The Claim Jumpers by Stewart Edward White
Chapter I. Jim Leslie Writes a Letter
In a fifth-story sitting room of a New York boarding house four youths were holding a discussion. The sitting room was large and square, and in the wildest disorder, which was, however, sublimated into a certain system by an illuminated device to the effect that one should "Have a Place for Everything, and then there'll be one Place you won't have to look." Easels and artists' materials thrust back to the wall sufficiently advertised the art student, and perhaps explained the untidiness.
Two of the occupants of the room, curled up on elevated window ledges, were emitting clouds of tobacco smoke and nursing their knees; the other two, naked to the waist, sat on a couple of ordinary bedroom mattresses deposited carefully in the vacant centre of the apartment. They were eager, alert-looking young men, well-muscled, curly of hair, and possessing in common an unabashed carriage of the head which, more plainly than any mere facial resemblance, proved them brothers. They, too, were nursing their knees.
"He must be an unadorned ass," remarked one of the occupants of the window seats, in answer to some previous statement.
"He is not," categorically denied a youth of the mattresses. "My dear Hench, you make no distinctions. I've been talking about the boy's people and his bringing up and the way he acts, whereupon you fly off on a tangent and coolly conclude things about the boy himself. It is not only unkind, but stupid."
Hench laughed. "You amuse me, Jeems," said he; "elucidate."
Jeems let go his knees. The upper part of his body, thus deprived of support, fell backward on the mattress. He then clasped his hands behind his head, and stared at the ceiling.
"Listen, ye multitude," he began; "I'm an artist. So are you. I'm also a philosopher. You are not. Therefore, I'll deign to instruct you. Ben de Laney has a father and a mother. The father is pompous, conceited, and a bore. The mother is pompous, conceited, and a bore. The father uses language of whose absolutely vapid correctness Addison would have been proud. So does the mother, unless she forgets, in which case the old man calls her down hard. They, are rich and of a good social position. The latter worries them, because they have to keep up its dignity."
"They succeed," interrupted the other brother fervently, "they succeed. I dined there once. After that I went around to the waxworks to get cheered up a bit."
"Quite so, Bertie," replied the philosopher; "but you interrupted me just before I got to my point. The poor old creatures had been married many years before Bennie came to cheer them up. Naturally, Bennie has been the whole thing ever since. He is allowed a few privileges, but always under the best auspices. The rest of the time he stays at home, is told what or what not a gentleman should do, and is instructed in the genealogy of the de Laneys."
"The mother is always impressing him with the fact that he is a de Laney on both sides," interpolated Bert.
"Important, if true, as the newspapers say," remarked the other young man on the window ledge. "What constitutes a de Laney?"
"Hereditary lack of humour, Beck, my boy. Well, the result is that poor Bennie is a sort of----" the speaker hesitated for his word.
"'Willy boy,'" suggested Beck, mildly.
"Something of the sort, but not exactly. A 'willy boy' never has ideas. Bennie has."
"Well, for one thing, he wants to get away. He doesn't seem quite content with his job of idle aristocrat. I believe he's been pestering the old man to send him West. Old man doesn't approve."
"'That the fine bloom of culture will become rubbed off in the contact with rude, rough men, seems to me inevitable,'" mimicked Bert in pedantic tones, "'unless a firm sense of personal dignity and an equally firm sense of our obligations to more refined though absent friends hedges us about with adequate safeguards.'"
The four laughed. "That's his style, sure enough," Jim agreed.
"What does he want to do West?" asked Hench.
"He doesn't know. Write a book, I believe, or something of that sort. But he isn't an ass. He has a lot of good stuff in him, only it will never get a chance, fixed the way he is now."
A silence fell, which was broken at last by Bert.
"Come, Jeems," he suggested; "here we've taken up Hench's valuable idea, but are no farther with it."
"True," said Jeems.
He rolled over on his hands and knees. Bert took up a similar position by his side.
"Go!" shouted Hench from the window ledge.
At the word, the two on the mattress turned and grappled each other fiercely, half rising to their feet in the strenuousness of endeavour. Jeems tried frantically for a half-Nelson. While preventing it the wily Bert awaited his chance for a hammer-lock. In the moment of indecision as to which would succeed in his charitable design, a knock on the door put an end to hostilities. The gladiators sat upright and panted.
A young man stepped bashfully into the room and closed the door behind him.
The newcomer was a clean-cut young fellow, of perhaps twenty-two years of age, with regular features, brown eyes, straight hair, and sensitive lips. He was exceedingly well-dressed. A moment's pause followed his appearance. Then:
"Why, it's our old friend, the kid!" cried Jeems.
"Don't let me interrupt," begged the youth diffidently.
"No interruption. End of round one," panted Jeems. "Glad you came. Bertie, here, was twisting my delicate clavicle most cruelly. Know Hench and Beck there?"
De Laney bowed to the young men in the window, who removed their pipes from their mouths and grinned amiably.
"This, gentlemen," explained Jeems, without changing his position, "is Mr. Bennie de Laney on both sides. It is extremely fortunate for Mr. de Laney that he is a de Laney on both sides, for otherwise he would be lop-sided."
"You will find a seat, Mr. de Laney, in the adjoining bedroom," said the first, with great politeness; "and if you don't care to go in there, you will stand yourself in the corner by that easel until the conclusion of this little discussion between Jeems and myself.--Jeems, will you kindly state the merits of the discussion to the gentleman? I'm out of breath."
Jeems kindly would.
"Bert and I have, for the last few weeks, been obeying the parting commands of our dear mother. 'Boys,' said she, with tears in her eyes, 'Boys, always take care of one another.' So each evening I have tried to tuck Bertie in his little bed, and Bertie, with equal enthusiasm, has attempted to tuck me in. It has been hard on pyjamas, bed springs, and the temper of the Lady with the Piano who resides in the apartments immediately beneath; so, at the wise suggestion of our friends in the windows"--he waved a graceful hand toward them, and they gravely bowed acknowledgment--"we are now engaged in deciding the matter Graeco-Roman. The winner 'tucks.' Come on, Bertie."
The two again took position side by side, on their hands and knees, while Mr. Hench explained to de Laney that this method of beginning the bout was necessary, because the limited area of the mat precluded flying falls. At a signal from Mr. Beck, they turned and grappled, Jeems, by the grace of Providence, on top. In the course of the combat it often happened that the two mattresses would slide apart. The contestants, suspending their struggles, would then try to kick them together again without releasing the advantage of their holds. The noise was beautiful. To de Laney, strong in maternal admonitions as to proper deportment, it was all new and stirring, and quite without precedent. He applauded excitedly, and made as much racket as the rest.
A sudden and vigorous knock for the second time put an end to hostilities. The wrestlers again sat bolt upright on the mattresses, and listened.
"Gentlemen," cried an irritated German voice, "there is a lady schleeping on the next floor!"
"Karl, Karl!" called one of the irrepressibles, "can I never teach you to be accurate! No lady could possibly be sleeping anywhere in the building."
He arose from the mattress and shook himself.
"Jeems," he continued sadly, "the world is against true virtue. Our dear mother's wishes can not be respected."
De Laney came out of his corner.
"Fellows," he cried with enthusiasm, "I want you to come up and stay all night with me some time, so mother can see that gentlemen can make a noise!"
Bertie sat down suddenly and shrieked. Jeems rolled over and over, clutching small feathers from the mattress in the agony of his delight, while the clothed youths contented themselves with amused but gurgling chuckles.
"Bennie, my boy," gasped Jeems, at last, "you'll be the death of me! O Lord! O Lord! You unfortunate infant! You shall come here and have a drum to pound; yes, you shall." He tottered weakly to his feet. "Come, Bertie, let us go get dressed."
The two disappeared into the bedroom, leaving de Laney uncomfortably alone with the occupants of the window ledge.
The young fellow walked awkwardly across the room and sat down on a partly empty chair, not because he preferred sitting to standing, but in order to give himself time to recover from his embarrassment.
The sort of chaffing to which he had just been subjected was direct and brutal; it touched all his tender spots--the very spots wherein he realized the intensest soreness of his deficiencies, and about which, therefore, he was the most sensitive--yet, somehow, he liked it. This was because the Leslie boys meant to him everything free and young that he had missed in the precise atmosphere of his own home, and so he admired them and stood in delightful inferiority to them in spite of his wealth and position. He would have given anything he owned to have felt himself one of their sort; but, failing that, the next best thing was to possess their intimacy. Of this intimacy chaffing was a gauge. Bennington Clarence de Laney always glowed at heart when they rubbed his fur the wrong way, for it showed that they felt they knew him well enough to do so. And in this there was something just a little pathetic.
Bennington held to the society standpoint with men, so he thought he must keep up a conversation. He did so. It was laboured. Bennington thought of things to say about Art, the Theatre, and Books. Hench and Beck looked at each other from time to time.
Finally the door opened, and, to the relief of all, two sweatered and white-ducked individuals appeared.
"And now, Jeems, we'll smoke the pipe of peace," suggested Bert, diving for the mantel and the pipe rack.
"Correct, my boy," responded Jeems, doing likewise. They lit up, and turned with simultaneous interest to their latest caller.
"And how is the proud plutocrat?" inquired Bert; "and how did he contrive to get leave to visit us rude and vulgar persons?"
The Leslies had called at the de Laneys', and, as Bert said, had dined there once. They recognised their status, and rejoiced therein.
"He is calling on the minister," explained Jeems for him. "Bennington, my son, you'll get caught at that some day, as sure as shooting. If your mamma ever found out that, instead of talking society-religion to old Garnett, you were revelling in this awful dissipation, you'd have to go abroad again."
"What did you call him?" inquired Bert.
"Him--Bennie--what was that full name?"
"Great Scott! and here I've been thinking all the time he was plain Benjamin! Tell us about it, my boy. What is it? It sounds like a battle of the Revolution. Is it a battle of the Revolution? Just to think that all this time we have been entertaining unawares a real live battle!"
De Laney grinned, half-embarrassed as usual.
"It's a family name," said he. "It's the name of an ancestor."
He never knew whether or not these vivacious youths really desired the varied information they demanded.
The Leslies looked upon him with awe.
"You don't mean to tell me," said Bertie, "that you are a Bennington! Well, well! This is a small world! We will celebrate the discovery." He walked to the door and touched a bell five times. "Beautiful system," he explained. "In a moment Karl will appear with five beers. This arrangement is possible because never, in any circumstances, do we ring for anything but beer."
The beer came. Two steins, two glasses, and a carefully scrubbed shaving mug were pressed into service. After the excitement of finding all these things had died, and the five men were grouped about the place in ungraceful but comfortable attitudes, Bennington bid for the sympathy he had sought in this visit.
"Fellows," said he, "I've something to tell you."
"Let her flicker," said Jim.
"I'm going away next week. It's all settled."
"Bar Harbour, Trouville, Paris, or Berlin?"
"None of them. I'm going West."
"Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, San Diego, or Monterey?"
"None of them. I'm going to the real West. I'm going to a mining camp."
The Leslies straightened their backbones.
"Don't spring things on us that way," reproved Bertie severely; "you'll give us heart disease. Now repeat softly."
"I am going to a mining camp," obeyed Bennington, a little shamefacedly.
This time the Leslies sprang quite to their feet.
"By the Great Horn Spoon, man!" cried Jim. "Alone! No chaperon! Good Lord!"
"Yes," said Bennington, "I've always wanted to go West. I want to write, and I'm sure, in that great, free country, I'll get a chance for development. I had to work hard to induce father and mother to consent, but it's done now, and I leave next week. Father procured me a position out there in one of the camps. I'm to be local treasurer, or something like that; I'm not quite sure, you see, for I haven't talked with Bishop yet. I go to his office for directions to-morrow."
At the mention of Bishop the Leslies glanced at each other behind the young man's back.
"Bishop?" repeated Jim. "Where's your job located?"
"In the Black Hills of South Dakota, somewhere near a little place called Spanish Gulch."
This time the Leslies winked at each other.
"It's a nice country," commented Bert vaguely; "I've been there."
"Oh, have you?" cried the young man. "What's it like?"
"Hills, pines, log houses, good hunting--oh, it's Western enough."
A clock struck in a church tower outside. In spite of himself, Bennington started.
"Better run along home," laughed Jim; "your mamma will be angry."
To prove that this consideration carried no weight, Bennington stayed ten minutes longer. Then he descended the five flights of stairs deliberately enough, but once out of earshot of his friends, he ran several blocks. Before going into the house he took off his shoes. In spite of the precaution, his mother called to him as he passed her room. It was half past ten.
Beck and Hench kicked de Laney's chair aside, and drew up more comfortably before the fire; but James would have none of it. He seemed to be excited.
"No," he vetoed decidedly. "You fellows have got to get out! I've got something to do, and I can't be bothered."
The visitors grumbled. "There's true hospitality for you," objected they; "turn your best friends out into the cold world! I like that!"
"Sorry, boys," insisted James, unmoved. "Got an inspiration. Get out! Vamoose!"
They went, grumbling loudly down the length of the stairs, to the disgust of the Lady with the Piano on the floor below.
"What're you up to, anyway, Jimmie?" inquired the brother with some curiosity.
James had swept a space clear on the table, and was arranging some stationery.
"Don't you care," he replied; "you just sit down and read your little Omar for a while."
He plunged into the labours of composition, and Bert sat smoking meditatively. After some moments the writer passed a letter over to the smoker.
"Think it'll do?" he inquired.
Bert read the letter through carefully.
"Jeems," said he, after due deliberation, "Jeems, you're a blooming genius."
James stamped the envelope.
"I'll mail it for you when I go out in the morning," Bert suggested.
"Not on your daily bread, sonny. It is posted now by my own hand. We won't take any chances on this layout, and that I can tell you."
He tramped down four flights and to the corner, although it was midnight and bitter cold. Then, with a seraphic grin on his countenance, he went to bed and slept the sleep of the just.
The envelope was addressed to a Mr. James Fay, Spanish Gulch, South Dakota.