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   Chapter 4 A SESSION OF CHAT

Trailin'! By Max Brand Characters: 11695

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


The whisper grew distinct in words.

"Peters, you old numskull, come here!"

The approach of Peters was something like the sidewise waddle of a very aged crab. He looked to the north, but his feet carried him to the east. That he was much moved was attested by the colour which had mounted even to the gleaming expanse of that nobly bald head.

"Yes, Master Anthony-I mean Mr. Anthony?"

He set his teeth at the faux pas.

"Peters, look at me. Confound it, I haven't murdered any one. Are you busy?"

It required whole seconds for the eyes to wheel round upon Anthony, and they were immediately debased from the telltale white of that leg to the floor.

"No, sir."

"Then come up with me and help me change. Quick!"

He turned and fled noiselessly up the great stairs, with Peters panting behind. Anthony's overcoat was off before he had fairly entered his room and his coat and vest flopped through the air as Peters shut the door. Whatever the old servant lacked in agility he made up in certain knowledge; as he laid out a fresh tuxedo, Anthony changed with the speed of one pursued. The conversation was spasmodic to a degree.

"Where's father? Waiting in the library?"

"Yes. Reading, sir."

"Had a mix-up-bully time, though-damn this collar! Peters, I wish you'd been there-where's those trousers? Rub some of the crease out of 'em-they must look a little worn."

He stood at last completely dressed while Peters looked on with a shining eye and a smile which in a younger man would have suggested many things.

"How is it? Will I pass father this way?"

"I hope so, sir."

"But you don't think so?"

"It's hard to deceive him."

"Confound it! Don't I know? Well, here's for a try. Soft-foot it down stairs. I'll go after you and bang the door. Then you say good-evening in a loud voice and I'll go into the library. How's that?"

"Very good-your coat over your arm-so! Just ruffle your hair a bit, sir-now you should do very nicely."

At the door: "Go first, Peters-first, man, and hurry, but watch those big feet of yours. If you make a noise on the stairs I'm done with you."

The noiselessness of the descending feet was safe enough, but not so safe was the chuckling of Peters for, though he fought against the threatening explosion, it rumbled like the roll of approaching thunder. In the hall below, Anthony opened and slammed the door.

"Good-evening, Mr. Anthony," said Peters loudly, too loudly.

"Evening, Peters. Where's father?"

"In the library, sir. Shall I take your coat?"

"I'll carry it up to my room when I go. That's all."

He opened the door to the library and entered with a hope that his father would not be facing him, but he found that John Woodbury was not even reading. He sat by the big fire-place smoking a pipe which he now removed slowly from his teeth.

"Hello, Anthony."

"Good-evening, sir."

He rose to shake hands with his son: they might have been friends meeting after a separation so long that they were compelled to be formal, and as Anthony turned to lay down his hat and coat he knew that the keen grey eyes studied him carefully from head to foot.

"Take this chair."

"Why, sir, wouldn't dream of disturbing you."

"Not a bit. I want you to try it; just a trifle too narrow for me."

John Woodbury rose and gestured his son to the chair he had been occupying. Anthony hesitated, but then, like one who obeys first and thinks afterward, seated himself as directed.

"Mighty comfortable, sir."

The big man stood with his hands clasped behind him, peering down under shaggy, iron-grey brows.

"I thought it would be. I designed it myself for you and I had a pretty bad time getting it made."

He stepped to one side.

"Hits you pretty well under the knees, doesn't it? Yes, it's deeper than most."

"A perfect fit, father, and mighty thoughtful of you."

"H-m," rumbled John Woodbury, and looked about like one who has forgotten something. "What about a glass of Scotch?"

"Nothing, thank you-I-in fact I'm not very strong for the stuff."

The rough brows rose a trifle and fell.

"No? But isn't it usual? Better have a go."

Once more there was that slight touch of hesitancy, as if the son were not quite sure of the father and wished to make every concession.

"Certainly, if it'll make you easier."

There was an instant softening of the hard lines of the elder Woodbury's face, as though some favour of import had been done him. He touched a bell-cord and lowered himself with a little grunt of relaxation into a chair. The chair was stoutly built, but it groaned a little under the weight of the mighty frame it received. He leaned back and in his face was a light which came not altogether from the comfortable glow of the fire.

And when the servant appeared the big man ordered: "Scotch and seltzer and one glass with a pitcher of ice."

"Aren't you taking anything, sir?" asked Anthony.

"Who, me? Yes, yes, of course. Why, let me see-bring me a pitcher of beer." He added as the servant disappeared: "Never could get a taste for Scotch, and rye doesn't seem to be-er-good form. Eh, Anthony?"

"Nonsense," frowned the son, "haven't you a right to be comfortable in your own house?"

"Come, come!" rumbled John Woodbury. "A young fellow in your position can't have a boor for a father, eh?"

It was apparently an old argument between them, for Anthony stared gloomily at the fire, making no attempt to reply; and he glanced up in relief when the servant entered with the liquor. John Woodbury, however, returned to the charge as soon as they were left alone again, saying: "As a matter of fact, I'm about to set you up in an establishment of your own in New York." He made a vastly inclusive gesture. "Everything done up brown-old house-high-class interior decorator, to get you started

with a splash."

"Are you tired of Long Island?"

"I'm not going to the city, but you will."

"And my work?"

"A gentleman of the class you'll be in can't callous his hands with work. I spent my life making money; you can use your life throwing it away-like a gentleman. But"-he reached out at this point and smashed a burly fist into a palm hardly less hard-"but I'll be damned, Anthony, if I'll let you stay here in Long Island wasting your time riding the wildest horses you can get and practising with an infernal revolver. What the devil do you mean by it?"

"I don't know," said the other, musing. "Of course the days of revolvers are past, but I love the feel of the butt against my palm-I love the kick of the barrel tossing up-I love the balance; and when I have a six-shooter in my hand, sir, I feel as if I had six lives. Odd, isn't it?" He grew excited as he talked, his eyes gleaming with dancing points of fire. "And I'll tell you this, sir: I'd rather be out in the country where men still wear guns, where the sky isn't stained with filthy coal smoke, where there's an horizon wide enough to breathe in, where there's man-talk instead of this damned chatter over tea-cups-"

"Stop!" cried John Woodbury, and leaned forward, "no matter what fool ideas you get into your head-you're going to be a gentleman!"

The swaying forward of that mighty body, the outward thrust of the jaws, the ring of the voice, was like the crashing of an ax when armoured men meet in battle. The flicker in the eyes of Anthony was the rapier which swerves from the ax and then leaps at the heart. For a critical second their glances crossed and then the habit of obedience conquered.

"I suppose you know, sir."

The father stared gloomily at the floor.

"You're sort of mad, Anthony?"

Perhaps there was nothing more typical of Anthony than that he never frowned, no matter how angered he might be. Now the cold light passed from his eyes. He rose and passed behind the chair of the elder man, dropping a hand upon those massive shoulders.

"Angry with myself, sir, that I should so nearly fall out with the finest father that walks the earth."

The eyes of the grey man half closed and a semblance of a smile touched those stiff, stern lips; one of the great work-broken hands went up and rested on the fingers of his son.

"And there'll be no more of this infernal Western nonsense that you're always reverting to? No more of this horse-and-gun-and-hell-bent-away stuff?"

"I suppose not," said Anthony heavily.

"Well, Anthony, sit down and tell me about tonight."

The son obeyed, and finally said, with difficulty: "I didn't go to the

Morrison supper."

A sudden cloud of white rose from the bowl of Woodbury's pipe.

"But I thought-"

"That it was a big event? It was-a fine thing for me to get a bid to; but I went to the Wild West show instead. Sir, I know it was childish, but-I couldn't help it! I saw the posters; I thought of the horse-breaking, the guns, the swing and snap and dash of galloping men, the taint of sweating horses-and by God, sir, I couldn't stay away! Are you angry?"

It was more than anger; it was almost fear that widened the eye of

Woodbury as he stared at his son. He said at last, controlling himself:

"But I have your word; you've given up the thought of this Western

life?"

"Yes," answered Anthony, with a touch of despair, "I have given it up, I suppose. But, oh, sir-" He stopped, hopeless.

"And what else happened?"

"Nothing to speak of."

"After you come home you don't usually change your clothes merely for the pleasure of sitting with me here."

"Nothing escapes you, does it?" muttered Anthony.

"In your set, Anthony, that's what they'd call an improper question."

"I could ask you any number of questions, sir, for that matter."

"Well?"

"That room over there, for instance, which you always keep locked. Am I never to have a look at it?"

He indicated a door which opened from the library.

"I hope not."

"You say that with a good deal of feeling. But there's one thing more that I have a right to hear about. My mother! Why do you never tell me of her?"

The big man stirred and the chair groaned beneath him.

"Because it tortures me to speak of her, Anthony," said the husky voice.

"Tortures me, lad!"

"I let the locked room go," said Anthony firmly, "but my mother-she is different. Why, sir, I don't even know how she looked! Dad, it's my right!"

"Is it? By God, you have a right to know exactly what I choose to tell you-no more!"

He rose, strode across the room with ponderous steps, drew aside the curtains which covered the view of the garden below, and stared for a time into the night. When he turned he found that Anthony had risen-a slender, erect figure. His voice was as quiet as his anger, but an inward quality made it as thrilling as the hoarse boom of his father.

"On that point I stick. I must know something about her."

"Must?"

"In spite of your anger. That locked room is yours; this house and everything in it is yours; but my mother-she was as much mine as yours, and I'll hear more about her-who she was, what she looked like, where she lived-"

The sharply indrawn breath of John Woodbury cut him short.

"She died in giving birth to you, Anthony."

"Dear God! She died for me?"

And in the silence which came over the two men it seemed as if another presence were in the room. John Woodbury stood at the fire-place with bowed head, and Anthony shaded his eyes and stared at the floor until he caught a glimpse of the other and went gently to him.

He said: "I'm sorrier than a lot of words could tell you. Will you sit down, sir, and let me tell you how I came to press home the question?"

"If you want to have it that way."

They resumed their chairs.

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