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- The Desired Woman - 1/59 -


THE DESIRED WOMAN

By WILL N. HARBEN

Author of "Dixie Hart," "Pole Baker," "The Redemption of Kenneth Galt," Etc.

WITH FRONTISPIECE

TO

VELLA AND BILLY

PART I

CHAPTER I

Inside the bank that June morning the clerks and accountants on their high stools were bent over their ponderous ledgers, although it was several minutes before the opening hour. The gray-stone building was in Atlanta's most central part on a narrow street paved with asphalt which sloped down from one of the main thoroughfares to the section occupied by the old passenger depot, the railway warehouses, and hotels of various grades. Considerable noise, despite the closed windows and doors, came in from the outside. Locomotive bells slowly swung and clanged; steam was escaping; cabs, drays, and trucks rumbled and creaked along; there was a whir of a street-sweeping machine turning a corner and the shrill cries of newsboys selling the morning papers.

Jarvis Saunders, member of the firm of Mostyn, Saunders & Co., bankers and brokers, came in; and, hanging his straw hat up, he seated himself at his desk, which the negro porter had put in order.

"I say, Wright"--he addressed the bald, stocky, middle-aged man who, at the paying-teller's window, was sponging his fat fingers and counting and labeling packages of currency--"what is this about Mostyn feeling badly?"

"So that's got out already?" Wright replied in surprise, as he approached and leaned on the rolling top of the desk. "He cautioned us all not to mention it. You know what a queer, sensitive sort of man he is where his health or business is concerned."

"Oh, it is not public," Saunders replied. "I happened to meet Dr. Loyd on the corner. He had just started to explain more fully when a patient stopped to speak to him, and so I didn't wait, as he said Mostyn was here."

"Yes, he's in his office now." Wright nodded toward the frosted glass door in the rear. "He was lying on the lounge when I left him just now. It is really nothing serious. The doctor says it is only due to loss of sleep and excessive mental strain, and that a few weeks' rest in some quiet place will straighten him out."

"Well, I'm glad it is not serious," Saunders said. "I have seen him break down before. He is too intense, too strenuous; whatever he does he does with every nerve in his body drawn as taut as a fiddle- string."

"It is his _outside_ operations, his _private_ deals," the teller went on, in a more confidential tone. "Why, it makes me nervous even to watch him. He's been keyed high for the last week. You know, I'm an early riser, and I come down before any one else to get my work up. I found him here this morning at half past seven. He was as nervous as a man about to be hanged. He couldn't sit or stand still a minute. He was waiting for a telegram from Augusta concerning Warner & Co. I remember how you advised him against that deal. Well, I guess if it had gone against him it would have ruined him."

The banker nodded. "Yes, that was foolhardy, and he seemed to me to be going into it blindfolded. He realized the danger afterward. He admitted it to me last night at the club. He said that he was sorry he had not taken my advice. He was afraid, too, that Delbridge would get on to it and laugh at him."

"Delbridge is too shrewd to tackle a risk like that," Wright returned. He glanced about the room cautiously, and then added: "I don't know as I have any right to be talking about Mostyn's affairs even to you, but I am pretty sure that he got good news. He didn't show me the telegram when it came, but I watched his face as he read it. I saw his eyes flash; he smiled at me, walked toward his office with a light step, as he always does when he's lucky, and then he swayed sideways and keeled over in a dead faint. The porter and I picked him up, carried him to his lounge, and sprinkled water in his face. Then we sent for the doctor. He gave him a dose of something or other and told him not to do a lick of work for a month."

"Well, I'll step in and see him." Saunders rose. "I guess he won't mind. He's too big a plunger for a town of this size. He lets things get on his nerves too much. He has no philosophy of life. I wouldn't go his pace for all the money in the U. S. Treasury."

"Right you are," the teller returned, as he went back to his work.

Opening the door of his partner's office, Saunders found him seated on the lounge smoking a cigar. He was about thirty-five years of age, tall, broad-shouldered, with blue eyes, yellow mustache, and was good- looking and well built. Glancing up, he smiled significantly and nodded. There were dark rings round his eyes, and the hand holding his cigar quivered nervously.

"I suppose you heard of that silly duck fit of mine?" he smiled, the corners of his rather sensuous mouth twitching.

Saunders nodded as he sat down in the revolving-chair at the desk and slowly swung it round till he faced his partner.

"It's a wonder to me that you are able to talk about it," he said, sharply. "You've been through enough in the last ten days to kill a dozen ordinary men. You've taken too many stimulants, smoked like the woods afire, and on top of it all instead of getting natural sleep you've amused yourself at all hours of the night. You've bolted your food, and fussed and fumed over Delbridge's affairs, which, heaven knows, have nothing at all to do with your own."

"I suppose I _do_ keep track of the fellow," Mostyn smiled. "People compare us constantly. We started about the same time, and it rankles to hear of his making a lucky strike just when I've had a tumble. This matter of my backing Warner when I went to Augusta they told me they had met with more bad luck, and if I didn't advance fresh funds they would have to go under. It was the biggest risk I ever took, but I took it. I raised the money on my street-railway bonds. For a day or so afterward I was hopeful, but they quit writing and wouldn't answer my wires. My lawyer in Augusta wrote me that they were all three on the verge of suicide, and if they could not close a certain deal in Boston they would go under. That's what I've been waiting on for the last week, and that's why I've been crazy. But it is all right now-- all right. I'm safe, and I made money, too--money that Delbridge would like to have."

"There are no two ways about it." Saunders reached for a cigar in a tray on the desk and cut off the tip with a paper-knife. "You've got to take a rest and get your mind off of business."

"Nobody knows that better than I do," Mostyn said, a sickly smile playing over his wan face, "and I'm in the mood for it. I feel as a man feels who has just escaped the gallows. I'm going to the mountains, and I don't intend to open a business letter or think once of this hot hole in a wall for a month. I'm going to fish and hunt and lie in the shade and swap yarns with mossback moonshiners. I've just been thinking of it, and it's like a soothing dream of peace and quiet. You know old Tom Drake's place near your farm? I boarded there two weeks three years ago and loved every cat and dog about. Tom told me to come any time I felt like it."

"No better place anywhere," Saunders said. "I shall run up home now and then, and can see you and report, but you needn't bother about us; we'll keep this thing afloat. I'm wondering how you are going to get away from your social duties. They usually claim you at this time of the year. Old Mitchell and his daughter will certainly miss you."

Mostyn stared at his friend steadily. "They are off for Atlantic City Monday. They hinted at my joining them, but I declined. I was worried at the time over this deal, but I need something quieter than that sort of trip. You are always coupling my name with Miss Irene's. I'm not the favorite in that quarter that you make me out."

"I have eyes and ears and _some_ experience in human nature." Saunders puffed at his cigar. He felt that his friend was expecting what he was saying. "Mitchell is getting in his dotage, and he talks very freely to me at times."

"Surely not about--about me and Irene?" Mostyn said, a ripple of interest in his tone.

"Oh yes, he quite lets himself go now and then. He thinks the sun rises and sets in you. He is constantly talking about your rapid rise and keen business judgment."

"You can't mean that he's ever gone so--so far as actually to speak of me in--in connection with his daughter?" Mostyn said, tentatively.

"I may as well tell you that he has." Saunders felt that the subject was a delicate one. "At least, he has expressed the hope that you and she would care for each other. He knew your father and liked him, and he has been afraid that Miss Irene might fancy some young fellow with no sort of chance in the world. He speaks quite freely of her as his sole heiress, often showing me the actual figures of what he expects to leave her."

A touch of red appeared in Mostyn's cheeks. "He is getting old and garrulous," he said. "I really have been of some help to him. It


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