The House of Skulls/Chapter 2
I MEET A LADY
IT happens to be the case in California that the Los Angeles newspapers circulate north, and the San Francisco papers circulate south, until they overlap and die. They circulate swiftly, too. I was up and out of Santa Barbara before seven o'clock, and had the last Los Angeles edition in my pocket when I went to breakfast. The point of this digression will arrive in its proper place.
Beyond glancing over the headlines of my paper, I did not look through it, but jammed it into my overcoat-pocket for later consumption. If only I had read that paper, things might have happened otherwise—or they might not. All's for the best!
I got off in a drenching fog and drizzle of rain, which, I was assured, was the usual southern California "high fog." There were no speed cops out at this time of day, so in half an hour I was finishing the twenty-odd miles of boulevard north of the city, by which time the fog was breaking and the sun streaming forth gloriously.
The worst road I ever took, or ever hope to take, befell me then and there. It was a détour, and there were miles of it, alongside the newly constructed but unfinished boulevard. Then I swung into a bit of presumably finished road, with unfinished culverts at the bottom of each hill; the first one nearly took my head off when we struck. Then more miles, and long miles, of plain road—about as bad as the détour; then boulevard again, thank Heaven, that lasted! This took me until eleven in the morning.
Consulting my road maps, I found that I was close to a town—the name I have forgotten—and should reach San Luis Obispo for luncheon, with fair road most of the way. Being in a hurry, I stopped in the town long enough to buy gasoline, and I happened to stop at the first gasoline sign I saw, which was near the railroad station. Recalling the circumstance later, I remembered that my car was headed north, quite obviously.
While the tank was being filled, a north-bound train passed through without a stop, and the garage man said that it was the "flier" from Los Angeles. It had left there some time the previous night, and passed here "regular as clockwork." Naturally, at the moment I thought nothing whatever of the incident.
"Good highway all the way to San Luis," observed the man, while he made change for me. "No speed-cop out to-day, neither. The boy got run into day 'fore yesterday, so burn her up if ye want! But keep your eye skinned north o' San Luis, partner. Gosh! Say, ain't this car a real oriole, though!"
Thanking him, I climbed in and proceeded to "burn her up." The bad roads of the morning had delayed me, and I was anxious to make time. I made such good time that I passed the limited train just before reaching San Luis, and, finding that it was still on the good side of noon, I determined to push on to Paso Robles for luncheon.
About twelve thirty I was In Paso Robles, still untouched of any speed-cop. Leaving my car before the garage in the main street, I began to skirt the block from store- front to store-front in search of luncheon. Now, I do not want to pain the good citizens of Paso Robles; but I was too ignorant to go back a block to the big hotel; I merely asked for a restaurant and was directed accordingly. So I had no kick coming.
At last, oh the other side of the block, I found a place, settled down to a table, and to my surprise found the food really endurable. As I ate I continued my perusal of the morning paper. It was the only Los Angeles paper in those parts, I imagine—for I saw no other there or north of there.
The paper was in two sections. And on the front page of the second section was a photograph of John Balliol.
As I glimpsed that picture I felt a premonition, a fore-warning. Beneath it was his name and nothing more. But to the left was a three-column story, entitled: "Scion of Prominent Eastern Family a Suicide." Above this heading, after the custom of that particular paper, was another leading in very small type, being the quotation: "One More Unfortunate."
It was just as well that I had about finished my meal, for now I was past eating. The thing stupefied me. left me blankly dazed; and to think that I had carried this paper with me all the way from Santa Barbara!
I plunged into the story, eager and horrified. There seemed to be no mystery at all in the affair, so far as the newspaper was concerned, except that there was no mention of Balliol having any money. He had merely plugged up his room and turned on the gas; this he had done shortly before midnight. An hour later the thing had been discovered and the story had broken in time for the newspaper to cover it fully in the last edition.
Friends of Balliol had volunteered that he had left a sister, whose whereabouts were totally unknown, and an uncle in Boston. Balliol's father had been a prominent Boston lawyer, who had died some years previously, leaving his family absolutely nothing. Balliol himself had made a little money after leaving college, and some years before had gone on a ranch in the northern part of the State. There he had struggled along, fighting a losing game against the lean wolf, poverty, and so forth. In desperation he had come to Los Angeles, had tried to sell his ranch, and had committed suicide. The story was played up absolutely as that of a man weary of striving against the world, and had evidently been obtained from friends of Balliol.
For that very reason it left me dazed and bewildered! Four months previously. John Balliol had bought a five-thousand-dollar car—a fact of which the newspaper was ignorant. That did not look like the grim wolf stuff. He had expressly told me that the car "cost him" that amount—not that it had been presented to him.
Of course he had wanted money very badly on those two days when I had seen him. Hut he had got the money: so why the deuce had he killed himself? The paper stated that his hotel bill in Los Angeles, where he had been stopping five days, had been unpaid, and that his personal effects amounted to nil. What the deuce had he done with my eleven thousand dollars, then? The thing began to look queer.
Investigating more thoroughly. I discovered that Balliol had been known at the bank which had identified him for me: but that he had no account there. One of the bank officers had known him at college. That was all. Nothing was known about his having sold anything to Yorke Desmond; my checks had not been found upon him. and neither had my money. By the time this information came out, the paper would hardly consider it worth reviving the affair. Balliol had killed himself, the present article made a plausible story, and nothing else mattered. He had certainly "gone west" of his own volition and act, and motives were unimportant.
Yet I knew that he had not killed himself because of poverty! The man had been afraid of something—that was it! As I sat there and stared at the paper, I felt absolutely convinced that, if the truth were known. John Balliol had killed himself to escape from something that had made him a nervous, fear-filled wreck! What had happened last night to make him plunge over the brink?
Realizing of a sudden that I was out-staying the noon hour and my welcome, I paid the waitress and asked to use a telephone. By dint of paying the fee in advance, I got Los Angeles by long distance, and presently was speaking with the cashier of my bank.
"Yorke Desmond speaking." I informed him. "I'm at Paso Robles and going north to that ranch I bought. Just saw the paper about Balliol. Did he cash my checks?"
"No, Mr. Desmond." returned the cashier. "If they are presented, we'll take every step to verify the indorsements, of course, it seems to be quite a mystery."
"All right, thanks. Address me at Lakeport in case of need."
I rang off and left the place, stuffing the newspaper into my pocket. One thing was certain: the reporter had got the wrong steer from Balliol's friends! Balliol had not killed himself because of poverty—not in the least. Why, he had told me that he had furnished his ranch-house with all electric appliances and the best furniture he could get in San Francisco! No; his grim struggle had been one fine little myth. But it had satisfied the press, and had evidently been meant to satisfy the press—why? To keep the real truth concealed, of course. His friends were shielding him.
It was none of my business, but I could not help checking up on my private convictions. First, John Balliol had been afraid of something—either something in his past, such as disgrace which was hounding him, or something tangible and terrible in his present. Second, this fact was known to those in most intimate touch with him, and was being kept quiet.
Thinking thus, and being more or less absorbed in my trend of thought, I came back to the main street and my bright-hued car. A crowd of natives were standing about in admiring comment, which tended to make me want to get away from there. I jumped in and released the brake, pressed the starter, and was off. Regardless of warning signs, I went through town on second at a pretty good clip, then eased down into third and hit for San Francisco at an even thirty.
"Damn the whole affair!" I said aloud. "What if those checks were stolen from him last night—"
As the words left my lips, I heard a subdued gasp, then an exclamation. It came from the rear section of my car! I flung one startled glance over my shoulder, then I switched off the mag and put on the brakes. As we came to a halt, I half turned in my seat and stared blankly at the young lady and the suit-case.
She was staring at me just as blankly—more so, in fact; she seemed undeniably frightened. She had the suit-case on the short, rear seat beside her. and it was a very good suit-case, of expensive make.
"Who—who—what are you doing in this car?" she stammered, anger creeping into her voice.
I was up against it, somehow; just how, I was not at all sure. She seemed perfectly sane, and I liked her voice immensely. I liked her face, too. It was a healthy, sensible sort of face, and it was exquisite into the bargain. She was dressed in a traveling suit which spelled something better than California tailoring.
"Who are you?" she demanded, half startled and half angry. "Answer me! What are you doing with this car?"
"Driving it, madam," I answered. "I—er—I trust you don't mind?"
She stared at me again. I removed the big, yellow goggles, pushed up my cap, and threw open my duster.
"Now." I said comfortably, "we're on an even basis. Since you wear gloves, I presume you are not a Californian—probably a mere Californiac. I hope you won't think me offensive when I say that this is literally a charming surprise! Probably there's been a mistake somewhere. I don't see possibly how I can have got into the wrong car—"
"Stop that nonsense! " she cried out; and I observed that she had very blue eyes, and remarkably pretty eyes. "Drive this car back instantly!"
"Back—where?" I inquired. "Back—"
"Have you stolen this car?" she flung at me as if she really thought I had.
"No." I said, and laughed. "No, madam. This car is protected from theft by reason of its color. No thief would attack it! The car belongs to me, it really does," I went on, for her appearance of fright sobered me. "If you doubt it, look at the prescribed card here by the dash, which was legally affixed before I left Los Angeles. It bears my name and the car's number—"
"Do you dare pretend that you are John Balliol?" she flashed out scornfully.
"Heaven forbid!" I said gravely. "Balliol's dead. I bought the car, madam, day before yesterday. Only an hour ago I saw in the paper an account of his death—"
I cursed the impulsive words. For she stared at me. her eyes slowly widening in horror, the color ebbing out of her face: then she collapsed in a dead faint.