The Breath of Scandal/Chapter 10

CHAPTER X

BESIDE a country station, about midnight, the train halted and switched and backed with a banging jolt against a string of cars which it was coupling on.

As the shock reached Russell, he sat up. "Whoinel done that to me?" he demanded belligerently and blearing at Gregg in the streak of light from the depot. "Say, dudyou do me that dirty trick?"

His geniality and his admiration of Gregg were entirely gone; he did not recall his companion at all. "Say, whoth'ell are you? What you want? Where am I?"

"Go to sleep," said Gregg; and Russell stared about, evidently discerned nothing particularly disturbing and lay down again with eyes open for a while and mumbling to himself; but when the train went on, he soon was asleep.

It was almost daylight when Russell next awoke and the train was running about thirty miles an hour, Gregg guessed, through a broad, level farming section with widely separated stations, and those only in small country towns and villages—sometimes little more than a crossroads and watertank—which the freight had been passing with whistle screaming and without even slowing. This time Russell was clear in the head; in fact, before he stirred at all or even opened his eyes wide, he had been conscious for some minutes, Gregg suspected, and he had been trying to place himself and estimate his situation.

At this, he soon succeeded at least to the point of deciding that it was not risky for him to sit up.

"Good morning," he said soberly and cautiously.

Gregg rose to his feet to warm himself and lessen his stiffness from the long chill of the night; a few minutes before he had felt tired and weakened and slow; but his pulse was tapping rapidly now and pounded with fuller flow as Russell, wary of being taken at disadvantage, also got to his feet. He faced Gregg, who had his back to the side of the car forward of the open door; Russell backed to the closed door opposite and spread his arms wide along the wood to steady himself.

He had long, powerful arms and he was a good two inches taller than Gregg as he drew himself up; but, in any emergency which might confront him, he evidently meant not to depend solely on his physical superiority. Suddenly he dropped his right arm and his hand went to that trouser pocket from which Gregg had removed the revolver. Not finding his weapon, his hand quickly shifted to other pockets and he glanced at the floor where he had lain, darted his gaze to the corners of the car and then he looked at Gregg.

"You got that?"

"I took it," Gregg said; and quietly, without ostentation, he put his hand in the side pocket of the light overcoat he was wearing and, when his hand was hidden, he straightened his forefinger toward Russell and bulged the pocket.

"What in hell do you want?" Russell said next.

"Do you remember me?"

Russell drew his brows down as he gazed at Gregg and deliberated what to say. "No," he answered first; and then, sullenly, "I suppose you were in Kilkerry's last night."

"Yes; that's where we met."

"You took me out of there, eh?"

"No; another friend of yours took you out; I got you from him outside."

Russell considered this for a while; evidently he had no recollection of Hershy. "'Nother friend of mine; call yourself a friend of mine, do you?" he challenged.

"No," said Gregg, flatly.

"Who the hell are you? Say, have you got a drink about you?"

"No."

"How about water?"

"No."

"Where're we going?"

"West; the last town I noticed was Foseca; I suppose it's in Illinois or southern Wisconsin."

"Well, what's the big idea?"

"Mowbry's my name; I'm a friend of Charles Hale, whom you shot, and I'm more a friend of his daughter."

"Oh."

"There's no use my wasting time telling you what you're trying to do; we both know it; and there's no use wasting time talking to you about it. I'm going to beat you up first."

Gregg stopped and stood as steadily as the swaying of the car allowed, while Russell stared at his face, stared down at his bulging pocket and stared up again. Russell, of course, did not yet understand.

So Gregg told him: "I'm going to beat you up, fair if I can; if you fight dirty—I suppose you will—we'll have to go at that. I'm going to beat you up, I said, first thing. I've been waiting for you all night. Let's go."

"Go?" said Russell, bracing himself back against his door and otherwise not moving. There was a trick somewhere, he was sure; this smaller, more lightly built man, of refined face and bearing, was going to cripple him first, Russell thought; either by shooting him or holding him helpless with the revolver while he did what he planned.

"Go, I said," Gregg repeated. "If I wanted just to beat you up, I had all night to do it in." He slipped off his overcoat and suit coat together and dropped them on the floor, his hands coming out bare and clenched.

Russell saw that and lunged forward to catch him at that instant; this Mowbry, Russell thought, had made a slip and for a second was unprepared, having lost hold of the revolver. Probably he expected Gregg to sidestep and dodge. But Gregg did just the opposite thing. As Russell came, he stepped toward him and came up under and inside Russell's arm and caught him with right fist full on the jaw.

It was a harder blow than the one, like it, which had dropped Hershy; it was hard as Gregg could hit. But it did not drop Russell. It did not even send him back; it stopped him, confused him for the instant in which Gregg stepped free from the clench of Russell's big arms and recognized that he had a job before him even bigger than he had thought.

"You —— ——," said Russell and spit. Gregg rushed him, hit his face once, hit his wind and got knuckles on his own head,—the left side of the head and then the right; in the neck; then, when he saw Russell start to rush, Gregg gave way.

He couldn't stand up to that weight, he realized; and, sucking for breath, he backed and side-stepped into the front end of the car, his neck hurting and his head banged half dizzy. "But I got to him, too!" Gregg told himself; and, waiting till Russell was sure he was backing to the end, he sprang forward, hooked his right to Russell's face, got hit on the head, but also he got by and escaped to the side and backed off before Russell down the car.

Reason clamored to Gregg that he was beaten; Russell already had him running away in an enclosure, chosen by himself, in which he could not successfully run. But Russell didn't press him; Russell could not believe the fight was meant to be fair; what confused Russell was his certainty of a trick. He followed Gregg down the car as far as the open door beside which Gregg had dropped his coats; then, feinting a rush, Russell suddenly stooped and snatched up the coat which, he supposed, held the revolver. In that second, Gregg saw his chance and was on him, right and left to Russell's head; Russell shook, crouched, tried to dodge and then took it, right and left pounding him again. "Worth it," Russell undoubtedly was figuring, to get his gun again.

Gregg couldn't tell whether Russell discovered the revolver wasn't in the pocket or whether he wouldn't stand the battering any longer; anyway, Russell dropped the coat, lunged at Gregg, rushed him and, not trying to strike, he grabbed at Gregg's arms; got one, the right; grabbed it hard, twisting and, at the same second, swinging himself and swinging Gregg to hurl him against the side of the car.

But Gregg pulled upon him, clenched and was clenched; so they went down, arms winding each other, trying to strike, trying to hold. Breath went out of Gregg; he was underneath; weaker, much weaker than Russell in such crushing grapple; Russell's hand grabbed his neck and Russell's fingers closed on his throat; and even when Gregg raised the big bulk of Russell's body off his chest, breath now would not come in. Gregg was choked and knew that Russell meant to hold on and would throttle him. For an instant the shutting-off of breath, along with that realization, made Gregg weaker; then he concentrated his strength; turned over, turning Russell with him; he got on top of Russell but did not break the hold of those big, broad fingers on his windpipe; but Gregg's arms were free now and he beat with his fist on Russell's mouth, smashing in something—teeth; he pounded and pounded again. Russell couldn't stand that. He almost let go of Gregg's throat; anyway, Gregg got a breath and for it beat harder on Russell's face, smashed his mouth again, and his cheekbones, his brows, drawing blood; it was hot and sticky on Russell's face and on Gregg's knuckles when he struck, and Russell at last let go.

Gregg freed himself and got up, Russell rolling the other way, also raising himself; so they faced each other half the car's length apart, with the open door of the freight car on the side between them.

The train was running on, whistling; the car swayed and Gregg, going dizzy, put one hand to the wall to steady him; Russell did not so need to brace himself; but he was a frightful sight with blood over his face from a break over his left eye and from his nose and from his mouth; blood had even streaked into his black hair when he rolled over; but Gregg knew that, bloody as he was, Russell was marked more than hurt. Gregg was hardly marked at all, but half his strength seemed gone; partly he'd spent it; partly those minutes—for it was minutes—of lung-breaking breathlessness had exhausted him; partly it was stun from blows on his head. It was of his head that he was most conscious; it was heavy and now light-feeling; then heavy again. The car seemed to swirl and swing about an endless curve; his eyes closed of themselves and he had to make conscious efforts of will to keep them open; his knees wanted to weaken and let him drop and lie on the floor.

"This man will kill me now," he had to remind himself to keep up. "This man will kill me, if he can. Now he's coming to do it."

For Russell was advancing on him; and Gregg jerked his head up and straightened. He raised his left aim for guard and Russell, having no plan to strike, grabbed it and pulled back, swinging Gregg toward the wide-open door.

"He's throwing me out!" Gregg recognized, and tried to pull up on Russell and clench with him as before; but this time Russell stopped that or Gregg was too weak. Russell pulled back farther and got Gregg swinging; so Gregg let his knees go and let himself drop. This brought him nearer to Russell; but not near enough, for Russell was able to raise him as he swung and keep him almost clear of the floor. Russell pulled up higher to swing Gregg entirely free; he had him almost to the door now; and Russell let go and flung him. Too soon; a half of a half-second too soon; for Gregg struck the side of the car at the very edge of the door; he bumped back and slid down directly at the opening, and Russell, following, kicked him to send him out; but Gregg grabbed the leg. Gregg's own legs went out over nothing—out the door that meant—as he hugged to Russell's leg and held on. Then Russell began going down; his other leg went out from under him; for a dizzy, spinning instant, Gregg grabbed to nothing which had any support; they were going out the car door together, Gregg thought; and he closed his eyes, waiting the crush of them together beside the rails. Then Russell came down on the car floor and Gregg crept up on him, pulling himself within the car again. Russell was the weaker one now; Russell was the dizzier one; for he'd come down and banged his head on the car floor.

Gregg got up and stood over him. "Get up!" he said; and Russell got up; and, as he reached his feet, Gregg struck him and knocked him to the left; struck him with all his strength and knocked him to the right.

"Get up!" Gregg threatened him again; and Russell got up; for he would have murdered Gregg; he had tried to kill him; and he could imagine nothing but that, if he lay there, this Mowbry, friend of Charles Hale, would kill him. So, on the right side of his head and then on the jaw on the left, Gregg gave it to him again. "Get up!"

Gregg never quite knocked him "out"; perhaps he could not have done it even now, so stubborn and enduring was Russell's strength; but he was not trying to; he knocked him down a dozen times that he counted and then he kept on punishing him while Russell, still sure that he meant to kill him, kept coming up to fight; so Gregg pounded and cut and beat him—"beat him up," as men say—till Russell at last, though still conscious, was helpless and done, utterly finished. Gregg himself was almost as exhausted.

It was an unforgettable, bloody business, at the end of which Russell lay flat on the floor of the car, his face and almost his whole head swollen and spongy red, his eyes almost closed, his lips immense. Not possibly could he ever forget it; as Gregg moved now and spoke to him, he jerked and quivered. Gregg himself was almost finished from his own terrible effort; he felt sick and his swollen, bleeding hands ached torturously. But he had won; and that meant more than the mere knowledge that from this savage encounter he had emerged with Russell at his mercy; he was sure now that, as he had dreamed and had planned, Russell could never completely recover from this beating. Physically, he would recuperate, of course; within a week he would be strong as ever; but Gregg believed he had cut through the mere physical into the morale and had "got Russell's nerve"; Russell would never be the same man again. One who has been utterly beaten, never can "come back," fighting men say.

So Gregg let Russell lie a while and look up at him and wonder what was to happen next, and then, as he quivered and shrank again when Gregg moved, Gregg said loudly and slowly and distinctly:

"You know why you got that; if ever you show up in Chicago again or open your mouth about Charles Hale, you'll run right into the same, only more of it—the same, you understand; just exactly the same but more. I'll prop you up to keep hitting you next time; prop you up and bring you to and prop you up again. By God, I feel like it now, you——"

At that Russell screamed, "No!" and, not daring to move for fear of drawing the blows on his swollen head, he lay just quivering in stark, man's hysterics; and so Gregg believed he had "got" Russell.

It was over and done; and Gregg turned away and stood at the edge of the door, gazing out over the black, harrowed fields edged by grass and bushes budding green, over which the April sun was rising; and he tried to think about what he had done.

This was, after all, a good deal what he had hoped for, though it had proved worse,—harder and more savage and brutal than he had expected; and yet he should have known that it would be. But, however revolting to him, it had to be done; there was no other way he knew, short of actually killing Russell, which would save Marjorie from the shameful shadow of blackmail as the alternative to open, published disgrace and scandal spread before all the world. There was no end to blackmail, once you started paying it; each payment, instead of clearing you, only got you deeper in the toils of the blackmailer; and to think of Marjorie paying Russell to keep silent, of him coming to her with demands which she dared not refuse—no, horrible as this had been to Gregg, he was glad he had done it.

All but exhausted as he was, yet a new exhilaration sustained him and surprised him. He had beaten up Russell so that Russell would never be the same again without thinking that he, from the inflicting of that same beating, also must change; he had roused and loosed from within him a power of passion which he had not suspected he possessed and which now he could not down; nor would down if he could.

He thought of the Gregg Mowbry of a few days ago almost as a stranger to this bruised, aching, spent man clutching to the side of the freight car; and he thought what a boy he had been when he had imagined that he could take on this fight for Marjorie and, when he had finished it, feel satisfied to have done something for her. He was never so unsatisfied in all his life as now, never so certain that, whatever the cost, whatever the penalty, he was going to face life fully; he had to laugh at the Gregg Mowbry who, a few days ago, was dodging desire of what he might not have for the fear of the hurt to him.

He kept tight hold of the edge of the door, sucking in the clean, cool morning air; and his mind came down to practical matters. Here was Russell out of the way and, for the time at least, useless; and Mr. Hershy, of Kilkerry's and the alley "kayo," was probably to have a bad half-hour reporting to Mr. E. H. Stanway this morning. But, without Russell, was Stanway helpless; or had he another move?

A move—whether Stanway's or not, was uncertain—already was in the mail which was delivered at the Hale's door in Evanston about ten o'clock that morning. Before this hour, Mrs. Hale had gone out as she always made an early start of her day, particularly since now she had added a visit to the hospital to her routine; her letters therefore were placed on a stand in the hall and Marjorie, passing by, noticed an envelope addressed to her mother in peculiar characters evidently formed by an adult but printed by a pen. There was no clue to the sender other than the postmark of Chicago, but it was such an unusual looking letter to come to that house that Marjorie picked it up. She never had opened a letter addressed to another, but she did so now and stared at a plain sheet of paper upon which was printed by pen:

If you don't want to keep your eyes shut to what Mr. Hale has been up to, and if you care to know what ails him now, ask some neighbors about Mrs. (?) Sybil Russell, 4689 Clearedge Street.

This was unsigned.

It was Marjorie's first experience with an anonymous letter and the cowardice of it filled her with loathing. She crumpled tight the envelope and enclosure and burned both immediately. Going out to a public booth where she might not be overheard, she telephoned Felix Rinderfeld, who approved her action and expressed the belief that nothing more dangerous was likely to follow from that anonymous source. However, he added that he was very glad to talk with her for he had been about to send her word that one of the events which he had been anticipating was soon to happen; affairs were so working out that Mr. Stanway was to be expected to call in person to see Mrs. Hale. Rinderfeld could not be certain of the exact time, but Stanway might arrive this afternoon; he would not be later than to-morrow.