E-text prepared by Al Haines
DIANE OF THE GREEN VAN
Illustrations by Reginald Birch
Chicago The Reilly & Britton Co. Third printing
"In Arcadie, the Land of Hearte's Desire, Lette us linger whiles with Luveres fond; A sparklynge Comedie they playe—with Fire— Unwyttynge Fate stands waytynge with hir Wande."
Diane of the Green Van was awarded the $10,000.00 prize in a novel contest in which over five hundred manuscripts were submitted.
[Frontispiece: "Excellency, as a gentleman who is not a coward, it behooves you to explain!"]
I Of a Great White Bird Upon a Lake II An Indoor Tempest III A Whim IV The Voice of the Open Country V The Phantom that Rose from the Bottle VI Baron Tregar VII Themar VIII After Sunset IX In a Storm-Haunted Wood X On the Ridge Road XI In the Camp of the Gypsy Lady XII A Bullet in Arcadia XIII A Woodland Guest XIV By the Backwater Pool XV Jokai of Vienna XVI The Young Man of the Sea XVII In Which the Baron Pays XVIII Nomads XIX A Nomadic Minstrel XX The Romance of Minstrelsy XXI At the Gray of Dawn XXII Sylvan Suitors XXIII Letters XXIV The Lonely Camper XXV A December Snowstorm XXVI An Accounting XXVII The Song of the Pine-Wood Sparrow XXVIII The Nomad of the Fire-Wheel XXIX The Black Palmer XXX The Unmasking XXXI The Reckoning XXXII Forest Friends XXXIII By the Winding Creek XXXIV The Moon Above the Marsh XXXV The Wind of the Okeechobee XXXVI Under the Live Oaks XXXVII In the Glades XXXVIII In Philip's Wigwam XXXIX Under the Wild March Moon XL The Victory XLI In Mic-co's Lodge XLII The Rain Upon the Wigwam XLIII The Rival Campers XLIV The Tale of a Candlestick XLV The Gypsy Blood XLVI In the Forest XLVII "The Marshes of Glynn" XLVIII On the Lake Shore XLIX Mr. Dorrigan L The Other Candlestick LI In the Adirondacks LII Extracts from the Letters of Norman Westfall LIII By Mic-co's Pool LIV On the Westfall Lake
"Excellency, as a gentleman who is not a coward it behooves you to explain." . . . Frontispiece
Diane swung lightly up the forest path
White girl and Indian maid then clasped hands
"No, I may not take your hand."
OF A GREAT WHITE BIRD UPON A LAKE
Spring was stealing lightly over the Connecticut hills, a shy, tender thing of delicate green winging its way with witch-rod over the wooded ridges and the sylvan paths of Diane Westfall's farm. And with the spring had come a great hammering by the sheepfold and the stables where a smiling horde of metropolitan workmen, sheltered by night in the rambling old farmhouse, built an ingenious house upon wheels and flirted with the house-maids.
Radiantly the spring swept from delicate shyness into a bolder glow of leaf and flower. Dogwood snowed along the ridges, Solomon's seal flowered thickly in the bogs, and following the path to the lake one morning with Rex, a favorite St. Bernard, at her heels, Diane felt with a thrill that the summer itself had come in the night with a wind-flutter of wild flower and the fluting of nesting birds.
The woodland was deliciously green and cool and alive with the piping of robins. Over the lake which glimmered faintly through the trees ahead came the whir and hum of a giant bird which skimmed the lake with snowy wing and came to rest like a truant gull. Of the habits of this extraordinary bird Rex, barking, frankly disapproved, but finding his mistress's attention held unduly by a chirping, bright-winged caucus of birds of inferior size and interest, he barked and galloped off ahead.
When presently Diane emerged from the lake path and halted on the shore, he was greatly excited.
There was an aeroplane upon the water and in the aeroplane a tall young man with considerable length of sinewy limb, lazily rolling a cigarette. Diane unconsciously approved the clear bronze of his lean, burned face and his eyes, blue, steady, calm as the waters of the lake he rode.
The aviator met her astonished glance with one of laughing deference even as she marveled at his genial air of staunch philosophy.
"I beg your pardon," stammered Diane, "but—but are you by any chance waiting—to be rescued?"
"Why—I—I believe I am!" exclaimed the young man readily, apparently greatly pleased at her common sense. "At your convenience, of course!"
"Are you—er—sinking or merely there?"
"Merely here!" nodded the young man with a charming smile of reassurance. "This contraption is a—er—I—I think Dick calls it an hydro-aeroplane. It has pontoons and things growing all over it for duck stunts and if the water wasn't so infernally still, I'd be floating and smoking and likely in time I'd make shore. That's a delightful pastime for you now," he added with a lazy smile of the utmost good humor, "to float and smoke on a summer day and grab at the shore."
"I was under the impression," commented Diane critically, "that in an hydro-aeroplane one could rise from the water like a bird. I've read so recently."
"One can," smiled the shipwrecked philosopher readily, "provided his motor isn't deaf and dumb and insanely indifferent to suggestion. When it grows shy and silent, one swims eventually and drips home, unless a dog barks and a rescuer emerges from the trees equipped with sympathy and common sense. I've a mechanician back there," he added sociably. "He—he's in a tree, I think. I—er—mislaid him in a very dangerous air current."
"Are you aware," inquired the girl, biting her lip, "that you're trespassing?"
"Lord, no!" exclaimed the aviator. "You don't mean it. Have you by any chance a reputable rope anywhere about you?"
"No," said Diane maliciously, "I haven't. As a rule, I do go about equipped with ropes and hooks and things to—rescue trespassing hydroaviators, but—" she regarded him thoughtfully. "Do you like to float about and smoke?"
The sun-browned skin of the young aviator reddened a trifle, but his eyes laughed.
"I'm an incurable optimist," he lightly countered, "or I wouldn't have tried to fly over a private lake in a borrowed aeroplane."
"I believe," said Diane disapprovingly, "that you were cutting giddy circles over the water and dipping and skimming, weren't you?"
"I did cut a monkeyshine or two," admitted the young man. "I was having a devil of a time until you—until the—er—catastrophe occurred."
"And Miss Westfall, the owner," murmured Diane with sympathy, "is addicted to firearms. Hadn't you heard? She hunts! The Westfalls are all very erratic and quick-tempered. Didn't you know she was at the farm?"
The young man looked exceedingly uncomfortable.
"Great guns, no!" he exclaimed. "I presumed she was safe in New York. . . . And this is her lake and her water and her waves, when there are any, and no matter how I engineer it, I've got to poach some of her property. Some of it," he added conversationally, "is in my shoe. Lord, I am in a pickle! Are you a guest of hers?"
"Yes," said Diane calmly.
"I'm staying over yonder on the hill there with Dick Sherrill," offered the young man cordially. "They are opening their place with a party of men, some crack amateur aviators—and myself. Do you know the Sherrills?"
"Perhaps I do," said Diane discouragingly. "Why didn't you float about and smoke on Mr. Sherrill's lake?" she added curiously. "It's ever so much bigger than this."
"Circumstances," began the young man with dignity, and lighted another cigarette. "My mechanician," he added volubly, after an uncomfortable interval of silence, "is an exceedingly bold young man. He'll fly over anything, even a cow. Isn't really mine either; he's borrowed, too. Dick keeps a few extra mechanicians on hand, like extra cigars. It's Dick's fault I'm out alone. He lent my mechanician to another chap and nobody else would come with me."
"I thought," flashed Diane pointedly, "I thought your mechanician was somewhere in a tree."
The aviator coughed and reddened uncomfortably.
"Doubtless he is," he said lamely. "He—he most always is. Do you know, he spends a large part of his spare time in trees—and swamps—and once, I believe, he was discovered in a chimney. I—I'd like to tell you more about him," he went on affably. "Once—"
"Thank you," said Diane politely, "but you've really entertained me more now than one could expect from a gentleman in your distressing plight. Come, Rex." She turned back again at the hemlocks which flanked the forest path. "I'll ask Miss Westfall to send some men," she added and halted.
For Diane had surprised a look of such keen regret in the young aviator's face that they both colored hotly.
"Beastly luck!" stammered the young man lamely. "I am disappointed. I—I don't seem to have another match."
"Your cigarette is burning splendidly," hinted Diane coolly, "and you've a match in your hand."
For a tense, magnetic instant the keen blue eyes flashed a curious message of pleading and apology, then the aviator fell to whistling softly, struck the match and finding no immediate function for it, dropped it in the water.
"I don't in the least mind floating about," he stammered, his eyes sparkling with silent laughter, "and possibly I'll make shore directly; but Lord love us! don't send the sharp-shooteress—please! Better abandon me to my fate."
Slim and straight as the silver birches by the water, Diane hurried away up the lake-path.
"The young man," she flashed with a stamp of her foot, "is a very great fool."
"Johnny," she said a little later to a little, bewhiskered man with cheeks like hard red winter apples, "there's a sociable, happy-go-lucky young man perched on an aeroplane in the middle of our lake. Better take a rope and rescue him. I don't think he knows enough about aeroplanes to be flying so promiscuously about the country."
Johnny Jutes collected a band of enthusiasts and departed.
"Nobody there, Miss Diane," reported young Allan Carmody upon returning; "leastwise nobody that couldn't take care of himself. Only a chap buzzin' almighty swift over the trees. Swooped down like a hawk when he saw us an' waved his hand, laughin' fit to kill himself, an' dropped Johnny a fiver an' gee! Miss Diane, but he could drive some! Swift and cool-headed as a bird. He's whizzin' off like mad toward the Sherrill place, with his motor a-hummin' an' a-purrin' like a cat. Leanish, sunburnt chap with eyes that 'pear to be laughin' a lot."
Diane's eyes flashed resentfully and as she walked away to the house her expression was distinctly thoughtful.
AN INDOOR TEMPEST
"If you're broke," said Starrett, leering, "why don't you marry your cousin?"
Carl Granberry stared insolently across the table.
"Pass the buck," he reminded coolly. "And pour yourself some more whiskey. You're only a gentleman when you're drunk, Starrett. You're sober now."
Payson and Wherry laughed. Starrett, not yet in the wine-flush of his heavy courtesy, passed the buck with a frown of annoyance.
A log blazed in the library fireplace, staining with warm, rich shadows the square-paneled ceiling of oak and the huge war-beaten slab of table-wood about which the men were gathered, both feudal relics brought to the New York home of Carl Granberry's uncle from a ruined castle in Spain.
"If you've gone through all your money," resumed Starrett offensively, "I'd marry Diane."
"Miss Westfall!" purred Carl correctively. "You've forgotten, Starrett, my cousin's name is Westfall, Miss Westfall."
"Diane!" persisted Starrett.
With one of his incomprehensible whims, Carl swept the cards into a disorderly heap and shrugged.
"I'm through," he said curtly. "Wherry, take the pot. You need it."
"Damned irregular!" snapped Starrett sourly.
"So?" said Carl, and stared the recalcitrant into sullen silence. Rising, he crossed to the fire, his dark, impudent eyes lingering reflectively upon Starrett's moody face.
"Starrett," he mused, "I wonder what I ever saw in you anyway. You're infernally shallow and alcoholic and your notions of poker are as distorted as your morals. I'm not sure but I think you'd cheat." He shrugged wearily. "Get out," he said collectively. "I'm tired."
Starrett rose, sneering. There had been a subtle change to-night in his customary attitude of parasitic good-fellowship.
"I'm tired, too!" he exclaimed viciously. "Tired of your infernal whims and insults. You're as full of inconsistencies as a lunatic. When you ought to be insulted, you laugh, and when a fellow least expects it, you blaze and rave and stare him out of countenance. And I'm tired of drifting in here nights at your beck and call, to be sent home like a kid when your mood changes. Mighty amusing for us! If you're not vivisecting our lives and characters for us in that impudent, philosophical way you have, you're preaching a sermon that you couldn't—and wouldn't—follow yourself. And then you end by messing everybody's cards in a heap and sending us home with the last pot in Dick Wherry's pocket whether it belongs there or not. I tell you, I'm tired of it."
Carl laughed, a singularly musical laugh with a note of mockery in it.
"Who," he demanded elaborately, "who ever heard of a treasonous barnacle before? A barnacle, Starrett, adheres and adheres, parasite to the end as long as there's liquid, even as you adhered while the ship was keeled in gold. Nevertheless, you're right. I'm all of what you say and more that you haven't brains enough to fathom. And some that you can't fathom is to my credit—and some of it isn't. As, for instance, my inexplicable poker penchant for you."
To Starrett, hot of temper and impulse, his graceful mockery was maddening. Cursing under his breath, he seized a glass and flung it furiously at his host, who laughed and moved aside with the litheness of a panther. The glass crashed into fragments upon the wall of the marble fireplace. Payson and Wherry hurriedly pushed back their chairs. Then, suddenly conscious of a rustle in the doorway, they all turned.
Wide dark eyes flashing with contempt, Diane Westfall stood motionless upon the threshold. The aesthete in Carl thrilled irresistibly to her vivid beauty, intensified to-night by the angry flame in her cheeks and the curling scarlet of her lips. There were no semi-tones in Diane's dark beauty, Carl reflected. It was a thing of sable and scarlet, and the gold-brown satin of her gypsy skin was warm with the tints of an autumn forest. Carelessly at his ease, Carl noted how the bold eyes of the painted Spanish grandee above the mantel, the mild eyes of the saint in the Tintoretto panel across the room and the flashing eyes of Diane seemed oddly to converge to a common center which was Starrett, white and ill at ease. And of these the eyes of Diane were loveliest.
With the swift grace which to Carl's eyes always bore in it something of the primitive, Diane swept away, and the staring tableau dissolved into a trio of discomfited men of whom Carl seemed But an indifferent onlooker.
"Well," fumed Starrett irritably, "why in thunder don't you say something?"
"Permit me," drawled Carl impudently, with a lazy flicker of his lashes, "to apologize for my cousin's untimely intrusion. I really fancied she was safe at the farm. Unfortunately, the house belongs to her. Besides, your crystal gymnastics, Starrett, were as unscheduled as her arrival. As it is, you've nobly demonstrated an unalterable scientific fact. The collision of marble and glass is unvaryingly eventful."
Bellowing indignantly, Starrett charged into the hallway, followed by Payson. Presently the outer door slammed violently behind them. Wherry lingered.
Carl glanced curiously at his flushed and boyish face.
"Well?" he queried lightly.
"Carl," he stammered, "you've been talking a lot about parasites to-night and I'd like you to know that—money hasn't made a jot of difference to me." He met Carl's laughing glance with dogged directness and for a second something flamed boyishly in his face from which Carl, frowning, turned away.
"Why don't you break away from this sort of thing, Dick?" he demanded irritably. "Starrett and myself and all the rest of it. You're sapping the splendid fires of your youth and inherent decency in unholy furnaces. Yes, I know Starrett drags you about with him and you daren't offend him because he's your chief, but you're clever and you can get another job. In ten years, as you're going now, you'll be an alcoholic ash-heap of jaded passions. What's more, you have infernal luck at cards and you haven't money enough to keep on losing so heavily. Half of the poker sermons Starrett's been growling about were preached for you."
Now there were mad, irreverent moments when Carl Granberry delivered his poker sermons with the eloquent mannerisms of the pulpit, save, as Payson held, they were infinitely more logical and eloquent, but to-night, husking his logic of these externals, he fell flatly to preaching an unadorned philosophy of continence acutely at variance with his own habits.
Wherry stared wonderingly at the tall, lithe figure by the fire.
"Carl," he said at last, "tell me, are you honestly in earnest when you rag the fellows so about work and decency and all that sort of thing?"
Carl yawned and lighted a cigar.
"I believe," said he, "in the eternal efficacy of good. I believe in the telepathic potency of moral force. I believe in physical conservation for the eugenic good of the race and mental dominance over matter. But I'm infernally lazy myself, and it's easy to preach. It's even easier to create a counter-philosophy of condonance and individualism, and I'm alternately an ethical egoist, a Fabian socialist and a cynic. Moreover, I'm a creature of whims and inconsistencies and there are black nights in my temperament when John Barleycorn lightens the gloom; and there are other nights when he treacherously deepens it—but I'm peculiarly balanced and subject to irresistible fits of moral atrophy. All of which has nothing at all to do with the soundness of my impersonal philosophy. Wherefore," with a flash of his easy impudence, "when I preach, I mean it—for the other fellow."
Wherry glanced at the handsome face of his erratic friend with frank allegiance in his eyes.
Carl flung his cigar into the fire, poured himself some whiskey and pushed the decanter across the table.
"Have a drink," he said whimsically.
Dick obeyed. It was an inconsistent supplement to the sermon but characteristic.
"Carl," he said, flushing under the ironical battery of the other's eyes, "I don't think I understand you—"
"Nobody does," he said. "I don't myself."
The fire in the marble fireplace died down, leaping in fitful shadow over the iron-bound doors riveted in nail-heads. They too were relics from the Spanish castle which Norman Westfall had stripped of its ancient appurtenances to fashion an appropriate setting for the beautiful young Spanish wife whose death at the birth of Diane had goaded him to suicide. That Norman Westfall had regarded the vital spark within him as an indifferent thing to be snuffed out at the will of the clay it dominated, was consistent with the Westfall intolerance of custom and convention.
By the fire Carl smoked and stared at the dying embers. For all his insolent habit of dominance and mockery he was keenly sensitive and to-night the significant defection of Starrett and Payson after months of sycophantic friendship, had made him quiver inwardly like a hurt child. Only Wherry had stayed with him when his career of reckless expenditure had arrived at its inevitable goal of ruin.
There remained, financially, what? Barely four thousand a year in securities so iron-bound by his mother's will that he could not touch them.
Black resentment flamed hotly up in his heart at the memory of the Westfall custom of willing the bulk of the great estate to the oldest son. It had left his mother with a patrimony which Carl, inheriting, had chosen contemptuously to regard as a dwarfish thing of gold sufficient only for the heedless purchase of one flaming, brilliant hour of life. That husbanded it might purchase a lifetime of gray hours tinged intermittently with rose or crimson, Carl had dismissed with a cynical laugh, quoting Omar Khayyam.
Starrett had sneeringly suggested that, to remedy his fallen fortunes—he might marry Diane! Carl laughed softly but recalling suddenly how Diane had looked as she stood in the doorway, the flame of her honest anger setting off her primitive grace, he frowned thoughtfully at the fire, swayed by one of the mad, reckless whims which frequently rocketed through his brain to heedless consummation. Wherefore he presently dispatched a servant to Diane with a note scribbled carelessly upon the face of the ace of diamonds.
"May I see you?" it ran. "I am still in the library. If you like, I'll come up."
She came to the library, frankly surprised. Carl rarely saw fit to apologize or seek advice.
With his ready gallantry, habitually colored by a subtle sex-mockery, Carl rose, drew a chair for her and leaned against the mantel, smiling.
"I'm sorry," said he civilly, "I'm sorry Starrett so far forgot himself."
"So am I," said Diane. "Bacchanalian tableaus are not at all to my liking."
"Nor mine," admitted Carl. "As an aesthete I must own that Starrett is too fat for a really graceful villain. I fancied you were indefinitely domiciled at the farm. Aunt Agatha has been fussing—"
"I was," nodded Diane. "A whim of mine brought me home."
Carl dropped easily into a chair and glanced at his cousin's profile. The delicate oval of her face was firelit; her night-black hair one with the deeper shadows of the room. There was mystery in the lovely dusk of Diane's eyes—and discontent—and something mute and wistful crying for expression.
"I've a proposition to make," said Carl lightly. "It's partly commercial, partly belated justice, partly eugenic and partly personal."
"Your money is quite gone, is it not?" asked Diane, raising finely arched expressive eyebrows.
"It is," admitted Carl ruefully. "My career as a bibulous meteor is over. Last night, after an exquisite shower of golden fire, I came tumbling to earth in the fashion of meteors, a disillusioned stone. In other words—stone broke. May I smoke?"
Carl lighted a cigarette.
"And the proposition which is at the same time commercial, eugenic and—er—personal?" reminded Diane curiously. Carl ignored the delicate note of sarcasm.
"It is merely," he said with a flash of impudence, "that you will marry me."
Diane's eyes widened.
"How frankly commercial!" she murmured.
"Isn't it?" said Carl. "And an excellent opportunity for belated justice as well. My mother, save for our infernal Salic law of inheritance, was entitled to half the Westfall estate."
Diane stared curiously at the fire-rimmed hem of her satin skirt. There was something of Carl's lazy impudence in the arch of her eyebrows.
"There yet remains the eugenic inducement and, I believe, a personal one!" she hinted.
"Thank heaven," exclaimed Carl devoutly, "that we're both logicians. The eugenic consideration is that by birth and brains and breeding I am your logical mate."
Diane's eyes flashed with swift contempt.
"Birth!" she repeated.
The black demon of ungovernable temper leaped brutally from Carl's eyes. Leaning forward he caught the girl's hands in a vicious grip that hurt her cruelly though for all her swift color she did not flinch.
"Listen, Diane," he said, his face very white; "if there is one thing in this rotten world of custom and convention and immoral morality which I honestly respect, it is the memory of my mother. Therefore you will please abstain from contemptuous reference to her by look or word."
Diane met the clear, compelling rebuke of his fine eyes with unwavering directness.
"My mother," said Carl steadily, "was a fine, big, splendid woman, unconventional like all the Westfalls, and a century ahead of her time. Moreover, she had a code of morality quite her own. If Aunt Agatha's shocked sensibilities had not eliminated her from your life so early, contact with her broad understanding of things would have tempered your sex insularity." He glanced pityingly at Diane. "You've fire and vision, Diane," he said bluntly, "but you're intolerant. It's a Westfall trait." He laughed softly. "How scornfully you used to laugh and jeer at boys, because you were swifter of foot and keener of vision than any of them, because you could leap and run and swim like a wild thing! Intolerance again, Diane, even as a youngster!"
He rose restlessly, smiling down at her with a lazy expression of deference in his eyes.
"Wonderful, beautiful lady of fire and ebony!" he said gently, with a bewildering change of mood which brought the vivid color to Diane's dark cheek. "There's the wild, sweet wine of the forest in your very blood! And it's always calling!"
"Yes," nodded Diane wistfully, "it's always calling. How did you know?"
"By the wizardry of eye and intuition!" he laughed lightly. "And the personal consideration," he added pleasantly; "we've come at last to that."
A tide of color swept brightly over Diane's face.
"Surely, Carl," she exclaimed with a swift, level glance, "you don't mean that you care?"
"No," said Carl honestly, "I don't. I mean just this. Will you permit me to care? To-night as you stood there in the doorway I knew for the first time that, if I chose, I could love you very greatly."
"Love isn't like that," flashed Diane. "It comes unbidden."
"To different natures come different dawnings of the immortal white fire!" shrugged Carl. "My love will be largely a matter of will. I'm armored heavily."
"For a golden key!" scoffed Diane, rising.
"Ah, well," said Carl impudently, "it was well worth a try! I'm sure I could love with all the fiery appurtenances of the Devil himself if I shed the armor."
THE VOICE OF THE OPEN COUNTRY
"Aunt Agatha!" Diane rapped lightly at her aunt's bedroom door. "Are you asleep?"
"No, no indeed!" puffed Aunt Agatha forlornly. "Certainly not. When in the world did you come back from the farm, child? I've worried so! And like you, too, to come back as unexpectedly as you went." She opened the door wider for her niece to enter. "But as for sleep, Diane, I hope I'm not as callous as that. I shan't sleep a wink to-night, I'm sure of it."
Aunt Agatha dabbed ineffectually at her round, aggrieved eyes.
"Carl's a terrible responsibility for me, Diane," she went on, "though to be sure there have been wild nights when I've put cotton in my ears and locked the door and if I'd only remembered to do that I wouldn't have heard the glass crash—one of the Florentine set, too, I haven't the ghost of a doubt. I feel those things, Diane. Mamma, too, had a gift of feeling things she didn't know for sure—mamma did!—and the servants talk—of course they do!—who wouldn't? I must say, though, Carl's always kind to me; I will say that for him but—"
The excellent lady whose mental convolutions permitted her to speculate wildly in words with the least possible investment of ideas, rambled by serpentine paths of complaint to a conversational cul-de-sac and trailed off in a tragic sniff.
Diane resolutely smothered her impatience.
"I—I only ran down overnight. Aunt Agatha," she said, "to—to tell you something—"
"You can't mean it!" puffed Aunt Agatha helplessly. "What in the world are you going back to the farm for? Dear me, Diane, you're growing notional—and farms are very damp in spring."
Diane walked away to the window and stood staring thoughtfully out at the metropolitan glitter of lights beyond.
"Oh, Aunt Agatha!" she exclaimed restlessly, "you can't imagine how very tired I grow of it all—of lights and cities and restaurants and everything artificial! Surely these city days and nights of silly frivolity are only the froth of life! Have you ever longed to sleep in the woods," she added abruptly, "with stars twinkling overhead and the moonlight showering softly through the trees?"
"I'm very sure I never have!" said Aunt Agatha with considerable decision. "And it's not at all likely I ever shall. There are bugs and things," she added vaguely, "and snakes that wriggle about."
"I've always wanted to lie and dream by a camp fire," mused Diane, unconscious of a certain startled flutter of Aunt Agatha's dressing gown, "to hear the wind rising in the forest and the lap of the lake against the shore." She wheeled abruptly, her eyes bright with excitement. "And I'm going to try it."
"To sleep by a lake in springtime!" gasped Aunt Agatha in great distress. "Diane, I beg of you, don't do it! I once knew a man who slept out somewhere—such a nice man, too!—and something bit him—a heron, I think, or a herring. No! It couldn't have been either. Isn't it funny how I do forget! Strangest thing! But to sleep by a lake in springtime, think of that!"
"Oh, no, no, no, Aunt Agatha!" laughed Diane. "I didn't mean quite that. I'm merely going back to the Glade farm to-morrow to—" she glanced with furtive uncertainty at her aunt and halted. "Aunt Agatha, I've been planning a gypsy cart! There! It's out at last and I dreaded the telling! When the summer comes, I'm going to travel about in my wonderful house on wheels and live in the free, wild, open country!"
"I can't believe it!" said Aunt Agatha, staring. "I can't—I won't believe it!"
"Don't be a goose!" begged the girl happily. "All winter the voice of the open country has been calling—calling! There's quicksilver in my veins. See, Aunt Agatha, see the spring moon—the 'Planting Moon' an Indian girl I used to know in college called it! How gloriously it must be shining over silent woods and lakes, flashing silver on the pines and the ripples by the shore. And the sea, the great, wide, beautiful, mysterious sea droning under a million stars!"
"Think of that!" breathed Aunt Agatha incredulously. "A million stars! I can't believe it. But dear me, Diane, there are seas and stars and moons and things right here in New York."
With a swift flash of tenderness Diane slipped her arm about Aunt Agatha's perturbed shoulders.
"You're not going to mind at all!" she wheedled gently. "I'm sure of it. I'd have to go anyway. It's in my blood like the hint of summer in the air to-night."
Aunt Agatha merely stared. The Westfalls were congenital enigmas.
"A gypsy cart!" she gurgled presently, rising phoenix-like at last from a dumb-struck supineness. "A gypsy cart! Well! A wheelbarrow wouldn't have surprised me more, Diane, a wheelbarrow with a motor!"
"Don't you remember Mrs. Jarley's wagon?" reminded Diane. "It had windows and curtains—"
"Surely," broke in Aunt Agatha with strained dignity, "you're not going in for waxworks like Mrs. Jarley!"
"Dear, no!" laughed Diane, with a sparkle of amusement in her eyes. "There are so many wild flowers and birds and legends to study I shouldn't have time!"
"Great heavens," murmured Aunt Agatha faintly, "my ears have gone queer like mother's."
"And maybe I'll not be back for a year," offered Diane calmly. "I can work south through the winter—"
Aunt Agatha fell tragically back in her chair and gasped.
"Didn't we take a whole year to motor over Europe?" demanded Diane impetuously. "And that was nothing like so fascinating as my gypsy house on wheels."
"If I could only have looked ahead!" breathed Aunt Agatha, shuddering. "If only I could have foreseen what notions you and Carl were fated to take in your heads, I'd have refused your grandfather's legacy. I would indeed. Here I no more than get Carl safely home from hunting Esquimaux or whatever it was up there by the North Pole—walravens, wasn't it, Diane?—well, walrus then!—than you decide to become a gypsy and sleep by a lake in springtime under a planting moon and stay outdoors all winter, collecting birds, when I fancied you were safely launched in society until you were married."
"But Aunt Agatha," flashed the girl, "I'm not at all anxious to marry."
Aunt Agatha burst into a calamitous shower of tears.
"Aunt Agatha," said Diane kindly, "why not remember that you're no longer burdened with the terrible responsibility of bringing Carl and me up? We're both mature, responsible beings."
Aunt Agatha dabbed defiantly at her eyes.
"Well," she said flatly, "I shan't worry, I just shan't. I'm past that. There was a time, but at my time of life I just can't afford it. You can do as you please. You can go shoot alligators if you want to, Diane, I shan't interpose another objection. But the trials that I've endured in my life through the Westfalls, nobody knows. I was a cheerful, happy person until I knew the Westfalls. And your father was notional too. I was a Gregg, Diane, until I married your uncle—he wasn't really your uncle, but a sort of cousin—and the Greggs, thank heavens! are mild and quiet and never wander about. Dear me, if a Gregg should take to sleeping by a lake in spring-time under a planting moon, I would be surprised, I would indeed! There was only one in our whole family who ever galloped about to any extent—Uncle Peter Gregg—and you really couldn't blame him. Bulls were perpetually running into him, and once he fell overboard and a whale chased him to shore. Isn't it funny? Strangest thing! But there, Diane, I wonder your poor dear grandfather doesn't turn straight over in his grave—I do indeed. Many and many a time your poor father tried him sorely—and Carl's mother too." Aunt Agatha sniffed meekly.
"Will you go alone?" she ventured, wiping her eyes.
"Bless your heart, Aunt Agatha, no!" laughed Diane radiantly. "I'm going to take old Johnny Jutes with me!"
Diane kissed her aunt lightly on the forehead.
"Well," said Aunt Agatha in melancholy resignation, "if you must turn gypsy, my dear, and wander about the country, Johnny Jutes is the best one to go along. He's old and faithful and used to your whims and surely after thirty years of service, he won't break into tantrums."
Silver-sweet through the quiet house came the careless ripple of a flute, showering light and sensuous music. There was a dare-devil lilt and sway to the flippant strains and Aunt Agatha covered her face with her hands.
"Oh, Diane," she whispered, shuddering, "when he plays like that he drinks and drinks and drinks until morning."
"Poor Aunt Agatha!" said the girl pityingly. "What troublesome folk we Westfalls are! And I no less than Carl."
"No, no, my dear!" murmured Aunt Agatha. "It's only when Carl plays like that—that I grow afraid."
Aunt Agatha went to bed to listen tremblingly while the dare-devil dance of the flute tripped ghostlike through the corridors. And falling asleep with the laughing demon of wind and melody cascading wildly through the mad scene from Lucia, she dreamt that Carl had captured an Esquimau with his flute and weaving a suit of basket armor for him, had dispatched him by aeroplane to lead Diane's gypsy cart into the Everglades of Florida, the home-state of Norman Westfall until his ill-fated marriage.
THE PHANTOM THAT ROSE FROM THE BOTTLE
The demon of the flute laughed and fell silent. The house grew very quiet. A fresh log built its ragged shell of color within the library and Carl drank again and again, watching the play of firelight upon the amber liquor in his glass. It pleased him idly to build up a philosophy of whiskey, an impudent, fearless reverie of fact and fancy.
"So," he finished carelessly, "every bottle is a crystal temple to the great god Bacchus and who may know what phantom lurks within, ready to rise and grow from the fumes of its fragrant incense into a nebulous wraith of gigantic proportions. Many a bottle such as this has made history and destroyed it. A sparkling essence of tears and jest, of romance and passion and war and grotesquerie, of treachery and irony and blood and death, whose temper no man may know until he tests it through the alchemy of his brain and soul!"
To Starrett it gave a heavy courtesy; to Payson a mad buffoonery; to Wherry pathos; to Carl himself—ah!—there was the rub! To Carl its message was as capricious as the wind—a moon-mad chameleon changing its color with the fickle light. And in the bottle to-night lay a fierce, unreasoning resentment against Diane.
"Fool!" said Carl. "One mad, eloquent lie of love and she would have softened. Women are all like that. Tell me," Carl stared whimsically into his glass as if it were a magic crystal of revelation, "why is it that when I am scrupulously honest no one understands? . . . Why that mad stir of love-hunger to-night as Diane stood in the doorway? Why the swift black flash of hatred now? Are love and hatred then akin?"
The clock struck three. Carl's brain, flaming, keen, master of the bottle save for its subtle inspiration of wounded pride and resentment, brooded morosely over Diane, over the defection of his parasitic companions, over the final leap into the abyss of parsimony and Diane's flash of contempt at the mention of his mother. Half of Diane's money was rightly his—his mother's portion. And he could love vehemently, cleanly, if he willed, with the delicate white fire which few men were fine enough to know. . . . In the soft hollow of Diane's hand had lain the destiny of a man who had the will to go unerringly the way he chose. . . . Love and hunger—they were the great trenchant appetites of the human race: one for its creation, the other for its perpetuation. . . . To every man came first the call of passion; then the love-hunger for a perfect mate. The latter had come to him to-night as Diane stood in the doorway, a slender, vibrant flame of life keyed exquisitely for the finer, subtler things and hating everything else.
Still he drank, but the fires of hell were rising now in his eyes. There was treachery in the bottle. . . . Diane, he chose to fancy, had refused him justice, salvation, respect to the memory of his mother! . . . So be it! . . . His to wrench from the mocking, gold-hungry world whatever he could and however he would. . . . Only his mother had understood. . . . And Diane had mocked her memory. Still there had been thrilling moments of tenderness for him in Diane's life. . . . But Diane was like that—a flash of fire and then bewildering sweetness. There was the spot Starrett's glass had struck; there the ancient carven chair in which Diane had mocked his mother; there was red—blood-red in the dying log—and gold. Blood and gold—they were indissolubly linked one with the other and the demon of the bottle had danced wild dances with each of them. A mad trio! After all, there was only one beside his mother who had ever understood him—Philip Poynter, his roommate at Yale. And Philip's lazy voice somehow floated from the fire to-night.
"Carl," he had said, "you've bigger individual problems to solve than any man I know. You could head a blood revolution in South America that would outrage the world; or devise a hellish philosophy of hedonism that by its very ingenuity would seduce a continent into barking after false gods. You've an inexplicable chemistry of ungovernable passions and wild whims and you may go through hell first but when the final test comes—you'll ring true. Mark that, old man, you'll ring true. I tell you I know! There's sanity and will and grit to balance the rest."
Well, Philip Poynter was a staunch optimist with oppressive ideals, a splendid, free-handed fellow with brains and will and infernal persistence.
Four o'clock and the log dying! The city outside was a dark, clinking world of milkmen and doubtful stragglers, Carl finished the whiskey in his glass and rose. His brain was very drunk—that he knew—for every life current in his body swept dizzily to his forehead, focusing there into whirling inferno, but his legs he could always trust. He stepped to the table and lurched heavily. Mocking, treacherous demon of the bottle! His legs had failed him. Fiercely he flung out his arm to regain his balance. It struck a candelabrum, a giant relic of ancient wood as tall as himself. It toppled and fell with its candled branches in the fire. Where the log broke a flame shot forth, lapping the dark wood with avid tongue. With a crackle the age-old wood began to burn.
Carl watched it with a slight smile. It pleased him to watch it burn. That would hurt Diane, for everything in this beautiful old Spanish room linked her subtly to her mother. Yes, it would hurt her cruelly. Beyond, at the other end of the table, stood a mate to the burning candlestick, doubtless a silent sentry at many a drinking bout of old when roistering knights gathered about the scarred slab of table-wood beneath his fingers. A pity though! Artistically the carven thing was splendid.
Cursing himself for a notional fool, Carl jerked the candlestick from the fire and beat out the flames. The heavy top snapped off in his hands. The falling wood disclosed a hollow receptacle below the branches . . . a charred paper. Well, there was always some insane whim of Norman Westfall's coming to light somewhere and this doubtless was one of them.
The paper was very old and yellow, the handwriting unmistakably foreign. French, was it not? The firelight was too fitful to tell. Carl switched on the light in the cluster of old iron lanterns above the table and frowned heavily at the paper. No, it was the precise, formal English of a foreigner, with here and there a ludicrous error among the stilted phrases. And as Carl read, a gust of wild, incredulous laughter echoed suddenly through the quiet room. Again he read, cursing the dizzy fever of his head. Houdania! Houdania! Where was Houdania? Surely the name was familiar. With a superhuman effort of will he clenched his hands and jaws and sat motionless, seeking the difficult boon of concentration. Out of the maelstrom of his mind haltingly it came, and with it memory in panoramic flashes.
Once more he heard the clatter of cavalry galloping up a winding mountain road to a gabled city whose roofs and turrets glinted ruddily in the westering sun. There had been royalty abroad with a brilliant escort, handsome, dark-skinned men with a lingering trace of Arab about the eyes, who galloped rapidly by him up the winding road to the little kingdom in the mountains. Houdania!—yes that was it—of course. Houdania! A Lilliputian monarchy of ardent patriots. There had been a flaming sunset behind the turrets of a castle and he had climbed up—up—up to the gabled kingdom, seeking, away from the track of the tourist, relief from the exotic gayety of his rocketing over Europe. And high above the elfin kingdom on a wooded ravine where a silver rivulet leaped and sang along the mountain, a gray and lonely monastery had offered him a cell of retreat.
Houdania! Yes, he had found Houdania. Philip Poynter had told him of the monastery months before. Philip liked to seek and find the picturesque. Thus had he come into Andorra in the Pyrenees and Wisby in the Baltic. And he—Carl—had found Houdania. But what of it? Ah, yes, the burning candlestick—the paper—the paper! And again a gust of laughter drowned the fitful crackle of the fire. There was gold at his hand—great, tempting quantities of it!
"When the test comes, you'll ring true," came the crackle of Philip's voice from the fire. "Mark that, old man, you'll ring true. I tell you, I know." Well, Philip Poynter was his only friend. But Philip was off somewhere, gone out of his life this many a day in a characteristic burst of quixotism.
Carl laughed and shuddered, for a mad instant he held the tempting yellow paper above the fire—and drew it back, stared at the charred candlestick and laughed again—but there was nothing of laughter in his eyes. They were darkly ironic and triumphant. There was blood in the fire—and gold—and Diane had mocked his mother. With a groan Carl flung his arms out passionately upon the table, torn by a conflict of the strangely warring forces within him. And with his head drooping heavily forward upon his hands he lay there until the melancholy dawn grayed the room into shadowy distinctness, his angle of vision twisted and maimed by the demon of the bottle. The candlestick loomed strangely forth from the still grayness; the bottle took form; the yellowed paper glimmered on the table. Carl stirred and a spasm of mirthless laughter shook him.
"So," he said, "Philip Poynter loses—and I—I write to Houdania!"
So from the bottle rose a phantom of glittering gold and temptation to grow in time to a wraith of gigantic proportions. In the bottle to-night had lain tears and jest and love unending, romance and passion, treachery and irony—blood and the shadow of Death.
Lilac and wistaria flowered royally. Carpenter, wheelwright and painter departed. The trim green wagon, picked out gayly in white, windowed and curtained and splendidly equipped for the fortunes of the road, creaked briskly away upon its pilgrimage, behind a pair of big-boned piebald horses from the Westfall stables, with Johnny at the reins. On the seat beside him Diane radiantly waved adieu to her aunt, who promptly collapsed in a chair on the porch and dabbed violently at her eyes.
"I shall never get over it," sniffed Aunt Agatha tragically. "Carl may say what he will, I never shall. But now that I've come up here to see her off, I've done my duty, I have indeed. And I do hope Carl hasn't any wild ideas for the summer—I couldn't stand it. Allan, as long as Miss Diane is camping within reasonable distance of the farm, you'd better take the run-about each night and find her and see if she's all right—and brush the snakes and bugs and things out of camp. If everything wild in the forest collected around the camp fire, like as not she wouldn't see them until they bit her."
The boy shifted a slim, bare leg and sniggered.
"Miss Westfall," he said, "Miss Diane she says she's a-goin' to a spot by the river and camp a week an'—an' if she finds anybody a-follerin' or spyin' on her from the farm, she'll skin him alive an'—an' them black eyes o' her'n snapped fire when she said it. An' Johnny, he's got weepons 'nough with him to fight pirutes."
Aunt Agatha groaned and rocking dolorously back and forth upon the porch reviewed the calamitous possibilities of the journey.
But the restless young nomad on the road ahead, sniffing the rare, sweet air of early summer, had already relegated the memory of her long-suffering aunt to the forgotten things of civilization. For the summer world, sweet with the scent of wild flowers, was very young, with young leaves, young grass and flowering, sun-warm hedges, and beyond the Sherrill place on the wooded hill, the sun flamed yellow through the hemlocks.
"Oh, Johnny Jutes! Oh, Johnny Jutes!" sang the girl happily, with the color of the wild rose in her sun-brown cheeks. "It's good—it's good to be alive!"
With a chuckle of enthusiasm Johnny cracked his whip and opined that it was.
Now even as the great green van rolled forth upon the country roads, bound for an idyllic spot by the river where Diane had planned to camp a week, two men appeared upon the wide, white-pillared Sherrill porch, smoking and idly admiring the bluish hills and the rolling meadowlands below bright with morning sunlight. To the east lay the silver glimmer of a tree-fringed lake; beyond, a church spire among the trees and a winding country road traveled by the solitary van of green and white.
"A singular conveyance, is it not, Poynter?" inquired the older man, his careful articulation blurred by a pronounced foreign accent. Staring intently at the sunlit road, he added: "Is it a common mode of travel—here in America?"
The younger man, a lean, sinewy chap with singularly fine eyes of blue above lean, tanned cheeks, frowned thoughtfully.
"By no means," said he pleasantly. "Indeed it's quite new to me. Seems to have blowy white things at the sides like window curtains, doesn't it?"
"A nomadic young woman, I am told," shrugged the older man carelessly. He stood watching the dusty trail of the nomad with narrowed, thoughtful eyes, unaware that his companion's eyes had wandered somewhat expectantly to the Westfall lake.
"Baron Tregar!" whispered Ann Sherrill in a remote corner of the veranda to a girl she had brought up to the farm with her late the night before. "Has a real air of distinction, hasn't he, Susanne? And such deep, dark, compelling eyes. Rather Arabic, I think, but mother says Magyar. Dick says he's immensely interested in the war possibilities of aeroplanes and fearfully patriotic. Touring the States, I believe. Dad picked him up in Washington. Philip's teaching him to fly. Philip was up once before, you know, in the spring and Dad urged him to come up again and bring the Baron along to learn aeroplaning. Philip Poynter, of course, the Baron's secretary!" in scandalized italics. "Didn't you know, really? . . . The Philip Poynter. . . . And I say it's absolutely sinful for a man to be so good-looking as long as the world's monogamous."
"Quarreled with his father or something, didn't he?" asked Susanne vaguely.
"Quarreled!" exclaimed Ann righteously. "Well, I should say he did. My dear, the young man's temper simply splintered into a million pieces and he hasn't found them yet. Flatly refused to take a cent of his father's money because he'd discovered it was made dishonestly. Think of it! And Dad says it's true. Old Poynter is a pirate, an unscrupulous, money-mad, villainous old pirate and he did something or other most unpleasant to Dad in Wall Street. And would you believe it, Susanne, Philip went fuming off huffily to some ridiculous little mountain kingdom in Europe that he was awfully keen about—Houdania—and rented himself out as a secretary to Baron Tregar. Just imagine! Dick says he organized an aviation department there and won some kind of a prize for an improved model and in the midst of it all, Susanne, Philip's grandfather up and died, after quarreling for years and years with the whole family, and left Philip all his money! I think Philip's quarrel with his father pleased him. But the very queerest part is that Philip actually likes to work and dabble in foreign politics and he flatly refused to give up his job! Isn't it romantic? Philip was always keen for adventure. Dick says you never could put your finger on a spot on the map and say comfortably, 'Philip Poynter's here!' for most likely Philip Poynter was bolting furiously somewhere else!"
Unaware of Susanne's furtive interest in his career, Philip scanned the calm, unruffled waters of the Westfall lake and sighing turned back to his chief. There was a tempting drone of motors back among the hangars.
"We fly this morning?" he inquired smiling.
"Unfortunately not," regretted the Baron, and led the way indoors to a room which Mrs. Sherrill had hospitably insisted upon regarding as a private den of work and consultation for the Baron and his secretary.
"There is a mission of exceeding delicacy," began Baron Tregar slowly, "which I feel I must inflict upon you." His deep, penetrating eyes lingered intently upon Philip's face. "It concerns the singular conveyance of green and white and the lady within it."
Philip looked frankly astonished.
"I take it then," he suggested, "that you know the nomadic lady, Baron Tregar?"
"No," said the Baron.
"Your Excellency is pleased to jest," he said politely.
"On the contrary," said the Baron, "I am at a loss for suitable words in which to express my singular request. I am assured of your interest, Poynter?"
"Of my interest, assuredly!" admitted Philip. "My compliance," he added fairly, "depends, of course, upon the nature of the mission."
"It is absurdly simple," said the Houdanian suavely. "Merely to discover whether or not the nomadic lady feels any exceptional interest—in Houdania. For the information to be acquired in a careless, disinterested manner without arousing undue interest, requires, I think, an American of brains and breeding, a compatriot of the nomad. It has occurred to me that you are equipped by a habit of courtesy and tact to—arrive accidentally in the path of the caravan—"
"I thank you!" said Philip dryly. "I prefer," he added stiffly, "to confine my diplomatic activities to more conventional channels."
"When I assure you," purred the Baron with his maddening precision of speech, "that this information is of peculiar value to me and without immediate significance to the lady herself, I am sure that you will not feel bound to withhold your—hum—your cooeperation in so slight a personal inconvenience, singular as it may all seem to you, I am right?"
Philip reddened uncomfortably.
"I am to understand that I would undertake this peculiar mission equipped with no further information than you have offered?"
"Exactly so," said the Baron. "I must beg of you to undertake it without question."
"Pray believe," flashed Philip, "that I am not inclined to question. That fact," he added coldly, "is in itself a handicap."
"The lady's name," explained the Baron quietly, "is Westfall—Diane Westfall."
"Impossible!" exclaimed Philip and savagely bit his lip.
"Ah, then you know the lady!" said the Baron softly.
"I regret," said Philip formally, "that I have not had the honor of meeting Miss Westfall." But he saw vividly again a girl straight and slender as a silver birch, with firm, wind-bright skin and dark, mocking eyes. There were hemlocks and a dog—and Dick Sherrill had been talkative over billiards the night before.
"Miss Westfall," added Philip guilelessly, "is the owner of the Glade Farm below here in the valley."
"Ah, yes," nodded Tregar. "It is so I have heard." His glance lingered still upon Philip's face in subtle inquiry. Bending its Circean head, Temptation laughed lightly in Philip Poynter's eyes. The girl in the caravan was winding away by dusty roads—out of his life perhaps. And singular as the mission was, its aim was harmless.
"Our lady," said the Baron smoothly, "camps by night. From an aeroplane one may see much—a camp—a curl of smoke—a caravan. Later one may walk and, walking, one may lose his way—to find it again with perfect ease by means of a forest camp fire."
Somehow on the Baron's tongue the escapade became insidious duplicity. Philip flushed, acutely conscious of a significant stirring of his conscience.
"I may fly with Sherrill this afternoon," he said with marked reluctance.
"And at sunset?"
"I may walk," said Philip, shrugging.
"Permit me," said the Baron gratefully as he rose, "to thank you. The service is—ah—invaluable."
Uncomfortably Philip accepted his release and went lightly up the stairs.
"I am a fool," said Philip. "But surely Walt Whitman must have understood for he said it all in verse. 'I am to wait, I do not doubt, I am to meet you again,'" quoted Philip under his breath; "'I am to see to it that I do not lose you!'"
The door which led into the Baron's bedroom from his own was slightly ajar. Philip, about to close it, fancied he heard the stealthy rustle of paper beyond and swung it noiselessly back, halting in silent interest upon the threshold.
Themar, the Baron's Houdanian valet, was intently transcribing upon his shirt-cuff, the contents of a paper which lay uppermost in the drawer of a small portable desk.
Catlike, Philip stole across the room. The man's hand was laboriously reproducing upon the linen an intricate message in cipher.
"Difficult, too, isn't it?" sympathized Philip smoothly at his elbow.
With a sharp cry, Themar wheeled, his small, shifting eyes black with hate. They wavered and fell beneath the level, icy stare of the American. Philip's fingers slipped viselike along the other's wrists and Philip's voice grew more acidly polite.
"My dear Themar," he regretted, falling unconsciously into the language of his chief, "I must spoil the symmetry of your wardrobe. The hieroglyphical cuff, if you please."
Themar's snarl was unintelligible. Smiling, Philip unbuttoned the stiff band of linen and drew it slowly off.
"A pity!" said he with gentle, sarcastic apology in his eyes. "Such perfect work! And after all that infernal bother of stealing the key!"
Philip lightly dropped the cuff into the pocket of his coat.
"And the key, Themar," he reminded gently, "the key to the Baron's desk? . . . Ah, so it's still here. Excellent! And now that the drawer is locked again—"
The hall door creaked. Simultaneously Themar and Philip wheeled. The Baron stood in the doorway.
Philip smiled and bowed.
"Excellency," said he, "Themar in an over-zealous desire to rearrange your private papers has acquired your private key and I have taken the liberty of confiscating it, knowing that you prize its possession. Permit me to return it now."
"Thank you, Poynter!" said the Baron and glanced keenly at Themar. "It is but now that I had missed it."
"Excellency," burst forth Themar desperately, "I found it this morning on the rug."
"But," purred the Baron, "why seek a keyhole?"
Themar's dark face was ashen.
Philip, with a wholesome distaste for scenes, slipped away.
"Excellency," burst forth Themar passionately as the door closed, "it is unfair—"
The Baron raised his hand in a gesture of warning.
"Permit me, Themar," he said coldly as the sound of Philip's footsteps died away, "permit me to remind you that my secretary is quite unaware of our peculiar relations. He is laboring at present under the necessary delusion that your arrival here was entirely the result of my fastidious distaste for the personal services of anyone but a fellow countryman. Presumably I had cabled home for you. I prefer," he added, "that he continue to think so."
Themar's eyes flashed resentfully.
"Excellency," he said sullenly, "it is unfair that I am denied the knowledge of detail that I need. That is why I sought to read the cipher."
"And yet, Themar," said the Baron softly, "I fancy Ronador has told you—something—enough!" He shrugged, his impenetrable eyes narrowing slowly. "But that I need you," he said evenly, "but that your knowledge of English makes you an invaluable ally—and one not easily replaced—I would send you back to Houdania—disgraced! As it is, we are hedged about with peculiar difficulties and I must use—and watch you."
He glanced significantly at the desk drawer and thence to Themar's dark, unscrupulous face, resentful and defiant.
"Now as for the cryptogram which tempted you so sorely," went on the Baron smoothly. "Its chief mission, as I have repeatedly assured you, was to convert my journey of pleasure in America into one of immediate—hum—service. I have spoken to you of a certain paper—"
"There was more," said Themar sullenly.
"Merely," smiled the Baron with engaging candor, "that you are fully equipped with definite instructions which I am to see are fulfilled."
"There is a girl," said Themar bluntly.
The Baron stared.
"What?" he rumbled sharply.
"I—I learned of her and of the cipher in Houdania!" stammered Themar.
"You know something more of detail than you need to know," said the Baron dryly. "Moreover," he added icily, "you will confine your professional attentions to the other sex. You are sure about the paper?"
"Your trip to New York last night was—hum—uneventful?"
"You will go again to-night?"
"It is unnecessary. Granberry is at the Westfall farm."
"But, Excellency," reminded Themar glibly, "there is still the girl—" Deep, compelling, Tregar's eyes burned steadily into menace.
"Must I repeat—"
"Excellency," stammered Themar blanching.
"You may go!" said the Baron curtly.
There had been no word of the scribbled cuff, Themar remembered. And surely one may steal away one's own.
The sun had set. Back from his flight over the hills with Sherrill, Philip had bathed and shaved, whistling thoughtfully to himself. Now as he descended the steep Sherrill lane to the valley, ravine and hollow were already dark with twilight. From the rustling trees arching the lane overhead came the occasional sleepy chirp and flutter of a bird. Off somewhere in the gathering dusk a lonely owl hooted eerily. Still there was storm in the warm, sweet air to-night and back yonder over the hills to the north, the sky brightened fitfully with lightning.
Slipping his hand carelessly into his coat pocket for a pipe, Philip laughed.
"My Lord!" said he lightly. "The hieroglyphical cuff! I should have given that to the Baron. . . . Themar," added Philip, packing his pipe, "is an infernal bounder!"
Diane's camp lay barely two miles to the west. Homing at sunset Philip had veered and circled over it. Now as he turned westward toward the river, the nature of his errand chafed him sorely.
"Nor can I see," mused Philip, puffing uncomfortably at his pipe, "why in the devil he wants to know!"
A soft, warm nose suddenly insinuated itself into his hand with a frank bid for attention and Philip turned. A shaggy, soft-footed shadow was waggling along at his heels, Dick's favorite setter.
"Hello, old top!" exclaimed Philip cheerfully. "When did you hit the trail?"
Old Top barked joyously but didn't appear to remember.
"Well," said Philip, lazily patting the dog's head, "you're welcome anyway. I'm a diplomat to-night," he added humorously, "bound upon a 'mission of exceeding delicacy' and only a companion of your extraordinary reticence and discretion would be welcome."
Man and dog turned aside into a crossroad. It was very dark now, the only spot of cheer save for the lightning behind the hills, the coal of Philip's pipe.
"Tell me, old man," begged Philip whimsically, "what would you do? May we not wander casually into camp and look at my beautiful gypsy lady without fussing unduly about this infernal mission? More and more do we dislike it. And in the morning we may respectfully rebel. Ah, an excellent point, Nero. To be sure our chief will be very smooth and insistent but we ourselves, you recall, have possibilities of extreme firmness. And the lady is Diane, though we only call her that, old top, among ourselves.
"Splendid decision!" exclaimed Philip presently with intense satisfaction. "Nero, you've been an umpire. We'll rebel. Nevertheless, we must assure ourselves that the camp of our lady is ready for storm."
It was. Following a forest path, Philip presently caught the flicker of a camp fire ahead. There was a huge tarpaulin over the wagon and a canopy above the horses. Storm-proof tents loomed dimly among the trees. A brisk little man whose apple cheeks and grizzled whiskers Philip instantly approved, trotted importantly about among the horses, humming a jerky melody. Johnny was fifty and looked a hundred, but those unwary ones who had felt the steely grip of his sinewy fingers were apt evermore to respect him.
Diane was piling wood upon the fire with the careless grace of a splendid young savage. The light of the camp fire danced ruddily upon her slim, brown arms and throat bared to the rising wind. A beautiful, restless gypsy of fire and wind, she looked, at one with the storm-haunted wood about her.
There came a patter of rain upon the forest leaves. The tents were flapping and the fire began to flare. There were curious wind crackles all about him, and Nero had begun to sniff and whine. Somewhere—off there among the trees—Philip fancied he caught the stealthy pad of a footfall and the crackle of underbrush. Every instinct of his body focusing wildly upon the thought of harm to Diane, he whirled swiftly about, colliding as he did so with something—vague, formless, heavy—that leaped, crouching, from the shadows and bore him to the ground. The lightning flared savagely upon steel. Philip felt a blinding thud upon his head, a sharp, stinging agony along his shoulder.
Somewhere in the forest—a great way off he thought—a dog was barking furiously.
IN A STORM-HAUNTED WOOD
"The storm is coming!" exclaimed Diane with shining eyes. "Button the flaps by the horses, Johnny. We're in for it to-night. Hear the wind!"
Overhead the gale tore ragged gaps among the fire-shadowed trees, unshrouding a storm-black sky. Fearlessly—the old wild love of storm and wind singing powerfully in her heart—the girl rose from the fire and faced the tempest.
Rex pressed fearfully beside her, whining. Off there somewhere in the wind and darkness a dog had barked. It came now again, high above the noise of the wind, a furious, frightened barking.
"Johnny!" exclaimed Diane suddenly. "There must be something wrong over there. Better go see. No, not that way. More to the east." And Johnny, whose soul for thirty years had thirsted for adventure, briskly seized an ancient pistol and charged off through the forest.
But Aunt Agatha had talked long and tearfully to Johnny. Wherefore, reluctant to leave his charge alone in the rain and dark, he turned back.
"Go!" said Diane with a flash of impatience.
Johnny went. Looking back over his shoulder he saw the girl outlined vividly against the fire, skirts and hair flying stormily about her in the wind. So might the primal woman stand ere the march of civilization had over-sexed her.
The wind was growing fiercer now, driving the rain about in angry gusts. Thunder cannonaded noisily overhead.
Veering suddenly in a new direction—for in the roar of the storm the bark of the dog seemed curiously to shift—Johnny collided violently with a dark figure running wildly through the forest. Both men fell. Finding his invisible assailant disposed viciously to contest detention, Johnny fell in with his mood and buried his long, lean fingers cruelly in the other's throat.
The fortunes of war turned speedily. Johnny's victim squirmed desperately to his feet and bounded away through the forest.
Now as they ran, stumbling and finding their way as best they might in the glitter of lightning, there came from the region of the camp the unmistakable crack of a pistol. Two shots in rapid succession followed—an interval of five seconds or so—and then another. The final trio was the shot signal of the old buffalo hunters which Diane had taught to Johnny.
"Where are you?" barked the signal.
Drawing his ancient pistol as he ran, Johnny, in vain, essayed the answer. The veteran missed fire. After all, reflected Johnny uncomfortably, one signal was merely to locate him. If another came—
The lightning, flaming in a vivid sheet, revealed a lonely road ahead and on the road by the farther hedge, a man desperately cranking a long, dark car. The lamps of the car were unlighted.
With a yell of startled anger, the man who bore the bleeding marks of Johnny's fingers redoubled his speed and darted crazily for the roadway. Before he had reached it the man by the car had leaped swiftly to the wheel and rolled away.
From the forest came again the signal: "Where are you?"
Johnny groaned. Frantically he tried the rebel again. It readily spat its answer this time, an instantaneous duplicate of shots.
"I'm here. What do you want?"
In the lightning glare the man ahead made off wildly across the fields.
Running, Johnny cocked his ears for the familiar assurance of one shot.
"All right," it would mean; "I only wanted to know where you are," but it did not come.
Instead—two shots again in rapid succession—an interval—and then another.
"I am in serious trouble," barked the signal in the forest. "Come as fast as you can."
With a groan Johnny abandoned the chase and retraced his steps. Thus a perverse Fate ever snipped the thread of an embryo adventure.
A light flickered dully among the trees to the east. Johnny cupped his hands and yodeled. The light moved. A little later as he crashed hurriedly through the underbrush, Diane called to him. She was holding a lantern high above something on the ground, her face quite colorless.
"I'm glad you're here!" she said. "It's the aviator, Johnny. He's hurt—"
The aviator stirred.
"He's comin' 'round," said Johnny peering down into the white face in the aureole of lantern-light. "The rain in his face likely. . . . Well, young fellow, what do you think of yourself, eh?"
"Not much," said Philip blankly and stared about him.
"Can you follow us to the camp fire yonder?" asked Diane compassionately.
Philip, though evidently very dizzy, thought likely he could, and he did. That his shoulder was wet and very painful, he was well aware, though somehow he had forgotten why. Moreover, his head throbbed queerly.
There came a tent and a bed and a blur of incidents.
Mr. Poynter dazedly resigned himself to a general atmosphere of unreality.
ON THE RIDGE ROAD
At the Westfall farm as the electric vanguard of the storm flashed brightly over the valley, the telephone had tinkled. In considerable distress of mind Aunt Agatha answered it.
"I—I'm sure I don't know when he will be home," she said helplessly after a while. . . . "He went barely a minute ago and very foolish too, I said, with the storm coming. . . . At dinner he spoke some of going to the camp—Miss Westfall's camp. . . . I—I really don't know. . . . I wish I did but I don't."
The lightning blazed at the window and left it black. Beyond in the lane, a car with glaring headlights was rolling rapidly toward the gateway. Aunt Agatha hung up with an aggrieved sniff.
Catching the reflection of the headlights she hurried to the window.
"Carl! Carl!" she called through the noise of wind and thunder.
The car came to a halt with a grinding shudder of brakes.
"Yes?" said Carl patiently. "What is it, Aunt Agatha?"
"Dick Sherrill phoned," said his aunt plaintively. "I thought you'd gone. He wanted you to come up and play bridge. Oh, Carl, I—I do wish you wouldn't motor about in a thunder shower. I once knew a man—such a nice, quiet fellow too—and very domestic in his habits—but he would ramble about and the lightning tore his collar off and printed a picture of a tree on his spine. Think of that!"
Carl laughed. He was raincoated and hatless.
"An arboreal spine!" said he, rolling on. "Lord, Aunt Agatha, that was tough! Moral—don't be domestic!"
"Carl!" quavered his aunt tearfully.
Again, throbbing like a giant heart in the darkness, the car halted. Carl tossed his hair back from his forehead with a smothered groan, but said nothing. He was always kinder and less impatient to Aunt Agatha in a careless way than Diane.
"Will you take Diane an extra raincoat and rubbers?" appealed Aunt Agatha pathetically. "Like as not the pockets of the other are full of bugs and things."
"Aunt Agatha," grumbled Carl kindly, "why fuss so? Diane's equipped with nerve and grit and independence enough to look out for herself."
Aunt Agatha sniffed and closed the window.
"I shan't worry!" she said flatly. "I shan't do it. If Carl comes home with a tree on his spine, it's his own concern. Why I should have to endure all this, however, I can't for the life of me see. I've one consolation anyway. A good part of my life's over. Death will be a welcome relief after what I've gone through!"
Shrugging as the window closed Carl drove on rapidly down the driveway.
It pleased him to ride madly with the wind and storm. The gale, laden with dust and grit, bit and stung and tore rudely at his coat and hair. The great lamps of the car flashed brilliantly ahead, revealing the wind-beaten grasses by the wayside. Somewhere back in his mind there was a troublesome stir of conscience. It had bothered him for days. It had driven him irresistibly to-night at dinner to speak of visiting his cousin's camp, though he bit his lip immediately afterward in a flash of indecision. The turbulent night had seemed of a sort to think things over. Moonlit fields and roads were enervating. Storm whipping a man's blood into fire and energy—biting his brain into relentless activity!—there was a thing for you.
Whiskey did not help. Last night it had treacherously magnified the voice of conscience into a gibing roar.
Money! Money! The ray of the lamps ahead, the fork of the lightning, the flickering gaslight there at the crossroads, they were all the color of gold and like gold—of a flame that burned. Yes, he must have money. No matter what the voice, he must have money.
At the crossroads he halted suddenly. To the south now lay his cousin's camp, to the north the storm.
Perversely Carl wheeled about and drove to the north. A conscience was a luxury for a rich man. Let the thing he had done, sired by the demon of the bottle and mothered by the hell-pit of his flaming passions, breed its own results.
It was a fitful nerve-straining task, waiting, and he had waited now for weeks. Waiting had bred the Voice in his conscience, waiting had bored insidious holes in his armor of flippant philosophy through which had crept remorse and bitter self-contempt; once it had brought a flaming resolve brutally to lay it all before his cousin and taunt her with a crouching ghost buried for years in a candlestick.
Then there were nights like to-night when the ghastly hell-pit was covered, and when to tell her squarely what the future held, without taunt or apology, stirred him on to ardent resolution.
But alas! the last was but an intermittent witch-fire leading him through the marsh after the elusive ghosts of finer things, to flicker forlornly out at the end and abandon him in a pit of blackness and mockery.
Very well, then; he would tell Diane of the yellowed paper; he would tell her to-night. However he played the game there was gold at the end.
He laughed suddenly and shrugged and swept erratically into a lighter mood of impudence and daring. There was rain beating furiously in his face and his hair was wet. Well, the car pounding along beneath him had known many such nights of storm and wild adventure. It had pleased him frequently to mock and gibe at death, with the wheel in his hand and a song on his lips, and now wind and storm were tempting him to ride with the devil.
So, dashing wildly through the whirl of dirt and wind, heavy with the odor of burnt oil, he bent to the wheel, every nerve alert and leaping. As the great car jumped to its limit of speed, he fell to singing an elaborate sketch of opera in an insolent, dare-devil voice of splendid timbre, the exhaust, unmuffled, pounding forth an obligato.
The lightning flared. It glittered wickedly upon the unlighted lamps of a car rolling rapidly toward him. With a squirt of mud and a scatter of flying pebbles, Carl swung far to the side of the road and slammed on his brakes, skidding dangerously. The other car, heading wildly to the left, went crashing headlong into a ditch from which a man crawled, cursing viciously in a foreign tongue.
"You damned fool!" thundered Carl in a flash of temper. "Where are your lights?"
The man did not reply.
Carl, whose normal instincts were friendly, sprang solicitously from the car.
"I beg your pardon," said he carelessly. "Are you hurt?"
"No," said the other curtly.
"French," decided Carl, marking the European intonation. "Badly shaken up, poor devil!—and not sure of his English. That accounts for his peculiar silence. Monsieur," said he civilly in French. "I am not prepared to deliver a homily upon wild driving, but it's well to drive with lights when roads are dark and storm abroad."
"I have driven so few times," said the other coldly in excellent English, "and the storm and erratic manner of your approach were disquieting."
"Touche!" admitted Carl indifferently. "You have me there. Your choice of a practice night, however," he added dryly, "was unique, to say the least."
He crossed the road, frowned curiously down at the wrecked machine and struck a match.
"Voila!" he exclaimed, staring aghast at the bent and splintered mass, "c'est magnifique, Monsieur!'"
A sheet of flame shot suddenly from the match downward and wrapped the wreck in fire. Conscious now of the fumes of leaking gasoline, Carl leaped back.
"Monsieur," said he ruefully, and turned. The reflection of the burning oil revealed Monsieur some feet away, running rapidly. Angered by the man's unaccountable indifference, Carl leaped after him. He was much the better runner of the two and presently swung his prisoner about in a brutal grip and marched him savagely back to the blazing car. Again there was an indefinable peculiarity about the manner of the man's surrender.
"It is conventional, Monsieur," said Carl evenly, "to betray interest and concern in the wreck of one's property. Voila! I have effectively completed what you had begun. If I am not indifferent, surely one may with reason look for a glimmer of concern from you."
Shrugging, the man stared sullenly at the car, a hopeless torch now suffusing the lonely road with light. There was a certain suggestion of racial subtlety in the careful immobility of his face, but his dark, inscrutable eyes were blazing dangerously.
Carl's careless air of interest altered indefinably. Inspecting his chafing prisoner now with narrowed, speculative eyes which glinted keenly, he fell presently to whistling softly, laughed and with tantalizing abruptness fell silent again. Immobile and subtle now as his silent companion, he stared curiously at the other's fastidiously pointed beard, at the dark eyes and tightly compressed lips, and impudently proffered his cigarettes. They were impatiently declined.
"Monsieur is pleased," said Carl easily, "to reveal many marked peculiarities of manner, owing to the unbalancing fact, I take it, that his mind is relentlessly pursuing one channel. Monsieur," went on Carl, lazily lighting his own cigarette and staring into his companion's face with a look of level-eyed interest, "Monsieur has been praying ardently for—opportunities, is it not so? 'I will humor this mad fool who motors about in the rain like an operatic comet!' says Monsieur inwardly, 'for I am, of course, a stranger to him. Then, without arousing undue interest, I may presently escape into the storm whence I came—er—driving atrociously.'"
The man stared.
"Monsieur," purred Carl audaciously, "is doubtless more interested in—let us say—camp fires for instance, than such a vulgar blaze as yonder car."
"One is powerless," returned the other haughtily, "to answer riddles."
Carl bowed with curiously graceful insolence.
"As if one could even hope to break such splendid nerve as that!" he murmured appreciatively. "It is an impassiveness that comes only with training. Monsieur," he added imperturbably, "I have had the pleasure—of seeing you before."
"It is possible!" shrugged the other politely.
"Under strikingly different conditions!" pursued Carl reminiscently. There was a disappointing lack of interest in the other's face.
"Even that is possible," assented the foreigner stiffly, "Environment is a shifting circumstance of many colors. The honor of your acquaintance, however, I fear is not mine."
Carl's eyes, dark and cold as agate, compelled attention.
"My name," said he deliberately, "is Granberry, Carl Westfall Granberry."
The brief interval of silence was electric.
"It is a pity," said the other formally, "that the name is unfamiliar. Monsieur Granberi, the storm increases. My ill-fated car, I take it, requires no further attention." He stopped short, staring with peculiar intentness at the road beyond. In the faint sputtering glow of the embers by the wayside his face looked white and strained.
A slight smile dangerously edged the American's lips. With a careless feint of glancing over his shoulder, he tightened every muscle and leaped ahead. The violent impact of his body bore his victim, cursing, to the ground.
"Ah!" said Carl wresting a revolver from the other's hand, "I thought so! My friend, when you try a trick like that again, guard your hands before you fall to staring. A fool might have turned—and been shot in the back for his pains, eh? Monsieur," he murmured softly, pinioning the other with his weight and smiling insolently, "we've a long ride ahead of us. Privacy, I think, is essential to the perfect adjustment of our future relations. There are one or two inexplicable features—"
The eyes of the other met his with a level glance of desperate hostility.
With an undisciplined flash of temper, Carl brutally clubbed his assailant into insensibility with the revolver butt and dragged him heavily to the tonneau of his car, throbbing unheeded in the darkness. Having assured himself of his guest's continued docility by the sinister adjustment of a handkerchief, an indifferent rag or so from the repair kit and a dirty rope, he covered the motionless figure carelessly with a robe and sprang to the wheel, whistling softly. With a throb, the great car leaped, humming, to the road.
At midnight the lights of Harlem lay ahead. The ride from the hills, three hours of storm and squirting gravel, had been made with the persistent whir and drone of a speeding engine. But once had it rested black and silent in a lonely road of dripping trees, while the driver hurried into a roadside tavern and telephoned.
Now, with a purring sigh as a bridge loomed ahead, the car slackened and stopped. Carl slowly lighted a cigarette. At the end of the bridge a straggler struck a match and flung it lightly in the river, the disc of his cigar a fire-point in the shadows.
The car rolled on again and halted.
A stocky young man behind the fire-point emerged from the darkness and climbed briskly into the tonneau.
"Hello, Hunch," said Carl.
"'Lo!" said Hunch and stared intently at the robe.
"Take a look at him," invited Carl carelessly. "It's not often you have an opportunity of riding with one of his brand. He's in the Almanach de Gotha."
"T'ell yuh say!" said Hunch largely, though the term had conveyed no impression whatever to his democratic mind.
Cautiously raising the robe Hunch Dorrigan stared with interest at the prisoner he was inconspicuously to assist into the empty town house of the Westfalls.
IN THE CAMP OF THE GYPSY LADY
From a garish dream of startling unpleasantness, Philip Poynter stirred and opened his eyes.
"Well, now," he mused uncomfortably, "this is more like it! This is the sort of dream to have! I wonder I never had sufficient wit to carve out one like this before. Birds and trees and wind fussing pleasantly around a fellow's bed—and by George! those birds are making coffee!"
There was a cheerful sound of flapping canvas and vanishing glimpses of a woodland shot with sun-gold, of a camp fire and a pair of dogs romping boisterously. Moreover, though his bed was barely an inch from the ground to which it was staked over a couple of poles, it was exceedingly springy and comfortable. Not yet thoroughly awake, Philip put out an exploring hand.
"Flexible willow shoots!" said he drowsily, "and a rush mat! Oberon had nothing on me. Hello!" A dog romped joyfully through the flapping canvas and barked. Philip's dream boat docked with a painful thud of memory. Wincing painfully he sat up.
"Easy, old top!" he advised ruefully, as the dog bounded against him. "It would seem that we're an invalid with an infernal bump on the back of our head and a bandaged shoulder." He peered curiously through the tent flap and whistled softly. "By George, Nero," he added under his breath, "we're in the camp of my beautiful gypsy lady!"
There was a bucket of water by the tent flap. Philip painfully made a meager toilet, glanced doubtfully at the coarse cotton garment which by one of the mystifying events of the previous night had replaced the silk shirt he had worn from Sherrill's, and emerged from the tent.
It was early morning. A fresh fire was crackling merrily about a pot of coffee. Beyond through the trees a river of swollen amber laughed in the morning sunlight under a cloudless sky. The ridge of a distant woodland was deeply golden, the rolling meadow lands of clover beyond the river bright with iridescent dew. But the storm had left its trail of broken rush and grasses and the heavy boughs of the woodland dripped forgotten rain.
A girl presently emerged from the trees by the river and swung lightly up the forest path, her scarlet sweater a vivid patch in the lesser life and color all about her.
"Surely," she exclaimed, meeting Philip's glance with one of frank and very pleasant concern, "surely you must be very weak! Why not stay in bed and let Johnny bring your breakfast to you?"
"Lord, no!" protested Philip, reddening. "I feel ever so much better than I look."
"I'm glad of that," said Diane, smiling. "You lost a lot of blood and bumped your head dreadfully on a jagged rock. Would you mind," her wonderful black eyes met his in a glance of frank inquiry, "would you mind—explaining? There was so much excitement and storm last night that we haven't the slightest notion what happened."
"Neither have I!" exclaimed Philip ruefully.
The girl's eyes widened.
"How very singular!" she said.
"It is indeed!" admitted Philip.
"You must be an exceedingly hapless young man!" she commented with serious disapproval. "I imagine your life must be a monotonous round of disaster and excitement!"
"Fortuitously," owned Philip, "it's improving!"
Piqued by his irresistible good humor in adversity, Diane eyed him severely.
"Are you so in the habit of being mysteriously stabbed in the shoulder whenever it storms," she demanded with mild sarcasm, "that you can retain an altogether pernicious good humor?"
Philip's eyes glinted oddly.
"I'm a mere novice," he admitted lightly. "If my shoulder didn't throb so infernally," he added thoughtfully, "I'd lose all faith in the escapade—it's so weird and mysterious. A crackle—a lunge—a knife in the dark—and behold! I am here, exceedingly grateful and hungry despite the melodrama."
To which Diane, raising beautifully arched and wondering eyebrows, did not reply. Philip, furtively marking the firm brown throat above the scarlet sweater, and the vivid gypsy color beneath the laughing dusk of Diane's eyes, devoutly thanked his lucky star that Fate had seen fit to curb the air of delicate hostility with which she had left him on the Westfall lake. Well, Emerson was right, decided Philip. There is an inevitable law of compensation. Even a knife in the dark has compensations.
"Johnny," said Diane presently, briskly disinterring some baked potatoes and a baked fish from a cairn of hot stones covered with grass, "is off examining last night's trail of melodrama. He's greatly excited. Let me pour you some coffee. I sincerely hope you're not too fastidious for tin cups?"
"A tin cup," said Philip with engaging candor, "has always been a secret ambition of mine. I once acquired one at somebody's spring hut—er—circumstances compelled me to relinquish it. It was really a very nice cup too and very new and shiny. Since then, until now, my life, alas! has been tin-cupless."
Diane carved the smoking fish in ominous silence.
"Do you know," she said at length, "I've felt once or twice that your anecdotes are too apt and—er—sparkling to be overburdened with truth. Your mechanician, for instance—"
Philip laughed and reddened. The mechanician, as a desperate means of prolonging conversation, had served his purpose somewhat disastrously.
"Hum!" said he lamely.
"I shan't forget that mechanician!" said Diane decidedly.
"This now," vowed Philip uncomfortably, "is a real fish!"
Diane laughed, a soft clear laugh that to Philip's prejudiced ears had more of music in it than the murmur of the river or the clear, sweet piping of the woodland birds.
"It is," she agreed readily. "Johnny caught him in the river and I cooked him."
"Great Scott!" exclaimed Philip, inspecting the morsel on his wooden plate with altered interest, "you don't—you can't mean it!"
"Why not?" inquired Diane with lifted eyebrows.
Philip didn't know and said so, but he glanced furtively at the girl by the fire and marveled.
"Well," he said a little later with a sigh of utter content, "this is Arcadia, isn't it!"
"It's a beautiful spot!" nodded Diane happily, glancing at the scarlet tendrils of a wild grapevine flaming vividly in the sunlight among the trees. There was yellow star grass along the forest path, she said absently, and yonder by the stump of a dead tree a patch of star moss woven of myriad emerald shoots; the delicate splashes of purple here and there in the forest carpet were wild geranium.
"There are alders by the river," mused Diane with shining eyes, "and marsh marigolds; over there by a swampy hollow are a million violets, white and purple; and the ridge is thick with mountain laurel. More coffee?"
"Yes," said Philip. "It's delicious. I wonder," he added humbly, "if you'd peel this potato for me. A one cylinder activity is not a conspicuous success."
"I should have remembered your arm," said Diane quickly. "Does it pain much?"
"A little," admitted Philip. "Do you know," he added guilelessly, "this is a spot for singularly vivid dreams. Last night, for instance, exceedingly gentle and skillful hands slit my shirt sleeve with a pair of scissors and bathed my shoulder with something that stung abominably, and somehow I fancied I was laid up in a hospital and didn't have to fuss in the least, for my earthly affairs were in the hands of a nurse who was very deft and businesslike and beautiful. I could seem to hear her giving orders in a cool, matter-of-fact way, and once I thought there was some slight objection to leaving her alone—and she stamped her foot. Odd, wasn't it?"