He still wore his hair long, and, though his conversation gradually sloughed off much of its idiom and vulgarism, enough of the mountaineer stood out to lend to his personality a savor of the crudely picturesque.
Meanwhile, he drew and read and studied and walked and every day's advancement was a forced march. The things that he drew began by degrees to resolve themselves into some faint similitude to the things from which he drew them. The stick of charcoal no longer insisted on leaving in the wake of its stroke smears like soot. It began to be governable. But it was the fact that Samson saw things as they were and insisted on trying to draw them just as he saw them, which best pleased his sponsor. During those initial months, except for his long tramps, occupied with thoughts of the hills and the Widow Miller's cabin, his life lay between Lescott's studio and the cheap lodgings which he had taken near by. Sometimes while he was bending toward his easel there would rise before his imagination the dark unshaven countenance of Jim Asberry. At such moments, he would lay down the charcoal, and his eyes would cloud into implacable hatred. "I hain't fergot ye, Pap," he would mutter, with the fervor of a renewed vow. With the speed of a clock's minute hand, too gradual to be seen by the eye, yet so fast that it soon circles the dial, changes were being wrought in the raw material called Samson South. One thing did not change. In every crowd, he found himself searching hungrily for the face of Sally, which he knew he could not find. Always, there was the unadmitted, yet haunting, sense of his own rawness. For life was taking off his rough edges—and there were many—and life went about the process in workmanlike fashion, with sandpaper. The process was not enjoyable, and, though the man's soul was made fitter, it was also rubbed raw. Lescott, tremendously interested in his experiment, began to fear that the boy's too great somberness of disposition would defeat the very earnestness from which it sprang. So, one morning, the landscape-maker went to the telephone, and called for the number of a friend whom he rightly believed to be the wisest man, and the greatest humorist, in New York. The call brought no response, and the painter dried his brushes, and turned up Fifth Avenue to an apartment hotel in a cross street, where on a certain door he rapped with all the elaborate formula of a secret code. Very cautiously, the door opened, and revealed a stout man with a humorous, clean-shaven face. On a table lay a scattered sheaf of rough and yellow paper, penciled over in a cramped and interlined hand. The stout man's thinning hair was rumpled over a perspiring forehead. Across the carpet was a worn stretch that bespoke much midnight pacing. The signs were those of authorship.
"Why didn't you answer your 'phone?" smiled Lescott, though he knew.
The stout man shrugged his shoulders and pointed to the wall, where the disconnected receiver was hanging down. "Necessary precaution against creditors," he explained. "I am out—except to you."
"Busy?" interrogated Lescott. "You seem to have a manuscript in the making."
"No." The stout man's face clouded with black foreboding. "I shall never write another story. I'm played out." He turned, and restively paced the worn carpet, pausing at the window for a despondent glance across the roofs and chimney pots of the city. Lescott, with the privilege of intimacy, filled his pipe from the writer's tobacco jar.
"I want your help. I want you to meet a friend of mine, and take him under your wing in a fashion. He needs you."
The stout man's face again clouded. A few years ago, he had been peddling his manuscripts with the heart-sickness of unsuccessful middle age. To-day, men coupled his name with those of Kipling and De Maupassant. One of his antipathies was meeting people who sought to lionize him. Lescott read the expression, and, before his host had time to object, swept into his recital.
At the end he summarized:
"The artist is much like the setter-pup. If it's in him, it's as instinctive as a dog's nose. But to become efficient he must go a-field with a steady veteran of his own breed."
"I know!" The great man, who was also the simple man, smiled reminiscently. "They tried to teach me to herd sheep when my nose was itching for bird country. Bring on your man; I want to know him."
Samson was told nothing of the benevolent conspiracy, but one evening shortly later he found himself sitting at a cafe table with his sponsor and a stout man, almost as silent as himself. The stout man responded with something like churlish taciturnity to the half-dozen men and women who came over with flatteries. But later, when the trio was left alone, his face brightened, and he turned to the boy from Misery.
"Does Billy Conrad still keep store at Stagbone?"
Samson started, and his gaze fell in amazement. At the mention of the name, he saw a cross-roads store, with rough mules hitched to fence palings. It was a picture of home, and here was a man who had been there! With glowing eyes, the boy dropped unconsciously back into the vernacular of the hills.
"Hev ye been thar, stranger?"
The writer nodded, and sipped his whiskey.
"Not for some years, though," he confessed, as he drifted into reminiscence, which to Samson was like water to a parched throat.
When they left the cafe, the boy felt as though he were taking leave of an old and tried friend. By homely methods, this unerring diagnostician of the human soul had been reading him, liking him, and making him feel a heart-warming sympathy. The man who shrunk from lion-hunters, and who could return the churl's answer to the advances of sycophant and flatterer, enthusiastically poured out for the ungainly mountain boy all the rare quality and bouquet of his seasoned personal charm. It was a vintage distilled from experience and humanity. It had met the ancient requirement for the mellowing and perfecting of good Madeira, that it shall "voyage twice around the world's circumference," and it was a thing reserved for his friends.
"It's funny," commented the boy, when he and Lescott were alone, "that he's been to Stagbone."
"My dear Samson," Lescott assured him, "if you had spoken of Tucson, Arizona, or Caracas or Saskatchewan, it would have been the same. He knows them all."
It was not until much later that Samson realized how these two really great men had adopted him as their "little brother," that he might have their shoulder-touch to march by. And it was without his realization, too, that they laid upon him the imprint of their own characters and philosophy. One night at Tonelli's table-d'hote place, the latest diners were beginning to drift out into Tenth Street. The faded soprano, who had in better days sung before a King, was wearying as she reeled out ragtime with a strong Neapolitan accent. Samson had been talking to the short-story writer about his ambitions and his hatreds. He feared he was drifting away from his destiny—and that he would in the end become too softened. The writer leaned across the table, and smiled.
"Fighting is all right," he said; "but a man should not be just the fighter." He mused a moment in silence, then quoted a scrap of verse:
"'Test of the man, if his worth be, "'In accord with the ultimate plan, "'That he be not, to his marring, "'Always and utterly man; "'That he bring out of the battle "'Fitter and undefiled, "'To woman the heart of a woman, "'To children the heart of a child.'"
Samson South offered no criticism. He had known life from the stoic's view-point. He had heard the seductive call of artistic yearnings. Now, it dawned on him in an intensely personal fashion, as it had begun already to dawn in theory, that the warrior and the artist may meet on common and compatible ground, where the fighting spirit is touched and knighted with the gentleness of chivalry. He seemed to be looking from a new and higher plane, from which he could see a mellow softness on angles that had hitherto been only stern and unrelieved.
"I have come, not to quarrel with you, but to try to dissuade you." The Honorable Mr. Wickliffe bit savagely at his cigar, and gave a despairing spread to his well-manicured hands. "You stand in danger of becoming the most cordially hated man in New York—hated by the most powerful combinations in New York."
Wilfred Horton leaned back in a swivel chair, and put his feet up on his desk. For a while, he seemed interested in his own silk socks.
"It's very kind of you to warn me," he said, quietly.
The Honorable Mr. Wickliffe rose in exasperation, and paced the floor. The smoke from his black cigar went before him in vicious puffs. Finally, he stopped, and leaned glaring on the table.
"Your family has always been conservative. When you succeeded to the fortune, you showed no symptoms of this mania. In God's name, what has changed you?"
"I hope I have grown up," explained the young man, with an unruffled smile. "One can't wear swaddling clothes forever, you know."
The attorney for an instant softened his manner as he looked into the straight-gazing, unafraid eyes of his client.
"I've known you from your babyhood. I advised your father before you were born. You have, by the chance of birth, come into the control of great wealth. The world of finance is of delicate balance. Squabbles in certain directorates may throw the Street into panic. Suddenly, you emerge from decent quiet, and run amuck in the china-shop, bellowing and tossing your horns. You make war on those whose interests are your own. You seem bent on hari-kari. You have toys enough to amuse you. Why couldn't you stay put?"
"They weren't the right things. They were, as you say, toys." The smile faded and Horton's chin set itself for a moment, as he added:
"If you don't think I'm going to stay put—watch me."
"Why do you have to make war—to be chronically insurgent?"
"Because"—the young man, who had waked up, spoke slowly—"I am reading a certain writing on the wall. The time is not far off when, unless we regulate a number of matters from within, we shall be regulated from without. Then, instead of giving the financial body a little griping in its gold-lined tummy, which is only the salutary effect of purging, a surgical operation will be required. It will be something like one they performed on the body politic of France not so long ago. Old Dr. Guillotine officiated. It was quite a successful operation, though the patient failed to rally."
"Take for instance this newspaper war you've inaugurated on the police," grumbled the corporation lawyer. "It's less dangerous to the public than these financial crusades, but decidedly more so for yourself. You are regarded as a dangerous agitator, a marplot! I tell you, Wilfred, aside from all other considerations the thing is perilous to yourself. You are riding for a fall. These men whom you are whipping out of public life will turn on you."
"So I hear. Here's a letter I got this morning—unsigned. That is, I thought it was here. Well, no matter. It warns me that I have less than three months to live unless I call off my dogs."
The Honorable Mr. Wickliffe's face mirrored alarm.
"Let me have it," he demanded. "You shouldn't treat such matters lightly. Men are assassinated in New York. I'll refer it to the police."
"That would be in the nature of referring back, wouldn't it? I fancy it came from some one not so remote from police sympathy."
"What are you going to do about it?"
"I'm going to stay put. If I can convict certain corrupt members of the department, I'm going to nail brass-buttoned hides all over the front of the city hall."
"Have you had any other threats?"
"No, not exactly, but I've had more touching recognition than that. I've been asked to resign from several very good clubs."
The attorney groaned.
"You will be a Pariah. So will your allies."
It is said that the new convert is ever the most extreme fanatic. Wilfred Horton had promised to put on his working clothes, and he had done it with reckless disregard for consequences. At first, he was simply obeying Adrienne's orders; but soon he found himself playing the game for the game's sake. Men at the clubs and women whom he took into dinner chaffed him over his sudden disposition to try his wings. He was a man riding a hobby, they said. In time, it began to dawn that he, with others, whom he had drawn to his standards, meant serious war on certain complacent evils in the world of finance and politics. Sleeping dogs of custom began to stir and growl. Political overlords, assailed as unfaithful servants, showed their teeth. From some hidden, but unfailing, source terribly sure and direct evidence of guilt was being gathered. For Wilfred Horton, who was demanding a day of reckoning and spending great sums of money to get it, there was a prospect of things doing.
Adrienne Lescott was in Europe. Soon, she would return, and Horton meant to show that he had not buried his talent.
* * * * *
For eight months Samson's life had run in the steady ascent of gradual climbing, but, in the four months from the first of August to the first of December, the pace of his existence suddenly quickened. He left off drawing from plaster casts, and went into a life class. His shyness secretly haunted him. The nudity of the woman posing on the model throne, the sense of his own almost as naked ignorance, and the dread of the criticism to come, were all keen embarrassments upon him.
In this period, Samson had his first acquaintanceship with women, except those he had known from childhood—and his first acquaintanceship with the men who were not of his own art world. Of the women, he saw several sorts. There were the aproned and frowsy students, of uncertain age, who seemed to have no life except that which existed under studio skylights. There were, also, a few younger girls, who took their art life with less painful solemnity; and, of course, the models in the "partially draped" and the "altogether."
Tony Collasso was an Italian illustrator, who lodged and painted in studio-apartments in Washington Square, South. He had studied in the Julian School and the Beaux Arts, and wore a shock of dark curls, a Satanic black mustache, and an expression of Byronic melancholy. The melancholy, he explained to Samson, sprang from the necessity of commercializing his divine gift. His companions were various, numbering among them a group of those pygmy celebrities of whom one has never heard until by chance he meets them, and of whom their intimates speak as of immortals.
To Collasso's studio, Samson was called one night by telephone. He had sometimes gone there before to sit for an hour, chiefly as a listener, while the man from Sorrento bewailed fate with his coterie, and denounced all forms of government, over insipid Chianti. Sometimes, an equally melancholy friend in soiled linen and frayed clothes took up his violin, and, as he improvised, the noisy group would fall silent. At such moments, Samson would ride out on the waves of melody, and see again the velvet softness of the mountain night, with stars hanging intimately close, and hear the ripple of Misery and a voice for which he longed.
But, to-night, he entered the door to find himself in the midst of a gay and boisterous party. The room was already thickly fogged with smoke, and a dozen men and women, singing snatches of current airs, were interesting themselves over a chafing dish. The studio of Tony Collasso was of fair size, and adorned with many unframed paintings, chiefly his own, and a few good tapestries and bits of bric-a-brac variously jettisoned from the sea of life in which he had drifted. The crowd itself was typical. A few very minor writers and artists, a model or two, and several women who had thinking parts in current Broadway productions.
At eleven o'clock the guests of honor arrived in a taxicab. They were Mr. William Farbish and Miss Winifred Starr. Having come, as they explained, direct from the theater where Miss Starr danced in the first row, they were in evening dress. Samson mentally acknowledged, though, with instinctive disfavor for the pair, that both were, in a way, handsome. Collasso drew him aside to whisper importantly:
"Make yourself agreeable to Farbish. He is received in the most exclusive society, and is a connoisseur of art. He is a connoisseur in all things," added the Italian, with a meaning glance at the girl. "Farbish has lived everywhere," he ran on, "and, if he takes a fancy to you, he will put you up at the best clubs. I think I shall sell him a landscape."
The girl was talking rapidly and loudly. She had at once taken the center of the room, and her laughter rang in free and egotistical peals above the other voices.
"Come," said the host, "I shall present you."
The boy shook hands, gazing with his usual directness into the show -girl's large and deeply-penciled eyes. Farbish, standing at one side with his hands in his pockets, looked on with an air of slightly bored detachment.
His dress, his mannerisms, his bearing, were all those of the man who has overstudied his part. They were too perfect, too obviously rehearsed through years of social climbing, but that was a defect Samson was not yet prepared to recognize.
Some one had naively complimented Miss Starr on the leopard-skin cloak she had just thrown from her shapely shoulders, and she turned promptly and vivaciously to the flatterer.
"It is nice, isn't it?" she prattled. "It may look a little up-stage for a girl who hasn't got a line to read in the piece, but these days one must get the spot-light, or be a dead one. It reminds me of a little run-in I had with Graddy—he's our stage-director, you know." She paused, awaiting the invitation to proceed, and, having received it, went gaily forward. "I was ten minutes late, one day, for rehearsal, and Graddy came up with that sarcastic manner of his, and said: 'Miss Starr, I don't doubt you are a perfectly nice girl, and all that, but it rather gets my goat to figure out how, on a salary of fifteen dollars a week, you come to rehearsals in a million dollars' worth of clothes, riding in a limousine—and ten minutes late!'" She broke off with the eager little expression of awaiting applause, and, having been satisfied, she added: "I was afraid that wasn't going to get a laugh, after all."
She glanced inquiringly at Samson, who had not smiled, and who stood looking puzzled.
"A penny for your thoughts, Mr. South, from down South," she challenged.
"I guess I'm sort of like Mr. Graddy," said the boy, slowly. "I was just wondering how you do do it."
He spoke with perfect seriousness, and, after a moment, the girl broke into a prolonged peal of laughter.
"Oh, you are delicious!" she exclaimed. "If I could do the ingenue like that, believe me, I'd make some hit." She came over, and, laying a hand on each of the boy's shoulders, kissed him lightly on the cheek. "That's for a droll boy!" she said. "That's the best line I've heard pulled lately."
Farbish was smiling in quiet amusement. He tapped the mountaineer on the shoulder.
"I've heard George Lescott speak of you," he said, genially. "I've rather a fancy for being among the discoverers of men of talent. We must see more of each other."
Samson left the party early, and with a sense of disgust. It was, at the time of his departure, waxing more furious in its merriment. It seemed to him that nowhere among these people was a note of sincerity, and his thoughts went back to the parting at the stile, and the girl whose artlessness and courage were honest.
Several days later, Samson was alone in Lescott's studio. It was nearing twilight, and he had laid aside a volume of De Maupassant, whose simple power had beguiled him. The door opened, and he saw the figure of a woman on the threshold. The boy rose somewhat shyly from his seat, and stood looking at her. She was as richly dressed as Miss Starr had been, but there was the same difference as between the colors of the sunset sky and the exaggerated daubs of Collasso's landscape. She stood lithely straight, and her furs fell back from a throat as smooth and slenderly rounded as Sally's. Her cheeks were bright with the soft glow of perfect health, and her lips parted over teeth that were as sound and strong as they were decorative. This girl did not have to speak to give the boy the conviction that she was some one whom he must like. She stood at the door a moment, and then came forward with her hand outstretched.
"This is Mr. South, isn't it?" she asked, with a frank friendliness in her voice.
"Yes, ma'am, that's my name."
"I'm Adrienne Lescott," said the girl. "I thought I'd find my brother here. I stopped by to drive him up-town."
Samson had hesitatingly taken the gloved hand, and its grasp was firm and strong despite its ridiculous smallness.
"I reckon he'll be back presently." The boy was in doubt as to the proper procedure. This was Lescott's studio, and he was not certain whether or not it lay in his province to invite Lescott's sister to take possession of it. Possibly, he ought to withdraw. His ideas of social usages were very vague.
"Then, I think I'll wait," announced the girl. She threw off her fur coat, and took a seat before the open grate. The chair was large, and swallowed her up.
Samson wanted to look at her, and was afraid that this would be impolite. He realized that he had seen no real ladies, except on the street, and now he had the opportunity. She was beautiful, and there was something about her willowy grace of attitude that made the soft and clinging lines of her gown fall about her in charming drapery effects. Her small pumps and silk-stockinged ankles as she held them out toward the fire made him say to himself:
"I reckon she never went barefoot in her life."
"I'm glad of this chance to meet you, Mr. South," said the girl with a smile that found its way to the boy's heart. After all, there was sincerity in "foreign" women. "George talks of you so much that I feel as if I'd known you all the while. Don't you think I might claim friendship with George's friends?"
Samson had no answer. He wished to say something equally cordial, but the old instinct against effusiveness tied his tongue.
"I owe right smart to George Lescott," he told her, gravely.
"That's not answering my question," she laughed. "Do you consent to being friends with me?"
"Miss—" began the boy. Then, realizing that in New York this form of address is hardly complete, he hastened to add: "Miss Lescott, I've been here over nine months now, and I'm just beginning to realize what a rube I am. I haven't no—" Again, he broke off, and laughed at himself. "I mean, I haven't any idea of proper manners, and so I'm, as we would say down home, 'plumb skeered' of ladies."
As he accused himself, Samson was looking at her with unblinking directness; and she met his glance with eyes that twinkled.
"Mr. South," she said, "I know all about manners, and you know all about a hundred real things that I want to know. Suppose we begin teaching each other?"
Samson's face lighted with the revolutionizing effect that a smile can bring only to features customarily solemn.
"Miss Lescott," he said, "let's call that a trade—but you're gettin' all the worst of it. To start with, you might give me a lesson right now in how a feller ought to act, when he's talkin' to a lady—how I ought to act with you!"
Her laugh made the situation as easy as an old shoe.
Ten minutes later, Lescott entered.
"Well," he said, with a smile, "shall I Introduce you people, or have you already done it for yourselves?"
"Oh," Adrienne assured him, "Mr. South and I are old friends." As she left the room, she turned and added: "The second lesson had better be at my house. If I telephone you some day when we can have the school-room to ourselves, will you come up?"
Samson grinned, and forgot to be bashful as he replied:
"I'll come a-kitin'!"
Early that year, the touch of autumn came to the air. Often, returning at sundown from the afternoon life class, Samson felt the lure of its melancholy sweetness, and paused on one of the Washington Square benches, with many vague things stirring in his mind. Some of these things were as subtly intangible as the lazy sweetness that melted the facades of the walls into the soft colors of a dream city. He found himself loving the Palisades of Jersey, seen through a powdery glow at evening, and the red-gold glare of the setting sun on high-swung gilt signs. He felt with a throb of his pulses that he was in the Bagdad of the new world, and that every skyscraper was a minaret from which the muezzin rang toward the Mecca of his Art. He felt with a stronger throb the surety of young, but quickening, abilities within himself. Partly, it was the charm of Indian summer, partly a sense of growing with the days, but, also, though he had not as yet realized that, it was the new friendship into which Adrienne had admitted him, and the new experience of frank camaraderie with a woman not as a member of an inferior sex, but as an equal companion of brain and soul. He had seen her often, and usually alone, because he shunned meetings with strangers. Until his education had advanced further, he wished to avoid social embarrassments. He knew that she liked him, and realized that it was because he was a new and virile type, and for that reason a diversion —a sort of human novelty. She liked him, too, because it was rare for a man to offer her friendship without making love, and she was certain he would not make love. He liked her for the same many reasons that every one else did—because she was herself. Of late, too, he had met a number of men at Lescott's clubs. He was modestly surprised to find that, though his attitude on these occasions was always that of one sitting in the background, the men seemed to like him, and, when they said, "See you again," at parting, it was with the convincing manner of real friendliness. Sometimes, even now, his language was ungrammatical, but so, for the matter of that, was theirs.... The great writer smiled with his slow, humorous lighting of the eyes as he observed to Lescott:
"We are licking our cub into shape, George, and the best of it is that, when he learns to dance ragtime to the organ, he isn't going to stop being a bear. He's a grizzly!"
One wonderful afternoon in October, when the distances were mist-hung, and the skies very clear, Samson sat across the table from Adrienne Lescott at a road-house on the Sound. The sun had set through great cloud battalions massed against the west, and the horizon was fading into darkness through a haze like ash of roses. She had picked him up on the Avenue, and taken him into her car for a short spin, but the afternoon had beguiled them, luring them on a little further, and still a little further. When they were a score of miles from Manhattan, the car had suddenly broken down. It would, the chauffeur told them, be the matter of an hour to effect repairs, so the girl, explaining to the boy that this event gave the affair the aspect of adventure, turned and led the way, on foot, to the nearest road-house.
"We will telephone that we shall be late, and then have dinner," she laughed. "And for me to have dinner with you alone, unchaperoned at a country inn, is by New York standards delightfully unconventional. It borders on wickedness." Then, since their attitude toward each other was so friendly and innocent, they both laughed. They had dined under the trees of an old manor house, built a century ago, and now converted into an inn, and they had enjoyed themselves because it seemed to them pleasingly paradoxical that they should find in a place seemingly so shabby-genteel a cuisine and service of such excellence. Neither of them had ever been there before, and neither of them knew that the reputation of this establishment was in its own way wide—and unsavory. They had no way of knowing that, because of several thoroughly bruited scandals which had had origin here, it was a tabooed spot, except for persons who preferred a semi-shady retreat; and they passed over without suspicion the palpable surprise of the head waiter when they elected to occupy a table on the terrace instead of a cabinet particulier.
But the repairs did not go as smoothly as the chauffeur had expected, and, when he had finished, he was hungry. So, eleven o'clock found them still chatting at their table on the lighted lawn. After awhile, they fell silent, and Adrienne noticed that her companion's face had become deeply, almost painfully set, and that his gaze was tensely focused on herself.
"What is it, Mr. South?" she demanded.
The young man began to speak, in a steady, self-accusing voice.
"I was sitting here, looking at you," he said, bluntly. "I was thinking how fine you are in every way; how there is as much difference in the texture of men and women as there is in the texture of their clothes. From that automobile cap you wear to your slippers and stockings, you are clad in silk. From your brain to the tone of your voice, you are woven of human silk. I've learned lately that silk isn't weak, but strong. They make the best balloons of it." He paused and laughed, but his face again became sober. "I was thinking, too, of your mother. She must be sixty, but she's a young woman. Her face is smooth and unwrinkled, and her heart is still in bloom. At that same age, George won't be much older than he is now."
The compliment was so obviously not intended as compliment at all that the girl flushed with pleasure.
"Then," went on Samson, his face slowly drawing with pain, "I was thinking of my own people. My mother was about forty when she died. She was an old woman. My father was forty-three. He was an old man. I was thinking how they withered under their drudgery—and of the monstrous injustice of it all."
Adrienne Lescott nodded. Her eyes were sweetly sympathetic.
"It's the hardship of the conditions," she said, softly. "Those conditions will change."
"But that's not all I was thinking," went on the boy.
"I was watching you lift your coffee-cup awhile ago. You did it unconsciously, but your movement was dainty and graceful, as though an artist had posed you. That takes generations, and, in my imagination, I saw my people sitting around an oil-cloth on a kitchen table, pouring coffee into their saucers."
"'There are five and twenty ways "'Of writing tribal lays,'"
quoted the girl, smilingly,
"'And every single one of them is right.'"
"And a horrible thought came to me," continued Samson. He took out his handkerchief, and mopped his forehead, then tossed back the long lock that fell over it. "I wondered"—he paused, and then went on with a set face—"I wondered if I were growing ashamed of my people."
"If I thought that," said Miss Lescott, quietly, "I wouldn't have much use for you. But I know there's no danger."
"If I thought there was," Samson assured her, "I would go back there to Misery, and shoot myself to death.... And, yet, the thought came to me."
"I'm not afraid of your being a cad," she repeated.
"And yet," he smiled, "I was trying to imagine you among my people. What was that rhyme you used to quote to me when you began to teach me manners?"
She laughed, and fell into nonsense quotation, as she thrummed lightly on the table-cloth with her slim fingers.
"'The goops they lick their fingers, "'The goops eat with their knives, "'They spill their broth on the table-cloth, "'And lead disgusting lives.'"
"My people do all those things," announced Samson, though he said it rather in a manner of challenge than apology, "except spilling their broth on the table-cloth.... There are no table-cloths. What would you do in such company?"
"I," announced Miss Lescott, promptly, "should also lick my fingers."
Samson laughed, and looked up. A man had come out onto the verandah from the inside, and was approaching the table. He was immaculately groomed, and came forward with the deference of approaching a throne, yet as one accustomed to approaching thrones. His smile was that of pleased surprise.
The mountaineer recognized Farbish, and, with a quick hardening of the face, he recalled their last meeting. If Farbish should presume to renew the acquaintanceship under these circumstances, Samson meant to rise from his chair, and strike him in the face. George Lescott's sister could not be subjected to such meetings. Yet, it was a tribute to his advancement in good manners that he dreaded making a scene in her presence, and, as a warning, he met Farbish's pleasant smile with a look of blank and studied lack of recognition. The circumstances out of which Farbish might weave unpleasant gossip did not occur to Samson. That they were together late in the evening, unchaperoned, at a road-house whose reputation was socially dubious, was a thing he did not realize. But Farbish was keenly alive to the possibilities of the situation. He chose to construe the Kentuckian's blank expression as annoyance at being discovered, a sentiment he could readily understand. Adrienne Lescott, following her companion's eyes, looked up, and to the boy's astonishment nodded to the new-comer, and called him by name.
"Mr. Farbish," she laughed, with mock confusion and total innocence of the fact that her words might have meaning, "don't tell on us."
"I never tell things, my dear lady," said the newcomer. "I have dwelt too long in conservatories to toss pebbles. I'm afraid, Mr. South, you have forgotten me. I'm Farbish, and I had the pleasure of meeting you" —he paused a moment, then with a pointed glance added—"at the Manhattan Club, was it not?"
"It was not," said Samson, promptly. Farbish looked his surprise, but was resolved to see no offense, and, after a few moments of affable and, it must be acknowledged, witty conversation, withdrew to his own table.
"Where did you meet that man?" demanded Samson, fiercely, when he and the girl were alone again.
"Oh, at any number of dinners and dances. His sort is tolerated for some reason." She paused, then, looking very directly at the Kentuckian, inquired, "And where did you meet him?"
"Didn't you hear him say the Manhattan Club?"
"Yes, and I knew that he was lying."
"Yes, he was!" Samson spoke, contemptuously. "Never mind where it was. It was a place I got out of when I found out who were there."
The chauffeur came to announce that the car was ready, and they went out. Farbish watched them with a smile that had in it a trace of the sardonic.
The career of Farbish had been an interesting one in its own peculiar and unadmirable fashion. With no advantages of upbringing, he had nevertheless so cultivated the niceties of social usage that his one flaw was a too great perfection. He was letter-perfect where one to the manor born might have slurred some detail.
He was witty, handsome in his saturnine way, and had powerful friends in the world of fashion and finance. That he rendered services to his plutocratic patrons, other than the repartee of his dinner talk, was a thing vaguely hinted in club gossip, and that these services were not to his credit had more than once been conjectured.
When Horton had begun his crusade against various abuses, he had cast a suspicious eye on all matters through which he could trace the trail of William Farbish, and now, when Farbish saw Horton, he eyed him with an enigmatical expression, half-quizzical and half-malevolent.
After Adrienne and Samson had disappeared, he rejoined his companion, a stout, middle-aged gentleman of florid complexion, whose cheviot cutaway and reposeful waistcoat covered a liberal embonpoint. Farbish took his cigar from his lips, and studied its ascending smoke through lids half-closed and thoughtful.
"Singular," he mused; "very singular!"
"What's singular?" impatiently demanded his companion. "Finish, or don't start."
"That mountaineer came up here as George Lescott's protege," went on Farbish, reflectively. "He came fresh from the feud belt, and landed promptly in the police court. Now, in less than a year, he's pairing off with Adrienne Lescott—who, every one supposed, meant to marry Wilfred Horton. This little party to-night is, to put it quite mildly, a bit unconventional."
The stout gentleman said nothing, and the other questioned, musingly:
"By the way, Bradburn, has the Kenmore Shooting Club requested Wilfred Horton's resignation yet?"
"Not yet. We are going to. He's not congenial, since his hand is raised against every man who owns more than two dollars." The speaker owned several million times that sum. This meeting at an out-of-the-way place had been arranged for the purpose of discussing ways and means of curbing Wilfred's crusades.
"Well, don't do it."
"Why the devil shouldn't we? We don't want anarchists in the Kenmore."
After awhile, they sat silent, Farbish smiling over the plot he had just devised, and the other man puffing with a puzzled expression at his cigar.
"That's all there is to it," summarized Mr. Farbish, succinctly. "If we can get these two men, South and Horton, together down there at the shooting lodge, under the proper conditions, they'll do the rest themselves, I think. I'll take care of South. Now, it's up to you to have Horton there at the same time."
"How do you know these two men have not already met—and amicably?" demanded Mr. Bradburn.
"I happen to know it, quite by chance. It is my business to know things—quite by chance!"
Indian summer came again to Misery, flaunting woodland banners of crimson and scarlet and orange, but to Sally the season brought only heart-achy remembrances of last autumn, when Samson had softened his stoicism as the haze had softened the horizon. He had sent her a few brief letters—not written, but plainly printed. He selected short words—as much like the primer as possible, for no other messages could she read. There were times in plenty when he wished to pour out to her torrents of feeling, and it was such feeling as would have carried comfort to her lonely little heart. He wished to tell frankly of what a good friend he had made, and how this friendship made him more able to realize that other feeling—his love for Sally. There was in his mind no suspicion—as yet—that these two girls might ever stand in conflict as to right-of-way. But the letters he wished to write were not the sort he cared to have read to the girl by the evangelist-doctor or the district-school teacher, and alone she could have made nothing of them. However, "I love you" are easy words—and those he always included.
The Widow Miller had been ailing for months, and, though the local physician diagnosed the condition as being "right porely," he knew that the specter of tuberculosis which stalks through these badly lighted and ventilated houses was stretching out its fingers to touch her shrunken chest. This had meant that Sally had to forego the evening hours of study, because of the weariness that followed the day of nursing and household drudgery. Autumn seemed to bring to her mother a slight improvement, and Sally could again sometimes steal away with her slate and book, to sit alone on the big bowlder, and study. But, oftentimes, the print on the page, or the scrawl on the slate, became blurred. Nowadays, the tears came weakly to her eyes, and, instead of hating herself for them and dashing them fiercely away, as she would have done a year ago, she sat listlessly, and gazed across the flaring hills.
Even the tuneful glory of the burgundy and scarlet mountains hurt her into wincing—for was it not the clarion of Beauty that Samson had heard—and in answer to which he had left her? So, she would sit, and let her eyes wander, and try to imagine the sort of picture those same very hungry eyes would see, could she rip away the curtain of purple distance, and look in on him—wherever he was. And, in imagining such a picture, she was hampered by no actual knowledge of the world in which he lived—it was all a fairy-tale world, one which her imagination shaped and colored fantastically. Then, she would take out one of his occasional letters, and her face would grow somewhat rapt, as she spelled out the familiar, "I love you," which was to her the soul of the message. The rest was unimportant. She would not be able to write that Christmas. letter. There had been too many interruptions in the self-imparted education, but some day she would write. There would probably be time enough. It would take even Samson a long while to become an artist. He had said so, and the morbid mountain pride forbade that she should write at all until she could do it well enough to give him a complete surprise. It must be a finished article, that letter—or nothing at all!
One day, as she was walking homeward from her lonely trysting place, she met the battered-looking man who carried medicines in his saddlebags and the Scriptures in his pocket, and who practised both forms of healing through the hills. The old man drew down his nag, and threw one leg over the pommel.
"Evenin', Sally," he greeted.
"Evenin', Brother Spencer. How air ye?"
"Tol'able, thank ye, Sally." The body-and-soul mender studied the girl awhile in silence, and then said bluntly:
"Ye've done broke right smart, in the last year. Anything the matter with ye?"
She shook her head, and laughed. It was an effort to laugh merrily, but only the ghost of the old instinctive blitheness rippled into it.
"I've jest come from old Spicer South's," volunteered the doctor. "He's ailin' pretty consid'able, these days."
"What's the matter with Unc' Spicer?" demanded the girl, in genuine anxiety. Every one along Misery called the old man Unc' Spicer.
"I can't jest make out." Her informer spoke slowly, and his brow corrugated into something like sullenness. "He hain't jest to say sick. Thet is, his organs seems all right, but he don't 'pear to have no heart fer nothin', and his victuals don't tempt him none. He's jest puny, thet's all."
"I'll go over thar, an' see him," announced the girl. "I'll cook a chicken thet'll tempt him."
The physician's mind was working along some line which did not seem to partake of cheerfulness. Again, he studied the girl, still upright and high-chinned, but, somehow, no longer effervescent with wild, resilient strength.
"Hit sometimes 'pears to me," he said, gruffly, "thet this here thing of eddication costs a sight more than hit comes to."
"What d'ye mean, Brother Spencer?"
"I reckon if Samson South hadn't a-took this hyar hankerin' atter larnin', an' had stayed home 'stid of rainbow chasin', the old man would still be able-bodied, 'stid of dyin' of a broken heart—an' you——"
The girl's cheeks flushed. Her violet eyes became deep with a loyal and defensive glow.
"Ye mustn't say things like them, Brother Spencer." Her voice was very firm and soft. "Unc' Spicer's jest gettin' old, an' es fer me, I wasn't never better ner happier in my life." It was a lie, but a splendid lie, and she told herself as well as Brother Spencer that she believed it. "Samson would come back in a minit ef we sent fer him. He's smart, an' he's got a right ter l'arnin'! He hain't like us folks; he's a—" She paused, and groped for the word that Lescott had added to her vocabulary, which she had half-forgotten. "He's a genius!"
There rose to the lips of the itinerant preacher a sentiment as to how much more loyalty availeth a man than genius, but, as he looked at the slender and valiant figure standing in the deep dust of the road, he left it unuttered.
The girl spent much time after that at the house of old Spicer South, and her coming seemed to waken him into a fitful return of spirits. His strength, which had been like the strength of an ox, had gone from him, and he spent his hours sitting listlessly in a split-bottomed rocker, which was moved from place to place, following the sunshine.
"I reckon, Unc' Spicer," suggested the girl, on one of her first visits, "I'd better send fer Samson. Mebby hit mout do ye good ter see him."
The old man was weakly leaning back in his chair, and his eyes were vacantly listless; but, at the suggestion, he straightened, and the ancient fire came again to his face.
"Don't ye do hit," he exclaimed, almost fiercely. "I knows ye means hit kindly, Sally, but don't ye meddle in my business."
"I—I didn't 'low ter meddle," faltered the girl.
"No, little gal." His voice softened at once into gentleness. "I knows ye didn't. I didn't mean ter be short-answered with ye neither, but thar's jest one thing I won't 'low nobody ter do—an' thet's ter send fer Samson. He knows the road home, an', when he wants ter come, he'll find the door open, but we hain't a-goin' ter send atter him."
The girl said nothing, and, after awhile, the old man wait on:
"I wants ye ter understand me, Sally. Hit hain't that I'm mad with Samson. God knows, I loves the boy.... I hain't a-blamin' him, neither...."
He was silent for awhile, and his words came with the weariness of dead hopes when he began again. "Mebby, I oughtn't ter talk about sech things with a young gal, but I'm an old man, an' thar hain't no harm in hit.... From the time when I used ter watch you two children go a-trapsin' off in the woods together atter hickory nuts, thar's been jest one thing thet I've looked forward to and dreamed about: I wanted ter see ye married. I 'lowed—" A mistiness quenched the sternness of his gray eyes. "I 'lowed thet, ef I could see yore children playin' round this here yard, everything thet's ever gone wrong would be paid fer."
Sally stood silently at his side, and her cheeks flushed as the tears crept into her eyes; but her hand stole through the thick mane of hair, fast turning from iron-gray to snow-white.
Spicer South watched the fattening hog that rubbed its bristling side against the rails stacked outside the fence, and then said, with an imperious tone that did not admit of misconstruction:
"But, Sally, the boy's done started out on his own row. He's got ter hoe hit. Mebby he'll come back—mebby not! Thet's as the Lord wills. Hit wouldn't do us no good fer him to come withouten he come willin'ly. The meanest thing ye could do ter me—an' him—would be ter send fer him. Ye mustn't do hit. Ye mustn't!"
"All right, Unc' Spicer. I hain't a-goin' ter do hit—leastways, not yit. But I'm a-goin' ter come over hyar every day ter see ye."
"Ye can't come too often, Sally, gal," declared the old clansman, heartily.
* * * * *
Wilfred Horton found himself that fall in the position of a man whose course lies through rapids, and for the first time in his life his pleasures were giving precedence to business. He knew that his efficiency would depend on maintaining the physical balance of perfect health and fitness, and early each morning he went for his gallop in the park. At so early an hour, he had the bridle path for the most part to himself. This had its compensations, for, though Wilfred Horton continued to smile with his old-time good humor, he acknowledged to himself that it was not pleasant to have men who had previously sought him out with flatteries avert their faces, and pretend that they had not seen him.
Horton was the most-hated and most-admired man in New York, but the men who hated and snubbed him were his own sort, and the men who admired him were those whom he would never meet, and who knew him only through the columns of penny papers. Their sympathy was too remote to bring him explicit pleasure. He was merely attempting, from within, reforms which the public and the courts had attempted from without. But, since he operated from within the walls, he was denounced as a Judas. Powerful enemies had ceased to laugh, and begun to conspire. He must be silenced! How, was a mooted question. But, in some fashion, he must be silenced. Society had not cast him out, but Society had shown him in many subtle ways that he was no longer her favorite. He had taken a plebeian stand with the masses. Meanwhile, from various sources, Horton had received warnings of actual personal danger. But at these he had laughed, and no hint of them had reached Adrienne's ears.
One evening, when business had forced the postponement of a dinner engagement with Miss Lescott, he begged her over the telephone to ride with him the following morning.
"I know you are usually asleep when I'm out and galloping," he laughed, "but you pitched me neck and crop into this hurly-burly, and I shouldn't have to lose everything. Don't have your horse brought. I want you to try out a new one of mine."
"I think," she answered, "that early morning is the best time to ride. I'll meet you at seven at the Plaza entrance."
They had turned the upper end of the reservoir before Horton drew his mount to a walk, and allowed the reins to hang. They had been galloping hard, and conversation had been impracticable.
"I suppose experience should have taught me," began Horton, slowly, "that the most asinine thing in the world is to try to lecture you, Drennie. But there are times when one must even risk your delight at one's discomfiture."
"I'm not going to tease you this morning," she answered, docilely. "I like the horse too well—and, to be frank, I like you too well!"
"Thank you," smiled Horton. "As usual, you disarm me on the verge of combat. I had nerved myself for ridicule."
"What have I done now?" inquired the girl, with an innocence which further disarmed him.
"The Queen can do no wrong. But even the Queen, perhaps more particularly the Queen, must give thought to what people are saying."
"What are people saying?"
"The usual unjust things that are said about women in society. You are being constantly seen with an uncouth freak who is scarcely a gentleman, however much he may be a man. And malicious tongues are wagging."
The girl stiffened.
"I won't spar with you. I know that you are alluding to Samson South, though the description is a slander. I never thought it would be necessary to say such a thing to you, Wilfred, but you are talking like a cad."
The young man flushed.
"I laid myself open to that," he said, slowly, "and I suppose I should have expected it."
He knew her well enough to dread the calmness of her more serious anger, and just now the tilt of her chin, the ominous light of her deep eyes and the quality of her voice told him that he had incurred it.
"May I ask," Adrienne inquired, "what you fancy constitutes your right to assume this censorship of my conduct?"
"I have no censorship, of course. I have only the interest of loving you, and meaning to marry you."
"And I may remark in passing, that you are making no progress to that end by slandering my friends."
"Adrienne, I'm not slandering. God knows I hate cads and snobs. Mr. South is simply, as yet, uncivilized. Otherwise, he would hardly take you, unchaperoned, to—well, let us say to ultra-bohemian resorts, where you are seen by such gossip-mongers as William Farbish."
"So, that's the specific charge, is it?"
"Yes, that's the specific charge. Mr. South may be a man of unusual talent and strength. But—he has done what no other man has done—with you. He has caused club gossip, which may easily be twisted and misconstrued."
"Do you fancy that Samson South could have taken me to the Wigwam Road- house if I had not cared to go with him?"
The man shook his head.
"Certainly not! But the fact that you did care to go with him indicates an influence over you which is new. You have not sought the bohemian and unconventional phases of life with your other friends."
Adrienne glanced at the athletic figure riding at her side, just now rather rigid with restraint and indignation, as though his vertebrae were threaded on a ramrod, and her eyes darkened a little.
"Now, let it be thoroughly understood between us, Wilfred," she said very quietly, "that if you see any danger in my unconventionalities, I don't care to discuss this, or any other matter, with you now or at any time." She paused, then added in a more friendly voice: "It would be rather a pity for us to quarrel about a thing like this."
The young man was still looking into her eyes, and he read there an ultimatum.
"God knows I was not questioning you," he replied, slowly. "There is no price under heaven I would not pay for your regard. None the less, I repeat that, at the present moment, I can see only two definitions for this mountaineer. Either he is a bounder, or else he is so densely ignorant and churlish that he is unfit to associate with you."
"I make no apologies for Mr. South," she said, "because none are needed. He is a stranger in New York, who knows nothing, and cares nothing about the conventionalities. If I chose to waive them, I think it was my right and my responsibility."
Horton said nothing, and, in a moment, Adrienne Lescott's manner changed. She spoke more gently:
"Wilfred, I'm sorry you choose to take this prejudice against the boy. You could have done a great deal to help him. I wanted you to be friends."
"Thank you!" His manner was stiff. "I hardly think we'd hit it off together."
"I don't think you quite understand," she argued. "Samson South is running a clean, creditable race, weighted down with a burdensome handicap. As a straight-thinking sportsman, if for no better reason, I should fancy you'd be glad to help him. He has the stamina and endurance."
"Those," said Horton, who at heart was the fairest and most generous of men, "are very admirable qualities. Perhaps, I should be more enthusiastic, Drennie, if you were a little less so."
For the first time since the talk had so narrowly skirted a quarrel, her eyes twinkled.
"I believe you are jealous!" she announced.
"Of course, I'm jealous," he replied, without evasion. "Possibly, I might have saved time in the first place by avowing my jealousy. I hasten now to make amends. I'm green-eyed."
She laid her gloved fingers lightly on his bridle hand.
"Don't be," she advised; "I'm not in love with him. If I were, it wouldn't matter. He has,
"'A neater, sweeter maiden, "'In a greener, cleaner land.'
"He's told me all about her."
Horton shook his head, dubiously.
"I wish to the good Lord, he'd go back to her," he said. "This Platonic proposition is the doormat over-which two persons walk to other things. They end by wiping their feet on the Platonic doormat."
"We'll cross that—that imaginary doormat, when we get to it," laughed the girl. "Meantime, you ought to help me with Samson."
"Thank you, no! I won't help educate my successor. And I won't abdicate"—his manner of speech grew suddenly tense—"while I can fight for my foothold."
"I haven't asked you to abdicate. This boy has been here less than a year. He came absolutely raw—"
"And lit all spraddled out in the police court!" Wilfred prompted.
"And, in less than a year, he has made wonderful advancement; such advancement as he could not have made but for one thing."
"Which was—that you took him in hand."
"No—which is, that he springs from stock that, despite its hundred years of lapse into illiteracy, is good stock. Samson South was a gentleman, Wilfred, two hundred years before he was born."
"That," observed her companion, curtly, "was some time ago."
She tossed her head, impatiently.
"Come," she said, "let's gallop."
"No," protested Wilfred, his face becoming penitent. "Just a moment! I retract. It is I who am the cad. Please, tell Mr. South just what we have both said, and make my apologies if he'll accept them. Of course, if you insist, I'll meet him. I suppose I'll have to meet him some day, anyhow. But, frankly, Drennie, I hate the man. It will take a Herculean effort to be decent to him. Still, if you say so—"
"No, Wilfred," she declined, "if you can't do it willingly, I don't want you to do it at all. It doesn't matter in the least. Let's drop the subject."
One afternoon, swinging along Fifth Avenue in his down-town walk, Samson met Mr. Farbish, who fell into step with him, and began to make conversation.
"By the way, South," he suggested after the commonplaces had been disposed of, "you'll pardon my little prevarication the other evening about having met you at the Manhattan Club?"
"Why was it necessary?" inquired Samson, with a glance of disquieting directness.
"Possibly, it was not necessary, merely politic. Of course," he laughed, "every man knows two kinds of women. It's just as well not to discuss the nectarines with the orchids, or the orchids with the nectarines."
Samson made no response. But Farbish, meeting his eyes, felt as though he had been contemptuously rebuked. His own eyes clouded with an impulse of resentment. But it passed, as he remembered that his plans involved the necessity of winning this boy's confidence. An assumption of superior virtue, he thought, came rather illogically from Samson, who had brought to the inn a young woman whom he should not have exposed to comment. He, himself, could afford to be diplomatic. Accordingly, he laughed.
"You mustn't take me too literally, South," he explained. "The life here has a tendency to make us cynical in our speech, even though we may be quite the reverse in our practices. In point of fact, I fancy we were both rather out of our element at Collasso's studio."
At the steps of a Fifth Avenue club, Farbish halted.
"Won't you turn in here," he suggested, "and assuage your thirst?"
Samson declined, and walked on. But when, a day or two later, he dropped into the same club with George Lescott, Farbish joined them in the grill—without invitation.
"By the way, Lescott," said the interloper, with an easy assurance upon which the coolness of his reception had no seeming effect, "it won't be long now until ducks are flying south. Will you get off for your customary shooting?"
"I'm afraid not." Lescott's voice became more cordial, as a man's will whose hobby has been touched. "There are several canvases to be finished for approaching exhibitions. I wish I could go. When the first cold winds begin to sweep down, I get the fever. The prospects are good, too, I understand."
"The best in years! Protection in the Canadian breeding fields is bearing fruit. Do you shoot ducks, Mr. South?" The speaker included Samson as though merely out of deference to his physical presence.
Samson shook his head. But he was listening eagerly. He, too, knew that note of the migratory "honk" from high overhead.
"Samson," said Lescott slowly, as he caught the gleam in his friend's eyes, "you've been working too hard. You'll have to take a week off, and try your hand. After you've changed your method from rifle to shotgun, you'll bag your share, and you'll come back fitter for work. I must arrange it."
"As to that," suggested Farbish, in the manner of one regarding the civilities, "Mr. South can run down to the Kenmore. I'll have a card made out for him."
"Don't trouble," demurred Lescott, coolly, "I can fix that up."
"It would be a pleasure," smiled the other. "I sincerely wish I could be there at the same time, but I'm afraid that, like you, Lescott, I shall have to give business the right of way. However, when I hear that the flights are beginning, I'll call Mr. South up, and pass the news to him."
Samson had thought it rather singular that he had never met Horton at the Lescott house, though Adrienne spoke of him almost as of a member of the family. However, Samson's visits were usually in his intervals between relays of work and Horton was probably at such times in Wall Street. It did not occur to the mountaineer that the other was intentionally avoiding him. He knew of Wilfred only through Adrienne's eulogistic descriptions, and, from hearsay, liked him.
The months of close application to easel and books had begun to tell on the outdoor man in a softening of muscles and a slight, though noticeable, pallor. The enthusiasm with which he attacked his daily schedule carried him far, and made his progress phenomenal, but he was spending capital of nerve and health, and George Lescott began to fear a break-down for his protege. Lescott did not want to advise a visit to the mountains, because he had secured from the boy a promise that, unless he was called home, he would give the experiment an unbroken trial of eighteen months.
If Samson went back, he feared his return would reawaken the sleeping volcano of the feud—and he could not easily come away again. He discussed the matter with Adrienne, and the girl began to promote in the boy an interest in the duck-shooting trip—an interest which had already awakened, despite the rifleman's inherent contempt for shotguns.
"You will be in your blind," she enthusiastically told him, "before daybreak, and after a while the wedges will come flying into view, cutting the fog in hundreds and dropping into the decoys. You'll love it! I wish I were going myself."
"Do you shoot?" he asked, in some surprise.
She nodded, and added modestly;
"But I don't kill many ducks."
"Is there anything you can't do?" he questioned in admiration, then demanded, with the touch of homesickness in his voice, "Are there any mountains down there?"
"I'm afraid we can't provide any mountains," laughed Adrienne. "Just salt marshes—and beyond them, the sea. But there's moonshine—of the natural variety—and a tonic in the wind that buffets you."
"I reckon I'd like it, all right," he said, "and I'll bring you back some ducks, if I'm lucky."
So, Lescott arranged the outfit, and Samson awaited the news of the coming flights.
That same evening, Farbish dropped into the studio, explaining that he had been buying a picture at Collasso's, and had taken the opportunity to stop by and hand Samson a visitor's card to the Kenmore Club.
He found the ground of interest fallow, and artfully sowed it with well-chosen anecdotes calculated to stimulate enthusiasm.
On leaving the studio, he paused to say:
"I'll let you know when conditions are just right." Then, he added, as though in afterthought: "And I'll arrange so that you won't run up on Wilfred Horton."
"What's the matter with Wilfred Horton?" demanded Samson, a shade curtly.
"Nothing at all," replied Farbish, with entire gravity. "Personally, I like Horton immensely. I simply thought you might find things more congenial when he wasn't among those present."
Samson was puzzled, but he did not fancy hearing from this man's lips criticisms upon friends of his friends.
"Well, I reckon," he said, coolly, "I'd like him, too."
"I beg your pardon," said the other. "I supposed you knew, or I shouldn't have broached the topic."
"You must excuse me," demurred the visitor with dignity. "I shouldn't have mentioned the subject. I seem to have said too much."
"See here, Mr. Farbish," Samson spoke quietly, but imperatively; "if you know any reason why I shouldn't meet Mr. Wilfred Horton, I want you to tell me what it is. He is a friend of my friends. You say you've said too much. I reckon you've either said too much, or too little."
Then, very insidiously and artistically, seeming all the while reluctant and apologetic, the visitor proceeded to plant in Samson's mind an exaggerated and untrue picture of Horton's contempt for him and of Horton's resentment at the favor shown him by the Lescotts.
Samson heard him out with a face enigmatically set, and his voice was soft, as he said simply at the end:
"I'm obliged to you."
Farbish had hoped for more stress of feeling, but, as he walked home, he told himself that the sphinx-like features had been a mask, and that, when these two met, their coming together held potentially for a clash. He was judge enough of character to know that Samson's morbid pride would seal his lips as to the interview—until he met Horton.
In point of fact, Samson was at first only deeply wounded. That through her kindness to him Adrienne was having to fight his battles with a close friend he had never suspected. Then, slowly, a bitterness began to rankle, quite distinct from the hurt to his sensitiveness. His birthright of suspicion and tendency to foster hatreds had gradually been falling asleep under the disarming kindness of these persons. Now, they began to stir in him again vaguely, but forcibly, and to trouble him.
Samson did not appear at the Lescott house for two weeks after that. He had begun to think that, if his going there gave embarrassment to the girl who had been kind to him, it were better to remain away.
"I don't belong here," he told himself, bitterly. "I reckon everybody that knows me in New York, except the Lescotts, is laughing at me behind my back."
He worked fiercely, and threw into his work such fire and energy that it came out again converted into a boldness of stroke and an almost savage vigor of drawing. The instructor nodded his head over the easel, and passed on to the next student without having left the defacing mark of his relentless crayon. To the next pupil, he said:
"Watch the way that man South draws. He's not clever. He's elementally sincere, and, if he goes on, the first thing you know he will be a portrait painter. He won't merely draw eyes and lips and noses, but character and virtues and vices showing out through them."
And Samson met every gaze with smoldering savagery, searching for some one who might be laughing at him openly, or even covertly; instead of behind his back. The long-suffering fighting lust in him craved opportunity to break out and relieve the pressure on his soul. But no one laughed.
One afternoon late in November, a hint of blizzards swept snarling down the Atlantic seaboard from the polar floes, with wet flurries of snow and rain. Off on the marshes where the Kenmore Club had its lodge, the live decoys stretched their clipped wings, and raised their green necks restively into the salt wind, and listened. With dawn, they had heard, faint and far away, the first notes of that wild chorus with which the skies would ring until the southerly migrations ended—the horizon-distant honking of high-flying water fowl.
Then it was that Farbish dropped in with marching orders, and Samson, yearning to be away where there were open skies, packed George Lescott's borrowed paraphernalia, and prepared to leave that same night.
While he was packing, the telephone rang, and Samson heard Adrienne's voice at the other end of the wire.
"Where have you been hiding?" she demanded. "I'll have to send a truant officer after you."
"I've been very busy," said the man, "and I reckon, after all, you can't civilize a wolf. I'm afraid I've been wasting your time."
Possibly, the miserable tone of the voice told the girl more than the words.
"You are having a season with the blue devils," she announced. "You've been cooped up too much. This wind ought to bring the ducks, and——"
"I'm leaving to-night," Samson told her.
"It would have been very nice of you to have run up to say good-bye," she reproved. "But I'll forgive you, if you call me up by long distance. You will get there early in the morning. To-morrow, I'm going to Philadelphia over night. The next night, I shall be at the theater. Call me up after the theater, and tell me how you like it."
It was the same old frankness and friendliness of voice, and the same old note like the music of a reed instrument. Samson felt so comforted and reassured that he laughed through the telephone.
"I've been keeping away from you," he volunteered, "because I've had a relapse into savagery, and haven't been fit to talk to you. When I get back, I'm coming up to explain. And, in the meantime, I'll telephone."
On the train Samson was surprised to discover that, after all, he had Mr. William Farbish for a traveling companion. That gentleman explained that he had found an opportunity to play truant from business for a day or two, and wished to see Samson comfortably ensconced and introduced.
The first day Farbish and Samson had the place to themselves, but the next morning would bring others. Samson's ideas of a millionaires' shooting-box had been vague, but he had looked forward to getting into the wilds. The marshes were certainly desolate enough, and the pine woods through which the buckboard brought them. But, inside the club itself, the Kentuckian found himself in such luxurious comfort as he could not, in his own mind, reconcile with the idea of "going hunting." He would be glad when the cushioned chairs of the raftered lounging- room and the tinkle of high-ball ice and gossip were exchanged for the salt air and the blinds.
But, when he went out for his initiation, in the raw blackness before daybreak, and lay in the blind, with only his guide for a companion, he felt far away from artificial luxuries. The first pale streamers of dawn soon streaked the east, and the wind charged cuttingly like drawn sabers of galloping cavalry. The wooden decoys had been anchored with the live ducks swimming among them, and the world began to awake. He drew a long breath of contentment, and waited. Then came the trailing of gray and blue and green mists, and, following the finger of the silent boatman, he made out in the northern sky a slender wedge of black dots, against the spreading rosiness of the horizon. Soon after, he heard the clear clangor of throats high in the sky, answered by the nearer honking of the live decoys, and he felt a throbbing of his pulses as he huddled low against the damp bottom of the blind and waited.
The lines and wedges grew until the sky was stippled with them, and their strong-throated cries were a strident music. For a time, they passed in seeming thousands, growing from scarcely visible dots into speeding shapes with slender outstretched necks and bills, pointed like reversed compass needles to the south. As yet, they were all flying high, ignoring with lordly indifference the clamor of their renegade brothers, who shrieked to them through the morning mists to drop down, and feed on death.
But, as the day grew older, Samson heard the popping of guns off to the side, where other gunners lay in other blinds, and presently a drake veered from his line of flight, far off to the right, harkened to the voice of temptation, and led his flock circling toward the blind. Then, with a whir and drumming of dark-tipped wings, they came down, and struck the water, and the boy from Misery rose up, shooting as he came. He heard the popping of his guide's gun at his side, and saw the dead and crippled birds falling about him, amid the noisy clamor of their started flight.
That day, while the mountaineer was out on the flats, the party of men at the club had been swelled to a total of six, for in pursuance of the carefully arranged plans of Mr. Farbish, Mr. Bradburn had succeeded in inducing Wilfred Horton to run down for a day or two of the sport he loved. To outward seeming, the trip which the two men had made together had been quite casual, and the outgrowth of coincidence; yet, in point of fact, not only the drive from Baltimore in Horton's car, but the conversation by the way had been in pursuance of a plan, and the result was that, when Horton arrived that afternoon, he found his usually even temper ruffled by bits of maliciously broached gossip, until his resentment against Samson South had been fanned into danger heat. He did not know that South also was at the club, and he did not that afternoon go out to the blinds, but so far departed from his usual custom as to permit himself to sit for hours in the club grill.
And yet, as is often the case in carefully designed affairs, the one element that made most powerfully for the success of Farbish's scheme was pure accident. The carefully arranged meeting between the two men, the adroitly incited passions of each, would still have brought no clash, had not Wilfred Horton been affected by the flushing effect of alcohol. Since his college days, he had been invariably abstemious. To-night marked an exception.
He was rather surprised at the cordiality of the welcome accorded him, for, as chance would have it, except for Samson South, whom he had not yet seen, all the other sportsmen were men closely allied to the political and financial elements upon which he had been making war. Still, since they seemed willing to forget for the time that there had been a breach, he was equally so. Just now, he was feeling such bitterness for the Kentuckian that the foes of a less-personal sort seemed unimportant.
In point of fact, Wilfred Horton had spent a very bad day. The final straw had broken the back of his usually unruffled temper, when he had found in his room on reaching the Kenmore a copy of a certain New York weekly paper, and had read a page, which chanced to be lying face up (a chance carefully prearranged). It was an item of which Farbish had known, in advance of publication, but Wilfred would never have seen that sheet, had it not been so carefully brought to his attention. There were hints of the strange infatuation which a certain young woman seemed to entertain for a partially civilized stranger who had made his entree to New York via the Police Court, and who wore his hair long in imitation of a Biblical character of the same name. The supper at the Wigwam Inn was mentioned, and the character of the place intimated. Horton felt this objectionable innuendo was directly traceable to Adrienne's ill-judged friendship for the mountaineer, and he bitterly blamed the mountaineer. And, while he had been brooding on these matters, a man acting as Farbish's ambassador had dropped into his room, since Farbish himself knew that Horton would not listen to his confidences. The delegated spokesman warned Wilfred that Samson South had spoken pointedly of him, and advised cautious conduct, in a fashion calculated to inflame.
Samson, it was falsely alleged, had accused him of saying derogatory things in his absence, which he would hardly venture to repeat in his presence. In short, it was put up to Horton to announce his opinion openly, or eat the crow of cowardice.
That evening, when Samson went to his room, Farbish joined him.
"I've been greatly annoyed to find," he said, seating himself on Samson's bed, "that Horton arrived to-day."
"I reckon that's all right," said Samson. "He's a member, isn't he?"
Farbish appeared dubious.
"I don't want to appear in the guise of a prophet of trouble," he said, "but you are my guest here, and I must warn you. Horton thinks of you as a 'gun-fighter' and a dangerous man. He won't take chances with you. If there is a clash, it will be serious. He doesn't often drink, but to-day he's doing it, and may be ugly. Avoid an altercation if you can, but if it comes—" He broke off and added seriously: "You will have to get him, or he will get you. Are you armed?"
The Kentuckian laughed.
"I reckon I don't need to be armed amongst gentlemen."
Farbish drew from his pocket a magazine pistol.
"It won't hurt you to slip that into your clothes," he insisted.
For an instant, the mountaineer stood looking at his host and with eyes that bored deep, but whatever was in his mind as he made that scrutiny he kept to himself. At last, he took the magazine pistol, turned it over in his hand, and put it into his pocket.
"Mr. Farbish," he said, "I've been in places before now where men were drinking who had made threats against me. I think you are excited about this thing. If anything starts, he will start it."
At the dinner table, Samson South and Wilfred Horton were introduced, and acknowledged their introductions with the briefest and most formal of nods. During the course of the meal, though seated side by side, each ignored the presence of the other. Samson was, perhaps, no more silent than usual. Always, he was the listener except when a question was put to him direct, but the silence which sat upon Wilfred Horton was a departure from his ordinary custom.
He had discovered in his college days that liquor, instead of exhilarating him, was an influence under which he grew morose and sullen, and that discovery had made him almost a total abstainer. To-night, his glass was constantly filled and emptied, and, as he ate, he gazed ahead, and thought resentfully of the man at his side.
When the coffee had been brought, and the cigars lighted, and the servants had withdrawn, Horton, with the manner of one who had been awaiting an opportunity, turned slightly in his chair, and gazed insolently at the Kentuckian.
Samson South still seemed entirely unconscious of the other's existence, though in reality no detail of the brewing storm had escaped him. He was studying the other faces around the table, and what he saw in them appeared to occupy him. Wilfred Horton's cheeks were burning with a dull flush, and his eyes were narrowing with an unveiled dislike. Suddenly, a silence fell on the party, and, as the men sat puffing their cigars, Horton turned toward the Kentuckian. For a moment, he glared in silence, then with an impetuous exclamation of disgust he announced:
"See here, South, I want you to know that if I'd understood you were to be here, I wouldn't have come. It has pleased me to express my opinion of you to a number of people, and now I mean to express it to you in person."
Samson looked around, and his features indicated neither surprise nor interest. He caught Farbish's eye at the same instant, and, though the plotter said nothing, the glance was subtle and expressive. It seemed to prompt and goad him on, as though the man had said:
"You mustn't stand that. Go after him."
"I reckon"—Samson's voice was a pleasant drawl—"it doesn't make any particular difference, Mr. Horton."
"Even if what I said didn't happen to be particularly commendatory?" inquired Horton, his eyes narrowing.
"So long," replied the Kentuckian, "as what you said was your own opinion, I don't reckon it would interest me much."
"In point of fact"—-Horton was gazing with steady hostility into Samson's eyes—"I prefer to tell you. I have rather generally expressed the belief that you are a damned savage, unfit for decent society."
Samson's face grew rigid and a trifle pale. His mouth set itself in a straight line, but, as Wilfred Horton came to his feet with the last words, the mountaineer remained seated.
"And," went on the New Yorker, flushing with suddenly augmenting passion, "what I said I still believe to be true, and repeat in your presence. At another time and place, I shall be even more explicit. I shall ask you to explain—certain things."
"Mr. Horton," suggested Samson in an ominously quiet voice, "I reckon you're a little drunk. If I were you, I'd sit down."
Wilfred's face went from red to white, and his shoulders stiffened. He leaned forward, and for the instant no one moved. The tick of a hall clock was plainly audible.
"South," he said, his breath coming in labored excitement, "defend yourself!"
Samson still sat motionless.
"Against what?" he inquired.
"Against that!" Horton struck the mountain man across the face with his open hand. Instantly, there was a commotion of scraping chairs and shuffling feet, mingled with a chorus of inarticulate protest. Samson had risen, and, for a second, his face had become a thing of unspeakable passion. His hand instinctively swept toward his pocket— and stopped half-way. He stood by his overturned chair, gazing into the eyes of his assailant, with an effort at self-mastery which gave his chest and arms the appearance of a man writhing and stiffening under electrocution. Then, he forced both hands to his back and gripped them there. For a moment, the tableau was held, then the man from the mountains began speaking, slowly and in a tone of dead-level monotony. Each syllable was portentously distinct and clear clipped.
"Maybe you know why I don't kill you.... Maybe you don't.... I don't give a damn whether you do or not.... That's the first blow I've ever passed.... I ain't going to hit back.... You need a friend pretty bad just now.... For certain reasons, I'm going to be that friend.... Don't you see that this thing is a damned frame-up? ... Don't you see that I was brought here to murder you?" He turned suddenly to Farbish.
"Why did you insist on my putting that in my pocket"—Samson took out the pistol, and threw it down on the table-cloth in front of Wilfred, where it struck and shivered a half-filled wine-glass—"and why did you warn me that this man meant to kill me, unless I killed him first? I was meant to be your catspaw to put Wilfred Horton out of your way. I may be a barbarian and a savage, but I can smell a rat—if it's dead enough!"
For an instant, there was absolute and hushed calm. Wilfred Horton picked up the discarded weapon and looked at it in bewildered stupefaction, then slowly his face flamed with distressing mortification.
"Any time you want to fight me"—Samson had turned again to face him, and was still talking in his deadly quiet voice—"except to-night, you can find me. I've never been hit before without hitting back. That blow has got to be paid for—but the man that's really responsible has got to pay first. When I fight you, I'll fight for myself, not for a bunch of damned murderers.... Just now, I've got other business. That man framed this up!" He pointed a lean finger across the table into the startled countenance of Mr. Farbish. "He knew! He has been working on this job for a month. I'm going to attend to his case now."
As Samson started toward Farbish, the conspirator rose, and, with an excellent counterfeit of insulted virtue, pushed back his chair.
"By God," he indignantly exclaimed, "you mustn't try to embroil me in your quarrels. You must apologize. You are talking wildly, South."
"Am I?" questioned the Kentuckian, quietly; "I'm going to act wildly in a minute."
He halted a short distance from Farbish, and drew from his pocket a crumpled scrap of the offending magazine page: the item that had offended Horton.
"I may not have good manners, Mister Farbish, but where I come from we know how to handle varmints." He dropped his voice and added for the plotter's ear only: "Here's a little matter on the side that concerns only us. It wouldn't interest these other gentlemen." He opened his hand, and added: "Here, eat that!"
Farbish, with a frightened glance at the set face of the man who was advancing upon him, leaped back, and drew from his pocket a pistol—it was an exact counterpart of the one with which he had supplied Samson.
With a panther-like swiftness, the Kentuckian leaped forward, and struck up the weapon, which spat one ineffective bullet into the rafters. There was a momentary scuffle of swaying bodies and a crash under which the table groaned amid the shattering of glass and china. Then, slowly, the conspirator's body bent back at the waist, until its shoulders were stretched on the disarranged cloth, and the white face, with purple veins swelling on the forehead, stared up between two brown hands that gripped its throat.
"Swallow that!" ordered the mountaineer.
For just an instant, the company stood dumfounded, then a strained, unnatural voice broke the silence.
"Stop him, he's going to kill the man!"
The odds were four to two, and with a sudden rally to the support of their chief plotter, the other conspirators rushed the figure that stood throttling his victim. But Samson South was in his element. The dammed-up wrath that had been smoldering during these last days was having a tempestuous outlet. He had found men who, in a gentlemen's club to which he had come as a guest, sought to use him as a catspaw and murderer.
They had planned to utilize the characteristics upon which they relied in himself. They had thought that, if once angered, he would relapse into the feudist, and forget that his surroundings were those of gentility and civilization. Very well, he would oblige them, but not as a blind dupe. He would be as elementally primitive as they had pictured him, but the victims of his savagery should be of his own choosing. Before his eyes swam a red mist of wrath. Once before, as a boy, he had seen things as through a fog of blood. It was the day when the factions met at Hixon, and he had carried the gun of his father for the first time into action. The only way his eyes could be cleared of that fiery haze was that they should first see men falling.
As they assaulted him, en masse, he seized a chair, and swung it flail-like about his head. For a few moments, there was a crashing of glass and china, and a clatter of furniture and a chaos of struggle. At its center, he stood wielding his impromptu weapon, and, when two of his assailants had fallen under its sweeping blows, and Farbish stood weakly supporting himself against the table and gasping for the breath which had been choked out of him, the mountaineer hurled aside his chair, and plunged for the sole remaining man. They closed in a clinch. The last antagonist was a boxer, and when he saw the Kentuckian advance toward him empty-handed, he smiled and accepted the gauge of battle. In weight and reach and practice, he knew that he had the advantage, and, now that it was man to man, he realized that there was no danger of interference from Horton. But Samson knew nothing of boxing. He had learned his fighting tactics in the rough-and-tumble school of the mountains; the school of "fist and skull," of fighting with hands and head and teeth, and as the Easterner squared off he found himself caught in a flying tackle and went to the floor locked in an embrace that carried down with it chairs and furniture. As he struggled and rolled, pitting his gymnasium training against the unaccustomed assault of cyclonic fury, he felt the strong fingers of two hands close about his throat and lost consciousness.
Samson South rose, and stood for a moment panting in a scene of wreckage and disorder. The table was littered with shivered glasses and decanters and chinaware. The furniture was scattered and overturned. Farbish was weakly leaning to one side in the seat to which he had made his way. The men who had gone down under the heavy blows of the chair lay quietly where they had fallen.
Wilfred Horton stood waiting. The whole affair had transpired with such celerity and speed that he had hardly understood it, and had taken no part. But, as he met the gaze of the disordered figure across the wreckage of a dinner-table, he realized that now, with the preliminaries settled, he who had struck Samson in the face must give satisfaction for the blow. Horton was sober, as cold sober as though he had jumped into ice-water, and though he was not in the least afraid, he was mortified, and, had apology at such a time been possible, would have made it. He knew that he had misjudged his man; he saw the outlines of the plot as plainly as Samson had seen them, though more tardily.
Samson's toe touched the pistol which had dropped from Farbish's hand and he contemptuously kicked it to one side. He came back to his place.
"Now, Mr. Horton," he said to the man who stood looking about with a dazed expression, "if you're still of the same mind, I can accommodate you. You lied when you said I was a savage—though just now it sort of looks like I was, and"—he paused, then added—"and I'm ready either to fight or shake hands. Either way suits me."
For the moment, Horton did not speak, and Samson slowly went on:
"But, whether we fight or not, you've got to shake hands with me when we're finished. You and me ain't going to start a feud. This is the first time I've ever refused to let a man be my enemy if he wanted to. I've got my own reasons. I'm going to make you shake hands with me whether you like it or not, but if you want to fight first it's satisfactory. You said awhile ago you would be glad to be more explicit with me when we were alone—" He paused and looked about the room. "Shall I throw these damned murderers out of here, or will you go into another room and talk?"
"Leave them where they are," said Horton, quietly. "We'll go into the reading-room. Have you killed any of them?"
"I don't know," said the other, curtly, "and I don't care."
When they were alone, Samson went on:
"I know what you want to ask me about, and I don't mean to answer you. You want to question me about Miss Lescott. Whatever she and I have done doesn't concern you, I will say this much: if I've been ignorant of New York ways, and my ignorance has embarrassed her, I'm sorry.
"I suppose you know that she's too damned good for you—just like she's too good for me. But she thinks more of you than she does of me—and she's yours. As for me, I have nothing to apologize to you for. Maybe, I have something to ask her pardon about, but she hasn't asked it.
"George Lescott brought me up here, and befriended me. Until a year ago, I had never known any life except that of the Cumberland Mountains. Until I met Miss Lescott, I had never known a woman of your world. She was good to me. She saw that in spite of my roughness and ignorance I wanted to learn, and she taught me. You chose to misunderstand, and dislike me. These men saw that, and believed that, if they could make you insult me, they could make me kill you. As to your part, they succeeded. I didn't see fit to oblige them, but, now that I've settled with them, I'm willing to give you satisfaction. Do we fight now, and shake hands afterward, or do we shake hands without fighting?"
Horton stood silently studying the mountaineer.
"Good God!" he exclaimed at last. "And you are the man I undertook to criticize!"
"You ain't answered my question," suggested Samson South.
"South, if you are willing to shake hands with me, I shall be grateful. I may as well admit that, if you had thrashed me before that crowd, you could hardly have succeeded in making me feel smaller. I have played into their hands. I have been a damned fool. I have riddled my own self-respect—and, if you can afford to accept my apologies and my hand, I am offering you both."
"I'm right glad to hear that," said the mountain boy, gravely. "I told you I'd just as lief shake hand as fight.... But just now I've got to go to the telephone."
The booth was in the same room, and, as Horton waited, he recognized the number for which Samson was calling. Wilfred's face once more flushed with the old prejudice. Could it be that Samson meant to tell Adrienne Lescott what had transpired? Was he, after all, the braggart who boasted of his fights? And, if not, was it Samson's custom to call her up every evening for a good-night message? He turned and went into the hall, but, after a few minutes, returned.
"I'm glad you liked the show...." the mountaineer was saying. "No, nothing special is happening here—except that the ducks are plentiful.... Yes, I like it fine.... Mr. Horton's here. Wait a minute —I guess maybe he'd like to talk to you."