BY GEORGE GIBBS
The Vagrant Duke The Splendid Outcast The Black Stone The Golden Bough The Secret Witness Paradise Garden The Yellow Dove The Flaming Sword Madcap The Silent Battle The Maker of Opportunities The Forbidden Way The Bolted Door Tony's Wife The Medusa Emerald
D. APPLETON AND COMPANY Publishers New York
The VAGRANT DUKE
AUTHOR OF "THE SPLENDID OUTCAST," "THE YELLOW DOVE," "THE SECRET WITNESS," ETC.
D. APPLETON AND COMPANY NEW YORK LONDON 1921
COPYRIGHT, 1921, BY D. APPLETON AND COMPANY
Copyright, 1920, by The Story Press Corporation PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
I INTRODUCING PETER NICHOLS 15
II NEW YORK 27
III THE OVERALL GIRL 42
IV THE JOB 56
V NEW ELEMENTS 71
VI THE HOUSE OF TERROR 88
VII MUSIC 105
VIII THE PLACARD 121
IX SHAD IS UNPLEASANT 137
X "HAWK" 153
XI ANCIENT HISTORY 170
XII CONFESSION 186
XIII THE CHASE 207
XIV TWO LETTERS 226
XV SUPERMAN 236
XVI IDENTIFICATION 253
XVII PETER BECOMES A CONSPIRATOR 266
XVIII FACE TO FACE 276
XIX YAKIMOV REVEALS HIMSELF 291
XX THE RUSSIAN PAYS 308
XXI THE INFERNO 326
XXII RETRIBUTION 343
XXIII A VISITOR 357
The VAGRANT DUKE
THE VAGRANT DUKE
At the piano a man sat playing the "Revolutionary Etude" of Chopin. The room was magnificent in its proportions, its furnishings were massive, its paneled oak walls were hung with portraits of men and women in the costumes of a bygone day. Through the lofty windows, the casements of which were open to the evening sky there was a vista of forest and meadow-land stretching interminably to the setting sun. The mosquelike cupola of a village church, a few versts distant, glimmered like a pearl in the dusky setting of wooded hills, and close by it, here and there, tiny spirals of opalescent smoke marked the dwellings of Zukovo village.
But the man at the piano was detached, a being apart from this scene of quiet, absorbed in his piano, which gave forth the turbulence which had been in the soul of the great composer. The expression upon the dark face of the young musician was rapt and eager, until he crashed the chords to their triumphant conclusion when he sank back in his chair with a gasp, his head bent forward upon his breast, his dark gaze fixed upon the keys which still echoed with the tumult.
It was at this moment that a door at the side of the room was opened and a white-haired man in purple livery entered and stood in silence regarding rather wistfully the man at the piano, who raised his head abruptly like one startled from a dream.
"What is it, Vasili?" asked the musician.
The servant approached softly a few steps.
"I did not wish to intrude, Highness, but——"
As the old servant hesitated, the young man shrugged and rose, disclosing a tall, straight figure, clad in a dark blue blouse, loose trousers and brown boots liberally bespattered with mud. The glow of the sun which shot across his face as he came forward into the light, showed swarthy features, level brows, a straight nose, a well turned chin, a small mustache and a generous mouth which revealed a capacity for humor. He was quite calm now, and the tones of his voice were almost boyish in their confidence and gayety.
"Well, what is it, Vasili?" he repeated. "You have the air of one with much on your conscience. Out with it. Has Sacha been fighting with you again?"
"No, Master, not Sacha," said the old man clearing his throat nervously, "it is something worse—much worse than Sacha."
"Impossible!" said the other with a laugh as he took up a cigarette from the table. "Nothing could be worse than a Russian cook when she gets into a rage——"
"But it is, Master—something worse—much worse——"
"Really! You alarm me." The Grand Duke threw himself into an armchair and inhaled luxuriously of his cigarette. And then with a shrug, "Well?"
The old man came a pace or two nearer muttering hoarsely, "They've broken out in the village again," he gasped.
The Grand Duke's brow contracted suddenly.
"H-m. When did this happen?"
"Last night. And this morning they burned the stables of Prince Galitzin and looted the castle."
The young man sprang to his feet.
"You are sure of this?"
"Yes, Master. The word was brought by Serge Andriev less than ten minutes ago."
He took a few rapid paces up and down the room, stopping by the open window and staring out.
"Fools!" he muttered to himself. Then turning to the old servitor, "But, Vasili—why is it that I have heard nothing of this? To-day Conrad, the forester, said nothing to me. And the day before yesterday in the village the people swept off their caps to me—as in the old days. I could have sworn everything would be peaceful at Zukovo—at least, for the present——" he added as though in an afterthought.
"I pray God that may be true," muttered Vasili uncertainly. And then with unction, "In their hearts, they still love you, Highness. They are children—your children, their hearts still full of reverence for the Grand Duke Peter Nicholaevitch in whom runs the same blood as that which ran in the sacred being of the Little Father—but their brains! They are drunk with the poison poured into their minds by the Committeemen from Moscow."
"Ah," eagerly, "they returned?"
"Last night," replied the old man wagging his head. "And your people forgot all that you had said to them—all that they owe to you. They are mad," he finished despairingly, "mad!"
The Grand Duke had folded his arms and was staring out of the window toward the white dome of the church now dyed red like a globule of blood in the sunset.
The old man watched him for a moment, all the fealty of his many years of service in his gaze and attitude.
"I do not like the look of things, Highness. What does it matter how good their hearts are if their brains are bad?"
"I must go and talk with them, Vasili," said the Grand Duke quietly.
The old man took a step forward.
"If I might make so free——"
"Not to-night, Master——"
"It will be dangerous. Last night their voices were raised even against you."
"Me! Why? Have I not done everything I could to help them? I am their friend—because I believe in their cause: and they will get their rights too but not by burning and looting——"
"And murder, Master. Two of Prince Galitzin's foresters were killed."
The Grand Duke turned. "That's bad. Murder in Zukovo!" He flicked his extinguished cigarette out of the window and made a gesture with his hand.
"Go, Vasili. I want to think. I will ring if I need you."
"You will not go to Zukovo to-night?"
"I don't know."
And with another gesture he waved the servant away.
When Vasili had gone, the Grand Duke sat, his legs across the chair by the window, his arms folded along its back while his dark eyes peered out, beyond the hills and forests, beyond the reddened dome of the village church into the past where his magnificent father Nicholas Petrovitch held feudal sway over all the land within his vision and his father's fathers from the time of his own great namesake held all Russia in the hollow of their hands.
The Grand Duke's eyes were hard and bright above the slightly prominent cheek bones, the vestiges of his Oriental origin, but there was something of his English mother too in the contours of his chin and lips, which tempered the hardness of his expression. The lines at his brows were not the savage marks of anger, or the vengefulness that had characterized the pitiless blood which ran in his veins, but rather were they lines of disappointment, of perplexity at the problem that confronted him, and pity for his people who did not know where to turn for guidance. He still believed them to be his people, a heritage from his lordly parent, his children, who were responsible to him and to whom he was responsible. It was a habit of thought, inalienable, the product of the ages. But it was the calm philosophy of his English mother that had first given him his real sense of obligation to them, her teachings, even before the war began, that had shown him how terrible were the problems that confronted his future.
His service in the Army had opened his eyes still wider and when Russia had deserted her allies he had returned to Zukovo to begin the work of reconstruction in the ways his awakened conscience had dictated. He had visited their homes, offered them counsel, given them such money as he could spare, and had, he thought, become their friend as well as their hereditary guardian. All had gone well at first. They had listened to him, accepted his advice and his money and renewed their fealty under the new order of things, vowing that whatever happened elsewhere in Russia, blood and agony and starvation should not visit Zukovo.
But the news that Vasili brought was disquieting. It meant that the minds of his people were again disturbed. And the fact that Prince Galitzin had always been hated made the problems the Grand Duke faced none the less difficult. For his people had burned, pillaged and killed. They had betrayed him. And he had learned in the Army what fire and the smell of blood could do....
With a quick nod of resolution he rose. He would go to them. He knew their leaders. They would listen to him. They must listen....
He closed the piano carefully, putting away the loose sheets of music, picked up his cap and heavy riding crop from the divan, on his way to the door, pausing, his hand on the bell-rope as a thought brought a deeper frown to his brow.... Why had Conrad Grabar, his chief forester, said nothing to-day? He must have known—for news such as this travels from leaf to leaf through the forest. Conrad! And yet he would have sworn by the faithfulness of his old friend and hunting companion. Perhaps Conrad had not known....
The Grand Duke pulled the bell-rope, then went to the window again and stood as though listening for the voices of the woods. Silence. The sun had sunk, a dull red ball, and the dusk was falling swiftly. The aspens below his window quivered slightly, throwing their white leaves upwards as though in pain. The stately pines that he loved, mute, solemn, changeless, filled the air with balsam, but they gave no answer to his problem. It was difficult to believe that, there, in the restless souls of men war could rage. And yet....
He peered out more intently. Beyond the pine forest, a murky cloud was rising. A storm? Hardly. For the sun had set in a clear sky. But there was a cloud surely, growing in darkness and intensity. He could see it more clearly now, billowing upward in grim portent.
The Grand Duke started and then stared again. The cloud was of smoke. Through the woods, tiny lights were sparkling, picked out with ominous brilliancy against the velvet dusk. Peter Nicholaevitch leaned far out of the window, straining his ears to listen. And now he seemed to hear the crackle of flames, the distant sound of hoarse voices, shouting and singing.
And while he still listened, aware that a great crisis had come into his life, there was a commotion just below him, the sound of voices close at hand and he saw a man come running from the woods, approaching the gateway of the Castle.
He recognized him by the gray beard and thickset figure. It was Boris Rylov, the Huntsman, and as he ran he shouted to some one in the courtyard below. The Grand Duke made out the words:
"They're burning the Hunting Lodge—where is the Master——?"
Peter Nicholaevitch waited at the window no longer, but ran out of the room and down the flight of stairs into the great hall below. For he knew what had happened now. The Red Terror had come to Zukovo.
He went out to the garden terrace, crossing quickly to the courtyard where he met the frightened group of servants that had assembled.
Boris, the Huntsman, much out of breath was waving his arms excitedly toward the cloud of smoke rising above the pine trees, now tinged a dirty orange color from beneath.
"They came from all directions, Master," he gasped, "like the black flies upon a dead horse—hundreds—thousands of them from the village and all the country round. I talked with the first that came, Anton Lensky, Gleb Saltykov, Michael Kuprin and Conrad Grabar——"
"Conrad——!" gasped the Grand Duke.
"Yes, Highness," muttered Boris, his head bowed, "Conrad Grabar. They tried to restrain me. Michael Kuprin I struck upon the head with a stick—and then I fled—to warn your Highness—that they mean to come hither."
The face of the Grand Duke, a trifle pale under its tan, was set in stern lines, but there was no fear in his manner as he quickly questioned, his eyes eagerly scrutinizing the frightened men and women about him while he spoke to them with cool decision.
"Thanks, Friend Rylov—you have done me a service I shall not forget." Then to the others, "If there are any of you who fear to remain with me, you may go. I cannot believe that they will come to Zukovo Castle, but we will close the gate to the courtyard at once. I will talk with them from the terrace wall."
"Master! Highness!" broke in the Huntsman violently, "you do not understand. You cannot stay here. They are mad. They will kill you. It is for that they come——"
"Nevertheless—I mean to stay——"
"It is death——"
"Go thou, then, and Vasili, and Ivan. For before they burn Zukovo, I mean to talk with them——"
"It is madness——!"
"Come, Highness," broke in Leo Garshin, the head-groom, eagerly, "I will put the saddle upon Vera, and you can go out of the iron gate from the stable-yard into the forest. Nothing can catch you and you can reach the river——"
"No, Leo——" put in the Grand Duke kindly. "I shall stay."
The servants glanced at one another, appalled at the Master's attitude. Some of them, had already disappeared into the Castle but others, less timorous, had already rushed to close the courtyard gate.
"You say they are many, Friend Rylov?" he asked again.
"As the hairs of your head, Master—from Ivanovna, Jaroslav—everywhere—and women, Highness, more terrible than the men——"
"And the leaders——?"
"Dmitri Sidorov of the Zemstvo and Michael Kositzin and Anton Lensky. See, yonder! Where the road turns from the clearing—they come!"
The keen eyes of Boris saw further through the forest than those of most men but in a moment those of the Grand Duke Peter confirmed him. Figures were moving in the twilight, along the roads and bypaths.
To Peter Nicholaevitch they seemed like a great river which had flooded over its banks seeking new levels. Behind them the flames from the wooden hunting lodge roared upward painting a lurid sky. He saw that the flood came rapidly, and above the roar of the flames came the sound of voices singing the Russian version of the "Marseillaise." The Grand Duke stood at the terrace wall watching their approach. He knew that if they meant to attack the Castle the gate could not hold long, but he had hope that he might still be able to prevail upon them to listen to him. In a moment they saw him and began running forward toward the courtyard gate. He recognized individuals now—Anton Lensky, Michael Kuprin, with his head tied in a dirty handkerchief—and Conrad Grabar. The defection of his old instructor in wood-lore disturbed him. Conrad must have known what was to happen and he had said nothing. If Conrad had turned against him, what hope had he of prevailing against the others?
The singing died away and in its place, shouts and cries burst forth in a bedlam. "Open the gate!" "Let us in!"
The Grand Duke had heard that note in men's voices in the Carpathian passes, and he knew what it meant, but while his gaze sought out the fat figure of Michael Kositzin who was the leader of the uprising, he held up his hand for silence.
There was a roar of voices.
"Peter Nicholaevitch wishes to speak."
"It is our turn to speak now."
"Nasha pora prishla," (our time has come).
"Let the little master speak."
"We know no little masters here!"
"No, nor old ones!"
"Smiert Bourjouiam" (Death to the bourgeoisie).
But as the young Grand Duke began to speak the voices of the most rabid of the peasants were hushed for a moment by the others.
"My friends and my children" he began, "one word before you do something that you will forever regret. I am your friend. I am young—of the new generation. I have kept abreast of the new thought of the time and I believe in the New Life that is for you and for us all. I have proved it to you by bringing the New Life to Zukovo by peaceful means, by friendliness and brotherhood while other parts of Russia near by are in agony and darkness." (Cries of "That is true.") "It was in my heart that I had brought the Revolution to Zukovo, a Revolution against the old order of things which can be no more, implanting in you the strong seeds of Peace and Brotherhood which would kill out the ugly weeds of violence and enmity."
Here a hoarse voice rang out: "Fire—only fire can clean." Then the reply of a woman, "Yes, Tovaristchi, it is the only way."
Peter Nicholaevitch tried to seek out the speakers with his gaze. One of them was Michael Kuprin whom when a child the Grand Duke had seen flogged in this very courtyard.
"There are sins of the past," he went on, raising his voice against the low murmur of the mob, "many sins against you, but one sin does not wash out another. Murder, rapine, vengeance will never bring peace to Zukovo. What you do to-day will be visited on you to-morrow. I pray that you will listen to me. I have fought for you and with you—with Gleb Saltykov and Anton Lensky, against the return of Absolutism in Russia. The old order of things is gone. Do not stain the new with crime in Zukovo. I beseech you to disperse—return to your homes and I will come to you to-morrow and if there are wrongs I will set them right. You have believed in me in the past. Believe in me now and all may yet be well in Zukovo. Go, my friends, before it is too late——"
The crowd wavered, murmuring. But just then a shot rang out and the cap of the Grand Duke twitched around on his head.
A roar went up from near the gate, "Nasha pora prishla! Break in the gate!" cried the voices and there were those of women among them shouting "Tovaristchi! Forward!"
Over the heads of those in the front ranks, Peter Nicholaevitch saw some men bringing from the forest the heavy trunk of a felled pine tree. They meant to break down the gate. He knew that he had failed but still he stood upright facing them. Another shot, the bullet this time grazing his left arm. The sting of it angered him.
"Cowards!" he yelled, shaking his fist at them. "Cowards!"
A volley followed but no other bullets struck him. Behind him in the Castle doorway he heard the voice of Boris Rylov, calling to him hoarsely.
"Come, Master. For the love of God! There is yet time."
There was a crash of the heavy timbers at the gate.
With a shrug Peter Nicholaevitch turned and walked across the terrace toward the Castle. "Bolvany!" he muttered. "I've finished with them."
Boris and Vasili stood just within the door, pleading with him to hurry, and together they made their way through the deserted kitchens and over past the vegetable gardens to the stables, where Leo Garshin awaited them, the saddles on several horses. Behind them they could now hear the triumphant cries as the courtyard gate crashed in.
"Hurry, Master!" cried Garshin eagerly.
"Where are the others?" asked the Grand Duke.
"Gone, Highness. They have fled."
Boris Rylov was peering out past an iron door into the forest.
"There is no one there?" asked Garshin.
"Not yet. They have forgotten."
"Come then, Highness."
But the Grand Duke saw that the aged Vasili was mounted first and then they rode out of the iron gate into a path which led directly into the forest. It was not until they were well clear of the buildings that a shout at one side announced that their mode of escape had been discovered. Men came running, firing pistols as they ran. Boris Rylov, bringing up the rear, reined in his horse and turning emptied a revolver at the nearest of their pursuers. One man fell and the others halted.
Until they found the other horses in the stables pursuit was fruitless.
Peter Nicholaevitch rode at the head of the little cavalcade, down the familiar aisles of the forest, his head bowed, a deep frown on his brows. It was Vasili who first noticed the blood dripping from his finger ends.
"Master," he gasped, "you are wounded."
"It is nothing," said the Grand Duke.
But Vasili bound the arm up with a handkerchief while Leo Garshin and Boris Rylov watched the path down which they had come. They could hear the crackling of the flames at the Hunting Lodge to the southward and the cries of the mob at the Castle, but there was no sign of pursuit. Perhaps they were satisfied to appease their madness with pillage and fire. Half an hour later Boris pointed backward. A new glow had risen, a redder, deeper glow.
"The Castle, Master——" wailed Vasili.
Peter Nicholaevitch drew rein at a cross-path, watched for a moment and then turned to his companions, for he had reached a decision.
"My good friends," he said gently, "our ways part here."
But he was resolute.
"I am going on alone. I will not involve you further in my misfortunes. You can do nothing for me—nor I anything for you except this. Vasili knows. In the vault below the wine-cellar, hidden away, are some objects of value. They will not find them. When they go away you will return. The visit will repay you. Divide what is there into equal parts—silver, plate and gold. As for me—forget me. Farewell!"
They saw that he meant what he said. He offered these few faithful servitors his hand and they kissed his fingers—a last act of fealty and devotion and in a moment they stood listening to the diminishing hoof-beats of Vera as the young master went out of their lives.
"May God preserve him," muttered Vasili.
"Amen," said Boris Rylov and Leo Garshin.
INTRODUCING PETER NICHOLS
The British refugee ship Phrygia was about to sail for Constantinople where her unfortunate passengers were to be transferred to other vessels sailing for Liverpool and New York. After some difficulties the refugee made his way aboard her and announced his identity to the captain. If he had expected to be received with the honor due to one of his rank and station he was quickly undeceived, for Captain Blashford, a man of rough manners, concealing a gentle heart, looked him over critically, examined his credentials (letters he had happened to have about him), and then smiled grimly.
"We've got room for one more—and that's about all."
"I have no money——" began the refugee.
"Oh, that's all right," shrugged the Captain, "you're not the only one. We've a cargo of twenty princes, thirty-two princesses, eighteen generals and enough counts and countesses to set up a new nation somewhere. Your 'Ighness is the only Duke that has reached us up to the present speakin' and if there are any others, they'll 'ave to be brisk for we're sailin' in twenty minutes."
The matter-of-fact tones with which the unemotional Britisher made this announcement restored the lost sense of humor of the Russian refugee, and he broke into a grim laugh.
"An embarrassment of riches," remarked the Grand Duke.
"Riches," grunted the Captain, "in a manner of speakin', yes. Money is not so plentiful. But jools! Good God! There must be half a ton of diamonds, rubies and emeralds aboard. All they're got left most of 'em, but complaints and narvousness. Give me a cargo of wheat and I'm your man," growled the Captain. "It stays put and doesn't complain," and then turning to Peter—"Ye're not expectin' any r'yal suite aboard the Phrygia, are ye?"
"No. A hammock for'rad will be good enough for me."
"That's the way I like to 'ear a man talk. Good God! As man to man, I arsk you,—with Counts throwin' cigarette butts around an' princesses cryin' all over my clean white decks an' all, what's a self-respectin' skipper to do? But I 'ave my orders to fetch the odd lot to Constantinople an' fetch 'em I will. Oh! They're odd—all right. Go below, sir, an' 'ave a look at 'em."
But Peter Nicholaevitch shook his head. He had been doing a deal of quiet thinking in those starry nights upon the Dnieper, and he had worked out his problem alone.
"No, thanks," he said quietly, "if you don't mind, I think I'd rather preserve my incognito."
"Incognito, is it? Oh, very well, suit yourself. And what will I be callin' your Highness?"
"Peter Nichols," said the Grand Duke with a smile, "it's as good as any other."
"Right you are, Peter Nichols. Lay for'rad and tell the bos'n to show you up to my cabin."
So Peter Nichols went forward, avoiding the cargo aft, until within a day's run of the Bosphorus when he found himself accosted by no less a person than Prince Galitzin who had strolled out to get the morning air. He tried to avoid the man but Galitzin planted himself firmly in his path, scrutinizing him eagerly.
"You too, Highness!" he said with an accent of grieved surprise.
The Grand Duke regarded him in a moment of silence.
"It must be evident to you, Prince Galitzin, that I have some object in remaining unknown."
"But, Your Highness, such a thing is unnecessary. Are we not all dedicated to the same misfortunes? Misery loves company."
"You mean that it makes you less miserable to discover that I share your fate?"
"Not precisely that. It is merely that if one holding your liberal views cannot escape the holocaust that has suddenly fallen there is little hope for the rest of us."
"No," said the Grand Duke shortly. "There is no hope, none at all, for us or for Russia."
"Where are you going?"
"But, your Highness, that is impossible. We shall all have asylum in England until conditions change. You should go there with us. It will lend influence to our mission."
"I am leaving Russia for the present. She is outcast. For, not content with betraying others, she has betrayed herself."
"But what are you going to do?"
Peter Nicholaevitch smiled up at the sky and the fussy, fat, bejeweled sycophant before him listened to him in amazement.
"Prince Galitzin," said the Grand Duke amusedly, "I am going to do that which may bring the blush of shame to your brow or the sneer of pity to your lips. I am going to fulfill the destiny provided for every man with a pair of strong hands, and a willing spirit—I am going to work."
The Prince stepped back a pace, his watery eyes snapping in incomprehension.
"But your higher destiny—your great heritage as a Prince of the Royal blood of Holy Russia."
"There is no Holy Russia, my friend, until she is born again. Russia is worse than traitor, worse than liar, worse than murderer and thief. She is a fool."
"All will come right in time. We go to England to wait."
"I have other plans."
"Then you will not join us? Princess Anastasie, my daughter, is here. General Seminoff——"
"It is useless. I have made up my mind. Leave me, if you please."
Prince Galitzin disappeared quickly below to spread the information of his discovery among the disconsolate refugees and it was not long before it was known from one end of the Phrygia to the other that the fellow who called himself Peter Nichols was none other than the Grand Duke Peter Nicholaevitch, a cousin to his late Majesty Nicholas and a Prince of the Royal blood. Peter Nichols sought the Captain in his cabin, putting the whole case before him.
"H-m," chuckled the Captain, "Found ye out, did they? There's only a few of you left, that's why. Better stay 'ere in my cabin until we reach Constantinople. I'd be honored, 'Ighness, to say nothin' of savin' you a bit of bother."
"You're very kind."
"Not at all. Make yourself at 'ome. There's cigarettes on the locker and a nip of the Scotch to keep the chill out. Here's a light. You've been worryin' me some, 'Ighness. Fact is I didn't know just how big a bug you were until to-day when I arsked some questions. You'll forgive me, 'Ighness?"
"Peter Nichols," corrected the Grand Duke.
"No," insisted the Captain, "we'll give you yer title while we can. You know we British have a bit of a taste for r'yalty when we know it's the real thing. I don't take much stock in most of my cargo aft. And beggin' yer 'Ighness's pardon I never took much stock in Russia since she lay down on the job and left the Allies in the lurch——"
"Captain Blashford," said the Grand Duke quietly. "You can't hurt my feelings."
"But I do like you, 'Ighness, and I want to do all that I can to 'elp you when we get to anchor."
"I take it that you don't want anybody ashore to know who ye are?"
"Exactly. Most of these refugees are going to England. I have reasons for not wishing to go with them."
"Where then do you propose to go?"
"To the United States," said the Grand Duke eagerly.
"I'd have no money if I went to England unless I subsisted on the charity of my friends. My branch of the family is not rich. The war has made us poorer. Such securities as I have are in a vault in Kiev. It would be suicide for me to attempt to reclaim them now. I'm going to try to make my own way."
The Grand Duke laughed at the Englishman's expression.
"Yer 'ands, 'Ighness."
The Grand Duke shrugged and grinned.
"I'll risk it. I'm not without resources. Will you help me to a ship sailing for America?"
"Oh, I'll work my passage over—if nobody bothers me."
"By George! I like your spirit. Give me your 'and, sir. I'll do what I can. If the Bermudian hasn't sailed from the Horn yet, I think I can manage it for ye."
"And keep me clear of the rest of your passengers?" added His Highness.
"Righto. They'll go on the Semaphore. You stay right 'ere and mum's the word." And Captain Blashford went out on deck leaving Peter Nichols to his cigarette and his meditations.
Many times had the Grand Duke Peter given thanks that the blood of his mother flowed strongly in his veins. He was more British than Russian and he could remember things that had happened since he had grown to adolescence which had made the half of him that was English revolt against the Russian system. It was perhaps his musical education rather than his University training or his travels in England and France that had turned him to the Intelligentsia. In the vast republic of art and letters he had imbibed the philosophy that was to threaten the very existence of his own clan. The spread of the revolution had not dismayed him, for he believed that in time the pendulum would swing back and bring a constitutional government to Russia. But in the weeks of struggle, privation, and passion a new Peter Nicholaevitch was born.
The failure of his plans in the sudden flood of anarchy which had swept over Zukovo, the treachery of those he had thought faithful and the attempt upon his life had changed his viewpoint. It takes a truly noble spirit to wish to kiss the finger that has pulled the trigger of a revolver, the bullet from which has gone through one's hat. From disappointment and dismay Peter Nicholaevitch had turned to anger. They hadn't played the game with him. It wasn't cricket. His resolution to sail for the United States was decided. To throw himself, an object of charity, upon the mercies of the Earl of Shetland, his mother's cousin, was not to be thought of.
To his peasants he had preached the gospel of labor, humility and peace, in that state of life to which they had been called. He had tried to exemplify it to them. He could do no less now, to himself. By teaching himself, he could perhaps fit himself to teach them. In England it would perhaps be difficult to remain incognito, and he had a pride in wishing to succeed alone and unaided. Only the United States, whose form of government more nearly approached the ideal he had for Russia, could offer him the opportunities to discover whether or not a prince could not also be a man.
To the Princess Anastasie he gave little thought. That their common exile and the chance encounter under such circumstances had aroused no return of an entente toward what had once been a half-sentimental attachment convinced him of how little it had meant to him. There were no royal prohibitions upon him now. To marry the Princess Anastasie and settle in London, living upon the proceeds of her wealthy father's American and British securities, was of course the easiest solution of his difficulties. A life of ease, music, good sportsmanship, the comfort that only England knows.... She was comely too—blond, petite, and smoked her cigarette very prettily. Their marriage had once been discussed. She wanted it still, perhaps. Something of all this may have been somewhere in the back of Prince Galitzin's ambitious mind. The one course would be so easy, the other——
Peter Nicholaevitch rose and carefully flicked his cigarette through the open port. No. One does not pass twice through such moments of struggle and self-communion as he had had in those long nights of his escape along the Dnieper. He had chosen. Peter Nichols! The name amused him. If Captain Blashford was a man of his word to-night would be the end of the Grand Duke Peter Nicholaevitch, and the Princess Anastasie might find some more ardent suitor to her grace and beauty.
She did not seek him out. Perhaps the hint to Galitzin had been sufficient and the Grand Duke from his hiding place saw her pretty figure set ashore among the miscellany of martyred "r'yalty." He turned away from his port-hole with a catch of his breath as the last vestige of his old life passed from sight. And then quietly took up a fresh cigarette and awaited the Captain.
The details were easily arranged. Blashford was a man of resource and at night returned from a visit to the Captain of the Bermudian with word that all was well. He had been obliged to relate the facts but Captain Armitage could keep a secret and promised the refugee a job under his steward who was short-handed. And so the next morning, after shaving and dressing himself in borrowed clothes, Peter Nichols shook Captain Blashford warmly by the hand and went aboard his new ship.
Peter Nichols' new job was that of a waiter at the tables in the dining saloon. He was a very good waiter, supplying, from the wealth of a Continental experience, the deficiencies of other waiters he had known. He wore a black shell jacket and a white shirt front which remained innocent of gravy spots. The food was not very good nor very plentiful, but he served it with an air of such importance that it gained flavor and substance by the reflection of his deference. There were English officers bound for Malta, Frenchmen for Marseilles and Americans of the Red Cross without number bound for New York. Girls, too, clear-eyed, bronzed and hearty, who talked war and politics beneath his very nose, challenging his own theories. They noticed him too and whispered among themselves, but true to his ambition to do every task at the best of his bent, he preserved an immobile countenance and pocketed his fees, which would be useful ere long, with the grateful appreciation of one to whom shillings and franc pieces come as the gifts of God. Many were the attempts to draw him into a conversation, but where the queries could not be answered by a laconic "Yes, sir," or "No, sir," this paragon of waiters maintained a smiling silence.
"I'm sure he's a prince or something," he heard one young girl of a hospital unit say to a young medico of the outfit. "Did you ever see such a nose and brows in your life? And his hands——! You can never mistake hands. I would swear those hands had never done menial work for a thousand years."
All of which was quite true, but it made the waiter Peter uncomfortably careful. There were no women in the kitchen, but there was an amatory stewardess, fat and forty, upon whom the factitious technique of the saloon fell with singular insipidity. He fled from her. Peter, the waiter, was already a good democrat but he was not ready to spread his philosophy out so thin.
He slept forward, messed abaft the galley, enriched his vocabulary and broadened his point of view. There is no leveler like a ship's fo'c'sle, no better school of philosophy than that of men upon their "beam ends." There were many such—Poles, Slovaks, Roumanians, an Armenian or two, refugees, adventurers from America, old, young, dissolute, making a necessity of virtue under that successful oligarchy, the ship's bridge.
In the Americans Peter was interested with an Englishman's point of view. He had much to learn, and he invented a tale of his fortunes which let him into their confidences, especially into that of Jim Coast, waiter like himself, whose bunk adjoined his own. Jim Coast was a citizen of the world, inured to privation under many flags. He had been born in New Jersey, U. S. A., of decent people, had worked in the cranberry bogs, farmed in Pennsylvania, "punched" cattle in Wyoming, "prospected" in the Southwest, looted ranches in Mexico, fought against Diaz and again with the insurgents in Venezuela, worked on cattle-ships and so, by easy stages, had drifted across the breadth of Europe living by his wits at the expense of the credulous and the unwary. And now, for the first time in many years, he was going home—though just what that meant he did not know. He had missed great fortune twice—"by the skin of his teeth," as he picturesquely described it, once in a mine in Arizona and again in a land-deal in the Argentine. There were reasons why he hadn't dared to return to the United States before. He was a man with a grievance, but, however free in his confidences in other respects, gave the interested Peter no inkling as to what that grievance was.
No more curious acquaintanceship could possibly be imagined, but privation, like politics, makes strange bedfellows, and, from tolerance and amusement, Pete, as the other called him, found himself yielding, without stint, to the fantastic spell of Jim Coast's multifarious attractions. He seemed to have no doubts as to the possibility of making a living in America and referred darkly to possible "coups" that would net a fortune. He was an agreeable villain, not above mischief to gain his ends, and Peter, who cherished an ideal, made sure that, once safe ashore, it would be best if they parted company. But he didn't tell Jim Coast so, for the conversational benefits he derived from that gentleman's acquaintance were a liberal education.
We are admonished that they are blessed who just stand and wait, and Peter Nichols, three days out of New York harbor, found himself the possessor of forty dollars in tips from the voyage with sixty dollars coming to him as wages—not so bad for a first venture upon the high seas of industry. It was the first real money he had ever made in his life and he was proud of it, jingling it contentedly in his pockets and rubbing the bills luxuriously one against the other. But his plans required more than this, for he had read enough to know that in the United States one is often taken at one's own estimate, and that if he wasn't to find a job as a ditch-digger, he must make a good appearance. And so it was now time to make use of the one Grand Ducal possession remaining to him, a gold ring set with a gorgeous ruby that had once belonged to his father. This ring he had always worn and had removed from his finger at Ushan, in the fear that its magnificence might betray him. He had kept it carefully tied about his neck in a bag on a bit of string and had of course not even shown it to Jim Coast who might have deemed it an excuse to sever their strange friendship.
Through the Head Steward he managed a message to Captain Armitage and was bidden to the officer's cabin, where he explained the object of his visit, exhibited his treasure and estimated its value.
The Captain opened his eyes a bit wider as he gazed into the sanguine depths of the stone.
"If I didn't know something of your history, Nichols," he said with a wink, "I might think you'd been looting the strong box of the Sultan of Turkey. Pigeon's blood and as big as my thumb nail! You want to sell it?"
"I need capital."
"What do you want for it?"
"It's worth a thousand pounds of English money. Perhaps more, I don't know. I'll take what I can get."
"I see. You're afraid to negotiate the sale ashore?"
"Exactly. I'd be arrested."
"And you don't want explanations. H-m—leave it with me over night. I'll see the Purser. He'll know."
The Captain offered the waiter in the shell-jacket the hospitality of his cabin, but Peter Nichols thanked him gratefully and withdrew.
The result of this arrangement was that the ruby ring changed owners. The Purser bought it for two thousand in cash. He knew a good thing when he saw it. But Peter Nichols was satisfied.
The Duke-errant had prepared himself for the first glimpse of the battlements of lower New York, but as the Bermudian came up the bay that rosy spring afternoon, the western sun gilding the upper half of the castellated towers which rose from a sea of moving shadows, it seemed a dream city, the fortress of a fairy tale. His fingers tingled to express this frozen music, to relieve it from its spell of enchantment, and phrases of Debussy's "Cathedrale Engloutie" came welling up within him from almost forgotten depths.
"Parbleu! She's grown some, Pete, since I saw her last!"
This from his grotesque companion who was not moved by concord of sweet sounds. "They've buried the Trinity clean out of sight."
"The Trinity?" questioned Peter solemnly.
"Bless your heart——" laughed Coast, "I'd say so——But I mean, the church——And that must be the Woolworth Building yonder. Where's yer St. Paul's and Kremlin now? Some village,—what?"
"Gorgeous!" muttered Peter.
"Hell of a thing to tackle single-handed, though, eh, boh?"
Something of the same thought was passing through Peter's mind but he only smiled.
"I'll find a job," he said slowly.
"Waitin'!" sneered Coast. "Fine job that for a man with your learnin'. 'Hey, waiter! Some butter if you please,'" he satirized in mincing tones, "'this soup is cold—this beef is underdone. Oh, cawn't you give me some service here!' I say, don't you hear 'em—people that never saw a servant in their own home town. Pretty occupation for an old war horse like me or a globe-trotter like you. No. None for me. I'll fry my fish in a bigger pan. Allons! Pete. I like you. I'll like you more when you grow some older, but you've got a head above your ears that ain't all bone. I can use you. What d'ye say? We'll get ashore, some way, and then we'll show the U. S. A. a thing or two not written in the books."
"We'll go ashore together, Jim. Then we'll see."
"Righto! But I'll eat my hat if I can see you balancin' dishes in a Broadway Chop House."
Peter couldn't see that either, but he didn't tell Jim Coast so. Their hour on deck had struck, for a final meal was to be served and they went below to finish their duties. That night they were paid off and discharged.
The difficulties in the way of inspection and interrogation of Peter Nichols, the alien, were obviated by the simple expedient of his going ashore under cover of the darkness and not coming back to the ship—this at a hint from the sympathetic Armitage who gave the ex-waiter a handclasp and his money and wished him success.
Midnight found Peter and Jim Coast on Broadway in the neighborhood of Forty-second Street with Peter blinking comfortably up at the electric signs and marveling at everything. The more Coast drank the deeper was his cynicism but Peter grew mellow. This was a wonderful new world he was exploring and with two thousand dollars safely tucked on the inside of his waistcoat, he was ready to defy the tooth of adversity.
In the morning Peter Nichols came to a decision. And so over the coffee and eggs when Coast asked him what his plans were he told him he was going to look for a job.
Coast looked at him through the smoke of his cigar and spoke at last.
"I didn't think you'd be a quitter, Pete. The world owes us a livin'—you and me——Bah! It's easy if you'll use your headpiece. If the world won't give, I mean to take. The jobs are meant for little men."
"What are you going to do?"
"An enterprisin' man wouldn't ask such a question. Half the people in the world takes what the other half gives. You ought to know what half I belong to."
"I'm afraid I belong to the other half, Jim Coast," said Peter quietly.
"Sacre—!" sneered the other, rising suddenly. "Where you goin' to wait, Pete? At the Ritz or the Commodore? In a month you'll be waitin' on me. It'll be Mister Coast for you then, mon garcon, but you'll still be Pete." He shrugged and offered his hand. "Well, we won't quarrel but our ways split here."
"I'm sorry, Jim. Good-by."
He saw Coast slouch out into the street and disappear m the crowd moving toward Broadway. He waited for a while thinking deeply and then with a definite plan in his mind strolled forth. First he bought a second-hand suit case in Seventh Avenue, then found a store marked "Gentlemen's Outfitters" where he purchased ready-made clothing, a hat, shoes, underwear, linen and cravats, arraying himself with a sense of some satisfaction and packing in his suitcase what he couldn't wear, went forth, found a taxi and drove in state to a good hotel.
* * * * *
New York assimilates its immigrants with surprising rapidity. Through this narrow funnel they pour into the "melting pot," their racial characteristics already neutralized, their souls already inoculated with the spirit of individualism. Prepared as he was to accept with a good grace conditions as he found them, Peter Nichols was astonished at the ease with which he fitted into the niche that he had chosen. His room was on the eighteenth floor, to which and from which he was shot in an enameled lift operated by a Uhlan in a monkey-cap. He found that it required a rather nice adjustment of his muscles to spring forth at precisely the proper moment. There was a young lady who presided over the destinies of the particular shelf that he occupied in this enormous cupboard, a very pretty young lady, something between a French Duchess and a lady's maid. Her smile had a homelike quality though and it was worth risking the perilous catapulting up and down for the mere pleasure of handing her his room key. Having no valuables of course but his money which he carried in his pockets there was no danger from unprincipled persons had she been disposed to connive at dishonesty.
His bedroom was small but neat and his bathroom was neat but small, tiled in white enamel, containing every device that the heart of a clean man could desire. He discovered that by dropping a quarter into various apertures he could secure almost anything he required from tooth paste to razor blades. There was a telephone beside his bed which rang at inconvenient moments and a Bible upon the side table proclaimed the religious fervor of this extraordinary people. A newspaper was sent in to him every morning whether he rang for it or not, and every time he did ring, a lesser Uhlan brought a thermos bottle containing iced water. This perplexed him for a time but he was too much ashamed of his ignorance to question. You see, he was already acquiring the first ingredient of the American character—omniscience, for he found that in New York no one ever admits that he doesn't know everything.
But it was all very wonderful, pulsing with life, eloquent of achievement. He was in no haste. By living with some care, he found that the money from his ruby would last for several months. Meanwhile he was studying his situation and its possibilities. Summing up his own attainments he felt that he was qualified as a teacher of the piano or of the voice, as an instructor in languages, or if the worst came, as a waiter in a fashionable restaurant—perhaps even a head-waiter—which from the authority he observed in the demeanor of the lord of the hotel dining room seemed almost all the honor that a person in America might hope to gain. But, in order that no proper opportunity should slip by, he scanned the newspapers in the hope of finding something that he could do.
As the weeks passed he made the discovery that he was being immensely entertained. He was all English now. It was not in the least difficult to make acquaintances. Almost everybody spoke to everybody without the slightest feeling of restraint. He learned the meaning of the latest American slang but found difficulty in applying it, rejoiced in the syncopation of the jazz, America's original contribution to the musical art, and by the end of a month thought himself thoroughly acclimated.
But he still surprised inquiring glances male and female cast in his direction. There was something about his personality which, disguise it as he might under American-made garments and American-made manners, refused to be hidden. It was his charm added to his general good nature and adaptability which quickly made Peter Nichols some friends of the better sort. If he had been willing to drift downward he would have cast in his lot with Jim Coast. Instead, he followed decent inclinations and found himself at the end of six weeks a part of a group of young business men who took him home to dine with their wives and gave him the benefit of their friendly advice. To all of them he told the same story, that he was an Englishman who had worked in Russia with the Red Cross and that he had come to the United States to get a job.
It was a likely story and most of them swallowed it. But one clever girl whom he met out at dinner rather startled him by the accuracy of her intuitions.
"I have traveled a good deal, Mr. Nichols," she said quizzically, "but I've never yet met an Englishman like you."
"It is difficult for me to tell whether I am to consider that as flattery or disapproval," said Peter calmly.
"You talk like an Englishman, but you're entirely too much interested in everything to be true to type."
"Englishmen are either bored or presumptuous. You're neither. And there's a tiny accent that I can't explain——"
"I must. We Americans believe in our impulses. My brother Dick says you're a man of mystery. I've solved it," she laughed, "I'm sure you're a Russian Grand Duke incognito."
Peter laughed and tried bravado.
"You are certainly all in the mustard," he blundered helplessly.
And she looked at him for a moment and then burst into laughter.
These associations were very pleasant, but, contrary to Peter's expectations, they didn't seem to be leading anywhere. The efforts that he made to find positions commensurate with his ambitions had ended in blind alleys. He was too well educated for some of them, not well enough educated for others.
More than two months had passed. He had moved to a boarding house in a decent locality, but of the two thousands dollars with which he had entered New York there now remained to him less than two hundred. He was beginning to believe that he had played the game and lost and that within a very few weeks he would be obliged to hide himself from these excellent new acquaintances and go back to his old job. Then the tide of his fortune suddenly turned.
Dick Sheldon, the brother of the girl who was "all in the mustard," aware of Peter's plight, had stumbled across the useful bit of information and brought it to Peter at the boarding house.
"Didn't you tell me that you'd once had something to do with forestry in Russia?" he asked.
Peter nodded. "I was once employed in the reafforestation of a large estate," he replied.
"Then I've found your job," said Sheldon heartily, clapping Peter on the back. "A friend of Sheldon, Senior's, Jonathan K. McGuire, has a big place down in the wilderness of Jersey—thousands of acres and he wants a man to take charge—sort of forestry expert and general superintendent, money no object. I reckon you could cop out three hundred a month as a starter."
"That looks good to me," said Peter, delighted that the argot fell so aptly from his lips. And then, "You're not spoofing, are you?"
"Devil a spoof. It's straight goods, Nichols. Will you take it?"
Peter had a vision of the greasy dishes he was to escape.
"Will I?" he exclaimed delightedly. "Can I get it?"
"Sure thing. McGuire is a millionaire, made a pot of money somewhere in the West—dabbles in the market. That's where Dad met him. Crusty old rascal. Daughter. Living down in Jersey now, alone with a lot of servants. Queer one. Maybe you'll like him—maybe not."
Peter clasped his friend by the hands.
"Moloch himself would look an angel of mercy to me now."
"Do you think you can make good?"
"Well, rather. Whom shall I see? And when?"
"I can fix it up with Dad, I reckon. You'd better come down to the office and see him about twelve."
Peter Sheldon, Senior, looked him over and asked him questions and the interview was quite satisfactory.
"I'll tell you the truth, as far as I know it," said Sheldon, Senior (which was more than Peter Nichols had done). "Jonathan K. McGuire is a strange character—keeps his business to himself——. How much he's worth nobody knows but himself and the Treasury Department. Does a good deal of buying and selling through this office. A hard man in a deal but reasonable in other things. I've had his acquaintance for five years, lunched with him, dined with him—visited this place in Jersey, but I give you my word, Mr. Nichols, I've never yet got the prick of a pin beneath that man's skin. You may not like him. Few people do. But there's no harm in taking a try at this job."
"I shall be delighted," said Nichols.
"I don't know whether you will or not," broke in Sheldon, Senior, frankly. "Something's happened lately. About three weeks ago Jonathan K. McGuire came into this office hurriedly, shut the door behind him, locked it—and sank into a chair, puffing hard, his face the color of putty. He wouldn't answer any questions and put me off, though I'd have gone out of my way to help him. But after a while he looked out of the window, phoned for his car and went again, saying he was going down into Jersey."
"He was sick, perhaps," ventured Peter.
"It was something worse than that, Mr. Nichols. He looked as though he had seen a ghost or heard a banshee. Then this comes," continued the broker, taking up a letter from the desk. "Asks for a forester, a good strong man. You're strong, Mr. Nichols? Er—and courageous? You're not addicted to 'nerves'? You see I'm telling you all these things so that you'll go down to Black Rock with your eyes open. He also asks me to engage other men as private police or gamekeepers, who will act under your direction. Queer, isn't it? Rather spooky, I'd say, but if you're game, we'll close the bargain now. Three hundred a month to start with and found. Is that satisfactory?"
"Perfectly," said Peter with a bow. "When do I begin?"
"At once if you like. Salary begins now. Fifty in advance for expenses."
"That's fair enough, Mr. Sheldon. If you will give me the directions, I will go to-day."
"To-morrow will be time enough." Sheldon, Senior, had turned to his desk and was writing upon a slip of paper. This he handed to Peter with a check.
"That will show you how to get there," he said as he rose, brusquely. "Glad to have met you. Good-day."
And Peter felt himself hand-shaken and pushed at the same time, reaching the outer office, mentally out of breath from the sudden, swift movement of his fortunes. Sheldon, Senior, had not meant to be abrupt. He was merely a business man relaxing for a moment to do a service for a friend. When Peter Nichols awoke to his obligations he sought out Sheldon, Junior, and thanked him with a sense of real gratitude and Sheldon, Junior, gave him a warm handclasp and Godspeed.
* * * * *
The Pennsylvania Station caused the new Superintendent of Jonathan K. McGuire to blink and gasp. He paused, suit case in hand, at the top of the double flight of stairs to survey the splendid proportions of the waiting room where the crowds seemed lost in its great spaces. In Europe such a building would be a cathedral. In America it was a railway station. And the thought was made more definite by the Gregorian chant of the train announcer which sounded aloft, its tones seeking concord among their own echoes.
This was the portal to the new life in which Peter was to work out his own salvation and the splendor of the immediate prospect uplifted him with a sense of his personal importance in the new scheme of things of which this was a part. He hadn't the slightest doubt that he would be able to succeed in the work for which he had been recommended, for apart from his music—which had taken so many of his hours—there was nothing that he knew more about or loved better than the trees. He had provided himself the afternoon before with two books by American authorities and other books and monographs were to be forwarded to his new address.
As he descended the stairs and reached the main floor of the station, his glance caught the gaze of a man staring at him intently. The man was slender and dark, dressed decently enough in a gray suit and soft hat and wore a small black mustache. All of these facts Peter took note of in the one glance, arrested by the strange stare of the other, which lingered while Peter glanced away and went on. Peter, who had an excellent memory for faces, was sure that he had never seen the man before, but after he had taken a few steps, it occurred to him that in the stranger's eyes he had noted the startled distention of surprise and recognition. And so he stopped and turned, but as he did so the fellow dropped his gaze suddenly, and turned and walked away. The incident was curious and rather interesting. If Peter had had more time he would have sought out the fellow and asked him why he was staring at him, but there were only a few moments to spare and he made his way out to the concourse where he found his gate and descended to his train. Here he ensconced himself comfortably in the smoking car, and was presently shot under the Hudson River (as he afterwards discovered) and out into the sunshine of the flats of New Jersey.
He rolled smoothly along through the manufacturing and agricultural districts, his keenly critical glances neglecting nothing of the waste and abundance on all sides. He saw, too, the unlovely evidences of poverty on the outskirts of the cities, which brought to his mind other communities in a far country whose physical evidences of prosperity were no worse, if no better, than these. Then there came a catch in his throat and a gasp which left him staring but seeing nothing. The feeling was not nostalgia, for that far country was no home for him now. At last he found himself muttering to himself in English, "My home—my home is here."
After a while the mood of depression, recurrent moments of which had come to him in New York with diminishing frequency, passed into one of contemplation, of calm, like those which had followed his nights of passion on the Dnieper, and at last he closed his eyes and dozed. Visions of courts and camps passed through his mind—of brilliant uniforms and jeweled decorations; of spacious polished halls, resplendent with ornate mirrors and crystal pendant chandeliers; of diamond coronets, of silks and satins and powdered flunkies. And then other visions of gray figures crouched in the mud; of rain coming out of the dark and of ominous lights over the profile of low hills; of shrieks; of shells and cries of terror; of his cousin, a tall, bearded man on a horse in a ravine waving an imperious arm; of confusion and moving thousands, the creak of sanitars, the groans of men calling upon mothers they would never see. And then with a leap backward over the years, the vision of a small man huddled against the wall of a courtyard being knouted until red stains appeared on his gray blouse and then mingled faintly in the mist and the rain until the small man sank to the full length of his imprisoned arms like one crucified....
Peter Nichols straightened and passed a hand across his damp forehead. Through the perspective of this modern civilization what had been passing before his vision seemed very vague, very distant, but he knew that it was not a dream....
All about him was life, progress, industry, hope—a nation in the making, proud of her brief history which had been built around an ideal. If he could bring this same ideal back to Russia! In his heart he thanked God for America—imperfect though she was, and made a vow that in the task he had set for himself he should not be found wanting.
Twice he changed trains, the second time at a small junction amid an ugliness of clay-pits and brickyards and dust and heat. There were perhaps twenty people on the platform. He walked the length of the station and as he did so a man in a gray suit disappeared around the corner of the building. But Peter Nichols did not see him, and in a moment, seated in his new train in a wooden car which reminded him of some of the ancient rolling stock of the St. Petersburg and Moscow Railroad, he was taken haltingly and noisily along the last stage of his journey.
But he was aware of the familiar odor of the pine balsam in his nostrils, and as he rolled through dark coverts the scent of the growing things in the hidden places in the coolth and damp of the sandy loam. He saw, too, tea-colored streams idling among the sedges and charred wildernesses of trees appealing mutely with their blackened stumps like wounded creatures in pain, a bit of war-torn Galicia in the midst of peace. Miles and miles of dead forest land, forgotten and uncared for. There was need here for his services.
With a wheeze of steam and a loud crackling of woodwork and creaking of brakes the train came to a stop and the conductor shouted the name of the station. Rather stiffly the traveler descended with his bag and stood upon the small platform looking about him curiously. The baggage man tossed out a bundle of newspapers and a pouch of mail and the train moved off. Apparently Peter Nichols was the only passenger with Pickerel River as a destination.
And as the panting train went around a curve, at last disappearing, it seemed fairly reasonable to Peter Nichols that no one with the slightest chance of stopping off anywhere else would wish to get off here. The station was small, of but one room and a tiny office containing, as he could see, a telegraph instrument, a broken chair with a leather cushion, a shelf and a rack containing a few soiled slips of paper, but the office had no occupant and the door was locked. This perhaps explained the absence of the automobile which Mr. Sheldon had informed him would meet him in obedience to his telegram announcing the hour of his arrival. Neither within the building nor without was there any person or animate thing in sight, except some small birds fluttering and quarreling along the telegraph wires.
There was but one road, a sandy one, wearing marks of travel, which emerged from the scrub oak and pine and definitely concluded at the railroad track. This, then, was his direction, and after reassuring himself that there was no other means of egress, he took up his black suitcase and set forth into the wood, aware of a sense of beckoning adventure. The road wound in and out, up and down, over what at one time must have been the floor of the ocean, which could not be far distant. Had it not been for the weight of his bag Peter would have enjoyed the experience of this complete isolation, the fragrant silences broken only by the whisper of the leaves and the scurrying of tiny wild things among the dead tree branches. But he had no means of knowing how far he would have to travel or whether, indeed, there had not been some mistake on Sheldon, Senior's, part or his own. But the directions had been quite clear and the road must of course lead somewhere—to some village or settlement at least where he could get a lodging for the night.
And so he trudged on through the woods which already seemed to be partaking of some of the mystery which surrounded the person of Jonathan K. McGuire. The whole incident had been unusual and the more interesting because of the strange character of his employer and the evident fear he had of some latent evil which threatened him. But Peter Nichols had accepted his commission with a sense of profound relief at escaping the other fate that awaited him, with scarcely a thought of the dangers which his acceptance might entail. He was not easily frightened and had welcomed the new adventure, dismissing the fears of Jonathan K. McGuire as imaginary, the emanations of age or an uneasy conscience.
But as he went on, his bag became heavier and the perspiration poured down his face, so reaching a cross-path that seemed to show signs of recent travel he put the suitcase down and sat on it while he wiped his brow. The shadows were growing longer. He was beginning to believe that there was no such place as Black Rock, no such person as Jonathan K. McGuire and that Sheldon, Senior, and Sheldon, Junior, were engaged in a conspiracy against his peace of mind, when above the now familiar whisperings of the forest he heard a new sound. Faintly it came at first as though from a great distance, mingling with the murmur of the sighing wind in the pine trees, a voice singing. It seemed a child's voice—delicate, clear, true, as care-free as the note of a bird—unleashing its joy to the heavens.
Peter Nichols started up, listening more intently. The sounds were coming nearer but he couldn't tell from which direction, for every leaf seemed to be taking up the lovely melody which he could hear quite clearly now. It was an air with which he was unfamiliar, but he knew only that it was elemental in its simplicity and under these circumstances startlingly welcome. He waited another long moment, listening, found the direction from which the voice was coming, and presently noted the swaying of branches and the crackling of dry twigs in the path near by, from which, in a moment, a strange figure emerged.
At first he thought it was a boy, for it wore a pair of blue denim overalls and a wide-brimmed straw hat, from beneath which the birdlike notes were still emitted, but as the figure paused at the sight of him, the song suddenly ceased—he saw a tumbled mass of tawny hair and a pair of startled blue eyes staring at him.
"Hello," said the figure, after a moment, recovering its voice.
"Good-afternoon," said Peter Nichols, bowing from the waist in the most approved Continental manner. You see he, too, was a little startled by the apparition, which proclaimed itself beneath its strange garments in unmistakable terms to be both feminine and lovely.
THE OVERALL GIRL
They stood for a long moment regarding each other, both in curiosity; Peter because of the contrariety of the girl's face and garments, the girl because of Peter's bow, which was the most extraordinary thing that had ever happened in Burlington County. After a pause, a smile which seemed to have been hovering uncertainly around the corners of her lips broke into a frank grin, disclosing dimples and a row of white teeth, the front ones not quite together.
"Could you tell me," asked Peter very politely as he found his voice, "if this road leads to Black Rock?"
She was still scrutinizing him, her head, birdlike, upon one side.
"That depends on which way you're walkin'," she said.
She dropped her "g" with careless ease, but then Peter had noticed that many Americans and English people, some very nice ones, did that.
Peter glanced at the girl and then down the road in both directions.
"Oh, yes, of course," he said, not sure whether she was smiling at or with him. "I came from a station called Pickerel River and I wish to go to Black Rock."
"You're sure you want to go there?"
"I guess that's because you've never been to Black Rock, Mister."
"No, I haven't."
The girl picked a shrub and nibbled at it daintily.
"You'd better turn and go right back." Her sentence finished in a shrug.
"What's the matter with Black Rock?" he asked curiously.
"It's just the little end of nothin'. That's all," she finished decisively.
The quaint expression interested him. "I must get there, nevertheless," he said; "is it far from here?"
"Depends on what you call far. Mile or so. Didn't the 'Lizzie' meet the six-thirty?"
Peter stared at her vacuously, for this was Greek.
"The tin 'Lizzie'—Jim Hagerman's bus—carries the mail and papers. Sometimes he gives me a lift about here."
"No. There was no conveyance of any sort and I really expected one. I wish to get to Mr. Jonathan K. McGuire's."
The girl had been examining Peter furtively, as though trying vainly to place him definitely in her mental collection of human bipeds. Now she stared at him with interest.
"Oh, you're goin' to McGuire's!"
Peter nodded. "If I can ever find the way."
"You're one of the new detectives?"
"Detective!" Peter laughed. "No. Not that I'm aware. I'm the new superintendent and forester."
The girl was visibly impressed, but a tiny frown puckered her brow.
"What's a forester?" she asked.
"A fellow who looks after the forests."
"The forests don't need any lookin' after out here in the barrens. They just grow."
"I'm going to teach them to grow better."
The girl looked at him for a long moment of suspicion. She had taken off her hat and the ruddy sunlight behind her made a golden halo all about her head. Her hands he had noted were small, the fingers slender. Her nose was well shaped, her nostrils wide, the angle of her jaw firmly modeled and her slender figure beneath the absurd garments revealed both strength and grace. But he did not dare to stare at her too hard or to question her as to her garments. For all that Peter knew it might be the custom of Burlington County for women to wear blue denim trousers.
And her next question took him off his guard.
"You city folk don't think much of yourselves, do you?"
"I don't exactly understand what you mean," said Peter politely, marking the satirical note.
"To think you can make these trees grow better!" she sniffed.
"Oh, I'm just going to help them to help themselves."
"That's God's job, Master."
Peter smiled. She wouldn't have understood, he thought, so what was the use of explaining. There must have been a superior quality in Peter's smile, for the girl put on her hat and came down into the road.
"I'm goin' to Black Rock," she said stiffly, "follow me." And she went off with a quick stride down the road.
Peter Nichols took up his bag and started, with difficulty getting to a place beside her.
"If you don't mind," he said, "I'd much rather walk with you than behind you."
She shrugged a shoulder at him.
"Suit yourself," she said.
In this position, Peter made the discovery that her profile was quite as interesting as her full face, but she no longer smiled. Her reference to the Deity entirely eliminated Peter and the profession of forestry from the pale of useful things. He was sorry that she no longer smiled because he had decided to make friends at Black Rock and he didn't want to make a bad beginning.
"I hope you don't mind," said Peter at last, "if I tell you that you have one of the loveliest voices that I have ever heard."
He marked with pleasure the sudden flush of color that ran up under her delicately freckled tan. Her lips parted and she turned to him hesitating.
"You—you heard me!"
"I did. It was like the voice of an angel in Heaven."
"Angel! Oh! I'm sorry. I—I didn't know any one was there. I just sing on my way home from work."
"You've been working to-day?"
She nodded. "Yes—Farmerettin'."
"Workin' in the vineyard at Gaskill's."
"Oh, I see. Do you like it?"
"No," she said dryly. "I just do it for my health. Don't I look sick?"
Peter wasn't used to having people make fun of him. Even as a waiter he had managed to preserve his dignity intact. But he smiled at her.
"I was wondering what had become of the men around here."
"They're so busy walkin' from one place to another to see where they can get the highest wages, that there's no time to work in between."
"I see," said Peter, now really amused. "And does Mr. Jonathan McGuire have difficulty in getting men to work for him?"
"Most of his hired help come from away—like you——But lately they haven't been stayin' long."
She slowed her pace a little and turned to look at him curiously.
"Do you mean that you don't know the kind of a job you've got?"
"Not much," admitted Peter. "In addition to looking after the preserve, I'm to watch after the men—and obey orders, I suppose."
"H-m. Preserve! Sorry, Mr. what's your name——"
"Peter Nichols——" put in Peter promptly.
"Well, Mr. Peter Nichols, all I have to say is that you're apt to have a hard time."
"Yes, I'm against it!" translated Peter confidently.
The girl stopped in the middle of the road, put her hands on her hips and laughed up at the purpling sky. Her laugh was much like her singing—if angels in Paradise laugh (and why shouldn't they?). Then while he wondered what was so amusing she looked at him again.
"Up against it, you mean. You're English, aren't you?"
"I thought so. There was one of you in the glass factory. He always muffed the easy ones."
"Oh, you work in a glass factory?"
"Winters. Manufacturin' whiskey and beer bottles. Now we're goin' dry, they'll be makin' pop and nursin' bottles, I guess."
"Do you help in the factory?"
"Yes, and in the office. I can shorthand and type a little."
"You must be glad when a summer comes."
"I am. In winter I can't turn around without breakin' something. They dock you for that——"
"And that's why you sing when you can't break anythin'?"
"I suppose so. I like the open. It isn't right to be cooped up."
They were getting along beautifully and Peter was even beginning to forget the weight of his heavy bag. She was a quaint creature and quite as unconscious of him as though he hadn't existed. He was just somebody to talk to. Peter ventured.
"Er—would you mind telling me your name?"
She looked at him and laughed friendly.
"You must have swallowed a catechism, Mr. Nichols. But everybody in Black Rock knows everybody else—more'n they want to, I guess. There's no reason I shouldn't tell you. I don't mind your knowin'. My name is Beth Cameron."
"Yes, Bess—the minister had a lisp."
Peter didn't lack a sense of humor.
"Funny, isn't it?" she queried with a smile as he laughed, "bein' tied up for life to a name like that just because the parson couldn't talk straight."
"Beth," he repeated, "but I like it. It's like you. I hope you'll let me come to see you when I get settled."
"H-m," she said quizzically. "You don't believe in wastin' your time, do you?" And then, after a brief pause, "You know they call us Pineys back here in the barrens, but just the same we think a lot of ourselves and we're a little offish with city folks. You can't be too particular nowadays about the kind of people you go with."
Peter stared at her and grinned, his sense of the situation more keenly touched than she could be aware of.
"Particular, are you? I'm glad of that. All the more credit to me if you'll be my friend."
"I didn't say I was your friend."
"But you're going to be, aren't you? I know something about singing. I've studied music. Perhaps I could help you."
"You! You've studied? Lord of Love! You're not lyin', are you?"
He laughed. "No. I'm not lying. I was educated to be a musician."
She stared at him now with a new look in her eyes but said nothing. So Peter spoke again.
"Do you mean to say you've never thought of studying singing?"
"Oh, yes," she said slowly at last, "I've thought of it, just as I've thought of goin' in the movies and makin' a million dollars. Lots of good thinkin' does!"
"You've thought of the movies?"
"Yes, once. A girl went from the glass factory. She does extra ladies. She visited back here last winter. I didn't like what it did to her."
"Oh!" Peter was silent for a while, aware of the pellucid meaning of her "it." He was learning quite as much from what she didn't say as from what she did. But he evaded the line of thought suggested.
"You do get tired of Black Rock then?"
"I would if I had time. I'm pretty busy all day, and—see here—Mr.—er—Nichols. If I asked as many questions as you do, I'd know as much as Daniel Webster."
"I'm sorry," said Peter, "I beg your pardon."
They walked on in silence for a few moments, Peter puzzling his brain over the extraordinary creature that chance had thrown in his way. He could see that she was quite capable of looking out for herself and that if her smattering of sophistication had opened her eyes, it hadn't much harmed her.
He really wanted to ask her many more questions, but to tell the truth he was a little in awe of her dry humor which had a kind of primitive omniscience and of her laughter which he was now sure was more at, than with, him. But he had, in spite of her, peered for a moment into the hidden places of her mind and spirit.
It was this intrusion that she resented and he could hardly blame her, since they had met only eighteen minutes ago. She trotted along beside him as though quite unaware of the sudden silence or of the thoughts that might have been passing in his mind. It was Beth who broke the silence.
"Is your bag heavy?" she asked.
"Not at all," said Peter, mopping the perspiration from his forehead. "But aren't we nearly there?"
"Oh, yes. It's just a mile or so."
Peter dropped his bag.
"That's what you said it was, back there."
"Did I? Well, maybe it isn't so far as that now. Let me carry your bag a while."
Thus taunted, he rose, took the bag in his left hand and followed.
"City folks aren't much on doin' for themselves, are they? The taxi system is very poor down here yet."
Her face was expressionless, but he knew that she was laughing at him. He knew also that his bag weighed more than any army pack. It seemed too that she was walking much faster than she had done before—also that there was malicious humor in the smile she now turned on him.
"Seems a pity to have such a long walk—with nothin' at the end of it."
"I don't mind it in the least," gasped Peter. "And if you don't object to my asking you just one more question," he went on grimly, "I'd like you to tell me what is frightening Mr. Jonathan K. McGuire?"
"Oh, McGuire. I don't know. Nobody does. He's been here a couple of weeks now, cooped up in the big house. Never comes out. They say he sees ghosts and things."
She nodded. "He's hired some of the men around here to keep watch for them and they say some detectives are coming. You'll help too, I guess."
"That should be easy."
"Maybe. I don't know. My aunt works there. She's housekeeper. It's spooky, she says, but she can't afford to quit."
"But they haven't seen anything?" asked Peter incredulously.
"No. Not yet. I guess it might relieve 'em some if they did. It's only the things you don't see that scare you."
"It sounds like a great deal of nonsense about nothing," muttered Peter.
"All right. Wait until you get there before you do much talkin'."
"I will, but I'm not afraid of ghosts." And then, as an afterthought, "Are you?"
"Not in daylight. But from what Aunt Tillie says, it must be something more than a ghost that's frightenin' Jonathan K. McGuire."
"What does she think it is?"
"She doesn't know. Mr. McGuire won't say. He won't allow anybody around the house without a pass. Oh, he's scared all right and he's got most of Black Rock scared too. He was never like this before."
"Are you scared?" asked Peter.
"No. I don't think I am really. But it's spooky, and I don't care much for shootin'."
"What makes you think there will be shooting?"
"On account of the guns and pistols. Whatever the thing is he's afraid of, he's not goin' to let it come near him if he can help it. Aunt Tillie says that what with loaded rifles, shotguns and pistols lyin' loose in every room in the house, it's as much as your life is worth to do a bit of dustin'. And the men—Shad Wells, Jesse Brown, they all carry automatics. First thing they know they'll be killin' somebody," she finished with conviction.
"Who is Shad Wells——?"
"My cousin, Shadrack E. Wells. He was triplets. The other two died."
"Shad," mused Peter.
"Sounds like a fish, doesn't it? But he isn't." And then more slowly, "Shad's all right. He's just a plain woodsman, but he doesn't know anything about making the trees grow," she put in with prim irony. "You'll be his boss, I guess. He won't care much about that."
"Because he's been runnin' things in a way. I hope you get along with him."
"So do I——"
"Because if you don't, Shad will eat you at one gobble."
"Oh!" said Peter with a smile. "But perhaps you exaggerate. Don't you think I might take two—er—gobbles?"
Beth looked him over, and then smiled encouragingly.
"Maybe," she said, "but your hands don't look over-strong."
Peter looked at his right hand curiously. It was not as brown as hers, but the fingers were long and sinewy.
"They are, though. When you practice five hours a day on the piano, your hands will do almost anything you want them to."
A silence which Peter improved by shifting his suitcase. The weight of it had ceased to be amusing. And he was about to ask her how much further Black Rock was when there was a commotion down the road ahead of them, as a dark object emerged from around the bend and amid a whirl of dust an automobile appeared.
"It's the 'Lizzie'," exclaimed Beth unemotionally.
And in a moment the taxi service of Black Rock was at Peter's disposal.
"Carburetor trouble," explained the soiled young man at the wheel briefly, without apology. And with a glance at Peter's bag—
"Are you the man for McGuire's on the six-thirty?"
Peter admitted that he was and the boy swung the door of the tonneau open.
"In here with me, Beth," he said to the girl invitingly.
In a moment, the small machine was whirled around and started in the direction from which it had come, bouncing Peter from side to side and enveloping him in dust. Jim Hagerman's "Lizzie" wasted no time, once it set about doing a thing, and in a few moments from the forest they emerged into a clearing where there were cows in a meadow, and a view of houses. At the second of these, a frame house with a portico covered with vines and a small yard with a geranium bed, all enclosed in a picket fence, the "Lizzie" suddenly stopped and Beth got down.
"Much obliged, Jim," he heard her say.
Almost before Peter had swept off his hat and the girl had nodded, the "Lizzie" was off again, through the village street, and so to a wooden bridge across a tea-colored stream, up a slight grade on the other side, where Jim Hagerman stopped his machine and pointed to a road.
"That's McGuire's—in the pines. They won't let me go no further."
"How much do I owe you?" asked Peter, getting down.
"It's paid for, Mister. Slam the door, will ye?" And in another moment Peter was left alone.
It was now after sunset, and the depths of the wood were bathed in shadow. Peter took the road indicated and in a moment reached two stone pillars where a man was standing. Beyond the man he had a glimpse of lawns, a well-kept driveway which curved toward the wood. The man at the gate was of about Peter's age but tall and angular, well tanned by exposure and gave an appearance of intelligence and capacity.
"I came to see Mr. McGuire," said Peter amiably.
"And what's your name?"
"Nichols. I'm the new forester from New York."
The young man at the gate smiled in a satirical way.
"Nichols. That was the name," he ruminated. And then with a shout to some one in the woods below, "Hey, Andy. Come take the gate."
All the while Peter felt the gaze of the young man going over him minutely and found himself wondering whether or not this was the person who was going to take him at a gobble.
It was. For when the other man came running Peter heard him call the gateman, "Shad."
"Are you Mr. Shad Wells?" asked Peter politely with the pleasant air of one who has made an agreeable discovery.
"That's my name. Who told you?"
"Miss Beth Cameron," replied Peter. "We came part of the way together."
"H-m! Come," he said laconically and led the way up the road toward the house. Peter didn't think he was very polite.
Had it not been for the precautions of his guide, Peter would have been willing quite easily to forget the tales that had been told him of Black Rock. The place was very prettily situated in the midst of a very fine growth of pines, spruce and maple. At one side ran the tea-colored stream, tumbling over an ancient dam to levels below, where it joined the old race below the ruin that had once been a mill. The McGuire house emerged in a moment from its woods and shrubbery, and stood revealed—a plain square Georgian dwelling of brick, to which had been added a long wing in a poor imitation of the same style and a garage and stables in no style at all on the slope beyond. It seemed a most prosaic place even in the gathering dusk and Peter seemed quite unable to visualize it as the center of a mystery such as had been described. And the laconic individual who had been born triplets was even less calculated to carry out such an illusion.
But just as they were crossing the lawn on the approach to the house, the earth beneath a clump of bushes vomited forth two men, like the fruit of the Dragon's Teeth, armed with rifles, who barred their way. Both men were grinning from ear to ear.
"All right, Jesse," said Shad with a laugh. "It's me and the new forester." He uttered the words with an undeniable accent of contempt.
The armed figures glanced at Peter and disappeared, and Peter and Mr. Shad Wells went up the steps of the house to a spacious portico. There was not a human being in sight and the heavy wooden blinds to the lower floor were tightly shut. Before his guide had even reached the door the sound of their footsteps had aroused some one within the house, the door was opened the length of its chain and a face appeared at the aperture.
"Who is it?" asked a male voice.
"Shad Wells and Mr. Nichols, the man from New York."
"Wait a minute," was the reply while the door was immediately shut again.
Peter glanced around him comparing this strange situation with another that he remembered, when a real terror had come, a tangible terror in the shape of a countryside gone mad with blood lust. He smiled toward the bush where the armed men lay concealed and toward the gate where the other armed man was standing. It was all so like a situation out of an opera bouffe of Offenbach.
What he felt now in this strange situation was an intense curiosity to learn the meaning of it all, to meet the mysterious person around whom all these preparations centered. Peter had known fear many times, for fear was in the air for weeks along the Russian front, the fear of German shells, of poison gas, and of that worst poison of all—Russian treachery. But that fear was not like this fear, which was intimate, personal but intangible. He marked it in the scrutiny of the man who opened the door and of the aged woman who suddenly appeared beside him in the dim hallway and led him noiselessly up the stair to a lighted room upon the second floor. At the doorway the woman paused.
"Mr. Nichols, Mr. McGuire," she said, and Peter entered.
The room was full of tobacco smoke, through which Peter dimly made out a table with an oil lamp, beside which were chairs, a sofa, and beyond, a steel safe between the windows. As Peter Nichols entered, a man advanced from a window at the side, the shutter of which was slightly ajar. It was evident that not content to leave his safety in the hands of those he had employed to preserve it, he had been watching too.
He was in his shirt sleeves, a man of medium height, compactly built, and well past the half century mark. The distinguishing features of his face were a short nose, a heavy thatch of brows, a square jaw which showed the need of the offices of a razor and his lips wore a short, square mustache somewhat stained by nicotine.
In point of eagerness the manner of his greeting of the newcomer left nothing to be desired. Peter's first impression was that Jonathan K. McGuire was quite able to look out for himself, which confirmed the impression that the inspection to which Peter had been subjected was nothing but a joke. But when his employer began speaking rather jerkily, Peter noticed that his hands were unsteady and that neither the muscles of his face nor of his body were under complete control. Normally, he would have seemed much as Sheldon, Senior, had described him—a hard-fisted man, a close bargainer who had won his way to his great wealth by the sheer force of a strong personality. There was little of softness in his face, little that was imaginative. This was not a man to be frightened at the Unseen or to see terrors that did not exist. Otherwise, to Peter he seemed commonplace to the last degree, of Irish extraction probably, the kind of person one meets daily on Broadway or on the Strand. In a fur coat he might have been taken for a banker; in tweeds, for a small tradesman; or in his shirt as Peter now saw him, the wristbands and collar somewhat soiled from perspiration, for a laboring man taking his rest after an arduous day. In other words, he was very much what his clothes would make of him, betraying his origins in a rather strident voice meant perhaps to conceal the true state of his mind.
"Glad to see you, Mr. Nichols. Thought you were never comin'," he jerked out.
"I walked most of the way from Pickerel River. Something went wrong, with the 'Lizzie.'"
"Oh—er—'Lizzie'. The flivver! I couldn't send my own car. I've got only one down here and I might need it."
"It doesn't matter in the least—since I'm here."
"Sit down, Mr. Nichols," went on McGuire indicating a chair. "You've been well recommended by Mr. Sheldon. I talked to him yesterday over long distance. He told you what I wanted?"
"Something. Not much," said Peter with a view to getting all the information possible. "You wanted a forester——?"
"Er—er—yes, that's it. A forester." And then he went on haltingly—"I've got about twenty thousand acres here—mostly scrub oak—pine and spruce. I've sold off a lot to the Government. A mess of it has been cut—there's been a lot of waste—and the fire season is coming around. That's the big job—the all-the-year job. You've had experience?"
"Yes—in Russia. I'm a trained woodsman."
"You're a good all-round man?"
"Exactly what——?" began Peter.
"You know how to look after yourself—to look after other men, to take charge of a considerable number of people in my employ?"
"Yes. I'm used to dealing with men."
"It's a big job, Mr. Nichols—a ticklish kind of a job for a furriner—one with some—er—unusual features—that may call for—er—a lot of tact. And—er—courage."
It seemed to Peter that Jonathan K. McGuire was talking almost at random, that the general topic of forestry was less near his heart to-night than the one that was uppermost in Peter's mind, the mystery that surrounded his employer and the agencies invoked to protect him. It seemed as if he were loath to speak of them, as if he were holding Peter off at arm's length, so to say, until he had fully made up his mind that this and no other man was the one he wanted, for all the while he was examining the visitor with burning, beady, gray eyes, as though trying to peer into his mind.
"I'm not afraid of a forester's job, no matter how big it is, if I have men enough," said Peter, still curious.