Chapter XXIX
 

Mayor Poundstone and his wife arrived at the Pennington home in Redwood Boulevard at six forty-five Thursday evening. It was with a profound feeling of relief that His Honour lifted the lady from their modest little "flivver," for once inside the Pennington house, he felt, he would be free from a peculiarly devilish brand of persecution inaugurated by his wife about three months previously. Mrs. Poundstone wanted a new automobile. And she had entered upon a campaign of nagging and complaint; hoping to wear Poundstone's resistance down to the point where he would be willing to barter his hope of salvation in return for a guarantee of peace on earth.

"I feel like a perfect fool, calling upon these people in this filthy little rattletrap," Mrs. Poundstone protested as they passed up the cement walk toward the Pennington portal.

Mayor Poundstone paused. Had he been Medusa, the glance he bent upon his spouse would have transformed her instantly into a not particularly symmetrical statue of concrete. He had reached the breaking-point.

"In pity's name, woman," he growled, "talk about something else. Give me one night of peace. Let me enjoy my dinner and this visit."

"I can't help it," Mrs. P. retorted with asperity. She pointed to Shirley Sumner's car parked under the porte-cochere. "If I had a sedan like that, I could die happy. And it only cost thirty-two hundred and fifty dollars."

"I paid six hundred and fifty for the rattletrap, and I couldn't afford that," he almost whimpered. "You were happy with it until I was elected mayor."

"You forget our social position, my dear," she purred sweetly.

He could have struck her. "Hang your social position," he gritted savagely. "Shut up, will you? Social position in a sawmill town! Rats!"

"Sh--sh! Control yourself, Henry!" She plucked gently at his arm; with her other hand she lifted the huge knocker on the front door.

"Dammit, you'll drive me crazy yet," Poundstone gurgled, and subsided.

The Pennington butler, a very superior person, opened the door and swept them with a faintly disapproving glance. It is possible that he found Mayor Poundstone, who was adorned with a white string tie, a soft slouch hat, a Prince Albert coat, and horseshoe cut vest, mildly amusing.

The Poundstones entered. At the entrance to the living room the butler announced sonorously: "Mayor Poundstone and Mrs. Poundstone."

"Glad to see you aboard the ship," Colonel Pennington boomed with his best air of hearty expansiveness. "Well, well," he continued, leading Mrs. Poundstone to a divan in front of the fire, "this is certainly delightful. My niece will be down in two shakes of a lamb's tail. Have a cigarette, Mr. Poundstone."

In the midst of the commonplace chatter incident to such occasions, Shirley entered the room; and the Colonel, leaving her to entertain the guests, went to a small sideboard in one corner and brought forth the "materials," as he jocularly termed them. James appeared like magic with a tray, glasses, and tiny serviettes, and the Colonel's elixir was passed to the company.

"To your beautiful eyes, Mrs. Poundstone," was Pennington's debonair toast as he fixed Mrs. P.'s green orbs with his own. "Poundstone, your very good health, sir."

"Dee-licious," murmured Mrs. Poundstone. "Perfectly dee-licious. And not a bit strong!"

"Have another," her hospitable host suggested, and he poured it, quite oblivious of the frightened wink which the mayor telegraphed his wife.

"I will, if Miss Sumner will join me," Mrs. P. acquiesced.

"Thanks. I seldom drink a cocktail, and one is always my limit," Shirley replied smilingly.

"Oh, well," the Colonel retorted agreeably, "we'll make it a three- cornered festival. Poundstone, smoke up."

They "smoked up," and Poundstone prayed to his rather nebulous gods that Mrs. P. would not discuss automobiles during the dinner.

Alas! The Colonel's cocktails were not unduly fortified, but for all that, the two which Mrs. Poundstone had assimilated contained just sufficient "kick" to loosen the lady's tongue without thickening it. Consequently, about the time the piece de resistance made its appearance, she threw caution to the winds and adverted to the subject closest to her heart.

"I was telling Henry as we came up the walk how greatly I envied you that beautiful sedan, Miss Sumner," she gushed. "Isn't it a perfectly stunning car?"

Poundstone made one futile attempt to head her off. "And I was telling Mrs. Poundstone," he struck in with a pathetic attempt to appear humorous and condescending, "that a little jitney was our gait, and that she might as well abandon her passionate yearning for a closed car. Angelina, my dear, something tells me I'm going to enjoy this dinner a whole lot more if you'll just make up your mind to be real nice and resign yourself to the inevitable."

"Never, my dear, never." She shook a coy finger at him. "You dear old tightie," she cooed, "you don't realize what a closed car means to a woman." She turned to Shirley. "How an open car does blow one around, my dear!"

"Yes, indeed," said Shirley innocently.

"Heard the McKinnon people had a man killed up in their woods yesterday, Colonel," Poundstone remarked, hoping against hope to divert the conversation.

"Yes. The fellow's own fault," Pennington replied. "He was one of those employees who held to the opinion that every man is the captain of his own soul and the sole proprietor of his own body--hence that it behooved him to look after both, in view of the high cost of safety-appliances. He was warned that the logging-cable was weak at that old splice and liable to pull out of the becket--and sure enough it did. The free end of the cable snapped back like a whip, and--"

"I hold to the opinion," Mrs. Poundstone interrupted, "that if one wishes for a thing hard enough and just keeps on wishing, one is bound to get it."

"My dear," said Mr. Poundstone impressively, "if you would only confine yourself to wishing, I assure you your chances for success would be infinitely brighter."

There was no mistaking this rebuke; even two cocktails were powerless to render Mrs. Poundstone oblivious to it. Shirley and her uncle saw the Mayor's lady flush slightly; they caught the glint of murder in His Honour's eye; and the keen intelligence of each warned them that closed cars should be a closed topic of conversation with the Poundstones. With the nicest tact in the world, Shirley adroitly changed the subject to some tailored shirt-waists she had observed in the window of a local dry-goods emporium that day, and Mrs. Poundstone subsided.

About nine o'clock, Shirley, in response to a meaning glance from her relative, tactfully convoyed Mrs. Poundstone upstairs, leaving her uncle alone with his prey. Instantly Pennington got down to business.

"Well," he queried, apropos of nothing, "what do you hear with reference to the Northern-California-Gregon Railroad?"

"Oh, the usual amount of wind, Colonel. Nobody knows what to make of that outfit."

Pennington studied the end of his cigar a moment. "Well, I don't know what to think of that project either," he admitted presently, "But while it looks like a fake, I have a suspicion that where there's so much smoke, one is likely to discover a little fire. I've been waiting to see whether or not they will apply for a franchise to enter the city, but they seem to be taking their time about it."

"They certainly are a deliberate crowd," the Mayor murmured.

"Have they made any move to get a franchise?" Pennington asked bluntly. "If they have, I suppose you would be the first man to hear about it. I don't mean to be impertinent," he added with a gracious smile, "but the fact is I noticed that windbag Ogilvy entering your office in the city hall the other afternoon, and I couldn't help wondering whether his visit was social or official."

"Social--so far as I could observe," Poundstone replied truthfully, wondering just how much Pennington knew, and rather apprehensive that he might get caught in a lie before the evening was over.

"Preliminary to the official visit, I dare say."

The Colonel puffed thoughtfully for a while--for which the Mayor was grateful, since it provided time in which to organize himself. Suddenly, however, Pennington turned toward his guest and fixed the latter with a serious glance.

"I hadn't anticipated discussing this matter with you, Poundstone, and you must forgive me for it; but the fact is--I might as well be frank with you--I am very greatly interested in the operation of this proposed railroad."

"Indeed! Financially?"

"Yes, but not in the financial way you think. If that railroad is built, it will have a very distinct effect on my finances."

"In just what way?"

"Disastrous."

"I am amazed, Colonel."

"You wouldn't if you had given the subject very close consideration. The logical route for this railroad is from Willits north to Sequoia, not from Sequoia north to Grant's Pass, Oregon. Such a road as the N.C.O. contemplates will tap about one third of the redwood belt only, while a line built in from the south will tap two thirds of it. The remaining third can be tapped by an extension of my own logging- road; when my own timber is logged out, I will want other business for my road, and if the N.C.O. parallels it, I will be left with two streaks of rust on my hands."

"Ah, I perceive. So it will, so it will!"

"You agree with me, then, Poundstone, that the N.C.O. is not designed to foster the best interests of the community. Of course you do."

"Well, I hadn't given the subject very mature thought, Colonel, but in the light of your observations it would appear that you are quite right."

"Of course I am right. I take it, therefore, that when the N.C.O. applies for its franchise to run through Sequoia, neither you nor your city council will consider the proposition at all."

"I cannot, of course, speak for the city council--" Poundstone began, but Pennington's cold, amused smile froze further utterance.

"Be frank with me, Poundstone. I am not a child. What I would like to know is this: will you exert every effort to block that franchise in the firm conviction that by so doing you will accomplish a laudable public service?"

Poundstone squirmed. "I should not care, at this time, to go on record," he replied evasively. "When I have had time to look into the matter more thoroughly--"

"Tut-tut, my dear man! Let us not straddle the fence. Business is a game, and so is politics. Neither knows any sentiment. Suppose you should favour this N.C.O. crowd in a mistaken idea that you were doing the right thing, and that subsequently numberless fellow- citizens developed the idea that you had not done your public duty? Would some of them not be likely to invoke a recall election and retire you and your city council--in disgrace?"

"I doubt if they could defeat me, Colonel."

"I have no such doubt," Pennington replied pointedly.

Poundstone looked up at him from under lowered lids. "Is that a threat?" he demanded tremulously.

"My dear fellow! Threaten my guest!" Pennington laughed patronizingly. "I am giving you advice, Poundstone--and rather good advice, it strikes me. However, while we're on the subject, I have no hesitancy in telling you that in the event of a disastrous decision on your part, I should not feel justified in supporting you."

He might, with equal frankness, have said: "I would smash you." To his guest his meaning was not obscure. Poundstone studied the pattern of the rug, and Pennington, watching him sharply, saw that the man was distressed. Then suddenly one of those brilliant inspirations, or flashes of rare intuition, which had helped so materially to fashion Pennington into a captain of industry, came to him. He resolved on a bold stroke.

"Let's not beat about the bush, Poundstone," he said with the air of a father patiently striving to induce his child to recant a lie, tell the truth, and save himself from the parental wrath. "You've been doing business with Ogilvy; I know it for a fact, and you might as well admit it."

Poundstone looked up, red and embarrassed. "If I had known--" he began.

"Certainly, certainly! I realize you acted in perfect good faith. You're like the majority of people in Sequoia. You're all so crazy for rail-connection with the outside world that you jump at the first plan that seems to promise you one. Now, I'm as eager as the others, but if we are going to have a railroad, I, for one, desire the right kind of railroad; and the N.C.O. isn't the right kind--that is, not for the interests I represent. Have you promised Ogilvy a franchise?"

There was no dodging that question. A denial, under the present circumstances, would be tantamount to an admission; Poundstone could not guess just how much the Colonel really knew, and it would not do to lie to him, since eventually the lie must be discovered. Caught between the horns of a dilemma, Poundstone only knew that Ogilvy could never be to him such a powerful enemy as Colonel Seth Pennington; so, after the fashion of his kind, he chose the lesser of two evils. He resolved to "come clean."

"The city council has already granted the N.C.O. a temporary franchise," he confessed.

Pennington sprang furiously to his feet. "Dammit." he snarled, "why did you do that without consulting me?"

"Didn't know you were remotely interested." Now that the ice was broken, Poundstone felt relieved and was prepared to defend his act vigorously. "And we did not commit ourselves irrevocably," he continued. "The temporary franchise will expire in twenty-eight days --and in that short time the N.C.O. cannot even get started."

"Have you any understanding as to an extension of that temporary franchise, in case the N.C.O. desires it?"

"Well, yes--not in writing, however. I gave Ogilvy to understand that if he was not ready in thirty days, an extension could readily be arranged."

"Any witnesses?"

"I am not such a fool, sir," Poundstone declared with asperity. "I had a notion--I might as well admit it--that you would have serious objection to having your tracks cut by a jump-crossing at B and Water streets." And for no reason in life except to justify himself and inculcate in Pennington an impression that the latter was dealing with a crafty and far-seeing mayor, Poundstone smiled boldly and knowingly. "I repeat," he said, "that I did not put it in writing." He leaned back nonchalantly and blew smoke at the ceiling.

"You oily rascal!" Pennington soliloquized. "You're a smarter man than I thought. You're trying to play both ends against the middle." He recalled the report of his private detective and the incident of Ogilvy's visit to young Henry Poundstone's office with a small leather bag; he was more than ever convinced that this bag had contained the bribe, in gold coin, which had been productive of that temporary franchise and the verbal understanding for its possible extension.

"Ogilvy did business with you through your son Henry," he challenged. Poundstone started violently. "How much did Henry get out of it?" Pennington continued brutally.

"Two hundred and fifty dollars retainer, and not a cent more," Poundstone protested virtuously--and truthfully.

"You're not so good a business man as I gave you credit for being," the Colonel retorted mirthfully "Two hundred and fifty dollars! Oh, Lord! Poundstone, you're funny. Upon my word, you're a scream." And the Colonel gave himself up to a sincerely hearty laugh. "You call it a retainer," he continued presently, "but a grand jury might call it something else. However," he went on after a slight pause, "you're not in politics for your health; so let's get down to brass tacks. How much do you want to deny the N.C.O. not only an extension of that temporary franchise but also a permanent franchise when they apply for it?"

Poundstone rose with great dignity. "Colonel Pennington, sir," he said, "you insult me."

"Sit down. You've been insulted that way before now. Shall we say one thousand dollars per each for your three good councilmen and true, and for yourself that sedan of my niece's? It's a good car. Last year's model, but only run about four thousand miles and in tiptop condition. It's always had the best of care, and I imagine it will please Mrs. P. immensely and grant you surcease from sorrow. Of course, I will not give it to you. I'll sell it to you--five hundred down upon the signing of the agreement, and in lieu of the cash, I will take over that jitney Mrs. Poundstone finds so distasteful. Then I will employ your son Henry as the attorney for the Laguna Grande Lumber Company and give him a retainer of twenty-five hundred dollars for one year. I will leave it to you to get this twenty-five hundred dollars from Henry and pay my niece cash for the car. Doesn't that strike you as a perfectly safe and sane proposition?"

Had a vista of paradise opened up before Mr. Poundstone, he could not have been more thrilled. He had been absolutely honest in his plea to Mrs. Poundstone that he could not afford a thirty-two-hundred-and- fifty-dollar sedan, much as he longed to oblige her and gain a greatly to be desired peace. And now the price was dangling before his eyes, so to speak. At any rate it was parked in the porte-cochere not fifty feet distant!

For the space of a minute the Mayor weighed his son's future as a corporation attorney against his own future as mayor of Sequoia--and Henry lost.

"It might be arranged, Colonel," he murmured in a low voice--the voice of shame.

"It is already arranged," the Colonel replied cheerfully. "Leave your jit at the front gate and drive home in Shirley's car. I'll arrange matters with her." He laughed shortly. "It means, of course, that I'll have to telegraph to San Francisco to-morrow and buy her a later model. Thank goodness, she has a birthday to-morrow! Have a fresh cigar, Mayor."

Riding home that night in Shirley Sumner's car Mrs. Poundstone leaned suddenly toward her husband, threw a fat arm around his neck and kissed him. "Oh, Henry, you darling!" she purred. "What did I tell you? If a person only wishes hard enough--"

"Oh, go to the devil!" he roared angrily. "You've nagged me into it. Shut up and take your arm away. Do you want me to wreck the car before we've had it an hour?"

As for Colonel Pennington, he had little difficulty in explaining the deal to Shirley, who was sleepy and not at all interested. The Poundstones had bored her to extinction, and upon her uncle's assurance that she would have a new car within a week, she thanked him and for the first time retired without offering her cheek for his good-night kiss. Shortly thereafter the Colonel sought his own virtuous couch and prepared to surrender himself to the first good sleep in three weeks. He laid the flattering unction to his soul that Bryce Cardigan had dealt him a poor hand from a marked deck and he had played it exceedingly well. "Lucky I blocked the young beggar from getting those rails out of the Laurel Creek spur," he mused, "or he'd have had his jump-crossing in overnight--and then where the devil would I have been? Up Salt Creek without a paddle--and all the courts in Christendom would avail me nothing."

He was dozing off, when a sound smote upon his ears. Instantly he was wide awake, listening intently, his head cocked on one side. The sound grew louder; evidently it was approaching Sequoia--and with a bound the Colonel sat up in bed, trembling in every limb.

Suddenly, out of the deep, rumbling diapason he heard a sharp click-- then another and another. He counted them--six in all.

"A locomotive and two flat-cars!" he murmured. "And they just passed over the switch leading from the main-line tracks out to my log-dump. That means the train is going down Water Street to the switch into Cardigan's yard. By George, they've outwitted me!"

With the agility of a boy he sprang into his clothes, raced downstairs, and leaped into Mayor Poundstone's jitney, standing in the darkness at the front gate.