crashing the door to behind her. She decided to dance her anger away. It was some consolation to know that she could dance as well, or better, than those slim and pampered beauties outside her window. Some consolation, even though she never expected to have a chance of proving it.
Delamater was especially agreeable to-day, more than usually nattering. Not for some time did his scholar become conscious of the subtle change in his demeanor, and even then its significance awoke only a shadowy contentment. Allie hated herself too thoroughly to-day to believe that anybody could really approve of her. As for him, he entirely misconstrued the meaning of her silent acceptance of his flattery.
They had become well acquainted by now and were on a basis of easy familiarity, nevertheless it came as a shock to Allie to be called by her first name-such a shock that she missed a step and trod on Delamater's foot. They came to a pause.
The dancing master was tall and slim, his face was on a level with hers, and now he smiled into it, saying, "My mistake, my dear."
"I—reckon it was." The girl's eyes were glowing queerly, and the man was amused at her evident agitation. His first word had thrown the poor thing into a flurry.
They began to dance again, and, after a moment, with a gently rising inflection, Delamater murmured, "You heard what I called you?" He approved of the sachet that Allie used, and he became acutely conscious of the jewels resting in the palm of his left hand. The girl was rich and she was—different, unusual. Ever since she had learned to yield herself to his embrace, he had been conscious of her strong physical attraction, and now it got the better of him. "You don't care?" he said, with his lips close to her ear.
"Humph! I'm not caring for anything or anybody to-day."
"Somebody has hurt my little girl."
Allie threw back her head and stared at him with quick suspicion. "Your little girl?" she repeated.
It is the lot of any man in the heat of his desire to make mistakes, and Delamater erred gravely at this moment. He kissed Allie. Without warning he kissed her full and fair upon her red, half-open lips.
For the briefest instant of amazement the two stood motionless in the middle of the polished floor while the phonograph brayed on; then Allie shook herself free of her partner, and in the same movement she smote him a mighty slap that sent him reeling. Delamater saw stars. The constellation of Orion gleamed in dazzling splendor within his tightly shut lids; he collided with a chair and went sprawling.
With a cry he scrambled to his feet. "What the hell—?" he growled, savagely.
Allie's face was chalky. Breathlessly, curiously she inquired, "Wha'd you do that for?"
"What did I do it for? Say! You ought to be complimented—tickled to death." Delamater rubbed his cheek and glared at her. "By God! I wish you were a man. Oh, don't worry, I won't touch you again! Who the hell would, after that?" Allie opened her lips to speak, but he ran on more angrily as the pain bit into him. "Thought I meant it, eh? Why, you lumbering ox—"
"Then you ain't—in love with me or—or anything?"
"Love?" The speaker uttered an unpleasant sound indicative of scorn. "Wake up, sister! What d'you take me for? Why, your mother talks bird talk, and your dad lives in a box stall and eats oats with his knife! Here I kid you along a little bit—slip you a little kiss, as I would any girl, and you—you—" Delamater stuttered impotently. "Love? I guess I'm the first regular fellow that ever gave you a chance."
Delamater was surprised when his pupil turned her back upon him, strode to the nearest window, and flung it open as if for air; his surprise deepened when she faced him again and moved in his direction. Her expression caused him to utter a profane warning, but she continued to bear down upon him, and when she reached out to seize him he struck at her as he would have struck at a man.
To those who are familiar with Burlington Notch, it will be remembered that the hotel is pitched upon a slope and that the rooms on the first floor of the east wing are raised a considerable distance above the lawn. The windows of these east rooms overlook the eighteenth green, and during tournaments they are favorite vantage points of golf widows and enthusiasts who are too old to follow the competitors around the course. To-day they were filled, for an international title was at issue and Herring, prince of amateurs, was playing off the final round of his match with the dour Scotch professional, McLeod.
A highly enthusiastic "gallery" accompanied the pair, a crowd composed not only of spectators, but also of officials, defeated players, newspaper writers, camera men, caddies, and the like. They streamed up the final fairway behind the gladiators and for the moment they were enveloped in gloom, for Herring had sliced off the seventeenth tee and a marvelous recovery, together with a good approach, had still left his ball on the edge of the green, while McLeod, man of iron, had laid his third shot within three feet of the flag. It meant a sure four for the latter, with not less than a five for Herring. One of those golfing miracles, a forty-foot putt, would halve the match, to be sure, but in tournament golf miracles have a way of occurring on any except the deciding hole.
Sympathy usually follows the amateur, therefore it was a silent throng that ranged itself about the gently undulating expanse of velvet sod in the shadow of the east wing. Herring had played a wonderful match; he stood for all that is clean and fine in golf. The end of the balcony was jammed; nearly every window framed eager faces; amid a breathless intensity of interest the youthful contender tested the turf with the head of his club and studied the run of the green. A moment, then he took his stance and swung his putter smoothly. The ball sped away, taking a curving course, and followed by five hundred pairs of eyes. It ran too swiftly! Herring, in desperation, had overplayed! But no—it lost momentum as it topped a rise, then gathered speed, all but died at the edge of the cup and—toppled in amid a salvo of handclaps and roar of "Bravo!"
That was nerve, courage, skill! That was golf! The miracle had happened! Another hole to decide the match.
Quickly the crowd became still again as McLeod, his teeth set upon the stem of his pipe, his stony face masking a murderous disappointment, stepped forward to run down his four.
The silence was broken by a cry. Out of the air overhead came the sound of a disturbance, and every face turned. A most amazing thing was in the way of happening, a phenomenon unique in the history of tournaments, for a man was being thrust forth from one of the hotel windows, perhaps twenty-five feet above the ground—a writhing, struggling, kicking man with fawn-colored spats. He was being ejected painlessly but firmly, and by a girl—a grim-faced young woman of splendid proportions. For a moment she allowed him to dangle; then she dropped him into a handsome Dorothy Perkins rosebush. He landed with a shriek. Briefly the amazon remained framed in the casement, staring with dark defiance down into the upturned faces; her deep bosom was heaving, her smoky hair was slightly disarranged; she allowed her eyes to rest upon the figure entangled among the thorns beneath her, then she closed the window.
Nothing like this had ever occurred in Scotland. The mighty McLeod missed his putt and took a five.
As Allie Briskow passed through the lobby with her head erect and her fists clenched, she heard the sound of a great shouting outside and she believed it was directed at her. She fled into her room and flung herself upon her bed, sobbing hoarsely.
Mrs. Ring was waiting on the veranda for Gus Briskow when he returned to the hotel about dark. He had learned to dread the sight of her on that veranda, for it was her favorite resigning place—what Gus called her "quitting spot," and it was evident to-night that she was in a quitting mood, a mood more hysterical than ever before. It was some time before he could get at the facts, and even then he could not fully appreciate the enormity of the disgrace that had overwhelmed Allie's instructress.
"She chucked the dancin' teacher out of a winder?" he repeated, blankly. "What for?"
"Goodness knows, Mr. Briskow! Something he said, or did—I couldn't make out precisely. I found her in a dreadful state, and I tried to comfort her, I did really, but—oh! If you could have heard her! Where she learned such language I don't know. My ears burn! But that isn't the worst; you should hear what—"
"He must of said something pretty low down." Briskow spoke quietly; his bright blue eyes were hard. "I reckon she'll tell me."
"You don't understand," chattered the woman. "She flung the man bodily out of the window and into a bed of thorns. It nearly killed him; he was painfully lacerated and bruised and—Right in the middle of a golf game! It did something dreadful—I don't know what—just as the world's champion caught the ball, or something."
"If he's crippled I'll get him that much easier," said Briskow, and at the purposeful expression upon his weather-beaten face Mrs. Ring uttered a faint bleat of terror. She pawed at him as he undertook to pass her.
"Oh, my heavens! What are you going to do?"
"Depends on what he said to Allie."
The woman wrung her hands. "What people! What—savages! You're—going to shoot him, I suppose, just because—"
"Yes'm!" the father nodded. "You got it right, motif an' all. 'Just because'!"
"You can't. I sha'n't permit it. I—I'll call the police."
"Don't do that, ma'am. I've stood a lot from you, in one way or another."
"But it's murder! You—you can't mean it." Moans issued from the speaker. "What ever possessed me to accept this position? It's unendurable, and I'll be involved—"
"I've saw your last raise, Miz' Ring."
"Do you think I'd stay, after this? It's bad enough to be made ridiculous—the whole hotel is in laughter; laughter at me, I dare say, as much as at her. Imagine! Hurling a full-grown man from a window—"
"I don't hear nobody laughing." Briskow swung his head slowly from side to side.
"But to contemplate murder—"
"What's more, I don't intend to hear nobody laugh. By God! Now I come to think about it, there ain't a-goin' to be no laughing at all around here." Gus continued slowly to swing his head, like a bear. "She's my kid!" He pushed past Mrs. Ring, still muttering, "My kid—there ain't a-goin' to be no laughing at all."
Going directly to the desk, he asked for the manager, then stood aside, hat in hand, until the latter made his appearance. The manager began a hasty and rather mixed apology on behalf of the hotel for what had occurred in the dancing room, but his tone of annoyance was an accusation in itself. It was plain that, to his mind, the catastrophe on the eighteenth green outweighed in importance whatever may have led up to it. That was something actually tragic, something frightful, appalling; it involved the good name of the hotel and affected the world's golf title.
"Very—unfortunate," he lamented. "We haven't heard the last of it, by any means. McLeod may file a protest. And there is something to be said on both sides; rather a nice question, in fact."
"Prob'ly so," the father agreed. "An' I got something to say about it, too. Get that dancin' perfessor off the place quick or I'll kill him."
The manager recoiled; his startled eyes searched Briskow's face incredulously. "I—beg pardon?"
"I 'ain't heard my kid's side of the story yet, but I'm goin' to see her now, so you better get word to that jumpin' jack in a hurry. That is, if you want to save him."
"He is discharged, of course, for we tolerate no rudeness on the part of our employees—or our guests, for that matter; but I believe he is suffering some effects from the shock. I couldn't well ask him to go before—"
"It'll take me prob'ly twenty minutes, talkin' to my girl. That'll give him time, if he moves fast. But I may get through in fifteen."
At the door to his suite Gus Briskow paused to wipe his countenance clean of the expression it had worn for the last few minutes, and when he entered it was with his usual friendly smile. Allie and her mother were waiting; they were white and silent. Gus kissed his daughter before saying:
"Don't worry, honey; he won't bother you no more."
Allie averted her face. Mrs. Briskow inquired, "Did you see the skunk?"
"No. I give him a few minutes to clear out."
"Hadn't we better leave, too?" ventured Allie.
"Oh-h!" In Ma's eyes was such bleak dismay, such a piteous appeal, that Gus shook his head.
"What fer? We got nice quarters and your ma likes it here—"
"They're laughing at me. I heard 'em hollering."
"They won't laugh long. No, you're learnin' fast, and we're all havin' a nice time. Only one thing—I'm kinda tired of that Miz' Ring. I let her go, but I'll get you another—"
"She quit, eh?"
"Um-m, not exactly. I—"
"I don't blame her. I've been mighty mean. But I couldn't help it, pa. When you put a wild horse in a pen, it don't do to prod him and throw things and—That's what they've done to me. I bite and kick like any bronc. When you're hurt, constant, you get spells when you've got to hurt back. I've been rotten to her, and now this coming on top of it—"
"Wha'd that dancin' dude do, anyhow?"
Allie related her experience with Professor Delamater; she told it all up to the burst of shouting that followed her through the lobby. "You should of heard 'em yelling, clapping their hands—! I"—she choked, her voice failed her, miserably she concluded—"I wish to God we'd never struck oil!"
"You're just wore out, dearie," her mother said, comfortingly, and Briskow agreed. He assured her that all would be well.
All was not well, however. The next morning when Gus Briskow was about to leave the hotel as usual—Professor Delamater having departed hurriedly the evening before with fully four minutes of his twenty to spare—he was stopped by the manager, who requested him to give up his rooms. The Texan was bewildered; he could not understand the reason for such a request.
"'Ain't I paid my bills?" he queried.
The manager assured him that he had; he was profoundly regretful, as a matter of fact; but it so happened that the Briskow suite had been reserved early in the season, and the party who had made the reservation had just wired that he was arriving that day. He was a gentleman of importance—it was indeed unfortunate—the management appreciated Mr. Briskow's patronage—they hoped he and his family would return to the Notch sometime.
"Mebbe you got some other rooms that would do us," Gus ventured.
It was too bad, but the hotel was overcrowded. Later, perhaps—Now at that very moment the lobby was filled with tournament golfers who were leaving on the morning train, and Briskow knew it. He studied the speaker with an expression that caused the latter extreme discomfort; it was much the same expression he had worn the night before when he had served warning upon Delamater.
"Lemme get this right," he said. "You can talk straight to me. Bein' ignerunt, I 'ain't got the same feelin's as these other folks got. I got a shell like a land turtle."
"It is quite customary, I assure you. No offense, my dear sir."
"That's how I figgered! Just bouncin' a low-down var mint ain't offense enough to be throwed out about, when you pay your bills—"
"You quite misapprehend—"
"Fired, eh? It 'll go hard with Ma. She's gainin' here, and she likes it. That's why I never told her you was chargin' us about double what you charge these rich folks."
The manager stiffened. "I regret exceedingly, sir, that you take it this way. But there is nothing more to be said, is there?"
It was with a heavy heart and a heavy tread that Briskow returned to his room. Ma took the announcement like a death blow, for it meant the end of all her dreams, all her joyous games of "pretend." Her mountains—those clean, green, friendly mountains that she loved with a passion so intense that she fairly ached—those and her caves, her waterfalls, her gypsy band, were to be taken from her. She was to be banished, exiled.
She did not weep a great deal, but she seemed suddenly to grow older and more bent. Listlessly, laboriously she began to pack, and her husband noticed with a pang that her hands shook wretchedly.
As for Allie, she told herself that this was the end. She had tried to make something of herself and had failed. She had crucified herself; she had bled her body and scourged her soul only to gain ridicule and disgrace. There was no use of trying further; Gray had been mistaken in her, and her misery, her shame at the realization was intolerable. There was no facing him, after this.
Allie decided to do away with herself.
Gus Briskow was waiting at the cashier's desk for his bill when the bustle of incoming guests told him that the morning train had arrived. Probably it had brought that "gentleman of importance" to whom the manager had referred. "To hell with people like that manager!" the Texan muttered. He would take his family back home and chance no more humiliations like this. And to think that he had allowed that dancing monkey to escape when he could have shot him as well as not!
Briskow's chain of thought was broken by a slap on the back that nearly drove him through the cashier's window; then by a loud, cheery greeting. The next moment he found himself actually embraced by—Gus could not believe his eyes—by Calvin Gray!
The latter's affectionate greeting, his frank delight at seeing the Texan, caused people in the lobby to center amused attention upon them, and induced those behind the desk to regard Briskow with new respect.
"Gus! You precious pirate! My, but I'm glad to see you! Ma and Allie are well, I know; they couldn't be otherwise here. Great place, isn't it? Nothing in this country or Europe that compares with it, and I've sent dozens of my friends here. I came north on business and couldn't bear to go back without seeing you. Come! Give me a welcome, for I've traveled across three states to get here."
The two stood hand in hand. Gray beamed approvingly. Gus, too, was smiling, but earnestly he said, "I'm right glad to see you, Mr. Gray, for we're in trouble."
"Trouble? What sort? Not illness?"
"No. We're leavin'—been throwed out."
The younger man's face sobered. "Don't joke!" he cried, sharply.
"I ain't joking. Feller insulted Allie and she throwed him out of a window—"
"Exactly! It's in the morning paper."
"They don't seem to think it was reefined, so they—throwed us out."
"Nonsense! Why, it is a corking story, and Allie was splendid—she gave the championship to Herring, who deserved it, thereby delighting every golfer on this side of the Atlantic. Jove! that girl is developing and I'm going to hug her—if there's no window handy! Throw you out? Why, there's some mistake, surely!"
Briskow shook his head; in greater detail he made known the facts. When he had finished his halting recital Calvin Gray's face was flushed with anger, there was a dark frown between his eyes.
"We'll see!" he muttered. "Wait here—or go back and tell Ma to commence unpacking." Then he was gone.
For perhaps ten minutes Gus waited nervously; he was amazed finally to see Gray approaching arm in arm with the manager; both were laughing, the hotel man's face was radiant with good humor. To the departing guest he said, genially:
"You are not going to leave us, after all, Mr. Briskow. On the contrary, we are going to keep you at the Notch as long as you'll stay. Stupid misunderstanding on my part, and I apologize. I'm going to ask you to move, but into a better suite—the very best one we have. And the rate will be the same. Come! What do you say?" When he was met by a stammered protest, he insisted forcefully: "I sha'n't take 'no' for an answer, my dear sir; we simply refuse to let you leave. The best we have is yours, and I guarantee that you will be made comfortable."
"He offered to extend you the courtesies of the house—make you guests of the hotel," Gray added, "but I knew you wouldn't accept."
"Dunno's I want to stay at all," Gus murmured, angrily. "We ain't no better'n we was a half hour ago."
"To be sure, but I've made you better known. You are too shy; you didn't afford my friend here the pleasure of making your acquaintance, and I had to tell him the sort of person you really are. Serves you right, Gus, for being so exclusive. Gad! I think I'll give you a few lessons in democracy. Now then, come along! I'm dying to see Ma."
As the father trotted down the hall beside his swiftly striding deliverer, he gasped, "How'd you do it?"
"Nothing simpler. I merely showed Mr. What's-his-name that he was making an ass of himself. I've spent a fortune here; know the owners, too. Nice chap, that manager, but he has no business running a hotel, and I so informed him. He'll probably annoy you to death with his attentions. He'll let you play 'shinny' in the halls if you want to. Now—wait!" The speaker laid a finger upon his lips; his eyes were dancing. He knocked sharply at the Briskow door and cried, "Baggage ready, ma'am?"
There was a stir from within, the door was slowly opened by a bent, pathetic figure of grief.
"Ma!" Gray cried, and he held out his arms.
Perhaps it was his virile personality radiating confidence, security, or perhaps it was Gus Briskow's shining face that told the story; whatever the fact, Ma Briskow uttered a thin, broken wail, then walked into those open arms and laid her head upon Gray's breast. She clung to him eagerly and the tears she had been blinking so hard to restrain flowed silently.
"Oh-n-h! We ain't goin'away!" she said. "We ain't—goin' away!"
"Of course not. Gus misunderstood. The manager merely wanted you to move—into a larger, finer suite, and he is positively distressed at the thought of your leaving. The poor man is dashing about collecting an armful of roses for you and Allie. He wants to come in person and apologize."
There was another sound and Gray looked up to see Allie standing in the doorway to her bedroom; with one hand she clutched the jamb, the other was pressed to her bosom; she was staring at him as at an apparition. The girl was quite colorless, there was a look almost of fright in her eyes, and when he came toward her she swayed weakly. Her hands, when he took them, were icy; it shocked him to see how worn, how weary she had grown.
It was several hours later. In the parlor of the new suite, a spacious, sunny room, fragrant with flowers and cheerful with brilliant cretonnes, Gray and Briskow were talking. Allie and her mother could be seen in their bedrooms putting away the last of their belongings. Gray's eyes had been drawn, at frequent intervals, to the younger woman, for the change in her became the more amazing the more he observed her, and he was still striving to reconcile this creature to the picture he had held in his mind. In a few months Allie had become almost a stranger to him. It was a marked and yet a subtle change that had come over her; she was anything but a polished young woman, of course; nevertheless she had been modified, toned down, vastly improved, and not until her first queer emotion at seeing him had disappeared was the full extent of that improvement manifest to the newcomer. He wondered why she had acted so oddly at first; surely she did not fear him. No, Allie's face at this moment was alight with supreme joy and satisfaction; she appeared to be quite as happily at her ease as Ma, who was singing steadily in a thin, rusty voice.
Gray sent the father away on some pretext, finally; then he called to Allie: "Come in here and talk to me. I am a guest and I demand entertainment." He observed with silent approval her carriage as she entered the room and accepted the chair he offered her. Faint trace of the nester's daughter here. "I want a good chance to look at you."
Allie colored faintly. "I guess I'm not much to look at."
"Hm-m! You don't in the least resemble that girl I found hoeing in the garden. You are terribly thin."
"Spinach!" said Allie.
"Yes. Spinach and water and a rubber suit. Sometimes I have a party and eat a whole soda cracker."
"It isn't too high a price to pay for beauty—beauty, 'the fading rainbow's pride.' We men should thank Heaven for women's courage in pursuing it. It is all that makes this world an attractive dwelling place for nice people."
"Sometimes I think it's kind of wicked to spend so much time and money that way, but—I guess it's all right. I want to look as good as other people."
"I'm in a mood for quotations. 'Is beauty vain because it will fade? Then are earth's green robe and heaven's light vain.' Pride, even vanity, is less of a vice than slovenliness, my dear. Now then, do you like Mrs. Ring?"
Allie nodded. "I like her, but—I hate her. She makes me feel awful mad because she can't understand that I ain't—I am not mad at her, but at myself. I don't hardly know how to explain it. If I was her I'd hate me, like I do."
"Would you like to have her remain?"
"Oh, I would! She knows everything, and she makes me learn. But she won't stay. I just found out that she's been quitting every few weeks, and Pa's been raising her wages. No, the disgrace, and our being thrown out—"
"My dear girl, let me assure you, once for all, there is no suggestion of disgrace about this affair. You behaved with spirit, and those who have heard about it admire you. I have talked with a number of them, and I know. I had a talk with Mrs. Ring also, and she will remain if you wish her to do so."
"You're a—a good man, ain't—"
"—aren't you, Mr. Gray? You fix everything."
"Not a good, but a convenient man. My specialty is making things easier for my friends."
"Are these other folks, these rich ones around the hotel, like you?"
"Oh, much nicer than I!" Gray laughed. "You must meet some of them."
Allie's face whitened at this suggestion. "Please, sir—I'm scared!"
"Very well. As you wish. Tell me, what are you going to do with me this afternoon?"
"I dunno!" Allie looked blank. "I don't do anything but study. I s'pose I got to study."
"Nothing of the sort. You have circles under your eyes now from overwork, and this is your vacation. I am a visitor, a restless visitor; I abhor being asked to make myself at home, and I never do. I demand amusement. Do you know what I'd like to do best of all?" Allie did not know. "I'd like to sit here and smoke while you show me all your pretty dresses. Ah! Those dark eyes brighten. You're dying to show them to me, aren't you?"
"Would you? Honest?"
"Cross my heart. But remember, I have a color sense and I'm not easily pleased. I'll probably condemn some of them."
Allie breathed deeply. "Oh, Gee!" she said.
"Run along and try them on, then I'll borrow a pair of puttees and we'll go for a ride."
For the next two hours Allegheny Briskow was in heaven. Never had she dreamed of anything like this. To have Calvin Gray alone, all to herself—Ma, as usual, had disappeared—and to discuss with him exciting questions of dress and good taste that she could not discuss with her own people; to meet his occasional hearty approval—well, it was enough to make a girl drunk with happiness. Gowns that he liked became precious; she hated those that he condemned. Her fingers grew clumsy with haste, her cheeks burned. He said she wore her clothes well, that she carried herself well. He approved of her—liked her! God above! And to think that she had contemplated suicide! Of course she was pitifully ignorant as yet, and she had not even learned to talk as he talked, but there were books. She would study. Oh, the fury with which she would apply herself after this! She would beat the contents of those books into her head with her fists, if necessary; she would show him how fast she could learn; she would astonish him. Her heart sang at the thought that she was rich—richer than he. That would count, too, for men liked money.
"Where is Ma?" Gray inquired, when the last gown had been paraded and when Allie appeared in her riding suit.
"Out with the fairies, I suppose. She won't tell Pa or me where she goes or what she does—says it's all foolishness."
"Perhaps she will tell me, for I believe in fairies," Gray said, seriously.
Allie smiled at him. "I reckon she will. Folks tell you 'most anything you want them to, I reckon."
This was the busiest hour of the afternoon. Gray had purposely ordered the horses sent around at a time when he knew that the veranda, the walks, and the tennis courts would be filled, for ever since his interview with the hotel manager a plan had been shaping in his mind and already he had dropped a few words, a hint or two here and there, that were calculated to stimulate interest in Allie Briskow.
It gratified his craving for the theatric now to lead the girl out before so many curious eyes. For himself, he knew that he commanded attention, and as he noted the lines of this young Juno he could find nothing in her that needed betterment. Allie's suit was the latest, smartest thing in riding habits, and it set off her magnificent figure as nothing else could. Systematic exercise and hard work, like the final touch of a skilled sculptor, had given it beauty and refinement; harmony and proportion had destroyed the impression of unusual size. How deep was her bosom, how smooth and flowing were her curves, how superbly tall she was! As a thing of flesh and blood, she made these other women look like females of an insignificant race.
It thrilled him pleasantly to observe the confidence with which she swung herself into the saddle and the instant mastery she exercised over her restless mount. No timidity there, no need of assistance; no absurd, hampering skirts and artificial posture, either, but a seat astride as befits anyone who chooses to honor the king of four-footed creatures.
Under cover, Gray noted Allie's effect upon her attentive audience, and he smiled. If only he could spend a few days here he would make her a woman to be sought after by some of the best people. She refused to meet them, eh? Well, that would be as it was to be.
"We've been having supper in our rooms lately," she told him, when they returned at dark. "You're going to eat with us, ain—aren't you?"
"I am, to be sure. But not in your rooms," he declared.
"You'd rather do exactly what would please me, now wouldn't you?"
"Then run along and put on that dinner dress that I liked best. And tell Ma to look her prettiest, too. We'll not spoil this day."
It was seven-thirty when Gray, in evening clothes, appeared at the Briskow suite. Allie told herself there had never been a man so handsome, so distinguished, so Godlike as he. God, she now felt sure, must wear full dress.
Gus Briskow beamed as the visitor smiled approvingly at his daughter. "She is purty, ain't she? Don't look much like the girl I sent to Dallas for fixin's."
"Allie is more then pretty, she's regal. 'Such another peerless queen only could her mirror show.' But—her head is turned already, Gus. Don't spoil her." The speaker stood with arms folded and head lowered while he studied the girl impersonally. Allie wore an expensive black lace dress, sleeveless and sufficiently low of neck to display her charms. "Plain! A little too somber," Gray declared. "She can afford colors, ornaments. Jove! I'd like some time to see her in something Oriental, something barbaric. The next time I'm in New York I'll select a gown—"
Ma Briskow entered at the moment, greatly flustered and extremely self-conscious, and here, certainly, was no lack of ornamentation or of color. Ma wore all her jewelry, and her dress was an elaborate creation of brilliant jade green, from one shoulder of which depended a filmy streamer of green chiffon. In her desire to gild the lily she had knotted a Roman scarf about her waist—a scarf of many colors, of red, of yellow, of purple, of blue, of orange—a very spectrum of vivid stripes, and it utterly ruined her. It lent her an air of extreme superfluity; it was as if she had put on everything except the bedspread.
"You said to look my nicest," she bubbled, "so I done the best I could."
"You are lovely, both of you, but—this is my party, isn't it? I can do anything I please?" Gray looked from one to the other in eager inquiry. "Then let me fix you my way. Ma Briskow, your face is too sweet, too gentle, to be spoiled. Your charm is in your simplicity. Here, I have it!"
With swift impetuosity he untied the scarf and whipped it from Ma's waist. "Watch me now and you'll see I'm right." With his penknife he cut the threads that held the chiffon streamer in place and removed it. "Voila! Even so little, and we see an adorable motherly person, richly but unostentatiously gowned. Don't you agree with me?"
Without pausing for an answer, he wheeled upon the daughter and drew her into the range of a pier glass. "Now close your eyes and keep them closed." Around Allie's hips he flung the scarf, drew it snug and smooth, then knotted it. Next he snatched the length of chiffon and bound it about her head. His touch was deft and certain; a moment and it had been fashioned to suit him. Then he stood back and eyed the tout ensemble.
"Gorgeous!" he cried, genuinely enthusiastic. "That was the touch. I defy any costumer to better it. Open your eyes, oh, gypsy princess! And what do you see?"
"It—it sort of makes a difference, doesn't it?" Allie said. "'A difference'!" Gray flung aloft his hands in exaggerated despair. "Heaven help me! I am inspired; I have a flash of genius, a divine impulse, and with a magic pass I work a miracle. I transform you from something somber, dark, morose, into a creature of life, of passion, of allurement." He groaned. "And you stand there like a stalagmite. Why, girl, look at yourself!"
"Darned if she don't look like a pitcher I seen som'er's—on an almanac," Gus declared.
"Aha! A man with a soul! A human being who sees beauty where I see it. An artist with my fire!" Gray burst into infectious laughter, and the others joined him.
This proved to be an evening when people really did turn their heads as the Briskows were shown to their table, but for once Allie suffered no embarrassment, for she felt sure they were looking at Calvin Gray, and in the shining glory of his presence she knew that she and her parents were invisible.
It was the sort of situation in which Gray appeared to best advantage, so he talked incessantly during the meal, and in a key that kept his companions unconscious of their surroundings. On their way out they passed the entrance to the ballroom and paused to look in. The beat of the music swayed Allie unconsciously; then, before she knew it, Gray's arm was around her waist and he was guiding her out upon the floor.
"Oh, n-no!" she gasped. She stumbled, but he drew her closer, saying:
"I'm proud of you, and I want you to show these people that you dance even better than you ride."
Allie rose to the challenge.
About midnight Calvin Gray strolled outdoors for a breath of fresh air before retiring. He glowed with the consciousness of a worthy deed well done. He had come to the Notch expecting to spend one night, but events of the last few hours had induced him to change his plans, and he now made up his mind to stay several days. He was burning to be back in the oil fields, to be sure; every hour away from them was an hour wasted, and although he told himself it was his feud that drew him, he knew better. As a matter of fact, when he thought of Texas it was of Wichita Falls, and when he visualized the latter place it was to picture a cottage with the paint off or a small office with the sign, "Tom and Bob Parker, Real Estate and Insurance."
He had been eagerly, selfishly, counting the hours until his return, but here, it seemed, was work to be done, a task that he alone could accomplish, and his decision to remain had been made final when Allie Briskow told him with tremulous earnestness that he had saved her life—when she confessed that she had intended to kill herself, and why.
Naturally Gray had put no faith in that wild declaration, nevertheless it was plain that the girl—that all three Briskows—needed a friend to guide them. He sighed with resignation, but reflected that, inasmuch as he had put his hand to the plow, he must turn the furrow. After all, he could well afford to spare a week to put that girl on the road to happiness.
From the day of their first meeting, Henry Nelson and Calvin Gray had clashed. No two people could be more different in disposition and temper, hence it was only natural that every characteristic, every action of the one should have aroused the other's antagonism. Nelson was a cool, selfish, calculating plodder with little imagination and less originality; he thought in grooves. His was a splendid type of mind for a banker. He had but one weak point—viz., a villainous temper, a capacity for blind, vindictive rage—a weakness, truly, for a man who dealt in money—but a weakness that lent him a certain humanity and without which he would have been altogether too mechanical, too colorless, too efficient. Nature seldom errs by making supermen. A drab man, in many ways, Nelson was extraordinary mainly in this, that his mind followed straight, obvious channels, and that never, except under the urge of extreme passion, did he depart from the strictly logical line of action. In this, of course, he was superior to the average person, who too frequently undertakes the unusual. Calvin Gray's ebullience, his dash, his magnificence of demeanor, could be nothing less than an affront to such a man; Nelson could see in him only a pompous braggart, an empty, arrogant strutter.
Age and easy success had not improved the banker's apoplectic turn of mind, hence Gray's defiant declaration of war, his impudent assurance that the recent misfortunes to the house of Nelson were the direct results of his own deliberate efforts, had proven almost unendurable. In the first place, Nelson could not imagine a man making such a declaration; it was new to his entire experience and contrary to his code. It was unconservative, therefore it staggered him. It was, in fact, a phenomenon so unique as to leave him numb. He told himself that it must have been the act of a madman or a fool. Under no circumstances could he conceive of himself warning an enemy of his intentions; on the contrary, when he undertook to crush a rival he went about it slyly, secretly, in the only regular and proper way. As a matter of fact, it had come as a disagreeable surprise to learn that his former comrade at arms cherished any resentment whatever toward him, for he had thought his tracks were well covered.
What left the banker actually gasping, however, that which he came back to with unfailing astonishment, was Gray's effrontery in coming to Wichita Falls to boast of his accomplishments. That bespoke such contempt, such supreme self-confidence in his ability to wreak further damage, that Nelson wanted to shout aloud his rage and his defiance.
Following the departure of his two callers on that day of the meeting in the bank, Nelson closed his desk and went home. He could work no more. For several days thereafter he was an unpleasant person to do business with.
On mature consideration, what amazed him as much as anything else was the fact that Gray had made good in so short a time and in such a big way. Evidently, however, it was only another story of a lucky break and an overnight fortune—a common occurrence these days. But it was doubly unfortunate under the circumstances, for already Nelson was carrying a load equal to his strength, and he told himself that he could not afford to be distracted, even temporarily, by the irresponsible actions of a maniac. One never could tell what a madman would do. And Gray had confessed himself a madman—a fanatic of the most dangerous type. There was but one course of action open—viz., to eliminate him, destroy him without delay. That was no easy task, even in these lawless times, but the stakes were too high to permit of half measures. There must be a way.
One would have to be careful, of course, not to put oneself too much in the power of unscrupulous people, and, alas! the world was full of unscrupulous people. It was a pity that people could be so unscrupulous as to take advantage of a bargain made in good faith. That was blackmail. However, the prestige of the Nelson name was great, the power of its money was potent, and Henry believed that he could protect himself from eventualities. After cautious deliberation he sent word to one of his men in the Ranger field that he wished to see him.
The man came promptly, and when he left Henry Nelson's house after a conference he carried with him a perfectly clear idea why he had been sent for. This despite the fact that he had not been told in so many words. He knew, for instance, that a certain Calvin Gray had become a menace to his employers, so dangerous that it was worth to them a substantial fortune to be rid of him, and that while Henry Nelson could under no circumstances countenance anything illegal, anything savoring of violence, nevertheless if some accident should befall Gray, if some act of God should put an end to him, there would be no disposition on Henry's part to question the divine origin of that calamity. Furthermore, the speaker had made it plain that if Providence did take a hand in some such mysterious manner, he would then be in a position amply to reward his employee for many acts of loyalty that had apparently passed unrecognized. For instance, profitable deals were forever coming up, new acreage was constantly being acquired, and it would be easy to carry a third party for an interest which was bound to make that third party rich.
All this was expressed with admirable vagueness, but the man understood.
So much accomplished, Nelson went to Dallas and there undertook to learn something about the size of Calvin Gray's profits, who was behind him and the extent of their backing, and what his prospects were. He followed every avenue of information; he even went so far as to hire an investigator and send him north to look up Gray's record and to follow his tracks as far back as possible. Nelson was reconnoitering behind the enemy's lines and testing the strength of his position.
When he returned home Gray was gone, whither he could not learn. As the days passed without further developments, Nelson began to believe that he had had a bad dream and that Gray had merely been talking to hear his own voice. He devoutly hoped that such would prove to be the case.
A time came, however, when his apprehensions were roused afresh, and it was Barbara Parker who rekindled them. She had come to the bank with an excellent proposition and was doing her best to sell it; in the course of her conversation she referred to Gray in a manner that gave Nelson cause for thought.
"I've looked this lease over," "Bob" was saying, "and I've seen the books. It has been producing a hundred and fifty barrels a day steadily. Production like that is cheap at a thousand dollars a barrel. It is worth a hundred and fifty thousand dollars, Henry."
"Why is it offered for seventy-five?"
"Bob" shrugged. "How did a 'boll weevil' like this Jackson ever make even a hundred-and-fifty-barrel well, in the first place? Where did he get the money to drill? He is sick of the game, I suppose, and would be satisfied to get his money back with a reasonable profit. It is a find, really."
"Looks so, for a fact. How did you get on to it, 'Bob'?"
"Purely by chance. Through a man named Mallow, a 'scientist' of some sort with a magic tester." The girl laughed.
"Don't know him."
"Mallow is as queer as the rest of his kind, and I put no faith in his story until I investigated. But the well is there and doing a hundred and fifty barrels as regular as clockwork."
"You'll have no trouble in selling it."
"Then you're not interested?"
"Interested? Yes, indeed." Nelson nodded. "I'm quite excited, as a matter of fact, but—I can't handle it at this particular time."
"Frankly, I'm glad you can't," Barbara told him, "for now I can sell it to Mr. Gray."
"Gray?" Henry looked up quickly. "If you wanted it for him, why did you bring it to me?"
"Because Mr. Mallow insisted. He felt sure you'd jump at it. Besides, Mr. Gray is away and prompt action is necessary. I'll wire him at once and ask him to accept my judgment."
"Will he do so?"
The girl colored faintly at the tone of this inquiry. "Perhaps. I think he believes in me, and—that's more than you do. It's mighty flattering to a girl to have a man like Mr. Gray believe in her. Why, I am practically his agent! He buys and sells through me whenever he can."
"He's buying and selling, is he? He said something about entering this field in a big way—"
"He's in." "Bob's" eyes were sparkling. "Oh, things are looking up for dad and me. Mr. Gray is a real miracle man, isn't he?" When this question evoked no response, the girl inquired, curiously, "Tell me, are you and he such good friends as he says you are?"
"Does he say we are good friends?"
"Um-m—well, he speaks admiringly of you, and if people admire me I love them. He thinks you are a remarkably capable person. 'A determined fighter,' I think he called you. That should be high praise, coming from a fellow officer. He probably outlined his plans to you."
"He did." Nelson spoke dryly.
"I assumed that he was relying on your judgment and taking your tips."
"Why? How so?"
"Because he has bought so much land alongside of yours."
Barbara was surprised. "I—why, I supposed you knew!" After a moment of hesitation she said: "I think I'd better keep my mouth closed. Just the same, he couldn't have done better than to follow your lead. That is the first compliment I ever paid you, Henry."
"I've paid you enough. And I do believe in you, 'Bob,' but I'm not the flattering kind. He's a great ladies' man. I wonder if he is going to make me jealous."
"You? Jealous? Coming from Wichita's most emotionless banker, from the cold county Croesus, that speech is almost a—a declaration." Miss Parker laughed frankly. "Why, Henry! My haughty little nose is turning up—I can feel it. But, alas! it proves your insincerity. If you had faith in my judgment you'd pick up this snap."
With some hesitation the man said: "We're in deep, 'Bob.' Awfully deep! And things haven't gone as well as they should, lately. It's temporary, of course, but it would require an extraordinary effort at this time to take on anything new. That's the worst of this oil game, it takes so much money to protect your holdings. It doesn't pay to prospect land for the benefit of your neighbor; the risks are too great. Gray has been pretty attentive to you, hasn't he?"
"That's a part of the man; he is attentive to everybody. I have received more candy and flowers and delightful little surprises than in all my short, neglected life."
"I didn't know you liked candy."
"I don't. But I adore getting it. The thought counts. I don't care much for canaries, either—I have such bad luck with them—but he sent me the dearest thing from New York. A tiny mechanical bird with actual feathers. And it sings! It is a really, truly yellow canary in a beautiful gold cage, and when you press a spring it perks its head, opens its beak, flirts its tail, and utters the most angelic song. It must have cost a fortune. Couldn't you love a man who would think of a present like that?"
"Hm-m! Could you?"
"Oh, I'm joking, of course," "Bob" said, seriously. "We are merely business associates, Mr. Gray and I, but he has the faculty of taking his personality into his business, and that's why I know he is bound to make a great success."
"Some day," Nelson said, with an effort at lightness, "when we have finished with this infernal oil excitement and the fever has subsided, perhaps I'll have a chance to—well, to play ladies' man. It won't last long—"
"I'm sure it won't," laughed the girl. "You'd never make a go of it, Henry."
"I mean this boom won't last. These fools think it will, but it won't. While it does last, we busy men have no time for anything else, no chance to think of anything, no room in our minds—" The speaker stared gloomily into space. He shook his head. "When a fellow is worried about important matters, he neglects the little things."
"To me that is the tragedy of this oil excitement. It devours everything fine in us. I wonder if the 'little things' of life aren't, after all, the most important. Mind you, I'm not hinting—I don't want your attentions—I wouldn't have time for them, anyhow, for I'm just as feverish as anybody else. But in the midst of all these new concerns, these sudden millions, this overnight success, our ambitious schemes, we are forgetting the things that really count. Gentleness, courtesy, love, home, children: they're pretty big, Henry. Candy and roses and yellow canaries, too. But "—the speaker rose, briskly—"I didn't come here to talk about them; I came here to sell you an oil well. Sorry you can't take it."
When she had gone Nelson sat in a frowning study for some time. So, it was not all a bad dream. What could be Gray's object in buying acreage adjoining his? Was it faith in his, Nelson's, judgment, a desire to ride to success on the tail of his enemy's kite, or did it mean a war of offsets, drilling operations the instant a well came in? More likely the latter, if the maniac really meant what he had said. That promised to be an expensive and a hazardous undertaking on Gray's part; that was playing the game on a scale too big for the fellow's limited resources, and yet—it might be well to study the maps. Yes, and it was like Gray's effrontery to pay deliberate court to "Bob" Parker, knowing his rival's feelings toward the girl. Another insult! The upstart certainly possessed an uncanny dexterity in pricking armor joints. But what if Gray were in earnest? "Bob" had become a wonderfully desirable creature, she was the most attractive girl in Wichita Falls—
It was a thought that had not previously presented itself to Henry Wilson, and it disturbed him now. He was glad, indeed, that he had sent to Ranger for that field man.
In and around the office of McWade & Stoner these were busy days, what with a couple of new wildcat promotions and a well going down on semiproven ground—that lease which cornered into the Nelson holdings, and to which Stoner had called attention. It had been easy to sell stock in the latter enterprise, and now the deeper went the hole, the higher rose the hopes of the promoters. Stoner himself was directing operations, and he had named the well "Avenger Number One."
To-day he and his partner had been listening to Mallow, who concluded an earnest discourse with these words:
"Nelson and her are pardners in one deal and he's stuck on her. If anybody can put it over, she's the one."
"If he buys that well it'll be the biggest laugh this town ever had," McWade declared.
"Buy it? A hundred and fifty barrels in the heart of settled production for seventy-five thousand? I bet he'll buy it."
"Think the boss will stand for that kind of a deal?"
"Why not? They can't hang it on him, and Heaven knows I'm honest."
"He said 'nothing crooked'—"
Mallow snorted. "Say, I bet you believe in Santa Claus! Gray's a great man, and what makes him great is that he does his own crooked work."
Stoner was inclined to agree with Mallow's measure of their associate. "That's how I got him figgered. His honesty talk didn't go far with me, and I don't believe he'll kick at anything. He's willing to pay any price to break this banker, but you can't bankrupt a feller unless you rip his coin loose; you can't ask him to please loosen. If we make a well of the Avenger we'll force him to shoot maybe a hundred thousand right away, and that may cramp him for a while; but suppose he makes the turn and hits it like we do? We've made him that much stronger, haven't we? Gray plans to keep him spending faster than he can get it in, and that's all right—if it works, but if Mallow can bilk him for seventy-five thousand at one fell swipe—Well, I'll bet my best gold tooth that the boss will stand the shock like a man."
"I think you've both got Gray all wrong," said McWade. "He's too smart to be crooked."
This was a statement so absurd that Mallow proceeded to riddle it. It was, upon its face, a contradiction, for none but smart men could be crooked, and the laws of logic proved the converse to be equally true.
Stoner sat in frowning silence while the argument raged, but he broke in finally: "I've always wanted to pull a real salting job, just to show how easy it is to gyp the cagy ones—not an oil-can job like this, but something big. This looks like the piscological moment."
"Lay off, I tell you!" McWade cried. "We're a legitimate firm,' solid as Gibraltar and safe as a church.' That's our motto, and we've got to live up to it. I came into Wichita on the roof of a Pullman; I'm going out in a drawing-room. Me and sin are strangers."
"Nothing sinful about my idea, Mac. One fall or two won't break Nelson; we've got to spill him hard. If we can pick up a few pennies ourselves in the process, why, that's legitimate. The dealer is entitled to his percentage, ain't he? Now listen. Everybody's getting set for a big play over in Arkansas, as you know—salting away cheap acreage and waiting for some of the wildcats to come in. Well, last year I had a tool dresser from up there; nice boy, but he got pneumonia and it turned into the 'con,' so I took him home. He's back on his farm now, coughing his life away and doing a little bootleggin' to keep body and cough together. He's got a big place, but it's all run down and so poor you couldn't raise a dust on it with a bellows. It would be a Christian act to help him sell that goat pasture for enough to go to some nice warm country where he'd get well and they couldn't extradite him."
"Of course, if you've got a scheme that is perfectly safe," McWade ventured, charitably, "and our bit was worth it—"
"I been thinking we might help the boy sell that farm to Nelson."
Mallow, too, was curious. "Nelson's lungs are healthy; he wouldn't cough a nickel unless the place had oil on it."
"I meant to tell you it's got oil on it. Best indications I ever saw. There's a drinking well, only the water ain't fit to drink till you skim off the 'rainbow.' Then there's a wonderful seepage into the creek. You can see the oil oozing out from under the bank, in one place. Certainly is pretty."
Stoner's hearers were intent; they exchanged puzzled glances.
Mallow was the first to speak. "Come on. What's the joker? I ain't saying you'd murder the guy for that farm, but if it's as good as that he'd of died of the plague or something, and left it to you long before this."
"In a way, I'm getting ahead of my story," Stoner continued, imperturbably. "The oil ain't actually visible, but it will be if, when, and as, Henry Nelson gets ready to buy it."
"Easy enough to pour oil into a water well, I suppose, but that wouldn't fool a child. As for salting running water, a creek—show me."
"There's a lot for you to learn in this business, Mallow. The point is, can we lay Nelson against a bunch of acreage like that?"
"You could lay me against it if it looks like you say it does," McWade declared.
"This bootlegger, being half dead and non compost mentis, would help put it over with a man like Nelson; he'd set him in a draught while he was signing the option. I'll guarantee the seepage to last for a month, even if he has the well bailed out every day, and the creek will carry oil for half a mile."
"Would your one-lunged friend know how to play in?"
"Would he? It was his idea, and all that kept us off of it last year was the fact that the oil would have to be hauled about thirty miles, and we didn't have the price between us to hire a truck."
For some time the trio discussed the various angles of Stoner's proposition, endeavoring if possible to devise some natural way of intriguing the interest of Henry Nelson. On this score McWade had fewer apprehensions than did his companions, his contention being that it mattered not how the matter was brought to the banker's attention so long as the property would stand investigation. Nelson was bound to be suspicious, anyhow, and a sale depended entirely upon the character of the oil showing. McWade's coolness toward the enterprise, it transpired, was occasioned not by a loftier sense of rectitude than his associates displayed, but by lingering doubts as to the profits involved.
Not until Brick declared that his tubercular friend would accede to any arrangement he saw fit to make did the junior partner fall in with the proposal. "If it's a fair, square deal all around, I'm for it," the latter finally agreed. "But we can't afford to have any guy squawking that we did him up—especially if he's only got one lung to holler with. We're a legitimate firm, and we've got to treat our clients right. I think a fifty-fifty split would be reasonable."
Stoner, too, thought that would be about right, and so it was left.
Mallow was highly enthusiastic. "This will be a great surprise to Gray," he said, with animation. "It's mighty lucky he's got a gang like us to help him."
To learn that her mountain retreat had been invaded and that she had been spied upon filled Ma Briskow with dismay, but when Allie found fault with her behavior the elder woman burned with resentment.
"We're queer enough," the girl said, "without you cutting up crazy and making folks talk. If you want to dance, for goodness' sake hire somebody to lear—to teach you, same as I did."
Mrs. Briskow had silently endured her daughter's criticism up to this point, but now her lips tightened and there was a defiant tilt to her head.
"Who says I want to dance?" she demanded. "I can dance good enough."
"What was you up to the other day? That Delamater man said you was acting plumb nutty."
"I wasn't doin' anything."
"Where do you go every day, Ma? You stay around nice and quiet till Miz' Ring or I look the other way, then—you're gone."
"I kinda—visit around."
"Who d'you visit with? You don't know anybody. Nobody ever speaks to us. You ain't in earnest about those fairies and things, are you?"
"It ain't anybody's business where I go or what I do," Ma declared, in sullen exasperation. "I ain't bothering anybody, am I?"
"Don't say 'ain't,' say 'isn't.'"
For once in her patient life the mother flamed into open rebellion. "Don't 'don't' me!" she cried. "You're gettin' the 'don't' habit off Miz' Ring an' nothin' I say or do is right any more. You mind your own 'isn'ts' an' I'll handle my 'ain'ts.' I got places where I go an' things I do an' I don't bother nobody. I guess we got enough money so I can do things I want to, as long as I don't bother nobody."
"Why don't you take Pa along? He'd go, then people—"
"Mind your own business!" the old woman snapped. She flounced out of the room, leaving Allie amazed and indignant at this burst of temper.
That day Ma Briskow abandoned her mountain fastness. She took her faithful retainers with her and led them farther up the ravine to a retreat that was truly inaccessible. She moved them, bag and baggage. Of course, there was a scene; the children cried, the women wailed, the men wept. But she told them that traitors had betrayed their hiding place to the dastardly Duke of Dallas, and any moment might bring his cutthroat crew upon them. Some of the younger bloods were for remaining and selling their lives dearly, but Ma would not hear to it.
It was quite an undertaking to move a whole nomad tribe, for there were all the household belongings, the cattle, the sheep, the goats, the milk-white Arabian steeds, the butter and eggs and homemade preserves, and all the paraphernalia of a warlike people. It is surprising how stuff accumulates in a mountain fastness. But she managed the retreat with conspicuous ability. Ma led the long caravan into the bed of a running stream, so that there would remain not a single footprint to guide pursuers, then she sat in her saddle and gazed back at the silent camping place.
Trap her, eh? Come upon her unprepared, would they? Ha! ha! She laughed scornfully and tossed her head of midnight hair as she pictured the duke's rage at finding he had been foiled again, and by a mere slip of a girl!
This was a good game and exciting, too. Fetch Pa Briskow along, indeed! Why, these wild mountain folk would kill him; in their present mood they would rend a stranger hip from thigh. If they dreamed, for instance, that she, their queen, was married—
Here was a new thought, and Ma's imagination leaped at it. If these passionate people suspected that she had contracted a secret marriage with the—the Earl of Briskow, their jealousy would know no bounds. They would probably slay Pa. Ma shuddered at the horrid vision of what would happen to Pa. This was truly thrilling.
Later on in the morning Mrs. Briskow discovered that she possessed another amazing accomplishment—viz., the ability to walk on a ceiling, upside down, like a fly. It was extremely amusing, for it enabled a person to see right into everything. Pa and Allie looked very funny from above.
The next day, when she stealthily slipped out of her French window, she found Calvin Gray idly rocking on the veranda. He welcomed her appearance and pretended not to see her embarrassment at the meeting; he was glad of this chance for a visit with her alone. Perhaps she was going for a walk and would take him along?
Ma was annoyed and suspicious. She liked Gray, but—she was as wary as a trout and she refused to be baited. She would allow him to walk with her—but lead him to the retreat? Well, hardly.
The man was piqued, for suspicion irked him. It was a tribute to his patience and to his knack of inspiring confidence that Ma finally told him about Allie's criticism and her resentment thereat.
"I got my own way of enjoyin' myself, an' I don't care what people think," she declared, with some heat.
"Quite right. It's none of their darned business, Ma."
"She thinks I'm kind of crazy an'—I guess I am. But it comes from livin' so long in the heat an' the drought an' allus wantin' things I couldn't have—allus bein' sort of thirsty in the head. When you want things all your life an' never have 'em, you get so you play you've got 'em."
The man nodded. "You had a hard time. Your life was starved. I'm so glad the money came in time."
"You see, I never had time to play, or a good place to play in, even when I was a little girl. But this is like—like books I've read."
"Are these mountains what you thought they would be?"
"Oh, they're better!" Ma breathed. "It's too bad Allie's got to spoil ever'thing."
"I shall speak to her. We won't let her spoil anything. Now tell me how you play."
But Ma flushed faintly, and for some time longer she refused her confidence. It didn't matter; it was all an old woman's foolishness; nobody would understand. Gray was not insistent; nevertheless, before long they were on their way toward the glen.
It was a glorious morning, the forest was beautiful, and as the two strolled through it Ma's companion told her many things about trees and flowers and birds and bees that she had never dreamed of. Now Gray's natural history was shockingly inaccurate, nevertheless it was interesting, and it was told in a manner both whimsical and sprightly. He made up outrageous stories, and he took no shame in seriously recounting experiences of his own that Ma knew were wholly imaginary. She told him, finally:
"Sakes alive! You're as crazy as I am."
This he denied with spirit. Forests were enchanted places, and trolls dwelt in the mountains. There was no question about that; most people never took time to see them, that was all. Now as for him, he had actually beheld naiads and dryads, nixies and pixies, at play—at least he had practically been upon the point of seeing them. Ma, herself, must have come across places they had just left, but probably she had lacked the patience to await their return or the faith to woo them into being. There were little woods people, too, no bigger than your thumb, whose drinking goblets were acorn cups, and whose plates were shiny leaves. He showed her how to set a fairy tablecloth with her handkerchief and with toadstools for seats.
In a reckless burst of confidence Ma told him how it felt to walk upside down, like a fly, and to go bounding through the woods like a thistledown. Gray had never tried it, but he was interested.
Then, finally, alas! the inconsistency of woman! she told him all about her hidden band of mountaineers.
Now this was something he could understand. This was more his speed. He insisted upon making the personal acquaintance of those bold followers of hers and upon hearing the whole sad story of the Princess Pensacola. The history of her struggle against the wicked Duke of Dallas moved him; he wove new details of his own into it, and before Ma knew it he was actually playing the part of the duke.
The duke, it appeared, was a hard and haughty man, but at heart he was not all bad; when he had listened to the story of his victim's wrongs and more fully appreciated the courage, the devotion of her doughty followers, he was touched. For her sake, and theirs, he proposed a truce to this ruinous struggle. What kind of a truce? Well, he refused entirely to renounce his claim to the throne, but—they might share it. He was a handsome man and no wickeder than the general run of dukes; he would make a becoming husband to the beauteous princess, and if she set her mind to it she could probably make a better person of him. Thus would the warring factions be united, thus would the blessings of peace descend—
But the princess raised her slim, jeweled hand, and spoke thus: "Too late, Your Honor! I been married to His Royal Highness the Earl of Briskow, and it serves you right the way you done both of us."
The duke fell into a great rage at this. He refused to believe it, and threatened to annul the marriage.
"Oh, you can't do that," tittered the princess. "We was married by the Royal Justice of the Peace and—we got two children."
Here was a blow! The duke was crushed, until a happy thought came to him. If cruel fate prevented him from claiming the Princess Pensacola for a bride he would take her for a mother. He had always wanted a mother, anyhow; lack of maternal care it was that accounted for his wildness—it was enough to ruin any duke—and mothers were much nicer than wives. They were much harder to get, also.
"Lord! I wish you meant it!" Ma exclaimed, in a matter-of-fact tone. "I wish Allie was a real princess. Mebbe—"
Gray broke in with a laugh. "There! You've spoiled the play. The duke has fled."
Mrs. Briskow's wrinkled face beamed. "Think of a gre't big man like you playin' 'pretend' with a foolish old woman like me! I thought you had more sense."
"I live in my own land of 'pretend,' just as you do. Why, I have a real princess of my own."
Gray nodded. "The Princess of Wichita Falls. Would you like to hear about her? Well, she's small and dainty, as princesses should be, and her eyes are like bluebells, Ma. They are brave, honest eyes that can laugh or cry—the sort of eyes that make a man's head swim when he looks into them too long. She carries herself like a great lady, and she's very cool and business—I mean princess-like, to men. But in reality she's just an adorable feminine creature who wants to be loved. When she laughs two deep dimples come into her cheeks—marks of royal favor. Some people may consider her too stern, too matter-of-fact, but she isn't; in her boudoir there is scent and sachet and frilly, ribbony things that nobody ever sees. And flowers from me. She loves roses best of all and she says she buries her face in them. I send her roses, mostly, so they can kiss her cheeks for me. A tiny yellow love bird in a tiny yellow cage sings her awake every morning. I taught it the song it warbles, but—she'll never understand what the little bird is trying to say."
Ma Briskow had listened with rapt attention. Now, she inquired, "Does she love you?"
"Didn't I tell you this was my game of pretense?" Gray said, gayly. "Do you really think that an adorable creature whose head is full of girlish notions and youthful ideals could care for the worldly, wicked old Duke of Dallas? I am old, Ma, and I've gone the gait."
"Pshaw! You ain't any such thing."
"Well, perhaps I'm a better lover than I believe. Who knows? Fortunately, however, it is all just an amusing game." The speaker rose and looked at his watch. "It is lunch time, Mother Briskow, and I'm famished."
As the two entered the hotel grounds, Gus and Allie hurried to meet them, and the latter exclaimed, irritably: "It's about time you showed up. We've been looking everywhere for you."
At sight of her husband's face Ma inquired, in sudden anxiety, "What's wrong, Gus?"
"It's Buddy," Allie declared.
"'Tain't serious," Briskow said. "And it is, too. He's left school—run away! Here, Mr. Gray, see what you make out of it."
Gray read aloud the letter that was handed to him, a letter from the principal of the institution that he himself had recommended, stating that Ozark had disappeared without doing the college authorities the courtesy of leaving an address. Inasmuch as he had never expressed the slightest dissatisfaction with his surroundings, the writer was at a loss to explain the reason for this disappearance. As to Ozark's safety, there was no immediate cause for apprehension, for he had taken with him three trunks of clothing, a high-powered touring car, and a Belgian police dog; but certain of the young man's exploits that had come to light since his departure aroused grave doubts in the principal's mind of his moral well-being.
"What's it mean?" the mother inquired.
"It means that Buddy has taken a vacation. How much money has he?"
"He's got plenty," Gus declared. "More 'n is good for him if—"
"If what?" Ma queried.
Gus halted; it was Allie who answered: "If he's done what we think he's done—gone away after some woman."
"Some woman?" Ma stared blankly from one face to another. "Buddy in love? Why, he never wrote me nothing about bein' in love." Reading a further message in her husband's expression, she cried, fiercely: "He's a good boy. He wouldn't take up with—with nobody that wasn't nice. What makes you think it's a girl?"
"I didn't say 'girl,' Ma, I said 'woman.' Buddy's been writin' to me and—"
"What's the difference? Mebbe he's in love with some nice young woman an' they've run away to git married. Buddy's han'some, and they got nice women everywhere—"
"Love? With all his money? And him only up to fractions?" Allegheny laughed scornfully.
Gus Briskow wiped his face with a nervous hand. "I'm 'most sick over it," he confessed. "The perfessor has written me a coupla times about him. Buddy's gone kinda wild, I guess, drinkin' an'—"