Black jack, p.9
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       Black Jack, p.9

           Max Brand


  She went straight down to the big living room and drew Vance away,mindless of her guests. He came humming until he was past the door and inthe shadowy hall. Then he touched her arm, suddenly grown serious.

  "What's wrong, Elizabeth?"

  Her voice was low, vibrating with fierceness. And Vance blessed thedimness of the hall, for he could feel the blood recede from his face andthe sweat stand on his forehead.

  "Vance, if you've done what I think you've done, you're lower than asnake, and more poisonous and more treacherous. And I'll cut you out ofmy heart and my life. You know what I mean?"

  It was really the first important crisis that he had ever faced. And nowhis heart grew small, cold. He knew, miserably, his own cowardice. Andlike all cowards, he fell back on bold lying to carry him through. It wasa triumph that he could make his voice steady--more than steady. He couldeven throw the right shade of disgust into it.

  "Is this another one of your tantrums, Elizabeth? By heavens, I'm growingtired of 'em. You continually throw in my face that you hold the stringsof the purse. Well, tie them up as far as I'm concerned. I won't whine.I'd rather have that happen than be tyrannized over any longer."

  She was much shaken. And there was a sting in this reproach that carriedhome to her; there was just a sufficient edge of truth to wound her. Hadthere been much light, she could have read his face; the dimness of thehall was saving Vance, and he knew it.

  "God knows I'd like to believe that you haven't had anything to do withit. But you and I are the only two people in the world who know thesecret of it--"

  He pretended to guess. "It's something about Terence? Something about hisfather?"

  Again she was disarmed. If he were guilty, it was strange that he shouldapproach the subject so openly. And she began to doubt.

  "Vance, he knows everything! Everything except the real name of BlackJack!"

  "Good heavens!"

  She strained her eyes through the shadows to make out his realexpression; but there seemed to be a real horror in his restrainedwhisper.

  "It isn't possible, Elizabeth!"

  "It came in that letter. That letter I wanted to open, and which youpersuaded me not to!" She mustered all her damning facts one afteranother. "And it was postmarked from Craterville. Vance, you have been inCraterville lately!"

  He seemed to consider.

  "Could I have told anyone? Could I, possibly? No, Elizabeth, I'll giveyou my word of honor that I've never spoken a syllable about that subjectto anyone!"

  "Ah, but what have you written?"

  "I've never put pen to paper. But--how did it happen?"

  He had control of himself now. His voice was steadier. He could feel herrecede from her aggressiveness.

  "It was dated after you left Craterville, of course. And--I can't standimagining that you could be so low. Only, who else would have a motive?"

  "But how was it done?"

  "They sent him an article about his father and a picture of Black Jackthat happens to look as much like Terry as two peas."

  "Then I have it! If the picture looks like Terry, someone took it forgranted that he'd be interested in the similarity. That's why it wassent. Unless they told him that he was really Black Jack's son. Did theperson who sent the letter do that?"

  "There was no letter. Only a magazine clipping and the photograph of thepainting."

  They were both silent. Plainly she had dismissed all idea of herbrother's guilt.

  "But what are we going to do, Elizabeth? And how has he taken it?"

  "Like poison, Vance. He--he burned all the Colby pictures. Oh, Vance,twenty-four years of work are thrown away!"

  "Nonsense! This will all straighten out. I'm glad he's found out. Sooneror later he was pretty sure to. Such things will come to light."

  "Vance, you'll help me? You'll forgive me for accusing you, and you'llhelp me to keep Terry in hand for the next few days? You see, he declaredthat he will not be ashamed of his father."

  "You can't blame him for that."

  "God knows I blame no one but myself."

  "I'll help you with every ounce of strength in my mind and body, mydear."

  She pressed his hand in silence.

  "I'm going up to talk with him now," he said. "I'm going to do what I canwith him. You go in and talk. And don't let them see that anything iswrong."

  The door had not been locked again. He entered at the call of Terry andfound him leaning over the hearth stirring up the pile of charred paperto make it burn more freely. A shadow crossed the face of Terry as he sawhis visitor, but he banished it at once and rose to greet him. In hisheart Vance was a little moved. He went straight to the younger man andtook his hand.

  "Elizabeth has told me," he said gently, and he looked with a moist eyeinto the face of the man who, if his plans worked out, would be eithermurderer or murdered before the close of the next day. "I am very sorry,Terence."

  "I thought you came to congratulate me," said Terry, withdrawing hishand.

  "Congratulate you?" echoed Vance, with unaffected astonishment.

  "For having learned the truth," said Terry. "Also, for having a fatherwho was a strong man."

  Vance could not resist the opening.

  "In a way, I suppose he was," he said dryly. "And if you look at it inthat way, I do congratulate you, Terence!"

  "You've always hated me, Uncle Vance," Terry declared. "I've known it allthese years. And I'll do without your congratulations."

  "You're wrong, Terry," said Vance. He kept his voice mild. "You're verywrong. But I'm old enough not to take offense at what a young spitfiresays."

  "I suppose you are," retorted Terry, in a tone which implied that hehimself would never reach that age.

  "And when a few years run by," went on Vance, "you'll change yourviewpoint. In the meantime, my boy, let me give you this warning. Nomatter what you think about me, it is Elizabeth who counts."

  "Thanks. You need have no fear about my attitude to Aunt Elizabeth. Youought to know that I love her, and respect her."

  "Exactly. But you're headstrong, Terry. Very headstrong. And so isElizabeth. Take your own case. She took you into the family for the sakeof a theory. Did you know that?"

  The boy stiffened. "A theory?"

  "Quite so. She wished to prove that blood, after all, was more talk thana vital influence. So she took you in and gave you an imaginary line ofancestors with which you were entirely contented. But, after all, it hasbeen twenty-four years of theory rather than twenty-four years of Terry.You understand?"

  "It's a rather nasty thing to hear," said Terence huskily. "Perhapsyou're right. I don't know. Perhaps you're right."

  "And if her theory is proved wrong--look out, Terry! She'll throw you outof her life without a second thought."

  "Is that a threat?"

  "My dear boy, not by any means. You think I have hated you? Not at all. Ihave simply been indifferent. Now that you are in more or less trouble,you see that I come to you. And hereafter if there should be a crisis,you will see who is your true friend. Now, good night!"

  He had saved his most gracious speech until the very end, and after it heretired at once to leave Terence with the pleasant memory in his mind.For he had in his mind the idea of a perfect crime for which he would notbe punished. He would turn Terry into a corpse or a killer, and in eithercase the youngster would never dream who had dealt the blow.

  No wonder, then, as he went downstairs, that he stepped onto the verandafor a few moments. The moon was just up beyond Mount Discovery; thevalley unfolded like a dream. Never had the estate seemed so charming toVance Cornish, for he felt that his hand was closing slowly around hisinheritance.

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