"By George!" he muttered. "ROSCOE!"
"My name," said Roscoe. "Can' help that."
"ROSCOE!" Blank astonishment was Sheridan's first sensation. Probably nothing in the world could have more amazed his than to find Roscoe—the steady old wheel-horse—in this condition. "How'd you GET this way?" he demanded. "You caught cold and took too much for it?"
For reply Roscoe laughed hoarsely. "Yeuh! Cold! I been drinkun all time, lately. Firs' you notice it?"
"By George!" cried Sheridan. "I THOUGHT I'd smelt it on you a good deal lately, but I wouldn't 'a' believed you'd take more'n was good for you. Boh! To see you like a common hog!"
Roscoe chuckled and threw out his right arm in a meaningless gesture. "Hog!" he repeated, chuckling.
"Yes, a hog!" said Sheridan, angrily. "In business hours! I don't object to anybody's takin' a drink if you wants to, out o' business hours; nor, if a man keeps his work right up to the scratch, I wouldn't be the one to baste him if he got good an' drunk once in two, three years, maybe. It ain't MY way. I let it alone, but I never believed in forcin' my way on a grown-up son in moral matters. I guess I was wrong! You think them men out there are waitin' to talk business with a drunkard? You think you can come to your office and do business drunk? By George! I wonder how often this has been happening and me not on to it! I'll have a look over your books to-morrow, and I'll—"
Roscoe stumbled to his feet, laughing wildly, and stood swaying, contriving to hold himself in position by clutching the back of the heavy chair in which he had been sitting.
"Hoo—hoorah!" he cried. "'S my principles, too. Be drunkard all you want to—outside business hours. Don' for Gossake le'n'thing innerfere business hours! Business! Thassit! You're right, father. Drink! Die! L'everything go to hell, but DON' let innerfere business!"
Sheridan had seized the telephone upon Roscoe's desk, and was calling his own office, overhead. "Abercrombie? Come down to my son Roscoe's suite and get rid of some gentlemen that are waitin' there to see him in room two-fourteen. There's Maples and Schirmer and a couple o' fellows on the Kinsey business. Tell 'em something's come up I have to go over with Roscoe, and tell 'em to come back day after to-morrow at two. You needn't come in to let me know they're gone; we don't want to be disturbed. Tell Pauly to call my house and send Claus down here with a closed car. We may have to go out. Tell him to hustle, and call me at Roscoe's room as soon as the car gets here. 'T's all!"
Roscoe had laughed bitterly throughout this monologue. "Drunk in business hours! Thass awf'l! Mus'n' do such thing! Mus'n' get drunk, mus'n' gamble, mus'n' kill 'nybody—not in business hours! All right any other time. Kill 'nybody you want to—'s long 'tain't in business hours! Fine! Mus'n' have any trouble 't'll innerfere business. Keep your trouble 't home. Don' bring it to th' office. Might innerfere business! Have funerals on Sunday—might innerfere business! Don' let your wife innerfere business! Keep all, all, ALL your trouble an' your meanness, an' your trad—your tradegy—keep 'em ALL for home use! If you got die, go on die 't home—don' die round th' office! Might innerfere business!"
Sheridan picked up a newspaper from Roscoe's desk, and sat down with his back to his son, affecting to read. Roscoe seemed to be unaware of his father's significant posture.
"You know wh' I think?" he went on. "I think Bibbs only one the fam'ly any 'telligence at all. Won' work, an' di'n' get married. Jim worked, an' he got killed. I worked, an' I got married. Look at me! Jus' look at me, I ask you. Fine 'dustriss young business man. Look whass happen' to me! Fine!" He lifted his hand from the sustaining chair in a deplorable gesture, and, immediately losing his balance, fell across the chair and caromed to the floor with a crash, remaining prostrate for several minutes, during which Sheridan did not relax his apparent attention to the newspaper. He did not even look round at the sound of Roscoe's fall.
Roscoe slowly climbed to an upright position, pulling himself up by holding to the chair. He was slightly sobered outwardly, having progressed in the prostrate interval to a state of befuddlement less volatile. He rubbed his dazed eyes with the back of his left hand.
"What—what you ask me while ago?" he said.
"Yes, you did. What—what was it?"
"Nothin'. You better sit down."
"You ask' me what I thought about Lamhorn. You did ask me that. Well, I won't tell you. I won't say dam' word 'bout him!"
The telephone-bell tinkled. Sheridan placed the receiver to his ear and said, "Right down." Then he got Roscoe's coat and hat from a closet and brought them to his son. "Get into this coat," he said. "You're goin' home."
"All ri'," Roscoe murmured, obediently.
They went out into the main hall by a side door, not passing through the outer office; and Sheridan waited for an empty elevator, stopped it, and told the operator to take on no more passengers until they reached the ground floor. Roscoe walked out of the building and got into the automobile without lurching, and twenty minutes later walked into his own house in the same manner, neither he nor his father having spoken a word in the interval.
Sheridan did not go in with him; he went home, and to his own room without meeting any of his family. But as he passed Bibbs's door he heard from within the sound of a cheerful young voice humming jubilant fragments of song:
WHO looks a mustang in the eye?... With a leap from the ground To the saddle in a bound. And away—and away! Hi-yay!
It was the first time in Sheridan's life that he had ever detected any musical symptom whatever in Bibbs—he had never even heard him whistle—and it seemed the last touch of irony that the useless fool should be merry to-day.
To Sheridan it was Tom o' Bedlam singing while the house burned; and he did not tarry to enjoy the melody, but went into his own room and locked the door.
He emerged only upon a second summons to dinner, two hours later, and came to the table so white and silent that his wife made her anxiety manifest and was but partially reassured by his explanation that his lunch had "disagreed" with him a little.
Presently, however, he spoke effectively. Bibbs, whose appetite had become hearty, was helping himself to a second breast of capon from white-jacket's salver. "Here's another difference between Midas and chicken," Sheridan remarked, grimly. "Midas can eat rooster, but rooster can't eat Midas. I reckon you overlooked that. Midas looks to me like he had the advantage there."
Bibbs retained enough presence of mind to transfer the capon breast to his plate without dropping it and to respond, "Yes—he crows over it."
Having returned his antagonists's fire in this fashion, he blushed—for he could blush distinctly now—and his mother looked upon him with pleasure, thought the reference to Midas and roosters was of course jargon to her. "Did you ever see anybody improve the way that child has!" she exclaimed. "I declare, Bibbs, sometimes lately you look right handsome!"
"He's got to be such a gadabout," Edith giggled.
"I found something of his on the floor up-stairs this morning, before anybody was up," said Sheridan. "I reckon if people lose things in this house and expect to get 'em back, they better get up as soon as I do."
"What was it he lost?" asked Edith.
"He knows!" her father returned. "Seems to me like I forgot to bring it home with me. I looked it over—thought probably it was something pretty important, belongin' to a busy man like him." He affected to search his pockets. "What DID I do with it, now? Oh yes! Seems to me like I remember leavin' it down at the office—in the waste-basket."
"Good place for it," Bibbs murmured, still red.
Sheridan gave him a grin. "Perhaps pretty soon you'll be gettin' up early enough to find things before I do!"
It was a threat, and Bibbs repeated the substance of it, later in the evening, to Mary Vertrees—they had come to know each other that well.
"My time's here at last," he said, as they sat together in the melancholy gas-light of the room which had been denuded of its piano. That removal had left an emptiness so distressing to Mr. and Mrs. Vertrees that neither of them had crossed the threshold since the dark day; but the gas-light, though from a single jet, shed no melancholy upon Bibbs, nor could any room seem bare that knew the glowing presence of Mary. He spoke lightly, not sadly.
"Yes, it's come. I've shirked and put off, but I can't shirk and put off any longer. It's really my part to go to him—at least it would save my face. He means what he says, and the time's come to serve my sentence. Hard labor for life, I think."
Mary shook her head. "I don't think so. He's too kind."
"You think my father's KIND?" And Bibbs stared at her.
"Yes. I'm sure of it. I've felt that he has a great, brave heart. It's only that he has to be kind in his own way—because he can't understand any other way."
"Ah yes," said Bibbs. "If that's what you mean by 'kind'!"
She looked at him gravely, earnest concern in her friendly eyes. "It's going to be pretty hard for you, isn't it?"
"Oh—self-pity!" he returned, smiling. "This has been just the last flicker of revolt. Nobody minds work if he likes the kind of work. There'd be no loafers in the world if each man found the thing that he could do best; but the only work I happen to want to do is useless—so I have to give it up. To-morrow I'll be a day-laborer."
"What is it like—exactly?"
"I get up at six," he said. "I have a lunch-basket to carry with me, which is aristocratic and no advantage. The other workmen have tin buckets, and tin buckets are better. I leave the house at six-thirty, and I'm at work in my overalls at seven. I have an hour off at noon, and work again from one till five."
"But the work itself?"
"It wasn't muscularly exhausting—not at all. They couldn't give me a heavier job because I wasn't good enough."
"But what will you do? I want to know."
"When I left," said Bibbs, "I was 'on' what they call over there a 'clipping-machine,' in one of the 'by-products' departments, and that's what I'll be sent back to."
"But what is it?" she insisted.
Bibbs explained. "It's very simple and very easy. I feed long strips of zinc into a pair of steel jaws, and the jaws bite the zinc into little circles. All I have to do is to see that the strip goes into the jaws at a certain angle—and yet I was a very bad hand at it."
He had kept his voice cheerful as he spoke, but he had grown a shade paler, and there was a latent anguish deep in his eyes. He may have known it and wished her not to see it, for he turned away.
"You do that all day long?" she asked, and as he nodded, "It seems incredible!" she exclaimed. "YOU feeding a strip of zinc into a machine nine hours a day! No wonder—" She broke off, and then, after a keen glance at his face, she said: "I should think you WOULD have been a 'bad hand at it'!"
He laughed ruefully. "I think it's the noise, though I'm ashamed to say it. You see, it's a very powerful machine, and there's a sort of rhythmical crashing—a crash every time the jaws bite off a circle."
"How often is that?"
"The thing should make about sixty-eight disks a minute—a little more than one a second."
"And you're close to it?"
"Oh, the workman has to sit in its lap," he said, turning to her more gaily. "The others don't mind. You see, it's something wrong with me. I have an idiotic way of flinching from the confounded thing—I flinch and duck a little every time the crash comes, and I couldn't get over it. I was a treat to the other workmen in that room; they'll be glad to see me back. They used to laugh at me all day long."
Mary's gaze was averted from Bibbs now; she sat with her elbow resting on the arm of the chair, her lifted hand pressed against her cheek. She was staring at the wall, and her eyes had a burning brightness in them.
"It doesn't seem possible any one could do that to you," she said, in a low voice. "No. He's not kind. He ought to be proud to help you to the leisure to write books; it should be his greatest privilege to have them published for you—"
"Can't you SEE him?" Bibbs interrupted, a faint ripple of hilarity in his voice. "If he could understand what you're saying—and if you can imagine his taking such a notion, he'd have had R. T. Bloss put up posters all over the country: 'Read B. Sheridan. Read the Poet with a Punch!' No. It's just as well he never got the—But what's the use? I've never written anything worth printing, and I never shall."
"You could!" she said.
"That's because you've never seen the poor little things I've tried to do."
"You wouldn't let me, but I KNOW you could! Ah, it's a pity!"
"It isn't," said BIBBS, honestly. "I never could—but you're the kindest lady in this world, Miss Vertrees."
She gave him a flashing glance, and it was as kind as he said she was. "That sounds wrong," she said, impulsively. "I mean 'Miss Vertrees.' I've thought of you by your first name ever since I met you. Wouldn't you rather call me 'Mary'?"
Bibbs was dazzled; he drew a long, deep breath and did not speak.
"Wouldn't you?" she asked, without a trace of coquetry.
"If I CAN!" he said, in a low voice.
"Ah, that's very pretty!" she laughed. "You're such an honest person, it's pleasant to have you gallant sometimes, by way of variety." She became grave again immediately. "I hear myself laughing as if it were some one else. It sounds like laughter on the eve of a great calamity." She got up restlessly, crossed the room and leaned against the wall, facing him. "You've GOT to go back to that place?"
"And the other time you did it—"
"Just over it," said Bibbs. "Two years. But I don't mind the prospect of a repetition so much as—"
"So much as what?" she prompted, as he stopped.
Bibbs looked up at her shyly. "I want to say it, but—but I come to a dead balk when I try. I—"
"Go on. Say it, whatever it is," she bade him. "You wouldn't know how to say anything I shouldn't like."
"I doubt if you'd either like or dislike what I want to say," he returned, moving uncomfortably in his chair and looking at his feet—he seemed to feel awkward, thoroughly. "You see, all my life—until I met you—if I ever felt like saying anything, I wrote it instead. Saying things is a new trick for me, and this—well, it's just this: I used to feel as if I hadn't ever had any sort of a life at all. I'd never been of use to anything or anybody, and I'd never had anything, myself, except a kind of haphazard thinking. But now it's different—I'm still of no use to anybody, and I don't see any prospect of being useful, but I have had something for myself. I've had a beautiful and happy experience, and it makes my life seem to be—I mean I'm glad I've lived it! That's all; it's your letting me be near you sometimes, as you have, this strange, beautiful, happy little while!"
He did not once look up, and reached silence, at the end of what he had to say, with his eyes still awkwardly regarding his feet. She did not speak, but a soft rustling of her garments let him know that she had gone back to her chair again. The house was still; the shabby old room was so quiet that the sound of a creaking in the wall seemed sharp and loud.
And yet, when Mary spoke at last, her voice was barely audible. "If you think it has been—happy—to be friends with me—you'd want to—to make it last."
"Yes," said Bibbs, as faintly.
"You'd want to go on being my friend as long as we live, wouldn't you?"
"Yes," he gulped.
"But you make that kind of speech to me because you think it's over."
He tried to evade her. "Oh, a day-laborer can't come in his overalls—"
"No," she interrupted, with a sudden sharpness. "You said what you did because you think the shop's going to kill you."
"Yes, you do think that!" She rose to her feet again and came and stood before him. "Or you think it's going to send you back to the sanitarium. Don't deny it, Bibbs. There! See how easily I call you that! You see I'm a friend, or I couldn't do it. Well, if you meant what you said—and you did mean it, I know it!—you're not going to go back to the sanitarium. The shop sha'n't hurt you. It sha'n't!"
And now Bibbs looked up. She stood before him, straight and tall, splendid in generous strength, her eyes shining and wet.
"If I mean THAT much to you," she cried, "they can't harm you! Go back to the shop—but come to me when your day's work is done. Let the machines crash their sixty-eight times a minute, but remember each crash that deafens you is that much nearer the evening and me!"
He stumbled to his feet. "You say—" he gasped.
"Every evening, dear Bibbs!"
He could only stare, bewildered.
"EVERY evening. I want you. They sha'n't hurt you again!" And she held out her hand to him; it was strong and warm in his tremulous clasp. "If I could, I'd go and feed the strips of zinc to the machine with you," she said. "But all day long I'll send my thoughts to you. You must keep remembering that your friend stands beside you. And when the work is done—won't the night make up for the day?"
Light seemed to glow from her; he was blinded by that radiance of kindness. But all he could say was, huskily, "To think you're there—with me—standing beside the old zinc-eater—"
And they laughed and looked at each other, and at last Bibbs found what it meant not to be alone in the world. He had a friend.
When he came into the New House, a few minutes later, he found his father sitting alone by the library fire. Bibbs went in and stood before him. "I'm cured, father," he said. "When do I go back to the shop? I'm ready."
The desolate and grim old man did not relax. "I was sittin' up to give you a last chance to say something like that. I reckon it's about time! I just wanted to see if you'd have manhood enough not to make me take you over there by the collar. Last night I made up my mind I'd give you just one more day. Well, you got to it before I did—pretty close to the eleventh hour! All right. Start in to-morrow. It's the first o' the month. Think you can get up in time?"
"Six o'clock," Bibbs responded, briskly. "And I want to tell you—I'm going in a 'cheerful spirit.' As you said, I'll go and I'll 'like it'!"
"That's YOUR lookout!" his father grunted. "They'll put you back on the clippin'-machine. You get nine dollars a week."
"More than I'm worth, too," said Bibbs, cheerily. "That reminds me, I didn't mean YOU by 'Midas' in that nonsense I'd been writing. I meant—"
"Makes a hell of a lot o' difference what you meant!"
"I just wanted you to know. Good night, father."
The sound of the young man's footsteps ascending the stairs became inaudible, and the house was quiet. But presently, as Sheridan sat staring angrily at the fire, the shuffling of a pair of slippers could be heard descending, and Mrs. Sheridan made her appearance, her oblique expression and the state of her toilette being those of a person who, after trying unsuccessfully to sleep on one side, has got up to look for burglars.
"Papa!" she exclaimed, drowsily. "Why'n't you go to bed? It must be goin' on 'leven o'clock!"
She yawned, and seated herself near him, stretching out her hands to the fire. "What's the matter?" she asked, sleep and anxiety striving sluggishly with each other in her voice. "I knew you were worried all dinner-time. You got something new on your mind besides Jim's bein' taken away like he was. What's worryin' you now, papa?"
She jeered feebly. "N' tell ME that! You sat up to see Bibbs, didn't you?"
"He starts in at the shop again to-morrow morning," said Sheridan.
"Just the same as he did before?"
"How—how long you goin' to keep him at it, papa?" she asked, timidly.
"Until he KNOWS something!" The unhappy man struck his palms together, then got to his feet and began to pace the room, as was his wont when he talked. "He'll go back to the machine he couldn't learn to tend properly in the six months he was there, and he'll stick to it till he DOES learn it! Do you suppose that lummix ever asked himself WHY I want him to learn it? No! And I ain't a-goin' to tell him, either! When he went there I had 'em set him on the simplest machine we got—and he stuck there! How much prospect would there be of his learnin' to run the whole business if he can't run the easiest machine in it? I sent him there to make him THOROUGH. And what happened? He didn't LIKE it! That boy's whole life, there's been a settin' up o' something mulish that's against everything I want him to do. I don't know what it is, but it's got to be worked out of him. Now, labor ain't any more a simple question than what it was when we were young. My idea is that, outside o' union troubles, the man that can manage workin'-men is the man that's been one himself. Well, I set Bibbs to learn the men and to learn the business, and HE set himself to balk on the first job! That's what he did, and the balk's lasted close on to three years. If he balks again I'm just done with him! Sometimes I feel like I was pretty near done with everything, anyhow!"
"I knew there was something else," said Mrs. Sheridan, blinking over a yawn. "You better let it go till to-morrow and get to bed now—'less you'll tell me?"
"Suppose something happened to Roscoe," he said. "THEN what'd I have to look forward to? THEN what could I depend on to hold things together? A lummix! A lummix that hasn't learned how to push a strip o' zinc along a groove!"
"Roscoe?" she yawned. "You needn't worry about Roscoe, papa. He's the strongest child we had. I never did know anybody keep better health than he does. I don't believe he's even had a cold in five years. You better go up to bed, papa."
"Suppose something DID happen to him, though. You don't know what it means, keepin' property together these days—just keepin' it ALIVE, let alone makin' it grow the way I do. I've seen too many estates hacked away in chunks, big and little. I tell you when a man dies the wolves come out o' the woods, pack after pack, to see what they can tear off for themselves; and if that dead man's chuldern ain't on the job, night and day, everything he built'll get carried off. Carried off? I've seen a big fortune behave like an ash-barrel in a cyclone—there wasn't even a dust-heap left to tell where it stood! I've seen it, time and again. My Lord! when I think o' such things comin' to ME! It don't seem like I deserved it—no man ever tried harder to raise his boys right than I have. I planned and planned and planned how to bring 'em up to be guards to drive the wolves off, and how to be builders to build, and build bigger. I tell you this business life is no fool's job nowadays—a man's got to have eyes in the back of his head. You hear talk, sometimes, 'd make you think the millennium had come—but right the next breath you'll hear somebody hollerin' about 'the great unrest.' You BET there's a 'great unrest'! There ain't any man alive smart enough to see what it's goin' to do to us in the end, nor what day it's got set to bust loose, but it's frothin' and bubblin' in the boiler. This country's been fillin' up with it from all over the world for a good many years, and the old camp-meetin' days are dead and done with. Church ain't what it used to be. Nothin's what it used to be—everything's turned up from the bottom, and the growth is so big the roots stick out in the air. There's an awful ruction goin' on, and you got to keep hoppin' if you're goin' to keep your balance on the top of it. And the schemers! They run like bugs on the bottom of a board—after any piece o' money they hear is loose. Fool schemes and crooked schemes; the fool ones are the most and the worst! You got to FIGHT to keep your money after you've made it. And the woods are full o' mighty industrious men that's got only one motto: 'Get the other fellow's money before he gets yours!' And when a man's built as I have, when he's built good and strong, and made good things grow and prosper—THOSE are the fellows that lay for the chance to slide in and sneak the benefit of it and put their names to it! And what's the use of my havin' ever been born, if such a thing as that is goin' to happen? What's the use of my havin' worked my life and soul into my business, if it's all goin' to be dispersed and scattered soon as I'm in the ground?"
He strode up and down the long room, gesticulating—little regarding the troubled and drowsy figure by the fireside. His throat rumbled thunderously; the words came with stormy bitterness. "You think this is a time for young men to be lyin' on beds of ease? I tell you there never was such a time before; there never was such opportunity. The sluggard is despoiled while he sleeps—yes, by George! if a man lays down they'll eat him before he wakes!—but the live man can build straight up till he touches the sky! This is the business man's day; it used to be the soldier's day and the statesman's day, but this is OURS! And it ain't a Sunday to go fishin'—it's turmoil! turmoil!—and you got to go out and live it and breathe it and MAKE it yourself, or you'll only be a dead man walkin' around dreamin' you're alive. And that's what my son Bibbs has been doin' all his life, and what he'd rather do now than go out and do his part by me. And if anything happens to Roscoe—"
"Oh, do stop worryin' over such nonsense," Mrs. Sheridan interrupted, irritated into sharp wakefulness for the moment. "There isn't anything goin' to happen to Roscoe, and you're just tormentin' yourself about nothin'. Aren't you EVER goin' to bed?"
Sheridan halted. "All right, mamma," he said, with a vast sigh. "Let's go up." And he snapped off the electric light, leaving only the rosy glow of the fire.
"Did you speak to Roscoe?" she yawned, rising lopsidedly in her drowsiness. "Did you mention about what I told you the other evening?"
"No. I will to-morrow."
But Roscoe did not come down-town the next day, nor the next; nor did Sheridan see fit to enter his son's house. He waited. Then, on the fourth day of the month, Roscoe walked into his father's office at nine in the morning, when Sheridan happened to be alone.
"They told me down-stairs you'd left word you wanted to see me."
"Sit down," said Sheridan, rising.
Roscoe sat. His father walked close to him, sniffed suspiciously, and then walked away, smiling bitterly. "Boh!" he exclaimed. "Still at it!"
"Yes," said Roscoe. "I've had a couple of drinks this morning. What about it?"
"I reckon I better adopt some decent young man," his father returned. "I'd bring Bibbs up here and put him in your place if he was fit. I would!"
"Better do it," Roscoe assented, sullenly.
"When'd you begin this thing?"
"I always did drink a little. Ever since I grew up, that is."
"Leave that talk out! You know what I mean."
"Well, I don't know as I ever had too much in office hours—until the other day."
Sheridan began cutting. "It's a lie. I've had Ray Wills up from your office. He didn't want to give you away, but I put the hooks into him, and he came through. You were drunk twice before and couldn't work. You been leavin' your office for drinks every few hours for the last three weeks. I been over your books. Your office is way behind. You haven't done any work, to count, in a month."
"All right," said Roscoe, drooping under the torture. "It's all true."
"What you goin' to do about it?"
Roscoe's head was sunk between his shoulders. "I can't stand very much talk about it, father," he said, pleadingly.
"No!" Sheridan cried. "Neither can I! What do you think it means to ME?" He dropped into the chair at his big desk, groaning. "I can't stand to talk about it any more'n you can to listen, but I'm goin' to find out what's the matter with you, and I'm goin' to straighten you out!"
Roscoe shook his head helplessly.
"You can't straighten me out."
"See here!" said Sheridan. "Can you go back to your office and stay sober to-day, while I get my work done, or will I have to hire a couple o' huskies to follow you around and knock the whiskey out o' your hand if they see you tryin' to take it?"
"You needn't worry about that," said Roscoe, looking up with a faint resentment. "I'm not drinking because I've got a thirst."
"Well, what have you got?"
"Nothing. Nothing you can do anything about. Nothing, I tell you."
"We'll see about that!" said Sheridan, harshly. "Now I can't fool with you to-day, and you get up out o' that chair and get out o' my office. You bring your wife to dinner to-morrow. You didn't come last Sunday—but you come to-morrow. I'll talk this out with you when the women-folks are workin' the phonograph, after dinner. Can you keep sober till then? You better be sure, because I'm going to send Abercrombie down to your office every little while, and he'll let me know."
Roscoe paused at the door. "You told Abercrombie about it?" he asked.
"TOLD him!" And Sheridan laughed hideously. "Do you suppose there's an elevator-boy in the whole dam' building that ain't on to you?"
Roscoe settled his hat down over his eyes and went out.
"WHO looks a mustang in the eye? Changety, chang, chang! Bash! Crash! BANG!"
So sang Bibbs, his musical gaieties inaudible to his fellow-workmen because of the noise of the machinery. He had discovered long ago that the uproar was rhythmical, and it had been intolerable; but now, on the afternoon of the fourth day of his return, he was accompanying the swing and clash of the metals with jubilant vaquero fragments, mingling improvisations of his own among them, and mocking the zinc-eater's crash with vocal imitations:
Fearless and bold, Chang! Bash! Behold! With a leap from the ground To the saddle in a bound, And away—and away! Hi-YAY! WHO looks a chang, chang, bash, crash, bang! WHO cares a dash how you bash and you crash? NIGHT'S on the way EACH time I say, Hi-YAY! Crash, chang! Bash, chang! Chang, bang, BANG!
The long room was ceaselessly thundering with metallic sound; the air was thick with the smell of oil; the floor trembled perpetually; everything was implacably in motion—nowhere was there a rest for the dizzied eye. The first time he had entered the place Bibbs had become dizzy instantly, and six months of it had only added increasing nausea to faintness. But he felt neither now. "ALL DAY LONG I'LL SEND MY THOUGHTS TO YOU. YOU MUST KEEP REMEMBERING THAT YOUR FRIEND STANDS BESIDE YOU." He saw her there beside him, and the greasy, roaring place became suffused with radiance. The poet was happy in his machine-shop; he was still a poet there. And he fed his old zinc-eater, and sang:
Away—and away! Hi-YAY! Crash, bash, crash, bash, CHANG! Wild are his eyes, Fiercely he dies! Hi-YAH! Crash, bash, bang! Bash, CHANG! Ready to fling Our gloves in the ring—
He was unaware of a sensation that passed along the lines of workmen. Their great master had come among them, and they grinned to see him standing with Dr. Gurney behind the unconscious Bibbs. Sheridan nodded to those nearest him—he had personal acquaintance with nearly all of them—but he kept his attention upon his son. Bibbs worked steadily, never turning from his machine. Now and then he varied his musical programme with remarks addressed to the zinc-eater.
"Go on, you old crash-basher! Chew it up! It's good for you, if you don't try to bolt your vittles. Fletcherize, you pig! That's right—YOU'LL never get a lump in your gizzard. Want some more? Here's a nice, shiny one."
The words were indistinguishable, but Sheridan inclined his head to Gurney's ear and shouted fiercely: "Talkin' to himself! By George!"
Gurney laughed reassuringly, and shook his head.
Bibbs returned to song:
Chang! Chang, bash, chang! It's I! WHO looks a mustang in the eye? Fearless and bo—
His father grasped him by the arm. "Here!" he shouted. "Let ME show you how to run a strip through there. The foreman says you're some better'n you used to be, but that's no way to handle—Get out the way and let me show you once."
"Better be careful," Bibbs warned him, stepping to one side.
"Careful? Boh!" Sheridan seized a strip of zinc from the box. "What you talkin' to yourself about? Tryin' to make yourself think you're so abused you're goin' wrong in the head?"
"'Abused'? No!" shouted Bibbs. "I was SINGING—because I 'like it'! I told you I'd come back and 'like it.'"
Sheridan may not have understood. At all events, he made no reply, but began to run the strip of zinc through the machine. He did it awkwardly—and with bad results.
"Here!" he shouted. "This is the way. Watch how I do it. There's nothin' to it, if you put your mind on it." By his own showing then his mind was not upon it. He continued to talk. "All you got to look out for is to keep it pressed over to—"
"Don't run your hand up with it," Bibbs vociferated, leaning toward him.
"Run nothin'! You GOT to—"
"Look out!" shouted Bibbs and Gurney together, and they both sprang forward. But Sheridan's right hand had followed the strip too far, and the zinc-eater had bitten off the tips of the first and second fingers. He swore vehemently, and wrung his hand, sending a shower of red drops over himself and Bibbs, but Gurney grasped his wrist, and said, sharply:
"Come out of here. Come over to the lavatory in the office. Bibbs, fetch my bag. It's in my machine, outside."
And when Bibbs brought the bag to the washroom he found the doctor still grasping Sheridan's wrist, holding the injured hand over a basin. Sheridan had lost color, and temper, too. He glared over his shoulder at his son as the latter handed the bag to Gurney.
"You go on back to your work," he said. "I've had worse snips than that from a pencil-sharpener."
"Oh no, you haven't!" said Gurney.
"I have, too!" Sheridan retorted, angrily. "Bibbs, you go on back to your work. There's no reason to stand around here watchin' ole Doc Gurney tryin' to keep himself awake workin' on a scratch that only needs a little court-plaster. I slipped, or it wouldn't happened. You get back on your job."
"All right," said Bibbs.
"HERE!" Sheridan bellowed, as his son was passing out of the door. "You watch out when you're runnin' that machine! You hear what I say? I slipped, or I wouldn't got scratched, but you—YOU'RE liable to get your whole hand cut off! You keep your eyes open!"
"Yes, sir." And Bibbs returned to the zinc-eater thoughtfully.
Half an hour later, Gurney touched him on the shoulder and beckoned him outside, where conversation was possible. "I sent him home, Bibbs. He'll have to be careful of that hand. Go get your overalls off. I'll take you for a drive and leave you at home."
"Can't," said Bibbs. "Got to stick to my job till the whistle blows."
"No, you don't," the doctor returned, smothering a yawn. "He wants me to take you down to my office and give you an overhauling to see how much harm these four days on the machine have done you. I guess you folks have got that old man pretty thoroughly upset, between you, up at your house! But I don't need to go over you. I can see with my eyes half shut—"
"Yes," Bibbs interrupted, "that's what they are."
"I say I can see you're starting out, at least, in good shape. What's made the difference?"
"I like the machine," said Bibbs. "I've made a friend of it. I serenade it and talk to it, and then it talks back to me."
"Indeed, indeed? What does it say?"
"What I want to hear."
"Well, well!" The doctor stretched himself and stamped his foot repeatedly. "Better come along and take a drive with me. You can take the time off that he allowed for the examination, and—"
"Not at all," said Bibbs. "I'm going to stand by my old zinc-eater till five o'clock. I tell you I LIKE it!"
"Then I suppose that's the end of your wanting to write."
"I don't know about that," Bibbs said, thoughtfully; "but the zinc-eater doesn't interfere with my thinking, at least. It's better than being in business; I'm sure of that. I don't want anything to change. I'd be content to lead just the life I'm leading now to the end of my days."
"You do beat the devil!" exclaimed Gurney. "Your father's right when he tells me you're a mystery. Perhaps the Almighty knew what He was doing when He made you, but it takes a lot of faith to believe it! Well, I'm off. Go on back to your murdering old machine." He climbed into his car, which he operated himself, but he refrained from setting it immediately in motion. "Well, I rubbed it in on the old man that you had warned him not to slide his hand along too far, and that he got hurt because he didn't pay attention to your warning, and because he was trying to show you how to do something you were already doing a great deal better than he could. You tell him I'll be around to look at it and change the dressing to-morrow morning. Good-by."
But when he paid the promised visit, the next morning, he did more than change the dressing upon the damaged hand. The injury was severe of its kind, and Gurney spent a long time over it, though Sheridan was rebellious and scornful, being brought to a degree of tractability only by means of horrible threats and talk of amputation. However, he appeared at the dinner-table with his hand supported in a sling, which he seemed to regard as an indignity, while the natural inquiries upon the subject evidently struck him as deliberate insults. Mrs. Sheridan, having been unable to contain her solicitude several times during the day, and having been checked each time in a manner that blanched her cheek, hastened to warn Roscoe and Sibyl, upon their arrival at five, to omit any reference to the injury and to avoid even looking at the sling if they possibly could.
The Sheridans dined on Sundays at five. Sibyl had taken pains not to arrive either before or after the hand was precisely on the hour; and the members of the family were all seated at the table within two minutes after she and Roscoe had entered the house.
It was a glum gathering, overhung with portents. The air seemed charged, awaiting any tiny ignition to explode; and Mrs. Sheridan's expression, as she sat with her eyes fixed almost continually upon her husband, was that of a person engaged in prayer. Edith was pale and intent. Roscoe looked ill; Sibyl looked ill; and Sheridan looked both ill and explosive. Bibbs had more color than any of these, and there was a strange brightness, like a light, upon his face. It was curious to see anything so happy in the tense gloom of that household.
Edith ate little, but gazed nearly all the time at her plate. She never once looked at Sibyl, though Sibyl now and then gave her a quick glance, heavily charged, and then looked away. Roscoe ate nothing, and, like Edith, kept his eyes upon his plate and made believe to occupy himself with the viands thereon, loading his fork frequently, but not lifting it to his mouth. He did not once look at his father, though his father gazed heavily at him most of the time. And between Edith and Sibyl, and between Roscoe and his father, some bitter wireless communication seemed continually to be taking place throughout the long silences prevailing during this enlivening ceremony of Sabbath refection.
"Didn't you go to church this morning, Bibbs?" his mother asked, in the effort to break up one of those ghastly intervals.
"What did you say, mother?"
"Didn't you go to church this morning?"
"I think so," he answered, as from a roseate trance.
"You THINK so! Don't you know?"
"Oh yes. Yes, I went to church!"
"Just down the street. It's brick."
"What was the sermon about?"
"Can't you hear me?" she cried. "I asked you what the sermon was about?"
He roused himself. "I think it was about—" He frowned, seeming to concentrate his will to recollect. "I think it was about something in the Bible."
White-jacket George was glad of an opportunity to leave the room and lean upon Mist' Jackson's shoulder in the pantry. "He don't know they WAS any suhmon!" he concluded, having narrated the dining-room dialogue. "All he know is he was with 'at lady lives nex' do'!" George was right.
"Did you go to church all by yourself, Bibbs?" Sibyl asked.
"No," he answered. "No, I didn't go alone."
"Oh?" Sibyl gave the ejaculation an upward twist, as of mocking inquiry, and followed it by another, expressive of hilarious comprehension. "OH!"
Bibbs looked at her studiously, but she spoke no further. And that completed the conversation at the lugubrious feast.
Coffee came finally, was disposed of quickly, and the party dispersed to other parts of the house. Bibbs followed his father and Roscoe into the library, but was not well received.
"YOU go and listen to the phonograph with the women-folks," Sheridan commanded.
Bibbs retreated. "Sometimes you do seem to be a hard sort of man!" he said.
However, he went obediently to the gilt-and-brocade room in which his mother and his sister and his sister-in-law had helplessly withdrawn, according to their Sabbatical custom. Edith sat in a corner, tapping her feet together and looking at them; Sibyl sat in the center of the room, examining a brooch which she had detached from her throat; and Mrs. Sheridan was looking over a collection of records consisting exclusively of Caruso and rag-time. She selected one of the latter, remarking that she thought it "right pretty," and followed it with one of the former and the same remark.
As the second reached its conclusion, George appeared in the broad doorway, seeming to have an errand there, but he did not speak. Instead, he favored Edith with a benevolent smile, and she immediately left the room, George stepping aside for her to precede him, and then disappearing after her in the hall with an air of successful diplomacy. He made it perfectly clear that Edith had given him secret instructions and that it had been his pride and pleasure to fulfil them to the letter.
Sibyl stiffened in her chair; her lips parted, and she watched with curious eyes the vanishing back of the white jacket.
"What's that?" she asked, in a low voice, but sharply.
"Here's another right pretty record," said Mrs. Sheridan, affecting—with patent nervousness—not to hear. And she unloosed the music.
Sibyl bit her lip and began to tap her chin with the brooch. After a little while she turned to Bibbs, who reposed at half-length in a gold chair, with his eyes closed.
"Where did Edith go?" she asked, curiously.
"Edith?" he repeated, opening his eyes blankly. "Is she gone?"
Sibyl got up and stood in the doorway. She leaned against the casing, still tapping her chin with the brooch. Her eyes were dilating; she was suddenly at high tension, and her expression had become one of sharp excitement. She listened intently.
When the record was spun out she could hear Sheridan rumbling in the library, during the ensuing silence, and Roscoe's voice, querulous and husky: "I won't say anything at all. I tell you, you might just as well let me alone!"
But there were other sounds: a rustling and murmur, whispering, low protesting cadences in a male voice. And as Mrs. Sheridan started another record, a sudden, vital resolve leaped like fire in the eyes of Sibyl. She walked down the hall and straight into the smoking-room.
Lamhorn and Edith both sprang to their feet, separating. Edith became instantly deathly white with a rage that set her shaking from head to foot, and Lamhorn stuttered as he tried to speak.
But Edith's shaking was not so violent as Sibyl's, nor was her face so white. At sight of them and of their embrace, all possible consequences became nothing to Sibyl. She courtesied, holding up her skirts and contorting her lips to the semblance of a smile.
"Sit just as you were—both of you!" she said. And then to Edith: "Did you tell my husband I had been telephoning to Lamhorn?"
"You march out of here!" said Edith, fiercely. "March straight out of here!"
Sibyl leveled a forefinger at Lamhorn.
"Did you tell her I'd been telephoning you I wanted you to come?"
"Oh, good God!" Lamhorn said. "Hush!"
"You knew she'd tell my husband, DIDN'T you?" she cried. "You knew that!"
"HUSH!" he begged, panic-stricken.
"That was a MANLY thing to do! Oh, it was like a gentleman! You wouldn't come—you wouldn't even come for five minutes to hear what I had to say! You were TIRED of what I had to say! You'd heard it all a thousand times before, and you wouldn't come! No! No! NO!" she stormed. "You wouldn't even come for five minutes, but you could tell that little cat! And SHE told my husband! You're a MAN!"
Edith saw in a flash that the consequences of battle would be ruinous to Sibyl, and the furious girl needed no further temptation to give way to her feelings. "Get out of this house!" she shrieked. "This is my father's house. Don't you dare speak to Robert like that!"
"No! No! I mustn't SPEAK—"
"Don't you DARE!"
Edith and Sibyl began to scream insults at each other simultaneously, fronting each other, their furious faces close. Their voices shrilled and rose and cracked—they screeched. They could be heard over the noise of the phonograph, which was playing a brass-band selection. They could be heard all over the house. They were heard in the kitchen; they could have been heard in the cellar. Neither of them cared for that.
"You told my husband!" screamed Sibyl, bringing her face still closer to Edith's. "You told my husband! This man put THAT in your hands to strike me with! HE did!"
"I'll tell your husband again! I'll tell him everything I know! It's TIME your husband—"
They were swept asunder by a bandaged hand. "Do you want the neighbors in?" Sheridan thundered.
There fell a shocking silence. Frenzied Sibyl saw her husband and his mother in the doorway, and she understood what she had done. She moved slowly toward the door; then suddenly she began to run. She ran into the hall, and through it, and out of the house. Roscoe followed her heavily, his eyes on the ground.
"NOW THEN!" said Sheridan to Lamhorn.
The words were indefinite, but the voice was not. Neither was the vicious gesture of the bandaged hand, which concluded its orbit in the direction of the door in a manner sufficient for the swift dispersal of George and Jackson and several female servants who hovered behind Mrs. Sheridan. They fled lightly.
"Papa, papa!" wailed Mrs. Sheridan. "Look at your hand! You'd oughtn't to been so rough with Edie; you hurt your hand on her shoulder. Look!"
There was, in fact, a spreading red stain upon the bandages at the tips of the fingers, and Sheridan put his hand back in the sling. "Now then!" he repeated. "You goin' to leave my house?"
"He will NOT!" sobbed Edith. "Don't you DARE order him out!"
"Don't you bother, dear," said Lamhorn, quietly. "He doesn't understand. YOU mustn't be troubled." Pallor was becoming to him; he looked very handsome, and as he left the room he seemed in the girl's distraught eyes a persecuted noble, indifferent to the rabble yawping insult at his heels—the rabble being enacted by her father.
"Don't come back, either!" said, Sheridan, realistic in this impersonation. "Keep off the premises!" he called savagely into the hall. "This family's through with you!"
"It is NOT!" Edith cried, breaking from her mother. "You'll SEE about that! You'll find out! You'll find out what'll happen! What's HE done? I guess if I can stand it, it's none of YOUR business, is it? What's HE done, I'd like to know? You don't know anything about it. Don't you s'pose he told ME? She was crazy about him soon as he began going there, and he flirted with her a little. That's everything he did, and it was before he met ME! After that he wouldn't, and it wasn't anything, anyway—he never was serious a minute about it. SHE wanted it to be serious, and she was bound she wouldn't give him up. He told her long ago he cared about me, but she kept persecuting him and—"
"Yes," said Sheridan, sternly; "that's HIS side of it! That'll do! He doesn't come in this house again!"
"You look out!" Edith cried.
"Yes, I'll look out! I'd 'a' told you to-day he wasn't to be allowed on the premises, but I had other things on my mind. I had Abercrombie look up this young man privately, and he's no 'count. He's no 'count on earth! He's no good! He's NOTHIN'! But it wouldn't matter if he was George Washington, after what's happened and what I've heard to-night!"
"But, papa," Mrs. Sheridan began, "if Edie says it was all Sibyl's fault, makin' up to him, and he never encouraged her much, nor—"
"'S enough!" he roared. "He keeps off these premises! And if any of you so much as ever speak his name to me again—"
But Edith screamed, clapping her hands over her ears to shut out the sound of his voice, and ran up-stairs, sobbing loudly, followed by her mother. However, Mrs. Sheridan descended a few minutes later and joined her husband in the library. Bibbs, still sitting in his gold chair, saw her pass, roused himself from reverie, and strolled in after her.
"She locked her door," said Mrs. Sheridan, shaking her head woefully. "She wouldn't even answer me. They wasn't a sound from her room."
"Well," said her husband, "she can settle her mind to it. She never speaks to that fellow again, and if he tries to telephone her to-morrow—Here! You tell the help if he calls up to ring off and say it's my orders. No, you needn't. I'll tell 'em myself."
"Better not," said Bibbs, gently.
His father glared at him.
"It's no good," said Bibbs. "Mother, when you were in love with father—"
"My goodness!" she cried. "You ain't a-goin' to compare your father to that—"
"Edith feels about him just what you did about father," said Bibbs. "And if YOUR father had told you—"
"I won't LISTEN to such silly talk!" she declared, angrily.
"So you're handin' out your advice, are you, Bibbs?" said Sheridan. "What is it?"
"Let her see him all she wants."
"You're a—" Sheridan gave it up. "I don't know what to call you!"
"Let her see him all she wants," Bibbs repeated, thoughtfully. "You're up against something too strong for you. If Edith were a weakling you'd have a chance this way, but she isn't. She's got a lot of your determination, father, and with what's going on inside of her she'll beat you. You can't keep her from seeing him, as long as she feels about him the way she does now. You can't make her think less of him, either. Nobody can. Your only chance is that she'll do it for herself, and if you give her time and go easy she probably will. Marriage would do it for her quickest, but that's just what you don't want, and as you DON'T want it, you'd better—"
"I can't stand any more!" Sheridan burst out. "If it's come to BIBBS advisin' me how to run this house I better resign. Mamma, where's that nigger George? Maybe HE'S got some plan how I better manage my family. Bibbs, for God's sake go and lay down! 'Let her see him all she wants'! Oh, Lord! here's wisdom; here's—"
"Bibbs," said Mrs. Sheridan, "if you haven't got anything to do, you might step over and take Sibyl's wraps home—she left 'em in the hall. I don't think you seem to quiet your poor father very much just now."
"All right." And Bibbs bore Sibyl's wraps across the street and delivered them to Roscoe, who met him at the door. Bibbs said only, "Forgot these," and, "Good night, Roscoe," cordially and cheerfully, and returned to the New House. His mother and father were still talking in the library, but with discretion he passed rapidly on and upward to his own room, and there he proceeded to write in his note-book.
There seems to be another curious thing about Love [Bibbs wrote]. Love is blind while it lives and only opens its eyes and becomes very wide awake when it dies. Let it alone until then.
You cannot reason with love or with any other passion. The wise will not wish for love—nor for ambition. These are passions and bring others in their train—hatreds and jealousies—all blind. Friendship and a quiet heart for the wise.
What a turbulence is love! It is dangerous for a blind thing to be turbulent; there are precipices in life. One would not cross a mountain-pass with a thick cloth over his eyes. Lovers do. Friendship walks gently and with open eyes.
To walk to church with a friend! To sit beside her there! To rise when she rises, and to touch with one's thumb and fingers the other half of the hymn-book that she holds! What lover, with his fierce ways, could know this transcendent happiness?
Friendship brings everything that heaven could bring. There is no labor that cannot become a living rapture if you know that a friend is thinking of you as you labor. So you sing at your work. For the work is part of the thoughts of your friend; so you love it!
Love is demanding and claiming and insistent. Friendship is all kindness—it makes the world glorious with kindness. What color you see when you walk with a friend! You see that the gray sky is brilliant and shimmering; you see that the smoke has warm browns and is marvelously sculptured—the air becomes iridescent. You see the gold in brown hair. Light floods everything.
When you walk to church with a friend you know that life can give you nothing richer. You pray that there will be no change in anything for ever.
What an adorable thing it is to discover a little foible in your friend, a bit of vanity that gives you one thing more about her to adore! On a cold morning she will perhaps walk to church with you without her furs, and she will blush and return an evasive answer when you ask her why she does not wear them. You will say no more, because you understand. She looks beautiful in her furs; you love their darkness against her cheek; but you comprehend that they conceal the loveliness of her throat and the fine line of her chin, and that she also has comprehended this, and, wishing to look still more bewitching, discards her furs at the risk of taking cold. So you hold your peace, and try to look as if you had not thought it out.
This theory is satisfactory except that it does not account for the absence of the muff. Ah, well, there must always be a mystery somewhere! Mystery is a part of enchantment.
Manual labor is best. Your heart can sing and your mind can dream while your hands are working. You could not have a singing heart and a dreaming mind all day if you had to scheme out dollars, or if you had to add columns of figures. Those things take your attention. You cannot be thinking of your friend while you write letters beginning "Yours of the 17th inst. rec'd and contents duly noted." But to work with your hands all day, thinking and singing, and then, after nightfall, to hear the ineffable kindness of your friend's greeting—always there—for you! Who would wake from such a dream as this?
Dawn and the sea—music in moonlit gardens—nightingales serenading through almond-groves in bloom—what could bring such things into the city's turmoil? Yet they are here, and roses blossom in the soot. That is what it means not to be alone! That is what a friend gives you!
Having thus demonstrated that he was about twenty-five and had formed a somewhat indefinite definition of friendship, but one entirely his own (and perhaps Mary's) Bibbs went to bed, and was the only Sheridan to sleep soundly through the night and to wake at dawn with a light heart.
His cheerfulness was vaguely diminished by the troublous state of affairs of his family. He had recognized his condition when he wrote, "Who would wake from such a dream as this?" Bibbs was a sympathetic person, easily touched, but he was indeed living in a dream, and all things outside of it were veiled and remote—for that is the way of youth in a dream. And Bibbs, who had never before been of any age, either old or young, had come to his youth at last.
He went whistling from the house before even his father had come down-stairs. There was a fog outdoors, saturated with a fine powder of soot, and though Bibbs noticed absently the dim shape of an automobile at the curb before Roscoe's house, he did not recognize it as Dr. Gurney's, but went cheerily on his way through the dingy mist. And when he was once more installed beside his faithful zinc-eater he whistled and sang to it, as other workmen did to their own machines sometimes, when things went well. His comrades in the shop glanced at him amusedly now and then. They liked him, and he ate his lunch at noon with a group of Socialists who approved of his ideas and talked of electing him to their association.
The short days of the year had come, and it was dark before the whistles blew. When the signal came, Bibbs went to the office, where he divested himself of his overalls—his single divergence from the routine of his fellow-workmen—and after that he used soap and water copiously. This was his transformation scene: he passed into the office a rather frail young working-man noticeably begrimed, and passed out of it to the pavement a cheerfully pre-occupied sample of gentry, fastidious to the point of elegance.
The sidewalk was crowded with the bearers of dinner-pails, men and boys and women and girls from the work-rooms that closed at five. Many hurried and some loitered; they went both east and west, jostling one another, and Bibbs, turning his face homeward, was forced to go slowly.
Coming toward him, as slowly, through the crowd, a tall girl caught sight of his long, thin figure and stood still until he had almost passed her, for in the thick crowd and the thicker gloom he did not recognize her, though his shoulder actually touched hers. He would have gone by, but she laughed delightedly; and he stopped short, startled. Two boys, one chasing the other, swept between them, and Bibbs stood still, peering about him in deep perplexity. She leaned toward him.
"I knew YOU!" she said.
"Good heavens!" cried Bibbs. "I thought it was your voice coming out of a star!"
"There's only smoke overhead," said Mary, and laughed again. "There aren't any stars."
"Oh yes, there were—when you laughed!"
She took his arm, and they went on. "I've come to walk home with you, Bibbs. I wanted to."
"But were you here in the—"
"In the dark? Yes! Waiting? Yes!"
Bibbs was radiant; he felt suffocated with happiness. He began to scold her.
"But it's not safe, and I'm not worth it. You shouldn't have—you ought to know better. What did—"
"I only waited about twelve seconds," she laughed. "I'd just got here."
"But to come all this way and to this part of town in the dark, you—"
"I was in this part of town already," she said. "At least, I was only seven or eight blocks away, and it was dark when I came out, and I'd have had to go home alone—and I preferred going home with you."
"It's pretty beautiful for me," said Bibbs, with a deep breath. "You'll never know what it was to hear your laugh in the darkness—and then to—to see you standing there! Oh, it was like—it was like—how can I TELL you what it was like?" They had passed beyond the crowd now, and a crossing-lamp shone upon them, which revealed the fact that again she was without her furs. Here was a puzzle. Why did that adorable little vanity of hers bring her out without them in the DARK? But of course she had gone out long before dark. For undefinable reasons this explanation was not quite satisfactory; however, allowing it to stand, his solicitude for her took another turn. "I think you ought to have a car," he said, "especially when you want to be out after dark. You need one in winter, anyhow. Have you ever asked your father for one?"
"No," said Mary. "I don't think I'd care for one particularly."
"I wish you would." Bibbs's tone was earnest and troubled. "I think in winter you—"
"No, no," she interrupted, lightly. "I don't need—"
"But my mother tried to insist on sending one over here every afternoon for me. I wouldn't let her, because I like the walk, but a girl—"
"A girl likes to walk, too," said Mary. "Let me tell you where I've been this afternoon and how I happened to be near enough to make you take me home. I've been to see a little old man who makes pictures of the smoke. He has a sort of warehouse for a studio, and he lives there with his mother and his wife and their seven children, and he's gloriously happy. I'd seen one of his pictures at an exhibition, and I wanted to see more of them, so he showed them to me. He has almost everthing he ever painted; I don't suppose he's sold more than four or five pictures in his life. He gives drawing-lessons to keep alive."
"How do you mean he paints the smoke?" Bibbs asked.
"Literally. He paints from his studio window and from the street—anywhere. He just paints what's around him—and it's beautiful."
"Wonderful! He sees the sky through it, somehow. He does the ugly roofs of cheap houses through a haze of smoke, and he does smoky sunsets and smoky sunrises, and he has other things with the heavy, solid, slow columns of smoke going far out and growing more ethereal and mixing with the hazy light in the distance; and he has others with the broken sky-line of down-town, all misted with the smoke and puffs and jets of vapor that have colors like an orchard in mid-April. I'm going to take you there some Sunday afternoon, Bibbs."
"You're showing me the town," he said. "I didn't know what was in it at all."
"There are workers in beauty here," she told him, gently. "There are other painters more prosperous than my friend. There are all sorts of things."
"I didn't know."
"No. Since the town began growing so great that it called itself 'greater,' one could live here all one's life and know only the side of it that shows."
"The beauty-workers seem buried very deep," said Bibbs. "And I imagine that your friend who makes the smoke beautiful must be buried deepest of all. My father loves the smoke, but I can't imagine his buying one of your friend's pictures. He'd buy the 'Bay of Naples,' but he wouldn't get one of those. He'd think smoke in a picture was horrible—unless he could use it for an advertisement."
"Yes," she said, thoughtfully. "And really he's the town. They ARE buried pretty deep, it seems, sometimes, Bibbs."
"And yet it's all wonderful," he said. "It's wonderful to me."
"You mean the town is wonderful to you?"
"Yes, because everything is, since you called me your friend. The city is only a rumble on the horizon for me. It can't come any closer than the horizon so long as you let me see you standing by my old zinc-eater all day long, helping me. Mary—" He stopped with a gasp. "That's the first time I've called you 'Mary'!"
"Yes." She laughed, a little tremuously. "Though I wanted you to!"
"I said it without thinking. It must be because you came there to walk home with me. That must be it."
"Women like to have things said," Mary informed him, her tremulous laughter continuing. "Were you glad I came for you?"
"No—not 'glad.' I felt as if I were being carried straight up and up and up—over the clouds. I feel like that still. I think I'm that way most of the time. I wonder what I was like before I knew you. The person I was then seems to have been somebody else, not Bibbs Sheridan at all. It seems long, long ago. I was gloomy and sickly—somebody else—somebody I don't understand now, a coward afraid of shadows—afraid of things that didn't exist—afraid of my old zinc-eater! And now I'm only afraid of what might change anything."
She was silent a moment, and then, "You're happy, Bibbs?" she asked.
"Ah, don't you see?" he cried. "I want it to last for a thousand, thousand years, just as it is! You've made me so rich, I'm a miser. I wouldn't have one thing different—nothing, nothing!"
"Dear Bibbs!" she said, and laughed happily.
Bibbs continued to live in the shelter of his dream. He had told Edith, after his ineffective effort to be useful in her affairs, that he had decided that he was "a member of the family"; but he appeared to have relapsed to the retired list after that one attempt at participancy—he was far enough detached from membership now. These were turbulent days in the New House, but Bibbs had no part whatever in the turbulence—he seemed an absent-minded stranger, present by accident and not wholly aware that he was present. He would sit, faintly smiling over pleasant imaginings and dear reminiscences of his own, while battle raged between Edith and her father, or while Sheridan unloosed jeremiads upon the sullen Roscoe, who drank heavily to endure them. The happy dreamer wandered into storm-areas like a somnambulist, and wandered out again unawakened. He was sorry for his father and for Roscoe, and for Edith and for Sibyl, but their sufferings and outcries seemed far away.
Sibyl was under Gurney's care. Roscoe had sent for him on Sunday night, not long after Bibbs returned the abandoned wraps; and during the first days of Sibyl's illness the doctor found it necessary to be with her frequently, and to install a muscular nurse. And whether he would or no, Gurney received from his hysterical patient a variety of pungent information which would have staggered anybody but a family physician. Among other things he was given to comprehend the change in Bibbs, and why the zinc-eater was not putting a lump in the operator's gizzard as of yore.
Sibyl was not delirious—she was a thin little ego writhing and shrieking in pain. Life had hurt her, and had driven her into hurting herself; her condition was only the adult's terrible exaggeration of that of a child after a bad bruise—there must be screaming and telling mother all about the hurt and how it happened. Sibyl babbled herself hoarse when Gurney withheld morphine. She went from the beginning to the end in a breath. No protest stopped her; nothing stopped her.
"You ought to let me die!" she wailed. "It's cruel not to let me die! What harm have I ever done to anybody that you want to keep me alive? Just look at my life! I only married Roscoe to get away from home, and look what that got me into!—look where I am now! He brought me to this town, and what did I have in my life but his FAMILY? And they didn't even know the right crowd! If they had, it might have been SOMETHING! I had nothing—nothing—nothing in the world! I wanted to have a good time—and how could I? Where's any good time among these Sheridans? They never even had wine on the table! I thought I was marrying into a rich family where I'd meet attractive people I'd read about, and travel, and go to dances—and, oh, my Lord! all I got was these Sheridans! I did the best I could; I did, indeed! Oh, I DID! I just tried to live. Every woman's got a right to live, some time in her life, I guess! Things were just beginning to look brighter—we'd moved up here, and that frozen crowd across the street were after Jim for their daughter, and they'd have started us with the right people—and then I saw how Edith was getting him away from me. She did it, too! She got him! A girl with money can do that to a married woman—yes, she can, every time! And what could I do? What can any woman do in my fix? I couldn't do ANYTHING but try to stand it—and I couldn't stand it! I went to that icicle—that Vertrees girl—and she could have helped me a little, and it wouldn't have hurt her. It wouldn't have done her any harm to help me THAT little! She treated me as if I'd been dirt that she wouldn't even take the trouble to sweep out of her house! Let her WAIT!"
Sibyl's voice, hoarse from babbling, became no more than a husky whisper, though she strove to make it louder. She struggled half upright, and the nurse restrained her. "I'd get up out of this bed to show her she can't do such things to me! I was absolutely ladylike, and she walked out and left me there alone! She'll SEE! She started after Bibbs before Jim's casket was fairly underground, and she thinks she's landed that poor loon—but she'll see! She'll see! If I'm ever able to walk across the street again I'll show her how to treat a woman in trouble that comes to her for help! It wouldn't have hurt her any—it wouldn't—it wouldn't. And Edith needn't have told what she told Roscoe—it wouldn't have hurt her to let me alone. And HE told her I bored him—telephoning him I wanted to see him. He needn't have done it! He needn't—needn't—" Her voice grew fainter, for that while, with exhaustion, though she would go over it all again as soon as her strength returned. She lay panting. Then, seeing her husband standing disheveled in the doorway, "Don't come in, Roscoe," she murmured. "I don't want to see you." And as he turned away she added, "I'm kind of sorry for you, Roscoe."
Her antagonist, Edith, was not more coherent in her own wailings, and she had the advantage of a mother for listener. She had also the disadvantage of a mother for duenna, and Mrs. Sheridan, under her husband's sharp tutelage, proved an effective one. Edith was reduced to telephoning Lamhorn from shops whenever she could juggle her mother into a momentary distraction over a counter.
Edith was incomparably more in love than before Lamhorn's expulsion. Her whole being was nothing but the determination to hurdle everything that separated her from him. She was in a state that could be altered by only the lightest and most delicate diplomacy of suggestion, but Sheridan, like legions of other parents, intensified her passion and fed it hourly fuel by opposing to it an intolerable force. He swore she should cool, and thus set her on fire.
Edith planned neatly. She fought hard, every other evening, with her father, and kept her bed betweentimes to let him see what his violence had done to her. Then, when the mere sight of her set him to breathing fast, she said pitiably that she might bear her trouble better if she went away; it was impossible to be in the same town with Lamhorn and not think always of him. Perhaps in New York she might forget a little. She had written to a school friend, established quietly with an aunt in apartments—and a month or so of theaters and restaurants might bring peace. Sheridan shouted with relief; he gave her a copious cheque, and she left upon a Monday morning wearing violets with her mourning and having kissed everybody good-by except Sibyl and Bibbs. She might have kissed Bibbs, but he failed to realize that the day of her departure had arrived, and was surprised, on returning from his zinc-eater, that evening, to find her gone. "I suppose they'll be maried there," he said, casually.
Sheridan, seated, warming his stockinged feet at the fire, jumped up, fuming. "Either you go out o' here, or I will, Bibbs!" he snorted. "I don't want to be in the same room with the particular kind of idiot you are! She's through with that riff-raff; all she needed was to be kept away from him a few weeks, and I KEPT her away, and it did the business. For Heaven's sake, go on out o' here!"
Bibbs obeyed the gesture of a hand still bandaged. And the black silk sling was still round Sheridan's neck, but no word of Gurney's and no excruciating twinge of pain could keep Sheridan's hand in the sling. The wounds, slight enough originally, had become infected the first time he had dislodged the bandages, and healing was long delayed. Sheridan had the habit of gesture; he could not "take time to remember," he said, that he must be careful, and he had also a curious indignation with his hurt; he refused to pay it the compliment of admitting its existence.
The Saturday following Edith's departure Gurney came to the Sheridan Building to dress the wounds and to have a talk with Sheridan which the doctor felt had become necessary. But he was a little before the appointed time and was obliged to wait a few minutes in an anteroom—there was a directors' meeting of some sort in Sheridan's office. The door was slightly ajar, leaking cigar-smoke and oratory, the latter all Sheridan's, and Gurney listened.
"No, sir; no, sir; no, sir!" he heard the big voice rumbling, and then, breaking into thunder, "I tell you NO! Some o' you men make me sick! You'd lose your confidence in Almighty God if a doodle-bug flipped his hind leg at you! You say money's tight all over the country. Well, what if it is? There's no reason for it to be tight, and it's not goin' to keep OUR money tight! You're always runnin' to the woodshed to hide your nickels in a crack because some fool newspaper says the market's a little skeery! You listen to every street-corner croaker and then come and set here and try to scare ME out of a big thing! We're IN on this—understand? I tell you there never WAS better times. These are good times and big times, and I won't stand for any other kind o' talk. This country's on its feet as it never was before, and this city's on its feet and goin' to stay there!" And Gurney heard a series of whacks and thumps upon the desk. "'Bad times'!" Sheridan vociferated, with accompanying thumps. "Rabbit talk! These times are glorious, I tell you! We're in the promised land, and we're goin' to STAY there! That's all, gentlemen. The loan goes!"
The directors came forth, flushed and murmurous, and Gurney hastened in. His guess was correct: Sheridan had been thumping the desk with his right hand. The physician scolded wearily, making good the fresh damage as best he might; and then he said what he had to say on the subject of Roscoe and Sibyl, his opinion meeting, as he expected, a warmly hostile reception. But the result of this conversation was that by telephonic command Roscoe awaited his father, an hour later, in the library at the New House.
"Gurney says your wife's able to travel," Sheridan said brusquely, as he came in.
"Yes." Roscoe occupied a deep chair and sat in the dejected attitude which had become his habit. "Yes, she is."
"Edith had to leave town, and so Sibyl thinks she'll have to, too!"
"Oh, I wouldn't put it that way," Roscoe protested, drearily.
"No, I hear YOU wouldn't!" There was a bitter gibe in the father's voice, and he added: "It's a good thing she's goin' abroad—if she'll stay there. I shouldn't think any of us want her here any more—you least of all!"
"It's no use your talking that way," said Roscoe. "You won't do any good."
"Well, when are you comin' back to your office?" Sheridan used a brisker, kinder tone. "Three weeks since you showed up there at all. When you goin' to be ready to cut out whiskey and all the rest o' the foolishness and start in again? You ought to be able to make up for a lot o' lost time and a lot o' spilt milk when that woman takes herself out o' the way and lets you and all the rest of us alone."
"It's no use, father, I tell you. I know what Gurney was going to say to you. I'm not going back to the office. I'm DONE!"
"Wait a minute before you talk that way!" Sheridan began his sentry-go up and down the room. "I suppose you know it's taken two pretty good men about sixteen hours a day to set things straight and get 'em runnin' right again, down in your office?"
"They must be good men." Roscoe nodded indifferently. "I thought I was doing about eight men's work. I'm glad you found two that could handle it."
"Look here! If I worked you it was for your own good. There are plenty men drive harder'n I do, and—"
"Yes. There are some that break down all the other men that work with 'em. They either die, or go crazy, or have to quit, and are no use the rest of their lives. The last's my case, I guess—'complicated by domestic difficulties'!"
"You set there and tell me you give up?" Sheridan's voice shook, and so did the gesticulating hand which he extended appealingly toward the despondent figure. "Don't do it, Roscoe! Don't say it! Say you'll come down there again and be a man! This woman ain't goin' to trouble you any more. The work ain't goin' to hurt you if you haven't got her to worry you, and you can get shut o' this nasty whiskey-guzzlin'; it ain't fastened on you yet. Don't say—"
"It's no use on earth," Roscoe mumbled. "No use on earth."
"Look here! If you want another month's vacation—"
"I know Gurney told you, so what's the use talking about 'vacations'?"
"Gurney!" Sheridan vociferated the name savagely. "It's Gurney, Gurney, Gurney! Always Gurney! I don't know what the world's comin' to with everybody runnin' around squealin', 'The doctor says this,' and, 'The doctor says that'! It makes me sick! How's this country expect to get its Work done if Gurney and all the other old nanny-goats keep up this blattin'—'Oh, oh! Don't lift that stick o' wood; you'll ruin your NERVES!' So he says you got 'nervous exhaustion induced by overwork and emotional strain.' They always got to stick the Work in if they see a chance! I reckon you did have the 'emotional strain,' and that's all's the matter with you. You'll be over it soon's this woman's gone, and Work's the very thing to make you quit frettin' about her."
"Did Gurney tell you I was fit to work?"
"Shut up!" Sheridan bellowed. "I'm so sick o' that man's name I feel like shootin' anybody that says it to me!" He fumed and chafed, swearing indistinctly, then came and stood before his son. "Look here; do you think you're doin' the square thing by me? Do you? How much you worth?"
"I've got between seven and eight thousand a year clear, of my own, outside the salary. That much is mine whether I work or not."
"It is? You could'a pulled it out without me, I suppose you think, at your age?"
"No. But it's mine, and it's enough."
"My Lord! It's about what a Congressman gets, and you want to quit there! I suppose you think you'll get the rest when I kick the bucket, and all you have to do is lay back and wait! You let me tell you right here, you'll never see one cent of it. You go out o' business now, and what would you know about handlin' it five or ten or twenty years from now? Because I intend to STAY here a little while yet, my boy! They'd either get it away from you or you'd sell for a nickel and let it be split up and—" He whirled about, marched to the other end of the room, and stood silent a moment. Then he said, solemnly: "Listen. If you go out now, you leave me in the lurch, with nothin' on God's green earth to depend on but your brother—and you know what he is. I've depended on you for it ALL since Jim died. Now you've listened to that dam' doctor, and he says maybe you won't ever be as good a man as you were, and that certainly you won't be for a year or so—probably more. Now, that's all a lie. Men don't break down that way at your age. Look at ME! And I tell you, you can shake this thing off. All you need is a little GET-up and a little gumption. Men don't go away for YEARS and then come back into MOVING businesses like ours—they lose the strings. And if you could, I won't let you—if you lay down on me now, I won't—and that's because if you lay down you prove you ain't the man I thought you were." He cleared his throat and finished quietly: "Roscoe, will you take a month's vacation and come back and go to it?"
"No," said Roscoe, listlessly. "I'm through."
"All right," said Sheridan. He picked up the evening paper from a table, went to a chair by the fire and sat down, his back to his son. "Good-by."
Roscoe rose, his head hanging, but there was a dull relief in his eyes. "Best I can do," he muttered, seeming about to depart, yet lingering. "I figure it out a good deal like this," he said. "I didn't KNOW my job was any strain, and I managed all right, but from what Gur—from what I hear, I was just up to the limit of my nerves from overwork, and the—the trouble at home was the extra strain that's fixed me the way I am. I tried to brace, so I could stand the work and the trouble too, on whiskey—and that put the finish to me! I—I'm not hitting it as hard as I was for a while, and I reckon pretty soon, if I can get to feeling a little more energy, I better try to quit entirely—I don't know. I'm all in—and the doctor says so. I thought I was running along fine up to a few months ago, but all the time I was ready to bust, and didn't know it. Now, then, I don't want you to blame Sibyl, and if I were you I wouldn't speak of her as 'that woman,' because she's your daughter-in-law and going to stay that way. She didn't do anything wicked. It was a shock to me, and I don't deny it, to find what she had done—encouraging that fellow to hang around her after he began trying to flirt with her, and losing her head over him the way she did. I don't deny it was a shock and that it'll always be a hurt inside of me I'll never get over. But it was my fault; I didn't understand a woman's nature." Poor Roscoe spoke in the most profound and desolate earnest. "A woman craves society, and gaiety, and meeting attractive people, and traveling. Well, I can't give her the other things, but I can give her the traveling—real traveling, not just going to Atlantic City or New Orleans, the way she has, two, three times. A woman has to have something in her life besides a business man. And that's ALL I was. I never understood till I heard her talking when she was so sick, and I believe if you'd heard her then you wouldn't speak so hard-heartedly about her; I believe you might have forgiven her like I have. That's all. I never cared anything for any girl but her in my life, but I was so busy with business I put it ahead of her. I never THOUGHT about her, I was so busy thinking business. Well, this is where it's brought us to—and now when you talk about 'business' to me I feel the way you do when anybody talks about Gurney to you. The word 'business' makes me dizzy—it makes me honestly sick at the stomach. I believe if I had to go down-town and step inside that office door I'd fall down on the floor, deathly sick. You talk about a 'month's vacation'—and I get just as sick. I'm rattled—I can't plan—I haven't got any plans—can't make any, except to take my girl and get just as far away from that office as I can—and stay. We're going to Japan first, and if we—"
His father rustled the paper. "I said good-by, Roscoe."
"Good-by," said Roscoe, listlessly.
Sheridan waited until he heard the sound of the outer door closing; then he rose and pushed a tiny disk set in the wall. Jackson appeared.
"Has Bibbs got home from work?"
"Mist' Bibbs? No, suh."
"Tell him I want to see him, soon as he comes."
Sheridan returned to his chair and fixed his attention fiercely upon the newspaper. He found it difficult to pursue the items beyond their explanatory rubrics—there was nothing unusual or startling to concentrate his attention:
"Motorman Puts Blame on Brakes. Three Killed when Car Slides." "Burglars Make Big Haul." "Board Works Approve Big Car-line Extension." "Hold-up Men Injure Two. Man Found in Alley, Skull Fractured." "Sickening Story Told in Divorce Court." "Plan New Eighteen-story Structure." "School-girl Meets Death under Automobile." "Negro Cuts Three. One Dead." "Life Crushed Out. Third Elevator Accident in Same Building Causes Action by Coroner." "Declare Militia will be Menace. Polish Societies Protest to Governor in Church Rioting Case." "Short $3,500 in Accounts, Trusted Man Kills Self with Drug." "Found Frozen. Family Without Food or Fuel. Baby Dead when Parents Return Home from Seeking Work." "Minister Returned from Trip Abroad Lectures on Big Future of Our City. Sees Big Improvement during Short Absence. Says No European City Holds Candle." (Sheridan nodded approvingly here.)