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       Black Jack, p.6

           Max Brand


  But while he had been working at a distance, things had been going onapace at the ranch, a progress which had now gathered such impetus thathe found himself incapable of checking it. The blow fell immediatelyafter dinner that same evening. Terence excused himself early to retireto the mysteries of a new pump-gun. Elizabeth and Vance took their coffeeinto the library.

  The night had turned cool, with a sharp wind driving the chill throughevery crack; so a few sticks were sending their flames crumbling againstthe big back log. The lamp glowing in the corner was the only otherlight, and when they drew their chairs close to the hearth, great tonguesof shadows leaped and fell on the wall behind them. Vance looked at hissister with concern. There was a certain complacency about her thisevening that told him in advance that she had formed a new plan withwhich she was well pleased. And he had come to dread her plans.

  She always filled him with awe--and never more so than tonight, with herthin, homely face illuminated irregularly and by flashes. He keptwatching her from the side, with glances.

  "I think I know why you've gone away for these few days," she said.

  "To get used to the new idea," he admitted with such frankness that sheturned to him with unusual sympathy. "It was rather a shock at first."

  "I know it was. And I wasn't diplomatic. There's too much man in me,Vance. Altogether too much, while you--"

  She closed her lips suddenly. But he knew perfectly the unspoken words.She was about to suggest that there was too little man in him. He droppedhis chin in his hand, partly for comfort and partly to veil the sneer. Ifshe could have followed what he had done in the past six days!

  "And you are used to the new idea?"

  "You see that I'm back before the time was up and ahead of my promise,"he said.

  She nodded. "Which paves the way for another new idea of mine."

  He felt that a blow was coming and nerved himself against the shock ofit. But the preparation was merely like tensing one's muscles against afall. When the shock came, it stunned him.

  "Vance, I've decided to adopt Terence!"

  His fingertips sank into his cheek, bruising the flesh. What would becomeof his six days of work? What would become of his cunning and hisforethought? All destroyed at a blow. For if she adopted the boy, thevery law would keep her from denying him afterward. For a moment itseemed to him that some devil must have forewarned her of his plans.

  "You don't approve?" she said at last, anxiously.

  He threw himself back in the chair and laughed. All his despair went intothat hollow, ringing sound.

  "Approve? It's a queer question to ask me. But let it go. I know Icouldn't change you."

  "I know that you have a right to advise," she said gently. "You are myfather's son and you have a right to advise on the placing of his name."

  He had to keep fighting against surging desires to throw his rage in herface. But he mastered himself, except for a tremor of his voice.

  "When are you going to do it?"


  "Elizabeth, why not wait until after the birthday ceremony?"

  "Because I've been haunted by peculiar fears, since our last talk, thatsomething might happen before that time. I've actually lain awake atnight and thought about it! And I want to forestall all chances. I wantto rivet him to me!"

  He could see by her eagerness that her mind had been irrevocably made up,and that nothing could change her. She wanted agreement, not advice. Andwith consummate bitterness of soul he submitted to his fate.

  "I suppose you're right. Call him down now and I'll be present when youask him to join the circle--the family circle of the Cornishes, youknow."

  He could not school all the bitterness out of his voice, but she seemedtoo glad of his bare acquiescence to object to such trifles. She sent WuChi to call Terence down to them. He had apparently been in his shirtsleeves working at the gun. He came with his hands still faintlyglistening from their hasty washing, and with the coat which he had justbundled into still rather bunched around his big shoulders. He came andstood against the massive, rough-finished stones of the fireplace lookingdown at Elizabeth. There had always been a sort of silent understandingbetween him and Vance. They never exchanged more words and looks thanwere absolutely necessary. Vance realized it more than ever as he lookedup to the tall athletic figure. And he realized also that since he hadlast looked closely at Terence the latter had slipped out of boyhood andinto manhood. There was that indescribable something about the set of thechin and the straight-looking eyes that spelled the difference.

  "Terence," she said, "for twenty-four years you have been my boy."

  "Yes, Aunt Elizabeth."

  He acknowledged the gravity of this opening statement by straightening alittle, his hand falling away from the stone against which he had beenleaning. But Vance looked more closely at his sister. He could see thegleam of worship in her eyes.

  "And now I want you to be something more. I want you to be my boy in theeyes of the law, so that when anything happens to me, your place won't bethreatened."

  He was straighter than ever.

  "I want to adopt you, Terence!"

  Somehow, in those few moments they had been gradually building to aclimax. It was prodigiously heightened now by the silence of the boy. Thethroat of Vance tightened with excitement.

  "I will be your mother, in the eyes of the law," she was explaininggently, as though it were a mystery which Terry could not understand."And Vance, here, will be your uncle. You understand, my dear?"

  What a world of brooding tenderness went into her voice! Vance wonderedat it. But he wondered more at the stiff-standing form of Terence, andhis silence; until he saw the tender smile vanish from the face ofElizabeth and alarm come into it. All at once Terence had dropped to oneknee before her and taken her hands. And now it was he who was talkingslowly, gently.

  "All my life you've given me things, Aunt Elizabeth. You've given meeverything. Home, happiness, love--everything that could be given. Somuch that you could never be repaid, and all I can do is to love you, yousee, and honor you as if you were my mother, in fact. But there's justone thing that can't be given. And that's a name!"

  He paused. Elizabeth was listening with a stricken face, and the heart ofVance thundered with his excitement. Vaguely he felt that there wassomething fine and clean and honorable in the heart of this youth whichwas being laid bare; but about that he cared very little. He was gettingat facts and emotions which were valuable to him in the terms of dollarsand cents.

  "It makes me choke up," said Terence, "to have you offer me this greatthing. It's a fine name, Cornish. But you know that I can't do it. Itwould be cowardly--a sort of rotten treason for me to change. It would bewrong. I know it would be wrong. I'm a Colby, Aunt Elizabeth. Every timethat name is spoken, I feel it tingling down to my fingertips. I want tostand straighter, live cleaner. When I looked at the old Colby place inVirginia last year, it brought the tears to my eyes. I felt as if I werea product of that soil. Every fine thing that has ever been done by aColby is a strength to me. I've studied them. And every now and then whenI come to some brave thing they've done, I wonder if I could do it. Andthen I say to myself that I _must_ be able to do just such things or elsebe a shame to my blood.

  "Change my name? Why, I've gone all my life thanking God that I come of arace of gentlemen, clean-handed, and praying God to make me worthy of it.That name is like a whip over me. It drives me on and makes me want to dosome fine big thing one of these days. Think of it! I'm the last of arace. I'm the end of it. The last of the Colbys! Why, when you think ofit, you see how I can't possibly change, don't you? If I lost that, I'dlose the best half of myself and my self-respect! You understand, don'tyou? Not that I slight the name of Cornish for an instant. But even ifnames can be changed, blood can't be changed!"

  She turned her head. She met the gleaming eyes of Vance, and then let herglance probe the fire and shadow of the hearth.

  "It's all right, my dear," she
said faintly. "Stand up."

  "I've hurt you," he said contritely, leaning over her. "I feel--like adog. Have I hurt you?"

  "Not the least in the world. I only offered it for your happiness, Terry.And if you don't need it, there's no more to be said!"

  He bent and kissed her forehead.

  The moment he had disappeared through the tall doorway, Vance, pastcontrol, exploded.

  "Of all the damnable exhibitions of pride in a young upstart, this--"

  "Hush, hush!" said Elizabeth faintly. "It's the finest thing I've everheard Terry say. But it frightens me, Vance. It frightens me to know thatI've formed the character and the pride and the self-respect of that boyon--a lie! Pray God that he never learns the truth!"

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