Chapter LXVIII
 

By this time the Vigilante organization had pretty well succeeded in eliminating the few Law and Order sympathizers who had been bold enough to attempt to play the part of spy by signing the rolls. These had not been many, and their warning had been sufficient. But Morrell had, in a measure, escaped distrust even if he had not gained confidence. He had had the sense not to join the organization; and his attitude of the slightly supercilious, veiledly contemptuous Britisher, scorning all things about him, was sufficient guarantee of his neutrality. This breed was then very common. He left his conference with Jimmy Ware thoroughly instructed, quite acquiescent, but revolving matters in his own mind to see if somehow he could not turn them to his advantage. For Morrell was, as always, in need of money. In addition, he had a personal score to settle with Keith for, although he had apparently forgotten their last interview regarding "loans," the memory rankled. And Morrell had not forgotten that before all this Vigilante business broke he had been made a good offer by Cora's counsel to get Keith out of the way. Cora was now very dead, to be sure; but on sounding Jimmy Ware, Morrell learned that Keith's removal would still be pleasant to the powers that pay.

If he could work these things all in together--Cogitating absorbedly, he glanced up to see Ben Sansome sauntering down the street, his malacca cane at the proper angle, his cylindrical hat resting lightly on his sleek locks, his whole person spick with the indescribably complete appointment of the dandy. Sansome was mixed up with the Keiths--perhaps he could be used--On impulse Morrell hailed him genially, and invited him to take a drink. The exquisite brightened, and perceptibly hastened his step. Morrell's rather ultra-Anglicism always fascinated him. They turned in at the El Dorado, and there seated themselves at the most remote of the small tables.

"Well," said Morrell cheerfully, after preliminary small talk had been disposed of, "how goes the fair Nancy?"

Sansome's effeminately handsome face darkened. Things had in reality gone very badly with the fair Nancy. Her revulsion against Sansome at the time of the capture of the jail had been complete; and as is the case with real revulsions, she had not attempted to conceal it. Sansome's careful structure, which had gained so lofty an elevation, had collapsed like the proverbial house of cards. His vanity had been cruelly rasped. And what had been more or less merely a dilettante's attraction had been thereby changed into a thwarted passion.

"Damn the fair Nancy!" he cried, in answer to Morrell's question.

Morrell's eyes narrowed, and he motioned quietly to the waiting black to replenish the glasses.

"With all my heart, damn her!" said he. "I agree with you; she's a snippy, cold little piece. Not my style at all. Not worth the serious attention of a man like yourself. Who is it now, you sly dog?"

Sansome sipped at his drink; sighed sentimentally.

"Cold--yes--but if the right man could awaken her--" he murmured.

"Look here, Sansome, do you want that woman?"

Sansome looked at his companion haughtily; his eye fell; he drew circles with the bottom of his glass.

"By gad!" he cried with a sudden queer burst of fire; "I've got to have her!"

And then he turned slowly red, actually started to wriggle, concealed his embarrassment under cover of his cigar.

"H'm," observed Morrell speculatively, without looking across at Sansome. "Tell me, Ben, does she still care for her husband?"

"No; that I'll swear!" replied Sansome eagerly.

"If you're sure of that one essential little fact, and you really want her, why don't you take her?"

"Damn it, ain't I telling you? She won't see me."

"Tell me about it," urged Morrell, settling back, and again motioning for fresh drinks.

Sansome, whose soul was ripe for sympathy, needed little more urging. He poured out his tale, sometimes rushingly and passionately, again, as his submerged but still conventional self-consciousness straggled to the surface, with shamefaced bravado. "By Gad!" he finished. "You know, I feel like a raw schoolboy, talkin' like this!"

Morrell leaned forward, his reserve of manner laid aside, his whole being radiating sympathetic charm.

"My dear chap, don't," he begged, laying his hand on Sansome's forearm. "A genuine passion is the most glorious thing on earth even in callow youth! But when we old men of the world--" The pause was eloquent. "She's a headstrong filly," he went on in a more matter-of-fact tone, after a moment, "takes a bit of handling. You'll pardon me, old chap, if I suggest that you've gone about things a bit wrong."

"How is that?" asked Sansome. Under the influence of drinks, confession, and sympathy, he was in a glow of fellow-feeling.

"Believe me, I know women and horses! You've ridden this one too much on the snaffle. Try the curb. That high-spirited sort takes a bit of handling. They like to feel themselves dominated. You've been too gentle, too refined. She's gentle and refined for two. What she wants is the brute-- 'Rape of the Sabines' principle. Savage her a bit, and she'll come to heel like a dog. Not at once, perhaps. Give her a week."

"That's all very well," objected Sansome, whose eyes were shining, "but how about that week? She'll run to that beast of a husband with her story--"

"And be sorry for it afterward--"

"Too late."

Morrell appeared to think.

"There's something in that. But suppose we arranged to get the husband out of the way, where she couldn't run to him at once--" he suggested.

They had more drinks. At first Morrell was only sardonically amused; but as his imagination got to working and the creative power awoke, his interest became more genuine. It was all too wildly improbable for words--and yet, was anything improbable in this impossible place? At least it was amusing, the whole thing was amusing--this super-refined exquisite awakened, to an emotion so genuine that what judgment he had was now obscured by the eagerness of his passion; the situation apparently so easily malleable; the beautiful safety of it all for himself. And it did not really matter if the whole fantastic plot failed!

"I tell you, no," he broke his thoughts to reply to some ill-considered suggestion, "The good old simple methods are the best--they're all laid out for us by the Drury Lane melodramas. You leave it to me to get rid of him. Then we'll send the usual message to her that he is lying wounded somewhere--say at Jake's road house--"

"Won't that get her to thinking too much of him?" interrupted Sansome anxiously.

Morrell, momentarily taken aback, gained time for a reply by pouring Sansome another drink, "He's more sense left than I thought," he said to himself; and aloud: "All you want is to get her out to Jake's. She'll go simply as a matter of wifely duty, and all that. Don't worry. Once she's there, it's your affair; and unless I mistake my man, I believe you'll know how to manage the situation"--he winked slyly--"she's really mad about you, but, like most women, she's hemmed in by convention. Boldly break through the convention, and she'll come around."

Sansome was plainly fascinated by the idea, but in a trepidation of doubt, nevertheless.

"But suppose she doesn't come around?" he objected vaguely.

Morrell threw aside his cigarette and arose with an air of decision.

"I thought you were so crazy mad about her?" he said in tones that cut. "What are you wasting my time for?"

"No, no! Hold on!" cried Sansome, at once all fire again. "I'll do it--hold on!"

"As a matter of fact," observed Morrell, reseating himself, and speaking as though there had been no interruption, "I imagine you have little to fear from that."

He went into the street a little later, his vision somewhat blurred, but his mind clear. Sansome, by now very pot-valiant, swaggered alongside.

"By the way, Ben," said Morrell suddenly, "I hope you go armed--these are bad times."

"I have always carried a derringer--and I can use it, too!" boasted Sansome, swinging his cane.

Morrell, left alone, stood on the corner for some time diligently engaged in getting control of himself. He laughed a little.

"Regular bally melodrama, conspiracy and all, right off the blood-and- thunder stage," said he. "Wonder if it works in real life? We'll see."

After his head had cleared, he set to work methodically to find Keith, but when he finally met that individual it was most casually. Morrell was apparently in a hurry, but as he saw Keith he appeared to hesitate, then, making up his mind, he approached the young lawyer.

"Look here, Keith, a word with you," he said. "I have stumbled on some information which may be important. I was on my way to the committee with it, but I'm in a hurry. The governor is shipping arms into the city to- morrow night from Benicia, by a small sloop."

"Are you sure of this?" asked Keith.

"Certain."

"Where did you get the information?"

"That I cannot tell you."

Keith still hesitated; Morrell turned on his heel.

"Well, I've told you. You can do as you please, but you'd better let the committee decide whether to take the tip or not." He walked away without once looking back, certain that Keith would end by reporting the information,

"Chances are he'll go with the capturing party," ran the trend of his thoughts, "and so he'll be out of reach of this little abduction. But I don't care much. If he follows them out to Jake's by any chance, Sansome will shoot him--or he'll shoot Sansome. Doesn't matter which. Shootin's none too healthy these days for either side! Oh, Lord, most amusin'!"

He thought a while, then turned up the hill toward his own house. A new refinement of the plot had occurred to the artist's soul too much drink had released in him.

Mrs. Morrell was vastly surprised to see him. She was clad in a formless pink silk wrapper, was reclining on a sofa, and was settling down to relaxation of mind and body by means of French novels and cigarettes,

"Well, what are you doing here at this time of day?" was her greeting.

"Came to bask in the light of your smiles, my dear," he replied with elephantine irony.

"Nonsense!" she rejoined sharply, "You've been drinking again!"

"To be sure; but not enough to hurt." His manner suddenly became businesslike, "Look here," he asked her, "are you game to make a tidy bit of money?"

"Always!" she replied promptly, also becoming businesslike.

He explained in detail. She listened in silence at first with a slight smile of contempt on her lips. As he progressed, however, the smile faded.

"Where do I come in?" she asked finally.

"You must be there when the message comes to her. She might not go out to Jake's alone--probably wouldn't. I don't know her well enough to judge. Hurry her into it."

"I see." She laughed suddenly. "Lord, she'll be surprised when I call on her! Take some doing, that!" She thought a few moments. "My appearance will connect us with it. Won't do."

"If the thing goes through we won't be here," he pointed out. "If it doesn't go through all right, we'll arrange a little comedy. Have you bound and gagged--before her eyes--or something like that."

"Thanks," she replied to this.

Morrell was not entirely open. He did not tell her that money or no money, plot or no plot, he had resolved to flee the city, at least for a time. Investigations were getting too close to some of his past activities. He did not offer in words what he nevertheless knew to be the most potent of his arguments--namely, the implacable hate Mrs. Morrell bore Keith. Morrell's knowledge of this hate was accurate, though his analysis of its cause was faulty. He thought his wife to be Keith's discarded mistress, and did not greatly care. Nor did he mention the possibility which, however, Mrs. Morrell now voiced.

"Suppose Keith follows them out to Jake's?" she suggested.

"One of them will kill, and the Stranglers will hang the other," he said briefly.

She looked up.

"I don't care for that!"

"In that event, you will not be present. Your job will be to duck out." He paused, then went on slowly: "Would you grieve at the demise of either--or all three?"

Her face hardened.

"But," he went on slowly, "the chances of it are very remote. If there is any killing, it will come later. Keith will be kept out of the way."

"And after?"

"You hint of an assignation. I will arrange for witnesses."

"Where does the money come in?" she demanded. Morrell floundered for a moment. He had lost sight of the money.

"It comes from certain parties who want Keith put out of the way," he said.

"And suppose Keith is not put out of the way?" she began, her facile mind pouncing on the weakness of this statement. "Never mind," she interrupted herself. "I'll do it!" Her face had hardened again, "Can you depend on Sansome to go through with it?"

"Only if he's fairly drunk."

"Yes?"

"I'll attend to that. That is my job. You may not see me to-morrow; but go in the evening to call on her."

"It looks absolutely preposterous," she said at last, "but it may work. And, if any part of it works, that'll be enough."

"Yes," said he.

They had both forgotten the money.