"He is not able to get away. His business takes him into town every day—he goes by motor-car and comes back at night to breathe pure air. Bank Holidays do not occur every day, Mr. Kennedy. Fortunately for some of us they are but four a year."
"Of course you don't like going amongst all those poor people, Mr. Geary. That's natural. I didn't until I had to, and then I found them much the same as the rest. You haven't any poor in Hampstead, I am told."
Mr. Geary fell into the trap all unsuspectingly.
"Thank heaven"—he began, and then checking himself clumsily, he added, "that is to say we are comparatively well off as neighborhoods go. Our people are not idlers, however. Some of the foremost manufacturers in the country live in Hampstead."
"While their work-people starve in Whitechapel. It's an odd world, isn't it, Mr. Geary—and I don't suppose we shall ever know much about it. If I had made a fortune by other people's work, I think I should like some of them to live in Hampstead too. But you see, I'm prejudiced."
Sidney Geary looked at the boy as though he had heard a heresy. To him the gospel of life meant a yearly dole of coals at Christmas and a bout of pleasant "charity organizations" during the winter months. He would as soon have questioned the social position of the Archbishop of Canterbury as have criticised the conduct and the acts of the manufacturers who supported his church so generously.
"I am afraid you have received some pernicious teaching down yonder," he said, with a shake of his abundant locks. "Mr. Gessner, I may tell you, has an abhorrence of socialism. If you wish to please him, avoid the topic."
"But I do not wish to please him—I do not even know him. And I'm not a socialist, sir. If Mr. Gessner had ever lived in Whitechapel; if he had starved in a garret, he would understand me. I don't suppose it matters, though, whether he does or not, for we are hardly likely to discuss such things together."
"My dear lad, he has not sent for you for that, believe me. His conversation will be altogether of a different nature. Let me implore you to remember that he desires to be your benefactor—not your judge. There is no kinder heart, no more worthy gentleman in all London to-day than Richard Gessner. That much I know and my opportunities are unique."
Alban could make no reply to this; nor did he desire one. They had passed the Jack Straw's Castle by this time, and now the carriage entered a small circular drive upon the right-hand side of the road and drew up before a modern red-bricked mansion, by no means ostentatious or externally characteristic of the luxury for which its interior was famed. Just a trim garden surrounded the house and boasted trees sufficient to hide the picturesque gables from the eyes of the curious. There were stables in the northern wing and a great conservatory built out toward the south. Alban had but an instant to glance at the beautiful facade when a young butler opened the door to them and ushered them into a vast hall, panelled to the ceiling in oak and dimly lighted by Gothic windows of excellent stained glass. Here a silence, amazing in its profundity, permitted the very ticking of the clocks to be heard. All sounds from without, the hoot of the motors, the laughter of children, the grating voices of loafers on the Heath, were instantly shut out. An odor of flowers and fine shrubs permeated the apartment. The air was cool and clear as though it had passed through a lattice of ice.
"Please to wait one moment, Kennedy, and I will go to Mr. Gessner. He expects us and we shall not have long to wait. Is he not in the library, Fellows—ah, I thought he would be there."
The young butler said "Yes, sir;" but Alban perceived that it was in a tone which implied some slight note of contempt. "That fellow," he thought, "would have kicked me into the street if I had called here yesterday—and his father, I suppose, kept a public-house or a fish shop." The reflection flattered his sense of irony; and sitting negligently upon a broad settee, he studied the hall closely, its wonderful panelling, the magnificently carved balustrades, the great organ up there in the gallery—and lastly the portraits. Alban liked subject pictures, and these masterpieces of Sargent and Luke Fildes did not make an instantaneous appeal to him. Indeed, he had cast but a brief glance upon the best of them before his eye fell upon a picture which brought the blood to his cheeks as though a hand had slapped them. It was the portrait of the supposed Polish girl whom he had seen upon the balcony of the house in St. James' Square—last night as he visited the caves.
Alban stared at the picture open-mouthed and so lost in amazement that all other interests of his visit were instantly lost to his memory. A hard dogmatic common-sense could make little of a coincidence so amazing. If he had wished to think that the unknown resembled little Lois Boriskoff—if he had wished so much last night, the portrait, seen in this dim light, flattered his desire amazingly. He knew, however, that the resemblance was chiefly one of nationality; and in the same instant he remembered that he had been brought to the house of a Pole. Was it possible, might he dare to imagine that Paul Boriskoff's friendship had contrived this strange adventure. Some excitement possessed him at the thought, for his spirit had ever been adventurous. He could not but ask himself to whose house had he come then and for what ends? And why did he find a portrait of the Polish girl therein?
Alban's eyes were still fixed upon the picture when the young butler returned to summon him to the library. He was not a little ashamed to be found intent upon such an occupation, and he rose immediately and followed the man through a small conservatory, aglow with blooms, and so at once into the sanctum where the master of the house awaited him. Perfect in its way as the library was, Alban had no eyes for it in the presence of Richard Gessner whom thus he met for the first time. Here, truly, he might forget even the accident of the portrait. For he stood face to face with a leader among men and he was clever enough to recognize as much immediately.
Richard Gessner was at that time fifty-three years of age. A man of medium height, squarely built and of fine physique, he had the face rather of a substantial German than of the usually somewhat cadaverous Pole. A tousled black beard hid the jowl almost completely; the eyes were very clear and light blue in color; the head massive above the neck but a little low at the forehead. Alban noticed how thin and fragile the white hand seemed as it rested upon a strip of blotting-paper upon the writing-table; the clothes, he thought, were little better than those worn by any foreman in Yarrow's works; the tie was absolutely shabby and the watch-chain nothing better than two lengths of black silk with a seal to keep them together. And yet the mental power, the personal magnetism of Richard Gessner made itself felt almost before he had uttered a single word.
"Will you take a seat, Mr. Kennedy—I am dining in the city to-night and my time is brief. Mr. Geary, I think, has spoken to you of my intentions."
Alban looked the speaker frankly in the face and answered without hesitation:
"He has told me that you wish to employ me, sir."
"That I wish to employ you—yes, it is not good for us to be idle. But he has told you something more than that?"
"Indeed," the curate interrupted, "very much more, Mr. Gessner. I have told Kennedy that you are ready and willing to take an interest, the greatest possible interest, in his future."
The banker—for as such Richard Gessner was commonly known—received the interjection a little impatiently and, turning his back slightly, he fixed an earnest look upon Alban's face and watched him critically while he spoke.
"Mr. Kennedy," he said, "I never give my reasons. You enter this house to confer a personal obligation upon me. You will remain in that spirit. I cannot tell you to-night, I may be unable to tell you for many years why you have been chosen or what are the exact circumstances of our meeting. This, however, I may say—that you are fully entitled to the position I offer you and that it is just and right I should receive you here. You will for the present remain at Hampstead as one of my family. There will be many opportunities of talking over your future—but I wish you first to become accustomed to my ways and to this house, and to trouble your head with no speculations of the kind which I could not assist. I am much in the city, but Mr. Geary will take my place and you can speak to him as you would to me. He is my Major Domo, and needless to say I in him repose the most considerable confidence."
He turned again toward Mr. Geary and seemed anxious to atone for his momentary impatience. The voice in which he spoke was not unpleasant, and he used the English language with an accent which did not offend. Rare lapses into odd and unusual sentences betrayed him occasionally to the keen hearer, but Alban, in his desire to know the man and to understand him, made light of these.
"I am to remain in this house, sir—but why should I remain, what right have I to be here?" he asked very earnestly.
The banker waved the objection away a little petulantly.
"The right of every man who has a career offered to him. Be content with that since I am unable to tell you more."
"But, sir, I cannot be content. Why should I stay here as your guest when I do not know you at all?"
"My lad, have I not said that the obligation is entirely on my side. I am offering you that to which you have every just claim. Children do not usually refuse the asylum which their father's door opens to them. I am willing to take you into this house as a son—would it not be a little ungrateful to argue with me? From what I know of him, Alban Kennedy is not so foolish. Let Mr. Geary show you the house while I am dressing. We shall meet at breakfast and resume this pleasant conversation."
He stood up as he spoke and began to gather his papers together. To Alban the scene was amazingly false and perplexing. He was perfectly aware that this stranger had no real interest in him at all; he felt, indeed, that his presence was almost resented and that he was being received into the house as upon compulsion. All the talk of obligation and favor and justice remained powerless to deceive. The key to the enigma did not lie therein; nor was it to be found in the churchman's suavity and the fairy tale which he had recited. Had the meeting terminated less abruptly, Alban believed that his own logic would have carried the day and that he would have left the house as he had come to it. But the clever suggestion of haste on the banker's part, his hurried manner and his domineering gestures, left a young lad quite without idea. Such an old strategist as Richard Gessner should have known how to deal with that honest original, Alban Kennedy.
"We will meet at breakfast," the banker repeated; "meanwhile, consider Mr. Geary as your friend and counsellor. He shall by me so be appointed. I have a great work for you to do, Mr. Kennedy, but the education, the books, the knowledge—they must come first. Go now and think about dinner—or perhaps you would like to walk about the grounds a little while. Mr. Geary will show you the way—I leave you in his hands."
He folded the papers up and thrust them quickly in a drawer as he spoke. The interview was plainly at an end. He had welcomed a son as he would have welcomed any stranger who had brought a letter of introduction which decency compelled him to read.
ALBAN KENNEDY DINES
Silas Geary led the way through the hall and thence to the winter garden. Here the display of plants was quite remarkable and the building one that had cost many thousands of pounds. Designed, as all that Richard Gessner touched, to attract the wonder of the common people and to defy the derision of the connoisseur, this immense garden had been the subject of articles innumberable and of pictures abundant. Vast in size, classic in form, it served many purposes, but chiefly as a gallery for the safe custody of a collection of Oriental china which had no rival in Europe.
"It is our patron's hobby," said the curate, mincingly, as he indicated the treasures of cloisonne and of porcelain; "he does not frivol away his money as so many do, on idle dissipations and ephemeral pleasures. On the contrary, he devotes it to the beautiful objects—"
"Do you call them beautiful, sir?" Alban asked ingenuously. "They seem to me quite ugly. I don't think that if I had money I should spend it on plates and jars which nobody uses. I would much sooner buy a battle ship and give it to the nation." And then he asked, "Did Mr. Gessner put up all this glass to keep out the fresh air? Does he like being in a hot-house? I should have thought a garden would have been better."
Silas Geary could make nothing of such criticism as this.
"My dear lad," he protested, "you are very young and probably don't know what sciatica means. When I was your age, I could have slept upon a board and risen therefrom refreshed. At fifty it is otherwise. We study the barometer then and dust before we sit. This great glass house is Mr. Gessner's winter temple. It is here that he plans and conceives so many of those vast schemes by which the world is astonished."
Alban looked at him curiously.
"Is the world really astonished by rich men?" he asked.
Mr. Geary stood still in amazement at the question.
"Rank and birth rule the nation," he declared vehemently; "it is fit and proper that it should be so. Our aristocracy is rightly recruited from those who have accumulated the wealth necessary to such a position. Riches, Kennedy, mean power. You will know that some day when you are the master of riches."
Alban walked on a little way without saying anything. Then almost as one compelled to reply he exclaimed:
"In the East End, they don't speak of money like that. I suppose it is their ignorance—and after all it is a very great thing to be able to compel other people to starve for you. Some day, I'll take you down to the sweating-shops, Mr. Geary. You'll see a lot of old china there, but I don't think it would be worth much. And all our flowers are for sale—poor devils, we get little enough for supper if we don't sell them."
The curate expressed no profound desire to accept this promising invitation, and desiring to change so thorny a subject entered a delightful old-world garden and invited Alban's attention to a superb view of Harrow and the Welsh Harp. In the hall, to which at last they returned, he spoke of that more substantial reality, dinner.
"I am sorry to say that I have a Dorcas meeting to-night and cannot possibly dine with you," he explained to the astonished lad. "I shall return at nine o'clock, however, to see that all is as Mr. Gessner wishes. The servants have told you, perhaps, that Miss Anna is in the country and does not return until to-morrow. This old house is very dull without her, Kennedy. It is astonishing how much difference a pretty face makes to any house."
"Is that Miss Anna's portrait over the fireplace, sir?"
"You know her, Kennedy?"
"I have seen her once, on the balcony of a house in St. James' Square. That was last night when I was on my way to sleep in a cellar."
"My poor, poor boy, and to-night you will sleep in one of the most beautiful rooms in England. How wonderful is fortune, how amazing—er—how very—is not that seven o'clock by the way? I think that it is, and here is Fellows come to show you your room. You will find that we have done our best for you in the matter of clothes—guesswork, I fear, Kennedy, but still our best. To-morrow Westman the tailor is to come—I think and hope you will put up with borrowed plumes until he can fit you up. In the meantime, Fellows has charge of your needs. I am sure that he will do his very best for you."
The young butler said that he would—his voice was still raised to a little just dignity, and he, in company with Silas Geary, the housekeeper and the servants' hall had already put the worst construction possible upon Alban's reception into the house. His determination to patronize the "young man" however received an abrupt check when Alban suddenly ordered him to show the way upstairs. "He spoke like a Duke," Fellows said in the kitchen afterwards. "There I was running up the stairs just as though the Guv'ner were behind me. Don't you think that you can come it easy with him—he ain't the sort by a long way. I tell you, I never was so astonished since the Guv'ner raised my wages."
Alban, of course, was sublimely unconscious of this. He had been conducted to an enormous bedroom on the first floor, superbly furnished with old Chippendale and excellent modern Sevres—and there he had been left to realize for the first time that he was alone and that all which had happened since yesterday was not a dream but a hard invincible truth so full of meaning, so wonderful, so sure that the eyes of his brain did not dare to look at it unflinchingly. Boyishly and with a boy's gesture he had thrown himself upon the bed and hidden his face from the light as though the very atmosphere of this wonder world were insupportable. Good God, that it should have happened to him, Alban Kennedy; that it should have been spoken of as his just right; that he should have been told that he had a claim which none might refute! A hundred guesses afforded no clue to the solution of the mystery. He could not tell himself that he was in some way related to Richard Gessner, the banker; he could not believe that his dead parents had any claim upon this foreigner who received him coldly and yet would hear nothing of his departure. Pride had little share in this, for the issues were momentous. It was sufficient to know that a hand had suddenly drawn him from the abyss, had put him on this pinnacle—beyond all, had placed him in Anna Gessner's home as the first-born, there to embark upon a career whose goal lay beyond the City Beautiful of his dreams.
He rose from the bed at length, and trying to put every thought but that of the moment from his head, he remembered that he was expected to dine alone in the great room below, and to dress himself for such an ordeal in the clothes which the reverend gentleman's wit had provided for him. Courageous in all things, he found himself not a little afraid of all the beautiful objects which he touched, afraid to lift the Sevres pitcher, afraid to open the long doors of the inlaid wardrobe, timid before the dazzling mirror—a reluctant guest who, for the time being, would have been thankful to escape to a carpetless floor and glad to wash in a basin of the commonest kind. When this passed, and it was but momentary, the delusion that a trick was being played upon him succeeded to it and he stood to ask himself if he had not been a fool to believe their story at all, a fool thus to be made sport of by one who would relate the circumstance with relish to-morrow. This piece of nonsense, however, was as quick to give way to the somewhat cynical common sense with which, Alban Kennedy had rightly been credited as the other. He turned from it impatiently and began to dress himself. He had last dressed in black clothes and a white waistcoat for a school concert at Westminster when he was quite a little lad—but his youth had taught him the conventions, and he had never forgotten those traditions of what his dead father used to call the "decent life." In his case the experience was but a reversion to the primitive, and he dressed with every satisfaction, delighted to put off the shabby old clothes and no less content with his new appearance as a mirror revealed it to him.
The dining room at "Five Gables" was normally a little dark in the daytime, for it looked upon the drive where ancient trees shaded its lofty latticed windows. At night, however, Richard Gessner's fine silver set off the veritable black oak to perfection, and the room had an air of dignity and richness neither artificial nor offensive. When Alban came down to dinner he perceived that a cover had been set for him at the end of a vast table, and that he was expected to take the absent master's place; nor could he forbear to smile at the solemn exercises performed by Fellows the young butler, and two footmen who were to wait upon him. These rascals, whatever they might say in the kitchen afterwards, served him at the table as though he had been an eldest son of the house. If they had expected that the ragged, shabby fellow, who entered the house so stealthily an hour ago, would provide food for their exquisitely delicate sense of humor, they were wofully disappointed. Alban ate his dinner without uttering a single remark.
And last night it had been supper in the caves! There must be no charge of inconsistency brought against him if a momentary shudder marked this recollection of an experience. A man may bridge a great gulf in a single instant of time. Alban had no less affection for, no less interest to-night in those pitiful lives than yesterday, but he understood that a flood of fortune had carried him for the time being away from them, and that his desire must be to help but not to regret them. Indeed, he could not resist, nor did he wish to resist a great content in this well-being, which overtook him in so subtle a manner. The sermons of the old days, preached by many a mad fanatic of Union Street, declared that any alliance between the rich and the poor must be false and impossible. Alban believed it to be so. A mere recollection of the shame of poverty could already bring the blood to his cheeks, and yet he would have defended poverty with all the logic of which his clever brain was capable.
So in a depressing silence the long dinner was eaten. Methodically and with velvet steps the footmen put dish after dish before him, the butler filled his rarely lifted glass, the whole ceremony of dining performed. For his own part he would have given much to have escaped after the fish had been served, and to have gone out and explored the garden which had excited Mr. Geary to such poetic thoughts. Not a large eater (for the East End does not dare to cultivate an appetite), he was easily satisfied; and he found the mere length of the menu to be an ordeal which he would gladly have been spared. Why did people want all these dishes, he asked himself. Why, in well-to-do circles, is it considered necessary to serve precisely similar portions of fish and flesh and fowl every night at eight o'clock? Men who work eat when they are disposed. Alban wondered what would happen if such a custom were introduced into the House of the Five Gables. A cynical reverie altogether—from which the butler's purring voice awakened him.
"Will you have your coffee in the Winter Garden, sir? Mr. Gessner always does."
"Cannot I have it in the garden?"
"Oh, yes, if you like, sir. We'll carry out a chair—the seats are very damp at night, sir."
Alban smiled. Was he not sleeping on the reeking floor of the caves but twenty hours ago.
They set a table in the vestibule overlooking the trim lawn, and thither they carried cigars and coffee. Alban had learned to smoke fiercely—one of the few lessons the East End had taught him thoroughly—and Richard Gessner's cigars had a just reputation among all who frequented the House of the Five Gables—some of these, it must be confessed, coming here for no other particular reason than to smoke them. Alban did not quite understand what it was that differentiated this particular cigar from any he had ever smoked, but he enjoyed it thoroughly and inhaled every whiff of its fragrant bouquet as though it had been a perfume of morning-roses.
A profound stillness, broken at rare intervals by the rustling of young leaves, prevailed in the garden. Night had come down, but it was a night of spring, clear and still and wonderful of stars. Distantly across a black waste of heath and meadow, the spire of Harrow Church stood up as a black point against an azure sky. The waters of the Welsh Harp were as a shimmering lake of silver in the foreground; the lights of Hendon and of Cricklewood spoke of suburban life, but might just as well have conjured up an Italian scene to one who had the wit to imagine it. Alban knew nothing of Italy, he had never set foot out of England in his life, but the peace and the beauty of the picture impressed him strangely, and he wondered that he had so often visited the Caves when such a fairyland stood open to his pleasure. Let it not be hidden that he would have been easily pleased this night. Youth responds quickly to excitements of whatever nature they may be. He was as far from realizing the truth of his position as ever, but the complete change of environment, the penetrating luxury of the great house, the mystery which had carried him there and the promise of the morrow, conspired to elate him and to leave him, in the common phrase, as one who is walking upon air. Even an habitual cynicism stood silent now. What mattered it if he awoke to-morrow to a reality of misunderstanding or of jest? Had not this night opened a vista which nothing hereafter might shut out? And the truth might be as Richard Gessner had promised—a truth of permanence, of the continued possession of this wonderland. Who shall blame him if his heart leaped at the mere contemplation of this possibility?
It would have been about nine o'clock when they carried his coffee to the garden—it was just half-past nine when Anna Gessner returned unexpectedly to the house. Alban heard the bell in the courtyard ring loudly, and upon that the throttled purr of a motor's heavy engine. He had expected Silas Geary, but such a man, he rightly argued, would not come with so much pomp and circumstance, and he stood at once, anxious and not a little abashed. Perhaps some suspicion of the truth had flashed upon him unwittingly. He heard the voice of Fellows the butler raised in some voluble explanation, there were a few words spoken in a pleasing girlish tone, and then, the boudoir behind him flashed its colors suddenly upon his vision, and he beheld Anna Gessner herself—a face he would have recognized in ten thousand, a figure of yesternight that would never be forgotten.
She had cast aside her motor veil, and held it in her hand while she spoke to the butler. A heavy coat bordered and lined with fur stood open to reveal a gray cloth dress; her hair had been blown about by the fresh breezes of the night and covered her forehead in a disorder far from unbecoming. Alban thought that the cold light in the room and the heavy bright panelling against which she stood gave an added pallor to her usually pale face, exaggerating the crimson of her lips and the dark beauty of her eyes. The hand which held the veil appeared to him to be ridiculously small; her attitudes were so entirely graceful that he could not imagine a picture more pleasing. If he remembered that he had likened her to little Lois Boriskoff, he could now admit the preposterous nature of the comparison. True it was that nationality spoke in the contour of the face, in its coloring and its expression, but these elementals were forgotten in the amazing grace of the girl's movements, the dignity of her gestures and the vitality which animated her. Returning to the house unexpectedly, even a lad was shrewd enough to see that she returned also under the stress of an agitation she could conceal from none. Her very questions to the servants were so quick and incoherent that they could not be answered. The letters which the butler put into her hands were torn from the envelopes but were not read. When she opened the boudoir window and so permitted Alban to overhear her hurried words, it was as one who found the atmosphere of a house insupportable and must breathe fresh air at any cost.
"Has my father returned, Fellows?"
"No, miss, he is not expected until late."
"Why did you not send the carriage to the station?"
"Mr. Gessner said that you were coming to-morrow, miss."
She flushed slightly at the retort and made as though to step out into the garden—but hesitating an instant, she said:
"I have had nothing to eat since one o'clock, Fellows. I must have some supper."
"Anything will do—tell cook it does not matter. Has Lord Portcullis called?"
"No, miss—not since yesterday."
"Or Mrs. Melville?"
"This afternoon. She asked for your address, miss—but I did not give it."
"Quite right—I suppose that Captain Forrest did not come?" She turned away as though not wishing to look the man in the face—a gesture which Alban's quick eyes instantly perceived.
Fellows, on the other hand, permitted a smile to lurk for an instant about the corners of his mouth before he said—
"I understood that Captain Forrest was at Brighton, miss."
The girl's face clouded perceptibly, and she loosened her cloak and threw it from her shoulders as though it had become an insupportable burden.
"If he calls to-morrow, I do not wish to see him. Please tell them all—I will not see him."
The butler smiled again, but answered, "Yes, miss."
Anna Gessner herself, still hesitating upon the threshold suddenly remembered another interest and referred to it with no less ardor.
"Oh, that reminds me, Fellows. Has my father spoken again of that dreadful silly business?"
"Concerning the young gentleman, miss?"
She heard him with unutterable contempt.
"The beggar-boy that he wishes to bring to this house. Did he speak of him to-night?"
Fellows came a step nearer and, hushing his voice, he said, with a servant's love of a dramatic reply:
"Mr. Kennedy is in the garden now, miss—indeed, I think he's sitting near the vestibule."
She looked at him astonished. Ugly passions of disappointment and thwarted desire betrayed themselves in the swift turn and the angry pursing of her lips. Of her father's intentions in bringing this beggar-boy to the house, she knew nothing at all. It seemed to her one of those mad acts for which no sane apology could be offered.
"He is here now, Fellows! Who brought him then?"
"Mr. Geary—at six o'clock."
"Mr. Geary is a hateful busybody—I suppose I must speak to the boy."
"I think that Mr. Gessner would wish it, miss."
She hesitated a brief instant, her annoyance giving battle to her father's well-known desire. Curiosity in the end helped her decision. She must see the object of a charity so eccentric.
"You say that he is in the garden?" she continued, taking two steps across the vestibule.
But this time Alban answered her himself.
"The beggar-boy is here," he said.
He had risen from his chair and the two confronted each other in the aureole of light cast out from the open window. Just twenty-four hours ago, Alban had been sitting by little Lois Boriskoff's side in the second gallery at the Aldgate Empire. To-night he wore a suit of good dress clothes, had dined at a millionaire's table and already recovered much of that polish and confident manner which an English public school rarely fails to bestow. Anna Gessner, in her turn, regarded him as though he were the agent of a trick which had been played upon her. To her amazement a hot flush of anger succeeded. She knew not how to meet him or what excuses to make.
"My father has not told me the truth," she exclaimed presently. "I am sorry that you overheard me—but I said what I meant. If he had told me that you were coming—"
Alban stood before her quite unabashed. He understood the circumstances and delighted in them.
"I am glad that you meant it," he rejoined, "of course, it is in some way true. Those who have no money are always beggars to those who have. Let me say that I don't know at all why I am here, and that I shall go unless I find out. We need not quarrel about it at all."
Anna, however, had recovered her composure. Mistress of herself to a remarkable degree when her passions were not aroused, she suddenly held out her hand to Alban as though she would apologize—but not by the spoken word.
"They have played a trick upon me," she cried. "I shall have it out with Mr. Geary when he comes. Of course I am very sorry. My father said that you were a distant relative, but he tried to frighten me by telling me that you lived in Whitechapel and were working in a factory. I was silly enough to believe it—you would have done so yourself."
"Most certainly—for it is quite true. I have been living in Whitechapel since my mother died, and I worked in a factory until yesterday. If you had come here a few hours back, you would have run away from the beggar-boy or offered him sixpence. I wonder which it would have been."
She would not admit the truth of it, and a little peevishly contested her point.
"I shall never believe it. This is just the kind of thing Mr. Geary would do. He is the most foolish man I have ever known. To leave you all alone here when he brought you as a stranger to our house. I wonder what my father would say to that."
She had drawn her cloak about her white throat again and seated herself near Alban's chair. Imitating her, he sat again and began to talk to her as naturally as though he had known her all her life. Not a trace of vexation at the manner of her reception remained to qualify that rare content he found in her company. Alban had long acquired the sense which judges every word and act by the particular circumstances under which it is spoken. He found it natural that Anna Gessner should resent his presence in the house. He liked her for telling him that it was so.
"My father says that he is going to make an engineer of you—is that just what you wish, Mr. Kennedy?"
"That's what I don't know," he replied as frankly. "You see, I have always wanted to get on, but how to do so is what beats me. Engineering is a big profession and I'm not sure that I have the gifts. There you have a candid confession. I'm one of those fellows who can do everything up to a certain point, but a certain point isn't good enough nowadays. And a man wants money to get on. I'm sure it's easy enough to make a fortune if you have a decent share of brains and a bigger one capital. I want to make money and yet the East End has taught me to hate money. If Mr. Gessner can convince me that I have any claim upon his patronage, I shall go right into something and see if I cannot come out on top. You, I suppose, don't think much of the dirty professions. You'd like your brother to be a soldier, wouldn't you—or if not that, in the navy. Half the fellows at Westminster wanted to go into the army, just as though killing other people were the chief business in life. Of course, I wouldn't run it down—but what I mean to say is, that I never cared at all about it myself and so I'm not quite the best judge."
His little confession ended somewhat abruptly, for he observed that his words appeared to distress Anna Gessner beyond all reason. For many minutes she remained quite silent. When she spoke her eyes were turned away and her confusion not altogether to be concealed.
"I'm afraid you take your ideas of us from the cheap story-books," she said in a low voice; "women, nowadays, have their own ambitions and think less of men's. My dearest friend is a soldier, but I'm sure he would be a very foolish one if war broke out. They say he worked terribly hard in South Africa, but I don't think he ever killed any one. So you see—I shouldn't ask you to go into the army, and I'm sure my father would not wish it either."
"It would do no good if he did," said Alban as bluntly. "I should only make a fool of myself. Your friend must have told you that you want a pretty good allowance to do upon—and fancy begging from your people when you were twenty-one. Why, in the East End many a lad of nineteen keeps a whole family and doesn't think himself ill-used. Isn't it rot that there should be so much inequality in life, Miss Gessner? I don't suppose, though, that one would think so if one had money."
She smiled at his question, but diverted the subject cleverly.
"Are you very self-willed, Mr. Kennedy?"
"Do you mean that I get what I want—or try to?"
"I mean that you have your own way in everything. If you were in love you would carry the poor thing off by force."
"If I were in love and guessed that she was, I should certainly be outside to time. That's East End, you know, for punctuality."
"You would marry in haste and repent at leisure?"
"It would be yes or no, and that would be the end of it. Girls like a man who compels them—they like to obey, at least when they are young. I don't believe any girl ever loved a coward yet. Do you think so yourself?"
She astonished him by rising suddenly and breaking off the conversation as abruptly.
"God help me, I don't know what I think," she said; and then, with half a laugh to cover it, "Here is Mr. Geary come to take care of you. I will say good-night. We shall meet at breakfast and talk of all this again—if you get up in time."
He made no answer and she disappeared with just a flash of her ample skirts into the boudoir and so to the hall beyond. The curate appeared a minute later, full of apologies and of the Dorcas meeting he had so lately illuminated with his intellectual presence. A mild cigarette and a glass of mineral water found him quite ready for bed.
"There will be so much to speak of to-morrow, my dear boy," he said in that lofty tone which attended his patronage, "there is so much for you to be thankful for to-day. Let us go and dream of it all. The reality must be greater than anything we can imagine."
"I'll tell you in a week's time," said Alban, dryly.
A change had come upon him already. For Anna Gessner had betrayed her secret, and he knew that she had a lover.
RICHARD GESSNER DEBATES AN ISSUE
Richard Gessner returned to "Five Gables" as the clock of Hampstead Parish Church was striking one. A yawning footman met him in the hall and asked him if he wished for anything. To the man's astonishment, he was ordered to carry brandy and Vichy water to the bedroom immediately.
"To your room, sir?"
"To my room—are you deaf?"
"I beg your pardon, sir. Miss Gessner has returned."
"After dinner, sir."
"Was there any one with her?"
"I didn't rightly see, sir. Fellows opened the door—he could tell you, sir."
Gessner cast a searching glance upon the man's face And then mounted the great staircase with laborious steps. Passing the door of the room in which Alban slept, he listened intently for a moment as though half of a mind to enter; but abandoning the intention, went on to his apartment and there, when the footman had attended to his requirements, he locked the door and helped himself liberally to the brandy. An observer would have remarked that drops of sweat stood upon his brow and that his hand was shaking.
He had dined with a city company; but had dined as a man who knew little of the dinner or of those who ate it. Ten days ago his energy, his buoyant spirits, and his amazing vitality had astonished even his best friends. To-night these qualities were at their lowest ebb—and he had been so silent, so self-concentrated, so obviously distressed, that even a casual acquaintance had remarked the change. To say that a just Nemesis had overtaken him would be less than the truth. He knew that he stood accused, not by a man, but by a nation. And to a nation he must answer.
He locked the door of his room and, drawing a chair to a little Buhl writing-table, set in the window, he opened a drawer and took therefrom a little bundle of papers, upon which he had spent nine sleepless nights and, apparently, would spend still another. They were odd scraps—now of letters, now of legal documents—the precis of a past which could be recited in no court of justice, but might well be told aloud to an unsympathetic world. Had an historian been called upon to deal with such documents, he would have made nothing whatever of them—but Richard Gessner could rewrite the story in every line, could garnish it with passions awakened, fears unnamable, regrets that could not save, despair that would suffer no consolations.
He had stolen Paul Boriskoff's secret from him and thereby had made a fortune. Let it be admitted that the first conception of the new furnace for the refining of copper had come from that white-faced whimpering miner, who could talk of nothing but his nation's wrongs and had no finer ambition in life than to feed his children. He, Richard Gessner, had done what such a fellow never could have done. He had made the furnace commercially possible and had exploited it through the copper mines of the world. Such had been the first rung of that magnificent pecuniary ladder he had afterwards climbed so adroitly. Money he had amassed beneath his grasping hand as at a magician's touch. He regretted, he had always regretted, that misfortune overtook Paul Boriskoff's family—he would have helped them had he been in Poland at the time; but their offences were adjudged to be political; and if the wretched woman suffered harm at the hands of the police, what share had he in it? To this point he charged himself lightly—as men will in justifying themselves before the finger of an hoary accusation. Gessner cared neither for God nor man. His only daughter had been at once his divinity and his religion. Let men call him a rogue, despot, or thief, and he would shrug his shoulders and glance aside at his profit and loss account. But let them call him "fool" and the end of his days surely was at hand.
And so this self-examination to-night troubled itself with no thought of wrongs committed, with no desire to repay, but only with that supreme act of folly, to which the sleeping lad in the room near by was the surest witness. What would the threats of such a pauper as Paul Boriskoff have mattered if the man had stood alone against him? A word to the police, a hundred pounds to a score of ruffians, and he would have been troubled no more. But his quarrel was not with a man but a nation. Perceiving that the friendship of the Russian Government was necessary to many of his mining schemes in the East, he had changed his name as lightly as another would have changed his coat, had cast the garments of a sham patriotism and emerged an enemy to all that he had hitherto befriended, a foe to Poland, a servant to Russia.
Acting secretly and with a strong man's discretion, no bruit of this odd conversion had been made public, no whisper of it heard in the camp of the Revolutionaries. Many knew Maxim Gogol—none had heard of Richard Gessner. His desire for secrecy was in good accord with the plans of a police he assisted and the bureaucracy he bribed. He lived for a while in Vienna, then at Tiflis—he came at length to England where his daughter had been educated; and there he established himself, ostensibly as a wealthy banker, in reality as the secret director of one of the greatest conspiracies against the liberty of a little nation that the world had ever seen.
Upon such a man, the blow of discovery fell with, stunning force. Gessner had grown so accustomed to the security of this suburban life that he could imagine no circumstance which might disturb it. All that he did for the satisfaction of the Russian Government had been cleverly done by agents and deputies. Entitled by his years to leisure, he had latterly almost abandoned politics for a culture of the arts and the sciences, in some branches of which he was a master. His leisure he gave almost entirely to his daughter. To contrive for her an alliance worthy of his own fortune and of her beauty had become the absorbing passion of his life. He studied the Peerage as other men study a balance-sheet. All sorts and conditions of possible husbands appeared at "Five Gables;" were dined, discussed, and dismissed. The older families despised him and would not be appeased. To crown his vexation, his daughter named a lover for herself. He had twice shown Captain Willy Forrest from the door and twice had the man returned. Anna seemed fascinated by this showy adventurer as by none other who visited them. Gessner, for his part, would sooner have lost the half of his fortune than that she should have married him.
These vexations had been real enough ten days ago; but, to-night, a greater made light of them and now they were almost forgotten. Detection had stalked out of the slums to humble this man in an instant and bring him to his knees. Gessner could have recited to you the most trivial detail attending the reception of Paul Boriskoff's letter and the claim it made upon him—how a secretary had passed it to him with a suggestion that Scotland Yard should know of it; how he had taken up the scrawl idly enough to flush before them all an instant later and to feel his heart sink as in an abyss of unutterable dismay. He had crumpled the dirty paper in his hand, he remembered, and thrown it to the ground—to pick it up immediately and smooth it out as though it were a precious document. To his secretary he tried to explain that the writer was an odd fanatic who must be humored. Determined at the first blush to face the matter out, to answer and to defy this pauper Pole who had dared to threaten him, he came ultimately to see that discretion would best serve him. Paul Boriskoff had named Kensington Gardens as a rendezvous where matters might be discussed. Gessner was there to the minute—without idea, without hope, seeking only that pity which he himself had never bestowed upon any human being.
Paul Boriskoff did not hurry to the Gardens, so sure was he of the success of his undertaking. The frowsy black coat, in which he made his bow to the millionaire, had not seen the light for many years—his hat was a wide-brimmed eccentricity in soft felt which greatly delighted the nursemaids who passed him by. Gessner would never have recognized, in the hollow-cheeked, pale-faced, humble creature the sturdy young Pole who had come to him nearly a generation ago and had said, "Our fortunes are made; this is my discovery." Believing at the moment that money would buy such a derelict, body and soul, he opened the negotiations firmly and in that lofty tone which suited Throgmorton Street so well. But five minutes had not passed before he understood his mistake and realized that Boriskoff, the lad who had trusted him, and Boriskoff, the Pole who now threatened him, were one and the same after all.
"I remember you perfectly," he said; "it would be idle to say that I do not. You had some claim in the matter of a certain furnace. Yes, I remember that and would willingly admit it. But, my friend, you fell into trouble with the Government, and what could I do then? Was not I also compelled to leave Poland? Did not I change my name for that very reason? How could I repay the debt? Here in England it is different. You make your existence known to me and I respond at once. Speak freely, then, for I shall hear you patiently."
They were seated on a bench beneath a chestnut in full bloom. Distantly, through a vista of giant trunks, the waters of the Round Pond glimmered in the evening light. Children, worn out by the day, sat idle in groups on the benches of the Long Walk or lagged through a fitful game on the open spaces between the trees. Few observed these two men who thus earnestly recalled the drama of their lives; none remarked their odd association, for were not both obviously foreigners, and who shall dictate a fashion to such as they? Indeed, they conversed without any animation of gesture; the one convulsed by fears he did not dare to express, the other by hopes on the threshold of realization.
"I speak freely," said Boriskoff with unaffected candor, "for to do that I have come here. And first I must set your memory right in a matter that concerns us both. You did not leave Poland to serve your country; you left it to betray us. Spare your words, for the story has been told many times in Warsaw and in London. Shall I give you the list of those who are tortured to-day at Saghalien because of what you did? It would be vain, for if you have any feeling, even that of a dog, they are remembered by you. You betrayed the man who trusted you; you betrayed your country—for what? Shall I say that it was for this asylum in a strange land; for power, for the temptations which all must suffer? No, no. You have had but one desire in all your life, and that is money. So much even I understand. You are ready now to part with a little of that money—so little that it would be as a few grains from the sands of the sea—to save your neck from the rope, to escape the just punishment which is about to fall upon you. Do not believe that you can do so. I hold your secret, but at any hour, at any minute, others may share it with me. Maxim Gogol—for I shall call you by your true name—if one word of this were spoken to the Committee at Warsaw, how long would you have to live? You know the answer to that question. Do not compel me to dwell upon it."
He spoke in a soft purring tone, an echo of a voice, as it were, beneath the rustling leaves; but, none the less, Richard Gessner caught every word as though it had been the voice of an oracle. A very shrewd man, he had feared this knowledge, and fear had brought him to this covert interview. The Pole could betray him and betrayal must mean death—and what a death, reluctant, procrastinating, the hour of it unknown, the manner of it beyond any words terrible. Such had been the end of many who had left Poland as he had done. He had read their story and shuddered even in his imagined security. And now this accusation was spoken, not as a whisper of a voice in the hours of the night, but as the truth of an inevitable day.
And what should he answer? Would it profit him to speak of law; to retort with a threat; to utter the commonplaces concerning Scotland Yard and a vigilant police? He was far too wise even to contemplate such folly. Let him have this man arrested, and what then? Would any country thereafter shelter the informer from the vengeance of the thousands whom no law could arrest? Would any house harbor him against the dagger of the assassin, the swift blow, it might even be the lingering justice of such fanatics as sought to rule Poland. He knew that there was none. Abject assent could be the only reply. He must yield to any humiliation, suffer any extortion rather than speak the word which would be as irrevocable as the penalty it invited.
"I shall not dispute with you, Paul Boriskoff," he said, with a last attempt to save his dignity; "yes, it would be in your power to do me a great injury even in this country which gives you liberty. It is your own affair. You did not come here to threaten me, but to seek a favor. Name it to me and I shall be prepared to answer you. I am not an ungenerous man as some of our countrymen know. Tell me what you wish and I shall know how to act."
Boriskoff's answer astonished him by its impetuosity.
"For myself nothing," he exclaimed contemptuously—and these brief words echoed in Gessner's ears almost as a message of salvation—"for myself nothing, but for my children much. Yes, your money can make even Paul Boriskoff despise himself—but it is for the children's sake. I sell my honor that they may profit by it. I ask for them that which is due to me, but which I have sworn to forego. Maxim Gogol, it is for the children that I ask it. You have done me a great wrong, but they shall profit by it. That is what I am come here to say to-day—that you shall repay, not to me but to my children."
The words appeared to cost him much, as though he had deliberately sacrificed a great vengeance that those he loved might profit. Leaping to the hope of it, and telling himself that this after all was but a question of pounds, shillings, and pence, Gessner answered with an eagerness beyond all bounds ridiculous.
"There could be nothing I would do more willingly. Yes, I remember—you left a daughter in Warsaw and she was not to be discovered by those of us who would have befriended her. Believe me when I say that I will help her very gladly. Anything, my friend, anything that is humbly reasonable—"
Boriskoff did not permit him to finish.
"My daughter will be educated in Germany at your cost," he said curtly. "I would speak first of one who is as a son to me because of her affection for him. There is a young Englishman living in Union Street, the son of a poor clergyman who died in the service of the poor. This lad you will take into your own house and treat as your own son. It is my desire and must be gratified. Remember that he is the son of a gentleman and treat him as such. There will be time enough afterwards to tell you how you must act in the interests of our people at Warsaw. This affair is our own and not of politics at all. As God is in heaven, but for my daughter you, Maxim Gogol, would not be alive this night."
Gessner's heart sank again at the hint of further requests subsequently to come. The suggestion that he should adopt into his own house a youth of whom he knew nothing seemed in keeping with the circumstances of this dread encounter and the penalty that must be paid for it. After all, it was but a small price to pay for comparative security and the silence of a tongue which could work such ill. Accustomed to deal with men of all natures, honest and simple, clever and foolish, secretive and loquacious, there ran in his mind the desperate idea that he would temporize with Paul Boriskoff and ultimately destroy him. Let the Russian Government be informed of the activity of this Pole and of his intention to visit the Continent of Europe again, and what were Boriskoff's chances? Such were the treacherous thoughts which stood in Gessner's mind while he framed an answer which should avert the final hour of reckoning and give him that opportunity for the counter-stroke which might yet save all.
"Your youth will profit little in my house," he said with some pretense of earnestness. "Had you asked an education abroad for him, that would have been a wiser thing in these days. Frankly, I do not understand your motive, but I am none the less willing to humor it. Let me know something more of the lad, let me have his history and then I shall be able to say what is the best course. I live a very quiet life and my daughter is much away. There is the possibility also that the boy, if he be the son of a clergyman, would do much better at Oxford or at Cambridge than at Hampstead, as you yourself must see. Let us speak of it afterwards. There will be time enough."
"The time is to-day," rejoined Boriskoff, firmly, "Alban Kennedy will live under your roof as your own son. I have considered the matter and am determined upon it. When the time comes for him to marry my daughter, I will inform you of it. Understand, he knows nothing of your story or of mine. He will not hear of me in my absence from England. I leave the burden of this to you. He is a proud lad and will accept no charity. It must be your task to convince him that he has a title to your benevolence. Be wise and act discreetly. Our future requisitions will depend upon your conduct of this affair—and God help you, Maxim Gogol, if you fail in it."
Something of the fanatic, almost of the madman, spoke in this vehement utterance. If Gessner had been utterly at a loss as yet to account for a request so unusual, he now began to perceive in it the instrument of his own humiliation. Would not this stranger be a perpetual witness to the hazard of his life, a son who stood also as a hostage, the living voice of Paul Boriskoff's authority? And what of his own daughter Anna and of the story he must tell her? These facts he realized clearly but had no answer to them. The reluctant assent, wrung from his unwilling lips, was the promise of a man who stood upon the brink of ruin and must answer as his accusers wished or pay the ultimate penalty. All his common masterfulness, the habit of autocracy, the anger of the bully and the tyrant, trembled before the clear cold eyes of this man he had wronged. He must answer or pay the price, humiliate himself or suffer.
* * * * *
And to-night Alban Kennedy slept beneath his roof; the bargain had been clinched, the word spoken. Twenty thousand pounds had he paid to Paul Boriskoff that morning for the education of his daughter and in part satisfaction of the ancient claim. But the witness of his degradation had come to him and must remain.
Aye, and there the strife of it began. When he put detectives upon the lad's path, had him followed from Union Street to the caves and from the caves to his place of employment, the report came to him that he was interesting himself in a callous ne'er-do-well, the friend of rogues and vagabonds, the companion of sluts, the despair of the firm which employed him. He had expected something of the kind, but the seeming truth dismayed him. In a second interview with Boriskoff he used all his best powers of argument and entreaty to effect a compromise. He would send the lad to the University, have him educated abroad, establish him in chambers—do anything, in fact, but that which the inexorable Pole demanded of him. This he protested with a humility quite foreign to him and an earnestness which revealed the depth of the indignity he suffered; but Boriskoff remained inflexible.
"I am determined upon it," was the harsh retort; "the boy shall be as a link between us. Keep him from this hell in which he has lived and I will set so much to your credit. I warn you that you have a difficult task. Do not fail in it as you value your own safety."
The manner of this reply left Gessner no alternative, and he sent Silas Geary to Whitechapel as we have seen. A less clever man, perhaps, would have fenced alike with the proposal and the threat; but he knew his own countrymen too well for that. Perhaps a hope remained that any kindness shown to this vagrant lad would win back ultimately his ancient freedom. Alone in his room this night, a single light rebutting the darkness, he understood into what an abyss of discovery he had fallen, the price that must be paid, the debt that he owed to forgotten years.
"This man is a devil," he said, "he will rob me shilling by shilling until I am a beggar. Good God! that it should have come to this after twenty years; twenty years which have achieved so much; twenty years of such slavery as few men have known. And I am helpless; and this beggar is here to remind me of my enemies, to tell me that I walk in chains and that their eyes are following me."
He threw himself upon his bed dressed as he was and tried to sleep. The stillness of the house gave fruitful visions, magnifying all his fears and bringing him to an unspeakable terror of the days which must come after. He had many ambitions yet to achieve, great ideas which remained ideas, masterly projects which must bring him both fame and riches, but he would have abandoned them all this night if freedom had been offered him. Years ago, he remembered, Boriskoff, the young miner, had earned his hatred, he knew not why unless it were a truth that men best hate those who have served them best. To-night found that old hatred increased a thousand fold and shaping itself in schemes which he would not even whisper aloud. He had always been looked upon as a man of good courage and that courage prompted him to a hundred mad notions—to swift assassination or to slow intrigue—last of all to self destruction should his aims miscarry. He would kill himself and cheat them after all. Many another in Petersburg had sacrificed his life rather than suffer those years of torture which discovery brought. He knew that he would not shrink even from the irrevocable if he were driven far enough.
A man may take such a resolution as this and yet a great desire of life may remain to thwart it. Gessner found himself debating the issues more calmly as the night wore on, and even asking himself if the presence of a stranger in his house might be so intolerable as he had believed. He had seen little of Alban and that little had not been to the young man's disadvantage. If the youth were not all that report had painted him, if the amenities of the house should civilize him and kindness win his favor, then even he might be an advocate for those to whom he owed such favors. This new phase set Gessner thinking more hopefully than at any time since the beginning of it. He rose from his bed and turning on the lamps began to recall all that the Pole had demanded of him. The terms of the compact were not so very unreasonable, surely, he argued. Let this young Kennedy consent to remain at "Five Gables" and he, Richard Gessner, would answer for the rest. But would he consent to remain—would that wild life of the slums call him back to its freedom and its friendships? He knew not what to think. A great fear came to him, not that the lad would remain but that he would go. Had it been at a reasonable hour, he would have talked to him there and then, for the hours of that night were beyond all words intolerable. He must see Kennedy and convince him. In the end, unable to support the doubt, he quitted his own room, and crossed the landing, irresolute, trembling, hardly knowing what he did.
* * * * *
It would have been about five o'clock of the morning when he entered Alban's room and discovered him to be still sleeping. A sound of heavy breathing followed by a restless movement had deceived him and he knocked upon the door gently, quite expecting to be answered. When no reply came, he ventured in as one who would not willingly pry upon another but is compelled thereto by curiosity. The room itself should have been in darkness, but Alban had deliberately drawn the heavy curtains back from the windows before he slept, and the wan gray light of dawn struck down upon his tired face as though seeking out him alone of all that slept in the house. A lusty figure of shapely youth, a handsome face which the finger of the World had touched already, these the light revealed. He slept upon his back, his head turned toward the light, his arm outstretched and almost touching the floor.
Gessner stood very still, afraid to wake the sleeper and by him to be thus discovered. No good nationalist at any time, he had always admired that product of a hard-drinking, hard-fighting ancestry, the British boy; and in Alban it seemed to him that he discovered an excellent type. Undoubtedly the lad was both handsome and strong. For his brains, Silas Geary would answer, and he had given evidence of good wit in their brief encounter last night. Gessner drew a step nearer and asked himself again if the detective's reports were true. Was this the friend of vagabonds, the companion of sluts—this clean-limbed, virile fellow with the fair face and the flaxen curls and the head of a thinker and a sage? A judge of men himself, he said that the words were a lie, and then he remembered Boriskoff's account, the story of a father who had died to serve an East End Mission, and of a devoted mother worsted in her youth by those gathering hosts of poverty she had set out so bravely to combat. Could the son of such as these be all that swift espionage would have him? Gessner did not believe it. New hopes, as upon a great freshet of content, came to him to give him comfort. He had no son. Let this lad be the son whom he had desired so ardently. Let them live together, work together in a mutual affection of gratitude and knowledge. Who could prevail against such an alliance? What rancor of Boriskoff's would harm the lad he desired to be the husband of his daughter. Aye, and this was the supreme consolation—that if Alban would consent, he, Gessner, would so earn his devotion and his love that therein he might arm himself against all the world.
But would he consent? How if this old habit of change asserted itself and took him back to the depths? Gessner breathed quickly when he remembered that such might be the end of it. No law could compel the boy, no guardian claim him. Twice already he had expressed in this house his contempt for the riches which should have tempted him. Gessner began to perceive that his fate depended upon a word. It must be "yes" or "no" to-morrow—and while "yes" would save him, the courage of a hundred men would not have faced the utmost possibilities of "no."
This simple truth kept the man to the room as though therein lay all his hopes of salvation. At one time he was upon the point of waking Alban and putting the question to him. Or again, he tried to creep back to the landing, determined, in his own room, to suffer as best he could the hours of uncertainty. Distressed by irresolution he crossed to the window at last and breathed the cool sweet air of morning as one being a stranger to such a scene at such an hour. The sun had risen by this time and all the landscape stood revealed in its morning beams. Not yet had London stirred to the murmur of the coming day—no smoke rose from her forest of chimneys, no haze drifted above the labyrinth. Far below she lay, a maze of empty streets, of shuttered shops, of vast silent buildings—a city of silence, hiding her cares from the glory of the dawn, veiling her sorrow and her suffering, hushing her children to rest, deaf to the morning voices; rich and poor alike turning from the eyes of the day to Mother Sleep upon whose heart is eternal rest. Such a city Gessner beheld while he looked from the window, and the golden beams lighted his pallid face and the sweet air of day called him to deed and resolution. What victories he had won upon that grimy field; what triumphs he had known; what hours of pomp and vanity—what bitter anguish! And now he might rule there no longer. Detection had stalked out of the unknown and touched him upon the shoulder. Somewhere in that labyrinth his enemies were sleeping. But one human being could shield him from them, and he a lad—without home or friends, penniless and a wanderer.
He drew back from the window, saying that the hours of suspense must be brief and that his will should prevail with this lad, at whatever sacrifice. Believing that his old shrewdness would help him, and that in Alban not only the instrument of his salvation but of his vengeance should be found, he would have quitted the room immediately, had not his eye lighted at hazard upon a rough paper, lying upon the floor by the bed, and a pencil which had tumbled from Alban's tired hand. Perceiving that the lad had been drawing, and curious beyond ordinary to know the subject of his picture, he picked the paper up to discover thereon a rude portrait which he recognized instantly for that of his daughter, Anna. Such a discovery, thrusting into his schemes as it did an idea which hitherto had escaped him, held him for an instant spellbound with wonder. A clever man, accustomed to arrive at conclusions swiftly, the complexity of his thoughts, the strife of arguments now unnerved him utterly. For he perceived both a great possibility and a great danger.
He is "to marry Lois Boriskoff" was the silent reflection—"to marry the daughter. And this—this—good God, the man would never forgive me this!"
The paper tumbled from his hands. Alban, turning upon his pillow, sighed in his sleep. A neighboring church clock struck six; there were workmen going down to the city which must now awake to the labors of the day.
Captain Willy Forrest admitted that he had few virtues, but he never charged himself with the vice of idleness. In town or out of it, his trim man-servant, Abel, would wake him at seven o'clock and see that he had a cup of tea and the morning papers by a quarter-past. Fine physical condition was one of the ambitions of this lithe shapely person, whose father had been a jockey and whose mother had not forgotten to the day of her death the manner in which measurements are taken upon a counter.
Willy Forrest, by dint of perseverance, had really come to believe that these worthy parents never existed but in his imagination. To the world he was the second son of the late Sir John Forrest, Bart., whose first-born, supposed to be in Africa, had remained beyond the pale for many years. Society, which rarely questions pleasant people, took him at his word and opened many doors to him. In short, he was a type of adventurer by no means uncommon, and rarely unsuccessful when there are brains to back the pretensions.
He was not a particularly evil rascal, and women found him charming. Possessed of a merry face, a horsey manner and a vocabulary which would have delighted a maker of slang dictionaries, he pushed his my everywhere, not hoping for something to turn up, but determined that his own cleverness should contrive that desirable arrival. When he met Anna Gessner at Ascot a year ago, the propitious moment seemed at hand. "The girl is a gambler to her very boots," he told himself, while he reflected that a seat upon the box of such a family coach would certainly make his fortune. Willy Forrest resolved to secure such a seat without a moment's loss of time.
This determination taken, the ardor with which he pursued it was surprising. A cunning fox-like instinct led him to read Anna Gessner's character as few others who had known her. Believing greatly in the gospel of heredity, he perceived that Anna owed much to her father and more to her nationality. "She is selfish and passionate, a little devil in single harness who would be worse in double"—this was his reading of her; to which he added the firm resolution to put the matter to the proof without loss of time.
"I shall weigh in immediately and the weights will be light," he thought. "She likes a bit of a flutter and I'll see that she gets it. There is plenty of corn in the old man's manger, and if it comes to bursting the bag, I will carry home the pieces. There's where I drive the car. She shall play and I will be her pet lamb. Great Jupiter, what a catch!"
The result of this pretty conclusion is next to be seen in a cottage in Hampshire, not far removed from the racing stables of the great John Farrier, who, as all the world knows, is one of the most honest and the most famous trainers in the country. This cottage had Willy Forrest furnished (indirectly at Anna's expense) in a manner worthy of all the artistic catalogues. And hither would Anna come, driving over from her father's country-house near Basingstoke, and caring not a fig what the grooms might think of her.
"Captain Forrest is my trainer," she told the men, bidding them to be secret.
For any other explanation they cared not at all. To run a horse in a great race seemed to them the highest of human achievements, and great was their wonder that this fragile girl should dare it. "She be a rare good 'un and a stayer. Derned if I don't put my last button on Whirlwind." This was the extent of the scandal that she caused.
Anna motored over to "The Nest" some three weeks after Alban had been received at Hampstead, and found Willy Forrest anxiously waiting for her at the gate. She had brought with her one of those obliging dependents who act so cheerfully as unnecessary chaperones, and this "person" she left in the smart car while she entered the cottage and told the owner that he was forgiven. Their quarrel had been vehement and tempestuous while it lasted—and the Captain remembered that she had struck him with her whip.
"I knew you'd come, Anna," he said good-humoredly while he opened the gate for her. "Of course, I don't bear you any grudge. Good Lord, how you went it last time. I might have been a hair-trunk that had let you down at a gate. Eh, what—do you remember it? And the old chin-pot which cost me twenty guineas. Why, you smashed it all to bits with your whip—eh, what? I've laughed till I cried every time I tried to stick it together again. Come right in and let's shake hands. You've got an oddish looking lot in the car—bought her in at the sale, I suppose—eh, what? Well, I'm glad to see you really."
She looked a little downcast, he thought, but prettier than he had ever seen her before. It was quite early in the morning and his table had been set out for breakfast, with dainty old-fashioned china and a silver kettle singing over a lamp. Anna took her favorite arm-chair, and drawing it close to the table permitted him to give her a cup of tea.
"You wanted to make a cheat of me," she said calmly enough. "Oh, yes, I have heard all about it. There's nothing whatever the matter with Whirlwind. He must win the cup—John Farrier says so. You are the person who does not wish him to win."
Adventurers never blush when they are found out, and Willy Forrest was no exception to the rule.
"Oh, there you are," he cried boisterously, "just the same old kettle-drum and the same old sticks. Do you think I don't know as much about a horse as Farrier? Good Lord, he makes me sick—I'd sooner hear a Salvation Army Band playing 'Jumping Jerusalem' on the trombone than old John Farrier talking honest. Are we running nags to pay the brokers out or to make a bit on our sweet little own—eh, what? Are we white-chokered philanthropists or wee wee baby mites on the nobbly nuggets? Don't you listen to him, Anna. You'll have to sell your boots if you follow old John."
She stirred her tea and sipped it slowly.
"You said Whirlwind was going lame on the near fore-leg, and it isn't true," she exclaimed upon a pause. "What was your object in telling me that?"
"I said it before the grooms and you didn't give me a chance of blowing the smoke away afterwards. You say you are racing to make money and what's the good of hymns and milk? This horse will start at eleven to four on unless you're careful—where's my gold-lined shower bath then? Don't you see that you must put the market back—frighten the backers off and then step in? That's what I was trying to teach you all the time. Give out on the loud trumpet that the horse has gone dickey and leave 'em uncertain for a week whether he's running or sticking. Your money's on through a third party in the 'tween times and your cheeks are as red as roses when the flag goes down."
"And if the horse should not win after you have cheated the people?"
"You'll be some five thousand out of pocket—that's all. Now, Anna, don't let us have any mumble-pie between us. I'm not the dark man of the story-books who lures the beautiful heroine on to play, and you're not the wonderful Princess who breaks her old pa and marries because he's stony. You can't get overmuch out of the old man and you're going to make the rest at Tattersalls. If you listen to me, you'll make it—but if you don't, if you play the giddy goat with old John Farrier in the pulpit; well, then, the sooner you write cheques the better. That's the plain truth and you may take it or leave it. There are not three honest men racing and Willy Forrest don't join the trinity. We'll do as all the crowd does and leave 'em to take care of themselves. You make a book that they know how to do it. Oh, my stars, don't they—eh, what?"
Anna did not reply immediately to this odd harangue. She knew a good deal about horses, but nothing whatever about the knavery of betting, the shoddy tricks of it and the despicable spirit in which this great game is often played. Something of her father's cunning, inherited and ineradicable, led her to condone the Captain's sporting creed and not to seek understanding. The man's high spirits made a sure appeal to her. She could not comprehend it wholly—but she had to admit that none of all her father's widening circle had ever appealed to her as this nimble-tongued adventurer, who could make her heart quicken every time their hands touched.
"I don't like it," she said anon, "and I don't want anything to do with it. You make Whirlwind win the race and nobody will be hurt. If they bet against the horse, what is that to me? How can I help what they think—and I don't care either if they are so foolish. Didn't you promise me that I should see him gallop this morning? I wouldn't have motored over otherwise. You said that there was to be a Trial—"
"Divine angel, we are at your feet always. Of course, there's a Trial. Am I so foolish as to suppose that you came over to see Willy Forrest—eh, what? Have I lost the funny-bone up above? Farrier is going to gallop the nags in half an hour's time. Your smoke-machine can take us up the hill and there we'll form our own conclusions. You leave the rest to me. It will be a bright sunny morning when they put any salt on Willy Forrest's tail—eh, what?"
She admitted the truth with the first smile he had seen since she entered the cottage. His quick bustling manner, the deference he always paid to her, despite his odd phrases, won upon her good humor and led her to open her heart to him.
"My father is going mad," she said quietly—his startled "eh, what" not preventing her; "we are making our house a home for the destitute, and the first arrived just three weeks ago. Imagine a flaxen-haired image of righteousness, who draws my portrait on the covers of books and puts feathers in my hat. He is in love with me, Willy, and he is to be my big brother. Yesterday I took him to Ranalegh and heard a discourse upon the beauties of nature and the wonders of the air and the sky. Oh, my dear man—what a purgatory and what an event. We are going to sell our jewels presently and to live in Whitechapel. My father, I must tell you, seems afraid of this beautiful apparition and implores him every day not to go away. I know that he stops because he is inclined to make love to me.
"Whew—so it's only 'inclined' at present?"
"Absolutely as you say. There appear to be two of us. I have been expecting a passionate declaration—but the recollections of a feathered beauty who once lived in a fairy palace, in a wonderland where you dine upon red herrings—she is my hated rival. I am more beautiful, observe—that is conceded, but he cannot understand me. The feathered hat has become my salvation. My great big brother can't get over it—and oh, the simplicity of the child, the youthful verdant confidence, my Willy. Don't you see that the young man thinks I am an angel and is wondering all the time where the wings have gone to."
"Ha, ha—he'd better ask Paquin. Are you serious, Anna?"
"As serious as the Lord High Executioner himself. My father has adopted a youth—and I have a big brother. He has consented to dwell in our house and to spend our savings because he believes that by so doing he is in some way helping me. I don't in the least want his help, but my father is determined that I shall have it. I am not to bestow my young affections upon him—nor, upon the other hand, am I to offend him. Admit that the situation is delightful. Pity a poor maiden in her distress."
Willy Forrest did not like the sound of it at all.
"The old chap must have gone dotty," he remarked presently; "they're often taken this way when they get to a certain age. You'll have to sit tight and see about it, Anna. He isn't too free with the ready as it is—and if you've a boy hanging about, God help you. Why don't you be rude to him? You know the way as well as most—eh, what?"
"I'm positively afraid to. Do you know, my dear man, that if this Perfect Angel left us, strange things would happen. My father says so, and I believe he speaks the truth. There is a mystery—and I hate mysteries."
"Get hold of the feathered lady and hear what she has to say."
"Impossible but brilliant. She has gone to Germany."
"Oh, damn—then he'll be making love to you. I say, Anna, there's not going to be any billing and cooing or anything of that sort. I'm not very exacting, but the way you look at men is just prussic acid to me. If this kid should begin—"
She laughed drolly.
"He is my great big brother," she said—and then jumping up—"let us go and see the horses. You'll be talking nonsense if we don't. And, Willy, I forbid you to talk nonsense."
She turned and faced him in mock anger, and he, responding instantly, caught her in his arms and kissed her ardently.
"What a pair of cherubs," he exclaimed, "what a nest of cooing doves—I say, Anna, I must kill that kid—or shall it be the fatted calf? There'll be murder done somewhere if he stops at Hampstead."
"If it were done, then when it were done—O let me go, Willy, your arms are crushing me."
He released her instantly and, snatching up a cap, set out with her to the downs where the horses were being stripped for the gallop. The morning of early summer was delightfully fragrant—a cool breeze came up from the sea and every breath invigorated. Old John Farrier, mounted on a sturdy cob, met them at the foot of a great grassy slope and complained that it was over late in the day for horses to gallop, but, as he added, "they'll have to do it at Ascot and they may as well do it here." A silent man, old John had once accompanied Willy Forrest to a dinner at the Carlton which Anna gave to a little sporting circle. Then he uttered but one remark, seeming to think some observation necessary, and it fell from his lips in the pause of a social discussion. "I always eat sparrer-grass with my fingers," he had said, and wondered at the general hilarity.
Old John was unusually silent upon this morning of the trial, and when he named the weights at which the horses would gallop, his voice sank to a sepulchral whisper. "The old 'oss is giving six pounds," he said, "he should be beat a length. If it's more, go cautious, miss, and save your money for another day. He hasn't been looking all I should like of him for a long time—that's plain truth; and when a horse isn't looking all I should like of him, 'go easy' say I and keep your money under the bed."
Anna laughed at the kindly advice, and leaving the car she walked to the summit of the hill and there watched the horses—but three pretty specks they appeared—far down in the hollow. The exhilaration of the great open spaces, the wide unbroken grandeur of the downs, the sweetness of the air, the freshness of the day, brought blood to her pallid cheeks and a sparkle of life to her eyes. How free it all was, how unrestrained, how suggestive of liberty and of a boundless kingdom! And then upon it all the excitements of the gallop, the thunder of hoofs upon the soft turf, the bent figures of the jockeys, the raking strides of the beautiful horses—Anna no longer wondered why sport could so fascinate its devotees. She felt at such a moment that she would have gladly put her whole fortune upon Whirlwind.
"He wins—he wins—he wins," she cried as the three drew near, and Willy Forrest, watching her with cunning eyes, said that the trap was closed indeed and the key in his possession. Whirlwind, a magnificent chestnut four-year-old, came striding up the hill as though the last furlong of the mile and a half he had galloped were his chief delight. He was a winner by a short head as they passed the post, and old John Farrier could not hide his satisfaction.
"He's the best plucked 'un in England to-day, lady, and you may put your wardrobe on him after that. Be quick about it though, for there'll be no odds to speak of when the touts have written to-day's work in the newspapers. Go and telegraph your commissions now. There isn't a minute to lose."
Willy Forrest seconded the proposal eagerly.
"I should back him for five thou," he said as they left the course together, "what's the good of half measures? You might as well play dominoes in a coffee shop. And I can always break the news to your father if you lose."
Anna hardly knew what to say. When she consented finally to risk the money, she did not know that Willy Forrest was the man who laid against her horse, and that if she lost it would be to him.
"The boss is good enough," he told himself, "but the near-off is dicky or I never saw one. She'll lose the money and the old boy will pay up—if I compel her to ask him. That depends on the kid. She couldn't help making eyes at him if her life depended on it. Well—she's going to marry me, and that's the long and short of it. Fancy passing a certainty at my time of life. Do I see it—eh, what?"
And so they went their ways: Anna back to London to the solemn routine of the big house; Willy Forrest to Epsom to try, as he said, "and pick up the nimble with a pencil."
ALBAN SEES LIFE
Alban had been five weeks at Hampstead when he met Willy Forrest for the first time, and was able to gratify his curiosity concerning one whom he believed to be Anna's lover.
The occasion was Richard Gessner's absence in Paris upon a business of great urgency and the immediate appearance of the dashing captain at "Five Gables." True, Anna behaved with great discretion, but, none the less, Alban understood that this man was more to her than others, and he did not fail to judge him with that shrewd scrutiny even youth may command.
Willy Forrest, to give him his due, took an instinctive liking to the new intruder and was not to be put off, however much his attentions were displeasing to Anna. A cunning foresight, added to a fecund imagination and a fine taste for all chroniques scandaleuses, led him to determine that Alban Kennedy might yet inherit the bulk of Gessner's fortune and become the plumpest of all possible pigeons. Should this be the case, those who had been the young man's friends in the beginning might well remain so to the end. He resolved instantly to cultivate an acquaintance so desirable, and lost not a moment in the pursuit of his aims.
"My dear chap," he said on the third day of their association, "you are positively growing grass in this place. Do you never go anywhere? Has no one taught you how to amuse yourself?"
Alban replied that everything was so new to him that he desired no other amusement than its enjoyment.
"It was almost years since I saw a tree that was not black," he said; "the water used to drip through the roof of my garret, and there was a family in the room on the opposite side of the landing. I don't think you can understand what this house means to me. Perhaps I don't understand myself. I'm almost afraid to go to sleep at night for fear I should wake up in Union Street and find it all a fairy story. Mr. Gessner says I am to stop with them always—but he might change his mind and then it would be Commercial Road again—if I had the courage to go back there."
Forrest had known evil times himself, and he could honestly appreciate the possibility.
"Stick by the old horse while he sticks by you," was his candid advice. "I expect he's under a pretty stiff obligation to some of your people who are gone, and this is how he's paying it. You take all the corn you can get and put it in your nose-bag. Anna herself tells me that the old man is only happy while you are in the house. Play up to it, old chap, and grease your wheels while the can's going round."
This very worldy advice fell upon ears strikingly deficient in understanding subtleties. Alban could not dislike Forrest, though he tried his best to do so. There was something sympathetic about the fellow, rogue that he was, and even shrewd men admitted his fascination. When the Captain proposed that they should go down to the West End of London and see a little of life together, Alban consented gladly. New experiences set him hungering after those supposed delights which were made so much of in the newspapers. He reflected how very little he really knew of the world and its people.
It was a day of early June when they set off in that very single brougham which had carried Silas Geary to Whitechapel. The Captain, having first ascertained the amount of money in his friend's possession, proposed a light lunch in the restaurant of the Savoy, and there, to do him justice, he was amusing enough.
"People are all giving up houses and living in restaurants nowadays," he said as they sat at table. "I don't blame 'em either. Just think of the number of nags in those big stables, all eating their heads off and smoking your best cigars—eh, what? Why, I kept myself in weeds a few years ago—got 'em for twopence halfpenny from a butler in Curzon Street and never smoked better. You don't want to do that, for you can bottle old Bluebeard's and try 'em on the dog—eh, what? When you marry, don't you take a house. A man who lives in a hotel doesn't seem as though he were married and that's good for the filly. Look at these angels here. Why, half of them sold the family oak tree a generation ago, and Attenborough down the street will tell you what their Tiffanies are worth. They live in hotels because it's cheaper, and they wear French paste because the other is at uncle's. That's the truth, my boy, and all the world knows it."
Alban listened with an odd cynical smile upon his face, but he did not immediately reply. This famous hotel had seemed a cavern of all the wonders when first he entered it, and he would not willingly abandon his illusions. The beautifully dressed women, the rustling gowns, the chiffon, the lace, the feathers, the diamonds—might he not have thought that they stood for all that pomp and circumstance of life which the East End denounced so vehemently and the West End as persistently demanded? Of the inner lives of these people he knew absolutely nothing. And, after all, he remembered, men and women are much the same whatever the circumstance.
"I like to be in beautiful places," he confessed in his turn, "and this place seems to me very beautiful. Does it really matter to us, Forrest, what the people do or what they are so long as they don't ask us to be the same? Jimmy Dale, a parson in Whitechapel, used to say that a man was just what his conscience made him. I don't see how the fact of living in or out of a hotel would matter anyway—unless you leave your conscience in a cab. The rest is mostly talk, and untrue at that, they say. You yourself know that you don't believe half of it."
"My dear man, what would life be if one were incredulous? How would the newspaper proprietors buy bread and cheese, to say nothing of pate de foie gras and ninety-two Pommery if the world desired the truth? This crowd is mostly on the brink of a precipice, and a man or a woman goes over every day. Then you have the law report and old Righteousness in a white wig, who has not been found out, to pronounce a judgment. I'd like to wager that not one in three of these people ever did an honest day's work in a lifetime. One half is rank idle—the other half is trying to live on the remainder. Work it out and pass me the wine—and mind you don't get setting up any images for time to knock down—eh, what?"
Alban would not wrangle with him, and for a little while he ate in silence, watching the sparkling throng and listening to such scraps of conversation as floated to him from merry tables. Down in Union Street it had been the fashion to decry idleness and the crimes of the rich—the orators having it that leisure was criminal and ease a heinous sin. Alban had never believed in any such fallacy. "We are all born lazy," he had said, "and few of us would work unless we had to. Vanity is at the bottom of all that we do. If no one were vain, the world would stand still." In the Savoy, his arguments seemed to be justified a hundredfold. A sense of both content and dignity came to him. He began almost to believe that money could ennoble as well as satisfy.
Willy Forrest, of course, knew nothing whatever of thoughts such as these. He was a past master in the art of killing time and he boasted that he rarely knew an "idle hour." His programme for this day seemed altogether beyond criticism.
"We'll look in at the club afterwards and play a game of bridge—you can stand by me and see me win—or perhaps you'd like a side bet. Then we might turn into the park to give the girls a treat—eh, what?—and go on to the New Bridge Club to dress. After that there's the old sporting shanty and a bit of a mill between Neddy Tinker and Marsh Hill. You never saw a fight, I suppose? Man, but your education has been neglected."
Alban smiled and admitted his deficiencies.
"I've seen many a set-to in Commercial Road and taken a hand sometimes. Is it really quite necessary to my education?"
"Absolutely indispensable. You must do everything and be seen everywhere. If I had time, I'd give you the personal history of half the light-weights in this room. Look at that black crow in the corner there. He's a Jew parson from Essex—as rich as bottled beer and always stops here. Last time I rode a welter down his way they told me his favorite text was "Blessed are the poor." He's a pretty figurehead for a bean-feast, isn't he? That chirpy barrister next door has a practice of fifteen thou. The blighter once cross-examined me in a card-sharping case and made me look the biggest damned fool in Europe. Did I rest on my laurels—eh, what? Why, sir, he can't cross a race-course now without having his pocket picked. My doing, my immortal achievement. The little Countess next door used to do stunts at the Nouveau Cirque. Lord Saxe-Holt married her when he was hazy and is taming her. That old chap, who eats like a mule, is Lord Whippingham. He hasn't got a sixpence, and if you ask me how he lives—well, there are ways and means foreign to your young and virgin mind. The old geezer used to run after little Betty Sine at the Apollo—but she put an ice down his back at supper here one night and then there were partings. Some day I'll take you to the Blenheim and show you England's aristocracy in arm-chairs—we haven't time to-day and here's the coffee coming. Pay up and be thankful that your new pa isn't overdrawn, and has still a shekel or two in his milk jug. My godfather!—but you are a lucky young man, and so you are beginning to think, I suppose."
Alban did not condescend to answer a question so direct. He was still quite uncertain as to his future, and he would not discuss it with this irresponsible, who had undertaken to be his worldly mentor. When they left the Savoy it was to visit a club in Trafalgar Square and there discover the recumbent figures of aged gentlemen who had lunched not wisely but too well. Of all that he had seen in the kingdoms of money, Alban found this club least to his liking. The darkness of its great rooms, the insolence of its members toward the servants who waited upon them, the gross idleness, the trivial excitements of the card-room, the secret drinking in remote corners—he had never imagined that men of brains could so abase themselves, and he escaped ultimately to Hyde Park with a measure of thankfulness he would not conceal.
"Why do people go to places like that, Forrest?" he asked as they went. "What enjoyment do they get out of them?"
Willy Forrest, who had taken a "mahogany one" in the club and was getting mighty confidential, answered him as candidly.
"Half of 'em go to get away from their wives, the other half to win money—eh, what?"
"But why do they never speak to each other?"
"Put two game-cocks in a pen and then ask again. It's a club, my boy, and so they think every other man a rogue or a fool."
"And do they pay much for the privilege?"
"That depends on the airs they give themselves. I've been pilled for half the clubs in town and so, I suppose, I'm rather a decent sort of chap. It used to be a kind of hall-mark to get in a good club, but we live at hotels nowadays and don't care a dump for them. That's why half of 'em are on the verge of bankruptcy. Don't you trouble about them, unless you get a filly that bolts. I shall have to give up clubs altogether, I suppose, when I marry Anna—eh, what?"
He laughed at the idea, and Alban remaining silent, he whistled a hansom in a way that would have done credit to a railway porter, and continued affably.
"You knew that I was going to marry Anna, didn't you? She told you on the strict q.t., didn't she? Oh, my stars, how she can talk! I shall buy an ear-trumpet when we're in double harness. But Anna told you, now didn't she?"
"I have only once heard her mention your name—she certainly did not speak of being engaged."
"They never do when the old man bucks—eh, what? Gessner don't like me, and I'd poison him for a shilling. Why shouldn't I marry her? I can ride a horse and point a gun and throw a fly better than most. Can Old Bluebeard go better—eh, what? The old pot-hook, I'd play him any game you like to name for a pony aside and back myself to the Day of Judgment. And he's the man who talks about bagging a Duke for his girl! Pshaw, Anna would kick the coronet downstairs in three days and the owner after it. You must know that for yourself—she's a little devil to rear and you can't touch her on the curb—eh, what, you've noticed it yourself?"