They waited near, until the spots caused by the fluid on the stone pavement in front of the house had disappeared.
"By the time we reach the hill," said Lambelle, "it will be quite dry in this hot sun."
As they departed towards the elevation, the forlorn dog howled mournfully, as if in premonition of his fate.
"I think, to make sure," said the inventor, when they reached the electrical apparatus, "that we might wait for half an hour."
The Minister lit a cigarette, and smoked silently, a strange battle going on in his mind. He found himself believing in the extraordinary claims made by the inventor, and his thought dwelt on the awful possibilities of such an explosive.
"Will you press the electric lever?" asked Lambelle quietly. "Remember that you are inaugurating a new era."
The Minister pressed down the key, and then, putting his field-glass to his eye, he saw that the dog was released, but the animal sat there scratching its ear with its paw. Then, realizing that it was loose, it sniffed for a moment at the chain. Finally, it threw up its head and barked, although the distance was too great for them to hear any sound. The dog started in the direction the two men had gone, but, before it had taken three steps, the Minister was appalled to see the buildings suddenly crumble into dust, and a few moments later the thunder of the rocks falling into the deserted quarry came toward them. The whole ledge had been flung forwards into the chasm. There was no smoke, but a haze of dust hovered over the spot.
"My God!" cried the Minister. "That is awful!"
"Yes," said Lambelle quietly; "I put more of the substance on the flagging than I need to have done. A few drops would have answered quite as well, but I wanted to make sure. You were very sceptical, you know."
The Minister looked at him. "I beg of you, M. Lambelle, never to divulge this secret to the Government of France, or to any other power. Take the risk of it being discovered in the future. I implore you to reconsider your original intention. If you desire money, I will see that you get what you want from the secret funds."
Lambelle shrugged his shoulders.
"I have no desire for money," he said; "but what you have seen will show you that I shall be the most famous scientist of the century. The name of Lambelle will be known till the end of the world."
"But, my God, man!" said the Minister, "the end of the world is here the moment your secret is in the possession of another. With you or me it would be safe: but who can tell the minds of those who may follow us? You are putting the power of the Almighty into the hands of a man."
Lambelle flushed with pride as the pale-faced Minister said this.
"You speak the truth!" he cried, "it is the power of Omnipotence."
"Then," implored the Minister, "reconsider your decision."
"I have labored too long," said Lambelle, "to forego my triumph now. You are convinced at last, I see. Now then, tell me: will you, as Minister of France, secure for your country this greatest of all inventions?"
"Yes," answered the Minister; "no other power must be allowed to obtain the secret. Have you ever written down the names of the ingredients?"
"Never," answered Lambelle.
"Is it not possible for any one to have suspected what your experiments were? If a man got into your laboratory—a scientific man—could he not, from what he saw there, obtain the secret?"
"It would be impossible," said Lambelle. "I have been too anxious to keep the credit for myself, to leave any traces that might give a hint of what I was doing."
"You were wise in that," said the Minister, drawing a deep breath. "Now let us go and look at the ruins."
As they neared the spot the official's astonishment at the extraordinary destruction became greater and greater. The rock had been rent as if by an earthquake, to the distance of hundreds of yards.
"You say," said the Minister, "that the liquid is perfectly safe until evaporation takes place."
"Perfectly," answered Lambelle. "Of course one has to be careful, as I told you, in the use of it. You must not get a drop on your clothes, or leave it anywhere on the outside of the bottle to evaporate."
"Let me see the stuff."
Lambelle handed him the bottle.
"Have you any more of this in your laboratory?"
"Not a drop."
"If you wished to destroy this, how would you do it?"
"I should empty the bottle into the Seine. It would flow down to the sea, and no harm would be done."
"See if you can find any traces of the dog," said the Minister. "I will clamber down into the quarry, and look there."
"You will find nothing," said Lambelle confidently.
There was but one path by which the bottom of the quarry could be reached. The Minister descended by this until he was out of sight of the man above; then he quickly uncorked the bottle, and allowed the fluid to drip along the narrowest part of the path which faced the burning sun. He corked the bottle, wiped it carefully with his handkerchief, which he rolled into a ball, and threw into the quarry. Coming up to the surface again, he said to the mild and benevolent scientist: "I cannot find a trace of the dog."
"Nor can I," said Lambelle. "Of course when you can hardly find a sign of the building it is not to be expected that there should be any remnants of the dog."
"Suppose we get back to the hill now and have lunch," said the Minister.
"Do you wish to try another experiment?"
"I would like to try one more after we have had something to eat. What would be the effect if you poured the whole bottleful into the quarry and set it off?"
"Oh, impossible!" cried Lambelle. "It would rend this whole part of the country to pieces. In fact, I am not sure that the shock would not be felt as far as Paris. With a very few drops I can shatter the whole quarry."
"Well, we'll try that after lunch. We have another dog left."
When an hour had passed, Lambelle was anxious to try his quarry experiment.
"By-and-by," he said, "the sun will not be shining in the quarry, and then it will be too late."
"We can easily wait until to-morrow, unless you are in a hurry."
"I am in no hurry," rejoined the inventor. "I thought perhaps you might be, with so much to do."
"No," replied the official. "Nothing I shall do during my administration will be more important than this."
"I am glad to hear you say so," answered Lambelle; "and if you will give me the bottle again I will now place a few drops in the sunny part of the quarry."
The Minister handed him the bottle, apparently with some reluctance.
"I still think," he said, "that it would be much better to allow this secret to die. No one knows it at present but yourself. With you, as I have said, it will be safe, or with me; but think of the awful possibilities of a disclosure."
"Every great invention has its risks," said Lambelle firmly. "Nothing would induce me to forego the fruits of my life-work. It is too much to ask of any man."
"Very well," said the Minister. "Then let us be sure of our facts. I want to see the effects of the explosive on the quarry."
"You shall," said Lambelle, as he departed.
"I will wait for you here," said the Minister, "and smoke a cigarette."
When the inventor approached the quarry, leading the dog behind him, the Minister's hand trembled so that he was hardly able to hold the field-glass to his eye. Lambelle disappeared down the path. The next instant the ground trembled even where the Minister sat, and a haze of dust arose above the ruined quarry.
Some moments after the pallid Minister looked over the work of destruction, but no trace of humanity was there except himself.
"I could not do otherwise," he murmured, "It was too great a risk to run."
THE GREAT PEGRAM MYSTERY.
(With apologies to Dr. Conan Doyle, and our mutual and lamented friend the late Sherlock Holmes.)
I dropped in on my friend, Sherlaw Kombs, to hear what he had to say about the Pegram mystery, as it had come to be called in the newspapers. I found him playing the violin with a look of sweet peace and serenity on his face, which I never noticed on the countenances of those within hearing distance. I knew this expression of seraphic calm indicated that Kombs had been deeply annoyed about something. Such, indeed, proved to be the case, for one of the morning papers had contained an article, eulogizing the alertness and general competence of Scotland Yard. So great was Sherlaw Kombs's contempt for Scotland Yard that he never would visit Scotland during his vacations, nor would he ever admit that a Scotchman was fit for anything but export.
He generously put away his violin, for he had a sincere liking for me, and greeted me with his usual kindness.
"I have come," I began, plunging at once into the matter on my mind, "to hear what you think of the great Pegram mystery."
"I haven't heard of it," he said quietly, just as if all London were not talking of that very thing. Kombs was curiously ignorant on some subjects, and abnormally learned on others. I found, for instance, that political discussion with him was impossible, because he did not know who Salisbury and Gladstone were. This made his friendship a great boon.
"The Pegram mystery has baffled even Gregory, of Scotland Yard."
"I can well believe it," said my friend, calmly. "Perpetual motion, or squaring the circle, would baffle Gregory. He's an infant, is Gregory."
This was one of the things I always liked about Kombs. There was no professional jealousy in him, such as characterizes so many other men.
He filled his pipe, threw himself into his deep-seated arm-chair, placed his feet on the mantel, and clasped his hands behind his head.
"Tell me about it," he said simply.
"Old Barrie Kipson," I began, "was a stockbroker in the City. He lived in Pegram, and it was his custom to——"
"COME IN!" shouted Kombs, without changing his position, but with a suddenness that startled me. I had heard no knock.
"Excuse me," said my friend, laughing, "my invitation to enter was a trifle premature. I was really so interested in your recital that I spoke before I thought, which a detective should never do. The fact is, a man will be here in a moment who will tell me all about this crime, and so you will be spared further effort in that line."
"Ah, you have an appointment. In that case I will not intrude," I said, rising.
"Sit down; I have no appointment. I did not know until I spoke that he was coming."
I gazed at him in amazement. Accustomed as I was to his extraordinary talents, the man was a perpetual surprise to me. He continued to smoke quietly, but evidently enjoyed my consternation.
"I see you are surprised. It is really too simple to talk about, but, from my position opposite the mirror, I can see the reflection of objects in the street. A man stopped, looked at one of my cards, and then glanced across the street. I recognized my card, because, as you know, they are all in scarlet. If, as you say, London is talking of this mystery, it naturally follows that he will talk of it, and the chances are he wished to consult me about it. Anyone can see that, besides there is always—Come in!"
There was a rap at the door this time.
A stranger entered. Sherlaw Kombs did not change his lounging attitude.
"I wish to see Mr. Sherlaw Kombs, the detective," said the stranger, coming within the range of the smoker's vision.
"This is Mr. Kombs," I remarked at last, as my friend smoked quietly, and seemed half-asleep.
"Allow me to introduce myself," continued the stranger, fumbling for a card.
"There is no need. You are a journalist," said Kombs.
"Ah," said the stranger, somewhat taken aback, "you know me, then."
"Never saw or heard of you in my life before."
"Then how in the world——"
"Nothing simpler. You write for an evening paper. You have written an article slating the book of a friend. He will feel badly about it, and you will condole with him. He will never know who stabbed him unless I tell him."
"The devil!" cried the journalist, sinking into a chair and mopping his brow, while his face became livid.
"Yes," drawled Kombs, "it is a devil of a shame that such things are done. But what would you? as we say in France."
When the journalist had recovered his second wind he pulled himself together somewhat. "Would you object to telling me how you know these particulars about a man you say you have never seen?"
"I rarely talk about these things," said Kombs with great composure. "But as the cultivation of the habit of observation may help you in your profession, and thus in a remote degree benefit me by making your paper less deadly dull, I will tell you. Your first and second fingers are smeared with ink, which shows that you write a great deal. This smeared class embraces two sub-classes, clerks or accountants, and journalists. Clerks have to be neat in their work. The ink-smear is slight in their case. Your fingers are badly and carelessly smeared; therefore, you are a journalist. You have an evening paper in your pocket. Anyone might have any evening paper, but yours is a Special Edition, which will not be on the streets for half-an-hour yet. You must have obtained it before you left the office, and to do this you must be on the staff. A book notice is marked with a blue pencil. A journalist always despises every article in his own paper not written by himself; therefore, you wrote the article you have marked, and doubtless are about to send it to the author of the book referred to. Your paper makes a specialty of abusing all books not written by some member of its own staff. That the author is a friend of yours, I merely surmised. It is all a trivial example of ordinary observation."
"Really, Mr. Kombs, you are the most wonderful man on earth. You are the equal of Gregory, by Jove, you are."
A frown marred the brow of my friend as he placed his pipe on the sideboard and drew his self-cocking six-shooter.
"Do you mean to insult me, sir?"
"I do not—I—I assure you. You are fit to take charge of Scotland Yard to-morrow——. I am in earnest, indeed I am, sir."
"Then Heaven help you," cried Kombs, slowly raising his right arm.
I sprang between them.
"Don't shoot!" I cried. "You will spoil the carpet. Besides, Sherlaw, don't you see the man means well. He actually thinks it is a compliment!"
"Perhaps you are right," remarked the detective, flinging his revolver carelessly beside his pipe, much to the relief of the third party. Then, turning to the journalist, he said, with his customary bland courtesy—
"You wanted to see me, I think you said. What can I do for you, Mr. Wilber Scribbings?"
The journalist started.
"How do you know my name?" he gasped.
Kombs waved his hand impatiently.
"Look inside your hat if you doubt your own name?"
I then noticed for the first time that the name was plainly to be seen inside the top-hat Scribbings held upside down in his hands.
"You have heard, of course, of the Pegram mystery——".
"Tush," cried the detective; "do not, I beg of you, call it a mystery. There is no such thing. Life would become more tolerable if there ever was a mystery. Nothing is original. Everything has been done before. What about the Pegram affair?"
"The Pegram—ah—case has baffled everyone. The Evening Blade wishes you to investigate, so that it may publish the result. It will pay you well. Will you accept the commission?"
"Possibly. Tell me about the case."
"I thought everybody knew the particulars. Mr. Barrie Kipson lived at Pegram. He carried a first-class season ticket between the terminus and that station. It was his custom to leave for Pegram on the 5.30 train each evening. Some weeks ago, Mr. Kipson was brought down by the influenza. On his first visit to the City after his recovery, he drew something like L300 in notes, and left the office at his usual hour to catch the 5.30. He was never seen again alive, as far as the public have been able to learn. He was found at Brewster in a first-class compartment on the Scotch Express, which does not stop between London and Brewster. There was a bullet in his head, and his money was gone, pointing plainly to murder and robbery."
"And where is the mystery, may I ask?"
"There are several unexplainable things about the case. First, how came he on the Scotch Express, which leaves at six, and does not stop at Pegram? Second, the ticket examiners at the terminus would have turned him out if he showed his season ticket; and all the tickets sold for the Scotch Express on the 21st are accounted for. Third, how could the murderer have escaped? Fourth, the passengers in the two compartments on each side of the one where the body was found heard no scuffle and no shot fired."
"Are you sure the Scotch Express on the 21st did not stop between London and Brewster?"
"Now that you mention the fact, it did. It was stopped by signal just outside of Pegram. There was a few moments' pause, when the line was reported clear, and it went on again. This frequently happens, as there is a branch line beyond Pegram."
Mr. Sherlaw Kombs pondered for a few moments, smoking his pipe silently.
"I presume you wish the solution in time for to-morrow's paper?"
"Bless my soul, no. The editor thought if you evolved a theory in a month you would do well."
"My dear sir, I do not deal with theories, but with facts. If you can make it convenient to call here to-morrow at 8 a.m. I will give you the full particulars early enough for the first edition. There is no sense in taking up much time over so simple an affair as the Pegram case. Good afternoon, sir."
Mr. Scribbings was too much astonished to return the greeting. He left in a speechless condition, and I saw him go up the street with his hat still in his hand.
Sherlaw Kombs relapsed into his old lounging attitude, with his hands clasped behind his head. The smoke came from his lips in quick puffs at first, then at longer intervals. I saw he was coming to a conclusion, so I said nothing.
Finally he spoke in his most dreamy manner. "I do not wish to seem to be rushing things at all, Whatson, but I am going out to-night on the Scotch Express. Would you care to accompany me?"
"Bless me!" I cried, glancing at the clock, "you haven't time, it is after five now."
"Ample time, Whatson—ample," he murmured, without changing his position. "I give myself a minute and a half to change slippers and dressing gown for boots and coat, three seconds for hat, twenty-five seconds to the street, forty-two seconds waiting for a hansom, and then seven at the terminus before the express starts. I shall be glad of your company."
I was only too happy to have the privilege of going with him. It was most interesting to watch the workings of so inscrutable a mind. As we drove under the lofty iron roof of the terminus I noticed a look of annoyance pass over his face.
"We are fifteen seconds ahead of our time," he remarked, looking at the big clock. "I dislike having a miscalculation of that sort occur."
The great Scotch Express stood ready for its long journey. The detective tapped one of the guards on the shoulder.
"You have heard of the so-called Pegram mystery, I presume?"
"Certainly, sir. It happened on this very train, sir."
"Really? Is the same carriage still on the train?"
"Well, yes, sir, it is," replied the guard, lowering his voice, "but of course, sir, we have to keep very quiet about it. People wouldn't travel in it, else, sir."
"Doubtless. Do you happen to know if anybody occupies the compartment in which the body was found?"
"A lady and gentleman, sir; I put 'em in myself, sir."
"Would you further oblige me," said the detective, deftly slipping half-a-sovereign into the hand of the guard, "by going to the window and informing them in an offhand casual sort of way that the tragedy took place in that compartment?"
We followed the guard, and the moment he had imparted his news there was a suppressed scream in the carriage. Instantly a lady came out, followed by a florid-faced gentleman, who scowled at the guard. We entered the now empty compartment, and Kombs said: "We would like to be alone here until we reach Brewster."
"I'll see to that, sir," answered the guard, locking the door.
When the official moved away, I asked my friend what he expected to find in the carriage that would cast any light on the case.
"Nothing," was his brief reply.
"Then why do you come?"
"Merely to corroborate the conclusions I have already arrived at."
"And may I ask what those conclusions are?"
"Certainly," replied the detective, with a touch of lassitude in his voice. "I beg to call your attention, first, to the fact that this train stands between two platforms, and can be entered from either side. Any man familiar with the station for years would be aware of that fact. This shows how Mr. Kipson entered the train just before it started."
"But the door on this side is locked," I objected, trying it.
"Of course. But every season ticket-holder carries a key. This accounts for the guard not seeing him, and for the absence of a ticket. Now let me give you some information about the influenza. The patient's temperature rises several degrees above normal, and he has a fever. When the malady has run its course, the temperature falls to three- quarters of a degree below normal. These, facts are unknown to you, I imagine, because you are a doctor."
I admitted such was the case.
"Well, the consequence of this fall in temperature is that the convalescent's mind turns toward thoughts of suicide. Then is the time he should be watched by his friends. Then was the time Mr. Barrie Kipson's friends did not watch him. You remember the 21st, of course. No? It was a most depressing day. Fog all around and mud under foot. Very good. He resolves on suicide. He wishes to be unidentified, if possible but forgets his season ticket. My experience is that a man about to commit a crime always forgets something."
"But how do you account for the disappearance of the money?"
"The money has nothing to do with the matter. If he was a deep man, and knew the stupidness of Scotland Yard, he probably sent the notes to an enemy. If not, they may have been given to a friend. Nothing is more calculated to prepare the mind for self-destruction than the prospect of a night ride on the Scotch Express, and the view from the windows of the train as it passes through the northern part of London is particularly conducive to thoughts of annihilation."
"What became of the weapon?"
"That is just the point on which I wish to satisfy myself. Excuse me for a moment."
Mr. Sherlaw Kombs drew down the window on the right hand side, and examined the top of the casing minutely with a magnifying glass. Presently he heaved a sigh of relief, and drew up the sash.
"Just as I expected," he remarked, speaking more to himself than to me. "There is a slight dent on the top of the window-frame. It is of such a nature as to be made only by the trigger of a pistol falling from the nerveless hand of a suicide. He intended to throw the weapon far out of the window, but had not the strength. It might have fallen into the carriage. As a matter of fact, it bounced away from the line and lies among the grass about ten feet six inches from the outside rail. The only question that now remains is where the deed was committed, and the exact present position of the pistol reckoned in miles from London, but that, fortunately, is too simple to even need explanation."
"Great heavens, Sherlaw!" I cried. "How can you call that simple? It seems to me impossible to compute."
We were now flying over Northern London, and the great detective leaned back with every sign of ennui, closing his eyes. At last he spoke wearily:
"It is really too elementary, Whatson, but I am always willing to oblige a friend. I shall be relieved, however, when you are able to work out the A B C of detection for yourself, although I shall never object to helping you with the words of more than three syllables. Having made up his mind to commit suicide, Kipson naturally intended to do it before he reached Brewster, because tickets are again examined at that point. When the train began to stop at the signal near Pegram, he came to the false conclusion that it was stopping at Brewster. The fact that the shot was not heard is accounted for by the screech of the air- brake, added to the noise of the train. Probably the whistle was also sounding at the same moment. The train being a fast express would stop as near the signal as possible. The air-brake will stop a train in twice its own length. Call it three times in this case. Very well. At three times the length of this train from the signalpost towards London, deducting half the length of the train, as this carriage is in the middle, you will find the pistol."
"Wonderful!" I exclaimed.
"Commonplace," he murmured.
At this moment the whistle sounded shrilly, and we felt the grind of the air-brakes.
"The Pegram signal again," cried Kombs, with something almost like enthusiasm. "This is indeed luck. We will get out here, Whatson, and test the matter."
As the train stopped, we got out on the right-hand side of the line. The engine stood panting impatiently under the red light, which changed to green as I looked at it. As the train moved on with increasing speed, the detective counted the carriages, and noted down the number. It was now dark, with the thin crescent of the moon hanging in the western sky throwing a weird half-light on the shining metals. The rear lamps of the train disappeared around a curve, and the signal stood at baleful red again. The black magic of the lonesome night in that strange place impressed me, but the detective was a most practical man. He placed his back against the signal-post, and paced up the line with even strides, counting his steps. I walked along the permanent way beside him silently. At last he stopped, and took a tapeline from his pocket. He ran it out until the ten feet six inches were unrolled, scanning the figures in the wan light of the new moon. Giving me the end, he placed his knuckles on the metals, motioning me to proceed down the embankment. I stretched out the line, and then sank my hand in the damp grass to mark the spot.
"Good God!" I cried, aghast, "what is this?"
"It is the pistol," said Kombs quietly.
* * * * *
Journalistic London will not soon forget the sensation that was caused by the record of the investigations of Sherlaw Kombs, as printed at length in the next day's Evening Blade. Would that my story ended here. Alas! Kombs contemptuously turned over the pistol to Scotland Yard. The meddlesome officials, actuated, as I always hold, by jealousy, found the name of the seller upon it. They investigated. The seller testified that it had never been in the possession of Mr. Kipson, as far as he knew. It was sold to a man whose description tallied with that of a criminal long watched by the police. He was arrested, and turned Queen's evidence in the hope of hanging his pal. It seemed that Mr. Kipson, who was a gloomy, taciturn man, and usually came home in a compartment by himself, thus escaping observation, had been murdered in the lane leading to his house. After robbing him, the miscreants turned their thoughts towards the disposal of the body—a subject that always occupies a first-class criminal mind before the deed is done. They agreed to place it on the line, and have it mangled by the Scotch Express, then nearly due. Before they got the body half- way up the embankment the express came along and stopped. The guard got out and walked along the other side to speak with the engineer. The thought of putting the body into an empty first-class carriage instantly occurred to the murderers. They opened the door with the deceased's key. It is supposed that the pistol dropped when they were hoisting the body in the carriage.
The Queen's evidence dodge didn't work, and Scotland Yard ignobly insulted my friend Sherlaw Kombs by sending him a pass to see the villains hanged.
DEATH COMETH SOON OR LATE.
It was Alick Robbins who named the invalid the Living Skeleton, and probably remorse for having thus given him a title so descriptively accurate, caused him to make friends with the Living Skeleton, a man who seemed to have no friends.
Robbins never forgot their first conversation. It happened in this way. It was the habit of the Living Skeleton to leave his hotel every morning promptly at ten o'clock, if the sun was shining, and to shuffle rather than walk down the gravel street to the avenue of palms. There, picking out a seat on which the sun shone, the Living Skeleton would sit down and seem to wait patiently for someone who never came. He wore a shawl around his neck and a soft cloth cap on his skull. Every bone in his face stood out against the skin, for there seemed to be no flesh, and his clothes hung as loosely upon him as they would have upon a skeleton. It required no second glance at the Living Skeleton to know that the remainder of his life was numbered by days or hours, and not by weeks or months. He didn't seem to have energy enough even to read, and so it was that Robbins sat down one day on the bench beside him, and said sympathetically:—
"I hope you are feeling better to-day."
The Skeleton turned towards him, laughed a low, noiseless, mirthless laugh for a moment, and then said, in a hollow, far-away voice that had no lungs behind it: "I am done with feeling either better or worse."
"Oh, I trust it is not so bad as that," said Robbins; "the climate is doing you good down here, is it not?"
Again the Skeleton laughed silently, and Robbins began to feel uneasy. The Skeleton's eyes were large and bright, and they fastened themselves upon Robbins in a way that increased that gentleman's uneasiness, and made him think that perhaps the Skeleton knew he had so named him.
"I have no more interest in climate," said the Skeleton. "I merely seem to live because I have been in the habit of living for some years; I presume that is it, because my lungs are entirely gone. Why I can talk or why I can breathe is a mystery to me. You are perfectly certain you can hear me?"
"Oh, I hear you quite distinctly," said Robbins.
"Well, if it wasn't that people tell me that they can hear me, I wouldn't believe I was really speaking, because, you see, I have nothing to speak with. Isn't it Shakespeare who says something about when the brains are out the man is dead? Well, I have seen some men who make me think Shakespeare was wrong in his diagnosis, but it is generally supposed that when the lungs are gone a man is dead. To tell the truth, I am dead, practically. You know the old American story about the man who walked around to save funeral expenses; well, it isn't quite that way with me, but I can appreciate how the man felt. Still I take a keen interest in life, although you might not think so. You see, I haven't much time left; I am going to die at eight o'clock on the 30th of April. Eight o'clock at night, not in the morning, just after table d'hote."
"You are going to what!" cried Robbins in astonishment.
"I'm going to die that day. You see I have got things to such a fine point, that I can die any time I want to. I could die right here, now, if I wished. If you have any mortal interest in the matter I'll do it, and show you what I say is true. I don't mind much, you know, although I had fixed April the 30th as the limit. It wouldn't matter a bit for me to go off now, if it would be of any interest to you."
"I beg you," said Robbins, very much alarmed, "not to try any experiments on my account. I am quite willing to believe anything you say about the matter—of course you ought to know."
"Yes, I do know." answered the Living Skeleton sadly. "Of course I have had my struggle with hope and fear, but that is all past now, as you may well understand. The reason that I have fixed the date for April 30th is this: you see I have only a certain amount of money—I do not know why I should make any secret of it. I have exactly 240 francs today, over and above another 100 francs which I have set aside for another purpose. I am paying 8 francs a day at the Golden Dragon; that will keep me just thirty days, and then I intend to die."
The Skeleton laughed again, without sound, and Robbins moved uneasily on the seat.
"I don't see," he said finally, "what there is to laugh about in that condition of affairs."
"I don't suppose there is very much; but there is something else that I consider very laughable, and that I will tell you if you will keep it a secret. You see, the Golden Dragon himself—I always call our innkeeper the Golden Dragon, just as you call me, the Living Skeleton."
"Oh, I—I—beg your pardon," stammered Robbins, "I——."
"It really doesn't matter at all. You are perfectly right, and I think it a very apt term. Well, the old Golden Dragon makes a great deal of his money by robbing the dead. You didn't know that, did you? You thought it was the living who supported him, and goodness knows he robs them when he has a chance. Well, you are very much mistaken. When a man dies in the Golden Dragon, he, or his friends rather, have to pay very sweetly for it. The Dragon charges them for re-furnishing the room. Every stick of furniture is charged for, all the wall-paper, and so on. I suppose it is perfectly right to charge something, but the Dragon is not content with what is right. He knows he has finally lost a customer, and so he makes all he can out of him. The furniture so paid for, is not re-placed, and the walls are not papered again, but the Dragon doesn't abate a penny of his bill on that account. Now, I have inquired of the furnishing man, on the street back of the hotel, and he has written on his card just the cost of mattress, sheets, pillows, and all that sort of thing, and the amount comes to about 50 francs. I have put in an envelope a 50-franc note, and with it the card of the furniture man. I have written a letter to the hotel-keeper, telling him just what the things will cost that he needs, and have referred the Dragon to the card of the furniture man who has given me the figures. This envelope I have addressed to the Dragon, and he will find it when I am dead. This is the joke that old man Death and myself have put up on our host, and my only regret is that I shall not be able to enjoy a look at the Dragon's countenance as he reads my last letter to him. Another sum of money I have put away, in good hands where he won't have a chance to get it, for my funeral expenses, and then you see I am through with the world. I have nobody to leave that I need worry about, or who would either take care of me or feel sorry for me if I needed care or sympathy, which I do not. So that is why I laugh, and that is why I come down and sit upon this bench, in the sunshine, and enjoy the posthumous joke."
Robbins did not appear to see the humor of the situation quite as strongly as the Living Skeleton did. At different times after, when they met he had offered the Skeleton more money if he wanted it, so that he might prolong his life a little, but the Skeleton always refused.
A sort of friendship sprang up between Robbins and the Living Skeleton, at least, as much of a friendship as can exist between the living and the dead, for Robbins was a muscular young fellow who did not need to live at the Riviera on account of his health, but merely because he detested an English winter. Besides this, it may be added, although it really is nobody's business, that a Nice Girl and her parents lived in this particular part of the South of France.
One day Robbins took a little excursion in a carriage to Toulon. He had invited the Nice Girl to go with him, but on that particular day she could not go. There was some big charity function on hand, and one necessary part of the affair was the wheedling of money out of people's pockets, so the Nice Girl had undertaken to do part of the wheedling.
She was very good at it, and she rather prided herself upon it, but then she was a very nice girl, pretty as well, and so people found it difficult to refuse her. On the evening of the day there was to be a ball at the principal hotel of the place, also in connection with this very desirable charity. Robbins had reluctantly gone to Toulon alone, but you may depend upon it he was back in time for the ball.
"Well," he said to the Nice Girl when he met her, "what luck collecting, to-day?"
"Oh, the greatest luck," she replied enthusiastically, "and whom do you think I got the most money from?"
"I am sure I haven't the slightest idea—that old English Duke, he certainly has money enough."
"No, not from him at all; the very last person you would expect it from—your friend, the Living Skeleton."
"What!" cried Robbins, in alarm.
"Oh, I found him on the bench where he usually sits, in the avenue of the palms. I told him all about the charity and how useful it was, and how necessary, and how we all ought to give as much as we could towards it, and he smiled and smiled at me in that curious way of his. 'Yes,' he said in a whisper, 'I believe the charity should be supported by everyone; I will give you eighty francs.' Now, wasn't that very generous of him? Eighty francs, that was ten times what the Duke gave, and as he handed me the money he looked up at me and said in that awful whisper of his: 'Count this over carefully when you get home and see if you can find out what else I have given you. There is more than eighty francs there.' Then, after I got home, I——"
But here the Nice Girl paused, when she looked at the face of Robbins, to whom she was talking. That face was ghastly pale and his eyes were staring at her but not seeing her.
"Eighty francs," he was whispering to himself, and he seemed to be making a mental calculation. Then noticing the Nice Girl's amazed look at him, he said:
"Did you take the money?"
"Of course I took it," she said, "why shouldn't I?"
"Great Heavens!" gasped Robbins, and without a word he turned and fled, leaving the Nice Girl transfixed with astonishment and staring after him with a frown on her pretty brow.
"What does he mean by such conduct?" she asked herself. But Robbins disappeared from the gathering throng in the large room of the hotel, dashed down the steps, and hurried along the narrow pavements toward the "Golden Dragon." The proprietor was standing in the hallway with his hands behind him, a usual attitude with the Dragon.
"Where," gasped Robbins, "is Mr.—Mr.——" and then he remembered he didn't know the name. "Where is the Living Skeleton?"
"He has gone to his room," answered the Dragon, "he went early to- night, he wasn't feeling well, I think."
"What is the number of his room?"
"No. 40," and the proprietor rang a loud, jangling bell, whereupon one of the chambermaids appeared. "Show this gentleman to No. 40."
The girl preceded Robbins up the stairs. Once she looked over her shoulder, and said in a whisper, "Is he worse?"
"I don't know," answered Robbins, "that's what I have come to see."
At No. 40 the girl paused, and rapped lightly on the door panel. There was no response. She rapped again, this time louder. There was still no response.
"Try the door," said Robbins.
"I am afraid to," said the girl.
"Because he said if he were asleep the door would be locked, and if he were dead the door would be open."
"When did he say that?"
"He said it several times, sir; about a week ago the last time."
Robbins turned the handle of the door; it was not locked. A dim light was in the room, but a screen before the door hid it from sight. When he passed round the screen he saw, upon the square marble-topped arrangement at the head of the bed, a candle burning, and its light shone on the dead face of the Skeleton, which had a grim smile on its thin lips, while in its clenched hand was a letter addressed to the proprietor of the hotel.
The Living Skeleton had given more than the eighty francs to that deserving charity.
The snow was gently sifting down through the white glare of the electric light when Pony Rowell buttoned his overcoat around him and left the Metropolitan Hotel, which was his home. He was a young man, not more than thirty, and his face was a striking one. It was clean cut and clean shaven. It might have been the face of an actor or the face of a statesman. An actor's face has a certain mobility of expression resulting from the habit of assuming characters differing widely. Rowell's face, when you came to look at it closely, showed that it had been accustomed to repress expression rather than to show emotion of any kind. A casual look at Pony Rowell made you think his face would tell you something; a closer scrutiny showed you that it would tell you nothing. His eyes were of a piercing steely gray that seemed to read the thoughts of others, while they effectually concealed his own. Pony Rowell was known as a man who never went back on his word. He was a professional gambler.
On this particular evening he strolled up the avenue with the easy carriage of a man of infinite leisure. He hesitated for a moment at an illy-lighted passage-way in the middle of a large building on a side street, then went in and mounted a stair. He rapped lightly at a door. A slide was shoved back and a man inside peered out at him for a moment. Instantly the door was opened, for Pony's face was good for admittance at any of the gambling rooms in the city. There was still another guarded door to pass, for an honest gambling-house keeper can never tell what streak of sudden morality may strike the police, and it is well to have a few moments' time in which to conceal the paraphernalia of the business. Of course, Mellish's gambling rooms were as well known to the police as to Pony Rowell, but unless some fuss was made by the public, Mellish knew he would be free from molestation.
Mellish was a careful man, and a visitor had to be well vouched for, before he gained admission. There never was any trouble in Mellish's rooms. He was often known to advise a player to quit when he knew the young gambler could not afford to lose, and instances were cited where he had been the banker of some man in despair. Everybody liked Mellish, for his generosity was unbounded, and he told a good story well.
Inside the room that Pony Rowell had penetrated, a roulette table was at its whirling work and faro was going on in another spot. At small tables various visitors were enjoying the game of poker.
"Hello, Pony," cried Bert Ragstock, "are you going to give me my revenge to-night?"
"I'm always willing to give anyone his revenge." answered Pony imperturbably, lighting a fresh cigarette.
"All right then; come and sit down here."
"I'm not going to play just yet. I want to look on for a while."
"Nonsense. I've been waiting for you ever so long already. Sit down."
"You ought to know by this time, Bert, that when I say a thing I mean it. I won't touch a card till the clock begins to strike 12. Then I'm wid ye."
"Pshaw, Pony, you ought to be above that sort of thing. That's superstition, Rowell. You're too cool a man to mind when you touch a card. Come on."
"That's all right. At midnight, I said to myself, and at midnight it shall be or not at all."
The old gamblers in the place nodded approval of this resolution. It was all right enough for Bert Ragstock to sneer at superstition, because he was not a real gambler. He merely came to Mellish's rooms in the evening because the Stock Exchange did not keep open all night. Strange to say Ragstock was a good business man as well as a cool gambler. He bemoaned the fate that made him so rich that gambling had not the exhilarating effect on him which it would have had if he had been playing in desperation.
When the clock began to chime midnight Pony Rowell took up the pack and began to shuffle.
"Now, old man," he said, "I'm going in to win. I'm after big game to- night."
"Right you are." cried Bert, with enthusiasm. "I'll stand by you as long as the spots stay on the cards."
In the gray morning, when most of the others had left and even Mellish himself was yawning, they were still at it. The professional gambler had won a large sum of money; the largest sum he ever possessed. Yet there was no gleam of triumph in his keen eyes. Bert might have been winning for all the emotion his face showed. They were a well matched pair, and they enjoyed playing with each other.
"There," cried Pony at last, "haven't you had enough? Luck's against you. I wouldn't run my head any longer against a brick wall, if I were you."
"My dear Pony, how often have I told you there is no such thing as luck. But to tell the truth I'm tired and I'm going home. The revenge is postponed. When do I meet the enemy again?"
Pony Rowell shuffled the cards idly for a few moments without replying or raising his eyes. At last he said:
"The next time I play you, Bert, it will be for high stakes."
"Good heavens, aren't you satisfied with the stakes we played for to- night?"
"No. I want to play you for a stake that will make even your hair stand on end. Will you do it?"
"That I can't tell just yet. I have a big scheme on hand. I am to see a man to-day about it. All I want to know is that you promise to play."
"Pony, this is mysterious. I guess you're not afraid I will flunk out. I'm ready to meet you on any terms and for any stake."
"Enough said. I'll let you know some of the particulars as soon as I find out all I want myself. Good-night."
"Good-night to you, rather," said Bert, as Mellish helped him on with his overcoat. "You've won the pile: robbing a poor man of his hard- earned gains!"
"Oh, the poor man does not need the money as badly as I do. Besides, I'm going to give you a chance to win it all back again and more."
When Ragstock had left, Pony still sat by the table absent-mindedly shuffling the cards.
"If I were you," said Mellish, laying his hand on his shoulder, "I would put that pile in the bank and quit."
"The faro bank?" asked Pony, looking up with a smile.
"No, I'd quit the business altogether if I were you. I'm going to myself."
"Oh, we all know that. You've been going to quit for the last twenty years. Well, I'm going to quit, too, but not just yet. That's what they all say, of course, but I mean it."
In the early and crisp winter air Pony Rowell walked to the Metropolitan Hotel and to bed. At 3 that afternoon the man he had an appointment with, called to see him.
"You wanted to see me about an Insurance policy," the visitor began. An agent is always ready to talk of business. "Now, were you thinking of an endowment scheme or have you looked into our new bond system of insurance? The twenty-pay-life style of thing seems to be very popular."
"I want to ask you a few questions," said Pony. "If I were to insure my life in your company and were to commit suicide would that invalidate the policy?"
"Not after two years. After two years, in our company, the policy is incontestable."
"Two years? That won't do for me. Can't you make it one year?"
"I'll tell you what I will do," said the agent, lowering his voice, "I can ante-date the policy, so that the two years will end just when you like, say a year from now."
"Very well. If you can legally fix it so that the two years come to an end about this date next year I will insure in your company for $100,000."
The agent opened his eyes when the amount was mentioned.
"I don't want endowments or bonds, but the cheapest form of life insurance you have, and——"
"Straight life is what you want."
"Straight life it is, then, and I will pay you for the two years or say, to make it sure, for two years and a half down, when you bring me the papers."
Thus it was that with part of the money he had won, Pony Rowell insured his life for $100,000, and with another part he paid his board and lodging for a year ahead at the Metropolitan Hotel.
The remainder he kept to speculate on.
During the year that followed he steadily refused to play with Bert Ragstock, and once or twice they nearly had a quarrel about it—that is as near as Pony could come to having a row with anybody, for quarrelling was not in his line. If he had lived in a less civilized part of the community Pony might have shot, but as it was quarrels never came to anything, therefore he did not indulge in any.
"A year from the date of our last game? What nonsense it is waiting all that time. You play with others, why not with me? Think of the chances we are losing," complained Bert.
"We will have a game then that will make up for all the waiting," answered Rowell.
At last the anniversary came and when the hour struck that ushered it in Pony Rowell and Bert Ragstock sat facing each other, prepared to resume business on the old stand.
"Ah," said Bert, rubbing his hands, "it feels good to get opposite you once more. Pony, you're a crank. We might have had a hundred games like this during the past year, if there wasn't so much superstition about you."
"Not quite like this. This is to be the last game I play, win or lose. I tell you that now, so that there won't be any talk of revenge if I win."
"You don't mean it! I've heard talk like that before."
"All right. I've warned you. Now I propose that this be a game of pure luck. We get a new pack of cards, shuffle them, cut, then you pull one card and I another. Ace high. The highest takes the pot. Best two out of three. Do you agree?"
"Of course. How much is the pile to be?"
"One hundred thousand dollars."
"Oh, you're dreaming."
"Isn't it enough?"
"Thunder! You never saw $100,000."
"You will get the money if I lose."
"Say, Pony, that's coming it a little strong. One hundred thousand dollars! Heavens and earth! How many business men in this whole city would expect their bare word to be taken for $100,000?"
"I'm not a business man. I'm a gambler."
"True, true. Is the money in sight?"
"No; but you'll be paid. Your money is not in sight. I trust you. Can't you trust me?
"It isn't quite the same thing, Pony. I'll trust you for three times the money you have in sight, but when you talk about $100,000 you are talking of a lot of cash."
"If I can convince Mellish here that you will get your money, will you play?"
"You can convince me just as easily as you can Mellish. What's the use of dragging him in?"
"I could convince you in a minute, but you might still refuse to play. Now I'm bound to play this game and I can't take any risks. If my word and Mellish's isn't good enough for you, why, say so."
"All right," cried Bert. "If you can convince Mellish that you will pay if you lose I'll play you."
Rowell and Mellish retired into an inner room and after a few minutes reappeared again.
Mellish's face was red when he went in. He was now a trifle pale.
"I don't like this, Bert," Mellish said, "and I think this game had better stop right here."
"Then you are not convinced that I am sure of my money?"
"Yes, I am, but——"
"That's enough for me. Get out your new pack."
"You've given your word, Mellish," said Pony, seeing the keeper of the house was about to speak. "Don't say any more."
"For such a sum two out of three is too sudden. Make it five out of nine," put in Bert.
The new pack of cards was brought and the wrappings torn off.
"You shuffle first; I'll cut," said Rowell. His lips seemed parched and he moistened them now and then, which was unusual for so cool a gambler. Mellish fidgeted around with lowered brow. Bert shuffled the cards as nonchalantly as if he had merely a $5 bill on the result. When each had taken a card, Bert held an ace and Pony a king. Pony shuffled and the turn up was a spot in Pony's hand and queen in that of his opponent. Bert smiled and drops began to show on Pony's forehead in spite of his efforts at self-control. No word was spoken by either players or onlookers. After the next deal Pony again lost. His imperturbability seemed to be leaving him. He swept the cards from the table with an oath. "Bring another pack," he said hoarsely.
Bert smiled at him across the table. He thought, of course, that they were playing for even stakes.
Mellish couldn't stand it any longer. He retired to one of the inner rooms. The first deal with the new pack turned in Pony's favor and he seemed to feel that his luck had changed, but the next deal went against him and also the one following.
"It's your shuffle," said Rowell, pushing the cards towards his opponent. Bert did not touch the cards, but smiled across at the gambler.
"What's the matter with you? Why don't you shuffle?"
"I don't have to," said Bert, quietly, "I've won five."
Rowell drew his hand across his perspiring brow and stared at the man across the table. Then he seemed to pull himself together.
"So you have," he said, "I hadn't noticed it. Excuse me. I guess I'll go now."
"Sit where you are and let us have a game for something more modest. I don't care about these splurges myself and I don't suppose you do— now."
"Thanks, no. I told you this was my last game. As to the splurge, if I had the money I would willingly try it again. So long."
When Mellish came in and saw that the game was over he asked where Pony was.
"He knew when he had enough, I guess," answered Bert. "He's gone home."
"Come in here, Bert. I want to speak with you," said Mellish.
When they were alone Mellish turned to him.
"I suppose Pony didn't tell you where the money is to come from?"
"No, he told you. That was enough for me."
"Well, there's no reason why you should not know now. I promised silence till the game was finished. He's insured his life for $100,000 and is going to commit suicide so that you may be paid."
"My God!" cried Bert, aghast. "Why did you let the game go on?"
"I tried to stop it, but I had given my word and you——"
"Well, don't let us stand chattering here. He's at the Metropolitan, isn't he? Then come along. Hurry into your coat."
Mellish knew the number of Rowell's room and so no time was lost in the hotel office with inquiries. He tried the door, but, as he expected, it was locked.
"Who's that?" cried a voice within.
"It's me—Mellish. I want to speak with you a moment."
"I don't want to see you."
"Bert wants to say something. It's important. Let us in."
"I won't let you in. Go away and don't make a fuss. It will do no good. You can get in ten minutes from now."
"Look here, Pony, you open that door at once, or I'll kick it in. You hear me? I want to see you a minute, and then you can do what you like," said Bert, in a voice that meant business.
After a moment's hesitation Rowell opened the door and the two stepped in. Half of the carpet had been taken up and the bare floor was covered with old newspapers. A revolver lay on the table, also writing materials and a half-finished letter. Pony was in his shirt sleeves and he did not seem pleased at the interruption.
"What do you want?" he asked shortly.
"Look here, Pony," said Bert, "I have confessed to Mellish and I've come to confess to you. I want you to be easy with me and hush the thing up. I cheated. I stocked the cards."
"You're a liar," said Rowell, looking him straight in the eye.
"Don't say that again," cried Ragstock, with his fingers twitching. "There's mighty few men I would take that from."
"You stocked the cards on me? I'd like to see the man that could do it!"
"You were excited and didn't notice it."
"You're not only a liar, but you're an awkward liar. I have lost the money and I'll pay it. It would have been ready for you now, only I had a letter to write. Mellish has told you about the insurance policy and my will attached to it. Here they are. They're yours. I'm no kicker. I know when a game's played fair."
Bert took the policy and evidently intended to tear it in pieces, while Mellish, with a wink at him, edged around to get at the revolver. Ragstock's eye caught the name in big letters at the head of the policy, beautifully engraved. His eyes opened wide, then he sank into a chair and roared with laughter. Both the other men looked at him in astonishment.
"What's the matter?" asked Mellish.
"Matter? Why, this would have been a joke on Pony. It would do both of you some good to know a little about business as well as of gambling. The Hardfast Life Insurance Company went smash six months ago. It's the truth this time, Pony, even if I didn't stock the cards. Better make some inquiries in business circles before you try to collect any money from this institution. Now, Pony, order up the drinks, if anything can be had at this untimely hour. We are your guests so you are expected to be hospitable. I've had all the excitement I want for one night. We'll call it square and begin over again."
"WHERE IGNORANCE IS BLISS."
The splendid steamship Adamant, of the celebrated Cross Bow line, left New York on her February trip under favorable auspices. There had just been a storm on the ocean, so there was every chance that she would reach Liverpool before the next one was due.
Capt. Rice had a little social problem to solve at the outset, but he smoothed that out with the tact which is characteristic of him. Two Washington ladies—official ladies—were on board, and the captain, old British sea-dog that he was, always had trouble in the matter of precedence with Washington ladies. Capt. Rice never had any bother with the British aristocracy, because precedence is all set down in the bulky volume of "Burke's Peerage," which the captain kept in his cabin, and so there was no difficulty. But a republican country is supposed not to meddle with precedence. It wouldn't, either, if it weren't for the women.
So it happened that Mrs. Assistant-Attorney-to-the-Senate Brownrig came to the steward and said that, ranking all others on board, she must sit at the right hand of the captain. Afterwards Mrs. Second-Adjutant-to- the-War-Department Digby came to the same perplexed official and said she must sit at the captain's right hand because in Washington she took precedence over everyone else on board. The bewildered steward confided his woes to the captain, and the captain said he would attend to the matter. So he put Mrs. War-Department on his right hand and then walked down the deck with Mrs. Assistant-Attorney and said to her:
"I want to ask a favor, Mrs. Brownrig. Unfortunately I am a little deaf in the right ear, caused, I presume, by listening so much with that ear to the fog horn year in and year out. Now, I always place the lady whose conversation I wish most to enjoy on my left hand at table. Would you oblige me by taking that seat this voyage? I have heard of you, you see, Mrs. Brownrig, although you have never crossed with me before."
"Why, certainly, captain," replied Mrs. Brownrig; "I feel especially complimented."
"And I assure you, madam," said the polite captain, "that I would not for the world miss a single word that," etc.
And thus it was amicably arranged between the two ladies. All this has nothing whatever to do with the story. It is merely an incident given to show what a born diplomat Capt. Rice was and is to this day. I don't know any captain more popular with the ladies than he, and besides he is as good a sailor as crosses the ocean.
Day by day the good ship ploughed her way toward the east, and the passengers were unanimous in saying that they never had a pleasanter voyage for that time of the year. It was so warm on deck that many steamer chairs were out, and below it was so mild that a person might think he was journeying in the tropics. Yet they had left New York in a snow storm with the thermometer away below zero.
"Such," said young Spinner, who knew everything, "such is the influence of the Gulf Stream."
Nevertheless when Capt. Rice came down to lunch the fourth day out his face was haggard and his look furtive and anxious.
"Why, captain," cried Mrs. Assistant-Attorney, you look as if you hadn't slept a wink last night."
"I slept very well, thank you, madam." replied the captain. "I always do."
"Well, I hope your room was more comfortable than mine. It seemed to me too hot for anything. Didn't you find it so, Mrs. Digby?"
"I thought it very nice," replied the lady at the captain's right, who generally found it necessary to take an opposite view from the lady at the left.
"You see," said the captain, "we have many delicate women and children on board and it is necessary to keep up the temperature. Still, perhaps the man who attends to the steam rather overdoes it. I will speak him."
Then the captain pushed from him his untasted food and went up on the bridge, casting his eye aloft at the signal waving from the masthead, silently calling for help to all the empty horizon.
"Nothing in sight, Johnson?" said the captain.
"Not a speck, sir."
The captain swept the circular line of sea and sky with his glasses, then laid them down with a sigh.
"We ought to raise something this afternoon, sir," said Johnson; "we are right in their track, sir. The Fulda ought to be somewhere about."
"We are too far north for the Fulda, I am afraid," answered the captain.
"Well, sir, we should see the Vulcan before night, sir. She's had good weather from Queenstown."
"Yes. Keep a sharp lookout, Johnson."
The captain moodily paced the bridge with his head down.
"I ought to have turned back to New York," he said to himself.
Then he went down to his own room, avoiding the passengers as much as he could, and had the steward bring him some beef-tea. Even a captain cannot live on anxiety.
"Steamer off the port bow, sir," rang out the voice of the lookout at the prow. The man had sharp eyes, for a landsman could have seen nothing.
"Run and tell the captain," cried Johnson to the sailor at his elbow, but as the sailor turned the captain's head appeared up the stairway. He seized the glass and looked long at a single point in the horizon.
"It must be the Vulcan," he said at last.
"I think so, sir."
"Turn your wheel a few points to port and bear down on her."
Johnson gave the necessary order and the great ship veered around.
"Hello!" cried Spinner, on deck. "Here's a steamer. I found her. She's mine."
Then there was a rush to the side of the ship. "A steamer in sight!" was the cry, and all books and magazines at once lost interest. Even the placid, dignified Englishman who was so uncommunicative, rose from his chair and sent his servant for his binocular. Children were held up and told to be careful, while they tried to see the dim line of smoke so far ahead.
"Talk about lane routes at sea," cried young Spinner, the knowing. "Bosh, I say. See! we're going directly for her. Think what it might be in a fog! Lane routes! Pure luck, I call it."
"Will we signal to her, Mr. Spinner?" gently asked the young lady from Boston.
"Oh, certainly," answered young Spinner. "See there's our signal flying from the masthead now. That shows them what line we belong to."
"Dear me, how interesting," said the young lady. "You have crossed many times, I suppose, Mr. Spinner."
"Oh, I know my way about," answered the modest Spinner.
The captain kept the glasses glued to his eyes. Suddenly he almost let them drop.
"My God! Johnson," he cried.
"What is it, sir?"
"She's flying a signal of distress, too!"
The two steamers slowly approached each other and, when nearly alongside and about a mile apart, the bell of the Adamant rang to stop.
"There, you see," said young Spinner to the Boston girl, "she is flying the same flag at her masthead that we are."
"Then she belongs to the same line as this boat?"
"Oh, certainly," answered Mr. Cock-Sure Spinner.
"Oh, look! look! look!" cried the enthusiastic Indianapolis girl who was going to take music in Germany.
Everyone looked aloft and saw running up to the masthead a long line of fluttering, many-colored flags. They remained in place for a few moments and then fluttered down again, only to give place to a different string. The same thing was going on on the other steamer.
"Oh, this is too interesting for anything," said Mrs. Assistant. "I am just dying to know what it all means. I have read of it so often but never saw it before. I wonder when the captain will come down. What does it all mean?" she asked the deck steward.
"They are signalling to each other, madam."
"Oh, I know that. But what are they signalling?"
"I don't know, madam."
"Oh, see! see!" cried the Indianapolis girl, clapping her hands with delight. "The other steamer is turning round."
It was indeed so. The great ship was thrashing the water with her screw, and gradually the masts came in line and then her prow faced the east again. When this had been slowly accomplished the bell on the Adamant rang full speed ahead, and then the captain came slowly down the ladder that led from the bridge.
"Oh, captain, what does it all mean?"
"Is she going back, captain? Nothing wrong, I hope."
"What ship is it, captain?"
"She belongs to our line, doesn't she?"
"Why is she going back?"
"The ship," said the captain slowly, "is the Vulcan, of the Black Bowling Line, that left Queenstown shortly after we left New York. She has met with an accident. Ran into some wreckage, it is thought, from the recent storm. Anyhow there is a hole in her, and whether she sees Queenstown or not will depend a great deal on what weather we have and whether her bulkheads hold out. We will stand by her till we reach Queenstown."
"Are there many on board, do you think, captain?"
"There are thirty-seven in the cabin and over 800 steerage passengers," answered the captain.
"Why don't you take them on board, out of danger, captain?"
"Ah, madam, there is no need to do that. It would delay us, and time is everything in a case like this. Besides, they will have ample warning if she is going down and they will have time to get everybody in the boats. We will stand by them, you know."
"Oh, the poor creatures," cried the sympathetic Mrs. Second-Adjutant. "Think of their awful position. May be engulfed at any moment. I suppose they are all on their knees in the cabin. How thankful they must have been to see the Adamant."
On all sides there was the profoundest sympathy for the unfortunate passengers of the Vulcan. Cheeks paled at the very thought of the catastrophe that might take place at any moment within sight of the sister ship. It was a realistic object lesson on the ever-present dangers of the sea. While those on deck looked with new interest at the steamship plunging along within a mile of them, the captain slipped away to his room. As he sat there there was a tap at his door.
"Come in," shouted the captain.
The silent Englishman slowly entered.
"What's wrong, captain," he asked.
"Oh, the Vulcan has had a hole stove in her and I signalled——"
"Yes, I know all that, of course, but what's wrong with us?"
"With us?" echoed the captain blankly.
"Yes, with the Adamant? What has been amiss for the last two or three days? I'm not a talker, nor am I afraid any more than you are, but I want to know."
"Certainly," said the captain. "Please shut the door, Sir John."
* * * * *
Meanwhile there was a lively row on board the Vulcan. In the saloon Capt. Flint was standing at bay with his knuckles on the table.
"Now what the devil's the meaning of all this?" cried Adam K. Vincent, member of Congress.
A crowd of frightened women were standing around, many on the verge of hysterics. Children clung, with pale faces, to their mother's skirts, fearing they knew not what. Men were grouped with anxious faces, and the bluff old captain fronted them all.
"The meaning of all what, sir?"
"You know very well. What is the meaning of our turning-round?"
"It means, sir, that the Adamant has eighty-five saloon passengers and nearly 500 intermediate and steerage passengers who are in the most deadly danger. The cotton in the hold is on fire, and they have been fighting it night and day. A conflagration may break out at any moment. It means, then, sir, that the Vulcan is going to stand by the Adamant."
A wail of anguish burst from the frightened women at the awful fate that might be in store for so many human beings so near to them, and they clung closer to their children and thanked God that no such danger threatened them and those dear to them.
"And dammit, sir," cried the Congressman, "do you mean to tell us that we have to go against our will—without even being consulted—back to Queenstown?"
"I mean to tell you so, sir."
"Well, by the gods, that's an outrage, and I won't stand it, sir. I must be in New York by the 27th. I won't stand it, sir."
"I am very sorry, sir, that anybody should be delayed."
"Delayed? Hang it all, why don't you take the people on board and take 'em to New York? I protest against this. I'll bring a lawsuit against the company, sir."
"Mr. Vincent," said the captain sternly, "permit me to remind you that I am captain of this ship. Good afternoon, sir."
The Congressman departed from the saloon exceeding wroth, breathing dire threats of legal proceedings against the line and the captain personally, but most of the passengers agreed that it would be an inhuman thing to leave the Adamant alone in mid-ocean in such terrible straits.
"Why didn't they turn back, Captain Flint?" asked Mrs. General Weller.
"Because, madam, every moment is of value in such a case, and we are nearer Queenstown than New York."
And so the two steamships, side by side, worried their way toward the east, always within sight of each other by day, and with the rows of lights in each visible at night to the sympathetic souls on the other. The sweltering men poured water into the hold of the one and the pounding pumps poured water out of the hold of the other, and thus they reached Queenstown.
* * * * *
On board the tender that took the passengers ashore at Queenstown from both steamers two astonished women met each other.
"Why! Mrs.—General—WELLER!!! You don't mean to say you were on board that unfortunate Vulcan!"
"For the land's sake, Mrs. Assistant Brownrig! Is that really you? Will wonders never cease? Unfortunate, did you say? Mightily fortunate for you, I think. Why! weren't you just frightened to death?"
"I was, but I had no idea anyone I knew was on board."
"Well, you were on board yourself. That would have been enough to have killed me."
"On board myself? Why, what do you mean? I wasn't on board the Vulcan. Did you get any sleep at all after you knew you might go down at any moment?"
"My sakes, Jane, what are you talking about? Down at any moment? It was you that might have gone down at any moment or, worse still, have been burnt to death if the fire had got ahead. You don't mean to say you didn't know the Adamant was on fire most of the way across?"
"Mrs.—General—Weller!! There's some horrible mistake. It was the Vulcan. Everything depended on her bulkheads, the captain said. There was a hole as big as a barn door in the Vulcan. The pumps were going night and day."
Mrs. General looked at Mrs. Assistant as the light began to dawn on both of them.
"Then it wasn't the engines, but the pumps," she said.
"And it wasn't the steam, but the fire," screamed Mrs. Assistant. "Oh, dear, how that captain lied, and I thought him such a nice man, too. Oh, I shall go into hysterics, I know I shall."
"I wouldn't if I were you," said the sensible Mrs. General, who was a strong-minded woman; "besides, it is too late. We're all safe now. I think both captains were pretty sensible men. Evidently married, both of 'em."
Which was quite true.
THE DEPARTURE OF CUB MCLEAN.
Of course no one will believe me when I say that Mellish was in every respect, except one, an exemplary citizen and a good-hearted man. He was generous to a fault and he gave many a young fellow a start in life where a little money or a few encouraging words were needed. He drank, of course, but he was a connoisseur in liquors, and a connoisseur never goes in for excess. Few could tell a humorous story as well as Mellish, and he seldom dealt in chestnuts. No man can be wholly bad who never inflicts an old story on his friends, locating it on some acquaintance of his, and alleging that it occurred the day before.
If I wished to write a heart-rending article on the evils of gambling, Mellish would be the man I would go to for my facts and for the moral of the tale. He spent his life persuading people not to gamble. He never gambled himself, he said. But if no attention was paid to his advice, why then he furnished gamblers with the most secluded and luxurious gambling rooms in the city. It was supposed that Mellish stood in with the police, which was, of course, a libel. The idea of the guardians of the city standing in with a gambler or a gambling house! The statement was absurd on the face of it. If you asked any policeman in the city where Mellish's gambling rooms were, you would speedily learn that not one of them had ever even heard of the place. All this goes to show how scandalously people will talk, and if Mellish's rooms were free from raids, it was merely Mellish's good luck, that was all. Anyhow, in Mellish's rooms you could have a quiet, gentlemanly game for stakes about as high as you cared to go, and you were reasonably sure there would be no fuss and that your name would not appear in the papers next morning.
One night as Mellish cast his eye around his well-filled main room he noticed a stranger sitting at the roulette table. Mellish had a keen eye for strangers and in an unobtrusive way generally managed to find out something about them. A stranger in a gambling room brings in with him a certain sense of danger to the habitues.
"Who is that boy?" whispered Mellish to his bartender, generally known as Sotty, an ex-prize fighter and a dangerous man to handle if it came to trouble. It rarely came to trouble there, but Sotty was, in a measure, the silent symbol of physical force, backing the well-known mild morality of Mellish.
"I don't know him," answered Sotty.
"Whom did he come in with?"
"I didn't see him come in. Hadn't noticed him till now."
Mellish looked at the boy for a few minutes. He had the fresh, healthy, smooth face of a lad from the country, and he seemed strangely out of place in the heated atmosphere of that room, under the glare of the gas. Mellish sighed as he looked at him, then he turned to Sotty and said:
"Just get him away quietly and bring him to the small poker room. I want to have a few words with him."
Sotty, who had the utmost contempt for the humanitarian feelings of his boss, said nothing, but a look of disdain swept over his florid features as he went on his mission. If he had his way, he would not throw even a sprat out of the net. Many a time he had known Mellish to persuade a youngster with more money than brains to go home, giving orders at the double doors that he was not to be admitted again.
The young man rose with a look of something like consternation on his face and followed Sotty. The thing was done quietly, and all those around the tables were too much absorbed in the game to pay much attention.
"Look here, my boy," said Mellish, when they were alone, "who brought you to this place?"
"I guess," said the lad, with an expression of resentment, "I'm old enough to go where I like without being brought."
"Oh, certainly, certainly," said Mellish, diplomatically, knowing how much very young men dislike being accused of youth, "but I like to know all visitors here. You couldn't get in unless you came with someone known at the door. Who vouched for you?"
"See here, Mr. Mellish," said the youth angrily, "what are you driving at? If your doorkeepers don't know their own business why don't you speak to them about it? Are you going to have me turned out?"
"Nothing of the sort," said Mellish, soothingly, putting his hand in a fatherly manner on the young fellow's shoulder. "Don't mistake my meaning. The fact that you are here shows that you have a right to be here. We'll say no more about that. But you take my advice and quit the business here and now. I was a gambler before you were born, although I don't gamble any more. Take the advice of a man who knows. It doesn't pay."
"It seems to have paid you reasonably well."
"Oh, I don't complain. It has its ups and downs like all businesses. Still, it doesn't pay me nearly as well as perhaps you think, and you can take my word that in the long run it won't pay you at all. How much money have you got?"
"Enough to pay if I lose," said the boy impudently; then seeing the look of pain that passed over Mellish's face, he added more civilly:
"I have three or four hundred dollars."
"Well, take my advice and go home. You'll be just that much better off in the morning."
"What! Don't you play a square game here?"
"Of course we play a square game here," answered Mellish with indignation. "Do you think I am a card-sharper?"
"You seem so cock-sure I'll lose my money that I was just wondering. Now, I can afford to lose all the money I've got and not feel it. Are you going to allow me to play, or are you going to chuck me out?"
"Oh, you can play if you want to. But don't come whining to me when you lose. I've warned you."
"I'm not a whiner," said the young fellow; "I take my medicine like a man."
"Right you are," said Mellish with a sigh. He realized that this fellow, young as he looked, was probably deeper in vice than his appearance indicated and he knew the uselessness of counsel in such a case. They went into the main room together and the boy, abandoning roulette, began to play at one of the card tables for ever-increasing stakes. Mellish kept an eye on him for a time. The boy was having the luck of most beginners. He played a reckless game and won hand over fist. As one man had enough and rose from the table another eagerly took his place, but there was no break in the boy's winnings.
Pony Rowell was always late in arriving at the gambling rooms. On this occasion he entered, irreproachably dressed, and with the quiet, gentlemanly demeanor habitual with him. The professional gambler was never known to lose his temper. When displeased he became quieter, if possible, than before. The only sign of inward anger was a mark like an old scar which extended from his right temple, beginning over the eye and disappearing in his closely-cropped hair behind the ear. This line became an angry red that stood out against the general pallor of his face when things were going in a way that did not please him. He spoke in a low tone to Mellish.
"What's the excitement down at the other end of the room? Every one seems congregated there."
"Oh," answered Mellish, "it's a boy—a stranger—who is having the devil's own luck at the start. It will be the ruin of him."
"Is he playing high?"
"High? I should say so. He's perfectly reckless. He'll be brought up with a sharp turn and will borrow money from me to get out of town. I've seen a flutter like that before."
"In that case," said Pony tranquilly, "I must have a go at him. I like to tackle a youngster in the first flush of success, especially if he is plunging."
"You will soon have a chance," answered Mellish, "for even Ragstock knows when he has enough. He will get up in a moment. I know the signs."
With the air of a gentleman of leisure, somewhat tired of the frivolities of this world, Rowell made his way slowly to the group. As he looked over their shoulders at the boy a curious glitter came into his piercing eyes, and his lips, usually so well under control, tightened. The red mark began to come out as his face paled. It was evident that he did not intend to speak and that he was about to move away again, but the magnetism of his keen glance seemed to disturb the player, who suddenly looked up over the head of his opponent and met the stern gaze of Rowell.
The boy did three things. He placed his cards face downward on the table, put his right hand over the pile of money, and moved his chair back.
"What do you mean by that?" cried Ragstock.
The youth ignored the question, still keeping his eyes on Rowell.
"Do you squeal?" he asked.
"I squeal," said Pony, whatever the question and answer might mean. Then Rowell cried, slightly raising his voice so that all might hear:
"This man is Cub McLean, the most notorious card-sharper, thief, and murderer in the west. He couldn't play straight if he tried."
McLean laughed. "Yes," he said; "and if you want to see my trademark look at the side of Greggs' face."
Every man looked at Pony, learning for the first time that he had gone under a different name at some period of his life.
During the momentary distraction McLean swept the money off the table and put it in his pockets.
"Hold on," cried Ragstock, seemingly not quite understanding the situation. "You haven't won that yet."
Again McLean laughed.
"It would have been the same in ten minutes."
He jumped up, scattering the crowd behind him.
"Look to the doors," cried Pony. "Don't let this man out."
McLean had his back to the wall. From under his coat he whipped two revolvers which he held out, one in each hand.
"You ought to know me better than that, Greggs," he said, "do you want me to have another shot at you? I won't miss this time. Drop that."
The last command was given in a ringing voice that attracted every one's attention to Sotty. He had picked up a revolver from somewhere behind the bar and had come out with it in his hand. McLean's eye seemed to take in every motion in the room and he instantly covered the bartender with one of the pistols as he gave the command.
"Drop it," said Mellish. "There must be no shooting. You may go quietly. No one will interfere with you."
"You bet your sweet life they won't," said McLean with a laugh.
"Gentlemen," continued Mellish, "the house will stand the loss. If I allow a swindler in my rooms it is but right that I alone should suffer. Now you put up your guns and walk out."
"Good old Mellish," sneered McLean, "you ought to be running a Sunday- school."
Notwithstanding the permission to depart McLean did not relax his precautions for a moment. His shoulders scraped their way along the wall as he gradually worked towards the door. He kept Pony covered with his left hand while the polished barrel of the revolver in his right seemed to have a roving commission all over the room, to the nervous dread of many respectable persons who cowered within range. When he reached the door he said to Pony:
"I hope you'll excuse me, Greggs, but this is too good an opportunity to miss. I'm going to kill you in your tracks."
"That's about your size," said Pony putting his hands behind him and standing in his place, while those near him edged away. "I'm unarmed, so it is perfectly safe. You will insure your arrest so blaze away."
"Dodge under the table, then, and I will spare you."
Pony invited him to take up his abode in tropical futurity.
Cub laughed once more good naturedly, and lowered the muzzle of his revolver. As he shoved back his soft felt hat, Mellish, who stood nearest him, saw that the hair on his temples was grey. Lines of anxiety had come into his apparently youthful face as he had scraped his way along the wall.
"Good-night, all," he shouted back from the stairway.
OLD NUMBER EIGHTY-SIX.
John Saggart stood in a dark corner of the terminus, out of the rays of the glittering arc lamps, and watched engine Number Eighty-six. The engineer was oiling her, and the fireman, as he opened the furnace-door and shovelled in the coal, stood out like a red Rembrandt picture in the cab against the darkness beyond. As the engineer with his oil can went carefully around Number Eighty-six, John Saggart drew his sleeve across his eyes, and a gulp came up his throat. He knew every joint and bolt in that contrary old engine—the most cantankerous iron brute on the road—and yet, if rightly managed, one of the swiftest and most powerful machines the company had, notwithstanding the many improvements that had been put upon locomotives since old Eighty-six had left the foundry.
Saggart, as he stood there, thought of the seven years he had spent on the foot-board of old Eighty-six, and of the many tricks she had played him during that period. If, as the poet says, the very chains and the prisoner become friends through long association, it may be imagined how much of a man's affection goes out to a machine that he thoroughly understands and likes—a machine that is his daily companion for years, in danger and out of it. Number Eighty-six and John had been in many a close pinch together, and at this moment the man seemed to have forgotten that often the pinch was caused by the pure cussedness of Eighty-six herself, and he remembered only that she had bravely done her part several times when the situation was exceedingly serious.
The cry "All aboard" rang out and was echoed down from the high-arched roof of the great terminus, and John with a sigh turned from his contemplation of the engine, and went to take his seat in the car. It was a long train with many sleeping-cars at the end of it. The engineer had put away his oil-can, and had taken his place on the engine, standing ready to begin the long journey at the moment the signal was given.
John Saggart climbed into the smoking-carriage at the front part of the train. He found a place in one of the forward seats, and sank down into it with a vague feeling of uneasiness at being inside the coach instead of on the engine. He gazed out of the window and saw the glittering electric lights slide slowly behind, then, more quickly, the red, green, and white lights of the signal lamps, and finally there flickered swiftly past the brilliant constellation of city windows, showing that the town had not yet gone to bed. At last the flying train plunged into the country, and Saggart pressed his face against the cold glass of the window, unable to shake off his feeling of responsibility, although he knew there was another man at the throttle.
He was aroused from his reverie by a touch on the shoulder, and a curt request, "Tickets, please."
He pulled out of his pocket a pass, and turned to hand it to the conductor who stood there with a glittering, plated, and crystal lantern on his arm.
"Hello, John, is this you?" cried the conductor, as soon as he saw the face. "Hang it, man, you didn't need a pass in travelling with me."
"They gave it to me to take me home," said Saggart, a touch of sadness in his voice, "and I may as well use it as not. I don't want to get you into trouble."
"Oh, I'd risk the trouble," said the conductor, placing the lantern on the floor and taking his seat beside the engineer. "I heard about your worry to-day. It's too bad. If a man had got drunk at his post, as you and I have known 'em to do, it wouldn't have seemed so hard; but at its worst your case was only an error of judgment, and then nothing really happened. Old Eighty-six seems to have the habit of pulling herself through. I suppose you and she have been in worse fixes than that, with not a word said about it."
"Oh, yes," said John, "we've been in many a tight place together, but we won't be any more. It's rough, as you say. I've been fifteen years with the company, and seven on old Eighty-six, and at first it comes mighty hard. But I suppose I'll get used to it."
"Look here, John," said the conductor, lowering his voice to a confidential tone, "the president of the road is with us to-night; his private car is the last but one on the train. How would it do to speak to him? If you are afraid to tackle him, I'll put in a word for you in a minute, and tell him your side of the story."
John Saggart shook his head.
"It wouldn't do," he said; "he wouldn't overrule what one of his subordinates had done, unless there was serious injustice in the case. It's the new manager, you know. There's always trouble with a new manager. He sweeps clean. And I suppose that he thinks by 'bouncing' one of the oldest engineers on the road, he will scare the rest."
"Well, I don't think much of him between ourselves," said the conductor. "What do you think he has done to-night? He's put a new man on Eighty-six. A man from one of the branch lines who doesn't know the road. I doubt if he's ever been over the main line before. Now, it's an anxious enough time for me anyhow with a heavy train to take through, with the thermometer at zero, and the rails like glass, and I like to have a man in front that I can depend on."
"It's bad enough not to know the road," said John gloomily, "but it's worse not to know old Eighty-six. She's a brute if she takes a notion."
"I don't suppose there is another engine that could draw this train and keep her time," said the conductor.
"No! She'll do her work all right if you'll only humor her," admitted Saggart, who could not conceal his love for the engine even while he blamed her.
"Well," said the conductor, rising and picking up his lantern, "the man in front may be all right, but I would feel safer if you were further ahead than the smoker. I'm sorry I can't offer you a berth to-night, John, but we're full clear through to the rear lights. There isn't even a vacant upper on the train."
"Oh, it doesn't matter," said Saggart. "I couldn't sleep, anyhow. I'd rather sit here and look out of the window."
"Well, so long," said the conductor. "I'll drop in and see you as the night passes on."
Saggart lit his pipe and gazed out into darkness. He knew every inch of the road—all the up grades and the down grades and the levels. He knew it even better in the murkiest night than in the clearest day. Now and then the black bulk of a barn or a clump of trees showed for one moment against the sky, and Saggart would say to himself, "Now he should shut off an inch of steam," or, "Now he should throw her wide open." The train made few stops, but he saw that they were losing time. Eighty-six was sulking, very likely. Thinking of the engine turned his mind to his own fate. No man was of very much use in the world, after all, for the moment he steps down another is ready to stand in his place. The wise men in the city who had listened to his defence knew so well that an engine was merely a combination of iron and steel and brass, and that a given number of pounds of steam would get it over a given number of miles in a given number of hours, and they had smiled incredulously when he told them that an engine had her tantrums, and informed them that sometimes she had to be coddled up like any other female. Even when a man did his best there were occasions when nothing he could do would mollify her, and then there was sure to be trouble, although, he added, in his desire to be fair, she was always sorry for it afterward. Which remark, to his confusion, had turned the smile into a laugh.
He wondered what Eighty-six thought of the new man. Not much, evidently, for she was losing time, which she had no business to do on that section of the road. Still it might be the fault of the new man not knowing when to push her for all she was worth and when to ease up. All these things go to the making of time. But it was more than probable that old Eighty-six, like Gilpin's horse, was wondering more and more what thing upon her back had got. "He'll have trouble," muttered John to himself, "when she finds out."
The conductor came in again and sat down beside the engineer. He said nothing, but sat there sorting his tickets, while Saggart gazed out of the window. Suddenly the engineer sprang to his feet with his eyes wide open. The train was swaying from side to side and going at great speed.
The conductor looked up with a smile.
"Old Eighty-six," he said, "is evidently going to make up for lost time."
"She should be slowing down for crossing the G. & M. line," replied the engineer. "Good heavens!" he cried a moment after, "we've gone across the G. & M. track on the keen jump."
The conductor sprang to his feet. He knew the seriousness of such a thing. Even the fastest expresses must stop dead before crossing on the level the line of another railway. It is the law.
"Doesn't that fool in front know enough to stop at a crossing?"
"It isn't that." said Saggart. "He knows all right. Even the train boys know that. Old Eighty-six has taken the bit between her teeth. He can't stop her. Where do you pass No. 6 to-night?"
"That's only six miles ahead," said the engineer; "and in five minutes at this rate we will be running on her time and on her rails. She's always late, and won't be on the side track. I must get to Eighty-six."
Saggart quickly made his way through the baggage-coach, climbed on the express car, and jumped on the coal of the tender. He cast his eye up the track and saw glimmering in the distance, like a faint wavering star, the headlight of No. 6. Looking down into the cab he realized the situation in a glance. The engineer, with fear in his face and beads of perspiration on his brow, was throwing his whole weight on the lever, the fireman helping him. Saggart leaped down to the floor of the cab.
"Stand aside," he shouted; and there was such a ring of confident command in his voice that both men instantly obeyed.
Saggart grasped the lever, and instead of trying to shut off steam flung it wide open. Number Eighty-six gave a quiver and a jump forward. "You old fiend!" muttered John between his teeth. Then he pushed the lever home, and it slid into place as if there had never been any impediment. The steam was shut off, but the lights of Pointsville flashed past them with the empty side-track on the left, and they were now flying along the single line of rails with the headlight of No. 6 growing brighter and brighter in front of them.
"Reverse her, reverse her!" cried the other engineer, with fear in his voice.
"Reverse nothing," said Saggart. "She'll slide ten miles if you do. Jump, if you're afraid."
The man from the branch line promptly jumped.
"Save yourself," said Saggart to the stoker; "there's bound to be a smash."
"I'll stick by you, Mr. Saggart," said the fireman, who knew him. But his hand trembled.
The air-brake was grinding the long train and sending a shiver of fear through every timber, but the rails were slippery with frost, and the speed of the train seemed as great as ever. At the right moment Saggart reversed the engine, and the sparks flew up from her great drivers like catharine wheels.
"Brace yourself," cried Saggart. "No. 6 is backing up, thank God!"
Next instant the crash came. Two headlights and two cow-catchers went to flinders, and the two trains stood there with horns locked, but no great damage done, except a shaking up for a lot of panic-stricken passengers.
The burly engineer of No. 6 jumped down and came forward, his mouth full of oaths.
"What the h—l do you mean by running in on our time like this? Hello, is that you, Saggart? I thought there was a new man on to-night. I didn't expect this from you."
"It's all right, Billy. It wasn't the new man's fault. He's back in the ditch with a broken leg, I should say, from the way he jumped. Old Eighty-six is to blame. She got on the rampage. Took advantage of the greenhorn."
The conductor came running up.
"How is it?" he cried.
"It's all right. Number Eighty-six got her nose broke, and served her right, that's all. Tell the passengers there's no danger, and get 'em on board. We're going to back up to Pointsville. Better send the brakesmen to pick up the other engineer. The ground's hard tonight, and he may be hurt."
"I'm going back to talk to the president," said the conductor emphatically. "He's in a condition of mind to listen to reason, judging from the glimpse I got of his face at the door of his car a moment ago. Either he re-instates you or I go gathering tickets on a street-car. This kind of thing is too exciting for my nerves."
The conductor's interview with the president of the road was apparently satisfactory, for old Number Eighty-six is trying to lead a better life under the guidance of John Saggart.
PLAYING WITH MARKED CARDS.
"I'm bothered about that young fellow," said Mellish early one morning, to the professional gambler, Pony Rowell.