Book Two
Chapter VIII. Steve to the Rescue
 

It is an unfortunate fact that, when a powder-magazine explodes, the damage is not confined to the person who struck the match, but extends to the innocent bystanders. In the present case it was Steve Dingle who sustained the worst injuries.

Of the others who might have been affected, Mrs. Lora Delane Porter was bomb-proof. No explosion in her neighbourhood could shake her. She received the news of Kirk's outbreak with composure. Privately, in her eugenic heart, she considered his presence superfluous now that William Bannister was safely launched upon his career.

In the drama of which she was the self-appointed stage-director, Kirk was a mere super supporting the infant star. Her great mind, occupied almost entirely by the past and the future, took little account of the present. So long as Kirk did not interfere with her management of Bill, he was at liberty, so far as she was concerned, to come or go as he pleased.

Steve could not imitate her admirable detachment. He was a poor philosopher, and all that his mind could grasp was that Kirk was in trouble and that Ruth had apparently gone mad.

The affair did not come to his ears immediately. He visited the studio at frequent intervals and found Kirk there, working hard and showing no signs of having passed through a crisis which had wrecked his life. He was quiet, it is true, but then he was apt to be quiet nowadays.

Probably, if it had not been for Keggs, he would have been kept in ignorance of what had happened for a time.

Walking one evening up Broadway, he met Keggs taking the air and observing the night-life of New York like himself.

Keggs greeted Steve with enthusiasm. He liked Steve, and it was just possible that Steve might not have heard about the great upheaval. He suggested a drink at a neighbouring saloon.

"We have not seen you at our house lately, Mr. Dingle," he remarked, having pecked at his glass of beer like an old, wise bird.

He looked at Steve with a bright eye, somewhat puffy at the lids, but full of life.

"No," said Steve. "That's right. Guess I must have been busy."

Keggs uttered a senile chuckle and drank more beer.

"They're rum uns," he went on. "I've been in some queer places, but this beats 'em all."

"What do you mean?" inquired Steve, as a second chuckle escaped his companion.

"Why, it's come to an 'ead, things has, Mr. Dingle. That's what I mean. You won't have forgotten all about the pampering of that child what I told you of quite recent. Well, it's been and come to an 'ead."

"Yes? Continue, colonel. This listens good."

"You ain't 'eard?"

"Not a word."

Keggs smiled a happy smile and sipped his beer. It did the old man good, finding an entirely new audience like this.

"Why, Mr. Winfield 'as packed up and left."

Steve gasped.

"Left!" he cried. "Not quit? Not gone for good?"

"For his own good, I should say. Finds himself better off away from it all, if you ask me. But 'adn't you reelly heard, Mr. Dingle? God bless my soul! I thought it was public property by now, that little bit of noos. Why, Mr. Winfield 'asn't been living with us for the matter of a week or more."

"For the love of Mike!"

"I'm telling you the honest truth, Mr. Dingle. Two weeks ago come next Saturday Mr. Winfield meets me in the 'all looking wild and 'arassed--it was the same day there was that big thunder-storm--and he looks at me, glassy like, and says to me: 'Keggs, 'ave my bag packed and my boxes, too; I'm going away for a time. I'll send a messenger for 'em.' And out he goes into the rain, which begins to come down cats and dogs the moment he was in the street.

"I start to go out after him with his rain-coat, thinking he'd get wet before he could find a cab, they being so scarce in this city, not like London, where you simply 'ave to raise your 'and to 'ave a dozen flocking round you, but he don't stop; he just goes walking off through the rain and all, and I gets back into the house, not wishing to be wetted myself on account of my rheumatism, which is always troublesome in the damp weather. And I says to myself: ''Ullo, 'ullo, 'ullo, what's all this?'

"See what I mean? I could tell as plain as if I'd been in the room with them that they had been having words. And since that day 'e ain't been near the 'ouse, and where he is now is more than I can tell you, Mr. Dingle."

"Why, he's at the studio."

"At the studio, is he? Well, I shouldn't wonder if he wasn't better off. 'E didn't strike me as a man what was used to the ways of society. He's happier where he is, I expect."

And, having summed matters up in this philosophical manner, Keggs drained his glass and cocked an expectant eye at Steve.

Steve obeyed the signal and ordered a further supply of the beer for which Mr. Keggs had a plebian and unbutlerlike fondness. His companion turned the conversation to the prospects of one of that group of inefficient middleweights whom Steve so heartily despised, between whom and another of the same degraded band a ten-round contest had been arranged and would shortly take place.

Ordinarily this would have been a subject on which Steve would have found plenty to say, but his mind was occupied with what he had just heard, and he sat silent while the silver-haired patron of sport opposite prattled on respecting current form.

Steve felt stunned. It was unthinkable that this thing had really occurred.

Mr. Keggs, sipping beer, discussed the coming fight. He weighed the alleged left hook of one principal against the much-advertised right swing of the other. He spoke with apprehension of a yellow streak which certain purists claimed to have discovered in the gladiator on whose chances he proposed to invest his cash.

Steve was not listening to him. A sudden thought had come to him, filling his mind to the exclusion of all else.

The recollection of his talk with Kirk at the studio had come back to him. He had advised Kirk, as a solution of his difficulties, to kidnap the child and take him to Connecticut. Well, Kirk was out of the running now, but he, Steve, was still in it.

He would do it himself.

The idea thrilled him. It was so in keeping with his theory of the virtue of the swift and immediate punch, administered with the minimum of preliminary sparring. There was a risk attached to the scheme which appealed to him. Above all, he honestly believed that it would achieve its object, the straightening out of the tangle which Ruth and Kirk had made of their lives.

When once an idea had entered Steve's head he was tenacious of it. He had come to the decision that Ruth needed what he called a jolt to bring her to herself, much as a sleep-walker is aroused by the touch of a hand, and he clung to it.

He interrupted Mr. Keggs in the middle of a speech touching on his man's alleged yellow streak.

"Will you be at home to-night, colonel?" he asked.

"I certainly will, Mr. Dingle."

"Mind if I look in?"

"I shall be delighted. I can offer you a cigar that I think you'll appreciate, and we can continue this little chat at our leisure. Mrs. Winfield's dining out, and that there Porter, thank Gawd, 'as gone to Boston."