"What can be?" her mother asked, helplessly. "What can be?"
Alice admitted that she didn't know.
At dinner, an hour later, Walter's habitually veiled glance lifted, now and then, to touch her furtively;—he was waiting, as he would have said, for her to "spring it"; and he had prepared a brief and sincere defense to the effect that he made his own living, and would like to inquire whose business it was to offer intrusive comment upon his private conduct. But she said nothing, while his father and mother were as silent as she. Walter concluded that there was to be no attack, but changed his mind when his father, who ate only a little, and broodingly at that, rose to leave the table and spoke to him.
"Walter," he said, "when you've finished I wish you'd come up to my room. I got something I want to say to you."
Walter shot a hard look at his apathetic sister, then turned to his father. "Make it to-morrow," he said. "This is Satad'y night and I got a date."
"No," Adams said, frowning. "You come up before you go out. It's important."
"All right; I've had all I want to eat," Walter returned. "I got a few minutes. Make it quick."
He followed his father upstairs, and when they were in the room together Adams shut the door, sat down, and began to rub his knees.
"Rheumatism?" the boy inquired, slyly. "That what you want to talk to me about?"
"No." But Adams did not go on; he seemed to be in difficulties for words, and Walter decided to help him.
"Hop ahead and spring it," he said. "Get it off your mind: I'll tell the world I should worry! You aren't goin' to bother ME any, so why bother yourself? Alice hopped home and told you she saw me playin' around with some pretty gay-lookin' berries and you——"
"Alice?" his father said, obviously surprised. "It's nothing about Alice."
"Didn't she tell you——"
"I haven't talked with her all day."
"Oh, I see," Walter said. "She told mother and mother told you."
"No, neither of 'em have told me anything. What was there to tell?"
Walter laughed. "Oh, it's nothin'," he said. "I was just startin' out to buy a girl friend o' mine a rhinestone buckle I lost to her on a bet, this afternoon, and Alice came along with that big Russell fish; and I thought she looked sore. She expects me to like the kind she likes, and I don't like 'em. I thought she'd prob'ly got you all stirred up about it."
"No, no," his father said, peevishly. "I don't know anything about it, and I don't care to know anything about it. I want to talk to you about something important."
Then, as he was again silent, Walter said, "Well, TALK about it; I'm listening."
"It's this," Adams began, heavily. "It's about me going into this glue business. Your mother's told you, hasn't she?"
"She said you were goin' to leave the old place down-town and start a glue factory. That's all I know about it; I got my own affairs to 'tend to."
"Well, this is your affair," his father said, frowning. "You can't stay with Lamb and Company."
Walter looked a little startled. "What you mean, I can't? Why not?"
"You've got to help me," Adams explained slowly; and he frowned more deeply, as if the interview were growing increasingly laborious for him. "It's going to be a big pull to get this business on its feet."
"Yes!" Walter exclaimed with a sharp skepticism. "I should say it was!" He stared at his father incredulously. "Look here; aren't you just a little bit sudden, the way you're goin' about things? You've let mother shove you a little too fast, haven't you? Do you know anything about what it means to set up a new business these days?"
"Yes, I know all about it," Adams said. "About this business, I do."
"How do you?"
"Because I made a long study of it. I'm not afraid of going about it the wrong way; but it's a hard job and you'll have to put in all whatever sense and strength you've got."
Walter began to breathe quickly, and his lips were agitated; then he set them obstinately. "Oh; I will," he said.
"Yes, you will," Adams returned, not noticing that his son's inflection was satiric. "It's going to take every bit of energy in your body, and all the energy I got left in mine, and every cent of the little I've saved, besides something I'll have to raise on this house. I'm going right at it, now I've got to; and you'll have to quit Lamb's by the end of next week."
"Oh, I will?" Walter's voice grew louder, and there was a shrillness in it. "I got to quit Lamb's the end of next week, have I?" He stepped forward, angrily. "Listen!" he said. "I'm not walkin' out o' Lamb's, see? I'm not quittin' down there: I stay with 'em, see?"
Adams looked up at him, astonished. "You'll leave there next Saturday," he said. "I've got to have you."
"You don't anything o' the kind," Walter told him, sharply. "Do you expect to pay me anything?"
"I'd pay you about what you been getting down there."
"Then pay somebody else; I don't know anything about glue. You get somebody else."
"No. You've got to—-"
Walter cut him off with the utmost vehemence. "Don't tell me what I got to do! I know what I got to do better'n you, I guess! I stay at Lamb's, see?"
Adams rose angrily. "You'll do what I tell you. You can't stay down there."
"Why can't I?"
"Because I won't let you."
"Listen! Keep on not lettin' me: I'll be there just the same."
At that his father broke into a sour laughter. "THEY won't let you, Walter! They won't have you down there after they find out I'm going."
"Why won't they? You don't think they're goin' to be all shot to pieces over losin' YOU, do you?"
"I tell you they won't let you stay," his father insisted, loudly.
"Why, what do they care whether you go or not?"
"They'll care enough to fire YOU, my boy!"
"Look here, then; show me why."
"They'll do it!"
"Yes," Walter jeered; "you keep sayin' they will, but when I ask you to show me why, you keep sayin' they will! That makes little headway with ME, I can tell you!"
Adams groaned, and, rubbing his head, began to pace the floor. Walter's refusal was something he had not anticipated; and he felt the weakness of his own attempt to meet it: he seemed powerless to do anything but utter angry words, which, as Walter said, made little headway. "Oh, my, my!" he muttered, "OH, my, my!"
Walter, usually sallow, had grown pale: he watched his father narrowly, and now took a sudden resolution. "Look here," he said. "When you say Lamb's is likely to fire me because you're goin' to quit, you talk like the people that have to be locked up. I don't know where you get such things in your head; Lamb and Company won't know you're gone. Listen: I can stay there long as I want to. But I'll tell you what I'll do: make it worth my while and I'll hook up with your old glue factory, after all."
Adams stopped his pacing abruptly, and stared at him. "'Make it worth your while?' What you mean?"
"I got a good use for three hundred dollars right now," Walter said. "Let me have it and I'll quit Lamb's to work for you. Don't let me have it and I SWEAR I won't!"
"Are you crazy?"
"Is everybody crazy that needs three hundred dollars?"
"Yes," Adams said. "They are if they ask ME for it, when I got to stretch every cent I can lay my hands on to make it look like a dollar!"
"You won't do it?"
Adams burst out at him. "You little fool! If I had three hundred dollars to throw away, besides the pay I expected to give you, haven't you got sense enough to see I could hire a man worth three hundred dollars more to me than you'd be? It's a FINE time to ask me for three hundred dollars, isn't it! What FOR? Rhinestone buckles to throw around on your 'girl friends?' Shame on you! Ask me to BRIBE you to help yourself and your own family!"
"I'll give you a last chance," Walter said. "Either you do what I want, or I won't do what you want. Don't ask me again after this, because——"
Adams interrupted him fiercely. "'Ask you again!' Don't worry about that, my boy! All I ask you is to get out o' my room."
"Look here," Walter said, quietly; and his lopsided smile distorted his livid cheek. "Look here: I expect YOU wouldn't give me three hundred dollars to save my life, would you?"
"You make me sick," Adams said, in his bitterness. "Get out of here."
Walter went out, whistling; and Adams drooped into his old chair again as the door closed. "OH, my, my!" he groaned. "Oh, Lordy, Lordy! The way of the transgressor——"
He meant his own transgression and his own way; for Walter's stubborn refusal appeared to Adams just then as one of the inexplicable but righteous besettings he must encounter in following that way. "Oh, Lordy, Lord!" he groaned, and then, as resentment moved him—"That dang boy! Dang idiot" Yet he knew himself for a greater idiot because he had not been able to tell Walter the truth. He could not bring himself to do it, nor even to state his case in its best terms; and that was because he felt that even in its best terms the case was a bad one.
Of all his regrets the greatest was that in a moment of vanity and tenderness, twenty-five years ago, he had told his young wife a business secret. He had wanted to show how important her husband was becoming, and how much the head of the universe, J. A. Lamb, trusted to his integrity and ability. The great man had an idea: he thought of "branching out a little," he told Adams confidentially, and there were possibilities of profit in glue.
What he wanted was a liquid glue to be put into little bottles and sold cheaply. "The kind of thing that sells itself," he said; "the kind of thing that pays its own small way as it goes along, until it has profits enough to begin advertising it right. Everybody has to use glue, and if I make mine convenient and cheap, everybody'll buy mine. But it's got to be glue that'll STICK; it's got to be the best; and if we find how to make it we've got to keep it a big secret, of course, or anybody can steal it from us. There was a man here last month; he knew a formula he wanted to sell me, 'sight unseen'; but he was in such a hurry I got suspicious, and I found he'd managed to steal it, working for the big packers in their glue-works. We've got to find a better glue than that, anyhow. I'm going to set you and Campbell at it. You're a practical, wide-awake young feller, and Campbell's a mighty good chemist; I guess you two boys ought to make something happen."
His guess was shrewd enough. Working in a shed a little way outside the town, where their cheery employer visited them sometimes to study their malodorous stews, the two young men found what Lamb had set them to find. But Campbell was thoughtful over the discovery. "Look here," he said. "Why ain't this just about yours and mine? After all, it may be Lamb's money that's paid for the stuff we've used, but it hasn't cost much."
"But he pays US," Adams remonstrated, horrified by his companion's idea. "He paid us to do it. It belongs absolutely to him."
"Oh, I know he THINKS it does," Campbell admitted, plaintively. "I suppose we've got to let him take it. It's not patentable, and he'll have to do pretty well by us when he starts his factory, because he's got to depend on us to run the making of the stuff so that the workmen can't get onto the process. You better ask him the same salary I do, and mine's going to be high."
But the high salary, thus pleasantly imagined, was never paid. Campbell died of typhoid fever, that summer, leaving Adams and his employer the only possessors of the formula, an unwritten one; and Adams, pleased to think himself more important to the great man than ever, told his wife that there could be little doubt of his being put in sole charge of the prospective glue-works. Unfortunately, the enterprise remained prospective.
Its projector had already become "inveigled into another side-line," as he told Adams. One of his sons had persuaded him to take up a "cough-lozenge," to be called the "Jalamb Balm Trochee"; and the lozenge did well enough to amuse Mr. Lamb and occupy his spare time, which was really about all he had asked of the glue project. He had "all the MONEY anybody ought to want," he said, when Adams urged him; and he could "start up this little glue side-line" at any time; the formula was safe in their two heads.
At intervals Adams would seek opportunity to speak of "the little glue side-line" to his patron, and to suggest that the years were passing; but Lamb, petting other hobbies, had lost interest. "Oh, I'll start it up some day, maybe. If I don't, I may turn it over to my heirs: it's always an asset, worth something or other, of course. We'll probably take it up some day, though, you and I."
The sun persistently declined to rise on that day, and, as time went on, Adams saw that his rather timid urgings bored his employer, and he ceased to bring up the subject. Lamb apparently forgot all about glue, but Adams discovered that unfortunately there was someone else who remembered it.
"It's really YOURS," she argued, that painful day when for the first time she suggested his using his knowledge for the benefit of himself and his family. "Mr. Campbell might have had a right to part of it, but he died and didn't leave any kin, so it belongs to you."
"Suppose J. A. Lamb hired me to saw some wood," Adams said. "Would the sticks belong to me?"
"He hasn't got any right to take your invention and bury it," she protested. "What good is it doing him if he doesn't DO anything with it? What good is it doing ANYBODY? None in the world! And what harm would it do him if you went ahead and did this for yourself and for your children? None in the world! And what could he do to you if he WAS old pig enough to get angry with you for doing it? He couldn't do a single thing, and you've admitted he couldn't, yourself. So what's your reason for depriving your children and your wife of the benefits you know you could give 'em?"
"Nothing but decency," he answered; and she had her reply ready for that. It seemed to him that, strive as he would, he could not reach her mind with even the plainest language; while everything that she said to him, with such vehemence, sounded like so much obstinate gibberish. Over and over he pressed her with the same illustration, on the point of ownership, though he thought he was varying it.
"Suppose he hired me to build him a house: would that be MY house?"
"He didn't hire you to build him a house. You and Campbell invented——"
"Look here: suppose you give a cook a soup-bone and some vegetables, and pay her to make you a soup: has she got a right to take and sell it? You know better!"
"I know ONE thing: if that old man tried to keep your own invention from you he's no better than a robber!"
They never found any point of contact in all their passionate discussions of this ethical question; and the question was no more settled between them, now that Adams had succumbed, than it had ever been. But at least the wrangling about it was over: they were grave together, almost silent, and an uneasiness prevailed with her as much as with him.
He had already been out of the house, to walk about the small green yard; and on Monday afternoon he sent for a taxicab and went down-town, but kept a long way from the "wholesale section," where stood the formidable old oblong pile of Lamb and Company. He arranged for the sale of the bonds he had laid away, and for placing a mortgage upon his house; and on his way home, after five o'clock, he went to see an old friend, a man whose term of service with Lamb and Company was even a little longer than his own.
This veteran, returned from the day's work, was sitting in front of the apartment house where he lived, but when the cab stopped at the curb he rose and came forward, offering a jocular greeting. "Well, well, Virgil Adams! I always thought you had a sporty streak in you. Travel in your own hired private automobile nowadays, do you? Pamperin' yourself because you're still layin' off sick, I expect."
"Oh, I'm well enough again, Charley Lohr," Adams said, as he got out and shook hands. Then, telling the driver to wait, he took his friend's arm, walked to the bench with him, and sat down. "I been practically well for some time," he said. "I'm fixin' to get into harness again."
"Bein' sick has certainly produced a change of heart in you," his friend laughed. "You're the last man I ever expected to see blowin' yourself—or anybody else to a taxicab! For that matter, I never heard of you bein' in ANY kind of a cab, 'less'n it might be when you been pall-bearer for somebody. What's come over you?"
"Well, I got to turn over a new leaf, and that's a fact," Adams said. "I got a lot to do, and the only way to accomplish it, it's got to be done soon, or I won't have anything to live on while I'm doing it."
"What you talkin' about? What you got to do except to get strong enough to come back to the old place?"
"Well——" Adams paused, then coughed, and said slowly, "Fact is, Charley Lohr, I been thinking likely I wouldn't come back."
"What! What you talkin' about?"
"No," said Adams. "I been thinking I might likely kind of branch out on my own account."
"Well, I'll be doggoned!" Old Charley Lohr was amazed; he ruffled up his gray moustache with thumb and forefinger, leaving his mouth open beneath, like a dark cave under a tangled wintry thicket. "Why, that's the doggonedest thing I ever heard!" he said. "I already am the oldest inhabitant down there, but if you go, there won't be anybody else of the old generation at all. What on earth you thinkin' of goin' into?"
"Well," said Adams, "I rather you didn't mention it till I get started of course anybody'll know what it is by then—but I HAVE been kind of planning to put a liquid glue on the market."
His friend, still ruffling the gray moustache upward, stared at him in frowning perplexity. "Glue?" he said. "GLUE!"
"Yes. I been sort of milling over the idea of taking up something like that."
"Handlin' it for some firm, you mean?"
"No. Making it. Sort of a glue-works likely."
Lohr continued to frown. "Let me think," he said. "Didn't the ole man have some such idea once, himself?"
Adams leaned forward, rubbing his knees; and he coughed again before he spoke. "Well, yes. Fact is, he did. That is to say, a mighty long while ago he did."
"I remember," said Lohr. "He never said anything about it that I know of; but seems to me I recollect we had sort of a rumour around the place how you and that man—le's see, wasn't his name Campbell, that died of typhoid fever? Yes, that was it, Campbell. Didn't the ole man have you and Campbell workin' sort of private on some glue proposition or other?"
"Yes, he did." Adams nodded. "I found out a good deal about glue then, too."
"Been workin' on it since, I suppose?"
"Yes. Kept it in my mind and studied out new things about it."
Lohr looked serious. "Well, but see here," he said. "I hope it ain't anything the ole man'll think might infringe on whatever he had you doin' for HIM. You know how he is: broad-minded, liberal, free-handed man as walks this earth, and if he thought he owed you a cent he'd sell his right hand for a pork-chop to pay it, if that was the only way; but if he got the idea anybody was tryin' to get the better of him, he'd sell BOTH his hands, if he had to, to keep 'em from doin' it. Yes, at eighty, he would! Not that I mean I think you might be tryin' to get the better of him, Virg. You're a mighty close ole codger, but such a thing ain't in you. What I mean: I hope there ain't any chance for the ole man to THINK you might be——"
"Oh, no," Adams interrupted. "As a matter of fact, I don't believe he'll ever think about it at all, and if he did he wouldn't have any real right to feel offended at me: the process I'm going to use is one I expect to change and improve a lot different from the one Campbell and I worked on for him."
"Well, that's good," said Lohr. "Of course you know what you're up to: you're old enough, God knows!" He laughed ruefully. "My, but it will seem funny to me—down there with you gone! I expect you and I both been gettin' to be pretty much dead-wood in the place, the way the young fellows look at it, and the only one that'd miss either of us would be the other one! Have you told the ole man yet?"
"Well——" Adams spoke laboriously. "No. No, I haven't. I thought—well, that's what I wanted to see you about."
"What can I do?"
"I thought I'd write him a letter and get you to hand it to him for me."
"My soul!" his friend exclaimed. "Why on earth don't you just go down there and tell him?"
Adams became pitiably embarrassed. He stammered, coughed, stammered again, wrinkling his face so deeply he seemed about to weep; but finally he contrived to utter an apologetic laugh. "I ought to do that, of course; but in some way or other I just don't seem to be able to—to manage it."
"Why in the world not?" the mystified Lohr inquired.
"I could hardly tell you—'less'n it is to say that when you been with one boss all your life it's so—so kind of embarrassing—to quit him, I just can't make up my mind to go and speak to him about it. No; I got it in my head a letter's the only satisfactory way to do it, and I thought I'd ask you to hand it to him."
"Well, of course I don't mind doin' that for you," Lohr said, mildly. "But why in the world don't you just mail it to him?"
"Well, I'll tell you," Adams returned. "You know, like that, it'd have to go through a clerk and that secretary of his, and I don't know who all. There's a couple of kind of delicate points I want to put in it: for instance, I want to explain to him how much improvement and so on I'm going to introduce on the old process I helped to work out with Campbell when we were working for him, so't he'll understand it's a different article and no infringement at all. Then there's another thing: you see all during while I was sick he had my salary paid to me it amounts to considerable, I was on my back so long. Under the circumstances, because I'm quitting, I don't feel as if I ought to accept it, and so I'll have a check for him in the letter to cover it, and I want to be sure he knows it, and gets it personally. If it had to go through a lot of other people, the way it would if I put it in the mail, why, you can't tell. So what I thought: if you'd hand it to him for me, and maybe if he happened to read it right then, or anything, it might be you'd notice whatever he'd happen to say about it—and you could tell me afterward."
"All right," Lohr said. "Certainly if you'd rather do it that way, I'll hand it to him and tell you what he says; that is, if he says anything and I hear him. Got it written?"
"No; I'll send it around to you last of the week." Adams moved toward his taxicab. "Don't say anything to anybody about it, Charley, especially till after that."
"And, Charley, I'll be mighty obliged to you," Adams said, and came back to shake hands in farewell. "There's one thing more you might do—if you'd ever happen to feel like it." He kept his eyes rather vaguely fixed on a point above his friend's head as he spoke, and his voice was not well controlled. "I been—I been down there a good many years and I may not 'a' been so much use lately as I was at first, but I always tried to do my best for the old firm. If anything turned out so's they DID kind of take offense with me, down there, why, just say a good word for me—if you'd happen to feel like it, maybe."
Old Charley Lohr assured him that he would speak a good word if opportunity became available; then, after the cab had driven away, he went up to his small apartment on the third floor and muttered ruminatively until his wife inquired what he was talking to himself about.
"Ole Virg Adams," he told her. "He's out again after his long spell of sickness, and the way it looks to me he'd better stayed in bed."
"You mean he still looks too bad to be out?"
"Oh, I expect he's gettin' his HEALTH back," Lohr said, frowning.
"Then what's the matter with him? You mean he's lost his mind?"
"My goodness, but women do jump at conclusions!" he exclaimed.
"Well," said Mrs. Lohr, "what other conclusion did you leave me to jump at?"
Her husband explained with a little heat: "People can have a sickness that AFFECTS their mind, can't they? Their mind can get some affected without bein' LOST, can't it?"
"Then you mean the poor man's mind does seem affected?"
"Why, no; I'd scarcely go as far as that," Lohr said, inconsistently, and declined to be more definite.
Adams devoted the latter part of that evening to the composition of his letter—a disquieting task not completed when, at eleven o'clock, he heard his daughter coming up the stairs. She was singing to herself in a low, sweet voice, and Adams paused to listen incredulously, with his pen lifted and his mouth open, as if he heard the strangest sound in the world. Then he set down the pen upon a blotter, went to his door, and opened it, looking out at her as she came.
"Well, dearie, you seem to be feeling pretty good," he said. "What you been doing?"
"Just sitting out on the front steps, papa."
"All alone, I suppose."
"No. Mr. Russell called."
"Oh, he did?" Adams pretended to be surprised. "What all could you and he find to talk about till this hour o' the night?"
She laughed gaily. "You don't know me, papa!"
"You've never found out that I always do all the talking."
"Didn't you let him get a word in all evening?"
"Oh, yes; every now and then."
Adams took her hand and petted it. "Well, what did he say?"
Alice gave him a radiant look and kissed him. "Not what you think!" she laughed; then slapped his cheek with saucy affection, pirouetted across the narrow hall and into her own room, and curtsied to him as she closed her door.
Adams went back to his writing with a lighter heart; for since Alice was born she had been to him the apple of his eye, his own phrase in thinking of her; and what he was doing now was for her.
He smiled as he picked up his pen to begin a new draft of the painful letter; but presently he looked puzzled. After all, she could be happy just as things were, it seemed. Then why had he taken what his wife called "this new step," which he had so long resisted?
He could only sigh and wonder. "Life works out pretty peculiarly," he thought; for he couldn't go back now, though the reason he couldn't was not clearly apparent. He had to go ahead.
He was out in his taxicab again the next morning, and by noon he had secured what he wanted.
It was curiously significant that he worked so quickly. All the years during which his wife had pressed him toward his present shift he had sworn to himself, as well as to her, that he would never yield; and yet when he did yield he had no plans to make, because he found them already prepared and worked out in detail in his mind; as if he had long contemplated the "step" he believed himself incapable of taking.
Sometimes he had thought of improving his income by exchanging his little collection of bonds for a "small rental property," if he could find "a good buy"; and he had spent many of his spare hours rambling over the enormously spreading city and its purlieus, looking for the ideal "buy." It remained unattainable, so far as he was concerned; but he found other things.
Not twice a crow's mile from his own house there was a dismal and slummish quarter, a decayed "industrial district" of earlier days. Most of the industries were small; some of them died, perishing of bankruptcy or fire; and a few had moved, leaving their shells. Of the relics, the best was a brick building which had been the largest and most important factory in the quarter: it had been injured by a long vacancy almost as serious as a fire, in effect, and Adams had often guessed at the sum needed to put it in repair.
When he passed it, he would look at it with an interest which he supposed detached and idly speculative. "That'd be just the thing," he thought. "If a fellow had money enough, and took a notion to set up some new business on a big scale, this would be a pretty good place—to make glue, for instance, if that wasn't out of the question, of course. It would take a lot of money, though; a great deal too much for me to expect to handle—even if I'd ever dream of doing such a thing."
Opposite the dismantled factory was a muddy, open lot of two acres or so, and near the middle of the lot, a long brick shed stood in a desolate abandonment, not happily decorated by old coatings of theatrical and medicinal advertisements. But the brick shed had two wooden ells, and, though both shed and ells were of a single story, here was empty space enough for a modest enterprise—"space enough for almost anything, to start with," Adams thought, as he walked through the low buildings, one day, when he was prospecting in that section. "Yes, I suppose I COULD swing this," he thought. "If the process belonged to me, say, instead of being out of the question because it isn't my property—or if I was the kind of man to do such a thing anyhow, here would be something I could probably get hold of pretty cheap. They'd want a lot of money for a lease on that big building over the way—but this, why, I should think it'd be practically nothing at all."
Then, by chance, meeting an agent he knew, he made inquiries—merely to satisfy a casual curiosity, he thought—and he found matters much as he had supposed, except that the owners of the big building did not wish to let, but to sell it, and this at a price so exorbitant that Adams laughed. But the long brick shed in the great muddy lot was for sale or to let, or "pretty near to be given away," he learned, if anybody would take it.
Adams took it now, though without seeing that he had been destined to take it, and that some dreary wizard in the back of his head had foreseen all along that he would take it, and planned to be ready. He drove in his taxicab to look the place over again, then down-town to arrange for a lease; and came home to lunch with his wife and daughter. Things were "moving," he told them.
He boasted a little of having acted so decisively, and said that since the dang thing had to be done, it was "going to be done RIGHT!" He was almost cheerful, in a feverish way, and when the cab came for him again, soon after lunch, he explained that he intended not only to get things done right, but also to "get 'em done quick!" Alice, following him to the front door, looked at him anxiously and asked if she couldn't help. He laughed at her grimly.
"Then let me go along with you in the cab," she begged. "You don't look able to start in so hard, papa, just when you're barely beginning to get your strength back. Do let me go with you and see if I can't help—or at least take care of you if you should get to feeling badly."
He declined, but upon pressure let her put a tiny bottle of spirits of ammonia in his pocket, and promised to make use of it if he "felt faint or anything." Then he was off again; and the next morning had men at work in his sheds, though the wages he had to pay frightened him.
He directed the workmen in every detail, hurrying them by example and exhortations, and receiving, in consequence, several declarations of independence, as well as one resignation, which took effect immediately. "Yous capitalusts seem to think a man's got nothin' to do but break his back p'doosin' wealth fer yous to squander," the resigning person loudly complained. "You look out: the toiler's day is a-comin', and it ain't so fur off, neither!" But the capitalist was already out of hearing, gone to find a man to take this orator's place.
By the end of the week, Adams felt that he had moved satisfactorily forward in his preparations for the simple equipment he needed; but he hated the pause of Sunday. He didn't WANT any rest, he told Alice impatiently, when she suggested that the idle day might be good for him.
Late that afternoon he walked over to the apartment house where old Charley Lohr lived, and gave his friend the letter he wanted the head of Lamb and Company to receive "personally." "I'll take it as a mighty great favour in you to hand it to him personally, Charley," he said, in parting. "And you won't forget, in case he says anything about it—and remember if you ever do get a chance to put in a good word for me later, you know——"
Old Charley promised to remember, and, when Mrs. Lohr came out of the "kitchenette," after the door closed, he said thoughtfully, "Just skin and bones."
"You mean Mr. Adams is?" Mrs. Lohr inquired.
"Who'd you think I meant?" he returned. "One o' these partridges in the wall-paper?"
"Did he look so badly?"
"Looked kind of distracted to me," her husband replied. "These little thin fellers can stand a heap sometimes, though. He'll be over here again Monday."
"Did he say he would?"
"No," said Lohr. "But he will. You'll see. He'll be over to find out what the big boss says when I give him this letter. Expect I'd be kind of anxious, myself, if I was him."
"Why would you? What's Mr. Adams doing to be so anxious about?"
Lohr's expression became one of reserve, the look of a man who has found that when he speaks his inner thoughts his wife jumps too far to conclusions. "Oh, nothing," he said. "Of course any man starting up a new business is bound to be pretty nervous a while. He'll be over here to-morrow evening, all right; you'll see."
The prediction was fulfilled: Adams arrived just after Mrs. Lohr had removed the dinner dishes to her "kitchenette"; but Lohr had little information to give his caller.
"He didn't say a word, Virgil; nary a word. I took it into his office and handed it to him, and he just sat and read it; that's all. I kind of stood around as long as I could, but he was sittin' at his desk with his side to me, and he never turned around full toward me, as it were, so I couldn't hardly even tell anything. All I know: he just read it."
"Well, but see here," Adams began, nervously. "Well——"
"Well what, Virg?"
"Well, but what did he say when he DID speak?"
"He didn't speak. Not so long I was in there, anyhow. He just sat there and read it. Read kind of slow. Then, when he came to the end, he turned back and started to read it all over again. By that time there was three or four other men standin' around in the office waitin' to speak to him, and I had to go."
Adams sighed, and stared at the floor, irresolute. "Well, I'll be getting along back home then, I guess, Charley. So you're sure you couldn't tell anything what he might have thought about it, then?"
"Not a thing in the world. I've told you all I know, Virg."
"I guess so, I guess so," Adams said, mournfully. "I feel mighty obliged to you, Charley Lohr; mighty obliged. Good-night to you." And he departed, sighing in perplexity.
On his way home, preoccupied with many thoughts, he walked so slowly that once or twice he stopped and stood motionless for a few moments, without being aware of it; and when he reached the juncture of the sidewalk with the short brick path that led to his own front door, he stopped again, and stood for more than a minute. "Ah, I wish I knew," he whispered, plaintively. "I do wish I knew what he thought about it."
He was roused by a laugh that came lightly from the little veranda near by. "Papa!" Alice called gaily. "What are you standing there muttering to yourself about?"
"Oh, are you there, dearie?" he said, and came up the path. A tall figure rose from a chair on the veranda.
"Papa, this is Mr. Russell."
The two men shook hands, Adams saying, "Pleased to make your acquaintance," as they looked at each other in the faint light diffused through the opaque glass in the upper part of the door. Adams's impression was of a strong and tall young man, fashionable but gentle; and Russell's was of a dried, little old business man with a grizzled moustache, worried bright eyes, shapeless dark clothes, and a homely manner.
"Nice evening," Adams said further, as their hands parted. "Nice time o' year it is, but we don't always have as good weather as this; that's the trouble of it. Well——" He went to the door. "Well—I bid you good evening," he said, and retired within the house.
Alice laughed. "He's the old-fashionedest man in town, I suppose and frightfully impressed with you, I could see!"
"What nonsense!" said Russell. "How could anybody be impressed with me?"
"Why not? Because you're quiet? Good gracious! Don't you know that you're the most impressive sort? We chatterers spend all our time playing to you quiet people."
"Yes; we're only the audience."
"'Only!'" she echoed. "Why, we live for you, and we can't live without you."
"I wish you couldn't," said Russell. "That would be a new experience for both of us, wouldn't it?"
"It might be a rather bleak one for me," she answered, lightly. "I'm afraid I'll miss these summer evenings with you when they're over. I'll miss them enough, thanks!"
"Do they have to be over some time?" he asked.
"Oh, everything's over some time, isn't it?"
Russell laughed at her. "Don't let's look so far ahead as that," he said. "We don't need to be already thinking of the cemetery, do we?"
"I didn't," she said, shaking her head. "Our summer evenings will be over before then, Mr. Russell."
"Why?" he asked.
"Good heavens!" she said. "THERE'S laconic eloquence: almost a proposal in a single word! Never mind, I shan't hold you to it. But to answer you: well, I'm always looking ahead, and somehow I usually see about how things are coming out."
"Yes," he said. "I suppose most of us do; at least it seems as if we did, because we so seldom feel surprised by the way they do come out. But maybe that's only because life isn't like a play in a theatre, and most things come about so gradually we get used to them."
"No, I'm sure I can see quite a long way ahead," she insisted, gravely. "And it doesn't seem to me as if our summer evenings could last very long. Something'll interfere—somebody will, I mean—they'll SAY something——"
"What if they do?"
She moved her shoulders in a little apprehensive shiver. "It'll change you," she said. "I'm just sure something spiteful's going to happen to me. You'll feel differently about—things."
"Now, isn't that an idea!" he exclaimed.
"It will," she insisted. "I know something spiteful's going to happen!"
"You seem possessed by a notion not a bit flattering to me," he remarked.
"Oh, but isn't it? That's just what it is! Why isn't it?"
"Because it implies that I'm made of such soft material the slightest breeze will mess me all up. I'm not so like that as I evidently appear; and if it's true that we're afraid other people will do the things we'd be most likely to do ourselves, it seems to me that I ought to be the one to be afraid. I ought to be afraid that somebody may say something about me to you that will make you believe I'm a professional forger."
"No. We both know they won't," she said. "We both know you're the sort of person everybody in the world says nice things about." She lifted her hand to silence him as he laughed at this. "Oh, of course you are! I think perhaps you're a little flirtatious—most quiet men have that one sly way with 'em—oh, yes, they do! But you happen to be the kind of man everybody loves to praise. And if you weren't, I shouldn't hear anything terrible about you. I told you I was unpopular: I don't see anybody at all any more. The only man except you who's been to see me in a month is that fearful little fat Frank Dowling, and I sent word to HIM I wasn't home. Nobody'd tell me of your wickedness, you see."
"Then let me break some news to you," Russell said. "Nobody would tell me of yours, either. Nobody's even mentioned you to me."
She burlesqued a cry of anguish. "That IS obscurity! I suppose I'm too apt to forget that they say the population's about half a million nowadays. There ARE other people to talk about, you feel, then?"
"None that I want to," he said. "But I should think the size of the place might relieve your mind of what seems to insist on burdening it. Besides, I'd rather you thought me a better man than you do."
"What kind of a man do I think you are?"
"The kind affected by what's said about people instead of by what they do themselves."
"No, I'm not," he said. "If you want our summer evenings to be over you'll have to drive me away yourself."
"Nobody else could?"
She was silent, leaning forward, with her elbows on her knees and her clasped hands against her lips. Then, not moving, she said softly:
She was silent again, and he said nothing, but looked at her, seeming to be content with looking. Her attitude was one only a graceful person should assume, but she was graceful; and, in the wan light, which made a prettily shaped mist of her, she had beauty. Perhaps it was beauty of the hour, and of the love scene almost made into form by what they had both just said, but she had it; and though beauty of the hour passes, he who sees it will long remember it and the hour when it came.
"What are you thinking of?" he asked.
She leaned back in her chair and did not answer at once. Then she said:
"I don't know; I doubt if I was thinking of anything. It seems to me I wasn't. I think I was just being sort of sadly happy just then."
"Were you? Was it 'sadly,' too?"
"Don't you know?" she said. "It seems to me that only little children can be just happily happy. I think when we get older our happiest moments are like the one I had just then: it's as if we heard strains of minor music running through them—oh, so sweet, but oh, so sad!"
"But what makes it sad for YOU?"
"I don't know," she said, in a lighter tone. "Perhaps it's a kind of useless foreboding I seem to have pretty often. It may be that—or it may be poor papa."
"You ARE a funny, delightful girl, though!" Russell laughed. "When your father's so well again that he goes out walking in the evenings!"
"He does too much walking," Alice said. "Too much altogether, over at his new plant. But there isn't any stopping him." She laughed and shook her head. "When a man gets an ambition to be a multi-millionaire his family don't appear to have much weight with him. He'll walk all he wants to, in spite of them."
"I suppose so," Russell said, absently; then he leaned forward. "I wish I could understand better why you were 'sadly' happy."
Meanwhile, as Alice shed what further light she could on this point, the man ambitious to be a "multi-millionaire" was indeed walking too much for his own good. He had gone to bed, hoping to sleep well and rise early for a long day's work, but he could not rest, and now, in his nightgown and slippers, he was pacing the floor of his room.
"I wish I DID know," he thought, over and over. "I DO wish I knew how he feels about it."
That was a thought almost continuously in his mind, even when he was hardest at work; and, as the days went on and he could not free himself, he became querulous about it. "I guess I'm the biggest dang fool alive," he told his wife as they sat together one evening. "I got plenty else to bother me, without worrying my head off about what HE thinks. I can't help what he thinks; it's too late for that. So why should I keep pestering myself about it?"
"It'll wear off, Virgil," Mrs. Adams said, reassuringly. She was gentle and sympathetic with him, and for the first time in many years he would come to sit with her and talk, when he had finished his day's work. He had told her, evading her eye, "Oh, I don't blame you. You didn't get after me to do this on your own account; you couldn't help it."
"Yes; but it don't wear off," he complained. "This afternoon I was showing the men how I wanted my vats to go, and I caught my fool self standing there saying to my fool self, 'It's funny I don't hear how he feels about it from SOMEbody.' I was saying it aloud, almost—and it IS funny I don't hear anything!"
"Well, you see what it means, don't you, Virgil? It only means he hasn't said anything to anybody about it. Don't you think you're getting kind of morbid over it?"
"Maybe, maybe," he muttered.
"Why, yes," she said, briskly. "You don't realize what a little bit of a thing all this is to him. It's been a long, long while since the last time you even mentioned glue to him, and he's probably forgotten everything about it."
"You're off your base; it isn't like him to forget things," Adams returned, peevishly. "He may seem to forget 'em, but he don't."
"But he's not thinking about this, or you'd have heard from him before now."
Her husband shook his head. "Ah, that's just it!" he said. "Why HAVEN'T I heard from him?"
"It's all your morbidness, Virgil. Look at Walter: if Mr. Lamb held this up against you, would he still let Walter stay there? Wouldn't he have discharged Walter if he felt angry with you?"
"That dang boy!" Adams said. "If he WANTED to come with me now, I wouldn't hardly let him, What do you suppose makes him so bull-headed?"
"But hasn't he a right to choose for himself?" she asked. "I suppose he feels he ought to stick to what he thinks is sure pay. As soon as he sees that you're going to succeed with the glue-works he'll want to be with you quick enough."
"Well, he better get a little sense in his head," Adams returned, crossly. "He wanted me to pay him a three-hundred-dollar bonus in advance, when anybody with a grain of common sense knows I need every penny I can lay my hands on!"
"Never mind," she said. "He'll come around later and be glad of the chance."
"He'll have to beg for it then! I won't ask him again."
"Oh, Walter will come out all right; you needn't worry. And don't you see that Mr. Lamb's not discharging him means there's no hard feeling against you, Virgil?"
"I can't make it out at all," he said, frowning. "The only thing I can THINK it means is that J. A. Lamb is so fair-minded—and of course he IS one of the fair-mindedest men alive I suppose that's the reason he hasn't fired Walter. He may know," Adams concluded, morosely—"he may know that's just another thing to make me feel all the meaner: keeping my boy there on a salary after I've done him an injury."
"Now, now!" she said, trying to comfort him. "You couldn't do anybody an injury to save your life, and everybody knows it."
"Well, anybody ought to know I wouldn't WANT to do an injury, but this world isn't built so't we can do just what we want." He paused, reflecting. "Of course there may be one explanation of why Walter's still there: J. A. maybe hasn't noticed that he IS there. There's so many I expect he hardly knows him by sight."
"Well, just do quit thinking about it," she urged him. "It only bothers you without doing any good. Don't you know that?"
"Don't I, though!" he laughed, feebly. "I know it better'n anybody! How funny that is: when you know thinking about a thing only pesters you without helping anything at all, and yet you keep right on pestering yourself with it!"
"But WHY?" she said. "What's the use when you know you haven't done anything wrong, Virgil? You said yourself you were going to improve the process so much it would be different from the old one, and you'd REALLY have a right to it."
Adams had persuaded himself of this when he yielded; he had found it necessary to persuade himself of it—though there was a part of him, of course, that remained unpersuaded; and this discomfiting part of him was what made his present trouble. "Yes, I know," he said. "That's true, but I can't quite seem to get away from the fact that the principle of the process is a good deal the same—well, it's more'n that; it's just about the same as the one he hired Campbell and me to work out for him. Truth is, nobody could tell the difference, and I don't know as there IS any difference except in these improvements I'm making. Of course, the improvements do give me pretty near a perfect right to it, as a person might say; and that's one of the things I thought of putting in my letter to him; but I was afraid he'd just think I was trying to make up excuses, so I left it out. I kind of worried all the time I was writing that letter, because if he thought I WAS just making up excuses, why, it might set him just so much more against me."
Ever since Mrs. Adams had found that she was to have her way, the depths of her eyes had been troubled by a continuous uneasiness; and, although she knew it was there, and sometimes veiled it by keeping the revealing eyes averted from her husband and children, she could not always cover it under that assumption of absent-mindedness. The uneasy look became vivid, and her voice was slightly tremulous now, as she said, "But what if he SHOULD be against you—although I don't believe he is, of course—you told me he couldn't DO anything to you, Virgil."
"No," he said, slowly. "I can't see how he could do anything. It was just a secret, not a patent; the thing ain't patentable. I've tried to think what he could do—supposing he was to want to—but I can't figure out anything at all that would be any harm to me. There isn't any way in the world it could be made a question of law. Only thing he could do'd be to TELL people his side of it, and set 'em against me. I been kind of waiting for that to happen, all along."
She looked somewhat relieved. "So did I expect it," she said. "I was dreading it most on Alice's account: it might have—well, young men are so easily influenced and all. But so far as the business is concerned, what if Mr. Lamb did talk? That wouldn't amount to much. It wouldn't affect the business; not to hurt. And, besides, he isn't even doing that."
"No; anyhow not yet, it seems." And Adams sighed again, wistfully. "But I WOULD give a good deal to know what he thinks!"
Before his surrender he had always supposed that if he did such an unthinkable thing as to seize upon the glue process for himself, what he would feel must be an overpowering shame. But shame is the rarest thing in the world: what he felt was this unremittent curiosity about his old employer's thoughts. It was an obsession, yet he did not want to hear what Lamb "thought" from Lamb himself, for Adams had a second obsession, and this was his dread of meeting the old man face to face. Such an encounter could happen only by chance and unexpectedly; since Adams would have avoided any deliberate meeting, so long as his legs had strength to carry him, even if Lamb came to the house to see him.
But people do meet unexpectedly; and when Adams had to be down-town he kept away from the "wholesale district." One day he did see Lamb, as the latter went by in his car, impassive, going home to lunch; and Adams, in the crowd at a corner, knew that the old man had not seen him. Nevertheless, in a street car, on the way back to his sheds, an hour later, he was still subject to little shivering seizures of horror.
He worked unceasingly, seeming to keep at it even in his sleep, for he always woke in the midst of a planning and estimating that must have been going on in his mind before consciousness of himself returned. Moreover, the work, thus urged, went rapidly, in spite of the high wages he had to pay his labourers for their short hours. "It eats money," he complained, and, in fact, by the time his vats and boilers were in place it had eaten almost all he could supply; but in addition to his equipment he now owned a stock of "raw material," raw indeed; and when operations should be a little further along he was confident his banker would be willing to "carry" him.
Six weeks from the day he had obtained his lease he began his glue-making. The terrible smells came out of the sheds and went writhing like snakes all through that quarter of the town. A smiling man, strolling and breathing the air with satisfaction, would turn a corner and smile no more, but hurry. However, coloured people had almost all the dwellings of this old section to themselves; and although even they were troubled, there was recompense for them. Being philosophic about what appeared to them as in the order of nature, they sought neither escape nor redress, and soon learned to bear what the wind brought them. They even made use of it to enrich those figures of speech with which the native impulses of coloured people decorate their communications: they flavoured metaphor, simile, and invective with it; and thus may be said to have enjoyed it. But the man who produced it took a hot bath as soon as he reached his home the evening of that first day when his manufacturing began. Then he put on fresh clothes; but after dinner he seemed to be haunted, and asked his wife if she "noticed anything."
She laughed and inquired what he meant.
"Seems to me as if that glue-works smell hadn't quit hanging to me," he explained. "Don't you notice it?"
"No! What an idea!"
He laughed, too, but uneasily; and told her he was sure "the dang glue smell" was somehow sticking to him. Later, he went outdoors and walked up and down the small yard in the dusk; but now and then he stood still, with his head lifted, and sniffed the air suspiciously. "Can YOU smell it?" he called to Alice, who sat upon the veranda, prettily dressed and waiting in a reverie.
"Smell what, papa?"
"That dang glue-works."
She did the same thing her mother had done: laughed, and said, "No! How foolish! Why, papa, it's over two miles from here!"
"You don't get it at all?" he insisted.
"The idea! The air is lovely to-night, papa."
The air did not seem lovely to him, for he was positive that he detected the taint. He wondered how far it carried, and if J. A. Lamb would smell it, too, out on his own lawn a mile to the north; and if he did, would he guess what it was? Then Adams laughed at himself for such nonsense; but could not rid his nostrils of their disgust. To him the whole town seemed to smell of his glue-works.
Nevertheless, the glue was making, and his sheds were busy. "Guess we're stirrin' up this ole neighbourhood with more than the smell," his foreman remarked one morning.
"How's that?" Adams inquired.
"That great big, enormous ole dead butterine factory across the street from our lot," the man said. "Nothin' like settin' an example to bring real estate to life. That place is full o' carpenters startin' in to make a regular buildin' of it again. Guess you ought to have the credit of it, because you was the first man in ten years to see any possibilities in this neighbourhood."
Adams was pleased, and, going out to see for himself, heard a great hammering and sawing from within the building; while carpenters were just emerging gingerly upon the dangerous roof. He walked out over the dried mud of his deep lot, crossed the street, and spoke genially to a workman who was removing the broken glass of a window on the ground floor.
"Here! What's all this howdy-do over here?"
"Goin' to fix her all up, I guess," the workman said. "Big job it is, too."
"Sh' think it would be."
"Yes, sir; a pretty big job—a pretty big job. Got men at it on all four floors and on the roof. They're doin' it RIGHT."
"Who's doing it?"
"Lord! I d' know. Some o' these here big manufacturing corporations, I guess."
"What's it going to be?"
"They tell ME," the workman answered—"they tell ME she's goin' to be a butterine factory again. Anyways, I hope she won't be anything to smell like that glue-works you got over there not while I'm workin' around her, anyways!"
"That smell's all right," Adams said. "You soon get used to it."
"You do?" The man appeared incredulous. "Listen! I was over in France: it's a good thing them Dutchmen never thought of it; we'd of had to quit!"
Adams laughed, and went back to his sheds. "I guess my foreman was right," he told his wife, that evening, with a little satisfaction. "As soon as one man shows enterprise enough to found an industry in a broken-down neighbourhood, somebody else is sure to follow. I kind of like the look of it: it'll help make our place seem sort of more busy and prosperous when it comes to getting a loan from the bank—and I got to get one mighty soon, too. I did think some that if things go as well as there's every reason to think they OUGHT to, I might want to spread out and maybe get hold of that old factory myself; but I hardly expected to be able to handle a proposition of that size before two or three years from now, and anyhow there's room enough on the lot I got, if we need more buildings some day. Things are going about as fine as I could ask: I hired some girls to-day to do the bottling—coloured girls along about sixteen to twenty years old. Afterwhile, I expect to get a machine to put the stuff in the little bottles, when we begin to get good returns; but half a dozen of these coloured girls can do it all right now, by hand. We're getting to have really quite a little plant over there: yes, sir, quite a regular little plant!"
He chuckled, and at this cheerful sound, of a kind his wife had almost forgotten he was capable of producing, she ventured to put her hand upon his arm. They had gone outdoors, after dinner, taking two chairs with them, and were sitting through the late twilight together, keeping well away from the "front porch," which was not yet occupied, however Alice was in her room changing her dress.
"Well, honey," Mrs. Adams said, taking confidence not only to put her hand upon his arm, but to revive this disused endearment;—"it's grand to have you so optimistic. Maybe some time you'll admit I was right, after all. Everything's going so well, it seems a pity you didn't take this—this step—long ago. Don't you think maybe so, Virgil?"
"Well—if I was ever going to, I don't know but I might as well of. I got to admit the proposition begins to look pretty good: I know the stuff'll sell, and I can't see a thing in the world to stop it. It does look good, and if—if——" He paused.
"If what?" she said, suddenly anxious.
He laughed plaintively, as if confessing a superstition. "It's funny—well, it's mighty funny about that smell. I've got so used to it at the plant I never seem to notice it at all over there. It's only when I get away. Honestly, can't you notice——?"
"Virgil!" She lifted her hand to strike his arm chidingly. "Do quit harping on that nonsense!"
"Oh, of course it don't amount to anything," he said. "A person can stand a good deal of just smell. It don't WORRY me any."
"I should think not especially as there isn't any."
"Well," he said, "I feel pretty fair over the whole thing—a lot better'n I ever expected to, anyhow. I don't know as there's any reason I shouldn't tell you so."
She was deeply pleased with this acknowledgment, and her voice had tenderness in it as she responded: "There, honey! Didn't I always say you'd be glad if you did it?"
Embarrassed, he coughed loudly, then filled his pipe and lit it. "Well," he said, slowly, "it's a puzzle. Yes, sir, it's a puzzle."
"Pretty much everything, I guess."
As he spoke, a song came to them from a lighted window over their heads. Then the window darkened abruptly, but the song continued as Alice went down through the house to wait on the little veranda. "Mi chiamo Mimi," she sang, and in her voice throbbed something almost startling in its sweetness. Her father and mother listened, not speaking until the song stopped with the click of the wire screen at the front door as Alice came out.
"My!" said her father. "How sweet she does sing! I don't know as I ever heard her voice sound nicer than it did just then."
"There's something that makes it sound that way," his wife told him.
"I suppose so," he said, sighing. "I suppose so. You think——"
"She's just terribly in love with him!"
"I expect that's the way it ought to be," he said, then drew upon his pipe for reflection, and became murmurous with the symptoms of melancholy laughter. "It don't make things less of a puzzle, though, does it?"
"In what way, Virgil?"
"Why, here," he said—"here we go through all this muck and moil to help fix things nicer for her at home, and what's it all amount to? Seems like she's just gone ahead the way she'd 'a' gone anyhow; and now, I suppose, getting ready to up and leave us! Ain't that a puzzle to you? It is to me."
"Oh, but things haven't gone that far yet."
"Why, you just said——"
She gave a little cry of protest. "Oh, they aren't ENGAGED yet. Of course they WILL be; he's just as much interested in her as she is in him, but——"
"Well, what's the trouble then?"
"You ARE a simple old fellow!" his wife exclaimed, and then rose from her chair. "That reminds me," she said.
"What of?" he asked. "What's my being simple remind you of?"
"Nothing!" she laughed. "It wasn't you that reminded me. It was just something that's been on my mind. I don't believe he's actually ever been inside our house!"
"I actually don't believe he ever has," she said. "Of course we must——" She paused, debating.
"We must what?"
"I guess I better talk to Alice about it right now," she said. "He don't usually come for about half an hour yet; I guess I've got time." And with that she walked away, leaving him to his puzzles.
Alice was softly crooning to herself as her mother turned the corner of the house and approached through the dusk.
"Isn't it the most BEAUTIFUL evening!" the daughter said. "WHY can't summer last all year? Did you ever know a lovelier twilight than this, mama?"
Mrs. Adams laughed, and answered, "Not since I was your age, I expect."
Alice was wistful at once. "Don't they stay beautiful after my age?"
"Well, it's not the same thing."
"Isn't it? Not ever?"
"You may have a different kind from mine," the mother said, a little sadly. "I think you will, Alice. You deserve——"
"No, I don't. I don't deserve anything, and I know it. But I'm getting a great deal these days—more than I ever dreamed COULD come to me. I'm—I'm pretty happy, mama!"
"Dearie!" Her mother would have kissed her, but Alice drew away.
"Oh, I don't mean——" She laughed nervously. "I wasn't meaning to tell you I'm ENGAGED, mama. We're not. I mean—oh! things seem pretty beautiful in spite of all I've done to spoil 'em."
"You?" Mrs. Adams cried, incredulously. "What have you done to spoil anything?"
"Little things," Alice said. "A thousand little silly—oh, what's the use? He's so honestly what he is—just simple and good and intelligent—I feel a tricky mess beside him! I don't see why he likes me; and sometimes I'm afraid he wouldn't if he knew me."
"He'd just worship you," said the fond mother. "And the more he knew you, the more he'd worship you."
Alice shook her head. "He's not the worshiping kind. Not like that at all. He's more——"
But Mrs. Adams was not interested in this analysis, and she interrupted briskly, "Of course it's time your father and I showed some interest in him. I was just saying I actually don't believe he's ever been inside the house."
"No," Alice said, musingly; "that's true: I don't believe he has. Except when we've walked in the evening we've always sat out here, even those two times when it was drizzly. It's so much nicer."
"We'll have to do SOMETHING or other, of course," her mother said.
"I was thinking——" Mrs. Adams paused. "Well, of course we could hardly put off asking him to dinner, or something, much longer."
Alice was not enthusiastic; so far from it, indeed, that there was a melancholy alarm in her voice. "Oh, mama, must we? Do you think so?"
"Yes, I do. I really do."
"Couldn't we—well, couldn't we wait?"
"It looks queer," Mrs. Adams said. "It isn't the thing at all for a young man to come as much as he does, and never more than just barely meet your father and mother. No. We ought to do something."
"But a dinner!" Alice objected. "In the first place, there isn't anybody I want to ask. There isn't anybody I WOULD ask."
"I didn't mean trying to give a big dinner," her mother explained. "I just mean having him to dinner. That mulatto woman, Malena Burns, goes out by the day, and she could bring a waitress. We can get some flowers for the table and some to put in the living-room. We might just as well go ahead and do it to-morrow as any other time; because your father's in a fine mood, and I saw Malena this afternoon and told her I might want her soon. She said she didn't have any engagements this week, and I can let her know to-night. Suppose when he comes you ask him for to-morrow, Alice. Everything'll be very nice, I'm sure. Don't worry about it."
"Well—but——" Alice was uncertain.
"But don't you see, it looks so queer, not to do SOMETHING?" her mother urged. "It looks so kind of poverty-stricken. We really oughtn't to wait any longer."
Alice assented, though not with a good heart. "Very well, I'll ask him, if you think we've got to."
"That matter's settled then," Mrs. Adams said. "I'll go telephone Malena, and then I'll tell your father about it."
But when she went back to her husband, she found him in an excited state of mind, and Walter standing before him in the darkness. Adams was almost shouting, so great was his vehemence.
"Hush, hush!" his wife implored, as she came near them. "They'll hear you out on the front porch!"
"I don't care who hears me," Adams said, harshly, though he tempered his loudness. "Do you want to know what this boy's asking me for? I thought he'd maybe come to tell me he'd got a little sense in his head at last, and a little decency about what's due his family! I thought he was going to ask me to take him into my plant. No, ma'am; THAT'S not what he wants!"
"No, it isn't," Walter said. In the darkness his face could not be seen; he stood motionless, in what seemed an apathetic attitude; and he spoke quietly, "No," he repeated. "That isn't what I want."
"You stay down at that place," Adams went on, hotly, "instead of trying to be a little use to your family; and the only reason you're ALLOWED to stay there is because Mr. Lamb's never happened to notice you ARE still there! You just wait——"
"You're off," Walter said, in the same quiet way. "He knows I'm there. He spoke to me yesterday: he asked me how I was getting along with my work."
"He did?" Adams said, seeming not to believe him.
"Yes. He did."
"What else did he say, Walter?" Mrs. Adams asked quickly.
"Nothin'. Just walked on."
"I don't believe he knew who you were," Adams declared.
"Think not? He called me 'Walter Adams.'"
At this Adams was silent; and Walter, after waiting a moment, said:
"Well, are you going to do anything about me? About what I told you I got to have?"
"What is it, Walter?" his mother asked, since Adams did not speak.
Walter cleared his throat, and replied in a tone as quiet as that he had used before, though with a slight huskiness, "I got to have three hundred and fifty dollars. You better get him to give it to me if you can."
Adams found his voice. "Yes," he said, bitterly. "That's all he asks! He won't do anything I ask HIM to, and in return he asks me for three hundred and fifty dollars! That's all!"
"What in the world!" Mrs. Adams exclaimed. "What FOR, Walter?"
"I got to have it," Walter said.
"But what FOR?"
His quiet huskiness did not alter. "I got to have it."
"But can't you tell us——"
"I got to have it."
"That's all you can get out of him," Adams said. "He seems to think it'll bring him in three hundred and fifty dollars!"
A faint tremulousness became evident in the husky voice. "Haven't you got it?"
"NO, I haven't got it!" his father answered. "And I've got to go to a bank for more than my pay-roll next week. Do you think I'm a mint?"
"I don't understand what you mean, Walter," Mrs. Adams interposed, perplexed and distressed. "If your father had the money, of course he'd need every cent of it, especially just now, and, anyhow, you could scarcely expect him to give it to you, unless you told us what you want with it. But he hasn't got it."
"All right," Walter said; and after standing a moment more, in silence, he added, impersonally, "I don't see as you ever did anything much for me, anyhow either of you."
Then, as if this were his valedictory, he turned his back upon them, walked away quickly, and was at once lost to their sight in the darkness.
"There's a fine boy to've had the trouble of raising!" Adams grumbled. "Just crazy, that's all."
"What in the world do you suppose he wants all that money for?" his wife said, wonderingly. "I can't imagine what he could DO with it. I wonder——" She paused. "I wonder if he——"
"If he what?" Adams prompted her irritably.
"If he COULD have bad—associates."
"God knows!" said Adams. "I don't! It just looks to me like he had something in him I don't understand. You can't keep your eye on a boy all the time in a city this size, not a boy Walter's age. You got a girl pretty much in the house, but a boy'll follow his nature. I don't know what to do with him!"
Mrs. Adams brightened a little. "He'll come out all right," she said. "I'm sure he will. I'm sure he'd never be anything really bad: and he'll come around all right about the glue-works, too; you'll see. Of course every young man wants money—it doesn't prove he's doing anything wrong just because he asks you for it."
"No. All it proves to me is that he hasn't got good sense asking me for three hundred and fifty dollars, when he knows as well as you do the position I'm in! If I wanted to, I couldn't hardly let him have three hundred and fifty cents, let alone dollars!"
"I'm afraid you'll have to let ME have that much—and maybe a little more," she ventured, timidly; and she told him of her plans for the morrow. He objected vehemently.
"Oh, but Alice has probably asked him by this time," Mrs. Adams said. "It really must be done, Virgil: you don't want him to think she's ashamed of us, do you?"
"Well, go ahead, but just let me stay away," he begged. "Of course I expect to undergo a kind of talk with him, when he gets ready to say something to us about Alice, but I do hate to have to sit through a fashionable dinner."
"Why, it isn't going to bother you," she said; "just one young man as a guest."
"Yes, I know; but you want to have all this fancy cookin'; and I see well enough you're going to get that old dress suit out of the cedar chest in the attic, and try to make me put it on me."
"I do think you better, Virgil."
"I hope the moths have got in it," he said. "Last time I wore it was to the banquet, and it was pretty old then. Of course I didn't mind wearing it to the banquet so much, because that was what you might call quite an occasion." He spoke with some reminiscent complacency; "the banquet," an affair now five years past, having provided the one time in his life when he had been so distinguished among his fellow-citizens as to receive an invitation to be present, with some seven hundred others, at the annual eating and speech-making of the city's Chamber of Commerce. "Anyhow, as you say, I think it would look foolish of me to wear a dress suit for just one young man," he went on protesting, feebly. "What's the use of all so much howdy-do, anyway? You don't expect him to believe we put on all that style every night, do you? Is that what you're after?"
"Well, we want him to think we live nicely," she admitted.
"So that's it!" he said, querulously. "You want him to think that's our regular gait, do you? Well, he'll know better about me, no matter how you fix me up, because he saw me in my regular suit the evening she introduced me to him, and he could tell anyway I'm not one of these moving-picture sporting-men that's always got a dress suit on. Besides, you and Alice certainly have some idea he'll come AGAIN, haven't you? If they get things settled between 'em he'll be around the house and to meals most any time, won't he? You don't hardly expect to put on style all the time, I guess. Well, he'll see then that this kind of thing was all show-off, and bluff, won't he? What about it?"
"Oh, well, by THAT time——" She left the sentence unfinished, as if absently. "You could let us have a little money for to-morrow, couldn't you, honey?"
"Oh, I reckon, I reckon," he mumbled. "A girl like Alice is some comfort: she don't come around acting as if she'd commit suicide if she didn't get three hundred and fifty dollars in the next five minutes. I expect I can spare five or six dollars for your show-off if I got to."
However, she finally obtained fifteen before his bedtime; and the next morning "went to market" after breakfast, leaving Alice to make the beds. Walter had not yet come downstairs. "You had better call him," Mrs. Adams said, as she departed with a big basket on her arm. "I expect he's pretty sleepy; he was out so late last night I didn't hear him come in, though I kept awake till after midnight, listening for him. Tell him he'll be late to work if he doesn't hurry; and see that he drinks his coffee, even if he hasn't time for anything else. And when Malena comes, get her started in the kitchen: show her where everything is." She waved her hand, as she set out for a corner where the cars stopped. "Everything'll be lovely. Don't forget about Walter."
Nevertheless, Alice forgot about Walter for a few minutes. She closed the door, went into the "living-room" absently, and stared vaguely at one of the old brown-plush rocking-chairs there. Upon her forehead were the little shadows of an apprehensive reverie, and her thoughts overlapped one another in a fretful jumble. "What will he think? These old chairs—they're hideous. I'll scrub those soot-streaks on the columns: it won't do any good, though. That long crack in the column—nothing can help it. What will he think of papa? I hope mama won't talk too much. When he thinks of Mildred's house, or of Henrietta's, or any of 'em, beside this—She said she'd buy plenty of roses; that ought to help some. Nothing could be done about these horrible chairs: can't take 'em up in the attic—a room's got to have chairs! Might have rented some. No; if he ever comes again he'd see they weren't here. 'If he ever comes again'—oh, it won't be THAT bad! But it won't be what he expects. I'm responsible for what he expects: he expects just what the airs I've put on have made him expect. What did I want to pose so to him for—as if papa were a wealthy man and all that? What WILL he think? The photograph of the Colosseum's a rather good thing, though. It helps some—as if we'd bought it in Rome perhaps. I hope he'll think so; he believes I've been abroad, of course. The other night he said, 'You remember the feeling you get in the Sainte-Chapelle'.—There's another lie of mine, not saying I didn't remember because I'd never been there. What makes me do it? Papa MUST wear his evening clothes. But Walter——"
With that she recalled her mother's admonition, and went upstairs to Walter's door. She tapped upon it with her fingers.
"Time to get up, Walter. The rest of us had breakfast over half an hour ago, and it's nearly eight o'clock. You'll be late. Hurry down and I'll have some coffee and toast ready for you." There came no sound from within the room, so she rapped louder.
"Wake up, Walter!"
She called and rapped again, without getting any response, and then, finding that the door yielded to her, opened it and went in. Walter was not there.
He had been there, however; had slept upon the bed, though not inside the covers; and Alice supposed he must have come home so late that he had been too sleepy to take off his clothes. Near the foot of the bed was a shallow closet where he kept his "other suit" and his evening clothes; and the door stood open, showing a bare wall. Nothing whatever was in the closet, and Alice was rather surprised at this for a moment. "That's queer," she murmured; and then she decided that when he woke he found the clothes he had slept in "so mussy" he had put on his "other suit," and had gone out before breakfast with the mussed clothes to have them pressed, taking his evening things with them. Satisfied with this explanation, and failing to observe that it did not account for the absence of shoes from the closet floor, she nodded absently, "Yes, that must be it"; and, when her mother returned, told her that Walter had probably breakfasted down-town. They did not delay over this; the coloured woman had arrived, and the basket's disclosures were important.
"I stopped at Worlig's on the way back," said Mrs. Adams, flushed with hurry and excitement. "I bought a can of caviar there. I thought we'd have little sandwiches brought into the 'living-room' before dinner, the way you said they did when you went to that dinner at the——"
"But I think that was to go with cocktails, mama, and of course we haven't——"
"No," Mrs. Adams said. "Still, I think it would be nice. We can make them look very dainty, on a tray, and the waitress can bring them in. I thought we'd have the soup already on the table; and we can walk right out as soon as we have the sandwiches, so it won't get cold. Then, after the soup, Malena says she can make sweetbread pates with mushrooms: and for the meat course we'll have larded fillet. Malena's really a fancy cook, you know, and she says she can do anything like that to perfection. We'll have peas with the fillet, and potato balls and Brussels sprouts. Brussels sprouts are fashionable now, they told me at market. Then will come the chicken salad, and after that the ice-cream—she's going to make an angel-food cake to go with it—and then coffee and crackers and a new kind of cheese I got at Worlig's, he says is very fine."
Alice was alarmed. "Don't you think perhaps it's too much, mama?"
"It's better to have too much than too little," her mother said, cheerfully. "We don't want him to think we're the kind that skimp. Lord knows we have to enough, though, most of the time! Get the flowers in water, child. I bought 'em at market because they're so much cheaper there, but they'll keep fresh and nice. You fix 'em any way you want. Hurry! It's got to be a busy day."
She had bought three dozen little roses. Alice took them and began to arrange them in vases, keeping the stems separated as far as possible so that the clumps would look larger. She put half a dozen in each of three vases in the "living-room," placing one vase on the table in the center of the room, and one at each end of the mantelpiece. Then she took the rest of the roses to the dining-room; but she postponed the arrangement of them until the table should be set, just before dinner. She was thoughtful; planning to dry the stems and lay them on the tablecloth like a vine of roses running in a delicate design, if she found that the dozen and a half she had left were enough for that. If they weren't she would arrange them in a vase.
She looked a long time at the little roses in the basin of water, where she had put them; then she sighed, and went away to heavier tasks, while her mother worked in the kitchen with Malena. Alice dusted the "living-room" and the dining-room vigorously, though all the time with a look that grew more and more pensive; and having dusted everything, she wiped the furniture; rubbed it hard. After that, she washed the floors and the woodwork.
Emerging from the kitchen at noon, Mrs. Adams found her daughter on hands and knees, scrubbing the bases of the columns between the hall and the "living-room."
"Now, dearie," she said, "you mustn't tire yourself out, and you'd better come and eat something. Your father said he'd get a bite down-town to-day—he was going down to the bank—and Walter eats down-town all the time lately, so I thought we wouldn't bother to set the table for lunch. Come on and we'll have something in the kitchen."
"No," Alice said, dully, as she went on with the work. "I don't want anything."
Her mother came closer to her. "Why, what's the matter?" she asked, briskly. "You seem kind of pale, to me; and you don't look—you don't look HAPPY."
"Well——" Alice began, uncertainly, but said no more.
"See here!" Mrs. Adams exclaimed. "This is all just for you! You ought to be ENJOYING it. Why, it's the first time we've—we've entertained in I don't know how long! I guess it's almost since we had that little party when you were eighteen. What's the matter with you?"
"Nothing. I don't know."
"But, dearie, aren't you looking FORWARD to this evening?"
The girl looked up, showing a pallid and solemn face. "Oh, yes, of course," she said, and tried to smile. "Of course we had to do it—I do think it'll be nice. Of course I'm looking forward to it."
She was indeed "looking forward" to that evening, but in a cloud of apprehension; and, although she could never have guessed it, this was the simultaneous condition of another person—none other than the guest for whose pleasure so much cooking and scrubbing seemed to be necessary. Moreover, Mr. Arthur Russell's premonitions were no product of mere coincidence; neither had any magical sympathy produced them. His state of mind was rather the result of rougher undercurrents which had all the time been running beneath the surface of a romantic friendship.
Never shrewder than when she analyzed the gentlemen, Alice did not libel him when she said he was one of those quiet men who are a bit flirtatious, by which she meant that he was a bit "susceptible," the same thing—and he had proved himself susceptible to Alice upon his first sight of her. "There!" he said to himself. "Who's that?" And in the crowd of girls at his cousin's dance, all strangers to him, she was the one he wanted to know.
Since then, his summer evenings with her had been as secluded as if, for three hours after the falling of dusk, they two had drawn apart from the world to some dear bower of their own. The little veranda was that glamorous nook, with a faint golden light falling through the glass of the closed door upon Alice, and darkness elsewhere, except for the one round globe of the street lamp at the corner. The people who passed along the sidewalk, now and then, were only shadows with voices, moving vaguely under the maple trees that loomed in obscure contours against the stars. So, as the two sat together, the back of the world was the wall and closed door behind them; and Russell, when he was away from Alice, always thought of her as sitting there before the closed door. A glamour was about her thus, and a spell upon him; but he had a formless anxiety never put into words: all the pictures of her in his mind stopped at the closed door.
He had another anxiety; and, for the greater part, this was of her own creating. She had too often asked him (no matter how gaily) what he heard about her, too often begged him not to hear anything. Then, hoping to forestall whatever he might hear, she had been at too great pains to account for it, to discredit and mock it; and, though he laughed at her for this, telling her truthfully he did not even hear her mentioned, the everlasting irony that deals with all such human forefendings prevailed.
Lately, he had half confessed to her what a nervousness she had produced. "You make me dread the day when I'll hear somebody speaking of you. You're getting me so upset about it that if I ever hear anybody so much as say the name 'Alice Adams,' I'll run!" The confession was but half of one because he laughed; and she took it for an assurance of loyalty in the form of burlesque.
She misunderstood: he laughed, but his nervousness was genuine.
After any stroke of events, whether a happy one or a catastrophe, we see that the materials for it were a long time gathering, and the only marvel is that the stroke was not prophesied. What bore the air of fatal coincidence may remain fatal indeed, to this later view; but, with the haphazard aspect dispelled, there is left for scrutiny the same ancient hint from the Infinite to the effect that since events have never yet failed to be law-abiding, perhaps it were well for us to deduce that they will continue to be so until further notice.
. . . On the day that was to open the closed door in the background of his pictures of Alice, Russell lunched with his relatives. There were but the four people, Russell and Mildred and her mother and father, in the great, cool dining-room. Arched French windows, shaded by awnings, admitted a mellow light and looked out upon a green lawn ending in a long conservatory, which revealed through its glass panes a carnival of plants in luxuriant blossom. From his seat at the table, Russell glanced out at this pretty display, and informed his cousins that he was surprised. "You have such a glorious spread of flowers all over the house," he said, "I didn't suppose you'd have any left out yonder. In fact, I didn't know there were so many splendid flowers in the world."
Mrs. Palmer, large, calm, fair, like her daughter, responded with a mild reproach: "That's because you haven't been cousinly enough to get used to them, Arthur. You've almost taught us to forget what you look like."
In defense Russell waved a hand toward her husband. "You see, he's begun to keep me so hard at work——"
But Mr. Palmer declined the responsibility. "Up to four or five in the afternoon, perhaps," he said. "After that, the young gentleman is as much a stranger to me as he is to my family. I've been wondering who she could be."
"When a man's preoccupied there must be a lady then?" Russell inquired.
"That seems to be the view of your sex," Mrs. Palmer suggested. "It was my husband who said it, not Mildred or I."
Mildred smiled faintly. "Papa may be singular in his ideas; they may come entirely from his own experience, and have nothing to do with Arthur."
"Thank you, Mildred," her cousin said, bowing to her gratefully. "You seem to understand my character—and your father's quite as well!"
However, Mildred remained grave in the face of this customary pleasantry, not because the old jest, worn round, like what preceded it, rolled in an old groove, but because of some preoccupation of her own. Her faint smile had disappeared, and, as her cousin's glance met hers, she looked down; yet not before he had seen in her eyes the flicker of something like a question—a question both poignant and dismayed. He may have understood it; for his own smile vanished at once in favour of a reciprocal solemnity.
"You see, Arthur," Mrs. Palmer said, "Mildred is always a good cousin. She and I stand by you, even if you do stay away from us for weeks and weeks." Then, observing that he appeared to be so occupied with a bunch of iced grapes upon his plate that he had not heard her, she began to talk to her husband, asking him what was "going on down-town."
Arthur continued to eat his grapes, but he ventured to look again at Mildred after a few moments. She, also, appeared to be occupied with a bunch of grapes though she ate none, and only pulled them from their stems. She sat straight, her features as composed and pure as those of a new marble saint in a cathedral niche; yet her downcast eyes seemed to conceal many thoughts; and her cousin, against his will, was more aware of what these thoughts might be than of the leisurely conversation between her father and mother. All at once, however, he heard something that startled him, and he listened—and here was the effect of all Alice's forefendings; he listened from the first with a sinking heart.
Mr. Palmer, mildly amused by what he was telling his wife, had just spoken the words, "this Virgil Adams." What he had said was, "this Virgil Adams—that's the man's name. Queer case."
"Who told you?" Mrs. Palmer inquired, not much interested.
"Alfred Lamb," her husband answered. "He was laughing about his father, at the club. You see the old gentleman takes a great pride in his judgment of men, and always boasted to his sons that he'd never in his life made a mistake in trusting the wrong man. Now Alfred and James Albert, Junior, think they have a great joke on him; and they've twitted him so much about it he'll scarcely speak to them. From the first, Alfred says, the old chap's only repartee was, 'You wait and you'll see!' And they've asked him so often to show them what they're going to see that he won't say anything at all!"
"He's a funny old fellow," Mrs. Palmer observed. "But he's so shrewd I can't imagine his being deceived for such a long time. Twenty years, you said?"
"Yes, longer than that, I understand. It appears when this man—this Adams—was a young clerk, the old gentleman trusted him with one of his business secrets, a glue process that Mr. Lamb had spent some money to get hold of. The old chap thought this Adams was going to have quite a future with the Lamb concern, and of course never dreamed he was dishonest. Alfred says this Adams hasn't been of any real use for years, and they should have let him go as dead wood, but the old gentleman wouldn't hear of it, and insisted on his being kept on the payroll; so they just decided to look on it as a sort of pension. Well, one morning last March the man had an attack of some sort down there, and Mr. Lamb got his own car out and went home with him, himself, and worried about him and went to see him no end, all the time he was ill."