A Bright Love Story Cornering Mr. Cobb
LIKE the devoted brother and affectionate old bachelor uncle that I am, I was naturally at hand to meet my sister and niece on their return from St. Augustine. They had been away a long-time—three or four months—and I had missed them as much as might an old dog who had been left at home with the servants. They were all the family I had, and when a man is past forty and is beginning to get a little bald and gray, such ties mean more and more to him, and no acquaintance, however wide, can exactly replace them.
That Kitty had been a widow for many years had helped, I suppose, to draw us closer together than is usually the case with middle-aged brothers and sisters, and if I had had a daughter I could scarcely have loved her more than I did my only niece. When I saw Kitty and Viola coming toward me ahead of the stream of passengers, both so pretty in their different ways, and both so animated and charming, I suddenly realized howvery lonely I had been without them and what a joy it was to get them back.
In the confused kissing that followed, with an impatient porter, leaded down with grips, mutely urging us to expedition, I became conscious of a very tall, thin, young man, whose embarrassed smile and arrested manner seemed to imply he. belonged to our party. “Mr. Cobb,” said Kitty, introducing us.
“My uncle, Mr. Williams,” added Viola, in what seemed to me a kinder tone than her mother’s.
I shook hands with Mr. Cobb, who murmured politely that he was delighted to meet me, though his eyes all the while were on Viola’s face and any transports my acquaintance may have oceasionéd him were somewhat concealed by the eager conversation he continued to carry on with her. I caught vaguely that he would be at the Windsor Hotel: that he would telephone at nine; that he would secure the opera seats as soon as he could get them; then, raising his hat, he suddenly departed in a long-legged way after his own porter, who was piling his things into a cab. I was about to ask who he was when Kitty touched me sharply with her elbow, and gave me a warning look to avoid the subject of Mr. Cobb before Viola.
Later, in the taxi, when Viola happened to mention his name, I was stupid enough to repeat my question, and get a second dig in the ribs that recalled my happy infancy, in which the pokes of an elder sister contributed so largely to my upbringing.
‘A delightful young man we met at the hotel in St.
Augustin e,” said Viola, who, fortunately, had riot detected her mother’s signal to me. “Oh, Uncle Hartley, I am just crazy about Mr. Cobb, and so’s Mumsey! Aren’t you, Mumsey dood-
“Oh, yes!” exclaimed Mumsey doedums, with what I thought a certain evasiveness, and an ensuing jump for a fresh topic that hurried us past Mr. Cobb and left him abandoned and forgotten—conversationally. After an absence of four months this was not difficult, especially as for these two it .was a homecoming, -with arrears of domestic history to be brought up to date— including the re-covering of the Sheraton sofa, Mary Ann’s embroilment with the janitor, the missing vacuum nozzle, the fire next door, and other items of palpitating interest. Dinner was awaiting us in the cozy little dining-room of the apartment, and here there was more kissing and enthusiasm and general rapture at being once more under their own roof-tree.
AFTERWARD, when Viola left us to run upstairs and see her chum, Isohel Latimer, who had been' telephoning down repeatedly, and whose impatient ringing and ringing I had found not a little irritating, I lit a cigar and drew up a chair beside that dear sister of mine.
“It’s mighty good to see you back, Kitty,” I said.
“Dear old boy,” she murmured, reaching out a plump hand and giving mine a squeeze. “It’s been a long time, hasn’t it?”
“Yes, indeed it has,” I said, gazing at her affectionately.
“Hartley,” she broke out suddenly, “I am dreadfully worried.”
“Worried?” I repeated, much concerned.
“It’s this Mr. Cobb,” she explained, coloring faintly.
“The young man who was with you at the station?”
“Who is he?”
Kitty sat up.
“That’s what I would give anything to know,” she exclaimed. “He’s a man of mystery—an enigma.”
“My experience with men of mystery,” I observed, “is that they usually end by letting you in for their club bills or something equally expensive or disagreeable. My advice, as a bald-headed brother who has had considerable experience in this vale of tears—would be to put a large piece of distance between yourself and this enigmatic Mr. Cobb.”
“You don’t understand,” said Kitty helplessly. “Viola is awfully taken with him, and it would not surprise me any moment to hear that they were engaged.”
“Engaged! To a man who has no antecedents—why, Kitty, what are you saying?”
“That’s why I am so worried, Hartley, it’s dreadful.” “But is she satisfied to know nothing about him?— a level-headed, clear-sighted girl like Viola to take up with a perfect stranger who may be somebody’s valet?” “She’s in love; they are all lunatics when they are in love; I was no better myself at her age.”
“Tell me all about it,” I demanded. “Right from the beginning, Kitty.”
“Well, there he was at the hotel, with a big yellow motor of his own, and every appearance of being a most correct and eligible young man—und when Viola made his acquaintance at a dance and seemed to take to him tremendously, I folded my hands and thought: ‘Bless you, my children.’ Viola is twenty-five and of course it must happen sooner or latei*, mustn’t it? After that they played out together all the time. At first, quite innocently, I asked him a few questions about himself, and only realized by degrees how cleverly he slipped out of answering them. Then, when I pressed Viola about him, she flared up as girls do and almost bit my head off. They are all tiger-cats if they think you are trying to take awfey their young man.” “But surely she understood your natural feeling of responsibility?” I said.
‘‘/^IRLS in love never understand anything,” she ^-'replied with conviction. “They pay about as much attention to fathers and mothers as a runaway horse does to a shrieking driver—the more you yell the faster they run.”
“If I had been you I would have traced down the person who vouched for him in the first place.”
“That’s precisely what I did; a Mrs. Gilbert introduced him, and she referred me back to helhusband, who referred me back—to one of the hotel clerks! Then I looked over the register and found he came from Walton, Massachusetts.”
“Well, that’s all right. It will only take me two days
to get a line on him; I will ask our credit man to-”
“But, listen, Hartley, listen.”
“There isn’t any Walton in Massachusetts!”
“Are you sure, Kitty?”
“Sure—of course I am sure! I looked it up in two different atlases. There ai-e fifteen Waltons, but none of them in Massachusetts, and it was written quite plain—M-a-s-s.”
“By George,” I exclaimed, “it does lock black, doesn’t it?” *
“It couldn’t be worse, Hartley—it simply couldn’t.” “It was foolish of you not to have had it out with Viola—not to have nipped it in the bud the moment you suspected this fellow.”
TF'ITTY is a soft, round, helpless little person, and she looked softer, rounder and more helpless than ever as I reproached her.
“I—I tried to,” she quavered.
“Yet you allowed this man to come up with you on the train?”
“I—I couldn’t help that,” she whimpered, with suffusing eyes. “I couldn’t stop him buying a ticket, could I?”
“You ought to have asserted yourself. Any woman— any mother-—with the slightest sense and knowledge of the world, would have asserted herself.”
“I—I tried to,” she wailed.
“Even a chicken will fight for its young,” I went on angrily. “Even a worm will fight for its wormlets; yet you meekly tolerated this scamp, this valet, maybe, this possible bigamist and scoundrel, and couldn’t think of doing anything-more than wringing your hands.”
“I—I was afraid of Viola,” she gasped out through her sobs. “She acts as though she were engaged to him and doesn’t allow me to open my mouth. It’s all very well to talk about c-c-chickens, but what could I do?”
I thought for a while in silence, puffing hard at my cigar.
“He is at the Windsor Hotel,” I said at last. “I’ll drop in on Mr. Cobb to-morrow and then we’ll see what he has to say to the man of the family.”
Kitty looked up gratefully.
“Oh, what a comfort you are, Hartley,” she exclaimed. “I was trying to nerve myself all the time to send for you, but I just couldn’t. Yes—that’s the best thing—for you to see him, and take that attitude—the man of the family and all that. I can’t help thinking he is some dreadful kind of impostor.”
“I’ll know for sure to-morrow,” I said. “I’ll know to-morrow if I have to stand him on his head.”
JUDGED it wiser not to telephone beforehand. Forewarning such an ambiguous young man might result in his keeping out of my way. 1 got to the hotel a little after midday, and made up my mind to remain there until I had cornered Mr. Cobb. On going to the desk to inquire for the number of his room the clerk stopped me smilingly before I was half through.
“Oh, if it’s Mr. Cobb you want,” he said, “he is right over there in that chair.”
Sure enough there was my man, with his long legs stretched out, and a neglected morning paper in his lap. Even in his careless attitude he looked a verypresentable young fellow, and I noticed the excellent cui of his clothes, as well as his pleasant, unconcerned expression. I had a sudden misgiving that I might be making a fool of myself, and rapidly edited the remarks with which I had intended opening the engagement. But before going over to him, 1 asked to have a glance at the register, and suddenly bristled with renewed suspicion as I read the entry: Mont ginnery
J. Cobb, Walton, Marx. I had already confirmed the fact that there was no Walton, Mass.
“I beg your pardon,” I began, as suavely as I was able, “I am Mr. Hartley Williams—Mrs. Trudell’s brother—whom perhaps you will recall meeting last right.”
Mr. Cobb sprang up and shook hands with the most unruffled assurance. Indeed, assurance was evidently this young man’s long suit. It was only in his eyes, those blue, rather protuberant eyes—-that I could detect the least hint of discomposure.
“I am a business man,” I said, “and you will excuse me if I come to the point without any preambles or beating about the bush?”
He nodded amiably.
“Circumstances demand that I should know something about you,” I continued. “A frank understanding between us would help materially.”
“Help what?” he inquired.
The subdued impertinence of the remark nettled me, but I managed to restrain my temper.
“You have been paying very pronounced attention to my niece,” I said. “As her uncle and guardian, and as much as I dislike this unpleasant task—it is my duty to learn something about you.”
“Miss Trudell is a most charming young lady,” he observed, “and while it is true I admire her I scarcely think you are justified in calling my attentions pronounced.”
“I have it from her mother,” I said.
“Mrs. Trudell is a most charming lady,” he went on with the same exasperating blandness. “I would not for anything in the world cast the slightest reflection on Mrs. Trudell, whom I admire and respect; but in holding me up in this fashion she—”
“Nobody is holding you up,” I interrupted warmly. “I simply mean that a continued acquaintance is impossible unless you inform us who you are and where you come from. If you are a gentleman you have no possible reason for withholding such information, which you ought not to put us in the position of insisting upon.”
"The word insist is a very disagreeable one,” he said, as imperturbably as ever, shaking the ash from his cigarette.
“So is the word adventurer,” I retorted, now quite angry. “A man whose only address is a non-existent town in Massachusetts has only himself to thank if he inspires a certain suspicion.”
“I am forced to agree with you,” he remarked, with an air of sharing my point of view, and looking long and earnestly at his brilliantly polished shoes. “I am forced to agree with you; I admit it frankly.”
“And this is how the matter is going to rest?” I demanded, after a considerable pause.
“It can rest any way it pleases,” he replied, awakening from a sort of brown study. “My private affairs are my own business, and if you can not bring yourself to take me on trust, I am afraid our brief acquaintance will have to end.”
“All our acquaintances will have to end,” I said, with a marked stress on the first word. “Even my niece, I think, will appreciate the need of that.”
I THOUGHT his smile wavered for a moment as his shoes again engrossed his entire attention; he was plainly less easy than he would have me believe.
“It’s too bad,” he remarked finally in an aggrieved voice. “If I could explain I would—only the truth is,
“Then you will kindly keep away from my family until you can,” I said. “A man can do without a toothbrush, and he can do without socks, but he has to have antecedents.”
“Well, I’ll agree to one thing,” he said, recovering his smiling effrontery, “I’ll agree to keep away from you all you like.”
1 swallowed the insult in silence, though inwardly I was boiling. Then I rose quietly, and without raising my voice or departing from an ordinary conversational tone, said: “You have told me very little, but I have
learned all I want to know. You are evidently a sharper and a rascal, and if you continue this impudent courtship of my niece, I shall take some very effectual means to squelch you. Good day, sir, good day !”
With that I turned on my heel and left him, with a disconcerting sense of having got the worst of it.
''pHAT feeling increased during the next few’ days when I heard he was a constant caller at Kitty’s apartment, and that Viola and he were going out together almost every afternoon or evening. Protesting to Kitty seemed absolutely useless; she w’ould agree to everything I said, and then do nothing; I would put words into her mouth to say to Mr. Cobb, and then, when he came, she dared not say them. I gathered, however, that she had some violent passages with Viola in private, with no results save sullenness and resentment.
Viola, who knew mighty well what I thought about it all, showed a remarkable adroitness in eluding me. She was always just going out, or having a letter to write, or a pressing engagement with Isobei Latimer whenever I tried to pin her down for that lectui’e she was so plainly dreading. One day, after a week had gone by in this manner, I lost all patience with her. As she was about to flutter away in a whirlwind of animation and excuses. I put my back to the door and smilingly held her prisoner.
“We have to have a talk about. Mr. Cobb,” I said, “and we are going to have it right now.”
“Oh, but Uncle Hartley,” she pleaded, “I can’t, I can’t! I haven’t a moment to spare—truly* I haven’t. I have a dress-fitting at Estelle’s, and I am already' ten minutes late.”
“I am a week late,” I said. “A week late trying to see you, and always getting put off. For once your engagements will have to give way to the claims of a wild and woolly uncle. I’ve got a lot to say. and you’ve got a lot to hear.”
\PPRECIATING that 1 was in earnest, she sat down, but with a flash of her eyes and a mutinous tightening of her lips that boded ill for my long-deferred interview. She was a pretty girl in her way. with masse.» of fair hair, and a trim, nice figure; I had always credited her with an an affectionate disposition as well until I ventured to lay hands on Mr. Cobb.
“Let’s get it over with,” she said, fidgeting in her seat. “As my uncle you think you have a right to roar about Mr. Cobb—well, roar!”
“Come, come, my dear,” I protested. “Try' to bo polite even if we don’t agree about Mr. Cobb. Even an uncle is entitled to some of the elementarycourtesies.”
“Oh, I hate to have him insulted!” she exlaimed, a shade apologetically. ‘You are all against him, and it is so aggravating to know what you are going to say before you have said it.”
“I’m not sure you do,” I retorted. “I may be middleaged and commonplace, but I’m not quite a parrot. Anyway, my' dear, when one loves people one is entitled to be a little—officious.”
“Oh, you are not that, Uncle Hartley!” she said relentingly. “I’ve been horrid and rude, and I beg your pardon. But both you and Mumsey are both so prejudiced against poor Mr. Cobb!”
“I like peor Mr. Cobb well enough, and I think he is a very presentable young man; but if he insists on being a young man of mystery, whose fault is it that we distrust him?”
“V ou think I’m an awful little fool, don’t you?” she remarked, with the first glimmer of a smile.
“■No,” I answered, “you are simply y'oung—y'oung and trustful, as a nice girl ought to be. But that is air the more reason to listen to the watch-dog’s honest bark.”
“I’m listening,” she said.
“Bark number one,” I continued. “Tell Mr. Cobb you have a horrid, disagreeable old uncle who makes your life a burden to you with questions you can not answer. Tell him you are at your wit’s end to satisfy
this old ogre. Then if he is straight-”
“Of course he is straight,” she interrupted, with another little flai-e of resentment. “Mr. Cobb is a
gentleman through and through, and--”
“And what?” I asked, as she hesitated and stopped. “He has his own reasons—very good reasons—for
hiding his real name, and--”
“Good heavens,” I cried out. “You mean to say he isn’t named Cobb at all?”
“No,” she replied. “It is all part of a very strange and romantic secret. You see, he is liable to be arrested at any moment!”
My’ look of consternation was more effective than all my previous reproaches.
“I promised never to tell a soul,” she hurried on, as though apprehending some outburst on my part, and feverishly eager to forestall it. “But of course that meant Mumsey, who couldn’t be expected to understand, or—or make allowances. I can’t have you think he is a criminal, Uncle Hartley, or anything of that sort. He’s a gun-runner.”
“A what?” I demanded.
“That’s what they call people who run guns across the Mexican border to the rebels,” she explained sweetly. “It is terribly dangerous, but very, very profitable, and he was making lots of money' till finally the Federal authorities at El Paso got after him and issued a warrant for his arrest. His real name is Marion Joyce Carlisle, but he changed it to Montgomery J. Cobb for his initials*on his things—to keep them the same, you know. If he were arrested he would get into the most frightful trouble, though he says in a year or two it will all blow over. But in the meantime,.of course, he is in a very false position—he realizes that keenly.” “He certainly’ couldn’t be in a worse,” I said, as crossly as I felt. “But if there is a word of truth in this egregious story, why doesn’t he get away to Canada where he would be safe?”
“He would rather stay here,” she replied, in some confusion. “Nearer to me—and all that, you know.” “Oh,”— 1 murmured. “So that’s why he stays, is it?”
‘Yes, that’s why he stays,” said Viola, as if pleased at last to find something we could agree on.
“But tell me, what was he before he took up this highly spectacular, moving-picture occupation?” I inquired. “He can’t have spent his whole life in gun-
running. What was he before he -gun-ran?”
The tinge in Viola’s cheeks turned to scarlet.
“I—I don’t know,” she replied. “He’s always been rather reticent about himself, and n-naturally I never liked to p-p-press him.”
“Viola,” I exlaimed, “you must drop this man like a red-hot potato—drop him quicker than scat.”
“I can’t,” she murmured. “Or rather I mean I won’t. 1 may as well confess that we are engaged.”
"Engaged!” I cried out, aghast. “Engaged to a man with an alias, no antecedents, and escaping from the police?”
“Yes,” she returned somewhat tremblingly, “and if you bother or harass him or draw Mumsey into any fuss about him I warn you it will be a very short engagement. Otherwise we intend to wait until the hue and cry is over—until the rebels become federáis, and all danger is past.”
I rose and took my hat and cane.
“You are twenty-five years old and legally entitled to go to the devil,” I said. “Only if I were you I would make a little surer that this gentleman isn’t married already. It wouldn’t be. very pleasant if he were, would it?”
With that parting shot I left,, after a peck at a very
T DOUBT if there is a more detestable position in the A world than being related—closely related—to a young woman who is making an idiot of herself. One feels so responsible and so helpless; she is too big to spank and too unreasonable to argue with; legally she is a woman, and in reality a child. It is no pleasure, either, to become the cruel uncle of romance; to realize that one is regarded as a horrid old busybody who has no understanding of youth and love.
Of course, if my sister had been a different sort of woman, I would have regarded all this as much more her affair than mine. But Kitty is one of those impossible people who fly off at a tangent at anything like a crisis, and meet it by creating another—with unlimited tears, hysterics and heart failure.
The next morning I decided to consult a private detective I knew, named Bloomer. We had once employed him to stop a series of petty thefts in our warehouse, and he had nailed the culprits in thirty-six hours. So after telephoning for an appointment I went along to Bloomer’s and ununfolded my tale of woe in a dingy office. Bloomer was a grizzled, bovine personage, remotely policemanlike and Irish, with smouldering eyes and a cowing manner. He listened with hard-breathing patience; took notes in a large, greasy book and asked a number of very searching questions.
“That fellow’s a crook,” he said at last in his booming voice.
“The idea is to get the goods on him and run him out—scare him out.
Hey, is that right?”
I said it was. Yes, that was it exactly.
“It can be done slow or fast,” he went on.
“Slow’s cheap and fast’s dear—which is it to be?”
“I want results,” I said, “and the quicker the better. Money is no object if you can get results.”
“I’ll get them,” he declared with a robust assurance that shook the office. “But, understand, it means a lot of telegraphing, a lot of oiling the police ropes, a lot of money flung away here, there and everywhere. Detective work is just like fishing, Mr Williams—the bigger your net the surer you are of landing your fish, and the cost is in proportion.”
“Go ahead,” I said. “Show me results and I don’t care what I pay.”
A shade of misgiving suddenly appeared on those bovine features.
“Of course, I don’t guarantee he’s a crook,” he remarked. “If he aint a crook, he aint, and there’s no more to be said. But I take it, it’s his record you’ve wanting, even if it’s clean.”
“Precisely,” I agreed.
“Where will you be by five o’clock?” he asked, reaching for some telegraph forms. “I think I ought to be able to report something by five.”
“At my club,” I returned, giving him the telephone number. “I shall make a point of being there from four-thirty on.”
He had already noted my hotel and business address, and now verified them again with an air of concluding the interview. He escorted me to the door, massively and ceremoniously, and a party of chattering girls, descending from a theatrical agency above, were very much impressed by the sight. I stopped in the street and looked up at the dusty windows where within the web was being stretched for Cobb. I glowed with satisfaction; I felt that the wires were already humming; best of all, it was my affair no longer, but Bloomer’s.
He rang me up a little after five.
“I’ve got some queer news for you,” he said. “There aint any such party known at El Paso, nor is there any warrant out for him.”
“No?” I exclaimed.
“Whatever our party is running away from it certainly aint from a U.S. Federal warrant,” he continued. “There aint a warrant. Federal, state or local out for anybody—for smuggling arms, d’ye understand? Hey, have you got that?”
I replied that I had.
“It looks like a blind,” he went on in his vibrating voice. “Nearly all crooks have blinds to throw off the police. Meantime, of course, I have been trying to place the Walton our party mentioned—the town he gave on the hotel register, both here and down South. Well, and what do you think?”
I murmured my inability to do anything of the kind.
“I have covered all the Waltons in the United States and Canada, and our party, either as Cobb, or Carlisle, or Marion, Montgomery or Joyce aint to be found or recognized in any of them!”
“Perhaps my description of him wasn’t good enough,” I said, suddenly troubled that the fault might be mine. “I am afraid it would have been better if you had seen him yourself.”
Boomer burst out • laughing.
“I guess we know' pretty well w'hat he looks like after shaddermg him all day,” he exclaimed. “Wh>, you
wreren’t gone ten minutes before I had him under observation, with one of my best men reporting progress every hour. And here’s another mighty queer thing, Mr. Williams.”
“It aint guns he’s interested in—it’s furs!”
“Yes, sir, fursl We tailed him to Lefferts & Co., furriers; to W. H. Hall & Co., to Papillon Freres, furriers. At the last place he stayed a long time and then took one of the salesmen out to lunch and spent nine dollars and forty-five cents on him at Martanne’s. Afterward, he strolled along St. Catherines, stopping at every window where there were furs.”
T EXPRESSED my astonishment, though not as A emphatically perhaps as Bloomer seemed to desire.
“But this is all negative,” I said. “We are still as much in the dark as ever, aren’t we?”
Bloomer laughed confidently.
“Listen,” he boomed, with a jubilant note in his voice that dispelled my latent suspicion. “I was wondering about these here furs, and seeing no daylight anywhere, when kerplunk, I got another line on our party that put him right under the searchlight. I can’t be absolutely positive till Chicago rings me up in twenty minutes, but it’s dollars to doughnuts, Mr. Williams, that we’ve landed our man. He’s Harold Spindler, twenty-eight, married, formerly assistant cashier of the Grangers’ and Drovers’ Bank, now a fugitive from justice, and wanted for forgery and embezzlement. There is a thousand dollars reward for his apprehension, and as soon as we get in touch with the officers who think they have tracked him to Duluth, they’ll be sent on here to arrest and extradite him!” This was thrilling. I had a sudden strangling feeling in my throat. We always think of crime as something inconceivably remote from our commonplace, everyday life, and when it brushes against us, concretely and individually, we are stunned.
“There’s Chicago calling now on my other wire,” exclaimed Bloomer suddenly. “Hey, hang up a moment— I’ll ring you up again as soon as they are done.”
A FEW minutes later, as I waited nervously beside the switchboard operator, I was called again into the booth. It was Bloomer, resounding and triumphant.
“He’s our party all right,” he announced. “He’s Harold Spindler for sure, and the officers will be here to-morrow with the warrant, requisition papers and finger-prints! Good work, hey? No time wasted, hey? Mr. Cobb’s á smart boy, but I guess he’s cornered this time, Mr. Williams.”
I had hardly breath enough to ask him to keep the affair out of the newspapers.
“Sure, it will be kept out of the papers,” said Bloomer. “The young lady’s name has to be protected; I know that.”
“Where is he now?” I asked. “Where’s Cobb now?” “Up at your sister’s apartment,” said Bloomer, answering my question with a certain uneasiness. “But don’t you disturb him, Mr. Williams; keep away from him, please; he’ll run at the fall of a hat, and
then where would we be?”
I murmured non-committally that I would be very careful. It was beginning to dawn on me that Bloomer and I were at cross purposes as to Cobb’s final fate. I had no wish whatever to have the fellow arrested, since his name could only too easily be linked with Viola’s in an odious publicity. I wished for nothing better, in fact, than his complete disappearance and obliteration. But Bloomer was so much a policeman himself that I felt he would be acutely put out to fail his brother officers from Chicago. Besides, there was that thousand dollars reward, in which, no doubt, my burly friend expected to share. My increasing perception of all this caused me to temporize.
I said good night and left the booth. Once outside I hurriedly called up a taxi and gave the chauffeur Kitty’s address. Cobb’s knell had sounded; his vile masquerade was nearing its end; vengeance, in a very stuffy red box, was swiftly moving in his direction to overtake and crush him.
t Ï 'he maid wanted to help me off with my overcoat, but I pushed her aside and strode into the sittingroom just as I was.
The first person I saw was Cobb himself seated with Viola on the sofa, very lover-like and close. A little farther off was Kitty in a rocking chair, with some mbroidery and several brightly colored balls of silk in her lap. At my startling entry they all looked up and there was an electrifying instant as we stared at one another without a word being said.
I advanced on Cobb with my finger outstretched.
“I know who you are,” I thundered. “I’ve had detectives on your trail and we’ve run de n your infamous secret. Get cu; of here, you cur—get out!” One might have thought the two women turned to stone; I doubt if they even breathed. As for Cobb he flushed as red as fire and his face was a picture of rage and mortification. I expected him to slink away in silence, but instead he had the effrontery to remain where he was, staring back at me furiously.
“You ought to have your nose pulled for making a scene before ladies,” he exclaimed with incredible impudence. “As for my secret, I was just nerving myself to tell it when you burst in like a cyclone.”
“I’ll tell it for you,” I cried, incensed beyond measure. “I’ll tell them what you are in plain English.”
“Go ahead,” he retorted, cringing a little in spite of his bold words. And then he added with a nervous giggle : “Go ahead—a man can only die once.”
“Viola,” I said, in an intonation that would have cut ham, “let me present Mr. Harold Spindler of Chicago, a young married man, who is wanted by the police for forgery and embezzlement!”
One might have expected the women to scream or something; but they remained as stricken as before— as motionless and silent as two statues. It was Cobb who made all the noise.
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“That’s a lie,” he shouted, springing to his feet. “That’s an outrageous, wicked lie. I’m not married, and I’m not Harold Spindler, and I never stole a cent in my life!”
“Oh, what’s the use of all this stageplay?” I said quietly. “You know you are cornered, Cobb; you know the game’s up; the officers will be here to-morrow with the warrant and extradition papers.”
HE uttered a sort of a groan and sank down on the sofa again.
“I am not Harold Whatyd’yercallum,” he protested. “I’m not! I’m not!”
“Then kindly condescend to inform us who you are,” I said, with all the sarcasm at my command.
“Uncle Hartley, you know yourself his real name is Carlisle,” Viola burst out at me in panting resentment. “He was mixed up in the Mexican rebellion —with running guns across the border, and you are horribly unjust and unkind to-”
“Every word of that is a lie,” I interrupted. “Lie on lie, and lie on top of that.”
With flashing eyes Viola turned to Cobb for his denial; but all he did was to quail and hang his head.
“It wasn’t true,” he admitted at last, still unable to meet her championing glance. “I am not named Carlisle and Ï never saw a Mexican in my life.”
I felt sorry for Viola. She reeled as if she had been struck in the face.
“I—I believed in you, Monty,” she quavered, “b-b-but I don’t know what to think now.”
“He’s Harold Spindler,” I cried. “I know he is Harold Spindler.”
“Call me that again and I’ll choke you,” he snapped at me as if goaded beyond endurance. “I am not Harold Spindler, and to-morrow your officers will look like a pack of fools. The real
trouble with me is - my business.
That’s what drove me to all these wretched falsehoods, knowing that the truth would cost me the girl I love.” “The truth never could do that,” exclaimed Viola passionately. “It’s lies that kill love. If you have a spark of manhood in you, tell me your real name.”
“It’s Montgomery Joyce Cobb,” he replied, almost sulkily. “But it’s not my name that matters, it is - my busi-
ness. I had to hide that.”
“If it is honest I don’t mind what it is,” she said with a suddenly reviving confidence. “I wouldn’t care what my husband did as long as he was upright and honorable!”
But Cobb still hesitated.
“I won’t tie you to that,” he murmured. “It would not be manly or right to hold you to that. Tell me to go —— and I’ll go without a word.”
“Your business is robbing banks,” I shouted.
“For shame, Uncle Hartley!” exclaimed Viola. “Poor Mr. Cobb is going to
tell us everything, and then you will feel like going down on your bended knees. I am sure his fault is simply being over-sensitive and over-honorable.”
“If I were a starving doctor nobody would ever point a finger at me,” Cobb said in a tone of grateful agreement with Viola, to whom he turned as if Kitty and I had ceased to exist. “If I were a shabby, baggy-kneed lawyer or a third class school-master out of a job, I would have a sort of social posivon if I had nothing else. But because I struck out for myself in a fresh field—made a go of a thing that has always beer thought impossible, I am exposed to the cruelest jeers and insults. I have to hide my business as if it were a crime; I daren’t mention or allude to it; though I am a college graduate and make twenty thousand dollars a year, people sniff at me and shut their doors in my face.”
“For heaven’s sake, what is your business?” Viola cried.
“Robbing banks,” I interjected.
“This is what I have earned by my superior initiative and enterprise,” continued Cobb despairingly. “Viola, I ask you again, can you stoop to marry an — outcast?”
I THINK Viola’s pause was more due to dramatic effect than to any real hesitation. It certainly gave a superb value to her avowal when it came.
“Yes, if I loved him,” she said.
Instead of brightening at this, Cobb seemed only to grow more woebegone. One could see that he was struggling with that impending revelation; the unsaid words were seeking utterance; suddenly—gaspingly—they were born.
“I raise skunks,” he said.
“Skunks?” I exclaimed.
“Skunks?” cried Viola.
“Skunks?” bleated Kitty.
“Yes, skunks,” repeated Cobb, almost defiantly. “I am the only successful skunkraiser on the American continent; my skunk farm in New Brunswick is the only place where skunks were ever raised on a large scale in captivity. I am—why should I not claim my unfortunate distinction—I am the Skunk King!”
For a moment we remained spellbound, and then with one common, irresistible impulse we began to laugh as I believe no three people ever laughed before. The relief—the reaction, the awful feeling that we shouldn’t—only added to our convulsions of mirth. Viola was the worst of us all; she simply could not control herself; she laughed till the tears came. Meanwhile Cobb sat there scowling, and so injured-looking and humiliated that the sight of him impelled us to fresh outbursts. We knew we were committing an enormity, and the more we knew it the more we laughed.
“ You were right not to tell me before,” said Viola at last, breathlessly strug-
gling to console the dejected young man. “At the beginning I don’t think I could have stood it, Monty. Girls are so silly and high-flown and —”
“But now?” he pleaded, interrupting her with an intensity in his voice that made me feel for him. “Does this let me out, Viola?”
“You darling boy, of course it doesn’t,” she exclaimed. “I was only laughing because I was so pleased it wasn’t worse. Why, we’ll go off and raise skunks together, and live happily ever afterward.”
“They are the nicest, cleanest, friendliest little creatures in the world,” he said enthusiastically. Then, looking at me rather significantly, he added: “In
fact, the more I see of people the better I like skunks.”
BEFORE I realized what he was doing, he was suddenly emptying all his pockets of letters, bills, memoranda and what not. and accumulated a thick little packet which I was astonished to have passed to me.
“I am no Dr. Cook in this skunk business,” he declared. “Read these, and
satisfy yourself that I am all right. it is my last five days’ correspondence, and there isn’t a letter that isn’t full of skunk.”
“Oh, I am quite reassured about you!” I said, accepting them with some demur. “It is plain as a pike-staff that you aren’t Harold Spindler, and these proofs are superfluous.”
“Uncle Hartley was only trying to protect me, Monty,” said Viola softly, aside to him. “You must not bear him any ill-will. Shake hands with him like a dear fellow, and let by-gones be bygones.”
We did so cordially. It was fine of him after all the things I had said, and my heart went out to him. Then I kissed Viola, and Cobb kissed Kitty, and then I kissed Kitty, and Cobb "kissed Viola; and we all glowed and felt very red and self-conscious, as any family al ways does when emotion has betrayed it out of its usual reserve.
We owed it to Kitty that the ensuing constraint was broken.
“I’ll have to change all my ideas about skunks,” she remarked naively. “Well, well, to think that we are going to marry into them!”