THE JUST AND THE UNJUST
Author of The Prodigal Judge, etc.
Illustrations by M. Leone Bracker
Indianapolis The Bobbs-Merrill Company Publishers
TO MY WIFE
CHAPTER I FIGHTING SHRIMPLIN II THE PRICE OF FOLLY III STRANGE BEDFELLOWS IV ADVENTURE IN EARNEST V COLONEL GEORGE HARBISON VI PUTTING ON THE SCREWS VII THE BEAUTY OF ELIZABETH VIII A GAMBLER AT HOME IX THE STAR WITNESS X HUSBAND AND WIFE XI THE FINGER OF SUSPICION XII JOE TELLS HIS STORY XIII LIGHT IN DARKNESS XIV THE GAMBLER'S THEORY XV LOVE THAT ENDURES XVI AT HIS OWN DOOR XVII AN UNWILLING GUEST XVIII FATHER AND SON XIX SHRIMPLIN TO THE RESCUE XX THE CAT AND THE MOUSE XXI THE HOUSE OF CARDS XXII GOOD MEN AND TRUE XXIII THE LAST APPEAL XXIV THE LAST LONG DAY XXV ON THE HIGH IRON BRIDGE XXVI CUSTER'S IDOL FALLS XXVII FAITH IS RESTORED XXVIII THE LAST NIGHT IN JAIL XXIX AT IDLE HOUR
Custer felt it his greatest privilege to sit of a Sunday morning in his mother's clean and burnished kitchen and, while she washed the breakfast dishes, listen to such reflections as his father might care to indulge in.
On these occasions the senior Shrimplin, commonly called Shrimp by his intimates, was the very picture of unconventional ease-taking as he lolled in his chair before the kitchen stove, a cracker box half filled with sawdust conveniently at hand.
As far back as his memory went Custer could recall vividly these Sunday mornings, with the church bells ringing peacefully beyond the windows of his modest home, and his father in easy undress, just emerged from his weekly bath and pleasantly redolent of strong yellow soap, his feet incased in blue yarn socks—white at toe and heel—and the neckband of his fresh-starched shirt sawing away at the lobes of his freckled ears. On these occasions Mr. Shrimplin inclined to a certain sad conservatism as he discussed with his son those events of the week last passed which had left their impress on his mind. But what pleased Custer best was when his father, ceasing to be gently discursive and becoming vigorously personal, added yet another canto to the stirring epic of William Shrimplin.
Custer was wholly and delightfully sympathetic. There was, he felt, the very choicest inspiration in the narrative, always growing and expanding, of his father's earlier career, before Mrs. Shrimplin came into his life, and as Mr. Shrimplin delicately intimated, tied him hand and foot. The same grounds of mutual understanding and intellectual dependence which existed between Custer and his father were lacking where Mrs. Shrimplin was concerned. She was unromantic, with a painfully literal cast of mind, though Custer—without knowing what is meant by a sense of humor, suspected her of this rare gift, a dangerous and destructive thing in woman. Privately considering her relation to his father, he was forced to the conclusion that their union was a most distressing instance of the proneness of really great minds to leave their deep channels and seek the shallow waters in the every-day concerns of life. He felt vaguely that she was narrow and provincial; for had she not always lived on the flats, a region bounded by the Square on the north and by Stoke's furniture factory on the south? On the west the flats extended as far as civilization itself extended in that direction, that is, to the gas house and the creek bank, while on the east they were roughly defined by Mitchell's tannery and the brick slaughter-house, beyond which vacant lots merged into cow pastures, the cow pastures yielding in their turn to the real country, where the level valley rolled up into hills which tilted the great green fields to the sun.
Mrs. Shrimplin had been born on the flats, and the flats had witnessed her meeting and mating with Shrimplin, when that gentleman had first appeared in Mount Hope in the interest of Whiting's celebrated tooth-powder, to the use of which he was not personally committed. At that time he was also an itinerant bill-poster and had his lodgings at Maxy Schaffer's Railroad Hotel hard by the B. & O. tracks.
Mr. Shrimplin was five feet three, and narrow chested. A drooping flaxen mustache shaded a sloping chin and a loose under lip, while a pair of pale eyes looked sadly out upon the world from the shadow of a hooked nose.
Mr. Joe Montgomery, Mrs. Shrimplin's brother-in-law, present on the occasion of her marriage to the little bill-poster, had critically surveyed the bridegroom and had been moved to say to a friend, "Shrimp certainly do favor a peanut!"
Mr. Montgomery's comparative criticism of her husband's appearance had in due season reached the ears of the bride, and had caused a rupture in the family that the years had not healed, but her resentment had been more a matter of justice to herself than that she felt the criticism to be wholly inapt.
Mr. Shrimplin had now become a public servant, for certain gasolene lamps in the town of Mount Hope were his proud and particular care. Any night he could be seen seated in his high two-wheeled cart drawn by a horse large in promise of speed but small in achievement, a hissing gasolene torch held between his knees, making his way through that part of the town where gas-lamps were as yet unknown. He still further added to his income by bill-posting and paper-hanging, for he belonged to the rank and file of life, with a place in the procession well toward the tail.
But Custer had no suspicion of this. He never saw his father as the world saw him. He would have described his eye as piercing; he would have said, in spite of the slouching uncertainty that characterized all his movements, that he was as quick as a cat; and it was only Custer who detected the note of authority in the meek tones of his father's voice.
And Custer was as like the senior Shrimplin as it was possible for fourteen to be like forty-eight. His mother said, "He certainly looks for all the world like his pa!" but her manner of saying it left doubt as to whether she rejoiced in the fact; for, while Mr. Shrimplin was undoubtedly a hero to Custer, he was not and never had been and never could be a hero to Mrs. Shrimplin. She saw in him only what the world saw—a stoop-shouldered little man who spent six days of the seven in overalls that were either greasy or pasty.
It was a vagary of Mr. Shrimplin's that ten reckless years of his life had been spent in the West, the far West, the West of cow-towns and bad men; that for this decade he had flourished on bucking broncos and in gilded bars, the admired hero of a variety of deft homicides. Out of his inner consciousness he had evolved a sprightly epic of which he was the central figure, a figure, according to Custer's firm belief, sinister, fateful with big jingling silver spurs at his heels and iron on his hips, whose specialty was manslaughter.
In the creation of his romance he might almost be said to have acquired a literary habit of mind, to which he was measurably helped by the fiction he read.
Custer devoured the same books; but he never suspected his father of the crime of plagiarism, nor guessed that his choicest morsels of adventure involved a felony. Mrs. Shrimplin felt it necessary to protest:
"No telling with what nonsense you are filling that boy's head!"
"I hope," said Mr. Shrimplin, narrowing his eyes to a slit, as if he expected to see pictured on the back of their lids the panorama of Custer's future, "I hope I am filling his head with just nonsense enough so he will never crawfish, no matter what kind of a proposition he goes up against!"
Custer colored almost guiltily. Could he ever hope to attain to the grim standard his father had set for him?
"I wasn't much older than him when I shot Murphy at Fort Worth," continued Mr. Shrimplin, "You've heard me tell about him, son—old one-eye Murphy of Texarcana?"
"He died, I suppose!" said. Mrs. Shrimplin, wringing out her dish-rag. "Dear knows! I wonder you ain't been hung long ago!"
"Did he die!" rejoined Mr. Shrimplin ironically. "Well, they usually die when I begin to throw lead!" He tugged fiercely at the ends of his drooping flaxen mustache and gazed into the wide and candid eyes of his son.
"Like I should give you the particulars, Custer?" he inquired.
Custer nodded eagerly, and Mr. Shrimplin cleared his throat.
"He was called one-eye Murphy because he had only one eye—he'd lost the other in a rough-and-tumble fight; it had been gouged out by a feller's thumb. Murphy got the feller's ear, chewed it off as they was rolling over and over on the floor, so you might say they swapped even."
"I wonder you'd pick on an afflicted person like that," observed Mrs. Shrimplin.
"Afflicted! Well, he could see more and see further with that one eye than most men could with four!"
"I should think four eyes would be confusin'," said Mrs. Shrimplin.
Mr. Shrimplin folded his arms across his narrow chest and permitted his glance to follow Mrs. Shrimplin's ample figure as she moved to and fro about the room; and when he spoke again a gentle melancholy had crept into his tone.
"I dunno but a man makes a heap of sacrifices he never gets no credit for when he marries and settles down. The ladies ain't what they used to be. They look on a man now pretty much as a meal-ticket. I guess if a feller chewed off another feller's ear in Mount Hope he'd never hear the last of it!"
As neither Mrs. Shrimplin nor Custer questioned this point, Mr. Shrimplin reverted to his narrative.
"I started in to tell you how I put Murphy out of business, didn't I, son? The facts brought out by the coroner's jury," embarking on what he conceived to be a bit of happy and elaborate realism, "was that I'd shot him in self-defense after he'd drawed a gun on me. He had heard I was at Fort Worth—not that I was looking for trouble, which I never done; but I never turned it down when any one was at pains to fetch it to me; I was always willing they should leave it with me for to have a merry time. Murphy heard I'd said if he'd come to Fort Worth I'd take him home and make a pet of him; and he'd sent back word that he was looking for a man with two ears to play with; and I'd said mine was on loose and for him to come and pull 'em off. After that there was just one thing he could do if he wanted to be well thought of, and he done it. He hit the town hell-snorting, and so mad he was fit to be tied." Mr. Shrimplin paused to permit this striking phrase to lay hold of Custer's imagination. "Yes, sir, hell-snorting, and so bad he was plum scairt of himself. He said he was looking for a gentleman who had sent him word he had two ears to contribute to the evening's gaiety, by which I knowed he meant me and was in earnest. He was full of boot-leg whisky—"
"What kind of whisky's that, pa?" asked Custer.
"That," said Mr. Shrimplin, looking into the round innocent face of his son, "that's the stuff the traders used to sell the Indians. Strong? Well, you might say it was middling strong—just middling—about three drops of it would make a rabbit spit in a bulldog's face!"
It was on one memorable twenty-seventh of November that Mr. Shrimplin reached this height of verbal felicity, and being Thanksgiving day, it was, aside from the smell of strong yellow soap and the fresh-starched white shirt, very like a Sunday.
He and Custer sat before the kitchen stove and in the intervals of his narrative listened to the wind rise without, and watched the sparse flakes of fine snow that it brought coldly out of the north, where the cloud banks lay leaden and chill on the far horizon.
Mr. Shrimplin had risen early that day, or, as he told Custer, he had "got up soon", and long before his son had left his warm bed in the small room over the kitchen, was well on his rounds in his high two-wheeled cart, with the rack under the seat which held the great cans of gasolene from which the lamps were filled. He had only paused at Maxy Schaffer's Railroad Hotel to partake of what he called a Kentucky breakfast—a drink of whisky and a chew of tobacco—a simple dietary protection against the evils of an empty stomach, to which he particularly drew Custer's attention.
His father's occupation was entirely satisfactory to Custer. Being employed by the town gave him an official standing, perhaps not so distinguished as that of a policeman, but still eminently worth while; and Mr. Shrimplin added not a little to the sense of its importance by dilating on the intrigues of ambitious rivals who desired to wrest his contract from him; and he impressed Custer, who frequently accompanied him on his rounds, with the wisdom of keeping the lamps that shone upon the homes of members of the town council in especially good order. Furthermore, there were possibilities of adventure in the occupation; it took Mr. Shrimplin into out-of-the-way streets and unfrequented alleys, and, as Custer knew, he always went armed. Sometimes, when in an unusually gracious mood, his father permitted him to verify this fact by feeling his bulging hip pocket. The feel of it was vastly pleasing to Custer, particularly when Mr. Shrimplin had to tell of strangers engaged in mysterious conversation on dark street corners, who slunk away as he approached. More than this, it was a matter of public knowledge that he had had numerous controversies in low portions of the town touching the right of the private citizen to throw stones at the street lamps; to Custer he made dire threats. He'd "toss a scare into them red necks yet! They'd bust his lamps once too often—he was laying for them! He knowed pretty well who done it, and when he found out for sure—" He winked at Custer, leaving it to his son's imagination to determine just what form his vengeance would take, and Custer, being nothing if not sanguinary, prayed for bloodshed.
But the thing that pleased the boy best was his father's account of those meetings with mysterious strangers. How as he approached they moved off with many a furtive backward glance; how he made as if to drive away in the opposite direction, and then at the first corner turned swiftly about and raced down some parallel street in hot pursuit, to come on them again, to their great and manifest discomfiture. Circumstantially he described each turn he made, down what streets he drove Bill at a gallop, up which he walked that trustworthy animal; all was elaborately worked out. The chase, however, always ended one way—the strangers disappeared unaccountably, and, search as he might, he could not find them again, but he and Custer felt certain that his activity had probably averted some criminal act.
In short, to Mr. Shrimplin and his son the small events of life magnified themselves, becoming distorted and portentous. A man, emerging suddenly from an alley in the dusk of the early evening, furnished them with a theme for infinite speculation and varied conjecture; that nine times out of ten the man said, "Hello, Shrimp!" and passed on his way perfectly well known to the little lamplighter was a matter of not the slightest importance. Sometimes, it is true, Mr. Shrimplin told of the salutation, but the man was always a stranger to him, and that he should have spoken, calling him by name, he and Custer agreed only added to the sinister mystery of the encounter.
It was midday on that twenty-seventh of November when Mr. Shrimplin killed Murphy of the solitary eye, and he reached the climax of the story just as Mrs. Shrimplin began to prepare the dressing for the small turkey that was to be the principal feature of their four-o'clock dinner. The morning's scanty fall of snow had been so added to as time passed that now it completely whitened the strip of brown turf in the little side yard beyond the kitchen windows.
"I think," said Mr. Shrimplin, "we are going to see some weather. Well, snow ain't a bad thing." His dreamy eyes rested on Custer for an instant; they seemed to invite a question.
"No?" said Custer interrogatively.
"If I was going to murder a man, I don't reckon I'd care to do it when there was snow on the ground."
Mrs. Shrimplin here suggested cynically that perhaps he dreaded cold feet, but her husband ignored this. To what he felt to be the commonplaceness of her outlook he had long since accustomed himself. He merely said:
"I suppose more criminals has been caught because they done their crimes when it was snowing than any other way. Only chance a feller would have to get off without leaving tracks would be in a balloon; I don't know as I ever heard of a murderer escaping in a balloon, but I reckon it could be done."
He disliked to relinquish such an original idea, and the subject of murderers and balloons, with such ramifications as suggested themselves to his mind, occupied him until dinner-time. He quitted the table to prepare for his night's work, and at five o'clock backed wild Bill into the shafts of his high cart, lighted the hissing gasolene torch, and mounted to his seat.
"I expect he'll want his head to-night; he's got a game look," he said to Custer, nodding toward Bill. Then, as he tucked a horse blanket snugly about his legs, he added: "It's a caution the way he gets over the ground. I never seen a horse that gets over the ground like Bill does."
Which was probably true enough, for Bill employed every known gait.
"He's a mighty well-broke horse!" agreed Custer in a tone of sincere conviction.
"He is. He's got more gaits than you can shake a stick at!" said Mr. Shrimplin.
Privately he labored under the delusion that Bill was dangerous; even years of singular rectitude on Bill's part had failed to alter his original opinion on this one point, and he often told Custer that he would have felt lost with a horse just anybody could have driven, for while Bill might not and probably would not have suited most people, he suited him all right.
"Well, good-by, son," said Mr. Shrimplin, slapping Bill with the lines.
Bill went out of the alley back of Mr. Shrimplin's small barn, his head held high, and taking tremendous strides that somehow failed in their purpose if speed was the result desired.
Twilight deepened; the snow fell softly, silently, until it became a ghostly mist that hid the town—hid the very houses on opposite sides of the street, and through this flurry Bill shuffled with unerring instinct, dragging Mr. Shrimplin from lamp-post to lamp-post, until presently down the street a long row of lights blazed red in the swirling smother of white.
Custer reentered the house. The day held the sentiment of Sunday and this he found depressing. He had also dined ambitiously, and this he found even more depressing. He wondered vaguely, but with no large measure of hope, if there would be sledding in the morning. Probably it would turn warm during the night; he knew how those things went. From his seat by the stove he watched the hurrying flakes beyond the windows, and as he watched, the darkness came down imperceptibly until he ceased to see beyond the four walls of the room.
Mrs. Shrimplin was busy with her mending. She did not attempt conversation with her son, though she occasionally cast a curious glance in his direction; he was not usually so silent. All at once the boy started.
"What's that?" he cried.
"La, Custer, how you startle a body! It's the town bell. I should think you'd know; you've heard it often enough." As she spoke she glanced at the clock on the shelf in the corner of the room. "I guess that clock's stopped again," she added, but in the silence that followed her words they both heard it tick.
The bell rang on.
"It ain't half past seven yet. Maybe it's a fire!" said Custer. He quitted his chair and moved to the window. "I wish they'd give the ward. They'd ought to. How's a body to know—"
"Set down, Custer!" commanded his mother sharply. "You ain't going out! You know your pa don't allow you to go to no fires after night."
"You don't call this night!" He was edging toward the door.
"Yes, I do!"
"A quarter after seven ain't night!" he expostulated.
"No arguments, Custer! You sit down! I won't have you trapesing about the streets."
Custer turned back from the door and resumed his seat.
"Why don't they give the ward? I never heard such a fool way of ringing for a fire!" he said.
They were silent, intent and listening. Now the wind was driving the sound clamorously across the town.
"They ain't give the ward yet!" said Custer at length, in a tone of great disgust. "I could ring for a fire better than that!"
"I wish your pa was to home!" said Mrs. Shrimplin.
As she spoke they caught the muffled sound of hurrying feet, then the clamor of voices, eager and excited; but presently these died away in the distance, and again they heard only the bell, which rang on and on and on.
THE PRICE OF FOLLY
John North occupied the front rooms on the first floor of the three-story brick structure that stood at the corner of Main Street and the Square. The only other tenant on the floor with him was Andy Gilmore, who had apartments at the back of the building. Until quite recently Mr. North and Mr. Gilmore had been friends and boon companions, but of late North had rather avoided this neighbor of his.
Mount Hope said that North had parted with the major portion of his small fortune to Gilmore. Mount Hope also said and believed, and with most excellent justification for so doing, that North was a fool—a truth he had told himself so many times within the last month that it had become the utter weariness of iteration.
He was a muscular young fellow of twenty-six, with a handsome face, and, when he chose, a kindly charming manner. He had been—and he was fully aware of this—as idle and as worthless as any young fellow could possibly be; he was even aware that the worst Mount Hope said of him was much better than he deserved. In those hours that were such a new experience to him, when he denied himself other companionship than his own accusing conscience; when the contemplation of the naked shape of his folly absorbed him to the exclusion of all else, he would sit before his fire with the poker clutched in his hands and his elbows resting on his knees, poking between the bars of the grate, poking moodily, while under his breath he cursed the weakness that had made him what he was.
With his hair in disorder on his handsome shapely head, he would sit thus hours together, not wholly insensible to a certain grim sense of humor, since in all his schemes of life he had made no provision for the very thing that had happened. He wondered mightily what a fellow could do with his last thousand dollars, especially when a fellow chanced to be in love and meditated nothing less than marriage; for North's day-dream, coming like the sun through a rift in the clouds to light up the somberness of his solitary musings, was all of love and Elizabeth Herbert. He wondered what she had heard of him—little that was good, he told himself, and probably much that was to his discredit. Yet as he sat there he was slowly shaping plans for the future. One point was clear: he must leave Mount Hope, where he had run his course, where he was involved and committed in ways he could not bear to think of. To go meant that he would be forsaking much that was evil; a situation from which he could not extricate himself otherwise. It also meant that he would be leaving Elizabeth Herbert; but perhaps she had not even guessed his secret, for he had not spoken of love; or perhaps having divined it, she cared nothing for him. Even so, his regeneration seemed in itself a thing worth while. What he was to do, how make a place for himself, he had scarcely considered; but his inheritance was wasted, and of the comfortable thousands that had come to him, next to nothing remained.
In the intervals between his musings Mr. North got together such of his personal belongings as he deemed worth the removal; he was surprised to find how few were the things he really valued. On the grounds of a chastened taste in such matters he threw aside most of his clothes; he told himself that he did not care to be judged by such mere externals as the shade of a tie or the color of a pair of hose. Under his hands—for the spirit of reform was strong upon him—his rooms took on a sober appearance. He amused himself by making sundry penitential offerings to the flames; numerous evidences of his unrighteous bachelorhood disappearing from walls and book-shelves. Coincident with this he owned to a feeling of intense satisfaction. What remained he would have his friend Marshall Langham sell after he was gone, his finances having suddenly become of paramount importance.
But the days passed, and though he was not able to bring himself to leave Mount Hope, his purpose in its final aspect underwent no change. He lived to himself, and his old haunts and his old friends saw nothing of him. Evelyn Langham, whom he had known before she married his friend Marshall, was fortunately absent from town. Her letters to him remained unanswered; the last one he had burned unread. He was sick of the devious crooked paths he had trodden; he might not be just the stuff of which saints are made, but there was the hope in his heart of better things than he had yet known.
At about the time Mr. Shrimplin was attacking his Thanksgiving turkey, North, from his window, watched the leaden clouds that overhung the housetops. From the frozen dirt of the unpaved streets the keen wind whipped up scanty dust clouds, mingling them with sudden flurries of fine snow. Save for the passing of an occasional pedestrian who breasted the gale with lowered head, the Square was deserted. Staring down on it, North drummed idly on the window-pane. What an unspeakable fool he had been, and what a price his folly was costing him! As he stood there, heavy-hearted and bitter in spirit, he saw Marshall Langham crossing the Square in the direction of his office. He watched his friend's wind-driven progress for a moment, then slipped into his overcoat and, snatching up his hat, hurried from the room.
Langham, with Moxlow, his law partner, occupied two handsomely furnished rooms on the first floor, of the one building in Mount Hope that was distinctly an office building, since its sky-scraping five stories were reached by an elevator. Here North found Langham—a man only three or four years older than himself, tall, broad-shouldered, with an oratorical air of distinction and a manner that proclaimed him the leading young lawyer at the local bar.
He greeted North cordially, and the latter observed that his friend's face was unusually flushed, and that beads of perspiration glistened on his forehead, which he frequently wiped with a large linen handkerchief.
"What have you been doing with yourself, Jack?" he demanded, sliding his chair back from the desk at which he was seated. "I haven't had a glimpse of you in days."
"I have been keeping rather quiet."
"What's the matter? Liver out of whack?" Langham smiled complacently.
"Worse than that!" North rejoined moodily.
"That's saying a good deal? What is it, Jack?"
But North was not inclined to lay bare his heart; he doubted if Langham could be made to comprehend any part of his suffering.
"I am getting down to my last dollar, Marsh. I don't know where the money went, but it's gone," he finally said.
"You have certainly had your little time, Jack, and it's been a perfectly good little time, too! What are you going to do when you are cleaned out?"
"That's part of the puzzle, Marsh, that's the very hell and all of it."
"Well, you have had your fun—lots of it!" said Langham, swabbing his face.
North noticed the embroidered initial in the corner of the handkerchief.
"Fun! Was it fun?" he demanded with sudden heat.
"You took it for fun. Personally I think it was a pretty fair imitation."
"Yes, I took it for fun, or mistook it; that's the pity of it! I can forgive myself for almost everything but having been a fool!"
"That's always a hard dose to swallow," agreed Langham. He was willing to enter into his friend's mood.
"Have you ever tried to swallow it?" asked North.
"I can't say I have. Some of us haven't any business with a conscience—our blood's too red. I've made up my mind that, while I may be a man of moral impulses I am also a creature of purest accident. It's the same with you, Jack. You are a pretty decent fellow down under the skin; there's still the divine spark in you, though perhaps it doesn't burn bright enough to warm the premises. But it's there, like a shaft of light from a gem, a gem in the rough—though I believe I'm mixing my metaphors."
"Why don't you say a pearl in the mire?"
"But that doesn't really take from your pearlship, though it may dim your luster. No, Jack, the accidents have been to your morals instead of your arms and legs. That's how I explain it in my own case, and it's saved me many a bad quarter of an hour with myself. I know I'd be on crutches if the vicissitudes of which I have been the victim could be given physical expression."
"Marsh," said North soberly, "I am going away."
"You are going to do what, Jack?" demanded the lawyer.
"I am going to leave Mount Hope. I am going West for a bit, and after I am gone I want you to sell the stuff in my rooms for me; have an auction and get rid of every stick of the fool truck!"
"Why, what's wrong? Going away—when?"
"At once, to-morrow—to-night maybe. I don't know quite when, but very soon. I want you to get rid of all my stuff, do you understand? Before long I'll write you my address and you can send me whatever it brings. I expect I'll need the money—"
"Why, you're crazy, man!" cried Langham.
North moved impatiently. He had not come to discuss the merit of his plans.
"On the contrary I am having my first gleam of reason," he said briefly.
"Of course you know best, Jack," acquiesced Langham after a moment's silence.
"You'll do what I ask of you, Marsh?"
"Oh, hang it, yes." He hesitated for an instant and then said 'frankly. "You know I'm rather in your debt; I don't suppose five hundred dollars would square what I have had from you first and last."
"I hope you won't mention it! Whenever it is quite convenient, that will be soon enough."
"Thank you, Jack!" said Langham gratefully. "The fact is the pickings here are pretty small."
Again the lawyer mopped his brow and again North moved impatiently.
"Don't say another word about it, Marsh," he repeated. "McBride has agreed to take the last of my gas bonds off my hands; that will get me away from here."
"How many have you left?" asked Langham curiously.
"Ten," said North.
"Do you mean to tell me you are down to that? Why, you told me once you held a hundred!"
"So I did once, but it costs money to be the kind of fool I've been! said North.
"Well, I suppose you are doing the sensible thing in getting out of this. Have you any notion where you are going or what you'll do?"
North shook his head.
"Oh, you'll get into something!" the lawyer encouraged. "When shall you see McBride?"
"This afternoon. Why?"
"I was going to say that I was just there with Atkinson. He and McBride have been in a timber speculation, and Atkinson handed over three thousand dollars in cash to the old man. I suppose he has banked it in some heap of scrap-iron on the premises!" said Langham laughing.
"I think I shall go there now," resolved North. While he was speaking he had moved to the door leading into the hail, and had opened it.
"Hold on, John!" said Langham, detaining him. "Evelyn is home. She came quite unexpectedly to-day; you won't leave town without getting up to the house to see her?"
"I think I shall," replied North hastily. "I much prefer not to say good-by."
"Oh, nonsense!" cried Langham.
"No, Marsh, I don't intend to say good-by to any one!" North quietly turned back into the room.
"I had intended having you up to the house to-night for a blow-out," urged Langham, but North shook his head. "You and Gilmore, Jack; and by the way, this puts me in a nice hole! I have already asked Gilmore, and he's coming. Now, how the devil am to get out of it? I can't spring him alone on the family circle, and I don't want to hurt his feelings!"
"Call it off, Marsh; say I couldn't come; that's a good enough excuse to give Gilmore. Why, that fellow's a common card-sharp, you can't ask Evelyn to meet him!"
A slight noise in the hall caused both men to glance toward the door, where they saw just beyond the threshold the swarthy-faced Gilmore.
There was a brief embarrassed silence, and then North nodded to the new-comer, but the salutation was not returned.
"Well, good-by, Marsh!" he said, and turned to the door. As he brushed past the gambler their eyes met for an instant, and in that instant Gilmore's face turned livid with rage.
"I'll fix you for that, so help me God, I will!" he said, but North made no answer. He passed down the hall, down the stairs, and out into the street.
McBride's was directly opposite on the corner of High Street and the Square; a mean two-story structure of frame, across the shabby front of which hung a shabby creaking sign bearing witness that within might be found: "Archibald McBride, Hardware and Cutlery, Implements and Bar Iron." McBride had kept store on that corner time out of mind.
He was an austere unapproachable old man, having no relatives of whom any one knew; with few friends and fewer intimates; a rich man, according to the Mount Hope standard, and a miser according to the Mount Hope gossip, with the miser's traditional suspicion of banks. It was rumored that he had hidden away vast sums of money in his dingy store, or in the closely-shuttered rooms above, where the odds and ends of the merchandise in which he dealt had accumulated in rusty and neglected heaps.
The old man wore an air of mystery, and this air of mystery extended to his place of business. It was dark and dirty and ill-kept. On the brightest summer day the sunlight stole vaguely in through grimy cobwebbed windows. The dust of years had settled deep on unused shelves and, in abandoned corners, and whole days were said to pass when no one but the ancient merchant himself entered the building. Yet in spite of the trade that had gone elsewhere he had grown steadily richer year by year.
When North entered the store he found McBride busy with his books in his small back office, a lean black cat asleep on the desk at his elbow.
"Good afternoon, John!" said the old merchant as he turned from his high desk, removing as he did so a pair of heavy steel-rimmed spectacles, that dominated a high-bridged nose which in turn dominated a wrinkled and angular face.
"I thought I should find you here!" said North.
"You'll always find me here of a week-day," and he gave the young fellow the fleeting suggestion of a smile. He had a liking for North, whose father, years before, had been one of the few friends he had made in Mount Hope.
The Norths had been among the town's earliest settlers, John's grandfather having taken his place among the pioneers when Mount Hope had little but its name to warrant its place on the map. At his death Stephen, his only son, assumed the family headship, married, toiled, thrived and finished his course following his wife to the old burying-ground after a few lonely heart-breaking months, and leaving John without kin, near or far, but with a good name and fair riches.
"I have brought you those gas bonds, Mr. McBride," said North, going at once to the purpose of his visit.
The old merchant nodded understandingly.
"I hope you can arrange to let me have the money for them to-day," continued North.
"I think I can manage it, John. Atkinson and Judge Langham's boy, Marsh, were just here and left a bit of cash. Maybe I can make up the sum." While he was speaking, he had gone to the safe which stood open in one corner of the small office.
In a moment he returned to the desk with a roll of bills in his hands which he counted lovingly, placing them, one by one, in a neat pile before him.
"You're still in the humor to go away?" he asked, when he had finished counting the money.
"Never more so!" said North briefly.
"What do you think of young Langham, John? Will he ever be as sharp a lawyer as the judge?"
"He's counted very brilliant," evaded North.
He rather dreaded the old merchant when his love of gossip got the better of his usual reserve.
"I hadn't seen the fellow in months to speak to until to-day. He's a clever talker and has a taking way with him, but if the half I hear is true, he's going the devil's own gait. He's a pretty good friend to Andy Gilmore, ain't he—that horse-racing, card-playing neighbor of yours?" He pushed the bills toward North. "Run them over, John, and see if I have made any mistake." He slipped off his glasses again and fell to polishing them with his handkerchief. "It's all right, John?" he asked at length.
"Yes, quite right, thank you." And North produced the bonds from an inner pocket of his coat and handed them to McBride.
"So you are going to get out of this place, John? You're going West, you say. What will you do there?" asked the old merchant as he carefully examined the bonds.
"I don't know yet."
"I'm trusting you're through with your folly, John; that your crop of wild oats is in the ground. You've made a grand sowing!"
"I have," answered North, laughing in spite of himself.
"You'll be empty-handed I'm thinking, but for the money you take from here."'
"Very nearly so."
"How much have you gone through with, John, do you mind rightly?"
"Fifteen or twenty thousand dollars."
"A nice bit of money!" He shook his head and chuckled dryly. "It's enough to make your father turn in his grave. He's said to me many a time when he was a bit close in his dealings with me, 'I'm, saving for my boy, Archie.' Eh? But it ain't always three generations from shirt-sleeves to shirt-sleeves; you've made a short cut of it! But you're going to do the wise thing, John; you've been a fool here, now go away and be a man! Let all devilishness alone and work hard; that's the antidote for idleness, and it's overmuch of idleness that's been your ruin."
"I imagine it is," said North cheerfully.
"You'll be making a clever man out of yourself, John," McBride continued graciously. "Not a flash in the pan like your friend Marshall Langham yonder. It's drink will do for him the same as it did for his grandfather, it's in the blood; but that was before your time."
"I've heard of him; a remarkably able lawyer, wasn't he?"
"Pooh! You'll hear a plenty of nonsense talked, and by very sensible people, too, about most drunken fools! He was a spender and a profligate, was old Marshall Langham; a tavern loafer, but a man of parts. Yes, he had a bit of a brain, when he was sober and of a mind to use it."
One would scarcely have supposed that Archibald McBride, silent, taciturn, money-loving, possessed the taste for scandal that North knew he did possess. The old merchant continued garrulously.
"They are a bad lot, John, those Langhams, but it took the smartest one of the whole tribe to get the better of me. I never told you that before, did I? It was old Marshall himself, and he flattered me into loaning him a matter of a hundred dollars once; I guess I have his note somewhere yet. But I swore then I'd have no more dealings with any of them, and I'm likely to keep my word as long as I keep my senses. It's the little things that prick the skin; that make a man bitter. I suppose the judge's boy has had his hand in your pocket? He looks like a man who'd be free enough with another's purse."
But North shook his head.
"No, no, I have only myself to blame," he said.
"What do you hear of his wife? How's the marriage turning out?" and he shot the young fellow a shrewd questioning glance.
"I know nothing about it," replied North, coloring slightly.
"She'll hardly be publishing to the world that she's married a drunken profligate—"
This did not seem to North to call for an answer, and he attempted none. He turned and moved toward the front of the store, followed by the old merchant. At the door he paused.
"Thank you for your kindness, Mr. McBride!"
"It was no kindness, just a matter of business" said McBride hastily. "I'm no philanthropist, John, but just a plain man of business who'll drive a close bargain if he can."
"At any rate, I'm going to thank you," insisted North, smiling pleasantly. "Good-by," and he extended his hand, which the old merchant took.
"Good-by, and good luck to you, John, and you might drop me a line now and then just to say how you get on."
"I will. Good-by!"
"I know you'll succeed, John. A bit of application, a bit of necessity to spur you on, and we'll be proud of you yet!"
North laughed as he opened the door and stepped out; and Archibald McBride, looking through his dingy show-windows, watched him until he disappeared down the street; then he turned and reentered his office.
Meanwhile North hurried away with the remnant of his little fortune in his pocket. Five minutes' walk brought him to the building that had sheltered him for the last few years. He climbed the stairs and entered the long hail above. He paused, key in hand, before his door, when he heard behind him a light footfall on the uncarpeted floor and the swish of a woman's skirts. As he turned abruptly, the woman who had evidently followed him up from the street, came swiftly down the hall toward him.
"Jack!" she said, when she was quite near.
The short winter's day had brought an early twilight to the place, and the woman was closely veiled, but the moment she spoke North recognized her, for there was something in the mellow full-throated quality of her speech which belonged only to one voice that he knew.
"Mrs. Langham!—Evelyn!" he exclaimed, starting back in dismay.
"Hush, Jack, you needn't call it from the housetops!" As she spoke she swept aside her veil and he saw her face, a superlatively pretty face with scarlet smiling lips and dark luminous eyes that were smiling, too.
"Do you want to see me, Evelyn?" he asked awkwardly.
But she was neither awkward nor embarrassed; she was still smiling up into his face with reckless eyes and brilliant lips. She pointed to the door with her small gloved hand.
"Open it, Jack!" she commanded.
For a moment he hesitated. She was the one person he did not wish to see, least of all did he wish to see her there. She was not nicely discreet, as he well knew. She did many things that were not wise, that were, indeed, frankly imprudent. But clearly they could not stand there in the hallway. Gilmore or some of Gilmore's friends might come up the stairs at any moment. Langham himself might be of these.
Something of all this passed through North's mind as he stood there hesitating. Then he unlocked the door, and standing aside, motioned her to precede him into the room.
This room, the largest of several, he occupied, was his parlor. On entering it he closed the door after him, and drew forward a chair for Evelyn, but he did not himself sit down, nor did he remove his overcoat.
He had known Evelyn all his life, they had played together as children; more than this, though now he would have been quite willing to forget the whole episode and even more than willing that she should forget it, there had been a time when he had moped in wretched melancholy because of what he had then considered her utter fickleness. Shortly after this he had been sent East to college and had borne the separation with a fortitude that had rather surprised him when he recalled how bitter a thing her heartlessness had seemed.
When they met again he had found her more alluring than ever, but more devoted to her pleasures also; and then Marshall Langham had come into her life. North had divined that the course of their love-making was far from smooth, for Langham's temper was high and his will arbitrary, nor was he one to bear meekly the crosses she laid on him, crosses which other men had borne in smiling uncomplaint, reasoning no doubt, that it was unwise to take her favors too seriously; that as they were easily achieved they were quite as easily forfeited. But Langham was not like the other men with whom she had amused herself. He was not only older and more brilliant, but was giving every indication that his professional success would be solid and substantial. Evelyn's father had championed his cause, and in the end she had married him.
In the five years that had elapsed since then, her romance had taken its place with the accepted things of life, and she revenged herself on Langham, for what she had come to consider his unreasonable exactions, by her recklessness, by her thirst for pleasure, and above all by her extravagance.
Through all the vicissitudes of her married life, the smallest part of which he only guessed, North had seen much of Evelyn. There was a daring dangerous recklessness in her mood that he had sensed and understood and to which he had made quick response. He knew that she was none too happy with Langham, and although he had been conscious of no wish to wrong the husband he had never paused to consider the outcome of his intimacy with the wife.
Evelyn was the first to break the silence.
"You wonder why I came here, don't you, Jack?" she said.
"You should never have done it!" he replied quickly.
"What about my letters, why didn't you answer them?" she demanded. "I hadn't one word from you in weeks. It quite spoiled my trip East. What was I to think? And then you sent me just a line saying you were leaving Mount Hope—" she drew in her breath sharply. There was a brief silence. "Why?" she asked at length.
"It is better that I should," he answered awkwardly.
He felt a sudden remorseful tenderness for her; he wished that she might have divined the change that had come over him; even how worthless a thing his devotion had been, the utter selfishness of it.
"Why is it better?" she asked. He was near enough for her to put out a small hand and rest it on his arm. "Jack, have I done anything to make you hate me? Don't you care any longer for me?"
"I care a great deal, Evelyn. I want you to think the best of me."
"But why do you go? And when do you think of going, Jack?" The hand that she had rested there a moment before, left his arm and dropped at her side.
"I don't know yet, my plans are very uncertain. I am quite at the end of my money. I have been a good deal of a fool, Evelyn."
Something in his manner restrained her, she was not so sure as she had been of her hold on him. She looked up appealingly into his face, the smile had left her lips and her eyes were sad, but he mistrusted the genuineness of this swift change of mood, certainly its permanence.
"What will there be left for me, Jack, when you go? I thought—I thought—" her full lips quivered.
She was realizing that this separation which her imagination had already invested with a tragic significance, meant much less to him than she believed it would mean to her; more than this, the cruel suspicion was certifying itself that in her absence from Mount Hope, North had undergone some strange transformation; was no longer the reckless, dissipated, young fellow who for months had been as her very shadow.
"I am going to-night, Evelyn," he said with sudden determination.
She gave a half smothered cry.
"To-night! To-night!" she repeated.
He changed his position uncomfortably.
"I am at the end of my string, Evelyn," he said slowly.
"I—I shall miss you dreadfully, Jack! You know I am frightfully unhappy; what will it be when you go? Marsh has made a perfect wreck of my life!"
"Nonsense, Evelyn!" he replied bruskly. "You must be careful what you say to me!"
"I haven't been careful before!" she asserted.
He bit his lips. She went swiftly on.
"I have told you everything! I don't care what happens to me—you know I don't, Jack! I am deadly desperately tired!" She paused, then she cried vehemently. "One endures a situation as long as one can, but there comes a time when it is impossible to go on with the falsehood any longer, and I have reached that time! It is my life, my happiness that are at stake!"
"Sometimes it is better to do without happiness," he philosophized.
"That is silly, Jack, no one believes that sort of thing any more; but it is good to teach to women and children, it saves a lot of bother, I suppose. But men take their happiness regardless of the rights of others!"
"Not always," he said.
"Yes, always!" she insisted.
"But you knew what Marsh was before you married him."
"It's a woman's vanity to believe she can reform, can control a man." She glanced at him furtively. What had happened to change him? Always until now he had responded to the recklessness of her mood, he had seemed to understand her without the need of words. Her brows met in an angry frown. Was he a coward? Did he fear Marshall Langham? Once more she rested her hand on his arm. "Jack, dear Jack, are you going to fail me, too?"
"What would you have me say or do, Evelyn?" he demanded impatiently.
She regarded him sadly.
"What has made you change, Jack? What is it; what have I done? Why did you not answer my letters? Why did you not come to see me?"
"I only learned that you were in town this afternoon," he said.
"Yes, but you had no intention of coming, I know you hadn't! You would have left Mount Hope without even a good-by to me!"
"It is hard enough to have to go, Evelyn!"
"It isn't that, Jack. What have I done? How have I displeased you?"
"You haven't displeased me, Evelyn," he faltered.
"Then why have you treated me as you have?"
"I thought it would be easier," he said.
"Have you forgotten what friends we were once?" she asked softly. "You always helped me out of my difficulties then, and you told me once that you cared—a great deal for me, more than you should ever care for any woman!"
"Yes," he answered shortly, and was silent.
He would scarcely have admitted to himself how foolish his early passion had been, for it was at least sincere and there could have been no sacrifice, at one time, that he would not have willingly made for her sake. His later sentiment for her had been a disgracing and a disgraceful thing, and he was glad to think of this boyish love, since it carried him back to a time before he had wrought only misery for himself. She misunderstood his reticence, she could not realize that she had lost the power that had once been hers.
"What a mistake I made, Jack!" she cried, and stretched out her hands toward him.
He fell back a step.
"Nonsense!" he said. He glanced sharply at her.
"How stupid you are!" she exclaimed.
She half rose from her chair with her hands still extended toward him. For a moment he met her glance, and then, disgusted and ashamed, withdrew his eyes from hers.
Evelyn sank back in her chair, and her face turned white and she covered it with her hands. North was the first to break the silence.
"We would both of us better forget this," he said quietly.
She rose and stood at his side. The color had returned to her cheeks.
"What a fool you are, John North!" she jeered softly. "And I might have made the tragic mistake of really caring for you!" She gave a little shiver of dismay, and then after a moment's tense silence: "What a boy you are,—almost as much of a boy as when we used to play together."
"I think there is nothing more to say, Evelyn," North said shortly. "It is growing late. You must not be seen leaving here!"
"Oh, it would take a great deal to compromise me; though if Marsh ever finds out that I have been here he'll be ready to kill me!" But she still lingered, still seemed to invite.
North was silent.
"You must be in love, Jack! You see, I'll not grant that you are the saint you'd have me think you! Yes, you are in love!" for he colored angrily at her words. "Is it—"
He interrupted her harshly.
"Don't speak her name!"
"Then it is true! I'd heard that you were, but I did not believe it! Yes, you are right, we must forget that I came here to-day."
While she was speaking she had moved toward the door, and instinctively he had stepped past her to open it. When he turned with his hand on the knob, it brought them again face to face. The smile had left her lips, they were mere delicate lines of color. She raised herself on tiptoe and her face, gray-white, was very close to his.
"What a fool you are, Jack, what a coward you must be!" and she struck him on the cheek with her gloved hand. "You are a coward!" she cried.
His face grew as white as her own, and he did not trust himself to speak. She gave him a last contemptuous glance and drew her veil.
"Now open the door," she said insolently.
He did so, and she brushed past him swiftly and stepped out into the long hall. For a moment North stood staring after her, and then he closed the door.
When North quitted Marshall Langham's office, Gilmore, after a brief instant of irresolution, stepped into the room. He was crudely, handsome, a powerfully-built man of about Langham's own age, swarthy-faced and with ruthless lips showing red under a black waxed mustache. His hat was inclined at a "sporty" angle and the cigar which he held firmly between his strong even teeth was tilted in the same direction, imparting a rakish touch to Mr. Gilmore's otherwise sturdy and aggressive presence.
"Howdy, Marsh!" said his new-comer easily.
From his seat before his desk Langham scowled across at him.
"What the devil brings you here, Andy?" he asked, ungraciously enough.
Gilmore buried his hands deep in his trousers pockets and with one eye half closed surveyed the lawyer over the tip of his tilted cigar.
"You're a civil cuss, Marsh," he said lightly, "but one wouldn't always know it. Ain't I a client, ain't I a friend,—and damn it all, man, ain't I a creditor? There are three excuses, any one of which is: sufficient to bring me into your esteemed presence!"
"We may as well omit the first," growled Langham, wheeling his chair back from the desk and facing Gilmore.
"Why?" asked Gilmore, lazily tolerant of the other's mood.
"Because there is nothing more that I can do for you," said Langham shortly.
"Oh, yes there is, Marsh, there's a whole lot more you can do for me. There's Moxlow, the distinguished prosecuting attorney; without you to talk sense to him he's liable to listen to all sorts of queer people who take more interest in my affairs than is good for them; but as long as he's got you at his elbow he won't forget my little stake in his election."
"If you wish him not to forget it, you'd better not be so particular in reminding him of it; he'll get sick of you and your concerns!" retorted Langham.
"I ain't going to remind him of it; what have I got you for, Marsh? It's your job." He took a step nearer Langham while his black brows met in a sullen frown. "I know I ain't popular here in Mount Hope, I know there are plenty of people who'd like to see me run out of town; but I'm no quitter, they'll find. It suits me to stay here, and they can't touch me if Moxlow won't have it. That's your job, that's what I hire you for, Marsh; you're Moxlow's partner, you're your father's son, it's up to you to see I ain't interfered with. Don't tell me you can't do anything more for me. I won't have it!"
Langham's face was red, and his eyes blazed angrily, but Gilmore met his glance with a look of stern insistence that could not be misunderstood.
"I have done what I could for you," the lawyer said at last, choking down his rage.
"Oh, go to hell! You know you haven't hurt yourself," said Gilmore insolently.
"Well, then, why do you come here?" demanded Langham.
"Same old business, Marsh." He lounged across the room and dropped, yawning, into a chair near the window.
There was silence between them for a little space. Langham fussed with the papers on his desk, while Gilmore squinted at him over the end of his cigar.
"Same old business, Marsh!" Gilmore repeated lazily. "What's the enemy up to, anyhow? Are the good people of Mount Hope worrying Moxlow? Is their sleepless activity going to interfere with my sleepless profession, eh? Can you answer me that?"
"Moxlow has cut the office of late," said Langham briefly.
"He's happened on a good thing in the prosecuting attorney's office, I suppose? It's a pity you didn't strike out for that, Marsh; you'd have been of some use to your friends if you'd got the job."
"Not necessarily," said Langham.
"Well, when's Moxlow going after me?" inquired Gilmore.
"I, haven't heard him say. He told me he had sufficient evidence for your indictment."
"Yes, of course," agreed Gilmore placidly.
"I guess yours is a case for the next grand jury!"
"So Moxlow's in earnest about wishing to make trouble for me?" said Gilmore, still placidly.
"Oh, he's in earnest, all right." Langham shrugged his shoulders petulantly. "He'll go after you, and perhaps by the time he's done with you you'll wish you'd taken my advice and made yourself scarce!"
"I'm no quitter!" rejoined Gilmore, chewing thoughtfully at the end of his cigar.
"By all means stay in Mount Hope if you think it's worth your while," said Langham indifferently.
"Can you give me some definite idea as to when the fun begins?"
"No, but it will be soon enough, Andy. He wants the support of the best element. He can't afford to offend it."
"And he knows you are my lawyer?" asked Gilmore still thoughtfully.
"Ain't that going to cut any figure with him?"
"Is that so, Marsh?" He crossed his legs and nursed an ankle with both hands. "Well, somebody ought to lose Moxlow,—take him out and forget to find him again. He's much too good for this world; it ain't natural. He's about the only man of his age in Mount Hope who ain't drifted into my rooms at one time or another." He paused and took the cigar from between his teeth. "You call him off, Marsh, make him agree to let me alone; ain't there such a thing as friendship in this profession of yours?"
Langham shook his head, and again Gilmore's black brows met in a frown. He made a contemptuous gesture.
"You're a hell of a lawyer!" he sneered.
"Be careful what you say to me!" cried Langham, suddenly giving way to the feeling of rage that until now he had held in check.
"Oh, I'm careful enough. I guess if you stop to think a minute you'll understand you got to take what I choose to say as I choose to say it!"
Langham sprang to his feet shaking with anger.
"No, by—" he began hoarsely.
"Sit down," said Gilmore coldly. "You can't afford to row with me; anyhow, I ain't going to row with you. I'll tell you what I think of you and what I expect of you, so sit down!"
There was a long pause. Gilmore gazed out the window. He seemed to watch the hurrying snowflakes with no interest in Langham who was still standing by his desk, with one shaking hand resting on the back of his chair. Presently the lawyer resumed his seat and Gilmore turned toward him.
"Don't talk about my quitting here, Marsh," he said menacingly. "That's the kind of legal advice I won't have from you or any one else."
"You may as well make up your mind first as last to it," said Langham, not regarding what Gilmore had just said. "I can't keep Moxlow quiet any longer; the sentiment of the community is against gamblers. If you are not a gambler, what are you?"
"You mean you are going to throw me over, you two?"
"With Moxlow it is a case of bread and butter; personally I don't care whom you fleece, but I've got my living to make here in Mount Hope, too, and I can't afford to go counter to public opinion."
"You have had some favors out of me, Marsh."
"I am not likely to forget them, you give me no chance," rejoined Langham bitterly.
"Why should I, eh?" asked Gilmore coolly. He leaned back in his chair and stared at the ceiling above his head. "Marsh, what was that North was saying about me when I came down the hall?" and his swarthy cheeks were tinged with red.
"I don't recall that he was speaking of you."
"You don't? Well, think again. It was about our going up to your house to-night, wasn't it? Your wife's back, eh? Well, don't worry, I came here partly to tell you that I had made other arrangements for the evening."
"It's just as well," said Langham.
"Do you mean your wife wouldn't receive me?" demanded Gilmore. There was a catch in his voice and a pallor in his face.
"I didn't say that."
Gilmore's chair resounded noisily on the floor as he came to his feet. He strode to the lawyer's side.
"Then what in hell do you say?" he stormed.
In spite of himself Langham quailed before the gambler's fury.
"Oh, keep still, Andy! What a nasty-tempered beast you are!" he said pacifically.
There was a pause, and Gilmore resumed his chair, turning to the window to hide his emotion; then slowly his scowling glance came back to Langham.
"He said I was a common card-sharp, eh?" Langham knew that he spoke of North. "Damn him! What does he call himself?" He threw the stub of his cigar from him across the room. "Marsh, what does your wife know about me?" And again there was the catch to his voice.
Langham looked at him in astonishment.
"Know about you—my wife—nothing," he said slowly.
"I suppose she's heard my name?" inquired the gambler.
"Thinks I rob you at cards, eh?" But Langham made no answer to this. "Thinks I take your money away from you," continued the gambler. "And it's your game to let her think that! I wonder what she'd think if she knew the account stood the other way about? I've been a handy sort of a friend, haven't I, Marsh? The sort you could use,—and you have used me up to the limit! I've been good enough to borrow money from, but not good enough to take home—"
"Oh, come, Andy, what's the use," placated Langham. "I'm sorry if your feelings are hurt."
"It's time you and I had a settlement, Marsh. I want you to take up those notes of yours."
"I haven't the money!" said Langham.
"Well, I can't wait on you any longer."
"I don't see but that you'll have to," retorted Langham.
"I'm going to offer a few inducements for haste, Marsh. I'm going to make you see that it's worth your while to find that money for me quick,—understand? You owe me about two thousand dollars; are you fixed to turn it in by the end of the month?"
The gambler bit off the end of a fresh cigar and held it a moment between his fingers as he gazed at Langham, waiting for his reply. The latter shook his head but said nothing.
"Well, then, by George, I am going to sue you!"
"Because I can't protect you longer!"
"Oh, to hell with your protection! Go dig up the money for me or I'll raise a fuss here that'll hurt more than one reputation! The notes are good, ain't they?"
"They are good when I have the money to meet them."
"They are good even if you haven't the money to meet them! I guess Judge Langham's indorsement is worth something, and Linscott's a rich man; even Moxlow's got some property. Those are the three who are on your paper, and the paper's considerably overdue."
Langham turned a pale face on the gambler.
"You won't do that, Andy!" he said, in a voice which he vainly strove to hold steady.
"Won't I? Do you think I'm in business for my health?" And he laughed shortly, then he wheeled on Langham with unexpected fierceness. "I'll give you until the first of the month, Marsh, and then I'm going after you without gloves. I don't care a damn who squares the account; your indorsers' cash will suit me as well as your own." He caught the expression on Langham's face, its deathly pallor, the hunted look in his eyes, and paused suddenly. The shadow of a slow smile fixed itself at the corners of his mouth, he put out a hand and rested it on Langham's shoulder. "You damn fool! Have you tried that trick on me? I'll take those notes to the bank in the morning and see if the signatures are genuine."
"Do it!" Langham spoke in a whisper.
"Maybe you think I won't!" sneered the gambler. "Maybe you'd rather I didn't, eh? It will hardly suit you to have me show those notes?"
"Do what you like; whatever suggests itself to a scurvy whelp like you!" said Langham.
Gilmore merely grinned at this.
"If you are trying to encourage me to smash you, Marsh, you have got the right idea as to how it is to be done." But his tone was now one of lazy good nature.
"Smash me then; I haven't the money to pay you."
"Get it!" said Gilmore tersely.
"You are asking too much of me, Marsh. If I could finance you I'd cut out cards in the future. How about the judge,—no? Well, I just threw that out as a hint, but I suppose you have been there already, for naturally you'd compliment him by giving him the chance to pull you up out of your troubles. Since your own father won't help you, how about Linscott? Is he going to want to see his son-in-law disgraced? I guess he's your best chance, Marsh. Put it on strong and for once tell the truth. Tell him you've dabbled in forgery and that it won't work!"
Langham had dropped back in his chair. He was seeking to devise some expedient that would meet his present difficulties. His bondage to the gambler had become intolerable, anything would be better than a continuance of that. The monstrous folly of those forgeries seemed beyond anything he could have perpetrated in his sober senses. He must have been mad! But then he had needed the money desperately.
He might go to his, father, but he had been to him only recently, and the judge himself was burdened with debt. He might go to Mr. Linscott, he might even try North. He could tell the latter the whole circumstance and borrow a part of what was left of his small fortune; of course he was in his debt as it was, but North would never think of that; he was a man to share his last dollar with a friend.
He passed a shaking hand across his eyes. On every side the nightmare of his obligations confronted him, for who was there that he could owe whom he did not already owe? He was notorious for his inability to pay his debts. This notoriety was hurting his professional standing, and now if Gilmore carried out his threat he must look forward to the shame of a public exposure. His very reputation for common honesty was at stake.
He wondered what men did in a crisis such as this. He wondered what happened to them when they could do nothing more. Usually he was fertile in expedients, but to-day his brain seemed wholly inert. He realized only a certain dull terror of the future; the present eluded him utterly.
He had never been over-scrupulous perhaps, he had always taken what he pleased to call long chances, and it was in almost imperceptible gradations that he had descended in the scale of honesty to the point that had at last made possible these forgeries. Until now he had always felt certain of himself and of his future; time was to bring him into the presence of his dear desires, when he should have money to lift the burden of debt, money to waste, money to scatter, money to spend for the good things of life.
But he had made the fatal mistake of anticipating the success in which he so firmly believed. Those notes—he dashed his hand before his face; suddenly the air of the room seemed to stifle him, courage and cunning had left him; there was only North to whom he could turn for a few hundreds with which to quiet Gilmore. Let him but escape the consequences of his folly this time and he promised himself he would retrench; he would live within his income, he would apply himself to his profession as he had never yet applied himself. He scowled heavily at Gilmore, who met his scowl with a cynical smile.
"Well, what are you going to do?" he queried.
But Langham did not answer at once. He had turned and was looking from the window. It was snowing now very hard, and twilight, under the edges of torn gray clouds was creeping over the Square; he could barely see the flickering lights in Archibald McBride's dingy shop-windows.
"Give me a chance, Andy!" he said at last appealingly.
"To the end of the month, not a day more," asserted Gilmore.
"Where am I to get such a sum in that time? You know I can't do it!"
"Don't ask me, but turn to and get it, Marsh. That's your only hope."
"By the first of the year perhaps," urged Langham.
"No, get rid of the notion that I am going to let up on you, for I ain't! I'm going to squat on your trail until the money's in my hand; otherwise I know damn well I won't ever see a cent of it! I ain't your only creditor, but the one who hounds you hardest will see his money first, and I got you where I want you."
"I can't raise the money; what will you gain by ruining me?" demanded Langham. He wished to impress this on Gilmore, and then he would propose as a compromise the few hundreds it would be possible to borrow from North.
"To get square with you, Marsh, will be worth something, and frankly, I ain't sure that I ever expected to see any of that money, but as long as you stood my friend I was disposed to be easy on you."
"I am still your friend."
"Just about so-so, but you won't keep Moxlow—"
"Then I can't see where your friendship comes in." Gilmore quitted his chair.
"Wait, Andy!" said Langham hastily.
"No use of any more talk, Marsh, I want my money! Go dig it up."
"Suppose, by straining every nerve, I can raise five hundred dollars by the end of the month—"
"Oh, pay your grocer with that!"
Langham choked down his rage. "You haven't always been so contemptuous of such sums."
"I'm feeling proud to-day, Marsh. I'm going to treat myself to a few airs, and you can pat yourself on the back when you've dug up the money by the end of the month! You'll have done something to feel proud of, too."
"Suppose we say a thousand," urged Langham.
"Good old Marsh! If you keep on raising yourself like this you'll soon get to a figure where we can talk business!" Gilmore laughed.
"Perhaps I can raise a thousand dollars. I don't know why I should think I can, but I'm willing to try; I'm willing to say I'll try—"
Gilmore shook his head.
"I've told you what you got to do, Marsh, and I mean every damn word I say,—understand that? I'm going to have my money or I'm going to have the fun of smashing you."
"Listen to me, Andy!" began Langham desperately.
"Why take me into your confidence?" asked the gambler coldly.
"What will you gain by ruining me?" repeated Langham fiercely.
The gambler only grinned.
"I am always willing to spend money on my pleasures; and besides when those notes turn up, your father or some one else will have to come across."
Langham was silent. He was staring out across the empty snow-strewn Square at the lights in Archibald McBride's windows.
"Remember," said Gilmore, moving toward the door. "I'll talk to you when you got two thousand dollars."
"Damn you, where do you think I'll get it?" cried Langham.
"I'm not good at guessing," laughed Gilmore.
He turned without another word or look and left the room. His footsteps echoed loudly in the hall and on the stairs, and then there was silence in the building. Langham was again looking out across the Square at the lights in Archibald McBride's windows.
ADVENTURE IN EARNEST
Mr. Shrimplin had made his way through a number of back streets without adventure of any sort, and as the night and the storm closed swiftly in about him, the shapes of himself, his cart and of wild Bill disappeared, and there remained to mark his progress only the hissing sputtering flame, that flared spectrally six feet in air as the little lamplighter drove in and out of shabby unfrequented streets and alleys.
It had grown steadily colder with the approach of night, and the wind had risen. The streets seemed deserted, and Mr. Shrimplin being as he was of a somewhat fanciful turn of mind, could almost imagine himself and Bill the only living things astir in all the town.
He reached Water Street, the western boundary of that part of Mount Hope known as the flats. He jogged past Maxy Schaffer's Railroad Hotel at the corner of Front Street, which flung the wicked radiance of its bar-room windows along the shining railroad track where it crossed the creek on the new iron bridge; and keeping on down Water Street with its smoky tenements, entered an outlying district where the lamps were far apart and where red and blue and green switch lights blinked at him out of the storm.
It was nearly six o'clock when he at last wheeled into the Square; here only three gasolene burners—survivors of the old regime—held their own against the fast encroaching gas-lamp.
He lighted the one in Division Street and was ready to turn and traverse the north side of the Square to the second lamp which stood a block away at the corner of High Street. He was drawing Bill's head about—Bill being smitten with a sudden desire to go directly home leaving the night's work unfinished—when the muffled figure of a man appeared in the street in front of him. The inch or more of snow that now covered the pavement had deadened the sound of his steps, while the eddying flakes had made possible his near approach unseen. As he came rapidly into the red glare of Mr. Shrimplin's hissing torch that hero was exceeding well pleased to recognize a friendly face.
"How are you, Mr. North!" he said, and John North halted suddenly.
"Oh, it's you, Shrimp! A nasty night, isn't it?"
"It's the suffering human limit!" rejoined Mr. Shrimplin with feeling.
As he spoke the town bell rang the hour; unconsciously, perhaps, the two men paused until the last reverberating stroke had spent itself in the snowy distance.
"Six o'clock," observed Mr. Shrimplin.
"Good night, Shrimp," replied North irrelevantly.
He turned away and an instant later was engulfed in the wintry night.
Having at last pointed Bill's head in the right direction Mr. Shrimplin drove that trusty beast up to the lamp-post on the corner of High Street, when suddenly and for no apparent reason Bill settled back in the shafts and exhibited unmistakable, though humiliating symptoms of fright.
"Go on, you!" cried Mr. Shrimplin, slapping bravely with both the lines, but his voice was far from steady, for suppose Bill should abandon the rectitude of a lifetime and begin to kick.
"Go on, you!" repeated Mr. Shrimplin and slapped the lines again, but less vigorously, for by this time Bill was unquestionably backing away from the curb.
"Be done! Be done!" expostulated Mr. Shrimplin, but he gave over slapping the lines, for why irritate Bill in his present uncertain mood? "Want I should get out and lead you?" asked Mr. Shrimplin, putting aside with one hand the blankets in which he was wrapped. "You're a game old codger, ain't you? I guess you ain't aware you've growed up!"
While he was still speaking he slipped to the ground and worked his way hand over hand up the lines to Bill's bit. Bill was now comfortably located on his haunches, but evidently still dissatisfied for he continued to back vigorously, drawing the protesting little lamplighter after him. When he had put perhaps twenty feet between himself and the lamp-post Bill achieved his usual upright attitude and his countenance assumed its habitual contemplative expression, the haunted look faded from his sagacious eye and his flaming nostrils resumed their normal benevolent expression. Taking note of these swift changes, it occurred to Mr. Shrimplin that rather than risk a repetition of his recent experience he would so far sacrifice his official dignity as to go on foot to the lamp-post. Bill would probably stand where he was, indefinitely, standing being one of his most valued accomplishments. The lamplighter took up his torch which he had put aside in the struggle with Bill and walked to the curb.
And here Mr. Shrimplin noticed that which had not before caught his attention. McBride's store was apparently open, for the bracketed oil lamps that hung at regular intervals the full length of the long narrow room, were all alight.
Mr. Shrimplin, whose moods were likely to be critical and censorious, realized that there was something personally offensive in the fact that Archibald McBride had chosen to disregard a holiday which his fellow-merchants had so very generally observed.
"And him, I may say, just rotten rich!" he thought.
Mr. Shrimplin further discovered that though the lamps were lit they were burning low, and he concluded that they had been lighted in the early dusk of the winter afternoon and that McBride, for reasons of economy, had deferred turning them up until it should be quite dark.
"Well, I'm a poor man, but I couldn't think of them things like he does!" reflected Mr. Shrimplin; and then even before he had ceased to pride himself on his superior liberality, he made still another discovery, and this, that the store door stood wide open to the night.
"Well," thought Mr. Shrimplin, "maybe he's saving oil, but he's wasting fuel."
Approaching the door he peered in. The store was empty, Archibald McBride was nowhere visible. Evidently the door had been open some little time, for he could see where the snow, driven by the strong wind, had formed a miniature snow-drift just beyond the threshold.
"Either he's stepped out and the door's blowed open," muttered Mr. Shrimplin, "or he's in his back office and some customer went out without latching it."
He paused irresolutely, then he put his hand on the knob of the door to close it, and paused again. With his taste for fictitious horrors, usually indulged in, however, by his own warm fireside, he found the present time and place slightly disquieting; and then Bill's singular and erratic behavior had rather weakened his nerve. From under knitted brows he gazed into the room. The storm rattled the shuttered windows above his head, the dingy sign creaked on its rusty fastenings, and with each fresh gust the bracketed lamps rocked gently to and fro, and as they rocked their trembling shadows slid back and forth along the walls. The very air of the place was inhospitable, forbidding, and Mr. Shrimplin was strongly inclined to close the door and beat a hasty retreat.
Still peering down the narrow room with its sagging shelves and littered counters, he crossed the threshold. Now he could see the office, a space partitioned off at the rear of the building and having a glass front that gave into the store itself. Here, as he knew, stood Mr. McBride's big iron safe, and here was the high desk, his heavy ledgers—row after row of them; these histories of commerce covered almost the entire period during which men had bought and sold in Mount Hope.
A faint light burned beyond the dirty glass partition, but the tall meager form of the old merchant was nowhere visible. Mr. Shrimplin advanced yet farther into the room and urged by his sense of duty and his public spirit, he directed his steps toward the office, treading softly as one who fears to come upon the unexpected. Once he paused, and addressing the empty air, broke the heavy silence:
"Oh, Mr. McBride, your door's open!"
The room echoed to his words.
"Well," carped Mr. Shrimplin, "I don't see as it's any of my business to attend to his business!" But the very sound of his voice must have given him courage, for now he stepped forward, briskly.
On his right was a show-case in which was displayed a varied assortment of knives, cutlery, and revolvers with shiny silver or nickel mountings; then the show-case gave place to a long pine counter, and at the far end of this was a pair of scales. Near the scales on a low iron standard rested an oil lamp, but this lamp was not lighted nor were the lamps in the bracket that hung immediately above the scales, for behind the counter at this point was a door, the upper half glass, that opened on a small yard which, in turn, was inclosed by a series of low sheds where the old merchant stored heavy castings, bar-iron, and the like. Mr. Shrimplin was shrewdly aware that it was one of McBride's small economies not to light the lamps by that door so long as he could see to read the figures on the scales without their artificial aid.
And then Mr. Shrimplin saw a thing that sent the blood leaping from his heart, while an icy hand seemed to hold him where he stood. On the floor at his very feet was a strange huddled shape. He lowered his gasolene torch which he still carried, and the shape resolved itself into the figure of a man; an old man who lay face down on the floor, his arms extended as if they had been arrested while he was in the very act of raising them to his head. The thick shock of snow-white hair, worn rather long, was discolored just back of the left ear, and from this Mr. Shrimplin's horrified gaze was able to trace another discoloration that crossed in a thin red line the dead man's white collar; for the man was dead past all peradventure.
Mr. Shrimplin saw and grasped the meaning of it all in an instant. Then with a feeble cry he turned and fled down the long room, pursued by a million phantom terrors. His heart seemed to die within him as he scurried down that long room; then, mercifully, the keen fresh air filled his lungs. He fairly leaped through the open door, and again the storm roared about him with a kind of boisterous fellowship. It smote him in the face and twisted his shaking legs from under him. Then he fell, speechless, terrified, into the arms of a passer-by.
COLONEL GEORGE HARBISON
Terror-stricken as he was, Mr. Shrimplin recognized the man into whose arms he had fallen. There was no mistaking the nose, thin and aquiline, the bristling mustache and white imperial, the soft gray slouch hat, or the military cloak that half concealed the stalwart form of its wearer.
Colonel George Harbison, much astonished and in utter ignorance of the cause of Mr. Shrimplin's alarm, took that gentleman by the collar and deftly jerked him into an erect posture.
"My dear sir!" the colonel began in a tone of mild expostulation, evidently thinking he had a drunken man to deal with. "My dear sir, do be more careful—" then he recognized the lamplighter. "Well, upon my word, Shrimp, what's gone wrong with you?" he demanded, with military asperity.
"My God, Colonel, if he ain't lying there dead—" a shudder passed through the little man; he was well-nigh dumb in his terror. "And I stumbled right on to him there on the floor!" he cried with a gasp.
He collapsed again, and again the colonel, whose gloved hand still retained its hold on his collar, set him on his trembling legs with admirable expertness.
"I tell you he's dead!" cried Mr. Shrimplin, lost to everything but that one dreadful fact.
"Who's dead?" demanded the colonel. "Stand up, man, don't fall about like that or you may do yourself some injury!" for Mr. Shrimplin seemed about to collapse once more.
"Old man McBride, Colonel—if he ain't dead I wish I may never see death!"
"Dead!" cried the colonel. "Archibald McBride dead!" He released his hold on Mr. Shrimplin and took a step toward the door; Shrimplin, however, detained him with a shaking hand, though he was calmer now.
"Colonel, you'd better be careful, he's lying there in a pool of blood; some one's killed him for his money! How do we know the murderer ain't there!" This conjecture was made to the empty street, for Colonel Harbison had entered the store.
"Why does he want to leave me like that!" wailed Shrimplin, and his panic threatened a return.
He dragged himself to the door. Here he paused, since he could not bring himself to enter, for before his eyes was the ghastly vision of that old man huddled on the blood-stained floor. He heard the colonel's steps echo down the long room, and when their sound ceased he knew he was standing beside the dead man. After what seemed an age of waiting the steps sounded again, and a moment later the colonel's tall form filled the doorway.
"Andy!" said the colonel.
Mr. Shrimplin turned with a start. At his back within reach of his hand stood Andy Gilmore. He had been utterly unaware of the gambler's approach, but now conscious of it he dropped in a miserable heap on the door-sill, while the white and unfamiliar world reeled before his bleached blue eyes; it was the very drunkenness of fear.
"Howdy, Colonel," said the gambler, as he gave Harbison a half-military salute.
He admired the colonel, who had once threatened to horsewhip him if he ever permitted his nephew, Watt, to enter his rooms.
"Come here, Andy!" ordered the colonel briefly.
"God's sake, Colonel!" gasped the wretched little lamplighter, struggling to his feet, "don't leave me here—"
"What's wrong, Colonel?" asked Gilmore.
"Archibald McBride's been murdered!"
Mr. Gilmore took the butt of the half-smoked cigar from between his teeth, tossed it into the gutter, and pushing past Mr. Shrimplin entered the room.
Colonel Harbison, a step or two in advance of his companion, led the way to the rear of the store. The colonel paused, and Gilmore gained a place at his elbow.
"You are sure he's dead?" questioned the gambler.
Kneeling beside the crumpled figure Gilmore slipped his hand in between the body and the floor; his manner was cool and businesslike. After a moment he withdrew his hand and looked, up into the colonel's face.
"Well?" asked the colonel.
"Oh, he's dead, all right!" Gilmore glanced about him, and the colonel's eyes following, they both discovered that the door leading into the side yard was partly open.
"He went that way, eh, Colonel?"
"It's altogether likely," agreed the veteran.
"It's a nasty business!" said Gilmore reflectively.
"Shocking!" snapped the colonel.
"He took big chances," commented the gambler, "living the way he did." He spoke of the dead man.
"Poor old man!" said the colonel pityingly.
What had it all amounted to, those chances for the sake of gain, which Gilmore had in mind.
"He can't have been dead very long," said Gilmore. "Did you find him, Colonel?" he asked as he stood erect.
"No, Shrimplin found him."
Again the two men looked about them. On the floor by the counter at their right was a heavy sledge. Gilmore called Harbison's attention to this.
"I guess the job was done with that," he said.
"Possibly," agreed Harbison.
Gilmore picked up the sledge and examined it narrowly.
"Yes, you can see, there is blood on it." He handed it to Harbison, who stepped under the nearest lamp with the clumsy weapon in his hand.
"You are right, Andy!" and he glanced at the rude instrument of death with a look of repugnance on his keen sensitive face, then he carefully, placed it under the wooden counter. "Horrible!" he muttered to himself.
"It was no joke for him!" said the gambler, catching the last word. "But some one was bound to try this dodge sooner or later. Why, as far back as I can remember, people said he kept his money hidden away at the bottom of nail kegs and under heaps of scrap-iron." He took a cigar from his pocket, bit off the end, and struck a match. "Well, I wouldn't want to be the other fellow, Colonel; I'd be in all kinds of a panic; it takes nerve for a job like this."
"It's a shocking circumstance," said the colonel.
"I wonder if it paid!" speculated the gambler. "And I wonder who'll get what he leaves. Has he any family or relatives?"
"No, not so far as any one knows. He came here many years ago, a close-mouthed Scotchman, who never had any intimates, never married, and never spoke of his private affairs."
There was a slight commotion at the door. They could hear Shrimplin's agitated voice, and a moment later two men, chance passers-by with whom he had been speaking, shook themselves free of the little lamplighter and entered the room. The new-comers nodded to the colonel and Gilmore as they paused to stare mutely at the body on the floor.
"He bled like a stuck pig!" said one of the men at last. He was a ragged slouching creature with a splotched and bloated face half hidden by a bristling red beard. He glanced at Gilmore for an uncertain instant out of a pair of small shifty eyes. "It's murder, ain't it, boss?" he added.
"No doubt about that, Joe!" rejoined the gambler.
"I suppose it was robbery?" said the other man, who had not spoken before.
"Very likely," answered the colonel. "We have not examined the place, however; we shall wait for the proper officials."
"Who do you want, Colonel?"
"Coroner Taylor, and I suppose the sheriff," replied Harbison.
The man nodded.
"All right, I'll bring them; and say, what about the prosecuting attorney?" as he turned to leave.
"Yes, bring Moxlow, too, if you can find him."
The man hurried from the room. Gilmore leaned against the counter and smoked imperturbably. Joe Montgomery, with his great slouching shoulders arched, and his grimy hands buried deep in his trousers pockets, stared at the dead man in stolid wonder. Colonel Harbison's glance sought the same object but with a sensitive shrinking as from an ugly brutal thing. A clock ticked loudly in the office; there was the occasional fall of cinders from the grate of the rusted stove that heated the place; these were sounds that neither Gilmore nor the colonel had heard before. Presently a lean black cat stole from the office and sprang upon the counter; it purred softly.