This unstudied treatment, strange to say—the result really, of the boy's indifference—had of late absorbed her. What she could not have she generally longed for, and there was not the slightest question up to the present moment that Jack was still afield.
Again the girl pressed the button of the cord within reach of her hand, and for the third time Hortense entered.
"Have you told Parkins I want to know the very instant Mr. John comes in?"
"And, Hortense, did you understand that Mr. John was to go out to meet the gentleman, or was the gentleman to come to his rooms?"
"To his rooms, I think, miss."
She was wearing her blue tea-gown, stretched out on the cushions of one of the big divans in the silent drawing-room, when she heard Jack's night-key touch the lock. Springing to her feet she ran toward him.
"Why, Jack, what's this I hear about your not coming to my dance? It isn't true, is it?" She was close to him now, her little head cocked on one side, her thin, silken draperies dripping about her slender figure.
"Who told you?"
"Parkins told Hortense."
"Leaky Parkins?" laughed Jack, tossing his hat on the hall table.
"But you are coming, aren't you, Jack? Please do!"
"Not to-night; you don't need me, Corinne." His voice told her at once that not only was the leash gone but that the collar was off as well.
"Yes, but I do."
"Then please excuse me, for I have an old gentleman coming to pay me a visit. The finest old gentleman, by the way, you ever saw! A regular thoroughbred, Corinne—who looks like a magnificent portrait!" he added in his effort to interest her.
"But let him come some other time," she coaxed, holding the lapel of his coat, her eyes searching his.
"What, turn to the wall a magnificent old portrait!" This came with a mock grimace, his body bent forward, his eyes brimming with laughter.
"Be serious, Jack, and tell me if you think it very nice in you to stay upstairs in your den when I am giving a dance? Everybody will know you are at home, and we haven't enough men as it is. Garry can't come, he writes me. He has to dine with some men at the club."
"I really AM sorry, Corinne, but I can't this time." Jack had hold of her hand now; for a brief moment he was sorry he had not postponed Peter's visit until the next day; he hated to cause any woman a disappointment. "If it was anybody else I might send him word to call another night, but you don't know Mr. Grayson; he isn't the kind of a man you can treat like that. He does me a great honor to come, anyhow. Just think of his coming to see a boy like me—and he so—"
"Well, bring him downstairs, then." Her eyes began to flash; she had tried all the arts she knew—they were not many—but they had won heretofore. "Mother will take care of him. A good many of the girls' fathers come for them."
"Bring him downstairs to a dance!" Jack answered with a merry laugh. "He isn't that kind of an old gentleman, either. Why, Corinne, you ought to see him! You might as well ask old Bishop Gooley to lead the german."
Jack's foot was now ready to mount the lower step of the stairs. Corinne bit her lip.
"You never do anything to please me!" she snapped back. She knew she was fibbing, but something must be done to check this new form of independence—and then, now that Garry couldn't come, she really needed him. "You don't want to come, that's it—" She facing him now, her little nose high in the air, her cheeks flaming with anger.
"You must not say that, Corinne," he answered in a slightly indignant tone.
Corinne drew herself up to her full height—toes included; not very high, but all she could do—and said in a voice pitched to a high key, her finger within a few inches of his nose:
"It's true, and I will say it!"
The rustle of silk was heard overhead, and a plump, tightly laced woman in voluminous furs, her head crowned by a picture hat piled high with plumes, was making her way down the stairs. Jack looked up and waved his hand to his aunt, and then stood at mock attention, like a corporal on guard, one hand raised to salute her as she passed. The boy, with the thought of Peter coming, was very happy this afternoon.
"What are you two quarrelling about?" came the voice. Rather a soft voice with a thread of laziness running through it.
"Jack's too mean for anything, mother. He knows we haven't men enough without him for a cotillion, now that Garry has dropped out, and he's been just stupid enough to invite some old man to come and see him this evening."
The furs and picture hat swept down and on, Jack standing at attention, hands clasping an imaginary musket his face drawn down to its severest lines, his cheeks puffed out to make him look the more solemn. When the wren got "real mad" he would often say she was the funniest thing alive.
"I'm a pig, I know, aunty" (here Jack completed his salute with a great flourish), "but Corinne does not really want me, and she knows it. She only wants to have her own way. They don't dance cotillions when they come here—at least they didn't last time, and I don't believe they will to-night. They sit around with each other in the corners and waltz with the fellows they've picked out—and it's all arranged between them, and has been for a week—ever since they heard Corinne was going to give a dance." The boy spoke with earnestness and a certain tone of conviction in his voice, although his face was still radiant.
"Well, can't you sit around, too, Jack?" remarked his aunt, pausing in her onward movement for an instant. "I'm sure there will be some lovely girls."
"Yes, but they don't want me. I've tried it too often, aunty—they've all got their own set."
"It's because you don't want to be polite to any of them," snapped Corinne with a twist of her body, so as to face him again.
"Now, Corinne, that isn't fair; I am never impolite to anybody in this house, but I'm tired of—"
"Well, Garry isn't tired." This last shot was fired at random.
Again the aunt poured oil: "Come, children, come! Don't let's talk any more about it. If Jack has made an engagement it can't be helped, I suppose, but don't spoil your party, my dear. Find Parkins, Jack, and send him to me.... Ah, Parkins—if any one calls say I'll be out until six o'clock."
"Yes, my Lady." Parkins knew on which side his bread was buttered. She had reproved him at first, but his excuse was that she was so like his former mistress, Lady Colchester, that he sometimes forgot himself.
And again "my Lady" swept on, this time out of the door and into her waiting carriage.
Jack's impatience increased as the hour for Peter's visit approached. Quarter of nine found him leaning over the banisters outside his small suite of rooms, peering down between the hand-rails watching the top of every head that crossed the spacious hall three flights below—he dare not go down to welcome his guest, fearing some of the girls, many of whom had already arrived, would know he was in the house. Fifteen minutes later the flash of a bald head, glistening in the glare of the lower hall lantern, told him that the finest old gentleman in the world had arrived, and on the very minute. Parkins's special instructions, repeated for the third time, were to bring Mr. Peter Grayson—it was wonderful what an impressive note was in the boy's voice when he rolled out the syllables—up at once, surtout, straight-brimmed hat, overshoes (if he wore any), umbrella and all, and the four foot-falls—two cat-like and wabbly, as befitted the obsequious flunky, and two firm and decided, as befitted a grenadier crossing a bridge—could now be heard mounting the stairs.
"So here you are!" cried Peter, holding out both hands to the overjoyed boy—"'way up near the sky. One flight less than my own. Let me get my breath, my boy, before I say another word. No, don't worry, only Anno Domini—you'll come to it some day. How delightfully you are settled!"
They had entered the cosey sitting-room and Jack was helping with his coat; Parkins, with his nose in the air (he had heard his master's criticism), having already placed his hat on a side table and the umbrella in the corner.
"Where will you sit—in the big chair by the fire or in this long straw one?" cried the boy, Peter's coat still in his hand.
"Nowhere yet; let me look around a little." One of Peter's tests of a man was the things he lived with. "Ah! books?" and he peered at a row on the mantel. "Macaulay, I see, and here's Poe: Good, very good—why, certainly it is—Where did you get this Morland?" and again Peter's glasses went up. "Through that door is your bedroom—yes, and the bath. Very charming, I must say. You ought to live very happily here; few young fellows I know have half your comforts."
Jack had interrupted him to say that the Morland print was one that he had brought from his father's home, and that the books had come from the same source, but Peter kept on in his tour around the room. Suddenly he stopped and looked steadily at a portrait over the mantel.
"You knew!" cried Jack.
"Knew! How could any one make a mistake? Fine head. About fifty I should say. No question about his firmness or his kindness. Yes—fine head—and a gentleman, that is best of all. When you come to marry always hunt up the grandfather—saves such a lot of trouble in after life," and one of Peter's infectious laughs filled the room.
"Do you think he looks anything like Uncle Arthur? You have seen him, I think you said."
Peter scanned the portrait. "Not a trace. That may also be a question of grandfathers—" and another laugh rippled out. "But just be thankful you bear his name. It isn't always necessary to have a long line of gentlemen behind you, and if you haven't any, or can't trace them, a man, if he has pluck and grit, can get along without them; but it's very comforting to know they once existed. Now let me sit down and listen to you," added Peter, whose random talk had been inspired by the look of boyish embarrassment on Jack's face. He had purposely struck many notes in order to see which one would echo in the lad's heart, so that his host might find himself, just as he had done when Jack with generous impulse had sprang from his chair to carry Minott the ring.
The two seated themselves—Peter in the easy chair and Jack opposite. The boy's eyes roamed from the portrait, with its round, grave face, to Peter's head resting on the cushioned back, illumined by the light of the lamp, throwing into relief the clear-cut lips, little gray side-whiskers and the tightly drawn skin covering his scalp, smooth as polished ivory.
"Am I like him?" asked Peter. He had caught the boy's glances and had read his thoughts.
"No—and yes. I can't see it in the portrait, but I do in the way you move your hands and in the way you bow. I keep thinking of him when I am with you. It may, as you say, be a good thing to have a gentleman for a father, sir, but it is a dreadful thing, all the same, to lose him just as you need him most. I wouldn't hate so many of the things about me if I had him to go to now and then."
"Tell me about him and your early life," cried Peter, crossing one leg over the other. He knew the key had been struck; the boy might now play on as he chose.
"There is very little to tell. I lived in the old home with an aunt after my father's death. And went to school and then to college at Hagerstown—quite a small college—where uncle looked after me—he paid the expenses really—and then I was clerk in a law office for a while, and at my aunt's death about a year ago the old place was sold and I had no home, and Uncle Arthur sent for me to come here."
"Very decent in him, and you should never forget him for it," and again Peter's eyes roamed around the perfectly appointed room.
"I know it, sir, and at first the very newness and strangeness of everything delighted me. Then I began to meet the people. They were so different from those in my part of the country, especially the young fellows—Garry is not so bad, because he really loves his work and is bound to succeed—everybody says he has a genius for architecture—but the others—and the way they treat the young girls, and what is more unaccountable to me is the way the young girls put up with it."
Peter had settled himself deeper in his chair, his eyes shaded with one hand and looked intently at the boy.
"Uncle Arthur is kind to me, but the life smothers me. I can't breathe sometimes. Nothing my father taught me is considered worth while here. People care for other things."
"What, for instance?" Peter's hand never moved, nor did his body.
"Why stocks and bonds and money, for instance," laughed Jack, beginning to be annoyed at his own tirade—half ashamed of it in fact. "Stocks are good enough in their way, but you don't want to live with them from ten o'clock in the morning till four o'clock in the afternoon, and then hear nothing else talked about until you go to bed. That's why that dinner last night made such an impression on me. Nobody said money once."
"But every one of those men had his own hobby—"
"Yes, but in my uncle's world they all ride one and the same horse. I don't want to be a pessimist, Mr. Grayson, and I want you to set me straight if I am wrong, but Mr. Morris and every one of those men about him were the first men I've seen in New York who appear to me to be doing the things that will live after them. What are we doing down-town? Gambling the most of us."
"But your life here isn't confined to your uncle and his stock-gambling friends. Surely these lovely young girls—two of them came in with me—" and Peter smiled, "must make your life delightful."
Jack's eyes sought the floor, then he answered slowly:
"I hope you won't think me a cad, but—No, I'm not going to say a word about them, only I can't get accustomed to them and there's no use of my saying that I can. I couldn't treat any girl the way they are treated here. And I tell you another thing—none of the young girls whom I know at home would treat me as these girls treat the men they know. I'm queer, I guess, but I might as well make a clean breast of it all. I am an ingrate, perhaps, but I can't help thinking that the old life at home was the best. We loved our friends, and they were welcome at our table any hour, day or night. We had plenty of time for everything; we lived out of doors or in doors, just as we pleased, and we dressed to suit ourselves, and nobody criticised. Why, if I drop into the Magnolia on my way up-town and forget to wear a derby hat with a sack coat, or a black tie with a dinner-jacket, everybody winks and nudges his neighbor. Did you ever hear of such nonsense in your life?"
The boy paused as if the memory of some incident in which he was ridiculed was alive in his mind. Peter's eyes were still fixed on his face.
"Go on—I'm listening; and what else hurts you? Pour it all out. That's what I came for. You said last night nobody would listen—I will."
"Well, then, I hate the sham of it all; the silly social distinctions; the fits and starts of hospitality; the dinners given for show. Nothing else going on between times; even the music is hired. I want to hear music that bubbles out—old Hannah singing in the kitchen, and Tom, my father's old butler, whistling to himself—and the dogs barking, and the birds singing outside. I'm ashamed of myself making comparisons, but that was the kind of life I loved, because there was sincerity in it."
"No work?" There was a note of sly merriment in the inquiry, but Jack never caught it.
"Not much. My father was Judge and spent part of the time holding court, and his work never lasted but a few hours a day, and when I wanted to go fishing or shooting, or riding with the girls, Mr. Larkin always let me off. And I had plenty of time to read—and for that matter I do here, if I lock myself up in this room. That low library over there is full of my father's books."
Again Peter's voice had a tinge of merriment in it.
"And who supported the family?" he asked in a lower voice.
"And who supported him?"
The question brought Jack to a full stop. He had been running on, pouring out his heart for the first time since his sojourn in New York, and to a listener whom he knew he could trust.
"Why—his salary, of course," answered Jack in astonishment, after a pause.
"And who worked that?"
"My father's negroes—some of them his former slaves."
"And have you any money of your own—anything your father left you?"
"Only enough to pay taxes on some wild lands up in Cumberland County, and which I'm going to hold on to for his sake."
Peter dropped his shading fingers, lifted his body from the depths of the easy chair and leaned forward so that the light fell full on his face. He had all the information he wanted now.
"And now let me tell you my story, my lad. It is a very short one. I had the same sort of a home, but no father—none that I remember—and no mother, they both died before my sister Felicia and I were grown up. At twelve I left school; at fifteen I worked in a country store—up at daylight and to bed at midnight, often. From twenty to twenty-five I was entry clerk in a hardware store; then book-keeper; then cashier in a wagon factory; then clerk in a village bank—then book-keeper again in my present bank, and there I have been ever since. My only advantages were a good constitution and the fact that I came of gentle people. Here we are both alike—you at twenty—how old?—twenty two?... Well, make it twenty-two.... You at twenty-two and I at twenty-two seem to have started out in life with the same natural advantages, so far as years and money go, but with this difference—Shall I tell you what it is?"
"That I worked and loved it, and love it still, and that you are lazy and love your ease. Don't be offended—" Here Peter laid his hand on the boy's knee. He waited an instant, and not getting any reply, kept on: "What you want to do is to go to work. It wouldn't have been honorable in you to let your father support you after you were old enough to earn your own living, and it isn't honorable in you, with your present opinions, to live on your uncle's bounty, and to be discontented and rebellious at that, for that's about what it all amounts to. You certainly couldn't pay for these comforts outside of this house on what Breen & Co. can afford to pay you. Half of your mental unrest, my lad, is due to the fact that you do not know the joy and comfort to be got out of plain, common, unadulterated work."
"I'll do anything that is not menial."
"What do you mean by 'menial'?"
"Well, working like a day-laborer."
"Most men who have succeeded have first worked with their hands."
"Not my uncle."
"No, not your uncle—he's an exception—one among a million, and then again he isn't through."
"But he's worth two million, they say."
"Yes, but he never earned it, and he never worked for it, and he doesn't now. Do you want to follow in his footsteps?"
"No—not with all his money." This came in a decided tone. "But surely you wouldn't want me to work with my hands, would you?"
"I certainly should, if necessary."
Jack looked at him, and a shade of disappointment crossed his face.
"But I COULDN'T do anything menial."
"There isn't anything menial in any kind of work from cleaning a stable up! The menial things are the evasions of work—tricks by which men are cheated out of their just dues."
"Yes—sometimes, when the truth is withheld."
"That's what I think; that's what I meant last night when I told you about the faro-bank. I laughed over it, and yet I can't see much difference, although I have never seen one."
"So I understood, but you were wrong about it. Your uncle bears a very good name in the Street. He is not as much to blame as the system. Perhaps some day the firm will become real bankers, than which there is no more honorable calling."
"But is it wrong to want to fish and shoot and have time to read."
"No, it is wrong not to do it when you have the time and the money. I like that side of your nature. My own theory is that every man should in the twenty-four hours of the day devote eight to work, eight to sleep and eight to play. But this can only be done when the money to support the whole twenty-four hours is in sight, either in wages, or salary, or invested securities. More money than this—that is the surplusage that men lock up in their tin boxes, is a curse. But with that you have nothing to do—not yet, anyhow. Now, if I catch your meaning, your idea is to go back to your life at home. In other words you want to live the last end of your life first—and without earning the right to it. And because you cannot do this you give yourself up to criticising everything about you. Getting only at the faults and missing all the finer things in life. If you would permit me to advise you—" he still had his hand on the lad's knee, searching the soft brown eyes—"I would give up finding fault and first try to better things, and I would begin right here where you are. Some of the great banking houses which keep the pendulum of the world swinging true have grown to importance through just such young men as yourself, who were honest and had high ideals and who so impressed their own personalities upon everybody about them—customers and employers—that the tone of the concern was raised at once and with it came a world-wide success. I have been thirty years on the Street and have watched the rise of half the firms about me, and in every single instance some one of the younger men—boys, many of them—has pulled the concern up and out of a quagmire and stood it on its feet. And the reverse is true: half the downfalls have come from those same juniors, who thought they knew some short road to success, which half the time was across disreputable back lots. Why not give up complaining and see what better things you can do? I'm not quite satisfied about your having stayed upstairs even to receive me. Your aunt loves society and the daughter—what did you say her name was—Corinne? Yes, Miss Corinne being young, loves to have a good time. Listen! do you hear?—there goes another waltz. Now, as long as you do live here, why not join in it too and help out the best you can?—and if you have anything of your own to offer in the way of good cheer, or thoughtfulness, or kindness, or whatever you do have which they lack—or rather what you think they lack—wouldn't it be wiser—wouldn't it—if you will permit me, my lad—be a little BETTER BRED to contribute something of your own excellence to the festivity?"
It was now Jack's turn to lean back in his chair and cover his face, but with two ashamed hands. Not since his father's death had any one talked to him like this—never with so much tenderness and truth and with every word meant for his good. All his selfrighteousness, his silly conceit and vainglory stood out before him. What an ass he had been. What a coxcomb. What a boor, really.
"What would you have me do?" he asked, a tone of complete surrender in his voice. The portrait and Peter were one and the same! His father had come to life.
"I don't know yet. We'll think about that another time, but we won't do it now. I ought to be ashamed of myself for having spoiled your evening by such serious talk (he wasn't ashamed—he had come for that very purpose). Now show me some of your books and tell me what you read, and what you love best."
He was out of the chair before he ceased speaking, his heels striking the floor, bustling about in his prompt, exact manner, examining the few curios and keepsakes on the mantel and tables, running his eyes over the rows of bindings lining the small bookcase; his hand on Jack's shoulder whenever the boy opened some favorite author to hunt for a passage to read aloud to Peter, listening with delight, whether the quotation was old or new to him.
Jack, suddenly remembering that his guest was standing, tried to lead him back to his seat by the fire, but Peter would have none of it.
"No—too late. Why, bless me, it's after eleven o'clock! Hear the music—they are still at it. Now I'm going to insist that you go down and have a turn around the room yourself; there were such a lot of pretty girls when I came in."
"Too late for that, too," laughed Jack, merry once more. "Corinne wouldn't speak to me if I showed my face now, and then there will be plenty more dances which I can go to, and so make it all up with her. I'm not yet as sorry as I ought to be about this dance. Your being here has been such a delight. May I—may—I come and see you some time?"
"That's just what you will do, and right away. Just as soon as my dear sister Felicia comes down, and she'll be here very soon. I'll send for you, never fear. Yes, the right sleeve first, and now my hat and umbrella. Ah, here they are. Now, good night, my boy, and thank you for letting me come."
"You know I dare not go down with you," explained Jack with a smile.
"Oh, yes—I know—I know. Good night—" and the sharp, quick tread of the old man grew fainter and fainter as he descended the stairs.
Jack waited, craning his head, until he caught a glimpse of the glistening head as it passed once more under the lantern, then he went into his room and shut the door.
Had he followed behind his guest he would have witnessed a little comedy which would have gone far in wiping clean all trace of his uncle's disparaging remarks of the morning. He would have enjoyed, too, Parkins's amazement. As the Receiving Teller of the Exeter Bank reached the hall floor the President of the Clearing House—the most distinguished man in the Street and one to whom Breen kotowed with genuflections equalling those of Parkins—accompanied by his daughter and followed by the senior partner of Breen & Co., were making their way to the front door. The second man in the chocolate livery with the potato-bug waistcoat had brought the Magnate's coat and hat, and Parkins stood with his hand on the door-knob. Then, to the consternation of both master and servant, the great man darted forward and seized Peter's hand.
"Why, my dear Mr. Grayson! This is indeed a pleasure. I didn't see you—were you inside?"
"No—I've been upstairs with young Mr. Breen," replied Peter, with a comprehensive bow to Host, Magnate and Magnate's daughter. Then, with the grace and dignity of an ambassador quitting a salon, he passed out into the night.
Breen found his breath first: "And you know him?"
"Know him!" cried the Magnate—"of course I know him! One of the most delightful men in New York; and I'm glad that you do—you're luckier than I—try as I may I can hardly ever get him inside my house."
I was sitting up for the old fellow when he entered his cosey red room and dropped into a chair before the fire. I had seen the impression the young man had made upon him at the dinner and was anxious to learn the result of his visit. I had studied the boy somewhat myself, noting his bright smile, clear, open face without a trace of guile, and the enthusiasm that took possession of him when his friend won the prize That he was outside the class of young men about him I could see from a certain timidity of glance and gesture—as if he wanted to be kept in the background. Would the old fellow, I wondered, burden his soul with still another charge?
Peter was laughing when he entered; he had laughed all the way down-town, he told me. What particularly delighted him—and here he related the Portman incident—was the change in Breen's face when old Portman grasped his hand so cordially.
"Made of pinchbeck, my dear Major, both of them, and yet how genuine it looks on the surface, and what a lot of it is in circulation. Quite as good as the real thing if you don't know the difference," and again he laughed heartily.
"And the boy," I asked, "was he disappointing?"
"Young Breen?—not a bit of it. He's like all the young fellows who come up here from the South—especially the country districts—and he's from western Maryland, he says. Got queer ideas about work and what a gentleman should do to earn his living—same old talk. Hot-house plants most of them—never amount to anything, really, until they are pruned and set out in the cold."
"Got any sense?" I ventured.
"No, not much—not yet—but he's got temperament and refinement and a ten commandments' code of morals."
"Rather rare, isn't it?" I asked.
"And I suppose you are going to take him up and do for him, like the others."
Peter picked up the poker and made a jab at the fire; then he answered slowly:
"Well, Major, I can't tell yet—not positively. But he's certainly worth saving."
With the closing of the front door upon the finest Old Gentleman in the World, a marked change took place in the mental mechanism of several of our most important characters. The head of the firm of Breen & Co. was so taken aback that for the moment that shrewdest of financiers was undecided as to whether he or Parkins should rush out into the night after the departing visitor and bring him back, and open the best in the cellar. "Send a man out of my house," he said to himself, "whom Portman couldn't get to his table except at rare intervals! Well, that's one on me!"
The lid that covered the upper half of Parkins's intelligence also received a jolt; it was a coal-hole lid that covered emptiness, but now and then admitted the light.
"Might 'ave known from the clothes 'e wore 'e was no common PUR-son," he said to himself. "To tell you the truth—" this to the second man in the potato-bug waistcoat, when they were dividing between them the bottle of "Extra Dry" three-quarters full, that Parkins had smuggled into the pantry with the empty bottles ("Dead Men," Breen called them)—"to tell you the truth, Frederick, when I took 'is 'at and coat hupstairs 'e give me a real start 'e looked that respectable"
As to Jack, not only his mind but his heart were in a whirl.
Half the night he lay awake wondering what he could do to follow Peter's advice while preserving his own ideals. He had quite forgotten that part of the older man's counsel which referred to the dignity of work, even of that work which might be considered as menial. If the truth must be told, it was his vanity alone which had been touched by the suggestion that in him might lay the possibility of reforming certain conditions around him. He was willing, even anxious, to begin on Breen & Co., subjecting his uncle, if need be, to a vigorous overhauling. Nothing he felt could daunt him in his present militant state, upheld, as he felt that he was, by the approval of Peter. Not a very rational state of mind, the Scribe must confess, and only to be accounted for by the fact that Peter's talk, instead of clearing Jack's mind of old doubts, had really clouded it the more—quite as a bottle of mixture when shaken sends its insoluble particles whirling throughout the whole.
It was not until the following morning, indeed, that the sediment began to settle, and some of the sanity of Peter's wholesome prescription to produce a clarifying effect. As long as he, Jack, lived upon his uncle's bounty—and that was really what it amounted it—he must at least try to contribute his own quota of good cheer and courtesy. This was what Peter had done him the honor to advise, and he must begin at once if he wanted to show his appreciation of the courtesy.
His uncle opened the way:
"Why, I didn't know until I saw him go out that he was a friend of Mr. Portman's," he said as he sipped his coffee.
"Neither did I. But does it make any difference?" answered Jack, flipping off the top of his egg.
"Well I should think so—about ninety-nine and nine-tenths percent," replied the older man emphatically. "Let's invite him to dinner, Jack. Maybe he'll come to one I'm giving next week and—"
"I'll ask him—that is... perhaps, though, you might write him a note, uncle, and—"
"Of course," interrupted Breen, ignoring the suggestion, "when I wanted you to take him to the club I didn't know who he was."
"Of course you did not," echoed Jack, suppressing a smile.
"The club! No, not by a damned sight!" exclaimed the head of the house of Breen. As this latter observation was addressed to the circumambient air, and not immediately to Jack, it elicited no response. Although slightly profane, Jack was clever enough to read in its tones not only ample apology for previous criticisms but a sort of prospective reparation, whereupon our generous young gentleman forgave his uncle at once, and thought that from this on he might like him the better.
Even Parkins came in for a share of Jack's most gracious intentions, and though he was as silent as an automaton playing a game of chess, a slight crack was visible in the veneer of his face when Jack thanked him for having brought Mr. Grayson—same reverential pronunciation—upstairs himself instead of allowing Frederick or one of the maid-servants to perform that service.
As for his apologies to Corinne and his aunt for having remained in his room after Mr. Grayson's departure, instead of taking part in the last hours of the dance—one o'clock was the exact hour—these were reserved until those ladies should appear at dinner, when they were made with so penitential a ring in his voice that his aunt at once jumped to the conclusion that he must have been bored to death by the old fellow, while Corinne hugged herself in the belief that perhaps after all Jack was renewing his interest in her; a delusion which took such possession of her small head that she finally determined to send Garry a note begging him to come to her at once, on business of the UTMOST IMPORTANCE; two strings being better than one, especially when they were to be played each against the other.
As to the uplifting of the house of Breen & Co., and the possibility of so small a tail as himself being able to wag so large a dog as his uncle and his partners, that seemed now to be so chimerical an undertaking that he laughed when he thought of it.
This urbanity of mood was still with him when some days later he dropped into the Magnolia Club on his way home, his purpose being to find Garry and to hear about the supper which his club friends had given him to celebrate his winning of the Morris ring.
Little Biffton was keeping watch when Jack swung in with that free stride of his that showed more than anything else his muscular body and the way he had taken care of and improved it. No dumb-bells or clubs for fifteen minutes in the morning—but astride a horse, his thighs gripping a bare-back, roaming the hills day after day—the kind of outdoor experience that hardens a man all over without specializing his biceps or his running gear. Little Biff never had any swing to his gait—none that his fellows ever noticed. Biff went in for repose—sometimes hours at a time. Given a club chair, a package of cigarettes and some one to talk to him and Biff could be happy a whole afternoon.
"Ah, Breen, old man! Come to anchor." Here he moved back a chair an inch or two with his foot, and pushed his silver cigarette-case toward the newcomer.
"Thank you," replied Jack. "I've just dropped in to look for Garry Minott. Has he been in?"
Biff was the bulletin-board of the Magnolia club. As he roomed upstairs, he could be found here at any hour of the day or night.
Biff did not reply at once; there was no use in hurrying—not about anything. Besides, the connection between Biff's ears and his brain was never very good. One had to ring him up several times before he answered.
Jack waited for an instant, and finding that the message was delayed in transmission, helped himself to one of Biff's "Specials"—bearing in gold letters his name "Brent Biffton" in full on the rice paper—dropped into the proffered chair and repeated the question:
"Have you seen Garry?"
"Yes—upstairs. Got a deck in the little room. Been there all afternoon. Might go up and butt in. Touch that bell before you go and say what."
"No—I won't drink anything, if you don't mind. You heard about Garry's winning the prize?"
"No." Biffton hadn't moved since he had elongated his foot in search of Jack's chair.
"Why Garry got first prize in his office. I went with him to the supper; he's with Holker Morris, you know."
"Yes. Rather nice. Yes, I did hear. The fellows blew him off upstairs. Kept it up till the steward shut 'em out. Awfully clever fellow, Minott. My Governor wanted me to do something in architecture, but it takes such a lot of time... Funny how a fellow will dress himself." Biffton's sleepy eyes were sweeping the Avenue. "Pendergast just passed wearing white spats—A month too late for spats—ought to know better. Touch the bell, Breen, and say what."
Again Jack thanked him, and again Biffton relapsed into silence. Rather a damper on a man of his calibre, when a fellow wouldn't touch a bell and say what.
Jack having a certain timidity about "butting in"—outsiders didn't do such things where he came from—settled himself into the depths of the comfortable leather-covered arm-chair and waited for Garry to finish his game. From where he sat he could not only overlook the small tables holding a choice collection of little tear-bottles, bowls of crushed ice and high-pressure siphons, but his eye also took in the stretch beyond, the club windows commanding the view up and down and quite across the Avenue, as well as the vista to the left.
This outlook was the most valuable asset the Magnolia possessed. If the parasol was held flat, with its back to the club-house, and no glimpse of the pretty face possible, it was, of course, unquestionable evidence to the member looking over the top of his cocktail that neither the hour or the place was propitious. If, however, it swayed to the right or left, or better still, was folded tight, then it was equally conclusive that not only was the coast clear, but that any number of things might happen, either at Tiffany's, or the Academy, or wherever else one of those altogether accidental—"Why-who-would-have-thought-of-seeing-you- here" kind of meetings take place—meetings so delightful in themselves because so unexpected.
These outlooks, too, were useful in solving many of the social problems that afflicted the young men about town; the identity, for instance, of the occupant of the hansom who had just driven past, heavily veiled, together with her destination and her reason for being out at all; why the four-in-hand went up empty and came back with a pretty woman beside the "Tooler," and then turned up a side street toward the Park, instead of taking the Avenue into its confidence; what the young wife of the old doctor meant when she waved her hand to the occupant of a third-story window, and who lived there, and why—None of their business, of course—never could be—but each and every escapade, incident and adventure being so much thrice-blessed manna to souls stranded in the desert waste of club conversation.
None of these things interested our hero, and he soon found himself listening to the talk at an adjoining table. Topping, a young lawyer, Whitman Bunce, a man of leisure—unlimited leisure—and one or two others, were rewarming some of the day's gossip.
"Had the gall to tell Bob's man he couldn't sleep in linen sheets; had his own violet silk ones in his trunk, to match his pajamas. The goat had 'em out and half on the bed when Bob came in and stopped him. Awful row, I heard, when Mrs. Bob got on to it. He'll never go there again."
"And I heard," broke in Bunce, "that she ordered the trap and sent him back to the station."
Other bits drifted Jack's way:
"Why he was waiting at the stage-door and she slipped out somewhere in front. Billy was with her, so I heard.... When they got to Delmonico's there came near being a scrap.... No.... Never had a dollar on Daisy Belle, or any other horse...."
Loud laughter was now heard at the end of the hall. A party of young men had reached the foot of the stairs and were approaching Biffton and Jack. Garry's merry voice led the others.
"Still hard at work, are you, Biffy? Why, hello, Jack!—how long have you been here? Morlon, you know Mr. Breen, don't you?—Yes, of course you do—new member—just elected. Get a move on that carcass of yours, Biffy, and let somebody else get up to that table. Charles, take the orders."
Jack had shaken everybody's hand by this time, Biffton having moved back a foot or two, and the circle had widened so that the poker party could reach their cocktails. Garry extended his arm till his hand rested on Jack's shoulder.
"Nothing sets me up like a game of poker, old man. Been on the building all day. You ought to come up with me some time—I'll show you the greatest piece of steel construction you ever saw. Mr. Morris was all over it to-day. Oh, by the way! Did that old chunk of sandstone come up to see you last night? What did you say his name was?"
Jack repeated Peter's cognomen—this time without rolling the syllables under his tongue—said that Mr. Grayson had kept his promise; that the evening had been delightful, and immediately changed the subject. There was no use trying to convert Garry.
"And now tell me about the supper," asked Jack.
"Oh, that was all right. We whooped it up till they closed the bar and then went home with the milk. Had an awful head on me next morning; nearly fell off the scaffold, I was so sleepy. How's Miss Corinne? I'm going to stop in on my way uptown this afternoon and apologize to her. I have her note, but I haven't had a minute to let her know why I didn't come. I'll show her the ring; then she'll know why. Saw it, didn't you?"
Jack hadn't seen it. He had been too excited to look. Now he examined it. With the flash of the gems Biffy sat up straight, and the others craned their heads. Garry slipped it off his finger for the hundredth time for similar inspections, and Jack utilized the pause in the conversation to say that Corinne had received the note and that in reply she had vented most of her disappointment on himself, a disclosure which sent a cloud across Garry's face.
The cocktail hour had now arrived—one hour before dinner, an hour which was fixed by that distinguished compounder of herbs and spirits, Mr. Biffton—and the room began filling up. Most of the members were young fellows but a few years out of college, men who renewed their Society and club life within its walls; some were from out of town—students in the various professions. Here and there was a man of forty—one even of fifty-five—who preferred the gayer and fresher life of the younger generation to the more solemn conclaves of the more exclusive clubs further up and further down town. As is usual in such combinations, the units forming the whole sought out their own congenial units and were thereafter amalgamated into groups, a classification to be found in all clubs the world over. While Biffy and his chums could always be found together, there were other less-fortunate young fellows, not only without coupon shears, but sometimes without the means of paying their dues—who formed a little coterie of their own, and who valued and used the club for what it brought them, their election carrying with it a certain social recognition: it also widened one's circle of acquaintances and, perhaps, of clients.
The sound of loud talking now struck upon Jack's ear. Something more important than the angle of a parasol or the wearing of out-of-date spats was engrossing the attention of a group of young men who had just entered. Jack caught such expressions as—"Might as well have picked his pocket...." "He's flat broke, anyhow...." "Got to sell his house, I hear...."
Then came a voice louder than the others.
"There's Breen talking to Minott and Biffy. He's in the Street; he'll know.... Say, Breen!"
Jack rose to his feet and met the speaker half way.
"What do you know, Breen, about that scoop in gold stock? Heard anything about it? Who engineered it? Charley Gilbert's cleaned out, I hear."
"I don't know anything," said Jack. "I left the office at noon and came up town. Who did you say was cleaned out?"
"Why, Charley Gilbert. You must know him."
"Yes, I know him. What's happened to him?"
"Flat broke—that's what happened to him. Got caught in that gold swindle. The stock dropped out of sight this afternoon, I hear—went down forty points."
Garry crowded his way into the group: "Which Mr. Gilbert?—not Charley M., the—"
"Yes; Sam's just left him. What did he tell you, Sam?"
"Just what you've said—I hear, too, that he has got to stop on his house out in Jersey. Can't finish it and can't pay for what's been done."
Garry gave a low whistle and looked at Jack.
"That's rough. Mr. Morris drew the plan of Gilbert's house himself. I worked on the details."
"Rough!" burst out the first speaker. "I should say it was—might as well have burglared his safe. They have been working up this game for months, so Charley told me. Then they gave out that the lode had petered out and they threw it overboard and everybody with it. They said they tried to find Charley to post him, but he was out of town."
"Who tried?" asked Jack, with renewed interest, edging his way close to the group. It was just as well to know the sheep from the goats, if he was to spend the remainder of his life in the Street.
"That's what we want to know. Thought you might have heard."
Jack shook his head and resumed his seat beside Biffy, who had not moved or shown the slightest interest in the affair. Nobody could sell Biff any gold stock—nor any other kind of stock. His came on the first of every month in a check from the Trust Company.
For some moments Jack did not speak. He knew young Gilbert, and he knew his young and very charming wife. He had once sat next to her at dinner, when her whole conversation had been about this new home and the keen interest that Morris, a friend of her father's, had taken in it. "Mr. Breen, you and Miss Corinne must be among our earliest guests," she had said, at which Corinne, who was next to Garry, had ducked her little head in acceptance. This was the young fellow, then, who had been caught in one of the eddies whirling over the sunken rocks of the Street. Not very creditable to his intelligence, perhaps, thought Jack; but, then, again, who had placed them there, a menace to navigation?—and why? Certainly Peter could not have known everything that was going on around him, if he thought the effort of so insignificant an individual as himself could be of use in clearing out obstructions like these.
Garry noticed the thoughtful expression settling over Jack's face, and mistaking the cause called Charles to take the additional orders.
"Cheer up—try a high-ball, Jack. It's none of your funeral. You didn't scoop Gilbert; we are the worst sufferers. Can't finish his house now, and Mr. Morris is just wild over the design. It's on a ledge of rock overlooking the lake, and the whole thing goes together. We've got the roof on, and from across the lake it looks as if it had grown there. Mr. Morris repeated the rock forms everywhere. Stunning, I tell you!"
Jack didn't want any high-ball, and said so. (Biffy didn't care if he did.) The boy's mind was still on the scoop, particularly on the way in which every one of his fellow-members had spoken of the incident.
"Horrid business, all of it. Don't you think so, Garry?" Jack said after a pause.
"No, not if you keep your eyes peeled," answered Garry, emptying his glass. "Never saw Gilbert but once, and then he looked to me like a softy from Pillowville. Couldn't fool me, I tell you, on a deal like that. I'd have had a 'stop order' somewhere. Served Gilbert right; no business to be monkeying with a buzz-saw unless he knew how to throw off the belt."
Jack straightened his shoulders and his brows knit. The lines of the portrait were in the lad's face now.
"Well, maybe it's all right, Garry. My own opinion is that it's no better than swindling. Anyway, I'm mighty glad Uncle Arthur isn't mixed up in it. You heard what Sam and the other fellows thought, didn't you? How would you like to have that said of you?"
Garry tossed back his head and laughed.
"Biffy, are you listening to his Reverence, the Bishop of Cumberland? Here endeth the first lesson."
Biff nodded over his high-ball. He wasn't listening—discussions of any kind bored him.
"But what do you care, Jack, what they say—what anybody says?" continued Garry. "Keep right on. You are in the Street to make money, aren't you? Everybody else is there for the same purpose. What goes up must come down. If you don't want to get your head smashed, stand from under. The game is to jump in, grab what you can, and jump out, dodging the bricks as they come. Let's go up-town, old man."
Neither of the young men was expressing his own views. Both were too young and too inexperienced to have any fixed ideas on so vital a subject.
It was the old fellow in the snuff-colored coat, black stock and dog-eared collar that was behind Jack. If he were alive to-day Jack's view would have been his view, and that was the reason why it was Jack's view. The boy could no more explain it than he could prove why his eyes were brown and his hair a dark chestnut, or why he always walked with his toes very much turned out, or made gestures with his hands when he talked. Had any of the jury been alive—and some of them were—or the prosecuting-attorney, or even any one of the old settlers who attended court, they could have told in a minute which one of the two young men was Judge Breen's son. Not that Jack looked like his father. No young man of twenty-two looks like an old fellow of sixty, but he certainly moved and talked like him—and had the same way of looking at things. "The written law may uphold you, sir, and the jury may so consider, but I shall instruct them to disregard your plea. There is a higher law, sir, than justice—a law of mercy—That I myself shall exercise." The old Judge had sat straight up on his bench when he said it, his face cast-iron, his eyes burning. The jury brought in an acquittal without leaving their seats. There was an outbreak, of course, but the man went free. This young offshoot was from the same old stock, that was all; same sap in his veins, same twist to his branch; same bud, same blossom and—same fruit.
Not many years have elapsed since I watched him running in and out of his father's spacious drawing-rooms on Fourteenth Street—the court end of town in those days. In the days, I mean, when his father was Collector of the Port, and his father's house with its high ceilings, mahogany doors and wide hall, and the great dining-room overlooking a garden with a stable in the rear. It had not been many years, I say, since the Hon. Creighton Minott had thrown wide its doors to whoever came—that is, whoever came properly accredited. It didn't last long, of course. Politics changed; the "ins" became the "outs." And with the change came the bridging-over period—the kind of cantilever which hope thrusts out from one side of the bank of the swift-flowing stream of adversity in the belief that somebody on the other side of the chasm will build the other half, and the two form a highway leading to a change of scene and renewed prosperity.
The hospitable Collector continued to be hospitable. He had always taken chances—he would again. The catch-terms of Garry's day, such as "couldn't fool him," "keep your eye peeled," "a buzz-saw," etc., etc., were not current in the father's day, but their synonyms were. He knew what he was about. As soon as a particular member of the Board got back from the other side the Honorable Collector would have the position of Treasurer, and then it was only a question of time when he would be President of the new corporation. I can see now the smile that lighted up his rather handsome face when he told me. He was "monkeying with a buzz-saw" all the same if he did but know it, and yet he always professed to follow the metaphor that he could "throw off the belt" that drove the pulley at his own good pleasure and so stop the connecting machinery before the teeth of the whirling blade could reach his fingers. Should it get beyond his control—of which there was not the remotest possibility—he would, of course, rent his house, sell his books and curtail. "In the meantime, my dear fellow, there is some of the old Madeira left and a game of whist will only help to drive dull care away."
Garry never whimpered when the crash came. The dear mother died—how patient and uncomplaining she was in all their ups and downs—and Garry was all that was left. What he had gained since in life he had worked for; first as office boy, then as draughtsman and then in charge of special work, earning his Chief's approval, as the Scribe has duly set forth. He got his inheritance, of course. Don't we all get ours? Sometimes it skips a generation—some times two—but generally we are wearing the old gentleman's suit of clothes cut down to fit our small bodies, making believe all the time that they are our very own, unconscious of the discerning eyes who recognize their cut and origin.
Nothing tangible, it is safe to say, came with Garry's share of the estate—and he got it all. That is, nothing he could exchange for value received—no houses or lots, or stocks or bonds. It was the INTANGIBLE that proved his richest possession, viz.:—a certain buoyancy of spirits; a cheery, optimistic view of life; a winning personality and the power of both making and holding friends. With this came another asset—the willingness to take chances, and still a third—an absolute belief in his luck. Down at the bottom of the box littered with old papers, unpaid tax bills and protested notes—all valueless—was a fourth which his father used to fish out when every other asset failed—a certain confidence in the turn of a card.
But the virtues and the peccadilloes of their ancestors, we may be sure, were not interesting, our two young men as they swung up the Avenue arm in arm, this particular afternoon, the sidewalks crowded with the fashion of the day, the roadway blocked with carriages. Nor did any passing objects occupy their attention.
Garry's mind was on Corinne, and what he would tell her, and how she would look as she listened, the pretty head tucked on one side, her sparkling eyes drinking in every word of his story, although he knew she wouldn't believe one-half of it. Elusive and irritating as she sometimes was, there was really nobody exactly like Miss Corinne.
Jack's mind had resumed its normal tone. Garry's merry laugh and good-natured ridicule had helped, so had the discovery that none of his friends had had anything to do with Gilbert's fall. After all, he said to himself, as he strode up the street beside his friend, it was "none of his funeral," none of his business, really. Such things went on every day and in every part of the world. Neither was it his Uncle Arthur's. That was the most comforting part of all.
Corinne's voice calling over the banisters: "Is that you, Jack?" met the two young men as they handed their hats to the noiseless Frederick. Both craned their necks and caught sight of the Wren's head framed by the hand-rail and in silhouette against the oval sky-light in the roof above.
"Yes, and Garry's here, too. Come down."
The patter of little feet grew louder, then the swish of silken skirts, and with a spring she was beside them.
"No, don't you say a word, Garry. I'm not going to listen and I won't forgive you no matter what you say." She had both of his hands now.
"Ah, but you don't know, Miss Corinne. Has Jack told you?"
"Yes, told me everything; that you had a big supper and everybody stamped around the room; that Mr. Morris gave you a ring, or something" (Garry held up his finger, but she wasn't ready to examine it yet), "and that some of the men wanted to celebrate it, and that you went to the club and stayed there goodness knows how long—all night, so Mollie Crane told me. Paul, her brother, was there—and you never thought a word about your promise to me" (this came with a little pout, her chin uplifted, her lips quite near his face), "and we didn't have half men enough and our cotillion was all spoiled. I don't care—we had a lovely time, even if you two men did behave disgracefully. No—I don't want to listen to a thing. I didn't come down to see either of you." (She had watched them both from her window as they crossed the street.) "What I want to know, Jack, is, who is Miss Felicia Grayson?"
"Why, Mr. Grayson's sister," burst out Jack—"the old gentleman who came to see me."
"That old fellow!"
"Yes, that old fellow—the most charming—"
"Not that remnant!" interrupted Garry.
"No, Garry—not that kind of a man at all, but a most delightful old gentleman by the name of Mr. Grayson," and Jack's eyes flashed. "He told me his sister was coming to town. What do you know about her, Corinne?" He was all excitement: Peter was to send for him when his sister arrived.
"Nothing—that's why I ask you. I've just got a note from her. She says she knew mamma when she lied in Washington, and that her brother has fallen in love with you, and that she won't have another happy moment—or something like that—if you and I don't come to a tea she is giving to a Miss Ruth MacFarlane; and that I am to give her love to mamma, and bring anybody I please with me."
"When?" asked Jack. He could hardly restrain his joy.
"I think next Saturday—yes, next Saturday," consulting the letter in her hand.
"Where? At Mr. Grayson's rooms?" cried Jack.
"Yes, at her brother's, she says. Here, Jack—you read it. Some number in East Fifteenth Street—queer place for people to live, isn't it, Garry?—people who want anybody to come to their teas. I've got a dressmaker lives over there somewhere; she's in Fifteenth Street, anyhow, for I always drive there."
Jack devoured the letter. This was what he had been hoping for. He knew the old gentleman would keep his word!
"Well, of course you'll go, Corinne?" he cried eagerly.
"Of course I'll do nothing of the kind. I think it's a great piece of impudence. I've never heard of her. Because you had her brother upstairs, that's no reason why—But that's just like these people. You give them an inch and—"
Jack's cheeks flushed: "But, Corinne! She's offered you a courtesy—asked you to her house, and—"
"I don't care; I'm not going! Would you, Garry?"
The son of the Collector hesitated for a moment. He had his own ideas of getting on in the world. They were not Jack's—his, he knew, would never succeed. And they were not exactly Corinne's—she was too particular. The fence was evidently the best place for him.
"Would be rather a bore, wouldn't it?" he replied evasively, with a laugh. "Lives up under the roof, I guess, wears a dyed wig, got Cousin Mary Ann's daguerreotype on the mantle, and tells you how Uncle Ephraim—"
The door opened and Jack's aunt swept in. She never walked, or ambled, or stepped jauntily, or firmly, or as if she wanted to get anywhere in particular; she SWEPT in, her skirts following meekly behind—half a yard behind, sometimes.
Corinne launched the inquiry at her mother, even before she could return Garry's handshake. "Who's Miss Grayson, mamma?"
"I don't know. Why, my child?"
"Well, she says she knows you. Met you in Washington."
"The only Miss Grayson I ever met in Washington, my dear, was an old maid, the niece of the Secretary of State. She kept house for him after his wife died. She held herself very high, let me tell you. A very grand lady, indeed. But she must be an old woman now, if she is still living. What did you say her first name was?"
Corinne took the open letter from Jack's hand. "Felicia... Yes, Felicia."
"And what does she want?—money for some charity?" Almost everybody she knew, and some she didn't, wanted money for some charity. She was loosening her cloak as she spoke, Frederick standing by to relieve my lady of her wraps.
"No; she's going to give a tea and wants us all to come. She's the sister of that old man who came to see Jack the other night, and—"
"Going to give a tea!—and the sister of—Well, then, she certainly isn't the Miss Grayson I know. Don't you answer her, Corinne, until I find out who she is."
"I'll tell you who she is," burst out Jack. His face was aflame now. Never had he listened to such discourtesy. He could hardly believe his ears.
"It wouldn't help me in the least, my dear Jack; so don't you begin. I am the best judge of who shall come to my house. She may be all right, and she may not, you can never tell in a city like New York, and you can't be too particular. People really do such curious pushing things now-a-days." This to Garry. "Now serve tea, Parkins. Come in all of you."
Jack was on the point of blazing out in indignation over the false position in which his friend had been placed when Peter's warning voice rang in his ears. The vulgarity of the whole proceeding appalled him, yet he kept control of himself.
"None for me, please, aunty," he said quietly. "I will join you later, Garry," and he mounted the stairs to his room.
Peter was up and dressed when Miss Felicia arrived, despite the early hour. Indeed that gay cavalier was the first to help the dear lady off with her travelling cloak and bonnet, Mrs. McGuffey folding her veil, smoothing out her gloves and laying them all upon the bed in the adjoining room—the one she kept in prime order for Miss Grayson's use.
The old fellow was facing the coffee-urn when he told her Jack's story and what he himself had said in reply, and how fine the boy was in his beliefs, and how well-nigh impossible it was for him to help him, considering his environment.
The dear lady had listened with her eyes fixed on Peter. It was but another of his benevolent finds; it had been the son of an old music teacher the winter before, and a boy struggling through college last spring;—always somebody who wanted to get ahead in one direction or another, no matter how impracticable his ambitions might be. This young man, however, seemed different; certain remarks had a true ring. Perhaps, after all, her foolish old brother—foolish when his heart misled him—might have found somebody at last who would pay for the time he spent upon him. The name, too, had a familiar sound. She was quite sure the aunt must be the same rather over-dressed persistent young widow who had flitted in and out of Washington society the last year of her own stay in the capital. She had finally married a rich New York man of the same name. So she had heard.
The tea to which Jack and Corinne were invited was the result of this conversation. Trust Miss Felicia for doing the right thing and in the right way, whatever her underlying purpose might be; and then again she must look this new protege over.
Peter at once joined in the project. Nothing pleased him so much as a function of any kind in which his dear sister was the centre of attraction, and this was always the case. Was not Mrs. McGuffey put to it, at these same teas, to know what to do with the hats and coats, and the long and short cloaks and overshoes, and lots of other things beside—umbrellas and the like—whenever Miss Felicia came to town? And did not the good woman have many of the cards of the former function hidden in her bureau drawer to show her curious friends just how grand a lady Miss Felicia was? General Waterbury, U.S.A., commanding the Department of the East, with headquarters at Governors Island, was one of them. And so were Colonel Edgerton, Judge Lambert and Mrs. Lambert; and His Excellency the French Ambassador, whom she had known as an attache and who was passing through the city and had been overjoyed to leave a card; as well as Sir Anthony Broadstairs, who expected to spend a week with her in her quaint home in Geneseo, but who had made it convenient to pay his respects in Fifteenth Street instead: to say nothing of the Coleridges, Thomases, Bordeauxs and Worthing tons, besides any number of people from Washington Square, with plenty more from Murray Hill and be yond.
Peter in his enthusiasm had made a mental picture of a repetition of all this and had already voiced it in the suggestion of these and various other prominent names, "when Miss Felicia stopped him with:
"No, Peter—No. It's not to be a museum of fossils, but a garden full of rosebuds; nobody with a strand of gray hair will be invited. As for the lame, the halt and the blind, they can come next week. I've just been looking you over, Peter; you are getting old and wrinkled and pretty soon you'll be as cranky as the rest of them, and there will be no living with you. The Major, who is half your age"—I had come early, as was my custom, to pay my respects to the dear woman—"is no better. You are both of you getting into a rut. What you want is some young blood pumped into your shrivelled veins. I am going to hunt up every girl I know and all the boys, including that young Breen you are so wild over, and then I'll send for dear Ruth MacFarlane, who has just come North with her father to live, and who doesn't know a soul, and nobody over twenty-five is to be admitted. So if you and the Major want to come to Ruth's tea—Ruth's, remember; not yours or the Major's, or mine—you will either have to pass the cake or take the gentlemen's hats. Do you hear?"
We heard, and we heard her laugh as she spoke, raising her gold lorgnon to her eyes and gazing at us with that half-quizzical look which so often comes over her face.
She was older than Peter—must have been: I never knew exactly. It would not have been wise to ask her, and nobody else knew but Peter, and he never told. And yet there was no mark of real old age upon her. She and Peter were alike in this. Her hair, worn Pompadour, was gray—an honest black-and-white gray; her eyes were bright as needle points; the skin slightly wrinkled, but fresh and rosy—a spare, straight, well-groomed old lady of—perhaps sixty—perhaps sixty-five, depending on her dress, or undress, for her shoulders were still full and well rounded. "The most beautiful neck and throat, sir, in all Washington in her day," old General Waterbury once told me, and the General was an authority. "You should have seen her in her prime, sir. What the devil the men were thinking of I don't know, but they let her go back to Geneseo, and there she has lived ever since. Why, sir, at a ball at the German Embassy she made such a sensation that—" but then the General always tells such stories of most of the women he knows.
There was but little left of that kind of beauty. She had kept her figure, it is true—a graceful, easy moving figure, with the waist of a girl; well-proportioned arms and small, dainty hands. She had kept, too, her charm of manner and keen sense of humor—she wouldn't have been Peter's sister otherwise—as well as her interest in her friend's affairs, especially the love affairs of all the young people about her.
Her knowledge of men and women had broadened. She read them more easily now than when she was a girl—had suffered, perhaps, by trusting them too much. This had sharpened the tip end of her tongue to so fine a point that when it became active—and once in a while it did—it could rip a sham reputation up the back as easily as a keen blade loosens the seams of a bodice.
Peter fell in at once with her plan for a "Rosebud Tea," in spite of her raillery and the threatened possibility of our exclusion, promising not only to assist her with the invitations, but to be more than careful at the Bank in avoiding serious mistakes in his balances—so as to be on hand promptly at four. Moreover, if Jack had a sweetheart—and there was no question of it, or ought not to be—and Corinne had another, what would be better than bringing them all down together, so that Miss Felicia could look them over, and Miss Ruth and the Major could get better acquainted, especially Jack and Miss Felicia; and more especially Jack and himself.
Miss Felicia's proposal having therefore been duly carried out, with a number of others not thought of when the tea was first discussed—including some pots of geraniums in the window, red, of course, to match the color of Peter's room—and the freshening up of certain swiss curtains which so offended Miss Felicia's ever-watchful eyes that she burst out with: "It is positively disgraceful, Peter, to see how careless you are getting—" At which Mrs. McGuffey blushed to the roots of her hair, and washed them herself that very night before she closed her eyes. The great day having arrived, I say the tea-table was set with Peter's best, including "the dearest of silver teapots" that Miss Felicia had given him for special occasions; the table covered with a damask cloth and all made ready for the arrival of her guests. This done, the lady returned to her own room, from which she emerged an hour later in a soft gray silk relieved by a film of old lace at her throat, blending into the tones of her gray hair brushed straight up from her forehead and worn high over a cushion, the whole topped by a tiny jewel which caught the light like a drop of dew.
And a veritable grand dame she looked, and was, as she took her seat and awaited the arrival of her guests—in bearing, in the way she moved her head; in the way she opened her fan—in the selection of the fan itself, for that matter. You felt it in the color and length of her gloves; the size of her pearl ear rings (not too large, and yet not too small), in the choice of the few rings that encircled her slender and now somewhat shrunken fingers (one hoop of gold had a history that the old French Ambassador could have told if he wanted to, so Peter once hinted to me)—everything she did in fact betrayed a wide acquaintance with the great world and its requirements and exactions.
Other women of her age might of their choice drop into charities, or cats, or nephews and nieces, railing against the present and living only in the past; holding on like grim death to everything that made it respect able, so that they looked for all the world like so many old daguerreotypes pulled from the frames. Not so Miss Felicia Grayson of Geneseo, New York. Her past was a flexible, india-rubber kind of a past that she stretched out after her. She might still wear her hair as she did when the old General raved over her, although the frost of many winters had touched it; but she would never hold on to the sleeves of those days or the skirts or the mantles: Out or in they must go, be puffed, cut bias, or made plain, just as the fashion of the day insisted. Oh! a most level-headed, common-sense, old aristocrat was Dame Felicia!
With the arrival of the first carriage old Isaac Cohen moved his seat from the back to the front of his shop, so he could see everybody who got out and went in, as well as everybody who walked past and gazed up at the shabby old house and its shabbier steps and railings. Not that the shabby surroundings ever made any difference whether the guests were "carriage company" or not, to quote good Mrs. McGuffey. Peter would not be Peter if he lived anywhere else, and Miss Felicia wouldn't be half so quaint and charming if she had received her guests behind a marble or brownstone front with an awning stretched to the curbstone and a red velvet carpet laid across the sidewalk, the whole patrolled by a bluecoat and two hired men.
The little tailor had watched many such functions before. So had the neighbors, who were craning their heads from the windows. They all knew by the carriages when Miss Felicia came to town and when she left, and by the same token for that matter. The only difference between this reception and former receptions, or teas, or whatever the great people upstairs called them, was in the ages of the guests; not any gray whiskers and white heads under high silk hats, this time; nor any demure or pompous, or gentle, or, perhaps, faded old ladies puffing up Peter's stairs—and they did puff before they reached his door, where they handed their wraps to Mrs. McGuffey in her brave white cap and braver white apron. Only bright eyes and rosy faces today framed in tiny bon nets, and well-groomed young fellows in white scarfs and black coats.
But if anybody had thought of the shabby surroundings they forgot all about it when they mounted the third flight of stairs and looked in the door. Not only was Peter's bedroom full of outer garments, and Miss Felicia's, too, for that matter—but the banisters looked like a clothes-shop undergoing a spring cleaning, so thickly were the coats slung over its hand rail. So, too, were the hall, and the hall chairs, and the gas bracket, and even the hooks where Peter hung his clothes to be brushed in the morning—every conceivable place, in fact, wherever an outer wrap of any kind could be suspended, poked, or laid flat. That Mrs. McGuffey was at her wits' end—only a short walk—was evident from the way she grabbed my hat and coat and disappeared through a door which led to her own apartments, returning a moment later out of breath and, I fancied, a little out of temper.
And that was nothing to the way in which the owners of all these several habiliments were wedged inside. First came the dome of Peter's bald head surmounting his merry face, then the top of Miss Felicia's pompadour, with its tiny diamond spark bobbing about as she laughed and moved her head in saluting her guests and then mobs and mobs of young people packed tight, looking for all the world like a matinee crowd leaving a theatre (that is when you crane your neck to see over their heads), except that the guests were without their wraps and were talking sixteen to the dozen, and as merry as they could be.
"They are all here, Major," Peter cried, dragging me inside. It was wonderful how young and happy he looked. "Miss Corinne, and that loud Hullaballoo, Garry Minott, we saw prancing around at the supper—you remember—Holker gave him the ring."
"And Miss MacFarlane?" I asked.
"Ruth! Turn your head, my boy, and take a look at her. Isn't she a picture? Did you ever see a prettier girl in all your life, and one more charmingly dressed? Ruth, this is the Major... nothing else... just the Major. He is perfectly docile, kind and safe, and—"
"—And drives equally well in single or double harness, I suppose," laughed the girl, extending her hand and giving me the slightest dip of her head and bend of her back in recognition, no doubt, of my advancing years and dignified bearing—in apology, too, perhaps, for her metaphor.
"In SINGLE—not double," rejoined Peter. "He's the sourest, crabbedest old bachelor in the world—except myself."
Again her laugh bubbled out—a catching, spontaneous kind of laugh, as if there were plenty more packed away behind her lips ready to break loose whenever they found an opening.
"Then, Major, you shall have two lumps to sweeten you up," and down went the sugar-tongs into the silver bowl.
Here young Breen leaned forward and lifted the bowl nearer to her hand, while I waited for my cup. He had not left her side since Miss Felicia had presented him, so Peter told me afterward. I had evidently interrupted a conversation, for his eyes were still fastened upon hers, drinking in her every word and movement.
"And is sugar your cure for disagreeable people, Miss MacFarlane?" I heard him ask under his breath as I stood sipping my tea.
"That depends on how disagreeable they are," she answered. This came with a look from beneath her eyelids.
"I must be all right, then, for you only gave me one lump—" still under his breath.
"Only one! I made a mistake—" Eyes looking straight into Jack's, with a merry twinkle gathering around their corners.
"Perhaps I don't need any at all."
"Yes, I'm sure you do. Here—hold your cup, sir; I'll fill it full."
"No, I'm going to wait and see what effect one lump has. I'm beginning to get pleasant already—and I was cross as two sticks when I—"
And then she insisted he should have at least three more to make him at all bearable, and he said there would be no living with him he would be so charming and agreeable, and so the talk ran on, the battledoor and shuttlecock kind of talk—the same prattle that we have all listened to dozens of times, or should have listened to, to have kept our hearts young. And yet not a talk at all; a play, rather, in which words count for little and the action is everything: Listening to the toss of a curl or the lowering of an eyelid; answering with a lift of the hand—such a strong brown hand, that could pull an oar, perhaps, or help her over dangerous places! Then her white teeth, and the way the head bent; and then his ears and how close they lay to his head; and the short, glossy hair with the faintest bit of a curl in it. And then the sudden awakening: Oh, yes—it was the sugar Mr. Breen wanted, of course. What was I thinking of?
And so the game went on, neither of them caring where the ball went so that it could be hit again when it came their way.
When it was about to stay its flight I ventured in with the remark that she must not forget to give my kindest and best to her good father. I think she had forgotten I was standing so near.
"And you know daddy!" she cried—the real girl was shining in her eyes now—all the coquetry had vanished from her face.
"Yes—we worked together on the piers of the big bridge over the Delaware; oh, long ago."
"Isn't he the very dearest? He promised to come here today, but I know he won't. Poor daddy, he gets home so tired sometimes. He has just started on the big tunnel and there is so much to do. I have been helping him with his papers every night. But when Aunt Felicia's note came—she isn't my real aunt, you know, but I have called her so ever since I was a little girl—daddy insisted on my coming, and so I have left him for just a few days. He will be so glad when I tell him I have met one of his old friends." There was no question of her beauty, or poise, or her naturalness.
"Been a lady all her life, my dear Major, and her mother before her," Miss Felicia said when I joined her afterward, and Miss Felicia knew. "She is not like any of the young girls about, as you can see for yourself. Look at her now," she whispered, with an approving nod of her head.
Again my eyes sought the girl. The figure was willowy and graceful; the shoulders sloping, the arms tapering to the wrists. The hair was jet black—"Some Spanish blood somewhere," I suggested, but the dear lady answered sharply, "Not a drop; French Huguenot, my dear Major, and I am surprised you should have made such a mistake." This black hair parted in the middle, lay close to her head—such a wealth and torrent of it; even with tucking it behind her ears and gathering it in a coil in her neck it seemed just ready to fall. The face was oval, the nose perfect, the mouth never still for an instant, so full was it of curves and twinkles and little quivers; the eyes big, absorbing, restful, with lazy lids that lifted slowly and lay motionless as the wings of a resting butterfly, the eyebrows full and exquisitely arched. Had you met her in mantilla and high-heeled shoes, her fan half shading her face, you would have declared, despite Miss Felicia's protest, that only the click of the castanets was needed to send her whirling to their rhythm. Had she tied that same mantilla close under her lovely chin, and passed you with upturned eyes and trembling lips, you would have sworn that the Madonna from the neighboring church had strayed from its frame in search of the helpless and the unhappy; and had none of these disguises been hers, and she had flashed by you in the open some bright morning mounted on her own black mare, face aglow, eyes like stars, her wonderful hair waving in the wind, you would have stood stock-still in admiration, fear gripping your throat, a prayer in your heart for the safe home-coming of one so fearless and so beautiful.
There was, too, about her a certain gentleness, a certain disposition to be kind, even when her inherent coquetry—natural in the Southern girl—led her into deep waters; a certain tenderness that made friends of even unhappy suitors (and I heard that she could not count them on her fingers) who had asked for more than she could give—a tenderness which healed the wound and made lovers of them all for life.
And then her Southern speech, indescribable and impossible in cold type. The softening of the consonants, the slipping away of the terminals, the slurring of vowels, and all in that low, musical voice born out side of the roar and crash of city streets and crowded drawing-rooms with each tongue fighting for mastery.
All this Jack had taken in, besides a thousand other charms visible only to the young enthusiast, before he had been two minutes in her presence. As to her voice, he knew she was one of his own people when she had finished pronouncing his name. Somebody worthwhile had crossed his path at last!
And with this there had followed, even as he talked to her, the usual comparisons made by all young fellows when the girl they don't like is placed side by side with the girl they do. Miss MacFarlane was tall and Corinne was short; Miss MacFarlane was dark, and he adored dark, handsome people—and Corinne was light; Miss MacFarlane's voice was low and soft, her movements slow and graceful, her speech gentle—as if she were afraid she might hurt someone inadvertently; her hair and dress were simple to severity. While Corinne—well, in every one of these details Corinne represented the exact opposite. It was the blood! Yes, that was it—it was her blood! Who was she, and where did she come from? Would Corinne like her? What impression would this high bred Southern beauty make upon the pert Miss Wren, whose little nose had gone down a point or two when her mother had discovered, much to her joy, the week before, that it was the REAL Miss Grayson and not an imitation Miss Grayson who had been good enough to invite her daughter and any of her daughter's friends to tea; and it had fallen another point when she learned that Miss Felicia had left her card the next day, expressing to the potato-bug how sorry she was to hear that the ladies were out, but that she hoped it would only be a matter of a few days before "she would welcome them" to her own apartments, or words to that effect, Frederick's memory being slightly defective.
It was in answer to this request that Mrs. Breen, after consulting her husband, had written three acceptances before she was willing that Frederick should leave it with his own hands in Fifteenth Street—one beginning, "It certainly is a pleasure after all these years"—which was discarded as being too familiar; another, "So good of you, dear Miss Grayson," which had a similar fate; and the third, which ran, "My daughter will be most happy, dear Miss Grayson, to be with you," etc., which was finally sealed with the Breen crest—a four-legged beastie of some kind on its hind legs, with a motto explanatory of the promptness of his ancestors in times of danger. Even then Corinne had hesitated about accepting until Garry said: "Well, let's take it in, anyhow—we can skip out if they bore us stiff."
Knowing these things, therefore, and fearing that after all something would happen to mar the pleasant relations he had established with Peter, and with the honor of his uncle's family in his keeping, so to speak, Jack had awaited the arrival of Corinne and Garry with considerable trepidation. What if, after all, they should stay away, ignoring the great courtesy which this most charming of old ladies—never had he seen one so lovable or distinguished—had extended to them; and she a stranger, too, and all because her brother Peter had asked her to be kind to a boy like himself.
The entrance of Corinne and Garry, therefore, into the crowded room half an hour after his own had brought a relief to Jack's mind (he had been watching the door, so as to be ready to present them), which Miss Felicia's gracious salutation only intensified.
"I remember your dear mother perfectly," he heard the old lady say as she advanced to Corinne and took both her hands. "And she was quite lovely. And this I am very sure is Mr. Breen's friend, Mr. Minott, who has carried off all the honors. I am delighted to see you both. Peter, do you take these dear young people and present them to Ruth."
The two had thereupon squeezed through to Ruth's side; Peter in his formal introduction awarding to Garry all the honors to which he was entitled, and then Ruth, remembering her duties, said how glad she was to know them; and would they have lemon or sugar?—and Corinne, with a comprehensive glance of her rival, declined both, her excuse being that she was nearly dead now with the heat and that a cup of tea would finish her. Jack had winced when his ears caught the flippant answer, but it was nothing to the way in which he shrivelled up when Garry, after shaking Miss MacFarlane's hand as if it had been a pump-handle instead of a thing so dainty that no boy had a right to touch it except with reverence in his heart, had burst out with: "Glad to see you. From the South, I hear—" as if she was a kangaroo or a Fiji Islander. He had seen Miss MacFarlane give a little start at Garry's familiar way of speaking, and had noticed how Ruth shrank behind the urn as if she were afraid he would touch her again, although she had laughed quite good-naturedly as she answered:
"Not very far South; only from Maryland," and had then turned to Jack and continued her talk with the air of one not wishing to be further interrupted.
The Scribe does not dare to relate what would have become of one so sensitive as our hero could he have heard the discussion going on later between the two young people when they were backed into one of Peter's bookcases and stood surveying the room. "Miss MacFarlane isn't at all my kind of a girl," Corinne had declared to Garry. "Really, I can't see why the men rave over her. Pretty?—yes, sort of so-so; but no style, and SUCH clothes! Fancy wearing a pink lawn and a sash tied around her waist like a girl at a college commencement—and as to her hair—why no one has ever THOUGHT of dressing her hair that way for AGES and AGES."
Her mind thus relieved, my Lady Wren had made a survey of the rooms, wondering what they wanted with so many funny old portraits, and whether the old gentleman or his sister read the dusty books, Garry remarking that there were a lot of "swells" among the young fellows, many of whom he had heard of but had never met before. This done, the two wedged their way out, without ever troubling Peter or Miss Felicia with their good-bys, Garry telling Corinne that the old lady wouldn't know they were gone, and Corinne adding under her breath that it didn't make any difference to her if she did.
But Jack stayed on.
This was the atmosphere he had longed for. This, too, was where Peter lived. Here were the chairs he sat in, the books he read, the pictures he enjoyed. And the well-dressed, well-bred people, the hum of low voices, the clusters of roses, the shaded candles, their soft rosy light falling on the egg-shell cups and saucers and silver service, and the lovely girl dispensing all this hospitality and cheer! Yes, here he could live, breathe, enjoy life. Everything was worth while and just as he had expected to find it.
When the throng grew thick about her table he left Ruth's side, taking the opportunity to speak to Peter or Miss Felicia (he knew few others), but he was back again whenever the chance offered.
"Don't send me away again," he pleaded when he came back for the twentieth time, and with so much meaning in his voice that she looked at him with wide-open eyes. It was not what he said—she had been brought up on that kind of talk—it was the way he said it, and the inflection in his voice.
"I have been literally starving for somebody like you to talk to," he continued, drawing up a stool and settling himself determinedly beside her.
"For me! Why, Mr. Breen, I'm not a piece of bread—" she laughed. "I'm just girl." He had begun to interest her—this brown-eyed young fellow who wore his heart on his sleeve, spoke her dialect and treated her as if she were a duchess.
"You are life-giving bread to me, Miss MacFarlane," answered Jack with a smile. "I have only been here six months; I am from the South, too." And then the boy poured out his heart, telling her, as he had told Peter, how lonely he got sometimes for some of his own kind; and how the young girl in the lace hat and feathers, who had come in with Garry, was his aunt's daughter; and how he himself was in the Street, signing checks all day—at which she laughed, saying in reply that nothing would give her greater pleasure than a big book with plenty of blank checks—she had never had enough, and her dear father had never had enough, either. But he omitted all mention of the faro bank and of the gamblers—such things not being proper for her ears, especially such little pink shells of ears, nestling and half hidden in her beautiful hair.
There was no knowing how long this absorbing conversation might have continued (it had already attracted the attention of Miss Felicia) had not a great stir taken place at the door of the outside hall. Somebody was coming upstairs; or had come upstairs; somebody that Peter was laughing with—great, hearty laughs, which showed his delight; somebody that made Miss Felicia raise her head and listen, a light breaking over her face. Then Peter's head was thrust in the door:
"Here he is, Felicia. Come along, Holker—I have been wondering—"
"Been wondering what, Peter? That I'd stay away a minute longer than I could help after this dear lady had arrived?... Ah, Miss Felicia! Just as magnificent and as young as ever. Still got that Marie Antoinette look about you—you ought really—"
"Stop that nonsense, Holker, right away," she cried, advancing a step to greet him.
"But it's all true, and—"
"Stop, I tell you; none of your sugar-coated lies. I am seventy if I am a day, and look it, and if it were not for these furbelows I would look eighty. Now tell me about yourself and Kitty and the boys, and whether the Queen has sent you the Gold Medal yet, and if the big Library is finished and—"