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"Who's going for the mail?" called a woman's voice through the trees.
Lute closed the book from which they had been reading, and sighed.
"We weren't going to ride to-day," she said.
"Let me go," Chris proposed. "You stay here. I'll be down and back in no time."
She shook her head.
"Who's going for the mail?" the voice insisted.
"Where's Martin?" Lute called, lifting; her voice in answer.
"I don't know," came the voice. "I think Robert took him along somewhere—horse-buying, or fishing, or I don't know what. There's really nobody left but Chris and you. Besides, it will give you an appetite for dinner. You've been lounging in the hammock all day. And Uncle Robert must have his newspaper."
"All right, Aunty, we're starting," Lute called back, getting out of the hammock.
A few minutes later, in riding-clothes, they were saddling the horses. They rode out on to the county road, where blazed the afternoon sun, and turned toward Glen Ellen. The little town slept in the sun, and the somnolent storekeeper and postmaster scarcely kept his eyes open long enough to make up the packet of letters and newspapers.
An hour later Lute and Chris turned aside from the road and dipped along a cow-path down the high bank to water the horses, before going into camp.
"Dolly looks as though she'd forgotten all about yesterday," Chris said, as they sat their horses knee-deep in the rushing water. "Look at her."
The mare had raised her head and cocked her ears at the rustling of a quail in the thicket. Chris leaned over and rubbed around her ears. Dolly's enjoyment was evident, and she drooped her head over against the shoulder of his own horse.
"Like a kitten," was Lute's comment.
"Yet I shall never be able wholly to trust her again," Chris said. "Not after yesterday's mad freak."
"I have a feeling myself that you are safer on Ban," Lute laughed. "It is strange. My trust in Dolly is as implicit as ever. I feel confident so far as I am concerned, but I should never care to see you on her back again. Now with Ban, my faith is still unshaken. Look at that neck! Isn't he handsome! He'll be as wise as Dolly when he is as old as she."
"I feel the same way," Chris laughed back. "Ban could never possibly betray me."
They turned their horses out of the stream. Dolly stopped to brush a fly from her knee with her nose, and Ban urged past into the narrow way of the path. The space was too restricted to make him return, save with much trouble, and Chris allowed him to go on. Lute, riding behind, dwelt with her eyes upon her lover's back, pleasuring in the lines of the bare neck and the sweep out to the muscular shoulders.
Suddenly she reined in her horse. She could do nothing but look, so brief was the duration of the happening. Beneath and above was the almost perpendicular bank. The path itself was barely wide enough for footing. Yet Washoe Ban, whirling and rearing at the same time, toppled for a moment in the air and fell backward off the path.
So unexpected and so quick was it, that the man was involved in the fall. There had been no time for him to throw himself to the path. He was falling ere he knew it, and he did the only thing possible—slipped the stirrups and threw his body into the air, to the side, and at the same time down. It was twelve feet to the rocks below. He maintained an upright position, his head up and his eyes fixed on the horse above him and falling upon him.
Chris struck like a cat, on his feet, on the instant making a leap to the side. The next instant Ban crashed down beside him. The animal struggled little, but sounded the terrible cry that horses sometimes sound when they have received mortal hurt. He had struck almost squarely on his back, and in that position he remained, his head twisted partly under, his hind legs relaxed and motionless, his fore legs futilely striking the air.
Chris looked up reassuringly.
"I am getting used to it," Lute smiled down to him. "Of course I need not ask if you are hurt. Can I do anything?"
He smiled back and went over to the fallen beast, letting go the girths of the saddle and getting the head straightened out.
"I thought so," he said, after a cursory examination. "I thought so at the time. Did you hear that sort of crunching snap?"
"Well, that was the punctuation of life, the final period dropped at the end of Ban's usefulness." He started around to come up by the path. "I've been astride of Ban for the last time. Let us go home."
At the top of the bank Chris turned and looked down.
"Good-by, Washoe Ban!" he called out. "Good-by, old fellow."
The animal was struggling to lift its head. There were tears in Chris's eyes as he turned abruptly away, and tears In Lute's eyes as they met his. She was silent in her sympathy, though the pressure of her hand was firm in his as he walked beside her horse down the dusty road.
"It was done deliberately," Chris burst forth suddenly. "There was no warning. He deliberately flung himself over backward."
"There was no warning," Lute concurred. "I was looking. I saw him. He whirled and threw himself at the same time, just as if you had done it yourself, with a tremendous jerk and backward pull on the bit."
"It was not my hand, I swear it. I was not even thinking of him. He was going up with a fairly loose rein, as a matter of course."
"I should have seen it, had you done it," Lute said. "But it was all done before you had a chance to do anything. It was not your hand, not even your unconscious hand."
"Then it was some invisible hand, reaching out from I don't know where."
He looked up whimsically at the sky and smiled at the conceit.
Martin stepped forward to receive Dolly, when they came into the stable end of the grove, but his face expressed no surprise at sight of Chris coming in on foot. Chris lingered behind Lute for moment.
"Can you shoot a horse?" he asked.
The groom nodded, then added, "Yes, sir," with a second and deeper nod.
"How do you do it?"
"Draw a line from the eyes to the ears—I mean the opposite ears, sir. And where the lines cross—"
"That will do," Chris interrupted. "You know the watering place at: the second bend. You'll find Ban there with a broken back."
"Oh, here you are, sir. I have been looking for you everywhere since dinner. You are wanted immediately."
Chris tossed his cigar away, then went over and pressed his foot on its glowing; fire.
"You haven't told anybody about it?—Ban?" he queried.
Lute shook her head. "They'll learn soon enough. Martin will mention it to Uncle Robert tomorrow."
"But don't feel too bad about it," she said, after a moment's pause, slipping her hand into his.
"He was my colt," he said. "Nobody has ridden him but you. I broke him myself. I knew him from the time he was born. I knew every bit of him, every trick, every caper, and I would have staked my life that it was impossible for him to do a thing like this. There was no warning, no fighting for the bit, no previous unruliness. I have been thinking it over. He didn't fight for the bit, for that matter. He wasn't unruly, nor disobedient. There wasn't time. It was an impulse, and he acted upon it like lightning. I am astounded now at the swiftness with which it took place. Inside the first second we were over the edge and falling.
"It was deliberate—deliberate suicide. And attempted murder. It was a trap. I was the victim. He had me, and he threw himself over with me. Yet he did not hate me. He loved me . . . as much as it is possible for a horse to love. I am confounded. I cannot understand it any more than you can understand Dolly's behavior yesterday."
"But horses go insane, Chris," Lute said. "You know that. It's merely coincidence that two horses in two days should have spells under you."
"That's the only explanation," he answered, starting off with her. "But why am I wanted urgently?"
"Oh, I remember. It will be a new experience to me. Somehow I missed it when it was all the rage long ago."
"So did all of us," Lute replied, "except Mrs. Grantly. It is her favorite phantom, it seems."
"A weird little thing," he remarked. "Bundle of nerves and black eyes. I'll wager she doesn't weigh ninety pounds, and most of that's magnetism."
"Positively uncanny . . . at times." Lute shivered involuntarily. "She gives me the creeps."
"Contact of the healthy with the morbid," he explained dryly. "You will notice it is the healthy that always has the creeps. The morbid never has the creeps. It gives the. That's its function. Where did you people pick her up, anyway?"
"I don't know—yes, I do, too. Aunt Mildred met her in Boston, I think—oh, I don't know. At any rate, Mrs. Grantly came to California, and of course had to visit Aunt Mildred. You know the open house we keep.
They halted where a passageway between two great redwood trunks gave entrance to the dining room. Above, through lacing boughs, could be seen the stars. Candles lighted the tree-columned space. About the table, examining the Planchette contrivance, were four persons. Chris's gaze roved over them, and he was aware of a guilty sorrow-pang as he paused for a moment on Lute's Aunt Mildred and Uncle Robert, mellow with ripe middle age and genial with the gentle buffets life had dealt them. He passed amusedly over the black-eyed, frail-bodied Mrs. Grantly, and halted on the fourth person, a portly, massive-headed man, whose gray temples belied the youthful solidity of his face.
"Who's that?" Chris whispered.
"A Mr. Barton. The train was late. That's why you didn't see him at dinner. He's only a capitalist—water-power-long-distance-electricity-transmitter, or something like that."
"Doesn't look as though he could give an ox points on imagination."
"He can't. He inherited his money. But he knows enough to hold on to it and hire other men's brains. He is very conservative."
"That is to be expected," was Chris's comment. His gaze went back to the man and woman who had been father and mother to the girl beside him. "Do you know," he said, "it came to me with a shock yesterday when you told me that they had turned against me and that I was scarcely tolerated. I met them afterwards, last evening, guiltily, in fear and trembling—and to-day, too. And yet I could see no difference from of old."
"Dear man," Lute sighed. "Hospitality is as natural to them as the act of breathing. But it isn't that, after all. It is all genuine in their dear hearts. No matter how severe the censure they put upon you when you are absent, the moment they are with you they soften and are all kindness and warmth. As soon as their eyes rest on you, affection and love come bubbling up. You are so made. Every animal likes you. All people like you. They can't help it. You can't help it. You are universally lovable, and the best of it is that you don't know it. You don't know it now. Even as I tell it to you, you don't realize it, you won't realize it—and that very incapacity to realize it is one of the reasons why you are so loved. You are incredulous now, and you shake your head; but I know, who am your slave, as all people know, for they likewise are your slaves.
"Why, in a minute we shall go in and join them. Mark the affection, almost maternal, that will well up in Aunt Mildred's eyes. Listen to the tones of Uncle Robert's voice when he says, 'Well, Chris, my boy?' Watch Mrs. Grantly melt, literally melt, like a dewdrop in the sun.
"Take Mr. Barton, there. You have never seen him before. Why, you will invite him out to smoke a cigar with you when the rest of us have gone to bed—you, a mere nobody, and he a man of many millions, a man of power, a man obtuse and stupid like the ox; and he will follow you about, smoking; the cigar, like a little dog, your little dog, trotting at your back. He will not know he is doing it, but he will be doing it just the same. Don't I know, Chris? Oh, I have watched you, watched you, so often, and loved you for it, and loved you again for it, because you were so delightfully and blindly unaware of what you were doing."
"I'm almost bursting with vanity from listening to you," he laughed, passing his arm around her and drawing her against him.
"Yes," she whispered, "and in this very moment, when you are laughing at all that I have said, you, the feel of you, your soul,—call it what you will, it is you,—is calling for all the love that is in me."
She leaned more closely against him, and sighed as with fatigue. He breathed a kiss into her hair and held her with firm tenderness.
Aunt Mildred stirred briskly and looked up from the Planchette board.
"Come, let us begin," she said. "It will soon grow chilly. Robert, where are those children?"
"Here we are," Lute called out, disengaging herself.
"Now for a bundle of creeps," Chris whispered, as they started in.
Lute's prophecy of the manner in which her lover would be received was realized. Mrs. Grantly, unreal, unhealthy, scintillant with frigid magnetism, warmed and melted as though of truth she were dew and he sun. Mr. Barton beamed broadly upon him, and was colossally gracious. Aunt Mildred greeted him with a glow of fondness and motherly kindness, while Uncle Robert genially and heartily demanded, "Well, Chris, my boy, and what of the riding?"
But Aunt Mildred drew her shawl more closely around her and hastened them to the business in hand. On the table was a sheet of paper. On the paper, rifling on three supports, was a small triangular board. Two of the supports were easily moving casters. The third support, placed at the apex of the triangle, was a lead pencil.
"Who's first?" Uncle Robert demanded.
There was a moment's hesitancy, then Aunt Mildred placed her hand on the board, and said: "Some one has always to be the fool for the delectation of the rest."
"Brave woman," applauded her husband. "Now, Mrs. Grantly, do your worst."
"I?" that lady queried. "I do nothing. The power, or whatever you care to think it, is outside of me, as it is outside of all of you. As to what that power is, I will not dare to say. There is such a power. I have had evidences of it. And you will undoubtedly have evidences of it. Now please be quiet, everybody. Touch the board very lightly, but firmly, Mrs. Story; but do nothing of your own volition."
Aunt Mildred nodded, and stood with her hand on Planchette; while the rest formed about her in a silent and expectant circle. But nothing happened. The minutes ticked away, and Planchette remained motionless.
"Be patient," Mrs. Grantly counselled. "Do not struggle against any influences you may feel working on you. But do not do anything yourself. The influence will take care of that. You will feel impelled to do things, and such impulses will be practically irresistible."
"I wish the influence would hurry up," Aunt Mildred protested at the end of five motionless minutes.
"Just a little longer, Mrs. Story, just a little longer," Mrs. Grantly said soothingly.
Suddenly Aunt Mildred's hand began to twitch into movement. A mild concern showed in her face as she observed the movement of her hand and heard the scratching of the pencil-point at the apex of Planchette.
For another five minutes this continued, when Aunt Mildred withdrew her hand with an effort, and said, with a nervous laugh:
"I don't know whether i did it myself or not. I do know that I was growing nervous, standing there like a psychic fool with all your solemn faces turned upon me."
"Hen-scratches," was Uncle Robert's judgement, when he looked over the paper upon which she had scrawled.
"Quite illegible," was Mrs. Grantly's dictum. "It does not resemble writing at all. The influences have not got to working yet. Do you try it, Mr. Barton."
That gentleman stepped forward, ponderously willing to please, and placed his hand on the board. And for ten solid, stolid minutes he stood there, motionless, like a statue, the frozen personification of the commercial age. Uncle Robert's face began to work. He blinked, stiffened his mouth, uttered suppressed, throaty sounds, deep down; finally he snorted, lost his self-control, and broke out in a roar of laughter. All joined in this merriment, including Mrs. Grantly. Mr. Barton laughed with them, but he was vaguely nettled.
"You try it, Story," he said.
Uncle Robert, still laughing, and urged on by Lute and his wife, took the board. Suddenly his face sobered. His hand had begun to move, and the pencil could be heard scratching across the paper.
"By George!" he muttered. "That's curious. Look at it. I'm not doing it. I know I'm not doing it. look at that hand go! Just look at it!"
"Now, Robert, none of your ridiculousness," his wife warned him.
"I tell you I'm not doing it," he replied indignantly. "The force has got hold of me. Ask Mrs. Grantly. Tell her to make it stop, if you want it to stop. I can't stop it. By George! look at that flourish. I didn't do that. I never wrote a flourish in my life."
"Do try to be serious," Mrs. Grantly warned them. "An atmosphere of levity does not conduce to the best operation of Planchette."
"There, that will do, I guess," Uncle Robert said as he took his hand away. "Now let's see."
He bent over and adjusted his glasses. "It's handwriting at any rate, and that's better than the rest of you did. Here, Lute, your eyes are young."
"Oh, what flourishes!" Lute exclaimed, as she looked at the paper. "And look there, there are two different handwritings."
She began to read: "This is the first lecture. Concentrate on this sentence: 'I am a positive spirit and not negative to any condition.' Then follow with concentration on positive love. After that peace and harmony will vibrate through and around your body. Your soul—The other writing breaks right in. This is the way it goes: Bullfrog 95, Dixie 16, Golden Anchor 65, Gold Mountain 13, Jim Butler 70, Jumbo 75, North Star 42, Rescue 7, Black Butte 75, Brown Hope 16, Iron Top 3."
"Iron Top's pretty low," Mr. Barton murmured.
"Robert, you've been dabbling again!" Aunt Mildred cried accusingly.
"No, I've not," he denied. "I only read the quotations. But how the devil—I beg your pardon—they got there on that piece of paper I'd like to know."
"Your subconscious mind," Chris suggested. "You read the quotations in to-day's paper."
"No, I didn't; but last week I glanced over the column."
"A day or a year is all the same in the subconscious mind," said Mrs. Grantly. "The subconscious mind never forgets. But I am not saying that this is due to the subconscious mind. I refuse to state to what I think it is due."
"But how about that other stuff?" Uncle Robert demanded. "Sounds like what I'd think Christian Science ought to sound like."
"Or theosophy," Aunt Mildred volunteered. "Some message to a neophyte."
"Go on, read the rest," her husband commanded.
"This puts you in touch with the mightier spirits," Lute read. "You shall become one with us, and your name shall be 'Arya,' and you shall—Conqueror 20, Empire 12, Columbia Mountain 18, Midway 140—and, and that is all. Oh, no! here's a last flourish, Arya, from Kandor—that must surely be the Mahatma."
"I'd like to have you explain that theosophy stuff on the basis of the subconscious mind, Chris," Uncle Robert challenged.
Chris shrugged his shoulders. "No explanation. You must have got a message intended for some one else."
"Lines were crossed, eh?" Uncle Robert chuckled. "Multiplex spiritual wireless telegraphy, I'd call it."
"It IS nonsense," Mrs. Grantly said. "I never knew Planchette to behave so outrageously. There are disturbing influences at work. I felt them from the first. Perhaps it is because you are all making too much fun of it. You are too hilarious."
"A certain befitting gravity should grace the occasion," Chris agreed, placing his hand on Planchette. "Let me try. And not one of you must laugh or giggle, or even think 'laugh' or 'giggle.' And if you dare to snort, even once, Uncle Robert, there is no telling what occult vengeance may be wreaked upon you."
"I'll be good," Uncle Robert rejoined. "But if I really must snort, may I silently slip away?"
Chris nodded. His hand had already begun to work. There had been no preliminary twitchings nor tentative essays at writing. At once his hand had started off, and Planchette was moving swiftly and smoothly across the paper.
"Look at him," Lute whispered to her aunt. "See how white he is."
Chris betrayed disturbance at the sound of her voice, and thereafter silence was maintained. Only could be heard the steady scratching of the pencil. Suddenly, as though it had been stung, he jerked his hand away. With a sigh and a yawn he stepped back from the table, then glanced with the curiosity of a newly awakened man at their faces.
"I think I wrote something," he said.
"I should say you did," Mrs. Grantly remarked with satisfaction, holding up the sheet of paper and glancing at it.
"Read it aloud," Uncle Robert said.
"Here it is, then. It begins with 'beware' written three times, and in much larger characters than the rest of the writing. BEWARE! BEWARE! BEWARE! Chris Dunbar, I intend to destroy you. I have already made two attempts upon your life, and failed. I shall yet succeed. So sure am I that I shall succeed that I dare to tell you. I do not need to tell you why. In your own heart you know. The wrong you are doing—And here it abruptly ends."
Mrs. Grantly laid the paper down on the table and looked at Chris, who had already become the centre of all eyes, and who was yawning as from an overpowering drowsiness.
"Quite a sanguinary turn, I should say," Uncle Robert remarked.
"I have already made two attempts upon your life," Mrs. Grantly read from the paper, which she was going over a second time.
"0n my life?" Chris demanded between yawns. "Why, my life hasn't been attempted even once. My! I am sleepy!"
"Ah, my boy, you are thinking of flesh-and-blood men," Uncle Robert laughed. "But this is a spirit. Your life has been attempted by unseen things. Most likely ghostly hands have tried to throttle you in your sleep."
"Oh, Chris!" Lute cried impulsively. "This afternoon! The hand you said must have seized your rein!"
"But I was joking," he objected.
"Nevertheless . . . " Lute left her thought unspoken.
Mrs. Grantly had become keen on the scent. "What was that about this afternoon? Was your life in danger?"
Chris's drowsiness had disappeared. "I'm becoming interested myself," he acknowledged. "We haven't said anything about it. Ban broke his back this afternoon. He threw himself off the bank, and I ran the risk of being caught underneath."
"I wonder, I wonder," Mrs. Grantly communed aloud. "There is something in this. . . . It is a warning . . . Ah! You were hurt yesterday riding Miss Story's horse! That makes the two attempts!"
She looked triumphantly at them. Planchette had been vindicated.
"Nonsense," laughed Uncle Robert, but with a slight hint of irritation in his manner. "Such things do not happen these days. This is the twentieth century, my dear madam. The thing, at the very latest, smacks of mediaevalism."
"I have had such wonderful tests with Planchette," Mrs. Grantly began, then broke off suddenly to go to the table and place her hand on the board.
"Who are you?" she asked. "What is your name?"
The board immediately began to write. By this time all heads, with the exception of Mr. Barton's, were bent over the table and following the pencil.
"It's Dick," Aunt Mildred cried, a note of the mildly hysterical in her voice.
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