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Idle Hands by Earl Derr Biggers

First published in The Saturday Evening Post, Jun 11, 1921

ON the stroke of eight, as was his custom, Jim Alden opened his eyes and sat up in bed. With a brisk movement of his arm he threw back the covers. His mind was racing smoothly, efficiently, ready to tackle any problem no matter how hard or intricate. As his feet touched the rich rug beside his bed he suddenly remembered. A sense of bafflement, of despair, swept over him. His head sank forward on his breast.

Every morning was like this. Every morning he sat up in bed, craving an exciting active day as of old, only to recall a moment later that he was sixty and out of it, that he had retired, that he was dying by inches in a beautiful house in Southern California.

He walked slowly to his window and looked out. Pasadena is a city of leisure. There was no one in sight. He sighed and turned to his bath. The empty day that loomed ahead appalled him. It would be like all the other days through which he had wandered like a lost soul ever since he came out here three months before. Nothing to do, no place to go, no one to talk to. Torture, finished off by a dull dinner and then more torture—a long quiet evening while he waited for bedtime. Bed, sleep, leading to another day, exactly the same.

"Better dead!" he muttered.

In the bath his despair turned to bitter anger at the doctors who had condemned him to this. Why had he allowed himself to be frightened by their silly twaddle about high blood-pressure, neuralgic heart, hardening arteries? Why had he listened to his wife and daughters when they urged him to sell his automobile interests in the East, to desert the famous Alden engine, the engine he had designed, the engine that was his baby? What would have happened if he had been firm, stuck to business? Death, perhaps—death in the harness. Well, that was where most men died; that was the place to die, the happy place.

To some men, he reflected as he dressed, this life of idleness might appeal. Arthur, Edie's husband, showed no inclination to work. But Arthur was a lazy young pup who had been born into the leisure class. And Carter Andrews, the bright young butterfly who was hovering about Angie, had apparently no other interests than polo and golf. All right, all right, Jim Alden thought, heartily disliking them both. It was not surprising they were fond of that sort of thing. They had never known anything else. That was where they had started.

But his own start had been so different. He thought back over his forty years in the harness. Twelve years a mechanic in the Pontiac shops, with soiled hands and vast ambitions. Then the birth of the Alden engine, the modest beginnings of the Alden car. The gradual increase in business—life working up to a big climax like a well-written play. Finally the office, electric with the thrills of trading, big decisions to be made amid the clicking of a hundred typewriters, the stream of telegrams and cables, big stacks of mail. And then to be suddenly pushed off into nothingness, to have all these things disappear as though they had never been. It was, he thought bitterly, too late. In forty years he had gone too far to stop.

He went gloomily down the stairs, grumbling a good morning to his Japanese butler in the hall. In the drawing-room beyond he heard Angie singing a foolish little song. His face brightened as he went in to her. She came toward him, fresh and beautiful as the California morning, the best beloved of all his possessions.

"How are you feeling, Dad?" she asked as she kissed him.

"Me? Oh, I'm all right." The question annoyed him even when it was Angie who asked it. "Do I look like an invalid to you?"

She glanced at him, then quickly turned away. He did look like an invalid, whether he knew it or not. The change that was to do so much for him had proved a ghastly failure. His hands were old and veined, his face pale, great dark pouches were under his eyes. Angie sighed unhappily.

"What you got there?" He pointed to a slip of paper in her hand.

"It's a cable from Carter Andrews. He's living up to his promise—a cable a day."

"Huh! He must be crazy about you."

"He claims to be," she smiled.

"Funny thing to me he'd leave you to go round the world."

"Oh, but he went on business! Business connected with his estate."

"Every one knows why he went," Alden said. "His private stock gave out and he went abroad for a drink. He's drinking his way around the globe."

"Now, Dad, that's not kind."

"It's the truth. I suppose he wants to marry you."

"He does, but don't worry. I'm not getting married just yet. Of course, Carter is amusing."

"So's a monkey, but you wouldn't marry one, would you?"

"Cross old Dad! Come on in to breakfast."

They went into the breakfast-room. Mrs. Alden, Edie and Arthur were already at the table. Dutifully Jim Alden went round and kissed his wife, a stern unbending woman of fifty. On his way to his seat he pecked fearfully at Edie's calcimined cheek. Arthur greeted him warmly, said how well he was looking. All the world looked well to Arthur. Jim Alden picked up his newspaper.

"Put that down, Jim," ordered his wife. "You've got all day to read it."

"So I have," he said humbly, obeying. "I forgot."

"What's your program for the day?" she asked.

"Me? Oh, I'll just run into Los Angeles to my office."

"Your office!" she said. "You came out here to get away from offices. Yet the first thing you do is go and rent one. What you need of it I can't see."

"Oh, we old fellows who've retired like to keep an office," he smiled. "It gives us an objective in the mornings—a place to answer our mail."

"Your mail!" Her tone was scornful. "All the mail you get you could answer here in the library in twenty minutes." He winced. This was true. "If you'd only go out and play golf," she complained.

"That's the ticket, Dad!" cried Arthur with forced enthusiasm. "Edie and I are going to the club. Come along."

"No, no, thanks. Not to-day. Some other time."

"Glad to have you," lied Arthur, concealing his relief. He and Edie were skilful players, and were looking forward to a sporty foursome at ten dollars a hole.

"You ought to go," Mary Alden said. "Doctor Tillson told

"Yes, yes," agreed Alden. "I'll get worked round to it. I'm not opposed to golf. It's all right—as a recreation after a hard day's work. But to make it the chief business of life, as some people do—"

"Edie," said Arthur, "he's looking at me!"

"Dad, you let Arthur alone," ordered Edie.

"Jim, you worry me," said his wife sharply. "You're not happy out here."

"Me? Of course I am!"

"You ought to be happy." She glared at him. "Be happy or I'll brain you," was her tone. "But you're not. The change isn't doing you a bit of good, and it's all your fault."

"Yes, I suppose it is," he admitted.

"You won't relax—won't let yourself go. I should think you might make the effort, if not for your own sake, why then for mine and that of the children."

"Speaking as one of the little darlings," put in Angie, "I say give the poor soul a chance. You've knocked all the props out from under him, and just now he's floating about in space. He'll settle down in time—become a nice old duffer kicking a ball around the links all day like the rest."

"Angie's said it!" cried Jim Alden gratefully. "I'll adjust myself in the end. Just now I don't quite know where I am."

"Well, you'd better find out," his wife told him. "I'm sure that in the past, when I've had to adapt myself to new conditions, I've always- -"

She went on to tell what she had always done. Nobody listened—still, it passed the time.

After breakfast Jim Alden went out on the veranda. Edie and Arthur, brilliant figures in golf togs, followed. The latter had telephoned the chauffeur's room at the garage. A smart little runabout was waiting in the drive. Alden took out a cigar and defiantly lighted it.

"Better not let Mother see you with that," admonished Edie. The policewoman to whom she referred appeared, evidently ready for a busy day.

"What's this, Jim?" she cried. "Smoking again!"

"The first to-day, Mary."

"But Doctor Tillson said—"

"He said to go slow on 'em, and I am, my dear—trust me."

"Not out of my sight, where smoking is concerned." She turned to her elder daughter. "You and Arthur can drop me at the Book Club. There's a big luncheon and I'm on the committee. Now, Jim, do take things easy to-day—relax."

"Me? I'll relax all over the place."

He stood staring after the little car as it glided away down the sunny street. Angie came down-stairs, a light and pretty wrap about her shoulders.

"Dad, I'll ride into town with you—if you don't mind. Got some shopping to do—and lunch with a girl from home."

"Delighted," he said, and went for his hat and coat. When he returned his limousine, with a stolid Jap at the wheel, was waiting. He helped Angie into it. "Let's go, Haku," he said.

They rolled along through the bright morning in the direction of Los Angeles. Angie put her hand on one of his, which lay idly in his lap.

"Dad, Mother was right—you're not happy."

"Oh, now, Angie, I'm all right. Only something has happened—something I don't like. I mean—I'm an old man."

"Nonsense! Sixty isn't old."

"It didn't use to be, but nowadays it seems to be the finish. And it came on me—so sudden. In the past when something I didn't want was about to happen—I prevented it. But this time there was nothing I could do." She squeezed his hand. "I suppose all us old fellows feel like this—rebellious. We want to turn back the clock. You know, I'd give every penny I have if I could go back—back to the start—with the fun all ahead of me."

"And where would I be?" asked Angie.

"You? You'd be lying in your cradle in the old house down on Third Street—a lovely fluffy baby. That was a mighty happy year—that year you came—twenty-four years ago. I was just getting started. We were poor as the devil. I had a terrible time paying the doctor who brought you into the world, but it was the best investment I ever made."

Tears came into Angie's blue eyes. She looked away at a misty string of billboards, part of the famous scenery.

"Dad, it's just as Mother said. You must brace up. If you'll only be contented you can live for ever out in this country. Promise to try—for my sake."

"I promise, Angie," he said.

"If you could find something to take up your time," she went on, thinking aloud. "Something to turn your mind to—"

Angie lapsed into silence. When the car came to a stop before the tall building where he maintained his absurd office she bent over and kissed him. He looked so forlorn and lonesome.

"Be here at five, as usual, Haku," said Alden as he left the car.

"At five!" Angie cried. "What in the world " She stopped. What in the world would he do with himself until five? But after all it was his problem. "Good-by, old dear," she called, smiling brightly.

Three minutes later he pushed open the door of his little office on the tenth floor. The room was hot and stuffy. He hastened to open a window, letting in the widely advertised fresh air. Coming back, he saw a single envelope lying on the carpet. He picked it up, opened it:

JAMES M. ALDEN.

Dear Sir: We beg to acknowledge the receipt of ten cents in stamps, in return for which we are sending you under separate cover, as per your request, a catalogue of the electrical appliances manufactured by our firm.

"Under separate cover?"

He looked about. The catalogue had not arrived. He was disappointed. It had occurred to him that by studying it he might hit on some idea that would occupy his time. Rotten mail service!

He sat down before his flat-topped desk, clear save for an empty mail basket, a blotter and inkwell. With a key from his chain he unlocked the drawers, opening the top pair a few inches. Next he spread out his newspaper and began the morning's careful perusal. After the news columns, stock market and editorials—his daily routine—he turned to the obituary column.

"Died at his home here, Edward Mackay, former president of the Mackay Supply Company, retired from active business a year ago.

"Died at his home, Peter Faxton, retired.

"Henry Downs, gave up active business six months ago—"

First they retired—then the obituary column. What a short step it was for most of them!

He tried to cheer up on the sporting page. Presently the moment arrived when there was nothing more to be found in the paper. He put it down regretfully and looked at his watch. Ten o'clock. Seven hours before the arrival of Haku and the car.

Seven hours! The movies—yes, but not until afternoon. He hated the movies, but went regularly. He knew he would go to-day. He took up the paper again, and after a careful study of the advertisements selected his afternoon's picture. But how about the morning? He might go for a long walk. Tillson had urged walking. Or he might sit in the park with other idlers. Or there was the public library, on the sixth floor of an office building, because Los Angeles, home of million-dollar picture theaters, had no better place to house it. There he could sit and read among his fellow derelicts, some of them smelly and unbathed.

He stood at the window in that quiet little room. Outside sounded the roar and bustle of the world that had thrust him aside. Far down below, in the crowded street, men hurried about their business—their business!

Jim Alden went back to his desk, sat down limply and stared at the blotter Angie had helped him select. It was pink—a cheerful color, Angie had said. The door opened and a brisk young man stepped inside. He stood staring about him for a moment as though trying to decide just where he was.

"Ah—er—good morning," he said. "To whom am I speaking?"

"Alden's the name. Jim Alden."

"Ah, yes, Mr. Alden. Your name's not on the door, and I didn't notice it on the directory down-stairs."

"No, my business doesn't require it. What can I do for you?"

"Mr. Alden, I want to ask a favor. I want you to pause in the midst of life's busy whirl—to pause a moment and think."

"Of what?"

"Of the future."

"Ah, yes," smiled Jim Alden. "As a matter of fact, my boy, I was doing just that when you opened the door."

"You were? Fine for me! Then you must realize how uncertain the future is. In case anything happened to you, what would become of your family?"

"I've got you, Son. You're selling insurance."

"I am. Life and accident. I don't imagine the company would care to write you a life policy at your age, but what about accident? Los Angeles is a mighty accidental city. Out of every thousand people walking these streets to-day five will be killed by automobiles before the year ends."

"Yes, but I'm careful. I lead a quiet life."

"That's just what Mr. Jamieson used to say. Poor Mr. Jamieson!

"He used to have an office in this very building—on this floor, I think it was. He used to sit leaning back in his chair, just as you're sitting now, when I called on him and tell me nothing was likely to happen to him. Do you know what happened?"

"No. What?"

"Well, one day his chair slipped out from under him." Jim Alden came forward quickly. "He hit his head on a radiator. I don't know what his last thoughts were, but at the end I'll bet he was wishing he'd listened to me."

"You're a cheerful visitor, Son," Alden laughed. "I don't want any insurance to-day, but any time you're passing, drop in."

The young man stood up.

"Mr. Alden, I'm going to ask you a rather peculiar question. Are you inviting me to call again because there's a chance we might do business, or do you want me around to talk to?"

"Why, I—er—"

"You're retired, aren't you?"

"Yes, three months ago."

"And you feel like a fish out of water? Just plain bored stiff?"

"You've said it!"

"I thought so. You see, I run into a lot of men in your position. There are hundreds of them in Los Angeles. They keep little offices like this, and sit in 'em day after day doing nothing. When I show up they greet me with open arms. They give me a cigar—"

"Pardon me. Have a smoke."

"Thanks. And then they talk their heads ofT—politics, stock market, even religion. Now I'm sociable by nature, and I'd like nothing better than to hang around and chat, but I've got a family to support. You get me?"

"I do. So there are lots of men like me? I never thought of that."

"There's a dozen of them in this very building. I'm sorry for all of them, poor devils. I've offered some of them, free gratis, a little idea of mine, but up to now not one has been sport enough to act on it."

"An idea?" Jim Alden asked.

"This is a mighty good cigar," smiled the young man, resuming his seat. "I'll give you ten minutes more on the strength of it. You read your newspaper pretty carefully, I guess. But have you ever looked in the classified columns under Business Chances?"

"I can't say I have."

"Pass me the paper, please. Here we are—three columns of it: 'For Sale—Best Paying Barber Shop in San Diego—two chairs, three baths, steady trade.' No? Look! 'Butcher—Go in Business for Yourself ... Partnership, Auto Top Trimming Shop, $650 ... Half Interest in Busy Beauty Parlor.' No, keep away from the busy beauties. 'Wanted—Party with $1000 and Self, Half Interest Factory Manufacturing Pure California Fruit Juices ... Investigate This! Half Interest Old Established Insurance Business.' Keep out of that, it's done to death. 'Transfer and Express ... Man and Wife Can Purchase Good Restaurant ... Partner Wanted, Auto Garage and Service Station.'"

"Ah, a garage," said Jim Alden thoughtfully.

"I haven't time to read them all," the young man said. "But you get my idea: If I was one of you retired millionaires I wouldn't sit down and wait for the undertaker. If they'd shooed me out of my regular business I'd get me an interest in one of these little places and I'd run it—just as a toy, of course. I'd have something to take my time and thought; I'd be happy and contented; I'd fool the doctors and live for ever. Does it sound reasonable?"

"It certainly does," Jim Alden smiled.

"I'm glad you think so. I must run along now. If you decide to take my advice, and it works out O.K.—well, you'll owe me a little policy. How about it?"

"If, my boy, if. At any rate, drop in later on."

"Count on me. Kurtz is my name. I'll leave a card. So long, and don't get mixed up with the beauty parlor. Outside of that anything's worth a chance."

He breezed out, leaving Jim Alden with the paper in his hand. For a long time the designer of the famous Alden engine sat deep in thought. "Why not?" he asked himself. Why not a little garage somewhere, a place where he could go and meet people, gossip with them, discuss engines with men like those he had known and been fond of in the Pontiac shops? A splendid idea!

But what would Mary say—and her stern ally, Doctor Tillson? No more business—he had sworn it! No more big business, that meant. And Mary wanted him to be contented—to stop fussing. Besides, she needn't know!

He sat there chuckling over this last thought. His was far from a deceitful nature, but it seemed that he was justified in following the trail to happiness wherever it led, without interference. Why not a bit of a double life? Only Angie need be told. Angie would understand, sympathize. Not two hours ago Angie had been wishing he had something to turn his mind to.

He read those three columns through carefully. There were many auto repair shops in the market, but one advertisement in particular appealed to him. He cut it out and read it a number of times:

PARTNER WANTED—Auto Repair Shop and Gas Station on busy road, outskirts of San Marco—$2500 buys half interest, tools, equipment, tow car, building and lease on lot. Books open to prospective buyer. Grab this—big bargain. Call San Marco 5376, ask for Petersen.

Jim Alden hesitated but a moment, then took up his seldom-used telephone and asked for the number. Petersen himself answered.

"I saw your ad," said the millionaire, "and I don't know—maybe we might do business. What's that—my name?" He paused for a moment. It would never do to mention Jim Alden, famous in the automobile trade. His secret would not last an hour. "Oh, this is John Grant talking," he went on, speaking the name of an old pal in the Pontiac shops. "I'd like to have a look at your establishment. You needn't do that. Well, if you insist. What time can you come? All right—at two. You'll find me in room 1018, the Surrey Building, Los Angeles. Know where it is? Fine! I'll be here."

He hung up the receiver and walked briskly to the window. His eyes were sparkling. At two that afternoon! He had an engagement—a business engagement!

"Better than the movies!" he thought exultantly.

* * * * *

MR. PETERSEN appeared promptly at the appointed hour. Jim Alden was ready to like him, but his first glance discouraged him. Petersen was an undersized man with mean, shifty eyes; not at all the jolly mechanic. Alden resolved at once to do no business with him. It seemed hardly polite, however, to break off relations at mere sight of the man, so he agreed to run out for a look at the property.

In a battered old flivver the garage man whisked Jim Alden out to San Marco by what seemed a rather round-about route. When the designer of the Alden engine alighted before Petersen's garage he began to weaken. It stood amid beautiful surroundings at the meeting of two roads, one of which appeared to be much traveled. Across the street was an orange grove, and back of the little frame building, seeming much closer than they really were, the friendly snow-capped mountains stood on guard.

Petersen showed him over the place. He saw at once that the equipment was complete and in good condition. When they returned to the office three cars waited in line for gasoline.

"It's like that all day long," Petersen said, waving a hand. "I can prove it to you by the books. I want you to look 'em over."

For an hour Jim Alden studied the records. They extended over a period of three years and showed a steadily mounting trade, especially big during the last six months. Petersen returned.

"How does it look to you?" he inquired.

"Not bad," said Alden. "You own the building, eh? How about the ground?"

"Got it on lease," replied Petersen. "Pay eight hundred a year—you saw that in the books. Rent's cheap, everything considered."

"Seems so," agreed Alden. He didn't like Petersen, but the thing looked good. Probably he could get used to the man. And there was a bright cheerful boy named Al working about the place. "Make terms?" he asked.

"No," said Petersen sharply, "I got to have cash."

"U'm!" Jim Alden thought of the eleven million dollars for which he had sold his eastern holdings, and smiled. "Well, I guess maybe I could raise the money."

"You'll buy in then?"

"Yes. I'll meet you to-morrow at " He stopped. He was about to say "at my lawyer's." But that wouldn't do. "Anywhere you say. I'll bring the cash with me."

"Good for you." Petersen managed a faint smile. "Have a cigar." He passed over a good ten-center.

"You'll come out by street car, I suppose. Get off at the corner of First and California, in San Marco—ten o'clock tomorrow morning. I know a lawyer. We'll go to his office and clinch the deal."

Jim Alden returned to his own office by trolley. He had just time to lock his desk and meet Haku and the limousine at the appointed hour. It hustled him a bit. He loved to be hustled. He was a happy man.

The next morning at the lawyer's it was decided that he was to assume his partnership on the first of the month, which happened to be the following Monday. This was Thursday. After the papers had been signed and the twenty-five hundred in cash reached a haven in Petersen's grimy hands the latter made a suggestion.

"Look here, Grant," he said. "I've had a lot of answers to my ad. I know it says in the agreement neither of us is to sell without the other's consent; but I been wondering—if I could dig you up a willing, good- natured guy, would you mind if I sold my interest to him? I'd like to clear out completely and go back to Dakota. What say?"

Alden smiled. Petersen was the one flaw in his happiness, and he would be glad to shake him.

"All right with me," he said. "Of course you'd get somebody who knew the business—a good mechanic." He realized for the first time that Petersen had made no such stipulation in his own case.

"Sure!" said the garage man. He asked for and received a memorandum giving him permission to sell. "Much obliged, Grant. Well, see you at the garage on Monday."

"With bells on," laughed Alden. Mr. Petersen must have caught the contagion of that laugh. He seemed in almost a gay mood when they parted.

Sunday night Angie and her father happened to be alone in the library. He was puffing contentedly on a forbidden cigar.

"Mighty nice night, ain't it?" he said. "You know, Angie, I'm beginning to like California."

"I've noticed," she smiled. "You've been a new man the past few days. How do you account for it?"

"Oh, I'm just settling down, I guess. Getting used to idleness."

"Nonsense! You're up to some mischief. You can't fool me!"

He laughed, got up with mock caution and tiptoed to the door. Coming back, he solemnly faced her.

"My dear," he said, "this is deep and dark. Never reveal what I am about to tell you."

"I swear it," she answered. "What's the secret?" "Angie, I'm half owner in Petersen's garage, which stands in the shadow of the mountains just abaft San Marco. A nifty little business, believe me." She gasped.

"Honey," he went on, "I've turned back the clock. If you come out there to- morrow you'll find me in overalls right at the start of my career, and I may say the prospects for success look very bright."

"But—but, Dad, what will Mother say?" "Plenty—if she knew. But that's the beauty of it. Mother isn't going to know. Poor old broken-down Dad toddles off to his office early in the morning, does a quick change, nabs a street car and beats it for his business. Comes back at night tired but happy. If you breathe a word of this you're no child of mine."

She leaned back in her chair, laughing.

"A double life at your age," she said. "Dad, it's too funny!"

"But you approve, don't you? You know you said—"

"Of course I approve. It's just the thing. Why, the very idea has done wonders for you! But if Mother finds out—"

"I know." His tone was apprehensive. "But San Marco's ten miles from here—I'm fairly safe. If you need anything in my line look me up. I'm just a poor young man trying to get along."

"I'll drop in to-morrow. Tell me again where it is." He drew a map for her on the back of an envelope. "Remember," he said, "my name out there is John Grant." "Oh, Dad!" she cried. "An assumed name! How thrilling!" In the morning he hunted round in his closet until he found an old blue suit. It was a bit shiny in spots. His wife had informed him he was not to wear it again. Defiantly he put it on and went down-stairs. There ensued a brief argument about it, but his wife did not seem up to her usual form, and he won.

At nine o'clock Haku deposited him before his office building. The building stood on a corner and could be entered from either of two streets. Jim Alden passed through the lobby and out the side door. At a clothing store he supplied himself with dark-blue overalls and jumper, then walked another block, hopped on a car and rode to San Marco. When he reached his new property there seemed to be an air of aimless leisure about the place. Al was sitting on the running board of a car reading the morning paper. Petersen was nowhere in sight. Jim Alden went into the office. A long lean young man with humorous gray eyes untangled himself from a chair and rose to greet him.

"Where's Petersen?" asked Alden.

"Is this Mr. Grant—Mr. John Grant?" inquired the stranger.

"What? Oh—er—yes, I'm Grant."

"Merrick's my name—Bill Merrick. Shake hands with your new partner, Mr. Grant. I bought Petersen out last Friday."

"What? Well—er—glad to meet you. Petersen didn't lose any time."

"I hope you don't object. He showed me a memorandum you wrote—"

"Oh, no, that's all right. I was a bit surprised, that's all. I don't mind a change of partners—rather like it in fact. I guess we've got hold of a live business."

"Seemed so from the books. I must say, though, I've been sitting here an hour and a half, and not a nibble."

"Oh, well, it's early yet. Monday morning, too. I'll just get into my outfit so as to be ready." The millionaire undid his bundle and spread out his suit of armor. He removed his coat. "I suppose you understand all about automobiles?" he inquired.

"Oh, yes, I know it's the gasoline seeping through the what-you-may-call-it that sort of encourages 'em to continue. Further than that, I'm a little in the dark. Petersen said you were an excellent mechanic and would be glad to teach me."

"He did, eh?"

Jim Alden buckled on the overalls thoughtfully. Mr. Petersen grew even less attractive as his character developed.

"You see," the young man went on, and his manner was winning, "I came darn near being a lawyer. I was studying law in my father's office in Duluth when the war broke. After I got back from France I was like a lot of the boys—the soles of my feet itched. An aunt died and left me three thousand dollars; and I'd swallowed a bit of gas in the Argonne, which supplied me with a mighty convenient little cough, so it was me for California. I've been here two months looking for work. Have you tried to find work out here?"

"You bet I have!"

"Supply seems a bit short of the demand, doesn't it? My money was sort of dribbling away in the cafeterias, so I plunged with Petersen. Two thousand dollars—the balance of Aunt Elvira's wad."

"Two thousand!" repeated Jim Alden, again thinking hard.

"Yes, sir. All little Rollo's available cash. We've got to make good."

"Oh, we'll make good all right," said Alden. But he wasn't so sure. Petersen was taking on new aspects every minute.

They spent a couple of hours looking over their stock and once more studying the books, which Petersen had accommodatingly left. By noon just two cars had halted at their establishment—one to buy five gallons of gasoline, the other to inquire the way. A suspicion was growing in Jim Alden's mind. He went to the door of the little office and summoned Al. The boy came in looking rather sheepish.

"See here, Al," said Alden. "This place does a pretty good business, doesn't it?"

"Well," said Al, "it did—up to last Saturday."

"Eh? What happened on Saturday?"

"Don't you know?" Al seemed genuinely surprised. "Last Saturday they opened up the new state highway two miles east of here. The road over there has been torn up for six months."

"I see," Alden said, "You mean we're sort of off the main line from now on?"

"You sure are," admitted Al. "This road is about as necessary as a fifth wheel. You won't see much traffic here except the folks that live up the line." He stopped. There ensued a poignant silence. "I thought Petersen let you in on it," the boy went on. "He claimed he had. Told me he was sellin' out at a sacrifice."

"He didn't tell us, Al," said Alden slowly. "Go back to your— er—work." The boy went out.

"Well, that's cheery news," cried Bill Merrick bitterly. "Swindled! Every cent that Aunt Elvira and I had in the world!" He paused and looked at his partner. On Jim Alden's face was an expression of deep chagrin, which Bill Merrick conveniently took to be distress. "How about you?" the young man asked. "All your savings gone blooey, eh?" Alden did not reply. "It's a darn shame," the other went on. "It doesn't matter so much about me, but you—you're an old—that is, you're not so young as you were. Well, leave it to me. I'll find this crook Petersen wherever he is, and when I do—oh, boy!"

"Wait a minute," Alden cut in. "Finding Petersen won't help. Perhaps we can pull through yet."

"How?" asked Bill Merrick. "Come out here." He led the way outside. "Nice, quiet, pastoral scene, eh what? Not a car in sight—not one!"

"Oh, yes, there's one," said Jim Alden.

He pointed. Coming down the otherwise deserted highway, driving the newest and gayest of the Alden roadsters at sixty miles an hour, was Angie. She dashed in at the drive that cut the corner and deftly brought her car to a stop between the gas tank and the garage door. Then for the first time her eyes fell on Jim Alden, standing there looking rather foolish in his painfully new mechanic's uniform. A peal of laughter was her instant tribute.

"Dad!" she cried. "You old rascal! I hardly knew you!"

At once an expression of contrition crossed her lovely face. Regret, chagrin, an appeal for forgiveness, all were in her eyes. Coming down the road she had been saying to herself, "John Grant, John Grant," over and over. And now she had blurted out the truth instantly—ruined everything. How like her!

Jim Alden was watching his partner. That young man at sight of Angie had stood as one who beholds an angel descend from heaven. As the import of the angel's first words dawned slowly on his dazed brain he turned to Alden.

"Dad?" he cried. "She called you Dad!"

"So she did," said Alden. He raised his voice so that Angie might hear: "This young lady and I are old friends. Her father and I once worked together in the Pontiac shops—that was before he made his money. When her dad—her real dad, I mean—bought his first car I was the family chauffeur. I used to drive this little lady about Pontiac, and she'd fall asleep on my lap and her hair'd get all mixed up with the wheel. She started to call me Dad in those days, and I'm proud to say she's never stopped." He paused, and saw that Angie's eyes were on him, fascinated. "Come over here, Bill. Miss Angie, I want you to meet my partner, Bill Merrick. Bill—Miss Angie Alden."

Mr. Bill Merrick seemed devoid of speech as his hand touched that of Angie Alden.

"How's your father?" Jim Alden asked.

"Better, much better," replied Angie, still looking her admiration. "Dad, I think this is a darling place for a garage." She stared about her. "And then—having a partner—such a nice partner—"

"Yes, it's lucky I've got Bill. We'll be company for each other. Otherwise it would be mighty lonesome here. You see, we've just discovered they've opened a new road east of us, and we're left high and dry."

"Oh, I'm sorry to hear that!" cried Angie.

"I knew you would be. I told you the other day—when I happened to run across you in Pasadena—that things looked pretty good for me, but I'm afraid I spoke too soon. However, while there's life there's hope. We'll put it over yet, eh, Bill? Bill ain't more than twenty-five, and I feel younger every minute. Now what can we do for you, Miss—er—Miss Angie?"

"You can sell me ten gallons of gas—if you will, please."

They leaped to do her bidding. Alden assumed charge of the pump and Bill Merrick presided at the car. He leaned close to its fair driver.

"I must have seemed stupid when we were introduced," he said. "You see, I was overcome. It was too good to be true. I mean—meeting you again."

"Again?"

"Yes, we met once before. I guess you don't remember."

"I'm so sorry."

"You wouldn't, of course. There were hundreds of us. We were on a train—in 1917—on our way to camp. It was at the station in Detroit. I was leaning out the window, very greedy, and you came along the platform and gave me a sandwich."

"Ah, yes! Ham or cheese?"

"I don't know to this day."

"Was it as bad as that?"

"It was—wonderful. I wanted to put it in my memory book—only I didn't have a memory book, so I ate it. I was hungry. Afterward I wished I hadn't. I wished I'd saved it—always. Wow! Say, hold on a minute! Stop pumping!"

The tank was overflowing.

"I'm so sorry," said Angie. "I remember now—I had it filled yesterday."

"That's only three gallons," Jim Alden said, disappointed. "Do you need any oil?"

"Always need oil," answered Angie. "Never can think of it."

Bill Merrick recalled that he was a partner in the enterprise. He went for the oil, while Alden lifted the hood of the car. Angie watched them. She reflected that Bill Merrick was a very agreeable young man. Just the pal for her father. How nice!

"Need any tires, chains—anything like that?" asked Alden. "No? Well, you owe us two dollars and twelve cents."

She handed him a five-dollar bill.

"Keep the change, Dad," she said grandly.

"Oh, no, Miss Angie, I couldn't, really!"

"But I insist." She turned to Bill Merrick. "Don't get discouraged," she smiled. "You can count on one steady customer."

"You'll come again? Say, that's great!"

"For Dad's sake," she said. "He's the best ever. Be good to him." She stepped on the gas and was gone.

Slowly Bill Merrick walked over and set down his burden of oil.

"Say, Dad," he began, "I'm going to call you Dad, too, if you don't mind. I believe you said something about—before her father made his money. Who is she, anyhow?"

"Why, she's old Jim Alden's daughter."

"Alden! James M. Alden, the automobile man!" An expression of acute despair spread over Bill Merrick's face. He sank down upon a bench. "Of all the rotten luck!" he moaned.

"Oh, I don't know," said his partner. "Alden's not so bad. Pretty good father, I imagine."

"Rotten luck for me, I mean."

"How's that?"

"I guess you heard me tell her how I'd seen her before—in Detroit. I've never got over it—never been able to see any other girl since. She's—she's wonderful. I've thought of her, dreamed of her—"

He sat staring gloomily in front of him. Jim Alden regarded him with new interest. He liked this boy, liked the look in his eyes, the smile which was for the moment submerged.

Yes, there was something appealing about Bill Merrick. The older man thought of Carter Andrews, who had cabled that morning from Yokohama.

"But why all this gloom?" Alden inquired.

"Why? You know who I am. You know what I've got. And now to find out that she's Alden's daughter—a man worth millions—"

"Nonsense! Jim Alden's no better than you or me. I knew him when he was a mechanic in Pontiac. We worked at the same bench. Why, I can remember—"

"Yes, you can remember. But can he? I'll bet you couldn't prove to him that he ever worked for his living, not with the aid of a diagram. They get like that. I can see him—pompous, blustering, important. Can you imagine my going to him and saying, 'Mr. Alden, I have come to ask for your daughter'? 'And who are you?' 'Oh, I'm the Napoleon of finance who bought a garage on a road nobody ever travels. And in addition to your daughter, Mr. Alden, I'd like to ask you for ten cents car fare back to town.'"

Jim Alden laughed.

"It seems to me you're a bit previous," he said. "As far as I could see, Miss Angie is still heart-whole and fancy-free. And I tell you right now, Son, we're up against it here.

"We've got a problem on our hands. Are you going to face it with me or must I get a new partner?"

Bill Merrick got to his feet.

"You're right, Dad," he answered. "It sort of upset me, seeing her again. But the moment of weakness has passed. Let Alden take his daughter and his millions and go his way. I'm poor but proud. I'm darn poor, come to think of it. What do you suggest?"

"One thing's clear," his partner told him: "We've got to get over on that main road. This shack isn't worth moving. We'll have to rent ground over there, put up a new building and vamoose."

"But the lease here has two years to go."

"Yes. Too bad. That's eight hundred a year we must set down on the wrong side of the ledger—no help for it. We can thank Petersen for that. But he hasn't put me down and out. I was stunned for a minute, but now I've just begun to fight. We'll be mighty careful picking our new location."

"But see here, Dad, that's all a rosy dream. How about funds? I'm nearly broke."

"Don't worry about funds. I told you Jim Alden was an old friend of mine. I'm sure he'll stake us to the limit. I'll go out to his Pasadena house to-night and have a long talk—"

"Jim Alden!" Bill repeated. "Somehow I don't like the idea of borrowing money from him—her father."

"Rot! It will interest him in you. If you make good he'll respect you."

"Think so? Maybe I'd better go with you to-night."

"No, no, that's all right. I can handle him better alone. Now let's leave Al in charge here while we run over to that new highway and take a squint around. Then when we get this money—"

"You seem mighty sure we're going to get it."

"Of course I'm sure. Jim Alden would do anything on earth for me."

"Gosh," said Bill Merrick as they climbed into the car, "I wish I could say the same!"

* * * * *

THAT evening Angie left the family group in the drawing- room, where Arthur was seated at the piano singing a ballad—he had an excellent tenor voice; he would have—and hunted up her father in the library. She found him at his desk thinking hard.

"Hello," she said, "it's the old Alden retainer. Our first chauffeur. We treat him just like one of the family."

"Hush, Angie, hush!"

"So I used to fall asleep in your lap, did I? Really, Dad, I didn't care for that. It made me seem such a dopy child."

"Every word I said was the plain truth. I think I did mighty well under the circumstances. A fine fix you put me in."

"Oh, Dad, I was frightfully sorry—"

"After I'd prepared you—to rush up and bawl out 'Dad' the first crack out of the box."

"It was stupid of me. But you looked so funny. Ha, ha!"

"Hush, I tell you! See here, Angie, what did you think of him?"

"Of whom?"

"You know who I mean. My partner, Bill Merrick."

"Why, he seemed a worthy young mechanic. Of course I scarcely looked at him."

"Oh, no, of course not! Well, give him a glance next time. He thinks very highly of you—for some unknown reason. That sandwich you gave him must have been poisoned. He's never recovered."

"You don't say! Well, that's nice. We aim to please. But how do you know?"

"Oh, he told me all about it afterward."

"Now, Dad, that isn't fair—to let him run on to you, not knowing who you are."

"Nonsense! It's a great chance for me. I guess a father never had a better opportunity to study a possible son-in-law."

"Dad! What rot!" Angie stared at him, amazed. "I'm willing to let you run off and play with these rough boys, but you mustn't drag your grimy little pals into your private life. It won't do."

"Oh, you'll wake up later," her father said. "This boy has a better education than I have—he's a gentleman. More than that, he's got a way with him."

"A dog-gone dangerous man, eh? Thanks for the warning. But dear old Dad, the family friend, will always be on hand as a chaperon."

"I will—and I want you to drop in often. A girl like you can buck a young man up—keep him on the job. Our friend needs cheering. Every cent he had went into that garage—and it looks as though we'd been stung." He told her of Petersen's duplicity. "I acted too hastily," he admitted. "It's one on me. But of course it doesn't matter in my case. It's the boy I'm worried about."

"What are you going to do?" Angie asked.

"Well, we've got to raise some money and move. As I explained to Bill, I know Jim Alden pretty well. Just as you came in I put it up to the old man. I asked him to lend us ten thousand dollars, and I think he's going to do it. We were arguing about the rate of interest when you interrupted."

"But Alden's fond of you. He won't charge you any interest."

"Alden's a business man. Besides, the deal has got to look like the real thing. I've got it—four per cent! I beat Jim down from six for old sake's sake. Should auld acquaintance be forgot?"

"Fine! Now that's settled come out and join the family. I hear echoes of a bridge game, which means that Arthur's song is stilled."

"All right, but remember what I said. Drop in frequently. I've taken a shine to Bill."

"I suspect," said Angie, "it's not that you love Merrick more, but Carter Andrews less. However, I don't mind acting clubby. I noticed myself that Bill has—rather nice eyes."

The next morning at eight, as was his custom, Jim Alden sat up in bed. His mind was racing as smoothly, as efficiently as the famous Alden engine. He was ready for whatever business problems the day might bring. As his feet touched the floor he remembered that those problems were likely to be many and serious. His heart leaped for joy.

"'Maxwelton braes are bonnie, where early fa's the dew,'" he bellowed.

His wife, in the room adjoining, couldn't decide whether to be glad or suspicious.

When Jim Alden reached the garage his partner was waiting eagerly in the doorway.

"I'm a little late," puffed the millionaire. "Have to get up earlier, I guess."

"Never mind that," said Merrick. "Nothing stirring here. Did you go out to Pasadena last night?"

"You bet I did!"

"And did you—did you see—her?"

"Her? Now look here, my boy, this is business! I didn't go out there to call on Miss Angie. I went to see her father—and I did. It's all fixed. Ten thousand dollars at four per cent. If we need any more we're to let him know."

"Say, he must be a good old scout!"

"I think so, but maybe I'm prejudiced."

"Well," said Bill, "it's up to us now. We've got to hustle our heads off. I'm not going to lose her father's money—you can understand why. I wish I knew more about automobiles."

"That's all right. I know a lot, and I'm going to teach you."

"You're mighty kind," Bill Merrick replied. "I was busy, too, last night. After I left here I had dinner at a little place in San Marco. Then I hunted up the best boarding-house in the town, got a room there and moved in. I figure it's like this: We ought to get a location somewhere close to town, and then mull round and mix with people. Get acquainted, I mean, with the leading citizens. It wouldn't be a bad idea for you to move out here. I haven't asked—are you a married man?"

"Er—yes, I'm married," smiled Alden.

"Well, why not bring the family out to San Marco?"

"I'm sorry; I can't very well at present. You see, I've got a lease where I am."

"Too bad. Well, I'll start the ball rolling. This morning at breakfast I met the leading real-estate man of the town. I made a date with him for ten-thirty. He's going to show us round."

"Fine! Now you're moving!"

"I lay awake half the night thinking," Bill went on. His partner stared at him. He wished he could lie awake half the night and look so fresh and fit in the morning. "There are a million garages here in Southern California. We've got to do something distinctive, something that will make us stand out from the crowd. The human touch—I'm strong for it."

"Me too," said the millionaire heartily.

"Let's just talk to folks—in the San Marco paper—on signs along the highway. 'A service station with the accent on the service.' How's that for a catch line?"

"I like it."

"You know what motorists usually get when they're in trouble and stop at a garage. Some grouchy incompetent picks their pocket and gives 'em a swift kick on their way. No sympathy, no friendliness. Let's you and me get clubby with our customers. Let's chat things over and make friends, so they'll come back.

Let's live in a house by the side of the road"—Bill Merrick lapsed into poetry—"and be a friend to man. Let that be the motto of the Mission Garage."

"The Mission Garage?"

"Oh, I forgot to tell you! Most of these garages are just ugly shacks. They all look alike. So why not a distinctive building? With Jim Alden back of us we can swing it. Let's put up a neat little stucco affair, a reproduction of one of the old missions. That will be our trade-mark. The mission latchstrings were always out—hospitality was the word—our motto too. What do you say?"

"My boy, you're putting new heart in me. Some partner!"

"I knew you'd approve. Why, man, they can't stop us! In time we'll have a string of Mission Garages all up and down California. We'll patent the idea. We'll get the agency for some good car—by gad—"

"What is it?"

"There's an idea! Your friend, Jim Alden! We'll go after the agency for his car!"

"But he's retired."

"Sure, but he's still got influence! Of course I'm getting a little ahead of myself, as usual. We've got to put the first one over—the rest will be easy. You and me—the garage kings of Southern California." Bill Merrick laughed. "And to think I studied law! We'd better start for that real-estate office."

Half an hour later they stood with the real-estate man on a corner about ten blocks from the center of San Marco, where the new state highway was crossed by another road, frequently traveled.

"Believe me," warbled the agent, "if this road wasn't brand new you'd never get a shot at a location like this. You're close enough to get a lot of town business, as well as transients. If you say the word we'll hang round here an hour and count the passing cars."

It seemed a good idea. The count ran remarkably high.

"Just a normal week-day morning," the agent said. "I leave you to imagine Sundays and holidays. No funny business this time. Here's all the traffic Petersen drew from, and twice as much more. If you want to build a shack to do business in while your building's going up I can arrange a temporary lease on the ground next door. Your gas tank and pump can go in at once."

They succumbed, returned to his office and signed a five-year lease. That being settled, the real-estate man led them into the office of a young architect in the same building. That gentleman took his feet off his desk, laid down a volume of zippy stories and entered whole-heartedly into the spirit of the occasion.

"Gentlemen," he said, "I'll be frank. You fall on me like manna from heaven. Building is at a standstill and I'm bored stiff. Even a garage sets my heart leaping."

"Where do you get that even-a-garage stuff?" Bill Merrick said. "We don't propose to desecrate the landscape with the ordinary shack," and he explained what they wanted.

"Glory be!" the architect cried. "Just turn me loose! I'll give you a building that will cause tourists, at first glance, to reach for their guide-books, and it will be practical too."

He promised to sit up all night and finish the job. Many men, he said, were out of work. He could promise them a temporary home in a week and their main building in a month.

"Let's go!" was his war cry.

"I think," said Jim Alden, when the partners returned to the street, "I'd better jump on a trolley and run in town. I'll get that money from Alden and deposit it to our joint account. Then we can release the check we just gave on the lease. And I'd better see the gasoline people and arrange about the pump."

"Go to it!" replied Bill Merrick. "We're on our way, partner! Looks like happy days."

"Happy days for me," smiled the millionaire.

When Jim Alden returned that afternoon from his business in the city Bill Merrick was filling the gasoline tank of a handsome car of Alden's own manufacture in which sat a lean, pleasant man of sixty or more. The hands that rested on the wheel were brown and gnarled.

"Hello, stranger!" Jim Alden said. "What do you hear from Iowa?"

"Things are pretty quiet," smiled the man. "But how did you know—"

"Tell an Iowa man anywhere," laughed Alden.

The other was evidently delighted. Jim Alden leaned over the car door and began a discussion of politics. They thought alike. It was the start of a beautiful friendship.

"I see you've got an Alden," said the automobile man presently. "How's your engine?"

"Rotten," said the other. "Acts like it had the heaves. Nobody seems able to tell me what's wrong."

"Best engine made," answered Alden, his pride touched. "Ought not to go back on you."

He lifted the hood of the car. The Iowa man climbed out and joined him.

"Never would have gone back on me of its own free will," he said. "There was a little carbon in it and I left it at a garage. You know—one of those places where there's one thing wrong with your car when it goes in and twenty when it comes out. I'd give a hundred dollars for the name and address of a competent mechanic in this neighborhood."

"U'm!" Jim Alden studied his beloved but rather soiled child. "Look here! Look at this!"

With expert eye and hand he ran over the mechanism. He pointed out several things that were wrong, and corrected them as he pointed. The Iowa man stared at him open-mouthed.

"By George," he said, "you know more about this engine than old Jim Alden himself!"

"Not more," replied Alden, laughing. "But just about as much. Now get in and start your motor."

The stranger returned to his seat, connected his battery and stepped on the gas. A soft purring sound like a cat in clover rewarded him.

"Great!" he cried. "Say, you're a wonder! It's too bad you're way over here—sort of off the main thoroughfare."

Alden told him of their proposed move.

"You won't be far from my house," the Iowa man said. "You get all my business from now on. A competent mechanic—I'll spread the good word among my friends. I'm one of the town commissioners, and I reckon I know everybody in San Marco."

"Send 'em around," said Alden. "We aim to please."

The Iowa man paid his modest bill and went happily on his way.

Bill Merrick rushed up and seized the older man by the hand. "Dad," he cried, "the Lord sure was good to me when he sent me a partner like you!"

"Come inside for ten minutes," said Alden, "and I'll tell you all I know about this game." But he was mightily pleased with himself.

At half past four Angie appeared on the scene.

"I don't need anything for the car," she explained. "Just happened to be passing. If you're going into Los Angeles, Dad, I'll be glad to give you a lift."

"Say, Miss Angie, that's mighty good of you."

"In heaven's name, go and scrub your hands!" she whispered.

For the first time he remembered that tinkering an engine was a soiling task. He had not been conscious of those grimy hands—they had seemed so natural, so like old times.

He hurried into the office.

Angie and Bill Merrick were left alone. The girl studied her father's partner—without his knowing it—keenly, appraisingly. A conquest is a conquest, even in overalls, especially when it is young and handsome.

"Is business picking up?" she asked.

"Not much," he told her. "But that's all right. We're going to pick up the business," and before he knew it he found himself relating all that had happened during the day.

"I'm so glad," Angie smiled. "You're on the road to success already, aren't you?"

"So it seems. But I'd be on the road to the poorhouse if it wasn't for Dad."

"Dad!"

"Yes, I call him that too. He's the finest partner a man ever had."

"You like him?"

"I'll tell the world he's a prince! Do you like me—for liking him?"

"Naturally. He's an old and dear friend."

Mr. Bill Merrick leaned closer. "I'd better warn you—I'm going to do more than like him. He's so gentle and kindly and capable—before I'm through I fancy I'm going to—to love him."

"Oh!" said Angie.

A brief speech for her, but all she could think of, with Bill Merrick's gray eyes so close, and all.

Fortunately Jim Alden reappeared at that moment, after a somewhat unsuccessful washing up. He got into the roadster.

"This is a bit of luck for me, Miss Angie," he said, sinking back wearily.

"Me too," smiled Angie sweetly. "By the way, Mr. Merrick, any friend of Dad's must consider himself a friend of—er—my family too. Won't you come and call some evening—soon?"

"I should say I will!"

"Dad will tell you where we live. Good-by."

The little car shot down the road.

"I told Haku not to stop for you to-night," she added to her father. "Thought I'd save you the trolley ride."

"It was kind of you, Angie—but don't do it often. Our young friend might grow suspicious."

She turned and looked at him, then laughed.

"If you could see yourself you wouldn't say that. Nobody will ever connect you with James M. Alden—you look too tired and happy. I think I'd better slip you in the back way."

"Maybe you had." The car sped on. "I notice," said Alden, "you didn't lose any time inviting Bill to the house."

"That's all right with you, isn't it?"

"Yes—in a way. But what's to become of me? Where do I hide?"

"Well, there's the garage," laughed Angie. "Or, on rainy nights, under the bed."

That evening Jim Alden sat with his wife in the drawing-room in front of an open fire. The young people had gone to a dance at one of the hotels.

"Jim," she said suddenly, "what's happened to your hands?"

"My—er—my hands?"

"They're not clean. I noticed them at dinner."

"Well—er—I got to monkeying with one of our engines at—at the garage. That fool Haku doesn't know the first thing about an engine. And it isn't so easy to get your hands clean after you've been fooling round a car. You ought to remember that."

She made no reply. Jim Alden smiled.

"Lord, Mary," he said, "how you used to fuss about my hands—in the old days! Those—those were great days, weren't they? Don't you sometimes wish we could travel back—be young together again?"

It seemed to him that her face softened.

"Don't be an old fool, Jim," she said gently. "What's the good of wishing for the impossible?"

* * * * *

BUT it was not so impossible as Mary Alden thought—at least not for her husband. For him the hands of the clock were whirling back. He stood again at the beginning of his career, facing a dozen obstacles daily, overcoming them one by one. All his energies were bent on making good.

Inside of a week he and Bill Merrick had moved most of their equipment to a temporary shed on the lot next to the one they had leased. Their gasoline pump was already installed and their new building well under way. Their first day in the new location was brightened by the appearance of the man from Iowa, who stopped for gasoline and to renew his promise of trade from friends. This promise he kept. Business increased daily.

Jim Alden found himself in far deeper than he had intended. When he had first acted on the insurance man's suggestion he had pictured himself hovering over the little business like a rich benignant uncle, lending a hand with the work only when he happened to feel like it. As the situation stood, however, much more was required of him, and he gave his time gladly. Every week day found him on the job. The light evening business was entrusted to Al. The old man explained in various ways his inability to serve Sundays and insisted that his partner should draw down a slightly larger salary because of it.

Two evenings after Angie extended her invitation, Bill Merrick made his first appearance at the Alden house. Jim Alden was in the drawing-room when he heard his partner's voice in the hall, and was forced to make use of the servants' stairway at the rear in order to escape. For a time he stalked about his room rather peevishly. His masquerade had its drawbacks. He ended by going early to bed.

The next morning at the garage Bill Merrick was gloom personified.

"What ails you, anyhow?" his partner asked.

"I called at the Aldens' last night," Bill explained. "It's worse than I thought. I mean—I didn't know there was so much money in the world. A royal palace. I'll never make the grade. Might as well give up."

"Nonsense! Did you see the old man?"

"Oh, no! He was off somewhere—sitting on his golden throne, I suppose. Couldn't be troubled with trifles like me. But I did meet Mrs. Alden. Ugh! Wished I'd worn my woolens. The icy shoulder, Dad—"

"But, Angie—Angie was friendly?" said Jim Alden hastily.

"She's a darling," Bill Merrick admitted. "Gosh, how I wish she didn't have a penny! Oh, for a break in the stock market and the old man dead broke!"

"In which case he'd call in our ten thousand," Alden reminded him. "Come in here. It's time for your morning lesson, and please keep your mind on the job."

Bill was proving an apt pupil—had always been interested in mechanics, he said. In a month he knew enough to qualify as a fair mechanic. The middle of February found their new building complete. It was a reproduction of the mission at Carmel, a really beautiful thing. The Women's Club of San Marco passed resolutions thanking Grant & Merrick for the taste they had displayed. The whole town was friendly.

Jim Alden grew younger daily. If at first his muscles had ached horribly and his step faltered when he returned home of an evening, that passed, and he returned merely tired and ready for his bed. He delighted in puttering round cars. More than that, he enjoyed the daily contact with all sorts of people, the exchange of views on many topics. The ease with which he played two parts in the world amazed him. When he reached the garage in the morning and donned his uniform he was no longer James M. Alden, but John Grant. He could stand off and regard his old pal the millionaire with an air of utter detachment. There were some traits in Jim Alden, he found, that were admirable; others he did not like, and he resolved to speak to his friend about them.

His wife, always breathlessly busy with social affairs, seemed to have no suspicions—at least she gave no sign. Occasionally she mentioned having called him up at his office without success. He had a variety of alibis—the movies, the club, long walks. One evening late in February she spoke to him about another matter.

"That young fellow, Merrick"—she began.

"What about him? Who is he?" Alden asked, startled.

"He's nobody apparently, and he's coming to see Angie altogether too often. You ought to look into it. He's nothing but a mechanic—owns a little garage somewhere. In partnership with a man named Grant, who claims to be an old friend of yours."

"Oh, yes, John Grant."

"You know him then? I tried to recall the name, but it was all so long ago. Well, I wish you'd meet this boy and squelch him. It seems that whenever he appears you're somewhere else."

"Oh, I'll meet him sooner or later."

"But, Jim, this is serious. I believe Angie likes him. Please do something at once, otherwise we may find ourselves in a rather awkward position."

He put her off with vague promises. So Angie liked Bill Merrick.

"Well, what's awkward about that?" he said fiercely—to himself.

The fifteenth of March Grant & Merrick were able to pay Jim Alden two thousand dollars of his principal. The younger partner was elated.

"Slowly but surely," he said. "You know, Dad, I've taken an oath. I've made up my mind to tell Angie I love her—some day. Then if she pushes me out of her life for ever—well, that's that. But one thing I've sworn—I'll never tell her while we owe her father money!"

"A mighty sensible idea," Alden admitted.

"If I can only hang to it," Bill Merrick sighed. "You know, Dad, she's almighty sweet—and spring is on the way! Sometimes I'm afraid I'll lose my head—and her—all in one glorious tragic night."

"Ignore the spring," advised Jim Alden.

He knew, however, that he asked the impossible. Even his own aging heart could not remain insensible to the wonders of the changing seasons. April came, perfuming the universe, and on Jim Alden's lawn the landscape architect at last began to earn his fee.

Walking up his driveway in an aisle of blooming beauty one evening early in the month, he found an old friend on the veranda. Doctor Tillson, from Detroit, was waiting, keenly anxious to view the effect of his prescription.

"Well, Jim Alden," said the doctor, after the greetings, "you always thought you knew more than I did."

"Oh, I wouldn't say that."

"Maybe not, but you'd think it. Now you'll pardon me if I gloat a bit. When I ordered you to cut loose from everything, to come out here and take a complete rest, what did you say? You said it was a death sentence."

"I know I did."

"And now look at you! Why, man, you're ten years younger than when I last saw you! It's a miracle! Excuse me if I press my point. Was I right—or were you?"

Alden hesitated. He wanted to gloat a little himself, but the moment was not propitious.

"You were right, as always, Doc," he laughed.

The doctor bowed. He admitted it.

"What do you do with yourself all day?" he asked. "Your wife says you have an office. I don't quite approve of that."

"Oh, just a place to loaf, Doc. I go in every morning and moon round. Then the club, the movies, long walks."

"Fine! Not a stroke of work, eh?"

"Nothing I'd call work." Alden thrust his hands deep into his pockets. "You're going to stop with us while you're out here?"

"Mrs. Alden has very kindly invited me."

"Good!" Alden reflected that his moment of triumph might yet come. "Make yourself at home. I'll be down shortly." He went up to his room.

That evening as he sat with the doctor in the library his wife entered.

"Jim," she said, "that young Merrick is here. He's taking Angie for a ride. Will you come and meet him now—or must I drag you out?"

"No, no, not to-night," he protested. "Later."

She stood eying him. He thanked heaven for the presence of the doctor. Otherwise he felt there would have ensued an argument likely to be a losing one for him.

"Very well," said Mary Alden. "We'll discuss it later."

She went out. Jim Alden rose uneasily and walked to a window. He felt that his masquerade could not be maintained much longer—things were approaching a crisis. He saw Angie and Bill Merrick going down the drive. The perfume of a night beautiful beyond words swept in on him. A moon made for lovers rode high amid the stars. Could Bill Merrick keep that promise to himself? Jim Alden rather hoped he couldn't.

He got his wish. His partner appeared at the garage next morning apparently a stricken man.

"Well, I'm done for, Dad," he announced. "It was just the way I was afraid it would be—spring and the moon and the perfume of her hair. I knew as well as I know anything that we still owe her father eight thousand dollars. And yet— "

"Tell me all about it."

"We were loafing along a country road out San Gabriel way. I'd been so excited at the thought of seeing her I'd forgot to fill the gas tank. The car stopped dead—in the shadow under a tree. It seemed the hand of Providence. She was mighty close—the seat in that old bus of ours is pretty narrow. The next thing I knew she was in my arms and I was telling her—pouring it all out."

"And she refused you," finished Jim Alden sympathetically.

"Refused me? Hell, no! She loves me, Dad. She said," continued Bill Merrick out of his vast gloom, "it was the happiest moment of her life."

"Judging by your looks, you can't say the same."

"I could only—dog-gone it, before she'd finished speaking I realized what I'd done. Jim Alden's daughter! It's preposterous!"

"Well, it's happened. What's your next move?"

"I don't know. I was a little mad last night. I urged her to run away with me—without a word to her family. I didn't know what I was saying."

"What was her answer to that?"

"She told me to ask your advice. Said she'd be guided by you."

"Wise girl," smiled Alden.

"I want to tell you, however, that I've changed my mind overnight. I couldn't run away with her. I'm not such a coward as that."

"Of course you're not!"

"But what am I to do?" moaned Bill Merrick. "She loves me. She's willing to marry me. I can't just let the whole matter drop."

The older man rose and put his hand on the boy's shoulder.

"There's only one thing to do," he said.

"I know what you mean."

"Go up to Jim Alden's house to-night. Demand to see him. Take a search warrant with you and drag him out from under the bed, or wherever it is he hides. Tell him you're a clean, decent young man with all your faculties and you want to marry Angie."

"It's got to be done," admitted Bill Merrick, "and I'll do it. But I'm scared to death. You know what he'll think I am—a fortune hunter." He got to his feet and glared fiercely at his partner. "Damn Jim Alden's money!" he cried.

"His money!" repeated John Grant, the middle-aged mechanic, glaring back. "Don't you let him mention his money to you! He won't, anyway—not if he's the Jim Alden I used to work with in Pontiac. But if he does—if he does—"

"Yes, Dad."

"Back him into a corner and jam a question down his throat. Just one question! Ask him how much he was getting at your age. If he's honest with you he'll tell you—twenty-six dollars a week, and darned glad to get it!"

He stopped, perspiring. He was vastly indignant with this arrogant millionaire.

"Dad, you're a peach," Bill Merrick said. "To-night's the night! I'll beard him in his den. But, gosh, I hope this is a long day!"

At three that afternoon Jim Alden was standing in front of his garage enjoying a moment of leisure. Al was busy inside. Bill Merrick had motored into town to obtain a new part for a car they were repairing. Suddenly Alden noticed his own limousine coming down the boulevard with Haku at the wheel. In the back seat were Mary Alden and Doctor Tillson.

Once or twice before Mary had driven by the place. On those occasions her husband had invented urgent business inside. But now he stood his ground. His heart beat a little faster, however, when Haku swung in the drive before the garage door and paused beside the gas pump. Alden pulled his old hat low over his eyes and stepped forward.

"Ten gallons of gasoline," ordered Mary Alden. She did not add "my good man," but it was in her tone.

"Yes'm." Jim Alden filled the tank. When he had finished he went to the door of the car. "Two-eighty, please," he muttered.

It was a point of pride with his wife never to notice a menial. She handed him a ten-dollar bill. He went inside and returned with the change. As he put it into her hand a spirit of deviltry seized him. He pushed his old hat far back on his head and looked her full in the eye.

"All right, Mary," he said. "That fixes you. Drive on."

An expression of—er—well, decidedly an expression appeared on Mary Alden's face—and froze there.

"Jim Alden!" cried the doctor. "What does this mean?"

"It means," said Alden, "that you were wrong, after all. I tried your prescription for a while. I got worse—worse every day. If I'd stuck to it I'd have been under the daisies by this time. I had sense enough to get down off the shelf—to unfold my hands. I bought a half-interest in this business. For the past five months I've been here every day, tinkering cars, talking politics, having a darn good time. You told me last night I look ten years younger. Well, I feel that way."

"Ah, yes," cried his wife, finding her voice. "Satan finds mischief for idle hands to do."

"If this is mischief, give me more of it," said Alden. "And as for Satan, he has saved my life." Over his shoulder he saw Bill Merrick approaching. "We'll talk it all over to-night. Just now I repeat my suggestion—please drive on!"

No one moved. Alden saw Haku staring at him. It is a general belief that the Japanese face can not express deep emotion. A mistaken one.

"Drive on, Haku," ordered Alden. Haku did not stir. This was a big thing and he wanted to get it straight. "Will you take my orders, or not?" roared the millionaire.

Haku came to life and stepped on the gas. The big car shot into the road, carrying Mary Alden's stricken face from her husband's sight.

"Well," said Bill Merrick at five o'clock, "all good things must end, including the condemned man's last day. Shot at sunset! I think I would have preferred the morning."

"Cheer up," smiled Alden. "If it helps any, I'm going to be at old Jim's house to-night myself. I've been invited."

"Good!" replied Bill, smiling wanly. "You can take charge of the remains."

In spite of his bravado at the garage Jim Alden crossed his veranda that evening feeling rather sheepish. He was like a small boy who had gone swimming without permission and been found out. He was surprised to find Mary in his room. She was sitting in a chair by the window, her hands idly folded in her lap. He went over and sat down beside her.

"Well, Mary," he said, "I guess I've been a pretty bad boy."

"I guess you have, Jim."

"What are you going to do to me?"

"Angie has told me the whole story. There's only one thing I don't like—why did you keep it a secret from me?"

"You'd have been against it, Mary."

"Probably I would at first. I'd have talked a lot, but you'd have had your own way in the end. You always do. And afterward, when I saw how much better you were—how happy—"

"You want me to be happy, Mary?"

"Yes, Jim," she answered gently. "That's all that matters now—keeping happy the rest of the way."

"There's one thing more," he said. "My partner at the garage—Bill Merrick—a fine boy, Mary. I know him inside out. He's coming up to- night to ask for Angie. He doesn't know I'm Jim Alden. It will be a shock to him. All I'm going to say is—that it's all right with me."

"A mechanic!"

"Just as I was—when you married me. He's got a future too. This business of ours is going to grow. I'll attend to that, once I've told him my real name." He leaned closer. "They'll be standing just where you and I stood thirty years ago. We can't have our own youth back, but we can live it over again—with our children."

She went over to a table and picked up a package.

"What's this?" he asked as she handed it to him.

"I hunted all over Los Angeles, but I finally found it," she said. "It's that soap, Jim—the kind I used to get for you in Pontiac. You remember? It's so good for your hands."

He stood up and put his arm about her.

"There was just one fly in the ointment, Mary," he said—"your not knowing. I didn't like it. It seemed to be driving us so far apart. But that's all over now."

"All over now," she repeated, smiling at him. He kissed her. It was like coming home in Pontiac.

When he came down-stairs dressed for dinner he demanded immediate audience with Doctor Tillson.

"I forgot to tell you, Jim," his wife said. "The doctor went into town this afternoon. He's going East in the morning."

She laughed. "He left a message for you. He said he'd resigned in favor of Satan."

After dinner Arthur and Edie sought intellectual nourishment at the movies. Jim Alden, his wife and Angie sat together in the drawing-room. When he heard the bell ring Alden stood up.

"It's poor Bill," he said. "I'll go into the library. Hustle him right in, Angie. Don't prolong his agony."

He had scarcely seated himself behind his massive desk when the door opened and Angie smilingly entered, followed by Bill Merrick. The younger partner in the San Marco garage wore evening clothes, and his face was as white as his hard-boiled front.

"Dad," said Angie, "here's Bill Merrick. He wants to marry me."

"I know he does," said Alden. "He's told me so from time to time."

Bill Merrick opened his mouth, but no sound that could possibly be regarded as speech issued forth. He stood there staring at the distinguished-looking man who seemed so like the soiled partner he had parted from not three hours before.

"Bill," said Alden gently, "we've treated you rather shabbily, but we didn't go for to do it. Angie will explain it all to you later on. For the moment all I need say is that they'd put me up on the shelf with the rest of the dust, and I didn't like it, so I climbed down and bought a half-interest in Petersen's garage."

"Good lord!" cried Bill Merrick. "You—you are James M. Alden?"

The old man came from behind the desk and put his arm round the boy's shoulders.

"Where do you get that James M. stuff?" he said. "You might as well go right on calling me Dad."

And since that seemed to sum up all he had to say, he left the room, closing the door softly behind him.

 
 
 

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