On he slid, silently.
Vaniman had read the Arabian Nights tales, as they were divided in the literal translation. He reflected whimsically on the methods of the story-teller who, "having said her permitted say," was wont to stop right in the middle of a sentence for the sake of piquing interest in what was to follow.
The next night the prisoner's interest was heightened into real amazement. Wagg stuck his hand through the bars and waggled it invitingly.
"Take it!" he urged, sibilantly.
For a dizzy instant Vaniman was moved by the expansive hope that his plight had appealed to this man; he hastened to take what Wagg offered. It was a small cube of something.
"Eat it!" said the guard.
Holding it close to his face, to make an inspection in the dim light, the young man caught the scent of the cube. It was a piece of soap. He made sure by putting it to his nose.
"Just a little at a time—what you can stomach," Wagg urged. He passed on.
But Vaniman did not obey; he was unable to comprehend what this sort of fodder signified; he broke the cube into bits, thinking that a saw might be hidden. It was only soap—common soap. He put the bits away in the portfolio he was allow to have in his cell.
Wagg was a bit testy the next night when Vaniman confessed that he had not eaten any of the soap.
"You've got to show absolute confidence in me—do what I tell you to do," insisted the guard.
"I can't eat that soap. It will make me sick!"
"You've said it! But eat that soap—a little at a time—and see what the prison doctor says. It isn't easy to fool prison doctors—but I've been on this job long enough to know how."
That was Wagg's longest speech to date. His earnestness impressed the young man. He managed to eat a bit of the soap after the guard had departed. He ate more in the morning before his release from the cell. He put some crumbs of the soap in his pockets and choked down the hateful substance when he found an opportunity during the day.
That night Wagg had a few more words to say on the subject. "One of the biggest birds they ever caged at Atlanta fooled the doctors and got his pardon so that he could die outside the pen. Did he die? Bah-bah! Soap! Just soap!"
"So you think the pardon plan can be worked in my case, do you?"
"Pardon your eyes!" scoffed Wagg. "That isn't the idea at all!"
He fed the soap to the prisoner for many nights, but he did not give any information. However, Wagg had the air of a man who knew well what he was about, and Vaniman was desperate enough to continue the horrible diet, having found that Mr. Wagg was a very touchy person when his policies were doubted or his good faith questioned.
Then, one day the prison doctor, who had been observing Vaniman for some time, took the bookkeeper into his office and examined him thoroughly; he gravely informed the warden that the young man had symptoms of incipient kidney trouble and ought to be less closely confined.
When Vaniman found himself out in the sunshine, intrusted with the sinecure of checking up barrow-loads of dirt which convicts wheeled past him where he sat in an armchair provided by the warden from his office, the prisoner perceived that the Wagg policies were effective in getting results.
Having added respect for Mr. Wagg's ability in general, Vaniman was not surprised to find the guard following the favored prisoner into the new field of operations. The young man was quite sure that the guard had not opened up on his principal plan.
One morning Wagg came with a stool and a rifle and located himself close beside the armchair; he sat on the stool and rested the rifle across his knees and smoked a corncob pipe placidly. And there was plenty of opportunity for talk, though Wagg obtrusively kept his face turned from Vaniman's and talked through the corner of his mouth.
"Now you see, I hope! In a prison you've got to step light and go the other way around to get to a thing. I'm favored here, and I'm supposed to be nursing rheumatism." He leaned forward to knock out his pipe dottle and found an opportunity to give Vaniman a wink. "I arranged to come off the wall—knowing all about your case. I could ask to come out here, having found that night work didn't help me! Sunshine is good. But you couldn't ask for sunshine. When a prisoner asks for a thing, they go on the plan of doing exactly opposite to what he seems to want. From now on, having seen how I can operate, I expect you to do just what I tell you to do."
Vaniman looked at the rifle. Wagg waved it, commanding a convict to hurry past.
"Yes, sir! You've got to do just as I say!" insisted the guard when the convict had gone out of earshot.
"How can I help myself?"
"Oh, I don't mean that I'm going to team you around with this rifle! I want you to co-operate."
"Don't you think I can co-operate better if you give me a line on what all this means?" pleaded the prisoner.
"Sure and slow is my policy. I'm not just certain that I have you sized up right, as yet. I'm of a suspicious nature. But I'm finding this sunshine softening." Mr. Wagg rambled on, squinting up at the sky. "Seven years is a long while to wait for a good time to come. Figuring that your time will be paid for at the rate of about ten thousand dollars a year, while you're in here, helps to smooth the feelings somewhat, of course. But now that you're in here you're counting days instead of years—and every day seems a year when you're looking forward. The newspapers said it was about seventy-five thousand dollars in good, solid gold."
Wagg bored Vaniman with a side glance that was prolonged until a toiling convict had passed to a safe distance. The young man was eyeing the guard with a demeanor which indicated that the tractable spirit commended by Mr. Wagg was no longer under good control. However, Vaniman did manage to control his tongue.
After the silence had continued for some time, the guard slipped down from the stool and marched to and fro with his rifle in the hook of his arm, affording a fine display of attention to duty.
After he had returned to his stool, Wagg gave the ex-cashier plenty of time to take up the topic. "Considering my position in this place, I reckon I've said about enough," suggested the guard.
"I think you have said enough!" returned Vaniman, grimly.
"What have you to say?"
"I didn't take that money from the Egypt Trust Company. I don't know where it is. I never knew where it went. And I'm getting infernally sick of having it everlastingly thrown up at me."
"I thought I had you sized up better—but I see I was wrong," admitted Wagg.
"Of course you're wrong! You and the chaplain and the warden and the jury! I didn't take that money!"
"I didn't mean I was wrong on that point," proceeded Wagg, remorselessly. "But I had watched you bang around your cell and I concluded that you was ready to make about a fifty-fifty split of the swag with the chap who could get you out of here. If you're still stuffy, you'll have to stay that way—and stay in here, too!"
He took another promenade, pursuing his regular policy of starting the fire and letting the kettle come aboil on its own hook.
"What good would it do me to escape from this prison—to be hounded and hunted from one end of the world to the other?" Vaniman demanded, when Wagg had returned to the stool. "I do want to get out. But I want to get out right! I have a job to do for myself when I'm out of here!" Mr. Wagg nodded understandingly. "And that job is right in the same town where I have been living."
"Exactly!" agreed the guard. "And speaking of a job, you don't think for one moment, do you, that I'd be earning a fifty-fifty split by boosting you over that wall or smuggling you out of the gate to shift for yourself? Small wonder that you got hot, thinking I meant it that way. My plan will put you out right! My plan is a prime plan that can be worked only once. Therefore, it's worth money."
"Damn it, I haven't the money!" Vaniman, exasperated by this pertinacity, was not able to control his feelings or his language.
"It's too bad you are still at the point where you think you haven't got it," returned Mr. Wagg. "I'm a terrible good waiter. Reckon I have showed that kind of a disposition already. When you get to the other and sensible point where you want to be out of here, and out right, with nobody chasing and hectoring you, you and I will do business on the fifty-fifty basis. It may seem high," he pursued. "But all prices are high in these times. They're so blamed high that I'm in debt, simply trying to give my family a decent living. The state won't raise my wages. The state practically says, 'You'll have to do the best you can!' The state owes me a living. So I'll grab on to the assets that the state has hove into my reach, and will speculate as best I know now."
"You think I'm your asset, eh?"
"You're not worth a cent to me or yourself until I operate. And when you're ready to have me operate—fifty-fifty—give me the high sign. And something will be done what was never done before!"
Then Wagg carried his stool to the lee of a shop wall, seeking shade—too far away for further talk.
AND PHARAOH'S HEART WAS HARDENED
By the wiles of Wagg and a soap diet Frank Vaniman had been able to secure his modest slice of God's sunlight.
There was aplenty of that sunshine in Egypt. It flooded the bare hills and the barren valleys; there were not trees enough to trig the sunlight's flood with effective barriers of shade.
Tasper Britt walked out into it from the door of Files's tavern.
He had just been talking to the landlord about the tavern diet. His language was vitriolic. Even Vaniman could not have used more bitter words to express his detestation for soap as a comestible.
Britt's heat in the matter, the manner in which he had plunged into the diatribe all of a sudden, astonished Mr. Files tremendously. Britt seemed to be acting out a part, he was so violent. Usually, Britt did not waste any of the heat in his cold nature unless he had a good reason for the expenditure. There seemed to be something else than mere dyspepsia concerned, so Files thought. He followed Mr. Britt and called to him from the door. Britt had stopped to light his cigar.
"I've had my say. I'm all done here. Let that end it," declared the departing guest.
There were listeners, the usual after-dinner loafers of the tavern's purlieus. Mr. Britt did not seem to mind them. He even looked about, as if to make sure of their numbers.
"All you needed to do was to complain in a genteel way, and I would have been just as genteel in rectifying," pleaded Files.
"The people of this town are still saying that I'm a hard man. If that's so, I'm waking up to the reason for it—your grub has petrified me. My real friends have noticed it." Here was more of Britt's unwonted garrulity about his private concerns. "Some of those friends have taken pity on me. I have been invited to board with the Harnden family."
Mr. Britt did not look around to note the effect of that piece of news. He gazed complacently up into the sunshine.
He made quite a figure—for Egypt—as he stood there. Mr. Britt had "togged out." His toupee, when he first flashed it, had signified much. But the manner in which he had garbed himself for summer was little less than hardihood, considering the sort of a community in which he lived. He was "a native." The style of his attire declared that he was completely indifferent to any comments by his townsmen—and such a trait exposed in a New England village revealed more fully than his usurious habits the real callousness of the Britt nature. There was not a man in sight who did not have patches either fore or aft, or both! Mr. Britt wore a light, checked suit with a fitted waist, garishly yellow shoes, a puff tie of light blue, and a sailor straw with a sash band. He was a peacock in a yard full of brown Leghorns. But nobody laughed at Mr. Britt. Nobody in Egypt felt like laughing at anything, any more. They were accepting Britt, in his gorgeous plumage, as merely another strange item in the list of the signs and wonders that marked the latter days in Egypt.
More tawdry than ever appeared Prophet Elias's robe in that sunshine, though his umbrella did seem to comport better with the season. He stood in front of Usial's home. For a long time he had been keeping his tongue off the magnate of the town. For some weeks he had been away somewhere. To those who indulgently asked where he had been he replied tartly that he had volunteered as a scapegoat for the woes and sins of Egypt, had gone in search of a wilderness, and had come back because all other wildernesses were only second-rate affairs compared with the town from which he had started.
The Prophet seemed to feel that the appearance of Mr. Britt required comment. He raised his voice and made that comment:
"'And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin; and yet I say unto you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.'"
The Prophet bestowed a momentary benefit on gloomy Egypt—the listeners did manage to crease their countenances with grins; Britt surveyed those grins before he turned his attention to Elias. But all he did turn was his attention—silent, bodeful, malicious scrutiny. The onlookers were considerably surprised by Britt's silence; they wondered what controlled his tongue; but they were not in doubt on one point—every man of them knew that when Tasper Britt wore that expression it meant that he had settled upon the method of his revenge in the case of one who had offended him.
After a few moments Britt turned from his stare at the Prophet and dropped what was nigh to being a bombshell; it was more effective because it had nothing to do with the matter in hand.
"Listen, fellow townsmen! We all know that we ought to put our shoulders to the wheel and do something for poor Egypt. I propose to start off." He pointed to the old Britt mansion. "I'm going to tear down my house."
The men of Egypt goggled at him.
"Aye! And start off with it?" queried the Prophet. "Good riddance!"
But Mr. Britt was not troubling himself about the mouthings of Elias.
"I shall put a crew on it to-morrow. A city contractor will arrive here this afternoon with equipment and men. But he can also use all the local men who want to work. All who will pitch in can hire with him at the regular scale of wages. As soon as the site is cleared I shall start work on a new house. The plans are drawn. I have them here."
He snapped the rubber bands off a roll which he carried under his arm. He exhibited a watercolor facade elevation, stretching his arms wide and holding the paper in front of his face. The men came crowding around. They saw the drawing of a pretentious structure with towers and porticoes. Britt, holding the architect's broad sheet so that his features were hidden, explained the details of his project in regard to rooms and grounds. There was a hateful expression on the hidden face; it was the face of a man who hoped he was stirring jealous envy in those whom he wished to punish.
"It will be a mansion to the queen's taste, when you get it done," observed one man; he took advantage of the fact that Britt could not see him and winked at a neighbor. But if the man hoped to get a rise out of the builder in regard to a possible queen, he was disappointed.
Another citizen was more venturesome: "I'm taking it for granted that you don't intend to keep old-bach hall in a house like that, Tasper!"
Britt took down the shield. He displayed a countenance of bland satisfaction. "I don't think I'll be allowed to do it," he retorted, answering jest with jest. "You know what women are when they see a good-looking house needing a mistress." He rolled the paper up carefully. "And now, talking of something sensible, I hope you're going to turn out in good numbers when that contractor begins to hire. And pass the word!"
Nobody showed much enthusiasm. One man with a querulous mouth suggested: "It will seem like helping waste money, tearing down a stand of buildings that ain't in any ways due to be scrapped; I ain't sure but what it will seem like a worse waste of money, building a palace in a town like this. Don't you expect to be taxed like Sancho?"
"Until we get some kind of legislation or court action to make our town acts legal, the taxation question isn't worrying me much," said Britt, grimly. "I'll take my chances along with the rest of you on getting an act allowing us to compound with creditors."
"Probably can be arranged," said a man with the malice against the usurer that prevailed in the oppressed town. "We're sending a good man to the next legislature."
But Britt, in that new mood of his, was refusing to be baited. He began to look about. "Where is that person who calls himself a Prophet?"
The others joined with Britt in making a survey of the landscape. Nobody had been paying any attention to Elias, whose voice had been stilled since the one-sided affair with Britt.
"There he is," announced a man.
The Prophet was patrolling. He was marching to and fro in front of Britt's house. Then he walked in through a gap in Britt's fence and went to the house and peered in at one of the windows. He had lowered and folded his big umbrella and carried it under his arm.
"I call on all of you to note what he did then," called Britt. "He has been doing that lately."
The Prophet returned to the road. Then he seemed to be attacked by another idea. He went back through the gap in the fence and peered in at another window.
"I repeat, he has been doing that. I was getting ready to take proper measures to handle him. Something better than talking back to a lunatic! But I didn't reckon I'd have such good luck as this! Twelve men right here for my witnesses! Look hard at him, men!"
They did look, though they did not comprehend what Britt's excited insistence signified. He pulled out a notebook and pencil and handed it to the nearest man. "Mark down two! Mark it down—and all of you take due notice."
The Prophet returned to the highway and came slowly pacing along toward the group.
"All of you saw, did you? All of you ready to bear witness?" demanded the magnate.
He stepped out in front of Elias when the latter came near. Britt shook the roll of drawings under the Prophet's nose. "Listen here, my man! I didn't bother to talk to you a few minutes ago. Now I'm talking. You've been a vagabond in this town for a long time. The only thing that has protected you from the law in such cases made and provided has been the roof of a man who ought to be a tramp along with you. Right now, before the eyes of a dozen citizens, you have committed two separate and distinct breaches of the law. You have trespassed on my property. In the past I have sent men to jail for sixty days for one offense of that sort. On my complaint, backed by these witnesses, you'll see sixty days on one case—and I'll have you re-arrested on the other count the moment you step foot out of the jail." He paused.
"Yes?" said the Prophet, mildly inquiring.
"I'm a fair man, and I call the attention of these witnesses to what I say now. I'll give you a chance. Walk out of this town and stay out, and I'll not prosecute."
The Prophet shook his head.
"Do you refuse to go?"
For a man who dealt so exclusively in texts, the Prophet was rather vulgarly blunt when he replied, "You bet!"
Britt received that manner of retort with the air of a man who had been tunked between the eyes. It was some moments before he could go on. "Don't you realize what the judge will say when I show up your willfulness?"
The Prophet was even more amazing in his new manners. He stuck out his tongue, put his thumb to his nose, and wriggled his fingers.
"Well, I'll be condemned!" Britt gasped.
"Sure! When all the evidence is in about you!"
The magnate of Egypt lowered the roll that he had brandished so constantly. After a few moments of silent challenge with the eyes, he turned and walked away.
But he heard the mumble of men's laughter behind him, and his anger and the determination not to be put down in this style in his own town helped him to get back some of his self-possession. He whirled on his heels and strode to the enigma of Egypt.
"Who are you, anyway?" he demanded.
But Prophet Elias was his usual self once more. He had assumed that air which a practical man like Britt found an aggravating, teasing pose or a kind of lunacy with which common sense could not cope. Elias slowly spread his umbrella. He stood beneath it and declaimed:
"'And Moses and Aaron did all these wonders before Pharaoh; and the Lord hardened Pharaoh's heart, so that he would not let the children of Israel go out of his land.'"
"You let me tell you something! There's one man going out of this land mighty sudden—and he's going to the county jail in charge of a constable."
When Britt started away that time he kept on going. He went to the office of Trial-Justice Bowman and swore out a warrant. A constable served it and the Prophet was haled before the justice. On the evidence presented, Bowman sentenced a person known as "the Prophet Elias" to serve sixty days in the county jail. Within an hour after the Prophet's defiance he was on his way with the constable in a side-bar buggy.
The Prophet had not opened his mouth to give out even one text. He had not opened his mouth, either, to give his name; the writ designated him merely by his sobriquet. But there was a queer little wrinkle at each corner of that closed mouth.
NO STRAW FOR THE BRICKS
Mr. Harnden banged his pulpy fist on the board at which so he had declared, Tasper Britt was to sit.
"I have ruled a happy home by love in the past. Don't force me to rule it otherwise now."
He was obliged to lower his eyes to a level at last because his neck ached. He was forced to turn those eyes in his daughter's direction, for her gaze was of that compelling quality which causes the object of regard to return the scrutiny.
"I tell you, I'm not lowering myself by taking in boarders," the father insisted. "I have become tied up in a business way with my friend Britt. We need to be in conference right along. They're going to tear down his house. Shall I let it be said that I left a friend ahungered and without a roof? Shall—"
"Father, I'm no longer patient enough to listen to any more of that nonsense," said Vona.
"But it isn't nonsense," put in the mother. "Poor Tasper is left without a home. Files's vittles have nigh killed him. He was always used to home cooking. He—"
"Please! Please!" protested the girl, impatiently. "We're three grown-ups. Let's be honest with one another. I, at least, have been honest—ever since I declared myself under this roof last winter."
"If you're bound to put your father's and your mother's close friendship for a man strictly on the business basis, we'll have it that way," agreed Mr. Harnden, trying to straightedge his little bunghole of a mouth and failing.
"Very well, father! We shall get along better. I'm not in any position to dictate in our home—"
"Well, I should say not!" exploded the master.
"But I have worked and turned in my money to help support it, and I have my personal rights here."
Mr. Harnden had more success in arranging the expression he assumed then; he looked hurt; he had been very successful with that expression in the past. "Any farseeing man has his ups and downs, Vona. Is it kind to twit your father—"
She protested more impatiently still. "I am simply presenting the business side of the matter. I say, I have earned some rights to be comfortable in my own home. On the plea of friendship for a man whom I detest, you are proposing to destroy that comfort. Is your friendship for that man greater than your love for your daughter?"
Mr. Harnden rose and stuck out his frontal convexity and wagged a forefinger. "Now you're getting off the question of business—just as you accused me of getting off it!" He slapped his breast. "I'm a business man these days. I'm no longer a man with visions, needing a daughter's sacrifices, like you have twitted me of being. Keep still! I'm talking!" he squealed. He was displaying more of the new and cocky demeanor that had been his for some time. He had been especially set up for a few days prior to his announcement that Tasper Britt was coming into the Harnden home as lodger and guest at table. "Business it is! Britt will pay board enough, seeing that he has come to my—my terms, so that your mother can keep a hired girl for the first time in her life. Are you so selfish as to want to have your mother—my wife—go on potwalloping in the kitchen for the rest of her days? If that's so, you'll find that my pride will override your selfishness."
"Father, I will stay at home and do all the work, if you'll keep our home from being desecrated by that man!"
Mr. Harnden reared his crest and advanced one foot. "I have raised my daughter to be a lady and will keep her so! I'm now in a position to do it without any of her help."
Vona stood up then. But not to fling angry retort at her father! She knew that she was able to conquer the raging self that was urging her to tell both of them what she thought of their idiotic persistency in backing the attentions of Britt. Being victor over herself in that conflict with self where so many fail, she felt courage to battle in another quarter. Since Frank had been penned up where he could not fight, she had felt that she was the champion for their mutual interests, and she was resolved to keep on valiantly. "Father, you know how I stand in the matter of Frank Vaniman."
"I have broken your engagement with that jailbird."
"Vona, I have told you repeatedly that I will never consent to your marrying that man," shrilled Mrs. Harnden. "What does the Bible say about obeying your parents?"
The girl was tensely suppressing her emotions. "The outsiders merely know that I am engaged to marry him. But both of you know that I am married to him."
Mr. Harnden sat down in order to express his emotions; Mrs. Harnden stood up. Their duet of disavowal of any such knowledge was keyed high.
"You heard me when I married him—in your presence—under this roof. The legal formality can wait. But I am married. In my heart I am married. It is enough for me until he comes back to me. And what God hath joined together let not man put asunder!" She said it reverently, with all her soul in her tones, all her woman's resolution of loyalty in her eyes.
They tried to say something, but in the face of her demeanor of firmness their opposition was futile, and they probably realized it, for they became silent and allowed her to speak on.
"If you do not choose to consider my feelings in the matter, I'll not complain. You are master and mistress of the home. I tell you now, as I have told you before, that if Tasper Britt had come out with the whole truth Frank would not be in prison. You must not expect that I will sit at table with a man who has so persecuted my—husband!" She hesitated a moment before she spoke the last word. She caressed it with loving inflection. A moment later her cheeks were burning hotly. She went out into the hall, got her sunshade, and left the house.
She still had her work at the bank; the progress of liquidation was slow. Tasper Britt, from his office window, saw her coming. She wore no hat. The parasol framed the face that was still glowing after her battle for the sanctity of her love.
"It's worth it!" he muttered; but not even to himself did Britt mention what the price was.
Mr. Harnden's comment, delayed for some minutes, was that the girl was putting it almighty strong.
"It's her loyalty. She can't help it. She takes it from me," declared the mother, pouring another cup of tea for her shaken nerves.
"She does, hey?" Mr. Harnden's voice indicated that he was not commending the quality mentioned.
His wife was decidedly tart in her retort that he ought to be thankful for the loyalty that enabled her to put up with all the privations of the past.
"Well, let the past be the past. I've got my feet placed now—and that hired girl is coming to-morrow." The idea of his new prosperity revived Mr. Harnden's natural optimism. "That jailbird hasn't been away from her long enough for her to be weaned from her foolishness about him. He's safe away for seven years, and a whole lot can happen in that time—even to that loyalty that women seem to set such store by. My friend Britt comes here—into our family! That's understood. If Vona wants to eat off'n the mantelshelf in her room, well and good till she's tamed. And now—to work—to work!"
Mr. Harnden was truly very much up-and-coming those days. He rose and shook out first one leg and then the other, with the manner of a scratching rooster. The movements settled the legs of his trousers. He had a new suit of his own. It resembled Tasper Britt's. That new suit and the yellow gloves and the billycock hat excited some interest in Egypt; the new hitch that Harnden possessed excited much more interest. He was driving a "trappy" bay nag, and his new road wagon had rubber tires. Nor was Mr. Harnden doing any more inventing, so he declared to the public. The public, however, did declare behind his back that he must have invented something in the way of a system to be able to wear those clothes and drive that hitch. To be sure, there were some who insisted that the matter of Vona was still potent with Britt and that Britt's money was behind Harnden. But there were more who were certain that it was not the style of Britt to invest in any such remote possibility as a girl who openly declared that she proposed to wait seven years for the man of her choice.
Harnden had a new business; he was selling nursery stock. But that business did not account for his prosperity. He was taking town orders for his goods—taking orders on the town treasury, orders that had long been creased in wallets or had grown yellow in bureau drawers or had been dickered about at a few cents on the dollar and accepted when a debtor had nothing else with which to pay. Mr. Harnden said he was ready to take town orders at any time. He optimistically declared that his faith in the old town was firmly fixed. That optimism was entirely in accord with Mr. Harnden's past professions; and nobody wondered much, because he was so foolish. But he was not wholly a fool in that matter. He had only about a fifty-per-cent faith in Egypt—he insisted on that much discount when he took in a town order. Even at that rate, Ossian Orne did insist that Harnden was a complete fool. Orne would not take town orders for his nursery stock. But Orne's nose was out of joint, it was generally agreed. Harnden's lithographs showed apples twice as big as Orne's book did; the pears fairly oozed sweetness from their plump, pictured mellowness; there were peaches that provoked folks to make funny noises at the corners of their mouths when the optimistic Harnden flipped a page and brought the fruit to view. Nobody had ever heard of a peach tree growing among the rocks of Egypt. On the other hand, nobody supposed that a town order on the Egypt treasury was worth anything, as things stood. There were folks who bought peach trees!
And in the meantime there was much clatter in and about the old Britt house, tumble of timbers and rip of wainscotings and snarl of drawing nails. Out from the gaping windows floated the powdery drift of the plastering which the broad shovels had tackled. The satirists said that it was noticeable that the statue of Tasper Britt in the cemetery had settled down heavier on its heels, as if making grimly sure that Hittie was staying where she could not interfere.
In the meantime, also, Tasper Britt and a hired girl had become fixtures in the Harnden home—and the hired girl was quite in love with Vona and in entire sympathy with her stand; the girl brought to Vona's room the tidbits of all the meals and offered to put tacks in Britt's doughnuts if that would help matters any.
Vona was entirely serene in her companionship with her father and her mother. As for Tasper Britt, in sitting room or hall, on the street or on the lawn of the Harndens, he was ignored as completely, yet sweetly, as if he were an innocuous dweller in the so-called Fourth Dimension—to be seen through—even walked through—a mere shade, uninterred, unhonored, and unwarranted.
Tasper Britt, relentlessly on the job of punishing those who had poisoned his pride and his peace of mind, acknowledged to himself that the attitude of this girl was reacting on him in the way of more acute punishment than he was dealing out to anybody just then, except to Vaniman. Through the latter the girl was punished. But that punishment had steeled her to the stand she was making in the case of Britt. The god of the machine pondered on the case and constantly found himself in a more parlous state of mind because he did ponder.
Mr. Harnden tried his best to cheer the morose Britt. Some days the usurer-suitor wanted to cuff the optimist; some days he felt that he would go crazy unless Harnden could extend some hope, suggest some way of changing the girl's attitude.
All the time Mr. Harnden was very cheerful and extremely busy; his nag kicked up the dust along all the roads. His book of lithographs was dog's-eared with much thumbing, but he had served as a human vacuum cleaner in sucking up most of the town orders. Mr. Harnden was very free with information, customarily. But when folks asked him whatever in the world he expected to do with those town orders he was reticent as to any details of his plans. He considered that his optimism of faith in the future of the town covered the matter. He said so. He let it go at that.
One day Harnden roamed far afield and went to the shire.
The next day he came back from the shire.
After supper he sat in a wicker chair on the lawn with Tasper Britt, who was wearing a new suit of white flannel and who scowled when Vona passed along the walk without even a glance in that direction, though Britt had twitched up his trousers leg to show a particularly handsomely clocked sock.
Mr. Harnden did a lot of talking that evening. Every now and then, as if to fortify his optimistic courage, he declared, "After all, business is business—and the trend of the times is to make the most of opportunity."
Britt was showing interest in what Harnden was saying—interest and satisfaction, too. But all at once that interest was diverted and the smooth satisfaction was wrinkled by a scowl. Britt swore roundly and struggled up from his chair.
Prophet Elias was passing along the street. He flapped his hand in a greeting contemptuously indifferent and went on his way toward Usial's cot.
"Oh! I was intending to tell you about him," avowed Mr. Harnden, "but I've had more important things to talk over!"
Britt gave to this blunderheaded news purveyor the tail end of the malevolent stare that he had been bestowing on the Prophet's back.
"I heard about it when I was over to the shire town. A city lawyer showed up the other day and deposited cash bonds and got out a writ, and got Elias out, too, and the case has been appealed. Looks like the Prophet has footed it back here again. But I suppose you can arrest him on that other case of trespass."
Britt did not show especial alacrity in starting anything else in the case of the new arrival in town. He sat down. "Who was the lawyer? Who sent him?"
"Guess he didn't say. Let the money do the talking for him. And money can talk! Now, as I was saying, to get back to our regular business, it's up to you to name the ones that Dowd will tackle. Say, where are you going?"
Britt was on his feet and moving rapidly. "Somewhere to do some thinking away from that carpet-loom, shuttle-tongued, infernal mouth of yours!"
Mr. Harnden, astonished and much hurt, watched the usurer till he tramped into Britt Block.
But Mr. Harnden had too much important business of his own on his mind to use time in wondering how a Prophet had managed to get out of jail.
BLOOD OUT OF TURNIPS
In the past Mr. Harnden had regularly referred to Egypt as a good jumping-off place; he emphasized the jest by pointing to the ledge outcroppings which indicated that the landscape would not sag under the weight of the most energetic jumper. Then away he would go!
His detractors said that he was in the habit of coming home when affairs were in such a bad way with him that he could not stay anywhere else.
His wife and daughter had never admitted anything of the sort, even to each other. They affectionately welcomed Mr. Harnden when he came; after he had stoked the fires of his faith, and they had darned his socks and mended his shirts, they gave him the accustomed encouraging and loving Godspeed when he went away again under a full head of optimism. They always agreed with him, on each going-away, that this was surely the time when Opportunity was waiting outside.
But for many weeks Opportunity had seemed to be camping with Mr. Harnden right in his own home town. He was brisk, radiant, and apparently prosperous.
Therefore, when he announced in the bosom of his family that he proposed to go away for a time, his wife and daughter were frankly astonished.
It was directly after breakfast on the morning following Mr. Harnden's return from the shire town.
He did not display his usual jocose manner when he referred to Egypt as a jumping-off place. Vona found a sort of furtive uneasiness in the way he glanced out of the window and fingered his vest-pocket equipment. And he trod to and fro with the air of a man stepping on hot bricks.
"But you have said you are doing so well in your new business, father!" Vona's straightforward gaze was disconcerting.
Mr. Harnden kept on with his patrol. "Confound it. I've got to get into towns where there's more dirt if I'm going to sell any more nursery stock!"
"Oh, is that it? But I happened to go up in the attic and I found your sample books thrown behind a trunk, and I was afraid—"
"Afraid of what?" he demanded, with childish temper.
"Afraid you were giving up what seems to be a sure thing. The other ventures have been such uncertainties!" she returned, her business woman's composure unaffected by his reproachful stare.
"The books were all smutched up—too many dirty fingers afoul of them. I shall get new ones—providing I stay in that line." He was not convincing. "We'll see—we'll see! I've got to be moving. These are busy times for me."
"But you don't say when you're coming back, Joe!" quavered his wife.
"Why should I begin to set dates now, when I never have in past times?"
"Oh, I suppose it's because we've got so used to having you at home," she confessed.
"I'm leaving matters in better shape than I ever did before," said Mr. Harnden, pompously. "I have been worried about my home in the past when I have had to be absent on my business. We have Tasper in the house now. And he will not only guard and protect, but he will pay as he goes. I may not go far or stay long. Just let it stand that way. Tell inquiring friends that. I'll keep you posted. You know what my business is; it takes me here—it takes me there." He gave his wife a peck of a kiss and patted Vona's shoulder when he passed her. He picked up a valise in the hallway.
The girl followed him. "Father, always when you have been away, mother and I have felt perfectly comfortable and safe here in our home. If Mr. Britt hasn't the sense or the good taste to go somewhere else to board, won't you suggest to him that he'd better do so?"
"Nothing of the sort, Vona!" declared Harnden. "That contractor has brought a lot of strangers here to work on Britt's house, seeing that the men of this town are biting off their noses to spite their faces! I wouldn't take a minute's peace, knowing that my home is unprotected, unless I felt that a friend of mine was here as guardian. Oh, I know what you mean! But I have the safety of my family to consider instead of a girl's whims."
She did not argue the matter. His peppery impatience was increasing. This time he was not departing with his customary bland hopefulness. She knew the sort of selfishness her father possessed and how he avoided scenes that troubled his smug serenity. But on this occasion he seemed to be impelled by some urgent reason outside of mere anxiety to be away from complaining tongues.
He hurried out of the house and went to the stable, and she said no further word.
Ten minutes later he drove away, flinging a kiss to his womenfolks from the finger tips of the yellow gloves.
He headed directly out of the village and drove at a good clip.
However, one might have concluded that Mr. Harnden's destination was not as clearly settled in his mind as the haste of his departure suggested. When he came to four corners he pulled up and looked to right and to left and to the straight ahead. Mr. Harnden was too well acquainted with all the roads of Egypt and its environs to be confused by anything except strictly personal and peculiar doubts which had nothing to do with the matter of destination. He looked up into the heavens, as if he really wished that he might be able to escape from Egypt by flight. Then he did literally what the Yankee phrase suggests by way of synonym for taking counsel—"he looked between the horse's ears." He narrowed his eyes in meditation and spoke aloud. "I reckon it's only general nervousness on account of overwork and women's foolishness. There ain't one chance in ten that they'll get around to it to-day."
Arriving at that comfortable conclusion, Mr. Harnden lighted a cigar and chirruped to his horse and drove straight on.
The road zigzagged through an alder swamp for some distance, and the horse footed along slowly because a portion of the way was patched with sapling "corduroy." And with the impulse of a man who had been obliged to waste time, and saw an opportunity to get on, Harnden whipped up when he was again facing a smooth road. Therefore he came suddenly around the bend of the alders into cleared country and abreast a farm. It was a farm made up of the alluvial soil of the lowlands and was a rather pretentious tract of tillage, compared with the other hillside apologies of Egypt. And the buildings were in fairly good repair. It was the home of Jared Sparks Grant, the first selectman of the town.
Mr. Harnden did not look to right or left as his horse trotted past. He did not appear to be interested in the affairs of Egyptians that day—even in the case of the town's chief executive. When Harnden was hailed raucously he did not pull up, though he heard his name. After a few moments a gun banged behind him.
"I'm saving the other barrel," the voice announced, after Harnden had steered his horse from the gutter into the road; the animal had been frightened by the pattering of shot in the foliage of a tree overhead. "You'll get it straight, Harnden, unless you drive back here!"
When Harnden wheeled the horse and returned he perceived a dooryard group which he had affected not to see a few moments before.
There were Jared Sparks Grant, his son, his womenfolks, his hired man; Mr. Harnden recognized all of them, of course. He also recognized Deputy-sheriff Wagner Dowd from the shire town. Dowd had a couple of helpers with him. It was plain that the shotgun which had halted Mr. Harnden had been very nigh at hand and ready for use; there was a look about the folks in the dooryard which suggested an armed truce, now prolonged, for the handling of the new arrival.
"Don't you realize what's going on here?" demanded Selectman Grant, his weapon in the hook of his arm.
"No!" asserted Mr. Harnden.
"I know a blamed sight better! You can't look at this deputy sheriff without turning redder than one of the apples in that fake picture book of yours. You know what you have been doing in this town."
The selectman's tone was offensively harsh and loud. Mr. Harnden was moved to show a little spirit, having been cornered—and feeling protected by the presence of an officer of the law. "I have been doing business!"
"Scooping in town orders, you mean!"
"Taking them in the due course of my business, Mr. Selectman. I had a right to do it!"
"And what did you do with those orders?"
"I passed them on—still in the course of my business."
"And you don't know into whose hands they have come?"
The selectman stepped close to the carriage and brandished his gun. "While this town was staggering along, trying to find a way out, only a hellion would take and make a club out of those orders and hit us the last and final clip with 'em. You've done it, Harnden! For the sake of the dirty money you've done it. They were letting those orders rest easy till we could get the legislature and have things put into some condition where we'd know what's what. Through your work some land pirate has got hold of those town orders. There isn't a cent in the town treasury. You know it."
He whirled away from Harnden and shook the gun at the deputy sheriff.
"I sha'n't believe your law, Dowd, till I've been and talked with Squire Hexter."
"Go and talk! But in the meantime a good lawyer has told me what to do and has given me the documents, and I'm not trying the case in your dooryard. I have levied on those oxen and I shall take 'em along."
"Do you hear that, Harnden? That's what you have done to your town," bellowed the infuriated selectman. "He says there's a law allowing a creditor to levy on the property of any citizen of a town to satisfy a judgment. Judgment has been secured on those town orders. They are jumping on me first."
"It's what the lawyer told me to do," insisted the officer. "'Start with the selectman,' says he. 'That shows the others where they get off.' Grant, I'm here with the papers and the right to act." He advanced close to the selectman, waggling admonitory forefinger. "I've been excusing your feelings. I don't blame you! This is tough. It's the penalty you pay for living in such a town. But I don't propose to stand for any more of that gunplay. Hand it over!"
Grant hesitated. The officer snatched away the gun, broke it down, and pulled out the undischarged shell. He put that into his pocket and shoved the gun under the seat of a wagon. "You can have this gun back after the war is over. Now to business! You claim that the oxen are exempt because you have no horses. All right! I see you have a dozen cows. I'll take three of those. I'm fair, you see! You're only entitled to one cow. But keep nine. I'm going to spread the thing around town till I have enough to satisfy this judgment. It's for one hundred and ninety dollars. What say, now? Do you want to pay a fine for obstructing an officer?"
Selectman Grant shook his head. The flame of his rage had died down into sullen rancor. He went along to Harnden's carriage and suddenly nipped that gentleman's nose between toil-calloused index and middle fingers. "They tell me there's no law against doing this," he said between his yellow, hard-set teeth, as he twisted at the nose, while Harnden's eyes ran water. "If there is a law, I hope you'll stay handy by in this town and prosecute while we're heating the tar and getting the feathers ready."
Sheriff Dowd took advantage of Selectman Grant's preoccupation with Harnden. He gave off orders to his helpers and they lowered the bars of the barnyard and started away with the cows.
There was a general disintegration of the group. Mrs. Grant led the lamenting womenfolk into the house. Mr. Harnden did not really extricate his nose; Grant twisted so violently that he broke his own grip, and his victim laced the whip under the horse's belly and escaped.
Within ten minutes Selectman Grant was whipping his own horse in a direction opposite to that which Harnden had taken. Mr. Grant was hot after law.
Squire Hexter gave him the law, and cold comfort.
"They can do it, Jared. Outsiders can get hold of unpaid town orders and put on the screws if they're that heartless. It isn't done once in a dog's age. But, as I say, it can be done when a creditor is ugly enough. Harnden didn't say, did he, just who brought the orders?"
"I wouldn't have believed him if he did say! But he didn't say."
"And you don't know the man who secured judgment?"
"Never heard of him."
"I will try to trace the matter, Jared. No, keep your wallet in your pocket. There's no charge. It's a case where the interests of the citizens in general are concerned. I'm the regularly elected town agent, as you know!" The Squire smiled. "I'll take a town order for my pay." He looked out of the window. "It's about time for somebody else to come larruping up here after law! Don't hurry, Jared! Wait and hear what's happened to the neighbors!"
The selectman sat gloomily, elbows squared on his knees, and waited. Almost opposite the Squire's office the rattle-te-bang business on Britt's premises was going on.
"I wonder whether Tasper will dare to go ahead and build his palace after he hears the latest news," suggested the Squire. "You must be told, Jared, that after the live stock of the town has been thinned down to the essentials permitted by law, then the farms and general real estate can be levied on."
Grant lifted his haggard face and stared at the Squire. "Then, outside of the cook stove and my clothes, I don't know whether I'm worth a blasted cent, hey? They can dreen me slow with a gimlet, or let it out all at once with a pod auger, can they? That's what the law can do to me, you say! What can it do for me, Squire Hexter?"
"Well, Jared, they'll take your cows over to the shire and auction them off for what they'll bring. You can sue this town and recover the real value of the cows, along with interest at twelve per cent. That is to say, you can get judgment against the town for that amount."
"And then I can go over to my neighbor's and grab away any loose property I can find of his?"
"You can do it!"
"Look here, Squire, that makes it nothing except a game of 'tag, you're it,' and a case of 'I've got my fingers crossed'! The whole of us running around in circles, and the lawyers picking up all the loose change we drop from our pockets. Where do we wind up?"
The Squire shook his head slowly and reached down and stroked one of Eli's ears. "Eli was telling me that Jones thought he had invented perpetual motion when he tied a piece of liver to a pup's tail and set the pup to revolving; but the pup wore out."
Grant sat for some minutes and harkened to the bang of the hammers across the way. "I don't understand how a farseeing man like Tasp Britt dares to build a good house here," he growled.
"Oh, the pup may be worn out by the time it is finished—or those towers may mean that he intends to list it as a meetinghouse and have it exempted from taxation, Jared. We shall see!"
But whatever it was that the selectman saw, as he sat there and stared at the wall of Squire Hexter's office, it evidently was not serving in the way of comfort.
The Squire's prediction about other seekers for law was fulfilled before long. The deputy sheriff had proceeded on his travels. The afflicted parties came up the Squire's stairs. Arden Young reported that three of his best cows were driven away. George Jordan and his cousin J. O. Jordan each surrendered two faithful moolies. It was plain that Sheriff Dowd proposed to make sure that there was auction material enough to yield one hundred and ninety dollars, along with the costs.
"Jared," suggested the notary, "you'd better have an accounting and find out how many of those town orders were issued when the reckless spirit was on. Somebody has decided to milk the old town. It is being done scientifically, seeing that this first mess is so modest. But we need to know about how many messes we're expected to give down."
Inside of a fortnight there were two more milkings.
At about that time Tasper Britt started proceedings to foreclose a couple of mortgages. The debtors despondently declared that they would not attempt to redeem the property; they told Britt that he could have it for what he could get out of it. The usurer tried to show disinclination to take over real estate in Egypt, but he did not make a very good job of the pretense. He had the air of a man who expected to be obliged to tussle for something, but had had the something dropped into his grasp when he merely touched the holder's knuckles.
Britt had a map of the town in his office desk. He began to color sections with a red crayon. According to Mr. Britt's best judgment in the matter, he was in a fine way to own a whole town—a barony six miles square—at an extremely reasonable figure. From the selectman down, nobody seemed to feel that Egypt property was worth anything. As to beginning suits against the town, nobody felt like paying lawyers' fees and piling up costs. It was like tilting against a fog bank. And in a veritable fog bank of doubt and despair the unhappy Egyptians wandered around and around.
THE TAUT STRING SNAPS
Frank Vaniman's mother was allowed to visit him once a month at the prison. She was not present at his trial. She had respected his earnest wishes in that matter.
When she came to him she smiled—she did not weep. When she smiled he wanted to weep. He realized how much that display of calm courage was costing Martha Vaniman. He remembered how bravely and steadfastly she had brought that same heroine's quality to the support of his father when she had taken Frank with her to the prison; they used to walk in through the gloomy portal hand in hand, and, though her face was serene, her throbbing fingers told him what her heart was saying to her.
Her husband had thankfully accepted that little fiction of her fortitude; her son, under like circumstances, did the same. Between mother and son, as between husband and wife, was the bond of an implicit faith in the innocence of the accused. Love was not shamed, no matter how the outside world might view the matter.
The prison warden was a fat man, full of sympathy. He gave the mother and son the privileges of his office, and to those reassuring surroundings the mother brought Frank's sister on one of the regular visits.
After Mr. Wagg's guile gave Vaniman his outdoor job, the mother brought Anna each month, for the school vacation season was on. The sun was bright out there in the yard. One could look up into the fleecy clouds, over the walls, and forget the bars and the armed guards.
In fact, one day, Anna's ingenuous forgetfulness of the true situation provoked real merriment for the little party—Guard Wagg included. Anna surveyed apprehensively several particularly villainous-looking barrowmen who passed and expressed the devout hope that Frank always saw to it carefully that he locked his bedroom door nights.
Before all the zest of that joke had evaporated, Mrs. Vaniman departed; it was a part of her helpful tact in alleviating the grievous situation in which Frank was placed. She always came with the best little piece of news she could provide for the meeting; for the parting she reserved a bit of a joke.
Mr. Wagg chuckled for a long time after the visitors went away. Gradually his face became serious. "Of course, I have to sit here and listen to what's said, because that's my duty. But, as I have told you before, all family matters simply pass into one ear and out of the other."
"I'm mighty grateful for the way you have treated us," said Vaniman.
"The fact that we haven't done business as yet hasn't changed me—never will change me. That mother of yours is so fine a woman that she deserves every favor that I can grant her, for her own sake. And, she being so fine a woman, I was sorry to hear what you wormed out of her this day—that she has gone back to work in the store again."
"It was the one big happiness in my life in Egypt, Mr. Wagg, to feel that at last my mother was having the little rest and comfort that she deserved. I used to look ahead to the time when I could give her what I was able to give her while I was at work. I had a dreadful struggle with her, getting her to leave her work. The only way I ever did get around her was to complain that she was spoiling my prettiest dream by staying in the store. And now it's all to do over again. I haven't even the realization of the dream to help me here."
"It's tough—realizing what you could do if you had the chance, and not being able to do it," averred Mr. Wagg. He lighted his pipe and slid off his stool. "A woman earning her living these days has to do a terrible lot of hard work in seven years."
And having, after his usual custom, lighted a fire under the kettle, Mr. Wagg went to a distance and allowed the contents to boil.
The contents did boil that day, when Vaniman had an opportunity to do some concentrated thinking.
That morning he had received his weekly letter from Vona. She confessed to him that for some weeks she had refrained from telling him that Tasper Britt was a member of the household. She explained under what circumstances Britt was there and what her attitude was and would continue to be. She had not written anything about the matter, she said, on account of her anxiety to keep petty troubles and worries away from one who was suffering from such cruel injustice. But now that her father had gone away for an indefinite stay, leaving Britt as general guardian, she wrote to Vaniman to anticipate any rumors which might reach the young man from another quarter.
She did not state that this intrusion by Britt into her home was perpetual persecution where she was concerned; Vaniman felt that she did not need to say so. His imagination pictured the situation. He had become morbid. He admitted it, but he could not help himself. He had done his best to keep his judgments sane and his hopes untarnished. But he was judging Britt by what Britt had already done, and he was in a mood to believe that Britt would be able to go ahead and accomplish a lot more in the way of hideous deviltry. The thought of Britt in that house—a girl there with no other protection than the presence of a silly mother—made for agony of apprehension that was excruciating.
One of his most precious dreams had just melted into drab reality—his mother was compelled to go back to her toil.
His other dream—the one that was consoling him through the dreary wait of seven years behind bars—was threatened by the malevolence of a man who was showing himself to be a veritable fiend in his machinations.
Vaniman put some questions to himself. Who on God's green earth had a more imperious call to be out—to be free to fight for himself and the innocent? Would not a lie be holy if it should open prison doors and allow a guiltless man to go forth and battle with the guilty? Did not the end justify all the means? The state had declared that his liberty must be forfeited. Had the state the right to take away his reason? Vaniman told himself that he was on the straight road to lunacy.
He leaped up, in the frenzy of his determination forgetting that there were preliminaries yet to be attended to.
"Sit down there, Convict Two-Seven-Nine, or I'll bore ye!" bawled Guard Wagg, with a mighty volume of tone. A deputy warden was crossing the yard. He flourished a commendatory salute to the vigilant warder.
"Good stuff, Bart! Always on your job, eh?"
"Always!" agreed Mr. Wagg.
The warden went on his way and the guard marched to the convict with a manner which expressed a determination to give No. 279 an earful. He stood over Vaniman, who had dropped back to the chair, and the two of them swapped stares.
"I want to get out—I want to get out!" whimpered Vaniman.
Mr. Wagg nodded.
"What must I do?"
"Whack up with me—fifty-fifty. Haven't I told you times enough?"
"But, I mean, what must I do to help?"
"I don't need any of your help. I only want you to say that you'll lead me to that money."
Vaniman drew a deep breath. "I will lead you to that money."
"Some men would make you swear that you know just where the coin is," proceeded Wagg. "But I'm playing my own hunch in this thing on that point. Furthermore, I have talked with a chap named Bixby." He looked hard at the ex-cashier. "Bixby tied your little game into knots, didn't he?"
Vaniman admitted that fact by a rueful sag of his chin.
"Confidence—mutual confidence in each other!" Mr. Wagg walked away. When he came back past Vaniman, patrolling, he snapped: "No more talk! No more need of talk. Never can tell when talk may trip us. From now on, sit tight!"
After that, though days passed, Wagg had not one word for the amelioration of the convict's impatience. Then, one day, Wagg changed his job again. Vaniman was kept at the same work, if work it could be called. He caught glimpses of Wagg. The guard was busy on the opposite side of the big pit. He had two or three convict helpers. They began to operate drills in the side of a rocky hillock which towered considerably above the level of the yard.
News circulates inside prison walls despite the inhibition on communications between the inmates. Vaniman got information piecemeal from convicts who stopped near him on the pretense of spitting on their hands to get a new grip on their barrow handles. He learned that the plan was to mine the hillock and rig a blast that would tip it into the pit for filling. The barrow work was proving too slow an operation and the prison commissioners wanted the outside men put back into the shops where they could earn money for the state.
It was evident that Guard Wagg was having a great deal of trouble with his helpers. He was continually bawling them out with a violence whose volume reached the ears of Vaniman.
One day Wagg perceived the warden inspecting the work from the edge of the pit near Vaniman; the guard came trotting around.
"Warden, I'm an expert on quarry work, as you know," he panted. "I'm doing my best to show you that I haven't forgotten what I learned over at Stoneport, and to back up what I promised you and the commissioners after I gave you the tip as to what could be done with that hill. Much obliged to you for allowing me all the dynamite I need. But, demmit! I haven't got anybody with brains to help me handle it. It's notional stuff, sir. It hates a blasted fool." He pointed a finger at the men across the pit. Their striped suits suggested the nomenclature he used "Those potato bugs will do something to blow us to blazes sure'n there's air in a doughnut hole!"
The warden showed his concern. "Don't you know of some man who is used to dynamite?"
"That ain't it, sir. A fool gets used to it, till he's too cussed familiar. I want a man with brains enough to be polite to it."
The warden, making a general survey of the scene, beheld Vaniman. "A man who knows enough to be a bank cashier ought to have brains, Wagg. How about Number Two-Seven-Nine?"
Mr. Wagg contemplated Vaniman and took plenty of time for thought. "I'll try him," he said, without enthusiasm. "I hadn't thought of him—but I'll try him."
Directed to do so by the warden, Vaniman went to his new work with Wagg. The latter exhibited no especial symptoms of satisfaction at securing such a helper. He told the young man that his particular care would be the dynamite—to handle the boxes, store them in the little shed, unpack the sticks, and follow the drills, planting the rendrock ready for the blast that was to topple the hillock into the pit. Mr. Wagg explained to the warden, after a time, that the dynamite could be planted more safely and to better advantage when the drillers were off the job. Therefore, Vaniman was detailed to help during the noon hour while the prisoners were at dinner.
But, even when they were alone together, day after day, Mr. Wagg maintained his reticence. Once in a while he did wink at Vaniman. The winks grew more frequent when Mr. Wagg began to connect up the dynamite pockets in the hill with wires. One afternoon, near knocking-off time, he stepped into the shed where Vaniman was covering up his boxes for the night. "When you leave your cell in the morning," said the man who had promised freedom, "hide in your pockets all the letters and little chickle-fixings you intend to carry away with you. You won't be going back into that cell again, Number Two-Seven-Nine."
NO VOICE FROM THE PIT
It was a night of wakefulness and of tremors for Vaniman. His was the acute expectancy of one who was about to set out on strange adventures, but whose orders were sealed and whose destination was unknown. Wagg's stolid appearance of knowing just what he was about had been a steadying aid in helping the young man control his doubts; in issuing his final, curt commands Wagg did not abate his confidence; Vaniman felt that he was in no position to demand more candor.
He forced himself to eat his breakfast when it was pushed under his cell door. The messes that were daily dabbed into the compartments of the tin tray were never appetizing; that morning his emotions made everything as tasteless as sawdust. But he ate for strength's sake; he did not know what form of endurance would be demanded of him.
He put only a few of his letters into his pocket. Cells were inspected every day after the convicts went forth to their toil. He did not dare to excite suspicion by taking away any noticeable amount of his possessions.
The forenoon work went on as usual. And Mr. Wagg gave no signs that this was the day of days according to his plans. He constantly warned the convicts not to meddle with any of the wires. He was even peremptorily short with a deputy warden who came poking around. The warden asked if there was any danger.
"There's always danger when a hill is full of wired-up, canned thunder," stated Mr. Wagg. "I maintain, as I always have maintained, that it's notional stuff. You'll kindly remember that I told you so."
The warden departed with an air that revealed how much he had been impressed.
With the crisis so near, irritability pricked Vaniman's state of nervous tension. He began to resent Wagg's contemptuous silence in regard to details. That the guard's plans were concerned in some way with the mined hillock was evident enough. But an explosion which merely would create a diversion to assist in an escape was not a device that would effectively solve his difficulties, Vaniman reflected. Wagg's general stolidity made him seem rather stupid; the young man felt that his own wits ought to be enlisted in the affair. In the stress of circumstances he hankered to co-operate instead of being a sort of Ludlam's dog, dumb and driven.
However, toward noon, Mr. Wagg was displaying a certain amount of tension of his own and his demeanor did not invite complaints or recrimination. The convict decided that there was nothing for it except to let Mr. Wagg do the wagging.
When the noon bell clanged from the tower, the pit-job prisoners filtered into groups from their occupation in the yard and others filed from the doors of the shops. They shuffled their way in double lines through the gaping door of the main building, received their tins of food, and went to their cells.
As usual, Vaniman remained with Wagg.
The warders on the walls relaxed their vigilance when the heavy door was closed behind the last men of the lines. The guards went into the sentry boxes and set down the heavy rifles.
Wagg made a general survey of the scene. No person was moving in the open area of the yard. The veteran of the guard was well acquainted with the customary habits and movements of the noon hour. He knew that the men in the main guardroom were reduced to a shift of two while the others went to their dinners; the two men were in the habit of giving the deserted yard only indifferent attention. But Mr. Wagg had provided against even casual glances.
For purposes of his own, which a boss did not need to explain, he had nailed boards together to form something like a door, six feet square. The thing had been leaning against the dynamite shed for some days.
Quite casually, Mr. Wagg went and lifted away this square of boarding, holding to the traverse braces on which the boards were nailed. He trudged along, carrying it, and came to where Vaniman was standing, observing and wondering.
"Scooch!" snapped Wagg. "Walk along. Don't show yourself past this shield!"
It was a true shield. Wagg carried it straight up and down. Vaniman obeyed instantly. He had a mental flash that Wagg did know exactly what he was about in his tactics. Lacking all idea of the scheme, Vaniman had not the heart to begin to ask for any details of the big plan at the crucial moment. He allowed himself to be an automaton. It was easy to do one thing at a time, as Wagg commanded; knowing nothing about what Wagg intended to do. Vaniman was not in a position to delay matters by doubts as to the best way of doing the thing. He walked behind the board screen, conscious that his movements were hidden from the men in the guardroom and, for that matter, from the eyes of anybody in the prison building.
After a walk of a few rods Vaniman found himself close to a big chimney; it served a shop which had been unused since the crew had been at work on the job of filling the pit. Wagg set down the shield on its edge, as if needing to rest for a moment.
"Open that chimney door and dodge in. Pull the door to behind you."
At the base of the chimney Vaniman beheld the iron door provided for the convenience of cleaners and repair men. The padlock of the door was unhooked. He lifted the door from its latch, crawled into the chimney, and pulled the door shut. A moment later, waiting in the stifling darkness, he heard the rattle of metal against metal and the snap of the padlock. There was the tramp of departing feet. Gradually he became able to see about him in some degree. Away up above him was a square of sunlit sky at the top of the shaft. He saw in one corner a large pail with a cover; inside it were several bottles. Also, there was a bundle of clothing.
Judging from the amount of food, it was rather evident that Mr. Wagg expected prison-bird Two-Seven-Nine to play chimney swallow for some little time!
Wagg had made a quick job of locking in Vaniman. The guard tipped the upper edge of the shield inward till it rested against the chimney. He reached around the end of the boarding and snapped the padlock. Then he lifted his burden and went on.
About that time a lazy man in the guardroom rolled slow gaze upon the yard. He saw Wagg moving with the burden and watched until Wagg laid it down flat on the ground. He opined that it was a part of the bomb-proof shelter that Wagg proposed to build in order to watch the hillock-smashing at close range. The other guard confirmed that opinion, having information straight from Wagg, himself.
"When does she bust?"
"Next week, so he cal'lates!"
But Mr. Wagg, returning slowly, keeping to the side of the pit farthest from the hillock, was at that moment down to seconds in his figuring how long it would be before the crawling fire on a fuse would reach and sever a cord and trip a certain trigger.
"I reckon she's about due," muttered Mr. Wagg. He stopped without easy jumping distance of the corner of a shop and slowly lighted his pipe as an excuse for stopping.
His reckoning was correct.
The hillock heaved. The mining had been skillfully done; the mass of rocks and earth was hoisted from behind and slid toward the pit. There was a tremor of the ground under the prison and its yard as if Thor had thunked viciously with his heaviest hammer. When startled men shot glances from the windows that were handiest for observation, the hill was toppling into the pit. In the forefront was the dynamite shed, splintering under the tons of moving rock. Instantly the last sliver of the shed was swallowed up, and then other tons of dirt and rock went piling into the pit, burying the shattered structure in crashing depths from which lime-rock dust came puffing in clouds.
On the edge of the pit a man was dancing wildly in an aura of dust. The man was Wagg. He came staggering away from the pit, his arms folded across his eyes.
"I saw him!" he squalled, when officers met him in their race across the yard from the prison. "He was in the shed. I told him to keep away from them wires. I've been telling everybody to keep off'n them wires. But everybody has been bound and determined to fool with 'em." He pulled down his arms and shot accusatory digit at the deputy warden whom he had previously rebuked. "Only this day I had to warn you not to fool with them wires. He must have done it. I saw him go under. It's Gawd-awful. I'll never forget it—how he looked. Gimme water!"
He sucked from the edge of the tin dipper which a man brought, suffling like a thirsty horse. He rolled up his eyes and surveyed the warden, who had arrived.
"Number Two-Seven-Nine—you say he has gone?" The warden's countenance registered honest horror; but Mr. Wagg's simulated horror was even more convincing in its intensity.
"He's gone! He's under the whole of it!" Wagg dropped the dipper and collapsed on the ground. "My nerve is all busted, Warden. I sha'n't ever have any more grit to be a guard. I ask to be discharged. Here and now I beg to be fired!"
"I'll arrange a furlough for you, Wagg," said the warden, with understanding sympathy. "You're entitled to a lay-off with pay. It was a terrible thing to see!"
"And his mother!" mourned the guard. "Break it to her easy!"
"A dreadful—dreadful affair," insisted the warden.
He started toward the edge of the pit. "And the prison commissioners, the way state finances are, will never go to the expense of having all that rock moved to dig him out."
"Probably not, seeing that he's under the whole of it," agreed Wagg. "He was a likable chap, spite of what he had done to get in here. Poor Two-Seven-Nine!"
One of the inside guards had arrived at the scene of mourning. He was greatly excited. "And I guess it's poor Two-Eight-Two! He's missing from the noon count-up, Mr. Warden!"
Wagg struggled upon his feet. He was not simulating the new phase of his emotions. He looked distinctly frightened. "There's only one under there. I saw him go. Who is Two-Eight-Two?"
"One of the pair sent down from Levant for breaking and entering in the nighttime."
"He wasn't in my crew—he wasn't on outdoor work," shouted Wagg.
"What was his job?" demanded the warden.
"Harness shop," reported an officer. He called to another guard and started into the building indicated.
All those in the yard waited anxiously, their eyes on the door where the guards had entered. Promptly the officers came out. One propelled a convict, clutching the collar of the dingy prison coat; the other carried a length of narrow ladder that was fashioned from strips of leather. "I reckon he hid out to work on this," said the guard.
"Didn't you know that you couldn't get away with anything of that sort?" the warden demanded, angrily.
The convict looked past the warden, straight into the eyes of Wagg. "You never can tell what you can get away with till you try it," Two-Eight-Two declared. There was a touch of insolence in his manner.
"Into the doghole with him!" the warden commanded.
Wagg surveyed the departure of the convict. The man contrived to twist his head around and look behind him; and he disclosed a grin. But he was hampered by the clutch on his collar and Wagg was not sure that the grin was intended for him, though the consciousness that the convict might have beheld what was on the inner side of that shield of boards was a thought which troubled Mr. Wagg's complacent belief that a good job had been well done.
He continued to watch the man until the narrow door which opened from the yard, admitting to the doghole cells, swallowed up the convict and his guard. All that time a sort of quivery feeling was inside Wagg. He actually found himself in frantic mental search of some kind of a lie to be used in case the convict whirled and pointed to the big chimney and got over an accusation. But the man did not look around again.
"I can plainly see that you are in a bad way, Wagg," affirmed the warden. Fervently did Mr. Wagg agree in his heart. "Your leave of absence dates from this moment, if you say so."
"I may have to go on to stone work again if I don't get back my grit, warden. I'd like to have the run of the yard for a day or so, in order to look over just how that blast worked. Seeing that it cost a human life, I'd like to get full value of experience out of it."
"Come and go as you like, Wagg. I'll lend you a key to the small door beside the wagon entrance in case you don't want to ring in through the guardroom."
Mr. Wagg expressed his gratitude in proper terms and allowed that he would go and lie down for a time in order to calm himself. Again he urged the warden to break the news gently to Vaniman's mother and respectfully requested that Guard Wagg's sympathy be included in the condolence in the official letter.
The newspapers of that afternoon contained an account of the tragic happening at the state prison.
That night, too, Vona Harnden kept vigil, her door locked against her mother, whose fatuous commonplaces of commiseration were like files against the raw surface of the girl's agony.
The front parlor of the Harndens had been converted into a sleeping room for Tasper Britt. Vona's room was over the parlor. She could hear the rasping diapason of his snoring. He appeared to be sleeping with the calm relaxation of a man who had been able to eliminate some especial worries from his mind.
Furthermore, that night, the chairman of the prison commissioners had a talk with the warden over the telephone. The warden made a guess as to how many thousands of tons of rock were piled above the body of the unfortunate victim.
"The taxpayers will never indorse the project of digging out that pit to recover the body of a convict, no matter who he is," declared the commissioner. "I don't mean to sound brutal, but we must let it stand as it is. Enter the reports of witnesses and declare the man officially dead. Here is one case, at least, Mr. Warden, when there's no doubt about a man being dead."
However, shortly after twelve o'clock that night—and the night being particularly black with an overcast sky—Bartley Wagg opened the iron door of the big chimney and called forth Frank Vaniman and led him out through the little door at the side of the carriage entrance.
There was a conveyance waiting there, a good-sized van, drawn by a solid-looking horse. Mr. Wagg lifted the flap of the van's cover.
"Crawl in!" he commanded. "You'll find plenty of room along with the rest of the camping kit. Roll yourself up in the tent and take it easy. My nerves have been shocked by the terrible affair and I'm going into the mountains to recuperate. Doctor's orders!" He was grimly serious.
He mounted the seat of the van and drove away with his passenger and the outfit.
THE SHADE WHO STALLED
Mr. Wagg did not hurry. He used several days for his trip to Egypt. He drove leisurely along roads which led through small towns and out-of-the-way places. That plan afforded him opportunity and excuse for pitching a tent to serve as shelter during the night stops. And after the tent was pitched and the dusk descended, Vaniman was able to come thankfully from the hateful restraint of the van and stroll along the woodland aisles and get the kinks out of his anatomy.
But, although he eased his body, he was unable to ease his mind. He had not expected to enjoy his questionable freedom, anyway. Liberty was of value to him only as he might be able to use it in his fight for his rights as an innocent man. He could not freely use his liberty until he had cleared his name and thereby justified his escape from the prison. Now he was wondering whether he would have allowed Wagg to proceed as he did had the guard apprised him of the full details of the plan. The sweat of anguish stood out on him as he pondered in the jolting van; he found no pleasure in the respite of the peaceful woods.
By the plot of Wagg he had dealt his loved ones the cruel blow that sudden death inflicts on the affections. In spite of what he hoped to gain from his freedom, Vaniman was accusing himself, realizing what his mother, his sister, and Vona were suffering. It was his nature to draw fine distinctions in points of honor; he was ashamed in the presence of Wagg; and in the consideration of the interests of self, he felt that his liberty was exacting too great a price from others. To all intents and purposes, outside the knowledge of one man to the contrary, he was dead, and he had deprived his best beloved of hope and peace of mind. The one man in the secret profanely declared that if Vaniman made an attempt to communicate with any person in the world until their particular business had been settled, the whole project was in danger. "I don't care how much dependence you put in your mother's good sense. She's a woman, and women slop over when they're all wowed up! She'd have to tell your sister, wouldn't she? She couldn't let your sister go on suffering. And your sister's too young to be trusted. Vaniman, the toughest part is over for 'em. That's a cinch! They'll go on sorrowing, of course, but they'll be feeling more reconciled every day. Mourners always do. Mourners can't help seeing the bright side, after a time. Think of that and quit your foolishness. You have made a trade with me. Till your part of that trade is carried out you ain't a free agent to do what you want to do in your own affairs."
The worry over his inability to carry out that trade was mingled with the young man's general bitterness of regret because he had challenged Fate so boldly.
"There's one thing about it," Mr. Wagg pursued, "the quicker you come across with me the sooner you can do what you darnation want to on your own hook. I have worked a thing that could be worked only once. You're out—and you're out right. Nobody is chasing you. Take another name, show up in some other part of the country, and you'll live happy ever after."
He dwelt on that theme whenever the two talked, and he played all the variations. Furthermore, he complained because Vaniman was not showing his gratitude in more hearty fashion. "I catch you looking at me like a youngster would look at a bumblebee crawling across his bare foot. I don't ask to be taken into your bosom as your main and particular chum—understand that! But while there's business on between us I expect pleasant looks, even if you don't feel like handing me conversation."
Mr. Wagg was doing practically all the talking on that trip. He had emerged from his cocoon of taciturnity. He explained that naturally he was a great talker, but that prison rules had pretty nigh paralyzed his tongue and he was trying to get it back into good working order once more.
He made an especial point of vaunting himself upon the success of his scheme of deliverance. He tackled the thing from all angles. He played it up as the greatest achievement that ever had been worked in behalf of a convict. Mr. Wagg, serving as board of appraisal of his own feat, kept boosting the value. It was evident that he was suspecting that Vaniman, out and free, was in the mood that is characteristic of the common run of humanity: urgent desire is reckless about price; possession proceeds to haggle and demur.
"And there's one thing about it," insisted Wagg, "we've got to keep on going ahead. We can't back up. We can't dissolve partnership. And the trade has got to stand as it was made—fifty-fifty."
"I'm not going back on the trade."
They were sitting close to each other on a tussock behind their little tent. Mr. Wagg leaned close and bored Vaniman with earnest gaze. "We'll fetch Egypt on to-morrow's hitch. Of course, you're going to stick close to me, and you can bet that I'm going to stick close to you till the whack-up has been made. No shenanigan! Now, seeing how far I have gone in doing my part, don't you think it's about time for you to come across?"
Vaniman spread his hands. "How can I? Wait till we get to Egypt." Right then he had no notion of what he was going to do when he arrived in Egypt. He had not dared to look the proposition squarely in the face. He did not even analyze his feelings. He was dimly conscious that he was pitying Wagg. That ambitious person was in for a grievous disappointment. To be sure, Wagg had insisted on following a current belief and persisted in building his hopes on a fallacy and had forced human nature until weak human nature had snapped under the strain. Wagg had refused to believe the truth; he had preferred to indulge his own delusion in regard to the treasure of the Egypt Trust company. Nevertheless, Vaniman was ashamed—and he was afraid.
Britt was the crux of the situation—that was evident enough! Britt knew where the coin was. Vaniman was sure on that point. Britt had so maneuvered that wild-goose errand to Levant that he had made the affair furnish opportunity to himself and fix the odium on Vaniman. In spite of what the young man knew of Britt's lust for money, he believed that the usurer had worked a scheme to ruin a rival instead of merely operating to add to his riches. But Vaniman knew Britt well enough to reach the conclusion that, once having the hard cash in his possession, and the blame fastened on another man, Britt was allowing avarice to stand pat on the play.