"I will be responsible for the hotel bills of these people until further notice," said he.
The Widow Larken, looking intently at Bobby's scarf-pin, relented no whit in her uncompromising attitude.
"And who might you be?" she demanded, with a calm brow and cold determination.
"I am Robert J. Burnit," said Bobby. "I'll give you a written order if you like—or a check."
The Widow Larken's uncompromising expression instantly melted, but she did not smile—she grinned. Bobby knew precisely the cause of that amused expression, but if he had needed an interpreter, he had one at his elbow in the person of Biff Bates, who looked up at him with a reflection of the same grin.
"They're all next to you, Bobby," he observed. "The whole town knows that you're the real village goat."
The Widow Larken did not answer Bobby directly. She called back to a blue-overall-clad porter at the end of the lobby:
"Open the dining-room doors, Michael."
Signorina Caravaggio immediately said a few guttural words in German to Professor Fruehlingsvogel, a few limpid words in Italian to Signor Ricardo a few crisp words in French to Madame Villenauve, a nervous but rather attractive little woman with piercing black eyes. The singers of other languages did not wait to be informed; they joined the general stampede toward the ravishing paradise of midday breakfast, and as the last of them vacated the lobby, the principals no whit behind the humble members of the chorus in crowding and jamming through that doorway, Bobby breathed a sigh of relief. Only the Signorina was left to him, and Bobby hesitated just a moment as it occurred to him that, perhaps, a more personal entertainment was expected by this eminent songstress. Biff Bates, however, relieved him of his dilemma.
"While you're gone down to see the boys at the Idlers' Club," said Biff, "I'm going to take Miss Carry—Miss—Miss—"
"Caravaggio," interrupted the Signorina with a repetition of a laugh which had convinced Bobby that, after all, she might be a singer, though her speaking voice gave no trace of it.
"Carrie for mine," insisted Biff with a confident grin. "I'm going to take Miss Carrie out to lunch some place where they don't serve prunes. I guess the Hotel Spender will do for us."
Bobby surveyed Biff with an indulgent smile.
"Thanks," said he. "That will give me time to see what I can do."
"You take my advice, Mr. Burnit," earnestly interposed the Signorina. "Don't bother with your friends. Go and see the manager of the Orpheum and ask him about that open date. Ask him if he thinks it wouldn't be a good investment for you to back us."
Biff, the conservative; Biff, whose vote was invariably for the negative on any proposition involving an investment of Bobby's funds, unexpectedly added his weight for the affirmative.
"It's a good stunt, Bobby. Go to it," he counseled, and the Caravaggio smiled down at him.
Again Bobby laughed.
"All right, Biff," said he. "I'll hunt up the manager of the Orpheum right away."
In his machine he conveyed Biff and the prima donna to the Hotel Spender, and then drove to the Orpheum.
WITH THE RELUCTANT CONSENT OF AGNES, BOBBY BECOMES A PATRON OF MUSIC
The manager of the Orpheum was a strange evolution. He was a man who had spent a lifetime in the show business, running first a concert hall that "broke into the papers" every Sunday morning with an account of from two to seven fights the night before, then an equally disreputable "burlesque" house, the broad attractions of which appealed to men and boys only. To this, as he made money, he added the cheapest and most blood-curdling melodrama theater in town, then a "regular" house of the second grade. In his career he had endured two divorce cases of the most unattractive sort, and, among quiet and conventional citizens, was supposed to have horns and a barbed tail that snapped sparks where it struck on the pavement. When he first purchased the Orpheum Theater, the most exclusive playhouse of the city, he began to appear in its lobby every night in a dinner-coat or a dress-suit, silk topper and all, with an almost modest diamond stud in his white shirt-front; and ladies, as they came in, asked in awed whispers of their husbands: "Is that Dan Spratt?" Some few who had occasion to meet him went away gasping: "Why, the man seems really nice!" Others of "the profession," about whom the public never knew, spoke his name with tears of gratitude.
Mr. Spratt, immersed in troubles of his own, scarcely looked up as Bobby entered, and only grunted in greeting.
"Spratt," began Bobby, who knew the man quite well through "sporting" events engineered by Biff Bates, "the Neapolitan Grand Opera Company is stranded here, and—"
"Where are they?" interrupted Spratt eagerly, all his abstraction gone.
"At the Hotel Larken," began Bobby again. "I—"
"Have they got their props and scenery?"
"Everything, I understand," said Bobby. "I came around to see you—"
"Who's running the show?" demanded Spratt.
"Their manager decamped with the money—with what little there was," explained Bobby, "and they came to me by accident. I understand you have an open date next week."
"It's not open now," declared Spratt. "The date is filled with the Neapolitan Grand Opera Company."
"There doesn't seem to be much use of my talking, then," said Bobby, smiling.
"Not much," said Spratt. "They're a good company, but I've noticed from the reports that they've been badly managed. The Dago that brought them over didn't know the show business in this country and tried to run the circus himself; and, of course, they've gone on the rocks. It's great luck that they landed here. I just heard a bit ago that they were in town. I suppose they're flat broke."
"Why, yes," said Bobby. "I just went up to the Hotel Larken and said I'd be responsible for their hotel bill."
"Oh," said Spratt. "Then you're backing them for their week here."
"Well, I'm not quite sure about that," hesitated Bobby.
"If you don't, I will," offered Spratt. "There's a long line of full-dress Willies here that'll draw their week's wages in advance to attend grand opera in cabs. At two and a half for the first sixteen rows they'll pack the house for the week, and every diamond in the hock-shops will get an airing for the occasion. But you saw it first, Burnit, and I won't interfere."
"Well, I don't know," Bobby again hesitated. "I haven't fully—"
"Go ahead," urged Spratt heartily. "It's your pick-up and I'll get mine. Hey, Spencer!"
A thin young man, with hair so light that he seemed to have no hair at all and no eyebrows, came in.
"We've booked the Neapolitan Grand Opera Company for next week. Have they got Caravaggio and Ricardo with them?" he asked, turning abruptly to Bobby.
Bobby, with a smile, nodded his head.
"All right, Spence; get busy on some press stuff for the afternoon papers. You can fake notices about them from what you know. Use two-inch streamers clear across the pages, then you can get some fresh stuff and the repertoire to-night for the morning papers. Play it up strong, Spence. Use plenty of space; and, say, tell Billy to get ready for a three o'clock rehearsal. Now, Burnit, let's go up to the Larken and make arrangements."
"We might just as well wait an hour," counseled Bobby. "The only one I found in the crowd who could speak English was Signorina Caravaggio."
"I know her," said Spratt. "Her other name's Nora McGinnis. Smart woman, too, and straight as a string; and sing! Why, that big ox can sing a bird off a tree."
"She's just gone over to lunch with Biff Bates at the Spender," observed Bobby, "and we'd better wait for her. She seems to be the leading spirit."
"Of course she is. Let's go right over to the Spender."
Biff Bates did not seem overly pleased when his tete-a-tete luncheon was interrupted by Bobby and Mr. Spratt, but the Signorina Nora very quickly made it apparent that business was business. Arrangements were promptly made to attach the carload of effects for back salaries due the company, and to lease these to Bobby for the week for a nominal sum. Bobby was to pay the regular schedule of salaries for that week and make what profit he could. A rehearsal of Carmen was to be called that afternoon at three, and a repertoire was arranged.
Feeling very much exhilarated after all this, Bobby drove out in his automobile after lunch to see Agnes Elliston. He found that young lady and Aunt Constance about to start for a drive, their carriage being already at the door, but without any ceremony he bundled them into his machine instead.
"Purely as my trustee," he explained, "Agnes must inspect my new business venture."
Aunt Constance smiled.
"The trusteeship of Agnes hasn't done you very much good so far," she observed. "As a matter of fact, if she wanted to build up a reputation as an expert trustee, I don't think she could accomplish much by printing in her circulars the details of her past stewardship."
"I don't want her to work up a reputation as a trustee," retorted Bobby. "She suits me just as she is, and I'm inclined to thank the governor for having loaded her down with the job."
"I'm becoming reconciled to it myself," admitted Agnes, smiling up at him. "Really, I have great faith that one day you will learn how to take care of money—if the money holds out that long. What is the new venture, Bobby?"
He grinned quite cheerfully.
"I am about to become an angel," he said quite solemnly.
Aunt Constance shook her head.
"No, Bobby," she said kindly; "there are spots, you know, where angels fear to tread."
But Agnes took the declaration with no levity whatever.
"You don't mean in a theatrical sense?" she inquired.
"In a theatrical sense," he insisted. "I am about to back the Neapolitan Grand Opera Company."
"Why, Bobby!" objected Agnes, aghast. "You surely don't mean it! I never thought you would contemplate anything so preposterous as that. I thought it was to be only a benefit!"
"It's only a temporary arrangement," he reassured her, laughing that he had been taken so seriously. "I'm arranging so that they can earn their way out of town; that's all. I am taking you down now to see their first rehearsal."
"I don't care to go," she declared, in a tone so piqued that Bobby turned to her in mute astonishment.
Aunt Constance laughed at his look of utter perplexity.
"How little you understand, Bobby," she said. "Don't you see that Agnes is merely jealous?"
"Indeed not!" Agnes indignantly denied. "That is an idea more absurd than the fact that Bobby should go into such an enterprise at all. However, since I lay myself open to such a suspicion I shall offer no further objection to going."
Bobby looked at her curiously and then he carefully refrained from chuckling, for Aunt Constance, though joking, had told the truth. Instant visions of dazzling sopranos, of mezzos and contraltos, of angelic voices and of vast beauty and exquisite gowning, had flashed in appalling procession before her mental vision. The idea, in the face of the appalling actuality, was so rich that Bobby pursued it no further lest he spoil it, and talked about the weather and equally inane topics the rest of the way.
It was not until they had turned into the narrow alley at the side of the Orpheum, and from that to the still more narrow alley at its rear, that the zest of adventure began to make amends to Agnes for certain disagreeable moments of the ride. At the stage door a particularly bewildered-looking man with a rolling eye and a weak jaw, rendered limp and helpless by the polyglot aliens who had flocked upon him, strickenly let them in, to grope their way, amid what seemed an inextricable confusion, but was in reality the perfection of orderliness, upon the dim stage, beyond which stretched, in vast emptiness, the big, black auditorium. Upon the stage, chattering in shrill voices, were the forty members of the company, still in their queer clothing, while down in front, where shaded lights—seeming dull and discouraged amid all the surrounding darkness—streamed upon the music, were the members of the orchestra, chattering just as volubly. The general note was quite different in pitch from the one Bobby had heard that morning, for since he had seen them the members of the organization had been fed, and life looked cheerful.
Wandering at a loss among these people, and trying in the dim twilight to find some face that he knew, the ears of Bobby and his party were suddenly assailed by an extremely harsh and penetrating voice which shouted:
This was accompanied by a sharp clap from a pair of very broad hands. The chattering suddenly took on a rapid crescendo, ascending a full third in the scale and then dying abruptly in a little high falsetto shriek; and Bobby, with a lady upon either arm, found his little trio immediately alone in the center of the stage, a row of dim footlights cutting off effectually any view into the vast emptiness of the auditorium.
"Hey, you; clear!" came the harsh voice again, accompanied by another sharp clap of the hands, and a bundle of intense fighting energy bounced out from the right tormentor wing, in the shape of a gaunt, fiercely-mustached and entirely bald man of about forty-five, who appeared perpetually to be in the last stages of distraction.
"Who do you weesh to see?" demanded the gaunt man, in a very decided foreign accent. He had made a very evident attempt to be quite polite indeed, and forgiving of people who did not know enough to spring for the wings at the sound of that magic word, "Clear!"
Any explanations that Bobby might have tried to make were happily prevented by a voice from the yawning blackness—a quiet voice, a voice of authority, the voice of Mr. Spratt.
"Come right down in front here, Burnit. Jimmy, show the gentleman how to get down."
"Thees way," snapped the gaunt man, with evident relief but no abatement whatever of his briskness, and he very hastily walked over to the right wings, where Jimmy, the house electrician, piloted the trio with equal relief through the clustered mass of singers to the door behind the boxes. As they emerged into the auditorium the raucous voice of the gaunt man was heard to shout: "All ready now. Carmen all ze way through." An apparent repetition of which statement he immediately made with equal raucousness in two or three languages. There was a call to Caravaggio in English, to Ricardo and the Signers Fivizzano and Rivaroli in Italian, to Messrs. Philippi and Schaerbeeken in Spanish and Dutch, to Madam Villenauve in French, to Madam Kadanoff in Russian, and to Mademoiselle Toeroek in Hungarian, to know if they were ready; then, in rough but effective German, he informed the Herr Professor down in the orchestra that all was prepared, clapped his hands, cried "Overture," and immediately plunged to the right upper entrance, marked by two chairs, where, with shrill objurgations, he began instructing and drilling the Soldiers' Chorus out of certain remembered awkwardnesses, as Herr Fruehlingsvogel's baton fell for the overture.
Shorn of all the glamor that scenic environment, light effects and costume could give them, it was a distinct shock to Agnes to gaze in wondering horror from each one of those amazing faces to the other, and when the cigarette girls trooped out, amazement gave way to downright consternation. Nevertheless, she cheered up considerably, and the apex of her cheerfulness was reached when the oversized Signorina Caravaggio sang, very musically, however, the role of the petite and piquant Carmen. It was then that, sitting by Bobby in the darkness, Agnes observed with a sigh of content:
"Your trustee quite approves, Bobby. I don't mind being absolutely truthful for once in my life. I was a little jealous. But how could I be? Really, their voices are fine."
Mr. Spratt, too, was of that opinion, and he came back to Bobby to say so most emphatically.
"They'll do," said he. "After the first night they'll have this town crazy. If the seat sale don't go right for Monday we'll pack the house with paper, and the rest of the week will go big. Just hear that Ricardo! The little bit of a sawed-off toad sings like a canary. If you don't look at 'em, they're great."
They were superb. From the throats of that ill-favored chorus there came divine harmony, smooth, evenly-balanced, exhilarating, almost flawless, and as the great musical poem of passion unfolded and the magnificent aria of Don Jose was finished in the second act, the little group of listeners down in front burst into involuntary applause, to which there was but one dissenting voice. This voice, suddenly evolving out of the darkness at Bobby's side, ejaculated with supreme disgust:
"Well, what do you think of that! Why, that fat little fishworm of a Dago is actually gone bug-house over Miss McGinnis," a fact which had been obvious to all of them the minute small Ricardo began to sing his wonderful love song to large Caravaggio.
The rest of them had found only amusement in the fact, but to Biff Bates there was nothing funny about this. He sat in speechless disapproval throughout the balance of that much-interrupted performance, wherein Professor Fruehlingsvogel, now and then, stopped his music with a crash to shriek an excited direction that it was all wrong, that it was execrable, that it was a misdemeanor, a crime, a murder to sing it in that way! The passage must be all sung over; or, at other times, the gaunt stage director, whose name was Monsieur Noire, would rush with a hoarse howl down to Herr Professor, order him to stop the music, and, turning, berate some unfortunate performer who had defied the conventions of grand opera by acting quite naturally. On the whole, however, it was a very creditable performance, and Bobby's advisers gave the project their unqualified approval.
"It is really a commendable thing," Aunt Constance complacently announced, "to encourage music of this order, and to furnish such a degree of cultivation for the masses."
It was a worthy project indeed. As for the company itself there could be no question that it was a good one. No one expected acting in grand opera, no one expected that the performers would be physically adaptable to their parts. The voice! The voice was all. Even Agnes admitted that it was a splendid thing to be a patron of the fine arts; but Bobby, in his profound new wisdom and his thorough conversion to strictly commercial standards, said with vast iconoclasm:
"You are overlooking the main point. I am not so anxious to become a patron of the fine arts as I am to make money," with which terrible heresy he left them at home, with a thorough understanding that he was quite justified in his new venture; though next morning, when he confided the fact to Johnson, that worthy, with a sigh, presented him with an appropriate missive from among those in the gray envelopes left in his care by the late John Burnit. It was inscribed:
To My Son Robert, Upon His Deciding to Back a Theatrical Venture
"Sooner or later, every man thinks it would be a fine thing to run a show, and the earlier in life it happens the sooner a man will have it out of his system. I tried it once myself, and I know. So good luck to you, my boy, and here's hoping that you don't get stung too badly."
STILL WITH THE RELUCTANT CONSENT OF AGNES, BOBBY INVESTS IN THE FINE ARTS
That week's "season of grand opera" was an unqualified success, following closely the lines laid down by the experienced Mr. Spratt. Caravaggio and Ricardo and Philippi and Villenauve became household words, after the Monday night performance of Carmen, and for the balance of the week shining carriages rolled up to the entrance of the Orpheum, disgorging load after load of high-hatted gentlemen and long-plumed ladies. Before the end of the engagement it was definitely known that Bobby's investment would yield a profit, even deducting for the days of idleness during which he had been compelled to support the rehearsing company. The powers of darkness thereupon set vigorously to work upon him to carry the company on through the rest of its season.
It was then that the storm broke. Against his going further with the company Agnes Elliston interposed an objection so decided and so unflattering that the entente cordiale at the Elliston home was strained dangerously near to the breaking point, and in this she was aided and abetted by Aunt Constance, who ridiculed him, and by Uncle Dan Elliston, who took him confidentially for a grave and hardheaded remonstrance. Chalmers, Johnson, and even Applerod wrestled with him in spirit; his friends at the Idlers' Club "guyed" him unmercifully, and even Biff Bates, though his support was earnestly sought by the Signorina Caravaggio, also counseled him roughly against it, and through it all Bobby was made to feel that he was a small boy who had proposed to eat a peck of green apples and then go in swimming in dog-days. Another note from his father, handed to him by the faithful and worried Johnson, was the deciding straw:
To My Son Robert, About That Theatrical Venture
"When a man who knows nothing of the business backs a show, there's usually a woman at the bottom of it—and that kind of woman is mostly rank poison to a normal man, even if she is a good woman. No butterfly ever goes back into its chrysalis and becomes a grub again. Let birds of a feather flock together, Bobby."
That unfortunate missive, for once shooting so wide the mark, pushed Bobby over the edge. There was a streak of stubbornness in him which, well developed and turned into proper channels, was likely to be very valuable, but until he learned to use that stubbornness in the right way it bade fair to plunge him into more difficulties than he could extricate himself from with profit. Even Agnes, reading that note, indignantly agreed with Bobby that he was being unjustly misread.
"It is absurd," he explained to her. "This is the first dividend-paying investment I have been able to make so far, and I'm going to keep it up just as long as I can make money out of it. I'd be very foolish if I didn't. Besides, this is just a little in-between flyer, while I'm conservatively waiting for a good, legitimate opening. It can take, at most, but a very small part of my two hundred and fifty thousand."
Agnes, though defending him against his father, was still reluctant about the trip, but suddenly, with a curious smile, she withdrew all objections and even urged him to go ahead.
"Bobby," said she, still with that curious smile and strangely shining eyes, and putting both her hands upon his shoulders, "I see that you must go ahead with this. I—I guess it will be good for you. Somehow, I think that this is to be your last folly, that you are really learning that the world is not all polo and honor-bets. So go ahead—and I'll wait here."
He could not know how much that hurt her. He only knew, after she had talked more lightly of his trip, that he had her full and free consent, and, highly elated with his first successful business venture, he took up the contracts of the Neapolitan Grand Opera Company where Signor Matteo, the decamped manager and producer, had dropped them. The members of the company having attached the scenery and effects for back salaries, sold them to Bobby for ten thousand dollars, and he immediately found himself confronted by demands for settlements, with the alternative of damage suits, from the two cities in which the company had been booked for the two past weeks.
Had Bobby not bound himself irrevocably to contracts which made him liable for the salaries of every member of this company for the next twenty weeks, he would have withdrawn instantly at the first hint of these suits; but, now that he was in for it, he promptly compromised them at a rate which made Spratt furious.
"If I'd thought," said Spratt angrily in the privacy of the Orpheum office, "that you were sucker enough to get roped in for the full season, I'd have tossed you out of the running for this week. This game is a bigger gamble than the Stock Exchange. The smartest producers in the business never know when they have a winner or a loser. More than that, while all actors are hard to handle, of all the combinations on earth, a grand opera company is the worst. I'll bet a couple of cold bottles that before you're a week on the road you'll have leaks in your dirigible over some crazy dramatic stunts that are not in the book of any opera of the Neapolitan repertoire."
The prediction was so true that it was proved that very night, which was Friday, during the repetition of Carmen. It seemed that Biff Bates, by means of the supreme dominance of the Caravaggio, had been made free of the stage, a rare privilege, and one that enabled Biff to spend his time, under unusual and romantic circumstances, very much in the company of the Celtic Signorina; all of which was very much to the annoyance, distress and fury of Signor Ricardo, especially on Carmen night. At all other times the great Ricardo thought very well indeed of the Signorina Nora, only being in any degree near to unfaithfulness when, on Aida nights, he sang to vivacious little Madam Villenauve; but on Carmen nights he was devotedly, passionately, madly in love with the divine Car-r-r-r-avaggio! Else how could he sing the magnificent second act aria? Life without her on those nights would be a hollow mockery, the glance of any possible rival in her direction a desecration. Why, he even had to restrain himself to keep from doing actual damage to Philippi, who, though on the shady side of forty-five, still sang a most dashing Escamillo; nor was his jealousy less poignant because Philippi and Caravaggio were sworn enemies.
Thus it may be understood—by any one, at least, who has ever loved ecstatically and fervidly and even hectically, like the great Ricardo—how on Monday and Wednesday nights and the Thursday matinee, all of which were Caravaggio performances, he resented Biff's presence. From dark corners he more darkly watched them chatting in frank enjoyment of each other's company; he made unexpected darts in front of their very eyes to greet them with the most alarming scowls; and because he insolently brushed the shoulder of the peaceably inclined and self-sure Biff upon divers occasions, and Biff made no sign of resentment, he imagined that Biff trembled in his boots whenever he noted the approach of the redoubtable Ricardo with his infinitesimal but ferocious mustachios. Great, then, was his wonder, to say nothing of his rage, when Biff, after all the scowls and shoulderings that he had received on Thursday, actually came around for Friday night's Carmen performance!
Even before the fierce Ricardo had gone into his dressing-room he was already taking upon himself the deadly character of Don Jose, and his face surged red with fury when he saw Biff Bates, gaily laughing as if no doom impended, come in at the stage door with the equally gay and care-free Caravaggio. But after Signor Ricardo had donned the costume and the desperateness of the brigadier Don Jose—it was then that the fury sank into his soul! And that fury boiled and seethed as, during the first and second acts, he found in the wings Signorina Car-r-r-r-r-r-avaggio absorbed in pleasant but very significant chat with his deadly enemy, the crude, unmusical, inartistic, soulless Biffo de Bates-s-s-s! But, ah! There was another act to come, the third act, at the beginning of which the property man handed him the long, sharp, wicked-looking, bloodthirsty knife with which he was to fight Escamillo, and with which in the fourth act he was to kill Carmen. The mere possession of that knife wrought the great tenor's soul to gory tragedy; so much so that immediately after the third act curtain calls he rushed directly to the spot where he knew the contemptible Signor Biffo de Bates-s-s-s to be standing, and with shrill Latin imprecations flourished that keen, glistening blade before the eyes of the very much astounded Biff.
For a moment, thoroughly incredulous, Biff refused to believe it, until a second demonstration compelled him to acknowledge that the great Ricardo actually meant threatening things toward himself. When this conviction forced its way upon him, Biff calmly reached out, and, with a grip very much like a bear-trap, seized Signor Ricardo by the forearm of the hand which held the knife. With his unengaged hand Biff then smacked the Signor Ricardo right severely on the wrist.
"You don't mean it, you know, Sig-nor Garlic," he calmly observed. "If I thought you did I'd smack you on both wrists. Why, you little red balloon, I ain't afraid of any mutt on earth that carries a knife like that, as long as I got my back to the wall."
Still holding the putty-like Signor by the forearm, he delicately abstracted from his clasp the huge knife, and, folding it up gravely, handed it back to him; then deliberately he turned his back on the Signor and pushed his way through the delightedly horror-stricken emotionalists who had gathered at the fray, and strolled over to where Signorina Caravaggio had stood an interested and mirth-shaken observer.
"You mustn't think all Italians are like that, Biff," she said, her first impulse, as always, to see justice done; "but singers are a different breed. I don't think he's bluffing, altogether. If he got a real good chance some place in the dark, and was sure that he wouldn't be caught, he might use a stiletto on you."
"If he ever does I'll slap his forehead," said Biff. "But say, he uses that cleaver again in the show?"
The Signorina Nora shrugged her shoulders.
"He's supposed to stab me with it in this next act."
"He is!" exclaimed Biff. "Well, just so he don't make any mistake I'm going over and paste him one."
It was not necessary, for Signor Ricardo, after studying the matter over and seeing no other way out of it, proceeded to have a fit. No one, not even the illustrious Signor, could tell just how much of that fit was deliberate and artificial, and just how much was due to an overwrought sensitive organization, but certain it was that the Signor Ricardo was quite unable to go on with the performance, and Monsieur Noire himself, as agitated as a moment before the great Ricardo had been, frantically rushed up to Biff and grabbed him roughly by the shoulders.
"Too long," shrieked he, "we have let you be annoying the artists, by reason of the Caravaggio. But now you shall do the skidooing."
With a laugh Biff looked back over his shoulder at the Caravaggio, and permitted Monsieur Noire to eject him bodily from the stage door upon the alley.
The next morning, owing to the prompt action and foresightedness of Spratt, all the papers contained the very pretty story that the great Ricardo had succumbed to his own intensity of emotions after the third act of Carmen, and had been unable to go on, giving way to the scarcely less great Signor Dulceo. That same morning Bobby was confronted by the first of a long series of similar dilemmas. The Signorina Caravaggio must leave the company or Signor Ricardo would do so. No stage was big enough to hold the two; moreover, Ricardo meant to have the heart's blood of Signor Biffo de Bates-s-s-s!
With a sigh, Bobby, out of his ignorance and independence, took the only possible course to preserve peace, and emphatically told Signor Ricardo to pack up and go as quickly as possible, which he went away vowing to do. Naturally the great tenor thought better of it after that, and though he had already been dropped from the cast of Il Trovatore on Saturday afternoon, he reported just the same. And he went on with the company.
It was not until they went upon the road, however, that Bobby fully realized what a lot of irresponsible, fretful, peevish children he had upon his hands. With the exception of serene Nora McGinnis, every one of the principals was at daggers drawn with all the others, sulking over the least advantage obtained by any one else, and accepting advantage of their own as only a partial payment of their supreme rank. The one most at war with her own world was Madam Villenauve, whose especial bete noire was the MeeGeenees, whom, by no possibility, could she ever under any circumstance be induced to call Caravaggio.
On the second day of their next engagement, as Bobby strode through the corridor of the hotel, shortly after luncheon, he was stopped by Madam Villenauve, who had been waiting for him in the door of her room. She was herself apparently just dressing to go out, for her coiffure was made and she had on a short underskirt, a kimono-like dressing-jacket and her street shoes.
"I wish to speak wiz you on some beezness, Meester Burnit," she told him abruptly, and with an imperatively beckoning hand stepped back with a bow for him to enter.
With just a moment of surprised hesitation he stepped into the room, whereupon the Villenauve promptly closed the door. A week before Bobby would have been a trifle astonished by this proceeding, but in that week he had seen so many examples of unconscious unconventionalities in and about the dressing-rooms and at the hotel, that he had readjusted his point of view to meet the peculiar way of life of these people, and, as usual with readjustments, had readjusted himself too far. He found the room in a litter, with garments of all sorts cast about in reckless disorder.
"I have been seeing you last night," began Madam Villenauve, shaking her finger at him archly as she swept some skirts off a chair for him to sit down, and then took her place before her dressing-table, where she added the last deft touch to her coiffure. "I have been seeing you smiling at ze reedeec'lous Carmen. Oh, la, la! Carmen!" she shrilled. "It is I, monsieur, I zat am ze Carmen. It was zis Matteo, the scoundrel who run away wiz our money, zat allow le Ricardo to say whom he like to sing to for Carmen. Ricardo ees in loaf wiz la MeeGeenees. Le Ricardo is a fool, so zis Ricardo sing Carmen ever tam to ze great, grosse monstair MeeGeenees; an' ever'body zey laugh. Ze chorus laugh, ze principals laugh, le Monsieur Noire he laugh, even zat Fruehlingsvogel zat have no humair, he laugh, an' ze audience laugh, an' las' night I am seeing you laugh. Ees eet not so? Mais! It is absurd! It is reedeec'lous. Le Ricardo make fool over la MeeGeenees. I sing ze Carmen! I am ze Carmen! You hear me sing Aida? Eet ees zat way. I sing Carmen. Now I s'all sing Carmen again! Ees eet not?"
As Madam Villenauve talked, punctuating her remarks with quick, impatient little gestures, she jerked off her dressing-jacket and threw it on the floor, and Bobby saved himself from panic by reminding himself that her frank anatomical display was, in the peculiar ethics of these people, no more to be noticed than if she were in an evening gown, which was very reasonable, after all, once you understood the code. Still voicing her indignation at having been displaced in the role of Carmen by the utterly impossible and preposterous Caravaggio, she caught up her waist and was about to slip it on, while Bobby, with an amused smile, reflected that presently he would no doubt be nonchalantly requested to hook it in the back, when some one tried the door-knob. A knock followed and Madam Villenauve went to the door.
"Who ees it?" she asked with her hand on the knob.
"It is I; Monsieur Noire," was the reply.
"Oh, la, come in, zen," she invited, and threw open the door.
Monsieur Noire entered, but, finding Bobby in the chair by the dresser, stopped uncertainly in the doorway.
"Oh, come on een," she gaily invited; "we are all ze good friends; oui?"
It appeared that Monsieur Noire came in all politeness, yet with rigid intention, to inquire about a missing piece of music from the score of Les Huguenots, and Madam Villenauve, in all politeness and yet with much indignation, assured him that she did not have it; whereupon Monsieur Noire, with all politeness but cold insistence, demanded that she look for it; whereupon Madam Villenauve, though once more protesting that she had it not, in all politeness and yet with considerable asperity, declared that she would not search for it; whereupon Monsieur Noire, observing the piece of music in question peeping out from beneath a conglomerate pile of newspapers, clothing and toilet articles, laid hands upon it and departed. Madam Villenauve, entirely unruffled now that it was all over, but still chattering away with great volubility about the crime of Carmen, finished her dressing and bade Bobby hook the back of her waist, and by sheer calmness and certainty of intention forced him to accompany her over to rehearsal.
Whatever annoyance he might have felt over this was lost in his amusement when he reached the theater in finding Biff Bates upon the stage waiting for him; and Biff, while waiting, was quite excusably whiling the time away with the adorable Miss McGinnis.
"You see, Young Fitz lives here," Biff brazenly explained, "and I run up to see him about that exhibition night I'm going to have at the gym. I'm going to have him go on with Kid Jeffreys."
"Biff," said Bobby warmly, "I want to congratulate you on your business enterprise. Have you seen Young Fitz yet?"
"Well, no," confessed Biff. "I just got here about an hour ago. I didn't know your hotel, but it was a cinch from the bills to tell where the show was, so I came right around to the theater to see you first."
"Exactly," admitted Bobby. "Do you expect to see Young Fitz?"
"Well, maybe, if I get time," said Biff with a sheepish grin. "Just now I'm going out for a drive with Miss McGinnis."
"Caravaggio," corrected that young lady with a laugh.
"McGinnis for mine," declared Biff. "By the way, Bobby, I saw a certain party before I left town and she gave me this letter for you. Certain party is as cheerful as a chunk of lead about your trip, Bobby, but she makes the swellest bluff I ever saw that she's tickled to death with it."
With this vengeful shot in retaliation for his excuse about Young Fitz having been doubted he sailed away with the Caravaggio, who, though required to report at every rehearsal, was not in the cast for that night and was readily excused from further attendance. Since Bobby had received a very pleasant letter from Agnes when he got up that morning he opened this missive with a touch of curiosity added to the thrill with which he always took in his hands any missive, no matter how trivial, from her. It was but a brief note calling attention to the enclosed newspaper clipping, and wishing him success in his new venture. The clipping was a flamboyant article describing the decision of the city council to install a magnificent new ten-million-dollar waterworks system, and the personally interesting item in it, ringed around with a pencil mark, was that Silas Trimmer had been appointed by Mayor Garland as president of the waterworks commission.
It was not news that could alter his fortunes in any way so far as he could see, but it did remind him, with a strange whipping of his conscience, that, after all, his place was back home, and that his proper employment should be the looking after his home interests. For the first time he began to have a dim realization that a man's place was among his enemies, where he could watch them.
WHEREIN THE FINE ARTS PRESENT BOBBY WITH A MOST EMBARRASSING DILEMMA
It had become by no means strange to Bobby, even before the company "took the road," that some one of the principals should attach themselves to him in all his possible goings and comings, for each and every one of them had some complaint to make about all the others. They wanted readjustments of cast, better parts to sing, better dressing-rooms, better hotel quarters, better everything than the others had, and with the unhappy and excited Monsieur Noire he shared this unending strife. At first he saw it all in a humorous light, but, by and by, he came to a period of ennui and tried to rebel. This period gave him more trouble than the other, so within a short time he lapsed into an apathetic complaint-receptacle and dreamed no more of walking or riding to and from the hotel without one of these impulsive children of art, who seethed perpetually in self-prodded artificial emotions, attached to him. If it seemed strange at times that Madam Villenauve was more frequently with him than any of the others he only reflected that the vivacious little Frenchwoman was much more persistent; nor did he note that, presently, the others came rather to give way before her and to let her monopolize him more and more.
It was during the third week that Professor Fruehlingsvogel was to endure another birthday, and Bobby, full of generous impulses as always, announced at rehearsal that in honor of the Professor's unwelcome milestone he intended to give a little supper that night at the hotel. Madam Villenauve, standing beside him, suddenly threw her arms around his neck and kissed him smack upon the lips, with a quite enthusiastic declaration, in very charmingly warped English, that he was "a dear old sing." Bobby, reverting quickly in mind to the fact of the extreme unconventionally of these people, took the occurrence quite as a matter of course, though it embarrassed him somewhat. He rather counted himself a prig that he could not sooner get over this habit of embarrassment, and every time Madam Villenauve insisted on calling him into her dressing-room when she was in much more of dishabille than he would have thought permissible in ordinary people, he felt that same painful lack of sophistication.
At the supper that night, Madam Villenauve, with a great show of playful indignation, routed Madam Kadanoff from her accidental seat next to Bobby, and, in giving up the seat, which she did quite gracefully enough, Madam Kadanoff dropped some remark in choice Russian, which, of course, Bobby did not understand, but which Madam Villenauve did, for she laughed a little shrilly and, with an engaging upward smile at Bobby, observed:
"I theenk I shall say it zat zees so chairming Monsieur Burnit is soon to marry wiz me; ees eet not, monsieur?"
Whereupon Bobby, with his customary courtesy, replied:
"No gentleman would care to deny such a charming and attractive possibility, Madam Villenauve."
But the gracious speech was of the lips alone, and spoken with a warning glare against "kidding" at the grinning Biff Bates, who had found business of urgent importance for that night in the city where the company was booked. Bobby, in fact, had begun to tire very much of the whole business. To begin with, he found the organization a much more expensive one to keep up than he had imagined. The route, badly laid out, was one of tremendous long jumps; of his singers, like other rare and expensive creatures, extravagant care must be taken, and not every place that they stopped was so eager for grand opera as it might have been. At the end of three weeks he was able to compute that he had lost about a thousand dollars a week, and in the fourth week they struck an engagement so fruitless that even the cheerful Caravaggio became dismal.
"It's a sure enough frost," she confided to Bobby; "but cheer up, for the worst is yet to come. Your route sheet for the next two months looks like a morgue to me, and unless you interpolate a few coon songs in Tannhaeuser and some song and dance specialties between the acts of Les Huguenots you're gone. You know I used to sing this route in musical comedy, and, on the level, I've got a fine part waiting for me right now in The Giddy Queen. I like this highbrow music all right, but the people that come to hear it make me so sad. You're a good sport, though, and as long as you need me I'll stick."
"Thanks," said Bobby sincerely. "It's a pleasure to speak to a real human being once in a while, even if you don't offer any encouragement. However, we'll not be buried till we're dead, notwithstanding that we now enter upon the graveyard route."
Doleful experience, however, confirmed the Caravaggio's gloomy prophecy. They embarked now upon a season of one and two and three night stands that gave Bobby more of the real discomforts of life than he had ever before dreamed possible. To close a performance at eleven, to pack and hurry for a twelve-thirty train, to ride until five o'clock in the morning—a distance too short for sleep and too long to stay awake—to tumble into a hotel at six and sleep until noon, this was one program; to close a performance at eleven, to wait up for a four-o'clock train, to ride until eight and get into a hotel at nine, with a vitally necessary rehearsal between that and the evening performance, was another program, either one of which wore on health and temper and purse alike. The losses now exceeded two thousand dollars a week. Moreover, the frequent visits of Biff Bates and his constant baiting of Signor Ricardo had driven that great tenor to such a point of distraction that one night, being near New York, he drew his pay and departed without notice. There was no use, in spite of Monsieur Noire's frantic insistence, in trying to make the public believe that the lank Dulceo was the fat Ricardo; moreover, immediately upon his arrival in New York, Signor Ricardo let it be known that he had left the Neapolitan Company, so the prestige of the company fell off at once, for the "country" press pays sharp attention to these things.
A letter from Johnson at just this time also had its influence upon Bobby, who now was in an humble, not an antagonistic mood, and quite ripe for advice. Mr. Johnson had just conferred with Mr. Bates upon his return from a visit to the Neapolitan Company, and Mr. Bates had detailed to Mr. Johnson much that he had seen with his own eyes, and much that the Caravaggio had told him. Mr. Johnson, thereupon, begging pardon for the presumption, deemed this a fitting time, from what he had heard, to forward Bobby the inclosed letter, which, in its gray envelope, had been left behind by Bobby's father:
To My Son in the Midst of a Losing Fight
"Determination is a magnificent quality, but bullheadedness is not. The most foolish kind of pride on earth is that which makes a man refuse to acknowledge himself beaten when he is beaten. It takes a pretty brave man, and one with good stuff in him, to let all his friends know that he's been licked. Figure this out."
Bobby wrestled with that letter all night. In the morning he received one from Agnes which served to increase and intensify the feeling of homesickness that had been overwhelming him. She, too, had seen Biff Bates. She had asked him out to the house expressly to talk with him, but she had written a pleasant, cheerful letter wherein she hoped that the end of the season would repay the losses she understood that he was enduring; but she admitted that she was very lonesome without him. She gave him quite a budget of gay gossip concerning all the young people of his set, and after he had read that letter he was quite prepared to swallow his grit and make the announcement that for a week had been almost upon his tongue.
Through Monsieur Noire, at rehearsal that afternoon, he declared his intention of closing the season, and offered them each two weeks' advance pay and their fare to New York. It was Signorina Caravaggio who broke the hush that followed this announcement.
"You're a good sort, Bobby Burnit," she said, with kindly intent to lead the others, "and I'll take your offer and thank you."
It appeared that the majority of them had dreaded some such denouement as this; some had been prepared for even less advantageous terms, and several, upon direct inquiry, announced their willingness to accept this proposal. A few declared their intention to hold him for the full contract. These were the ones who had made sure of his entire solvency, and these afterward swayed the balance of the company to a stand which won a better compromise. When Monsieur Noire, with a curious smile, asked Madam Villenauve, however, she laughed very pleasantly.
"Oh, non," said she; "it does not apply, zis offair, to me. I do not need it, for Monsieur Burnit ees to marry wiz me zis Christmastam."
"I am afraid, Madam Villenauve, that we will have to quit joking about that," said Bobby coldly.
"Joking!" screamed the shrill voice of madam. "Eet ees not any joke. You can not fool wiz me, Monsieur Burnit. You mean to tell all zese people zat you are not to marry wiz me?"
"I certainly have no intention of the kind," said Bobby impatiently, "nor have I ever expressed such an intention."
"We s'all see about zat," declared the madam with righteous indignation. "We s'all see how you can amuse yourself. You refuse to keep your word zat you marry me? All right zen, you do! I bring suit to-day for brich promise, and I have here one, two, three, a dozen weetness. I make what you call subpoena on zem all. We s'all see."
"Monsieur Noire," said Bobby, more sick and sore than panic-stricken, "you will please settle matters with all these people and come to me at the hotel for whatever checks you need," and, hurt beyond measure at this one more instance that there were, really, rapacious schemers in the world, who sought loathsome advantage at the expense of decent folk, Bobby crept away, to hide himself and try to understand.
They were here for the latter half of the week, and, since business seemed to be fairly good, Bobby had decided to fill this engagement, canceling all others. In the morning it seemed that Madam Villenauve had been in earnest in her absurd intentions, for, in his room, at eleven o'clock, he was served with papers in the breach-of-promise suit of Villenauve versus Burnit, and the amount of damages claimed was the tremendous sum of one hundred and fifty thousand dollars, an amount, of course, only commensurate with Madam Villenauve's standing in the profession and her earning capacity as an artist, her pride and shattered feelings and the dashing to earth of her love's young dream being of corresponding value. Moreover, he learned that an injunction had been issued completely tying up his bank account. That was the parting blow. Settling up with the performers upon a blood-letting basis, he most ignominiously fled. Before he went away, however, Signorina Nora McGinnis Caravaggio called him to one side and confided a most delicate message to him.
"Your friend, Mr. Bates," she began with an embarrassed hesitation quite unusual in the direct Irish girl; "he's a nice boy, from the ground up, and give him an easy word from me. But, Mr. Burnit, give him a hint not to do any more traveling on my account; for I've got a husband back in New York that ain't worth the rat poison to put him out of his misery, but I'm not getting any divorces. One mistake is enough. But don't be too hard on me when you tell Biff. Honest, up to just the last, I thought he'd come only to see you; but I enjoyed his visits." And in the eyes of the Caravaggio there stood real tears.
A newsboy met Bobby on the train with the morning papers from home, and in them he read delightfully flavored and spiced accounts of the great Villenauve breach-of-promise case, embellished with many details that were entirely new to him. He had not counted on this phase of the matter, and it struck him almost as with an ague. The notoriety, the askance looks he would receive from his more conservative acquaintances, the "ragging" he would get at his clubs, all these he could stand. But Agnes! How could he ever face her? How would she receive him? From the train he took a cab directly home and buried himself there to think it all over. He spent a morning of intense dejection and an afternoon of the utmost misery. In the evening, not caring to dine in solitary gloom at home nor to appear yet among his fellows, he went out to an obscure restaurant in the neighborhood and ate his dinner, then came back again to his lonely room, seeing nothing ahead of him but an evening of melancholy alone. His butler, however, met him in the hall on his return.
"Miss Elliston called up on the 'phone while you were out, sir."
"Did you tell her I was at home?" asked Bobby with quick apprehension.
"Yes, sir; you hadn't told me not to do so, sir; and she left word that you were to come straight out to the house as soon as you came in."
"Very well," said Bobby, and went into the library.
He sat down before the telephone and rested his hand upon the receiver for perhaps as much as five long minutes of hesitation, then abruptly he turned away from that unsatisfactory means of communication and had his car ordered; then hurriedly changed to the evening clothes he had not intended to don that night.
In most uncertain anticipation, but quite sure of the most vigorous "blowing up" of his career, he whirled out to the home of the Ellistons and ascended the steps. The ring at the bell brought the ever imperturbable Wilkins, who nodded gravely upon seeing that it was Bobby and, relieving him of his coat and hat, told him:
"Right up to the Turkish room, sir."
There seemed a strange quietness about the house, and he felt more and more as if he might be approaching a sentence as he climbed the silent stairs. At the door of the Turkish room, however, Agnes met him with outstretched hands and a smile of welcome which bore traces of quite too much amusement for his entire comfort. When she had drawn him within the big alcove she laughed aloud, a light laugh in which there was no possible trace of resentment, and it lifted from his mind the load that had been oppressing it all day long.
"I'm afraid you haven't heard," he began awkwardly.
"Heard!" she repeated, and laughed again. "Why, Bobby, I read all the morning papers and all the evening papers, and I presume there will be excellent reading in every one of them for days and days to come."
"And you're not angry?" he said, astounded.
"Angry!" she laughed. "Why, you poor Bobby. I remember this Madam Villenauve perfectly, besides seeing her ten-years-ago pictures in the papers, and you don't suppose for a minute that I could be jealous of her, do you? Moreover, I can prove by Aunt Constance and Uncle Dan that I predicted just this very thing when you first insisted upon going on the road."
He looked around, dreading the keen satire of Uncle Dan and the incisive ridicule of Aunt Constance, but she relieved his mind of that fear.
"We were all invited out to dinner to-night, but I refused to go, for really I wanted to soften the blow for you. There is nobody in the house but myself and the servants. Now, do behave, Bobby! Wait a minute, sir! I've something else to crush you with. Have you seen the evening papers?"
No; the morning papers had been enough for him.
"Well, I'll tell you what they are doing. The Consolidated Illuminating and Power Company has secured an order from the city council compelling the Brightlight Electric Company to remove their poles from Market Street."
Bobby caught his breath sharply. Stone and Sharpe and Garland, the political manipulators of the city, and its owners, lock, stock and barrel were responsible for this. They had taken advantage of his absence.
"What a fool I have been," he bitterly confessed, "to have taken up with this entirely irregular and idiotic enterprise, a venture of which I knew nothing whatever, and let go the serious fight I had intended to make on Stone and his crowd."
"Never mind, Bobby," said Agnes. "I have a suspicion that you have cut a wisdom-tooth. I rather imagined that you needed this one last folly as a sort of relapse before complete convalescence, to settle you down and bring you back to me for a more serious effort. I see that the most of your money is tied up in this embarrassing suit, and when I read that you were on your way home I went to Mr. Chalmers and got him to arrange for the release of some bonds. Following the provisions of your father's will your next two hundred and fifty thousand is waiting for you. Moreover, Bobby, this time I want you to listen to your trustee. I have found a new business for you, one about which you know nothing whatever, but one that you must learn; I want to put a weapon into your hands with which to fight for everything you have lost."
He looked at her in wonder.
"I always told you I needed you," he declared. "When are you going to marry me?"
"When you have won your fight, Bobby, or when you have proved entirely hopeless," she replied with a smile in which there was a certain amount of wistfulness.
"You're a good sort, Agnes," he said a little huskily, and he pondered for some little time in awe over the existence of women like this. "I guess the governor was mighty right in making you my trustee, after all. But what is this business?"
"The Evening Bulletin is for sale, I have learned. Just now it is an independent paper, but it seems to me you could not have a better weapon, with your following, for fighting your political and business enemies."
"I'll think that over very seriously," he said with much soberness. "I have refused everybody's advice so far, and have taken only my own. I have begun to believe that I am not the wisest person in the world; also I have come to believe that there are more ways to lose money than there are to make money; also I've found out that men are not the only gold-brick salesmen. Agnes, I'm what Biff Bates calls a 'Hick'!"
"Look what your father has to say about this last escapade of yours," she said, smiling, and from her desk brought him one of the familiar gray envelopes. This was the letter:
To My Daughter Agnes, Upon Bobby's Entanglement with a Blackmailing Woman
"No man can guard against being roped in by a scheming woman the first time; but if it happens twice he deserves it, and he should be turned out to stay an idiot, for the signs are so plain. A man swindler takes a man's money and makes a fool of him; but a woman swindler takes a man's money and leaves a smirch on him. Only a man's nearest and dearest can help him live down such a smirch; so, Agnes, if my son has been this particular variety of everlasting blank fool, don't turn against him. He needs you. Moreover, you'll find him improved by it. He'll be so much more humble."
"I didn't really need that letter," Agnes shyly confessed; "but maybe it helped some."
AGNES FINDS BOBBY A SLING AND BOBBY PUTS A STONE IN IT
The wonderful change in a girl who, through her love, has become all woman, that was the marvel to Bobby; the breadth of her knowledge, the depth of her sympathy, the boundlessness of her compassionate forgiveness, her quality of motherliness; and this last was perhaps the greatest marvel of all. Yet even his marveling did not encompass all the wonder. In his last exploit, more full of folly than anything into which he had yet blundered, and the one which, of all others, might most have turned her from him, Agnes had had the harder part; to sit at home and wait, to dread she knew not what. The certainty which finally evolved had less of distress in it than not to know while day by day passed by. One thing had made it easier: never for one moment had she lost faith in Bobby, in any way. She was certain, however, that financially his trip would be a losing one, and from the time he left she kept her mind almost constantly upon the thought of his future. She had become almost desperately anxious for him to fulfill the hopes of his father, and day by day she studied the commercial field as she had never thought it possible that she could do. There was no line of industry upon which she did not ponder, and there was scarcely any morning that she did not at the breakfast table ask Dan Elliston the ins and outs of some business. If he was not able to tell her all she wanted to know, she usually commissioned him to find out. He took these requests in good part, and if she accomplished nothing else by all her inquiries she acquired such a commercial education as falls to the lot of but few home-kept young women.
One morning her uncle came down a trifle late for breakfast and was in a hurry.
"The Elliston School of Commercial Instruction will have a recess for this session," he observed as he popped into his chair. "I have an important engagement at the factory this morning and have about seven minutes for breakfast. During that seven minutes I prefer to eat rather than to talk. However, I do not object to listening. This being my last word except to request you to gather things closely about my plate, you may now start."
"Very well," said she, dimpling as she usually did at any evidence of briskness on the part of her Uncle Dan, for from long experience she knew the harmlessness of his bark. "Nick Allstyne happened to remark to me last night that the Bulletin is for sale. What do you think of the newspaper business for Bobby?"
"The time necessary to answer that question takes my orange from me," objected Uncle Dan as he hastily sipped another bite of the fruit and pushed it away. "The newspaper business for Bobby!" He drew the muffins toward him and took one upon his plate, then he stopped and pondered a moment. "Do you know," said he, "that's about the best suggestion you've made. I believe he could make a hummer out of a newspaper. I've noticed this about the boy's failures; they have all of them been due to lack of experience; none of them has been due to any absence of backbone. Nobody has ever bluffed him."
Agnes softly clapped her hands.
"Exactly!" she cried. "Well, Uncle Dan, this is the last word I'm going to say. For the balance of your seven minutes I'm going to help stuff you with enough food to keep you until luncheon time; but sometime to-day, if you find time, I want you to go over and see the proprietor of the Bulletin and find out how much he wants for his property, and investigate it as a business proposition just the same as if you were going into it yourself."
Uncle Dan, dipping voraciously into his soft boiled eggs, grinned and said: "Huh!" Then he looked at his watch. When he came home to dinner, however, he hunted up Agnes at once.
"Your Bulletin proposition looks pretty good," he told her. "I saw Greenleaf. He's a physical wreck and has been for two years. He has to get away or die. Moreover, his physical condition has reacted upon his paper. His circulation has run down, but he has a magnificent plant and a good office organization. He wants two hundred thousand dollars for his plant, good will and franchises. I'm going to investigate this a little further. Do you suppose Bobby will have two hundred thousand left when he gets through with grand opera?"
"I hope so," replied Agnes; "but if he hasn't I'll have him waste the balance of this two hundred and fifty thousand so that he can draw the next one."
Uncle Dan laughed in huge enjoyment of this solution.
"You surely were cut out for high finance," he told her.
She smiled, and was silent a while, hesitating.
"You seem to think pretty well of the business as a business proposition," she ventured anxiously, by and by; "but you haven't told me what you think of it as applicable to Bobby."
"If he'll take you in the office with him, he'll do all right," he answered her banteringly; but when he went up-stairs and found his wife he said: "Constance, if that girl don't pull Bobby Burnit through his puppyhood in good shape there is something wrong with the scheme of creation. There is something about you women of the Elliston family that every once in a while makes me pause and reverence the Almighty," whereupon Aunt Constance flushed prettily, as became her.
With the same earnestness of purpose Agnes handled the question of Bobby's breach-of-promise suit in so far as it affected his social reception. The Ellistons went to the theater and sat in a box to exhibit him on the second night after his return, and Agnes took careful count of all the people she knew who attended the theater that night. The next day she went to see all of them, among others Mrs. Horace Wickersham, whose social word was social law.
"My dear," said the redoubtable Mrs. Wickersham, "it does Bobby Burnit great credit that he did not marry the creature. Of course I shall invite him to our affair next Friday night."
After that there could be no further question of Bobby's standing, though without the firm support of Agnes he might possibly have been ostracised, for a time at least.
It was with much less certainty that she spread before Bobby the facts and figures which Uncle Dan had secured about the condition and prospects of the Bulletin. She did not urge the project upon him. Instead, though in considerable anxiety, she left the proposition open to his own judgment. He pondered the question more soberly and seriously than he had yet considered anything. There were but two chances left to redeem himself now, and he felt much like a gambler who has been reduced to his last desperate stake. He grew almost haggard over the proposition, and he spent two solid weeks in investigation. He went to Washington to see Jack Starlett, who knew three or four newspaper proprietors in Philadelphia and elsewhere. He obtained introductions to these people and consulted with them, inspected their plants and listened to all they would say; as they liked him, they said much. Ripened considerably by what he had found out he came back home and bought the Bulletin. Moreover, he had very definitely made up his mind precisely what to do with it.
On the first morning that he walked into the office of that paper as its sole owner and proprietor, he called the managing editor to him and asked:
"What, heretofore, has been the politics of this paper?"
"Pale yellow jelly," snapped Ben Jolter wrathfully.
"Supposed to be anti-Stone, hasn't it been?" Bobby smilingly inquired.
"But always perfectly ladylike in what it said about him."
"And what are the politics of the employees?"
At this Mr. Jolter snorted.
"They are good newspaper men, Mr. Burnit," he stated in quick defense; "and a good newspaper man has no politics."
Bobby eyed Mr. Jolter with contemplative favor. He was a stout, stockily-built man, with a square head and sparse gray hair that would persist in tangling and curling at the ends; and he perpetually kept his sleeves rolled up over his big arms.
"I don't know anything about this business," confessed Bobby, "but I hope to. First of all, I'd like to find out why the Bulletin has no circulation."
"The lack of a spinal column," asserted Jolter. "It has had no policy, stood pat on no proposition, and made no aggressive fight on anything."
"If I understand what you mean by the word," said Bobby slowly, "the Bulletin is going to have a policy."
It was now Mr. Jolter's turn to gaze contemplatively at Bobby.
"If you were ten years older I would feel more hopeful about it," he decided bluntly.
The young man flushed uncomfortably. He was keenly aware that he had made an ass of himself in business four successive times, and that Jolter knew it. By way of facing the music, however, he showed to his managing editor a letter, left behind with old Johnson for Bobby by the late John Burnit:
The mere fact that a man has been foolish four times is no absolute proof that he is a fool; but it's a mighty significant hint. However, Bobby, I'm still betting on you, for by this time you ought to have your fighting blood at the right temperature; and I've seen you play great polo in spite of a cracked rib.
"P. S. If any one else intimates that you are a fool, trounce him one for me."
"If there's anything in heredity you're a lucky young man," said Jolter seriously, as he handed back the letter.
"I think the governor was worried about it himself," admitted Bobby with a smile; "and if he was doubtful I can't blame you for being so. Nevertheless, Mr. Jolter, I must insist that we are going to have a policy," and he quietly outlined it.
Mr. Jolter had been so long a directing voice in the newspaper business that he could not be startled by anything short of a presidential assassination, and that at press time. Nevertheless, at Bobby's announcement he immediately sought for his pipe and was compelled to go into his own office after it. He came back lighting it and felt better.
"It's suicide!" he declared.
"Then we'll commit suicide," said Bobby pleasantly.
Mr. Jolter, after long, grinning thought, solemnly shook hands with him.
"I'm for it," said he. "Here's hoping that we survive long enough to write our own obituary!"
Mr. Jolter, to whom fighting was as the breath of new-mown hay, and who had long been curbed in that delightful occupation, went back into his own office with a more cheerful air than he had worn for many a day, and issued a few forceful orders, winding up with a direction to the press foreman to prepare for ten thousand extra copies that evening.
When the three o'clock edition of the Bulletin came on the street, the entire first page was taken up by a life-size half-tone portrait of Sam Stone, and underneath it was the simple legend:
THIS MAN MUST LEAVE TOWN
The first citizens to awake to the fact that the Bulletin was born anew were the newsboys. Those live and enterprising merchants, with a very keen judgment of comparative values, had long since ceased to call the Bulletin at all; half of them had even ceased to carry it. Within two minutes after this edition was out they were clamoring for additional copies, and for the first time in years the alley door of the Bulletin was besieged by a seething mob of ragged, diminutive, howling masculinity. Out on the street, however, they were not even now calling the name of the paper. They were holding forth that black first page and screaming just the name of Sam Stone.
Sam Stone! It was a magic name, for Stone had been the boss of the town since years without number; a man who had never held office, but who dictated the filling of all offices; a man who was not ostensibly in any business, but who swayed the fortune of every public enterprise; a self-confessed grafter whom crusade after crusade had failed to dislodge from absolute power. The crowds upon the street snapped eagerly at that huge portrait and searched as eagerly through the paper for more about the Boss. They did not find it, except upon the editorial page, where, in the space usually devoted to drivel about "How Kind We Should Be to Dumb Animals," and "Why Fathers Should Confide More in Their Sons," appeared in black type a paraphrase of the legend on the outside: "Sam Stone Must Leave Town." Beneath was the additional information: "Further issues of the Bulletin will tell why." Above and below this was nothing but startlingly white blank paper, two solid columns of it up and down the page.
Down in the deep basement of the Bulletin, the big three-deck presses, two of which had been standing idle since the last presidential election, were pounding out copies by the thousand, while grimy pressmen, blackened with ink, perspired most happily.
By five o'clock, men and even girls, pouring from their offices, and laborers coming from work, had all heard of it, and on the street the bold defiance created first a gasp and then a smile. Another attempt to dislodge Sam Stone was, in the light of previous efforts, a laughable thing to contemplate; and yet it was interesting.
In the office of the Bulletin it was a gleeful occasion. Nonchalant reporters sat down with that amazing front page spread out before them, studied the brutal face of Stone and chuckled cynically. Lean Doc Miller, "assistant city editor," or rather head copy reader, lit one cigarette from the stub of another and observed, to nobody in particular but to everybody in general:
"I can see where we all contribute for a beautiful Gates Ajar floral piece for one Robert Burnit;" whereupon fat "Bugs" Roach, "handling copy" across the table from him, inquired:
"Do you suppose the new boss really has this much nerve, or is he just a damned fool?"
"Stone won't do a thing to him!" ingratiatingly observed a "cub" reporter, laying down twelve pages of "copy" about a man who had almost been burglarized.
"Look here, you Greenleaf Whittier Squiggs," said Doc Miller most savagely, not because he had any particular grudge against the unfortunately named G. W., but because of discipline and the custom with "cubs," "the next time you're sent out on a twenty-minute assignment like this, remember the number of the Bulletin, 427 Grand Street. The telephone is Central 2051, and don't forget to report the same day. Did you get the man's name? Uh-huh. His address? Uh-huh. Well, we don't want the item."
Slow and phlegmatic Jim Brown, who had been city editor on the Bulletin almost since it was the Bulletin under half a dozen changes of ownership and nearly a score of managing editors, sauntered over into Jolter's room with a copy of the paper in his hand, and a long black stogie held by some miracle in the corner of his mouth, where it would be quite out of the road of conversation.
"Pretty good stuff," he drawled, indicating the remarkable first page.
"The greatest circus act that was ever pulled off in the newspaper business," asserted Jolter. "It will quadruple the present circulation of the Bulletin in a week."
"Make or break," assented the city editor, "with the odds in favor of the break."
A slenderly-built young man, whose red face needed a shave and whose clothes, though wrinkled and unbrushed, shrieked of quality, came stumbling up the stairs in such hot haste as was possible in his condition, and without ceremony or announcement burst into the room where Bobby Burnit, with that day's issue of the Bulletin spread out before him, was trying earnestly to get a professional idea of the proper contents of a newspaper.
"Great goods, old man!" said the stranger. "I want to congratulate you on your lovely nerve," and seizing Bobby's hand he shook it violently.
"Thanks," said Bobby, not quite sure whether to be amused or resentful. "Who are you?"
"I'm Dillingham," announced the red-faced young man with a cheerful smile.
Bobby was about to insist upon further information, when Mr. Jolter came in to introduce Brown, who had not yet met Mr. Burnit.
"Dill," drawled Brown, with a twinkle in his eye, "how much money have you?"
"Money to burn; money in every pocket," asserted Mr. Dillingham; "money to last for ever," and he jammed both hands in his trousers' pockets.
It was an astonishing surprise to Mr. Dillingham, after groping in those pockets, to find that he brought up only a dollar bill in his left hand and forty-five cents in silver in his right. He was still contemplating in awed silence this perplexing fact when Brown handed him a five-dollar bill.
"Now, you run right out and get stewed to the eyebrows again," directed Brown. "Get properly pickled and have it over with, then show up here in the morning with a headache and get to work. We want you to take charge of the Sam Stone expose, and in to-morrow's Bulletin we want the star introduction of your life."
"Do you mean to say you're going to trust the whole field conduct of this campaign to that chap?" asked Bobby, frowning, when Dillingham had gone.
"This is his third day, so Dill's safe for to-morrow morning," Brown hastened to assure him. "He'll be up here early, so penitent that he'll be incased in a blue fog—and he'll certainly deliver the goods."
Bobby sighed and gave it up. This was a new world.
Over in his dingy little office, up his dingy flight of stairs, Sam Stone sat at his bare and empty old desk, looking contemplatively out of the window, when Frank Sharpe—his luxuriant gray mustache in an extraordinary and most violent state of straggling curliness—came nervously bustling in with a copy of the Bulletin in his hand.
"Have you seen this?" he shrilled.
"Heard about it," grunted Stone.
"But what do you think of it?" demanded Sharpe indignantly, and spread the paper out on the desk before the Boss, thumping it violently with his knuckles.
Stone studied it well, without the slightest change of expression upon his heavy features.
"It's a swell likeness," he quietly conceded, by and by.
BOBBY BEGINS TO GIVE TESTIMONY THAT HE IS OLD JOHN BURNIT'S SON
Closeted with Jolter and Brown, and mapping out with them the dangerous campaign into which they had plunged, Bobby did not leave the office of the Bulletin until six o'clock. At the curb, just as he was about to step into his waiting machine, Biff Bates hailed him with vast enthusiasm.
"Go to it, Bobby!" said he. "I'm backing you across the board, win, place and show; but let me give you a hot tip right from the stables. You want to be afraid to go home in the dark, or Stone's lobbygows will lean on you with a section of plumbing."
"I've thought of that, Biff," laughed Bobby; "and I think I'll organize a band of murderers of my own."
Johnson, whom Bobby had quite forgotten in the stress of the day, joined them at this moment. Thirty years as head bookkeeper and confidential adviser in old John Burnit's merchandise establishment had not fitted lean Johnson for the less dignified and more flurried work of a newspaper office, even in the business department, and he was looking very much fagged.
"Well, Johnson, what do you think of my first issue of the Bulletin?" asked Bobby pleasantly.
Johnson looked genuinely distressed.
"To tell you the truth, Mr. Burnit," said he, "I have not seen it. I never in all my life saw a place where there were so many interruptions to work. If we could only be back in your father's store, sir."
"We'll be back there before we quit," said Bobby confidently; "or I'll be in the incurable ward."
"I hope so, sir," said Johnson dismally, and strode across the street to catch his car; but he came back hastily to add: "I meant about the store; not about the asylum."
Biff Bates laughed as he clambered into the tonneau with Bobby.
"If you'd make a billion dollars, Bobby, but didn't get back your father's business that Silas Trimmer snaked away from you, Johnson would think you'd overlooked the one best bet."
"So would I," said Bobby soberly, and he had but very little more to say until the chauffeur stopped at Bobby's own door, where puffy old Applerod, who had been next to Johnson in his usefulness to old John Burnit, stood nervously awaiting him on the steps.
"Terrible, sir! Terrible!" spluttered Applerod the moment he caught sight of Bobby. "This open defiance of Mr. Stone will put entirely out of existence what little there is left of the Brightlight Electric Company."
"Cheer up, Applerod, for death must come to us all," encouraged Bobby. "Such shreds and fragments of the Brightlight as there are left would have been wiped out anyhow; and frankly, if you must have it, I put you in there as general manager, when I shifted Johnson to the Bulletin this morning, because there was nothing to manage."
Applerod threw up his hands in dismay.
"And there will be less. Oh, Mr. Burnit, if your father were only here!"
Bobby, whose suavity Applerod had never before seen ruffled, turned upon him angrily.
"I'm tired hearing about my father, Applerod," he declared. "I revere the governor's memory too much to want to be made angry by the mention of his name. Hereafter, kindly catch the idea, if you can, that I am my own man and must work out my own salvation; and I propose to do it! Biff, you don't mind if I put off seeing you until to-morrow? I have a dinner engagement this evening and very little time to dress."
"His own man," said Applerod sorrowfully when Bobby had left them. "John Burnit would be half crazy if he could know what a botch his son is making of things. I don't see how a man could let himself be cheated four times in business."
"I can tell you," retorted Biff. "All his old man ever did for him was to stuff his pockets with kale, and let him grow up into the sort of clubs where one sport says: 'I'm going to walk down to the corner.' Says the other sport: 'I'll bet you see more red-headed girls on the way down than you do on the way back.' Says the first sport: 'You're on for a hundred.' He goes down to the corner and he comes back. 'How about the red-headed girls?' asks the second sport. 'I lose,' says the first sport; 'here's your hundred.' Now, when Bobby is left real money, he starts in to play the same open-face game, and when one of these business wolves tells him anything Bobby don't stop to figure whether the mut means what he says, or means something else that sounds like the same thing. Now, if Bobby was a simp they'd sting him in so many places that he'd be swelled all over, like an exhibition cream puff; but he ain't a simp. It took him four times to learn that he can't take a man's word in business. That's all he needed. Bobby's awake now, and more than that he's mad, and if I hear you make another crack that he ain't about all the candy I'll sick old Johnson on you," and with this dire threat Biff wheeled, leaving Mr. Applerod speechless with red-faced indignation.
It was just a quiet family dinner that Bobby attended that night at the Ellistons', with Uncle Dan and Aunt Constance Elliston at the head and foot of the table, and across from him the smiling face of Agnes. He was so good to look at that Agnes was content just to watch him, but Aunt Constance noted his abstraction and chided him upon it.
"Really, Bobby," said she, "since you have gone into business you're ruined socially."
"Frankly, I don't mind," he replied, smiling. "I'd rather be ruined socially than financially. In spite of certain disagreeable features of it, I have a feeling upon me to-night that I'm going to like the struggle."
"You're starting a stiff one now," observed Uncle Dan dryly. "Beginning an open fight against Sam Stone is a good deal like being suspended over Hades by a single hair—amidst a shower of Roman candles."
"That's putting it about right, I guess," admitted Bobby; "but I'm relying on the fact that the public at heart is decent."
"Do you remember, Bobby, what Commodore Vanderbilt said about the public?" retorted Uncle Dan. "They're decent, all right, but they won't stick together in any aggressive movement short of gunpowder. In the meantime, Stone has more entrenchments than even you can dream. For instance, I should not wonder but that within a very short time I shall be forced to try my influence with you in his behalf."
"How?" asked Bobby incredulously.
"Well, I am trying to get a spur track from the X. Y. Z. Railroad to my factory on Spindle Street. The X. Y. Z. is perfectly willing to put in the track, and I'm trying to have the city council grant us a permit. Now, who is the city council?"
"Stone," Bobby was compelled to admit.
"Of course. I have already arranged to pay quite a sum of money to the capable and honest city councilman of that ward. The capable and honest councilman will go to Stone and give up about three-fourths of what I pay him. Then Stone will pass the word out to the other councilmen that he's for Alderman Holdup's spur track permit, and I get it. Very simple arrangement, and satisfactory, but, if they do not shove that measure through at their meeting to-morrow night, before Stone finds out any possible connection between you and me, the price of it will not be money. I'll be sent to you."
"I see," said Bobby in dismay. "In other words, it will be put flatly up to me; I'll either have to quit my attacks on Stone, or be directly responsible for your losing your valuable spur track."
"Exactly," said Uncle Dan.
Bobby drew a long breath.
"I'm very much afraid, Mr. Elliston, that you will have to do without your spur."
Uncle Dan's eyes twinkled.
"I'm willing," said he. "I have a good offer to sell that branch of my plant anyhow, and I think I'll dispose of it. I have been very frank with you about this, so that you will know exactly what to expect when other people come at you. You will be beset as you never were before."
"I have been looking for an injunction, myself."
"You will have no injunction, for Stone scarcely dares go publicly into his own courts," said Uncle Dan, with a pretty thorough knowledge, gained through experience, of the methods of the "Stone gang"; "though he might even use that as a last resort. That will be after intimidation fails, for it is quite seriously probable that they will hire somebody to beat you into insensibility. If that don't teach you the proper lesson, they will probably kill you."
Agnes looked up apprehensively, but catching Bobby's smile took this latter phase of the matter as a joke. Bobby himself was not deeply impressed with it, but before he went away that night Uncle Dan took him aside and urged upon him the seriousness of the matter.
"I'll fight them with their own weapons, then," declared Bobby. "I'll organize a counter band of thugs, and I'll block every move they make with one of the same sort. Somehow or other I think I am going to win."
"Of course you will win," said Agnes confidently, overhearing this last phrase; and with that most prized of all encouragement, the faith in his prowess of the one woman, Bobby, for that night at least, felt quite contemptuous of the grilling fight to come.
His second issue of the Bulletin contained on the front page a three-column picture of Sam Stone, with the same caption, together with a full-page article, written by Dillingham from data secured by himself and the others who were put upon the "story." This set forth the main iniquities of Sam Stone and his crew of municipal grafters. In the third day's issue the picture was reduced to two columns, occupying the left-hand upper corner of the front page, where Bobby ordered it to remain permanently as the slogan of the Bulletin; and now Dillingham began his long series of articles, taking up point by point the ramifications of Stone's machine, and coming closer and closer daily to people who would much rather have been left entirely out of the picture.
It was upon this third day that Bobby, becoming apprehensive merely because nothing had happened, received a visit from Frank Sharpe. Mr. Sharpe was as nattily dressed as ever, and presented himself as pleasantly as a summer breeze across fields of clover.
"I came in to see you about merging the Brightlight Electric Company with the Consolidated, Mr. Burnit," said Mr. Sharpe in a chatty tone, laying his hat, cane and gloves upon Bobby's desk and seating himself comfortably.
From his face there was no doubt in Mr. Sharpe's mind that this was a mere matter of an interview with a satisfactory termination, for Mr. Sharpe had done business with Bobby before; but something had happened to Bobby in the meantime.
"When I get ready for a merger of the Brightlight with the Consolidated I'll tell you about it; and also I'll tell you the terms," Bobby advised him with a snap, and for the first time Mr. Sharpe noted what a good jaw Bobby had.
"I should think," hesitated Sharpe, "that in the present condition of the Brightlight almost any terms would be attractive to you. You have no private consumers now, and your contract for city lighting, which you can not evade except by bankruptcy, is losing you money."
"If that were news to me it would be quite startling," responded Bobby, "but you see, Mr. Sharpe, I am quite well acquainted with the facts myself. Also, I have a strong suspicion that you tampered with my plant; that your hired agents cut my wires, ruined my dynamos and destroyed the efficiency of my service generally."
"You will find it very difficult to prove that, Mr. Burnit," said Sharpe, with a sternness which could not quite conceal a lurking smile.
"I'm beginning to like difficulty," retorted Bobby. "I do not mind telling you that I was never angry before in my life, and I'm surprised to find myself enjoying the sensation."
Bobby was still more astonished to find himself laying his fist tensely upon his desk. The lurking smile was now gone entirely from Mr. Sharpe's face.
"I must admit, Mr. Burnit, that your affairs have turned out rather unfortunately," he said, "but I think that they might be remedied for you a bit, perhaps. Suppose you go and see Stone."
"I do not care to see Mr. Stone," said Bobby.
"But he wants to see you," persisted Sharpe. "In fact, he told me so this morning. I'm quite sure you would find it to your advantage to drop over there."
"I shall never enter Mr. Stone's office until he has vacated it for good," said Bobby; "then I might be induced to come over and break up the furniture. If Stone wants to see me I'm keeping fairly regular office hours here."
"It is not Mr. Stone's habit to go to other people," bluffed Sharpe, growing somewhat nervous; for it was one of Stone's traits not to forgive the failure of a mission. He had no use for extenuating circumstances, He never looked at anything in this world but results.
Bobby took down the receiver of his house telephone.
"I'd like to speak to Mr. Jolter, please," said he.
Sharpe rose to go.
"Just wait a moment, Mr. Sharpe," said Bobby peremptorily, and Sharpe stopped. "Jolter," he directed crisply, turning again to the 'phone, "kindly step into my office, will you?"
A moment later, while Sharpe stood wondering, Jolter came in, and grinned as he noted Bobby's visitor.
"Mr. Jolter," asked Bobby, "have we a good portrait of Mr. Sharpe?"
Jolter, still grinning, stated that they had.
"Have a three-column half-tone made of it for this evening's Bulletin."
Sharpe fairly spluttered.
"Mr. Burnit, if you print my picture in the Bulletin connected with anything derogatory, I'll—I'll—"
Bobby waited politely for a moment.
"Go ahead, Mr. Sharpe," said he. "I'm interested to know just what you will do, because we're going to print the picture, connected with something quite derogatory. Now finish your threat."
Sharpe gazed at him a moment, speechless with rage, and then stamped from the office.
Jolter, quietly chuckling, turned to Bobby.
"I guess you'll do," he commented. "If you last long enough you'll win."
"Thanks," said Bobby dryly, and then he smiled. "Say, Jolter," he added, "it's bully fun being angry. I'm just beginning to realize what I have been missing all these years. Go ahead with Sharpe's picture and print anything you please about him. I guess you can secure enough material without going out of the office, and if you can't I'll supply you with some."
Jolter looked at his watch and hurried for the door. Minutes were precious if he wanted to get that Sharpe cut made in time for the afternoon edition. At the door, however, he turned a bit anxiously.
"I suppose you carry a gun, don't you?"
"By no means," said Bobby. "Never owned one."
"I'd advise you to get a good one at once," and Jolter hurried away.
That evening's edition of the Bulletin contained a beautiful half-tone of Mr. Sharpe. Above it was printed: "The Bulletin's Rogues' Gallery," and beneath was the caption: "Hadn't this man better go, too?"
EDITOR BURNIT DISCOVERS THAT HE IS FIGHTING AN ENTIRE CITY INSTEAD OF ONE MAN
At four o'clock of that same day Mr. Brown came in, and Mr. Brown was grinning. In the last three days a grin had become the trade-mark of the office, for the staff of the Bulletin was enjoying itself as never before in all its history.
"Stone's in my office," said Brown. "Wants to see you."
Bobby was interestedly leafing over the pages of the Bulletin. He looked leisurely at his watch and yawned.
"Tell Mr. Stone that I am busy, but that I will receive him in fifteen minutes," he directed, whereupon Mr. Brown, appreciating the joke, grinned still more expansively and withdrew.
Bobby, as calmly as he could, went on with his perusal of the Bulletin. To deny that he was somewhat tense over the coming interview would be foolish. Never had a quarter of an hour dragged so slowly, but he waited it out, with five minutes more on top of it, and then he telephoned to Brown to know if Stone was still there. He was relieved to find that he was.
"Tell him to come in," he ordered.
If Stone was inwardly fuming when he entered the room he gave no indication of it. His heavy face bore only his habitually sullen expression, his heavy-lidded eyes bore only their usual somberness, his heavy brow had in it no crease other than those that time had graven there. With the deliberateness peculiar to him he planted his heavy body in a big arm-chair opposite to Bobby, without removing his hat.
"I don't believe in beating around the bush, Mr. Burnit," said he, with a glance over his shoulder to make sure that the door was closed. "Of course you're after something. What do you want?"
Bobby looked at him in wonder. He had heard much of Stone's bluntness, and now he was fascinated by it. Nevertheless, he did not forget his own viewpoint.
"Oh, I don't want much," he observed pleasantly, "only just your scalp; yours and the scalps of a few others who gave me my education, from Silas Trimmer up and down. I think one of the things that aggravated me most was the recent elevation of Trimmer to the chairmanship of your waterworks commission. Trivial as it was, this probably had as much to do with my sudden determination to wipe you out, as your having the Brightlight's poles removed from Market Street."
Stone laid a heavy hand easily upon Bobby's desk. It was a strong hand, a big hand, brown and hairy, and from the third pudgy finger glowed a huge diamond.
"As far as Trimmer is concerned," said he, quite undisturbed, "you can have his head any minute. He's a mutt."
"You don't need to give me Mr. Trimmer's head," replied Bobby, quite as calmly. "I intend to get that myself."
"And as for the Brightlight," continued Stone as if he had not been interrupted, "I sent Sharpe over to see you about that this morning. I think we can fix it so that you can get back your two hundred and fifty thousand. The deal's been worth a lot more than that to the Consolidated."
"No doubt," agreed Bobby. "However, I'm not looking, at the present moment, for a sop to the Brightlight Company. It will be time enough for that when I have forced the Consolidated into the hands of a receiver."
Stone looked at Bobby thoughtfully between narrowed eyelids.
"Look here, young fellow," said he presently. "Now, you take it from me, and I have been through the mill, that there ain't any use holding a grouch. The mere doing damage don't get you anything unless it's to whip somebody else into line with a warning. I take it that this ain't what you're trying to do. You think you're simply playing a grouch game, table stakes; but if you'll simmer down you'll find you've got a price. Now, I'd rather have you with me than against me. If you'll just say what you want I'll get it for you if it's in reach. But don't froth. I've cleaned up as much money as your daddy did, just by keeping my temper."