"Don't go," Gray said, as Briskow unfolded his legs and rose.
But the president of the Security National shook his head, saying: "Bookkeepin' is all Choctaw to me. I saw one statement an' I thought 'liquid assets' meant that bottle of whisky Bell left in his desk."
"Mr. Gray," the auditor announced, when they were alone, "I wish you'd ask somebody else to take this job off my hands."
"Well, somebody else could probably do it better." There was a pause. "I've known Bell Nelson all my life—"
"That is why I engaged you. You've been over these books before." Again there was an instant of silence, then into Gray's face there flashed a curious alertness. "Come!" he cried, sharply. "What is it?"
"I'm sorry to be the one to—" The auditor shrugged. "If you insist on an explanation, I suppose I shall have to tell you. Perhaps it's just as well, anyhow. They say figures don't lie, but you and I know better. I only wish they didn't."
"Have you caught them lying, here?"
"I have. And—it has made me rather ill. You'd better prepare yourself for a shock."
It was nearly an hour later that Gray telephoned to Senator Lowe, the bank's attorney, and to Bennett Swope, the latter being the only member of the board available at short notice. This done, he wrote a note to Henry Nelson. In spite of his effort to control his hand, it shook when he signed his name, and on second thought he destroyed the missive. There is something ominous about the written word. If Nelson grew suspicious, he'd never come.
Gray stepped into Gus Briskow's office and asked him to call the former vice-president, first, however, explaining exactly what he wished Gus to say. The ruse succeeded; then Gray returned to his own office. He drew a deep breath. Within him he felt a ferocious eagerness take fire, for it seemed to him that the day of reckoning had come. Henry's behavior was now easily understandable; the fellow was cringing, cowering in anticipation of a second blow. Well, the whip was in Gray's hands, and he proposed to use it ruthlessly—to sink the lash, to cut to the bone, to leave scars such as Henry had left upon him. Nor was that his only weapon. There was, for instance, Old Bell Nelson's honor. If coercion failed, there were rewards, inducements. Oh, Henry would have to speak! The Nelson fortune, or what remained for salvage from the wreck thereof, the bank itself, they were pawns which Gray could, and would, sacrifice, if necessary. His hunger for a sight of "Bob" had become unbearable. Freedom to declare his overwhelming love—and that love he knew was no immature infatuation, but the deep-set passion of a full-grown man—was worth any price he might be called upon to pay. Yes, Henry would speak the truth to-day or—for one of them, at least, there would be an end to the feud.
Gray, too, kept a revolver in his desk. He removed it and placed it in his pocket.
Buddy Briskow chose this, of all moments, to thrust his grinning visage into the door and to inquire, "Got time for me now, Mr. Gray?"
"Not now, Buddy."
"Why—almost any other time."
"I wouldn't bother you, but it's important and I—I promised a certain party—" The youth's face reddened, his smile widened vacuously.
"Later, if you don't mind."
It was plain that Buddy did mind; nevertheless, he withdrew.
When Swope and Lowe arrived, Gray could with difficulty restrain himself from blurting out the reason for his urgent summons, but he contented himself by asking them to wait in the president's office.
Henry Nelson entered the bank with his head up, with a contemptuous smile upon his lips and an easy confidence in his bearing. His hand was outstretched toward the knob of Briskow's door, when the one adjoining opened and, from the office he himself had so long occupied, Calvin Gray spoke to him.
"Please step in here, Colonel."
Nelson recoiled. "No, thank you!" he said, curtly.
"Briskow and I are amateur bankers; there is a matter upon which we need your advice."
"Indeed? Finding it isn't as easy to run a bank as a drilling rig? He said you were out, otherwise—"
"Will you come in?"
Stiffly, reluctantly, as if impelled by some force outside of himself, Nelson stepped within, but he ignored the chair that was proffered him.
Gray closed the door before saying: "The deception was mine, not Briskow's. You prefer to stand? Um-m—I appreciate your feeling of formality. I felt a bit ill at ease on the occasion of my first call here, when our positions were reversed—"
"If you got me here just to be nasty—"
"By no means. Nevertheless, it gratifies my vanity to remind you that you considered me a braggart, a bluffer, whereas—"
"I haven't changed my opinion."
"So be it. One matter, only, remains between us. I am about to ring up on the last act of our little comedy."
"Theatrical, as always, aren't you?" Nelson's lip curled.
For a moment Gray stared at the speaker curiously; his tone had altered when he said: "You're a better poker player than I thought. You're almost as good a bluffer as I am. That, by the way, is probably the last compliment I shall pay you."
"Come! I've no time to waste."
"You will soon have ample time—if not to waste, at least to meditate—"
"What do you mean by that?" The query came sharply.
"I've had an examination of the bank's books. That, as you will readily understand, explains why I sent for you."
"Why—no. I don't—"
"I wondered how you and your father got the money to keep going so long, for I discovered you were in a bad way even before I turned up. It is no longer a mystery. When you and he, as directors of the Security National, lent yourselves money, as individuals, you must have realized that you were—well, arranging ample leisure for yourselves in which to meditate upon the stringency of the banking laws—"
"Nonsense! That's n-nothing—nothing serious." Nelson's ruddy color had slowly vanished; with uncertain hand he reached for the nearest chair, and upon it he leaned as he continued, jerkily: "Irregular, perhaps—I'll admit it was irregular, but—there's nothing wrong—Oh, you'll make it look as bad as possible, I dare say! But you don't understand the circumstances. Anyhow, father is getting it straightened out; all he needs is time. We'll be able to handle it, all right. We're good, you know, perfectly good—"
"You're broke! Everybody else knows it, if you don't. 'Irregular'! Ha! There's a choice of words!" The speaker laughed silently. "It is an 'irregularity' that carries with it free board and lodging at the state's expense."
An incoherent protest issued from Nelson's throat. When next he managed to make himself audible, his words were such as really to amaze his hearer. "I didn't do it," he cried, in a panic-stricken voice. "It was father's idea! You had us crowded—there was no other way. I warned him—"
"Wait a minute! You blame it on him?" Gray's inquiry was harsh, incredulous. After a momentary pause his lips moved, but for once he stammered, his ready tongue refused its duty. He exploded, finally, with an oath; he jerked open a drawer in his desk. From his pocket he removed his revolver, flung it inside, then jammed the drawer back into place with a crash. "You—rat!" he exclaimed. He turned his back upon Henry Nelson and made a circuit of the little room.
"It's a thing you and I can easily fix up," the latter feebly insisted. "Now that personal matter of yours—Perhaps I could help you reopen it somehow, clear it up."
"Give and take, I say. I'm willing to do anything I can, if—"
"There won't be any 'ifs'! No conditions whatever."
"Is that so?" Nelson flamed forth, in a momentary explosion of resentment. "If you think I intend to stand the brunt of this, you're crazy. I can't afford to figure in a scandal—banking scandal—like this. I'm a young man. Bell has had his day. He's old. You can hush this up. There are lots of ways to do that. Keep me out of it and—and I'll do what's right by you; I'll do anything you say."
"You'll do that, anyhow," Gray replied, in a voice that grated. He flung himself into his desk chair and, seizing pen and paper, he began to write rapidly, shakily.
"I want to see what I'm signing," Nelson warned. A growl was his answer.
For an interminable time the only sound in the office was the scratching of that pen. When at last it came to an end, Gray rose, thrust the loose sheets into Nelson's hand, then, indicating the vacant chair, said:
The wretched recipient of this curt command read the lines carefully. He read them twice, thrice, for his mind no longer functioned clearly. He raised a sick face, finally, and shook his head.
"Wouldn't I be a fool?" he queried.
"Listen, you—" Gray's body was shaking, his words were uneven. "I'm sorry for Bell, but not for you. I'll never forget nor forgive what you did to me. Nothing can undo that. Disgrace clings to a man. You're going to get yours, now, and you can't squirm out of it, or lie out of it, no matter how you try, for I sha'n't let you. You're ruined, discredited, blown up, but—I don't think I want to send you to the penitentiary. I'd rather see you walking the streets with dandruff on your collar. I'd rather keep you to look at. Anyhow, you'll have to sign that."
"If you'll guarantee to keep this bank matter quiet—if you'll protect me, I'll sign. Otherwise, you can go to hell. We'll beat it out, somehow. We can do it."
Inflexibly Gray asserted: "I'm going to turn you over, whether or no. But I'll help Bell get the money to repay those loans. He'll probably manage to save himself and—save you, too."
"I won't do it!" Nelson flung down the pen. "Not on those conditions. You can't bulldoze me. It's your day to crow, but, I warn you, don't push me too far."
Gray voiced an epithet. It was low pitched, but its explosive force, the impelling fury back of it, fairly caused the room to vibrate. He was white of lip, his rage had reached the foaming point.
"Don't make me lay hands on you—choke you into it," he cried, hoarsely. "If you do, by God, I'll finish you!"
Like a man fighting some hypnotic influence stronger than his will, Henry Nelson took up the pen and signed his name waveringly. The next moment Gray smote the door to Briskow's office a heavy blow and, as it flew open, he barked:
"Come in here! All three of you!" He stood aside as Gus, Bennett Swope, and Senator Lowe entered. "Yonder is a statement which I want you to read and witness. When you've done that, I'm going to tell you why Henry Nelson signed it. The rest will be up to you."
It was midafternoon. Swope and Lowe had left the bank. Briskow drew a deep breath and said, with genuine relief: "I'm glad that's over. We can handle the debt between us, an', after all, Old Bell's a pretty good citizen. As for Henry, I s'pose he'll wiggle out of it, somehow. I dunno as I'd of been so easy on him if I'd been in your place."
"I'll tell you why I was easy on him," Gray confessed. "I'm tired of fighting; I'm worn out. I've won my point, and he'll carry the sort of load I've been carrying. But there is this difference: for him there will be no vindication at the end." Taking from his pocket Nelson's statement, he stared at it, then slowly his face lightened. "I was blind mad at first. I felt as if I couldn't keep my hands off him. It was such a dirty trick he did me and so reasonless! He had no excuse whatever for injuring me, Gus. However, I suppose most quarrels sprout from tiny seeds. Well, I'm square with the game! I—I'm afraid, even yet, that it's all a dream. I've wanted to yell—" The speaker chuckled; the chuckle grew to a laugh. "There's magic in this document, Gus, old boy. I've grown young all at once."
"You needn't of took it so hard. Us fellers would have stood by you if you'd turned out to be a horse thief. Texas men are like that."
"You proved it. But that wasn't enough. A man's business associates will frequently overlook a lot more than their wives and daughters will overlook. There's a certain loyalty that doesn't apply outside of the office." Gray rose and filled his lungs. "D'you know why I felt this thing so keenly? Why I fought so long? Of course you don't, for I've held out on you. Fact! I've held out on my partner—had a secret from him. Now then, steel yourself for a surprise. I'm suffering from Buddy's complaint, only ten times aggravated!"
"What?" Briskow stared up at the animated countenance above him. "You thinkin' about gettin' married?"
"I'm thinking about nothing else. That's what ails me. Why, Gus, you've no idea what a perfectly charming person I can be when—when I can be what I am. I thought I was too old and too blase ever to become seriously interested in a woman, above all in a girl, but—Do you remember when Ma and Allie came to Dallas that first time? Something happened about then to upset all my ideas."
Briskow's sun-parched face slowly lightened, his bright, inquisitive eyes grew bluer, brighter. "I'm—mighty glad! I allus hoped—" He tried to finish his sentence, then shook his head and murmured, huskily, "Mighty glad!"
Here was a marvel, a miracle, for which he had never dared even hope. He thought of Allie and a lump came into his throat. She had reached the stars. His girl! he would be mighty glad, too—
Gray was speaking, and in his voice was a new, vibrant quality, a new vigor. "Now you'll know why this is the biggest day of my life; why I thought those men would never go. I'm shaking all over, Gus. You'll have to run the bank for a while; I'm too young and irresponsible. I'm going out to buy a hoop and a jumping rope and a pair of roller skates." Again he laughed, boyishly; then, with a slap that knocked the breath from Briskow's lungs, he walked lightly into his own office and seized his hat.
For a long time the father sat at his big, empty desk, staring, smiling into space. This would make Ma well. Money wasn't altogether a worry, after all; it bought things that nothing else could buy—stars and—and things.
From the expressions upon the faces Gray passed in leaving the bank, he realized that his own must wear a grin; but, in spite of his dignified effort to wipe it off, he felt it widening. Well, this was his day to grin; his day to dance and caper. People were too grave, anyhow. They should feel free to vent their joy in living. Why act as if the world were a place of gloom and shadow? Why shouldn't they hop, skip, and jump to and from business, if so inclined? He visualized the streets of the city peopled with pedestrians, old and young, fat and thin, thus engaged, and he laughed aloud. Nevertheless, it was a good idea, and when he became mayor, or perhaps the junior Senator from Texas, he'd advocate public playgrounds for grown-ups. "Bob" would help him put it through. There was a girl who would never grow old. They would grow young together. He caught sight of his reflection in a shop window and slowed down his gait, telling himself that pending the time his new idea was definitely planted it might be well to walk in the old-fashioned manner. Men of substance, bankers, for instance, shouldn't rush through the streets as if going to a fire; they shouldn't dash over crossings and take curbstones as if they were hurdles. It wasn't being done. No reason, however, why a banker shouldn't throw his shoulders back and walk springily upon his toes.
When he beheld the familiar painted sign, "Tom and Bob Parker. Real Estate and Insurance," he paused. The mere sight of the little wooden building, the name, gave him an odd shortness of breath. It was weeks since he had been here.
He realized of a sudden that he had brought nothing with him; no gift, not even flowers. But there was enough to talk about. She'd forget that. What a shower of gifts he would pour upon her—and upon Old Tom, too! Good Old Tom! Tom had wanted to believe. Tom and he would be great pals. They couldn't help being pals with just one thing, between them, to love; one thing in all the world!
It was a disappointment to find the office empty, except for the father himself, but Gray began with a rush, "Well, I told you I'd clear myself, and—here I am, walking on air."
"You did it, eh? That's good news."
"We had a show-down at the bank. Henry Nelson and I locked horns and—But here! Read what he signed. That cleans the slate. He'll do anything further that may be necessary, officially. Where's "Bob"?"
"They're fishin' for a bit in one of your Avenger wells. She's out there."
"So? I'd forgotten."
"Did you see—? Did Buddy have a talk with you? To-day, I mean?"
"Buddy? Oh, Buddy Briskow! I saw him for a moment only. She'll be back soon, I dare say?"
Tom Parker stirred; it was a moment before he spoke, then it was with apparent irrelevance that he said: "I'm sorry you and he didn't have a good talk. 'Bob' asked him to see you—sent him there a-purpose." The sight of Gray's smiling, eager, uncomprehending face caused the old man's steady gaze to waver. He cleared his throat. "Buddy's a fine boy."
"Finest in the world! I claim responsibility for him, in a way. He's part mine." Gray laughed; his eyes sparkled.
"Him and 'Bob' are out there together. They've been together a lot, Mr. Gray. Both of 'em young, that-away—"
"Of course. I knew you'd both like—" Some quality in Tom's voice, some reluctant evasiveness to his eyes, bore a belated message to the younger man—snapped his chain of thought—dried the words upon his lips. Into his eyes leaped a sudden, strained incredulity. Sharply, he cried, "What do you mean?" Then, after an instant, "Why did he want to see me?" The two men gazed squarely at each other for the first time. "My God! Why—that's absurd! I—I brought him here. He's just a boy!"
"And she's just a girl, Mr. Gray."
The younger man shrank as if at a blow. He closed his eyes; he raised a shaking hand to his face, which was slowly assuming the color of ashes. "That's too—rottenly unfair!" he said, faintly. "I brought him here—made a man of him. Of course he doesn't know—" His eyes opened; eagerly he ran on: "Why, Tom, it's just the boy and girl of it! Puppy love! You know how that is."
"I didn't notice how things was going till if was too late. We might as well talk frankly, Mr. Gray. Prob'ly it's well you saw me first, eh? Well, when I understood where they was heading, I worried a lot—after what you said that day, understand? But those two! Pshaw! It was like they had known each other always. It was like 'Bob's' mother and me when we first met; her beautiful and fine and educated, and me rough and awkward. Only Buddy's a better boy than I was. He's got more in him. I s'pose all womenfolks have that mother feeling that makes 'em yearn over the unlikeliest fellers." Parker looked appealingly at his stricken hearer, then quickly dropped his eyes, for Gray's countenance was like that of a dying man—or of a man suffering the stroke of a surgeon's knife.
"After all, it's youth. You're a good deal older than 'Bob,' and I s'pose you sort of dazzled her. She likes you. She thinks you're great. You kinda thrill her, but—I don't believe she ever dreamed you was actually—that you actually cared for her. You've got a grand way, you know, and she ain't a bit conceited about herself. Why, I know she never figgered it that way, because she made Buddy promise to tell you the first thing; sent him to the bank a-purpose, thinking you'd be so glad on his account."
"Then they've—settled it between them?"
Tom nodded gravely. "She told me last night. And from the way she told me, I know it's not just boy and girl love. She's been singing like a bird all day. And Buddy! He's breathless. I know how he feels. I couldn't draw a full breath for two weeks after 'Bob's' mother—"
Gray uttered a wordless, gasping cry. He moved unsteadily toward the door, then paused with his hand upon the knob. Tom Parker was surprised when, after a moment, he saw the man's shoulders shake and heard him utter a thin, cackling laugh. "Time is a grim old joker, isn't he? No way of beating him, none at all. Now I thought I was young, but—Lucky I found you here and spared my vanity." He turned, exposing a face strangely contorted. "You won't mention my foolish mistake, will you? No use hurting the ones we love. You know how we feel—fatherly. That's it, fatherly love. I was a silly old fool. They'll be happy. Young people like that—" The speaker choked. "Young people—Well, adios, old man!" He opened the door and walked blindly forth.
Calvin Gray did not return to the bank. He went straight to his hotel and, as soon as he could sufficiently control himself to do so, he telephoned Gus Briskow, telling him that he intended to leave town. Then he began mechanically to pack his bag. He moved like a man in a trance, for the blow had fallen so suddenly as to numb him; his only impulse was to escape, to hide himself from these people who, of a sudden, had become hateful. His city of dreams had collapsed. The ruins, as they lay, meant nothing as yet, for his mind refused to envisage them and he could see them only as they had stood. He groped amid a hopeless confusion of thought—at one moment bewildered, piteously hurt, at the next suffering a sense of shameful betrayal. He had grown old and dull and feeble, too, and for the time being he was incapable of feeling the full force of a strong man's resentment. This surprised him vaguely.
Soon, however, like kindling fires among the ruins, his fury rose—fury at himself, at Buddy, at Barbara—and in the heat of those scorching flames he writhed. She had loved him. He'd swear to that. He had swayed her, overpowered her; he had lacked only the courage to trust his instinct. Coward's luck! It served him right. He had held her in his arms and had let her slip through; her lips had been raised to his, and he had refused to press them. Imbecile!
He groaned; he tore the collar and the tie from his neck, for they were choking him. Old, eh? Too old! That was the grimmest jest of all, for at the mere thought of Barbara's lips unruly forces took possession of him; he experienced a fierce, resistless vigor such as he had never felt in his younger days. It was a dreadful, an unappeasable yearning of soul and body, and when the paroxysm had passed, it left him weak. He sank into a chair and lay there stupid, inert, until again those fires began to lick at him and again he twisted in dumb agony. Buddy Briskow! Buddy, of all people! That lout; that awkward simpleton, who owed him everything! But Buddy was young!
Gray heard himself laughing in hoarse derision. He rose and tramped heavily around his room, and, as he went, he crushed and ripped and mutilated whatever his hands encountered. His slow, deliberate, murderous rage demanded some such outlet. All the while he felt within himself two conflicting impulses, heard two voices: the one voice shouted at him to search out Buddy and visit upon him the punishment warranted by a base betrayal; the other told him jeeringly to lay the scourge upon his own shoulders and endure the pain, since he had betrayed himself. His mind was like a battle ground, torn, up-heaved, obscured by a frightful murk—he remembered a night in France, a black night of rumbling, crashing terror, when, as now, the whole world rocked and tumbled. Some remnant of self-control induced him to lock his door and pocket the key, for Buddy might come. He probably would look him up, all grins and smirks and giggles, to tell him the glorious news, to acclaim the miracle. That would be too much.
One thing was certain, there was no safety except in flight, ignominious, cowardly flight... After all, how could Buddy have known? He was a good boy, and he had shown his love, his loyalty, in a thousand ways. Gray hated him at this moment, but, more bitterly even, he hated himself. It was fate.... He fell to cursing aloud, but there was no relief in that, and again the appalling irony of the situation silenced him. He had deified himself, set himself upon a high place, bent men and affairs to his own ends, until he had acquired a godlike belief in his power to accomplish all things. His victory had been complete. He had won all—except the one thing he most desired, the very fruit of victory.
Some time later he heard Buddy come whistling merrily down the hall and knock at his door. Gray cowered in his chair, listening in breathless dread until the footsteps retreated. When he rose he moved about stealthily.
When night came he took his bag and slunk out of the hotel, for it seemed that men must surely know what a fool he had made of himself. It would have been a relief to feel that he was leaving never to return; but even that was denied him, for, after his first panic, the truth had come home. He could not run away. He had forged chains for his own limbs. Like a tethered mustang he could plunge only to the end of his rope. Friendship, again! There was simple, trustful, faithful Gus Briskow. And the bank. God, what a mess things were in! Gray knew he would have to return, have to see "Bob" and Buddy day after day, month after month, and the prospect was too distressing to dwell upon. Again his mind grew weary, baffled; he experienced a wretched physical illness... Where to go, where to hide until his sickness had passed? That was the question.
For the first time he appreciated the full extent of his loneliness; his utter lack of resource in a crisis like this. Most men, however solitary, lay by material things for themselves, build homes and surround themselves with personal possessions from which, or amid which, they can gain some sort of solace in times of trial. But he had not fashioned so much as a den into which he could creep and lick his wounds. Once he had left his hotel room behind him he was in the open and without cover. Not a single soul cared whether he came or went, not another door stood ajar for him. And he had planned so much upon having a home, a real home—But he could not trust himself to think much along that line; it induced an absurd desire to weep at his plight. It made him feel like a child lost in a wood. That was silly, just an emotional reaction; nevertheless, the impulse was real and caused him to yearn poignantly for human comfort.
He thought of Ma Briskow, finally. She was human; she had a heart. And Dallas was a sort of homey place; anyhow, the bellboys at the Ajax knew and liked him. That was probably because he had tipped them handsomely, but what of that? If they'd be kind to him now he'd tip them more handsomely than ever. Lonely men—old ones—must expect to pay for what they get. He bought a ticket to Dallas.
Ma Briskow's eyes were dim; nevertheless, she saw the change in Calvin Gray when, late the following afternoon, he came to see her.
"Land sakes!" she exclaimed, in a shocked voice. "Pa never said you was ailin'. Why, Mr. Gray!"
"I'm not really ill," he told her, wearily, "just old. I've had a bad night." Seating himself beside her couch, he took her hand in his and made her tell him all about herself. He had brought her an armful of flowers, as usual, and extravagant gifts for her adornment—giving, it seemed, was his unconscious habit. While she admired them with ecstatic "Ohs!" and "Ahs!" he busied himself with bowls and vases, but Ma noted his fumbling uncertainty of touch and the evident effort with which he kept up his assumption of good cheer. She told him, finally:
"Something mighty bad has happened to you, Mr. Gray."
He gazed at her mutely, then nodded.
"Is it something about the—the Princess of Wichita Falls?"
"Tse! Tse! Tse!" It was a sympathetic cluck. "Was she a wicked princess?" The query was gently put, but it deeply affected the man. He tried to smile, failed, then like a forlorn little boy he came and bowed his head beneath her hand.
"I knew you'd understand, Mother Briskow, so I—I ran to you with my hurt, just as I used to run to my Mother Gray." After a while he continued in a smothered voice: "She isn't a wicked princess. She didn't mean to hurt me and—that's what makes it hurt so deep. She tumbled the old duke's castle down upon his head; tumbled the old duke out of his dreams. He isn't a duke any longer."
"He'll allus be a duke," Mrs. Briskow firmly declared. "He was born that way."
"At any rate, he's a sad old duke now; all his conceit is gone. You see, he was a vain old gentleman, and his courtiers used to tell him he was splendid, handsome—They said he looked as handsome as a king, and by and by he began to think he must be a king. His enemies sneered at this and said he was neither duke nor king, but a—a mountebank. That made him furious, so he went to war with them, and, by Jove, he fought pretty well for an old fellow! Anyhow, he licked 'em. When they fell down and begged for mercy he knew he was indeed a great person—greater even than he had suspected and worthy of any princess in the land."
"Pshaw! Ain't a duke higher than a princess?"
"No, Ma. Not higher than this princess. Her father made all the laws. She is very noble and very good. Good princesses are scarce and—and so, of course, they're very high. But the Duke of Dallas didn't stop to think of that. He told himself that he was so strong and so rich and so desirable that she would be flattered at his notice. He got all dressed up and went to call on her, and, on the way, whenever he looked into a shop window, he didn't see the buns and the candies and the dolls inside; all he saw was his own reflection. It looked so magnificent that he strutted higher and thought how proud he was going to make her.
"I guess that was the trouble with the old duke all along; he had never looked deeply enough to see what was inside. Anyhow, what do you think, Ma? While he'd been off at war conquering people and making them acknowledge that he was a king, the little princess had fallen in love with—with his nephew. Nice boy, that nephew, and the duke thought a lot of him."
Ma Briskow's hand, which had been slowly stroking Gray's bent head, ceased its movement; she drew a sharp breath.
"There happened to be an old mirror in the princess's boudoir, and while the duke was waiting for her he saw himself in it. He saw himself just as he was, not as he had looked in the shop windows, for it was a truthful mirror and it told everything. My! That was a bad moment for the Duke of Dallas, when he saw that he wasn't young and beautiful, but old and wrinkled and—funny. That was bad enough, but when he looked again and saw the princess whom he loved in the arms of his handsome nephew, why, he gave up. All his fine garments fell off and he realized with shame that, after all, he was only the withered mountebank.
"When he got home his castle had collapsed. There wasn't a stone standing, so he ran away—ran to his mother."
"Oh, Mr. Gray!" Ma Briskow quavered. "I could cry. An' after all you done for Buddy!"
The man shook his head vigorously, still with his face hidden. "It isn't Buddy. It's youth. Youth needs no fine adornment, no crown, no victory."
"What you goin' to do?" she asked him.
"Go on playing the duke, I suppose; rebuild the castle the best way I can. That's the hard part. If I could run away and forget, but—I can't. The old duke walled himself in. He must grin and strut and keep people from guessing that he's only a fraud until he can find a hole in the wall through which he can creep."
There was a long silence, then Ma inquired: "Would you like to tell me something about the little princess? Sometimes it helps, to talk."
"You're a duke, an' the best one that ever lived, Mr. Gray. You can't fool me; I've met too many of 'em. That lookin'-glass lied! Real dukes an' kings an' such people don't get old. It's only common folks. There's lots of magic, the world's full of it, an' your castle is goin' up again."
"After a fashion, perhaps"—Gray raised his head and smiled crookedly—"but it will never be a home, and that's what I wanted most of all. Do you think I'm very weak, very silly to come to you for a little mothering?"
"That's the kind of children mothers love best," the old woman said, then she drew him down to her and laid her cheek against his.
"There! I've made you cry," he exclaimed, reproachfully. "What a selfish beast I am! I'll go now."
"Won't you stay an' have supper with Allie an' me? We're awful lonesome with Pa gone. Allie's out som'er's, but—it would do me good to know you was here an' it 'll do you good to stay. You can rest yourself while I take my nap."
Ma Briskow did not wish to take a nap, but she knew that Gray needed the solace of his own thoughts just now, so, when he agreed, she sent him downstairs.
First balm, indeed, had come to the man; the smart was less intense. To put his trouble into words somehow lightened it; then, too, the grateful knowledge that some warmth of sympathy was his made it easier to bear. But it remained a cruel burden. That gentle, dreamy soul up yonder could not know how it hurt. How could she understand, for instance, what it meant to go back and face the deadly dull routine of a life from which all zest, all interest, had fled? A routine broken only by moments of downright torture. Yes, and the effort it would take to smile! God! If there were only some way to break his fetters, slip his gyves!
Gray's brain, like his body, had grown tired and feverish. To be sure, little more than a day had gone by since he had sallied forth like a knight, but it seemed a year, an age, and every hour brought a new and keener distress. He found it possible now, for the first time, to relax a bit physically, so he closed his eyes and lay back in an easy chair while the twilight stole in upon him. Sooner or later his mind, too, would cease its torment, for pain distils its own anodyne. Then he would sleep. It would be a blessing to forget for even an hour, and thus gain strength with which to carry on the fight. But what a useless battle it was! He could never win; peace would never come.
He heard Allie enter the house, but he did not stir. He would have to put on the mask soon enough, for, of course, she must never suspect, on Buddy's account. The room, which had grown agreeably dark, was suddenly illuminated, and he lurched to his feet to find the girl facing him from the door. She was neither startled nor surprised at his presence, and when he tried to smile and to greet her in his accustomed manner, she interrupted him by saying:
"I knew you were here."
"So? Then Ma is awake again?"
Allie shook her head vaguely. "I knew you were here the minute I came in. I can 'most always tell." There had been a shadow of a smile upon her lips, but it vanished; a look of growing concern crept over her face. "What's the matter? Whatever has happened, Mr. Gray?"
"Why, nothing. I was feeling tired, worn out. Indulging myself in a thoroughly enjoyable fit of the blues." His voice broke when he tried to laugh.
Allie uttered a quick, low cry, a wordless, sympathetic sound. Her dark eyes widened, grew darker; she came forward a step or two, then she halted. "Would you rather be alone?" she asked. He signified his dissent, and she went on: "I know what the blues are like. I sit alone in the dark a good deal."
She busied herself about the room for a few moments, straightening things, adjusting the window shades. Allie had the knack of silence, blessed attribute in man or woman, and to Gray's surprise he found that her mere presence was comforting. She startled him by saying, suddenly:
"You're hurt! Hurt badly!"
He looked up at her with an instinctive denial upon his lips, but, realizing the futility of deceit, he nodded. "Yes, Allie."
The girl drew a deep breath, her strong hands closed, harshly she said: "I could kill anybody that hurt you. I wanted to kill Buddy that time. Is it those Nelsons? Have they got you down?" There was something fierce and masterful in Allie's concern, and her inquiry carried with it even more than a proffer of help; she had, in fact, flung herself into a protective attitude. She suggested nothing so much as a lioness roused.
"No, no! It is nothing like that. I merely fooled myself—had a dream. You wouldn't understand, my dear."
Allie studied him soberly for a moment. "Oh yes, I would! I do! I understand perfectly. Nobody could understand as well as I do."
"What do you mean by that?"
"I've been hurt, too." She laid a hand upon her breast. "That's why I sit in the dark."
"My dear child! I'm sorry. Gus said you were unhappy, but I thought it was merely—the new life. You're young; you can forget. It's only us old ones who can't forget. Sometime you must tell me all about it." The girl smiled faintly, but he nodded, positively: "Oh, it's a relief to tell somebody! I feel better already for confiding in Ma. Yes, and your sympathy is mighty soothing, too. It seems almost as if I had come home." He closed his eyes and laid his head back.
Allie placed her hand upon his forehead and held it there for a moment before she moved away. It was a cool and tranquilizing palm and he wished she would hold it there for a long time, so that he could sleep, forget—
Allie Briskow went to her room, and there she studied her reflection in the mirror carefully, deliberately, before saying: "You can do it. You've got to do it, for he's hurt. When a girl is hurt like that, it makes a woman of her, but when a man's hurt it makes him a little boy. I—I guess it pays to keep on praying."
It was perhaps a half hour later that Ma Briskow heard a sound that caused her to rise upon her elbow and listen with astonishment. It was the sound of low, indistinct, but joyous singing; it came from Allie's room. Allie singing again! What could have happened? Slowly Ma's face became wistful, eager. "Oh, Mister Fairy King!" she whispered. "Please build up his castle again. You can do it. There's magic in the world. Make him a duke again, an' her a queen, for yours is the power an' the glory for ever an' ever. Amen!"