CAPTIVATING MARY CARSTAIRS
HENRY SYDNOR HARRISON
WITH A FRONTISPIECE BY R.M. CROSBY
(This book was first published pseudonymously in February, 1911)
TO NAWNY: HER BOOK
_This book, representing the writer's first effort at a long story, has something of a story of its own. First planned in 1900 or 1901, it was begun in 1905, and finished at length, in a version, three years later. Through the two years succeeding it underwent various adventures, including, if memory serves, two complete overhauling. Having thus reached by stages something like its present form, it was, in August, 1910, favorably reported on by the publishers; but yet another rewriting preceded its final acceptance, a few weeks later. Meanwhile, I had turned to fresh work; and, as it chanced, "Queed" was both begun and finished in the interval while "Captivating Mary Carstairs" was taking her last journeys abroad. Turned away by two publishers, the newer manuscript shortly found welcome from a third. So it befell that I, as yet more experienced in rejections, suddenly found myself with two books, of widely different sorts and intentions, scheduled for publication by different publishers, almost simultaneously. As this seemed to be more books than society required from an unknown writer, it was decided to put out the present story—which is a "story," as I conceive the terms, and not a novel—over a pen name.
At that time, be it said, with an optimism that now has its humorous side, I viewed myself prospectively as a ready and fertile writer, producing a steady flow of books of very various sorts. Hence it occurred to me that a pseudonym might have a permament serviceability. So far from these anticipations proving justified, I am now moved to abandon the pseudonym in the only instance I have had occasion to use it. Writers have sometimes been charged with seeking to capitalize their own good fortune. My motive, in authorizing the republication of this story over my name, is not that. The fact is only that experience has taught me not to like pseudonymity: my feeling being that those who take an interest in my work are entitled, if they so desire, to see it as a whole_.
Charleston, West Virginia, 16 March, 1914
I The Chief Conspirator Secures a Pal
II They Embark upon a Crime
III They Arrive in Hunston and Fall in with a Stranger
IV Which Concerns Politics and other Local Matters
V Introduces Mary Carstairs and Another
VI The Hero Talks with a Lady in the Dark
VII In which Mary Carstairs is Invited to the Yacht "Cypriani"
VIII Concerning Mr. Ferris Stanhope, the Popular Novelist; also Peter, the Quiet Onlooker
IX Varney Meets with a Galling Rebuff, while Peter Goes Marching On
X The Editor of the Gazette Plays a Card from His Sleeve
XI Which Shows the Hero a Fugitive
XII A Yellow Journalist Secures a Scoop but Fails to Get Away with it
XIII Varney Meets His Enemy and is Disarmed
XIV Conference between Mr. Hackley, the Dog Man, and Mr. Ryan, the Boss
XV In which Varney Does Not Pay a Visit, but Receives One
XVI Wherein Several Large Difficulties are Smoothed Away
XVII A Little Luncheon Party on the Yacht "Cypriani"
XVIII Captivating Mary
XIX In which Mr. Higginson and the Sailing-Master Both Merit Punishment, and Both Escape it
XX Varney, Having Embarked upon a Crime, Finds out that there is a Price to Pay
XXI Mr. Ferris Stanhope Meets His Double; and Lets the Double Meet Everything Else
XXII Relating How Varney Fails to Die; and Why Smith Remained in Hunston; and How a Reception is Planned for Mr. Higginson
XXIII In which Varney, after all, Redeems His Promise
CAPTIVATING MARY CARSTAIRS
Captivating Mary Carstairs
THE CHIEF CONSPIRATOR SECURES A PAL
In a rear room of a quaint little house uptown, a great bronzed-faced man sat at a piano, a dead pipe between his teeth, and absently played the most difficult of Beethoven's sonatas. Though he played it divinely, the three men who sat smoking and talking in a near-by corner paid not the least attention to him. The player, it seemed, did not expect them to: he paid very little attention himself.
Next to the selection of members, that is, no doubt, the most highly prized thing about the Curzon Club: you are not expected to pay attention unless you want to. It is a sanctuary where no one can bore you, except yourself. The members have been chosen with this in mind, and not chosen carelessly.
Lord Pembroke, who married a Philadelphian, is quoted as saying that the Curzon is the most democratic club in a too confoundedly democratic country. M. Arly, the editor, has told Paris that it is the most exclusive club in the world. Probably both were right. The electing board is the whole club, and a candidate is stone-dead at the first blackball; but no stigma attaches to him for that. Of course, it is a small club. Also, though money is the least of all passports there, it is a wealthy club. No stretch of the imagination could describe its dues as low. But through its sons of plutocracy, and their never-ending elation at finding themselves in, has arisen the Fund, by which poor but honest men can join, and do join, with never a thought of ways and means. Of these Herbert Horning, possibly the best-liked man in the club, who supported a large family off the funny department of a magazine, was one. He had spurned the suggestion when it was first made to him, and had reluctantly foregone his election; whereon Peter Maginnis had taken him aside, a dash of red in his ordinarily composed eye.
"How much?" he demanded brutally.
"How much for what?"
"How much for you?" roared Peter. "How much must the club pay you to get you in?"
Horning stared, pained.
"God meant no man to be a self-conscious ass," said Peter more mildly. "The club pays you a high compliment, and you have the nerve to reply that you don't take charity. I suppose if Congress voted you a medal for writing the funniest joke in America, you'd have it assayed and remit the cash. Chuck it, will you? Once in a year we find a man we want, and then we go ahead and take him. We don't think much of money here but—as I say, how much?"
The "but" implied that Horning did, and hurt as it was meant to. He came into the club, took cheerfully what they offered him that way, and felt grateful ever afterwards that Maginnis had steered him to the light.
The big man, Maginnis himself, sat on at the piano, his great fingers rambling deftly over the keys. He was playing Brahms now and doing it magnificently. He was fifteen stone, all bone and muscle, and looked thirty pounds heavier, because you imagined, mistakenly, that he carried a little fat. He was the richest man in the club, at least so far as prospects went, but he wore ready-made clothes, and one inferred, correctly, that a suit of them lasted him a long time. He looked capable of everything, but the fact was that he had done nothing. But for his money and a past consisting of thirty years of idleness, he might have been the happiest dog alive.
"The best government," said one of the three men who were not listening to the piano, "is simply the surest method for putting public opinion into power."
The sentence drifted over the player's shoulder and Brahms ended with a crash.
"Balzac said that," he cried, rising abruptly, "and said it better! But, good heavens, how you both miss the point! Why, let me tell you."
But this they stoutly declined to do. Amid laughter and protests—for the big man's hobbies were well known to the club—two of them sprang up in mock terror, and headed for the door. They indicated that they had promised each other to play billiards and dared not break the engagement.
"I couldn't stay to the end, anyway, Peter," explained one, from the door. "My wife sits up when I'm out after midnight. Meet me here for breakfast some bank-holiday, and we'll give the day to it."
Maginnis, who never got over feeling disappointed when he saw his audience slipping away from him, sighed, searched through his frowzy pockets for a match, lit his pipe, and fell upon a lounge near to all the society that was left him.
"Why weren't you up?" said this society presently.
"The idea of dinner was repellent to me."
"To you, Peter—the famous trencherman of song and story? Why this unwonted daintiness?"
"Lassitude. Too weary to climb the stairs. Besides, I wasn't hungry."
"Ah," said Reggie Townes, "you have the caveman's idea of dinner, I see. It strikes you as purely an occasion for purveying provender to man's interior. The social feature eludes you. You know what I think, Peter? You ought to go to work."
"That's the word. What of it?"
"Not a thing. The idea was new to me; that's all."
"Persiflage and all that aside, why don't you take a stab at politics?"
"Politics! Here in New York! I'd sooner go into Avernus of the easy descent. If you had a town to run all by yourself now, there might be something in it. That idea of yours as to going to work, while unquestionably novel, strikes me as rather clever."
"No credit belongs to me," said Townes, "if I happened to be born brilliant instead of good-looking."
"I'll ponder it," said Peter; and stretching out his great hand with a gesture which banished the subject, he pushed a service button and begged Townes to be so kind as to name his poison.
Outside in the hall a voice just then called his name, and Maginnis answered.
A young man in evening dress strolled through the doorway, a tallish, lithe young man with a pleasant clean-cut face and very light hair. It was evident enough that he patronized a good tailor. He glanced at the two men, nodded absently, and dropped without speech into a chair near the door. Townes eyed him somewhat quizzically.
"Evening, Larry. A little introspective to-night, yes?"
Peter said: "By bull luck you have stumbled into a company of gentlemen about to place an order. Go ahead. Mention a preference."
The young man, unseeing eyes on Peter, did not answer. Instead, he sprang up, as though struck by a thought of marked interest and bolted out the door. They saw him vanish into the telephone booth across the hall and bang the glass door shut behind him.
"Forgot an engagement."
"You mean remembered one," said Peter.
"It all figures out to the same answer," said Townes; and glancing presently at his watch, he announced that he must be trotting on.
"But I've ordered something for you, man."
"Varney can use it, can't he?"
The door opened, and the tallish young man stood on the threshold again, this time social and affable. His distraitness, oddly enough, had all gone. He greeted the two in the smoking-room as though he had seen them for the first time that evening; expressed his pleasure at being in their company; inquired after their healths and late pursuits; pressed cigarettes upon them.
They rallied him upon his furtive movements and fickle demeanor, but drew only badinage in kind, and no explanations; and Townes, laughing, turned to the door.
"Dally with us yet a little while, Reggie."
"No, gentles, no! I'm starting abroad to-night and have already dallied too long."
"My sister," said Townes, "as perhaps you don't know, wedded a foreigner—Willy Harcourt, born and raised in Brooklyn. Therefore, I am now leaving to go to a party in Brooklyn. Say that to yourself slowly—'a party in Brooklyn!' Sounds sort of ominous, doesn't it? If the worst happens, I look to you fellows to break it to my mother. Please mention that I was smiling to the last."
He waved a farewell and disappeared into the hall. Varney dropped into the chair Townes had left empty, and elevated his feet to the lounge where sprawled the length of Peter Maginnis. Peter looked up and the eyes of the two men met.
"Well, Laurence? What is the proposition?" "Proposition? What do you mean?"
"An ass," replied Maginnis, pumping seltzer into a tall glass, "could see that you have something on your mind."
Varney pulled a match from the little metal box-holder, and looked at him with reluctant admiration. "Sherlock Holmes Maginnis! I have something on my mind. A friend dropped it there half an hour ago, and now I 've come to drop it on yours." He glanced at the room's two doors and saw that both were shut. "Time is short. The outfit upstairs may drift in any minute. Listen. Do you recall telling me the other day, with tears in your eyes, that you were slowly dying for something new and interesting to do?"
"I think of your pleasure," said Varney, "always. By looking about me and keeping my eyes and ears open at all hours, I have found you just the thing."
"New and interesting?"
"There are men in this town who would run themselves to death trying to get in it on the ground floor."
Maginnis shook his head.
"I have done everything in this world," he said almost sadly, "except, I may say, the felonies."
"But this," said Varney, "is a felony."
Struck by his tone, Peter glanced up. "Mean it?"
"As I remarked before, what is the proposition?"
"To sum it all up in a word," said Varney, "there's a job of kidnapping on and I happened to get the contract. That's all there is to the little trifle."
Peter swung his feet around to the floor, and sat up. His conviction that Varney was trying to be funny died hard.
Varney laughed. "I need a pal," he added. "Five minutes ago I telephoned and got permission to offer the place to you."
"Stop being so confounded mysterious," Peter broke out, "and go ahead!"
Varney blew smoke thoughtfully and said, "I will. In fact, that's what I came for. It's a devil of a delicate little matter to talk about to anybody, as it happens. Of course, what I tell you must never go an inch further, whether you come along or not."
"You know my Uncle Elbert?"
Varney nodded. "He wouldn't thank you for the adjective, though. I got the contract from him. By the way, he's not my uncle, of course; he was simply a great friend of my mother's. I inherited the friendship, and in these last five years he and I have somehow managed to get mighty close together. Eight years or so ago," he continued, "as you may, or may not know, Uncle Elbert and his wife parted. There wasn't a thing the matter, I believe, except that they weren't hitting it off particularly well. They simply agreed to disagree. Nouveau riche, and all that, wasn't it? Mrs. Carstairs has some money of her own. She picked up, packed up, walked out, bought a place up the river, near Hunston, and has lived there ever since."
Peter looked up quickly. "Hunston? Ha! But fire away."
"She and Uncle Elbert have stayed pretty good friends all through it. They exchange letters now and then, and once or twice when she has been in the city, I believe they have met—though not in recent years. My private suspicion is that she has never entirely got over being in love with him. Anyhow, there's their general relationship in a nutshell—parted but friendly. It might have stayed just like that till they were both in their graves, but for one accidental complication. There is a child."
"I seem to remember," said Peter. "A little boy."
"On the contrary. A little girl. Uncle Elbert," said Varney, "is a bit of a social butterfly. Mrs. Carstairs is an earnest domestic character. As I gather, that was what they clashed on—the idea of what a home ought to be. When the split came, Mrs. Carstairs took the child and Uncle Elbert was willing enough to have her do it. That was natural enough, Peter. He had his friends and his clubs and his little dinners, and he was no more competent to raise a girl baby than you are, which is certainly going some for a comparison. I suppose the fact was that he was glad to be free of the responsibility. But it's mighty different now.
"You see," said Varney, lighting one cigarette from another and throwing the old one away, "he must be pretty lonely all by himself in that big house of his. On top of that he's getting old and isn't in very good health. Explain it any way you like. The simple fact is that within this last year or so, it's gradually gotten to be a kind of obsession with him, an out-and-out, down-and-out monomania, to know that kid—to have her come and spend part of every year with him. That's natural, too, I should say."
"H'm. Mrs. Carstairs sticks to her like fly-paper, I suppose?"
"Not at all. She admits Uncle Elbert's rights and is entirely willing to let him have Mary—for such is our little heroine's name—for part of the time. It is the child who is doing the fly-paper business. The painful fact is that she declines to have anything whatever to do with her father. Invitations, commands, entreaties—she spurns them all. Yes, I asked him if they had tried spanking, but he didn't answer—seemed rather miffed, in fact. The child simply will not come, and that is point number one. Now, of course, Uncle Elbert realizes that he has not been what the world would call a good father. And he has figured it out that Mary, evidently a young precocity, has judged him, found him guilty, and sentenced him to banishment from her affections. That hurts, you know. Well, he is certain that if he could once see her and be thrown with her for a few days, she would find that he is not such an old ogre, after all, would take him back as a father, as we might say, and that after that everything would be plain sailing. That's his theory. The point is how to see her and be thrown with her for the necessary few days."
"Why does n't he get on the train and go to Hunston? Or, if Mrs. Carstairs is really so decent about the thing, why doesn't she get on the train and bring Mary down here?"
"Good. I put both of those up to him, and they seemed to embarrass him a little. I gathered that he had suggested them both to Mrs. Carstairs, and that she had turned them down hard. The ground seemed delicate. You see, we must allow for the personal equation in all this. No matter where they met, he couldn't hang around the house getting acquainted with Mary without coming into sort of intimate contact with Mrs. Carstairs, and giving a kind of domestic touch to their relations. You see how that is. She wants to be fair and generous about it, but if she is in love with him, that would be a little more than flesh and blood could bear, I suppose. Then, as I say, there is the pig-headedness of the child. Anyway, Uncle Elbert assures me that both those plans are simply out of the question. So there is the situation. Mary won't come to see him by herself. Mrs. Carstairs won't bring Mary to see him, and she won't let him come to see Mary. Well, what remains?"
Peter said nothing. In a room overhead a manifestly improvised quartet struck up "Should Auld Acquaintance be Forgot?" with great enthusiasm.
"You see there is only one thing. The old gentleman," said Varney, "has brooded over the matter till it's broken him all up. He was in bed when I was there just now. He asked me to go to Hunston and bring his daughter to him. I told him that kidnapping was a little out of my line. 'Kidnapping is rather a harsh word,' he said. 'Yes,' said I, 'it's a criminal word, I believe.' But—"
Peter looked up, interrupting. "Is this all straight? Is that really what he wants you to do?"
"Naturally, Peter. Why not? You cling to the theory that such heroic measures are entirely unnecessary? So did I till I had threshed the whole thing up and down with Uncle Elbert for an hour and a half, trying to suggest some alternative that didn't look so silly. Kindly get the facts well into your head, will you? The man must pursue Mary's affection either there or here, mustn't he? He can't do it there because his wife won't let him. In order to do it here, one would say offhand that Mary would have to be here, and since her mother declines to bring her, it does look to me as if the job would have to be done by somebody else. However, if my logic is wrong, kindly let your powerful—"
"I don't say it's wrong. I merely say that it sounds like a cross between a modern pork-king's divorce suit and a seventeenth century peccadillo."
"And I reply that I don't care a hoot how it sounds. The only question of any interest to me, Peter, is whether or not Uncle Elbert has a moral right to a share in his own child. I say that he has such a right, and I say further that this is the only way in the world that he can assert his right. Oh, hang how it sounds! I'm the nearest thing to a son that he has in this world, and I mean for him to have his rights. So—"
"Very fine," said Peter dryly. "But what's the matter with Carstairs getting his rights for himself? Why doesn't he sneak up there and pull the thing off on his own?"
Varney laughed. "Evidently you don't know Uncle Elbert, after all. He's as temperamentally unfit to carry through a job of this sort as a hysterical old lady. Besides, even though they haven't met for so long, I suppose his own daughter would recognize him, wouldn't she? I never gave that idea a thought. Like his wife, he says he wants to have nothing whatever to do with it. In fact, I made him put that in the form of a promise—he's to give me an absolutely free hand, subject to the conditions, and not interfere in any way. In return I ended by swearing a great iron-clad oath not only to go, but to bring the child back with me. The swear was Uncle Elbert's idea, and I didn't mind. Confound it!—this is getting rather intimate, but here is Mrs. Carstairs's letter giving a partial consent to the thing. It just got in this afternoon; he sent for me the minute he'd read it, I believe, and I never saw a man more excited."
He pulled a scrawled and crossed note-sheet from his pocket, and read in a guarded and slightly embarrassed voice:
HUNSTON, 25th of September.
MY DEAR ELBERT,—I hardly know how to answer you, though I have been over and over the whole subject on my knees. As you know, if I could send Mary to you, I would, sadly as I should miss her, for the wish lies close to my heart to have her know her father. But she will not hear of leaving me and there is an end of that. What you suggest is so new and so dreadful in many ways that it is very hard to consent to it. Of course, I realize that it is not right for me to have her always. But the utmost I can bring myself to say is that if you can succeed in what you propose I will do nothing to interfere with you, and will see that there is no scandal here afterwards. Of course, I am to have no part in it, and no force is to be used, and everything is to be made as agreeable for her as is possible under the circumstances. Oh, I am miserable and doubtful about the whole thing, but pray and trust that it is for the best, and that she will find some way to forgive me for it afterwards.
"H'm. No force is to be used," said Peter. "May I ask just how you expect to get Mary on the choo-choo?"
"Now we are getting to the meat of the matter," said Varney. "We shall not have to get Mary on the choo-choo at all. We are going to use a yacht, which will be far more private and pleasant, and also far easier to get people on. Uncle Elbert's Cypriani lies in the harbor at this moment, ready to start anywhere at half a day's notice. It will start for Hunston to-morrow afternoon, with me on board. I'll need another man to put the thing through right, and I'd rather trust a friend than a servant. So would Uncle Elbert. When I came in here just now, I was at once taken with your looks for the part, and I have been authorized by 'phone to give you first refusal on this great chance."
Peter said nothing. Varney feared that he looked rather bored.
"At first," he went on promptly, "I'll confess that I didn't see so much in the thing. But the more I've thought of it the more its unique charm has appealed to me. It is nothing more nor less than a novel, piquant little adventure. Exactly the sort of thing to attract a man who likes to take a sporting chance. Look at the difficulties of it. Go to a strange town where there are thousands and millions of strange children, locate Mary, isolate her, make friends with her, coax her to the yacht—captivate her, capture her! How are we to do all that, you ask? I reply, the Lord knows. That is where the sport comes in. We are forbidden to use force. We are forbidden to use Mrs. Carstairs or bring her into it in any way. We are forbidden, of course, to let the child know who we are. Everything must be done by almost diabolical craft, while dodging suspicion at every step. Can you beat it for a fascinating little expedition?"
Peter relit his pipe and meditatively dropped the match on the floor. "How old is Mary?"
"Old?" said Varney, surprised at the question, "Oh, I don't know. The separation took place—h'm—say eight years ago, and my guess is that she was about four at the time. From this and the way Uncle Elbert spoke of her, I daresay twelve would hit it fair and square. A grand age for kidnapping, what?"
"On the contrary," said Peter, "it makes it mere baby-work. Turn it over as you will, it all boils down to spanking a naughty child."
"Never! Think of slipping a cog in our plans—making a false start, having somebody get on to us! Why, man, there may be jail for us both in this!"
He examined Peter's face hopefully, but found unaffected apathy there.
"Suppose," he cried boastfully, "that the Associated Press got on to it! Think of the disgrace of it! 'Millionaire Maginnis Caught Kidnapping!' Think of being fired from the Curzon and having to leave New York a hunted and broken man! Think," he added in an inspired climax, "of having your photograph in the Sunday Herald!"
Maginnis perked up visibly at this. "There is no chance of that really, do you think?"
"None in the world," said Varney desperately.
He felt sure that this had cost him Peter, whom he had come to as his oldest and best friend. Having no idea whom he could turn to next, he rose, tentatively, and for the moral effect, to go.
"After all," he said aloud, "I have another man in my mind who would, on second thoughts, suit me better."
"Oh, sit down!" cried Peter, impatiently.
Larry sat down. His face showed, in spite of him, how really anxious he was to have Peter go. There was a brief pause.
"Since you are so crazy to have me," said Peter, "I'll go."
"Thank you," said Varney. He picked up his glass, which he had hitherto not touched, drained it at a gulp and pushed the bell vigorously. "I knew," he cried, "that you'd see the possibilities when once your brain began to work."
Peter's faint smile was an insult in its way. "Three things have decided me to go with you, old son, and none of them has anything to do with your possibilities. The first is that I'm the one man in a million you really need in case of trouble."
"Peter, your modesty is your curse."
"The second is—did you read the Sun this morning? It seems that this little town of Hunston is having a violent spasm of politics right now. Rather lucky coincidence, I should say. The dispatch I read was pretty vague, but I gather that there's an interesting fight on between a strong machine and a small but firm reform movement."
"Ha! Occupation for you while I beat the woods for little Mary."
"I'll need it."
"Well, what was your other wonderful reason?"
"Don't you know? It is that sixty horse-power oath your uncle made you swear."
"Because it committed me, you mean?"
The door opened, men entered noisily, and Peter had to draw Varney aside to explain darkly: "Because it committed me to wondering what difficulties foxy old Carstairs made a point of concealing from you."
"Meet me upstairs in ten minutes," said Varney, "and we'll talk about plans."
THEY EMBARK UPON A CRIME
Varney was wrong in one thing: Mr. Carstairs's Cypriani was not ready to start anywhere at half a day's notice. For that reason it did not start for Hunston on the following afternoon. As always happens, the preparations for the little expedition took four times as long as anybody would have thought possible.
For these delays no blame could be attached to Peter Maginnis. He had no getting ready to do beyond bidding his father's man to pack him for a week, and obtaining from his hatter's, at an out-of-season cut-price, an immense and peculiar Panama with an offensive plaid band. Possibly it was the only hat of its kind in the world. One might picture the manufacturer as having it made up as an experiment, becoming morose when he looked at it, and ordering his superintendent to make no more like it at the peril of his life.
Peter, however, was delighted with it. Gazing at himself with smirking satisfaction in the hat-shop mirror, he ordered the old one sent home and was all ready to go to Hunston and kidnap Mary Carstairs.
But other preparations could not be completed with such speedy satisfaction. The yacht had to coal, take on supplies, and pick up two or three extra men for the crew. A Sunday came in and threw everything back a day. Lastly the sailing-master's wife, whom Mr. Carstairs was sending along to take charge of Mary on the homeward trip, chanced to be down with an influenza.
As the details of getting ready multiplied about him, Varney's interest in his novel undertaking imperceptibly grew. The thing had come upon him so unexpectedly that it had not yet by any means lost its strangeness. To the old friend of his mother's girlhood, Elbert Carstairs, he was sincerely devoted, though knowing him for an indulgent man whose indulgences were chiefly of himself. But when, responding to his excited summons that night, he had sat and listened while Mr. Carstairs unfolded his mad little domestic plot, he had been first utterly amazed and then utterly repelled. And it was not until a final sense of the old man's genuine need was borne in upon him, of his loneliness, his helplessness, and his entire dependence upon him, Varney, that he had consented to undertake the extraordinary commission.
In a sense, it was all simply preposterous. Here was he, Laurence Varney, in sane mind, of law-abiding habits and hitherto of tolerable standing in the community, solemnly pledged to go and steal the person of a child, in defiance and contempt of the statutes of all known nations. And the place where this lawless deed was to be done was not Ruritania or the hazy dominions of Prince Otto, but a commonplace, humdrum American town, not an hour and a half from his office chair by the expresses.
In going about this task he was to conduct himself with the frankness and straightforwardness of a sneak-thief. Not a soul in New York was to know where he had gone. Not a soul in Hunston must dimly suspect what he had come for. It must be gum-shoe work from start to finish, and the Cypriani's motto would be the inspiring word, "Sh-h-h." Though he had to find a nondescript child whom he did not know from Eve, he was forbidden to do it in a natural, easy, and dashing way. He could not ring her mother's door-bell, ask for her, throw a meal-sack over her head, and whip his waiting horses to a gallop. No, he must beat the tall grasses before the old homestead until such time as she chose to walk abroad alone. Really, when you came to think of it, it was an asinine sort of proposition.
But when Mary did come out of that house, he saw that the fun would begin. A well brought-up, moneyed, petted and curled girl of twelve was no easy pawn in anybody's game. He could not win her love by a mere offer of gum-drops. In fact, getting acquainted was likely to be a difficult matter, taxing his ingenuity to a standstill. But he entertained no doubts of his ability to do it, sooner or later.
"Not to put too fine a point on it," mused he, glancing out of his twentieth story window, "they flock to me, children do. I'm their good old Uncle Dudley. But why the deuce isn't she five years younger?"
Clearly, it was the next step that was the most delicate: getting Mary aboard the yacht. This was both the crux and the finale of the whole thing: for Uncle Elbert was to be waiting for them, in a closed carriage, at a private dock near 130th Street (Peter remaining in Hunston to notify him by telephone of the start down), and Varney's responsibilities were over when the Cypriani turned her nose homeward. But here lay the thin ice. If anything should happen to go wrong at the moment when they were coaxing Mary on the yacht, if there was a leak in their plans or anybody suspected anything, he saw that the situation might be exceedingly awkward. The penalties for being fairly caught with the goods promised to be severe. As to kidnapping, he certainly remembered reading in the newspapers that some States punished it with death. At any rate, maybe the natives would try to thrash him and Peter. In hopeful moments he conjured up visions of the deuce to pay.
But, after all, he was going to Hunston, whether he liked it or not, simply because Uncle Elbert had asked him. The lonely old gentleman, he knew, loved him like a son: he had turned straight to him in his hour of need. This had touched the young man, and had finally made up his mind for him. Moreover Mary, a spoiled little piece who was suffered to set her smug childish will against the combined wills of both her parents, aroused his keenest antipathy. To put her in her place, to teach her that children must obey their parents in the Lord, was a duty to society, to the State. What Uncle Elbert wanted with such a child, he could not conceive; but since he did want her, have her he should. Tilting back his office chair and running his hand through his hair, Varney longed to spank her.
This thought came to him, definitely and for about the seventh time, at half-past one o'clock on the third day, Monday. At the same moment, his telephone-bell rang sharply. It was the sailing-master to say that his good spouse had come aboard and that everything on the Cypriani was in readiness for the start.
"I'll be on board inside of an hour," said Varney.
He telephoned to Uncle Elbert, telephoned to Peter, and locked up his desk. To his office he casually gave out that pressing business matters were calling him out of town for a day or two.
The two young men had been as furtive as possible about their proposed journey. They had not met since the night Varney had dangled the hope of jail and disgrace into Peter's lightening face, and so, or otherwise, cajoled him into going along. Both of them had kept carefully away from the Cypriani. Now they proceeded to her by different routes, and reached her at different times, Peter first. Their luggage had gone aboard before them, and there was no longer a thing to wait for. At three o'clock, on Varney's signal, the ship's bell sounded, her whistle shrieked, and she slid off through the waters of the bay.
About the start there was nothing in the least dramatic: they had merely begun moving through the water and that was all. The Cypriani, for all her odd errand, was merely one of a thousand boats which indifferently crossed each other's wakes in one of the most crowded harbors in the world.
"For all the lime-light we draw," observed Maginnis, drinking in the freshening breeze, "we might be running up to Harlem to address the fortnightly meeting of a Girls' Friendly Society."
Varney said: "Give us a chance, will you?"
THEY ARRIVE IN HUNSTON AND FALL IN WITH A STRANGER
The landscape near Hunston, as it happened, was superfluously pretty. It deserved a group of resident artists to admire and to catch it upon canvas; and it had, roughly speaking, only artisans out of a job. The one blot was the town, sprawling hideously over the hillside. Set down against the perennial wood, by the side of the everlasting river, it looked very cheap and common. But all this was by day. Now night fell upon the poor little city and mercifully hid it from view.
They had made the start too late for hurry to be any object. It was only a three hours' run for the Cypriani, but she took it slowly, using four. At half-past six o'clock, when their destination was drawing near, the two men went below and dined. At seven, while they were still at table, they heard the slow-down signal, and, a moment later, the rattle of the anchor line. Now, at quarter-past seven, Varney lounged alone by the starboard rail and acquainted himself with the purview.
They had run perhaps quarter of a mile above the town, for reasons which he had not communicated to the sailing-master in transmitting his orders. One was that they might be removed somewhat from native curiosity. The other was, they might be near the Carstairs residence, which was up this way somewhere. So, between the yacht and the town lay hill and wood intervening. The Cypriani, so to say, had anchored in the country. Only a light glimmering here and there through the trees indicated the nearness of man's abode.
A soporific quality lurked in the quiet solitude, and Varney, sunk in a deck-chair, yawned. They had decided at dinner that they would do nothing that night but go to bed, for it seemed plain that there was nothing else to do: little girls did not ramble abroad alone after dark. Up the companion-way and over the glistening after-deck strolled Peter, an eye-catching figure in the flooding moonlight. For, retiring to his stateroom from the table, he had divested himself of much raiment and encased his figure in a great purple bathrobe. He was a man who loved to be comfortable, was Peter. Topping the robe, he wore his new Panama. Varney looked around at the sound of footsteps, and was considerably struck by his friend's appearance.
"Feeling well, old man?" he asked with solicitude.
"Not seasick at all? You won't let me fetch you the hot-water bottle?"
Peter sank down in an upholstered wicker chair with pillows in it, and looked out appreciatively at the night. The yacht's lights were set, but her deck bulbs hung dark; for the soft and shimmering radiance of the sky made man's illumination an offense.
However, aesthetics, like everything else, has its place in human economy and no more. No one aboard the Cypriani became so absorbed in the marvels of nature as to become insensible to other pleasures. The air, new and fine from the hands of its Maker, acquired a distinct flavor of nicotine as it flitted past the yacht. From some hidden depth rose the subdued and convalescent snores of that early retirer, the sailing-master's wife. Below forward, two deck-hands were thoughtfully playing set-back for pennies, while a machinist sat by and read a sporting extra by a swinging bulb. Above forward, on a coil of rope, McTosh, the head steward and one of Mr. Carstairs's oldest servants, smoked a bad pipe, and expectorated stoically into the Hudson.
The thought of the essential commonplaceness of this sort of thing recurred to Peter Maginnis. For all his life of idleness, which was, as it were, accidental, Peter was essentially a man of action; and life's sedentary movements irked him sorely.
"Who is the individual monkeying around at the bow?" he asked presently.
"It is Mr. Bissett, the ship's engineer, who is putting a coat of white lead over the yacht's name."
"Aha! Aren't we old-sleuthy, though! And what's that piece of stage-play for?"
"All these little hookers," said Varney, "are listed in a book, which many persons own. Why have the local press tell everybody to-morrow that the yacht Cypriani belonging to Mr. Carstairs, husband once-removed to our own Mrs. Elbert Carstairs, is anchored off these shores?"
"It seems," said Peter, "like a lot of smoke for such a little fire."
He got up and sprawled on the rail, his yellow Panama pulled far over his eyes, his gaze fixed on the shining water.
"First and last, I've seen rivers in my time," he said presently, "big and little, pretty and not, clean and soiled, decent and indecent. Yes, boy," said he, "you can take it from me that I've seen the world's darnedest in the matter of rivers, and I have liked them all from Ganges to the Sacramento and back again. There was a time when I didn't have that sort of personal feeling for 'em, but a little chap up in Canada, he helped me to the light. He was the keenest on rivers I ever knew."
He broke off to yawn greatly, started to resume, thought better of it, checked himself, and presently said in an absent voice:
"No, that's too long to tell."
"There's two hours till bedtime."
Peter straightened and began strolling aimlessly about the deck, half regretting that they had decided to spend the evening on the yacht. Varney looked after him with a certain sense of guilt. Against this background of quiet night and moonlit peace, his enterprise began to look very small and easy. A ramble through the pleasant woods over there, a little girl met and played with, a leisurely stroll hand-in-hand down a woodland path to the yacht—was it for this that he had begged the assistance of Peter Maginnis, of the large administrative abilities and the teeming energies? Varney began to be a little ashamed of himself. To follow out Peter's own figure, it appeared that he had called out the fire department to help him put out a smoking sheet of note-paper on a hearth.
Soon, in one of his goings and comings, Peter halted. "There was another Hunston dispatch in the paper this morning," he vouchsafed.
"Said the reform movement was a joke."
"Good movement, you mean?"
"No reform movement is ever a good joke, under any circumstances whatsoever. Where it appears a joke at all, it is the kind that would appeal only to pinheads of the dottiest nature."
"I'm going up there to-morrow," said Peter, nodding toward the town, "and look into it a little. If there is time, I may even decide to show these fellows how a reform proposition ought to be handled to ensure results."
Far off on the hill a single light twinkled through the trees, very yellow against the pale moonlight. Varney's eye fell upon it and absently held it. It was Mary Carstairs's light, though, of course, he had no means of knowing that.
Presently Peter lolled around and looked at him. "H'm! Sunk in a sodden slumber, I suppose?"
"Not at all. Interested by your conversation—fascinated. Ha! Here is something to vary the evening's monotony. A row-boat is drifting down-stream towards us. Let us make little wagers with each other as to who'll be in it."
He looked over his shoulder upward at the moon, which a flying scud of cloud had momentarily veiled. Peter, who had sat down again, glanced up the river.
"I don't see any boat."
"There is where the wager comes in, my son. Hurry up—the moon will pop out in another minute, and spoil the sport."
"Drifting, you say. Bet you she's empty—broke away from her moorings and riding down with the current. Bet you half a dollar. My second bet," he said, warming to the work, "is an old washerwoman and her little boy, out on their rounds collecting clothes. It's Monday. In case both firsts are wrong, second choices get the money."
"My bet is—Ha! Stand ready with your half! There she comes—Jove!"
"Good God!" cried Peter and sprang up.
For the moon had jumped out from behind its cloud like a cuckoo in a clock, and fallen full upon the drifting boat, now hardly fifty yards away. In the bottom of it lay a man, sprawled over his useless oars, his upturned face very white in the moonlight, limp legs huddled under him anyhow. Something in the abandon of his position suggested that he would not get up any more.
WHICH CONCERNS POLITICS AND OTHER LOCAL MATTERS
It was an odd sight against the setting of pretty night and light, idle talk. Peter's lip tightened.
"He's dead, poor chap!" he said, in a low voice. "Murdered."
"So it seems. We can't be sure from here, though. Where's that watch? Here—some of you! Lower away the dinghy! Get a move!"
The boats were on their hooks, swung outboard ready for instant use. The crew, tumbling out swiftly at the call, cleared away one and let it fall over the side. The young men went down with it, Peter seizing the oars as his by right. The floating boat with its strange cargo had drifted close and was now lost in the vast black shadow of the yacht.
"Where is it?"
"I can't—Yes! There it is. Straight back. Now a little to the right. Way enough!"
Varney, in the stern, leaned out and gripped the drifting gunwale securely. But it was so dark here that he could see almost nothing.
"He's breathing, I think," he said, his hand against the strange man's chest. "Pull out into the light."
But just then the arm that lay under the still head unmistakably twitched.
"Good!" cried Peter and laughed a little. "Strike a match and let's have a look at him."
Varney fumbled in his pockets, found one and scratched it on the side. Shielding the flame in his curved hand, he leaned forward and held it close to that motionless face.
It was a young face, pale and rather haggard, lined about the mouth and yellow about the eyes; the face of a clever but broken gentleman. Full of contrasts and a story as it was, it would have been a striking face at any time; and to the two peering men in the Cypriani's boat, it was now very striking indeed. For they saw immediately that the curious eyes were half open and were fixed full upon them.
The match burned Varney's fingers, went out and dropped into the water. He said nothing. Neither did Peter. The man in the boat did not stir. So went by a second of profound stillness. Then a somewhat blurred voice said:
"When a gentleman goes rowing—in a private boat—and is raided by a pair of unknown investigators—one of them wearing a Mother Hubbard— who strike matches in his face and make personal remarks—he naturally awaits their explanations."
The speech fell upon four of the most astonished ears in the State of New York.
Peter recovered first: the remark about the Mother Hubbard had stung him a little, even in that dumfounded moment, but he only laughed.
"The fact is, we made absolutely sure that you were a corpse. Our mistake."
"But God save us!" murmured the young man. "Can't a man die these days without a yacht-full of anxious persons steaming up and clamping a light against his eyeball?"
"But can't we do something for you?" asked Varney. "That's what we are here for."
The young man lay still and thought a moment, which he appeared to do with some difficulty.
"To be frank," his voice came out of the dark, rather clearer now, "you can. Give me a match, will you?"
Varney laughed; he produced and handed over a little box of them. Lying flat on his back in the boat, the young man fished a cigarette out of his pocket, hurriedly, and stuck it between his lips. The next minute the spurt of a match cut the air. The two in the ship's boat caught a brief, flashing glimpse of him—thin white hands raised to thin white face.
"Something of a poseur, aren't you?" suggested Peter pleasantly. "What's your role to-night?"
There followed a fractional pause.
"That of a vagrant student of manners and customs," answered the colorless voice. "Therefore, to imitate your frankness, you interest me greatly."
"Those who study manners," said Peter, "should learn them after a while. Why didn't you sing out, when you saw us hustling to get out a boat, and tell us not to bother, as you were only playing dead for the lark of the thing?"
"Singing, whether out or in, is an art at which I can claim small proficiency. But tell me the time, will you? I seem to have hocked my watch."
Peter laughed a little ruefully. "It's seven thirty-six—no more and no less."
The young man sat up with an effort, and uncertainly gathered up his oars.
"You'll excuse me, then?" he said. "I have an engagement at seven thirty, and as you see, there is little time to make it."
"We gave you a light," said Peter. "Why not reciprocate? Who the devil are you?"
"I am a part of all that I have met," said the stranger, pulling off. "I am wily wandering Ulysses. I am—"
"That will do," said Peter sharply.
He bowed gravely and rowed away. Peter looked after him for some time, in rather impressive silence.
"What d' you suppose was the matter with the beggar, anyway? He wasn't drunk."
"Didn't you notice his wrists when he held them up to light his cigarette? Full of little scars."
Peter whistled. "So morphine is his trouble, is it? Listen!"
From down the river rose a faint roar, like the sound of many voices a long way off. While the two men listened, it subsided and then rose again.
"Hello!" said Varney. "Look at your student of manners and customs now."
The man in the boat was still plainly discernible, his face picked out by the moon in greenish white. But there was no longer any lethargy in his manner. He was bending his back to his best stroke—an excellent one it was—and driving his light bark rapidly down the stream.
"My bet," said Varney, "is that he hears those shouts, and they mean something to him—something interesting and important."
"Larry, be a sport! Let's follow this thing along and find out what it all means."
"Oh, I'm willing to drop into town for a little reconnoissance, if you like. Maybe we can pick up something that will help us in our business."
"Spoken like a scholar and a gentleman. One minute while I get on my clothes. Oh—by the way! Er—this new—robe of mine doesn't look like a Mother Hubbard, does it?"
"In my opinion," said Varney, "two things could not well be more utterly unlike."
Peter was back in five minutes, clothed and in his right mind. His falling foot hit the center-line of the gig with a thump, and they shot away toward the town wharf.
They bade the boat wait their signal in the shadows a little upstream, and jumped out upon the old and rotting landing. A street ran straight before them, up a steep hill and into the heart of the town, and they took it, guided by a burst of still distant laughter and hoarse shouts. Toiling up the evil sidewalk, they looked about curiously at the town which was to engage their attention for the next day or so. Over everything hung that vague air of dejection and moral decay which is so hard to define and so easy to detect. The street was lit with feeble electric lights which did little more than nullify the moon. Grass grew at its pleasure through the broken brick pavement; and even in that dimness, it was very evident that the White Wing department had been taking a long vacation.
Varney's eye took in everything. It occurred to him that this was a most extraordinary place for the family of the exquisite and well-fixed Elbert Carstairs to live. Hard on the heels of that came another thought and he stopped.
"What's the matter?" said Peter.
"We simply mustn't get mixed up in any doings here, you know. Can't afford it. Whatever is going on, our role must be that of quiet onlookers only. Remember that."
"Quiet onlookers it is. Hello! Did you see that?"
"Old duck in a felt hat walking behind us, a good distance off—I'd heard him for some time. He stopped when we stopped, and when I turned then I was just in time to see him go skipping up the side street."
"Well, what of it?"
"Not a thing. I'm interested in the sights of the town, that's all. Listen to those hoodlums, will you?"
In the middle of that block rose a great public building of florid and hideous architecture, absurdly expensive for so small a town, and running fast to seed. On the corner ahead, at the crest of the slope, stood the handsomest and most prosperous-looking building they had yet seen. Its long side was cut by many windows, all brilliantly lit up, and above the lower tier ran the gold-lettered legend:
WINES & LIQUORS. THE OTTOMAN. D. RYAN.
"When the saloon-keeper is the richest man in town," observed Peter, "look out for trouble."
A roar of laughter, mingled with various derisive cries, broke out just then, now from very near. The next minute the two men reached the brow of the hill, and both stopped involuntarily, arrested by the tableau which met their gaze beyond.
They stood on the upper side of a little rectangular "square," at the lower edge of which, some fifty yards away, were gathered possibly thirty or forty jostling and noisy men. Facing them, standing on a carriage-block at the curb, stood a cool little man obviously engaged in making a speech. The commonness of the men and the rough joviality of their mood were the more accentuated by the supreme dignity of the orator. He was a very small man, with pink cheeks and eye-glasses, beautifully made and still more beautifully dressed; and for all their boisterous "jollying" his auditors appeared rather to like him than the contrary.
The men from the Cypriani crossed the square and came up with the merry-making Hunstonians. Varney's gaze went round the circle of faces and saw inefficiency, shiftlessness, and failure everywhere stamped upon them. Suddenly his wandering eye was arrested by a face of quite a different sort. Directly opposite stood the eccentric young man of the row-boat, watching the show out of listless eyes whose expression never changed.
"On that horse-block," said Peter, raising his voice to carry above an outburst of catcalls and allegedly humorous comment, "stands the Hunston Reform Movement. Giving 'em a ripping talk, too—all out of Bryce, Mill, and the other fellows."
But at that moment, as luck had it, the oratory came to a sudden end. A sportive bull-pup, malevolently released by some one in the crowd, danced up to the horse-block, barking joyfully, and made a lightning dive for the spellbinder's legs. The spellbinder dexterously side-stepped; the dog's aim was diverted from that fleshy portion of the thigh which his fancy had selected; but his snapping teeth closed firmly in the tail of the pretty light-gray coat, which the little man wore rather long according to the mode of the day. And there he swung, kicking and snarling, squirming and grunting, in the liveliest fashion imaginable.
Merry pandemonium broke out among the onlookers; they howled with shameless delight. It was hardly a pleasant scene to witness, though redeemed by the little orator's gameness. His face, when he took in what had happened to him, slowly turned the color of a sheet of white paper. With indescribable dignity, he descended from his rostrum, carrying the dog along, and walked out into the ring. In front of a tall, loose-jointed, scraggly-mustached fellow he paused, and stared him in the eye with steady fixity.
"T-t-take your d-d-damned d-dog off me, Hackley," he said, stuttering badly, but very cool.
But Hackley backed away, shaking his head and bellowing with laughter. In an ecstasy of delight, the onlookers began pressing more closely about the men, narrowing the circle. And then it was that Peter, quite forgetting his role of quiet onlooker and unable for his life to restrain himself longer, put his shoulder to the ring and broke a vigorous way through. He touched the little orator on the arm.
"No need to trouble the gentleman," Varney heard him say pleasantly. "Just hold the position a moment, please." And so saying he swung back his foot.
It landed with an impact that was loud and not agreeable to the ear. The dog dropped with a frightful howl and, yelping madly, fled. Simultaneously, cries arose about the ringside, and the dog's owner, an alcoholic blaze in his eye, spat bitterly into his two palms and headed straight for Peter.
"What in the blank-blank d' yer mean by kickin' my blank dog, you blank-blankety-blank, you?" he inquired.
"I meant that he was behaving as no dog should," explained Peter, "and the same remark applies to you."
He was not without skill at fisticuff, was Hackley. With the speed of a tiger, he let out first his left fist, then his right, at Peter Maginnis's head. But instead of arriving there, they collided with a forearm which had about the resiliency of a two-foot stone-wall. Simultaneously, Peter released his famous left-hook—had of the Bronx Barman at ten dollars a lesson—and the fight was over.
Mr. Hackley's head struck first, and struck passionately; men picked him up and bore him limply from the field. And Peter, a tiny spot of red in the corner of his right eye, spoke thus to the horseshoe of watching faces:
"You're a devil of a fine gang of red-hot sports, aren't you, boys? A whole regiment of you with no more decency than to pick on one man like this. I come from a white man's country where this kind of thing doesn't go—thank God! And any man who has formed a bad opinion of my manners and my general style of conversation can just step out into the ring and let me explain my system to him."
But nobody accepted that invitation. Possibly the rub was that no one cared to see that left-hook work again, at his own expense, or to encourage any trouble to come athwart his quiet career. At any rate, there were a few mutterings here and there; and then some one sang out:
"None fer mine, Mister! I ain't took out my life insurance yet."
There was a general laugh at this, and with that laugh Peter knew that all hope of more fighting was gone. He bade them a sardonic good-night, hooked his arm through the orator's (who actually showed signs of an intention to resume his speech), and bore him off down the street.
The three men walked half a block in silence, and then the little stranger stopped short.
"I say," he said in a faintly unsteady voice, "I want to thank you for taking that confounded dog off me. In another minute he might have torn my coat, don't you know?"
"Oh, that's all right," said Peter, repressing a smile. "Kicking dogs is rather a specialty of mine, and it isn't often I get the chance to attend to two of them in one evening. I wouldn't give the episode another thought."
The little man gave a sudden fierce laugh. "Oh, certainly not! It's a mere bagatelle for a candidate for Mayor to get a hand-out like that from a gathering of voters!"
"Mayor! I beg your pardon! Of course I didn't quite understand."
Whereupon Peter begged to introduce himself as an ardent amateur statesman, a student of good government from New Hampshire to New Zealand and from Plato to Lincoln Steffens, who had—er—come to Hunston hoping to see something of the fight for reform. The candidate, in turn, produced cards. It became apparent that he bore the name of J. Pinkney Hare. And the upshot of the colloquy was that the two young men presently found themselves invited to call upon Candidate Hare next morning, and learn something of the situation.
"I'll be delighted," accepted Peter promptly,—"delighted."
"That's settled then. Good-night—and thanks awf'ly for your assistance."
He pivoted on his trim heels, abruptly, and went away up the side street.
Peter turned to Varney with a faint grin. "That chap gets his first lesson in the art of being a reformer to-morrow. Curious, wasn't it?—stumbling right into the heart of the agitation an hour after we hit the town."
Varney, who had followed Peter's activities of the last five minutes with considerable disapproval, did not answer his smile.
"Give me a hasty sketch of your conception of a quiet onlooker, will you, Peter?"
"Tush!" said Peter. "Why, can't you see that this sort of thing will make the finest kind of blind? St! Here's our little friend coming back again."
"I say," called the voice of J. Pinkney Hare out of the gloom.
"Yes?" said Peter.
The candidate drew nearer.
"Our city is not plentifully supplied with amusements," he began in his somewhat pompous manner. "It just occurred to me that, in lieu of anything better, you gentlemen might care to go home with me now. I should be happy to have you—and to reciprocate your courtesy in any way within my power."
Peter, doubtless remembering the slow time he had been having on the yacht, brightened instantly and visibly.
"Why, thanks. I'll be awfully glad to come. I—er—I'm tremendously interested in your situation here, I assure you."
Then, catching a warning glance from Varney, who politely declined the invitation, he apologized to the candidate and drew his captain briefly aside.
"I'll pick up all the information I can—understand?" he murmured hurriedly. "And don't you worry. A little flurry in politics will make the best sort of a cover for you while you sneak around after Mary."
On that the two friends parted. Peter hurried on after the little reformer, and Varney, turning, continued his way down Main Street toward the river and the Cypriani, not entirely displeased, after all, that Peter had found some congenial diversion for the evening.
The street was almost a desert. If the unmistakable sounds of revelry by night meant anything, nearly the whole population was behind him in the Ottoman bar. But in the middle of the next block, two ragged men, standing idly and talking together, turned at the sounds of the young man's steps. One of them, revealed by a near-by shop-light, had straggly gray whiskers, vacant eyes, and a bad foolish mouth. Both of them stared at Varney with marked intentness. He had to go quite out of his way to get round them.
"They don't see strangers every day, I take it," he thought absently; and suddenly he cast an inquiring eye at the heavens.
The night, so shining half an hour before, was becoming heavily overcast. Clouds had rolled up from nowhere and blotted out the moon. About him the night breeze was freshening with a certain significance; and now unexpectedly there fell upon his ear the faint far rumble of thunder. Decidedly, there would be rain, and that right soon. Varney quickened his pace.
At the end of that quiet block he came upon a crimson-cheeked lady, somewhat past her first youth and over-plump for beauty, who was engaged in putting up the shutters at her mother's grocery establishment. Glancing around casually at his approach, her glance became transfixed into a stare.
"Well!" she exclaimed in surprise and not without coquettishness—"if it ain't Mr. Ferris!"
"If it ain't Mr. Ferris—what then?" asked Varney. "For, madam, I assure you that it ain't."
The woman, taken aback by this denial, only stared and had no reply ready. But the young man, walking on, was set to thinking by this second encounter, and presently he mused: "I'm somebody's blooming double, that's what. I wonder whose."
And on that word, as though to get an answer to his speculation, he suddenly halted and turned.
He had now progressed nearly a block from the buxom young woman of the grocery. For some time, even before that meeting, he had been aware of light, steady footsteps behind him on the dark street, gaining on him. By this time they had come very near; and now as he wheeled sharply, with a vague anticipation of Peter's "old duck in a felt hat," he found himself face to face with quite a different figure—that of a thin young man whom he recognized.
"Bless us!" said Varney urbanely. "It's the student of manners again."
The pale young stranger stopped two paces away and gave back his look with the utmost composure.
"Still on my studies," said he, in his flat tones—"though I doubt," he added thoughtfully, "if that fully explains why I have followed you."
"Ah? Perhaps I may venture to ask what would explain it more fully?"
"Oh, certainly. My real motive was to suggest, purely because of a paternal interest I take in you, that you leave town to-morrow morning—you and your ferocious friend."
Varney eyed him amusedly. "But is not this somewhat—er—precipitate?"
"Oh, not a bit of it. In fact, you hardly require me to tell you, Beany, that you were a great fool to come back at all."
"You don't mind if I sit down?"
A row of packing-cases clogged the sidewalk at the point where they stood, and the young man dropped down wearily upon one of them, and leaned back against the store-front.
"Beany?" repeated Varney.
"It was dark down on the river," observed the other slowly, "but the instant I saw you on the square, I recognized you, and so, my friend, will everybody else."
"With even better success, I trust, than you have done. For my name is not Beany, but indeed Varney—Laurence Varney—permit me—"
"Ah, well! Stick it out if you prefer. In any case—"
"But do tell me the name of this individual to whom I bear such a marked resemblance. I naturally—"
"The individual to whom you bear such a marked, I may say such a very marked, resemblance," said the stranger, mockingly, "is a certain Mr. Ferris Stanhope, a prosperous manufacturer of pink-tea literature. You never heard the name—of course. But never mind about that. I should advise you both to leave town anyway."
"Is it trespassing too far if I ask—"
"Any one who associates with little Hare, as I have a premonition that you two will do if you stay, is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward."
Varney came a step nearer and rested his foot on the edge of the packing-case.
"Now that," said he, "is by all odds the best thing you've said yet. Elucidate it a bit, won't you? I admit to some curiosity about that little tableau in the square—"
"Yes? Well, I owe you one for that box of matches, Beany—er—Mr.—and it would be rather asinine for you or your pugilistic partner to begin monkeying with our buzz-saw. I happened, you see, to overhear part of your talk with J. Pinkney Hare just now. How others might view it I know not, but to me it seemed only fair to warn you that that interesting young man must be shunned by the wise. As to the mayoralty, he has as much chance of getting in as a jack-rabbit has of butting a way through the Great Wall of China. For we have a great wall here of the sturdiest variety."
He meant, as he briefly explained, the usual System, and back of it the usual Boss: one Ryan, owner of the Ottoman saloon and the city of Hunston, who held the town in the hollow of his coarse hand, and was slowly squeezing it to death.
"The election," he went on listlessly, "is only two weeks off, but the rascal isn't lifting a finger. He doesn't have to. To-morrow night he holds what he calls his annual 'town-meeting'—a fake and a joke. The trustful people gather, listen to speeches by Ryan retainers, quaff free lemonade. Nominally, everybody is invited to speak; really only the elect are permitted to. I saw a reform candidate try it once, and it was interesting to see how scientifically they put a crimp in him."
"And J. Pinkney Hare?" queried Varney becoming rather interested.
Was everything, the young man explained, that Ryan was not—able, honest, unselfish, public-spirited. Studying the situation quietly for a year, he had uncovered a most unholy trail of graft leading to high places. But when he began to try to tell the people about it, he found his way hopelessly blocked at every turn.
"He can't even hire a hall," summarized the stranger. "Not to save his immortal soul. That was the meaning of the ludicrous exhibition a few minutes ago. In one word, he can't get a hearing. He might talk with the tongues of men and angels, but nobody will listen to him. It is a dirty shame. But what in the world can you expect? Lift a finger against the gang, and, presto, your job's gone, and you can't find another high or low. Ryan's money goes everywhere—into the schools, the church, the press. The press. That, of course, is the System's most powerful ally. The—infamous Hollaston Gazette—"
"The Hollaston Gazette—is that published here?" asked Varney in surprise, for the Gazette was famous: one of those very rare small-town newspapers which, by reason of great age and signal editorial ability, have earned a national place in American journalism.
"Named after the county. You have heard of it?" said the young man in a faintly mocking voice, and immediately went on: "The Gazette is eighty years old. Even now, in these bad times, everybody in the county takes it. They get all their opinions from it, ready-made. It is their Bible. A fool can see what a power such a paper is. For seventy-seven years the Gazette fully deserved it. That was the way it won it. But all that is changed now. And the paper is making a great deal of money."
"It is crooked, then?"
"I said, did I not, that it was for Ryan?"
He lounged further back in the shadows upon his packing-case; he appeared not to be feeling well at all. Varney regarded him with puzzled interest.
"A very depressing little story," he suggested, "but after all, hardly a novel one. I don't yet altogether grasp why—"
"Your Jeffries of a friend is a red-hot political theorist, isn't he?" asked the other apathetically. "Our Hunston politicians are practical men. They are after results, and seek them with small regard, I fear, to copy-book precepts. You follow me? Rusticating strangers, visiting sociological students, itinerant idealists, these would do well to speak softly and walk on the sunny side of the road."
"You appear," said Varney, his curiosity increasingly piqued, "to speak of these matters with authority—"
"Rather let us say with certitude."
"Possibly you yourself have felt the iron-toothed bite of the machine?"
The young man looked shocked; slowly his pale face took on a look of cynical amusement. "Yes, yes. Certainly. Who more so?" He appeared to hesitate a moment, and then added with a laugh which held a curious tinge of defiance: "In fact, I myself have the honor of being the owner and editor of the Gazette—Coligny Smith, at your service—"
"Coligny Smith!" echoed Varney amazed.
The young man glanced up. "It was my father you have heard of. He died three years ago. However," he added, with an odd touch of pride, "he always said that I wrote the better articles."
There was a moment's silence. Varney felt by turns astonished, disgusted, sorry, embarrassed. Then he burst out laughing.
"Well, you have a nerve to tell me this. Smith. In doing so, you seem to have brought our conversation to a logical conclusion. I thank you for your kindly advice and piquant confession, and so, good evening."
Mr. Smith straightened on his packing-case and spoke with unexpected eagerness.
"Oh—must you go? The night's so young—why not—come up to the Ottoman and have something? I'll—I'd be glad to explain—"
"I fear I cannot yield to the editorial blandishments this evening."
"Oh, nothing. But remember—you'll get into trouble if you stay."
He went on toward his waiting gig feeling vaguely displeased with the results of his half-hour ashore, and deciding that for the future it would be best to give the town a wide berth. The privacy of the yacht better suited his mission than Main Street, Hunston. However, the end was not yet. He had not reached the landing before a thought came to him which stopped him in his tracks.
INTRODUCES MARY CARSTAIRS AND ANOTHER
Clearly he must see Peter, at once, before that impetuous enthusiast had had time to involve himself in anything, and tell him bluntly that he must leave the affairs of Hunston alone until their own delicate business had been safely disposed of.
In such a matter as this it was not safe to take chances. Varney had a curious feeling that young Mr. Smith's melodramatic warnings had been offered in a spirit of friendliness, rather than of hostility. Nevertheless, the eccentric young man had unmistakably threatened them. While Varney had been more interested by the man, personally, than by his whimsical menaces, the editor's conversation could certainly not be called reassuring. Smith owned a corrupt newspaper; he was a clever man and, by his own confession, an unscrupulous one, bought body and soul by the local freebooters; and if he thought the headlong intruder Maginnis important enough to warrant it, there were presumably no lengths to which he would not go to make the town uncomfortable for him, to the probable prejudice of their mission. Clearly, here was a risk which he, as Mr. Carstairs's emissary, had no right to incur. The Cypriani was in no position to stand the fire of vindictive yellow journalism. Besides, there was the complicating matter of his own curious resemblance to somebody whom, it seemed, Hunston knew, and not too favorably.
Considerably annoyed, Varney turned his face back toward the town. To avoid more publicity, he turned off the main thoroughfare to a narrow street which paralleled it, and, walking rapidly, came in five minutes to the street where Peter and the little candidate had left him. This street came as a surprise to him: Hunston's best "residence section" beyond doubt. It was really pretty, spaciously wide and flanked by handsome old trees. Houses rose at increasingly long intervals as one got away from the town; and they were for the most part charming-looking houses, set in large lawns and veiled from public scrutiny by much fine foliage.
Varney cast about for somebody who would give him his bearings, and had not far to look.
Puffing stolidly on the butt of an alleged cigar, into which he had stuck a sharpened match as a visible means of support, a boy who was probably not so old as he looked sat upon the curbstone at the corner, and claimed the world for his cuspidor. He was an ill-favored runt of a boy, with a sedate manner and a face somewhat resembling a hickory-nut.
Varney, approaching, asked him where Mr. Hare lived. Without turning around, or desisting an instant from the tending of his cigar (which, indeed, threatened a decease at any moment), the boy replied:
"Acrost an' down, one half a block. Little yaller house wit' green blinds and ornings. Yer could n't miss it. Yer party left dere ten minutes ago, dough."
"What party?" asked Varney puzzled.
"Tall big party wit' yaller hat, stranger here. Seen him beatin' it out the street for the road, him and Hare. Goin' some, they was."
"How did you know I was looking for that party?"
"Took a chanst," said the boy. "Do I win?"
His stoical gravity made Varney smile. "You do—a good cigar. That one of yours has one foot in the grave, hasn't it?"
"T'ank you, boss."
"By the way," he added casually, struck by a thought, "Mrs. Carstairs must live on this street somewhere, doesn't she? Which way?"
"Same way as yer party went. Last house on de street—Remsen Street. Big white one, up on a hill like."
Varney hurried off on the trail of his elusive friend. He was puzzled in the last degree to know why Peter, having just entered Hare's house, should have left it at once and gone racing off, with Hare, down this empty street toward the open country. The one explanation that occurred to him was on the whole an unwelcome one. This was that he had made an opening to introduce the subject of Mary Carstairs, and the grateful candidate had volunteered his friendly offices—perhaps to show Peter the house, perhaps actually to take him up and present him.
In the light of a depressed corner-lamp he glanced at his watch. Having supposed that it must be nearly nine o'clock, he was surprised to find that it was only a few minutes after eight. He had the handsome street to himself. The night had grown very dark, and the faint but continuous rumble of thunder was a warning to all pedestrians to seek shelter without delay. Varney's stride was swift. Whatever Peter meant to do, he wanted to overtake him before he did it, and gently lead him to understand, here at the outset, that he was a subordinate in this expedition, expected to do nothing without orders from above.
But he found himself at the end of the street, and saw the country road dimly winding on beyond, without having found a trace of Peter, or seen any other human being. Here, for all his hurry, he was checked for a moment by a sudden new interest. Mindful of the boy's succinct directions, he paused in the shadow of the wood, which here came to the sidewalk's edge, and looked across the street for the residence of Mrs. Carstairs.
Through the trees of a sloping lawn, his gaze fell at once upon a wide rambling white house, directly opposite, well back from the street and approached by a winding white driveway. The house was well lighted; there was a porch-lamp lit; over the carriage-gate hung a large electric globe. Despite the darkness of the night, Varney had a first-rate view. The house was big; it was white; unquestionably it was up on a hill like. In fact there could be no doubt in the world that this was the house he had come from New York to find.
The sight drew and interested him beyond all expectation. Presently, by a curious coincidence, something happened which increased his interest tenfold. His eye had run over the house, about the lawn, even up at the windows, taking in every detail. There was no sign of life anywhere. But now as he stood and watched, the swing front-door was unexpectedly pushed open, and, like some feat in mental telepathy, a girl stepped out upon the piazza.
Involuntarily Varney shrank back into the shadows, assuming by instinct the best conspirators' style, and glued his eyes upon the impelling sight. Not that the girl herself was peculiarly fascinating to the eye. The porch-light revealed her perfectly: a small, dark, nondescript child, not above thirteen years old, rather badly dressed and, to say truth, not attractive-looking in any way. But to Varney, at the moment, she was the most irresistibly interesting figure in the six continents.
She came to the top of the step and stood there, peering out into the darkness as though looking for some one. Varney, from his dark retreat stared back at her. There they stood unexpectedly face to face, the kidnapper and his quarry. A sudden wild impulse seized the young man to act immediately: to make a dash from his cover, bind the girl's mouth with his handkerchief, toss her over his shoulder, and fly with her to the yacht. That was the way these things ought to be done, not by the tedious and furtive methods of chicanery. But, since this man-like method was forbidden him, why should he not at least cross boldly and go in—a lost wayfarer inquiring for directions—anything to start up the vitally necessary acquaintance? Would he ever have a better chance?
The thought had hardly come to him before the child herself killed it. She turned as suddenly as she had come and disappeared into the house. That broke the spell; and Varney, interested by the discovery that his heart was beating above normal, slipped unseen from his lurking-place, and resumed his interrupted progress after Peter and Hare.
Beyond the Carstairs's fence of hedge, the houses stopped with the sidewalk. The highway, having no longer anything to keep up appearances for, dwindled into an ordinary country road, meandering through an ordinary country wood. What could have carried Peter out here it was impossible to conceive; but clearly something had, and Varney raced on, hoping at every moment to descry his great form looming up ahead of him out of the blackness.
What luck—what beautiful luck—to have found her in his very first hour in Hunston! It was half his work done in the wink of an eye. To-morrow morning, the first thing, he would return to this quiet street, watch at his ease for the child to come outdoors, saunter calmly from his hiding-place, make friends with her. By this time to-morrow night, in all human probability, he would be back in New York, his errand safely accomplished. That done, Peter could play politics to his heart's content. Meantime, it was more desirable than ever to tell him of these unexpected developments and deter him from taking any step which might complicate the game....
A loud thunderclap crashed across the train of his thought. Another and a worse one crowded close upon it. He glanced up through the trees into the inky cavern of the skies, and a single large drop of water spattered upon his upturned forehead.
"Hang it!" he thought disgustedly. "Here comes the rain."
It came as though at his word, and with unbelievable suddenness. Thunder rolled; the breeze stiffened into a gale. Another drop fell upon his hat, and then another, and another. The young man came to an unwilling halt.
But he immediately saw that further pursuit was, for the moment at least, out of the question. The storm broke with a violence strangely at variance with the calm of the earlier evening. The heavens opened and the floods descended. Shelter was to be found at once, if at all, but as he hesitated, he remembered suddenly that he had not passed a house in five minutes. In the same moment his eye fell upon a little cottage just ahead of him, unlighted and barely perceptible in the thick darkness, standing off the road not a hundred feet away. He made for it through the driving rain and wind, stepped upon the narrow porch, discovered immediately that it gave him no protection at all, and knocked loudly upon the shut door. He got no answer. Trying it with a wet hand he perceived that it was unlocked; and without more ado, he opened it and stepped inside.
It was evidently, as he had surmised, an empty house. The hall was dark and very quiet. He leaned against the closed front door and dipped into his pockets for a match. Behind him the rain fell in torrents, and the turbulent wind dashed after it and hurled it against the streaming windows. It had turned in half an hour from a peaceful evening to a wild night, a night when all men of good sense and good fortune should be sitting secure and snug by their own firesides. And where, oh where, was Peter?
Speculating gloomily on this and still exploring his pockets for a match, he heard a noise not far away in the dark, and knew suddenly that he was not alone. The next moment a voice floated to him out of the blackness near at hand, clear, but a little irresolute, faintly frightened.
"Didn't some one come in? Who is there?"
It was a woman's voice and a wholly charming one. There could hardly have been its match in Hunston.
"What a very interesting town!" the young man thought. "People to talk to every way you turn."
THE HERO TALKS WITH A LADY IN THE DARK
Varney called reassuringly into the gloom: "I sincerely beg your pardon for bursting in like that. I—had no idea there was any one here."
There was a second's pause.
"N—no," said the pretty voice, hesitatingly. "You—you couldn't—of course."
"But please tell me at once," he said, puzzled by this—"have I taken the unforgivable liberty of breaking into your house?"
"My house?" And he caught something like bewildered relief in her voice. "Why—I—was thinking that I had broken into yours."
Varney laughed, his back against the door.
"If it were, I'm sure I should be able to offer you a light at the least. If it were yours, now that I stop to think—well, perhaps it would be a little eccentric for you to be sitting there in your parlor in the inky dark."