Claimed!, by Francis Stevens

Chapter VII.

White Horses (Continued)

Vanaman’s nerves were overtaut from strain and lack of sleep. He halted, with a muttered ejaculation.

“What is it?” asked the woman.

The surprise in her tone reminded him that Miss Robinson had not his reason for starting at the bare sight of a white horse. Her attention in reading of Lutz’s death had been given to than fact of his suicide, almost ignoring the apparently irrational purchase of the horse, Mirror.

“Nothing,” the doctor replied to her query, and again they walked on.

The man and the horse were coming toward them, and now Vanaman himself wondered that the sight of the pair should have so shocked him. Save for the fact that the horse was white and the man a man, they had hardly a characteristic between them reminiscent of the Atlantic City episode.

Mirror had been a blooded animal, and so strikingly beautiful that even in the earlier newspaper account, before the reporter had learned the beast’s pedigree, mention had been made of its appearance. This poor brute, on the other hand, might have been handsome a score of years ago; it was merely pitiful now. Gaunt, dirty, harness and collar-galled, its white hide yellow in great patches from lack of grooming, it limped along on swollen hocks like a very effigy of neglected, equine old age.

And save that he was not old, its human escort seemed in hardly better case. The purchaser of Mirror, though mud-splashed, had been noticeably well-dressed. This fellow was clad in a dirty brown shirt and disreputably ancient trousers; his feet were bare, and his untrimmed tow-colored hair stood out from his hatless head in absurd ragged points, among which clung bits of straw, as if the man had last slept in a stable.

From his gaunt face, tanned brown by wind and sun, pale gray eyes stared bleakly with an oddly vacant look, almost like the eyes of a blind man. That he was not blind, however, was presently proved, for meeting the two who had come out to forget, his bleak eyes shifted suddenly from vacancy to Leilah’s face, from her to the doctor and back again. Then his thin-lipped mouth widened in a sneering grin.

Vanaman was in no mood to tolerate even silent insolence of that sort; his fists clenched, and in passing he half turned. The fellow was looking over his shoulder, still grinning. He jerked a dirty thumb backward, indicating the horse.

“Best I could get, matey,” he leered. “Good enough, yer think?”

“What’s that?” demanded the doctor.

“That’s a horse,” the man explained, deliberately misunderstanding the question. “A white horse. Don’t blame yer for not bein’ sure what it is, but what can yer expect for five dollars? I give all I had in the world fer it.” He laughed mirthlessly. “That’s more than Lutz give fer his, the tight-fisted rascal! Did yer read in the paper how he beat the price down from thirty-five hundred to three thousand? One like him would be bound to make that sort of break and lose out. Now I hold that havin’ give my last cent fer this charmin’ brute, my five-dollar plug is worth more than Lutz’s three-thousand-dollar thoroughbred. What yer got to say to that, Dr. Vanaman?”

The doctor eyed the man rather wildly. Just at that minute he was swept by a ghastly doubt that any of this was real; that he was not himself mad and subject to delusions of phantom sea-tides, hawk-faced old tyrants, amazing strangers, and white horses. Then he looked at Leilah, and recaptured his mental balance. He had not been alone in hearing that astonishing speech, for bewilderment and dawning dread were in every line of the woman’s delicate features.

He whirled on the stranger almost fiercely.

“Who are you?” he snapped. “How did you know my name?”

The vagabond’s sneering grin widened.

“Why, d’ye see,” he drawled, “I got reasons of my own fer keepin’ track of what goes on in a certain house. That’s how I knows yer name, matey. And I tells yer frank what you’ve likely guessed already ye’r mixed in a bad business, matey, and before ye’r done you’ll be buyin’ a white horse of yer own, or I miss my guess. And take my advice, matey. When yer buys it, don’t yer make Lutz’s mistake and think yer can wriggle out easy. Pay all you’ve got in the world, matey, down to the shirt on yer back. And yer can tell old millionaire Robinson that broke as I am, I wouldn’t stand in his shoes fer three times all his money! Tell him Blair said that, will yer? Jim Blair. He’ll understand. So-long, matey, me and beauty here’s got a engagement.”

He jerked at the frayed rope which, in lieu of halter, was tied about the ungainly beast’s neck, and lifting its drooped caricature of a head an inch or so it shambled on in the wake of its master.

Vanaman made no effort to follow or stop them. When a minute later he saw the pair turn off the drive, go plunging and stumbling down the embankment, and head for a reed-grown spit of land which extended a short distance into the river, he turned abruptly and caught Leilah’s arm.

“Come away, Miss Robinson,” he said between his teeth. “I have no right to interfere, and I’m not sure I wish to. But there’s no need for watching them. Something is about to happen out there which would distress you. Come away!”

“But, doctor, that must be the very man you wished to trace — the one who sold Mr. Lutz the green box! I remember Frisby said that he was tall and lean, very ragged and dirty, with pale eyes —”

“Come away!”

Almost forcibly, Vanaman drew her with him, and in half-frightened perplexity the woman yielded. Walking fast, they had soon reached the boulevard again, and were out of sight of the river. But though the woman, alarmed by his insistence, had not looked back, Vanaman had done so while they were still on the Drive — and had seen what he expected to see.

They had been out scarcely half an hour, and old Robinson looked up in angered surprise when, without any formality of knocking, the door of his study was flung open and Dr. Vanaman entered alone. Then something he saw in the doctor’s face and manner caused the old man’s hawk-brows to draw more fiercely together.

“What has happened?” he snarled, “Where’s Leilah? Ye damned pup, if ye’ve let any harm come to my gal —”

“Your niece is perfectly safe, Mr. Robinson.” For all the tension his eyes expressed, the doctor’s voice was very cold and even. “I wish and in fact I demand a little interview with you alone, Sir, and for that reason Miss Robinson has very kindly excused us both for a time. There are several questions to which I demand answers.

“Why did Jacob Lutz commit suicide when the white horse he had purchased escaped from his knife on Atlantic City beach?

“And why did that Jim Blair — yes, I thought you’d know that name! — why, I say, did Jim Blair, having also purchased a white horse, lead it to the river when the water was salt with the incoming tide and cut its throat? Why did he cut his throat there, so that the blood ran into the river? Come, Sir, you’ve been using me blindfolded long enough! If I’m to go any further in this cursed business, I’ve got to know where I’m going. Why were those things done?”

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00