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THE VISION SPLENDID (chapter13,part4)

2006-08-28 23:39

    PART 4

    As Jeff helped her from the cab in front of the block where he lived a limousine flashed past. It caught his glance for an instant, long enough for him to recognize his Cousin James, Mrs. Van Tyle and Alice Frome. The arm which supported Nellie did not loosen from her waist, though he knew they had seen him and would probably draw conclusions.

    The young woman was trembling violently.

    "My rooms are in the second story. Can you walk? Or shall I carry you?" Farnum asked.

    "I can walk," she told him almost in a whisper.

    He got her upstairs and into the big armchair in front of the gas log.

    Now that she had slipped out of his rain coat he saw that she was wet to the skin. From his bedroom he brought a bathrobe, pajamas, woolen slippers, anything he could find that was warm and soft. In front of her he dumped them all.

    "I'm going down to the drug store to get you something that will warm you, Nellie. While I'm away change your clothes and get into these things," he told her.

    She looked up at him with tears in her eyes. "You're good."

    A lump rose in his heart. He thought of those evenings before the grate alone with her and of the desperate fight he had had with his passions. Good! He accused himself bitterly for the harm that he had done her. But before her his smile was bright and cheerful.

    "We're all going to be so good to you that you'll not know us. Haven't we been waiting two months for a chance to spoil you?"

    "Do you . . . know?" she whispered, color for an instant in her wan face.

    "I know things aren't half so bad as they seem to you. Dear girl, we are your friends. We've not done right by you. Even your mother has been careless and let you get hurt. But we're going to make it up to you now."

    A man on the other side of the street watched Jeff come down and cross to the drug store. Billie Gray, ballot box stuffer, detective, and general handy man for Big Tim O'Brien, had been lurking in that entry when Jeff came home. He had sneaked up the stairs after them and had seen the editor disappear into his rooms with one whom he took to be a woman of the street. Already a second plain clothes man was doing sentry duty. The policeman whose beat it was sat in the drug store and kept an eye open from that quarter.

    To the officer Jeff nodded casually. "Bad weather to be out all night in, Nolan."

    "Right you are, Mr. Farnum."

    The editor ordered a bottle of whiskey and while it was being put up passed into the telephone booth and closed the door behind him. He called up Olive 43I.

    Central rang again and again.

    "Can't get your party," she told him at last.

    "You'll waken him presently. Keep at it, please. It's very important."

    At last Sam Miller's voice answered. "Hello! Hello! What is it?"

    "I've found Nellie. . . . Just in time. thank God. . .She's at my rooms. . . . Have Mrs. Anderson bring an entire change of clothing for her. . . . Yes, she's very much exhausted. I'll tell you all about it later…… Come quietly. She may be asleep when you get here."

    Jeff hung up the receiver, paid for the whiskey, and returned to his rooms. He did not know that he had left three good and competent witnesses who were ready to take oath that he had brought to his rooms at midnight a woman of the half world and that he had later bought liquor and returned with it to his apartment.

    Billie Gray thumped his fist into his open palm. "We've got him. We've got him right. He can't get away from it. By Gad, we've got him at last!"

    Jeff found Nellie wrapped in his bathrobe in the big chair before the gas log. Her own wet clothes were out of sight behind a screen.

    "You locked the door when you went out," she charged.

    "Some of my friends might have dropped in to see me," he explained with his disarming smile.

    But he could see in her eyes the unreasoning fear of a child that has been badly hurt. He had locked the door on the outside. She was going to be dragged home whether she wanted to go or not. Dread of that hour was heavy on her soul. Jeff knew the choice must be hers, not his. He spoke quietly.

    "You're not a prisoner, of course. You may go whenever you like. I would have no right to keep you. But you will hurt me very much if you go before morning."

    "Where will you stay?" she asked.

    "I'll sleep on the lounge in this room," he answered in his most matter of fact voice.

    While he busied himself preparing a toddy for her she began to tell brokenly, by snatches, the story of her wanderings. She had gone to Portland and had found work in a department store at the notion counter. After three weeks she had lost her place. Days of tramping the streets

    looking for a job brought her at last to an overall factory where she found employment. The foreman had discharged her at the end of the third day. Once she had been engaged at an agency as a servant by a man, but as soon as his wife saw her Nellie was told she would not do. Bitter humiliating experiences had befallen her. Twice she had been turned out of rooming houses. Jeff read between the lines that as her time drew near some overmastering impulse had drawn her back to Verden. Already she was harboring the thought of death, but she could not die in a strange place so far from home. Only that morning she had reached town.

    After she had retired to the bedroom Jeff sat down in the chair she had vacated. He heard her moving about for a short time. Presently came silence.

    It must have been an hour and a half later that Sam and Mrs. Anderson knocked gently on the door.

    "Cars stopped running. Had to 'phone for a taxi," Miller whispered.

    The agitation of the mother was affecting. Her fingers twitched with nervousness. Her eyes strayed twenty times in five minutes toward the door behind which her daughter slept. Every little while she would tip-toe to it and listen breathlessly. In whispers Jeff told them the story, answering a hundred eager trembling questions.

    Slowly the clock ticked out the seconds of the endless night. Gray day began to sift into the room. Mrs. Anderson's excursions to the bedroom door grew more frequent. Sometimes she opened it an inch or two. On one of these occasions she went in quickly and shut the door behind her.

    "Good enough. They don't need us here, Sam. We'll go out and have some breakfast," Jeff proposed.

    On the street they met Billie Gray. He greeted the editor with a knowing grin. "Good morning, Mr. Farnum. How's everything? Fine and dandy, eh?"

    Jeff looked at him sharply. "What the mischief is he doing here?" he asked Miller by way of comment.

    All through breakfast that sinister little figure shadowed his thoughts. Gray was like a stormy petrel. He was surely there for no good, barring the chance of its being an accident. Both of them kept their eyes open on their

    way back, but they met nobody except a policeman swinging his club as

    he leaned against a lamp post and

    whistled the Merry Widow waltz.

    But Farnum was not satisfied. He cautioned both Sam and Mrs. Anderson to say nothing, above all to give no names or explanation to anybody. A whisper of the truth would bring reporters down on them in shoals.

    "You had better stay here quietly to-day," their host advised. "I'll see you're not disturbed by the help. Sam will bring your meals in from a restaurant. I'd say stay here as long as you like, but it can't be done without arousing curiosity, the one thing we don't want."

    "No, better leave late to-night in a taxi," Sam proposed.

    "Better still, I'll bring around Captain Chunn's car and Sam can drive you home. We can't be too careful."

    So it was arranged. Mrs. Anderson left it to them and went back into the bedroom where her wounded lamb lay.

    About midnight Jeff stopped a car in front of the stairway. The two veiled women emerged, accompanied by Sam. They were helped into the tonneau and Miller took the driver's seat. Just as the machine began to move a little man ran across the street toward them.

    Jeff's forearm went up suddenly and caught him under the chin. Billie Gray's head went back and his heels came up. Farnum was on him in an instant, ostensibly to help him up, but really to see he did not get up too quickly. As soon as the automobile swung round the corner Jeff lifted him to his feet.

    "Sorry. Hope I didn't hurt you," he smiled.

    "Smart trick, wasn't it?" snarled the detective. "Never mind, Mr. Farnum. We've got your goat right."

    "Again?" Jeff asked with pleasant impudence.

    "Got you dead to rights this trip." Gray fired another shot as he turned away. "And we'll find out yet who your lady friends are. Don't you forget it."

    But Billie had overlooked a bet. He had been in the back of the drug store getting a drink when Sam and Mrs. Anderson arrived. The policeman

    on guard had not connected the coming of these with Jeff. None of the watchers knew that Jeff had not been alone with the girl all night.

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