From the obscurity of vast, unquiet distance the surf came booming in with the heavy impetus of high tide, flinging long streamers of kelp and bits of driftwood over the narrowing stretch of sand where garishly costumed bathers had lately shrieked hilariously at their gambols. Before the chill wind that had risen with the turn of the tide the bathers retreated in dripping, shivering groups, to appear later in fluffs and furs and woollen sweaters; still inclined to hilarity, still undeniably both to leave off their pleasuring at Venice, dedicated to cheap pleasures.
But when the wind blew stronger and the surf boomed louder and nearer, and the faint moon-path stretched farther and farther toward the smudgy sky-line, city-going street-cars began to fill with sunburned passengers, and motors began to purr out of the narrow side streets lined with shoddy buildings which housed the summer sojourners. One more Sunday night's revelry was tapering off into shouted farewells, clanging gongs, honking horns and the shuffling of tired feet hurrying homeward.
In cafes and grills and private dining rooms groups of revelers, whose pleasures were not halted by the nickel alarm-clocks ticking inexorably all over the city and its suburbs, still lingered long after the masses had gone home yawning and counting the fullness of past joys by the present extent of smarting sunblisters.
Automobiles loaded with singing passengers scurried after their own beams of silver light down the boulevards. At first a continuous line of speeding cars; then thinning with long gaps between; then longer gaps with only an occasional car; then the quiet, lasting for minutes unbroken, so that the wind could be heard in the eucalyptus trees that here and there lined the boulevard.
After the last street-car had clanged away from the deserted bunting-draped joy zone that now was stark and joyless, a belated seven-passenger car, painted a rich plum color and splendid in upholstering and silver trim, swept a long row of darkened windows with a brush of light as it swung out from a narrow alley and went purring down to where the asphalt shone black in the night.
Full throated laughter and a medley of shouted jibes and current witticisms went with it. The tonneau squirmed with uproarious youth. The revolving extra seats swung erratically, propelled by energetic hands, while some one barked the stereotyped invitation to the deserted scenic swing, and some one else shouted to the revolving occupants to keep their heads level, and all the others laughed foolishly.
The revolving ones rebelled, and in the scuffle some one lurched forward against the driver at a critical turn in the road, throwing him against the wheel. The big car swerved almost into the ditch, was brought back just in the nick of time and sped on, while Death, who had looked into that tonneau, turned away with a shrug.
The driver, bareheaded and with the wind blowing his thick mop of wavy hair straight back from his forehead, glanced back with swift disfavor at the scuffling bunch.
"Hey—you want to go in the ditch?" he expostulated, chewing vigorously upon gum that still tasted sweet and full-flavored. "You wanta cut out that rough stuff over this way!"
"All right, Jackie, old boy, anything to please!" chanted the offender, cuffing the cap off the fellow next him. "Some time," he added with vague relish. "S-o-m-e time! What?"
"Some time is right!" came the exuberant chorus. "Hey, Jack! u had some time, all right—you and that brown-eyed queen that danced like Mrs. Castle. Um-um! Floatin' round with your arms full of sunshine—oh, you thought you was puttin' something over on the rest of us—what?"
"Cut it out!" Jack retorted, flinging the words over his shoulder. "Don't talk to me. Road's flopping around like a snake with its head cut off—" He laughed apologetically, his eyes staring straight ahead over the lowered windshield.
"Aw, step on her, Jack! Show some class, boy—show some class! Good old boat! If you're too stewed to drive 'er, e knows the way home. Say, Jackie, if this old car could talk, wouldn't momma get an ear-full on Monday, hey? What if she—"
"Cut it out—or I'll throw you out!" came back over Jack's shirt-clad shoulder. He at least had the wit to use what little sense he had in driving the car, and he had plenty of reason to believe that he could carry out his threat, even if the boulevard did heave itself up at him like the writhings of a great snake. If his head was not fit for the job, his trained muscles would still drive with automatic precision. Only his vision was clouded; not the mechanical skill necessary to pilot his mother's big car safely into the garage.
Whim held the five in the rear seats absorbed in their own maudlin comicalities. The fellow beside Jack did not seem to take any interest in his surroundings, and the five gave the front seat no further attention. Jack drove circumspectly, leaning a little forward, his bare arms laid up across the wheel and grasping the top of it. Brown as bronze, those arms, as were his face and neck and chest down to where the open V of his sport shirt was held closed with the loose knot of a crimson tie that whipped his shoulder as he drove. A fine looking fellow he was, sitting there like the incarnation of strength and youth and fullblooded optimism. It was a pity that he was drunk—he would have been a perfect specimen of young manhood, else.
The young man on the front seat beside him turned suddenly on those behind. The lower half of his face was covered with a black muffler. He had a gun, and he "cut down" on the group with disconcerting realism.
"Hands up!" he intoned fearsomely. "I am the mysterious lone bandit of the boulevards. Your jewels are the price of your lives!" The six-shooter wavered, looking bleakly at one and then another.
After the first stunned interval, a shout of laughter went up from those behind. "Good! Good idea!" one approved. And another, having some familiarity with the mechanics of screen melodrama, shouted, "Camera!"
"Lone bandit nothing! We're all mysterious auto bandits out seeking whom we may devour!" cried a young man with a naturally attractive face and beautiful teeth, hastily folding his handkerchief cornerwise for a mask, and tying it behind his head—to the great discomfort of his neighbors, who complained bitterly at having their eyes jabbed out with his elbows.
The bandit play caught the crowd. For a few tumultuous minutes elbows were up, mufflers and handkerchiefs flapping. There emerged from the confusion six masked bandits, and three of them flourished six-shooters with a recklessness that would have given a Texas man cold chills down his spine. Jack, not daring to take his eyes off the heaving asphalt, or his hands off the wheel, retained his natural appearance until some generous soul behind him proceeded, in spite of his impatient "Cut it out, fellows!" to confiscate his flapping, red tie and bind it across his nose; which transformed Jack Corey into a speeding fiend, if looks meant anything. Thereafter they threw themselves back upon the suffering upholstery and commented gleefully upon their banditish qualifications.
That grew tame, of course. They thirsted for mock horrors, and two glaring moons rising swiftly over a hill gave the psychological fillip to their imaginations.
"Come on-let's hold 'em up!" cried the young man on the front seat. "Naw-I'll tell you! Slow down, Jack, and everybody keep your faces shut. When we're just past I'll shoot down at the ground by a hind wheel. Make 'em think they've got a blowout—get the idea?"
"Some idea!" promptly came approval, and the six subsided immediately.
The coming car neared swiftly, the driver shaving as close to the speed limit as he dared. Unsuspectingly he swerved to give plenty of space in passing, and as he did so a loud bang startled him. The brake squealed as he made an emergency stop. "Blowout, by thunder!" they heard him call to his companions, as he piled out and ran to the wheel he thought had suffered the accident.
Jack obligingly slowed down so that the six, leaning far out and craning back at their victims, got the full benefit of their joke. When he sped on they fell back into their seats and howled with glee.
It was funny. They laughed and slapped one another on the backs, and the more they laughed the funnier it seemed. They rocked with mirth, they bounced up and down on the cushions and whooped.
All but Jack. He kept his eyes on the still-heaving asphalt, and chewed gum and grinned while he drove, with the persistent sensation that he was driving a hydro-aeroplane across a heaving ocean. Still, he knew what the fellows were up to, and he was perfectly willing to let them have all the fun they wanted, so long as they didn't interfere with his driving.
In the back of his mind was a large, looming sense of responsibility for the car. It was his mother's car, and it was new and shiny, and his mother liked to drive flocks of fluttery, middle-aged ladies to benefit teas and the like. It had taken a full hour of coaxing to get the car for the day, and Jack knew what would be the penalty if anything happened to mar its costly beauty. A scratch would be almost as much as his life was worth. He hoped dazedly that the fellows would keep their feet off the cushions, and that they would refrain from kicking the back seat.
Mrs. Singleton Corey was a large, firm woman who wore her white hair in a marcelled pompadour, and frequently managed to have a flattering picture of herself in the Sunday papers—on the Society-and-Club-Doings page, of course. She figured prominently in civic betterment movements, and was loud in her denunciation of Sunday dances and cabarets and the frivolities of Venice and lesser beach resorts. She did a lot of worrying over immodest bathing suits, and never went near the beach except as a member of a purity committee, to see how awfully young girls behaved in those public places.
She let Jack have the car only because she believed that he was going to take a party of young Christian Endeavorers up Mount Wilson to view the city after dark. She could readily apprehend that such a sight might be inspiring, and that it would act as a spur upon the worthy ambitions of the young men, urging them to great achievements. Mrs. Singleton Corey had plenty of enthusiasm for the betterment of young lives, but she had a humanly selfish regard for the immaculateness of her new automobile, and she feared that the roads on the mountain might be very dusty and rough, and that overhanging branches might snag the top. Jack had to promise that he would be very careful of overhanging branches.
Poor lady, she never dreamed that her son was out at Venice gamboling on the beach with bold hussies in striped bathing trunks and no skirts; fox-trotting with a brown-eyed imp from the telephone office, and drinking various bottled refreshments—carousing shamelessly, as she would have said of a neighbor's son—or that, at one-thirty in the morning, he was chewing a strong-flavored gum to kill the odor of alcohol.
She was not sitting up waiting for him and wondering why he did not come. Jack had been careful to impress upon her that the party might want to view the stars until very late, and that he, of course, could not hurry them down from the mountain top.
You will see then why Jack was burdened with a sense of deep responsibility for the car, and why he drove almost as circumspectly as if he were sober, and why he would not join in the hilarity of the party.
"Hist! Here comes a flivver!" warned the young man on the front seat, waving his revolver backward to impress silence on the others. "Let's all shoot! Make 'em think they've run into a mess of tacks!"
"Aw, take a wheel off their tin wagon!" a laughter-hoarse voice bettered the plan.
"Hold 'em up and take a nickel off 'em—if they carry that much on their persons after dark," another suggested.
"You're on, bo! This is a hold-up. Hist!"
A hold-up they proceeded to make it. They halted the little car with a series of explosions as it passed. The driver was alone, and as he climbed out to inspect his tires, he confronted what looked to his startled eyes like a dozen masked men. Solemnly they went through his pockets while he stood with his hands high above him. They took his half-plug of chewing tobacco and a ten-cent stick-pin from his tie, and afterwards made him crank his car and climb back into the seat and go on. He went—with the throttle wide open and the little car loping down the boulevard like a scared pup.
"Watch him went!" shrieked one they called Hen, doubling himself together in a spasm of laughter.
"'He was—here—when we started, b-but he was—gone—when we got th'ough!'" chanted another, crudely imitating a favorite black-faced comedian.
Jack, one arm thrown across the wheel, leaned out and looked back, grinning under the red band stretched across the middle of his face. "Ah, pile in!" he cried, squeezing his gum between his teeth and starting the engine. "He might come back with a cop."
That tickled them more than ever. They could hardly get back into the car for laughing. "S-o-m-e little bandits!—what?" they asked one another over and over again.
"S-o-m-e little bandits is—right!" the approving answer came promptly.
"S-o-m-e time, bo, s-o-m-e time!" a drink-solemn voice croaked in a corner of the big seat.
Thus did the party of Christian Endeavorers return sedately from their trip to Mount Wilson.