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   Chapter 23 LOVE TO THE RESCUE

The Delafield Affair By Florence Finch Kelly Characters: 17997

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


A clerk brought the morning mail, and as Alexander Bancroft took the handful of letters, his eye caught the handwriting of Rutherford Jenkins. Apprehension seized him. Had that creature found some new screw he could turn? His hand trembled as he tore open the envelope. For a moment he felt distinct relief when he found nothing more than a demand for additional money. Jenkins reminded him that the first of August was approaching, and added that he was obliged to ask for double the amount he had previously received on the first of the month. The feeling of thankfulness that the letter contained nothing worse passed quickly, as he realized that he would be afraid to refuse the demand, that he would not dare to refuse anything Jenkins might ask. The full weight of his chains was upon him, and he swore between set teeth as he tore the letter angrily into bits and dashed them into the waste-basket. Impotent rebellion was still smouldering in his eyes when a knock came at his door and Dellmey Baxter entered. The Congressman's round, smooth face was beaming and his fat hand grasped Bancroft's with hearty greeting. But the droop of his left eyelid was marked and his gray eyes were cold and hard. They had a prolonged conference about the various enterprises in which they were jointly interested, and about the progress and prospects of Baxter's campaign in the southern part of the Territory, where Bancroft was his chief lieutenant.

"I tell you, Aleck, you're handling it fine," said Baxter finally, with friendly enthusiasm. "You're bringing Silverside and the whole south right into line in great shape! I'm free to say, Aleck, that you're doing better for me than I could do for myself. You have a remarkable knack for handling people, and everybody has confidence in you. We've got the party in this Territory where we want it now, and if I decide to quit Congress after another term or two, as it's likely I shall, I'll see to it, Aleck, that you step into my shoes if you want to." He went on to ask what certain of his supporters and his opponents were doing, and presently inquired:

"And your young friend Conrad-does he still think I have horns and hoofs? He came to see me in Santa Fe recently, and apologized for having accused me of being at the bottom of that Mexican's attack on him. From what he said to me," the Congressman went on, regarding Bancroft attentively, "I think it's likely the greaser will get the worst of it if he keeps up that racket."

The banker moved uneasily, then took cigars from the box on top of his desk. "By the way, Aleck," said Baxter carelessly between whiffs of smoke, "you've been around this Territory considerably and mixed with mining men a good deal." His cold eyes were watching his companion from under their shaggy brows. "Do you remember ever running across a chap named Delafield?"

The time had been when Bancroft could hear that name without the quiver of a lash or the tremble of a nerve. But those days of cool self-control and impassive seeming had gone by. For many weeks he had been on the rack of constant apprehension, the nervous strain of conflicting emotions concerning Conrad had been great, and recently the fear of sudden exposure had grown into a secret, abiding terror. He started, dropped his cigar, and his face paled.

"Delafield?" he repeated in a low voice. "I do not remember the name-and I have a pretty good memory for names, too." The desire seized him to know whether Baxter was speaking out of knowledge or ignorance. "What about him?" he went on. "Is he supposed to be living here?"

"I don't know much about it," Baxter rejoined, "but I believe the people who are trying to locate him make the guess that he is. A party asked me about him not long ago, but I wasn't able to place the name, although it has a familiar sound. I told him it wasn't any use looking for his man under that name-it's too easy to pick up a new one out here for anybody to keep an old one that's got dirty."

When the door closed upon the portly figure and cherubic smile of the Congressman, Bancroft sat still and stared dully at the wall. "Dell knows," was the conviction that had gone straight to his wretched heart. "Dell knows. He knows the whole story. And now I've got to do whatever he says." Apprehension leaped quickly forward. If Baxter knew, was the story out? Was it already going from mouth to mouth? Second thought brought reassurance. No; for in that case Baxter would not have so discreetly veiled his hint. But how had he found out? Could Jenkins-no, not likely, for Jenkins was making too good a thing out of it as a secret. Baxter said Conrad had been to see him-then did Curtis know by this time? His heart took quick alarm, and he had a moment of desperation. Then he recalled the young man's repeated declaration that he meant to lose no time in facing Delafield after learning the man's identity. He soon decided that a little time was still left to him before that encounter could take place and-Gonzalez was yet at the ranch. Doubtless Conrad had talked with Baxter about the case, perhaps told him of his own search and asked for information about the men he suspected. Finally, knowing well the Congressman's mental habits, he came to the conclusion that Baxter had put things together and made a shrewd guess.

"But he knows, all right," Bancroft owned to himself in impotent anger, "and that means another chain on me." Another obstacle had risen in his path that would have to be overcome, one way or another, before he could reach that longed-for security. A little before, safety had seemed so near, and now it was further away than ever! He should have to fight for it, that was plain-and fight he would, to the last inch, Conrad and Jenkins and Baxter. They had pushed him to the wall, but that should not be the end. He would not let them wreck everything if-no matter now what he might have to do to protect himself.

He spent an anxious forenoon, unable to keep his mind off his own troubles and impending dangers, thinking and scheming, trying to work out effective means of defence and counter-attack. When he left the bank for luncheon at home, it was with a lively sense of how restful and pleasing he should find its atmosphere of love, respect, and confidence. He bought a box of candy for Lucy and a magazine for Louise, and hastened up the hill.

Never before had home seemed to him so delightful. Lucy was gay of spirit, piquant, rosy of cheek and bright of eye, lovingly solicitous for his comfort. Louise was paler than usual, with a touch of wistfulness in her manner. Lucy explained that she had a bad headache, and they agreed that it was probably due to the day's peculiar atmospheric conditions. It was hot and still; a thin, gray, luminous haze veiled the sky and made the sunshine, usually clear and white, look palely yellow; the air was charged with electricity, whose jangling effect upon the nerves only the soundest could withstand. Louise said she felt it acutely. As always, she was gentle and sympathetic, and Bancroft felt her influence at once. Her presence never failed to soothe, tranquillize, and encourage him.

She saw the anxiety in his eyes, and at once divined a new cause for trouble. With renewed alarm and indignation in her heart her thoughts turned to Conrad. Had there been some new development? The fires of love and solicitude for her friend and of hatred for his enemy were burning brightly in her secret thoughts and shone now and then in her eyes. Bancroft caught their glow, and his heart rose to be warmed in it. What a sweet woman she was, how adorable! His arms ached with the longing to enfold her and press her dearness to his breast. But no!-with such dangers thickening about him, he must not think of it. It angered him the more that he must thus repress the feeling which was struggling to make itself understood, which he felt certain she would welcome. For half an hour after luncheon they lingered on the veranda. As if drawn irresistibly by secret cords of feeling, Bancroft and Miss Dent kept constantly near each other; once, when she accidentally touched his hand, his fingers closed quickly upon hers in a moment's warm grasp.

After he had gone, Louise walked restlessly up and down, her nerves strung to the highest tension by her love and anxiety for Bancroft and her hatred of Conrad. Her headache grew rapidly worse, and her heart was beating like a trip-hammer. She and Lucy agreed that the electrical condition of the atmosphere had become more trying. The sunshine, too, was more dingily yellowish. They noticed that heavy, dark clouds, like huge, sleeping beasts, were lying behind the summits of the Mogollon Mountains.

"My head is throbbing so I can hardly see," said Louise finally, "and I think I'll go to my room, pull down the shades, and lie down for a while. No; thank you, dear, you can't do anything. Just leave me alone for an hour or two in the quiet and the dark."

Luc

y sat on the veranda with the magazine and the box of candy her father had brought; but one lay unopened in her lap and the other untouched on the table beside her, while her eyes wandered across the tree-embowered streets of the town and far over the plain, where, beyond the horizon, were the green groves of the Socorro Springs ranch.

"I've got to do it," she whispered to herself, decision in her wrinkling brow. "There's no other way, and I must. Daddy is looking wretched-I've never seen him look so anxious and disturbed as he does to-day. I've got to do it, right away."

She had not seen Curtis Conrad since the barbecue. Daily had she watched for him, hoping always to see him climbing the hill, longing greatly to look upon his face, and feeling that she must reveal her secret and so put an end, as she firmly believed she could, to her father's trouble. But he came not; instead, Homer's visits increased in length and frequency, and she, still hurt and angered by the memory of Curtis's attentions to Mrs. Ned Castleton at the barbecue, recklessly continued her flirtation with Homer, plunging him more and more deeply in love. She did all this without thought of what was going on in Homer's breast, wishing only to dull the pain in her own aching heart. Finally, when she realized what was happening, she changed her demeanor in sudden girl-panic, only to precipitate the young man's proposal, by which she had been both surprised and vexed.

She was quite sure, by this time, that Curtis Conrad did not care for her at all, and she had ceased expecting him to come to their house. Yet she never went out upon the veranda without letting her eyes wander wishfully down the street. They were there now, scanning the long, steep hill. But they saw only a little, bare-legged Mexican boy toiling slowly up the grade. No, she decided, only one thing was left for her to do: she would have to write and ask him to come and see her. Her heart rebelled at first, and she unconsciously tossed her head and her eyes flashed. "But it's for daddy," she presently told herself, "and there's no other way. I've got to do it." Of course, it would be a humiliation; but so was the whole hateful business, and what was one little thing more or less?

Looking toward the street again she saw that the little Mexican lad was coming to her gate. His baggy, ragged overalls were held by a single strap over his shoulder, and his small, brown face, under his miniature, torn sombrero, was hot and dirty. He peered at her through the palings, and she exclaimed, "Why, it's little Pablo Melgares!" She went down to the gate, saying in Spanish, "Do you want anything, Pablo?"

Gravely and silently he gave her a letter he had been carrying in his hat. Although she had seen the handwriting but once before, her heart leaped and a delicious thrill ran through her veins as she read the address.

"Is there an answer?" she asked, tremulously.

"Si, se?orita," said the boy.

"Then you sit down here on the steps and eat candy until I come back," she said as she poured the contents of her box into the child's sombrero.

She ran lightly up the stairs to her room and closed the door before opening the note. It said only:

"Will you go to ride with me this afternoon up the canyon? I have something particular I want to say. Please send me word by the boy if I may come up at once."

She devoured it with shining eyes, and pressed it to her face, her lips, her heart. Her woman's instinct divined what the "something particular" must be, and she laughed softly and joyously, while the color mounted to her brow. But presently, as she donned her riding habit, her look grew serious and grave. For a few minutes she had forgotten what it was she had to do.

"I must tell him," she thought, "and then that will be the end of everything." The brown eyes filled with tears, and she choked back a little sob. "But I've got to do it," she repeated with determination. "He won't love me then, but poor daddy will be safe. And I wouldn't marry him anyway, because I'm not going to marry anybody. I won't let him say anything to me about-about anything; I'll tell him about daddy before he has a chance. But I won't have to tell him right away-when we are coming back, maybe." Her fingers were busy with her collar in front of the mirror. "Dear me, I'm dreadfully tanned! But he told me once he liked the healthy brown skins the girls all get down here. No; I shall not let him have the least idea that I care anything about him; but-" and the smiles and dimples were chasing each other across her face as she started down the stairs. On her way she slipped softly into Miss Dent's darkened room. Louise was awake, and Lucy stood beside her bed, stroking her forehead with affectionate fingers.

"Poor Dearie! Can't I do something for you before I go out? Do you think you can sleep? Then you won't mind my going, will you? Mr. Conrad has come to take me to ride. We are going up the canyon. Wasn't it jolly of him to think of it this stupid, yellow afternoon?"

"Yes; certainly, dear, I'm glad you're going, and I hope you'll have a delightful ride. Don Homer is always so thoughtful."

Lucy was settling her hat in front of the mirror. "Oh, it isn't Don Homer! It's his brother."

Miss Dent started up. "Curtis Conrad! You're not going with him!"

Lucy looked at her with surprise. "Why, yes, Dearie. Why not?"

"Lucy, darling! You must not go!"

Louise was sitting up now, her hands at her temples. Lucy bent over her with an arm about her neck. "You surprise me very much, Dearie. I thought you liked him."

"Yes; of course. But you must not go with him this afternoon. It will not do."

The girl sat down on the bed beside her. "But I've said I would, Dearie, and he's already here, waiting for me with the horses. And I must go, Dearie. It would be awfully rude and horrid to try to get out of it now."

Sudden apprehension filled Miss Dent's mind. It was not like Lucy to hold so persistently to anything that was against her wish. Her intense feeling against Curtis Conrad swept over her excited, tingling nerves and filled her mind with the conviction that she must keep Lucy away from him. Things jigged and swam before her eyes, as her thoughts whirled dizzily through her brain. "Lucy, dear child!" she exclaimed, "I wish you would not go. Indeed, you must not go!"

Lucy arose, clad in a new womanly dignity that sent a half-realized dismay through the turmoil of Miss Dent's mind. Vaguely, with an aching sense of loss, she felt that Lucy had become a woman who would henceforth direct her life for herself. With her hands holding her throbbing head, through which excruciating pains were darting, Louise strove to steady her thoughts.

"I don't understand," said Lucy, gently, "why you speak in this way, or why you wish me to be rude to Mr. Conrad. If there is any good reason why I should not go to ride with him this afternoon, and you will tell me what it is, so that I can judge for myself, I can beg him to excuse me, because you are not well-and-ask him to stay to dinner instead."

New alarm seized Miss Dent. In her excitement she tried to rise, only to drop back trembling upon the bed. For the moment her one thought was that this man must be kept out of the house. "Lucy," she pleaded, despair in her voice, "you do not understand. He is not our friend now. He is your father's enemy-and is trying to kill him."

She stopped in sudden panic at having said so much, and Lucy started back amazed.

"Oh, Dearie-you don't know, do you-and daddy-you don't know about daddy?"

Louise looked up, her face white and drawn, astonishment veiling the pain in her eyes.

"Lucy, Lucy! Do you know-about your father-and this man-and yet you will go with him?"

Lucy's curly head was high as she answered deliberately: "Yes, Dearie! I am going so that I can save daddy from any further trouble. I shall tell Mr. Conrad who daddy is."

Miss Dent gasped and her mouth worked for a moment before she could speak. "Oh, child, you don't know what you are doing! I beg of you, Lucy, don't go-don't do it! If you love me, if you love your father, don't tell him! He will kill-"

The girl drew herself up proudly. "Indeed, Dearie, you don't know Curtis Conrad as well as I do, if you think he will do the least thing to hurt daddy, after he knows. That's why I'm going to tell him-to save daddy. I love him, Dearie, but I shall not let him know that I do. And I want to hear him say, just once, that he loves me-and then I shall tell him-who I am and who daddy is." She turned half away, then rushed back to throw her arms around her friend's neck. "Darling Dearie, I know I am hurting you! But won't you trust me about this, and love me just the same? I know I am doing the best thing for daddy-and-after to-day, I'm never going to see Curtis Conrad again!"

Louise fell back, exhausted, as Lucy kissed her forehead and ran from the room.

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