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THE PEACOCK FAN

 

CHAPTER I

 

Condemned to Hang!

 

Gordon Highsmith, pacing the floor of the big white­washed death cell of Capital City’s Municipal Jail and Prison, and listening, as he paced, to the clock ticking inexorably away in his ears, realized that he was tonight in a bad, bad spot indeed! Visible to him, through the long vertical cagelike iron bars which, with their single contained gate of like bars, made up the entire corridor wall of his cell, as he turned now and again in his pacing over the hard cement floor, was the big pendulum clock itself, affixed to the blank wall opposite. And its black hands, etched starkly against its white-enameled face by the brilliant corridor lights that rendered the big square cell itself almost as light as day, and now pointing to 5 minutes after 8 in the evening, meant that he had but 4 hours and 25 minutes of life left, since, at exactly half past midnight, the mechanical hanging machine which became unleashed—or sprung! —automatically by the minute-hand of an electric clock contacting a globule of mercury at the lowest point of its arc, was destined to swing its victim—in this case, Gordon Highsmith!—upward with sufficient of a jerk to break his neck completely; and if not, to stun him into unconsciousness the while he strangled slowly to death.

And though Gordon Highsmith was innocent of the crime for which he was to be thus jerked into space—and into Eternity, too—the Highest Court in the state had nevertheless declared that he had been rightfully convicted: the Governor of the state—in this case, a woman!—had sternly refused to commute sentence or even to delay execution. And now Gordon Highsmith waited—and paced—and paced—and waited—paced—paced—paced—waited —waited—waited—the while that clock on the wall facing the bars of his cell, being non-electric like the “trigger” clock of the hanging machine, ticked—ticked—ticked away the remaining minutes of his life.

From the brightly rejecting whitewashed stone rear wall of the cell, facing those vertical iron bars, swung a wooden bunk, by a single heavy chain at each end; but it was a bunk that was sans bedcovering—from which a suicide noose could be fashioned!—and sans even pillow—for the same reason! Drawn up close to the bunk, though slightly swung aside just now, was a narrow heavy bench, on the nearer side of which sat a capacious armchair. And on the bench were playing cards, still laid out where Gordon Highsmith and the guard, who had been delegated to sit with him, on this his last night, had essayed a hasty hand or two, Gordon Highsmith seated on the edge of the bunk—the guard in the latter’s big armchair. But the guard himself, summoned a few minutes ago by a bell in the corridor outside, was now absent. And Gordon Highsmith stopped his pacing, at least long enough to face those tall vertical bars—to seize two, that comprised part of the door segment—to draw himself far up on tiptoe, in his soft leather laceless slippers—to press his face through an opening between—and to survey himself in the glass wall of that tall boxlike clock, which he was able to do by virtue of the reflection of the bright corridor lights.

He saw only a young fellow of about 30, clad in a coarse tan blouselike shirt, sans buttons, sans even opening to be buttoned, and cut low in the neck so as not to interfere with the hanging machine!—beltless and suspenderless blue cotton trousers held firmly up thanks only to the way they fastened tightly above their wearer’s hipbones—slender thin hands clenched fiercely, bloodlessly, against bars—face grim, drawn, tense, and white, and made even more so by the now cavernous blue-grey eyes that gazed fearfully forth—and hair so blond that it scarcely registered in the glass clock face. He saw—

But now, as the sound of a heavy door unlocking somewhere echoed loudly in the isolated corridor, Gordon Highsmith pulled his attention from the dreadful picture of himself and peered, first, down the narrow passageway left­ward—then up it rightward. Downward, however, revealed nothing more than that stretch along which he must pass at 25 minutes after 12 tonight—that 100-foot-long strip of cement floor hemmed in all the way between grim stone walls, and terminating in that single heavy blackpainted door marked, in white letters, “Execution Room,” with the one tiny green light burning over it even now; while upward—as the sound of a door being re-locked now filled the air—revealed scarcely as much—nothing, in fact, but a rightangled bend in the corridor, about 50 feet from the death cell, and beyond which nothing could be seen, but from which, thus far tonight, had emanated the only interruptions that broke this death vigil; and around which bend, at this very moment, came a man in a blue uniform with brass buttons, and a stiff cap.

It was McCleary, the death watch returning!

He was at the death cell 15 seconds later. A huge man, Mike McCleary, with arms like a gorilla’s, great hamlike hands covered with curling black hair, a thatch of bright red made even redder because of his little blue eyes; and a flat homely map that was nearly all freckles; Gordon had always liked him. McCleary did not, however, re-enter the death cell as Gordon hurriedly let loose of the bars so that the hinged segment could be unlocked and swung open, but came up close to the bars where the condemned man stood.

“Gordon, me bye,” he said kindly, “there be two p’aple in th’ office who want to see ye—an’ both, so the warden says, hov a roight to see ye—an’ ye them!—an’ they are two av th’ only three persons in the wur-rld ye can see now, Gordon. Five—no four—hours befure—befure—” He didn’t try to finish. “Wan is Brother Bonyface, yer spir’tal consoler, and the ither is—”

“Yes, Mike?—yes?” And Gordon Highsmith seized the bars again and leaned tensely forward. “The other—”

“The ither is—” And the guard’s voice dropped with awe. “—is Maddock Kincheloe, th’ gra-atest ixpert on U. S. Fid’ral law in the wur-rld—don’t tell me, bye, that ye hov some fid’ral angle by which ye moight porrs’bly git a new thrial, an’—”

“No, Mike. I don’t tell you that—no!—because I—don’t even know that I have it. For that’s something that only Maddock Kincheloe can tell. And that’s—that’s why I’ve shot the last cent I’ve got in the world—to bring him–and—”

“Lane closter t’ me,” ordered the guard troubledly, “till Oi sniff yer brith.”

Gordon Highsmith did lean forward. And breathed gently outward.

The other nodded. “ ’Tis ahl roight. I wuz afr’id that that dhrink av brandy I slipped ye, just befure Oi slipped out, moight smill a bit—and that this Brother Bonyface moight–”

“Brother Boniface wouldn’t do anything about it, Mike—nor tell anybody, either. For he’s my friend—my best friend on earth—as well as the man who’s—who’s going to take—to take that last walk with me—to—I mean,” Gordon Highsmith broke off desperately, “that 1 year or so ago he wasn’t Brother Boniface—he was like you—and like me— of this world. And he—but besides, Mike, that bitter-tasting drug you put into that drink to bolster up my nerve a bit must act as—as a deodorant—or something.”

The guard colored beet red.

“Ye—ye knew?”

“Yes—immediately I took it. It tasted—so much off. And then, while I was pacing up and down a minute ago, I suddenly felt calmer—my imagination, that is, seemed to—to dull a bit—so far as that damned—” He tossed his head toward the clock. And then found that he was by no means devoid of all imagination thanks to any simple drug, for imagination flooded back fearfully for a second. Then, happily—left—in part—thanks to that heaven-sent drink.

“A docthor fri’nd au mine gave me the wan dose, Gordon,” the guard explained. “Consistin’ av but six dhrops. ‘Tis th’ jooce av a Sout’ Amer’can weed—called Samary weed—what th’ savages used to give to the p’aple they were about to burn at the sta—” He broke off quickly. “I felt sorry fer ye—not knowin’ the pl’asures o’ tobaccy—in a toime like this—I can’t understand this allygery business ye towld me about. But no mind! The point is that wan dose of that jooce will kape ye a thousand times calmer than ye would have b’en itherwise, till—” And again he broke off, more embarras­sedly than the first time.

“But,” he changed the subject hurriedly, “the quistion now is, Gordon: w’ich av these two min would ye have come to ye furst?”

Gordon found himself able actually to study on that question.

“We-ell—since I haven’t seen Oliv—that is, now Brother Boniface—since the tragedy, I—I must see him a minute—if only to bolster myself up further. Tell you what you do, Mike. Send in Ol—Brother Boniface—yes—telling him I want only to greet him now—to have just a few words through the bars here—and tell Kincheloe that he’ll be let in in only 3 minutes.”

“Okay, Gordon—so be it.”

And McCleary left, passing quickly out of sight around the right angle in that corridor.

Gordon Highsmith walked slowly up and down the cell. But, he noticed now, he no longer paced! And about 2 min­utes passed. And then, after more unlocking and locking of doors, McCleary returned, at his elbow a man in a brown robe like a monk, and heavily cowled, the robe itself being lapped around its wearer’s middle by a braided leathern cord, round and thick like a rope. No gold and jewel-studded crucifix hung suspended from this newcomer’s shoulders; the only adornment to his simple robe—outside of the wonder­fully braided leathern rope—was a starkly simple wooden cross, about 6 inches in length, and made of some pithy and therefore extremely lightweighing wood, for, held to his garment at the breast by a wooden ring in its top, slipped over—so that, no doubt, it could be removed instantly for various religious manipulations—some hooklike appendage sewed into the garment, it pulled down scarcely at all on the brown cloth from which it hung. He was a man of about 44 years of age—his face thin, with tired grey-green eyes—and as he threw back the cowl that covered his head, the better no doubt to see—and perhaps in this case to be seen!—it could be noted that his head was shaved on top like a Capuchin monk, leaving a ring of hair around a perfectly circular bald spot.

“Gordon!” he exclaimed, manifestly in extreme pain. He had stepped forward, was seizing both of Gordon’s hands through the bars. “How—how—how—”

“—am I feeling, Oliver? Well—I’m standing up, dear fellow—don’t you see? Thanks to—” But Gordon Highsmith quickly dropped that line of explanation. And surveyed the man who had been his friend back in those happier days when Nina was alive—Nina, for whose murder Gordon Highsmith was to hang tonight—Nina who had—

“God—but it’s so good to see you, Oliver,” Gordon Highsmith was saying. “It’s been such a nightmare—”

“Then let me in, dear fellow,” the other ordered. He turned to the guard. Raised a commanding hand—a hand whose third finger was graced by a simple ascetic-looking hand-carved black onyx ring. “Guard, unlock, please, for me, so that—”

“Wait, Oliver.” This from the man inside that cell. “The reason I’m not having you let in yet is because there’s another visitor out there who should—who absolutely must! —be seen first. But I did want a few words with you first—if only like this. I—I guess I wanted to convince myself, Oliver, that you were here—in the prison—in flesh and blood! For I really was afraid, Oliver—I was!—I swear it—in spite of your telegram from Metropolis Heights reaching my cell late last night—and your confirmatory letter this morning—I was still afraid—that you—you might not come—might not be willing to be with me—in my last minutes—to—to take that last walk—” He tossed his head leftward to indicate that 100-foot stretch of corridor. “—to the—the hanging machine with me?”

He was surprised how calmly now he was able to mention that device which, but a little while back, had seemed so horrible to him.

The other shuddered.

“Whether,” he said, painedly, “I would have been willing or not, dear fellow, you may rest assured that Uncle Gregory —who even thus far has contributed so generously to my order—would have insisted on that! He made it quite clear, indeed, in two long wires he sent last night from Capital City here, after he saw the stor—er—that is, he made it quite clear. In two long wires he sent last night. One to me, and one to the Father Superior. It was quite evident from these wires that Uncle Gregory’s prospective gift of $350,000 would be cancelled completely. That $350,000 of course was an en­largement of his original prospective gift of $250,000 with which he designed to perpetuate his name as part of the order—and through which I was to be made Father Superior. Yes, the wires made it clear that the whole gift project would be cancelled completely—unless I—I lived up to my obligations as a man of the order—and came here to Capital City to be with you—at the end.”

“And all because, Oliver,” Gordon said ruefully, “of my statement to the thirsty reporters, yesterday noon, that I wanted Brother Boniface for my spiritual consoler—Brother Boniface of the Order of the Holy Nail. Perhaps I shouldn’t have revealed even that much to the newspaper chaps, Oliver, but they always, you know, have come to my cell every day at noon for news, and they—”

The other stemmed Gordon’s self-recriminations. “Now, now, Gordon—that is quite all right. What else could you do—with newspapermen badgering the life out of you? Anyway, you can’t be sure it was the interview you gave—”

“Oh yes I can: because I received a wire from your uncle—I, also, Oliver—a local wire that he was kind enough to send me to my cell here last night, in which he told me that my statement got into yesterday afternoon’s papers. He even confirmed it with a letter which I received this morning.”

“Well,” said the other, “so far as the notoriety, great heavens, dear fellow, the larger story that had appeared here in Capital City the day before—with my picture in it, as I was when I was layman!—and about my now shortly forth-coming assumption of the Father Superiorship of this order down in Metropolis—why, the poor little story involving you—did me no harm. Uncle Gregory did, however—as it seems you know—see that little story immediately, and he realized that if the order failed—failed in this slight thing—it would become a joke in the eyes of the public. He told the old Father Superior—us all—and me!—pointedly, in his wires, that I must carry through.”

“But, Oliver,” Gordon put in confidently, “you would have come anyway, that I know—because after all, in you I have spiritual consoler and friend—instead of just spiritual consoler!”

“Of course,” said the other hurriedly, “I would have come. And thank the Power above us that, being a member of a religious order, even of sorts, I can, as friend, be with you.” He looked exceedingly shaken. It was obvious that he had never participated in anything even remotely like this before. But had steeled himself. “I would have come, Gordon,” he resumed, “if for no other reason on earth than that I have never seen you—though at your own request, don’t forget!—since that horrible ni—” He could not finish.

“Yes, I know. But that was my own wish. For with all the preparations that had been made for you to enter the monastery that night outside of Metropolis—for your year’s seclusion—preparatory to being a full-fledged member of this old order—and thus, later, its Father Superior—I did not wish to involve you. Perhaps even more, to wreck your Uncle Gregory’s plans that were so dear to his heart.”

“But, dear fellow,” the older man expostulated helplessly, “I could have entered—at a later date—”

“What later date?” interpolated Gordon. “One entire year! Since your entrance—the entrance of any new member—had to be, by the very laws of the order, on an anniversary of its founding. No, Oliver, you would have been drawn into my trial, as a witness—of sorts—and a year’s delay would have resulted. And absolutely futilely, I assure you. For what you could have testified to could only have hurt me anyway. And so it was really for the best that I urged you to complete what you—and your people—and your uncle—and the order itself—had made all preparations for.” He surveyed the other. Who was indeed shaken. “Well, Oliver, as I say, I asked the guard here to fetch you, for the time being, for only a minute. And now I—I am going to send you back. Till, that is, I have transacted some business. Business that may take up many minutes. But which will come—to an end—soon enough. And I—but have they shown you yet, Oliver, to the place—where you can wait—other than in the prison office! I ask this because they assured me positively—back when I first decided to ask for you—that under no circumstances—in case any temporary delays or complications came up where you could not be right in with me here—would you have to sit about in the open office, amongst people like politicians and jail hangers-on and so forth, ever coming and going: I mean, Oliver, that they assured me positively that there was a little room somewhere in the prison—a little room used only to house some overhead steam pipes, holding cut-off valves for outside municipal buildings—and electric meters, for the same purpose—a little room that, because it wasn’t in practical use at any time, had been converted into a little cell—a praying cell, that is—where—”

The other had essayed an unhappy smile. “There is a little room, Gordon, exactly such as you describe, for the spiritual consoler. Indeed, the warden showed it to me, first of all, when I arrived. It is a little windowless room far from everything else in the prison. Practically a cell—yes. Where we—the clergyman, or priest, or brother, or whatever it may be—can be solely by ourself. With magazines in it—a huge Bible—a shrine—whatnot. I will be quite okay till you take care of—but what have you in mind, boy? They tell me that you can see nobody now but a representative of a religious faith or the member of a religious order—or a lawyer; though they did say that such lawyer could function for you either in and on your case—or solely to execute, for you, a will. This man, then, is—a lawyer?”

“Yes, Oliver.”

“You are then—changing your will?—in somebody’s favor? I hope not to the favor of the order, though, for we shall be ever so well-to-do next week when I become Father Sup—”

“Oliver, dear fellow,” Gordon interrupted with a wan smile, “the very little that I could leave your order now—which would be only a feeble trickle of royalties earned by my book in the royalty period from October 1st last year to October 1st this year—and which corresponds almost to the period I’ve been incarcerated here—well, that sum would not, from what little I have been able to get out of my publishers’ correspondence to me, buy one of your order his dry bread for a year! For my alleged crime—from all I have been able to gather from my publishers—has badly hurt the sale of my book. And if—if it is to be, moreover, that I—I am to be executed, the stock on hand will, so also I gather, be remaindered—oh, even from the remaindering there will be a few hundred dollars in reduced royalties—and those indeed, I shall, if I must go, arrange to leave—to somebody. For as you know, Oliver, I have nobody even remotely related to me to the 6th degree, and in this state a man’s estate reverts to the State in that case. And most anybody—can use a few hundred dollars—better than the State’s politicians! And I shall take—am taking—the proper steps. But as to your words, Oliver, about ‘altering my will’—why—in all my life and all my days, Oliver, I never made a will of any kind—either holographic or any other way. So whatever I may yet do tonight in the matter of wills, it will assuredly be not the changing of any will! But you ask about this particular lawyer—now waiting to come in. He is the highest Federal law expert in the United States. And, consequently, the world. Maddock Kincheloe. And I’m offering him a flat retainer and fee of $1000—to see if he can find—and act upon—a single loophole by which to delay this thing.”

Oliver Vane was puzzledly—but also significantly!—silent.

And Gordon Highsmith knew well that Oliver, who had not always been a member of the Brothers of the Nail, but who had once been of that world that he, Gordon—and Nina—and other life-and-laughter-loving people had been in—had taken enough of that world inside the monastery walls to know that chances to find a Federal angle—outlet—call it what it might be called—in this case were very slim. And Gordon knew, too, that Oliver Vane was refraining from arguing with a virtually dead man.

“And so, Oliver,” the younger man now said, “having seen you for these few preliminary minutes—I feel thousands relieved—like a new man—I feel able to put my case up to Kincheloe—with some degree of capability—only, damn it—but forgive me, Oliver—swear words are not of your life now, are they?—well I only want to say that I—I don’t like it that you are so shaken. Your face is drawn, and white. I—I wouldn’t have wished this on you at all if I’d known—”

“Say not so, Gordon,” the other stated hastily. “Duty—in a religion—even such as ours—is duty. And friendship—is friendship. There can be quite no arguments in a case like this—involving you and me.”

McCleary, standing by, listening to the conversation with mouth agape, now cleared his throat, and spoke, embar­rassedly.

“Gor-rdon,” he said, “Oi want to say som’thin’ to ye here. This Kinchyloe is a very contempt’is man—overbearin’, if you get me. A great legal expert—an’ conse’kwently a dis­dainful man. It is now half past 8—ye have conversed with Brither Boniface far longer than ye thought to do!—and so ye have made Kinchyloe wait not the three minut’s ye sint wur-rd to him ye would—but full twinty minut’s at laste. An’ Oi fear, Gor-rdon, thot if it’s made to wait too long he is, that he—he moight walk out on ye! Fer ye see,” McCleary explained troubledly, “he’s—he’s a mon what don’t care fer money. Since he has plen-nty. And since, Gor’rdon, Kinchy­loe is th’ only chanct ye have in this wur-rld tonight, I—I siggest that ye—don’t make him wait anny longer!”

“You’re right, Mike, dear fellow. Oliver—will you retire to that little cell you spoke of now—to return to me after Kincheloe has gone? And Mike—bring Kincheloe—but wait, Mike—I suppose my old cell—in the regular prisoners’ wing opening into the corridor around that upper bend there—isn’t—cleaned out yet?”

“No, Gordon. We niver disturrb thim—till it’s all—all—all—”

“Yes, I understand. All over. Well, will you step over into that wing—and into my old cell—and fetch me a certain one of the two copies of my own book that are lying on the shelf there? For Kincheloe may want to know the source of the money that’s being paid to him.”

“Av coorse, Gordon. But w’ich wan of the said two will ye be wishin’? Or maybe it’s wantin’, ye are now, the wan tied two ways wit’ black sthring, w’ich ye enthrusted to me f’r—”

“No, not that one yet, Mike. Because I still want that one only at the moment I told you, and providing that—”

“Yis, I know. Well, I hov it safe—an’ ’twill be made avail’ble to ye—at th’ moment ye di-rected.”

“That’s good. Then, Mike, of the two copies now in that cell, bring me the blank one—the one, I mean, which contains no autograph. And the one that is autographed—which I autographed just before noontime today—leave right there on the shelf.”

“I’ll fetch the wan ye want to wanct, Gordon. Sthay here, fer the prisint, Brither Boniface.”

And the big guard was gone.

He could be heard, now, unlocking a door that lay just around the corridor bend. Sounds of a well-occupied jail wing immediately entered the quiet corridor where the death cell stood—then, by the almost immediate closing of that same and apparently soundproof door, were blotted as completely out as though they had never existed.

Gordon spoke. “Oliver, that black-string-tied copy Mike spoke of is scheduled to be entrusted to you—in case I—I don’t beat this affair. And I want you to give it—if you don’t mind doing that—to a certain poor devil of a newspaper-woman of Metropolis, named Caroline Make—an elderly broken-down creature who has to free-lance for a living—she’ll call for it, down there at the monastery at Metropolis—and the copy contains, marked by my own fountain pen, what I deem are the—the 3 best—well, they’re my favorite 3 items in the book!—my own book—and I’ve marked them—and so stated, on the flyleaf, over my own signature—that they are such—so that poor Caroline Make can get a sort of a—a feature story out of it—in case I—I lose out. Will you turn it over to her—when she contacts you?”

“Why, of course, Gordon,” Oliver Vane returned. “But why didn’t you have the guard bring it now?”

“Because, after all, Oliver, I haven’t lost out—yet! He’ll bring it, all right, later tonight—if. Now forget it—please.” Oliver Vane was puzzledly silent. Then spoke. Nervously unclinching his long lean fingers. “How—how on earth, Gordon—if the royalties of the book became so slack—did you obtain such a huge sum—as one thousand dollars—out of it?”

“By selling the entire world-translation and world-publication rights, Oliver—exclusive, of course, of America and Great Britain. The International Book Syndicate offered that price outright—in lieu of royalties and all that—and since I was virtually a dead man, I wasn’t interested in royalties. So I took it.” Silence—painful, distressing silence —fell between the two men. And it was Gordon Highsmith who broke it. “Have any further complications arisen, Oliver —at the monastery—about the existence in your life—of Hexlitha Sequard?”

“How could there be,” returned the other gravely, “when I have not seen her for, veritably, a lifetime!”

“But I remember one incident, Oliver—when you feared she might wreck your entering your order? With an injunc­tion?”

The thin-faced man had colored a beet red.

“My—my fears, that time, were ridiculous. I know that now. Utterly, utterly ridiculous. But, having now actually entered the order—all the injunctions in the world could not prevent it now.

“Of course not! And I don’t believe one person could enjoin another—from entering a religious order. Moreover, she wouldn’t have enjoined you—I am sure she wouldn’t. But has the Father Superior—made any insistence—on trying to find—or advertise for—her.’ ”

The other shook his head. “No, Gordon. According to the laws of my order, my not having seen her—much less lived with her—for twice the legal period of presumed death—and which period in this state is 7 years—and great heavens, boy, I lived with her only 3 weeks as it was!—and then again her leaving me—instead of I her—all because of—well, I guess it was motion-picture ambition—stage ambition—something like that—no, Gordon, I am, in the eyes of my order, just the same as not married. In brief, Hexlitha—so far as we are concerned—is dead.”

“But if—if she came back—what!” Gordon wondered why this trivial and hypothetical problem should fascinate him tonight. Tonight—of all nights. But he did not realize how peculiarly drugs can sometimes work!

“If she came back,” replied the robed man gravely, “before I became Father Superior, I could not become such. Because in that case I would be merely ecclesiastically divorced—separated—call it what you will. I could still be a brother—as I am now—yes!—but not the Father. If she came back—after I became Father—it could not affect my being such—for under our rules—I become another person—once I am he. But she will not come back—certainly not before next week, when I do become the Father—and after that—but oh, Gordon, what foolish things—we are concerning ourselves with—on this terrible night. Let’s—let’s drop that supposition. Hexlitha won’t came back. For she is—must be—dead. And now—”

“But is she really—do you think?”

The robed man gazed helplessly at the convicted man. And then, as one suddenly realizing that the less the man back of those bars thought of himself—the better for all—he gently took up the discussion.

“Well, now that—that so foolish consternation that I—I had back there—is past—dissolved like a mist in the summer sun—as I pray to God this thing facing you will be—in the sun of this man Kincheloe’s wisdom—I believe firmly—that Hexlitha is dead. For after all, boy, I have scanned motion-picture magazines off and on for years—stage magazines.

And seen nobody—in character parts—or otherwise—resembling her.”

“But would you even know her today?” queried Gordon pointedly.

“To be frank, I’m afraid I would not,” the older man admit­ted. “I was so young, remember, when I married—Hexlitha. And I did it, as now I realize, because she resembled my mother—rather, pictures of my mother—so considerably. It—”

“I know—I know, That is why—so often—we marry women we perhaps really should not. But I do think that someday, Oliver—regardless of what happens to me—to-night—your path will cross that of Hexlitha’s. Oh, don’t look downcast, old friend—it won’t affect you, then—you will be Father Superior—nothing can then demote you—but her path will cross yours—I know it. It will cross yours—in some strange and dramatic way. And when it happens, look back, Oliver, on this night—and poor Gordon Highsmith—who told you—”

“Now—now! You mustn’t—but why do you think this, boy?”

“Because the—the law—back of the Scheme of Life—is Irony itself. She may come to you—broken at the wheel—there in the monastery—to—to give forth some weird confession—and thus will have been effected—a dramatic re-crossing—of your 2 lives!”

“Except that,” Oliver Vane pointed out, almost chidingly, “women are not particularly frequent visitors—at the monastery—having nothing to cause them so to be!—and, on top of that, Gordon, we are not priests, you know—we do not take confessions; we—”

“Forgive me for not considering—those things. I—I shouldn’t have spoken so. And I guess I did so only because my mind tonight seems to demand distraction–to demand—”

Gordon Highsmith stopped.

For a medley of tin cups beating furiously on bars—growls—catcalls—all the sounds of a thickly populated cell row angry because one of its ex-inmates was being “topped” tonight—poured into the quiet silent wing—evidencing McCleary’s return—then stopped, as that perfectly fitting and noiseless door which Gordon had seen but once—that being this noon when he was conducted here—closed out that old world in which he had lived so long. And McCleary was back to the cell bars again. In his huge hand a bright crimson book, about one and a quarter inches thick. Three English words, obviously constituting its title, were imprinted in large letters on its front cover—but were done with a die in such a manner as to seem to have been painted on in vivid black Chinese brush strokes. So, also, in smaller degree, was stamped the so-called backbone of the book, now being held forward to Gordon.

“Here ye are, Gor-rdon. Now I’ll fetch Kinchyloe. An’ come, Brither Boniface—an’ I’ll take ye to the tiny closed room we have fer spirit’al consolers.”

And Oliver Vane, reaching through the bars quietly, wordlessly, to grasp Gordon’s hand, turned, and followed the big guard. And as the two turned the bend—then were heard, a moment later, passing through that ever-locking door from which they had originally come—Gordon Highsmith was alone, his fingers holding that work of his which—so he had authoritatively heard—was the one determining factor which had swung the governor against commuting his sentence to life imprisonment: the production of a quack, she had said it was—as well as murderer!

And he smiled ironically—for lively, in his veins now, surged that precious drug!—as he turned back the cover of the book, then its flyleaf, and then in turn gazed at its printed title page. Which read:

 

THE WAY OUT

A Collection and Collation of All the Wisdom of Ancient China, so Classified and Sub-Classified as to be made Applicable to All sorts of Situations and Categories thereof, and to Prove that the Chinese Have Antedated All Knowledge of All Races of All Ages, and Possess—in the Totality of their Recorded Sayings—the Answers to Every Problem and Question: Moral, Enigmatic, Economic, Sociological, Psychological, Financial, etc. etc.

by

GORDON HIGHSMITH

Researchist in Sinological Literature and

History, and ex-Resident of Shanghai, China.

Copyrighted

[Copyright covers both text and Logical Arrangement]

Price $3.50

(Worth $10)

VINNEDGE BROTHERS, PUBLISHERS

PHILADELPHIA

 

 “The Way Out,” he said bitterly. “Bearing that damned quack line—’worth $10’—that I never put in! The Way Out! If only it were—if only it were.” And in utter desperation of soul he tossed the worthless tome away from him—clear across the cell—where it volplaned, as by some magic, flat atop the outswung bunk.

And from afar, seemingly, he heard a door opening again—recognized it as the same door he had just heard—knew that it heralded the approach of one possible way out!—a way, however, that, as he had been warned, held only the slightest of possibilities, if any at all—a way, moreover, that had been evolved not at all by the Ancient Chinese whose culture he knew so well—but by modern man.

And that “way”—embodied in the person of the great Maddock Kincheloe—was, of course, the curious and devious “intricacies” of Constitutional Law!

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