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THE SCANDAL DETECTIVES


by


F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940)


The Saturday Evening Post (28 April, 1928)



I


It was a hot afternoon in May and Mrs. Buckner thought that a
pitcher of fruit lemonade might prevent the boys from filling up on
ice cream at the drug store.  She belonged to that generation,
since retired, upon whom the great revolution in American family
life was to be visited; but at that time she believed that her
children's relation to her was as much as hers had been to her
parents, for this was more than twenty years ago.

Some generations are close to those that succeed them; between
others the gap is infinite and unbridgeable.  Mrs. Buckner--a woman
of character, a member of Society in a large Middle-Western city--
carrying a pitcher of fruit lemonade through her own spacious back
yard, was progressing across a hundred years.  Her own thoughts
would have been comprehensible to her great-grandmother; what was
happening in a room above the stable would have been entirely
unintelligible to them both.  In what had once served as the
coachman's sleeping apartment, her son and a friend were not
behaving in a normal manner, but were, so to speak, experimenting
in a void.  They were making the first tentative combinations of
the ideas and materials they found ready at their hand--ideas
destined to become, in future years, first articulate, then
startling and finally commonplace.  At the moment when she called
up to them they were sitting with disarming quiet upon the still
unhatched eggs of the mid-twentieth century.

Riply Buckner descended the ladder and took the lemonade.  Basil
Duke Lee looked abstractedly down at the transaction and said,
"Thank you very much, Mrs. Buckner."

"Are you sure it isn't too hot up there?"

"No, Mrs. Buckner.  It's fine."

It was stifling; but they were scarcely conscious of the heat, and
they drank two tall glasses each of the lemonade without knowing
that they were thirsty.  Concealed beneath a sawed-out trapdoor
from which they presently took it was a composition book bound in
imitation red leather which currently absorbed much of their
attention.  On its first page was inscribed, if you penetrated the
secret of the lemon-juice ink:  "The Book of Scandal, written by
Riply Buckner, Jr., and Basil D. Lee, Scandal Detectives."

In this book they had set down such deviations from rectitude on
the part of their fellow citizens as had reached their ears.  Some
of these false steps were those of grizzled men, stories that had
become traditions in the city and were embalmed in the composition
book by virtue of indiscreet exhumations at family dinner tables.
Others were the more exciting sins, confirmed or merely rumored, of
boys and girls their own age.  Some of the entries would have been
read by adults with bewilderment, others might have inspired wrath,
and there were three or four contemporary reports that would have
prostrated the parents of the involved children with horror and
despair.

One of the mildest items, a matter they had hesitated about setting
down, though it had shocked them only last year, was:  "Elwood
Leaming has been to the Burlesque Show three or four times at the
Star."

Another, and perhaps their favorite, because of its uniqueness, set
forth that "H. P. Cramner committed some theft in the East he could
be imprisoned for and had to come here"--H. P. Cramner being now
one of the oldest and "most substantial" citizens of the city.

The single defect in the book was that it could only be enjoyed
with the aid of the imagination, for the invisible ink must keep
its secrets until that day when, the pages being held close to the
fire, the items would appear.  Close inspection was necessary to
determine which pages had been used--already a rather grave charge
against a certain couple had been superimposed upon the dismal
facts that Mrs. R. B. Cary had consumption and that her son, Walter
Cary, had been expelled from Pawling School.  The purpose of the
work as a whole was not blackmail.  It was treasured against the
time when its protagonists should "do something" to Basil and
Riply.  Its possession gave them a sense of power.  Basil, for
instance, had never seen Mr. H. P. Cramner make a single
threatening gesture in Basil's direction but let him even hint that
he was going to do something to Basil, and there preserved against
him was the record of his past.

It is only fair to say that at this point the book passes entirely
out of this story.  Years later a janitor discovered it beneath the
trapdoor, and finding it apparently blank, gave it to his little
girl; so the misdeeds of Elwood Leaming and H. P. Cramner were
definitely entombed at last beneath a fair copy of Lincoln's
Gettysburg Address.

The book was Basil's idea.  He was more the imaginative and in most
ways the stronger of the two.  He was a shining-eyed, brown-haired
boy of fourteen, rather small as yet, and bright and lazy at
school.  His favorite character in fiction was Arsène Lupin, the
gentleman burglar, a romantic phenomenon lately imported from
Europe and much admired in the first bored decades of the century.

Riply Buckner, also in short pants, contributed to the partnership
a breathless practicality.  His mind waited upon Basil's
imagination like a hair trigger and no scheme was too fantastic for
his immediate "Let's do it!"  Since the school's third baseball
team, on which they had been pitcher and catcher, decomposed after
an unfortunate April season, they had spent their afternoons
struggling to evolve a way of life which should measure up to the
mysterious energies fermenting inside them.  In the cache beneath
the trapdoor were some "slouch" hats and bandanna handkerchiefs,
some loaded dice, half of a pair of handcuffs, a rope ladder of a
tenuous crochet persuasion for rear-window escapes into the alley,
and a make-up box containing two old theatrical wigs and crêpe hair
of various colors--all to be used when they decided what illegal
enterprises to undertake.

Their lemonades finished, they lit Home Runs and held a desultory
conversation which touched on crime, professional baseball, sex and
the local stock company.  This broke off at the sound of footsteps
and familiar voices in the adjoining alley.

From the window, they investigated.  The voices belonged to
Margaret Torrence, Imogene Bissel and Connie Davies, who were
cutting through the alley from Imogene's back yard to Connie's at
the end of the block.  The young ladies were thirteen, twelve and
thirteen years old respectively, and they considered themselves
alone, for in time to their march they were rendering a mildly
daring parody in a sort of whispering giggle and coming out
strongly on the finale:  "Oh, my DAR-ling CLEMON-tine."

Basil and Riply leaned together from the window, then remembering
their undershirts sank down behind the sill.

"We heard you!" they cried together.

The girls stopped and laughed.  Margaret Torrence chewed
exaggeratedly to indicate gum, and gum with a purpose.  Basil
immediately understood.

"Whereabouts?" he demanded.

"Over at Imogene's house."

They had been at Mrs. Bissel's cigarettes.  The implied
recklessness of their mood interested and excited the two boys and
they prolonged the conversation.  Connie Davies had been Riply's
girl during dancing-school term; Margaret Torrence had played a
part in Basil's recent past; Imogene Bissel was just back from a
year in Europe.  During the last month neither Basil nor Riply had
thought about girls, and, thus refreshed, they become conscious
that the centre of the world had shifted suddenly from the secret
room to the little group outside.

"Come on up," they suggested.

"Come on out.  Come on down to the Whartons' yard."

"All right."

Barely remembering to put away the Scandal Book and the box of
disguises, the two boys hurried out, mounted their bicycles and
rode up the alley.

The Whartons' own children had long grown up, but their yard was
still one of those predestined places where young people gather in
the afternoon.  It had many advantages.  It was large, open to
other yards on both sides, and it could be entered upon skates or
bicycles from the street.  It contained an old seesaw, a swing and
a pair of flying rings; but it had been a rendezvous before these
were put up, for it had a child's quality--the thing that makes
young people huddle inextricably on uncomfortable steps and desert
the houses of their friends to herd on the obscure premises of
"people nobody knows."  The Whartons' yard had long been a happy
compromise; there were deep shadows there all day long and ever
something vague in bloom, and patient dogs around, and brown spots
worn bare by countless circling wheels and dragging feet.  In
sordid poverty, below the bluff two hundred feet away, lived the
"micks"--they had merely inherited the name, for they were now
largely of Scandinavian descent--and when other amusements palled,
a few cries were enough to bring a gang of them swarming up the
hill, to be faced if numbers promised well, to be fled from into
convenient houses if things went the other way.

It was five o'clock and there was a small crowd gathered there for
that soft and romantic time before supper--a time surpassed only by
the interim of summer dusk thereafter.  Basil and Riply rode their
bicycles around abstractedly, in and out of trees, resting now and
then with a hand on someone's shoulder, shading their eyes from the
glow of the late sun that, like youth itself, is too strong to face
directly, but must be kept down to an undertone until it dies away.

Basil rode over to Imogene Bissel and balanced idly on his wheel
before her.  Something in his face then must have attracted her,
for she looked up at him, looked at him really, and slowly smiled.
She was to be a beauty and belle of many proms in a few years.  Now
her large brown eyes and large beautifully shaped mouth and the
high flush over her thin cheek bones made her face gnome-like and
offended those who wanted a child to look like a child.  For a
moment Basil was granted an insight into the future, and the spell
of her vitality crept over him suddenly.  For the first time in his
life he realized a girl completely as something opposite and
complementary to him, and he was subject to a warm chill of mingled
pleasure and pain.  It was a definite experience and he was
immediately conscious of it.  The summer afternoon became lost in
her suddenly--the soft air, the shadowy hedges and banks of
flowers, the orange sunlight, the laughter and voices, the tinkle
of a piano over the way--the odor left all these things and went
into Imogene's face as she sat there looking up at him with a
smile.

For a moment it was too much for him.  He let it go, incapable of
exploiting it until he had digested it alone.  He rode around fast
in a circle on his bicycle, passing near Imogene without looking at
her.  When he came back after a while and asked if he could walk
home with her, she had forgotten the moment, if it had ever existed
for her, and was almost surprised.  With Basil wheeling his bicycle
beside her, they started down the street.

"Can you come out tonight?" he asked eagerly.  "There'll probably
be a bunch in the Whartons' yard."

"I'll ask mother."

"I'll telephone you.  I don't want to go unless you'll be there."

"Why?"  She smiled at him again, encouraging him.

"Because I don't want to."

"But why don't you want to?"

"Listen," he said quickly, "what boys do you like better than me?"

"Nobody.  I like you and Hubert Blair best."

Basil felt no jealousy at the coupling of this name with his.
There was nothing to do about Hubert Blair but accept him
philosophically, as other boys did when dissecting the hearts of
other girls.

"I like you better than anybody," he said deliriously.

The weight of the pink dappled sky above him was not endurable.  He
was plunging along through air of ineffable loveliness while warm
freshets sprang up in his blood and he turned them, and with them
his whole life, like a stream toward this girl.

They reached the carriage door at the side of her house.

"Can't you come in, Basil?"

"No."  He saw immediately that that was a mistake, but it was said
now.  The intangible present had eluded him.  Still he lingered.
"Do you want my school ring?"

"Yes, if you want to give it to me."

"I'll give it to you tonight."  His voice shook slightly as he
added, "That is, I'll trade."

"What for?"

"Something."

"What?"  Her color spread; she knew.

"You know.  Will you trade?"

Imogene looked around uneasily.  In the honey-sweet silence that
had gathered around the porch, Basil held his breath.  "You're
awful," she whispered.  "Maybe. . . .  Good-by."


II


It was the best hour of the day now and Basil was terribly happy.
This summer he and his mother and sister were going to the lakes
and next fall he was starting away to school.  Then he would go to
Yale and be a great athlete, and after that--if his two dreams had
fitted onto each other chronologically instead of existing
independently side by side--he was due to become a gentleman
burglar.  Everything was fine.  He had so many alluring things to
think about that it was hard to fall asleep at night.

That he was now crazy about Imogene Bissel was not a distraction,
but another good thing.  It had as yet no poignancy, only a
brilliant and dynamic excitement that was bearing him along toward
the Whartons' yard through the May twilight.

He wore his favorite clothes--white duck knickerbockers, pepper-and-
salt Norfolk jacket, a Belmont collar and a gray knitted tie.  With
his black hair wet and shining, he made a handsome little figure as
he turned in upon the familiar but now re-enchanted lawn and joined
the voices in the gathering darkness.  Three or four girls who
lived in neighboring houses were present, and almost twice as many
boys; and a slightly older group adorning the side veranda made a
warm, remote nucleus against the lamps of the house and contributed
occasional mysterious ripples of laughter to the already
overburdened night.

Moving from shadowy group to group, Basil ascertained that Imogene
was not yet here.  Finding Margaret Torrence, he spoke to her
aside, lightly.

"Have you still got that old ring of mine?"

Margaret had been his girl all year at dancing school, signified by
the fact that he had taken her to the cotillion which closed the
season.  The affair had languished toward the end; none the less,
his question was undiplomatic.

"I've got it somewhere," Margaret replied carelessly.  "Why?  Do
you want it back?"

"Sort of."

"All right.  I never did want it.  It was you that made me take it,
Basil.  I'll give it back to you tomorrow."

"You couldn't give it to me tonight, could you?"  His heart leaped
as he saw a small figure come in at the rear gate.  "I sort of want
to get it tonight."

"Oh, all right, Basil."

She ran across the street to her house and Basil followed.  Mr. and
Mrs. Torrence were on the porch, and while Margaret went upstairs
for the ring he overcame his excitement and impatience and answered
those questions as to the health of his parents which are so
meaningless to the young.  Then a sudden stiffening came over him,
his voice faded off and his glazed eyes fixed upon a scene that was
materializing over the way.

From the shadows far up the street, a swift, almost flying figure
emerged and floated into the patch of lamplight in front of the
Whartons' house.  The figure wove here and there in a series of
geometric patterns, now off with a flash of sparks at the impact of
skates and pavement, now gliding miraculously backward, describing
a fantastic curve, with one foot lifted gracefully in the air,
until the young people moved forward in groups out of the darkness
and crowded to the pavement to watch.  Basil gave a quiet little
groan as he realized that of all possible nights, Hubert Blair had
chosen this one to arrive.

"You say you're going to the lakes this summer, Basil.  Have you
taken a cottage?"

Basil became aware after a moment that Mr. Torrence was making this
remark for the third time.

"Oh, yes, sir," he answered--"I mean, no.  We're staying at the
club."

"Won't that be lovely?" said Mrs. Torrence.

Across the street, he saw Imogene standing under the lamp-post and
in front of her Hubert Blair, his jaunty cap on the side of his
head, maneuvering in a small circle.  Basil winced as he heard his
chuckling laugh.  He did not perceive Margaret until she was beside
him, pressing his ring into his hand like a bad penny.  He muttered
a strained hollow good-by to her parents, and weak with
apprehension, followed her back across the street.

Hanging back in a shadow, he fixed his eyes not on Imogene but on
Hubert Blair.  There was undoubtedly something rare about Hubert.
In the eyes of children less than fifteen, the shape of the nose is
the distinguishing mark of beauty.  Parents may call attention to
lovely eyes, shining hair or gorgeous coloring, but the nose and
its juxtaposition on the face is what the adolescent sees.  Upon
the lithe, stylish, athletic torso of Hubert Blair was set a
conventional chubby face, and upon this face was chiseled the
piquant, retroussé nose of a Harrison Fisher girl.

He was confident; he had personality, uninhibited by doubts or
moods.  He did not go to dancing school--his parents had moved to
the city only a year ago--but already he was a legend.  Though most
of the boys disliked him, they did homage to his virtuosic athletic
ability, and for the girls his every movement, his pleasantries,
his very indifference, had a simply immeasurable fascination.  Upon
several previous occasions Basil had discovered this; now the
discouraging comedy began to unfold once more.

Hubert took off his skates, rolled one down his arm and caught it
by the strap before it reached the pavement; he snatched the ribbon
from Imogene's hair and made off with it, dodging from under her
arms as she pursued him, laughing and fascinated, around the yard.
He cocked one foot behind the other and pretended to lean an elbow
against a tree, missed the tree on purpose and gracefully saved
himself from falling.  The boys watched him noncommittally at
first.  Then they, too, broke out into activity, doing stunts and
tricks as fast as they could think of them until those on the porch
craned their necks at the sudden surge of activity in the garden.
But Hubert coolly turned his back on his own success.  He took
Imogene's hat and began setting it in various quaint ways upon his
head.  Imogene and the other girls were filled with delight.

Unable any longer to endure the nauseous spectacle, Basil went up
to the group and said, "Why, hello, Hube," in as negligent a tone
as he could command.

Hubert answered:  "Why, hello, old--old Basil the Boozle," and set
the hat a different way on his head, until Basil himself couldn't
resist an unwilling chortle of laughter.

"Basil the Boozle!  Hello, Basil the Boozle!"  The cry circled the
garden.  Reproachfully he distinguished Riply's voice among the
others.

"Hube the Boob!" Basil countered quickly; but his ill humor
detracted from the effect, though several boys repeated it
appreciatively.

Gloom settled upon Basil, and through the heavy dusk the figure of
Imogene began to take on a new, unattainable charm.  He was a
romantic boy and already he had endowed her heavily from his fancy.
Now he hated her for her indifference, but he must perversely
linger near in the vain hope of recovering the penny of ecstasy so
wantonly expended this afternoon.

He tried to talk to Margaret with decoy animation, but Margaret was
not responsive.  Already a voice had gone up in the darkness
calling in a child.  Panic seized upon him; the blessed hour of
summer evening was almost over.  At a spreading of the group to let
pedestrians through, he maneuvered Imogene unwillingly aside.

"I've got it," he whispered.  "Here it is.  Can I take you home?"

She looked at him distractedly.  Her hand closed automatically on
the ring.

"What?  Oh, I promised Hubert he could take me home."  At the sight
of his face she pulled herself from her trance and forced a note of
indignation.  "I saw you going off with Margaret Torrence just as
soon as I came into the yard."

"I didn't.  I just went to get the ring."

"Yes, you did!  I saw you!"

Her eyes moved back to Hubert Blair.  He had replaced his roller
skates and was making little rhythmic jumps and twirls on his toes,
like a witch doctor throwing a slow hypnosis over an African tribe.
Basil's voice, explaining and arguing, went on, but Imogene moved
away.  Helplessly he followed.  There were other voices calling in
the darkness now and unwilling responses on all sides.

"All right, mother!"

"I'll be there in a second, mother."

"Mother, can't I please stay out five minutes more?"

"I've got to go," Imogene cried.  "It's almost nine."

Waving her hand and smiling absently at Basil, she started off down
the street.  Hubert pranced and stunted at her side, circled around
her and made entrancing little figures ahead.

Only after a minute did Basil realize that another young lady was
addressing him.

"What?" he demanded absently.

"Hubert Blair is the nicest boy in town and you're the most
conceited," repeated Margaret Torrence with deep conviction.

He stared at her in pained surprise.  Margaret wrinkled her nose at
him and yielded up her person to the now-insistent demands coming
from across the street.  As Basil gazed stupidly after her and then
watched the forms of Imogene and Hubert disappear around the
corner, there was a low mutter of thunder along the sultry sky and
a moment later a solitary drop plunged through the lamplit leaves
overhead and splattered on the sidewalk at his feet.  The day was
to close in rain.


III


It came quickly and he was drenched and running before he reached
his house eight blocks away.  But the change of weather had swept
over his heart and he leaped up every few steps, swallowing the
rain and crying "Yo-o-o!" aloud, as if he himself were a part of
the fresh, violent disturbance of the night.  Imogene was gone,
washed out like the day's dust on the sidewalk.  Her beauty would
come back into his mind in brighter weather, but here in the storm
he was alone with himself.  A sense of extraordinary power welled
up in him, until to leave the ground permanently with one of his
wild leaps would not have surprised him.  He was a lone wolf,
secret and untamed; a night prowler, demoniac and free.  Only when
he reached his own house did his emotion begin to turn,
speculatively and almost without passion, against Hubert Blair.

He changed his clothes, and putting on pajamas and dressing-gown
descended to the kitchen, where he happened upon a new chocolate
cake.  He ate a fourth of it and most of a bottle of milk.  His
elation somewhat diminished, he called up Riply Buckner on the
phone.

"I've got a scheme," he said.

'What about?"

"How to do something to H. B. with the S. D."

Riply understood immediately what he meant.  Hubert had been so
indiscreet as to fascinate other girls besides Miss Bissel that
evening.

"We'll have to take in Bill Kampf," Basil said.

"All right."

"See you at recess tomorrow. . . .  Good night!"


IV


Four days later, when Mr. and Mrs. George P. Blair were finishing
dinner, Hubert was called to the telephone.  Mrs. Blair took
advantage of his absence to speak to her husband of what had been
on her mind all day.

"George, those boys, or whatever they are, came again last night."

He frowned.

"Did you see them?"

"Hilda did.  She almost caught one of them.  You see, I told her
about the note they left last Tuesday, the one that said, 'First
warning, S. D.,' so she was ready for them.  They rang the back-
door bell this time and she answered it straight from the dishes.
If her hands hadn't been soapy she could have caught one, because
she grabbed him when he handed her a note, but her hands were soapy
so he slipped away."

"What did he look like?"

"She said he might have been a very little man, but she thought he
was a boy in a false face.  He dodged like a boy, she said, and she
thought he had short pants on.  The note was like the other.  It
said 'Second warning, S. D.'"

"If you've got it, I'd like to see it after dinner."

Hubert came back from the phone.  "It was Imogene Bissel," he said.
"She wants me to come over to her house.  A bunch are going over
there tonight."

"Hubert," asked his father, "do you know any boy with the initials
S. D.?"

"No, sir."

"Have you thought?"

"Yeah, I thought.  I knew a boy named Sam Davis, but I haven't seen
him for a year."

"Who was he?"

"Oh, a sort of tough.  He was at Number 44 School when I went
there."

"Did he have it in for you?"

"I don't think so."

"Who do you think could be doing this?  Has anybody got it in for
you that you know about?"

"I don't know, papa; I don't think so."

"I don't like the looks of this thing," said Mr. Blair
thoughtfully.  "Of course it may be only some boys, but it may be--"

He was silent.  Later, he studied the note.  It was in red ink and
there was a skull and crossbones in the corner, but being printed,
it told him nothing at all.

Meanwhile Hubert kissed his mother, set his cap jauntily on the
side of his head, and passing through the kitchen stepped out on
the back stoop, intending to take the usual short cut along the
alley.  It was a bright moonlit night and he paused for a moment on
the stoop to tie his shoe.  If he had but known that the telephone
call just received had been a decoy, that it had not come from
Imogene Bissel's house, had not indeed been a girl's voice at all,
and that shadowy and grotesque forms were skulking in the alley
just outside the gate, he would not have sprung so gracefully and
lithely down the steps with his hands in his pockets or whistled
the first bar of the Grizzly Bear into the apparently friendly
night.

His whistle aroused varying emotions in the alley.  Basil had given
his daring and successful falsetto imitation over the telephone a
little too soon, and though the Scandal Detectives had hurried,
their preparations were not quite in order.  They had become
separated.  Basil, got up like a Southern planter of the old
persuasion, was just outside the Blairs' gate; Bill Kampf, with a
long Balkan mustache attached by a wire to the lower cartilage of
his nose, was approaching in the shadow of the fence; but Riply
Buckner, in a full rabbinical beard, was impeded by a length of
rope he was trying to coil and was still a hundred feet away.  The
rope was an essential part of their plan; for, after much
cogitation, they had decided what they were going to do to Hubert
Blair.  They were going to tie him up, gag him and put him in his
own garbage can.

The idea at first horrified them--it would ruin his suit, it was
awfully dirty and he might smother.  In fact the garbage can,
symbol of all that was repulsive, won the day only because it made
every other idea seem tame.  They disposed of the objections--his
suit could be cleaned, it was where he ought to be anyhow, and if
they left the lid off he couldn't smother.  To be sure of this they
had paid a visit of inspection to the Buckners' garbage can and
stared into it, fascinated, envisaging Hubert among the rinds and
eggshells.  Then two of them, at last, resolutely put that part out
of their minds and concentrated upon the luring of him into the
alley and the overwhelming of him there.

Hubert's cheerful whistle caught them off guard and each of the
three stood stock-still, unable to communicate with the others.  It
flashed through Basil's mind that if he grabbed Hubert without
Riply at hand to apply the gag as had been arranged, Hubert's cries
might alarm the gigantic cook in the kitchen who had almost taken
him the night before.  The thought threw him into a state of
indecision.  At that precise moment Hubert opened the gate and came
out into the alley.

The two stood five feet apart, staring at each other, and all at
once Basil made a startling discovery.  He discovered he liked
Hubert Blair--liked him well as any boy he knew.  He had absolutely
no wish to lay hands on Hubert Blair and stuff him into a garbage
can, jaunty cap and all.  He would have fought to prevent that
contingency.  As his mind, unstrung by his situation, gave pasture
to this inconvenient thought, he turned and dashed out of the alley
and up the street.

For a moment the apparition had startled Hubert, but when it turned
and made off he was heartened and gave chase.  Out-distanced, he
decided after fifty yards to let well enough alone; and returning
to the alley, started rather precipitously down toward the other
end--and came face to face with another small and hairy stranger.

Bill Kampf, being more simply organized than Basil, had no scruples
of any kind.  It had been decided to put Hubert into a garbage can,
and though he had nothing at all against Hubert, the idea had made
a pattern on his brain which he intended to follow.  He was a
natural man--that is to say, a hunter--and once a creature took on
the aspect of a quarry, he would pursue it without qualms until it
stopped struggling.

But he had been witness to Basil's inexplicable flight, and
supposing that Hubert's father had appeared and was now directly
behind him, he, too, faced about and made off down the alley.
Presently he met Riply Buckner, who, without waiting to inquire the
cause of his flight, enthusiastically joined him.  Again Hubert was
surprised into pursuing a little way.  Then, deciding once and for
all to let well enough alone, he returned on a dead run to his
house.

Meanwhile Basil had discovered that he was not pursued, and keeping
in the shadows, made his way back to the alley.  He was not
frightened--he had simply been incapable of action.  The alley was
empty; neither Bill nor Riply was in sight.  He saw Mr. Blair come
to the back gate, open it, look up and down and go back into the
house.  He came closer.  There was a great chatter in the kitchen--
Hubert's voice, loud and boastful, and Mrs. Blair's, frightened,
and the two Swedish domestics contributing bursts of hilarious
laughter.  Then through an open window he heard Mr. Blair's voice
at the telephone:

"I want to speak to the chief of police. . . .  Chief, this is
George P. Blair. . . .  Chief, there's a gang of toughs around here
who--"

Basil was off like a flash, tearing at his Confederate whiskers as
he ran.


V


Imogene Bissel, having just turned thirteen, was not accustomed to
having callers at night.  She was spending a bored and solitary
evening inspecting the month's bills which were scattered over her
mother's desk, when she heard Hubert Blair and his father admitted
into the front hall.

"I just thought I'd bring him over myself," Mr. Blair was saying to
her mother.  "There seems to be a gang of toughs hanging around our
alley tonight."

Mrs. Bissel had not called upon Mrs. Blair and she was considerably
taken aback by this unexpected visit.  She even entertained the
uncharitable thought that this was a crude overture, undertaken by
Mr. Blair on behalf of his wife.

"Really!" she exclaimed.  "Imogene will be delighted to see Hubert,
I'm sure. . . .  Imogene!"

"These toughs were evidently lying in wait for Hubert," continued
Mr. Blair.  "But he's a pretty spunky boy and he managed to drive
them away.  However, I didn't want him to come down here alone."

"Of course not," she agreed.  But she was unable to imagine why
Hubert should have come at all.  He was a nice enough boy, but
surely Imogene had seen enough of him the last three afternoons.
In fact, Mrs. Bissel was annoyed, and there was a minimum of warmth
in her voice when she asked Mr. Blair to come in.

They were still in the hall, and Mr. Blair was just beginning to
perceive that all was not as it should be, when there was another
ring at the bell.  Upon the door being opened, Basil Lee, red-faced
and breathless, stood on the threshold.

"How do you do, Mrs. Bissel?  Hello, Imogene!" he cried in an
unnecessarily hearty voice.  "Where's the party?"

The salutation might have sounded to a dispassionate observer
somewhat harsh and unnatural, but it fell upon the ears of an
already disconcerted group.

"There isn't any party," said Imogene wonderingly.

"What?"  Basil's mouth dropped open in exaggerated horror, his
voice trembled slightly.  "You mean to say you didn't call me up
and tell me to come over here to a party?"

"Why, of course not, Basil!"

Imogene was excited by Hubert's unexpected arrival and it occurred
to her that Basil had invented this excuse to spoil it.  Alone of
those present, she was close to the truth; but she underestimated
the urgency of Basil's motive, which was not jealousy but mortal
fear.

"You called ME up, didn't you, Imogene?" demanded Hubert
confidently.

"Why, no, Hubert!  I didn't call up anybody."

Amid a chorus of bewildered protestations, there was another ring
at the doorbell and the pregnant night yielded up Riply Buckner,
Jr., and William S. Kampf.  Like Basil, they were somewhat rumpled
and breathless, and they no less rudely and peremptorily demanded
the whereabouts of the party, insisting with curious vehemence that
Imogene had just now invited them over the phone.

Hubert laughed, the others began to laugh and the tensity relaxed.
Imogene, because she believed Hubert, now began to believe them
all.  Unable to restrain himself any longer in the presence of this
unhoped-for audience, Hubert burst out with his amazing adventure.

"I guess there's a gang laying for us all!" he exclaimed.  "There
were some guys laying for me in our alley when I went out.  There
was a big fellow with gray whiskers, but when he saw me he ran
away.  Then I went along the alley and there was a bunch more, sort
of foreigners or something, and I started after'm and they ran.  I
tried to catchem, but I guess they were good and scared, because
they ran too fast for ME."

So interested were Hubert and his father in the story that they
failed to perceive that three of his listeners were growing purple
in the face or to mark the uproarious laughter that greeted Mr.
Bissel's polite proposal that they have a party, after all.

"Tell about the warnings, Hubert," prompted Mr. Blair.  "You see,
Hubert had received these warnings.  Did you boys get any
warnings?"

"I did," said Basil suddenly.  "I got a sort of warning on a piece
of paper about a week ago."

For a moment, as Mr. Blair's worried eye fell upon Basil, a strong
sense not precisely of suspicion but rather of obscure misgiving
passed over him.  Possibly that odd aspect of Basil's eyebrows,
where wisps of crêpe hair still lingered, connected itself in his
subconscious mind with what was bizarre in the events of the
evening.  He shook his head somewhat puzzled.  Then his thoughts
glided back restfully to Hubert's courage and presence of mind.

Hubert, meanwhile, having exhausted his facts, was making tentative
leaps into the realms of imagination.

"I said, 'So you're the guy that's been sending these warnings,'
and he swung his left at me, and I dodged and swung my right back
at him.  I guess I must have landed, because he gave a yell and
ran.  Gosh, he could run!  You'd ought to of seen him, Bill--he
could run as fast as you."

"Was he big?" asked Basil, blowing his nose noisily.

"Sure!  About as big as father."

"Were the other ones big too?"

"Sure!  They were pretty big.  I didn't wait to see, I just yelled,
'You get out of here, you bunch of toughs, or I'll show you!'  They
started a sort of fight, but I swung my right at one of them and
they didn't wait for any more."

"Hubert says he thinks they were Italians," interrupted Mr. Blair.
"Didn't you, Hubert?"

"They were sort of funny-looking," Hubert said.  "One fellow looked
like an Italian."

Mrs. Bissel led the way to the dining room, where she had caused a
cake and grape juice supper to be spread.  Imogene took a chair by
Hubert's side.

"Now tell me all about it, Hubert," she said, attentively folding
her hands.

Hubert ran over the adventure once more.  A knife now made its
appearance in the belt of one conspirator; Hubert's parleys with
them lengthened and grew in volume and virulence.  He had told them
just what they might expect if they fooled with him.  They had
started to draw knives, but had thought better of it and taken to
flight.

In the middle of this recital there was a curious snorting sound
from across the table, but when Imogene looked over, Basil was
spreading jelly on a piece of coffee cake and his eyes were
brightly innocent.  A minute later, however, the sound was
repeated, and this time she intercepted a specifically malicious
expression upon his face.

"I wonder what you'd have done, Basil," she said cuttingly.  "I'll
bet you'd be running yet!"

Basil put the piece of coffee cake in his mouth and immediately
choked on it--an accident which Bill Kampf and Riply Buckner found
hilariously amusing.  Their amusement at various casual incidents
at table seemed to increase as Hubert's story continued.  The alley
now swarmed with malefactors, and as Hubert struggled on against
overwhelming odds, Imogene found herself growing restless--without
in the least realizing that the tale was boring her.  On the
contrary, each time Hubert recollected new incidents and began
again, she looked spitefully over at Basil, and her dislike for him
grew.

When they moved into the library, Imogene went to the piano, where
she sat alone while the boys gathered around Hubert on the couch.
To her chagrin, they seemed quite content to listen indefinitely.
Odd little noises squeaked out of them from time to time, but
whenever the narrative slackened they would beg for more.

"Go on, Hubert.  Which one did you say could run as fast as Bill
Kampf?"

She was glad when, after half an hour, they all got up to go.

"It's a strange affair from beginning to end," Mr. Blair was
saying.  "I don't like it.  I'm going to have a detective look into
the matter tomorrow.  What did they want of Hubert?  What were they
going to do to him?"

No one offered a suggestion.  Even Hubert was silent, contemplating
his possible fate with certain respectful awe.  During breaks in
his narration the talk had turned to such collateral matters as
murders and ghosts, and all the boys had talked themselves into a
state of considerable panic.  In fact each had come to believe, in
varying degrees, that a band of kidnappers infested the vicinity.

"I don't like it," repeated Mr. Blair.  "In fact I'm going to see
all of you boys to your own homes."

Basil greeted this offer with relief.  The evening had been a mad
success, but furies once aroused sometimes get out of hand.  He did
not feel like walking the streets alone tonight.

In the hall, Imogene, taking advantage of her mother's somewhat
fatigued farewell to Mr. Blair, beckoned Hubert back into the
library.  Instantly attuned to adversity, Basil listened.  There
was a whisper and a short scuffle, followed by an indiscreet but
unmistakable sound.  With the corners of his mouth falling, Basil
went out the door.  He had stacked the cards dexterously, but Life
had played a trump from its sleeve at the last.

A moment later they all started off, clinging together in a group,
turning corners with cautious glances behind and ahead.  What Basil
and Riply and Bill expected to see as they peered warily into the
sinister mouths of alleys and around great dark trees and behind
concealing fences they did not know--in all probability the same
hairy and grotesque desperadoes who had lain in wait for Hubert
Blair that night.


VI


A week later Basil and Riply heard that Hubert and his mother had
gone to the seashore for the summer.  Basil was sorry.  He had
wanted to learn from Hubert some of the graceful mannerisms that
his contemporaries found so dazzling and that might come in so
handy next fall when he went away to school.  In tribute to
Hubert's passing, he practised leaning against a tree and missing
it and rolling a skate down his arm, and he wore his cap in
Hubert's manner, set jauntily on the side of his head.

This was only for a while.  He perceived eventually that though
boys and girls would always listen to him while he talked, their
mouths literally moving in response to his, they would never look
at him as they had looked at Hubert.  So he abandoned the loud
chuckle that so annoyed his mother and set his cap straight upon
his head once more.

But the change in him went deeper than that.  He was no longer sure
that he wanted to be a gentleman burglar, though he still read of
their exploits with breathless admiration.  Outside of Hubert's
gate, he had for a moment felt morally alone; and he realized that
whatever combinations he might make of the materials of life would
have to be safely within the law.  And after another week he found
that he no longer grieved over losing Imogene.  Meeting her, he saw
only the familiar little girl he had always known.  The ecstatic
moment of that afternoon had been a premature birth, an emotion
left over from an already fleeting spring.

He did not know that he had frightened Mrs. Blair out of town and
that because of him a special policeman walked a placid beat for
many a night.  All he knew was that the vague and restless
yearnings of three long spring months were somehow satisfied.  They
reached combustion in that last week--flared up, exploded and
burned out.  His face was turned without regret toward the
boundless possibilities of summer.





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