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A CHANGE OF PLAN
On the following morning Kirk despatched a long letter to his father, explaining, as well as he could, how he came to be in Panama, and giving a detailed account of the events that had befallen him since his arrival. He would have preferred to cable this message collect, but Mrs. Cortlandt convinced him that he owed a fuller explanation than could well be sent over the wires. Although he took this means of relieving his father's anxiety, he was far from resigning himself to a further delay of his return. On the contrary, he at once began an inquiry as to sailing dates, discovering, to his intense disgust, that no ship was scheduled to leave for New York within several days. He planned to borrow the passage money from his friends, when the time came, and accompany his letter northward. Meanwhile he devoted his time to sight- seeing with his hostess.
The city was old, there were many places of historic interest, and, although Kirk cared little for such things, he found it easy to assume the virtue he did not possess. Moreover, there was something contagious in his companion's enthusiasm. Almost against his will he felt his appreciation growing, as he listened to her casual comments on the scenes they visited. Her husband, who seemed busily engaged in work that barely allowed him time for his meals, seldom accompanied them on their excursions, and the two were thrown much into each other's society.
Edith Cortlandt was a woman very sure of herself in most things. A situation that might have proved embarrassing to one less tactful she accepted quite as a matter of course, rather enjoying the exercise of her influence, and never doubting her power to keep the friendship on any footing she chose. Kirk's frank, boyish gratitude for the favors he had received made it easy for her to encourage the growth of an intimacy that she acknowledged charming, while she sincerely believed that he would be helped by it. Finding him responsive, she deliberately set herself to please him. She studied him covertly and set her moods to match his--not a difficult task, since he was merely a normal, healthy young man. Always faultless in her attire, she took even more than ordinary pains with her appearance, and it was not long before Kirk was naively surprised to find that she no longer seemed older than he --that she was, in fact, an exceedingly handsome woman. This gradual metamorphosis depended more than anything else, perhaps, upon the girlish humor that now possessed her. She was no longer brilliant and chilly, but gay, smiling, and unaffected.
Daytimes, they rambled about the crooked streets, bargain-hunting in the Chinese shops, or drove beneath the stately royal palms of Ancon; evenings, they loitered about the cool verandas of the Tivoli or strolled down into the town to watch the crowds in the plazas. Once in a while Cortlandt went with them, but he was usually uncommunicative, and they scarcely felt his presence. On the few occasions when he gave himself rein, Kirk was compelled to feel for him a surprised and half-grudging respect. Unlike most silent men, when he did talk he talked easily and well.
Several days passed thus, during which Anthony fully recovered from his experience at Colon. Then a ship arrived from New York, but before he had summoned courage to ask his friends for a loan he received, a letter forwarded from Colon by the American consul, a perusal of which not only dumfounded him, but entirely altered his plans.
It was typewritten, on plain stationery; there was neither heading nor signature, yet he knew quite well from whom it came. It read as follows:
Don't cable again, or the stupidity of the police may fail to protect you. The others got away safely and you would be mad to return alone. I can't and won't help you now. This time you went too far. You have made your bed, now lie in it. I don't believe in miracles, but if you can straighten up and make a man of yourself, I'll help you face this trouble; otherwise don't call on me for anything. I'm through.
Kirk reread this amazing epistle several times before its full significance struck him; then, when he realized what it meant, he felt himself break into a sweat of apprehension. That plain- clothes man had died! The police were looking for him. There could be no other explanation, else why had Higgins and the rest fled the country? Why had his father been so cautious in communicating with him? If it came to a trial, undoubtedly a jury would find him equally guilty with Higgins, for he had held the poor fellow's hands; it was he who had engineered the whole episode. Perhaps he was already indicted. Kirk saw himself accused of manslaughter, arrested, and tried. What could he do if his father refused to help? With money, almost anything could be achieved; without it, and particularly without his father's influence, what would happen? Evidently the Governor believed him guilty. In that case the young man knew that explanations would be futile. Even the letter he had sent would do no good. When Darwin K. Anthony said he was through, he was through.
Finding a secluded corner of the veranda, he sat down to think this matter out; but the more he reflected on it the more serious it appeared. Of one thing he became quickly convinced: New York at present was no place for him. A moment ago it seemed far away and extremely desirable, now it was altogether too close at hand and most undesirable. His father's reference to the stupidity of the police persuaded him finally that his whereabouts were unknown, but how long they would remain so was of course a question. It was useless to attempt further concealment. In the first place, he lacked means of moving, nor could he conceal his identity under an assumed name while he remained in Panama, for he had already advertised himself too well for that. Besides, the idea of hiding did not appeal to him. He decided to face it out, therefore, hoping sometime to get to the bottom of the affair. If he were arrested meanwhile, he would have to locate Ringold or Higgins, or some of the others, and prove that he had not run away from punishment. It would be difficult to verify the extravagant story of his kidnapping, of course, but--there was nothing else to do. He rose quickly and entered the hotel, where he bought all the latest New York papers. It was not long before he found the thing he was seeking. There it was, a story headed:
SALOON-KEEPER TO LOSE LICENSE
OWNER OF NOTORIOUS AUSTRIAN VILLAGE IN TROUBLE
There followed an account of Mr. Padden's efforts to disprove his connection with an assault upon the person of a detective named Williams, who had come from St. Louis; but nowhere was there a word about the present condition of the plain-clothes man, nor the slightest hint toward explaining the conduct of the mysterious Jefferson Locke for whom he had been searching. Who the devil was Locke, anyhow? The article did not even state the charge upon which he was to be arrested. In another paper Kirk found something that relieved his mind a bit: evidently Williams had not died prior to the time of going to press, although he was reported in a critical condition. Kirk was interested to read that the police had a clew to the identity of the criminals and were confident of soon rounding them up. What mystified him most was the lack of detail. Evidently much had been printed previously, but he had no means of ascertaining what it was.
He spent an hour in serious thought, perhaps the first full hour he had ever passed so profitably. At the end of that time he had arrived at little save a vague feeling of offence toward the father who had been so ready to condemn him. In one way he did not blame the old gentleman for refusing aid. This episode was the culmination of a long series of reckless exploits. Mr. Anthony had argued, threatened, even implored with tears in his eyes, all to no purpose. Just the same, it hurt to have one's father so willing to believe the worst. The two had never understood each other; they did not understand each other now. And they might have been such good pals! Darwin K. did not believe in miracles--Well, perhaps Kirk was hopelessly bad. The young man did not care much, one way or the other; but he shut his teeth grimly and wagered he could make good if he really chose to try. He half decided to make the experiment just to show what he could do, but he was at a loss where to begin. Anybody could be successful who really wanted to-- every book said that; the hard part was to get started.
One thing was clear, at least: he could stay here no longer as the Cortlandts' guest--he had already incurred an obligation which he would have difficulty in discharging. Yet how could he explain his change of front? Mrs. Cortlandt, he felt sure, would understand and come to his assistance with good advice, but he shrank instinctively from laying the facts before her husband. It was a deuced unpleasant necessity, and he detested unpleasant necessities--necessities of any sort, in fact. Still, there was nothing else for it, so, conquering his sense of humiliation as best he could, he called up the Cortlandts' suite.
Edith answered, saying that her husband was out; then, in response to his request, she came down herself.
"What has gone wrong? Why this face of tragedy?" she inquired, as she seated herself beside him.
"I've received my Declaration of Independence. I've heard from my dad."
A look of quick understanding drove away the smile she had brought him, and her manner was one of grave sympathy as she took the letter he handed her.
She was clad in a crisp morning gown he had never seen, and he thought it became her extremely well. She looked very cool, very fresh, very much the fine lady. All in all, she seemed a person whose friendly interest might compensate for many woes.
"Well!" she remarked. "You do seem to be in trouble. What does it mean?"
Kirk told her everything without reserve, then showed her the newspapers in his hand. She scrutinized them with a quiet seriousness that seemed to make his trouble her own. "After all," she said at last, "if worse comes to worst, you can prove your innocence."
"I'm not so sure."
"Nonsense! Those boys can be found. What puzzles me is that Locke person. Who is he? Why was he followed? What has become of him?"
"I wish I knew."
"I can have inquiries made, but it will take time. Meanwhile, it seems you are safe, so the one important fact for the moment is that you are cast off." Turning her bright eyes upon him, she inquired, "How does it feel to be disinherited?"
"Blamed uncomfortable! I must tell Mr. Cortlandt at once."
"Let me," she offered, quickly. "I would not show any one that letter, if I were you, nor advertise the fact that you are in danger of arrest. It will be quite enough if I tell him that you have quarrelled with your father--he is a peculiar man."
Kirk signified his agreement.
"Now what do you intend doing?" she asked him.
"I'm going to work."
"Good! Good!" She clapped her hands gleefully.
"Oh, I don't WANT to," he protested, "but the old gentleman thinks I'm no good, and I'd like to show him he's wrong. After I've done that, I intend to loaf again--yes, and I'll know how to loaf by that time. Of course, I'll have to pay my debts, too."
"Poor Mr. Weeks!"
"He is terribly agitated to learn that we came to your rescue. He knows now that he really entertained an angel unaware, and his grief of soul is comical."
"Weeks isn't such a bad sort."
But her eyes showed a sudden flash of anger as she returned: "He deserves to be forced out of the service."
"That wouldn't do any good. His successor might be worse."
"Haven't you any resentment? I dislike placid people!"
"Plenty! If I get a crack at Alfarez---"
"Now don't allow your mind to dwell on that," she cautioned. "I think he is riding to a fall, as it is. What do you want to do?"
"Anything. I'm going to hunt a job this afternoon."
"Something with big pay and no responsibility."
"Those positions are taken--by the army," she laughed. "What can you do?"
"I can take an automobile apart."
"And put it together again?"
"Oh no! I can sail a boat; I shoot pretty well; I waltz nicely; I row, swim, and box indifferently; and I play an atrocious hand at poker."
Mrs. Cortlandt nodded gravely. "You are also good company, you dress well, and you are an ornament to any hotel porch."
"Naturally, I refrained from mentioning those things, but, in addition, I smoke, drink, and swear. I am unsteady in my habits, and require a great deal of sleep. I think that completes the inventory."
"Of course, you will live beyond your salary?"
"Seriously, now, don't you really---?"
"Go ahead. Say it! Don't I know anything? No. I am too highly educated. You see, I took the full college course."
She drew her sharply pencilled brows together and pursed her lips in meditation, regarding him meanwhile with a, look that was not all disapproval.
"Am I hopeless?" he inquired at length.
"Dear, no! Experience is a good thing, of course, and ability is even better, but neither is absolutely necessary in government work."
"--You have influence. I was merely trying to think of the niche into which you would best fit."
"When a fellow hasn't any of those qualifications, then what? Take me, for instance."
"You have at least one."
He shook his head. "My father wouldn't help."
"We'll have no difficulty in finding you a position."
"Jove! That's good news." He beamed at her with gratified surprise. "I had an idea I'd be going from door to door."
"How ridiculous! This is a government job; therefore it is saturated with politics. There are a great many good men on it, but there are also a large number of 'somebody's relatives.' Do you understand? Anything is possible here for a man with influence. If he has ability with it, he can go to the top. If he lacks ability--well, even then he can go to the top--it depends entirely upon the influence."
"But I haven't any--" Kirk began. Then, catching her look, he exclaimed: "Oh, say! WILL you help me? Really? That's too good to be true."
He shook her hand warmly, that being the natural outlet for his gratitude, and she smiled at him. "I wonder where I'd better start in," he said.
"There's not the slightest choice. All paths lead up the mountain, and if you go far enough you will reach the top. It would be quite easy if you knew something about the railroad business, for instance."
"Oh, I do. I've had that drilled into me ever since I was a child. I grew up with it--was soaked in it. My father made me learn telegraphy before he gave me a motor-boat."
"Why in the world didn't you say so?"
"Well, I have forgotten most of it," he confessed. "I had a railroad of my own, too, when I was twelve years old. I was president."
"I suppose it was in my blood. We kids stole the lumber for a track, and I got a hand-car from dad. We formed a close corporation, and, when another boy wanted to join, we made him go forth and steal enough boards to extend the line. We finally had nearly two miles, altogether, with switches, sidings, yards, and everything; then the fences in that neighborhood gave out. It was a gravity road--yes, there was extreme gravity in every department--we'd push the car up and ride down. We had a telephone system and semaphores, and ran on orders just like a real train. Grown people heard about it, and paid us five cents a ride, so we began to declare dividends every Saturday. Oh, it was a great success. We had a complete organization, too; president, directors, conductors, section-hands--the section-hands did all the work and rode between times."
"What happened to it?"
"One day we ran into a cow and broke the vice-president's leg. The board of directors also had his ear cut, and the indignant neighbors began to reclaim their fences. We lost a mile of track in one afternoon, and father decided it would be better for me to go to boarding-school. It was safer."
"I'll warrant you learned the rudiments of railroading, just the same."
"I learned everything," Kirk announced, decisively.
"Unfortunately, the P.R.R. has a president, so we can't start you in where you left off."
"He might need an assistant."
Mrs. Cortlandt laughed lightly. "While we are finding that out," she said, "I think you had better go over the line in daylight and really see what this work is like. That glimpse you had at Gatun is only a small part. Now, will you trust me to manage this for you, Mr. Anthony?"
"I should say I would, and I can't begin to tell you--"
"Oh, it's nothing." She rose to put her plans promptly into operation, this time extending her hands with the words: "Let me congratulate you. I really believe you are waking up, and without the woman's aid."
"But the woman is aiding me," he replied, warmly. "She's doing it all. You have started me moving, and I'll never be able to thank you." Then, as her eyes flashed to his with a look he had never seen before, he added: "Understand, though, I am going to work only because I must. I detest it."
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