BY FRANCIS LYNDE
ILLUSTRATED BY ARTHUR I. KELLER
I ASHES OF EMPIRE II A MAN OF THE PEOPLE III THE BOSTONIANS IV THE FLESH-POTS OF EGYPT V JOURNEYS END— VI OF THE MAKING OF LAWS VII THE SENTIMENTALISTS VIII THE HAYMAKERS IX THE SHOCKING OF HUNNICOTT X WITHOUT BENEFIT OF CLERGY XI THE LAST DITCH XII THE MAN IN POSSESSION XIII THE WRECKERS XIV THE GERRYMANDER XV THE JUNKETERS XVI SHARPENING THE SWORD XVII THE CONSPIRATORS XVIII DOWN, BRUNO! XIX DEEP-SEA SOUNDINGS XX THE WINNING LOSER XXI A WOMAN INTERVENES XXII A BORROWED CONSCIENCE XXIII THE INSURRECTIONARIES XXIV INTO THE PRIMITIVE XXV DEAD WATER AND QUICK XXVI ON THE HIGH PLAINS XXVII BY ORDER OF THE COURT XXVIII THE NIGHT OF ALARMS XXIX THE RELENTLESS WHEELS XXX SUBHI SADIK
TO MY GOOD FRIEND MR. EDWARD YOUNG CHAPIN
ASHES OF EMPIRE
In point of age, Gaston the strenuous was still no more than a lusty infant among the cities of the brown plain when the boom broke and the junto was born, though its beginnings as a halt camp ran back to the days of the later Mormon migrations across the thirsty plain; to that day when the advanced guard of Zophar Smith's ox-train dug wells in the damp sands of Dry Creek and called them the Waters of Merom.
Later, one Jethro Simsby, a Mormon deserter, set up his rod and staff on the banks of the creek, home-steaded a quarter-section of the sage-brush plain, and in due time came to be known as the Dry Creek cattle king. And the cow-camp was still Simsby's when the locating engineers of the Western Pacific, searching for tank stations in a land where water was scarce and hard to come by, drove their stakes along the north line of the quarter-section; and having named their last station Alphonse, christened this one Gaston.
From the stake-driving of the engineers to the spike-driving of the track-layers was a full decade. For hard times overtook the Western Pacific at Midland City, eighty miles to the eastward; while the State capital, two days' bronco-jolting west of Dry Creek, had railroad outlets in plenty and no inducements to offer a new-comer.
But, with the breaking of the cloud of financial depression, the Western Pacific succeeded in placing its extension bonds, and a little later the earth began to fly on the grade of the new line to the west. Within a Sundayless month the electric lights of the night shift could be seen, and, when the wind was right, the shriek of the locomotive whistle could be heard at Dry Creek; and in this interval between dawn and daylight Jethro Simsby sold his quarter-section for the nominal sum of two thousand dollars, spot cash, to two men who buck-boarded in ahead of the track-layers.
This purchase of the "J-lazy-S" ranch by Hawk and Guilford marked the modest beginning of Gaston the marvelous. By the time the temporary sidings were down and the tank well was dug in the damp sands, it was heralded far and wide that the Western Pacific would make the city on the banks of Dry Creek—a city consisting as yet only of the Simsby ranch shacks—its western terminus. Thereupon followed one of the senseless rushes that populate the waste places of the earth and give the professional city-builder his reason for being. In a fortnight after the driving of the silver spike the dusty plain was dotted with the black-roofed shelters of the Argonauts; and by the following spring the plow was furrowing the cattle ranges in ever-widening circles, and Gaston had voted a bond loan of three hundred thousand dollars to pave its streets.
Then under the forced draft of skilful exploitation, three years of high pressure passed quickly; years named by the promoters the period of development. In the Year One the very heavens smiled and the rainfall broke the record of the oldest inhabitant. Thus the region round about lost the word "arid" as a qualifying adjective, and the picturesque fictions of the prospectus makers were miraculously justified. In Year Two there was less rain, but still an abundant crop; and Jethro Simsby, drifting in from some unnamed frontier of a newer cow-country, saw what he had missed, took to drink, and shot himself in the lobby of the Mid-Continent Hotel, an ornate, five-storied, brick-and-terra-cotta structure standing precisely upon the site of the "J-lazy-S" branding corral.
It was in this same Year Two, the fame of the latest of western Meccas for young men having penetrated to the provincial backgrounds of New Hampshire, that David Kent came.
By virtue of his diploma, and three years of country practice in the New Hampshire county town where his father before him had read Blackstone and Chitty, he had his window on the fourth floor of the Farquhar Building lettered "Attorney and Counselor at Law"; but up to the day in the latter part of the fateful Year Three, when the overdue crash came, he was best known as a reckless plunger in real estate—this, mind you, at a moment when every third man counted his gains in "front feet", and was shouting himself hoarse at the daily brass-band lot sales.
When the bottom fell out in the autumn of Year Three, Kent fell with it, though not altogether as far or as hard as many another. One of his professional hold-fasts—it was the one that afterward became the bread-tackle in the famine time—was his position as local attorney for the railway company. By reason of this he was among the first to have a hint of the impending cataclysm. The Western Pacific, after so long a pause on the banks of Dry Creek, had floated its second mortgage bonds and would presently build on to the capital, leaving Gaston to way-station quietude. Therefore and wherefore——
Kent was not lacking in native shrewdness or energy. He foresaw, not the pitiable bubble-burst which ensued, indeed, but the certain and inevitable end of the speculative era. Like every one else, he had bought chiefly with promises to pay, and his paper in the three banks aggregated a sum equal to a frugal New Hampshire competence.
"How long have I got?" was the laconic wire which he sent to Loring, the secretary of the Western Pacific Advisory Board in Boston, from whom his hint had come. And when Loring replied that the grading and track-laying contracts were already awarded, there was at least one "long" on the Gaston real estate exchange who wrought desperately night and day to "unload".
As it turned out, the race against time was both a victory and a defeat. On the morning when the Daily Clarion sounded the first note of public alarm, David Kent took up the last of his bank promises-to-pay, and transferred his final mortgaged holding in Gaston realty. When it was done he locked himself in his office in the Farquhar Building and balanced the account. On leaving the New Hampshire country town to try the new cast for fortune in the golden West, he had turned his small patrimony into cash—some ten thousand dollars of it. To set over against the bill of exchange for this amount, which he had brought to Gaston a year earlier, there were a clean name, a few hundred dollars in bank, six lots, bought and paid for, in one of the Gaston suburbs, and a vast deal of experience.
Kent ran his hands through his hair, opened the check-book and hastily filled out a check payable to himself for the remaining few hundreds. When he reached the Apache National on the corner of Colorado and Texas Streets, he was the one hundred and twenty-seventh man in the queue, which extended around the corner and doubled back and forth in the cross-street to the stoppage of all traffic. The announcement in the Clarion had done its work, and the baleful flower of panic, which is a juggler's rose for quick-growing possibilities, was filling the very air of the street with its acrid perfume—the scent of all others that soonest drives men mad.
Major James Guilford, the president of the Apache National, was in the cage with the sweating paying tellers, and it was to him that Kent presented his check when his turn came.
"What! You, too, Kent?" said the president, reproachfully. "I thought you had more backbone."
Kent shook his head.
"Gaston has absorbed nine-tenths of the money I brought here; I'll absorb the remaining tenth myself, if it's just the same to you, Major. Thank you." And the hundred and twenty-seventh man pocketed his salvage from the wreck and fought his way out through the jam at the doors. Two hours farther along in the forenoon the Apache National suspended payment, and the bank examiner was wired for.
For suddenness and thoroughgoing completeness the Gaston bubble-bursting was a record-breaker. For a week and a day there was a frantic struggle for enlargement, and by the expiration of a fortnight the life was pretty well trampled out of the civic corpse and the stench began to arise.
Flight upon any terms then became the order of the day, and if the place had been suddenly plague-smitten the panicky exodus could scarcely have been more headlong. None the less, in any such disorderly up-anchoring there are stragglers perforce: some left like stranded hulks by the ebbing tide; others riding by mooring chains which may be neither slipped nor capstaned. When all was over there were deserted streets and empty suburbs in ruthless profusion; but there was also a hungry minority of the crews of the stranded and anchored hulks left behind to live or die as they might, and presently to fall into cannibalism, preying one upon another between whiles, or waiting like their prototypes of the Spanish Main for the stray spoils of any luckless argosy that might drift within grappling distance.
Kent stayed partly because a local attorney for the railroad was as necessary in Gaston the bereaved as in Gaston the strenuous; partly, also, because he was a student of his kind, and the broken city gave him laboratory opportunities for the study of human nature at its worst.
He marked the raising of the black flag as the Gaston castaways, getting sorrily afloat one by one, cleared their decks for action. Some Bluebeard admiral there will always be for such stressful occasions, and David Kent, standing aside and growing cynical day by day, laid even chances on Hawk, the ex-district attorney, on Major Guilford, and on one Jasper G. Bucks, sometime mayor of Gaston the iridescent.
Afterward he was to learn that he had underrated the gifts of the former mayor. For when the famine time was fully come, and there were no more argosies drifting Gastonward for the bucaneers to sack and scuttle, it was Jasper G. Bucks who called a conference of his fellow werwolves, set forth his new cast for fortune, and brought the junto, the child of sheer desperation fiercely at bay, into being.
It was in the autumn of that first cataclysmic year that Secretary Loring, traveling from Boston to the State capital on a mission for the Western Pacific, stopped over a train with Kent. After a rather dispiriting dinner in the deserted Mid-Continent cafe, and some plowing of the field of recollection in Kent's rooms in the Farquhar Building, they took the deserted street in the golden twilight to walk to the railway station.
"It was a decent thing for you to do—stopping over a train with me, Grantham," said the host, when the five squares intervening had been half measured. "I have had all kinds of a time out here in this God-forsaken desert, but never until to-day anything approaching a chummy hour with a man I know and care for."
Kent had not spoken since they had felt their way out of the dark lower hall of the Farquhar Building. Up to this point the talk had been pointedly reminiscent; of the men of their university year, of mutual friends in the far-away "God's country" to the eastward, of the Gastonian epic, of all things save only two—the exile's cast for fortune in the untamed West, and one other.
"That brings us a little nearer to the things that be—and to your prospects, David," said the guest. "How are you fixed here?"
"Gaston is dead, as you see; too dead to bury."
"Why don't you get out of it, then?"
"I shall some day, perhaps. Up to date there has been no place to go to, and no good way to arrive. Like some thousands of others, I've made an ass of myself here, Loring."
"By coming, you mean? Oh, I don't know about that. You have had some hard knocks, I take it, but if you are the same David Kent I used to know, they have made a bigger man of you."
"I'd bet on it. We have had the Gaston epic done out for us in the newspapers. No man could live through such an experience as you must have had without growing a few inches. Hello! What's this?"
A turned corner had brought them in front of a lighted building in Texas Street with a straggling crowd gathered about the porticoed entrance. As Loring spoke, there was a rattle of snare drums followed by the dum-dum of the bass, and a brass band ramped out the opening measures of a campaign march.
"It is a rally," said Kent, when they had passed far enough beyond the zone of brass-throated clamorings to make the reply audible. "I told you that the Gaston wolf-pack had gone into politics. We are in the throes of a State election, and there is to be a political speech-making at the Opera House to-night, with Bucks in the title role. And there is a fair measure of the deadness of the town! When you see people flock together like that to hear a brass band play, it means one of two things: that the town hasn't outgrown the country village stage, or else it has passed that and all other stages and is well on its way to the cemetery."
"That is one way of putting it," Loring rejoined. "If things are as bad as that, it's time you were moving on, don't you think?"
"I guess so," was the lack-luster response. "Only I don't know where to go, or what to do when I get there."
They were crossing the open square in front of the wide-eaved passenger station. A thunderous tremolo, dominating the distant band music, thrilled on the still air, and the extended arm of the station semaphore with its two dangling lanterns wagged twice.
"My train," said Loring, quickening his step.
"No," Kent corrected. "It is a special from the west, bringing a Bucks crowd to the political rally. Number Three isn't due for fifteen minutes yet, and she is always late."
They mounted the steps to the station platform in good time to meet the three-car special as it came clattering in over the switches, and presently found themselves in the thick of the crowd of debarking ralliers.
It was a mixed masculine multitude, fairly typical of time, place and occasion; stalwart men of the soil for the greater part, bearded and bronzed and rough-clothed, with here and there a range-rider in picturesque leathern shaps, sagging pistols and wide-flapped sombrero.
Loring stood aside and put up his eye-glasses. It was his first sight near at hand of the untrammeled West in puris naturalibus, and he was finding the spectacle both instructive and diverting. Looking to Kent for fellowship he saw that his companion was holding himself stiffly aloof; also, he remarked that none of the boisterous partizans flung a word of recognition in Kent's direction.
"Don't you know any of them?" he asked.
Kent's reply was lost in the deep-chested bull-bellow of a cattleman from the Rio Blanco.
"Hold on a minute, boys, before you scatter! Line up here, and let's give three cheers and a tail-twister for next-Governor Bucks! Now, then—everybody! Hip, hip——"
The ripping crash of the cheer jarred Loring's eye-glasses from their hold, and he replaced them with a smile. Four times the ear-splitting shout went up, and as the echoes of the "tiger" trailed off into silence the stentorian voice was lifted again.
"Good enough! Now, then; three groans for the land syndicates, alien mortgagees, and the Western Pacific Railroad, by grabs! and to hell with 'em!"
The responsive clamor was a thing to be acutely remembered—sustained, long-drawn, vindictive; a nerve-wrenching pandemonium of groans, yelpings and cat-calls, in the midst of which the partizans shuffled into loose marching order and tramped away townward.
"That answers your question, doesn't it?" said Kent, smiling sourly. "If not, I can set it out for you in words. The Western Pacific is the best-hated corporation this side of the Mississippi, and I am its local attorney."
"I don't envy you," said Loring. "I had no idea the opposition crystallized itself in any such concrete ill will. You must have the whole weight of public sentiment against you in any railroad litigation."
"I do," said Kent, simply. "If every complainant against us had the right to pack his own jury, we couldn't fare worse."
"What is at the bottom of it? Is it our pricking of the Gaston bubble by building on to the capital?"
"Oh, no; it's much more personal to these shouters. As you may, or may not, know, our line—like every other western railroad with no competition—has for its motto, 'All the tariff the traffic will stand,' and it bleeds the country accordingly. But we are forgetting your train. Shall we go and see how late it is?"
A MAN OF THE PEOPLE
Train Number Three, the Western Flyer, was late, as Kent had predicted—just how late the operator could not tell; and pending the chalking-up of its arriving time on the bulletin board, the two men sat on an empty baggage truck and smoked in companionable silence.
While they waited, Loring's thoughts were busy with many things, friendly solicitude for the exile serving as the point of departure. He knew what a handfast friend might know: how Kent had finished his postgraduate course in the law and had succeeded to his father's small practice in the New Hampshire county town where he was born and bred. Also, he knew how Kent's friends, college friends who knew his gifts and ability, had deprecated the burial; and he himself had been curious enough to pay Kent a visit to spy out the reason why. On their first evening together in the stuffy little law office which had been his father's, Kent had made a clean breast of it: there was a young woman in the case, and a promise passed before Kent had gone to college. She was a farmer's daughter, with no notion for a change of environment; wherefore she had determined Kent's career and the scene of it, laying its lines in the narrow field of her own choosing.
Later, as Loring knew, the sentimental anchor had dragged until it was hopelessly off holding-ground. The young woman had laid the blame at the door of the university, had given Kent a bad half-year of fault-finding and recrimination, and had finally made an end of the matter by bestowing her dowry of hillside acres on the son of a neighboring farmer.
Thereafter Kent had stagnated quietly, living with simple rigor the life he had marked out for himself; thankful at heart, Loring had suspected, for the timely intervention of the farmer's son, but holding himself well in hand against a repetition of the sentimental offense. All this until the opening of the summer hotel at the foot of Old Croydon, and the coming of Elinor Brentwood.
No one knew just how much Miss Brentwood had to do with the long-delayed awakening of David Kent; but in Loring's forecastings she enjoyed the full benefit of the doubt. From tramping the hills alone, or whipping the streams for brook trout, David had taken to spending his afternoons with lover-like regularity at the Croydon Inn; and at the end of the season had electrified the sleepy home town by declaring his intention to go West and grow up with the country.
In Loring's setting-forth of the awakening, the motive was not far to seek. Miss Brentwood was ambitious, and if her interest in Kent had been only casual she would not have been likely to point him to the wider battle-field. Again, apart from his modest patrimony, Kent had only his profession. The Brentwoods were not rich, as riches are measured in millions; but they lived in their own house in the Back Bay wilderness, moved in Boston's older substantial circle, and, in a world where success, economic or other, is in some sort the touchstone, were many social planes above a country lawyer.
Loring knew Kent's fierce poverty-pride—none better. Hence, he was at no loss to account for the exile's flight afield, or for his unhopeful present attitude. Meaning to win trophies to lay at Miss Brentwood's feet, the present stage of the rough joust with Fortune found him unhorsed, unweaponed and rolling in the dust of the lists.
Loring chewed his cigar reflectively, wishing his companion would open the way to free speech on the subject presumably nearest his heart. He had a word of comfort, negative comfort, to offer, but it might not be said until Kent should give him leave by taking the initiative. Kent broke silence at last, but the prompting was nothing more pertinent than the chalking-up of the delayed train's time.
"An hour and twenty minutes: that means any time after nine o'clock. I'm honestly sorry for you, Grantham—sorry for any one that has to stay in this charnel-house of a town ten minutes after he's through. What will you do with yourself?"
Loring got up, looked at his watch, and made a suggestion, hoping that Kent would fall in with it.
"I don't know. Shall we go back to your rooms and sit a while?"
The exile's eyes gloomed suddenly.
"Not unless you insist on it. We should get back among the relics and I should bore you. I'm not the man you used to know, Grantham."
"No?" said Loring. "I sha'n't be hypocritical enough to contradict you. Nevertheless, you are my host. It is for you to say what you will do with me until train time."
"We can kill an hour at the rally, if you like. You have seen the street parade and heard the band play: it is only fair that you should see the menagerie on exhibition."
Loring found his match-box and made a fresh light for his cigar.
"It's pretty evident that you and 'next-Governor' Bucks are on opposite sides of the political fence," he observed.
"We are. I should think a good bit less of myself than I do—and that's needless—if I trained in his company."
"Yet you will give him a chance to make a partizan of me? Well, come along. Politics are not down on my western programme, but I'm here to see all the new things."
The Gaston Opera House was a survival of the flush times, and barring a certain tawdriness from disuse and neglect, and a rather garish effect which marched evenly with the brick-and-terra-cotta fronts in Texas Street and the American-Tudor cottages of the suburbs, it was a creditable relic. The auditorium was well filled in pit, dress-circle and gallery when Kent and his guest edged their way through the standing committee in the foyer; but by dint of careful searching they succeeded in finding two seats well around to the left, with a balcony pillar to separate them from their nearest neighbors.
Since the public side of American politics varies little with the variation of latitude or longitude, the man from the East found himself at once in homely and remindful surroundings. There was the customary draping of flags under the proscenium arch and across the set-piece villa of the background. In the semicircle of chairs arched from wing to wing sat the local and visiting political lights; men of all trades, these, some of them a little shamefaced and ill at ease by reason of their unwonted conspicuity; all of them listening with a carefully assumed air of strained attention to the speaker of the moment.
Also, there was the characteristic ante-election audience, typical of all America—the thing most truly typical in a land where national types are sought for microscopically: wheel-horses who came at the party call; men who came in the temporary upblaze of enthusiastic patriotism, which is lighted with the opening of the campaign, and which goes out like a candle in a gust of wind the day after the election; men who came to applaud blindly, and a few who came to cavil and deride. Loring oriented himself in a leisurely eye-sweep, and so came by easy gradations to the speaker.
Measured by the standard of fitness for his office of prolocutor the man standing beside the stage-properties speaker's desk was worthy a second glance. He was dark, undersized, trimly built; with a Vandyke beard clipped closely enough to show the lines of a bull-dog jaw, and eyes that had the gift, priceless to the public speaker, of seeming to hold every onlooking eye in the audience. Unlike his backers in the awkward semicircle, he wore a professional long coat; and the hands that marked his smoothly flowing sentences were slim and shapely.
"Who is he?" asked Loring, in an aside to Kent.
"Stephen Hawk, the ex-district attorney: boomer, pettifogger, promoter—a charter member of the Gaston wolf-pack. A man who would persuade you into believing in the impeccability of Satan in one breath, and knife you in the back for a ten-dollar bill in the next," was the rejoinder.
Loring nodded, and again became a listener. Hawk's speech was merely introductory, and it was nearing its peroration.
"Fellow citizens, this occasion is as auspicious as it is significant. When the people rise in their might to say to tyranny in whatsoever form it oppresses them, 'Thus far and no farther shalt thou go,' the night is far spent and the light is breaking in the east.
"Since the day when we first began to wrest with compelling hands the natural riches from the soil of this our adoptive State, political trickery in high places, backed by the puissant might of alien corporations, has ground us into the dust.
"But now the time of our deliverance is at hand. Great movements give birth to great leaders; and in this, our holy crusade against oppression and tyranny, the crisis has bred the man. Ladies and gentlemen, I have the pleasure of presenting to you the speaker of the evening: our friend and fellow citizen the Honorable Jasper G. Bucks, by the grace of God, and your suffrages, the next governor of the State."
In the storm of applause that burst upon the dramatic peroration of the ex-district attorney, a man rose from the center of the stage semicircle and lumbered heavily forward to the footlights. Loring's first emotion was of surprise, tempered with pity. The crisis-born leader, heralded by such a flourish of rhetorical trumpets, was a giant in size; but with his huge figure, unshapely and ill-clad, all promise of greatness seemed to pause.
His face, broad-featured, colorless, and beardless as a boy's, was either a blank or an impenetrable mask. There was no convincement in the lack-luster gaze of the small, porcine eyes; no eloquence in the harsh, nasal tones of the untrained voice, or in the ponderous and awkward wavings of the beam-like arms. None the less, before he had uttered a dozen halting sentences he was carrying the audience with him step by step; moving the great concourse of listeners with his commonplace periods as a mellifluous Hawk could never hope to move it.
Loring saw the miracle in the throes of its outworking; saw and felt it in his own proper person, and sought in vain to account for it. Was there some subtile magnetism in this great hulk of a man that made itself felt in spite of its hamperings? Or was it merely that the people, weary of empty rhetoric and unkept promises, were ripe to welcome and to follow any man whose apparent earnestness and sincerity atoned for all his lacks?
Explain it as he might, Loring soon assured himself that the Honorable Jasper G. Bucks was laying hold of the sentiment of the audience as though it were a thing tangible to be grasped by the huge hands. Unlike Hawk, whose speech flamed easily into denunciation when it touched on the alien corporations, he counseled moderation and lawful reprisals. Land syndicates, railroads, foreign capital in whatever employment, were prime necessities in any new and growing commonwealth. The province of the people was not to wreck the ship, but to guide it. And the remedy for all ills lay in controlling legislation, faithfully and rigidly enforced.
"My friends: I'm only a plain, hard-handed farmer, as those of you who are my fellow townsmen can testify. But I've seen what you've seen, and I've suffered what you've suffered. Year after year we send our representatives to the legislature, and what comes of it? Why, these corporations, looking only to their own interests, as they're in duty bound to do, buys 'em if they can. You can't blame 'em for that; it's business—their business. But it is our business, as citizens of this great commonwealth, to prevent it. We have good laws on our statute books, but we need more of 'em; laws for control, with plain, honest men at the capital, in the judiciary, in every root and branch of the executive, to enforce 'em. With such laws, and such men to see that they are executed, there wouldn't be any more extortion, any more raising of the rates of transportation on the produce of our ranches and farms merely because the eastern market for that particular product happened to jump a few cents on the dollar.
"No, my friends; plain, hard-handed farmer though I be, I can see what will follow an honest election of the people, by the people, and for the people. The State can be—it ought to be—sovereign within its own boundaries. If we rise up as one man next Tuesday and put a ticket into the ballot-box that says we are going to make it so, and keep it so, you'll see a new commodity tariff put into effect on the Western Pacific Railroad the day after."
The speaker paused, and into the little gap of silence barked a voice from the gallery.
"That's what you say. But supposin' they don't do it?"
Loring was gazing steadfastly at the blank, heavy face, so utterly devoid of the enthusiasm the man was evoking in others. For one flitting instant he thought he saw behind the mask. The immobile face, the awkward gestures, the slipshod English became suddenly transparent, revealing the real man; a man of titanic strength, of tremendous possibilities for good or evil. Loring put up his glasses and looked again; but the figure of the flash-light inner vision had vanished, and the speaker was answering his objector as calmly as though the house held only the single critic to be set right.
"I'm always glad to hear a man speak right out in meeting," he said, dropping still deeper into the colloquialisms. "Supposing the corporations don't see the handwriting on the wall—won't see it, you say? Then, my friend, it will become the manifest duty of the legislature and the executive to make 'em see it: always lawfully, you understand; always with a just and equitable respect for the rights of property in which our free and glorious institutions are founded, but with level-handed justice, and without fear or favor."
A thunderous uproar of applause clamored on the heels of the answer, and the Honorable Jasper mopped his face with a colored handkerchief and took a swallow of water from the glass on the desk.
"Mind you, my friends, I'm not saying we are not going to find plenty of stumps and roots and a tough sod in this furrow we are going to plow. It's only the fool or the ignoramus who underrates the strength of his opponent. It is going to be just plain, honest justice and the will of the people against the money of the Harrimans and the Goulds and the Vanderbilts and all the rest of 'em. But the law is mighty, and it will prevail. Give us an honest legislature to make such laws, and an executive strong enough to enforce 'em, and the sovereign State will stand out glorious and triumphant as a monument against oppression.
"When that time comes—and it's a-coming, my friends—the corporations and the syndicates will read the handwriting on the wall; don't you be afraid of that. If they should be a little grain thick-headed and sort o' blind at first, as old King Belshazzar was, it may be that the sovereign State will have to give 'em an object-lesson—lawfully, always lawfully, you understand. But when they see, through the medium of such an object-lesson or otherwise, as the case may be, that we mean business; when they see that we, the people of this great and growing commonwealth, mean to assert our rights to live and move and have our being, to have fair, even-handed justice meted out to ourselves, our wives and our little children, they'll come down and quit watering their stock with the sweat of our brows; and that hold-up motto of theirs, 'All the tariff the traffic will stand,' will be no more known in Israel!"
Again the clamor of applause rose like fine dust on the throng-heated air, and Kent looked at his watch.
"It is time we were going," he said; adding: "I guess you have had enough of it, haven't you?"
Loring was silent for the better part of the way back to the railway station. When he spoke it was in answer to a delayed question of Kent's.
"What do I think of him? I don't know, David; and that's the plain truth. He is not the man he appears to be as he stands there haranguing that crowd. That is a pose, and an exceedingly skilful one. He is not altogether apparent to me; but he strikes me as being a man of immense possibilities—whether for good or evil, I can't say."
"You needn't draw another breath of uncertainty on that score," was the curt rejoinder. "He is a demagogue, pure and unadulterated."
Loring did not attempt to refute the charge.
"Are he and his party likely to win?" he asked.
"God knows," said Kent. "We have had so many lightning transformations in politics in the State that nothing is impossible."
"I'd like to know," was Loring's comment. "It might make some difference to me, personally."
"To you?" said Kent, inquiringly. "That reminds me: I haven't given you a chance to say ten words about yourself."
"The chance hasn't been lacking. But my business out here is—well, it isn't exactly a Star Chamber matter, but I'm under promise in a way not to talk about it until I have had a conference with our people at the capital. I'll write you about it in a few days."
They were ascending the steps at the end of the passenger platform again, and Loring broke away from the political and personal entanglement to give Kent one more opportunity to hear his word of negative comfort.
"We dug up the field of recollection pretty thoroughly in our after-dinner seance in your rooms, David, but I noticed there was one corner of it you left undisturbed. Was there any good reason?"
Kent made no show of misunderstanding.
"There was the excellent reason which must have been apparent to you before you had been an hour in Gaston. I've made my shot, and missed."
Loring entered the breach with his shield held well to the fore. He was the last man in the world to assault a friend's confidence recklessly.
"I thought a good while ago, and I still think, that you are making a mountain out of a mole-hill, David. Elinor Brentwood is a true woman in every inch of her. She is as much above caring for false notions of caste as you ought to be."
"I know her nobility: which is all the more reason why I shouldn't take advantage of it. We may scoff at the social inequalities as much as we please, but we can't laugh them out of court. As between a young woman who is an heiress in her own right, and a briefless lawyer, there are differences which a decent man is bound to efface. And I haven't been able."
"Does Miss Brentwood know?"
"She knows nothing at all. I was unwilling to entangle her, even with a confidence."
"The more fool you," said Loring, bluntly. "You call yourself a lawyer, and you have not yet learned one of the first principles of common justice, which is that a woman has some rights which even a besotted lover is bound to respect. You made love to her that summer at Croydon; you needn't deny it. And at the end of things you walk off to make your fortune without committing yourself; without knowing, or apparently caring, what your stiff-necked poverty-pride may cost her in years of uncertainty. You deserve to lose her."
Kent's smile was a fair measure of his unhopeful mood.
"You can't well lose what you have never had. I'm not such an ass as to believe that she cared greatly."
"How do you know? Not by anything you ever gave her a chance to say, I'll dare swear. I've a bit of qualified good news for you, but the spirit is moving me mightily to hold my tongue."
"Tell me," said Kent, his indifference vanishing in the turning of a leaf.
"Well, to begin with, Miss Brentwood is still unmarried, though the gossips say she doesn't lack plenty of eligible offers."
"Half of that I knew; the other half I took for granted. Go on."
"Her mother, under the advice of the chief of the clan Brentwood, has been making a lot of bad investments for herself and her two daughters: in other words, she has been making ducks and drakes of the Brentwood fortune."
Kent was as deeply moved as if the loss had been his own, and said as much, craving more of the particulars.
"I can't give them. But I may say that the blame lies at your door, David."
"At my door? How do you arrive at that?"
"By the shortest possible route. If you had done your duty by Elinor in the Croydon summer, Mrs. Brentwood would have had a bright young attorney for a son-in-law and adviser, and the bad investments would not have been made."
Kent's laugh was entirely devoid of mirth.
"Don't trample on a man when he's down. I was neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet. But how bad is the smash? Surely you know that?"
"No, I don't. Bradford was telling me about it the day I left Boston. He gave me to understand that the principal family holding at present is in the stock of a certain western railway."
"Did he happen to know the name of the stock?" asked Kent, moistening his lips.
"He did. Fate flirts with you two in the usual fashion. Mrs. Brentwood's little fortune—and by consequence, Elinor's and Penelope's—is tied up in the stock of the company whose platform we are occupying at the present moment—the Western Pacific."
Kent let slip a hard word directed at ill-advisers in general, and Loring took his cue from the malediction.
"You swear pretty feelingly, David. Isn't our property as good a thing as we of the Boston end have been cracking it up to be?"
"You know better about the financial part of it than I do. But—well, you are fresh from this anarchistic conclave at the Opera House. You can imagine what the stock of the Western Pacific, or of any other foreign corporation doing business in this State, will be worth in six months after Bucks and his crowd get into the saddle."
"You speak as if the result of the election were a foregone conclusion. I hope it isn't. But we were talking more particularly of Miss Brentwood, and your personal responsibilities." The belated train was whistling for the lower yard, and Loring was determined to say all that was in his mind.
"Yes; go on. I'm anxious to hear—more anxious than I seem to be, perhaps."
"Well, she is coming West, after a bit. She, and her sister and the mother. Mrs. Brentwood's asthma is worse, and the wise men have ordered her to the interior. I thought you'd like to know."
"Is she—are they coming this way?" asked Kent.
The train was in, and the porter had fetched Loring's hand-bag from the check-stand. The guest paused with one foot on the step of the sleeping-car.
"If I were you, David, I'd write and ask; I should, by Jove. It would be a tremendously cheeky thing to do, of course, having such a slight acquaintance with her as you have; but I'll be hanged if I shouldn't chance it. And in the mean time, if I don't go back East next week, you'll hear from me. When you do, or if you do, take a day off and run up to the capital. I shall need you. Good-by."
Kent watched the train pull out; stood looking after it until the two red eyes of the rear signals had disappeared in the dusty darkness of the illimitable plain. Then he went to his rooms, to the one which was called by courtesy his office, and without allowing himself time for a nice balancing of the pros and cons, squared himself at the desk to write a letter.
It was precisely on the day set for the Brentwoods' westward flitting that the postman, making his morning round, delivered David Kent's asking at the house in the Back Bay sub-district. Elinor was busy packing for the migration, but she left Penelope and the maid to cope with the problem of compressing two trunkfuls into one while she read the letter, and she was reading it a second time when Mr. Brookes Ormsby's card came up.
"You go, Penelope," she begged. "There is so much to do."
"Not I," said the younger sister, cavalierly; "he didn't come to see me." Whereupon Elinor smoothed the two small wrinkles of impatience out of her brow, tucked her letter into her bosom, and went down to meet the early morning caller.
Mr. Brookes Ormsby, club-man, gentleman of athletic leisure, and inheritor of the Ormsby millions, was pacing back and forth before the handful of fire in the drawing-room grate when she entered.
"You don't deserve to have a collie sheep-dog friend," he protested reproachfully. "How was I to know that you were going away?"
Another time Elinor might have felt that she owed him an explanation, but just now she was careful, and troubled about the packing.
"How was I to know you didn't know?" she retorted. "It was in the Transcript."
"Well!" said Ormsby. "Things have come to a pretty pass when I have to keep track of you through the society column. I didn't see the paper. Dyckman brought me word last night at Vineyard Haven, and we broke a propeller blade on the Amphitrite trying to get here in time."
"I am so sorry—for the Amphitrite," she said. "But you are here, and in good season. Shall I call mother and Nell?"
"No. I ran out to see if I'm in time to do your errands for you—take your tickets, and so on."
"Oh, we shouldn't think of troubling you. James can do all those things. And failing James, there is a very dependable young woman at the head of this household. Haven't I 'personally conducted' the family all over Europe?"
"James is a base hireling," said the caller, blandly. "And as for the capable young woman: do I or do I not recollect a dark night on the German frontier when she was glad enough to call on a sleepy fellow pilgrim to help her wrestle with a particularly thick-headed customs officer?"
"If you do, it is not especially kind of you to remind her of it."
He looked up quickly, and the masterful soul of the man, for which the clean-cut, square-set jaw and the athletic figure were the outward presentments, put on a mask of deference and humility.
"You are hard with me, Elinor—always flinty and adamantine, and that sort. Have you no soft side at all?"
"The sentimental young woman went out some time ago, didn't she? One can't be an anachronism."
"I suppose not. Yet I'm always trying to make myself believe other things about you. Don't you like to be cared for like other women?"
"I don't know; sometimes I think I should. But I have had to be the man of the house since father died."
"I know," he said. "And it is the petty anxieties that have made you put the woman to the wall. I'm here this morning to save you some of them; to take the man's part in your outsetting, or as much of it as I can. When are you going to give me the right to come between you and all the little worries, Elinor?"
She turned from him with a faint gesture of cold impatience.
"You are forgetting your promise," she said quite dispassionately. "We were to be friends; as good friends as we were before that evening at Bar Harbor. I told you it would be impossible, and you said you were strong enough to make it possible."
He looked at her with narrowing eyes.
"It is possible, in a way. But I'd like to know what door of your heart it is that I haven't been able to open."
She ignored the pleading and took refuge in a woman's expedient.
"If you insist on going back to the beginnings, I shall go back, also—to Abigail and the trunk-packing."
He planted himself squarely before her, the mask lifted and the masterful soul asserting itself boldly.
"It wouldn't do any good, you know. I am going with you."
"To Abigail and the trunk-room?"
"Oh, no; to the jumping-off place out West—wherever it is you are going to hibernate."
"No," she said decisively; "you must not."
"My saying so ought to be sufficient reason."
"It isn't," he contended, frowning down on her good-naturedly. "Shall I tell you why you don't want me to go? It is because you are afraid."
"I am not," she denied.
"Yes, you are. You know in your own heart there is no reason why you should continue to make me unhappy, and you are afraid I might over-persuade you."
Her eyes—they were the serene eyes of cool gray that take on slate-blue tints in stressful moments—met his defiantly.
"If you think that, I withdraw my objection," she said coldly. "Mother and Penelope will be delighted, I am sure."
"And you will be bored, world without end," he laughed. "Never mind; I'll be decent about it and keep out of your way as much as you like."
Again she made the little gesture of petulant impatience.
"You are continually placing me in a false position. Can't you leave me out of it entirely?"
It is one of the prime requisites of successful mastership to know when to press the point home, and when to recede gracefully. Ormsby abruptly shut the door upon sentiment and came down to things practical.
"It is your every-day comfort that concerns me chiefly. I am going to take all three of you in charge, giving the dependable young person a well-earned holiday—a little journey in which she won't have to chaffer with the transit people. Have you chosen your route to the western somewhere?"
Miss Brentwood had the fair, transparent skin that tells tales, and the blue-gray eyes were apt to confirm them. David Kent's letter was hidden in the folds of her loose-waisted morning gown, and she fancied it stirred like a thing alive to remind her of its message. Ormsby was looking past her to the old-fashioned ormolu clock on the high mantel, comparing the time with his watch, but he was not oblivious of the telltale flush.
"There is nothing embarrassing about the choosing of a route, is there?" he queried.
"Oh, no; being true Americans, we don't know one route from another in our own country," she confessed. "But at the western end of it we want to go over the Western Pacific."
Ormsby knew the West by rail routes as one who travels much for time-killing purposes.
"It's a rather roundabout cow-path," he objected. "The Overland Short Line is a good bit more direct; not to mention the service, which is a lot better."
But Elinor had made her small concession to David Kent's letter, and she would not withdraw it.
"Probably you don't own any Western Pacific stock," she suggested. "We do; and we mean to be loyal to our salt."
"I see Western Pacific has gone down a few points since the election of Governor Bucks. If I had any, I'd wire my broker to sell."
"We are not so easily frightened," she asserted; adding, with a touch of the austerity which was her Puritan birthright: "Nor quite so conscienceless as you men."
"Conscience," he repeated half absently; "is there any room for such an out-of-date thing in a nation of successfulists? But seriously; you ought to get rid of Western Pacific. There can be no possible question of conscience involved."
"I don't agree with you," she retorted with prompt decision. "If we were to sell now it would be because we were afraid it might prove to be a bad investment. Therefore, for the sake of a presumably ignorant buyer, we have no right to sell."
He smiled leniently.
"All of which goes to prove that you three lone women need a guardian. But I mustn't keep you any longer from Abigail and the trunks. What time shall I send the expediters after your luggage?"
She told him, and went with him to the door.
"Please don't think me ungrateful," she said, when she had thrown the night-latch for him. "I don't mean to be."
"I don't think anything of you that I ought not to think: in that I am as conscientious as even you could wish. Good-by, until this evening. I'll meet you all at the station."
As had come to be the regular order of things, Elinor found herself under fire when she went above stairs to rejoin her mother and sister.
Mrs. Brentwood was not indifferent to the Ormsby millions; neither had she forgotten a certain sentimental summer at the foot of Old Croydon. She was a thin-lipped little person, plain-spoken to the verge of unfriendliness; a woman in whom the rugged, self-reliant, Puritan strain had become panic-acidulous. And when the Puritan stock degenerates in that direction, it is apt to lack good judgment on the business side, and also the passivity which smooths the way for incompetence in less assertive folk.
Kent had stood something in awe, not especially of her personality, but of her tongue; and had been forced to acquiesce silently in Loring's summing-up of Elinor's mother as a woman who had taken culture and the humanizing amenities of the broader life much as the granite of her native hills takes polish—reluctantly, and without prejudice to its inner granular structure.
"Elinor, you ought to be ashamed to keep Brookes Ormsby dangling the way you do," was her comment when Elinor came back. "You are your father's daughters, both of you: there isn't a drop of the Grimkie blood in either of you, I do believe."
Elinor was sufficiently her father's daughter to hold her peace under her mother's reproaches: also, there was enough of the Grimkie blood in her veins to stiffen her in opposition when the need arose. So she said nothing.
"Since your Uncle Ichabod made such a desperate mess of that copper business in Montana, we have all been next door to poverty, and you know it," the mother went on, irritated by Elinor's silence. "I don't care so much for myself: your father and I began with nothing, and I can go back to nothing, if necessary. But you can't, and neither can Penelope; you'd both starve. I should like to know what Brookes Ormsby has done that you can't tolerate him."
"It isn't anything he has done, or failed to do," said Elinor, wearily. "Please let's not go over it all again, mother."
Mrs. Brentwood let that gun cool while she fired another.
"I suppose he came to say good-by: what is he going to do with himself this winter?"
The temptation to equivocate for pure perversity's sake was strong upon Elinor, and she yielded to it.
"How should I know? He has the Amphitrite and the Florida coast, hasn't he?"
Mrs. Brentwood groaned.
"To think of the way he squanders his money in sheer dissipation!" she exclaimed. "Of course, he will take an entire house-party with him, as usual, and the cost of that one cruise would set you up in housekeeping."
Penelope laughed with a younger daughter's license. She was a statuesque young woman with a pose, ripe lips, flashing white teeth, laughing eyes with an imp of mischief in them, and an exquisitely turned-up nose that was neither the Brentwood, which was severely classic, nor the Grimkie, which was pure Puritan renaissance.
"Which is to intimate that he won't have money enough left to do it when he comes back," she commented. "I wish there were some way of making him believe he had to give me what remains of his income after he has spent all he can on the Florida cruise. I'd wear Worth gowns and be lapped in luxury for the next ten years at the very least."
"He isn't going to Florida this winter," said Elinor, repenting her of the small quibble. "He is going West."
Mrs. Brentwood looked up sharply.
"With us?" she queried.
Penelope clasped her hands and tried to look soulful.
"Oh, Ellie!" she said; "have you——"
"No," Elinor retorted; "I have not."
THE FLESH-POTS OF EGYPT
The westward journey began at the appointed hour in the evening with the resourceful Ormsby in command; and when the outsetting, in which she had to sustain only the part of an obedient automaton, was a fact accomplished, Elinor settled back into the pillowed corner of her sleeping-car section to enjoy the unwonted sensation of being the one cared for instead of the caretaker.
She had traveled more or less with her mother and Penelope ever since her father's death, and was well used to taking the helm. Experience and the responsibilities had made her self-reliant, and her jesting boast that she was a dependable young woman was the simple truth. Yet to the most modern of girl bachelors there may come moments when the soul harks back to the eternal-womanly, and the desire to be petted and looked after and safe-conducted is stronger than the bachelor conventions.
Two sections away the inevitable newly married pair posed unconsciously to point the moral for Miss Brentwood. She marked the eagerly anticipative solicitude of the boyish groom, contrasting it now and then with Ormsby's less obtrusive attentions. It was all very absurd and sentimental, she thought; and yet she was not without a curious heart-stirring of envy provoked by the self-satisfied complacency of the bride.
What had that chit of a girl done to earn her immunity from self-defendings and the petty anxieties? Nothing, Elinor decided; at least, nothing more purposeful than the swimmer does when he lets himself drift with the current. None the less, the immunity was hers, undeniably, palpably. For the first time in her life Miss Brentwood found herself looking, with a little shudder of withdrawal and dismay, down the possible vista—possible to every unmarried woman of twenty-four—milestoned by unbroken years of spinsterhood and self-helpings.
Was she strong enough to walk this hedged-up path alone?—single-hearted enough to go on holding out against her mother's urgings, against Ormsby's masterful wooing, against her own unconquerable longing for a sure anchorage in some safe haven of manful care and supervision; all this that she might continue to preserve her independence and live the life which, despite its drawbacks, was yet her own?
There were times when she doubted her resolution; and this first night of the westward journey was one of them. She had thought at one time that she might be able to idealize David Kent, but he had gone his way to hew out his fortune, taking her upstirrings of his ambition in a purely literal and selfish sense, so far as she could determine. And now there was Brookes Ormsby. She could by no possibility idealize him. He was a fixed fact, stubbornly asserted. Yet he was a great-hearted gentleman, unspoiled by his millions, thoughtful always for her comfort, generous, self-effacing. Just now, for example, when he had done all, he had seemed to divine her wish to be alone and had betaken himself to the smoking-compartment.
"I promised not to bore you," he had said, "and I sha'n't. Send the porter after me if there is anything I have forgotten to do."
She took up the magazine he had left on the seat beside her and sought to put away the disquieting thoughts. But they refused to be dismissed; and now among them rose up another, dating back to that idealizing summer at the foot of Old Croydon, and having its genesis in a hard saying of her mother's.
She closed her eyes, recalling the words and the occasion of them. "You are merely wasting time and sentiment on this young upstart of a country lawyer, Elinor. So long as you were content to make it a summer day's amusement, I had nothing to say; you are old enough and sensible enough to choose your own recreations. But in justice to yourself, no less than to him, you must let it end with our going home. You haven't money enough for two."
Her eyes grew hot under the closed lids when she remembered. At the time the hard saying was evoked there was money enough for two, if David Kent would have shared it. But he had held his peace and gone away, and now there was not enough for two.
Elinor faced her major weakness unflinchingly. She was not a slave to the luxuries—the luxuries of the very rich. On the contrary, she had tried to make herself believe that hardness was a part of her creed. But latterly, she had been made to see that there was a formidable array of things which she had been calling comforts: little luxuries which Brookes Ormsby's wife might reckon among the simplest necessities of the daily life, but which David Kent's wife might have to forego; nay, things which Elinor Brentwood might presently have to forego. For she compelled herself to front the fact of the diminished patrimony squarely. So long as the modest Western Pacific dividends were forthcoming, they could live comfortably and without pinching. But failing these——
"No, I'm not great enough," she confessed, with a little shiver. "I should be utterly miserable. If I could afford to indulge in ideals it would be different; but I can't—not when one word of mine will build a barrier so high that all the soul-killing little skimpings can never climb over it. And besides, I owe something to mother and Nell."
It was the final straw. When any weakness of the human heart can find a seeming virtue to go hand in hand with it, the battle is as good as lost; and at that moment Brookes Ormsby, placidly refilling his short pipe in the smoking-room of the Pullman, was by no means in the hopeless case he was sometimes tempted to fancy himself.
As may be surmised, a diligent suitor, old enough to plan thoughtfully, and yet young enough to simulate the youthful ardor of a lover whose hair has not begun to thin at the temples, would lose no ground in a three days' journey and the opportunities it afforded.
In Penelope's phrase, Elinor "suffered him", enjoying her freedom from care like a sleepy kitten; shutting the door on the past and keeping it shut until the night when their through sleeper was coupled to the Western Pacific Flyer at A.& T. Junction. But late that evening, when she was rummaging in her hand-bag for a handkerchief, she came upon David Kent's letter and read it again.
"Loring tells me you are coming West," he wrote. "I assume there is at least one chance in three that you will pass through Gaston. If you do, and if the hour is not altogether impossible, I should like to meet your train. One thing among the many the past two years have denied me—the only thing I have cared much about, I think—is the sight of your face. I shall be very happy if you will let me look at you—just for the minute or two the train may stop."
There was more of it; a good bit more: but it was all guarded commonplace, opening no window in the heart of the man David Kent. Yet even in the commonplace she found some faint interlinings of the change in him; not a mere metamorphosis of the outward man, as a new environment might make, but a radical change, deep and biting, like the action of a strong acid upon a fine-grained metal.
She returned the letter to its envelope, and after looking up Gaston on the time-table fell into a heart-stirring reverie, with unseeing eyes fixed on the restful blackness of the night rushing rearward past the car windows.
"He has forgotten," she said, with a little lip-curl of disappointment. "He thinks he ought to remember, and he is trying—trying because Grantham said something that made him think he ought to try. But it's no use. It was only a little summer idyl, and we have both outlived it."
She was still gazing steadfastly upon the wall of outer darkness when the porter began to make down the berths and Penelope came over to sit in the opposite seat. A moment later the younger sister made a discovery, or thought she did.
"Why, Elinor Brentwood!" she said. "I do believe you are crying!"
Elinor's smile was serenity undisturbed.
"What a vivid imagination you have, Nell, dear," she scoffed. Then she changed the subject arbitrarily: "Is mother quite comfortable? Did you have the porter put a screen in her window?—you know she always insists she can't breathe without it."
Penelope evaded the queries and took her turn at subject-wrenching—an art in which she excelled.
"We are on our own railroad now, aren't we?" she asked, with purposeful lack-interest. "And—let me see—isn't Mr. Kent at some little town we pass through?"
"It is a city," said Elinor. "And the name is Gaston."
"I remember now," Penelope rejoined. "I wonder if we shall see him?"
"It is most unlikely. He does not know we are coming, and he wouldn't be looking for us."
Penelope's fine eyes clouded. At times Elinor's thought-processes were as plain as print to the younger sister; at other times they were not.
"I should think the least we could do would be to let him know," she ventured. "Does anybody know what time the train passes Gaston?"
"At seven-fifteen to-morrow evening," was the unguarded reply; and Penelope drew her own conclusions from the ready answer and the folded time-table in Elinor's lap.
"Well, why don't you send him a wire? I'm sure I should."
"Why should I?" said Elinor, warily.
"Oh, I don't know: any other young woman of his acquaintance would, I fancy. I have half a mind to do it myself. I like him, if you don't care for him any more."
Thus Penelope; and a little while afterward, finding herself in the library compartment with blanks and pen and ink convenient and nothing better to do, she impulsively made the threat good in a ten-word message to Kent.
"If he should happen to drop in unexpectedly it will give Ellie the shock of her life," she mused; and the telegram was smuggled into the hands of the porter to be sent as occasion offered.
* * * * *
Those who knew Mr. Brookes Ormsby best were wont to say that the world of action, a world lusting avidly for resourceful men, had lost the chance of acquiring a promising leader when he was born heir to the Ormsby millions. Be that as it may, he made the most of such opportunities for the exercising of his gift as came to one for whom the long purse leveled most barriers; had been making the most of the present leaguer of a woman's heart—a citadel whose capitulation was not to be compassed by mere money-might, he would have said.
Up to the final day of the long westward flight all things had gone well with him. True, Elinor had not thawed visibly, but she had been tolerant; Penelope had amused herself at no one's expense save her own—a boon for which Ormsby did not fail to be duly thankful; and Mrs. Brentwood had contributed her mite by keeping hands off.
But at the dining-car luncheon on the last day's run, Penelope, languishing at a table for two with an unresponsive Ormsby for a vis-a-vis, made sly mention of the possible recrudescence of one David Kent at a place called Gaston: this merely to note the effect upon an unresponsive table-mate.
In Penelope's observings there was no effect perceptible. Ormsby said "Ah?" and asked if she would have more of the salad. But later, in a contemplative half-hour with his pipe in the smoking-compartment, he let the scrap of information sink in and take root.
Hitherto Kent had been little more than a name to him; a name he had never heard on Elinor's lips. But if love be blind in the teens and twenties, it is more than apt to have a keen gift of insight in the thirties and beyond. Hence, by the time Ormsby had come to the second filling of his pipe, he had pieced together bits of half-forgotten gossip about the Croydon summer, curious little reticences on Elinor's part, vague hints let fall by Mrs. Brentwood; enough to enable him to chart the rock on which his love-argosy was drifting, and to name it—David Kent.
Now to a well-knit man of the world—who happens to be a heaven-born diplomatist into the bargain—to be forewarned is to be doubly armed. At the end of the half-hour of studious solitude in the smoking-room, Ormsby had pricked out his course on the chart to a boat's-length; had trimmed his sails to the minutest starting of a sheet. A glance at his watch and another at the time-table gave him the length of his respite. Six hours there were; and a dining-car dinner intervened. Those six hours, and the dinner, he decided, must win or lose the race.
Picturing for ourselves, if we may, how nine men out of ten would have given place to panic-ardor, turning a possible victory into a hopeless rout, let us hold aloof and mark the generalship of the tenth, who chances to be the heaven-born.
For five of the six precious hours Ormsby merely saw to it that Elinor was judiciously marooned. Then the dining-car was reopened and the evening meal was announced. Waiting until a sufficient number of passengers had gone forward to insure a crowded car, Ormsby let his party fall in with the tail of the procession, and the inevitable happened. Single seats only could be had, and Elinor was compelled to dine in solemn silence at a table with three strangers.
Dinner over, there remained but twenty minutes of the respite; but the diplomatist kept his head, going back to the sleeping-car with his charges and dropping into the seat beside Elinor with the light of calm assurance in his eye.
"You are quite comfortable?" he began. "Sha'n't I have the Presence in the buffet make you a cup of tea? That in the diner didn't deserve the name."
She was regarding him with curious anger in the gray eyes, and her reply quite ignored the kindly offer of refreshment.
"You are the pink of dragomans," she said. "Don't you want to go and smoke?"
"To be entirely consistent, I suppose I ought to," he confessed, wondering if his throw had failed. "Do you want me to go?"
"I have been alone all the afternoon: I can endure it a little while longer, I presume."
Ormsby permitted himself a single heart-throb of exultation. He had deliberately gone about to break down her poise, her only barrier of defense, and it began to look as if he had succeeded.
"I couldn't help it, you know," he said, catching his cue swiftly. "There are times when I'm obliged to keep away from you—times when every fiber of me rebels against the restraints of the false position you have thrust me into. When I'm taken that way I don't dare play with the fire."
"I wish I could know how much you mean by that," she said musingly. Deep down in her heart she knew she was as far as ever from loving this man; but his love, or the insistent urging of it, was like a strong current drifting her whither she would not go.
"I mean all that an honest man can mean," he rejoined. "I have fought like a soldier for standing-room in the place you have assigned me; I have tried sincerely—and stupidly, you will say—to be merely your friend, just the best friend you ever had. But it's no use. Coming or going, I shall always be your lover."
"Please don't," she said, neither coldly nor warmly. "You are getting over into the domain of the very young people when you say things like that."
It was an unpleasant thing to say, and he was not beyond wincing a little. None the less, he would not be turned aside.
"You'll overlook it in me if I've pressed the thing too hard on the side of sentiment, won't you? Apart from the fact that I feel that way, I've been going on the supposition that you'd like it, if you could only make up your mind to like me."
"I do like you," she admitted; "more than any one I have ever known, I think."
The drumming wheels and a long-drawn trumpet blast from the locomotive made a shield of sound to isolate them. The elderly banker in the opposite section was nodding over his newspaper; and the newly married ones were oblivious, each to all else but the other. Mrs. Brentwood was apparently sleeping peacefully three seats away; and Penelope was invisible.
"There was a time when I should have begged hard for something more, Elinor; but now I'm willing to take what I can get, and be thankful. Will you give me the right to make you as happy as I can on the unemotional basis?"
She felt herself slipping.
"If you could fully understand——"
"I understand that you don't love me, in the novelist's sense of the word, and I am not asking more than you can give. But if you can give me the little now, and more when I have won it—don't curl your lip at me, please: I'm trying to put it as mildly as I can."
She was looking at him level-eyed, and he could have sworn that she was never calmer or more self-possessed.
"I don't know why you should want my promise—or any woman's—on such conditions," she said evenly.
"But I do," he insisted.
The lights of a town suburb were flitting past the windows, and the monotonous song of the tires was drowned in the shrill crescendo of the brakes. She turned from him suddenly and laid her cheek against the grateful cool of the window-pane. But when he took her hand she did not withdraw it.
"Is it mine, Elinor?" he whispered. "You see, I'm not asking much."
"Is it worth taking—by itself?"
"You make me very happy," he said quietly; and just then the train stopped with a jerk, and a shuffling bustle of station-platform noises floated in through the open deck transoms of the car.
As if the solution of continuity had been a call to arouse her, Elinor freed her hand with a swift little wrench and sat bolt upright in her corner.
"This station—do you know the name of it?" she asked, fighting hard for the self-control that usually came so easily.
Ormsby consulted his watch.
"I am not quite sure. It ought to be——"
He broke off when he saw that she was no longer listening to him. There was a stir in the forward vestibule, and the porter came in with a hand-bag. At his heels was a man in a rough-weather box-coat; a youngish man, clean-shaven and wind-tanned to a healthy bronze, with an eager face and alert eyes that made an instant inventory of the car and its complement of passengers. So much Ormsby saw. Then Penelope stood up in her place to greet the new-comer.
"Why, Mr. Kent!" she exclaimed. "Are you really going on with us? How nice of you!"
Elinor turned coolly upon her seat-mate, self-possession once more firmly seated in the saddle.
"Did you know Mr. Kent was going to board the train here?" she asked abruptly.
"Do you mean the gentleman Penelope has waylaid? I haven't the pleasure of his acquaintance. Will you introduce us?"
It had been a day of upsettings for David Kent, beginning with the late breakfast at which Neltje, the night watchman at the railway station, had brought him Penelope's telegram.
At ten he had a case in court: Shotwell vs. Western Pacific Co., damages for stock-killing; for the plaintiff—Hawk; for the defendant—Kent. With the thought that he was presently going to see Elinor again, Kent went gaily to the battle legal, meaning to wring victory out of a jury drawn for the most part from the plaintiff's stock-raising neighbors. By dint of great perseverance he managed to prolong the fight until the middle of the afternoon, was worsted, as usual, and so far lost his temper as to get himself called down by the judge, MacFarlane.
Whereupon he went back to the Farquhar Building and to his office and sat down at the type-writer to pound out a letter to the general counsel, resigning his sinecure. The Shotwell case was the third he had lost for the company in a single court term. Justice for the railroad company, under present agrarian conditions, was not to be had in the lower courts, and he was weary of fighting the losing battle. Therefore——
In the midst of the type-rattling the boy that served the few occupied offices in the Farquhar Building had brought the afternoon mail. It included a letter from Loring, and there was another reversive upheaval for the exile. Loring's business at the capital was no longer a secret. He had been tendered the resident management of the Western Pacific, with headquarters on the ground, and had accepted. His letter was a brief note, asking Kent to report at once for legal duty in the larger field.
"I am not fairly in the saddle yet, and shall not be for a week or so," wrote the newly appointed manager. "But I find I am going to need a level-headed lawyer at my elbow from the jump—one who knows the State political ropes and isn't afraid of a scrap. Come in on Number Three to-day, if you can; if not, send a wire and say when I may look for you. Or, better still, wire anyway."
David Kent struggled with his emotions until he had got his feet down to the solid earth again. Then he tore up the half-written resignation and began to smite things in order for the flight. Could he make Number Three? Since that was the train named in Penelope's message, nothing short of a catastrophe should prevent his making it.
He did make it, with an hour to spare; an hour which he proceeded to turn into a time of sharp trial for the patient telegraph operator at the station, with his badgerings of the man for news of Number Three. The train reported—he took it as a special miracle wrought in his behalf that the Flyer was for this once abreast of her schedule—he fell to tramping up and down the long platform, deep in anticipative prefigurings. The mills of the years grind many grists besides the trickling stream of the hours: would he find Miss Brentwood as he had left her? Could he be sure of meeting her on the frank, friendly footing of the Croydon summer? He feared not; feared all things—lover-like.
He hoped there would be no absence-reared barrier to be painfully leveled. A man among men, a leader in some sort, and in battle a soldier who could hew his way painstakingly, if not dramatically, to his end, David Kent was no carpet knight, and he knew his lack. Would Elinor make things easy for him, as she used to daily in the somewhat difficult social atmosphere of the exclusive summer hotel?
Measuring it out in all its despairing length and breadth after the fact, he was deeply grateful to Penelope. Missing her ready help at the moment of cataclysms when he entered the sleeping-car, he might have betrayed himself. His first glance lighted on Elinor and Ormsby, and he needed no gloss on the love-text. He had delayed too long; had asked too much of the Fates, and Atropos, the scissors-bearing sister, had snipped his thread of hope.
It is one of the consequences of civilization that we are denied the privilege of unmasking at the behest of the elemental emotions; that we are constrained to bleed decorously. Making shift to lean heavily on Penelope, Kent came through without doing or saying anything unseemly. Mrs. Brentwood, who had been sleeping with one eye open, and that eye upon Elinor and Ormsby, made sure that she had now no special reason to be ungracious to David Kent. For the others, Ormsby was good-naturedly suave; Elinor was by turns unwontedly kind and curiously silent; and Penelope—but, as we say, it was to Penelope that Kent owed most.
So it came about that the outcome of the cataclysm was a thing which happens often enough in a conventionalized world. David Kent, with his tragedy fresh upon him, dropped informally into place as one of the party of five; and of all the others, Penelope alone suspected how hard he was hit. And when all was said; when the new modus vivendi had been fairly established and the hour grew late, Kent went voluntarily with Ormsby to the smoking-compartment, "to play the string out decently," as he afterward confessed to Loring.
"I see you know how to get the most comfort out of your tobacco," said the club-man, when they were companionably settled in the men's room and Kent produced his pipe and tobacco pouch. "I prefer the pipe myself, for a steady thing; but at this time of night a light Castilla fits me pretty well. Try one?" tendering his cigar-case.
Fighting shrewdly against a natural prompting to regard Ormsby as an hereditary enemy, Kent forced himself to be neighborly.
"I don't mind," he said, returning the pipe to its case. And when the Havanas were well alight, and the talk had circled down upon the political situation in the State, he was able to bear his part with a fair exterior, giving Ormsby an impressionistic outline of the late campaign and the conditions that had made the sweeping triumph of the People's Party possible.
"We have been coming to it steadily through the last administration, and a part of the preceding one," he explained. "Last year the drought cut the cereals in half, and the country was too new to stand it without borrowing. There was little local capital, and the eastern article was hungry, taking all the interest the law allows, and as much more as it could get. This year the crop broke all records for abundance, but the price is down and the railroads, trying to recoup for two bad years, have stiffened the freight rates. The net result is our political overturn."
"Then the railroads and the corporations are not primarily to blame?" said Ormsby.
"Oh, no. Corporations here, as elsewhere, are looking out for the present dollar, but if the country were generally prosperous, the people would pay the tax carelessly, as they do in the older sections. With us it has been a sort of Donnybrook Fair: the agricultural voter has shillalahed the head he could reach most easily."
The New Yorker nodded. His millions were solidly placed, and he took no more than a sportsman's interest in the fluctuations of the stock market.
"Of course, there have been all sorts of rumors East: 'bull' prophecies that the triumph of the new party means an era of unexampled prosperity for the State—and by consequence for western stocks; 'bear' growlings that things are sure to go to the bow-wows under the Bucks regime. What do you think of it?"
Kent blew a series of smoke rings and watched them rise to become a part of the stratified tobacco cloud overhead before replying.
"I may as well confess that I am not entirely an unprejudiced observer," he admitted. "For one thing, I am in the legal department of one of the best-hated of the railroads; and for another, Governor Bucks, Meigs, the attorney-general, and Hendricks, the new secretary of State, are men whom I know as, it is safe to say, the general public doesn't know them. If I could be sure that these three men are going to be able to control their own party majority in the Assembly, I should take the first train East and make my fortune selling tips in Wall Street."
"You put it graphically. Then the Bucks idea is likely to prove a disturbing element on 'Change?"
"It is; always providing it can dominate its own majority. But this is by no means certain. The political earthquake is essentially a popular protest against hard conditions brought about, as the voters seem to believe, by the oppressions of the alien corporations and extortionate railroad rates. Yet there are plenty of steady-going, conservative men in the movement; men who have no present idea of revolutionizing things. Marston, the lieutenant-governor, is one of that kind. It all depends on whether these men will allow themselves to be whipped into line by the leaders, who, as I am very well convinced, are a set of conscienceless demagogues, fighting solely for their own hand."
Ormsby nodded again.
"You are likely to have good hunting this winter, Mr. Kent. It hasn't begun yet, I take it?"
"Oh, no; the Assembly does not convene for a fortnight, and nobody short of an inspired prophet can foretell what legislation will be sprung. But one thing is safe to count on: the leaders are out for spoils. They mean to rob somebody, and, if my guess is worth anything, they are sharp enough to try first to get their schemes legalized by having enabling laws passed by the Assembly."
"Um," said the eastern man. Then he took the measure of his companion in a shrewd overlook. "You are the man on the ground, Mr. Kent, and I'll ask a straightforward question. If you had a friend owning stock in one of the involved railways, what would you advise?"
"We needn't make it a hypothetical case. If I had the right to advise Mrs. Brentwood and her daughters, I should counsel them to sit tight in the boat for the present."
"Would you? But Western Pacific has gone off several points already."
"I know it has; and unfortunately, Mrs. Brentwood bought in at the top of the market. That is why I counsel delay. If she sells now, she is sure to lose. If she holds on, there is an even chance for a spasmodic upward reaction before worse things happen."
"Perhaps: you know more about the probabilities than I pretend to. But on the other hand, she may lose more if she holds on."
Kent bit deep into his cigar.
"We must see to it that she doesn't lose, Mr. Ormsby."
The club-man laughed broadly.
"Isn't that a good bit like saying that the shallop must see to it that the wind doesn't blow too hard for it?"
"Possibly. But in the sorriest wreck there is usually some small chance for salvage. I understand Mrs. Brentwood's holding is not very large?"
"A block of some three thousand shares, held jointly by her and her two daughters, I believe."
"Exactly: not enough to excite anybody's cupidity; and yet enough to turn the scale if there should ever be a fight for a majority control."
"There is no such fight in prospect, is there?"
"No; not that I know of. But I was thinking of the possibilities. If a smash comes there will be a good deal of horse-swapping in the middle of the stream—buying up of depressed stocks by people who need the lines worse than the original owners do."
"I see," said Ormsby. "Then you would counsel delay?"
"I should; and I'll go a step farther. I am on the inside, in a way, and any hint I can give you for Miss—for Mrs. Brentwood's benefit shall be promptly forthcoming."
"By Jove! that's decent," said Ormsby, heartily. "You are a friend worth having, Mr. Kent. But which 'inside' do you mean—the railroad or the political?"
"Oh, the railroad, of course. And while I think of it, my office will be in the Quintard Building; and you—I suppose you will put up at the Wellington?"
"For the present, we all shall. It is Mrs. Brentwood's notion to take a furnished house later on for herself and daughters, if she can find one. I'll keep in touch with you."
"Do. It may come to a bit of quick wiring when our chance arrives. You know Loring—Grantham Loring?"
"Passably well. I came across him one summer in the mountains of Peru, where he was managing a railroad. He is a mighty good sort. I had mountain fever, and he took me in and did for me."
"He is with us now," said David Kent; "the newly appointed general manager of the Western Pacific."
"Good!" said the club-man "I think a lot of him; he is an all-around dependable fellow, and plenty capable. I'm glad to know he has caught on higher up."
The locomotive whistle was droning again, and a dodging procession of red-eyed switch-lights flicked past the windows. Kent stood up and flung away the stump of his cigar.
"The capital," he announced. "I'll go back with you and help out with the shawl-strap things." And in the vestibule he added: "I spoke of Loring because he will be with us in anything we have to do in Mrs. Brentwood's behalf. Look him up when you have time—fourth floor of the Quintard."
OF THE MAKING OF LAWS
The session, the shortest in the history of the State, and thus far the least eventful, was nearing its close; and the alarmists who had prophesied evil and evil only of the "Populist" victory were fast losing credit with the men of their own camp and with the country at large.
After the orthodox strife over the speakership of the House, and the equally orthodox wrangle over contested seats, the State Assembly had settled down to routine business, despatching it with such unheard-of celerity as to win columns of approval from the State press as a whole; though there were not wanting a few radical editors to raise the ante-election cry of reform, and to ask pointedly when it was to begin.
Notwithstanding the lack of alarms, however, the six weeks had been a period of unceasing vigilance on the part of the interests which were supposed to be in jeopardy. Every alien corporation owning property and doing business in the State had its quota of watchful defenders on the ground; men who came and went, in the lobbies of the capitol, in the visitors' galleries, at the receptions; men who said little, but who saw and heard all things down to the small talk of the corridors and the clubs, and the gossip of the hotel rotundas.
David Kent was of this silent army of observation, doing watch-dog duty for the Western Pacific; thankful enough, if the truth be told, to have a thing to do which kept him from dwelling overmuch upon the wreck of his hopes. But in the closing days of the session, when a despatchful Assembly, anxious to be quit of its task, had gone into night sittings, the anodyne drug of work began to lose its effect.
The Brentwoods had taken furnished apartments in Tejon Avenue, two squares from the capitol, and Kent had called no oftener than good breeding prescribed. Yet their accessibility, and his unconquerable desire to sear his wound in the flame that had caused it, were constant temptations, and he was battling with them for the hundredth time on the Friday night when he sat in the House gallery listening to a perfunctory debate which concerned itself with a bill touching State water-ways.
"Heavens! This thing is getting to be little short of deadly!" fumed Crenshawe, his right-hand neighbor, who was also a member of the corps of observation. "I'm going to the club for a game of pool. Won't you come along?"
Kent nodded and left his seat with the bored one. But in the great rotunda he changed his mind.
"You'll find plenty of better players than I am at the club," he said in extenuation. "I think I'll smoke a whiff or two here and go back. They can't hold on much longer for to-night."
Five minutes later, when he had lighted a cigar and was glancing over the evening paper, two other members of the corporation committee of safety came down from the Senate gallery and stopped opposite Kent's pillar to struggle into their overcoats.
"It's precisely as I wrote our people two weeks ago—timidity scare, pure and simple," one of them was saying. "I've a mind to start home to-morrow. There is nothing doing here, or going to be done."
"No," said the other. "If it wasn't for House Bill Twenty-nine, I'd go to-night. They will adjourn to-morrow or Monday."
"House Bill Twenty-nine is much too dead to bury," was the reassuring rejoinder. "The committee is ours, and the bill will not be heard of again at this session. If that is all you are holding on for——"
They passed out of earshot, and Kent folded his newspaper absently. House Bill Twenty-nine had been the one measure touching the sensitive "vested interests"; the one measure for the suppression of which the corporations' lobby had felt called on to take steps. It was an omnibus bill put forth as a substitute for the existing law defining the status of foreign corporations. It had originated in the governor's office,—a fact which Kent had ferreted out within twenty-four hours of its first reading,—and for that reason he had procured a printed copy, searching it diligently for the hidden menace he was sure it embodied.
When the search proved fruitless, he had seen the bill pass the House by a safe majority, had followed it to the Senate, and in a cunningly worded amendment tacked on in the upper house had found what he was seeking. Under the existing law foreign corporations were subject to State supervision, and were dealt with as presumably unfriendly aliens. But the Senate amendment to House Bill Twenty-nine fairly swept the interstate corporations, as such, out of existence, by making it obligatory upon them to acquire the standing of local corporations. Charters were to be refiled with the secretary of State; resident directories and operating headquarters were to be established within the boundaries and jurisdiction of the State; in short, the State proposed, by the terms of the new law, to deal only with creatures of its own creation.
Kent saw, or thought he saw, the fine hand of the junto in all this. It was a still hunt in which the longest way around was the shortest way home. Like all new-country codes, the organic law of the State favored local corporations, and it might be argued that a bill placing the foreign companies on a purely local footing was an unmixed blessing to the aliens. But on the other hand, an unprincipled executive might easily make the new law an engine of extortion. To go no further into the matter than the required refiling of charters: the State constitution gave the secretary of State quasi-judicial powers. It was within his province to pass upon the applications for chartered rights, and to deny them if the question pro bono publico were involved.
Kent put two and two together, saw the wide door of exactions which might be opened, and passed the word of warning among his associates; after which he had watched the course of the amended House Bill Twenty-nine with interest sharp-set, planning meanwhile with Hildreth, the editor of the Daily Argus, an expose which should make plain the immense possibilities for corruption opened up by the proposed law; a journalistic salvo of publicity to be fired as a last resort.
The measure as amended had passed the Senate without debate, and had gone back to the House. Here, after the second reading, and in the very hour when the Argus editorial was getting itself cast in the linotypes, there was a hitch. The member from the Rio Blanco, favoring the measure in all its parts, and fearful only lest corporation gold might find a technical flaw in it, moved that it be referred to the committee on judiciary for a report on its constitutionality; and, accordingly, to the committee on judiciary it had gone.
Kent recalled the passing of the crisis, remembering how he had hastened to telephone the Argus editor to kill the expose at the last moment. The incident was now a month in the past, and the committee had not yet reported; would never report, Kent imagined. He knew the personnel of the committee on judiciary; knew that at least three members of it were down on the list, made up at the beginning of the session by his colleagues in the army of observation, as "approachables". Also, he knew by inference at least, that these three men had been approached, not without success, and that House Bill Twenty-nine, with its fee-gathering amendment, was safely shelved.
"It's an ill-smelling muck-heap!" he frowned, recalling the incidents of the crisis at the suggestion let fall by the two outgoing lobbyists. "And so much of this dog-watch as isn't sickeningly demoralizing is deadly dull, as Crenshawe puts it. If I had anywhere to go, I'd cut the galleries for to-night."
He was returning the newspaper to his pocket when it occurred to him that his object in buying it had been to note the stock quotations; a daily duty which, for Elinor's sake, he had never omitted. Whereupon he reopened it and ran his eye down the lists. There was a decided upward tendency in westerns. Overland Short Line had gained two points; and Western Pacific——
He held the paper under the nearest electric globe to make sure: Western Pacific, preferred, was quoted at fifty-eight and a half, which was one point and a half above the Brentwood purchase price.
One minute later an excited life-saver was shut in the box of the public telephone, gritting his teeth at the inanity of the central operator who insisted on giving him "A-1224" instead of "A-1234," the Hotel Wellington.
"No, no! Can't you understand? I want twelve-thirty-four; one, two, three, four; the Hotel Wellington."
There was more skirling of bells, another nerve-trying wait, and at last the clerk of the hotel answered.
"What name did you say? Oh, it's you, is it, Mr. Kent? Ormsby? Mr. Brookes Ormsby? No, he isn't here; he went out about two minutes ago. What's that you say? Damn? Well, I'm sorry, too. No message that I can take? All right. Good-by."
This was the beginning. For the middle part Kent burst out of the telephone-box and took the nearest short-cut through the capitol grounds for the street-car corner. At a quarter of nine he was cross-questioning the clerk face to face in the lobby of the Wellington. There was little more to be learned about Ormsby. The club-man had left his key and gone out. He was in evening dress, and had taken a cab at the hotel entrance.
Kent dashed across to his rooms and, in a feverish race against time, made himself fit to chase a man in evening dress. There was no car in sight when he came down, and he, too, took a cab with an explosive order to the driver: "124 Tejon Avenue, and be quick about it!"
It was the housemaid that answered his ring at the door of the Brentwood apartment. She was a Swede, a recent importation; hence Kent learned nothing beyond the bare fact that the ladies had gone out. "With Mr. Ormsby?" he asked.
"Yaas; Aye tank it vill pee dat yentlemans."
The pursuer took the road again, rather unhopefully. There were a dozen places where Ormsby might have taken his charges. Among them there was the legislative reception at Portia Van Brock's. Kent flipped a figurative coin, and gave the order for Alameda Square. The reception was perhaps the least unlikely place of the dozen.
He was no more than fashionably late at the Van Brock house, and fortunately he was able to reckon himself among the chosen few for whom Miss Portia's door swung on hospitable hinges at all hours. Loring had known her in Washington, and he had stood sponsor for Kent in the first week of the exile's residence at the capital. Thereafter she had taken Kent up on his own account, and by now he was deep in her debt. For one thing, she had set the fashion in the matter of legislative receptions—her detractors, knowing nothing whatever about it, hinted that she had been an amateur social lobbyist in Washington, playing the game for the pure zest of it—and at these functions Kent had learned many things pertinent to his purpose as watch-dog for the railroad company and legal adviser to his chief—things not named openly on the floor of the House or of the Senate chamber.