Since he had lost in dozens and scores of millions and could return to his preeminence only by mighty leaps, he plunged again in dozens and scores of millions, as befitted a mighty gambler. And in scores he lost and in scores again he plunged—to his ruinous and total undoing.
* * * * *
As the Burton fortunes were dwindling, Loraine Haswell, who had come now from the Riviera to Paris, found her state of mind reaching an anxiety that threatened first her composure, then almost her reason. She knew of her husband's ruin, and had written him a letter of condolence rather more human than any of her other communications to him had been of late.
But that the shattering of such a moderate financier as Len Haswell should foreshadow the total ruin of a money czar like Hamilton Burton and impoverish his parasite brother, was an idea too colossal to grasp in its entirety. Yet in the news from America it slowly dawned. In the Paris edition of the Herald it was convincingly chronicled, and the beautiful dark-haired woman who had thrown away her husband began to see that she had no reserve upon which to fall back. Had Len's modest fortune survived that tempest, it would have been easy to put back into port. A little contrition, a confession that she had tried living without him and found it impossible, would have won his forgiveness, because his heart had been too sore to calculate. But now Len was bankrupt and Paul would be likewise.
In these days Carlos de Metuan was no longer a speaker of veiled phrases. He was playing the role of the generous Platonic friend, watching her moods and seeking to comfort her.
There was no strain of iron in this woman's soul, and that suited his purpose. Just now he would gain more by merely standing by. Her increasing alarm would one day turn to panic and she would lose her head. For that day he could afford to wait.
Loraine was undergoing an agony, and when the time came which the duke regarded as the psychological moment, and he baldly offered her his proposition, she made a lovely picture of a woman in distress converted into a righteous fury.
She sent him away with blazing eyes and words that should have scorched, and he went with a shrug of the shoulders and smiled when he was out of sight. "It is not for long," he told himself.
In that cynical conviction Carlos de Metuan was correct. Loraine tried poverty and loneliness for a while in Paris, and because she was still a creature of rare beauty, several other men with greater or less degree of skilled language suggested similar solutions.
At last she met the duke again. He had been in Andalusia and had returned once more to Paris—alone. He was driving in a motor car and came upon her walking near the Arc de Triomphe. He halted the car and asked her to let him drive her home. At first she demurred, but in the end consented to let him drop her at her pension, provided he would promise to leave her immediately at her door.
"Assuredly," agreed the man gravely. "But in return, you will do me a favor also? You will let me call for you tonight and will dine with me?"
For a moment Loraine hesitated, then she slowly nodded her head.
Carlos de Metuan arrived promptly that evening.
Loraine had made her fight and regarded herself as a defeated martyr. The hour and a half before his coming she had not devoted to tears, but to beautifying herself. She met him radiant, and from her eyes and lips all the disfigurement of distress was banished. She laughed and chatted throughout dinner, and over the coffee, leaning forward a little, she asked, "Where do you mean to take me from here?"
"To a comedy perhaps, wherever you like."
There was a brief pause, then she looked up and put a second question. She put it with the best nonchalance that she could assume. It did not sound like unconditional surrender.
"And after that?"
Carlos de Metuan lighted a cigarette.
"I have leased for you a very good apartment not far from the Champs Elysees. I think you will find it comfortable."
For an instant the woman's eyes hardened.
"You appear to have taken matters rather much for granted, Carlos."
He shook his head and smiled.
"I merely hoped," he assured her.
Possibly some day a historian versed in the intricacies of high—and low—finance will record in detail, comprehensible and convincing to those who thirst for statistical minutiae, the last chapters of Hamilton Burton's history. Here it will only be set baldly down that the weeks, for him, went galloping toward and over the brink of things—until he found his affairs still reckoned in many millions, but all in the millions of liabilities.
He was pointed out derisively in those expensive hotels where once every head had bowed obsequiously at his coming. Then one night he went to his office, carrying a leather portfolio in his hand. He still walked with his head up and met the eye of every man who cared to gaze into his own. About his neck was turned up the collar of a sable-lined overcoat—relic of his days of splendor. As he walked down-town he met no one who knew him, and this suited his plans. Lower Broadway after nightfall is as murky and silent as upper Broadway is aflare and noisy. The steep buildings are like cemetery shafts, save where belated clerks work over their books and night watchmen guard their posts.
Burton's offices, still his under a long-term lease, were denuded of furniture and accessories—since the sheriff had already begun his confiscations here.
But tonight Hamilton Burton meant to use them for another, and a grimmer purpose—in fact a final one. The portfolio which he carried contained a dilapidated old blank book, such as one buys in a crossroads store, a volume of verse, and an automatic pistol, carefully loaded. When the now inevitable moment came which should leave his family roofless—he would not be there to see.
There is no saying what small matter may, at a given crisis, bring solace to a man who requires it. Now Hamilton Burton appeared to find the necessary comfort in the boast which he nursed to his heart, that his exit from the world, with which he had played ducks and drakes, was to be entirely voluntary and in no wise forced: that though he was closing life's door upon himself he was still crossing the Stygian threshold the captain of his soul.
His face was calm enough as he turned on the light and drew down the blinds of his private office. He had no knowledge of another tall figure, bearing abundant outward signs of adversity that, from the opposite side of the street, halted to glance up just as he showed himself there in the window.
Hamilton Burton deliberately unlocked the morocco brief-case with its gold clasp. First he took out the pistol and carefully examined it, nodding his head in satisfaction. Since there was no table left, he laid it on the window-sill near at hand. Next he withdrew the book of verses and after that the country-store note-book with its dog-eared and age-yellowed pages. These proceedings left the case empty save for a note directed, "Coroner's Agent, City."
In the days of his magnificence Hamilton Burton had regarded life-insurance as a poor man's buffer between his heirs and want.
For himself it had meant nothing and he had passed it by. Only since he had secretly half-admitted his vulnerability, had he thrown such an anchor to windward, and all his policies were new—too new to hold validity against self-destruction.
And yet the brain that had been so cool always, so logical, had of late assumed a dozen unaccountable eccentricities. Through his thoughts with the obstinacy of an obsession ran one refrain: "'Twas no foe-man's hand that slew him: 'twas his own that struck the blow."
Men must not think of him as one beaten and murdered. They must remember him as his own executioner. Surely the lawyers would find a way. Surely their cleverness would circumvent the restrictions framed by these gamblers on the chances of life and death.
He opened the poetry volume at a point where a page was turned down, then, standing by the electric light, boldly straight and without the air of a man who entertains fear of life or death, he read aloud and with excellent elocutionary effect ...
"I only loved one country in my life And that was France: I saw her break her heart Against the cruel squares: then the last order Broke from my lips as coolly as a smile. God! How they rode! All France was in that last Charge; and France broke her heart for me...."
He paused and a deep melancholy spread over the features until the eyes might truly have been those of broken dreams gazing seaward from the rocks of St. Helena. He glanced again at the pages and quoted softly.
"Ninette, Ninette, remember the Old Guard!"
After that he laid the book aside and turned the thumbed pages of the blank book. These were pages scrawled across in a boy's round hand. The man who had once been that boy stopped when he came to an entry written long ago by lamplight in an unheated attic, with frozen branches scraping the roof and the eaves.
"There is something in me," he read, "that tells me no man was ever greater than I've got it in me to be. John Hayes Hammond, Carnegie, Rockefeller, Frick were all poor boys...." He paused once more and let his eyes wander to the bottom of the page and dwell upon this addendum. "P.S. I sold them to Slivers Martin for ten dollars ($10.00) and they only cost me seven—and he had to go after them."
As he held the book in his hand he was interrupted by a low knock on the door. Perhaps the night watch-man had come up with a question. Hastily laying the diary of his boyhood over the pistol so as to conceal it he opened the door—and Len Haswell entered.
The broker's ruin had been complete, and his dual troubles had evidently driven him to demoralization of another sort. His face wore a set such as artists give the features of Death—the pale implacability of doom. He loomed there gigantic and silent; strangely altered by his chalky pallor and the dark rings out of which his eyes burned. After a moment Hamilton Burton inquired coolly, "Well, Haswell?"
"You may recall," said the deep voice in a tone of menacing quiet, "that during the two days when you scattered ruin broadcast—and ruined yourself into the bargain—I led your forces on the floor of the Exchange."
"Perfectly," was the calm response. "I recall that you lost everything. So did I. We seem to be fellow-unfortunates."
"You say I lost everything." Haswell drew a step nearer and held out his two mighty hands. "You are mistaken. I still have these."
A trace of annoyance stole into the voice of the fallen Napoleon. It is disconcerting to be interrupted during one's last moments of life.
"And with them," he ironically questioned, "you mean to begin over and make an honest living?"
Haswell shook his head. His tone took on, in its level pitch of implacability, a quality indescribably horrifying, "No—an honest killing. I am going to kill you."
"That," suggested Burton, "will not be necessary. I am on the point of saving you the trouble—and personal danger. In my bag there is a note stating that fact—and my reasons."
Haswell held out a letter. "I am not complaining about my ruin in the Street," he patiently explained. "I knew that game and took my chances along with the rest. That isn't what has been driving me mad. I got this letter a week ago."
Hamilton glanced at the envelope.
"From Loraine," went on Len Haswell in a voice of even deadlier quiet. The voice and chalky face seemed twin notes of sound and color. "I wouldn't care to tell you what happened to her—after she pinned her faith on your promise to buy her freedom—from me—for your brother. She lost out all around, you see. I wouldn't care to tell you about that—and its consequences. But something's going to be paid on account—here—tonight."
After a moment Burton said slowly:
"I am through. I'm just ending it."
Once again the huge man shook his head. A strange and bitter smile twisted his lips.
"No," he persisted in that level intonation with which men sometimes speak from the scaffold. "No, that won't do. You see I've whetted my appetite on anticipation—ever since that letter came. I must have the pleasure of killing you with my own hands; of seeing the breath go out of your throat—afterward the suicide will be my own."
To lay down one's life of one's own volition is one thing. To permit another to take it in a fashion of his own arbitrary selection is quite another. Hamilton Burton had never been submissive. He meant to die as he had lived—"captain of his soul," and so he turned quietly toward the window ledge where he had laid the automatic pistol. Perhaps some clairvoyant sense, loaned by the closeness of death, gave Haswell an intimation of the other's intent. He reached the window first—at a bound—and stood before it. Then suddenly a hideous expression came into his eyes until out of them shone the horror-worship that had obsessed his soul; and the maniac's cunning for draining his greed of vengeance to its dregs.
He had jostled aside the blank book containing the diary and seen the weapon, which he calmly slipped into his pocket. Then he raised the window as far as it would go.
"This is the twentieth floor," he commented with a ghastly significance. "I know because I walked up. I didn't want to be stopped—too soon. It won't take you so long to get down." As he spoke he jerked his head toward the raised blind and sash. "It's rather a symbolical finish for you, Burton—you must confess as much—an idol hurled down from his high place."
One quality Hamilton Burton possessed. If he was to die he would leave no satisfaction of final cowardice to comfort his assassin's self-destruction. He would attack—but a sudden thought stayed him.
"If we are to have a death struggle here," he asked with a strange composure, "will you give me a moment—for a matter that had no bearing on your determination?"
Haswell yet again shook his head with his executioner's smile as he sardonically inquired, "Time to get another gun?"
"No. To tear up a note to the coroner—unless you will be good enough to do it for me. If I am not to kill myself there is no advantage in an ante-mortem confession!"
"What difference does it make? To me it seems trivial."
"Just this—that my family will save my insurance out of the wreck."
"And Paul may once more sing golden songs to the wives of other men—not that I so much resent Paul. Without you he would have been harmless enough—but society's safer with him poor."
Hamilton Burton had caught a rift in the clouds and with this denial his calmness deserted him for passion. The old family love, strong even though he had himself so violated it, burst into flame in his heart. Once more he would fight for those he was leaving. Why had he never thought of the window himself? That might logically seem accidental, yet his brain had not served him well of late. It had been clouded and unresourceful—and he had invented no method of masking the authorship of his death. His enemy had suggested it—but first there must be a moment to destroy the confession which would rob his mother of the one asset which might be saved to her. With an oath he leaped upon his visitor, and fought tigerishly. But for all his superb physical fitness and strength it was like a child leaping upon a powerful gladiator.
With one mighty arm about his waist crushing him until his bones seemed to crack and one huge hand cutting off the gasp of his throat, his body was bent back in this gorilla embrace and a purple mist spread darkly before his eyes. He had just enough tremor of consciousness left to know that he hung limp and was being lifted and swung to and fro as one swings a sack which he means to toss into a cart.
A few moments later the giant stood panting from his exertion as he stretched out a steady hand for the pistol which lay on the window ledge.
In a certain dictionary appears this substantive and this definition. "PARASITE (par'-a-sit), n. one who frequents the table of a rich man and gains his favor by flattery; a hanger-on; an animal or plant nourished by another to which it attaches itself. (Greek.)"
If the animal or plant to which these other animals or plants attach themselves goes first to its death, it is inevitable that its parasites must speedily follow. There is no longer anything upon which to feed.
Hamilton Burton was gone and his parasites were withering. His will provided a princely fortune for each member of his family—save his sister, for whom they would care. But a will presupposes an estate—here were only enormous liabilities and vanished assets.
This man's dream of power in a single hand—the hand that could produce—had held so firm that he had never made any provision for their independent fortunes while he lived and held at his finger ends the touch of Midas.
Now he was dead. The coroner said, after viewing the evidence, he had killed Haswell first and himself next—so they added to all the sins of his overcharged account the crowning infamy of murder.
Those men who gather and print news have their fingers on the pulse-beat of things and sometimes they develop an occult sense of prophecy.
On the night of Hamilton's death, as a certain city editor in Park row read the proof of the "day's story," he called one of his reporters to his desk and let him wait there while he himself rapidly penciled out the "Stud-horse head" which should, tomorrow morning, shock many breakfast-tables. Finally he glanced up, under a green eye-shade, and shifted his dead cigar from one corner of his mouth to the other.
"Smitherton," he instructed, "from now on keep right after the Burton story."
Smitherton rolled a cigarette. "The follow-up tomorrow will be a big one, too," he prophesied.
"Sure, but I'm not only talking about the follow-up. As to that you handle the introduction and general. I'll have the various other ends covered. I refer to next week and next month and next year—"
The staff man raised his brows, and, with an impatient and wearied growl, his chief commented curtly: "Go, look up the word 'parasite' in the dictionary. Maybe after that research you'll understand better what I mean. There's copy in this for a long while. The branch is dead and the leaves will be dropping."
The stunned parents, the ashen-lipped brother and the sister, not yet recovered from her collapse, had months for realization; nightmare months during which hordes of creditors arose with legitimate, but wolf-like, hunger from everywhere, and courts adjudicated and the world learned that not a remnant of shredded fortune nor a ragged banknote would remain to the family which had dazzled New York since its Monte Cristo star rose on the horizon.
While the wolves were picking the remains of the estate to its naked bones, old Thomas Burton still went occasionally to his place in the club and gazed out of the Fifth-avenue window. He wore a band of crepe around his sleeve, and a defiant glint in his eyes, and since he was left much to himself, he drank alone. He was no longer the same portly and immaculately fashionable man. His flesh had shrunk until his clothes hung upon him in misfit. His face was seamed and his hair instead of being gray and smooth was white and stringy. But no pride is so inflexible as acquired pride, so he came to the club where he was snubbed, because, "By Gad, sir, I have the right to come here. I am Thomas Standish Burton, and I will not permit myself to be driven away—even though adversities have befallen me!"
He reflected upon "pursuits to which a gentleman of my age may, with fitting dignity, apply himself," and his ideas were random and impractical, but after a sufficient number of toddies they appeared to himself feasible and meritorious. One day when he called for his first afternoon drink the negro waiter shuffled uncomfortably, and said, "I'm sorry, sir, but I was told I couldn't serve you."
"Why?" demanded the member, stiffening with indignation.
"Your name, sir, is posted on the suspended-credit list. That's my orders, sir."
Tom Burton rose and stalked very stiffly, though no longer with his old time cock-sureness, for the last time out of the National Union Club, and spent the afternoon in the rear room of a saloon further east.
Paul, whose plight was as pitiable as that of a pet pomeranian turned out of a perfumed and cushioned boudoir to hold his own among foraging street curs, for a while bore up with an artificial courage. Under the long strain of successive anxieties his mother had broken in body and mind, and Paul was with her much, though sometimes she did not recognize him, but called him Hamilton and begged him not to leave the mountains, lest life in a new world should hold worse things than poverty.
Hamilton's dream-palace, with all its splendid plunder of art treasures, had gone under the hammer in satisfaction of a court judgment. Next went the house which his parents had occupied, and before that all the servants had gone—save one. Yamuro's passion of devotion to Hamilton had descended in a lesser degree to Paul and with the grave courtesy of the Samurai he waved aside all discussion of wages. Had he not saved much money for a Japanese boy who needed little? Already he could open a small shop and sell kimonos and jade trinkets and embroideries ... but that could wait until such time as his usefulness ended here.
The final day came, and the shrunken household effects were removed to a small apartment in Greenwich Village, so it was time for Paul to say good-by to Yamuro. It was Yamuro who had found the flat and haggled explosively over the terms of the lease. It had been Yamuro, too, who had gone with Mary, when she carried her mother's jewels from place to place, offering them for sale. The faithful little attendant knew that what was salvaged from such bargaining must be the last resort and sole capital of this shattered family. As the lady with the pale, but lovely, face looking out from the shadow of her mourning veil went from dealer to dealer, he followed a step behind her, watchful of eye, guarding her remnant of treasure against possible mischance.
Now he stood with Paul in the room which the musician would not again occupy, and Paul's eyes suddenly filled with tears while the son of a race called stoical turned away and occupied himself with a lump in his throat.
"Yamuro," began the musician in an unsteady voice, "you aren't a servant, you are a friend; good-by and God bless you."
The Jap caught the extended palm in his own two hands and bent over it. He was not weeping and he was not talking, but he stood with his head lowered until only the wiry black hair was visible, and in his throat rose guttural and incoherent noises like groans.
"I can't show my appreciation as I'd like," said Paul. "The day for that is gone, but there are some clothes that I didn't pack. I left them for you—" Even in an hour which called for defense of every penny, Paul was still the impractical man whose open heart and affectionate nature called for expression. "And this—" he put his hand in his pocket and drew out a watch upon which any pawnbroker would have advanced a goodly sum—"this was Hamilton's." His voice broke as he held it out. "I think he would like you to have it. His will left you twenty thousand dollars—but—well, you know."
Yamuro straightened up. He raised both hands in a gesture of protest and his words came fast and vehemently.
"No, no! Thanks ver' mutch—no—no! You great artist—you not un'stand making money. You need. Mother—sister—father all need. No—please!"
He halted; then in a deep embarrassment, went on. "Me got money in bank. Me not want be impert'nent, but—" He paused, seeking a disguised and delicate fashion of volunteering aid and looked appealingly into the other's face for assistance.
Fresh tears welled into Paul's eyes. "I understand you, Yamuro," he said, laying a hand on the stocky shoulder. "No, Yamuro, you have done enough—God bless you!" He could not trust himself further and so he turned abruptly and left the room.
These rooms in the twisting by-ways of picturesque old Greenwich Village seemed mean and tawdry to their new tenants, but they were very good as compared with what Mary knew must follow. The pitiful store of money which her last-stand financiering had raked together would not be renewed when spent, nor would it last long. It was only that they might have a temporary refuge in which to think out the future that the girl had chosen these quarters.
Then very shortly came the day when the house that had been the home of the elder Burtons also went under the hammer, and an unconquerable magnetism drew Paul to the spot though he knew the place would be filled with people who, to him, must seem pillagers. He had nerved himself to ask a thing for which he had been longing ever since those doors had closed upon him. In that house was the Pagan temple which his brother had built for his shrine of dreams and the organ which might have graced a cathedral. If they would allow him ten minutes there alone—ten minutes to finger the keys for the last time—at least he meant to ask it. It was a much changed man who presented himself diffidently at a house to which the public had been invited by the commissioner's advertisement. His clothes were already beginning to indicate his deteriorated condition though, thanks to Mary's care, they were scrupulously neat. The things to be sold this morning could find purchasers only among the very rich, and for that precise reason the occasion had attracted a horde of people who came as they might have gone to a fire or to a museum. Paul Burton found it easy enough to meet these eyes. It was when he encountered the gaze of old associates that he shrunk and trembled.
The sale had not yet begun and the crowds were drifting hither and thither, bent on preliminary inspection, jostling arms with the men from the detective agencies assigned to the occasion.
Paul found the person who seemed vested with authority and to him put his request. The individual looked at this pale young man and recognized him. There was a pathos in his face that could hardly be denied—and there was no reason for denying him.
"Certainly, Mr. Burton," he agreed. "I'll instruct the door-man not to let any one else in—unless you have friends you'd like to take with you."
Paul shook his head. "I'd rather be alone," he said. But as the two elbowed their way through the crowd he found himself face to face with a dark-haired, deep-eyed woman in fashionable and becoming mourning, upon whose fingers sparkled a number of rings. The musician halted in his tracks and turned desperately pale. He had heard that Loraine Haswell had returned from Europe—and he had heard vague rumors which had deeply shocked him. If they were based on truth it seemed improbable that she would care to risk meeting any of her old associates. Yet when his eyes encountered hers he found her laughing gaily, and he realized that, whatever else had happened to Loraine Haswell, she had lost none of her beauty.
"Loraine!" he exclaimed, his voice betraying his excitement, and she responded calmly, but with no emotion, "Good-morning, Mr. Burton." It was as though they had parted yesterday, but also as though they had never met, save casually, before that parting; as though their lives had never touched more intimately than in the brushing contact of passers-by. To Paul it seemed very cruel and he was about to pass on when she stopped him.
"Mr. Burton," she suggested, in a cautiously guarded voice, "I wish you would send back my letters. I'm stopping at the Plaza."
The man was silent for a moment, then he said simply:
"I have already burned them."
She searched his eyes for a moment, and, seeming satisfied of their truthfulness, smiled. "That will do just as well. Thank you. How silly we were to write them, weren't we?"
Paul hurried after his guide, who had been deferentially waiting a few steps distant, but at the entrance of the music-room he halted again—and this time his cheeks blanched with a greater astonishment. There, standing within arm's reach, was Marcia Terroll, though her face was averted and she did not see him.
"What brings you here?" he asked in a low voice, and as she turned to face him her hands went spasmodically to her breast.
"I didn't know that you would be here," she said faintly, but she did not tell him that she had come in response to the same instinct which draws pilgrims to shrines hallowed by association; because this had been the temple of his art.
"They have promised," Paul told her, "to let me have fifteen minutes in there undisturbed—to play my organ for the last time." His eyes met hers and he added in an earnest undertone, "Won't you go with me, Marcia?"
The woman's lashes glistened with a sudden moisture. "Are you sure you wouldn't rather be—quite alone? Isn't it rather sacred to you?"
"That is why I want you," he eagerly declared. "It will be something to remember afterward."
They went in, and for a moment the girl stood there gasping at the magnificence of this place, of which she had read descriptions, but which she had never seen. Then her eyes flooded and, with a sense of revelation, she forgave him every frailty and fault—even the isolated horror of longing she had been carrying in her heart. So sensitive a soul as his could not have been expected to stand out Spartan-bold against the voluptuary blandishments of such surroundings—and such a life. He looked at her for a long while and once, unseen by her, he put out his arms, but caught them back again with a swift gesture and shook his head. Now he knew in all bitterness what Loraine Haswell and his own cowardice had cost him—and it was too late.
Loraine Haswell and his own cowardice! He had not fully realized it before, but from that episode when he fled to Hamilton from his lunch with her had sprung the root of every succeeding chapter of tragedy—and for her he had lost Marcia! Then he led her to a place of vantage and went to the keyboard.
Never had Paul Burton played like that before, for as the music swelled and pealed through the place, his heart was singing its swan song. In a moment of manhood beyond his moral stature he had drawn back arms that were hungry for her—and he now knew, too late, that there was no one else who counted. But the organ was not so repressive, and as she listened she knew that the tragedy was not hers alone. While his fingers strayed to the improvising of his yearning and despair the woman sat spellbound, and finally he swung into that tritest of time-worn airs, "Home, Sweet Home."
A gasp came into Marcia's throat.
As Paul Burton left his seat and came down to her, his face was drawn and he said bluntly, "She is here today."
She did not have to ask details or if it was ended. The music had told her everything. In a sudden gust of feeling and wrath against this woman who had stood between her and happiness, she wanted to say bitter things—but she only nodded.
"Now that matters have turned out as they have," the man spoke deliberately, but tensely, "I sha'n't see you again. Now that I'm a bankrupt and it's all over, Marcia, I want you to know that I love you—that I love you without doubt or hesitation. In this world and whatever other worlds there are, there is only you ... you whom I lost because the coward must lose every good thing life holds." He broke off and asked very humbly, "Just in farewell—may I kiss you—once more?"
With a torrent of sobs she came into his arms. "From the first," she declared, "I've been just yours. I've never thought of myself except as yours. Take me! Poverty doesn't frighten me. I've known it too long—it's almost like an old friend. Let's fight our way back together."
There are moments which turn mice into lions and make heroes of the craven. Unfortunately they are apt to be ephemeral. Paul Burton shook his head as he looked into her eyes, and answered with an unwonted resolution.
"No," he said bitterly, "not now. Now I'm a bum."
"You needn't be. You are young. You have genius. We can win out yet—and win out big—and win out together."
His lips twisted in a pallid smile of self-derision.
"At all events for once I know myself. If I ever become a man, God knows I'll come to you. But I haven't done it yet. I mustn't know where you are, dear. I'm strong enough—just now, but in some dark, weak moment I'll come hurrying to you, if I can find you—before I've proved myself."
"I'm going out—on the road—this afternoon," she spoke slowly. "I'm going to wait, and for the first time, I'm really hoping."
* * * * *
In the weeks that followed Paul made a resolute attempt to keep his promise. For a while he played the piano in a restaurant, but his frail constitution had been shattered by these late months and sickness intervened. Mary, too, with her thoughts painfully bent upon the rapid shrinkage of the little bank account, endlessly sought employment. Because she was beautiful, and because even through these dark and hopeless days she had brought with her a regal poise of her lovely head, everyone to whom she applied gave audience—and little else.
In appraising her business assets, she itemized her knowledge of several languages, her excellent education and her willingness to work. She was countered by the reminders that she did not know stenography, could not use a typewriter and had no prior experience. Many business men listened and took her address, but as the days wore on she discovered that the only ones who ever referred again to those memoranda were such as remembered her beauty, and insisted on discussing the possibilities in cafes over a supper party for two.
One item of regularity Mary found time for, between her exhausting journeys of tracking down advertisements. She went often to the cemetery where Jefferson Edwardes slept, and her single extravagance was the purchase of a few inexpensive flowers to carry with her.
On one of these occasions she happened upon a burial in a lot near that she had just visited. The deceased had been a person of sufficient consequence to warrant newspaper attention, and Mary, in passing the spot from which the carriages were starting away, halted reverently. As she went on again, someone overtook her and touched her arm. Turning her head she recognized Smitherton. He had been the most courteous and considerate of the newspaper men with whom her family's late affairs had compelled her to have repeated meetings.
The reporter looked her straightforwardly in the eyes and inquired bluntly, "You were in the office yesterday, looking for employment, weren't you?"
"Yes," she said. "They offered me a position—if I would write a 'heart-interest' story of my life—signing it and concealing nothing."
The young man nodded. "I know and I saw your eyes as you refused. I'm not talking as a reporter now, but as a human being. You won't make any mistake by trusting me, Miss Burton. Is it so bad as all that with you? Hunting a job?"
The girl had by this time attained a certain reliance in her own abilities of human appraisement. She believed what young Smitherton said and she answered with equal frankness.
"It is so bad that we face sheer starvation, that's all."
After a keen glance at her he observed quietly: "At this moment you are not overfed."
"N—no." A faint amusement lighted her pupils as she answered, "I'm not—well, exactly gorged."
"Now I want to talk to you, and you needn't hesitate about telling me things." There was a frank boyishness about this young man, and his manner reminded her of Edwardes. She thought his eyes had something of that same straight fearlessness and honesty. "You are going with me from here to a little restaurant I know, near by, and you are going to hear me out. I know that you're going through sheer hell, and I know a game scrapper when I meet one whether it be a man or woman. This business teaches a fellow several things."
In the end she went.
An hour later she felt as if she had known Smitherton for a long while and could rely upon him. Then he lighted a cigar and said slowly: "I have taken all this time and said nothing useful. I did it deliberately—because what comes next will sound so cruel that I wouldn't say it if the reason wasn't sufficient. I'm going to hurt you—but only as the dentist or surgeon might hurt you. Shall I go on?"
She looked at him across the table and since cowardice had no place in her composition braced herself and nodded her acquiescence.
"You don't get much help from your brother. It's not his fault, perhaps, but it's true. You get none at all from your father. Your mother is in a condition of mental derangement. It's up to you. You've walked your feet sore seeking honest employment—and you've met with failure and affront. Now I'm coming to it and I'm going to put it plain. In this town of New York there is just one opening for you. One thing will bring you handsome returns: nurses for your mother—comfort for your father—but it will be an ordeal. You must capitalize your beauty and the publicity that attaches to your name."
Mary Burton's lovely face grew paler, and, fearing interruption, the man rushed on. "I don't mean in the way the Sunday editor suggested. I mean the stage. I eke out my revenue in Park row with some press-agent work, and I happen to know what I'm talking about. Mary Burton is one of the most advertised names in the city. To a manager it would be worth whatever it cost."
"But"—her voice faltered—"but I can't act. I've been in amateur things of course, but—"
"You don't have to know how to act." His voice rose ironically. "Few stars do—besides, I'm talking about vaudeville. The highest-priced vaudeville headliner in America boasts that she can neither act, sing nor dance."
He paused for a moment, then, as she said nothing, proceeded gravely: "Think that over, Miss Burton. New York pays for names and what New York pays for the rest of the country accepts—at more than face value. I can see to it that your contract is carefully drawn—and you needn't fear the usual unpleasant features of visiting managers. They will come to you. It's not what you would prefer—but if other things fail telephone me."
It was a small restaurant, very plain but neat, and at this hour of the late afternoon the man from Park row and the woman who had once been the toast of capitals from the Irish Sea to Suez sat across one of its small tables undisturbed by other patrons. Only a waiter stood across the room and a cat rubbed against his ankles.
In her mourning she made a wonderfully appealing picture, as she gazed down at her plate, even though her lowered lashes half-masked the mismated beauty of her eyes. Suffering had laid a veil of transparent pallor over the brilliant vividness of her coloring—a coloring that her lover had once likened to the gorgeousness of the Mosque of Omar. Yet, by this, her beauty was rather enhanced than lessened as though Nature, the master-painter, had retouched a picture already wondrous, softening its colors with a tone more spiritual. Both face and figure had lost something of roundness and the hand that lay on the table was slenderer of finger and wrist, but Mary Burton had not been robbed of her beauty, and when she spoke, very low and hesitantly, one realized that out of her voice no single golden note was missing. She might still be truthfully advertised as one of the world's rare beauties.
"I know," she said softly, "that you make that suggestion in true kindness—and I know how great my need is. If I am to save my mother and father from starvation, I must do something, and yet—" She paused and shuddered. "Maybe it's all foolish and over-fastidious, but your suggestion sets every nerve in me on edge. It's not very different after all from your Sunday editor's suggestion—except in the spirit of its making."
"Still, there is a difference," he assured her. "The footlights are between and they give a sense of separation—and protection. Was Herron—the Sunday man—particularly obnoxious? He's not human, you know—he's just an efficient machine."
The fingers of the hand that lay on the table trembled a little and Mary's eyes as they met his were clouded with distress.
"I hadn't supposed such things could be," she said. "He was very impersonal about it all—and he grew enthusiastic as he outlined what he wanted." Her words came slowly in a detached voice, though as she spoke her delicate features responded to the shiver of disgust that ran through her shoulders and at times her lips quivered. "He wanted me to write it all—telling about every man abroad, especially with a title, who had ever—been nice to me. He wanted pictures of me; all sorts of pictures, in evening-gowns, in polo togs—in bathing-suits. He wanted a chapter on how much my clothes used to cost—all my clothes. He said the women would 'eat that up.'" She stopped and a wan smile crept into her eyes, as she added, "I am using his words, Mr. Smitherton. But I could stand that. I sat through it. I couldn't afford to lose any chance if it was a chance I might decently take. But it was when he wanted his picture, too, Jefferson's—"
She had to stop there for a moment and a mist came to her eyes which she resolutely kept from overflowing in actual tears as she went on. "It was when he wanted me to write down all his words and publish his letters that I realized I couldn't fight even starvation that way."
"The damned brute!" muttered Smitherton. "The unspeakable beast!"
"To do him justice," admitted the girl generously, "I think he forgot, in visualizing those pages which the women would 'eat up,' that it was actually me he was talking to—it was just outlining work to a reporter. He said something about 'sob-stuff,' too. To me, Mr. Smitherton, he spoke of all these terrible, hideous things, that I lie awake remembering, as 'sob-stuff'—and I knew that the worst of them were times that made sobs impossible—when even tears wouldn't come."
"I had no idea it had been that bad." Smitherton's sympathy was genuine and spontaneous.
"It was worse even," she went on. "He spoke of that—that afternoon when I read the ticker tape—and knew what had happened. He said that, properly colored, that would make a—a great scene. He said it had drama." Her voice choked, then she added: "So you see your suggestion will be a hard one for me to take. I should feel like—like Godiva riding through the streets. And yet for her own people Judith went to the tent of Holofernes. That wasn't easy, either."
They rose from the table and went out, and the girl held out her hand. "Please don't think that I am unappreciative," she pleaded. "I know how kind you have been—and I don't know how much longer I can hold out. You said I could trust you, and now I know it, too. If—" her voice broke, but her chin came up—"if I'm driven to it, I'll let you know—and be very grateful."
"Don't let any one else talk to you," he cautioned. "Remember that this is the capital of sharks. Now I'm going to call a taxi', and take you home."
But she shook her head. "It's good of you," she said and her cheeks flushed. "But I'd rather you didn't. I'm going by the people's chariot—the subway." She was not yet quite able to conquer the old pride that remained from the old life. She shrunk from showing him the meanness of her quarters; she who had reigned and been toasted and lived in the exclusive aloofness of the favored few, and who now faced starvation. So he parted from her at the nearest kiosk of the underground.
* * * * *
It would be a pleasant thing to paint the rehabilitation of Paul Burton, showing how the underlying qualities of manhood rose in adversity as they had never risen in opulence, and how love transformed him from a weakling into a hero. But veracity intervenes. In childhood his character had lacked stamina, and in manhood a hot-house atmosphere had stifled even what had been there in the beginning. For a short time after he had seen Marcia Terroll he fought the world and his own terrible weakness with such a resolution that he utterly burned up and consumed what spirit of combat was left within him. Perhaps the recording angel, counting not only results but handicaps, wrote on the great ledger of human balances a generous merit mark for even that brief struggle.
Paul was like a weak swimmer in a strong undertow. He battled hard and if he could not battle long it was because the measure of his strength was not a matter of his own choosing. For a while he held a position as organist in a church—and during those days he brought home the only revenue which came in. But that did not last. The truth must be told. Paul's fastidious spirit sickened at the sordid and tawdry, and when he discovered one day, through the unkind offices of a vagabond violinist, that it was possible to reconstruct a dream world, even in the midst of want and poverty, his hunger for tranquillity triumphed over his resolve. With a hypodermic needle he picked the lock—and threw open the gate of dreams. To himself he said that it was only a temporary indulgence, to be put aside when he had conquered the agonies of that sleeplessness which had of late tortured him. Mary, deprived of his aid, fought on alone, with all the fighting courage of the Burton blood at its best—and fought hopelessly.
Elizabeth Burton could not be left alone. Her mind had crumbled into such pitiful decay that her care chained the daughter in a rigorous confinement. Now even the opportunity for seeking employment was denied her.
The ruin of the Burton family was as total and complete as if fate were bent on tallying measure for measure their past magnificence. The quarters which Yamuro had chosen were given up and lodgings taken of a far meaner sort.
If Mary needed a final twisting of the knife in her wounded life it came when there stood between them and the streets a single asset, and she went to realize on that, haggling with a pawnbroker over her engagement ring.
Marcia Terroll came back to town for a brief stay between engagements and stopped with Dorothy Melliss at their old rooms. She had not dared to ask any question about Paul, and the other girl would have refrained from volunteering information had she possessed it. Indeed, it would have been unlikely that Dorothy would know anything of the submerged Burtons in this city where lives may run out parallel spans almost door to door, and never touch. But one evening as Marcia was crossing the square, just after the lights began to glow, a human derelict sidled up to her and accosted her with a mumbled petition for alms. The man was old and his clothes though neatly patched were threadbare and worn. His face, too, was seamed and his breath was alcoholic.
"Madam," he said in a low voice as he fell into step with her, "I was not always so unfortunate, nor am I responsible for my adversities. Could you—"
With a shudder of disgust Marcia quickened her pace, and the man, fearful of the eye of police authority, dropped back. But Miss Terroll could never bring herself without a struggle to ignore the plea of old age. It struck her, too, that despite his panhandler's manner this man was yet in a fashion different.
There was evidently someone who sought to keep him neatly mended up, for her woman's eye had caught that detail in a glance. Through his inebriety lurked a ghost-like suggestion of past gentility. She turned impulsively back, beckoning to him as she searched her purse. In it were two quarters and one of them she gave him.
"God bless you, madam," he began with a grotesque echo of the ancient pompousness. "God knows I had never anticipated such a necessity."
As she hurried on, he removed his hat and bowed with an attempt at stateliness which held a pathos of burlesque.
Marcia Terroll was spared the hurt of knowing that the panhandler with whom she had divided the contents of her pocketbook, and whom she had thus enabled to buy five greatly desired glasses of beer, was the father of the man she loved.
So, though Mary Burton did not know it, this was the way old Tom eked out the very scant pin-money she could spare him for his own method of drugging his sorrows.
An old year was dying and a young year was about to be born. Along the blazing stretch of Broadway from Thirtieth street to Columbus circle seethed and sounded the noisy saturnalia of New Year's Eve.
The street that never sleeps was tonight a human spill-way, churning in freshet. Between its walls went up the clamor of human throats raised in talk, in shouts, in song, in laughter and in contest with the blaring of toy horns, the racket of rattlers and all those discordances that seek to swell pandemonium to the bursting of ear-drums. Theaters were disgorging their "big-night" audiences and pedestrians moved in a congested mass which battalions of traffic officers herded slowly as dogs herd crowded sheep.
An endless procession was this, in which human entities were molecules, that crept, elbowing, jamming, laughing along. Holly-wreathed windows bore, in additional decoration, placards announcing, "This cafe is open all night." For this was the city's wild occasion of suspended laws, when two edicts only hold in the favored points of rendezvous, "Nothing but wine," and, "Everything goes."
Vendors of paper caps, false mustaches, confetti, balloons and all the noise-swelling devices ever bred of deviltry, hawked their wares along the curbs, and the furs of women glittered with atoms of colored paper.
Within the restaurants and cabarets was added to the outer din a popping of corks, a fanfare of orchestras and the songs of supper guests at tables and dancers on the floors.
Already a sequence of wild scenes telescoped themselves along the White Way, but the evening was yet young and would ripen toward fulfilment as the hours progressed. Its Bacchanalian zenith would be reached after the million lights of these gilded places had died—like the snuffing of a single candle—into the five minutes of darkness which heralds the changing year.
Along the uproarious sidewalks, pressing ragged shoulders to the richness of ermine and seal, drifted many hopeless derelicts, but tonight was to be a night of forgetting them, of forgetting everything save that it was a "large evening" and that life held only the present clarion of gaiety. The tragedy under this thin crust must be ignored. Mirth must be crowned; laughter must be enthroned; glasses must sparkle and clink and such individuals as elected to remain sober must look indulgently and smilingly on scenes which, at another time, would require a blush. To blush on Broadway on New Year's Eve would be a misdemeanor. It doesn't happen.
One splinter of human drift which was carried along on the tide gazed about out of a chalky face—morphia-stamped. This chip on the churning eddy bore the name of Paul Burton. He had of course no business there. For him there was no reasonable prospect of a happy new year. There still remained a roof—of a sort—to cover him when he went home, which was not so often as it should be, and he still wore a suit of decent cut, though of a past fashion, but in its pockets there was no jingle of coins. Passively Paul had been drawn into the maelstrom of the marching crowds, yet he was not of its membership. He could not turn in at any of the doors that blazed with light and invitation. But he had certain dreams which vaguely recompensed him—and in his pockets was a hypodermic needle.
At Longacre square, where the swirl and eddy of human currents met and became a cauldron and whirlpool, he was held up at a crossing, while the crowd shrunk back on itself, waiting the raised hand of the traffic policeman.
Finding himself jostled, he glanced languidly over his shoulder. The needle makes for such languidness at times between its moments of dreaming and its moments of jumping nerves.
Several men in evening-dress and fur coats surrounded him, and he knew them all. The face of Norvil Thayre was laughing into his, and he recognized that an evening well started had painted its flush on the cheeks of each of them.
"My word, Burton!" laughed the Englishman. "I haven't seen you since the war of the Roses. How goes it, lad?" Then, even in his heightened gaiety of mood, Thayre recognized the want and distress which had left their impress and pallor on this face, and his eyes sobered. With the other rules of the season he felt that forgetfulness of the past accorded, so he hastened to add, "You know these fellows. Fall in and hike along with us. We have a table reserved at Kenley's and it's close to the platform. I dare say we sha'n't miss many tricks."
A deep embarrassment flooded the face of the outcast. He, who had once numbered these men among his associates, felt sensitively the pinched poverty of his present condition and its contrast with their Persian-lamb collars, otter-lined coats and their white shirt fronts of evening-dress.
"Thank you," he said gravely, "I'm afraid I can't. Your party is made up and—and—"
But as he stammered to a pause Thayre slapped him heartily on the back, and the others, with voices of more advanced inebriety, made it a chorus of insistence.
"'Twill do you no harm, my lad," declared the Englishman. "'A little nonsense now and then—' You know the old saw. A bite of mixed grill and a beaker of bubbles will buck you up, no end."
The musician hesitated, deeply tempted. To sit at table with white damask and clear glass, and once more to eat such things as they serve at Kenley's! The idea could not be lightly dismissed. Besides he felt suddenly giddy and weak. He frequently felt so these days, and if he accepted he could rest quietly until the vertigo passed.
"I say—of course," Thayre leaned forward and explained in a lowered voice, "you go as my guest. I'm giving the party tonight."
Ten minutes later, retrieved from the street, Paul Burton sat near the edge of the cabaret platform in a cafe where every table had been reserved long in advance, and from whose doors many eager applicants were being turned away.
Nearby, too, was the space reserved for dancing, and as Paul drank his first glass of champagne the bubbles rose and raced merrily through his thin blood, lifting him out of his squalid reality into an echo world of irresponsibility. The crowds on the floor were swirling to a delirious dance tune while above their heads shot up the white arms of women and the black arms of men, to keep dozens of multi-colored toy balloons afloat over them.
Like glass balls on a fountain-spray, red and blue and purple spheres drifted up and down, and confetti showered, and dancers snatched paper caps from the heads of strangers, and crowned themselves therewith.
Wilder groups danced, not in pairs, but in trios and quartettes with arms locked around shoulders—and it wanted a half-hour of the changing year.
Thin ribbons of bright paper volleyed rocket-wise from table to table and fell in festoons from overhead wires. Dancers forced their way through showers of breaking strands, and swayed rhythmically on, trailing broken shreds of kaleidoscopic color.
Like punctuations of sound came the popping of balloons and corks.
Paul Burton's hosts had arrived at the stage of mellow exhilaration, but over Paul himself, as his eyes met the great clock which was to herald the eventful moment, fell a sudden shadow of black depression. Another year to face! He thought of what he had promised to do with this one—and of what he had done! Those last moments in his music-room rose to his memory and they carried a penalty which slugged his heart into an intensity of shame and misery. Paul Burton, sitting there with this thin semblance of merriment around him, saw himself once again very clearly for what he was.
Thayre leaned over. "I say, men," he suggested with the enthusiasm of a new and bright idea sparkling in his eyes, "let's call the head waiter and have Burton play for us. The management will be jolly well pleased when they know they're getting the greatest instrumentalist in New York."
Paul protested, but Thayre was a man of quick action, and a moment later the waiter had brought the head waiter, and the head waiter had gone for the manager.
Such patrons as these the manager had every wish to oblige, and he was by no means unwilling to utilise such an artist as Paul Burton when the lights came on again and his patrons rose to their feet for the national anthem.
"Of course," cautioned Thayre, "Mr. Burton doesn't want his name announced," and even to that restriction, limiting the value of his extemporaneous "feature," the manager reluctantly acceded.
To live for music and to have no instrument with which to express one's emotions means a tortured privation of the spirit. Paul Burton, as he took his seat at the piano, forgot that it was New Year's eve on Broadway, forgot the lights, the confetti and the toy balloons. He remembered only that here were keys which unlocked his dream-world of music, and when he began to play the clamor of the place slowly and quite unconsciously subsided, and quiet came—not at once, but as a delirium may soften slowly into sleep under the stroke of a soothing hand.
When from an outlying table a woman, grown louder of laughter than she realized, interrupted this quiet, a score of faces turned angrily in her direction, rebuking her with their glances.
But the music went on and the great crowd which had a few moments before been abandoning itself to noise and riot now found itself listening—listening in a sort of rapt trance—with its many gazes converging on a slender young man. His pallid face and cameo features seemed exalted and his eyes burned strangely under the dark locks that fell across his forehead.
They did not hear the first peal of the midnight clock, until the sudden darkness which that stroke heralded reminded them of the hour.
The place which had blazed with light was now as black as some sea-floor cavern, and that should have been the signal for a hundred horns and rattlers and shouts of greeting, and the reaching of hands to meet and grasp other hands across the tables. But in Kenley's it was quiet except for those peals of music that came from the platform. At last the strains ended in silence, and a deep breath passed among the tables as though from one composite pair of lungs. Then once more the instrument spoke—spoke with a grotesque inappropriateness for a night that was not to end till morning—for the notes that sounded across the place were the opening bars of, "Home, Sweet Home."
There were only a few bars—and after that a loud crash as though a number of hands had simultaneously fallen, with violence, upon the keys—and then the lights blazed again from all the opalescent chandeliers and all the wall brackets.
Instantly from tables near the center two young women, in paper caps, leaped up from their seats and kissed the men and women of their party. A wave of greetings swept the place.
Across one end of the room gleamed a huge electric sign, "Happy New Year"—and lying hunched forward with his face on the keyboard of the instrument sagged the unmoving figure of Paul Burton.
At once the lights went out again, leaving the place dark, and the voice of the manager was heard from the platform, a little strained in tone as he sought to conceal the tragedy which, should it become known, would end the night's profit for his establishment.
"Ladies and gentlemen," he lied resourcefully, "I hope you will all keep your seats and indulge the management for a few moments. A fuse has burned out, but it will at once be remedied. Our pianist, I will add, has suffered a fainting spell, but is in no danger."
When the lights came on again, the figure at the piano was no longer there. Just back of the platform was a door used by the cabaret performers, and through this he had been borne.
But the faintness which had come upon Paul Burton was the faintness of death, and there were those among the merry-makers who could not forget the grotesque attitude of which they had caught a glimpse, and who found subsequent merry-making impossible.
"Notify the coroner," ordered the policeman who had come in from the corner through a service entrance. "This is a case for him."
The manager bent an ear toward the outer door and recognized that there had been no resumption of the saturnalian chorus between his walls. "Mr. Thayre," he commented bitterly to the guest who had followed into the private room, "your friend there has put New Year's eve on the blink for my place—this thing costs me thousands."
"Who's the dead man?" demanded the officer bluntly, and when Thayre replied with two words, "Paul Burton," he gave a long, low whistle of astonishment. The name of Burton was not yet forgotten in New York.
Mary Burton was returning from a Sixth-avenue delicatessen shop with the bottle of milk and box of crackers which constituted the marketing for tomorrow morning's breakfast. She felt very faint and unspeakably sick at heart. There was no longer even a trivial thing with which to interest the pawnbroker. She had had little sleep for many nights and her temples throbbed with pain. She had been trying to think out some way to mend their misfortunes, and each day brought her nearer the point where the grinding struggle must end in starvation.
"If it were only myself," she said bitterly as she turned the corner under the superstructure of the Elevated, and shivered in the cutting wind of the blizzard which was sweeping the city, "it would be simple." She paused a moment later and halted against the wall of Jefferson Market Court where a brick abutment broke the force of the bluster. Mary was not so warmly clad as this rigorous weather warranted. The last thing she had taken to the sign of the three balls was a heavy cloak.
"For me," she said to herself as she bent her head into the smother of wind-driven snow, "life ended there in that office—when he died. If I had just myself to consider I don't think God would blame me much for ending it."
But it was not only herself she had to consider. The doctors told her that her mother's tenuous life strand might snap at any time in sudden death or might stretch indefinitely in helplessness and dethroned reason. Even in the mean lodgings they occupied other tenants were sometimes prone to the drawing of lines, and Mary knew that the landlord did not regard it as helpful to his business to have "a crazy lady in the house. Some guests objected." So when she began falling into arrears she did not delude herself with false hopes of charitable indulgence. Her father, too, though he had dropped down the scale of life to a forlorn old man who loafed his hours away in saloons until he was turned out, was still her father and while breath remained in his disreputable body his stomach required food as well as drink.
The girl went in at the dark door of the house, which was not greatly different from a tenement, and climbed the double flight of stairs. From a place by the window her mother looked up from her chair where she sat incessantly rocking. She held in her lap an old blank book and her expression was vacant.
"I've just been reading Ham's diary," she querulously announced. Mary shuddered. Of late her mother was always reading that old record of boyhood ambitions, which to her was always new since no memory—save those of other years—outlasted the hour.
"Ham thinks he's going to be a great man some day and I hope he's right. He's a good boy and a dutiful son and—"
But the daughter was not listening. Her eyes had encountered an envelope on the dresser mirror, and, as she tore the end of it, she felt a premonition of its contents.
"How about some money on account?" questioned the writer. "Unless I get some by tomorrow, I want my rooms vacated."
So the ultimatum had come. Mary Burton stood before the mirror for a moment and out of her body all the strength seemed to flow. Her knees shook, and her hands grew moist and chilly. Lest her sudden weakness be apparent to her mother she turned and went wearily into the other room. There she sat on the edge of her bed and tried to think.
"Tomorrow!" She dully repeated. "Tomorrow we are put out—then a public asylum for my mother—and the street or the almshouse for my father." Even now she was not thinking of herself. If it came to that she still believed God would not resent her opening for herself the single door of escape.
But these two old and helpless people! To Mary they were desperate burdens, but perhaps that only made her love them the more, and fight for them the more loyally.
For a long while she sat there in silence, then she rose with a red spot burning on each cheek and put on her hat again. At the lower landing she encountered the landlord. He was not a prepossessing man at best, and his face just now did not indicate that he was at his best.
"You got my note?" he inquired bluntly, and the girl nodded.
"I think," she faltered, "probably I can do something about the rent tomorrow."
"Thinking isn't going to satisfy me," he announced. "Tomorrow's the limit of my patience."
Mary suddenly remembered that to telephone costs a nickel, and that she had none with her. For a moment she stood on the sidewalk before climbing the two flights again to raid the little supply of her purse. The endless anxiety and the unbroken strain of these calamitous months had weakened her to the point of realizing that the stairs were steep. Then she remembered that the Italian woman at the delicatessen shop was her friend, and would trust her for the five cents. She fought her way along to the store through a wind which threatened to sweep her off her feet and which cut her like whiplashes.
Her trembling fingers made a task of turning the pages of the directory and finding the number of a newspaper on Park row, but at last she succeeded.
"Is Mr. Smitherton there?" she asked, and the curt direction came back, "Hold the wire."
Smitherton was sitting at a desk littered with newspaper clippings and sheaves of copy-paper. His shirt-sleeves were rolled to the elbow and the light of his desk bulb shone on his ruffled hair as the "copy-kid" called out to him with that insouciant freshness which stamps his kind.
"Dame wants you on the wire. Got a voice like a million-dollars worth of peaches an' cream." Mary with the receiver to her ear heard the subtle compliment of those mixed metaphors.
Smitherton finished pasting a clipping into the blank place in a type-written page and rose slowly.
"Well?" he inquired shortly. "What is it? This is Smitherton."
At once he recognized the voice which replied, and recognized that it came faintly and full of indecision.
"This is Mary Burton, Mr. Smitherton. Do you—do you think you could still find me work in vaudeville?"
"Oh!" The reporter's office brusqueness fell away, and his tone changed. He knew that this was the girl's last stand, and that she had not admitted its necessity until every other effort had failed, every path of escape closed. "I don't think, Miss Burton," he assured her, "I am certain."
"Do you think—" the voice was even fainter—"it would be possible to get just a little money—some sort of advance—soon—tomorrow?"
"Leave that to me," he confidently commanded. "Just give me your address—and I'll be at your place in the morning."
Mary slept little that night. Against her windows screamed and whined the wind, driving a swish of fine, hard snow in its breath. From two rivers came the dull groaning of the fog horns. But the storm which kept her eyes hot and sleepless was one within her own breast.
Over and over again she told herself that the work for which she was volunteering was in no wise disgraceful. Probably many women who were her superiors were doing it with willingness, even with warrantable pride. It would mean for her mother, as the reporter had reminded her, comfort and competent nursing. Perhaps, in surroundings of greater ease, her father might even yet rehabilitate himself into a manlier old age. Save to serve them her own life was already lived out.
But the shudder of disgust would return despite her efforts at its banishment and shake her like a chill. In her case it was not vaudeville—and it was only lying to herself to call it so. No manager was considering the payment of a salary to her for anything she could legitimately do. It was what Smitherton had described it, capitalizing the publicity of a misfortune so sweeping as to possess a morbid public interest. In whatever generosity of terms her contract was drawn its essential meaning would be that in ten-and a hundred-fold it would come back to the management for that one reason. It would so come because people would flock in vulgar curiosity to see the woman who had reigned in exclusive sets of society from which they were themselves barred; whose brother had reigned as a magnificent dictator of dollars. They would come because they had heard of this beauty, and had glutted themselves with column upon column of yellow and sensational news recording untold opulence, and afterward of tragedy building on tragedy to this climax; herself standing there on exhibition in the pillory of their gaze.
Seats would be filled and applicants turned away from the box-office, because a large part of the American public differs in no wise from that of Rome when it gathered in the circus to see a captive princess thrown to the beasts—or claimed as a captor's slave. Her value could be based only on pandering to the mob spirit of gloating over the fall of the great.
They would warm over and republish all the sensational details which time had cooled. The story she had refused to write, others would not refuse to write—neither would they refuse to "color" certain scenes into "drama."
The girl, lying in her bed, pressed her fore-arms against her eyes and struggled to shut out the pictures that rose as horrors in her mind—but they passed and repassed with fiendish pertinacity. Nightmare shapes leered at her from gargoyle features.
To any human being a situation is what it seems to be.
Had she actually, like the Lady Godiva, been called upon to ride the length of Broadway, clad only in her beautiful hair, and placarded "Burton's Sister and Edwardes' Fiancee," it could have meant to her delicacy of feeling no greater trial, no more truly the denuding of herself to the public gaze.
Had all this realization not been so keen and so poignant Mary Burton would not have fought so long against the idea which seemed to open the only way.
Were there just herself she would, before considering such desecration of every sacred memory, have preferred to stuff with paper the crannies of that wind-rattled window and to turn on the gas. In comparison this would have been easy.
Easy! Suddenly the idea became a soul-clutching temptation. It offered escape from the horror of decision and action; escape, too, from the haunting of memory. The woman sat up in bed and her eyes gazed feverishly ahead through the dark. She trembled violently and the plan invitingly unfolded. Some unseen devil's advocate was urging her, for the instant half-persuading her, insinuating and luring. Often as a very little girl she had slept in a room as bare as this and listened contentedly to the rattle of storm-shaken shutters. She had cuddled, a warm, soft shape, under the blankets, and sunk sweetly, dreamily into unconsciousness and happy dreams. It was so easy! There, in a drawer where she had thrust it, with abhorrence for the emblem of a contemptible weakness, was Paul's hypodermic needle. This very night she could again drift, unresisting, into sleep, and while she slept the gas-jet could flow free.
The room was cold. Sitting upright in her bed, she shivered. Then, as she realized how seriously she had yielded for a panic-ridden moment to the temptation of turning her back on life's need of courage, the shiver grew from a shudder of the flesh to a shudder of the soul. She lay down again and hid her face in the pillow.
From the next room she heard the heavy snore of her father and the gentler sleeping breath of her mother. Personal preferences and prejudices belonged to the past.
Very well—she still had the flaming Burton courage. She would do this hateful thing, and when she gazed on the eyes that glutted their curiosity with staring, she would meet them serenely and give them no sign that she was being tortured.
And this thing Mary Burton did—did with that calm dignity which is vouchsafed to those whose souls are of heroic quality.
It was only when the day's work of rehearsal ended and she was locked again in her own room that she sat dry-eyed and wretched, remembering a dozen things which made her shudder. But as she walked along the streets she kept her eyes to the front, because she could not tell from what wall one of those blazing "three sheets" might confront her. They were advertising her as Mary Hamilton Burton—that the value of those two names might doubly pique the curiosity of the morbid.
Also, she avoided as a pestilence the newspapers, and what they might contain.
Abey Lewis did not at all understand her, though he had handled a variety of people during his long career as a purveyor of "refined vaudeville" to the public. He confessed as much to Mr. Smitherton, with whom, as Miss Burton's business manager, he came into constant association.
"I don't get her at all, Mr. Smitherton," he querulously complained. "I've known most of the big-time artists that have come along in vodeville, and she ain't like none of them I ever seen. I've made a lot of head-liners, but this girl acts like it gives her a pain to talk to me. She don't seem to take no interest in her act."
The business manager chewed irritably on his cigar. They were sitting in the darkened theater while Mary Burton was being rehearsed in the short and dramatic sketch which Smitherton had secured for her.
"Has it occurred to you, Lewis," he suggested, with a certain coolness of manner, "that you wouldn't be paying Miss Burton the salary you are if she was like anybody else you've known? Haven't you considered the fact that this lady is going to pack your place to capacity because of her difference?"
"Maybe so. Maybe she's a big novelty, and I ain't kicking," assented the other. "But it does seem to me she ought to be more grateful—for the chance she's getting. She's a knock-out all right! Them eyes ought to get the folks going—I wish she'd use 'em more."
The two sat silent for a while with the empty chairs around them, then Mr. Abey Lewis raised the megaphone with which he was directing and spoke to the stage.
"Daughter," he instructed, "you ain't quite got the psychology of the part yet." Mary Burton came down toward the front of the stage, with her fore-arm raised across her face to shut off the glare of the "foots," as she listened. Mr. Lewis rose and walked thoughtfully down the aisle toward her. It was Mr. Lewis' intent to handle very delicately this new headliner whom he failed to comprehend, and of whom he stood in secret awe.
"Now you see, daughter," he went on, "this act gives you a great chance for emotion, and I know, when you get the right angle on it, you'll eat it up. You've just got wise there, where I broke in, to the fact that your husband's a criminal. You ain't never suspected he was a crook before. Now that calls for emotion.... Put more color into it.... Pound it a little harder. When George ends his long speech and pauses, that brings you across, see? It cues your reception of the news. It throws a bomb under you. In times like them women get more hysterical. They ain't quiet in grief, like men, so just cut loose a little more. Give us a nice little scream."
For once Mary Burton almost smiled, as she hearkened to this wise dissertation on emotion, but she only bowed her head in assent, as the director added: "Take the scene up again at George's entrance."
When he sat down beside Smitherton, Abey Lewis shook his head. "I ain't sure we didn't make a mistake in giving her a straight dramatic sketch," he said dubiously. "She ain't got no emotion. She needs more pep. Now if she had an act with lots of changes of costume—something that would show her off better, it might go bigger."
"Yes, and then you wouldn't have her at all," he retorted. "Get it through your head that this whole thing is distasteful to Miss Burton. It's bad enough as it is, without asking her to do a diving Venus."
"She won't ever be an actor," commented Mr. Lewis, sagely, "but what the hell's the difference? It's the name that's going to carry this act—and it's going to be a knock-out."
The day of the ordeal arrived. Mary could not remember any occasion to which she had gone with such a sense of terror and misgiving, but this neither Mr. Lewis nor any of his subordinates suspected. It had pleased the management to call a morning rehearsal, so Mary had not been able to go home before her matinee debut. Tomorrow, if all went well, she could remove her parents to a greater comfort, so it was her affair to see that all went well.
Her mother had been less well than usual during these last few days and Mary had impressed upon old Tom Burton the necessity of remaining on watch during her own absence. But, out of the advance she had received, Old Tom had drawn a small allowance, and it was remarkable how greatly the manner of bartenders had changed for the better in the brief space of a few days. By forenoon Thomas Standish Burton was more than tipsy, and by two o'clock as he emerged from a side door his step was so unsteady that he found the slippery footing a matter requiring studious attention. Once he would have fallen had a policeman not caught his arm.
"I thank you, sir," acknowledged the old man, "I am deeply gra'fle, sir."
"You're deeply loaded," replied the officer. "I ought to run you in for your own protection."
"I'm sure—" Burton's eyes were watery and his voice thick—"you wouldn't do that. M' wife's sick an'—"
"Well, get on back to her, and—if you want good advice—when you get indoors, stay in." With a kindly tolerance the policeman assisted the pedestrian across the street and watched him tack along until he was lost to sight.
It was a bad day for uncertain feet and legs. The town lay locked in a grip of ice which sheeted streets and sidewalks with a treacherous danger. Horses struggled with hooves that shot outward, and children slid merrily and the elderly picked their way with a guarded caution.
Old Tom Burton made the trip back to the lodging-house and up the double flight of stairs in safety. One leg was a little painful, for in that fine irony, which sometimes seems to prove Life a cynical humorist, Thomas Standish Burton had been endowed with a single relic of wealth and epicureanism—he suffered from gout. So, as he climbed, he laboriously favored the crippled foot.
Then he opened the door of his wife's room and entered. But after one step he stood still, then he brushed a sleeve across his eyes to see more clearly. Elizabeth Burton lay, full length, on the floor near her chair—and she seemed unconscious. The old man hurried over to her and succeeded in lifting her weight to the bed. She must have suffered a heart-attack and fallen as she tried to cross the room alone. A great fear seized upon his heart and in some degree sobered him. He listened for the heart-beat and clasped shaking fingers to a wrist that at first seemed pulseless. But at last he found a faint flutter of life in the body he had thought lifeless—so faint and wavering a flutter that it seemed only a whispered echo of a departed vitality.
For a while he stood stupefied, then he thought of Mary. Of course, he must send word to Mary. Perhaps, too, life could still be coaxed back, if a doctor came quickly enough. Down the stairs he hobbled with a speed that drove him into a sort of frantic and clumsy gallop. On the first floor he knocked on the landlord's door and implored him to call a physician at once, while he himself went out to the telephone.
The nearest instrument was in a saloon and hither the old man hurried. Mary had given him the number of the stage 'phone, and he called it. Despite the coldness of the afternoon, perspiration burst out and beaded his forehead as he waited—only to hear the exasperating voice of the operator announce, "Busy." Three times this was repeated and while he waited, pacing frenziedly back and forth, he sought, after each successive failure, to allay the jump and tremor of his shocked nerves with whiskey, and he poured generously.
At last he had the theater number and was told that Miss Burton could not answer just then, but a message would be delivered.
"Tell her to come home at once," he shouted wildly into the receiver. "Her mother's dying."
"Wait," came the somewhat startled reply. Then after a moment a new and truculent voice sounded in his ear.
"What is this," it demanded, "a bum joke you're trying to put over, or what? Come home at once!—Don't you know a packed house is waiting to see Miss Burton in her act? What do ye mean, come home at once?"
"But I tell you—"
"Go tell it somewhere else." Thomas Burton did not know that it was Abey Lewis himself who spoke. "I don't believe you—you're trying to string somebody—and if the Queen of China was dying she couldn't come now anyways."
Slowly Abey Lewis turned from the receiver he had abruptly hung up and beckoned the subordinate who had first taken the message.
"Don't mention this to anybody," directed the chief tersely. "Do you get me? The girl mustn't hear it—and if any telegrams or messages come, you bring 'em to me, first, see?" Then to the stage door-man he gave a similar command, and looked at his watch. It was two forty-five. Mary's act, held for the latter part of the bill, was not due for an hour. For just a moment Mr. Lewis considered the advisability of advancing it on the program. That might be safer—but also it would mar the climacteric effect and so offend his sense of artistic fitness. He thought that, after all, he had safeguarded matters well enough.
But Old Tom Burton had rushed out of the saloon and was hastening at his awkward gallop to the Eighth-street station of the elevated. He was going to tell Mary in person and to bring her home.
Around the turn of the rails he saw a train coming, and, urged by his obsession of haste, he strove for a greater speed. The top steps were slippery, and Old Tom was giddy and his legs uncertain. His foot shot sideways without warning, and his body went hurtling backward. He clutched desperately for the hand-rail and missed it. Down the long flight of iron-edged stairs, in a bundle of ragged old humanity, he rolled limply, and lay shapeless on the pavement. At once, a rush of feet brought a little crowd, and the same policeman who had helped him home earlier bent over him.