And no one did believe him when he told the story at the club.
WHEN GIRL MEETS GIRL
At a glance one would have said that they were desperadoes—the two of them. The one who stood outside the shadow of the black, low-lying wall was a brawny, sinister-looking woman whose age might have been fifty or it might have been thirty, so deceptive was the countenance she bore. Her companion, a short, heavily built creature, slunk farther back into the protecting shadows and betrayed unmistakable signs of nervousness, not to say fear. At the corner below a shuddering automobile purred its ugly song, the driver sitting far back in the shelter of the top, her eyes fixed steadily upon the two who lurked in the shadow of the wall that surrounded the almost deserted club house. The woman who drove the car manifestly was of a station in life far removed from those who stood watch near the opening in the hedge-topped wall that gave entrance to the grounds of the Faraway Country Club. Muffled and goggled as she was, it was easily to be seen that she was of a more delicate, aristocratic mould than the others, and yet they were all of a single mind. They were engaged in a joint adventure, the character of which could not be mistaken.
The taller of the two women suddenly darted into the shadow, gripping the arm of her companion with a hand of iron.
"Sh! Here he comes. Remember now, Brown: no faltering. He's alone. Don't lose your nerve, woman."
"I'm new at this sort of thing, Quinlan," whispered the other nervously. "I don't like it."
"You're not supposed to like it, but you've got to see it through, just the same. Stand ready, and do what I told you. I'll take care of the rest."
A young man, tall and graceful, came swinging down the shrub-lined walk, whistling a gay little air, far from suspecting the peril that awaited him at the gate below. His cheery farewell shout to friends on the club-house veranda had been answered by joyous voices. It was midnight.
"Better wait awhile, old man," some one had called after him. "It's bound to rain cats and dogs before you get to the trolley."
"A little water won't hurt me," he had shouted back. "So long, fellows."
When he passed through the gate, under the single electric light that showed the way, and turned swiftly into the dark lane, threatening rolls of thunder already smote the air and faint flashes of lightning shot through the black, starless sky. A gust of wind blew a great swirl of dust from the roadway, filling his eyes and half blinding him. As he bent his half-turned body against the growing hurricane, a pair of strong arms seized him from behind; almost simultaneously a thick blanket from which arose the odour of chloroform was thrown over his head and drawn tight. Shrill, sibilant whispers came to his ears as he struggled vainly to free himself from those who held him.
Some one hissed: "Don't hit him, you fool! Don't spoil his face!"
He remembered kicking viciously, and that his foot struck against something hard and resisting. A suppressed screech of pain and rage rewarded the final conscious effort on his part. Very hazily he realised that he was being dragged swiftly over the ground, for miles it seemed to him, then came what appeared to be a fall from a great height, after which his senses left him.
The automobile leaped forward, swerved perilously at the sharp curve below the club gate and rushed off into the very teeth of the storm, guided by the firm, resolute hands of the woman at the wheel.
Once, when they had traversed a mile or more of the now drenched and slippery road, the woman who drove the car in its mad flight— unmistakably the master-mind in this enterprise—called back over her shoulder to the twain who held watch over the captive in the tonneau:
"Is he regaining consciousness? Don't let him go too long."
"He's all right, ma'am," said the taller of the two ruffians, bending her ear to the captive's breast. "Fit as a fiddle."
"Say, we'll get twenty years for this if we're nabbed," growled the burly one called Brown. "Kidnapping is a serious business—"
"Hold your tongue!" cried the woman at the wheel.
"Well, I'm only telling you," grumbled Brown, nervously straightening her black sailor.
"It isn't necessary to tell me," said the driver. Her voice, high and shrill in battle with the storm, was that of a person of breeding and refinement, in marked contrast to the rough, coarse tones of her companions.
Mile after mile the big machine raced along the rain-swept highway, back from the Hudson and into the hills. Not once did the firm hand on the wheel relax, not once did the heart of the leader in this daring plot lose courage. Few are the men who would have undertaken this hazardous trip through the storm, few men with the courage or the recklessness.
At last, the car whirled into a narrow, almost unseen lane, and, going more cautiously over the treacherous ruts and stones, made its way through the forest for the matter of a mile or two, coming to a stop finally in front of a low, rambling house in which lights gleamed from two windows on the ground floor.
The two strong-armed hirelings dragged their still inert prisoner from the car, and, without a word, carried him up the walk to the house, following close upon the heels of their mistress.
A gaunt old woman opened the door to admit the party, then closed it behind them.
Two days passed before Cuthbert Reynolds, one of the most popular and one of the wealthiest young men in New York, was missed from his usual haunts, and then the city rang with the news that he had disappeared as completely as if the earth had opened to swallow him in a hungry, capacious maw.
Heir to a vast estate, unusually clever for one so markedly handsome, beloved by half the marriageable young women in the smartest circles, he was a figure whose every movement was likely to be observed by those who affected his society and who profited by his position. When he failed to appear at his rooms in Madison Avenue,—he had no business occupation and therefore no office down town,—his valet, after waiting for twenty-four hours, called up several of his friends on the telephone to make inquiries. Later on, the police were brought into the case. Then the newspapers took up the mystery, and by nightfall of the third day the whole city was talking about the astounding case.
Those whilom friends who had shouted good-bye to him from the country club veranda were questioned with rigid firmness by the authorities. They could throw no light upon the mystery. The unusual circumstance of his returning to town by trolley instead of by motor was easily explained. His automobile had been tampered with in the club garage and rendered unfit to use. The other men were not going into town that night, but offered him the use of their cars. He preferred the trolley, which made connections with the subway, and they permitted him to go as he elected.
Naturally the police undertook to question his friends of an opposite sex. It was known that many of them were avowedly interested in him and that he had had numerous offers of marriage during the spring months of the year, all of which, so far as could be learned, he had declined to consider. As for possessing evil associates among women, there was no one who could charge him with being aught but a man of the most spotless character. No one, man or woman, had ever spoken ill of him in that respect. The police, to whom nothing is sacred, strove for several days to discover some secret liaison which might have escaped the notice of his devoted friends (and the more devoted one's friends are, the more they love to speculate on his misdemeanours), but without avail. His record was as clear as a blank page. There was not a red spot on it.
Gradually it dawned upon every one that there was something really tragic in his disappearance. Those who at first scoffed at the idea of foul play, choosing to believe that he was merely keeping himself in seclusion in order that he might escape for the while from the notably fatiguing attentions of certain persistent admirers, came at last to regard the situation in the nature of a calamity. Eligible young men took alarm, and were seldom seen in the streets except in pairs or trios, each fearing the same mysterious and as yet unexplained fate of the incomparable Reynolds. Few went about unattended after nightfall. Most of them were rigidly guarded by devoted admirers of an opposite sex. It was no uncommon thing to see a young man in the company of three or four resolute protectors.
In the meantime, Reynolds' relations had the reservoir dredged, the Hudson raked, the Harlem scooped, and all of the sinister byways of the metropolis searched as with a fine-tooth comb. A vast reward was offered for the return of the young man, dead, or alive or maimed. The posters said that $100,000 would be paid to any one giving information which might lead to the apprehension of those who had made way with him. The Young Women's Society for the Prevention of Manslaughter drafted resolutions excoriating the police department, and advocating wholesale rewriting of the law.
The loveliest of Cuthbert's admirers was Linda Blake, and the most unheralded. No one regarded her as a favourite rival, for no one took the slightest notice of her. The daughter of a merchant princess, she was somewhat beyond the pale, according to custom, and while she was an extremely pretty young woman she was still shy and lamentably modest. As third corresponding secretary of the Spinsters' League she was put upon dreadfully by four fifths of the members and seldom had a moment of her own in which to declare herself to be anything more than a drudge in the movement to establish equality among God's images. She had little time for social achievements and but little opportunity to escape from the Spinsters' League by the means looked upon as most efficacious. She loved Cuthbert Reynolds, but she was denied the privilege of declaring her love to him because she seldom got near enough to be seen by the popular bachelor, much less to speak to him except to pass the time of day or to hear him reply that his programme was full or that his mother was feeling better.
She had but three automobiles, whereas her haughty rivals possessed a dozen or more.
And yet it was Linda Blake who took the right and proper way to solve the mystery attending the disappearance of Cuthbert Reynolds, the pet of all the ladies.
Let us now return to Reynolds, whom we left on the threshold of that mysterious house in the hills back of Tarrytown. When he regained his senses—he knew not how long he had been unconscious—found himself in a small, illy furnished bed-chamber. The bed on which he was lying stood over against a window in which there were strong iron bars. For a long time he lay there wondering where he could be and how he came to be in this unfamiliar place. There was a racking pain in his head, a weakness in his limbs that alarmed him. Once, in his callow days, he had been intoxicated. He recalled feeling pretty much the same as he felt now, the day after that ribald supper party at Maxim's. Moreover, he had a vague recollection of iron bars but no such bed as this.
As he lay there racking his brain for a solution to the mystery, a key rasped in the door across the room. He turned his head. A gas jet above the wretched little washstand lighted the room but poorly. The door opened slowly. A tall, ungainly woman entered the room—a creature with a sallow, weather-beaten face and a perpetual leer.
"Where am I?" demanded he.
The woman stared at him for a moment and then turned away. The door closed swiftly behind her, and the key grated in the lock. He floundered from the bed and staggered to the door, grasping the knob in his eager, shaking hand.
"Open up, confound you!" he cried out. The only response was the fast diminishing tread of heavy footsteps on a stairway outside. He tried the window bars. The night was black outside; a cool drizzle blew against his face as he peered into the Stygian darkness. Baffled in his attempt to wrench the bars away, he shouted at the top of his voice, hoping that some passer-by—some good Samaritan—would hear his cry and come to his relief. Some one laughed out there in the night; a low, coarse laugh that chilled him to the bone.
He looked at his watch. The hour was three. With his watch in his hand, he came to realise that robbery had not been the motive of those who held him here. His purse and its contents were in his pocket; his scarf pin and his gold cigarette ease were not missing. Lighting a cigarette, he sat down upon the edge of the bed to ruminate.
Suddenly his ear caught the sound of soft footsteps outside the door. They ceased abruptly. He had the uncanny feeling that some one was peeping through the keyhole. He smiled at the thought of how embarrassing it might have been.
"Get away from there!" he shouted loudly. There came the unmistakable sound of some one catching breath sharply and the creaking of a loose board in the floor. "A woman," he reflected with a smile.
"If this is a joke, I don't appreciate it," he said to himself, looking at himself in the mirror. After adjusting his disarranged necktie and brushing his hair, he sat down in the low rocker to await developments.
He had not long to wait. A resolute tread sounded on the stairway, and a moment afterward the door was thrown open to admit the tall athletic figure of a very handsome young woman. Reynolds leaped to his feet in amazement.
"Miss Crouch!" he cried, clutching the back of the chair. A slow flush of anger mounted to his brow. "Are you responsible for this beastly trick?"
She smiled. "I expected to hear you call it an outrage," she said quietly.
"Well, outrage, if it pleases you. What does it mean?"
She crossed the room and stood directly in front of him, still smiling. He did not flinch, but the light in her eyes was most disquieting.
"It means, my dear Cuthbert, that you are in my power at last. You'll not leave this house alive, unless you go forth as my husband."
He stared at her in utter amazement. "Your husband? My God, woman, have you no pride?"
"Bushels of it," she said.
"But I have refused to marry you at least a half-dozen times. That ought to be ample proof that I don't love you. To be perfectly brutal about it, I despise you."
"Thanks for the confidence, but it will do you no good. I am not the sort of woman to be thwarted, once my mind and heart are fixed on a thing. Whether you like it or not, you shall be my husband before you're a day older."
"Never!" he exclaimed, his eyes flashing.
Before he could make a move to defend himself, she clasped him in her strong, young arms and was raining passionate kisses upon his lips, his brow, his cheek.
Weak from the effects of the chloroform, his struggles were futile. He would have struck her had there been a weapon handy.
"I'll die before I'll marry you, Elinor Crouch," he shouted, freeing himself at last.
"We'll see about that," she said, standing off to survey him the better. "I'll give you until tomorrow night to submit to my demands, peaceably and sensibly. Then, if you are still obdurate, we'll see what starvation will do to—"
"You wouldn't starve me, you wretch," he cried in horror.
"It's a most efficacious way of bringing a man to terms," said Miss Crouch, fixing him with glittering eyes.
"By Jove," said he, shaking his head in despair, "I knew we'd come to this sort of thing if we passed that infernal law giving you women the upper hand of us."
"We only ask for equal rights, my friend," she said. "This is the sort of thing you men used to do and no one made a fuss about it. Now it's our turn to apply the whip."
"I'm blessed if I'll vote for another woman, if I live to be a million," he growled.
"Oh, yes, you will. You'll vote just as your wife tells you to vote, and there's the end to that. But, I can't stand here discussing politics with you. I give you until tomorrow night to think it over. A justice of the peace will be here to perform the ceremony. You know I love you. You know I'll make you a good wife—a devoted, adoring wife. I am fair to look upon. I am rich, I am of good family. Half the men in the town would give their boots to be in yours. You have but to say the word and we set sail this week on my yacht for a honeymoon trip to the ends of the earth. Everything that love and money can procure for you shall be—"
"Stop! I will hear no more. Leave the room! No! Wait! Where am I?"
She laughed softly. "You are where no one will ever think of looking for you. Good night!"
She turned and went swiftly through the door. With an execration on his lips, he sprang after her, only to find himself confronted by two vicious-looking women with pistols in their hands. With a groan, he drew back into the room. The door closed with a bang, the key turned in the lock, and he was alone to reflect upon the horrors of the fate ahead of him.
Elinor Crouch was a beautiful girl, and an alluring one. Even though he hated her, he was forced to admit to himself that she was the most beautiful creature he had ever seen. Not once, but a hundred times, had he passed judgment upon her physical charms from a point of view obtained in his club window, but always there had been in his mind the reservation that she was not the sort of woman he would care to marry. Now he was beginning to know her for what she really was: a scheming amazon who would sacrifice anything to appease a pride that had been wounded by his frequent and disdainful refusals to become her husband.
Would she carry out her threat and starve him if he persisted in his determination to defy her? Could she be so cruel, so inhuman as that?
He was considerably relieved after the few hours of sleep that followed his interview with the fair Miss Crouch, to find a bountiful and wholesome breakfast awaiting him. True, it was served by an evil- appearing woman who looked as though she could have slit his throat and relished the job, but he paid little heed to her after the first fruitless attempts to engage her in conversation. She was a sour creature and given to monosyllables, this Quinlan woman.
Reynolds had been brought up to respect the adage concerning "a woman scorned." He knew that women in these days are not to be trifled with. If Elinor Crouch set about to conquer, the chance for mercy at her hands would be slim. There was absolutely no means of escape from his prison. Daylight revealed a most unpleasant prospect. The barred window through which he peered was fifty or sixty feet from the ground, which was covered with jagged boulders. On all sides was the dark, impenetrable forest which marks the hills along the Hudson. After a few minutes' speculation he decided that he was confined in an upper chamber of the pump house connected with the estate. Investigation showed him that the bars in the windows had been placed there but recently.
In considerable agitation he awaited the coming of night, fully determined that if the worst came to the worst he would accept starvation and torture rather than submit to the cruel demands of Elinor Crouch. He would die before he would consent to become her husband.
She came at nine o'clock, accompanied by a fat little woman in black, who was introduced as a justice of the peace.
"Well?" said his captor, with the most enticing smile. "Have you decided, Cuthbert?"
"I have," said he resolutely. "I want to warn you, Elinor, that you shall pay dearly for this outrage. I shall—"
"Then you consent?" she cried, her face aglow.
"No! A thousand times, no! I mean—"
"You are wasting your breath, Cuthbert Reynolds," she interrupted, a steely glitter in her eyes. "Justice Snow, will you proceed at once with the ceremony? I will not—"
Reynolds sprang past her with the agility of a cat and hurled himself through the half-open door, hoping to find the way momentarily clear for a dash to liberty. Even as hope leaped up in his breast it was destroyed.
Two brawny figures fell upon him at the landing and he was borne to earth with a fierceness that stunned him into insensibility.
When he regained consciousness a few moments later, he was lying bound on the bed. The grim figure of the redoubtable Quinlan sat in the rocker over against the door, and there was a scornful leer on her thin lips.
"Bread and water for you, my laddy-buck," said she, with a broad wink. "What a blithering fool you are. The finest lady in the land wants to make you her husband, and you kick up a row about it. You—"
"You go to the devil," said Reynolds savagely.
For four days and nights, he remained in the small, bare room. Each day brought his persecutor to his side, and on each occasion she went away baffled but hopeful. She pleaded, stormed and threatened, but he held steadfast to his resolve.
"I'll die a thousand times, you fiend, before I'll consent to this ceremony. Go on starving me, as you've set out to do. What will you have gained in the end?"
"At least the consolation of knowing that no other woman shall call you husband," she said vindictively.
He was thin, emaciated and hollow-eyed for lack of proper sustenance. His captors gave him barely enough food and drink to keep body and soul together. Once a day the gaunt Quinlan brought bread and water to his room, and once the beautiful Elinor forgot her cigarettes and a bonbon box on leaving him in a rage. He hid the boxes after emptying them, cunningly realising that if he ever escaped her clutches the articles would serve as incontrovertible evidence against her. But Quinlan and Brown, strong and vigorous, were more than a match for him in his weakened condition. They choked him until he revealed the hiding place of the two gold boxes. Then they beat him cruelly.
"If you tell the boss that we beat you up, young fellow, you'll get your come-uppin's good and plenty," said Quinlan savagely, as he fell back exhausted in the corner. "You keep your mouth closed, if you don't want it closed forever."
"If you have a spark of humanity in your soul, woman, you'll give me food," he cried. "I am dying. Have you no heart, either of you? See here, I'll give each of you enough money to keep you in comfort for the rest of your lives if you'll—"
"None o' that, Mr. Reynolds," snapped Quinlan. "What do you take us for? Men?"
"Gad, I wish you were," he exclaimed. "I'd thrash you within an inch of your lives if you were."
"Well, don't go to offering us money, that's all. We're women, and we don't sell out a friend. Say, ain't you about ready to give in to her? You'd better say the word. She'll make you the happiest man on earth. What's more, you'll get a good square meal the minute you say you'll marry her."
"I wouldn't marry her if she were the last woman in the world," he cried. "Listen to me! Haven't you two women husbands who are dear to you? Haven't you husbands—"
"They're both in the penitentiary, curse 'em," snarled Brown, clenching and unclenching her hands. "I wish I could get my hooks on that man of mine, that's all."
"Lucky dog!" said Reynolds.
"You bet he's a lucky dog. I believe he got sent up deliberately."
"Well, he's only got eight more years to serve, Brown," said Quinlan. "He'll come back to you for food and clothes. Then you can make up for this lost time."
"I'll do it, all right," said Brown, smiting the window sill with her huge fist. Quinlan chuckled.
That night Reynolds made his last stand. When Miss Crouch left him, he was almost ready to submit. Had she but known it, another five minutes of argument would have brought him to terms. Starvation had conquered him.
"If I live till morning," he kept repeating to himself in the solitude of his cell, "I'll give in. I can't stand it any longer. I shall go mad."
He fell back on the bed and lay staring at the ceiling, a beaten wreck. Delirium was at hand.
Sometime during the night he was aroused from a fitful slumber by a sound at his window. The night was very dark. He could see nothing, and yet he knew that some one was there—some one who would help him in his final hour of despair. Struggling weakly from the bed, he dragged himself to the bars. Beaching between them, his hand encountered the topmost rung of a ladder. Some one was ascending from below. He could feel the supports quiver, he could hear the ladder creak beneath the weight of a living, moving body.
A moment later, the dull outlines of a head and shoulders appeared in the black frame—the head of a woman! With a groan of despair he shrank back, thinking that the visitor was one who had come to torment him in some new fashion.
"Cuthbert!" whispered the woman on the outside. "Cuthbert, dear, are you there? Speak!"
He staggered to the window once more. Hope buoyed him up. The voice was not that of one of his inquisitors. It was low, sweet, gentle, yet quivering with anxiety.
"Yes, yes!" he whispered. "Who are you? For God's sake, get me out of this place. I am dying here."
"Thank God, you are alive," came the tense whisper from the woman. "I am not too late."
"Who are you?" He had discovered that her features were rendered unrecognisable by an ugly pair of motor goggles. A thick veil held her panama motor hat in place.
She laughed nervously, even shyly.
"Never mind, Mr. Reynolds," she said. "Enough to say that I am here to release you if it is in the power of woman to do so."
"You call me Mr. Reynolds now," he protested. "A moment ago it was 'Cuthbert dear.' Who are you, oh, my deliverer?"
"Don't ask, please. Not now. You shall know in good time. How long have you been here?"
"Ages, it seems. In truth, but five days. She is starving me to death."
"The fiend! Tell me, are you married to her?"
"Then I shall do my best to save you." He reflected. Perhaps it would be leaping from the frying-pan into the fire.
"Just a moment, please. How am I to know that I am bettering my position by accepting liberty at your hands."
"Oho! You fear that I may want to marry you against your will? Is that it? Well, the instant you are free you shall be at liberty to go whither you please and to marry whosoever pleases you. Is that fair enough?"
"Forgive me for doubting you. But how are you to effect a rescue? I am guarded by powerful women who would make short work of you in combat. I can see that you are slight. They are huge, well-armed creatures. Are you—"
"Don't worry about me," she whispered eagerly. "I can take care of myself. And now, be patient. I must leave you. The only way to release you seems to be through the house itself. I have no saw or file, but wait! There is a saw and file in the tool box on my machine. How stupid of me! I'll be back in a jiffy. Don't lose heart."
She went rapidly down the ladder. He bethought himself when too late and lighted the gas. His watch showed him that it was two o'clock.
Vastly excited and strangely revived, he awaited her return, praying that she might not be intercepted by the minions of Elinor Crouch. An hour passed. He was about to give up in despair, confident that she had been summarily dealt with by the eagle-eyed Quinlan, when stealthy sounds came to his ears from the landing outside his door.
A key was gently inserted in the lock. He prepared to defend himself by grasping the small rocker in his weak, trembling hands.
The door opened a few inches, then swung wide. Instead of Elinor Crouch or her hirelings on the threshold stood the lithe, graceful figure of a girl in a grey motoring suit. She sprang into the room. The goggles were no longer in evidence, but the green veil hid her features quite completely.
"Quick! Follow me! I have accounted for the tall woman who stood guard on the stairway. We must get away before the others discover her body."
"Good God! Have you killed her?"
"I hope not. Just a little tap on the head with this wrench, that's all. She'll come out of it all right. Hurry! I've got a couple of friends watching outside. They'll give the alarm if we fail to appear at once."
"Men? Thank heaven!"
"No! Women! What good are men at a time like this? Merciful—are you going to faint?"
He sank to the floor with a groan, and the chair clattered against the wall with a noise that must have been heard throughout the house.
When he opened his eyes again, his head was pillowed on her knees and she was wildly whispering words of love and encouragement to him.
"My darling, speak to me. I am here to save you! Open your eyes. Look at me! Don't—Oh, thank Heaven! You are alive!"
He looked up into the now uncovered face and an expression of utter bewilderment grew in his eyes.
"Linda Blake!" he murmured. "Can it be possible?" His fingers tightened on her arm and a glad light leaped into his eyes.
She pulled down her veil in confusion.
"Don't look at me," she whispered. "I hope you didn't hear what I said to you."
"I heard every word, love of my life. I—Listen! What's that?" He sat bolt upright.
"Some one's coming!" she cried, springing to her feet and placing herself between him and the door. He saw a glistening revolver in her small, white hand.
"It's Elinor Crouch," he whispered. "Heavens, how I have come to hate those footsteps of hers."
Elinor Crouch, her face pale with anger and apprehension, dashed into the room an instant later. She was attired in a loose wrapper, secured at the waist by a handsome Oriental girdle. Her black hair hung in two long plaits down her back. It was apparent that she had made no effort to perfect a toilet before rushing up-stairs in response to the noise.
Her dark eyes scarcely took in the slight figure of Linda Blake. They were for the man on the floor, and for him alone.
"Thank Heaven, you are here!" she cried, in a voice thrilling with relief. "I was afraid you might have—"
"Stand back, Miss Crouch," interrupted Linda firmly. "Don't you dare to touch him."
"Who—who are you?" gasped Elinor, for the first time granting the girl a look of surprise, but not of fear. "Why, on my life, it's that Blake girl. Soho! This is your work, is it? May I inquire, Miss Blake, what you are doing in my house at this time of night?"
"I am not here to parley with you, Miss Crouch. Stand aside, please. If you attempt to stop us, I shall shoot you like a dog."
"Oh, you think you can take him away from me, do you? Well, we shall soon make short shrift of you, my excellent heroine. Brown! Quinlan! Here, at once!" She called angrily down the stairs.
Linda smiled. "I think you'll find that my friends have taken care of Brown and Quinlan."
As if to prove the declaration, a ringing voice came up the stairway from far below.
"Are you all right, Linda?" It was a woman's voice and it was full of triumph.
"We've fixed these two muckers down here. Shall we come up?"
"Stay where you are, girls. I can manage nicely by myself, thank you," called Linda. Then she turned to the infuriated Elinor, who had shrunk back against the wall, panting with rage and disappointment. "You'd better come with us peaceably, my woman," she said coldly, still keeping the revolver levelled at the person of her rival. "Don't make any trouble for us. If you show fight we'll be obliged to—Here!"
Elinor Crouch suddenly threw herself forward. The movement was so unexpected that she was upon Linda before the girl could fire. Twice the revolver was discharged in a vain attempt to end the struggle at its beginning, and both bullets came so near to hitting Reynolds that he hastily rolled under the bed, from which position he watched the contest in some security but with a great deal of interest.
The combatants swayed back and forth across the narrow room, locked in a tight embrace. The Crouch woman was the larger and stronger, but her adversary was lithe and sinewy and as cool as a veteran in the line of battle. She succeeded in tripping the heavier woman, resorting to a new trick in wrestling that had just come into practice among athletic women, and they went to the floor with a crash, Reynolds' rescuer on top.
He crawled forth to assist her, keeping his eye on the pistol all the while. Weak as he was, he succeeded in sitting upon Miss Crouch's head while Linda attempted to secure her arms with the thick veil she had torn from her hat. He suffered excruciating pain when the furious Elinor bit him severely, but called out words of encouragement to the brave girl who fought so valiantly for him.
Just as Elinor Crouch relaxed with a groan of despair, two eager young women dashed into the room. In a jiffy, the late mistress of the situation was bound securely, hand and foot, and Linda Blake stood triumphant and lovely over her foe.
"We'll turn you over to the police," she said, smiling down upon the ghastly face of Elinor Crouch.
"For God's sake, spare me," groaned the unhappy captive. "It was all for love, Cuthbert. I—"
But Cuthbert Reynolds had already passed from the room, leaning feebly on the arm of his deliverer.
"How did you trace me here, dear?" he asked as they slowly descended the stairs.
"I found out that she was having her mail forwarded to the village over yonder, and I knew that she owned this place in the woods. I only had to put two and two together, Cuthbert. You—you don't mind if I call you Cuthbert, do you?"
He pressed her arm closer to his side. "You are a darling, Linda. I'll marry you tomorrow if you say the word."
She kissed him rapturously.
"It's too good to be true," she sighed.
THE THREE VAN WINKLES
It was not because Mr. Van Winkle had no love for his sons that he turned the three of them out of his house and home, but because he loved them well. There was Courtney Van Winkle—nicknamed "Corky" by his irrepressible brothers—and, besides him, the twins, Jefferson and Ripley. Courtney was thirty, the twins twenty-six. Jeff and Rip were big, breezy fellows who had rowed on their college crew and rowed with the professors through five or six irksome and no doubt valueless years; Courtney was their opposite in every particular except breeziness. But he was not breezy in the same way. He was the typical society butterfly, chatty to the point of blissfulness and as full of energy as a pint bottle of champagne. You could never by any stretch of the fancy liken him to anything so magnificent as a quart. Dapper, arrogant, snobbish, superior was he, and a very handy man to have about if one wanted to debate the question: Should spats be worn this year the same as last, or why WILL the common herd!
He had never done a stroke of work in his life. Nor, for that matter, had his towering, able-bodied brothers. They took the not unnatural stand that it wasn't necessary. Were they not the sons of the very rich Mr. Van Winkle? Wasn't he accountable for their coming into the world and wasn't he therefore responsible for them up to the very banks of the Jordan? Of course, he was. No one will pretend to deny it. Work is intended only for those who long for a holiday, not for him who begins a vacation the day he is born. Such was the attitude of the Van Winkle boys, if not their argument.
For years old Bleecker Van Winkle had paid for their automobiles, their polo ponies, their pony ballets, their lobsters and other glorifications, and he had finally reached the conclusion that while it was practically impossible for him to part with his money, he was nevertheless a fool. So he sat him down to think. As the result of his cogitations—long-drawn-out—he turned over a leaf in the Van Winkle family history.
"Boys," said he, at the end of a rather stupefying half-hour for them, "you've heard what I have to say. You know that I love you all. You will agree that I have been a fond, foolish and over-indulgent father. As I've said before, it is my fault entirely that you are triflers and spendthrifts. I should have done better by you. You are college men. At least, you are CALLED college men, because, with the unceasing aid of well-paid tutors you managed to get your degrees. I regret, however, to say that you are not educated men. You are socially cultivated, but that's all. I am to be blamed for all this. Now I am paying the penalty. What I have just disclosed to you is the result of painful deliberation and with your welfare in mind, not my own. You have agreed at last to my proposition, not, I fear, willingly, but because there is no alternative. I have given Jeff and Ripley an excellent education in baseball, swimming, golf and Broadway. No doubt either of you could get a job as a professional baseball player. Courtney has been thoroughly polished by contact with society. He should have no trouble at all in earning quite a decent living by teaching the nouveau riche how to behave in polite society. If, in ten years, you all come to me and convince me that you have actually acquired something of a fortune without any assistance from me, I shall be happy to kill the fatted calf and divide it with you. Please bear in mind the little statement in regard to my last will and testament. Get it into your heads clearly. At my death my fortune goes to the three of you, share and share alike, but it is to be held in trust for ten years thereafter, principal AND INCOME intact. Note that, please: and income. It is possible, even probable that I may alter the will later on, but now it stands in just that way."
They looked at each other blankly for a long time after the old gentleman left the room. The expression in Courtney's cock-a-doodle face was beyond description. The world had come to an end! The twins were unable to lounge with their accustomed ease and elegance. They sat bolt upright for perhaps the first time in their lives. To them, the world was just beginning, and it was a hard, cold, unfriendly world that lay before them.
In exactly one week from that day the three of them were to start out in the world to make men of themselves. Each was to have two thousand dollars in money and each was to start the journey free from debt. Mr. Van Winkle agreed to square up every pecuniary debt of honour and every debt of folly. They were to shift for themselves, and they were to have a fair start. For at least three years they were to absent themselves from his home, support themselves without assistance from him, and report progress whenever they felt inclined to do so. He did not even require them to do that much unless they wished, but he assured them that he would be proud and happy if they could report PROGRESS.
"I don't ask you to get rich in ten years. You couldn't do it honestly, my lads. All I ask is that you support yourselves honourably and be as respectable as possible in this day and age. Don't try to be too respectable. People will discredit you. They always do. Be square." He had said this to them in the course of the amazing monologue.
"I can't live more than a month on two thousand dollars," whimpered Courtney, long after the old man had closed the door behind him. "Why, he hasn't the remotest idea what it costs to keep up one's end in society here in New York. I—"
"Shut up, Corky," growled Ripley. "We want to think."
"Don't call me Corky," snarled his brother. "You know I detest it, even when I'm feeling cheerful, and God knows I don't want to be spoken of lightly today."
"Do you mean that as a joke?"
"A joke? Oh, I see. I suppose you connect 'cork' and 'light' in your effort to—"
"Thank Heaven," broke in Jefferson, a shadow of relief crossing his doleful face, "we are spared one thing."
"What's that?" said Ripley.
"The pleasure of lending money to Corky."
Courtney's face fell. He had intended to ask his brothers for a small loan, and was ready to argue that they, being strong, healthy beasts, would survive as long on fifteen hundred dollars as he could possibly hope to exist on three thousand.
"I'm not asking for alms, confound you."
"By Jove!" exclaimed Ripley, with a gleam of joy in his eyes. "Didn't the governor say he'd settle all of our debts, giving us a clean bill to start with?"
"He did, bless his heart," said Jeff.
"Precious little good that will do me," lamented Courtney.
"Well, it may do me a lot of good. In settling your debts, Corky, it occurs to me he'll have to fork over that twenty-seven hundred dollars you owe me."
"Clever head, Rippy," shouted Jeff. "He owes me a matter of fifteen or sixteen hundred. Fine work. The old gentleman can't go back on the debts of honour. He'll have to settle for Corky's—"
"You go to thunder," grated Corky. "Do you suppose I'm going to see the governor stung by you two vampires? In the first place, it was HIS money I borrowed from you. In the second place—"
"Right you are, Corky," agreed Rip. "It WAS his money. We absolve him but not you. If the time ever comes when you are able to pay it back to me, out of your own pocket, I'll be pleased to collect. We'll let it go at that."
"I expect to starve to death inside of—"
"Oh, no, you won't. Neither of us will go so far as that." It was Jefferson who spoke. He arose and stretched his long, muscular frame. "Do you know, I think the pater is absolutely right in this thing. He—"
"RIGHT?" shrieked Courtney.
"Yes, right. We ARE loafers. We waste time over trifles. He wants to be proud of us if such a thing is possible. I don't blame him. If I ever have a son I'll know how to bring him up."
"This is no time to be sentimental, Jeff," said Courtney, with deep irony in his voice. "We are confronted by a catastrophe. Unlike most catastrophes, it awaits our pleasure. We are expected to walk up and shake hands with it and say, 'I'm glad to meet you, old chap,' or something of the sort."
"It IS a pretty howdy-do, I'll admit," said Rip thoughtfully. "Still, I agree with Jeff. The governor's right."
"You always agree with each other," said Courtney, pacing the floor in his despair.
"Don't pull your hair like that, Corky," cautioned Jeff, with a good- humoured grin. "You've got to be very saving from now on."
"A miserable pittance, a bagatelle," groaned Courtney.
"It IS getting thin," commented Rip.
"Eh? I'm not talking about hair, damn it!"
"Be a man, Corky," cried Jeff cheerfully.
"I asked you not to call me 'Corky,' didn't I?" He glared at his big brother. "How can you stand there grinning like an imbecile with all this hanging over you?"
Jefferson's smile expanded. "If dad can make men of all three of his sons, he won't have to die to go to heaven. He'll BE there."
"And you fellows could have married those awful Sickler girls without half trying last winter," groaned Courtney. "A million apiece in their own right! My Lord, if you could only have looked ahead!"
"We did!" cried the twins in unison.
A cunning gleam leaped into Courtney's watery eyes. He drew a long breath.
"I wonder—" he began, and then stopped.
"No," said Jeff, divining his thoughts. "You proposed to both of 'em, Corky. It's no use. You are NOT the Van Winkle twins."
After a time, they fell into a discussion of plans and possibilities. Their father had not left a loophole through which they could fire at random. His sentence was clean-cut. They could not fall back upon him for support, help or advice. It was all very clearly set forth. They were to find their own road and travel it to the bitter end.
"I'm willing to work," said Jeff. "The trouble with me is I don't know what to tackle first."
"That's my fix," said his twin.
"Well, I know the first thing I'm going to do," said Courtney, springing to his feet. And he did it an hour later. He succeeded in borrowing ten thousand dollars from a millionaire who had come to New York from Cleveland to live and die a Gothamite. With sublime disregard for the thing called conscience, Courtney included this new debt in the list to be prepared for his father, and permitted the old gentleman to settle without so much as a qualm of self-reproach. He considered it high finance, I believe. His brothers lived up to his estimate of their astuteness by never even thinking of a ruse so clever. Corky congratulated himself on getting a long start over them. Moreover, he had something else in mind. It will be disclosed later on.
A week later Mr. Van Winkle said good-bye to his sons, and they set out upon their travels somewhat after the fashion laid down by those amiable gentlemen who conceived fables and fairy tales and called them the Arabian Nights. You may recall the Three Sons of the Merchant, and the Three Princes, and the Three Woodmen, not to speak of innumerable trios who served Messrs. Grimm and Andersen with such literary fidelity.
The Van Winkle brothers started out rather late in life to make men of themselves. Inasmuch as they elected to start in separate and distinct grooves and as their courses were not what you might call parallel, we are likely to gain time and satisfaction by taking them up one at a time. We must not lose sight of the fact that they set out to acquire three separate and distinct fortunes.
Courtney set sail almost immediately for a land where "Corky" was an unheard-of appellation—or epithet as he was wont to regard it—and where fortunes hung on bushes, if one may be allowed to use the colloquialism. He went to France. It may seem ridiculous to seek fortunes in France, but he was not looking for French fortunes. He was much too clever a chap for that. He was after American money, and he knew of no place where it was easier to get it than in France. By France, he meant Paris. If one is really smart, one can find a great many American dollars in Paris. For that matter, if one is a good bridge player and has the proper letters—not of credit but of introduction—he can make a splendid living in any land where civilisation has gained a substantial foothold. Nothing is so amiable as civilisation. It actually yearns for trouble, and it will have it at any cost. It is never so happy as when it is being skilfully abused. As a society parasite, Corky had learned that it is easier to fool a man who has brains than it is to fool one who hasn't any at all. He had come in contact with both varieties, and he knew. And as for women, one can always fool them by looking pensive. They cannot bear it.
Possessed of a natural wit, a stunted conscience and an indefatigable ego, he had no fear that his twelve thousand, slightly reduced by this time, would see him well along on his journey toward affluence.
Corky was well known in Paris. He had spent many a day and many a dollar there. At this season of the year, the capital was filled with New York, Philadelphia and Boston people whom he knew and with whom he might have fraternised if he had felt inclined. But he aimed higher. He hitched his wagon to the setting sun and was swept into the society of Middle and Far Western tourists; people with money they did not know how to spend; people who needed expert advice; people who hankered for places at Newport but had to be satisfied with Sugar Hills. His New York acquaintances knew him too well, but no better than he knew them. They had no money to waste on education. They needed all they could scrape together to keep the wolf out of Wall Street. He had no use in this direful emergency for frugal society leaders; he was after the prodigal climber.
Before he had been in Paris a week he was accepting invitations to dine with solid gentlemen from Des Moines and Minneapolis and having himself looked up to with unquestioned ardour by the wives thereof. Was he not the gay Mr. Van Winkle, of New York? Was he not the plus- ultra representative of the most exclusive society in the United States? Was he not hand in glove with fabled ladies whose names were household words wherever the English language is broken? Yes! He was THE Van Winkle! The son of A Van Winkle! And what a WONDERFUL game of bridge he played! It was a pleasure to lose money to him.
He soon found, however, to his discomfiture, that the daughters of these excellent westerners were engaged to be married to young gentlemen who were at work like himself in getting a fortune, but along different lines. So far as he could find out, they were so busy making headway in the commercial world that they wouldn't be able to afford a trip to Europe until they were somewhere in the neighbourhood of fifty-five or sixty. Their sweethearts were taking it while they could.
If Courtney had been as good-looking as either of his brothers—or as both of them, for that matter, because there wasn't much choice between them—he might have played havoc with the chances of more than one man at home, but he was no Adonis. To be perfectly candid, he was what a brawny Westerner would call a "shrimp." There is no call to describe him more minutely than that.
Most of his new friends wanted to have supper at Maxim's or to go to the Bal Tabarin. They wouldn't believe him when he insisted that these places were not what they used to be, and that Montmartre was now the fashionable roistering ground. So he took them to Maxim's and was glad of it afterwards. There wasn't a New Yorker in sight.
One night, after a rather productive game in the apartments of a family from Cedar Rapids, he proposed a supper at Maxim's. His host not only fell in with the proposition, but insisted on giving the supper himself. Corky was very polite. He took into consideration the fact that Mr. Riggles was a much older man than himself, and allowed him to have his own way.
It was at Maxim's that he first saw the Grand Duchess. She wasn't really a lady of title, but she looked the part so completely that he spoke of her as the "Grand Duchess" the instant his shifty gaze fell upon her. That is to say, she was painted, bewrinkled, bewigged, begowned, bejewelled and—(I was about to say be-dabbed)—for all the world like a real duchess, and she smoked a long cigarette in a still longer holder, and blew smoke through her nostrils with great APLOMB and but very few coughs.
His companions bowed to her. She waved her hand in amiable response.
"Who is she?" demanded Corky of his hostess. He almost whispered it.
"Oh, she's a silly old thing from Wisconsin. Did you ever see such a get-up?"
"It's marvellous. I thought she was a grand duchess."
"That's what SHE thinks, if airs count for anything. I think she's a freak."
"I suppose she was good-looking in her day," remarked his hostess's husband, appraising the grande dame with calculating eyes.
"Do you think they're real?" asked Corky, and his hostess said she thought they were. He did not give a name to them, but they were so overpoweringly prominent that she knew what he meant. It was almost impossible to see anything but pearls when one looked in the direction of the Grand Duchess. Corky couldn't help thinking how dangerous it was for the lady to wear such a fortune at Maxim's.
He listened with keen ears to the story of the "silly old thing from Wisconsin." She was a widow of sixty-five and she had been traversing Europe from end to end for several years in quest of a coronet. Many millions in gold had she, but even the most impecunious of noblemen had given them a wide berth,—reluctantly, perhaps. Reversing the order of things, she was not seeing Europe; she was letting Europe see her.
No one in Maxim's so gay and kittenish and coy as she! She was the essence of youth. Her hair was as yellow as gold and so thick and undulating that one could not help wondering how far down her back it would drop if released. Her lips were red with the rich, warm blood of youth and her cheeks bore the bloom of the peach. The Grand Duchess was a creation. To make sure that every one knew she was present, she chattered in a high, shrill voice in Malapropian French, and giggled at everything.
"She is amazing," said Corky for the third time during supper. "And no one will marry her?"
"Not recently," said his host. "What do you mean?"
"I mean no one has married her in the last forty years. There WAS one, of course, but he died a few years back. That's why she wears a pearl mourning wreath around her neck, and a cloth-of-gold gown. He was in trade, as the English would say."
"She IS amazing," said Corky for the fourth time. "By Jove, do you know I'd like to meet her."
"Nothing so easy," said the other. "Come along now. I'll present you. She'll be tickled to death to meet a real Van Winkle."
Five minutes later Corky was drinking his own health in the presence of the Grand Duchess from Wisconsin.
"I have heard so much of you, Mr. Van Winkle," she said. "Is it true that you are a descendant of that aristocratic old Rip?"
Corky couldn't help blushing. He begged her not to get her Van Winkles mixed, and she tapped him on the knuckles with her pearl-studded fan.
At five o'clock that morning, Corky stood before the mirror in his bed-chamber and stared very intently at his somewhat wavering features. Notwithstanding the champagne, he recognised a very stern resolve in the reflection.
"I'm going to marry that woman," he said with grave precision.
THE GRAND DUCHESS
He went about it deliberately. According to report, the Grand Duchess was worth fifteen millions. Corky was not satisfied to accept rumour as fact, so he undertook an investigation on his own account. From reliable sources, he soon learned that she possessed but ten millions, but, he argued, it was better to know it in the beginning than to wait until she died to find out that her fortune had undergone the customary shrinkage. Moreover, he ascertained that she frequented half the baths in Europe in the effort to prolong a fast declining sense of humour—on the principle, no doubt, that life is a joke and death is not. She had a family of grown children in the States, but even that did not alarm Corky. He felt sure there would be enough to go around. Of course, it wasn't the nicest thing in the world being married to a woman more than twice one's age, but if everything went as he hoped, it might not be so very long before he could begin looking about for a wife half as old as himself. One sickening fear troubled him, however. She might insist on a house at Newport and a seat in the Inner Circle. She had that look about her.
He had the shrewdness to treat her with the disdain that his social position warranted. It was part of his plan of action to make her long for the opportunity to look down upon people instead of forever staring up at them from a grovelling attitude. He knew her kind as he knew the first three letters of the alphabet. On the other hand, he was politely attentive, incomparably epigrammatic, and as full of exquisite mannerisms as the famous Brummel himself. In a word, he was THE Van Winkle, and she but a passer-by.
By day he schemed, by night he lifted orisons to the gods and dreamed of the fruits thereof. Something seemed to tell him that if he didn't get her before she was sixty-six the quest would be hopeless. Experience had shown him that women see themselves as they really are after they are past sixty-five. Moreover, they become absolutely insane on the subject of self-preservation so far as money is concerned. They seem to feel that their rainy day is imminent, if not actually at hand. No matter how many millions they may possess, they lurk in the shadow of the poor-house. Men at sixty-five become podagrical and sour, perhaps, but they are not as much worried by thoughts of the poorhouse as they are by visions of the play-house.
Corky was to be seen everywhere with the Grand Duchess. (We may as well continue to speak of her as the Grand Duchess since every one in Paris was calling her that, now that she had been so aptly dubbed by the clever Mr. Van Winkle.) He drove in the Bois with her, and he drove without shame or embarrassment. He was the life of her big and little feasts at Pre Catalin and D'Armenonville. He sat in her box at the Opera; he translated the conspicuously unspeakable passages in all of the lively but naive comedies; he ordered her champagnes and invented hors d'oeuvres so neoterical in character that even the Frenchmen applauded his genius. And, through all, he was managing very nicely to keep his twelve thousand snugly to himself.
There were times when he could have cursed his own father—and perhaps did—but that is not relevant to this narrative.
In proper sequence he led the Grand Duchess through all the reflected phases of society and came at last to the juncture where his own adroitness told him it was time to speak of the glories of Newport and the wonders of New York as seen only from the centre of the inner Circle. There was a vast difference between the Outer Rim and the Inner Circle; he did not say it in so many words, but she had no trouble in divining it for herself. She was dazzled. She was beginning to understand that a palace in Fifth Avenue was no more than a social sepulchre unless it could be filled day and night with the Kings and Queens of Gotham. She felt very small, coming out of the Middle West.
It wasn't very difficult for him to secure for her an invitation to the American Ambassador's ball, or to the pacific functions ordered by the French President, but it was not so easy to bring about introductions to the New York women of fashion who happened to be in Paris from time to time during the summer. The Grand Duchess read the newspapers. She always knew when New York notables were in the city, and she was not slow to express a desire to meet them. He could arrange it, of course. And then, on meeting them, she would at once insist on giving a dinner or a supper at Pre Catalin, or, on finding that they couldn't scrape up a spare evening,—to make it afternoon tea. Poor Corky shrivelled at such times.
"If she wasn't so DAMNED girlish!" he used to say to himself.
"Tell me," she said to him late one afternoon as they were driving home through the Champs Elysees; "is it true that servants' wages are lower in New York City than any place else in the country? I've always heard so."
She was looking at people through her magnificent lorgnon, and people undeniably were looking at her. There were many wonderful women in the Bois that day, but none so worthy of a stare as she.
Corky pricked up his ears. It looked like a "feeler."
"Perceptibly lower," he said.
"And food is higher, they say."
"Ah," said he, "but so are the buildings."
"How much do you think I could live on per year in New York!"
"Why do you enquire?"
"For instance," said she. It grated on his nerves when she used such expressions as "for instance."
"Well, it depends on how well you intend to live."
"I want to live as well as anybody else."
"Then I should say that you couldn't very well manage on less than ten thousand a year." He knew he was equivocating but was fearful that if he said a hundred thousand she would take alarm.
"That isn't very much," she said, with a perplexed frown. "I had an idea that if I wanted to live in style it would cost somewhere around seventy-five or a hundred thousand. I know a woman from Iowa who lives at the Ritz-Carlton and goes about some—although not in the real smart set—and she says it costs five or six thousand a month, just puttering. Maybe you've met her out in society. Her name is Bliggs."
"Bliggs? Um! Name's not familiar. Of course, you CAN spend a hundred thousand easily in New York if you get into the right set," he said.
"That's just the point," said she. "If I get into the right set. I've got ample means, Mr. Van Winkle, if—"
"They scorn money," said he flatly.
She drew in her breath quickly. "I suppose they do," she sighed. "Sometimes I really believe it's a handicap to have a lot of money."
"I know a good many charming Western women who have married into the smart set," he said slowly.
"And did they stick?" she enquired.
"Stick?" he gasped.
"I mean, did they make good—that is, were they PERMANENTLY received?"
"Oh, yes! Some of them have become leaders. It's really only a matter of marrying the right man."
She was silent as they drove across the Place de la Concorde.
"I suppose it's almost out of the question unless one does marry into it," she said finally.
"Or UP to it," he suggested. His sordid little heart was beating rather jerkily.
"Won't you stop in and have tea with me?" she asked suddenly.
He thought rapidly. "I'm sorry. I'm having tea with some New York people at the Ritz. Awfully sorry. People I shouldn't like to offend or I'd send an excuse. You understand, I hope."
Her jaws were set. He shot a furtive glance at the thickly plastered face and inwardly pitied himself while outwardly rejoicing.
"Some of the people who entertain baboons at dinner, I suppose," she said through compressed lips.
He smiled. "And poodles," he supplemented with perfect amiability and more truth than he knew. She sniffed. "I'm afraid you don't approve of our little larks. We've got to have something new once in a while or we'd die of ennui."
"Umph!" was her simple response, but he noted the pensive, wistful look in her eyes.
She set him down at his hotel. "Can't you dine with me at half past eight? I sha'n't ask any one else. I'm terribly blue today. You WILL come and cheer me up, won't you?"
"With pleasure," he said, bowing very low over her gloved hand, which was amazingly lumpy with invisible rubies and diamonds. "So good of you."
While dressing for dinner he repeated the oft-repeated process of reducing the Grand Duchess to a tangible result. Supposing she had as many as fifteen years longer to live, and supposing her income to be only $400,000 a year, there was still compensation in the calculation that he would be but forty-five and that no matter how extravagant she might become there was small likelihood of the principal ever being disturbed. (On one point he meant to be very rigid: she should be kept out of Wall Street.) Furthermore, allowing for the shares that would go to her three grown daughters and their husbands (if they had them), he could be reasonably certain of at least three million dollars. Fifteen into three million goes two hundred thousand times, according to long division. Two hundred thousand dollars a year is what it came to in round numbers. He figured it as a rather handsome salary, more than he could earn at anything else. Of course, if it should happen to be but twelve years, the remuneration, so to speak, would be $250,000; eleven years $272,727 and a fraction; ten years $300,000; nine—well, he even figured it down to the unlikely term of two years. And all this without taking into consideration the certainty that her fortune would increase rather than diminish with the years to come.
On another point he meant to be firm, even adamant. If they were to be married at all, it would have to be without the least delay, In fact, he would advise making rather a secret of it until after the ceremony. Two weeks at the outside for the engagement period, he should say. Something told him that if her daughters got wind of the affair they would have the Grand Duchess locked up in a sanitarium for the remainder of her days. Besides, the suspense would be terrific.
They dined tete-a-tete. She had gorgeous apartments in the Elysee Palace Hotel; a private dining-room and a beautiful view of the great avenue. The evening was warm. The windows were open and from the outside came the noises of a Parisian night. A soft July moon lent radiance to an otherwise garish world, and a billion stars twinkled merrily. It seemed to Corky, as he looked up into the mellow dome, that he had never known the stars to twinkle so madly as they twinkled on this fateful night. There were moments of illusion when he was sure that the moon itself was twinkling. He laid it to his liver.
The little gold clock on the mantelpiece was striking ten when he began clearing his throat for action. He always remembered that it was precisely ten o'clock, because he had to look intently at the diminutive face of the thing to make sure that it wasn't striking twenty or thirty. It seemed to go on forever. They were still in the dining-room and quite alone. For some uncanny reason the Grand Duchess had not giggled once since the coffee was served. She was ominously patient.
"I've been thinking about what you said this afternoon," said Corky irrelevantly. She had just mentioned the weather.
"Yes. You put an idea into my head. Now, please don't say it! It's such a beastly banal joke, don't you know, that one about ideas. Would you mind answering a few questions?"
She began fanning herself. "If possible, Mr. Van Winkle," she said. "But I can tell you in advance that I never tell any one my age."
"Quite right," said he in a matter-of-fact tone. "It's nobody's business." He appeared to be thinking.
"Well, go ahead and ask," said she.
"I don't know just how to begin."
"What is it you want to know?" she enquired encouragingly.
"How old are your daughters?"
"Oh!" she exclaimed, leaning back in her chair in a sort of collapse. "What do you want to know that for?"
"Well, I'm leading up to something else, if you must know."
She brightened up a bit. "They're rather young, of course."
"Naturally," said he. "But HOW young?"
"Mary is—let me see—I can't just recollect—"
"You needn't be afraid to tell me the truth," he said graciously. "It won't make the least difference."
"Well, Mary is thirty-three. She's the married one. Edith—"
"Is one of 'em married?" he exclaimed, his face clouding.
"She's divorced at present. She married a scamp in the East who wanted her for her money, and—"
"Never mind," interrupted Corky hastily. "I don't care to hear the family scandal. Where does she live?"
"New York City, most of the time. You may have seen her. She goes out a great deal, I hear: I'm not certain whether she's gone back to her maiden name or retains her ex-husband's. His name is Smith." "I see," said Corky, abstractedly. "Good looking?"
"Mary? Yes, indeed. Stunning. I'm sure you'll admire her, Mr. Van Winkle."
"I wish you'd call me Courtney."
"I suppose I might just as well begin," she said resignedly. He started, and was silent for a moment.
"The others: are they married?"
"No. Edith is twenty-five and Gwendolyn twenty-three. They're at home."
"Why don't they travel with you?"
She looked positively aggrieved. "They are really very domestic in their tastes," said she. "They were over with me three years ago, but prefer America."
"Are they engaged?"
"Not to my knowledge."
"They'd tell you if they were, wouldn't they?"
"If they thought it was any of my business," she said sharply. Corky was in no condition to flush. It was a pallid hour for him.
"I suppose they have ample means of their own," he ventured.
"They manage pretty well."
"Was nothing left to them outright?"
"Some real estate."
"I see. Everything else went to you?"
"Oh, dear, no. He left $10,000 to his only sister. I sued to get it back, but lost. I always hated her."
"There was considerably more than $10,000 in the estate, of course," he said quickly.
She smiled and closed one eye very slowly. "I should rather think so," she said. He was silent, pondering deeply. "Can you think of anything more to ask?"
"I'm trying to think if there is," he replied frankly. She gave him a few minutes. "I can't recall anything more at this moment," he announced. "Oh, just a moment! Was there anything mentioned in the will about your never marrying again?"
"Not a word," said she triumphantly.
"Good!" said he, and arose somewhat unsteadily from his chair.
The Grand Duchess held up her hand to check the words on his lips.
"Sit down," she said brusquely. "I've got a few questions I'd like to ask of you, Corky."
"Corky! Good Lord, don't call me THAT. Where did you hear that name—"
"I saw it in the Herald. It's the only thing I have against you. I can't help thinking of you as a sort of monument to my poor dead husband. Have I never told you that he had a cork leg? Well, he had. He lost a real leg at Gettysburg. My husband was a big, brave man, Courtney. He wasn't a polished society chap and he didn't know much about grammar, but he was as fine and honest and noble as any man who ever lived. But this is no time to discuss the qualifications of a man as big and grand as my husband. It—it seems like sacrilege. What I want to know is this: how old is your father?"
"What is his age?"
"My fa—What's that got to do with it?"
"To do with what?" sharply.
He stammered. "Why,—er—with the qualifications of your husband."
"Nothing at all."
"Well, he's about sixty."
"Good Lord! Certainly."
"And very rich, as I'm informed."
"All this is very distasteful to me."
"And your brothers? Are they worthy young men?"
"Of course," angrily.
"Don't flare up, please. And now, what is your income?"
"MY income? Why, this is positively outrageous! I—"
"Maybe I should have said 'allowance.'"
Corky swallowed hard. "I'm not a rich man, if that's what you want to know. I'll be perfectly honest with you. I'm horribly poor."
Her face brightened. "Now you are talking like a man. You must not forget I am from the West. We like frankness. And yet, in spite of your poverty, you really are received in the Smart Set? How do you manage it?"
"Men are always in demand," admitted Corky, making a wretched error in diplomacy. He was thankful to see that it went unnoticed. "That is, men who are worth while."
The Grand Duchess settled back in her chair, and softly patted her coiffure, choosing to stroke the curls immediately above her ears.
"Well?" she invited, calmly, deliberately.
"I'd like to marry you," said Corky.
"Do you expect me to say 'yes'?"
"Well, I'll let you know in the morning."
"I prefer to have my answer now."
"I've got to think it over."
"Haven't you been thinking it over for some time?" he demanded impatiently.
"I'll admit that I am in love with you," she said coyly.
He shuffled his feet uneasily. "And you also will admit that I am in love with you, won't you?"
"How can you ask?"
"Well, prove it."
"Won't I be proving it beyond all question if I marry you?"
She sighed. "That isn't the way I was wooed years ago."
"You forget that it was long before my time. Custom changes, my dear. I love you in the present, up-to-date fashion, not as they did in the unsettled West."
She pondered. "How much of an allowance will you expect?"
"Whatever you choose to settle upon me, I shall be happy to divide equally with you. That's the only way we can carry on our social campaign."
"Well, I'll marry you, Corky."
He blinked his eyes two or three times. "When?" he enquired, and absently looked at his watch.
"Next Saturday," she said.
"Good!" said he.
When he got back to his hotel he found awaiting him there a letter from his brother Ripley. The news it brought caused him to thank his lucky stars that his fortune would be safe on Saturday.
Jefferson and Ripley were making their fortunes in a middle-west city, following the ancient and honourable pursuit of the golf-ball as instructors in rival country clubs. They seemed to be a bit uncertain as to what they would follow during the winter, but both of them were thinking rather seriously of getting married.
The news that caused Gorky's eyes to bulge came in the last casual paragraph of the letter. "Oh, by the way," wrote Rip, "the governor has just been married. I suppose you haven't heard of it. He had his appendix out six weeks ago and married his night nurse as soon as he was up. Well, so long. I'm giving a lesson at 10:30. Good luck."
The twins went fortune-seeking in a more complaisant way. They were big and hardy and the world had no real terrors for them. As twins should go, they fared forth together in quest of the road to wealth. They had been told that it lay toward the West and that it grew broader as one drew nearer the land of the setting sun. The West was the place for young men with ambitions. That expression had been ding- donged into their ears by college mates from Los Angeles and Seattle ever since they had learned that these two towns were something more than mere dots on the map.
They had heard so much of the two cities that they decided to try Omaha or some other place of that character before definitely putting their strength against the incomprehensibly sagacious gentlemen who were responsible for the supremacy of Seattle and Los Angeles over all other towns on the continent.
As was their wont, they went about the thing casually and without worry. They could not buckle down to work until after the wedding of a friend in Chicago, a classmate at college. He had asked them to act as ushers. The twins were especially well-qualified to serve as ushers. Since graduating they had performed that service for no fewer than twenty members of the class and were past-masters at the trade. It was only fair and right that they should usher for old Charley Whistler, although the name was not quite as familiar as it ought to have been. They couldn't quite place him, but so long as he had done them the honour to ask them to take part in his wedding, they were reasonably secure in the belief that he was all right. Before leaving New York, they spent several hundred dollars on a joint wedding present, a habit acquired when they first came out of college and which clung to them through many marriages, no doubt because of the popularity of the phrase: "Know all men by these presents, etc."
They were somewhat surprised on reaching Chicago to learn that Charley Whistler did not live there at all, but in W——, a thriving city not far removed from the Illinois metropolis. They could not have been expected to know that dear old Charley lived in W—— when they didn't even know there was such a place as W—— to live in. They heard all about the place from Charley, however. It seemed to be a city of distilleries. Everybody there was rich because everybody owned a distillery.
"Come out and visit us," said Charley after he had told them what a wonderful place it was. "I'm so busy I can't take more than two weeks for a honeymoon. Any time after the first of June will be convenient, boys. I'll show you a REAL town."
"There's only one real town," said Jefferson, his mind drifting back to Manhattan Island.
"Only one," said Ripley.
"Bosh! Say, how many distilleries has New York got? Answer that, will you?"
"I don't know, but I'll bet ten dollars we could drink up in three months all the whiskey you can make in W—— in a whole year."
Charley was silenced. He could only remark: "Well, there's more money in making it than there is in drinking it." The twins assented. "Anyhow, I wish you fellows could come out and see what we've got there. I'd like to get some of the Van Winkle millions interested in our village."
The twins exchanged glances. "The Van Winkle money is pretty well tied up," said Jeff.
"Well, it won't be forever, will it? I want to get you young fellows interested. And say, I can introduce you to some of the finest girls this side of Paradise. The burg is full of 'em. Why, I've heard New Yorkers say that they'd never seen so many pretty women or better dressed ones than we've got right there in—"
"I know," interrupted Rip. "That's what you hear in every city in America, big or little. And it's always the poor, impressionable New Yorker who says it, the fellow who has to put up with the depressing homeliness and dowdiness of Fifth Avenue. Give us a rest, Charley."
"Have you got a baseball team there?" demanded Jeff sarcastically.
"Sure! A peach, too. We're leading the league."
"The Peewee Valley League, of course. Two country clubs, too, with brand new golf courses. Oh, we're getting to the front, let me tell—"
Charley stared. "Great Scott! Haven't you heard? It's been in all the papers. The row in the Wayside Country Club? It's only two years old, but, by George, they've had enough quarrels to last a New York club a century. There was a split last fall, and a new club was formed—the Elite Country Club. All the nicest people in town belong to the Elite. Lot of muckers run the Wayside. If you—-"
"Which one has the distilleries?" asked Pip. "Both. The whiskey people can't very well discriminate, don't you see? Same as the breweries. It's good business for them to support both clubs. Good Lord, it's six o'clock. You fellows will have to be at the church at seven sharp, you know. Better dress pretty soon. So long. See you later."
The long and short of it was that the Van Winkle twins DID go out to W——. They remained in Chicago for three weeks looking for work at teas, bridge-parties, theatre-parties and luncheons at all of the country clubs. They played golf and tennis when not engaged in looking for work. Their joint four thousand dollars, pooled, had dwindled to barely half that amount, but they were cheerful. Their only prayer was that no one else in the class of '08 would decide to get married before the summer was over.
W—— is a thriving, bustling, aggressive town in the Mississippi Valley. It is not necessary to describe it in detail. The Van Winkles were put up at the Commercial Club, the W—— Club and the two country clubs. Charley Whistler attended to that. He was so proud of his two distinguished ushers that he sadly neglected his bride in showing them off to acquaintances during the first week of their stay.
Almost the first thing he did was to introduce them to the Barrows sisters, treasured by W—— as her "fairest daughters." Every one in town, including the editors, spoke of them familiarly as "Toots" and "Beppy" Barrows, applying nicknames that had grown up with them and had no connection whatever with the names they received when christened. They were young, rich, lovely and apparently heart-whole. Charley Whistler, being newly-wedded, wanted every one else in the world to get married. He was continually saying that there was "nothing like it," and resented some of the ironic rejoinders of men who had been married all their lives, to hear them talk about it. So he made haste to introduce the twins to the beautiful Barrows girls.
With a perfectly beautiful fidelity to the fitness of things, the two Van Winkles fell prostrate before the charms of the two young ladies, and spent nearly a month looking for work in their delightful company. It was not until they realised that their funds were reduced to almost nothing that they came down to earth with a thud. They had less than one hundred dollars between them and destitution.
Sitting in the shade of a huge old oak near the first tee on the Elite Club course, awaiting the appearance of the young women with whom they were to play a mixed foursome, the twins fell to discussing a subject they had dreaded to contemplate much less to broach.
"Jeff," said Rip, poking a dandelion with the head of his mashie, "lend me fifty till next week."
"Fifty what?" enquired Jeff gloomily.
"Cents, of course," said Rip. "But I'll take it in dollars if you happen to have them."
"We're up against it, old boy," said his brother, lighting a fresh cigarette. "What's to be done?"
"I suppose we'll have to clear out," sighed Rip. "We can't go on in this way. They are the finest, best girls I've ever known, and it's a bloody shame to—to go on."
"Right-o! We've just got to clear out while our credit is good. I hate to do it, though. I—I don't mind confessing that I'm heels over head in love with her. It's a damned shame, isn't it?"
"You're no worse off than I am," groaned Rip. "We are a nice pair of Romeos, aren't we? Good Lord, what will they think of us when they find us out?"
"Well," mused Jeff, "they're sensible darlings. Maybe they'll understand."
"Never! These western girls are not brought up to understand such blighters as we are. We are a species known only to the effete East. No; they will not understand. God knows I'm willing to work. The trouble is, I haven't time."
"Well, we'll have to work, steal or starve."
"I can't steal and I won't starve. I'm afraid we'll have to move on farther west. Cow-punching isn't bad if one—Here they come. Not a word, old boy. We'll talk it over tonight. It's my notion we'd better move on tomorrow while we've got the wherewithal. I'm not mean enough to borrow money from Whistler and I haven't the face to ask Uncle George to help us out. Darn him, I think he's the one who put it into father's head to do this—"
"Sh!" hissed the other, coming to his feet as the trim, trig figures of the Barrows girls drew near.
"Sorry to keep you waiting," said Toots, the elder of the two. "Mrs. Garvin was telling a story in the locker room." Toots was an exquisite blonde, tall, slender and lithesome.
"I've been slicing horribly of late, Mr. Van Winkle," said Beppy, frowning prettily. "Can you straighten me out? What am I doing that's wrong?" She was dark and brilliant, and quite as tall as her sister. One would go miles to find two more comely maids than these.
"Standing too far away from the ball," said Jeff, to whom the remark was addressed.
"I don't see why the club doesn't hire a professional," complained she. "He could get rich showing the members how to play the sort of golf they needn't be ashamed of."
"Three fourths of them don't know the difference between a mashie and a mid-iron," said Toots. "We learned in England, you know."
"By Jove!" exclaimed Rip, apropos of nothing. A great light beamed in his face.
"By Jove!" repeated Jeff, divining his thought.
Then, just to prove that they understood each other, they drove at least two hundred and fifty yards off the first tee, straight down the course. Jeff showed Beppy how to overcome the slice. She got a hundred and fifty yard ball.
"For heaven's sake!" she exclaimed, surprised by her own prowess. "How wonderful! And how easy, when you know how."
With singular coincidence of purpose, the two Van Winkles set about to teach their partners how to play better golf than they had ever played before. By the time they were playing the long eighth hole, the young men were so exercised over the discovery of a vocation that they sliced badly into the rough. Trudging side by side through the tall grass, looking for balls which the caddies had lost, they addressed each other in excited undertones.
"Nothing could suit me better," said Jeff.
"It's like finding money. Lessons at three dollars an hour and the privilege of selling all the golf balls to the players. How's that? Shall we tackle it?"
Jeff experienced a momentary pang of doubt. "Of course we'd lose our standing as amateurs. We'd be professionals, you know."
"What's the odds? Even amateurs have to live, old son."
"What will the girls think of us?" dolefully.
"They can't blame us for earning an honest dollar."
"A Van Winkle earning an honest dollar!" scoffed Jeff, with a short laugh. "It's incredible. No one will believe it."
"Here's what I think," said Rip seriously. "We ought to make a clean breast of everything those girls. Tell 'em just how we stand. I'll stake my head they'll stand for it."
"Tell 'em we've been kicked out by the governor?" gasped Jeff.
"Sure. A rich man's sons earning their daily bread by the sweat of their brow. Horrible ogre of a father, d'ye see? Romance of the highest order. By ginger, Jeff, I'm strong for it. It's honest work and I'm not ashamed of it."
The Barrows girls witnessed the strange spectacle of two brothers in quest of golf-balls shaking hands with each other in the centre of a wire-grass swamp, and blinked their beautiful eyes in amazement.
At the "nineteenth hole," over tea and highballs, the Van Winkle twins made humble confession to the high priestesses of W——. They did not spare themselves. On the contrary, they confessed their utter worthlessness and paid homage to the father who had sent them out in the world to retrieve themselves.
"And what do you think of the scheme?" asked Rip at the end of a lengthy and comprehensive explanation of the project in mind.
"Fine!" cried the two girls in a breath. "Then, the first thing to do is to convince the club that it needs a professional," said Jeff eagerly. He was looking into Beppy's big brown eyes.
"But it doesn't need TWO," spoke Toots.
The four faces fell. "I never thought of that," murmured Jeff.
"The Wayside Club has no instructor," cried Rip, grasping at a straw.
"But no one thinks of going to Wayside," protested Toots. "They are perfectly dreadful."
"Still they could be taught how to play golf," said Rip. "In any event, beggars can't be choosers. We both want to stay in W——."
"Well, there's only one way out of it," said Beppy quickly. "You, Ripley, apply to the Wayside for the position. Jefferson has already spoken for the place here."
"He has not!" exclaimed Toots indignantly.
"He has! I am on the golf committee, so that settles it. I'll call a meeting of the committee tomorrow—"
"I don't see why Ripley should be sacrificed—"
"Wait, girls," broke in Ripley with a laugh. "It's very flattering to us, but please don't quarrel on our account. We can settle it nicely by flipping a coin."
"Heads," said Jefferson without hesitation. He won. "Sorry, old chap."
"We shall have to join Wayside," lamented Toots. "Oh, how I hate it."
"I wouldn't join until you see whether I land the place," advised Ripley. "I suppose I COULD go to some other city."
Both girls uttered such a harmonious protest against that alternative, that he said he wouldn't consider leaving his brother for anything in the world.
"I know the president of Wayside," said Beppy consolingly. "He used to be in business with father. I'll see him tomorrow and tell him—-"
"See him TODAY," advised Toots firmly.
"You are adorable," whispered Rip as he walked beside her toward the automobile. "I wish I could do something to show how much I appreciate your—your friendship." Her response was a most enchanting smile. Under his breath he said: "Gad, I'd like to kiss you!" It is barely possible that thoughts speak louder than words and that she heard him, for she said something in reply under her own breath that would have made it a very simple matter for him to kiss her if he had been acquainted with the silent tongue.
The Van Winkle twins, in anticipation of success crowning their efforts to become professional instructors in the two country clubs, outlined a splendid and cunning campaign for themselves. By inspiring a fierce rivalry between the would-be golfers of the two clubs, they could build up a thriving practice in their chosen profession. The rivalry was already bitter along other lines. If they could get the men of the clubs into a fighting humour over the golf situation, there would be no end to the lessons they would demand of their instructors. By using a little strategy, the twins figured they could keep the clubs in a state of perpetual tournament. The results would be far- reaching and gratifying.
Before the end of the week, the redoubtable sons of old Bleecker Van Winkle, "leaders of cotillions in the Four Hundred and idols of Newport and Bar Harbor," (according to the local press), were installed as instructors in the rival clubs. Everybody in town, except the conspiring Barrows girls, regarded the situation as a huge joke. The fashionable young "bloods" were merely doing it for the "fun of the thing." That was the consensus of opinion. The news was telegraphed to the New York papers and the headlines in Gotham were worth seeing. The twins winked at each other and—played golf.
Be it said to their credit, they were soon earning twenty-five or thirty dollars a day—and saving half of it!
So intense was the golf fever in W—— that the middle of July found the links of both clubs so crowded that it was almost impossible to play with anything except a putter. Nearly every foursome had a gallery following it and no one spoke above a whisper after he entered the club grounds, so eager were the members to respect the proprieties of golf. Men who had but lately scoffed at the little white ball now talked of stymies and lies and devits as if they had known them all their lives. Hooks, tops and slices were on every man's tongue, and you might have been pardoned for thinking that Bunker Hill was smack in the centre of W——, and that Col. Bogie had come there to be beaten to death in preference to being executed in any other city in the world.
The merry Van Winkles, good fellows and good sports that they were, thrived with the game, and kept straight down the course of true love as well.
"Jeffy," said Rip one evening after returning from a rather protracted call on Toots Barrows, "I have asked her to marry me."
"So have I," said Jeff, who had returned with him from the Barrows home. "I wonder what the governor will say?"
"I'm not worrying about him. I'm wondering what the girls' mother will say."
"No one will say we are marrying them for their money, that's positive. Everybody here thinks we've got millions and millions."
"Oh, by the way, did she accept you!"
"Certainly. Did she accept you?"
"Of course. Another thing, did she say anything to you about hurrying the thing along a bit, so as to have it over with before her mother gets wind of it?"
"By George, she did. That's odd, isn't it? She's afraid her mother will object to her marrying a New Yorker. Got some silly prejudice against the Four Hundred. I said it couldn't happen any too soon for me. We had a sort of a notion next week would be about right."
"It suits me," said the other. They shook hands. "I want to say, here and now, that I love her with all my heart and soul, and I'll never let her rue the day she married me. I love her, old son."
"Not a blamed bit more than I do," said Jeff fervently. "She's the best ever!"
The next morning they saw by the newspaper that their father had married his night nurse in the hospital and was going up into Maine to recover!
That same day, on the seventh tee of the Elite course, Toots promised to marry Ripley two weeks from Wednesday. At Wayside Beppy told Jefferson she would marry him at the same time, but I think it was on the ninth green.
"Mother will be wild when we cable the news to her," said she.
ALL VAN WINKLES
The fortnight between that fateful day on the links and the Wednesday aforesaid, was full of surprising complications for the Van Winkle and Barrows families.
The two girls went into fits of hysteria on receipt of a cablegram from their mother in Paris announcing her marriage to Mr. Courtney Van Winkle, of New York. They were still more prostrated on learning from their wide-eyed sweethearts that not only was Courtney their step- father but he was on the point of becoming their brother-in-law as well. A still greater shock came the day of their own double wedding which took place in the Barrows mansion on Ardmore Avenue in the presence of a small company of guests. It developed that the Mrs. Smith who nursed old Mr. Van Winkle and afterwards married him was their divorced sister, Mary, who had not only grown tired of a husband but of nursing other women's husbands as well. The situation was unique.
"Good heavens," said Rip, after the ceremony which linked the entire Barrows family to the Van Winkles, "what relation are we to each other?"
"Well," said his wife, "for one thing, you are my uncle by marriage."
"And I am my father's brother-in-law. By the same argument, the governor becomes his own son's son-in-law. Can you beat it?"
"Your brother becomes your father, and my mother is my sister. Now, let's see what else—"
"And your sister is now your mother-in-law. By the way, has she any children?"
"Two little girls," said Toots.
"That makes poor old Corky a grandfather," groaned Rip.
Pretty much the same conversation took place between Jeff and Beppy.
"Corky is my father-brother," said Jeff, summing it all up.
On the high seas, Mr. and Mrs. Courtney Van Winkle threshed out the amazing situation, and in the mists of the Maine coast, the flabbergasted father of the three young men who fared forth to make men of themselves agonised over the result of their efforts.
"When I am quite strong again, my dear," said he to the comely ex- nurse—who, by the way, had engaged a male attendant to take her place in looking after the convalescent gentleman, "we must have a family gathering in New York. What is your mother like?"
"She is like all women who marry at her age," said she without hesitation—and without rancour. "She's very silly. What sort of a person is your son?"
"I don't know," said Mr. Van Winkle with conviction.
We will permit three months to slip by. No honeymoon should be shorter than that. It is meet that we should grant our quiddlers three and their excellent parent the supreme felicity of enjoying the period without being spied upon by a mercenary story-teller. But all interests, as well as all roads, lead to a common centre. The centre in this case was New York City.
It goes without saying that the Barrows girls, Edith and Gwendolyn, preferred New York to W—— as a place of residence. They married New Yorkers and it was only right and proper that they should love New York. Possessing a full third of the enormous fortune left by their distilling father, they maintained that they could afford to live in New York, even though their husbands remained out of employment for the rest of their natural lives. We already know that Mrs. Corky Van Winkle longed for a seat among the lofty, and that Mrs. Bleecker Van Winkle had married at least two gentlemen of Gotham in the struggle to feel at home there. Therefore, we are permitted to announce that Jefferson and Ripley Van Winkle resigned their positions as golf- instructors the instant the wedding bells began to ring, and went upon the retired list with the record of an honourable, even distinguished career behind them. They said something about going into "the Street," and their amiable and beautiful wives exclaimed that it would be perfectly lovely of them. But, they added, there was really no excuse for hurrying.