"As you own the cargo, and she can't carry another ton, why should you let her stop at all? I suppose the captain would do as you desire in that matter. You might request him to run through without any landings."
"Request be hanged. I'll tell him what to do and he'll do it. He knows where cargoes come from. Can you get the papers ready?"
"I can, sir."
"All right. Do it at once." Then turning to a shipping clerk he sent for the captain of the steamer, to whom he said:
"Get up steam at once. You are to leave in less than an hour. How much coal have you?"
The captain told him.
"Take two light barges of coal in tow, one on each side, and draw on them for fuel. When they're empty cast them loose with two men on each to land them. You can pick them up on your return trip. You are to steam to New Orleans without a landing anywhere. You understand?"
The captain understood. By this time the papers were ready and after half an hour spent in legal formalities the released steamboat cast loose from the wharf and backed out into the river.
Then Captain Hallam turned to Guilford Duncan and said:
"I've an idea that you'll do. If you like I'll put you at regular work at a monthly salary, and we'll see how we get on together."
"I should like that."
"Very well. Now, where are you boarding?"
"Nowhere. I get what I want to eat at the booths down along the levee."
"But where do you sleep?"
"Among the big lumber piles down there on Fourth street."
Captain Hallam looked at the young man for a moment with something like admiration in his eyes. Presently he said:
"You'll do. You've got grit and you'll 'make the riffle,' sure. But you must live more regularly, now that you are to have a salary. I know what it means to live as you've been doing. I used to do it myself. I could tell to a cent the nutritive value of a pegged pie or a sewed one, and at a single glance I could guess the probable proportions of the dog and cat in a sausage. That sort of thing's all right for a little while, but not for long, and as for the sleeping among lumber piles, it's risky. I used to sleep in an empty sugar hogshead by preference, but sleeping out of doors may give you rheumatism."
"I've been doing it for four years," answered Duncan, smiling, "and I still have the use of my limbs."
"Yes, of course. I didn't think of that. But you must live better now. There's a well-furnished room above the office. It was my brother's quarters before he got married, and it is very comfortable. You can take it for your own. Give Dutch John, the scrub boy, half a dollar a week to take care of it for you and that's all the rent you need pay. As for your meals, most young men in Cairo feed their faces at the hotel. But that's expensive and what the proprietor calls his 'kuzene' is distinctly bad. There's a lady, however,—Mrs. Deming,—who furnishes very good 'square meals,' I hear, over in Walnut street. You'd better try there, I think. She's what you would call a gentlewoman, but she needs all the money you'll pay her."
Duncan wondered a little what a 'square meal' might be, but he was getting somewhat used to the prevalence in the West of those figurative forms of expression which we call slang. So he took it for granted that "square meals" were for some reason preferable to meals of any other geometrical form, and answered simply that he would look up Mrs. Deming's house after business hours should be over.
"Remember," said Captain Hallam as he passed out of the office, "you are to see me at my house to-night. Better come to supper—say at seven—and after supper we'll talk over that law point you mentioned, and other things."
Duncan wondered a little that Captain Hallam should give him so intimate an invitation when he knew so little of him. Everybody else in the office understood. Captain Will was planning to "size up his man" still further, in an evening's conversation.
ONE NIGHT'S WORK
As the weeks and months went on the results of Guilford Duncan's work completely justified the confident assertion he had made to Captain Hallam that a capable man can learn anything if he really wants to.
He rapidly familiarized himself with the technicalities, as well as with the methods and broad principles of business. He sat up till midnight for many nights in succession, in order to learn from the head bookkeeper the rather scant mysteries of bookkeeping. By observing the gaugers who measured coal barges to determine their contents, he quickly acquired skill in doing that.
It was so with everything. He was determined to master every art and mystery that in anywise pertained to business, whether the skill in question was or was not one that he was ever likely to need or to practice.
His diligence, his conscientiousness in work, his readiness of resource, his alert intelligence, and his sturdy integrity daily commended him more and more to the head of the firm, and not many months had passed before everyone in the office tacitly recognized the young Virginian as the confidential adviser and assistant of Captain Hallam himself, though no formal appointment of that kind had been made.
But no advance of salary came to the young man as a result. It was one of Captain Hallam's rules never to pay a man more for his services than he must, and never to advance a man's salary until the advance was asked for.
Captain Hallam was in no fibre of his being a miser, but he acted always upon those cold-blooded prudential principles that had brought him wealth. It was not money that this great captain of commerce worshiped, but success. Success was the one god of his idolatry. Outside of his business he was liberal in the extreme. Even in his business operations he never hesitated at lavish expenditure where such expenditure promised good results. But he regarded all unnecessary spending as waste, of the kind that imperils success.
In his cynical moments, indeed, he sometimes said that "if you have a valuable man in your employ, you must keep him poor; otherwise you'll lose him." But in so saying he perhaps did himself an injustice. He was apt to feign a heartless selfishness that he did not feel.
Little by little Guilford Duncan had learned all this as he had learned business methods. He had at first modestly proposed to himself nothing more in the way of achievement than to make himself a valuable subordinate—a private, or at most a corporal or a sergeant—in the ranks of the great army of work. But before many months had passed his modesty was compelled to yield somewhat to an increasingly clear understanding of conditions and possibilities. Somewhat to his own surprise he began to suspect himself of possessing capacities superior to those of the men about him, and even superior to those of many men who had risen to high place in commerce and finance.
As Captain Hallam came more and more to rely upon the sagacity and character of this his most trusted man, he more and more brought young Duncan into those confidential conferences with the leading men of affairs, which were frequently necessary in the planning and execution of important enterprises, or in the meeting of difficulties and obstacles. In that way Duncan was brought into personal contact with the recognized masters—big and little—with railroad presidents, financiers, bankers, capitalists, and other men whose positions were in a greater or less degree commanding.
At first he modestly held himself as nothing more than the tool and servitor of these great men. But presently he began to suspect that they were not very great men after all—to see that it was usually he himself who devised and suggested the enterprises that these men undertook, and he who saved them from mistakes in the execution of those enterprises.
Guilford Duncan had never in his life kept a diary. He regarded that practice as a useless puerility and usually an indulgence in morbid self-communing and unwholesome self-consciousness. But it was his practice, sometimes, late at night, to set down upon paper such thoughts as had interested him during the day, for the sole sake of formulating them in his own mind. Often he would in this way discuss with himself questions concerning which he had not yet matured his opinion.
He found the practice conducive to clear thinking and sound judgment. It served for him the same purpose that the writing of intimate letters might have done if he had had any intimates to whom to write letters.
"I've been in conference this day," he wrote one night, "with half a dozen nabobs—not great nabobs, but second rate ones. Mr. M—— was the biggest one. He's a railroad president, and he always talks loftily of his 'system' when he means the single railroad he presides over and its little branches. Then there was D——. He's a General Freight Agent, and he never forgets the fact or lets anybody else forget it. That's because he was a small shipping clerk until less than two years ago. I don't think much of his capacity. Yes, I do. He knows how to manage a big traffic fairly well, and he has had nous enough to climb out of his small clerkship into a position of responsibility. What I mean is that he has little education, no culture, and no intelligence outside of business. But I begin to see that except in its very highest places, business does not require anything better than good ordinary ability inspired by inordinate selfishness. Perhaps that is the reason that the novelists so rarely—I may say never—take a man of business for the hero of a romantic story.
"All this has put a new thought into my mind. Why should not I, Guilford Duncan, make myself a leader, a captain, or even a commanding general of affairs. I am far better educated than any of these men. They hold that education is a hindrance rather than a help in business, but in that they are mightily wrong, as I intend presently to show them. Other things being equal, a man of trained mind should certainly achieve better results, even in business, than a man of untrained mind. A man of trained mind, if he has natural capacity and energy, can do anything that he chooses to do. I must never forget that.
"But the man who would do things of any consequence in business ways must have money. The bank account is his tool chest.
"I suggested some combinations to-night to those nabobs, and they are going to carry them out. They would never have thought of the combinations but for my suggestion. But they can and will carry them out, with great credit and profit to themselves, because they have command of money. I could not even think of conducting such affairs, simply because I have no command of money.
"Very well, then. I shall proceed to get money, just as I should study to acquire skill in a profession, or just as I should read up the law pertaining to a matter with which I must deal.
"I shall not learn to love money. That would degrade my soul. I shall regard money always as a means—a mere tool with which to do such work as I can in this great undeveloped country.
"That also is something to be remembered. The era of development is just beginning. These men are nation builders, though they don't know it, or intend it, or care anything about that aspect of their activities. Their motives are the sordid impulses of greed and selfish ambition alone.
"At least that is true of all of them except Captain Hallam. He is a man apart. His attitude is a peculiar one. He does not care for wealth in itself and yet he scrambles for it as greedily and as hungrily as the rest of them. Sometimes I think he regards the whole thing as a game which he enjoys playing with superior skill, just as one might with whist or chess. He likes to win, not for the sake of the winnings, but for the sake of the winning.
"I must go to bed now. To-morrow I'll begin thinking out plans for getting money. One thing is sure. No man can get much money by working for any other man. The man who gets rich is he who hires other men to work for him for less than their work is worth. But it is only by working for another man that one can get the first little capital—the first rude but handy tool with which to achieve success. I'll go on working as a hired man till I get a little hoard together. After that—well, we shall see."
Duncan was greatly admired but little understood by his fellows in the service of the Hallam firm, or by the similar people who thronged the town. His fellows, in and out of the office, were commonplace young men, all looking to the main chance alone and pursuing it with only such honesty of conduct as business prudence required. They felt no further interest in their work than such as was necessary to enable them to retain their places and their salaries.
Therefore they did not understand Guilford Duncan. Neither could they. They regarded with amazement and almost with incredulity his manifestations of sensitive honor and of unselfish loyalty to duty. They thought of him as a sort of freak, or what we should nowadays call a crank.
Of course they could not fail to recognize his ability, but they thought him a good deal of a fool, nevertheless, for not taking selfish advantage of the opportunities that so frequently came to him. They could not understand why he should go out of his way, as he very often did, to render services to the firm which were in no way required or expected of him. Especially they could not understand why, when he had rendered such services in a way to attract Captain Hallam's pleased attention he didn't "strike for something better," as they phrased their thought.
In one especial case, their amazement over his neglect of an opportunity bred something like contempt of him in their minds. It was the practice of the Hallams to keep a fleet of heavily laden coal barges in a bend of the river above the town, bringing them down one by one to the coalyards at "The Point" below the city as they were needed. One day in the early winter, a coal gauger being off duty, Duncan volunteered to go up to the bend in his stead, and measure the coal in a great fleet of barges that had just arrived.
He found the barges unsafely bestowed, and suggested to the captain of the Hallam yard tug boat that he should tow them into a securer anchorage. As night was at hand the captain of the tug refused, saying that he would attend to the matter on the morrow.
That night the first storm of the winter broke upon the river, lashing it to fury, and threatening with destruction every species of craft that might venture away from moorings.
About midnight one of Duncan's bedroom windows was blown in, scattering glass and fragments of sash over his bed, and startling him out of sleep.
Instantly the thought of the exposed coal barges flashed into his mind. He knew that they were utterly unfit to ride out a storm, being nothing more than great oblong boxes, loaded nearly to their gunwales with coal. He remembered, too, the exposed position in which they had been left for the night.
Hastily drawing on his clothing he hurried to the landing place of the yard tug. He found no preparations making there for any attempt to save the barges and their enormously rich cargoes, or even to rescue the helpless men who had been left on board of them. The engineer of the tug, who always slept on board, was there, and so were the two deck hands and the fireman, but the fires were banked, and the captain had not responded to the duty call of the tempest.
As the immediate representative and chief lieutenant of Captain Hallam, Guilford Duncan was recognized as a man somewhat entitled to give orders. On this occasion he promptly assumed so much more of authority as did not strictly belong to him.
He instantly ordered the engineer to get up steam. He directed one of the two deck hands to go hurriedly to the tug captain's bedroom and order him to come to the tug at once.
As he rattled off his orders for putting cable coils aboard, placing all fenders in position, battening down the hatches, and doing all else that might render the tug fitter for the perilous service that he intended to exact of her, his voice took on the old ring of battle, and his commands came quick, sharp, and penetrating from his set lips, like those of an officer placing guns in position for a desperate fight.
The captain, who was also sole pilot of the tug, so far obeyed the order sent to him as to come to the tug landing. But when he looked out upon the storm-lashed river, he positively refused to obey Duncan's order to go to the wheel.
"I'll never take the tug out in such a storm as this," he said doggedly.
"But think, man! There are twenty men or more up there on those coal barges, whose lives simply must be saved. And there is a hundred thousand dollars' worth of coal there that may go to the bottom any minute."
"I can't help that. I tell you the tug couldn't live a minute in such a storm."
"In other words," answered Duncan with measureless contempt in his tone, "you are a miserable coward, a white-livered wretch, whose life wouldn't be worth saving if it were in danger. Go back to your bed! Go to sleep! or go to hell, damn you, for the cowardly whelp that you are!"
Then turning to the engineer and the two deck hands, he asked hoarsely:
"Will you men stand to your duty while I go to the wheel?"
"We're with you while she floats, cap'n," said the engineer. "I always did hate a coward."
"Have you got steam enough?"
"Yes, a hundred and fifty pounds pressure to the square inch, and she'll need it all."
"All right. Cast her off," commanded Duncan as he stepped to his post in the pilot house.
He knew, of course, that he was taking terrible risks. Having no pilot's license he had no legal right to be at the wheel. Should disaster overtake the tug he would be personally liable for the insurance forfeited by his act in taking her out in contravention of the judgment of her captain and pilot. Worse still, should any life be lost in the adventure, Guilford Duncan would be held to answer for manslaughter.
Well-educated lawyer that he was, he knew all these facts. He perfectly understood the fearful responsibilities he was taking upon himself. Yet he faltered not nor failed. There was no moment's hesitation in his mind. There were lives in peril up there in the bend, and a vast property exposed to destruction. There was a chance that by taking these risks he might save both. All that is best in the soul-impulse of the soldier was his inspiration. He would do his duty—though that duty was in no wise his except as he had made it his—and let consequences look out for themselves.
This young fellow had often sniffed the breath of battle in his nostrils. He had many times done and dared things that only a brave and self-regardless man could have done and dared. To-night the old enthusiasm of war came back to his soul, but with a difference. He had often fought to destroy. He was facing danger now with saving and the rescue of imperiled human lives for his purpose.
As the tug quitted her moorings and began her voyage up the river, Duncan caught a glimpse of Captain Hallam's form hurrying toward the landing. Almost immediately the tug began to plunge in perilous fashion, thrusting her head under the waves, and shipping water enough to dampen the fires and diminish steam pressure in a way that threatened failure to the enterprise.
Failure in the work of rescue was the only thing that Guilford Duncan feared.
He had already had the hatches securely battened down so that no water could find its way into the hold. But when he saw that water was rapidly rushing with every sea into the furnace room, threatening with extinction the fires that could alone give power to the vessel, he called one of the deck hands to the wheel, and instructing him as to the course to be laid, himself hurriedly inspected ship. With the aid of the other deck hand he quickly removed from bow to stern everything that had weight. Then he and the deck hand and the fireman, with some aid from the engineer, proceeded to shovel the coal supply from its bunkers forward of the fire room into the captain's cabin aft of the furnaces.
This done, the tug no longer ran her prow into and under the tremendous seas, but rode over them instead, shipping no further water.
Then Duncan returned to the pilot house, and a few minutes later reached the imperiled fleet of coal barges.
There havoc had already begun. Three barges had gone down and two men had been drowned. The rest of the barges were riding so uneasily that their seams were opening, and the water that must presently swamp them was finding its insidious way through their sides and bottoms.
When the tug appeared, all the men on board the coal barges clamored piteously to be taken off at once.
"Stand to your duty, men!" shouted Duncan. "Don't be cowards. Do your part of the work and we'll save all of you and all the coal. Only obey orders promptly and I'll be responsible for the rest. Go to the pumps and answer every command promptly."
He then ordered flaming torches kindled on every barge, and in the light thus created he was able to tow one after another of the coal boats into that harbor of safety in which the tug captain should have moored them during the day before, the men meanwhile pumping to keep the water down.
Then with his clothing drenched and frozen stiff upon him, he steered the tug back to her landing place, through the now receding storm.
Kennedy, the tug captain, was there, waiting. As Duncan came ashore Kennedy said menacingly:
"If I get my discharge for this I'll prosecute you for piloting without a license."
The ice-encased and half-frozen young man made no reply. He simply hurried ashore.
As he mounted to the top of the levee, though it was only a little after daylight, Duncan encountered Captain Will Hallam, who stood there waiting for him.
"Go to the hotel," said the employer. "I've ordered a piping hot bath for you there, and a blazing wood fire. There's nothing like a wood fire after a chilling such as you've had. When you get good and warm, go to bed. When you wake naturally, telegraph to the office for me, and we'll breakfast together. I've ordered the breakfast—the hotel keeper thinks it will bankrupt him or make his fortune to furnish it, but that doesn't matter. Get warm and get some sleep. Sleep as long as you can."
"I don't think I care for sleep," answered the half-frozen and wholly exhausted young man. "But would you mind sending Dutch John to me at the hotel? I'd like to have him rub me down with some Turkish towels after my hot bath. Tell him I have a dollar for him if he rubs me well."
"That fellow is certainly a new brand," muttered Captain Hallam to himself as he walked away up the levee. "But he's 'triple X' for endurance and modesty and courage, and all the rest of it. What a fighter he must have been! I'd like to see him in a hot battle, if I were bullet proof myself. I'll bet bonds to brickbats he got all the fight there was in them out of his men. But why doesn't he look out for his own interests, I wonder? I'm still paying him the salary on which he began. Any other man in my employ who could have done one-tenth of what he has done, would have made me pay three times as much by this time. But then, that's the reason. It's just because he is that sort that he hasn't bothered about an increase of salary. By George! I'll give it to him without the asking! I never did such a thing before in all my life. It will startle the office people out of their wits, but they need startling, and as for their wits—well——"
He didn't complete the sentence; for just then he met Dutch John.
"Go down to the hotel at once," he commanded. "Go on the run. Go to Mr. Duncan's room and rub all the skin off his body. He'll give you a dollar for a good rub. I'll give you five dollars more if he is satisfied."
"I must milk your cows first," answered the stolid German boy, whose occupations were varied and sometimes conflicting.
"Oh, let the cows go hang! Or let the half-dozen accomplished young ladies whom my wife employs to keep her establishment in order, milk them! You go to the hotel and rub that man into condition. Damn the cows!"
Obviously, young Duncan's performance of that stormy night had awakened Captain Hallam to enthusiasm. He was not much given to enthusiasms, but this one was thoroughly genuine.
"Yes, by George!" he said between his clenched teeth, "I'll multiply that fellow's salary by three and let the office people wonder! Perhaps it will give them a hint. No, it won't. Or at least they won't take the hint. But anyhow, I'll do it, if only for what the newspapers call 'dramatic effect.'"
Entering the office, where, at this hour, the clerks were assembling, Captain Hallam said, in his figurative fashion:
"That fellow Duncan has got more cogs in his gearing wheels than all the rest of you put together. You call him a freak; you call him eccentric, because he isn't like you. Now let me tell you that that's a sort of eccentricity that you'll do well to cultivate. The less you are like yourselves and the more you're like him, the better it will be for you. He thinks. You don't. He does all he can. You do as little as you can. He shall have his reward. He shall have a salary three times that of the best man in the office. And more than that, he shall have the right to command here. Whatever orders he gives shall be obeyed, just as if they were my own. He is your model to imitate, so far as you can. But most of you can't. Most of you care only to get through a day's work for a day's wages. You have no loyalty, no concern for the business. Not a man jack of you thought of the storm last night as a circumstance that imperiled human life and my property. He did. You lay still in your beds listening to the rain on the roof, and sinking into sweet slumbers to the tune of its pattering. He was up and out, and risking his life to meet the emergency. Can't you see that that makes all the difference between a successful man and an unsuccessful one? Can't you understand that—oh, pshaw! What's the use of talking to stumps?"
That was the very longest speech that Captain Will Hallam had ever made in his life. It was not without effect. It did not inspire any of the clerks to fresh endeavor, or to a more conscientious service. But it made every one of them an implacable enemy of Guilford Duncan, and inflamed every one of them with an insatiable desire to injure him whenever occasion might offer.
Thus, by his night's heroic endeavor, Guilford Duncan had succeeded not only in making an enemy of Captain Kennedy, but in making himself anathema maranatha in the Hallam office besides.
He was taking a bath, however, at that time, and not thinking of these matters.
ALLIANCE, OFFENSIVE AND DEFENSIVE
"How did you come to do that?"
That was the first question Captain Hallam fired at Duncan after the hotel waiter had quitted the room to bring a further supply of coffee and broiled bacon.
"Why, it's simple enough," answered Duncan, with a touch of embarrassment in his tone. "You see, I was up there yesterday gauging coal. I knew the barges were anchored in a dangerous position, and so when the storm broke, there wasn't anything else to do but get into my clothes and send the tug up there to the rescue."
"But it wasn't your business to look after the coal up in the bend?"
Duncan slowly drank three sips of coffee before answering that eagerly questioning remark. Then he leant forward and said, slowly and with emphasis:
"I conceive it to be my business, and my duty as well as my pleasure, to do all that I can to promote the interest of the man who employs me."
"But that was a risky thing to do. You took your life in your hands, you know?"
"I suppose I did, but that's a small matter. There were twenty other lives in danger. And what is one man's life when there is a duty to be done? We've all got to die sometime."
Captain Hallam did not utter the thought that was in him. That thought was:
"Well, of all the queer men I have ever had to deal with, you are certainly the queerest! Still, I think I understand you, and that's queerer still."
Instead of speaking he sipped his coffee. Then he rose and "tickled the denunciator." That was his phrase for ringing for a servant.
"Put some more wood on the fire," he commanded when the servant came.
"I've put it all on, a'ready," answered the man.
"Well, bring some more."
"It'll be extry charge, sir."
"Never mind that," said Captain Hallam. "Do as you are told, and when the thing is over I'll issue a loan, raise some money, and pay the bill. You know who I am, don't you?"
"No, sir. You see, I've just come to Cairo."
"Very well, then. Go to the office of the hotel and tell the people there that Captain Will Hallam is ordering more wood than you think he can pay for. They'll tell you what to do. In the meantime, here's a quarter for you."
This by-play with the serving man relieved Captain Hallam of a sense of embarrassment which he felt in approaching the next thing he had in mind.
"What do you want, Duncan, for last night's work?"
Duncan looked at his companion for half a minute before answering. Then he said:
"I want that tug captain of yours discharged."
"Because he's a coward and an utterly unfit man. Human life may depend upon his courage at any moment, and he has no courage."
"Is that all you want?"
"Yes. That's all."
"Why don't you demand an increase in your salary? Anybody else would. But, perhaps you don't care for a bigger salary? You're a queer sort, you know."
"Oh, yes; I care very much for an increase," answered Duncan.
"Then why didn't you seize upon the opportunity to ask for it?"
"Must I tell you, frankly?"
"I wish you would. It might help me to understand you."
"Well, it is simple enough. You gave me employment when I was desperately in need of it. I should be an ingrate if I did not consider your interests in all that I do. I think I ought to have a larger salary than you are now paying me. I think I earn it, and it has been my purpose to ask for it when the proper time should come."
"Then why haven't you been in a hurry to ask for it now? There couldn't be a better time."
"Pardon me, but I cannot agree with you. It so happens that just at this moment I have several very important matters of yours in my charge. You have entrusted them to me, and they have come so exclusively under my control that nobody else—not even you—could conduct them to a successful issue so well as I can. Under such circumstances, of course, I cannot make any personal demand upon you, without indecency. To do so would be to take advantage of your necessities. It would amount to a threat that, if you refused my demands, I would abandon these enterprises and leave you to get out of all their difficulties as best you could. Don't you see, Captain Hallam, that under such circumstances, I simply could not make a demand upon you for more salary, or for anything else of personal advantage to myself?"
"No, I don't see it at all. And yet, somehow, I seem to understand you. If I were in your place I'd regard these circumstances as trump cards, and I'd lead them for all they are worth. So would any other man in the Mississippi Valley—or anywhere else, I think."
"That may perhaps be so, and I suppose I am 'queer,' as you say. But to me it would seem a despicable thing to take advantage of the fact that you need me in these affairs of yours. You have bidden me be frank. I will be so. When I came to Cairo I sought work of the hard, physical kind, at the small wages that such work commands. You quickly gave me better work and larger pay than I had expected to earn for months to come. Little by little you have advanced me in your regard until now I seem to enjoy your confidence. When you first brought me into contact with the big men of affairs—more or less big—I was oppressed with an exaggerated sense of their greatness. Presently, I discovered that while you are always deferential toward them, you are distinctly their superior in intellect and in your grasp of affairs. You allow them to think that they are your masters, while in fact you never fail to have your way, and to compel them and the many millions of other people's money whose use they control, to your own purposes."
At this point Hallam uttered a low chuckle.
"A little later I discovered another fact," continued Duncan. "It slowly dawned upon my mind that you put me forward in your conferences with them, because you valued my suggestions and my initiative more than you did theirs. Thinking of that I came at last to the conclusion that I must, in fact, be superior to these men in those qualities that originate, execute, achieve. Otherwise, with your genius for affairs, you would have suppressed me and listened to them."
Again Hallam chuckled.
"Then another thought occurred to me. The only reason why they can execute plans that I conceive, while I cannot, is that they have considerable money of their own and command of much greater sums not their own, while I have neither. They have the tools and the materials. I have neither. The clumsiest mechanic, who has tools and materials to work with, can do things that the most skillful mechanic who has neither tools nor materials, cannot do.
"I have decided, therefore, to possess myself of tools and materials, in order that I may make myself a master workman, and do my part in the great nation-building enterprises of the time and country."
"Would you mind explaining what you mean by that?" interrupted Hallam, whose eagerness in listening had caused him to let his second cup of coffee grow cold.
Duncan arose, without answering, crossed the room, pressed the button, and then said:
"It is a subject that I very much wish to talk with you about. But your coffee is cold. When you get a fresh cup, I'll explain."
He said no more till the waiter came, served the coffee and left the room. Then he began:
"People who live all their lives in the mountains have no adequate conception or perception of the grandeur of the scenery that surrounds them. We never any of us fully understand the things against which we 'rub our eyes,' as a witty Frenchman has put it. It is for that reason, perhaps, that what is going on here in the West does not impress you in the same way in which it impresses me. You men of affairs are just now beginning to do the very greatest work of nation building that has ever been done since time began. But you are so close to your work that you do not appreciate its collossal proportions. You have no perspective. In that I have the advantage of you. Coming, as I do, out of the dead past, contemplating the present as I do, and looking to the future as I must, I see the grandeur to which your detailed work is tending, with a clearness of vision impossible to you because of your nearness to it. May I go on and set forth the whole of my thought?"
"Yes, certainly. I want to hear. Go on!"
"Well, then, let me explain and illustrate. A little while ago, in going over your accounts, I discovered that the cotton and grain you shipped from Cairo to New York must be five times transferred from one car to another. That entailed enormous and needless expense in addition to the delay. A few weeks ago I suggested to a conference of railroad nabobs at your house that you should organize a line of through freight cars, which should be loaded at Cairo, St. Louis, Chicago, or anywhere else in the West, and hauled through to New York, Boston, or anywhere else in the East, without breaking bulk. The saving of expense was so obvious that you put a hundred thousand dollars into the line and the railroad magnates made specially good terms for the hauling of the car. You expect and will get dividends from your investment. The railroad men see profit for their companies in the operation of the line. That is all that you and they foresee of advantage. In my view that is the very smallest part of the matter."
"How do you mean?"
"Why, taking cotton as a basis of reckoning, this through-line system of transportation, owned independently of the railroads, will make an important saving in the cost of raw materials to the owners of New England mills. They will run more spindles and set more looms agoing than they would have done without the through line's cheapening of raw material. They will pay better wages and reap larger profits. They will produce more goods, and they will sell them at a smaller price. The farmer in the West will pay less for his cotton goods and get more for his grain because of the through line's cheapening of transportation. He and his wife and his children will dress better at less cost than they otherwise could do. Bear in mind that the line's cars will carry other things than cotton. The people of the East will get their breadstuffs and their bacon and their beef far cheaper because of its existence than they otherwise could.
"That is one step in advance, and it is only one. The success of this line is now assured. A dozen or a score of other through freight lines will be organized and operated in competition with it. The present line's rate of one and a half cents per ton per mile will presently be cut down by competition to half a cent per ton per mile, or even less. I shall not be surprised if, with the improvement of railroads and with their closer co-operation the freight rate shall ultimately be reduced even to one-fifth or one-tenth of a cent per ton per mile.
"Now, again. A little while ago you were in Washington. You found it necessary to execute certain papers and to file them in Chicot County, Arkansas, before a certain fixed date. You ordered me by telegraph to prepare the papers and bring them to you in Washington in the speediest way possible, in order that I might carry them, within the time limit, to their destination. I started for Washington within five minutes, by the quickest possible route, preparing the papers on the train. I had to change cars five times between Cairo and Washington, and seven times more between Washington and Memphis. All that will presently be changed. In our conference the other day with the railroad men, I suggested something to the car builder, George M. Pullman, which will some day bear fruit. At present every railroad runs its own sleeping cars and runs them at a loss. Some of them have quit running them because they lost money. The trouble is that the passenger must get up in the middle of the night and transfer from one sleeping car to another. Therefore he takes no sleeping car. I have suggested to the car builder, Pullman, that he shall take the sleeping car service into his own hands and run his cars through from every western to every eastern city without change, he paying the railroads for hauling his cars and he collecting the revenue that men will be willing to pay for the comfort of through transportation.
"Now, all this is merely a beginning. The railroads of this country, together with the new ones now building, will presently be consolidated into great systems. Transportation, both as to freight and as to passengers, is now done at retail, and the cost is enormous. It will, after a while, be done at wholesale, and at a proportionate reduction in cost.
"Now the thought that is in my mind is this: We have got to build this great nation anew upon lines marked out by the events of the last few years. The war has been costly—enormously costly. It has saddled the country with a debt of about three billions of dollars, besides the incalculable waste. But it has awakened a great national self consciousness which will speedily pay off the debt, and, incidentally, develop the resources of the country in a way never dreamed of before. Those resources, so far as they are undeveloped, or only partially developed, lie mainly in the West and South. It is our duty to develop them.
"The government is building a railroad to the Pacific coast. That, when it is done, will annex a vast and singularly fruitful country to the Union. The fertility of the soil there, and the favorable climatic conditions, promise results that must presently astonish mankind. But in the meanwhile it is our part of the nation-building work to develop the resources of what we now call the West. Minnesota, in its eastern part, is already producing wheat in an abundance that discourages all eastern farmers and sets them to the culture of small fruits and to truck gardening for the supply of the great cities there. There is great gain even in that. Presently the Minnesota wheat farmers will extend their limitless fields into the Dakotah country as soon as railroads are built there—and a new era of development will begin."
"Why do you not include the South in your reckoning?" asked Hallam.
"I do. Under the new conditions the South will produce more cotton than it ever did, and its coal and iron resources will be enormously developed. But the South is, for the present, handicapped by disturbed conditions and a disorganized labor system. It will be long before that region shall take its full share in national development—in what I call 'nation building.'
"Pardon me for wandering so far afield. I have meant only to show you what I regard as the true character of the work that you and your associates are doing. Now, I wish and intend to do my share in that work. To that end, I must have money of my own, and that control of other people's money which comes only to men who have money of their own. I don't care a fig for money for its own sake. I want it as a tool with which I may do my work."
"I think I understand you," answered Hallam, after a few minutes' reflection. "You shall have the tools. You have already put away two-thirds of your salary from month to month. I have to-day multiplied that salary by three. You'll soon have 'grub stakes' for any enterprise you may choose to enter upon. But that isn't all. If it were, it would mean that I am to lose you presently. I don't mean to do that. You are too good a man for a clerk. I propose to make of you a partner in all my outside enterprises. I must go now. I've five people to meet at ten o'clock. Come to me after that hour, if you're sufficiently rested, and we'll talk business."
"Oh, I'm sufficiently rested already. I'll join you at ten or a little later, as I suppose you won't be free till then."
Captain Will Hallam rose, grasped the hand of his companion, and, after a look into his eyes, said:
"You're the right sort. You have vim, force, pathos, and energy. You and I, working together, will salivate things in a way that will make Calomel ashamed of itself."
"But how about Kennedy and his discharge?" asked Duncan.
"Oh, that's settled. I've sent him his quittance papers, and he's your enemy for all time. You can stand that."
"Yes, so long as you are my friend."
THE WAYS OF GUILFORD DUNCAN
During all this time Guilford Duncan had been taking his meals at the little boarding house of Mrs. Deming. The other boarders—a dozen in all, perhaps—did not interest him at first, and for a time he took his meals in silence, except for courteous "good-mornings" and "good-evenings." His table companions were mainly young clerks of various grades, with whose ideas and aspirations young Duncan was very slightly in sympathy.
After a time, however, he decided that it was his duty to cultivate acquaintance with these table companions, in whom he recognized private soldiers in the great army of work—the men upon whom the commanders of all degrees must rely for the execution of their plans.
Accordingly, Duncan began to take an active part in the conversations going on about him, and little by little he injected so much of interest into them that whenever he spoke he was listened to with special attention. Without assuming superiority of any kind, he came to be recognized as in fact superior. He came to be a sort of Autocrat of the Breakfast Table, directing the conversations there into new channels and better ones.
It was his practice to buy and read all the magazines as they appeared, including the particularly interesting eclectic periodicals of that time, in which the best European thought was fairly represented.
His reading furnished him many interesting themes for table talk, and presently the brightest ones among his companions there began to question him further concerning the subjects he thus mentioned. After a little while some of them occasionally borrowed reading matter of him, by way of still further satisfying their interest in the matters of which he talked at table.
A little later still, these brighter young men, one by one, began to visit Duncan's room in the evenings. In the free and easy fashion of that time and region, he made them welcome without permitting their coming or going to disturb his own evening occupations in any serious way. His room was very large, well warmed, and abundantly lighted, for he had almost a passion for light. There was always a litter of new magazines, weekly periodicals, and the like on the big table in the centre of the room, and there were always piles of older ones in the big closet. Still further there was a stand of bookshelves which was beginning to be crowded with books bought one by one as they came out, or as Duncan felt the need of them. Literature was the young man's only extravagance, and that was not a very expensive one.
"Welcome! Help yourself! Read what you like and you won't disturb me." That was the spirit of his greeting to all these his friends whenever they entered his door, and it was not long before the room of the young Virginian became a center of good influence among the young men of the town.
How greatly such an influence was needed the bank officers and other "solid" men of the city well knew and strongly felt. Few of them ever thought of reading anything themselves except the commercial columns of the newspapers, but they had reasons of their own for recognizing the good work Guilford Duncan was quietly doing, by cultivating the reading habit among their clerks.
Cairo was an ill-organized community at that time. The great majority of its people were "newcomers," from all quarters of the country, who had as yet scarcely learned to know each other. War operations had filled the town for several years past with shifting crowds of adventurers of all sorts, who found in disturbed conditions their opportunity to live by prey. There were gambling houses and other evil resorts in dangerous numbers, where soldiers and discharged soldiers on their way through the place were tempted to their ruin by every lure of vice and every ease of opportunity to go astray.
The solid men deplored these conditions, but were as yet powerless to better them. After the rush of discharged soldiers through the town ceased, the evil influences began to operate more directly upon the clerks and other young men of the city itself. Some who had begun life there with every prospect of worthy careers had sunk into degradation through vicious indulgence. Others who still managed to hold their places in business and to do their work tolerably were manifestly falling into habits that darkened their futures. In two or three instances young men of good bringing up, who had earned enviable reputations for diligence and good conduct, were lured into the gambling dens, robbed there, and at last were tempted to defalcations and even sheer robberies of the employers who trusted them. In one conspicuous case a youth who had won special regard among the better people by the tender care he was taking of his mother, and by diligence and faithfulness in his work, fell a victim to the passion of gambling, robbed money packages that passed through his hands as a cashier in an express office, was caught, convicted, and sentenced to prison as a common felon, to the saddening of all the town.
Under such circumstances even the least cultivated of the hard-headed business men could not fail to regard with special pleasure the silent work that Duncan was doing for the salvation of at least a considerable group of young men who might otherwise have fallen victims to the evil conditions that beset them.
Apart from his association with the young men who frequented his room, Duncan had no social life at all. He never visited at any house, except that Captain Hallam frequently had him to a meal over which the two might "talk business," or where he might meet and help entertain prominent men of affairs from other cities, whose visits were inspired by commercial purposes far more than by considerations of a social nature.
It created some little astonishment, therefore, when one day at the boarding house table, Duncan said to those about him:
"I hear that you fellows are organizing some sort of club for social purposes. Why haven't you given me a chance to join?"
"We didn't think you would care for such things. You never go out, you know, and——"
"What is the purpose of your organization, if you don't mind my asking?"
"Oh, certainly not. We're simply making up a little group, which we call 'The Coterie,' to have a few dancing parties and amateur concerts, and the like, in the big hotel dining room, during the winter. We've a notion that the young people of Cairo ought to know each other better. Our idea is to promote social intercourse and so we're all chipping in to pay the cost, which won't be much."
"Well, may I chip in with the rest?"
Seeing glad assent in every countenance, he held out his hand for the subscription paper, and put down his name for just double the largest subscription on it. Then passing it back he said:
"I think I may be able to secure some support for so good an undertaking, from the business men of the city and from others—the lawyers, doctors, and the like. Your entertainments certainly ought to have the benefit of their countenance. At any rate, I'll see what I can do. I don't know that I shall myself be able to attend the dances and the like—in fact, I'm sure I shall not—but I'll do what I can to help the cause along."
He did what he could, and what he could was much. The solid men, when he brought the subject to their attention, felt that this was an extension of that work of Duncan's for the betterment of the town, which they so heartily approved. They subscribed freely to the expense, and better still, they lent personal countenance to the entertainments.
Guilford Duncan also attended one of the entertainments, though it had been his fixed purpose not to do so. The reason was that Guilford Duncan was altogether human and a full-blooded young man. From the time of his arrival at Cairo until now, he had not had any association with women. When such association came to him he accepted it as a boon, without relaxing, in any degree, his devotion to affairs.
It was the old story, related in a thousand forms, but always with the same purport, since ever the foundations of the world were laid.
"Male and female created he them." "And God saw that it was good."
All of human history is comprehended in those two sentences quoted from the earliest history of mankind.
The person who had originated and who conducted Mrs. Deming's boarding house—famous for its fare—was, in fact, not Mrs. Deming at all. That good lady would pretty certainly have scored a failure if she had tried actively to manage such an establishment. She had never in her life known necessity for work of any kind, or acquired the least skill in its doing. She had been bred in luxury and had never known any other way of living until a few months before Guilford Duncan went to take his meals at what was known as her "table."
She had lived in a spacious and sumptuously furnished suburban house near an eastern city, until two years or so before the time of this story.
When Barbara Verne, her only sister's child, was born and orphaned within a single day, and under peculiarly saddening circumstances, the aunt had adopted her quite as a matter of course.
No sooner had Barbara ceased to be an infant in arms than she began to manifest strong and peculiar traits of character. Even as a little child she was wondered at as "so queer—so old fashioned, don't you know?"
She had a healthy child's love for her dolls, and though the persons around her had not enough clearness of vision to see that she was fruitfully and creatively imaginative in her peculiar way, her dolls' nursery was full of wonderful stories, known only to herself and the dolls. Every doll there had a personality, a history, and a character of its own. Barbara was the intimate of all of them—the confidential friend and companion, who listened to their imagined recitals of griefs and joys with a sympathetic soul, counseled them in a prematurely old way, chided them gently but firmly for their mistakes, commended good conduct whenever she discovered it in them, and almost mercilessly rebuked such shortcomings as common sense should have spared them. For common sense was Barbara's dominant characteristic.
She never told their stories to anybody. That, she felt, would have been to betray their confidence shamefully. It was only by eavesdropping on the part of her nursery maid, and by casual overhearings of her talk with her dolls that their life stories became known to anybody except herself.
And Barbara quickly put an end to the eavesdropping when she discovered it. She had a French nursery governess, Mathilde, whose double function it was to look after the child and to teach her French by talking to her only in that tongue. The maid, in fact, made the child teach her English, by talking with her chiefly in that language.
That, however, was an offense the child did not consider. She did not greatly value instruction in French—"English is so much better," she used to say to her aunt. "And besides, nobody ever talks in French. So why should we bother about it? Of course, I like to have La Fontaine's Fables read to me, and I like to read them to my dolls, because the dolls always enjoy them."
"How do you know that, Barbara?"
"Why, because they never interrupt. When I tell them 'make up' stories of my own, they often interrupt me. They 'want to know,' and sometimes I can't tell them. But with La Fontaine's stories it is never so. Still I don't think French is of much consequence."
That was the ill-informed and immature judgment of a child of seven or eight years. Perhaps the other judgment with which that same child coupled it in the lectures she sometimes gave her French nursery governess was sounder.
"Mathilde, you are an eavesdropper," she solemnly said to the girl one night. "You hide behind the door and listen while Phillida tells me about the way Corydon treats her. And you listen while I tell Phillida not to be foolish, and while I talk to Corydon about his behavior. I shouldn't mind that so much, Mathilde, if you didn't laugh at the dolls and their troubles. I don't like that."
But, notwithstanding the child's imaginative gift, she was intensely practical, in a quick-witted way that often astonished those about her. She had an eager desire to learn domestic arts, and her peculiar conscientiousness in the doing of whatever she undertook to do, usually resulted in a skill superior to that of her teachers.
She loved to haunt the kitchen, where her courtesy won even the cantankerous cook for a friend, and from her the girl learned so much of her art that the cook could teach her no more. In the laundry the good-natured Irish woman who presided over that department of household economy gave her always so warm a welcome that the child came to think of the faithful woman as one of her choicest friends. Working with her over a little ironing board, Barbara quickly became expert in all the finer and more delicate operation of her art, or as the laundress herself said:
"Shure, the blissed choild puts the raal Oirish accint into the doin' up of a pretty frock."
When she grew a little older, Barbara's French nursery governess left her, and from that hour, almost without knowing it, the child took her education largely into her own hands, and her aunt stood too much in awe of her almost preternatural resoluteness, to interfere in any serious way. She provided masters for the child, but it was the girl herself and not the masters who decided what she should learn.
In that early time it was not generally thought necessary, or even desirable, to send girls away from home to study in colleges in company with boys—to learn Latin, Greek, mathematics, and basketball—to read the indecencies of classic literature—and to mould themselves into an unlovely similitude to men. But there were frivolities in the education of women then which were almost as conspicuous as are the masculinities that have since taken their place.
In Barbara's case neither of these influences was felt. Without quite knowing what her own thought was, the girl early made up her mind that she would learn thoroughly all things that a woman must practice in life, that she would make herself fit to do a woman's part in the world without any pretense whatever.
She was set at one time to learn the piano, as in that day every girl was, to the saddening of human existence and the torturing of human nerves. After taking a few lessons Barbara was shrewd enough to discover that she had no musical gifts worth cultivating. She therefore promptly requested her aunt to dismiss her music master.
"Oh, but you must learn to play, you know, dear."
"Why must I, auntie?"
"Oh, well, every girl must, you know."
"But why, auntie?" persisted the little female Socrates.
"Why, it's a necessary part of every girl's education, you know."
"Oh, I know they all do it," answered the girl, "but most of them would do better to leave it alone. You often say that it tortures you to hear girls 'pound the piano' when they want to show off. Now, I haven't the gift for music, and I don't want to show off. Why should I learn to 'pound the piano' and make other people miserable?"
So the argument went on, and it ended at last, as it was predestined to end, in the abandonment of the piano lessons, leaving Barbara to grow up in complete ignorance of an art which, in that half-barbaric time, was deemed a necessary "accomplishment" of every young woman who had fingers, whether she had any perception of music or not.
For the rest, Barbara educated herself upon lines which she deemed womanly. There was no art of kitchen or laundry or sewing room in which, as she grew older, she did not make herself the superior of the highly paid servitors whose skill her aunt employed to perform such functions. For explanation she said only:
"I am to be a woman. I must know how to do all womanly things. If I don't know all that better than the servants do, I must always be dependent upon servants. I think that would be humiliating."
In the same spirit she took up such school studies as she deemed proper to her womanhood and only such. But she gave to each a degree of conscience that always surprised her teachers. She had not the gift of learning easily, but her devotion was such that she learned thoroughly in spite of all the difficulties. She early conceived the notion that she must know her own language well—how to spell it, how to pronounce it, and, still more, how to use it simply, honestly, and effectively in the expression of her thought. Her over-mastering devotion to truth would not let her rest content with any loose or inaccurate expression. "No," she would say, "that isn't the word I want. It doesn't say just what I mean," and she would never be satisfied until she found the word she did want.
The handwriting to which she schooled herself was in like manner scrupulously truthful. The writing masters of that time cared far more for ornateness than for verity, or even legibility. They laboriously taught their pupils to make "hair" lines for upstrokes and heavily "shaded" ones for down. They decorated their capital letters with meaningless flourishes, and they did many other things equally useless and unworthy.
Barbara would have nothing to do with such insincerities. She would not even try to learn them. She studied the essential form of each letter, and, discarding everything else, she wrote, as she herself said, "so that other people might read easily." The result was a dainty little round-lettered text, which had truth for its basis and uncompromising sincerity for its inspiration.
Arithmetic gave her a good deal of trouble. Had the mastery of that science been an "accomplishment," she would have put it aside as one for which she had no gift, as she had done with music. But she realized that one must acquire a certain facility in calculation, and she did all the work necessary to acquire that facility. She puckered her pretty forehead over the "sums" that she had to do, and she often, all her life, employed roundabout methods in doing them. But in the end she got the "answers" right, and that was all that the little truth worshiper cared for in the case.
She early became fond of reading such books as appealed to her. She would never consent to believe that she ought to read books that did not find a response in her mind, merely on the ground that their reading was deemed a proper part of every young person's education.
"All that sort of thing is 'show off,'" she used to say. "It is a false pretense;" and she scorned all false pretenses.
Yet she was by no means an idly self-indulgent reader. She diligently mastered some books that did not particularly interest her, because she believed them to contain information or instruction or counsel that might benefit her.
When she was only a dozen years old or so, the little woman took upon herself the duties of housekeeper in her aunt's mansion, and kept order there in a way that won something like local fame for herself. It was not art, or intuition, or rule that inspired her. It was temperament.
Absolute cleanliness was to her a religion, and the servant who fell in the remotest way short of that was quickly made to think of herself as an unregenerate sinner. Absolute neatness was another requirement which the budding little woman insisted upon with relentless persistence. Then again it seemed to her that there was no possible excuse for any cooking short of the best.
"Why should a beefsteak be scorched?" she would ask protestingly. "It is only a question of attention and honesty. Why should the aroma be boiled out of a pot of coffee? Again, it is only a matter of attention and honesty." That was her attitude always, and the servant who hoped to please her must ceaselessly recognize it.
Sometimes her aunt would plead for a little lenity in these matters, but the girl would grant none. "The servants are employed to do things right. Why should I let them do things wrong? They profess to have skill in such work. Surely, they ought to do it as well as I can, who have no skill. And besides, it wouldn't be good for them to let them off with less than the best. They would degenerate. They have their living to make by work, and the better work they do the better work they can do."
A few years later the aunt's husband met with misfortune and went to the West. Presently he died, and Barbara's aunt was widowed and impoverished at one and the same time.
Then it was that Barbara rose in the strength of her practical wisdom, and met the emergency with all of character that she had built up. Her aunt was helpless, so Barbara took matters into her own hands. She was nearly twenty years old then, and her capacities as a housekeeper had ripened through use until she felt modestly confident of herself. "Besides," she argued, "there is nobody else to do things if I don't."
She persuaded her aunt to take a little house with a big sunny dining room, and there she offered to the young bachelors of the town—in her aunt's name—better meals than they could get at the pretentious hotel, and she charged them scarcely more than half the hotel rate.
One by one the best of the young men in the town were drawn to Barbara's table until the dining room was filled. After that anyone who wished to join the circle must put his name upon a waiting list, and bide his time till there should be a vacancy. For Barbara held that it would be unjust to crowd present boarders in order to take new ones, and she hated all injustice. The waiting list was always long, for the fame of Barbara's table was great.
When her friends suggested an increase in her charges, she promptly said them nay. "I'm charging enough," she answered. "The gentlemen pay us enough to keep auntie and me comfortable. They have to work hard for their money, and it would be very mean to charge them more, merely because they'll pay it rather than get their meals anywhere else."
"Perhaps so," answered Captain Will Hallam, who had pressed this advice upon the girl. "But it's always good business, you know, to get what you can. A thing is worth what it will sell for, and your good dinners, Miss Barbara, would sell for a good deal more than you are charging for them."
But Barbara would not listen to the wisdom of "business." Hers was the wisdom of a white soul, and it controlled her absolutely.
And it really was her own skill that made her table famous. She hired a cook, of course, after her little business became prosperous, and sometimes for a brief while she trusted to the cook's skill. Then her conscience beset her because the breakfasts and dinners and suppers were not prepared in that perfection which alone could satisfy this conscientious little woman's soul. "You see, it isn't honest, aunty," she would say in explanation whenever she returned to the kitchen and gave personal attention to every detail. "We are charging these young gentlemen for their meals, and it seems to me dishonest if we give them less than the best that we can. They come to us because they have heard that we serve the best meals that can be had in Cairo. How mean and wrong it would be for us to trade upon that reputation and give them meals of an inferior quality! I simply can't get a cook who will do things at their best, and so I must do most of the cooking myself, and then I'll know it is well done."
She hired a "neat-handed Phyllis," in a cambric gown—which Barbara insisted must be fresh and clean every day—to wait upon the table. She hired a handy negro boy to wash dishes, scrub, and prepare vegetables under her own direction. She did all the more important part of the cooking herself, and the negro boy, Bob, simply worshiped the girl whom he always addressed as "Little Missie."
A BATTLE AND AN ACQUAINTANCE
There were boys in Cairo, of course, and equally of course some of them were bad. The bad ones used to do things to annoy Robert's "Little Missie." Robert proceeded to thrash them upon every proper occasion, and he did it with a thoroughness that left nothing to be desired thereafter. When Robert had thrashed a boy, that boy went to bed for repairs. And he was apt to be reticent as to where and how he had received his bruises. That was because Robert always ended a fist encounter with a warning.
"Ef you don't want a double dose o' dis here you'll prehaps obstain f'um mentionin' de name o' de culled gentleman wot gib it ter you."
And the victim usually "obstained." If he didn't it was presently the worse for him.
Robert had been born in the South. He had lived there till his fourteenth year. He had there imbibed certain doctrines of pugnacious chivalry. There had been bred in his bone the conviction that it was every strong man's duty to protect every woman, and to punish any disrespect shown to her.
In Robert's view there was only one gentlewoman in Cairo—his "Little Missie"—and it seemed to him as clearly a matter of duty to protect her against annoyance as it was to scrub the kitchen floor or to wash the dishes.
It was through one of Robert's battles that Guilford Duncan became acquainted with his hostess, Barbara Verne. That young woman very rarely appeared in the dining room, and so the young Virginian had scarcely more than met her, when one morning on his way to breakfast he came upon a battle between Robert—"free man of color," as he loved to call himself—and three Cairo boys who had waylaid him in order to avenge the punishment he had given a few days before to one of them who had playfully hurled half a brick through Barbara's kitchen window.
When Duncan came upon the battlefield, Robert was backed up against a dead wall. Two of his adversaries had gone to grass, and the third was hesitating to prosecute the attack alone. Seeing his hesitation, Bob—great strategist that he was—instantly decided to convert his successful defense into a successful offense, without delay. Quitting his defensive position against the wall, he rushed upon his remaining adversary, who promptly retreated without waiting to reckon up the casualties.
Then Bob jumped upon his other and slowly rising antagonists, knocked them down again and hurriedly exacted of each a "wish-I-may-die" promise to let "Little Missie" alone from that day forth.
"Good for you, Bob!" exclaimed young Duncan. "But we'll make that promise more binding. Help me and I'll take these young ruffians before Judge Gross and compel them to give bonds for good behavior."
It didn't take long to arraign the culprits, prove that they had thrown a brickbat through Barbara's window, and secure an order of the court requiring them to give considerable bonds for good behavior in future.
This brought their parents into court and subjected them to a good deal of annoyance and trouble. They had to give bonds, and more troublesome still, they had to control their boys. Then again the newspapers published the facts.
In this way Guilford Duncan multiplied his enemies in Cairo. But he had a deep-seated conviction that it is worth a man's while to make enemies by doing right. In this matter he had done only right. He had invoked the law for the protection of a woman, and he had completely accomplished his purpose. He cared nothing for the revilings that ensued, but Ober, the man of brains and character who edited the principal newspaper of the town, took the matter up and made much of it.
"This town is barbaric," he wrote in his editorial columns, "It owes sincere thanks to Mr. Guilford Duncan for teaching it that law is supreme, that it is to the law we should appeal in every case of wrong doing. The parents of the young hoodlums who have been bound over to keep the peace have long needed this lesson. This newspaper rejoices that the lesson has been given in so emphatic and conspicuous a manner. It congratulates its young fellow citizen, Mr. Duncan, upon the quality of his citizenship, and upon the results of its activity."
Within an hour after that editorial appeared, three columns of advertisements were angrily withdrawn from Ober's newspaper.
Within the next hour Captain Will Hallam quietly sent in nineteen columns of advertisements, and wrote to Ober: "Stand by your guns and I'll stand by you. If the damned fools think they can squelch you or Duncan in such a case as this, we'll teach them better. Spread my advertisements all over the paper and send bills to me. Keep it up. We'll make Cairo a better town to live in, or we'll know why. The thing to do now is to make a systematic campaign against abuses. Do it with all your might, and I'll stand by you.
"I'll get Duncan to help you. He's a queer fellow, but he knows how to use vitriol instead of ink, and it's vitriol we need just now."
In the meanwhile the entire talk of the little city was of Duncan's activity in haling the hoodlum sons of highly "respectable" parents before a magistrate, as a consequence of their battle with a "nigger." On that subject tongues wagged busily, pro and con. The friends of the aggrieved parents who had been forced to give bonds for the good behavior of their ill-regulated offspring, indignantly made a "race issue" of a matter which had nothing whatever to do with race prejudice.
They could not understand how a southerner and an ex-Confederate soldier could thus have taken the part of a "nigger" against "respectable white boys." Others who were clamorous for the "rights of the negro," rejoiced in Duncan as a convert to their doctrine.
Both were wrong, of course. Neither in the remotest way recognized the real impulses of his act, namely, the impulse to protect a woman and the impulse of a law-loving citizen to insist upon the equal enforcement of the law, for the sake of good order in the community. But Duncan concerned himself with none of these things. He had done his simple duty as a man and as a citizen, and he had no care whatever for consequences.
And yet the consequences were such as vitally affected his entire career in more ways than one. His performance brought him, for one thing, into close acquaintance with a certain young woman whom he had scarcely known before, and whose destiny it was to influence the entire future course of his life.
It was Duncan's habit to sit long and smoke over his final cup of coffee at the evening meal. The other table boarders were accustomed to hurry away as soon as they had swallowed their supper, leaving him in sole possession of the dining room.
On the evening of the day on which the events already related occurred, he sat as usual, smoking, sipping his coffee, and reading Ober's evening newspaper. Presently Barbara Verne entered, and with a manner in which extreme shyness was mingled with a resolute determination to do the duty that lay before her, approached young Duncan and held out her hand. As he rose deferentially to greet her, taking her proffered hand in his, the girl said:
"I've come to thank you, Mr. Duncan. It was very kind of you—to protect Robert, you know—and me. I'm Barbara Verne. Thank you, ever so much."
As she made her little speech the brave but timid girl looked him in the eyes with the embarrassed front of a child set to do a duty, mingled with the calm composure of a woman who knows and cherishes the dignity of her womanhood.
Duncan protested that no thanks were due him for doing his simple duty, and, after a word or two more, the girl quitted the room, while Duncan, gallantly bowing, held the door open for her.
The little interview lasted for less than two minutes, and not an unnecessary word was spoken on either side. Yet it seemed to Duncan an event of consequence, as indeed, it proved to be.
Something in the girl's voice, or manner, or something in her eyes, or something in her grace of movement, her bearing, her mingled simplicity and dignity—or something in all these combined—had mightily impressed him. He had seen little of women in any intimate way, and while he honored womanhood and deferred to it, as every sound-souled man must, he had thought himself quite indifferent to women in their individual personality. But somehow he could not feel so with Barbara Verne, and later in the evening he scourged himself for his folly in continuing to think of her to the interruption of the reading he had set himself to do.
"What's the matter with me?" he asked himself almost with irritation, as at last he laid down the volume of Herbert Spencer's Social Statics, over which he had been laboring in vain. "I can't read a single paragraph with understanding. I can't keep my attention upon the lines as I read them. I must be tired out—though I don't know what has tired me. Fortunately I've no visitors to-night. They have all gone to hear the Swiss Bell Ringers at the Athenaeum. I wonder if anybody took Barbara Verne?"
Thus his thought came back again to the girl and he was annoyed with himself for having permitted that.
"I do not know the girl at all," he reflected. "Except to bow a distant 'good-morning' or 'good-evening' at infrequent intervals, I never spoke to her until this evening, and then the interview was one of purely formal courtesy. And yet here I am thinking about her so persistently that even Herbert Spencer cannot win my attention."
Then he sat for a time trying to think of something else, or trying, with renewed resolution, to concentrate his attention upon his book.
The effort was a dismal failure. Barbara Verne's eyes gazed softly at him out of the page, her gentle voice echoed in his ears, and the simple, straight-forward words of thanks that she had spoken thrust out of his mind the words of the great philosopher, as the youth endeavored to read them.
He was sitting, in his dressing gown, with his slippered feet resting upon a stool. In the large grate a mass of Pittsburg coal blazed and flickered restfully. At his elbow softly burned a shaded student lamp, on a table covered with a scarlet and black cloth, and littered with books. The curtains—inexpensive, but heavy—were closely drawn to shut out every suggestion of the wintry night outside.
"Confound it," muttered the young man aloud, as he again threw down the book, this time without marking his place; "if I weren't so supremely comfortable here, I'd get myself into my clothes again and go out to fight the night for a while. That would be the right thing to do, but I'm too self-indulgent to do it. Wonder if Barbara Verne ever shirked a duty for the sake of comfort?"
Thus he began again to think of the girl.
"She's a new type to me," he thought, as he gazed into the fire. "She seems almost a child, and yet altogether a woman. Wonder what her life has been. I fancy she felt, when she came in to thank me, like a child who has been naughty and is required to make a proper apology. There was certainly a suggestion of that sort of thing in her manner, just at first. Then the strong woman in her mastered the child, and she carried out her determination resolutely. It is very charming, that combination of shy child-likeness, with the self-control of a strong woman."
At this point Guilford Duncan impatiently kicked over his footrest, rose to his feet and began dressing for the out of doors. "What an idiot I am!" he thought. "Here I am presuming to analyze the moods and motives of a young woman of whose life and character I know nothing whatever, and with whom I have exchanged not more than a dozen or twenty sentences in all my life. You need a drenching in the storm, Guilford Duncan, and you shall have it, in the interest of your sanity."
Donning his boots and overcoat, and pulling his slouch hat well down over his eyes and ears, the young man strode out into the storm.
When he came back at midnight, drenched and chilled, his fire had burned itself out. After he had rubbed his damp skin into a healthful glow, he extinguished the lamp and crawled into bed.
In spite of all, however, Guilford Duncan was still thinking of Barbara Verne, when, at last, he sank to sleep. His final thought of her took the form of a resolution:
"I will call upon her, and become really acquainted with her. That will cure me of this strange and utterly absurd fascination. Of course the girl must be commonplace in the main, and when I come to realize that, the glamour will fade away."
A SOCIAL ADVANCE
Guilford Duncan carried out his purpose, as he thought, with a good deal of tact. He began by calling, not upon Barbara, but upon three or four other young women—a thing he had never done before. He thought in this way to make his call upon Barbara, when it should come, an inconspicuous event. To his surprise, his entrance thus into society created something of a flutter among the women-folk, especially the married women who had marriageable daughters, or who were matchmakingly interested in other young women, not their daughters.
For Guilford Duncan, the moment he was thought of as a social factor, and a matrimonial possibility, was seen to be the "best catch" in the little city, the most desirable young man in the town. He was young and distinctly handsome. He was a man of education, culture, and superior intelligence. His manners were easy, polished, and very winning. Especially he treated women with a certain chivalric deference, that pleased them even more than they knew. Captain Will Hallam's wife, who was the social leader of the city, said to him one day:
"You must be careful what you do in the way of paying attention to young women. A very little attention on your part is apt to mean a great deal to a girl—and still more to her mamma."
"But why should it?" asked Duncan, in unfeigned astonishment. "Why should ordinary social courtesy on my part mean more than the same thing means in the case of any other young man?"
"I don't know that I can tell you," she answered. "At least, I don't know that I can make you understand."
"I sincerely wish you would try. I certainly do not want to——" He hesitated, and did not complete the sentence.
"Oh, I know all that. I know what you mean, because it is what I mean. I tell you that if you pay more than just a little, and a very casual, attention to any girl, the girl, and, worse still, all her elderly female relatives, are likely to misconstrue your motives. You are in serious danger of breaking some tender hearts, and winning for yourself the reputation of being that most detestable thing—a male flirt."
"But really, Mrs. Hallam," interrupted the perplexed young man, "I don't understand——"
"Of course you don't, and of course I'm glad you don't. You'd be a detestably conceited popinjay if you did. But I do, and in a strictly limited way I'm going to explain it to you for your own good, and as a warning. I can't explain it fully without treason to my own sex. But I'll tell you this much: you have a singularly pleasing, soothing, caressing, and most winning manner with women—all women. You are respectful—no, that isn't the word. You are courteously gentle and deferential, and solicitous to give pleasure. Anyhow, you please women. Then, again, you have made yourself the most conspicuous young man in Cairo, and everybody counts upon your success as certain. There, I'm not going to explain further; I only warn you."
"But, Mrs. Hallam, I have not called more than twice upon any one girl, and——"
"Well, don't. That's all I've got to say."
Duncan went away puzzled. He had intended to be very shrewd and circumspect in this matter. He had intended, by calling once or twice upon each of several young women, to deprive the calls he intended to make upon Barbara of any look of significance, and now, before he had even begun to cultivate acquaintance with Barbara, he found his small preparatory callings the subject of curiosity and gossip.
He was resolved not to be balked of his purpose, however. He saw no reason to permit that. He would go that very evening to see Barbara, and he would repeat the visit from time to time, until a fuller acquaintance with the girl should cure him of his fascination. Acquaintance must do that, he was persuaded.
He carried out his part of the program resolutely. If the results were not precisely what he expected, and intended, the fault was not his own.
Barbara Verne was not accustomed to receive visits from young men. She was almost too young, for one thing, or, at least, she had been almost too young until about this time. Moreover, her life was unusually secluded. She devoted all her time to her exacting household duties. Except that she attended church once each Sunday, she was never seen in any public place, or anywhere else, outside of her aunt's house, or the house of her single friend—Mrs. Richards—a retiring matron, who neither received company nor went out anywhere. These two—the young girl and the middle-aged matron—were somewhat more than intimate in their affection, but apart from this one friend, Barbara visited nobody. The young women of the town did not think of her, therefore, as one of themselves at all. They regarded her rather as a child than as a young woman, though if they had troubled to think about the matter, they would have remembered that she was as old as some of themselves.
When Guilford Duncan made his first call upon Barbara, therefore, that young person was very greatly astonished, but she was in no way embarrassed. It was her nature to meet all circumstances and all events frankly, and to do with conscientious faithfulness whatsoever she conceived to be her duty. So when Guilford Duncan called upon her, she promptly put away her surprise, and entered the little parlor to greet him.
She did not keep him waiting, and he specially liked that. He was apt to be impatient of waiting. She did not think it necessary to change her gown. It was her habit to dress with exceeding simplicity and extreme neatness. She could not afford anything pretentious in dress, and she would make no false pretense. Besides, she owned no better gown than the one of French calico, which she was already wearing.
So, without a minute's wait, Barbara walked into the parlor and greeted her visitor, not without some lingering trace of surprise at the honor done her, but with no touch of foolish embarrassment in her manner. Barbara was simply her own sweet, natural self, and when Duncan went away, after his call, the glamour of her personality was more strongly upon him than ever.
"She, at least," he thought as he walked toward the levee, "will not misconstrue my call, as Mrs. Hallam suggests. She is too womanly, too sincere, too genuine for that. I shall call again very soon, though, now that I think of it, she forgot to ask me to do so. Never mind. I'll manufacture some excuse—oh, by Jove, I have it! 'The Coterie' is to give a fancy dress dance a week from to-night. I'll invite her to go. I wonder if she will accept. I hope so, but even if she doesn't, the invitation will give me ample excuse for calling. I'll do it to-morrow evening. I suppose women need a little time to get ready for such functions. Anyhow, I'll call on her to-morrow evening and invite her. I wonder if anybody else has anticipated me in that? No, I'll wager not. I never heard of her going out, or even of anybody calling upon her. Still," he reflected, as he mounted to his room and lighted his lamp and his fire, "that sort of thing might happen." Then, after a pause: "I reckon I'd better send her a note to prepare her. I'll write it to-night, and leave it at breakfast in the morning. She never quits the kitchen regions while breakfast is on. I wonder if she's as neat, and trim, and pretty when she's making coffee, or doing whatever it is that they do to ham, as she always is when she visits other parts of the house?"
Turning, he locked his door. That was a very unusual proceeding on his part, as it was well understood that his "latchstring was always out" of an evening, and the young men, who were in the habit of reading in his room, were accustomed to open and enter at will, without the formality of knocking.
A moment later, some one confidently turned the door-knob. Instantly Duncan realized the situation and came to his senses. He abandoned his purpose of writing to Barbara, as an absurdity, and promptly unlocked the door to the visitor, making some sort of excuse for his forgetfulness in having fastened it.
When he called upon Barbara the next evening, and asked her to attend the dance under his escort, her astonishment was manifest, in spite of her best endeavors to conceal it. She had never before been invited to such a function, and she had not dreamed of this. That, however, was not her greatest occasion for surprise. In her modesty she had never thought of herself as in any way the fellow or equal of the other girls in town, who were eagerly invited to attend everything in the way of entertainments. If any other young man in town had asked her to be his partner on this occasion, she would have regarded the occurrence as a surprising one; to be asked by Guilford Duncan was more astonishing than all. She knew the high place he had won for himself in Cairo. She knew that he was everywhere regarded as altogether the superior of all the other young men intellectually, morally, socially, and in all other ways. She regarded him as an aristocrat among men, a man who had always held aloof from the society around him, as if it were quite unworthy of his attention. She had woman's instinct enough, too, to know how greatly honored any other girl in the city would feel if asked by him to any function. The fact that he had asked her instead of some other, puzzled her almost to bewilderment.
At first she gave him no answer. She was obviously thinking, and Duncan let her think on. He thought she looked exceedingly pretty while thinking. He observed a slight puckering of her forehead at the time, which seemed to him to add interest to her face. After a little she aid:
"Thank you, Mr. Duncan, for your invitation. I am more pleased with it than I can say. But I think I must ask you to excuse me. I think I can't possibly go to the dance."
"May I ask why not? Do you not care for dancing and society?"
"Oh, I care very much—or, rather," she added, with scrupulous fidelity to truth—"I should care very much to attend this party—I should enjoy it more than anything, but——"
"Will you think me impertinent," Duncan asked, when she thus stopped in the middle of her sentence, "will you think me impertinent if I ask you what comes after that word 'but?'"
"Oh, I think you mustn't ask me that. At least, I think I mustn't answer you."
"Very well," replied the young man, pleased with the girl's manner, in spite of his disappointment over her hesitation. "May I make a suggestion? If you had simply said 'no' to my invitation, of course I should not think of urging it upon you. But what you have said shows me that you would welcome it, if there were not something in the way. Perhaps you can overcome the difficulty. Will you not try? Will you not take a little time to think, and perhaps to consult with your friends?"