Some one whistled in the corridor. She listened.
"Farewell, my own dear Napoli, Farewell to Thee, Farewell to Thee——" How she hated that song! The Dago Duke was coming for his answer.
He stood before her with his hat in his hand, the other hand resting on his hip smiling, confident, the one long, black lock of hair hanging nearly in his eyes. He made no comment, but she saw that he was noting the ravages which the intervening hours had left in her face. Beneath his smile there was something hard and pitiless—a look that the executioner of a de Medici might have worn—and for a moment it put her at a loss for words. Then with an attempt at her old-time camaraderie, she shoved a glass toward him—
His white teeth flashed in a fleeting smile—
"If you will join me—in my last drink?"
For answer she filled his glass and hers.
He raised it and looked at her.
"I give you—the sweetest thing in the world."
Her lip curled.
His black eyes glittered between their narrowed lids.
"The power to avenge the wrongs of the helpless."
He set down his empty glass and fumbled in his pocket for a paper which he handed her to read.
"It's always well to know what you're signing," he said, and he watched her face as her eyes followed the lines, with the intent yet impersonal scrutiny of a specialist studying his case.
She looked, as she read, like a corpse that has been propped to a sitting position, with nostrils sunken and lips of Parian marble. Her hand shook with a violence which recalled her to herself, and when she raised her eyes they looked as though the iris itself had faded. The Dago Duke seemed absorbed in the curious effect.
He could hear the dryness of her mouth when she asked at last—
"You expect me—to put my name—to this?"
He inclined his head.
He replied evenly:
"It is necessary."
"You are asking me to sign my own death warrant."
He lifted his shoulders.
"It is your reputation or Essie Tisdale's."
The name seemed to prick her like a goad. Her hands and body twitched nervously and then he saw swift decision arrive in her face.
"I'll not do it!"
As moved by a common impulse they arose.
"It's the lesser of two evils."
"I don't care!" She reiterated in a kind of hopeless desperation, "I don't care—I'll fight!"
He eyed her again with a recurrence of his impersonal professional scrutiny.
"You can't go through it, Doc; you haven't the stamina, any more. You don't know what you're up against, for I haven't half showed my hand. I have no personal grievance, as you know, but the wrongs of my countrymen are my wrongs, and for your brutality to them you shall answer to me. Fight if you will, but when you're done you'll not disgrace your profession again in this or any other State."
While this scene was occurring in Doctor Harpe's office, Andy P. Symes in his office was toying impatiently with an unopened letter from Mudge as Mr. Percy Parrott, hat in hand, stood before him.
"It's not that I'm worried at all, Mr. Symes"—every line of Parrott's face was deep-lined with anxiety as he spoke—"but, of course, I've made you these loans largely upon my own responsibility, I've exceeded my authority, in fact, and any failure on your part——" Mr. Parrott finding himself floundering under Symes's cold gaze blurted out desperately, "Well, 'twould break us!"
"Certainly, certainly, I know all that, but, really, these frequent duns—this Homeseekers' Excursion has put me behind with my work, but as soon as things are straightened out again——"
"Oh, of course. That's all right. I understand, but as soon as you conveniently can——"
Mr. Parrott's lengthened jaw rested between the "white wings" of his collar as he turned away. It might have reached his shirt-stud had he known the number of creditors that had preceded him.
Even Symes's confident assurances that the complete failure of the Homeseekers' Excursion was relatively a small matter, could not entirely eradicate from the minds of Crowheart's merchants the picture presented by the procession of excursionists returning with their satchels to the station, glowering at Crowheart's citizens as they passed and making loud charges of misrepresentation and fraud.
When the door closed behind him Symes dropped the catch that he might read Mudge's bulky letter undisturbed. Mudge's diction was ever open to criticism, but he had a faculty for conveying his meaning which genius well might envy.
The letter read:
MY DEAR SYMES:
Are you the damnedest fool or the biggest scoundrel out of jail? Write and let me know.
I told you there was something wrong; that some outside influence was queering us all along the line and I let myself be talked out of my conviction by you instead of getting busy and finding out the truth.
The stock and bondholders have had a meeting and are going to ask the court to appoint a Receiver, and when he gets through with us we'll cut as much ice in the affairs of the Company as two office-boys, with no cause for complaint if we keep out of jail.
There's been a high-priced engineer doing detective work on the project for days and his report wouldn't be apt to swell your head. The bondholders know more about the Symes Irrigation Company and conditions under the project than I ever did.
They know that your none too perfect water-right won't furnish water for a third of the land under the ditch. They know that if you had every water-right on the river that there's some ten thousand acres of high land that couldn't be reached with a fire-hose. They know that there's another thousand or so where the soil isn't deep enough to grow radishes, let alone sugar-beets. They know, too, that instead of the $250,000 of your estimate to complete the ditch it will require nearly half a million, and they're on to the fact that in order to get this estimate you cut your own engineer's figures in two, and then some, upon the cost of making cuts and handling loose rock.
Rough work, Symes, raw even for a green hand. You've left a trail of blood a yard wide behind you.
Furthermore, the report contained the information that the wide business experience which you lost no occasion to mention consisted chiefly of standing off your creditors in various sections of the country.
I trust that I have made it quite plain to you that we're down and out. I have about as much weight in financial circles as a second-story man, and am regarded in much the same light, while you are as important as a cipher without the rim.
And the man behind all this, the largest bond-holder, the fellow that has pulled the strings, is not the Fly-Trap King, or even J. Collins Prescott, but the man he works for, Ogden Van Lennop, whose present address happens to be Crowheart.
What's the answer? Why has a man like Van Lennop who is there on the ground and has long been familiar with conditions, why has he become the largest investor? Why should he tie up money in a project which the engineer reports will never pay more than a minimum rate of interest upon the investment even when the Company is re-organized and the ditch pushed to completion under economical and capable management? Why has he come in the Company for the one purpose of wrecking it? Why has he stuck the knife between your short ribs and mine—and turned it? What's the answer, Symes, you must know?
We might as well buck the Bank of England as the Van Lennops, or match our wits against the Secret Service. They've got us roped and tied and I'd advise you not to squeal.
Truly yours, S. B. MUDGE
Symes laid down the letter and smoothed it carefully, setting a small brass crocodile exactly in the centre. Wiping his clammy palms upon one of the handkerchiefs purchased on his wedding tour, the texture of which always gave him a pleasurable sense of refinement and well-being, he read again the line which showed below the paper-weight:
There's one thing sure—we're down and out.
Symes's head sunk weakly forward. Down and out! Not even Mudge knew how far down and out!
Stripped of the hope of success, robbed of the position which he had made for himself, his self-esteem punctured, his home-life a mockery, no longer young—it was the combination which makes a man whose vanity is his strength, lose his grip. To be little where he had been big; to be the object of his ruined neighbors' scorn—men have blown their brains out in his mood, and for less.
What Mudge and the Company regarded as wilful misrepresentations had in the beginning been due to inexperience and ignorance of an undertaking which it required scientific knowledge to successfully carry out. When the truth had been gradually borne in upon him as the work progressed, he felt that it was too late to explain or retract if he would raise more money and keep his position. The real cost he believed would frighten possible investors and with the peculiar sanguineness of the short-sighted, he thought that it would work out somehow.
And all had gone well until Mudge's unheeded warning had come that some subtle but formidable influence was at work to their undoing.
The dull red of mortification crept slowly over Symes's face as he realized that Ogden Van Lennop, before whom he had boasted of his lineage, and patronized, was a conspicuous member of a family whose name was all but a household word throughout the land!
But why, Symes asked the question that Mudge had asked, why should Van Lennop thrust the knife between his short ribs—and turn it? It could not be because Van Lennop had resented his patronage and his vaporings to any such extent as this; he was not that kind. No; he had been touched deeper than his pride or any petty vanity.
Another question like an answer to his first flashed through his mind. Could it be—was it possible that his attentions to Essie Tisdale, the biscuit-shooter of the Terriberry House, had been sincere?
Symes rose in sudden excitement and paced the floor.
He believed it was! The belief grew to conviction and he dropped again into his chair. If this was it he need expect no quarter. As his thoughts flashed back over the past the fact began to stand out clearly that nearly every unfriendly act he had shown the girl had been instigated by Doctor Harpe and accomplished through Augusta.
"That woman!" The veins swelled in his temples. "Always that woman!" and as though in answer to her name he saw her pass the window and shake the latched door.
"Let me in!" It was a peremptory demand.
Symes threw the catch back hard.
"Yes, Dr. Harpe, I'll let you in. I've business with you. For the first time in my life I want to see you." His tone was brutal. "Sit down!" He laid his huge hand upon her shoulder and thrust her into a chair.
Towering above her in the red-faced, loud-voiced fury of a man who has lost his self-control, he shouted:
"I want you to get out! To quit! To leave this town! Twenty-four hours I'll give you to get your traps together. Do you hear? If you don't, so help me God, I'll put you where you belong! Don't speak," he raised his hand as though to forestall her, "lest I forget your sex." He went on, inarticulate with passion: "I've protected you as long as I can—as long as I'm going to. Do you understand? I'm done. I've got some little self-respect left; not much, but enough to see me through this. And you can tell Augusta Symes that if she wants to go, every door is open wide! Tell her—tell her that for me!"
He stopped, choked with the violence of his feelings, and in the pause which followed she sat looking up at him unmoved. The shock seemed to quiet her. Then, too, it was so like another scene indelibly engraved upon her memory that she wanted to laugh—actually to laugh. Yet Symes's violence cut her less than had the cool, impersonal voice of the coroner back there in that little Nebraska town. She found his blazing eyes far easier to meet than the cold unfriendliness in the gaze of the man who had delivered that other ultimatum. Perhaps it was because she believed she had less to fear. Symes dared not—dared not, she told herself—enforce his threats.
Symes read something of this thought in her face and it maddened him. Was it not possible to make her comprehend? Was she really so callous, so thick-skinned that she was immune from insult? His hand dropped once more upon her shoulder.
"I'm ruined—do you understand?" He shook her. "I'm down and out. I'm broke; and so is Crowheart!" She winced under his tightening grip. "The smash was due when Van Lennop said the word. He's said it." He felt her start at the name and there was something like fear in her face at last. "Van Lennop," he reiterated, "Van Lennop that you've made my enemy to gratify your personal spite and jealousy." He continued through clenched teeth:
"From the beginning you've used me to further your petty ends. It's plain enough to me now, for, with all your fancied cleverness, you're transparent as a window-pane when one understands your character. You've silenced me, I admit it, and blackmailed me through my pride and ambition, but you've reached the limit. You can't do it any more. I've none left.
"You expect to cling to my coat-tails to keep yourself up. You look to my position for shelter, but let me make it clear to you that you can't hide behind my prestige and my position any longer. You human sponge! You parasite! Do you think I'm blind because I've been dumb? Go! you—DEGENERATE! By God! you go before I kill you!"
In his insane fury he pulled her to her feet by the shoulders of her loose-cut coat where she stood looking at him uncertainly, her faded eyes set in a gray mask.
"See here, Mr. Symes, see here——" she said in a kind of vague belligerence.
Symes pushed her toward the door as Adolph Kunkel passed.
"Will you go?" Symes shouted.
She turned on the sidewalk and faced him. The gray mask wore a sneer.
"Hi, Doc!" Kunkel pointed to a straight, black pillar of smoke rising at the station, and yelled in local parlance: "Look there! Your beau's come! That's the Van Lennop Special!"
"THE BITTER END"
"She ain't here." Nell Beecroft, with arms akimbo, blocked the hospital door.
"Upon your honor, Nell?"
She looked the sheriff squarely in the eyes.
"Upon my honor, Dan."
She saw the doubt lying behind his look, but she did not flinch.
"When she comes, send me word. No," on second thought, "you needn't; I'll be back." He tapped the inside pocket of his coat significantly. "I want to see Dr. Harpe most particular."
"I'll tell her," the woman answered shortly. She watched him down the street. "He knows I'm lyin'," she muttered, and though the heat was unusual, she closed the door behind her.
The muffled sound of beating fists drew her to the cellarway.
"Nell—let me out! Quick! Open the door!"
Nell Beecroft took a key from her apron pocket and demanded harshly as she turned it in the lock:
"What's the matter with you, anyhow?"
Dr. Harpe stumbled blinking into the light.
"Oh-h-h!" she gasped in relief.
"You'd better stay cached." Nell Beecroft eyed, with a look of contempt, the woman for whom she had lied. "Dan Treu was here; he's got a warrant."
"I don't care—I'll not go down there!" She pinned wildly at the loosened knot of dull red hair which lay upon her shoulders. "That was fierce!" She looked in horror down the dusky cellarway.
"What ails you, Harpe?" There was no sympathy in the harsh voice.
Dr. Harpe laughed—a foolish, apologetic laugh.
"Spooks—Nell! I'm nervous—I'm all unstrung. Moses! I thought all the arms and legs we've amputated were chasin' me upstairs. Did you hear me scream?"
"No," the woman reiterated sharply. "Dan Treu was here. He wants to see you most particular."
"You didn't tell him——"
"Of course not."
"You won't go back on me, Nell?"
The woman regarded her in cold dislike.
"No, I'll not go back on you, Harpe. A man or a woman that ain't got some redeemin' trait, some one thing that you can bank on, is no good on earth, and stickin' to them I've throwed in with happens to be mine. What you goin' to do? stay and brazen it out—this mess you're in—or quit the flat?"
"Nell," she replied irrelevantly with a quick, uncertain glance around, "I'm afraid. Do you know what it is to be afraid?"
"I've been scart," the woman answered curtly.
"I've a queer, sinkin' feeling here," she laid her hand at the pit of her stomach, "and my back feels weak—all gone. My knees take spells of wobblin' when I walk. I'm afraid in the dark. I'm afraid in the light. Not so much of any one thing as of some big, intangible thing that hasn't happened. I can't shake off the feeling. It's horrible. My mind won't stop thinkin' of things I don't want to think of. My nerves are a wreck, Nell. I've lost my grip, my judgment. I'm not myself."
Nell Beecroft listened in hard curiosity, eyeing her critically.
"Oh, yes, you are, only you've never really seen yourself before. You've took your brass for courage. Lots of people do that till some real show-down comes."
"Look here, Nell,"—her voice held a whine of protest—"you haven't got me sized up right." Yet in her heart she knew that the woman's brutal analysis was true. Better even than Nell Beecroft she knew that what passed with her following for shrewdness and courage in reality was callousness and calculating cynicism.
The woman ignored the interruption and went on—
"So long as you could swagger around with Andy P. Symes to bolster you up and a crowd of old women to flatter you, you could put up a front, but you ain't the kind, Harpe, that can turn your back to the wall, fold your arms, and sling defiance at the town if they all turn on you."
"But they won't."
"You've got a kind of mulishness, and you've got gall, and when things are goin' your way you'll take long chances, but they ain't the traits that gives a person the sand to stand out in the open with their head up and let the storms whip thunder out of them without a whimper."
"It's my nerves, I tell you; they're shot to pieces—the strain I've been under—everything goin' wrong—pilin' on me like a thousand of brick."
"Is it goin' to be any better?"
"Some of my friends will stick," Dr. Harpe repeated stubbornly.
"Sure, they will. A woman like you will always have a followin' among the igner'nt and weak-minded."
"What you roastin' me for like this?" The woman's brutal frankness touched her at last. "Who and what do you think you are yourself?"
"Nothin'," Nell Beecroft returned composedly. "Nobody at all. Just the wife of a horse-thief that's doin' time. But," and her hard, gray eyes flashed in momentary pride, "he learnt me the diffrunce between sand and a yellow-streak. They sent fifty men to take him out of the hills, and when he was handed his medicine he swallowed the whole dose to save his pardner, and never squeaked."
Nell Beecroft walked to the window swallowing hard at the lump which rose in her throat.
"If I could sleep—get one night's decent sleep——"
"When you collapse you'll go quick," opined the woman unemotionally.
"But I'm goin' to see it through—I'll stick to the bitter end—I'm no coward——"
"Ain't you?" Sudden excitement leaped into Nell Beecroft's voice and she stared hard down the street. "Unless I'm mistaken you're goin' to have as fine a chance to prove it as anybody I ever see. Come here." She pointed to a gesticulating mob which was turning the corner where the road led from the Symes Irrigation Project into town.
"The dagos!" Dr. Harpe's voice was a whisper of fear.
"They're on the prod," Nell Beecroft said briefly, and strode to the cellar-door. "Cache yourself!" She would have thrust Dr. Harpe down the stairway.
"No—no—not there! I can't! I'd scream!" She shrank back in unfeigned horror. "I'm goin' to run for it, Nell! The Dago Duke has ribbed this up on me!" From force of habit she reached for her black medicine case as she swung her Stetson on her head. "If I can get to Symes's house—down the alley—they can't see me——"
Nell Beecroft, with curling lips, stood in the kitchen doorway and watched her go. Crouching, with her head bent, she ran through the alley, panting, wild-eyed in her exaggerated fear.
A big band of bleating sheep on the way to the loading pens at the station blocked her way where she would have crossed the street to Symes's house. She swore in a frenzy of impatience as she waited for them to pass in the cloud of choking dust raised by their tiny, pointed hoofs.
"Way 'round 'em, Shep!" The voice was familiar. "Hullo, Doc!" The Sheep King of Poison Creek waved a grimy, genial hand.
"Hurry your infernal woolers along, can't you?" she yelled in response.
That other cloud of dust rising above the road which led from the Symes Irrigation Project into town was coming closer. She plunged among the sheep, forcing a path for herself through the moving mass of woolly backs.
"You're in a desprit rush, looks like. They won't die till you get there!" The Sheep King was not too pleased as he ran to head the sheep she had turned.
"Like the devil was after her." He watched her bound up the steps of Symes's veranda and burst through the doorway.
The engineer had steam up and the last half dozen sheep were being prodded into the last car of the long train bound for the Eastern market when the Sheep King of Poison Creek drew his shirt sleeve across his moist forehead in relief and observed with feeling:
"Of all the contrary—onery—say, Bill, there's them as says sheep is fools!"
It took a moment for this surprising assertion to sink into his helper's brain.
"They as says sheep is fools——" Bill, the herder's voice rang with scorn, "them as says sheep is fools——" great mental effort was visible upon his blank countenance as he groped for some word or combination of words sufficiently strong to express his opinion of those who doubted the intelligence of sheep—"is fools themselves," he added lamely, finding none.
"Guess we're about ready to pull out. Get aboard, Bill." The Sheep King, squinting along the track where the banked cinders radiated heat waves, was watching, not the signalling brakeman, but a figure skulking in the shade of the red water-tank. "It looks like——"
The heavy train of bleating sheep began to crawl up the grade. The Sheep King stood at the door of the rear car looking fixedly at the slinking figure so obviously waiting for the caboose to pass.
Dr. Harpe threw her black medicine case upon the platform.
"Give us a hand." The words were a demand, but there was appeal in the eyes upturned to his as she thrust up her own hand.
"Sure." The cordiality in the Sheep King's voice was forced as he dragged her aboard; and in his curious looks, his constraint of manner, the sly glances and averted, grinning faces of his helpers inside, Dr. Harpe read her fate.
"Your name," Essie Tisdale had said, "will be a byword in every sheep-camp and bunk-house in the country."
Sick with a baffled feeling of defeat and the realization that the prophecy of the girl she hated already had come true, Dr. Harpe sat on the top step of the caboose, her chin buried in her hands, with moody, malignant eyes watching Crowheart fade as the bleating, ill-smelling sheep train crept up the grade.
"THICKER THAN WATER"
Essie Tisdale pulled aside the coarse lace curtains starched to asbesteroid stiffness which draped the front windows of the upstairs parlor in the Terriberry House, and looked with growing interest at an excited and rapidly growing group on the wide sidewalk in front of the post-office.
Such gatherings in Crowheart nearly always portended a fight, but since the hub of the fast widening circle appeared to be Mr. Percy Parrott gesticulating wildly with a newspaper, she concluded that it was merely a sensational bit of news which had come from the outside world. Yet the citizens of Crowheart were not given to exhibiting concern over any happening which did not directly concern themselves, and Dr. Lamb was running. From a hurried walk he broke into a short-stepped, high-kneed prance which was like the action of an English cob, while from across the street dashed Sohmes, the abnormally fat butcher, clasping both hands over his swaying abdomen to lessen the jar.
She turned from the window, and one of the waves of gladness which kept rising within her again swept over her as she realized that the affairs of Crowheart meant nothing to her now. A gulf, invisible as yet, but real as her own existence, lay between her and the life of which she had been a part such a little time before.
She looked about her at the cotton plush furniture of dingy red, at the marble-topped centre table upon whose chilly surface a large, gilt-edged family Bible reposed—placed there by Mrs. Terriberry in the serene confidence that its fair margins would never be defiled through use. Beside the Bible, lay the plush album with its Lombroso-like villainous gallery of countenances upon which transient vandals had pencilled mustaches regardless of sex. She looked at the fly-roost of pampas grass in the sky-blue vase on the shelf from which hung an old-gold lambriquin that represented the highest art of the Kensington cult—water lilies on plush—and at the crowning glory of the parlor, a pier glass in a walnut frame.
It was tawdry and cheap and offended her eye, but it was exclusively her own and she looked about her with a keen thrill of pleasure because of the condition which her occupancy of it represented. Somehow it seemed years ago that she had walked around the hole in the ingrain carpet in the bare room which looked out upon the heap of tin-cans and corrals of the Terriberry House.
Through the door which opened into her bed-chamber she saw the floor littered with boxes and papers, the new near-silk petticoat draping a chair, the new near-tailored suit which represented the "last cry" from the General Merchandise Store, the Parisian hat which the clairvoyant milliner had seen in a trance and trimmed from memory, but the lines of which suggested that the milliner's astral body had practised a deception and projected itself no further than 14th Street.
A fresh realization of what these things meant, namely the personal interest of some one who cared, brought a rush of tears to her eyes. They were still moist when Mr. Richard Kincaid appeared in the parlor, his eyes twinkling above a pillar of boxes and bundles which he carried in his arms.
"What's the matter, Esther? What has happened?" He dropped the packages and went to her side.
She threw her arms impulsively about his neck and laid her head upon his breast while she said between little sobs of tears and laughter—
"I'm so happy! happy! happy! Uncle Dick—that's all. And so grateful, too. I love you so much that I want to cry, and so happy that I want to laugh. So I do both. I didn't have to learn to love you. I did from the first. It came with a rush just as soon as I found out who you were—that we belonged to each other, you know. All at once I felt so different—so safe—so sure of you, and so secure—and so proud to think we were related. I can't explain exactly, but just being me, so long—not knowing who I was or where I came from—and belonging to no one at all—it seems a wonderful thing to have you!"
She turned her face to his shoulder and cried softly.
He patted her cheek and smiled—a smile that was of sadness and understanding.
"I know what you mean, Esther; I comprehend your feelings perfectly. It's the bond of kinship which you recognize, the tie of blood, and let me tell you, girl, there never was a truer saying than the old one that 'blood is thicker than water.' Disguise it as you will, and bitter family feuds would sometimes seem to give it the lie, but it's a fact just the same. It takes time to find it out—a lifetime often—but deep in the heart of every normal human being there's an instinctive, intimate, personal feeling for one's own flesh and blood that is like nothing else. Their successes and their failures touch us closer, for the pride of race is in us all.
"There's none who realize more strongly the limitations of strangers' friendships than those, who, like you and I, have been dependent upon them as a substitute for the affection of our own. But there, that's done with, loneliness is behind us, for we have each other now; and, bottled up within me, I've the longings of twenty years to spoil and pamper somebody. When I was the marrying age I was off in the hills; since then I've been too busy and too critical. So you see, Esther Kincaid Tisdale, you are filling a long-felt want."
He kissed her with a smack and she hugged his arm in ecstasy.
"I'm going to try and make up for what we both have lost. No harm can come to you so long as I have a dollar and the brains to make more."
"It's like stories I've dreamed!" she breathed happily.
"But tell me,"—some thought made him hold her at arms' length to read her face—"has there been no one, no one at all who has figured in these dreams of yours in a different way from which I do?"
He watched with something like consternation the tell-tale color rise in her face and her eyes drop from his own.
"There was—one," she faltered, "but he—I—misunderstood—I was vain enough to think he cared for me. It was a mistake—a stupid mistake of mine—he just liked me—he was lonely—I suppose—that's all." She swallowed hard to down the rising lump in her throat.
"Who was he?"
"I don't know exactly who he was; he just came here; rode in on horseback—for his health, he said. They used to say he was a hold-up getting the lay of the town to make a raid, or a gambler, but he wasn't, he wasn't anything like that. You'd have liked him, Uncle Dick, I know you would have liked him!" Her eyes were sparkling now. "He talked like you, and when he was interested enough to exert himself he had the same sure way of doing things. But he went away about three weeks ago and did not even say good-by."
"What's his name?"
She answered with an effort—
"Ogden Van Lennop."
"Van Lennop?" Kincaid's voice was sharp with astonishment. "Why, girl, he's here. He just got in and he's raising Cain in Crowheart! I meant to tell you, but this shopping business quite drove it from my head. The news has only come out that the Symes's Irrigation Company is going into a Receiver's hands and the bondholders will foreclose their mortgages. Look down in the street. There's a mob of workmen from the project and the creditors of your friend Symes considering how they best can extract blood from a turnip. For some reason of his own Van Lennop has gone after Symes's scalp and got it. Don't be too quick to judge him, Esther." But a glance at her face told him he need not plead Van Lennop's cause.
"He meant it, then!" she exclaimed breathlessly. "All that he said that day we rode together. I didn't understand his meaning, but this is it: 'I'll wear your colors in the arena where men fight—and win,' he said. 'I'll fight with the weapons I know best how to use.'"
"If he's the member of the family that I think he is," said Kincaid dryly, "it's almost unsportsmanlike for him to go after Symes; it's like a crack pigeon shot shooting a bird sitting."
"And he said," Essie went on, "'Don't waste your energy in quarrelling with your enemies, concentrate—make money out of them.'"
"Did Van Lennop say that?"
"They'll pay tribute, then. Van Lennop will put this project through in his own good time; but let me prophesy they'll be pitching horse-shoes in the main street of Crowheart first."
The sound of a commotion on the stairs reached them.
"What's broken loose in this man's town now?"
As though in direct answer to Kincaid's question Mrs. Terriberry lunged down the corridor looking like a hippopotamus in red foulard.
"If anything more happens"—Mrs. Terriberry's voice rose shrill and positive—"I shall die!"
A lunge in his direction indicated that her demise might take place in Kincaid's arms, but a startled side-step saved him and she sank heavily upon the red plush sofa. Her teeth chattered with a touch of nervous chill and her skin looked mottled.
"She choked her! choked her almost to death! She'd a done it in a minute more only the hired girl broke her holt!"
"Who? What do you mean, Mrs. Terriberry?"
"Dr. Harpe! She choked Gussie Symes because Gussie wouldn't leave her home and go away with her! Did you ever hear such a thing!" She went on in disconnected gasps: "Crazy! Jealous! I don't know what—nobody does—and she's disappeared—they can't find her." Mrs. Terriberry's shudders made the sofa creak. "And her active in church work, which they say her langwudge was awful!"
But Essie Tisdale was listening to another step upon the stair and she trembled when she heard the steps hastening down the corridor.
Van Lennop saw only her as he came toward her with outstretched hands, speaking her name with the yearning tenderness with which he had spoken it to himself a hundred times—
He kissed her, and she yielded, as though there were no need for words between them.
"But my letter? My telegram? Why didn't you answer?"
Her eyes widened with astonishment.
"Your letter! Your telegram!"
"You didn't get them?"
"Who did then?"
She shook her head.
"No one knew you'd gone but Dr. Harpe."
"You wrote her!"
"I wrote Dr. Harpe?" He stared at her for one incredulous second. "I wrote Dr. Harpe! She said so?"
"She said you left a letter for her."
There leaped into his steel-gray eyes a look which reminded Kincaid of the play of a jagged flash of lightning. He spoke slowly and enunciated very carefully when he said—
"I knew Dr. Harpe had the instincts of a prying servant, but I scarcely thought she'd go as far as that."
"Essie," Kincaid tapped her on the shoulder, "don't forget that your old Uncle Dick is here and waiting to be noticed."
He laughed aloud at her confusion and said as he and Van Lennop shook each other's hand—
"Just as I think I'm fixed for life, by George! I'm shoved out in the cold again; for I am forced to believe"—his eyes twinkled as he looked at Van Lennop—"that I am not the only Homeseeker left in Crowheart."