The Steadfast Heart/Chapter 26

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CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

Early in October Bishwhang burst into the bank and rushed its length into Angus Burke’s office.
“It’s busted!” he said excitedly. “It hain’t no good! It’s petered out! You said you wanted to know.”
“What has petered out, Bishwhang? What are you talking about?” Angus asked.
“Them oil wells of the Judge’s. I heard you tellin’ Dave you was keepin’ track of ’em the best you could, and wished you could hear it quick if they fizzled…. Well, they fizzled. I heard the boss of it all say right out that ’twan’t no good. He says, says he, that the’ wan’t no ile—not enough to pay fer chawin’ tobaccer…. I heard him say it to Judge Crane, and the Judge was like to go crazy right on the spot. Yes, sir, that’s what happened, and I heard it….”
Angus questioned Bishwhang carefully, delved for corroborative detail. The facts as Bishwhang gave them seemed conclusive—the oil project was a failure; oil did not exist in quantities sufficient to warrant a continuation of the work…. It was clear to Angus that Crane would not dare admit failure, could, in the circumstances, do nothing but make pretense of going ahead—until the crash came. A crash was imminent, inevitable, and as a banker he dreaded the effects upon the community of a financial debacle of any sort…. But what to do? Crane was already toppling, could not be propped up. The man was so involved, financially and morally, that nothing could be saved from the wreckage—except, perhaps, the good name of the father of Henry G. Woodhouse’s heir…. Innocent persons would suffer, yet, so far as Angus could see, there was nothing he could do to avert it. With full knowledge of the imminent catastrophe he could do nothing but sit and await the dénouement…. He found himself pitying Judge Crane….
How deeply involved in moral turpitude Crane might be was a matter Angus could not estimate. He knew the Judge had hypothecated securities not his own, but to what extent it was impossible to say…. The Judge must be desperate. Never in his life had Angus wished so fervently for someone to lean upon, for the return of Mr. Woodhouse—for a hint at least of how Mr. Woodhouse would desire to conduct himself in the circumstances. How far, he asked himself, would Mr. Woodhouse be willing to go to save Crane’s good name and to preserve his forfeited honor?
This crisis in Crane’s affairs came at a time when Angus needed sorely something to occupy his mind. With such a problem before him constantly, he had scant leisure, save in the night hours, to give to Lydia Canfield…. This mental absorption did not kill his grief nor destroy the mental agony he experienced—it merely compelled those emotions to lie dormant. Always he was vaguely conscious of it, suppressed, lying in wait just under the surface, to surge upward and to engulf him…. It seemed strange to him that Lydia’s engagement to Malcolm Crane should hurt him so, for he had never expected to win her for himself; always he had known her to be unattainable…. The fact was that his pain was not the pain of loss, but the death of hope. Subconsciously he had hoped and dreamed. Reason may inform that one’s desire is impossible of fulfillment, yet, until the happening of some event which makes it irrevocably impossible, hope will persist. This definite event had occurred. Lydia had given herself to another and hope was dead….
He got up from his chair and went into the bank, where he stopped behind Gene Goff’s desk and said, “If Judge Crane comes in here to-day, ask him to step into my office…. No matter what he wants, don’t give it to him until I have seen him.”
“All right,” Gene said, and paused. “Say, I wonder when they’re goin’ to begin on the manufacturin’ company. I’ve got a hundred dollars into it.” He said this proudly, with the air of an investor. “I guess ’most everybody in Rainbow’s got somethin’ into it…. We’re all goin’ to make money. Sure.”
“I hope so,” said Angus.
“Have you got anythin’ into it?”
“Yes, Gene, a little,” said Angus, and returned to his office to wait…. An hour later, summoned to the office by a customer, he glanced casually through the window and saw young Mal Crane passing, suit case in hand. Angus wondered vaguely what the young man was doing at home, and decided, with a twinge, that he had come to spend Sunday with Lydia….
Shortly after noon Judge Crane entered the bank. His face was gray and drawn; his eyes glittered with an unpleasant, unnatural light, and his hands twitched nervously at his sides. There was something furtive about the man, something of the fugitive. He seemed strangely interested in what went on behind his back, for he persisted in turning every now and then to look. As he approached the teller’s window he drew himself together, dressed himself in something like his old pomposity, and with spurious nonchalance wished Gene Goff the time of day, the while he fumbled in an inner pocket. His actions were those of a man desiring to impress the beholder with the casualness, the unimportance of the thing he did.
Gene coughed. “Judge Crane, Mr. Burke said you was to step in to see him if you come in.”
Crane glared. “He did, did he?… Well, you tell him I’m too busy…. I—”
“He says I wasn’t to do any business with you ’till after he’d seen you,” Gene said.
“What does this mean? The impertinent puppy! I’ll see him. Oh, I’ll see him all right—and when I’m through he’ll have a new set of manners….” He flung himself away from the window and rushed toward Angus’s door, bursting into the room a-tremble with rage.
“Sit down, Judge Crane,” Angus said quietly. There was a tenseness, a decision, a sureness about Angus as he leaned forward in his chair which would have impressed another than his visitor…. He knew he stood on delicate ground, felt a breathlessness, a hollowness at the pit of his stomach—yet was resolved to go through with the matter as he hoped his employer would have gone through with it.
Crane did not sit down. His features worked as he struggled to speak; then words came in a torrent, jumbled, incoherent, passionate. He raved. Angus waited phlegmatically for the outburst to wear itself out…. Presently Crane found a measure of self-restraint. His spontaneous invective became forced and studied. “How dare you? How dare you order me to see you—as if I were a clerk? What do you mean by it, you—you—”
“Sit down, Judge,” said Angus. “We may be a long time.”
“Sit down! You impertinent—”
“I am trying to find some way out—for you,” Angus said. “Because Mr. Woodhouse would want me to…. You are bankrupt. There is no oil….”
“No oil. What are you talking about? Who told you that cock-and-bull story?”
“There is no oil,” Angus said. “You have lost every cent you have in the world. That is your business. Where Mr. Woodhouse will be interested is—is the other part of it.”
“What other part? What are you talking about?”
“The embezzlement part,” Angus said baldly.
Crane’s eyes widened, glared with a light akin to insanity. His face went dead white, and for an instant he seemed to be paralyzed in all his members. He struggled to speak, but no sounds came save an incoherent jibbering of mingled fright and rage. “…Lie…. Jailbird!… Filthy swine!…”
“I know,” Angus said, in the same dead level voice he had employed from the beginning. “I know you have embezzled and hypothecated securities deposited with you in trust. I do not know how many or to what amount. It is that you must tell me.”
“Tell you—tell you—you—you murderer! You jailbird! You—you scum!…”
Angus passed the words, though he flinched and paled. “I am bound,” he said, “for Mr. Woodhouse’s sake to do what I can—” But he never finished, for Crane turned suddenly, with an imprecation, and strode toward the door. He flung it open, stood an instant glaring, white-faced, terrible of eye, at Angus. Then he slammed the door and disappeared…. Angus sighed, leaned his head upon his arms, and the knuckles of his clenched fists showed white. The ordeal had been more terrible than he had anticipated.
Fifteen minutes later Gene rapped on the door and Angus summoned him to enter.
“Well,” said Gene, “we finished it up. Took a doggone long time to count, though—and what with him pesterin’ me to hurry, I thought I’d never git done.”
“What’s that? Counting what?”
“All that money—for the Judge. Dum nigh to fifty thousand dollars…. Ought to give a feller warnin’ so’s he could git ready for that big a withdrawal.”
Angus felt curiously cold, curiously dead. “Do—do you say you—counted fifty thousand dollars for Judge Crane?”
“Like you said. Uh-huh. He said you’n him had agreed it was better to deposit the funds of the manufacturin’ company in a city bank—that that was what you wanted to see him about…. So he drawed his check as treasurer and I give it to him.”
Angus sat staring at Gene so fixedly that the teller became uneasy, frightened. “D’ye mean,” he gasped, “that suthin’s wrong?”
“Wrong!” Angus said. “Wrong!… Here’s Mr. Woodhouse’s address. Wire him to come home at once…. I’m going after Crane. Keep—keep a still tongue in your head.”
“What—what’s it all mean?”
“Judge Crane,” said Angus, “has just absconded with the capital of the Novelties Company—and I’m going after him.” As soon as the words were out he would have recalled them, but there could be no recall. He seized Gene’s shoulders and shook him. “You’re to keep quiet about it—quiet. Do you understand?… Nobody must know—such a thing—about Judge Crane.”
Before Gene could reply Angus was out of the room and hurrying up the street. Crane had preceded him by a quarter of an hour; had entered his own automobile and had driven rapidly out of town toward the west…. Craig Browning’s car was standing before his office and Angus commandeered it—he had often driven Henry G. Woodhouse on errands about the countryside—and set out in pursuit.
Craig Browning had a nice taste in cars of high power and great speed. Never had this car been driven so rapidly as Angus Burke drove it to-day, for he drove as a man can drive only when he has utterly forgotten himself and the fragility of his neck; when the objective to be gained erases from his mind all self-consciousness…. The westward road stretched, with sundry turnings, some twenty-five miles to Deal; Angus told himself he must overtake Judge Crane before that twenty-five miles was traversed; must overtake and compel him to return to Rainbow….
In his hurried thoughts he blamed himself; where he had sought to aid, to save if possible, he had precipitated the catastrophe. He had thrown Crane into sudden panic, so that the man, incapable of reasoning, had seen no course but theft and flight…. So reasoned Angus, but in this he was wrong. For Crane had planned, and being an opportunist, had been cunning enough to avail himself of an opportunity. He had come face to face with ruin, and not being of that fiber which dares to escape into nothingness, had chosen rather the coward’s part of flight. He had come to the bank that day for no other purpose but that of withdrawing the funds of the Novelties Company, the savings of his fellow-townsmen, and of disappearing into a world which finds mysterious methods of hiding those who have sufficient funds to pay…. He chose the life of a fugitive, hunted, photographed, hounded, to facing exposure and prison…. The choice was deliberate.
Craig Browning’s yellow car seemed to flatten itself to the macadam; it appeared, not to speed along upon four wheels, but to pour, fluidlike, along the road. Five minutes, ten minutes, a quarter of an hour Angus pressed the accelerator to the floorboards, knowing well that he traveled two miles to Crane’s utmost possible one…. In half an hour he saw, far ahead, the dust of a speeding car. It drew nearer, nearer, became clearly discernible. Angus’s eyes were glued to its tail; his face was grim, and he drove grimly—a set, inexorable figure. Crane did not look back, did not realize pursuit until Craig Browning’s horn shrieked out its raucous warning demand for half the road. Then he swerved aside, sitting hunched over the wheel, his chin buried in his breast as if with some thought of hiding his face…. Angus drew alongside, slackened his speed and held the position….
“Judge Crane!…” he shouted.
Above the roaring of the engines the sound reached Crane’s consciousness; he turned his face and his features mirrored first astonishment, then unbelief, then wild, unbalanced terror. For an instant the cars raced side by side, then, as if the strain were too great to be supported, Crane’s hands twitched upon the wheel; their grip must have loosened, for the car swerved sharply…. Its forward wheel overtopped the edge of the ditch and it took the plunge, careening wildly, rocking, swaying, sliding—until with a terrific crash it encountered a tree. There it seemed to pause for an appreciable instant before it buckled, slid to the right and overturned….
Angus brought his car to a stop, leaped to the ground and ran appalled to the wreckage…. Judge Crane lay to one side, his right arm beneath him, a leg bent at a gruesome, impossible angle, his head twisted queerly…. Angus knelt beside him, raised him, looked in his face—and needed no physician to tell him that Judge Crane’s course was run…. His neck was broken. He was dead.
Angus, frightened by the calamity as any boy would be frightened, bewildered, almost in a panic, scanned the road for help, but there was none—no one upon whom to rely but himself…. He laid his enemy upon the grass and backed his car to the spot; his strength permitted him to lift the Judge and to place him gently in the tonneau…. Then, from the wreckage of the car he extricated Judge Crane’s bag, made certain that what he sought was there and placed it upon the seat beside himself…. This done, he turned the car toward Rainbow….
Half an hour later he drew up before the bank, not conscious of the crowd which had gathered before the door…. He alighted. Judge Crane’s bag gripped in his hand, and forced his way to the door, unaware how he was compelled to force his way, or how exclamations and questions rained upon him from his excited neighbors…. He walked to the teller’s wicket and pushed the bag toward Gene.
“There it is,” he said. “I—got it back.” He paused, swayed, clung to the grating. “Judge Crane is—outside,” he finished, and then sank limply into a chair….