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While the police inquiry was afoot, Banneker was, perforce, often late in reporting for duty, the regular hour being twelve-thirty. Thus the idleness which the city desk had imposed upon him was, in a measure, justified. On a Thursday, when he had been held in conference with Judge Enderby, he did not reach The Ledger office until after two. Mr. Greenough was still out for luncheon. No sooner had Banneker entered the swinging gate than Mallory called to him. On the assistant city editor's face was a peculiar expression, half humorous, half dubious, as he said:
"Mr. Greenough has left an assignment for you."
"All right," said Banneker, stretching out his hand for the clipping or slip. None was forthcoming.
"It's a tip," explained Mallory. "It's from a pretty convincing source. The gist of it is that the Delavan Eyres have separated and a divorce is impending. You know, of course, who the Eyres are."
"I've met Eyre."
"That so? Ever met his wife?"
"No," replied Banneker, in good faith.
"No; you wouldn't have, probably. They travel different paths. Besides, she's been practically living abroad. She's a stunner. It's big society stuff, of course. The best chance of landing the story is from Archie Densmore, her half-brother. The international polo-player, you know. You'll find him at The Retreat, down on the Jersey coast."
The Retreat Banneker had heard of as being a bachelor country club whose distinguishing marks were a rather Spartan athleticism, and a more stiffly hedged exclusiveness than any other social institution known to the elite of New York and Philadelphia, between which it stood midway.
"Then I'm to go and ask him," said Banneker slowly, "whether his sister is suing for divorce?"
"Yes," confirmed Mallory, a trifle nervously. "Find out who's to be named, of course. I suppose it's that new dancer, though there have been others. And there was a quaint story about some previous attachment of Mrs. Eyre's: that might have some bearing."
"I'm to ask her brother about that, too?"
"We want the story," answered Mallory, almost petulantly.
On the trip down into Jersey the reporter had plenty of time to consider his unsavory task. Some one had to do this kind of thing, so long as the public snooped and peeped and eavesdropped through the keyhole of print at the pageant of the socially great: this he appreciated and accepted. But he felt that it ought to be some one other than himself--and, at the same time, was sufficiently just to smile at himself for his illogical attitude.
A surprisingly good auto was found in the town of his destination, to speed him to the stone gateway of The Retreat. The guardian, always on duty there, passed him with a civil word, and a sober-liveried flunkey at the clubhouse door, after a swift, unobtrusive consideration of his clothes and bearing, took him readily for granted, and said that Mr. Densmore would be just about going on the polo field for practice. Did the gentleman know his way to the field? Seeing the flag on the stable, Banneker nodded, and walked over. A groom pointed out a spare, powerful looking young man with a pink face, startlingly defined by a straight black mustache and straighter black eyebrows, mounting a light-built roan, a few rods away. Banneker accosted him.
"Yes, my name is Densmore," he answered the visitor's accost.
"I'm a reporter from The Ledger," explained Banneker.
"A reporter?" Mr. Densmore frowned. "Reporters aren't allowed here, except on match days. How did you get in?"
"Nobody stopped me," answered the visitor in an expressionless tone.
"It doesn't matter," said the other, "since you're here. What is it; the international challenge?"
"A rumor has come to us--There's a tip come in at the office--We understood that there is--" Banneker pulled himself together and put the direct question. "Is Mrs. Delavan Eyre bringing a divorce suit against her husband?"
For a time there was a measured silence. Mr. Densmore's heavy brows seemed to jut outward and downward toward the questioner.
"You came out here from New York to ask me that?" he said presently.
"Yes. Who is named as co-respondent? And will there be a defense, or a counter-suit?"
"A counter-suit," repeated the man in the saddle quietly. "I wonder if you realize what you're asking?"
"I'm trying to get the news," said Banneker doggedly striving to hold to an ideal which momentarily grew more sordid and tawdry.
"And I wonder if you realize how you ought to be answered."
Yes; Banneker realized, with a sick realization. But he was not going to admit it. He kept silence.
"If this polo mallet were a whip, now," observed Mr. Densmore meditatively. "A dog-whip, for preference."
Under the shameful threat Banneker's eyes lightened. Here at least was something he could face like a man. His undermining nausea mitigated.
"What then?" he inquired in tones as level as those of his opponent.
"Why, then I'd put a mark on you. A reporter's mark."
"I think not."
"Oh; you think not?" The horseman studied him negligently. Trained to the fineness of steel in the school of gymnasium, field, and tennis court, he failed to recognize in the man before him a type as formidable, in its rugged power, as his own. "Or perhaps I'd have the grooms do it for me, before they threw you over the fence."
"It would be safer," allowed the other, with a smile that surprised the athlete.
"Safer?" he repeated. "I wasn't thinking of safety."
"Think of it," advised the visitor; "for if you set your grooms on me, they could perhaps throw me out. But as sure as they did I'd kill you the next time we met."
Densmore smiled. "You!" he said contemptuously. "Kill, eh? Did you ever kill any one?"
Under their jet brows Densmore's eyes took on a peculiar look of intensity. "A Ledger reporter," he murmured. "See here! Is your name Banneker, by any chance?"
"You're the man who cleared out the wharf-gang."
Densmore had been born and brought up in a cult to which courage is the basic, inclusive virtue for mankind, as chastity is for womankind. To his inground prejudice a man who was simply and unaffectedly brave must by that very fact be fine and admirable. And this man had not only shown an iron nerve, but afterward, in the investigation, which Densmore had followed, he had borne himself with the modesty, discretion, and good taste of the instinctive gentleman. The poloist was almost pathetically at a loss. When he spoke again his whole tone and manner had undergone a vital transformation.
"But, good God!" he cried in real distress and bewilderment, "a fellow who could do what you did, stand up to those gun-men in the dark and alone, to be garbaging around asking rotten, prying questions about a man's sister! No! I don't get it."
Banneker felt the blood run up into his face, under the sting of the other's puzzled protest, as it would never have done under open contempt or threat. A miserable, dull hopelessness possessed him. "It's part of the business," he muttered.
"Then it's a rotten business," retorted the horseman. "Do you have to do this?"
"Somebody has to get the news."
"News! Scavenger's filth. See here, Banneker, I'm sorry I roughed you about the whip. But, to ask a man questions about the women of his own family--No: I'm damned if I get it." He lost himself in thought, and when he spoke again it was as much to himself as to the man on the ground. "Suppose I did make a frank statement: you can never trust the papers to get it straight, even if they mean to, which is doubtful. And there's Io's name smeared all over--Hel-lo! What's the matter, now?" For his horse had shied away from an involuntary jerk of Banneker's muscles, responsive to electrified nerves, so sharply as to disturb the rider's balance.
"What name did you say?" muttered Banneker, involuntarily.
"Io. My foster-sister's nickname. Irene Welland, she was. You're a queer sort of society reporter if you don't know that."
"I'm not a society reporter."
"But you know Mrs. Eyre?"
"Yes; in a way," returned Banneker, gaining command of himself. "Officially, you might say. She was in a railroad wreck that I stage-managed out West. I was the local agent."
"Then I've heard about you," replied Densmore with interest, though he had heard only what little Io had deemed it advisable that he should know. "You helped my sister when she was hurt. We owe you something for that."
"That's all right. But it was more than that. I recall your name now." Densmore's bearing had become that of a man to his equal. "I'll tell you, let's go up to the clubhouse and have a drink, shan't we? D' you mind just waiting here while I give this nag a little run to supple him up?"
He was off, leaving Banneker with brain awhirl. To steady himself against this sudden flood of memory and circumstance, Banneker strove to focus his attention upon the technique of the horse and his rider. When they returned he said at once:
"Are you going to play that pony?"
The horseman looked mildly surprised. "After he's learned a bit more. Shapes up well, don't you think?"
"Speed him up to me and give him a sharp twist to the right, will you?"
Accepting the suggestion without comment, Densmore cantered away and brought the roan down at speed. To the rider, his mount seemed to make the sudden turn perfectly. But Banneker stepped out and examined the off forefoot with a dubious face.
"Breaks a little there," he stated seriously.
The horseman tried the turn again, throwing his weight over. This time he did feel a slightly perceptible "give." "What's the remedy?" he asked.
"Build up the outer flange of the shoe. That may do it. But I shouldn't trust him without a thorough test. A good pony'll always overplay his safety a little in a close match."
The implication of this expert view aroused Densmore's curiosity. "You've played," he said.
"No: I've never played. I've knocked the ball about a little."
"Out in Santa Barbara. With the stable-boys."
So simply was it said that Densmore returned, quite as simply: "Were you a stable-boy?"
"No such luck, then. Just a kid, out of a job."
Densmore dismounted, handed reins and mallet to the visitor and said, "Try a shot or two."
Slipping his coat and waistcoat, Banneker mounted and urged the pony after the ball which the other sent spinning out across the field. He made a fairly creditable cut away to the left, following down and playing back moderately. While his mallet work was, naturally, uncertain, he played with a full, easy swing and in good form. But it was his horsemanship which specially commended itself to the critical eye of the connoisseur.
"Ridden range, haven't you?" inquired the poloist when the other came in.
"Quite a bit of it, in my time."
"Now, I'll tell you," said Densmore, employing his favorite formula. "There'll be practice later. It's an off day and we probably won't have two full teams. Let me rig you out, and you try it."
Banneker shook his head. "I'm here on business. I'm a reporter with a story to get."
"All right; it's up to a reporter to stick until he gets his news," agreed the other. "You dismiss your taxi, and stay out here and dine, and I'll run you back to town myself. And at nine o'clock I'll answer your question and answer it straight."
Banneker, gazing longingly at the bright turf of the field, accepted.
Polo is to The Retreat what golf is to the average country club. The news that Archie Densmore had a new player down for a try-out brought to the side-lines a number of the old-time followers of the game, including Poultney Masters, the autocrat of Wall Street and even more of The Retreat, whose stables he, in large measure, supported. In the third period, the stranger went in at Number Three on the pink team. He played rather poorly, but there was that in his style which encouraged the enthusiasts.
"He's material," grunted old Masters, blinking his pendulous eyelids, as Banneker, accepting the challenge of Jim Maitland, captain of the opposing team and roughest of players, for a ride-off, carried his own horse through by sheer adroitness and daring, and left the other rolling on the turf. "Anybody know who he is?"
"Heard Archie call him Banker, I think," answered one of the great man's hangers-on.
Later, Banneker having changed, sat in an angled window of the clubhouse, waiting for his host, who had returned from the stables. A group of members entering the room, and concealed from him by an L, approached the fireplace talking briskly.
"Dick says the feller's a reporter," declared one of them, a middle-aged man named Kirke. "Says he saw him tryin' to interview somebody on the Street, one day."
"Well, I don't believe it," announced an elderly member. "This chap of Densmore's looks like a gentleman and dresses like one. I don't believe he's a reporter. And he rides like a devil."
"I say there's ridin' and ridin'," proclaimed Kirke. "Some fellers ride like jockeys; some fellers ride like cowboys; some fellers ride like gentlemen. I say this reporter feller don't ride like a gentleman."
"Oh, slush!" said another discourteously. "What is riding like a gentleman?"
Kirke reverted to the set argument of his type. "I'll betcha a hundred he don't!"
"Who's to settle such a bet?"
"Leave it to Maitland," said somebody.
"I'll leave it to Archie Densmore if you like," offered the bettor belligerently.
"Leave it to Mr. Masters," suggested Kirke.
"Why not leave it to the horse?"
The suggestion, coming in a level and unconcerned tone from the depths of the chair in which Banneker was seated, produced an electrical effect. Banneker spoke only because the elderly member had walked over to the window, and he saw that he must be discovered in another moment. Out of the astonished silence came the elderly member's voice, gentle and firm.
"Are you the visitor we have been so frankly discussing?"
"I assume so."
"Isn't it rather unfortunate that you did not make your presence known sooner?"
"I hoped that I might have a chance to slip out unseen and save you embarrassment."
The other came forward at once with hand outstretched. "My name is Forster," he said. "You're Mr. Banker, aren't you?"
"Yes," said Banneker, shaking hands. For various reasons it did not seem worth while to correct the slight error.
"Look out! Here's the old man," said some one.
Poultney Masters plodded in, his broad paunch shaking with chuckles. "'Leave it to the horse,'" he mumbled appreciatively. "'Leave it to the horse.' It's good. It's damned good. The right answer. Who but the horse should know whether a man rides like a gentleman! Where's young Banneker?"
Forster introduced the two. "You've got the makings of a polo-man in you," decreed the great man. "Where are you playing?"
"I've never really played. Just practiced."
"Then you ought to be with us. Where's Densmore? We'll put you up and have you in by the next meeting."
"A reporter in The Retreat!" protested Kirke who had proffered the bet.
"Why not?" snapped old Poultney Masters. "Got any objections?"
Since the making or marring of his fortunes, like those of hundreds of other men, lay in the pudgy hollow of the financier's hand, poor Kirke had no objections which he could not and did not at once swallow. The subject of the flattering offer had, however.
"I'm much obliged," said he. "But I couldn't join this club. Can't afford it."
"You can't afford not to. It's a chance not many young fellows from nowhere get."
"Perhaps you don't know what a reporter's earnings are, Mr. Masters."
The rest of the group had drifted away, in obedience, Banneker suspected, to some indication given by Masters which he had not perceived.
"You won't be a reporter long. Opportunities will open out for a young fellow of your kind."
"What sort of opportunities?" inquired Banneker curiously.
"Wall Street, for example."
"I don't think I'd like the game. Writing is my line. I'm going to stick to it."
"You're a fool," barked Masters.
"That is a word I don't take from anybody," stated Banneker.
"You don't take? Who the--" The raucous snarl broke into laughter, as the other leaned abruptly forward. "Banneker," he said, "have you got me covered?"
Banneker laughed, too. Despite his brutal assumption of autocracy, it was impossible not to like this man. "No," he answered. "I didn't expect to be held up here. So I left my gun."
"You did a job on that pier," affirmed the other. "But you're a fool just the same--if you'll take it with a smile."
"I'll think it over," answered Banneker, as Densmore entered.
"Come and see me at the office," invited Masters as he shambled pursily away.
Across the dining-table Densmore said to his guest: "So the Old Boy wants to put you up here."
"That means a sure election."
"But even if I could afford it, I'd get very little use of the club. You see, I have only one day off a week."
"It is a rotten business, for sure!" said Densmore sympathetically. "Couldn't you get on night work, so you could play afternoons?"
"Play polo?" Banneker laughed. "My means would hardly support one pony."
"That'll be all right," returned the other nonchalantly. "There are always fellows glad to lend a mount to a good player. And you're going to be that."
The high lust of the game took and shook Banneker for a dim moment. Then he recovered himself. "No. I couldn't do that."
"Let's leave it this way, then. Whether you join now or not, come down once in a while as my guest, and fill in for the scratch matches. Later you may be able to pick up a few nags, cheap."
"I'll think it over," said Banneker, as he had said to old Poultney Masters.
Not until after the dinner did Banneker remind his host of their understanding. "You haven't forgotten that I'm here on business?"
"No; I haven't. I'm going to answer your question for publication. Mrs. Eyre has not the slightest intention of suing for divorce."
"About the separation?"
"No. No separation, either. Io is traveling with friends and will be back in a few months."
"That is authoritative?"
"You can quote me, if you like, though I'd rather nothing were published, of course. And I give you my personal word that it's true."
"That's quite enough."
"So much for publication. What follows is private: just between you and me."
Banneker nodded. After a ruminative pause Densmore asked an abrupt question.
"You found my sister after the wreck, didn't you?"
"Well; she found me."
"Was she hurt?"
"I think not. There was some concussion of the brain, I suppose. She was quite dazed."
"Did you call a doctor?"
"No. She wouldn't have one."
"You know Miss Van Arsdale, don't you?"
"She's the best friend I've got in the world," returned Banneker, so impulsively that his interrogator looked at him curiously before continuing:
"Did you see Io at her house?"
"Yes; frequently," replied Banneker, wondering to what this all tended, but resolved to be as frank as was compatible with discretion.
"How did she seem?"
"She was as well off there as she could be anywhere."
"Yes. But how did she seem? Mentally, I mean."
"Oh, that! The dazed condition cleared up at once."
"I wish I were sure that it had ever cleared up," muttered Densmore.
"Why shouldn't you be sure?"
"I'm going to be frank with you because I think you may be able to help me with a clue. Since she came back from the West, Io has been unlike herself. The family has never understood her marriage with Del Eyre. She didn't really care for Del. [To his dismay, Banneker here beheld the glowing tip of his cigar perform sundry involuntary dips and curves. He hoped that his face was under better control.] The marriage was a fizzle. I don't believe it lasted a month, really. Eyre had always been a chaser, though he did straighten out when he married Io. He really was crazy about her; but when she chucked him, he went back to his old hunting grounds. One can understand that. But Io; that's different. She's always played the game before. With Del, I don't think she quite did. She quit: that's the plain fact of it. Just tired of him. No other cause that I can find. Won't get a divorce. Doesn't want it. So there's no one else in the case. It's queer. It's mighty queer. And I can't help thinking that the old jar to her brain--"
"Have you suggested that to her?" asked Banneker as the other broke off to ruminate mournfully.
"Yes. She only laughed. Then she said that poor old Del wasn't at fault except for marrying her in the face of a warning. I don't know what she meant by it; hanged if I do. But, you see, it's quite true: there'll be no divorce or separation.... You're sure she was quite normal when you last saw her at Miss Van Arsdale's?"
"Absolutely. If you want confirmation, why not write Miss Van Arsdale yourself?"
"No; I hardly think I'll do that.... Now as to that gray you rode, I've got a chance to trade him." And the talk became all of horse, which is exclusive and rejective of other interests, even of women.
Going back in the train, Banneker reviewed the crowding events of the day. At the bottom of his thoughts lay a residue, acid and stinging, the shame of the errand which had taken him to The Retreat, and which the memory of what was no less than a personal triumph could not submerge. That he, Errol Banneker, whose dealings with all men had been on the straight and level status of self-respect, should have taken upon him the ignoble task of prying into intimate affairs, of meekly soliciting the most private information in order that he might make his living out of it--not different in kind from the mendicancy which, even as a hobo, he had scorned--and that, at the end, he should have discerned Io Welland as the object of his scandal-chase; that fermented within him like something turned to foulness.
At the office he reported "no story." Before going home he wrote a note to the city desk.
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