The Running Fight - William Hamilton Osborne - E-Book

The Running Fight E-Book

William Hamilton Osborne

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Beschreibung

First published in 1910 by William Hamilton Osborne (1873-1942), this book tells the thrilling tale of millionaire Peter V. Wilkinson, on trial for larceny, forgery, and perjury in the wake of a crashing stock market. In this wicked plot of conspiracy, betrayal, and attempted murder, is anyone truly innocent?

This work is in the public domain in the United States of America, and possibly other nations.

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Table of contents

I

II

III

IV

V

VI

VII

VIII

IX

X

XI

XII

XIII

XIV

XV

XVI

XVII

XVIII

XIX

XX

XXI

XXII

XXIII

I

Once, twice, thrice,—failing miserably in his attempt to appear unconcerned,—Ilingsworth paced back and forth in front of Peter V. Wilkinson's big house in Riverside Drive. There it stood: a massive, forbidding, modern pile of limestone, wholly unlike anything in its vicinity. And yet, now that the time had come, Ilingsworth's face wore a confused, half-fearful look, a sense of uncertainty possessed him, which was all the more maddening because so far, at least, there had been no obstacles or delays in this brief, turbulent journey of his; on the contrary, all had gone well with him, and like a falcon in pursuit of its prey he had sped on the straightest of straight lines towards a person of the name of Leslie Wilkinson, and this person, so Ilingsworth assured himself, would soon feel his claws.

From a distance, it is true, Wilkinson's imposing structure had differed little from that which his imagination had led him to expect. It was like the pictures he had seen of it many times in the papers; so like, in fact, that even now in his extremity he could feel the strange, exultant pride he had experienced but a few short months ago when exhibiting to Elinor a counterfeit presentment of it in a monthly magazine. And, certainly, he had every right to be proud, at least, so he thought then,—for was not he, Elinor's father, Giles Ilingsworth of Morristown, a close business associate of Peter V. Wilkinson, the great financier? His business associate! Ugh! The very thought of it now made him shiver, tortured him. Indeed, to such an extent that, on nearing the place, his vengeful purpose was kindled anew, and his right hand took a fresh grip on an object of sinister shape hidden in his pocket. At that moment Ilingsworth had but one idea: to get it over with as soon as possible.
But once actually in front of the Wilkinson mansion, when his eyes sweeping upward had failed to catch the point of view of the press photographers, a feeling akin to panic had come over him; and he had passed and repassed, unable to force himself to the point of making an inquiry of a passerby. And yet, what could he do to make certain? And then, as if in answer to his half-smothered cries of "Is this Wilkinson's? There must be no mistake..." there fell on his ears the raucous squeal of a megaphone, and, turning whence came the sound, he beheld a crowded tourists' sight-seeing car rolling slowly and laboriously along the Drive, its interlocutor busily engaged in the practice of his genteel profession.
"We now perceive the palatial residence of Peter V. Wilkinson, the multi-millionaire—the ten-million-dollar steal trust—so-called from the habit of its owner in stealing trust companies."
This exceptionally brilliant play upon words was instantly rewarded by a titter from some of the occupants of the car, and the perpetrator, encouraged, proceeded:
"This house contains no less than eighty-four rooms; has twenty-four bathrooms, not to speak of the Turkish bath; has paintings worth a million or two; the rugs cost half a million, at least; and nearly a million pounds of bronze has been used in its construction. Wilkinson's second wife—Maggie Lane, when he married her, now Mrs. Margaret Lane Wilkinson,—is said to be the handsomest woman in the block." He paused to heighten the effect of what was to follow; then trumpeted: "That is, on this end of the block. Peter V. Wilkinson owns seventeen trust companies in the City of New York. He is president of the famous, and now notorious, Interstate Trust Company which closed its doors last week. Also president of the Tri-State Trust—the largest trust company in the world, now toppling on the brink of the precipice...."
So the voice droned on, the car laboured on, and the passengers, already sufficiently gorged with Wilkinson's affairs, would have been spared any further enlightenment had not the eye of this dispenser of metropolitan information lighted upon Ilingsworth as the latter, trying to escape attention, stepped into the low-arched doorway of the Wilkinson home. The opportunity was too good to be lost.
"The gentleman," proceeded the privileged lecturer, "now entering this impressive imperial mansion, is not Peter V. Wilkinson. Note the sinister expression of the back of his head and the peculiar attitude of his right arm!" The megaphone turned itself directly upon Ilingsworth, and kept on: "He looks like a disgruntled depositor of the Interstate Trust Company—what if he be making a call for the purpose of putting a pill into the proprietor? What?"
Ilingsworth turned an involuntary, startled glance toward the car. Despite a desperate effort at self-control, he was visibly alarmed, and jerked his hand swiftly from the confines of his pocket. Amidst a chorus of laughter at his action the car rolled on. Ilingsworth turned back to the entrance of the house, muttering to himself:
"They little know, they little know...."
Presently he pulled himself together and pressed the button with that same right hand, then squared his shoulders, once more dropping both hands at his side. There was a short interval of waiting, during which he kept repeating to himself, as though conning some essential lesson:
"Leslie Wilkinson—Leslie Wilkinson, that's the man I want to see."
Suddenly a heavy door was swung open inward and a butler stood before him, bowing.
"Leslie Wilkinson," demanded Ilingsworth somewhat explosively. There w as no prefix to the name—Ilingsworth was not considering the conventionalities. He had come fresh from the confidential reports of Wall Street detectives. Those two words had seared themselves into his brain.
The butler looked surprised, shocked, that is, so far as his rigid training would permit.
"Leslie Wilkinson," he repeated doubtfully, as though already hypnotised into the other's trend of thought.
"Leslie Wilkinson," said Ilingsworth, "and right away."
The servant bowed.
"Who shall I say, sir?"
Ilingsworth smiled. It was all too easy, so it seemed. He felt as though the fates were with him, as though before him lay the path to victory. His breath came short and fast as he thought of the possibilities: for if he should succeed, Elinor forever would be safe—could take her rightful place in society.
"There's my card," he said, drawing forth his wallet.
Instantly the butler became obsequious, for not only did he perceive that the visitor bore himself as a gentleman, but he recognised the card as an open-sesame to his master. He handled it with infinite respect. It read:
MR. GILES ILINGSWORTH
Vice-President of the
Tri-State Trust Company,
New York.
"Your pardon, sir," said the butler before he closed the door, and With a nod of the head towards the street. "Your car—does it need attention, sir? Our garage is only half a block away. Shall I send out and tell your chauffeur, sir?"
Ilingsworth's glance followed that of the butler's. A blue limousine stood throbbing at the curb. It had evidently been there all the while, though Ilingsworth had failed to observe it.
"It's not my car," he returned brusquely.
Again a puzzled look came over the servant's face, but concealing his embarrassment, he closed the door.
"Very good, sir," he said. "Kindly step this way."
Ilingsworth followed him down the long hall to the entrance of a room before which stood another servant.
"Step into the reception-room, sir, if you please," said the butler. But, to the astonishment of both men, the footman advanced and waved them back, saying:
"One moment, please, sir." And oblivious to the fact that Ilingsworth was standing in the middle of the broad hall, he drew the butler to one side, whispered in a confidential, off-duty aside: "You must not take him in there. Put him somewhere else."
"Why not?" asked the butler. "Who's in there?"
The footman became inexcusably mysterious. He looked about him on all sides to see that he was unheard. Then he shaded his mouth with his hand and placed his lips close to the other's ear.
"Her," he whispered.
The butler eyed the footman sharply.
"Her!" he exclaimed. "Who's she?"
"There's only one her," he answered, and pursed his lips as though about to perpetrate an explosion. And then it came: "Miss Braine, of course. Here's her card."
The man who had admitted Giles Ilingsworth stiffened when he looked upon this card, which read:
MISS MADELINE BRAINE
The Llandegraff
——th Street and
the Drive.
"Not the governor's ...?"
"The same."
"What's she doing here?"
For answer the footman merely shrugged his shoulders.
"When did she come?" asked the butler.
"Ten minutes or so ago."
"But I didn't see her come."
"I let her in; you were downstairs."
The butler came as near to a whistle as any butler on duty ever came. What is more, in his agitation at this new and unexpected crisis, he quite forgot the presence of Giles Ilingsworth, vice-president of the largest trust company in the world.
"There'll be the devil to pay if the missus sees her! Did she ask for——"
"She came to see the governor," interrupted the footman, shaking his head; "and what's more, she says she's going to wait until he comes."
The butler knitted his brows.
"You were a fool to let her in! Is that her car outside?"
"Don't you know it when you see it?"
The mention of the car forced the butler's thoughts back to Ilingsworth. He started toward the financier of the Tri-State Company with abundant apology upon his lips.
"I beg your pardon, sir ..." he began, and then stopped. For as he passed the door of the reception-room he was able to peer into it, and by some servant's trick to sweep every corner of it with his glance. It was a room void of hangings, almost bare in its rich simplicity—one of those triumphs of interior decoration. The butler's face was pale as he retraced his steps and once more faced his fellow-servant.
"There's not a soul in there—see for yourself."
The other did see for himself, and he, too, looked bewildered.
"But I put her in there, and I put her there to stay. I didn't leave her for more than half a second. Where's she gone?"
Instantly the butler took charge of the situation, and in commanding sotto voce directed the other to look in the library, the music-room, the Louis XIV. room, even in the grand salon.
The search was conducted quietly and with decorum, and it is only due to these two past-masters of the art of footmanship to say that this dialogue had taken an almost infinitesimal space of time, that its utterance had been practically inaudible, and that Ilingsworth, the guest to whom these two had owed a very present duty, had not yet begun to realise that his interests were in any wise neglected.
But the footman came back disgruntled, disturbed, and wailing that she was not to be found. And then it was that the butler stepped once more to the side of Giles Ilingsworth and said somewhat contritely:
"Beg your pardon, sir, but would you mind stepping into 'the Den,'" all the while showing the way. "It's Mr. Wilkinson's favourite place, his private room, sir, for seeing all his friends—business and otherwise, sir—yes, sir."
Ilingsworth followed where the butler led. And then, turning sharply upon him, he repeated:
"I'm waiting to see Leslie Wilkinson. Do you understand?"
"Very good, sir."
Alone in "the Den" Ilingsworth smiled as he looked about him. Fate w as surely favouring him. The Den was a quasi-business office and smoking-room, a room where anybody might be interviewed by anybody of the household. It was in this room that Tiffany's man displayed his biggest, newest jewels to Mrs. Peter V.; it was in this room that Mrs. Peter V.'s women friends would drop in evenings for a chat with Peter V. as he smoked a black cigar; it was the comfortable place of the whole, big house. But to Ilingsworth it was something more: it was the place best fitted for the arena of events as events had shaped themselves. "The Den" had but one window—a high window that ran along one side of the wall just underneath the black-beamed ceiling and just above a long, comfortable, leather seat that ran along the wall. The window was above the head of an ordinary man, and was composed of leaded glass. It gave but little light, and afforded no view at all of the world without. For the rest, there was a big, flat-topped desk, heavy, leather-covered lounging-chairs, and heavy, dark red curtains everywhere about the walls. And but a single door.
"The place I've dreamed about," Ilingsworth thought to himself. For an instant he stood drinking in all of its details in some sort of gleeful ecstasy—the ecstasy of a man who feels the end of the journey near. And then, suddenly, he became all action. He stepped to the desk upon which stood a desk-telephone upon a standard, and a small mahogany tablet with two push-buttons on its surface.
"I can't understand why it's all so easy," he told himself; and the next moment he drew from his left coat-pocket a pair of wire-cutters, and with two sudden, jerky twists of his right wrist he clipped the flexible green-covered wires that connected the push-buttons and the telephone, and twisted the unconnected ends down and out of sight. It was his first advent in this house of Wilkinson, and yet he had rehearsed the scene in his waking hours and in his sleep so many, many times, that he did it without nervousness and without fear. So that he was not surprised to find himself more than practise-perfect. He glanced about the room for evidences of other wires, buttons, bells and speaking tubes, and then swooped down upon the door.
"If only it has a key!" he thought; and the next moment he almost cried out joyfully, for he found that it had not only a key, but that it might be bolted from the inside.
"And when it's bolted," he assured himself, "What sound can penetrate beyond its walls?"
Beyond its walls! The phrase, somehow, kept ringing in his ears; to him there was music in it. He never thought of the walls themselves; nor had he ever asked himself whether behind those rich and heavy hanging curtains there might not be other means of exit.
He took his place behind the open door.
"Now for the crisis," he said calmly to himself.
And plunging his hand once more into his coat-pocket he produced a gun—a modern, hammerless revolver that he had selected with considerable care, after consulting the advertisements in the magazines, and after reading the booklets of their makers. This gun he had selected, not only on account of its particular efficiency, but also because of its remarkably repulsive look. It bore the same formidable appearance compared with the large family of fire-arms as the bull-dog does to his canine race. It was a weapon of peculiarly terrifying appearance—and that was what he wanted. For the rest, it was a .32 calibre, and upon its handle it bore the maker's name and a number—a number that belonged to this particular weapon and to no other weapon of this make in the whole wide world.
Suddenly the sound of footsteps in the hall without reached his ears. Every nerve tingled with his purpose; every muscle became rigid and alert.
"Now!" he exclaimed.
" ... Wilkinson," said the voice.
It was a mumbled announcement of some sort which came from the butler. Ilingsworth waited until he had retreated, and only when he was certain that but one figure had entered the room, was looking about in wonder at its apparent emptiness, did he slowly, swiftly close the door, lock it, bolt it, and finally place his back against it. Then, levelling the weapon, he extended it toward the person who had entered.
"Seat yourself at that desk," he commanded, a dangerous note in his voice; "and don't make any outcry, or I'll——"
He stopped short and lowered his weapon.
"Why—I——" he stammered, growing red-faced as he spoke.
It was a mere wisp of a girl who confronted him—a girl full-throated and full-bosomed, and upon whom the gods had conferred that dazzling of all dazzling charms: light hair and dark brown eyes. Fascinating she was even to Ilingsworth, bewildering, too, as she gazed upon him in sudden fear, her eyes widening, her lips parted.
"I—I beg your pardon," he stammered, consternation making it difficult for him to speak. "I was expecting quite another person—Leslie Wilkinson."
Too frightened to reply the girl merely stood and gazed at him. For a moment she remained thus, and then, with the shudder of one who shakes from her some horrible nightmare, she found her voice and said:
"Why, I'm Miss Wilkinson—Leslie Wilkinson!"
Ilingsworth could hardly believe his ears.
"You—you are Leslie Wilkinson!" he broke out. "Surely there must be some mistake. Leslie is a man's name, isn't it?"
The girl struggled to regain her composure. Dumbfounded and confused though he was, Ilingsworth saw this, and with a hasty movement thrust the revolver behind his back. And still facing her, he retreated to a small table at the far corner of the room, and leaned against it, thus concealing the weapon. In a measure this action of his reassured the girl. Her countenance broke into a tremulous smile, though her breast rose and fell tumultuously and her breath came in gasps.
"Yes," she replied in an endeavour to gain time, "Leslie is a man's name except when it happens to be a girl's name, too. My name is Leslie—I'm a girl—you see."
But again terror seized her. The man before her was undoubtedly insane, she thought, and she glanced widely about the room for some avenue of escape. There was only the door, and like some startled, wild thing, she broke into a run toward it. But half way across the room she halted, throwing over her shoulder a glance of fear toward Ilingsworth, and then slowly retreated to her position at the desk.
"Please don't shoot!" she pleaded. "I promise you I won't try to get away!"
Slowly, cautiously, Ilingsworth stretched forth his left hand. It was evident that he did not wish to frighten the girl.
"Don't be afraid," he assured her, and so quietly and courteously now that it seemed to the girl as if another man was speaking. "I'm not going to shoot—I shall stay right where I am, don't fear. If you wish you may go now." But as she started to go he leaned forward and said: "You're free to go,"—there was a pathetic note in his voice now,—"but I would like to tell you something—to explain my presence here. I came here looking for Leslie Wilkinson—the son of Peter V. Wilkinson, and——"
"But," she interrupted, in a puzzled way, "but my father has no son—I'm his only child."
Ilingsworth bowed his head.
"I know that now," he answered, "but I didn't know it before. I was looking for a conspirator of Peter V. Wilkinson's, and I thought I had run him down. I thought I had, indeed.... You must not be frightened," he went on hastily, "and don't think me crazy. I'm only horribly nervous. I've been desperate for weeks. I wouldn't harm you for the world—I have a daughter of my own. But you must hear me out—I've got to tell this to somebody—somebody who believes me, or I'll go mad. No, no," he pleaded, for she seemed about to leave him. "My name is—why, here's my card—I'm——"
"Oh, to be sure, Mr. Giles Ilingsworth, Vice-President of the Tri-State," she said smilingly, giving a hasty look at the card in his hand. "I remember, now, a quarter of an hour ago I wondered what you might want with me. You see I dressed all up for you," and she flashed a glance of coquetry toward him that was meant to captivate and appease, for she was still under the impression that she was dealing with an insane man: not for one moment did she believe that the Vice-President of the Tri-State stood before her.
Ilingsworth turned pale as he watched her. Although apparently indifferent to her words, her marvellous self-possession and witchery were by no means lost on him. With something of a pang he realised that it was easily explainable. She was Wilkinson's daughter; she had her share of his wonderful steadiness of nerve. He sighed. How many times had he given thanks that Elinor was all woman, all heart, gentle, yielding. And yet, how much better for her if she had some of the qualities that Wilkinson seemed to have infused into his offspring. Little did he know that Elinor was fashioned in his own mould; that the dark-eyed, warm-faced girl that he had left at home had inherited his impulsiveness, for he had been denied the even balance accorded to other business men. Compared with the caressing tenderness of his girl Elinor, this girl who faced him seemed, perhaps, too well-balanced. But though he did not know it, he was mistaken: Leslie Wilkinson, though of a different type, was fully as feminine.
"Elinor," he groaned half to himself.
"Mr. Ilingsworth," Leslie began, breaking in on his musings, "may I ask what you want with Leslie Wilkinson?"
Her question roused him. The blood forced itself into his temples until the veins stood out like whipcords on his skull; desperation furrowed his brow and lined his face.
"I want nothing of Leslie Wilkinson except my own," he answered sullenly. "There's a quarter of a million dollars that belongs to me—a quarter of a million dollars—every dollar that I've got in this world—every dollar that I ever had."
"But," protested the girl, "I haven't your money."
Ilingsworth raised his eyebrows. It was plain that he doubted her, though she spoke with every indication of honesty and frankness.
"You haven't any money, any stocks, bonds, deeds, or anything of the kind?"
"I have what my mother left me," was her quiet answer. "She died some time ago."
"How much was it?" he persisted.
"Why do you ask?" she returned, annoyed.
Ilingsworth made a gesture of impatience and again he asked:
"How much was it?"
"Less—than a million," the girl faltered. "About three-quarters, I should say. I have the figures somewheres—but what is it to you?"
The man brushed away her answer as though the three-quarters of a million were a mere dross.
"Tell me the truth!" he cried. "For heaven's sake don't lie to me! I'm a broken man! You've got fifty million dollars, possibly a hundred million standing in your name. What do you suppose I've spent my last few thousands for but to get information that was reliable and positive. I know Peter V. Wilkinson—and I'm the only one, I'll wager, who knows the truth. Next week, next year, the world will say that Wilkinson is bankrupt—without a dollar in the world. But I know—I've found out. There is not another man in the world who could do the thing he's done—strip a million people of their savings and hide it so successfully. That's Wilkinson! Now whom could he trust—but you? You've got it all!"
The girl was pale, but there was a new light in her eyes. She began to perceive that the man who confronted her was not a mere overwrought specimen of mankind. However much he might be mistaken this time, he was talking with the force of business habit.
"You know as well as I, Mr. Ilingsworth, that I can't very well discuss these matters with you," she said frankly. "My father is ruined—I don't believe he will come out of this with a dollar. Who is responsible for his ruin, I do not know." Little wrinkles creased her forehead; she stopped uncertain how to continue. "It's the panic, I suppose," she went on presently, "and he's gone down under it like other Wall Street men. Only the blow—he suffered, perhaps, more than the others."
Ilingsworth's lip curled.
"I know," he began emphatically, "I know that Peter V. Wilkinson is still worth from fifty to a hundred million dollars—money sucked like life-blood from the populace. I know that and more—his entire fortune stands, in a manner and by a method that no one ever will suspect, in your name. Your name, of course—whom else could he trust? Surely not his second wife, with all that money? You know that well enough."
"Mr. Ilingsworth, I——"
"And because you had these millions," went on Ilingsworth hurriedly, excitedly, "among them my quarter of a million, not mine, but Elinor's,—do you know what that means to her?"
Leslie was strangely affected. She felt her consciousness vacillating between a sense of danger and a sense of pity. Surreptitiously, during the first part of the interview, she had pressed the button for assistance, and had discovered, later, the disconnection of the wires. Just what to do she did not know. Above all, she realised that she must propitiate this man—this man with the grievance, real or fancied, whose statements, if true, gave her the desire to hear more; if untrue, rendered him all the more a man of danger. Impulsively she held out her hand, and said softly:
"Do tell me about your daughter—Elinor—Mr. Ilingsworth."
Immediately Ilingsworth dropped his air of aggressiveness. He advanced slowly toward her, his right hand still in his coat-pocket, but, as he approached her, he drew forth that hand, and with it, a small photograph.
"That's Elinor,"—he said, his face lighting up wonderfully,—"as she was about a year ago—about the time I met your father. If I had known that you existed, I should have wished that she could know you."
Leslie took the picture from his hand and looked long and intently at it. To her surprise she saw that this was no ordinary face. The girl was evidently petite, with an expression on her face that seemed to ask for the world's fond protection as well as its admiration; a girl with her soul in her eyes, at any rate, so it seemed to Leslie.
"Oh, she's pretty!" she exclaimed. "But someone must always take care of her—always, always."
"You've said it, though I never even thought it!" he cried. "And you, a stranger, see it—that appeal for protection, that wistfulness, that——" Abruptly he stopped and glanced quickly toward the heavy hangings on the wall toward the right—a strange, startled glance it was.
Leslie followed the direction of his gaze wonderingly.
"I had a feeling, somehow," he said, fastening his steely grey eyes suspiciously on her, "that we were not alone."
And indeed Ilingsworth would have been all the more startled had he known that his fancy embodied the truth. For behind the dull red curtains breathed a mortal who had heard, had seen, everything.

II

However successful Ilingsworth believed he had been in his effort to persuade himself that his intuitive faculties had been at fault, when they warned him of some alien presence in the room, it must be acknowledged that he continued to look a little tentatively. At length, however, his uneasiness wore off, and his manner, while again holding out the picture for Leslie to look upon, softened so perceptibly that it would have given one the impression that his visit there was more in the nature of a social call than the tempestuous errand of business vengeance that it was.

"I wish you had known her," Ilingsworth said; "and I'm rather surprised that you don't. We're Morristown people, you know, and Elinor, well, Elinor's friends are all very nice people. Even in New York, she——"
Leslie's eyes sought the ground.
"We go out very little here," she said. "Of course I have my friends, and there was a time.... But since my father married a second time, why——" This girlish confidence trailed off into uncertainty. She handed back the photograph. "But I should like to know her," she declared with sincerity. "I wish you did," he began, and then added, "even in the light of present things, I wish you did."
In the silence that followed Leslie fell to wondering about the man before her, and it did not take her long to decide that she liked him. He was not, it is true, of the same shrewd, practical mould as her father. But she recognised that he had the high-strung temperament, so often a characteristic of the aristocrat. The sense of fear was fast leaving her.
"I—I'm going to apologise," he began at length, "for the fright I've given you, though my purpose hasn't flagged. And if I had a man to deal with—if I had met Peter V. Wilkinson, face to face again, who knows but the demon in me would come once more to the fore. You say you can't understand. Let me explain to you how it was: Up to thirteen months ago we, Elinor and I, had a quarter of a million dollars—that means nearly fifteen thousand dollars a year. And fifteen thousand in Morristown means decent living—even here in New York it would mean that. Then I met Wilkinson." His face grew livid, his hand clenched. "May heaven forgive me, why didn't I understand it was my quarter of a million that this vampire——"
The girl drew herself up and quickly interrupted him.
"Mr. Ilingsworth, I must remind you that you are speaking of my father."
There was no mistaking her anger. Her eyes blazed, and it seemed to rouse the tiger in him.
"Yes, I'm speaking of your father!" he cried. "And if you've never heard the truth before, you will hear it now. Moreover, if I am any judge of human nature, you'll know whether I am stating facts or otherwise. Thirteen months ago Peter V. Wilkinson sought me out. I thought I was seeking him,"—he laughed bitterly,—"but I was wrong. He sought me out and placed me high up in his companies. I was successful—which meant that he had succeeded in his scheme. I did not see it then; but now I know that the man who is willing to stoop low enough to rope in the pennies of the Bridgets, the Michaels, the Lenas, and the Gustaves, of this world, is a man who would spend his time and money to get my quarter of a million—mine and Elinor's—in his grasp. But then I was flattered. It meant big salary and big dividends for me, at least, so I was assured."
He faltered for an instant, and then went on:
"I was a fool—a fool, not to see it all before. The result is that now I haven't got a dollar—we're penniless."
"My father," returned the girl, calmly enough, "will have less than that, when all is said and done. This house, though it's in the name of Mrs. Wilkinson, will have to be sold, I presume. I don't see why you make a fuss over it—it was the panic, wasn't it? Everybody went down before it. That is, a great many Wall Street men are bankrupt. So, why do you complain?"
"I complain because your father has got my quarter of a million—either he's got it, or you have."
"I told you before that I have none of my father's money. I have my mother's money only—less than a million, that's all."
"The panic!" went on Ilingsworth bitterly, ignoring her protest. "Yes, that's just like Wilkinson to lay it to the panic! That's what they all do! I tell you the panic was not the cause; it was the excuse. I wonder if you have ever stopped to realise what a trust company is for?"
"Why, to save people's money, of course," was the girl's ready answer. "Just like a bank, isn't it?"
Ilingsworth almost snorted. It was a strange colloquy, this conversation between the man of middle age and the girl. It had a curious interest that neither could have defined. The girl, on her part, felt that Ilingsworth represented, somehow, the criticism and abuse that the world was heaping on Peter V. Wilkinson. She wanted to estimate its full force, to weigh its import, and then to defend her father with every fibre of her being; Ilingsworth, on the other hand, felt the need of a confidant who would understand, for Elinor of the wistful eyes could only sympathise. This young woman knew what he was talking about.
"Miss Wilkinson," he burst out now, "you surprise me! I thought you were more of a business woman than I am a business man. But I find you're not. Let me explain it to you. Jones wants to run a factory; Smith wants to speculate in real estate; Robinson wants to buck the Wall Street game. Now they haven't got a dollar, so what do they do? They buy a trust company."
The girl opened her eyes wide.
"That's nonsense!" she exclaimed. "How can anyone buy a trust company without a dollar!"
Ilingsworth's smile was full of meaning.
"It's the kind of nonsense your own father has been dealing in for years," he returned, placing his hand upon her arm. "They buy the trust company, and put up its own stock as security for the purchase price—then they go ahead. Jones runs his factory; Smith buys and sells real estate; Robinson bucks the game upon the Street...."
"And without money?" reiterated the girl, still incredulous.
" With money," corrected Ilingsworth, his voice even and unexcited now, "with the money of Mike and Bridget and Carl and Sophy, depositors who put their hard-earned dollars in to get a few cents interest—two per cent., to be exact—while Jones and his crowd are making two hundred per cent. on the money. But Jones isn't through—he wants more. So he and his crowd buy another trust company, put up the stock of the first as collateral, or any way you please,—there's no end to the game,—and this crowd go on with their speculation, using the people's money, and gathering in the cream. They never stop; and just so long as everything is prosperous, so long are the trust companies sound. Then, in the fullness of time, comes the panic,"—and with his clenched hands he smote the top of the desk,—"smash!"
The girl showed that she had been following him closely when she maintained:
"Still, that's only your point of view. At any rate, it was a venture, and when the panic came—everybody goes under. These people don't create the panic."
Ilingsworth gritted his teeth.
"I haven't finished!" he cried. "Out of all this crowd of Jones, Smith and Robinson, there is always one man who understands the game. He owns seventeen trust companies; he's milked them dry. He's been waiting for a panic; the panic comes. Now he throws up his hands, tells the people he's been a fool with the rest, and shows up worthless stock—waste-paper by the ton that he has bought for just nothing a pound. But he's got all that the people haven't got, and he's salted it away. And that man's name is Peter V. Wilkinson."
Leslie's face paled.
"Mr. Ilingsworth," she cried sharply, "do you really believe all that you've been telling me?"
Ilingsworth stared her wearily in the face.
"The Norahs and the Ludwigs, perhaps, don't mind losing their few dollars," he replied vaguely; "but I want to tell you that when I—when Elinor and I lose fifteen thousand a year—and how many years there are ahead of us—it's killing! Killing! And you ask do I believe all that I've been telling you?" He roused himself to sudden energy. "Believe? Why, heavens and earth, I know, I know...."
There was a pause in which Ilingsworth's eyes sought the floor. Presently he looked up and held out his hand.
"Miss Wilkinson," he said contritely, "for what I've done, or tried to do this afternoon, I suppose you could have me put in jail—in an asylum. If I had only myself to think of, I shouldn't mind. However, I beg you to keep it to yourself, if you feel you can. I see things clearer now...."
Leslie took the offered hand.
"But you weren't going to shoot Leslie Wilkinson, if he'd been a man?"
Ilingsworth shook his head.
"To tell the truth, Miss Wilkinson, I wasn't. My intention was to frighten him...."
"You succeeded admirably," she answered, with a frank laugh. Then she added: "What were you going to frighten him into doing?"
Ilingsworth's hand strayed to his forehead.
"I was going to compel him to sign a check, turn over stock, restore to me my quarter of a million, somehow."
The girl smiled as she asked:
"But how could he do it in this room? Surely you didn't expect him to have any stocks or money here? And if he gave a check, you know payment on it could be stopped the instant you had left. And, anyway, how could you get out unscathed? I can't just see how you could...."
Ilingsworth stared at her, fascinated. He felt his vision clear. He realised now that she was right; that for weeks he had suffered the curse of, the desperate; that he had been robbed of the one thing that the desperate man needs—deliberation. He had possessed purpose, force—the purpose to force the issue at the point of a murderous revolver, but when it came to the execution.... And what about the result? To what end would it all tend? Until now he had never thought of that.
"I believe you're right, after all," he said somewhat sheepishly, and started toward the door. "May I ask you for your promise not to expose me," he entreated, "for the sake of Elinor?"
Leslie bowed her head. Now that it was all over, she was on the verge of hysteria. "Mr. Ilingsworth, I won't say a word about it," she promised, "unless the time comes when I think it necessary.... This panic seems to have made us all half crazy—even my father seems so most of the time. Good-bye!"
Somewhat incoherently Ilingsworth murmured some grateful words, and immediately after Leslie watched him silently and carefully unlock the door and open it. The hall was deserted save for the presence of a footman near the front entrance, and to him this long interview behind closed doors was as nothing. These were parlous times in the house of Wilkinson; strange goings and comings were the rule, not the exception. Nothing was unusual. And so Ilingsworth passed out in safety, carrying his purpose with him to the free air outside.
But no sooner had he reached the middle of the sidewalk than there swooped down upon him a horde of vagabonds, infinitesimal specimens of humanity, and this mob of street gamins had but a single purpose, sang but a common song:
TRI-STATE TRUST COMPANY CLOSES ITS DOORS.
BIGGEST SMASH ON RECORD.
For weeks and months, perhaps, Ilingsworth had seen this coming, had known that it was inevitable, and here it was, thrust into his face in scare headlines that smelt to heaven! It smote him as with sudden lightning shock. But the public announcement did more than shock him, it turned him almost into a raving maniac. For an instant he stood silent, regarding the clamorous morsels of humanity all about him, clamorous for the smallest coin known to the Union. Then, with mighty swings of his arms, he swooped upon them, shrieking:
"Get out of my sight, get out of my sight, you ragamuffins!"
The newsboys fled as far as the next corner. There they stopped, clustered once again and jeered at him.
Turning, Ilingsworth again faced the house of Wilkinson.
"I'm tricked—tricked!" he cried. "Why did I give up so easy; why didn't I force the girl...." For a moment he checked his half-frenzied words, then he went on: "Peter V. Wilkinson, I'll even up with you, somehow, yet!"
In a few moments he had turned the nearest corner and disappeared.
Back in the Wilkinson household, Leslie, almost exhausted, sank into a chair. As she sat there, she perceived one of the footmen passing her, bound from the rear to the outer entrance.
"Jeffries," cried the girl, springing up, "tell Jordan that it will be quite unnecessary to mention Mr. Ilingsworth's call to anyone. He came to see me."
"Very good, ma'am," returned the footman, passing on.
"And Jeffries," she continued, "have you anything to do just now?"