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Title:  Woman in Ambush
Author: Rex Beach
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Language: English
Date first posted:  March 2019
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Woman in Ambush

by
Rex Beach

CONTENT

Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11
Chapter 12
Chapter 13
Chapter 14
Chapter 15
Chapter 16
Chapter 17
Chapter 18
Chapter 19
Chapter 20
Chapter 21
Chapter 22
Chapter 23
Chapter 24
Chapter 25
Chapter 26
Chapter 27
Chapter 28
Chapter 29
Chapter 30
Chapter 31
Chapter 32

Chapter 1

THE CELL was small, its walls were stained and grimy, its furnishings were scanty. There were two narrow, folding bunks, one above the other, a pitcher, washbowl, and slop bucket. A plank bench was so securely bolted to the wall that it was really a fixture. This being a county jail, its inmates were not in stripes and discipline was less rigid than in state penal institutions. Like most others of its kind, however, it was badly run, it needed modernizing, it had an unpleasant smell, and the food was terrible.

Supper was over, cell doors had been bolted, and the inmates were free to occupy themselves as best they could. Most of them spent this interval of leisure loudly cursing the cook.

Number 117 had two occupants. The older and the larger sat on the edge of the lower bunk, massaging his hands and flexing his fingers. They were soft, white, pliable hands, and he cared for them like a woman. He was a huge, shapeless person with drooping face, his clothes were baggy, his feet were large and flat, and his outturned toes pointed at ten minutes of two. They appeared to be boneless feet, for he walked as silently as a cat. In all his movements, ungainly but effortless, he reminded his youthful companion of an elephant. There was the same loose, rippling flow to his muscles; his body rocked and swayed.

African hunters have marveled at the alertness of an elephant and at his ability, when suspicious or alarmed, to steal away through the densest jungle without cracking a twig or making the faintest sound. Jim Larkin, too, was wary, suspicious, and alert. He didn’t advertise his comings or his goings.

Ronnie, his cellmate, told himself that in spite of these characteristics Jim’s presence here behind bars went to prove that even elephants can be taken off guard. In spite of their enforced companionship, the two had become friends. Neither, however, had told the other upon what charge he had been convicted or what chain of unfortunate events accounted for his presence here. They talked and joked with each other, but there had been no exchange of confidences. The very atmosphere of the place induced restraint.

Having limbered up his fingers, Jim took a deck of cards from under his thin and lumpy pillow and began to shuffle expertly. He looked up with a smile, saying, “Well, it won’t be long now.”

“Not long,” Ronnie agreed. “I guess neither of us will sleep much tonight.”

“Right you are, kid. The last night in a jug is like the first night; it never ends. Where will you be heading?”

“Nowhere in particular. And you?”

“Back to Dixie. Back to civilization, where two pairs isn’t a misdemeanor and it isn’t a felony to fill a straight.”

“That means you will be heading back to the River, I presume.”

“And no place else! It isn’t what it used to be; the railroads are spoiling it, but it’s still a—well, a country of its own. There’s nothing like it. Even the people are different; they have their way of living and it suits me fine.”

“Have you got enough money to get there?”

“Listen, kid, I’ve got all the money in the world.” The speaker deftly riffled his cards in mid-air, and they flew together as if by some magic. “I mean just that, Ronnie. The world’s full of money, and a smart guy can help himself to what he needs. That is, as long as he doesn’t take more than he’s entitled to. It’s like living in a bank. Yes, sir, when you learn that fact, you’ll be as contented as I am.”

“Are you contented?”

“Why not? I’ve been everywhere and seen everything, from a ringside seat. I don’t need much and I can turn my hand to anything. I love to live, just live. Something is always happening. Never the same thing twice.”

For a moment Ronnie watched the speaker manipulate his cards, then he said, “You’re lucky. It isn’t everybody who can make a living out of those things.”

“I know. Cards love some people just the way some people love cards. To me, they are the same as animals, and I can make ’em do tricks.”

Deftly Jim executed a one-handed cut, dealt alternately from the top and from the bottom, performed a neat false shuffle by pulling one half of the deck through the other.

“I could show you a lot if I had a work bench, but a real card player doesn’t need this stuff. It’s nice to know when your luck needs a little boosting. You’d make a card player, Ronnie.”

“Think so?”

“I’ve watched you. I can tell.” Jim shook his oversized head regretfully. “It’s a shame.”

“What is?”

“To find a promising lad like you scratching his behind in a squirrel cage. You’re tossing your chances away.”

There was an obvious retort, but Ronnie made none.

“I’ve never asked you what you did—don’t tell me. I like a guy who keeps his lip closed. What’s more, you haven’t told me how smart you are and how dumb the cops are. That’s a sign of intelligence. Maybe you have realized that they must have something on us or we wouldn’t be here. As Solomon said, the fear of the Law is the beginning of Knowledge.”

“I know they are smarter than I am. So what?”

The Lark again shuffled and cut before resuming, with some reluctance. “The trouble is, once a young fellow finds his way into a place like this, nine times out of ten he finds his way back. I’m not a soul saver, I don’t preach, but you’re headed the wrong way, kid. Why not change your direction and make a man of yourself? I could show you how. Did you ever have a pal, a real buddy?”

“No, Jim, not even a real friend.”

“It’s pretty swell to have a guy you can talk to when you feel like it or say nothing all day and know that he understands. A guy you like to be with. I had one, but he got greedy and helped himself to more than he needed. He liked the River, too. Those floating palaces all gilt and crystal, puffing and snorting and kicking up a storm. Planters in their fine clothes out having a good time and looking for a game. Their women, too, like pictures out of a book. And New Orleans—it’s the wealthiest port anywhere, kid, and the gayest. River packets and oceangoers along the levee front four deep. Their spars and smokestacks are like a forest. Mountains of freight. Darkies singing and romping. Every night in New Orleans is a carnival. Stage shows, operas, grand balls, and once a year the Mardi Gras. There’s something doing every hour. Why, Rome in all its glory was never like that.”

“Have you been to Rome?”

“Sure! I’ve been everywhere and back but there’s only one New Orleans.”

Now that Jim was on his favorite topic, the Mississippi and its way of life, there was no stopping him. His companion listened fascinated until the cell light suddenly went out.

As Ronnie climbed into his bunk, Jim said, “Yes, it’s great to have a pal. It’s fine to go places and see things and have fun—as long as you can share it with the right guy. Why not straighten up and deal yourself a new hand?”

After an instant, Ronnie said in a queer voice, “Maybe I will. I’d like a change.”

“Think it over. You can always find me at McPhee’s Palace. If I’m not in the city, they’ll tell you where I am. The Palace is a good place to gamble, but the eats aren’t much. Just ask for Jimmy the Lark. Good night, kid.”

“Good night, Jim.”

Neither speaker dreamed that he had on that last night in the county jail made a lifelong pact.

* * * * * * * * *

The Banning home, or mansion as some people called it, was located on the finest residential street of the city. It was larger, handsomer, and better kept than its neighbors, but even aside from its size, its ample grounds and ornamental plantings, it carried itself with an air of distinction.

If houses could speak—and who doubts that inanimate things possess some faculty of self-expression—this one would have answered the queries of inquisitive strangers by saying, loftily, “Banning is the name, Dr. Chilton Banning.”

If this carried no obvious meaning, the house would doubtless have arched its fanlights and shrugged its porte-cochere, then murmured, “Indeed! Not to know Dr. Chilton Banning is to argue one’s self unknown.”

It was precisely the kind of house to look down its nose when offended.

On the other hand, if the passer-by recognized Dr. Banning as one of the country’s leading M.D.’s, an author of distinction, and chief of staff of the city’s largest hospital, then the residence would have said, warmly, “Yes, indeed! A brilliant and successful man. And such a practice. By appointment only. Three weeks in advance. Mrs. Banning was a lovely woman. She died ten years ago. It was she who drew my plans and made me what I am. In her time, we entertained a good deal. Now the poor Doctor is so busy that I see very little of him. In fact, I don’t see much of Dick, either. Have you heard about Dick? Then let me tell you.”

The Banning mansion had ample reason to brag about the Doctor’s only son, for Dick, too, was a celebrity in his way. He had inherited his father’s rich talents and something more, as proved by the award of a college degree at sixteen. Moreover, he had graduated with honors. Dick had been an infant prodigy and an object of wonder to his earliest teachers. As he grew up, the speed, the effortless ease with which he had raced through grade and prep school had led the city’s newspapers to give him considerable publicity.

Friends of the family who thought any kid must be abnormal if he could extract a cube root before he could pull his own milk teeth urged Dr. Banning to hold the boy back. Top-heavy juveniles were unhealthy freaks, they warned. But Dick could not be held back. Nor did the Doctor try. Proud of his son’s precocity, he actually pushed him forward by encouraging him in his work and providing tutors during the summer vacations. It was the Doctor’s belief that our educational system was archaic and that any normal child, if properly taught, could acquire a college education at a saving of anywhere from four to six years. Using his own son as an example, he had written a paper on the subject.

Obviously a parent as busy as Dr. Banning could not see much of a son as preoccupied as Dick was. In truth, neither had ever cared to see a great deal of the other, for always there had been something between them which grated uncomfortably. It was like some invisible abrasive, too finely ground to be detected except under the stress of wear and tear.

Actually they had seen nothing whatever of each other during the past four weeks. Dick had been away from home visiting a friend whose parents owned a summer camp in the North woods.

Dr. Banning rose early, for it was in the morning hours that he performed his surgery. It was his custom to come downstairs while the hall clock was striking seven and Mrs. Gibbs, his housekeeper, knew better than to delay his breakfast.

This morning, as he seated himself opposite her, he announced,

“Dick should be home today and—”

“Oh! Then you’ve heard from him.” Mrs. Gibbs was a wholesome, competent woman who had been a sort of second mother to the boy and who felt privileged to interrupt even the head of the household.

“Please tell him I wish to see him. Ask him to stay here until I come in.”

“Why, of course. But I’m sure he’ll be as eager to see you as you are to see him—”

“I’m not so sure,” the father said shortly. “I’m not sure of anything about him lately. He’s been acting queerly and it worries me.”

“You don’t mean he’s sick?” Mrs. Gibbs inquired anxiously. “Goodness, people are always telling me that boys like him, who are too smart for their age, never grow up into healthy, normal persons.”

“He’s not sick. As a matter of fact, he’s an unusually healthy and vigorous young animal.”

“I’m glad to hear that.”

“The idea that bright children become-dull or their brains cease to develop is all bosh. It’s as ridiculous as the assumption that only the stupid survive. Frankly, it’s a pity that so many of them do, but nature’s ideal is a sound mind in a sound body.”

“That’s Dick, all over! And I take some credit to myself.” Mrs. Gibbs nodded with satisfaction.

“I never considered him a prodigy, a child wonder. He’s merely what other boys of his age should be and could be if—”

Mrs. Gibbs again interrupted, “Now, Doctor, you know as well as I do that no boy in this city ever went through school the way he did. Or college either. He’s a genius and everybody knows it except you. Why, I was telling our new minister how he graduated cum—something or other and—”

Cum laude.”

“—and he would have gone to Oxford, England, last year only they said he was too smart already so he had to start in here on a new course studying a lot of foolish things just to mark time.”

With a smile, Dr. Banning explained. “What happened was this. They wrote me that a sixteen-year-old American boy would probably find it difficult to get along happily with English boys so much older than he and it was their suggestion that a year’s delay would make it easier for him to adjust himself. Accordingly, he took an extra year’s work in languages, literature, the drama, etc. Dick is too young to choose a profession or to decide much of anything for himself, so I must decide for him. A few years of postgraduate work abroad will cure that and send him off to a flying start. That’s one matter I want to discuss with him.”

The Doctor was opening his eggs, something he insisted upon doing himself inasmuch as a fragment of shell between his teeth was enough to spoil an entire day. He executed the task with delicacy and precision. Everything he did was like that, as if there were a fee attached. Carving a turkey, for instance. It was a major operation, and he performed it standing up. Dick, who abhorred surgery, could almost see his father in mask and gown and rubber gloves and he looked on with horrified fascination while the carving knife, sterilized no doubt, unerringly severed tendons and opened joints. Dick sometimes pondered on the thought that the bird, not fully anesthetized, might twitch and moan. When the waitress pushed the wheeled serving table out into the butler’s pantry, he fancied it was for the purpose of counting sponges.

“Another thing I want to discover,” the Doctor stated, “is where he spends his evenings. He used to study, now he dresses up and saunters out as if he owned the town.”

“But, Doctor, he can’t work all the time! He’s a big boy. He has friends—”

“What kind of friends? Who are they? Young people of his own age or—women? Bad women?”

“Doctor!” The kindly housekeeper was aghast. “Dick isn’t that kind of a boy, and I guess I should know even better than you. Why, that’s—wicked.”

“Perhaps it is. Nevertheless it’s time that young gentleman and I had a talk. Tell him, if you please, that I will be home late but shall expect to see him.”

The speaker dropped his napkin and rose, for his carriage had driven into the porte-cochere.

Chapter 2

DICK BANNING returned home that afternoon by way of the alley. He came in through the back door of the stable and was greeted by low whinnies from his father’s team of bays and from his own saddle horse. He spoke to the animals, stroked and caressed them, and laid his cheek against their silken muzzles. The coachman, he knew, was asleep upstairs.

Dick was a tall, pleasant-faced lad who looked several years older than his age. He had a disarming smile, there was a stubborn wave to his hair, his gray eyes were wide-set and intelligent, but there was nothing about him to challenge attention or to suggest the unusual.

A grape arbor, heavy with foliage, led from the stable and carriage house to the brick terrace at the rear of the residence. Dick passed through it. On one side of this arbor was a garden of old-fashioned flowers; on the other, a grass tennis court, croquet ground, and archery range. These spacious but secluded premises had been his playground and his mother’s favorite loitering place. In his mind’s eye he could see her now among her roses and columbines, her snapdragons and hollyhocks—a gentle, gracious, fragile creature, as miraculous in her way as the loveliest blooms in this smiling garden. Thank Heaven, Dick thought, it had been kept exactly as she left it.

Entering the house, the boy went quickly to his room, turned on the water in the bathtub, and shed his clothes. Not long after, Mrs. Gibbs knocked on the bathroom door and inquired,

“Can I come in?”

“Why, certainly not,” he said with a laugh. “Aren’t you ever going to grow up, Mother Gibbs? Or let me do so?”

“This growing up!” The housekeeper spoke scornfully. “To me you’re still a little boy and little boys never scrub between their shoulders.”

“I promise! How did you know I was here?”

“I heard the water running. I can always tell when you’re home. Did you have a good time?”

“Marvelous.”

“Hunh! The idea of going off to camp for a whole month without a word of warning.”

“Didn’t you get my note?”

“Yes. But you were gone by that time. You didn’t leave a word for your father. Was that nice? Was that considerate? No, I’m ashamed of you, Dick.”

“Hurrah!” Dick exclaimed. “I’ve always been such a model of infantile propriety, such an object lesson in perfect decorum that it’s nice to be scolded. Maturity is sneaking up on me.”

“Well, the Doctor didn’t like it. He wants to talk to you when he comes in and don’t blame him if he’s severe. You’re a bad boy to worry us so.”

“Gibbsy! A guest’s first obligation is to his host. Mine requested the pleasure of my company, then and there. To make quick decisions and act upon them is a sign of character.”

“That’s all very well, but you could have dropped me or him a line later on.”

“Written on what? A piece of birch bark? With a porcupine quill dipped in my own blood? Woman, have you ever been out in the wilderness armed only with your two bare hands? Out in the Great Silence where the only sound by day is the mournful sighing of the wind in the lofty treetops and the dreadful stillness of night is broken only by the howling of hungry wolves? Out where stealthy danger lurks and death lies in ambush? That’s real suburban life.”

The bathroom door opened and Dick emerged in robe and slippers. He was grinning and gave Mrs. Gibbs a bear hug, a hearty kiss, and then shook her playfully.

“Gibbsy-Wibbsy! It’s nice to be home again and mothered by you even if I have to fight for the privilege of scrubbing my own sacred person. Now scoot! I’m not even going to let you select my tie. See you at dinner.”

That evening, Dick dined alone as he often did. He was reading in the library when his father came home. The boy arose and the two greeted each other with restraint. Dr. Banning always showed more reserve with his son than with his patients and Dick had never been demonstrative.

“Have a busy time at camp?” the father asked.

“Very.”

“You left rather hurriedly, didn’t you?”

“Yes, sir, the invitation was unexpected. You were away at that medical convention. I didn’t think you’d mind.” The Doctor seated himself at his flat-topped desk before saying, “I’m getting accustomed to surprises from you. This was only one of many.”

“I’m sorry if I caused you any uneasiness but you’re so busy—”

“Uneasiness isn’t the word,” said the older man. “Amazement would be better. I can’t forget how young you are.”

With a faint smile, the boy said, “You’ve often told people I was born at the age of sixteen. That would make me thirty-three. . . . Gibbsy says you want to see me?”

“Yes. I knew you’d be out today.”

“Out?”

“You must have realized that I’d learn where you were.” There was a pause, and the Doctor went on, “A son of mine in jail! A boy of your standing, a boy with your advantages! It floored me.”

With a suggestion of resentment in his voice, Dick said, “If you felt it so keenly, may I ask why you allowed me to remain there?”

Sharply his father answered, “Because I hoped it would be a lesson to you.”

“When I came home from college last spring, I told you I was sick of lessons.”

“And I suggested that you ease up, play, enjoy yourself for a while. I never dreamed you would turn into a rowdy—a hoodlum—and start smashing greenhouse roofs. That was an act of pure vandalism and—”

“Pardon me, sir, I considered it an act of retribution. I was tempted to take the law into my own hands and I couldn’t resist doing so. You have no idea what a satisfaction it was to meet temptation and yield. It was a brand new experience and it went to my head. It was my first brainstorm and I enjoyed it.”

“May I ask what brought on this—this emotional typhoon?” the Doctor asked curiously.

“I bought some roses for a young woman and—”

“What young woman?”

“What’s the difference? Anyhow the florist overcharged me. I thought the box felt light and I opened it. I should have known that he’s a notorious old bandit. He was very insulting but unfortunately he was too old to lay hands upon.”

“A boy of your age has no business buying roses for young widows.”

“Indeed? Anyway, that man had no business calling me names and threatening to have me arrested. For that matter I don’t see that you have any business asking who I give flowers to. Well, I was pretty mad. That was nice, too, and convinced me that I’m not altogether abnormal and that I have split the seams of my velvet Fauntleroy suit. In the street I saw several bricks. I collected them into a pile. It made me madder when a stranger asked if I wasn’t rather old to play with blocks. He was in plainclothes and I didn’t dream he was an officer. When I began to heave those bricks, he tackled me and we had quite a tussle. I got hold of myself on the way to the station house and tried to explain that I was merely a thin-blooded intellectual who had been seized for the first time by a robust impulse but the fellow’s nose hurt him and he told me to shut up or else. And the magistrate later on was incapable of understanding the psychology of a juvenile delinquent.”

“Don’t strain yourself to be facetious,” the father said sourly.

“I didn’t feel facetious, at the time. I was pretty much ashamed of myself so, out of regard for you, I gave my name as Ronald Le Grand. Under that alias I did thirty days in the workhouse.”

“And a hard time I had keeping it out of the papers. I’m astonished at your consideration.” Dr. Banning spoke with some sarcasm.

“No more astonished than I am at your allowing me to blister these white hands,” the youth retorted. “That jail smelled pretty bad.”

“What a story!” the father exclaimed. “It would have preceded you to Oxford, ruined your career. Do you wonder that I did my utmost to smother it?”

“I’m not going to Oxford,” Dick said.

Dr. Banning was startled. “What’s this? I don’t know what’s the matter with you lately.”

“It’s something pills won’t cure.”

“Certainly it isn’t overwork. No normal, healthy boy can really overwork. However, he can overindulge himself. Now that I know the rough gang you are running around with, I’m not going to stand by and see your morals corrupted.” The boy looked a bit bewildered at this. “I don’t know just what you mean, sir, but I feel competent to select my own friends.”

“Indeed!”

“You see, I’m not interested in boys of my own age or in giggling girls, either. If I prefer older companions, it’s because we have something in common.”

“Exactly! Don’t let’s go into that. I can’t permit you to run wild. Aside from your own good, I have myself to think of.”

To this Dick nodded. “I understand perfectly. You wish to point with pride and you can’t bear to view with alarm. You have always made me feel like one of your specimens—a sort of two-headed boy that you keep in a jar. Well, I’m sick of being different from other people. I’m sick of all the things I have been doing. And Oxford—I just can’t bear the thought of it.”

“Why?”

“Maybe my mental mechanism has gone out of order like a watch with a weak spring or a broken jewel. I’ve lost my enthusiasm for study; in fact, the idea nauseates me and if I were to go to Oxford I’d be no credit to you or to myself. The whole thing has lost its glitter; I’m afraid the bookworm has turned.”

“And I don’t like the direction you have taken. You must want to do something. Precisely what is it that you have in mind?”

Faced with this query, the boy floundered for the very good reason that he himself didn’t know exactly what desires had taken possession of him. All he felt sure about was that he had rebelled against academic bondage and craved freedom to explore a new and exciting world. He very definitely desired the freedom to explore it in his own way. Unfamiliar yearnings plagued him, but in spite of his facility for self-expression he couldn’t put them into words. Actually they had not yet taken full shape. It was like the peculiar urge that drives an explorer to push into unknown country, making the desire to go, to look, to see into more than mere curiosity—a compulsion.

Dr. Banning listened for a while before saying finally, “All right. If you think you must see the world immediately, so be it. I think it’s unwise, foolish, but I will not stand in your way. I’ll attempt to find a suitable traveling companion, some older man who can look after you and serve as a tutor. There must be young professors who—”

“I wouldn’t care for that, sir.” Dick spoke with decision. “I wish to go alone and select my own traveling companions, if any. What’s more, I don’t want or need any further tutoring.”

“I cannot permit you to go globe-trotting alone,” the father said firmly. “The very idea is—well, shocking. No! Impossible!”

“Then I’m afraid the well-known irresistible force has met the immovable body. The truth is, sir, I feel that I must do what I want to do instead of what I’m told to do.”

In this attitude of mind the father recognized not the vague yearnings, the acute dissatisfactions of youth, but dangerous and unruly juvenile sex impulses which were the more abhorrent to him because of his professional training and experience. Sex was a subject he had never discussed with Dick and now he could not bring himself to broach it.

With increasing heat the two continued to argue. Abruptly Dr. Banning, white with anger, jerked open a drawer of his desk, removed his checkbook and swiftly wrote in it.

“For some reason beyond my comprehension,” he said, “you have seen fit to ignore my wishes, scorn my advice, and change all the careful plans that have been made for you. Without any reason whatever, you have committed an act of vandalism and got yourself into trouble which could have done both of us irreparable injury. Now—”

Dick broke in to say, “We’ve never understood each other; we’ve never been able to talk things out without a clash. Perhaps I did make a fool of myself but the whole thing strikes me as rather trivial. It isn’t worth a real quarrel. I’ve always hoped we’d never come to that.”

His father was silent a moment before he answered. “Most boys at one time or another play at running away from home. I thought you had more common sense. I cannot believe that you are still so immature as to yield to so foolish an impulse. No, it seems you have suddenly rebelled against authority and I can see nothing back of it except a desire to indulge those animal appetites which any person of good breeding must have the strength of character to control.”

Dick opened his mouth to protest but his father motioned him to be silent. “I dare say I could find a way to restrain you from making a fool of yourself but it would only complicate matters and lead to more misunderstandings. I’d be set down as a harsh and unfeeling father, which I’m not. Evidently your mind is so firmly fixed that I can’t change it. Well, I’m slow to take offense and slower still to forgive. Before you decide to have your fling, I want you to weigh what it is that you’re flinging aside: a good home, my help in achieving a brilliant career, success, security, comfort, ease of mind. Those things are all yours if you want them, but you must take them now or not at all.”

“You have done a great deal for me and I thank you,” Dick said seriously. “I can’t make my feelings clearer than I have already, but I can’t accept your further help under false pretenses.”

“So. There’s no moving you. . . . You insist on being a tramp. . . . Well, I don’t want you to be forced into the company of other tramps before you have had time to find yourself. No doubt you will descend to their level sooner or later but meanwhile this will permit you to preserve your self-respect. At least you won’t have to turn to crime.” He extended a check he had torn from his book. Dick eyed it with surprise.

“Five thousand dollars! This is very generous of you,” he said. “I have never seen so much money. Nor have many other boys of my age. Do you think I can spend it wisely?”

“No,” said Dr. Banning, “but I don’t want you writing home for money. You’ll notice the check is dated one week hence. You have seven days to come to your senses. If you cash it, don’t look forward to further help. If you change your mind and decide to stay here, which I hope you will do, call it a reward for your good sense.”

Dick handed the check back and arose from his chair. “Thanks for your generosity and for your blessing,” he said quietly. “My grandfather was a poor farmer. You made your own way, I think I can do the same. I wouldn’t like to be handicapped by the possession of such a sum. Furthermore, if I took your money, I’d feel obligated to spend it wisely. I don’t want to be tied down in that manner or in any other. I want to be foolish and impulsive and unwise, but only at my own expense. I want to be free!”

“You can’t leave home like this,” his father exclaimed. “You can’t leave at such an hour. Where will you go?”

“I have a friend who is leaving town in the morning. He’ll probably leave early.”

“A friend? Who is he? What is he?”

“He’s known professionally as Jimmy the Lark. He was my cellmate in jail. He’s clever with cards.”

“My God!” the Doctor groaned.

“I like him. He says he’ll make a man of me. Don’t worry, sir. I’ll bring no discredit to the family name and I won’t come back until I can write you a check to match the size of this one.” Dick smiled cheerfully and let his eyes rove over the impressive and handsomely furnished library. “No, when I do come home, I want to be able to look around and say, ‘Hello, father! Well, I see you are still living in the same old place. Really, it isn’t good enough for you. Better let me set you up in suitable style!” Still smiling the boy left the room.

After what seemed a long time. Dr. Banning heard his son come downstairs; he was on the point of calling his name or of going out to intercept him, but he was too deeply hurt and too angry to do so. The front door opened and closed.

For a long while, the Doctor sat with his face in his hands.

Chapter 3

JIMMY THE LARK had a theory that a man should feel as loose in his clothes as an egg in its shell. It naturally followed that he wore suits several sizes too large for him. He was ready for bed now and was clad in a Canton flannel nightgown the size of an Indian tepee. In his supple hands he held a violin which he caressed lovingly. He longed to play it but he knew only too well that in boardinghouses fiddling at midnight is taboo.

He started nervously when a knock came at his door; out of habit he cast an apprehensive glance around the room to assure himself that no gambling paraphernalia was in sight. Was it the cops again? No doubt with a final warning to leave town in the morning. In offended dignity he rose, unlocked the door, then exclaimed, “Ronnie! I took you for the Law.” He drew the boy inside, then, noting the latter’s suitcase, he asked, “Where are you heading?”

“That depends. Do you still want a buddy?”

“Sure! But—what happened?”

“Not much,” the lad said. “I went home, cleaned up, and had a talk with my father. He’s a hard man: he told me to take his five thousand or never to darken his doors again.” Larkin raised his brows, uttered a sympathetic sound. “It seems that he doesn’t approve of the company I keep.”

“Why don’t you choose better company?”

With a grin, the boy said, “That’s what I’m doing; that’s why I’m here.”

There was a brief silence. “What do you intend to do?”

“I don’t know, Jim. See the world, I guess; get acquainted with myself and with people. I’ve studied a lot but I don’t know anything to speak of. I feel curious and restless, and I’d like to go along with you, if you’ll take me.”

“I’m particular about the company I keep, too.” The Lark spoke seriously. “Let’s deal the first hand, face up. I don’t travel with crooks. I can’t share my blankets with a thief.”

“I’ve never stolen anything.”

“Hm-ml You’re the smartest kid I ever met. You must be too smart for your own good or we wouldn’t have met in the Bridewell. Maybe you’re so proud of your penmanship that you like to sign other people’s names, but don’t tell me. I don’t want to know. Whatever you did, it’s out from now on. If you travel with me, I don’t want to know anything about your past. Between us two everything starts from tonight.”

“Fine!” Ronnie agreed. “Let’s say we’re a couple of reformed evil-doers and think only about the future.”

Again there was a pause before the Lark said slowly, “There won’t be any future for you, if you follow my lead too closely. But you won’t have to follow it; you won’t, if you’re the kind of a boy I think you are. You’ll have sense enough to profit by it. You say you want to see the world. Well, I can show you the one I live in and it won’t hurt you to have a look at it. Crowds. Excitement. Uncertainty. Change. I love cities but I love country roads even better. I can sleep as well in a haystack as in a fine hotel. I’m crazy about country fairs and race meets, with their livestock shows. You see, I love animals and they’ll do anything for me. Yes, cards and animals—I’ll teach you to play cards—I mean really play. It’s an easy living for a lazy man and a kid with your brains could become a wizard at it.”

“Gee! That would be fun.”

“If you had a decent home and were welcome to stay in it, I’d turn you down. But since your old man has given you the heave-o, I guess my company is better than you have been keeping. If I can tame horses, maybe I can tame you. The wildest stallion can be led by a straw halter if he likes the man on the other end of it. Sure! I’ll take you on, if you want to go.”

“Thanks, Jim.” The speaker was really grateful. “May I stay here tonight?” There was one single bed in the room so Ronnie added hastily, “I’ll sleep on the floor.”

The Lark shook his head; he reached for his deck of cards. “From now on, it’s fifty-fifty. We’ll cut for it.” He won, then said, “If you had turned the high card, I suppose you would have taken the floor anyhow?”

“Naturally,” Ronnie said with a grin.

‘“You’ve got to get over that stuff. Never throw back your first fish and never turn back your luck. If you do, it will turn on you. When you leave something to the cards, don’t appeal their verdict or your luck will leave you. Now then, let’s make some plans.”

* * * * * * * * *

So it was that Jimmy the Lark and Ronnie Le Grand took to the open road. Actually there were three in the party; viz., the man, the boy, and the violin. Jim and his fiddle were inseparable companions and he relied upon that instrument as a means of livelihood in times of necessity. There was no immediate need to make use of it, however, for Ronnie had enough left from his allowance, though he had refused his father’s check, to enable the pair to travel in comfort.

Thus began an alliance which increased in warmth and intimacy as the two became better acquainted. It grew into an enduring friendship, for each found in the other a source of unfailing interest, new ground to explore; each felt the unbidden urge to give rather than to take.

This companionship was an exciting thing for Ronnie; it was something altogether new. He had launched himself upon a great adventure and, oddly enough, he had not the slightest regret, for something inside of him said he was acting wisely.

Having skipped the age of adolescence Dick was, for the time being at least, a young man in search of his boyhood. The quest filled him with joyous anticipation. He took it for granted that he was acting unwisely, as measured by ordinary standards, and that he might live to regret his folly; nevertheless he was living for the first time and who could hesitate to choose between breathing and suffocation? He had spent so much time inside of book covers; he had gorged himself so completely on their contents that he was deathly sick of second-hand wisdom. Those books had opened up a vast new world and its exploration had fascinated him. Now that eagerness was dead. Ambition? For the moment, he had none. It was a blessed relief to quit thinking about his future, about this goal or that.

The boy felt sure of himself but having assured his father that he would bring no discredit to the family name he decided to retain the alias he had assumed. It was wise, anyway, to play safe until he had made good that promise. Ronald Le Grand! It had a ring. What a name for the captain of a Mississippi River packet—or for a gambling man.

It was the Lark who chose their first stopping place, a small city where a race meet was in progress. The pair put up at a hotel and went immediately to the track. It was Ronnie’s first experience of the kind and he learned much from the Lark, who was thoroughly at home. Jim proved that his judgment of horses was sound by running a two-dollar bet up to forty-five dollars during the afternoon, a feat which impressed his companion as miraculous. That night, in the hotel barroom, Ronnie looked on while his bulky friend won eight dollars in a ten-cent-limit poker game.

“It’s like I told you,” the Lark reminded him when they went to bed. “It’s like living in a bank. There it is, ready to be had, if you’re not too greedy.”

The next day Jim decided that he didn’t feel lucky so he and Ronnie went for a walk in the country. They spent several lazy hours sprawled out in the sun, their backs against a fragrant stack of new-mown hay. This gave the Lark a chance to let his feet breathe—a feat accomplished simply by kicking off his shoes. After a while, he slipped them on, rose, and told Ronnie,

“Yonder is a sick calf. I’ll be back in a minute.”

He returned shortly with the calf and a scrawny cow at his heels. “Come on,” he said, “we gotta do something for this little man.”

The farmer, who had been busy in the barnyard, came to see what the strangers were doing to his livestock, and Jim told him, “You’re going to lose this calf if something isn’t done.”

“I know. I tried to get him a while back but Minnie run me off. She dang near hooked me. Funny she let you take him.”

“She’s sick, too. Got any medicine?”

“Some.”

“Let’s have a look.” Jim propped the calf on its uncertain legs and followed the owner into the barn. Soon he reappeared with a rope and a bottle. “Put the little fellow to bed,” he told the owner, “and give him that powder I showed you. Another dose tonight. I’ll fix up a drench for the old lady.”

“That’s a hooker,” the farmer warned but Larkin approached Minnie, slipped the noose around her horns and tied her to the fence. She submitted patiently.

By the time the farmer had attended to the calf, Jim had prepared his medicine and, holding Minnie’s head in a sort of hammerlock, he pried her jaws apart, thrust the bottle neck into her mouth, and emptied its contents.

“Well, I’ll be danged,” the owner exclaimed. “First time she’s ever done anything without a battle. You a vet, mister?”

“Sure! There are a couple of other sick cows inside. Let’s fix them up while we’re at it.”

Later, as the farmer pumped water while Jim washed up, he asked, “What ails these critters, doc? Every year about this time I have trouble.”

“Fence ’em out of your wood lot. Something poisonous in there. Maybe it’s a vine or berry. Nobody knows.”

“Well, thanks for the tip. Now how much do I owe you?”

Larkin dried his hands on a gunny sack and eyed the nearby kitchen garden. “A dozen ears of sweet corn will square it. My young friend here is a city boy. He’s never tasted corn roasted over an open fire.”

“I can beat that,” the countryman declared. “You and him stay to supper. Yessir. Then, after the old woman has fed you up until you’re ready to bust, I’ll drive you to town.”

Jim consented with a wink at Ronnie.

* * * * * * * * * *

It was not long before the boy found that Jim’s fondness for animals amounted to a passion; invariably they responded to it. Barking dogs lost their suspicion and fawned on him. He could talk to a balky horse and it would follow him meekly. Birds fed out of his hands. This was interesting—but for that matter everything interested Ronnie these days and one new experience followed another with delightful rapidity. He realized how narrow a groove his life had run in. All through his boyhood he had been looking out at the world through a keyhole. Jimmy the Lark had opened a tall door for him.

Jim’s liking and respect for his newly found companion were equally marked. He learned that Ronnie was naive, immature, sensitive and yet he had an old mind and an extraordinary fund of knowledge. He was a contradiction and a challenge to the Lark. For instance, there were subjects about which the boy seemed to know everything and still others that he appeared to grasp intuitively without effort. Cards were a case in point. The boy had a natural aptitude for them, and his alert mind, his ever-increasing skill astonished his self-appointed tutor. Added to this natural ability Ronnie’s familiarity with the laws of probability and chance enabled him to gauge correctly the odds involved in drawing to any hand. He was observant, his memory was unerring, he could remember every hand played during an entire evening. Jim told himself over and over that he had never known such a natural card player.

The elder man had no desire to head south at this season of the year but preferred instead to follow state and county fairs where the horses were running, fat stock was on display, and crowds assembled. Accordingly he and Ronnie seldom stopped more than a week in one place. Most of Jim’s daylight hours were spent at the tracks or around the stables and show rings. Sometimes Ronnie picked up a few dollars by doing odd jobs. Fair officials and exhibitors, usually overworked, welcomed intelligent and willing assistance.

Nightly card games at the hotels yielded a modest revenue and money was so easily had that Ronnie began to share his companion’s belief that the ravens brought it.

The Lark made quite a killing at one of these state fairs and did it in a manner to prove that he was indeed a man of singular attainments. Impressed by the performance of a certain trotter, he looked up the owner and told him that he possessed a champion and didn’t know it.

The horseman, somewhat nettled, said, “I suppose you mean that I drive a poor race.”

“No, you drive well enough. The mare doesn’t know how fast she is any more than you do. Some horses have to be told.”

“Oh! And how do you tell a horse things like that?”

“You have to be part horse yourself,” said the Lark. “Let me work her a few mornings and—”

“Drive her? Who are you? What do you know about harness racing?”

“You wouldn’t know if I told you.” Then, with serene confidence, Jim added, “I know about everything there is to know about horses and what’s more, they know I know. I can do anything with a horse except eat him. Let me handle that Morning Star of yours for the balance of the week and you won’t have to drive her. She’ll trot her own race. Come on. Let’s go have a visit with her.”

Larkin must have succeeded in impressing the owner, for the next morning he was permitted to drive Morning Star and for several mornings thereafter he did the same. Meanwhile he thought and talked of little except his new equine friend. He and the owner were together most of the time.

On Saturday, the closing day, a special event was arranged. Paced by a stablemate handled by Jim, Morning Star’s owner drove her to a new state record. The grateful horseman presented Jim with five hundred dollars.

That night at supper, Ronnie confessed to his companion that he was in a predicament. He needed one hundred dollars in a hurry. It was for a friend, a girl he had met at the Fair Grounds. Her name was Maizie; she ran a concession in the amusement section and she was in trouble.

Jim looked sharply at his young friend but said nothing. Ronnie explained that Maizie had joined the carnival troupe several weeks before in order to escape the attentions of an unwelcome suitor. The man had followed her. She was terribly afraid of him, and planned to slip out of town that night and return home provided she could raise her fare. Ronnie had promised to get it for her.

“A hundred turnips!” Jim frowned. “Where does she live? In Turkey?”

“She has some debts to pay. Doctor’s bills and things like that.”

“How come she told you her troubles?”

The boy, it seemed, had met Maizie at the lunch counter. They had talked. She was bright and pretty and entertaining. As they became better acquainted, she had confided in him. For the last several nights, he had escorted her home just for protection.

“Did the big bully make any trouble?” Jim raised his brows.

Ronnie appeared to bristle inwardly. “I guess he decided that I could take care of myself.”

“Um-m! Ever do any fighting?”

“Not much. I had one battle with a policeman.”

“Why choose a cop?”

Ronnie smiled faintly. “It seemed a good way to start.”

“And when you saw Maizie home, did she—take you up to her room?”

The boy flushed; he shook his head.

“Not just to show you her bruises or something? Any man who’d follow a gal against her wishes would beat her up.”

“That’s what she’s afraid of. That’s why she wants to get away tonight. I let her have what money I could but it wasn’t enough.”

“Well, it looks as if we have to save the lady from a fate worse than death. You introduce me to her and I’ll try to fix things up.”

At the Fair Grounds, exhibits were being dismantled but the amusement area was still running full blast. The merry-go-round was whirling to the sound of its steam piano; tired barkers were shouting from their platforms in an effort to coax a few more dimes from the milling crowds. It was a place of noise and confusion.

Maizie presided over a booth where cheap jewelry and toys were sold. Ronnie pointed her out but did not introduce his companion, for nearby, as if standing guard, was a burly man with elbows hooked over a knotty cane which he carried across the small of his back. He must be Maizie’s persecutor, the home-town monster, the fiend in human shape.

“You stay here,” the Lark directed. “I’ll take over.” Leaving his young friend at the entrance to a passageway between two booths, Jim strolled on and engaged the girl in conversation. From his place of concealment, Ronnie looked on. Evidently Jim was making known his identity, for the girl listened attentively; then to Ronnie’s surprise she suddenly appeared to be swept by anger. That was strange. Ronnie was even more startled when he heard her call to the monster with the cane, crying,

“Gus! Come here!”

Her admirer approached the booth. Maizie cried shrilly, “This dough-belly insulted me! Slam him down.”

What followed thereafter occurred so swiftly that it was over before Ronnie could intervene to protect his friend. Gus, evidently a man of action, shifted the cane to his left hand; with his right he aimed a looping swing at the Lark. With surprising nimbleness the latter side-stepped and Gus went off balance. Thereupon Jim lifted one of his broad, square-toed shoes and kicked him in the stomach. Gus folded his arms over his middle and salaamed deeply, whereupon Jim raised a limber leg and loosely kicked him again, this time under the chin. These maneuvers were so expertly accomplished as to indicate long practice. They were the more astonishing when executed by a man of Jim’s build. Oddly enough, he didn’t move like a fat man; on the contrary, he became possessed of a ballet dancer’s agility and poise.

Maizie screamed. Gus sat down, then languidly rolled over to his hands and knees and crawled through the flimsy red cloth curtain which hung from Maizie’s counter. It was almost as if he had crept under her skirts for shelter. As he disappeared, he presented an inviting and undefended target. But the Lark already was on the move. He came loping toward Ronnie, seized him by the arm, and said sharply, “They’re married! Let’s go!”

Dragging his companion with him, he dived into the dark passageway; in a moment the two had reached the Fair Grounds fence; along this they scurried to the nearest exit. As they were walking back toward the center of town, Ronnie said, “You must think I’m an awful fool.”

“Well, you don’t know everything yet. But that’s what I like about you. I figured that girl couldn’t be right. Sure enough, when I told her to kick back with your coin or I’d turn her up and shake her corsets off, she yelped for her husband. That’s all I wanted to know. So I put the French dressing on him.”

“But—you kicked him, Jim.”

“Sure! Think I’d risk busting my hands on a hickory head? I always use my feet. It’s a kind of boxing they do in France. La savate, they call it. A Frog friend of mine taught me and it’s nice to know. You see, you can’t shuffle and deal with busted knuckles and all a stiff finger is good for is to point with. Of course, you have to be limber in the legs but I can kick a wet towel up a spiral staircase and over a transom. Whenever some yokel heaves a haymaker at me, I merely set the dogs on him. This one,” Jim lifted his right foot, “is Rover. I call the other one Butch. He puts the bite on ’em. He’s the killer.”

Chapter 4

AUTUMN had come and Jimmy the Lark was heading south. He and Ronnie had put in an entertaining though financially profitless summer, and had finally reached Cairo, Illinois, where they were awaiting the arrival of a passenger steamer. Jim knew the captain, and declared he would welcome them as his guests on the downriver run. Ronnie was skeptical.

“If the captain won’t take us on as passengers, we could work our way down,” he suggested to Jim. “We could wash dishes, peel potatoes, wait on table.”

“And rob some hard-working crew hand of his livelihood?” The Lark was shocked. “That’s selfish and inhuman. I’m surprised at you, Ronnie. If the Law was after us and we had to move, I’d consider it. But we’re as clean as a couple of robins. Something will turn up.”

That evening, starting with nothing, Jim made a modest winning in a barroom poker game. Then, feigning mild intoxication, he amused some of the patrons by boasting of his fleetness of foot. Perhaps they wouldn’t believe it, but in spite of his size and weight, he was a gazelle, he declared. As a child, he had roamed the prairies. He had been called the antelope boy.

“It took seven cowboys on fast horses to catch me,” he asserted. “They ran me up into the foothills and they wouldn’t have had me yet if I hadn’t stepped into a bear trap.” Eventually one of his listeners offered to run him down to the corner for a round of drinks. With dignity, Jim refused. Instead he asserted his willingness to run entirely round the block but not for the benefit of the bartender. If he were to exert himself at all, it must be for real money.

Ronnie was astonished at the offer, for the distance around this particular block was sufficient to tax the endurance of any athlete. The bet was accepted and there was a scramble on the part of the patrons to offer odds against the boaster. Jim actually bet his last dollar on himself and Ronnie felt his heart sink. It was evident that they would have to spend the night on a park bench.

It proved to be a hilarious contest. The Lark got under way slowly, his abdomen heaving like a pudding, but he gained speed and was not far behind his opponent when they disappeared around the corner. Still laughing, the onlookers turned and strolled in the opposite direction expecting to meet their champion. To their astonishment, however, not their man but the Lark first came into view. It cannot be truthfully said that Jim was running easily or without effort. On the contrary, he ran at the cost of prodigious exertion and at the expense of sufficient energy to drive a locomotive, but the power was his when he needed it. Ronnie felt that he could have run even faster than he did, if he had been forced to extend himself.

As Jim sprawled in a chair, panting, heaving, mopping the sweat from his face, some of the observers decided that this ungainly giant used his corpulence as a come-on. That oversized paunch, which he ostentatiously paraded, must be a part of his stock-in-trade, a false front behind which he contrived ingenious shenanigans. It must be a straw belly and no handicap whatever. But Jim demonstrated its reality by a thwack on his own stomach, which resounded like a bass drum.

That midnight foot race solved the transportation problem and the wanderers traveled southward in style.

* * * * * * * * * * *

At the time when these incidents occurred, early in the century, New Orleans was the lustiest and most colorful of all the Mississippi River ports and the largest and liveliest of Southern cities. The colorful town was a revelation to strangers. Its water front, stretching in a vast crescent, was unlike any other in the country. Here, confined within one mighty channel, flowed the rushing waters from all of the Middle West, and here, along the lofty earthen levees which protected the metropolis moved a tremendous torrent of traffic. Here flotillas of river steamers and shallow draft barges met the ocean-going steamers from the Seven Seas.

Upon the silt-soiled bosom of this prodigious, sullen stream flowed a vast traffic in goods. It was still tremendous if not as huge as it had been in the flush days of steamboating, when the total tonnage of freight moved each year exceeded all of England’s sea-borne commerce. In those early days, the lower Mississippi had been aptly described as “a broad and teeming avenue of commerce, a dark and mysterious highway down which goods and men raced, singing, to the outer world.” The railroads had cut deeply into this traffic, to be sure, but fast, luxuriously appointed steamers still shuttled back and forth, and deep-breathing, stem-wheeled tow-boats pushed flotillas of scows ahead of them. These rafts of barges were heavily loaded and they were acres in extent. At New Orleans, amid the complaints of groaning tackle, the rumble of wagons and trucks, an army of shouting darky “rousters” unloaded and reloaded the mountains of freight and sped them on their various ways. Docks and warehouses, stretching for miles, thundered to a ceaseless din. Tall-masted, low-funneled ocean freighters lay bow to stern, flanked by every sort of river craft. The high, vertical stacks of towboats and wood-burning steamers belched smoke that blackened the slender spars and white canvas of square riggers from all parts of the world.

This noisy, roistering river front was a world to itself and quite distinct from the city proper; it had a smell of its own, a smell of rum, tobacco, raw sugar, and hides, all blended with the spicy odors of foreign lands. The city itself, long a thriving market place and a melting pot, had acquired a distinctive atmosphere and local color. Its stately residences housed an aristocracy which took a fierce, unbending pride in its peculiar social codes and way of living; its hard-working, hard-playing merchants and professional men were as fun loving and as extravagant as their social betters. So were the visiting traders, cotton factors, and plantation owners from upriver. These latter came to the city to amuse themselves and to fling their money broadcast.

New Orleans, an open city and tolerant of anything that profited it, was a favorite playground for free spenders. It was a horse-racing mecca and gambling center as well as a center for the stage and opera. Life went gaily, swiftly, and not too decorously. It was a city whose sins were as beguiling as its virtues. Naturally it had an underworld, populous, prosperous, and well organized, and this underworld boasted an aristocracy of its own, made up of the overlords who ran the night life and amusements of the metropolis.

Typical of these citizens was Tom McPhee, proprietor of McPhee’s Palace, a commodious eating and drinking place with gambling rooms upstairs. In those days, most people who could afford to gamble did so, and proficiency at games of chance was considered something of a social accomplishment. Even professional gamesters whose hands had never known a callus were regarded as sportsmen rather than idlers or undesirables. So, too, the proprietor of a popular establishment of good reputation like the Palace enjoyed the esteem and the patronage of the best people.

There were other sporting men like McPhee—men who exercised weight and influence in the business affairs and the political life of the city. Perhaps the least known and most unobtrusive, but at the same time most powerful of these personalities was a woman, Madame Angela Rondo.

Even among her associates, Madame Rondo was recognized as a unique character, quite different from the rest of them. She was a dark, buxom creature of about forty. Her upper lip was faintly shadowed with that suggestion of a feminine mustache which is not uncommon among certain Latin women. Not pronounced enough to be disfiguring, it lent her a certain air of masculinity which went well with her forceful manner and her flair for business. Madame Angela carried herself with a conscious air, for she claimed to trace her lineage back for many generations, to those famous “Casket Brides” who had been shipped out from France to satisfy the hungry yearnings of the city’s hardy pioneers. She was vain of her good looks, too. Her skin was really lovely; it was as soft and smooth as the finest satin and of a delicate olive shade. Her lips were full and sensuous and beneath her dark eyes lay sooty shadows which accentuated their size and luster. Madame Rondo was rich; she overdressed and loved flashing jewelry. She affected a peculiar perfume of her own and she smoked cheroots.

Like all fashionable women she wore snug corsets but in no other respect could she be characterized as tight-laced. She was completely indifferent to social conventions: she did what she pleased and went wherever she chose. Her slender fingers were in many pies. At her handsome old home in the French Quarter she entertained in fabulous fashion, and her guest list often included men high in public office. It was an open secret that she was a silent partner in their political activities and shared in their profits, as she did in the winnings of Tom McPhee and other notables of his kind.

It was at McPhee’s Palace that Ronnie Le Grand made his debut in the sporting world of New Orleans. He introduced himself by winning two hundred dollars from the proprietor himself and he did it in a manner to excite the respect, if not the approval, of the latter.

Early one evening—in fact on the day Jim and Ronnie arrived in New Orleans—McPhee noticed a young stranger who seemed to be amusing himself by idly cutting a deck of cards into three piles.

“What have you got there, son?” McPhee inquired.

“Just a little game I invented for my own amusement. I call it ‘Ace, Knave, or Nine.’ ” With a disarming grin, the speaker added, “It’s my own magical combination and it brings me luck.”

“Yeah? What’s magic about it? How does it go?”

“The aces, jacks, and nines are my cards. The rest are my opponent’s. He shuffles and cuts the full deck three times. That constitutes a hand, you might say. If, during the three cuts, he exposes one of my cards, an ace, jack, or nine, I win and we start another hand. If he doesn’t cut one of my three cards, I pay him. In other words, I back my three lucky cards against the other ten.”

“And I’d say you’re on the losing end,” said McPhee.

With a shrug, the pleasant young stranger inquired, “Won’t you try it? I mean for fun? No money involved?”

“This is a gambling house,” the older man declared. “Fun don’t pay the rent. No game is worth playing unless it’s worth betting on.”

Ronnie laid a gold coin on the bar. “Five dollars says you’ll cut one or the other of my cards in three attempts.”

McPhee looked at him in quick suspicion. “Is this a deadfall? In my own joint?”

“Figure it out for yourself. The cards are yours. Shuffle them with your own hands and cut them. I won’t touch the deck.”

Still eying the speaker distrustfully, the older man cut and lost. He repeated the operation and won. Nevertheless after a few minutes Ronnie had fifteen dollars of his money.

“I thought I had seen everything,” McPhee said. “Now you try it.”

The boy declined. “The cards are yours, but the game is mine. I bank it but I don’t buck it.”

McPhee was not a bright man and he was nettled at his own apparent stupidity. He doubled, then trebled the stakes. Finally Ronnie told him, “That’s enough, sir. I’d own your place if we played long enough.”

He then explained the odds in his favor but by this time McPhee was more interested in the speaker himself, it appeared, than in the explanation.

“I only took this means to get acquainted with you, Mr. McPhee.”

“And why?”

“I’m a friend of Jim Larkin’s. We just got in. He thinks I’m a pretty good cardplayer. So do I. I believe I could make it pay but I’ve never had much chance to try. I’ve never been able to play for heavy stakes. I need a backer.”

“Hunh!” the proprietor grunted without enthusiasm. “I have my own men and I know ’em. None of ’em ever nicked me for two hundred dollars in my own bar. Maybe they’re dumb or maybe it’s just me. I don’t know that I want a guy like you on either side of my tables.”

Ronnie laughed. “That’s a real compliment, Mr. McPhee, and it’s more than I deserve. I hope you don’t mind my being here.”

McPhee shook his head. “This is a public place with welcome on the door. The games are open to anybody who wants to sit in. And any stranger’s entitled to any part of it that he can take home. That’s why I have to know the guys who deal my cards and rack my chips. Just now, I’m not in need of another dealer.”

Patrons of the Palace who came to eat or drink usually went upstairs to seek other entertainment afterward but there was also a side entrance to the place, a so-called “family entrance,” through which passed the carriage trade or patrons who were not interested in food or drink. That included many discreet businessmen who chose not to advertise their presence.

Women, too, frequented the gambling rooms; not all of them were members of the underworld. There were, in fact, a good many women of social standing in the New Orleans of that day who shared the passion of their menfolk for playing. These came, usually with escorts, gratified their love of excitement, then left unobtrusively.

Late that evening, Madame Rondo came in, seated herself at one of the café tables and sent for McPhee. When he greeted her, she waved him into the chair opposite hers.

“How’s business?” she inquired, indicating with a lift of her elaborately curled, dark head the premises upstairs.

“It’s been fair lately but it’s off tonight.”

“I know. I just came down. It’s the same at the Elite. Four of Andy’s dealers were playing solitaire.”

“Business is slow this time of year. But the tracks will be open soon.”

“Is that why you’ve gone in for chess?” Madame Angela inquired. “Why don’t you put in a nice reading room with the latest fiction?”

McPhee looked blank. “Chess? What do you mean?”

“There’s a chess game going on in one of the poker rooms. That blackjack dealer De Garmo is playing with—”

“Oh, him. If De Garmo ain’t working, he falls asleep.”

“He wasn’t asleep when I went in. Nor were the boys who were looking on. He was playing a kid in a blindfold.”

“He was—what?” McPhee’s bewilderment was evident.

“A lad with his eyes bandaged. Nice-looking youngster. A friend of Jim Larkin’s. De Garmo’s good, I guess, but the kid beat him blindfolded. The Lark is all swelled up. Says he’s the smartest character he ever threw in with—a college boy and a genius with cards. Jim says he’s terrific.”

“He’s a genius all right,” McPhee admitted sourly. “He took me for two hundred dollars like I was a levee hand. A game of his own that looked like a sure loser.” The speaker recited his experience earlier that evening. “It doesn’t make sense: three cards against ten but—there it is. It isn’t every green punk that can nick me.”

“De Garmo called out his moves and the kid carried them in his mind. I’ve heard about chess players who could do it but I never saw one. It made my head ache to watch the game.”

“He asked me to put him on. He thinks he’s a big time cardplayer, or would be if he had the experience. He asked me to back him.” McPhee uttered a sound and shook his head. “Some guys are too smart. I’m the brain of this business and—”

“You?” The dark woman raised her brows. There was a hint of a smile on her full lips.

“Well, anyhow, I don’t want a superman around the place. That kid could probably figure out the combination of the safe by hearing the tumblers fall.”

“Put him on,” said Madame Angela.

“What?”

“Give him a chance. Stake him and let’s see what he’s got. I like that kid.”

Ronnie Le Grand never forgot the surprise he experienced when he removed the blindfold and met the gaze of Madame Angela Rondo. He hadn’t dreamed that any except a few of Jim Larkin’s professional acquaintances were watching his stunt. And stunt it was—an accomplishment his father had encouraged him to practice as a memory exercise. Tonight he had consented to show it off because Jim insisted but to discover that he had excited the rapt attention of a magnificently bejeweled woman, a strange woman with a thin black cigar between her carmined lips, had been a shock and an embarrassment. She was the most extraordinary person he had ever seen; there was something attractive and yet repellent about her. He had been the more embarrassed by the boldness and almost hypnotic quality of her scrutiny. When she smiled at him, then rose and left the room without a word, he felt as if he had seen an apparition. Later he listened with interest as the Lark explained who she was but he had no reason to suspect that she was responsible for the change in McPhee’s attitude or that it was due to her intervention that he became a regular member of the Palace staff. To the boy, it seemed only natural that his unsuspected talents should be recognized by a man of McPhee’s perception and experience.

Chapter 5

THE JOURNEY downriver from Cairo had been a real voyage of discovery for Ronnie Le Grand. Not only had it opened up an unknown country to his view, a country rich in interest and one which he never would have seen otherwise, but also it had enabled him to become acquainted with himself. This, in its way, was the most exciting thing that he had ever experienced. His summer of footloose wandering, his association with Jimmy the Lark and their contacts with the hazards and uncertainties of living from hand to mouth had been a liberal education.

Those steamboat passengers he met, for instance, did not consider him a curious biological specimen—a sort of two-headed boy. They were polite, engaging, friendly, and they didn’t ask him trick questions just to discover the depth of his education. On the contrary, they appeared to enjoy his company, which was something not even his most admiring college professors had pretended to do.

Maybe, he reflected, all this was because he no longer sat on a perch like a stuffed owl when he met people. Or perhaps it was due, in part, to the fact that Jim Larkin had taught him how to laugh at a joke without acting as if he had a cracked lip. Certainly something had changed him from a bloodless creature into a person who radiated warmth and enthusiasm and who aroused warmth in other people. Well, that was a faculty worth cultivating. He was glad he had become Ronnie Le Grand and he confessed it to his unwieldy companion one afternoon.

Jim had sat in a dollar-limit poker game most of the previous night and he now squatted on the edge of his bunk tuning his violin. He was still clad in a soiled Canton flannel nightgown.

Jim listened to what his young companion had to say, then acknowledged, “You have changed and I guess it’s for the better; anyhow I like you better all the time. But don’t give me credit for what’s happened. When we first met, you were a sort of Johnny Boston-Baked-Beans. Your head was so full of knowledge it was as square as a dictionary. I saw that you were smart, though. All you needed was to know people as well as things. There’s a difference. You’ll make something of yourself, but don’t take me for a model. That’s one trouble about liking a guy who is older than you are: you are apt to copy him.”

“I might do worse, Jim,” Ronnie said sincerely. “I think you’re great.”

Unexpectedly, but in all seriousness, the other said, “I was great, but—never again! I had my day, I’ll never have another.”

“Why not? What do you mean?”

Jim closed his eyes; dreamily he drew his bow across the strings. “Yeah! I was an honest-to-God big man, the biggest there was.”

After a moment, Ronnie inquired, “Do you mind telling me about it?”

“What’s the use? You wouldn’t believe me.”

“And why not?”

“Because I sometimes don’t believe it myself. And yet it’s true. Well, I was an emperor. . . . Go ahead and laugh.”

“An . . . emperor?”

“That’s what I said, kid.” The speaker nodded indifferently and went on softly playing.

With a smile, the boy told him, “If you were wearing a crown of leaves above a Roman toga, I could guess which one you must have been.”

“Yeah? Which one?”

“Nero.”

Jim lowered his fiddle and eyed the speaker with sudden interest. “Why did you say that?”

“Look in the glass.”

“That certainly is funny,” the man observed. “I’ve read a good deal about him; in fact, I’ve read everything I could find. He was a great guy, Nero. He had jowls like mine and a big belly. He toed out and he played the fiddle. He was a jack of all trades; he could do anything. Well, so can I. Nero Claudius Caesar! My people christened me James Claude Caesar though they never heard of Nero. They’d heard of Rome but they thought it was in Georgia. He was born December 15. So was I. When he was fourteen years old, he put on the toga. I guess it was the same thing as long pants in those days. He was introduced to the Senate. Well, when I was fourteen, my old man took me to the State Capitol and introduced me to the senator from our district. He gave me a job—I mean the senator did.

“The books say Nero started off as a popular favorite and the Romans were crazy about him; that senator thought I was a swell kid too and I got along great with him until he caught me dealing myself four kings. I always was handy with cards.

“Here’s a funny thing and you can figure it out for yourself. Nero’s mother was a hellion and she poisoned her second husband, the Emperor Claudius. Well, my old man died from eating toadstools my mother cooked for him. She said she thought they were mushrooms and maybe she did, but I never liked her and I never went back home. I could tell you a hundred things that happened to me just about like they happened to Nero. They’re all in the books and you can read ’em yourself.”

As the speaker rambled on, reciting a garbled and fanciful account of what he had read, Ronnie realized that Jim was the victim of an odd fixation. He actually believed that in him dwelt the reincarnated soul of the sinister figure whose names he happened to bear. Doubtless the idea was like a grass seed, blown by the wind. It had taken root in his mind. Perhaps Jim’s undeniable likeness to the pictures of that fabled monarch had most to do with his belief.

“It all sounds nutty, doesn’t it?” the big fellow inquired. “But a lot of foreigners just as smart as we are and a lot older believed in such things. I mean that people don’t actually die but sort of move out of one house and into another. Maybe there’s something to it; maybe certain personalities are so powerful that they live on and on, indefinitely. Nero had his faults, I guess. All the same, he was a giant every way you take him. And you can’t believe all the things you read. Why, those historians themselves could barely read and write and they never actually met him face to face. Well, I’ve got him in here, or what’s left of him.” Larkin patted his paunch. “His name was Nero but I spell it with an H.”

Ronnie did not argue with his friend; instead he wondered if this queer belief didn’t serve to ease the bitterness of some deep frustration. In any event, it was a harmless idea and it made Jim none the less likable. It was mighty nice to enjoy the respect and the affection of an older person, especially one who was a real friend, who looked after you with the solicitude of a father. Certainly it wasn’t every tenderfoot who could claim the friendship and patronage of a Roman emperor.

It was gratifying, too, to enjoy the respect and interest of a person like Madame Rondo. It had not taken Ronnie long to learn that he had indeed made a favorable impression upon her.

She was a frequent and favored patron of the Palace and soon after McPhee put him on the payroll Ronnie noticed that she was there almost every night, watching him closely, curiously. McPhee had allowed him to deal blackjack, a job in which he worked under the watchful eye of a lookout. Since it was a rule of the game that the dealer must “stand” on seventeen, Ronnie’s work was largely routine. All the same, it taught him to handle chips, to “pay and take” and in other ways to perfect his technique; likewise it enabled him to meet certain patrons of the establishment.

Late one night as he came off shift he encountered Madame Rondo near the entrance to the restaurant. Unexpectedly she spoke to him,

“Won’t you join me in a bite of supper?”

Ronnie thanked her and accepted the invitation. They entered the cafe, then, when they were seated, she asked, “How are you getting along upstairs?”

“Pretty well, I think. Anyhow I’m having fun.”

“Fun?” She raised her dark brows inquiringly. “Ever work in a gambling place before?”

He shook his head. “It’s all new. I suppose that’s why it’s so fascinating.”

“Gambling is a pretty serious business to most people. Larkin says you have a real talent for cards, that you’re a genius.” To the head waiter who had seated her, she said casually, “Bring me a Delta Punch.”

“I’m sorry, Madame,” the latter apologized. “This is Tony’s night off.”

“So it is,” the woman said. “Then, bring me a Sazerac.” She looked inquiringly at Ronnie.

With a smile, he asked, “May I take a lemonade?”

“Anything you want, of course.” Madame Angela regarded him with that curious, luminous stare which had so often made him uncomfortable. “So you don’t drink. Well, I know you eat, so let me order for both of us. I know this place better than you do.” When she had given her directions and the waiter had gone, she resumed, “Where did you learn to play cards, Ronnie?”

“I don’t know. Some things come naturally; I seem to be born With the knack. Jim Larkin taught me a great deal.”

“He says you went to college. How did you happen to take up with him?”

“We met. We liked each other. I was looking around; it was my chance to see the world. Tell me, what is a Delta Punch and a Sazerac?”

“Any bartender can tell you all about a Sazerac cocktail. Tony is the only man in New Orleans who can tell you what’s in a Delta. I gave him the secret.”

“Is it really a secret?”

“A deep One. It still supplies me with my pin money, as I call it.” Madame glanced downward at the jewels on her ample bosom. “Delta bought most of this stuff. Tony did me a favor so I set him up in business. He brings his own ingredients when he comes to work and he takes them home with him when he quits. It has made him so rich he can play an “Ave Maria” on his own doorbells. He’s quite a property owner, and Delta did it.”

“I’d think a formula, a recipe for a mixed drink, could easily be stolen,” Ronnie observed.

“Oh, it is possible. But not here, not in this part of the country. There are some people it doesn’t pay to cheat in New Orleans and I’m one of them. Though I’m only a poor widow who has to pinch her pennies.” Madame Rondo smiled faintly. “No, my family never had any trouble keeping what they owned. Tony came from Sicily and I guess the Mafia taught him that it pays to play square with his backers. Did you ever hear of the Mafia?”

“Oh, yes, and I’ve read about the trouble here in New Orleans. Jim pointed out the place on Canal Street where the Committee of One Thousand met that day of the big riot and where the citizens started their march on the Parish Prison. That was a famous incident. It assumed international importance.”

“You know everything, don’t you?”

Ronnie confessed that he did indeed know a little about a good many things. “Yes, I’ve read a million books, it seems to me, all full of interesting but useless stuff. That’s why I’m having such a time for myself here in New Orleans.”

“That famous riot, as you call it, was the best thing that ever happened to this city,” Madame Rondo observed. Her face assumed a vindictive expression. “Those Sicilian lowdowns had things pretty much their own way. Now they do what they’re told and public affairs are in the hands of people who know how to direct them. But I’m doing all the talking. Tell me about yourself, young man. You’re the most unusual lad I ever knew. I can’t figure you out.”

Ronnie laughed. “And here I’ve been telling myself that you’re the most extraordinary woman I ever saw.”

“Hm-m! Maybe it’s time we really got acquainted.”

The waiter reappeared with the drinks and Madame tasted hers critically. Later, when the food arrived, she eyed her companion with disconcerting curiosity. Evidently he baffled her as completely as she mystified him but, while he felt only curiosity, she appeared to be fascinated. Her eyes remained fixed upon him; she listened with attention to all he said. It was flattering and Ronnie felt that he must possess unusual depths. Madame made no great effort to be charming or even agreeable; she seemed wholly indifferent to her effect upon him. She was a strange person. He couldn’t decide whether or not he liked her but certainly she was worth knowing. He wondered what the Palace employees would have to say about his dining with Madame Angela Rondo.

In the days that followed, Ronnie told himself that success was bound to come to one who walked with a Roman emperor on the one hand and a Madame Rondo on the other.

It was not long before McPhee’s Palace began to profit as greatly by the popularity of Ronnie Le Grand. It became known that McPhee had a youthful prodigy in his place, a lad in his teens whose skill with cards might rank him with that native-born wizard of chess, Paul Morphy. Morphy, too, had been a boy wonder and a master of his chosen game at an early age. This Le Grand youngster had a similar talent and it was a privilege to play with him, even if one lost. He was modest and unassuming and agreeable, a thorough young gentleman. He neither drank nor smoked. His manners were polished and he could talk well on any subject. Many experienced players, curious to meet this young mystery man, went to the Palace.

Draw poker, in those days unpolluted by shocking and irreverent variations in the rules laid down by Hoyle, was the most popular game of chance in New Orleans. It was considered a real test of card sense; it called for observation, self-control, keen judgment, and an accurate appraisal of human behavior. Good players deduced as much from the expressions and actions of their opponents as they did from scanning their own cards. Young Le Grand seemed to possess these qualifications, plus a subtle sixth sense. With all this, he had a frank and boyish enthusiasm for his calling, he never quarreled with his luck and for him every session at the tables was an exhilarating adventure.

So prosperity came to him and he shared it with the Lark.

Chapter 6

THOUGH RONNIE was an unusually intelligent young man, contrary to his father’s belief he had never given much thought to the “facts of life”; women, considered as females of the species, had never interested him. Since that side of his nature had lain dormant he attached no particular meaning to Madame Rondo’s evident fondness for his company. The part she took in his affairs seemed to him no more than an evidence of friendship. He found himself often in her company and it pleased his boyish vanity to go to the races with her or to be seen riding in her handsome carriage. Imperceptibly she began to exercise a sort of proprietorship over him; she made him her confidant and that, too, was flattering. He was aware, of course, that she enjoyed a certain reputation and that the better people of the city did not recognize her, but that in itself lent her distinction of a sort and he considered himself lucky to enjoy the friendship of such a powerful personage. Indeed there were men of real standing in New Orleans who would have given much to find themselves in his shoes.

This growing intimacy worried Jim Larkin and he spoke guardedly to his young friend but Ronnie could not bring himself to take the warning seriously. Madame Angela was an old woman, so he declared; she was at least forty! Furthermore she had a mustache and she smoked tobacco! Cigars. That proved she was more of a man than a woman.

As a matter of fact, Ronnie replied, she was hardheaded and practical and immersed completely in her own affairs, and if she felt any sentiment whatever toward him it was maternal. The very idea of anything like that was more than repugnant to the speaker. It was rather—sickening.

“All right,” Jim said. “Her bust is in the forties, too; she don’t have to go swimming to prove that she’s no gentleman. Nero’s mother, Aggie, was a schemer, like her, and the best businesswoman of her time.”

“You mean Agrippina.”

“I know more about hardheaded women than most guys, even if my knowledge is second hand. Nero picked another hellcat in Poppy Sabina. What a gal she turned out to be! She wasn’t the marrying kind, either, but she took Nero like he was a farmer’s son. If Madame Angela ain’t the reincarnation of some dame like that, then she should have lived in those times. Any woman who can run a town like New Orleans could have bagged herself a job as queen when I was in Rome.”

“Perhaps you’re right,” Ronnie admitted. “She isn’t a model of womanly virtue. Nevertheless she has done a good deal for me. I’m not concerned with her moral character, but she has something to talk about and that’s more than I can say about girls of my own age.”

“How’s about Madcap Maizie the Frightened Fugitive? She peeled you.”

“It showed what a fool I was,” Ronnie confessed. “Presumably I still am a fool or I wouldn’t be here in New Orleans. But I learned something from Maizie. I told Madame Angela about her and it gave her a good laugh.”

“Humph!” Jim continued to frown. “I didn’t know she could laugh. You must have softened her up.”

An incident occurred not long after which showed Ronnie that Madame Angela was not quite so masculine as he considered her and that she possessed some of the frailties common to other women. One was vanity, a fierce pride in her appearance and a deadly fear of suffering an injury to it.

Madame was entertaining some of her political associates at one of the famous restaurants in the French Quarter. Ronnie was her escort. Her other male guests were men familiar to him by reputation; the women they brought with them certainly had none. They were young and lovely and they were dressed almost as elaborately as their flamboyant hostess. Ronnie rather suspected that Madame had supplied these beauties herself and that they were as much a part of the entertainment as the other delicacies she had provided. He realized that he was not in the best and most respectable society and that this midnight party would not be chronicled in the local newspapers. All the same, it was a novel experience and he felt it was something of a distinction to be seated at the same table with so many political bigwigs. Actually the courtesy with which they treated him was an indication of their respect for Madame Angela. Ronnie wondered what his father would say if he ever heard of this affair. Well, it was another adventure and as entertaining in its way as any that had befallen him. This was life with a capital L, the boy felt.

Madame Angela, who never did anything by halves, had provided extravagantly for her guests. The food was prepared elaborately and in ways unfamiliar to Ronnie and although he drank nothing but water he assumed that the wines were of the rarest vintage.

The serving of café brulot was something of a ceremony in these New Orleans French restaurants and it was a novelty to Ronnie. He watched fascinated as the huge metal brulot bowl was brought in and ignited. When the restaurant lights were dimmed and the headwaiter stirred the blazing brandy with his ladle, Ronnie half turned in his chair to observe the procedure.

The small table at which these rites were performed stood directly back of Madame Rondo and that accounted for the incident which followed.

Some vagrant draft from an open door or window provoked what might have been a tragedy. Unexpectedly the blue flames flared out and ignited a filmy scarf which hung carelessly over the back of Madame Angela’s chair. Instantly the lacy trimming of her evening gown and the drooping plumes in her hair likewise caught fire. In a fraction of a second she became a pillar of flame. It all happened with the suddenness of an explosion.

Confusion followed, women screamed, men shouted, there was the scrape and crash of overturned chairs and the sound of breaking china. Madame’s guests and the nearby diners leaped to their feet. Then, almost as swiftly as the blaze had started, it was extinguished, for Ronnie had been the first to realize what had happened and the first to act. He moved like lightning. Fortunately, within arm’s reach of him was a table at which two people were dining. Seizing the tablecloth, he snatched it from between them with such a sudden and forceful jerk that only a few of the dishes went with it. Then, in the same movement, he flung it over Madame’s head and shoulders. This dexterous maneuver completely enveloped her; roughly he took her in his arms, hugging, rolling, and patting her until the flames were smothered.

When he removed the cloth, she was pallid, frightened and disheveled; her plumes were crushed over her ears; the trimmings of her gown were singed, her eyebrows and her long lashes were gone. Otherwise she appeared to be unhurt.

It had all happened in a moment but the resulting commotion was slow in subsiding. The proprietor of the establishment came on the run, bleating apologies and hurling shrill imprecations at all of his employees. Patrons stood up and some mounted their chairs to see over the heads of Madame’s guests, who surrounded her. The victim of the accident was all but hysterical and, as she realized how narrow was the margin by which she had escaped serious injury, her agitation increased.

One of her guests turned to Ronnie, saying, “Allow me to congratulate you on your presence of mind, Mr. Le Grand.”

“Yes, and his quickness, too,” said another. “Why, Angela, he’s quicker than a cat. If he’d been half a second slower—”

“Ronnie!” Madame cried out. “Take me home. Get me out of here before I faint.”

They brought her wraps and hastened to obey her wishes. It was obvious that the party was over.

Even after Ronnie had helped her into her carriage and the horses were racing homeward, she continued to moan and complain. He assured her that she was unhurt; at most that her skin might be a little blistered.

“Maybe so. I don’t know. I can’t tell yet. But, I have a horror of being disfigured, scarred. It has been a nightmare to me all my life. Sometimes I wake up screaming. It’s the one thing I’m afraid of. I can feel those flames now—”

She uttered a cry and tried to smother it with her hands. Her body was shaking. She leaned against Ronnie and whimpered like a frightened child. He had never seen a woman in such an acute state of nerves.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Next afternoon Ronnie called at Madame Angela’s house to present his compliments and to inquire about her condition. With him he brought a box of long stemmed roses. A Negress in a turban, who spoke a patois he couldn’t understand, smiled on him and insisted that he enter. It was evident that he was expected.

The Rondo residence was old and roomy, and its architecture was in harmony with the other houses in this part of the city. Across its front, flush with the street, ran an elaborate balcony of lacy ironwork, either imported from France generations earlier or fabricated by a pioneer Louisiana foundry. The wide, tiled entrance hall led to a sunny patio at the rear filled with flowers and shrubs; the rooms flanking this passageway had evidently been used for business purposes, in accordance with the thrifty Creole custom of former times. Here no doubt had been laid the foundations for the family fortune.

Above the ground floor the premises were a revelation to Ronnie. They indicated that the owner lived in something more than mere luxury and could indulge her lightest whim, regardless of expense. In the wide upper hallway or gallery there were many paintings, tapestries, exquisite Venetian mirrors, and other objects of art. Through the double doors of a handsomely furnished dining room, he caught the glitter of silver and the sheen of dark, polished furniture, richly carved. But the living room, where the Negress left him standing lor a few moments, fairly took his breath. A spacious room, it was crowded, indeed overfilled with gold and ivory chairs and couches. There were not one or two but several inlaid cabinets ornamented with gilt bronze figures of cupids and flute-playing fauns or satyrs. At each end of the room was an elaborate console. He noticed several Boule tables, the finest he had ever seen. Each item in this haphazard collection appeared to be connoisseur’s prize, and the twin chandeliers, dripping with crystal pendants, might have been looted from Versailles. The place was more like an auctioneer’s showroom than a salon, and Ronnie wondered if it reflected the usual Creole taste or merely indicated the greedy, acquisitive nature of its owner.

The Negro parlormaid spoke to him from the doorway and led him to Madame Rondo’s bedroom. It could not be called a dainty boudoir. The walls and ceiling were painted black and the furniture was massive and somber. Heavy draperies at the windows practically shut out the sunlight.

Madame Angela, clad in a voluminous black lace negligee, lay propped up in her bed—and what a bed it was! Her caller had never seen anything like it.

“Hello, Ronnie!” She extended her hand, exposing a plump but shapely arm bare to the shoulder. “So many have sent flowers and messages, but I knew you would stop by in person, so I left word to be on the lookout for you.”

In answer to his inquiry, she confessed that she suffered merely from effects of nervous shock; actually her worst injury had been the singeing of the long dark lashes of which she was proud. Again she mentioned her horror of being maimed. To his considerable embarrassment, she thanked him effusively once more for saving her from that catastrophe.

As his eyes became accustomed to the gloom, he surveyed the bedroom with curiosity. It was the sort of chamber in which he could picture some old French seigneur but certainly not a woman. The bed, in particular, was wholly incongruous and heavy; it was an enormous four-poster, the largest he had ever seen. Its handsome, polished columns supported a huge, canopied tester; the thing reminded him of a barge of state or a massive tomb.

Four-posters had always looked to him like dead mules lying on their backs; this one had the proportions of a defunct elephant. And yet it was undeniably handsome. He asked permission to examine it and Madame Rondo told him to draw back the window drapes.

“I’m like an owl,” she explained. “I hunt at night and I hate daylight.”

“It’s a pity to hide a genuine Seignouret bed, especially one with wood like this,” he told her. “It must be worth a fortune.”

“I presume it is; anyhow it has been in my family a long while. But what is a Seignouret?”

“Francois Seignouret. He was born in France and came here about 1810 so that bed must be pretty old. He always autographed his pieces. There is the initial S worked into the scroll on the headboard. It’s on the chairs and the dressing table and—”

“You know all about everything, don’t you?” Madame inquired. “Everything except love and women. I watched you with those girls last night at the restaurant. Weren’t you interested in any of them?”

Ronnie shook his head. “Not greatly. I don’t know much about girls, but I do know something about old paintings, old furniture, old silver, and such things. I guess I skipped the romantic age, anyhow I haven’t fallen in love yet. I was too busy with books.”

“And I skipped the books,” Madame confessed. “I don’t believe there is one in the house except journals and daybooks and ledgers. I’ve studied them all right. Maybe I’d like books. Maybe you’ll bring one along someday and read it to me. Will you? I’d love to have you read to me.”

He saw that her dark eyes were fixed upon him and that they were aglow. Somehow they reminded him of the eyes of a cat. Cats are nocturnal; they are luxury-loving creatures and their eyes glow in the darkness. Madame was a sort of black panther, he thought.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Jimmy the Lark was worried. He was nervous sitting alone in his room one night a little later. Nervousness, he claimed, is the result of tension and tension starts in the feet. “Cows and horses have stiff feet and their legs are stiff, too,” he said. “Elephants are different; there is no tension in an elephant. The same applies to monkeys. Monkeys have feet like hands and whoever heard of a worried monkey? The human foot is full of bones, and nerves, too. When it is loose and pliable, so is the owner. When a man’s feet stiffen up like hoofs, the nerves are squeezed and they begin to scream. That’s rheumatism.”

Whenever the Lark felt a lessening in his sense of wellbeing, either mental or physical, he took off his shoes and went to work on Rover and Butch. He manipulated them vigorously; he twisted them and he wrung them out; he put them through a course of sprouts.

Tonight he placed a Derby hat on the floor and scattered a handful of marbles broadcast. He picked them up, one by one, in his toes; then, walking on the sides of his feet, he carried them to the hat and dropped them in. It was an exercise which he asserted stimulated his brain, improved his circulation, and brought a tingle to his psyche. It was too bad this discovery could not be patented.

Having scattered and collected the marbles several times, he practiced with short lead pencil stubs. It was late, and he was in his nightshirt, of course. He even picked up his violin bow with the toes of his right foot and sawed it back and forth. He spoke aloud to his left foot, saying,

“Butch, if that big toe of yours was a thumb, I could play the fiddle with my feet. That’s more than Nero could do.”

He heard quick footsteps in the hall; the hall door of the room opened so violently that it banged against the wall; and Ronnie lurched in. He was hatless, disheveled; he was breathing heavily and his face was streaming with sweat. More startling, however, was the expression upon it; he looked terrified, hunted.

“What’s wrong?” the older man asked quickly. “Is the Law after you?”

“No. I—I’m sick, I guess, or crazy. I ran all the way back.” The speaker flung himself into a chair and took his head between his hands, but the next instant he was on his feet again. “I must be drunk or drugged. I can’t think straight and I’m burning up inside. My guts are afire. I can’t sit still and I can’t—”

“I’ll get a doctor,” Jim offered, but the boy vehemently vetoed this suggestion. “No! No! I’d have to tell him what ails me and everything that happened. I tried to outrun it, leave it behind me, but I couldn’t.”

“Leave what behind?”

Instead of answering, Ronnie made his way blindly into the bathroom, turned on the tap, and splashed water into his face.

“I’m better than I was. I’ll fight it out but—don’t leave me. I’ll tell you everything as soon as I can but I couldn’t tell a stranger.”

“Is it about Rondo?”

The boy nodded. He seemed willing, almost eager to talk but his agitation was so deep seated that the story refused to come. He was strangely hesitant, almost incoherent. Now and then his voice failed utterly, as if terror had dried it up or as if he lacked the courage to put his thoughts into words. Meanwhile, there was no doubt that he had suffered a physical distress as painful as his emotional turmoil. Jim was alarmed and mystified, too, but there was little he could do. “You went to her house for dinner, didn’t you?”

“Yes. My God! That house! It’s a—a glorified brothel.”

“Who else was there?”

“Nobody. I was the only guest. We were alone. She was all right at first, only she acted a little strange, I thought, but later on—” The speaker shivered; he shook himself as if to free his mind of some unbearable memory.

“Honestly, Jim! She went into a—a sort of delirium. So did I, for that matter. Something came over me, too. I must have gone out of my head.”

“Go on. I’m beginning to understand. Take it easy, kid. Start at the beginning.”

“Well, it was a wonderful dinner and I felt rather set up at being there alone with her.”

“What did you drink?”

“Nothing. There was everything to choose from and of course she helped herself.”

“What did you have to eat?”

“Oh, everything. It was a feast, I tell you, and just what you’d expect from her. Strange Creole dishes, all highly seasoned. There was soup, fish, game, salad, pastries—”

“What kind of game?” Jim demanded. “Birds?”

Ronnie nodded. “Little birds. Snipe, I guess. They were mighty good.”

Larkin uttered a sound and moved across the floor, his nightshirt flapping about his ankles.

“All right! Then what?”

“After a while—I mean some time after dinner was over, I began to feel queer. Awfully queer. At first I was exhilarated, then I seemed to take fire inside. I couldn’t sit still and I had the wildest thoughts. I was ashamed of them. I told her I was sick and I’d have to go home. The servants were gone by that time so she offered to get something for me. After a while she called me from her bedroom and I went in there.”

Again the speaker fell silent while he wrestled with himself. “I don’t recall things clearly from there on. It was dark but her eyes glowed, Jim. She was like a—a maniac. She reminded me of a big black panther . . . in heat. She had her arms around me. She was kissing me. That perfume of hers made it all the worse. She’s an old woman, Jim—a monstrous old hag, old enough to be my mother. She’s soft and flabby; her lips are loose and wet. Nothing I could do or say had the slightest effect. The trouble is I was nearly out of my head, too.”

“And no wonder! She had you drugged.”

“I remember finally she began cursing me. You’ve no idea, Jim! That was when I tore myself away from her. I could hear her scream curses at me all the way downstairs.”

“Never mind any more right now,” Larkin told him. “That was a rough deal for a kid like you. You’re altogether different from other boys of your age but she didn’t have the sense to know that, You must not let it hurt you. The stuff she gave you is wearing off and it’ll be gone by-and-by. You must hang onto yourself and sweat it out. Take it easy, Ronnie. Tomorrow we’ll have to make some plans and make ’em fast.”

Chapter 7

DAYLIGHT FOUND the two men still talking. Although Ronnie showed evidences of the ordeal he had undergone, he seemed calmer; his spasms of physical discomfort had diminished. What troubled him most was the fact that his mind was still confused and his memory was unreliable. Like an alcoholic whose delirium had just broken, he was unable with certainty to separate the real from the imaginary, and there were gaps in the sequence of events which he could not seem to fill in, and these further perturbed him.

“Quit thinking about it,” Jim advised. “You got yourself out of a bear trap but it gave you a bad scare; let it go at that. I should have realized what was going on but you seemed so sure of yourself that I figured you knew Rondo for what she is.”

“I did suspect. But for that matter, I thought I knew myself, too. I didn’t dream I’d lose my balance.”

Abruptly the Lark said, “It’s time we got out of here.”

“You mean leave New Orleans?” Jim nodded. “Why?”

“We’re in a swamp, Ronnie, and there’s no bottom under us. Let’s back out before we bog down.”

“Oh, no! We’re doing all right. I’m having the time of my life.”

“For a smart kid, you come close to being a half-wit.” Jim was impatient. “That woman is dangerous as rattlesnake spit. It took her a while to make up her mind to go for you; then you ran out on her and left her screaming. You hurt her pride and she’d rather have her throat cut. She could have yours cut, too, and she isn’t above doing it.”

Angrily Ronnie exploded, “To hell with her and her pride! I have a little myself. Wouldn’t it sound pretty to hear those fellows at the Palace say, ‘Ronnie Le Grand doesn’t come here any more. He quarreled with that woman and she ran him out of town.’ ”

“Would it sound any better if they said, ‘One of those bodies they found in the Delta last week was his. The fat one was Jim Larkin’s?’ ”

“Be sensible,” Ronnie pleaded. “She couldn’t hold anything against you. As for me, I’ve made a name for myself here, and I’m enjoying the life.”

Slowly Jim shook his head. “I’m sorry I took a shine to you. I was a fool to teach you to play cards.”

“Why?”

“You don’t belong, that’s all. Gambling is a good business for men who can’t make a living at anything else, or who are too shiftless to try. I’m one. But you’re not like me. Last night should show you where the business leads to.”

“That’s a little vague, Jim.”

“Ever think of getting married?”

“No!” With a forceful gesture, Ronnie dismissed the very idea.

“You will, sometime; then it’ll be too late—unless you pick some painted trollop out of a cathouse. I don’t think you’d do that but there won’t be any other choice for Ronnie Le Grand the gambler.”

“You told me once that you didn’t preach. You’re really pretty good at it. Perhaps I like cards because there are only four women in the deck. Well, I can get along without any others. Quit? No, I’m not going to run away from my luck. You warned me about that yourself. Don’t let’s think of going.”

Although Ronnie remained stubbornly determined to stay in New Orleans, he soon came to the conclusion that this agreeable adventure had ended and that his fun was over, for McPhee told him frankly that evening that his presence at the Palace, either as an employee or as a patron, was no longer welcome. The proprietor spoke with evident reluctance; nevertheless he was firm.

“If I were you, I’d move on.” The warning was accompanied by a significant stare.

“This isn’t the only gambling place in the city.”

“Certainly not. But none of us can live without Rondo; she takes her cut from all of us. She let you in; now she’s let you out.” McPhee continued to eye him bleakly. “Don’t be a sucker, kid. This is a yellow fever town; you can find healthier places and it’s like the doctors say, a man’s health is all that counts.”

When Ronnie repeated this conversation to the Lark, the latter made no comment. He merely opened a bureau drawer and began removing his limited possessions. That evening he and his companion boarded a train, and New Orleans knew them no more.

Although Ronnie had seen the Mississippi only on his way south, that brief glimpse of the life it supported had fascinated him. As for the Lark, it was his home. Since it was the River upon which they must depend for a livelihood, the two fled only far enough upstream to feel safe from the wrath of Madame Rondo.

That journey, brief as it was, indicated why boat travel was still popular among those not driven solely by haste. Railway roadbeds, at that time, were not what they are now; cars were crowded and dirty and either too hot or too cold. Changes were frequent and delays were common; railroad eating places were so poor that most people carried their own food.

How different this was from the commodious river boats where one enjoyed restful nights and every meal was a banquet, served by friendly and attentive darkies. There was room to move about and there was no dirt, no cinders, no discomfort. Fashionably dressed men and women walked the upper promenades or entertained themselves in the richly appointed salons and lounge rooms. There was music, merriment, and all that went to make travel a high adventure. Those proud packets, with their heaven kissing stacks and enormous, whirling paddle wheels were graceful and handsome creations. By night, incandescent with lights, they presented a spectacle even finer than by day.

In places, the river channel was crooked and treacherous, and there the levees were lighted by beacons set on posts, like city street lamps. Although these lights were carefully ranged for the guidance of pilots, the towboats with their unwieldy rafts of barges usually nosed into the bank at dark and made their hawsers fast to sycamores and cottonwoods until dawn. The blazing packets, however, tore on through the night at top speed.

Jim and Ronnie made their headquarters first in one river port, then in another. Most of their time was spent in travel. Usually they accompanied each other but sometimes they went in opposite directions and did not meet for a week or more. They seldom journeyed above St. Louis; by mutual agreement, they never went below Baton Rouge.

Professional gamblers worked these boats, as they had done for years, and while they did not look on Larkin as an interloper, they were somewhat less than cordial to his youthful companion whose reputation had preceded him. They were skeptical of the latter’s skill and curious to test it. Having done so, they envied his luck.

Some travelers, of course, thought he was a sad example, and they looked on him with distrust, but he was no less pleasant to those who disapproved of his calling than he was to those who admired him for it. He was never forward; in fact, he was almost retiring and, in spite of his fine clothes and personable manners, he made no effort to meet strangers.

That was especially so with regard to women, either young or old, plain or attractive. He seemed to avoid them, but when they sought an introduction, which was not infrequently, they pronounced him charming, fascinating, and modest.

When encouraged to do so, he could recite most of the dramatic events which had occurred along the river and he could describe them in a way that made them live. He was familiar with every major campaign of the Civil War, every land battle and naval engagement which had taken place in this part of Dixie. Although he was a Yankee, his admiration for the resourcefulness and gallantry of the Confederate forces made friends of his Southern listeners. To Memphis-bound passengers, for instance, he would describe the Battle of the Rams vividly. It was, he assured them, the strangest, the most spectacular naval engagement in the history of warfare, up to then—a battle to the death between especially built ships; armed with enormous hawklike beaks, the purpose of which was to pierce the very entrails of their enemies and tear them out. He could indicate the precise place where those monsters, emerging from the mists of dawn, had rushed together, at full speed, head on.

Unlike other warcraft, it was not the function of these queer battleships to bombard, to maneuver, and to retreat, if necessary. They were suicide ships, unarmed except for their murderous prows; their crews consisted of desperate fellows unafraid to die; the sole purpose for which they had been built was to attack, under full power, and destroy or be destroyed. That had been a fierce and furious encounter and its outcome, hinging lately upon chance, had decisively affected the later course of the war.

Many thought it odd indeed that a young man possessed of such an intellectual background should have become a professional gambler. He was unlike the usual betting man, both in appearance and in deportment. He never joined a card game unless or until he was invited. When such an invitation came, it was never refused, and once the game, whatever it might be, was under way, he made it plain that he played to win. He never seemed bored, listless, or inattentive; he was watchful, alert, and wholly absorbed in what he was doing. He wooed his luck with fervent ardor. His uncanny “feeling” for cards enabled him to press his winnings to the limit and to minimize his losses. These latter were seldom large, for when the cards did not run his way, he played them tightly and with caution.

Life went on smoothly but Ronnie and Jim often spoke regretfully of New Orleans; they felt like exiles. Jim’s uneasiness persisted, though he seldom referred to Madame Rondo. He was well aware that she still remained more than a disagreeable memory to his young friend. He knew, also, that her sensitive fingers were in touch with the pulse of the Mississippi sporting world and that her long arm reached, or could reach, to the head of navigation. He wondered often whether she would be content to let things run as they were running. To him, it seemed unlikely.

Then the Lark went north for a week or two. Ronnie had boarded a southbound steamer. They planned to meet again in St. Louis, but on Ronnie’s way back from Baton Rouge disaster overtook him. Early one evening, shortly after the packet had pulled out of Natchez, a stranger by the name of Gutierrez introduced himself. He was civil and well dressed.

“I’m organizing a sociable little game,” he said. “I have three other gentlemen interested. Would you care to make the fifth?”

Gladly Ronnie responded, “My name is Le Grand.”

Mr. Gutierrez smiled faintly. “We know who you are, but we can afford to lose a little something, and would like to have the pleasure of playing with the famous Ronnie Le Grand.”

“That’s very flattering.”

“You’re considered the best cardplayer on the River and the luckiest, too. Being superstitious, I’d like to feel your hump.”

Ronnie laughed and followed his interlocutor. On their way aft, Mr. Gutierrez made it known that he traveled for a New Orleans hardware house; the other players were strangers to him but one of them he understood was a wealthy planter. The cardroom, one of several, opened upon the promenade deck. It was furnished with a round, cloth-covered table, comfortable chairs and several spittoons. In one corner stood a small bar counter, equipped with trays and glasses for the use of stewards, or for the convenience of such exacting patrons as chose to prepare their own liquid refreshments.

The waiting men greeted Ronnie civilly but with reserve; they eyed him curiously. They made known their names and one of them explained that, with an idle evening on their hands, they could not employ it to better advantage than by investigating the high cost of two pairs.

Shortly after the five had seated themselves, the door opened to admit still another passenger, a big man who addressed Gutierrez, saying, “Hello, T. G.! I seen who you had in tow.” He tilted his head in Ronnie’s direction, “So I had to come in and watch the fun.”

Gutierrez made the newcomer known as Dave Crouch and asked, “Don’t you want to sit in? It won’t cost you much.”

Mr. Crouch shifted his sizable cud of tobacco and shook his head.

“I can’t afford the expense, T. G., but I’d dearly love to watch you all pitch them paper horseshoes.”

“Okay!” T. G. assented. “Only put the hook on that door, or the place will be crowded with standees. Everybody’s curious about you, Mr, Le Grand.”

It turned out to be an odd game. For one thing, Ronnie quickly realized that he was not in the company of amateurs, and that the names and occupations of his opponents must be fictitious. Such deceit was not unusual, for gamblers, like wartime privateers, often sailed under false colors. What did mystify him, however, was their apparent indifference and lack of teamwork. If they were bent on whipsawing him, they didn’t show it. Actually he won several hands almost too easily and none of the others manipulated the cards in a way to which he could take exception. They had little to say and it was Gutierrez who kept the conversation going.

The evening passed slowly, uneventfully. The burly Mr. Crouch continued to look on, but he made few comments. Ronnie noted, however, that in spite of the fact that the room was supplied with cuspidors, Crouch occasionally rose from his chair, unhooked the door, then leaned out and spat upon the deck. Obviously it was not a maneuver prompted by good manners; Ronnie wondered if the fellow awaited the arrival of somebody. If so, who could it be? He decided finally that he didn’t care to remain and see; accordingly he stifled a yawn or two, then announced casually that he was tired and would beg to be excused. As he spoke, he pocketed his winnings and arose. His action, although deliberate, was evidently unexpected; the players looked at him queerly. As he turned to leave the table, Crouch stood up and moved in front of the door. The latter spoke to Gutierrez.

“It’s all clear. No use waiting any—”

Crouch did not finish his sentence for Ronnie hit him in the face, driving him completely off balance. Simultaneously, the cardplayers leaped to their feet; the cotton planter, who had been seated next to Ronnie, seized him from behind.; He did not undertake to drag the boy away from his victim, he merely pinned his arms behind him, then cried sharply, “Be quick, T. G. Let him have it.”

Ronnie sensed what was about to happen, and writhed and twisted furiously, but he could not free himself. This sudden, frantic effort upon his part, he reasoned later, probably spared him a fractured skull. He remembered later that as he and the planter wrestled he dimly saw Gutierrez poised upraised arm; in his hand was a leather-covered blackjack, the sort of “billy” used by police officers—a silent but murderous weapon.

It was the last thing Ronnie Le Grand remembered; he did not even feel the shock of the blow which descended. The planter released his hold, Ronnie’s inert body slumped to the floor and the five men listened for sounds from the adjoining cardrooms. None of them spoke. Gutierrez rifled the victim’s pockets, tossed the contents upon the table, then motioned to Crouch. The latter unhooked the door and stepped out but immediately re-entered, closed the door behind him, and vigorously shook his head. “Not yet,” he murmured, then felt his bleeding lips and cursed, inaudibly. Again the five men waited, listening.

“Better sap him again,” one of them advised, but Gutierrez said, “What’s the use?”

By-and-by the lookout left the cabin for a second time, returning to announce, “It’s all right, but we better make haste.”

Five pairs of hands seized Ronnie’s body, bore it swiftly across the deserted promenade deck to the rail and cast it overboard. Gutierrez likewise threw his blackjack into the night.

The group re-entered the cardroom and seated themselves at the table. Gutierrez shuffled and dealt a hand. He spoke finally: “He simply pulled out early and went to bed. Understand? We reckoned a gentleman’s game like ours was too tame for Ronnie Le Grand. One nice thing about a jack, it don’t leave evidence to wash up.”

Chapter 8

RONNIE AWOKE in heaven.

He assumed it to be heaven for he was at rest and he was no longer cold. Neither was he confused or frightened. Drowning wasn’t so bad, he decided. Heaven was not what he had pictured it; nevertheless it was nice and comfortable. It had a high, white ceiling, and its walls were papered in a restful landscape pattern so realistic that at first he fancied he was lying in a delightful grove of trees, between the farthest trunks of which he could make out sunlit meadows. Those were the fields of Elysium, presumably. Heavenly creatures were somewhere close by for he could hear their voices. Probably they were coming to welcome him.

His lids were heavy; it was an effort to roll his head and to focus his vision but—yes, there were two angels. A big one and a little one. They were in white and they were drenched in a blinding light which hurt his eyes, so he closed them and turned his head. When he reopened them, he couldn’t make out just what it was he saw but it looked like a high, colonial mantelpiece, above which hung a portrait of Robert E. Lee. There was no mistaking the uniform and beard.

The angels murmured softly. He investigated to find that the larger one—he could see more clearly now—was doing fancy work. The graceful movements of her shapely fingers held him fascinated. She was lovely; her profile was perfect and the sun glinted upon her dark hair. Her diminutive companion resembled her in features and in coloring, but this little angel had golden hair.

Suddenly something in the back of his mind stirred, reasserted itself, and he was in darkness, struggling to keep afloat. It was horrible to drown for it took so long. He must have moved for he heard a child’s voice cry:

“Look, Ellice! Look!”

After a moment, the darkness disappeared and Ronnie saw that the divine seamstress was looking down at him. He heard the little one in the distance excitedly calling:

“Babaloo! Babaloo! Hurry! He’s awake.”

What odd names they had up here. The girl at his bedside was smiling.

“Are you feeling better?” she inquired gently.

He undertook to speak but his tongue was thick, his throat was dry, and he merely croaked.

Soon there was a stir and a rustle, the rustle of pinions, no doubt, and Babaloo, the third celestial creature, materialized. She wore a shapeless, faded man’s felt hat and she was smoking a clay pipe. She was old, she was wrinkled, she was as black as a shoe. Laying her sooty hand on his forehead, she announced, “De fevah done broke jus’ like I said.”

“We must send for the doctor.” It was the slim cherub speaking. “I’ll tell Mose to go.”

“Fer what?” Babaloo demanded. “Who fotch him out of dat fevah?”

But the tall divinity insisted, “Dr. Beauregard should be notified, by all means.”

“What place is this?” Ronnie managed to ask.

“This is Tranquillity Plantation. I’m Ellice Rainey. This is my little sister Mavis.”

The ancient Negress volunteered, “Me, I’m Babaloo, who been lookin’ after y’all. Now hush yo’ mouf, sick boy, and swallow dis.”

She lifted his head and held a glass to his lips. His skull hurt and it seemed to him that only one lobe of his brain was working. His eyelids closed of their own weight. “Tranquillity! Ellice! Mavis! Babaloo!” It sounded like a song.

He slept. He awoke. People spoke to him and he answered. He slept again. Occasionally he was troubled by nightmares. Most of them were about drowning. They were so real, so vivid that he told himself he was living over again some experience, the details of which were blurred. It wasn’t so much like living them over as it was like dying, time and again, and always in the same manner.

He was afloat in turbulent waters; they sucked him under, then boiled him up to the surface. He was struggling weakly, treading water, trying to fill his lungs and keep afloat. Some recollections were more realistic than others. One was of finding himself entangled in the bare branches of a tree. He clung to them and yet tried to fend them off for they gouged his flesh. Now and then, they pressed him under again; they lifted him clear, and he no longer had to kick feebly and move his arms. At last, he felt something rough and solid under him, the tree trunk itself. He hooked an arm over it, then a leg, but the thing wallowed and rolled; it all but spilled him off.

He must have muttered his thoughts for he heard the voice of Babaloo saying, “It’s all ovuh, now, so res’ yo’se’f. De good Lord retch out his han’ and put you straddle of dat tree. When de river at high stage, like now, plenty drif’ wood is floatin’ by. Dat’s how come dem packets mus’ use de big searchin’ lights, else dey go wham! Yassir, de river fotch some of dem trees all de way from Californy. When you done rode fur enough, the Lord taken you by de neck and set you down on the levee, right at Tranquillity.”

“I swam ashore,” Ronnie declared without opening his eyes. “It was growing light. I could see the bank slipping past. It wasn’t far away but—” His voice failed.

A levee lamplighter, on his dawn patrol, had discovered Ronnie’s body in the submerged top of a fallen cottonwood, where he had managed somehow to drag himself part way up the sloping trunk. This the boy learned along with many other things, as time passed. Other people besides the two Rainey girls and Babaloo came and went from the sickroom. There was Dr. Beauregard, for instance; Andy Jackson, the plantation manager, and his wife, also Babaloo’s son Mose who had helped his mother handle her patient. All of these people were kindly, sympathetic, and from each of them he learned something new.

John Rainey, the owner of Tranquillity, had been called to New Orleans shortly before Ronnie regained consciousness. The plantation was the birthplace of both daughters, but Mrs. Rainey was in poor health and seldom visited the old mansion nowadays. Babaloo was the name baby Ellice had given to her childhood nurse Mama Lou. Babaloo was a benevolent tyrant who bossed the entire household as she did her present patient, and even John Rainey himself stood somewhat in awe of her.

Both daughters had been deeply touched and vastly excited when an unconscious stranger had been brought to their door. They had insisted upon helping care for him.

“It’s a miracle that you’re alive, my boy,” Dr. Beauregard declared on the occasion of his second call. “That old river has its gentler moods but it can be cruel and treacherous. I’m no longer surprised at anything it does. To us people who live here, its ways are beyond comprehension.”

“You must have found me in pretty bad shape,” Ronnie murmured.

“Yes, it was touch and go, for a while. Only a strong young man could have survived the shock and the exposure you suffered. Frankly, Mr. Banning, you owe more to Babaloo than to me. My knowledge of healing runs back only a few generations whereas hers is as old as the African jungles.”

“Banning?” The speaker was startled.

“That’s your name, isn’t it?”

“Presumably. I—I’ve been trying to remember—”

“Don’t attempt to think now. Everything will come back to you; then you’ll recollect all that happened. Take it easy. I’ll be in again tomorrow.”

Banning! Dick Banning! So he had babbled during his fever. Probably he had spoken of Ronnie Le Grand too. Dick or Ronnie, which was it to be?

He slept on that question.

The next morning, his mind was clearer, and he began to put things together. He recalled Gutierrez and Crouch, that card game, its unexpected termination, and the black-out that followed. His thoughts ran back to the Lark’s misgivings and to—Madame Rondo. The whole pattern of events took shape of a sudden—that dark, malevolent woman assumed huge and terrifying proportions. He was afraid of her, he had to admit. As an individual, she filled him with a peculiar loathing and that loathing included everything she stood for, everything with which she was connected.

Most of that forenoon, he pretended to sleep but his mind was active and he knew that it was running straight. Moreover, it was a man’s mind and not that of a schoolboy; it told him that he was through with the sporting life, as he had called it, and that Ronnie Le Grand had met his death on the night he battled with the muddy Mississippi.

There were several reasons why he must now become Dick Banning, and one was Madame Rondo herself. He wanted no more of her. Another was that he saw himself clearly for the first time and he did not like what he beheld. The glamour of the betting world had dulled. Gambling was no gay, romantic adventure, no exciting battle of wits; it was a drab and discreditable occupation of which he was ashamed. Certainly it was something he did not care to confess to people like the Raineys.

John Rainey was one of the best-known men in this part of the South; Dick had read of Ellice in the newspapers, and he knew her to be the darling of New Orleans. She was an aristocrat, and he quailed at the thought of telling her of his gambling days.

But the time had come to tell her something, for he could no longer feign loss of memory. Well, he could manage that without too much deceit.

That evening, in the presence of those who constituted the household, he recited his story. He was Richard Banning, the son of a well-to-do and successful physician; he had set out to see a bit of the world; he had played in a card game with strangers; it had ended in a row; he had been slugged, robbed, and tossed overboard to drown. Beyond that, his mind was still somewhat confused.

Ellice and her little sister listened spellbound; Babaloo sucked at her pipe, praised the Lord, and called down punishment upon the miscreants who had committed this outrage.

“Dem white men is worse’n de worstes’ rousters,” she declared. “Ever’body knows deckhan’s will rob you but dey skeered to kill folks on account of de Law will get ’em.”

“Father will see that those scoundrels are punished,” Ellice predicted.

“You got off lucky, Mr. Banning,” the plantation manager told him. “Your pockets were empty when Mose and I put you to bed, but we found your money belt. It’s in the safe.”

Little Mavis, who had listened round-eyed, broke in excitedly, “The money was all wet but Ellice and I dried it out. There were hundreds and hundreds of dollars. You must be awfully rich, Dick.”

He reached out and laid his hand upon her blonde head. “I’m glad there’s something left, for the first thing I want to do when I get up is to buy you a nice present.”

The words were directed at the child but his eyes were on the older sister.

It wasn’t long until Dick was up and around and the days which followed were more than pleasant, for he realized that he was falling in love. This phenomenon occupied his attention so completely that he could think of nothing else. He couldn’t take time out to consider where it was leading him. Ronnie Le Grand was dead indeed and Dick Banning had come to life, but it was a new and different Dick Banning who emerged from that sickroom. His legs were weak but otherwise he was a whole, strong man. That part of him which had lain dormant had roused itself, and it was almost as incredible as his deliverance from the River.

He recalled Jim Larkin’s fanciful theory and he could almost believe that a stranger had taken possession of his body, crowding out its former weak and lopsided occupant. That was an absurdity, of course; all the same, he had suffered some kind of metamorphosis. To this new Dick Banning, Ellice Rainey was a revelation, a source of constant wonder and delight. His ears ached for the sound of her voice; his hungry eyes searched for a sight of her. He was astonished at himself but more astonished that she seemed to share his emotions. She revealed it in a hundred subtle ways, indistinguishable to any eyes but his.

Puppy love is a weak term for the first ecstasy that comes once, and once only, to youth. Its lofty exaltation can never be recaptured; its memory never dies. To Dick, the experience was peculiarly poignant, no doubt, because it came to him late and because he was already something more than a boy. It rounded him out into the full stature of a man.

Little eight-year-old Mavis seemed to understand what was going on even more clearly than did her sister. It delighted the child, for she adored this visitor out of nowhere, this big brother who held her on his lap and talked to her as if she were a grownup. In her way, Mavis was as precocious as he, and when he first heard her play the piano and sing, he declared, in all sincerity, that she was a genius, a prodigy. Mavis beamed at his praise, climbed upon his knee, and put her arms around his neck.

“You’ll stay here always, won’t you, Dick?” she begged of him.

* * * * * * * * * *

Tranquillity was a huge plantation. It was a barony, the broad acres of which spread for miles along the river. Hundreds of Negro families lived there and looked upon Andy Jackson as a master almost as absolute as those Raineys who had ruled the place during slavery days. He was their judge and arbiter. He weighed their cotton; he dispensed their provisions; and he instructed them how to work their land. When they committed misdemeanors, he was the high justice and the law.

With Mose at the reins, the Rainey sisters often drove Dick over this vast estate. They visited the commissary, where Andy conducted his multitudinous affairs; they pointed out various places of local interest.

Each day seemed more enchanting than the one before, but Dick’s nights were troubled. He slept less and less, for that new man who had stepped into his skin appeared to be a peculiar fellow. He had a high sense of decency and of self-respect; he was no kin of the late Ronnie Le Grand.

More than once, Dick recalled a warning by the Lark: “Ever think of getting married? You will sometime. Then it’ll be too late.”

How true that was! Only a thoughtless fool would welcome adventure for its own sake, without stopping to reason where it led. How much better for him if he had waited to welcome the one supreme adventure of life. His father, too, had cautioned him. Those shady side roads which look so alluring to foot travelers grow rougher and more devious as one follows them, he thought. They end finally in a bog.

Yet how could he bare the truth about himself to Ellice Rainey? She was the heiress to this principality. She was proud and sensitive and immaculate. It would be thought that he was after her fortune. No wonder those demons perched upon the foot of his bed prodded him into wakefulness.

One day John Rainey returned to Tranquillity without advance notice of his coming. Dick met him with trepidation. Mr. Rainey was a handsome, well-poised man. His eyes were keen and indicated the inner fire that blazed within him. Before Dick had been with him for an hour, he told himself that here was the most intelligent man he had ever met and quite the finest gentleman.

The visitor rose to the challenge and did his best to make a good impression. Apparently he succeeded, but his next few nights were more troubled than ever.

One morning, he asked permission to speak with his host alone. White-faced and shaken, he blurted out the truth about himself. Mr. Rainey listened soberly, then said, “This isn’t news to me. New Orleans is my home, Dick. That’s your real name, isn’t it?”

“Yes, sir.”

The older man smiled. “I like Richard Banning better than Ronnie Le Grand, don’t you?”

“I never want to hear that one again. I took it only to spare my father’s feelings when I got into a bit of trouble back home. You recognized me and yet you allowed me to remain here?” Dick showed his astonishment.

“We’re an old-fashioned family,” Mr. Rainey told him. “We have our traditions and we respect them. No stranger in distress was ever denied rest and succor at our door. When you said your name was Dick Banning, I let it go at that. The children had enough to think about; they could hardly have endured the added excitement of caring for the famous Ronnie Le Grand. That would have almost been like caring for Lafitte the pirate; Besides all that, Dick, you were a pretty sick boy.”

“I came in here to make a clean breast of everything. This isn’t all I have on my mind. I—I’m in love with Miss Ellice.”

Again Mr. Rainey showed no surprise. “I presumed as much. Most young men fall in love with her without half your provocation. She has many admirers.”

There was a pause which Dick broke with difficulty. “Then I assume you consider this to be merely an—an impossible situation?”

“Quite. You must agree . . . impossible and unfortunate, for I suspect that Ellice is pretty fond of you. That’s understandable, for you’re no ordinary adventurer. I like you myself. I like you enormously. I wish circumstances were different.”

In desperation, Dick said, “I come of good stock, Mr. Rainey. I have enjoyed unusual advantages and I had the whole world ahead of me. Foolishly I went off on the wrong track for a time, but it wasn’t really deliberate. I’ve never done anything dishonest. People can get back on the right track and that’s what I intend to do. I thought perhaps—”

He ceased speaking when the plantation owner handed him a Vicksburg newspaper. “I brought that with me, Dick. I think you’d better read it.”

In headlines, the boy saw the name he had recently discarded. Rapidly he read the story under it. It was one that caused him to flush and then to pale. Finally, through stiff lips he managed to say, “Too bad the rascal could swim. Most of it runs close to the truth but that part about Madame Rondo is pure fiction. Furthermore, I never cheated at cards.”

“I can believe that,” said Mr. Rainey. “But there are many such stories about you.”

“It’s pretty discreditable, isn’t it? Has Miss Ellice seen this?”

The father shook his head. “She’s bound to hear some such tale, however, sooner or later.”

“Yes, of course. Well, I’m leaving immediately.”

“But are you well enough to go?”

“It isn’t my body that’s sick, now.”

Gravely the older man observed, “That newspaper is right in saying that Ronnie Le Grand was a good loser. He has my reluctant admiration. Where are you going, my boy?”

“West, I dare say. It doesn’t matter, so long as I keep my back to the River and to Ronnie Le Grand.”

“I’m afraid that won’t be easy, Dick. Our virtues are soon forgotten, but our mistakes are like the ghosts in a haunted house. They continue to walk the floors and rattle their chains at midnight. You have to put up with them. That won’t be impossible for a lad like you. On the contrary, it may help to make a real man of you.” The speaker’s expression changed. “You’re an intelligent young fellow and you have undoubted capabilities. Something tells me that you’ll go far and fast.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“We Raineys like to boast that no guest ever left Tranquillity with less than he brought. May I presume to offer you such money as you need?”

“You’re more than kind, but I have enough. It’s water stained, but otherwise it’s clean. Would you care to shake hands with an ex-cardsharp?”

Mr. Rainey took his palm in a firm grip; with sincerity he said, “I’m sorry it has to be this way. I’m sorry for you, and for Ellice.”

A spasm passed over Dick’s face. “I’ll have to hurt her when I say good-by, sir, but I promise you that I shan’t weaken.”

It was hard to part with Ellice and to break the spell under which they had been living. He never quite knew how he managed it without revealing the fact that he was driven by compulsion. He could only try to stand on the side lines and observe the scene, telling himself meanwhile that Ronnie Le Grand was a worthless renegade who richly deserved the misery he had brought upon himself. It served the fellow right. This was retribution. Anyhow Ellice would soon know what a rascal he was and then she would thank her lucky stars for being rid of him.

The girl was indeed deeply hurt. She was bewildered and offended but she had her pride to fall back upon and her father was beside her to help.

To little Mavis, however, the whole thing was inexplicable. Dick’s departure was the greatest shock and disillusionment she had ever known. She had taken it for granted that he and Ellice loved each other, and considered everything settled. Next would come gay house parties, the assembling of a trousseau, bridesmaids, flowers, wedding bells, and babies. That’s how all engagements went. She looked on at this casual leave-taking with mingled grief and consternation.

The last farewells had been spoken. Dick had turned to go when she uttered a wail and ran to him with arms outstretched. He knelt and gathered her to his breast. The child was still sobbing hysterically when he climbed into the carryall and waved at the trio standing between the stately columns of the mansion. As the carriage disappeared, Mavis turned upon her white-faced sister, crying, “You wicked, heartless woman!”

“Why, darling!” her father protested. “What ails you?”

“If she doesn’t love him, I do.”

“You?”

“I do! I do! I always have and I always will. Someday I’ll marry him. You wait and see. Then you’ll all be sorry.”

Still weeping, she ran indoors.

Chapter 9

DICK LONGED to see the Lark. That longing was so keen that he put up in the nearest railroad town and wrote Jim a guarded letter in care of the Vicksburg hotel where they had been stopping. When no answer came, he was tempted to return in person and search the River from end to end. But that, he reasoned, would be unwise, for the disappearance of Ronnie Le Grand had created quite a stir. His reappearance might lead to unforeseen consequences, perhaps as dangerous to Jim as to himself.

Next he arranged for a drummer en route to Vicksburg to make inquiries. The man soon wrote that Jim Larkin had never returned to claim his belongings and it was presumed that he had met a fate similar to that of his notorious companion. The police assumed that both men had been victims of a gamblers’ feud.

Evidently Madame Angela had spilled her hate upon big, genial Jim too. Dick was heartsick enough without this bad news. Reluctantly he headed west. His eyes were dry but his sight was blurred; he paid little heed to the trail he followed. Despondently, he told himself that it was his fate not only to lose his friends, but also to bring unhappiness or disaster upon them.

He was still weak from his illness and his mind felt as lethargic as his body. How different it would be, he reflected, if old Nero were at his side. Jim claimed that he had fiddled while Rome burned, not out of glee or malevolence, but from heartbreak. Well, he would have reason to fiddle now, for the whole world—Dick’s world, at least—was in ashes. But more important, the Lark carried contentment with him; on a quiet country road, he found as much to catch his eye as on the busiest city street. Birds cocked their heads at his friendly chirp, dogs barked, then wagged their tails, farm horses came to the fence and stretched their muzzles toward him. Yes, and cardplayers invited him to draw up a chair. Jim had never lived in a rut; in fact he was unaware that ruts existed. Dick, too, had become accustomed to variety and for him the unusual was beginning to be commonplace. Now, as usual, the unexpected came to meet him.

One night he confessed his need of a job to the proprietor of the little Texas hotel where he was stopping. In effect, the latter opened his arms at once.

“You’re just the party we’re looking for, Mr. Banning. Yes, sir! A college man from the East—why, you’re an answer to our prayers. I’m on the school board and—”

“Wait! What kind of a job do you have in mind?”

“We need a schoolteacher. We’ve got to have one, and quick. The one we’ve got now can’t spell dog backward.”

Dick shook his head. “I couldn’t teach school. Don’t you have a well to dig, or a cesspool to clean out?”

The hotelkeeper was offended. “We don’t dig wells out we drive ’em. And in a town this size, we ain’t too proud to use privies.”

An elderly bystander in a wide-brimmed hat and high-heeled boots looked Dick over and asked, “What kind of work are you looking for?”

“Any kind that has nothing to do with books.”

“Can you ride a horse?”

“I can.”

“Ever punch cows?”

“Not yet, but—when do we start?”

“You serious?”

“I was never more so. I’d like to learn the cattle business.”

“I’m Mike McCarran from the Lazy W. I’m in mighty bad need of help, but there doesn’t seem to be an idle cow poke south of the Red River. Maybe you’d do, only the stock business is so simple I’m not sure a college man could learn it.”

“Try me out,” Dick urged.

“All right. Get your clothes together and heave ’em in the back of that buckboard next door. We’re leavin’ in twenty minutes.”

As McCarran’s team jogged toward the setting sun, Dick reflected that here was the perfect escape from his mental turmoil, in hard work and long hours, work that would tire him and make him sleep. In that way and in no other could he shake off the curious lethargy that paralyzed him. The cattle business was something new, something different; he might learn to like it as others did. Certainly, it was high time he made a start and buckled down to some permanent business, for his record thus far was anything but good. First he had been a tramp, then a gambler, now a cowhand.

To a tenderfoot of easy habits, ranch life was pretty rigorous, the tricks of a cowhand’s trade were not easy to master. Dick accepted the challenge as a sort of penance and drove himself grimly to the task he had undertaken. The ordeal was bearable, for again he stood aloof and looked on at himself, deriving a sort of malicious satisfaction from his aches and pains, his boredom and his discontent. He became known as a willing hand; he had a knack for learning things quickly; and he profited by his mistakes. Soon he could ride and rope and brand, mend fences, and doctor sick cattle. Always a perfectionist, he couldn’t bear to do things only moderately well. He learned to handle the tools of his trade as well as or even better than some of his experienced companions. Those tools included firearms. He had ample opportunity to practice their use and soon became something more than a good shot. He grew strong again, he felt an abundant energy.

Dan Wesson, the Dallas banker who owned the Lazy W, was a frequent visitor to the ranch and it did not take him long to discover that in his crew was a young man quite unlike the others. Cowboys were usually careless, shiftless, and lazy; not one in a hundred had the ambition to better his lot and even fewer had the capacity to do so. Dick stood out from among them like a windmill tower. He had brains and he used them; he was a demon for work. McCarran confessed that he was completely mystified as to why a young fellow with his qualifications had ever joined the crew. Wesson took occasion to ride with Dick whenever possible and they learned to like each other.

One day the banker said, “You’re something of a mystery man, Dick. You certainly fooled Mike, and me, too.”

“Yes?”

“He didn’t think you’d draw your second month’s pay. Do you expect to stay with us?”

“I haven’t thought of leaving. I’d like to learn the business.”

“You’re doing that. But why? You’re the last person I’d expect to see in boots and overalls, with a gun on your hip. What ails you?”

After a moment, Dick answered, “Nothing that a preacher and a marriage license couldn’t cure.”

“I see. Well, there’s room here for a fellow to grow. Mike isn’t very well. Too many broken bones, I guess. Someday I aim to send him up to Hot Springs for a long rest. The ranch will need a new foreman. I never heard of a college man in such a job but there’s no law against it.”

“Thanks for the encouragement. Mike’s a fine man and you’ll never find another one as good.”

Not all of Wesson’s cowboys lacked ambition. There was one in the person of Buck Ringold who had his full share. Ringold was a top hand and second in authority to McCarran. He had many friends, and prior to Dick’s arrival the ranch owner himself had made a good deal of him. As Wesson’s liking for Dick increased, Ringold grew increasingly resentful. It was he who wrote finis to this brief chapter in the boy’s career.

Buck was pleasant enough when sober, but carried his liquor badly, and when he overindulged himself even his closest friends had to make allowances for his behavior. He got boiling drunk one payday when most of the Lazy W hands were in town, whooping it up according to their individual tastes.

Dick gratified his baser appetites at the grocery store. He bought a can of greengage plums, some soda crackers, and a wedge of rat cheese. These he consumed with relish. He was seated near the edge of the raised sidewalk in front of the store, his back against one of the porch posts, sipping the last of the plum syrup when Ringold and two of his town cronies emerged from the saloon next door.

Buck halted and stared at him. “So! Lickin’ tin cans the same as you lick Dan Wesson’s boots,” he began.

Dick met his gaze but said nothing.

“Now Buck!” One of the others spoke placatingly. “Come on, let’s eat.”

“One of these days I’m going to fire you, little Mr. Big Head.”

“All right, Buck. But right now you’d better eat.”

“I can’t eat with a skunk under the chuck wagon. I got to run him off before I eat. The accommodation will be in directly, Professor Know-It-All. and you’re takin’ it.”

“I don’t think so, Buck.”

“Oh, yes, you are, for I’m puttin’ you aboard.” The speaker shook off the restraining hands of his pals. “And I don’t mind which end of you goes first.”

He stepped forward and Dick rose swiftly. As he did so, he hurled the can he held in his hand, for he saw Ringold reach for his revolver. The latter dodged and fired. Dick’s body spun, he tripped over his chair and plunged off the walk into the dusty street below. His right arm was useless but he struggled to one knee and reached behind him with his left hand. Somehow it found his holster. His first shot and Ringold’s second sounded like one; then, as Dick rose, his assailant sank to his knees, fell forward upon his face and rolled to his back.

“My God!” cried the man who had tried to intervene. “You’ve killed him!”

Drunken brawls were not uncommon in this and other cow towns, but they seldom ended in serious injury to the participants. This unexpected and sanguinary encounter, coming with the suddenness of an explosion, brought people on the run. Dick answered none of the questions fired at him; he merely stared at the fallen Ringold, then down at his right arm and hand, from the fingers of which blood was dripping. Finally he turned, walked across the street, and entered the drugstore.

That afternoon, when Dan Wesson stepped off the accommodation train, the station agent told him what had happened. Wesson listened, frowning, then he went directly to the sheriff’s office.

“Ringold ain’t dead yet,” the latter announced. “Doc’s got him in the back of his office but he’s scared to move him.”

“What about Banning?”

“He came here as soon as the druggist did up his arm. I begged him to let me lock him up till Buck’s friends cool off, but he said he didn’t like the smell of jails. He’s over at the hotel.”

“Who started the ruckus?”

“Buck did. He took first chance, then the kid up and killed him, left-handed, or as good as killed him. Doc says he won’t last the night out. That’s why I’d like to have Banning in here.”

“Go down to the livery stable and tell them to hitch up a good team. This is enough hard luck for one day.”

Dick Banning sat behind a small table in one of the hotel bedrooms. He was waiting, his right arm was in a sling, and it hurt him. On the table top rested his six-shooter.

A knock came at the door; he cocked the weapon and said, “Come in.”

Wesson halted on the threshold, saying quietly, “Put that dog leg away.” He eyed the boy curiously, then asked, “Who you waiting for, Dick?”

“Just sitting up for company. You’re the last one I expected to see. Is Buck dead?”

“Not yet. That’s why we’re leaving right now.”

“I think I’ll wait.”

“Stubborn, aren’t you?”

“Perhaps. Anyhow I don’t like to be pushed around, especially by Ringold’s friends.”

“All the same, we’re going.”

“Where?”

“Back to Dallas, I reckon, if you can make it.”

“But, Mr. Wesson, I can’t bear to run away. It’s a bad habit and hard to break. You see, I like it here. I’m doing nicely and I can’t afford to run out on my luck.”

Impatiently the banker told him, “Get a move on yourself. I don’t propose to lose two good men. I like you and something tells me that your luck is just beginning.”

* * * * * * * * * * *

On the walls of Dan Wesson’s office were several pairs of handsomely mounted steer’s horns. He pointed to these and said, “That’s what this bank was founded on. Horns! Most of our big depositors are cattlemen, and I’m the only one here who talks their language. How would you like to learn the banking business?”

It was the next day. Dick was dressed in a new suit. In spite of his crippled arm, he looked rested. After a moment, he said, “I was afraid you were leading up to that.”

“Afraid?”

“May I tell you a little about myself?”

“The more, the better. You’re a queer specimen and—”

“I’ve always been a sort of special case; that’s my trouble.” Briefly he told of his youth, his advantages, and his abrupt metamorphosis. “I was an obnoxious little wiseacre from the start,” he declared. “A baby weasel eating full-grown chickens. I read a million books and I had a flypaper mind: everything stuck to it. I lisped in Latin. I could figure compound interest before I knew enough to open my own piggy bank. Other kids hated me and why not? I gradually came to hate myself. I discovered that most boys who were too bright for their years never got anywhere. I began to fear that the pinnacle of my career would be a bookkeeper’s stool so I tossed everything over my shoulder and took to the road. Now you offer me the very thing I dreaded. I’m not ungrateful, Mr. Wesson, but I’ve got to be a free man; I simply can’t stand to be boxed in.”

After a moment, the banker’s face cleared. “I think I’ve got just the job for you. Would you care to ride herd on one of my follies and work me out of a bad debt? How would you like to join a circus?”

“A circus!” Dick showed his astonishment.

“A friend of mine, Yancey Adams, is a showman. He bought a bunch of fine horses from me on credit, then he talked me into financing the purchase of a shipment of wild animals. Elephants cost money. The circus made a profit for a while, but lately it has been losing steadily and I don’t know why. Something is wrong and I’m alarmed. I’ve got to hire somebody to travel with the show and keep an eye on the ticket wagon. You can’t go back to the ranch, at present. You won’t work here, and I don’t want to lose you. So take this job—it isn’t permanent but you might like it.”

“Do you really want me to go?”

“I certainly do. I’m in pretty deep. Maybe you can pull me out.”

“Then, of course, I’ll go, Mr. Wesson.”

With his arm still in a sling, Dick joined the show in Savannah.

Chapter 10

THE Great Yancey Adams Circus and Congress of Wild Animals had begun its career as a wagon show, but for the last few years it traveled by rail. Its train of special cars was painted a gaudy yellow, lettered in black. They served to advertise the attraction almost as effectively as did its lithographs, which covered barns and billboards.

Dick found the owner, a thick-necked, hoarse-voiced man, in the pay car, so called, a coach reserved for his personal use, and that of his accountant. Here the complicated business affairs of the circus were conducted.

Adams read the letter which Dick presented to him and evidently was not overjoyed at its contents, for he handed it to his bookkeeper and waited for the latter to return it before speaking. Then he said, “This is quite a surprise. It looks like Dan Wesson has put you in here as a sort of unofficial receiver. I never thought he’d do a thing like that.”

“He’s concerned quite naturally over the way things are going, and I’m here to lend a hand if I can.”

“Yeah? Does he think it’ll help for you to check the receipts and look over the books? By the way, are you a bookkeeper?”

“No, sir, but I’m quick at figures. I’m a sort of handyman. Perhaps I can be useful.”

“You go back and tell him I don’t need any help to run my own show.”

After a moment of hesitation, Dick said, “I’ll write him, if you wish, but I can’t tell it to him. He instructed me to travel with the circus until things improve.”

“Oh, he did! That’ll fix things up just dandy. Well, what do you know about circuses?”

Dick smiled. “Only that they have tents.”

“You and Dan both! Sure, all we do is put ’em up and pull ’em down, count up the cash and move on. The people flock in and money piles up. It’s as easy as that. Only it ain’t! To begin with, we’ve got a heavy nut on this show and we’ve had hard luck. That’s part of the business. I’ve had whole seasons when business was bad. Dan never heard of weather or blowdowns and such things. All right! He’s paying you, I ain’t. If you want to join our happy family, I reckon we can find an upper for you. Sharpen up your pencil, count the cash, and audit the books. You won’t discover anything crooked.”

‘“I’m sure of that, sir. Possibly I’ll bring better luck. Anyhow, I’ll try not to make a nuisance of myself.”

Adams grunted. “I’ve never had a stranger looking over my shoulder and I don’t know that I can take it. You’ll probably tell me what card to play next.”

“Don’t worry about that. I know my place and I’ll keep it. Mr. Wesson has been a good friend to both of us. I’d like to be of assistance to him and incidentally to you.”

When Dick had gone, Adams addressed his accountant, “So! He wants to be of assistance. He’s a Handy Andy and quick at figures. He isn’t going to like this sleuthing job—not after some stake driver works him over with a Circassian-headed toe-pin.”

“Wait, Yancey! I just read something in the Dallas paper.” The speaker drew a folded, home-town newspaper from his hip pocket and ran through it. “Here it is—Banning, Ringold. Sure, he’s quick at figures and that isn’t all.”

Adams read the brief account of the recent shooting affray between the Lazy W rivals and his expression altered. “I never dreamed that a man like Wesson would make a pet out of one of his cowboy killers. I still say he won’t like it here and he won’t last long.”

Having learned beyond question that he was an unwelcome addition to the circus caravan, Dick was agreeably surprised at the politeness and the consideration shown him by members of the organization, until he learned the reason for it. That newspaper story had put the accountant into a dither; he passed it around, and it was read by acrobats, clowns, and canvas men. It awakened their respect and aroused their curiosity.

Dick was puzzled to account for the bad business of which Adams complained, so as he became better acquainted with his new traveling companions he looked for an explanation. It was slow in coming, for they were suspicious of his motives and circus people are clannish at all times.

He checked the books and found nothing wrong with them. It was Lola Bruce, the equestrienne, who put him on the right track. Lola was the most attractive member of the organization—in fact a beauty. Oddly enough, she was also the most intelligent and clear-sighted of them all and Dick exerted himself to gain her confidence. She was an impulsive, fun-loving little creature with straw-colored hair and dimples. She had an exquisite figure. Although she made use of the circus jargon at times, she was well-read and showed signs of real breeding. She was indeed a surprising person. Doubtless the fact that they had much in common eventually induced her to speak frankly to Dick. This she did one day when he found her in the privilege car, a coach reserved for the entertainment and convenience of the actors. In one end of it was a bar at which drinks and sandwiches were served.

“Bad weather?” Lola shrugged. “I’ve been in this business most of my life and it’s always the same old story. This season hasn’t been much different to others. Give a good show and the people will come.”

“Isn’t this a good show?” he asked.

Miss Bruce eyed her inquisitor. “Do you think it is?”

“It isn’t the best I ever saw—”

“And it isn’t as good as it was. It isn’t as good as it could be, or should be. Even with several of our best acts out.”

“What happened to them?”

“Ask Yancey. Mr. Banning, show business is like any other. You must love it and put your whole heart into it. And that doesn’t apply only to the performers. A circus doesn’t run itself. Yancey used to be a smart showman, but he’s changed. We’re all getting pretty much worried. To be honest with you, we’re sick!”

“What caused this change you speak about?”

“Liquor, for one thing. He’s never drunk, but he’s never sober, either. He has taken to gambling, and that’s something new for him.”

“I’ve been over the books and they balance.”

“Oh, he wouldn’t rob the safe. The point is he has lost interest in the business and he isn’t aware of it. Yancey used to be the sweetest thing, now he’s impossible. Circus families like the Leaping Loncinos and the Four Flyaways don’t roll up their tights and walk off the lot just for the fun of it. We can see what’s coming and I guess our morale has disintegrated. Weather! Blowdowns! Hard luck! My great, big, flat foot!”

Lola kicked a shapely, high-heeled shoe so tiny that Dick could have held it in his palm. It was odd to hear a circus performer, a bareback rider, speak of morale. His respect for the girl increased.

“I wonder if there’s anything I can do,” he ventured.

“If there is, it will surprise me,” she declared. “Yancey’s a bull and his head is down. If you can get him back inside the fence, you’re a miracle man.”

Dick spent the next several weeks in acquainting himself, as far as possible, with the detail and the routine of outdoor show business. It was rather bewildering, but the more he saw of it, the more it fascinated him. It was colorful, spectacular and exciting. He liked the noise, the movement, and the variety of it; the blaring band music stirred his pulse; he loved the parades and the eager, milling crowds. The animals, too, were fun. As he became better acquainted with the performers themselves, he grew to like them and to admire their good qualities. Some were hard-boiled, all were hard working and, without exception, fiercely loyal to each other. They were a group of nomads in a world of their own. This branch of the amusement business was gay, gaudy, and theatrical; nevertheless back of its painted canvas front lay an orderly pattern and a very sober way of life.

Dick, of course, saw a good deal of Lola and he was attracted to her, as she seemed to be to him. Through her, he learned something about the strange, unwritten code of morality observed by circus people as a class. It met with his approval and he was careful to respect it. He learned more about the girl herself, too. Lola’s father had been from an old Maryland family and the black sheep of his family. He had been cursed with a passion for horses and this accounted, in part at least, for the course of his daughter’s career.

During this time, Dick tried patiently to win Adams’ confidence and liking, but in this he failed. Actually, the showman revealed an ever increasing irritation at his presence. This Dick reported to Wesson and the latter telegraphed him:

STAY WITH IT. I CAN’T AFFORD TO FIND MYSELF IN THE CIRCUS BUSINESS.

Yancey continued to drink and to neglect his business. He was irritable and short tempered. Hours which he should have devoted to business affairs were spent at gambling. Every night there was a card game in his private car, or elsewhere. When he failed to find amusement or competition among his employees, he went in search of it.

More than once, he invited Dick to sit in but the newcomer invariably declined. He said that cards had never brought him luck. As this excuse was repeated, Adams saw in it an opportunity to rid himself of the young man’s presence. If Dick was indeed an unskillful player, he was doubtless a poor loser, and if that proved to be the case, it might lead to something. With this in mind, Adams continued to goad him until Dick could no longer refuse to play without humiliating himself.

Oddly enough, the novice proved to be no easy victim; in fact, he was blessed with beginner’s luck. That was what he called it and Adams assured himself that it could not last. But it did. The showman’s bristles rose and uneasiness ran through the troupe.

In time, Lola Bruce, who was deeply troubled, warned Dick that he couldn’t afford to win further from the hotheaded Yancey.

“He fired the Loncinos because Tony was too lucky. He considers himself the big boss and he can’t stand for anybody in his employ to beat him.”

“I didn’t ask to play. He became so insulting I couldn’t refuse.”

“But you’re only laying up trouble for yourself and for—”

“Trouble? He can’t fire me. I’m not working for him. Anyhow I haven’t won enough to hurt him greatly.”

“But if you keep on winning, he’ll raise the stakes. My father was like that and—that’s why I’m jumping through hoops. Another thing, Dick. Your luck can’t last. It never does. One of these nights, he’ll double-or-nothing you. That’s Yancey.”

“He may have been a good showman, but he’ll never be a good cardplayer. He doesn’t belong in either business.”

“Maybe so, but if he goes out of show business, we’re all out of work.”

“I think he’s bankrupt now, if the truth were known.”

The girl was dismayed. “Don’t say that! If it’s true, you can’t keep on winning his money.”

“If I don’t win it, somebody else will.”

“Think of us.”

“There isn’t much I can do, Lola. He’s determined to break me and I’m too much ahead to quit.”

“Then, for Heaven’s sake, let him win.”

“That I can’t do,” Dick said firmly. “If I turn back my luck, it will turn on me. I’ll quit when Yancey does and not before. He’s entitled to his chance.”

“Oh, Dick! Everybody on the lot is frightened. This means their very living. Don’t you understand? They know Yancey is a fool when he’s drinking and—”

“And what?”

“They know you’re a shooting fool.”

Miss Bruce was hurt and offended when her listener laughed. Evidently he was completely devoid of feeling.

Days passed and the feud smoldered. Members of the troupe discussed it among themselves. “Yancey won last night.”

“Banning outheld him again and the boss was fit to be tied.”

“Yancey had some outsiders in, but it didn’t bring him luck. He and Banning laid side bets on almost every hand.”

“Banning is so far ahead now, he can afford to bluff.”

“The old man seems to think Dick is betting Dan Wesson’s money. It shows how wild he’s getting.”

Unexpectedly, Adams called a truce, there were no card games, the tension eased.

Dick enjoyed watching Lola’s riding act, for she was an artist in her line and in her pink tights and ballet skirt, she was a sight to please the eye. He was fond of high-schooled horses, too, and the noble, snow-white rosin-back upon which she posed and pirouetted so prettily was a favorite of his. The animal, by the way, belonged to Dan Wesson.

One afternoon, he was standing in the pad room looking out on the arena, when the accountant spoke to him.

“Mr. Adams was asking about you. He thought you might be going back to Dallas before long.”

“So? Well, I can’t see that I’m doing much good here.”

“He thinks you’ve done pretty well,” the bookkeeper said, with a smirk. “He says before you leave, he wants a receipt for the money you’ve won to apply against his debt to Dan—”

Dick’s face hardened, sharply he interrupted, “No wonder he sent that message through you. Tell him that I don’t run my show on borrowed capital and if he had run his the same way, I wouldn’t be here to annoy him. Dan Wesson doesn’t collect his debts over a poker table. Every dollar I won from Yancey Adams is in my belt and if he wants it to apply on his debt to the bank, all he has to do is win it back.”

“It was just drunken talk, Mr. Banning. You know how he gets when he’s had too much.”

Dick felt his temper slip. “I’ve had too much myself—of him. I’ve stood more than I was hired to stand. Tell him, for me, that if he wants to play again, it will have to be a no-limit game and we’ll stay with it until one of us has a belly full. I’ll go back to Dallas broke—or he will.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t dare tell him that,” the bookkeeper said.

“Very well. Then quit playing messenger boy.”

A report of this conversation got out and again anxiety preyed upon all in the circus, but when a week passed without incident, the employees told each other that the boss had come to his senses at last. Every member of the company devoutly hoped that such would be the case.

The show was held up for several days in Chattanooga on account of washouts, and there the Adams-Banning duel was resumed. It was fought out in a smoky hotel room.

Dusty, one of the clowns, brought the first news of it when he burst into the privilege car to announce, “They’re at it again! This time, it’s for blood.”

When he had finished speaking, somebody asked, “Is Yancey ginned up?”

“No. He’s cold sober. He hired a suite of rooms and sent for Banning. But Dick wouldn’t sit in a two-handed game so —”

“Why?”

“I dunno. Anyhow the boss got some of his friends together and—”

‘Our boys?”

“No. Outsiders. It’s just a card game to them, but Yancey and Dick are side-betting. I’m going back and look on.”

“Take me, Dusty,” Lola Bruce begged, but the clown refused.

“They wouldn’t let you in and, besides, it’s no place for a nice girl. That game will run all night and maybe all day tomorrow, if it doesn’t bust up in a row.” Dusty left as hurriedly as he had come.

“What right have those men to gamble with our very lives?” Lola demanded indignantly, “Somebody should stop it.”

“Maybe it’s Yancey’s turn to win,” one of the other women ventured.

The contortionist, known to his companions as “The Snake,” said, “It’ll never come his turn. There’s a jinx on him. Lola’s right. It’s an outrage.”

The clown and those other members of the troupe who had spent the night uptown returned at breakfasttime with news that the game was still in progress and Adams had lost six thousand dollars to Banning on one hand. He had written an I.O.U. for it.

“Well, folks,” The Snake said somberly, “it looks like here is where we walk back from.” Strained faces were turned in his direction, but nobody spoke.

Lola Bruce recalled a painting she had seen in the home of a well-to-do relative—a recollection which took her back to days she tried to forget. That painting showed a Roman slave market. A Nubian attendant had stripped the cloak from a beautiful young girl who stood exposed to the view of the robed and bearded buyers in the Street below. It was a tragic scene, as Lola remembered it.

At this moment, she felt as if she were that naked girl.

It was a grim and ruthless struggle which went on in Yancey Adams’ hotel suite. It continued for forty-eight hours. When it finally ended, Dick dragged himself downstairs to the desk and hired a room for himself, for he was too tired to return to the train. Then, white-faced and haggard, be stumbled off to bed.

Before doing so, however, he wrote a telegram to Dan Wesson which read:

YANCEY ADAMS CIRCUS HAS CHANGED HANDS. WITH GOOD WEATHER AND GOOD MANAGEMENT, WILL PAY OFF BY FALL. DICK BANNING OWNER.

Chapter 11

IN THE DISTANCE next morning, somebody was pounding on a door and calling Dick’s name. He wished the fellow would go away. “Mr. Banning, wake up!”

The knocking was closer, almost in his ears. Why, he had barely closed his eyes—and yet it was daylight!

He roused himself, stumbled to the door, and opened it. It was the hotel manager. He spoke excitedly, but it took a moment for the meaning of his words to sink in.

“Mr. Adams is dead! Some people from the circus are up in his rooms. They want to see you.”

“Yancey Adams, dead? Why, that’s impossible.”

“He must have passed away during the night. His bookkeeper found him just now and called us. We got a doctor immediately.”

“Very well. I’ll be right up.”

The shock of this intelligence was like a dash of cold water. Dick dressed himself and hurried to the Adams suite. The sitting-room was as disorderly as when he had left it. The card table was littered with chips; empty bottles and glasses and overflowing ash receivers stood where they had been left. The air was heavy with stale odors. Several agitated members of the troupe were talking in low tones. The bookkeeper addressed Dick.

“This is dreadful! Shocking! We don’t know what to do.”

“I can understand.”

“We heard how the game ended. I thought someone should see how Yancey was taking it. The door was unlocked so when he didn’t answer we came in. He was lying across the bed. I tried to wake him up but—” The speaker’s voice failed, he passed a shaking hand over his face. “Here’s the doctor. Doctor, this is Mr. Banning.”

“I heard about the big game.” The physician allowed his gaze to take in the disordered living room. “How long did it last?”

“I don’t know, sir. Ages, it seemed to me. We quit about three o’clock.”

“Well, there’s nothing to be done. It’s too bad he overtaxed himself, but I doubt if I could have done much for him even if I’d been here when he was stricken.”

After a while, Dick found himself in the hall, surrounded by still more circus employees. They were sober faced as they asked his advice. Obviously the news of Yancey’s death had brought consternation. Assuming that it meant the breakup of the show, some of the performers were preparing to leave town while they still had the means to do so.

“Get down to the yards at once,” Dick told the little group. “I’ll come as soon as possible. I want to talk to all of you.” The cook tent had been erected near the kitchen car and there the troupe assembled. Dick spoke to them from the top of a table. He began by expressing his sincere regret at what had happened. However, he considered his conscience clear. If he had contributed to Adams’ death at all, he certainly had not done so of his own will. He reminded his listeners that he had joined the show with one purpose in mind, and one only. For months he had refused to play cards with the owner but the latter had insisted on his doing so. What followed was common knowledge. Anyway, the main thing was this: the circus had changed hands.

There was a stir and a murmur.

“Yes. I own it,” he went on. “But that’s the only change that has occurred. There won’t be any others. The show will go on, as usual. We have some fine towns ahead of us and there’s no reason why we can’t finish the season with a nice profit. This is a good show—it’s the best show in the South. I hope to make it better by rehiring the acts that were let out. If they can’t be had, I’ll hire others.

“I don’t pretend to be a circus man, but I promise you I’ll try to make myself one, if you’ll lend me a hand. You’re all hard working but I’ll work harder than any of you. What this show needs is hard work at the top. It’s going to get everything I have to give it and when the profit comes, as I’m sure it will, 25 per cent of it will be yours. Wait! Let me finish. If the show folds up here and now, you’ll be the only losers. The creditors will collect what’s coming to them but there will be a lot fewer jobs open for sawdust actors. A circus should never die; it should live on and on and continue to bring entertainment, laughter, and joy to the world. Let’s keep the Yancey Adams show alive.

“You’re nice people—the nicest people I ever knew. You’ve treated me kindly and I’d like to be one of you. I’d be proud to have you as my friends and I promise to be a friend to every one of you.

“One thing more. I’ve just been told that the bridges are back and our train can roll tonight. I’m ready to go, are you?”

There was no doubt as to the effectiveness of this appeal. Lola Bruce voiced what everyone felt when she said determinedly, “Of course we’re ready. The show must go on.”

That night, the train rolled out of the yard and Dick Banning rode in the pay car.

To assume responsibility for an enterprise as complex and as unfamiliar as the one to which he had fallen heir was enough to tax even Dick’s youthful confidence. He had spoken with self-assurance, but there were many times during the days that followed when he wondered whether he could successfully meet the challenge he had accepted. More than once he asked himself how he had ever put himself in such a position. It was incredible, almost preposterous, that he, Dick Banning, should own and manage a circus.

With that familiar sense of detachment, that feeling that he was a bystander, he recalled the events which had followed the quarrel with his father. What a lot he had been through! His meeting with Jimmy the Lark, his trip to New Orleans, Madame Rondo, the black waters of the Mississippi, Tranquillity, and Ellice Rainey. Even yet he could not think of her without distraction. Then the Lazy W and the roar of Ringold’s gun. Now Yancey Adams and this! . . .

Perhaps life was unfolding for him in accordance with some definite plan even though the shape of it was still hidden. Meanwhile, the uncertainty and the hazards were preferable to the dreary and dispiriting blueprint his father had spead out for him.

Although he had little time for thought and less inclination to dwell upon the past, Yancey Adams’s death continued to trouble him profoundly. Nothing could dull his sense of responsibility for it. Yancey had brought it on himself, to be sure, and everybody knew it. Nobody in the organization attached much blame to him, and, in fact, most of the circus folk openly admired their new employer. He had proven himself to be a fighter, and he was willing to fight for them.

Dick put all he had into his work; he thought of nothing else. What he didn’t know he soon learned. He was into everything; he seemed to require no rest of mind or body. Most circuses were infested with grifters and pitchmen who made a living by preying upon the patrons. Some shows carried these parasites along, others tolerated them as they did the presence of bugs in their bedding and lice in their band uniforms. Dick abhorred vermin so he kept his cars clean and he likewise ran the bloodsuckers off the lot. At the first city the show played after resuming its tour, he went to the Chief of Police, told him what he had done, and asked his assistance. He likewise made it known to the newspapers.

“This is a clean show, for decent people and their children,” he announced. “Our performers are artists; they are not hoodlums or pickpockets. I’ll fire any employee who cheats a patron or is uncivil to him. We don’t shortchange ticket buyers or cut the ivory rings from farmers’ harnesses. We want to make friends here, for we’re coming back and we want people to welcome us. Women and children are safe on our lot. Rowdies and grafters are not.”

When the matinee crowd swarmed into the circus grounds, a loud-voiced spieler climbed to the roof of the ticket wagon, then voiced similar words of welcome and of warning. They were repeated at every performance thereafter.

This was only one of many innovations Dick introduced. He wrote new publicity and got it printed; he rehearsed the performance, speeded it up, and suggested betterments in some of the acts. One by one, most of the families that had been let out were rehired. As the show itself improved, so did the morale of the performers.

He appeared before clubs and spoke at public functions. Usually he took clowns and jugglers with him and entertained hospital inmates or aged shut-ins. Wherever he went, he made himself an emissary of good will and it helped business enormously.

His enthusiasm for the show itself induced him finally to assume the role of equestrian director or ringmaster. It was the only way in which he could exercise the control he felt was necessary. Besides, it amused him to appear in high, polished boots, white riding trousers, cutaway coat, and silk hat; He handled the riding acts, announced the spectacular features, and exchanged banter with the clowns.

The comedy was hackneyed, some of their jokes were ancient and threadbare, so Dick suggested new ones. He wrote them out and to his considerable surprise they went better than the old ones. This encouraged him to write an afterpiece for the concert to replace the old one, which contained many ancient wheezes. It was so well received that the concert audiences grew in size,

Dick was up early and in bed late, yet the days were too short. It was all a highly diverting masquerade and his enjoyment of it increased as gate receipts mounted. Soon the show was doing capacity. This continued week after week.

Lola Bruce had been a big help to him. For her years she had a wise head and she was wrapped up in the success of the show. She was practical and dollar conscious and Dick heeded her advice. One day she told him, “Tom Burke and his wife are all hopped up over that afterpiece you wrote. He says they’ll play it the rest of their lives.”

“Good heavens! Is it that bad?” he asked.

“It’s good and you know it. It’s darned good!”

“How could it be otherwise when it was written by an honor student of the drama? The French drama, no less. I studied it during my last year in college. And now I’m reaping my reward.” He laughed silently but Lola saw nothing humorous in his words.

“Tom thinks it would go in vaudeville. That’s getting to be quite a business, you know.”

“Perhaps I’ve missed my calling.”

“Maybe you have, but I don’t think so. What I meant to ask is this: did you mean to give that act to the Burkes?”

“Why, certainly!”

“Hm-m! That was quite a present. You’ve made them independent for life. A lot of actors have lived off one good sketch for years. I only wish some tall, handsome stranger would make me a gift like that.”

“I’ll write you a vehicle,” he said with a smile, “but I can’t write a horse.”

At this, the girl dimpled. “You’re funny. What will you try next? The high wire, or a balloon ascension? You’re the Boy Wonder. Everybody is talking about you. You’re certainly smart and I admire smart people. But, there’s something I’ve wanted to ask you for a long while. Not that it makes the slightest difference to me but—did you play Yancey on the level? Was it a square game?”

Without taking offense, Dick confessed, “I’ve often asked myself that question. The answer is, ‘yes and no.’ ”

“Yancey, I’m sure, wasn’t above cheating you, but I’ve heard so many stories—”

“A good player doesn’t have to cheat.”

“Are you a good player?” Lola’s blue eyes were fixed on his and they were wide With interest.

He nodded. “Yes. Very.”

“Then why do you say the answer is yes and no?”

“Isn’t it cheating to take advantage of one’s superior knowledge or skill?”

“Certainly not. Everybody does it. Look at me. I can ride horses better than others. The better I ride, the more I earn. I used to play marbles. When I got to be good at it, I played for keeps. Everything—I mean business and life—is just a struggle to play better than the other fellow.

“Yancey was a dull, stubborn man; he knew nothing about cards. I knew a lot and I could almost read his mind.”

“Why did you refuse to play him two-handed?”

“A cabinetmaker has fine tools but he needs material on which to use them. There’s no skill involved in cutting the high card, which is just about what most two-handed games amount to. Yancey played with his hands. I had to use my head.”

A sudden notion seized Lola and she exclaimed, “Dick! Will you do something for me? I’m a greedy little magpie and I’ve saved part of my salary every week. Will you take it and play it for me?”

“Certainly not,” he told her.

“But, gee whiz! If you can cheat people, in a nice way, I mean, without actually being dishonest, why—there’s a fortune in it. My God! I want to make money.”

“I promised myself once that I’d never touch another card. This time I mean it.”

“But that’s turning back your luck! I’ve heard you talk about that a dozen times. Look what it has brought you.” Lola was eager to argue but Dick was not.

“It looks like good luck from here but the game is young. A lot of things can happen before I cash in my chips.”

It was the last day of the show’s engagement in a good-sized Southern city. The concert was over and the afternoon audience was leaving when Dick heard his name called in the excited treble of a child. He turned to behold a slim little girl flying toward him with outstretched arms. It was Mavis Rainey.”

He knelt in the sawdust and she flung herself into his embrace. “Mavis, darling!” he exclaimed.

“Oh, Dick!” she cried. “We’ve seen the whole circus and it’s wonderful. I didn’t dream you were in it.” She pushed herself back in his arms and gazed meltingly into his eyes. “You’re wonderful, too, and I’ve come to marry you,” she declared. “I ran ahead of Daddy to tell you.”

With leaping heart Dick glanced over her head to behold John Rainey approaching. With him was Babaloo, but there was no Ellice.

Mr. Rainey was smiling and Dick wrung his hand. Warmly he greeted the ancient colored nurse.

The older man said, “We’re almost as excited as Mavis. None of us was prepared to see an old friend. It was all we could do to hold her in her seat until the performance ended.”

“Oh, Dick! You’re beautiful,” Mavis declared.

“Thank you.” He flushed faintly and said to the father, “I’m just a performer like the others. This,” he indicated his costume, “is a part of the show.”

“Of course. But this is Mavis’ first circus and to see you, on top of all the other wonders, was almost too much. I was deeply astonished myself. When I predicted that you’d go far and fast, I had no idea that it would be in this direction.”

“It surprised me as much as anybody. I presume you know that I own the show.”

“No!” Rainey was indeed surprised. “I heard that Yancey Adams was dead, but I had no idea that you were his successor. Mavis! Babaloo! Did you hear what he said? The circus belongs to him. No wonder they’re speechless.”

“Me, I lost my bref,” said Babaloo, “but I ain’t lost my tongue. I’d talk effen I had a chance. Mebbe you like I tell Mistuh Dick what fotch us here. Heh! Heh! Heh! Effen you don’t tell him quick, I will.”

“We have some news, Dick,” Rainey declared. “And it’s pretty important for us. We rather suspect there is a genius in the family. Tomorrow Mavis is going to meet Madame Emma Albani, the grand opera diva, to sing for her.”

“Splendid!” Dick exclaimed. “She was a child prodigy herself.”

“Exactly. She’s passing through and we’ve arranged for her to meet our little girl,”

Dick smiled down at Mavis. “What a wonderful experience, darling, to meet the great Albani and sing for her.”

“It’s not half so wonderful as seeing you and the clowns and—everything,” she told him.

After a while he asked if Miss Ellice had come with them and was relieved to learn that she had not. But he felt his features stiffen as the father informed him casually that Ellice was being married within a few weeks.

“But I’m not,” her little sister said meaningly. “I wouldn’t care to sing opera if I could go with this circus and ride a white horse like that beautiful lady. I suppose my legs are too skinny but—”

“Would you like to meet her?” Dick asked. “And the clowns, too? Circus people are very nice. Perhaps—” He looked questioningly at the father.

“She’d love it,” the latter said. “So would I. And what a story Babaloo will take back to Tranquillity.”

Mavis clung to Dick’s hand as he led the way into the pad room, and called through the partition to the women’s dressing room,

“Lola! Come out here and meet another artist. She thinks you’re beautiful, but wait until you see her.”

Lola appeared, beaming. So did some of the clowns and other artists whom Dick summoned. Mavis was enchanted, of course. More excitement awaited her in the menagerie tent, where even the animals themselves seemed to bid her welcome. The real climax of the day, however, came when Dick led his visitors to his private car which stood on a nearby siding. There John Rainey, too, had a surprise. Yancey Adams’ rolling home had been transformed into something utterly foreign to the circus atmosphere. It had been redecorated and refurnished; that part of it which had served as an office and an accounting room was still used for the same purpose,; but it was now a library with handsome leather chairs, deep carpet, and a mahogany table. Everywhere were books, and more books.

“This is magnificent!” Rainey exclaimed.

“It’s my one extravagance.” Dick told him. “It was quite bare and inhospitable when I took it over. I’ve tried to make it a place in which to live and work and study.”

“I thought you had sickened of books.”

“I was sick of them, but my tastes have changed. I found that books were the only friends I had. I decided, too, that vacation is over. My mind woke up, yawned, stretched, and said it was thirsty. It demanded something to drink in.”

“Aren’t those law books yonder?”

“They are. I’m putting in every spare hour reading law.”

“Why?”

“It’s a good thing to know. I have a memory, I’ll soon be ready for my bar examination. I may never practice, but the knowledge will come in handy. After that, I want to learn something about engineering, geology. I may turn out to be a mining engineer.”

Curiously, Rainey eyed the speaker. “But why? When you’ve done so well in this business and in such a short time.”

Dick smiled, as he said, “Most boys play circus—usually for pins. I always had the inclination, but I never had time. Well, it’s fun, but I fancy it will get tiresome after a while. Meantime, I’m trying to collect enough pins to make good a promise, a foolish boast. The tanbark’s all right, but I’d hate to smell camels the rest of my life.”

When it finally came time for the visitors to leave, Mavis encircled Dick’s neck with her arms.

“Sing your best for Madame Albani,’ he urged her.

“I will,” she promised. “All the same, I’d rather ride the white horse for you.” Then she whispered into his ear, “Papa says he can’t marry me. Will you?”

“Next time, perhaps.”

Tenderly he kissed the child.

Chapter 12

FOR WEEKS Jim Larkin’s nerves had been as taut as the top string of his violin. Had he entertained the slightest doubt that Madame Rondo’s workmen would or could do anything less than a complete job on Ronnie, he would have ignored all thoughts of danger and prosecuted a vigorous search for his friend. But his respect for the efficiency of that New Orleans wrecking crew was such that the possibility of Ronnie’s being alive never occurred to him.

He could only make a swift and noiseless getaway; grief stricken, depressed, shocked beyond measure, he headed eastward, where the large seaboard cities afforded ample concealment. They were like dense jungles, in which any creature, large or small, could find cover, but oddly enough, they offered Jim little sustenance; he found few tender shoots upon which to feed. Crime flourished, but there seemed to be no borderland between the upper and the underworld. He could discover no twilight zone in which a genial ne’er-do-well, opposed to work, could capitalize upon his personal charm or his dubious talents. Gambling was highly commercialized and rigidly controlled by insiders; metropolitan street crowds were wise to those artful devices which entertained county fair patrons. Horse racing, too, was in effect a closed business, and even the bookmakers were organized. Jim’s intake, both in coin and in calories, dropped below the subsistence level. He grew thin and querulous; his clothes fitted him more loosely than ever.

He was a steamboat man and the River called to him. He missed the lazy Louisiana sunshine, he longed to hear the stertorous breathing of tall stacks and the soothing sound of churning paddle wheels.

First he decided to work his way south along the county fair circuit, attaching himself to some circus and relying for a livelihood upon the walnut shells, the ball and pin, and similar devices. The ball and pin game, if it could be so called, required a certain amount of equipment; to wit, a table, or stand, upon which was fixed an upright post with a crossarm on it. From this miniature gallows was hung a string with a ball at the end. The purpose of the “experiment,” as Jim termed it, was to train the eye and educate the hand. The player drew the ball toward him, Jim placed a conical wooden pin in its path, then the ball was released so that it would pass the pin upon its outward swing but knock it over on the way back. It was easy to do in practice, but more difficult when money was at stake and when Jim’s foot was in contact with one of the table legs. This equipment was so nicely adjusted that an irate player or an unsympathetic limb of the law could easily render it useless.

On the whole, the Lark preferred to sell soap. He sold it in tiny bars, ostentatiously wrapping in each package a dollar bill. There was a nice profit in the cakes at twenty-five cents each. Furthermore, he could suspend business by closing his valise.

Jim soon fell in with the Yancey Adams show. An employee ordered him off the lot, explaining that pitchmen were not allowed. The management was very strict, so the fellow declared; every attraction was legitimate and even the lemonade was genuine.

Obviously, this was mouth organ music and instantly Jim thought he saw what was behind it. In his opinion, no tent show could breathe the thin air of scrupulous morality and exist. Since this warning was nothing less than a veiled invitation to negotiate, Jim asked to see the fixer. There was no fixer, he was told. The circus owner ran everything and he was now in the ring, he’d be busy all afternoon. Very well, if Jim wished to wait, he could do so but the attendant advised him to keep his valise closed, meanwhile, unless he was prepared to eat its contents.

Jim was so offended that he resisted the urge to visit the menagerie tent. Actually, he had no change and his stock of dollar bills was so slender that he could not bring himself to break one. This was a fine note, he reflected morosely. It was avaricious overlords like this Banning who were putting the price of crime out of reach. If they compelled every hard-working thimblerigger to split with them, he’d have to go out of business, or raise his take, at which the public might rebel. But the traffic would stand only so much, and when one branch of the amusement world began to prey upon another, it was nothing less than cannibalism.

The show over, Jim was entertaining a group of canvas men and hostlers with fanciful stories of his exploits. His text at the moment was thrift.

“Just to show you how fast small change piles up,” said he, “I once had a nice fix in Baltimore. I sold soap and plenty of it. Every night when I came home, I had a pocket full of nickels and dimes, along with the paper money. Well, I couldn’t be bothered with those slugs so I used to open my trunk and toss ’em in.

“I worked steady for three months, playing the races now and then just for amusement. There was a filly I liked, so one day I got down all I had on her. She was a nice little front runner but she didn’t have the heart. At the three quarter, another buzzard-head looked her in the eye and she called it a day. I walked home from the track.

“Well, I’m pretty blue until I happen to think about that scratch feed. There must be a hundred bucks or more, I tell myself. I open up my keester and—what d’you think I found?”

Jim paused; he eyed his listeners. “Fifty thousand dollars, that’s all!”

There was a ripple of laughter which somebody interrupted to announce, “Here’s Mr. Banning, the boss man.”

Larkin turned to face Dick Banning in his ringmaster’s make-up. The latter’s face lightened, the Lark blinked rapidly but otherwise he gave no sign of recognition. Impassively, he said, “I’d like to see you for a minute.” He bent to pick up the satchel in which he carried his soap.

“Very well, come along,” Dick told him.

Together they moved out of hearing. Then the Lark murmured out of the corner of his mouth, “Hi ya, Ronnie! Quite a shock to see a dead pal standing up there in full dress with a whip in his hand.”

“I’m dizzy myself,” Dick told him. “Why, Jim, I supposed they got you, too. I tried to trace you, but—this is a great day!”

“So, you’re Banning!”

“Yes, that’s my real name. Ronnie Le Grand is dead. Gone forever. Thanks for your self-control. I know how you must feel seeing me without warning like that. I have a million questions to ask you.”

The Lark was in something like a state of shock; his bewilderment increased when Dick led the way into his private car. Incredulously the older man asked, “Is this yours, too?”

Dick nodded. “I’m doing pretty well. It’s quite a story. And you?”

With an effort, Jim roused himself. “Oh, fine! I’m doing great.”

His eyes continued to rove over the luxurious appointments of the car; then they fixed themselves upon Dick; he listened without comment as the latter swiftly summarized the events that had occurred since their parting, He paid particular heed to the Yancey Adams chapter of the story and to Dick’s account of the card game in Chattanooga. Its significance struck him with peculiar force.

In all sincerity, he said, “That’s great, kid! I said you’d knock ’em over. You must think I’m a heel to run out on you, but I never dreamed Rondo could miss her shot. It didn’t seem worth while to hunt you up and—it’s lucky I didn’t.”

“Lucky? Why?”

“Look what’s happened. I told you it would. You didn’t need me then and you don’t need me now.”

“But I do.”

“In what way? You don’t stand for pitchmen in this show.”

“That’s right. Yancey Adams encouraged them and, as a result, there are several good towns we can’t play. It’s poor business.”

“That’s too bad. I was hoping we might team up.”

“We have teamed up.”

Jim shook his head slowly. “You’ve hit your stride. You’re out in front. Keep running and don’t look back. Old friends are like old habits. They trip you up. No, you can’t run with a pal on your back.”

“I remember a fellow who once asked me if I’d ever had a real friend, a buddy. I told him I hadn’t. He showed me what it meant and I haven’t forgotten.”

“You were a stray calf; now you’re a prize bull and boss of your own herd.”

Still smiling, Dick asked, “Do you want a job with this show?”

“Swinging a stake hammer?” The Lark declined with a gesture. “You know me. I’m lazy, I’m no good. I never had an honest callus in my life and there never was a job easy enough for me to hold. Of course I’m fast at a ticket window, but you won’t tolerate shortchangers. . . . Forget it, kid! You never found yourself until I backed away. Keep rolling the dice. I’ll peddle my soap with some other show.”

“You like animals, Jim.”

“I love ’em!”

“I own a tent full. It’s a problem to care for them and they’re worth money. Especially the elephants. . . . You remind me of an elephant.”

Larkin’s expression lightened. “No wonder, I am an elephant.”

“I’ll bet Big Susie would take to you. She’s the oldest and most valuable of the ‘bull herd.’ She has a baby only—so high! He’s Little Major. He’s covered with stiff bristles that stand out like pins in a cushion. When his feelings are hurt, he puts his head into a corner and sulks. He piles straw on his back and—’?

“Wait! Don’t tell me!” the Lark implored. He rubbed his moist palms together.

“Of course we have a bull man, but a show like this should carry its own vet. You’re the best I ever knew. You’ll be ‘Dr. Larkin’ in charge of everything that can’t talk. How about it, doc?”

“You’ve hired a hand,” said the Lark. “When do I start?”

“You’ve been on salary for an hour, Jim.”

“Salary!” the latter exploded. “Good Lord! I couldn’t take pay for a thing like that,” Rising abruptly, he said, “Lemme get my violin. I’ll be back in no time.”

“Fine! You can bunk in here with me.”

“Thanks, but not now. You have to sleep with animals if you want to get acquainted with ’em. Any time you want me, just look for a lump in the straw, kick it, and I’ll be right out.”

Jim left and Dick watched him race across the lot, his baggy clothes flapping, his bulging abdomen heaving and jolting as he gathered speed as he had that night in Cairo.

This was the beginning of a new career for Jim Larkin. For once, he was completely contented. Without interfering with the duties of trainers, handlers, hostlers, and the like, he ministered to the welfare of their charges and did it so well that soon he became the real boss man of the menagerie. The animals, too, recognized him as such and he could do almost anything with them. He had particular success with the “bulls,” so called. Little Major became his pet and his playmate; Big Susie took him to her heart, Jim’s roomy garments bulged with tidbits for his various friends. Monkeys rifled his pockets, elephants explored them with their moist trunks, even the camels grinned at Jim.

Late one stormy night, Dick discovered his friend softly playing his violin to the restless bull herd, the members of which seemed to enjoy its soothing strains.

“Smart people, elephants,” the musician declared. “This is the only audience that ever appreciated my genius. I can put ’em to sleep and I can wake ’em up; if I tried, I could drive ’em crazy.”

“I’m sure you could,” Dick agreed.

“Say! Do you mind if I ride Big Susie in the parades?”

“Certainly not, if you care to.”

“It takes me back. Elephants were royal beasts of burden, they carried emperors.”

Thereafter, Jim occupied the gilded howdah on Susie’s back, but instead of wearing a rajah’s robes he wore a toga, trimmed with purple, he carried an imperial scepter, and with haughty disdain he stared down upon the gaping populace, as in ancient Rome.

Dick was not seeing as much of Lola these days as formerly and he found that when they were alone together she disturbed him. She was warm, unaffected, and magnetic, but she awoke in him unruly impulses from which he shrank. With the exception of Ellice, girls as such had never appealed to him. He had been denied—perhaps spared would be the better word—those animal appetites which plague most lads approaching maturity. His experience with Madame Rondo had left a memory from which he vainly tried to escape. Anything that brought it to mind evoked in him an inner turmoil and a sort of desperate terror.

One day, he handed Lola a letter he had received from Yancey Adams’ widow in which the writer implored his help on behalf of her son.

“I didn’t know Yancey had a wife,” said the girl.

“Neither did I, until shortly after his death, when she wrote me that she was destitute.”

“That man was no good. . . . What did you do?”

“I put her on the payroll, of course.”

“Why?”

“On account of my guilty conscience, I suppose.”

“Bosh! What’s this trouble the boy is in?”

“He’s in jail. So was I, at his age. I’m thinking about getting him out and giving him a job.”

“Why not send him money? Remember, this was his father’s show.”

“Kids in that kind of trouble need friends more than money; they need sympathy and understanding;”

“Would he accept either, coming from you?”

“That’s what I ask myself. And yet, if I don’t give it, who will?”

Lola eyed the speaker curiously. “You’re a character. Everybody on the lot knows you have a head, but I never dreamed you had a heart.”

“Maybe I haven’t,” he confessed. “I was never quite like other boys; one side of me took the lead early and did all the pulling. It led to trouble which I’d like to forget. Yes, I was pretty much off balance, I guess.”

They were sitting in Dick’s private car; he indicated some of the books which were in evidence. “I’ve been reading up on the new discoveries in psychology but there isn’t much available on the subject.”

“You’re studying law, too, aren’t you? Tell me, suppose there are two brothers in a family and the older one inherits his father’s money. Can he let the children of his younger brother starve?”

“I’d say he could, if he wished.”

“But if his brother’s kid sued him, wouldn’t he settle? Gee! I’d like to have a good lawyer. I’ll bet he could get me out of this business.”

“Don’t you like it?”

“No. I can say it frankly to you, though I wouldn’t to everyone. I never wanted to expose my legs to a lot of yokels but I had to do it. Those crowds never look above my waist.”

“They’re missing the best part of the exhibit,” Dick said, pleasantly. “All I see is your face, your eyes, your dimples.”

“That’s probably what you say to Jacqueline the monkey when she finishes her riding act. . . . My father was a gentleman and I want to be a lady. Why, if his brother had a heart the size of a bird seed, I’d be leading a different life, riding my own horses, thoroughbreds, jumpers. Dick, be my lawyer. I’ll bet you could get something out of him.”

“Come around, after I’ve taken my exams,” he said smilingly. “Any lawyer could swing a jury with you in the witness box.”

Lola fixed her blue eyes on his and said, “You can be nice, when you try. Very nice indeed. You’ve been wonderful to me and if you need help with Yancey’s boy, I’ll give you a hand. I’ll do anything for you, Dick. Anything!” Suddenly there were tears on her long lashes. “I wish I could do more. I wish you wanted me—”

Dick’s heart was pounding, as it always did when Lola revealed her feelings for him. He was glad when Larkin came into the car and interrupted her.

Chapter 13

DICK BANNING’S success as a showman surprised him perhaps as much as it did others. Under his vigorous management, the Yancey Adams circus paid off its debts and ended its tour with a sizable surplus. Its second season opened even more auspiciously, and he began to consider selling out. The experience had been exciting, the success was gratifying, but he had satisfied his youthful flair for the flamboyant and wanted to go on to something new. He had no desire to remain a circus man for the rest of his life; there were other parts he preferred to play.

The truth was, he had overworked himself in the stubborn determination to confound his father by returning home in a high hat. Now he could redeem his promise and preserve his self-respect. Now he could go back with bulging pockets, and then look further into the future. With these thoughts in mind, he began cautiously to cast about for a buyer.

He was not surprised to be told, in due time, that some people in the city where he was then playing were interested in amusement enterprises and were ready to make him an offer. A meeting was arranged at the leading hotel.

Dick realized he was in for a disagreeable surprise when he entered the suite to which he had been directed, for no sooner had he stepped inside the door than he detected a faint, familiar scent. Odors have an unaccountable power to awaken memories. This one took him back to a gloomy mansion in the French Quarter of New Orleans. Before he could retreat, the bedroom door opened and Madame Rondo appeared. She was in black, she was exquisitely groomed, and between her fingers was one of those slender cheroots he so well remembered. She was smiling faintly.

“Surprise!” she said, and as she spoke thin wisps of smoke issued from between her red lips. “Pardon the subterfuge, Ronnie, but—wait! Don’t go before you hear what I have to say.”

The sight of this woman affected Dick strangely, but he was too startled to analyze his feelings. He felt his heart falter; unwelcome emotions swept over him.

“I presume if I try to leave,” he managed to say, “you will whistle up your hatchet men.”

“No, we’re alone. Satisfy yourself and search if you wish.”

With an inclination of her dark head, the speaker invited him to look in the chamber where she had been waiting. “I’m sorry for what happened. It was a mistake, but women are cats. Hurt them and they claw you.”

“It strikes me that I’m the one who got hurt,” he said with some feeling.

“Let’s not argue that. I nearly went out of my head when I heard what those men did. That wasn’t my idea at all. Sit down. I want to talk to you.” Madame seated herself and, after an instant of indecision, he did likewise.

“I want to try to make amends. I’d like to be friends.”

“Why?”

The woman drew on her cheroot before asking, “What will you take for your circus?”

“It isn’t for sale.”

“Oh, yes, it is. Name your own price. I’ll pay it for a half interest.”

“A half—?” His face betrayed his astonishment.

“That’s what I said and that’s what I mean. If you can’t lick ’em, join ’em. That’s old, but it’s good sense. I want a piece of the show. We’ve got to be partners. Yes, partners in this, and other things. You’ve got more brains than any ten men I know and you’re only a kid. Look what you’ve done with Yancey Adams’ hurdy-gurdy.”

“Very well. What have I done?”

“Oh, I’ve ‘cased’ the show; I’ve seen it more than once. I’ve had spotters on the lot and I know the business you’ve done. You’re a genius. You’re a money-getter; so am I. Together we’d make a team. We can tie the Mississippi into a hard knot.”

“You tied me into one with those infernal beetle-eating birds,” he said resentfully. “You nearly killed me.”

Madame Angela shrugged. “It’s an old Creole trick. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t. Don’t hold it against me. When you’re my age, you’ll probably be biting your wrists over some sixteen-year-old. I’m talking business now, big business and you’d better listen. You’re young and that’s why I want to get in now before it’s too late. I’ll make you rich, Ronnie.”

Dick listened and what he heard added to his amazement. She was completely frank; she explained that she had always been a “loaner” but now her hands were full, too full. She had more responsibilities than she could carry and yet nowhere among her associates could she find a lieutenant whom she could trust. She named the enterprises which she owned, or of which she had a part; not all of them were illicit. Her recital was a revelation; her very frankness was almost appalling. These enterprises included brothels, saloons, and gambling places, race tracks, theaters, and brokerage houses all over the South—there were more than Dick could remember.

She spoke of the political power that was hers and he knew that she did not exaggerate. For the first time, he recognized her full stature. In spite of that, she spoke as if she really needed his help and proposed to have it at any price. Back of her words was the implied proffer of a partnership in all her undertakings.

It was profoundly disturbing to Dick, who told himself that in extending this offer she had handed him a stick of dynamite with a live fuse attached. Never before, he felt certain, had she so completely confided in anyone. When she had finished speaking, his respect for her capabilities had grown, but so had his distrust of her. She was dangerous, she was destructive, and—she was more repellent to him than ever.

“You overestimate my abilities,” he said lamely. “Just because I showed an aptitude for cards and pulled a broken-down circus out of the red, you assume that I’m a Wall Street wizard. I’ve quit cards for good and I’m tiring of the circus business, which proves it isn’t my line. There’s something more. I’ve had a change of heart since you knew me. I don’t want any shady money. I’ve turned legitimate, in a big way. I’m considering the law as a profession and I hope to be admitted to the bar.”

“Fine!” the woman exclaimed. “I’ll be your first client and your best. I have a dozen lawyers but I’d prefer one of the right sort. The more legitimate you are, the better it suits me. Law, banking, politics—you’ll succeed at anything, with my help. You and I can turn this country inside out, Ronnie. Use your head. Think it over.”

“I will,” he promised, as he rose to his feet.

“Law and politics go together. You’d make a good governor, one of these days. I’ll send you to the Senate. Why not? I’ve done it before.”

“Thanks for the kind words,” he told her, “but I’m neither a genius nor an idiot and only a fool would undertake more than he can handle. I don’t propose to make any mistake; whatever I take up next must be something I really want to do. I must be a free man.”

Madame nodded her complete agreement. “Splendid! I’m showing you a short cut to freedom, a freedom you’ll never know otherwise. Money and power! Without them, you’ll always be a slave. Banning and Rondo . . . it has a sound, hasn’t it? What a team we’ll make!”

As Dick left the hotel a little later, he assured himself that nothing now had the power to surprise him. Banning and Rondo indeed! He wondered how he could reject this woman’s offer without incurring her everlasting enmity.

* * * * * * * * *

Dr. Banning sat at his library desk awaiting the call to dinner. He was tired, so he leaned back in his leather chair and closed his eyes. He assumed Mrs. Gibbs would have roast beef, tomorrow being the help’s day out. It seemed wasteful, and inhospitable as well, to serve only two slices from a prime roast, the outside piece for her and the next one for himself. There should be guests to share it. Time was when the Doctor had to slice clear to the center, for Dick liked his rare. Roast beef was Dick’s favorite meat.

Usually at this time of day, Dr. Banning’s thoughts turned to his son. Too bad the boy had turned out to be such a scapegrace. Not a word from him in several years. That indicated his complete failure. Well, he had been warned, but success or failure, it was pretty cruel, pretty inhuman of him to—

The doorbell rang. A neighborhood emergency case, no doubt. There was the housemaid at last. The Doctor heard her utter a startled squeal and he sat up.

The next moment, a man strode into the library unannounced, a tall man wearing a high hat and carrying a cane. “Hello, father!” he said.

“Dick!” Dr. Banning rose and stared at his son.

Dick came forward with outstretched arms and enfolded the doctor in them. The older man had often pictured his son’s return but never had he anticipated a greeting like this. The genuine bear hug made him forget the carefully chosen words of welcome which he had rehearsed so often. All he could say was, “My boy!”

Dick held him off at arms’ length and looked him over; next he surveyed the room and its rich furnishings. Counterfeiting an expression of dismay, he exclaimed, “Good heavens! So you are still living in the same old hovel. Never mind! I’ll remedy that. Your days of want are ended.”

Dr. Banning gulped and laid his hand upon his son’s shoulder. Dick protested. “Dad! You mustn’t act like this. You’re spoiling my supreme moment. Didn’t I tell you I’d come home in a top hat and in triumph?”

Chilton Banning had never heard himself called Dad, neither had Dick ever embraced him before like this. His voice grew more unsteady as he said, “I hope you didn’t come merely to show off.”

“Of course not. But I had to make good my promise. I’ve lived for nothing else. I should have written you but I couldn’t bring myself to do so until the proper time came. No, I have lots to tell you but mighty little to boast about.”

At this point Mrs. Gibbs came running into the room and flung herself upon him. She was tearful, incoherent. The other members of the household, including the colored coachman, followed and all voiced a noisy greeting. This was a moment to which the prodigal had looked forward and he couldn’t resist making the most of it. Although he had never joked with his father, he had always teased Mrs. Gibbs. So when the excitement had abated and she asked him what he was doing, he said, “Gibbsy, you’d never guess. I’m working for The Great Yancey Adams Circus and Congress of Wild Animals. You must have seen the billing.”

All of them had indeed seen it. As a matter of fact, they were counting upon attending the opening performance.

“Is it a good position?” the housekeeper asked.

Dick’s eyes were dancing as he said, more to his father than to her, “It’s the best in the show. I’m their ringmaster. That’s how I came to have this hat and coat. In the ring, I wear white riding pants and shiny boots and I crack a whip.” There was a gasp of admiration from the coachman. Mrs. Gibbs looked startled. Dr. Banning sank weakly into his chair. “Yes, and I ride ahead of the parade, too, and shout, ‘Hold, your horses! The elephants are coming!’ ”

Dick saw that he had carried this far enough and he changed his tone. “Don’t faint, dad. I own the show.”

“You—own it?”

‘“Lock, stock, and barrel. And it’s a fine property. You’re the proud grandparent of six elephants, four camels, three lions—also a bearded lady. She works in the kid show, along with the Queen of Reptiles and Prince Basil the smallest midget in the world. You must meet my troupe. They’re honest, hard-working, clean-living people and they take pride in their calling. I’m not ashamed to be one of them.”

His last words were spoken with all sincerity but they quite failed to restore Dr. Banning’s composure. That would take a long, long time.

Dick had the center slice of the roast that night and, for the first time in his memory, he monopolized the dinner conversation. Mrs. Gibbs was in a flutter; she beamed, she exclaimed, she interrupted. The Doctor listened, mostly in silence. He was bewildered and he found it hard indeed to believe that this breezy, vital, self-reliant stranger could be the boy whose incoherent yearnings and unaccountable behavior had so baffled him a few years earlier. One thing was evident. Dick was no longer unsure of himself; he had acquired the poise and the complacency that come only from successful accomplishments. His hand was steady and he was his own master. What sort of man he had turned into the doctor could as yet only surmise.

Dick talked a good deal about himself and his doings but he was objective rather than subjective, and the Doctor felt that there was much he left unsaid. Dick had found it easy to make his own way. Contact with the world had taught him a great deal but not enough as yet to satisfy his curiosity. If he had evolved a philosophy or adopted a pattern of living for himself, he did not reveal what it might be. Happily his mind, for which the Doctor had such respect, was still thirsty and he had gone back to books. He had read law, and although he expressed no intention of practicing, he had recently passed his bar examination. He was now actively interested in engineering.

“I assume you’re still unmarried,” the father ventured.

“Yes. I’m a sort of senile adolescent.”

“Senile! At your age?”

“Do you remember when you spoke of sex and my appetites? You refused to stand by and see my morals corrupted. The fact is, father, I had only the vaguest notion of what you were driving at. It may surprise you to learn that I’ve never had much curiosity to explore that particular subject. It’s the usual thing, the psychologists say.”

“Meaning what?”

“I’m not sure anybody knows just what it signifies. But it seems that most overbright youngsters are maladjusted in one way or another. They lack normal balance. I have a boy like that with the show; he’s the son of the former owner. He’ll turn out to be a very good or a very bad man! I, too, walked a hairline at his age. . .”

Beyond this brief confession, Dick had little to say about his inner self.

He and his father talked until a late hour and the next day the entire Banning household attended the circus. For once, the owner did not officiate as “Equestrian Director” nor did he at any time while the show played his native city. Instead he spent every spare hour with his father and, oddly enough, enjoyed his company. Neither experienced that nerve-rasping irritation which had plagued them in years past.

They were sitting in Dick’s private car on their last evening together when the Doctor said, “You’ll write us in the future, won’t you?”

“Indeed I will. And I apologize again for neglecting you. It’s great to get acquainted with you, father. I’ve made mistakes, as you knew I would, but on the whole I think I did better than you expected.”

“You did indeed. You’ve done amazingly. Of course, this isn’t quite the life I had pictured for you.”

“Nor is it the one I intend to follow. On the other hand, suppose I had gone to Oxford? What then? I’d probably be a tutor in some boys’ school.”

“You might have become a writer, a great writer.” Dr. Banning spoke wistfully. “That’s what I hoped for.”

Recalling the dialogue for the circus which he had written and at which his father had laughed, Dick smiled. “Perhaps it isn’t too late. I sometimes feel the urge for authorship, but in order to write I think a man should learn to live first, and that isn’t taught in universities.”

When the show had moved on, Dr. Banning told himself that he had seen more of his son than ever before, to be sure, and yet he could not help feeling that he had seen only one side of him. Dick still remained almost as much of an enigma as on the day when they first parted company. The father wondered if it would not have profited him both as a parent and as a professional man if he had devoted less time and study to obstetrics and more to the psychology of youth.

Chapter 14

IN TALKING with his father, Dick had described some of his experiences fully, others he had merely outlined; he had revealed little, for instance, about his doings in New Orleans, and nothing whatever regarding his acquaintance with Madame Rondo or its consequences. These memories made him shudder and were something concerning which he seldom spoke, even to Jimmy the Lark. He was doing his best to rid his mind of them. In this attempt, however, he had no success.

In nightmares and even during his waking hours he could recall the touch of damp lips, the clutch of hungry arms and the characteristic scent of Mme. Rondo. Their last meeting had perturbed him more deeply than he had realized at the time. This fact he discovered as the result of a peculiar occurrence.

His shyness in the presence of women had considerably lessened under the influence of Lola Bruce. One day, he kissed her and her complete surrender was intoxicating. The abandon with which she yielded to his caresses provoked a welcome emotional upsurge. He told himself that he was at last attaining real maturity.

It seemed, however, that he could not drive the Creole from his subconsciousness, for even while he was holding Lola in his arms, he became aware of the familiar, haunting scent, which increased in pungency until it became almost unbearable. It was the same musky, venereal perfume with which Madame Rondo drenched herself. To Dick, it seemed to be the nauseating breath of some overheated brothel; yet it seemed to emanate from Lola’s garments, her hair, her very skin in this moment of happiness.

He knew it to be the wildest sort of fancy, but it cooled his ardor—and oddly enough, as his impetuosity subsided, the scent grew fainter.

The phenomenon alarmed him. When it recurred, not once but several times, he asked himself if he could be going insane. He longed to be with Lola, he yearned for her embraces and yet, every so often, instead of holding her in his arms, he felt himself embracing the loathsome woman of the underworld. Worse, he had no way of telling when the creature would thrust herself between them. Timidity seized him and he became unsure of himself, ardent one day and cold the next.

Other worries harassed the young showman. Reports of malicious damage to circus property came to him. They recurred so frequently that he became convinced some employee was engaged in deliberate sabotage. When a number the animals sickened and died, he became genuinely alarmed and made determined efforts to get at the bottom of it.

One day, to his intense surprise, the Lark entered his private car, dragging with him young Yancey Adams. Lola Bruce followed the pair.

“The mystery is solved,” Jim announced. “I’ve had my eye on this lad for some time and just now I went through his belongings. I found this poison and it’s the same as we discovered in the cages.” He laid a package on the table. “I thought you’d like to give him the third degree before we send for the law.”

Aware of all he had done for the Adams boy, Dick eyed him in frank astonishment. “What’s the meaning of this?” he inquired.

The boy met his gaze defiantly but said nothing.

“This is a serious matter, Yancey. You must have some explanation. There must be some motive—”

Sullenly the boy broke in, “This is my father’s show.”

“Why do you say that?”

“You won it in a card game.”

“Everybody knows that, I told you the whole story when I got you out of jail and gave you a job.”

“You didn’t tell me that you stole it. You didn’t tell me that you’re Ronnie Le Grand,” young Adams cried.

“Who is Ronnie Le Grand?” Lola inquired curiously.

“A professional gambler, a dirty, crooked card sharp!” Yancey was shaken with fury. “Ask anybody from New Orleans. He was so rotten crooked they ran him out. Then he was caught cheating on the River and somebody tried to kill him. That’s what I felt like doing but I—” The speaker’s voice broke, he brushed the sudden tears from his eyes. “I read the whole story in some old newspapers—about his being kept by a rich woman and everything. He didn’t win the show. He stole it. It’s mine, by rights. Yes, and who knows whether my dad really died the way they say he did;”

“You little rat!” the Lark exclaimed. He clenched his fist but Dick said quietly, “Let him get it out of his system. It will do him good.”

“It’s out,” Yancey declared. “Call the cops. Turn me over. I’ll tell the judge all about it. I’ll show him those newspapers.”

In a brittle voice, Lola declared, “I’d like to see them myself.”

Dick addressed himself to the boy. “I’m sorry you’re so badly crossed up, Yancey, but I didn’t cheat your father.”

“Nor anybody else,” the Lark added. “He didn’t have to cheat.”

“I had nothing to do with his death, either. He was a sick man and was drinking himself out of the show business as fast as he could. He was in debt and he would have lost everything before long. Ask any member of the troupe.”

“Oh, sure! They’d lie for you.”

“He’s telling you the truth,” Lola declared. “We knew how things were going and we were all worried. For a long while, Dick refused to play but your father was bull mad and wouldn’t take no for an answer. You’re all wrong, Yancey. Dick didn’t hire you because he thought you had it coming. And that isn’t why he has been supporting your mother, either.”

“My mother?”

“She’s been on the payroll ever since she wrote him that she was in want. It was she who begged him to help you.”

“It seems that your father never provided for her and you couldn’t—or wouldn’t,” Dick explained. “I told myself that any son who would desert his mother, or allow her to suffer, wasn’t worth helping; nevertheless I took a chance. I thought for a while you had straightened out and would amount to something, but evidently my first judgment was correct.” He paused before confessing, “I know that story by heart and I don’t blame you for going wild, after reading it. I might have done the same, in your place, but I wouldn’t have fed arsenic to a lot of caged animals just to get even. That was pretty low. I’d feel more respect for you if you’d fed it to me. I watched some of those poor creatures die, the little monkeys in particular seemed to beg for help. It was pitiful.”

“Come on! Get it over with,” the youth exploded. “I’ll take what’s coming to me, but I’ll bawl you out first.”

Angrily the Lark warned him, “That won’t get you anywhere for everybody knows Ronnie Le Grand was a square shooter. I’ll see that you do five years, young as you are.”

“And what will he be when he comes out?” Dick demanded. “I was in jail at his age and I saw what it does to kids. Yancey, you lacked the nerve to poison me, but you were brave enough to poison dumb animals. Jailbirds won’t like that You’ll be known as ‘Yancey Adams, the Monkey Man,’ or ‘Young Arsenic.’ Maybe you’ll be able to stand it but it will kill your mother.”

“Quit, will you?” the boy implored.

“I don’t want to send you to prison. If I do, you’ll be lost forever. Once those iron gates close on you, all the stairways lead down. If you stay in the open there’s a chance that you may get over it. Draw your pay. I’ll add a hundred to it. Then get out!”

* * * * * * * * *

The circus made its way south. Finding himself in Madame Rondo’s territory, Dick experienced misgivings, which he could not shake off. Having once felt her wrath, he had no wish to feel it a second time.

In pondering her fantastic offer of partnership, Dick felt he could not attribute it to a sincere respect for his business ability. His ego had not swelled to that extent. On the other hand, it was equally absurd to assume that she had been prompted by anything else. What was there about him to appeal to any woman more than momentarily, and especially to one of her kind? He was no impassioned lover and she was not one to crave mere intellectual companionship. The sex impulse, of which he had heard so much but about which he knew so little, could doubtless evolve into something monstrous and destructive but there was nothing unbalanced about Madame Angela. She was quite frank about her desires and was the last person in the world to lose her head over any man. There had been too many in her life. In her business, if not in her personal affairs, she was cool, calculating, and self-sufficient. At their last meeting, she had been all business. He had rebuffed her and no doubt she was offended, but what could she gain by harming him?

Reason told him he had nothing to fear, nevertheless the injury she had inflicted upon him was so slow in healing he couldn’t banish his apprehensions.

The Lark, with whom Dick discussed the matter, shared his uneasiness and, like Big Susie, he cocked his ears and cast the air for scent of trouble. Thanks to his alertness, Dick was spared the full effect of Madame’s blow, when it fell.

The circus was setting up to play an engagement in a Tennessee mining town when Larkin came to Dick’s car and told him, “I’ve been cruising around all morning and found a couple of old acquaintances. One is a dealer and the other tends bar. I had a talk with both of ’em and I’m afraid we’re in for trouble.”

“What kind?”

“Don’t ask me, but I found out that Tom Gutierrez showed up here about a week ago. He’s been spending money with the miners. He don’t seem to have any particular business here.”

“This was never a good circus town,” Dick told his friend. “I’m sorry we have to play it. They’ve had more than one ‘Hey Rube’ battle and it wouldn’t be hard to start another. Pass the word around quietly. I’m going to see the authorities.”

Dick called first upon the Mayor and made known his fear that disorder might occur. He was referred to the Chief of Police who readily agreed to detail as many officers as were needed to preserve the peace.

“These hillbillies can be rough, and it doesn’t take much to start them,” he said. “We don’t want trouble any more than you do.”

Dick considered it unwise to explain in detail the reason for his apprehension. He merely thanked the official and asked him to attend the evening performance.

“Bring your family along and any of their friends as my guests. I want you to see for yourself that it’s a fine show and my crew is well behaved. As a matter of fact, we’ve never had the slightest trouble since I took it over. Usually it’s the show people who are held guilty regardless of the facts, but I want you to feel certain who’s to blame, in case anything happens. Furthermore, we don’t want something for nothing, Chief. If you can help us to play out our engagement, I’ll donate 10 per cent of the gate receipts to any local charity you name.”

Not entirely content with this, the show owner returned to the lot, where he had a talk with his boss canvas man, in whose judgment and discretion he had confidence. For the time being, there was nothing more he could do.

The parade and matinee performance went off in the customary manner but when the evening crowd assembled, the alerted circus crew noticed the presence of an unusual number of roughly dressed men, who arrived in groups. Some of them had been drinking and a few were boisterous, but the chief had made good his promise and there were sufficient uniformed officers in evidence to maintain order.

Among the performers there was a very definite feeling of apprehension, but the band played, the barkers ballyhooed their attractions, and the sideshow freaks and artists appeared upon their platforms, disappeared, and reappeared again. Finally the side wall was lifted and a new audience filed inside to replace the one that was leaving.

Peanut and popcorn machines whistled, candy and lemonade vendors shouted their wares; above the strident music of the steam calliope attached to the merry-go-round there were sounds of excitement and good-natured turmoil.

The main top filled for the Grand Entry and the performance began, with Dick in the ring. Long experience had rendered him sensitive to audience reactions and as the entertainment continued he became convinced that Jim Larkin’s warning had not been idle. The reserved seat section responded as it always did, but the bleacher patrons, across the arena, were either too silent or too noisy, they laughed at the wrong jokes and capers, they hooted acts which received general applause, there were too few women and children among them.

Dick finished directing Lola’s riding act, then followed her white horse back into the pad room. She was stepping into her wooden slop shoes when he spoke to her.

“When you get dressed, go back to the train and stay there. Tell the other women to do the same thing when their acts are over.”

“What’s this I hear about somebody from New Orleans stirring up trouble?” the girl asked.

“I made some enemies there. The Lark seems to think they’ve been at work on these miners.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Change out of this monkey suit and into something less conspicuous.”

“If they’re enemies, they’ll be looking for you, Dick. Don’t take any chances. Promise?” she implored.

“I promise,” he said. “And don’t worry. It may only be a false alarm.”

As he turned away, he heard her exclaim, almost tearfully, “Damn this rotten business!”

A few moments later, dressed in his street clothes, he signaled to the Chief of Police who left his seat and joined him.

“Those general admissions are behaving strangely,” said he. “I think you’d better send for more men.”

Together they went out into the open air.

* * * * * * * * * *

In the sitting room of a downtown hotel suite, not far away, Tom Gutierrez, Dave Crouch, and the “cotton planter” who had held Ronnie Le Grand the night he was slugged were playing cards. They were bored, occasionally one of the trio consulted his watch.

“To Hell with three-handed draw!” Crouch said finally. “It’s like pulling hairs out of your nose. When you finish, what have you got?”

“It passes the time,” said Gutierrez.

“Sure!” the planter agreed. “You did all right at it yesterday.”

“I did all right until she quit,” Crouch admitted.

The planter gazed at the closed bedroom door; then, in a lowered voice, he addressed Gutierrez, “Queer thing, T. G. The three of us played coming up and she held the dead man’s hand over and over. It happened so often it wasn’t funny. Jacks and deuces! Jacks and deuces!”

With a grin, Crouch added, “She claims she ain’t superstitious. All the same, she finally tore up the cards. That’s what ails her now. She—”

He ceased speaking as the door opened and Angela Rondo appeared. She wore a wide, plumed hat and light silken coat. She was drawing on a pair of long black gloves.

“Finish your jackstraws and let’s shove off,” she said sharply.

“We’ve got time to spare,” Gutierrez told her. “It ain’t over a ten-minute drive and the concert hasn’t begun yet.”

“How do you know those red-necks will wait for the concert?”

“I don’t know anything for sure, but they’ve been told and they’re too wise to start anything before the crowd thins out. I still say you’ve got no business out there and—”

“Oh, you do,” Madame mocked him. “I should leave everything to you and it’ll come off just as you planned. I did that once and you bitched the job. I should sit here and let you tell me later how nice everything went. I intend to see for myself. Come on! Let’s get moving.”

Chapter 15

THE ATTACK that night on the Yancey Adams show was bitter and determined. Aimed at quick destruction, it was launched with what appeared to be sufficient power to achieve its purpose. It was fortunate that Dick had taken every possible precaution. Even so, it swiftly grew into one of the worst riots in circus annals. For a long time after it was referred to as “The Battle of Tennessee.”

Just where or how the trouble started was never made clear. While the concert audience was dispersing, a group of ruffians began slashing canvas, cutting guy ropes, and tearing down side-show banners. Simultaneously, a band of bleacher patrons invaded the pad room and dressing enclosures behind the arena, where they attacked the actors and wrought whatever damage they could.

Circus men and police officers together charged the outside mob. Dick and a score of his helpers, armed with tent stakes, hastened to the rescue of the half-dressed performers. They quickly cleared those premises, hustled the occupants out, and started them on their way to the train. This accomplished, Dick turned his attention to the main melee.

It was not easy to assume command or indeed to exercise any control over his canvas men and roustabouts, for the miners held possession of the open space around which the tents had been erected. The Grand Concourse, so called, became a battlefield. From this scene of pandemonium the crowd fled, massing at a safe distance to watch a show infinitely more exciting than the one they had paid to see.

The rioters began by upsetting everything on wheels or otherwise movable. On the assumption that the ticket wagon contained the evening’s gate receipts, it was the first to be capsized. When Dick reached the scene, he found the police chief and a handful of his uniformed men fighting for its possession. The carrousel was in process of demolition, the refreshment stands and booths had been smashed and trampled flat. Side-show stages and platforms were being systematically wrecked and lumber was being broken into pieces which would serve as weapons. There was a savage roar of shouts and curses which grew in volume as the delirium mounted.

Outnumbered as they were, the circus men had their hands full protecting the menagerie tent and the main top; fearing they would become scattered or demoralized, Dick assembled a flying squad which he led first to one danger spot, then to another. But there seemed to be a dozen such spots and he could not attend to all of them.

Where the rival forces met, stakes flew, the air was filled with missiles, clubs rose and fell, police whistles blew. Occasionally there was a shot, presumably fired by some hard-pressed officer.

Although the vandals knew the job they had been hired to do, they followed no set plan in carrying out their assignment. They were content to demolish whatever lay in their path. When one attack was met and driven off, they turned and stormed in another direction. Those observers who were outside the lighted amphitheater looked on at a spectacle which grew more appalling as incendiary flames augmented the glare of the stationary kerosene torches. Piles of splintered debris and painted canvas blazed up and the frenzied clamor of animals inside the menagerie tent was echoed by shouts and screams of consternation and pity from the onlookers. To this tumult now was added the clang of arriving patrol wagons and finally the shriek of approaching fire fighting equipment. Complete chaos seemed likely to follow.

Fire was what Dick Banning dreaded. No sooner had his men circumvented one threat than another blaze was kindled. He was sick with apprehension and frantic at the course events were taking. Then, just as the situation appeared to be entirely out of hand, the wall of the animal tent was lifted and Jim Larkin emerged astride Big Susie. Little Major was at her tail and the four other members of the elephant herd pressed close to her flanks. Riding one of the younger animals was the bull man, armed with his hook, but he had no need to use it, for Susie led the way and the others followed.

They burst into view without warning and they came swiftly with trunks held high. All were trumpeting insanely. Dick assumed they were being rushed to safety until he noticed something so strange, so unexpected, and so incongruous that he had to look a second time to credit the evidence of his senses. The Lark was holding his violin clutched under his chin and he was fiddling madly. From the instrument he drew shrill, discordant shrieks and screams that obviously aroused a frenzy in the bulls. They were not in flight, they were on the attack and they were in a terrible rage. In spite of this, they were under Jim’s control. He yelped at them insanely, his heels drummed furiously upon Susie’s thick hide. His charge was aimed directly at the center of the milling crowd.

No mob could stand before that avalanche of flesh and fury. This one scattered, its members breaking into panicky flight and trampling each other to get out of its path. From the massed onlookers beyond the limits of the field came a triumphant outburst of sound. Here was drama for them, here was sudden victory, here was something never to be forgotten. Men yelled themselves hoarse; hysterical women shrieked and cheered and wept.

The monstrous flying wedge lumbered across the Concourse bringing consternation with it; then, obedient to Larkin’s command, it swung about and plowed its way back through the fleeing throng, There was no way to meet that rush of elephantine bodies. The incessant trumpeting was as bloodcurdling as their actual onslaught. The battle ended almost as swiftly as it had begun. One moment the hoodlums had things in their own hands, the next they were in full retreat. But escape was not easy, for the outraged circus men swung into aggressive action and the police joined in the round-up

Following that first charge of the bulls and during the immediate panic that ensued, Dick Banning observed something which proved conclusively who was behind the vicious assault. In the road bordering the circus grounds, on the outer fringe of the noncombatant crowd was an open, two-horse livery carriage with four persons in it, one of them a woman. It had arrived sometime prior to the outbreak. Its occupants were intently observing the progress of events.

When the rioters broke ranks and came streaming off the field in blind flight, the horses reared and plunged. Then they broke into a run so sudden and so swift that the colored driver either lost his balance and fell, or leaped from his seat. One of the men turned around and tried to recapture the reins but he managed to seize only one. As a consequence, the team swerved sharply and galloped diagonally across the Concourse, straining wildly to outrun the dreadful apparition which pursued it. Into the light of lofty oil burners and the glare of blazing side-show banners they raced, heedless of their direction and of the fleeing figures in their path. They passed close to Dick, he clearly saw the pallid face of Angela Rondo. Her huge, ostrich plumed hat had blown back, her mouth was wide open, she wore an expression of abysmal terror. He had only time for a glimpse of her before the swaying vehicle collided with the ruins of a popcorn wagon and rose crazily upon two wheels. It hung there briefly, its free wheels spinning, then it overturned. The horses dashed on with streaming manes, dragging behind them a mass of wreckage which bounced and somersaulted crazily. Dick fancied he saw entangled in it at least one body. He had neither the time nor the inclination to investigate but that picture remained clear.

The clean-up of the Concourse was barely started when there came another alarm. The circus train was under attack and the performers, men, women, and children, were barricaded inside their cars. Another mob was smashing windows and attempting to set the coaches afire. Help was needed in a hurry.

Again Jim Larkin and his herd went into action. They were first on the scene and once more they made short work of the attackers. By the time Dick and his ground crew arrived, the rowdies had dispersed into the darkness and they had only to check the flames. That would have been difficult without Big Susie’s aid, for fires had been kindled under the cars and there was no locomotive to move them. The coaches were uncoupled, and with a mattress to cushion her bulging forehead Susie obediently pushed first one, then another, to safety.

By the time the hose wagon had arrived, made connection with a hydrant, and water was flowing, the crisis was passed. Assured that his actors were safe, Dick hastened back to the lot.

On that dreadful night it was long before excitement abated and anything approaching order was restored. Even then, it was impossible to estimate the amount of property damage suffered or to do more than guess at the price paid in physical injuries. Many of the circus crew were missing and unaccounted for.

Having accomplished all he could for the time being, Dick entered the animal tent. It was dimly lit and quiet. Here and there, weary trainers and handlers were sprawled on straw piles or dozed on the sawdust close by their wagons and cages. Dick’s feet made no sound as he approached the roped enclosure where the bulls were chained. Inside it, the Lark was seated, from his violin came a soothing whisper, almost as light as the hum of an insect. Dick spoke in a low voice.

“How can a man hug six elephants?”

Jim lowered his bow and smiled over his shoulder. “One leg at a time, I guess; anyhow, that’s what I did.”

As the comforting murmur of the strings ceased, Big Susie’s huge ears flapped, her trunk groped for the player, and Jim said reassuringly, “Here I am, sweetheart, I won’t leave you.” With feeling, the younger man said, “That was a fine job you did. This outfit owes its survival to you.”

“Give the credit where it’s due,” Larkin answered. “I merely told this girl what had to be done.”

“Jim, tell her for me that I think she’s the most wonderful woman in the world and so does everybody in the troupe.”

“Oh, they’ve been telling her with apples. We cleaned the cook tent of everything that elephants like. Their bellies are full and that runs into a lot of fruit and vegetables. I didn’t get to see much of the fight. What happened?”

“We’re a sick outfit, Jim, but we’ll get well. A lot of fellows are hurt and a good many are missing but I’ll round them up in the morning. It’s too bad that people aren’t kept in cages so that wild animals could pay to look at them. That’s the kind of show I’d like to run. Yes, I can hear some keeper—probably an educated ape in a red cap and coat—warning a wide-eyed lioness and her bewhiskered mate:

‘Don’t go inside the ropes, madam. Man is the most dangerous creature alive. He even preys upon his own kind. And don’t believe that monkeys are descended from human beings. It’s a malicious libel on the animal kingdom. We monkeys deny their relationship to us.’ ”

Gravely the Lark nodded. “It’s a nice idea but it wouldn’t work,” he said. “Wild animals couldn’t stand the smell of a man-agerie.”

Lola was waiting when Dick returned to his car. Apprehension for his safety had all but crazed her and it took some time to convince her that he was unharmed. She clung to him sobbing and her concern was so genuine that he was suddenly flooded with tenderness. Here was one person who loved him and who would make any sacrifice to hold her place in his heart. He saw again that runaway team, that careening carriage, and the frightened face of his Nemesis. Yes, Angela Rondo was precisely that. She was a vengeful enemy who spelled destruction and there was no escape from her unless—

“Lola!” He spoke with sudden determination. “Will you marry me?”

“Yes, yes!” the girl cried. She lifted her face, wet with tears, and fiercely she pressed her mouth to his.

For a moment, Dick’s emotions were in a turmoil as deep as hers; then with a shock he realized what had prompted him to speak.

“Wait!” he said, in a different voice. With difficulty he continued, “I’ve never taken pains to be honest with myself but I’ve got to be honest with you, dear. I—I’m doing a cowardly thing and you should know it.”

Lola lifted a puzzled face. “Cowardly? You?”

“Anybody will fight when he’s cornered. I was scared stiff and—I’m frightened now. I’m shaking inside like a jelly. I love you and I want you. All the same, in a way I’m trying to hide behind your skirts.” He smiled faintly. “Fancy a fellow of my size hiding behind your little ballet skirt. But—that’s how it is.”

Lola’s bewilderment persisted.’“Did you get hit on the head or something?” she asked.

His smile widened and he seated himself with her still in his arms. “I’ll try to talk more sensibly. Tonight’s row didn’t just happen, it was premeditated and carefully planned. In all probability, it will be repeated.”

“But why?”

“That’s something I can’t answer because I don’t know the real motive behind it. You see, I have an enemy and she’s a woman.”

“That red-light madam? That Rondo woman Yancey Adams told me about?” Lola’s expression had changed. “I thought—”

“Yes. I don’t know much about women and I knew still less when I met her. I was just a kid, I hadn’t been around and—I wonder why it is that girls are expected to grow up in ignorance of all the ugly things around them while boys are assumed to know everything without being told. I didn’t know such women as Madame Rondo existed. Well, that suited her exactly. It must have given her a great thrill but I behaved rather badly, according to her ideas, and I hurt her pride. Actually, when I think of that woman, everything inside me crawls. She ran me out of New Orleans and you read, later on, how Ronnie Le Grand suddenly disappeared. It was her doing. She says it was all in fun and only went to show how much she cared. Then she apologized and wanted to buy a half interest in the circus for twice what it was worth just to prove the sincerity of her liking and her admiration for me.”

“You never told me—”

“I never told anybody except Jim. The whole thing was too fantastic. I mean her attempt to make friends with me. I should have realized that she’d refuse to take no for an answer.”

“Do you mean to say that she actually framed this riot?” Lola demanded.

“With the utmost pains and disregard of cost. What’s more, she was here in person to see that my head was caved in—or else to make sure that it wasn’t. I’m not positive what she had in mind. Well, Jim and his bulls spoiled everything. Her team stampeded; her carriage was smashed up. And so was she.”

“Maybe she’s dead,” Lola exclaimed hopefully, but Dick shook his head.

“Snakes are hard to kill, they just keep on squirming until sundown.” With an unconscious shudder, he confessed, “I’m afraid of her, Lola. I want to hide. It occurred to me just now that if I were married, if there were another woman, she’d leave me alone. Lord! It sounds rotten any way I word it.”

The girl’s strong arms tightened around his neck; she crushed her lips against his. When she withdrew her face, it was flushed and her blue eyes were blazing.

“Who cares how it sounds. I’m not afraid of snakes, I’m not afraid of anything except losing you. To hell with Madame Rondo! I’m just as mean as she is and I’ll fight for what’s mine.”

Chapter 16

THE NEXT MORNING Dick and Lola were married at the City Hall in the presence of police officers, circus performers, and a number of curiosity seekers. The afternoon newspaper carried a story about the ceremony along with a vivid account of the conflict on the circus lot. It was headed:

Riot Ends In Romance.
Circus Owner Weds Equestrienne.

In the next morning’s paper a similar story appeared and it was a good one, for Dick Banning wrote it himself.

Those wedding stories were featured almost as conspicuously as others captioned:

New Orleans Notables Victims of Circus Battle.
Crescent City Woman Hurt in Elephant Charge.

Madame Rondo, famous financier and sportswoman, they related, was in the hospital suffering from fractured bones, lacerations of face and body, and possible internal injuries. With her were three male companions, also prominent in the “sporting world.” None of the quartet, it was stated, would consent to be interviewed.

The show itself had suffered severely, and it did not immediately resume its tour. Equipment needed repairs, several members of the crew had been jailed, and others were missing. It took time to bail out those who had been arrested and to locate the others. Hospital and doctors’ bills mounted, and meanwhile Dick braced himself to withstand the avalanche of litigation which he knew would be inevitable. Few of the miners who had sold their services to Tom Gutierrez were likely to cause trouble although some undoubtedly would try, but there were scores of others who had suffered injury or loss of some sort and they were sure to demand satisfaction.

It was fortunate indeed, Dick told himself, that he had heeded Larkin’s warning, for the police could prove how the riot had started. For once, it seemed, a circus had the best of a “Hey, Rube” disturbance. He was thankful, too, for his recently acquired familiarity with the law, which promised to be a real help to him.

It was a sadly crippled show that took to the road after a week’s delay, but circus people are accustomed to hard knocks and they are resourceful. The troupe did its heroic best and there were no complaints. The show went on, even if every performer had to double for a missing pal. Acrobats went aloft in a webbing act, clowns played straight in the afterpiece, and the bearded lady drove a stake wagon. A circus is a living thing. It breathes, it moves, it keeps playing or it dies.

For days and weeks the owner, beset by process servers and bedeviled by attorneys, put in a confused and anxious honeymoon. Each day that passed, however, brought with it some lame or bandaged employee who had managed to overtake the show and who grinned widely at the welcome he received.

In spite of work, worry, and endless preoccupation, Dick was more nearly contented than he had ever been. Lola, who was in seventh heaven, made an enchanting bride, and marriage was indeed a glorious experience, an adventure more exciting than any that she or Dick had known. Happily for the bridegroom, Madame Rondo no longer disturbed his dreams. He had lost his fear of her, new vigor flowed through him, the world was good. How could it be otherwise, he asked himself, when in his thoughts there was room for no one except the adorable creature whose head lay pillowed nightly upon his heart. In view of his new found contentment, he was deeply annoyed when an attorney he had never seen or heard of introduced himself one afternoon with the announcement that he had a matter of importance to discuss. His name was Busby; he came from Baltimore.

“More trouble, more litigation, I presume,” Dick said sourly.

“I hope not,” Mr. Busby told him. “I merely wish some information of a confidential nature.”

The matinee audience was dispersing so Dick led the way toward his car. Mr. Busby explained that he had witnessed the performance but being a stranger to circus life found his surroundings a bit confusing.

“I assume your business is very profitable, Mr. Banning?”

Dick eyed him quizzically. “Not sufficiently profitable to satisfy the demands of certain members of your profession, or shall we say our profession. You see I’m a lawyer, myself.”

“Indeed? Then I’m sure you’ll understand why I chose to speak with you rather than with your wife.”

“My wife?”

“Yes. You are married, aren’t you, to the charming young lady who rides the white horse?”

“I am. ”

“Was her maiden name Bruce or is that merely a stage name?”‘

Dick halted his stride; he frowned at the speaker. “Mr. Busby, I wonder if your client, whoever he may be, figures that my wife now owns a half interest in the show and assumes that she’s an easy target. It won’t work, I cracked a lot of hickory heads over in Tennessee and I’ll crack the skull of any shyster who tries to shake her down.”

Mr. Busby looked bewildered. “We seem to be talking at cross purposes,” said he. “I’m not a shyster. My firm is one of the oldest in the State of Maryland. I wish to obtain certain information, certain facts, about your wife. Rather than go directly to her and risk an embarrassing mistake, I’ve come to you.”

“What do you want to know?”

“I’d like to learn Mrs. Banning’s age, her place of birth, and the names of her parents.”

Dick and his companion entered his private car to find Lola with a sewing basket in her lap. She was mending a pair of tights; on a chair within reach were several abbreviated ballet skirts of lacy material. There was a peculiar expression upon her husband’s face when he said, “Darling, this is Mr. Busby, an attorney from Baltimore.”

“Lucius D. Busby,” the latter volunteered in a tone which invested the name with considerable importance. “I witnessed your performance, Mrs. Banning, and if I may say so, it filled me with profound admiration.”

“He has put some queries to me,” Dick explained; “Now he’d like to cross-question you.”

“Not that,” the attorney protested. “I merely—”

“But why?” Lola demanded. “What have I done?”

The older man smiled pleasantly. “I have no sinister motives and my questions are not prompted by idle curiosity, Mr. Banning says your father was a native of Maryland and his name was Clement Bruce.”

“Yes. He came from Medwick.”

“Your mother died at the time of your birth but—have you any brothers or sisters?”

Lola shook her head. “I’m an only child. I have no relatives at all except on my father’s side. There are three of them, my Uncle Donald and his two children. I’m glad there aren’t any more.”

“Indeed?” Mr. Busby asked politely.

Lola’s lip curled. “I’ve never seen them and I hope I never do. Uncle Donald never forgave my father for marrying a circus performer. He’s a dirty old miser and my two cousins—”

“Your Uncle Donald was, not is,” said Busby. “He died several weeks ago.”

“I can’t say I care; in fact I’m prostrated with indifference,” Lola declared. “No doubt he remembered me in his will—with a bunch of scallions out of the family kitchen garden.”

“On the contrary, he left everything to his own offspring.”

“I’ll bet he did. He had a heart the size of a celery seed.”

“However, they predeceased him. Your two cousins were killed in a train wreck in the south of France a few days before. It was the news of the tragedy that precipitated a stroke from which Mr. Bruce never recovered.”

Lola stared at the speaker with sudden interest. “Does that mean—? What does it mean?”

“It means that you’re his next of kin.”

“Yes?”

“The estate will go to you.”

Lola paled, faintly she murmured, “Why, Uncle Donald was—well off. Father often told me about the house, Bruce Hall.”

Mr. Busby nodded. “It’s a fine place, indeed. It has a colorful history and a distinguished tradition. I’m happy to be the bearer of such good tidings.”

It was Dick who spoke next. “Are you sure there’s no mistake? It would be cruel to arouse false hopes.”

“I assure you there is no mistake. Our problem was to locate and identify the offspring of Clement Bruce. That has been done.”

Dick next voiced the question uppermost in his wife’s mind. “Can you give her some idea of what this involves? I mean the size of the estate?”

“Not as yet, but it is—considerable. Yes, I can say with safety that it is quite considerable.”

“A—hundred thousand dollars?” Lola asked in a small voice.

“Yes. Bruce Hall would appraise something like that.” Lola’s stupefaction ended in an explosion of sound and action. She uttered a joyful squeal and simultaneously she tossed her sewing basket high, scattering its contents. Leaning back in her chair, she kicked her shapely legs, bounced to her feet, and flung herself into her husband’s arms.

“Dick! I’m rich!” she cried. “My dream has come true. Don’t you hear? I’m rich.”

With a laugh, he assured her, “Yes, I heard, but control yourself or Mr. Busby will think—”

She ran on heedlessly, “No more rosin boxes, no more sawdust and slop shoes! I’ve jumped through my last hoop.” She aimed a kick at the bundle of crumpled ballet skirts, then seizing in each hand a leg of the tights upon which she had been sewing, she tore them apart. “Rip, damn you, and see if I care. I’m a lady now.”

She began to laugh, but her laughter was hysterical and Dick explained to the visitor, “She has always hated show business. She never liked to wear those things, but there was no way out. She appealed to her Uncle Donald but he must have been a pretty hard man.”

Lola explained, “I wrote him after father died and told him all about myself but how that old skinflint could sneer on paper! His signature hissed at me. He wrote back and asked how I had acquired such virginal modesty when my mother was an acrobat and my father a shameless ne’er-do-well. Mind you, Uncle Donald didn’t earn his money; he merely inherited it because he happened to be older than—”

“I know,” said Busby. “The Bruces are English as are most of their Medwick neighbors. It is their boast that they adhere to English customs. Now, Mrs. Banning, may I offer my congratulations upon your good fortune and express the hope that it will bring you the happiness and contentment for which you have longed.”

“Then it isn’t a dream? You’re sure nothing can happen?”

“Nothing. The rest is routine court procedure. My firm has handled the Bruce family’s legal affairs for many years. We shall be happy to act in probating the estate if you wish us to do so.”

“By all means,” Dick told him.

“Can you and Mrs. Banning return to Baltimore with me?”

“Good Lord, no! I own this circus and I run it. Lola is as much a part of it as I am.”

To this, Lola nodded her reluctant agreement. “I suppose the show must go on.”

“There’s no need for you to make any sacrifice and your presence at this time would not expedite matters.”

“All right, I’ll sign on the dotted line. I’ll do anything you say, but, for Heaven’s sake, whip the judge into a gallop and pry open Uncle Donald’s piggy bank as soon as possible. I’m dying to count the pennies. Now you and Dick rehearse the rest of the act while I spread the news. Jiminy! I’ll burst if I don’t tell the gang. Why, those actors never saw a girl with a hundred thousand stove lids. Neither did I, for that matter.” Lola was beaming again; she was quivering with eagerness. “You must stay and have supper with us, in the chow tent. Please! You’ll meet the nicest sword swallowers in the world and I want them to meet my fairy godfather. You’re a darling, Mr. Busby. I love you.”

Swiftly she ran out of the car, banging the door behind her.

Word of the good fortune that had come to their equestrienne queen raced over the lot, and it caused almost as much excitement among the members of the troupe as had “The Battle of Tennessee.” They crowded around her, embraced her, shook her hands, bombarded her with questions. Many had known Lola’s parents; others had watched her grow from a child into young womanhood; all regarded her as the daughter of the Yancey Adams show and its most conspicuous personality. They had rejoiced at her recent marriage to the big boss. This latest lightning stroke of luck was the climax to a Cinderella story in real life.

“If ever a kid had it coming, she’s it,” they said. “Yes, sir! She never caused a minute’s worry to any of us.” Comments like these were typical.

The show that night was really given for Lola Banning. It was a sort of spontaneous testimonial performance. Her entrance brought her an ear-splitting fanfare from the bandsmen and her great white horse seemed to arch his neck more proudly than usual. When her exhibition was finished, the musicians rose and cheered, ring attendants and actors alike added their applause to that of the audience. Dick Banning, wearing a wide smile, doffed his shiny hat with a flourish and acknowledged the friendly tribute to his bride.

Dick got little sleep that night for Lola was still in an emotional dither. She was happy, incredulous, triumphant, fearful; likewise she was consumed with curiosity about the actual size of her inheritance.

“Didn’t St. Lucius tell you about it?” she asked.

“Only that it was ‘considerable.’ I don’t think he really knows.”

“Well, I told the troupe it was one hundred thousand dollars because that’s the biggest money I ever dreamed about. But he said the house would sell for that much. I’ve been thinking, Uncle Donald must have had a few bucks stashed away somewhere, too.”

“Undoubtedly.”

“They’re mine, too?”

“Certainly.”

“Gosh! Maybe I’m twice as rich as I thought I was. Two hundred thousand dollars. I can’t bear it, Dick. I’ve got to see it before I’ll believe I’m awake. I wonder how it feels to hold two hundred thousand dollars.”

He drew her closer and pressed his lips to her hair. “Exactly as it felt last night. Wonderful!” Lola laughed delightedly.

“Two hundred thousand ducats and—you!” Dreamily she murmured, “Thanks, Uncle Donald. You’re a darling. Now tell Lola where you keep that cash—I mean the extra hundred thousand. Remember, I’ll find it anyhow. . . . Under the third brick on the left side of the fireplace? Good! You were such a stingy old bastard I knew you’d hide it somewhere.”

“Now that you’ve found it,” Dick said. “I’d better wire for a new equestrienne.”

“Why?”

“You’ll be quitting the show. You always hated the business.”

“And leave you?”

“You’ve dreamed about a fine home and anyhow you couldn’t ride Rajah with all that money in your tights. They’d bulge. . . . There is a little Italian rider with the Robbins outfit. She’s beautiful and her figure is—

“Listen!” Lola sat up suddenly; then twisting her lithe body she seized him fiercely by the shoulders. With her face close to his, she cried, “If you ever look at another woman. I’ll kill you!”

“That’s a bargain!” he declared and crushed her to him.

By-and-by, she broke the silence to say, “You’re not so crazy about show business yourself. We could lump our bankrolls together and live at Bruce Hall, instead of selling it. . . . You could be a lawyer, I could have a horse. . . Father told me it’s a grand house and everybody in Medwick hunts foxes. . . . . I’ll bet it’s fun to jump fences. You could go into politics. Senators make scads of money; they don’t have to worry about washouts and blowdowns and rainy weather.”

Lola was still talking when Dick fell asleep.

Some two weeks later, Dick found it possible to make a hurried trip to Baltimore. He was gone longer than Lola had expected and when he returned, he told her, “You’d better brace yourself for a surprise. I ran into something unexpected.”

Noting his peculiar expression, she said, apprehensively, “I felt it in my bones. I knew it would turn out to be a bust.”

“It’s anything but a bust but Busby gave me a jolt from which I haven’t recovered. He estimates the Donald Bruce estate amounts to something like three million dollars.”

“Three—!” Lola’s voice failed her. She sat down limply, her blue eyes widened.

“Your uncle didn’t hide his money under a loose brick either. He invested it wisely and carefully. I went over his portfolio—”

“And yet he wouldn’t buy me a mop and bucket of suds when I wanted to find a job. . . . Three million . . . Dick! That scares me.”

He nodded understandingly. “Me, too! Yes, and it worries me. I’m sorry it came just when it did. A lot of those claims against the show have not been settled. Now maybe they can’t be settled. I’m just a showman with a moderate bankroll, but three million dollars is something to shoot at. Rondo will hear about it; she’ll go wild. There’s no telling what she’ll try to do. . . . Every hooligan who ran a splinter in his thumb during that riot will sue—”

“Will they sue me?”

“Hardly. But those hillbilly shysters are hungry and Rondo just about runs things in that part of the country. I thought I had driven her out of my mind but I haven’t.”

Lola’s color lessened. “And I had to blab my head off about being an heiress.”

“Nobody, outside the troupe, believes that story,” Dick said reassuringly. “But they will believe this one, if it becomes public.”

“Then, for God’s sake, let’s cover it up. We can smother it long enough to sell out.”

“Selling a circus isn’t like selling a bag of peanuts.”

“Then give the damn thing away.”

“And live on your money?”

“Don’t be silly. It’s our money. . . . Please, darling, I was brave enough when I had nothing to lose, now—”

“I dare say we’re both needlessly alarmed,” Dick said gravely. “I’ve been thinking too much about Rondo lately. A man can make a coward of himself. Let’s not invent worries at a time when we should be rejoicing.”

But Lola’s apprehensions had been stirred. Time only added to her difficulties and the secrecy which she and Dick had imposed upon themselves became almost unbearable. It seemed incredible to her that she, the heiress to an enormous fortune, should be doing two shows a day and dressing on her trunk. It was a fantastic situation. Her entire mental attitude was changing as completely as her concept of values had changed. The circus, once so real, so important to her, was beginning to look cheap, tawdry, and artificial. Even the people in whom she used to confide were strange.

Daily, hourly, she made new plans for herself and Dick, each finer than the one that preceded it. Sell Bruce Hall? Never. One horse? Why, she could afford a hundred. If only she and her husband could shake off this insufferable circus they could travel, see the world, do whatever they pleased. Three million dollars! Why, Jim Larkin’s bull herd couldn’t haul that amount of money.

Unceasingly, she implored Dick to give up this mode of life, sell the show, and make her happy.

“Very well,” he said finally. “I’ll do it. I’ve no right to stand between you and your wishes. But I’m not going to live off your money. I’m not going to be a kept man.”

When the show reached Dallas, he sold it to a syndicate

Chapter 17

THE RESIDENTS of Medwick, especially near neighbors of the late Donald Bruce, were more than curious to meet the new owners of Bruce Hall. Most of them were descendants from well-to-do families which had settled there during Colonial days. Like Mr. Bruce, they were conservative and firmly set in their ways. They were so wedded to their traditions, so well pleased with their mode of life, that they resisted change and resented the coming of strangers who might not measure up to their exacting standards.

Visitors to Medwick used to say that these older families were more British than their ancestors. This was due, no doubt, to a peculiarly clannish community sentiment, based on inherited ideas of social fitness. Furthermore, these people lived lives of leisure and although the breeding of fine horses in which they engaged was often a profitable business indeed, they did not consider themselves to be in trade. It was their belief that a country gentleman’s social standing, as well as his security, depended as much upon the quality of his blooded stock as upon his gilt-edged investments. Medwick was a thoroughly “horsey” community; everyone rode to hounds. They raced their thoroughbreds and the annual Medwick Fair and Livestock Show was an event of more than state-wide importance. The Medwick Hunt Club was an institution famous throughout the mid-South; Medwick jumpers were renowned and they brought high prices.

The club, one of the most exclusive anywhere, was run in accordance with rules laid down by its founders. During the season weekly breakfasts were held at the larger estates; once a year, there was a brilliant and colorful Hunt Ball to which were invited distinguished visitors from far and near.

To the club members, who comprised only the “nicer” people of the neighborhood, news that old Donald Bruce’s fortune had been inherited by a circus bareback rider came as something of a bombshell, for it posed a problem with which they were unprepared to deal. Mr. Bruce had been a life member of the Hunt Club and, as such, his membership automatically went to his next of kin. This provision had been written into its constitution by the canny founders in a farsighted effort to safeguard the character, the purpose, and the social integrity of the institution. Usually the next of kin of the members had been respected and respectable sons and daughters, none of whom, needless to say, had been a bare-back rider.

When the news arrived it was Mrs. James Bridgewater, the outspoken arbiter of the neighborhood, who said, “This is like waking up to find a couple of strangers occupying one’s guest room. Or should I say, finding them in bed with one.”

That rather accurately reflected the general consternation. In spite of numerous suggestions, however, it seemed evident that if the unique Mr. and Mrs. Banning intended to live in Bruce Hall there was no way to deny them the privileges of membership in the club. That did not satisfy Mrs. Bridgewater. She explained that the younger Bruce brother, Lola’s father, had been a ne’er-do-well and anything but a credit to his name. His daughter might be a personable young woman; nevertheless she had been denied the advantages which would have fitted her for life in a community like Medwick. About her husband, nothing was known except that he had officiated as ringmaster in his own circus. They could scarcely be people whom one would wish to invite into one’s home. The dowager opined that they would probably not find their surroundings here in Medwick such as to induce them to remain very long. “After all,” said she, “that may be the happiest solution.” As to her own attitude, she made it plain that she would have as little as possible to do with the newcomers.

Dick and his bride gained an inkling of the Medwick state of mind from Mr. Busby even before they arrived at their new home. “It’s a peculiar community,” said the lawyer. “The older families are slow to make friends with strangers.”

“I know what they’re like,” Lola told him. “Father described them all. My being in Bruce Hall is enough to make Uncle Donald turn in his grave, and those old frumps are probably squirming in their corsets. Well, with three million dollars I can be as hard to know as the Bridgewaters, the Comptons, and the Knights.”

To this, Dick agreed. “I’m not sure we will like Medwick any better than Medwick may like us—in fact, I’m prepared to hate everything about the place and the people, too. Meanwhile, of course, Lola is as curious as I am to see Bruce Hall and to pass judgment on it.”

Bride and groom were in for an agreeable surprise when they arrived. Their new home was lovely. Neither Lola nor Dick ever forgot the experience of making its acquaintance. It was like a storybook adventure in which they had to ask themselves whether they were awake or under the spell of some enchantment. Bruce Hall was a handsome old house of Georgian architecture. It enjoyed a charming view over the gently rolling fields and woodlands of Maryland. Its high chimneys were capped with whirling Liverpool jacks, its windows overlooked green lawns and a formal garden, set inside walls of English yew. Those windows, standing open to the summer air, were like friendly arms outstretched in welcome. Virginia creepers clung to the brick walls and birds nested there. Over the main entrance grew an enormous wisteria, in full bloom when they arrived, and the beauty of those massed lavender pendants was breath-taking. No house with such an exterior, with such an entrance, could be cold or forbidding.

Inside the main hall several servants were waiting. These Mr. Busby presented with a flourish. Following this prearranged ceremony, he conducted the new owners through the entire establishment.

“Everything is in order, even to a complete inventory of the silver, rugs, paintings, bronzes, and bric-è-brac. Bruce Hall is ready for your immediate occupancy. The servants will stay on if you wish to keep them and—dinner will be served at eight. Now, Mrs. Banning, do you like it?”

Lola shook her head. “No, I love it! I don’t want to live here; I want to live and die here. Now let’s go look at the barns and the horses.”

Donald Bruce had spared no expense in planning and developing this home. He had made use of the best architectural assistance obtainable. Greenhouse, stables, carriage house, and farm buildings were suitably grouped and conveniently arranged. Here indeed was a country gentleman’s estate, complete in every detail.

The Hall had overwhelmed Lola and her tour of inspection ended at the stables, so while Busby and her husband moved on she remained behind to make friends with the horses. The stableman was showing off a promising colt when Lola heard a crescendo of galloping hoof beats, and a moment later saw a mounted man come soaring over the nearest fence. It was a spectacular jump, presumably intended to impress her, for at once the rider reined in and flashed a wide smile at her.

“Welcome to Bruce Hall,” said he. “My name is Bridgewater. I’m one of your neighbors.”

“I know the name,” said Lola, “but how did you recognize me?”

Mr. Bridgewater was a tall, handsome young man with a small dark mustache and an air of complete self-assurance. Grinning more widely, he answered, “Stanley recognized Dr. Livingston, didn’t he? Well, Medwick is famous for its handsome horses but not for its beautiful women. You could not be anybody except Mrs. Banning.” Dismounting, he pointed to the fence he had just cleared and said, “That was a nice jump, wasn’t it? Well, I’m a show-off. I’ve been longing for a second chance to introduce myself.”

“A second chance?”

“I tried to meet you last year but a large man with hairy arms threatened to bend me around the center pole. He called me several names which I refrain from repeating.”

“Then you saw the show?”

“In Charleston. And you were such a treat for these tired old eyes that I headed for those regions reserved for members of the troupe. That’s how I came to meet the man I just mentioned. He was so forccful that I swallowed my frustration with what grace I could manage. But I’ve never been the same.”

Mr. Bridgewater’s admiration, it seemed, had not diminished. He gazed at Lola with overt appreciation. “Of course I didn’t dream then that you were a Medwick Bruce or I would have presented myself more formally. In fact, when it became known that you had inherited this place I couldn’t believe my ears.”

“Yes, that news must have created a sensation. My father told me a lot about Medwick and I’ve learned more from Mr. Busby. I’ve an idea that you can educate me still further. Let’s go into the harness room and sit down. There are a good many things I want to know.”

He followed her with alacrity.

* * * * * * * * *

That night, as Lola and Dick were preparing for bed, she asked, “Now that we’re alone, what do you think of it?”

“I’m rather stunned,” he confessed. Then with a frown, “I’m beginning to realize what it means to be the husband of a rich woman. Do you really like the place well enough to live here?”

“It’s everything I dreamed about.”

“But one can’t be contented just living in a fine house. We must have friends and neighbors.”

“We’ll have all the friends we want and we’ll pick ’em,” Lola declared. After a moment, she said, “We had our first caller this afternoon, Mr. James Boynton Bridgewater the Second. He’s known to the neighborhood as ‘Boy’ and he’s a handsome, headstrong young stallion. In a community like this, he should command a high stud fee, only he has a bad habit of jumping the fences.”

“What is he like?”

“He’s a testimonial to his mother’s outstanding ability. Starting with a perfectly good silk purse, she made it into a sow’s ear. He’s a refreshingly honest and unconscious snob but if he’s typical of the ruling class I’m going to lick this town with one hand.”

“Which is to say—what?” Dick inquired.

“I’ll do everything Medwick does, and do it better. I’ll buy and breed better horses, I’ll win every prize they offer, I’ll outride and outjump the best of them and I’ll run their little foxes until they sweat. I’m going to heave big parties and spend money like water, but I’ll do it in a sweet and girlish way. I’ll be the gay, impulsive, lovable child and the men will adore me. They always do. The younger women will come around when they discover that I’m in love with my own husband. When the dry doe dowagers throw up their heads and widen their nostrils I’ll glare them down. I’m going to begin by putting a stained-glass window in the church to the memory of dear sainted Uncle Donald, then I’ll do his house over from top to bottom.”

“Why, it’s one of the finest anywhere around,” Dick protested.

“It’s good enough for Medwick, but not for us. Remember, we’re big circus folks. If we said we liked it, they’d say, ‘No wonder, it’s a palace for anyone of their sort.’ Well, I’m going to show them that nothing about Medwick is good enough for me. There’s only one way to impress self-satisfied people and that’s to make ’em blink.”

After a moment, Dick said slowly, “The money is yours to spend as you see fit.”

“And I’ll spend it,” Lola declared, “but I’m no fool and I know what it will take to put this act over. You had advantages; I had none. Well, I don’t propose to be laughed at by anybody. I’ve got to learn a lot—and quickly. You’ll help me, won’t you, darling?”

“Of course,” he promised. “I’ll do anything to make you happy.”

Lola rose and came toward him with arms outstretched.

During the next few weeks, the Bannings saw little of their neighbors, outside of Boy Bridgewater. Those few who called did not wholly agree as to the newcomers. According to the women, Mr. Banning was a cultured, charming gentleman, his wife was cool but distant, she had little to say. Their husbands had much to say about her, however; they agreed unanimously that no matter how exciting her past may have been her presence was more so to them. As individuals, they were ready to welcome her with open arms. What amazed visitors of both sexes was the extreme youth of the couple. In spite of that, Mr. and Mrs. Banning knew exactly what they wanted and they didn’t count the cost of getting it. They were making plans to rebuild Bruce Hall, and pending completion of that undertaking they had arranged to travel.

Dick and Lola’s real honeymoon began in New York. There, while she engaged in an orgy of spending, he occupied himself in analyzing and rearranging her investments, a task which he took seriously. It brought him into contact with banking houses and the men who ran them; he made acquaintances in Wall Street and he began to appreciate the responsibilities and the perplexities involved in safeguarding great wealth. Here was something he could really get his teeth into. He had a quick mind, he was well informed, and the men whose advice he sought confessed that in spite of his youth they got as much from him as he got from them. Their respect was gratifying.

Dick laughed a good deal those days for he was in love and in the midst of a new adventure. Lola’s burst of extravagance gave him no concern whatever; in fact, he encouraged her to fling her money broadcast. Approving her taste in clothes and jewelry, he urged her to make the most of her youthful beauty. She could afford the thrill of reckless spending and it was the due of any creature as exquisite as she. Likewise it thrilled him to be the partner of one so eager to taste the full flavor of life. More than that, she satisfied his every desire for companionship.

There were moments, to be sure, when he vaguely regretted that she provided little intellectual stimulus but this was forgotten when he held her close and felt her lips upon his. After all, he reasoned, marriage is a relationship as imperfect as the people it unites. His bride was a bundle of turbulent impulses, both earthy and exalted, and thank heaven, he had the power to awaken them. She was a normal, healthy young animal; she suffered no inhibitions; there were no dark memories to plague her.

That was a delightful interlude, but he realized even then that neither he nor his bride had met the real problems of living together and this knowledge brought some misgivings. Already Lola had changed greatly. He asked himself how he could ever settle down and become a country gentleman.

The Bannings sailed for Europe in the finest suite of the largest Cunarder. In London they spent a few weeks in sightseeing and denied themselves nothing. Then Lola surprised her husband by saying:

“Well, I’ve seen Buckingham Palace, the Tower of London, the new high school, and the Elks Club. It’s time I got to work.”

“Work?” he inquired.

With a vigorous nod of her bright head, his bride announced, “I didn’t come over here just for the ride. I have a job to do and I want you to hire me a busted duchess who’d like to pick up some pin money, I’ll settle for a countess if she knows her flat silver and can teach me how to pour. But I don’t want any phony who merely married into the peerage. I want a thoroughbred who can give me a quick coat of varnish and rub it down to a piano polish.”

“Are you serious?”

“I never meant anything more except when I said yes to you. I’m not going back to Medwick until I can outsnoot the snootiest of those women. You see all I know is what I picked up on the gallop, but I’m smarter than a barrel of mustard, and it won’t take me long to learn how to be just as nice and just as nasty as anybody.”

“I like you pretty well as you are,” Dick protested. “You’re frank and honest—”

“Good Lord! This is all an act and I’m putting it on as much for you as for myself. Father filled me so full of Medwick that I seem to belong there so it galled me to kick sawdust when my feet were itching for velvet carpets. I used to imagine my wash-up bucket was an onyx basin with silver fixtures. The Dumont girl who dressed on the trunk next to me was my French maid. You remember the Daring Dumonts?”

“Certainly. Sig, Millie, and Mons. Monarchs of the High Wire. ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, this is the most hazardous, breath-taking act in show business for the Daring Dumonts work without a net.’ ”

“Well, I used to hand Millie my tights and say, ‘Mademoiselle, have this gown pressed immediately. I’m expecting the Bridgewaters for dinner.’ Of course I didn’t say it out loud or Millie would have had my tonsils. Yes, I played games like that—always about being rich and getting even with Medwick. Then the miracle happened. I’m still afraid to pinch myself, and I’m not going to let anything happen to spoil my dream. I know what those old midwives are saying about me. A circus brat! She probably eats with her knife and blows on her coffee. A bareback rider! She wore tights and threw kisses—All right! Before I’m finished, I’ll make them kiss my bare back—”

“Mrs. Banning!”

Lola’s stormy face lightened; it broke into a smile. Rising, she flung herself upon Dick’s lap and hugged him gleefully. “Darling!” she cried. “Isn’t it wonderful to be rich, vulgar, and vindictive?”

Chapter 18

LOLA’S DETERMINATION to discharge with credit the obligations she had inherited was so sincere that Dick could not ignore it. Accordingly he made inquiries for some Englishwoman of refinement who would consent to travel for a while with an American couple. He found precisely the companion Lola was looking for in the person of Lady Kelton, an elderly gentlewoman whose husband had left her poorly provided for.

Lola frankly told Lady Kelton who and what she was, and then explained the problem that confronted her. Intrigued by the story and vastly impressed by the younger woman’s courage and ambition, Lady Kelton promised her full cooperation. She became the Bannings’ guest and something more; she accompanied them wherever they went.

Lola proved to be an apt and eager pupil. She was as observant as a hawk and as greedy to make the most of her present opportunities. As a matter of fact, she was so completely preoccupied by this, her latest enthusiasm, that Dick saw less and less of her as time went by. He began to wonder how long this odd three-handed honeymoon was likely to continue.

Thanks to Lady Kelton, the Bannings met a number of charming people and were asked to stay in some of England’s stately homes. Lola was simple, unaffected; she made friends and Dick was astonished at the rapidity with which she adapted herself to her new environment. After a while, the trio made a leisurely tour of the Continent. Time hung rather heavily upon his hands, so he yielded to an unformed urge that had often plagued him and tried his hand at writing. Being wholly without conceit, he found the results disappointing and he said nothing about it to his wife.

It was in Paris, on their way back to England, that he and Lola had their first quarrel. Oddly enough, they clashed about something each had vowed would never come between them. With characteristic suddenness, Lola had wearied of her schooling and without warning went on another spending spree, This time she bought furniture and household decorations and inasmuch as Bruce Hall was already overfurnished Dick questioned the wisdom of her extravagance.

Lola was irritated; sharply she reminded him that the money was hers and that she proposed to spend it as she saw fit.

“Correct,” he agreed. “But where will you put a complete set of boiseries even if it once belonged to Marie Antoinette—which it probably didn’t. What’s more, the price is ridiculous.”

“I like to be overcharged,” Lola said. “I like to overtip, too. It makes me realize who I am.”

Gravely he nodded. “It makes me realize the same thing and that’s something to swallow. I’m paying the expenses of our trip and I intend to foot the bills at Bruce Hall. But I can’t do it if you keep up this pace.”

“Nobody asked you to foot my bills,” Lola told him.

“All the same, I can’t allow a woman to support me.”

“Since when?” she snapped. “Isn’t my money as good as Madame Rondo’s? I never asked you any questions about her, but I’ve thought a good deal and I haven’t forgotten what young Adams had to say. Well, that’s your business. This spending spree is mine. If I don’t like that French paneling, I’ll give it to the stableman. Save your pennies if you want to. I’m going to spend mine any way I damn please.”

Dick’s face had whitened. “Thanks for putting me in my place,” he managed to say. “I was afraid it would come to this.”

Taking his hat, he left the room, and it was dinnertime when he returned to the hotel.

Lola’s outbursts of temper were short-lived and already she had forgotten this one, but it had awakened memories in her husband; it had started a chain of thought to which he could not put an end.

That night, something strange occurred. It was unexpected, unpleasant, and vaguely alarming. Out of a sound sleep, Dick awoke with the odd conviction that an intruder was present. The hotel room, dimly lit by the illumination from the avenue below, seemed empty. Yet he was in a cold sweat and his heart was racing. Finally he realized that an odor, not a presence, had awakened him—the scent of that rank, venereal perfume used by Angela Rondo. Several times during his early acquaintance with Lola he had been plagued by a similar fancy, but tonight the odor was stronger, more persistent than ever before; it was so real, in fact, that he could not believe his imagination had gone on a rampage. No. He felt the woman must be in the room. Yes, in the very bed with him! That was her dark head upon the pillow next to his. Her hot breath was on his cheek.

These impressions rushed upon him during the interval between sleep and wakefulness. They came with such terrifying impact that he leaped out of bed. Lola stirred, groped for the light switch, and turned it, then she discovered him staring at her. In answer to her startled query, he mumbled something and his expression changed. He seated himself and took his head between his hands. She saw that he was shaking.

“Nightmare,” he said. “It was very real.”

It took him some time to regain his composure. When the light was out and Lola close to him, another tremor seized him. When he was sure she was asleep, he withdrew himself to the edge of the bed and stared into the gloom. That musky scent no longer troubled him, but he shrank from contact with his bride, for he could not help feeling that her body, like Angela Rondo’s, would be soft and flabby to his touch.

This was absurd; worse than that, it was alarming. Suppose this fancy recurred, became fixed? So, too, would his feeling of physical revulsion. Was he unbalanced? Was he losing his mind? What did it mean to “lose” one’s mind? He had never felt saner. Nevertheless his whole nervous system was in a state of shock. But why? Lola’s flare-up had put him on edge, to be sure. He was restless, bored. For the first time in his life, he was utterly unoccupied. But that was reaching too far for an explanation. More likely, there was some truth in the common belief that immature minds can be overtaxed. It discouraged him gravely to ponder that possibility.

In the days that followed, he felt an increasing eagerness to return home and get busy at something, but what was there for him to do when he did return? He could find no answer to that question.

* * * * * * * * * *

Bruce Hall was a revelation to its owners when they returned. Architects, decorators, and artisans had done a thorough job and the mansion had changed its appearance both inside and out, although Dick did not altogether approve of the alterations, and the house now reminded him of a handsome, stately woman whose vanity had induced her to undergo a useless face-lifting. Lola was delighted. After an hour or more spent in examining the premises, Dick left his wife and wandered toward the farm buildings to renew his acquaintance with the horses.

As he entered the long stable, he heard the thin notes of a violin. In astonishment, he paused, then his heart leaped. That must be—it was Jim Larkin’s fiddle. Jimmy the Lark! Who else would be making music in a place like this? Horse music, bull music.

“Jim!” he shouted and hurried forward.

Larkin arose from a bale of hay, the two men shook hands; they swore fondly at each other and exchanged incoherent greetings.

“This is good. This is worth coming home for,” Dick declared. “What are you doing here? When did you arrive?”

“I’m working here. I’m your new horse trainer. Or—am I?”

“Why, Lola didn’t say a word—”

“She doesn’t know.”

For an instant, there was silence; then, “What about the circus and Big Susie and the bulls?”

“I hated to leave ’em but a man has to see his buddy. Besides I was laying up so much money that I felt insecure. Yeah, a guy gets tired of flapping his ears and talking through his trunk. I got hungry for you and Lola. Now, tell me about yourself.”

With a faint smile, Dick said, “I’ve taken up the violin. I’m learning to play second fiddle.”

Larkin shot a quick glance at him. “Not so easy for a soloist. But Lola is a good kid.”

“The best in the world. However, I don’t think I’m cut out to carry a crop, wear riding boots and clover leaf breeches for the rest of my life. As the husband of a rich woman, I’m afraid I’ll be a failure. I’m thinking about the law.”

“Fine! That should please Lola.”

“I dare say it will when I tell her about it.”

Larkin let his gaze rove before exclaiming, “I fell in love with this place so I just settled down until you and she got back. I can do a lot with these horses, Dick. In fact I’ve made a start. All this farm needs is a good breeder and trainer.”

“And I know what you can accomplish with animals. This isn’t my show, Jim. I’m not even ringmaster, but come up to the house and we’ll talk to Lola. I know she’ll be delighted to see you.”

Lola was more than delighted. At sight of Jim, she screamed his name and flung herself into his arms. A moment, then she cried, “My God! How good you smell!”

“He has been here three weeks,” Dick explained. “Already, the colts climb into his lap. He says some of them will make sure winners with proper handling. I’m urging him to stay and take charge of them.”

“Oh, Jim! Please do,” Lola begged. “I’m crazy to have the best thoroughbreds in the state. I’ve got to do it and you’re the man I need. I’ll help you. We’ll work together. We’ll have fun. You train them, I’ll ride them.”

“And I’ll rub ’em down,” Dick laughed.

So it was that the Lark came to live at Bruce Hall.

The youthful mistress of the estate proved herself to be an accomplished sportswoman but an indifferent housekeeper. Having altered the appearance of the mansion to suit her imperious liking, she surrendered the running of it to her servants. Over them, she exercised a fitful supervision. Her control was firm but erratic. One day she was overindulgent and too easily pleased, the next, she was overexacting and short-tempered. In spite of this, she got along with them and they grew fond of her for she was generous, sympathetic, and winsome. These qualities were natural, they were her own; still others she had acquired from her English monitor and of these she made deliberate use.

Once life at the Hall had settled down and had assumed something of a pattern, most of Lola’s time was spent outdoors. Usually she could be found in or around the stables and paddock. She rode, she drove, she trained and exercised her thoroughbreds. She made a serious study of breeding. Jim Larkin actually saw more of her than did her husband.

Realizing in due time that he played no vital role in this arrangement, Dick set out to create one for himself and accordingly bought a partnership in the law practice of Medwick’s oldest attorney, Judge Peebles. As an investment, it offered a modest return. Although he still had more leisure time than he wished, nevertheless he felt more at ease with himself than he had for some time past.

Lola’s prophecy that she could win acceptance, from the younger set proved correct. By careful planning and diligent effort, she made friends of some; others were mere toadies who went in the direction they were led. In this campaign to establish a position for herself, Lola was greatly aided by Boy Bridgewater, who lent himself enthusiastically to her plans. That outspoken and impulsive young man made no secret of his liking for the Bannings. His admiration for Dick was unbounded; Lola, he declared, was the most glamorous creature in the world, his light-o’-love and the one great sorrow of his life. He always referred to her with a braying laugh as the next Mrs. Bridgewater. He was juvenile, brash, and tiresome, at the same time good humored, obliging, and devoted. It was impossible to offend him and he was incapable of feeling resentment. Medwick treated him like a playful colt, asserting that he was slow to grow up. Nevertheless he did carry some weight and Lola made the most of it.

As to the elders of the community, friend or foe, she made no advances whatever in their direction. They soon discovered, however, that she had a wicked temper, a venomous tongue, and a low boiling point. She was easily angered and quick to snatch her tomahawk and feathered headdress. Once she had started a war dance, her fury fed upon itself. This willingness to accept any challenge and the savage abandon with which she flung herself into an attack, upset matrons of Mrs. Bridgewater’s type. They learned there was more profit in prodding a wasp’s nest than in irritating the irascible ex-bareback rider.

The time came when the Bannings had a sizable circle of friends. They entertained, they went out a good deal, they rode to hounds, they attended fairs, horse shows, race meets, and club functions. Things were much to Lola’s liking.

Dick was not so well pleased. Few of his new acquaintances interested him; fox hunting was a bore, and he heard so much horse talk that it sickened him. His law practice led nowhere in particular and it failed utterly to quell the restlessness that possessed him. For the first time in a long while, he felt much as he had felt when he left his father’s roof and set out with Jim Larkin on that long road over the high hills. The lure of adventure was still sweet and he dreamed of places he had never seen but he told himself that he was at anchor now and adventure must come unsought. However, there was one way in which he could travel far.

One evening after dinner, he said to Lola, “I have something I’d like to read to you.”

“‘Read? To me?” She was surprised, for she seldom opened a newspaper and she did not care at all for books. Hopefully, she asked, “Is it something about horses?”

“No. It’s a story, a circus story.”

“I don’t like stories. They’re silly and I’m trying to forget about circuses.”

“This is a story that I wrote.”

You—?” Lola was incredulous. “Why, darling!

“I’ve always wanted to write. I tried it even When I was in school. Then later, you remember the fun I had with those circus afterpieces?”

“Of course. They were good, too. But why on earth would you want to write now?”

“The law business doesn’t take all of my time and there’s nothing exciting about it,” he confessed. “There’s real excitement, however, in writing. I love to create, to build, to make something out of nothing. I imagine everybody has that desire.”

Lola gazed at him uncomprehendingly as he explained further, “You see I don’t fit in here. I’m not a horse breeder and you and Jim have things under control. I’ve been so active and so restless that—”

“But why waste time writing?” his wife broke in. “And why read it to me? I wouldn’t know whether it is good or bad. Furthermore, what difference does it make?”

“Writing must be a nice way to make a living. I’d like to be an author.”

“Good Lord!” Lola exclaimed.

“I don’t think I have any great gift of imagination and certainly I’m not a genius but I’ve been around, I’ve seen a good deal, and it’s something to be able to spin a story. If I can write in a way to hold your interest, I might interest others.”

“Go ahead,” Lola urged. “Let’s hear the thing.”

A half hour later, Dick looked up from his manuscript to find that his wife was asleep. She quickly roused herself when he ceased reading and apologized. “I’m tired. I’ve been out in the air all day and—I only dropped off for an instant. . . . What you read sounded good but of course I’m no critic.”

Smiling faintly, he declared, “On the contrary, you gave me an excellent criticism in the form of a dainty, feminine snore.”

“I did not! I don’t snore. Dick! What are you doing?”

He finished tearing up the typewritten sheets. “I guess I haven’t quite outgrown my short pants, but it sounded rather good until I read it aloud.”

Lola was thoroughly awake now. “I presume I’ve offended you and I apologize but, Dick, you can’t afford to write stories. You’re a person of consequence. We’re rich and we must think of our position in the community.”

“What does that have to do with writing?” he demanded.

“Well, you can’t write anything about gambling or the sporting world without raising the ghost of Ronnie Le Grand, and you wouldn’t care to do that. Neither can you write about circus life and circus people—not after the time I’ve had to bury the body. These Medwick buzzards would love to have you open that grave.”

“There are other things to write about.”

“Not for you, because you don’t know about them, darling, there’s no money in writing. Look at the newspapermen. They’re bums, all of them, even the editors. Practice law, go into business, play politics, be a crook if you must, but, for heaven’s sake, don’t lower yourself to the level of a penny-a-liner.”

He eyed her speculatively before saying, “You’re an odd person, Lola, and a source of constant envy to me. I presume that’s because you’re so completely normal and so true to type. I wish I were like you and could find a place that fitted me as perfectly as yours fits you. For that, I’d gladly take up burglary.”

Chapter 19

AS THE MONTHS passed, the Bannings were not the only occupants of Bruce Hall. Madame Rondo came to live with them. That, at least, was what Dick told himself. He never knew just when she arrived; in fact, he did not discover her presence until she had so securely established herself that there was no chance of getting her out.

It was the wildest sort of fancy on his part, of course, to invest her with any degree of reality or to credit her with such a capacity for evil; yet he could not rid himself of the conviction that she did indeed come and go at will and that she was bent upon utterly wrecking his married life.

After that visit in Paris, she had returned to plague him at intervals, usually when he was disturbed in mind or physically tired. Later, he noticed that she came during those emotional upheavals when he felt the urge to embrace his wife, or while he and Lola were actually locked in each other’s arms. Sometimes, she seemed merely to fawn upon him, caressing him with soft, detaining hands as she had done on that dreadful night in New Orleans. On other occasions she went even further, and there were times when she seemed to creep into the bed between Lola’s body and his.

He knew little of the new theories of psychoanalysis, but he realized he had a sick mind which needed attention of some sort. However, when, flushed and incoherent, he recited his story to his physician, the latter prescribed quinine and a trip to Saratoga and told him to forget it.

Forget indeed! The real Angela Rondo had attacked him savagely enough but he had beaten her off. This shadow woman, this nocturnal visitor, was more cunning, more persistent, more deadly. She did not attack in the open; she struck from ambush and there was no way of stopping her. Medical science then saw no reality in shadows. It dealt only with flesh, blood, and bone.

It was not long before Lola felt the presence of their unseen guest. She was a self-centered, possessive, jealous woman and as normal physically as any thoroughbred on the farm; hence she was quick to note the change in her husband’s intimate behavior. To her, it meant but one thing: his love had cooled, he had found another woman. Denials were futile; explanations were useless. Suspicions, accusations, threats, recriminations—Dick grew deadly tired of them. Quarrels became more frequent, reconciliations grew harder, and yet he could not blame Lola; she would have been less than a wife had she behaved otherwise.

All this, of course, did not come about in a day. For weeks at a time, the Bannings got along beautifully and were more devoted than they would have been had their lives been less turbulent. Then there were intervals during which they barely spoke to each other. On such occasions, Dick felt certain that Madame Rondo, in her place of concealment, was smiling darkly.

The climax to this wretched state of affairs came unexpectedly, and it was provoked not by Lola’s jealousy or resentment but by her pride in her husband.

Having established for herself a position of sorts by galloping over those who stood in her path, she was determined to better it in every way possible. In the Medwick Hunt Club, master of hounds was a title of distinction bestowed not upon the best horseman or the most experienced fox hunter, but upon one of a few favored members of the community whose family history was the most distinguished. Some had never been good riders; others had grown as stiff in body as in pride. This custom of honoring the stuffiest old fuss-budgets in the club struck Lola as an utter absurdity: she maintained that a master of hounds should be exactly what his title implied, a masterful hunter. He should lead the chase, not bring up the rear. Dick was young and dashing; he could ride like an Apache and the hounds had to hurry to keep out of his way. Could anybody name a better candidate?

The very suggestion of changing a time-honored club custom was almost shocking. Coming from the impetuous Mrs. Banning, it left some of her listeners pale and incoherent. When they told her that it was contrary to tradition to bestow this signal honor upon a—well, a comparative stranger to the community, Lola decided to fix that. Having hurdled other obstacles in her path, she decided to jump this one.

She went to work with her accustomed forcefulness and vigor and soon, quite unknown to Dick, he became a sort of burning issue among the club membership. There were some, like Boy Bridgewater, who were enthusiastically in favor of Lola’s suggestion; others were scandalized. Boy, of course, would have supported Dick as a candidate for governor, not only of the Medwick Club but even the state of Maryland.

Failing to soften the opposition she had stirred up, Lola decided angrily to give these tight-girdled, short-winded tradition worshipers a dose of what they needed. Accordingly, she sent to Baltimore for several expert photographers and gave them explicit instructions. During the next few fox hunts, these men, concealed behind walls and hedges, busied themselves in taking action pictures of prominent Medwick Club members, both male and female, as they followed their favorite sport. The result was a collection of photographs among which were many which Lola and Boy gleefully declared were priceless. They were indeed, and the subjects would have paid handsomely for their suppression. With merciless candor and in painful detail, those pictures revealed practically everything that should never happen to any equestrian, male or female. Every kind of mishap was recorded and, in a horsey community of this sort, each was an embarrassment, a libel, an invitation to blackmail. Along with these examples of atrocious horsemanship were shots of Dick clearing the same jumps in perfect form.

Lola had these negatives enlarged and the prints hand colored. Each was expensively framed. She and Boy were hanging them in the paneled game room when Dick walked in upon them.

“What on earth—?” he began, then eyed the collection with mingled astonishment and consternation.

From his high seat on the stepladder, Boy uttered his mirthless laugh. “Wait until news of this art collection spreads; you’ll have callers who haven’t been inside Bruce Hall since your Uncle Donald died.”

“We could be sued. Why, those are awful!”

Lola nodded, complacently. “Aren’t they? We’re having quite a crowd for dinner tonight. I thought we’d have a formal opening.”

“You’re joking. Why, some of those people, or at least their relatives, are coming.”

“That’s why I asked Boy to help me get them up. But, believe me, it’s no joke. You see I’m so wild about hunting and so mad about the Medwick Club that I’ve decided to fill Bruce Hall with jumping pictures. Why not? I breed ’em and sell ’em.”

“Sure! It’s her love of horses,” brayed young Bridgewater. “My God, Dick, she kills me!”

“You probably don’t know that I asked in a nice way to have you made master of hounds. Well, you’d think I’d ridden a horse into church.”

“I don’t want—”

“It’s an honor that should go to a young man and you deserve it. To hell with tradition, I say! But no! It couldn’t be done. Those turtles just pulled their heads in and closed up. When they hear about my art collection, maybe they’ll decide—”

“I don’t want to be master of hounds,” Dick declared.

“I know. But I want you to be.”

“And so that settles it?” Of a sudden, Dick lost control of himself and almost shouted, “Take those damned things down!”

“I’ll do no such thing,” his wife cried. “I have some pride, if you haven’t. We’ve subscribed a small fortune to club charities and the like. Nobody can trample on me. I know how to let the wind out of those old balloons.”

Without a word, Dick seized the nearest portrait and smashed both glass and frame against the wall, then reached for another. Lola stormed insanely at him, she tried to intervene, but he brushed her aside. Meanwhile her assistant, her accomplice in bad taste, slid down from his perch and vanished.

The fortnight that followed was trying to both husband and wife; then Dick received a shock from which it took him several days to recover. After some indecision, he finally told Lola, “I presume you know I saw you kissing Boy Bridgewater the other night.”

“You saw—what?” Lola started guiltily.

“I merely want you to know so that you won’t have to contrive another exhibition for my benefit.”

After an instant, she said, “My God, you’re conceited!”

He shook his head. “I know you too well to think that you’d fall for a jackass.”

“And why shouldn’t I have an affair with him? You have yours.”

“Even if you cared for him, you wouldn’t go that far. No, not even to spite me. It would be playing into the hands of the people you hate. You’re too ambitious and too well pleased with yourself to sacrifice everything you’ve won.”

“He’s young and handsome; he adores me. Women can lose their heads, especially women whose husbands neglect them.”

“Not you. That imbecile couldn’t keep a secret, and you know it as well as I do. No, your selfishness, your ego, your ambition is a chastity belt which would enable me to put on my armor and join the Crusaders—”

“Stop talking like a professor,” Lola snapped. “Again I say as long as you have outside interests, I’m free to do as I please.”

“We’ve covered that before,” he said without heat. “Now for an overworked expression. After all, I am your husband.”

Lola took fire at this. “No. You were a husband for a while, then for some reason you grew tired of me.”

“That’s not true.”

“Oh! I suppose I’m the one who changed? I cooled off! Who shuddered and jumped out of bed? Don’t make me laugh. I’m just as pretty as I ever was, I’m a beautiful woman. I want to be loved, I intend to be loved if I can. I’m real, I’m solid. I’ve never looked at another man. But you—you’re just a god-damned cheater.”

She had whipped herself into a frenzy and Dick could not have made himself understood if he had tried to speak. More than once Lola had raved at him like this, but never before had her passions seemed so deeply stirred. He held his tongue while she ran on. When at last she had exhausted herself, he asked how he could make amends for the unhappiness he had caused. Their marriage certainly was not a success; what did she wish him to do?

It was her turn to fall silent. She sat like a stone while he said, “I cared a great deal for you, Lola, and I thought I could mold my life to fit yours. I really tried to do so, but I doubt if lives can be deliberately shaped. They must form their own patterns. Actually I’ve had little to do with shaping mine, but I can avoid further injury to yours and that I shall do. Perhaps we’ve seen too much of each other; perhaps if I go away for a while—”

“Separate?”

“You can decide that later. I’ve kept your financial affairs in order and in that respect at least you are none the worse for knowing me. Actually, you have more money now than when I took charge of your investments. I still have a few dollars of my own, so don’t waste a thought on me. I’ll merely close my office and—travel for a while. If you want a divorce, I’ll follow your instructions but, anyway,” he smiled faintly, “people will never blame you. If it’s true that no beautiful woman can enjoy a happy married life until she has been unhappily married at least once, then perhaps I have contributed something to your future contentment.”

“Where are you going?” Lola asked in a small voice, then as he shrugged indifferently, “Back to Madame Rondo?”

When Dick answered, his voice was tired. “No. But wherever I go, I dare say I’ll run into her. She’s the kind of woman who gets around.”

Jim Larkin’s rooms were over the carriage house and during his last evening at home Dick dropped in there. The two men spoke of this and that until the Lark said, “Lola tells me the trip is over.”

“I’m glad she broke the news.”

“Too bad, I love it here. I’ll hate to leave.”

“You mustn't leave, Jim. It would be fine to hit the road again, just you and I and the violin—with a deck of cards, perhaps, but she needs you. This is a big place, she can’t handle it alone.”

“I know, but—”

"She can’t even handle herself. She’s a spoiled child, impulsive, generous, hot tempered. This place needs an older and a wiser head for a while.”

“All right, if you say so, but the two of us will be mighty restless. A couple of guys like us owe something to themselves as well as to—”

“Right! We’ll collect later. You see, it wasn’t Lola’s fault.”

“I knew there was trouble when she raved to me about another woman. I told her she was crazy.”

“She wasn’t raving, Jim, and she isn’t crazy, although perhaps I am. There is another woman. . . . At the last Medwick Fair, I had my fortune told. The gypsy warned me to beware of a dark woman and prophesied that I’d take a long journey. Well, it starts tomorrow. The dark woman I met in New Orleans. You remember the night.”

“Rondo! Is she making trouble again?” Jim roughly demanded.

“She is. This time she’s merely trying to drive me insane. She’s got me off balance and I’m not coming home to Lola until I’ve cured myself.”

Chapter 20

SIX MONTHS later Dick and Jimmy the Lark were reunited in Seattle. Dick’s travels through the West had been restless and not too happy, though he was healthy enough physically. He had done a few odd jobs, seen things, thought a lot, and tried his hand at writing once more.

“Lola told me where you were,” Jimmy said. “I felt my stretch was up and I could go, so I took my five dollars and a new suit of clothes. I kissed her and the colts good-by, and here I am.”

“How is Lola?” Dick asked.

“Same as ever, only more so. She’s the oddest crossbreed I ever knew, half thoroughbred and half vixen. She’s so foxy it’s a wonder the hounds don’t take after her. At that, she’s a good kid.”

“Is she going to divorce me?”

“And cut her anchor chain?” Jim shook his head. “You’re her bucking reins, Dick. She couldn’t stay in the saddle without you. Every man she knows wants to marry her, but she’s rich and she intends to spend her money in person. You were her one mistake, why risk another? No, Lola would rather be dead than broke. . . . Of course you could go back if you want to.”

“Nobody can really go back,” Dick said quietly.

“Well, what happens next?” the Lark inquired brightly. “I mean what are our plans?”

Smiling, Dick said, “I haven’t any for myself. I’m as free and undecided as I was that night when I came to your room and we cut the cards to see who would sleep on the floor. I intend to keep moving. Mexico is a good country, Central America, South America—what do you say?”

The Lark’s broad face lightened. “Why not cut the cards again? Let’s leave it to them.”

“Suits me.”

“It doesn’t matter where we go as long as we go together.”

“And we keep moving.”

“Yeah! I’d kind of like to see Rome again, while we’re at it,”

Dick shook his head. “You wouldn’t know the place; the old houses are all run down, they are practically in ruins.”

In silent contentment, the two friends rode uptown.

Dick had changed, as the Lark noted. Physically he was heavier, more solid, and he handled the heavy bags he carried as if they were stuffed with straw. His face seemed harder, more impassive; his eyes were bright but tired. They were the eyes of a man who slept too little.

At the hotel, a woman was registering just ahead of Dick and the Lark. Their attention was attracted first by her appearance and then by her voice. She was a handsome, shapely creature, tall, tawny, and browned by the sun. Her clothes were becoming but she did not seem to feel fully at ease in them. After eying her, Jim assured himself that she was an extremely ornamental centerpiece. When she spoke, he listened alertly. Dick did not appear to notice her.

The woman rode up in the elevator with the two friends, got off at the same floor, and went into the room next to Dick’s. Jim noticed that she eyed Dick curiously.

When he and the Lark were alone, the latter asked, “Are you permanently snow blind?”

Dick quietly smiled. “I saw her, I see everything. She’s the kind I enjoy knowing only by sight.”

In celebration of their reunion, the two dined fabulously that night, and returned to the hotel late. In the adjoining room, the deep-voiced woman evidently had callers. The sound of men’s voices penetrated the connecting door near which Dick sat, eating an apple. Examining it, he said, “These are marvelous. I never saw anything like them.”

“They’re something new. There’s only one place where they can be grown, that’s over east of the mountains. Farmers are moving in there so fast it’s almost like a gold stampede. I stopped off at Spokane to pick up a few dollars at Kelly pool and they told me about it,”

“Pool?”

“I’m a good shooter and they roll pretty for me. I won a nice stake the last time I was in New Orleans, too.”

“How much? Fifty thousand dollars in nickels and dimes?”

The Lark smiled and shook his head. “No fooling, I can really eat soup with a billiard cue. Lola sold a carload of colts and I took ’em down there. You wouldn’t know the town, Ronnie—I mean Dick. Gee, I often think of the kid I taught to discard three of a kind when necessary. You were a natural, the greatest cardplayer I ever knew. Well, there’s no more gambling in New Orleans.”

“That’s hard to believe.”

“The Law moved in and vice moved out—for a while, anyway. The old families finally realized that the city had a bad name so they took over. Among other things, they elected a governor who pledged himself to clean house—fellow named Rainey.”

“John Rainey?”

“That’s him. Isn’t he the man who wrung the river water out of you? Well, he did the same to those grifters. He really baptized that mob and held ’em under the water. McPhee couldn’t take it, neither could the other gamblers. Even Madame Rondo’s gone.”

“I can believe that,” Dick said. “She’s been following me around.”

“Lord! Is that old buzzard still roosting on your roof?”

His companion nodded. “Just as she did at Medwick. Just as she broke it up between Lola and me. She won’t let me take a real interest in any woman. The minute one begins to intrigue me, I—I smell that stinking perfume of hers. To me it’s like the reek of those open sewers in the red-light district; everything in me turns over.”

After a moment, the Lark said, “That must be hard to take.”

“It was. Especially since I know it’s nothing more than a mental condition. I did everything to occupy my mind during the last few months. I even shut myself up and did a lot of writing. I did quite a little pile of stories and plays. The stories I later threw in the stove, I gave the plays to a performer in one of the variety shows. They were rough and brawdy but people laughed.”

“Have you seen Rondo since the night of the big battle?” Dick shook his head. “I hear she’s a side-wheeler and walks with a cane. One arm is crooked, too, and her face is scarred. That’s what she got for trying to wreck the Yancey Adams show. She spent a fortune to beat John Rainey and when that failed, she sold out and—”

Dick’s attention was distracted by voices in the next room. They had suddenly risen to a pitch of anger. After a moment, he asked, “What were you just saying?”

“Rainey promised to rid the city of all crooks and Rondo didn’t wait for him to get around to her. She put the gypsy curse on everything in the state, sold out her interests, and went north—New York, I believe.”

“I’ve read almost no newspapers.”

Dick turned his head and leaned closer to the door at his shoulder; in the silence; both he and Jim heard their neighbor’s voice saying, “Get out, or you’ll wish you had.”

“Birdie! Drop that gunl”

An instant, then the woman’s voice came again, low and desperate. “Ed! Let go of me.”

Dick rose swiftly and tried the knob. It didn’t turn so, with his mouth close to the panel, he cried, sharply, “Stop that!” Backing away, he hunched himself, then like a football player, hurled his entire weight against the door. His shoulder struck it violently. It flew open and his momentum carried him into the next room.

The occupant of the room had three callers, all men, one of whom had backed her into a corner. From her hand he had just wrenched a revolver. His attitude was menacing, but whatever it may have been, Dick’s warning, followed by the splintering crash, had halted him. As a matter of fact, all four people were momentarily paralyzed by the sudden intrusion. In a moment the revolver changed hands for a second time; Dick seized it from the grasp of the woman’s assailant.

There was a confusion of voices above which the Lark shouted, saying, “Easy does it, suckers! Don’t start any trouble.”

As he spoke, he advanced close to one of the men, then unexpectedly upheaved his bulging abdomen and sent the fellow reeling. It was a maneuver employed by corpulent bouncers and was known as the “belly bump.” He turned toward the smallest and oldest of the trio, who demanded, “Who are you? What’s the meaning of this unprovoked—?”

“My name is Banning,” Dick said crisply. “You can give yours to the house detective.” He strode toward the wall telephone.

It was the woman who exclaimed, “Please don’t call the office. This is bad enough.”

Simultaneously, the man who had surrendered the gun made himself heard. With heat, he declared, “She’s my wife and I’ll thank you people to get the hell out of here.”

Again the elderly member of the trio spoke. “Let me do the talking, Ed. My name is Gold and we’ll all thank you to leave us. Mrs. Caldwell lost her temper but there is no need for you gentlemen to interfere. This is all a misunderstanding between man and wife.”

“I won’t thank them to leave, as long as you’re here,” Mrs. Caldwell asserted hotly. “I came here to meet Ed, not you. I might have known you’d put him up to something.”

Ignoring her words, Gold explained hurriedly to Dick, “I’m an attorney and I represent—”

“I’m a lawyer, myself,” the latter said shortly, “so that doesn’t recommend you. I overheard what was going on in here and I didn’t like it. I still don’t like it.”

“Neither do I,” Jim Larkin said; then addressing the woman, “I’d dearly love to throw ’em out.”

To this, the husband retorted angrily, “You’ll not throw me out—”

“No?”

“Ed,” his lawyer exclaimed in something of a panic. “No trouble! We’ll have the hotel in an uproar if this keeps up. Birdie wants us to leave, so let’s go. Come along, wouldn’t this look fine in the papers? Don’t be stubborn, you fool!”

“Better get out, all of you,” Dick directed, “It isn’t nice to threaten women. Remember we found you standing over your wife with a gun in your hand.”

“Ed! For God’s sake, come along.” Mr. Gold seized the husband by his arm and pulled him toward the hall door. “You can talk to Birdie when she’s cooled off.”

A moment later, Mrs. Caldwell turned the key behind the departing trio, then leaned weakly against the door.

“Thank God that’s over,” she gasped. “I—I hope you don’t take me for a gun woman. I never did such a thing before, but—I’ll explain why—” she closed her eyes momentarily.

“You don’t owe us any explanation whatever,” Dick told her. “Fortunately that isn’t a double door or I couldn’t have overheard your quarrel and I couldn’t have broken in. Now that you’re all right, we’ll leave you to get hold of yourself.”

It was the Lark who said, “I’ll fix that door so that it’ll do for tonight. Meanwhile, sit down, relax, take a deep breath and count ten, then let it out slowly—through the nose. Repeat and watch your pulse slow down. I do it when I bet on a horse race.”

“I didn’t intend to use that revolver. I thought I could frighten them but—Ed knew I was bluffing.” Mrs. Caldwell seated herself, then fixed her eyes upon Dick. “You told Gold that you’re a lawyer. Is that true?”

“Quite. But I haven’t worked at it lately.”

“Your room is burglarproof and practically airtight. See,” Jim told her. He closed the door and wedged a straight-backed chair under the knob. “Dick can explain to the hotel what happened to the lock.”

“Indeed? And what shall I say?”

“Don’t ask us. You’re the lawyer of the party.”

Mrs. Caldwell smiled gratefully. “Thanks to both of you for being so kind. I’m glad to know you’re close by; it gives me a feeling of security. I’m better now.”

Her two guests left, and she wedged the chair under the doorknob, according to the Lark’s instructions.

“She’s a fancy dish,” the latter remarked as he said good night to Dick. “And what a voice! It’s like a serenade. She could cuss me out and I’d enjoy the sound of it.”

As he composed himself for sleep, Dick wondered who Mrs. Caldwell was and what her trouble might be. He hoped that she could handle it without further help from him. She was precisely the sort of woman he could afford to know only by sight. Tall, tawny, strong, there was a simplicity and directness about her that was pleasing. It would be no trouble at all to make friends with her. . . . No trouble at all.

He was aroused by a discreet but persistent knocking. He was half way across the floor before he realized that it came not from the hall door but from the one opening into her room.

“Yes! What is it?” he asked.

“May I come in?”

“Of course. What’s wrong?”

“I must talk to you. I simply can’t stand it any longer.”

“Just a minute.” He slipped into coat, trousers, and bedroom slippers, then admitted her.

“This is awful to wake you up, but I’ve been pacing the floor until I’m half crazy. Look!” she extended a hand which shook. “I could scream.”

She was in negligee and he eyed her with some suspicion. This maneuver was a little too bold, too obvious, he thought. Women did things like this in the boom towns, but scarcely in Seattle. However, her agitation appeared to be genuine, and she ignored his invitation to be seated and moved about restlessly.

“You are a lawyer, aren’t you?”

“I am. Not a very good one, but—no worse than some others.”

“Something tells me you’re honest and that’s what I need; honest help, honest advice. This is business, understand? I’ll pay your fee, whatever it is.”

“Don’t think about that. There won’t be any fee for I’m not practicing my profession.”

“But you could, if you wanted to; you could be my lawyer. Please help me, Mr. Banning, for the more I try to decide what I should do, the more uncertain I become.”

“Haven’t you any friends here to whom you can turn?”

“None. You see I live over east of the mountains. I only came here to meet Ed. Please let me tell you about it.”

“Very well. Just imagine you are talking to your old family attorney, a benign old gentleman who has a way with his clients. He inspires their confidence and their nervous tension disappears. You begin by telling him where you live, who you are, and what ails that husband of yours beyond being on bad terms with a wife as lovely and charming as you. Frankly, Mrs. Caldwell, I don’t like Ed; I think he’s a rat.”

With an unaffected smile, the first he had seen on her face, the woman said, “Thanks. You do have a way with your clients. And you’re right about Ed; he’s utterly worthless. I should never have married him, but I felt so lost after my father died. I was young, too—”

“Let’s begin with your father. We’ll get to Ed later. You talk, I’ll listen, and don’t hurry. We have loads of time. In fact, my next appointment is for breakfast—perhaps you’ll join Jim Larkin and me.”

Mrs. Caldwell ignored the invitation and got directly into her story. She was not a ranch woman as Dick had suspected, although she did own a large tract of land in the Powder River Valley. It lay in the vast, then undeveloped area between the Coastal Range and the Continental Divide, a land of promise indeed. She had inherited the property from her father who had dreamed of dry farming it. That undertaking had failed, nor had he succeeded in putting the land to any profitable use, for irrigation costs were prohibitive. Mrs. Caldwell now ran a sportsman’s lodge which was patronized principally by trout fishermen; she derived some income also from a modest orchard planted alongside the stream. Pointing to the fruit plate on Dick’s table, she said, “Those apples must have come from over our way. It shows what can be done when you have water. That’s the catch in the whole fruit business.”

Ed Caldwell had turned out to be a loafer and they had separated recently. Birdie intended to divorce him. Without consulting her, he had undertaken to sell the property to Lew Gold. Gold was the most prosperous attorney in Indian Falls, the county seat, and a power in local politics. He was a shrewd, acquisitive person and was determined to own the Caldwell place. He had reiterated that determination as lately as this very night.

“Ed has no moral right to share in my property and he won’t have any legal right either when I divorce him. All the same, Gold is trying to crowd this deal through before the divorce is granted. I can’t figure why he wants that land. Most of it is no good. The price he offers is more than it’s worth but it wouldn’t support me, much less both Ed and me. Yes, and Lew isn’t interested in the house. He finally offered to let me keep it. He never bought anything for what it’s worth and I know he’s up to something.”

“Is there any mineral on the land?”

“Not that I know of.”

“Oil?”

“Nobody ever heard of oil in our country.”

Dick asked other questions, and his caller, now considerably more composed, answered them frankly. Dick, too, began to wonder why the Indian Falls attorney was so persistent in his efforts to buy the Caldwell land. It was peculiar, too, that the subject of apples had been raised. Odd, too, was the manner in which he had met Birdie Caldwell, in spite of his desire to avoid her. All this must be more than mere coincidence. He was drawn to her as strongly as she was drawn to him.

As she rose to go back to her own room, she said, “I’m glad now that I pulled that gun on Ed. If I hadn’t done it, I wouldn’t have met you. You will go back to Indian Falls with me, won’t you? Tomorrow. Promise?”

“I promise,” he said. “Gold can’t be so smart. I’ve an idea I can discover what he’s up to.”

‘“Remember, the size of your fee won’t matter; I don’t care what you charge, I’ll pay it gladly.” The speaker looked him squarely in the eyes and he felt his heartbeat quicken. With an effort, he held his voice steady and said, “There won’t be any fee. I’m at leisure and looking for something to do, some place to go. And so is Jim Larkin.”

Accustomed as he was to swift changes of plans and sharp turns in the road he followed, Dick knew this midnight meeting marked the beginning of new adventures.

Chapter 21

SUNSET LODGE was perched on the high bank of Powder River where that boisterous stream emerged from the foothills. It was a rambling, comfortable building, several times enlarged to meet the needs of the day, overlooking a broad, treeless valley, the level floor of which was almost as dry as the top of a stove. At an earlier age, the stream must have meandered across the surface of this valley floor but during the course of centuries it had dug for itself a deep channel and now it flowed through a canyon, walled in by gravel bluffs. The margin of the stream and the narrow bottom lands where it had pre-empted elbowroom for itself were fertile, and there small ranches and fruit farms had been developed. But the broad mesa high above was arid, inhospitable, and tenantless.

Birdie Caldwell drove Dick and Jim out from Indian Falls in her buckboard and put them up as her guests. This entire journey had come as a total surprise to the Lark who had gone to bed on the night before anticipating a sort of hobo’s holiday for himself and Dick. Now he had awakened to learn that their plans were completely changed. To what extent they had changed or in what new direction they now pointed was of small concern to Jim who was content once more to face the open road in company with his pal.

For a few days after their arrival Birdie and Dick rode horseback together or drove through the valley, stopping at ranches and talking with the owners. Then he returned to Indian Falls and took the train without telling either Jim or his hostess where he was bound.

While he was gone, the Lark made himself agreeable to Birdie and volunteered to relieve her of some of the burden of entertaining her other guests. It appeared to be only a gracious and friendly gesture. The truth is, however, that in making it Jim sharpened up the tools of his trade. He promoted a nightly card game in which he took part; he played pool with anyone who enjoyed that form of recreation. He even pitched horsehoes. At cards he held better than average hands; at the pool table he was sufficiently skillful to win small wagers and at quoits he tossed a surprising number of ringers. Even so he complained bitterly that he was only the shell of his former self, that lack of practice, failing eyesight, and arthritic pains had robbed him of his native cunning. However, once those visiting sportsmen were out on the stream in their waders and he had the poolroom to himself, he really put a razor edge to his principal talent. Then he appeared to take possession of the table; he overflowed it and simultaneously the balls came to life. They seemed to fall under the spell of his wizardry and like obedient prairie dogs, they obeyed his commands. They scurried from cushion to cushion, then with a figurative flirt of their tails dove into their burrows and disappeared.

When Dick returned from his journey, he brought with him a surveyor, and for the next several days the two roamed the neighborhood together. At the end of that time he told Birdie, “Well, I have an answer to the Gold mystery. I hadn’t been here an hour before I suspected that he had an irrigation project in mind but I wanted to make certain so I thought I’d better try to discover what is being done elsewhere in the State. The surveyor confirms my opinion that you hold the key to the valley. It would be impossible to take water out of Powder River without using your land.”

“Does Lew Gold know that?”

“Undoubtedly. We even found where his engineers ran their levels.”

“Ed must have got them out here sometime when I was away from home. Well; that explains a good deal.”

“I didn’t want to express an opinion about the project until I was thoroughly familiar with its possibilities. I have seen enough now—Gold is no fool. The project is perfectly sound.”

“But a thing like that would cost millions and he isn’t a rich man,” Birdie protested.

“He will be if he pulls off this deal. No wonder he was wild at Ed for getting you all riled up.”

“I still think it’s too big for Lew.”

“Nothing in the line of fruit-land development is too big these days. Eastern capital is looking for tracts out here which lend themselves to intensive development. The bigger the tracts, the better.”

“All right. You’re my lawyer. What shall I do?”

“Sit tight. Make Gold pay through the nose.”

“And split fifty-fifty with Ed? After all he’s done I’ll never let him make a profit out of me.” Birdie spoke with heat. “What’s more, Gold never gave anybody a decent break, and he wouldn’t give one to me. Nor to these other valley people either. He’s a cheater. His idea of a square deal is a Mexican standoff; you lose your money but he spares your life.”

“I’ll guarantee he won’t hurt you.”

“And how can you do that?” the woman demanded. “I happen to live here and Lew happens to be the big boss of this whole community. He does about what he pleases.”

“That night in Seattle when we met I told you I had no plans, no destination. Well, I’m something of a dreamer. I like to create, to build something out of nothing. I had one experience of that sort with a circus and it was profitable. Irrigation interests me. I like the idea of growing fine fruit—the finest in the world—from this rich, volcanic soil. Jim and I were discussing that very thing, the night you quarreled with Ed. It’s a new enterprise; it’s different; it’s exciting. This is a swell country; Indian Falls is a coming town. I believe it would be a good place for an ambitious young lawyer to open an office.”

“Oh, if you only would!” Birdie exclaimed. Even more eagerly she ran on, “If it’s so easy to raise capital, why don’t you take over this deal?”

“I’ve even thought of that,” he said with a smile. “But I’m not sure I should. I believe I know where to get the money, though. I know a lot of people in the East.”

Eagerly Birdie broke in, “Why shouldn’t you go ahead with it? You say I have the one and only key to the valley. All right, it’s yours. Gold hasn’t spent a nickel so far and I don’t believe he has tied up a single acre of land. He’s too cautious, too cagey; he’s been afraid to move until he had me in a sack. Well, I know everybody in the valley and they like me. They’re good people, they deserve to make some money, and they’d listen to me if—What I mean to say is if I trust you, so will they.”

“And why should you trust me?” he demanded. “As your attorney, I warn you against any and all handsome strangers.” His smile was mocking.

“I suppose that includes Jim?”

“Oh, by all means. We’re a pair. Neither of us is much good, but Jim—”

“Did you ever see him with a sick animal? I think he’s sweet. . . . And so are you.”

Still smiling Dick said, “I can guarantee nothing. I can’t promise you anything except a square deal, and of course that goes for your friends and neighbors. Fortunately, I have enough money to make the down payments on a right of way. Once I get that in proper shape, the rest can be worked out.”

“Are you going to let me in?” the woman demanded.

“Of course,” he told her. “If you want it that way. But you’re letting me in . . . yes, I have a feeling that you’re letting me in for something more than I had in mind.”

He was looking straight at her and yet she somehow felt that his gaze was turned inward and that his words carried a meaning of some sort. After an instant he spoke in a different voice, “It’s a big job. I believe I can put it over, but it’s a gamble. I want you to realize that. I believe I can work out a deal much better than any Lew Gold would offer you and these other people, but it’s a promotional proposition and those things sometimes miss fire. I can afford to lose but I’d hate to hurt you.”

“How can I be hurt?” Birdie demanded. “What have I got to lose? If I deal with Gold I’m sure to be robbed. You’re different. I can put my faith in you. Oh, Dick, don’t hesitate.”

After a moment, he said with apparent irrelevance, “That estate I mentioned a few minutes ago belongs to my wife.” There was a brief pause before Birdie said, “I didn’t know that you were married.”

“Well, I am,” he told her. “But why go into my past when sooner or later you’ll discover it for yourself.”

“Yes, why?” she agreed. “Then you’re willing to tackle this job?”

“I am.”

“And I’m in? We’re partners?”

“You are. To any extent you wish.”

The two shook hands and thus it was that the Powder River Irrigation Project was born.

Many a healthy and well-considered enterprise has failed because it was born too soon or too late. This one was timely. In fact, it could not have been launched at a more propitious moment, for in all parts of the country, people were “irrigation conscious.” The miracles of reclamation were well known and interest in the fabulous soils of the Northwest was so keen that a spark was enough to start a blaze of enthusiasm. Happily, too, local conditions favored this particular promotion. Dick Banning and Birdie Caldwell soon learned that they could do far more with the local landowners than could Gold or anybody remotely connected with him. At the Lodge, Dick’s civil engineer put a crew of men to work and they ran surveys, drew maps, and prepared profiles and estimates. Meanwhile, Dick drafted contracts and options; with Birdie’s aid most of them were quickly signed. This preliminary work was pushed so swiftly and yet so quietly as to excite little comment. By the time Dick was ready to go back to Indian Falls and open an office, his right of way was pretty well secured.

Lew Gold had heard a rumor that Mrs. Caldwell was stirring up some sort of excitement among her neighbors with talk of a ditch line but he paid little heed to it until he learned that among her guests at the Lodge were the two men he had met on his trip to Seattle. On the heels of this he also learned that Dick Banning proposed to open an office in Indian Falls. Soon after the young stranger arrived in town, Lew called on him with the purpose of making it plain that the town was already oversupplied with legal talent and of hinting that it wasn’t a healthy place of residence for anyone who meddled with land titles in the Powder River Valley. The meeting was short and it ended on a very sour note. Gold was somewhat stupefied at the manner in which his warning was received. Banning made no secret of his purpose to vigorously push the irrigation project, confessed exactly what he was up to, and defied the older man to stop him.

“You’ve been flirting with that deal for better than a year. You had your chance and you muffed it. Now it’s my turn and I’m going through with it on different lines. I don’t need any local help and I don’t want any local competition. Frankly, I don’t think you can hurt me but from all I’ve heard you may try.” His eyes were steely and his voice grew cold as he warned, “I’ve had plenty of fights, legal and illegal, Mr. Gold, and if you meddle in my affairs, I’ll cut you down to size.”

Gold stammered, he floundered, finally he managed to say, “Why, that’s a threat, an unprovoked threat. Nobody threatens me—”

Dick continued to eye him bleakly. “Then let’s never mention it to a single soul. Let’s keep it a secret between us.”

When Lew Gold returned home, he went to bed. He remained there for several days under his doctor’s care. He was, in fact, quite ill.

During the preliminary work on the irrigation project, Birdie Caldwell was eager to be of help. So was Jim Larkin. He sat in on their conferences, when asked to do so; he gave advice, he executed commissions, and he ran errands, but oddly enough, he refused to consider himself a partner. When Birdie spoke of it, he shook his head and told her,

“This sort of thing isn’t in my line. You and Dick go ahead, I’ll just ease along in my own way.”

“But don’t you want to make money? Don’t you want to get ahead?”

The Lark looked slightly troubled. “I guess so. Sure I do. But all my life I’ve been a gambler and what you call a legitimate enterprise, a sure shot, looks a little too risky for me. So forget it; I’ll find something else to do.”

Dick rented an office and moved in. There he whipped the project into final form. He was ready to go East when one morning he noticed in the windows of certain stores and barber shops a card announcing a forthcoming match at pocket billiards between the State champion and—he looked twice —James Larkin.

Assuming it to be merely a friendly exhibition, he was the more surprised when Jim assured him later that day that it was a real contest and for blood.

“Good Lord!” Dick exclaimed.

“This is my little irrigation project,” the Lark said, “and it will pay off a lot quicker than yours.”

“But this man is a shark, he’s the best in the State.”

The Lark nodded. “I know. That’s how come the odds be where they are. You see, the more I practice, the better they get. Why don’t you put a bet down? A thousand will bring you five or maybe six.”

A thousand dollars?

“Sure. Like you say, it takes money to make money. Well, there’s a poolroom I like in this town. It’s a nice place and I can build up a little poker game in the back room that’ll feed a kitty big enough to support me. It’s already named for me, ‘Jim’s Place.’ Can you beat it? Named for me. Why, I can’t lose. Now that it’s all set for us to live here, I’ve gotta have something to do.”

“I don’t understand. If you’re going to buy the place, why bet on this match?”

“Sure I aim to buy it but how else can I pull it off? All I have to do is trim this Oscar and the place is mine. Better get a bet down while you have a chance.”

Dick stared at his friend uncomprehendingly. “You’re no champion. What ails you, Jim?”

“I wasn’t any foot runner either that night in Cairo,” the big man reminded him. “All the same, I stepped fast enough so that we rode first class to New Orleans. All right, forget it. Only you might like to drop around to Jim’s Place a week from Saturday night and see the fun,”

Dick determined to do so, for during the intervening days he heard considerable gossip about the coming contest and what he heard was not reassuring. This newcomer Larkin was a pretty fair pool shooter but nothing extraordinary. Evidently he was just one of those enthusiastic egoists who thought so highly of himself that nothing could shake his confidence.

Once again, on the appointed night, Dick Banning had a surprise; once again he felt astonishment at the versatility of his friend.

Habitues of the pool hall had little interest in the outcome of the match and they watched it only in order to witness the skill of the State champion. For a short while, it did indeed look as if the bulky challenger had no chance at all and that the match was too one-sided to be classed as a contest. Then, without warning and without any particular reason, Larkin shifted his cue and began playing left-handed. A moment or so, and a peculiar expression spread over the face of the champion. His attitude, both mental and physical, changed as he spoke in a low voice to his opponent. Over his shoulder, Jim smiled at him, nodded, and answered out of the corner of his mouth. The champion, it seemed to Dick, looked a trifle sick. Dimly, the spectators realized that something unexpected had happened and that a minor drama was being played out before their eyes. A silence fell upon the crowd but when the match was ended the place became something of a bedlam.

Dick had no opportunity to speak to his friend at the moment, but later that night the Lark looked him up at their hotel.

“Congratulations!” the younger man said. “Jim! You never cease to surprise me.”

Larkin beamed with satisfaction. “Did you manage to lay a little bet? Too bad. I told you it was in the bag.”

“But—how was I to know—? What made you think you could beat that fellow?”

“I was practically certain,” Jim told him. “I don’t suppose a fine cello player ever forgets how to handle his bow. Well, it’s a good deal the same with a real billiardist. Everything he has is in his fingers, his wrist, his brain, and his heart. Of course, he has to practice a lot in order to keep on top of his game but I’ve been doing precisely that. Furthermore, my eyes are right so I knew just how good I am. Mind you, I’m not the best player in the country. Lord, there are lots of guys can lick me. There must be at least twenty, but I happen to know who they are. You see I keep up with their records which isn’t hard to do. The rest is pretty simple, and it’s about as sure as anything can be. All I have to do is practice in public right-handed enough to run the odds in my favor while I’m doing enough in private to keep my left arm loose, then I’m ready to go. I don’t know how many times I’ve had to fall back on a billiard cue. Yes sir, that left fin of mine always was a money-maker. Why, in the old days I could throw a javelin with it and pierce a Roman shield at twenty paces. I’ve done it. I remember one time—Larkin shook his big head and returned to the present. “Well, whad-daya think of my new joint?”

“Is it really yours?”

“Sure, or it will be in a day or so. That’s what made my opponent look so green, when I swapped sides. You should have seen the guy who owned the joint when he realized I had him out on a limb, but it served him right. Yeah, the place is mine all right.”

“You’re a miracle man. I wonder what you could do, Jim, if you really put your mind to it. Anything, I dare say. Well, are you satisfied to stay here in Indian Falls?”

‘ ‘Sure. Why not?”

“This is a fine country here, Jim; it’s full of opportunities, and this project of Birdie’s and mine is a sure winner. I’d like to have you with me.”

“I’m with you,” Jim said simply, “and I always will be, but I’d rather deal my own cards. I’m not a businessman, I’m just a no-good loafer and I’d bring bad luck to any deal of this sort. No, you and Birdie dig your ditch, turn on the water, and make your own mud pies. I’ll be close by. I’ll play a little poker in the back room of my new pool hall and listen to what folks say about you and her. I don’t want any future that I’ll have to worry about.”

Dick left for New York a few days later; he returned not long thereafter with several strangers who made a rapid survey of the Powder River Valley and checked his engineer’s reports. Once that had been done, things moved at bewildering speed. Men and supplies poured into Indian Falls and the stony road to Powder River became a dusty thoroughfare oyer which moved a ceaseless, ever-growing stream of supplies. First, there came the lumber and materials for bunk-houses and mess halls, then the indescribable paraphernalia for feeding and handling a small army of men and animals. Rolling stock and machinery of every description followed. They were accompanied by the laborers themselves. Frame buildings and villages of tents sprang up along the winding ditch line; a thin ribbon of workers and their equipment was laid down for twenty miles along the foothills. There was confusion, turmoil, and shouting, the rumble of machinery and the booming of dynamite blasts.

Labor-saving devices were not then as abundant or as ingenious as they now are. Steam shovels were in common use as were air compressors and drills for rock work but in the moving of dirt, reliance had to be placed mainly upon horses, scrapers, and the tools wielded by brawny men.

Busy and feverish as were the scenes along the ditch line, the real center of activity was in Indian Falls. This was not only a construction job but also it was a colonization project the aim of which was to find purchases for the irrigated acres and to aid them in building homes thereon. This called first for descriptive literature, a careful and elaborate advertising campaign of wide scope. Dick found that he could write and handle this publicity better than anyone he could hire so, in addition to his other activities, he took it on. His enthusiasm grew week by week. With the confidence of youth, he had no room for doubts or uncertainties.

While the project was barely emerging from the blueprint stage, the land began to move. Purchasers from the East came; they were driven out to Sunset Lodge and there Birdie Caldwell took charge of them. She made such a persuasive sales executive that most of those who came to see returned to Indian Falls completely sold and ready to sign on the dotted line.

Those were exciting months, and for Dick Banning they were perhaps the happiest he had ever experienced. He was creating something out of nothing, and in that there was an ever-increasing satisfaction. It was all very gratifying and he could have been wholly contented, he told himself, except for one thing: Birdie Caldwell disturbed him. She menaced his peace of mind.

Although she had never revealed her feelings he knew that she was in love with him and a hundred times he had been on the verge of yielding to her silent appeal. It would have been so easy, so natural, so intoxicating to take her in his arms. The mere contemplation of it was a torment. But he had grown so fond of her that she stood for something more than a mere enticement and provocation. Strong, straightforward, and steadfast, she was the sort of woman who could love once and once only. That much Dick had realized early in their acquaintance. She reminded him at times of the tall pioneer women who marched beside their husbands’ creaking oxcarts through the Cumberland Gap and into the scowling wilderness that Daniel Boone had found. Such women were strong; they sprang from the soil and they mothered large families. In their arms was a refuge for a husband and sons and daughters, too. But he did not desire Birdie as a wife. He felt he had already spoiled the life of one woman; he feared another marriage, for himself and for his wife.

It was a trying situation and he met it only by an exercise of rigid self-control. He never allowed himself to be alone with Birdie and so far as possible, he talked with her only about business.

In due course, he obtained a divorce for her, as he had promised to do, but never did he explain to her why he himself remained a married man. It was a weak barricade, but he was forced to take shelter behind it.

Chapter 22

MONTH BY MONTH, the “project,” as everybody referred to it, gained momentum and grew in importance; the time came when the first section of the big ditch was opened up. That called for a celebration. At Sunset Lodge elaborate ceremonies were held. There was a barbecue with band music, speeches by prominent people, a sight-seeing trip from one end of the job to the other. It was the governor of the State himself who gave the signal to lift the control gates, divert the first flow of water from Powder River, and direct it into the canal that rimmed the arid Valley. Already a considerable part of the flat mesa was checkerboards with new dirt roads, and surveyors’ stakes marked the boundaries of farms, both large and small. Here and there, the raw framework of brand-new farmhouses was rising.

When Dick addressed the crowd, he described the progress already made and explained the work still to be done. He painted a bright and colorful word picture of the finished enterprise. In place of the dusty sagebrush land which lay outspread before them, he made his listeners see a lush panorama of blooming orchards and fertile fields which drank from the cool, unceasing flow of mountain water. He built for them homes, schools, and churches, towns with stores and packing houses, and laid down smooth hard roads for their wagons to travel. He even spoke about a railroad to serve the rising productivity of this dream oasis, this paradise set down in the heart of the desert.

Dick was an easy, fluent speaker. He saw a bright vision and he saw it clearly. It inspired him and he described it so eloquently that his audience was thrilled.

Newspapers all over the State made a good deal of the story, gave much space to the dedication ceremonies and referred to him as a trail blazer and empire builder. According to them, he was one of the outstanding men who were shaping the destinies of the West.

It was all excellent publicity, of course, and as the irrigation project continued to take shape, his land company grew in importance. When new settlers, home builders from the East and elsewhere, swarmed into the Valley with the intention of making it their home, it dawned upon residents of Indian Falls that they had a great builder in their midst, a man who had caused a miracle to take shape. Not a few of them knew with what effortless ease he had outgeneraled Lew Gold—something nobody else had ever done—and they asserted it was a pity that men like Banning devoted themselves exclusively to swelling their own fortunes. How much better it would be if they could be induced to take a hand in public affairs. Here was a brilliant young lawyer of proven integrity; he was honest, he was fair-minded, he had an irresistible drive. Look at the way he had treated the original Powder River landowners. Why, he had made fortunes for them. He was a square shooter, too, and the new purchasers likewise swore by him. Of all the hundreds, the thousands of citizens he had brought into the State, not one had an unfavorable word to say about him. Well, men like that should be induced, nay forced, to participate in the affairs of their community; the public welfare and the future of the State demanded it.

A day came when the big ditch and its many laterals were completed. Then the sweating toilers who had built them vanished and their equipment was stored away. By then, the first orchards laid out had begun to look like something; limber nursery shoots had grown into saplings, saplings had thickened into small trees. It was while this exciting drama of birth, growth, and maturity was being played that the consciousness of death was suddenly thrust upon him. He was shocked one day to receive a telegram from his former law partner Judge Peebles announcing the death of Lola. Dick’s wife, it seemed, had been killed in an accident, a hunting accident. The Judge’s telegram was long, it was detailed, and Dick read it over and over again.

“Poor kid!” Jim said soberly. “I loved that girl.”

“So did everybody,” Dick agreed. “Remember how the whole troupe rejoiced at her marriage to me, then at the news about her inheritance? I loved her, too, Jim, and I tried to make her happy. But I didn’t succeed.”

“Sure, you did.” The eyes of the two men met and there was meaning in their glance.

“I never could make her understand about Rondo. She couldn’t believe that the old bitch moved into Bruce Hall and actually into bed with me.” Dick spoke with difficulty. “I doubt if any woman could understand a thing like that. I—I’m not sure I understand it myself,”

“She talked a lot about you—that was after you left. She was hurt bad, but I think she understood more than you gave her credit for. Dead! At her age! I know the very spot where it happened and I used to warn her about some of those jumps. That crazy fool Bridgewater must have been to blame. She got to be pretty obstinate.”

“I know. It’s tragic to think that our final quarrel arose from a perfectly silly cause. Well, I’ll never permit myself to ruin any other woman’s life. You wonder why I love this job, why I give it so much. It’s my escape, Jim. I’m all right as long as I don’t lift my head or let my eyes wander.”

“You mean—?”

Roughly Dick broke out, “I mean I’m twenty-six years old and I’m a strong man. I was married to a beautiful creature who adored me. I’ll never be able to touch another woman. I think I’ve been hexed. Rondo put a Creole curse on me. It’s a fact, Jim; I’m chained to the rocks and the eagles are tearing my guts out. It’s no use telling myself I’ll get over it or saying it’s all in my mind. Hells bells! Of course it is. That hideous creature is there whenever I take a woman in my arms. It’s all so fantastic, so crazy that I don’t dare speak of it to anybody except you. Well, it only shows what can happen when a wide-eyed boy meets up with a black panther.”

Although Peebles’ letter and the way Dick took it was deeply depressing to the Lark, he noticed in the days that followed a change in Birdie Caldwell’s demeanor which set his spirits even lower. She did not refer to the death of Dick’s wife, nevertheless her bearing toward him was profoundly disturbing to Jim. It was obvious that she was deeply in love, so he forced himself to have a talk with her.

He told her about Ronnie Le Grand, the boy wizard, and the golden days they had spent together in New Orleans. The story seemed to hold the woman spellbound.

Jim spoke significantly of Madame Rondo, the swarthy queen of the Crescent City underworld, and her infatuation for Dick. “I’ve never spilled this to a living soul and I’m not sure he’d thank me for telling you, but I think you should know.”

He told about that night when his young friend burst into their room, shocked and shaken to the core, and about what followed thereafter.

When he paused, Birdie exclaimed, “All right, he had a scare; he suffered an unfortunate experience that affected him mentally and physically. Such things do happen, I suppose. Anyhow I’ve read about ’em. That explains a lot. I’ve often wondered why I didn’t attract him more and I’ve asked myself a thousand questions which had no answer. It was pretty hard on a girl’s morale. Well, little boys are afraid of the dark; they see boogermen. Women have a tougher fiber, I mean about such things. Nothing frightens me, Jim. If he had the strong arms of a loving woman around him, there wouldn’t be any room inside for hideous old hags who smoke cigars.”

Larkin’s drooping face seemed to lengthen as he said, “I used to believe that but I understand better now. I guess I’ll have to tell you some bedroom secrets. I can’t do it without using words I’m not accustomed to. I’ll tell you what he told me: you’re a married woman and you can put your own meaning to them. First of all, about Lola. Men always worship heavenly bodies and she certainly had one. She had an angel face, too, and a whole lot more, including three million dollars; They were wild about each other and nothing could have come between them, or so you’d think. But listen—”

This time when Jim finished speaking. Birdie’s lips were white. “I’m not sure I get all of it, but—if that’s how he feels, there’s not much to be done, is there?”

“Not much, for now. Not as long as he feels certain that he can’t bring anything but unhappiness to any woman.”

“Poor Dick!” Birdie spoke sincerely, but Jim felt that she was thinking less of Dick than of herself.

* * * * * * * * * *

The anteroom of the governor’s office in the Capitol at Baton Rouge was usually filled with visitors who were waiting to see him or his secretary. Today, however, the specialist from New Orleans met with no delay. He merely gave his name to the uniformed doorman and was shown directly into the executive oflice.

John Rainey leaped to his feet, shook the doctor’s hand, and inquired anxiously, “Did you make a thorough examination? Did you discover anything?”

“I did, and there’s nothing wrong. Good Lord,” the physician exclaimed, “you need medical attention more than she does. Sit down! You Raineys are all alike. You’re too damned intense. You burn yourselves out. That’s what ails Mavis.”

“I’ve been overworking most of my life,” the Governor admitted, “That’s the only way I can get things done, But when one of my girls breaks down, I really take fire.”

“Mavis isn’t sick. She’s a healthy, high-strung young thoroughbred. However, she’s cursed—or blessed—with an overabundance of temperament. Well; why not? She’s an artist and a mighty fine one, or I’m greatly mistaken. She overdid and she’s tired; on top of that a cold—”

“Then there’s nothing wrong with her voice; she’s in no danger of losing it?”

“Not the slightest. I never looked at a finer set of vocal chords nor a healthier throat.”

The father leaned back in his chair; he relaxed.

“I must be worn out or I wouldn’t be so easily alarmed,” he admitted. “That’s the penalty of holding public office. When Miz Rainey was alive, she took all the household and family worries off of my shoulders. I can’t handle my own and hers, too. When I learned that Mavis was really afraid she was losing her voice, it threw me into a panic.”

“All singers have that fear, I imagine. In this case, it’s nothing more than the natural reaction to fatigue.”

Rainey nodded. “She certainly did work hard; she hurled herself at music just as she used to fling herself at other things. To you and to me a singing voice is merely a talent, a happy faculty to be cultivated and exploited, but that’s not how the Italians think of it. In Italy a singer considers his voice as something apart from himself, something big, vital, important. He respects and he worships it. Mind you, it isn’t conceit. An artist is humble in the presence of something bigger and finer than he is. Well, Mavis seems to have acquired some such idea. Anyhow she lives for her voice. You can understand how any threat to it terrifies her—and me, too, for I love my girls.”

“And who doesn’t?” the visitor demanded. “Didn’t Ellice have New Orleans at her feet? Mavis has beauty, plus a glorious talent. Well, I think I put her fears at rest. I certainly hope so, for a sick mind is harder to cure than a sick body, and fear, just plain, ordinary fear, can counterfeit the symptoms of any disease. I prescribed a complete change of scene and climate for her. It doesn’t much matter where she goes but I have suggested a place in the West where I went—Mineral Springs. It will be something new for her and a million miles removed from Milano. Pack her up, ship her off, see that she has fun and lots of it.”

John Rainey nodded. “It was mighty nice of you to come up from the city just to—”

“My dear John, after all you’ve sacrificed to give this State a taste of good government, it’s too bad if we who benefit by it cannot do our part to ease your burdens. Put your mind at rest. I expect to sit in the audience with you on the night Mavis sings her first operatic role and I predict that will be at the Metropolitan in New York.”

Later that afternoon, when John Rainey returned to the Executive Mansion, he went directly to his daughter’s rooms. The withered Babaloo answered his knock, then hastily concealed her clay pipe in the pocket of her apron. As Rainey passed the old Negress, he sniffed loudly, then muttered as if to himself, “It wouldn’t be so bad if the lady used good tobacco but she will smoke that old plantation sheep dip. And her waitin’ on the first young lady of Louisiana.”

Babaloo emitted a thin cackle. “Any baccy that grows on Tranquillity is good enough fo’ Battum Rouge. Effen Missy Mavis like the smell of Babaloo, thass all her keers about.”

“I never really endorsed it,” Mavis told the old woman. “I only said you smelled better than an Italian cigarette.”

“The doctor stopped in at my office,” Rainey explained, “and he made me very happy.”

“Yes. Isn’t he a dear? No medicine, no pills, no castor oil. Nothing but idleness, luxury, and fun. He’s no doctor, he’s an angel.”

Mavis did indeed have all of her sister’s charm and beauty; she had also a gaiety of spirit, an impetuosity all her own. “Why, he had even picked out the place for me to go. It sounds wonderful.”

“It will sound even more so when I read you a letter I just received from out there. Remember young Banning?”

“Ronnie Le Grand, who came to Tranquillity?”

Mavis had been in motion but at her father’s words her body and mind came to sudden attention. For a startled second; she was frozen.

“Dick Banning,” she repeated. “My one, my only heart throb! I loved him with a burning passion; that day at the circus I flung myself at him with an offer of marriage. When he married that gorgeous golden-haired creature on the white horse, I lost all interest in men and dedicated my life to art. Dick Banning! Why, I have used him to measure all the other men I’ve ever known. That’s why I’m a dried-up old maid and smell of wintergreen liniment. Compared with him, the heroes of fiction are weazened little midgets. He is my ideal, my dream man!”

Father and daughter understood each other perfectly. This extravagance caused the smile on John Rainey’s face to widen.

“He’s at a place called Indian Falls and on the map that’s scarcely an inch from Mineral Springs where you’re going. He was a nice lad. I told him he’d go a long way and I spoke with the tongue of a prophet. He made a success as a circus owner; his wife came into scads of money—”

“Yes? The hussy!”

“In spite of that, they didn’t get along so he went off. She was killed in a hunting accident and he wrote me shortly thereafter. That was while you were in Italy. It seems he had promoted a fabulous land deal which made him rich. Well, I’ve heard from him again. Listen to this.”

Removing a letter from his pocket, Mr. Rainey read:

Dear Governor Rainey:

I have followed your political career with keen interest, not only because I was a guest in your house but also because I know the sacrifice you made in accepting public office. It cost you dearly and you ran for the governorship only because you felt that you owed a debt to your State. Well, your example has revived my faith in human nature and in the soundness of our American political system. I’m convinced there is nothing wrong with it except the men who are in politics. Your action has induced me to make a smaller sacrifice. I, too, am running for office. I’ve been nominated as State’s Attorney and if elected I will represent a district comprising six counties. It is an unimportant position and it pays practically nothing. That’s why I accepted the nomination. If the honors or the pay were adequate, it would amount to no sacrifice whatever.

The truth is this State has been so kind to me and I have prospered so abundantly that I feel obligated to show my appreciation. Others may not understand; I’m sure you will.

There are many other things to be done out here. Big things! I propose to do some of them. For example, there is a railroad that I want to build. I’m young; I can devote a few years of my life to public service at this time; later I may not be able to do so.

There doesn’t appear to be much doubt as to the outcome of the election, for indignation at the party in power is growing daily. I wish I were as certain of my ability to discharge with credit the duties of the office for which I am running as I am of winning at the polls. Actually, I know very little of the law but candor compels me to admit that in that respect I am not unlike the present incumbent.

I don’t know why I am writing you about this except that your career has awakened in me a belated sense of civic duty and of course I recall your expression of faith in me. The clearest and the dearest memory that I cherish is that of your kindness, your encouragement, and your gracious hospitality.

With warmest regards for you and your lovely daughters, I am,

Your constant debtor,
Richard Banning

P.S.
Mavis must be a big lady and a great musician. I hope she remembers me.

“That’s a nice letter, isn’t it? I feel quite flattered.”

It was the Governor speaking. Mavis nodded.

“And what a flood of memories it releases in me. You’ve no idea the impression that young man made on me; it was so profound that I’ve never been able to separate the real from the imaginary. At first, he was a God-like creature. When Ellice cast him off, my faith in her was shattered; she was no longer a sister of mine. It didn’t matter that he was Ronnie Le Grand. When I heard that incredible story, I was thrilled. Oh, how gallantly I tossed my head, how proudly I defied the world and clove to his side! Really, Dad, the man took complete possession of my fancy. For years whenever I met a boy I compared him with Dick. I do it even now. Outside of you, he remains the one man in my world.”

“What a shame that you’ll have to meet him,” the father said. “I remember a schoolmistress of mine whom I adored and the disappointment I suffered when I came home from college.”

“I don’t think he’ll disappoint me,” Mavis said. “I fancy he’s just about everything I considered him. Perhaps even more. I’m afraid it is I who have changed and changed so completely that I’ll detest the very sight of him. Gee, Dad! If things could only be what they were at Tranquillity or on that heavenly day at the circus. But life isn’t as delightfully simple as that.”

“Well, you’re going to meet him anyhow. I’ll write him that you will be in Mineral Springs—”

“Wait!” Mavis pondered briefly. “It would be too awful if he turned out to be the perfect man I considered him. How horrible! I’d have to go on being sweet to him on your account. Remember he idolizes you; you’re his benefactor, his inspiration, and, of course, he broke his heart over Ellice. I’ll look him over, never fear, with my heart in my throat and a prayer in my heart, but I’d rather have a chance to look at him first. You see, I’m a cold and calculating trollop.”

“I don’t know how sincere you are,” John Rainey said, “but—”

“And neither do I,” Mavis confessed. “Frankly, I’m pretty much in earnest for I’ve never cared a snap for any man except Dick Banning. I’d adore falling in love with him. It would be too, too miraculous. But I’ve had so many dreams and none as yet has come true.”

“One has,” Rainey asserted. “Your voice. It’s all and more than you or any of us dared to hope for so don’t lose your faith in miracles; don’t quit dreaming, ever. You’ll find your Dick Banning sooner or later and when you do, don’t ask my permission, don’t ask anybody’s advice. Ellice followed her heart and she made no mistake. Let yours tell you what to do. If you should make a mistake, and that’s not impossible, don’t let that dishearten you. I’ll be here to catch you. That’s what Dads are for.”

Chapter 23

AT THE TIME of Dick’s arrival in Indian Falls, that energetic little city was run by, and for the immediate benefit of, a political clique at the head of which was Lew Gold. A large majority of the local citizens were loyal, law-abiding people who took pride in their home town. Unfortunately, however, they were too taken up with their own affairs to interest themselves in those of the community. With the birth of the irrigation project, however, a considerable change in the town occurred. The army of hired hands that Dick imported began spending their pay, and there followed an influx of less industrious characters who preyed upon them and upon the townspeople as well. Gambling games operated openly, prostitutes walked the streets, and the police force was so busy shaking them down that routine duties were neglected.

This bonanza did not last long for at the very next election, the indignant citizens won control of the City Council and promptly cleaned house. They were angry; in a savage effort to outlaw crime, they passed certain ordinances that were aimed at ending it for all time.

In discussing the matter with Birdie Caldwell, Jim Larkin said, “The do-gooders think they have remodeled the town and converted us inhabitants. As a matter of fact, they’ve merely fixed it up so that it will pay the politicians better than ever.”

Happily for Dick, soon there came another outburst of indignation against the party in power in the state govemment. It was similar to the one that had rocked Indian Falls.

This one was spontaneous, it was well founded, and it was State-wide. Evidently the pendulum had started its backward swing. Realizing what it could mean to him if the Capitol coterie was ousted, Dick threw his weight behind it. Soon he found himself working feverishly and finally he yielded to pressure and consented to run for office.

It was about the last thing he had ever intended doing; it meant postponing his plans for a considerable time but he saw no other way of accomplishing his purpose and he told himself that he owed something to the State. At first, he disliked everything he had to do in the campaign but in time he grew interested.

When the mud began to fly, he became a target for some of it and that made him mad. In consequence he flung himself into the fight with all the energy he had. A circumstantial story about his relations with Birdie Caldwell particularly infuriated him.

Obviously, however, any denial by either of them, any comment, any indication that they took the thing seriously would call further attention to it. Its source was self-evident but in as much as the only person who could brand the story as a contemptible lie was Ed Caldwell, the less said about it, the better.

Election Day was drawing near when Jim warned Dick, “There’s something coming off and you won’t like it. I told you once that no guy with a strawberry mark on his shoulder should run for office.”

“What’s up?” Dick inquired.

“The Morning Bulletin is going to blow you higher than Pike’s Peak, or I’m greatly mistaken. One of its men has been feeding the kitty in my back room for quite a while and he never fails to ask a few casual questions. What’s the truth about Banning and Mrs. Caldwell? Did I ever hear tell of a famous gambler in New Orleans named Ronnie Le Grand? Wasn’t I the bull man in a circus once upon a time? You see, running a pool parlor like I do, I ain’t supposed to be smart enough to suspect anything. It’s the dirt, kid.”

“Send the fellow around to see me. I’ll tell him anything he wants to know.”

At this, the Lark shook his ponderous head. “You ain’t as safe as you think you are and you and I don’t look at things like an ordinary citizen does. You’ve got to realize that virtue is on the march and sin has got to hunt a hole in the ground. The wicked are stricken down and nothing can stay the wrath of the Crusaders. As a member of that white-robed band, you’ll have to wear a halo and you better be careful it’s on straight. Why, if those Sunday plate-passers discover that their candidate for State’s Attorney—the very limb of the law upon whom they rely to enforce their Puritanical will—can shuffle a stack of poker chips with your left hand or that once upon a time you won a full-sized circus on three sevens and a pair of deuces, they’ll continue marching—they’ll march right up to the polling place and vote for Sam Brownlea instead of you.”

Dick was not impressed. “You’re making too much of this thing, Jim. After all, I was never a highwayman; I never murdered anybody. Remember, too, I didn’t ask for the nomination; it was forced on me.”

“I know, but now that you’re in the race, don’t you want to be elected?”

“Certainly. All the same, I’m not hiding anything. I’m standing on my record here at Indian Falls and I have faith in the common sense of the voters. The Bulletin is welcome to print whatever it damn well pleases.”

That newspaper withheld publication of the attack until there was insufficient time for Dick to defend himself. The story was so sensational that it brought consternation to his political supporters. All awaited his answer, scheduled to be made in a speech in Mineral Springs the night before the election. Meanwhile, Dick seemed unconcerned. But Casey Higgins, the sheriff and a mouthpiece for the City Hall crowd, said, when he met Dick, “Well, Banning, if this article is true, it looks like you’re running on the wrong ticket. You ought to be over here with us scoundrels!”

Chapter 24

THE MAIN STREET of Mineral Springs was decorated in Mardi Gras fashion with banners proclaiming the virtues of the rival candidates for office in the coming election. They hung from store fronts and some spanned the street itself. Today they were in ceaseless motion in the brisk mountain breeze, bulging and flapping as if each was trying more excitedly than its neighbor to attract the attention of voters and visitors, frantically emphasizing the superior qualifications of its sponsor.

On the way from the railroad station to the hotel, Mavis Rainey pointed out to Babaloo one which carried a heroic sized portrait of Dick Banning.

“Look,” she exclaimed, “there he is!”

As the banner filled and emptied, Dick’s likeness changed its expression, its cheeks swelled, then shrunk, and the girl cried, “Why, he sees me and he is doing his best to say something. Watch him bow. How sweet of him. I never dreamed—!”

“How you know all dat?” her companion asked. “Seems like he’s looking right at Babaloo. Mebbe he reconize the ole woman that save his life. Who she is, I axe you?”

“Well, at least he is bidding us welcome.”

“Who dem udder people bowin’ and scrapin’ so polite?”

“They’re fellow candidates or his opponents. I told you there’s a big election and he’s running for State’s Attorney.”

Babaloo uttered a sound indicative of admiration, astonishment, disbelief. “My! My! And him so young. Yo pappy done good to be gov’nor o’ Battum Rouge but Mr. Dick aims to be attorney for de whole United States! He sho’ly is gettin’ up in dis world.”

Mavis laughed light-heartedly. “I must remember to tell him that. Dad wrote him that we were coming West and I sent him my photograph. Oh, Babaloo. I have looked forward to this meeting ever since I was a child. Now I actually dread it.”

“What you skeered about?”

“Well, suppose he’s still in love with Ellice? Of course he isn’t but the first thing he’ll do will be to compare me with her. She’s so beautiful.”

“Listen, jelly bean. Is you mean it about that man or is you just cuttin’ the fool?”

“I don’t know, Babaloo. Honestly. He was always my hero. I adored him and away down deep in me is a conviction that we were meant for each other and that there’s nothing on earth can keep us apart. I know it’s a childish fancy and I presume both of us have changed.”

Babaloo pondered briefly; her mind was realistic and it could deal with facts but not with fancies.

“Miss Ellice was a right pretty girl back yonder at Tranquillity and she been gettin’ prettier ever since, but compare’ to you—Whoof!

The sound to which the crone gave vent was eloquent of disdain; it said more than she could have expressed in words.

“What a comfort you are,” Mavis confessed. “If it turns out that I’m the one who has changed and that he strikes me as just another male biped, I’ll swallow the bitterness of it and bravely yodel my lonely way to fame and fortune. On the other hand, if I haven’t changed and he still tingles my very pinfeathers the way he used to, I want you to follow us up the aisle with a pistol in the pocket of your silk dress and make sure he says, ‘I do,’ so loud that everybody in church can hear him.”

Babaloo giggled and nodded for she dearly loved to hear her idol carry on in some fanciful vein like this.

The Springs Hotel welcomed Mavis with the warmth and courtesy due the daughter of a distinguished public official and the governor of a great state. The manager himself made certain of her comfort. From him she learned that the political excitement, evidence of which she had just seen, was about over and that the campaign would end on the following day. One of the candidates, he explained, and perhaps the most colorful of all, would make his final appeal to the voters right here in Mineral Springs. In as much as Miss Rainey’s father was actively in politics, she might find it interesting to hear him talk. He was a spectacular character, a rolling stone who had gathered a fabulous amount of moss for himself. He had the Midas touch and everything seemed to turn to gold for him. What’s more, he had once been a lengendary character in the underworld. The manager started when his listener spoke Dick Banning’s name. Why, yes. Did Miss Rainey mean to say—How extraordinary! What a coincidence! The speaker would certainly see that she had seats at the rally where she could witness the fireworks. Mr. Banning’s name was on everybody’s lips just now for his political opponents had made some breath-taking accusations against him. However, he was a bold and forthright public speaker and he seemed to be able to take care of himself perfectly.

Mavis confessed her interest and signified her eager desire to attend the rally. More than ever she realized how necessary it was to obtain an immediate preview of this girlhood idol of hers. Yes, and it must be precisely that; a preview at which she herself would be free to look, to see, and to make up her mind while she remained invisible. With her slim fingers she had built a shrine for the Dick Banning she had known as a child; it would be too dreadful, too unbearable to find that it housed nothing more than a flat and faded snapshot.

Most of the next day she spent in preparing herself for her meeting with Dick. Fearing that it might occur prematurely and thus upset her plans she had dinner in her suite, then selected her most becoming gown. One did not dress up for a political rally; on the other hand, she had to make a great impression, one that must truly floor him as completely as had his first sight of her sister Ellice. The nearer the time of the meeting approached, the more she told herself that she was timid, craven, and overcautious to nourish the slightest doubt about the outcome of their meeting.

Dick was not on the platform; neither could she see him anywhere in the hall when she arrived. With what patience she could muster, she sat through several meaningless speeches. Her mind was roving, Babaloo slept. Then the chairman announced that owing to conditions beyond his control Mr. Banning had found it impossible to reach Mineral Springs in time to address the meeting and hence would be unable to answer in person those adroit but slanderous charges that had been hurled at him during the closing hours of the campaign. However, a friend of his had requested the privilege of speaking for him. It was the chairman’s pleasure to introduce . . . Mavis could have screamed her disappointment; she was about to leave the hall but decided to wait. Charges against Dick! That old Ronnie Le Grand business of course. What if he had been a poker player, the best one in the country. Every man on the Mississippi knew he was a genius with cards and they admired him for it. He had been a lone wolf, a bold and dashing adventurer who pitted himself against the world.

From the speaker, Mavis learned more about what Dick had meant when he wrote her father that this Western country had been good to him for the young man told how he had reclaimed the parched valley of Powder River and turned those idle, arid acres into a rich, productive community, peopled with men and women drawn from every part of the country. To them his genius as a developer had opened a new way of life and a future bright with promise.

“I’m one of that crowd,” the speaker stated. “My wife and I bought a fruit ranch; we are citizens of your State and we propose to raise our children over yonder in the Valley. I’ve never cared enough about voting to register, that is, up until now. I don’t know much about politics except that sometimes they can be mighty dirty but I do know a lot about Mr. Banning and I happen to know all about that circus deal which the Indian Falls newspaper made so much over. That paper said it was a scandal and a disgraceful thing which should disqualify anybody from holding public office. It said he won the show at a card game and it more than implied that the game was crooked.

“Well, it’s true that Mr. Banning had been a famous gambler in his time. Yancey Adams, who owned the circus, was a gambler, too, and he insisted on playing with Banning. They didn’t just play alone, for poker isn’t a two-handed game; other people played with them, in fact, there were several who sat in the final game when the circus changed hands, and at least a dozen witnesses were looking on. You have had games out here for stakes that were just as high. There’s nothing illegal about it. A man isn’t necessarily crooked just because he wins.

“Yancey Adams was a good showman but he was a poor cardplayer. He was a poor citizen, too, for he had a wife and a son and he had deserted both of them. His wife was in want and the son was in jail where he deserved to be. Both of them were total strangers to Mr. Banning at the time the show changed hands. All the same, he put Mrs. Adams on the payroll and kept her there; when he sold the show later on, he arranged for her support. And that isn’t all. He got the boy out of jail and gave him a job. Sounds pretty silly and sentimental, doesn’t it? Well, it’s true, nevertheless, for I’m that boy. I’m Yancey Adams, Jr.

“You probably consider it pretty low-down on my part to talk against my own father but I’d be a lot lower down if I allowed that dirty lie about Mr. Banning to go unchallenged for he not only got me out of jail once, but he saved me from doing a long stretch. He gave me a chance to go out into the world and make a man of myself.

“I don’t know what kind of a lawyer he is, you probably know more about that than I do, but I know the kind of citizen he is. There are kids in this part of the country, plenty of them, who are in the same fix I was, or who may get into trouble sooner or later. A State prosecutor with a heart in his breast instead of a slot machine could help them just the same as Dick Banning helped me. Don’t you think that’s the kind of a guy we need for State’s Attorney? Well, I do.”

What a nice boy, Mavis thought, and what an effective appeal he had made. So this election was more than a formality, more than a custom-made contest. There was spite and hatred involved. Dick had made real enemies here in this bright new world which he was helping to fashion. Mavis pondered the situation on the way back to her hotel and decided that she and Babaloo would run down to Indian Falls tomorrow. Dick was there. It was only an hour by railroad. Her loyalties were fierce and unreasoning, they were always on guard; hence they leaped forth now fully armed for defense. She gave no further thought as to how she could best meet and take stock of him for now her knight was under attack and her place was at his side with lance at rest and vizor down.

The next morning Babaloo awoke suffering from one of her acute “hurtin’ spells,” and she could barely lift her head from her pillow. Knowing too well what these attacks meant and realizing that it would be hours before the sufferer could move, Mavis made her as comfortable as possible, then left. It was midday by now so she did not even bother to pack an overnight bag before rushing to the railroad station. Trains ran often, she told herself that Dick would see her home, or if not she’d manage somehow. The important thing was to find him without further delay.

Thus began for her an experience so unexpected, so strange, and so swiftly moving that it confused her and left her as bewildered as if she had stepped from one world into another.

Mineral Springs was unusually crowded for a business holiday; in fact, the entire countryside had decided to dedicate the occasion to politics. The trains were crowded and Mavis considered herself lucky to find a seat. As it was, she and two other girls of about her age had to squeeze themselves into the space intended for two passengers. They were gum chewers and they used cheap cologne, but they were good natured and their high spirits were infectious. They knew all about the Powder River Valley undertaking and other similar developments in this part of the State. When Mavis made it known that Dick Banning was a friend of hers, they eyed her with sudden respect but they made no secret of their low opinion of the town from which he came. Indian Falls was a gyp town, a robber’s roost run by a rotten police force and crooked politicians.

“I don’t suppose the cops are so much to blame,” one of the pair explained, “for it’s only that the Holy Rollers had the town for a while and thought up a lot of trick laws. They fixed it so that any girl, you might say, who ain’t married has got to carry a card from the Health Department and even if you’re healthy you can’t stop walking long enough to tie your shoe or some smart alec constable is liable to put the scratch on you.”

Mavis wasn’t quite sure what this meant but she did not venture to inquire.

At the county seat, political feelings were indeed acute and both factions were on guard. The voting had run late and the polling places were still crowded; watchers remained on the lookout for repeaters; special posses recruited by the Citizens Committee or other law enforcement agencies still patrolled public places. All the morning and early afternoon they had been on the alert, warning drunks off the street, picking up lawbreakers, and turning undesirable or suspicious characters over to the police.

Mavis and her two traveling companions stepped off the train and practically into the arms of one such officious group and a flash followed as sudden and as blinding as if they had come in contact with a naked third rail.

Recognizing the gum-chewing pair, one of the posse exclaimed, “Hello! Back again, eh? Well, you came looking for it, didn’t you?”

His words were a signal for an excited and indignant exchange; then the speaker called to a nearby uniformed officer, “Hey, Joe! Here’s some more hookers from the Springs. We rousted ’em early this morning and warned ’em to stay out but—just a minute, sisterl This means you.”

The man was addressing Mavis but at first she could not believe that he was in earnest. She protested pleasantly and undertook to free herself from his restraining hand.

“She ain’t with us,” one of the girls declared and the other supported her statement.

From somewhere a voice declared, “She’s a new one, that’s all. They all sing the same song. Never heard of the ordinance, I suppose? Well, you’ll learn about it now. Back up the wagon, Joe.”

Deaf to the voices around her and heedless of the looks and actions of these strangers, Mavis told herself, half in panic and half with a hysterical urge to laugh and scream, that she was actually in the unfeeling hands of the law, that they thought she was a bad woman. What was happening to her? She must have put the query into words, for the uniformed officer answered her, “Sure, you’re under arrest, sister. But don’t blame me. It’s how these law enforcement tricks work. The charge? Why, soliciting, of course. And don’t make me explain what that is. You must know something

Again one of the two girls spoke to Mavis saying, “It doesn’t mean a thing in the world, dearie. This whole jerk town is crazy. If you’re a friend of Mr. Banning’s they’ll drop you like a hot potato. It won’t take a minute to fix things up; just tell it to the officer at headquarters.”

To the policeman standing next to her, the girl asserted, “She knows Mr. Banning. He’s running for something, ain’t he?”

“I’ll say he is,” the man asserted. Then to members of the posse, he said warningly, “If you want me to drive her down to the jail, I’ll do it, but it would serve you guys right if—”

“Take her away!” somebody ordered.

Mavis’ agitation at the moment was such that she missed a good deal of what went on around her. As a matter of fact, she felt as if she had opened a door by mistake, the door to a noisy, unfamiliar room, filled with strange, ill-mannered people. But she could not back out and close it. The weight of bodies pressing from behind forced her forward and through it.

Bewildered, indignant, chagrined, wrathful, the girl was a prey to all those emotions as she and her chance acquaintances were driven to the county jail.

“I—I’ll scream if this keeps up,” she stormed.

“Don’t let it get you too hard,” one of them urged. “It’s a rotten shame and it couldn’t happen only in a place like Indian Falls. Take it as easy as you can.”

To this, the other agreed. “Sure! You got a friend. Just tell the sheriff and lay it on thick.”

They were right, of course. Someday she’d laugh at this memory. Picked up, arrested, carted through the streets of a strange city in a Black Maria! Mavis loosed the tempest of her anger upon the men who questioned her at the jail but they were little impressed by it and she finally realized that nothing she said could make a dent in their indifference. Nothing that is except mention of Dick Banning. They did pay attention to his name. So she knew Mr. Banning? A close friend indeed? Feverishly she explained her presence in Indian Falls. She had come from the nearby resort of Mineral Springs to be with him and celebrate his victory. That remark was unfortunate and she suspected too late that they were members of the faction opposed to him. She assumed that they would show her some respect when she told them that her father was the Governor of Louisiana but this impressed them not at all. For this she was not entirely sorry for she regretted having mentioned his name in a place like this. What if there had been a newspaperman in the room? She quailed at thought of what might happen in such an event. It was useless to risk publicity of that sort when all she had to do was phone Dick or the Mineral Springs Hotel,

Time passed. It was a hideous ordeal for the girl. She telephoned Dick’s office but it did not answer and information finally told her that he had been out all day. She tried to reach the manager of her hotel in Mineral Springs but he, too, was out. In desperation, she put in a call for her father and urged the deputy to follow it through. This he said he would do but she derived no satisfaction from his promise.

It was useless to tell herself that nothing could happen to her. Something had happened. She was under arrest, and on an abominable charge. This was a jail and she was in it. Furthermore, she was alone. The jailer was plainly impatient with her and that was bad. She dared not antagonize him more than necessary. He told her finally that she could not stay in his office any longer and yet it filled her with dread to think of the next step. Sounds issued from the regions overhead which caused her to turn pale and her hands to shake. There were shrill screams, bursts of ribald laughter, snatches of profanity but—the jailer was waiting for her.

Fear actually took possession of her for the first time when she mounted the stairway and saw what awaited her. The detention room which her jailer referred to as the “ladies department” was a large place and it was furnished with a long bare table and some narrow wooden benches. That was all. From the ceiling hung several high-powered electric globes which cast a blinding white light over the premises. The rear half of the room consisted of a huge steel cage with a door which now stood open but which evidently was closed during the night. Inside of this cage were rows of inhospitable cots each of which appeared to have an occupant. There were two washstands and two toilets inside the cage but they were not enclosed. There was no privacy about them. They were grouped in the center of the steel enclosure as if they constituted its pièce de résistance. There was not even a screen or a partition to hide them from view; The floor around them was wet and slippery and the whole place smelled of antiseptics. It was a rank, sickening odor, advertising the fact that the premises were unclean. Mavis stood on the threshold of the cage, her eyes wide and frightened, the back of one hand was pressed in a childlike gesture to her lips.

One of her recent traveling companions called to her, “Take it easy, dearie. I was here for a month before and it didn’t kill me.”

The turnkey who had taken Mavis upstairs returned to his desk with a slip of paper in his hand. He glanced at it carelessly and said to the deputy:

“For a while she kind of had me going with that dear old Dixie tune. You heard her say her old man is Governor of Louisiana. I’m supposed to wire him instantly about the unfortunate misfortune that has overtook his daughter and here’s the money to pay for it. Well, she don’t even know where the family mansion is located at.”

“No?”

“Listen to this.” With some difficulty the man read:

“ ‘Hon. John Rainey, Governor of Louisiana, State House, Bottom Rough, La.’ How’s that for a gag?”

“Baton Rouge, not Rough,” said his listener.

“All right. What of it? Everybody knows the capital of Louisiana is New Orleans.”

“Do they?”

“Well, ain’t it?”

“It didn’t used to be when I went to school.”

“Jeez!” The turnkey made a lunge at his waste basket. “You think I ought to send this wire, do you? I mean there’s a chance the girl is on the level.”

“I hope and trust she is,” said the other.

“You hope—? Jeez! A thing like that could make trouble and plenty of it.”

“Trouble for who?”

“Why, for us. For Casey Higgins. The county.”

“Listen, farm boy.” The deputy’s lips curled. “There’s an election going on and maybe you think our side is winning. Well, we ain’t. Casey is in a panic and so is everybody from Lew Gold down. By tomorrow we’ll all be out. That’s why everything around here is so cockeyed.”

“But how about that girl?”

“I didn’t ask her too many questions for fear she’d convince me. If Banning’s clothes were afire, I’d help put ’em out with a dash of kerosene and that’s how I love his friends. The minute this girl opened her mouth she broke out in a rave over him. I had a hunch she was telling the truth only I had to abide by the law. Of course it’s too bad if there’s been a mistake. My! My! It’s enough to embarrass any respectable girl to be picked up on a vagrancy charge. Well, Banning will come bustin’ in any time now and I want to be here to meet him.”

“Suit yourself,” said the other. “This whole mix-up is something I don’t want any part of.”

The speaker closed his desk, took his hat and left the jail.

Chapter 25

THERE WAS considerable confusion in and around the jail in Indian Falls on Election Day. Police and Citizens Committees were definitely on the alert, arrests were numerous, and a considerable amount of liquor was seized. This was turned over for safekeeping to Higgins’ deputy who had charge of the women’s prison. Somehow a good deal of it got out of his hands and into those of other jail employees. Prisoners also. Among the first to profit by the general laxity were the trusties. They suddenly decided to go on the rampage.

No doubt Higgins could have handled the situation had he been present or if he had learned of the disturbance in time but, unfortunately, he was uptown on political business and when he returned to the jail, he found things in chaos. He never did discover just how the convicts had learned where the liquor was cached or how they so easily obtained possession of it, but he did learn that the men had slugged his deputy, taken the latter’s keys, and relieved him of his revolver.

Profiting by the position in which they found themselves, they could have easily made their way out of the building but that was not their idea. Those wholesale Election Day arrests of disorderly women had provoked thoughts of something other than escape; it had kindled a different fever in their veins and hence Higgins’ deputies had no difficulty whatever in maintaining control of the building. By the time the sheriff arrived, they had restored order on the premises with the exception of the women’s wing. There he discovered the convicts had established themselves and were in complete possession.

“What d’ya mean, possession?” Higgins roughly demanded. “This is my jail.”

“They’ve locked themselves in and they refuse to open up. They’ve started a high jinx with the women and every hooker has got herself a bottle of hooch. It sounds as if they intend to wreck the place.”

Higgins strode down the corridor to the steel door separating the two parts of the building. It was closed but the lock yielded to his duplicate key. It clanged a warning as he opened it and from somewhere came an order to retreat.

“This is Sheriff Higgins,” he called loudly.

“Then stay where you are. We don’t want no sheriffs in here.”

“Well, I’m coming in! What ails you guys? Are you drunk or just plain crazy?”

From the enclosed stairway leading up to the Second floor detention room came mocking answers.

“We ain’t both. Not yet. This is Election Day. We’re havin’ fun. Lay off, or you’ll get hurt.”

Loudly the sheriff stormed, “You can’t get away with this and you know it. The square is full of cops and I’ve got all the men I need to come in and dig you out. Well, that’s what I’m going to do.”

“Who’s crazy now? You can’t dig us out. Not without you dig a grave for yourself and four or five of your deputies. We got what it takes, Higgins. We’re tellin’ you again to lay off.”

“Every door and window is covered. You can’t get ten feet if you make a break—”

“You’ve got us wrong, sheriff. This ain’t a break, it’s just a frolic. We ain’t hurtin’ a thing. These gals are dry and so are we. Long time since we seen any women, sheriff, now all we want is for you to be a good boy and leave us be.”

Hastily Higgins conferred with his companions. “It isn’t a delivery and we can handle it all right without any help from the police. I don’t want to call on them, I don’t want any newspaper stories. Understand? It’s bad enough without that. Ed, you get out front quick and disconnect the switchboard. No calls in or out. Savvy? Then get on the door and stick till I come. If the other prisoners get noisy, quiet ’em if you have to hose down every cell. Yes, and remind those cops that they don’t know nothin’. I’m just throwin’ a little Election party. See?”

Turning his attention to the prisoners he called, “Listen you. I’m coming in and talk things over. First thing I want is that gun and the keys. Toss ’em downstairs.”

One of the convicts spoke in a tone to match his, “Higgins, cut out the kidding. You know goddam well you ain’t going to get either one or the other. You ain’t going to get anything we don’t want to give you and all the law in the country won’t change that.”

“You talk mighty high and handsome—”

“Shut upl This is your last night as sheriff and you know it. You can turn in your badge. The pickin’s are over. Well, a guy like you can get himself another job, but he hasn’t got but one life.”

“That talk doesn’t scare any man who has sworn to do his duty.”

At this, the other convict took up the argument, speaking so loudly that his words were audible not only to the men below but also to the women prisoners.

“Listen! If you order your deputies to dig us out, some of ’em are going to get shot for we just ain’t comin’. Not till we get what we want and that ain’t trouble with you. There’s no harm done yet and we’re ready to make a deal so there won’t be.”

“A deal?”

“Sure!”

“What sort of a deal?”

As the convicts laid it out for Higgins, it was indeed a simple agreement.

“All we’ve done,” one of them said, “is grab a few jugs of cider and put a dent in a deputy’s head. That could happen to anybody.”

They had the keys to the canary cage and that was all they wanted. If the girls did not object to some nice clean fun, why should Higgins? Well, here it was, simple as A B C. Higgins had called on them to surrender and they were ready to do so although not just now. They’d give him his answer in the morning.

This proposal was audible to the women upstairs, brought a momentary hush, then one of them screamed. The sheriff broke into a stream of oaths.

The sudden appearance of these desperadoes had frightened the women prisoners and the swift course of later events brought consternation to most of them. Now they were crowded into the cage as if its steel bars afforded them some protection against the intruders. Mavis, among some of the others, had only the vaguest idea of what was going on but she had learned enough to realize that this unexpected turn of events had lent the last mad touch of improbability and terror to this nightmare experience. Some of her companions she realized had taken sides with the interlopers and were fiercely egging them on; others feared these drunken killers and were as frightened at the significance of their conduct as was she.

The final proposal to the sheriff caused one of them to cry, “My God! He’s going to make a deal. He’s going to leave ’em here all night.”

Mavis had fought her fears as bravely as possible, now something let go and before she realized what she was doing, she had snatched off one of her pumps and with its high French heel she was beating frenziedly against the glass of a barred window overlooking a corner of the jail yard. The glass cracked finally and she felt fresh air upon her face. Dimly she made out people watching from below and to them she screamed Dick’s name. She implored them to call him.

Strangely enough, no sound issued from her throat; her lips moved, she could control her breath, but a terrifying paralysis had seized her vocal cords, and they gave forth nothing more than a hoarse wheeze like that of some stricken animal.

All her life she had lived in fear of losing her voice and it was the one misfortune she most deeply dreaded. Now it had fallen upon her, it had struck her down. Terror had her by the throat. For the first time she felt despair.

* * * * * * * *

That evening as Dick Banning passed City Hall Square on the way to his office, he noticed more loiterers than usual in that vicinity and he wondered what had caused them to assemble. They were not doing anything; they merely stood around or sat on the park benches as if waiting for something to happen. A uniformed policeman who was slowly patrolling the Square nodded to Dick who asked him what was going on.

“Not much right now. A while back there was some disturbance in the jail that sounded like trouble. The chief detailed a few of us to keep folks moving. How is the election going, Mr. Banning?”

“It seems to be going in the right direction. I’ve been over in Powder River all day getting the voters out.”

“And I’ll bet those apple knockers voted early and often for you.”

“Frankly, it looks like a landslide.”

“Fine! I’m glad.”

“That’s nice. Thanks.”

“Mr. Banning.” The officer spoke in a lower tone. “You know what set off that row in the jail, don’t you?”

“Why, no. I heard somebody say Casey Higgins was throwing a party.”

Briefly the officer recited how the trusties had manhandled the jailer, seized the liquor in his control, and taken possession of the women’s wing. According to him, it was a characteristic explosion of suppressed desires.

“Whisky is enough to set off most any convict but whisky and women in the same package is more than these long-term prisoners can stand. Something has to give way. At the penitentiary, they use drugs but I guess these guys have been too long out from under the influence.”

“How did Higgins manage to get them under control?”

There was a pause. “He hasn’t. We acted fast when the aiarm came and we had things buttoned up in no time. We figured when Higgins arrived that he’d go in and get them and he might need our help. Well, they’re still in there with the women and we’re out here waitin’ for orders. Casey says it’s his jail and he’s not going to sacrifice any lives if he can help it. Of course that’s just what a showdown would mean. Well, I’m not impatient, I don’t want to get shot.”

Incredulously, Dick inquired, “Do you mean to say that Higgins surrendered to those hoodlums?”

The officer shrugged. “They sure haven’t surrendered to him. Why shouldn’t he make terms? Right now, they’re drunk and crazy, they’ve only got one idea in mind. By morning, they’ll be sick, sober, and ready to give up. It’s a tough spot for Casey to be in, but what harm can those fellows do? I mean with women like those in yonder? They’ll both be lucky if they don’t come out with a case of disease and I guess he figures it’s cheaper to treat ’em than to shoot ’em and take a chance on us gettin’ shot.”

“Do the women know what those convicts have in mind?”

“They must know. The toughies kind of like it. Anyhow, they started in raising whoopee and they’ll probably keep it up until they’re too drunk.”

“How about the others? Did Higgins ask them to give their all for their country?”

There was a pause. “A while ago some of them smashed a glass out of the back window and screamed for help. That’s how we learned what’s goin’ on inside. Well, there isn’t a thing us cops can do. This sure is a tough decision for Casey to make on what you might call his last night in office. What would you do in his place, Mr. Banning?”

“I’m so new in politics that I’d probably do my duty.”

The policeman shook his head doubtfully. “It would be difficult. I mean a guy wouldn’t be so mixed up in his mind if they were ordinary dames but—a bunch of street walkers! It doesn’t make sense gettin’ shot over people like that.”

“A lot of things don’t seem to make sense,” Dick agreed, “until a fellow quits trying to be smart and just does what the book tells him to do.”

“Then you think that Casey is liable to move in on ’em?”

Dick spoke decisively, “He’ll have to if he ever hopes to enjoy another good night’s sleep.”

On Dick’s desk was a pile of unopened mail which had accumulated during the last busy week of the campaign. He hastily ran through the pile of letters and noted one from “The Governor’s Mansion, Baton Rouge, La.” He opened it. Enclosed with Governor Rainey’s letter was a photograph which drew Dick’s instant attention, the photograph of a lovely young girl with shining golden hair and lustrous dark eyes. John Rainey’s eyes, clear, fearless, fiercely intense, had made a lasting impression upon Dick and there was something equally challenging about the eyes of his daughter, Mavis. As they met Dick’s gaze, they seemed to unlock a flood of memories and his mind raced back to a high, bright chamber in Tranquillity, a room with a mahogany four-poster bed and a painting of Robert E. Lee over the mantel. Where the sunlight streamed in, two heavenly bodies in the flesh were seated. Well, little Mavis had bloomed into a beautiful young woman, there was more animation, more life and more personality in her face than in that of Ellice, or so it now seemed. Her handwriting, too, had a distinctive quality; on the back of the picture he read:

Dear Dick:
Guess who has worshiped you all these years.
         M. R.

Mavis resembled her sister sufficiently to awaken a tender pang. What a child she had been. “I’ve come to marry you!” He could feel her slim arms around his neck; he could smell the sawdust from the circus ring. “Oh, Dick! You’re beautiful!” No child before or since had impressed him so lastingly as this one. Here was a memory that would never die and of the two sisters she was today the more real. No wonder she was by way of becoming a great artist, the quality of genius was unmistakably present.

There was a light of appreciation in his eyes as he read John Rainey’s best wishes for his success at the polls.

“You are naturally vexed with uncertainties as to your abilities but I am positive that you have the knowledge, the capacity, and the training needed to discharge with credit the duties of the office for which you are running. Experience will follow and it will round you out. After all, character and integrity are the qualities most lacking in our public officials. Someone has said that a judge should be a gentleman and if he knows a little law, so much the better. That can certainly be said of a State’s Attorney.”

Dick’s attention quickened when he read, “Mavis returned recently from Italy and I know you will be happy to learn that she more than made good over there and now bids fair to become the great artist we expected. She has a magnificent voice, great things are predicted for her and, equally important, she takes her talent seriously. She has the will and the determination to succeed and she will not be content until she has reached the top.”

What interested Dick even more was the statement that Mavis was coming West on her doctor’s orders and was looking forward to seeing him.

“In some ways she has changed little. Don’t be surprised to hear her call your name and race across the arena to you. You have always been her most prodigious hero.”

With an odd feeling of tenderness, Dick propped the picture up on his desk. Tomorrow he would frame it, for here was a symbol of one delicate and lovely episode in his life to which he could look back without remorse of any sort.

Chapter 26

THE OFFICE DOOR opened and Jim Larkin entered, “Have you been listening to the returns?” he asked.

Dick shook his head. “Not yet. I was just leaving for headquarters!”

“Are things going to suit you?”

With complete honesty, Dick said, “I’ve never been more sure of anything than of this election. This experience has been an education to me for it has taught me that the average voter in a wide-open country like this is a pretty shrewd, intelligent, decent citizen. He doesn’t want to see his country, his State, or his community run by crooks. His trouble is that he seldom has a good candidate to vote for. Well, I’ve tried to convince him that I’m one.”

“Sounds as if you kind of like politics.”

“At first I hated the whole thing. As you know I had other plans, more important things to do—anyhow I considered them more important. However, as I got accustomed to public speaking, the excitement and uncertainty appealed to me. Furthermore, when a man shouts long and loud enough about good government, he sells himself on the idea. It gets under his skin and takes hold. I can understand now why men go in for public life and are not content with anything else. Politics is a heady wine and I dare say I could get as drunk on it as the next fellow.”

“Speaking of that, have you heard what happened at the jail?”

Dick nodded. “I was talking with one of the cops outside.”

“I thought I’d seen everything,” Jim began, then broke off with a shake of his head.

“Higgins will surely have things under control before long.”

“I don’t think he’s even trying.” Noting the photograph on Dick’s desk, the speaker puckered his lips in a silent whistle.

“That’s the younger Rainey girl who came to the circus with her father. She was only a kid but she said she had come to marry me. You remember John Rainey and how he cleaned up New Orleans. Well—”

The telephone interrupted and while Dick answered it, Jim turned the photograph over and read the inscription upon its back.

The call was from Mineral Springs and although the voice that came over the phone was plain to Dick, it seemed to speak nothing but gibberish.

“Madam,” he exclaimed, “please speak more slowly. All I can make out is blah, blah, blah! Who did you say is calling?”

“Bob—Bobby—Babaloo! Why, God bless my soul, of course I do . . . Yes, I’m the same one you nursed at Tranquillity. Now tell me—Wait. Say that again. Have I married Miss Mavis yet? Why, Babaloo, what on earth—? All right, go ahead, only speak slowly. . . . Today? . . . She did. . . . Why, no. . . . You say you’re speaking from the manager’s office. Let me talk to him, please.”

Larkin could hear both of the voices plainly enough to understand all that was said. Mavis and her companion had arrived at the resort the day before. The girl had spoken about the election and her desire to see Dick. The old colored woman had been unable to accompany Miss Rainey but the latter had taken the train for Indian Falls about midday,

When Dick hung up he lifted a face that was blank with bewilderment. “Babaloo is worried. Well, so am I,” he confessed. “Of course this place was closed all day but—everybody knows my hotel.”

“You mean she left the Springs about noon just to come over to see you? She had no other business here?” Jim inquired.

“None at all. There weren’t any accidents on the railroad; she couldn’t have been hurt. Young women just don’t disappear in broad daylight. What in the devil could have happened?”

The Lark exploded in an oath, wholly unexpected and entirely out of character. When Dick queried him, he said, “I’m just putting two and two together and I’ll bet I know where she is. One of our watchers got in a fight and was pinched. I went to the jail to spring him. That was early afternoon. Those damn good government vigilantes had been dragging the streets all morning and had arrested every street walker they could find. It wasn’t safe for a woman to go out alone.”

“I know but they wouldn’t arrest anybody like—Oh, Jim, that couldn’t happen. Why, she came over here to see me, she has a tongue in her head, she would have made her identity known.”

“Sure, she has a tongue in her head and if she happened to be arrested, she probably gave somebody a hell of a good lashing with it. Then she ups and tells ’em who she is with trimmings and also tells ’em she came here to see you and that you are heap bad medicine and—”

“All right, they’d let her out, they’d get in touch with me. Why, they wouldn’t dare hold a girl—”

Impatiently Jim declared, “If you didn’t wear a hat, some woodpecker would brain you. Sure, Casey Higgins is a dear, dear friend of yours, now isn’t he? He loves the very ground that you’ll someday be buried in.”

While he was speaking, Dick seized the telephone and oscillated it feverishly.

“Sure,” the Lark ran on, “all she had to do was phone but maybe they didn’t put the calls through. A friend of yours in trouble. What a chance to get even. Oh, they wouldn’t do that, eh? Well, I’m an authority on dirty bastards for I’m one myself and I know just how a guy like Higgins would work.”

Dick had the operator now and was firing questions at her. Yes, there had been a call, perhaps several, very urgent, and they were requests for him to phone the City Prison, but his office was closed and for the last few hours the jail itself had been cut off.

Dick slammed the receiver back on its hook and said, “By God! I believe you’re right.”

He made swiftly for the door and the Lark followed at his heels.

“How long have those men been holding Higgins off?” he asked, then at Jim’s answer he cursed violently and quickened his pace to a run.

“I—I still think we’re crazy,” he panted. “Why, if Higgins has any idea there is a decent girl in there, he wouldn’t allow those yeggs to take control.”

“Yah! Yah! Yah! We’re crazy,” Larkin barked. “The girl isn’t in there at all; she just went up in smoke. Higgins wouldn’t leave her in there if he knew—Hell, maybe he doesn’t know. I’m telling you she stepped into a bear trap and this is the only one there is. Where else can she be?”

Dick marveled how the Lark or anybody else could keep pace with him. He was sprinting at top speed. His mind, too, was racing madly conjuring up all sorts of scenes which flashed on and off without continuity of thought or action. He had once been inside the women’s wing of the jail and he could visualize it but he wondered what those convicts were like. Some of the women would doubtless welcome them but what had Higgins done to safeguard those who claimed his protection? In God’s name, what could he do, if indeed the ruffians had barricaded themselves? They had been in control of the premises now for several hours.

Fright was a new sensation to Dick Banning; he found that it gave him a peculiar nausea.

In Sheriff Higgins’ office, three members of his staff were finishing a late supper which had been served on trays. They rose when Dick and Jim burst in upon them and it was plain that they would not have allowed the new arrivals to go further had it not been for Dick’s political prominence. Already, however, in their minds he was the new State’s Attorney; therefore they greeted him with a sort of reluctant respect, explaining that the sheriff had taken personal charge of the women’s wing and was over there now. They made no effort to stop Dick who sped down the corridor. It was Jim who explained, “This is about a prisoner in there. We’ve got to see the sheriff and quick!”

Always fearful of suffering an injury to his soft, pliable hands, Jim glanced about the premises in search of a weapon of some kind but he saw nothing except a pair of handcuffs lying on a nearby desk. They were linked with a chain and if they were wielded by a determined man, they could prove quite formidable. He snatched them up as he raced after his companion. The terrifying thoughts that had accompanied Dick on the way from his office continued to gallop through his mind, so infuriating him that he had a murderous desire to lay hands on Casey Higgins or any member of his crew. While he felt that nothing could happen to Mavis, that such things were too dreadful to occur to real people in real life, nevertheless he recalled what that policeman had told him.

“They must know; they broke the back windows and called for help.”

That was hours ago. He realized this wasn’t a jail break or a revolt, but a pathological, purposeful eruption of depravity.

“At the penitentiary they keep ’em under control with drugs.”

He came to the sliding door separating the main building from the women’s wing. Although it was closed, he could see between the steel bars. Casey Higgins and one of his employees were at the foot of the stairway leading from the waiting room or lobby to the floor above and they were talking with some invisible person, undoubtedly one of the lifers.

Dick called to the sheriff who started in his direction, then shouted, “Get away from there!”

“Let me in, Higgins. Quick! I’ve got to—”

“You can’t come in here.”

In desperation, Dick heaved his weight against the door and to his surprise it slid back. He heard Larkin at his shoulder exclaim,

“Smart! I never would have thought about that.”

The sheriff ran toward them. He was gesticulating, his face was purple. He recognized Dick but his expression did not soften.

“There’s a girl in here and you’ve got to help me get her out.”

Heedless of these words, Higgins roared, “You heard what I said. You’ve got a hell of a crust bustin’ in here as if you owned the place.”

“Higgins, there’s been a terrible mistake. You’ve got to—”

“Well, you don’t own this town, not yet. Right now, you’ve got no more right in here than any other citizen.”

“Higgins! Don’t you hear what I’m saying?” Dick shoved his way forward. “She’s up yonder and you’ve got to get her out or I will.”

By this time, Higgins was deaf but he wasn’t dumb. He bawled loudly at the men who had followed from the front office and called on them to eject the interlopers. The sheriff had been through a lot during the past few hours, he felt close to the breaking point. When Dick continued to push forward, the older man aimed a blow at him. This destroyed the last vestige of self-control retained by either of them. They scuffled briefly and Higgins’ men moved to his support. Larkin, however, pushed himself in their way and spoke warningly.

“You better keep out of this, boys. You’ve got trouble enough as it is.”

The actual clash between the sheriff and Dick was over almost before it started. Dick sent his assailant reeling, then realizing that any further action must be taken on his own responsibility, he strode toward the stairway.

It was a move as foolhardy as it was impulsive and he should have thought of some better course of action. Presumably he could have gone over the sheriff’s head and and appealed for aid, for if he had made the facts known, help could not very well have been denied him. However, in the white heat of rage, few men act wisely. Dick was in a fury and he was frightened. Like a charging bull, he rushed forward, head down.

He had reached the foot of the stairway when the sheriff in his turn did something he never should have done, without thought of the consequences, he raised his voice and shouted a warning to the convicts upstairs:

“Look out! They’re coming up.”

It was a vicious, a vengeful thing to do and his own men were shocked. As for Jim Larkin, he uttered a wordless cry and instead of following at Dick’s heels, he wheeled and struck Higgins down with the steel manacles that dangled from his right hand. It was a wicked, slashing blow that laid open the sheriff’s thin scalp and dropped him in his tracks.

Prison riots or any serious disturbances in prison discipline are likely to provoke intense excitement among the inmates and once this madness starts it feeds upon itself. The unexpected arrival of those reckless male prisoners and the events following it had kindled a hysteria that led to something like pandemonium. In almost no time after the liquor was opened those women who were addicted to its use grew noisy. Soon they were shrieking and cursing and the premises had become a nest of harpies. The more hardened inmates fought with each other, cots were broken, bedding was torn and scattered, even the anteroom benches were splintered. Meanwhile, like malevolent satyrs, the men responsible did their utmost to encourage this bacchanal. Those women who refused to join in it withdrew themselves inside the sleeping cage and cowered in corners, waiting fearfully for what might happen to them.

It was fortunate for Dick and the Lark that the affair had gone thus far, for those who had created the disturbance were incapable by this time of lending aid to the trusties and in fact had become a liability to them. Likewise the elation of the men themselves had lost its keen edge and their perception had slowed down.

Dick’s fury had grown until all he wished for was to lay his hands on the lawbreakers. Higgins’ warning, of course, had put them on guard. But the women with whom they had been frolicking were a handicap. To one of them, a haggard creature with bare shoulders and streaming hair, Dick and his companion owed much. As the two came racing up the stairs and into the dormitory, a trusty, who had possession of the jailer’s revolver raised it and fired, but this drunken woman, in a frantic dash for safety, collided with him and his shot went wild. Although Dick made for him, there was ample time for a second shot, but then the Lark again made use of the manacles he carried. This man, unlike Higgins, was out of his reach but the feliow was not out of his range. Jim threw the handcuffs straight at his head, putting his full weight behind his pitching arm with the result that the handcuffs whistled through the air like chain shot. Once more the room seemed to bulge from the pressure of the explosion but now Dick was within arm’s length. He was a young and powerful man and he was in a frenzy which multiplied his strength. He hurled the convict back; bent him over the table, and wrenched the weapon out of his grasp. Blind with rage and deaf to the bedlam around him, he swung it like a bludgeon and continued to swing it even after there was no necessity for so doing.

The phenomenon of quick strength as distinguished from sustained power has often intrigued athletes and their trainers. “Quick strength,” so-called, is the ability of the human body to respond to a sudden overdraft or emergency call upon its final reserve of power. Unlike the steady “press” of a weight lifter’s force or an exercise of endurance, it is a swift, short lived, tigerish display of force. It is too abnormal to last longer than a lightning flash but it has enabled men to effect prodigies. Jim Larkin had always possessed an abundance of this “quick strength” and it had accounted for his ability to accomplish the impossible. It was still his to draw upon and when Dick let fall the limp body in his grasp and looked up to see how his companion fared, it was to behold another convict lying huddled at Larkin’s feet. Jim paid no heed whatever to the man; he was carefully examining his hands, massaging his knuckles and stretching and flexing his fingers.

Dick Banning had lived an eternity during the few minutes that had passed since his entry into the jail; his mind had raced so rapidly that his body seemed to be in slow motion. Now he relaxed and fell into step with himself; he observed his surroundings with seeing eyes and in the glare from the naked ceiling lights; he looked for Mavis Rainey.

Meanwhile his ears opened and for the first time he heard the caterwauling that went on around him. Nowhere did he see anyone who could be the girl of that photograph, so he called her name. Then, in the far corner of the steel cage, there was a stir, a slim figure rose, and staggered weakly toward him. With a cry, he ran forward.

The struggle upstairs had been short lived but the two gunshots had brought people running from the other wing of the building. Some of them would have swarmed up to the actual scene of disorder but they were met by a stampede of disheveled prisoners descending the stairs. They pressed forward a second time only to back down again, this time ahead of Dick and Jim.

Dick came first. In his arms he carried a girl who clung closely to him and whose face was buried against his neck and shoulder. Heedless of Sheriff Higgins who was receiving first aid at the hands of a deputy, he pushed through the crowd and nobody thought to question the propriety of his departure from the jail with a prisoner in his arms.

The Lark created even more of a stir for when he appeared, he had two of the rioting trusties in tow. One hand was in the collar of each, their heads hung limply as if their necks had been broken, their knees and their knuckles dragged. With a final heave in the direction of Higgins, he dropped them at the latter’s feet saying:

“I guess you can handle them now,”

Then he followed Dick and the whispering girl.

They took Mavis directly to Birdie Caldwell’s home; they called a doctor and sent for Babaloo. Hence it was late before Dick was able to relax. The girl was in a state of shock so the doctor said, and although she was terrified at the loss of her voice, he saw nothing alarming about it. Fright had done it; she had undergone a hideous ordeal and intense emotional strain often affected singers in this manner. Happily, however, she had suffered no other hurt and doubtless she would soon regain control of her vocal cords.

Dick, too, had been under a frightful strain ever since Babaloo’s telephone call. Now he was so profoundly grateful for the outcome of the evening’s events that he felt like falling to his knees and giving thanks, Instead he telephoned party headquarters to learn the outcome of the election.

Yes, the returns were practically all in and the result was determined. The predicted landslide had occurred and the forces of good government had prevailed. Lew Gold’s faction had lost and, out of fourteen candidates it had elected only one. But Sam Brownlea was still State’s Attorney for he, Dick Banning, had run far behind his ticket.

Chapter 27

IN THE Morning Bulletin along with the election news, was a story about the jail riot, and after reading it, many citizens of Indian Falls experienced a change of sentiment. By the time the evening paper appeared with its version of the affair a wave of enthusiasm swept the town and voters who had scratched Dick’s name began calling him up to express their regrets for having done so. They hoped he would harbor no ill feeling; they urged him to run for office again —for any office he chose—and promised their enthusiastic support.

In the best of humor he assured them that the outcome was exactly to his liking. He had never craved public office, he had offered his services only because he considered it a duty, and now with a clear conscience he could devote himself to more important things.

The newspapers nowhere mentioned Mavis’ name. They merely referred to her as an out of town girl who had fallen victim to police stupidity. That was a relief for she was still in a state of shock. Happily she was among real friends. Mrs. Caldwell was tender and solicitous, Larkin assumed the role of clown, and Dick devoted his utmost efforts to diverting her thoughts from the horrible ordeal in the jail. Slowly Mavis began to regain control of herself; fear no longer haunted her dark eyes; she could sleep without suffering nightmares and she could speak after a fashion.

When she implored her friends not to notify her father of the experience she had undergone, Birdie arranged a trip out to the valley and made of it a joyous outing. There was much to see and to talk about. The Lark was droll and entertaining; Dick told of the railroads he planned to build.

Larkin intrigued Mavis profoundly and he responded to her liking. He played his violin, he performed card tricks, he recited fantastic tales of his adventures and his mishaps. He even told about his days of splendor when Rome was in its glory. Mavis listened wide-eyed and fascinated, nodding her dark head in perfect understanding. He awakened in her much the same affection she would have felt for a huge, friendly, faithful St. Bernard dog.

As to her feelings for Dick, they were too poignant for expression. Always he had been her hero; now he was her deliverer as well. Never would she forget the sight of him on that night of terror nor the security of his embrace as he swept her up and bore her to safety. To Mavis there was something breath-taking, almost godlike about him and yet he remained the same Dick Banning who had mischievously pulled her pigtails at Tranquillity.

She listened eagerly to his lightest word. Everything he had done during these late years had added to his stature. Thank God, she had the Voice. With it she felt worthy of him. With it she would sing for him and him alone for the rest of their lives.

The ordeal Dick had undergone had shaken his nerves, he found. He woke at night and paced his room. His responsibility for Mavis’ safety and her peace of mind impelled him to return with her to Mineral Springs, but for obvious reasons that didn’t seem to be the proper thing to do. He confided in Birdie. As a result the quartet, with Larkin at the reins, drove to the resort in a carryall. They took along baskets of food and had a picnic lunch under the trees. Their arrival filled Babaloo with joy.

Birdie and the Lark returned alone for Dick elected to remain behind at least for the time being. They drove several miles before Birdie inquired, “Do you think he knows what’s happened?”

Larkin glanced sharply at her. “I don’t know. What has happened?”

“Why, they’re in love.”

“Don’t make me laugh. It shakes the carriage.”

“She worshiped him when she was a child. She grew up with him in her mind. That’s why she came down to the Falls, to see him. Then those lifers had to go on their rampage! It’s my luck!” Birdie turned her face and stared at the countryside.

“Did she tell you?”

“No, but I have eyes. She’s a lovely girl.”

“Too damn lovely for a thing like that!” the Lark exclaimed. “Dick wouldn’t let it happen. Besides he’s afraid of marriage now.”

“It makes no difference. She’s mad about him and he’ll find it out sooner or later. Love like that doesn’t go unanswered.”

“Think not?”

The Lark turned his eyes to Birdie again but she did not see him. “Feelings are easy covered up. All it takes is a dead pan and the guts to keep your mouth shut.”

“Meaning that I haven’t got them?”

“You’re an iron woman, Birdie. You’re one in a thousand. But remember, the Raineys saved Dick’s life. They poured a barrel of ditch water out of him and hung him in the spare room to dry. He owes them a debt and he wouldn’t repay it by doing to Mavis what he did to Lola.”

“I don’t understand what’s the matter with him,” Birdie confessed. “I’ve tried but—”

“Dick doesn’t understand it either, nor anybody else.”

“If a woman brought it on, why couldn’t a woman—I mean, the right woman—cure it? Doesn’t that make sense?”

“Nothing makes sense to me,” Larkin said sourly. “I guess it’s just a crazy world and the best you get is the worst of it.”

For several miles the two rode in silence.

When Dick returned he went directly to his hotel and it was not until two days later that the Lark learned he was in town. Jim lost no time in seeking an explanation; he was dismayed at what he discovered.

Dick’s rooms were in disorder, and had not been made up since his arrival. Liquor bottles, both empty and full, were in evidence; the occupant was unshaven. His body was drunk, but his brain was still active. That mind of his, for which the Lark had such deep respect, resisted all efforts to completely deaden it.

“Welcome! Welcome to Purgatory,” Dick greeted him thickly. “I bid your Imperial Majesty to enter. Tune up the royal fiddle and play, while hell burns.”

In all the years of their acquaintance Jim had never known his friend to touch liquor. Without a word, he gathered up the unopened bottles and tossed them out of the window.

“That’s foolish, isn’t it?” Dick inquired, “when all I have to do is ring for more.”

The Lark seated himself. “Better tell me all about it, Ronnie.”

“Don’t call me that. Ronnie Le Grand was a decent kid. I remember him well. He never harmed anybody but himself. I’m Dick Banning. I bring misery to the weak and the innocent. ‘Dirty Dick, the Desert Scorpion! Ladies and Gentlemen! Death dwells in his caress!’ ”

He turned away and seemed lost in bitter memories. The Lark said, “How is Mavis?”

Dick ceased speaking; he took his head between his hands. “I found a way to avoid what ails me, then I turned my back on it. I didn’t realize what was happening until too late. Mavis is very happy because she knows I love her. She’s everything to me, Jim. Everything!”

“Then why make a fool of yourself like this? You’ve got that thing licked.”

The other stared at him and shook his head. “No, it’s still there, in the black cave at the back of my mind; only it hasn’t emerged. Mavis is still the little girl I knew. She’s pure, holy, sacred to the touch. To kiss her is like kissing a crucifix. Lola was like that at first. Marriage changes feelings of that sort; it coarsens them. That’s bound to happen for the time comes when those little demons creep up out of the mire and put their white hot spears into a man’s flesh. That’s precisely what happened with Lola and with every other woman I’ve known, since. It will be the same with Mavis, or it would be—Jim! I love that girl too much to risk it. God! It would kill me if Rondo showed her ugly face, and that’s what she’ll do. Think what it would do to Mavis! I honor and respect John Rainey more than any other man I ever knew. He trusted me, and he had faith in my honor. Remember that night in New Orleans when you found me walking the floor? Well, I’ve been like that ever since I got back here. How about a little drink? If it makes a beast out of a man, maybe it will make a man out of a beast.”

“It has made an idiot out of you.”

“The trouble is, Jim, I can’t let her know the truth. I’m frightened. The thing’s got me. I don’t know where to turn.”

For two sleepless days and nights, the Lark remained at his side; then Dick returned to Mineral Springs. It was a journey he longed, yet dreaded to make. He feared to trust himself with Mavis and yet when he was not at her side he was like a desert wanderer dying of thirst.

Meanwhile happiness had wrought miracles with Mavis. No trace of fear remained in her, she had regained complete control of her voice and one evening she sang for him.

It was an experience he never forgot. She did indeed possess a magnificent voice, youthful and fresh, yet with promise of great things in the future. Dick felt an impulse to prostrate himself at her feet. Delighted at his enthusiasm, she spoke of her ambitions for a career and the responsibilities that went with it. Eagerly he listened and began to plan, as Mavis talked.

She began by explaining to Dick the peculiar esteem, the reverence, she had for her Voice. Yes, to her it was spelled with a capital V. Actually it was not her Voice but the Voice. She was not so much its owner as its custodian, and as trustee of this heaven-born talent, she had assumed certain responsibilities, one being the obligation to exploit its glorious possibilities to the utmost. That she must do regardless of the cost in pain or sacrifice involved. Fame, success, popular acclaim—those must accrue to the Voice, before she could think of love, marriage, and babies for herself. She hoped Dick understood. Yes, and there was a debt involved. A fortune has been spent on her musical education and training; the hopes of Ellice, her father, and many others were wrapped up in her career.

She had finished her studies abroad; now she was ready to put herself into the hands of an operatic coach and was hopeful of engaging Maestro Vecchi, whose most recent discovery, the tenor Cassini, was the sensation of two continents. Mavis explained that ahead of her in such an event lay many months, possibly years of arduous toil, a sort of glorified slavery. In order to do her utmost best for the Voice she should not allow her mind to be distracted by thoughts of love or marriage but—she couldn’t help the fact that she was in love, cheerfully and fearfully in love. But she must have the courage to smother the flame with her bare hands, if need be.

When she finally quit talking, she had but one question to ask. Did Dick understand? Or had she made herself seem only an ambitious, selfish, career-crazy girl?

Dick understood. He had listened to her every word, realizing that here was respite if not relief from his dilemma. Delay? Why, it was like a suspended sentence. It gave him time to breathe, to find himself. Yes, and he had his work to do, which meant as much to him as her dreams meant to her. They could be engaged, he would be free to see her, to love her, to pour his adoration at her feet. There would come a day of reckoning, of course, but what prisoner condemned to death ever refused a reprieve?

In the days immediately following, Dick worked feverishly on his railroad project, and when Mavis left for home, he accompanied her as far as Chicago. In his possession was the data needed to begin raising the large loan called for in his plans. As he continued on East, he carried something he valued even more highly; it was the fragrance of Mavis’ parting kiss and the memory of her last words, “Dick, darling, I’ve always loved you and I always shall. Nothing you could do, nothing you could say, nothing that could possibly happen to either of us can change that love.”

Chapter 28

PERHAPS things had been going too well with Dick Banning. When misfortune came it fell with paralyzing effect. On the day after his return from the East, he arranged an inspection trip over the right of way of the new railroad, and, as he had often done before, he took Birdie Caldwell and the Lark with him. In his smart trap they went as far as the Lodge, then boarded a work train for the remainder of the journey. Up to that point the grading was pretty well finished, fills were in place, and permanent bridges were completed. Beyond there, however, the track was rough. It ran through open cuts only recently dug; in places it was supported upon trestles where gravel trains dumped their burdens. The work train, loaded with bridge timbers, planks, and miscellaneous supplies, proceeded slowly, feeling its way over the undulating rails. On a flat car piled high with dressed lumber fresh from the mill, Dick and his companions found quarters for themselves.

It was in crossing a low temporary trestle bridging a swampy tributary to the main stream that the accident occurred. It was one of those unspectacular, slight mishaps likely to take place at any time, but its outcome was tragic. Either the rails spread or some part of the bridge gave way—anyhow several cars left the track. They lurched and tilted, jolting and jerking as wheel flanges bit into the cross ties. There was a cracking and splintering of wood; nail kegs danced and lighter supplies were spilled off the flat cars; the lumber began to slide. A coupling snapped and the car upon which Dick and his friends were perched came to a sudden stop. But not the cargo it carried. Car stakes snapped off and an avalanche of boards spilled over the side. With it went the riders.

Birdie screamed; the men shouted as they rode the sliding boards down into the stream. It was shallow and murky, it flowed sluggishly.

Buffeted, bruised, half senseless, Dick felt its cold waters close over him and realized that he was pinned down, crushed under an imponderable weight. This, he thought, was the end. It was like drowning in a mud puddle.

But the weight grew lighter as the lumber began to float; after an interminable time during which it seemed that his lungs would burst, he managed to rise to his knees, then to his feet. His shoulders were out of water, he could breathe again. Dazed, shaken as he was, his first thought was for his companions. Loose boards from the tilted car overhead were still slithering down around him and adding to the pile that had suddenly clogged the stream. Some fell flat and floated; others plunged in endwise and were embedded in the mire.

Under the pressure of the stream, these latter assumed a slant like the poles of a beaver dam. Under their weight the whole disorderly mass of lumber surged slowly and its shape altered.

Nearby was an opening between two crazy piles of boards. It was a narrow opening and it was being forced shut like a pair of jaws. Waist deep in it, his torso dripping, was the Lark. He appeared to be holding those jaws apart by main strength. Birdie was nowhere in sight.

Dick heard his friend shouting, “Here she is! Quick, give me a hand!” Then he glimpsed something blue and sodden and recognized it as Birdie’s dress. The Lark was struggling mightily to free her, and his face was twisted with the effort.

It was impossible to get or keep a footing on those wet and slippery boards, tilted and upended as they were. Dick had to drag himself forward on hands and knees. His progress was like that of a wounded beaver scuttling to safety.

Birdie’s face looked very white against the black surface of the water; Dick seized her by the shoulders and lifted.

“She’s caught and so am I,” the Lark panted. “Wait till I get set. We’ve got to get her out. This pile behind me is closing in.”

Dick’s feet slipped; he fell backward as Birdie’s body was finally freed. Leaving her half submerged, he wallowed closer to the Lark.

“What’s pinning you? Tell me where to lift.”

“Get her out!” Jim ordered, but Dick seized him and heaved mightily. The Lark pushed him aside, crying, “Leave me alone and get her out before it closes in. Damn you, get her out!”

“She’s all right. You’re next.” For a moment the men struggled, not against the pressure of the moving mass that menaced them, but with each other.

Then the Lark grunted, “Wait! It’s letting go. I’m all right now. Grab her quick and get her ashore. I’ll be along. Hurry.”

It was an undertaking to extricate himself from the welter of slippery planks with an unconscious woman in his arms, but Dick somehow managed it. Not until he finally had his feet firmly under him and the dry stream bank was just ahead, did he turn to look back and discover that the Lark was precisely where he had left him. With a shock he realized that his friend had lied. He was still caught in the jam.

Events had moved so swiftly that the train crew had not had time to try to aid them. Now they arrived, however, to take charge of Birdie and join in Dick’s frantic efforts to rescue the Lark.

But their efforts failed. The water rose steadily behind the dam of planks until the whole shifting, grinding mass broke, moved down stream, and wedged itself against the trestle. In that mass was the broken body of Jimmy the Lark.

They extricated him finally. They managed to get him ashore but it took a long time. He smiled faintly when he saw Birdie Caldwell bending over him and heard her voice.

“You all right?” he murmured.

“Yes, Jim.”

“I was afraid.” He closed his eyes and a spasm of pain distorted his face.

Dick knelt beside the big fellow. In a frenzy of remorse, he cried, “I shouldn’t have left you. Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Forget it, Ronnie! This is a good way to go. As good as any.”

“You’re not going,” the other protested. “We’ll have a doctor here in a little while and a train. You can’t go, Jim, we’ve a lot more games to play.” Dick wondered if the strained voice could be his.

“This is the last deal. Now—let Birdie sit where you are, please, where I can see her.” Dick rose and Birdie took his place; he heard the Lark saying, “I just want to look at you.”

“Will you take my hand? Even an emperor needs something to hold onto. Thanks.” A faint smile of content came over the speaker’s face; not until it became set and fixed did they realize that the Lark had gone.

For hours the main office at the Falls had been trying to reach Dick by telephone, as he learned when he and Birdie found themselves back at the Lodge. He ignored the call at first. Finally, advised that it was urgent, he answered it in a daze. He was muddy, disheveled, his body was bruised, his hands were torn and swollen, he staggered when he walked. In his mind he could picture nothing except the vision of Jim Larkin pinned waist deep in that frightful hog wallow, his big torso rising out of the water like that of a sea monster, or the fabled Neptune emerging from the sea. With the last atom of strength remaining in his broken body he was holding back the crushing weight that threatened all of them. “Get her out! I’m all right. You don’t mind if I just—look.” The echoes would not leave his mind.

To think that neither he nor Birdie had ever realized that Jim had a heart. Well, Nero had fiddled for the last time. The world would be silent now.

Thoughts like these followed one another. Round and round they went in the same monotonous pattern, like weary dancers in some somber ritual.

Birdie had suffered a shock as great as his, but she was strong and carried her burden better than he. And she rejoiced to see him lean upon her for support.

“What was the call?” she asked when he came out of the office. “Is something wrong?”

He nodded indifferently. “I guess so. I couldn’t make out just what. It was something about Wall Street. There are a lot of telegrams from Glass and Company. I hung up while they were still talking.”

“You shouldn’t have done that. Get hold of yourself, Dick.”

He shook his head. “I should have known he was caught. If I’d stayed I could have freed him.”

“And if I hadn’t been there, you’d both be safe,” Birdie said. “How do you think I feel?”

“I’m sorry,” Dick told her. “I should be helping you. You’re a strong woman, Birdie, and I never knew how weak I am.”

There was excitement, consternation in his office when Dick entered. His secretary, the chief engineer, and other officials were awaiting him. With a mighty effort he concentrated his attention on what they had to say.

Dick’s backers had failed. It would undoubtedly go into receivership. Already orders had come from New York to stop all work on the railroad, but no one had assumed the responsibility of acting in Dick’s absence. Alone in his office he read the telegram, tried to put his thoughts together. A receivership. The banks would take over. Work would cease. The unfinished road would be sold to the highest bidder. He was out. He was ruined.

More than all that, the Lark was dead! All that he had just learned was an anticlimax. For the moment he could think of nothing except his friend.

Chapter 29

DR. CHILTON BANNING was surprised when, for a second time, his son returned home unexpectedly a few weeks later. Dick did not joke with his father, as he had done previously nor did he carry himself with a flourish. He was grave and showed signs of great weariness. When their greetings were over he sank into a chair and eyed his familiar surroundings with relief.

“It’s nice to be home,” he said with feeling.

Again the servants made known their pleasure at seeing him; again his father voiced many queries. It was not until they had dined and were alone in the library that Dick said, “Well, I’ve come creeping home, as you said I would. The air is out of the balloon, the cane and the high hat are gone; I’ve come to ask your help.”

“What’s the trouble, son?”

The tone in which this was said indicated such genuine concern that the younger man sat silent for a while. Then he said, “Thank you, sir. Isn’t it odd that we had to separate in order to get together? I’ve hesitated to lay my troubles in your lap, but now I’m glad I decided to do so. You make it easy to confess my failure. To begin with I’m broke.”

“What of that? I’m not,” said the Doctor. “What’s mine is yours. After all you’ve accomplished I can scarcely believe you mean what you say.”

“Nevertheless it’s true. No doubt you read, a few weeks ago, about the failure of several Wall Street firms, among them Glass and Company. That house was financing my railroad project. When the receiver is finished, I’ll be wiped out. It’s a pity because it was a sound proposition and I sank all I had in it. Now somebody else will finish the job and reap the profits.”

“You’re young. You’ve proved yourself.”

Dick nodded. “One failure is of no great consequence. There’s other work waiting to be done and I can always earn a fresh set of money. Yes, bankruptcy is one ailment that can be cured. I must tell you a story, sir, about a boy gambler who became a sensation on the Mississippi in the sporting world. It’s quite a long story. I’ll have to take you to Europe and all over. You’ll have to swim with me in the Mississippi and ride a hunter over walls and hedgerows. When we get back perhaps you’ll know your son better than he knows himself. That’s my one and only hope. I dare say it would be an amusing yarn—except for one fact in it—a dark and disturbing one. I hate to talk about it.”

Without further preamble Dick told his father about Ronnie Le Grand and the sort of boy he was, a man in mind and muscle but a timid, blushing adolescent in other respects. He described his meeting with Madame Rondo and the repugnance she aroused in him, then he recited in detail the events of that evening at her home. The mere telling of it brought sweat to his face, his hands shook. He spoke about the aphrodisiac she had concealed in his food and the effect it had upon him. Most of all, however, he dwelt upon the peculiar physical revulsion that had seized him when she sought to profit by her cunning and also upon its nightmarish after effects. Memories of that encounter had become a sort of black pit in his mind from which crept the horrors that haunted him.

Relieved at his father’s apparent understanding he went on to explain the growth of his obsession and how one night in Paris his wife had actually assumed the likeness of that other creature and he began to fear for his reason. He told how the hallucination had returned again and again and how he had struggled against it.

“The damnable part of it was my realization that it was wrecking Lola’s life as well as mine. Our marriage wasn’t a perfect one but it would have lasted, but for this. Lola was beautiful and healthy and impulsive—that’s all. She had no serious faults. No, the failure was mine. She must have cared for me or she would have remarried. As a matter of fact, I have sometimes wondered if her death was accidental.” He was silent for a moment.

Dick told then of his attempted escape, his flight into oblivion, and its failure. “I dare say a fellow can adjust himself to almost anything. Anyhow, I made a sort of readjustment. I kept myself occupied. I worked feverishly, frantically. I harnessed my mind and drove it without mercy. Other men have voluntarily chosen to forswear the flesh and to live in a hermit’s cave. I did it without retiring from the world and I got along all right for a while. Then one day I saw a vision—a girl so young and so glorious that I lost my head.”

“Who was the girl?” Dr. Banning asked.

“That’s the tragic part of the story, sir. What happens to me is of no great consequence, but her life and her happiness mustn’t be spoiled. She was the child I had held on my lap at Tranquillity Plantation, little Mavis Rainey. It seems I had remained her hero, her shining knight. She came to me again with her arms outstretched and—I wasn’t man enough to resist. I love her, worship her, I can’t live without her.”

“Isn’t that the answer to your problem?” Dr. Banning asked. “How can any aberration continue to exist in the presence of a love like that?”

“I was afraid you’d fail to understand,” Dick said dejectedly, “How could anyone understand? No, I’ve managed to get myself so crossed up psychologically, that the marriage relation has become, in my mind, unnatural and beastly. That’s Madame Rondo’s doing. I can only think of her as the woman who walks at midnight. She’s cunning and stealthy and devilish; she waits and waits until—tell me, do you think I’m going crazy?”

Dick rose and tramped about the library. Heedless of his father’s words he ran on almost incoherently, attempting to explain. Thus far he had managed to hold the ogress in check by the grim exercise of self-control, but the time would come when he could no longer keep Mavis at arm’s length. He had tried to be a calm and unimpassioned lover and, fortunately, she was so young and inexperienced that she expected nothing else. Her love was virginal, but she was beginning to awaken. The news of Dick’s financial loss had roused her. She was heartbroken at his misfortune and had insisted upon leaving New York to join him and be married. She wished to share with him all she had.

“I managed to prevent that, but I can’t continue to—kiss her fingertips instead of her lips.” He struck his palms together and groaned. “It’s too late to let her know that I’m only half a man. And yet I can’t marry her, for I know what would happen. I couldn’t face that; neither could she. I must do something, but what? And the time is growing short—I’d kill myself rather than hurt that child. The problem is how to avoid it.”

“Fixations of this sort are hard to deal with,” his father confessed. “We’ve made strides in medicine, but there’s still much we don’t know. Fifty years from now doctors will probably be more successful in curing sick minds. At present, however, we are pretty much in the dark when it comes to disturbed mentalities. Psychiatry is a new word and so are those that go with it. There are so many new terms and theories, none of which seem to be completely accepted yet by anybody except their originators. You have suffered a peculiar psychic injury at a particularly unfortunate time. Sex frustration is the simplest way to describe it. It was a cruel, barbarous drug that woman gave you. It tore you apart both physically and mentally. It engendered fear and fear can result in almost anything. As I say, we’re groping, but man has always had to feel his way. In spite of ignorance, superstition, and prejudice, common sense has led him constantly forward. You’re not crazy, my boy; you have a fine, well-balanced mind. There’s bound to be a cure for that fear of yours and we’ll find it. They say victims can’t cure themselves, but I’m not sure about that. And you have me. Be a little patient, Dick. Give me time to think, to reason and to analyze. Meanwhile you’ll stay here, won’t you?”

“Of course, if you’ll permit me to do so. Frankly, I’ve no other place to go. I’m lost and alone.”

“Would you consent to occupy your old room?”

“May I?” Dick asked eagerly. “That is, if it’s not too much trouble.”

The father spoke with a show of emotion rare in him. “We’ve always kept it ready and waiting. It’s exactly as you left it. Sometimes I go in and just look around, thinking of the boy in whom I took such pride and to whom I gave so little understanding. This thing that troubles you is my fault, in a way. Give me time. Let me think.”

A thousand memories flooded Dick’s mind when, late that night, he and the Doctor entered the chamber that had once been his. The bed was turned down, as it had always been, the night light shed its familiar glow upon the pillows, neatly folded and laid out were a pair of pajamas he well remembered. He presumed they would be a little small, and probably time had weakened the fabric; nevertheless he would wear them.

Awkwardly his father confessed, “Your other clothes are all in the closets still. They look funny now, but the moths haven’t hurt them. I saw to that. Your books are here too. See? What a boy you were, what a quick and thirsty mind! You seemed to know something about everything, science, literature, mathematics, the drama. None of those books are dogeared; you read them once and their content became fixed. You were going through something on the French drama when you left. There it is, on the stand alongside your bed. Yes, the room is full of sentiment for me.”

“And tonight I think I’ll sleep,” Dick told him in a small voice. “That’s something I’ve almost forgotten how to do.”

Earnestly his father declared, “We’ll whip this thing. Now, good night and God bless you.”

“And bless you, sir, for giving me the courage to try.”

* * * * * * * * *

It was the next evening. Dr. Banning was speaking. “Those psychiatric pioneers are mostly foreigners and I don’t agree with many of their findings. According to them, disorders of this nature are linked up with the sex impulses. That’s true of your trouble, in a way, but by and large I think they’re writing to hear their typewriters click or to titillate their own unhealthy emotions, I think we’ll find that fear of some sort is at the root of most troubles of this sort. Mind you, I don’t pretend to know, who does? Fear of any sort is ninety-nine per cent imagination, unreality. It can be destroyed. Once in this very room, you likened your mind to a watch that refused to run. Well, a drop of oil on the right bearing might cause it to keep perfect time. Just now, it’s an untrustworthy guide. Let’s say it points to six o’clock instead of twelve. Your trouble might have been avoided if I had told you more about what we delicately refer to as ‘the facts of life.’ But, good Lord, you knew everything else. How could I guess that you were ignorant of the birds, the bees, and the butterflies?” Dr. Banning smiled faintly. “Unfortunately you have become the victim of a false belief. That impulse which you so profoundly distrust isn’t low or beastly. As a matter of fact it’s perfectly normal and without it this smiling earth would be barren of life. Your mind needs a cleansing. Probably ‘reconditioning’ would be a better word.”

For a while the Doctor sat in frowning thought. “This obsession marches in only at certain times. Let’s call it, for the sake of delicacy, the love hour. Did you ever stop to think that the procreative urge is closely akin to the creative impulse?”

“I don’t get your meaning, sir.”

“You told me about the thrill, the excitement, the satisfaction of creating something out of nothing. You made the water run and the desert bloom. You caused homes to rise; you opened the road to happiness for a great many people. There’s something divine about such an accomplishment. It’s like being the agent of God. You bridged rivers, too; you laid rails and made the canyons echo to sounds of life. Those things you did with your hands. You had steel and lumber and concrete to work with. You told me, also, how you lost yourself in ecstasy when you wrote those love letters to Mavis. Did you ever think about writing stories?”

“Why, yes. Who hasn’t? Every shopgirl believes she’s a novelist. Every clerk and teamster is sure he could write a play if he had time. I used to scribble a bit when I was in college.”

“Exactly! Those scribblings are still in your desk upstairs. I’ve read them, and they’re good. That’s what set me to thinking. Writing of that sort is pure fiction, without the aid of steel and bricks and mortar. There’s joy and there’s inspiration in it, as I well know from my own deadly dull experience. It’s an escape far more effective than travel or the construction of a railroad.”

Dick nodded, “Escape, yes, but I’ve gone too far to turn tail and run. I’ve got to face a horrible writhing thing, real as death but elusive as a dream.”

“I’m certain that any fiction writer will say that no characters in life are more real to him than those he creates. Also that no emotions of his own are more vivid than those experienced by his imaginary characters. He must feel them or he couldn’t portray them. You have poured your heart out to Mavis on paper a hundred times and torn up the letters.”

“A thousand times! It’s the one thing that gives me relief. Alone with her image I can be an impassioned lover. I’m Abelard and Don Juan, Casanova and Cyrano, all rolled up in one package. I’m Richard the Lion-Hearted. That’s the one time when I’m beyond the reach of that witch.”

“Good! That’s what I’m getting at. One must be in a subconscious mood in order to write. In that mood you can taste Mavis’ lips on yours, you can feel her body in your arms, you can grow drunk on her breath without fear of consequences. Very well, go ahead! Write! Write about her, about your love and the emotions it arouses in you. Throw the bridle away and let your passion run free, for the first time. God put that feeling in your heart; it’s nothing to be concealed. It’s a clean, holy thing. Play on those natural emotions, and do it deliberately. Analyze them, describe them, bring them into the sunlight. Live with that girl in your imagination as you long to live with her in reality. Train your faltering emotions; strengthen them to stand on their own feet, unafraid and unashamed.”

“Write and tear up,” Dick said despondently. “I tried that and it got me nowhere.”

“Nothing of the sort,” his father said forcefully. “That would be child’s play. I believe you can write something for the world to read. I’m laying out a tremendous job for you, a life’s work. It’s another road to build, but this time a road to freedom and to happiness. Believe me, I’m thinking of Mavis as much as you. I want to see that girl here in this house. I want to hear her voice and the laughter of her children. You must do it, Dick, and you can do it. You’ll find how closely allied are those two impulses, the creative and the procreative, the hunger to bear a brain child and the urge to beget a child by her. You’ve been everywhere; you’ve seen and done everything. Write about the circus; make Mavis the girl on the white horse. I’m only suggesting, of course. All I ask is that you stimulate and nourish your starved emotions. Let the sunlight into your mind. Ghosts can’t live in the light.”

Chapter 30

MAVIS COULD NOT understand, at first, why Dick refused her offer to drop her work and be at his side when he needed her. But he refused even to consider it. Men were like that, she concluded. They were proud, self-reliant, and supersensitive. Obviously, he couldn’t bring himself to consider marriage at such a time. She supposed no man could do so.

Happily his reverses did not seem to have discouraged him. On the contrary, his letters were cheery, whimsical, tender, and optimistic. They revealed an eager concern for her success in music. No, he was anything but unfeeling; in fact, his account of the death of Jimmy the Lark was so filled with grief that it brought tears to her eyes.

She was surprised when he returned home to his father. Then he wrote that he was engaged in a new and promising enterprise. He didn’t reveal what it was, but promised to tell her about it when it was further along.

On the whole, Mavis was relieved at the course events had taken for how could she confess her own abject failure at a time like this. That disappointment would be more discouraging even than his own misfortune. Whereas he had varied resources to draw upon she had none. She dreaded the day when she would have to confess to him that her voice had failed her and her courage was gone.

Unexpectedly, her sister Ellice fell ill and she was called South. That unwelcome news came almost as a relief.

* * * * * * * *

It was late summer when Dick came to New York with a book manuscript in his suitcase. He had ground it out at the cost of long feverish concentration which left him mentally exhausted and barren. Somewhere during that grueling experience, however, he had gained new confidence and a fresh grip upon himself. He was pretty well convinced that he had found a way out of his dungeon. All that remained was to prove it. If he failed in that, then of course he was doomed to stumble indefinitely in darkness. That possibility he refused to consider.

Seth Miller, the literary and dramatic agent, prided himself on two things: his story judgment and his memory for names, faces, and events. It was this latter talent which prompted him to pause at the door of his inner office and speak to the stranger waiting in the anteroom.

“Good morning. I’m Miller. We’ve met before, haven’t we?”

“Perhaps. My name is—”

“Don’t tell me! This is my favorite form of calisthenics. It’s my morning workout and the only exercise I take.” Mr. Miller stared at Dick; he frowned and pinched the tiny goatee beneath his lower lip. It was the size and shape and color of the black tip of an ermine’s tail.

“I see you in a silk hat with a cane in your hand—no, a whip. Boots, too, and white riding pants. Am I right?”

“Right. The Great Yancey Adams—”

“Wait! Please! Give the old brain cells a chance. ‘The Great Yancey Adams Circus and Congress of Wild Animals.’ But you’re not Adams. You won the show from him in a poker game. I was in the audience the night of the big battle in Tennessee.”

Mr. Miller had a saturnine countenance and he affected an artificial attitude of truculence, but now he beamed with satisfaction. “How’s that? Miraculous, isn’t it? Well, it so happens I wrote up that scrap; I was on the local newspaper. Yep, you married the bareback rider and later she inherited all the money in Maryland. Banning is the name.” Miller extended his hand; then highly delighted with himself, he led the way into his office.

“That was the best fight I ever saw, until the elephant appeared. And what a runaway! Superb! Rondo and her toughs squealing like stuck pigs and hanging on for dear life. That was a night of nights and I did a great story on it. A newspaper classic to be frank with you. What are you doing here, Mr. Banning?”

“I heard you were about the best agent in New York.”

“A gross understatement, if I may say so.”

Dick laid his package of manuscript on Miller’s desk, whereupon the latter’s genial expression changed. Suspiciously he inquired, “What’s that?”

“It’s a novel, I hope.”

“My God! And I’ve no doubt it’s your first.”

“It is.”

“And you want me to read it. Listen, Banning, no successful agent has time to read first efforts. He’d wind up in the poor house.” The speaker’s eyes fell upon the return address upon the envelope and his tone changed. “How come you’re living at the Hotel Algonquin?”

“I heard it’s a lucky place for authors. I thought I’d like to meet a few.”

“Hm-m-m. Are you superstitious?”

“No.”

“Well, I am,” Miller confessed. “More good stuff has come out of that hotel in the last few years than all the others in New York. Tell me this, how did you come to pick Room 711?”

“It happened to be vacant.”

There was a pause. “This is too queer to be funny. I sold a play recently which was written in 711. I sold it to K and R and it’s cleaning up. Now you come along! It’s more than a coincidence. I don’t take on new authors. I hate ’em. I’m not teaching people how to write, I just want my ten per cent, and ten per cent of nothing isn’t enough. But I’m going to read your manuscript and you’d better hope that I’ll like it. Why did you take up writing?”

“I enjoy it. It’s a release. It clears my mind.”

“Humph! Say, what happened after your marriage to that little blonde creature?”

Dick told him briefly and the agent eyed him with more respect. “Maybe you can write. Anyhow, you have something to write about. Got any elephants in this yarn?”

“Yes. Big Susie and Little Major.”

“They’re lucky. They saved your circus—maybe they’ll save this script. By the way, I tried to get a story out of the Rondo dame the next day after the battle, but when I mentioned elephants, she went wild and the doctors ran me out of the hospital. She still has a horror of them and she won’t permit them to be mentioned in any of her theaters. You know what happened to her, I presume?”

“She had to leave New Orleans. I understand she came here to New York.”

“Indeed yes! She’s the R, of K and R, I just mentioned. Kelly and Rondo. They own a lot of theaters and are buying more. First she owned a string of honky-tonks and nickelodeons in the South, Kelly had some burlycue theaters in New England. They threw ’em together and ran them up into a big enterprise. It shows how the wicked can prosper, when they split with the ticket speculators. Kelly isn’t a bad guy, but Rondo is a proper bitch.”

Miller tapped Dick’s bulky envelope and continued, “I know stories and plays, too. You’re an unusual guy and I’ll read your script on the off chance that you’ve got something. If it’s any good, I’ll tell you—and I’ll sell you!”

Miller read the script and he didn’t like it. At the same time he confessed to some bewilderment, a state of mind against which he rebelled. “You can write like hell,” he declared. “But this isn’t a novel.”

“What is it?”

“I don’t know. It puzzled me. It reads as if it had been written in a storm cellar during a tornado. It’s gusty and stormy; in places it howls. In others it comes to a dead stop and there’s no breath in it. It’s chaotic and confused. On the other hand, some of it’s inspired. Sometimes it’s clear, concise, terrific. The love scenes are sincere and tender. The girl is swell, the man’s a heel. The story won’t sell, so why bother? Don’t you believe me?”

“I dare say you’re absolutely right.”

“Then why do you look so pleased?”

“Because I am pleased.”

The agent frowned in perplexity. “I don’t get you. Is your writing just a rich man’s hobby?”

“No. I’m not rich. When Glass and Company blew up I did, too. Writing is anything but a hobby with me; I take it more seriously perhaps than anything I ever tried.”

“Need any money?” Miller asked gruffly.

Still smiling, Dick shook his head. “Thanks, no! I’ve been rather successful at other things, I’d hate to fail at this, but success or failure, as measured by usual standards, isn’t of great importance to me. All I wish to do, all I must do, is keep on writing, for a while at least.”

“You don’t make the slightest sense to me,” Miller confessed. “You do provoke my curiosity, however. I’ve a hunch you can do almost anything you turn your hand to—there are men like that—and if you write another yarn I’d like to read it.”

* * * * * * * * * *

The agent’s verdict was discouraging, but Dick had been sincere when he said he was pleased. Not only had he found relief from the sick fancies that plagued him, but also he was aware of a growing confidence in his ability to re-establish his subconscious emotional balance. Why not, inasmuch as he had let light into the dank recesses of his mind? The dormant impulses which he had so long distrusted and which had atrophied were steadily growing stronger. More important, they were assuming normal shape. In the absorbing task of creative writing he had found a peculiar ecstasy and he was reluctant to forego it.

After his talk with Miller he was at a loss how to proceed and yet he considered it imperative to continue with the regimen laid down by his father.

Already he was planning how to complete his cure. Inasmuch as Madame Rondo was in New York he told himself that somehow he must manage to meet her. That meeting, however, must occur under conditions of his choosing and that posed quite a problem.

He had another story in mind and he was eager to get at it, just to find himself alone again with Mavis. She, of course, was the girl; writing the story would be like talking to her, like making love with all the stops out. But again he saw it in scenes, not in novel form. Suddenly he decided to try it as a stage play.

That decision was prompted in part by the receipt of a letter from her in which she confessed for the first time the trouble she was having with her voice. She wrote with restraint but between the lines he could detect more than a hint of fear. Her fears were false, of course, and he knew it. So did she, for that matter, but they were no less real and menacing. Was she doomed to tortures like those he had endured? Was her future to be darkened by some similar monster out of her own imagination?

After years of groping through his own subconscious world of shadows he had found something solid, or so he believed; might it not lie within his power to help Mavis in the same way? Something had to be done.

He went to work at midnight. He was surprised when dawn came. At noon he took time out to order some breakfast sent up to his room, then wrote feverishly until late evening. During the days that followed he took food only when he became ravenous and slept when his eyes refused to remain open. A peculiar frenzy held possession of him. He moved about his rooms in pajamas, his eyes vacant, his mind intoxicated with strange, boiling emotions. The maid came and went; bellboys thrust his mail under the door. He left it unopened. The typewritten sheets multiplied in number on the floor. He read and reread, wrote and rewrote them, conscious of little except the feverish urge to bring this new child of his into being. He realized that he was driving himself at reckless speed but his one desire was to complete his play before exhaustion overcame him.

By the time the manuscript was finished to his satisfaction he was gaunt, hollow cheeked, and he had a beard. He went to bed, slept for twenty hours, then telephoned Seth Miller.

“This is the hermit of Room 711,” he explained. “I have something to show you.”

“All right. What are you waiting for?”

“I haven’t seen the light of day for I don’t know how long. I need a haircut and a shave and a Turkish bath.”

“So! I take it that another Algonquin papoose has been born? Don’t let the proud parent come out. Order me up a bottle of Scotch. I’ll be right over.”

When the agent appeared, Dick said, “There was no need for you to come here.”

Miller eyed him curiously. “I wouldn’t have come for anybody else, but you’re a character, Banning. You fascinate me. Your voice sounded as if you were still under the ether and I was afraid you’d walk in front of a streetcar on the way to my office. Well, where’s the brat? . . . My God! A play! You would tackle the hardest thing in the world, wouldn’t you? Anybody can write a book but it takes experience and real ability of a peculiar sort to do a play. Your conceit is colossal. It’s sublime! First plays are always bad, you know.”

“I’d like to read it to you.”

“Oh, no, you don’t! I’ll read it myself; then I can quit when I want to. Is the Scotch handy? All right, go out, get a shave, take a walk, and don’t trip in your ether haze. If I’m still here when you get back it will surprise me.”

But Miller was still in Room 711 when Dick returned. His hair was in disorder; the Scotch was untouched.

“I don’t believe it,” he began. “If it’s true, then I’ve seen everything.” With an almost reverent touch he fondled the manuscript. “This is it! Where in heaven’s name did you learn to write for the stage?”

“I studied the French technique in college and—”

“French? They’re the only ones who mastered dramatic construction.”

“I read all I could and I even went so far as to try my hand at it, years ago.”

“The French dramatists are perfectionists. None of them ever speaks of writing a play. He says, ‘I’m writing an act, I have a second or a third act.’ Each must stand alone. Each must—Banning! This thing is terrific! I know. Why fritter your time away working with men and materials when you can work with words and ideas? Those are God’s tools.”

“Thanks.” Limply Dick seated himself, folding together as if no strength remained in him. “I didn’t realize how much energy it takes. Or what it gives. I’ve found something I never found in mining, in the law, in engineering, or anything else.”

“And that, if you’ll permit me to say so,” Miller asserted, “is the opinion of the best agent in New York. But why did you use a phony name? This is nothing to be ashamed of.”

“I have a good reason. Can you sell this thing to K and R?”

“I can, but—Wait a minute. Rondo once tried to break you. Your elephants made a cripple of her. What’s going on here?”

“Sometime when I’m in the mood I’ll tell you a story,” Dick promised. “But not now. I want K and R and nobody else to produce this play. That’s why I attached another name to it. Don’t question me too closely for I’m not sure I can make a good case for myself. Frankly, I’m following a hunch and I’m dealing with something entirely outside the theater. I believe I’m on the right track. Sell this script to K and R; give it to them with my compliments if necessary; only be sure they take it.”

“Rondo will grab it. She’s smart. I’m smarter than she is and I’ll make her pay for it. But you can’t continue to wear a set of black whiskers. I fancy she hates you the way she hates elephants. What then?”

“She’ll learn who wrote the thing when I get ready to tell her. And not before.”

“All right, Mr. A. Freeman. I should argue with a genius who fell on his head when he was a baby.” Miller strode to the telephone and called a number. After a wait he said, “Let me speak to Madame Angela. It’s urgent. This is Seth Miller, her favorite agent. . . . Hello, darling, this is Seth Santa Claus with a present for you. Hang up your tiny stocking, Angela mia. . . . Of course it’s a play, girlie! Tell me, how long is it since you’ve been goose flesh from head to toe? . . . Well, get out your smelling salts, I’m coming over to give you the thrill of a lifetime. Send the manuscript? Dearie, I wouldn’t leave it in your office overnight without a police guard. . . . The hell you can’t find time! You’ll hear it now or never, and from my own lips. . . . Of course I talk like a fool. So will you. . . . He’s a newcomer, and I mean comer. Fellow by the name of Freeman. I’ll be at your door in twenty minutes, so clear the panthers out of your den, or rue the day you were born.”

“One thing more,” Dick said as the agent was leaving, “it must be put on immediately. There’s a two months’ deadline.”

With a grin Miller answered, “Listen, Mr. All-of-a-Sudden, if that old she-wolf doesn’t go deaf on me I’ll have a ring in her nose two hours from now. After that, she’s all yours.”

Chapter 31

K AND R took the Freeman play. At the end of two weeks it had been cast and was in rehearsal. A week later the enthusiasm of the producer and the actors convinced the office that it had a genuine success on its hands. But the author kept himself out of sight.

“Where’s Freeman? Why don’t I see him?” Madame Angela demanded.

He was an odd person, extremely shy and retiring, so her director said. He slipped in and out of the theater unexpectedly; he sat in dark corners and showed himself only to offer an occasional suggestion. When called upon for script changes he made them swiftly and turned them in without comment. He was unlike any playwright the director had ever worked with. He didn’t pretend to know everything, and he didn’t indulge in temperamental outbursts. A very smart party, this Freeman. He might be a regular genius, whatever that was.

The time came when Madame Angela telephoned Seth Miller to ask angrily, “What’s going on here? A game of hide and seek? I don’t like it. I’m threatened with a hit and I can’t even meet the man who wrote it. This is the third time I’ve called you. You promised to bring him around and didn’t. I’ve sent for him and he doesn’t appear. I drop in at rehearsal and he has just left. What ails the invisible Mr. Freeman, leprosy?”

“What do you want to see him about, dearie?”

“I don’t know. Curiosity, perhaps. If I’m going to pay an author hundreds of thousands in royalties I’d like to see what he looks like. Is he young, old, married, single, black, or white?”

“He’s a man who goes places when he’s invited and not when he’s sent for. You’re doing his play and it’s coming along all right; that’s all he cares about. Why should he pull a tendon racing up your office stairs to gratify your feminine curiosity? After all, Angela sweetheart, you’ve not sweet sixteen any more. You’re a hardened old sinner and I’m probably the only man in New York who doesn’t distrust you. I’m the only one to see the nobility and the gracious charm. . . . Oh, no, you don’t hate my guts! Nor those of anybody who hands you a nice fat fortune. If you want to meet my Masked Marvel, I’ll arrange the match, and may the best man win. But for heaven’s sake, don’t order him around, or me either. Remember, I knew you when . . . Would you care to be his guest, or mine, some evening at Sherry’s? White ties and tails, of course. . . . I didn’t think you would. . . . Um-m! That would probably fetch him. I don’t see how any rising young playwright could refuse. Anyhow, I’ll pass the invitation on to him and let you know. . . . Thanks, precious! I kneel at your feet and bow deeply.” Miller hung up his phone before finishing, “You royal slut!”

To Dick he said, an hour later, “Rondo the Great requests, with all the politeness to which she is unaccustomed, that Mr. Freeman honor her with his presence at dinner tomorrow night at eight. I stalled her as long as I could.”

“So did I,” Dick confessed. “Three times I managed to get out of the theater just as she came in. She reminded me of a huge black spider creeping out of the darkness and sidling down the aisle.” Unconsciously he brushed his damp brow. “Tomorrow night! I’ve been waiting a long time. I’ll go.”

“I invited her to be your guest, or mine, knowing she wouldn’t accept. She seldon goes out in public, in fact she lives in a half light to conceal her infirmities. Even her office is dimly lit and she sits with one side of her face in shadow.” Miller gazed at his client curiously. “I’ll be waiting to hear that story you promised me. I have a feeling there’s a drama of which I know nothing being played under my nose. I smell a vendetta and it worries me. As a boy, I sat through The Corsican Brothers with my hair on end. It was my first play. Knowing what I do about that woman I feel the same uneasy tingle in my scalp. You called her a spider. That’s just what she is, a Black Widow. I’ve no doubt you hate her as bitterly as she hates you.”

“No. Not at all.”

“All the same, you’re using me, just as you’re using this play, to put something over. It’s none of my business what that may be. Actually the world would be better off without her but for God’s sake, don’t get yourself into trouble.”

Dick told him gravely, “I’ve been in trouble for years. Tomorrow night I break jail.”

* * * * * * * * * *

Angela Rondo’s ornate house on Riverside Drive was as unusual in its way as its owner was in hers. Even for the flamboyant taste of the early century it was overdone. It was also overstaffed and overstuffed with furnishings. In the large first floor reception hall was a fifty-thousand-dollar pipe organ which was seldom played. The wide stairways were thickly carpeted but never used by the owner who rode from floor to floor in a noiseless elevator. It was a singularly silent house.

Dick Banning’s palms were sweating when a footman took his coat and hat, then preceded him up the stairway to the drawing room and there announced, “Mr. Freeman.”

The room Dick faced was of impressive size. It was in shadow except where heavily shaded standing lamps threw pools of illumination upon the thick oriental rugs. Even here, in her own home, Madame Rondo kept to the half light. Her voice called, “This way, young man.”

Not until he had traversed the room and was close to her chair did she recognize him, then she uttered a cry. It was a smothered scream, indicative of such abysmal terror that it halted him.

He had been prepared for anything rather than this; what happened next astonished him even more. For a brief moment, Madame Rondo sat paralyzed, stunned; then like a stricken animal she struggled out of her chair and retreated from her caller. Her eyes were wide and staring, as they had been on that night in Tennessee when the glaring torches and burning circus tents had illuminated her face. Forgetful of her cane, she scrambled to her feet and scuttled out of his reach. Her thin moans of fright continued and rose to a strangled shriek when he addressed her. She tottered, she would have fallen except for his quickness; when he grasped her flabby arm it was as if his hand had closed over her throat, shutting off her breath.

Dick had little idea of what he said to her and apparently neither had she; he was relieved when words finally came to her lips.

“What are you doing here?” she demanded thickly. “Who let you in? G-get out!”

“But you invited me to dinner.” He actually smiled down at her. “You insisted upon seeing me.”

“Your name is Freeman?” she queried incredulously.

Forcefully he exclaimed, “Indeed it is! For the first time since we dined together in New Orleans.”

The woman cried out again, and he placed his hand over her mouth. He shook her. “Be quiet!” he commanded. “You’re acting like a hysterical child. I’m not going to hurt you. I wouldn’t if I could. What makes you carry on like this?”

Over her shoulder he saw the butler entering the drawing room and raised his voice to say, “Madame Rondo seems to be ill. Bring some whisky, quickly!”

“Yes, for God’s sake!” the woman murmured. She sat down, buried her face in her hands, and began to tremble. Words shaped themselves and he heard her exclaim, “You and your elephantsl Look what you’ve made of me—a cripple.”

“Do you blame me for that?” he demanded.

“Yes. And I curse you for it.”

“What kind of a curse did you put on Ronnie Le Grand?”

His voice grew harsher as he continued, “You crippled him, too, with your voodoo magic. You got no worse than you gave.”

“I was a handsome woman then. I could have had any man—”

“All but one.”

“Now I am a hideous, disfigured woman, crawling around in the dark.” The speaker pounded the arms of her chair with her fists; she stamped her feet.

Fearing that she was about to indulge in another hysterical outburst he laid a heavy hand on her and spoke with authority, “Get hold of yourself. Here comes your drink. Surely you do not want your servants to see you like this?”

The butler, evidently consumed with curiosity at his employer’s behavior, eyed Dick questioningly and asked if he could be of further service, but Madame Angela waved him out of the room. Decanter and glass rattled as she poured herself a drink, then she went on, as if compelled to speak to him, “You jinxed me from the first. You dealt me the Dead Man’s Hand—”

“Nonsense!”

“It’s a fact. I knew you were poison but—listen! We played four-handed draw that day on the train coming up from New Orleans. Five times I held the Dead Man’s Hand. I should have had the sense to turn back. But I didn’t. The fix was in for that night and I had to see it. It was a good fix until those god-damned elephants turned the trick. Now look at me! Look at me! From that day to this I’ve dreaded the time we’d meet. Well, now that you’ve seen me, Mr. A. Freeman, get out. To hell with you and your play!” She seemed to have overcome her fear and was like the old Rondo again.

“Just a minute. Give that whisky a chance to take hold,” Dick told her. “You’ve been shadow boxing with a ghost and so have I.”

“Get out, I say! And don’t ever come near me again.”

“I’ll do nothing of the sort. We have a lot of unfinished business together.”

“Then I’ll have you thrown out.” She turned as if to call the servants but Dick said warningly,

“Don’t try that. I’m boss here. I’ve learned some rough tricks myself. If necessary I’ll throw your butler out and lock myself in with you. You’re going through with this deal of ours.”

“Never!”

“Oh, yes. The play is ready, the scenery is built, and the paper is out. Everybody in show business will have to know why you welched with a hit on your hands. The newspapers will be after me to learn what it’s all about. They’ll dig up the real story of Madame Rondo and Ronnie Le Grand and Jim Larkin’s elephants. I’m not the only one who knows it. It’s not a pretty story, is it? You wouldn’t care to see it in the Morning Telegraph, would you? If you don’t produce the play, someone else will, and probably produce it a lot better. But I don’t want anybody else to produce it. You and I are in business together and we’re going to stay in business until we can face each other like ordinary people. That’s worth more to me than a dozen plays. We’re going to meet often, across your desk and in the theater. We’re going to argue and quarrel and fight, but we’re going to quit fighting phantoms. You can’t ditch the play, and you wouldn’t if you could. You won’t want to when you come to your senses. A million dollars wouldn’t buy the thing and I wouldn’t let you out of your contract at any price.”

A new self-confidence, an unaccustomed audacity had taken possession of Dick. It appeared to exercise a queer hypnotic effect upon his listener. She stared at him as if fascinated, her tremors ceased, and he felt her yielding to his domination.

He smiled down at her and continued, “Remember how you insisted on teaming up with me? You offered me a fancy bribe—enough to turn the head of any young fellow—just to trot with you in double harness. Well, here we are, hitched side by side. We’re teammates, so make the best of it.”

“Are you crazy or am I?” Madame Rondo inquired feebly. “I’ve had enough trouble with you. I don’t want any more. I’ll go on with the play but leave me alone.”

Dick actually grinned at her. He shook his head. “I wouldn’t think of it. I’m your guest and I intend to enjoy myself. You asked me to dinner and I’m hungry. Ravenous. Come on, let’s eat.” He lifted her bodily out of her chair, retrieved her cane, and handed it to her, took her arm and forced her to walk with him. In a boisterous humor he continued, “You’re a famous hostess, as I well know. Yes, and this is only the first of a lot of delectable meals we’re going to have together. Before long I’ll be dropping in uninvited.”

Half jokingly, half threateningly, he continued to make conversation and meanwhile he propelled the woman into her own dining room and seated her. Next he drew up a chair for himself. She stared at him fixedly as he told the astonished butler that he was an old friend of Madame’s who was ending a forty-day fast.

“Yes,” he declared jovially, “for the first time in a long while I have an appetite and it’s no ordinary appetite. It’s one I borrowed from a starving wolverine. Wolverines, as you know, are the gluttons of the animal world. Wait until you observe me in action. You see, Madame has more than one guest tonight, she actually has three, Messrs. Le Grand, Banning, and Freeman. They’re all hearty eaters and Freeman is a gaunt and hungry playwright. Our compliments to the chef and warn him that he is about to observe prodigious things.”

Raising a glass to his hostess, he cried, “Madame! I drink to the success of our joint venture and to our closer acquaintance.”

As Dick left the residence on Riverside Drive, a man emerged from a nearby doorway and fell into step with him. It was Seth Miller.

“Fancy meeting you here!” Dick said in the highest spirits. “It’s a night of pleasant surprises.”

Miller looked up at him from under the tilted brim of his soft hat. “I suppose you thought I’d be home and asleep. Well, for the past several hours I’ve been awaiting the arrival of the emergency squad or the dead wagon. I didn’t know which to expect. I found myself listening for shots, screams, the thud of falling bodies.”

“But why?” the younger man inquired.

“Because I’ve taken a liking to you. Because I arranged this rendezvous. Because I want to know what’s going on.”

“The lady screamed a little; when A. Freeman removed his beard. And no wonder. It must have been quite a shock to her. She ordered me out, but I refused to go. Instead I sort of took possession of the premises. I carried her to her own table, set her down, and ate my fill, while she looked on. It was something I had to do.”

“What about our play?”

“At first she refused to do it but it’s all right now. Just took a little persuasion. We open in Philadelphia next Monday night, as planned. What’s more, she’ll be present in person. You promised to be my guest; so did she. The three of us will go over together on the same train.”

After a moment, Miller inquired, “Isn’t it about time you came clean? I’m an old reporter with a nose for news. I don’t often consent to hold the bag, even for a friend.”

Dick took the agent’s arm in his. “It is time to tell all. In fact, if you hadn’t waited for me, I’d have hunted you up and routed you out of bed in order to get the thing off my chest. I want to tell you about it, for the more I talk about it, the better. You see, I’ve torn down the walls of a sickroom that was reeking with disease. Now I must sweep out the trash and burn it up. It’s part of the cure.”

“Cure?”

“Once upon a time,” Dick began, “there was a boy by the name of Ronnie Le Grand. He was a smart kid and he knew a lot about games of chance but he knew nothing about women.”

In a voice vibrant with confidence and good humor Dick continued to talk as he and Miller walked down the Drive.

Chapter 32

THE PLAY was presented in Philadelphia and received enthusiastic notices. The New York advance sale jumped and the speculators planned to reap a harvest. It was evident that K and R had a hit on their hands.

One afternoon, a few days prior to the Broadway opening, Dick’s telephone rang and a woman’s voice said, “This is Mrs. Tom Avery.” The name conveyed nothing to him until the speaker explained, “It’s Ellice. Ellice Rainey.”

Ellice!” he cried. “Where are you?”

“Here at your hotel. In the lobby. We arrived this morning, Mavis and I. I must see you immediately;”

Profoundly disturbed, Dick left his room and hurried to the elevator. Why had Mavis returned to New York without advising him? Why was Ellice calling him in this manner? A flood of similar questions raced through his mind on the way downstairs.

The answers were slow in coming. Ellice seemed ill at ease and in evident distress. This was so obvious that finally he said, “Something must be very wrong. You must tell me what it is.” He led her to a divan in a corner of the lobby, and she sat down with a sigh.

“Yes, Dick, that’s why I made an excuse to hurry downtown for a bit of imaginary shopping. I had to see you before Mavis telephoned.”

Anxiously he inquired, “Is she ill? Why didn’t she let me know so I could meet the train? For heaven’s sake—”

“Dick! Do you really love my little sister?” The question was earnestly put and Ellice’s expression was strained.

After a moment of hesitation he said gravely, “I’m not surprised at that question, Ellice. In the light of my actions I presume Mavis is asking it. You were the first girl I ever cared for, and I did care very deeply. For a long while I kept you, and only you, in my heart. I’m glad I did, for it gave me something fine and honest to cling to. I was a boy then. I’m a man now and I’ve seen a good deal. I’ve changed considerably, and not for the worse, I hope. Yes, I love Mavis. I can’t tell you about it. Just thinking of her leaves me inarticulate. She’s all that you were, Ellice, and even more.”

Fervently the elder sister exclaimed, “I’m glad, so glad. Poor child! She’s in a dreadful state of mind.”

“About me?”

“About you and about herself—about her voice. Her courage is completely gone. She has lost confidence and has decided to break off her engagement to you.”

“Why? Why?

“She believes her career is a miserable failure and—”

“Nonsense. She’ll break off no engagement with me! I know what ails her, it’s fear. I had it, too, and it nearly wrecked my life. But I’ve proved now that it’s nothing but a devil mask to scare children. There’s nothing behind it. I’ve suspected something was the matter with Mavis, and I’ve been making plans to meet it.”

“She idolizes you, and always has, but—”

He broke in forcefully, “Then she’s going to marry me, voice or no voice. She must learn that, immediately, and she will, the moment we meet.”

“That will be tonight.”

“It will give her something to hold onto. That will make it easier to bring her out from under the other shadow. You must help me in that.”

“Of course, only tell me how.”

For the next half hour Dick spoke rapidly and Ellice hung upon everything he said. He concluded with great conviction, “That’s all it takes, Ellice dear. Courage and faith will tear away the musty veils that are smothering her. We’ll tear them away together. We’ll let the sunlight in. This plan I’ve outlined won’t be easy on her. I’m afraid it will be pretty trying, pretty cruel, but I’m sure it will work in the end.”

“And so am I. I’m confident she’ll face it, with our help.”

Dick nodded. “It’s our only chance, and hers. I’ve been a poor excuse for a lover but now I’m myself. I’m Dick Banning again, the ringmaster she admired. I’ll pick her up, put her on the white horse, and carry her out into the daylight.”

* * * * * * * *

It was indeed a new Dick Banning who rang the bell of Mavis’ apartment that evening. He was eager, impetuous, and overflowing with joy. His arms were full of gaily wrapped gift parcels; behind him came a boy bearing florist boxes. Dropping his burdens, he swept Mavis up into his arms at once and waltzed into the living room with her. There he enthroned her on the grand piano. He stepped back, feasting his eyes on her delicate beauty, and again crushed her in his embrace.

When Ellice appeared he greeted her as if for the first time since their parting at Tranquillity. He gave her a bear hug and a brotherly kiss, then implored her to approve of him.

He was deliberately attempting to sweep the girls off their feet but his high spirits were not altogether assumed. It was intoxicating to feel complete self-mastery and a knowledge that it was no longer necessary to keep his emotions chained. After so many years of constraint it was like being let out of prison. It took no great effort on his part to turn that evening into a mad and tempestuous occasion. He shrugged off all references to the recent collapse of his fortunes and explained to Mavis that he was on his feet again. He had a new theatrical venture in which he was interested and the future was rosy; He did not mention the failure of Mavis’ voice.

He presented the gifts he had brought, opened the florist’s boxes, and helped Ellice to arrange the flowers. Always he dominated the conversation and kept the girls talking on cheerful subjects. They found it impossible to resist his holiday mood.

Dick ceased his buoyant capers only when Ellice left him alone with Mavis.

The girl, of course, could not long resist speaking about the trouble that had overwhelmed her. The world had always been such fun, life had been so gay until lately. Now it was filled with dread. Her present trouble dated back to her terrible experience in Indian Falls. She remembered little about the actual happenings, for her memory was mercifully confused. Nevertheless, almost anything served to bring back the vague and formless horror of that night in the jail. Invariably it threw her into emotional chaos. The cause might be no more than the clang of an iron gate, a burst of drunken laughter, or a woman’s shriek. She had first lost control of her voice during a vocal lesson when, against the window shade of the studio, she had noticed the shadow of an outside grating. It reminded her of the bars of her prison cage.

It was difficult to get her off the subject but Dick did his best. He told her something about what he had learned concerning fear neuroses and explained that he had suffered from one as strong as hers. Yes, he, too, had entertained such terrifying fancies. But such things could be overcome. It was weak and wicked of her to believe that a priceless talent like hers could be rendered worthless by something in which there was no reality. Some day, somehow—unexpectedly perhaps—a new light would be shed upon that dark place in her memory, and those frightening devil faces would turn into amusing masks. That, he declared, was part of what the doctors meant by mental readjustment, orientation, and such terms.

Meanwhile, life was just as gay and full of promise as ever and he proposed to prove it. Tomorrow she and Ellice and he would start having fun.

“Remember, darling,” he reassured her, “from now on you and I walk hand in hand.”

During the next few days he allowed the two sisters little time to themselves. Every morning he talked to them on the telephone; each afternoon he planned something for their amusement; in the evenings they dined together at the smartest places, then went to the theater. It was a breathless, exciting interlude for all of them. Its climax came on the night they attended the opening of a new play, The Squirrel Cage.

Dick told them he had seen it in Philadelphia already and that it was a good show, quite dramatic and tense.

He, too, was tense when the hour for which he had waited so long finally came. Ellice was paler than usual, her eyes were bright and feverish, and her fingers cold as she squeezed his hand when he helped her out of the cab. But she gazed at him as if to say, “You must have faith.”

What followed was rather terrifying for Mavis. There were moments when she felt an impulse to scream or to run blindly out of the theater. For what she beheld, astonishingly, was a dramatization of her own poignant experience in the jail. It was strangely unreal and yet distressingly realistic. She consulted her program for the author’s name, but it meant nothing. The girl on the stage was unlike her and yet Mavis realized that she was listening to her own words, her own thoughts. It was almost as if she suffered a sort of split personality and could see her own double, her shadow clothed in flesh.

Breathlessly she followed the story as it unfolded—a story of small town politics in a Western setting. It depicted the growth of public resentment at local corruption and the ill-considered efforts at vice suppression. When she saw herself arrested and taken to the jail she whispered to Ellice that she was deathly ill and would have to leave.

“It’s only a play, it isn’t real,” her sister said.

She turned her white face to Dick with a question but he smiled into her eyes, saying, “You must wait. I know it is disturbing, but you must see what happens.”

Mavis grew dizzy and felt her heart pounding when she observed her counterpart in that hellish dormitory with its cage full of disreputable women. The scene was all too realistic and the parts were well played. She feared she would faint as the lifers appeared and parleyed with the sheriff off stage.

Dick placed his arm over the back of a chair and drew her close against his shoulder. “Only be as brave now as you were that night,” he implored her. “You must see this thing from the outside looking in. Be a stout little soldier for your own sake, for Ellice’s sake, and for mine.”

The climax of the play left her limp and exhausted, she was deaf to the applause of the audience and sat speechless and numb through the intermission that preceded the final act. She scarcely heard the great applause at the end of the performance.

She was still in a trance, when, like a sleepwalker, she left the theater. She began to come out of it only when she dimly heard Ellice speak of it as Dick’s play.

“In what way is it his play?” she murmured vacantly.

“He wrote it. He is ‘A. Freeman.’ He’s the ‘Author, Author’ for whom the audience was calling.”

Mavis turned her head slowly. “Did you make a speech?”

“No, darling,” he told her. “I have a more important one to make now. Will you marry me? It’s an old speech, but it’s still good.” There were tears in Ellice’s eyes as she looked at her sister’s strained, white face and his eager one.

“Why did you write it? About me, I mean?”

“I wrote it to kill a wicked dragon. I wrote it so I could talk to you and say how much I love you. I wrote it so you’ll sing again.”

“It’s a fine play,” Ellice declared. “Dick is a genius. He told me a week ago all about what he had done and we arranged this whole affair so as to change your point of view. He knew you have been looking out through a window that distorted everything so he has smashed that window. Now you can see clearly.”

“Exactly!” Dick asserted. “You saw tonight, or you will see, that the dragon is only a silly, small worm. As the author’s bride, you’ll have to see that play over and over again. You’ll see it from the front and from the back until it bores you. You’ll meet the actors. You’ll find that those prisoners are really a lot of nice people. You can’t be afraid of anything that’s boresome.”

“An author!” Mavis repeated with the first flicker of understanding. “You must be very proud.”

He pressed her hand between his and said gravely, “No, actually I’m not proud of it. All I want is to have the play serve the purpose for which it was written.”

Mavis’ mind was functioning more normally by this time and as it cleared her excitement mounted. Back in her apartment she began to question Dick. He related how, on his father’s advice, he had tried his hand at writing as a relief from his own disturbed mental condition. He told about the failure he had made of his first effort, the book, and of his meeting with Seth Miller. He described how he had sat in his hotel room writing day and night with the frenzy of a madman and how finally Miller had pronounced his work good.

“He says I should continue to write, make it my profession.”

“Why, of course!” Mavis declared. “What else can you do after such a success?”

“There are a good many things I can do. There are a lot of things more important than plays that need doing. I might never be able to write another one. But I can build railroads and bridges and dams and—”

“What a coward you are!” Mavis cried indignantly. “If I can sing, you can write.”

“You are sure you can sing, then?” her sister inquired.

“Of course I’m sure! Sing? I’d like to see anything stop me. There’s a song in my heart right now. With Dick at my side, it’ll always be there.”

“And I’ve got a grasshopper in my stomach,” Dick said weakly. “You see, I haven’t eaten a thing since breakfast. It’s tough to be a successful playwright and a prospective bridegroom all at once. Let’s see about scrambling some eggs. Careers can wait.”


THE END

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