Chapter XXIII
 

In two of the gloomiest and dirtiest little rooms in the dirtiest and gloomiest of little streets that dangle at loose ends from the courthouse yard, Mr. Gooch had his office. It was a small dark place that suggested nothing so much as an overflowing scrap-basket. Papers littered the table, and spilled out of every pigeon-hole of the old secretary; papers lay in stacks along the book-shelves, and bulged from fat envelopes on the mantel-shelf. Over and above and under all lay the undisturbed dust of months.

In the corner which was reduced to perpetual twilight by the proximity of the jail wall adjoining, Noah Wicker sat on his high stool, and by the assistance of a solitary swinging light, excavated lumps of legal lore from the mines of wisdom about him. To one who had not seen Noah since his first days of attorneyship, he presented an unfamiliar appearance. His feet, still hooked awkwardly under the rung of the stool, were shod in patent leather shoes of a style so pronounced that they rendered him slightly pigeon-toed. His clothes were of the most approved cut, and his hosiery reflected the hue of his tie.

His hair, only, was reminiscent of the country youth who had emerged from the law school a short time before, in store clothes and creaking boots. A front lock that has been assiduously urged to stand up for many years, is not inclined to sit down at the first whim of its owner. It has reached an age of independence, and is inclined to insist upon its rights.

Noah, alone in the office one spring day, surreptitiously took from his desk a small object, which he held in the palm of his broad hand, and studied minutely. When the rays from the swinging electric happened to strike it, it sent spots of light dancing on the grimy ceiling. For Noah was becoming anxious about his pompadour and could not refrain from examining it at frequent intervals. Every expedient had been resorted to from surgery to soap, but the stubbly blond lock defied him. It seemed the last barrier that rose between him and cosmopolitan life.

A light step on the stairs sent the mirror into the desk, and brought a look of absorbed concentration to his expansive brow.

"Is Mr. Gooch here?" asked Connie Queerington, thrusting a plumed hat into his range of vision.

Noah disengaged himself from the stool and came forward eagerly, but paused when he found that she was not alone.

"Come on in, Gerald," she said hospitably. "You know Mr. Wicker, don't you? At any rate he knows you. I've told him reams about you, haven't I, Mr. Wicker?"

Noah bowed gravely, and after bringing forward chairs, retired to his desk, in a state of outward calm and inward wrath.

Gerald Ivy daintily dusted the chair with his handkerchief, and sat down, nursing one silk-clad ankle across his knee, in order not to expose more of his garments than was necessary to the grime of Mr. Gooch's abode.

"What a nuisance he isn't here!" said Connie. "I could leave Father's message but I left word for Hat to meet me here. What time do you have to go, Gerald?"

"Four o'clock," said Gerald, then glancing at the clock, "it's only three-thirty now."

"The clock is slow," announced Noah unexpectedly from his corner.

Gerald leisurely removed his gloves. "What does half an hour matter when I can spend it with you? I was just going to meet Mater at the jail where she has been pinning rosebuds on repentant bosoms. Come, tell me all about yourself!" He leaned forward with elbows on his knees, and hands clasped, dropping his voice to a confidential tone, and bringing the whole battery of his glances to play upon her.

"Why should I?" asked Connie archly. "You haven't been near me since I went to the country."

"What was the use? You couldn't expect me to compete with a hero, who is making such a grandstand play as Morley. Giving himself up for an act he says he didn't commit, refunding money when he doesn't have to, going to work as a scrub reporter when he has lived like a lord all his life! I don't see how the theatrical managers have overlooked him! He is the stuff matinee idols are made of. He's turned the heads of half the girls in town!"

"He's turned mine all right," said Connie complacently. "I'm crazy about him. And he isn't doing all those things for effect either. He is not that kind. Is he, Mr. Wicker?"

Noah, thus suddenly appealed to, was compelled to answer truthfully that he was not. But he did so with a protesting jerk of the elbow, that sent an ink-bottle flying to the floor.

Gerald took advantage of the mishap to get Connie over to the window.

"It's beastly lonesome without you," he whispered. "When are you coming home?"

"Heaven knows!" said Connie, putting her hands behind her for safe- keeping. "Now that somebody else has rented the College Street house, and Miss Lady has sold Thornwood, I don't know what's to become of us."

"Don't you miss me a little bit?" asked Gerald, playing with the silver purse on her wrist.

"Of course I do, silly. Is my hat on straight? I wish I had a mirror."

Noah kneeling on the floor, mopping up the ink, reached toward the desk, and then paused.

"I'll be your mirror!" said Gerald, presenting his eyes in a way that only a very near-sighted person could have taken advantage of.

"City Hall clock's striking four," said Noah grimly.

But Noah's desire to have Connie to himself was not to be gratified. No sooner had Gerald gone, than Hattie arrived, very slim and angular, and carrying a prodigious stack of school-books.

"What was the sense of my meeting you here?" she demanded of Connie, wasting no time on amenities. "You've made me miss the four-two train, and come out of my way. What did you want with me?"

"I wanted to use your mileage book, dear," said Connie sweetly. "How long do you suppose it will be, Mr. Wicker, before Mr. Gooch comes in?"

"Any minute now," said Noah, smoothing down his hair with an inky finger. "I--I think the clock is a little fast." Then as Connie laughed, he jerked up the top of his desk and disappeared behind it.

"Stuffy old place!" said Connie, wandering about the room. "If Mr. Gooch wasn't so stingy he'd have it cleaned up."

"I wouldn't call a man stingy who had given a library to the law school," Hattie objected.

"Yes, and he's spent the rest of his life saving every penny to pay himself back for it. He has eaten fifty-two suppers a year at our house for ten years, that's five hundred and twenty suppers, and he's never even treated us to a chocolate sundae!"

"I don't think it's stingy to be economical," Hattie said with her most superior air.

Noah, who was facing the open door, suddenly began making strange gestures, and violent appeals for silence, but the girls were off on an old argument and did not see him.

"Besides," Connie was saying conclusively, "he cheats at cards; you know he does,"

"Only at solitaire. I don't see any reason why he shouldn't cheat himself if he wants to. He's all right, even if he is queer, and I think you ought to be ashamed of yourself to talk about him the way you do!"

"How do you do, Harriet?" said Mr. Gooch dryly, entering from the outer room and not glancing at Connie. "A message from your father?"

Connie slipped the note into Hattie's hand and took refuge with Noah behind the desk top.

"Did he hear?" she whispered hysterically. Then not waiting for a reply she pounced upon an object in the desk. "Is that a mirror?"

Noah shamefacedly produced it.

"Hold it for me," she commanded. "Not so far off. Like that!"

Standing there behind the desk holding his little mirror for her to powder her nose seemed to Noah the apotheosis of romance.

"Too much?" she asked, tilting her face for inspection. "And is my hat right? I want to look my best, because you know I may meet Donald Morley on the steps."

She was evidently not disappointed, for Noah, standing at the window waiting to catch the last flutter of her feather as she passed up the street, had to wait five agonizing minutes, at the end of which Don spoke to him from the door.

"Hello, Wick. Is Mr. Gooch here?"

"He was a minute ago."

"Is he coming back?"

"I don't know, I'm sure."

Noah made the answers in a tone that discouraged further conversation, and Donald after a sharp glance at him, shrugged his shoulders and picked up a book. He had not long to wait before Mr. Gooch returned.

"I've been telephoning all over town for you," said the lawyer testily. "Is this rumor true that you have bought back your bank stock?"

"It is. It was the only honest thing I could do."

"Not at all," complained Mr. Gooch, who became passionately attached to the contrary opinion the moment he ascertained yours. "It was a most quixotic, a most reckless course to take. I suppose you know of the double liability?"

"Yes, I know," Donald flung out impatiently.

"You are singularly fortunate, Mr. Morley, to be able to indulge these magnanimous whims. Your resources I presume--"

"My resources consist in a piece of real estate and a couple of race horses. That's about all that's left."

"The real estate?" Mr. Gooch looked encouraged. "City property?"

"No, it's a farm."

"Where?"

"On the Cane Run Road."

Noah's head appeared above the desk for the first time during the conversation and he looked surprised, as if he had made a discovery.

"Adjoining your sister's property, I judge?" continued Mr. Gooch. "That's good, very good. It ought to bring about--?"

"It's not for sale," said Donald shortly.

Mr. Gooch, who had emerged to the rim of his shell, promptly went in again.

"You see, Mr. Gooch," said Donald, leaning forward and speaking earnestly, "when you took this case I had no need to think of the financial end of it. I wanted to get the affair straight, and I didn't care a hang what it would cost. Since then things have changed. I think it's only fair to tell you that after I sell my horses and settle things up, there won't be more than a thousand dollars left. Will that cover your fee?"

Mr. Gooch was visibly offended. "It is not my custom, sir, to name a sum in advance. There's a great deal of work on this case, of a very annoying nature. We might try to come under the amount stipulated, and in a pinch of course you could sell the real estate."

"No," said Donald, "I shall not sell it. And I've got to know to-day what your terms will be. I've got work with the Herald-Post as temporary correspondent at the Capitol. I'm going up there to-morrow, and will probably stay on until my case is called. I'd like to have your definite answer at once."

"Well, I didn't want the case in the beginning," said Mr. Gooch. "It's the sort of thing I don't care for. I might be able to finish it for a thousand dollars, but I don't know that I'd care to commit myself."

"Very well," said Donald, rising with spirit. "That means that I'll have to get another lawyer."

"You'll be making a mistake," said Mr. Gooch, twisting his small features into a hard knot, and watching Donald closely. "It's a great risk to change lawyers in the middle of a case. There's a great deal at stake. You oughtn't to stand back on a question of money at a critical time like this."

"Good Lord, man! I'm not standing back on a question of money! I'd put up all I had if it was a million. Do you suppose I would have taken a job in Frankfort for ten dollars a week if I had any money?"

"But you still hold property!"

"I do, Mr. Gooch, and for reasons you could never understand I shall continue to hold it. Good day."

"Stop a minute!" Noah Wicker unfolded himself in sections, and got to his feet.

"Suppose you let me take your case."

Donald and Mr. Gooch looked at him with equal amazement.

"I haven't had much experience," Noah went on slowly and grimly. "I didn't even know a reputable lawyer could throw a case over in the middle when a client lost his money. I've got a lot to learn. But I do know this case from end to end, and I know you, Don Morley. If I can't clear you with or without money, I'd better give up the practice of law right here and now. Do you think you'd be willing to trust me?"

Donald hesitated for a moment, glancing from Noah's honest, homely face to Mr. Gooch's sneering one, then he jumped to a decision.

"It's a go, Wick! And the fee--"

Noah extended a hand, the breadth of whose palm has already been commented upon.

"The fee be damned," he drawled.