"God forgive you, Tom Braddock," she cried, abject horror in her eyes.
"Say, I've got to have an understanding with you," he went on ruthlessly. "I'm going to find out just how I stand in this here arrangement. Grand's taken charge of the money box. He says it's you and him against me. He's going to—"
"He lies! He lies!"
"Oh, let up—let up! I'm no fool."
"Tom Braddock, are you—are you accusing me?" she cried, all a- tremble.
He opened his lips to utter the words which would have ended everything between them. His eyes met hers and the words slipped back into his throat. The spark of manhood that was left in him revolted against this wanton assault upon the pure soul that looked out upon him.
His gaze was lowered. He began fumbling in his pocket for a cigar.
"Course not," he said reluctantly. He peered hard at the opaque sidewall uncomfortably conscious of the scornful look she bent upon him. Neither spoke for a long time.
"How much lower can you sink?" she asked in low tones.
"Don't you turn against me like this," he returned sullenly.
"I have endured too long—too long," she said lifelessly.
"Now, shut up, Mary. Shut up your trap. I'm sick of having you whining all the time—"
"Whining!" she cried. "God in heaven!"
"Well, belly-achin', then." Her bitter laugh irritated him. "Say, I got to talk this business over with you. We've got to understand each other."
"We do understand each other," she said, a note of decision in her voice. "You are ready to prostitute me for the sake of worming money out of that horrid beast. I loathe him. You know it, and yet you force me to meet him. I am going to end it all. Either he leaves this show, or I do. I will not endure this unspoken but manifest insult a day longer. Do you understand me?"
"I'd like to know how you're going to help it," he said, glaring at her with half-restored belligerence. "You can't get out without losin' what you've got in the business, and he won't get out."
"Are you going to permit him to continue paying his odious attentions to me—to your wife?" she cried.
"I don't care what he does," roared Braddock. "That's his business. You don't have to give in to him, do you? If he thinks you've got a price, that's his lookout, not mine."
"Not yours?" she gasped. "Oh, Tom! Tom! What manner of man have you come to be?"
"Well, I'm just tellin' you, that's all."
"You—you surely are not in your right mind."
"You bet I am! Now, you listen to me. You are going to stick right with this show—you and Christine. And you're going to do what I tell you to do. You got to treat Bob Grand half-way decent. He's liable to leave us in the lurch any time. How'd you suppose we'd get on without his help right now? Just as soon as we get on our feet I'll put an end to his funny business. I'll show him what's what. He'll get out of the show business a heap sight wiser man than he is now. But we need him now. We got to stand together, you and me. No flunking, see. We—"
"Stop!" She stood before him like an outraged priestess. This time he did not shrink, but glared back at her balefully. "This is the end! We have come to the parting of the ways. I will never call you husband again. If you even speak to me, Thomas Braddock, I shall ask any one of a dozen men here to beat you as you deserve. Oh, they will be only too happy to do it! Now, hear me: I am going to take Christine away from you—forever. Don't curse me yet! Wait! I am not through. This very night I shall offer my share in this show to Colonel Grand. He may have it at his own price. If he will not buy, then I shall go forth and look for another purchaser. I—"
"You're my wife. You can't sell without my consent," he exclaimed.
"Then I will ask the court to give me the right. Now, go! I—"
"You can't take Christine. She's as much mine as she is—"
"I will hear no more. I have given you the last chance to be a man. This ends it!"
She turned and walked away from him. He knew that it was all over between them.
Considerably shaken, he went over and sat down on a trunk near the wall. Suddenly he sprang to his feet with a curious half-laugh, half- sob. He glared at the flap through which she had disappeared. A cunning, malevolent expression came into his pop-eyes.
"Sell out, will you?" he muttered. "I'll block that game. I'll sell out to him myself. That's what he wants."
He lifted the sidewall and passed out into the open air, directing his footsteps toward the ticket-wagon. Colonel Grand was leaving it as he came up.
"Hello, Brad," he said quite genially. "If I was a bit rough awhile ago, I apolo—"
"Say, I want to talk privately with you, right away. I've got a proposition to make. It's final, too,—and it's friendly, so don't look as if you're going to pull a gun on me. Come on to the hotel. Oh, I'm not as drunk as you think!"
"Mrs. Braddock expects me to escort her to the hotel—"
"No, she don't," rasped the other. "She's all right. Leave her alone. Are you coming?"
Colonel Grand was struck by the man's behavior. He shrewdly saw that something vital was in the air.
"All right," he said. "I'll go with you."
They were soon closeted in the room back of the hotel bar, a bottle between them on the table. The door was locked. Their conversation lasted an hour. When Colonel Grand arose to depart he stood a little behind and to the left of Braddock's chair, a soft, sardonic smile on his lips. He held a sheet of paper in his hand. Pen and ink on the table, alongside the more sinister bottle, told of an act of penmanship.
"We'll have the night clerk and some one else witness the signatures," he said quietly.
"All right," said Braddock hoarsely. He was staring at his fingers, which he twiddled in a nerveless, irresolute manner.
"The inside conditions are between you and me personally. You'll have to live up to them, Braddock."
"Oh, I'm a man of my word, don't fret."
"You are to get out at the end of the week. That's plain, is it?"
"If the cash is passed over. Don't forget that. Say, Bob, I swear, you're treating me dirt mean. I ought to have five times more than you are payin' me, and you know it. Five thousand dollars! Why, it's givin' the show away, that's what it is. I've built up this here show—"
"It is your own proposition. I didn't suggest buying you out. You came to me to sell. If you don't want to let it go at the price we've agreed on I'll tear up this bill of sale."
"I've got to take it, so what's the use kicking? I'm going to get out of the business. My wife's against me. Everybody is. Damn them all!"
Colonel Grand knew quite well that Mrs. Braddock, as the man's wife, could interpose legal objections to the transfer, but he was not really buying Tom's interest in the show; he was deliberately paying him to desert his wife and child. That was the sum and substance of it. Braddock was not so drugged with liquor that he could not appreciate that side of the transaction quite as fully as the other.
Down in his besotted soul there lurked the hope that some day, in the long run, through the wife whom he was selling so basely, he might succeed in obtaining the upper hand of Bob Grand, and crush him as he was being crushed!
"It will be a week before the currency can get here from Baltimore. I refuse to draw on my banker in the regular way. This money, being evil, must come from an evil source. My dealers will send it from the 'place.' Now, again, you understand that I can put you in the penitentiary if you go back on your word. You did take the boy's money out of the dressing-tent. My man saw you."
"I don't see why you hired a canvasman to watch me," growled the other, pouring another drink. "Mighty cheap work, Bob Grand."
"I always go on the principle that it isn't safe to have business dealings with a man until you know all that is to be found out about him. In your case I had to choose my own way of finding out."
"I'll knock off a couple of hundred if you'll tell me the name of that sneaking—"
"You need the two hundred more than I do, Brad," said Grand with infinite sarcasm—and finality.
"Well, I'm a Jonah in the show business. I guess it's the best thing I can do to get out of it. You'll do the right thing by Mary and—and—" he swallowed hard, casting a half glance at the other out of his bleary eyes—"and the young 'un. They'll get what's coming to them, Bob?"
"I wouldn't sell out like this if—if Mary had acted decent by me," he said, trying to justify his action. He was congratulating himself that he had sold her out before she had the chance to sell him out. He closed his eyes to the real transaction involved in the deal. It gave him some secret satisfaction, however, to contemplate the futility of Colonel Grand's designs upon Mary Braddock.
"Of course," said Bob Grand.
"I am going to California," said Tom Braddock, for the third time during the interview.
"I've asked you not to mention that fact to me, Braddock. You are supposed to stay with the show as manager and overseer."
"Humph!" grunted the other. "You want to be as much shocked as the rest of 'em when I skip by the light of the moon, eh?"
"We'll sign the paper," was the only response of the purchaser.
Ten minutes later, after two men had witnessed their signatures, the document reposed in Bob Grand's pocketbook.
The next morning Mary Braddock appeared before the master of Van Slye's Circus and offered her interest for sale. He calmly announced that he could not afford to put any more money into the concern.
"I must sell out," she said. "All the money I have in the world is in this show."
"It could not be better invested," he said. She shrank from the look in his eyes.
"But I need it for Christine's education," she began.
"I will see to it that Christine is given the best of everything, Mary. Leave it to me. She shall be sent abroad next year, if you think best."
"I am asking no favors of you, Colonel Grand."
"It may interest you to know that I have purchased your husband's entire interest in this show," he said softly.
She stared, spellbound.
"He—he has sold out to you?" she murmured, going white to the lips.
"You seem surprised."
"He could not do it! It is necessary to have my consent. I—I—" Her brain was whirling.
"I understood that he was a perfectly free agent. I can send him to the penitentiary if he has swindled me. If you and Christine care to take that sort of stand against him, I'll have to do it. I should be terribly sorry on the girl's account, but—Oh, well, I'm sure it won't come to that."
"He—he has sold me out?" she cried weakly.
"Oh, hardly that!"
Unable to speak another word to him, she turned and blindly made her way to the women's dressing-room. The Colonel smiled comfortably as he lifted his hat to her retreating back.
Late that night four or five persons slipped out of the hotel by the rear doors. At the mouth of the dark alley a hack was waiting. With the utmost caution this small, closely huddled group approached the rickety vehicle. Three women climbed in, followed by numerous valises and small bags; their two male companions mounted the seat with the driver. Off through the still night rattled the mysterious cab, clattering across the cobbled streets for many minutes until at last it drew up at the darkest end of the railway station platform. Three trunks stood against the wall of the station building. One of the men attended to the checking of these heavy pieces, presenting two railway tickets for the guidance of the sleepy agent. The other stood guard over the cab and its occupants.
A train thundered in. The station platform was quite deserted except for the few belated revelers who had remained in town for the night performance of Van Slye's circus. When the train pulled out, a woman and two men stood beside the hack, where tearful farewells had been uttered and Godspeed spoken. Toward the east sped a tall woman and a slim, beautiful girl. In the outskirts of the town the train swept past a string of huge, cumbersome, ghostly wagons, all of them slinking away into the night-ridden pike that led to another city where the young and curious were already dreaming of the morning hours that were to bring the "circus to town."
"Good-by—good-by!" sobbed the girl, who had been peering intently through the window of the car. The tall woman did not look forth, but sat with her eyes riveted on the seat ahead.
"Yes, it is good-by, my darling," she said in very low tones.
Back at the railway station, after the rear lights of the train had disappeared, the lone woman turned her tear-stained face to the man whose arm was about her shoulder.
"Do you think we'll ever see them again, daddy?" she moaned.
"Yes," said the man huskily. "She said she'd let me know, one way or another, when it is safe to do so. Don't cry, Ruby. They're better off. They couldn't 'ave stayed on, God knows. And God will take care of 'em."
"I wish she'd said just where she's really bound for," muttered the other man, a tall ungainly fellow. "She's mighty near dead-broke, and I'm—I'm uneasy, Joey."
"She'll get on, Casey, confound you!"
"If she'd only make up her mind to go back to her father," said the girl.
"That's just it. If she's going back to 'im, it's best nobody knows yet—not even us. I've got their two letters for David, if he ever comes looking them up, as he said he would. Well, God bless 'em. I—I 'ates to think wot the show will be without 'em. Come on; let's get back to bed."
And so it was, many days afterward, that David Jenison came "looking them up," only to find that they were gone and that no one could tell him whither they had fled. It was significant that Colonel Bob Grand was not with the show; he had gone away in a great rage when the discovery of the flight became known to him. Tom Braddock, strangely sobered and bleached out by a tardy remorse, went about mechanically in the management of the show which he no longer owned.
Joey Grinaldi delivered two precious, carefully preserved missives into the hands of the distracted Virginian.
One of these letters said that the writer would wait for him to the end of time, loving him always with all her heart. The other, much longer, came to its conclusion with these words, written by a wise, far-seeing woman whose heart was breaking:
"... And now, David, good-by. We love you. Be content to let us go temporarily out of your life, if not from your thoughts or your heart. Always think of us with love and tenderness, my dear boy, as we shall never cease to think of you. You are young. Christine is young. You are not so wise now as you will be five years hence. I shall try to mold Christine into the kind of woman you could take as a wife to Jenison Hall. In five years, God willing, the circus ring and its spangles will be so remotely removed from her that no one can find the trace of them. In five years, David. That may seem ages to you and to her, who have youth and all of life ahead of you. When five years have gone by, David, I shall let you know where we are to be found. If you still care for her then, and she for you, no matter what the circumstances of either may be, no human power can keep you apart. You will come to her and say it all over again, and you will be happier because of this brief probation. If you should find, through the mature workings of a man's heart, that you have grown to love another, then you will both see for yourselves that my present course is right, and that your ways must continue, as now, along absolutely separate paths. Do not attempt to find us. Your own futile efforts, dear David, in that direction might be the means of bringing other and unkind searchers to our place of refuge. I know you would not bring greater trial and tribulation to us, who love you, than you have seen us suffer in the past."
THE DAUGHTER OF COLONEL GRAND
Snuggling down in a nest built of certain westward hills in fair Virginia, near the head of a valley long noted for healing waters that spring, warm and cold, from subterranean alchemies into picturesque pools and steaming rivulets, lies the ancient village of Hollandville, with its quaint, galleried facades; its flower gardens and its mill- race; its ambient clouds and drowsy sunshine, and the ever-delicious somnolence that overcomes the most potent vigor with an ease that mystifies. Beyond Hollandville, less than half a league distant, against the mountainside, facing the great ridge opposite, stands a time-honored, time-perfected hostelry inside whose walls and upon whose galleries the flower and chivalry of Virginia have clustered for generations. Names historic are to be found on the yellow pages of venerable and venerated ledgers and day-books, names of men and women known and cherished before the dauntless settler had turned his footsteps toward the territories of the Middle West. Here had come the famed Virginia and Maryland beauties of an ancient day, and here still came their great-great-granddaughters to create envy among the flowers that steal from the earth to bloom in this valley of delight. Here came Washington and Jefferson and others whose names will never die so long as there is an American heart-beat among us; came with their coaches, their servants, their horses and—their livers: for they had livers even in those good old days. If one were to call upon the sweet night air, and spirits were allowed to respond, the fair face of Dolly Madison would emerge from the shadows, attended by all the wits and beauties of her luxurious day. Betty Junol, too, held court in this primitive Spa. Here duels were fought for ladies fair, and here the hearts of the noblest women of our land were won by gallants who will live forever.
Beaten roads that stretch off down the valley and wind through the hills could tell countless tales of those who, in one glorious century, rode hand-in-hand and unarmored to the lists of love and fell together in the joyous combat. To this very day the lists are open and the contenders as resolute, as gentle and as brave as in the ages when Washington was a boy and men wooed with a sword at their hip.
Still stand the narrow, thatched cottages, immersed in honeysuckle and ivy, that sheltered the fathers of the Constitution; still wind the beaten roads over which rolled their coaches in days before the American historical novel was more than a remote probability. Heroes of a later war than that which gave us our freedom come now to this sequestered spot, men whose grandfathers fought with our George against the George of England. But, as their forefathers came, still come they, and will come for generations, for this is the ancient Mecca of Virginia gentlefolk to whom tradition is treasure and companionship wine.
Late in the spring of 1880, when the dogwood was repainting the hillsides and wild-flowers were weaving a new carpet of many hues for the feet of wandering lovers, the company of guests assembled at the Springs—as yet numerically small—included no fewer than a dozen girls whose beauty was famed from one side of the Southland to the other. Attendant upon these dainty American princesses, there were again as many young men, rivals all for favors small.
A chill, moist wind of a certain evening blew down from the mist- shrouded ridge, driving all guests to the glow of the fireplaces or to the seclusion of coveted nooks in shadowy halls, where staircases held secrets as tenderly inviolate now as on the nights of a dim, forgotten past. About the great fireplace in the general lounging-room a merry crowd of young people were gathered, discussing the plans for a projected trip to the Natural Bridge, quite a two days' journey by coach.
A tall, lean-faced young man of twenty-three or four stood beside the fireplace, his elbow on the ancient mantel, his shapely legs crossed. There was a moody expression in his handsome face, albeit he smiled in quiet enjoyment of the vivacious conversation that went on around him. Half a dozen girls chatted eagerly, excitedly, in response to certain arguments advanced by young men who had the expedition in hand. Arrangements were being discussed, approved or set aside with an arbitrariness that left no choice to the proposers. From time to time disputed questions were referred to the tall young man at the mantelpiece. He appeared to be a person of consequence in the eyes of all; his decision was accepted, even by the most arrogant of rebels. Not one of these fair girls looked into his dark, steady eyes without hope that the thought which lay deep in them was of her and of no other, and yet each was painfully certain that he thought of some one else, whether present or absent they could not conceive.
He gravely twisted the point of a small, dark mustache, then in vogue among the fashionables, and proffered his suggestions with the quiet assurance that comes from a thorough appreciation of the deference due the man who is "real quality" in the Southland, and yet without the faintest suggestion of superciliousness or conceit in his manner.
This man was born to it; it had come to him through the blood of unnumbered ancestors. He was an aristocrat among aristocrats, as fair Virginia produced them. Notwithstanding he had arrived at the Springs no earlier than the forenoon of the day at hand, without knowledge of previous plans regarding the expedition, he was nevertheless established by common though unspoken consent as the arbiter of all its features. He had come among friends who knew him of old—last year, the year before, and the years before that.
For this tall young man who leaned so gracefully against the mantelpiece was the master of Jenison Hall—the last of the Jenisons. And that was saying all that could be said, so far as a Virginian was concerned.
Their council was disturbed by the arrival of the belated night coach that came over the mountains from the nearest railway station. The shouts of the driver and the darky hostlers, the pounding of horses' feet in the bouldered yard below, the rush of footsteps across the broad veranda, and the sudden opening of the door by an ebony porter, —all went to divert the attention of those who waited eagerly by the fireplace to catch a glimpse of new arrivals.
Preceded by bags and satchels and rugs, there came two women out of the drenched night into the glow of the firelit room. Two of the girls in the circle stared for a moment, and then, with sharp cries of surprise, rushed over to the desk where the newcomers stood, having been conducted by the porters: two pretty girls from Baltimore. The group looked on with interest while greetings were exchanged.
The arrivals were persons of consequence. Two French maids followed them into the room and stood at the foot of the staircase, respectful but with the composure which denotes tolerance. In those days few people in the South presented an opulence extending to French maids. The younger of the two women at the desk was tall, slender and strikingly attractive: of the dashing, brilliant type. She was not more than twenty, but there was an easy assurance in her manner that bespoke ages of conquest and not an instant of defeat. The elder was an aristocratic woman past middle age, the possessor of cold, aquiline features and smileless eyes. Her hair was almost snow white, but her figure was straight and youthful.
Presently they were conducted to their rooms by an obsequious porter, and the young girls returned to the group at the fireside. There was a common, ridiculously casual movement among the older people in the room; the newcomers were barely out of sight in the upper hall before the first of the curious ones was looking over the register. Inside of three minutes a score of persons had glanced at the freshly written names and passed on to the water cooler, thence back to their seats, a fresh topic for conversation well in mind.
"Who is she?" demanded an eager young man from Richmond.
The Baltimore girls were visibly excited.
"I didn't know they had returned to this country, did you, Nell? They've been living abroad for several years. Goodness, how that girl has blossomed out. I'd never have known her if she hadn't been with her mother."
"Do you think she's so very pretty?" enquired the other, quite naturally.
"She's a dream!" cried the Richmond young man, before the other could give her opinion. "But who is she?"
"Roberta Grand. She's a Baltimore girl and—"
"What name did you say?" asked the tall young man beside the fireplace, suddenly interested.
The name was repeated. He listened to a long discourse on certain school day friendships, succeeded by a period of separation in which the subject of all this interest had traveled abroad with her mother, completing an education that, if one were to judge from the descriptions volunteered by her former classmates, gave small promise in the beginning of attaining much beyond the commonplace.
"She was a dreadfully stupid girl at Miss Ralston's," proclaimed Miss Baltimore. "Wasn't she, Nell?"
"Indeed she was. She—"
The master of Jenison Hall was staring across the room in the direction of the register. He interrupted again.
"Grand? Are there many Grands in Baltimore?" he asked.
"Why are you so interested, Dave?" demanded one of the men.
"I once knew a man from Baltimore whose name was Grand, that's all. I'm wondering if she can be—"
"Her father is Colonel Robert Grand. He's the great racehorse man. Every one knows him," said one of the Baltimore girls.
"Colonel Bob Grand?"
"Yes. Of course he and Mrs. Grand don't live together any longer. They were divorced about five years ago. Didn't you see the account of it in the Richmond papers? It seems that he ran off with an actress—to London, they say. Oh, I don't remember all the details. Mother wouldn't let us read the stuff in the papers. But I do remember that he bought a house in London for the woman and he never even fought the divorce. He treated Mrs. Grand shamefully, I know that much. Father says he is a terrible man."
David Jenison was very pale and very still. He did not take his eyes from the face of the speaker.
"Who was this actress?" asked some one. He went very cold. He tried to close his ears against a name he dreaded to hear on the lips of the fair gossip.
"I don't know. Some one you never heard of. Just a common, ordinary actress, as I remember."
Jenison abruptly left the group and strode out upon the porch, leaving the others to puzzle themselves over his unexpected defection.
In the five years that had passed since his brief but ever green experience with the circus he had not come upon a single trace of Mary Braddock and Christine. With all the impulsiveness of boyhood he had at first made feverish efforts to find them. Detectives in his employ followed the circus for several weeks, keenly alert to discover anything that might put them on the track. Others shadowed the disgruntled Colonel; while Blake, his old pursuer, went to New York and, reinforced by agency men of Gotham, watched the home of Albert T. Portman. But they had disappeared so completely that every effort to unearth them proved futile. David was in college the following winter when he heard, through Dick Cronk, that Colonel Grand had sold out the circus to P. T. Barnum, with whose vast enterprises it was speedily amalgamated. As the concern was sold at private sale, by actual premeditation, Mary Braddock's interests were undefended. There was talk among the circus people, however, to the effect that Grand, after certain judgments had been satisfied, advertised throughout the country for Mrs. Braddock, conveying to her notice by this means the fact that he held in his possession many thousand dollars belonging to her. Whether this tempting bait found her in such dire distress that she could not remain in hiding while it was being offered, no one seemed to know. If she had come forth to claim her portion of the proceeds, the fact remained unknown to the old friends.
Tom Braddock, so David learned, forsook the show soon after his wife's disappearance, and went to the Middle West. From time to time news of him reached David in roundabout ways. He had developed quite naturally into a common street loafer in Chicago, preying on the generosity of his old acquaintance and living the besotted life of a degenerate. Of certain cheerful wights who made up David's secret circle of intimates we may expect to hear more as we go along. Suffice it to say, he kept in close touch with them during his years at the University and subsequently as the recognized "lord of the manor," excepting a rather lengthy period devoted to travel abroad. On more than one occasion he responded generously to diffident appeals for help, coming from one or the other of his old friends. He never failed to contribute from his store of wealth, for young Jenison was the richest as well as the kindliest planter in all Virginia.
Jenison farm lands stretched far and wide; Jenison town property was to be found in no less than five cities of importance; Jenison securities, as sound as Gibraltar, were piled up in New York vaults, and the Jenison collection included more than a score of the rarest paintings ever developed under the magic of Rembrandt, Franz Hals, Turner, Gainsborough, Velasquez, Stewart and others.
He was more than a person of landed importance, however. His story was so well known that wherever he fared he was hailed as a hero. In his own sunny land he was a hero-prince with as many retainers and loyal subjects as ever bent knee to an Eastern medieval potentate. Rich in fair looks as well as in worldly possessions, the owner of a distinctive charm of manner, combined with the poise of good breeding, a certain interesting reticence and a wonderfully impelling smile, he was more than a hero to the young, and little short of an idol to the old.
Countless assaults had been made against his heart. Every wile known to beauty had been employed in a hundred sieges. But the Jack Snipe of eighteen was still the lonely Jack Snipe at twenty-three: his heart was sheathed in a love that harked back to a rough, picturesque development and was strong by virtue of its memories.
At no time in all these spreading years had Christine Braddock's flower-face and girlish figure faded from his vision. On this misty night in early June, while others were thinking of him, he was thinking of her and the promise made five years before. In five years, they both had said. The term of probation was drawing to an end. He was waiting now for the redemption of that promise.
Once, and once only, had he heard from them, and then in the most mysterious way. Soon after his return to the University an envelope containing four hundred dollars in crisp new bills was delivered to him by Jeff, his body-servant, who came all the way up from the plantation to say that it had been left at the Hall by a man who offered no explanation except that his master would understand.
No day passed that he did not look for some sign from Mary Braddock. She had promised, and he knew that she would not fail him. His mind was charged with the wildest speculations. What would be the nature of the resurrection? What word would come from the present to greet the past? From what mysterious hiding-place would come the call? Even now, at this very instant, from some far-away spot in the great wide world a voice might be winging its way to him. What tidings were in the air?
What word of the girl he loved?
And now, like an icy blast, came the appalling possibility that the world knew more of Mrs. Braddock's whereabouts and actions than he, who was so vitally interested. The word "actress" as supplied by the contemptuous Baltimore girl conveyed to his soul a sharp, sickening dread. Was Mary Braddock the one? Had she given way under the strain? Had circumstance cowed her into submission? Was she the one who occupied the little house in London-town?
If so, what of Christine?
He smoked as he paced the long veranda. In a dark corner at the lower end, sheltered from the mist by trailing arbutus, a group of three persons from the inexperienced, uncouth North, were drinking juleps served by an impassive but secretly disdainful servant bent with age and, you might say, habitual respect. Jenison did not notice them in his abstraction, but his ears would have burned if he could have heard the things the two women were saying about him to their male companion.
As he passed the broad office door in one of his rounds it was opened and in the full glow of light from within appeared the tall, graceful figure of Roberta Grand. She remained there for a moment, looking out into the sombre night. Their eyes met as he passed. She was exceedingly fair to look upon, golden-haired and spirituelle, but he could see only the repulsive, hated features of Colonel Bob Grand, destroyer.
When he returned to the group at the fireplace, half an hour later, she was sitting with the others, her back toward him as he approached. He was at once presented by the girl from Baltimore.
Miss Grand looked up into his face with cool, indifferent eyes.
"I have heard so much of you, Mr. Jenison," she said. Her voice was soft and pleasant.
"We live in a very small world, Miss Grand," he said. "One's reputation reaches farther than he thinks."
"It depends on the method by which it is carried," she responded enigmatically. He started.
"I trust mine has been delivered by kindly messengers."
"Both kindly and gentle," she said.
"Some girl, I'll bet," remarked one of the young men.
"Not so singular as that, Mr. Priest. The plural is 'girls,'" said Miss Grand.
"I am relieved," said David. "It's much easier to understand the plural of girl. Girl in the first person singular is incomprehensible."
"Do you really think so?" asked Miss Grand calmly. He bowed very low and said no more. It occurred to him in a flash that this fair girl knew more of him, in a way, than any one present.
Later on, at the foot of the stairs, she came up with him. Without the slightest trace of embarrassment she remarked:
"I think you knew my father, Mr. Jenison."
He flushed in some confusion. "Your father is Colonel Robert Grand?"
"Yes. It was he who told me your story, long ago. I have always been interested."
David hesitated for an instant, then boldly put his question: "May I ask where Colonel Grand is at present? I hear you no longer live in Baltimore."
It was a very direct attack, but he justified himself through the impression that she invited it.
"We live in Washington, Mr. Jenison, my mother and I. My father's home is in New York. Some time, while we are here, I hope you won't mind telling me something of your experiences with the—the circus. My father often spoke of you. He said they called you—was it Jack Snipe?"
David was taken aback. The girl's frankness amazed, unsettled him.
"A name given me by one of the performers," he murmured.
"The proprietor's daughter, Christine Braddock. Oh, you must not be surprised. I know her."
"You know her?" he asked quickly.
"That is, I once knew her. She came out to my father's stables years ago to practice her riding. I used to envy her so! You see, I wanted to be a circus rider." She laughed very frankly.
"Do you know what has become of her?" he asked, risking everything. He watched carefully to catch the expression in her face.
"No," she replied, hesitating. "I have not seen my father since our return from Europe."
The words were ominous. He experienced a sinking sensation.
She continued: "I supposed that you knew something of our family history, Mr. Jenison." He looked sufficiently blank. "My father and mother lead absolutely separate lives. It happened four years ago. Perhaps you have forgotten."
"I did not hear of it at the time, Miss Grand,' he explained.
"We have lived abroad ever since. So, you see, I have had little or no opportunity to talk with my father. We write to each other, of course, but letters are not like talks. I am to visit him next month in New York. I can hardly wait for the time to come." She was now speaking rapidly, eagerly. "I—I don't believe that all the things they said about him in the newspapers were true. My mother's lawyers brought up everything they could think of, whether it was true or not. You see— Oh, you don't mind hearing me talk like this, do you?" She interrupted herself to insert this question.
He hastened to assure her that she might speak freely to him, and with perfect confidence in his discretion. But, he suggested, it would be better if they were to continue the conversation in a place less conspicuous. He led her to a distant corner of the room, where they might be quite free from interruption. Her peculiar attitude interested and disturbed him. It was quite plain, from a single remark of hers, that her sympathies were with her father, although she had remained at her mother's side.
"You knew my father quite well, didn't you, Mr. Jenison? He has often told me of the close friendship that existed between you in those days, how he tried to help you and how appreciative you were."
David concealed his astonishment.
"They were wretched days for me," he said evasively.
"I am sure you wouldn't believe all the horrid things they said about him, knowing him, as you did, for a kindly, honorable gentleman. My mother was desperate, Mr. Jenison. She believed everything the lawyers put into her head. Of course, I understand now why it was so necessary to blacken his character. It was for the money—the alimony, they call it. And, more than that, it was to compel the court to give me into her custody. I had no choice in the matter, it seems, in spite of the law which says a child may elect for herself after she is fourteen. They made it so dreadful for him, that he could not take me, although I would have gone with him, oh, so gladly. I—" She stopped short.
He waited for a moment, appalled by this undisguised antipathy to the mother, who, as he knew so well, had been wronged beyond measure by the beast whom the girl, in her ignorance, defended. "My dear Miss Grand," he said, "I am more than sorry if any rude inquisitiveness on my part has led you to—"
"Oh, I want to talk about it to you," she interrupted with a directness that made him more uncomfortable than ever. "I know that you knew my father for what he really was. You knew how kind and good he was, and how nobly he befriended the Braddocks and all those wretched show people. You know how they treated him in return for his generosity. I feel as if I had known you always."
"It's very nice of you," he mumbled helplessly. "You say the show people turned against him. Do you mean at the—er—the trial?"
She lifted her brows, a sudden coldness in her manner.
"Not at all. I refer to what happened afterward."
"I am quite ignorant, Miss Grand," he said, a certain hoarseness creeping into his voice.
"He was actually compelled to pay something like twenty thousand dollars on the complaint of Mary Braddock, who set up the claim that she owned part of the show. It was a blackmailing scheme, pure and simple, but he paid it. He is a man. He took his medicine like one."
David glowed. He felt the blood surge to his head; he grew warm with suppressed joy.
"When did this happen?" he asked, the tremor of eagerness in his voice.
"Oh, I don't remember—three or four years ago. It really never came to a public trial. He settled her infamous claim out of court. Her lawyers hounded him as if he were a rat."
"I happen to know that Mrs. Braddock was part owner in the show," he said quietly.
"But he had already bought her out," she exclaimed. "He wrote all of this to me, after it came out in the papers. I had the whole story from him, just as it really happened. No, Mr. Jenison, he was compelled to pay twice."
He was half smiling as he looked into her face. The smile died, for he saw in the features of Bob Grand's daughter a startling resemblance to the man himself, hitherto unnoted but now quite assertive. A moment before he had thought her pretty; now he realized that he had scarcely looked at her before. There was the same beady, intent gleam in her dark eyes, which were set quite close to each other over a straight nose with rather flat nostrils. Her mouth and chin were unlike Grand's. They were perfect, they were beautiful. The eyes were unmistakably his, and therefrom peered the character of the girl as well as that of the man.
David was sharply cognizant of a feeling of repugnance. Much that had puzzled him a moment before was perfectly plain to him now. She championed the father because he had been stronger in her creation than the mother.
"Did Mrs. Braddock prosecute her claim in person?" he asked, subduing the impulse to set his friend right in the eyes of this girl.
"Not at all. She kept out of sight. Lawyers did it all."
"Did your father say where she was living at the time?"
"Oh, I know where she was living in London."
"London?" he said, suddenly cold.
"Yes. We saw her there, Centennial year. She had a home in one of those nice little West End streets. Of course, we could have nothing to do with her."
"Of course not," murmured he dumbly. "And Christine?"
"She was at the Sacred Heart Convent in Paris,—at school, you know. Father wrote me about her."
He could not ask her the sickening question that was in his mind: was Mary Braddock the woman in the case? But his heart was cold with despair. He could not, would not believe it of her, and yet the circumstances were damnably convincing.
"In a month, Mr. Jenison, I will be of age. I am sure that you, having been such a friend to him, will be glad to know that I am going to him. If he wants me, I shall stay with him."
"You—you will leave your mother?" he demanded, unconsciously drawing back in his chair.
"Just because my mother cast him out is no reason why I should do likewise. I love my father—I adore him! What did you say?"
Under his breath he had uttered the word "God!"
"I beg your pardon," he said hurriedly He felt like cursing her. "I just happened to think of something," he explained.
"I am sorry to have bored you. I thought you'd like to know about father after all these years. Pray forgive me."
"You intimated awhile ago that perhaps he could tell me where Mrs. Braddock is living, he said. His forehead was covered with moisture.
"I've no doubt he knows, Mr. Jenison. She is living in New York."
She was perfectly calm and matter-of-fact about it. If there was more that she could have told him, her inscrutable smile signified plainly that it should be left for him to find out for himself.
He looked into her eyes for a moment without speaking. A feeling of loathing such as he had never known before welled up in his heart against this girl. He hated the sight of her face. He almost imagined he could see its soft, warm tints changing subtly into the gray, putty-like complexion of his oldtime enemy. A beastly jowl seemed suddenly to spread from her smooth round cheek and sag heavy over her neck; her smile, bewitching to other eyes than his, took on a mysterious breadth that horrified him. He was seeing visions. He knew that there was no change such as his mind pictured, and yet he could not cast out the illusion. He arose abruptly, fearful that she might see the repugnance in his eyes. He could not sit there an instant longer, facing this reminder of Bob Grand. Something atavistic in his nature urged him to strike out with all his strength at the fantastic face that forced itself upon him.
"I beg your pardon," he said, and his voice sounded queer in his own ears, "but I must get off some letters to-night. May I take you to the stairs?"
A few minutes later he was lying flat on his back, fully dressed, on the bed in his chamber, staring up at the ceiling, his brain a chaos of anguish, dread, pity—and faith, after all, in Mary Braddock. The walls seemed papered with the faces of Bob Grand and Roberta Grand. He was haunted by them.
At daybreak he arose, without a single instant of sleep behind him. His mind was made up to one purpose. He could not stay in the same house with Roberta Grand.
Before going in to breakfast at eight o'clock, one of the young men in the party of the night before asked the clerk at the desk if Mr. Jenison had come down.
"Mr. Jenison left by the morning stage, Mr. Scott. He had a letter calling him back to Jenison Hall. Something very important, sir. He left a note for Miss Beaumont, I believe, to tell her he can't be back in time for the trip to Natural Bridge."
THE STRANGER AT THE HALL
The letter that called David to Jenison Hall came, by curious coincidence, at a most opportune time. He had decided to leave the Springs within a day or two, cutting short his proposed stay of a month almost at its beginning. The advent of Roberta Grand, heretofore an unknown quantity, brought with it new and unpleasant complications. Her revelations disturbed him, her attitude angered and disgusted him. It was from this girl, so amazingly like her father, that he would have fled in any event. His nature revolted against the possibility of constant association with her, he scarcely could have maintained even a perfunctory show of consideration for her. And then something told him that her confidences would grow, that she would go farther in the effort to justify her father. He realized that he could not stand by and hear the things she doubtless would feel called upon to say in respect to Mary Braddock. His sleepless night had drawn many ugly pictures for him to efface before he could be at peace with himself.
All through that dismal night he had given his thoughts to these people, and to three cities,—London, Paris and New York.
In the last of these, Mary Braddock was living. Staring up at the dim, flickering shadows on the ceiling, he traveled in horrid conjecture from one to the other of these immense wildernesses. Ahead of him stalked the ugly figure of Robert Grand, who knew—who perhaps had known all the time; at his side was the knowledge that the five years had come to an end. Was Mary Braddock, after all, in a position to redeem her promise?
The candle sputtered and went out. But he was no more in the dark than he had been all along. If there was to be light, he must make it for himself. He would not wait for her to speak out of the darkness. He would search her out, come what may; he would claim Christine.
With his mind full of the decision to go to New York as soon as possible, where it would be an easy matter to find Colonel Grand, at least, he hurried down to an early breakfast, successfully evading his body-servant. There were two letters in his box, products of the night mail.
One of them caused him to start and almost cry out aloud. It was from Artful Dick Cronk. The envelope bore the Jenison crest and it had come from Jenison Hall. A year had passed since he had heard from the pickpocket.
The missive was brief, as were all of Dick's communications, written or oral. It said: "Just stopped off on my way north. Niggers say you are at the Springs. I'll wait here till you come back, if it ain't too long. Hope this reaches you prompt, because I am in a hurry to get up to New York. Don't write. You can get here just as quick as a letter. Maybe quicker."
Except for the schoolboyish signature, that was all; but there was a world of importance between the laconic lines. David caught the early morning stage and was on his way over the ridge to the railroad with old Jeff, before eight o'clock.
He reached home that night, surprising the housekeeper and servants. To his amazement, they knew absolutely nothing of Dick Cronk. He had not been there, nor any one answering to the description. David was thunderstruck. He carefully examined the letter, which he had retained. There could be no mistake as to the stationery or the postmark. He went to his room, gravely mystified by the circumstance. A messenger was sent post haste to the village hard by, with instructions to find Dick if he were at either of the boarding-houses. The master of Jenison Hall could not help chuckling to himself in contemplation of the crafty tricks the writer of the letter had employed in securing his information and in appropriating stationery.
It was nearly eleven o'clock when the darky boy returned with the word that no one fitting the description had been seen in the village.
"But he must be there," said the young master, vastly perplexed and not a little annoyed.
"Yas, sah," agreed the darky, not for a moment questioning the assertion that fell from his master's lips. If "Marse David" said he was there, he was there; that is all there could be to it. "He suttinly mus' be thah, sah. But I 'spec's he mussa fo'got to tell anybody 'bout hit, sah."
"Ask Jeff to call me early in the morning, Pete," said David. "Good night."
"Good night, Marse David."
The boy went out, gently closing the door behind him. Almost instantly it was reopened.
"What now, Pete?" demanded David, who, with his back to the door, was advancing to the mahogany bureau across the room. He came in line with the tall mirror that surmounted the chest of drawers. His fingers stopped suddenly in the light task of removing a pin from his scarf.
Just inside the door stood Artful Dick Cronk, a genial smile reflecting itself in the mirror which confronted the other. David stared unbelievingly for a few seconds and then whirled to face the— but it was not an apparition.
The lean, cunning visage of the pickpocket was illumined by the never- to-be-forgotten smile of guilelessness that so ably stood him in hand in moments of peril. The humor of it gradually succumbed to the satirical leer that always came to translate his strange sophistry into something more expressive than mere words. He was plainly enjoying the effect of his magic invasion. To make the puzzle all the more startling, Mr. Cronk was attired in one of David's loose dressing-gowns. He wore a pair of comfortable slippers and he smoked David's picturesque Algerian pipe. A picture of domestic contentment was he. You might have taken him to be the owner of the house, and not the sly intruder.
"What are you doing in my room?" Dick demanded, assuming an air of severity.
David's astonishment gave way to a hearty laugh. He advanced with his hand extended.
"Well, you do beat the world," he exclaimed. "In the name of heaven, where did you come from?"
They shook hands. Dick's sprightly face presented a myriad of joyous wrinkles.
"Where did I come from, kid—I should say, Mr. Jenison? I—"
"Call me David," interrupted the other.
"Sure! Come from? Take a seat, kid. You are my guest for the evening. Make yourself at home. I've got a couple of toddies planted here behind the dresser. You see, I was expectin' you." He went over and, reaching down behind the bureau, came up with two toddy glasses in which the ice clinked cheerily. "I made 'em just before you came in," he explained. David passed his hand across his brow. Then he accepted one of the glasses from the pseudo host.
"Do you mean to tell me that you were in this room all the time I sat over there waiting—"
Dick put his finger to his lips. "Sh! Not so loud, please. I'm not really supposed to be here, you know. Just think what heart disease would do to the wooly old boy that runs the front door if he heard you talking to me at this time o' night. I'm glad to see you, David. You got my letter, I see. Well, well, it's wonderful what a two-cent stamp'll do sometimes. A postage stamp is the greatest detective I know of. I've had 'em find me time and again, right off the real, when twenty plain-clothes men couldn't get a smell of me to save their souls. Sit down, David. Make yourself at home. It's good to see you here, old chap. I'm sorry you must be leaving so soon."
"Leaving so soon?"
"Yep. You're going away to-morrow." He was sitting now, with his long legs crossed, leaning lazily back in the lounging chair at the end of David's desk.
"Don't talk in riddles, Dick. What's up? And how do you happen to be here, occupying my house without the knowledge of my servants?"
"A simple question, with a simple answer. I've been here two days and two nights, right here in the house. My bedchamber is down the hall there, and this has been my lounging room. Of course, I had my meals in the dining-room—my after-the-theater suppers, you might say. It's been good fun, foolin' the servants. I hope you don't mind my fakin' grub from your larder, kid. I used to sit around, unbeknownst to the niggers, and listen to them talk about spirits and ghosts and all that sort of thing. It was most amusin'. They couldn't account for the disappearance of pies and cakes and Sally Lunn—say, how I do love Sally Lunn. And jam, too. To say nothin' of fried chicken. Say! I've been living like a prince, kid. Sleepin' in a real bed and hangin' around in swell togs like these. Say! You do know how to live, David. You'd have been very much entertained half an hour ago if you could have seen me swipe a Washington pie and a quart of milk right out from under the nose of old Aunt Fanny. Milk is my favorite beverage, David. You notice I'm not drinkin' this fire-water. I made two of 'em for company's sake, but I still turn my back on the wine when it's pink. Not for me—not for little Dicky-bird."
"I don't see how you do it, Dick," cried David delightedly.
"That's part of my game, kid—not letting people see how I do anything. But it's as simple as rollin' off a log, as the jays say. I must confess—and that is something I make it a rule never to do—that this high living is not good for me. I'll get into awful habits, if I keep it up. I won't be satisfied with pretzels and bologny sausages. Seems to me I feel a touch of the gout coming on now."
"You will have breakfast with me in the dining-room to-morrow morning, Dick," announced the master of the house. "It won't be necessary to swipe it, as you call it."
Dick grinned. "My dear chap," he mimicked, "I have my breakfast stowed away in the garret at this minute. Never put off till to-morrow what you ought to do to-day. In time of plenty prepare for famine. Still, if you insist, I'll join you at some ham and eggs—and coffee. I do miss my coffee, old chap. We take a train for Richmond at nine A. M."
David's patience gave out. "What does it all mean, Dick? I must know at once. It must be important or you wouldn't—"
"Maybe it's important and maybe it ain't," philosophized Dick, relighting the long pipe.
"Well, let's have it."
"Tom Braddock's out."
"Out? I don't understand."
Dick's surprise was genuine. "You don't mean to say you never heard what happened to him?"
"Joey wrote me that he had gone completely to the dogs in Chicago."
"Joey's off his nut. Brad's just out of Sing Sing."
"Sing Sing! The penitentiary?"
"The sure-enough cooler. He's been there for nearly three years."
"Christine's father a convict!" groaned David.
"As I said before, he's out. It may interest you to know that I spent a year's vacation up there in '78. I needed the rest, old chap. Brad came in shortly after I got settled. He had been in Chicago for two years, boning his friends and living like a gutter-snipe. We spent most of our evenings at Sing Sing on the same piazza. During the day we sauntered back and forth between our apartments and the academy for physical research. Just to amuse ourselves we learned to make barrel staves between times. It was two months before we managed to speak to one another. After that we corresponded quite reg'lar. I had notes from him, and he from me. I soon got on to Brad's troubles. Seems that Bob Grand owed him several thousand dollars. He had owed it for more 'n two years. Some deal in connection with the show. You remember Brad was froze out soon after his wife left the aggregation in '75. He says Grand bulldozed him into duckin' the—I mean, leavin' the show, all the time owin' him the long green. Seems that Brad hadn't delivered all the goods mentioned in the bill of sale. Bob wouldn't settle until he got the goods.
"Well, Brad hung around Chicago, fightin' firewater and always gettin' licked at it, for two years or more. Then he up and sashayed to New York for a show-down with our old friend Robert. He had blood in his eye, Brad had. He'd been buncoed bad, and a bad man hates that worse than the thought of hell. When he got to New York he hunted up Mr. Bob Grand, who was just leavin' for England. It seems that Brad's wife and girl had been located over there by the Colonel, who had never stopped lookin' for them. Which is more than you could say for Brad. Mrs. Braddock, through her father and a firm of lawyers, had forced old Colonel Dough-face to fork over a big wad of greenbacks. Her share in the show, you understand. Brad heard of it in some way. So he concludes he'll get in his little graft. He goes to the Colonel's rooms in a hotel on Broadway, but misses him. Then he lays for him on the street. They have it hot and heavy, back and forth, and it all ends with the Colonel puttin' over a job on Brad that lands him in the cooler. Charge of highway robbery. Brad gets three years in the pen. I'll say this for him, though; I'm dead sure he wasn't guilty."
Dick paused to relight his pipe.
David was trembling with eagerness. "What did he have to say of Mrs. Braddock and Christine? I am interested only in them, Dick."
"He's up a tree regardin' them. They never peeped, so far as he's concerned. He never heard from them after they dusted that time. Of course, he thinks it was a put-up job, that gag of the Colonel's, payin' her all that money. He argues that it was all understood between 'em, and that it wasn't a squeeze on her part. The Colonel denied it, mighty strong, sayin' he had never heard from Mrs. Braddock until her lawyers and old man Portman came down on him, just after his own wife had got a divorce from him."
"I have heard," ventured David, "that Mrs. Grand based her complaint on the fact that her husband was mixed up in some way with an actress."
"She had to have something, Davy," said the other. "They faked up an imitation—that ain't the word—an imaginary actress for the occasion. Joey Noakes told me all about that. She first tried to get some of the old crowd to swear that Mrs. Braddock was the one, but she got a terrible throw-down there. They was all for Mary Braddock, strong. Then what do you think her lawyers up and does? They actually went to Joey and offered him ten thousand if he'd let 'em use Ruby's name."
A spasm of rage transfigured the face of the imperturbable rascal. His hands were clenched and the veins stood out in his temples.
"What a cowardly, outrageous thing to do!" cried David.
Dick did not speak for several minutes, but sat staring at his hands, his thoughts five hundred miles away. At last his lips spread into a dry, crippled smile.
"Joey told 'em to go to hell. And he rather helped the guy along the route by kickin' him half-way down stairs. If he hadn't caught himself against the railing half-way down, he'd 'a' been in the bad place these last four years. I wish to state at this point, Davy, that for the past four years I've made it my business to make that guy wish he was there a hundred times over. It's mighty hard to do a lawyer, but I've got that feller so's he sits up nights, looking like a ghost, waitin' to see what's going to happen to him if he should accidentally fall asleep. But, 'nough of that. After I got out of the pen I dropped in to see Joey. He was just organizin' that road pantomime show of his. He told me all about Mrs. Grand's proposal, and I was for cutting the dame's throat, only he wouldn't hear to it. You been in Joey's home in Tenth Street, haven't you? I mean the old one, just a little ways off Broadway. Well, you remember them stairs? Can you imagine bein' kicked down them stairs? Gee whiz! How I'd like to ha' been there! Well, you know all about Joey's pantomime fizzle. It almost busted the old boy's heart. He went stony broke the first year. Him and Ruby had to go over to live in an awful place on the east side, just off the Bowery. It happened to be right near the joint where Ernie and me hang out in the winter time. Our palatial residence then was back of a cobbler's shop, two flights off the sidewalk. I can't say that it's as sunny and as nicely aired as your joint here, kid, but it's harder to get inside of. And it would be impossible to get out if you once got in, unless you had a recommend from one of the gang. Seven of us hangs out there now. Maybe I'll show you the joint some time, if you can keep your jaw shut about it.
"But I'm gettin' off the trail. After Joey's bust up, Centennial year, who comes along and offers him a stake but old Colonel Grand. Offers to lend him money enough to start all over again. That's where Joey made his mistake. The old jay took the money and started all over again with—"
David started to his feet. "Impossible!" he exclaimed. "Why, I—I myself, Dick, lent him the money three years ago to get on his feet again."
"Sure you did. I haven't come to that yet. I said he took a couple of thousand from the Colonel. That was before you come into it, and he was so ashamed of it he never told you. Well, out they go on the road again, with him as the clown, Ruby as the columbine, Casey as harlequin and a guy named Smith as pantaloon. They had a show something like Humpty Dumpty. But you know all about that."
"Perfectly," said David, smiling reflectively. "I was with the show for a week on the road in '78. I must say I liked the rough old tent days better than the life they led in those abominable country town opera houses."
"Umph!" was the other's comment. "That's originally the way the Colonel's wife took it into her head to drag Ruby in if she could. Well, what does the Colonel do, after the show gets to going well, but drop in occasionally just as he did to Van Slye's circus, and proceed before long to make love to Ruby. Yes, sir! That's what he did, the hell-rotter that he is. Soon as Joey finds out his game, he up and takes a fall out of him. Then the Colonel threatens to put him out of business. Right then and there is where Joey writes to you for help. You fork over proper-like, as you should, and he pays back what he owes Grand, preferring to owe you. So he got rid of the devil for more than forty days. That's about the time I goes to the pen. I carelessly lets myself get nabbed, actin' on Ernie's advice. He's a slick kid, that boy is. He ain't goin' to let me get hung if he can help it. You see, I'm booked for hangin', sure as fate; he knows it as well as I do, only he's smart enough to want to put it off till I'm so old I won't mind it. So I goes to the pen just to keep from killin' Bob Grand. A year in the cooler makes you see things most sensible-like. I knowed that when I went in. If I'd waited a week after hearin' Joey's story of that dog's attentions to Ruby, I'd ha' been in Kingdom Come long ago, and so would he. We'd both been down below to welcome Mrs. Grand's lawyer when he arrived. So, actin' on Ernie's advice, I gets pinched the second night after hearin' about it. Ernie's a humane cuss. He saved two lives, then and there."
"You deliberately put yourself in prison?" cried David.
"Just to postpone the hangin', kid, that's all."
"It's all rubbish, this talk of hanging," protested the other. "You're too kind-hearted, Dick, to kill a fly."
"There'll be a rope around my guzzle some time, Davy, just as sure as you're sittin' there," said Artful Dick, and, notwithstanding his careless laugh, a perceptible gleam of terror showed in his eyes for an instant. "But I'm wandering again. When I was up to Sing Sing I tumbled to what was on Brad's mind. He thinks she turn him down for Grand. The more he thought of it, the more full of the devil he got. Just before I left the place he wrote me a long letter and slipped it to me in a hunk of bread. He said he'd made up his mind to kill her and Grand as soon as he got out. You can tell by a convict's looks whether he's bluffin' or not. I tell you, Davy, I sees it in Brad's face. He meant what he said. He's going to do it, as sure as fate. He ain't got anything to live for and he ain't going to let the two of 'em live any longer than he does."
"And you say he's out? Dick, we must do something to prevent this awful—"
"Sit down, Davy. You can't get a train till tomorrow. Besides, there's time enough. The first thing I does after I leaves the coop was to hustle down to see Joey. I put him on to Brad's bad talk, and he promised to keep a sharp lookout for him. At that time Mrs. Braddock was livin' in London, but Joey didn't know it. I found out later on through Ernie. He got her whereabouts by pumpin' a coachman who worked for her father, old man Portman. It seems that while she wouldn't take money from the old man, she appealed to him to help her in gettin' what was due her from the sale of the show. She went to Europe a couple of months after she left the show, a school friend puttin' up for her, I understand. Her dad was willin' to forgive her, after she'd tied the can to Brad, but she says nix. She changed her name and took charge of this school friend's children who were being educated in London, givin' their mother a chance to chase around Europe without bein' bothered by kids. When she got the dough out of old Bob Grand she puts Christine in a school some 'eres and—"
"Thank God, and you, Dick, for this news," cried David fervently. "I knew that she could do nothing but the right thing. Go on!"
"Well, about six months ago, her stepmother up and dies. The old man promptly sends for her to come back and cheer his declinin' years, as the novel writers say. Ernie writes all this to me and I gets the letter a couple of months ago down in New Orleans, where I was attendin' Mardi Gras, a sort of annual custom of mine, don't you know, old chap, by Jove! I'm terrible careless about my correspondence, which accounts for my neglectin' to write this to you. However, I'm not so careless that I neglected to write this to Ruby—a thing I do reg'lar every month, some months. Four days ago, in Looieville, I gets two letters, one from her and one from Ernie. Ernie knows everything. He's seen Christine nearly every day for three months, but she ain't seen him. Poor devil of an Ernie! I made him what he is—I banged him up for life."
"It was an accident, Dick. Don't take it—"
"Nix. It ain't no accident when you kick a four-year-old kid down a flight of stairs. Well, anyhow, they both write me that Tom Braddock is in New York and actin' terrible ugly. He's layin' for Bob Grand. As luck would have it, the Colonel is off attendin' the races along the spring circuit, and Ernie says he won't be back in New York for three or four days. Mrs. Braddock has got her father down South some-'eres, but the servants are expectin' 'em back this week."
"Then we may be in time. We must not lose a minute, Dick. If Tom Braddock carries out his threat, we'll be to blame—you and I. Christine,—where is she? What is she like? What do they say of her?"
"Ruby's been on the road, so she don't mention having seen her. And, say, Davy, don't be sore at me for what I'm going to say now. It's this way: Ernie made me promise never to tell you anything about her— how she looks—how she acts, where she is, or anything. I've only told you where her mother is, mind you. You'll have to guess about Christie. You see, Davy, that boy's sure jealous of you yet. I—I— guess you understand."
David nodded his head without speaking. He understood. There was nothing for him to say. "I'll find her myself," he said, beginning to pace the floor in his excitement. "She must be beautiful. She must be all that her mother promised. But, Dick!"
He stopped short, struck by a sudden thought. "Why hasn't Mrs. Braddock written to me? She promised. The five years have passed. We were to see each other at the end of five—"
"Well, maybe you will, kid. Don't get peevish. I guess Mrs. Braddock knows her business. Has it ever occurred to you that there might be another Romeo lookin' at Christie? Five years is quite a spell. Girls are fickle brutes."
"For God's sake, Dick, if you do know of anything like that, tell me."
"Cross my heart, Davy, I don't know, and that's straight."
"We must catch the first train in the morning."
"Don't hop around like that, Davy; you'll upset something. You can't hurry a train, kid. We'll catch it, all right. Sit down. Get a pipe and take a smoke. Keep cool. That's our game, kid. If you go bumpin' into old man Portman's house without bein' sure you're wanted, you might get—well, I won't say what!"
"You're right, Dick. She may have forgotten me. She may have asked her mother not to write to me. I've waited and hoped and counted on having her—I've checked off the weeks and months and years. I wonder if you can understand how it is when you care as much as I do, and always have? No one knows. It's all in a fellow's own heart. It—"
"Oh, I've had a case or two myself, kid. It ain't nothin' new, this crimp you've got," said Dick, putting his heels on the desk. "Adam had it. So did Solomon, only he had it in so many places he got so he didn't mind it. Think of them guys that have harems. Think of Brigham Young. Why, kid, you don't know the first thing about love pains. Think of the guy with the harem and his guesswork! He's got something to worry about, he has. It's awful when you've got to love a couple of hundred of 'em at once, and them all hatin' you like poison. And old Brigham—think of him settin' up all hours of the night, wonderin' whether she loves him as much as she used to, and not being able to remember just which she he's thinkin' about. Brace up, kid. It's only a rash you've got. If Christie has given you the shake just remember how easy it was for Brigham to collect 'em. The woods are full of 'em."
"But, good Lord, Dick," cried David, laughing in spite of himself, "I'm not a Mormon."
"Kid, every man's a Mormon at heart. Just cram that in your pipe. And every woman, no matter how ugly she is, thinks she's a siren. It's in the blood of both sexes, this Mormonism and sirenism. Oh, don't look so surprised, kid. I got some of my views out of the dictionary, but most of 'em came from observin' people as they look to me from my own level. I have a way of bringin' everybody down to my own level, kid, and I find, except for that commandment about stealin', we all have about the same amount of cussedness in us some'eres. It's human nature to be bad, or to want to be bad. We'd all be a little bit bad, from time to time, if we wasn't afraid of being found out. Course, it comes in different size doses. Some girls think it's terrible bad just to wink at a feller, but they do it because it's bad and not because it's sanctimonious, you bet. Then there are other girls who'd cut your throat with a razor while you're asleep. You bet they wouldn't be doing that if it was considered good. All men have got deviltry in 'em, and all women mischief. The women like the men for the deviltry, and it's the mischief in women that plays the devil with the men. It don't appear on the surface, but it's there just the same."
"What amazing philosophy," laughed David.
"I've been gettin' philosophy up in your attic, Davy," said Dick with a quaint grin. "I read some'eres that all philosophers get in their real work in attics. Now, I guess we'd better turn in. I don't think you'll do much sleepin' to-night, so you'd—"
"First, Dick," interrupted David, rising to pull the old-fashioned bell cord in the corner of the big chamber, "we'll have a bite of supper. I want to introduce you to my servants."
"Hold on!" Dick came to his feet quickly. "It's my treat. You wait here. I've got a fine supper goin' to waste up in the garret. I copped it out early this evening. Poke up the fire there, Davy, and don't try to foller me."
He was gone, the door to the hall closing gently behind him. There was not a sound to be heard in the house. Outside the frogs were chattering, and a nearby owl hooted dolefully. David stood still in the center of the room, his gaze fixed on the hall door. He counted the minutes, expecting, in spite of his preparedness, to be startled when the door opened with ghostly ease to admit the lank figure of the "dip." There was a certain sense of dread in the knowledge that somewhere off in the dark, silent halls a stealthy, noiseless, almost sinister thing was moving—moving with the swiftness and caution of a weasel, but with all the merry purpose of a harlequin. David experienced a grewsome, uncanny desire to shiver. He remembered Dick's admonition and was about to turn to the fireplace, in which the logs were no longer blazing.
Suddenly the door opened. He could have sworn that the knob had not turned. There had not been the faintest sound, and yet Dick Cronk stepped quickly, confidently into the room, a grin on his face. In one hand he bore a fair-sized package, done up in a napkin.
"You are the ghostliest thing I've ever known," said David with a nervous laugh of relief. "How do you do it?"
"Simple twist of the wrist," said Dick, employing a phrase of the day. "Gee, how tired you must be, after pokin' up the fire like that!"
David hastened to do his part of the pantomime. When he turned from the replenished fireplace a cold supper was spread on the desk, the napkin serving as a tablecloth. There were knives, forks and spoons, and a china plate apiece. A pitcher of milk stood at one end, a bottle of claret at the other, with tumblers beside them. In the center of the board was a plate of fried chicken, some young onions, freshly baked bread, salt, pepper, and, most wonderful of all,—Aunt Fanny's newest marble-cake, huge and aggressive.
The master of the house stared open-mouthed at this amazing feast. Where had it all come from? How had it been transported?
"Well, I'll be hanged!" he gasped.
Dick shuddered. "Don't say that! It gives me the Willies. Sit down, friend, and make yourself at home. Ah! This is real comfort! Don't you think I'd make some woman a fine husband? I'm no slouch as a provider, am I?"
It was after two o'clock when Artful Dick Cronk whispered good night and slipped out into the hall. He carried with him all the plates, cutlery and remnants of the midnight feast, having remarked in advance that a careful operator never left anything "half finished." It was his purpose to restore every article except the food, to the place from which he had taken it. He and David chuckled joyously over the fresh amazement of Aunt Fanny in the morning; she had been living in a state of dread for three appalling days, as it was.
The next morning Dick appeared at breakfast with his host. He rescued Zuley Ann's greatly prized silver watch from the steaming coffee urn, and picked Jeff's pocket-book from the mouth of a lamp chimney, afterwards restoring the thirty-eight cents it contained. Strangely enough, he took the coins from the wool on Jeff's head. If ever a negro's wool undertook to stand on end it was at that moment. Zuley Ann's eyes were permanently enlarged. I have it on excellent authority.
At eight o'clock they were off for Richmond and the New York express.
THE MAN WHO SERVED HIS TIME
Long before the train reached the station in New York, David and Dick parted company. The shrewd but whimsical scamp presented at considerable length the problem of virtue and vice stalking arm in arm, as it were, through the streets of New York; he pictured, with extreme unction, the doleful undoing of virtue and the practiced escape of vice.
"Kid," said he, "the first cop that laid eyes on us meanderin' down Broadway would land on us like a rat-terrier. Being a clever devil, I'd hook it and give him the slip. But you, kid! Where would you be, little innocent? How far would virtue and justice carry you up an alley with a cop at your coat tails? Nix, kid. We go it alone after we leave Newark. That's the trouble with this world. Nothing's plumb square. Now, here's the point: Virtue's all right if it trots alone. But just let Virtue hook up with Vice for ten minutes, unsuspecting like, and see what the world says. Kid, that little ten minutes of bad company would upset a lifetime of continuous Sundays. 'Specially in the eyes of a cop. A cop ain't acquainted with virtue. My advice to the young and innocent is to avoid evil companions and cops. It's a long ways to heaven, and lonesome traveling at that, but it's only a step to hell, and the crowdin' is something awful. It's mighty nigh impossible to turn back once you get started, on account of the mob. I'm not saying you won't run across worse guys than I am at the swell hotel you'll stop at, but they ain't on speaking terms with the police."
David went to one of the big hotels patronized by all well to do Southerners of the day. At the railway station he looked about for the philosophic jailbird, but he was not to be seen. The Virginian drove to the hotel, conscious of a strange loneliness, now that the resourceful rogue was not at his elbow. He found some consolation in Dick's promise to communicate with him before the close of the following day, when doubtless he would be able to furnish news of interest, if not of importance.
The next morning saw David on his way to the home of Joey Noakes, far down town and to the west of Washington Square. He knew the house. He had been there before. A narrow, quaint little place it was, reminiscent in an exterior sort of way of the motley gentleman who solemnly called it his castle. You climbed a tall stoop flanked on either side by flower boxes, and rattled a heavy knocker that had all the marks of English antiquity,—and English servility,—and then you waited for the trim little housemaid, who betimes was a slavey below stairs and not permitted to answer the knocker until she had donned her cap and apron and rolled down her sleeves—and slipped on her cuffs, for that matter. If you were an unpleasantly long time in gaining admittance, you might be sure that she was also changing her shoes or perhaps brushing her hair. In any event, after you knocked it was some time before she opened the door, and then you were immediately impressed by the conviction that her brightly shining face had scarcely recovered from the application of a convenient "wash rag," and that she seemed deplorably out of breath. But she was neat and clean and quite English.
As for that, everything about the establishment was English. The window-boxes, from basement to garret; the way the curtains hung in rigid complaisance; the significant name-plate on the middle panel of the door: "Joseph Grinaldi, Esq."; the minute plot of grass alongside the steps that led to the basement, with a treasured rose-bush in the corner thereof. You were positive, without looking, that Joey had a back yard which he called a garden, and that it possessed everything desirable except a vista—and he would have that if it were not for "the houses in between," to say nothing of the high board fence he had built to keep out all prowling beasts—including humanity—with the double exception of cats and sparrows. Although it was a typical, hemmed-in New York house, you wouldn't have thought of calling the chimneys anything but pots, nor would you have called the shingles by any other name than slates.
Joey was at home. He was expecting David, which accounts for the prompt appearance of the sprightly maid, and the genial shout of welcome from the top of the stairs.
"Come in, my lad," called Joey, bounding down the steps with all the resilience of a youth of twenty. "My crimes, I'm 'appy to see you."
They shook hands warmly, the little maid bobbing her head in rhythmic appreciation.
"You knew I was coming?" asked David, following the old man into the "drawing-room."
"I found a note under the door this morning, David, left there mysterious-like during the night. It was left by the fairies, I daresay, although the 'and-writing was scarcely wot you'd call dainty." Joey pulled a knowing wink.
"Dick Cronk," announced David. "He came up with me. Braddock is in the city, Joey."
"Sit down in that chair by the winder, David. So! Wot a 'andsome chap you've got to be! My eye! Ruby will be proper crazy about you. I beg pardon: you mentioned Tom Braddock. Well, he was a setting right thore where you are not more than twenty-four hours ago."
"You don't mean it!"
"Ruby will be in before long," rambled the old clown, thoroughly enjoying himself. "She's off to the market. Do you know, Davy, she's a most wonderful manager, that girl o' mine. We've been in from the road for nearly a month now—closed the most prosperous season on record at Rochester, New York, on the 17th of May—and Ruby 'ad the 'ouse running like it 'ad been oiled inside o' two hours arfter we got off the cars. She's a—Oh, we was talking of Brad, wasn't we? Well, let me see. Oh, yes, he was 'ere yesterday. And now you're 'ere to-day. It's marvelous 'ow things do go. Brad asked arfter you."
"I suppose so," said David impatiently. "But, tell me, Joey, what is his game? What is he in New York for?"
The old clown did not answer at once. He pursed his lips and stared in a troubled sort of way at the leg of David's chair. Then he began to fill his pipe. His hand trembled noticeably.
Saving the snowy whiteness of his hair, Grinaldi did not appear to be an hour older than in the days of Van Slye's. His merry, wrinkled face was as ruddy, as keen, as healthy as it ever had been. No one would have called him sixty-five, and yet he was beyond that in years.
"He's 'ere for no good purpose, I'm afraid," said he, at last. "In a way, I'm kind o' sorry for Brad, David. He'd 'a' been a different sort o' man if it 'adn't been for Bob Grand. If ever a chap 'ad an evil genius, Brad 'ad one in that man. I suppose Dick told you Brad's been up for two or three year, doing time. Not but wot he deserved it, the way he treated Mary, but it don't seem just right that Bob Grand should be the one to send 'im up. Mary 'ad nothink to do with it, but you can't make Brad believe that. He's got it in 'is 'ead that she's been working with Grand all along. I talked to 'im for two hours yesterday, but I couldn't shake 'im. He's a broken man—but he's a determined one. The time served up at Sing Sing 'ad one benefit to it: it dried up all the whiskey that was in 'im. He came out of there with 'is eyes and 'is mind as clear as whistles, and he's not the feller you used to know, David. He's twenty years older, and his face ain't no longer bloated; it's haggard and full o' lines. His hair is nearly as white as mine. And 'ere's the great thing about 'im: he ain't drinking a drop. He says he never will drink another drop, so long as he lives. Do you know why?"
The old man leaned forward and spoke with a serious intentness that sent a cold chill to the heart of his young friend.
"He says he ain't going to take any chances on bungling the job he's set out to do," went on Joey slowly. "He wants to be plumb sober when he does it, so's it will be done proper."
"That's just it, David. He's going to kill Bob Grand."
"Joey, we must prevent that!" exclaimed David, rising and beginning to pace the floor. "There is time to stop him. Grand is not in the city. We must get Braddock away. Think what it would mean to—to Christine and her mother! Why, it's—"
"Brad ain't going to stop to think about 'ow it will affect them. He's only got one idea in his 'ead. He'll 'ave it out with Mary beforehand, if he gets the chance, but he won't do 'er bodily injury. He swears he won't do that. He admits he's done 'er enough 'arm. Do you know wot he told me?—and he cried like a baby when he told me, too. David, he actually sold 'is wife to Bob Grand when he gave up the show."
"Good heaven, Joey!"
"He told me so 'isself, sitting right there. But he says he 'ad sunk so low in them days, pushed along by Grand, that there wasn't anything too mean for 'im to do. He told me he stole your pocket-book—and a lot of other cruel nasty things he did besides. But he said it was whiskey—and I believe 'im. You see, David, I knowed 'im when he was as straight as a string, and a manly chap he was, too—even if 'is father was an old scamp. He ain't making any excuses for 'isself—not a bit of it. He says he's a scoundrel."
David sat down limply, stunned by the news of Tom Braddock's depravity.
"But if he is sober and in his right senses, he must feel the most poignant remorse after that one terrible act," cried the young man. "He surely must know that she did not fall into the trap—that she actually fled to escape it. He knows all this, Joey. I think he loved her—in his way. I know he loved Christine. We must get at him from that side—the side of his love for the girl, the side of fairness. If he feels remorse, as you say, all is not lost to him. Where can we find him to-day, Joey? To-morrow may be too late."
"Wot does Dick say?" asked the old clown, puffing at his pipe. His calmness served its purpose. David stared and then relaxed.
"To tell you the truth, I'd forgotten Dick. Before we parted yesterday, it was understood between us that I was to do nothing until I had heard from him. He promised to find Braddock and report to me— by letter. Of course, he did not know that you had seen him, or he would have come last night to talk it over with you in—"
Joey held up his hand and shook his head. "Oh, no, he wouldn't, David. Dick thinks too much of me to come 'ere. You see, it would never do for him to be seen frequentin' this 'ouse. I've invited him 'ere, I'll say that; but he's too square to come. He says it would injure me, and my 'ouse would be watched as long as I live in it. And, besides, it wouldn't be right to Ruby. Once or twice he 'as sneaked in as a peddler or a plumber, by arrangement, poor chap, but never openly."
To David's annoyance, Joey went into a long dissertation on the inscrutable virtues of Dick Cronk, concluding with the sage but somewhat ambiguous remark that it not only "takes a thief to catch a thief," but that an honest man is usually a thief when he is caught in the company of thieves.
"You see, Davy, we ain't with the circus now. We're at 'ome in our own 'ouse, and things is different. A circus is one thing and a man's castle is another. Leastwise, that's wot Dick says. He says I'm too old to be caught in bad company. I'd die before I could live it down. He's an odd chap, he is. And now, in regard to Brad, just you keep cool until you 'ears from Dick. You can't afford to stir up a row. Old man Portman and Mary and Christine won't thank you for stirring things up. They're not anxious to 'ave a scandal. If you go arfter Brad too rough, it will percipitate matters instead of 'olding them back. And he'll know to onct that you are acting for his wife—a sort of go- between, don't you see. That will make it the wuss for 'er. So, just 'old yourself in, David. Now, let's talk about somethink else. Yourself, for instance."
David resignedly settled back, and was at once involved in an exchange of personal narrative.
"I 'ave retired from the stage," remarked Joey, putting his thumbs in the armholes of his velvet waistcoat. "I am too old to go clowning it any longer. This was my last season. I've got a comfortable income, thanks to you, David, and I'm going to spend the rest of my days in peace and quiet—if you call New York quiet, wot with the church bells and the milkmen. Three seasons in the pantomime, doing all the one- night stands in this bloomin' country, is enough for Joey. If you 'adn't staked me when I was stony broke three years ago, Davy, I'd be in the poor 'ouse now, I daresay. You saved the show for me and I'm properly grateful to you, even though you won't let me mention it. Next season Ruby will go out with the show, but I'm getting a new clown. That is, she'll go unless something important 'appens to pervent."
He screwed up his eye very mysteriously.
"What is likely to happen, Joey?"
"Well," said he, "girls do get married."
"You don't mean to say Ruby's going to be married!" David's thoughts ran to Dick Cronk, although he knew there was no possible chance for him.
"Well, there's a chap mighty attentive to 'er these days. You never can tell. She's a 'ansome girl and—but I daresay it's best not to count chickens before they're 'atched. I don't mind saying, 'owever," he went on rather wistfully, "I'd like to see Ruby 'appily married and retired from the stage. It's wuss than the circus, my lad. The temptations are greater and there ain't so much honor among the people you're thrown with. The stage is surrounded by a pack of wolves just as vicious as Bob Grand ever was, and a girl's got to be mighty spry to dodge 'em."
"Is—her best young man a desirable fellow?" asked David, feeling very sorry for the outcast who had not so much as asked for a chance.
"Capital chap. He's a newspaper man, but I can't say that it's anything very damaging against 'im. He seems a very sober chap and thrifty. You wouldn't believe it, but it's quite true."
"I'm sure I wish her all the happiness in the world."
"She can't quite make up 'er mind to leave the stage," mused Joey. "And he won't 'ave 'er unless she does, for good and all. So there you are."
"If she loves him, she'll give it up."
"She loves 'im all right," said Joey. "I know it, because she never talks about 'im. I don't see wot's keeping her. She could ha' gone to market and back five times—Hello!" He was peering through the little front window. A huge smile beamed in his face. With a chuckle, he called his visitor to the window. "Sh! Don't let 'er see the curtain move! She'd take our 'eads off. See that chap? That's why she's been so long to market."
Ruby was walking slowly down the opposite sidewalk, attended by a tall, strong-featured young fellow whose very attitude toward her bespoke infatuation. They crossed the street and stood for a long time at the bottom of the steps, laughing and talking, utterly unconscious of surveillance. Then she shook hands with her courtier, tapped his cheek lightly with the grocer's book which she carried, and ran lightly up the steps. The tall young man, his face aglow, stood motionless where she left him, his straw hat in hand, until she entered the house and closed the door behind her. David's last glimpse of the suitor presented that person, with his chest out, his hands in his pockets, striding off down the street, very much as if he owned it. The young Virginian barely had time left to turn away from the window before Ruby swept into the room.
He had noted, as she stood below, that her figure was a trifle fuller; she was a bit more dashing, and a great deal handsomer than when he had seen her last. Somehow, David, without intending to do so, found himself mentally picturing her ten years hence: a stout, good-natured matron with a double chin and a painful effort to disguise it.
He was not taken aback when she rushed over, with a little scream of delight, and kissed him resoundingly. After which she shook hands with him. It was what he expected. You could have heard the three of them talking if you had been on the sidewalk, but you could not have made head or tail of the conversation. Joey repeated a single remark four times, without being heard by either of his companions. It referred to a joyful reunion and a mug of ale.
At length Ruby gave over rhapsodizing on the tallness, the broadness and the elegance of their visitor, and rushed to the hall door. Raising her voice, she called out to some one down the hall:
"Yes, Miss Ruby," came the instantaneous response, suggesting a surprised propinquity.
"Goodness! I thought you were downstairs—But never mind! Don't forget what I told you about the new radishes."
"No, Miss Ruby, they shall not be forgot," said the trim little maid, bobbing in the doorway.
"Mr. Jenison likes his waffles crisp," added Miss Noakes. To David she said: "I love waffles and honey for lunch, don't you?"
"I do," responded David. "But I didn't know I was to stop for lunch."
"Father, didn't you tell him?" demanded Ruby.
"I surely did," prevaricated Joey; "but you were both talking so 'ard he didn't 'ear me."
During luncheon, which was blissfully served by Millie, David took occasion to compliment Ruby on her good looks, her success and her prospects.
"Don't guy me, David," she cried, turning quite red.
"If every girl I know could enjoy such improvement in five years, I'm sure—" began David gallantly.
"I suppose you're thinking of Christine Braddock when you say that," said she shrewdly.
He had the grace to blush.
"Well, let me tell you, David, she's the prettiest thing on two legs— I should say, on two continents. Goodness, a girl does pick up such awful expressions on the stage! I'm just perfectly awful."
"She is beautiful?" asked David, his heart-beats quickening.
"She's what you might call ravishing," proclaimed Ruby. "And she's very elegant, too."
"She don't forget 'er old friends, though," said Joey hastily. "She sent me that geranium over there larst month and she—"
"Never mind, dad. David isn't interested in her or what she does. Tell me about Colonel Grand's daughter."
"How do you happen to know—"
"Oh, a little Dicky-bird told me," she said. "It was in the newspaper I take that you and she were at the Springs at the same time. Oh, I read the society news. Is she pretty?"
"She reminds me of her father."
"Then she looks like that African gazelle we had with Van Slye's! Poor girl!"
"I don't like her," said David. Then he related his experience with the young woman. His hearers were disgusted but not surprised.
"They're all alike," commented Joey. "They're bad, them Grands— father, mother and daughter. First one, then the other tried to bribe me and Ruby. I sometimes believe the wife's as bad as he is, only in a different way."
They were still seated at the table, discussing the Grands, when a heavy knock came at the front door.
"Who can that be?" said Joey, glancing at his daughter, who was suddenly quiet. The knock was repeated before Millie was instructed to go to the door.
She admitted some one, after a moment's parley. The husky, low-toned voice of a man came to the ears of those in the dining-room. As Joey arose to investigate, the maid came in.
"It's the same man who was 'ere yesterday, Mr. Noakes. He says as he's 'ungry."
"Braddock," said Joey in a half whisper.
The man was standing just inside the front door; his dim figure was silhouetted red against the narrow, colored glass window in the casement. Something told them he was fumbling his hat and that his head was bent.
"Ask him to come in here, father," said Ruby promptly. "I can't bear to see a man hungry. I don't care who or what he is."
Joey looked at David in doubt and perplexity. David, who had clutched the back of his chair with tense fingers, nodded his head. The old man, obeying the second but unvoiced entreaty of his daughter, strode out into the hall. They heard the low mutter of masculine voices, one in evident protest, the other cordially insistent.
"He's changed quite a bit," whispered Ruby,
David rose to his feet and stood staring blankly at the man who followed Joey into the dining-room, the man who had struck the never- to-be-forgotten blow. Could this gray, lean, shuffling creature be the leonine, despotic Tom Braddock of other days?
The man stopped just inside the door and fixed his sullen gaze steadily upon the face of the Virginian. Without glancing at Ruby, he uttered a curt "Howdy do, Ruby."
"I guess we ain't expected to shake hands," said Braddock, a twisted smile on his lips.
"I can't shake the hand that struck me as yours did when I could not defend myself," said David coldly.