THE MIRACLE MAN
BY FRANK L. PACKARD
AUTHOR OF GREATER LOVE HATH NO MAN, ETC.
NEW YORK GROSSET & DUNLAP PUBLISHERS
TO NEARLY EVERYBODY
I THE "ROOST"
II A NEW CULT
IV THE PATRIARCH
V A STRANGE CONVERSATION
VI OFFICIALLY ENDORSED
VII THE PATRIARCH'S GRAND NIECE
VIII IN WHICH THE BAIT IS NIBBLED
IX THE PILGRIMAGE
X THE MIRACLE
XI THE AFTERMATH
XII "SAID THE SPIDER TO THE FLY"
XIII REAL MONEY
XIV KNOTTING THE STRINGS
XV THE MIRACLE OVERDONE
XVI A FLY IN THE OINTMENT
XVII IN WHICH HELENA TAKES A RIDE
XVIII THE BOOMERANG
XIX THE SANCTUARY OF DARKNESS
XX TO THE VICTOR ARE THE SPOILS
XXI FACE VALUE
XXII THE SHRINE
XXIII THE WAY OUT
THE MIRACLE MAN
He was a misshapen thing, bulking a black blotch in the night at the entrance of the dark alleyway—like some lurking creature in its lair. He neither stood, nor kneeled, nor sat—no single word would describe his posture—he combined all three in a sort of repulsive, formless heap.
The Flopper moved. He came out from the alleyway onto the pavement, into the lurid lights of the Bowery, flopping along knee to toe on one leg, dragging the other leg behind him—and the leg he dragged was limp and wobbled from the knee. One hand sought the pavement to balance himself and aid in locomotion; the other arm, the right, was twisted out from his body in the shape of an inverted V, the palm of his hand, with half curled, contorted fingers, almost touching his chin, as his head sagged at a stiff, set angle into his right shoulder. Hair straggled from the brim of a nondescript felt hat into his eyes, and curled, dirty and unshorn, around his ears and the nape of his neck. His face was covered with a stubble of four days' growth, his body with rags—a coat; a shirt, the button long since gone at the neck; and trousers gaping in wide rents at the knees, and torn at the ankles where they flapped around miss-mated socks and shoes.
A hundred, two hundred people passed him in a block, the populace of the Bowery awakening into fullest life at midnight, men, women and children—the dregs of the city's scum—the aristocracy of upper Fifth Avenue, of Riverside Drive, aping Bohemianism, seeking the lure of the Turkey Trot, transported from the Barbary Coast of San Francisco. Rich and poor, squalor and affluence, vice and near-vice surged by him, voicing their different interests with laughter and sobs and soft words and blasphemy, and, in a sort of mocking chorus, the composite effect rose and fell in pitiful, jangling discords.
Few gave him heed—and these few but a cursory, callous glance. The Flopper, on the inside of the sidewalk, in the shadow of the buildings, gave as little as he got, though his eyes were fastened sharply, now ahead, now, screwing around his body to look behind him, on the faces of the pedestrians as they passed; or, rather, he appeared to look through and beyond those in his immediate vicinity to the ones that followed in his rear from further down the street, or approached him from the next corner.
Suddenly the Flopper shrank into a doorway. From amidst the crowd behind, the yellow flare of a gasoline lamp, outhanging from a secondhand shop, glinted on brass buttons. An officer, leisurely accommodating his pace to his own monarchial pleasure, causing his hurrying fellow occupants of the pavement to break and circle around him, sauntered casually by. The Flopper's black eyes contracted with hate and a scowl settled on his face, as he watched the policeman pass; then, as the other was lost again in the crowd ahead, he once more resumed his progress down the block.
The Flopper crossed the intersecting street, his leg trailing a helpless, sinuous path on its not over-clean surface, and started along the next block. Halfway down was a garishly lighted establishment. When near this the Flopper began to hurry desperately, as from further along the street again his ear caught the peculiar raucous note of an automobile horn accompanied by the rumbling approach of a heavy motor vehicle. He edged his way now, wriggling, squirming and dodging between the pedestrians, to the outer edge of the sidewalk, and stopped in front of the music hall.
A sight-seeing car, crammed to capacity, reaching its momentary Mecca, drew up at the curb; and the guide's voice rose over the screech of the brakes:
"Now, ladies and gentlemen, we will get out here for a little while. This is Black Ike's famous Auditorium, the scene of last week's sensational triple murder! Please remember that there is no charge for admission to patrons of the company. Just show your coupons, ladies and gentlemen, and walk right ahead."
The passengers began to pour from the long seats to the ground. The Flopper's hat was in his hand.
"Fer God's sake, gents an' ladies, don't pass me by," he cried piteously. "I could work once, but look at me now—I was run over by a fire truck. God bring pity to yer hearts—youse have money fer pleasure, spare something fer me."
The first man down from the seat halted and stared at the twisted, unsightly thing before him, and, with a little gasp, reached into his pocket and dropped a bill into the Flopper's hat.
"God bless you!" stammered the Flopper—and the tears sprang swimming to his eyes.
The first man passed on with a gruff, "Oh, all right," but he had left an example behind him that few of his fellow passengers ignored.
"T'ank you, mum," mumbled the Flopper, as the money dropped into his hat. "God reward you, sir.... Ah, miss, may you never know a tear.... 'Twas heaven brought you 'ere to-night, lady."
They passed, following the guide. The Flopper scooped the money into a pile in his hat, began to tuck it away in some recess of his shirt—when a hand was thrust suddenly under his nose.
"Come on, now, divvy!" snapped a voice in his ear.
It was the driver of the car, who had dropped from his seat to the ground. A gleam of hate replaced the tears in the Flopper's eyes.
"Go to hell!" he snarled through thin lips—and his hand closed automatically over the cap.
"Come on, now, I ain't got no time to fool!" prompted the man, with a leer. "I'm dead onto your lay, and there's a bull comin' along now—half or him, which?"
The Flopper's eyes caught the brass buttons of the officer returning on his beat, and his face was white with an inhuman passion, as, clutching a portion of what was left in the hat, he lifted his hand from the rest.
"Thanks!" grinned the chauffeur, snatching at the remainder. "'Tain't half, but it'll do"—and he hurried across the sidewalk, and disappeared inside a saloon.
Oaths, voicing a passion that rocked the Flopper to his soul, purled in a torrid stream from his lips, and for a moment made him forget the proximity of the brass buttons. He raised his fist, that still clenched some of the money, and shook it after the other—and his fist, uplifted in midair, was caught in a vicious grip—the harness bull was standing over him.
"Beat it!" rasped the officer roughly, "or I'll—hullo, what you got here? Open your hand!"—he gave a sharp twist as he spoke, the Flopper's fingers uncurled, and the money dropped into the policeman's other hand—held conveniently below the Flopper's.
"It's mine—gimme it back," whined the Flopper.
"Yours! Yours, is it!" growled the officer. "Where'd you get it? Stole it, eh? Go on, now, beat it—or I'll run you in! Beat it!"
With twitching fingers, the Flopper picked up his cap, placed it on his head and sidled away. Ten yards along, in the shadow of the buildings again, he looked back—the officer was still standing there, twirling his stick, one hand just emerging from his pocket. The Flopper's finger nails scratched along the stone pavement and curved into the palm of his hand until the skin under the knuckles was bloodless white, and his lips moved in ugly, whispered words—then, still whispering, he went on again.
Down the Bowery he went like a human toad, keeping in the shadows, keeping his eyes on the ground before him, a glint like a shudder in their depths—on he went with hopping, lurching jerks, with whispering lips. Street after street he passed, and then at a corner he turned and went East—not far, only to the side entrance of the saloon on the corner known, to those who knew, as the "Roost."
The door before which he stopped, on a level with the street, might readily have passed for the entrance to one of the adjoining tenements, for it was innocent to all appearances of any connection with the unlovely resort of which it was a part—and it was closed.
The Flopper rang no bell. After a quick glance around him to assure himself that he was not observed, he reached up for the doorknob, turned it, and with surprising agility hopped oven the threshold and closed the door behind him.
A staircase, making one side of a narrow and dimly lighted hall, from down whose length came muffled sounds from the barroom, was before him; and this, without hesitation, the Flopper began to mount, his knee thumping from step to step, his dangling leg echoing the sound in a peculiar; quick double thump. He reached the first landing, went along it, and started up the second flight—but now the thumping sound he made seemed accentuated intentionally, and upon his face there spread a grin of malicious humor.
He halted before the door opposite the head of the second flight of stairs, opened it, wriggled inside and shut it behind him.
"Hullo, Helena!" he snickered. "Pipe me comin'?"
The room was a fairly large one, gaudily appointed with cheap furnishings, one of the Roost's private parlors—a girl on a couch in the corner had raised herself on her elbow, and her dark eyes were fixed uncompromisingly upon the Flopper, but she made no answer.
The Flopper laughed—then a spasm seemed to run through him, a horrible boneless contortion of limbs and body, a slippery, twitching movement, a repulsive though almost inaudible clicking of rehabilitated joints—and the Flopper stood erect.
The girl was on her feet, her eyes flashing.
"Can that stunt!" she cried angrily. "You give me the shivers! Next time you throw your fit, you throw it before you come around me, or I'll make you wish you had—see?"
The Flopper was swinging legs and arms to restore a normal channel of circulation.
"Y'oughter get used to it," said he, with a grin. "Ain't Pale Face Harry come yet, an' where's the Doc?"
"Behind the axe under the table," said the girl tartly—and flung herself back on the couch.
"T'anks," said the Flopper. "Say, Helena, wot's de new lay de Doc has got up his sleeve?"
Helena made no answer.
"Is yer grouch painin' you so's yer tongue's hurt?" inquired the Flopper solicitously.
Still no answer.
"Well, go to the devil!" said the Flopper politely.
He resumed the swinging of his arms and legs, but stopped suddenly a moment later as a step, sounded outside in the hall and he turned expectantly.
A young man, thin, emaciated, with gaunt, hollow face, abnormally bright eyes and sallow skin, entered. He was well, but modestly, dressed; and he coughed a little now, as though the two flights' climb had overtaxed him—it was the man who had headed the subscription list to the Flopper half an hour before in front of Black Ike's Auditorium.
"Hello, Helena!" he greeted, nodding toward the couch. "I shook the rubber-neck bunch at Ike's, Flopper. That was a peach of a haul, eh, old pal—the boobs came to it as though they couldn't get enough."
A sudden and reminiscent scowl clouded the Flopper's face. He stepped to the table, reached his hand into his shirt, and flung down a single one-dollar bill and a few coins.
"Dere's de haul, Harry—help yerself"—his invitation was a snarl.
Pale Face Harry had followed to the table. He looked first at the money, then at the Flopper—and a tinge of red dyed his cheek. He coughed before he spoke.
"Y'ain't going to stall on me, Flopper, are you?" he demanded, in an ominous monotone.
"Stall!"—the word came away in a roar too genuine to leave any doubt of the Flopper's sincerity, or the turbulent state of the Flopper's soul. "Stall nothin'! De driver held me up fer some of it, an' de cop pinched de rest."
"And you the king of Floppers!" breathed Pale Face Harry sadly. "D'ye hear that, Helena? Come over here and listen. Go ahead, Flopper, tell us about it."
Helena rose from the couch and came over to the table.
"Poor Flopper!" said she sweetly.
"Shut up!" snapped the Flopper savagely.
"Go on," prompted Pale Face Harry. "Go on, Flopper—tell us about it."
"I told you, ain't I?" growled the Flopper. "De driver called a divvy wid de cop comin', an I had ter shell—an' wot he left de cop pinched. Dat's all"—the Flopper's mouth was working again with the rage that burned within him.
Pale Face Harry, with pointed forefinger, gingerly and facetiously laid the coins out in a row on the table.
"And you the king of Floppers!" he murmured softly. "It's a wonder you didn't let the Salvation Army get the rest away from you on the way along!"
Helena laughed—but the Flopper didn't. He stepped close to Pale Face Harry, and shoved his face within an inch of the other's.
"You close yer jaw," he snarled, "or I'll make yer map look like wot's goin' ter happen ter dat cross-eyed snitch of a guy dat did me—him an' de harness bull, when I—" The Flopper stopped abruptly, and edged away from Pale Face Harry. "Hullo, Doc," he said meekly. "I didn't hear youse comin' in."
A man, fair-haired, broad-shouldered, immaculate in well-tailored tweeds, reliant in poise, leaned nonchalantly against the door—inside the room. He was young, not more than twenty-eight, with clean-shaven, pleasant, open face—a handsome face, marred only to the close observer by the wrinkles beginning to pucker around his eyes, and a slight, scarcely discernible puffiness in his skin—"Doc" Madison, gentleman crook and high-class, polished con-man, who had lifted his profession to an art, was still too young to be indelibly stamped with the hall-marks of dissipation.
His gray eyes travelled from one to another, lingered an instant on Helena, and came back to the Flopper.
"What's the trouble?" he demanded quietly.
It was Pale Face Harry who answered him.
"The Flopper's got it in for a couple of ginks that handed him one—a bull and a chauffeur on a gape-wagon," he grinned, punctuating his words with a cough. "The Flopper's got an idea the corpse-preserver's business is dull, and he's going to help 'em out with two orders and pay for the flowers himself."
Doc Madison shook his head and smiled a little grimly.
"Forget it, Flopper!" he said crisply. "I've something better for you to do. You fade away, disappear and lay low from this minute. I don't care what you do when you're resurrected, but from now on the three of you are dead and buried, and the police go into mourning for at least six months."
"What you got for us, Doc?—something nice?"—Helena pushed Pale Face Harry and the Flopper unceremoniously out of her line of vision as she spoke.
"Yes—the drinks. Cleggy's bringing them," Madison laughed—and opened the door, as the tinkle of glass and a shuffling footstep sounded without.
A man, big, hulking, thick-set and slouching, with shifty, cunning little black eyes and the face of a bruiser, his nose bent over and almost flattened down on one cheek, entered the room, carrying four glasses on a tin tray. He set down the tray, and, as he lifted the glasses from it and placed them on the table, he leered around at the little group.
"Gee!" he said, sucking in his breath. "De Doc, an' Helena, an' Pale Face, an' de Flopper! Gee, dis looks like de real t'ing—dis looks like biz."
"It does—fifty-cents' worth—ten for yourself," said Doc Madison suavely, flipping the coin into the tray. "Now, clear out!"
"Say"—Cleggy put his forefinger significantly to the side of his nose—"say, can't youse let a sport in on—"
"Clear out!" Doc Madison broke in quite as suavely as before—but there was a sudden glint of steel in the gray eyes as they held the bruiser's, and Cleggy, hastily picking up the tray, scuffled from the room.
Madison watched the door close, then he began to pace slowly up and down the room.
"Pull the chairs up to the table so we can take things comfortably," he directed.
"There ain't but two," grinned Pale Face Harry.
"Oh, well, never mind," said Madison.
"Slew the couch around and pull that up—Helena and I will sit on the head of it."
Still pacing up and down the length of the room, his hands in his pockets, Doc Madison watched the others as they carried out his directions; and then, suddenly, as he neared the door, his hand shot out, wrenched the door open, and, quick as a panther in its spring, he was in the hall without.
There was a yell, a scuffle, the rip and crash of rending bannisters, an instant's silence, then a heavy thud—and then Cleggy's voice from somewhere below in a choice and fervent flow of profanity.
Doc Madison re-entered the room, closed the door, dispassionately arranged a disordered cuff, brushed a few particles of dust from his sleeves and shoulder, and, this done, started toward the table—and stopped.
Helena had swung herself to the table edge, and, glass in hand, dangling her neatly shod little feet, was smoking a cigarette, her brown hair with a glint of amber in it, her dark eyes veiled now by their heavy lashes; on the other side of the table Pale Face Harry coughed, as, with sleeve rolled back, he was intent on the hypodermic needle he was pushing into his arm; while the Flopper, his eyes with a dog-like admiration in them fixed on Madison, stood facing the door, a grotesque, unpleasant figure, unkempt, unshaven, furtive-faced, his rags hanging disreputably about him, his trousers with their frayed edges, now that he stood upright, reaching far above his boot tops and flagrantly exposing his wretched substitutes for socks.
Doc Madison reached thoughtfully into his pocket, brought out a silver cigarette case, and carefully selected a cigarette from amongst its fellows.
"Yes; Cleggy was right," he said softly, tapping the end of the cigarette on his thumb nail. "You're the real thing—the real, real thing."
A NEW CULT
Doc Madison swung Helena lightly down from the table to the head of the couch, sat down beside her, one arm circling her waist, and motioned the Flopper to a chair—then he leaned forward and watched Pale Face Harry critically, as the latter carefully replaced the shining little hypodermic in its case.
"Harry," said he abruptly, jerking his free hand toward the hypodermic, "could you give up that dope-needle?"
"Sure, I could—if I wanted to!" asserted Pale Face Harry defiantly.
"That's good," said Madison cheerfully. "Because you'll have to."
"Eh?"—Pale Face Harry stared at Doc Madison in amazement.
"Because you'll have to—by and by," said Madison coolly. "And how about that cough—can you quit coughing?"
"When I'm dead—which won't be long," sniffed Pale Face Harry. "D'ye think I cough because I like it? How'm I going to quit coughing?"
"I don't know," admitted Doc Madison, frowning seriously. "I only know you'll have to."
Pale Face Harry, with jaw dropped, accentuating the gaunt leanness of his hollow-cheeked, emaciated face, gazed at Doc Madison with a curious mingling of incredulity and affront—and coughed.
"Say," he inquired grimly, "what's the answer?"
Doc Madison took his arm from Helena's waist, pulled a newspaper from his pocket, spread it out on the table—and his manner changed suddenly—enthusiasm was in his eyes, his voice, his face.
"I've steered you three through a few deals," said he impressively, "that have sized up big enough to keep you out of the raw vaudeville turn you, Harry, and you, Flopper, are so fond of, and that would have put Helena here on easy street, if you hadn't blown in all you got about ten minutes after you got your hands on it—but I've got one here that sizes up so big you wouldn't be able to spend the money fast enough to close out your bank account if you did your damnedest! Get that? It's the greatest cinch that ever came down from the gateway of heaven—and that's where it came from—heaven. It couldn't have come from anywhere else—it's too good. And it's new, bran new—it's never had the string cut or the wrapper taken off. It's got anything that was ever run beaten by more laps than there are in the track, and it's got a purse tied on to the end of it that's the biggest ever offered since Adam. But you've got to work for it, and that's what I brought you here for to-night—to learn your little pieces so's you can say 'em nice and cute when you get up on the platform before the audience."
The Flopper's tongue made a greedy circuit of his upper and under lips, and he hitched his chair closer to the table.
A flush spread over Pale Face Harry's cheeks, and his eyes, abnormally bright, grew brighter.
"You're all right, Doc," he assured Doc Madison anxiously. "You're all right."
"U-uu-mm!" cooed Helena excitedly. "Go on, Doc—go on!"
"Listen," said Doc Madison, his voice lowered a little. "I found this tucked away as a filler in a corner of the newspaper this evening. It's headed, 'A New Cult,' with an interrogation mark after it. Now listen, while I read it:"
A NEW CULT?
Needley, Maine, offers no attraction for aspiring young medical men. One who tried it recently, and who pulled down his shingle in disgust after a week, says competition is too strong, as the village is obsessed with the belief that they have a sort of faith-healer in their midst to whom is attributed cures of all descriptions stretching back for a generation or more. The healer, he adds, who rejoices in the name of the Patriarch and lives in solitude a mile or so from the village, is something of an anomaly in himself, being both deaf and dumb. We—
"But that's all that interests us," said Doc Madison, as he stopped reading abruptly and lifted his head to scrutinize his companions quizzically.
Pale Face Harry's eyes had lost their gleam and dulled—he gaped reproachfully at Doc Madison. Helena's small mouth drooped downward in a disappointed moue. Only the Flopper evidenced enthusiastic response.
"Sure!" he chortled. "Sure t'ing! I see. De old geezer'll have a pile of shekels hid away, an' he lives by his lonesome a mile from de town. We sneaks down dere, croaks de guy wid de queer monaker, an' beats it wid de shekels—sure!"
Doc Madison turned a sad gray eye on the Flopper.
"Flopper," said he pathetically, "your soul, like your bones, runs to rank realism. No; we don't 'croak de guy'—we cherish him, we nurse him, we fondle him. He's our one best bet, and we fold him to our breasts tenderly, and we protect him from all harm and danger and sudden death."
The Flopper blinked a little helplessly.
"Mabbe," said the Flopper, "I got de wrong dope. Some of dem words you read I ain't hip to. Wot's anymaly mean?"
"Anomaly?"—Doc Madison reached for his glass, tossed off the contents and set it down. "It means, Flopper, in this particular instance," he said gravely, "that there shouldn't be any interrogation point after the heading."
Again the Flopper blinked helplessly—and his fingers picked uncertainly at the stubble on his chin. The other two gazed disconsolately—and Helena a little pityingly as well—at Doc Madison.
Doc Madison flung out his arms suddenly.
"What's the matter with you all?" he demanded sarcastically. "You look as though your faces pained you! What's the matter with you? You're bright enough ordinarily, Helena, and, Harry, you're no dub—what's the matter with you? Can't you see it—can't you see it! Why, it's sticking out a mile—it's waiting for us! The whole plant's there and all we've got to do is get steam under the boilers. We'll have 'em coming for the cure from every State in the Union, and begging us to let them throw their diamond tiaras at us for a look-in at the shrine. Don't you see it—can't you get it—can't you get it!"
Helena bent suddenly over Doc Madison's shoulder, her eyes opening wide with dawning comprehension.
"The cure?" she breathed.
"Sure—the cure," said Doc Madison earnestly. "The new cult—that's us. Get the people talking, show 'em something, and you'll have to put up fences and 'keep off the grass' signs to stop the lame and the halt and the blind and the neurasthenics from crowding and suffocating to death for want of air. We'll start a shrine down there that'll be a winner, and the railroads will be running excursion-rate pilgrimages inside of two months."
Pale Face Harry's chair creaked, as, like the Flopper, he now crowded it in toward the table.
"I get you!" said he feverishly. "I get you! I've read about them shrines—only you gotter have churches, and a carload of crutches, and that sort of thing laying around."
Doc Madison smiled pleasantly.
"Yes; you've got me, Harry—only we'll do the stage setting a little differently. Mostly what is required is—faith. Get them going on that, and everybody that's sick or near-sick in this great United States, that's got the swellest collection of boobs and millionaires on earth, will swarm thitherward like bees—there won't be any one left in the sanatoriums throughout the length of this broad land of freedom but the bell boys and the elevator men. Get them going, and all we've got to do is look out we don't let anything get by us in the crush—a snowball rolling down hill will size up like a plugged nickel alongside of a twenty-dollar gold piece when it gets to the bottom, compared with what we start rolling."
"I've got you, too," said Helena. "But I don't see where the faith is coming from, or how you're going to get them coming. You've got to show them—you said so yourself—even the boobs. How are you going to do that?"
"Well," said Doc Madison placidly, "we'll start the show with—a miracle. I haven't thought of anything more effective than that so far."
"A what?" inquired Pale Face Harry, with a grin.
"A miracle," repeated Doc Madison imperturbably. "A miracle—with the Flopper here in the star role. The Flopper goes down there all tied up in knots, the high priest, alias the deaf and dumb healer, alias the Patriarch, lays his soothing hands upon him, the Flopper uncoils into something that looks like a human being—and the trumpets blow, the band plays, and the box office opens for receipts."
Helena slid from her seat, and, with hands on the edge of the table, advanced her piquant little face close to Doc Madison's, staring at him, breathing hard.
"Say that again," she gasped. "Say that again—say it just once more."
Pale Face Harry's hand, trembling visibly with emotion, was thrust out across the table.
"Put it there, Doc," he whispered hoarsely.
The Flopper, practical, earnestly so, lifted his right arm, wriggled it a little and began to twist it around, as though it were on a pivot at the elbow, preparatory to drawing it in, a crippled thing, toward his chin.
Doc Madison reached out hurriedly and stopped him.
"Here, that'll do, Flopper," he said quietly. "You don't need any rehearsal to hold your job—you're down for the number and your check's written out."
"Swipe me!" said the Flopper to the universe. "I can smell de pine woods of Maine in me nostrils now. When does I beat it, Doc—to-morrer?"
Doc Madison laughed.
"No, Flopper, not to-morrow—nor for several to-morrows—not till the bill-posters get through, and the stage is dark, and you can hear a pin drop in the house. I don't want you camping out and catching cold and missing any of the luxuries you're accustomed to, so I'll start along ahead in a day or so myself and see what kind of accommodations I can secure."
"Swipe me!" said the Flopper again. "An' to think of me wastin' me talent on rubber-neck fleets!"
A puzzled little frown puckered Helena's forehead.
"I was thinking about the deaf and dumb man," she said slowly. "How about him, when we pull this off—will he stand for it—and what'll he do?"
"Aw!" said Pale Face Harry impatiently. "He don't count! He'll have bats in his belfry anyway, and if he ain't he'll go off his chump for fair getting stuck on himself when he sees the stunt he'll think he's done. He'll be looking for the wings between his shoulder blades, and hunting for the halo around his head."
"Harry is waking up," observed Doc Madison affably. "That's about the idea, Helena. I haven't seen the Patriarch yet, but I don't imagine from his description that it'll be very hard to make him believe in himself. He doesn't stand for anything—we don't deal him any cards—he's just the kitty that circles around with the jackpots while we annex the chips."
Doc Madison reached into his vest pocket, took out a penknife whose handle was gold-chased, opened it, and very carefully cut the article he had read from the paper.
"Flopper," said he, "you've heard of gold bonds, haven't you?"
The Flopper's eyes gleamed an eloquent response.
"Only you've never had any, eh?" supplied Doc Madison.
"Where'd I get 'em?" inquired the Flopper, with some bitterness.
"Right here," smiled Doc Madison, handing him the clipping. "Here's a trainload and a bank vault full of them combined. Put it away, Flopper, and don't lose it. Lose anything you've got first—lose your life. It's worth a private car to you with a buffet full of fizz, and Sambo to wait on you for the rest of your life. Get that? Don't lose it!"
The Flopper tucked the clipping into the mysterious recess of his shirt.
"Say," he said earnestly, "if you say so, Doc, it'll be here when dey plant me."
"All right, Flopper," nodded Doc Madison. "And now let's get down to cases. I've been able to pay my club dues lately, and there's money enough on deck to buy the costumes and put the show on the road. I start for Needley as soon as I can get away. When I'm ready for the support, you three will hear from me—and in the meantime you lay low. Nothing doing—understand? You'll get all the lime-light you want before you're through, and it's just as well not to show up so familiar when they throw the spot on you that even the school kids will know the date of your birth, and the population will start in squabbling over the choice of reserved niches for you in the Hall of Fame. See?"
The Flopper, Pale Face Harry and Helena nodded their heads with one accord.
"Give us the whole lay, Doc," urged Pale Face Harry. "And give it to us quick."
"Me mouth's waterin'," observed the Flopper, licking his lips again.
Helena lighted another cigarette, and swung herself back to her perch on the head of the couch.
Doc Madison surveyed the three with mingled admiration and delight.
"The world is ours!" he murmured softly.
"Oh, hurry up and give us the rest of it," purred Helena. "We know we're an all-star cast, all right."
"Very good," said Doc Madison—and laughed. "Well then, the order of your stage cues will depend on circumstances and what turns up down there, but we'll start with the Flopper now. First of all, Flopper, you've got to have a name. What's your real name—what did they decorate you with at the baptismal font back in the dark ages?"
The Flopper scrubbed at his very dirty chin with a very dirty thumb and forefinger.
"I dunno," said the Flopper anxiously.
"Well, never mind," said Doc Madison reassuringly. "Maybe you are blessed above most people—you can pick one out for yourself. What'll it be?"
The Flopper's thumb and forefinger scratched desperately for a moment, then his face lighted with inspiration.
"Swipe me!" said he excitedly. "I got it—Jimmy de Squirm."
Doc Madison shook his head gravely.
"No, Flopper, I'm afraid not," he said gently. "That's another weak point in your interpretation of the role, that I'll come to in a minute. We'll give you an Irish name by way of charity—it'll help to make your classical English sound like brogue. We'll call you Coogan—Michael Coogan—that lets you off with plain Mike in times of stress."
"Swipe me!" said the Flopper, with perfect complacence.
"Glad it pleases you," smiled Doc Madison, "Here's your lay, then. You've got to remember that you were born crooked and—"
"I didn't mean it"—Doc Madison's gray eyes twinkled. "You are waking up, too, Helena. I mean, Flopper, you've got to remember that you were born twisted up into the same shape you are in when you hit Needley. You come from—let's see—we'll have to have a big city where the next door neighbors pass each other with a vacant stare. Ever been in Chicago?"
"Naw! Wot fer?" said the Flopper, with withering spontaneity. "Noo Yoik fer mine."
"Well, all right—New York it is, then," agreed Doc Madison. "You're poor, but respectable—and that brings us to the other point. Before you go down there, Helena's going to start a little night-school with a grammar, and teach you to paddle along the fringe of the great American language so's you won't fall in and get wet all over every time you open your mouth."
"My!" exclaimed Helena. "Won't that be nice!"
"I hope so," said Doc Madison drily. "And don't run away with the idea that I'm joking about this—that goes. I don't expect to make a silver-tongued orator out of you, Flopper, and perhaps not even a purist—but I hope to eradicate a few minor touches of Bad Land vernacular from your vocabulary."
"I've gotcher—swipe me!" grinned the Flopper. "Me at school! Say, wouldn't that put a smile on de maps of de harness bulls, an' de dips, an' de lags doin' spaces up de river!"
"Quite so," admitted Doc Madison pleasantly.
"You won't laugh when I get through with you," remarked Helena, her eyes on the curl of smoke from her cigarette.
"There's just one more thing," went on Doc Madison, "and I'm through with you, Flopper. Don't come down there looking like a skate—that's too raw. Get new clothes and a shave—and keep shaved. And from the minute you buy your ticket, you keep your bones, or whatever a beneficent nature has given you in place of them, out of joint—see?"
"I'm hip," declared the Flopper—and the dog-like admiration for Doc Madison burned in his eyes. "Say, Doc, youse are de—"
"Never mind, Flopper," Madison cut in brightly. "It's getting late. Now, Harry, about you. You've got a name, I believe. Evans, isn't it? Yes—well, that will do. Now, don't kill yourself at it, but the more you work your dope needle overtime before you start, and the harder you cough when you first land there the better. We've got to have variety, you know. You're a physical wreck with the folks back home sending the casket and trimmings after you on the next train in care of the station agent."
"I guess," coughed Pale Face Harry, with a sickly smile, "I look the part."
"You certainly do," said Helena cheerfully, beating a tattoo with her heels on the end of the couch.
Pale Face Harry scowled.
"I ain't no artist with the paint," he sniffed.
"I don't paint," said Helena sweetly. "It's rouge."
"Are you through?" inquired Doc Madison patiently. "Because, if you are, I'll go on. When the train whistles for Needley, Harry, you put the soft pedal on the dope—that ought to help some. And then you begin to taper that cough off and become a cure—that's all."
"I ain't like the Flopper," said Pale Face Harry ruefully. "I told you once I can't stop the hack, and I ask you again how'm I going to?"
"Have faith in the Patriarch," suggested Helena innocently.
"You close your trap!" exclaimed Pale Face Harry savagely; then, to Madison: "Go on, Doc—it's up to you."
"No," said Doc Madison coolly, "it's up to you. You've got to try, and if you can't stop altogether you can make yourself scarce when you feel the fit coming on—you won't have to climb up on the grandstand and cough in people's faces, will you?"
"He might carry a screen around with him and cough behind that," volunteered Helena. "That's enough about the Flopper and Pale Face—what about muh? Where do I get off?"
"You?" said Doc Madison calmly. "Oh, you're a moral neurasthenic."
"And what's that when it's at home?" demanded Helena sharply.
Doc Madison threw out his hands in a comically helpless, impotent gesture.
"It's what we need to keep up the standard of variety," he said. "We're playing to the masses. Don't you like the role, Helena—it's the leading woman's."
"What do I do?" countered Helena non-committingly.
"Do?" echoed Doc Madison. "Why, you go down there like a whole parade and a gorgeous pageant rolled into one, in feathers and paint and diamond boulders in your ears—and you come out of it in a gingham apron and coy sunbonnet as sweet sixteen."
"Oh!" said Helena—and her eyes were on the curl of smoke from her cigarette again.
"Say," said Pale Face Harry suddenly, evidently still worried about his cough, "we ain't going to have no easy cinch of this."
"No," said Doc Madison, with a grim smile; "you're not! It's going to be the hardest work any of you have ever done—you've got to lead decent lives for awhile."
"Sure—dat's right," said the loyal Flopper; "but we stands fer anyt'ing dat de Doc says—an' dat goes!"
"It'll come hard on some of us," remarked Pale Face Harry, with a sly glance at Helena, which met with contemptuous silence.
Doc Madison leaned back, felt carefully at his carefully adjusted tie—and smiled engagingly.
"Well?" he asked. "Can you see them coming?"
Pale Face Harry stared at him with a far-away expression in his eyes.
"When we get through with this, if I ain't handed in my checks before," he said dreamily, "it's mine for a brownstone on the Avenue, and one of them life-size landscapes with a shack on it for the season down to Pa'm Beach that they call country cottages. I'll dress the ginks that scrub the horses down in solid gold braid, and put the corpse of chamber ladies in Irish lace—I bust into society, marry a duke's one and only, and swipe her coronet for my manly brow. Did you ask me anything, Doc?"
"Swipe me!" said the Flopper. "Me in me private Pullman in a plush seat an' anudder to put me feet in, an' me thumbs in de armholes of me vest. I wears a high polished lid an' a red tie, an' scatters simoleans outer de window in me travels to the gazaboes on de platforms as I pass—an' den I joins Tammany Hall so's I can stick me fingers to me nose every time I sees a cop."
"Flopper," said Doc Madison in an awed voice, "the honor is all mine."
Helena went off into a peal of rippling, silvery, contagious laughter, and her little heels again beat an exuberant tattoo on the end of the couch.
"Yes?" invited Doc Madison, smiling at her.
"I'm seeing them coming," said Helena—and one heel went through the cretonne upholstery of the couch.
"Good!" said Doc Madison—and from the inside pocket of his coat he pulled out a package of crisp, new, yellow-backed bills. "You understand that down there none of you ever heard of each other or of me before, and you drop the 'doc'—bury it! My name is John G. Madison—G. for Garfield." His fingers passed deftly over the edges of the bills. He pushed a little pile toward the Hopper, another toward Pale Face Harry, and tucked the remainder into his coat pocket again. "That'll do for expenses," he said. "And now, if you understand everything, principally that you're to go to church Sundays till you hear from me, and you're quite satisfied with the lay, we'll adjourn, sine die, to Needley."
Helena was holding out a very dainty hand, with pink, wiggling fingers.
"I'll need, oh, ever so much more than they will," she declared, with a bewitching pout. "And, please, I'm waiting very patiently."
Doc Madison laughed.
"By and by, Helena," he said, patting her hand. "Well, Flopper, well, Harry—what do you say?"
The Flopper pushed back his chair and stood up hesitantly like a man unexpectedly called upon for an after-dinner speech. He stood there awkwardly a moment gazing at Doc Madison, his tongue slowly circling his lips; then, with a gulp, as though words to express his feelings were utterly beyond him, he turned and started for the door.
Pale Face Harry, as he rose, shoved out his hand.
"I don't deserve my luck to be in on this," he said modestly. "Only, Doc, push it along on the high gear, will you—I ain't going to be able to sleep thinking about it." He looked at Helena a little undecidedly—and compromised on brevity. "'Night, Helena," he flung out.
"Oh, good-night, Harry," she smiled.
The Flopper turned at the door and came back a few steps into the room.
"Say, Doc," he said, blinking furiously, "youse can wipe yer feet on me any time youse like—dat's wot!"
"All right, Flopper," said Doc Madison gravely. "When you've joined Tammany Hall—good-night." He followed across the room, and from the doorway watched the two descend the stairs. "Good-night," he said again, then closed the door and came back into the room. "Well, Helena?" he remarked tentatively.
"Well—Garfield?"—Helena clasped her hands around one knee and rocked gently.
"Don't be familiar, Helena," Doc Madison chuckled. "Is that all you've got to say?"
"I'm busy thinking about The Great American Play," she said pertly. "There's one thing you forgot."
"What's that?" he asked, still smiling.
"The curtain on the last act," she said. "The getaway."
Doc Madison shook his head.
"Nothing doing!" he returned. "There's no getaway. It's safe—so safe that there's nothing to it. We don't guarantee anything, and there's no entrance fee to the pavilion—all contributions are strictly voluntary."
"That's all right," said Helena. "But of course we can't really cure them. We can get them going hard enough to make them think they are for awhile, but after they've thrown away their crutches and got back home—what then?"
"Well, what then?" inquired Doc Madison easily.
"They'll yell 'fake!' and swear out warrants," said Helena, her dark eyes studying Doc Madison.
"Not according to statistics," replied Doc Madison, and his lips twitched quizzically at the corners. "According to statistics they'll buy another crutch and come back to buck the tiger again. Say, Helena, to-morrow, you go up to the public library and read up on shrines—they've been running since the ark—and they're running still. You never heard any howl about them, did you? What's the answer to those cures?"
"That's different," said Helena. "That's religion, and they've got relics and things."
"It's faith," said Doc Madison, "and it doesn't matter what the basis of it is. Faith, Helena, faith—get that? And we're going to imbue them with a faith that'll set them crazy and send them into hysterics. And talk about relics! Haven't we got one? Look at the Patriarch! Can't you see the whole town yelling 'I told you so!' and swopping testimonials hard enough to crowd the print down so fine, if you tried to get it all into the papers, that you'd have to use a magnifying glass to read it, once we've pulled off the miracle? Don't you worry about the getaway. If there's any sign of anything like that, you and I, Helena, will be taking moonlight rides in the gondolas of Venice long before it breaks."
Helena choked—and began to laugh deliciously.
Doc Madison stared at her for a moment whimsically—then he, too, burst into a laugh.
"Oh, Lord!" he gurgled. "It's rich, isn't it?" And sweeping Helena off the couch and into his arms, he began to dance around and around the table. "Ring-around-a-rosy!" he cried. "We haven't done so bad in the misty past, but here's where we cross to the enchanted shore and play on jewelled harps with golden strings and—"
"Is that all?" gasped Helena, laughing and breathless, as at last she pulled herself away.
"No," panted Doc Madison. "There's a table I've reserved up at the Rivoli that's waiting for us now. We're about to part for days and days, lady mine, that's the tough luck of it, but we'll make a night of it to-night anyway—what?"
"You bet!" said Helena, doing a cake-walk towards the door. "Come on!"
It wasn't wholly an interrogation—it seemed to Madison that there was even sympathy in the parlor-car conductor's voice, as the other took his seat check.
"Health," said Madison meekly. "Perfect rest and quiet—been overdoing it, you know."
"Needley!"—the train conductor of the Bar Harbor Express, collecting the transportation, threw the word at Madison as though it were a personal affront.
The tone seemed to demand an apology from Madison—and Madison apologized.
"Health," he said apologetically. "Perfect rest and quiet—been overdoing it, you know."
"We're five minutes late now," grunted the conductor uncompromisingly and, to Madison, quite irrelevantly, as he passed on down the aisle.
Somehow, this inspired Madison to consult his timetable. He drew it from his pocket, ran his eye down the long list of stations—and stopped at "Needley." Needley had an asterisk after it. By consulting a block of small type at the bottom of the page, he found a corresponding asterisk with the words: "Flag station. Stops only on signal, or to discharge eastbound passengers from Portland."
John Garfield Madison went into the smoking compartment of the car for a cigar—several cigars—until Needley was reached some two hours later, when the dusky attendant, as he pocketed Madison's dollar, set down his little rubber-topped footstool with a flourish on a desolate and forbidding-looking platform.
Madison was neither surprised nor dismayed—the parlor-car conductor, the train conductor and the timetable had in no way attempted to deceive him—he was only cold. He turned up his coat collar—and blew on his kid-gloved fingers.
As far as he could see everything was white with a thin layer of snow—he kicked some of it off his toes onto the unshovelled platform. The landscape was disconsolately void of even a vestige of life, there was not a sign of habitation—just woods of bare trees, except the firs, whose green seemed out of place.
"I have arrived," said John Garfield Madison to himself, "at a cemetery."
There was a very small station, and through the window he caught sight of a harassed-faced, red-haired man. There was a thump, another one, a very vicious one—and Madison stirred uneasily—the train, with its five minutes' delinquency hanging over it, was already moving out, as his trunks, from the baggage car ahead, shot unceremoniously to the platform. Madison watched a man, the sole occupant of the platform apart from himself, save the trunks from rolling under the wheels of the train; then his eyes fastened on a rickety, two-seated wagon, drawn by a horse that at first glance appeared to earn all it got.
The train left the platform—and left quite as uninviting a perspective on the other side of the track as had previously greeted Madison's restricted view. But now the man who had salvaged his baggage came down the platform toward him. Madison inspected the approaching figure with interest. The man ambled along without haste, his jaws wagging industriously upon his tobacco, his iron-gray chin whiskers, from the wagging, flapping like a burgee in a breeze. He wore a round fur cap, quite bare of fur at the edges where the pelt showed shiny, and a red woollen tippet was tied round his neck and knotted at the back with the ends dangling down over his coat. The coat itself, a long one of some fuzzy material, with huge side pockets into which the man's hands were plunged, reached to the cavernous tops of jackboots where the nether ends of his trousers were stowed away.
The man halted before Madison, and, reaching a mittened hand under his chin, reflectively lifted his whiskers to an acute angle, while his blue eyes over the rims of steel-bowed spectacles wandered from Madison to Madison's dress-suit case and back to Madison again.
"Be you goin' to git off here?" he inquired.
Madison smiled at him engagingly.
"Well," he said, "I wouldn't care to have it known, but if you can keep a secret—"
"Hee-hee!" tittered the other. "Now that's right smart, that be. Waren't expectin' nobody to meet you, was you? I ain't heerd of none of the folks lookin' for visitors."
"No," said Madison. "But there's a hotel in the town, isn't there?"
"Two of 'em," said the other. "The Waalderf an' the Congress, but the Waalderf ain't done a sight of business since we got pro'bition in the State an' has kinder got run down. I reckon the Congress'll suit you best if you ain't against payin' a mite more, which I reckon you ain't for I see you come down in the parler car."
"And what," asked Madison, "does the Congress charge?"
"Well," said the other, "ordinary, it's a dollar a day or five dollars a week, but this bein' off season an' nobody there, 'twouldn't surprise me if Walt'ud kind of shade the price for you—Waalderf's three an' a half a week. Them your duds up the platform? I'll drive you over for forty cents. What was it you said your name was?"
"Forty cents is a most disinterested offer, and I accept it heartily," said Madison affably. "And my name's Madison—John Garfield Madison, from New York."
"Mine's Higgins," volunteered the other. "Hiram Higgins, an' I'm postmaster an' town constable of Needley. An' now, Mr. Madison, I reckon we'll just get these effects of your'n onto the wagon an' move along—folks'll be gettin' kinder rambunctious for their mail."
Hiram Higgins backed the democrat around, roped the baggage onto the tail-board, picked up the hungry-looking mail-bag from where the mail clerk had slung it from the car to the platform, threw it down in front of the dashboard, and got in after it. Madison clambered into the back seat, and they bumped off along the road.
"Had a mite of snow night before last," observed Mr. Higgins, pointing it out with his whip, as he settled himself comfortably. "Kinder reckoned we'd got rid of it for good till next fall till this come along, but you can't never tell. What was it you said brought you down here, Mr. Madison?"
"Rest and quiet—complete change," he said. "Nervous breakdown, according to the doctors—that's what they always call it, you know, when they can't find any other name for it. I've been overdoing it, I suppose."
"Be that so!" returned Mr. Higgins sympathetically. "I want to know! Well, now, that's too bad! Lookin' for quiet, be you? Well, I reckon mabbe folks don't scurry around here quite so lively as they do in some of the bigger towns like Noo York, but there's a tolerable lot goin' on most every week, church festivals, an' spellin' bees, an' such. Folks here is right hospitable, but you ain't in no way obliged to join in if you don't feel up to it. I'll explain matters to 'em, an'—" Hiram Higgins stopped, excitedly gathered reins and whip into one hand, and with the other smote his knee a resounding whack. "Well, I swan!" he exclaimed. "An' I never thought of it until this minute! I reckon you've come to just the right place, and just as soon as you get settled you go right out an' see the Patriarch—you won't need no more doctor, an' folks up your way won't know when you go back."
"The Patriarch?" inquired Madison, with a puzzled air. "Who is he?"
"Why," said Mr. Higgins, "he's—he's the Patriarch. Been curin' us folks around here longer'n any one can remember—just does it by faith, too."
Madison shook his head slowly.
"I might just as well be frank with you, Mr. Higgins," he said. "I've never taken much stock in faith cure and that sort of thing."
"Mabbe," suggested Mr. Higgins deeply, "you ain't had much experience."
"No," confessed Madison reflectively; "I haven't—I haven't had any."
"Well then, you just wait an' see," said Mr. Higgins, waving his mittened hand as though the whole matter were conclusively settled. "You just wait an' see."
"But I'm afraid I don't quite understand," prodded Madison innocently. "What kind of cures does he perform?"
They turned a right-angled bend in the road, disclosing a straggling hamlet in a hollow below, and, farther away in the distance, a sweep of ocean.
"Most any kind," said Mr. Higgins. "There's Needley now. All you've got to do is ask the first person you see about him."
"Yes," said Madison, "but take yourself, for instance. Did this Patriarch ever do anything for you?"
"He did," said Mr. Higgins impressively. "An' 'twasn't but last week. I'm glad you asked me. For two nights I couldn't sleep. Had the earache powerful. Poured hot oil an' laud'num into it, an' kept a hot brick rolled up in flannel against it, but didn't do no good. Then Mrs. Higgins says, 'Hiram, why in the land's sake don't you go out an' see the Patriarch?' An' I hitched right up, an' every step that horse took I could feel it gettin' better, an' I wasn't five minutes with the Patriarch before I was cured, an' I ain't had a twinge since."
"It certainly looks as though there were something in that," admitted Madison cautiously.
Hiram Higgins smiled a world of tolerance.
"'Tain't worth mentionin' alongside some of the things he's done," he said deprecatingly. "You'll hear about 'em fast enough."
"What's the local doctor say about it?" asked Madison.
"There ain't enough pickin's to keep a doctor here, though some of 'em's tried," chuckled Mr. Higgins. "Have to have 'em for some things, of course—an' then he drives over from Barton's Mills, seven miles from here."
"And do all the people in Needley believe in the Patriarch?"—Madison's voice was full of grave interest.
"Well," said Mr. Higgins, "to be plumb downright honest with you, they don't. Folks as was born here an' are old inhabitants do, but the Holmes, bein' newcomers, is kinder set in their ways. They come down here eight years ago last August with new-fangled notions, which they ain't got rid of yet. You can see the consequences for yourself—got a little boy, twelve year old, walking around lame on a crutch—an' I reckon he always will. Doctor looks at him every time he comes over from Barton's Mills, but it don't do no good. Folks tried to get the Holmes to take him out to the Patriarch's till they got discouraged. 'Pears old man Holmes kinder got around to a common sense view of it, but the women folks say Mrs. Holmes is stubborner than all git-out, an' that old man Holmes' voice ain't loud enough to be heerd when she gets goin'. 'Tain't but fair to mention 'em, as I dunno of any one else that's an exception." Mr. Higgins pointed ahead with his whip. "See them woods over there beyond the town?"
"Yes," said Madison.
"That's where the Patriarch lives," said Mr. Higgins. "On the other side of 'em, down by the seashore. An' here we be most home. Folks'll be glad to see you, Mr. Madison, and now you're here I hope you'll make a real smart stay—we'll try to make you feel to home."
"Thank you," said Madison cordially. "I haven't any idea, of course, how long I'll be here—it all depends on circumstances."
"No," said Mr. Higgins; "I don't suppose you have. Anyway, I hope you'll take a notion to go out an' see what the Patriarch can do for you. An' now you ain't told me yet which hotel you're goin' to."
"Oh!" said Madison gravely. "Well, since you recommend it, I guess we'd better make it the Congress."
"Bet you a cookie," shrilled Hiram Higgins, in what he meant to be a breathless whisper, "that there's where he's goin' now—only he don't want us to know he's give in."
"Shet your fool mouth, Hiram!" cautioned Walt Perkins, the proprietor of the Congress Hotel. "He kin hear you."
"Get out!" retorted Mr. Higgins. "No, he can't neither. He ain't feelin' no ways perky, any one can see that, an' I'm tickled most to pieces that he's come 'round—I've took up with him consid'rable, I have. Patriarch'll just make a new-born critter outer him—you watch through the window where he goes. Bet you a quarter that's what he's up to!"
John Garfield Madison, outside on the veranda of the Congress Hotel, smiled at the words, as he lighted his cigar and turned up his coat collar. He stepped off the veranda, crossed the little lawn to the village street, and began to saunter nonchalantly and indifferently oceanwards. He did not look around—he had no desire to bring consternation to the massed faces of the leading citizens flattened against the window panes—but he chuckled inwardly as he pictured them. There would be Hiram Higgins, postmaster and town constable, Walt Perkins, hotel man and town moderator, Lem Hodges, selectman, assessor and overseer of the poor, Nathan Elmes, likewise selectman, assessor and overseer of the poor, and Cale Rodgers, school committee-man and proprietor of the general store.
Madison sauntered slowly along.
"I have arrived," he said, "not at a cemetery, but at an El Dorado and a land flowing with milk and honey."
There was a humorous pucker around the corners of Madison's eyes, as he reviewed his two days' sojourn in Needley—spent mostly in the "office" of the Congress Hotel beside the stove with his feet up on the wood-box. He had never lacked company—the office stove and the spitbox filled with sawdust was the admitted rendezvous of the chosen spirits who were still gazing after him from the window. Morning, afternoon and evening they congregated there, and he had been promptly admitted to membership in the select circle. At each sitting they had discussed the spring planting and the weather, and then inevitably, led by Hiram Higgins, had resolved themselves into an "experience" meeting on the Patriarch—he, Madison, as a minority leader of one, grudgingly conceding an occasional point. The sessions had invariably ended the same way—Hiram Higgins, with the back of his hand underneath his chin, would stroke earnestly at his chin-whiskers, and remark:
"Well, now, Mr. Madison, 'twon't do you a mite of harm to go out there an' see for yourself. We've kinder got to look on you as one of us, an' there ain't no use in you sufferin' around with what ails you when there ain't no need of it."
Madison's replies had been equally void of versatility—he would shake his head doubtfully, while his cigar-case circulated around the group.
Madison sniffed luxuriously at his thoroughbred Havana. He had passed out of sight of the hotel window now, and he swung into a brisk walk. It was a mile to the Patriarch's by a wagon track through the woods, that led off from the road to the left just across the bridge. He had not needed to ask directions. With magnificent inadvertence Hiram Higgins had mentioned the exact way to reach the Patriarch's a dozen times, if he had once. Also, by now, Madison had learned all that the town knew about the Patriarch—which after all, he reflected with some satisfaction, wasn't much. The Patriarch was over eighty years of age, and he had come, deaf and dumb, to Needley sixty years ago—nobody knew from where, nor his previous history, nor his name. They had called him the Hermit at first, for immediately on his arrival he had gone out to the shore of the ocean, away from the village, and built a crude hut there for himself—which, in the after years, he had made into a more pretentious dwelling. The cures had come "kinder gradual-like an' took the folks mabbe forty years to get around to believin' in him real serious," as Hiram Higgins put it; and then, as the Hermit grew old, and the local reverence for him had become more deep-seated, they had changed his name to the Patriarch. That was about all—but it seemed to suit Madison, for his smile broadened.
"I wonder," said he to himself, as he stepped onto the bridge to cross the little river, "if I'm not dreaming—this is like being let loose in the U.S. Treasury with nobody looking!"
"Hullo, mister!" piped a young voice suddenly out of the dusk.
"Hullo!" responded Madison mechanically—and turned to watch a small figure, going in the opposite direction, thump by him on a crutch. Madison stopped and stared after the cripple—and removed his cigar very slowly from his lips. "That's that Holmes boy," he muttered. "I don't know as he'd look well on the platform when the excursion trains get to running. Wonder if I can't get a job for his father somewhere about a thousand miles from here and have the family move!"
The cripple disappeared down the road, and Madison, with a sort of speculative flip to the ash of his cigar, resumed his way. Just across the bridge he found the wagon track, and turned into it. It ran through a thick wood of fir and spruce, and here, apart from now being able to see but little before him—he had elected to "steal" away in the darkness after supper—he found the going far from good.
Half curiously, half whimsically, he tried to visualize the Patriarch from the word pictures that had been painted around the stove in the hotel office. The man would be old—of course. And to have lived alone for sixty years, to have shunned human companionship he must have been either mildly or violently insane to begin with, which would account for his belief in himself as a healer—he would unquestionably, in some form or other, "have bats in his belfry," as Pale Face Harry had put it.
Madison's brows contracted as he went along. A man living by himself under such conditions, with no incentive for the care of his person, not even the pride engendered by the association of others, erudite as the standard might be in his vicinity, was apt to grow very shortly into a somewhat sorry spectacle. Give him sixty years of this and add an unbalanced mind, and—Madison did not like the picture that now rose up suddenly before him—a creature, bent, vapid of face, deaf and dumb, frowsy of dress, and a world removed from the thought of a morning bath. It might be picturesque in a way—but it wasn't a way Madison liked. Somehow, he'd have to jerk the old chap out of his rut and get him rigged up a little more becomingly, before the trusting public, simple as they were, were invited down to see the exhibit. Madison's dramatic instinct, which was developed to a keen sense of what the public craved for, rebelled against any faux pas in the scenic effects. He fell to designing a costume that would more appropriately expound the role.
"Got to give 'em something for their money," murmured John Garfield Madison. "Some sort of long, flowing robe now, washed every day, sort of Grecian effect with a rope girdle, bare feet and sandals—um-m—dunno about the sandals—don't want to slop over, and besides"—Madison grinned a little to himself—"he might kick!"
Still reflecting, but arrived at no conclusion other than first to size up the Patriarch and see how best to handle him, Madison reached the end of the wagon track—and halted.
It was a little lighter here, now that he had left the woods, and what appeared to be a sweep of snow-covered lawn was before him. Around this, forming a perfect square, was a row of full-grown, magnificent maples—a regal hedge, as it were, bordering the four sides—planted sixty years ago! Madison's imagination fired exhilarantly at the inspiring thought of these in leaf—in another few weeks. He shook hands with himself cordially.
"Behold the amphitheater!" he said. "This is where we stage the greatest act of the century!"
Behind the row of trees, directly across the lawn in front of him, loomed the dark shadow of a long, low, cottage-like building, and from a window a light twinkled out between the tree trunks; while from beyond again came the roll of surf, low, rhythmic, like the soft accompaniment of orchestral music.
"Wonderful!" breathed Madison. "I feel," said he, "as though I had just had a drink!"
He walked across the lawn, passed between the trees, and reached the end of the cottage away from where the light showed in the window.
"The Patriarch being deaf," he remarked, "I might as well explore."
From the row of trees to the cottage was perhaps twenty feet. The door of the cottage, porticoed with trellis-work, was in the center of the cottage itself. Everywhere Madison turned were trellis-work frames for flowers—the walls of the cottage were covered, literally covered, with bare, slumbering shoots of Virginia creeper. In a little while now the place would be a veritable paradise. Madison raised his hat reverently.
"Fancy this on a New York stage!" said he esthetically, invoking the universe. "Could you beat it! I could play the Patriarch myself with this setting, and everybody would fall for it. There's nothing to it, nothing to it, but his make-up—and I'll guarantee to take care of that. And now we'll have a look at Aladdin's lamp and see just what kind of rubbing up will invoke the genii!"
Madison walked along the length of the cottage, past the door, and, as he reached the lighted window, drew well away from the wall—and stared inside. Surprise and incredulity swept across his features, and then his face beamed and his gray eyes lighted with the fire of an artist who sees the elusive imagery of the Great Picture at last transferred to canvas, vivid, actual, transcending his wildest hopes. He was gazing upon the sweetest and most venerable face he had ever seen.
Here and there within upon the floor were strewn old-fashioned, round rag mats that would enrapture a connoisseur, and the floor where it showed between the mats was scrubbed to a glistening white. The furnishings were few and homemade, but full of simple artistry—a chair or two, and a table, upon which burned a lamp. In a fireplace, made of stones cemented together, the natural effect unspoiled by any attempt to hew the stones into uniformity, a log fire glowed, sputtered, and now and then leaped cheerily into flame.
Between the table and the fire, half turned toward Madison, sat the Patriarch. He was reading, his head bent forward, his book held very close to his eyes. Hair, a wealth of it, soft, silky and snow-white, reached just below his coat collar—a silvery beard fell far below his book. But it was the face itself, no single distinguishing feature, neither the blue eyes, the sensitive lips, nor the broad, fine forehead, that held Madison's gaze—it seemed to combine something that he had never seen in a face before, and to look upon it was to be drawn instantly to the man—there was purity of thought and act stamped upon it with a seal ineffaceable, and there was gentleness there, and sympathy, and trust, and a simple, unassuming dignity and self-possession—and, too, there was a shadow there, a little of sadness, a little of weariness, a background, a relief, as it were, a touch such as a genius might conceive to lift the picture with his brush into wondrous, lingering, haunting consonance.
Madison's eyes, slowly, as though loath to leave the Patriarch's face, travelled over the gray homespun suit that clothed the man, the white wristbands of the home-washed shirt, unstarched, but spotlessly clean—and his fancy of flowing, Grecian robes with rope girdles seemed to hold him up to mockery as a crude and paltry bungler before the perfect, unostentatious harmony of reality.
"There's nothing to it!" whispered Madison softly to himself. "Nothing to it! There isn't a thing left to do—not even a chance of making a bluff at earning the money—it's just like stealing it. Why, say, it would get me if I weren't behind the scenes—honest now, it would!"
Madison drew back from the window and walked toward the door of the cottage.
"It should take me about fifteen minutes to establish myself on the basis of a long-lost son with the Patriarch clinging confidingly around my neck," he observed. "If it takes me any longer than that I'd feel depressed every time I met myself in the looking-glass."
He reached the cottage door, and, lifting the brass knocker that shone dimly in the darkness, knocked once, lifted it to knock again—and his hand fell away as he smiled a little foolishly.
"I forgot the Patriarch was deaf," he muttered. "Wonder what you're supposed to do? Walk right in, or—"
The door swung suddenly wide open, and upon Madison's face, usually so perfectly at its owner's control, came a look of stunned surprise. The Patriarch was standing on the threshold, and, with a gesture of welcome, was motioning him to enter.
A STRANGE CONVERSATION
Madison, quite in command of himself again in an instant, stepped, smiling, into the cottage. He took the Patriarch's extended hand in a cordial grip and nodded understandingly as the other, with quick, rapid motions, touched lips and ears to signify that he could neither hear nor speak. But, inwardly puzzled, Madison searched the Patriarch's face—was the other playing a part? Could he hear, after all—and perhaps speak as well, if he wanted to! There was certainly no guile in the venerable, gentle face—or was it guile of a very high order?
The Patriarch closed the door, and drawing his own armchair to the table offered it to Madison with a courteous smile.
Madison refused by gently forcing the old man into it himself, pulled another up to face the Patriarch, sat down—and his eyes fixed suddenly on the ceiling above his head. Swaying slowly back and forth was a sort of miniature punkah of waving white canvas. He studied this for a moment, then his eyes shifted to the Patriarch, who was regarding him humorously.
The Patriarch rose from his chair, walked to the door, opened it, moved the knocker up and down—and pointed to the ceiling. The canvas was waving violently now, and Madison traced the cord attachment, on little pulleys, across the ceiling to where it ran through the door and was affixed to the knocker without. It was very simple, even primitive—every time the knocker was lifted the cord was pulled and the canvas waved back and forth. Madison nodded his head and smiled approvingly, as the Patriarch once more closed the door and resumed his seat.
Madison leaned back in his chair and allowed his eyes to stray, not impertinently but with pleased endorsement, around the room, to permit an unhampered opportunity for the scrutiny of the blue eyes which he felt upon him.
"And to think," he mused reproachfully, "that I could have doubted him for a single instant—he certainly hung one on me that time."
The Patriarch reached into the drawer of the table beside him, took out a slate and pencil, scratched a few words on the slate and handed both pencil and slate to Madison.
"Your name is Madison, isn't it?" Madison read. "From New York? Hiram told me about you."
"Hiram," said Madison to himself, "is a man of many parts, and the most useful man I have ever known. Hiram, by reflected glory, will some day become famous." On the slate he replied: "Yes; that is my name—John Madison. It was good of Mr. Higgins to speak of me."
The Patriarch held the slate within a bare inch or two of his face, and moved it back and forth before his eyes to follow the lines. As he lowered it, Madison reached for it politely.
"I am afraid you do not see very well," he scribbled. "Shall I write larger?"
Again the Patriarch deciphered the words laboriously; then he wrote, and handed the slate to Madison.
"I am going blind," he had written. "Please write as large as possible."
"Blind!"—Madison's attitude and expression were eloquent enough not only to be a perfect interpretation of his exclamation, but to convey his shocked and pained surprise as well.
The Patriarch bowed his head affirmatively, smiling a little wistfully.
Madison impetuously drew his chair closer to the other, laid his hand sympathetically upon the Patriarch's sleeve, and, with the slate upon his knee, wrote with the other hand impulsively:
"I am sorry—very, very sorry. Would you care to tell me about it?"
The Patriarch's face lighted up while reading the slate, but he shook his head slowly as he smiled again.
"By and by, if you wish," he wrote. "But first about yourself. You are sick—and you have come to me for help?"
The slate now passed from hand to hand quite rapidly.
"Yes," wrote Madison. "Can you cure me?"
"No," replied the Patriarch; "not in your present mental condition."
"What do you mean?" asked Madison.
"Your question itself implies that you are skeptical. While that state of mind exists, I can do nothing—it depends entirely on yourself."
"And if I put skepticism aside?" Madison's pencil demanded. "Can you cure me then?"
"Unquestionably," wrote the Patriarch, "if you really put it aside. Faith is the simplest thing in the world and the most complex—but it is fundamental. Without faith nothing is possible; with faith nothing is impossible."
Madison's gray eyes rested, magnificently thoughtful and troubled, upon the Patriarch.
"I have never thought much about it," he replied upon the slate, after a tactful moment's pause. "But I believe that. There is something here, about the place, about you that inspires confidence—I was prepared to cling to my skepticism when I came in, but I do not feel that way now. If only I knew you a little better, were with you a little more, I believe I could have the faith you speak of."
"How long do you remain in Needley?" the Patriarch wrote.
Madison got up from his chair, went slowly to the fireplace, and, with his back to the Patriarch, stood watching the crackling logs.
"The old chap's no fool," he informed himself, "even if he is gone a little in one particular. He certainly does believe in himself for fair! Wonder where he got his education—notice the English he writes? And, say—going blind! Fancy that! Santa Claus, you overwhelm me, you are too bountiful, you are too generous—you'll have nothing left for the next chimney! Deaf and dumb—and blind. Really, I do not deserve this—I really don't—let me at least tip the hat-boy, or I'll feel mean."
He turned gravely to the Patriarch; resuming his chair with an expression on his face as one arrived at a weighty decision after a mental battle with one's self.
"I will stay here until I am cured. I put myself in your hands. What am I to do?" he wrote quickly—and held out his hand almost anxiously for the other's assent.
The Patriarch smiled seriously as, after peering at the slate, he took the outstretched hand and laid his other one unaffectedly upon Madison's shoulder.
"Be sure then that I can help you," wrote the Patriarch cheerfully. "There is no course of treatment such as you may, perhaps, imagine. My power lies in a perfect faith to help you once you, in turn, have faith yourself—that is all. It is but the practical application of the old dogma that mind is superior to matter. You must come and see me every day, and we will talk together."
"I will come—gladly," Madison replied; and, taking the slate, carefully wiped off the writing—as he had previously wiped it off every time it came into his hands—with a damp rag that the Patriarch had taken from the table drawer when he had produced the slate and pencil.
"This slate racket is the limit," said Madison to himself, as his pencil began to move and screech again; "but I've got to get a little deeper under his vest yet."
He handed the slate to the Patriarch, and on it were the words:
"Won't you tell me something of yourself, how you came to live here alone, and your name, perhaps? I do not mean to presume, but I am deeply interested."
"There is never presumption in kindliness and sympathy," answered the Patriarch. "But my name and story is buried in the past—perhaps when I am gone those who care to know may know. I have not hurt you by refusing to answer?"
"No, indeed!" said Madison politely to himself. "The element of mystery is one of the best drawing cards I know—it's got Needley going strong. Far, far be it from me to tear the veil asunder. I mentioned it only as a feeler."
But upon the slate he wrote:
"Far from being hurt, I respect your silence. But your eyes—you were to tell me about them."
The Patriarch's face saddened suddenly as he read the words.
"I have made no secret of it," he wrote. "I have been going blind for nearly a year now. The end, I am afraid, is very near—within a few days, perhaps even to-morrow. I think I should not mind it much myself, for I am very old and have not a great while longer to live in any case, but for the time that is left it will mar my usefulness. I have been able to help the people here and they have come to depend upon me—that is my life. I trust I am not boastful if I say my greatest joy has been in helping others."
He had come to the bottom of the slate and held it out for Madison to read; then wiped it off, and went on:
"I have dreamed often of a wider field, of reaching out to help the thousands beyond this little town—but I have realized that it could be no more than a dream. I have been successful here because the people believe in me and have unquestioning faith in me—to go outside amongst strangers would only have been to be received as a charlatan and faker, or as a poor deaf and dumb fool at best."
Madison took the slate.
"But if these thousands of others came to you—what then?"
The Patriarch's face glowed.
"It would be a wondrous joy," he wrote. "Too wondrous to dwell upon—because it could never be. If they came I could help them, for their very coming would be an evidence of faith—and faith alone is necessary. Think of the joy of helping so many others—it is the fulness of life. But let us not dream any more, friend Madison."
"Of course," communed Madison, studying the illumined face, "he's slightly touched in his upper story on the faith stunt; but he's in dead earnest, and he's got the brotherhood-of-man bug bad. Come to think of it, Hiram did say something about his 'sight failing,' but I didn't think it was anything like this. If he's going to go finally blind in, say, a week, perhaps it would be just as well to postpone the opening night until he does."
Madison took the slate.
"Stranger things than that have happened," he wrote. "I never heard of you before, yet I am one of the thousands beyond this little town and I am here—why not the others?"
The Patriarch shook his head sadly.
"It is but a dream," he wrote.
Madison held the slate in his hands for quite a long time before he wrote again; his attitude one of sympathetic hesitancy as his eyes played over the form and face before him, while the Patriarch smiled at him with gentle, patient resignation. Back in Madison's fertile brain the germ of an inspiration was developing into fuller life.
"What will you do here alone when you are blind?" he asked—and his face was disturbed and solicitous as he passed the Patriarch the slate.
"I need very little," the Patriarch wrote back. "You must not worry about me. My garden supplies nearly all my wants, and there are many in the village, I am sure, who will help me with that when the snow is gone."
"I am quite certain of that," Madison's pencil agreed. "But here in the house you cannot be alone—there are so many things to do, little things that I am sure you have not thought of—some one must cook for you, for instance. You will need a woman's hand here—have you no one, no relative that you can call upon?"
The Patriarch lowered the slate from his eyes, shook his head a little pathetically, and began to write.
"I do not think they would have cared to come, even if they were still alive; but they are all gone many years ago—except perhaps a grand-niece, and I do not know what has become of her."
"Why, that's just the thing," wrote Madison. "Suppose we try to find her?"
Again the Patriarch shook his head.
"I am afraid that would be impossible. I do not even know that she is alive. I know only of her birth, and that is twenty years ago."
"Even that is not hopeless," wrote Madison optimistically, and his face as he looked at the Patriarch was seriously thoughtful. "Where was she born?"
"New York," the Patriarch answered.
"And I never half appreciated the old town nor the fulness thereof until I came to Needley!" said Madison plaintively to the toe of his boot, while his hand scrawled the inquiry: "What is her name?"
"Vail," wrote the Patriarch. "That was her father's name. She is my grand-niece on her mother's side. I do not know what they christened her."
Madison once more, apparently deep in thought, sought refuge at the fireplace, his hands plunged in his pockets, his shoulders drawn a little forward, his back to the Patriarch.
"Fiction," he assured a crack in the cement between two stones, "was never, never like this. It seems to me that I remember the occurrence. It had grown a little dim with the lapse of time, it is true; but now that I recall it, it comes back with remarkable clearness. I am quite sure they christened her—Helena. Helena Vail! Now isn't that a perfectly lovely name for a novel! And she'll be so good to the dear old chap too—washing and ironing and cooking for him—and stealing out into the woodshed for a drag on her cigarette—not. No, my dear, not even that—this is serious business."
He turned, came back to his chair, picked up the slate, and wrote:
"I have the fortune, or misfortune perhaps, to be what is commonly called a rich man. Money, they say, will do anything, and if it will I'll find this niece for you."
The Patriarch's eyes grew moist as he read the words, and his hand trembled a little with emotion as he held the pencil.
"I cannot let you do that," he protested. "You are very kind, and it seems almost as though you had been brought to me providentially at the end of long years of loneliness for a purpose, when my hour of helplessness was near; but, indeed, I have no right to allow you to do this."
"They tell me in the village," wrote Madison in reply, "that you have always refused to accept a penny for anything you have ever done for them. I have no doubt you would equally refuse to accept anything from me for what you may do, and I should hesitate to offer it however much I felt indebted, but this is something that you must let me do. It will make me feel more—how shall I say it?—more as though I had a right to the privilege of coming here."
The Patriarch wiped his still moist eyes before he answered.
"What can I say to you? It does not seem right that I should let a stranger do so much, and yet it seems that I should not say no because—"
Madison was bending over the slate, reading as the other wrote, and he took the pencil gently from the Patriarch's hand.
"You must not look on me any longer as a stranger," he wrote. "Let us just consider that it is all arranged—only I would strongly advise making no mention of it until we make sure that she is alive."
"I think nothing should be said," agreed the Patriarch. "For even if you found her she might not care to come—I have little here to offer a young girl—few comforts—the care of a blind man who is deaf and dumb."
"We'll see about that when we find her"—Madison smiled brightly at the Patriarch, as he wrote. "Now that's settled for the time being, isn't it?"
The dumb lips moved and both hands reached out to Madison.
Madison took them in a firm, strong, reassuring clasp, then shook his finger in a sort of playfully emotional embarrassment, excellently well done, at the Patriarch—and picked up the slate again.
"It is getting late," he wrote, "and I must not tire you out. I am afraid you will think I am far more inquisitive than I have any right to be, but there is one more question that I would like to ask—may I?"
The Patriarch nodded his head, and laid his hand on Madison's sleeve in a quaint, almost affectionate way.
"It is about your education. You came here sixty years ago, and you have lived alone. You could have had but few advantages, with your handicap, previous to that, and yet you write and use such perfect English."
"The answer is very simple," replied the Patriarch on the slate. "Until within the last year, I have read largely. Would you care to look at my books? They are there in the nook on the other side of the fireplace."
Madison, promptly and full of interest, rose from his chair, passed around the fireplace, and halted before a row of shelves set in against the wall.
"I pass," Madison admitted to himself after a moment, during which his eyes roved over the well chosen classics. "I've heard of one or two of these before—casually. I've an idea that if the Patriarch's got all this inside his gray matter, it's just as well for the Flopper, for Pale Face Harry, for Helena and yours truly that he's deaf and dumb—and will be blind."
Madison came back to the Patriarch with beaming face, and picked up the slate.
"I read a great deal myself," he wrote. "It is a pleasure to find real books here. May I, during my stay in Needley, look upon them in a little way as my own library?"
"You are very welcome indeed," the Patriarch answered.
"Thank you," wrote Madison. "And now, surely, I must go"—he smiled at the Patriarch.
"Come to-morrow," invited the Patriarch. "I would like to show you all around my little place here."
"Indeed, I will," Madison scratched upon the slate, "and do you know that somehow, since I came here to-night, I feel a sense of relief, a sort of guarantee that everything is going to be all right with me in the future."
The Patriarch smiled quietly, almost tolerantly.
"I know that," he wrote. "Keep your mind free of doubt, be optimistic and cheerful as regards yourself, nourish the faith that has already taken root and that I feel responds to mine; keep in the open air and take plenty of exercise."
Slowly, with an apparently abstracted air, Madison read the slate, wiped it carefully, laid it down, and then held out his hand.
"Good-night!" he nodded warmly.
The Patriarch, still with the quiet smile upon his lips, rose from his armchair, and, keeping his clasp on Madison's hand, led Madison to the door, opened it, and with a gesture at once courtly and affectionate bade his guest good-night.
Madison crossed the lawn at a thoughtful pace, turned into the wagon track, and, in the shelter of the woods now, whimsically felt his pulse; then, lighting a cigar, tramped on with a buoyant stride.
"There's only one answer, of course," he mused. "The Patriarch's got a brain kink on faith—it's the natural outcome of living alone for sixty years. Outside of that and his books, he's as simple and innocent and trusting as a babe. I suppose the thing's kind of grown on him—Hiram said it had taken forty years—which isn't sudden unless you say it quick. Hanged if I don't like the old sport though, and if Helena isn't the best ever to him I'll stop her chewing gum allowance." Madison looked up through the arched, leafless branches overhead. "Beautiful night, isn't it?" said he pleasantly.
A little later he reached the main road and paused a moment on the bridge, as though to sum up the thoughts and imaginings that had occupied him on the way along.
"It's a queer world," said John Garfield Madison profoundly to the turbid little stream that flowed beneath his feet. "I wonder why some of us are born with brains—and some are born just plain damned fools!"
He went on again, arrived at the Congress Hotel, and, discovering through the window that the leading citizens of Needley were still in session, negotiated the back entrance. On the way upstairs he stumbled—quite inadvertently—and stopped to listen.
"There he be now," announced Hiram Higgins' voice excitedly. "Goin' up to his room to meditate. Knew he'd come back feelin' like that. I be goin' out there to-morrow to see the Patriarch myself."
Madison smiled, mounted the remaining stairs, entered his room, and lighted his lamp.
"Having got my hand in at writing," he remarked, "I guess I'd better keep it up and write Helena—Vail."
He extracted a pad of writing paper and an envelope from the tray of his trunk, his fountain pen from his pocket, and, drawing his chair to the table and laying down his cigar reluctantly at his elbow, began to write. At the end of fifteen minutes, he tilted back his chair, relighted the stub of his cigar, and critically read over his epistle.
"Dear Kid," it ran. "Do not be anxious about me—I am feeling better already. Have had my first treatment, and am now eating fried eggs and ham regularly three times a day. A Sunday-school picnic taking to washboilers full of thin coffee and the left-over cakes kindly contributed by Deacon Jones' household, is nothing to the way the boobs will take to the Patriarch—who has kindly consented to go blind to make our thorny paths as smooth as possible for us.
"Do you get that, Helena—he's going blind! In just a few days, my dear, you will be with me, have patience. The meteorological bureau is a little hazy yet on the exact date of the total eclipse, but it's due to happen any minute. Now listen. Your name is Helena Vail. You're the Patriarch's grand-niece, and you're coming to live alone with him and soothe his declining years; but you can't come yet because I've got to find you first, and besides, until he's blind, he'll stick to a nasty habit he's got of asking questions on his little slate. You needn't have any hesitation about coming on the score of propriety, I assure you it is perfectly proper—he is running Methuselah pretty near a dead heat. And, as far as the town is concerned, apart from the fact that you are a grand-niece, orphaned, you don't have to know anything about yourself, either—that's part of the Patriarch's dark, mysterious past, where the lights go out and the fiddles get rickets.
"That's about all. I'll let you know when to come. Remember me to Mr. Coogan and Harry, and keep my picture under your pillow. Ever thine, J.G.M."
Madison picked up his pen again and added another line:
"P.S. Better buy a cook-book."
He folded the pages, inserted them in the envelope, sealed the envelope and addressed it to Miss Helena Smith—street and number not far from the tenderloin district of New York.
Then Madison yawned pleasantly, tucked the letter in his pocket—and prepared for bed.
Ten days had passed, bringing with them many changes. The snow was gone, and the warm, balmy airs of springtime had brought the buds upon the trees almost to leaf. It seemed indeed a new land, and one now full of charm and delight—the desolate, straggling hamlet, once so barren, frozen and hopeless looking, was now a quaint, alluring little village nestling picturesquely in its hollow, framed in green fields and majestic woods. Quiet, restful, peaceful it was—like a dream place, untroubled. Upon the farms about men plowed their furrows, calling to each other and to their horses; in the homes the doors and windows were thrown hospitably wide to the sweet, fresh, vernal airs, and the thrifty housewives were busy at their cleaning.
And there had been other changes, too. The ten days had found Madison more and more a constant visitor, and finally a most intimate one, at the Patriarch's cottage—while to the circle in the hotel office his voice no longer rose in even feeble protest, he was one of them. And, perhaps most vital change of all, the Patriarch was nearly blind—so nearly blind that conversation now was limited to but little more than a single word at a time upon the slate.
It was morning, in the Patriarch's sitting-room, and Madison was seated in his usual place beside the table facing the other. For upwards of an hour, it had taken him that long, he had been engaged, having decided that the time was ripe, in telling the Patriarch that his grand-niece had been found and that now it was only necessary to write and ask her to come to Needley.
The Patriarch's fine old face was aglow with pleasure as he finally understood. Letter writing was beyond him now, a thing of the past, so upon the slate he scrawled:
Madison shook his head; and again with gentle patience explained that perhaps it would be better if the letter came from some one holding an official position in the village, rather than from one who, even in an abstract way, would be unknown to her—the postmaster, for instance.
And the Patriarch, patting Madison's sleeve gratefully, agreed.
Out in the garden behind the cottage, where for the first time in sixty seasons the work must be done by other hands, Hiram Higgins, the volunteer for the moment, was busy at his "spell."
Madison stepped to the door and called him in.
"Mr. Higgins," he said, "the Patriarch has just told me that he has a grand-niece living in New York, and he wants you to write to her and ask her to come to him."
"Be that so!" exclaimed Mr. Higgins, gazing earnestly at the Patriarch. "Well, 'tain't no surprise to me—always calc'lated he must have folks somewheres. An' I'm right glad now he needs 'em he's made up his mind to have 'em come. Wants me to write, does he?"
"He can't write any more himself," said Madison. "He seems to think that you, as the postmaster, as well as the town police official, are the proper person to do it—and I quite agree with him."
"So I be," declared Mr. Higgins importantly. "I'll write it on the town paper, an' comin' from the postmaster there won't be no doubt in her mind that it's any of them bunco games or the lurin' of young women away such as I've read about, for I reckon perhaps she ain't never heerd of him before—never knew him to write a letter, an' I calc'late to see most everything that goes out."
Mr. Higgins picked up the slate and wrote the word "grand-niece?" upon it in enormous characters; then, amplifying his interrogation by many gestures of his hands, deft from long practice, he held the slate up to the Patriarch.
The Patriarch nodded, and Hiram Higgins nodded back encouragingly.
"Where be her address?" Mr. Higgins inquired of Madison.
Madison stepped to the bookshelves out of view of the Patriarch around the fireplace, but in full view of Mr. Higgins, and, reaching down the Bible from the topmost shelf, extracted from inside its cover the aged, yellow slip of paper that he had deposited there when he had entered the cottage that morning, and on which was inscribed Helena's name and address in a stiff, old-fashioned, angular hand resembling the Patriarch's—an effect that Madison had stayed up half the night to produce.