XXIV

Bassett was astounded when he saw Dick's signature on the hotel register. It destroyed, in one line, every theory he held. That Judson Clark should return to Norada after his flight was incredible. Ten years was only ten years after all. It was not a lifetime. There were men in the town who had known Clark well.

Nevertheless for a time he held to his earlier conviction, even fought for it. He went so far as to wonder if Clark had come back for a tardy surrender. Men had done that before this, had carried a burden for years, had reached the breaking point, had broken. But he dismissed that. There had been no evidence of breaking in the young man in the office chair. He found himself thrown back, finally, on the story of the Wasson woman, and wondering if he would have to accept it after all.

The reaction from his certainty in the cabin to uncertainty again made him fretful and sleepless. It was almost morning before he relaxed on his hard hotel bed enough to sleep.

He wakened late, and telephoned down for breakfast. His confusion had not decreased with the night, and while he got painfully out of bed and prepared to shave and dress, his thoughts were busy. There was no doubt in his mind that, in spite of the growth of the town, the newcomer would be under arrest almost as soon as he made his appearance. A resemblance that could deceive Beverly Carlysle's brother could deceive others, and would. That he had escaped so long amazed him.

By the time he had bathed he had developed a sort of philosophic acceptance of the new situation. There would be no exclusive story now, no scoop. The events of the next few hours were for every man to read. He shrugged his shoulders as, partially dressed, he carried his shaving materials into the better light of his bedroom.

With his face partially lathered he heard a knock at the door, and sang out a not uncheerful “Come in.” It happened, then, that it was in his mirror that he learned that his visitor was not the waiter, but Livingstone himself. He had an instant of stunned amazement before he turned.

“I beg your pardon,” Dick said. “I was afraid you'd get out before I saw you. My name's Livingstone, and I want to talk to you, if you don't mind. If you like I'll come back later.”

Bassett perceived two things simultaneously; that owing probably to the lather on his face he had not been recognized, and that the face of the man inside the door was haggard and strained.

“That's all right. Come in and sit down. I'll get this stuff off my face and be with you in a jiffy.”

But he was very deliberate in the bathroom. His astonishment grew, rather than decreased. Clearly Livingstone had not known him. How, then, had he known that he was in Norada? And when he recognized him, as he would in a moment, what then? He put on his collar and tied his tie slowly. Gregory might be the key. Gregory might have found out that he had started for Norada and warned him. Then, if that were true, this man was Clark after all. But if he were Clark he wouldn't be there. It was like a kitten after its tail. It whirled in a circle and got nowhere.

The waiter had laid his breakfast and gone when he emerged from the bathroom, and Dick was standing by the window looking out. He turned.

“I'm here, Mr. Bassett, on rather a peculiar—” He stopped and looked at Bassett. “I see. You were in my office about a month ago, weren't you?”

“For a headache, yes.” Bassett was very wary and watchful, but there was no particular unfriendliness in his visitor's eyes.

“It never occurred to me that you might be Bassett,” Dick said gravely. “Never mind about that. Eat your breakfast. Do you mind if I talk while you do it?”

“Will you have some coffee? I can get a glass from the bathroom. It takes a week to get a waiter here.”

“Thanks. Yes.”

The feeling of unreality grew in the reporter's mind. It increased still further when they sat opposite each other, the small table with its Bible on the lower shelf between them, while he made a pretense at breakfasting.

“First of all,” Dick said, at last, “I was not sure I had found the right man. You are the only Bassett in the place, however, and you're registered from my town. So I took a chance. I suppose that headache was not genuine.”

Bassett hesitated.

“No” he said at last.

“What you really wanted to do was to see me, then?”

“In a way, yes.”

“I'll ask you one more question. It may clear the air. Does this mean anything to you? I'll tell you now that it doesn't, to me.”

From his pocketbook he took the note addressed to David, and passed it over the table. Bassett looked at him quickly and took it.

“Before you read it, I'll explain something. It was not sent to me. It was sent to my—to Doctor David Livingstone. It happened to fall into my hands. I've come a long way to find out what it means.”

He paused, and looked the reporter straight in the eyes. “I am laying my cards on the table, Bassett. This 'G,' whoever he is, is clearly warning my uncle against you. I want to know what he is warning him about.”

Bassett read the note carefully, and looked up.

“I suppose you know who 'G' is?”

“I do not. Do you?”

“I'll give you another name, and maybe you'll get it. A name that I think will mean something to you. Beverly Carlysle.”

“The actress?”

Bassett had an extraordinary feeling of unreality, followed by one of doubt. Either the fellow was a very good actor, or—

“Sorry,” Dick said slowly. “I don't seem to get it. I don't know that 'G' is as important as his warning. That note's a warning.”

“Yes. It's a warning. And I don't think you need me to tell you what about.”

“Concerning my uncle, or myself?”

“Are you trying to put it over on me that you don't know?”

“That's what I'm trying to do,” Dick said, with a sort of grave patience.

The reporter liked courage when he saw it, and he was compelled to a sort of reluctant admiration.

“You've got your courage with you,” he observed. “How long do you suppose it will be after you set foot on the streets of this town before you're arrested? How do you know I won't send for the police myself?”

“I know damned well you won't,” Dick said grimly. “Not before I'm through with you. You've chosen to interest yourself in me. I suppose you don't deny the imputation in that letter. You'll grant that I have a right to know who and what you are, and just what you are interested in.”

“Right-o,” the reporter said cheerfully, glad to get to grips; and to stop a fencing that was getting nowhere. “I'm connected with the Times-Republican, in your own fair city. I was in the theater the night Gregory recognized you. Verbum sap.”

“This Gregory is the 'G'?”

“Oh, quit it, Clark,” Bassett said, suddenly impatient. “That letter's the last proof I needed. Gregory wrote it after he'd seen David Livingstone. He wouldn't have written it if he and the old man hadn't come to an understanding. I've been to the cabin. My God, man, I've even got the parts of your clothing that wouldn't burn! You can thank Maggie Donaldson for that.”

“Donaldson,” Dick repeated. “That was it. I couldn't remember her name. The woman in the cabin. Maggie. And Jack. Jack Donaldson.”

He got up, and was apparently dizzy, for he caught at the table.

“Look here,” Bassett said, “let me give you a drink. You look all in.”

But Dick shook his head.

“No, thanks just the same. I'll ask you to be plain with me, Bassett. I am—I have become engaged to a girl, and—well, I want the story. That's all.”

And, when Bassett only continued to stare at him:

“I suppose I've begun wrong end first. I forgot about how it must seem to you. I dropped a block out of my life about ten years ago. Can't remember it. I'm not proud of it, but it's the fact. What I'm trying to do now is to fill in the gap. But I've got to, somehow. I owe it to the girl.”

When Bassett could apparently find nothing to say he went on:

“You say I may be arrested if I go out on the street. And you rather more than intimate that a woman named Beverly Carlysle is mixed up in it somehow. I take it that I knew her.”

“Yes. You knew her,” Bassett said slowly. At the intimation in his tone Dick surveyed him for a moment without speaking. His face, pale before, took on a grayish tinge.

“I wasn't—married to her?”

“No. You didn't marry her. See here, Clark, this is straight goods, is it? You're not trying to put something over on me? Because if you are, you needn't. I'd about made up my mind to follow the story through for my own satisfaction, and then quit cold on it. When a man's pulled himself out of the mud as you have it's not my business to pull him down. But I don't want you to pull any bunk.”

Dick winced.

“Out of the mud!” he said. “No. I'm telling you the truth, Bassett. I have some fragmentary memories, places and people, but no names, and all of them, I imagine from my childhood. I pick up at a cabin in the mountains, with snow around, and David Livingstone feeding me soup with a tin spoon.” He tried to smile and failed. His face twitched. “I could stand it for myself,” he said, “but I've tied another life to mine, like a cursed fool, and now you speak of a woman, and of arrest. Arrest! For what?”

“Suppose,” Bassett said after a moment, “suppose you let that go just now, and tell me more about this—this gap. You're a medical man. You've probably gone into your own case pretty thoroughly. I'm accepting your statement, you see. As a matter of fact it must be true, or you wouldn't be here. But I've got to know what I'm doing before I lay my cards on the table. Make it simple, if you can. I don't know your medical jargon.”

Dick did his best. The mind closed down now and then, mainly from a shock. No, there was no injury required. He didn't think he had had an injury. A mental shock would do it, if it were strong enough. And fear. It was generally fear. He had never considered himself braver than the other fellow, but no man liked to think that he had a cowardly mind. Even if things hadn't broken as they had, he'd have come back before he went to the length of marriage, to find out what it was he had been afraid of. He paused then, to give Bassett a chance to tell him, but the reporter only said: “Go on, you put your cards on the table, and then I'll lay mine out.”

Dick went on. He didn't blame Bassett. If there was something that was in his line of work, he understood. At the same time he wanted to save David anything unpleasant. (The word “unpleasant” startled Bassett, by its very inadequacy.) He knew now that David had built up for him an identity that probably did not exist, but he wanted Bassett to know that there could never be doubt of David's high purpose and his essential fineness.

“Whatever I was before.” he finished simply, “and I'll get that from you now, if I am any sort of a man at all it is his work.”

He stood up and braced himself. It had been clear to Bassett for ten minutes that Dick was talking against time, against the period of revelation. He would have it, but he was mentally bracing himself against it.

“I think,” he said, “I'll have that whisky now.”

Bassett poured him a small drink, and took a turn about the room while he drank it. He was perplexed and apprehensive. Strange as the story was, he was convinced that he had heard the truth. He had, now and then, run across men who came back after a brief disappearance, with a cock and bull story of forgetting who they were, and because nearly always these men vanished at the peak of some crisis they had always been open to suspicion. Perhaps, poor devils, they had been telling the truth after all. So the mind shut down, eh? Closed like a grave over the unbearable!

His own part in the threatening catastrophe began to obsess him. Without the warning from Gregory there would have been no return to Norada, no arrest. It had all been dead and buried, until he himself had revived it. And a girl, too! The girl in the blue dress at the theater, of course.

Dick put down the glass.

“I'm ready, if you are.”

“Does the name of Clark recall anything to you?”

“Nothing.”

“Judson Clark? Jud Clark?”

Dick passed his hand over his forehead wearily.

“I'm not sure,” he said. “It sounds familiar, and then it doesn't. It doesn't mean anything to me, if you get that. If it's a key, it doesn't unlock. That's all. Am I Judson Clark?”

Oddly enough, Bassett found himself now seeking for hope of escape in the very situation that had previously irritated him, in the story he had heard at Wasson's. He considered, and said, almost violently:

“Look here, I may have made a mistake. I came out here pretty well convinced I'd found the solution to an old mystery, and for that matter I think I have. But there's a twist in it that isn't clear, and until it is clear I'm not going to saddle you with an identity that may not belong to you. You are one of two men. One of them is Judson Clark, and I'll be honest with you; I'm pretty sure you're Clark. The other I don't know, but I have reason to believe that he spent part of his time with Henry Livingstone at Dry River.”

“I went to the Livingstone ranch yesterday. I remember my early home. That wasn't it. Which one of these two men will be arrested if he is recognized?”

“Clark.”

“For what?”

“I'm coming to that. I suppose you'll have to know. Another drink? No? All right. About ten years ago, or a little less, a young chap called Judson Clark got into trouble here, and headed into the mountains in a blizzard. He was supposed to have frozen to death. But recently a woman named Donaldson made a confession on her deathbed. She said that she had helped to nurse Clark in a mountain cabin, and that with the aid of some one unnamed he had got away.”

“Then I'm Clark. I remember her, and the cabin.”

There was a short silence following that admission. To Dick, it was filled with the thought of Elizabeth, and of her relation to what he was about to hear. Again he braced himself for what was coming.

“I suppose,” he said at last, “that if I ran away I was in pretty serious trouble. What was it?”

“We've got no absolute proof that you are Clark, remember. You don't know, and Maggie Donaldson was considered not quite sane before she died. I've told you there's a chance you are the other man.”

“All right. What had Clark done?”

“He had shot a man.”

The reporter was instantly alarmed. If Dick had been haggard before, he was ghastly now. He got up slowly and held to the back of his chair.

“Not—murder?” he asked, with stiff lips.

“No,” Bassett said quickly. “Not at all. See here, you've had about all you can stand. Remember, we don't even know you are Clark. All I said was—”

“I understand that. It was murder, wasn't it?”

“Well, there had been a quarrel, I understand. The law allows for that, I think.”

Dick went slowly to the window, and stood with his back to Bassett. For a long time the room was quiet. In the street below long lines of cars in front of the hotel denoted the luncheon hour. An Indian woman with a child in the shawl on her back stopped in the street, looked up at Dick and extended a beaded belt. With it still extended she continued to stare at his white face.

“The man died, of course?” he asked at last, without turning.

“Yes. I knew him. He wasn't any great loss. It was at the Clark ranch. I don't believe a conviction would be possible, although they would try for one. It was circumstantial evidence.”

“And I ran away?”

“Clark ran away,” Bassett corrected him. “As I've told you, the authorities here believe he is dead.”

After an even longer silence Dick turned.

“I told you there was a girl. I'd like to think out some way to keep the thing from her, before I surrender myself. If I can protect her, and David—”

“I tell you, you don't even know you are Clark.”

“All right. If I'm not, they'll know. If I am—I tell you I'm not going through the rest of my life with a thing like that hanging over me. Maggie Donaldson was sane enough. Why, when I look back, I know our leaving the cabin was a flight. I'm not Henry Livingstone's son, because he never had a son. I can tell you what the Clark ranch house looks like.” And after a pause: “Can you imagine the reverse of a dream when you've dreamed you are guilty of something and wake up to find you are innocent? Who was the man?”

Bassett watched him narrowly.

“His name was Lucas. Howard Lucas.”

“All right. Now we have that, where does Beverly Carlysle come in?”

“Clark was infatuated with her. The man he shot was the man she had married.”

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