The House of Skulls/Chapter 3
I RECEIVE A WARNING
I HAD never had a fainting lady on my hands before, except once when Mrs. Wanderhoof, of Peoria, saw the Fifth Avenue apartment I had decorated for her, and looked at the bill. In that instance, Mr. Wanderhoof had assumed charge. But in this instance—
We were out of sight of Paso Robles, and there was not a soul nor a house in view. There was no water to throw on the girl's face—she was no more than a girl, I judged—and the radiator water was apt to be dirty. So, not knowing what else to do, swung over into the rear seat beside her and set her slim, drooping body upright against the cushions. As I did so, I was relieved to see her blue eyes flutter open.
Then I remembered a flask of whisky in the door-pocket, and produced it. I got the screw-cup to her lips, but at the first taste she pushed it away.
"Thank you," she said in a low voice. "I—I am very well now."
She seemed unable to take her eyes from me: the color slowly crept back into her cheeks, but in her eyes I read a bewildered fear.
Then she said something strange:
"You said—they killed Jack after all!"
I was puzzled. Jack! Oh, she must mean John Balliol. The poor girl—I must have given her a stiff jolt!
"No," I said gently. "No one killed Balliol, madam. I have the paper here with an account of it; it was suicide. May I ask if you are a friend of his?"
She seemed to shudder slightly, and drew a long breath.
"Yes. I am a—a friend." she said in a low voice, and flushed. I had the uneasy conviction that she was lying to me. "Your words were—a shock. I saw him only last night, before my train left—or, rather, yesterday afternoon.
"When this car passed the train this morning I felt that it was he: I knew we were ahead at Paso Robles, so I left the train and waited— and I saw the car and got in. When you came along, I thought it was Jack—and meant to surprise him—and when you spoke I discovered—"
She broke off, the words failing her. That told me the whole story, of course. Even from the train she had not been able to mistake this accursed car!
"But," I objected gently, "you must have known that Balliol could not be ahead of you if you saw him just before your train left—"
"But it was only six last night when I saw him! And my train did not leave until nearly midnight—there's been a wreck somewhere, and the trains were all held up. It never occurred to me that he was not in the car—"
She broke off again, staring at me.
"My name is Yorke Desmond," I said, trying to make matters smooth. To my dismay, I saw her eyes widen again with that same startled expression. I could have sworn that she had heard my name before.
"I met Mr. Balliol two days since, on business. I bought a ranch from him, in fact, and bought this car to boot. I'm on my way up to the ranch now. If, as I presume, you were en route to San Francisco, I shall be very glad to place the car at your disposal."
She looked away from me, looked at the horizon with a fixed, despairing gaze. My dismay became acute when I perceived that she was going to cry. And she did.
"Oh!" She flung up her hands to her face suddenly. "Oh—and to think that it took place last night—right afterward! And now it's too late—"
A spasm of sobbing shook her body. Not knowing what else to do, and feeling that I had been a blundering ass. I went for a walk and let her cry it out. All my married friends tell me that crying it out is the only solution.
As I paced down the roadside. I found myself extremely puzzled, even suspicious. She had admitted to me that she had seen Balliol the previous evening. But first, when she had not been on guard at all, she had cried out: "They killed Jack after all!" Upon hearing that Balliol was dead, she had immediately taken for granted that "they" had killed him! Things looked rather badly.
The initials on her suit-case, which I had seen, were M. J. B. Was she a Balliol? No; she had said that she was a friend, and had distinctly said "friend," not "relative." And she had been lying about it, somehow; a minute later she had lied when she told of seeing Balliol the previous night. For her train had not been late: It had left Los Angeles a little before midnight, on regular schedule. "Regular as clockwork," had said the garage-man as the train had passed us. I remembered that incident now.
This girl must have known Balliol pretty well. She had seen him last night, and he had gone from her to his suicide. And, by Heaven, she knew it! She was lying!
Well, this conclusion gave me quite a jolt, to be frank. That girl did not look like an ordinary liar, and she did not lie with practised ease. Why should she deliberately set out to deceive me? I could not see any light whatever. And the mysterious "they" whom she took to be Balliol's murderers;
The whole affair was strictly none of my business. As I walked back to the car. I took out my pipe and filled it. This girl was in trouble, and my best course was to mind my own affairs and ask no questions.
When I had regained the car, I found (hat the girl had composed herself and was now staring at the horizon again—a poor, crumpled bit of exquisite femininity. I removed my cap and addressed her.
"Madam, it seems that there has been a mistake somewhere. Please consider me at your service in any way possible! If you want to get to Frisco, we can reach there to-night, I believe."
Her gaze came to me for a moment, and she drew a deep breath.
"Thank you, Mr. Desmond." she said quietly. But she did not give me her name. "Jack told me of selling his ranch to you, but did not mention the car. That was how my mistake came to be made."
Her lips quivered, and she looked down. Then she forced herself into calm again.
"If—if it would not be asking too much, will you take me on to San Francisco with you?" she pursued. "I'm very sorry indeed to have made this terrible blunder."
"It will be entirely my pleasure, madam." I returned rather pointedly. But she did not take the hint, and obviously intended to keep her identity to herself. So I got into the car, and, as I did so, removed the paper from my pocket.
"Here is the newspaper in question," I added, handing it to her.
She took it in silence and leaned back again.
I started the car. and we went on.
For the remainder of the afternoon the two of us exchanged scarcely a word. Once or twice I attempted to divert her thoughts by comments upon the road or the country, but she discouraged my efforts quite visibly. I was too occupied with the road, which again alternated good with bad, to let my mind dwell upon the mystery of the girl.
We made time, however. I took the chance of speed-ccps, and let out the Paragon on the good stretches. To my satisfaction, we got into Salinas a trifle before seven o'clock, with fine boulevard all the rest of the way to San Francisco.
"We have about a hundred and twenty miles ahead," I remarked to my companion as we rolled into Salinas. "We had better get a bit to eat here, for we can't make Frisco before ten or eleven o'clock. I imagine you had no luncheon," I added hastily, seeing a refusal in her eye, "so I must really insist that you eat something."
She hail been crying again, but assented composedly to my request. We located a Greek restaurant, and went in together. After a cup of execrable coffee and some alleged food, we felt better.
"Now for the last lap!" I said cheerfully as we came out ar;a:n to the car. "I haven't much faith in the speed-cop myth, so we'll let her out while the going's good. All set?"
"Yes. thank you," she responded, settling herself in the rear.
We started north, and the Paragon flitted along like a bat out of purgatory. She was a sweet boat for speed. When it got gloomy I threw on the headlights and the big spotlight which formed a part of her equipment, and we zoomed past the California landscape in the finest fashion imaginable. These vast stretches of country were entirely different from the driving around New York, and I liked the change immensely; it was intoxicating!
Then we came to the extraterritorial suburbs of San Francisco, after getting through San Jose and Palo Alto and safely past the military camp. I am not at all certain where the spot was, but I know the Paragon was hitting a pretty good clip when into the zone of light beside and ahead of us flashed a man on a motor-cycle. He passed us like a flicker, then he slowed down and extended his hand.
"Good night!" I remarked, with sinking heart. " There was a basis for the myth after all!"
When we were halted, the motorcycle planted itself at my elbow, and the officer took out his pencil and pad.
"Know how fast you were going?" he inquired.
"I'm afraid to guess." I said meekly. "Your word's good, officer."
"I made it fifty-eight," he observed. "Also, there's a headlight-law in this State, and you've got a blaze of lights there that would blind a shooting star. And your tail-light is on the burn. That's three counts. You seem to be sober."
"Thank Heaven. I am!" I returned. "Anything else?"
He grinned, and took down more information about me than would have filled a passport. Then he gave me a slip and told me to report to a certain San Francisco judge at ten in the morning.
"Isn't there any way out of the delay?" I I queried. "I'm trying to get north in a hurry."
"So I judged," he retorted. "Too much of a hurry. Well, I must say you've took it like a gent— Tell you what! Run along with me, and we'll drop in on a juslice of the peace. This is a first offense, so you can give bail—and forget it. See? Of course, we're not supposed to give this info, but—"
"But you're a gentleman." I added, "and I'll make it right with you. If you can fix that tail-light of mine, I'd appreciate it!"
"Jolted out o' contact, I guess," he said a moment later. "Go ahead!"
Half an hour later we were once more on our way, with full instructions as to the proper rate of speed; and I was minus fifty-five iron men, and lucky to get off that cheaply. But the whole thing had delayed us so that it was hard on midnight when we saw the gay white way of Van Ness Avenue off to our left. I halted the car and turned around.
"Asleep, comrade? No? Well, if you'll be good enough to give me orders, I'll take you wherever you're going."
M. J. B. gave me the name of a hotel on Sutter Street where she was known favorably, it seemed, and instructed me to drive up Van Ness. She appeared quite at home in the city. I followed her instructions, and ten minutes later drew up before the doorway of a quiet family hotel. I helped her out of the car with her suitcase, but she refused to let me take it inside for her. She held out her hand.
"Thank you, Mr. Desmond, for your kindness," she said earnestly. "And—I've been trying to think over what's right to do. Would you take some very serious advice from me?"
"I'd take anything from you," I said, smiling. "Shoot!"
"I am not joking, Mr. Desmond." she made grave response. "Please, please do not go on to the ranch! I can't give you any reasons; but I mean it deeply. For your own sake, do not go on to the ranch! Not until the end of the month at least. Good-by!"
She picked up her suit-case and was gone, leaving me staring after her.