Read THE AUTOMATIC SHEIK: CHAPTER II of The Blue Wall A Story of Strangeness and Struggle , free online book, by Richard Washburn Child, on ReadCentral.com.

A PLEDGE TO THE JUDGE

There is a peculiar honesty about true affection for woman. It is for the flirtations, the light and frivolous intimacies that a man smooths his hair, picks out his scarf, and purchases a new stick. Somehow it seems to me that a gentleman of natural high honor will always present his average self to the one woman. That he should be attentive is natural, that he should be affected is repellent to my notions. Perhaps it was for this reason that without preparation I closed my desk and walked up to meet Julianna, as I would have walked home to my own bachelor quarters.

She was waiting for me!

“I have been expecting you,” said she, with her hand upon the dog’s grizzled head, and in that frank and simple statement there was more charm than in all the false feminine reserve in the universe.

“I did not come before,” I told her, “because I felt that you might believe me presuming too much.”

“Why?” said she in the manner of a child.

I could not answer. I merely gazed at her. She was half leaning, half sitting on the retaining wall of the park, and her skin, which was flecked with the shadows of new maple leaves above her, was lighted not only by the yellow rays of the afternoon sun, but also with the bright colors which her brisk walk had brought to the soft surface. I assure you, she made a pretty picture.

“I would have been glad to see you yesterday,” she said slowly, marking with the toe of one shoe upon the gravel. “You have been one of my father’s younger friends a long time.”

“There is nothing the matter!” I cried.

“I can’t tell,” she said. “He is old, you know, and I can explain it in no other way.”

“He is not ill?”

“No. But if, for instance, his physician had told him he had not long to live, and he felt something give way within him that might cause it.”

I suppressed the anxious note in my voice as I said, “Cause what? You have not said, Miss Colfax.”

She laughed. “That is true. I haven’t, have I?” Serious again, she went on. “He seems worried. Something seems to follow him about some thought, some apprehension, some worry.”

“It is a new difficulty somewhere that has come up in the trial of a case.”

She shook her head.

“Let us walk,” she said. “No, it is not that nothing ordinary. A word from me and he would explain. But this time when I ask, he merely smiles and says, ‘Nothing, Julie, nothing.’”

“Can it be that I am the cause?” I said before I could stop myself. “Has he found out that we ”

“I told him,” she said, “that we ”

She stopped there, too, and looked at me.

“No,” she went on. “It is something else. He went out for a stroll night before last. Usually he is gone a half-hour at least. But this time he had hardly had time to go down the steps before I heard his key in the door again and the feet of ‘Laddie’ on the hall floor. I ran out to ask if he had forgotten anything, and it was a dreadful shock to me.”

“Tell me,” said I, touching her fingers with my own.

“In the first place, the dog was acting as I have never seen him act before. I noticed that, the first thing. He was cowering and slinking along as if he feared the most terrible punishment. But that was nothing. It was father who made me draw back. Even in the dim light I could see that he was white oh, so white! I thought he had been taken ill suddenly and was weak. And yet one hand was clutching his big cane and the muscles and veins stood out on the back as if he were raising the stick to defend himself.”

“He was ill!” I cried.

“Yes, I think that must have been it. He was ill. And since then he has brooded so particularly when he does not know I am watching him. Margaret has noticed it, too. She has spoken to him as I did and he has laughed her fear away, I suppose.”

“Perhaps, after all, it is nothing just as he says,” I suggested, turning toward her as we walked.

“Perhaps not,” she said. “I am sure you are a good and cheerful friend to say so. Nevertheless, I have been worried and restless and this afternoon I long for amusement. Can’t we do something queer and extraordinary go somewhere do something?”

I thought her requirement a difficult one to fill at five o’clock in the afternoon, walking through the old, dull, and worn-out part of the city, where we found we had arrived without purpose in our journey. More than that, I am naturally of conservative tastes; the bizarre, the bohemian, and the unconventional forms of amusement have never beckoned to me. I am not an adventurer by choice.

“We have less than an hour before us,” I said to her. “And I am at a loss to suggest ”

There I hesitated. A thought had come to me. I saw her eyes dance with expectancy with that expression of eagerness that lights the faces of those to whom the world, with all its goodness and badness, beauty and ugliness, tranquillity and turbulence, is still unexplored.

“The Sheik of Baalbec!” I exclaimed.

“The Sheik of Baalbec!” she repeated. “I have heard so much of him, but have never seen him. That is just the thing!”

“You shall try your skill with him,” I said. “You shall meet him face to face, look into his evil glassy eyes, watch his brown fingers move on mechanical levers, see his lungs and heart of geared wheels and little pulleys and ”

“And what?” she cried.

“Battle with him wit against wit skill against skill and win!”

“You seem to bear the Sheik a grudge,” she said, and as we went up the steps of the old Natural History Building, where romping children of the tenements scattered banana peels and papers, she repeated the remark.

“I’ve taken a dislike to the automaton,” I said. “It is an uncanny creature. It gives me the impression of an evil soul attached to a lot of metallic gears. Personally I should be glad to have the opportunity of tearing it to pieces and seeing it scattered on the ground a heap of red cotton rags, hair stuffing, and broken levers.”

My earnestness, however, only caused her to tilt her rounded chin in air and laugh as only she can laugh. Having persuaded the girl at the ticket office that the dog with us would do no harm, we had already entered and were passing through the exhibit of figures.

“Possibly you feel the same way toward this waxy Bismarck who looks so much more like a brewer than a general,” said she, “or toward this Catherine of Russia who, I understand, was not a very refined queen, and who here shows it by wearing a ruff that should have gone to the laundry a year ago or more.”

“No,” I replied. “If they let me alone, it matters not to me when they are melted down for candles. My enemy is the fellow in the corner there with the group of country persons around him. Perhaps we shall not have a chance to play a game with him this afternoon.”

Fortunately, however, just as we came up toward the gloomy corner, there was a shout of bantering laughter from those whom, offhand, I should have called Aunt Lou, Cousin Becky, Brother Bob, and Milly Snagg, and we saw that the automaton had just dispatched his opponent the fifth member of the party, a well-bronzed countryman, with a shaved neck and prominent ears. The mechanical eye had drawn down its brown lid in a hideous wink, much to the discomfiture of the champion of some rural village.

For the second time I deposited the coin in the slot, whereupon Julianna, with great delight, watched the opening of the front of the box, the exposure of the internals of the figure, and the jerky motions of the Sheik as he extended his mechanical arm over his lifeless legs to make the first move.

“I like him,” she said, and stepped forward toward the chessboard.

Thereupon a strange thing happened. Some part of the contrivance gave forth a sound as if a wheel had been torn from its socket; a whirring sound continued for a moment, then finally the air was filled with a ghastly shriek.

I defy any man to say whether that shriek came from the rasp of an unoiled metal bearing or from a human throat. That it proceeded from the automaton there was no question.

It was followed by a stillness not only of the automaton itself, but also of ourselves.

“Look at his head!” roared the countryman, who had, with his party, lingered to see more of the marvelous creature. He pointed to the figure, and when my eyes followed his gesture, I saw that the Sheik’s head had fallen backward like a thing with its throat cut. As I stared, there came a slight noise from the box and out of the slot my coin flew back as if it bore the message that there was no more playing that afternoon.

“Well,” said I to Julianna, “apparently the show is over.”

She did not answer. I put the coin in my pocket.

“It is too bad,” I said. “The Sheik has broken something important in his cosmos.”

Again she failed to reply, and I looked up. She was staring, I thought, at the floor.

“What is the matter?” I asked.

“Look at the dog!” she whispered.

He was cringing, cowering, with closed eyes, flattened to the ground, and sniffing softly, in an agony of terror!

It was dreadful to see so noble a beast in such a state, and probably more shocking to Julianna who had affection for him than to me.

“I cannot understand Laddie’s acting that way,” she said in a vexed tone. “He has done it twice now in the last two days. What can have happened to him?”

“He is very old, isn’t he?” I inquired.

“Yes,” she said, and a little coquettish smile flitted across her face. “He is older than I am. Come, Laddie. Come here, sir. What’s the matter, old pal?”

“Age,” said I. “There has never been a dog grow old in our family that he didn’t sooner or later develop a kind of second puppyhood. I have seen them do all manner of inexplicable things, and one old, toothless, wire-haired terrier used to snap at his shadow on the wall.”

“I should hate to have him die,” said Julianna when we were on the street again. She put her arm about his shaggy neck and I wished that I were he.

At her door I took off my glove. It was done unconsciously, but she saw it she took off one of hers. Then she laughed and put her hand in mine.

After that walk I became the victim of all the mental follies which descend upon a man so thoroughly in love. My work suffered. I found myself at one moment reading down a page of digests of cases prepared for me by my assistants; in the next, I would be sitting again in Judge Colfax’s easy-chair, and before me I could see Julianna’s smiling lips, reflecting the lamplight upon their moist surfaces. In her name I would drive myself to my task again, and then, without knowing when the transition occurred, I would be standing on a gravel path dappled with sunlight and the dancing shadows of maple leaves, and she would be standing before me again with the breeze moving brown-and-gold strands of hair at the edge of her firm white neck.

It is doubtful whether I thought of Judge Colfax, or chess, or the strange meeting in the garden, or the Sheik at all. I wondered about nothing save the question of how soon I could say to Julianna what lay in my heart to say to her. Therefore it was necessary for me to review in my mind many things when, upon waking a morning or two afterward, I found, among the letters which my man had brought to the chair beside my bed, a note from the girl herself.

I did not know at first that it was from her: I had never seen her writing before. I remember that I said, “Who can this be?” and that I studied the outside for several moments before I opened the envelope.

“My father,” it said, “has not been very well, I think. I wish that you could make a point of calling on him at the court-house some afternoon this week. I want to know if the change in him rests partly in my own imagination. You could determine this at once. I would be so grateful. J. Colfax. P.S. Why not induce him to ask you to dinner. His indiscreet daughter would be delighted. J. C.”

This was the sort of note that she would write: it was not hysterical, and yet it conveyed to me the urgency of her request; it was not frivolous, and yet in its postscript it was boldly mischievous. It accomplished the result she wished. She had wanted me to make up my mind that I would see the Judge before night and to see her as soon as possible. I determined to do both.

All day long it rained, drawing a wet shroud of gloom over the pavements, the granite walls of the buildings, and the adamant perspective of the streets. Standing in my office window, I could see the flow of black umbrellas moving up and down town, like two torpid snakes. But though I am ordinarily sensitive to the effect of a long drizzle, it failed on that day to depress me. Life had freshened. There was romance in it, possibilities, dreams. Instead of complaining to myself that the sky had lowered until its opaque rotunda seemed to touch the tops of the higher buildings, I rejoiced as I went uptown and looked out the cab window at each open square, that the cold spring downpour had freshened all the vegetation and brightened these city fresh-air spaces as if by magic. When I found myself in the Judge’s study, my mood could not have been more cheerful.

I had expected to find him in the despondency which Julianna had described to me; instead, when I had a chance to study his expression before he knew I was there, I came to the conclusion that his thoughts, whatever they might be, were pleasant thoughts and not the anxious thoughts of one who is harassed by secret apprehensions.

He was a fine picture of a man, sitting there above his old desk, his long hands spread out upon an open book, the lines in his shaven face expressing a life of faithful service, gentleness, humor, and self-control, his blue eyes as bright as those of a youth, looking out at some picture which his imagination was painting on the opposite wall of the room. I stood watching him a moment before I stirred.

“Ha!” he exclaimed as soon as I had made my presence known. “Estabrook, you are the very man I wanted to see!”

“I had imagined it,” I answered. “What more?”

He blinked his eyes. “Wait a moment, you rascal,” he said, brushing the sleeves of his black coat. “Take a cigar, sit down a moment. Let me collect my thoughts. I must say I hesitate to launch too quickly a subject with which I have not dealt for a good many years and one, if I remember rightly, I treated with considerable awkwardness on the former occasion.”

“When was that, sir?” I asked.

“When I courted my wife,” he said solemnly, looking for a moment at the floor.

“Perhaps, if I am not mistaken, you would have come to me, by and by,” he went on with the wrinkles gathering at the corners of his eyes. “Perhaps it is better for me to speak with you now anyhow. I am well along in years. My physician tells me that my cardiac valve or whatever the blame thing is is weak.”

“He told you recently!” I exclaimed.

“Bless you, no. More than two years ago. I haven’t been near him since, except to taste of some old madeira he keeps on his sideboard. No. I can’t quite explain why I am anxious to speak of this matter so soon, so hastily. I only want to ask one or two impertinent questions which you will forgive in a man who has grown, as to certain matters, as fussy as an old maid or a mother.”

“Why, I will answer gladly enough,” I said awkwardly. I thought I knew what was on his mind; my tongue grew large in my mouth.

He was pacing up and down the room then, but finally he stopped and laughed and grew solemn again.

“Darn it, my boy,” he said. “I know you. I like you. I just wanted to know if you had ever been engaged in the broad sense engaged to a woman with promises to fulfill. I just wanted to ask.”

“No,” said I.

“There!” said he. “I knew it all the time.”

“Was there another question?” I asked.

“Why, yes,” he said. “Why, yes. I believe I did have another. Now, what was it? I had another question. It was awkward, too, if I remember. I had another.”

We both laughed then.

“Yet it seems so strange for me to ask these questions now, doesn’t it?” he went on, fingering the pages of a book on the desk. “It is so early and a good deal more natural for you to speak to me than for me to speak to you. But, good God! there is a reason if you only knew a reason. Let us say, for instance, that I might not be here then.”

“Ask it, sir,” I said.

“Why, I was only going to say that, in case you should succeed, I doubt if you do succeed, but in case you should succeed in causing her to love you, there would be no withdrawal on your part. Little Julie my little daughter! Neither of you has known what it means yet. And, Estabrook, when she does, it must not go wrong. I know her well. She will never love but one man. He must not withdraw when he has won her!”

I started to speak angrily.

“Wait!” he cried, with his hands clenched. “He must not be shaken from her by anything anything for which she is not to blame herself no matter how strange or terrible anything. Nothing will come. I know it. But that must be promised me to stand by her, no matter what misfortune might descend upon her.”

“What could?” I asked in a trembling voice.

“Nothing,” the Judge said. “It is not in God’s character to allow such a thing. When you love her, Estabrook, my boy, you will not ask me that question in answer to mine.”

“No,” I said at once. “There need be no doubts between us, sir. It is not necessary for either of us to answer.”

His whole countenance lit up as if my words had fed his soul. I should be sorry to have wiped from my memory the impression of that old man’s look, as, without taking his eyes from my face, he reached for his hat.

Yet, to-night, when I, for perhaps the last time, realize again the presence of some infernal, undefined evil, I wonder that I should have been so great a fool and so willingly have neglected even the prudence of a lover. I wonder that I made so blind a bargain. I wonder that I did not ask him, before it was too late, what his conversation with Margaret Murchie in the garden had meant and what secret it was that lurked like a clawed creature of the night, ready to eat away, bit by bit, the happiness of an innocent man.