A pure-blooded subject of the Mikado, Oku had come to America years ago to make his fortunes; but, falling into the hands of the Philistines directly he landed, found himself stranded in San Francisco. Stafford had run across him there, took a fancy to him and attached him to his person as a body servant. He had never regretted it. Oku was one of those ideal retainers who, once they have found an attachment, would rather die than betray their trust. His command of the vernacular was only limited, but he was the very soul of courtesy and politeness, and when not otherwise able to make himself understood, would content himself by a number of low salaams, accompanied by most apologetic exclamations of: "Excuse, please—excuse, please," which original form of salutation, together with his Far-Eastern air, was well in harmony with the oriental, exotic surroundings of the place.
But this evening things were astir in the Stafford abode. Lights were burning recklessly in every room and Oku had been running excitedly about since early dawn. Had not his lord and master told him that visitors were coming and to prepare dinner for five? Ah, now Oku was indeed in his element! Instantly spurred to action, he had run here and there, in and out of the shops, in search of the most toothsome dainties. He had bought the choicest meats, the finest birds, big mushrooms just picked, asparagus such as might make a king's mouth water. Then there was the wine. The champagne must go on ice early. His master liked it very cold—almost frozen. Then there were the cocktails to get ready, and the cigars and the floral decorations, with bouquets for the ladies and boutonnieres for the men. Altogether, Oku had a busy day.
But he was repaid when at half past six that evening he stood in the salon and cast a last glance over the banquet table to make sure that nothing had been forgotten. Viewed through the folding doors and literally groaning under the load of handsome silver, fine crystal, snowy linen, and cut flowers, the table presented a picture calculated to fill the heart of any host with pride.
Oku glanced anxiously at the clock. He devoutly prayed that his dear master would soon come. It was a terrible responsibility for him to bear alone. Another half hour and the company would arrive, and his master had still to dress! The minutes sped by and no sign of Mr. Stafford. Where could he be? The butler was beginning to worry in earnest when the telephone bell suddenly rang. The butler feverishly picked up the receiver just in time to hear his master say:
"Is that you, Oku?"
"Oku," came Stafford's voice, "I've been held downtown at my club. I'm just starting for home. If Miss Blaine and her friends come, make them comfortable until I arrive. Understand?"
The speaker rang off and Oku, more nervous and excited than ever now that he was called upon to act as host as well as caterer, danced about the apartment like a man possessed. Seven o'clock struck and the echoes of the last stroke had barely died away when there came a discreet ring at the front door bell. Quickly Oku pulled himself together and summoning up his most dignified manner, threw the door wide open. On the threshold stood Mr. James Gillie, accompanied by Virginia and Fanny.
"Is this Mr. Stafford's apartment?" inquired Jimmie in his grandest manner.
"Yes, sir," said Oku with a deep salaam. "Excuse, please, and come in! Excuse, please!"
None of the visitors were in evening dress. The girls wore shirt waists and Jimmie's chief claims to distinction were a clean shave and freshly-pressed pants. At the last moment Virginia had wished not to come at all for this reason. She had no evening frock and could not afford to get one for a single occasion, and Fanny was in the same straits. There had been a long argument over the matter and not a few tears, until finally Fanny made it impossible for Virginia to hold out any longer by declaring flatly that her whole future—hers and Jimmies—was at stake. So Virginia surrendered with as good grace as she could pretend—hoping inwardly that Mr. Stafford looked upon it only as an informal affair and would be neither dressed himself nor expect them to be.
Jimmie handed his coat and hat to the butler with as important an air as he was able to assume, and, speaking for the ladies, who until now had stood motionless in the background, said loftily:
"Tell Mr. Stafford the people he was expecting have come."
Oku salaamed profoundly, but did not budge.
"Excuse! But Mr. Stafford—he is not here," he said.
Jimmie looked blankly at the girls. With a grin at Virginia he snickered:
"I told you being late was the proper thing."
Virginia turned to the butler. Anxiously she said:
"Isn't there some mistake?"
Oku shook his head, and throwing open the door of the salon, motioned to them to enter.
"Excuse, please, but there is no mistake," he grinned. "Mr. Stafford he say to me over telephone he is very sorry, but there is big meeting and he not get away. He be here in half an hour."
The girls looked at each other in dismay. Jimmie made a grimace.
"Half an hour! Jumping Jupiter!" he exclaimed.
"He say he is very sorry," went on Oku apologetically, "but will hurry quick as can. He say for you to wait till he come and he tell me to say many time, 'Excuse, please! Excuse!'"
Virginia smiled. With quiet dignity she said:
"Very well—we understand—we will wait."
Oku put out his hand for their hats and coats.
"Give me hats, please—excuse, please."
While the girls divested themselves of their outer garments the little butler chatted on in his quaint pigeon English:
"Mr. Stafford—he say to ask if you will have cocktail."
Jimmie had carelessly strolled over to a table and picked up a book. On hearing the invitation to liquid refreshments he closed the volume with a bang and turned round like a flash:
"I will," he exclaimed quickly.
A ludicrous expression of renewed interest suddenly replaced the shipping clerk's rather disgusted expression. Anything was welcome which promised to relieve the monotony of this society stunt, as he had termed Mr. Stafford's invitation. It was against his will that he had come at all. Why should he do this millionaire the honor of dining with him? What was he to him? Because he was rich? Well, he guessed not. If he had consented at Fanny's urgent pleadings, it was because his fiancee had told him it would help Virginia. Mr. Stafford, Fanny said, was simply crazy about her and might propose to her any day. After all, it could do no harm to have a millionaire in the family. Besides, he was a big railroad man. He might help him to do something with his "no stop" idea. But he must be on his guard and not allow sentiment to interfere with business. This Stafford must not think that because he invited him to dinner and might one day become his brother-in-law that he was going to get the "no-stop" invention cheap. No, siree—no one should get the best of him!
Oku had approached Virginia, who, having crossed the room, was gazing through the casement windows at the splendid view. Salaaming low, he said:
"Miss—will take cocktail?"
"No—thank you," she answered with a smile.
The butler turned to Fanny, who looked significantly at Jimmie as if desirous of consulting his wishes in so important a matter.
"Sure!" he said in an aside not intended to reach the butler's ears.
But Oku was nothing if not discreet. He never allowed himself to hear anything. When Fanny nodded he merely inquired politely:
Jimmie grinned and licked his lips. Turning to his future wife he asked:
"What do you like?"
"What kind do you?" she laughed, anxious to keep him in good humor.
"Martini suits me all right."
Oku bowed to the ground.
"Yes, miss. Two Martini cocktails. Excuse, please! Excuse!"
With another profound salaam and retreating backwards towards the door as if in the presence of royalty, the Japanese butler made an impressive exit.
Jimmie had watched Oku's every movement with the greatest amusement. When he was out of earshot he remarked with a chuckle:
"Great little chink, that!"
Fanny laughed. Teasingly she said:
"He's not a Chinaman, Jim. Don't you know a Japanese when you see one?"
"They all look alike to me," he grinned.
Profiting by the butler's absence, the shipping clerk started on a tour of critical inspection of the salon. Looking around, he exclaimed with enthusiasm:
"Say—this is some room, eh?"
Virginia had left the window and was admiring some water-colors on the walls. Overhearing the exclamation, she looked up, her glance taking in the whole room.
"Yes—it is beautiful," she said ecstatically.
Fanny, who had been diligently rubbing the back of her magnificent gilt chair to see if it was real gold leaf, broke in:
"While this place was being built I read in the paper that Mr. Stafford was to pay $15,000 a year for his rooms."
Jimmie opened wide his eyes in amazement.
"Fifteen thousand a year—just for his rooms!" he exclaimed incredulously.
He looked at Virginia as if expecting her to confirm the statement.
"Yes," insisted Fanny, "$15,000 a year."
The shipping clerk gave a low whistle.
"Why, that's nearly $300 a week!" he cried.
Fanny gave an affirmative nod, and her fiance, putting on an injured air as if Mr. Stafford's expenses had to come out of his own pocket, went on:
"Three hundred dollars—just for his rooms, while I slave a whole week, from eight in the morning till six at night for a measly fourteen." With a disgusted shrug of his shoulders he added: "I tell you there's something rotten in this country."
Virginia looked around apprehensively. She was afraid the butler might have heard the ejaculation, which, considering he was Mr. Stafford's guest, was certainly inexecrable taste. Not that she was surprised. By this time she had learned not to look to her prospective brother-in-law for Chesterfieldian manners. Quickly she said:
"Mr. Stafford didn't get more than fourteen when he was your age. He was poor, too."
"Yes," chimed in Fanny with a toss of her head, "and when they raised you from twelve at Christmas you thought you were doing great. I remember how chesty you were about it."
Jimmie grinned. In tones meant to be tender he replied:
"Only because I figured that I might be gettin' eighteen pretty soon and then we could get married." Eying her sheepishly, he went on: "Do we still have to wait till I get eighteen, Fanny?"
"We certainly do," she retorted promptly. "A couple simply can't live on less than eighteen."
The shipping clerk thrust his hands in his pockets and began to stride up and down the room. Peevishly he exclaimed:
"I know it. That's what makes me so sore when I read about millionaires like Stafford having luxurious private yachts, giving fifty thousand for a picture and things like that. They have so much money they don't know what to do with it, and yet all that stands between me and happiness is four dollars a week and I can't get it."
Virginia, who was sitting on the sofa, having become interested in a cabinet full of curios close by, looked up with a smile. Encouragingly she said:
"Don't worry, Jimmie, your chance will come just as Mr. Stafford's did."
"Fine chance I've got," he growled; "third assistant shipping clerk in a wholesale grocery. Why, the manager of the department only gets thirty and he's been with the house twenty-six years."
"That's a sweet outlook for me, I must say," cried Fanny in dismay. "If it takes a man twenty-six years to work up to thirty, I suppose you'll be getting eighteen eleven years from the third of next January."
Jimmie looked closely at both girls. He was not quite sure if they were making fun of him. Apparently satisfied that, on the contrary, they were in full sympathy with his troubles, he said:
"I'm doing my best and no fellow can do more! That's what makes me so sore, I tell you. Here I am slaving away for fourteen a week and he spends three hundred just for his rooms. I wonder how many rooms he gets for that?"
"I think it's twelve and four baths," said Fanny.
"Four baths!" he gasped. "What in God's name can a bachelor do with four baths?"
"Is there any reason he shouldn't have them if he can pay for them?" demanded Fanny quietly.
"But what good are they to him," insisted her fiance. "No matter how much money he has, he can't be in more than one tub at a time. I suppose he uses 'em Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday—and keeps the favorite for the special splash on Sunday."
Virginia looked at him scornfully.
"Do you realize," she exclaimed, "that Mr. Stafford has servants and that he has friends come to stay with him occasionally?"
Abashed, the young man put his hands in his pockets and began to whistle. He stood in considerable awe of Virginia.
"Oh, I hadn't thought o' that," he said mildly.
Flushing with vexation at his making such remarks, Fanny said to him in a quick undertone:
"Take my advice and do think—once in a while. And get rid of that temper, too. For the first time in our lives we're invited to dine with a rich man and I, for one, want to enjoy it."
Jimmie opened his mouth as if to make some retort, when suddenly Oku re-appeared carrying a tray in which was a tempting spread of cocktails, cigarettes and cigars.
While the butler was serving the cocktails, Virginia roamed through the splendid suite of rooms, taking keen delight in examining at closer range one and all of the art treasures they contained. She went into silent ecstasies before a Da Vinci, a Rembrandt and other fine examples of the old masters, and was held spellbound by the beautiful modelling of a piece of modern French sculpture. She was not enough of a connoisseur to be able to estimate each picture, each curio at its true value, but she knew enough to realize that it was a very valuable collection and one which very few persons were privileged to view. The books with their fine bindings were likewise a source of particular delight.
How happy, she mused, the possessor of such a paradise ought to be! She wondered if he spent much time at home or if he preferred to answer the call of the gay metropolis. He looked like a man who enjoyed life. Why had he taken all this trouble for such obscure persons as themselves? Why had he looked at her in that persistent, admiring way? Could it be possible that he was really attracted to her and had begun to think of her as a man does of the woman he wants to marry? Was it conceivable that she could ever be the mistress of such a beautiful home as this? What folly to even dream of such a possibility! Possibly, he was attracted to her and liked her company, but there was a vast difference between a fleeting whim and wishing to make her his wife. And when her glance fell on Jimmie and Fanny squabbling in the distance it was with some bitterness that she realized the difference in their station, the width of the social chasm between her and the set to which their host belonged.
"Excuse—please—excuse," spluttered the polite little Jap as he gracefully presented the salver to each guest.
Fanny took a glass, followed in turn by Jimmie, who, extending his clumsy hand, snatched one of the dainty glasses and put it to his lips. The butler, all smiles and civility, placed the tray on a table and again bowed low. Pointing to the tray, he said:
"Cigarettes and cigars! Is there anything else?"
"Not for me," replied Jimmie, making himself comfortable in a chair on the other side of the table.
"Nor for me," smiled Fanny, graciously.
"No, thank you," added Virginia quickly. "We need nothing else."
"Then excuse, please. Excuse—"
The butler salaamed and withdrew, leaving Jimmie and Fanny sipping their cocktails, while Virginia, still interested in the hundred and one curios scattered about the rooms, strolled around alone.
"Some cocktail, eh?" grinned Jimmie, smacking his lips.
"Fine!" exclaimed his fiancee, emptying her glass and putting it down on the table.
Suddenly the clerk's eyes, wandering idly around the room, alighted on the tray filled with cigar and cigarette boxes which the butler had left behind. Rising and going to the table, he stood staring greedily at some expensive perfectos. Finally, unable any longer to withhold his itching palm, he put out his hand and selected one. He lit it and for a few moments puffed away with evident satisfaction. The more he puffed and inhaled the weed's fragrant aroma, the more sorry he was that he had none of the same brand at home. Acting on a sudden impulse, he went back to the table and took half a dozen cigars out of the box. He was about to stuff them into his pocket when Virginia, stepping quickly forward, interfered:
"Jimmie!" she exclaimed indignantly.
He stayed his hand and rather shamefacedly placed the cigars back in the box. Looking up, he demanded:
"Why not? He wouldn't mind."
"Just the same, it isn't a gentlemanly thing to do," she said severely.
"If it comes to that," he retorted sharply, "I ain't a gentleman—I'm a shipping clerk."
"Then, of course, there's nothing more to say," she answered, turning her back. Picking up a book, she dropped into a chair and, ignoring him, relapsed into a dignified silence.
But Jimmie was not to be suppressed by a mere rebuff. After a long, sulky silence, during which he puffed viciously at his cigar, he followed his prospective sister-in-law across the room. After staring at her for some time, he inquired:
"How did you first come to know Mr. Stafford?"
At first the girl made no answer, pretending to be absorbed in what she was reading. He repeated the question so pointedly that she would not ignore it any longer. Looking up, she said rather impatiently:
"How many more times must I tell you? I was at my desk in the hotel about three months ago and he came and wanted long distance—I think it was Washington. There was some trouble getting his party and, as people will, we got into conversation about it. I had no idea who he was—"
Fanny, who had come up, listened intently to the conversation, and, to encourage her little sister to become confidential, arranged some pillows behind her back in motherly fashion. Long before this the elder sister had come to conclusions of her own concerning Virginia's acquaintance with the millionaire. When a man of his wealth and position took the trouble to pay a girl of Virginia's station such marked attention, capping the climax with this present invitation to dine at his house, either his intentions were not avowable or else he was very much in love and wanted to marry her, which last hypothesis sent a thrill down the good sister's back. Virgie the wife of a millionaire! It seemed incredible—too good to be true. It would be the making of all of them. She was glad Jimmie had brought up the subject.
"Did you know then who he was?" she asked.
Virginia laughed as if the question amused her.
"No," she replied, "to tell you the truth, I didn't much care. A girl who handles a telephone desk at our hotel hasn't got much time to bother about anything else."
"When did you find out?" inquired Jimmie, suddenly taking a lively interest in the conversation.
"About a month later—that day he sent downstairs for a stenographer. I told you all about it at the time. I asked at the desk if it was all right to go to his rooms. They told me who he was and explained that he often transacted a lot of business there. That's how we got acquainted. Since then, as you know, I have seen a great deal of him, telephoning and doing copying for him. He has been very kind, indeed. One day he asked me to go to dinner with him—"
"Did you?" demanded Jimmie.
"Certainly not," replied the girl emphatically. "Then he used to come nearly every day. One time I—I think he had been—drinking."
"He was—drunk?" exclaimed Fanny in surprise.
"Oh, no! Not that," said Virginia quickly, "but I could see he had been drinking."
"Just lit up a bit to show that he's human, eh?" said Jimmie with a grin.
Paying no attention to the interruption, Virginia went on:
"I didn't like him quite so much after that. He asked me again—"
"And you wouldn't?" interrupted Fanny.
"Of course not!"
Jimmie chuckled. Crossing his legs and striking the ashes from his cigar, he said:
"Say, but that was foxy!"
"What was?" demanded Virginia quickly.
"Making him think that he having money made no difference."
"Sure it didn't," he laughed. "That was the way to play it."
"What do you mean?" cried the girl indignantly. "I wasn't 'playing' anything or anybody."
Paying no heed to the frantic signs which Fanny was making for him to keep silent, the shipping clerk went on:
"Why not? It's all in the game."
Ignoring him, Virginia continued:
"He finally asked me to dine with him here and to bring you and Jim. I had told him about your being engaged."
The young man nodded approvingly. With a patronizing air he said:
"I'm beginning to think this fellow Stafford's on the level. He might even want to marry you."
Virginia flushed scarlet. Confusedly she exclaimed:
"Don't be absurd!"
"But if he did," insisted Fanny, "would you marry him?"
Jimmie laughed loudly:
"Would she!" he chuckled. "Say, Fanny, are you crazy?"
Virginia shook her head. Slowly she said:
"I don't know that I would."
"What!" exclaimed the clerk, half starting from his chair. "Do you mean to say that if any man as rich as Stafford was to ask you on the level to be his wife that you wouldn't jump at the chance?"
Quite unmoved by his indignant outburst, the girl replied calmly:
"I've seen men who are twice as rich as Mr. Stafford that I wouldn't marry if they gave me half their money as a wedding present."
The shipping clerk made a grimace, but reluctantly nodded approval. Carelessly he said:
"In a way I can't say that I blame you. I've seen pictures of a lot of these financiers and, believe me, they are the rummiest looking bunch I ever set eyes on! But I didn't think Stafford was that kind."
"I thought he was rather distinguished looking," interrupted Fanny.
"He is," said Virginia quickly. "What's more—he's a gentleman."
Jimmie rose and walking over to where Virginia was sitting, stood looking at her, his hands in his pockets. Almost sarcastically he asked:
"Then see here, if—this—Mr. Stafford is distinguished looking and a gentleman, as well as rich, will you please tell me what kind of a man you want?"
The girl made no reply, but with a thoughtful expression on her face, gazed through the window. It was now quite dark outside and the river below was dotted here and there with the lights of steamboats and sailing boats as they made their way up and down the broad stream. Jim's chance remark had set her thinking. Others beside herself were speculating as to the purport of Mr. Stafford's attentions? That they were honorable she had not the slightest doubt, although at one time she had been a little afraid of him. Those invitations to dinner and his manner on one or two occasions she had rather resented, but for some time past now he had quite changed. He was more respectful, more sincere. Supposing the impossible were to happen—supposing he were to ask her to be his wife? For all she knew, the proposal might come that very evening. It might be part of the plan of this sudden impromptu dinner. What would she say to him? Did she love him? Frankly she did not—yet. Could she ever love him? The answer to that was in the future. Ought a girl to marry a man whom she knew in her heart she did not love? He was rich, the marriage was in every way desirable. She would have every comfort, but could real happiness come of a marriage which on both sides would be, after all, only a mockery, a hollow sham?
Jimmie, impatient, repeated his question.
"Will you kindly tell us what kind of a man you want?"
Virginia looked up. Calmly she answered:
"I—I want a man I can love."
The clerk gave a low whistle. Sarcastically he said:
"If you can't love a man as rich as Mr. Stafford, take my advice and go see a heart specialist."
"A girl can't love a man just because she wants to," replied Virginia with dignity. "Love doesn't go where it's sent; it goes where it pleases."
"That's right," interrupted Fanny. Turning to her fiance she said: "You don't suppose I loved a fourteen-dollar-a-week shipping clerk because I wanted to, do you?"
Jimmie squirmed in his chair.
"What?" he exclaimed.
Quickly Fanny mended matters. With a conciliatory smile she added:
"I loved him just because I had to."
Immediately placated, the young man rose and, approaching his fiancee in a manner intended to suggest the tenderest sentiment, he stuttered:
"Same here. The first time I ever set eyes on you, Fanny, something inside o' me said: 'Me for her!'"
The girl laughed. Placing her hand over her heart, she said mockingly:
"And something here said, 'Him for me!'"
He stooped and kissed her and, taking her hand, they sat side by side on the sofa together in the manner of all conventional lovers. Virginia, who had watched them with amusement, shook her head. Sadly she said:
"My heart never said anything like that to me."
"Then perhaps it won't be that way with you," said Jimmie. "Perhaps you'll learn to care for him by degrees like you would—say, for Mr. Stafford."
"Don't talk nonsense," cried Virginia.
"He's interested in you, and if you play your cards right—"
"I'm not going to play any cards."
"Let me tell you one thing," he said, rising and going to the table, "a chance like this don't come to one girl in a million."
"Please!—" exclaimed Virginia, putting up her hand to stop his talk.
But Jimmie was not so easily suppressed. Earnestly he went on:
"It's a chance of a life time. It means a lot to me and Fanny too."
"Yes, that's true," chimed in his fiancee.
Virginia turned and looked at her sister.
"How?" she demanded.
Jimmie, as usual, replied for his slower-witted partner:
"Do you think," he said, "I want to be a shipping clerk all my life? Well, I don't. I've got ambitions. Yes, and I've got the ability. All I need is a chance and I'd be one of 'em, too."
"One of what?"
"A captain of industry, a magnate, a financier."
"He could do it," exclaimed Fanny admiringly.
"You bet I could," he said positively. Turning to Virginia, he went on: "And if you married Mr. Stafford and he gave me a chance, which as his brother-in-law he certainly would—well, if I ever got a flying start I'd show 'em a few things. I've got ability, I have."
"Why don't you prove it by getting eighteen dollars a week?" retorted Virginia sarcastically.
Turning her back on him, she walked away and took a seat near the window, where she could look out on the street. But he followed her:
"I thought you'd say something like that," he said. "It just shows how much you know."
"Explain it to her, Jimmy," exclaimed Fanny.
"What's the good?" he replied scornfully. "She wouldn't understand. But I will say this: If I had an opportunity to show some rich man just what I could do, I'd be worth perhaps a million dollars in ten or twelve years, and that would mean a swell house for you and me, and servants, and automobiles and everything like that. I'd show 'em!"
Overcome by the vivid picture he had drawn, Fanny took his hands. Enthusiastically she cried:
"Oh, Jimmy, wouldn't it be lovely? And perhaps we could get into real society, too—perhaps we might meet the social leaders from Harlem and Brooklyn whose pictures are in the papers every Sunday!"
"There'd be nobody we couldn't meet," he cried proudly.
"And fancy!" exclaimed Fanny—"fancy going to the dressmaker's, picking out half a dozen dresses, having them sent home without even asking the price, and letting them charge just as much as they like! Wouldn't that be heavenly?"
"You can have all that and more," he cried exultingly.
Virginia shrugged her shoulders. The topic was becoming distasteful to her. Impatiently she exclaimed:
"It's perfectly ridiculous!"
Going over to her sister, Fanny put her arm around her neck:
"All I want is for you to be happy, sis."
"I know it, dear," replied Virginia. "That's the way you've been always."
"You're different to me," went on the elder sister.
"No, I'm not."
"Yes, you are. You'd do any man credit."
"But I'd hate to see you try to keep house on eighteen per. That means doing your own work, including the cooking—yes, and the washing—and you weren't made for that."
"Don't worry about me—I'll be all right."
"I hope so," sighed Fanny.
"I will, don't fear," smiled Virginia.
Not yet discouraged the shipping clerk returned to the attack. Folding his arms in authoritative fashion and addressing his future sister-in-law he said severely:
"Will you give me a straight answer to a plain question? If Mr. Stafford does ask you to marry him, will you? Come on, now, will you?"
"I won't talk about such things," retorted the girl.
Her face flushed up. It was easy to see that she was getting angry. Shrugging his shoulders, the young man walked away, but sarcastically he said:
"Well, if he does and you don't accept him, you'll be the biggest fool that ever lived!"
"That's just what I say," laughed Fanny. "Ha! I wish he'd ask me!"
Quickly Virginia turned to her sister.
"Would you accept him?" she asked.
"Would I?" laughed Fanny. "Oh, would I?"
"And throw Jimmie over?"
"I'd throw Jimmie so far and so hard he'd think he was struck by a cyclone."
"And I wouldn't blame her," said the young man, scratching his head.
Virginia looked in amazement from one to the other.
"I can't understand either of you," she exclaimed.
Never at a loss for an answer the clerk proceeded to explain:
"Why should I expect any girl to stick to me and fourteen per when she can have a place like this? Look at this swell furniture, these rugs, and them ornaments—" Going, over to the mantelpiece, he picked up one of the costly Peach Blow vases, examined it critically for a moment and turned to the girls: "I suppose this is one of them peach—peach—something or other—vases I've read about."
"Peach Blow," corrected Virginia.
"That's it," he grinned. "I suppose it's worth six or seven thousand dollars—"
"Be careful!" exclaimed Virginia warningly, "or you'll drop it."
The words were hardly uttered when Jimmie's foot caught in the rug and he stumbled, dropping the vase, which broke into two pieces. Bewildered, horrified, he stood still, surveying with dismay the fragments at his feet.
"Now you've done it!" he exclaimed hoarsely.
"I have?" exclaimed Virginia indignantly.
"Yes—I shouldn't have dropped it if you hadn't shouted at me."
Picking up the pieces, he tried to fit them together.
Fanny, frightened out of her wits, was speechless.
"I think we'd better go home!" she gasped.
Virginia alone remained cool.
"Don't be foolish," she said.
"Wait a bit! Wait a bit!" cried Jimmie; picking up the pieces and putting them together. "Look here. How's that for luck? They fit perfectly. No one will know the difference." Replacing the mended vase where he had found it, he added: "We'll leave it just like that and he'll think the Jap did it."
"Fine!" cried Fanny thoughtlessly, grasping at any excuse which promised to exonerate them.
But Virginia would not permit it.
"We'll do nothing of the kind," she exclaimed indignantly.
"If we don't, he'll think we've done it," said Jimmie apprehensively.
The girl gave him a look that made him quail.
"He's not only got to think it," she said severely—"he has got to know it."
"But if he does—"
As he spoke the front door bell rang in the outer hall. Quickly he added: "I'll bet that's him! Shall you tell him?"
"I certainly shall if you don't," replied Virginia firmly.
Oku passed hurriedly through the room on his way to open the front door.
"Excuse, please, excuse—"
Nervous at meeting her host, Fanny began to mop her face desperately.
"I'm so nervous!" she said. "Do I shake hands with him when I'm introduced or just say 'pleased to meet you?'"
Virginia laughed heartily.
"Behave as you would with anyone else," she said.
"How do you feel, Jimmie?" inquired Fanny.
There was an expression of comical consternation on the shipping clerk's face as he pointed to the broken vase.
"I'm not worrying about meeting him," he said ruefully. "I'm worrying about that—"
The next instant the door leading to the hall opened and Robert Stafford entered.
Their host advanced, hand extended, his frank, boyish face lit up with a cordial smile.
It was hard to realize that this youthful looking man with black hair not yet tinged by a suspicion of gray, and whose erect, athletic figure suggested the football field rather than the counting room, was one of the most influential railroad men in the country, the master of a large fortune amassed by his own painstaking efforts, his own energy, initiative and ability.
Attired himself in a plain business suit, a quick glance at his visitors' dress had already told him that he could dispense with the formality of changing for dinner. Shaking hands with Virginia, he said in his usual hearty fashion:
"Well, how are you? I'm so sorry I am late. Oku explained, didn't he?"
"Perfectly," smiled Virginia. "He took good care of us."
Turning to Fanny, he said:
"This, I presume, is your sister—"
Virginia hastened to make introductions:
"Fanny," she said, "let me introduce Mr. Stafford."
The host bowed and smiled pleasantly, while Fanny, embarrassed, not knowing whether to offer her hand, felt awkward and ill at ease, as do most people who, going seldom into society, are not in constant practice with its civilities.
"I'm very pleased, indeed, to meet you, Miss Blaine," said Stafford, bowing.
"And this," went on Virginia, turning to her brother-in-law elect, who stood gaping in the background, "is Mr. Gillie—just 'Jimmie' we call him, don't we, Fanny?"
"Yes—Jimmie—of course," stammered Fanny, blushing furiously.
Stafford held out his hand and gave the shipping clerk a grip that made him wince.
"How do you do, Mr. Gillie?"
"How are you?" returned Jimmie with an indifferent nod as he nursed his crushed fingers behind his back.
Stafford beamed good-naturedly on all three. He looked genuinely glad to see them, and this immediately set his guests at their ease. He may not have really felt the cordial welcome he gave them, but he looked as if they were just the people whose society he enjoyed most, a happy knack which some men possess of adapting themselves to their environments, and which had always been the secret of his popularity with men and women both. His manner was so natural, so free from restraint and pose, that even Fanny, timid and nervous as she was, felt reassured.
But while he was affable with all, he had eyes only for Virginia. The others he would willingly have dispensed with, especially the shipping clerk, whom he had sized up with one quick glance. He winced as he took note of the man's cheap, ready-made clothes and boorish manners. Decidedly he was quite impossible, but for the pleasure of a few moment's tete-a-tete with Virginia, he was ready to make any sacrifice—even to meet on equal social terms a Mr. Gillie.
"Are you quite sure," he went on apologetically, "that I am forgiven for keeping you waiting? Believe me, it was absolutely unavoidable or it wouldn't have happened."
"Oh, yes," rejoined Virginia quickly, "we're quite sure of that."
The host turned to the Japanese butler, who was busy at the table, placing the empty cocktail glasses on the tray.
"Did you explain thoroughly, Oku?" he asked.
The man looked up.
"Yes, sir. I tell you have big meeting and say 'very much excuse, please.'"
"That was right," rejoined his master, with a laugh. "Now get me the menu."
Oku picked up the tray and made for the door.
"Yes—excuse, please. Excuse."
When his butler had disappeared, Stafford turned to his guests with a smile:
"Queer little chap, isn't he? He is very devoted, and I find him very useful. You see, being a bachelor, I don't keep house, but if I have a little party like this, I generally leave the selection of the dinner to Oku and have it served in there—" He pointed to the dining-room, the folding doors of which the butler had closed. With a good-natured laugh, he added: "He has shut the doors so we can't see the spread. I hope the little beggar has something good."
Jim, who, until now, had remained in the background, trying to summon up enough courage to take an aggressive part in the conversation, spoke up boldly:
"Nice little place you have here, Mr. Stafford."
There was an amused expression, which did not escape Virginia's notice, hovering around the corners of the millionaire's mouth, as he replied:
"Glad you like it. Have you seen the other rooms?"
"No," replied the clerk carelessly, as he flecked the ashes from his cigar on to the fine Turkish rug. "I'm judging by this one—"
At that moment Oku re-entered the room, bearing in his hand a menu, which he handed to his master. Stafford glanced over it and nodded approvingly, then, taking out a pencil, he made one correction. This done, he handed it back.
"I think that will do nicely. Have dinner served when ready."
The butler was about to leave the room, when his master called him back.
"Oku—just a moment." Turning apologetically to the others, he said:
"Will you excuse me?" In an undertone to the butler, he said: "I shan't dress to-night—"
"Anything else, sir?"
"No—you can go."
"Then excuse—please. Excuse—"
The butler disappeared and the host rejoined his guests. Addressing the shipping clerk amiably, he said:
"I'm glad you like this room, Mr. Gillie."
There was no sarcasm in his voice, nor did he intend any. The railroad promoter was in good humor that evening, and he wanted his guests to feel perfectly at home, but Jimmie, in his ignorant egotism thought that his host was really flattered by his praise. Patronizingly, he said:
"I do, for a fact. I think it's all right."
Pointing to the library beyond, the millionaire said carelessly:
"My best things are in that room. But there are some here that are rather good, I think. Did you notice this?" He picked up from a table a piece of carved ivory and held it so that all might see. "It was carved by a Japanese master nearly eight hundred years ago."
"Did he get much for it?" asked Jimmie, opening wide his eyes.
"Who," smiled Stafford, "the carver?"
"Probably a few cents a day."
"A few cents a day?" gaped the clerk.
Jimmie whistled and walked away. Contemptuously he said:
"He ought to have joined the Carvers' Union."
"There was none in those days," he said. "Even if there had been he wouldn't have joined. He was an artist; he worked for the joy of working."
Jimmie snickered. Sneeringly he said:
"He knew his own business best, I suppose, but I've never seen a man who could raise a family on that."
Replacing the ivory back in the cabinet where it belonged, Stafford turned to the mantel and pointed to the Peach Blow vase, which only a few moments before had met with disaster. But the damage was not visible from a distance, and with the natural pride of a collector showing one of his most valued possessions, the railroad man said:
"I have one or two Peach Blows that I think are rather good. There is one up there which I am particularly fond of."
Jimmie more and more nervous gave his fiancee a nudge. In a frightened undertone he whispered to her:
"It's coming! It's coming!"
To hide her confusion, Fanny pretended to be very busy with her handkerchief. Stafford, meantime, had gone up to the bookcase. Reaching up his hand so he could take hold of the vase by its neck, the millionaire went on:
"This vase is said to be—"
His hand touched the vase, but, instead of lifting it, he simply lifted up the piece which had been broken off. For a moment he stared at the fragment in amazement, while the others looked on in silent consternation. There was an ominous pause. Jimmie, turning pale, could feel his heart thumping violently against his ribs.
"Why, it's broken!" exclaimed their host.
"Yes—" said Jimmie quickly.
"Why—so it is!" gasped Fanny, on the theory that an expression of bewilderment on her part would exonerate her from suspicion.
Stafford stood still, trying to fix the two pieces together. He was quite cool and to all appearances the least concerned of the four. There was not even a note of impatience in his voice as he said:
"Oku must be more careful. I never knew him to do a thing like this before."
Virginia approached her future brother-in-law. In a quick undertone she said:
"Not on your life," he answered in the same tragic whisper. "He doesn't suspect us. We can get away with it."
Utterly disgusted, Virginia moved toward her host.
"Mr. Stafford!" she said loudly and firmly.
He looked up, surprised at her manner and tone.
"Yes?" he smiled.
"Oku didn't break it."
Stafford stared at her in amazement.
"No—it wasn't Oku." She hesitated a moment; as if still unwilling to disclose the real culprit, Finally she said: "We—we did—it."
An expression of amused surprise came over his face, as he echoed:
He looked from one to the other, his glance finally failing on Fanny. Alarmed at his scrutiny, she hurriedly pointed to her sister and her fiance:
"Not me! Them!" she exclaimed.
Stafford smiled. Although it meant a serious loss, to say nothing of the blow to his pride as a collector he was too much the man of the world to betray annoyance or to permit a little accident of that kind to spoil the evening's enjoyment. Courteously he said:
"It doesn't matter in the least."
Ashamed to hide behind a woman's skirts any longer, Jimmie now came forward. In a halfhearted fashion, he said:
"I was looking at it when Virginia suddenly addressed me and I dropped it." With airy self-assurance, he added: "Of course I'll pay for it."
Stafford shrugged his shoulders. Carelessly he said:
"Please don't give it another thought, any of you."
Leaving her companions, Virginia approached her host. Looking up at him earnestly, she said in an undertone:
"I can't tell you how sorry I am."
He was so tall that, standing close by she had to look up at him. As he stood there, so big and strong, smiling down at her, taking good-naturedly what might well have irritated any man, she thought to herself how handsome and nice he was. Looking into her eyes with the same ardent expression she had so often noticed in his glance, he said softly:
"The only thing that I could possibly regret is the fact that the incident might throw a little cloud over what I hope will be a very pleasant evening. If you want to be really good to me, you will promise me you won't even think of it again. Is it a promise?"
"I'll do my best," she murmured.
"Thank you." Turning to Fanny, he said: "And you?"
"Of course," she replied confusedly; "it wasn't any of my affair—but—"
"Then it can't bother you," he laughed.
"No," she smiled.
The host turned to the shipping clerk.
Jimmie assumed a ludicrous expression. Hesitatingly he said:
"I feel as though I ought to pay for it."
"Oh, no, no!" laughed Stafford.
"Yes," exclaimed the clerk, as if fully prepared to pay out $3,000 at a moment's notice, "that's the way I feel, but if you insist—"
"And I certainly do," said his host decidedly.
"Then," rejoined the clerk reluctantly, "I suppose I shall have to let the matter drop."
"Then it is settled. Good!" Turning to Virginia, he said: "I think you told me that your sister and Mr. Gillie are engaged."
Going up to Fanny and her betrothed, he extended a hand to both:
"Congratulations! I hope you'll both be very, very happy."
"Thank you," said Fanny, with a little courtesy.
"Oh, I guess we'll be all right," said Jimmie airily.
Dropping into the easy chair near the table, the clerk helped himself uninvited to another cigar. Stafford took another seat near him, while Virginia and her sister continued to find pleasure in examining some of the art treasures scattered all about them.
"May I ask when the wedding takes place?" inquired the host after a pause.
Withdrawing the perfecto from his lips. Jimmie threw back his head and blew a ring of smoke up to the ceiling.
"That depends," he replied carelessly, "on how—a—a—business venture of mine turns out."
Now at close range, Stafford scrutinized his guest more narrowly. Quickly he took note of his ill-fitting clothes, cheap tie, frayed linen and shabby shoes. He hardly looked the kind of man likely to be burdened with heavy business responsibilities. Nodding sympathetically, so as to encourage confidence, he said:
"I see. What business are you in, Mr. Gillie?"
"I'm a shipping clerk."
"Then you are not in business for yourself?"
"No—that is, not now—though I hope to be some day. You see, I have ambitions."
The millionaire nodded approvingly.
"That's right. Every young man should be ambitious."
"I want to do something big," went on his vis-a-vis confidently. "I have the ability. All I need is the chance to prove it."
"H'm," said Stafford, with a slight tinge of scepticism in his voice. "In what direction do you think your talents lie, Mr. Gillie?"
"Finance! Organization!" exclaimed the clerk enthusiastically. "I've got ideas, too! For instance, Mr. Stafford, did you ever stop to think of the money there would be in a Chewing Gum Trust?"
"No, I must confess I never did," laughed his host.
"Well—there's big money in it," said Jimmie confidently. "I've figured it all out. I'd like to tell you about another scheme of mine, which is going to revolutionize railroading in this country—cut down train time one-half. I told the girls about it; they think it's great!"
"Yes—Miss Virginia mentioned it to me. You must tell me what it is some day."
Inflating his chest, Jimmie sat back in his chair and puffed more vigorously at his cigar. Decidedly he was getting on. Here he was discussing business opportunities with one of the biggest men in New York. Carelessly he added: "I've got lots of other good ideas, too, but I suppose I'll never be able to work 'em out. What chance has a shipping clerk got?"
Stafford looked at his interlocutor for a moment without speaking. Then suddenly and emphatically, he said:
"Mr. Gillie, the business world is actually hunting to-day for men big enough to hold big positions. I don't mean mere fifty-thousand-dollar men. I mean hundred-thousand-dollar men. There is a better chance now for the really big man than there ever was."
"But how is a fellow going to prove he is a big man?" inquired the clerk, removing the cigar from his mouth.
"By doing whatever work in which he is engaged in a big way. The man who says to himself 'I'm too good for this job,' but only says it, will probably have it for the rest of his life. But the man who says 'I'll show my boss that I'm too good for it,' and does his work in a way that proves it—the feet of such a man are on the road that leads to the City of Big Things!"
Virginia, who had come near enough to overhear the last few words, stood listening, fascinated.
"The City of Big Things!" she echoed.
Stafford laughed. Rising and turning to Virginia, He said courteously:
"But we didn't come here to talk business and such subjects as that." Changing the topic, he asked: "Have you read any of the new books, Miss Blaine?"
"I'm afraid not," she smiled.
"Virgie hasn't had much time to read lately," interrupted Fanny.
"Busy?" demanded their host.
"Well, it's this way," explained the elder sister, "we've had a lot of sewing to do, and three times in the last two weeks she's taken me to the art galleries to look at the pictures."
"Really!" exclaimed Stafford.
"Yes," broke in Jimmie, with a grin, "one time they took me. Some of the pictures were great, but I couldn't stand for those milk chocolate Dutch women with the Mellen's Food babies. I like pictures with something doing in them for mine—such as battles and sea pictures."
The millionaire pointed towards the room beyond the salon. He said:
"If you are fond of paintings of battle scenes, I have two Meissoniers, which I think rather good. They are in the library there—"
"Can I see them?" demanded the clerk, anxious to pass for a connoisseur.
"Certainly," replied his host. Turning to Fanny, he added: "There's also a collection of fans. I think it would interest you, too."
"I am sure they will," she smiled. "Will you excuse us?"
She went towards the library and at the threshold turned and called to her fiance, who was lingering behind.
"Surest thing you know," he grinned, rising to go and join her. Stafford accompanied them as far as the library door. Pointing all around, he said:
"The books and the engravings will interest you. You needn't hurry. Oku will let you know when dinner is served."
"Very well," smiled Fanny. "You and Virginia please excuse us. Jimmie and I will just browse in here for a while."
Glad of the opportunity which allowed him a few minutes alone with the girl whose personality had taken so strong a hold upon him, Stafford gently closed the door, and, returning quickly, took a seat near Virginia.
"Well—Miss Blaine?" he smiled.
"Here we are all alone," he said, looking at her admiringly.
There was a strange look in his eyes, a longing, appealing look, as if he had something on his mind to which he did not dare give expression. For a moment the girl regretted that she had not followed her sister. It was embarrassing under the peculiar circumstances to be alone there with him. There was a long pause, during which neither spoke. At last Virginia said:
"Why didn't you let me see the pictures too? You know that I'm interested in books and pictures."
She made a movement, as if about to follow the others, but instantly he put out his hand to detain her.
"Not yet, please. I have so many things I want to talk to you about."
In spite of herself, Virginia smiled at his boyish earnestness of manner.
"What, for instance?"
"Among them is—myself."
"I know a great deal about you already," she said. "The newspapers and magazines have been full of the history of the man who, starting with nothing, has become a power in the railroad and financial world. It only needed one thing to make it fit for the model young man's story-book—it neglected to say—'our hero neither drinks nor smokes.'"
"It couldn't," he laughed. "I do both."
"Another public idol shattered!" she exclaimed merrily.
He joined in the fun with her, in his frank, boyish way.
"Behave, now!" he laughed.
Virginia grew more serious. Thoughtfully she continued:
"In the last interview which the newspapers had with you—"
"Probably faked—" he interrupted.
"You neglected to say, 'making my first thousand dollars was the hardest task of all.' All successful men do that; why not you?"
He looked at her for a moment in an amused kind of way. Then carelessly he answered:
"Making the first thousand was about the easiest for me. I got hold of some information about a certain stock, borrowed a hundred from a friend, put it up as margin in a bucket shop, and by pressing my luck, made and got my first thousand without any trouble whatever."
Virginia looked straight at him, admiration as much for his personality as for his achievements showing plainly in the expression of her large, black eyes. Slowly she said:
"And it was that, I suppose, which started you on the way to the City of Big Things. I like that phrase—The City of Big Things.'"
He nodded as he answered: "It's a great city—the only one worth living in."
"And you are one of the most prominent inhabitants."
"I wouldn't go so far as to say that," he laughed in an embarrassed sort of way. "Still, every one in the city knows I'm living there."
The girl made no reply, but absent-mindedly looked away in the direction of the library, where Fanny and her intended were heard chattering. For a few moments she sat still, as if engrossed in thought. Then suddenly she turned toward him. Impulsively she said:
"I wonder how it must feel to be a man—and successful!"
He laughed lightly, as he answered:
"It feels great! To know that you've done something; to know that you've made a name and a place for yourself; to realize that no one dare try to walk over you; to feel that your bitterest enemy respects you and your rights because if he doesn't it means a fight to the finish—that makes a man feel good—"
"I should think it would!" she exclaimed.
"And then," he went on, "success means money, and money means power, and luxury and every comfort that the world can give. If a successful man wishes to travel by land, he has his private car, if he wishes to travel by sea, he has his own yacht, and so it goes."
"It must be wonderful to be like you, and have everything that you could wish for."
He smiled at her enthusiasm, and then his manner suddenly became more serious. In a tone which had peculiar emphasis, he said:
"I didn't say that I had everything I could wish for."
"Well, haven't you?" she demanded, as if surprised that a man so wealthy, so successful, could possibly lack anything he really desired.
"No," he replied slowly, "I haven't a home."
Still she appeared not to understand. Looking around at the magnificence all about her, she exclaimed:
"Why, all this is so beautiful—"
He shrugged his shoulders.
"This?" he echoed. "This isn't a home. It's merely the place in which I live—sometimes."
"Oh!" she exclaimed, light beginning to dawn upon her.
He went on:
"Furniture, pictures, tapestries, books—they don't make a home. Only a woman can do that—"
He stopped short and looked fixedly at her, a deep, searching look, as if he would read her very soul. Their eyes met, and instinctively she divined what his words implied and at whom they were directed. The moment she had dreaded had come at last. This man was about to ask her to marry him. Instead of exulting at this triumph, this conquest which would make her the envied wife of a millionaire, she was suddenly seized by a nervous dread. With pale face and trembling lips, she waited for him to speak, her heart throbbing so furiously that she could almost hear the beats. The time had come when she must make up her mind. She liked him, but she did not love him. She must either refuse this millionaire and voluntarily forego the life of independence and luxury such a marriage would mean, or she must be false to her most sacred convictions and marry a man she did not love. Most girls would not hesitate. It was an opportunity such as rarely presented itself. They would marry him first and find out if they cared for him afterwards. But she was not that kind of a girl. She believed in being true to her principles. She did not love him. She admired his strength, his masterful energy; she respected his success and achievements in life, but between such regard and real affection for the man himself there was a wide gulf. If she was to be true to the opinions she had always held concerning the marital relationship, she must be candid and honest with herself and with him, no matter what material advantages were to be gained by such a union. No happiness could come of a marriage that was not based on material regard or affection. They had known each other too short a time. He might think now that he cared for her very much, yet it might not be love which he felt for her at all, but only a horrible counterfeit, which goes by the same name and which, like a fierce flame, flares up suddenly and then dies down again. She was sufficiently sophisticated and world-wise to gauge at its true worth the violent attraction for the opposite sex which passion engenders in some men—an irresistible, uncontrollable desire, which must be satisfied at any cost, even at the price of their own happiness. Afterwards, when the novelty had worn off, he might be sorry and she would be very, very unhappy. Was it worth the sacrifice?
Stafford, bending over the arm of the chair on which she was seated, came so near that he almost touched her. She could feel his warm breath on her cheek. His eyes ardently fixed on hers, he whispered:
"Virginia—will you make a home for me? Will you be my wife?"
Startled, the girl drew back as if she had been stung. She had expected the proposal, yet when it came she was taken completely by surprise.
"Your wife!" she faltered.
She turned and looked straight at him. Agitated as she was within, her manner did not betray it. Calmly she said:
"You take me by surprise. I am greatly flattered, but—is it not rather sudden? We know so little of each other—"
Impulsively he seized her hand, and held it tight in his. She did not attempt to withdraw it. He was so moved that he could scarcely control his voice:
"I do not have to know you long to be convinced that you are the only woman with whom I could be happy."
"But are you convinced?" she persisted. "Do you really love me?"
Abruptly he released her hand and sat up. In his eyes flashed the same ardor as before, but somehow the expression of his face had changed. He was no longer the eager unsophisticated lover, ready to do anything, say anything, in order to gain his end, but the resourceful, masterly man, accustomed to direct and control his own affairs, the man who will brook no interference with his will, even from the woman who may bear his name. Slowly, almost coldly, he replied:
"You wish for the truth?"
He drew himself up and looked her squarely in the face. There was nothing of the lover in his manner now. An observer would have thought he was discussing with her some matter of business. And to him it was a matter of business—a matter to be discussed from every point of view and, above all, honestly. There must be no misunderstanding from the start. In this, he thought as she did. Their opinions on this one point were in curious harmony. He would not lie to her. He would make her his wife, give her all the money, all the furbelows, all the luxuries her heart desired, but he would not pretend something that was not. He would play cards upon the table. Guardedly he said:
"I feel always that I want to be near you, to be tender to you, to look after and guard you, shield you from all trouble and harm—if that is love, then I love you."
"And if I don't consider that—love?" she demanded, with a little nervous laugh.
The millionaire shook his head.
"Then I am afraid that I shall never love any one," he said. "You see, life with me has been one long fight. As a boy, I fought for bread; as a youth, I fought for an education, as a man, I fought for success. Everything I possess to-day I have wrested from the world, and while getting it I have been too busy for romance and love-making. But I think this will prove what regard I have for you. I have been attracted to many women, but you are the only woman I have ever asked to marry me. I await your answer. Will you be my wife?"
The girl looked up at him, gazing earnestly Into his eyes, as if trying to read there if he was the kind of a man to whom a girl might entrust her happiness. Slowly she said:
"You don't even trouble to ask if I love you?"
"I don't expect you to—yet," he answered, with a smile.
"And you would have me marry you, knowing that I do not love you?"
"But I think you like me—a little. Don't you?"
"Do you wish for the truth?"
"I do like you—more than like you—but I don't love you—yet."
"Do you love any other man?"
"Do you like any other man more than you like me?"
Once more he bent forward. Eagerly he said:
"Then give me a chance—marry me, and I'll make you love me."
"You'll—make me—" she echoed.
"Yes," he murmured ardently. "I'll make you! And when once I have your love, I'll hold it against the world! Be my wife! I'll be a loyal and faithful husband. You shan't have a single care. You shall have every luxury that money can buy. Virginia—will you marry me?"
His words, vibrating as they were with passion, sounded to her ears like music. Was this, then, the love call which nearly every woman heard some time in her life? And even if it was not love, would she not be a fool to let slip an opportunity such as came only to a few? At least he was as honest as herself. He admitted it was not love he felt for her, but in time love would come to bless their union, there was no doubt of that. Did any newly married couple really love each other at first? It was impossible, yet no one had the courage to admit it. She must decide and quickly. Her future was at stake—Fanny's future, too—for her own prosperity would naturally help her sister. Then, besides, he was such a nice, kind man. There was no reason she should not be happy. As she looked at him sideways, and noted his strong profile, his big, muscular frame, his air of energy and power, and thought of his success, his prominent position, his good reputation, she wondered to herself what more any girl could ask in a husband.
Suddenly she felt his hand close upon hers. Gently but firmly he drew her to him. She did not resist, but closed her eyes, feeling a delicious thrill at the sensation of this big, strong man taking possession of her in spite of her will. Her head fell back, and he leaned forward until his lips nearly touched hers. But they went no further. He held himself in control, as if holding back until his lips had the right to seal their troth. Softly he murmured:
"Tell me—tell me, Virginia—will you marry me?"
Like a little frightened bird, helplessly fluttering its wings in the captor's strong hands, she trembled under his caress.
"I don't know what to say," she murmured. "Give me time."
"Say yes," he murmured amorously.
Suddenly some one behind them coughed discreetly. Virginia, startled, sat up in confusion. She and Stafford had been so completely engrossed that they had not heard the entrance of Oku, who had come in to announce that dinner was ready.
"Excuse, please! Dinner, it is served!"
His master motioned him to go into the next room.
"Go and tell Miss Blaine and Mr. Gillie," he said in a slightly annoyed tone.
The servant disappeared, and Stafford, inwardly cursing Oku for the interruption, returned to the attack.
"Won't you say yes?" he pleaded.
But the spell was broken—for the time at least. Virginia had risen, and was busy rearranging her rumpled dress.
Glad of the interruption, she shook her head. It was too serious a matter to be settled so quickly. She must have time to think.
"Not now," she murmured.
"Yes," he persisted, again approaching her.
Her very resistance spurred him on. Like most men, he valued most what he could not have. Had she yielded readily, he would have thought less of her. She drew back, as if avoiding his embrace.
"You must give me time to consider," she whispered.
Stafford was about to insist, when suddenly the folding doors behind them were thrown open, disclosing the elaborately laid dining table. At the same instant Fanny and her fiance reappeared from the library. Giving Virginia a quick glance, as if anxious to know what had occurred during their absence, the elder sister said:
"Those pictures are lovely, aren't they, Jim?"
"Fine," he exclaimed.
Stafford bowed in acknowledgment.
"I'm glad you liked them," he smiled. Turning to the younger sister, he added: "Shall we go in to dinner?"
Virginia, who had been standing with her back to the dining room, her face clouded in deep thought, turned round. An exclamation of surprise and delight escaped her lips when she caught sight of the elaborate spread made in her honor.
"Oh, isn't it beautiful!" she exclaimed rapturously.
The table, with its corbeils of fruit, beautiful silver, floral pieces, snowy linen, fine crystal, the whole dominated by a superb electrolier, which cast color over all, was indeed a spectacle to delight and fascinate the eye. Jimmie was so overcome by the sight, that he nearly fell over the chair which the accommodating Oku held out for him. At last all were seated, Virginia at the right hand of the host, Fanny at the left, the shipping clerk at the other end of the table.
"Wine, Oku, the wine!" cried Stafford, while his guests began to nibble the dainty appetizers which preceded the more substantial dishes.
The little butler, quick as lightning, filled the glasses with foaming, hissing champagne. The host, his eyes fixed on Virginia, rose to his feet, glass in hand, while Jimmie, unaccustomed to such fine surroundings, and feeling rather out of place, looked up and stared. Slowly Stafford raised his glass. Impressively he said:
"Before we begin dinner, I have a toast to propose—"
Fanny and Jimmie looked up.
"A toast!" they cried in surprise.
Stafford, his eyes still on Virginia, went on:
"I have the honor of proposing the happiness of Virginia—my future bride!"
Virginia started and turned pale and red in turn.
Jimmie, with an audible exclamation of satisfaction, nearly choked over his champagne. Fanny, overjoyed, took her sister's hand, exclaiming:
"Really, Virgie! This is a surprise, and you didn't tell me?"
"It—isn't—definite," stammered Virginia helplessly. "I—haven't— promised."
Stafford laughed—the low, triumphant laugh of a man who knew he held the winning card. Again raising his glass, he said significantly:
"No, dear, but you will. To the future Mrs. Stafford!"
For some time after the merry dinner in Robert Stafford's beautiful apartment Virginia saw but little of her wealthy suitor. In fact, she rather avoided him, preferring not to give the appearance of encouraging him, firstly because she had not yet made up her mind regarding the honor he had done her, secondly because it was not always easy to invent excuses for further delay in arriving at a decision. Yet, situated as she was, it was not possible to hide from him altogether. There were daily duties to be performed; the business routine of every day must go on. When in the hotel or its neighborhood Stafford never neglected an opportunity to see her, or when he was not able to come himself he sent her flowers, books and candy, paying her every delicate attention in the nicest and most considerate way possible.
As soon as was practicable, she resigned her position at the hotel, taking this step not so much to avoid the railroad promoter, but because she did not wish to furnish anyone with the slightest pretext for criticism. The world is quick to censure. People could not help noticing that the millionaire spent a great deal more time at Miss Blaine's desk than was necessary to transact legitimate business, and it would not be long before the gossips got busy to her disparagement. For that reason she preferred to resign. Besides, it would be fairer to him. He had not even hinted at her taking such a course, but if she was to consider his proposal of marriage seriously—and each day the conviction grew stronger that it was her destiny—it was only proper that she should retire at once into private life and give people time to forget what she was before she became Robert Stafford's wife.
But while this judicious step naturally resulted in a serious curtailment of her income, she was not idle. She helped Fanny in the millinery store, and, in order to keep herself in pocket money, gave private lessons to beginners. These tasks kept her fully occupied, and what with her studies and household duties the days went by cheerfully enough.
Stafford was a regular and welcome caller at the Blaine home. He often came to take the sisters out for a spin in his splendid new touring car, a forty-horse-power Mercedes, and sometimes he would telephone from downtown and arrange for a little theatre party with supper afterwards at one of the fashionable night restaurants of the Great White Way.
Fanny and Jimmie looked upon the couple as if they were engaged and treated Stafford accordingly, addressing him with the easy familiarity of a future brother-in-law, an attitude which he himself tactfully encouraged. He went out of his way to be amiable to Fanny, flattering her and making her presents, and encouraging Jimmie to talk of his wonderful ideas. Moreover, he gave him plainly to understand that, once Virginia and he were married, the shipping clerk's impecunious days would be over and a comfortable berth would be awaiting him in his office at a salary commensurate with his exceptional ability.
This semi-promise was enough for Jimmie. From that moment on he was a changed man and Virginia knew no peace. He insisted that she was treating Stafford unfairly. If she did not want to marry him she should say so, and if she did intend to marry him she should be willing to name the day. As it was, she was standing in the way of her sister's prosperity and happiness. At the same time Fanny also added her powers of persuasion. Between the two Virginia felt that she had not much will of her own left.
Thus the weeks passed, Stafford respectful and devoted, but daily growing more restive and impatient, urging his suit, refusing to be discouraged, waiting eagerly for the day when she would respond to his passionate pleading and throw herself without restraint into his arms.
Meantime Fanny and Jimmie, having arrived at the conclusion that the prospects were bright and that they had been engaged long enough, suddenly decided to get married. Fourteen dollars a week—the weekly income of the bridegroom—did not allow of the setting up of a very elaborate establishment, but, as the clerk explained privately to his bride, it was only a question of time when Virginia would become Mrs. Stafford and then it would be smooth sailing for them all. Stafford had promised him a fat job at a salary worth while, and that could not possibly mean less than fifty dollars a week.
"He wouldn't have the cheek to offer me less than fifty per," said Jimmie confidently.
All of which sounded very hopeful to Fanny, who, however, was shrewd enough to make no mention to her sensitive sister of her intended's sanguine expectations.
They were married at the little Roman Catholic church in 125th Street, Virginia being the solitary bridesmaid, while Stafford—willing enough to enter into the spirit of the occasion and taking a chance that in such a remote neighborhood no one would recognize him—acted as best man. The bride looked pretty and self-composed, while Jimmie was a picture of masculine magnificence in a new frock coat, patent-leather shoes, white tie, silk hat and a collar so high that he could not turn his head round. After the ceremony, they all dined gaily at Claremont at Stafford's expense and then the newly married couple left for Atlantic City, where the brief honeymoon was to be spent—on slender savings which Fanny had carefully hoarded for some time.
Virginia cried bitterly as her sister drove away. It was the first time that they had been separated; she felt as if she was losing the last friend she had in the world. Stafford, full of kindly sympathy, tried to console her. Gently he whispered:
"Don't cry, dear. Don't you see how happy she is? You wouldn't rob her of that happiness, would you?"
"No, indeed," she sobbed.
He bent down closer and whispered:
"One day—she will be kissing her hand to you as you drive away in your bridal robes."
She made no answer and he pressed for some response.
"Won't she?" he pleaded.
Her eyes still fixed on the cab, now fast disappearing in the distance, she murmured:
"When will that be?" he went on eagerly.
She shook her head, irritated at his persistence at such a moment.
"I do not know," she replied coldly.
Thus far, Stafford had succeeded in keeping from his friends any intimation of his matrimonial plans, but it was hardly possible to keep the secret much longer. He and Virginia had been seen together in public places; his many visits to her house were known. Her sudden resignation from the hotel also had excited comment. People began to connect their names in a way unflattering to both. Such slanderous rumors must be stopped at any cost, thought Stafford to himself, and one evening at Delmonico's, while in a jovial, communicative mood, an opportunity came to unbosom himself freely to his friend Hadley. It was the latter's birthday and they were duly celebrating the occasion as three bottles of Veuve Clicquot, standing empty on the table, bore mute witness.
Stafford had been drinking freely. His face was flushed and his voice was thick, familiar symptoms when he had imbibed more wine than was good for him. The secret came out suddenly owing to a chance remark dropped by Hadley, who, sober himself and speaking of women in general, argued that girls who were compelled by necessity to earn their own living formed a class by themselves. They could not be classed with the domesticated girl of good family because they were open to temptations and contaminating influences which the latter escaped. Coming in close contact with the busy, feverish world, associating on terms of daily intimacy with all kinds of men, the naturally high moral sense of the virtuous woman must necessarily become blunted in her new business surroundings.
"Once the bloom is off a woman's moral sense," he argued, "it is only a step to the undermining of her virtue. It's inevitable," he went on as he sat back in his chair idly enjoying his cigar. "The home is the young girl's only protection. Take her out of it and you expose her to the manoeuvres of the first scoundrel who comes along. If she's temperamentally cold, she'll resist the seducer successfully; but if she's weak and pleasure-loving, she'll succumb and the devil will have won over another convert. Take, for instance, those stenographers in your hotel. That Miss Blaine—she's as pretty as—"
There was a blow of a heavy fist falling on the table. The dishes danced, glasses fell in splinters on to the floor. Hadley, startled, turned round. Stafford, his handsome face flushed from the champagne, but now tense and angry, was looking at him fiercely:
"Take care, old chap, how you talk of Miss Blaine! She's going to be my wife!"
"Your wife!" exclaimed Hadley, removing his cigar from his mouth in sheer surprise.
"Yes, my wife," repeated Stafford grimly. "What about it?"
"Nothing—nothing at all, my dear fellow," he stammered, looking narrowly at his companion to see if he was sober, "allow me to congratulate you."
There was an awkward pause. Then suddenly Stafford broke into a loud peal of laughter. His momentary ill humor had passed. Unable to account for the sudden change of mood, Hadley came to the conclusion that the railroad man was enjoying a joke at his expense.
"You were guying me, eh?" he laughed.
Stafford hiccoughed and shook his head. With drunken gravity he replied:
"No, siree—sure as your life—she's going to marry me."
Calling the waiter, he motioned to him to open another bottle of wine.
"We'll drink to her health, Hadley, old top. Nicest girl in the world!"
The champagne was uncorked and the railroad promoter poured out the wine with an unsteady hand. Lifting his glass he cried with mock sentimentality:
"To Virginia—my bride!"
The men touched glasses and Stafford, putting his glass to his lips, drained it at one gulp. Hadley stared at him in growing amazement. He saw his friend was drunk, but this was the first time he had suspected him of losing his senses.
"And how long has this been going on?" exclaimed his companion when he had recovered somewhat from his amazement.
"Ever since that day you were in my rooms at the hotel," he hiccoughed. "Didn't I tell you that I contemplated matrimony? Don't you remember?"
"I didn't believe you. I thought you were joking. I never thought you were the marrying sort."
"Why not?" spluttered the railroad man in an injured tone.
Hadley looked his friend straight in the face. He was not the kind of a man to shrink from telling a friend the truth.
"Do you want the truth?" he said slowly. "Well—you're too fond of your pleasures—too selfish! That's frank—but it's the truth. Selfishness keeps most men single. They're afraid to lose their liberty. When you marry you can say good-bye to your freedom."
"Who said so?" exclaimed Stafford, his face redder than ever, his lips tightening.
Hadley carelessly flecked the ash from his cigar. Calmly he replied:
"Your wife will expect it. She'll have a right to expect it."
Stafford smiled as he poured out another glass of wine. Grimly he said:
"You don't know me, Hadley, not after all these years, or you wouldn't talk like that. I'm not the man to be bullied or tyrannized or even lectured by a woman. My wife and I will understand each other perfectly. I shall make that quite plain from the outset. It's only right. I give my wife—my name, my fortune. I expect in return something from my wife. I think I've found just the right kind of girl—unspoiled by society notions, sensible on every point—"
"Even on that of letting you have your own way?" laughed Hadley.
"Precisely. She is ideal in every particular. Clever, amiable, good looking, not too strait-laced—she's just the girl I want. Don't you remember," he hiccoughed, "it was you yourself who recommended her—"
"As a secretary," said Hadley dryly.
Once more Stafford emptied his glass. He had already drunk too much, but he still had his wits about him. Laughing boisterously at his friend's sarcasm, he quickly retorted:
"As a secretary—precisely—and I've engaged her—for life."
Again filling his glass, he went rambling on:
"You and the other fellows at the club may chaff me all you choose. I'm going to marry her and that's all there is to it. I'm my own master, do you understand? I have no family—no inquisitive, meddlesome relatives, thank God! If this marriage is going to cost me what friends I have—all right—let them keep away! Such friends are not worth having, anyway. My mind is made up and you know me. Once I make up my mind, nothing can alter it." Determinedly he added: "I'll marry her even if she refuses me—"
"Refuses you?" smiled Hadley cynically; "surely you don't anticipate anything of that sort. Girls don't refuse millionaires nowadays."
Stafford's face clouded again. With an impatient gesture he cried:
"That's just the kind of rot you fellows talk! You don't know Virginia. She's not the sort of girl to be influenced in that way. If she were, she'd have said 'yes' at once. I understand her perfectly. She's still uncertain if she cares enough for me. I respect her all the more for her reserve. I'd rather that than have a girl throw herself at me merely for my money." Carelessly he added: "Oh, I'm not worrying. We're getting along all right. It's only a question of time now—"
Hadley did not know what to say. Evidently any advice he could have given on the subject was now too late. All he could think of was to mutter:
Stafford, no longer crossed, broke into a smile once more. Leaning tipsily over towards his friend, his face flushed, his eyes sparkling, he hiccoughed:
"Say, Hadley, she's a winner! Those big black eyes of hers are enough to drive any man crazy; and that figure! Can you blame me, Hadley? Can you blame me? Here, drink up!"
"No," said his companion, disgusted and pushing his glass away. "I've had enough and so have you. It's getting late. Let's go."
Stafford made no reply, but, calling the waiter, proceeded to settle for the dinner. While he was thus engaged, Hadley watched him in irritated silence.
"In vino veritas!" he mused to himself. Truly the wine had spoken plainly. The cloven hoof was clearly visible. It was not so much the congenial companion, the soul-mate which Robert Stafford saw in Virginia Blaine as it was a lovely young animal for the gratification of his lust, his appetites. What marriage, based on that idea, could be a happy one? He felt sorry for the girl. If he knew her well or cared enough, he would warn her that his friend was not the marrying kind of man. Of course, Stafford would do the honorable thing, go through a marriage ceremony, make a handsome settlement and all that sort of thing; but when it came to leading a quiet, regular, domesticated life, he simply was incapable of it—that's all. He had enjoyed liberty too long to wear the harness now. He was too much of the viveur, too fond of his club, his poker parties and little midnight suppers with fair ladies. Once the novelty of marriage had worn off, he would return to the old life and then there would be the devil to pay. The wife would find it out, there would be a row, with court proceedings, alimony and all the rest of it. Or perhaps she would suffer and say nothing, as so many do. Anyway, he was sorry for the girl.
Stafford looked at him and laughed boisterously.
"What's the matter, old top? You're as serious to-day as some bewhiskered old college professor. Stop your philosophizing and let's have some more wine. I'll match you for another bottle. Come, now."
Hadley shook his head and rose.
"No more for me," he said firmly. "You don't want any, either. Let's go."
"Which direction are you going?"
"Up Fifth Avenue. Coming my way?"
"Yesh—I'm with you—only I must stop in Forty-second Street first—at a jeweller's—to get a ring I ordered." Grinning stupidly at Hadley, he went on: "Great idea—diamonds! You can do anything with a woman if you give her all the jewels she wants! See, my boy?"
A few minutes more and the two men, the taller one of whom walked somewhat unsteadily, were on Fifth Avenue, making their way towards Forty-second Street.
Ten days later there appeared among the society notes of the New York Herald this paragraph:
"Robert Stafford, the well-known railroad promoter, was married yesterday at St. Patrick's Cathedral to Virginia Blaine, second daughter of the late John Blaine, once a well-known lawyer of this city. The ceremony was strictly private, the marriage being known only to a few intimate friends. The young couple sailed yesterday afternoon for Europe on their honeymoon."
The Stafford wedding was a nine-days' sensation and then people forgot all about it. Society mothers with marriageable daughters said that it was scandalous for a man of wealth and position to throw himself away on a penniless nobody, and malicious tongues freely predicted that before long the railroad man would regret the foolish step he had taken.
But for the present, at least, Stafford gave no indication of regretting anything. On the contrary, he and his young wife had come back from Europe in the highest of spirits, and immediately after their return to New York the millionaire proceeded to convince his critics of their error by throwing open his new house and entertaining on a lavish scale. For some time before his marriage Stafford had realized that his old apartment, comfortable as it was for the bachelor, would be quite inadequate for a married couple; so, getting rid of his lease, he had bought further down the Avenue near Seventy-second street a fine American basement house. It was a large modern residence, exquisitely furnished and supplied with every luxury money could buy. Virginia's private suite was particularly beautiful, being decorated in white and gold, in imitation of Queen Marie Antoinette's apartments at the Little Trianon.
To Virginia this new life of luxury and pleasure was like a chapter from the "Arabian Nights." It seemed unreal, like some fantastic dream from which, sooner or later, there must be an abrupt awakening. For years she had been so accustomed to the gnawing anxieties of poverty that this sudden superfluity of wealth fairly stunned and overwhelmed her. Stafford, apparently more infatuated every day, took the keenest delight in pleasing her. Everything that he thought would add to her happiness was done. He showered her with costly presents, giving her wonderful diamond tiaras, superb pearl necklaces and other gems until her jewels were soon the talk of New York. She had carte blanche at Fifth Avenue dressmakers and milliners; she had her French maid, her hairdresser, her automobile and her box at the opera. He forced open for her the doors of society and, once inside the exclusive circle, it was not long before Virginia made friends on her own account. People had expected to see a bold, coarse adventuress; instead, they were charmed by a modest, refined young woman who, intellectually at least, was their superior. Everybody received her with open arms. The men classed her as pretty and chic; the women declared she dressed divinely and gave exquisite dinners. Before long, society arrived at the conclusion that Robert Stafford had not made such a mess of his matrimonial venture, after all.
The months went by so gayly and so quickly that it was the greatest surprise to Virginia when one day she realized that she would soon celebrate the second anniversary of her wedding. She was so taken up with one fashionable function after another that she had no time to think. Sometimes in the midst of her social activities, she stopped to ask herself if she was really happy, if this nerve-racking existence of idleness and pleasure—with its bridge parties, its dinners, its opera and theatre-going—was the kind of life she had dreamed of in her girlhood days. Sometimes she felt a longing, a yearning for a more useful existence, something nobler, higher.
Then, all at once, there came a change. It seemed to her that Robert's manner toward her was not the same. For no apparent cause, he gradually grew more cold and distant. At first she thought she herself might be to blame and she carefully watched her own actions and attitude to see if she was neglectful in any way of wifely duties and devotion. But she had nothing with which to reproach herself. She managed his household and entertained his friends. When they were alone she played and sang for him. But, for some reason that she could not explain, she seemed gradually to lose the power of holding him at home. Under the pretext of urgent business, he stayed away more and more. Usually he telephoned at the last minute, saying he had a business dinner to go to or a directors' meeting to attend. It was seldom that she could count on his company, and it made her life necessarily seem very lonely. It was nice to be rich, but often she wished that they might be poorer, that Robert were less successful so that their life might be more domesticated, more intimate. She felt that even after two years of marriage she did not know her husband any better than when she first met him. There seemed to be between them an indefinable yet very real barrier which, for some unknown reason, she was impotent to tear down. Sometimes, too, she resented him making so little of her. Instead of taking her into his confidence in his business matters, he treated her as a child, whose opinion on serious things was valueless. Instead of coming to her as a comrade to ask advice, he preferred to play the ardent lover, as if that were all he expected of her. Her womanhood rebelled, but she said nothing. There were times, too, when he returned home very late, exhilarated by too much wine, and on such occasions his boisterous, passionate kisses nauseated her. Often she found herself longing for demonstrations of a more sincere and honest affection, but she always excused him on the ground that it was the fault of his temperament.