Chapter XXIV
 

Donald Morley packed his few belongings and went on his small mission for the Herald-Post with a determination worthy of a larger cause. The remuneration was less than he had been in the habit of paying his stable boy, but failure to secure a position, together with a depleted bank account, had chastened his spirit, and he was ready to grasp at anything that would give him a chance to justify the belief of his friends.

When he first arrived at the sleepy little town where the state transacted its business, he took two rooms at the hotel. Later he moved to a boarding-house, and by the end of the third week he was in a small, bare room in an office building, eating his breakfasts at the depot, his luncheons at a restaurant, and his dinners at the hotel. For in his determination to square himself with the world he had managed to dispose of nearly all he had, excepting a thousand dollars which he had secretly deposited to Noah's account.

At first poverty was a somewhat diverting novelty; it served to keep his mind off those pursuing terrors that had filled his horizon. For the first time in life he was economizing for a purpose. But to make the usual expenditure of a day extend over a week requires forethought and judgment, neither of which qualities Donald possessed. He had counted on augmenting the small sum received from the Herald-Post by writing feature articles for other papers, but his efforts had met with small success. In vain he arranged his article after the exact plan laid down by Cropsie Decker. He clipped, pasted and pinned, looked up statistics, verified statements and ruthlessly weeded out every little vagrant fancy that dared intrude on the solemn company of facts. But his efforts when finished bore the same relation to Cropsie's that a pile of bricks does to a house.

Only once had he set Cropsie and his lapboard literature aside, and followed his own impulse. It was after his first call at the Queeringtons', when the Doctor had advised him to choose a congenial theme and let his fancy have full rein. A word of encouragement was all he needed to begin a series of tales that had burned for utterance ever since he left India. They were the adventures related to him by his Mohammedan bearer, Khalil Samad, who had sat on his heels many a night before the young sahib's fire, and spun yarns of marvelous variety. Donald had only to close his eyes to see the keen, subtle face surmounted by its huge white turban, and to hear the torrent of picturesque broken English that poured from the lips of one of the few Mohammedans in India who could curse the various natives in their own vernacular from the Khyber Pass to Trichinopoli.

But the story of Khalil's adventures having been launched into unknown waters, had not yet been heard from, and Donald patiently returned to his feature articles, holding himself down to the actual and being bored as only a person with a creative imagination can be bored by the naked, unadorned truth.

His one consolation these days was in the fact that Miss Lady would not have to give up Thornwood. Through an agent he had leased the place to the Queeringtons for the next two years at an absurdly low sum, and the thought of her in the midst of her beloved surroundings went far to reconcile him to the meagerness of his own.

His dingy little room boasted only an iron bed and washstand, the rest of the floor space being principally occupied by his imposing brass- bound steamer-trunk covered with foreign labels. On the dusty shelf over the washstand stood an incongruous array of silver-mounted, monogramed toilet articles; around the wall ran a dado of shoes, while from the gas-pipe depended a heavy bunch of neckties. The chief inconvenience in being poor, Donald had decided, was in not knowing what to do with one's things.

It was not only his things, however, that he found difficulty in disposing of. For a given number of hours a day a man can hold himself down to the task of sitting at a small deal table, covering yellow tablets with words that will probably never be read, but after too long a stretch nature is apt to rebel. At such times Donald raged like a pent lion. His mind involuntarily flew to the possibility of this confinement being but a foretaste of the other that waited for him should the rehearing not be granted. From the beginning he had refused to consider the possibility of conviction; he was innocent, he would be cleared. But as the days dragged on, a shadow began to dog his steps and to sit on the foot of his bed by night, grinning at him through bars of iron.

Had there been a friend to whom he could turn during these days he might have been spared some of the hours of anguish he endured, but his pride was cut to the quick, and he shrank from seeing any one who knew him or his family. Cropsie Decker could have helped him, but Cropsie was in Mexico. To Noah Wicker he had ceased to be an individual, he had become a client, a first client, and personalities were swamped in abstractions. The only place where he could have found sympathy and understanding was at Thornwood, the hospitable door of which he had resolutely closed with his own hand. If he thought the depths of loneliness had been sounded out there in the Orient, he had now to learn that it is only in one's own country, among one's own people, that the plummet strikes bottom.

The day before the case was to be presented Noah came up from the city, and once again they went over every tiresome, familiar detail. By the time evening arrived Donald was in a state of black dejection. Half a dozen sleepless nights, and the return of several articles did not tend to brighten the situation, and when Noah accepted an invitation from the Judge to dine with him, Donald felt that he had been abandoned to his fate.

Twilight was closing in, the kind that has no beginning and no end, a damp, gray saturating twilight that smothers the soul in a fog of gloom and relaxes all the moral fibers. Donald went to his small window and looked out. The street below was deserted, save for an occasional shabby surrey, splashing through the mud on its way to the station. At long intervals an umbrella bobbed past, and once a drove of cattle lumbered by, driven by a boy astride a mule. Donald jerked down the shade savagely, and lit the single gas-jet.

In a magazine which he picked up was a graphic article on child labor in the mines, giving pictures of ragged, emaciated children who spent their lives underground, breathing foul air and becoming dwarfed in body and soul. He flung the book from him and dropped his head upon his arms. Life seemed a great, inexorable machine, setting at naught human aspiration, human endeavor. What was the good of fighting it? What was the sense in believing in a divine order, in such infernal chaos?

Unable to stand his own company any longer, he seized his hat and started for the hotel. He was in a reckless, hopeless mood, ready to take diversion wherever he found it, and as is usual in such cases, diversion met him half way.

The little hotel office was in a spasm of activity, bells were ringing, doors slamming, and guests arriving. The group of loiterers who usually sat facing the fire, criticizing the daily proceedings of the legislature, now stood in a semicircle with their backs to it, watching the new arrivals.

"It's a theatrical company," explained one of the voluble crowd to Donald; "the liveliest lay-out we've had for moons. That's the star talking to the fellow in the checked suit. Some winner, isn't she?"

The object of this remark, having just told a story that elicited a round of laughter, turned carelessly and swept the room with a brilliant, experienced glance. The searchlight passed the porter and bell boys, the obsequious clerk at the desk, the semicircle of admirers at the fire, and came to an audacious pause when it reached Donald Morley.

He was lighting a cigarette at the moment, and presented an appearance of colossal indifference to all stars, terrestrial and celestial. But when he had tossed the match into the open grate, he nonchalantly sauntered to the desk and glanced at the register.

There was the dashing signature, the ink still wet on the flourish,

"La Florine."

It was Cropsie Decker's old flame, "The Serpent of the Nile," whom he had last seen poised on the cork of a champagne bottle on a poster on Billy-goat Hill! Without looking up he was aware that the same mischievous eyes which had peeped through the black-gloved fingers on the poster, were watching him now with the liveliest interest. They followed him across the room, they laughed at him over the shoulder of the man in the checked suit, they flung a challenge at his feet, and dared him pick it up.

Donald watched her with increasing fascination. It was good just to be near anything so careless, and gay, and irresponsible. He, too, had once poised tiptoe on the perilous edge of things, and laughed defiance in the face of Fate. Why shouldn't he do it again? A man about to be hanged is given a last good dinner, why shouldn't he humor himself to one more good time before the die was cast on the morrow?

It would only be necessary to present his card and mention Cropsie Decker, and the rest would be easy. He had just about enough money to pay for a theater ticket, and a cozy little supper afterward. But what about flowers?

He thrust his hand eagerly into his pocket on an investigating tour. As he did so his ringers encountered a small, hard object which he drew forth and looked at curiously. It was the dried hip of a wild rose, that had been transferred from pocket to pocket since the day it dared to bloom before its time, in a cranny of the stone wall that circled the garden at Thornwood. The touch of it brought back an old barrel hammock under the lilacs, and the glowing eyes of a girl, lifted to his with a look of trusting innocence.

Without another glance at "The Serpent of the Nile," he turned up his coat collar, pulled his hat over his eyes and plunged out into the wet, dismal street. For hours he tramped, neither knowing nor caring where he went. He was fighting the hardest fight a man is called on to fight, the fight against himself with no reward in view.

When he got back to his room, spent and disheveled at nine o'clock, he found two letters under his door. One, a black-bordered envelope addressed in Connie's familiar scrawl, he thrust into his pocket, smiling in spite of himself at the memory of Miss Lady's bargain stationery. The other, a long, bulky envelope, bearing the device of a well-known magazine, caused him to sit limply down on his steamer- trunk and gaze at it miserably.

His cherished story had come back at last! The possibility of its being accepted had been the one hope he had clung to during many a desperate hour. In it he had, for the first time, dared to say the things he felt, to venture boldly into the land of romance which hitherto he had cautiously skirted. Dozens of other similar tales were teeming in his brain, only waiting to know the fate of this one. And it had come back! It was the best he had to offer, and his best was not good enough! He looked at the shabby, dog-eared sheet, and the folded enclosure that doubtless set forth the editor's smug regrets, then with an impatient gesture he flung the envelope and its contents into the scrap-basket, cursing himself and his conceit in thinking he could write, and editors and their conceit in thinking they could judge.

The folded enclosure, meanwhile, that had been in the manuscript elected to disprove the total depravity of inanimate things, and instead of falling face downward, fell face upward on the very top of the heap. Thus it was that Donald Morley, charging desperately about his limited quarters, suddenly spied a word that made him snatch up the sheet of paper and rush to the light.

The editor, it appeared, had read the story with genuine pleasure. Khalil Samad was an entirely new creation, presented with an originality and humor altogether delightful. The one fault of the story was its brevity. Of course, the magazine would accept it as it was, but the opinion of the office was to the effect that if the author had material for other stories of a similar nature it was a pity for him not to elaborate it into a book. A novel with Khalil Samad for a hero, if written with the same charm as this first story, would be an undoubted success. This was merely a suggestion, of course, and might not fall in with Mr. Morley's other literary plans. In any case the editor congratulated him upon the originality of his story and would look forward to publishing it in one form or the other.

Donald read the note through twice before he mastered its contents, then he drew a prodigious breath. Other stories of a similar nature? Why, he knew dozens of them! Khalil Samad had been his sole companion for two months, and Khalil's chief occupation had been talking about himself and his escapades. Donald knew the main incidents of his dramatic career from the time he had been stolen by a Bengali bandit and sold into matrimony at the age of ten, to the day he had salaamed a tearful farewell from the dock at Bombay.

Yes, most certainly, the writing of the novel did fall in with Mr. Morley's literary plans. But what about his other plans? He caught himself up suddenly. How did he know what twenty-four hours might bring forth? What if, through some terrible error, he was not granted a new hearing? But Noah Wicker was confident. He had discovered a point in the former trial which was technically inadmissible. A witness had been permitted to make a statement over Mr. Gooch's objection, and Noah had succeeded in finding a previous decision that made him believe a reversal was practically certain.

Somehow since his story was accepted, Donald found it much easier to share Noah's confidence. Waves of returning courage swept over him. Perhaps after all, he was going to be able to do something worth while in the world! He would work like a Trojan, he would begin to-night.

He seized pen and paper, but the desire to share his good news prompted him to write letters rather than fiction. He wanted to tell Miss Lady, he wanted to tell the Doctor. He wanted to paralyze Cropsie Decker! Then he thought of Noah, and ramming the editor's note in his pocket, he went plunging down the steps and across to the hotel.

Noah had gone to bed, but he was unceremoniously routed out.

"Read that!" shouted Don, thrusting his hand in his pocket and pulling out an envelope.

"It isn't opened," said Noah, yawning; then recognizing Connie Queerington's handwriting he suddenly woke up.

"Hang it! That's the wrong one," said Donald, diving for the other note. "Here it is! Behold a budding author, Wick! I've written some stuff they say is worth while. They want more!"

Noah read the note, then returned it calmly.

"It's encouraging, I congratulate you," he observed laconically.

Donald's face clouded, then cleared and he stepped forward impulsively:

"See here, Wick," he said, "you think I'm poaching on your preserves. I'm not. That's the first letter I have had from Connie for weeks. I haven't written her a line since I left home, but she likes to keep me on the string. She just plays with Ivy and me to keep her hand in. Don't you mind either one of us. Stick to it and win."

"Oh, I'm sticking to it all right," said Noah doggedly, "but I don't seem to stand much chance with the rest of you."

"Nonsense, man! Think of your head-piece! The Lord started you out with more brains than most of us end with. The Judge said this morning that you knew more common law than any young lawyer he could think of."

"Yes, but knowledge of common law won't win this suit. She'll never look at me, Donald, except as a last resort. She thinks I am a heavy, awkward hayseed, and I reckon she's about right."

He towered there in his blue pajamas two sizes too small for him, his hair on end, and his large hands grasping the chair back. "I don't know the game," he went on helplessly. "You fellows take the trick while I am making up my mind what to play. She's too much for me. You are all too much for me, but I shan't throw down my hand, not yet."

Donald got up from the foot of the bed where he had been sitting, and took Noah by the shoulders.

"You've been working like a dog on my case, old fellow. Suppose you let me take charge of yours?"

"How do you mean?"

"You say you don't know the rules of the game. I know them backwards and forwards and upside down. You let me play this hand for you with Connie Queerington, and you stand to win."

"But--but you?"

"Heavens, man! Do you suppose if it were anything to me I'd have forgotten to read her letter all this time? No, I am through with that sort of thing." He turned his head abruptly and his face darkened. "There never was but one race for me, that was worth the running and I got left at the post."

"Perhaps Miss Connie--"

"Likes me? Of course she does. And I like her tremendously. That's how I am going to help you. Leave it to me, Wick. Let me write her all the letters I want to. Let me tell her about the stir you are making up here, about the Judge cottoning to you, and the Governor asking you to dinner. In short, let me dramatize you, Wick; I'll write her a play in five acts with you for the hero. All you have to do is to ease up on your letters and keep out of her sight for a month or so. Tell her that as long as you can't be anything more to her you will be a good friend. Connie hates a man to be a friend! She wants him to be either an acquaintance or a lover. You have gotten out of the first class, and she will never let you alone until she gets you back into the third."

Noah rubbed his massive and bewildered brow. "It's too complicated for me," he said; "I guess I'll have to accept your services."

That night Donald worked until the small hours, eagerly blocking out the chapters of his new book. So absorbed was he that it was not until he straightened his tired back, and started to make ready for bed that he remembered that he had not yet read Connie's letter.

It was a blotted and incoherent scrawl.

"Dear Cousin Don," he read, "I don't see how I am ever going to write, for my eyes are almost out from crying, but Miss Lady simply can't do everything, and somebody has to tell the relatives. Hattie ought to help me, but she thinks she has to write to her intimate friends first, and she's got about a dozen. You know how hateful she is.

"Well, he was taken worse last week, Father, I mean. I can't go into the details for I have told them over to so many people now that I'm about crazy, and every time I go over them I almost cry myself to death. He didn't know any of us all last night or this morning, except once he called for Miss Lady and patted her cheek. At the end he seemed to get stronger and opened his eyes and asked for his manuscript. It was the most pitiful thing you ever saw at the last, to see him trying to turn over the sheets, with his poor eyes staring out at the wall, not knowing any of us. You'll see about the funeral in the morning's paper. I don't see how we are ever going through with it.

"Your loving cousin,

"CONSTANCE QUEERINGTON.

"P. S. Please tell Mr. Wicker--I'd rather die than write another letter."