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A KNIGHT-ERRANT OF THEFOOTHILLS (4)

2006-09-07 20:36

    IV. Herbert, enrolled in the same section with his employer and one or two fellow-clerks, had participated in the meetings of the committee with the light-heartedness and irresponsibility of youth, regretting only the loss of his usual walk with Cherry and the hours that kept him from her house. He was returning from a protracted meeting one night, when the number of arrests and searching for proscribed and suspected characters had been so large as to induce fears of organized resistance and rescue, and on reaching the foot of the hill found it already so late, that to avoid disturbing the family he resolved to enter his room directly by the door in the side street. On inserting his key in the lock it met with some resisting obstacle, which, however, yielded and apparently dropped on the mat inside. Opening the door and stepping into the perfectly dark apartment, he trod upon this object, which proved to be another key. The family must have procured it for their convenience during his absence, and after locking the door had carelessly left it in the lock. It was lucky that it had yielded so readily.

    The fire had gone out. He closed the door and lit the gas, and after taking off his overcoat moved to the door leading into the passage to listen if anybody was still stirring. To his utter astonishment he found it locked. What was more remarkable——the key was also INSIDE! An inexplicable feeling took possession of him. He glanced suddenly around the room, and then his eye fell upon the bed. Lying there, stretched at full length, was the recumbent figure of a man.

    He was apparently in the profound sleep of utter exhaustion. The attitude of his limbs and the order of his dress——of which only his collar and cravat had been loosened——showed that sleep must have overtaken him almost instantly. In fact, the bed was scarcely disturbed beyond the actual impress of his figure. He seemed to be a handsome, matured man of about forty; his dark straight hair was a little thinned over the temples, although his long heavy moustache was still youthful and virgin. His clothes, which were elegantly cut and of finer material than that in ordinary use, the delicacy and neatness of his linen, the whiteness of his hands, and, more particularly, a certain dissipated pallor of complexion and lines of recklessness on the brow and cheek, indicated to Herbert that the man before him was one of that desperate and suspected class——some of whose proscribed members he had been hunting——the professional gambler!

    Possibly the magnetism of Herbert's intent and astonished gaze affected him. He moved slightly, half opened his eyes, said "Halloo, Tap," rubbed them again, wholly opened them, fixed them with a lazy stare on Herbert, and said:

    "Now, who the devil are you?"

    "I think I have the right to ask that question, considering that this is my room," said Herbert sharply.

    "YOUR room?"

    "Yes!"

    The stranger half raised himself on his elbow, glanced round the room, settled himself slowly back on the pillows, with his hands clasped lightly behind his head, dropped his eyelids, smiled, and said:

    "Rats!"

    "What?" demanded Herbert, with a resentful sense of sacrilege to Cherry's virgin slang.

    "Well, old rats then! D'ye think I don't know this shebang? Look here, Johnny, what are you putting on all this side for, eh? What's your little game? Where's Tappington?"

    "If you mean Mr. Brooks, the son of this house, who formerly lived in this room," replied Herbert, with a formal precision intended to show a doubt of the stranger's knowledge of Tappington, "you ought to know that he has left town."

    "Left town!" echoed the stranger, raising himself again. "Oh, I see! getting rather too warm for him here? Humph! I ought to have thought of that. Well, you know, he DID take mighty big risks, anyway!" He was silent a moment, with his brows knit and a rather dangerous expression in his handsome face. "So some d——d hound gave him away-eh?"

    "I hadn't the pleasure of knowing Mr. Brooks except by reputation, as the respected son of the lady upon whose house you have just intruded," said Herbert frigidly, yet with a creeping consciousness of some unpleasant revelation. The stranger stared at him for a moment, again looked carefully round the room, and then suddenly dropped his head back on the pillow, and with his white hands over his eyes and mouth tried to restrain a spasm of silent laughter. After an effort he succeeded, wiped his moist eyes, and sat up.

    "So you didn't know Tappington, eh?" he said, lazily buttoning his collar.

    "No."

    "No more do I."

    He retied his cravat, yawned, rose, shook himself perfectly neat again, and going to Herbert's dressing-table quietly took up a brush and began to lightly brush himself, occasionally turning to the window to glance out. Presently he turned to Herbert and said:

    "Well, Johnny, what's your name?"

    "I am Herbert Bly, of Carstone's Bank."

    "So, and a member of this same Vigilance Committee, I reckon," he continued.

    "Yes."

    "Well, Mr. Bly, I owe you an apology for coming here, and some thanks for the only sleep I've had in forty-eight hours. I struck this old shebang at about ten o'clock, and it's now two, so I reckon I've put in about four hours' square sleep. Now, look here." He beckoned Herbert towards the window. "Do you see those three men standing under that gaslight? Well, they're part of a gang of Vigilantes who've hunted me to the hill, and are waiting to see me come out of the bushes, where they reckon I'm hiding. Go to them and say that I'm here! Tell them you've got Gentleman George—— George Dornton, the man they've been hunting for a week——in this room. I promise you I won't stir, nor kick up a row, when they've come. Do it, and Carstone, if he's a square man, will raise your salary for it, and promote you." He yawned slightly, and then slowly looking around him, drew the easy-chair towards him and dropped comfortably in it, gazing at the astounded and motionless Herbert with a lazy smile.

    "You're wondering what my little game is, Johnny, ain't you? Well, I'll tell you. What with being hunted from pillar to post, putting my old pards to no end of trouble, and then slipping up on it whenever I think I've got a sure thing like this,"——he cast an almost affectionate glance at the bed,——"I've come to the conclusion that it's played out, and I might as well hand in my checks. It's only a question of my being RUN OUT of 'Frisco, or hiding until I can SLIP OUT myself; and I've reckoned I might as well give them the trouble and expense of transportation. And if I can put a good thing in your way in doing it——why, it will sort of make things square with you for the fuss I've given you."

    Even in the stupefaction and helplessness of knowing that the man before him was the notorious duellist and gambler George Dornton, one of the first marked for deportation by the Vigilance Committee, Herbert recognized all he had heard of his invincible coolness, courage, and almost philosophic fatalism. For an instant his youthful imagination checked even his indignation. When he recovered himself, he said, with rising color and boyish vehemence:

    "Whoever YOU may be, I am neither a police officer nor a spy. You have no right to insult me by supposing that I would profit by the mistake that made you my guest, or that I would refuse you the sanctuary of the roof that covers your insult as well as your blunder."

    The stranger gazed at him with an amused expression, and then rose and stretched out his hand.

    "Shake, Mr. Bly! You're the only man that ever kicked George Dornton when he deserved it. Good-night!" He took his hat and walked to the door.

    "Stop!" said Herbert impulsively; "the night is already far gone; go back and finish your sleep."

    "You mean it?"

    "I do."

    The stranger turned, walked back to the bed, unfastening his coat and collar as he did so, and laid himself down in the attitude of a moment before.

    "I will call you in the morning," continued Herbert. "By that time,"-he hesitated,——"by that time your pursuers may have given up their search. One word more. You will be frank with me?"

    "Go on."

    "Tappington and you are——friends?"

    "Well——yes."

    "His mother and sister know nothing of this?"

    "I reckon he didn't boast of it. I didn't. Is that all?" sleepily.

    "Yes."

    "Don't YOU worry about HIM. Good-night."

    "Good-night."

    But even at that moment George Dornton had dropped off in a quiet, peaceful sleep.

    Bly turned down the light, and, drawing his easy-chair to the window, dropped into it in bewildering reflection. This then was the secret-unknown to mother and daughter——unsuspected by all! This was the double life of Tappington, half revealed in his flirtation with the neighbors, in the hidden cards behind the books, in the mysterious visitor——still unaccounted for——and now wholly exploded by this sleeping confederate, for whom, somehow, Herbert felt the greatest sympathy! What was to be done? What should he say to Cherry——to her mother——to Mr. Carstone? Yet he had felt he had done right. From time to time he turned to the motionless recumbent shadow on the bed and listened to its slow and peaceful respiration. Apart from that undefinable attraction which all original natures have for each other, the thrice-blessed mystery of protection of the helpless, for the first time in his life, seemed to dawn upon him through that night.

    Nevertheless, the actual dawn came slowly. Twice he nodded and awoke quickly with a start. The third time it was day. The street-lamps were extinguished, and with them the moving, restless watchers seemed also to have vanished. Suddenly a formal deliberate rapping at the door leading to the hall startled him to his feet.

    It must be Ellen. So much the better; he could quickly get rid of her. He glanced at the bed; Dornton slept on undisturbed. He unlocked the door cautiously, and instinctively fell back before the erect, shawled, and decorous figure of Mrs. Brooks. But an utterly new resolution and excitement had supplanted the habitual resignation of her handsome features, and given them an angry sparkle of expression.

    Recollecting himself, he instantly stepped forward into the passage, drawing to the door behind him, as she, with equal celerity, opposed it with her hand.

    "Mr. Bly," she said deliberately, "Ellen has just told me that your voice has been heard in conversation with some one in this room late last night. Up to this moment I have foolishly allowed my daughter to persuade me that certain infamous scandals regarding your conduct here were false. I must ask you as a gentleman to let me pass now and satisfy myself."

    "But, my dear madam, one moment. Let me first explain——I beg"-stammered Herbert with a half-hysterical laugh. "I assure you a gentleman friend"-

    But she had pushed him aside and entered precipitately. With a quick feminine glance round the room she turned to the bed, and then halted in overwhelming confusion.

    "It's a friend," said Herbert in a hasty whisper. "A friend of mine who returned with me late, and whom, on account of the disturbed state of the streets, I induced to stay here all night. He was so tired that I have not had the heart to disturb him yet."

    "Oh, pray don't!——I beg"——said Mrs. Brooks with a certain youthful vivacity, but still gazing at the stranger's handsome features as she slowly retreated. "Not for worlds!"

    Herbert was relieved; she was actually blushing.

    "You see, it was quite unpremeditated, I assure you. We came in together," whispered Herbert, leading her to the door, "and I"-

    "Don't believe a word of it, madam," said a lazy voice from the bed, as the stranger leisurely raised himself upright, putting the last finishing touch to his cravat as he shook himself neat again. "I'm an utter stranger to him, and he knows it. He found me here, biding from the Vigilantes, who were chasing me on the hill. I got in at that door, which happened to be unlocked. He let me stay because he was a gentleman——and——I wasn't. I beg your pardon, madam, for having interrupted him before you; but it was a little rough to have him lie on MY account when he wasn't the kind of man to lie on his OWN. You'll forgive him——won't you, please?——and, as I'm taking myself off now, perhaps you'll overlook MY intrusion too."

    It was impossible to convey the lazy frankness of this speech, the charming smile with which it was accompanied, or the easy yet deferential manner with which, taking up his hat, he bowed to Mrs. Brooks as he advanced toward the door.

    "But," said Mrs. Brooks, hurriedly glancing from Herbert to the stranger, "it must be the Vigilantes who are now hanging about the street. Ellen saw them from her window, and thought they were YOUR friends, Mr. Bly. This gentleman——your friend"——she had become a little confused in her novel excitement——"really ought not to go out now. It would be madness."

    "If you wouldn't mind his remaining a little longer, it certainly would be safer," said Herbert, with wondering gratitude.

    "I certainly shouldn't consent to his leaving my house now," said Mrs. Brooks with dignity; "and if you wouldn't mind calling Cherry here, Mr. Bly——she's in the dining-room——and then showing yourself for a moment in the street and finding out what they wanted, it would be the best thing to do." Herbert flew downstairs; in a few hurried words he gave the same explanation to the astounded Cherry that he had given to her mother, with the mischievous addition that Mrs. Brooks's unjust suspicions had precipitated her into becoming an amicable accomplice, and then ran out into the street. Here he ascertained from one of the Vigilantes, whom he knew, that they were really seeking Dornton; but that, concluding that the fugitive had already escaped to the wharves, they expected to withdraw their surveillance at noon. Somewhat relieved, he hastened back, to find the stranger calmly seated on the sofa in the parlor with the same air of frank indifference, lazily relating the incidents of his flight to the two women, who were listening with every expression of sympathy and interest. "Poor fellow!" said Cherry, taking the astonished Bly aside into the hall, "I don't believe he's half as bad as THEY said he is——or as even HE makes himself out to be. But DID you notice mother?"

    Herbert, a little dazed, and, it must be confessed, a trifle uneasy at this ready acceptance of the stranger, abstractedly said he had not.

    "Why, it's the most ridiculous thing. She's actually going round WITHOUT HER SHAWL, and doesn't seem to know it."

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