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The Spread Rails
by [?]

It was after dinner, in the great house of Sir Henry Marquis in St. James’s Square.

The talk had run on the value of women in criminal investigation; their skill as detective agents . . . the suitability of the feminine intelligence to the hard, accurate labor of concrete deductions.

It was the American Ambassadress, Lisa Lewis, who told the story.

It was a fairy night, and the thing was a fairy story.

The sun had merely gone behind a colored window. The whole vault of the heaven was white with stars. The road was like a ribbon winding through the hills. In little whispers, in the dark places, Marion told me it. We sat together in the tonneau of the motor. It was past midnight, of a heavenly September. We were coming in from a stately dinner at the Fanshaws’.

A fairy story is a nice, comfortable human affair. It’s about a hero, and a thing no man could do, and a princess and a dragon. It tells how the hero found the task that was too big for other men, how he accomplished it, circumvented the dragon and won the princess.

The Arabian formula fitted snugly to the facts.

The great Dominion railroad, extending from Montreal into New York, was having a run of terrible luck; one frightful wreck followed another. Nobody could get the thing straightened out. Old Crewe, the railroad commissioner of New York, was relentless in pressing hard conditions on the road. Then out of the West, had come young Clinton Howard, big, tawny, virile, like the race of heroes. He had cleaned out the tangles, set the thing going, restored order and method; and the confidence of Canada was flowing back. Then Howard had made love to Marion in his persistent dominating fashion . . . . and here, with her whispered confession, was the fairy story ended.

Marion pointed her finger out north, where, far across the valley, a great country-house sat on the summit of a wooded hill.

“Clinton has discovered the Commissioner’s secret, Sarah,” she said. “The safety of the public isn’t the only thing moving old Crewe to hammer the railroad. He pretends it is. But in fact he wishes to get control of the road in a bankrupt court.”

She paused.

“Crewe is a Nietzsche creature. Victory is the only thing with him. Nothing else counts. The way the road was going he would have got it in the bankrupt court by now. He’s howling ‘safety first’ all over the country. ‘Negligence’ is the big word in every report he issues. It won’t do for Clinton to have an accident now that any degree of human foresight could have prevented.”

“Well,” I said, “the dragon will give the hero no further trouble. Dr. Martin told mother to-day that Mr. Crewe’s mind had broken down, and they had brought him out from New York. He got up in a directors’ meeting and tried to kill the president of the Pacific Trust Company, with a chair. He went suddenly mad, Dr. Martin said.”

Marion put out her hands in an unconscious gesture.

“I am not surprised,” she said. “That sort of temperament in the strain of a great struggle is apt to break down and attempt to gain its end by some act of direct violence.”

Then she added:

“My grandfather says in his work on evidence that the human mind if dominated by a single idea will finally break out in some bizarre act. And he cites the case of the minister who, having maneuvered in vain to compass the death of the king by some sort of accident, finally undertook to kill him with an andiron.”

She reflected a moment.

“I am afraid,” she continued, “that the harm is already done. Crewe has set the whole country on the watch. Clinton says there simply must not be a slip anywhere now. The road must be safe; he must make it safe.” She repeated her expression.