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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Hollow Of Her Hand - Chapter 10. The Ghost At The Feast
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The Hollow Of Her Hand - Chapter 10. The Ghost At The Feast Post by :catalin Category :Long Stories Author :George Barr Mccutcheon Date :May 2012 Read :1735

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The Hollow Of Her Hand - Chapter 10. The Ghost At The Feast

CHAPTER X. THE GHOST AT THE FEAST

The next day he appeared bright and early with his copy of the Studio.

"There," he said, holding it before her eyes. She took it from his hands and stared long and earnestly at the reproduction.

"Do you think it like me?" she inquired innocently.

"Amazingly like you," he declared with conviction.

She turned the page. He was watching her closely. As she looked upon the sketches of the half-nude figure a warm blush covered her face and neck. She did not speak for a full minute, and he was positive that her fingers tightened their grasp on the magazine.

"The same model," he said quietly.

She nodded her head.

"Hetty Glynn, I am sure," she said, after a pause, without lifting her eyes. Her voice was low, the words not very distinct.

He drew a long breath, and she looked up quickly. What he saw in her honest blue eyes convicted her.

Sara Wrandall came into the room at that moment. Hetty hastily closed the magazine and held it behind her. Booth had intended to show the reproduction to Mrs. Wrandall, but the girl's behaviour caused him to change his mind. He felt that he possessed a secret that could not be shared with Sara Wrandall, then or afterward. Moreover, he decided that he would not refer to the Hawkright picture again unless the girl herself brought up the subject. All this flashed through his mind as he stepped forward to greet the newcomer.

When he turned again to Hetty, the magazine had disappeared. He never saw it afterward, and, what is more to the point, he never asked her to produce it.

There was a marked change in Hetty's manner after that when they were left alone together. She seemed inert, distrait and at times almost unfriendly. There were occasions, however, when she went to the other extreme in trying to be at ease with him. These transitions were singularly marked. He could not fail to notice them. As for himself, he was uncomfortable, ill-at-ease. An obvious barrier had sprung up between them.

When Sara was present, the girl seemed to be her old self, but at no other time. Frequently during the sittings of the next few days he caught her looking at him without apparently being aware of the intensity of her gaze. He had the feeling that she was trying to read his thoughts, but what impressed him more than anything else was the increasing look of wonder and appeal that lurked in her deep, questioning eyes. It seemed almost as if she were pleading for mercy with them.

He thought hard over the situation. The obvious solution came to him: she had been at one time reduced to the necessity of posing, a circumstance evidently known to but few and least of all to Sara Wrandall, from whom the girl plainly meant to keep the truth. This conviction distressed him, but not in the way that might have been expected. He had no scruples about sharing the secret or in keeping it inviolate; his real distress lay in the fear that Mrs. Wrandall might hear of all this from other and perhaps ungentle sources. As for her posing for Hawkright, it meant little or nothing to him. In his own experience, two girls of gentle birth had served as models for pictures of his own making, and he fully appreciated the exigencies that had driven them to it. One had posed in the "altogether." She was a girl of absolutely irreproachable character, who afterwards married a chap he knew very well, and who was fully aware of that short phase in her life. That feature of the situation meant nothing to him. He was in no doubt concerning Hetty. She was what she appeared to be: a gentlewoman.

He began to experience a queer sense of pity for her. Her eyes haunted him when they were separated; they dogged him when they were together. More than once he was moved to rush over and take her in his arms, and implore her to tell him all, to trust him with everything. At such times the thought of holding the slim, warm, ineffably feminine body in his arms was most distracting. He rather feared for himself. If such a thing were to happen,--and it might happen if the impulse seized him at the psychological moment of least resistance,--the result in all probability would be disastrous. She would turn on him like an injured animal and rend him! Alas, for that leveller called reason! It spoils many good intentions.

He admitted to himself that he was under the spell of her. It was not love, he was able to contend; but it was a mysterious appeal to something within him that had never revealed itself before. He couldn't quite explain what it was.

In his solitary hours at the cottage on the upper road, he was wont to take his friend Leslie Wrandall into consideration. As a friend, was it not his duty to go to him with his sordid little tale? Was it right to let Wrandall go on with his wooing when there existed that which might make all the difference in the world to him? He invariably brought these deliberations to a close by relaxing into a grim smile of amusement, as much as to say: "Serve him right, anyway. Trust him to sift her antecedents thoroughly. He's already done it, and he is quite satisfied with the result. Serve them all right, for that matter."

But then there was Hetty Glynn. What of her? Hetty Glynn, real or mythical, was a disturbing factor in his deductions. If there was a real Hetty Glynn and she was Hetty Castleton's double, what then?

On the fifth day of a series of rather prolonged and tedious sittings, he was obliged to confine his work to an hour and a half in the forenoon. Mrs. Wrandall was having a few friends in for auction-bridge immediately after luncheon. She asked him to stay over and take a hand, but he declined. He did not play bridge.

Leslie was coming out on an evening train. Booth, in commenting on this, again remarked a sharp change in Hetty's manner. They had been conversing somewhat buoyantly up to the moment he mentioned Leslie's impending visit. In a flash her manner changed. A quick but unmistakable frown succeeded her smiles, and for some reason she suddenly relapsed into a state of reserve that was little short of sullen. He was puzzled, as he had been before.

The day was hot. Sara volunteered to take him home in the motor. An errand in the village was the excuse she gave for riding over with him. Heretofore she had sent him over alone with the chauffeur.

She looked very handsome, very tempting, as she came down to the car.

"By Jove," he said to himself, "she is wonderful!"

He handed her into the car with the grace of a courtier, and she smiled upon him serenely, as a princess might have smiled in the days when knighthood was in flower.

When she sat him down at his little garden gate, he put the question that had been seething in his mind all the way down the shady stretch they had traversed.

"Have you ever seen Hetty Glynn, the English actress?"

Sara was always prepared. She knew the question would come when least expected.

"Oh, yes," she replied, with interest. "Have you noticed the resemblance? They are as like as two peas in a pod. Isn't it extraordinary?"

He was a bit staggered. "I have never seen Hetty Glynn," he replied.

"Oh? You have seen photographs of her?" she inquired casually.

"What has become of her?" he asked, ignoring her question. "Is she still on the stage?"

"Heaven knows," she replied lightly. "Miss Castleton and I were speaking of her last night. We were together the last time I saw her. Who knows? She may have married into the nobility by this time. She was a very poor actress, but the loveliest thing in the world--excepting OUR Hetty, of course."

If he could have seen the troubled look in her eyes as she was whirled off to the village, he might not have gone about the cottage with such a blithesome air. He was happier than he had been in days, and all because of Hetty Glynn!

Leslie Wrandall did not arrive by the evening train. He telephoned late in the afternoon, not to Hetty but to Sara, to say that he was unavoidably detained and would not leave New York until the next morning.

Something in his voice, in his manner of speaking, disturbed her. She went to bed that night with two sources of uneasiness threatening her peace of mind. She scented peril.

The motor met him at the station and Sara was waiting for him in the cool, awning-covered verandah as he drove up. There was a sullen, dissatisfied look in his face. She was stretched out comfortably, lazily, in a great chaise-longue, her black little slippers peeping out at him with perfect abandonment.

"Hello," he said shortly. She gave him her hand. "Sorry I couldn't get out last night." He shook her hand rather ungraciously.

"We missed you," she said. "Pull up a chair. I was never so lazy as now. Dear me, I am afraid I'll get stout and gross."

"Spring fever," he announced. He was plainly out of sorts. "I'll stand, if you don't mind. Beastly tiresome, sitting in a hot, stuffy train."

He took a couple of turns across the porch, his eyes shifting in the eager, annoyed manner of one who seeks for something that, in the correct order of things, ought to be plainly visible.

"Please sit down, Leslie. You make me nervous, tramping about like that. We can't go in for half an hour or more."

"Can't go in?" he demanded, stopping before her. He began to pull at his little moustache.

"No. Hetty's posing. They won't permit even me to disturb them."

He glared. With a final, almost dramatic twist he gave over jerking at his moustache, and grabbed up a chair, which he put down beside her with a vehemence that spoke plainer than words.

"I say," he began, scowling in the direction of the doorway, "how long is he going to be at this silly job?"

"Silly job? Why, it is to be a masterpiece," she cried.

"I asked you how long?"

"Oh, how can I tell? Weeks, perhaps. One can't prod a genius."

"It's all tommy-rot," he growled. "I suppose I'd better take the next train back to town."

"Don't you like talking with me?" she inquired, with a pout.

"Of course I do," he made haste to say. "But do you mean to say they won't let anybody in where--Oh, I say! This is rich!"

"Spectators upset the muse, or words to that effect."

He stared gloomily at his cigarette case for a moment. Then he carefully selected a cigarette and tapped it on the back of his hand.

"See here, Sara, I'm going to get this off my chest," he said bluntly. "I've been thinking it over all week. I don't like this portrait painting nonsense."

"Dear me! Didn't you suggest it?" she inquired innocently, but all the time her heart was beating violent time to the song of triumph.

He was jealous. It was what she wanted, what she had hoped for all along. Her purpose now was to encourage the ugly flame that tortured him, to fan it into fury, to make it unendurable. She knew him well: his supreme egoism could not withstand an attack upon its complacency. Like all the Wrandalls, he had the habit of thinking too well of himself. He possessed a clearly-defined sense of humour, but it did not begin to include self-sacrifice among its endowments. He had never been able to laugh at himself for the excellent reason that some things were truly sacred to him.

She realised this, and promptly laughed at him. He stiffened.

"Don't snicker, Sara," he growled. He took time to light his cigarette, and at the same time to consider his answer to her question. "In a way, yes. I suggested a sort of portrait, of course. A sketchy thing, something like that, you know. But not an all-summer operation."

"But she doesn't mind," explained Sara. "In fact, she is enjoying it. She and Mr. Booth get on famously together."

"She likes him, eh?"

"Certainly. Why shouldn't she like him? He is adorable."

He threw his cigarette over the railing. "Comes here every day, I suppose?"

"My dear Leslie, he is to do me as soon as he has finished with her. I don't like your manner."

"Oh," he said in a dull sort of wonder. No one had ever cut him short in just that way before. "What's up, Sara? Have I done anything out of the way?"

"You are very touchy, it seems to me."

"I'm sore about this confounded portrait monopoly."

"I'm sorry, Leslie. I suppose you will have to give in, however. We are three to one against you,--Hetty, Mr. Booth and I."

"I see," he said, rather blankly. Then he drew his chair closer. "See here, Sara, you know I'm terribly keen about her. I think about her, I dream about her, I--oh, well, here it is in a nutshell: I'm in love with her. Now do you understand?"

"I don't see how you could help being in love with her," she said calmly. "I believe it is a habit men have where she is concerned."

"You're not surprised?" he cried, himself surprised.

"Not in the least."

"I mean to ask her to marry me," he announced with finality. This was intended to bowl her over completely.

She looked at him for an instant, and then shook her head. "I'd like to be able to wish you good luck."

He stared. "You don't mean to say she'd be fool enough--" he began incredulously, but caught himself up in time. "Of course, I'd have to take my chances," he concluded, with more humility than she had ever seen him display. "Do you know of any one else?"

"No," she said seriously. "She doesn't confide in me to that extent, I fear. I've never asked."

"Do you think there was any one back there in England?" He put it in the past tense, so to speak, as if there could be no question about the present.

"Oh, I dare say."

He was regaining his complacency. "That's neither here nor there," he declared. "The thing I want you to do, Sara, is to rush this confounded portrait. I don't like the idea, not a little bit."

"I don't blame you for being afraid of the attractive Mr. Booth," she said, with a significant lifting of her eyebrows.

"I'm going to have it over with before I go up to town, my dear girl," he announced, in a matter-of-fact way. "I've given the whole situation a deuce of a lot of thought, and I've made up my mind to do it. I'm not the sort, you know, to delay matters once my mind's made up. By Jove, Sara, YOU ought to be pleased. I'm not such a rotten catch, if I do say it who shouldn't."

She was perfectly still for a long time, so still that she did not appear to be breathing. Her eyes grew darker, more mysterious. If he had taken the pains to notice, he would have seen that her fingers were rigid.

"I AM pleased," she said, very softly, even gently.

She could have shrieked the words.

He showed no elation. Why should he? He took it as a matter of course. Settling back in his chair, he lit another cigarette, first offering the case to her, but she shook her head. Then he lapsed into a satisfied discussion of the situation as it appeared to him. All the while she was regarding him with a thoroughly aroused light in her dark eyes. She was breathing quickly again, and there were moments when she felt a shudder rush through her veins, as of exquisite excitement.

How she hated all these smug Wrandalls!

"I came to the decision yesterday," he went on, tapping the arm of the chair with his finger tips, as if timing his words with care and precision. "Spoke to dad about it at lunch. I was for coming out on the five o'clock, as I'd planned, but he seemed to think I'd better talk it over with the mater first. Not that she would be likely to kick up a row, you know, but--well, for policy's sake. See what I mean? Decent thing to do, you know. She never quite got over the way you and Chal stole a march on her. God knows I'm not like Chal."

Her eyes narrowed again. "No," she said, "you are not like your brother."

"Chal was all right, mind you, in what he did," he added hastily, noting the look. "I would do the same, 'pon my soul I would, if there were any senseless objections raised in my case. But, of course, it WAS right for me to talk it over with her, just the same. So I stayed in and gave them all the chance to say what they thought of me--and, incidentally, of Hetty. Quite the decent thing, don't you think? A fellow's mother is his mother, after all. See what I mean?"

"And she was appeased?" she said, in a dangerously satirical tone.

"Hardly the word, old girl, but we'll let it stand. She WAS appeased. Wanted to be sure, of course, if I knew my own mind, and all that. Just as if I didn't! Ha! Ha! I was considerate enough to ask her if she was satisfied I wasn't marrying beneath the family dignity. 'Gad, she got off a rather neat one at that. Said I might marry under the family tree if I felt like it. Rather good, eh, for mother? I said I preferred a church. Nothing al fresco for me."

"She is quite satisfied, then, that you are not throwing yourself away on Miss Castleton," said Sara, with a deep breath, which he mistook for a sigh.

"Oh, trust mother to nose into things. She knows Miss Castleton's pedigree from the ground up. There's Debrett, you see. What's more, you can't fool her in a pinch. She knows blood when she sees it. Father hasn't the same sense of proportion, however. He says you never can tell."

Sara was startled. "What do you mean?"

"Oh, it's nothing to speak of; only a way he has of grinding mother once in a while. He uses you as an example to prove that you never can tell, and mother has to admit that he's right. You have upset every one of her pet theories. She sees it now, but--whew! She couldn't see it inthe old days, could she?"

"I fear not," said she in a low voice. Her eyes smouldered. "It is quite natural that she should not want you to make the mistake your brother made."

"Oh, please don't put it that way, Sara. You make me feel like a confounded prig, because that's what it comes to, with them, don't you know. And yet my attitude has always been clear to them where you're concerned. I was strong for you from the beginning. All that silly rot about--"

"Please, please!" she burst out, quivering all over.

"I beg your pardon," he stammered. "You--you know how I mean it, dear girl."

"Please leave me out of it, Leslie," she said, collecting herself. After a moment she went on calmly: "And so you are going to marry my poor little Hetty, and they are all pleased with the arrangement."

"If she'll have me," he said with a wink, as if to say there wasn't any use doubting it. "They're tickled to death."

"Vivian?"

"Viv's a snob. She says Hetty's much too good for me, blood and bone. What business, says she, has a Wrandall aspiring to the descendant of Henry the Eighth."

"What!"

"The Murgatroyds go back to old Henry, straight as a plummet. 'Gad, what Vivvy doesn't know about British aristocracy isn't worth knowing. She looked it up the time they tried to convince her she ought to marry the duke. But she's fond of Hetty. She says she's a darling. She's right: Hetty is too good for me."

Sara swished her gown about and rose gracefully from the chaise-longue. Extending her hand to him she said, and he was never to forget the deep thrill in her voice:

"Well, I wish you good luck, Leslie. Don't take no for an answer."

"Lord, if she SHOULD say no," he gasped, confronted by the possibility of such stupidity on Hetty's part. "You don't think she will?"

Her answer was a smile of doubt, the effect of which was to destroy his tranquillity for hours.

"It is time for luncheon. I suppose we'll have to interrupt them. Perhaps it is just as well, for your sake," she said tauntingly.

He grinned, but it was a sickly effort.

"You're the one to spoil anything of that sort," he said, with some ascerbity.

"I?"

"Certainly," he said with so much meaning in the word that she flushed.

"Oh, I see," she mused, with understanding. "Can't you trust Vivian to do that for you?" There was intense irony in the question.

He laughed disdainfully. "Vivvy wouldn't stand a ghost of a chance with you, take it from me." He stopped abruptly at the doorway, a frown of recollection creasing his seamless brow. "Oh, that reminds me, there is something else I want to discuss with you, Sara. After luncheon will be time enough. Remind me of it, will you?"

"Not if it is to be unpleasant," she replied, with a sudden chill in her heart.

"It's this, in a word: Viv would like to have Miss Castleton over to spend a month or so with her after the--well, after the house is open." He came near to saying after the engagement was announced.

Sara's decision was made at once. Her face hardened.

"That is quite out of the question, Leslie," she said.

"We can discuss it, can't we?" he demanded loftily.

She did not condescend to reply. They were now in the wide hallway, and she was a step or two ahead of him. Voices could be heard in the recess at the lower end of the hall, beyond the staircase, engaged in what appeared to be a merry exchange of opinions. He caught the sound of a low laugh from Booth. There was something acutely subdued about it, as if a warning had been whispered by some one. Leslie's sensitive imagination pictured the unseen girl with her finger to her lips.

He caught up with Sara, and, curiously red in the face, snapped out with dogged insistence:

"Mother is set on having her come, Sara. Can't you see the way the land lays? They--"

Hetty and Booth came into view at that instant, and his lips were closed. The painter was laying a soft, filmy scarf over the girl's bare shoulders as he followed close behind her.

"Hello!" he cried, catching sight of Wrandall. "Train late, old chap? We've been expecting you for the last hour. How are you?"

He came up with a frank, genuine smile of pleasure on his lips, his hand extended. Leslie rose to the occasion. His self-esteem was larger than his grievance. He shook Booth's hand heartily, almost exuberantly.

"Didn't want to disturb you, Brandy," he cried, cheerily. "Besides, Sara wouldn't let me." He then passed on to Hetty, who had lagged behind. Bending low over her hand, he said something commonplace in a very low tone, at the same time looking slyly out of the corner of his eye to see if Booth was taking it all in. Finding that his friend was regarding him rather fixedly, he obeyed a sudden impulse and raised the girl's slim hand to his lips. As suddenly he released her fingers and straightened up with a look of surprise in his eyes; he had distinctly heard the agitated catch in her throat. She was staring at her hand in a stupefied sort of way, holding it rigid before her eyes for a moment before thrusting it behind her back as if it were a thing to be shielded from all scrutiny save her own.

"You must not kiss it again, Mr. Wrandall," she said in a low, intense voice. Then she passed him by and hurried up the stairs, without so much as a glance over her shoulder.

He blinked in astonishment. All of a sudden there swept over him the unique sensation of shyness--most unique in him. He had never been abashed before in all his life. Now he was curiously conscious of having overstepped the bounds, and for the first time to be shown his place by a girl. This to him, who had no scruples about boundary lines!

All through luncheon he was volatile and gay. There was a bright spot in his cheek, however, that betrayed him to Sara, who already suspected the temper of his thoughts. He talked aeroplaning without cessation, directing most of his conversation to Booth, yet thrilled with pleasure each time Hetty laughed at his sallies. He was beginning to feel like a half-baked schoolboy in her presence, a most deplorable state of affairs he had to admit.

"If you hate the trains so much, and your automobile is out of whack, why don't you try volplaning down from the Metropolitan tower?" demanded Booth in response to his lugubrious wail against the beastly luck of having to go about in railway coaches with a lot of red-eyed, nose-blowing people who hadn't got used to their spring underwear as yet.

"Sinister suggestion, I must say," he exclaimed. "You must be eager to see my life blood scattered all over creation. But, speaking of volplaning, I've had three lessons this week. Next week Bronson says I'll be flying like a gull. 'Gad, it's wonderful. I've had two tumbles, that's all,--little ones, of course,--net result a barked knee and a peeled elbow."

"Watch out you're not flying like an angel before you get through with it, Les," cautioned the painter. "I see that a well-known society leader in Chicago was killed yesterday."

"Oh, I love the danger there is in it," said Wrandall carelessly. "That's what gives zest to the sport."

"I love it, too," said Hetty, her eyes a-gleam. "The glorious feel of the wind as you rush through it! And yet one seems to be standing perfectly still in the air when one is half a mile high and going fifty miles an hour. Oh, it is wonderful, Mr. Wrandall."

"I'll take you out in a week or two, Miss Castleton, if you'll trust yourself with me."

"I will go," she announced promptly.

Booth frowned. "Better wait a bit," he counselled. "Risky business, Miss Castleton, flying about with fledgelings."

"Oh, come now!" expostulated Wrandall with some heat. "Don't be a wet blanket, old man."

"I was merely suggesting she'd better wait till you'ye got used to your wings."

"Jimmy Van Wickle took his wife with him the third time up," said Leslie, as if that were the last word in aeroplaning.

"It's common report that she keeps Jimmy level, no matter where she's got him," retorted Booth.

"I dare say Miss Castleton can hold me level," said Leslie, with a profound bow to her. "Can't you, Miss Castleton?"

She smiled. "Oh, as for that, Mr. Wrandall, I think we can all trust you to cling pretty closely to your own level."

"Rather ambiguous, that," he remarked dubiously.

"She means you never get below it, Leslie," said Booth, enjoying himself.

"That's the one great principle in aeroplaning," said Wrandall, quick to recover. "Vivian says I'll break my neck some day, but admits it will be a heroic way of doing it. Much nobler than pitching out of an automobile or catapulting over a horse's head in Central Park." He paused for effect before venturing his next conclusion. "It must be ineffably sublime, being squashed--or is it squshed?--after a drop of a mile or two, isn't it?"

He looked to see Miss Castleton wince, and was somewhat dashed to find that she was looking out of the window, quite oblivious to the peril he was in figuratively for her special consideration.

Booth was acutely reminded that the term "prig" as applied to Leslie was a misnomer; he hated the thought of the other word, which reflectively he rhymed with "pad."

It occurred to him early in the course of this rather one-sided discussion that their hostess was making no effort to take part in it, whether from lack of interest or because of its frivolous nature he was, of course, unable to determine. Later, he was struck by the curious pallor of her face, and the lack-lustre expression of her eyes. She seldom removed her gaze from Wrandall's face, and yet there persisted in the observer's mind the rather uncanny impression that she did not hear a word her brother-in-law was saying. He, in turn, took to watching her covertly. At no time did her expression change. For reasons of his own, he did not attempt to draw her into the conversation, fascinated as he was by the study of that beautiful, emotionless face. Once he had the queer sensation of feeling, rather than seeing, a haunted look in her eyes, but he put it down to fancy on his part. Doubtless, he concluded, the face or voice or manner of her husband's brother recalled tragic memories from which she could not disengage herself. But undoubtedly there was something peculiar in the way she looked at Leslie through those dull, unblinking eyes. It was some time before Booth realised that she made but the slightest pretence of touching the food that was placed before her by the footman.

And Leslie babbled on in blissful ignorance of, not to say disregard for, this strange ghost at the feast, for, to Booth's mind, the ghost of Challis Wrandall was there.

Turning to Miss Castleton with a significant look in his eyes, meant to call her attention to Mrs. Wrandall, he was amazed to find that every vestige of colour had gone from the girl's face. She was listening to Wrandall and replying in monosyllables, but that she was aware of the other woman's abstraction was not for an instant to be doubted. Suddenly, after a quick glance at Sara's face, she looked squarely into Booth's eyes, and he saw in hers an expression of actual concern, if not alarm.

Leslie was in the middle of a sentence when Sara laughed aloud, without excuse or reason. The next instant she was looking from one to the other in a dazed sort of way, as if coining out of a dream.

Wrandall turned scarlet. There had been nothing in his remarks to call for a laugh, he was quite sure of that. Flushing slightly, she murmured something about having thought of an amusing story, and begged him to go on, she wouldn't be rude again.

He had little zest for continuing the subject and sullenly disposed of it in a word or two.

"What the devil was there to laugh at, Brandy?" he demanded of his friend after the women had left them together on the porch a few minutes later. Hetty had gone upstairs with Mrs. Wrandall, her arm clasped tightly about the older woman's waist.

"I dare say she was thinking about you falling a mile or two," said Booth pleasantly.

But he was perplexed.

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