The House of Skulls/Chapter 1
I BUY A HOUSE
I MET Balliol as result of answering an a advertisement in a Los Angeles paper. It looked like just what I wanted. Here is the ad to speak for itself:
FOR SALE—Twenty-acre ranch, fine house, complete equipment. Ten acres walnut, eight pears. Electricity. Water abundant. Income, five thousand dollars, but will sell cheap for cash. Near lake north of San Francisco.
John Balliol met me by appointment for luncheon at a down-town hotel. Instantly I saw that something was very wrong with him.
He was a fine-looking young fellow, but was terribly nervous; he must have smoked ten cigarettes with the meal. That, if you happen to know, is purely a city habit. Then, he had a way of glancing swiftly over his shoulder as though afraid something were about to come at him: and his eyes wandered, flitted with lurking suspicion.
He was afraid of something.
But he was a gentleman, a man of education. One or two things he said gave me the idea that he was a Harvard man. but he kept very close-mouthed about himself. He had a queerly aggressive manner, the manner of one who fights yet knows that he is licked. Also, he wanted to sell and get his money at once—before the following night.
"But you're not a rancher. Mr. Desmond." he said, suspicion in his eyes. "Why are you interested in my property?"
I laughed. "Largely because it's a sacrifice for cash." I replied. "I'm no rancher, but a sedate artist of a sort. Being a bachelor. I practise interior decoration; but I paint pictures as a preferential occupation. In the past year I've made so much money through supplying really worthless but gorgeously blended interiors to war-profiteers, that my general physical condition has gone hooey, if you get my meaning! The New York medicos sent me to California. The Los Angeles medicos have ordered me to get on a ranch up north, where the climate is more bracing and not so deadly monotonous."
"I get you." he nodded briefly. "Know anything about ranching?"
"I can stretch an easel between rows of pear-trees, can't I?"
At that he laughed, and for a moment lost his nerve-tensed expression.
"I need money." he said after a bit. "I need it badly—before to-morrow night. I got the ranch several years ago; I've been improving it steadily, and the house and property are now in first-class shape. And, I've spent a lot of money on it."
"Reason for selling?" I inquired.
"Strictly private." He looked slightly flurried, but his eyes remained steady. "Merely because I need the money, and need it more badly than I can tell you. It's a grand place up there, Mr. Desmond! Deer are a nuisance; you can shoot wild hogs any time. If you like fishing, Clear Lake has the best in the State. In two or three years, after they get the boulevard through from Frisco, that whole valley will be opened up and land will be out of sight. At present it's twenty miles from the railroad, and I can't honestly brag of the roads—"
He got out a map of Lake County and showed me the lay of the land. When I saw that the lake was thirty miles long, that his place was only a few miles from Lakeport, the county-seat, that it was in the heart of the hills, and within easy distance of the big trees and of San Francisco itself, I warmed up to the subject.
"Well," I said, "what's the price? Lowest cash."
"Ten thousand cash—if I can get it before to-morrow night."
That looked queer to me. Ten thousand for a place bringing in five thousand a year!
"You want the money by to-morrow?" I said thoughtfully. "I have an old friend in one of the banks here; he'll handle everything for us. He can make thorough inquiries as to the title, and so forth, by wire. If it's as you say, and if the title's clear, we can know by to-morrow noon—and I'll take it. Otherwise, not."
He drew a long breath. "I'm satisfied, Mr. Desmond. By the way, if you put through the deal, would you consider buying a car? I drove down here in mine—a Paragon four-passenger roadster. I'll not need it, and I'm already offering it for sale. If you haven't a car, you'll find it the best bargain on the market. Cost me five thousand about four months ago, and I'll take a thousand cash—before to-morrow night."
"All right," I assented cautiously. "If you're willing to have the Paragon agency here, give her the once-over."
He was willing to have any kind of investigation made, either of the ranch or of the car. Inside of an hour my bank had the ranch matter in hand, and promised me a complete report the following morning. John Balliol and I went to the Paragon agency on Olive Street, where his car was laid up, and I found no report was needed.
The car was strictly a beauty, in first-class shape. She was not exactly an economical car, but she would give good service for years—a nifty, high-class job all around, as the Paragon agent described her. I liked her so well that I bought her on the spot, ranch or no ranch; and I've never had cause to regret the bargain.
That night I spent a good deal of time wondering about my friend John Balliol. He had all the earmarks of a gentleman; but for all I knew he might be a rank fraud. Not a word had he said about himself, other than I have set down here.
If he had not been in a hurry, and if his ranch was as described, he could have obtained twenty thousand for it—easily. And his car was salable for double the price I had paid. He was, obviously, in the position of one who is madly sacrificing all that he has in order to raise quick money—"before to-morrow night," he had said. Of course, it was none of my affair aside from the business end of it.
At ten the next morning I went to the bank, where Balliol was already waiting. The cashier beckoned me into his private office and spread several telegrams before me.
"Everything looks correct, Mr. Desmond," he stated. "In fact, everything is correct. The title is flawless, and the land is worth much more than is asked."
"And this Mr. Balliol himself?" I said. "Will you satisfy yourself that he's what and whom he says he is?"
The cashier grasped this somewhat involved query and nodded. Then he summoned Balliol to join us. At first Balliol was inclined to be insulted; then we made him realize that to hand out ten thousand in cash to a man without identification was somewhat risky. He immediately calmed down, and not only produced all kinds of papers, but had himself identified by one of the largest banks in the city, just around the corner from my own bank. In short, John Balliol was all to the good.
"You attend to the transfer," I said, when Balliol produced the deeds to the property and handed them to the cashier. The latter nodded and left us alone.
"Now, Mr. Balliol," I said, when I had written the check and was waiting for it to dry, "this deal is going through. In fact, it has gone through. I wish, as between gentlemen, that you'd tell me anything you know against the property—why you're giving it away."
He turned a little white under his healthy tan, and fished for a cigarette.
"Can't do it, Mr. Desmond." he responded. "It's—well, it's private, absolutely! Nothing whatever against the property, upon my word: I got into a bit of trouble, however, and had to have the money. That's all."
Of course I asked no further questions, and the deal was concluded on that basis. I had made out the check to him personally, and he did not cash it, but took it away with him. He did not even ask the bank about my standing, which made me feel rather ashamed of my insistence regarding him. But, as we separated with mutual expressions of good will, I saw him walk away —and glance again over his shoulder with fear in his eyes.
He had two checks, amounting to eleven thousand of my money: and I had his ranch and his car. And that little Paragon boat, believe me, was a wonder! It was a distinctive car, with a specially built body, and the color was bright canary-yellow—light enough not to show dust easily. The top had plate-glass and solid curtains, and was a deep maroon in hue. Taken all in all, the car could be recognized several miles away as the only one of its kind on earth, particularly as the wire wheels were a bright pea-green. The top was low and deep, of the back-curved variety which effectually hides the driver and passengers.
Speaking for the New York decorator. I could not say that Yorke Desmond was exactly wild about the color-scheme of that car. I forgot this in the beauty of her performance, however. Later on, perhaps, I would have the paint changed.
According to John Balliol, I would have nothing on earth to do except to sit around while my walnuts and pears grew, and rake in the shekels when they were ripe. Everything was bought on the hoof, as it were, so I did not even have to pick the fruit. This suited me, naturally. Of course, explained Balliol, the ground had to be cultivated once or twice a year, and the pear-trees had to be sprayed in the summer, but all equipment was on the place. Such mild diversions would but relieve me from the monotony of having nothing to do.
As they say just off Broadway, it listened good.
It was noon when the sale was consummated, as I have described. Within an hour I had two extra cord tires reposing on the hind end of my new car, and a complete outfit of maps from the automobile club, and an outfit of suit-cases on the running-board. By two o'clock I had packed up my belongings, shipped my artistic impedimenta by express to myself at Lakeport, and at two-five I was heading toward Hollywood and the coast highway north.
My mental attitude was precisely that of a child with a new toy. I wanted to drive that Paragon bus for all she was worth, and only the fear of speed cops held me down. I was wild to get up to my new ranch and see how the walnuts and pears grew. So, having nothing particular to keep me in Los Angeles, I got on my way without delay. Either I had bought a wondrously good thing, or I had somehow got wondrously stung—and the chances were that I had not been stung!
By six o'clock that evening I was safely arrived in Santa Barbara for the night. Ahead of me were the alternate patches of boulevard and most abominable devouring which constitute the State highway to San Francisco, and I was supremely happy in the way the Paragon rustled along.
That canary car. with the green wheels and maroon top, certainly attracted attention; this was the only fly in my ointment. I am essentially a modest and retiring man, and I abominate being taken for some ornament of the film industry. Any one who had ever seen that car would remember it to his dying day, and I never passed a car on the road that my rear-sight mirror did not show me the occupants craning forward for another eyeful of my beauty. All this bothered me. but caused me no particular worry.
I could not forget, however, the peculiarity of John Balliol's manner. I felt sorry for the chap; felt rather as though I had taken advantage of a man when he was down. Elated as I was over my bargain, I thought to myself that if the ranch panned out, I'd send him an additional five thousand later.
But I could not forget him as I had last seen him—glancing over his shoulder as though half expecting something to pounce on him.