Chapter XVIII. The Nailing of a Flag
 

"Well--well--well!" drawled a voice at Richard Kendrick's elbow. "How are you, old man? Haven't seen you since before the days of Noah! Off to that country shop of yours? I say, take me along, will you? Time hangs heavy on my hands just now, and I want to see you anyhow, about a plan of mine."

"Hop in, Lorimer. Mighty glad to see you. Want to go all the way to Eastman? That's fine! This is great weather, eh?"

Belden Lorimer hopped in, if that word may be used to express his eager acceptance rather than the alacrity of his movements, for he was accustomed to act with as much deliberation as he spoke. He was one of Richard's college friends, also one of his late intimate companions at clubs and in social affairs. Lorimer possessed as much money in his own right as Richard himself, though his expectations were hardly as great.

"To tell the truth," said Lorimer, when the car had left the city and was bowling along the main travelled highway "up the State," "I wanted to see you as much as anything to get a good look at you. Fellows say you've changed. Say you have that 'captain-of-industry' expression now. Say you've acquired that broad brow--alert eye--stern mouth--dominant chin--and so forth, that goes with indomitable determination to 'get there.' To be sure, I'd have thought you'd arrived, or your family before you, but they say you've started out to arrive some more. It's a wonderful example for a chap like me--fellows say. Think so myself. Mind imparting--"

Richard broke in on Lorimer's drawl. It was rather an engaging drawl, by the way, and he had always enjoyed hearing it, but it struck upon his ears now with a certain futility. In a world of pressing affairs why should a man cultivate a tone like that? But he liked Lorimer too much to mind how he talked.

"I'm delighted if I've acquired that expression," said he, letting out the car another notch, although it was already in swift flight. "It's been a lot of trouble. I've had to practise before a mirror a good deal. It was the chin bothered me most. It sticks out pretty well, but not as far as my grandfather's. Could you advise any method of--"

"What I want to know is," proceeded Lorimer calmly, "how you came to go into it. Understand you wanted to help fellow out of the ditch--good old Benson--most worthy. Couldn't help him out without getting in yourself? But going to get out soon as possible, of course? Unthinkable for Rich Kendrick to be a country shopkeeper!"

"Unthinkable, is it? Wait till you see the shop. It's the most fun I ever had. Get out? Not by a long shot. I'm in for keeps."

"Not you. With the Kendrick establishments waiting for you to come into your own? Which will mean, in your case, becoming the nominal head of a great system, while it continues to be run for you, as now, by a lot of trained heads under salary--big salary."

"Great idea of my future you have, Lorry, haven't you? Well, I can't wonder. I've been doing my best for all the years of my life to implant that idea in your mind. But, what about you? What are you at, yourself? You said you had a plan."

"He asks what I'm 'at,'" remarked Belden Lorimer to the rural landscape through which the car was passing. "Ever know me to be 'at' anything? It's as much as I can do to support life until I can be off on my next little travel-plan. It's me for a leisurely cruise around the world, in the governor's little old boat--the Ariel--painted up within an inch of her life, brass all shining, lockers filled, a first-class cook engaged, and a brand-new skipper and crew--picked men. Sounds pretty good to me. How about you? Shop keeping in it with that, me lord?"

His usually languid glance was sharp, as he eyed his friend.

"Jove!" ejaculated Richard Kendrick, under his breath.

"I thought so. 'Jove!' it is, too--and also Jupiter! You've always said you'd be ready when I was. Well, I'm ready."

Richard was silent for a long minute, while his friend waited confidently. Then, "Good luck to you, old Lorry," he said. "It's mighty fine of you to remember our ancient vow to do that trick some day. And I'd like to go--you know that. But--I've a previous engagement."

"Not with that fool store up in the backwoods? Can't make me believe that, you know."

Richard's face was a study.

"Believe it or not, it's a fact. That store is the joint property of Benson & Company. I'm the Company. I can't desert my partner just as we're getting the ground under our feet."

"Well--I'll--be--hanged," drawled Lorimer, more heavily than ever, as was his custom when opposed, "if I see it. You go and help a fellow out with capital and set him on his feet. You save his pride, I suppose, by making yourself a partner. Fine, sporty thing to do. But you've done it. You've contributed the capital. Can't reasonably suppose you contribute anything else. If you don't mind my saying it, your--previous--training--"

"Doesn't make me indispensable to the success of the business? Hardly, as yet. But for the very reason that I lack training, I've got to stay and get it."

"Take lessons in shopkeeping from Hugh Benson?"

"Exactly. And from Alf Carson. He's our manager."

"Don't know him. But from the way you allude to him I judge he has the details at his fingers-ends. That's all right. Leave--him--on--the--job."

"I will--and stay myself."

Richard's eyes were straight ahead, as the eyes of a man must be whose powerful car is running at high speed along a none too smoothly surfaced portion of state road. Therefore the glances of the two young men could not meet. But Lorimer's eyes could silently scan the well-cut profile presented to his view against the green of the fields beyond.

"Never observed," said he, with a peculiar inflection, "just how--rock-like--that chin of yours is, Rich. Reminds me of your grandfather's, for fair."

"Glad to hear it."

"You know," pursued Lorimer presently, "you gave me your promise, once, that you'd be with me on this cruise, whenever it came off. That's where the chin ought to come in. Man of your word, you know, and all that."

"I'm mighty sorry, my dear fellow. Let's not talk about it."

And clearly he was sorry. It had been a pleasant plan, and he had not forgotten the circumstances of the laughing yet serious pledge the two had given each other one evening less than two years ago.

They kept on their way with a change of conversation, and at the rate of speed which Richard maintained were running into Eastman before they were half done with asking each other questions concerning the months during which they had seldom met.

"This the busy mart?" queried Lorimer, as the car came to a standstill before the corner store. "Well, beside Kendrick & Company's massive edifices of stone and marble--"

"Luckily, it's not beside them," retorted Richard, maintaining his good humour. "Will you come in?"

"Thanks, I will. That's what I came for. Curiosity leads me to want to view you behind the--No, no, of course it's behind the office glass partition that I'll view you, my boy. I want to hear Rich Kendrick talking business--with a big B."

"I'll talk business to you, if you don't let up," declared his friend. "You've got to be cured of the idea that this is some kind of a joke, Lorry. Will you be kind enough to take me seriously?"

"Find--that--impossible," drawled Lorimer, under his breath, as he followed Richard into the store.

But once there, of course, his manner changed to the most courteous of which he was master. He was taken to the office and there shook hands with Hugh Benson with cordiality, having known him at college as a man who commanded respect for high scholarship and modest but assured manners, though of a quite different class of comradeship from his own. He talked pleasantly with Alfred Carson, and listened with evident interest to a business discussion between Richard and his associates, in the course of which he discovered that however much or little Richard had learned, he could speak intelligently concerning the matters then in hand. He went to lunch with Richard and Hugh Benson at a hotel, and listened again, for a decision was to be made which called for haste, and no time could be lost in the consideration of it.

He spent the afternoon driving Richard's car on up the state, returning in time to pick up his friend at the appointed hour, late in the afternoon, at which they were to start back to the city. Up to the last moment of their departure business still had the upper hand, and it was not until Benson and Kendrick parted at the curb that it ended for the day, as far as Richard's part in it was concerned.

"Six hours you've been at it," remarked Lorimer, as the car swung away under Richard's hand. "It makes me fatigued all over to contemplate such zeal."

"Tell that to the men who really work. I'm getting off easy, to cut and run at the end of six hours."

"Rich--" began his friend, then he paused. "By the Lord Harry, I'd like to know what's got you. I can't make you and the old Rich fit together at all. You and your books--you and your music--and your pictures--your polo--your 'wine, women, and song'--"

"Take that last back," commanded Richard Kendrick, with sudden heat. "You know I've never gone in for that sort of thing, except as all our old crowd went in together. Personally, I haven't cared for it, and you know it. It's travel and adventure I've cared for--"

"And that you're throwing over now for a country shop."

"That I'm throwing over now to learn the ABC in the training school of responsibility for the big load that's to come on my shoulders. I've been asleep all these years. Thank Heaven I've waked up in time. It's no merit of mine--"

"Mind telling me whose it is, then?"

"I should mind, very much--if you'll excuse me."

"Oh--beg pardon," drawled Lorimer.

Silence followed for a brief space, broken by Richard's voice, in its old, genial tone.

"Tell me more about the cruise. It's great that you can have your father's yacht. I thought he always used it through the summer."

"He's gone daffy on monoplanes--absolutely daffy. Can't see anything else."

"I don't blame him. I might have gone in for aviation myself, if I hadn't got this bigger game on my hands."

"Bigger--there you go again! Well, every man to his taste. The governor's lost interest in the Ariel--let me have her without a reservation as to time limit. Don't care for flying myself. Necessary to sit up. Like to lie on my back too well for that."

"You do yourself injustice."

"Now, now--don't preach. I've been expecting it."

"You needn't. I'm too busy with my own case to attend to yours."

"Lucky for me. I feel you'd be a zealous preacher if you ever got started."

"What route do you expect to take?" pursued Richard, steering away from dangerous ground.

Lorimer outlined it, in his most languid manner. One would have thought he had little real interest in his plan, after all.

"It's great! You'll have the time of your life!"

"I might have had."

"You will have--you can't help it."

"Not without the man I want in the bunk next mine," said Belden Lorimer, gazing through half-shut eyes at nothing in particular.

Richard experienced the severest pang of regret he had yet known.

"If that's true, old Lorry," said he slowly, "I'm sorrier than I can tell you."

"Then--come along!" Lorimer looked waked up at last. He laid a persuasive hand on Richard's arm.

There was a moment of tensity. Then:

"If I should do it," said Richard, regarding steadily a dog in the road some hundred yards ahead, "would you feel any respect whatever for me?"

"Dead loads of it, I assure you."

"Sure of that?"

"Why not?"

"Be honest. Would you?"

"You promised me first," said Lorimer.

"I know I did. Such idle promises to play don't count when real life asks for work--it's no good reminding me of that promise. Answer me straight, now, Lorry--on your honour. If I should give in and go with you, you'd rejoice for a little, perhaps. Then, some day, when you and I were lying on deck, you'd look at me and think of me--against your will--I don't say it wouldn't be against your will--you'd think of me as a quitter. And you wouldn't like me quite as well as you do now. Eh? Be honest."

Lorimer was silent for a minute. Then, to Richard's surprise, he gave an assenting grunt, and followed it up with a reluctant, "Hang it all, I suppose you're right. But I'm badly disappointed, just the same. We'll let that go."

And let it go they did, parting, when they reached town, with the friendliest of grips, and a new, if not wholly comprehended, interest between them. As for Richard, he felt, somehow, as if he had nailed his flag to the mast!