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   Chapter 16 A DOUBLE BLUFF

The Delafield Affair By Florence Finch Kelly Characters: 20134

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

Alexander Bancroft read Conrad's defiant letter, duly forwarded by his Boston attorneys, with a nearer approach to desperation than he had known in years. He had hoped so much from that money; and it had been thrown away! The man was inflexible, and to attempt to turn him from his deadly purpose by peaceful means would be a waste of time. And time was precious, for, now that he and his detective knew so much, one clew that they might discover any day would throw the door wide open. He must be foiled before he had time to make another move. Bancroft laid on his desk the letter he had been reading, feeling to the bottom of his heart that he would be justified in taking any course that would halt the feet of his pursuer.

A clerk came to ask his presence in the outer room, and he went out hastily, intending to return at once. But a man with business in which both were interested awaited him, and after a moment's conversation they went to find a third who was concerned in the same matter.

They had only just gone when Lucy came in and asked for her father. She looked sweet and dainty in a white gown with a wide white hat tied under her chin, her curls clustering around a face all aglow with warm browns and rich reds. The clerk who pressed forward with pleased alacrity to answer her question was one of her ardent admirers. Mr. Bancroft had just gone out, probably for only a few minutes; wouldn't she wait? It was of no consequence, she said; she only wished to see if he had any mail for her. But she looked disappointed, and the clerk suggested that as he had left his office door unlocked she might go in and wait. She saw a pile of unopened letters on her father's desk and glanced through it, finding two for Miss Dent and one for herself. "I'll just sit here and read mine," she thought, "and maybe daddy will be back by that time."

A little gust of wind came through the open window, blowing a sheet of paper from the desk to the floor. Her eye caught the signature as she picked it up. "Curtis Conrad!" she read. "Oh, how like him his writing looks!" she exclaimed, a wave of color surging into her cheeks. "Why, it seems as if I just knew it would be like this! How easy it is to read!" She was looking at the letter, her attention absorbed in the fact that it had come from Conrad's own hand, when Delafield's name stood out from the other words.

"Delafield! Sumner L. Delafield! I remember that name. It's the name of the man that ruined his father-why, it's a receipt for that money! How does daddy happen to have it?" Her eyes ran eagerly along the lines. "It's just like him! I'm glad he wouldn't take the money! What a horrid, wicked man that Delafield must be! I wonder how daddy happens to have this letter, when it was written to Tremper & Townsend, in Boston!" Her glance fell on the torn envelope bearing the imprint of the Boston firm, addressed to her father, and thence to their letter beside it. With mind intent upon the bewildering problem her eyes rushed over the brief missive:

"As you requested, we deposited your check for five hundred dollars to our account, and forwarded our check for the same amount to Mr. Curtis Conrad. We enclose his letter in receipt, which he evidently wishes sent on to you."

Lucy dropped the sheet of paper and sprang to her feet, her mind awhirl with protest. No, no! this could not be meant for her father-he was not Delafield-it was impossible! But-something clutched at her throat, and her head swam. She must go home; she must think out the puzzle. Sudden unwillingness to meet her father seized her. He must not know she had been there, that she had seen anything. She was not yet thinking coherently, only feeling that she had thoughtlessly surprised some secret, which had sprung out at her like a jack-in-the-box, and that she must give no sign of having seen its face.

She sped homeward, her brain in a turmoil, and it was not until she had shut herself in her room that she began to think clearly. A troop of recollections, disjointed, half-forgotten bits and ends of things swarmed upon her. The shock had roused her mind to unusual activity, and little things long past, forgotten for years, again came vividly into her memory.

So suddenly that it made her catch her breath there flashed upon her the recollection of how once, when she was a tiny child, some one had halted beside her mother and herself in a city street and exclaimed "Mrs. Delafield!" Her mother had hurried on without noticing the salutation, and had satisfied her curiosity afterward by explaining that the person was a stranger who had mistaken her for somebody else. But Lucy had thought the name a pretty one and used it in her play, pretending that she had a little playmate so called. Their wanderings during her childhood came back to her, when they had gone often from one place to another, at first in Canada, afterward always in the West. Much of the time she and her mother were alone, but her father came occasionally to spend with them a few days or weeks. Her devotion to him dated from those early years, when she thought so much about him during his long absences, wished so ardently for his return, and enjoyed his visits with unalloyed delight.

With new significance came the recollection of the beginning for them of the name of Bancroft. While she was still a little girl her mother had told her their name would no longer be Brown, but Bancroft, because they had been allowed to change it. She had liked the new name much better, had accepted it with the unquestioning acquiescence of childhood, and the old name had soon become but a dim memory.

Like a blow at her heart, because of the conviction it brought, the remembrance rushed upon her of an occasion not long after the change of name. She had wakened in the night and, drowsily floating in and out of sleep, had heard snatches of talk between her parents. Something regarding danger to her father had won her attention. He had replied that it would be quite safe, because only when he visited them would he be known as Bancroft, and that henceforth he would probably be able to spend more time with them. Her mother had feared and questioned, but he had reassured her and insisted that Lucy must be kept more steadily in school and that both mother and daughter must have a settled home. She could not remember all that he said, but meaningful scraps came back which had impressed her because they were concerned with that vague peril which her mother seemed to fear. He had said something about there being "no danger now," "nobody would recognize him," "everybody had forgotten it by this time"; finally, her childish anxiety assured that he was not really in jeopardy, she had sunk back happily into sleep and thought little more about it. After that she and her mother lived part of the time in Denver and part in San Francisco, and her father was with them more than before.

Every recollection that emerged from that dubious past strengthened the fear that had gripped her heart with the reading of the letters. One by one she was forced to give up the suppositions with which she tried to account for her father's possession of those letters. With all her strength she fought against the one evident conclusion. But at last the conviction fell upon her with chill certainty that they were on her father's desk because they were meant for him, and that he was the Sumner L. Delafield of that long past, disgraceful affair.

With hands clenched against her heart, which was aching with the soreness of bruised flesh, she whispered, "To take the money of all those people, and ruin them; and it killed some-oh, daddy, daddy, it was you who did it!" All the world had suddenly become one great, enveloping pain that wrung her heart anew with every recurring realization that her adored father had been so wicked-to her mind so abominably wicked. It was significant of her youth and inexperience, and also of her moral quality, that she did not attempt to palliate or excuse his offence. He was guilty of wrongdoing, as Dellmey Baxter was guilty, but in a far worse measure, and the fact that he was her father would never temper her condemnation of his sin. In the midst of her anguish she grew conscious that her feeling toward him had changed, and knew that the life had gone out of her old honoring, adoring love. It was as if half her heart had been violently torn away. For the first time sobs shook her, as she moaned, "Daddy, daddy, I loved you so!" Forlorn and anguished, her longing turned back to the dead mother with imperious need of sympathy, understanding, and companionship.

Then came the thought that her mother had known this dreadful truth, and yet had stanchly held by him and shared its consequences. The sense of duty arose within her, trembling, apprehensive, but insistent. It seemed almost as if her mother had bequeathed this secret to her keeping that she might the better fill her place beside him with daughterly solicitude. The idea crystallized into whispered words as she tossed back her head and dried her eyes, "My mother stood by him, and so shall I!"

He must never even suspect that she knew this horrible thing; she felt instinctively that it would cut him to the heart to learn that she had discovered his secret. For a moment she broke down again and moaned, "Why did I go into his office this morning! I wish I hadn't, I wish I hadn't! And then I wouldn't have had to know!" She quickly put aside this useless repining, to face the grim, painful fact once more. No; he must never guess that she knew he was other than he seemed, and he must never feel any change in her manner toward him. She must hide the secret deep, deep down in her heart, and she must keep their mutual life as it had always been. And there was Dearie-but she must know nothing of it; oh, no, never in the world must Dearie learn the least thing about this trouble!

Lucy felt very much alone, quite shut off, in her poignant need, from every one who might give her help, advic

e, or sympathy. As she sat there, encompassed by her loneliness and pain, her thoughts turned half unconsciously toward Curtis Conrad with instinctive longing for his protecting care and strength. Then she remembered. With a sharp flash that made her wince it came back to her that he meant to have revenge on Delafield; that she had heard him say he was on the man's trail, and would track him down and kill him! For a moment it staggered her, with a fierce new pain that struck through the keen ache in her breast, making her catch her breath in a gasping sob. But all her heart rose in quick denial. A faint smile held her trembling lip for an instant as she thought:

"Oh, no; he wouldn't! He wouldn't hurt daddy; and he wouldn't kill anybody! I know he wouldn't!"

She almost feared to meet her household; it seemed as if this awful knowledge which had come to her must be writ large upon her countenance. Would it be possible to take up the daily life again as if nothing had happened? A chasm so horrible had riven it, since the morning, that surely it could never be the same again. But when she finally summoned her resolution and went down to take up her daily duties, she found it not so hard as she had feared. That benign routine of daily, commonplace life, with its hourly demands upon thought and feeling and attention, which has saved so many hearts from breaking, met her at the very door of her room. She quickly learned to lean upon it, even to multiply its demands. At the outset it gave her the strength and courage to pass through her ordeal steadfastly; and after the first day it was not so hard. She began to feel pity for her father and a new tenderness as she thought of the years through which he had lived, knowing who he was and what he had done, and dreading always to be found out. But all her pity, tenderness, affection, and the old habit of lovingness that she was resolute to sustain were not always sufficient to overcome the revulsion that sometimes seized her.

One of these moments of revolt came to her as they lingered over the breakfast table a few days after her discovery. She made an excuse to attend to something in the kitchen, and hastily left the room. Her father had told them at the table that he was going to Las Vegas that morning. He waited, expecting her to return and go with him to the gate, and wave a last good-bye as he looked back on his way down the hill. She did not reappear, and at last he told Miss Dent that he would have to go or lose his train. Louise watched him from the window with yearning eyes that would not lift themselves from his figure until it disappeared from her view.

As he waited at the station Lucy rushed breathlessly to his side. "I was so afraid I should be too late!" she panted as she slipped her hand through his arm, "I ran all the way down the hill."

She clung so affectionately to him and looked up into his face with an appeal so wistful that he was touched, thinking only that she was sorrowing over his going away. It was the first time he had been separated from her since she had come to make her home with him. The conductor called, "All aboard!" and he kissed her tenderly, saying, "I'll be back day after to-morrow, little daughter."

She went home with that "little daughter" ringing in her ears and her heart. It brought back a wealth of memories of those childish, happy, longed-for times when her father came, so glad to see his "little daughter" that the days were not long enough to hold all the pleasures he wished to give her. It filled her breast with tenderness and a sort of yearning affection, more maternal than filial in quality, and made more ardent her desire to stand by him with perfect loyalty. But the old, joyous love that had been rooted deep in admiration, esteem, and honor no longer stirred within her. She knew that it would never fill her life again with its warmth and gladness, and that now and again she would have to struggle with that same aversion which had sent her that morning to hide herself in her room against his accustomed affectionate farewell. Nevertheless, she was pleased that a returning tide of tenderness, which was almost remorse, had swept over her in time for her to join him at the station.

Lucy's breathless rush to overtake him and the appealing tenderness of her manner during their moment together were sweet thoughts in Bancroft's mind as the train bore him northward. Dear little daughter! she grew dearer every day, and so did his pride and happiness in her. He longed to give her all the pleasures that his money could buy, just as he used to fill his pockets for her delight when she was a little girl. Once past these threatening dangers, they should have good times together. All his business enterprises were promising well; it would not be long before money would be plenty. Then, with clear sailing ahead and no ominous clouds, he could ask Louise to marry him.

They would have to give up Lucy some time, but not for many a day. She was the sort of girl that is always attractive to men-why, half the young fellows in Golden were already dancing devoted attendance!-but she was very young; he and Louise still had many years in which to enjoy her, to travel with her and show her the world. Once past these threatening dangers, how fair was the world beyond! He would vanquish them yet, by whatever means might come to his hand! Each day's anxiety for the present and its longing for the fair future made his heart more desperate and reckless. He was hopeful that this coming interview with Rutherford Jenkins would make things easier for him in that quarter. Money would always keep Jenkins quiet, but to give up money to a blackmailer was like pouring it down a rat hole; if he kept it up the process was sure to cripple him in time.

Jenkins received him with smiling cordiality. "I'm very glad to see you, Mr. Delafield-oh, I beg your pardon!-Mr. Bancroft. I always think of you as-ah, by the other name-and I sometimes forget in speaking."

"You'd better not forget again," Bancroft interposed. "And, speaking of forgetting, there is a little matter concerning you that I'm willing to let drop out of my memory. You know, of course, about the case of José Maria Melgares. Doubtless you know, also, how Melgares happened to steal Curtis Conrad's horse; and you could tell to a cent-to a jury, if necessary-how much money was given to Melgares in the rear of the Blue Front saloon to induce him to undertake the theft. I take it, however, that you would not care to have it brought into court, as a conviction on a charge of conspiracy would be sure to follow. I have all the evidence in my possession-quite enough to convict. I got it from Melgares' wife in the first place, and I have since secured his affidavit. But I have stopped her mouth, and his, and nobody else knows anything about it. I am quite willing to forget it myself if you will show equal courtesy concerning-certain other matters."

Jenkins grinned and licked his lips. "Really, my dear Mr. Delafield-excuse me-my dear Mr. Bancroft-I don't know what you are driving at! I suppose you mean that Melgares has been saying that I hired him to steal Conrad's horse. The thing is as false as it is absurd. If it were to come into court I should deny it absolutely, exactly as I do now. And the word of Rutherford Jenkins would stand for considerably more with a jury than that of a Mexican horse-thief."

"You are probably the only man in the Territory, Mr. Jenkins, who holds that opinion. Unless you take a more reasonable view of the matter I shall feel it my duty to see the district attorney as soon as I get home."

"See him, and be damned!" Jenkins broke out. "If you do, Curtis Conrad shall know before the week is out that you are Sumner L. Delafield."

Bancroft's eyes fell, but his reply came quickly enough: "Well, and what is that to me?"

"I guess you know what it will mean to you," Jenkins answered with a sneer. He did not know himself what it would mean to the banker, but he felt sure that it would answer quite as well to make pretence of knowledge. He watched his antagonist furtively in the momentary silence that followed.

"You don't seem to understand the full significance of the attitude you are taking," Bancroft presently went on. "Of course, I do not wish, just now, to have Conrad, or any one else, know all the events of my past life. I have been living an honorable life in this Territory, and you can very well comprehend that I do not wish my reputation and business success smashed-by you or anybody else. That is the only reason why I was willing to enter into an understanding with you. But my affairs are getting in such shape that I can soon snap my fingers at you or any one who tries to disclose my identity. At best, you'll be able to get little more out of me, and I am amazed that you should be willing to risk this trial, with its certain disgrace, conviction, and sentence to the penitentiary, for the sake of the few hundred dollars of-blackmail-let us call it by its right name-that you may be able to extort from me."

"I am quite willing to take whatever risk there is," Jenkins interposed, "especially as my counsel could readily bring out the fact that you had tried to-blackmail-let us call it by its right name-to blackmail me before you gave the information. Do as you please about going to the district attorney; I don't care a damn whether you do or not. But, if you do, you'll have to settle with Curt Conrad before the week is out!"

Bancroft arose, perceiving acutely that the only course left for him was to make a strong bluff and retreat. "Very well," he said, with an indifference he was far from feeling, "do as you like about that. Only don't delude yourself by supposing that Curt Conrad's knowing about that old affair will mean any more to me than anybody else's knowledge. When you think this proposal of mine over carefully I'm sure you'll change your mind, and I shall expect to hear from you to that effect."

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