Bibbs came through the hall whistling, and entered the room briskly. "Well, father, did you want me?"
"Yes. Sit down." Sheridan got up, and Bibbs took a seat by the fire, holding out his hands to the crackling blaze, for it was cold outdoors.
"I came within seven of the shop record to-day," he said. "I handled more strips than any other workman has any day this month. The nearest to me is sixteen behind."
"There!" exclaimed his father, greatly pleased. "What'd I tell you? I'd like to hear Gurney hint again that I wasn't right in sending you there—I would just like to hear him! And you—ain't you ashamed of makin' such a fuss about it? Ain't you?"
"I didn't go at it in the right spirit the other time," Bibbs said, smiling brightly, his face ruddy in the cheerful firelight. "I didn't know the difference it meant to like a thing."
"Well, I guess I've pretty thoroughly vindicated my judgement. I guess I HAVE! I said the shop'd be good for you, and it was. I said it wouldn't hurt you, and it hasn't. It's been just exactly what I said it would be. Ain't that so?"
"Looks like it!" Bibbs agreed, gaily.
"Well, I'd like to know any place I been wrong, first and last! Instead o' hurting you, it's been the makin' of you—physically. You're a good inch taller'n what I am, and you'd be a bigger man than what I am if you'd get some flesh on your bones; and you ARE gettin' a little. Physically, it's started you out to be the huskiest one o' the whole family. Now, then, mentally—that's different. I don't say it unkindly, Bibbs, but you got to do something for yourself mentally, just like what's begun physically. And I'm goin' to help you."
Sheridan decided to sit down again. He brought his chair close to his son's, and, leaning over, tapped Bibbs's knee confidentially. "I got plans for you, Bibbs," he said.
Bibbs instantly looked thoroughly alarmed. He drew back. "I—I'm all right now, father."
"Listen." Sheridan settled himself in his chair, and spoke in the tone of a reasonable man reasoning. "Listen here, Bibbs. I had another blow to-day, and it was a hard one and right in the face, though I HAVE been expectin' it some little time back. Well, it's got to be met. Now I'll be frank with you. As I said a minute ago, mentally I couldn't ever called you exactly strong. You been a little weak both ways, most of your life. Not but what I think you GOT a mentality, if you'd learn to use it. You got will-power, I'll say that for you. I never knew boy or man that could be stubborner—never one in my life! Now, then, you've showed you could learn to run that machine best of any man in the shop, in no time at all. That looks to me like you could learn to do other things. I don't deny but what it's an encouragin' sign. I don't deny that, at all. Well, that helps me to think the case ain't so hopeless as it looks. You're all I got to meet this blow with, but maybe you ain't as poor material as I thought. Your tellin' me about comin' within seven strips of the shop's record to-day looks to me like encouragin' information brought in at just about the right time. Now, then, I'm goin' to give you a raise. I wanted to send you straight on up through the shops—a year or two, maybe—but I can't do it. I lost Jim, and now I've lost Roscoe. He's quit. He's laid down on me. If he ever comes back at all, he'll be a long time pickin' up the strings, and, anyway, he ain't the man I thought he was. I can't count on him. I got to have SOMEBODY I KNOW I can count on. And I'm down to this: you're my last chance. Bibbs, I got to learn you to use what brains you got and see if we can't develop 'em a little. Who knows? And I'm goin' to put my time in on it. I'm goin' to take you right down-town with ME, and I won't be hard on you if you're a little slow at first. And I'm goin' to do the big thing for you. I'm goin' to make you feel you got to do the big thing for me, in return. I've vindicated my policy with you about the shop, and now I'm goin' to turn right around and swing you 'way over ahead of where the other boys started, and I'm goin' to make an appeal to your ambition that'll make you dizzy!" He tapped his son on the knee again. "Bibbs, I'm goin' to start you off this way: I'm goin' to make you a director in the Pump Works Company; I'm goin' to make you vice-president of the Realty Company and a vice-president of the Trust Company!"
Bibbs jumped to his feet, blanched. "Oh no!" he cried.
Sheridan took his dismay to be the excitement of sudden joy. "Yes, sir! And there's some pretty fat little salaries goes with those vice-presidencies, and a pinch o' stock in the Pump Company with the directorship. You thought I was pretty mean about the shop—oh, I know you did!—but you see the old man can play it both ways. And so right now, the minute you've begun to make good the way I wanted you to, I deal from the new deck. And I'll keep on handin' it out bigger and bigger every time you show me you're big enough to play the hand I deal you. I'm startin' you with a pretty big one, my boy!"
"But I don't—I don't—I don't want it!" Bibbs stammered.
"What'd you say?" Sheridan thought he had not heard aright.
"I don't want it, father. I thank you—I do thank you—"
Sheridan looked perplexed. "What's the matter with you? Didn't you understand what I was tellin' you?"
"You sure? I reckon you didn't. I offered—"
"I know, I know! But I can't take it."
"What's the matter with you?" Sheridan was half amazed, half suspicious. "Your head feel funny?"
"I've never been quite so sane in my life," said Bibbs, "as I have lately. And I've got just what I want. I'm living exactly the right life. I'm earning my daily bread, and I'm happy in doing it. My wages are enough. I don't want any more money, and I don't deserve any—"
"Damnation!" Sheridan sprang up. "You've turned Socialist! You been listening to those fellows down there, and you—"
"No, sir. I think there's a great deal in what they say, but that isn't it."
Sheridan tried to restrain his growing fury, and succeeded partially. "Then what is it? What's the matter?"
"Nothing," his son returned, nervously. "Nothing—except that I'm content. I don't want to change anything."
Bibbs had the incredible folly to try to explain. "I'll tell you, father, if I can. I know it may be hard to understand—"
"Yes, I think it may be," said Sheridan, grimly. "What you say usually is a LITTLE that way. Go on!"
Perturbed and distressed, Bibbs rose instinctively; he felt himself at every possible disadvantage. He was a sleeper clinging to a dream—a rough hand stretched to shake him and waken him. He went to a table and made vague drawings upon it with a finger, and as he spoke he kept his eyes lowered. "You weren't altogether right about the shop—that is, in one way you weren't, father." He glanced up apprehensively. Sheridan stood facing him, expressionless, and made no attempt to interrupt. "That's difficult to explain," Bibbs continued, lowering his eyes again, to follow the tracings of his finger. "I—I believe the shop might have done for me this time if I hadn't—if something hadn't helped me to—oh, not only to bear it, but to be happy in it. Well, I AM happy in it. I want to go on just as I am. And of all things on earth that I don't want, I don't want to live a business life—I don't want to be drawn into it. I don't think it IS living—and now I AM living. I have the healthful toil—and I can think. In business as important as yours I couldn't think anything but business. I don't—I don't think making money is worth while."
"Go on," said Sheridan, curtly, as Bibbs paused timidly.
"It hasn't seemed to get anywhere, that I can see," said Bibbs. "You think this city is rich and powerful—but what's the use of its being rich and powerful? They don't teach the children any more in the schools because the city is rich and powerful. They teach them more than they used to because some people—not rich and powerful people—have thought the thoughts to teach the children. And yet when you've been reading the paper I've heard you objecting to the children being taught anything except what would help them to make money. You said it was wasting the taxes. You want them taught to make a living, but not to live. When I was a little boy this wasn't an ugly town; now it's hideous. What's the use of being big just to be hideous? I mean I don't think all this has meant really going ahead—it's just been getting bigger and dirtier and noisier. Wasn't the whole country happier and in many ways wiser when it was smaller and cleaner and quieter and kinder? I know you think I'm an utter fool, father, but, after all, though, aren't business and politics just the housekeeping part of life? And wouldn't you despise a woman that not only made her housekeeping her ambition, but did it so noisily and dirtily that the whole neighborhood was in a continual turmoil over it? And suppose she talked and thought about her housekeeping all the time, and was always having additions built to her house when she couldn't keep clean what she already had; and suppose, with it all, she made the house altogether unpeaceful and unlivable—"
"Just one minute!" Sheridan interrupted, adding, with terrible courtesy, "If you will permit me? Have you ever been right about anything?"
"I don't quite—"
"I ask the simple question: Have you ever been right about anything whatever in the course of your life? Have you ever been right upon any subject or question you've thought about and talked about? Can you mention one single time when you were proved to be right?"
He was flourishing the bandaged hand as he spoke, but Bibbs said only, "If I've always been wrong before, surely there's more chance that I'm right about this. It seems reasonable to suppose something would be due to bring up my average."
"Yes, I thought you wouldn't see the point. And there's another you probably couldn't see, but I'll take the liberty to mention it. You been balkin' all your life. Pretty much everything I ever wanted you to do, you'd let out SOME kind of a holler, like you are now—and yet I can't seem to remember once when you didn't have to lay down and do what I said. But go on with your remarks about our city and the business of this country. Go on!"
"I don't want to be a part of it," said Bibbs, with unwonted decision. "I want to keep to myself, and I'm doing it now. I couldn't, if I went down there with you. I'd be swallowed into it. I don't care for money enough to—"
"No," his father interrupted, still dangerously quiet. "You've never had to earn a living. Anybody could tell that by what you say. Now, let me remind you: you're sleepin' in a pretty good bed; you're eatin' pretty fair food; you're wearin' pretty fine clothes. Just suppose one o' these noisy housekeepers—me, for instance—decided to let you do your own housekeepin'. May I ask what your proposition would be?"
"I'm earning nine dollars a week," said Bibbs, sturdily. "It's enough. I shouldn't mind at all."
"Who's payin' you that nine dollars a week?"
"My work!" Bibbs answered. "And I've done so well on that clipping-machine I believe I could work up to fifteen or even twenty a week at another job. I could be a fair plumber in a few months, I'm sure. I'd rather have a trade than be in business—I should, infinitely!"
"You better set about learnin' one pretty dam' quick!" But Sheridan struggled with his temper and again was partially successful in controlling it. "You better learn a trade over Sunday, because you're either goin' down with me to my office Monday morning—or—you can go to plumbing!"
"All right," said Bibbs, gently. "I can get along."
Sheridan raised his hands sardonically, as in prayer. "O God," he said, "this boy was crazy enough before he began to earn his nine dollars a week, and now his money's gone to his head! Can't You do nothin' for him?" Then he flung his hands apart, palms outward, in a furious gesture of dismissal. "Get out o' this room! You got a skull that's thicker'n a whale's thigh-bone, but it's cracked spang all the way across! You hated the machine-shop so bad when I sent you there, you went and stayed sick for over two years—and now, when I offer to take you out of it and give you the mint, you holler for the shop like a calf for its mammy! You're cracked! Oh, but I got a fine layout here! One son died, one quit, and one's a loon! The loon's all I got left! H. P. Ellersly's wife had a crazy brother, and they undertook to keep him at the house. First morning he was there he walked straight though a ten-dollar plate-glass window out into the yard. He says, 'Oh, look at the pretty dandelion!' That's what you're doin'! You want to spend your life sayin', 'Oh, look at the pretty dandelion!' and you don't care a tinker's dam' what you bust! Well, mister, loon or no loon, cracked and crazy or whatever you are, I'll take you with me Monday morning, and I'll work you and learn you—yes, and I'll lam you, if I got to—until I've made something out of you that's fit to be called a business man! I'll keep at you while I'm able to stand, and if I have to lay down to die I'll be whisperin' at you till they get the embalmin'-fluid into me! Now go on, and don't let me hear from you again till you can come and tell me you've waked up, you poor, pitiful, dandelion-pickin' SLEEP-WALKER!"
Bibbs gave him a queer look. There was something like reproach in it, for once; but there was more than that—he seemed to be startled by his father's last word.
There was sleet that evening, with a whopping wind, but neither this storm nor that other which so imminently threatened him held place in the consciousness of Bibbs Sheridan when he came once more to the presence of Mary. All was right in his world as he sat with her, reading Maurice Maeterlinck's Alladine and Palomides. The sorrowful light of the gas-jet might have been May morning sunshine flashing amber and rose through the glowing windows of the Sainte-Chapelle, it was so bright for Bibbs. And while the zinc-eater held out to bring him such golden nights as these, all the king's horses and all the king's men might not serve to break the spell.
Bibbs read slowly, but in a reasonable manner, as if he were talking; and Mary, looking at him steadily from beneath her curved fingers, appeared to discover no fault. It had grown to be her habit to look at him whenever there was an opportunity. It may be said, in truth, that while they were together, and it was light, she looked at him all the time.
When he came to the end of Alladine and Palomides they were silent a little while, considering together; then he turned back the pages and said: "There's something I want to read over. This:"
You would think I threw a window open on the dawn.... She has a soul that can be seen around her—that takes you in its arms like an ailing child and without saying anything to you consoles you for everything.... I shall never understand it all. I do not know how it can all be, but my knees bend in spite of me when I speak of it....
He stopped and looked at her.
"You boy!" said Mary, not very clearly.
"Oh yes," he returned. "But it's true—especially my knees!"
"You boy!" she murmured again, blushing charmingly. "You might read another line over. The first time I ever saw you, Bibbs, you were looking into a mirror. Do it again. But you needn't read it—I can give it to you: 'A little Greek slave that came from the heart of Arcady!'"
"I! I'm one of the hands at the Pump Works—and going to stay one, unless I have to decide to study plumbing."
"No." She shook her head. "You love and want what's beautiful and delicate and serene; it's really art that you want in your life, and have always wanted. You seemed to me, from the first, the most wistful person I had ever known, and that's what you were wistful for."
Bibbs looked doubtful and more wistful than ever; but after a moment or two the matter seemed to clarify itself to him. "Why, no," he said; "I wanted something else more than that. I wanted you."
"And here I am!" she laughed, completely understanding. "I think we're like those two in The Cloister and the Hearth. I'm just the rough Burgundian cross-bow man, Denys, who followed that gentle Gerard and told everybody that the devil was dead."
"He isn't, though," said Bibbs, as a hoarse little bell in the next room began a series of snappings which proved to be ten, upon count. "He gets into the clock whenever I'm with you." And, sighing deeply he rose to go.
"You're always very prompt about leaving me."
"I—I try to be," he said. "It isn't easy to be careful not to risk everything by giving myself a little more at a time. If I ever saw you look tired—"
"Have you ever?"
"Not yet. You always look—you always look—"
"Care-free. That's it. Except when you feel sorry for me about something, you always have that splendid look. It puts courage into people to see it. If I had a struggle to face I'd keep remembering that look—and I'd never give up! It's a brave look, too, as though gaiety might be a kind of gallantry on your part, and yet I don't quite understand why it should be, either." He smiled quizzically, looking down upon her. "Mary, you haven't a 'secret sorrow,' have you?"
For answer she only laughed.
"No," he said; "I can't imagine you with a care in the world. I think that's why you were so kind to me—you have nothing but happiness in your own life, and so you could spare time to make my troubles turn to happiness, too. But there's one little time in the twenty-four hours when I'm not happy. It's now, when I have to say good night. I feel dismal every time it comes—and then, when I've left the house, there's a bad little blankness, a black void, as though I were temporarily dead; and it lasts until I get it established in my mind that I'm really beginning another day that's to end with YOU again. Then I cheer up. But now's the bad time—and I must go through it, and so—good night." And he added with a pungent vehemence of which he was little aware, "I hate it!"
"Do you?" she said, rising to go to the door with him. But he stood motionless, gazing at her wonderingly.
"Mary! Your eyes are so—" He stopped.
"Yes?" But she looked quickly away.
"I don't know," he said. "I thought just then—"
"What did you think?"
"I don't know—it seemed to me that there was something I ought to understand—and didn't."
She laughed and met his wondering gaze again frankly. "My eyes are pleased," she said. "I'm glad that you miss me a little after you go."
"But to-morrow's coming faster than other days if you'll let it," he said.
She inclined her head. "Yes. I'll—'let it'!"
"Going to church," said Bibbs. "It IS going to church when I go with you!"
She went to the front door with him; she always went that far. They had formed a little code of leave-taking, by habit, neither of them ever speaking of it; but it was always the same. She always stood in the doorway until he reached the sidewalk, and there he always turned and looked back, and she waved her hand to him. Then he went on, halfway to the New House, and looked back again, and Mary was not in the doorway, but the door was open and the light shone. It was as if she meant to tell him that she would never shut him out; he could always see that friendly light of the open doorway—as if it were open for him to come back, if he would. He could see it until a wing of the New House came between, when he went up the path. The open doorway seemed to him the beautiful symbol of her friendship—of her thought of him; a symbol of herself and of her ineffable kindness.
And she kept the door open—even to-night, though the sleet and fine snow swept in upon her bare throat and arms, and her brown hair was strewn with tiny white stars. His heart leaped as he turned and saw that she was there, waving her hand to him, as if she did not know that the storm touched her. When he had gone on, Mary did as she always did—she went into an unlit room across the hall from that in which they had spent the evening, and, looking from the window, watched him until he was out of sight. The storm made that difficult to-night, but she caught a glimpse of him under the street-lamp that stood between the two houses, and saw that he turned to look back again. Then, and not before, she looked at the upper windows of Roscoe's house across the street. They were dark. Mary waited, but after a little while she closed the front door and returned to her window. A moment later two of the upper windows of Roscoe's house flashed into light and a hand lowered the shade of one of them. Mary felt the cold then—it was the third night she had seen those windows lighted and the shade lowered, just after Bibbs had gone.
But Bibbs had no glance to spare for Roscoe's windows. He stopped for his last look back at the open door, and, with a thin mantle of white already upon his shoulders, made his way, gasping in the wind, to the lee of the sheltering wing of the New House.
A stricken George, muttering hoarsely, admitted him, and Bibbs became aware of a paroxysm within the house. Terrible sounds came from the library: Sheridan cursing as never before; his wife sobbing, her voice rising to an agonized squeal of protest upon each of a series of muffled detonations—the outrageous thumping of a bandaged hand upon wood; then Gurney, sharply imperious, "Keep your hand in that sling! Keep your hand in that sling, I say!"
"LOOK!" George gasped, delighted to play herald for so important a tragedy; and he renewed upon his face the ghastly expression with which he had first beheld the ruins his calamitous gesture laid before the eyes of Bibbs. "Look at 'at lamidal statue!"
Gazing down the hall, Bibbs saw heroic wreckage, seemingly Byzantine—painted colossal fragments of the shattered torso, appallingly human; and gilded and silvered heaps of magnificence strewn among ruinous palms like the spoil of a barbarians' battle. There had been a massacre in the oasis—the Moor had been hurled headlong from his pedestal.
"He hit 'at ole lamidal statue," said George. "POW!"
"YESsuh! POW! he hit 'er! An' you' ma run tell me git doctuh quick 's I kin telefoam—she sho' you' pa goin' bus' a blood-vessel. He ain't takin' on 'tall NOW. He ain't nothin' 'tall to what he was 'while ago. You done miss' it, Mist' Bibbs. Doctuh got him all quiet' down, to what he was. POW! he hit'er! Yessuh!" He took Bibbs's coat and proffered a crumpled telegraph form. "Here what come," he said. "I pick 'er up when he done stompin' on 'er. You read 'er, Mist' Bibbs—you' ma tell me tuhn 'er ovuh to you soon's you come in."
Bibbs read the telegram quickly. It was from New York and addressed to Mrs. Sheridan.
Sure you will all approve step have taken as was so wretched my health would probably suffered severely Robert and I were married this afternoon thought best have quiet wedding absolutely sure you will understand wisdom of step when you know Robert better am happiest woman in world are leaving for Florida will wire address when settled will remain till spring love to all father will like him too when knows him like I do he is just ideal. Edith Lamhorn.
George departed, and Bibbs was left gazing upon chaos and listening to thunder. He could not reach the stairway without passing the open doors of the library, and he was convinced that the mere glimpse of him, just then, would prove nothing less than insufferable for his father. For that reason he was about to make his escape into the gold-and-brocade room, intending to keep out of sight, when he heard Sheridan vociferously demanding his presence.
"Tell him to come in here! He's out there. I heard George just let him in. Now you'll SEE!" And tear-stained Mrs. Sheridan, looking out into the hall, beckoned to her son.
Bibbs went as far as the doorway. Gurney sat winding a strip of white cotton, his black bag open upon a chair near by; and Sheridan was striding up and down, his hand so heavily wrapped in fresh bandages that he seemed to be wearing a small boxing-glove. His eyes were bloodshot; his forehead was heavily bedewed; one side of his collar had broken loose, and there were blood-stains upon his right cuff.
"THERE'S our little sunshine!" he cried, as Bibbs appeared. "THERE'S the hope o' the family—my lifelong pride and joy! I want—"
"Keep you hand in that sling," said Gurney, sharply.
Sheridan turned upon him, uttering a sound like a howl. "For God's sake, sing another tune!" he cried. "You said you 'came as a doctor but stay as a friend,' and in that capacity you undertake to sit up and criticize ME—"
"Oh, talk sense," said the doctor, and yawned intentionally. "What do you want Bibbs to say?"
"You were sittin' up there tellin' me I got 'hysterical'—'hysterical,' oh Lord! You sat up there and told me I got 'hysterical' over nothin'! You sat up there tellin' me I didn't have as heavy burdens as many another man you knew. I just want you to hear THIS. Now listen!" He swung toward the quiet figure waiting in the doorway. "Bibbs, will you come down-town with me Monday morning and let me start you with two vice-presidencies, a directorship, stock, and salaries? I ask you."
"No, father," said Bibbs, gently.
Sheridan looked at Gurney and then faced his son once more.
"Bibbs, you want to stay in the shop, do you, at nine dollars a week, instead of takin' up my offer?"
"And I'd like the doctor to hear: What'll you do if I decide you're too high-priced a workin'-man either to live in my house or work in my shop?"
"Find other work," said Bibbs.
"There! You hear him for yourself!" Sheridan cried. "You hear what—"
"Keep you hand in that sling! Yes, I hear him."
Sheridan leaned over Gurney and shouted, in a voice that cracked and broke, piping into falsetto: "He thinks of bein' a PLUMBER! He wants to be a PLUMBER! He told me he couldn't THINK if he went into business—he wants to be a plumber so he can THINK!"
He fell back a step, wiping his forhead with the back of his left hand. "There! That's my son! That's the only son I got now! That's my chance to live," he cried, with a bitterness that seemed to leave ashes in his throat. "That's my one chance to live—that thing you see in the doorway yonder!"
Dr. Gurney thoughtfully regarded the bandage strip he had been winding, and tossed it into the open bag. "What's the matter with giving Bibbs a chance to live?" he said, coolly. "I would if I were you. You've had TWO that went into business."
Sheridan's mouth moved grotesquely before he could speak. "Joe Gurney," he said, when he could command himself so far, "are you accusin' me of the responsibility for the death of my son James?"
"I accuse you of nothing," said the doctor. "But just once I'd like to have it out with you on the question of Bibbs—and while he's here, too." He got up, walked to the fire, and stood warming his hands behind his back and smiling. "Look here, old fellow, let's be reasonable," he said. "You were bound Bibbs should go to the shop again, and I gave you and him, both, to understand pretty plainly that if he went it was at the risk of his life. Well, what did he do? He said he wanted to go. And he did go, and he's made good there. Now, see: Isn't that enough? Can't you let him off now? He wants to write, and how do you know that he couldn't do it if you gave him a chance? How do you know he hasn't some message—something to say that might make the world just a little bit happier or wiser? He MIGHT—in time—it's a possibility not to be denied. Now he can't deliver any message if he goes down there with you, and he won't HAVE any to deliver. I don't say going down with you is likely to injure his health, as I thought the shop would, and as the shop did, the first time. I'm not speaking as doctor now, anyhow. But I tell you one thing I know: if you take him down there you'll kill something that I feel is in him, and it's finer, I think, than his physical body, and you'll kill it deader than a door-nail! And so why not let it live? You've about come to the end of your string, old fellow. Why not stop this perpetual devilish fighting and give Bibbs his chance?"
Sheridan stood looking at him fixedly. "What 'fighting?'"
"Yours—with nature." Gurney sustained the daunting gaze of his fierce antagonist equably. "You don't seem to understand that you've been struggling against actual law."
"Natural law," said Gurney. "What do you think beat you with Edith? Did Edith, herself, beat you? Didn't she obey without question something powerful that was against you? EDITH wasn't against you, and you weren't against HER, but you set yourself against the power that had her in its grip, and it shot out a spurt of flame—and won in a walk! What's taken Roscoe from you? Timbers bear just so much strain, old man; but YOU wanted to send the load across the broken bridge, and you thought you could bully or coax the cracked thing into standing. Well, you couldn't! Now here's Bibbs. There are thousands of men fit for the life you want him to lead—and so is he. It wouldn't take half of Bibbs's brains to be twice as good a business man as Jim and Roscoe put together."
"WHAT!" Sheridan goggled at him like a zany.
"Your son Bibbs," said the doctor, composedly, "Bibbs Sheridan has the kind and quantity of 'gray matter' that will make him a success in anything—if he ever wakes up! Personally I should prefer him to remain asleep. I like him that way. But the thousands of men fit for the life you want him to lead aren't fit to do much with the life he OUGHT to lead. Blindly, he's been fighting for the chance to lead it—he's obeying something that begs to stay alive within him; and, blindly, he knows you'll crush it out. You've set your will to do it. Let me tell you something more. You don't know what you've become since Jim's going thwarted you—and that's what was uppermost, a bafflement stronger than your normal grief. You're half mad with a consuming fury against the very self of the law—for it was the very self of the law that took Jim from you. That was a law concerning the cohesion of molecules. The very self of the law took Roscoe from you and gave Edith the certainty of beating you; and the very self of the law makes Bibbs deny you to-night. The LAW beats you. Haven't you been whipped enough? But you want to whip the law—you've set yourself against it, to bend it to your own ends, to wield it and twist it—"
The voice broke from Sheridan's heaving chest in a shout. "Yes! And by God, I will!"
"So Ajax defied the lightning," said Gurney.
"I've heard that dam'-fool story, too," Sheridan retorted, fiercely. "That's for chuldern and niggers. It ain't twentieth century, let me tell you! 'Defied the lightning,' did he, the jackass! If he'd been half a man he'd 'a' got away with it. WE don't go showin' off defyin' the lightning—we hitch it up and make it work for us like a black-steer! A man nowadays would just as soon think o' defyin' a wood-shed!"
"Well, what about Bibbs?" said Gurney. "Will you be a really big man now and—"
"Gurney, you know a lot about bigness!" Sheridan began to walk to and fro again, and the doctor returned gloomily to his chair. He had shot his bolt the moment he judged its chance to strike center was best, but the target seemed unaware of the marksman.
"I'm tryin' to make a big man out o' that poor truck yonder," Sheridan went on, "and you step in, beggin' me to let him be Lord knows what—I don't! I suppose you figure it out that now I got a SON-IN-LAW, I mightn't need a son! Yes, I got a son-in-law now—a spender!"
"Oh, put your hand back!" said Gurney, wearily.
There was a bronze inkstand upon the table. Sheridan put his right hand in the sling, but with his left he swept the inkstand from the table and half-way across the room—a comet with a destroying black tail. Mrs. Sheridan shrieked and sprang toward it.
"Let it lay!" he shouted, fiercely. "Let it lay!" And, weeping, she obeyed. "Yes, sir," he went on, in a voice the more ominous for the sudden hush he put upon it. "I got a spender for a son-in-law! It's wonderful where property goes, sometimes. There was ole man Tracy—you remember him, Doc—J. R. Tracy, solid banker. He went into the bank as messenger, seventeen years old; he was president at forty-three, and he built that bank with his life for forty years more. He was down there from nine in the morning until four in the afternoon the day before he died—over eighty! Gilt edge, that bank? It was diamond edge! He used to eat a bag o' peanuts and an apple for lunch; but he wasn't stingy—he was just livin' in his business. He didn't care for pie or automobiles—he had his bank. It was an institution, and it come pretty near bein' the beatin' heart o' this town in its time. Well, that ole man used to pass one o' these here turned-up-nose and turned-up-pants cigarette boys on the streets. Never spoke to him, Tracy didn't. Speak to him? God! he wouldn't 'a' coughed on him! He wouldn't 'a' let him clean the cuspidors at the bank! Why, if he'd 'a' just seen him standin' in FRONT the bank he'd 'a' had him run off the street. And yet all Tracy was doin' every day of his life was workin' for that cigarette boy! Tracy thought it was for the bank; he thought he was givin' his life and his life-blood and the blood of his brain for the bank, but he wasn't. It was every bit—from the time he went in at seventeen till he died in harness at eighty-three—it was every last lick of it just slavin' for that turned-up-nose, turned-up-pants cigarette boy. AND TRACY DIDN'T EVEN KNOW HIS NAME! He died, not ever havin' heard it, though he chased him off the front steps of his house once. The day after Tracy died his old-maid daughter married the cigarette—and there AIN'T any Tracy bank any more! And now"—his voice rose again—"and now I got a cigarette son-in-law!"
Gurney pointed to the flourishing right hand without speaking, and Sheridan once more returned it to the sling.
"My son-in-law likes Florida this winter," Sheridan went on. "That's good, and my son-in-law better enjoy it, because I don't think he'll be there next winter. They got twelve-thousand dollars to spend, and I hear it can be done in Florida by rich sons-in-law. When Roscoe's woman got me to spend that much on a porch for their new house, Edith wouldn't give me a minute's rest till I turned over the same to her. And she's got it, besides what I gave her to go East on. It'll be gone long before this time next year, and when she comes home and leaves the cigarette behind—for good—she'll get some more. MY name ain't Tracy, and there ain't goin' to be any Tracy business in the Sheridan family. And there ain't goin' to be any college foundin' and endowin' and trusteein', nor God-knows-what to keep my property alive when I'm gone! Edith'll be back, and she'll get a girl's share when she's through with that cigarette, but—"
"By the way," interposed Gurney, "didn't Mrs. Sheridan tell me that Bibbs warned you Edith would marry Lamhorn in New York?"
Sheridan went completely to pieces: he swore, while his wife screamed and stopped her ears. And as he swore he pounded the table with his wounded hand, and when the doctor, after storming at him ineffectively, sprang to catch and protect that hand, Sheridan wrenched it away, tearing the bandage. He hammered the table till it leaped.
"Fool!" he panted, choking. "If he's shown gumption enough to guess right the first time in his life, it's enough for me to begin learnin' him on!" And, struggling with the doctor, he leaned toward Bibbs, thrusting forward his convulsed face, which was deathly pale. "My name ain't Tracy, I tell you!" he screamed, hoarsely. "You give in, you stubborn fool! I've had my way with you before, and I'll have my way with you now!"
Bibbs's face was as white as his father's, but he kept remembering that "splendid look" of Mary's which he had told her would give him courage in a struggle, so that he would "never give up."
"No. You can't have your way," he said. And then, obeying a significant motion of Gurney's head, he went out quickly, leaving them struggling.
Mrs. Sheridan, in a wrapper, noiselessly opened the door of her husband's room at daybreak the next morning, and peered within the darkened chamber. At the "old" house they had shared a room, but the architect had chosen to separate them at the New, and they had not known how to formulate an objection, although to both of them something seemed vaguely reprehensible in the new arrangement.
Sheridan did not stir, and she was withdrawing her head from the aperture when he spoke.
"Oh, I'm AWAKE! Come in, if you want to, and shut the door."
She came and sat by the bed. "I woke up thinkin' about it," she explained. "And the more I thought about it the surer I got I must be right, and I knew you'd be tormentin' yourself if you was awake, so—well, you got plenty other troubles, but I'm just sure you ain't goin' to have the worry with Bibbs it looks like."
"You BET I ain't!" he grunted.
"Look how biddable he was about goin' back to the Works," she continued. "He's a right good-hearted boy, really, and sometimes I honestly have to say he seems right smart, too. Now and then he'll say something sounds right bright. 'Course, most always it doesn't, and a good deal of the time, when he says things, why, I have to feel glad we haven't got company, because they'd think he didn't have any gumption at all. Yet, look at the way he did when Jim—when Jim got hurt. He took right hold o' things. 'Course he'd been sick himself so much and all—and the rest of us never had, much, and we were kind o' green about what to do in that kind o' trouble—still, he did take hold, and everything went off all right; you'll have to say that much, papa. And Dr. Gurney says he's got brains, and you can't deny but what the doctor's right considerable of a man. He acts sleepy, but that's only because he's got such a large practice—he's a pretty wide-awake kind of a man some ways. Well, what he says last night about Bibbs himself bein' asleep, and how much he'd amount to if he ever woke up—that's what I got to thinkin' about. You heard him, papa; he says, 'Bibbs'll be a bigger business man than what Jim and Roscoe was put together—if he ever wakes up,' he says. Wasn't that exactly what he says?"
"I suppose so," said Sheridan, without exhibiting any interest. "Gurney's crazier'n Bibbs, but if he wasn't—if what he says was true—what of it?"
"Listen, papa. Just suppose Bibbs took it into his mind to get married. You know where he goes all the time—"
"Oh, Lord, yes!" Sheridan turned over in the bed, his face to the wall, leaving visible of himself only the thick grizzle of his hair. "You better go back to sleep. He runs over there—every minute she'll let him, I suppose. Go back to bed. There's nothin' in it."
"WHY ain't there?" she urged. "I know better—there is, too! You wait and see. There's just one thing in the world that'll wake the sleepiest young man alive up—yes, and make him JUMP up—and I don't care who he is or how sound asleep it looks like he is. That's when he takes it into his head to pick out some girl and settle down and have a home and chuldern of his own. THEN, I guess, he'll go out after the money! You'll see. I've known dozens o' cases, and so've you—moony, no-'count young men, all notions and talk, goin' to be ministers, maybe or something; and there's just this one thing takes it out of 'em and brings 'em right down to business. Well, I never could make out just what it is Bibbs wants to be, really; doesn't seem he wants to be a minister exactly—he's so far-away you can't tell, and he never SAYS—but I know this is goin' to get him right down to common sense. Now, I don't say that Bibbs has got the idea in his head yet—'r else he wouldn't be talkin' that fool-talk about nine dollars a week bein' good enough for him to live on. But it's COMIN', papa, and he'll JUMP for whatever you want to hand him out. He will! And I can tell you this much, too: he'll want all the salary and stock he can get hold of, and he'll hustle to keep gettin' more. That girl's the kind that a young husband just goes crazy to give things to! She's pretty and fine-lookin', and things look nice on her, and I guess she'd like to have 'em about as well as the next. And I guess she isn't gettin' many these days, either, and she'll be pretty ready for the change. I saw her with her sleeves rolled up at the kitchen window the other day, and Jackson told me yesterday their cook left two weeks ago, and they haven't tried to hire another one. He says her and her mother been doin' the housework a good while, and now they're doin' the cookin,' too. 'Course Bibbs wouldn't know that unless she's told him, and I reckon she wouldn't; she's kind o' stiffish-lookin', and Bibbs is too up in the clouds to notice anything like that for himself. They've never asked him to a meal in the house, but he wouldn't notice that, either—he's kind of innocent. Now I was thinkin'—you know, I don't suppose we've hardly mentioned the girl's name at table since Jim went, but it seems to me maybe if—"
Sheridan flung out his arms, uttering a sound half-groan, half-yawn. "You're barkin' up the wrong tree! Go on back to bed, mamma!"
"Why am I?" she demanded, crossly. "Why am I barkin' up the wrong tree?"
"Because you are. There's nothin' in it."
"I'll bet you," she said, rising—"I'll bet you he goes to church with her this morning. What you want to bet?"
"Go back to bed," he commanded. "I KNOW what I'm talkin' about; there's nothin' in it, I tell you."
She shook her head perplexedly. "You think because—because Jim was runnin' so much with her it wouldn't look right?"
"No. Nothin' to do with it."
"Then—do you know something about it that you ain't told me?"
"Yes, I do," he grunted. "Now go on. Maybe I can get a little sleep. I ain't had any yet!"
"Well—" She went to the door, her expression downcast. "I thought maybe—but—" She coughed prefatorily. "Oh, papa, something else I wanted to tell you. I was talkin' to Roscoe over the 'phone last night when the telegram came, so I forgot to tell you, but—well, Sibyl wants to come over this afternoon. Roscoe says she has something she wants to say to us. It'll be the first time she's been out since she was able to sit up—and I reckon she wants to tell us she's sorry for what happened. They expect to get off by the end o' the week, and I reckon she wants to feel she's done what she could to kind o' make up. Anyway, that's what he said. I 'phoned him again about Edith, and he said it wouldn't disturb Sibyl, because she'd been expectin' it; she was sure all along it was goin' to happen; and, besides, I guess she's got all that foolishness pretty much out of her, bein' so sick. But what I thought was, no use bein' rough with her, papa—I expect she's suffered a good deal—and I don't think we'd ought to be, on Roscoe's account. You'll—you'll be kind o' polite to her, won't you, papa?"
He mumbled something which was smothered under the coverlet he had pulled over his head.
"What?" she said, timidly. "I was just sayin' I hoped you'd treat Sibyl all right when she comes, this afternoon. You will, won't you, papa?"
He threw the coverlet off furiously. "I presume so!" he roared.
She departed guiltily.
But if he had accepted her proffered wager that Bibbs would go to church with Mary Vertrees that morning, Mrs. Sheridan would have lost. Nevertheless, Bibbs and Mary did certainly set out from Mr. Vertrees's house with the purpose of going to church. That was their intention, and they had no other. They meant to go to church.
But it happened that they were attentively preoccupied in a conversation as they came to the church; and though Mary was looking to the right and Bibbs was looking to the left, Bibbs's leftward glance converged with Mary's rightward glance, and neither was looking far beyond the other at this time. It also happened that, though they were a little jostled among groups of people in the vicinity of the church, they passed this somewhat prominent edifice without being aware of their proximity to it, and they had gone an incredible number of blocks beyond it before they discovered their error. However, feeling that they might be embarrassingly late if they returned, they decided that a walk would make them as good. It was a windless winter morning, with an inch of crisp snow over the ground. So they walked, and for the most part they were silent, but on their way home, after they had turned back at noon, they began to be talkative again.
"Mary," said Bibbs, after a time, "am I a sleep-walker?"
She laughed a little, then looked grave. "Does your father say you are?"
"Yes—when he's in a mood to flatter me. Other times, other names. He has quite a list."
"You mustn't mind," she said, gently. "He's been getting some pretty severe shocks. What you've told me makes me pretty sorry for him, Bibbs. I've always been sure he's very big."
"Yes. Big and—blind. He's like a Hercules without eyes and without any consciousness except that of his strength and of his purpose to grow stronger. Stronger for what? For nothing."
"Are you sure, Bibbs? It CAN'T be for nothing; it must be stronger for something, even though he doesn't know what it is. Perhaps what he and his kind are struggling for is something so great they COULDN'T see it—so great none of us could see it."
"No, he's just like some blind, unconscious thing heaving underground—"
"Till he breaks through and leaps out into the daylight," she finished for him, cheerily.
"Into the smoke," said Bibbs. "Look at the powder of coal-dust already dirtying the decent snow, even though it's Sunday. That's from the little pigs; the big ones aren't so bad, on Sunday! There's a fleck of soot on your cheek. Some pig sent it out into the air; he might as well have thrown it on you. It would have been braver, for then he'd have taken his chance of my whipping him for it if I could."
"IS there soot on my cheek, Bibbs, or were you only saying so rhetorically? IS there?"
"Is there? There ARE soot on your cheeks, Mary—a fleck on each. One landed since I mentioned the first."
She halted immediately, giving him her handkerchief, and he succeeded in transferring most of the black from her face to the cambric. They were entirely matter-of-course about it.
An elderly couple, it chanced, had been walking behind Bibbs and Mary for the last block or so, and passed ahead during the removal of the soot. "There!" said the elderly wife. "You're always wrong when you begin guessing about strangers. Those two young people aren't honeymooners at all—they've been married for years. A blind man could see that."
"I wish I did know who threw that soot on you," said Bibbs, looking up at the neighboring chimneys, as they went on. "They arrest children for throwing snowballs at the street-cars, but—"
"But they don't arrest the street-cars for shaking all the pictures in the houses crooked every time they go by. Nor for the uproar they make. I wonder what's the cost in nerves for the noise of the city each year. Yes, we pay the price for living in a 'growing town,' whether we have money to pay or none."
"Who is it gets the pay?" said Bibbs.
"Not I!" she laughed.
"Nobody gets it. There isn't any pay; there's only money. And only some of the men down-town get much of that. That's what my father wants me to get."
"Yes," she said, smiling to him, and nodding. "And you don't want it, and you don't need it."
"But you don't think I'm a sleep-walker, Mary?" He had told her of his father's new plans for him, though he had not described the vigor and picturesqueness of their setting forth. "You think I'm right?"
"A thousand times!" she cried. "There aren't so many happy people in this world, I think—and you say you've found what makes you happy. If it's a dream—keep it!"
"The thought of going down there—into the money shuffle—I hate it as I never hated the shop!" he said. "I hate it! And the city itself, the city that the money shuffle has made—just look at it! Look at it in winter. The snow's tried hard to make the ugliness bearable, but the ugliness is winning; it's making the snow hideous; the snow's getting dirty on top, and it's foul underneath with the dirt and disease of the unclean street. And the dirt and the ugliness and the rush and the noise aren't the worst of it; it's what the dirt and ugliness and rush and noise MEAN—that's the worst! The outward things are insufferable, but they're only the expression of a spirit—a blind embryo of a spirit, not yet a soul—oh, just greed! And this 'go ahead' nonsense! Oughtn't it all to be a fellowship? I shouldn't want to get ahead if I could—I'd want to help the other fellow to keep up with me."
"I read something the other day and remembered it for you," said Mary. "It was something Burne-Jones said of a picture he was going to paint: 'In the first picture I shall make a man walking in the street of a great city, full of all kinds of happy life: children, and lovers walking, and ladies leaning from the windows all down great lengths of a street leading to the city walls; and there the gates are wide open, letting in a space of green field and cornfield in harvest; and all round his head a great rain of swirling autumn leaves blowing from a little walled graveyard."
"And if I painted," Bibbs returned, "I'd paint a lady walking in the street of a great city, full of all kinds of uproarious and futile life—children being taught only how to make money, and lovers hurrying to get richer, and ladies who'd given up trying to wash their windows clean, and the gates of the city wide open, letting in slums and slaughter-houses and freight-yards, and all round this lady's head a great rain of swirling soot—" He paused, adding, thoughtfully: "And yet I believe I'm glad that soot got on your cheek. It was just as if I were your brother—the way you gave me your handkerchief to rub it off for you. Still, Edith never—"
"Didn't she?" said Mary, as he paused again.
"No. And I—" He contented himself with shaking his head instead of offering more definite information. Then he realized that they were passing the New House, and he sighed profoundly. "Mary, our walk's almost over."
She looked as blank. "So it is, Bibbs."
They said no more until they came to her gate. As they drifted slowly to a stop, the door of Roscoe's house opened, and Roscoe came out with Sibyl, who was startlingly pale. She seemed little enfeebled by her illness, however, walking rather quickly at her husband's side and not taking his arm. The two crossed the street without appearing to see Mary and her companion, and entering the New House, were lost to sight. Mary gazed after them gravely, but Bibbs, looking at Mary, did not see them.
"Mary," he said, "you seem very serious. Is anything bothering you?"
"No, Bibbs." And she gave him a bright, quick look that made him instantly unreasonably happy.
"I know you want to go in—" he began.
"No. I don't want to."
"I mustn't keep you standing here, and I mustn't go in with you—but—I just wanted to say—I've seemed very stupid to myself this morning, grumbling about soot and all that—while all the time I—Mary, I think it's been the very happiest of all the hours you've given me. I do. And—I don't know just why—but it's seemed to me that it was one I'd always remember. And you," he added, falteringly, "you look so—so beautiful to-day!"
"It must have been the soot on my cheek, Bibbs."
"Mary, will you tell me something?" he asked.
"I think I will."
"It's something I've had a lot of theories about, but none of them ever just fits. You used to wear furs in the fall, but now it's so much colder, you don't—you never wear them at all any more. Why don't you?"
Her eyes fell for a moment, and she grew red. Then she looked up gaily. "Bibbs, if I tell you the answer will you promise not to ask any more questions?"
"Yes. Why did you stop wearing them?"
"Because I found I'd be warmer without them!" She caught his hand quickly in her own for an instant, laughed into his eyes, and ran into the house.
It is the consoling attribute of unused books that their decorative warmth will so often make even a ready-made library the actual "living-room" of a family to whom the shelved volumes are indeed sealed. Thus it was with Sheridan, who read nothing except newspapers, business letters, and figures; who looked upon books as he looked upon bric-a-brac or crocheting—when he was at home, and not abed or eating, he was in the library.
He stood in the many-colored light of the stained-glass window at the far end of the long room, when Roscoe and his wife came in, and he exhaled a solemnity. His deference to the Sabbath was manifest, as always, in the length of his coat and the closeness of his Saturday-night shave; and his expression, to match this religious pomp, was more than Sabbatical, but the most dismaying of his demonstrations was his keeping his hand in his sling.
Sibyl advanced to the middle of the room and halted there, not looking at him, but down at her muff, in which, it could be seen, her hands were nervously moving. Roscoe went to a chair in another part of the room. There was a deadly silence.
But Sibyl found a shaky voice, after an interval of gulping, though she was unable to lift her eyes, and the darkling lids continued to veil them. She spoke hurriedly, like an ungifted child reciting something committed to memory, but her sincerity was none the less evident for that.
"Father Sheridan, you and mother Sheridan have always been so kind to me, and I would hate to have you think I don't appreciate it, from the way I acted. I've come to tell you I am sorry for the way I did that night, and to say I know as well as anybody the way I behaved, and it will never happen again, because it's been a pretty hard lesson; and when we come back, some day, I hope you'll see that you've got a daughter-in-law you never need to be ashamed of again. I want to ask you to excuse me for the way I did, and I can say I haven't any feelings toward Edith now, but only wish her happiness and good in her new life. I thank you for all your kindness to me, and I know I made a poor return for it, but if you can overlook the way I behaved I know I would feel a good deal happier—and I know Roscoe would, too. I wish to promise not to be as foolish in the future, and the same error would never occur again to make us all so unhappy, if you can be charitable enought to excuse it this time."
He looked steadily at her without replying, and she stood before him, never lifting her eyes; motionless, save where the moving fur proved the agitation of her hands within the muff.
"All right," he said at last.
She looked up then with vast relief, though there was a revelation of heavy tears when the eyelids lifted.
"Thank you," she said. "There's something else—about something different—I want to say to you, but I want mother Sheridan to hear it, too."
"She's up-stairs in her room," said Sheridan. "Roscoe—"
Sibyl interrupted. She had just seen Bibbs pass through the hall and begin to ascend the stairs; and in a flash she instinctively perceived the chance for precisely the effect she wanted.
"No, let me go," she said. "I want to speak to her a minute first, anyway."
And she went away quickly, gaining the top of the stairs in time to see Bibbs enter his room and close the door. Sibyl knew that Bibbs, in his room, had overheard her quarrel with Edith in the hall outside; for bitter Edith, thinking the more to shame her, had subsequently informed her of the circumstance. Sibyl had just remembered this, and with the recollection there had flashed the thought—out of her own experience—that people are often much more deeply impressed by words they overhear than by words directly addressed to them. Sibyl intended to make it impossible for Bibbs not to overhear. She did not hesitate—her heart was hot with the old sore, and she believed wholly in the justice of her cause and in the truth of what she was going to say. Fate was virtuous at times; it had delivered into her hands the girl who had affronted her.
Mrs. Sheridan was in her own room. The approach of Sibyl and Roscoe had driven her from the library, for she had miscalculated her husband's mood, and she felt that if he used his injured hand as a mark of emphasis again, in her presence, she would (as she thought of it) "have a fit right there." She heard Sibyl's step, and pretended to be putting a touch to her hair before a mirror.
"I was just coming down," she said, as the door opened.
"Yes, he wants you to," said Sibyl. "It's all right, mother Sheridan. He's forgiven me."
Mrs. Sheridan sniffed instantly; tears appeared. She kissed her daughter-in-law's cheek; then, in silence, regarded the mirror afresh, wiped her eyes, and applied powder.
"And I hope Edith will be happy," Sibyl added, inciting more applications of Mrs. Sheridan's handkerchief and powder.
"Yes, yes," murmured the good woman. "We mustn't make the worst of things."
"Well, there was something else I had to say, and he wants you to hear it, too," said Sibyl. "We better go down, mother Sheridan."
She led the way, Mrs. Sheridan following obediently, but when they came to a spot close by Bibbs's door, Sibyl stopped. "I want to tell you about it first," she said, abruptly. "It isn't a secret, of course, in any way; it's something the whole family has to know, and the sooner the whole family knows it the better. It's something it wouldn't be RIGHT for us ALL not to understand, and of course father Sheridan most of all. But I want to just kind of go over it first with you; it'll kind of help me to see I got it all straight. I haven't got any reason for saying it except the good of the family, and it's nothing to me, one way or the other, of course, except for that. I oughtn't to've behaved the way I did that night, and it seems to me if there's anything I can do to help the family, I ought to, because it would help show I felt the right way. Well, what I want to do is to tell this so's to keep the family from being made a fool of. I don't want to see the family just made use of and twisted around her finger by somebody that's got no more heart than so much ice, and just as sure to bring troubles in the long run as—as Edith's mistake is. Well, then, this is the way it is. I'll just tell you how it looks to me and see if it don't strike you the same way."
Within the room, Bibbs, much annoyed, tapped his ear with his pencil. He wished they wouldn't stand talking near his door when he was trying to write. He had just taken from his trunk the manuscript of a poem begun the preceding Sunday afternoon, and he had some ideas he wanted to fix upon paper before they maliciously seized the first opportunity to vanish, for they were but gossamer. Bibbs was pleased with the beginnings of his poem, and if he could carry it through he meant to dare greatly with it—he would venture it upon an editor. For he had his plan of life now: his day would be of manual labor and thinking—he could think of his friend and he could think in cadences for poems, to the crashing of the strong machine—and if his father turned him out of home and out of the Works, he would work elsewhere and live elsewhere. His father had the right, and it mattered very little to Bibbs—he faced the prospect of a working-man's lodging-house without trepidation. He could find a washstand to write upon, he thought; and every evening when he left Mary he would write a little; and he would write on holidays and on Sundays—on Sundays in the afternoon. In a lodging-house, at least he wouldn't be interrupted by his sister-in-law's choosing the immediate vicinity of his door for conversations evidently important to herself, but merely disturbing to him. He frowned plaintively, wishing he could think of some polite way of asking her to go away. But, as she went on, he started violently, dropping manuscript and pencil upon the floor.
"I don't know whether you heard it, mother Sheridan," she said, "but this old Vertrees house, next door, had been sold on foreclosure, and all THEY got out of it was an agreement that let's 'em live there a little longer. Roscoe told me, and he says he heard Mr. Vertrees has been up and down the streets more'n two years, tryin' to get a job he could call a 'position,' and couldn't land it. You heard anything about it, mother Sheridan?"
"Well, I DID know they been doin' their own house-work a good while back," said Mrs. Sheridan. "And now they're doin' the cookin', too."
Sibyl sent forth a little titter with a sharp edge. "I hope they find something to cook! She sold her piano mighty quick after Jim died!"
Bibbs jumped up. He was trembling from head to foot and he was dizzy—of all the real things he could never have dreamed in his dream the last would have been what he heard now. He felt that something incredible was happening, and that he was powerless to stop it. It seemed to him that heavy blows were falling on his head and upon Mary's; it seemed to him that he and Mary were being struck and beaten physically—and that something hideous impended. He wanted to shout to Sibyl to be silent, but he could not; he could only stand, swallowing and trembling.
"What I think the whole family ought to understand is just this," said Sibyl, sharply. "Those people were so hard up that this Miss Vertrees started after Bibbs before they knew whether he was INSANE or not! They'd got a notion he might be, from his being in a sanitarium, and Mrs. Vertrees ASKED me if he was insane, the very first day Bibbs took the daughter out auto-riding!" She paused a moment, looking at Mrs. Sheridan, but listening intently. There was no sound from within the room.
"No!" exclaimed Mrs. Sheridan.
"It's the truth," Sibyl declared, loudly. "Oh, of course we were all crazy about that girl at first. We were pretty green when we moved up here, and we thought she'd get us IN—but it didn't take ME long to read her! Her family were down and out when it came to money—and they had to go after it, one way or another, SOMEHOW! So she started for Roscoe; but she found out pretty quick he was married, and she turned right around to Jim—and she landed him! There's no doubt about it, she had Jim, and if he'd lived you'd had another daughter-in-law before this, as sure as I stand here telling you the God's truth about it! Well—when Jim was left in the cemetery she was waiting out there to drive home with Bibbs! Jim wasn't COLD—and she didn't know whether Bibbs was insane or not, but he was the only one of the rich Sheridan boys left. She had to get him."
The texture of what was the truth made an even fabric with what was not, in Sibyl's mind; she believed every word that she uttered, and she spoke with the rapidity and vehemence of fierce conviction.
"What I feel about it is," she said, "it oughtn't to be allowed to go on. It's too mean! I like poor Bibbs, and I don't want to see him made such a fool of, and I don't want to see the family made such a fool of! I like poor Bibbs, but if he'd only stop to think a minute himself he'd have to realize he isn't the kind of man ANY girl would be apt to fall in love with. He's better-looking lately, maybe, but you know how he WAS—just kind of a long white rag in good clothes. And girls like men with some SO to 'em—SOME sort of dashingness, anyhow! Nobody ever looked at poor Bibbs before, and neither'd she—no, SIR! not till she'd tried both Roscoe and Jim first! It was only when her and her family got desperate that she—"
Bibbs—whiter than when he came from the sanitarium—opened the door. He stepped across its threshold and stook looking at her. Both women screamed.
"Oh, good heavens!" cried Sibyl. "Were you in THERE? Oh, I wouldn't—" She seized Mrs. Sheridan's arm, pulling her toward the stairway. "Come on, mother Sheridan!" she urged, and as the befuddled and confused lady obeyed, Sibyl left a trail of noisy exclamations: "Good gracious! Oh, I wouldn't—too bad! I didn't DREAM he was there! I wouldn't hurt his feelings! Not for the world! Of course he had to know SOME time! But, good heavens—"
She heard his door close as she and Mrs. Sheridan reached the top of the stairs, and she glanced over her shoulder quickly, but Bibbs was not following; he had gone back into his room.
"He—he looked—oh, terrible bad!" stammered Mrs. Sheridan. "I—I wish—"
"Still, it's a good deal better he knows about it," said Sibyl. "I shouldn't wonder it might turn out the very best thing could happened. Come on!"
And completing their descent to the library, the two made their appearance to Roscoe and his father. Sibyl at once gave a full and truthful account of what had taken place, repeating her own remarks, and omitting only the fact that it was through her design that Bibbs had overheard them.
"But as I told mother Sheridan," she said, in conclusion, "it might turn out for the very best that he did hear—just that way. Don't you think so, father Sheridan?"
He merely grunted in reply, and sat rubbing the thick hair on the top of his head with his left hand and looking at the fire. He had given no sign of being impressed in any manner by her exposure of Mary Vertrees's character; but his impassivity did not dismay Sibyl—it was Bibbs whom she desired to impress, and she was content in that matter.
"I'm sure it was all for the best," she said. "It's over now, and he knows what she is. In one way I think it was lucky, because, just hearing a thing that way, a person can tell it's SO—and he knows I haven't got any ax to grind except his own good and the good of the family."
Mrs. Sheridan went nervously to the door and stood there, looking toward the stairway. "I wish—I wish I knew what he was doin'," she said. "He did look terrible bad. It was like something had been done to him that was—I don't know what. I never saw anybody look like he did. He looked—so queer. It was like you'd—" She called down the hall, "George!"
"Were you up in Mr. Bibbs's room just now?"
"Yes'm. He ring bell; tole me make him fiah in his grate. I done buil' him nice fiah. I reckon he ain' feelin' so well. Yes'm." He departed.
"What do you expect he wants a fire for?" she asked, turning toward her husband. "The house is warm as can be, I do wish I—"
"Oh, quit frettin'!" said Sheridan.
"Well, I—I kind o' wish you hadn't said anything, Sibyl. I know you meant it for the best and all, but I don't believe it would been so much harm if—"
"Mother Sheridan, you don't mean you WANT that kind of a girl in the family? Why, she—"
"I don't know, I don't know," the troubled woman quavered. "If he liked her it seems kind of a pity to spoil it. He's so queer, and he hasn't ever taken much enjoyment. And besides, I believe the way it was, there was more chance of him bein' willin' to do what papa wants him to. If she wants to marry him—"
Sheridan interrupted her with a hooting laugh. "She don't!" he said. "You're barkin' up the wrong tree, Sibyl. She ain't that kind of a girl."
"But, father Sheridan, didn't she—"
He cut her short. "That's enough. You may mean all right, but you guess wrong. So do you, mamma."
Sibyl cried out, "Oh! But just LOOK how she ran after Jim—"
"She did not," he said, curtly. "She wouldn't take Jim. She turned him down cold."
"But that's impossi—"
"It's not. I KNOW she did."
Sibyl looked flatly incredulous.
"And YOU needn't worry," he said, turning to his wife. "This won't have any effect on your idea, because there wasn't any sense to it, anyhow. D'you think she'd be very likely to take Bibbs—after she wouldn't take JIM? She's a good-hearted girl, and she lets Bibbs come to see her, but if she'd ever given him one sign of encouragement the way you women think, he wouldn't of acted the stubborn fool he has—he'd 'a' been at me long ago, beggin' me for some kind of a job he could support a wife on. There's nothin' in it—and I've got the same old fight with him on my hands I've had all his life—and the Lord knows what he won't do to balk me! What's happened now'll probably only make him twice as stubborn, but—"
"SH!" Mrs. Sheridan, still in the doorway, lifted her hand. "That's his step—he's comin' down-stairs." She shrank away from the door as if she feared to have Bibbs see her. "I—I wonder—" she said, almost in a whisper—"I wonder what he'd goin'—to do."
Her timorousness had its effect upon the others. Sheridan rose, frowning, but remained standing beside his chair; and Roscoe moved toward Sibyl, who stared uneasily at the open doorway. They listened as the slow steps descended the stairs and came toward the library.
Bibbs stopped upon the threshold, and with sick and haggard eyes looked slowly from one to the other until at last his gaze rested upon his father. Then he came and stood before him.
"I'm sorry you've had so much trouble with me," he said, gently. "You won't, any more. I'll take the job you offered me."
Sheridan did not speak—he stared, astounded and incredulous; and Bibbs had left the room before any of its occupants uttered a sound, though he went as slowly as he came. Mrs. Sheridan was the first to move. She went nervously back to the doorway, and then out into the hall. Bibbs had gone from the house.
Bibbs's mother had a feeling about him then that she had never known before; it was indefinite and vague, but very poignant—something in her mourned for him uncomprehendingly. She felt that an awful thing had been done to him, though she did not know what it was. She went up to his room.
The fire George had built for him was almost smothered under thick, charred ashes of paper. The lid of his trunk stood open, and the large upper tray, which she remembered to have seen full of papers and note-books, was empty. And somehow she understood that Bibbs had given up the mysterious vocation he had hoped to follow—and that he had given it up for ever. She thought it was the wisest thing he could have done—and yet, for an unknown reason, she sat upon the bed and wept a little before she went down-stairs.
So Sheridan had his way with Bibbs, all through.
As Bibbs came out of the New House, a Sunday trio was in course of passage upon the sidewalk: an ample young woman, placid of face; a black-clad, thin young man, whose expression was one of habitual anxiety, habitual wariness and habitual eagerness. He propelled a perambulator containing the third—and all three were newly cleaned, Sundayfied, and made fit to dine with the wife's relatives.
"How'd you like for me to be THAT young fella, mamma?" the husband whispered. "He's one of the sons, and there ain't but two left now."
The wife stared curiously at Bibbs. "Well, I don't know," she returned. "He looks to me like he had his own troubles."
"I expect he has, like anybody else," said the young husband, "but I guess we could stand a good deal if we had his money."
"Well, maybe, if you keep on the way you been, baby'll be as well fixed as the Sheridans. You can't tell." She glanced back at Bibbs, who had turned north. "He walks kind of slow and stooped over, like."
"So much money in his pockets it makes him sag, I guess," said the young husband, with bitter admiration.
Mary, happening to glance from a window, saw Bibbs coming, and she started, clasping her hands together in a sudden alarm. She met him at the door.
"Bibbs!" she cried. "What is the matter? I saw something was terribly wrong when I—You look—" She paused, and he came in, not lifting his eyes to hers. Always when he crossed that threshold he had come with his head up and his wistful gaze seeking hers. "Ah, poor boy!" she said, with a gesture of understanding and pity. "I know what it is!"
He followed her into the room where they always sat, and sank into a chair.
"You needn't tell me," she said. "They've made you give up. Your father's won—you're going to do what he wants. You've given up."
Still without looking at her, he inclined his head in affirmation.
She gave a little cry of compassion, and came and sat near him. "Bibbs," she said. "I can be glad of one thing, though it's selfish. I can be glad you came straight to me. It's more to me than even if you'd come because you were happy." She did not speak again for a little while; then she said: "Bibbs—dear—could you tell me about it? Do you want to?"
Still he did not look up, but in a voice, shaken and husky he asked her a question so grotesque that at first she thought she had misunderstood his words.
"Mary," he said, "could you marry me?"
"What did you say, Bibbs?" she asked, quietly.
His tone and attitude did not change. "Will you marry me?"
Both of her hands leaped to her cheeks—she grew red and then white. She rose slowly and moved backward from him, staring at him, at first incredulously, then with an intense perplexity more and more luminous in her wide eyes; it was like a spoken question. The room filled with strangeness in the long silence—the two were so strange to each other. At last she said:
"What made you say that?"
He did not answer.
"Bibbs, look at me!" Her voice was loud and clear. "What made you say that? Look at me!"
He could not look at her, and he could not speak.
"What was it that made you?" she said. "I want you to tell me."
She went closer to him, her eyes ever brighter and wider with that intensity of wonder. "You've given up—to your father," she said, slowly, "and then you came to ask me—" She broke off. "Bibbs, do you want me to marry you?"
"Yes," he said, just audibly.
"No!" she cried. "You do not. Then what made you ask me? What is it that's happened?"
"Wait," she said. "Let me think. It's something that happened since our walk this morning—yes, since you left me at noon. Something happened that—" She stopped abruptly, with a tremulous murmur of amazement and dawning comprehension. She remembered that Sibyl had gone to the New House.
Bibbs swallowed painfully and contrived to say, "I do—I do want you to—marry me, if—if—you could."
She looked at him, and slowly shook her head. "Bibbs, do you—" Her voice was as unsteady as his—little more than a whisper. "Do you think I'm—in love with you?"
"No," he said.
Somewhere in the still air of the room there was a whispered word; it did not seem to come from Mary's parted lips, but he was aware of it. "Why?"
"I've had nothing but dreams," Bibbs said, desolately, "but they weren't like that. Sibyl said no girl could care about me." He smiled faintly, though still he did not look at Mary. "And when I first came home Edith told me Sibyl was so anxious to marry that she'd have married ME. She meant it to express Sibyl's extremity, you see. But I hardly needed either of them to tell me. I hadn't thought of myself as—well, not as particularly captivating!"
Oddly enough, Mary's pallor changed to an angry flush. "Those two!" she exclaimed, sharply; and then, with thoroughgoing contempt: "Lamhorn! That's like them!" She turned away, went to the bare little black mantel, and stood leaning upon it. Presently she asked: "WHEN did Mrs. Roscoe Sheridan say that 'no girl' could care about you?"
Mary drew a deep breath. "I think I'm beginning to understand—a little." She bit her lip; there was anger in good truth in her eyes and in her voice. "Answer me once more," she said. "Bibbs, do you know now why I stopped wearing my furs?"
"I thought so! Your sister-in-law told you, didn't she?"
"I—I heard her say—"
"I think I know what happened, now." Mary's breath came fast and her voice shook, but she spoke rapidly. "You 'heard her say' more than that. You 'heard her say' that we were bitterly poor, and on that account I tried first to marry your brother—and then—" But now she faltered, and it was only after a convulsive effort that she was able to go on. "And then—that I tried to marry—you! You 'heard her say' that—and you believe that I don't care for you and that 'no girl' could care for you—but you think I am in such an 'extremity,' as Sibyl was—that you— And so, not wanting me, and believing that I could not want you—except for my 'extremity'—you took your father's offer and then came to ask me—to marry you! What had I shown you of myself that could make you—"
Suddenly she sank down, kneeling, with her face buried in her arms upon the lap of a chair, tears overwhelming her.
"Mary, Mary!" he cried, helplessly. "Oh NO—you—you don't understand."
"I do, though!" she sobbed. "I do!"
He came and stood beside her. "You kill me!" he said. "I can't make it plain. From the first of your loveliness to me, I was all self. It was always you that gave and I that took. I was the dependent—I did nothing but lean on you. We always talked of me, not of you. It was all about my idiotic distresses and troubles. I thought of you as a kind of wonderful being that had no mortal or human suffering except by sympathy. You seemed to lean down—out of a rosy cloud—to be kind to me. I never dreamed I could do anything for YOU! I never dreamed you could need anything to be done for you by anybody. And to-day I heard that—that you—"
"You heard that I needed to marry—some one—anybody—with money," she sobbed. "And you thought we were so—so desperate—you believed that I had—"
"No!" he said, quickly. "I didn't believe you'd done one kind thing for me—for that. No, no, no! I knew you'd NEVER thought of me except generously—to give. I said I couldn't make it plain!" he cried, despairingly.
"Wait!" She lifted her head and extended her hands to him unconsciously, like a child. "Help me up, Bibbs." Then, when she was once more upon her feet, she wiped her eyes and smiled upon him ruefully and faintly, but reassuringly, as if to tell him, in that way, that she knew he had not meant to hurt her. And that smile of hers, so lamentable, but so faithfully friendly, misted his own eyes, for his shamefacedness lowered them no more.
"Let me tell you what you want to tell me," she said. "You can't, because you can't put it into words—they are too humiliating for me and you're too gentle to say them. Tell me, though, isn't it true? You didn't believe that I'd tried to make you fall in love with me—"
"Never! Never for an instant!"
"You didn't believe I'd tried to make you want to marry me—"
"No, no, no!"
"I believe it, Bibbs. You thought that I was fond of you; you knew I cared for you—but you didn't think I might be—in love with you. But you thought that I might marry you without being in love with you because you did believe I had tried to marry your brother, and—"
"Mary, I only knew—for the first time—that you—that you were—"
"Were desperately poor," she said. "You can't even say that! Bibbs, it was true: I did try to make Jim want to marry me. I did!" And she sank down into the chair, weeping bitterly again. Bibbs was agonized.
"Mary," he groaned, "I didn't know you COULD cry!"
"Listen," she said. "Listen till I get through—I want you to understand. We were poor, and we weren't fitted to be. We never had been, and we didn't know what to do. We'd been almost rich; there was plenty, but my father wanted to take advantage of the growth of the town; he wanted to be richer, but instead—well, just about the time your father finished building next door we found we hadn't anything. People say that, sometimes, meaning that they haven't anything in comparison with other people of their own kind, but we really hadn't anything—we hadn't anything at all, Bibbs! And we couldn't DO anything. You might wonder why I didn't 'try to be a stenographer'—and I wonder myself why, when a family loses its money, people always say the daughters 'ought to go and be stenographers.' It's curious!—as if a wave of the hand made you into a stenographer. No, I'd been raised to be either married comfortably or a well-to-do old maid, if I chose not to marry. The poverty came on slowly, Bibbs, but at last it was all there—and I didn't know how to be a stenographer. I didn't know how to be anything except a well-to-do old maid or somebody's wife—and I couldn't be a well-to-do old maid. Then, Bibbs, I did what I'd been raised to know how to do. I went out to be fascinating and be married. I did it openly, at least, and with a kind of decent honesty. I told your brother I had meant to fascinate him and that I was not in love with him, but I let him think that perhaps I meant to marry him. I think I did mean to marry him. I had never cared for anybody, and I thought it might be there really WASN'T anything more than a kind of excited fondness. I can't be sure, but I think that though I did mean to marry him I never should have done it, because that sort of a marriage is—it's sacrilege—something would have stopped me. Something did stop me; it was your sister-in-law, Sibyl. She meant no harm—but she was horrible, and she put what I was doing into such horrible words—and they were the truth—oh! I SAW myself! She was proposing a miserable compact with me—and I couldn't breathe the air of the same room with her, though I'd so cheapened myself she had a right to assume that I WOULD. But I couldn't! I left her, and I wrote to your brother—just a quick scrawl. I told him just what I'd done; I asked his pardon, and I said I would not marry him. I posted the letter, but he never got it. That was the afternoon he was killed. That's all, Bibbs. Now you know what I did—and you know—ME!" She pressed her clenched hands tightly against her eyes, leaning far forward, her head bowed before him.
Bibbs had forgotten himself long ago; his heart broke for her. "Couldn't you—Isn't there—Won't you—" he stammered. "Mary, I'm going with father. Isn't there some way you could use the money without—without—"
She gave a choked little laugh.
"You gave me something to live for," he said. "You kept me alive, I think—and I've hurt you like this!"
"Not you—oh no!"
"You could forgive me, Mary?"
"Oh, a thousand times!" Her right hand went out in a faltering gesture, and just touched his own for an instant. "But there's nothing to forgive."
"And you can't—you can't—"
"Can't what, Bibbs?"
"Marry you?" she said for him.
"No, no, no!" She sprang up, facing him, and, without knowing what she did, she set her hands upon his breast, pushing him back from her a little. "I can't, I can't! Don't you SEE?"
"No, no! And you must go now, Bibbs; I can't bear any more—please—"
"Never, never, never!" she cried, in a passion of tears. "You mustn't come any more. I can't see you, dear! Never, never, never!"
Somehow, in helpless, stumbling obedience to her beseeching gesture, he got himself to the door and out of the house.
Sibyl and Roscoe were upon the point of leaving when Bibbs returned to the New House. He went straight to Sibyl and spoke to her quietly, but so that the others might hear.
"When you said that if I'd stop to think, I'd realize that no one would be apt to care enough about me to marry me, you were right," he said. "I thought perhaps you weren't, and so I asked Miss Vertrees to marry me. It proved what you said of me, and disproved what you said of her. She refused."
And, having thus spoken, he quitted the room as straightforwardly as he had entered it.
"He's SO queer!" Mrs. Sheridan gasped. "Who on earth would thought of his doin' THAT?"
"I told you," said her husband, grimly.
"You didn't tell us he'd go over there and—"
"I told you she wouldn't have him. I told you she wouldn't have JIM, didn't I?"
Sibyl was altogether taken aback. "Do you supose it's true? Do you suppose she WOULDN'T?"
"He didn't look exactly like a young man that had just got things fixed up fine with his girl," said Sheridan. "Not to me, he didn't!"
"But why would—"
"I told you," he interrupted, angrily, "she ain't that kind of a girl! If you got to have proof, well, I'll tell you and get it over with, though I'd pretty near just as soon not have to talk a whole lot about my dead boy's private affairs. She wrote to Jim she couldn't take him, and it was a good, straight letter, too. It came to Jim's office; he never saw it. She wrote it the afternoon he was hurt."
"I remember I saw her put a letter in the mail-box that afternoon," said Roscoe. "Don't you remember, Sibyl? I told you about it—I was waiting for you while you were in there so long talking to her mother. It was just before we saw that something was wrong over here, and Edith came and called me."
Sibyl shook her head, but she remembered. And she was not cast down, for, although some remnants of perplexity were left in her eyes, they were dimmed by an increasing glow of triumph; and she departed—after some further fragmentary discourse—visibly elated. After all, the guilty had not been exalted; and she perceived vaguely, but none the less surely, that her injury had been copiously avenged. She bestowed a contented glance upon the old house with the cupola, as she and Roscoe crossed the street.
When they had gone, Mrs. Sheridan indulged in reverie, but after a while she said, uneasily, "Papa, you think it would be any use to tell Bibbs about that letter?"
"I don't know," he answered, walking moodily to the window. "I been thinkin' about it." He came to a decision. "I reckon I will." And he went up to Bibbs's room.
"Well, you goin' back on what you said?" he inquired, brusquely, as he opened the door. "You goin' to take it back and lay down on me again?"
"No," said Bibbs.
"Well, perhaps I didn't have any call to accuse you of that. I don't know as you ever did go back on anything you said, exactly, though the Lord knows you've laid down on me enough. You certainly have!" Sheridan was baffled. This was not what he wished to say, but his words were unmanageable; he found himself unable to control them, and his querulous abuse went on in spite of him. "I can't say I expect much of you—not from the way you always been, up to now—unless you turn over a new leaf, and I don't see any encouragement to think you're goin' to do THAT! If you go down there and show a spark o' real GIT-up, I reckon the whole office'll fall in a faint. But if you're ever goin' to show any, you better begin right at the beginning and begin to show it to-morrow."
"You better, if it's in you!" Sheridan was sheerly nonplussed. He had always been able to say whatever he wished to say, but his tongue seemed bewitched. He had come to tell Bibbs about Mary's letter, and to his own angry astonishment he found it impossible to do anything except to scold like a drudge-driver. "You better come down there with your mind made up to hustle harder than the hardest workin'-man that's under you, or you'll not get on very good with me, I tell you! The way to get ahead—and you better set it down in your books—the way to get ahead is to do ten times the work of the hardest worker that works FOR you. But you don't know what work is, yet. All you've ever done was just stand around and feed a machine a child could handle, and then come home and take a bath and go callin'. I tell you you're up against a mighty different proposition now, and if you're worth your salt—and you never showed any signs of it yet—not any signs that stuck out enough to bang somebody on the head and make 'em sit up and take notice—well, I want to say, right here and now—and you better listen, because I want to say just what I DO say. I say—"
He meandered to a full stop. His mouth hung open, and his mind was a hopeless blank.
Bibbs looked up patiently—an old, old look. "Yes, father; I'm listening."
"That's all," said Sheridan, frowning heavily. "That's all I came to say, and you better see't you remember it!"
He shook his head warningly, and went out, closing the door behind him with a crash. However, no sound of footsteps indicated his departure. He stopped just outside the door, and stood there a minute or more. Then abruptly he turned the knob and exhibited to his son a forehead liberally covered with perspiration.
"Look here," he said, crossly. "That girl over yonder wrote Jim a letter—"
"I know," said Bibbs. "She told me."
"Well, I thought you needn't feel so much upset about it—" The door closed on his voice as he withdrew, but the conclusion of the sentence was nevertheless audible—"if you knew she wouldn't have Jim, either."
And he stamped his way down-stairs to tell his wife to quit her frettin' and not bother him with any more fool's errands. She was about to inquire what Bibbs "said," but after a second thought she decided not to speak at all. She merely murmured a wordless assent, and verbal communication was given over between them for the rest of that afternoon.
Bibbs and his father were gone when Mrs. Sheridan woke, the next morning, and she had a dreary day. She missed Edith woefully, and she worried about what might be taking place in the Sheridan Building. She felt that everything depended on how Bibbs "took hold," and upon her husband's return in the evening she seized upon the first opportunity to ask him how things had gone. He was non-committal. What could anybody tell by the first day? He'd seen plenty go at things well enough right at the start and then blow up. Pretty near anybody could show up fair the first day or so. There was a big job ahead. This material, such as it was—Bibbs, in fact—had to be broken in to handling the work Roscoe had done; and then, at least as an overseer, he must take Jim's position in the Realty Company as well. He told her to ask him again in a month.
But during the course of dinner she gathered from some disjointed remarks of his that he and Bibbs had lunched together at the small restaurant where it had been Sheridan's custom to lunch with Jim, and she took this to be an encouraging sign. Bibbs went to his room as soon as they left the table, and her husband was not communicative after reading his paper.
She became an anxious spectator of Bibbs's progress as a man of business, although it was a progress she could glimpse but dimly and only in the evening, through his remarks and his father's at dinner. Usually Bibbs was silent, except when directly addressed, but on the first evening of the third week of his new career he offered an opinion which had apparently been the subject of previous argument.
"I'd like you to understand just what I meant about those storage-rooms, father," he said, as Jackson placed his coffee before him. "Abercrombie agreed with me, but you wouldn't listen to him."
"You can talk, if you want to, and I'll listen," Sheridan returned, "but you can't show me that Jim ever took up with a bad thing. The roof fell because it hadn't had time to settle and on account of weather conditions. I want that building put just the way Jim planned it."
"You can't have it," said Bibbs. "You can't, because Jim planned for the building to stand up, and it won't do it. The other one—the one that didn't fall—is so shot with cracks we haven't dared use it for storage. It won't stand weight. There's only one thing to do: get both buildings down as quickly as we can, and build over. Brick's the best and cheapest in the long run for that type."
Sheridan looked sarcastic. "Fine! What we goin' to do for storage-rooms while we're waitin' for those few bricks to be laid?"
"Rent," Bibbs returned, promptly. "We'll lose money if we don't rent, anyhow—they were waiting so long for you to give the warehouse matter your attention after the roof fell. You don't know what an amount of stuff they've got piled up on us over there. We'd have to rent until we could patch up those process perils—and the Krivitch Manufacturing Company's plant is empty, right across the street. I took an option on it for us this morning."
Sheridan's expression was queer. "Look here!" he said, sharply. "Did you go and do that without consulting me?"
"It didn't cost anything," said Bibbs. "It's only until to-morrow afternoon at two o'clock. I undertook to convince you before then."
"Oh, you did?" Sheridan's tone was sardonic. "Well, just suppose you couldn't convince me."
"I can, though—and I intend to," said Bibbs, quietly. "I don't think you understand the condition of those buildings you want patched up."
"Now, see here," said Sheridan, with slow emphasis; "suppose I had my mind set about this. JIM thought they'd stand, and suppose it was—well, kind of a matter of sentiment with me to prove he was right."
Bibbs looked at him compassionately. "I'm sorry if you have a sentiment about it, father," he said. "But whether you have or not can't make a difference. You'll get other people hurt if you trust that process, and that won't do. And if you want a monument to Jim, at least you want one that will stand. Besides, I don't think you can reasonably defend sentiment in this particular kind of affair."
"Oh, you don't?"
"No, but I'm sorry you didn't tell me you felt it."
Sheridan was puzzled by his son's tone. "Why are you 'sorry'?" he asked, curiously.
"Because I had the building inspector up there, this noon," said Bibbs, "and I had him condemn both those buildings."
"He'd been afraid to do it before, until he heard from us—afraid you'd see he lost his job. But he can't un-condemn them—they've got to come down now."
Sheridan gave him a long and piercing stare from beneath lowered brows. Finally he said, "How long did they give you on that option to convince me?"
"Until two o'clock to-morrow afternoon."
"All right," said Sheridan, not relaxing. "I'm convinced."
Bibbs jumped up. "I thought you would be. I'll telephone the Krivitch agent. He gave me the option until to-morrow, but I told him I'd settle it this evening."
Sheridan gazed after him as he left the room, and then, though his expression did not alter in the slightest, a sound came from him that startled his wife. It had been a long time since she had heard anything resembling a chuckle from him, and this sound—although it was grim and dry—bore that resemblance.
She brightened eagerly. "Looks like he was startin' right well don't it, papa?"
"Startin'? Lord! He got me on the hip! Why, HE knew what I wanted—that's why he had the inspector up there, so't he'd have me beat before we even started to talk about it. And did you hear him? 'Can't reasonably defend SENTIMENT!' And the way he says 'Us': 'Took an option for Us'! 'Stuff piled up on Us'!"
There was always an alloy for Mrs. sheridan. "I don't just like the way he looks, though, papa."
"Oh, there's got to be something! Only one chick left at home, so you start to frettin' about IT!"
"No. He's changed. There's kind of a settish look to his face, and—"
"I guess that's the common sense comin' out on him, then," said Sheridan. "You'll see symptoms like that in a good many business men, I expect."
"Well, and he don't have as good color as he was gettin' before. And he'd begun to fill out some, but—"
Sheridan gave forth another dry chuckle, and, going round the table to her, patted her upon the shoulder with his left hand, his right being still heavily bandaged, though he no longer wore a sling. "That's the way it is with you, mamma—got to take your frettin' out one way if you don't another!"