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Jennette Barbour Perry Lee.

Mr. Achilles online

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The boys could not make him out... and their loyalty would not let them
question him. But one day Yaxis, resting on the parapet that overlooked
the lake, his cart drawn a little to one side, his hat off and his face
taking in the breeze, saw a strange sight. It was a wide roadway, and
free of traffic, and Yaxis had turned his head and looked up and down
its length. In the distance a car was coming - it was not speeding.
It seemed coming on with little foolish movements - halting jerks and
impatient honks.... Yaxis's eye rested on it bewildered - then it broke
to a smile. Father was driving! The chauffeur, beside him, with folded
arms and set face had washed his hands of all responsibility - and the
face of the Greek was shining. The great machine swerved and balked and
ran a little way and stopped - Yaxis laughed softly. The chauffeur bent
over with a word, and the thing shot off, Achilles with intent back,
holding fast by both hands his face set and shining ahead. Up and down
the roadway, the thing zigzagged - back and forth - spitting a little and
fizzing behind. Like a great beast it snarled and snorted and stood
out and waited the lash - and came to terms, gliding at last, by a touch
along the smooth road - the face of Achilles transfigured in a dream....
The Acropolis floated behind him in the haze. The wings of the morning
waited his coming and his hands gripped hard on the wheel of the world.
Yaxis watched the car as it flashed and floated in the sun and was
gone - down the roadway - around the distant corner - out of sight, with
its faint triumphant "honk-honk-honk!" trailing behind.

With a deep smile on his face Yaxis wheeled his cart into the roadway
and pushed briskly toward home, his mind filled with the vision of his
father and the flying car.

The next day coming down the steps of a house and counting slow change,
he looked up with a swift glance - something had passed him; for a moment
he had only a glimpse - something familiar - a kind of home sense - then
the figure of Achilles flashed out - the car shot round a corner. He sped
to the corner and looked down the long road - no one - only two rows
of poplars with their silvery, stirring leaves, and not a soul in
sight - and respectable houses on either side watching, as if nothing
had happened, or ever would. Yaxis returned to his cart, wiping the fine
moisture from his forehead. Every day now, his glance travelled about
him as he pushed his cart along the quieter streets where his route lay.
And often at the end of long vistas, or down a side street, he caught a
glimpse of the shooting car and the dark, erect figure poised forward on
its seat, looking far ahead.

At home, in the dusky interior, Achilles moved with sedate step, his
hair combed, his slim hands busy with the smooth fruit. Yaxis, in the
doorway, looked at him with curious, wistful eyes.

Achilles glanced up and nodded, and the little smile on his dark face
grew. He came forward. "You had good day?" he said.

"Yes, father...." The boy hesitated a moment, and dug his toes - and
flung out his hands in quick gesture. "I see you!" he said. "You go in
massheen!"

Achilles's glance flashed and grew to a deep, still smile. "You see
that machine? You see me drive him? _I_ make that machine go!" His chest
expanded and he moved a few free steps and paused.

The boy's eyes rested on him proudly. Around them - out in the grimy
street - the world hurried and scuffled and honked; and in the little
back shop the father and the boy faced each other, a strange, new, proud
joy around them. "I drive that machine," said Achilles softly.




XXV

AND STARTS OFF

Achilles came to the door of the shop and looked out. A car had driven
up to the sidewalk - a rough, racing machine with open sides and big
wheels - and the driver, a big man in a white cap and rough linen suit,
was beckoning to him with his hand. Achilles stepped across the walk,
and stood by the machine with quiet, waiting face.

The man looked him over, a little as if he owned him - "I want some
fruit," he said quickly, " - oranges - grapes - anything - ?" His glance
ran to the fruit on the stall. "Get me something quick - and don't be all
day - " His hand was fumbling for change.

"I get you best oranges," said Achilles. He snapped open a paper bag and
turned to the heaped-up fruit. Then his eye paused - a boy was breaking
through the crowd - hatless, breathless - and calling him with swift
gesture.

Achilles sprang forward. "What is it, Alcie?" His eye was searching the
crowd, and his hand dropped to the boy's shoulder.

"There they are!" gasped the boy. "_There!_"

Achilles's eye gleamed - down the street, a little way off, a car was
wheeling out from the curb - gathering speed.

Achilles's eyes flashed on it... and swept the crowd - and came back.

The man in the white cap by the curb was swearing softly. He leaped
with two steps, from the panting car to the stall and began gathering
up oranges. "Here - " he said. Then he wheeled - and saw the Greek
fruit-dealer flashing off in a car - _his_ car. "Here - you!" he shouted.

But Achilles gave no heed - and the boy, urging him on from behind,
turned with swift smile - "He take your car - " he said, "he need that
car!"

But the white-capped man pounced upon him and shook him by the
shoulder - watching his car that was threading fast in the crowded
traffic. He dropped the boy, and his hand reached up, signalling wildly
for police - a city service car sprang from the ground, it seemed. The
white-capped man leaped in and they were off - honking the crowd... heavy
drays moved from before them with slow, eternal wheel - the white cap
swore softly and leaned forward and urged... and the dark, Greek head
bobbed far ahead - along in the crowd - the big, grey racer gathering
speed beneath. Achilles was not thinking of the pursuit, yelling behind
him - he had no thoughts - only two eyes that held a car far in the
distance, and two hands that gripped the wheel and drove hard, and
prayed grimly. If his eye lost that car! It was turning now - far ahead
and his eye marked the place and held it - fixed. His car jolted and
bumped. Men swore and made way before him, and noted the hatless head,
and looked behind - and saw the police car - and yelled aloud. But no one
saw him in time, and he was not stopped. He had reached the corner where
the car disappeared from sight, and he leaned forward, with careful
turn, peering around the corner. They were there - yes! He drove
faster - and the great, ugly car lifted itself and flung forward and
settled to long sliding gait. The car ahead turned again in the whirling
traffic - and turned again. But Achilles's eye did not lose its track...
and they were out in the open at last - the plain stretching before
them - no turn to left or right - and the machine Achilles drove had no
equal in the country. But Achilles did not know his machine. Good or
bad, it must serve him and keep his men in sight - but not too near - not
to frighten them! They had turned now and were glancing back and
they spoke quickly. Then they looked again - at the flying and hatless
head - and saw suddenly, on behind it, the service car leap softly around
the corner into the white road. They looked again - and laughed. They
turned and dropped the matter. "Some damn fool with a stolen car."




XXVI

AND RACES FOR THE CLUE

Under the great bowl of sky, in the midst of the plain, the three cars
held their level way - three little racing dots in the big, clear place.
They kept an even course, swaying to the race on level wings that swept
the ground and rose to the low swale and passed beyond. Only the long
free line of dust marked their flight under the sun.

The men at the front, in the car ahead, did not look back again. They
had lost interest in the race pressing behind - most anxiously, they had
lost interest in it. They wished, with a fervent wish, that the two cars
driving behind them should pass them in a swirl of dust - and pass on out
of sight - toward the far horizon line that stretched the west. They were
only two market gardeners returning from business in the city. If they
drove a good car, it was to save time going and coming - not to race with
escaping fugitives and excited police. They had no wish to race with
excited police - fervently they had no wish for it - and they slackened
speed a little, drawing freer breath. Let the fellow pass them - and his
police with him - before they reached a little, white, peaceful house
that stood ahead on the plain. They did not look behind at justice
pursuing its prey... they had lost all interest in justice and in the
race. Presently, when justice should pass them, on full-spreading wing,
they would look up with casual glance, and note its flight over the far
line - out of sight in the distant west. But now they did not know of its
existence.

And Achilles, pressing fast, had a quick, clear sense of
mystery - something that brooded ahead - on the shining plain and the
little, white house and the car before him slackening speed. _Why_
should it slow down? - what was up? Cautiously he held his car, slowing
its waving gleam to the pace ahead and darting a swift glance behind,
over his shoulder, at the great service car that leaped and gained on
him lap by lap. It would overtake him soon - and he _must_ not pass the
car ahead - not till he saw what they were up to. Would they pass that
little white house - on the plain - or would they turn in there? The
wind hummed in his ears - his hair flew - and his hand held tense to
the wheel - slowing it cautiously, inch by inch - slackening a
little - slackening again with quick-flung, flashing glance behind - and a
watchful eye on the road ahead... and on the little white house drawing
near on the plain. It was a race now between his quick mind and that
car ahead and the little white house. He must not overtake them till the
little house was reached. The car behind must not touch him - not till
the house came up. There was a wood ahead, in the distance - his mind
flew and circled the wood - and came back. They had reached the little
house asleep in the sun. They were passing it, neck and neck, and the
car beside him swerved a little and slackened speed - and dived in at the
white gate. Achilles shot past - the free road ahead. The machine under
him gathered speed and opened out and laughed and leaped to the road and
lay down in the thick dust, spreading itself ahead. He could gain the
wood. He should escape - and the clue was fast.

Behind him, the service car thundered by the little house asleep. But
the police did not glance that way - nor did the big, white-capped man
glance that way. _His_ eyes were fixed on the racer ahead - dwindling to
a speck in its cloud of dust. He pushed up his visor and laughed aloud.
"Give it up!" he said genially, "give it up! - you can't catch _that_
car! - I know my own car, I guess!" He laughed again. "We shall find it
somewhere along the road - when he is through with it!"

But the face beside him, turning in the clouding dust, had a keen look
and the car kept its unbroken speed, and the plain flashed by. "He's in
too big a hurry - " said the driver sternly. "I want a look at that man!
He knows too much."


Too much! The heart of Achilles sang again - all the heart of him woke
up and laughed to the miles. He had found his clue - he had passed the
little hundred-thousand-dollar house, and the police in their big,
bungling dust had passed it, too. Nobody knew - but him... and he should
escape - over the long road... with the big machine, under him, pounding
away.




XXVII

THE LITTLE WHITE HOUSE

In an angle of the wood the dust-covered policeman and the white-capped
man came upon the racer, turned a little from the road, and waiting
their arrival. It had a stolid, helpless look - with its nose buried deep
in underbrush and the hind wheels tilted a little in air. Once might
almost fancy it gave a little, subdued hiccough, as they approached.

The white-capped man bent above it and ran a quick hand along the side,
and leaped to the vacant seat. The beast beneath gave a little snort
and withdrew its nose and pranced playfully at the underbrush and backed
away, feeling for firm ground behind. The man at the wheel pressed hard,
leaning - with quick jerk - and wheels gripped ground and trundled in the
road. It stopped beside the service car and the two men gazed doubtfully
at the wood. Dusty leaves trembled at them in the light air, and
beckoned to them - little twigs laced across and shut them out. Anywhere
in the dark coolness of the wood, the Greek lurked, hiding away. They
could not trace him - and the wood reached far into the dusk. He was
undoubtedly armed. Only a desperate man would have made a dash like
that - for life. Better go back to town for reinforcements and send the
word of his escape along the line. He would not get far - on foot! They
gave another glance at the wood and loosed their cars to the road,
gliding smoothly off. The wood behind them, under its cover of dust,
gave no sign of watching eyes; and the sun, travelling toward the west,
cast their long, clean shadows ahead as they went. In the low light, the
little, white house in the distance had a rosy, moody look. As they drew
nearer, little pink details flashed out. An old man behind the picket
fence looked up, and straightened himself, and gazed - under a shading
hand. Then he came along the driveway and stood in the white gate,
waiting their approach. He had a red, guileless face and white hair. The
face held a look of childish interest as they drew up. "You got him?" he
asked.

The service man shook his head, jerking his thumb at the racer that came
behind. "Got the car," he said. "He got off - took to the woods."

"That so?" The old man came out to the road and looked with curious eyes
at the big racing-machine coming up. "What'd he do?" he asked.

"He stole my machine," said the white-capped man quickly. He was holding
the wheel with a careful touch.

The old man looked at him with shrewd, smiling eyes - chewing at some
invisible cud. The service man nodded to him, "There'll be a reward out
for him, Jimmie - keep a watch out. You may have a chance at it. He's
hiding somewhere over there." He motioned toward the distant wood.

The old man turned a slow eye toward the west. "I don't own no
telescope," he said quaintly. He shifted the cud a little, and gazed at
the plain around them - far as the eye could see, it stretched on every
side. Only the little, white house stood comfortably in its midst - open
to the eye of heaven. It was a rambling, one story and a half house,
with no windows above the ground floor - except at the rear, where one
window, under a small peak, faced the north. Beyond the house, in that
direction, lay lines of market garden - and beyond the garden the wide
plain. Two men, at work in the garden, hoed with long, easy strokes that
lengthened in the slanting light. The service man looked at them with
casual eye. "Got good help this year?" he asked.

The old man faced about, and his eye regarded them mildly. "Putty good,"
he said, "they're my sister's boys. She died this last year - along in
April - and they come on to help. Yes, they work putty good."

"They drove in ahead of us, didn't they?" asked the service man, with
sudden thought.

The old man smiled drily. "Didn't know's you see 'em. You were so
occupied. Yes - they'd been in to sell the early potatoes. I've got a
putty good crop this year - early potatoes. They went in to make a price
on 'em. We'll get seventy-five if we take 'em in to-morrow - and they
asked what to do - and I told 'em they better dig." He chuckled slowly.

The service man smiled. "You keep 'em moving, don't you, Jimmie!" He
glanced at the house. "Any trade? Got a license this year?"

The old man shook his head. "Bone dry," he said, chewing slowly. "Them
cars knocked _me_ out!" He came and stood by the racer, running his hand
along it with childish touch.

The service man watched him with detached smile. The old man's silly
shrewdness amused him. He suspected him of a cask or two in the cellar.
In the days of bicycles the old man had driven a lively trade; but with
the long-reaching cars, his business dribbled away, and he had slipped
back from whiskey to potatoes. He was a little disgruntled at events,
and would talk socialism by the hour to anyone who would listen. But
he was a harmless old soul. The service man glanced at the sun. It had
dipped suddenly, and the plain grew dusky black. The distant figures
hoeing against the plain were lost to sight. "Hallo!" said the service
man quickly, "we must get on - " He looked again, shrewdly, toward the
old man in the dusk. "You couldn't find a drop of anything, handy - to
give away - Jimmie?" he suggested.

The old man tottered a slow smile at him and moved toward the house.
He came back with a long-necked bottle grasped tight, and a couple of
glasses that he filled in the dimness.

The service man held up his glass with quick gesture - "Here's to you,
Jimmie!" he said, throwing back his head. "May you live long, and
prosper!" He gulped it down.

The old man's toothless smile received the empty glasses; and when the
two machines had trundled away in the dimness, it stood looking after
them - the deep smile of guileless, crafty old age - that suffers and
waits - and clutches its morsel at last and fastens on it - without joy,
and without shame.




XXVIII

INSIDE THE LITTLE HOUSE

The two figures amid the rows of the marked garden paused, in the
enveloping dusk, and leaned on their hoes, and listened - a low, peevish
whistle, like the call of a night-jar, on the plain, came to them.
Presently the call repeated itself - three wavering notes - and they
shouldered their hoes and moved toward the little house.

The old man emerged from the gloom, coming toward them. "What was it?"
asked one of the figures quickly.

The old man chuckled. "Stole a racer - that's about all _they_
knew - _you_ got off easy!" He was peering toward them.

The larger of the two figures straightened itself. "I am sick of it - I
tell you! - my back's broke!" He moved himself in the dusk, stretching
out his great arms and looking about him vaguely.

The old man eyed him shrewdly. "You're earning a good pile," he said.

"Yes, one-seventy-five a day!" The man laughed a little.

The other man had not spoken. He slipped forward through the dusk.
"Supper ready?" he asked.

They followed him into the house, stopping in an entry to wash their
hands and remove their heavy shoes. Through the door opening to a room
beyond, a woman could be seen, moving briskly, and the smell of cooking
floated out. They sniffed at it hungrily.

The woman came to the door. "Hurry up, boys - everything's done to
death!"

They came in hastily, with half-dried hands, and she looked at them - a
laugh in her round, keen face. "You _have_ had a day!" she said. She
was tall and angular, and her face had a sudden roundness - a kind of
motherly, Dutch doll, set on its high, lean frame. Her body moved in
soft jerks.

She heaped up the plates with quick hands, and watched the men while
they ate. For a time no one spoke. The old man went to the cellar and
brought up a great mug of beer, and they filled their pipes and sat
smoking and sipping the beer stolidly. The windows were open to the
air and the shades were up. Any one passing on the long road, over the
plain, might look in on them. The woman toasted a piece of bread and
moistened it with a little milk and put it, with a glass of milk, on a
small tray. The men's eyes followed her, indifferent. They watched
her lift the tray and carry it to a door at the back of the room, and
disappear.

They smoked on in silence.

The old man reached out for his glass. He lifted it. "Two weeks - and
three more days," he said. He sipped the beer slowly.

The larger of the two men nodded. He had dark, regular features and
reddish hair. He looked heavy and tired. He opened his lips vaguely.

"Don't talk here!" said the younger man sharply - and he gave a quick
glance at the room - as a weasel returns to cover, in a narrow place.

The big man smiled. "I wa'n't going to say anything."

"Better not!" said the other. He cleared his pipe with his little
finger. "_I_ don't even think," he added softly.

The woman had come back with the tray and the men looked up, smoking.

She set the tray down by the sink and came over to them, standing with
both hands on her high hips. She regarded them gravely and glanced at
the tray. The milk and toast were untouched.

The old man removed his pipe and looked at her plaintively. "Can't ye
_make_ her, Lena?" he said. His high voice had a shrill note.

She shook her head. "_I_ can't do anything - not anything more."

She moved away and began to gather up the dishes from the table,
clearing it with swift jerks. She paused a moment and leaned over - the
platter in her hand half-lifted from its place. "She needs the air," she
said, "and to run about - she's sick - shut up like that!" She lifted
the platter and carried it to the sink, a troubled look in her eyes. "I
won't be responsible for her - not much longer," she said slowly, as she
set it down, "not if she doesn't get down in the air."

The men looked at each other in silence. The old man got up. "Time to go
to bed - " he said slowly.

They filed out of the room. The woman's eyes followed them. Presently
the door opened and the younger man returned, with soft, quick steps. He
looked at her. "I want to talk," he said.

"In a minute," she replied. She nodded toward the cellar. "The lantern's
down there - you go along."

He opened the door and stepped cautiously into blackness, and she heard
a quick, scratching match on the plaster behind the closed door, and his
feet descending the stairs.

She drew forward the kettle on the stove and replenished the fire, and
blew out the hand lamp on the table. Then she groped her way to the
cellar door, opening it with noiseless touch.

The young man waited below, impatient. On a huge barrel near by, the
lantern cast a yellow circle on the blackness.

The woman approached it, her high-stepping figure flung in shadowy
movement along the wall behind her.

"You can't back out _now_!" He spoke quickly. "You're weakening! And
you've got to brace up - do you hear?"

The woman's round face smiled - over the light on the barrel. "_I'm_ all
right," she said. She hesitated a minute.... "It's the child that's
not all right," she added slowly. "And tonight I got scared - yes - " She
waited a breath.

"What's the matter?" he said roughly.

She waited again. "She wasn't like flesh and blood to-night," she said
slowly. "I felt as if a breath would blow her out - " She drew her hand
quickly across her eyes. "I've got fond of the little thing, John - I
can't seem to have her hurt!"

"Who's hurting her?" said the man sharply. "_You_ take care of her - and
she's all right."

"I can't, John. She needs the outdoors. She's like a little bird up
there - shut up!"

"Then let her out - " said the man savagely. "Let her out - up there!" His
lifted hand pointed to the plain about them - in open scorn. He leaned
forward and spoke more persuasively, close to her ear - "We can't back
out now - " he said, "_the child knows too much_!" He gave the barrel
beside them a significant tap. "We couldn't use _this_ plant again - six
years - digging it - and waiting and starving!" He struck the barrel
sharply. "I tell you we've _got_ to put it through! You keep her out of
sight!"

"Her own mother wouldn't know her - " said the woman slowly.

He met the look - and waited.

"I tell you, I've done everything," she said with quick passion. "I've
fed her and amused her and told her stories - I don't _dare_ keep her any
longer!" She touched the barrel beside them - "I tell you, you might as
well put her under that.... You'll put her under for good - if you don't
look out!" she said significantly.

"All right," said the man sullenly, "what do you want?"

She was smiling again - the round, keen smile, on its high frame. "Let
her breathe a bit - like a child - and run out in the sun. The sun will
cure her!" she added quickly.

"All right - if you take the risk - a hundred-thousand-dollars - and your
own daughter thrown to the devil - if we lose - !... You know _that_!"

"I know that, John - I want the money - more than you want it!" She spoke
with quick, fierce loyalty. "I'd give my life for Mollie - or to keep
her straight - but I can't kill a child to keep her straight - not _this_
child - to keep her straight!" Her queer, round face worked, against the
yellow light.

He looked at it, half contemptuously, and turned to the barrel.


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