We come now to the family gathering in the palatial home of Mr. Courtney Van Winkle, just off Fifth Avenue (on the near east side), and it is December. Corky's wife bought the place, furnished. He couldn't stop her. The only flaw in the whole arrangement, according to the ambitious Grand Duchess, was the deplorable accident that admitted a trained nurse into the family circle. It would be very hard to live down. She never could understand why Mr. Van Winkle did it!
The twins and their brides were occupying enormous suites at one of the big hotels, pending the completion of a new and exclusive apartment building in Fifth Avenue. They had been in town but a week when Courtney and the Grand Duchess returned from Virginia Hot Springs, where they had spent November. Old Mr. Van Winkle was just out of the hospital after a second operation: an adhesion. He was really unfit for the trip up town from the old Van Winkle mansion; nevertheless, he made it rather than disappoint his new—(I use the word provisionally)—daughter-in-law, who had set her heart upon having the family see what she had bought. I am not quite certain that she didn't include Corky in the exhibit.
There were introductions all around. Mr. Van Winkle, senior, was presented to his mother-in-law and to his sisters, and, somewhat facetiously, to his father-in-law, his brothers, his sons and his daughters. Corky had the pleasure of meeting his three sons-in-law, his three daughters-in-law, his two sisters, his brothers, his father and his granddaughters-in-law. The twins—but why continue? Puzzles of this character provide pleasure for those who choose to work them out for themselves, and no doubt many who have followed the course of this narrative are to be classed among them.
Of course, in his own home Corky sat at the head of the table, but it is not to be assumed that he was the undisputed head of the family, although he may have advanced claims to the distinction because of his position as father-in-law to every one else of the name. Mr. Van Winkle, pere, jocosely offered to relinquish the honour to his son, and the twins vociferously shouted their approval.
"You are the oldest member of the family by marriage, Corky," said Jeff, and was rewarded by a venomous stare from his joint mother-and- sister-in-law.
"How you talk!" said the Grand Duchess, suddenly remembering her lorgnette. The stare became intensified. "Isn't the house attractive, Mr. Van Winkle?" she asked, turning to the old gentleman, with a mirthless smile.
"Are you addressing me, my dear, as your son-in-law or as your father- in-law?" enquired Mr. Van Winkle.
"Why do you ask?" she demanded.
"Because if you are speaking to me as your son, I prefer to be called Bleecker."
"Stuff and nonsense, Mr. Van Winkle! Why, I scarcely know you."
"Won't you tell me your Christian name? I can't very well go about calling my daughter MISSIS Van Winkle."
"Minervy—I mean Minerva. Of course, I shall expect you to call me Minerva. I—I suppose it is only right that I should call you Bleecker. Isn't it an odd situation?"
"I should say so," put in Rip. "I'll have to give up calling you father, Bleecker. You are my brother now."
"I don't think we should carry a joke too far," said his father severely.
"It's no joke," said Kip. "Is it, Father Corky?"
"See here, confound you, don't get funny," snapped Corky from the head of the table. "You forget the servants."
"I'm not ashamed to have them hear me call you father, Corky," protested Rip. "I'll shout it from the house top if you think there's any doubt about my sincerity."
"Don't tease, Ripley," said Toots. "Your poor brother is dreadfully embarrassed."
"You must go with me to the dressmaker's tomorrow, girls," said the Grand Duchess, effectually putting a stop to the discussion. "I shall be there all day trying on gowns, and I want your opinions."
"Didn't you have anything made in Paris, Mother?" cried Toots and Beppy in unison.
"She did," said Corky emphatically. "We paid duty on seventy-three gowns, to say nothing of other things."
"But they are all out of fashion by this time," said Mrs. Corky, joyously. "They are at least three months old. I'm getting everything new. The season promises to be an unusually brilliant one, doesn't it, dear?"
Every one waited for Gorky's reply. He appeared to have swallowed something the wrong way. It was just like them to wait, CONFOUND them, thought he resentfully.
"Yes," said he, so succinctly that the four ladies were bitterly disappointed. For them, the topic called for the most elaborate treatment. "I shall give a big ball right after the holidays," said the Grand Duchess, determined to keep the subject going. "Corky and I have been going over the list of invitations this week. We mean to make it very select. On a rough estimate, we figure that the affair won't cost a cent less than fifty thousand—"
"My dear!" cried Corky, rapping violently on the table with his fork in his agitation.
"That's a pearl-handled fork," his wife reminded him, going very red under her rouge.
At this juncture Jefferson arose and, clearing his throat, began a toast to the brides.
"On your feet, gentlemen! Here's to the four Mrs. Van Winkles, the fourest of the fair—I mean the fairest of the four—ouch!—the fairest—of—the—fair. May they never know an hour of remorse! May their hearts always beat time to the tune of love we shall sing into their lovely ears, and may they be kind enough to forgive us our transgressions while they listen to our eternal and everlasting song! Drink, gentlemen!"
As the four gentlemen drained their glasses, the four ladies applauded the eloquent Jeff.
"You must write that out for Corky, Jefferson," cried his mother-in- law. "He may have an opportunity to spring it—"
"Ahem!" barked Corky, quite viciously.
"I am sure we shall all love one another and be happy to the end of our days," cried Mrs. Bleecker Van Winkle, an extremely handsome woman of thirty-three.
"Good for you, Mother!" shouted Rip, with enthusiasm and every one laughed, Corky the loudest of all.
Beppy rose half way out of her seat and peered down the table in the direction of her sister Mary.
"Stop holding hands, you silly things!" she cried, shaking her finger at Bleecker Van Winkle and his wife.
"I'm not holding hands," cried Mary.
"She was feeling my pulse," explained the old gentleman hastily.
As a matter of fact, when Mary undertook to bestow upon her husband the caress known as "holding hands" she invariably took his wrist between her thumb and forefinger and absent-mindedly counted ten or twelve before realising her mistake.
The father of the three young men took this particular moment to revoke, in a very diplomatic way, the sentence he had declared a few months earlier in the year. Without saying it in so many words, he gave them to understand that he considered their fortunes made and warmly congratulated them upon the successful issue of their endeavours. He made so bold as to state that he took upon his own shoulders all of the trivial mistakes they may have made during years of adolescence, and gave to them the glory of achieving success when failure might have been their lot because of the foolish adoration of a doting parent. It was a very pretty speech, but the boys noticed that he carefully refrained from acknowledging that they had made men of themselves.
"And now," said he, in conclusion, "permit me to paraphrase the toast of that amiable ancestor whom fiction has given to us, the ancient Rip whose days will be longer than ours, whose life will run smoothly through centuries to come: 'May we all live long—and prosper'!"
They drank it standing.
The Grand Duchess beamed. "So that dear old gentleman WAS your ancestor after all. How glad I am to know it!"
"Yes, my dear daughter," said her venerable son-in-law, running his fingers through his niveous thatch, "he was the first of the time- wasting Van Winkles."
THE LATE MR. TAYLOR
Hawkins was not a drinking man. To be sure, he took a glass of something occasionally, but he thoroughly understood himself at the time. He took it to be companionable, that was all. Therefore, in view of what happened to him on one unforgetable night, it is well to know that Hawkins bore an impeccable reputation for sobriety. Likewise, his veracity never had been seriously questioned.
The night was bitterly cold—so cold, in fact, that Hawkins relished the prospect of remaining in-doors. There was a blizzard blowing fifty knots an hour. Hawkins rarely used the word "mile," it may be said; he was of a decidedly nautical turn ever since the memorable trip to Europe and back. He was middle-aged and a bachelor. This explains the fact that he was a man of habits if not of parts. For years he had lived in cosy apartments on the fifth floor, surrounded by unmistakable signs of connubial joy, but utterly oblivious to these pertinent manifestations. Away back—I should say abaft—in the dim past he had given some little thought to matrimony but she was now almost beyond memory.
Each day after Hawkins had balanced the books at the bank—and they always balanced, so methodical was Hawkins—he went for his stroll in the park. Then came dinner, then a half hour or so of conversation with the other boarders, and then the club or the theatre. Usually he went home early in the night as he always went to town early in the morning. The occasions were not infrequent when he could smile grimly and pityingly upon one or more of his companions of the night before as they passed him on their belated way home long after dawn. It was then that Hawkins drew himself a trifle more erect, added a bit of elasticity to his notably springy stride, and congratulated himself warmly on being what he was.
Soon after eight o'clock on the night of the great blizzard, Hawkins forsook the companionship of the disgruntled coterie downstairs and retired to his library on the fifth floor. His suite consisted of three rooms—and a bath, as they say when they talk of letting them to you. There was a library, a bed chamber and a parlour with broad couches against two of the walls. Sometimes Hawkins had friends to stay all night with him. They slept on the couches because it did not make any difference to them and because Hawkins was of a philanthropic turn of mind when occasion demanded.
He got into his dressing gown and slippers, pulled the big leather chair up to the blazing grate, and prepared for a long and enjoyable visit with one Charles Dickens. A young woman of charm and persistence had induced him, only the week before to purchase a full set of Dickens with original Cruikshank engravings—although Hawkins secretly confessed that he was sceptical—and it was not like him to spend money without getting its full value in return. It was with some show of gratitude then that he looked upon the blizzard which kept him indoors for the night. Years ago he had read "Oliver Twist" and "David Copperfield," but that was the extent of his acquaintance with Dickens. Now that he had the full set on his shelves, it behooved him to read the great Englishman from beginning to end.
"This is a terrible night," he mused, as he ran his eye along the row of green and gilt books, and "Bleak House" seems especially fit for the hour. "We'll begin with that."
Outside the wind howled like mad, shrieking around the corners as if bent on destroying every bit of harmony in the world. It whistled and screamed and gnashed its way through the helpless night, the biting sleet so small that it could penetrate the very marrow of man. Hawkins serenely tucked his heels into the cushions of the footstool and laughed at the storm.
"I sha'n't be disturbed tonight, that's sure," he thought, complacently. "No one but a drivelling idiot would venture out in such a blizzard as this unless absolutely driven to it. 'Gad, that wind is something awful! I haven't heard anything like it since last February and that was when we had the coldest night in forty years, if one can believe the weather bureau." Here Hawkins allowed "Bleak House" to drop listlessly into his lap while he indulged in a moment or two of retrospection. "Let's see; that was said to have been the deadliest cold snap Chicago has ever known. Scores of people were frozen to death on the streets and many of them in their homes. I hope there is no one so luckless as to be homeless tonight. The hardiest man would be helpless. Think of the poor cab-drivers and—oh, well, it doesn't help matters to speculate on what may be happening outside. I shudder to think, though, of what the papers will tell in the morning."
The midnight hour was close at hand before Hawkins reluctantly and tenderly laid "Bleak House" on the library table, stretched himself and prepared for bed. The blizzard had not lost any of its fury. Indeed, it seemed to have grown more vicious, more merciless. Hawkins, in his pajamas, lifted the curtain and sought a glimpse of the night and its terrors. The window panes were white with frost. He scraped away the thick layer and peered forth into the swirling storm.
"Worse than ever," he thought, a troubled look in his eyes. "Poor devils, who ever you are, I feel for you if you're out in all this."
He turned off the lights, banked the fire on the grate and was soon shivering between the icy sheets of his bed. It seemed to him they never would get warm and cosy, as he had so confidently expected. Hawkins, being a bank clerk, was a patient and enduring man. Years of training had made him tolerant even to placidity. As he cuddled in the bed, his head almost buried in the covers, he resignedly convinced himself that warmth would come sooner or later and even as the chills ran up and down his back he was philosophic. So much for system and a clear conscience.
Gradually the chill wore away and Hawkins slumbered, warm and serene despite the wrath of the winds which battered against the walls of his habitation. At just what minute sleep came he did not know. He heard the clock striking the hour of twelve. Of that he was sure, because he counted the strokes up to nine before they ran into a confused jangle. He remembered wondering dimly if any one had been able to distinguish the precise instant when sleep succeeds wakefulness. At any rate, he slept.
The same little clock struck twice a few minutes after a sudden chill aroused him to consciousness. For a moment or two he lay there wondering how he came to be out-of-doors. He was so cold and damp that some minutes of wakefulness were required to establish the fact that he was still in his own room and bed. It struck Hawkins as strange that the bedclothes, tucked about his head, seemed wet and heavy and mouldy. He pulled them tightly about his shivering body, curled his legs up until the knees almost touched the chin and—yes, Hawkins said damn twice or thrice. It was not long until he was sufficiently awake to realise that he was very much out of patience.
Presently he found himself sniffing the air, his nostrils dilating with amazement. There was a distinct odour of earth, such as one scents only in caverns or in mossy places where the sun is forever a stranger. It was sickening, overpowering. Hawkins began to feel that the chill did not come from the wintry winds outside but from some cool, aguish influence in the room itself. Half asleep, he impatiently strove to banish the cold, damp smell by pulling the coverlet over his head. His feet felt moist and his knees were icy cold. The thick blanket seemed plastered to his black, wet and rank with the smell of stagnant water.
"What in thunder is the matter with me?" growled he, to himself. "I never felt this way before. It's like sleeping in a fog or worse. A big slug of whiskey is what I need, but it's too infernal cold to get out of bed after it. How the dickens is it that typhoid fever starts in on a fellow? Chilly back and all that, I believe,—but I can't recall anything clammy about it."
The more he thought of it the more worried he became; more earnest became his efforts to shut out the chilly dampness. It occurred to him that it would be wise to crawl out and poke up the fire in the next room. Then he remembered that there was a gas grate in his bedroom, behind the bureau. Of course, it would be quite a task to move the bureau and even then he might find that the gas pipe was not connected with the burner. The most sensible proceeding, he finally resolved, would be to get up and rebuild the fire and afterward add an overcoat and the cherished steamer rug to the bed coverings. Damper and damper grew the atmosphere in the room. Everything seemed to reek with the odour of rotting wood and mouldy earth; his nostrils drank the smell of decaying vegetation and there seemed to be no diminution. Instead, the horrible condition appeared to grow with each succeeding breath of wakefulness.
The palms of his hands were wet, his face was saturated. Hawkins was conscious of a dreadful fear that he was covered with mildew. Once, when he was a small boy, he had gone into a vault in the cemetery with some relatives. Somehow, the same sensations he felt on that far-off day were now creeping over him. The room seemed stifled with the smell of dead air, cold and gruesome. He tried to convince himself that he was dreaming, but it was too easy to believe the other way. Suddenly his heart stopped beating and his blood turned to ice, for there shot into his being the fear that some dreadful thing was about to clutch him from behind, with cold, slimy hands. In his terror he could almost feel the touch of ghastly fingers against his flesh.
With rigid, pulseless hands he threw the soggy covers from his face and looked forth with wide startled eyes. His face was to the wall, his back—(his cringing back)—to the open room. Hawkins was positive that he had heard the clock strike two and he knew that no hour of the winter's night was darker. And yet his eyes told him that his ears had lied to him.
It was not inky darkness that met his gaze. The room was draped in the grey of dawn, cold, harsh, lifeless. Every object on the wall was plainly visible in this drear light. The light green stripes in the wall paper were leaden in colour, the darker border above was almost blue in its greyness. For many minutes Hawkins remained motionless in his bed, seeking a solution of the mystery. Gradually the conviction grew upon him that he was not alone in the room. There was no sound, no visible proof that any one was present, but something supernatural told him that an object—human or otherwise—was not far from his side. The most horrible feeling came over him. He was ready to shriek with terror, so positive was his belief that the room was occupied by some dreadful thing.
Even as he prepared to turn his face toward the open room, there came to his ears the most terrifying sound. Distinctly, plainly he heard a chuckle, almost at the bedside. A chuckle, hollow, sepulchral, mirthless. The hair on Hawkins's head stood straight on end. The impulse to hide beneath the covers was conquered by the irresistible desire to know the worst.
He whirled in the bed, rising to his elbow, his eyes as big as dollars. Something indescribable had told him that the visitor was no robber midnight marauder. He did not fear physical injury, strange as it may seem.
There, in the awful grey light, sitting bolt upright in the Morris chair, was the most appalling visitor that man ever had. For what seemed hours to Hawkins, he gazed into the face of this ghastly being —the grey, livid, puffy face of a man who had been dead for weeks.
Fascination is a better word than fright in describing the emotion of the man who glared at this uncanny object. Unbelief was supreme in his mind for a short time only. After the first tremendous shock, his rigid figure relaxed and he trembled like a leaf. Horror seemed to be turning his blood to ice, his hair to the whiteness of snow. Slowly the natural curiosity of the human mind asserted itself. His eyes left the face of the dread figure in the chair and took brief excursions about the room in search of the person who had laughed an age before. Horror increased when he became thoroughly convinced that he was alone with the cadaver.
Whence came that chuckle?
Surely not from the lips of this pallid thing near the window. His brain reeled. His stiff lips parted as if to cry out but no sound issued forth.
In a jumbled, distorted way his reason began to question the reality of the vision, and then to speculate on how the object came to be in his room. To his certain knowledge, the doors and windows were locked. No one could have brought the ghastly thing to his room for the purpose of playing a joke on him. No, he almost shrieked in revulsion, no one could have handled the terrible thing, even had it been possible to place it there while he slept. And yet it had been brought to his bedroom; it could not have come by means of its own.
He tried to arise, but his muscles seemed bound in fetters of steel. In all his after life he was not to forget the picture of that hideous figure, sitting there in the tomb-like grey. The face was bloated and soft and flabby, beardless and putty-like; the lips thick and colourless; the eyes wide, sightless and glassy. The black hair was matted and plastered close to the skull, as if it had just come from the water. The clothes that covered the corpse were wet, slimy and reeking with the odour of stagnant water. Huge, stiff, puffy hands extended over the ends of the chair's arms, the fingers twice the natural size and absolutely shapeless. Truly, it was a most repulsive object. There was no relief in the thought that the man might have entered the room alive, in some mysterious manner, for every sign revealed the fact that he had been dead for a long time.
Hawkins, in his horror, found himself thinking that if he were to poke his finger suddenly into the cheek of the object, it would leave an impression that hours might not obliterate.
It was dead, horribly dead, and—the chuckle? His ears must have deceived him. No sound could have come from those pallid lips—
But the thing was speaking!
"It is so nice and warm here," came plainly and distinctly from the Morris chair, the voice harsh and grating. Something rattled in each tone. Hawkins felt his blood freeze within him and he knew his eyes were bulging with terror. They were glued upon the frightful thing across the room, but they saw no movement of the thick lips.
"Wha—What?" gasped Hawkins, involuntarily. His own voice sounded high and squeaky.
"I've been so cursed cold," responded the corpse, and there were indications of comfort in the weird tones. "Say, I've had a devil of a time. It's good to find a warm spot again. The Lord knows I've been looking for it long enough."
"Good Lord! Am I crazy? Is it actually talking?" murmured Hawkins, clutching the bedclothes frantically.
"Of course, I'm talking. Say, I'm sorry to have disturbed you at this time of night, but you wouldn't mind if you knew how much I've suffered from this terrible cold. Don't throw me out, for God's sake. Let me stay here till I thaw out, please do. You won't put me out, will you?" The appeal in those racking tones was too grotesque for description.
"I wouldn't—wouldn't touch you for a million dollars," gasped Hawkins. "Good Heavens, you're dead!"
"Certainly. Any fool could tell that," answered the dead man, scornfully.
"Then—then how do you come to be here?" cried the owner of the room. "How can you be dead and still able to talk? Who placed you in that chair?"
"You'll have to excuse me, but my brain is a trifle dull just now. It hasn't had time to thaw out, I fancy. In the first place, I think I came up the fire escape and into that window. Don't get up, please; I closed it after me. "What was the next question? Oh, yes—I remember. It isn't an easy matter to talk, I'll confess. One's throat gets so cold and stiff, you know. I kept mine in pretty good condition by calling out for help all the time I was in the water."
"Yes. That's how I happen to be so wet and disagreeable. You see, I've been out there in the lake for almost a year!"
Hawkins fell back in the bed, speechless. He started with fresh terror when he passed his hand over his wet forehead. The hand was like ice.
"There's a lot of them out there, you may be sure. I stumbled over them two or three times a day. No matter where you walk or float, you're always seeing dead people out there. They're awful sights, too,—give one the shivers. The trouble with most people who go to the bottom is that they give up and are content to lie there forever, washed around in the mud and sand in a most disgusting way. I couldn't bear the thought of staying down there for ages, so I kept on trying to get out. Shows what perseverance will do, doesn't it?"
"You don't mean to say that—that—Good Lord, I must have brain fever!" cried poor Hawkins hoarsely.
"Do I annoy you? I'll be going presently, although I hate to leave this warm corner. But you can rest assured of one thing: I'll never go near that lake again. All the weight in the world couldn't drag me to the bottom after what I've gone through. It's not right, I know, to trespass like this. It's a rank shame. But don't be hard on me, Mr.— Mr.—?"
"I don't know it," groaned Hawkins, who could not have told his name if his life was at stake. He had forgotten everything except the terrible thing in the Morris chair.
"My name is—or was—Taylor, Alfred B. Taylor. I used to live in Lincoln Avenue, quite a distance out. Perhaps you have heard of me. Didn't the newspapers have an account of my disappearance last February? They always print such stuff, so I'm sure they had something about me. I broke through the ice off Lincoln Park one day while walking out toward the crib."
"I—I remember," Hawkins managed to whisper. "You were the Board of Trade man who—who—"
"Who took one chance too many," completed the dead man, grimly. "A Board of Trade man often gets on very thin ice, you know," the sepulchral laugh that oozed from those grey lips rang in the listener's ears till his dying day. "These clothes of mine were pretty good the day I went down, but the water and the fishes have played havoc with them, I'm afraid. It strikes me they won't hold together much longer."
"You—you don't look as though you'd hold together very long yourself," ventured Hawkins, picking up a little courage.
"Do I look that bad?" asked Mr. Taylor, quite ruefully. "Well, I daresay it's to be expected. I've been plodding around on the bottom of the lake for a year and the wear and tear is enormous. For months I was frozen stiff as a rail. Then summer came along and I was warmed up a bit. The terrible cold snap we're having just now almost caught me before I got out of the water. The trouble was, I lost my bearings and wandered miles and miles out into the lake. Then it was like hunting a needle in a haystack to find dry land. I'm sure I travelled a circle for hundreds of miles before I accidentally wandered upon the beach down there by the Fresh Air place. I really believe this is a colder night than the first one I spent in the lake, and that day was supposed to be a record breaker, I remember. Twenty-six below zero, if I'm not mistaken. By George, I'm warming up nicely in here. I feel like stretching a bit!"
"For God's sake, don't!" almost shrieked Hawkins, burying his head beneath the covers.
"Very well, since you object," came to his muffled ears. "You must be very warm in that bed. I'd give all I have in the world if I could get into a nice warm bed like that once more."
Hawkins peeped from beneath the cover in dire apprehension, but was intensely relieved to see that the terrible Mr. Taylor had not changed his attitude. The eyes of the watcher suddenly fixed themselves on the visitor's right hand. The member was slowly sliding off the arm of the chair. Fascinated, Hawkins continued to watch its progress. At last, it dropped heavily from its resting place. The position of the corpse changed instantly, the sudden jerk of the dead weight pulling the body forward and to one side. The head lolled to the right and the lower jaw dropped, leaving the mouth half open. One eyelid closed slowly, as if the cadaver was bestowing a friendly wink upon his host.
"Very awkward of me," apologised Mr. Taylor, his voice not so distinct, his words considerably jumbled on account of the unfortunate mishap to his mouth.
"Get out of here!" shrieked Hawkins, unable to endure the horror any longer. "Get out!"
"Oh, you don't mean that, do you?" pleaded the thing in the chair. "I'm just beginning to feel comfortable and—"
"Get out!" again cried Hawkins, frenzied.
"It's rotten mean of you, old man," said Mr. Taylor. "I wouldn't turn you out if our positions were reversed. Hang it, man, I'd be humane. I'd ask you to get into bed and warm up thoroughly. And I'd set out the whiskey, too."
But Hawkins was speechless.
"Confound your penurious soul," growled Mr. Taylor, after a long silence, "I've a notion to climb into that bed anyhow. If you want to throw me out, go ahead. I'm used to being knocked about and a little more of it won't hurt me, I guess. Move over there, old man. I'm going to get in."
With a scream of terror, Hawkins leaped up in the bed. The dead man was slowly rising from the chair, one eye fixed on the ceiling, the other directed toward the floor. Just as the awful body lurched forward, Hawkins sprang from the bed and struck out frantically with his clenched hand. The knuckles lodged against the bulging brow of the dead man and they seemed to go clear to the skull, burying themselves in the cushion-like flesh. As the horrid object crashed to the floor, Hawkins flew through the library and into the hall, crying like a madman.
Other occupants of the building, awakened by the frightful shrieks, found him crouching in a corner on one of the stair landings, his wide eyes staring up the steps down which he had just tumbled. It was an interminably long time before he could tell them what had happened and then they all assured him he had been dreaming. But Hawkins knew he had not been dreaming.
Three of the men who went to his bedroom came hurriedly down the stairs, white-faced and trembling. They had not seen the corpse but they had found plenty of evidence to prove that something terrible had been in Hawkins' bedroom.
The window was open and the chair which stood in front of it was overturned, as if some one had upset it in crawling out upon the fire escape platform. One of the men looked out into the night. He saw a man crossing the street in the very face of the gale, running as if pursued. It was too dark to see the man's face, but the observer was sure that he turned twice to look up at the open window. The figure turned into an alley, going toward the lake.
The Morris chair was wet and foul-smelling, and the floor was saturated in places. A piece of cloth, soaked with mud, was found beneath the window sill. Evidently it had been caught and torn away by the curtain hook on the window sash. Hawkins would not go near the room and it was weeks before he was able to resume work at the bank.
And, stranger than all else, the dead body of a man was found in the snow near the Fresh Air Sanitarium the next morning, but no one could identify the corpse. The man had been dead for months.
THE TEN DOLLAR BILL
A CHRISTMAS STORY
Mr. and Mrs. Digby Trotter had been married just five years. Five years before Digby had gone to his father to tell him that he intended to marry Kate Anderson. The old gentleman grew very red in the face and observed, more forcibly than considerately:
"You must be a dod-gasted idiot! You get married? And to that brainless little fool whose father exhorts or extorts religion for $600 a year at that miserable little church over there on Queen Street—is that the girl you mean?" And then Trotter, pere, ceased speaking to look searchingly into his son's face; an embarrassed smile brightened his grim old countenance and he went on, good humour growing stronger in each succeeding word: "You rascal! Why did you tell me that? Do you know, for a moment, I actually thought you were in earnest, and—well, demme! it did work me up a little. I ought to have known better, too—but, then, you did say it as if you meant it. Excuse me, boy; I guess I'm the fool, myself."
"That remains to be seen, sir," was the most polite thing that his son could say under the circumstances, taking his hands out of his pockets and putting them back again at once. "You see, it's this way, Father, you laughed too soon. It's not so devilish much of a joke as you think. I meant it."
Mr. Trotter's smile faded away as does the sunshine that hides itself in the dusk of eventide. Father and son grew warm in the discussion of this most amazing determination on the part of the latter and it all came to a sharp end when both lost temper. When Digby jammed his hat down over his eyes, buttoned close his overcoat and dashed out of the bank into the street, he might have been heard to say, as a parting shot:
"I'll marry her now if I starve for two thousand years!"
And marry her he did.
Trotter, senior, did not attend the wedding, did not send the young couple a present, nor a greeting; in fact, he did nothing but ignore them completely. He had told Digby that he would never forgive him and had gone so far as to call on poor little Dr. Anderson, the unfortunate possessor of a pretty daughter and a $600 charge, expressing himself as earnestly averse to the union of their children. When he had concluded his interview with the minister the latter was extremely pale and nervous, but he was master of the situation. He stood, holding open the door to his plain, pitiful old study and Mr. Trotter, very much injured and crestfallen, was passing out with these words stinging his ears:
"I am sorry, sir—just as sorry as you. I like Digby; he is a good, open-hearted boy, but I had hoped to see Kate better wedded!" Then he closed the door and seated himself in the old cushioned chair, staring at the grate until the glare seemed to hurt his eyes. At least, they grew very hot and dry, then streaming wet.
And so they were married five years ago. Since then their struggle had been a hard one; both ends would not meet, no matter how firmly Digby persevered in his efforts to bring about such a union. He would not, could not ask his father for assistance, nor would that patient, faithful little wife have permitted him to harbour such a design had he weakened in his avowed intention to "get along without a dollar from dad." Notwithstanding their feeble warfare against privation, in which defeat hovered constantly over fields where victory seemed assured, theirs had been a happy sort of misery. Digby loved Kate and Kate worshipped him; his pity for her was overwhelmed by the earnestness with which she pitied him. No struggle of his failed but that she shouldered and bore the failure with him, cheering him when he felt like lagging, smiling when he despaired the deepest. Between them a speck of joy grew larger, brighter each day despite the gloom that surrounded it. Their child was their one possession of worth, 4- year-old Helen—sunny-faced Helen—Helen who suffered none of the pangs because of the sacrifices made by those whose darkness she illumined.
Trotter had married Kate with a heart overrunning with the glorious ambition of untried youth, the happy confidence of strength, fully convinced that nothing was necessary toward securing success save the establishment of a purpose. And that is quite, quite the fact.
They began with a dollar and they had seen but few, since the beginning, that they could call their own. Too late did Digby learn that he knew but little and that the world was full of young men whose beginning in life had been so much worse than his that necessity had made them equal to the struggle for which he had been so illy prepared by an indulgent parent. Digby found the banks in which he had hoped to secure positions thronged with clerks and accountants who had worked slowly, painfully from the bottom upward. Grey-haired men, whose lives had been spent in the one great battle for gold, told him of their years in the patient ranks; thoughtful-faced young men told him how they had been office boys, messenger boys, even janitor boys, in the climb up the Matterhorn of success. Here he was a man of 25, strong, bright and the possessor of an unusual intelligence, a college man, a rich man's son, but poorer than the smallest clerk that had ever bent his throbbing, ambitious head over the desk in his father's bank, and who had often envied the life of his employer's son. Now that son was beneath them all because he did not know how to work!
Work—toil—slave! The definition of success.
At first the failures originating from inexperience had been of small consequence to Digby. His old-time independence resisted the harsh criticisms of his first employers and he had, on more than one occasion, thrown away fair positions because the spirit could not endure the thumb of mastery. For months he rebelled against the requirements of servitude, but gradually it dawned upon him that though the rich man was his father he was no longer the rich man's son.
So, when the first year of their wedded life had rolled by, Digby Trotter, still neat, still independent, yet not so defiant—wore a haggard look which could no longer be disguised. The once fashionable garments were beginning to look shabby; his recently purchased clothing had come from the bargain counters in cheap "ready-made" establishments; his once constantly used evening dress suit hung in a closet, lonely and forlorn, minus the trousers. He was keeping the books in a street car office and his salary was $40 a month.
When, at the close of their first happy, miserable year, her father died and their baby was born, many changes came. They were forced to take the house for themselves and had to be accountable for the rent. Dr. Anderson had given them the right to call his home their own so long as he should live and it was the earnings of two men that kept the little establishment crowded with happiness, if not comforts, during his lifetime. One day a blow came to them. The landlord ejected them. Kate wept as she passed out through the little front gate, leaving behind the dear old home with its rose bushes, its lilacs, its gravelled walks, perhaps forever. Digby buttoned his coat tightly about his thinning figure and scowled as he followed her through the gate. He scowled at that invisible fate which preceded them both. Now, at the end of five years, they were living in a tenement house, a crowded, filthy place, ruled by a miserly, relentless landlord, whose gold was his god.
The young husband had been employed by many men and in many occupations during these five years. Fate pursued him always, despite his dogged determination, his earnest efforts to surmount the obstacles which crowded his path to happiness and peace. If a reduction was necessary in a working force he was one of the first to go: if any one was to be superseded by a new and favoured applicant he was the one. On many occasions he had taken up his coat and hat, stepping to the pavement with the crushed heart of a despairing man, tears in his wistful eyes, his tired brain filling, almost bursting with the thoughts of the little woman whose brave eyes would grow large and bright when he told her of the end, and who would kiss him and bid him not to despair. He could almost hear her suppressed sob as he thought of her, her head upon his shoulder, her soft voice blaming herself for having dragged him down to this.
In this warfare of poverty they had seen many hungry days, many hardships, but neither had relinquished faith in Digby's ability to baffle adversity and stem the tide. Like tennis balls, they had been batted from one end of the year to the other, and now, at this time, Digby Trotter and wife had become members of New York's "floating population." Seldom did they live in one place more than three months, sometimes less than one. Frequently they moved because their surroundings were so distasteful to Kate, whose natural sense of refinement was averse, not to poverty and squalor, but to the vice with which it often is associated in districts where an ignorant and vicious element flocks as if drawn by the magnetism of sin.
A man of strong will was Digby, and a woman of wonderful strength of purpose was his wife, or he would have lost heart, and lost her in the end. Only once had he come home to her intoxicated, driven to it through despair and by what he thought to be approaching illness. On awakening from the drunken sleep shame made him fear to meet the eyes of her who suffered with him. But she had gently said:
"Don't be ashamed, Digby; poor, dear boy! You couldn't help it, I know. But, dear, do try to be strong, stronger than ever, for baby's sake if not for your own and mine. We shall all be happy yet, I'm sure we shall, if you—if you will but resist that one misfortune."
He never drank another drop of liquor.
Then, at last, the brave little woman took in plain sewing, greatly to Digby's anguish and mortification. Never had he felt so little like a man as when she showed so plainly that it was necessary for her to assist in the maintenance of the little household over which he presided. The few dollars that she could earn kept them supplied with food—at least part of the time. His odd jobs helped; the dollar that he earned once in a while was made to go a long way. Not once did she complain, not once did she cry out against the son who had taken his father's curse for her sake. There are but few women who would be so considerate.
When he came home at nights, climbing the wearisome steps that led to their miserable home near the roof of the vast building he knew that she would smile and kiss him, that the baby would laugh and climb gaily upon his knee, and he knew that he would not have to tell her that he had failed to find the coveted employment. His face would be the indicator, and, beneath her first smile of welcome, he could always distinguish the searching glance of anxiety; under her warm kiss he could feel the words:
"Poor boy! I am sorry; you have tried so hard!"
Their home was poor, poorer than Digby had thought any man's home could be, but there was no sign of the filth that characterised the condition of other homes in the house. Mrs. Trotter kept it clean, kept it neat, and kept it as bright as possible. While they were as poor, if not poorer than the other inhabitants of this roofed world, they were looked upon as and called "the aristocrats." No poverty could remove nor deface the indelible stamp of superiority which good blood and culture had given them as birthrights. Their apparel was cleaner than anything of its kind in the building, fairly immaculate when compared with the wretched garb of the beings who were looked upon as human but who were—well, they were unfortunate to have that distinction; something less would have been more fitting.
When occasion presented, Digby would bring home flowers, plucked from the gardens that he passed. Kate would bedeck the room with the blossoms, her eyes glistening as she thought of the lovely spot she had known five long years ago. Once in awhile the more beautiful of his tributes would adorn her coal black hair, lending wealth to what seemed so much like waste.
They had curtains for their windows, too—muslin, of course—and, although the windows were almost paneless, they presented quite a home-like appearance, especially from the street, eight floors below. Heavy wads of cloth served as glass in most of the vacant places, but they did not serve well as light filterers. Besides all these valuables they owned a bedstead, a stove, some chairs, a table, a sewing machine and a mirror. Not another family in the house owned a mirror.
But they were lovers ever—the same, sweet comrades in love. The baby was their Cupid at whose shrine they worshipped. She ruled their affections and there was no kingdom wider than her domain. Digby, covered with shame, despair and bitterness against the world, turned himself loose into the pasture of joy when she cooed her authority; romped like a boy whose heart had never felt as heavy as a chunk of lead; talked to her, sang to her with a voice that had never felt the quiver of dismay. Upon these sad pleasantries Mrs. Trotter smiled her worship. Better than all, Digby had never been compelled to walk with her for two or three hours in the middle of the night. It is said that she was the only child on earth that never had the colic.
On the 23d of December in the year of our story, Digby had gone, bright and early, to the big queensware store of Balling and Peet, word having reached him that they needed extra help during the holidays. When he neared his old haunts, the prominent downtown streets, instead of going boldly along the sidewalks as of yore, he slunk through alleys and across corners avoiding all possible chance of meeting the acquaintances of bygone days, the men about town, the women he had known, none of whom would know him now. It was not that he feared their recognition, but that they would refuse to look at him at all.
The morning was bright and crisp, cold and prophetic of still greater chill. Men in great overcoats passed him, muffled to the chin, their whiskers frosty with the whitened air of life that came from tingling noses; ruddy cheeks abounded on this typical winter day. Mr. Trotter possessed no overcoat, but presumably following the fashion set out by other wintry pedestrians, his thin sack coat was buttoned tightly and the collar turned up defiantly. His well-brushed though seedy Derby looked chilly as it topped off his shivering features. His face was blue, not ruddy. Here and there he passed companions in poverty, but their rags were worse than his, their faces more haggard. Never did he feel more like the gentleman than when he saw what he could be if he were not one.
Something jaunty beneath his brow-beaten spirits told him that he was to have work, that his mission would be productive of the result so long desired. In three months he had earned but ten days' wages and he had found it rather difficult, not to say annoying to be a gentleman with nothing on which to keep up outward appearances.
With an exultant feeling he approached the big store, but as he entered it the old trepidation returned, the old anxiety, the old shudder at the thought of failure. Being directed to the manager of the busy establishment, he accosted him in the office, something like meekness underlying the apparent straightforwardness to which his manly exterior seemed so well acquainted.
The manager was different from others of his ilk. He greeted the applicant kindly and told him to come back the next day at noon and he would be set to work in the express department. If he proved satisfactory he would be retained during the whole week, perhaps permanently. They were looking for good men there, he said. Digby's whole being seemed lighter than it had been for months when he left the place and hurried homeward.
Kate's heart thumped strangely when she heard him coming down the long hall with great rapid strides, so unlike the usual slow, deliberate tread. She opened the door to admit him and when he clasped her in his arms and rained kisses upon her face she knew that she was but receiving the proofs of her sudden guess. Their frugal meal was dispatched slowly, the diners allowing their tongues to display greater diligence than their teeth. They were all very happy.
The great rush of business was at its height when Digby strode between the counters of Balling and Peet's store the next day noon, on his way to the office. Hundreds of people thronged the place, and he could not help thinking of the days when he, a lad, had accompanied his mother to this same great store where purchases were made that now seemed like dreams to him. The smallest priced article that stood on the counters was now beyond his power of possession. Mr. Sampson, the manager, was in the office when Digby entered.
"Ah, you are here, I see," he said, but his voice was not so friendly as it had been on the day before. "I am sorry, Mr.—Mr.—"
"Trotter," volunteered Digby, forgetting to add the servile "sir." His heart was cold with apprehension.
"We were forced by rush of business this morning to put extra men to work much earlier than I had expected. Not knowing your address I could not notify you, and we have filled the places with men who came in early. We did not expect the rush quite so early, you see. I am sorry, sir. Perhaps we can do something for you later on."
Digby's eyes were misty, but there was a gleam of proud resentment beneath the mist. His first thought was: "How can I go home and tell her of this?"
"Have you nothing else, sir, that I can do?" he asked, from the depths of his disappointment. He actually hated the man who had failed to remember him—unreasonably, he knew, but he hated him.
"Nothing, I believe, Mr.—Mr. Potter—no, there is nothing at all. Good day." The manager turned to his desk and Digby, smarting to the very centre of his heart, shot a glance of insulted pride toward him, while beneath his breath there welled the unhappy threat: "I'll some day make you remember me! I'll not always be at the bottom."
Defiantly he strode from the office, banging the door after him indignantly. The manager looked around in mild surprise and muttered:
"Poor devil! I suppose he hasn't had a drink all day."
When Digby reached the sidewalk the bright sunlight sent him tumbling back into the reality of his position. Hardly knowing what he did, he turned the corner, meeting the cutting wind from the west. The moisture that came into his tired eyes as he walked dejectedly along, however, was not caused by the wind. It came from the cells of shame, disconsolation and despair.
Ahead of him on the busy thoroughfare walked an old-time friend, Joe Delapere. But a few years ago they had been boon companions, running the same race, following the same course together. Now one slunk along, shorn of his rapid spurs, while the other sped the gay course in happy unconcern. If Joe had a care it was over his love affairs, and, as he had admitted, they were annoyances more than cares after he had ceased to care. Digby was bitter against the world he had once inhabited, his father more than all the rest of it together. That was the difference between their ways of looking at the world.
Delapere stepped to the edge of the sidewalk and hailed a cab, a sudden and increasing flurry of snow changing his desire to walk into the necessity of riding. Cabby came dashing up and Joe pulled forth his well filled purse.
"Get me to No. — Morton avenue in five minutes and another dollar is yours. Be brisk, now!" Selecting a bill, he handed it to the driver and sprang into the cab. To his box climbed the well-urged driver, crack went his whip and once more the boon companions went their different ways—in different fashion.
But as Delapere thrust his purse back into his coat pocket something fluttered to the gutter. Digby's hungry eyes saw at a glance that it was a bank note, and, calling to the cabman, he rushed to curbing and fished the bill from the slush.
A ten dollar bill! And the cabman had not heard his shout! Putting his cold fingers to his lips he gave vent to that shrill whistle which always attracts the attention of Jehu, but the cabby was earning his extra dollar and heard nothing, saw nothing, felt nothing but the big flakes that struck his tingling face Digby stopped at the corner and saw the cab disappear down the street.
"I'll take it to him tomorrow," he resolved. As he started to put the bill into his pocket the thought came to him that Kate and the baby were suffering. All the way home he battled with his conscience, striving to convince himself that Delapere had not dropped the note, that it belonged to him by virtue of discovery, and that he deserved it if any one in the world did. At last there came a solution. He would explain it all to Kate and take her advice. He knew she would insist that he take it to the owner at once, and his conscience was temporarily eased. But, he would have to confess that he had failed to find work! Ah, that was the rub!
Another thought! Why should he tell her he had failed! Why not deceive her? He had the amount of a week's wages in his pocket and he had but to absent himself from the house during the days to carry out the deception. Conscience was gone—everything was gone except the desire to shield the ones at home.
At 5 o'clock he climbed the stairs, feeling like a joint thief and millionaire, possessing the sort of conscience that both ignore. Kate met him at the door of their room and he smiled gaily as he kissed her then snatched the baby from between his feet where she had planted herself precipitously. Kate was looking at him when he took his seat near the stove in which burned the remnants of store boxes that he had found that morning. His eyes could not meet hers when she asked:
"Is it all that you thought it would be, Digby?"
"Yes; I am pleased with the place. I only hope it will be permanent."
"Didn't they give you any satisfaction about the time that they will need you?"
"Not over a week, they said, but there is chance for a permanent place, of course."
"What—er—what are they to pay you, dear?"
"Ten dollars a week—it will be a great help, won't it? The rent can be paid and you can have something warm to wear and—and—" then he interrupted himself to stir up the fire, a wave of guilt causing him to withdraw from the ordeal imposed by her trusting blue eyes. "By the way, Kate, we must be quite merry tonight—isn't that so, Nell? Pop's got a job!" And with forced gaiety he juggled the laughing child toward the ceiling. "We ought to eat, drink and be merry. But— "(lugubriously)—"what have we to eat and drink, not counting the merriment, Kate?"
"Bread, liver and water—a feast, isn't it? But, oh, Digby, how many there are who have not even that. And tomorrow is Christmas, too. What shall we have for our grand dinner?"
"We'll have to have a change, to be sure—you can warm over the water, liver and bread."
"I have a few cents left, dear—I could have sent with you for a few little extras for tonight, too. I wish I had; it would be so jolly, wouldn't it?"
"I haven't had a cent for so long that I—I don't know how it would feel. Keep your money, Kate; I'll have some tomorrow. I have made arrangements to draw my pay every day." He felt like a murderer as he sat there with that fortune in his trousers pocket. Then he danced and romped with Helen as only he could romp. In the midst of one of the wildest figures Kate suddenly seized his arm and cried.
"Digby Trotter! Stoop over, this instant! Why, what kind of a wife am I? Good gracious, but you need a patch there—it's positively disgraceful. How long have you been going around with that hole there?"
"I don't know—in fact, I had not observed it," he answered, like a shame-faced boy.
"And your coat is so short, too. Take them off at once and I'll put a patch there before I do another thing."
"I'll have to go to bed, my dear. Can't you patch 'em with 'em on me?"
"Of course not! I'd certainly sew them fast to your person. Go to bed, if you please, then. I'll promise not to be long."
And so the head of the house had to go to bed while its mistress repaired the garment.
"Say, Kate," called out Digby from the bed, where he was playing with the baby, "that's a positive proof that I've been compelled to sit around a good deal this year, isn't it?"
"The evidence is certainly damaging," she replied, laughingly, her fingers busy with the repairs.
"Do the knees require patching, deary?"
"Not in the least; they are the soundest part of the pants," said his wife.
Just then something slipped from one of the pockets and fell noiselessly to the floor, Kate's eyes catching sight of it as it fluttered before them.
A ten dollar bill!
And he had told her that he had no money! Poor bewildered Kate picked up the bill and sat staring at it with wide-spread eyes, her thoughts chaos. Had he been lying to her all along? Was there money in his pockets all these months through which she had slaved to help him keep their little home together? Deep into her unwilling heart sank a shaft of distrust, the first it had ever felt. Then for shame she tried to withdraw the shaft, to ease the pain it had caused, but with all her tugging the thought went deeper, beyond control, becoming rooted, settled in that long unblemished home of fidelity, love and trustfulness.
A hundred excuses came to his defence, but her bewildered brain could not complete them; they became chaotic conflicts between devotion and suspicion. No sooner did she see her way clear than it was blocked again. There was the bill! It had fallen from his pocket—more money than she had known him to possess in months. And with that bill in his pocket he had wilfully told her that he had no money, not even a cent. Distrust grew stronger, faith faded away, resentment flooded the heart of the loving little woman, and the years of happy misery she had spent with him became the memory of deception and neglect. Tears welled up in the glittering eyes; then her teeth came firmly together as if to suppress the emotion with which she found herself struggling. The bitterness of reproach came to her as she turned toward the bed on which frolicked the husband and the child. The child! He played, toyed with the little one, whose every want he had forgotten, with money in his selfish pockets. His wife found herself beginning to hate, to despise him.
But words refused to come, the reproach was unuttered, for a sudden thought intervened. The thought was mother to a resolution and Digby Trotter was spared.
"I guess I'll go down town," said Digby when he stood clothed as he had been before Kate discovered the necessity for a patch. "Perhaps I can get a chance to help some one of the store-keepers this evening and earn enough to get up a little dinner for tomorrow." He was buttoning his little coat tightly around his neck as he made this declaration, and he noticed that Kate did not respond. "Come, kiss popper good-bye," he cried to the child and the response was ready, eager. Then he looked at Kate's quiet figure bending over the sewing near the candle flame. A cold chill shot over him, piercing deeper than the chills of the night without. Something like fear, suspense, grew in his heart as he bent his eyes upon the form of one who had never allowed him to leave her presence without a kiss, a cheery word. For an instant the thought came to him that she had at last ceased to love the useless beggar, the robber of her joys, the man who had dragged her from comfort to this life of squalor. With inconsiderate swiftness came the memory of the days when he and the same Joe Delapere had been rivals for her love, both rich and influential. She had chosen the one who bore her down; perhaps now she was regretting the choice in a heart that longed for the other. She had spoken of Joe frequently during the past two weeks and had told him of numerous accidental meetings with his old-time rival. But, in an instant more, his heart had revolted against this gross suspicion, hardly formed, and he almost cursed himself for the moment of doubt. Dear, dear little Kate!
"Kate," he said, "aren't you going to kiss me?" He was astonished by the flushed face she turned toward him and at the wavering eyes which met his in a fashion so strange that he felt a second chill go through his being.
"Certainly, dear," she said, coming to his side. "Baby shall not undo me in politeness."
"Affection would sound better," he said, taking her cold, almost lifeless hands in his. He stooped to kiss the lips upturned to his, but drew back, a dismal uncertainty taking possession of him. "What is the matter, Kate? Tell me, dear. Don't you want to kiss me?" He could not prevent the moisture from dimming his eyes, drawn by the pride which felt itself put to shame.
"I'll kiss you whether I want to or not," she said, smiling vaguely, and their lips met—both cold, fearful.
As Digby hurried down the long, narrow stairways and out in the biting air his fear and apprehension grew. Wonder, even dismay, charged upon him, and his excited imagination recalled the many little short- comings he had observed in Kate's behaviour of late, all of which began to assume startling proportions, convincing him beyond all doubt that something was wrong, woefully wrong. Could it be possible that he had lost her love, her respect? Had she at last ceased to love the unfortunate being who had battled so feebly in her behalf? Ah, his heart waxed sore; he felt not the frost without, but the chill within. What was he to do? What was left to do? He had started from home intending to purchase a turkey, some toys for Helen, some sweet little remembrance for the wife he had thought so loving, but his happy designs had been frustrated. The chilling heart refused to return to the warmth of expected joy, to recognise the feelings of anticipation.
"Ah, well," he sighed, almost aloud, to the hurrying wind, "what else can I expect? I have done all I could; no man could do more and no woman could have borne more than she. Truly she has borne too much—I cannot blame her—but, oh, how can she—how can she turn against me now. After all—after all!"
For blocks he rambled on in this manner, seeing no one as he passed, observing nothing. At last his face grew brighter and a momentary shadow of joy overspread it.
"I'll take home the turkey, the toys and the shawl to them. They shall have them if Delapere never sees his money again—if Kate never kisses me again in her life. I'll tell her the truth about the money!"
Nevertheless it was with a guilty feeling that he ran his hand into his trousers pocket to fondle the bill. The fingers wriggled around in the depths, poking into every corner, searching most anxiously. Then the other dived into the opposite pocket and the fingers found no bill. With a startled exclamation he came to a standstill on the sidewalk and a vigorous investigation was begun, his expression growing more bewildered and alarmed as the search grew more hopeless. The bill was gone! Lost!
Passers-by noticed the abstracted man fumbling in his pockets, muttering to himself, and one man asked, cheerfully:
"Lost something, pardner?"
Digby Trotter did not answer. He walked slowly down the street, his cold hands reposing listlessly in his empty pockets, his heart in his boots, his eyes looking vacantly toward his heart.
"It wasn't mine; I had no right to it," he murmured, time and again. Aimlessly about the streets he wandered, turning homeward at last, depressed, despising himself, ready to give up in spirit. He was going home to Kate, expecting no love to greet him, feeling in his heart that he deserved none.
As he passed the crowded stores he saw the turkeys, the chickens, the oysters, the apples—all of which he might have bought with the lost bill. "What use is there to be honest?" he asked of himself. Without knowing what he did, nor from whence came the resolution, he discovered that he determined to steal a turkey! And he did not feel guilty; it seemed as if he had no conscience. Something stilled that hitherto relentless foe to vice which virtue calls conscience and his whole being throbbed with the delights of the sin that is condemned in the ten commandments. Stealing? "Thou shalt not steal." But he did not feel that he was stealing, so where was the sin? Despising only the level to which his fortunes had fallen he saw without a conscience, without a moral fear. It all seemed so natural that he should take home a turkey, the cranberries and all the little "goodies" that his spare table required to make it strain with surprise on the glad day- tomorrow.
Digby forgot that he had lost the bill, forgot that Kate had treated him so strangely, forgot that but an hour ago he had been lamenting the wrong he was doing Joe Delapere in spending his money. Approaching a big grocery and general provision store he calmly stepped inside, passing along the counters with the air of a man who lived solely on turkey and wine sauce. Scores of purchasers thronged the big establishment and dozens of clerks were kept busy, providing for them.
As Mr. Trotter walked through the store he viewed the baskets which stood along the counters, laden with the belongings of customers, ready for the delivery wagons or for their owners who had left them while they visited other stores. Nearly every basket contained a bird of some sort—a Christmas dinner, in fact. Each had a slip of paper on which the name of the owner was written. As he passed the second counter he observed a well-filled basket and he stopped to examine the name. "Mrs. John P. Matthews," was written on the slip. This was his basket, thought he, calmly and without compunction. Then he began to price the articles on the shelves near by. This was his style of bargaining:
"What is your cocoa worth a pound? Sure it's fresh?"
"Certainly, sir; it's Baker's best."
"Baker's? We never use it. Let me look at that chocolate. I guess I'll take some of it"—and his hand went slowly into his pocket—"but, hold on! We've got chocolate! Confound my forgetfulness; I'll buy out your store directly. Do you keep mince meat?"
"Yes, sir—over at that counter. Just step over there, please. Mr. Carew will wait on you."
Digby felt that he had established an identity at the counter on which stood the Matthews basket, so he walked over to the other counter, priced sweet potatoes, and was immediately directed to the provision department in the rear. He found the potatoes too high, the apples too sweet, the macaroni too old and the buckwheat not the brand he used— all of which was quite true.
Ten minutes later he drifted back to the second counter, smiled cheerfully at the clerk, picked up the basket and started for the door, stopping beside a barrel of dried apples to run his fingers through the contents and to nibble one of the gritty chunks. He was squeezing his way hastily through the crowd, nearing the door, when a hand was laid firmly on his left shoulder. Turning quickly he found himself gazing into the face of a stranger, fairly well dressed and not overly intelligent in appearance.
"Is that your basket, sir?" asked the stranger, calmly.
"Of course, it is," exclaimed Digby, hastily, a red flush flying to his now guilty cheek, fading away, as the snow goes before the sun, an instant later. Caught!
"I think this basket belongs to a lady, sir."
"My wife," interjected the culprit. "She was with me and went on to another store. Why, what do you mean!" he suddenly demanded, realising that it was high time to appear injured. "Do you think I'm a thief!"
"No, sir; but will you tell me your name—or your wife's name? Merely to satisfy me, you see; I'm a watchman here."
"Matthews is my name, sir—and so's my wife's—John P. Matthews. Is that satisfactory?"
The man slowly turned over the slip in the basket and read the name.
"Are you quite sure that it is your name?" he asked, deliberately, looking keenly at Digby.
"Certainly! Do you think I don't know my own name?" demanded Digby with an excellent show of asperity.
"Then this is not your basket, sir, and I am sorry to say that you will have to be detained until you can give a satisfactory explanation."
Digby's eyes fairly stuck from his head and his face was as white as the proverbial sheet.
"Not my—not Mrs. Matthews' basket!" he stammered, clutching the slip in his trembling fingers. His eyes grew blurred with amazement an instant later. He passed his hand before them and when he took it away there was a wild, half insane stare in them. He looked again at the slip and read: "Mrs. Digby Trotter, Voxburgh building."
His nerveless arm relinquished the basket to the hand of the stranger and his puzzled eyes sought the floor in a long stare, broken presently by the voice in his ear:
"Come along. Step back here with me."
Digby shook the man's hand from his arm and, as he turned to follow him, asked hoarsely:
"Where is she now?"
"My wife of course—Mrs. Trotter."
"Well, you're a bird!" exclaimed his guardian. "How about Mrs. Matthews?"
"Good Heavens, what have I done—I—I—look here, man. It's a mistake—"
"No, you don't—mistakes don't go. A man ought to know his own name."
Digby saw no one, heard no one but the man beside him as he stumbled along, pleading with his eyes, his mouth, his every expression. He did not observe the lady against whom he roughly jostled, but the lady turned in time to hear him say in piteous accents:
"Man, for God's sake, don't be too hasty—; I—-"
"Oh, let up; we're onto you! This ain't your basket and you took it, that's all there is about it. Come on!" gruffly jerked out the man at his elbow.
"But where is Mrs. Trotter? I want to—I must see her."
"Here I am, Digby. What is the matter?" cried a well known voice in his ear. That voice had never sounded so sweet to him, nor had its sweetness ever sounded so much like condemnation to his wretched soul.
"Kate!" he gasped.
"What is it?" she demanded hurriedly. "What does this man want?" The man was staring blankly at the pair, stock still with amazement.
"He says I—I have been trying to steal this basket. It's our—yours, I mean, isn't it? Tell him so, Kate—quick!" cried the miserable man with the plaintive coat collar turned up about his neck.
"This is our basket, sir," indignantly exclaimed Mrs. Trotter.
"I know it is yours, Mrs. Trotter; I saw you buying the stuff, but—"
"Don't haggle here any longer!" exclaimed Mr. Trotter, boldly now. "Let go of my arm!"
"I beg your pardon, sir. If the lady says it's all right, why, it is— but you know you said your name was—"
"You lie, sir!" said Digby, sternly. "I never said anything of the kind. Mrs. Trotter have you paid for this stuff?"
"No—I was not through ordering, but what does all this mean, Digby?" whispered the mystified saviour, feeling herself the shame-faced centre of a group of wondering people.
"Never mind now," said her husband, with dignity. "And you, sir, unpack this basket. We don't want a cent's worth of your goods."
"Oh, Digby—" began Kate.
"My dear Mr. Trotter,"—began the luckless attache, but Digby silenced them both by suddenly grasping his wife's arm and striding toward the door, he defiantly, conscience stricken, she bewildered beyond all hope of description.
A moment later they were on the pavement and Digby was racking his brain for an explanation. How was he to account to her for his possession of that basket, even though it was hers? It did not occur to him to wonder how she came to be the owner of the coveted basket— his penniless Kate.
"Digby, what did that man mean?" asked Kate, finally pulling her wits together. There was something like sternness in her voice, something like resentment, something like tears. He tried to look into her eyes; eyes which were upturned to his so anxiously, but he could not. There was something creeping up in his throat that compelled him to gulp suddenly. A rush of shamed degradation flashed over him, overwhelming him completely, and before he could prevent it his honest, contrite heart had spoken.
"Little girl—God forgive me—I was trying to steal that—that basket."
He felt her start and gasp and he could distinguish the horror, the shock in her eyes, although he did not see them. Her hand relaxed its clasp upon his arm and her trembling voice murmured:
"Oh, Digby! Oh, Digby!"
"Don't—Don't, for heaven's sake, don't, Kate! Don't blame me! I did it for you, for the baby—I—I couldn't see you hungry on Christmas"— and here the tears rolled down his cheeks and the words came thick and choking. "Kate, I don't think I committed a crime—do you? Say you don't think so, darling!"
"You were stealing," she whispered, numbly.
"For you, darling—please—please forget it—I—I—Oh, I can't say anything more." Her clasp tightened again on his arm and he felt the warm spirit of forgiveness, of love communicating with his own miserable self. No word came to either as they faced the cutting wind, bound they knew not whither, so distraught were they with the importance of the moment.
Suddenly he stopped as if struck by a great blow. A glare came to his eyes and his brain fairly reeled. Pushing her away at arm's length from him he gave expression to the sudden thought which had so strangely affected him.
"Where did you get the money to buy that stuff with?" he demanded, and there was anger, suspicion, almost terror in his voice. His ready brain had resumed the thoughts of an hour ago. He saw but one solution and it came rushing along with the reawakened thoughts, firing his soul with jealousy. Joe Delapere had been providing his wife with money—he could not be mistaken. Horrible! Horrible!
But back came her answer, equally severe, and if as from a sudden recollection, also:
"Where did you get it?"
"Get what? he demanded, harshly. Joe Delapere! Joe Delapere! Joe Delapere—that lover of old filled his brain like a raging fire.
"You know what I mean, Digby Trotter—what is it that you mean? Where did you get that ten dollars you had in your pocket today?"
"Oh, heaven!" gasped Digby, almost falling over. Then he burst into rapturous laughter, and, right there on the sidewalk, embraced her vigorously. Not all the riches in the world could have purchased the one moment of relief.
"What ten?" he cried. "Was that the ten! Oh, you dear, dear little Kate—did you do it? I thought I had lost it on the street. Oh, this is rich!" and he laughed heartier than ever.
"Stop!" she cried, her face flaming. "Where did you get it? Why did you tell me that you had no money? Have you been doing this all along —all these bitter years?"
He sobered up in an instant, for he saw the situation as she had seen it.
"Why, Kate, I—now, listen a minute! You probably won't believe me, but I swear to you I found that bill—"
"Found it!" she sneered. "That's very likely, isn't it?"
"I knew you'd say that—but I found it, just the same," he went on patiently. "Joe Delapere dropped it as he was getting into a carriage —yes, he did, now—and he drove off before I could pick it up and return it to him. I kept the money, intending to give it back to him. That's true, dear—so help me God. Don't you believe me?" He was very, very much in earnest, but she was woman enough to question further.
"Why didn't you tell me of this before?"
"Because I—well, I didn't get that place at Balling and Feet's and I didn't have the heart to tell you I had failed again. I kept the hill just to deceive you. Heaven is my witness that I intended to pay it back to Joe, but the temptation was too great—I couldn't resist. Don't you understand now, dear? I wanted it for you and Helen; you don't know how I prized it. It meant so much. Why, when I started down town to buy the little dinner that I afterwards tried to steal—"
"From me," she interrupted.
"Yes, from you—I felt so happy in that I was sinning gently for you. Then I missed the bill and—well, the other followed; you know what I mean. You don't think I'm a real thief, do you, Kate?"
"No, no, dear; forgive me!" she cried, with true wifely penitence. "I see it all and I love you for it, better than ever before." She squeezed his arm tightly and squeezed her eyelids vainly. "But you must never do it again," she cautioned, tenderly. He laughed again, that unwilling thief and pauper.
"Oh, by the way, while I think of it, how did you happen to have that ten?" he asked, with cruel glee.
She felt even guiltier than he and her voice was quite feeble as she answered:
"Well, you remember when I was mending your trousers," she began. He gave her arm a tremendous pressure and interrupted:
"But the hole wasn't in the pocket, dear, was it?"
"Oh, you'll forgive me, won't you truly, Digby?" she almost wailed.
"But you were stealing!" he said, solemnly, recalling her condemnatory words.
"Don't say it that way, Digby," she protested, so faintly that his heart smote him and he changed the subject with almost ridiculous haste.
"Hadn't we better go to another grocery and buy our Christmas dinner," he suggested.
"No, indeed!" she exclaimed. "With what could we buy it!"
"With my—your ten, I mean."
"Digby Trotter, we may carry on our nefarious robberies as individuals, but I don't intend to form a partnership in the business. I don't approve of doing it collectively."
"But what will we do with the money? Burn it?"
"I thought you wanted to give it back to its owner."
"But he won't miss it—not just yet, anyhow," he expostulated.
"Neither shall you; you are never to see it again," she said, firmly, clasping the little purse defiantly.
"Well, I guess you're right. We'll do without our turkey dinner. It's pretty rough, though, when we are nearer being millionaires than we have been in months," he said, regretfully.
"I couldn't eat a mouthful of turkey bought with Joe Delapere's money," she said, and he felt his heart throb joyfully for some strange cause.
Homeward they wended their disconsolate way, her arm through his, clinging fondly to him, he proud of the honour she was bestowing upon him—poor, poor lovers! In spite of all, he felt better for that which had happened. He had begun what might have been a career of crime. Circumstance and her sweet influence had averted that career. She, too, had learned a lesson, deeper in its meaning than any logic could have been; she had distrusted him. Honour, love and duty bound them together again. They were going home to dine on dried beef, water and perhaps bread—Christmas day, too.
Firmly they turned their wistful eyes from the shop windows; they had nothing in common with them, save desire.
At last they came to the dingy entrance which led to the long halls and multigenerous stairways of their abiding place. Without a word they began to climb the steps, tired and with returning discouragement. They were thinking of the baby. Tears came to the father's eyes, but he turned his face away and attempted to whistle. She pressed his arm again in silence, but for the same reason she looked toward the wall. At the first landing he paused and drew her to his breast. As their lips met in one brave, compassionate kiss a sob fled from the heart of each.
Drawing nearer the top floor they heard strange sounds coming from their own room. A gruff, hoarse voice was prominent and they stopped to look into each other's eyes with hopeless alarm.
"It's the landlord," whispered Digby. "I might have known it would all come at once!"
"What shall we do?" asked Kate, with feminine dismay.
"Do? What do we usually do? Nothing! I don't know how I'm going to put him off again—we're over three weeks behind with the rent. Oh, Kate!" he almost sobbed.
"Well, dear!" She was trembling. So was he.
"What if he orders us to leave the place?" She could not reply and they stood silent, looking toward the door that they feared to enter.
"Where is the baby?" he finally asked.
"I left her with the woman across the hall."
"But I hear her voice in our room. What is she doing in there with that infernal old brute?" Digby's alert ear had caught the sound of the child's prattle, mingling with the discordant growls of the man.
"Oh, Digby, I'm so frightened! What can they be doing in there?"
"Don't be afraid. I'll chuck him out of there on his head if he has been tormenting that child with his compliments—and it would be just like the old scoundrel, too." He took several steps forward.
"Do be careful!" murmured his wife, following faithfully. Digby threw open the door defiantly and stood glaring into the little room.
A big, portly man was seated near the stove, little Helen on his knee. As the door opened he raised his chop-whiskered face and then, placing the child on the floor, drew himself erect and came hastily toward the pair in the doorway, exclaiming:
"My boy! At last I have got you! God knows I've searched the town over and over for you—and I find you in a hole like this! Come to my arms —oh, demme! demme! demme!"