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St. George and the Dragon by Robert Grant

 

Paul Harrington, the reporter, shifted his eagle glance from one feature to another of the obsequies with the comprehensive yet swift perception of an artist. An experience of three years on the staff had made him an expert on ceremonies, and, captious as he could be when the occasion merited his scorn, his predilection was for praise, as he was an optimist by instinct. This time he could praise unreservedly, and he was impatient to transfer to the pages of his note-book his seething impressions of the solemn beauty and simplicity of the last rites in the painful tragedy. In the rustic church into which he had wormed his way he had already found time to scribble a brief paragraph to the effect that the melancholy event had “shrouded the picturesque little town of Carver in gloom,” and now as he stood on the greensward near, though not too near, he hastily jotted down the points of interest with keen anticipation of working out some telling description on the way home.

Out from the little church where the families of the pair of lovers had worshipped in summer time for a generation, the two coffins, piled high with flowers (Harrington knew them reportorially as caskets), were borne by the band of pall-bearers, stalwart young intimate friends, and lifted by the same hands tenderly into the hearse. The long blackness of their frock-coats and the sable accompaniment of their silk hats, gloves, and ties appealed to the observant faculties of Harrington as in harmony both with the high social position of the parties and the peculiar sadness of the occasion. That a young man and woman, on the eve of matrimony, and with everything to live for, should be hurled into eternity (a Harringtonian figure of speech) by a railroad train at a rustic crossing, while driving, was certainly an affair heartrending enough to invite every habiliment of woe. As he thus reasoned Harrington became aware that one of the stalwart young men was looking at him with an expression which seemed to ask only too plainly, “What the devil are you doing here?”

As a newspaper man of some years' standing Harrington was hardened. Such an expression of countenance was an almost daily experience and slipped off the armor of his self-respecting hardihood like water off the traditional duck's back. When people looked at him like this he simply took refuge in his consciousness of the necessities of the case and the honesty of his own artistic purpose. The press must be served faithfully and indefatigably—boldly, moreover, and at times officiously, in order to attain legitimate results; yet he flattered himself that no one could ever say of him that he had “butted in” where others of his craft would have paused, or was lacking in reportorial delicacy. Was he not simply doing his professional duty for hire, like any respectable lawyer or doctor or architect, in order to support his family? Were he to trouble his head because impetuous people frowned, his wife, Amelia, and infant son, Tesla, would be the sufferers—a thought which was a constant stimulus to enterprise. His “job” required “cheek” perhaps, but nine people out of ten were not sensible enough to realize that he was a modern necessity, and to ask themselves, “Is this man doing his work creditably?” There was the essence of the situation for Harrington, and from the world's lack of nice perception he had made for himself a grievance which rendered him indifferent to ill-considered scowls.

But, however indifferent his attitude, nothing ever escaped Harrington, and he noticed that the young man whose eyes met his with the expression of annoyance was well set up and manly in appearance—a “dude,” in Harrington's parlance, but a pleasant-looking dude, with an open and rather strong countenance. Such was Harrington's deduction, in spite of the obvious hostility to himself, and in confirmation of this view he had the satisfaction of perceiving the tension of the young man's face relax, as though he had come to the conclusion, on second thoughts, that interference was, on the whole, not worth while.

“He realizes,” said the reporter to himself approvingly, “that there's no sense in being peevish. A swell funeral must be written up like any other society function.”

While he thus soliloquized, the nearest relatives of the deceased victims issued from the church, seeking the carriages in waiting for them. Among those who came next was a handsome, spirited-looking girl of twenty-five, who, though not of the family group, was a sincere mourner. As she stepped forward with the elasticity of youth, glad of the fresh air on her tear-stained cheeks, it happened that she also observed the presence of the reporter, and she paused, plainly appalled. Her nostrils quivered with horrified distress, and she turned her head as though seeking some one. It proved to be the young man who had misjudged Harrington a few moments before. At least, he sprang to her side with an agility which suggested that his eyes had been following her every movement, thereby prompting Harrington, who was ever on the alert for a touch of romance amid the prose of every-day business, to remark shrewdly:

“That's plain as the nose on your face; he's her 'steady.'“

He realized at the same time that he was being pointed out in no flattering terms by the young lady in question, who cast a single haughty glance in his direction by way of identification. He saw her eyes flash, and, though the brief dialogue which ensued was necessarily inarticulate to him, it was plain that she was laying her outraged feelings at the feet of her admirer, with a command for something summary and substantial by way of relief.

At any rate, Harrington jumped at once to this conclusion, for he murmured: “She's telling him I'm the scum of the earth, and that it's up to him to get rid of me.” He added, sententiously: “She'll find, I guess, that this is about the most difficult billet a fair lady ever intrusted to a gallant knight.” Whereupon, inspired by his metaphor, he proceeded to hum under his breath, by way of outlet to his amused sensibilities, the dulcet refrain which runs:

  In days of old, when knights were bold
    And barons held their sway,
  A warrior bold, with spurs of gold.
    Sang merrily his lay,
    Sang merrily his lay:
    “My love is young and fair,
    My love hath golden hair,
 And eyes so blue and heart so true
   That none with her compare.
 So what care I, though death be nigh?
   I'll live for love or die!
 So what care I, though death be nigh,
   I'll live for love or die!”

What was going to happen? How would Sir Knight set to work to slay or expel the obnoxious dragon? Harrington felt mildly curious despite his sardonic emotions, and while he took mental note of what was taking place around him he contrived to keep an eye on his censors. He had observed that the young man's face while she talked to him had worn a worried expression, as though he were already meditating whether the situation was not hopeless unless he had recourse to personal violence; but, having put his Dulcinea into her carriage, he appeared to be in no haste to begin hostilities. Indeed, without further ado, or even a glance in Harrington's direction, he took his place in the line of mourners which was moving toward the neighboring cemetery.

Harrington was for a moment divided in his own mind between the claims of reportorial delicacy and proper self-respect. It had been his intention to absent himself from the services at the grave, out of consideration for the immediate family. It occurred to him now that it was almost his duty to show himself there, in order not to avoid a meeting. But the finer instinct prevailed. Why allow what was, after all, nothing save ignorant disapproval to alter his arrangements? He had just time to walk leisurely to the station without overheating himself, and delay would oblige him to take a later train, as there was no vehicle at his disposal.

Consequently, after his brief hesitation, he followed a high-road at right angles to that taken by the funeral procession, and gave himself up to the beguilement of his own thoughts. They were concerned with the preparation of his special article, and he indulged in the reflection that if it were read by the couple who had looked at him askance they would be put to shame by its accuracy and good taste.

Before Harrington had finished three-quarters of the distance which lay between the church and his destination, the carriages of those returning from the cemetery began to pass him. When the dust raised by their wheels had subsided he looked for an undisturbed landscape during the remainder of his walk, and had just given rein again to contemplation when a sound which revealed unmistakably the approach of an automobile caused him to turn his head. A touring car of large dimensions and occupied by two persons was approaching at a moderate rate of speed, which the driver, who was obviously the owner, reduced to a minimum as he ran alongside him.

“May I give you a lift?” asked a strong, friendly voice.

Before the question was put Harrington had recognized in the speaker the young man whose mission it had become, according to his shrewd guess, to call him to account for his presence at the funeral. He had exchanged his silk hat for a cap, and drawn on a white dust-coat over his other sable garments, but his identity was unmistakable. Viewing him close at hand Harrington perceived that he had large, clear eyes, a smooth-shaven, humorous, determined mouth, and full ruddy cheeks, the immobility of which suggested the habit of deliberation. Physically and temperamentally he appeared to be the antipodes of the reporter, who was thin, nervous, and wiry, with quick, snappy ways and electric mental processes. It occurred to him now at once that the offer concealed a trap, and he recalled, knowingly, the warning contained in the classical adage concerning Greeks who bear gifts. But, on the other hand, what had he to fear or to apologize for? Besides, there was his boy Tesla to consider. How delighted the little fellow, who already doted on electricity, would be to hear that his father had ridden in a huge touring car! He would be glad, too, of the experience himself, in order to compare the sensation with that of travelling in the little puffing machines with which he was tolerably familiar. Therefore he answered civilly, yet without enthusiasm:

“I don't mind if you do, as far as the station.”

At his words the chauffeur at a sign made place for him, and he stepped in beside his pseudo-enemy, who, as he turned on the power, met Harrington's limitation as to distance with the remark:

“I'm going all the way to New York, if you care to go with me.”

Harrington was tempted again. Apart from the peculiar circumstances of the case he would like nothing better. Then, why not? What had he or his self-respect to dread from a trip with this accommodating dude? He would hardly sandbag him, and were he—Harrington grinned inwardly at the cunning thought—intending to have the machine break down in an inaccessible spot, and leave him stranded, what difference would it make? His article was too late already for the evening papers, and he would take excellent care to see that nothing should interfere with its appearance the following morning, for at a pinch he was within walking distance of the city. The thought of such an attempt to muzzle the liberty of the press was rather an incentive than otherwise, for it savored of real adventure and indicated that a moral issue was involved.

While he thus reflected he appeared not to have heard the observation. Meanwhile the automobile was running swiftly and smoothly, as though its owner were not averse to have his guest perceive what a superb machine it was.

“What make?” asked the reporter, wishing to show himself affable, yet a man of the world. He had come to the conclusion that if the invitation were repeated he would accept it.

His companion told him, and as though he divined that the inquiry had been intended to convey admiration, added, “She's going now only at about half her speed.”

Harrington grinned inwardly again. “Springes to catch woodcock!” he said to himself, quoting Shakespeare, then went on to reflect in his own vernacular: “The chap is trying to bribe me, confound him! Well, here goes!” Thereupon he said aloud, for they were approaching the station: “If you really would like my company on the way to town I'd be glad to see how fast she can go.” As he spoke he drew out his watch and added with suppressed humorous intention: “I suppose you'll guarantee to get me there in a couple of hours or so?”

“If we don't break down or are not arrested.” The voice was gay and without a touch of sinister suggestion.

“Here's a deep one, maybe,” thought Harrington.

Already the kidnapper—if he were one—was steering the car into a country way which diverged at a sharp curve from that in which they had been travelling. It was a smooth, level stretch, running at first almost parallel with the railroad, and in another moment they were spinning along at a hair-lifting rate of speed, yet with so little friction that the reporter's enthusiasm betrayed itself in a grunt of satisfaction, though he was reflecting that his companion knew the way and did not intend to allow him to change his mind. But Harrington was quite content with the situation, and gave himself up unreservedly to the pleasant thrill of skimming along the surface of the earth at such a pace that the summer breeze buffeted his face so that his eyes watered. There was nothing in sight but a clear, straight road flanked by hedges and ditches, save the railroad bed, along which after a while the train came whizzing. A pretty race ensued until it crossed their path at almost a right angle.

“Now he thinks he has me,” thought Harrington.

It almost seemed so, for in another moment he of the humorous, determined mouth diminished the power, and after they were on the other side of the railroad track he proceeded at a much less strenuous pace and opened conversation.

“You're a reporter, I judge?”

Harrington, who was enjoying himself, would have preferred to avoid business for a little longer and to talk as one gentleman to another on a pleasure trip. So, in response to this direct challenge, he answered with dry dignity:

“Yes. I have the honor of representing the Associated Press.”

“One of the great institutions of the country.”

This was reasonable—so reasonable, indeed, that Harrington pondered it to detect some sophistry.

“It must be in many respects an interesting calling.”

“Yes, sir; a man has to keep pretty well up to date.”

“Married or single, if I may be so bold?”

“I have a wife and a son nine years old.”

“That is as it should be. Lucky dog!”

Harrington laughed in approval of the sentiment. “Then I must assume that you are a bachelor, Mr. ——?”

“Dryden. Walter Dryden is my name. Yes, that's the trouble.”

“She won't have you?” hazarded the reporter, wishing to be social in his turn.

“Exactly.”

“Mrs. Harrington would not the first time I asked her.”

“I have offered myself to her six separate times, and she has thus far declined.”

Harrington paused a moment. The temptation to reveal his own astuteness, and at the same time enhance the personal flavor which the dialogue had acquired, was not to be resisted. “May I venture to ask if she is the lady with whom you exchanged a few words this forenoon at the door of the church?”

The young man turned his glance from the road toward his questioner by way of tribute to such acumen. “I see that nothing escapes your observation.”

“It is my business to notice everything and to draw my own conclusions,” said the reporter modestly.

“They are shrewdly correct in this case. Would you be surprised,” continued Dryden in a confidential tone, “if I were to inform you that I believe it lies in your power to procure me a home and happiness?”

Harrington chuckled in his secret soul. He would dissemble. “How could that possibly be?”

“I don't mind telling you that the last time I offered myself the young lady appeared a trifle less obdurate. She shook her head, but I thought I observed signs of wavering—faint, yet appreciable. If now I could only put her under an obligation and thus convince her of my effectiveness, I am confident I could win her.”

“Your effectiveness?” queried Harrington, to whom the interview was becoming more psychologically interesting every moment.

“Yes, she considers me an unpractical person—not serious, you know. I know what you consider me,” he added with startling divergence—“a dude.”

Harrington found this searchlight on his own previous thought disconcerting. “Well, aren't you one?” he essayed boldly.

Dryden pondered a moment. “I suppose so. I don't wear reversible cuffs and I am disgustingly rich. I've shot tigers in India, lived in the Latin quarter, owned a steam yacht, climbed San Juan Hill—but I have not found a permanent niche. There are not places enough to go round for men with millions, and she calls me a rolling stone. Come, now, I'll swap places with you. You shall own this motor and—and I'll write the press notice on the Ward-Upton funeral.”

Harrington stiffened instinctively. He did not believe that the amazing, splendid offer was genuine. But had he felt complete faith that the young man beside him was in earnest, he would have been proof against the lure of even a touring car, for he had been touched at his most sensitive point. His artistic capacity was assailed, and his was just the nature to take proper umbrage at the imputation. More; over, though this was a minor consideration, he resented slightly the allusion to reversible cuffs. Hence the answer sprang to his lips:

“Can you not trust me to write the notice, Mr. Dryden?”

“She would like me to write it.”

“Ah, I see! Was that what she whispered to you this morning?”

Dryden hesitated. “Certainly words to that effect. Let me ask you in turn, can you not trust me? If so, the automobile is yours and——”

Harrington laughed coldly. “I'm sorry not to oblige you, Mr. Dryden. If you understood my point of view you would see that what you propose is out of the question. I was commissioned to write up the Ward-Upton obsequies, and I alone must do so.”

As he spoke they were passing at a lively gait through the picturesquely shaded main street of a small country town and were almost abreast of the only tavern of the place, which wore the appearance of having been recently remodelled and repainted to meet the demands of modern road travel.

“Your point of view? What is your point of view?”

Before Harrington had time to begin to put into speech the statement of his principles there was a sudden loud explosion beneath them like the discharge of a huge pistol, and the machine came abruptly to a stop. So unexpected and startling was the shock that the reporter sprang from the car and in his nervous annoyance at once vented the hasty conclusion at which he arrived in the words: “I see; this is a trap, and you are a modern highwayman whose stunt will make good Sunday reading in cold print.” He wore a sarcastic smile, and his sharp eyes gleamed like a ferret's.

Dryden regarded him humorously with his steady gaze. “Gently there; it's only a tire gone. Do you suspect me of trying to trifle with the sacred liberties of the press?”

“I certainly did, sir. It looks very much like it.”

“Then you agree that I chose a very inappropriate place for my purpose. 'The Old Homestead' there is furnished with a telephone, a livery-stable, and all the modern protections against highway robbery. Besides, there is a cold chicken and a bottle of choice claret in the basket with which to supplement the larder of our host of the inn. We will take luncheon while my chauffeur is placing us on an even keel again, and no time will be lost. You will even have ten minutes in which to put pen to paper while the table is being laid.”

Harrington as a nervous man was no less promptly generous in his impulses when convinced of error than he was quick to scent out a hostile plot. “I beg your pardon, Mr. Dryden. I see I was mistaken.” He thrust out a lean hand by way of amity. “Can't I help?”

“Oh, no, thank you. My man will attend to everything.”

“You see I got the idea to begin with and then the explosion following so close upon your offer——”

“Quite so,” exclaimed Dryden. “A suspicious coincidence, I admit.” He shook the proffered fingers without a shadow of resentment. “I dare say my dust-coat and goggles give me quite the highwayman effect,” he continued jollily.

“They sort of got on my nerves, I guess.” Under the spell of his generous impulse various bits of local color flattering to his companion began to suggest themselves to Harrington for his article, and he added: “I'll take advantage of that suggestion of yours and get to work until luncheon is ready.”

Some fifteen minutes later they were seated opposite to each other at an appetizing meal. As Dryden finished his first glass of claret, he asked:

“Did you know Richard Upton?”

“The man who was killed? Not personally. But I have read about him in the society papers.”

“Ah!” There was a deep melancholy in the intonation which caused the reporter to look at his companion a little sharply. For a moment Dryden stirred in his chair as though about to make some comment, and twisted the morsel of bread at his fingers' ends into a small pellet. But he poured out another glass of claret for each of them and said:

“He was the salt of the earth.”

“Tell me about him. I should be glad to know. I might——”

“There's so little to tell—it was principally charm. He was one of the most unostentatious, unselfish, high-minded, consistent men I ever knew. Completely a gentleman in the finest sense of that overworked word.”

“That's very interesting. I should be glad——”

Dryden shook his head. “You didn't know him well enough. It was like the delicacy of the rose—finger it and it falls to pieces. No offence to you, of course. I doubt my own ability to do him justice, well as I knew him. But you put a stopper on that—and you were right. My kind regards,” he said, draining his second glass of claret. “The laborer is worthy of his hire, the artist must not be interfered with. It was an impertinence of me to ask to do your work.”

Harrington's eyes gleamed. “It's pleasant to be appreciated—to have one's point of view comprehended. It isn't pleasant to butt in where you're not wanted, but there's something bigger than that involved, the——”

“Quite so; it was a cruel bribe; and many men in your shoes would not have been proof against it.”

“And you were in dead earnest, too, though for a moment I couldn't believe it. But the point is—and that's what I mean—that the public—gentlemen like you and ladies like the handsome one who looked daggers at me this morning—don't realize that the world is bound to have the news on its breakfast-table and supper-table, and that when a man is in the business and knows his business and is trying to do the decent thing and the acceptable artistic thing, too, if I do say it, he is entitled to be taken seriously and—and trusted. There are incompetent men—rascals even—in my calling. What I contend is that you'd no right to assume that I wouldn't do the inevitable thing decently merely because you saw me there. For, if you only knew it, I was saying to myself at that very moment that for a funeral it was the most tastefully handled I ever attended.”

“It is the inevitable thing; that's just it. My manners were bad to begin to with, and later—” Dryden leaned forward with his elbows on the table and his head between his hands, scanning his eager companion.

“Don't mention it. You see, it was a matter of pride with me. And now it's up to me to state that if there's anything in particular you'd like me to mention about the deceased gentleman or lady——”

Dryden sighed at the reminder, “One of the loveliest and most pure-hearted of women.”

“That shall go down,” said the reporter, mistaking the apostrophe for an answer, and he drew a note-book from his side pocket.

Dryden raised his hand by way of protest. “I was merely thinking aloud. No, we must trust you.”

Harrington bowed. He hesitated, then by way of noticing the plural allusion in the speech added: “It was your young lady's look which wounded me the most. And she said something. I don't suppose you'd care to tell me what she said? It wasn't flattering, I'm sure of that, but it was on the tip of her tongue. I admit I'm mildly curious as to what it was.”

Dryden reflected a moment. “You've written your article?” he asked, indicating the note-book.

“It's all mapped out in my mind, and I've finished the introduction.”

“I won't ask to see it because we trust you. But I'll make a compact with you.” Dryden held out a cigar to his adversary and proceeded to light one for himself. “Supposing what the lady said referred to something which you have written there, would you agree to cut it out?”

Harrington looked gravely knowing. “You think you can tell what I have written?” he asked, tapping his note-book.

Dryden took a puff. “Very possibly not. I am merely supposing. But in case the substance of her criticism—for she did criticise—should prove to be almost word for word identical with something in your handwriting—would you agree?”

Harrington shrugged his shoulders. “Against the automobile as a stake, if it proves not to be?” he inquired by way of expressing his incredulity.

“Gladly.”

“Let it be rather against another luncheon with you as agreeable as this.”

“Done. I will write her exact language here on this piece of paper and then we will exchange copy.”

Harrington sat pleasantly amused, yet puzzled, while Dryden wrote and folded the paper. Then he proffered his note-book with nervous alacrity. “Read aloud until you come to the place,” he said jauntily.

Dryden scanned for a moment the memoranda, then looked up. “It is all here at the beginning, just as she prophesied,” he said, with a promptness which was almost radiant, and he read as follows: “The dual funeral of Miss Josephine Ward, the leading society girl, and Richard Upton, the well-known club man, took place this morning at—” He paused and said: “Read now what you have there.”

Harrington flushed, then scowled, but from perplexity. He was seeking enlightenment before he proceeded further, so he unfolded the paper with a deliberation unusual to him, which afforded time to Dryden to remark with clear precision:

“Those were her very words.”

Harrington read aloud: “'Look at that man; he is taking notes. Oh, he will describe them in his newspaper as a leading society girl and a well-known club man, and they will turn in their graves. If you love me, stop it.'“

There was a brief pause. The reporter pondered, visibly chagrined and disappointed. The silence was broken by Dryden. “Do you not understand?” he inquired.

“Frankly, I do not altogether. I—I thought they'd like it.”

“Of course you did, my dear fellow; there's the ghastly humor of it; the dire tragedy, rather.” As he spoke he struck his closed hand gently but firmly on the table, and regarded the reporter with the compressed lips of one who is about to vent a long pent-up grievance.

“He was in four clubs; I looked him up,” Harrington still protested in dazed condition.

“And they seemed to you his chief title to distinction? You thought they did him honor? He would have writhed in his grave, as Miss Mayberry said. Like it? When the cheap jack or the social climber dies, he may like it, but not the gentleman or lady. Leading society girl? Why, every shop-girl who commits suicide is immortalized in the daily press as 'a leading society girl,' and every deceased Tom, Dick, or Harry has become a 'well-known club man.' It has added a new terror to death. Thank God, my friends will be spared!”

Harrington felt of his chin. “You object to the promiscuity of it, so to speak. It's because everybody is included?”

“No, man, to the fundamental indignity of it. To the baseness of the metal which the press glories in using for a social crown.”

Harrington drew himself up a little. “If the press does it, it's because most people like it and regard it as a tribute.”

“Ah! But my friends do not. You spoke just now of your point of view. This is ours. Think it over, Mr. Harrington, and you will realize that there is something in it.” He sat back in his chair with the air of a man who has pulled victory out of the jaws of defeat and is well content.

Harrington meditated a moment. “However that be, one thing is certain—it has got to come out. It will come out. You may rest assured of that, Mr. Dryden.” So saying he reached for his note-book and proceeded to run a pencil through the abnoxious paragraph.

“You have won your bet and—and the young lady, too, Sir Knight, I trust. You seem to have found your niche.” Which goes to prove that the reporter was a magnanimous fellow at heart.

Dryden forbore to commit himself as to the condition of his hopes as he thanked his late adversary for this expression of good-will. Ten minutes later they were sitting in the rehabilitated motor-car and speeding rapidly toward New York. When they reached the city Dryden insisted on leaving the reporter at his doorsteps, a courtesy which went straight to Harrington's heart, for, as he expected would be the case, his wife and son Tesla were looking out of the window at the moment of his arrival and saw him dash up to the curbstone. His sturdy urchin ran out forthwith to inspect the mysteries of the huge machine. As it vanished down the street Harrington put an arm round Tesla and went to meet the wife of his bosom.

“Who is your new friend, Paul?” she asked.

It rose to Harrington's lips to say—an hour before he would have said confidently—“a well-known club man”; but he swallowed the phrase before it was uttered and answered thoughtfully:

“It was one of the funeral guests, who gave me a lift in his motor, and has taught me a thing or two about modern journalism on the way up. I got stung.”

“I thought you knew everything there is to know about that,” remarked Mrs. Harrington with the fidelity of a true spouse.

To this her husband at the moment made no response. When, six months later, however, he received an invitation to the wedding of Walter Dryden and Miss Florence Mayberry, he remarked in her presence, as he sharpened his pencil for the occasion: “Those swells have trusted me to write it up after all.”

 
 
 

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