Ceiklejohn pushed his chair back so quickly that it caught the fender an_rought down some fire-irons with a crash.
“More nerves!” croaked his grim-visaged relative, but the revolve_isappeared.
“Tell me,” said the tortured Meiklejohn; “why have you returned to New York?
Above all, why did you straightway commit a crime that cannot fail to stir th_hole country?”
“That’s better. You are showing some sort of brotherly interest. I came bac_ecause I was sick of mining camps and boundless sierras. I had a hankerin_fter the old life—the theaters, dinners, race-meetings, wine and women. As to ‘the crime,’ I thought that fool was you. He called for the cops.”
“For the police! Why?”
“Because my line of talk was a trifle too rough, I suppose.”
“Did he know you were there to meet me?”
“Can’t say. The whole thing was over like a flash. I am quick on the trigger.”
“But if you had killed me what other goose would lay golden eggs?”
“You forget that the goose was unwilling to lay any more eggs. I only mean_caring you. To haul you neck and crop into the river was a good scheme. Yo_ee, we haven’t met for some years.”
“Then why—why murder Ronald Tower?”
“There you go again. Murder! How you chew on the word. I never touched th_an, only to haul him into the boat and go through his pockets. I guess he ha_ weak heart, due to over-eating, and the cold water upset him.”
“But you left him in the river?”
“Wrong every time. I chucked him into a barge and covered him tenderly with _arpaulin.”
Meiklejohn sprang upright. “Good God,” he cried, “he may be alive!”
“Sit down, William, sit down,” was the cool response. “If he’s alive, he’l_urn up. In any case, he’ll be found sooner or later. Shout the glad news no_nd you go straight to the Tombs.”
This was obviously so true that the Senator collapsed into his chair again, and in so doing disturbed the fire-irons a second time.
The incident amused the unbidden guest. “I see you won’t be happy till I leav_ou,” he laughed, “so let’s go on with the knitting. That girl—she is becomin_ woman—what is to be done with her?”
“Rachel takes every care—”
“Rachel is excellent in her way. But she is growing old. She may die. The gir_s the living image of her mother. It’s a queer world, and a small one a_imes. For instance, who would have expected your double to walk onto th_errace at the landing-stage at nine o’clock precisely last night? Well, som_ne may recognize the likeness. Inquiries might be instituted. That would b_ery awkward for you.”
“Far more awkward for you.”
“Not a bit of it. I’ve lived with my neck in the loop for eighteen years. I’_etting used to it. But you, William, with your Senatorship and high record i_all Street—really the downfall would be terrible!”
“What can we do with her? Murder her, as you—”
“The devil take you and your parrotlike repetition of one word!” roare_rother Ralph, bringing his clenched fist down on the table with a bang. “_ever laid violent hands on a woman yet, whatever I may have done to men. Wh_as reaped the reward of my misdeeds, I’d like to know—I, an outcast and _anderer, or you, living here like Lord Tomnoddy? None of your preaching t_e, you smug Pharisee! We’re six of one and half a dozen of the other.”
When this self-proclaimed adventurer was really aroused he dropped the roug_rgot of the plains. His diction showed even some measure of culture.
Meiklejohn walked unsteadily to the door. He opened it. There was no one i_he passage without.
“I’m sorry,” he said in a strangely subdued voice. “What do you want? What d_ou suggest?”
“This,” came the instant reply. “It was a piece of folly on Rachel’s part t_ducate the girl the way she did. You stopped the process too late. In a yea_r two Miss Winifred will begin to think and ask questions, if she hasn’t don_o already. She must leave the East—better quit America altogether.”
“Very well. When this affair of Tower’s blows over I’ll arrange it.”
The other man seemed to be somewhat mollified. He lighted a cigarette. “Tha_ope play was sure a mad trick,” he conceded sullenly, “but I thought you wer_utting the cops on my trail.”
A bell rang and the Senator started. Many callers, mostly reporters, had bee_urned away by Phillips already that day, but brother Ralph’s untimely visi_ad made the position peculiarly dangerous. Moreover, the valet’s protests ha_roved unavailing this time. The two heard his approaching footsteps.
Meiklejohn’s care-worn face turned almost green with fright, and even hi_ardier companion yielded to a sense of peril. He leaped up, moving catlike o_is toes.
“Where does that door lead to?” he hissed, pointing.
“A bedroom. But I’ve given orders—”
“You dough-faced dub, don’t you see you create suspicion by refusing to mee_eople? And, listen! If this is a cop, bluff hard! I’ll shoot up the whol_ureau before they get me!”
He vanished, moving with a silence and celerity that were almost uncanny in s_uge a man. Phillips knocked and thrust his head in. He looked scared ye_rofoundly relieved.
“Mr. Tower to see you, sir,” he said breathlessly.
“What?” shrieked the Senator in a shrill falsetto.
“Yes, sir. It’s Mr. Tower himself, sir.”
“H’lo, Bill!” came a familiar voice. “Here I am! No spook yet, than_oodness!”
Meiklejohn literally staggered to the door and nearly fell into Ronald Tower’_rms. Of the two men, the Senator seemed nearer death at that moment. H_lubbered something incoherent, and had to be assisted to a chair. Even Towe_as astonished at the evident depth of his friend’s emotion.
“Cheer up, old sport!” he cried affectionately. “I had no notion you felt s_adly about my untimely end, as the newspapers call it. I tried to get you o_he phone, but you were closed down, the exchange said, so Helen packed me of_ere when she was able to sit up and take nourishment. Gad! Even my wife seem_o have missed me!”
Many minutes elapsed before Senator Meiklejohn’s benumbed brain coul_ssimilate the facts of a truly extraordinary story. Tower, after bein_hisked so unceremoniously into the Hudson, remembered nothing further unti_e opened his eyes in numb semi-consciousness in the cubbyhole of a tu_lodding through the long Atlantic rollers off the New Jersey coast.
When able to talk he learned that the captain of the tug _Cygnet_ , havin_eceived orders to tow three loaded barges from a Weehawken pier to Barnega_ity, picked up his “job” at nine-thirty the previous night, and dropped dow_he river with the tide. In the early morning he was amazed by the sight of _an crawling from under the heavy tarpaulin that sheeted one of the barges—_an so dazed and weak that he nearly fell into the sea.
“Cap’ Rickards slowed up and took me aboard,” explained Tower volubly. “The_e filled me with rock and rye and packed me in blankets. Gee, how they smelt, but how grateful they were! What between prime old whiskey inside and greas_ool outside I dodged a probable attack of pneumonia. When the _Cygnet_ tie_p at Barnegat at noon to-day I was fit as a fiddle. Cap’ Rickards rigged m_ut in his shore-going suit and lent me twenty dollars, as that pair o_lackguards in the launch had robbed me of every cent. They even took _rooked sixpence I found in London twenty years ago, darn ’em! I phoned Helen, of course, but didn’t realize what a hubbub my sad fate had created until _ead a newspaper in the train. When I reached home poor Helen was so out o_ear that she hadn’t told a soul of my escape. I do believe she hardl_ccepted my own assurance that I was still on the map. However, when I got he_almed down a bit, she remembered you and the rest of the excitement, so _honed the detective bureau and the club, and came straight here.”
“That is very good of you, Tower,” murmured Meiklejohn brokenly. He looked i_ar worse plight than the man who had survived such a desperate adventure.
“Well, my dear chap, I was naturally anxious to see you, because—but perhap_ou don’t know that those scoundrels meant to attack you, not me?”
Meiklejohn smiled wanly. “Oh, yes,” he said. “The police found that out b_ome means. I believe the authorities actually suspected me of being concerne_n the affair.”
Tower laughed boisterously. “That’s the limit!” he roared. “Come with me t_he club. We’ll soon spoil that yarn. What a fuss the papers made! I’m quite _elebrity.”
“I’ll follow you in half an hour. And, look here, Tower, this matter di_eally affect me. There was a woman in the case. I butted into an old feu_erely as a friend. I think matters will now be settled amicably. Allow me t_ake good your loss in every way. If you can persuade the police that th_hole thing was a hoax—”
For the first time Tower looked non-plussed. He was enjoying the notoriet_hrust on him so unexpectedly.
“Well, I can hardly do that,” he said. “But if I can get them to drop furthe_nquiries I’ll do it, Meiklejohn, for your sake. Gee! Come to look at you, yo_ust have had a bad time… . Well, good-by, old top! See you later. Suppose w_ine together? That will help dissipate this queer story as to you being mixe_p in an attack on me. Now, I must be off and play ghost in the club smoking- room.”
Meiklejohn heard his fluttering man-servant let Tower out. He tottered to _hair, and Ralph Voles came in noiselessly.
“Well, what about it?” chuckled the reprobate. “We seem to have struck i_ucky.”
“Go away!” snarled the Senator, goaded to a sudden rage by the other man’_ynical humor. “I can stand no more to-day.”
“Oh, take a pull at this!” And the decanter was pushed across the table.
“Didn’t Dr. Johnson once say that claret is the liquor for boys, port for men, but he who aspires to be a hero should drink brandy? And you must be a her_o-night. Get onto the Bureau and use the soft pedal. Then beat it to th_lub. You and Tower ought to be well soused in an hour. He’s a good sport, al_ight. I’ll mail him that sixpence if it’s still in my pants.”
“Do nothing of the sort!” snapped Meiklejohn. “You’re—”
“Ah, cut it out! Tower wants plenty to talk about. His crooked sixpence wil_ill many an eye, and the more he spiels the better it is for you. Gee, bu_ou’re yellow for a two-hundred pounder! Now, listen! Make those cops drop al_harges against Rachel. Then, in a week or less, I’ll come along and fi_hings about the girl. She’s the fly in the amber now. Mind she doesn’t ge_ut, or the howl about Mr. Ronald Tower’s trip to Barnegat won’t amount to _ow of beans against the trouble pretty Winifred can give you. _Dios!_ It’s _ity. She’s a real beauty, and that’s more than any one can say for you, Brother William.”
The big man swaggered out. Meiklejohn drank no spirits. He needed a clea_rain that evening. After deep self-communing he rang up police headquarter_nd inquired for Mr. Clancy.
“Mr. Clancy is out,” he was told by some one with a strong, resonant voice.
“Anything we can do, Senator?”
“About that poor woman, Rachel Craik—”
“Oh, she’s all right! She gave us a farewell smile two hours ago.”
“You mean she is at liberty?”
“May I ask to whom I am speaking?”
“Steingall, Chief of the Bureau.”
“This wretched affair—it’s merely a family squabble between Miss Craik and _elative—might well end now, Mr. Steingall.”
“That is for Mr. Tower and Mr. Van Hofen to decide.”
“Yes, I quite understand. I have seen Mr. Tower, and he shares my opinion.”
“Just so, Senator. At any rate, the yacht mystery is almost cleared up.”
“I agree with you most heartily.”
For the first time in nearly twenty-four hours Senator Meiklejohn looke_ontented with life when he hung up the receiver. Therefore, it was well fo_is peace of mind that he could not hear Steingall’s silent comment as he, i_urn, disconnected the phone.
“That old fox agreed with me too heartily,” he thought. “The yacht mystery i_nly just beginning—or I’m a Dutchman!”