The women took a different view.
"I can't understand what Mr. Temple is thinking of," said the wife of the archdeacon to Mrs. Cheston. "This Mr. Poe is something dreadful—never sober, I hear. Mr. Temple is invariably polite to everybody, but when he goes out of his way to do honor to a man like this he only makes it harder for those of us who are trying to help our sons and brothers—" to which Mrs. Cheston had replied with a twinkle in her mouse eyes and a toss of her gray head:—"So was Byron, my dear woman—a very dreadful and most disreputable person, but I can't spare him from my Library, nor should you."
None of these criticisms would have affected St. George had he heard them, and we may be sure no one dared tell him. He was too busy, in fact—and so was Harry, helping him for that matter—setting his house in order for the coming function.
That the table itself might be made the more worthy of the great man, orders were given that the big silver loving-cup—the one presented to his father by no less a person than the Marquis de Castellux himself—should be brought out to be filled later on with Cloth of Gold roses so placed that their rich color and fragrance would reach both the eyes and the nostrils of his guests, while the rest of the family silver, brightened to a mirror finish by Todd, was either sent down to Aunt Jemima to be ready for the special dishes for which the house was famous, or disposed on the side-board and serving-table for instant use when required. Easy-chairs were next brought from upstairs—tobacco and pipes, with wax candles, were arranged on teak-wood trays, and an extra dozen or so of bubble-blown glasses banked on a convenient shelf. The banquet room too, for it was late summer, was kept as cool as the season permitted, the green shutters being closed, thus barring out the heat of early September—and the same precaution was taken in the dressing-room, which was to serve as a receptacle for hats and canes.
And Todd as usual was his able assistant. All the darky's training came into play when his master was giving a dinner: what Madeira to decant, and what to leave in its jacket of dust, with its waistcoat of a label unlaundered for half a century; the temperature of the claret; the exact angle at which the Burgundy must be tilted and when it was to be opened—and how—especially the "how"—the disturbing of a single grain of sediment being a capital offence; the final brandies, particularly that old Peach Brandy hidden in Tom Coston's father's cellar during the war of 1812, and sent to that gentleman as an especial "mark of my appreciation to my dear friend and kinsman, St. George Wilmot Temple," etc., etc.—all this Todd knew to his finger ends.
For with St. George to dine meant something more than the mere satisfying of one's hunger. To dine meant to get your elbows next to your dearest friend—half a dozen or more of your dearest friends, if possible—to look into their faces, hear them talk, regale them with the best your purse afforded, and last and best of all to open for them your rarest wines—wines bred in the open, amid tender, clustering leaves; wines mellowed by a thousand sunbeams; nurtured, cared for, and put tenderly to sleep, only to awake years thereafter to warm the hearts and cheer the souls of those who honored them with their respect and never degraded them with their debauchery.
As for the dishes themselves—here St. George with Jemima's help was pastmaster: dishes sizzling hot; dishes warm, and dishes stone cold. And their several arrivals and departures, accompanied by their several staffs: the soup as an advance guard—of gumbo or clams—or both if you chose; then a sheepshead caught off Cobb's Island the day before, just arrived by the day boat, with potatoes that would melt in your mouth—in gray jackets these; then soft-shell crabs—big, crisp fellows, with fixed bayonets of legs, and orderlies of cucumber—the first served on a huge silver platter with the coat-of-arms of the Temples cut in the centre of the rim and the last on an old English cut-glass dish. Then the woodcock and green peas—and green corn—their teeth in a broad grin; then an olio of pineapple, and a wonderful Cheshire cheese, just arrived in a late invoice—and marvellous crackers—and coffee—and fruit (cantaloupes and peaches that would make your mouth water), then nuts, and last a few crusts of dry bread! And here everything came to a halt and all the troops were sent back to the barracks—(Aunt Jemima will do for the barracks).
With this there was to follow a change of base—a most important change. Everything eatable and drinkable and all the glasses and dishes were to be lifted from the table—one half at a time—the cloth rolled back and whisked away and the polished mahogany laid bare; the silver coasters posted in advantageous positions, and in was to rattle the light artillery:—Black Warrior of 1810—Port of 1815—a Royal Brown Sherry that nobody knew anything about, and had no desire to, so fragrant was it. Last of all the notched finger-bowls in which to cool the delicate, pipe-stem glasses; and then, and only then, did the real dinner begin.
All this Todd had done dozens and dozens of times before, and all this (with Malachi's assistance—Richard Horn consenting—for there was nothing too good for the great poet) would Todd do again on this eventful night.
As to the guests, this particular feast being given to the most distinguished literary genius the country had yet produced,—certainly the most talked of—those who were bidden were, of course, selected with more than usual care: Mr. John P. Kennedy, the widely known author and statesman, and Mr. John H. B. Latrobe, equally noteworthy as counsellor, mathematician, and patron of the fine arts, both of whom had been Poe's friends for years, and who had first recognized his genius; Richard Horn, who never lost an opportunity to praise him, together with Judge Pancoast, Major Clayton, the richest aristocrat about Kennedy Square and whose cellar was famous the county over—and last, the Honorable Prim. Not because old Seymour possessed any especial fitness one way or the other for a dinner of this kind, but because his presence would afford an underground communication by which Kate could learn how fine and splendid Harry was—(sly old diplomat St. George!)—and how well he had appeared at a table about which were seated the best Kennedy Square could produce.
"I'll put you right opposite Mr. Poe, Harry—so you can study him at your leisure," St. George had said when discussing the placing of the guests, "and be sure you look at his hands, they are just like a girl's, they are so soft and white. And his eyes—you will never forget them. And there is an air about him too—an air of—well, a sort of haughty distraction—something I can't quite explain—as if he had a contempt for small things—things that you and I, and your father and all of us about here, believe in. Blood or no blood, he's a gentleman, even if he does come of very plain people;—and they were players I hear. It seems natural, when you think it over, that Latrobe and Kennedy and Horn should be men of genius, because their blood entitles them to it, but how a man raised as Mr. Poe has been should—well—all I can say is that he upsets all our theories."
"But I think you are wrong, Uncle George, about his birth. I've been looking him up and his grandfather was a general in the Revolution."
"Well, I'm glad of it—and I hope he was a very good general, and very much of a gentleman—but there is no question of his descendant being a wonder. But that is neither here nor there—you'll be right opposite and can study him in your own way."
Mr. Kennedy arrived first. Although his family name is the same as that which dignifies the scene of these chronicles, none of his ancestors, so far as I know, were responsible for its title. Nor did his own domicile front on its confines. In fact, at this period of his varied and distinguished life, he was seldom seen in Kennedy Square, his duties at Washington occupying all his time, and it was by the merest chance that he could be present.
"Ah, St. George!" he exclaimed, as he handed his hat to Todd and grasped his host's hand. "So very good of you to let me come. How cool and delicious it is in here—and the superb roses—Ah yes!—the old Castellux cup. I remember it perfectly; your father once gave me a sip from its rim when I was a young fellow. And now tell me—how is our genius? What a master-stroke is his last—the whole country is ringing with it. How did you get hold of him?"
"Very easily. He wrote me he was passing through on his way to Richmond, and you naturally popped into my head as the proper man to sit next him," replied St. George in his hearty manner.
"And you were on top of him, I suppose, before he got out of bed. Safer, sometimes," and he smiled significantly.
"Yes, found him at Guy's. Sit here, Kennedy, where the air is cooler."
"And quite himself?" continued the author, settling himself in a chair that St. George had just drawn out for him.
"Perhaps a little thinner, and a little worn. It was only when I told him you were coming, that I got a smile out of him. He never forgets you and he never should."
Again Todd answered the knocker and Major Clayton, Richard Horn, and Mr. Latrobe joined the group. The major, who was rather stout, apologized for his light seersucker coat, due, as he explained, to the heat, although his other garments were above criticism. Richard, however, looked as if he had just stepped out of an old portrait in his dull-blue coat and white silk scarf, St. George's eyes lighting up as he took in the combination—nothing pleased St. George so much as a well-dressed man, and Richard never disappointed him, while Latrobe, both in his dress and dignified bearing, easily held first place as the most distinguished looking man in the room.
The Honorable Prim now stalked in and shook hands gravely and with much dignity, especially with Mr. Kennedy, whose career as a statesman he had always greatly admired. St. George often said, in speaking of this manner of the Scotchman's, that Prim's precise pomposity was entirely due to the fact that he had swallowed himself and couldn't digest the meal; that if he would once in a while let out a big, hearty laugh it might split his skin wide enough for him to get a natural breath.
St. George kept his eyes on Harry when the boy stepped forward and shook Prim by the hand, but he had no need for anxiety. The face of the young prince lighted up and his manner was as gracious as if nothing had ever occurred to mar the harmony between the Seymour clan and himself.
Everybody had seated themselves now—Malachi having passed around a course of palm-leaf fans—Clayton, Latrobe, and Horn at one open window overlooking the tired trees—it was in the dog days—Seymour and the judge at the other, while St. George took a position so that he could catch the first glimpse of the famous poet as he crossed the Square—(it was still light), the dinner hour having arrived and Todd already getting nervous.
Once more the talk dwelt on the guest of honor—Mr. Kennedy, who, of all men of his time, could best appreciate Poe's genius, and who, with Mr. Latrobe, had kept it alive, telling for the hundredth time the old story of his first meeting with the poet, turning now and then to Latrobe for confirmation.
"Oh, some ten or more years ago, wasn't it, Latrobe? We happened to be on the committee for awarding a prize story, and Poe had sent in his 'Manuscript in a Bottle' among others. It would have broken your hearts, gentlemen, to have seen him. His black coat was buttoned up close to his chin—seedy, badly worn—he himself shabby and down at the heels, but erect and extremely courteous—a most pitiable object. My servant wasn't going to let him in at first, he looked so much the vagrant."
"And you know, of course, Kennedy, that he had no shirt on under that coat, don't you?" rejoined Latrobe, rising from his seat as he spoke and joining St. George at the window.
"Do you think so?" echoed Mr. Kennedy.
"I am positive of it. He came to see me next day and wanted me to let him know whether he had been successful. He said if the committee only knew how much the prize would mean to him they would stretch a point in his favor. I am quite sure I told you about it at the time, St. George," and he laid his hand on his host's shoulder.
"There was no need of stretching it, Latrobe," remarked Richard Horn in his low, incisive voice, his eyes on Kennedy's face, although he was speaking to the counsellor. "You and Kennedy did the world a great service at the right moment. Many a man of brains—one with something new to say—has gone to the wall and left his fellow men that much poorer because no one helped him into the Pool of Healing at the right moment." (Dear Richard!—he was already beginning to understand something of this in his own experience.)
Todd's entrance interrupted the talk for a moment. His face was screwed up into knots, both eyes lost in the deepest crease. "Fo' Gawd, Marse George," he whispered in his master's ear—"dem woodcock'll be sp'iled if dat gemman don't come!"
St. George shook his head: "We will wait a few minutes more, Todd. Tell Aunt Jemima what I say."
Clayton, who despite the thinness of his seersucker coat, had kept his palm-leaf fan busy since he had taken his seat, and who had waited until his host's ear was again free, now broke in cheerily:
"Same old story of course, St. George. Another genius gone astray. Bad business, this bee of literature, once it gets to buzzing." Then with a quizzical glance at the author: "Kennedy is a lamentable example of what it has done for him. He started out as a soldier, dropped into law, and now is trying to break into Congress again—and all the time writes—writes—writes. It has spoiled everything he has tried to do in life—and it will spoil everything he touches from this on—and now comes along this man Poe, who—"
"—No, he doesn't come along," chimed in Pancoast, who so far had kept silence, his palm-leaf fan having done all the talking. "I wish he would."
"You are right, judge," chuckled Clayton, "and that is just my point. Here I say, comes along this man Poe and spoils my dinner. Something, I tell you, has got to be done or I shall collapse. By the way, Kennedy—didn't you send Poe a suit of clothes once in which to come to your house?"
The distinguished statesman, who had been smiling at the major's good-natured badinage, made no reply: that was a matter between the poet and himself.
"And didn't he keep everybody waiting?" persisted Clayton, "until your man found him and brought him back in your own outfit—only the shirt was four sizes too big for his bean-pole of a body. Am I right?" he laughed.
"He has often dined with me, Clayton," replied Kennedy in his most courteous and kindly tone, ignoring the question as well as all allusion to his charity—"and never in all my experience have I ever met a more dazzling conversationalist. Start him on one of his weird tales and let him see that you are interested and in sympathy with him, and you will never forget it. He gave us parts of an unfinished story one night at my house, so tremendous in its power that every one was frozen stiff in his seat."
Again Clayton cut in, this time to St. George. He was getting horribly hungry, as were the others. It was now twenty minutes past the dinner hour and there were still no signs of Poe, nor had any word come from him. "For mercy's sake, St. George, try the suit-of-clothes method—any suit of clothes—here—he can have mine! I'll be twice as comfortable without them."
"He couldn't get into them," returned St. George with a smile—"nor could he into mine, although he is half our weight; and as for our hats—they wouldn't get further down on his head than the top of his crown."
"But I insist on the experiment," bubbled Clayton good-naturedly. "Here we are, hungry as wolves and everything being burned up. Try the suit-of-clothes trick—Kennedy did it—and it won't take your Todd ten minutes to go to Guy's and bring him back inside of them."
"Those days are over for Poe," Kennedy remarked with a slight frown. The major's continued allusions to a brother writer's poverty, though pure badinage, had begun to jar on the author.
For the second time Todd's face was thrust in at the door. It now looked like a martyr's being slowly roasted at the stake.
"Yes, Todd—serve dinner!" called St. George in a tone that showed how great was his disappointment. "We won't wait any longer, gentlemen. Geniuses must be allowed some leeway. Something has detained our guest."
"He's got an idea in his head and has stopped in somewhere to write it down," continued Clayton in his habitual good-natured tone: it was the overdone woodcock—(he had heard Todd's warning)—that still filled his mind.
"I could forgive him for that," exclaimed the judge—"some of his best work, I hear, has been done on the spur of the moment—and you should forgive him too, Clayton—unbeliever and iconoclast as you are—and you WOULD forgive him if you knew as much about new poetry as you do about old port."
Clayton's stout body shook with laughter. "My dear Pancoast," he cried, "you do not know what you are talking about. No man living or dead should be forgiven who keeps a woodcock on the spit five minutes over time. Forgive him! Why, my dear sir, your poet ought to be drawn and quartered, and what is left of him boiled in oil. Where shall I sit, St. George?"
"Alongside of Latrobe. Kennedy, I shall put you next to Poe's vacant chair—he knows and loves you best. Seymour, will you and Richard take your places alongside of Pancoast, and Harry, will you please sit opposite Mr. Kennedy?"
And so the dinner began.
Whether it was St. George's cheery announcement: "Well, gentlemen, I am sorry, but we still have each other, and so we will remember our guest in our hearts even if we cannot have his charming person," or whether it was that the absence of Poe made little difference when a dinner with St. George was in question—certain it is that before many moments the delinquent poet was for the most part forgotten.
As the several dishes passed in review, Malachi in charge of the small arms—plates, knives, and forks—and Todd following with the heavier guns—silver platters and the like—the talk branched out to more diversified topics: the new omnibuses which had been allowed to run in the town; the serious financial situation, few people having recovered from the effects of the last great panic; the expected reception to Mr. Polk; the new Historical Society, of which every one present was a member except St. George and Harry; the successful experiments which the New York painter, a Mr. Morse, was making in what he was pleased to call Magnetic Telegraphy, and the absurdity of his claim that his invention would soon come into general use—every one commenting unfavorably except Richard Horn:—all these shuttlecocks being tossed into mid-air for each battledore to crack, and all these, with infinite tact the better to hide his own and his companions' disappointment over the loss of his honored guest—did St. George keep on the move.
With the shifting of the cloth and the placing of the coasters—the nuts, crusts of bread, and finger-bowls being within easy reach—most of this desultory talk ceased. Something more delicate, more human, more captivating than sport, finance, or politics; more satisfying than all the poets who ever lived, filled everybody's mind. Certain Rip Van Winkles of bottles with tattered garments, dust-begrimed faces, and cobwebs in their hair were lifted tenderly from the side-board and awakened to consciousness (some of them hadn't opened their mouths for twenty years, except to have them immediately stopped with a new cork), and placed in the expectant coasters, Todd handling each one with the reverence of a priest serving in a temple. Crusty, pot-bellied old fellows, who hadn't uttered a civil word to anybody since they had been shut up in their youth, now laughed themselves wide open. A squat, lean-necked, jolly little jug without legs—labelled in ink—"Crab-apple, 1807," spread himself over as much of the mahogany as he could cover, and admired his fat shape upside down in its polish. Diamond-cut decanters—regular swells these—with silver chains and medals on their chests—went swaggering round, boasting of their ancestors; saying "Your good health" every time any one invited them to have a drop—or lose one—while a modest little demijohn—or rather a semi-demi-little-john—all in his wicker-basket clothes, with a card sewed on his jacket—like a lost boy (Peggy Coston of Wesley did the sewing) bearing its name and address—"Old Peach, 1796, Wesley, Eastern Shore," was placed on St. George's right within reach of his hand. "It reminds me of the dear woman herself, gentleman, in her homely outside and her warm, loving heart underneath, and I wouldn't change any part of it for the world."
"What Madeira is this, St. George?" It was the judge who was speaking—he had not yet raised the thin glass to his lips; the old wine-taster was too absorbed in its rich amber color and in the delicate aroma, which was now reaching his nostrils. Indeed a new—several new fragrances, were by this time permeating the room.
"It is the same, judge, that I always give you."
"Not your father's Black Warrior?"
"Yes, the 1810. Don't you recognize it? Not corked, is it?"
"Corked, my dear man! It's a posy of roses. But I thought that was all gone."
"No, there are a few bottles still in my cellar—some—How many are there, Todd, of the Black Warrior?"
"Dat's de las' 'cept two, Marse George."
"Dying in a good cause, judge—I'll send them to you to-morrow."
"You'll do nothing of the kind, you spendthrift. Give them to Kennedy or Clayton."
"No, give them to nobody!" laughed Kennedy. "Keep them where they are and don't let anybody draw either cork until you invite me to dinner again."
"Only two bottles left," cried Latrobe in consternation! "Well, what the devil are we going to do when they are gone?—what's anybody going to do?" The "we" was the key to the situation. The good Madeira of Kennedy Square was for those who honored it, and in that sense—and that sense only—was common property.
"Don't be frightened, Latrobe," laughed St. George—"I've got a lot of the Blackburn Reserve of 1812 left. Todd, serve that last bottle I brought up this morning—I put it in that low decanter next to—Ah, Malachi—you are nearest. Pass that to Mr. Latrobe, Malachi—Yes, that's the one. Now tell me how you like it. It is a little pricked, I think, and may be slightly bruised in the handling. I spent half an hour picking out the cork this morning—but there is no question of its value."
"Yes," rejoined Latrobe, moistening his lips with the topaz-colored liquid—"it is a little bruised. I wouldn't have served it—better lay it aside for a month or two in the decanter. Are all your corks down to that, St. George?"
"All the 1810 and '12—dry as powder some of them. I've got one over on the sideboard that I'm afraid to tackle"—here he turned to Clayton: "Major, you are the only man I know who can pick out a cork properly. Yes, Todd—the bottle at the end, next to that Burgundy—carefully now. Don't shake it, and—"
"Well—but why don't YOU draw the cork yourself, St. George?" interrupted the major, his eyes on Todd, who was searching for the rarity among the others flanking the sideboard.
"I dare not—that is, I'm afraid to try. You are the man for a cork like that—and Todd!—hand Major Clayton the corkscrew and one of those silver nutpicks."
The Honorable Prim bent closer. "What is it, St. George, some old Port?" he asked in a perfunctory way. Rare old wines never interested him. "They are an affectation," he used to say.
"No, Seymour—it's really a bottle of the Peter Remsen 1817 Madeira."
The bottle was passed, every eye watching it with the greatest interest.
"No, never mind the corkscrew, Todd,—I'll pick it out," remarked the major, examining the hazardous cork with the care of a watchmaker handling a broken-down chronometer. "You're right, St. George—it's too far gone. Don't watch me, Seymour, or I'll get nervous. You'll hoodoo it—you Scotchmen are the devil when it comes to anything fit to drink," and he winked at Prim.
"How much is there left of it, St. George?" asked Latrobe, watching the major manipulate the nutpick.
"Not a drop outside that bottle."
"Let us pray—for the cork," sighed Latrobe. "Easy—E-A-SY, major—think of your responsibility, man!"
It was out now, the major dusting the opening with one end of his napkin—his face wreathed in smiles when his nostrils caught the first whiff of its aroma.
"By Jupiter!—gentlemen!—When I'm being snuffed out I'll at least go like a gentleman if I have a drop of this on my lips. It's a bunch of roses—a veritable nosegay. Heavens!—what a bouquet! Some fresh glasses, Todd."
Malachi and Todd both stepped forward for the honor of serving it, but the major waved them aside, and rising to his feet began the round of the table, filling each slender pipe-stem glass to the brim.
Then the talk, which had long since drifted away from general topics, turned to the color and sparkle of some of the more famous wines absorbed these many years by their distinguished votaries. This was followed by the proper filtration and racking both of Ports and Madeiras, and whether milk or egg were best for the purpose—Kennedy recounting his experience of different vintages both here and abroad, the others joining in, and all with the same intense interest that a group of scientists or collectors would have evinced in discussing some new discovery in chemistry or physics, or the coming to light of some rare volume long since out of print—everybody, indeed, taking a hand in the discussion except Latrobe, whose mouth was occupied in the slow sipping of his favorite Madeira—tilting a few drops now and then on the end of his tongue, his eyes devoutly closed that he might the better relish its flavor and aroma.
It was all an object lesson to Harry, who had never been to a dinner of older men—not even at his father's—and though at first he smiled at what seemed to him a great fuss over nothing, he finally began to take a broader view. Wine, then, was like food or music, or poetry—or good-fellowship—something to be enjoyed in its place—and never out of it. For all that, he had allowed no drop of anything to fall into his own glass—a determination which Todd understood perfectly, but which he as studiously chose to ignore—going through all the motions of filling the glass so as not to cause Marse Harry any embarrassment. Even the "1817" was turned down by the young man with a parrying gesture which caught the alert eyes of the major.
"You are right, my boy," the bon vivant said sententiously. "It is a wine for old men. But look after your stomach, you dog—or you may wake up some fine morning and not be able to know good Madeira from bad. You young bloods, with your vile concoctions of toddies, punches, and other satanic brews, are fast going to the devil—your palates, I am speaking of. If you ever saw the inside of a distillery you would never drink another drop of whiskey. There's poison in every thimbleful. There's sunshine in this, sir!" and he held the glass to his eyes until the light of the candles flashed through it.
"But I've never seen the inside or outside of a distillery in my life," answered Harry with a laugh, a reply which did not in the least quench the major's enthusiasms, who went on dilating, wine-glass in hand, on the vulgarity of drinking STANDING UP—the habitual custom of whiskey tipplers—in contrast with the refinement of sipping wines SITTING DOWN—one being a vice and the other a virtue.
Richard, too, had been noticing Harry. He had overheard, as the dinner progressed, a remark the boy had made to the guest next him, regarding the peculiar rhythm of Poe's verse—Harry repeating the closing lines of the poem with such keen appreciation of their meaning that Richard at once joined in the talk, commending him for his insight and discrimination. He had always supposed that Rutter's son, like all the younger bloods of his time, had abandoned his books when he left college and had affected horses and dogs instead. The discovery ended in his scrutinizing Harry's face the closer, reading between the lines—his father here, his mother there—until a quick knitting of the brows, and a flash from out the deep-brown eyes, upset all his preconceived opinions; he had expected grit and courage in the boy—there couldn't help being that when one thought of his father—but where did the lad get his imagination? Richard wondered—that which millions could not purchase. "A most engaging young man in spite of his madcap life," he said to himself—"I don't wonder St. George loves him."
When the bell in the old church struck the hour of ten, Harry again turned to Richard and said with a sigh of disappointment:
"I'm afraid it's too late to expect him—don't you think so?"
"Yes, I fear so," rejoined Richard, who all through the dinner had never ceased to bend his ear to every sound, hoping for the rumble of wheels or the quick step of a man in the hall. "Something extraordinary must have happened to him, or he may have been called suddenly to Richmond and taken the steamboat." Then leaning toward his host he called across the table: "Might I make a suggestion, St. George?"
St. George paused in his talk with Mr. Kennedy and Latrobe and raised his head:
"I was just saying to young Rutter here, that perhaps Mr. Poe has been called suddenly to Richmond and has sent you a note which has not reached you."
"Or he might be ill," suggested Harry in his anxiety to leave no loophole through which the poet could escape.
"Or he might be ill," repeated Richard—"quite true. Now would you mind if I sent Malachi to Guy's to find out?"
"No, Richard—but I'll send Todd. We can get along, I expect, with Malachi until he gets back. Todd!"
"You go to Guy's and ask Mr. Lampson if Mr. Poe is still in the hotel. If he is not there ask for any letter addressed to me and then come back. If he is in, go up to his room and present my compliments, and say we are waiting dinner for him."
Todd's face lengthened, but he missed no word of his master's instructions. Apart from these his mind was occupied with the number of minutes it would take him to run all the way to Guy's Hotel, mount the steps, deliver his message, and race back again. Malachi, who was nearly twice his age, and who had had twice his experience, might be all right until he reached that old Burgundy, but "dere warn't nobody could handle dem corks but Todd; Malachi'd bust 'em sho' and spile 'em 'fo' he could git back."
"'Spose dere ain't no gemman and no letter, den what?" he asked as a last resort.
"Then come straight home."
"Yes, sah," and he backed regretfully from the room and closed the door behind him.
St. George turned to Horn again: "Very good idea, Richard—wonder I hadn't thought of it before. I should probably had I not expected him every minute. And he was so glad to come. He told me he had never forgotten the dinner at Kennedy's some years ago, and when he heard you would be here as well, his whole face lighted up. I was also greatly struck with the improvement in his appearance, he seemed more a man of the world than when I first knew him—carried himself better and was more carefully dressed. This morning when I went in he—"
The door opened silently, and Todd, trembling all over, laid his hand on his master's shoulder, cutting short his dissertation.
"Marse George, please sah, can I speak to you a minute?" The boy looked as if he had just seen a ghost.
"Speak to me! Why haven't you taken my message, Todd?"
"Yes, sah—dat is—can't ye step in de hall a minute, Marse George—now—right away?"
"The hall!—what for?—is there anything the matter?"
St. George pushed back his chair and followed Todd from the room: something had gone wrong—something demanding instant attention or Todd wouldn't be scared out of his wits. Those nearest him, who had overheard Todd's whispered words, halted in their talk in the hope of getting some clew to the situation; others, further away, kept on, unconscious that anything unusual had taken place.
Several minutes passed.
Again the door swung wide, and a man deathly pale, erect, faultlessly dressed in a full suit of black, the coat buttoned close to his chin, his cavernous eyes burning like coals of fire, entered on St. George's arm and advanced toward the group.
Every guest was on his feet in an instant.
"We have him at last!" cried St. George in his cheeriest voice. "A little late, but doubly welcome. Mr. Poe, gentlemen."
Kennedy was the first to extend his hand, Horn crowding close, the others waiting their turn.
Poe straightened his body, focussed his eyes on Kennedy, shook his extended hand gravely, but without the slightest sign of recognition, and repeated the same cold greeting to each guest in the room. He spoke no word—did not open his lips—only the mechanical movement of his outstretched hand—a movement so formal that it stifled all exclamations of praise on the part of the guests, or even of welcome. It was as if he had grasped the hands of strangers beside an open grave.
Then the cold, horrible truth flashed upon them:
Edgar Allan Poe was dead drunk!
The silence that followed was appalling—an expectant silence like that which precedes the explosion of a bomb. Kennedy, who had known him the longest and best, and who knew that if his mind could once be set working he would recover his tongue and wits, having seen him before in a similar crisis, stepped nearer and laid both hands on Poe's shoulders. Get Poe to talking and he would be himself again; let him once be seated, and ten chances to one he would fall asleep at the table.
"No, don't sit down, Mr. Poe—not yet. Give us that great story of yours—the one you told at my house that night—we have never forgotten it. Gentlemen, all take your seats—I promise you one of the great treats of your lives."
Poe stood for an instant undecided, the light of the candles illumining his black hair, pallid face, and haggard features; fixed his eyes on Todd and Malachi, as if trying to account for their presence, and stood wavering, his deep, restless eyes gleaming like slumbering coals flashing points of hot light.
Again Mr. Kennedy's voice rang out:
"Any one of your stories, Mr. Poe—we leave it to you."
Everybody was seated now, with eyes fixed on the poet. Harry, overcome and still dazed, pressed close to Richard, who, bending forward, had put his elbow on the table, his chin in his hand. Clayton wheeled up a big chair and placed it back some little distance so that he could get a better view of the man. Seymour, Latrobe, and the others canted their seats to face the speaker squarely. All felt that Kennedy's tact had saved the situation and restored the equilibrium. It was the poet now who stood before them—the man of genius—the man whose name was known the country through. That he was drunk was only part of the performance. Booth had been drunk when he chased a super from the stage; Webster made his best speeches when he was half-seas-over—was making them at that very moment. It was so with many other men of genius the world over. If they could hear one of Poe's poems—or, better still, one of his short stories, like "The Black Cat" or the "Murders in the Rue Morgue"—it would be like hearing Emerson read one of his Essays or Longfellow recite his "Hyperion." This in itself would atone for everything. Kennedy was right—it would be one of the rare treats of their lives.
Poe grasped the back of the chair reserved for him, stood swaying for an instant, passed one hand nervously across his forehead, brushed back a stray lock that had fallen over his eyebrow, loosened the top button of his frock coat, revealing a fresh white scarf tied about his neck, closed his eyes, and in a voice deep, sonorous, choked with tears one moment, ringing clear the next—word by word—slowly—with infinite tenderness and infinite dignity and with the solemnity of a condemned man awaiting death—repeated the Lord's Prayer to the end.
Kennedy sat as if paralyzed. Richard Horn, who had lifted up his hands in horror as the opening sentence reached his ears, lowered his head upon his chest as he would in church. There was no blasphemy in this! It was the wail of a lost soul pleading for mercy!
Harry, cowering in his chair, gazed at Poe in amazement. Then a throb of such sympathy as he had never felt before shook him to his depths. Could that transfigured man praying there, the undried tears still on his lids, be the same who had entered on his uncle's arm but a few moments before?
Poe lifted his head, opened his eyes, walked in a tired, hopeless way toward the mantel and sank into an easy-chair. There he sat with bowed head, his face in his hands.
One by one the men rose to their feet and, with a nod or silent pressure of St. George's palm, moved toward the door. When they spoke to each other it was in whispers: to Todd, who brought their hats and canes; to Harry, whom, unconsciously, they substituted for host; shaking his hand, muttering some word of sympathy for St. George. No—they would find their way, better not disturb his uncle, etc. They would see him in the morning, etc., and thus the group passed out in a body and left the house.
Temple himself was profoundly moved. The utter helplessness of the man; his abject and complete surrender to the demon which possessed him—all this appalled him. He had seen many drunken men in his time—roysterers and brawlers, most of them—but never one like Poe. The poet seemed to have lost his identity—nothing of the man of the world was left—in speech, thought, or movement.
When Harry re-entered, his uncle was sitting beside the poet, who had not yet addressed him a word; nor had he again raised his head. Every now and then the sound of an indrawn breath would escape Poe, as if hot tears were choking him.
St. George waved his hand meaningly.
"Tell Todd I'll ring for him when I want him, Harry," he whispered, "and now do you go to sleep." Then, pointing to the crouching man, "He must stay in my bed here to-night; I won't leave him. What a pity! O God! what a pity! Poor fellow—how sorry I am for him!"
Harry was even more affected. Terrified and awestruck, he mounted the stairs to his room, locked his chamber door, and threw himself on his bed, his mother's and Kate's pleadings sounding in his ears, his mind filled with the picture of the poet standing erect with closed eyes, the prayer his mother had taught him falling from his lips. This, then, was what his mother and Kate meant—this—the greatest of all calamities—the overthrow of a MAN.
For the hundredth time he turned his wandering search-light into his own heart. The salient features of his own short career passed in review: the fluttering of the torn card as it fell to the floor; the sharp crack of Willits's pistol; the cold, harsh tones of his father's voice when he ordered him from the house; Kate's dear eyes streaming with tears and her uplifted hands—their repellent palms turned toward him as she sobbed—"Go away—my heart is broken!" And then the refrain of the poem which of late had haunted him night and day:
"Disaster following fast and following faster, Till his song one burden bore,"
and then the full, rich tones of Poe's voice pleading with his Maker:
"Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us."
Yes:—Disaster had followed fast and faster. But why had it followed him? What had he done to bring all this misery upon himself? How could he have acted differently? Wherein had he broken any law he had been taught to uphold, and if he had broken it why should he not be forgiven? Why, too, had Kate turned away from him? He had promised her never to drink again; he had kept that promise, and, God helping him, he would always keep it, as would any other man who had seen what he had just seen to-night. Perhaps he had trespassed in the duel, and yet he would fight Willits again were the circumstances the same, and in this view Uncle George upheld him. But suppose he had trespassed—suppose he had committed a fault—as his father declared—why should not Kate forgive him? She had forgiven Willits, who was drunk, and yet she would not forgive him, who had not allowed a drop to pass his lips since he had given her his promise. How could she, who could do no wrong, expect to be forgiven herself when she not only shut her door in his face, but left him without a word or a line? How could his father ask forgiveness of his God when he would not forgive his son? Why were these two different from his mother and his Uncle George, and even old Alec—who had nothing but sympathy for him? Perhaps his education and training had been at fault. Perhaps, as Richard Horn had said, his standards of living were old-fashioned and quixotic.
Only when the gray dawn stole in through the small window of his room did the boy fall asleep.
Not only Kennedy Square, but Moorlands, rang with accounts of the dinner and its consequences. Most of those who were present and who witnessed the distressing spectacle had only words of sympathy for the unfortunate man—his reverent manner, his contrite tones, and abject humiliation disarming their criticism. They felt that some sudden breaking down of the barriers of his will, either physical or mental, had led to the catastrophe. Richard Horn voiced the sentiments of Poe's sympathizers when, in rehearsing the episode the next afternoon at the club, he had said:
"His pitiable condition, gentlemen, was not the result of debauchery. Poe neither spoke nor acted like a drunken man; he spoke and acted like a man whom a devil had overcome. It was pathetic, gentlemen, and it was heart-rending—really the most pitiful sight I ever remember witnessing. His anguish, his struggle, and his surrender I shall never forget; nor will his God—for the prayer came straight from his heart."
"I don't agree with you, Horn," interrupted Clayton. "Poe was plumb drunk! It is the infernal corn whiskey he drinks that puts the devil in him. It may be he can't get anything else, but it's a damnable concoction all the same. Kennedy has about given him up—told me so yesterday, and when Kennedy gives a fellow up that's the last of him."
"Then I'm ashamed of Kennedy," retorted Horn. "Any man who can write as Poe does should be forgiven, no matter what he does—if he be honest. There's nothing so rare as genius in this world, and even if his flame does burn from a vile-smelling wick it's a flame, remember!—and one that will yet light the ages. If I know anything of the literature of our time Poe will live when these rhymers like Mr. Martin Farquhar Tupper, whom everybody is talking about, will be forgotten. Poe's possessed of a devil, I tell you, who gets the better of him once in a while—it did the night of St. George's dinner."
"Very charitable in you, Richard," exclaimed Pancoast, another dissenter—"and perhaps it will be just as well for his family, if he has any, to accept your view—but, devil or no devil, you must confess, Horn, that it was pretty hard on St. George. If the man has any sense of refinement—and he must have from the way he writes—the best way out of it is for him to own up like a man and say that Guy's barkeeper filled him too full of raw whiskey, and that he didn't come to until it was too late—that he was very sorry, and wouldn't do it again. That's what I would have done, and that's what you, Richard, or any other gentleman, would have done."
Others, who got their information second hand, followed the example of St. George's guests censuring or excusing the poet in accordance with their previous likes or dislikes. The "what-did-I-tell-yous"—Bowdoin among them—and there were several—broke into roars of laughter when they learned what had happened in the Temple mansion. So did those who had not been invited, and who still felt some resentment at St. George's oversight.
Another group; and these were also to be found at the club—thought only of St. George—old Murdock, voicing their opinions when he said: "Temple laid himself out, so I hear, on that dinner, and some of us know what that means. And a dinner like that, remember, counts with St. George. In the future it will be just as well to draw the line at poets as well as actors."
The Lord of Moorlands had no patience with any of their views. Whether Poe was a drunkard or not did not concern him in the least. What did trouble him was the fact that St. George's cursed independence had made him so far forget himself and his own birth and breeding as to place a chair at his table for a man in every way beneath him. Hospitality of that kind was understandable in men like Kennedy and Latrobe—one the leading literary light of his State, whose civic duties brought him in contact with all classes—the other a distinguished man of letters as well as being a poet, artist, and engineer, who naturally touched the sides of many personalities. So, too, might Richard Horn be excused for stretching the point—he being a scientist whose duty it was to welcome to his home many kinds of people—this man Morse among them, with his farcical telegraph; a man in the public eye who seemed to be more or less talked about in the press, but of whom he himself knew nothing, but why St. George Temple, who in all probability had never read a line of Poe's or anybody else's poetry in his life, should give this sot a dinner, and why such sane gentlemen as Seymour, Clayton, and Pancoast should consider it an honor to touch elbows with him, was as unaccountable as it was incredible.
Furthermore—and this is what rankled deepest in his heart—St. George was subjecting his only son, Harry, to corrupting influences, and at a time, too, when the boy needed the uplifting examples of all that was highest in men and manners.
"And you tell me, Alec," he blazed out on hearing the details, "that the fellow never appeared until the dinner was all over and then came in roaring drunk?"
"Well, sah, I ain't yered nothin' 'bout de roarin', but he suttinly was 'how-come-ye-so'—fer dey couldn't git 'im upstairs 'less dey toted him on dere backs. Marse George Temple gin him his own baid an' sot up mos' ob de night, an' dar he stayed fur fo' days till he come to. Dat's what Todd done tol' me, an' I reckon Todd knows."
The colonel was in his den when this conversation took place. He was generally to be found there since the duel. Often his wife, or Alec, or some of his neighbors would surprise him buried in his easy-chair, an unopened book in his hand, his eyes staring straight ahead as if trying to grasp some problem which repeatedly eluded him. After the episode at the club he became more absorbed than ever. It was that episode, indeed, which had vexed him most. Not that St. George's tongue-lashing worried him—nor did Harry's blank look of amazement linger in his thoughts. St. George, he had to confess to himself as he battled with the questions, was the soul of honor and had not meant to insult him. It was Temple's love for Harry which had incited the quixotic onslaught, for, as he knew, St. George dearly loved the boy, and this in itself wiped all resentment from the autocrat's heart. As to Harry's attitude toward himself, this he continued to reason was only a question of time. That young upstart had not learned his lesson yet—a harsh lesson, it was true, and one not understood by the world at large—but then the world was not responsible for his son's bringing up. When the boy had learned it, and was willing to acknowledge the error of his ways, then, perhaps, he might kill the fatted calf—that is, of course, if the prodigal should return on all fours and with no stilted and untenable ideas about his rights—ideas that St. George, of course, was instilling into him every chance he got.
So far, however, he had had to admit to himself that while he had kept steady watch of the line of hills skirting his mental horizon, up to the present moment no young gentleman in a dilapidated suit of clothes, inverted waist measure, and lean legs had shown himself above the sky line. On the contrary, if all reports were true—and Alec omitted no opportunity to keep him advised of Marse Harry's every movement—the young Lord of Moorlands was having the time of his life, even if his sweetheart had renounced him and his father forced him into exile. Not only had he found a home and many comforts at Temple's—being treated as an honored guest alongside of such men as Kennedy and Latrobe, Pancoast, and the others, but now that St. George had publicly declared him to be his heir, these distinctive marks of his approbation were likely to continue. Nor could he interfere, even if he wished to—which, of course, he did not, and never could so long as he lived.... "Damn him!" etc., etc. And with this the book would drop from his lap and he begin pacing the floor, his eyes on the carpet, his broad shoulders bent in his anxiety to solve the problem which haunted him night and day:—how to get Harry back under his roof and not yield a jot or tittle of his pride or will—or, to be more explicit, now that the mountain would not come to Mahomet, how could Mahomet get over to the mountain?
His friend and nearest neighbor, John Gorsuch, who was also his man of business, opened the way. The financier's clerk had brought him a letter, just in by the afternoon coach, and with a glance at its contents the shrewd old fellow had at once ordered his horse and set out for Moorlands, some two miles distant. Nor did he draw rein or break gallop until he threw the lines to a servant beside the lower step of the colonel's porch.
"It's the Patapsco again! It will close its doors before the week is out!" he cried, striding into the library, where the colonel, who had just come in from inspecting a distant field on his estate, sat dusting his riding-boots with his handkerchief.
"Going to stop payment! Failed! What the devil do you mean, John?"
"I mean just what I say! Everything has gone to bally-hack in the city. Here's a letter I have just received from Harding—he's on the inside, and knows. He thinks there's some crooked business about it; they have been loaning money on all sorts of brick-bats, he says, and the end has come, or will to-morrow. He wanted to post me in time."
The colonel tossed his handkerchief on his writing-table: "Who will be hurt?" he asked hurriedly, ignoring the reference to the dishonesty of the directors.
"Oh!—a lot of people. Temple, I know, keeps his account there. He was short of cash a little while ago, for young Pawson, who has his law office in the basement of his house, offered me a mortgage on his Kennedy Square property, but I hadn't the money at the time and didn't take it. If he got it at last—and he paid heavily for it if he did—the way things have been going—and if he put that money in the Patapsco, it will be a bad blow to him. Harry, I hear, is with him—so I thought you ought to know."
Rutter had given a slight start at the mention of Temple's name among the crippled, and a strange glitter still lingered in his eyes.
"Then I presume my son is dependent on a beggar," he exclaimed, rising from his seat, stripping off his brown velveteen riding-jacket and hanging it in a closet behind his chair.
"Yes, it looks that way."
Gorsuch was watching the colonel closely. He had another purpose in making his breakneck ride. He didn't have a dollar in the Patapsco, and he knew the colonel had not; he, like himself, was too shrewd a man to be bitten twice by the same dog; but he had a large interest in Harry and would leave no stone unturned to bring father and son together.
The colonel again threw himself into his chair, stretched out his slender, well-turned legs, crooked one of his russet-leather riding-boots to be sure the spurs were still in place, and said slowly—rather absently, as if the subject did not greatly interest him:
"Patapsco failed and St. George a beggar, eh?—Too bad!—too bad!" Then some disturbing suspicions must have entered his head, for he roused himself, looked at Gorsuch keenly, and asked in a searching tone: "And you came over full tilt, John, to tell me this?"
"I thought you might help. St. George needs all the friends he's got if this is true—and it looks to me as if it was," answered Gorsuch in a casual way.
Rutter relaxed his gaze and resumed his position. Had his suspicions been correct that Gorsuch's interest in Harry was greater than his interest in the bank's failure, he would have resented it even from John Gorsuch.
Disarmed by the cool, unflinching gaze of his man of business, his mind again took up in review all the incidents connected with St. George and his son, and what part each had played in them.
That Temple—good friend as he had always been—had thwarted him in every attempt to bring about a reconciliation between himself and Harry, had been apparent from the very beginning of the difficulty. Even the affair at the club showed it. This would have ended quite differently—and he had fully intended it should—had not St. George, with his cursed officiousness, interfered with his plans. For what he had really proposed to himself to do, on that spring morning when he had rolled up to the club in his coach, was to mount the steps, ignore his son at first, if he should run up against him—(and he had selected the very hour when he hoped he would run up against him)—and then, when the boy broke down, as he surely must, to forgive him like a gentleman and a Rutter, and this, too, before everybody. Seymour would see it—Kate would hear of it, and the honor of the Rutters remain unblemished. Moreover, this would silence once and for all those gabblers who had undertaken to criticise him for what they called his inhumanity in banishing this only son when he was only trying to bring up that child in the way he should go. Matters seemed to be coming his way. The failure of the Patapsco might be his opportunity. St. George would be at his wits' end; Harry would be forced to choose between the sidewalk and Moorlands, and the old life would go on as before.
All these thoughts coursed through his mind as he leaned back in his chair, his lips tight set, the jaw firm and determined—only the lids quivering as he mastered the tears that crept to their edges. Now and then, in his mental absorption, he would absently cross his legs only to straighten them out again, his state of mind an open book to Gorsuch, who had followed the same line of reasoning and who had brought the news himself that he might the better watch its effect.
"I'm surprised that Temple should select the Patapsco. It has never got over its last smash of four years ago," Gorsuch at last remarked. He did not intend to let the topic drift away from Harry if he could help it.
"I am not surprised, John. St. George is the best fellow in the world, but he never lets anything work but his heart. When you get at the bottom of it you will find that he's backed up the bank because some poor devil of a teller or clerk, or may be some director, is his friend. That's enough for St. George, and further than that he never goes. He's thrown away two fortunes now—his grandmother's, which was small but sound—and his father's, which if he had attended to it would have kept him comfortable all his life."
"You had some words at the club, I heard," interjected Gorsuch.
"No, he had some words, I had a julep," and the colonel smiled grimly.
"But you are still on good terms, are you not?"
"I am, but he isn't. But that is of no consequence. No man in his senses would ever get angry with St. George, no matter what he might say or do. He hasn't a friend in the world who could be so ill bred. And as to calling him out—you would as soon think of challenging your wife. St. George talks from his heart, never his head. I have loved him for thirty years and know exactly what I am talking about—and yet let me tell you, Gorsuch, that with all his qualities—and he is the finest-bred gentleman I know—he can come closer to being a natural born fool than any man of his years and position in Kennedy Square. This treatment of my son—whom I am trying to bring up a gentleman—is one proof of it, and this putting all his eggs into one basket—and that a rotten basket—is another."
"Well, then—if that is your feeling about it, colonel, why not go and see him? As I have said, he needs all the friends he's got at a time like this." If he could bring the two men together the boy might come home. Not to be able to wave back to Harry as he dashed past on Spitfire, had been a privation which the whole settlement had felt. "That is, of course," he continued, "if St. George Temple would be willing to receive you. He would be—wouldn't he?"
"I don't know, John—and I don't care. If I should make up my mind to go—remember, I said 'IF'—I'd go whether he liked it or not."
He HAD made up his mind—had made it up at the precise moment the announcement of the bank's failure and St. George's probable ruin had dropped from Gorsuch's lips—but none of this must Gorsuch suspect. He would still be the doge and Virginius; he alone must be the judge of when and how and where he would show leniency. Generations of Rutters were behind him—this boy was in the direct line—connecting the past with the present—and on Colonel Talbot Rutter of Moorlands, and on no other, rested the responsibility of keeping the glorious name unsmirched.
Todd, with one of the dogs at his heels, opened the door for him, smothering a "Gor-a-Mighty!—sumpin's up fo' sho'!" when his hand turned the knob. He had heard the clatter of two horses and their sudden pull-up outside, and looking out, had read the situation at a glance. Old Matthew was holding the reins of both mounts at the moment, for the colonel always rode in state. No tying to hitching-posts or tree-boxes, or picking up of a loose negro to watch his restless steed when he had a stable full of thoroughbreds and quarters packed with grooms.
"Yes, Marse Colonel—yes, sah—Marse George is inside—yes, sah—but Marse Harry's out." He had not asked for Harry, but Todd wanted him to get all the facts in case there was to be another such scene as black John described had taken place at the club on the occasion of the colonel's last visit to the Chesapeake.
"Then I'll go in unannounced, and you need not wait, Todd."
St. George was in his arm-chair by the mantel looking over one of his heavy ducking-guns when the Lord of Moorlands entered. He was the last man in the world he expected to see, but he did not lose his self-control or show in any way his surprise. He was host, and Rutter was his guest; nothing else counted now.
St. George rose to his feet, laid the gun carefully on the table, and with a cold smile on his face—one of extreme courtesy—advanced to greet him.
"Ah, Talbot—it has been some time since I had this pleasure. Let me draw up a chair for you—I'll ring for Todd and—"
"No, St. George. I prefer to talk to you alone."
"Todd is never an interruption."
"He may be to-day. I have something to say to you—and I don't want either to be interrupted or misunderstood. You and I have known each other too many years to keep up this quarrel; I am getting rather sick of it myself."
St. George shrugged his shoulders, placed the gun carefully in the rack by the door, and maintained an attentive attitude. He would either fight or make peace, but he must first learn the conditions. In the meantime he would hold his peace.
Rutter strode past him to the fireplace, opened his riding-jacket, laid his whip on the mantel, and with his hands deep in his breeches pockets faced the room and his host, who had again taken his place by the table.
"The fact is, St. George, I have been greatly disturbed of late by reports which have reached me about my son. He is with you, I presume?"
St. George nodded.
Rutter waited for a verbal reply, and receiving none, forged on: "Very greatly disturbed; so much so that I have made an especial trip from Moorlands to call upon you and ascertain their truth."
Again St. George nodded, the smile—one of extreme civility now—still on his face. Then he added, flicking some stray grains of tobacco from his sleeve with his fingers: "That was very good of you, Talbot—but go on—I'm listening."
The colonel's eyes kindled. Temple's perfect repose—something he had not expected—was beginning to get on his nerves, He cleared his throat impressively and continued, his voice rising in intensity:
"Instead of leading the life of a young man brought up as a gentleman, I hear he is consorting with the lowest class of people here in your house—people who—"
"—Are my guests," interrupted St. George calmly—loosening the buttons of his coat in search of his handkerchief—there being more tobacco on his clothes than he had supposed.
"Yes, you have hit it exactly—your guests—and that is another thing I have come to tell you, for neither I nor your friends can understand how a man of your breeding should want to surround himself with——Is it necessary that you should understand, Talbot?"—same low, incisive but extremely civil voice, almost monotonous in its cadences. The cambric was in full play now.
"Of course it is necessary when it affects my own flesh and blood. You know as well as I do that this sot, Poe, is not a fit companion for a boy raised as my Harry has been—a man picked out of the gutter—his family a lot of play-actors—even worse, I hear. A fellow who staggers into your house dead drunk and doesn't sober up for a week! It's scandalous!"
Again St. George shrugged his shoulders, but one hand was tight shut this time, the steel claws protruding, the handkerchief alone saving their points from pressing into the palms.
"And is that what you came from Moorlands to tell me, Talbot?" remarked St. George casually, adjusting the lapels of his coat.
"Yes!" retorted Rutter—he was fast losing what was left of his self-control—"that and some other things! But we will attend to Harry first. You gave that boy shelter when—"
"Please state it correctly, Talbot. We can get on better if you stick to the facts." The words came slowly, but the enunciation was as perfect as if each syllable had been parted with a knife. "I didn't give him shelter—I gave him a home—one you denied him. But go on—I prefer to hear you out."
The colonel's eyes blazed. He had never seen St. George like this: it was Temple's hot outbursts that had made him so easy an adversary in their recent disputes.
"And you will please do the same, St. George," he demanded in his most top-lofty tone, ignoring his opponent's denial. "You know perfectly well I turned him out of Moorlands because he had disgraced his blood, and yet you—my life-long friend—have had the bad taste to interfere and drag him down still lower, so that now, instead of coming to his senses and asking my pardon, he parades himself at the club and at your dinners, putting on the airs of an injured man."
St. George drew himself up to his full height.
"Let us change the subject, Talbot, or we will both forget ourselves. If you have anything to say to me that will benefit Harry and settle the difficulty between him and you, I will meet you more than half-way, but I give you fair warning that the apology must come from you. You have—if you will permit me to say it in my own house—behaved more like a brute than a father. I told you so the night you turned him out in the rain for me to take care of, and I told you so again at the club when you tried to make a laughing-stock of him before your friends—and now I tell you so once more! Come!—let us drop the subject—what may I offer you to drink?—you must be rather chilled with your ride in."
Rutter was about to flare out a denial when his better judgment got the best of him; some other tactics than the ones he had used must be brought into play. So far he had made but little headway against Temple's astounding coolness.
"And I am to understand, then, that you are going to keep him here?" he demanded, ignoring both his host's criticisms and his proffered hospitality.
"I certainly am"—he was abreast of him now, his eyes boring into his—"just as long as he wishes to stay, which I hope will be all his life, or until you have learned to be decent to him. And by decency, I mean companionship, and love, and tenderness—three things which your damned, high-toned notions have always deprived him of!" His voice was still under control, although the emphasis was unmistakable.
Rutter made a step forward, his eyes flashing, his teeth set:
"You have the impertinence, sir, to charge me with——"
"—Yes!—and it's true and you know it's true!"—the glance, steady as a rifle, had not wavered. "No, you needn't work yourself up into a passion—and as for your lordly, dictatorial airs, I am past the age when they affect me—keep them for your servants. By God!—what a farce it all is! Let us talk of something else—I am tired of it!"
The words cut like a whip, but the Lord of Moorlands had come to get his son, not to fight St. George. Their sting, however, had completely changed his plans. Only the club which Gorsuch had put into his hands would count now.
"Yes—a damnable farce!" he thundered, "and one played by a man with beggary staring him straight in the face, and yet to hear you talk one would think you were a Croesus! You mortgaged this house to get ready money, did you not?" He was not sure, but this was no time in which to split words.
St. George turned quickly: "Who told you that?"
"Is it true?"
"Yes! Do you suppose I would let Harry sneak around corners to avoid his creditors?"
The colonel gave an involuntary start, the blood mounting to the roots of his hair, and as suddenly paled:
"You tell me that—you dared to—pay Harry's debts?" he stammered in amazement.
"Dared!" retorted St. George, lifting his chin contemptuously. "Really, Talbot, you amuse me. When you set that dirty hound Gadgem on his trail, what did you expect me to do?—invite the dog to dinner?—or have him sleep in the house until I sold furniture enough to get rid of him?"
The colonel leaned back against the mantel's edge as if for support. All the fight was out of him. Not only was the situation greatly complicated, but he himself was his host's debtor. The seriousness of the whole affair confronted him. For a brief instant he gazed at the floor, his eyes on the hearthrug, "Have you any money left, St. George?" he asked. His voice was subdued enough now. Had he been his solicitor he could not have been more concerned.
"Yes, a few thousand," returned St. George. He saw that some unexpected shot had hit the colonel, but he did not know he had fired it.
"Left over from the mortgage, I suppose?—less what you paid out for Harry?"
"Yes, left over from the mortgage, less what I paid Gadgem," he bridled. "If you have brought any more of Harry's bills hand them out. Why the devil you ask, Talbot, is beyond my ken, but I have no objection to your knowing."
Rutter waved his hand impatiently, with a deprecating gesture; such trifles were no longer important.
"You bank with the Patapsco, do you not?" he asked calmly. "Answer me, please, and don't think I'm trying to pry into your affairs. The matter is much more serious than you seem to think." The tone was so sympathetic that St. George looked closer into his antagonist's face, trying to read the cause.
"Always with the Patapsco. I have kept my account there for years," he rejoined simply. "Why do you want to know?"
"Because it has closed its doors—or will in a few hours. It is bankrupt!"
There was no malice in his tone, nor any note of triumph. That St. George had beggared himself to pay his son's debts had wiped that clear. He was simply announcing a fact that caused him the deepest concern.
St. George's face paled, and for a moment a peculiar choking movement started in his throat.
"Bankrupt!—the Patapsco! How do you know?" He had heard some ugly rumors at the club a few days before, but had dismissed them as part of Harding's croakings.
"John Gorsuch received a letter last night from one of the directors; there is no doubt of its truth. I have suspected its condition for some time, so has Gorsuch. This brought me here. You see now how impossible it is for my son to be any longer a burden on you."
St. George walked slowly across the room and drawing out a chair settled himself to collect his thoughts the better;—he had remained standing as the better way to terminate the interview should he be compelled to exercise that right. The two announcements had come like successive blows in the face. If the news of the bank's failure was true he was badly, if not hopelessly, crippled—this, however, would wait, as nothing he might do could prevent the catastrophe. The other—Harry's being a burden to him—must be met at once.
He looked up and caught the colonel's eye scrutinizing his face.
"As to Harry's being a burden," St. George said slowly, his lip curling slightly—"that is my affair. As to his remaining here, all I have to say is that if a boy is old enough to be compelled to pay his debts he is old enough to decide where he will live. You have yourself established that rule and it will be carried out to the letter."
Rutter's face hardened: "But you haven't got a dollar in the world to spare!"
"That may be, but it doesn't altar the situation; it rather strengthens it." He rose from his chair: "I think we are about through now, Talbot, and if you will excuse me I'll go down to the bank and see what is the matter. I will ring for Todd to bring your hat and coat." He did not intend to continue the talk. There had just been uncovered to him a side of Talbot Rutter's nature which had shocked him as much as had the threatened loss of his money. To use his poverty as a club to force him into a position which would be dishonorable was inconceivable in a man as well born as his antagonist, but it was true: he could hardly refrain from telling him so. He had missed, it may be said, seeing another side—his visitor's sympathy for him in his misfortune. That, unfortunately, he did not see: fate often plays such tricks with us all.
The colonel stepped in front of him: his eyes had an ugly look in them—the note of sympathy was gone.
"One moment, St. George! How long you are going to keep up this fool game, I don't know; but my son stays here on one condition, and on one condition only, and you might as well understand it now. From this time on I pay his board. Do you for one instant suppose I am going to let you support him, and you a beggar?"
St. George made a lunge toward the speaker as if to strike him. Had Rutter fired point-blank at him he could not have been more astounded. For an instant he stood looking into his face, then whirled suddenly and swung wide the door.
"May I ask you, Talbot, to leave the room, or shall I? You certainly cannot be in your senses to make me a proposition like that. This thing has got to come to an end, and NOW! I wish you good-morning."
The colonel lifted his hands in a deprecatory way.
"As you will, St. George."
And without another word the baffled autocrat strode from the room.
There was no one at home when Harry returned except Todd, who, having kept his position outside the dining-room door during the heated encounter, had missed nothing of the interview. What had puzzled the darky—astounded him really—was that no pistol-shot had followed his master's denouncement and defiance of the Lord of Moorlands. What had puzzled him still more was hearing these same antagonists ten minutes later passing the time o' day, St. George bowing low and the colonel touching his hat as he passed out and down to where Matthew and his horses were waiting.
It was not surprising, therefore, that Todd's recital to Harry came in a more or less disjointed and disconnected form.
"You say, Todd," he exclaimed in astonishment, "that my father was here!" Our young hero was convinced that the visit did not concern himself, as he was no longer an object of interest to any one at home except his mother and Alec.
"Dat he was, sah, an' b'ilin' mad. Dey bofe was, on'y Marse George lay low an' de colonel purty nigh rid ober de top ob de fence. Fust Marse George sass him an' den de colonel sass him back. Purty soon Marse George say he gwinter speak his min'—and he call de colonel a brute an' den de colonel riz up an' say Marse George was a beggar and a puttin' on airs when he didn't hab 'nough money to buy hisse'f a 'tater; an' den Marse George r'ared and pitched—Oh I tell ye he ken be mighty sof' and persimmony when he's tame—and he's mos' allers dat way—but when his dander's up, and it suttinly riz to-day, he kin make de fur fly. Dat's de time you wanter git outer de way or you'll git hurted."
"Who did you say was the beggar?" It was all Greek to Harry.
"Why, Marse George was—he was de one what was gwine hongry. De colonel 'lowed dat de bank was busted an'—"
"Why de 'Tapsco—whar Marse George keep his money. Ain't you see me comin' from dar mos' ebery day?"
"But it hasn't failed, has it?" He was still wondering what the quarrel was about.
"Wall, I dunno, but I reckon sumpin's de matter, for no sooner did de colonel git on his horse and ride away dan Marse George go git his hat and coat hisse'f and make tracks th'ou' de park by de short cut—and you know he neber do dat 'cept when he's in a hurry, and den in 'bout a ha'f hour he come back ag'in lookin' like he'd seed de yahoo, only he was mad plump th'ou'; den he hollered for me quick like, and sont me down underneaf yere to Mr. Pawson to know was he in, and he was, and I done tol' him, and he's dar now. He ain't neber done sont me down dar 'cept once sence I been yere, and dat was de day dat Gadgem man come snuffin' roun'. Trouble comin'."
Harry had now begun to take in the situation. It was evidently a matter of some moment or Pawson would not have been consulted.
"I'll go down myself, Todd," he said with sudden resolve.
"Better lem'me tell him you're yere, Marse Harry."
"No, I'll go now," and he turned on his heel and descended the front steps.
On the street side of the house, level with the bricks, was a door opening into a low-ceiled, shabbily furnished room, where in the old days General Dorsey Temple, as has been said, shared his toddies with his cronies. There he found St. George seated at a long table piled high with law books and papers—the top covered with a green baize cloth embroidered with mice holes and decorated with ink stains. Beside him was a thin, light-haired, young man, with a long, flexible neck and abnormally high forehead, over-doming a shrewd but not unkindly face. The two were poring over a collection of papers.
The young lawyer rose to his feet, a sickly, deferential smile playing along his straight lips. Young aristocrats of Harry's blood and breeding did not often darken Pawson's door, and he was extremely anxious that his guest should in some way be made aware of his appreciation of that fact. St. George did not move, nor did he take any other notice of the boy's appearance than to fasten his eyes upon him for a moment in recognition of his presence.
But Harry could not wait.
"Todd has just told me, Uncle George, that"—he caught the grave expression on Temple's face—"Why!—Uncle George—there isn't anything the matter, is there? It isn't true that the—"
St. George raised his head: "What isn't true, Harry?"
"That the Patapsco Bank is in trouble?"
"No, I don't think so. The bank, so far as I know, is all right; it's the depositors who are in trouble," and one of his quaint smiles lighted up his face.
"Broken!—failed!" cried Harry, still in doubt as to the extent of the catastrophe, but wishing to be sympathetic and proportionably astounded as any well-bred young man should be when his best friend was unhappy.
"I'm afraid it is, Harry—in fact I know it is—bankrupt in character as well as in balances—a bad-smelling, nasty mess, to tell you the truth. That's not only my own opinion, but the opinion of every man whom I have seen, and there was quite an angry mob when I reached the teller's window this morning. That is your own opinion also, is it not, Mr. Pawson?—your legal summing up, I mean."
The young attorney stretched out his spare colorless hands; opened wide his long, double-jointed fingers; pressed their ten little cushions together, and see-sawing the bunch in front of his concave waistcoat, answered in his best professional voice:
"As to being bankrupt of funds I should say there was no doubt of that being their condition; as to any criminal intent or practices—that, of course, gentlemen"—and he shrugged his shoulders in a non-committal, non-actionable way—"is not for me to decide."
"But you think it will be months, and perhaps years, before the depositors get a penny of their money—do you not?" persisted St. George.
Again Pawson performed the sleight-of-hand trick, and again he was non-committal—a second shrug alone expressing his views, the performance ending by his pushing a wooden chair in the direction of Harry, who was still on his feet.
Harry settled himself on its edge and fixed his eyes on his uncle. St. George again became absorbed in the several papers, Pawson once more assisting him, the visitor having now been duly provided for.
This raking of ashes in the hope of finding something of value unscorched was not a pleasant task for the young lawyer. He had, years before, conceived the greatest admiration for his landlord and was never tired of telling his associates of how kind and considerate St. George had always been, and of his patience in the earlier days of his lease, Mr. Temple often refusing the rent until he was quite ready to pay it. He took a certain pride, too, in living under the same roof, so to speak, with one universally known as a gentleman of the old school, whose birth, education, and habits made him the standard among his fellows—a man without pretence or sham, living a simple and wholesome life; with dogs, guns, priceless Madeira and Port, as well as unlimited clothes of various patterns adapted to every conceivable service and function—to say nothing of his being part of the best society that Kennedy Square could afford.
Even to bow to his distinguished landlord as he was descending his front steps was in itself one of his greatest pleasures. That he might not miss it, he would peer from behind his office shutters until the shapely legs of his patron could be seen between the twisted iron railing. Then appearing suddenly and with assumed surprise, he would lift his hat with so great a flourish that his long, thin arms and body were jerked into semaphore angles, his face meanwhile beaming with ill-concealed delight.
Should any one of St. George's personal friends accompany him—men like Kennedy, or General Hardisty, or some well-known man from the Eastern Shore—one of the Dennises, or Joyneses, or Irvings—the pleasure was intensified, the incident being of great professional advantage. "I have just met old General Hardisty," he would say—"he was at our house," the knowing ones passing a wink around, and the uninitiated having all the greater respect and, therefore, all the greater confidence in that rising young firm of "Pawson & Pawson, Attorneys and Counsellors at Law—Wills drawn and Estates looked after."
That this rarest of gentlemen, of all men in the world, should be made the victim of a group of schemers who had really tricked him of almost all that was left of his patrimony, and he a member of his own profession, was to Pawson one of the great sorrows of his life. That he himself had unwittingly helped in its culmination made it all the keener. Only a few weeks had passed since that eventful day when St. George had sent Todd down to arrange for an interview, an event which was followed almost immediately by that gentleman in person. He remembered his delight at the honor conferred upon him; he recalled how he had spent the whole of that and the next day in the attempt to negotiate the mortgage on the old home at a reasonable rate of interest; he recalled, too, how he could have lowered the rate had St. George allowed him more time. "No, pay it and get rid of them!" St. George had said, the "them" being part of the very accounts over which the two were poring. And his patron had showed the same impatience when it came to placing the money in the bank. Although his own lips were sealed professionally by reason of the interests of another client, he had begged St. George, almost to the verge of interference, not to give it to the Patapsco, until he had been silenced with: "Have them put it to my credit, sir. I have known every member of that bank for years."
All these things were, of course, unknown to Harry, the ultimate beneficiary. Who had filled the bucket, and how and why, were unimportant facts to him. That it was full, and ready for his use, brought with it the same sense of pleasure he would have felt on a hot day at Moorlands when he had gone to the old well, drawn up the ice-cold water, and, plunging in the sweet-smelling gourd, had drank to his heart's content.
This was what wells were made for; and so were fathers, and big, generous men like his Uncle George, who had dozens of friends ready to cram money into his pocket for him to hand over to whoever wanted it and without a moment's hesitation—just as Slater had handed him the money he needed when Gilbert wanted it in a hurry.
Nor could it be expected that Harry, even with the examination of St. George's accounts with the Patapsco and other institutions going on under his very eyes, understood fully just what a bank failure really meant. Half a dozen banks, he remembered, had gone to smash some few years before, sending his father to town one morning at daylight, where he stayed for a week, but no change, so far as he could recall, had happened because of it at Moorlands. Indeed, his father had bought a new coach for his mother the very next week, out of what he had "saved from the wreck," so he had told her.
It was not until the hurried overhauling of a mass of papers beneath his uncle's hand, and the subsequent finding of a certain stray sheet by Pawson, that the boy was aroused to a sense of the gravity of the situation. And even then his interest did not become acute until, the missing document identified, St. George had turned to Pawson and, pointing to an item halfway down the column, had said in a lowered tone, as if fearing to be overheard:
"You have the receipts, have you not, for everything on this list?—Slater's account too, and Hampson's?"
"They are in the file beside you, sir."
"Well, that's a comfort, anyhow."
"And the balance"—here he examined a small book which lay open beside him—"amounting to"—he paused—"is of course locked up in their vaults?"
Harry had craned his head in instant attention. His quickened ears had caught two familiar names. It was Slater who had loaned him the five hundred dollars which he gave to Gilbert, which his father had commended him for borrowing; and it was Hampson who had sold him the wretched horse that had stumbled and broken his leg and had afterwards to be shot.
"Slater, did you say, Uncle George—and Hampson? Aren't they my old accounts?"
"Quite right, Mr. Rutter—quite right, sir." St. George tried to stop him with a frown, but Pawson's face was turned towards Harry and he failed to get the signal. "Quite right, and quite lucky; they were both important items in Mr. Gadgem's list, and both checks passed through the bank and were paid before the smash came."
The tones of Pawson's voice, the twisting together of his bony hands in a sort of satisfied contentment, and the weary look on his uncle's face were the opening of so many windows in the boy's brain. At the same instant one of those creepy chills common to a man when some hitherto undiscovered vista of impending disaster widens out before him, started at the base of Harry's spine, crept up his shoulder-blades, shivered along his arms, and lost itself in his benumbed fingers. This was followed by a lump in his throat that nearly strangled him. He left his chair and touched Pawson on the shoulder.
"Does this mean, Mr. Pawson—this money being locked up in the bank vaults and not coming out for months—and may be never—does it mean that Mr. Temple—well, that Uncle George—won't have enough money to live on?" There was an anxious, vibrant tone in Harry's voice that aroused St. George to a sense of the boy's share in the calamity and the privations he must suffer because of it. Pawson hesitated and was about to belittle the gravity of the situation when St. George stopped him.
"Yes—tell him—tell him everything, I have no secrets from Mr. Rutter. Stop!—I'll tell him. It means, Harry"—and a brave smile played about his lips—"that we will have to live on hog and hominy, may be, or pretty nigh it—certainly for a while—not bad, old fellow, when you get accustomed to it. Aunt Jemima makes very good hominy and—"
He stopped; the brave smile had faded from his face.
"By Jove!—that's something I didn't think of!—What will I do with the dear old woman—It would break her heart—and Todd?"
Here was indeed something on which he had not counted! For him to forego the luxuries that enriched his daily life was easy—he had often in his hunting trips lived for weeks on sweet potato and a handful of cornmeal, and slept on the bare ground with only a blanket over him, but that his servants should be reduced to similar privations suggested possibilities which appalled him. For the first time since the cruel announcement fell from Rutter's lips the real situation, with all that it meant to his own future and those dependent upon him, stared him in the face.