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The Little Lady of the Big House
by Jack London
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"It was the wife of one of the workmen Dick had on the carpet. Such things do arise on a large place like this. I wouldn't know the woman if I saw her, and I didn't recognize her name. She was whimpering out her trouble when Dick stopped her. 'Never mind all that,' he said. 'What I want to know is, did you give Smith any encouragement?'

"Smith isn't his name, but he is one of our foremen and has worked eight years for Dick.

"'Oh, no, sir,' I could hear her answer. 'He went out of his way from the first to bother me. I've tried to keep out of his way, always. Besides, my husband's a violent-tempered man, and I did so want him to hold his job here. He's worked nearly a year for you now, and there aren't any complaints, are there? Before that it was irregular work for a long time, and we had real hard times. It wasn't his fault. He ain't a drinking man. He always—'

"'That's all right,' Dick stopped her. 'His work and habits have nothing to do with the matter. Now you are sure you have never encouraged Mr. Smith in any way?' And she was so sure that she talked for ten minutes, detailing the foreman's persedition of her. She had a pleasant voice—one of those sweet, timid, woman's voices, and undoubtedly is quite attractive. It was all I could do to resist peeping. I wanted to see what she looked like.

"'Now this trouble, yesterday morning,' Dick said. 'Was it general? I mean, outside of your husband, and Mr. Smith, was the scene such that those who live around you knew of it?'

"'Yes, sir. You see, he had no right to come into my kitchen. My husband doesn't work under him anyway. And he had his arm around me and was trying to kiss me when my husband came in. My husband has a temper, but he ain't overly strong. Mr. Smith would make two of him. So he pulled a knife, and Mr. Smith got him by the arms, and they fought all over the kitchen. I knew there was murder going to be done and I run out screaming for help. The folks in the other cottages'd heard the racket already. They'd smashed the window and the cook stove, and the place was filled with smoke and ashes when the neighbors dragged them away from each other. I'd done nothing to deserve all that disgrace. You know, sir, the way the women will talk—'

"And Dick hushed her up there, and took all of five minutes more in getting rid of her. Her great fear was that her husband would lose his place. From what Dick told her, I waited. He had made no decision, and I knew the foreman was next on the carpet. In he came. I'd have given the world to see him. But I could only listen.

"Dick jumped right into the thick of it. He described the scene and uproar, and Smith acknowledged that it had been riotous for a while. 'She says she gave you no encouragement,' Dick said next.

"'Then she lies,' said Smith. 'She has that way of looking with her eyes that's an invitation. She looked at me that way from the first. But it was by word-of-mouth invitation that I was in her kitchen yesterday morning. We didn't expect the husband. But she began to struggle when he hove in sight. When she says she gave me no encouragement—'

"'Never mind all that,' Dick stopped him. 'It's not essential.' 'But it is, Mr. Forrest, if I am to clear myself,' Smith insisted.

"'No; it is not essential to the thing you can't clear yourself of,' Dick answered, and I could hear that cold, hard, judicial note come into his voice. Smith could not understand. Dick told him. 'The thing you have been guilty of, Mr. Smith, is the scene, the disturbance, the scandal, the wagging of the women's tongues now going on forty to the minute, the impairment of the discipline and order of the ranch, all of which is boiled down to the one grave thing, the hurt to the ranch efficiency.'

"And still Smith couldn't see. He thought the charge was of violating social morality by pursuing a married woman, and tried to mitigate the offense by showing the woman encouraged him and by pleading: 'And after all, Mr. Forrest, a man is only a man, and I admit she made a fool of me and I made a fool of myself.' "'Mr. Smith,' Dick said. 'You've worked for me eight years. You've been a foreman six years of that time. I have no complaint against your work. You certainly do know how to handle labor. About your personal morality I don't care a damn. You can be a Mormon or a Turk for all it matters to me. Your private acts are your private acts, and are no concern of mine as long as they do not interfere with your work or my ranch. Any one of my drivers can drink his head off Saturday night, and every Saturday night. That's his business. But the minute he shows a hold-over on Monday morning that is taken out on my horses, that excites them, or injures them, or threatens to injure them, or that decreases in the slightest the work they should perform on Monday, that moment it is my business and the driver goes down the hill.'

"'You, you mean, Mr. Forrest,' Smith stuttered, 'that, that I'm to go down the hill?' 'That is just what I mean, Mr. Smith. You are to go down the hill, not because you climbed over another man's fence— that's your business and his; but because you were guilty of causing a disturbance that is an impairment of ranch efficiency.'

"Do you know, Evan," Paula broke in on her recital, "Dick can nose more human tragedy out of columns of ranch statistics than can the average fiction writer out of the whirl of a great city. Take the milk reports—the individual reports of the milkers—so many pounds of milk, morning and night, from cow so-and-so, so many pounds from cow so-and-so. He doesn't have to know the man. But there is a decrease in the weight of milk. 'Mr. Parkman,' he'll say to the head dairyman, 'is Barchi Peratta married?' 'Yes, sir.' 'Is he having trouble with his wife?' 'Yes, sir.'

"Or it will be: 'Mr. Parkman, Simpkins has the best long-time record of any of our milkers. Now he's slumped. What's up?' Mr. Parkman doesn't know. 'Investigate,' says Dick. 'There's something on his chest. Talk to him like an uncle and find out. We've got to get it off his chest.' And Mr. Parkman finds out. Simpkins' boy; working his way through Stanford University, has elected the joy-ride path and is in jail waiting trial for forgery. Dick put his own lawyers on the case, smoothed it over, got the boy out on probation, and Simpkins' milk reports came back to par. And the best of it is, the boy made good, Dick kept an eye on him, saw him through the college of engineering, and he's now working for Dick on the dredging end, earning a hundred and fifty a month, married, with a future before him, and his father still milks."

"You are right," Graham murmured sympathetically. "I well named him when I named him Great Heart."

"I call him my Rock of Ages," Paula said gratefully. "He is so solid. He stands in any storm.—Oh, you don't really know him. He is so sure. He stands right up. He's never taken a cropper in his life. God smiles on him. God has always smiled on him. He's never been beaten down to his knees... yet. I... I should not care to see that sight. It would be heartbreaking. And, Evan—" Her hand went out to his in a pleading gesture that merged into a half-caress. "—I am afraid for him now. That is why I don't know what to do. It is not for myself that I back and fill and hesitate. If he were ignoble, if he were narrow, if he were weak or had one tiniest shred of meanness, if he had ever been beaten to his knees before, why, my dear, my dear, I should have been gone with you long ago."

Her eyes filled with sudden moisture. She stilled him with a pressure of her hand, and, to regain herself, she went back to her recital:

"'Your little finger, Mr. Smith, I consider worth more to me and to the world,' Dick, told him, 'than the whole body of this woman's husband. Here's the report on him: willing, eager to please, not bright, not strong, an indifferent workman at best. Yet you have to go down the hill, and I am very, very sorry.'

"Oh, yes, there was more. But I've given you the main of it. You see Dick's code there. And he lives his code. He accords latitude to the individual. Whatever the individual may do, so long as it does not hurt the group of individuals in which he lives, is his own affair. He believed Smith had a perfect right to love the woman, and to be loved by her if it came to that. I have heard him always say that love could not be held nor enforced. Truly, did I go with you, he would say, 'Bless you, my children.' Though it broke his heart he would say it. Past love, he believes, gives no hold over the present. And every hour of love, I have heard him say, pays for itself, on both sides, quittance in full. He claims there can be no such thing as a love- debt, laughs at the absurdity of love-claims."

"And I agree with him," Graham said. "'You promised to love me always,' says the jilted one, and then strives to collect as if it were a promissory note for so many dollars. Dollars are dollars, but love lives or dies. When it is dead how can it be collected? We are all agreed, and the way is simple. We love. It is enough. Why delay another minute?"

His fingers strayed along her fingers on the keyboard as he bent to her, first kissing her hair, then slowly turning her face up to his and kissing her willing lips.

"Dick does not love me like you," she said; "not madly, I mean. He has had me so long, I think I have become a habit to him. And often and often, before I knew you, I used to puzzle whether he cared more for the ranch or more for me."

"It is so simple," Graham urged. "All we have to do is to be straightforward. Let us go."

He drew her to her feet and made as if to start.

But she drew away from him suddenly, sat down, and buried her flushed face in her hands.

"You do not understand, Evan. I love Dick. I shall always love him."

"And me?" Graham demanded sharply.

"Oh, without saying," she smiled. "You are the only man, besides Dick, that has ever kissed me this... way, and that I have kissed this way. But I can't make up my mind. The triangle, as you call it, must be solved for me. I can't solve it myself. I compare the two of you, weigh you, measure you. I remember Dick and all our past years. And I consult my heart for you. And I don't know. I don't know. You are a great man, my great lover. But Dick is a greater man than you. You— you are more clay, more—I grope to describe you—more human, I fancy. And that is why I love you more... or at least I think perhaps I do.

"But wait," she resisted him, prisoning his eager hand in hers. "There is more I want to say. I remember Dick and all our past years. But I remember him to-day, as well, and to-morrow. I cannot bear the thought that any man should pity my husband, that you should pity him, and pity him you must when I confess that I love you more. That is why I am not sure. That is why I so quickly take it back and do not know.

"I'd die of shame if through act of mine any man pitied Dick. Truly, I would. Of all things ghastly, I can think of none so ghastly as Dick being pitied. He has never been pitied in his life. He has always been top-dog—bright, light, strong, unassailable. And more, he doesn't deserve pity. And it's my fault... and yours, Evan."

She abruptly thrust Evan's hand away.

"And every act, every permitted touch of you, does make him pitiable. Don't you see how tangled it is for me? And then there is my own pride. That you should see me disloyal to him in little things, such as this—" (she caught his hand again and caressed it with soft finger-tips) "—hurts me in my love for you, diminishes me, must diminish me in your eyes. I shrink from the thought that my disloyalty to him in this I do—" (she laid his hand against her cheek) "—gives you reason to pity him and censure me."

She soothed the impatience of the hand on her cheek, and, almost absently, musingly scrutinizing it without consciously seeing it, turned it over and slowly kissed the palm. The next moment she was drawn to her feet and into his arms.

"There, you see," was her reproach as she disengaged herself.

* * * * *

"Why do you tell me all this about Dick?" Graham demanded another time, as they walked their horses side by side. "To keep me away? To protect yourself from me?"

Paula nodded, then quickly added, "No, not quite that. Because you know I don't want to keep you away ... too far. I say it because Dick is so much in my mind. For twelve years, you realize, he filled my mind. I say it because ... because I think it, I suppose. Think! The situation! You are trespassing on a perfect marriage."

"I know it," he answered. "And I do not like the role of trespasser. It is your insistence, instead of going away with me, that I should trespass. And I can't help it. I think away from you, try to force my thoughts elsewhere. I did half a chapter this morning, and I know it's rotten and will have to be rewritten. For I can't succeed in thinking away from you. What is South America and its ethnology compared to you? And when I come near you my arms go about you before I know what I am doing. And, by God, you want them there, you want them there, you know it."

Paula gathered her reins in signal for a gallop, but first, with a roguish smile, she acknowledged.

"I do want them there, dear trespasser."

Paula yielded and fought at the same time.

"I love my husband—never forget that," she would warn Graham, and within the minute be in his arms.

* * * * *

"There are only the three of us for once, thank goodness," Paula cried, seizing Dick and Graham by the hands and leading them toward Dick's favorite lounging couch in the big room. "Come, let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the deaths of kings. Come, milords, and lordly perishers, and we will talk of Armageddon when the last sun goes down."

She was in a merry mood, and with surprise Dick observed her light a cigarette. He could count on his fingers the cigarettes she had smoked in a dozen years, and then, only under a hostess's provocation to give countenance to some smoking woman guest. Later, when he mixed a highball for himself and Graham, she again surprised him by asking him to mix her a "wee" one.

"This is Scotch," he warned.

"Oh, a very wee one," she insisted, "and then we'll be three good fellows together, winding up the world. And when you've got it all wound up and ready, I'll sing you the song of the Valkyries."

She took more part in the talk than usual, and strove to draw her husband out. Nor was Dick unaware of this, although he yielded and permitted himself to let go full tilt on the theme of the blond sun- perishers.

She is trying to make him compete—was Graham's thought. But Paula scarcely thought of that phase of it, her pleasure consisting in the spectacle of two such splendid men who were hers. They talk of big game hunting, she mused once to herself; but did ever one small woman capture bigger game than this?

She sat cross-legged on the couch, where, by a turn of the head, she could view Graham lounging comfortably in the big chair, or Dick, on his elbow, sprawled among the cushions. And ever, as they talked, her eyes roved from one to the other; and, as they spoke of struggle and battle, always in the cold iron terms of realists, her own thoughts became so colored, until she could look coolly at Dick with no further urge of the pity that had intermittently ached her heart for days.

She was proud of him—a goodly, eye-filling figure of a man to any woman; but she no longer felt sorry for him. They were right. It was a game. The race was to the swift, the battle to the strong. They had run such races, fought such battles. Then why not she? And as she continued to look, that self-query became reiterant.

They were not anchorites, these two men. Liberal-lived they must have been in that past out of which, like mysteries, they had come to her. They had had the days and nights that women were denied—women such as she. As for Dick, beyond all doubt—even had she heard whispers—there had been other women in that wild career of his over the world. Men were men, and they were two such men. She felt a burn of jealousy against those unknown women who must have been, and her heart hardened. They had taken their fun where they found it—Kipling's line ran through her head.

Pity? Why should she pity, any more than she should be pitied? The whole thing was too big, too natural, for pity. They were taking a hand in a big game, and all could not be winners. Playing with the fancy, she wandered on to a consideration of the outcome. Always she had avoided such consideration, but the tiny highball had given her daring. It came to her that she saw doom ahead, doom vague and formless but terrible.

She was brought back to herself by Dick's hand before her eyes and apparently plucking from the empty air the something upon which she steadfastly stared.

"Seeing things?" he teased, as her eyes turned to meet his.

His were laughing, but she glimpsed in them what, despite herself, made her veil her own with her long lashes. He knew. Beyond all possibility of error she knew now that he knew. That was what she had seen in his eyes and what had made her veil her own.

"'Cynthia, Cynthia, I've been a-thinking,'" she gayly hummed to him; and, as he resumed his talk, she reached and took a sip from his part- empty glass.

Let come what would, she asserted to herself, she would play it out. It was all a madness, but it was life, it was living. She had never so lived before, and it was worth it, no matter what inevitable payment must be made in the end. Love?—had she ever really loved Dick as she now felt herself capable of loving? Had she mistaken the fondness of affection for love all these years? Her eyes warmed as they rested on Graham, and she admitted that he had swept her as Dick never had.

Unused to alcohol in such strength, her heart was accelerated; and Dick, with casual glances, noted and knew the cause of the added brilliance, the flushed vividness of cheeks and lips.

He talked less and less, and the discussion of the sun-perishers died of mutual agreement as to its facts. Finally, glancing at his watch, he straightened up, yawned, stretched his arms and announced:

"Bed-time he stop. Head belong this fellow white man too much sleepy along him.—Nightcap, Evan?"

Graham nodded, for both felt the need of a stiffener.

"Mrs. Toper—nightcap?" Dick queried of Paula.

But she shook her head and busied herself at the piano putting away the music, while the men had their drink.

Graham closed down the piano for her, while Dick waited in the doorway, so that when they left he led them by a dozen feet. As they came along, Graham, under her instructions, turned off the lights in the halls. Dick waited where the ways diverged and where Graham would have to say good night on his way to the tower room.

The one remaining light was turned off.

"Oh, not that one, silly," Dick heard Paula cry out. "We keep it on all night."

Dick heard nothing, but the dark was fervent to him. He cursed himself for his own past embraces in the dark, for so the wisdom was given him to know the quick embrace that had occurred, ere, the next moment, the light flashed on again.

He found himself lacking the courage to look at their faces as they came toward him. He did not want to see Paula's frank eyes veiled by her lashes, and he fumbled to light a cigarette while he cudgeled his wits for the wording of an ordinary good night.

"How goes the book?—what chapter?" he called after Graham down his hall, as Paula put her hand in his.

Her hand in his, swinging his, hopping and skipping and all a-chatter in simulation of a little girl with a grown-up, Paula went on with Dick; while he sadly pondered what ruse she had in mind by which to avoid the long-avoided, good night kiss.

Evidently she had not found it when they reached the dividing of the ways that led to her quarters and to his. Still swinging his hand, still buoyantly chattering fun, she continued with him into his workroom. Here he surrendered. He had neither heart nor energy to wait for her to develop whatever she contemplated.

He feigned sudden recollection, deflected her by the hand to his desk, and picked up a letter.

"I'd promised myself to get a reply off on the first machine in the morning," he explained, as he pressed on the phonograph and began dictating.

For a paragraph she still held his hand. Then he felt the parting pressure of her fingers and her whispered good night.

"Good night, little woman," he answered mechanically, and continued dictating as if oblivious to her going.

Nor did he cease until he knew she was well out of hearing.



CHAPTER XXVIII



A dozen times that morning, dictating to Blake or indicating answers, Dick had been on the verge of saying to let the rest of the correspondence go.

"Call up Hennessy and Mendenhall," he told Blake, when, at ten, the latter gathered up his notes and rose to go. "You ought to catch them at the stallion barn. Tell them not to come this morning but to-morrow morning."

Bonbright entered, prepared to shorthand Dick's conversations with his managers for the next hour.

"And—oh, Mr. Blake," Dick called. "Ask Hennessy about Alden Bessie.— The old mare was pretty bad last night," he explained to Bonbright.

"Mr. Hanley must see you right away, Mr. Forrest," Bonbright said, and added, at sight of the irritated drawing up of his employer's brows, "It's the piping from Buckeye Dam. Something's wrong with the plans—a serious mistake, he says."

Dick surrendered, and for an hour discussed ranch business with his foremen and managers.

Once, in the middle of a hot discussion over sheep-dips with Wardman, he left his desk and paced over to the window. The sound of voices and horses, and of Paula's laugh, had attracted him.

"Take that Montana report—I'll send you a copy to-day," he continued, as he gazed out. "They found the formula didn't get down to it. It was more a sedative than a germicide. There wasn't enough kick in it..."

Four horses, bunched, crossed his field of vision. Paula, teasing the pair of them, was between Martinez and Froelig, old friends of Dick, a painter and sculptor respectively, who had arrived on an early train. Graham, on Selim, made the fourth, and was slightly edged toward the rear. So the party went by, but Dick reflected that quickly enough it would resolve itself into two and two.

Shortly after eleven, restless and moody, he wandered out with a cigarette into the big patio, where he smiled grim amusement at the various tell-tale signs of Paula's neglect of her goldfish. The sight of them suggested her secret patio in whose fountain pools she kept her selected and more gorgeous blooms of fish. Thither he went, through doors without knobs, by ways known only to Paula and the servants.

This had been Dick's one great gift to Paula. It was love-lavish as only a king of fortune could make it. He had given her a free hand with it, and insisted on her wildest extravagance; and it had been his delight to tease his quondam guardians with the stubs of the checkbook she had used. It bore no relation to the scheme and architecture of the Big House, and, for that matter, so deeply hidden was it that it played no part in jar of line or color. A show-place of show-places, it was not often shown. Outside Paula's sisters and intimates, on rare occasions some artist was permitted to enter and catch his breath. Graham had heard of its existence, but not even him had she invited to see.

It was round, and small enough to escape giving any cold hint of spaciousness. The Big House was of sturdy concrete, but here was marble in exquisite delicacy. The arches of the encircling arcade were of fretted white marble that had taken on just enough tender green to prevent any glare of reflected light. Palest of pink roses bloomed up the pillars and over the low flat roof they upheld, where Puck-like, humorous, and happy faces took the place of grinning gargoyles. Dick strolled the rosy marble pavement of the arcade and let the beauty of the place slowly steal in upon him and gentle his mood.

The heart and key of the fairy patio was the fountain, consisting of three related shallow basins at different levels, of white marble and delicate as shell. Over these basins rollicked and frolicked life- sized babies wrought from pink marble by no mean hand. Some peered over the edges into lower basins, one reached arms covetously toward the goldfish; one, on his back, laughed at the sky, another stood with dimpled legs apart stretching himself, others waded, others were on the ground amongst the roses white and blush, but all were of the fountain and touched it at some point. So good was the color of the marble, so true had been the sculptor, that the illusion was of life. No cherubs these, but live warm human babies.

Dick regarded the rosy fellowship pleasantly and long, finishing his cigarette and retaining it dead in his hand. That was what she had needed, he mused—babies, children. It had been her passion. Had she realized it... He sighed, and, struck by a fresh thought, looked to her favorite seat with certitude that he would not see the customary sewing lying on it in a pretty heap. She did not sew these days.

He did not enter the tiny gallery behind the arcade, which contained her chosen paintings and etchings, and copies in marble and bronze of her favorites of the European galleries. Instead he went up the stairway, past the glorious Winged Victory on the landing where the staircase divided, and on and up into her quarters that occupied the entire upper wing. But first, pausing by the Victory, he turned and gazed down into the fairy patio. The thing was a cut jewel in its perfectness and color, and he acknowledged, although he had made it possible for her, that it was entirely her own creation—her one masterpiece. It had long been her dream, and he had realized it for her. And yet now, he meditated, it meant nothing to her. She was not mercenary, that he knew; and if he could not hold her, mere baubles such as that would weigh nothing in the balance against her heart.

He wandered idly through her rooms, scarcely noting at what he gazed, but gazing with fondness at it all. Like everything else of hers, it was distinctive, different, eloquent of her. But when he glanced into the bathroom with its sunken Roman bath, for the life of him he was unable to avoid seeing a tiny drip and making a mental note for the ranch plumber.

As a matter of course, he looked to her easel with the expectation of finding no new work, but was disappointed; for a portrait of himself confronted him. He knew her trick of copying the pose and lines from a photograph and filling in from memory. The particular photograph she was using had been a fortunate snapshop of him on horseback. The Outlaw, for once and for a moment, had been at peace, and Dick, hat in hand, hair just nicely rumpled, face in repose, unaware of the impending snap, had at the instant looked squarely into the camera. No portrait photographer could have caught a better likeness. The head and shoulders Paula had had enlarged, and it was from this that she was working. But the portrait had already gone beyond the photograph, for Dick could see her own touches.

With a start he looked more closely. Was that expression of the eyes, of the whole face, his? He glanced at the photograph. It was not there. He walked over to one of the mirrors, relaxed his face, and led his thoughts to Paula and Graham. Slowly the expression came into his eyes and face. Not content, he returned to the easel and verified it. Paula knew. Paula knew that he knew. She had learned it from him, stolen it from him some time when it was unwittingly on his face, and carried it in her memory to the canvas.

Paula's Chinese maid, Oh Dear, entered from the wardrobe room, and Dick watched her unobserved as she came down the room toward him. Her eyes were down, and she seemed deep in thought. Dick remarked the sadness of her face, and that the little, solicitous contraction of the brows that had led to her naming was gone. She was not solicitous, that was patent. But cast down, she was, in heavy depression.

It would seem that all our faces are beginning to say things, he commented to himself.

"Good morning, Oh Dear," he startled her.

And as she returned the greeting, he saw compassion in her eyes as they dwelt on him. She knew. The first outside themselves. Trust her, a woman, so much in Paula's company when Paula was alone, to divine Paula's secret.

Oh Dear's lips trembled, and she wrung her trembling hands, nerving herself, as he could see, to speech.

"Mister Forrest," she began haltingly, "maybe you think me fool, but I like say something. You very kind man. You very kind my old mother. You very kind me long long time..."

She hesitated, moistening her frightened lips with her tongue, then braved her eyes to his and proceeded.

"Mrs. Forrest, she, I think..."

But so forbidding did Dick's face become that she broke off in confusion and blushed, as Dick surmised, with shame at the thoughts she had been about to utter.

"Very nice picture Mrs. Forrest make," he put her at her ease.

The Chinese girl sighed, and the same compassion returned into her eyes as she looked long at Dick's portrait.

She sighed again, but the coldness in her voice was not lost on Dick as she answered: "Yes, very nice picture Mrs. Forrest make."

She looked at him with sudden sharp scrutiny, studying his face, then turned to the canvas and pointed at the eyes.

"No good," she condemned.

Her voice was harsh, touched with anger.

"No good," she flung over her shoulder, more loudly, still more harshly, as she continued down the room and out of sight on Paula's sleeping porch.

Dick stiffened his shoulders, unconsciously bracing himself to face what was now soon to happen. Well, it was the beginning of the end. Oh Dear knew. Soon more would know, all would know. And in a way he was glad of it, glad that the torment of suspense would endure but little longer.

But when he started to leave he whistled a merry jingle to advertise to Oh Dear that the world wagged very well with him so far as he knew anything about it.

* * * * *

The same afternoon, while Dick was out and away with Froelig and Martinez and Graham, Paula stole a pilgrimage to Dick's quarters. Out on his sleeping porch she looked over his rows of press buttons, his switchboard that from his bed connected him with every part of the ranch and most of the rest of California, his phonograph on the hinged and swinging bracket, the orderly array of books and magazines and agricultural bulletins waiting to be read, the ash tray, cigarettes, scribble pads, and thermos bottle.

Her photograph, the only picture on the porch, held her attention. It hung under his barometers and thermometers, which, she knew, was where he looked oftenest. A fancy came to her, and she turned the laughing face to the wall and glanced from the blankness of the back of the frame to the bed and back again. With a quick panic movement, she turned the laughing face out. It belonged, was her thought; it did belong.

The big automatic pistol in the holster on the wall, handy to one's hand from the bed, caught her eye. She reached to it and lifted gently at the butt. It was as she had expected—loose—Dick's way. Trust him, no matter how long unused, never to let a pistol freeze in its holster.

Back in the work room she wandered solemnly about, glancing now at the prodigious filing system, at the chart and blue-print cabinets, at the revolving shelves of reference books, and at the long rows of stoutly bound herd registers. At last she came to his books—a goodly row of pamphlets, bound magazine articles, and an even dozen ambitious tomes. She read the titles painstakingly: "Corn in California," "Silage Practice," "Farm Organization," "Farm Book-keeping," "The Shire in America," "Humus Destruction," "Soilage," "Alfalfa in California," "Cover Crops for California," "The Shorthorn in America"—at this last she smiled affectionately with memory of the great controversy he had waged for the beef cow and the milch cow as against the dual purpose cow.

She caressed, the backs of the books with her palm, pressed her cheek against them and leaned with closed eyes. Oh, Dick, Dick—a thought began that faded to a vagueness of sorrow and died because she did not dare to think it.

The desk was so typically Dick. There was no litter. Clean it was of all work save the wire tray with typed letters waiting his signature and an unusual pile of the flat yellow sheets on which his secretaries typed the telegrams relayed by telephone from Eldorado. Carelessly she ran her eyes over the opening lines of the uppermost sheet and chanced upon a reference that puzzled and interested her. She read closely, with in-drawn brows, then went deeper into the heap till she found confirmation. Jeremy Braxton was dead—big, genial, kindly Jeremy Braxton. A Mexican mob of pulque-crazed peons had killed him in the mountains through which he had been trying to escape from the Harvest into Arizona. The date of the telegram was two days old. Dick had known it for two days and never worried her with it. And it meant more. It meant money. It meant that the affairs of the Harvest Group were going from bad to worse. And it was Dick's way.

And Jeremy was dead. The room seemed suddenly to have grown cold. She shivered. It was the way of life—death always at the end of the road. And her own nameless dread came back upon her. Doom lay ahead. Doom for whom? She did not attempt to guess. Sufficient that it was doom. Her mind was heavy with it, and the quiet room was heavy with it as she passed slowly out.



CHAPTER XXIX



"'Tis a birdlike sensuousness that is all the Little Lady's own," Terrence was saying, as he helped himself to a cocktail from the tray Ah Ha was passing around.

It was the hour before dinner, and Graham, Leo and Terrence McFane had chanced together in the stag-room.

"No, Leo," the Irishman warned the young poet. "Let the one suffice you. Your cheeks are warm with it. A second one and you'll conflagrate. 'Tis no right you have to be mixing beauty and strong drink in that lad's head of yours. Leave the drink to your elders. There is such a thing as consanguinity for drink. You have it not. As for me—"

He emptied the glass and paused to turn the cocktail reminiscently on his tongue.

"'Tis women's drink," he shook his head in condemnation. "It likes me not. It bites me not. And devil a bit of a taste is there to it.—Ah Ha, my boy," he called to the Chinese, "mix me a highball in a long, long glass—a stiff one."

He held up four fingers horizontally to indicate the measure of liquor he would have in the glass, and, to Ah Ha's query as to what kind of whiskey, answered, "Scotch or Irish, bourbon or rye—whichever comes nearest to hand."

Graham shook his head to the Chinese, and laughed to the Irishman. "You'll never drink me down, Terrence. I've not forgotten what you did to O'Hay."

"'Twas an accident I would have you think," was the reply. "They say when a man's not feeling any too fit a bit of drink will hit him like a club."

"And you?" Graham questioned.

"Have never been hit by a club. I am a man of singularly few experiences."

"But, Terrence, you were saying... about Mrs. Forrest?" Leo begged. "It sounded as if it were going to be nice."

"As if it could be otherwise," Terrence censured. "But as I was saying, 'tis a bird-like sensuousness—oh, not the little, hoppy, wagtail kind, nor yet the sleek and solemn dove, but a merry sort of bird, like the wild canaries you see bathing in the fountains, always twittering and singing, flinging the water in the sun, and glowing the golden hearts of them on their happy breasts. 'Tis like that the Little Lady is. I have observed her much.

"Everything on the earth and under the earth and in the sky contributes to the passion of her days—the untoward purple of the ground myrtle when it has no right to aught more than pale lavender, a single red rose tossing in the bathing wind, one perfect Duchesse rose bursting from its bush into the sunshine, as she said to me, 'pink as the dawn, Terrence, and shaped like a kiss.'

"'Tis all one with her—the Princess's silver neigh, the sheep bells of a frosty morn, the pretty Angora goats making silky pictures on the hillside all day long, the drifts of purple lupins along the fences, the long hot grass on slope and roadside, the summer-burnt hills tawny as crouching lions—and even have I seen the sheer sensuous pleasure of the Little Lady with bathing her arms and neck in the blessed sun."

"She is the soul of beauty," Leo murmured. "One understands how men can die for women such as she."

"And how men can live for them, and love them, the lovely things," Terrence added. "Listen, Mr. Graham, and I'll tell you a secret. We philosophers of the madroo grove, we wrecks and wastages of life here in the quiet backwater and easement of Dick's munificence, are a brotherhood of lovers. And the lady of our hearts is all the one—the Little Lady. We, who merely talk and dream our days away, and who would lift never a hand for God, or country, or the devil, are pledged knights of the Little Lady."

"We would die for her," Leo affirmed, slowly nodding his head.

"Nay, lad, we would live for her and fight for her, dying is that easy."

Graham missed nothing of it. The boy did not understand, but in the blue eyes of the Celt, peering from under the mop of iron-gray hair, there was no mistaking the knowledge of the situation.

Voices of men were heard coming down the stairs, and, as Martinez and Dar Hyal entered, Terrence was saying:

"'Tis fine weather they say they're having down at Catalina now, and I hear the tunny fish are biting splendid."

Ah Ha served cocktails around, and was kept busy, for Hancock and Froelig followed along. Terrence impartially drank stiff highballs of whatever liquor the immobile-faced Chinese elected to serve him, and discoursed fatherly to Leo on the iniquities and abominations of the flowing bowl.

Oh My entered, a folded note in his hand, and looked about in doubt as to whom to give it.

"Hither, wing-heeled Celestial," Terrence waved him up.

"'Tis a petition, couched in very proper terms," Terrence explained, after a glance at its contents. "And Ernestine and Lute have arrived, for 'tis they that petition. Listen." And he read: "'Oh, noble and glorious stags, two poor and lowly meek-eyed does, wandering lonely in the forest, do humbly entreat admission for the brief time before dinner to the stamping ground of the herd.'

"The metaphor is mixed," said Terrence. "Yet have they acted well. 'Tis the rule—Dick's rule—and a good rule it is: no petticoats in the stag-room save by the stags' unanimous consent.—Is the herd ready for the question? All those in favor will say 'Aye.'—Contrary minded?—The ayes have it.

"Oh My, fleet with thy heels and bring in the ladies."

"'With sandals beaten from the crowns of kings,'" Leo added, murmuring the words reverently, loving them with his lips as his lips formed them and uttered them.

"'Shall he tread down the altars of their night,'" Terrence completed the passage. "The man who wrote that is a great man. He is Leo's friend, and Dick's friend, and proud am I that he is my friend."

"And that other line," Leo said. "From the same sonnet," he explained to Graham. "Listen to the sound of it: 'To hear what song the star of morning sings'—oh, listen," the boy went on, his voice hushed low with beauty-love for the words: "'With perished beauty in his hands as clay, Shall he restore futurity its dream—'"

He broke off as Paula's sisters entered, and rose shyly to greet them.

* * * * *

Dinner that night was as any dinner at which the madroo sages were present. Dick was as robustly controversial as usual, locking horns with Aaron Hancock on Bergson, attacking the latter's metaphysics in sharp realistic fashion.

"Your Bergson is a charlatan philosopher, Aaron," Dick concluded. "He has the same old medicine-man's bag of metaphysical tricks, all decked out and frilled with the latest ascertained facts of science."

"'Tis true," Terrence agreed. "Bergson is a charlatan thinker. 'Tis why he is so popular—"

"I deny—" Hancock broke in.

"Wait a wee, Aaron. 'Tis a thought I have glimmered. Let me catch it before it flutters away into the azure. Dick's caught Bergson with the goods on him, filched straight from the treasure-house of science. His very cocksureness is filched from Darwin's morality of strength based on the survival of the fittest. And what did Bergson do with it? Touched it up with a bit of James' pragmatism, rosied it over with the eternal hope in man's breast that he will live again, and made it all a-shine with Nietzsche's 'nothing succeeds like excess—'"

"Wilde's, you mean," corrected Ernestine.

"Heaven knows I should have filched it for myself had you not been present," Terrence sighed, with a bow to her. "Some day the antiquarians will decide the authorship. Personally I would say it smacked of Methuselah—But as I was saying, before I was delightfully interrupted..."

"Who more cocksure than Dick?" Aaron was challenging a little later; while Paula glanced significantly to Graham.

"I was looking at the herd of yearling stallions but yesterday," Terrence replied, "and with the picture of the splendid beasties still in my eyes I'll ask: And who more delivers the goods?"

"But Hancock's objection is solid," Martinez ventured. "It would be a mean and profitless world without mystery. Dick sees no mystery."

"There you wrong him," Terrence defended. "I know him well. Dick recognizes mystery, but not of the nursery-child variety. No cock-and- bull stories for him, such as you romanticists luxuriate in."

"Terrence gets me," Dick nodded. "The world will always be mystery. To me man's consciousness is no greater mystery than the reaction of the gases that make a simple drop of water. Grant that mystery, and all the more complicated phenomena cease to be mysteries. That simple chemical reaction is like one of the axioms on which the edifice of geometry is reared. Matter and force are the everlasting mysteries, manifesting themselves in the twin mysteries of space and time. The manifestations are not mysteries—only the stuff of the manifestations, matter and force; and the theater of the manifestations, space and time."

Dick ceased and idly watched the expressionless Ah Ha and Ah Me who chanced at the moment to be serving opposite him. Their faces did not talk, was his thought; although ten to one was a fair bet that they were informed with the same knowledge that had perturbed Oh Dear.

"And there you are," Terrence was triumphing. "'Tis the perfect joy of him—never up in the air with dizzy heels. Flat on the good ground he stands, four square to fact and law, set against all airy fancies and bubbly speculations...."

* * * * *

And as at table, so afterward that evening no one could have guessed from Dick that all was not well with him. He seemed bent on celebrating Lute's and Ernestine's return, refused to tolerate the heavy talk of the philosophers, and bubbled over with pranks and tricks. Paula yielded to the contagion, and aided and abetted him in his practical jokes which none escaped.

Choicest among these was the kiss of welcome. No man escaped it. To Graham was accorded the honor of receiving it first so that he might witness the discomfiture of the others, who, one by one, were ushered in by Dick from the patio.

Hancock, Dick's arm guiding him, came down the room to confront Paula and her sisters standing in a row on three chairs in the middle of the floor. He scanned them suspiciously, and insisted upon walking around behind them. But there seemed nothing unusual about them save that each wore a man's felt hat.

"Looks good to me," Hancock announced, as he stood on the floor before them and looked up at them.

"And it is good," Dick assured him. "As representing the ranch in its fairest aspects, they are to administer the kiss of welcome. Make your choice, Aaron."

Aaron, with a quick whirl to catch some possible lurking disaster at his back, demanded, "They are all three to kiss me?"

"No, make your choice which is to give you the kiss."

"The two I do not choose will not feel that I have discriminated against them?" Aaron insisted.

"Whiskers no objection?" was his next query.

"Not in the way at all," Lute told him. "I have always wondered what it would be like to kiss black whiskers."

"Here's where all the philosophers get kissed tonight, so hurry up," Ernestine said. "The others are waiting. I, too, have yet to be kissed by an alfalfa field."

"Whom do you choose?" Dick urged.

"As if, after that, there were any choice about it," Hancock returned jauntily. "I kiss my lady—the Little Lady."

As he put up his lips, Paula bent her head forward, and, nicely directed, from the indented crown of her hat canted a glassful of water into his face.

When Leo's turn came, he bravely made his choice of Paula and nearly spoiled the show by reverently bending and kissing the hem of her gown.

"It will never do," Ernestine told him. "It must be a real kiss. Put up your lips to be kissed."

"Let the last be first and kiss me, Leo," Lute begged, to save him from his embarrassment.

He looked his gratitude, put up his lips, but without enough tilt of his head, so that he received the water from Lute's hat down the back of his neck.

"All three shall kiss me and thus shall paradise be thrice multiplied," was Terrence's way out of the difficulty; and simultaneously he received three crowns of water for his gallantry.

Dick's boisterousness waxed apace. His was the most care-free seeming in the world as he measured Froelig and Martinez against the door to settle the dispute that had arisen as to whether Froelig or Martinez was the taller.

"Knees straight and together, heads back," Dick commanded.

And as their heads touched the wood, from the other side came a rousing thump that jarred them. The door swung open, revealing Ernestine with a padded gong-stick in either hand.

Dick, a high-heeled satin slipper in his hand, was under a sheet with Terrence, teaching him "Brother Bob I'm bobbed" to the uproarious joy of the others, when the Masons and Watsons and all their Wickenberg following entered upon the scene.

Whereupon Dick insisted that the young men of their party receive the kiss of welcome. Nor did he miss, in the hubbub of a dozen persons meeting as many more, Lottie Mason's: "Oh, good evening, Mr. Graham. I thought you had gone."

And Dick, in the midst of the confusion of settling such an influx of guests, still maintaining his exuberant jolly pose, waited for that sharp scrutiny that women have only for women. Not many moments later he saw Lottie Mason steal such a look, keen with speculation, at Paula as she chanced face to face with Graham, saying something to him.

Not yet, was Dick's conclusion. Lottie did not know. But suspicion was rife, and nothing, he was certain, under the circumstances, would gladden her woman's heart more than to discover the unimpeachable Paula as womanly weak as herself.

Lottie Mason was a tall, striking brunette of twenty-five, undeniably beautiful, and, as Dick had learned, undeniably daring. In the not remote past, attracted by her, and, it must be submitted, subtly invited by her, he had been guilty of a philandering that he had not allowed to go as far as her wishes. The thing had not been serious on his part. Nor had he permitted it to become serious on her side. Nevertheless, sufficient flirtatious passages had taken place to impel him this night to look to her, rather than to the other Wickenberg women, for the first signals of suspicion.

"Oh, yes, he's a beautiful dancer," Dick, as he came up to them half an hour later, heard Lottie Mason telling little Miss Maxwell. "Isn't he, Dick?" she appealed to him, with innocent eyes of candor through which disguise he knew she was studying him.

"Who?—Graham, you must mean," he answered with untroubled directness. "He certainly is. What do you say we start dancing and let Miss Maxwell see? Though there's only one woman here who can give him full swing to show his paces."

"Paula, of course," said Lottie.

"Paula, of course. Why, you young chits don't know how to waltz. You never had a chance to learn."—Lottie tossed her fine head. "Perhaps you learned a little before the new dancing came in," he amended. "Anyway, I'll get Evan and Paula started, you take me on, and I'll wager we'll be the only couples on the floor."

Half through the waltz, he broke it off with: "Let them have the floor to themselves. It's worth seeing."

And, glowing with appreciation, he stood and watched his wife and Graham finish the dance, while he knew that Lottie, beside him, stealing side glances at him, was having her suspicions allayed.

The dancing became general, and, the evening being warm, the big doors to the patio were thrown open. Now one couple, and now another, danced out and down the long arcades where the moonlight streamed, until it became the general thing.

"What a boy he is," Paula said to Graham, as they listened to Dick descanting to all and sundry on the virtues of his new night camera. "You heard Aaron complaining at table, and Terrence explaining, his sureness. Nothing terrible has ever happened to him in his life. He has never been overthrown. His sureness has always been vindicated. As Terrence said, it has always delivered the goods. He does know, he does know, and yet he is so sure of himself, so sure of me."

Graham taken away to dance with Miss Maxwell, Paula continued her train of thought to herself. Dick was not suffering so much after all. And she might have expected it. He was the cool-head, the philosopher. He would take her loss with the same equanimity as he would take the loss of Mountain Lad, as he had taken the death of Jeremy Braxton and the flooding of the Harvest mines. It was difficult, she smiled to herself, aflame as she was toward Graham, to be married to a philosopher who would not lift a hand to hold her. And it came to her afresh that one phase of Graham's charm for her was his humanness, his flamingness. They met on common ground. At any rate, even in the heyday of their coming together in Paris, Dick had not so inflamed her. A wonderful lover he had been, too, with his gift of speech and lover's phrases, with his love-chants that had so delighted her; but somehow it was different from this what she felt for Graham and what Graham must feel for her. Besides, she had been most young in experience of love and lovers in that long ago when Dick had burst so magnificently upon her.

And so thinking, she hardened toward him and recklessly permitted herself to flame toward Graham. The crowd, the gayety, the excitement, the closeness and tenderness of contact in the dancing, the summer- warm of the evening, the streaming moonlight, and the night-scents of flowers—all fanned her ardency, and she looked forward eagerly to the at least one more dance she might dare with Graham.

"No flash light is necessary," Dick was explaining. "It's a German invention. Half a minute exposure under the ordinary lighting is sufficient. And the best of it is that the plate can be immediately developed just like an ordinary blue print. Of course, the drawback is one cannot print from the plate."

"But if it's good, an ordinary plate can be copied from it from which prints can be made," Ernestine amplified.

She knew the huge, twenty-foot, spring snake coiled inside the camera and ready to leap out like a jack-in-the-box when Dick squeezed the bulb. And there were others who knew and who urged Dick to get the camera and make an exposure.

He was gone longer than he expected, for Bonbright had left on his desk several telegrams concerning the Mexican situation that needed immediate replies. Trick camera in hand, Dick returned by a short cut across the house and patio. The dancing couples were ebbing down the arcade and disappearing into the hall, and he leaned against a pillar and watched them go by. Last of all came Paula and Evan, passing so close that he could have reached out and touched them. But, though the moon shone full on him, they did not see him. They saw only each other in the tender sport of gazing.

The last preceding couple was already inside when the music ceased. Graham and Paula paused, and he was for giving her his arm and leading her inside, but she clung to him in sudden impulse. Man-like, cautious, he slightly resisted for a moment, but with one arm around his neck she drew his head willingly down to the kiss. It was a flash of quick passion. The next instant, Paula on his arm, they were passing in and Paula's laugh was ringing merrily and naturally.

Dick clutched at the pillar and eased himself down abruptly until he sat flat on the pavement. Accompanying violent suffocation, or causing it, his heart seemed rising in his chest. He panted for air. The cursed thing rose and choked and stifled him until, in the grim turn his fancy took, it seemed to him that he chewed it between his teeth and gulped it back and down his throat along with the reviving air. He felt chilled, and was aware that he was wet with sudden sweat.

"And who ever heard of heart disease in the Forrests?" he muttered, as, still sitting, leaning against the pillar for support, he mopped his face dry. His hand was shaking, and he felt a slight nausea from an internal quivering that still persisted.

It was not as if Graham had kissed her, he pondered. It was Paula who had kissed Graham. That was love, and passion. He had seen it, and as it burned again before his eyes, he felt his heart surge, and the premonitory sensation of suffocation seized him. With a sharp effort of will he controlled himself and got to his feet.

"By God, it came up in my mouth and I chewed it," he muttered. "I chewed it."

Returning across the patio by the round-about way, he entered the lighted room jauntily enough, camera in hand, and unprepared for the reception he received.

"Seen a ghost?" Lute greeted.

"Are you sick?"—"What's the matter?" were other questions.

"What is the matter?" he countered.

"Your face—the look of it," Ernestine said. "Something has happened. What is it?"

And while he oriented himself he did not fail to note Lottie Mason's quick glance at the faces of Graham and Paula, nor to note that Ernestine had observed Lottie's glance and followed it up for herself.

"Yes," he lied. "Bad news. Just got the word. Jeremy Braxton is dead. Murdered. The Mexicans got him while he was trying to escape into Arizona."

"Old Jeremy, God love him for the fine man he was," Terrence said, tucking his arm in Dick's. "Come on, old man, 'tis a stiffener you're wanting and I'm the lad to lead you to it."

"Oh, I'm all right," Dick smiled, shaking his shoulders and squaring himself as if gathering himself together. "It did hit me hard for the moment. I hadn't a doubt in the world but Jeremy would make it out all right. But they got him, and two engineers with him. They put up a devil of a fight first. They got under a cliff and stood off a mob of half a thousand for a day and night. And then the Mexicans tossed dynamite down from above. Oh, well, all flesh is grass, and there is no grass of yesteryear. Terrence, your suggestion is a good one. Lead on."

After a few steps he turned his head over his shoulder and called back: "Now this isn't to stop the fun. I'll be right back to take that photograph. You arrange the group, Ernestine, and be sure to have them under the strongest light."

Terrence pressed open the concealed buffet at the far end of the room and set out the glasses, while Dick turned on a wall light and studied his face in the small mirror inside the buffet door.

"It's all right now, quite natural," he announced.

"'Twas only a passing shade," Terrence agreed, pouring the whiskey. "And man has well the right to take it hard the going of old friends."

They toasted and drank silently.

"Another one," Dick said, extending his glass.

"Say 'when,'" said the Irishman, and with imperturbable eyes he watched the rising tide of liquor in the glass.

Dick waited till it was half full.

Again they toasted and drank silently, eyes to eyes, and Dick was grateful for the offer of all his heart that he read in Terrence's eyes.

Back in the middle of the hall, Ernestine was gayly grouping the victims, and privily, from the faces of Lottie, Paula, and Graham, trying to learn more of the something untoward that she sensed. Why had Lottie looked so immediately and searchingly at Graham and Paula? —she asked herself. And something was wrong with Paula now. She was worried, disturbed, and not in the way to be expected from the announcement of Jeremy Braxton's death. From Graham, Ernestine could glean nothing. He was quite his ordinary self, his facetiousness the cause of much laughter to Miss Maxwell and Mrs. Watson.

Paula was disturbed. What had happened? Why had Dick lied? He had known of Jeremy's death for two days. And she had never known anybody's death so to affect him. She wondered if he had been drinking unduly. In the course of their married life she had seen him several times in liquor. He carried it well, the only noticeable effects being a flush in his eyes and a loosening of his tongue to whimsical fancies and extemporized chants. Had he, in his trouble, been drinking with the iron-headed Terrence down in the stag room? She had found them all assembled there just before dinner. The real cause for Dick's strangeness never crossed her mind, if, for no other reason, than that he was not given to spying.

He came back, laughing heartily at a joke of Terrence's, and beckoned Graham to join them while Terrence repeated it. And when the three had had their laugh, he prepared to take the picture. The burst of the huge snake from the camera and the genuine screams of the startled women served to dispel the gloom that threatened, and next Dick was arranging a tournament of peanut-carrying.

From chair to chair, placed a dozen yards apart, the feat was with a table knife to carry the most peanuts in five minutes. After the preliminary try-out, Dick chose Paula for his partner, and challenged the world, Wickenberg and the madroo grove included. Many boxes of candy were wagered, and in the end he and Paula won out against Graham and Ernestine, who had proved the next best couple. Demands for a speech changed to clamor for a peanut song. Dick complied, beating the accent, Indian fashion, with stiff-legged hops and hand-slaps on thighs.

"I am Dick Forrest, son of Richard the Lucky, Son of Jonathan the Puritan, son of John who was a sea-rover, as his father Albert before him, who was the son of Mortimer, a pirate who was hanged in chains and died without issue.

"I am the last of the Forrests, but first of the peanut-carriers. Neither Nimrod nor Sandow has anything on me. I carry the peanuts on a knife, a silver knife. The peanuts are animated by the devil. I carry the peanuts with grace and celerity and in quantity. The peanut never sprouted that can best me.

"The peanuts roll. The peanuts roll. Like Atlas who holds the world, I never let them fall. Not every one can carry peanuts. I am God-gifted. I am master of the art. It is a fine art. The peanuts roll, the peanuts roll, and I carry them on forever.

"Aaron is a philosopher. He cannot carry peanuts. Ernestine is a blonde. She cannot carry peanuts. Evan is a sportsman. He drops peanuts. Paula is my partner. She fumbles peanuts. Only I, I, by the grace of God and my own cleverness, carry peanuts.

"When anybody has had enough of my song, throw something at me. I am proud. I am tireless. I can sing on forever. I shall sing on forever.

"Here beginneth the second canto. When I die, bury me in a peanut patch. While I live—"

The expected avalanche of cushions quenched his song but not his ebullient spirits, for he was soon in a corner with Lottie Mason and Paula concocting a conspiracy against Terrence.

And so the evening continued to be danced and joked and played away. At midnight supper was served, and not till two in the morning were the Wickenbergers ready to depart. While they were getting on their wraps, Paula was proposing for the following afternoon a trip down to the Sacramento River to look over Dick's experiment in rice-raising.

"I had something else in view," he told her. "You know the mountain pasture above Sycamore Creek. Three yearlings have been killed there in the last ten days."

"Mountain lions!" Paula cried.

"Two at least.—Strayed in from the north," he explained to Graham. "They sometimes do that. We got three five years ago.—Moss and Hartley will be there with the dogs waiting. They've located two of the beasts. What do you say all of you join me. We can leave right after lunch."

"Let me have Mollie?" Lute asked.

"And you can ride Altadena," Paula told Ernestine.

Quickly the mounts were decided upon, Froelig and Martinez agreeing to go, but promising neither to shoot well nor ride well.

All went out to see the Wickenbergers off, and, after the machines were gone, lingered to make arrangements for the hunting.

"Good night, everybody," Dick said, as they started to move inside. "I'm going to take a look at Alden Bessie before I turn in. Hennessy is sitting up with her. Remember, you girls, come to lunch in your riding togs, and curses on the head of whoever's late."

The ancient dam of the Fotherington Princess was in a serious way, but Dick would not have made the visit at such an hour, save that he wanted to be by himself and that he could not nerve himself for a chance moment alone with Paula so soon after what he had overseen in the patio.

Light steps in the gravel made him turn his head. Ernestine caught up with him and took his arm.

"Poor old Alden Bessie," she explained. "I thought I'd go along."

Dick, still acting up to his night's rle, recalled to her various funny incidents of the evening, and laughed and chuckled with reminiscent glee.

"Dick," she said in the first pause, "you are in trouble." She could feel him stiffen, and hurried on: "What can I do? You know you can depend on me. Tell me."

"Yes, I'll tell you," he answered. "Just one thing." She pressed his arm gratefully. "I'll have a telegram sent you to-morrow. It will be urgent enough, though not too serious. You will just bundle up and depart with Lute."

"Is that all?" she faltered.

"It will be a great favor."

"You won't talk with me?" she protested, quivering under the rebuff.

"I'll have the telegram come so as to rout you out of bed. And now never mind Alden Bessie. You run a long in. Good night."

He kissed her, gently thrust her toward the house, and went on his way.



CHAPTER XXX



On the way back from the sick mare, Dick paused once to listen to the restless stamp of Mountain Lad and his fellows in the stallion barn. In the quiet air, from somewhere up the hills, came the ringing of a single bell from some grazing animal. A cat's-paw of breeze fanned him with sudden balmy warmth. All the night was balmy with the faint and almost aromatic scent of ripening grain and drying grass. The stallion stamped again, and Dick, with a deep breath and realization that never had he more loved it all, looked up and circled the sky-line where the crests of the mountains blotted the field of stars.

"No, Cato," he mused aloud. "One cannot agree with you. Man does not depart from life as from an inn. He departs as from a dwelling, the one dwelling he will ever know. He departs ... nowhere. It is good night. For him the Noiseless One ... and the dark."

He made as if to start, but once again the stamp of the stallions held him, and the hillside bell rang out. He drew a deep inhalation through his nostrils of the air of balm, and loved it, and loved the fair land of his devising.

"'I looked into time and saw none of me there,'" he quoted, then capped it, smiling, with a second quotation: "'She gat me nine great sons.... The other nine were daughters.'"

Back at the house, he did not immediately go in, but stood a space gazing at the far flung lines of it. Nor, inside, did he immediately go to his own quarters. Instead, he wandered through the silent rooms, across the patios, and along the dim-lit halls. His frame of mind was as of one about to depart on a journey. He pressed on the lights in Paula's fairy patio, and, sitting in an austere Roman seat of marble, smoked a cigarette quite through while he made his plans.

Oh, he would do it nicely enough. He could pull off a hunting accident that would fool the world. Trust him not to bungle it. Next day would be the day, in the woods above Sycamore Creek. Grandfather Jonathan Forrest, the straight-laced Puritan, had died of a hunting accident. For the first time Dick doubted that accident. Well, if it hadn't been an accident, the old fellow had done it well. It had never been hinted in the family that it was aught but an accident.

His hand on the button to turn off the lights, Dick delayed a moment for a last look at the marble babies that played in the fountain and among the roses.

"So long, younglings," he called softly to them. "You're the nearest I ever came to it."

From his sleeping porch he looked across the big patio to Paula's porch. There was no light. The chance was she slept.

On the edge of the bed, he found himself with one shoe unlaced, and, smiling at his absentness, relaced it. What need was there for him to sleep? It was already four in the morning. He would at least watch his last sunrise. Last things were coming fast. Already had he not dressed for the last time? And the bath of the previous morning would be his last. Mere water could not stay the corruption of death. He would have to shave, however—a last vanity, for the hair did continue to grow for a time on dead men's faces.

He brought a copy of his will from the wall-safe to his desk and read it carefully. Several minor codicils suggested themselves, and he wrote them out in long-hand, pre-dating them six months as a precaution. The last was the endowment of the sages of the madroo grove with a fellowship of seven.

He ran through his life insurance policies, verifying the permitted suicide clause in each one; signed the tray of letters that had waited his signature since the previous morning; and dictated a letter into the phonograph to the publisher of his books. His desk cleaned, he scrawled a quick summary of income and expense, with all earnings from the Harvest mines deducted. He transposed the summary into a second summary, increasing the expense margins, and cutting down the income items to an absurdest least possible. Still the result was satisfactory.

He tore up the sheets of figures and wrote out a program for the future handling of the Harvest situation. He did it sketchily, with casual tentativeness, so that when it was found among the papers there would be no suspicions. In the same fashion he worked out a line- breeding program for the Shires, and an in-breeding table, up and down, for Mountain Lad and the Fotherington Princess and certain selected individuals of their progeny.

When Oh My came in with coffee at six, Dick was on his last paragraph of his scheme for rice-growing.

"Although the Italian rice may be worth experimenting with for quick maturity," he wrote, "I shall for a time confine the main plantings in equal proportions to Moti, Ioko, and the Wateribune. Thus, with different times of maturing, the same crews and the same machinery, with the same overhead, can work a larger acreage than if only one variety is planted."

Oh My served the coffee at his desk, and made no sign even after a glance to the porch at the bed which had not been slept in—all of which control Dick permitted himself privily to admire.

At six-thirty the telephone rang and he heard Hennessy's tired voice: "I knew you'd be up and glad to know Alden Bessie's pulled through. It was a squeak, though. And now it's me for the hay."

When Dick had shaved, he looked at the shower, hesitated a moment, then his face set stubbornly. I'm darned if I will, was his thought; a sheer waste of time. He did, however, change his shoes to a pair of heavy, high-laced ones fit for the roughness of hunting. He was at his desk again, looking over the notes in his scribble pads for the morning's work, when Paula entered. She did not call her "Good morning, merry gentleman"; but came quite close to him before she greeted him softly with:

"The Acorn-planter. Ever tireless, never weary Red Cloud."

He noted the violet-blue shadows under her eyes, as he arose, without offering to touch her. Nor did she offer invitation.

"A white night?" he asked, as he placed a chair.

"A white night," she answered wearily. "Not a second's sleep, though I tried so hard."

Both were reluctant of speech, and they labored under a mutual inability to draw their eyes away from each other.

"You ... you don't look any too fit yourself," she said.

"Yes, my face," he nodded. "I was looking at it while I shaved. The expression won't come off."

"Something happened to you last night," she probed, and he could not fail to see the same compassion in her eyes that he had seen in Oh Dear's. "Everybody remarked your expression. What was it?"

He shrugged his shoulders. "It has been coming on for some time," he evaded, remembering that the first hint of it had been given him by Paula's portrait of him. "You've noticed it?" he inquired casually.

She nodded, then was struck by a sudden thought. He saw the idea leap to life ere her words uttered it.

"Dick, you haven't an affair?"

It was a way out. It would straighten all the tangle. And hope was in her voice and in her face.

He smiled, shook his head slowly, and watched her disappointment.

"I take it back," he said. "I have an affair."

"Of the heart?"

She was eager, as he answered, "Of the heart."

But she was not prepared for what came next. He abruptly drew his chair close, till his knees touched hers, and, leaning forward, quickly but gently prisoned her hands in his resting on her knees.

"Don't be alarmed, little bird-woman," he quieted her. "I shall not kiss you. It is a long time since I have. I want to tell you about that affair. But first I want to tell you how proud I am—proud of myself. I am proud that I am a lover. At my age, a lover! It is unbelievable, and it is wonderful. And such a lover! Such a curious, unusual, and quite altogether remarkable lover. In fact, I have laughed all the books and all biology in the face. I am a monogamist. I love the woman, the one woman. After a dozen years of possession I love her quite madly, oh, so sweetly madly."

Her hands communicated her disappointment to him, making a slight, impulsive flutter to escape; but he held them more firmly.

"I know her every weakness, and, weakness and strength and all, I love her as madly as I loved her at the first, in those mad moments when I first held her in my arms."

Her hands were mutinous of the restraint he put upon them, and unconsciously she was beginning to pull and tug to be away from him. Also, there was fear in her eyes. He knew her fastidiousness, and he guessed, with the other man's lips recent on hers, that she feared a more ardent expression on his part.

"And please, please be not frightened, timid, sweet, beautiful, proud, little bird-woman. See. I release you. Know that I love you most dearly, and that I am considering you as well as myself, and before myself, all the while."

He drew his chair away from her, leaned back, and saw confidence grow in her eyes.

"I shall tell you all my heart," he continued, "and I shall want you to tell me all your heart."

"This love for me is something new?" she asked. "A recrudescence?"

"Yes, a recrudescence, and no."

"I thought that for a long time I had been a habit to you," she said.

"But I was loving you all the time."

"Not madly."

"No," he acknowledged. "But with certainty. I was so sure of you, of myself. It was, to me, all a permanent and forever established thing. I plead guilty. But when that permanency was shaken, all my love for you fired up. It was there all the time, a steady, long-married flame."

"But about me?" she demanded.

"That is what we are coming to. I know your worry right now, and of a minute ago. You are so intrinsically honest, so intrinsically true, that the thought of sharing two men is abhorrent to you. I have not misread you. It is a long time since you have permitted me any love- touch." He shrugged his shoulders "And an equally long time since I offered you a love-touch."

"Then you have known from the first?" she asked quickly.

He nodded.

"Possibly," he added, with an air of judicious weighing, "I sensed it coming before even you knew it. But we will not go into that or other things."

"You have seen..." she attempted to ask, stung almost to shame at thought of her husband having witnessed any caress of hers and Graham's.

"We will not demean ourselves with details, Paula. Besides, there was and is nothing wrong about any of it. Also, it was not necessary for me to see anything. I have my memories of when I, too, kissed stolen kisses in the pause of the seconds between the frank, outspoken 'Good nights.' When all the signs of ripeness are visible—the love-shades and love-notes that cannot be hidden, the unconscious caress of the eyes in a fleeting glance, the involuntary softening of voices, the cuckoo-sob in the throat—why, the night-parting kiss does not need to be seen. It has to be. Still further, oh my woman, know that I justify you in everything."

"It... it was not ever... much," she faltered.

"I should have been surprised if it had been. It couldn't have been you. As it is, I have been surprised. After our dozen years it was unexpected—"

"Dick," she interrupted him, leaning toward him and searching him. She paused to frame her thought, and then went on with directness. "In our dozen years, will you say it has never been any more with you?"

"I have told you that I justify you in everything," he softened his reply.

"But you have not answered my question," she insisted. "Oh, I do not mean mere flirtatious passages, bits of primrose philandering. I mean unfaithfulness and I mean it technically. In the past you have?"

"In the past," he answered, "not much, and not for a long, long time."

"I often wondered," she mused.

"And I have told you I justify you in everything," he reiterated. "And now you know where lies the justification."

"Then by the same token I had a similar right," she said. "Though I haven't, Dick, I haven't," she hastened to add. "Well, anyway, you always did preach the single standard."

"Alas, not any longer," he smiled. "One's imagination will conjure, and in the past few weeks I've been forced to change my mind."

"You mean that you demand I must be faithful?"

He nodded and said, "So long as you live with me."

"But where's the equity?"

"There isn't any equity," he shook his head. "Oh, I know it seems a preposterous change of view. But at this late day I have made the discovery of the ancient truth that women are different from men. All I have learned of book and theory goes glimmering before the everlasting fact that the women are the mothers of our children. I... I still had my hopes of children with you, you see. But that's all over and done with. The question now is, what's in your heart? I have told you mine. And afterward we can determine what is to be done."

"Oh, Dick," she breathed, after silence had grown painful, "I do love you, I shall always love you. You are my Red Cloud. Why, do you know, only yesterday, out on your sleeping porch, I turned my face to the wall. It was terrible. It didn't seem right. I turned it out again, oh so quickly."

He lighted a cigarette and waited.

"But you have not told me what is in your heart, all of it," he chided finally.

"I do love you," she repeated.

"And Evan?"

"That is different. It is horrible to have to talk this way to you. Besides, I don't know. I can't make up my mind what is in my heart."

"Love? Or amorous adventure? It must be one or the other."

She shook her head.

"Can't you understand?" she asked. "That I don't understand? You see, I am a woman. I have never sown any wild oats. And now that all this has happened, I don't know what to make of it. Shaw and the rest must be right. Women are hunting animals. You are both big game. I can't help it. It is a challenge to me. And I find I am a puzzle to myself. All my concepts have been toppled over by my conduct. I want you. I want Evan. I want both of you. It is not amorous adventure, oh believe me. And if by any chance it is, and I do not know it—no, it isn't, I know it isn't."

"Then it is love."

"But I do love you, Red Cloud."

"And you say you love him. You can't love both of us."

"But I can. I do. I do love both of you.—Oh, I am straight. I shall be straight. I must work this out. I thought you might help me. That is why I came to you this morning. There must be some solution."

She looked at him appealingly as he answered, "It is one or the other, Evan or me. I cannot imagine any other solution."

"That's what he says. But I can't bring myself to it. He was for coming straight to you. I would not permit him. He has wanted to go, but I held him here, hard as it was on both of you, in order to have you together, to compare you two, to weigh you in my heart. And I get nowhere. I want you both. I can't give either of you up."

"Unfortunately, as you see," Dick began, a slight twinkle in his eyes, "while you may be polyandrously inclined, we stupid male men cannot reconcile ourselves to such a situation."

"Don't be cruel, Dick," she protested.

"Forgive me. It was not so meant. It was out of my own hurt—an effort to bear it with philosophical complacence."

"I have told him that he was the only man I had ever met who is as great as my husband, and that my husband is greater."

"That was loyalty to me, yes, and loyalty to yourself," Dick explained. "You were mine until I ceased being the greatest man in the world. He then became the greatest man in the world."

She shook her head.

"Let me try to solve it for you," he continued. "You don't know your mind, your desire. You can't decide between us because you equally want us both?"

"Yes," she whispered. "Only, rather, differently want you both."

"Then the thing is settled," he concluded shortly.

"What do you mean?"

"This, Paula. I lose. Graham is the winner. Don't you see. Here am I, even with him, even and no more, while my advantage over him is our dozen years together—the dozen years of past love, the ties and bonds of heart and memory. Heavens! If all this weight were thrown in the balance on Evan's side, you wouldn't hesitate an instant in your decision. It is the first time you have ever been bowled over in your life, and the experience, coming so late, makes it hard for you to realize."

"But, Dick, you bowled me over."

He shook his head.

"I have always liked to think so, and sometimes I have believed—but never really. I never took you off your feet, not even in the very beginning, whirlwind as the affair was. You may have been glamoured. You were never mad as I was mad, never swept as I was swept. I loved you first—"

"And you were a royal lover."

"I loved you first, Paula, and, though you did respond, it was not in the same way. I never took you off your feet. It seems pretty clear that Evan has."

"I wish I could be sure," she mused. "I have a feeling of being bowled over, and yet I hesitate. The two are not compatible. Perhaps I never shall be bowled over by any man. And you don't seem to help me in the least."

"You, and you alone, can solve it, Paula," he said gravely.

"But if you would help, if you would try—oh, such a little, to hold me," she persisted.

"But I am helpless. My hands are tied. I can't put an arm to hold you. You can't share two. You have been in his arms—" He put up his hand to hush her protest. "Please, please, dear, don't. You have been in his arms. You flutter like a frightened bird at thought of my caressing you. Don't you see? Your actions decide against me. You have decided, though you may not know it. Your very flesh has decided. You can bear his arms. The thought of mine you cannot bear."

She shook her head with slow resoluteness.

"And still I do not, cannot, make up my mind," she persisted.

"But you must. The present situation is intolerable. You must decide quickly, for Evan must go. You realize that. Or you must go. You both cannot continue on here. Take all the time in the world. Send Evan away. Or, suppose you go and visit Aunt Martha for a while. Being away from both of us might aid you to get somewhere. Perhaps it will be better to call off the hunting. I'll go alone, and you stay and talk it over with Evan. Or come on along and talk it over with him as you ride. Whichever way, I won't be in till late. I may sleep out all night in one of the herder's cabins. When I come back, Evan must be gone. Whether or not you are gone with him will also have been decided."

"And if I should go?" she queried.

Dick shrugged his shoulders, and stood up, glancing at his wrist- watch.

"I have sent word to Blake to come earlier this morning," he explained, taking a step toward the door in invitation for her to go.

At the door she paused and leaned toward him.

"Kiss me, Dick," she said, and, afterward: "This is not a... love- touch." Her voice had become suddenly husky. "It's just in case I do decide to... to go."

The secretary approached along the hall, but Paula lingered.

"Good morning, Mr. Blake," Dick greeted him. "Sorry to rout you out so early. First of all, will you please telephone Mr. Agar and Mr. Pitts. I won't be able to see them this morning. Oh, and put the rest off till to-morrow, too. Make a point of getting Mr. Hanley. Tell him I approve of his plan for the Buckeye spillway, and to go right ahead. I will see Mr. Mendenhall, though, and Mr. Manson. Tell them nine- thirty."

"One thing, Dick," Paula said. "Remember, I made him stay. It was not his fault or wish. I wouldn't let him go."

"You've bowled him over right enough," Dick smiled. "I could not reconcile his staying on, under the circumstances, with what I knew of him. But with you not permitting him to go, and he as mad as a man has a right to be where you are concerned, I can understand. He's a whole lot better than a good sort. They don't make many like him. He will make you happy—"

She held up her hand.

"I don't know that I shall ever be happy again, Red Cloud. When I see what I have brought into your face.... And I was so happy and contented all our dozen years. I can't forget it. That is why I have been unable to decide. But you are right. The time has come for me to solve the ..." She hesitated and could not utter the word "triangle" which he saw forming on her lips. "The situation," her voice trailed away. "We'll all go hunting. I'll talk with him as we ride, and I'll send him away, no matter what I do."

"I shouldn't be precipitate, Paul," Dick advised. "You know I don't care a hang for morality except when it is useful. And in this case it is exceedingly useful. There may be children.—Please, please," he hushed her. "And in such case even old scandal is not exactly good for them. Desertion takes too long. I'll arrange to give you the real statutory grounds, which will save a year in the divorce."

"If I so make up my mind," she smiled wanly.

He nodded.

"But I may not make up my mind that way. I don't know it myself. Perhaps it's all a dream, and soon I shall wake up, and Oh Dear will come in and tell me how soundly and long I have slept."

She turned away reluctantly, and paused suddenly when she had made half a dozen steps.

"Dick," she called. "You have told me your heart, but not what's in your mind. Don't do anything foolish. Remember Denny Holbrook—no hunting accident, mind."

He shook his head, and twinkled his eyes in feigned amusement, and marveled to himself that her intuition should have so squarely hit the mark.

"And leave all this?" he lied, with a gesture that embraced the ranch and all its projects. "And that book on in-and-in-breeding? And my first annual home sale of stock just ripe to come off?"

"It would be preposterous," she agreed with brightening face. "But, Dick, in this difficulty of making up my mind, please, please know that—" She paused for the phrase, then made a gesture in mimicry of his, that included the Big House and its treasures, and said, "All this does not influence me a particle. Truly not."

"As if I did not know it," he assured her. "Of all unmercenary women— "

"Why, Dick," she interrupted him, fired by a new thought, "if I loved Evan as madly as you think, you would mean so little that I'd be content, if it were the only way out, for you to have a hunting accident. But you see, I don't. Anyway, there's a brass tack for you to ponder."

She made another reluctant step away, then called back in a whisper, her face over her shoulder:

"Red Cloud, I'm dreadfully sorry.... And through it all I'm so glad that you do still love me."

Before Blake returned, Dick found time to study his face in the glass. Printed there was the expression that had startled his company the preceding evening. It had come to stay. Oh, well, was his thought, one cannot chew his heart between his teeth without leaving some sign of it.

He strolled out on the sleeping porch and looked at Paula's picture under the barometers. He turned it to the wall, and sat on the bed and regarded the blankness for a space. Then he turned it back again.

"Poor little kid," he murmured, "having a hard time of it just waking up at this late day."

But as he continued to gaze, abruptly there leaped before his eyes the vision of her in the moonlight, clinging to Graham and drawing his lips down to hers.

Dick got up quickly, with a shake of head to shake the vision from his eyes.

By half past nine his correspondence was finished and his desk cleaned save for certain data to be used in his talks with his Shorthorn and Shire managers. He was over at the window and waving a smiling farewell to Lute and Ernestine in the limousine, as Mendenhall entered. And to him, and to Manson next, Dick managed, in casual talk, to impress much of his bigger breeding plans.

"We've got to keep an eagle eye on the bull-get of King Polo," he told Manson. "There's all the promise in the world for a greater than he from Bleakhouse Fawn, or Alberta Maid, or Moravia's Nellie Signal. We missed it this year so far, but next year, or the year after, soon or late, King Polo is going to be responsible for a real humdinger of winner."

And as with Manson, with much more talk, so with Mendenhall, Dick succeeded in emphasizing the far application of his breeding theories.

With their departure, he got Oh Joy on the house 'phone and told him to take Graham to the gun room to choose a rifle and any needed gear.

At eleven he did not know that Paula had come up the secret stairway from the library and was standing behind the shelves of books listening. She had intended coming in but had been deterred by the sound of his voice. She could hear him talking over the telephone to Hanley about the spillway of the Buckeye dam.

"And by the way," Dick's voice went on, "you've been over the reports on the Big Miramar?... Very good. Discount them. I disagree with them flatly. The water is there. I haven't a doubt we'll find a fairly shallow artesian supply. Send up the boring outfit at once and start prospecting. The soil's ungodly rich, and if we don't make that dry hole ten times as valuable in the next five years ..."

Paula sighed, and turned back down the spiral to the library.

Red Cloud the incorrigible, always planting his acorns—was her thought. There he was, with his love-world crashing around him, calmly considering dams and well-borings so that he might, in the years to come, plant more acorns.

Nor was Dick ever to know that Paula had come so near to him with her need and gone away. Again, not aimlessly, but to run through for the last time the notes of the scribble pad by his bed, he was out on his sleeping porch. His house was in order. There was nothing left but to sign up the morning's dictation, answer several telegrams, then would come lunch and the hunting in the Sycamore hills. Oh, he would do it well. The Outlaw would bear the blame. And he would have an eye- witness, either Froelig or Martinez. But not both of them. One pair of eyes would be enough to satisfy when the martingale parted and the mare reared and toppled backward upon him into the brush. And from that screen of brush, swiftly linking accident to catastrophe, the witness would hear the rifle go off.

Martinez was more emotional than the sculptor and would therefore make a more satisfactory witness, Dick decided. Him would he maneuver to have with him in the narrow trail when the Outlaw should be made the scapegoat. Martinez was no horseman. All the better. It would be well, Dick judged, to make the Outlaw act up in real devilishness for a minute or two before the culmination. It would give verisimilitude. Also, it would excite Martinez's horse, and, therefore, excite Martinez so that he would not see occurrences too clearly.

He clenched his hands with sudden hurt. The Little Lady was mad, she must be mad; on no other ground could he understand such arrant cruelty, listening to her voice and Graham's from the open windows of the music room as they sang together the "Gypsy Trail."

Nor did he unclench his hands during all the time they sang. And they sang the mad, reckless song clear through to its mad reckless end. And he continued to stand, listening to her laugh herself merrily away from Graham and on across the house to her wing, from the porches of which she continued to laugh as she teased and chided Oh Dear for fancied derelictions.

From far off came the dim but unmistakable trumpeting of Mountain Lad. King Polo asserted his lordly self, and the harems of mares and heifers sent back their answering calls. Dick listened to all the whinnying and nickering and bawling of sex, and sighed aloud: "Well, the land is better for my having been. It is a good thought to take to bed."



CHAPTER XXXI



A ring of his bed 'phone made Dick sit on the bed to take up the receiver. As he listened, he looked out across the patio to Paula's porches. Bonbright was explaining that it was a call from Chauncey Bishop who was at Eldorado in a machine. Chauncey Bishop, editor and owner of the San Francisco Dispatch, was sufficiently important a person, in Bonbright's mind, as well as old friend of Dick's, to be connected directly to him.

"You can get here for lunch," Dick told the newspaper owner. "And, say, suppose you put up for the night.... Never mind your special writers. We're going hunting mountain lions this afternoon, and there's sure to be a kill. Got them located.... Who? What's she write?... What of it? She can stick around the ranch and get half a dozen columns out of any of half a dozen subjects, while the writer chap can get the dope on lion-hunting.... Sure, sure. I'll put him on a horse a child can ride."

The more the merrier, especially newspaper chaps, Dick grinned to himself—and grandfather Jonathan Forrest would have nothing on him when it came to pulling off a successful finish.

But how could Paula have been so wantonly cruel as to sing the "Gypsy Trail" so immediately afterward? Dick asked himself, as, receiver near to ear, he could distantly hear Chauncey Bishop persuading his writer man to the hunting.

"All right then, come a running," Dick told Bishop in conclusion. "I'm giving orders now for the horses, and you can have that bay you rode last time."

Scarcely had he hung up, when the bell rang again. This time it was Paula.

"Red Cloud, dear Red Cloud," she said, "your reasoning is all wrong. I think I love you best. I am just about making up my mind, and it's for you. And now, just to help me to be sure, tell me what you told me a little while ago—you know—' I love the woman, the one woman. After a dozen years of possession I love her quite madly, oh, so sweetly madly.' Say it to me, Red Cloud."

"I do truly love the woman, the one woman," Dick repeated. "After a dozen years of possession I do love her quite madly, oh, so sweetly madly."

There was a pause when he had finished, which, waiting, he did not dare to break.

"There is one little thing I almost forgot to tell you," she said, very softly, very slowly, very clearly. "I do love you. I have never loved you so much as right now. After our dozen years you've bowled me over at last. And I was bowled over from the beginning, although I did not know it. I have made up my mind now, once and for all."

She hung up abruptly.

With the thought that he knew how a man felt receiving a reprieve at the eleventh hour, Dick sat on, thinking, forgetful that he had not hooked the receiver, until Bonbright came in from the secretaries' room to remind him.

"It was from Mr. Bishop," Bonbright explained. "Sprung an axle. I took the liberty of sending one of our machines to bring them in."

"And see what our men can do with repairing theirs," Dick nodded.

Alone again, he got up and stretched, walked absently the length of the room and back.

"Well, Martinez, old man," he addressed the empty air, "this afternoon you'll be defrauded out of as fine a histrionic stunt as you will never know you've missed."

He pressed the switch for Paula's telephone and rang her up.

Oh Dear answered, and quickly brought her mistress.

"I've a little song I want to sing to you, Paul," he said, then chanted the old negro 'spiritual':

"'Fer itself, fer itself, Fer itself, fer itself, Every soul got ter confess Fer itself.'

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