I praised it.
"It ought to have been a good one," he declared. "Well, I don't want to keep you here all afternoon telling you my life story."
I assured him I had been deeply interested.
"Pretty slick idea of yours, that dummy company, Mr. Paret. Go ahead and organize it." He rose, which was contrary to his custom on the departure of a visitor. "Drop in again. We'll talk about the books."...
I walked slowly back reflecting on this conversation, upon the motives impelling Mr. Jason to become thus confidential; nor was it the most comforting thought in the world that the artist in me had appealed to the artist in him, that he had hailed me as a breather. But for the grace of God I might have been Mr. Jason and he Mr. Paret: undoubtedly that was what he had meant to imply... And I was forced to admit that he had succeeded—deliberately or not—in making the respectable Mr. Paret just a trifle uncomfortable.
In the marble vestibule of the Corn National Bank I ran into Tallant, holding his brown straw hat in his hand and looking a little more moth-eaten than usual.
"Hello, Paret," he said "how is that telephone business getting along?"
"Is Dickinson in?" I asked.
We went through the cool bank, with its shining brass and red mahogany, its tiled floor, its busy tellers attending to files of clients, to the president's sanctum in the rear. Leonard Dickinson, very spruce and dignified in a black cutaway coat, was dictating rapidly to a woman, stenographer, whom he dismissed when he saw us. The door was shut.
"I was just asking Paret about the telephone affair," said Mr. Tallant.
"Well, have you found a way out?" Leonard Dickinson looked questioningly at me.
"It's all right," I answered. "I've seen Jason."
"All right!" they both ejaculated at once.
"We win," I said.
They stood gazing at me. Even Dickinson, who was rarely ruffled, seemed excited.
"Do you mean to say you've fixed it?" he demanded.
I nodded. They stared at me in amazement.
"How the deuce did you manage it?"
"We organize the Interurban Telephone Company, and bid for the franchise—that's all."
"A dummy company!" cried Tallant. "Why, it's simple as ABC!"
Dickinson smiled. He was tremendously relieved, and showed it.
"That's true about all great ideas, Tallant," he said. "They're simple, only it takes a clever man to think of them."
"And Jason agrees?" Tallant demanded.
I nodded again. "We'll have to outbid the Automatic people. I haven't seen Bitter yet about the—about the fee."
"That's all right," said Leonard Dickinson, quickly. "I take off my hat to you. You've saved us. You can ask any fee you like," he added genially. "Let's go over to—to the Ashuela and get some lunch." He had been about to say the Club, but he remembered Mr. Tallant's presence in time. "Nothing's worrying you, Hugh?" he added, as we went out, followed by the glances of his employees.
"Nothing," I said....
Making money in those days was so ridiculously easy! The trouble was to know how to spend it. One evening when I got home I told Maude I had a surprise for her.
"A surprise?" she asked, looking up from a little pink smock she was making for Chickabiddy.
"I've bought that lot on Grant Avenue, next to the Ogilvys'."
She dropped her sewing, and stared at me.
"Aren't you pleased?" I asked. "At last we are going to have a house of our very own. What's the matter?"
"I can't bear the thought of leaving here. I'm so used to it. I've grown to love it. It's part of me."
"But," I exclaimed, a little exasperated, "you didn't expect to live here always, did you? The house has been too small for us for years. I thought you'd be delighted." (This was not strictly true, for I had rather expected some such action on her part.) "Most women would. Of course, if it's going to make such a difference to you as that, I'll sell the lot. That won't be difficult."
I got up, and started to go into my study. She half rose, and her sewing fell to the floor.
"Oh, why are we always having misunderstandings? Do sit down a minute, Hugh. Don't think I'm not appreciative," she pleaded. "It was—such a shock."
I sat down rather reluctantly.
"I can't express what I think," she continued, rather breathlessly, "but sometimes I'm actually frightened, we're going through life so fast in these days, and it doesn't seem as if we were getting the real things out of it. I'm afraid of your success, and of all the money you're making."
"I'm not so rich yet, as riches go in these days, that you need be alarmed," I said.
She looked at me helplessly a moment.
"I feel that it isn't—right, somehow, that you'll pay for it, that we'll pay for it. Goodness knows, we have everything we want, and more too. This house—this house is real, and I'm afraid that won't be a home, won't be real. That we'll be overwhelmed with—with things!"...
She was interrupted by the entrance of the children. But after dinner, when she had seen them to bed, as was her custom, she came downstairs into my study and said quietly:—"I was wrong, Hugh. If you want to build a house, if you feel that you'd be happier, I have no right to object. Of course my sentiment for this house is natural, the children were born here, but I've realized we couldn't live here always."
"I'm glad you look at it that way," I replied. "Why, we're already getting cramped, Maude, and now you're going to have a governess I don't know where you'd put her."
"Not too large, a house," she pleaded. "I know you think I'm silly, but this extravagance we see everywhere does make me uneasy. Perhaps it's because I'm provincial, and always shall be."
"Well, we must have a house large enough to be comfortable in," I said. "There's no reason why we shouldn't be comfortable." I thought it as well not to confess my ambitions, and I was greatly relieved that she did not reproach me for buying the lot without consulting her. Indeed, I was grateful for this unanticipated acquiescence, I felt nearer to her, than I had for a long time. I drew up another chair to my desk.
"Sit down and we'll make a few sketches, just for fun," I urged.
"Hugh," she said presently, as we were blacking out prospective rooms, "do you remember all those drawings and plans we made in England, on our wedding trip, and how we knew just what we wanted, and changed our minds every few days? And now we're ready to build, and haven't any ideas at all!"
"Yes," I answered—but I did not look at her.
"I have the book still—it's in the attic somewhere, packed away in a box. I suppose those plans would seem ridiculous now."
It was quite true,—now that we were ready to build the home that had been deferred so long, now that I had the money to spend without stint on its construction, the irony of life had deprived me of those strong desires and predilections I had known on my wedding trip. What a joy it would have been to build then! But now I found myself: wholly lacking in definite ideas as to style and construction. Secretly, I looked forward to certain luxuries, such as a bedroom and dressing-room and warm tiled bathroom all to myself bachelor privacies for which I had longed. Two mornings later at the breakfast table Maude asked me if I had thought of an architect.
"Why, Archie Lammerton, I suppose. Who else is there? Have you anyone else in mind?"
"N-no," said Maude. "But I heard of such a clever man in Boston, who doesn't charge Mr. Lammerton's prices; and who designs such beautiful private houses."
"But we can afford to pay Lammerton's prices," I replied, smiling. "And why shouldn't we have the best?"
"Are you sure—he is the best, Hugh?"
"Everybody has him," I said.
Maude smiled in return.
"I suppose that's a good reason," she answered.
"Of course it's a good reason," I assured her. "These people—the people we know—wouldn't have had Lammerton unless he was satisfactory. What's the matter with his houses?"
"Well," said Maude, "they're not very original. I don't say they're not good, in away, but they lack a certain imagination. It's difficult for me to express what I mean, 'machine made' isn't precisely the idea, but there should be a certain irregularity in art—shouldn't there? I saw a reproduction in one of the architectural journals of a house in Boston by a man named Frey, that seemed to me to have great charm."
Here was Lucia, unmistakably.
"That's all very well," I said impatiently, "but when one has to live in a house, one wants something more than artistic irregularity. Lammerton knows how to build for everyday existence; he's a practical man, as well as a man of taste, he may not be a Christopher Wrenn, but he understands conveniences and comforts. His chimneys don't smoke, his windows are tight, he knows what systems of heating are the best, and whom to go to: he knows what good plumbing is. I'm rather surprised you don't appreciate that, Maude, you're so particular as to what kind of rooms the children shall have, and you want a schoolroom-nursery with all the latest devices, with sun and ventilation. The Berringers wouldn't have had him, the Hollisters and Dickinsons wouldn't have had him if his work lacked taste."
"And Nancy wouldn't have had him," added Maude, and she smiled once more.
"Well, I haven't consulted Nancy, or anyone else," I replied—a little tartly, perhaps. "You don't seem to realize that some fashions may have a basis of reason. They are not all silly, as Lucia seems to think. If Lammerton builds satisfactory houses, he ought to be forgiven for being the fashion, he ought to have a chance." I got up to leave. "Let's see what kind of a plan he'll draw up, at any rate."
Her glance was almost indulgent.
"Of course, Hugh. I want you to be satisfied, to be pleased," she said.
"And you?" I questioned, "you are to live in the house more than I."
"Oh, I'm sure it will turn out all right," she replied. "Now you'd better run along, I know you're late."
"I am late," I admitted, rather lamely. "If you don't care for Lammerton's drawings, we'll get another architect."
Several years before Mr. Lammerton had arrived among us with a Beaux Arts moustache and letters of introduction to Mrs. Durrett and others. We found him the most adaptable, the most accommodating of young men, always ready to donate his talents and his services to private theatricals, tableaux, and fancy-dress balls, to take a place at a table at the last moment. One of his most appealing attributes was his "belief" in our city,—a form of patriotism that culminated, in later years, in "million population" clubs. I have often heard him declare, when the ladies had left the dining-room, that there was positively no limit to our future growth; and, incidentally, to our future wealth. Such sentiments as these could not fail to add to any man's popularity, and his success was a foregone conclusion. Almost before we knew it he was building the new Union Station of which he had foreseen the need, to take care of the millions to which our population was to be swelled; building the new Post Office that the unceasing efforts of Theodore Watling finally procured for us: building, indeed, Nancy's new house, the largest of our private mansions save Mr. Scherer's, a commission that had immediately brought about others from the Dickinsons and the Berringers.... That very day I called on him in his offices at the top of one of our new buildings, where many young draftsmen were bending over their boards. I was ushered into his private studio.
"I suppose you want something handsome, Hugh," he said, looking at me over his cigarette, "something commensurate with these fees I hear you are getting."
"Well, I want to be comfortable," I admitted.
We lunched at the Club together, where we talked over the requirements.
When he came to dinner the next week and spread out his sketch on the living-room table Maude drew in her breath.
"Why, Hugh," she exclaimed in dismay, "it's as big as—as big as the White House!"
"Not quite," I answered, laughing with Archie. "We may as well take our ease in our old age."
"Take our ease!" echoed Maude. "We'll rattle 'round in it. I'll never get used to it."
"After a month, Mrs. Paret, I'll wager you'll be wondering how you ever got along without it," said Archie.
It was not as big as the White House, yet it could not be called small. I had seen, to that. The long facade was imposing, dignified, with a touch of conventionality and solidity in keeping with my standing in the city. It was Georgian, of plum-coloured brick with marble trimmings and marble wedges over the ample windows, some years later I saw the house by Ferguson, of New York, from which Archie had cribbed it. At one end, off the dining-room, was a semicircular conservatory. There was a small portico, with marble pillars, and in the ample, swift sloping roof many dormers; servants' rooms, Archie explained. The look of anxiety on Maude's face deepened as he went over the floor plans, the reception-room; dining room to seat thirty, the servants' hall; and upstairs Maude's room, boudoir and bath and dress closet, my "apartments" adjoining on one side and the children's on the other, and the guest-rooms with baths....
Maude surrendered, as one who gives way to the inevitable. When the actual building began we both of us experienced, I think; a certain mild excitement; and walked out there, sometimes with the children, in the spring evenings, and on Sunday afternoons. "Excitement" is, perhaps, too strong a word for my feelings: there was a pleasurable anticipation on my part, a looking forward to a more decorous, a more luxurious existence; a certain impatience at the delays inevitable in building. But a new legal commercial enterprise of magnitude began to absorb me at his time, and somehow the building of this home—the first that we possessed was not the event it should have been; there were moments when I felt cheated, when I wondered what had become of that capacity for enjoyment which in my youth had been so keen. I remember indeed, one grey evening when I went there alone, after the workmen had departed, and stood in the litter of mortar and bricks and boards gazing at the completed front of the house. It was even larger than I had imagined it from the plans; in the Summer twilight there was an air about it,—if not precisely menacing, at least portentous, with its gaping windows and towering roof. I was a little tired from a hard day; I had the odd feeding of having raised up something with which—momentarily at least—I doubted my ability to cope: something huge, impersonal; something that ought to have represented a fireside, a sanctuary, and yet was the embodiment of an element quite alien to the home; a restless element with which our American atmosphere had, by invisible degrees, become charged. As I stared at it, the odd fancy seized me that the building somehow typified my own career.... I had gained something, in truth, but had I not also missed something? something a different home would have embodied?
Maude and the children had gone, to the seaside.
With a vague uneasiness I turned away from the contemplation of those walls. The companion mansions were closed, their blinds tightly drawn; the neighbourhood was as quiet as the country, save for a slight but persistent noise that impressed itself on my consciousness. I walked around the house to spy in the back yard; a young girl rather stealthily gathering laths, and fragments of joists and flooring, and loading them into a child's express-wagon. She started when she saw me. She was little, more than a child, and the loose calico dress she wore seemed to emphasize her thinness. She stood stock-still, staring at me with frightened yet defiant eyes. I, too, felt a strange timidity in her presence.
"Why do you stop?" I asked at length.
"Say, is this your heap?" she demanded.
I acknowledged it. A hint of awe widened her eyes. Then site glanced at the half-filled wagon.
"This stuff ain't no use to you, is it?"
"No, I'm glad to have you take it."
She shifted to the other foot, but did not continue her gathering. An impulse seized me, I put down my walkingstick and began picking up pieces of wood, flinging them into the wagon. I looked at her again, rather furtively; she had not moved. Her attitude puzzled me, for it was one neither of surprise nor of protest. The spectacle of the "millionaire" owner of the house engaged in this menial occupation gave her no thrills. I finished the loading.
"There!" I said, and drew a dollar bill out of my pocket and gave it to her. Even then she did not thank me, but took up the wagon tongue and went off, leaving on me a disheartening impression of numbness, of life crushed out. I glanced up once more at the mansion I had built for myself looming in the dusk, and walked hurriedly away....
One afternoon some three weeks after we had moved into the new house, I came out of the Club, where I had been lunching in conference with Scherer and two capitalists from New York. It was after four o'clock, the day was fading, the street lamps were beginning to cast sickly streaks of jade-coloured light across the slush of the pavements. It was the sight of this slush (which for a brief half hour that morning had been pure snow, and had sent Matthew and Moreton and Biddy into ecstasies at the notion of a "real Christmas"), that brought to my mind the immanence of the festival, and the fact that I had as yet bought no presents. Such was the predicament in which I usually found myself on Christmas eve; and it was not without a certain sense of annoyance at the task thus abruptly confronting me that I got into my automobile and directed the chauffeur to the shopping district. The crowds surged along the wet sidewalks and overflowed into the street, and over the heads of the people I stared at the blazing shop-windows decked out in Christmas greens. My chauffeur, a bristly-haired Parisian, blew his horn insolently, men and women jostled each other to get out of the way, their holiday mood giving place to resentment as they stared into the windows of the limousine. With the American inability to sit still I shifted from one corner of the seat to another, impatient at the slow progress of the machine: and I felt a certain contempt for human beings, that they should make all this fuss, burden themselves with all these senseless purchases, for a tradition. The automobile stopped, and I fought my way across the sidewalk into the store of that time-honoured firm, Elgin, Yates and Garner, pausing uncertainly before the very counter where, some ten years before, I had bought an engagement ring. Young Mr. Garner himself spied me, and handing over a customer to a tired clerk, hurried forward to greet me, his manner implying that my entrance was in some sort an event. I had become used to this aroma of deference.
"What can I show you, Mr. Paret?" he asked.
"I don't know—I'm looking around," I said, vaguely, bewildered by the glittering baubles by which I was confronted. What did Maude want? While I was gazing into the case, Mr. Garner opened a safe behind him, laying before me a large sapphire set with diamonds in a platinum brooch; a beautiful stone, in the depths of it gleaming a fire like a star in an arctic sky. I had not given Maude anything of value of late. Decidedly, this was of value; Mr. Garner named the price glibly; if Mrs. Paret didn't care for it, it might be brought back or exchanged. I took it, with a sigh of relief. Leaving the store, I paused on the edge of the rushing stream of humanity, with the problem of the children's gifts still to be solved. I thought of my own childhood, when at Christmastide I had walked with my mother up and down this very street, so changed and modernized now; recalling that I had had definite desires, desperate ones; but my imagination failed me when I tried to summon up the emotions connected with them. I had no desires now: I could buy anything in reason in the whole street. What did Matthew and Moreton want? and little Biddy? Maude had not "spoiled" them; but they didn't seem to have any definite wants. The children made me think, with a sudden softening, of Tom Peters, and I went into a tobacconist's and bought him a box of expensive cigars. Then I told the chauffeur to take me to a toy-shop, where I stood staring through a plate-glass window at the elaborate playthings devised for the modern children of luxury. In the centre was a toy man-of-war, three feet in length, with turrets and guns, and propellers and a real steam-engine. As a boy I should have dreamed about it, schemed for it, bartered my immortal soul for it. But—if I gave it to Matthew, what was there for Moreton? A steam locomotive caught my eye, almost as elaborate. Forcing my way through the doors, I captured a salesman, and from a state bordering on nervous collapse he became galvanized into an intense alertness and respect when he understood my desires. He didn't know the price of the objects in question. He brought the proprietor, an obsequious little German who, on learning my name, repeated it in every sentence. For Biddy I chose a doll that was all but human; when held by a young woman for my inspection, it elicited murmurs of admiration from the women shoppers by whom we were surrounded. The proprietor promised to make a special delivery of the three articles before seven o'clock....
Presently the automobile, after speeding up the asphalt of Grant Avenue, stopped before the new house. In spite of the change that house had made in my life, in three weeks I had become amazingly used to it; yet I had an odd feeling that Christmas eve as I stood under the portico with my key in the door, the same feeling of the impersonality of the place which I had experienced before. Not that for one moment I would have exchanged it for the smaller house we had left. I opened the door. How often, in that other house, I had come in the evening seeking quiet, my brain occupied with a problem, only to be annoyed by the romping of the children on the landing above. A noise in one end of it echoed to the other. But here, as I entered the hall, all was quiet: a dignified, deep-carpeted stairway swept upward before me, and on either side were wide, empty rooms; and in the subdued light of one of them I saw a dark figure moving silently about—the butler. He came forward to relieve me, deftly, of my hat and overcoat. Well, I had it at last, this establishment to which I had for so long looked forward. And yet that evening, as I hesitated in the hall, I somehow was unable to grasp that it was real and permanent, the very solidity of the walls and doors paradoxically suggested transientness, the butler a flitting ghost. How still the place was! Almost oppressively still. I recalled oddly a story of a peasant who, yearning for the great life, had stumbled upon an empty palace, its tables set with food in golden dishes. Before two days had passed he had fled from it in horror back to his crowded cottage and his drudgery in the fields. Never once had the sense of possession of the palace been realized. Nor did I feel that I possessed this house, though I had the deeds of it in my safe and the receipted bills in my files. It eluded me; seemed, in my, bizarre mood of that evening, almost to mock me. "You have built me," it seemed to say, "but I am stronger than you, because you have not earned me." Ridiculous, when the years of my labour and the size of my bank account were considered! Such, however, is the verbal expression of my feeling. Was the house empty, after all? Had something happened? With a slight panicky sensation I climbed the stairs, with their endless shallow treads, to hurry through the silent hallway to the schoolroom. Reassuring noises came faintly through the heavy door. I opened it. Little Biddy was careening round and round, crying out:—"To-morrow's Chris'mas! Santa Claus is coming tonight."
Matthew was regarding her indulgently, sympathetically, Moreton rather scornfully. The myth had been exploded for both, but Matthew still hugged it. That was the difference between them. Maude, seated on the floor, perceived me first, and glanced up at me with a smile.
"It's father!" she said.
Biddy stopped in the midst of a pirouette. At the age of seven she was still shy with me, and retreated towards Maude.
"Aren't we going to have a tree, father?" demanded Moreton, aggressively. "Mother won't tell us—neither will Miss Allsop."
Miss Allsop was their governess.
"Why do you want a tree?" I asked.
"Oh, for Biddy," he said.
"It wouldn't be Christmas without a tree," Matthew declared, "—and Santa Claus," he added, for his sister's benefit.
"Perhaps Santa Claus, when he sees we've got this big house, will think we don't need anything, and go on to some poorer children," said Maude. "You wouldn't blame him if he did that,—would you?"
The response to this appeal cannot be said to have been enthusiastic....
After dinner, when at last all of them were in bed, we dressed the tree; it might better be said that Maude and Miss Allsop dressed it, while I gave a perfunctory aid. Both the women took such a joy in the process, vying with each other in getting effects, and as I watched them eagerly draping the tinsel and pinning on the glittering ornaments I wondered why it was that I was unable to find the same joy as they. Thus it had been every Christmas eve. I was always tired when I got home, and after dinner relaxation set in.
An electrician had come while we were at the table, and had fastened on the little electric bulbs which did duty as candles.
"Oh," said Maude, as she stood off to survey the effect, "isn't it beautiful! Come, Miss Allsop, let's get the presents."
They flew out of the room, and presently hurried back with their arms full of the usual parcels: parcels from Maude's family in Elkington, from my own relatives, from the Blackwoods and the Peterses, from Nancy. In the meantime I had had my own contributions brought up, the man of war, the locomotive, the big doll. Maude stood staring.
"Hugh, they'll be utterly ruined!" she exclaimed.
"The boys might as well have something instructive," I replied, "and as for Biddy—nothing's too good for her."
"I might have known you wouldn't forget them, although you are so busy."....
We filled the three stockings hung by the great fireplace. Then, with a last lingering look at the brightness of the tree, she stood in the doorway and turned the electric switch.
"Not before seven to-morrow morning, Miss Allsop," she said. "Hugh, you will get up, won't you? You mustn't miss seeing them. You can go back to bed again."
Evidently, this was Reality to Maude. And had it not been one of my dreams of marriage, this preparing for the children's Christmas, remembering the fierce desires of my own childhood? It struck me, after I had kissed her good night and retired to my dressing-room, that fierce desires burned within me still, but the objects towards which their flames leaped out differed. That was all. Had I remained a child, since my idea of pleasure was still that of youth? The craving far excitement, adventure, was still unslaked; the craving far freedom as keen as ever. During the whole of my married life, I had been conscious of an inner protest against "settling down," as Tom Peters had settled down. The smaller house from which we had moved, with its enforced propinquity, hard emphasized the bondage of marriage. Now I had two rooms to myself, in the undisputed possession of which I had taken a puerile delight. On one side of my dressing-room Archie Lammerton had provided a huge closet containing the latest devices for the keeping of a multitudinous wardrobe; there was a reading-lamp, and the easiest of easy-chairs, imported from England, while between the windows were shelves of Italian walnut which I had filled with the books I had bought while at Cambridge, and had never since opened. As I sank down in my chair that odd feeling of uneasiness, of transience and unreality, of unsatisfaction I had had ever since we had moved suddenly became intensified, and at the very moment when I had gained everything I had once believed a man could desire! I was successful, I was rich, my health had not failed, I had a wife who catered to my wishes, lovable children who gave no trouble and yet—there was still the void to be filled, the old void I had felt as a boy, the longing for something beyond me, I knew not what; there was the strange inability to taste any of these things, the need at every turn for excitement, for a stimulus. My marriage had been a disappointment, though I strove to conceal this from myself; a disappointment because it had not filled the requirements of my category—excitement and mystery: I had provided the setting and lacked the happiness. Another woman Nancy—might have given me the needed stimulation; and yet my thoughts did not dwell on Nancy that night, my longings were not directed towards her, but towards the vision of a calm, contented married happiness I had looked forward to in youth,—a vision suddenly presented once more by the sight of Maude's simple pleasure in dressing the Christmas tree. What restless, fiendish element in me prevented my enjoying that? I had something of the fearful feeling of a ghost in my own house and among my own family, of a spirit doomed to wander, unable to share in what should have been my own, in what would have saved me were I able to partake of it. Was it too late to make that effort?.... Presently the strains of music pervaded my consciousness, the chimes of Trinity ringing out in the damp night the Christmas hymn, Adeste Fideles. It was midnight it was Christmas. How clear the notes rang through the wet air that came in at my window! Back into the dim centuries that music led me, into candle-lit Gothic chapels of monasteries on wind-swept heights above the firs, and cathedrals in mediaeval cities. Twilight ages of war and scourge and stress and storm—and faith. "Oh, come, all ye Faithful!" What a strange thing, that faith whose flame so marvellously persisted, piercing the gloom; the Christmas myth, as I had heard someone once call it. Did it possess the power to save me? Save me from what? Ah, in this hour I knew. In the darkness the Danger loomed up before me, vague yet terrible, and I trembled. Why was not this Thing ever present, to chasten and sober me? The Thing was myself.
Into my remembrance, by what suggestion I know not, came that March evening when I had gone to Holder Chapel at Harvard to listen to a preacher, a personality whose fame and influence had since spread throughout the land. Some dim fear had possessed me then. I recalled vividly the man, and the face of Hermann Krebs as I drew back from the doorway....
When I awoke my disquieting, retrospective mood had disappeared, and yet there clung to me, minus the sanction of fear or reward or revealed truth, a certain determination to behave, on this day at least, more like a father and a husband: to make an effort to enter into the spirit of the festival, and see what happened. I dressed in cheerful haste, took the sapphire pendant from its velvet box, tiptoed into the still silent schoolroom and hung it on the tree, flooding on the electric light that set the tinsel and globes ablaze. No sooner had I done this than I heard the patter of feet in the hallway, and a high-pitched voice—Biddy's —crying out:—"It's Santa Claus!"
Three small, flannel-wrappered figures stood in the doorway.
"Why, it's father!" exclaimed Moreton.
"And he's all dressed!" said Matthew.
"Oh-h-h!" cried Biddy, staring at the blazing tree, "isn't it beautiful!"
Maude was close behind them. She gave an exclamation of delighted surprise when she saw me, and then stood gazing with shining eyes at the children, especially at Biddy, who stood dazzled by the glory of the constellation confronting her.... Matthew, too, wished to prolong the moment of mystery. It was the practical Moreton who cried:—"Let's see what we've got!"
The assault and the sacking began. I couldn't help thinking as I watched them of my own wildly riotous, Christmas-morning sensations, when all the gifts had worn the aura of the supernatural; but the arrival of these toys was looked upon by my children as a part of the natural order of the universe. At Maude's suggestion the night before we had placed my presents, pieces de resistance, at a distance from the tree, in the hope that they would not be spied at once, that they would be in some sort a climax. It was Matthew who first perceived the ship, and identified it, by the card, as his property. To him it was clearly wonderful, but no miracle. He did not cry out, or call the attention of the others to it, but stood with his feet apart, examining it, his first remark being a query as to why it didn't fly the American flag. It's ensign was British. Then Moreton saw the locomotive, was told that it was his, and took possession of it violently. Why wasn't there more track? Wouldn't I get more track? I explained that it would go by steam, and he began unscrewing the cap on the little boiler until he was distracted by the man-of-war, and with natural acquisitiveness started to take possession of that. Biddy was bewildered by the doll, which Maude had taken up and was holding in her lap. She had had talking dolls before, and dolls that closed their eyes; she recognized this one, indeed, as a sort of super-doll, but her little mind was modern, too, and set no limits on what might be accomplished. She patted it, but was more impressed by the raptures of Miss Allsop, who had come in and was admiring it with some extravagance. Suddenly the child caught sight of her stocking, until now forgotten, and darted for the fireplace.
I turned to Maude, who stood beside me, watching them.
"But you haven't looked on the tree yourself," I reminded her.
She gave me an odd, questioning glance, and got up and set down the doll. As she stood for a moment gazing at the lights, she seemed very girlish in her dressing-gown, with her hair in two long plaits down her back.
"Oh, Hugh!" She lifted the pendant from the branch and held it up. Her gratitude, her joy at receiving a present was deeper than the children's!
"You chose it for me?"
I felt something like a pang when I thought how little trouble it had been.
"If you don't like it," I said, "or wish to have it changed—"
"Changed!" she exclaimed reproachfully. "Do you think I'd change it? Only—it's much too valuable—"
I smiled.... Miss Allsop deftly undid the clasp and hung it around Maude's neck.
"How it suits you, Mrs. Paret!" she cried....
This pendant was by no means the only present I had given Maude in recent years, and though she cared as little for jewels as for dress she seemed to attach to it a peculiar value and significance that disturbed and smote me, for the incident had revealed a love unchanged and unchangeable. Had she taken my gift as a sign that my indifference was melting?
As I went downstairs and into the library to read the financial page of the morning newspaper I asked myself, with a certain disquiet, whether, in the formal, complicated, and luxurious conditions in which we now lived it might be possible to build up new ties and common interests. I reflected that this would involve confessions and confidences on my part, since there was a whole side of my life of which Maude knew nothing. I had convinced myself long ago that a man's business career was no affair of his wife's: I had justified that career to myself: yet I had always had a vague feeling that Maude, had she known the details, would not have approved of it. Impossible, indeed, for a woman to grasp these problems. They were outside of her experience.
Nevertheless, something might be done to improve our relationship, something which would relieve me of that uneasy lack of unity I felt when at home, of the lassitude and ennui I was wont to feel creeping over me on Sundays and holidays....
I find in relating those parts of my experience that seem to be of most significance I have neglected to tell of my mother's death, which occurred the year before we moved to Grant Avenue. She had clung the rest of her days to the house in which I had been born. Of late years she had lived in my children, and Maude's devotion to her had been unflagging. Truth compels me to say that she had long ceased to be a factor in my life. I have thought of her in later years.
Coincident with the unexpected feeling of fruitlessness that came to me with the Grant Avenue house, of things achieved but not realized or appreciated, was the appearance of a cloud on the business horizon; or rather on the political horizon, since it is hard to separate the two realms. There were signs, for those who could read, of a rising popular storm. During the earliest years of the new century the political atmosphere had changed, the public had shown a tendency to grow restless; and everybody knows how important it is for financial operations, for prosperity, that the people should mind their own business. In short, our commercial-romantic pilgrimage began to meet with unexpected resistance. It was as though the nation were entering into a senseless conspiracy to kill prosperity.
In the first place, in regard to the Presidency of the United States, a cog had unwittingly been slipped. It had always been recognized—as I have said—by responsible financial personages that the impulses of the majority of Americans could not be trusted, that these—who had inherited illusions of freedom—must be governed firmly yet with delicacy; unknown to them, their Presidents must be chosen for them, precisely as Mr. Watling had been chosen for the people of our state, and the popular enthusiasm manufactured later. There were informal meetings in New York, in Washington, where candidates were discussed; not that such and such a man was settled upon,—it was a process of elimination. Usually the affair had gone smoothly. For instance, a while before, a benevolent capitalist of the middle west, an intimate of Adolf Scherer, had become obsessed with the idea that a friend of his was the safest and sanest man for the head of the nation, had convinced his fellow-capitalists of this, whereupon he had gone ahead to spend his energy and his money freely to secure the nomination and election of this gentleman.
The Republican National Committee, the Republican National Convention were allowed to squabble to their hearts' content as to whether Smith, Jones or Brown should be nominated, but it was clearly understood that if Robinson or White were chosen there would be no corporation campaign funds. This applied also to the Democratic party, on the rare occasions when it seemed to have an opportunity of winning. Now, however, through an unpardonable blunder, there had got into the White House a President who was inclined to ignore advice, who appealed over the heads of the "advisers" to the populace; who went about tilting at the industrial structures we had so painfully wrought, and in frequent blasts of presidential messages enunciated new and heretical doctrines; who attacked the railroads, encouraged the brazen treason of labour unions, inspired an army of "muck-rakers" to fill the magazines with the wildest and most violent of language. State legislatures were emboldened to pass mischievous and restrictive laws, and much of my time began to be occupied in inducing, by various means, our courts to declare these unconstitutional. How we sighed for a business man or a lawyer in the White House! The country had gone mad, the stock-market trembled, the cry of "corporation control" resounded everywhere, and everywhere demagogues arose to inaugurate "reform campaigns," in an abortive attempt to "clean up politics." Down with the bosses, who were the tools of the corporations!
In our own city, which we fondly believed to be proof against the prevailing madness, a slight epidemic occurred; slight, yet momentarily alarming. Accidents will happen, even in the best regulated political organizations,—and accidents in these days appeared to be the rule. A certain Mr. Edgar Greenhalge, a middle-aged, mild-mannered and inoffensive man who had made a moderate fortune in wholesale drugs, was elected to the School Board. Later on some of us had reason to suspect that Perry Blackwood—with more astuteness than he had been given credit for—was responsible for Mr. Greenhalge's candidacy. At any rate, he was not a man to oppose, and in his previous life had given no hint that he might become a trouble maker. Nothing happened for several months. But one day on which I had occasion to interview Mr. Jason on a little matter of handing over to the Railroad a piece of land belonging to the city, which was known as Billings' Bowl, he inferred that Mr. Greenhaige might prove a disturber of that profound peace with which the city administration had for many years been blessed.
"Who the hell is he?" was Mr. Jason's question.
It appeared that Mr. G.'s private life had been investigated, with disappointingly barren results; he was, seemingly, an anomalistic being in our Nietzschean age, an unaggressive man; he had never sold any drugs to the city; he was not a church member; nor could it be learned that he had ever wandered into those byways of the town where Mr. Jason might easily have got trace of him: if he had any vices, he kept them locked up in a safe-deposit box that could not be "located." He was very genial, and had a way of conveying disturbing facts—when he wished to convey them—under cover of the most amusing stories. Mr. Jason was not a man to get panicky. Greenhalge could be handled all right, only—what was there in it for Greenhalge?—a nut difficult for Mr. Jason to crack. The two other members of the School Board were solid. Here again the wisest of men was proved to err, for Mr. Greenhalge turned out to have powers of persuasion; he made what in religious terms would have been called a conversion in the case of another member of the board, an hitherto staunch old reprobate by the name of Muller, an ex-saloon-keeper in comfortable circumstances to whom the idea of public office had appealed.
Mr. Greenhalge, having got wind of certain transactions that interested him extremely, brought them in his good-natured way to the knowledge of Mr. Gregory, the district attorney, suggesting that he investigate. Mr. Gregory smiled; undertook, as delicately as possible, to convey to Mr. Greenhalge the ways of the world, and of the political world in particular, wherein, it seemed, everyone was a good fellow. Mr. Greenhalge was evidently a good fellow, and didn't want to make trouble over little things. No, Mr. Greenhalge didn't want to make trouble; he appreciated a comfortable life as much as Mr. Gregory; he told the district attorney a funny story which might or might not have had an application to the affair, and took his leave with the remark that he had been happy to make Mr. Gregory's acquaintance. On his departure the district attorney's countenance changed. He severely rebuked a subordinate for some trivial mistake, and walked as rapidly as he could carry his considerable weight to Monahan's saloon.... One of the things Mr. Gregory had pointed out incidentally was that Mr. Greenhalge's evidence was vague, and that a grand jury wanted facts, which might be difficult to obtain. Mr. Greenhalge, thinking over the suggestion, sent for Krebs. In the course of a month or two the investigation was accomplished, Greenhalge went back to Gregory; who repeated his homilies, whereupon he was handed a hundred or so typewritten pages of evidence.
It was a dramatic moment.
Mr. Gregory resorted to pleading. He was sure that Mr. Greenhalge didn't want to be disagreeable, it was true and unfortunate that such things were so, but they would be amended: he promised all his influence to amend them. The public conscience, said Mr. Gregory, was being aroused. Now how much better for the party, for the reputation, the fair name of the city if these things could be corrected quietly, and nobody indicted or tried! Between sensible and humane men, wasn't that the obvious way? After the election, suit could be brought to recover the money. But Mr. Greenhalge appeared to be one of those hopeless individuals without a spark of party loyalty; he merely continued to smile, and to suggest that the district attorney prosecute. Mr. Gregory temporized, and presently left the city on a vacation. A day or two after his second visit to the district attorney's office Mr. Greenhalge had a call from the city auditor and the purchasing agent, who talked about their families,—which was very painful. It was also intimated to Mr. Greenhalge by others who accosted him that he was just the man for mayor. He smiled, and modestly belittled his qualifications....
Suddenly, one fine morning, a part of the evidence Krebs had gathered appeared in the columns of the Mail and State, a new and enterprising newspaper for which the growth and prosperity of our city were responsible; the sort of "revelations" that stirred to amazement and wrath innocent citizens of nearly every city in our country: politics and "graft" infesting our entire educational system, teachers and janitors levied upon, prices that took the breath away paid to favoured firms for supplies, specifications so worded that reasonable bids were barred. The respectable firm of Ellery and Knowles was involved. In spite of our horror, we were Americans and saw the humour of the situation, and laughed at the caricature in the Mail and State representing a scholar holding up a pencil and a legend under it, "No, it's not gold, but it ought to be."
Here I must enter into a little secret history. Any affair that threatened the integrity of Mr. Jason's organization was of serious moment to the gentlemen of the financial world who found that organization invaluable and who were also concerned about the fair name of their community; a conference in the Boyne Club decided that the city officials were being persecuted, and entitled therefore to "the very best of counsel,"—in this instance, Mr. Hugh Paret. It was also thought wise by Mr. Dickinson, Mr. Gorse, and Mr. Grierson, and by Mr. Paret himself that he should not appear in the matter; an aspiring young attorney, Mr. Arbuthnot, was retained to conduct the case in public. Thus capital came to the assistance of Mr. Jason, a fund was raised, and I was given carte blanche to defend the miserable city auditor and purchasing agent, both of whom elicited my sympathy; for they were stout men, and rapidly losing weight. Our first care was to create a delay in the trial of the case in order to give the public excitement a chance to die down. For the public is proverbially unable to fix its attention for long on one object, continually demanding the distraction that our newspapers make it their business to supply. Fortunately, a murder was committed in one of our suburbs, creating a mystery that filled the "extras" for some weeks, and this was opportunely followed by the embezzlement of a considerable sum by the cashier of one of our state banks. Public interest was divided between baseball and the tracking of this criminal to New Zealand.
Our resentment was directed, not so much against Commissioner Greenhalge as against Krebs. It is curious how keen is the instinct of men like Grierson, Dickinson, Tallant and Scherer for the really dangerous opponent. Who the deuce was this man Krebs? Well, I could supply them with some information: they doubtless recalled the Galligan, case; and Miller Gorse, who forgot nothing, also remembered his opposition in the legislature to House Bill 709. He had continued to be the obscure legal champion of "oppressed" labour, but how he had managed to keep body and soul together I knew not. I had encountered him occasionally in court corridors or on the street; he did not seem to change much; nor did he appear in our brief and perfunctory conversations to bear any resentment against me for the part I had taken in the Galligan affair. I avoided him when it was possible.... I had to admit that he had done a remarkably good piece of work in collecting Greenhalge's evidence, and how the, erring city officials were to be rescued became a matter of serious concern. Gregory, the district attorney, was in an abject funk; in any case a mediocre lawyer, after the indictment he was no help at all. I had to do all the work, and after we had selected the particular "Railroad" judge before whom the case was to be tried, I talked it over with him. His name was Notting, he understood perfectly what was required of him, and that he was for the moment the chief bulwark on which depended the logical interests of capital and sane government for their defence; also, his re-election was at stake. It was indicated to newspapers (such as the Mail and State) showing a desire to keep up public interest in the affair that their advertising matter might decrease; Mr. Sherrill's great department store, for instance, did not approve of this sort of agitation. Certain stationers, booksellers and other business men had got "cold feet," as Mr. Jason put it, the prospect of bankruptcy suddenly looming ahead of them,—since the Corn National Bank held certain paper....
In short, when the case did come to trial, it "blew up," as one of our ward leaders dynamically expressed it. Several important witnesses were mysteriously lacking, and two or three school-teachers had suddenly decided—to take a trip to Europe. The district attorney was ill, and assigned the prosecution to a mild assistant; while a sceptical jury—composed largely of gentlemen who had the business interests of the community, and of themselves, at heart returned a verdict of "not guilty." This was the signal for severely dignified editorials in Mr. Tallant's and other conservative newspapers, hinting that it might be well in the future for all well-meaning but misguided reformers to think twice before subjecting the city to the cost of such trials, and uselessly attempting to inflame public opinion and upset legitimate business. The Era expressed the opinion that no city in the United States was "more efficiently and economically governed than our own." "Irregularities" might well occur in every large organization; and it would better have become Mr. Greenhalge if, instead of hiring an unknown lawyer thirsting for notoriety to cook up charges, he had called the attention of the proper officials to the matter, etc., etc. The Pilot alone, which relied on sensation for its circulation, kept hammering away for a time with veiled accusations. But our citizens had become weary....
As a topic, however, this effective suppression of reform was referred to with some delicacy by my friends and myself. Our interference had been necessary and therefore justified, but we were not particularly proud of it, and our triumph had a temporarily sobering effect. It was about this time, if I remember correctly, that Mr. Dickinson gave the beautiful stained-glass window to the church....
Months passed. One day, having occasion to go over to the Boyne Iron Works to get information at first hand from certain officials, and having finished my business, I boarded a South Side electric car standing at the terminal. Just before it started Krebs came down the aisle of the car and took the seat in front of me.
"Well," I said, "how are you?" He turned in surprise, and thrust his big, bony hand across the back of the seat. "Come and sit here." He came. "Do you ever get back to Cambridge in these days?" I asked cordially.
"Not since I graduated from newspaper work in Boston. That's a good many years ago. By the way, our old landlady died this year."
"Do you mean—?" "Granite Face," I was about to say. I had forgotten her name, but that homesick scene when Tom and I stood before our open trunks, when Krebs had paid us a visit, came back to me. "You've kept in touch with her?" I asked, in surprise.
"Well," said Krebs, "she was one of the few friends I had at Cambridge. I had a letter from the daughter last week. She's done very well, and is an instructor in biology in one of the western universities."
I was silent a moment.
"And you,—you never married, did you?" I inquired, somewhat irrelevantly.
His semi-humorous gesture seemed to deny that such a luxury was for him. The conversation dragged a little; I began to feel the curiosity he invariably inspired. What was his life? What were his beliefs? And I was possessed by a certain militancy, a desire to "smoke him out." I did not stop to reflect that mine was in reality a defensive rather than an aggressive attitude.
"Do you live down here, in this part of the city?" I asked.
No, he boarded in Fowler Street. I knew it as in a district given over to the small houses of working-men.
"I suppose you are still a socialist."
"I suppose I am," he admitted, and added, "at any rate, that is as near as you can get to it."
"Isn't it fairly definite?"
"Fairly, if my notions are taken in general as the antithesis of what you fellows believe."
"The abolition of property, for instance."
"The abolition of too much property."
"What do you mean by 'too much'?"
"When it ceases to be real to a man, when it represents more than his need, when it drives him and he becomes a slave to it."
Involuntarily I thought of my new house,—not a soothing reflection.
"But who is going to decree how much property, a man should have?"
"Nobody—everybody. That will gradually tend to work itself out as we become more sensible and better educated, and understand more clearly what is good for us."
I retorted with the stock, common-sense phrase.
"If we had a division to-morrow, within a few years or so the most efficient would contrive to get the bulk of it back in their hands."
"That's so," he admitted. "But we're not going to have a division to-morrow."
"Thank God!" I exclaimed.
He regarded me.
"The 'efficient' will have to die or be educated first. That will take time."
"Paret, have you ever read any serious books on what you call socialism?" he asked.
I threw out an impatient negative. I was going on to protest that I was not ignorant of the doctrine.
"Oh, what you call socialism is merely what you believe to be the more or less crude and utopian propaganda of an obscure political party. That isn't socialism. Nor is the anomalistic attempt that the Christian Socialists make to unite modern socialistic philosophy with Christian orthodoxy, socialism."
"What is socialism, then?" I demanded, somewhat defiantly.
"Let's call it education, science," he said smilingly, "economics and government based on human needs and a rational view of religion. It has been taught in German universities, and it will be taught in ours whenever we shall succeed in inducing your friends, by one means or another, not to continue endowing them. Socialism, in the proper sense, is merely the application of modern science to government."
I was puzzled and angry. What he said made sense somehow, but it sounded to me like so much gibberish.
"But Germany is a monarchy," I objected.
"It is a modern, scientific system with monarchy as its superstructure. It is anomalous, but frank. The monarchy is there for all men to see, and some day it will be done away with. We are supposedly a democracy, and our superstructure is plutocratic. Our people feel the burden, but they have not yet discovered what the burden is."
"And when they do?" I asked, a little defiantly.
"When they do," replied Krebs, "they will set about making the plutocrats happy. Now plutocrats are discontented, and never satisfied; the more they get, the more they want, the more they are troubled by what other people have."
I smiled in spite of myself.
"Your interest in—in plutocrats is charitable, then?"
"Why, yes," he said, "my interest in all kinds of people is charitable. However improbable it may seem, I have no reason to dislike or envy people who have more than they know what to do with." And the worst of it was he looked it. He managed somehow simply by sitting there with his strange eyes fixed upon me—in spite of his ridiculous philosophy—to belittle my ambitions, to make of small worth my achievements, to bring home to me the fact that in spite of these I was neither contented nor happy though he kept his humour and his poise, he implied an experience that was far deeper, more tragic and more significant than mine. I was goaded into making an injudicious remark.
"Well, your campaign against Ennerly and Jackson fell through, didn't it?" Ennerly and Jackson were the city officials who had been tried.
"It wasn't a campaign against them," he answered. "And considering the subordinate part I took in it, it could scarcely be called mine."
"Greenhalge turned to you to get the evidence."
"Well, I got it," he said.
"What became of it?"
"You ought to know."
"What do you mean?"
"Just what I say, Paret," he answered slowly. "You ought to know, if anyone knows."
I considered this a moment, more soberly. I thought I might have counted on my fingers the number of men cognizant of my connection with the case. I decided that he was guessing.
"I think you should explain that," I told him.
"The time may come, when you'll have to explain it."
"Is that a threat?" I demanded.
"A threat?" he repeated. "Not at all."
"But you are accusing me—"
"Of what?" he interrupted suddenly.
He had made it necessary for me to define the nature of his charges.
"Of having had some connection with the affair in question."
"Whatever else I may be, I'm not a fool," he said quietly. "Neither the district attorney's office, nor young Arbuthnot had brains enough to get them out of that scrape. Jason didn't have influence enough with the judiciary, and, as I happen to know, there was a good deal of money spent."
"You may be called upon to prove it," I retorted, rather hotly.
"So I may."
His tone, far from being defiant, had in it a note of sadness. I looked at him. What were his potentialities? Was it not just possible that I should have to revise my idea of him, acknowledge that he might become more formidable than I had thought?
There was an awkward silence.
"You mustn't imagine, Paret, that I have any personal animus against you, or against any of the men with whom you're associated," he went on, after a moment. "I'm sorry you're on that side, that's all,—I told you so once before. I'm not calling you names, I'm not talking about morality and immorality. Immorality, when you come down to it, is often just the opposition to progress that comes from blindness. I don't make the mistake of blaming a few individuals for the evils of modern industrial society, and on the other hand you mustn't blame individuals for the discomforts of what you call the reform movement, for that movement is merely a symptom—a symptom of a disease due to a change in the structure of society. We'll never have any happiness or real prosperity until we cure that disease. I was inclined to blame you once, at the capital that time, because it seemed to me that a man with all the advantages you have had and a mind like yours didn't have much excuse. But I've thought about it since; I realize now that I've had a good many more 'advantages' than you, and to tell you the truth, I don't see how you could have come out anywhere else than where you are,—all your surroundings and training were against it. That doesn't mean that you won't grasp the situation some day—I have an idea you will. It's just an idea. The man who ought to be condemned isn't the man that doesn't understand what's going on, but the man who comes to understand and persists in opposing it." He rose and looked down at me with the queer, disturbing smile I remembered. "I get off at this corner," he added, rather diffidently. "I hope you'll forgive me for being personal. I didn't mean to be, but you rather forced it on me."
"Oh, that's all right," I replied. The car stopped, and he hurried off. I watched his tall figure as it disappeared among the crowd on the sidewalk....
I returned to my office in one of those moods that are the more disagreeable because conflicting. To-day in particular I had been aroused by what Tom used to call Krebs's "crust," and as I sat at my desk warm waves of resentment went through me at the very notion of his telling me that my view was limited and that therefore my professional conduct was to be forgiven! It was he, the fanatic, who saw things in the larger scale! an assumption the more exasperating because at the moment he made it he almost convinced me that he did, and I was unable to achieve for him the measure of contempt I desired, for the incident, the measure of ridicule it deserved. My real animus was due to the fact that he had managed to shake my self-confidence, to take the flavour out of my achievements,—a flavour that was in the course of an hour to be completely restored by one of those interesting coincidences occasionally occurring in life. A young member of my staff entered with a telegram; I tore it open, and sat staring at it a moment before I realized that it brought to me the greatest honour of my career.
The Banker-Personality in New York had summoned me for consultation. To be recognized by him conferred indeed an ennoblement, the Star and Garter, so to speak, of the only great realm in America, that of high finance; and the yellow piece of paper I held in my hand instantly re-magnetized me, renewed my energy, and I hurried home to pack my bag in order to catch the seven o'clock train. I announced the news to Maude.
"I imagine it's because he knows I have made something of a study of the coal roads situation," I added.
"I'm glad, Hugh," she said. "I suppose it's a great compliment."
Never had her inadequacy to appreciate my career been more apparent! I looked at her curiously, to realize once more with peculiar sharpness how far we were apart; but now the resolutions I had made—and never carried out—on that first Christmas in the new home were lacking. Indeed, it was the futility of such resolutions that struck me at this moment. If her manner had been merely one of indifference, it would in a way have been easier to bear; she was simply incapable of grasping the significance of the event, the meaning to me of the years of unceasing, ambitious effort it crowned.
"Yes, it is something of a recognition," I replied. "Is there anything I can get for you in New York? I don't know how long I shall have to stay—I'll telegraph you when I'm getting back." I kissed her and hurried out to the automobile. As I drove off I saw her still standing in the doorway looking after me.... In the station I had a few minutes to telephone Nancy.
"If you don't see me for a few days it's because I've gone to New York," I informed her.
"Something important, I'm sure."
"How did you guess?" I demanded, and heard her laugh.
"Come back soon and tell me about it," she said, and I walked, exhilarated, to the train.... As I sped through the night, staring out of the window into the darkness, I reflected on the man I was going to see. But at that time, although he represented to me the quintessence of achievement and power, I did not by any means grasp the many sided significance of the phenomenon he presented, though I was keenly aware of his influence, and that men spoke of him with bated breath. Presidents came and went, kings and emperors had responsibilities and were subject daily to annoyances, but this man was a law unto himself. He did exactly what he chose, and compelled other men to do it. Wherever commerce reigned,—and where did it not?—he was king and head of its Holy Empire, Pope and Emperor at once. For he had his code of ethics, his religion, and those who rebelled, who failed to conform, he excommunicated; a code something like the map of Europe,—apparently inconsistent in places. What I did not then comprehend was that he was the American Principle personified, the supreme individual assertion of the conviction that government should remain modestly in the background while the efficient acquired the supremacy that was theirs by natural right; nor had I grasped at that time the crowning achievement of a unity that fused Christianity with those acquisitive dispositions said to be inherent in humanity. In him the Lion and the Lamb, the Eagle and the Dove dwelt together in amity and power.
New York, always a congenial place to gentlemen of vitality and means and influential connections, had never appeared to me more sparkling, more inspiring. Winter had relented, spring had not as yet begun. And as I sat in a corner of the dining-room of my hotel looking out on the sunlit avenue I was conscious of partaking of the vigour and confidence of the well-dressed, clear-eyed people who walked or drove past my window with the air of a conquering race. What else was there in the world more worth having than this conquering sense? Religion might offer charms to the weak. Yet here religion itself became sensible, and wore the garb of prosperity. The stonework of the tall church on the corner was all lace; and the very saints in their niches, who had known martyrdom and poverty, seemed to have renounced these as foolish, and to look down complacently on the procession of wealth and power.. Across the street, behind a sheet of glass, was a carrosserie where were displayed the shining yellow and black panels of a closed automobile, the cost of which would have built a farm-house and stocked a barn.
At eleven o'clock, the appointed hour, I was in Wall Street. Sending in my name, I was speedily ushered into a room containing a table, around which were several men; but my eyes were drawn at once to the figure of the great banker who sat, massive and preponderant, at one end, smoking a cigar, and listening in silence to the conversation I had interrupted. He rose courteously and gave me his hand, and a glance that is unforgettable.
"It is good of you to come, Mr. Paret," he said simply, as though his summons had not been a command. "Perhaps you know some of these gentlemen."
One of them was our United States Senator, Theodore Watling. He, as it turned out, had been summoned from Washington. Of course I saw him frequently, having from time to time to go to Washington on various errands connected with legislation. Though spruce and debonnair as ever, in the black morning coat he invariably wore, he appeared older than he had on the day when I had entered his office. He greeted me warmly, as always.
"Hugh, I'm glad to see you here," he said, with a slight emphasis on the last word. My legal career was reaching its logical climax, the climax he had foreseen. And he added, to the banker, that he had brought me up.
"Then he was trained in a good school," remarked that personage, affably.
Mr. Barbour, the president of our Railroad, was present, and nodded to me kindly; also a president of a smaller road. In addition, there were two New York attorneys of great prominence, whom I had met. The banker's own special lieutenant of the law, Mr. Clement T. Grolier, for whom I looked, was absent; but it was forthwith explained that he was offering, that morning, a resolution of some importance in the Convention of his Church, but that he would be present after lunch.
"I have asked you to come here, Mr. Paret," said the banker, "not only because I know something personally of your legal ability, but because I have been told by Mr. Scherer and Mr. Barbour that you happen to have considerable knowledge of the situation we are discussing, as well as some experience with cases involving that statute somewhat hazy to lay minds, the Sherman anti-trust law."
A smile went around the table. Mr. Watling winked at me; I nodded, but said nothing. The banker was not a man to listen to superfluous words. The keynote of his character was despatch....
The subject of the conference, like many questions bitterly debated and fought over in their time, has in the year I write these words come to be of merely academic interest. Indeed, the very situation we discussed that day has been cited in some of our modern text-books as a classic consequence of that archaic school of economics to which the name of Manchester is attached. Some half dozen or so of the railroads running through the anthracite coal region had pooled their interests,—an extremely profitable proceeding. The public paid. We deemed it quite logical that the public should pay—having been created largely for that purpose; and very naturally we resented the fact that the meddling Person who had got into the White House without asking anybody's leave,—who apparently did not believe in the infallibility of our legal Bible, the Constitution,—should maintain that the anthracite roads had formed a combination in restraint of trade, should lay down the preposterous doctrine—so subversive of the Rights of Man—that railroads should not own coal mines. Congress had passed a law to meet this contention, suit had been brought, and in the lower court the government had won.
As the day wore on our numbers increased, we were joined by other lawyers of renown, not the least of whom was Mr. Grolier himself, fresh from his triumph over religious heresy in his Church Convention. The note of the conference became tinged with exasperation, and certain gentlemen seized the opportunity to relieve their pent-up feelings on the subject of the President and his slavish advisers,—some of whom, before they came under the spell of his sorcery, had once been sound lawyers and sensible men. With the exception of the great Banker himself, who made few comments, Theodore Watling was accorded the most deference; as one of the leaders of that indomitable group of senators who had dared to stand up against popular clamour, his opinions were of great value, and his tactical advice was listened to with respect. I felt more pride than ever in my former chief, who had lost none of his charm. While in no way minimizing the seriousness of the situation, his wisdom was tempered, as always, with humour; he managed, as it were, to neutralize the acid injected into the atmosphere by other gentlemen present; he alone seemed to bear no animus against the Author of our troubles; suave and calm, good natured, he sometimes brought the company into roars of laughter and even succeeded in bringing occasional smiles to the face of the man who had summoned us—when relating some characteristic story of the queer genius whom the fates (undoubtedly as a practical joke) had made the chief magistrate of the United States of America. All geniuses have weaknesses; Mr. Wading had made a study of the President's, and more than once had lured him into an impasse. The case had been appealed to the Supreme Court, and Mr. Wading, with remarkable conciseness and penetration, reviewed the characteristics of each and every member of that tribunal, all of whom he knew intimately. They were, of course, not subject to "advice," as were some of the gentlemen who sat on our state courts; no sane and self-respecting American would presume to "approach" them. Nevertheless they were human, and it were wise to take account, in the conduct of the case, of the probable bias of each individual.
The President, overstepping his constitutional, Newtonian limits, might propose laws, Congress might acquiesce in them, but the Supreme Court, after listening to lawyers like Grolier (and he bowed to the attorney), made them: made them, he might have added, without responsibility to any man in our unique Republic that scorned kings and apotheosized lawyers. A Martian with a sense of humour witnessing a stormy session of Congress would have giggled at the thought of a few tranquil gentlemen in another room of the Capitol waiting to decide what the people's representatives meant—or whether they meant anything....
For the first time since I had known Theodore Watling, however, I saw him in the shadow of another individual; a man who, like a powerful magnet, continually drew our glances. When we spoke, we almost invariably addressed him, his rare words fell like bolts upon the consciousness. There was no apparent rift in that personality.
When, about five o'clock, the conference was ended and we were dismissed, United States Senator, railroad presidents, field-marshals of the law, the great banker fell into an eager conversation with Grolier over the Canon on Divorce, the subject of warm debate in the convention that day. Grolier, it appeared, had led his party against the theological liberals. He believed that law was static, but none knew better its plasticity; that it was infallible, but none so well as he could find a text on either side. His reputation was not of the popular, newspaper sort, but was known to connoisseurs, editors, financiers, statesmen and judges,—to those, in short, whose business it is to make themselves familiar with the instruments of power. He was the banker's chief legal adviser, the banker's rapier of tempered steel, sheathed from the vulgar view save when it flashed forth on a swift errand.
"I'm glad to be associated with you in this case, Mr. Paret," Mr. Grolier said modestly, as we emerged into the maelstrom of Wall Street. "If you can make it convenient to call at my office in the morning, we'll go over it a little. And I'll see you in a day or two in Washington, Watling. Keep your eye on the bull," he added, with a twinkle, "and don't let him break any more china than you can help. I don't know where we'd be if it weren't for you fellows."
By "you fellows," he meant Mr. Watling's distinguished associates in the Senate....
Mr. Watling and I dined together at a New York club. It was not a dinner of herbs. There was something exceedingly comfortable about that club, where the art of catering to those who had earned the right to be catered to came as near perfection as human things attain. From the great, heavily curtained dining-room the noises of the city had been carefully excluded; the dust of the Avenue, the squalour and smells of the brown stone fronts and laddered tenements of those gloomy districts lying a pistol-shot east and west. We had a vintage champagne, and afterwards a cigar of the club's special importation.
"Well," said Mr. Watling, "mow that you're a member of the royal council, what do you think of the King?"
"I've been thinking a great deal about him," I said, and indeed it was true. He had made, perhaps, his greatest impression when I had shaken his hand in parting. The manner in which he had looked at me then had puzzled me; it was as though he were seeking to divine something in me that had escaped him. "Why doesn't the government take him over?" I exclaimed.
Mr. Watling smiled.
"You mean, instead of his mines and railroads and other properties?"
"Yes. But that's your idea. Don't you remember you said something of the kind the night of the election, years ago? It occurred to me to-day, when I was looking at him."
"Yes," he agreed thoughtfully, "if some American genius could find a way to legalize that power and utilize the men who created it the worst of our problems would be solved. A man with his ability has a right to power, and none would respond more quickly or more splendidly to a call of the government than he. All this fight is waste, Hugh, damned waste of the nation's energy." Mr. Watling seldom swore. "Look at the President! There's a man of remarkable ability, too. And those two oughtn't to be fighting each other. The President's right, in a way. Yes, he is, though I've got to oppose him."
I smiled at this from Theodore Watling, though I admired him the more for it. And suddenly, oddly, I happened to remember what Krebs had said, that our troubles were not due to individuals, but to a disease that had developed in industrial society. If the day should come when such men as the President and the great banker would be working together, was it not possible, too, that the idea of Mr. Watling and the vision of Krebs might coincide? I was struck by a certain seeming similarity in their views; but Mr. Watling interrupted this train of thought by continuing to express his own.
"Well,—they're running right into a gale when they might be sailing with it," he said.
"You think we'll have more trouble?" I asked.
"More and more," he replied. "It'll be worse before it's better I'm afraid." At this moment a club servant announced his cab, and he rose. "Well, good-bye, my son," he said. "I'll hope to see you in Washington soon. And remember there's no one thinks any more of you than I do."
I escorted him to the door, and it was with a real pang I saw him wave to me from his cab as he drove away. My affection for him was never more alive than in this hour when, for the first time in my experience, he had given real evidence of an inner anxiety and lack of confidence in the future.
In spite of that unwonted note of pessimism from Mr. Watling, I went home in a day or two flushed with my new honours, and it was impossible not to be conscious of the fact that my aura of prestige was increased —tremendously increased—by the recognition I had received. A certain subtle deference in the attitude of the small minority who owed allegiance to the personage by whom I had been summoned was more satisfying than if I had been acclaimed at the station by thousands of my fellow-citizens who knew nothing of my journey and of its significance, even though it might have a concern for them. To men like Berringer, Grierson and Tallant and our lesser great lights the banker was a semi-mythical figure, and many times on the day of my return I was stopped on the street to satisfy the curiosity of my friends as to my impressions. Had he, for instance, let fall any opinions, prognostications on the political and financial situation? Dickinson and Scherer were the only other men in the city who had the honour of a personal acquaintance with him, and Scherer was away, abroad, gathering furniture and pictures for the house in New York Nancy had predicted, and which he had already begun to build! With Dickinson I lunched in private, in order to give him a detailed account of the conference. By five o'clock I was ringing the door-bell of Nancy's new mansion on Grant Avenue. It was several blocks below my own.
"Well, how does it feel to be sent for by the great sultan?" she asked, as I stood before her fire. "Of course, I have always known that ultimately he couldn't get along without you."
"Even if he has been a little late in realizing it," I retorted.
"Sit down and tell me all about him," she commanded.
"I met him once, when Ham had the yacht at Bar Harbor."
"And how did he strike you?"
"As somewhat wrapped up in himself," said Nancy.
We laughed together.
"Oh, I fell a victim," she went on. "I might have sailed off with him, if he had asked me."
"I'm surprised he didn't ask you."
"I suspect that it was not quite convenient," she said. "Women are secondary considerations to sultans, we're all very well when they haven't anything more serious to occupy them. Of course that's why they fascinate us. What did he want with you, Hugh?"
"He was evidently afraid that the government would win the coal roads suit unless I was retained."
"More laurels!" she sighed. "I suppose I ought to be proud to know you."
"That's exactly what I've been trying to impress on you all these years," I declared. "I've laid the laurels at your feet, in vain."
She sat with her head back on the cushions, surveying me.
"Your dress is very becoming," I said irrelevantly.
"I hoped it would meet your approval," she mocked.
"I've been trying to identify the shade. It's elusive—like you."
"Don't be banal.... What is the colour?"
"Pretty nearly," she agreed, critically.
I took the soft crepe between my fingers.
"Poet!" she smiled. "No, it isn't quite poinsetta. It's nearer the red-orange of a tree I remember one autumn, in the White Mountains, with the setting sun on it. But that wasn't what we were talking about. Laurels! Your laurels."
"My laurels," I repeated. "Such as they are, I fling them into your lap."
"Do you think they increase your value to me, Hugh?"
"I don't know," I said thickly.
She shook her head.
"No, it's you I like—not the laurels."
"But if you care for me—?" I began.
She lifted up her hands and folded them behind the knot of her hair.
"It's extraordinary how little you have changed since we were children, Hugh. You are still sixteen years old, that's why I like you. If you got to be the sultan of sultans yourself, I shouldn't like you any better, or any worse."
"And yet you have just declared that power appeals to you!"
"Power—yes. But a woman—a woman like me—wants to be first, or nothing."
"You are first," I asserted. "You always have been, if you had only realized it."
She gazed up at me dreamily.
"If you had only realized it! If you had only realized that all I wanted of you was to be yourself. It wasn't what you achieved. I didn't want you to be like Ralph or the others."
"Myself? What are you trying to say?"
"Yourself. Yes, that is what I like about you. If you hadn't been in such a hurry—if you hadn't misjudged me so. It was the power in you, the craving, the ideal in you that I cared for—not the fruits of it. The fruits would have come naturally. But you forced them, Hugh, for quicker results."
"What kind of fruits?" I asked.
"Ah," she exclaimed, "how can I tell what they might have been! You have striven and striven, you have done extraordinary things, but have they made you any happier? have you got what you want?"
I stooped down and seized her wrists from behind her head.
"I want you, Nancy," I said. "I have always wanted you. You're more wonderful to-day than you have ever been. I could find myself—with you."
She closed her eyes. A dreamy smile was on her face, and she lay unresisting, very still. In that tremendous moment, for which it seemed I had waited a lifetime, I could have taken her in my arms—and yet I did not. I could not tell why: perhaps it was because she seemed to have passed beyond me—far beyond—in realization. And she was so still!
"We have missed the way, Hugh," she whispered, at last.
"But we can find it again, if we seek it together," I urged.
"Ah, if I only could!" she said. "I could have once. But now I'm afraid—afraid of getting lost." Slowly she straightened up, her hands falling into her lap. I seized them again, I was on my knees in front of her, before the fire, and she, intent, looking down at me, into me, through me it seemed—at something beyond which yet was me.
"Hugh," she asked, "what do you believe? Anything?"
"What do I believe?"
"Yes. I don't mean any cant, cut-and-dried morality. The world is getting beyond that. But have you, in your secret soul, any religion at all? Do you ever think about it? I'm not speaking about anything orthodox, but some religion—even a tiny speck of it, a germ—harmonizing with life, with that power we feel in us we seek to express and continually violate."
"Nancy!" I exclaimed.
"Answer me—answer me truthfully," she said....
I was silent, my thoughts whirling like dust atoms in a storm.
"You have always taken things—taken what you wanted. But they haven't satisfied you, convinced you that that is all of life."
"Do you mean—that we should renounce?" I faltered.
"I don't know what I mean. I am asking, Hugh, asking. Haven't you any clew? Isn't there any voice in you, anywhere, deep down, that can tell me? give me a hint? just a little one?"
I was wracked. My passion had not left me, it seemed to be heightened, and I pressed her hands against her knees. It was incredible that my hands should be there, in hers, feeling her. Her beauty seemed as fresh, as un-wasted as the day, long since, when I despaired of her. And yet and yet against the tumult and beating of this passion striving to throb down thought, thought strove. Though I saw her as a woman, my senses and my spirit commingled and swooned together.
"This is life," I murmured, scarcely knowing what I said.
"Oh, my dear!" she cried, and her voice pierced me with pain, "are we to be lost, overpowered, engulfed, swept down its stream, to come up below drifting—wreckage? Where, then, would be your power? I'm not speaking of myself. Isn't life more than that? Isn't it in us, too,—in you? Think, Hugh. Is there no god, anywhere, but this force we feel, restlessly creating only to destroy? You must answer—you must find out."
I cannot describe the pleading passion in her voice, as though hell and heaven were wrestling in it. The woman I saw, tortured yet uplifted, did not seem to be Nancy, yet it was the woman I loved more than life itself and always had loved.
"I can't think," I answered desperately, "I can only feel—and I can't express what I feel. It's mixed, it's dim, and yet bright and shining—it's you."
"No, it's you," she said vehemently. "You must interpret it." Her voice sank: "Could it be God?" she asked.
"God!" I exclaimed sharply.
Her hands fell away from mine.... The silence was broken only by the crackling of the wood fire as a log turned over and fell. Never before, in all our intercourse that I could remember, had she spoken to me about religion.... With that apparent snap in continuity incomprehensible to the masculine mind-her feminine mood had changed. Elements I had never suspected, in Nancy, awe, even a hint of despair, entered into it, and when my hand found hers again, the very quality of its convulsive pressure seemed to have changed. I knew then that it was her soul I loved most; I had been swept all unwittingly to its very altar.
"I believe it is God," I said. But she continued to gaze at me, her lips parted, her eyes questioning.
"Why is it," she demanded, "that after all these centuries of certainty we should have to start out to find him again? Why is it when something happens like—like this, that we should suddenly be torn with doubts about him, when we have lived the best part of our lives without so much as thinking of him?"
"Why should you have qualms?" I said. "Isn't this enough? and doesn't it promise—all?"
"I don't know. They're not qualms—in the old sense." She smiled down at me a little tearfully. "Hugh, do you remember when we used to go to Sunday-school at Dr. Pound's church, and Mrs. Ewan taught us? I really believed something then—that Moses brought down the ten commandments of God from the mountain, all written out definitely for ever and ever. And I used to think of marriage" (I felt a sharp twinge), "of marriage as something sacred and inviolable,—something ordained by God himself. It ought to be so—oughtn't it? That is the ideal."
"Yes—but aren't you confusing—?" I began.
"I am confusing and confused. I shouldn't be—I shouldn't care if there weren't something in you, in me, in our—friendship, something I can't explain, something that shines still through the fog and the smoke in which we have lived our lives—something which, I think, we saw clearer as children. We have lost it in our hasty groping. Oh, Hugh, I couldn't bear to think that we should never find it! that it doesn't really exist! Because I seem to feel it. But can we find it this way, my dear?" Her hand tightened on mine.
"But if the force drawing us together, that has always drawn us together, is God?" I objected.
"I asked you," she said. "The time must come when you must answer, Hugh. It may be too late, but you must answer."
"I believe in taking life in my own hands," I said.
"It ought to be life," said Nancy. "It—it might have been life.... It is only when a moment, a moment like this comes that the quality of what we have lived seems so tarnished, that the atmosphere which we ourselves have helped to make is so sordid. When I think of the intrigues, and divorces, the self-indulgences,—when I think of my own marriage—" her voice caught. "How are we going to better it, Hugh, this way? Am I to get that part of you I love, and are you to get what you crave in me? Can we just seize happiness? Will it not elude us just as much as though we believed firmly in the ten commandments?"
"No," I declared obstinately.
She shook her head.
"What I'm afraid of is that the world isn't made that way—for you—for me. We're permitted to seize those other things because they're just baubles, we've both found out how worthless they are. And the worst of it is they've made me a coward, Hugh. It isn't that I couldn't do without them, I've come to depend on them in another way. It's because they give me a certain protection,—do you see? they've come to stand in the place of the real convictions we've lost. And—well, we've taken the baubles, can we reach out our hands and take—this? Won't we be punished for it, frightfully punished?"