BY SAMUEL HOPKINS ADAMS
Author of "The Clarion," "Common Cause," etc.
PART I. ENCHANTMENT
PART II. THE VISION
PART III. FULFILLMENT
The lonely station of Manzanita stood out, sharp and unsightly, in the keen February sunlight. A mile away in a dip of the desert, lay the town, a sorry sprawl of frame buildings, patternless save for the one main street, which promptly lost itself at either end in a maze of cholla, prickly pear, and the lovely, golden-glowing roseo. Far as the eye could see, the waste was spangled with vivid hues, for the rare rains had come, and all the cacti were in joyous bloom, from the scarlet stain of the ocatilla to the pale, dream-flower of the yucca. Overhead the sky shone with a hard serenity, a blue, enameled dome through which the imperishable fires seemed magnified as they limned sharp shadows on the earth; but in the southwest clouds massed and lurked darkly for a sign that the storm had but called a truce.
East to west, along a ridge bounding the lower desert, ran the railroad, a line as harshly uncompromising as the cold mathematics of the engineers who had mapped it. To the north spread unfathomably a forest of scrub pine and pinon, rising, here and there, into loftier growth. It was as if man, with his imperious interventions, had set those thin steel parallels as an irrefragable boundary to the mutual encroachments of forest and desert, tree and cactus. A single, straggling trail squirmed its way into the woodland. One might have surmised that it was winding hopefully if blindly toward the noble mountain peak shimmering in white splendor, mystic and wonderful, sixty miles away, but seeming in that lucent air to be brooding closely over all the varied loveliness below.
Though nine o'clock had struck on the brisk little station-clock, there was still a tang of night chill left. The station-agent came out, carrying a chair which he set down in the sunniest corner of the platform. He looked to be hardly more than a boy, but firm-knit and self-confident. His features were regular, his fairish hair slightly wavy, and in his expression there was a curious and incongruous suggestion of settledness, of acceptance, of satisfaction with life as he met it, which an observer of men would have found difficult to reconcile with his youth and the obvious intelligence of the face. His eyes were masked by deeply browned glasses, for he was bent upon literary pursuits, witness the corpulent, paper-covered volume under his arm. Adjusting his chair to the angle of ease, he tipped back against the wall and made tentative entry into his book.
What a monumental work was that in the treasure-filled recesses of which the young explorer was straightway lost to the outer world! No human need but might find its contentment therein. Spread forth in its alluringly illustrated pages was the whole universe reduced to the purchasable. It was a perfect and detailed microcosm of the world of trade, the cosmogony of commerce in petto. The style was brief, pithy, pregnant; the illustrations—oh, wonder of wonders!—unfailingly apt to the text. He who sat by the Damascus Road of old marveling as the caravans rolled dustily past bearing "emeralds and wheat, honey and oil and balm, fine linen and embroidered goods, iron, cassia and calamus, white wool, ivory and ebony," beheld or conjectured no such wondrous offerings as were here gathered, collected, and presented for the patronage of this heir of all the ages, between the gay-hued covers of the great Sears-Roebuck Semiannual Mail-Order Catalogue. Its happy possessor need but cross the talisman with the ready magic of a postal money order and the swift genii of transportation would attend, servile to his call, to deliver the commanded treasures at his very door.
But the young reader was not purposefully shopping in this vast market-place of print. Rather he was adventuring idly, indulging the amateur spirit, playing a game of hit-or-miss, seeking oracles in those teeming pages. Therefore he did not turn to the pink insert, embodying the alphabetical catalogue (Abdominal Bands to Zither Strings), but opened at random.
"Supertoned Banjos," he read, beginning at the heading; and, running his eye down the different varieties, paused at "Pride of the Plantation, a full-sized, well-made, snappy-toned instrument at a very moderate price. 12 T 4031/4."
The explorer shook his head. Abovestairs rested a guitar (the Pearletta, 12 S 206, price $7.95) which he had purchased at the instance of Messrs. Sears-Roebuck's insinuating representation as set forth in catalogue item 12 S 01942, "Self-mastery of the Guitar in One Book, with All Chords, Also Popular Solos That Can Be Played Almost at Sight." The nineteen-cent instruction-book had gone into the fire after three days of unequal combat between it and its owner, and the latter had subsequently learned something of the guitar (and more of life) from a Mexican-American girl with lazy eyes and the soul of a capricious and self-indulged kitten, who had come uninvited to Manzanita to visit an aunt, deceased six months previously. With a mild pang of memory for those dreamy, music-filled nights on the desert, the youth decided against further experiments in stringed orchestration.
Telescopes turned up next. He lingered a moment over 20 T 3513, a nickel-plated cap pocket-glass, reflecting that with it he could discern any signal on the distant wooded butte occupied by Miss Camilla Van Arsdale, back on the forest trail, in the event that she might wish a wire sent or any other service performed. Miss Camilla had been very kind and understanding at the time of the parting with Carlotta, albeit with a grimly humorous disapproval of the whole inflammatory affair; as well as at other times; and there was nothing that he would not do for her. He made a neat entry in a pocket ledger (3 T 9901) against the time when he should have spare cash, and essayed another plunge.
Arctics and Lumberman's Overs he passed by with a grin as inappropriate to the climate. Cod Liver Oil failed to interest him, as did the Provident Cast Iron Range and the Clean-Press Cider Mill. But he paused speculatively before Punching Bags, for he had the clean pride of body, typical of lusty Western youth, and loved all forms of exercise. Could he find space, he wondered, to install 6 T 1441 with its Scientific Noiseless Platform & Wall Attachment (6 T 1476) in the portable house (55 S 17) which, purchased a year before, now stood in the clearing behind the station crammed with purchases from the Sears-Roebuck wonderbook. Anyway, he would make another note of it. What would it be like, he wondered, to have a million dollars to spend, and unlimited access to the Sears-Roebuck treasures. Picturing himself as such a Croesus, he innocently thought that his first act would be to take train for Chicago and inspect the warehoused accumulations of those princes of trade with his own eager eyes!
He mused humorously for a moment over a book on "Ease in Conversation." ("No trouble about conversation," he reflected; "the difficulty is to find anybody to converse with," and he thought first of Carlotta, and then of Miss Camilla Van Arsdale, but chiefly of the latter, for conversation had not been the strong point of the passionate, light-hearted Spanish girl.) Upon a volume kindly offering to teach astronomy to the lay mind without effort or trouble (43 T 790) and manifestly cheap at $1.10, he bestowed a more respectful attention, for the desert nights were long and lonely.
Eventually he arrived at the department appropriate to his age and the almost universal ambition of the civilized male, to wit, clothing. Deeply, judiciously, did he meditate and weigh the advantages as between 745 J 460 ("Something new—different—economical—efficient. An all-wool suit embodying all the features that make for clothes satisfaction. This announcement is of tremendous importance"—as one might well have inferred from the student's rapt expression) and 776 J 017 ("A double-breasted, snappy, yet semi-conservative effect in dark-green worsted, a special social value"), leaning to the latter because of a purely literary response to that subtle and deft appeal of the attributive "social." The devotee of Messrs. Sears-Roebuck was an innately social person, though as yet his gregarious proclivities lay undeveloped and unsuspected by himself. Also he was of a literary tendency; but of this he was already self-conscious. He passed on to ulsters and raincoats, divagated into the colorful realm of neckwear, debated scarf-pins and cuff-links, visualized patterned shirtings, and emerged to dream of composite sartorial grandeurs which, duly synthesized into a long list of hopeful entries, were duly filed away within the pages of 3 T 9901, the pocket ledger.
Footsteps shuffling along the right of way dispelled his visions. He looked up to see two pedestrians who halted at his movement. They were paired typically of that strange fraternity, the hobo, one being a grizzled, hard-bitten man of waning middle age, the other a vicious and scrawny boy of eighteen or so. The boy spoke first.
"You the main guy here?"
The agent nodded.
"Got a sore throat?" demanded the boy surlily. He started toward the door. The agent made no move, but his eyes were attentive.
"That'll be near enough," he said quietly.
"Oh, we ain't on that lay," put in the grizzled man. He was quite hoarse. "You needn't to be scared of us."
"I'm not," agreed the agent. And, indeed, the fact was self-evident.
"What about the pueblo yonder?" asked the man with a jerk of his head toward the town.
"The hoosegow is old and the sheriff is new."
"I got ya," said the man, nodding. "We better be on our way."
"I would think so."
"You're a hell of a guy, you are," whined the boy. "'On yer way' from you an' not so much as 'Are you hungry?' What about a little hand-out?"
"Tightwad! How'd you like—"
"If you're hungry, feel in your coat-pocket."
"I guess you're a wise one," put in the man, grinning appreciatively. "We got grub enough. Panhandlin's a habit with the kid; don't come natural to him to pass a likely prospect without makin' a touch."
He leaned against the platform, raising one foot slightly from the ground in the manner of a limping animal. The agent disappeared into the station, locking the door after him. The boy gave expression to a violent obscenity directed upon the vanished man. When that individual emerged again, he handed the grizzled man a box of ointment and tossed a packet of tobacco to the evil-faced boy. Both were quick with their thanks. That which they had most needed and desired had been, as it were, spontaneously provided. But the elder of the wayfarers was puzzled, and looked from the salve-box to its giver.
"How'd you know my feet was blistered?"
"Been padding in the rain, haven't you?"
"Have you been on the hoof, too?" asked the hobo quickly.
The other smiled.
"Say!" exclaimed the boy. "I bet he's Banneker. Are you?" he demanded.
"That's my name."
"I heard of you three years ago when you was down on the Long Line Sandy," said the man. He paused and considered. "What's your lay, Mr. Banneker?" he asked, curiously but respectfully.
"As you see it. Railroading."
"A gay-cat," put in the boy with a touch of scorn.
"You hold your fresh lip," his elder rebuked him. "This gent has treated us like a gent. But why? What's the idea? That's what I don't get."
"Oh, some day I might want to run for Governor on the hobo ticket," returned the unsmiling agent.
"You get our votes. Well, so long and much obliged."
The two resumed their journey. Banneker returned to his book. A freight, "running extra," interrupted him, but not for long. The wire had been practicing a seemly restraint for uneventful weeks, so the agent felt that he could settle down to a sure hour's bookishness yet, even though the west-bound Transcontinental Special should be on time, which was improbable, as "bad track" had been reported from eastward, owing to the rains. Rather to his surprise, he had hardly got well reimmersed in the enchantments of the mercantile fairyland when the "Open Office" wire warned him to be attentive, and presently from the east came tidings of Number Three running almost true to schedule, as befitted the pride of the line, the finest train that crossed the continent.
Past the gaunt station she roared, only seven minutes late, giving the imaginative young official a glimpse and flash of the uttermost luxury of travel: rich woods, gleaming metal, elegance of finish, and on the rear of the observation-car a group so lily-clad that Sears-Roebuck at its most glorious was not like unto them. Would such a train, the implanted youth wondered, ever bear him away to unknown, undreamed enchantments?
Would he even wish to go if he might? Life was full of many things to do and learn at Manzanita. Mahomet need not go to the mountain when, with but a mustard seed of faith in the proven potency of mail-order miracles he could move mountains to come to him. Leaning to his telegraph instrument, he wired to the agent at Stanwood, twenty-six miles down-line, his formal announcement.
"O. S.—G. I. No. 3 by at 10.46."
"O. K.—D. S.," came the response.
Banneker returned to the sunlight. In seven minutes or perhaps less, as the Transcontinental would be straining to make up lost time, the train would enter Rock Cut three miles and more west, and he would recapture the powerful throbbing of the locomotive as she emerged on the farther side, having conquered the worst of the grade.
Banneker waited. He drew out his watch. Seven. Seven and a half. Eight. No sound from westward. He frowned. Like most of the road's employees, he took a special and almost personal interest in having the regal train on time, as if, in dispatching it through, he had given it a friendly push on its swift and mighty mission. Was she steaming badly? There had been no sign of it as she passed. Perhaps something had gone wrong with the brakes. Or could the track have—
The agent tilted sharply forward, his lithe frame tense. A long drawn, quivering shriek came down-wind to him. It was repeated. Then short and sharp, piercing note on piercing note, sounded the shrill, clamant voice.
The great engine of Number Three was yelling for help.
Banneker came out of his chair with a spring.
"Help! Help! Help! Help! Help!" screamed the strident voice.
It was like an animal in pain and panic.
For a brief instant the station-agent halted at the door to assure himself that the call was stationary. It was. Also it was slightly muffled. That meant that the train was still in the cut. As he ran to the key and sent in the signal for Stanwood, Banneker reflected what this might mean. Crippled? Likely enough. Ditched? He guessed not. A ditched locomotive is usually voiceless if not driverless as well. Blocked by a slide? Rock Cut had a bad repute for that kind of accident. But the quality of the call predicated more of a catastrophe than a mere blockade. Besides, in that case why could not the train back down—
The answering signal from the dispatcher at Stanwood interrupted his conjectures.
"Number Three in trouble in the Cut," ticked Banneker fluently. "Think help probably needed from you. Shall I go out?"
"O. K.," came the answer. "Take charge. Bad track reported three miles east may delay arrival."
Banneker dropped and locked the windows, set his signal for "track blocked" and ran to the portable house. Inside he stood, considering. With swift precision he took from one of the home-carpentered shelves a compact emergency kit, 17 S 4230, "hefted" it, and adjusted it, knapsack fashion, to his back; then from a small cabinet drew a flask, which he disposed in his hip-pocket. Another part of the same cabinet provided a first-aid outfit, 3 R 0114. Thus equipped he was just closing the door after him when another thought struck him and he returned to slip a coil of light, strong sash-cord, 36 J 9078, over his shoulders to his waist where he deftly tautened it. He had seen railroad wrecks before. For a moment he considered leaving his coat, for he had upwards of three miles to go in the increasing heat; but, reflecting that the outward and visible signs of authority might save time and questions, he thought better of it. Patting his pocket to make sure that his necessary notebook and pencil were there, he set out at a moderate, even, springless lope. He had no mind to reach a scene which might require his best qualities of mind and body, in a semi-exhausted state. Nevertheless, laden as he was, he made the three miles in less than half an hour. Let no man who has not tried to cover at speed the ribbed treacheries of a railroad track minimize the achievement!
A sharp curve leads to the entrance of Rock Cut. Running easily, Banneker had reached the beginning of the turn, when he became aware of a lumbering figure approaching him at a high and wild sort of half-gallop. The man's face was a welter of blood. One hand was pressed to it. The other swung crazily as he ran. He would have swept past Banneker unregarding had not the agent caught him by the shoulder.
"Where are you hurt?"
The runner stared wildly at the young man. "I'll soom," he mumbled breathlessly, his hand still crumpled against the dreadfully smeared face. "Dammum, I'll soom."
He removed his hand from his mouth, and the red drops splattered and were lost upon the glittering, thirsty sand. Banneker wiped the man's face, and found no injury. But the fingers which he had crammed into his mouth were bleeding profusely.
"They oughta be prosecuted," moaned the sufferer. "I'll soom. For ten thousan' dollars. M'hand is smashed. Looka that! Smashed like a bug."
Banneker caught the hand and expertly bound it, taking the man's name and address as he worked.
"Is it a bad wreck?" he asked.
"It's hell. Look at m'hand! But I'll soom, all right. I'll show'm ... Oh! ... Cars are afire, too ... Oh-h-h! Where's a hospital?"
He cursed weakly as Banneker, without answering, re-stowed his packet and ran on.
A thin wisp of smoke rising above the nearer wall of rocks made the agent set his teeth. Throughout his course the voice of the engine had, as it were, yapped at his hurrying heels, but now it was silent, and he could hear a murmur of voices and an occasional shouted order. He came into sight of the accident, to face a bewildering scene.
Two hundred yards up the track stood the major portion of the train, intact. Behind it, by itself, lay a Pullman sleeper, on its side and apparently little harmed. Nearest to Banneker, partly on the rails but mainly beside them, was jumbled a ridiculous mess of woodwork, with here and there a gleam of metal, centering on a large and jagged boulder. Smaller rocks were scattered through the melange. It was exactly like a heap of giant jack-straws into which some mischievous spirit had tossed a large pebble. At one end a flame sputtered and spread cheerfully.
A panting and grimy conductor staggered toward it with a pail of water from the engine. Banneker accosted him.
"Any one in—"
"Get outa my way!" gasped the official.
"I'm agent at Manzanita."
The conductor set down his pail. "O God!" he said. "Did you bring any help?"
"No, I'm alone. Any one in there?" He pointed to the flaming debris.
"One that we know of. He's dead."
"Sure?" cried Banneker sharply.
"Look for yourself. Go the other side."
Banneker looked and returned, white and set of face. "How many others?"
"Seven, so far."
"Is that all?" asked the agent with a sense of relief. It seemed as if no occupant could have come forth of that ghastly and absurd rubbish-heap, which had been two luxurious Pullmans, alive.
"There's a dozen that's hurt bad."
"No use watering that mess," said Banneker. "It won't burn much further. Wind's against it. Anybody left in the other smashed cars?"
"Don't think so."
"Got the names of the dead?"
"Now, how would I have the time!" demanded the conductor resentfully.
Banneker turned to the far side of the track where the seven bodies lay. They were not disposed decorously. The faces were uncovered. The postures were crumpled and grotesque. A forgotten corner of a battle-field might look like that, the young agent thought, bloody and disordered and casual.
Nearest him was the body of a woman badly crushed, and, crouching beside it, a man who fondled one of its hands, weeping quietly. Close by lay the corpse of a child showing no wound or mark, and next that, something so mangled that it might have been either man or woman—or neither. The other victims were humped or sprawled upon the sand in postures of exaggerated abandon; all but one, a blonde young girl whose upthrust arm seemed to be reaching for something just beyond her grasp.
A group of the uninjured from the forward cars surrounded and enclosed a confused sound of moaning and crying. Banneker pushed briskly through the ring. About twenty wounded lay upon the ground or were propped against the rock-wall. Over them two women were expertly working, one tiny and beautiful, with jewels gleaming on her reddened hands; the other brisk, homely, with a suggestion of the professional in her precise motions. A broad, fat, white-bearded man seemed to be informally in charge. At least he was giving directions in a growling voice as he bent over the sufferers. Banneker went to him.
"Doctor?" he inquired.
The other did not even look up. "Don't bother me," he snapped.
The station-agent pushed his first-aid packet into the old man's hands.
"Good!" grunted the other. "Hold this fellow's head, will you? Hold it hard."
Banneker's wrists were props of steel as he gripped the tossing head. The old man took a turn with a bandage and fastened it.
"He'll die, anyway," he said, and lifted his face.
Banneker cackled like a silly girl at full sight of him. The spreading whisker on the far side of his stern face was gayly pied in blotches of red and green.
"Going to have hysterics?" demanded the old man, striking not so far short of the truth.
"No," said the agent, mastering himself. "Hey! you, trainman," he called to a hobbling, blue-coated fellow. "Bring two buckets of water from the boiler-tap, hot and clean. Clean, mind you!" The man nodded and limped away. "Anything else, Doctor?" asked the agent. "Got towels?"
"Yes. And I'm not a doctor—not for forty years. But I'm the nearest thing to it in this shambles. Who are you?"
Banneker explained. "I'll be back in five minutes," he said and passed into the subdued and tremulous crowd.
On the outskirts loitered a lank, idle young man clad beyond the glories of Messrs. Sears-Roebuck's highest-colored imaginings.
"Hurt?" asked Banneker.
"No," said the youth.
"Can you run three miles?"
"I fancy so."
"Will you take an urgent message to be wired from Manzanita?"
"Certainly," said the youth with good-will.
Tearing a leaf from his pocket-ledger, Banneker scribbled a dispatch which is still preserved in the road's archives as giving more vital information in fewer words than any other railroad document extant. He instructed the messenger where to find a substitute telegrapher.
"Answer?" asked the youth, unfurling his long legs.
"No," returned Banneker, and the courier, tossing his coat off, took the road.
Banneker turned back to the improvised hospital.
"I'm going to move these people into the cars," he said to the man in charge. "The berths are being made up now."
The other nodded. Banneker gathered helpers and superintended the transfer. One of the passengers, an elderly lady who had shown no sign of grave injury, died smiling courageously as they were lifting her.
It gave Banneker a momentary shock of helpless responsibility. Why should she have been the one to die? Only five minutes before she had spoken to him in self-possessed, even tones, saying that her traveling-bag contained camphor, ammonia, and iodine if he needed them. She had seemed a reliable, helpful kind of lady, and now she was dead. It struck Banneker as improbable and, in a queer sense, discriminatory. Remembering the slight, ready smile with which she had addressed him, he felt as if he had suffered a personal loss; he would have liked to stay and work over her, trying to discover if there might not be some spark of life remaining, to be cherished back into flame, but the burly old man's decisive "Gone," settled that. Besides, there were other things, official things to be looked to.
A full report would be expected of him, as to the cause of the accident. The presence of the boulder in the wreckage explained that grimly. It was now his routine duty to collect the names of the dead and wounded, and such details as he could elicit. He went about it briskly, conscientiously, and with distaste. All this would go to the claim agent of the road eventually and might serve to mitigate the total of damages exacted of the company. Vaguely Banneker resented such probable penalties as unfair; the most unremitting watchfulness could not have detected the subtle undermining of that fatal boulder. But essentially he was not interested in claims and damages. His sensitive mind hovered around the mystery of death; that file of crumpled bodies, the woman of the stilled smile, the man fondling a limp hand, weeping quietly. Officially, he was a smooth-working bit of mechanism. As an individual he probed tragic depths to which he was alien otherwise than by a large and vague sympathy. Facts of the baldest were entered neatly; but in the back of his eager brain Banneker was storing details of a far different kind and of no earthly use to a railroad corporation.
He became aware of some one waiting at his elbow. The lank young man had spoken to him twice.
"Well?" said Banneker sharply. "Oh, it's you! How did you get back so soon?"
"Under the hour," replied the other with pride. "Your message has gone. The operator's a queer duck. Dealing faro. Made me play through a case before he'd quit. I stung him for twenty. Here's some stuff I thought might be useful."
From a cotton bag he discharged a miscellaneous heap of patent preparations; salves, ointments, emollients, liniments, plasters.
"All I could get," he explained. "No drug-store in the funny burg."
"Thank you," said Banneker. "You're all right. Want another job?"
"Certainly," said the lily of the field with undiminished good-will.
"Go and help the white-whiskered old boy in the Pullman yonder."
"Oh, he'd chase me," returned the other calmly. "He's my uncle. He thinks I'm no use."
"Does he? Well, suppose you get names and addresses of the slightly injured for me, then. Here's your coat."
"Tha-anks," drawled the young man. He was turning away to his new duties when a thought struck him. "Making a list?" he asked.
"Yes. For my report."
"Got a name with the initials I. O. W.?"
Banneker ran through the roster in the pocket-ledger. "Not yet. Some one that's hurt?"
"Don't know what became of her. Peach of a girl. Black hair, big, sleepy, black eyes with a fire in 'em. Dressed right. Traveling alone, and minding her own business, too. Had a stateroom in that Pullman there in the ditch. Noticed her initials on her traveling-bag."
"Have you seen her since the smash?"
"Don't know. Got a kind of confused recklection of seeing her wobbling around at the side of the track. Can't be sure, though. Might have been me."
"Might have been you? How could—"
"Wobbly, myself. Mixed in my thinks. When I came to I was pretty busy putting my lunch," explained the other with simple realism. "One of Mr. Pullman's seats butted me in the stomach. They ain't upholstered as soft as you'd think to look at 'em. I went reeling around, looking for Miss I. O. W., she being alone, you know, and I thought she might need some looking after. And I had that idea of having seen her with her hand to her head dazed and running—yes; that's it, she was running. Wow!" said the young man fervently. "She was a pretty thing! You don't suppose—" He turned hesitantly to the file of bodies, now decently covered with sheets.
For a grisly instant Banneker thought of the one mangled monstrosity—that to have been so lately loveliness and charm, with deep fire in its eyes and perhaps deep tenderness and passion in its heart. He dismissed the thought as being against the evidence and entered the initials in his booklet.
"I'll look out for her," said he. "Probably she's forward somewhere."
Without respite he toiled until a long whistle gave notice of the return of the locomotive which had gone forward to meet the delayed special from Stanwood. Human beings were clinging about it in little clusters like bees; physicians, nurses, officials, and hospital attendants. The dispatcher from Stanwood listened to Banneker's brief report, and sent him back to Manzanita, with a curt word of approval for his work.
Banneker's last sight of the wreck, as he paused at the curve, was the helpful young man perched on the rear heap of wreckage which had been the observation car, peering anxiously into its depths ("Looking for I. O. W. probably," surmised the agent), and two commercial gentlemen from the smoker whiling away a commercially unproductive hiatus by playing pinochle on a suitcase held across their knees. Glancing at the vast, swollen, blue-black billows rolling up the sky, Banneker guessed that their game would be shortly interrupted.
He hoped that the dead would not get wet.
Back in his office, Banneker sent out the necessary wires, and learned from westward that it might be twelve hours before the break in the track near Stanwood could be fixed up. Then he settled down to his report.
Like his earlier telegram, the report was a little masterpiece of concise information. Not a word in it that was not dry, exact, meaningful. This was the more to the writer's credit in that his brain was seething with impressions, luminous with pictures, aflash with odds and ends of minor but significant things heard and seen and felt. It was his first inner view of tragedy and of the reactions of the human creature, brave or stupid or merely absurd, to a crisis. For all of this he had an outlet of expression.
Taking from the wall a file marked "Letters. Private"-it was 5 S 0027, and one of his most used purchases—he extracted some sheets of a special paper and, sitting at his desk, wrote and wrote and wrote, absorbedly, painstakingly, happily. Wind swept the outer world into a vortex of wild rain; the room boomed and trembled with the reverberations of thunder. Twice the telegraph instrument broke in on him; but these matters claimed only the outer shell; the soul of the man was concerned with committing its impressions of other souls to the secrecy of white paper, destined to personal and inviolable archives.
Some one entered the waiting-room. There was a tap on his door. Raising his head impatiently, Banneker saw, through the window already dimming with the gathering dusk, a large roan horse, droopy and disconsolate in the downpour. He jumped up and threw open his retreat. A tall woman, slipping out of a streaming poncho, entered. The simplicity, verging upon coarseness, of her dress detracted nothing from her distinction of bearing.
"Is there trouble on the line?" she asked in a voice of peculiar clarity.
"Bad trouble, Miss Camilla," answered Banneker. He pushed forward a chair, but she shook her head. "A loosened rock smashed into Number Three in the Cut. Eight dead, and a lot more in bad shape. They've got doctors and nurses from Stanwood. But the track's out below. And from what I get on the wire"—he nodded toward the east—"it'll be out above before long."
"I'd better go up there," said she. Her lips grew bloodless as she spoke and there was a look of effort and pain in her face.
"No; I don't think so. But if you'll go over to the town and see that Torrey gets his place cleaned up a bit, I suppose some of the passengers will be coming in pretty soon."
She made a quick gesture of repulsion. "Women can't go to Torrey's," she said. "It's too filthy. Besides—I'll take in the women, if there aren't too many and I can pick up a buckboard in Manzanita."
He nodded. "That'll be better, if any come in. Give me their names, won't you? I have to keep track of them, you know."
The manner of the two was that of familiars, of friends, though there was a touch of deference in Banneker's bearing, too subtly personal to be attributed to his official status. He went out to adjust the visitor's poncho, and, swinging her leg across the Mexican saddle of her horse with the mechanical ease of one habituated to this mode of travel, she was off.
Again the agent returned to his unofficial task and was instantly submerged in it. Impatiently he interrupted himself to light the lamps and at once resumed his pen. An emphatic knock at his door only caused him to shake his head. The summons was repeated. With a sigh Banneker gathered the written sheets, enclosed them in 5 S 0027, and restored that receptacle to its place. Meantime the knocking continued impatiently, presently pointed by a deep—
"Any one inside there?"
"Yes," said Banneker, opening to face the bulky old man who had cared for the wounded. "What's wanted?"
Uninvited, and with an assured air, the visitor stepped in.
"I am Horace Vanney," he announced.
"Do you know my name?"
In no wise discountenanced by the matter-of-fact negative, Mr. Vanney, still unsolicited, took a chair. "You would if you read the newspapers," he observed.
"The New York papers," pursued the other, benignly explanatory. "It doesn't matter. I came in to say that I shall make it my business to report your energy and efficiency to your superiors."
"Thank you," said Banneker politely.
"And I can assure you that my commendation will carry weight. Weight, sir."
The agent accepted this with a nod, obviously unimpressed. In fact, Mr. Vanney suspected with annoyance, he was listening not so much to these encouraging statements as to some unidentified noise outside. The agent raised the window and addressed some one who had approached through the steady drive of the rain. A gauntleted hand thrust through the window a slip of paper which he took. As he moved, a ray of light from the lamp, unblocked by his shoulder, fell upon the face of the person in the darkness, illuminating it to the astounded eyes of Mr. Horace Vanney.
"Two of them are going home with me," said a voice. "Will you send these wires to the addresses?"
"All right," replied Banneker, "and thank you. Good-night."
"Who was that?" barked Mr. Vanney, half rising.
"A friend of mine."
"I would swear to that face." He seemed quite excited. "I would swear to it anywhere. It is unforgettable. That was Camilla Van Arsdale. Was she in the wreck?"
"Don't tell me that it wasn't she! Don't try to tell me, for I won't believe it."
"I'm not trying to tell you anything," Banneker pointed out.
"True; you're not. You're close-mouthed enough. But—Camilla Van Arsdale! Incredible! Does she live here?"
"Here or hereabouts."
"You must give me the address. I must surely go and see her."
"Are you a friend of Miss Van Arsdale?"
"I could hardly say so much. A friend of her family, rather. She would remember me, I am sure. And, in any case, she would know my name. Where did you say she lived?"
"I don't think I said."
"Mystery-making!" The big man's gruffness had a suggestion of amusement in it. "But of course it would be simple enough to find out from town."
"See here, Mr. Vanney, Miss Van Arsdale is still something of an invalid—"
"After all these years," interposed the other, in the tone of one who ruminates upon a marvel.
"—and I happen to know that it isn't well for—that is, she doesn't care to see strangers, particularly from New York."
The old man stared. "Are you a gentleman?" he asked with abrupt surprise.
"A gentleman?" repeated Banneker, taken aback.
"I beg your pardon," said the visitor earnestly. "I meant no offense. You are doubtless quite right. As for any intrusion, I assure you there will be none."
Banneker nodded, and with that nod dismissed the subject quite as effectually as Mr. Horace Vanney himself could have done. "Did you attend all the injured?" he asked.
"All the serious ones, I think."
"Was there a young girl among them, dark and good-looking, whose name began—"
"The one my addle-brained young nephew has been pestering me about? Miss I. O. W.?"
"Yes. He reported her to me."
"I handled no such case that I recall. Now, as to your own helpfulness, I wish to make clear that I appreciate it."
Mr. Vanney launched into a flowery tribute of the after-dinner variety, leaning forward to rest a hand upon Banneker's desk as he spoke. When the speech was over and the hand withdrawn, something remained among the strewn papers. Banneker regarded it with interest. It showed a blotch of yellow upon green and a capital C. Picking it up, he looked from it to its giver.
"A little tribute," said that gentleman: "a slight recognition of your services." His manner suggested that hundred-dollar bills were inconsiderable trifles, hardly requiring the acknowledgment of thanks.
In this case the bill did not secure such acknowledgment.
"You don't owe me anything," stated the agent. "I can't take this!"
"What! Pride? Tut-tut."
"Why not?" asked Banneker.
Finding no immediate and appropriate answer to this simple question, Mr. Vanney stared.
"The company pays me. There's no reason why you should pay me. If anything, I ought to pay you for what you did at the wreck. But I'm not proposing to. Of course I'm putting in my report a statement about your help."
Mr. Vanney's cheek flushed. Was this composed young hireling making sport of him?
"Tut-tut!" he said again, this time with obvious intent to chide in his manner. "If I see fit to signify my appreciation—remember, I am old enough to be your father."
"Then you ought to have better judgment," returned Banneker with such candor and good-humor that the visitor was fairly discomfited.
An embarrassing silence—embarrassing, that is, to the older man; the younger seemed not to feel it—was happily interrupted by the advent of the lily-clad messenger.
Hastily retrieving his yellow-back, which he subjected to some furtive and occult manipulations, Mr. Vanney, after a few words, took his departure.
Banneker invited the newcomer to take the chair thus vacated. As he did so he brushed something to the floor and picked it up.
"Hello! What's this? Looks like a hundred-bucker. Yours?" He held out the bill.
Banneker shook his head. "Your uncle left it."
"It isn't a habit of his," replied the other.
"Give it to him for me, will you?"
"Certainly. Any message?"
The newcomer grinned. "I see," he said. "He'll be bored when he gets this back. He isn't a bad old bird, but he don't savvy some things. So you turned him down, did you?"
"Did he offer you a job and a chance to make your way in the world in one of his banks, beginning at ten-per?"
"He will to-morrow."
"I doubt it."
The other gave a thought to the bill. "Perhaps you're right. He likes 'em meek and obedient. He'd make a woolly lamb out of you. Most fellows would jump at the chance."
"My name's Herbert Cressey." He handed the agent a card. "Philadelphia is my home, but my New York address is on there, too. Ever get East?"
"I've been to Chicago."
"Chicago?" The other stared. "What's that got to do with—Oh, I see. You'll be coming to New York one of these days, though."
"Sure as a gun. A chap that can handle a situation like you handled the wreck isn't going to stick in a little sand-heap like this."
"It suits me here."
"No! Does it? I'd think you'd die of it. Well, when you do get East look me up, will you? I mean it; I'd like to see you."
"And if there's anything I can do for you any time, drop me a line."
The sumptuous ripple and gleam of the young man's faultless coat, registered upon Banneker's subconscious memory as it had fallen at his feet, recalled itself to him.
"What store do you buy your clothes at?"
"Store?" Cressey did not smile. "I don't buy 'em at a store. I have 'em made by a tailor. Mertoun, 505 Fifth Avenue."
"Would he make me a suit?"
"Why, yes. I'll give you a card to him and you go in there when you're in New York and pick out what you want."
"Oh! He wouldn't make them and send them out here to me? Sears-Roebuck do, if you send your measure. They're in Chicago."
"I never had any duds built in Chicago, so I don't know them. But I shouldn't think Mertoun would want to fit a man he'd never seen. They like to do things right, at Mertoun's. Ought to, too; they stick you enough for it."
"Not much short of a hundred for a sack suit."
Banneker was amazed. The choicest "made-to-measure" in his Universal Guide, "Snappy, fashionable, and up to the minute," came to less than half of that.
His admiring eye fell upon his visitor's bow-tie, faultless and underanged throughout the vicissitudes of that arduous day, and he yearned to know whether it was "made-up" or self-confected. Sears-Roebuck were severely impartial as between one practice and the other, offering a wide range in each variety. He inquired.
"Oh, tied it myself, of course," returned Cressey. "Nobody wears the ready-made kind. It's no trick to do it. I'll show you, any time."
They fell into friendly talk about the wreck.
It was ten-thirty when Banneker finished his much-interrupted writing. Going out to the portable house, he lighted an oil-stove and proceeded to make a molasses pie. He was due for a busy day on the morrow and might not find time to take the mile walk to the hotel for dinner, as was his general habit. With the store of canned goods derived from the mail-order catalogue, he could always make shift to live. Besides, he was young enough to relish keenly molasses pie and the manufacture of it. Having concluded his cookery in strict accordance with the rules set forth in the guide to this art, he laid it out on the sill to cool over night.
Tired though he was, his brain was too busy for immediate sleep. He returned to his den, drew out a book and began to read with absorption. That in which he now sought release and distraction was not the magnum opus of Messrs. Sears-Roebuck, but the work of a less practical and popular writer, being in fact the "Eve of St. Agnes," by John Keats. Soothed and dreamy, he put out the lights, climbed to his living quarters above the office, and fell asleep. It was then eleven-thirty and his official day had terminated five hours earlier.
At one o'clock he arose and patiently descended the stairs again. Some one was hammering on the door. He opened without inquiry, which was not the part of wisdom in that country and at that hour. His pocket-flash gleamed on a thin young man in a black-rubber coat who, with head and hands retracted as far as possible from the pouring rain, resembled a disconsolate turtle with an insufficient carapace.
"I'm Gardner, of the Angelica City Herald," explained the untimely visitor.
Banneker was surprised. That a reporter should come all the way from the metropolis of the Southwest to his wreck—he had already established proprietary interest in it—was gratifying. Furthermore, for reasons of his own, he was glad to see a journalist. He took him in and lighted up the office.
"Had to get a horse and ride to Manzanita to interview old Vanney and a couple of other big guys from the East. My first story's on the wire," explained the newcomer offhand. "I want some local-color stuff for my second day follow-up."
"It must be hard to do that," said Banneker interestedly, "when you haven't seen any of it yourself."
"Patchwork and imagination," returned the other wearily. "That's what I get special rates for. Now, if I'd had your chance, right there on the spot, with the whole stage-setting around one—Lordy! How a fellow could write that!"
"Not so easy," murmured the agent. "You get confused. It's a sort of blur, and when you come to put it down, little things that aren't really important come up to the surface—"
"Put it down?" queried the other with a quick look. "Oh, I see. Your report for the company."
"Well, I wasn't thinking of that."
"Do you write other things?" asked the reporter carelessly.
"Oh, just foolery." The tone invited—at least it did not discourage—further inquiry. Mr. Gardner was bored. Amateurs who "occasionally write" were the bane of him who, having a signature of his own in the leading local paper, represented to the aspiring mind the gilded and lofty peaks of the unattainable. However he must play this youth as a source of material.
"Ever try for the papers?"
"Not yet. I've thought maybe I might get a chance sometime as a sort of local correspondent around here," was the diffident reply.
Gardner repressed a grin. Manzanita would hardly qualify as a news center. Diplomacy prompted him to state vaguely that there was always a chance for good stuff locally.
"On a big story like this," he added, "of course there'd be nothing doing except for the special man sent out to cover it."
"No. Well, I didn't write my—what I wrote, with any idea of getting it printed."
The newspaper man sighed wearily, sighed like a child and lied like a man of duty. "I'd like to see it."
Without a trace of hesitation or self-consciousness Banneker said, "All right," and, taking his composition from its docket, motioned the other to the light. Mr. Gardner finished and turned the first sheet before making any observation. Then he bent a queer look upon Banneker and grunted:
"What do you call this stuff, anyway?"
"Just putting down what I saw."
Gardner read on. "What about this, about a Pullman sleeper 'elegant as a hotel bar and rigid as a church pew'? Where do you get that?"
Banneker looked startled. "I don't know. It just struck me that is the way a Pullman is."
"Well, it is," admitted the visitor, and continued to read. "And this guy with the smashed finger that kept threatening to 'soom'; is that right?"
"Of course it's right. You don't think I'd make it up! That reminds me of something." And he entered a memo to see the litigious-minded complainant again, for these are the cases which often turn up in the courts with claims for fifty-thousand-dollar damages and heartrending details of all-but-mortal internal injuries.
Silence held the reader until he had concluded the seventh and last sheet. Not looking at Banneker, he said:
"So that's your notion of reporting the wreck of the swellest train that crosses the continent, is it?"
"It doesn't pretend to be a report," disclaimed the writer. "It's pretty bad, is it?"
"It's rotten!" Gardner paused. "From a news-desk point of view. Any copy-reader would chuck it. Unless I happened to sign it," he added. "Then they'd cuss it out and let it pass, and the dear old pin-head public would eat it up."
"If it's of any use to you—"
"Not so, my boy, not so! I might pinch your wad if you left it around loose, or even your last cigarette, but not your stuff. Let me take it along, though; it may give me some ideas. I'll return it. Now, where can I get a bed in the town?"
"Nowhere. Everything's filled. But I can give you a hammock out in my shack."
"That's better. I'll take it. Thanks."
Banneker kept his guest awake beyond the limits of decent hospitality, asking him questions.
The reporter, constantly more interested in this unexpected find of a real personality in an out-of-the-way minor station of the high desert, meditated a character study of "the hero of the wreck," but could not quite contrive any peg whereon to hang the wreath of heroism. By his own modest account, Banneker had been competent but wholly unpicturesque, though the characters in his sketch, rude and unformed though it was, stood out clearly. As to his own personal history, the agent was unresponsive. At length the guest, apologizing for untimely weariness, it being then 3.15 A.M., yawned his way to the portable shack.
He slept heavily, except for a brief period when the rain let up. In the morning—which term seasoned newspaper men apply to twelve noon and the hour or two thereafter—he inquired of Banneker, "Any tramps around here?"
"No," answered the agent, "Not often. There were a pair yesterday morning, but they went on."
"Some one was fussing around the place about first light. I was too sleepy to get up. I yipped and they beat it. I don't think they got inside."
Banneker investigated. Nothing was missing from within the shack. But outside he made a distressing discovery.
His molasses pie was gone.
"To accomplish a dessert as simple and inexpensive as it is tasty," prescribes The Complete Manual of Cookery, p. 48, "take one cup of thick molasses—" But why should I infringe a copyright when the culinary reader may acquire the whole range of kitchen lore by expending eighty-nine cents plus postage on 39 T 337? Banneker had faithfully followed the prescribed instructions. The result had certainly been simple and inexpensive; presumably it would have proven tasty. He regretted and resented the rape of the pie. What aroused greater concern, however, was the presence of thieves. In the soft ground near the window he found some rather small footprints which suggested that it was the younger of the two hoboes who had committed the depredation.
Theorizing, however, was not the order of his day. Routine and extra-routine claimed all his time. There was his supplementary report to make out; the marooned travelers in Manzanita to be looked after and their bitter complaints to be listened to; consultations over the wire as to the condition and probabilities of the roadbed, for the floods had come again; and in and out of it all, the busy, weary, indefatigable Gardner, giving to the agent as much information as he asked from him. When their final lists were compared, Banneker noticed that there was no name with the initials I.O.W. on Gardner's. He thought of mentioning the clue, but decided that it was of too little definiteness and importance. The news value of mystery, enhanced by youth and beauty, which the veriest cub who had ever smelled printer's ink would have appreciated, was a sealed book to him.
Not until late that afternoon did a rescue train limp cautiously along an improvised track to set the interrupted travelers on their way. Gardner went on it, leaving an address and an invitation to "keep in touch." Mr. Vanney took his departure with a few benign and well-chosen words of farewell, accompanied by the assurance that he would "make it his special purpose to commend," and so on. His nephew, Herbert Cressey, the lily-clad messenger, stopped at the station to shake hands and grin rather vacantly, and adjure Banneker, whom he addressed as "old chap," to be sure and look him up in the East; he'd be glad to see him any time. Banneker believed that he meant it. He promised to do so, though without particular interest. With the others departed Miss Camilla Van Arsdale's two emergency guests, one of them the rather splendid young woman who had helped with the wounded. They invaded Banneker's office with supplementary telegrams and talked about their hostess with that freedom which women of the world use before dogs or uniformed officials.
"What a woman!" said the amateur nurse.
"And what a house!" supplemented the other, a faded and lined middle-aged wife who had just sent a reassuring and very long wire to a husband in Pittsburgh.
"Very much the chatelaine; grande dame and that sort of thing," pursued the other. "One might almost think her English."
"No." The other shook her head positively. "Old American. As old and as good as her name. You wouldn't flatter her by guessing her to be anything else. I dare say she would consider the average British aristocrat a little shoddy and loud."
"So they are when they come over here. But what on earth is her type doing out here, buried with a one-eyed, half-breed manservant?"
"And a concert grand piano. Don't forget that. She tunes it herself, too. Did you notice the tools? A possible romance. You've quite a nose for such things, Sue. Couldn't you get anything out of her?"
"It's much too good a nose to put in the crack of a door," retorted the pretty woman. "I shouldn't care to lay myself open to being snubbed by her. It might be painful."
"It probably would." The Pittsburgher turned to Banneker with a change of tone, implying that he could not have taken any possible heed of what went before. "Has Miss Van Arsdale lived here long, do you know?"
The agent looked at her intently for a moment before replying: "Longer than I have." He transferred his gaze to the pretty woman. "You two were her guests, weren't you?" he asked.
The visitors glanced at each other, half amused, half aghast. The tone and implication of the question had been too significant to be misunderstood. "Well, of all extraordinary—" began one of them under her breath; and the other said more loudly, "I really beg—" and then she, too, broke off.
They went out. "Chatelaine and knightly defender," commented the younger one in the refuge of the outer office. "Have we been dumped off a train into the midst of the Middle Ages? Where do you get station-agents like that?"
"The one at our suburban station chews tobacco and says 'Marm' through his nose."
Banneker emerged, seeking the conductor of the special with a message.
"He is rather a beautiful young thing, isn't he?" she added.
Returning, he helped them on the train with their hand-luggage. When the bustle and confusion of dispatching an extra were over, he sat down to think. But not of Miss Camilla Van Arsdale. That was an old story, though its chapters were few, and none of them as potentially eventful as this intrusion of Vanneys and female chatterers.
It was the molasses pie that stuck in his mind. There was no time to make another. Further, the thought of depredators hanging about disturbed him. That shack of his was full of Aladdin treasures, delivered by the summoned genii of the Great Book. Though it was secured by Little Guardian locks and fortified with the Scarem Buzz alarm, he did not feel sure of it. He decided to sleep there that night with his .45-caliber Sure-shot revolver. Let them come again; he'd give 'em a lesson! On second thought, he rebaited the window-ledge with a can of Special Juicy Apricot Preserve. At ten o'clock he turned in, determined to sleep lightly, and immediately plunged into fathomless depths of unconsciousness, lulled by a singing wind and the drone of the rain.
A light, flashing across his eyes, awakened him. For a moment he lay, dazed, confused by the gentle and unfamiliar oscillations of his hammock. Another flicker of light and a rumble of thunder brought him to his full senses. The rain had degenerated into a casual drizzle and the wind had withdrawn into the higher areas. He heard some one moving outside.
Very quietly he reached out to the stand at his elbow, got his revolver and his flashlight, and slipped to the floor. The malefactor without was approaching the window. Another flash of lightning would have revealed much to Banneker had he not been crouching close under the sill, on the inside, so that the radiance of his light, when he found the button, should not expose him to a straight shot.
A hand fumbled at the open window. Finger on trigger, Banneker held up his flashlight in his left hand and irradiated the spot. He saw the hand, groping, and on one of its fingers something which returned a more brilliant gleam than the electric ray. In his crass amazement, the agent straightened up, a full mark for murder, staring at a diamond-and-ruby ring set upon a short, delicate finger.
No sound came from outside. But the hand became instantly tense. It fell upon the sill and clutched it so hard that the knuckles stood out, white, strained and garish. Banneker's own strong hand descended upon the wrist. A voice said softly and tremulously:
The appeal went straight to Banneker's heart and quivered there, like a soft flame, like music heard in an unrealizable dream.
"Who are you?" he asked, and the voice said:
"Don't hurt me."
"Why should I?" returned Banneker stupidly.
"Some one did," said the voice.
"Who?" he demanded fiercely.
"Won't you let me go?" pleaded the voice.
In the shock of his discovery he had released the flash-lever so that this colloquy passed in darkness. Now he pressed it. A girlish figure was revealed, one protective arm thrown across the eyes.
"Don't strike me," said the girl again, and again Banneker's heart was shaken within him by such tremors as the crisis of some deadly fear might cause.
"You needn't be afraid," he stammered.
"I've never been afraid before," she said, hanging her weight away from him. "Won't you let me go?"
His grip relaxed slightly, then tightened again. "Where to?"
"I don't know," said the appealing voice mournfully.
An inspiration came to Banneker. "Are you afraid of me?" he asked quietly.
"Of every thing. Of the night."
He pressed the flash into her hand, turning the light upon himself. "Look," he said.
It seemed to him that she could not fail to read in his face the profound and ardent wish to help her; to comfort and assure an uneasy and frightened spirit wandering in the night.
He heard a little, soft sigh. "I don't know you," said the voice. "Do I?"
"No," he answered soothingly as if to a child. "I'm the station-agent here. You must come in out of the wet."
He tossed an overcoat on over his pajamas, ran to the door and swung it open. The tiny ray of light advanced, hesitated, advanced again. She walked into the shack, and immediately the rain burst again upon the outer world. Banneker's fleeting impression was of a vivid but dimmed beauty. He pushed forward a chair, found a blanket for her feet, lighted the "Quick-heater" oil-stove on which he did his cooking. She followed him with her eyes, deeply glowing but vague and troubled.
"This is not a station," she said.
"No. It's my shack. Are you cold?"
"Not very." She shivered a little.
"You say that some one hurt you?"
"Yes. They struck me. It made my head feel queer."
A murderous fury surged into his brain. His hand twitched toward his revolver.
"The hoboes," he whispered under his breath. "But they didn't rob you," he said aloud, looking at the jeweled hand.
"No. I don't think so. I ran away."
"Where was it?"
"On the train."
Enlightenment burst upon him. "You're sure—" he began. Then, "Tell me all you can about it."
"I don't remember anything. I was in my stateroom in the car. The door was open. Some one must have come in and struck me. Here." She put her left hand tenderly to her head.
Banneker, leaning over her, only half suppressed a cry. Back of the temple rose a great, puffed, leaden-blue wale.
"Sit still," he said. "I'll fix it."
While he busied himself heating water, getting out clean bandages and gauze, she leaned back with half-closed eyes in which there was neither fear nor wonder nor curiosity: only a still content. Banneker washed the wound very carefully.
"Does it hurt?" he asked.
"My head feels queer. Inside."
"I think the hair ought to be cut away around the place. Right here. It's quite raw."
It was glorious hair. Not black, as Cressey had described it in his hasty sketch of the unknown I.O.W.; too alive with gleams and glints of luster for that. Nor were her eyes black, but rather of a deep-hued, clouded hazel, showing troubled shadows between their dark-lashed, heavy lids. Yet Banneker made no doubt but that this was the missing girl of Cressey's inquiry.
"May I?" he said.
"Cut my hair?" she asked. "Oh, no!"
"Just a little, in one place. I think I can do it so that it won't show. There's so much of it."
"Please," she answered, yielding.
He was deft. She sat quiet and soothed under his ministerings. Completed, the bandage looked not too unworkmanlike, and was cool and comforting to the hot throb of the wound.
"Our doctor went back on the train, worse luck!" he said.
"I don't want any other doctor," she murmured. "I'd rather have you."
"But I'm not a doctor."
"No," she acquiesced. "Who are you? Did you tell me? You are one of the passengers, aren't you?"
"I'm the station-agent at Manzanita."
For a moment she looked at him wonderingly. "Are you? I don't seem to understand. My head is very queer."
"Don't try to. Here's some tea and crackers."
"I'm starved," she said.
With subtle stirrings of delight, he watched her eat the bit that he had prepared for her while heating the water. But he was wise enough to know that she must not have much while the extent of her injury was still undetermined.
"Are you wet?" he inquired.
She nodded. "I haven't been dry since the flood."
"I have a room with a real stove in it over the station. I'll build a fire, and you must take off your wet things and go to bed and sleep. If you need anything you can hammer on the floor."
"I'll be in my office, below. I'm on night duty to-night," said he, tactfully fabricating.
"Very well. You're awfully kind."
He adjusted the oil-stove, threw a warmed blanket over her feet, and hurried to his room to build the promised fire. When he came back she smiled.
"You are good to me! It's stupid of me—my head is so queer—did you say you were—"
"The station-agent. My name is Banneker. I'm responsible to the company for your safety and comfort. You're not to worry about it, nor think about it, nor ask any questions."
"No," she agreed, and rose.
He threw the blanket around her shoulders. At the protective touch she slipped her hand through his arm. So they went out into the night.
Mounting the stairs, she stumbled, and for a moment he felt the firm, warm pressure of her body against him. It shook him strangely.
"I'm sorry," she murmured. And, a moment later, "Good-night, and thank you."
Taking the hand which she held out, he returned her good-night. The door closed. He turned away and was halfway down the flight when a sudden thought recalled him. He tapped on the door.
"What is it?" asked the serene music of the voice.
"I don't want to bother you, but there's just one thing I forgot. Please give me your name."
"What for?" returned the voice doubtfully.
"I must report it to the company."
"Must you?" The voice seemed to be vaguely troubled. "To-night?"
"Don't give a thought to it," he said. "To-morrow will do just as well. I'm sorry to have troubled you."
"Good-night," she said again.
"Can't remember her own name!" thought Banneker, moved and pitiful.
Darkness and quiet were grateful to him as he entered the office. By sense of direction he found his chair, and sank into it. Overhead he could hear the soft sound of her feet moving about the room, his room. Quiet succeeded. Banneker, leagues removed from sleep, or the hope of it, despite his bodily weariness, followed the spirit of wonder through starlit and sunlit realms of dream.
The telegraph-receiver clicked. Not his call. But it brought him back to actualities. He lighted his lamp and brought down the letter-file from which had been extracted the description of the wreck for Gardner of the Angelica City Herald.
Drawing out the special paper, he looked at the heading and smiled. "Letters to Nobody." He took a fresh sheet and began to write. Through the night he wrote and dreamed and dozed and wrote again. When a sound of song, faint and sweet and imminent, roused him to lift his sleep-bowed head from the desk upon which it had sunk, the gray, soiled light of a stormy morning was in his eyes. The last words he had written were:
"The breast of the world rises and falls with your breathing."
Banneker was twenty-four years old, and had the untainted soul of a boy of sixteen.
Overhead she was singing. The voice was clear and sweet and happy. He did not know the melody; some minor refrain of broken rhythm which seemed always to die away short of fulfillment. A haunting thing of mystery and glamour, such mystery and glamour as had irradiated his long and wonderful night. He heard the door open and then her light footsteps on the stair outside. Hot-eyed and disheveled, he rose, staggering a little at first as he hurried to greet her.
She stood poised on the lower step.
"Good-morning," he said.
She made no return to his accost other than a slow smile. "I thought you were a dream," she murmured.
"No. I'm real enough. Are you better? Your head?"
She put a hand to the bandage. "It's sore. Otherwise I'm quite fit. I've slept like the dead."
"I'm glad to hear it," he replied mechanically. He was drinking her in, all the grace and loveliness and wonder of her, himself quite unconscious of the intensity of his gaze.
She accepted the mute tribute untroubled; but there was a suggestion of puzzlement in the frown which began to pucker her forehead.
"You're really the station-agent?" she asked with a slight emphasis upon the adverb.
"Yes. Why not?"
"Nothing. No reason. Won't you tell me what happened?"
"Come inside." He held open the door against the wind.
"No. It's musty." She wrinkled a dainty nose. "Can't we talk here? I love the feel of the air and the wet. And the world! I'm glad I wasn't killed."
"So am I," he said soberly.
"When my brain wouldn't work quite right yesterday, I thought that some one had hit me. That isn't so, is it?"
"No. Your train was wrecked. You were injured. In the confusion you must have run away."
"Yes. I remember being frightened. Terribly frightened. I'd never been that way before. Outside of that one idea of fear, everything was mixed up. I ran until I couldn't run any more and dropped down."
"I got up and ran again. Have you ever been afraid?"
"Plenty of times."
"I hadn't realized before that there was anything in the world to be afraid of. But the thought of that blow, coming so suddenly from nowhere, and the fear that I might be struck again—it drove me." She flung out her hands in a little desperate gesture that twitched at Banneker's breath.
"You must have been out all night in the rain."'
"No. I found a sort of cabin in the woods. It was deserted."
"Dutch Cal's place. It's only a few rods back in."
"I saw a light from there and that suggested to my muddled brain that I might get something to eat."
"So you came over here."
"Yes. But the fear came on me again and I didn't dare knock. I suppose I prowled."
"Gardner thought he heard ghosts. But ghosts don't steal molasses pie."
She looked at him solemnly. "Must one steal to get anything to eat here?"
"I'm sorry," he cried. "I'll get you breakfast right away. What will you have? There isn't much."
"Anything there is. But if I'm to board with you, you must let me pay my way."
"The company is responsible for that."
Her brooding eyes were still fixed upon him. "You actually are the agent," she mused. "That's quaint."
"I don't see anything quaint about it. Now, if you'll make yourself comfortable I'll go over to the shack and rustle something for breakfast."
"No; I'd rather go with you. Perhaps I can help."
Such help as the guest afforded was negligible. When, from sundry of the Sears-Roebuck cans and bottles, a condensed and preserved sort of meal had been derived, she set to it with a good grace.
"There's more of a kick in tea than in a cocktail, I believe, when you really need it," she remarked gratefully. "You spoke of a Mr. Gardner. Who is he?"
"A reporter who spent night before last here."
She dropped her cracker, oleomargarine-side down. "A reporter?"
"He came down to write up the wreck. It's a bad one. Nine dead, so far."
"Is he still here?"
"No. Gone back to Angelica City."
Retrieving her cracker, the guest finished her meal, heartily but thoughtfully. She insisted on lending a hand to the washing-up process, and complimented Banneker on his neatness.
"You haven't told me your name yet," he reminded her when the last shining tin was hung up.
"No; I haven't. What will you do with it when you get it?"
"Report it to the company for their lists."
"Suppose I don't want it reported to the company?'
"Why on earth shouldn't you?"
"I may have my reasons. Would it be put in the papers?"
"I don't want it in the papers," said the girl with decision.
"Don't you want it known that you're all right? Your people—"
"I'll wire my people. Or you can wire them for me. Can't you?"
"Of course. But the company has a right to know what has happened to its passengers."
"Not to me! What has the company done for me but wreck me and give me an awful bang on the head and lose my baggage and—Oh, I nearly forgot. I took my traveling-bag when I ran. It's in the hut. I wonder if you would get it for me?"
"Of course. I'll go now."
"That's good of you. And for your own self, but not your old company, I'll tell you my name. I'm—"
"Wait a moment. Whatever you tell me I'll have to report."
"You can't," she returned imperiously. "It's in confidence."
"I won't accept it so."
"You're a most extraordinary sta—a most extraordinary sort of man. Then I'll give you this much for yourself, and if your company collects pet names, you can pass it on. My friends call me Io."
"Yes. I know. You're I.O.W."
"How do you know that? And how much more do you know?"
"No more. A man on the train reported your initials from your baggage."
"I'll feel ever so much better when I have that bag. Is there a hotel near here?"
"A sort of one at Manzanita. It isn't very clean. But there'll be a train through to-night and I'll get you space on that. I'd better get a doctor for you first, hadn't I?"
"No, indeed! All I need is some fresh things."
Banneker set off at a brisk pace. He found the extravagant little traveling-case safely closed and locked, and delivered it outside his own door which was also closed and, he suspected, locked.
"I'm thinking," said the soft voice of the girl within. "Don't let me interrupt your work."
Beneath, at his routine, Banneker also set himself to think; confused, bewildered, impossibly conjectural thoughts not unmingled with semi-official anxiety. Harboring a woman on company property, even though she were, in some sense, a charge of the company, might be open to misconceptions. He wished that the mysterious Io would declare herself.
At noon she did. She declared herself ready for luncheon. There was about her a matter-of-fact acceptance of the situation as natural, even inevitable, which entranced Banneker when it did not appall him. After the meal was over, the girl seated herself on a low bench which Banneker had built with his own hands and the Right-and-Ready Tool Kit (9 T 603), her knee between her clasped hands and an elfish expression on her face.
"Don't you think," she suggested, "that we'd get on quicker if you washed the dishes and I sat here and talked to you?"
"It isn't so easy to begin, you know," she remarked, nursing her knee thoughtfully. "Am I—Do you find me very much in the way?'"
"Don't suppress your wild enthusiasm on my account," she besought him. "I haven't interfered with your duties so far, have I?"
"No," answered Banneker wondering what was coming next.
"You see"—her tone became ruminative and confidential—"if I give you my name and you report it, there'll be all kinds of a mix-up. They'll come after me and take me away."
Banneker dropped a tin on the floor and stood, staring.
"Isn't that what you want?"
"It's evident enough that it's what you want," she returned, aggrieved.
"No. Not at all," he disclaimed. "Only—well, out here—alone—I don't understand."
"Can't you understand that if one had happened to drop out of the world by chance, it might be desirable to stay out for a while?"
"For you? No; I can't understand that."
"What about yourself?" she challenged with a swift, amused gleam. "You are certainly staying out of the world here."
"This is my world."
Her eyes and voice dropped. "Truly?" she murmured. Then, as he made no reply, "It isn't much of a world for a man."
To this his response touched the heights of the unexpected. He stretched out his arm toward the near window through which could be seen the white splendor of Mount Carstairs, dim in the wreathing murk.
"Lo! For there, amidst the flowers and grasses, Only the mightier movement sounds and passes, Only winds and rivers, Life and death," he quoted.
Her eyes glowed with sheer, incredulous astonishment. "How came you by that Stevenson?" she demanded. "Are you poet as well as recluse?"
"I met him once."
"Tell me about it."
"Some other time. We've other things to talk of now."
"Some other time? Then I'm to stay!"
"Manzanita? No. Here."
"In this station? Alone? But why—"
"Because I'm Io Welland and I want to, and I always get what I want," she retorted calmly and superbly.
"Welland," he repeated. "Miss I.O. Welland. And the address is New York, isn't it?"
Her hands grew tense across her knee, and deep in her shadowed eyes there was a flash. But her voice suggested not only appeal, but almost a hint of caress as she said:
"Are you going to betray a guest? I've always heard that Western hospitality—"
"You're not my guest. You're the company's."
"And you won't take me for yours?"
"Be reasonable, Miss Welland."
"I suppose it's a question of the conventionalities," she mocked.
"I don't know or care anything about the conventionalities—"
"Nor I," she interrupted. "Out here."
"—but my guess would be that they apply only to people who live in the same world. We don't, you and I."
"That's rather shrewd of you," she observed.
"It isn't an easy matter to talk about to a young girl, you know."
"Oh, yes, it is," she returned with composure. "Just take it for granted that I know about all there is to be known and am not afraid of it. I'm not afraid of anything, I think, except of—of having to go back just now." She rose and went to him, looking down into his eyes. "A woman knows whom she can trust in—in certain things. That's her gift, a gift no man has or quite understands. Dazed as I was last night, I knew I could trust you. I still know it. So we may dismiss that."
"That is true," said Banneker, "so far as it goes."
"What farther is there? If it's a matter of the inconvenience—"
"No. You know it isn't that."
"Then let me stay in this funny little shack just for a few days," she pleaded. "If you don't, I'll get on to-night's train and go on and—and do something I'll be sorry for all the rest of my life. And it'll be your fault! I was going to do it when the accident prevented. Do you believe in Providence?"
"Not as a butt-in," he answered promptly. "I don't believe that Providence would pitch a rock into a train and kill a lot of people, just to prevent a girl from making a foo—a bad break."
"Nor I," she smiled. "I suppose there's some kind of a General Manager over this queer world; but I believe He plays the game fair and square and doesn't break the rules He has made Himself. If I didn't, I wouldn't want to play at all!... Oh, my telegram! I must wire my aunt in New York. I'll tell her that I've stopped off to visit friends, if you don't object to that description as being too compromising," she added mischievously. She accepted a pad which he handed her and sat at the table, pondering. "Mr. Banneker," she said after a moment.
"If the telegram goes from here, will it be headed by the name of the station?"
"So that inquiry might be made here for me?"
"It might, certainly."
"But I don't want it to be. Couldn't you leave off the station?"
"Not very well."
"Just for me?" she wheedled. "For your guest that you've been so insistent on keeping," she added slyly.
"The message wouldn't be accepted."
"Oh, dear! Then I won't send it."
"If you don't notify your family, I must report you to the company."
"What an irritating sense of duty you have! It must be dreadful to be afflicted that way. Can't you suggest something?" she flashed. "Won't you do a thing to help me stay? I believe you don't want me, after all."
"If the up-train gets through this evening, I'll give your wire to the engineer and he'll transmit it from any office you say."
Childlike with pleasure she clapped her hands. "Of course! Give him this, will you?" From a bag at her wrist she extracted a five-dollar bill. "By the way, if I'm to be a guest I must be a paying guest, of course."
"You can pay for a cot that I'll get in town," he agreed, "and your share of the food."
"But the use of the house, and—and all the trouble I'm making you," she said doubtfully. "I ought to pay for that."
"Do you think so?" He looked at her with a peculiar expression which, however, was not beyond the power of her intuition to interpret.
"No; I don't," she declared.
Banneker answered her smile with his own, as he resumed his dish-wiping. Io wrote out her telegram with care. Her next observation startled the agent.
"Are you, by any chance, married?"
"No; I'm not. What makes you ask that?"
"There's been a woman in here before."
Confusedly his thoughts flew back to Carlotta. But the Mexican girl had never been in the shack. He was quite absurdly and inexplicably glad now that she had not.
"A woman?" he said. "Why do you think so?"
"Something in the arrangement of the place. That hanging, yonder. And that little vase—it's good, by the way. The way that Navajo is placed on the door. One feels it."
"It's true. A friend of mine came here one day and turned everything topsy-turvy."
"I'm not asking questions just for curiosity. But is that the reason you didn't want me to stay?"
He laughed, thinking of Miss Van Arsdale. "Heavens, no! Wait till you meet her. She's a very wonderful person; but—"
"Meet her? Does she live near here, then?"
"A few miles away."
"Suppose she should come and find me here?"
"It's what I've been wishing."
"Is it! Well, it isn't what I wish at all."
"In fact," continued the imperturbable Banneker, "I rather planned to ride over to her place this afternoon."
"Why, if you please?"
"To tell her about you and ask her advice."
Io's face darkened rebelliously. "Do you think it necessary to tattle to a woman who is a total stranger to me?"
"I think it would be wise to get her view," he replied, unmoved.
"Well, I think it would be horrid. I think if you do any such thing, you are—Mr. Banneker! You're not listening to me."
"Some one is coming through the woods trail," said he.
"Perhaps it's your local friend."
"That's my guess."
"Please understand this, Mr. Banneker," she said with an obstinate outthrust of her little chin. "I don't know who your friend is and I don't care. If you make it necessary, I can go to the hotel in town; but while I stay here I won't have my affairs or even my presence discussed with any one else."
"You're too late," said Banneker.
Out from a hardly discernible opening in the brush shouldered a big roan. Tossing up his head, he stretched out in the long, easy lope of the desert-bred, his rider sitting him loosely and with slack bridle.
"That's Miss Van Arsdale," said Banneker.
Seated in her saddle the newcomer hailed Banneker.
"What news, Ban? Is the wreck cleared up?"
"Yes. But the track is out twenty miles east. Every arroyo and barranca is bank-high and over."
He had crossed the platform to her. Now she raised her deep-set, quiet eyes and rested them on the girl. That the station should harbor a visitor at that hour was not surprising. But the beauty of the stranger caught Miss Van Arsdale's regard, and her bearing held it.
"A passenger, Ban?" she asked, lowering her voice.
"Yes, Miss Camilla."
"Left over from the wreck?"
He nodded. "You came in the nick of time. I don't quite know what to do with her."
"Why didn't she go on the relief train?"
"She didn't show up until last night."
"Where did she stay the night?"
"In your office?"
"In my room. I worked in the office."
"You should have brought her to me."
"She was hurt. Queer in the head. I'm not sure that she isn't so yet."
Miss Van Arsdale swung her tall form easily out of the saddle. The girl came forward at once, not waiting for Banneker's introduction, with a formal gravity.
"How do you do? I am Irene Welland."
The older woman took the extended hand. There was courtesy rather than kindliness in her voice as she asked, "Are you much hurt?"
"I'm quite over it, thank you. All but the bandage. Mr. Banneker was just speaking of you when you rode up, Miss Van Arsdale."
The other smiled wanly. "It is a little startling to hear one's name like that, in a voice from another world. When do you go on?"
"Ah, that's a point under discussion. Mr. Banneker would, I believe, summon a special train if he could, in his anxiety to get rid of me."
"Not at all," disclaimed the agent.
But Miss Van Arsdale interrupted, addressing the girl:
"You must be anxious, yourself, to get back to civilization."
"Why?" returned the girl lightly. "This seems a beautiful locality."
"Were you traveling alone?"
The girl flushed a little, but her eyes met the question without wavering. "Quite alone."
"To the coast?"
"To join friends there."
"If they can patch up the washed-out track," put in Banneker, "Number Seven ought to get through to-night."
"And Mr. Banneker in his official capacity was almost ready to put me aboard by force, when I succeeded in gaining a reprieve. Now he calls you to his rescue."
"What do you want to do?" inquired Miss Van Arsdale with lifted brows.
"Stay here for a few days, in that funny little house." She indicated the portable shack.
"That is Mr. Banneker's own place."
"I understand perfectly."
"I don't think it would do, Miss Welland. It is Miss Welland, isn't it?"
"Yes, indeed. Why wouldn't it do, Miss Van Arsdale?"
"I am quite capable of taking care of myself," returned the girl calmly. "As for Mr. Banneker, I assume that he is equally competent. And," she added with a smiling effrontery, "he's quite as much compromised already as he could possibly be by my staying."
Banneker flushed angrily. "There's no question of my being compromised," he began shortly.
"You're wrong, Ban; there is," Miss Van Arsdale's quiet voice cut him short again. "And still more of Miss Welland's. What sort of escapade this may be," she added, turning to the girl, "I have no idea. But you cannot stay here alone."
"Can't I?" retorted the other mutinously. "I think that rests with Mr. Banneker to say. Will you turn me out, Mr. Banneker? After our agreement?"
"No," said Banneker.
"You can hardly kidnap me, even with all the conventionalities on your side," Miss Welland pointed out to Miss Van Arsdale.
That lady made no answer to the taunt. She was looking at the station-agent with a humorously expectant regard. He did not disappoint her.
"If I get an extra cot for the shack, Miss Van Arsdale," he asked, "could you get your things and come over here to stay?"
"I won't be treated like a child!" cried the derelict in exactly the tone of one, and a very naughty one. "I won't! I won't!" She stamped.
"You're a coward," said Io.
Miss Van Arsdale laughed.
"I'll go to the hotel in the town and stay there."
"Think twice before you do that," advised the woman.
"Why?" asked Io, struck by the tone.
"Crawly things," replied Miss Van Arsdale sententiously.
"Big, hungry ones," added Banneker.
He could almost feel the little rippling shudders passing across the girl's delicate skin. "Oh, I think you're loathly!" she cried. "Both of you."
Tears of vexation made lucent the shadowed depths of her eyes. "I've never been treated so in my life!" she declared, overcome by the self-pity of a struggling soul trammeled by the world's injustice.
"Why not be sensible and stay with me to-night while you think it all over?" suggested Miss Van Arsdale.
"Thank you," returned the other with an unexpected and baffling change to the amenable and formal "You are very kind. I'd be delighted to."
"Pack up your things, then, and I'll bring an extra horse from the town. I'll be back in an hour."
The girl went up to Banneker's room, and got her few belongings together. Descending she found the agent busy among his papers. He put them aside and came out to her.
"Your telegram ought to get off from Williams sometime to-morrow," he said.
"That will be time enough," she answered.
"Will there be any answer?"
"How can there be? I haven't given any address."
"I could wire Williams later."
"No. I don't want to be bothered. I want to be let alone. I'm tired."
He cast a glance about the lowering horizon. "More rain coming," he said. "I wish you could have seen the desert in the sunshine."
"Will you?" he cried eagerly. "It may be quite a while."
"Perhaps Miss Van Arsdale will keep me, as you wouldn't."
He shook his head. "You know that it isn't because I don't want you to stay. But she is right. It just wouldn't do.... Here she comes now."
Io took a step nearer to him. "I've been looking at your books."
He returned her gaze unembarrassed. "Odds and ends," he said. "You wouldn't find much to interest you."
"On the contrary. Everything interested me. You're a mystery—and I hate mysteries."
"That's rather hard."
"Until they're solved. Perhaps I shall stay until I solve you."
"Stay longer. It wouldn't take any time at all. There's no mystery to solve." He spoke with an air of such perfect candor as compelled her belief in his sincerity.
"Perhaps you'll solve it for me. Here's Miss Van Arsdale. Good-bye, and thank you. You'll come and see me? Or shall I come and see you?"
"Both," smiled Banneker. "That's fairest."
The pair rode away leaving the station feeling empty and unsustained. At least Banneker credited it with that feeling. He tried to get back to work, but found his routine dispiriting. He walked out into the desert, musing and aimless.
Silence fell between the two women as they rode. Once Miss Welland stopped to adjust her traveling-bag which had shifted a little in the straps.
"Is riding cross-saddle uncomfortable for you?" asked Miss Van Arsdale.
"Not in the least. I often do it at home."
Suddenly her mount, a thick-set, soft-going pony shied, almost unseating her. A gun had banged close by. Immediately there was a second report. Miss Van Arsdale dismounted, replacing a short-barreled shot-gun in its saddle-holster, stepped from the trail, and presently returned carrying a brace of plump, slate-gray birds.
"Wild dove," she said, stroking them. "You'll find them a welcome addition to a meager bill of fare."
"I should be quite content with whatever you usually have."
"Doubted," replied the other. "I live rather a frugal life. It saves trouble."
"And I'm afraid I'm going to make you trouble. But you brought it upon yourself."
"By interfering. Exactly. How old are you?"
"Good Heavens! You have the aplomb of fifty."
"Experience," smiled the girl, flattered.
"And the recklessness of fifteen."
"I abide by the rules of the game. And when I find myself—well, out of bounds, I make my own rules."
Miss Van Arsdale shook her firmly poised head. "It won't do. The rules are the same everywhere, for honorable people."
"Honorable!" There was a flash of resentful pride as the girl turned in the saddle to face her companion.
"I have no intention of preaching at you or of questioning you," continued the calm, assured voice. "If you are looking for sanctuary"—the fine lips smiled slightly—"though I'm sure I can't see why you should need it, this is the place. But there are rules of sanctuary, also."
"I suppose," surmised the girl, "you want to know why I don't go back into the world at once."
"Then I'll tell you."
"As you wish."
"I came West to be married."
"To Delavan Eyre?"
Again the dun pony jumped, this time because a sudden involuntary contraction of his rider's muscles had startled him. "What do you know of Delavan Eyre, Miss Van Arsdale?"
"I occasionally see a New York newspaper."
"Then you know who I am, too?"
"Yes. You are the pet of the society column paragraphers; the famous 'Io' Welland." She spoke with a curious intonation.
"Ah, you read the society news?"
"With a qualmish stomach. I see the names of those whom I used to know advertising themselves in the papers as if they had a shaving-soap or a chewing-gum to sell."
"Part of the game," returned the girl airily. "The newcomers, the climbers, would give their souls to get the place in print that we get without an effort."
"Doesn't it seem to you a bit vulgar?" asked the other.
"Perhaps. But it's the way the game is played nowadays."
"With counters which you have let the parvenues establish for you. In my day we tried to keep out of the papers."
"Clever of you," approved the girl. "The more you try to keep out, the more eager the papers are to print your picture. They're crazy over exclusiveness," she laughed.
"Speculation, pro and con, as to who is going to marry whom, and who is about to divorce whom, and whether Miss Welland's engagement to Mr. Eyre is authentic, 'as announced exclusively in this column'—more exclusiveness—; or whether—"
"It wasn't Del Eyre that I came out here to marry."
"No. It's Carter Holmesley. Of course you know about him."
"By advertisement, also; the society-column kind."
"Really, you know, he couldn't keep out of the papers. He hates it with all his British soul. But being what he is, a prospective duke, an international poloist, and all that sort of thing, the reporters naturally swarm to him. Columns and columns; more pictures than a popular danseuse. And all without his lifting his hand."
"Une mariage de reclame," observed Miss Van Arsdale. "Is it that that constitutes his charm for you?"
Miss Van Arsdale's smile was still instinct with mockery, but there had crept into it a quality of indulgence.
"No," answered the girl. Her face became thoughtful and serious. "It's something else. He—he carried me off my feet from the moment I met him. He was drunk, too, that first time. I don't believe I've ever seen him cold sober. But it's a joyous kind of intoxication; vine-leaves and Bacchus and that sort of thing 'weave a circle 'round him thrice'—you know. It is honey-dew and the milk of Paradise to him." She laughed nervously. "And charm! It's in the very air about him. He can make me follow his lead like a little curly poodle when I'm with him."
"Were you engaged to Delavan Eyre when you met him?"
"Oh, engaged!" returned the girl fretfully. "There was never more than a sort of understanding. A mariage de convenance on both sides, if it ever came off. I am fond of Del, too. But he was South, and the other came like a whirlwind, and I'm—I'm queer about some things," she went on half shamefacedly. "I suppose I'm awfully susceptible to physical impressions. Are all girls that way? Or is that gross and—and underbred?"
"It's part of us, I expect; but we're not all so honest with ourselves. So you decided to throw over Mr. Eyre and marry your Briton."
"Well—yes. The new British Ambassador, who arrives from Japan next week, is Carty's uncle, and we were going to make him stage-manage the wedding, you see. A sort of officially certified elopement."
"More advertisement!" said Miss Van Arsdale coldly. "Really, Miss Welland, if marriage seems to you nothing more than an opportunity to create a newspaper sensation I cannot congratulate you on your prospects."
This time her tone stung. Io Welland's eyes became sullen. But her voice was almost caressingly amiable as she said:
"Tastes differ. It is, I believe, possible to create a sensation in New York society without any newspaper publicity, and without at all meaning or wishing to. At least, it was, fifteen years ago; so I'm told."
Camilla Van Arsdale's face was white and lifeless and still, as she turned it toward the girl.
"You must have been a very precocious five-year-old," she said steadily.
"All the Olneys are precocious. My mother was an Olney, a first cousin of Mrs. Willis Enderby, you know."
"Yes; I remember now."
The malicious smile on the girl's delicate lips faded. "I wish I, hadn't said that," she cried impulsively. "I hate Cousin Mabel. I always have hated her. She's a cat. And I think the way she, acted in—in the—the—well, about Judge Enderby and—".
"Please!" Miss Van Arsdale's tone was peremptory. "Here is my place." She indicated a clearing with a little nest of a camp in it.
"Shall I go back?" asked Io remorsefully.
Miss Van Arsdale dismounted and, after a moment's hesitancy, the other followed her example. The hostess threw open the door and a beautiful, white-ruffed collie rushed to her with barks of joy. She held out a hand to her new guest.
"Be welcome," she said with a certain stately gravity, "for as long as you will stay."
"It might be some time," answered Io shyly. "You're tempting me."
"When is your wedding?"
"Wedding! Oh, didn't I tell you? I'm not going to marry Carter Holmesley either."
"You are not going—"
"No. The bump on my head must have settled my brain. As soon as I came to I saw how crazy it would be. That is why I don't want to go on West."
"I see. For fear of his overbearing you."
"Yes. Though I don't think he could now. I think I'm over it. Poor old Del! He's had a narrow escape from losing me. I hope he never hears of it. Placid though he is, that might stir him up."