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   Chapter 8 SPECTRES OF THE PAST

The Delafield Affair By Florence Finch Kelly Characters: 24378

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Restless was the night that followed for Alexander Bancroft; his sleep was troubled by many a dream in which one friend after another moved swiftly on to violent death. With the coming of dawn he arose to look out from the eastern windows of his room. The sky was a dome of rosy light and below lay the vast plain, dim but colorful, its gray-green mottled with vague bands and patches of opalescent lights and shadows and dotted with little islands of vivid green. His eyes clung to these darker spots, which he knew to be thickets of mesquite; piercing their shade his inner vision showed him the still body of his friend. So real was the mental picture that he turned pale about the lips and abruptly left the window.

If anything had happened, he kept reassuring himself, it had been at Dellmey Baxter's instigation. He himself had had nothing to do with it. If Baxter had decided that his affairs would go more smoothly with Conrad out of the way, why should he, Alexander Bancroft, trouble himself further? And if-anything had happened-again he felt the loosening of mental strain and his spirits rose in exultation at the prospect of freedom and safety. Life was more attractive than ever with that menacing figure no longer threatening him with disclosure, disgrace, and death. He could go on with his plans for the accumulation of fortune and the enjoyment of life. He could still hold Lucy's love and honor, travel with her, marry again, work his way to a commanding place in the world of business. The future opened before him as easy and inviting as the stairs down which he went to breakfast.

Lucy ran to meet him with a good-morning kiss and a rose for his buttonhole. "It's the prettiest I could find in my conservatory," she smiled at him; "but it isn't half nice enough for my daddy dear. You don't look well this morning, daddy," she went on anxiously. "Is anything the matter?"

His hand slipped caressingly down over her curls and drew her to his breast in a quick embrace, instinct with the native impulse of the animal to protect its offspring. "She shall never know," was the thought in his mind.

"Daddy! What a bear hug that was!" she laughed, "like those you used to give me when I was a little girl. It didn't feel as if you were ill."

"I'm not," he answered lightly, kissing her pink cheek. "I guess I smoked too much yesterday, and so didn't sleep very well. Yes; I promise; I'll be more careful to-day."

At breakfast his eyes dwelt much upon Louise Dent's face, gentle and pleasant. He had always liked her, and since her coming on this visit she had seemed very attractive. He knew she had strength and poise of character and a nature refined and cheerful. These qualities in her, with a certain genial, unobtrusive companionableness, had long ago won his warm friendship. But was there not in her steady gray eyes a hint of passionate depths he had never thought of before? It stirred him so deeply that for a little while, as they lingered over the breakfast table, he forgot the other facts of life, noting the faint rose flush in her cheeks, the graceful turn of her wrists, and the soft whiteness of her throat as she threw back her head and laughed. And Lucy loved her so devotedly! If she were willing to marry him their household would surely be harmonious and happy.

Lucy fluttered beside him to the gate, her arm in his, as she chattered to him of the funny things her Chinese cook had been saying and doing. She lingered there, her eyes following his figure, until he turned, half a block away, to wave his hat in response to her farewell handkerchief.

By the time he reached the foot of the hill Bancroft's mind was once more engrossed with the need of knowing whether or not he was at last secure from ignominious exposure. He no longer disguised from himself the fact that news of Conrad's death would be most welcome. He looked eagerly up and down the main streets; there was no sign of excitement. Had nothing happened, then? But it was still early; moreover, news of the affair might not reach the town for a day or two. The sound of horses' feet coming at a swift trot down the street on the other side of the stream made his heart beat quickly. He lingered at the door of his bank until the horseman came into view under the big cottonwoods at the next corner. It was Red Jack from the Socorro Springs ranch. At once his heart leaped to certainty. He turned to enter the bank, but stopped and looked back, undecidedly. Red Jack had not dismounted, but had drawn rein in front of the court-house at the next corner, and was sitting there quietly, looking up and down the road as if expecting somebody. He led a saddled horse. Perhaps he was to take a physician back with him. But he seemed in no haste, and in his manner there was neither excitement nor anxiety. Bancroft could wait no longer to learn what had happened. With hands in pockets he sauntered down the street.

"Hello, Jack," he said indifferently to the waiting horseman. "You're in town early this morning."

"I sure hiked along from the ranch early enough," the cowboy replied. "The boss hired a new man last night; and I had to come over this morning after him."

Bancroft's eyes were on the cigar he was taking from his pocket, which he handed to the cowboy, saying idly, "Why, he intended last night to carry the man behind him. Did he change his mind? The man was a Mexican, wasn't he?"

"Y-e-s; a measly coyote! The boss didn't bring him last night because he thought it would be too hard on Brown Betty to carry double. I wonder if mebbe that ain't my man comin' down the street right now! I've done forgot his name; do you happen to know it, Mr. Bancroft?"

"I think it's José Gonzalez. He came here from Dellmey Baxter, who recommended him to me as a first-rate cowboy."

"Well, he'll have to be a peach if he strikes the boss's gait," Red Jack rejoined, motioning to the Mexican.

Bancroft walked back to his place of business with brows knitted and mouth drawn into grim lines. His mind was acting rapidly and ruthlessly. The sudden collapse of his house of cards, the knowledge that danger was still as imminent as ever, left him savage with desire for Curtis Conrad's death, or, rather, for the delectable land that lay beyond it. Nobody but this young hothead with his insensate desire for revenge knew or cared anything about that old affair now. With him out of the way there would be no danger from anybody or anything. Why wasn't the man sensible enough to take the money he was willing to pay, and be satisfied? Perhaps the receipt of another check or two would soften his purpose; it was worth trying. And-there was still the Mexican! Baxter had surely said something to him, and the fellow seemed to understand that he, also-but he had said nothing about it, and whatever the creature suspected was his own inference. Evidently the Mexican did suspect something and had some purpose in his mind. With Conrad so intent upon his destruction had he not every right to protect himself and his child? Of course he had, he told himself fiercely, and what means he might use were his own affair.

At the door of the bank Rutherford Jenkins met him with a smiling salutation: "Good-morning, Mr. Bancroft; this is lucky! I was waiting for you here, but I've got so much to do that I'd begun to be afraid I wouldn't be able to see you before I go back."

Bancroft greeted him pleasantly. "What do you mean, Jenkins," he went on, "by deserting to Martinez? Hadn't you better think again about that? We need you on our side."

"That's exactly what I want to see you about," said Jenkins in a confidential tone. "Can't you come over with me to Bill Williams's hotel for a few minutes? I want to have a talk with you."

They went back together, Bancroft wondering if Jenkins, who was regarded as a desirable ally by both parties, notwithstanding his character, was about to make overtures to him for deserting the Martinez fold and coming back to Baxter's. "Perhaps that spanking Curt gave him has set him against the whole Martinez following," he thought. "Baxter will be mighty glad to get him back, and I'll do my best to cinch the bargain so he can't crawl."

When they entered the hotel room Jenkins moved leisurely about, got out a bottle of whiskey, and hunted up some cigars, talking all the time glibly about other matters and jumping inconsequently from one subject to another. Bancroft made several attempts to bring the conversation to the point, but each time Jenkins either blandly ignored or skilfully evaded his leading. Finally Bancroft said, looking at his watch: "Well, Jenkins, I've got to be at the bank very soon, and if there's anything particular you want to say suppose we get down to business."

"Yes, yes, certainly," Jenkins replied unconcernedly. "That's what I'm coming to right now." He gave Bancroft a cigar, lighted one himself, made some jokes as he bustled aimlessly around the room, and at last sat down on the foot of the bed, facing the banker, who occupied the only chair in the little room. He ceased speaking, and Bancroft, looking up suddenly, caught in his face an expression of expectant triumph. The tip of his tongue was darting over his lips, and his small dark eyes were fixed on his guest with a look of malicious satisfaction. Instantly Bancroft's nerves were alert with the sense of coming danger. He blew out a whiff of smoke and calmly returned the other's gaze. Their eyes met thus, the one gloating, the other outwardly unmoved but inwardly astart with sudden alarm. Then Jenkins began, in a blandly insinuating tone:

"Before we come to that matter about Martinez, I want to ask you, Mr.-ah-Mr. Dela-ah, I beg your pardon, Mr. Bancroft-I thought I would ask you-you've poked about a good deal, out here in the West-and in out-of-the-way places, too-and I've been wondering-I thought I'd ask you-if you've ever run across a gentleman of the name of-of-Dela-Dela-let me see-yes, Delafield-that's it-Sumner L. Delafield, of Boston. Do you remember whether or not you've ever met him?"

Bancroft did not blanch nor flinch. For so many years he had schooled himself to such constant watchfulness and incessant self-control that an impassive countenance and manner had become a habit. Lucy, with her uncompromising moral decisions and her swift, unsparing condemnations, could come nearer to unnerving him than could any bolt from the blue like this. He flicked the ash from his cigar, hesitating a moment as if searching his memory, but really wondering whether Jenkins knew anything or was merely guessing and trying to draw him out. The latter seemed much the more likely.

"I can't say on the instant whether I ever met such a man or not. As you say, I have gone about a good deal and, as my business most of the time has been that of mining and trading in mines, it has often taken me into out-of-the-way places, and I have met a great many people. At this moment I don't recall the name."

"Don't you? I'm sorry, for I thought perhaps you could verify for me a curious story about the man that has just come to my knowledge. You know I'm always picking up information about people-I find it comes in handy now and then. Well, if you've never met him, have you ever, in the course of your Western travels, run across a man-he was a mining man, too-a mining man named Hardy-John Mason Hardy? There's a curious story about him, too, or, rather, about a man who was associated with him in a mining enterprise down in old Mexico. The other man's name was Smith-a very serviceable name is Smith; sort of like a black derby hat; no distinguishing mark about it and easy to exchange by mistake if you'd rather have some other man's."

Bancroft rose and looked at his watch. "If there's anything of particular interest or importance in this, Mr. Jenkins, I'll be very glad to listen to it some other time; but I can't stay any longer this morning. I ought to have been at my desk half an hour ago."

Jenkins sat still and waved him back with insistent politeness. "One moment more, Mr. Bancroft, if you please. I'm coming to the point right away. This story is of

some consequence to me, and I'd like to know if you can verify it. Have another drink."

Bancroft swallowed the whiskey at a gulp and Jenkins noticed that his fingers trembled as he took the glass. He was thinking, "I'd better stay and find out exactly how much he knows." Jenkins smiled under his hand as he smoothed his straggling moustache and watched Bancroft wipe the sweat from his forehead.

"This man Smith," Jenkins continued, "John was his name, too-John Smith and John Mason Hardy were partners in a mining enterprise down in Mexico. One of them died down there-died, you know, in a quiet, private sort of way, and the one that came up to the States again was named Hardy, but it wasn't the same Hardy that had gone down there. You might guess, if you wanted to, that Smith killed Hardy and took his name-"

He stopped and drew back suddenly, for Bancroft had sprung forward with a white, angry face and was shaking a trembling fist under his nose.

"Stop there, you liar!" he exclaimed in low, tense tones. "I didn't do that. He died a natural death-of fever-and I took care of him and did my best to save his life."

Jenkins recovered his self-possession first. "Oh; then you know all about it!" he said dryly, with a malicious smile.

Bancroft sank back in his chair drawing his hand across his eyes and wondering why his self-control had so suddenly gone to pieces. He had thought himself proof against any surprise, but this man's sudden blow and persistent baiting had screwed his nerve tension to the snapping point. But he told himself that it probably did not matter anyway, as Jenkins evidently knew the whole story. With a desperate, defiant look he turned upon his tormentor.

"Well, what do you want?" he demanded sharply. "Why have you raked up this old story?"

"Oh, I found it interesting," Jenkins responded in a leisurely way, "as an instance of the way things are done on the frontier and, as I told you at first, I thought you might be able to verify it. For I was inclined not to believe it, especially as it was about one of the most prominent and respected citizens of New Mexico. But since you've confessed its truth yourself-well, I've got to believe it now. It has been a very blind trail I've followed, crooked and well hidden-wonderfully well hidden, Mr. Bancroft-and the number of names you've hoisted along its course has been bewildering. But I've managed to track you through 'em all, and to discover in Alexander Bancroft, the upright, honored, public-spirited citizen of New Mexico, the identical person of Sumner L. Delafield, the defaulting and absconding financier of Boston."

Bancroft looked Jenkins sullenly in the eye. "Well, now that you have it all, what are you going to do about it?"

"Pardon me, Mr. Bancroft," said Jenkins with exaggerated suavity, "ah, excuse me, I mean Mr. Delafield-that is for you to say."

The banker considered for a moment only. Evidently this man knew exactly what he was about and exactly what he wanted, so that it would be of no use to beat around the bush. "Will you please say precisely what you mean?" was his answer.

"That is just what I have been doing, Mr. Delafield."

"Excuse me, Jenkins, but my name is Bancroft, not Delafield. I have a legal right to the name of Bancroft, given me by the legislature of Arizona. You will oblige me by addressing me in that way."

"Oh, yes; I know that; and a lot of trouble I had with this chase until I found it out! But I thought you might like to hear yourself called Delafield once more-sort of like meeting an old friend, you know. Won't you have another cigar, Mr. Bancroft? No? Well, then, let's have another drink." He poured out two glasses of whiskey. Bancroft drank his without demur, but Jenkins barely touched his glass to his lips.

"Well, now, Mr. Bancroft," Jenkins went on affably, smiling and rubbing his hands together, "let's get down to the practical side of this romantic story from real life. You are getting on so well here under your present name, and you have a young daughter-" he saw his listener wince at this, and then carefully repeated his words-"and you have such a beautiful and charming young daughter, who, as the heiress of a father who is making a fortune with clean hands and no cloud on his past, can be taken about the world and can make a good marriage some of these days; considering all this, I take it for granted that you would prefer to have this story buried too deep for resurrection. And it is for you to say whether it shall be buried or not."

Bancroft sat in silence for a full minute, glaring at the man opposite, his lips set in a livid line. Jenkins grew nervous in the dead stillness of the room, and began to fidget. He cautiously rested his right hand on the bed close by his pistol pocket, and kept his eyes on the banker, watchful for the first hostile movement. There was need of wariness, for Bancroft was debating with himself whether it would be better to go on to the dreary end of this business and leave the room with a blackmailer's noose around his neck, or to whip out his gun, put a bullet through this man's brain, and another through his own.

But the fragrance of life rose sweet to his nostrils, and his innate virility spurred him on to keep up the fight. Apparently he had brought up against a stone wall, but he had fought too long and too desperately to be willing to confess himself beaten until he could struggle no longer. He felt sure that money would keep Jenkins quiet, and after a while he might find some other means of stopping the man's mouth for good. The fellow was always in some dirty job or other, and before long doubtless some hold on him would become possible. There was Conrad still to be reckoned with-but that could wait, at least until this man was silenced.

"Well," he said quietly, "what do you want? For God's sake, come to the point!"

Jenkins drew a breath of relief. "Well, Mr. Bancroft, I'm interested this year in the success of Johnny Martinez. It's a matter of the first importance to me for him to be elected. But I'm afraid he hasn't got much chance if Silverside County and the rest of the South should go against him. Now, you've got more influence down here than anybody else, and you can swing it for him if you want to. That's what I want you to do."

Bancroft looked up in sudden dismay. He had not expected anything of this sort. "You know I'm committed to Baxter," he said.

"Oh, yes; I know. But that's nothing. In New Mexico it's not difficult to change your politics. Why, I thought of coming out for Baxter myself at first; but I'm solid for Martinez now."

Bancroft rose and began pacing the half-dozen steps to and fro that the room afforded, seeking some loophole of escape from his obligations to Baxter. There were mortgages the Congressman could foreclose that would balk some of the banker's most promising plans should he attempt political treachery. He could, and undoubtedly would, reveal his associate's connection with the loan and mortgage operations in the Rio Grande valley; and Bancroft winced as he thought of this coming to Lucy's ears. And in that matter of Curtis Conrad and José Gonzalez-had he not put himself at Baxter's mercy? In this moment of supreme necessity the naked truth came before him; and he knew it to be true that he was primarily responsible for any harm that might come to the young cattleman through Gonzalez. If he did not keep faith with Baxter the Congressman would tell Curtis who it was that desired his death; and then Conrad would know where to find Delafield. In short, he knew that Baxter would stop at nothing to compel his loyalty or punish his treason. Having contemplated no course except that of fidelity in his business and political relations with Baxter, the closeness of their alliance had heretofore given him little uneasiness; and now, in this crisis, he found himself wholly in the other's power. He flung himself into his chair, his face pallid and the perspiration standing in great drops on his forehead. His breath came hard and his voice was thick as he asked:

"Is there no alternative?"

"Well, no; none that I can accept," Jenkins replied meditatively. "You see, it's a very important matter for me to be able to make this present to Johnny. If he wins this fight there'll be something big in it for me. No; I'll have to insist upon this as the first condition."

Bancroft's lips moved soundlessly as he stared at the man sitting on the edge of the bed, nursing his knee and showing his white teeth in a triumphant smile. Then, suddenly, without a word of warning, the banker leaped forward and seized his companion around the throat. Jenkins, taken entirely off his guard, succeeded only in grasping his assailant's coat as they went down on the bed together in a noiseless scuffle. Bancroft's hands closed around his tormentor's throat, and a savage, elemental satisfaction thrilled in him and goaded him on. More and more tightly his fingers clutched as Jenkins struggled under his grip. Neither of them uttered a sound, and the silence of the room was broken only by the creaking of the bed or the occasional knocking of a foot against the chair.

Bancroft's face was snarled like that of a wild beast as he watched Jenkins's visage grow livid and his struggles weaken. Of a sudden reason returned to him. If this man were to die under his hand there would be grewsome consequences-and he had enough to deal with already. He stood up, trembling, and looked anxiously at the still form on the bed.

"You-you're not dead, Jenkins, are you?" he stammered awkwardly.

Jenkins stirred a little, opened his eyes, put his hand to his throat, and got up, looking warily at his assailant. "It's no thanks to you that I'm not," he responded sullenly.

"I didn't mean to kill you-but you-you struck me too hard-it drove me wild-and for a minute I didn't know what I was doing." Jenkins scowled, rubbed his throat again, and drank a glass of whiskey. Bancroft helped himself likewise, following it with a copious draught of water. As they faced each other again Jenkins edged away suspiciously toward the door; but Bancroft went back at once to the unsettled question.

"It would ruin me, financially and in every other way, to go back on Baxter. You might just as well kill me outright as insist upon that."

"But I'm going to insist upon it," was Jenkins's sullen answer.

Bancroft made a despairing gesture. "But I tell you, Jenkins, the thing's impossible! It would ruin me just as surely as for you to tell all you know. You'll have to be satisfied with something else."

Jenkins leaned against the bed and stared angrily at Bancroft. Physical pain had made him obstinate and determined him to press his point, more to return injury for injury than because he wanted that particular thing.

"I tell you now," Bancroft went on, "that I'd rather take the last way out than try to go back on Baxter. It wouldn't be the healthiest thing in the world for you if I should kill myself shut up in this room with you, would it?"

"Well, I'll waive that for the present," Jenkins replied unwillingly; "but, mind you, it's only for the present. We'll talk about it again, later in the season. For the present I want a good, big sum before you leave this room, and hereafter I've got to have a regular monthly payment, a check on the first of every month when I don't come after the cash myself."

Bancroft considered for only a moment. His dilemma was clear: he must either buy this haltered freedom from Jenkins or kill him in his tracks. This latter alternative was not to be considered; and doubtless before long it would be possible to turn the tables on the creature and escape from his clutches.

Jenkins folded away in his pocket-book a check and a roll of bills and smiled as he looked at Bancroft's haggard face. "I hope, Mr. Dela-ah, pardon me,-Mr. Bancroft, that I have not kept you too long from your affairs at the bank." As his eyes followed the banker's disappearing figure with a gleam of satisfaction, he patted his breast pocket and whispered:

"Now for the other score!"

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