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The Bandbox
by Louis Joseph Vance
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Ismay jumped back, mouthing curses; the girl had already slipped out of the room. Turning, he saw her flying through the hall toward the main door. In a fit of futile, childish spite, unreasonable and unreasoning, he whipped out his pistol and sent a bullet after her.

She heard it whine near her head and crash through the glass panes of the door. And she heard herself cry out in a strange voice. The next instant she had flung open the door and thrown herself out, across the veranda and down the steps. Then turning blindly to the left, instinct guiding her to seek temporary safety by hiding in the wilderness of the dunes, she blundered into somebody's arms.

She was caught and held fast despite her struggles to free herself: to which, believing herself to be in the hands of Mrs. Clover or her husband, she gave all her strength.

At the same time the first-floor windows of the hotel were illumined by an infernal glare. All round her there was lurid light, setting everything in sharp relief. The face of the man who held her was suddenly revealed; and it was her father's.... She had left him inside the building and now ... She was assailed with a terrifying fear that she had gone mad. In a frenzy she wrenched herself free; but only to be caught in other arms.

A voice she knew said soothingly: "There, Miss Searle—you're all right now...."

Staff's voice and, when she twisted to look, Staff's face, friendly and reassuring!

"Don't be afraid," he was saying; "we'll take care of you now—your father and I."

"My father!" she gasped. "My father is in there!"

"No," said Iff at her side. "Believe me, he isn't. That, dear, is your fondly affectionate Uncle Arbuthnot—and between the several of us I don't mind telling you that he's stood in my shoes for the last time."

"But I don't," she stammered—"I don't understand—"

"You will in a minute," Staff told her gently. At the same time he lifted his voice. "Look out, Iff—look out!"

He strove to put himself between the girl and danger, making a shield of his body. But with a supple movement she eluded him.

She saw in the doorway of the burning house the man she had thought to be her father. The other man, he whose daughter she really was, had started to run toward the veranda steps. The man in the doorway flung up his hand and, clear and vicious above the crackling of the flames, she heard the short song of a Colt automatic—six shots, so close upon one another that they were as one prolonged.

There was a spatter of bullets in the sandy ground about them; and then, with scarcely an appreciable interval, a second flutter of an automatic. This time the reports came from the pistol in Iff's hand. He was standing in full glare at the bottom of the veranda steps, aiming with great composure and precision.

The figure in the doorway reeled as if struck by an axe, swung half-way round and tottered back into the house. The little man below the veranda steps delayed only long enough to pluck out the empty clip from the butt of his pistol and slip another, loaded, into its place. Then with cat-like agility he sprang up the steps and dived into the furnace-like interior of the hotel. A third stuttering series of reports saluted this action, and then there was a short pause ended by a single shot.

"Come," said Staff. He took her arm gently. "Come away...."

Shuddering, she suffered him to lead her a little distance into the dunes. Here he released her.

"If you won't mind being left alone a few minutes," he said, "I'll go back and see what's happened. You'll be perfectly safe here, I fancy."

"Please," she said breathlessly—"do go. Yes, please."

She urged him with frantic gestures....

He hurried back to the front of the hotel. By now it was burning like a bonfire; already, short as had been the time since the overturning of the lamp, the entire ground floor with the exception of one wing was a roaring welter of flames, while the fire had leaped up the main staircase and set its signals in the windows of the upper story.

Iff was standing at some distance from the main entrance, having pushed his way through the tangle of undergrowth to escape the scorching heat that emanated from the building. He caught sight of Staff approaching and waved a hand to him.

"Greetings!" he cried cheerfully, raising his voice to make it heard above the voice of the conflagration.

"Where's Nelly?"

Staff explained. "But what about Ismay?" he demanded.

Iff grinned and hung his head as if embarrassed, rubbing a handkerchief over the smoke-stained fingers of his right hand.

"I got him," he said simply.

"You left him in there?"

The little man nodded without reply and turned alertly to engage Mrs. Clover, who was bearing down upon them in the first stages of hysterics. But at sight of Iff she pulled up and calmed herself a trifle.

"Oh, sir," she cried, "I'm so glad you're safe, sir! I was asleep in the kitchen when the fire broke out—and then I thought I heard pistol shots—and I didn't know but somethin' had happened to you—"

"No," said Iff coolly; "you can see I'm all right."

"And Eph, sir? Where's my husband?" she shrieked.

"Oh," said Iff, at length identifying the woman. "You'll find him down at the dock—dead drunk in the motor-boat," he told her. "If I were you I'd go to him right away."

"But whatever will we do for a place to sleep tonight?"

"Help yourself," Iff replied with a generous wave of his hand "You've all Pennymint to ask shelter of, if you can manage to make your husband run the boat across."

"But you—what'll you do?"

"I've another boat handy," Iff explained. "We'll go in that."

"And will you rebuild, sir?"

"No," he said gravely, "I don't think so. I fancy this is the last time I'll ever set foot on Wreck Island. Now clear out," he added with a sharp change of manner, "and see if you can't sober that drunken fool up."

Abashed, the woman cringed and turned away. Presently she broke into a clumsy run and vanished in the direction of the landing-stage.

"You've accepted the identity of Ismay," commented Staff disapprovingly, as they moved off together to rejoin Eleanor.

"For the last time," said the little man. "Until I get aboard Bascom's boat again, only. It's the easiest way."

"How do you mean?"

Iff nodded at the blazing building. "That wipes out all scores," he replied. "What they find of Cousin Artie when that cools off won't be enough to hold an inquest over; he will be simply thought to have disappeared, since I won't return to this place. And that's the easiest way: we don't got any use for inquests at the wind-up of this giddy dime-novel!"



* * * * *

The light of the great fire illumined not only all the island but the waters for miles around. As Bascom's boat drew away, its owner called Staff's attention to a covey of sails, glowing pink against the dark background of the mainland as they stood across the arm of the Sound for the island.

"Neighbours," said Mr. Bascom; "comin' for to see if they can lend a hand or snatch a souvenir or so, mebbe."

Staff nodded, with little interest. Out of the corners of his eyes he could see Iff and his daughter, on the opposite side of the boat. Iff was talking to her in a gentle, subdued voice strangely unlike his customary acrid method of expression. He had an arm round his daughter's shoulders; her head rested on his....

Staff looked away, back at the shining island. He could not grudge the little man his hour. His own would come, in time....

THE END



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Transcriber's Notes:

Spaced contractions in the original publication have been joined except where they would probably have been pronounced as two words.

The following changes have been made for consistency: page 132, "downstairs" changed to "down-stairs" page 136, "desklamp" changed to "desk-lamp" page 151, "stupified" changed to "stupefied" page 205, "up-town" changed to "uptown" page 212, "bell-boy" changed to "bellboy" page 239, "newel post" changed to "newel-post" page 269, "kitchen-porch" changed to "kitchen porch" page 272, "strongbox" changed to "strong-box" page 298, "P. M." changed to "P.M."

page 92, "Manver's lips" changed to "Manvers' lips".

page 126, "How-d-'you-do" changed to "How-d'-you-do".

page 127, closing single quote changed to double quote: "But he can't have left the ship!"

page 150, period added at end of sentence, "and came hastily over to the table beside which he was standing."

page 206, ";" added in "this morning; Jane".

page 284, missing " added at end of note.

Book list at end: Apparent typesetting errors noticed by the transcriber were fixed as follows: "Bar 20" changed to "Bar-20" "Mulfird" changed to "Mulford" (for Bar-20 Days) closing quote added to "Uncle William" (for Happy Island) "Ellery H. Clarke" changed to "Ellery H. Clark" (for Loaded Dice) "Get-Rick-Quick-Wallingford" changed to "Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford" 'author of the "Broad Higway"' changed to '"author of "The Broad Highway"' (for My Lady Caprice) "Louis Joseh Vance" changed to "Louis Joseph Vance" (for Pool of Flame)

End of Transcriber's Notes

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