Chapter III
 

Donald Morley rode back to town through the coming storm, in that particular state of ecstasy that mortals are permitted to enjoy but once in a lifetime. Not that falling in love was a novel sensation; on the contrary a varied experience had made him agreeably familiar with all the symptoms. But this, he assured himself with passionate vehemence, was something altogether and absolutely different. Between now and that morning when he had idly ridden out to Wicker's in search of a farm, lay a sea as wide as Destiny!

There in the country he had unexpectedly come upon his fate and with characteristic impetuosity had pursued and overtaken it. Other girls may have stirred his heart, but it had remained for a wild little pagan of the woods to stir his soul. He had laid bare to her the most secret places of his being, had confessed his sins, and received absolution. From this time on the frivolities of youth lay behind him, and ambition sat upon his brow. He would cut out the trip to the Orient, buy a farm and settle down to work as if he hadn't a penny in the world. Once the Colonel was made to recognize his worth, the gates of Paradise would be open!

He thought of the home he would build for her, and the flowers that would encompass it, of the horses and dogs they would have and perhaps--The memory of her face as she clasped Chick in the road flashed over him, and he straightened his shoulders suddenly and smiled almost tremulously. Yes, he'd be worthy of her, from this time forward life should hold no higher privilege!

It was after seven o'clock by the time he reached the Junction, and heavy mutterings of thunder could be heard in the west.

"Does this street go through to the boulevard?" he asked of a man, pointing with his knobless whip.

The lank person addressed removed his weight from the telegraph pole that had supported it and sauntered forward. As he did so Donald recognized the red-headed umpire of the afternoon.

"No, sir, Captain," he said, "it do not. This here is Bean Alley. These city politicians has got their own way of running streets; they take a pencil you see and draw a line along the property of folks that can pay for streets. The balance of us sets in mud puddles." The man evidently found some difficulty in expressing himself without the assistance of profanity. There were blanks left between the words, which he supplied mentally with compressed lips and lifting of shaggy brows, that served as an effective substitute. His conversation printed would resemble these grammatical exercises, struggled with an early youth, in which "a----dog----attacked a----boy with a----stick."

But his suppressed eloquence was lost upon his hearer, for Donald had become absorbed in a theatrical poster, which represented a preternaturally slim young lady, poised on a champagne bottle, coyly surveying an admiring world through the extended fingers of a small black gloved hand. It was "La Florine," whose charms he had heard recounted times without number by Mr. Cropsie Decker.

This evening, the poster announced, "La Florine" would for the first time in any American city, perform her incomparable dance, "The Serpent of the Nile."

Don had consulted his watch, and made a lightning calculation as to the time in which he could get a bite of supper and reach the Gayety, before he remembered that he was a reformed character. Then he sternly withdrew his gaze from the lady who peeped through her fingers in the dusk, and brought it back to the red-headed person, who had continued his conversation with unbroken volubility.

"... and she says to me," he was concluding "'Mr. Flathers,' she says, 'it's a privelege to help such as you. A man what's been in the gutter times without number, and bore the awful horrors of delirium tremins four times and still can feel the stirrings of Christianity in his bosom.'"

Donald looked at him and laughed. Here was evidently a fellow sinner.

"So you've straightened up, have you? How does it feel?"

Mr. Flathers cast a sidelong glance upward as if to size up the handsome young gentleman on horseback.

"Mighty depressin'," he confessed, "with a thirst that's been accumulatin' for weeks and weeks, and a sick wife, and a adobted child that ain't spoke a word for seven years. But I'm restin' on the Lord. He well pervide."

"Oh, you'll get along!" said Don, feeling uncommonly lenient toward his fellow men. "Here's a dollar if that will help you out a bit."

"It will," said Mr. Flathers reassuringly; "it undoubtedly will. I got much to be thankful for, I know that. Fer instance I never was a poor relation! That's more than lots of men kin say! The fact are, there ain't airy one in my whole family connection what's got any more 'n I have!"

The shower that had been threatening began now in earnest, and Donald started toward town at a brisk canter, but before he had gone two squares the rain was driving in sheets across the street, and he was obliged to dismount and seek shelter in the doorway of an isolated building that stood at the end of the common. It was a double door with the upper parts in colored glass, on which was boldly lettered,

The CANT-PASS-IT SALOON.

In one of the windows a placard informed the famishing residents of Billy-goat Hill that their thirst might not be assuaged until after twelve o'clock on Sunday night.

As Donald stood in the doorway, an automobile turned the corner and came to a stop, the lights from the lamps shining on the wet street, and throwing everything outside their radius into sudden darkness.

A man got out of the machine and ran for shelter. He was coughing, and held his collar close about his throat.

"Why, hello, Dillingham," said Morley, recognizing him. "How did you get out here?"

"Joy-riding," said Dillingham with a curl of his lip. "Tried to make a short cut, and got marooned. What are you doing here?"

"I've been out in the country for a couple of weeks. Got caught in the shower. What's the matter? Are you sick?"

Dillingham was leaning against the door jamb, shivering. He was a short, sallow, delicate-looking young fellow with self-explanatory puffs under his somewhat prominent eyes.

"Chilled to the bone," he chattered. "I've got to get something to warm me up. Is this a saloon?"

"Yes, but it's closed. Won't be open until midnight."

Mr. Dillingham made a sweeping condemnation of a city administration that would countenance such a proceeding, then set his wits to work to evade the law.

"Whose joint is this, anyhow?" he asked, glancing up. "Sheeley's? Why, of course. I've been out here to prize fights. He lives somewhere around here. Ugh! but I'm cold. I'll be a corpse this time next week if I don't head off this chill. Let's look him up and get a drink."

Donald hesitated to spring the news of his reformation upon one who was already in a weakened condition. He assured himself that he would refuse when the time came. In the meanwhile no reason presented itself for refusing to assist his friend in quest of a life-preserver.

"Sheeley used to live in one of those shacks over there. It's letting up a bit, suppose we go over?" proposed Dillingham, shaking the water out of his cap.

"Been out to the house to-day?" asked Donald as they splashed through the mud.

"Just came from there. The truth is Margery and I have fixed things up at last. Any congratulations?"

"To be sure," said Donald, extending a wet hand, but frowning into the darkness. "Have you told my sister?"

"Mrs. Sequin?" Dillingham smiled with superior amusement. "I guess she didn't have to be told. I imagine she thought of it before we did. Rather keen on me, you know, from the start."

Donald drew in his breath but said nothing. Had it not been true, how he would have enjoyed punching Dill's head!

"You get off to the Orient this week, I suppose," went on Dillingham. "Lucky devil! Decker asked me to go along. If it hadn't been for the paternal grandparent I'd have gone in a minute, but he put his foot down. When do you sail?"

"I've given up the trip. I'm going to buy a farm out near the Wickers', and get down to work."

Dillingham whistled incredulously:

"Yes, I see you doing it! You are counting on pulling off the Derby, I suppose?"

"No, I'm not going to enter my horse."

"What! Why Lickety-Split could win that race in a walk. All the crowd say you stand to win. Here, this is the shanty; at least it's where he used to live."

A bright light streamed from the uncurtained window of a small cottage, revealing a family group within. A fat, smiling woman in curl papers, with a baby in her arms, and six youngsters in varying stages of Sabbath cleanliness, hung upon the words of a man who sat in a large, plush self-rocker, and read from a highly colored picture book. In the head of the family Dillingham recognized Richard Sheeley, ex- pugilist, and present proprietor of the Cant-Pass-It.

"Well, if it ain't Mr. Dillingham!" exclaimed Sheeley, throwing open the door in answer to their knock. "Soaked through, ain't you? Little somethin' to warm you up? Sure. Just come in and wait 'til I git on my shoes and find an umbrella and I'll go over with you. Don't keep a drop here," he added in a whisper, behind a hand so large that he evidently regarded it as sound proof. "Missus won't stand fer it, 'count of the kids, eh?"

"That's him, Ma, the one I was telling you about," Richard Sheeley, Jr.,--yclept "Skeeter"--tugged at his mother's sleeve, nodding his head at Donald, who was making love to the smallest and shyest of the daughters of the house.

"She ain't as meek as she looks!" Mrs. Sheeley was saying, as she tried to get the child from behind her skirts. "She's got her popper's temper along with his smartness. They ain't either one of them got a grain of sense when they git mad. I never seen a child with such a temper, did you, Popper?"

But Sheeley did not heed her; he was busy doing the honors to one he evidently considered an honored guest.

"Sit right down here, Mr. Dillingham, lemme take the book out of the chair. I was just reading to the Missus and the kids a book Skeeter brought home from Sunday School, all about Dan'l and the lions' den. Tall tale that, Mr. Dillingham. About one of the raciest animal articles I ever come acrost."

When they were ready to go, Mrs. Sheeley followed them anxiously to the door.

"It's a awful stormy night, Popper; you ain't going to stay, are you?"

"Not long. I'll be back to finish the story. So long, kids!" He swung himself down the wooden steps, between his two well-groomed companions, looking back now and then at the bright, open doorway, where the smiling fat woman stood surrounded by half a dozen tow- headed children.

Just as they reached the saloon, the storm, which had evidently only paused for breath, broke in all its fury. The thunder rolled nearer and flashes of lightning pierced the darkness.

"Here! The side door!" shouted Sheeley.

"Wait till I strike a match. I'll take the umbrella. Go right up- stairs, if you don't mind. I want you to see the improvements I been making. There ain't a saloon this side the city limits that's got the 'quipment for sparring matches mine has."

"Get busy with some whisky in the meanwhile," reminded Dillingham sharply; "and I say, can't you make a fire somewhere? I'm chattering like an idiot."

"Sure I can. There's a stove up there, and a bottle or two of extra fine liquor. Jes' step right up."

Half way up the ill-lighted stairs they paused. Above the wind and the rain, a curious sound had come from below as if someone had stumbled against something.

"Who is that?" Sheeley demanded sharply, leaning over the banister and peering down into the gloom.

No answer came, but a draught of wind blew in from somewhere, swaying the gas-jet.

"Oh! it's a window that's left open," said Sheeley. "That fool bartender! I'll just go down and fasten it."

The lock proved stubborn, and it was with some difficulty that he forced it into place. Meanwhile the two young men had lit the gas in the large upper room and were inspecting the elevated stage where boxers were wont to engage surreptitiously in the noble art of self- defense.

"Take yours straight I believe, Mr. Dillingham?" said Sheeley, rejoining them; "an' yer gentleman friend?"

"Nothing for me," said Morley with unnecessary firmness. "I'll just wait a second until the storm lets up, then be off to town."

"Do any boxing these days, Dick?" asked Dillingham, pouring himself a second drink of whisky, as he hovered over the newly kindled fire.

"Oh! I don the mitts occasionally to gratify me friends. My long suit these days is faro; more money in it."

Donald, standing at the window, staring out at the wild night, drummed impatiently on the pane.

"Hurry up, Dill," he said. "I don't want to keep my mare standing so long in the rain."

"Your mare be hanged," said Dillingham; "just wait ten minutes until I get thawed out, and I'll go with you."

Donald had waited ten minutes for Dill before, but never with the present sense of responsibility, born of his new connection with the family. He knew that his only chance of getting him home was to humor him.

How the wind whistled across the window! He wondered what Miss Lady was doing? Was she sitting by the table in the cozy living-room at Thornwood, with the lamplight on her hair? Was she at the harpsichord, singing to the Colonel? Was she standing, as he was standing, at the window, peering out into the wild night, and thinking,--and longing--?

"What's the matter with a little game of poker?" asked Sheeley, lightly running a deck of cards up the length of his arm and reversing them with a deftness that spoke of long familiarity.

"Great idea!" exclaimed Dillingham expansively. "Just pass that bottle, will you? What's that, Morley? Haven't got time? What in thunder's the matter with you to-night?"

Donald retorted, with great dignity, that nothing in thunder was the matter with him, except that he wanted to get back to town.

"Better not start with it storming like this," urged Sheeley, as a crash of thunder shook the windows. "It'll let up soon."

"Tell you what I'll do!" said Dillingham, putting an arm across Donald's shoulder affectionately, and speaking a trifle unsteadily. "If you'll play a couple of games I'll go home with you--You ought to be willing to do that for a fellow that's going to be your uncle. I mean your nephew."

"And you'll go the minute the rain lets up?"

"Yes, if you'll play with us."

Donald stood irresolute, watching Dillingham's thin, unsteady fingers shuffle the cards. He must get him home somehow, for Margery's sake. Dill never knew when to stop, he was good for the night unless somebody intervened.

Sheeley caught his eye and nodded significantly.

"All right!" said Donald, dropping into the vacant chair. "Only two games remember! No whisky, thanks. What's the ante?"