BOUGHT AND PAID FOR
A Story of To-day
From the Play of GEORGE BROADHURST by ARTHUR HORNBLOW
ILLUSTRATIONS FROM SCENES IN THE PLAY
NEW YORK GROSSET & DUNLAP PUBLISHERS
Copyright, 1912, by G. W. DILLINGHAM COMPANY
Bought and Paid For
"How is he now, doctor? Don't—don't tell me there is no hope!"
The wife, a tall, aristocratic looking woman who, despite her advanced years, her snow-white hair, her eyes now red and swollen from weeping, and pallid face seamed with careworn lines from constant vigils, still showed traces of former beauty, scanned the physician fearfully, trying to read in the expression of his countenance what the friend and man of science, out of sheer compassion, was doing his utmost to conceal. He had just emerged from the sick chamber; the trained nurse, methodical and quick, and singularly attractive looking in her neat uniform, had closed the door noiselessly behind him. Two young girls, one about eighteen and the other some four years her junior, both possessing more than average good looks, stood timidly in the background anxiously awaiting, together with their grief-stricken mother, to hear the dreaded verdict.
The physician paid no attention to them, but paced up and down the room, his manner stern and forbidding, his head inclined in deep thought, as if bent under the weight of tremendous responsibilities. A noted specialist in pulmonary troubles, Dr. Wilston Everett was well past middle age, and his tall, erect figure, massive frame and fine, leonine head, crowned by a mass of stubborn, iron-gray hair, made him a conspicuous figure everywhere. His expression, stern in repose, was that of a profound student; it was a face where lofty thoughts, humane feeling and every other noble attribute had left its indelible impress.
Mrs. Blaine watched him fearfully, afraid to intrude on his reflections. Finally, summoning up courage, she stammered weakly:
"How do you find him—not worse, is he?"
The doctor made no reply, but for a few moments stood looking at the three women in silence. He felt sorry for them—so sorry that it was only by the exercise of the greatest self-control that he kept his eyes from filling with tell-tale tears. Who, better than he, could realize the full extent of the misfortune which had suddenly befallen these poor people? It was almost the same as if it had happened to himself. Was he not, indeed, one of the family? Had he not been present at poor Blaine's wedding, brought each of these girls into the world and played with them on his knees? Now they had grown up to be young women, they looked upon him as their second father.
Blaine, poor fellow, little thought that the end was so near! That's what he had got for giving up his life to the most exciting and ungrateful profession in the world. He had worked himself to death for a pittance, until, giving way under the strain, his constitution completely undermined, he proved an easy victim for pneumonia. If he had been less scrupulous, more of a grafter, if he had seen in his profession only the money to be made out of it, he might have been a rich man by this time. But he was honest, honorable to a fault. No amount of money could induce him to take tainted money. No matter what legal white washing he was promised, he would have nothing to do with thieves and perjurers. What was the result? After twenty years of legal practice he was still a poor man and here on his deathbed, suddenly struck down in the prime of life before he had time to properly provide for his dear ones.
Probably there was no insurance. In fact, everyone knew that there was not. Blaine had admitted as much to him some time ago. He had said then that he had only $2,000 worth, but intended getting more. Now it was too late. Only a few paltry dollars—barely enough to bury him.
The comfortably furnished room with its piano, books and pictures and other scattered evidence of culture and refinement, showed the manner in which the Blaines liked to live. Through the open window, affording a fine view of Central Park, with its rolling lawns, winding paths and masses of green foliage, came the distant sounds of busy traffic on the Avenue, ten stories below. Of course, they would have to give up all this. There was not the slightest hope for the patient. He was past human aid. It was only a question of a few hours, perhaps only minutes, when the end would come. Yet how could he break the terrible truth to this poor woman, to these children who now stood watching him, their lips not daring to give utterance to the dread question he could plainly read in their tired, red eyes?
There was an unnatural silence. When anyone spoke it was in an almost inaudible whisper. Each seemed to feel that Death, grim and awful of aspect, was stalking invisible through the room. From behind the closed door where the father and husband lay dying there came no sound. Only an occasional sob from the wife, and the movements of the two girls as they endeavored to console her, relieved the oppressive stillness. Suddenly the doctor's eye encountered Mrs. Blaine's searching, questioning gaze. Averting his head, he said:
"We must wait and hope for the best. You must be brave. He may rally. I don't like the heart action. That's what bothers me. If there's another sinking spell—"
Mrs. Blaine laid her cold, trembling hand on his. Quickly she said:
"You won't go away?"
He shook his head.
"Of course not. I'll stay until the crisis is past."
The bedchamber door opened softly and the nurse appeared, with a worried look on her face.
"What is it, nurse," demanded the physician quickly.
"May I see you a minute, doctor?"
Dr. Everett went towards the bedroom. Mrs. Blaine was about to follow when he turned and barred the way.
"Let me see him, doctor. Please let me go in," she pleaded.
The physician shook his head. Kindly but firmly he said:
"Not now. We may have to administer oxygen. You'd only be in the way. You are better in here taking care of your daughters. If you are needed I'll call you."
He disappeared into the inner room, and Mrs. Blaine, feeling faint from anxiety and suspense, sank exhausted into a chair. The two girls, nervous and ill at ease, too young to grasp the full significance of the calamity that had befallen them, approached timidly. Fanny, the elder girl, stood still, alarm and consternation written plainly on her face. Her younger sister, bursting into a paroxysm of weeping, threw her arms round her mother's neck.
"Oh, mother!" she sobbed. "Surely God won't let papa be taken from us! I wouldn't believe in Him any more if He couldn't prevent that!"
Mrs. Blaine raised one hand reprovingly as with the other she caressed her daughter's beautiful, long, dark hair.
"Hush! Virginia, dear. It's wicked to talk like that. God does everything for the best. If it is His will, we must be resigned."
Clasping her sobbing child to her breast, Mrs. Blaine sat in silence, her heart throbbing wildly, straining her ears to hear what was being done in the inner room, momentarily expecting to be summoned. As she sat there, enduring mental torture, each moment seeming like an hour, she rapidly thought over the situation. In spite of her grief, her helplessness, her brain worked lucidly enough. She realized that her husband was dying. Her life's companion, the father of her children, was going away from her—forever. Like a lightning flash, her whole life passed suddenly in review: She saw herself a young girl again, about Virginia's age, and with the same fondness for gaiety and companionship. She, too, had been fond of music, art and literature, and she was filled with ambition to make a name for herself. One day she met John Blaine, then a young law student. It was a case of love at first sight. They did not stop to consider ways and means. They got married, and to-day, after thirty years of loving companionship, her only regret was that she could not die before him. John had been a loyal friend, a faithful companion, both in fair weather and foul, and now their life's journey together had come to an abrupt end. It was too dreadful to think of. It seemed to her that all these happenings of the last few days—this sudden sickness, the coming of the trained nurse, Dr. Everett's grave demeanor—was a hideous dream from which she would soon awake.
Their situation was, indeed, desperate. It had taken practically all John's income to live respectably. Living expenses were high and rents exorbitant. What made matters worse, there was practically no life insurance. John had intended taking out more, but it had been neglected. After the funeral and other expenses what would be left of the paltry $2,000? They would have to find a cheaper apartment. The girls—she herself—would have to find work of some kind. It would be terribly hard on the girls. Not only they lost a loving, devoted father, but at an age when a nice home, and comfortable surroundings meant everything in ensuring their future, they would find themselves penniless and forced to go out into a cold, unsympathetic world to earn their living. Fanny, she knew, would not mind. She was fond of work and had no artistic aspirations; but the blow would fall heavily on poor Virginia, who had set her heart on going to high school.
"Why are you so silent, mother dear?" asked Virginia suddenly. "Of what are you thinking?"
"Just thinking—that's all," sighed Mrs. Blaine.
Virginia, not to be put off so easily, was about to insist on an answer less vague, when suddenly the bedroom door opened and Dr. Everett appeared. He advanced quickly into the room, his coat rumpled, his manner strangely agitated. It was so unusual to see the physician otherwise than calm and dignified that it seemed incredible that anything, no matter how important, could ruffle him. Mrs. Blaine's instinct told her the reason. Startled, she sprang to her feet.
"My God!" she exclaimed. "He's not—"
The doctor shook his head.
"No; a weak spell—that's all. You'd better come in. The children can remain here."
The next instant the two sisters were alone.
For a few moments the girls, their arms clasped round each other's waists, stood still, as if spellbound, staring at the door which mercifully veiled from their view the tragedy of life then being enacted in the adjoining room. Terror-stricken, too frightened even to cry, they sat down and waited, straining their ears to hear what was going on. Why had Doctor Everett summoned their mother? If Dad was worse, if the crisis had come, why were they, too, not permitted to see him? Instinctively they felt that their fears were only too well founded. They shuddered, and it seemed to them that they felt a chill in the air as if the Angel of Death had already entered the apartment and was hovering near them. Virginia, nervous and hysterical, began to cry. Fanny, endeavoring to appear brave, but inwardly as nervous, took the girl in her arms and spoke consolingly and sensibly to her as became an elder sister.
But Virginia obstinately refused to be comforted. Burying her face on her sister's shoulder, she gave free vent to the storm of tears which had been gathering in her girlish bosom all day. Devoted to her father even more than to her mother, the mere thought of losing him was intolerable. He was her comrade, her adviser, her mentor. All she had undertaken or was about to undertake was to please him. If she had excelled in her studies and advanced more rapidly than other girls in her class, he was the cause. She needed his praise, his censure to spur her on in her work. With him gone, it seemed to her that her own life, too, had come to an end, not realizing, in her youthful inexperience, that it had not yet commenced.
She was a singularly attractive girl and gave every promise of developing into a remarkably handsome woman. Slight and somewhat delicate in build, she was of brunette type, with a face oval in shape, small features and large, lustrous eyes shaded by unusually long lashes. The nose was aristocratic, and when she spoke her mouth, beautifully curved, revealed perfect teeth. Her hands were white and shapely, and the mass of dark, silky hair which fell luxuriantly over her shoulders was the despair of every other girl of her acquaintance.
But it was not the possession of these mere externals that made people look twice at Virginia Blaine. If she had had only beauty there would have been nothing to particularly distinguish her from the many millions of girls to whom Nature has been kind. Beauty per se has no permanent power to attract. One soon tires of admiring an inanimate piece of sculpture, no matter how perfectly chiselled. If a woman lacks intelligence, esprit, temperament, men soon grow weary of her society, even though she have the beauty of a Venus de Medici; whereas, even a plain woman, by sheer force of soul and wit, can attract friends and make the world forget her ugliness. What made John Blaine's younger daughter an especial favorite was that in her case good looks were allied with brains. She made friends by her natural charm, her vivacity, her keen intelligence and uncommon strength of character, which, despite her youth, she had exhibited on more than one occasion. She was a merry-hearted, spirited, independent kind of a girl with decided views of her own regarding right and wrong and with the courage to express them. As the poet wrote:
Her glossy hair was clustered o'er her brow Bright with intelligence and fair and smooth; Her eyebrow's shape was the aerial bow, Her cheek all purple with the beam of youth Mounting, at times, to a transparent glow, As if her veins ran lightning.
Two sisters more unlike in character and tastes it would be almost impossible to discover. Fanny, the elder, lacked not only Virginia's good looks, and also her brains. Yet she was good-natured and easy-going, and, as long as she had her own way, managed to get along with everybody. She went through the lower grades of public school, but did not shine as a particularly bright pupil, evincing little love for books, and shirking study when possible. Her fondness for amusement and her uncultivated taste also led to her associating habitually with companions beneath her socially. She was a thoroughly good girl. A vulgar allusion would have shocked her, an impertinence she would have quickly resented; yet she seemed of a coarser fibre than the rest of the family, the reason for which, seeing that both girls had equal advantages and opportunities, only an expert psychologist could explain. She had gone through school mechanically as an unpleasant task to be gotten over with as soon as possible, taking no interest in her work, and when she came out her brain was a sluggish and unresponsive as one might expect. Well aware of her shortcomings, she made light of them, insisting laughingly that she was the dunce of the family and Virginia its genius. She would do the drudgery of housekeeping while her sister went to college.
There was no bitterness, no jealousy in this apparent rivalry. Fanny was devoted to her little sister and proud of her cleverness. She declared that one day Virginia would make a brilliant marriage and then she could pay it all back. That Virginia should ultimately go to college had been fully determined on. Everything attracted her to a liberal education. She was ambitious; she craved knowledge and showed talent in almost everything—in music, composition, painting. To her a liberal education would mean everything—the widening of her mental horizon, the initiation into keen, intellectual delights. No matter what sacrifice was to be made, to college the girl should go. So declared the parents.
Now all was changed. This blow which robbed her of her father also shattered her hopes for the future. All this flashed through Virginia's mind as they sat there, waiting. Turning to her sister, she said through her tears:
"If the worst happened—Fan—if Dad died—we couldn't go on living here, could we?"
Fanny shook her head. Sagely she replied:
"No, I'm afraid not. Father's got no insurance. Mother says we've lived up to everything. I guess I'll have to go to work—"
"So will I," said Virginia quickly.
"What nonsense you talk, Virgie!" interrupted her sister almost angrily. "As if you were intended for work! Nature intended you to be a lady, and a lady you'll be if I have to work all the flesh off my bones. Don't you suppose mother and I haven't talked it over already." With mock contempt she went on: "You work! What at, I'd like to know. Giving music lessons or writing articles for the ten-cent magazines! It's different with 'yours truly.' I'm not a highbrow. I never cared for books or culture and all that sort of thing. But I guess as a saleslady in some store I'll make a hit. Anyway, I'll make enough to keep things going—so there'll be enough for you and mother. Now—there isn't any use arguing. It's college for yours, Virgie, and when you graduate you'll marry a millionaire and we'll all be happy and comfy."
Virginia was about to protest when suddenly there was a commotion behind them. The bedroom door was abruptly opened and Dr. Everett came in, supporting Mrs. Blaine, who was weeping bitterly. The two girls sprang to their feet with a startled cry.
"How's father?" they exclaimed.
Staggering to a chair, Mrs. Blaine clasped both her children to her breast.
"Your father is in Heaven!" she murmured.
Then she fell prostrate on the sofa, her whole being shaken by convulsive sobs. Virginia, panic-stricken, darted forward, but the Doctor held out a restraining hand.
"Don't, child—let her cry. It will do her good."
"Fanny! Where are my scissors? Did you take my scissors?"
Seated in the centre of the small parlor, before a round table fairly well lighted by an electrolier suspended from the middle of the ceiling and littered with chiffons and laces, Mrs. Blaine stopped sewing and began a laborious search all over the board for the missing article. Finally the scissors were found hidden in the folds of what some day would be a graduation dress, but no sooner were they in use than something else was missing. Impatiently, the widow called out:
"Fanny! I do wish you'd come here. I'll never get this dress done. Did you see the roll of satin ribbon?"
But Fanny, busy just then with a customer in the outer shop, paid no attention to the summons. Virginia's new dress could wait—it was a whole month to graduation day anyhow—but business was not so good that one could afford to neglect a possible purchaser.
Four summers had gone by since John Blaine's death yet in that comparatively brief space of time, his widow appeared to have aged ten years or more. Now bent, infirm, a chronic invalid, she did not look as if she would long survive him. The world goes on just the same no matter whose heart is breaking, and time flies so quickly that the happenings of a decade seem only of yesterday. But John Blaine was not forgotten. The flowers that each week decorated his grave, placed there by loving hands, served to keep fresh the father's memory.
As far as was possible, the bereaved wife tried to keep to herself the sorrow that had slowly but surely undermined her health and made her an old woman before her hour. In her heart she knew that she would not long remain after the dear departed one; all she asked was that she should live long enough to see her girls happily married and taken care of. At first it had seemed as if existence without him was impossible, yet the regular routine of life must go on. Besides it was not fair to the girls. Her own life was irretrievably wrecked, but theirs had barely begun. It would be selfish to allow her grief to cast a permanent shadow over their young lives. They loved their father very dearly; his death had been a great shock to them. But they were young. They had a thousand outside interests to distract their attention. And youth, with its gaze still turned upward to the stars, soon forgets.
When everything was settled, the widow found herself with a little less than $3,000, all she possessed in the world. To attempt to live on the interest alone of such a slender capital was obviously an impossibility, so it was decided that they would move uptown, where they would not be known, and open a little millinery shop. This was a bright idea that had occurred to Fanny. She had always been clever at trimming hats. Why not put her skill to commercial profit? She and her mother could very well attend to such a business, while Virginia continued in school. If they were only fairly successful, the income would pay expenses, carry them along and help keep their capital intact. Dr. Everett heartily approved the plan, not only because it might prove a source of steady income, but also because it would be distraction for the widow and help her to forget. Mrs. Blaine somewhat reluctantly consented, and the girls set out enthusiastically to look for a shop.
After no end of running here and there all over New York, they found just what they wanted in one of the cheaper and more recently developed districts of Harlem. It was a narrow little store, with a fair-sized show window on Broadway, and with living rooms in the rear. Fanny declared it was just too cute for anything, and as she was the prime mover in the enterprise, a lease was signed without further delay, and the Blaine family took immediate possession.
At first the girls were as delighted with their new home as are children with a new toy. It being Summer time, there was no school for Virginia, so she was free to assist in the store. She dressed the window and waited on the customers, and after a very busy day, which kept her on her feet from morning till night, thought she had never had so much fun in her life. For the nonce, books and music were forgotten. She was a smart little saleslady, succeeding in selling one after the other, for ten dollars, hats which had cost Fanny not more than two. But her cooeperation was not to be for long. It was quite decided that in the Fall she was to go to High School. This was her mother's wish, and it had also been insisted upon by Fanny as a condition of their taking the store. Virginia, at heart, was glad enough to acquiesce. As they were too poor to keep a maid, she would willingly have stayed at home and shouldered her share of the daily toil, but an education meant a great deal to her, more than to most girls, and she would have relinquished her schooling only with bitter regret.
Autumn came with its cooler weather and longer evenings, and when High School opened Virginia was sent to resume her studies, while her sister and mother, busy in the store, exerted every effort to keep the little household going. The younger girl felt keenly the sacrifice they were making for her, and determined to prove worthy of it. She began to apply herself more energetically than ever. A clever, brainy girl, she was highly sensitive to every surrounding influence, with ideas and ideals of her own, in full sympathy with the social side of life, yet independent and self-reliant, and just beginning to choose her own path in the bewildering maze of the world's devious thoroughfare. In High School she made astonishing progress. Her fine mentality enabled her to grasp quickly the most obtuse scientific and economic problems, and her natural taste for belles lettres making languages and general literature comparatively easy, she soon distinguished herself above the other girls of her class. Especial talent she showed for public speaking, having a good command of English, with forcible delivery and sound logic. So successful, indeed, was she in this respect, that in her final year, as graduation day drew near, she was picked out from among three hundred and fifty girls to deliver the class oration at the graduating exercises.
Mrs. Blaine, overjoyed at this fulfillment of her fondest hopes, at once said she would make the graduation dress. Fanny and Virginia, knowing well the labor it would involve, demurred. It was too much of an undertaking. Their mother was far from strong; the sewing would tire her eyes. Besides, they could not spare the time from the store. It would be cheaper and quicker to buy the dress ready made. Even Dr. Everett, when consulted, shook his head and tried to discourage the widow from a task which he was afraid might prove beyond her strength. But Mrs. Blaine was not to be put off so easily. Since their father's death, she had let the girls have much their own way, but this time she was determined. It would be a labor of love, she insisted. Daddie, himself, would have wished it. And so, without further ado, work on the beloved graduation dress was commenced.
And such work as it entailed! Running down town each instant, to buy satin and ribbon and laces and lining, unable to find what was wanted, or else purchasing something that did not suit and having to take it back and exchange it for something else. The girls literally wore their shoes to pieces, but they did not mind. They knew that making this graduation dress was the one great joy that had come into their mother's life since their father's death, and they were amply rewarded when, after a long and arduous shopping tour they returned home with the required article and handed it to her as she bent low over her work at the board she would look up with a smile and exclaim:
"Oh, isn't it beautiful? That's just what I wanted! Now I can get on with Virginia's dress."
Thus, between working and studying, the days passed pleasantly enough. The little shop prospered, and all three were happy, each in her own way, Fanny in looking after the customers, Virginia in doing her lessons, Mrs. Blaine in working on her beloved graduation dress.
It was about this time that a romance came into Fanny's heretofore prosaic existence. So far the poor girl had not enjoyed much of life. Her time spent between four walls, there was a very narrow horizon to her outlook on things. She rarely went out, took no part in the pleasures and gaieties of other young women of her age. When not waiting on customers, she was cooking. Yet she was always good-natured about it. Laughingly she called herself Cinderella, because, while her more favored sister might be dressing up to go to recitals, lectures or concerts, she would be in the kitchen washing up the dishes. She took it amiably, yet there were times when she had a quiet cry all to herself, when she thought that her mother, instead of being so much engrossed in making a fine graduation dress for sister, might remember that she, too, needed something pretty to wear.
When, therefore, one evening at a neighbor's party, she happened to meet a young man who went considerably out of his way to pay her attention, she was greatly flattered and gratified. The very novelty of it startled her. Until now none of the eligible young men had so much as looked at her. Virginia, quite innocently, of course, had always monopolized their society. But this particular young man, whose name was James Gillie, seemed not in the least attracted to Virginia. In fact, he rather avoided her, appearing to be somewhat intimidated by her well-bred manners and cultured conversation. He made no secret of his preference for the homelier virtues of the elder sister, whose irrepressible propensity for picturesque, up-to-date slang and free-and-easy style put them on a more equal social footing. So began an acquaintance which resulted in the young man becoming a frequent and intimate visitor at the Blaine home.
Mr. James Gillie was an original in more ways than one, and it was some time before either Mrs. Blaine or Virginia could bring themselves to approve Fanny's liking for a young man with ways so uncouth and vulgar and whose antecedents were obviously so plebeian. Of Irish parentage, but American born, James Gillie was a product of the newest America, the typical gamin of New York's streets, fresh and slangy in speech, keen to the main chance, not over scrupulous, shrewd and calculating. Fair and slight in build, he was about twenty-six years old and his upper lip was adorned with a few thinly scattered hairs, which he proudly termed a moustache. Otherwise he was unintelligent and ordinary looking, one of the many thousands of New York young men who, graduates of the slums, have been left to shift for themselves, and whose chief intellectual pastime has been standing on street corners reading baseball returns. Not only had he no education, but he was rather proud of the fact, affecting to despise bookish people as prigs and "high-brows." Incompetent and lazy, without any real ability, he worked only because he had to, and his standing grievance was that he was misunderstood, unappreciated and underpaid. The one good side to his nature, and the one which, perhaps, appealed most to Fanny, was the unconscious possession of a rich fund of humor. He was funny without intending to be, and this not only made him a diverting companion but ensured him a welcome everywhere. With the straightest of faces, he would say funny things in so ludicrous a manner that a roomful of people would go into convulsions. He laughed with them, not realizing they were laughing at him, but ever preening himself on being a very witty and clever person indeed. His greatest fault was inordinate vanity. He had the highest opinion of his own capacity, and he could never understand why capitalists generally did not tumble over each other to secure his services. At the present time he was earning the magnificent salary of ten dollars a week as shipping clerk, but this, he explained, was only a nominal stipend, as a starter. Before very long he would be president of the company. His hobby was inventing things. So far he had not made enough by his brain to purchase a collar button, but ideas were coming thick and fast, and he was convinced that the day was not far distant when he would make a great fortune. That is why, all things considered, he believed himself, despite his obscure origin and lack of education, a desirable match for the proudest girl in the land.
"Fanny! Where's my tape measure? I can't find my tape measure."
Once more Mrs. Blaine laid down her work and began to rummage among the mass of chiffons and laces piled up before her. In the shop outside she could hear her daughter laughing and talking. Impatiently the widow called out:
"Can't you come and help me, Fanny? Who are you talking to?"
"It's Mr. Gillie, mother," came the answer. "He's helping me close the store."
A look of anxiety crossed Mrs. Blaine's face. It went against the grain to entertain a person like Mr. Gillie, but for her child's sake she said nothing, and when he called, as he had done very frequently recently, she had tried to receive him as cordially as possible. But to-night she was very tired. At times she felt dizzy and faint. His interminable chatter and boasting would only weary her more. So, hoping the visitor would take the hint, she called out again:
"Isn't Virginia home yet? It's getting very late."
"She couldn't be here yet," called out Fanny. "The concert's not over till ten. We've all closed up now. I'm coming right in."
A moment later the young girl appeared, followed more leisurely by Mr. Gillie.
The shipping clerk entered jauntily, a lighted cigar in his mouth, full of self-assurance. He wore a check suit much too small for him, a pink tie, and patent-leather shoes. Fanny's face was red and her manner somewhat flustered, but this the mother, bent low over her work, did not notice.
"Good evening, m'm," said Mr. Gillie, coolly seating himself without waiting to be asked. Sitting back, crossing his legs and carelessly flecking his cigar ash on the floor, he added in patronizing tones: "How's the world using you?"
"Good evening, Mr. Gillie," returned the widow graciously. "How are you?"
"Oh, fairly well to middlin'." Glancing at the littered table, he said: "Still busy on the graduation dress, I see."
Mrs. Blaine sighed wearily.
"Yes—it's taking me longer than I bargained for. Sometimes I feel very tired. I wish Virginia was here to try it on."
Fanny glanced at the clock. With a quick, significant look at Mr. Gillie, she said quickly:
"She'll be here any moment now. The concert is usually out by this time." There was an awkward pause and then she stammered: "Mr. Gillie has something to say to you, mother."
Mrs. Blaine laid down her work and looked up in surprise.
"Something to say to me?" she echoed in amazement, looking inquiringly from her daughter to the visitor.
But Fanny, her face crimson, had already bolted into the kitchen, while Mr. Gillie, his chair tilted backward, a picture of magnificent unconcern, coolly blew smoke rings into the air.
"Something to say to me?" repeated Mrs. Blaine.
His chair suddenly returning to the floor level with a thud that shook the house, Mr. Gillie sneezed violently, a physiological phenomenon which curiously enough never failed to present itself when any extraordinary pressure was put upon his brain cells. Wiping his watery eyes with a pink-bordered handkerchief—a color he rather affected—he began eloquently:
"Mrs. Blaine, you're a sensible woman. I feel I can talk to you plain. There comes a time in every man's life when he feels lonesome—when it looks good to him to have someone round all the time, looking after things—his dinner, his clothes, and so on. Why, sometimes I go around for weeks with my suspenders only half fastened, just because I've got no one to sew a button on. It gets on a feller's nerves—yes, it does—until at last he says to himself: 'Jimmie, my boy, you've knocked about alone long enough. You want to hitch up with some girl and take it easy a bit.'" He stopped a moment to gauge the effect of his words, but as Mrs. Blaine gave no sign that she understood what he was driving at, he proceeded: "I'm not much good at speechifying. With the frills all cut and to come to the point, this is what it is: Fanny seems the kind of girl I'm looking for, and I don't see I could do any better. I've just asked her, and now it's kinder up to you—"
The widow took off her spectacles and gasped. Could she have heard aright? He was actually asking for Fanny. She was amazed not so much at his monumental selfishness and impudence as that Fanny herself could have given him the slightest encouragement. She fully realized that times had changed since the days when they lifted their heads proudly in the world, but to sink as low as this seemed too terrible, too humiliating. Yet, after all, could she blame her daughter? What was her present life, what would be her future, without education, without money—unless she had someone who could take care of her? Dissembling her indignation as much as possible, she inquired suavely:
"This takes me very much by surprise, Mr. Gillie. You will, of course, allow me leisure to talk it over with my daughter. May I ask if your means permit you to provide a comfortable home for Fanny—the kind of home to which she has been accustomed?"
The muscles of Mr. Gillie's nostrils contracted and for a moment it looked as if his slight frame were again about to be shaken convulsively by a mighty sneeze, but the spasm passed. He merely coughed loudly to clear his throat. Then, glancing round the room in which he was sitting, he said:
"Oh, I guess we'll be able to put on as good a front as this, all right, all right." Tilting his chair back until it seemed physically impossible that he could maintain his balance, he went on between puffs of his cigar:
"You see, m'm, I'm not the kind of man that's satisfied to go on working all his life for only just enough to keep body and soul together. That's all right maybe for pikers—poor devils that have no spunk—but not for 'yours truly.' I'm a pusher, a climber, I am, and, what's more, I'm a man with ideas. No one can keep me down in the world. One of these days I'll be driving my own automobile and Fanny will be riding in it with me. It's no 'guff' I'm giving you. I'm the real 'goods.'"
"You are a shipping clerk, I believe," said Mrs. Blaine when she could get in a word sideways.
"Yes, m'm," he snapped, "a shipping clerk—what of it?"
"Is that a very—lucrative position?"
He laughed derisively as if it was absurd to imagine he was going to remain a shipping clerk all his life.
"Oh, I'm only a clerk now, but I'll be boss some day—see if I don't."
"Might I ask what your present income is?" inquired the widow blandly.
For the first time Mr. Gillie seemed at a loss for an answer. Awkwardly shifting his cigar to the other corner of his mouth, he stammered:
"I'm not getting much now—ten a week—that's all." Hastily he continued: "But it won't be for long. The big men down town know me—they know what I'm worth to them. They're just watching me. Any day they may make me an offer that would land me in Easy Street. Besides, sooner or later I'll astonish people with one of my inventions. I'm full of new ideas. Some of them are bound to make money. It's a cinch!"
How long he would have continued in this strain there is no telling, for, although not talkative usually, he always became extraordinarily loquacious when encouraged to speak of his own affairs. Utterly exhausted by his chatter and feeling dreadfully tired, Mrs. Blaine began to wish that her unwelcome visitor would go. The room was full of tobacco smoke and his free-and-easy manner irritated her extremely. Of course, his proposal was ridiculous, an impertinence. It was Fanny's fault for having encouraged him. But it was best to say nothing—to just drop him gently. An awkward pause followed during which the widow, fatigued as she was, plied her needle more industriously than ever, while the would-be Benedict, nicely balanced on his chair, amused himself sending rings of smoke up to the ceiling. Happily, at this juncture, Fanny returned from the kitchen. She had noticed the strained silence and feared it boded ill. A glance at her mother's face was enough. Quickly she exclaimed:
"Now, mother, you must go to bed. Mr. Gillie will excuse you, I'm sure. It's getting real late."
Taking the hint, the shipping clerk rose to his feet. With a grin he said:
"That's right, m'm—all work and no play don't agree with nobody. That's my maxim. Well, good night, ladies!" As he shuffled off, accompanied to the door by Fanny, he said in an undertone: "It's O.K., Fan—I put it to her good and hard—it's you for mine, all right!"
As they passed along the dark passage he profited by the opportunity to snatch a kiss, and as they bade each other good-bye he said:
"You'd better get after mother. She was for handing me a nice, juicy lemon, but I gave her a line of talk that fetched her. Good night, sweetheart!"
Just as he was going out at the front door, Virginia came up.
"Good evening, Mr. Gillie," she said politely.
He laughed as he chucked her playfully under the chin.
"Mr. Gillie?" he echoed. "What's the matter with James or Jimmie? Good night, little sis!"
With a boisterous laugh he went out into the street and shut the door. Virginia, astounded, looked at her sister and laughed.
"What's the matter with him to-night?" she exclaimed. "Is he crazy?" Without waiting for an answer, she added quickly: "How's mother?"
Fanny averted her face. She dreaded taking Virginia into her confidence; somehow she could not tell her. Briefly she said:
"She's very tired—been working until now. We expected you home earlier. She wanted to try on the dress."
Quickly removing her hat and coat which she threw on a convenient chair, Virginia answered:
"The concert was out later than usual. Dr. Everett was there. He brought me to the corner. How long has Mr. Gillie been here?"
"All evening," replied Fanny. Then suddenly the elder sister flung her arms round Virginia's neck.
"Virgie!" she exclaimed, "what do you think? Mr. Gillie has asked me to marry him."
Each day brought graduation day nearer, and Mrs. Blaine, becoming more and more nervous as the great event approached, made strenuous efforts to get the dress finished in time. There were vexatious delays without number. It was difficult to find the right material or else something went wrong with the measurements and all had to be done over again. From morning till night, day after day, the old lady sat in doors, at the table piled high with dressmaker's litter, deeply engrossed in her self-appointed labor of love.
In vain Virginia and Fanny protested. Their mother refused to listen to them. This dress, she insisted, was her one joy in life. It would be cruel to deprive her of anything which afforded her so much pleasure. They said no more, but they noticed with alarm that each day their mother seemed to age a year. Her cheeks became more hollow, her face more chalky white. She complained continually of pains in the region of the heart, and it was plainly discernible that she was rapidly growing more feeble.
One day when Dr. Everett was paying them one of his regular weekly visits Virginia took him aside and told him of her anxiety. He seemed to know already what she had to say. Taking both her hands in his, in that big-hearted, paternal manner so characteristic of him, he said impressively:
"Dear child—you must be brave. You cannot expect to have your mother always with you. She is tired and world-weary. She has earned that beautiful, eternal sleep which alone brings perfect peace. An organic disease of the heart, which remained latent up to the time of your father's death, has now become very pronounced. Trouble and sorrow have aggravated the condition. Your mother may live for years; then again she may pass away from us any time. One never can tell what will happen when the heart is in that state."
A long spell of weeping followed this confidential chat with the doctor, and for days Virginia went about only a shadow of her former self.
How cruel was life! she mused. First to lose her father, and now her best, her only friend! What would she do when her mother was gone? Fanny was hardly a companion. She was so different; her tastes and pursuits were not the same. There was not the same bond of sympathy between them. If anything happened, they would, of course, go on living together as usual, but how different their life would be!
Nothing further had been said regarding Mr. Gillie's proposal. Fanny had not mentioned it again, and both Virginia and Mrs. Blaine were silent. Instinctively Fanny knew that her mother and sister disapproved of the match and inwardly she resented it. Why should they interfere with her happiness? She had a right to look after her own interests. What better offer could she expect? Suppose James was a rough diamond; he might still make a better husband than some other man better educated. He had had no advantages, but he was respectable and clever. Everyone admitted that he was smart. His ideas were simply wonderful. One of these days he would make a lot of money with his brains, and then she would be proud to be his wife. Thus she reasoned and, once she made up her mind, nothing could alter it. Mr. Gillie continued his visits and made himself quite at home until, at last, they all called him by his first name and it became quite natural to see him there. There was no more talk of marriage, but both Mrs. Blaine and Virginia soon arrived at the conclusion that he and Fanny were tacitly engaged.
Virginia sometimes wondered if she herself would ever marry, and, if so, what kind of man she would choose for a husband. What she knew and heard of marriage had not filled her with any keen anxiety to enter the married state, or with any profound respect for matrimony as a social institution. In theory it was beautiful; in practice it left much to be desired. Like any thoughtful girl having a broad, sane outlook on life, she fully appreciated the dangers and unhappiness that may attend unions entered into lightly and carelessly, without such safeguards as regards morals and health, as a paternal State should properly control.
Although a girl of high moral principles, she was not innocent. Are there any such? Innocence is, of necessity, the sister of ignorance. The conditions of modern existence render it impossible for any girl, once she has attained the age of fifteen, to continue unacquainted with the main facts of life, and some are initiated at an even tenderer age. How is it possible for any maiden to remain unenlightened in this regard these days when sensational, muck-raking prints throw the searchlight of publicity into every boudoir and spicy details of society's philandering fill column after column in the breakfast table newspaper? No matter how little curiosity a healthy-minded girl may have, by reason of a natural coldness of temperament, to acquire such knowledge, it becomes, in spite of her, part of her daily surroundings and she cannot escape its contaminating, demoralizing influence.
Virginia was no fool. Now nearly nineteen, she knew everything about life which an intelligent girl should know. What puzzled her most was to determine her own mental attitude towards marriage. Not yet having met a man for whom she could feel any especial regard, the idea of forming with any man as close an association as marriage would mean was repellent to her. The intimate relation the marital tie pre-supposes frightened and appalled her as it has done many times before thousands of passionless, strongly intellectual women who, bringing cold analysis to bear on the sexual instinct, rebel at the subordinate, humiliating role which the weaker sex is called upon to play in Nature's vast and wonderfully complex scheme.
Not that she was passionless or lacking in temperament. The girl in "whose veins ran lightning" could hardly be accused of indifference to the opposite sex. She liked several young men, but there was not one of them whom she could bring herself to think of in the light of a husband. Girls often married for other than sentimental reasons. Of that she was well aware. Self-interest was at the bottom of most marriages. Cupid, guileless as he seems, is often a shrewd, calculating little gnome in disguise. If a girl has no means, no friends, no way of earning a living, what is going to become of her unless she seeks refuge in marriage? Her first instinct is to find a husband, a man sufficiently well off to support both. There was, of course, only one word with which to brand that sort of thing. It was a legalized form of prostitution, an approved system of cohabitation which must be horrible and detestable to any girl of decent instincts, no matter which way she looked at it, and yet it was a state of white slavery which society fully condoned and ever approved. Hundreds of virtuous girls thus sold themselves—to the highest bidder. The slums had no monopoly of the white slave traffic; it flourished equally well on fashionable Fifth Avenue, where its countless victims, for the honor of the system, managed to conceal their tears from the world. What did bridge-playing mothers care about their daughters' happiness so long as they were able to procure for them rich men who could give them fine houses, servants, and automobiles? It was all hideous and ghastly, when viewed thus sanely, and Virginia shuddered as she thought of it. To such degradation as this she would never sink. Never would she marry a man whom she did not truly love. If it came to the worst she would go as domestic servant or even starve rather than surrender her self-respect.
Graduation day was almost at hand, but the dress was still unfinished. There was considerable work yet to be done on it. The nearer came the important event, the more nervous and exhausted Mrs. Blaine showed herself. She had already had several fainting spells and on one occasion the girls were so alarmed that they thought the end had come, peacefully and suddenly. But the widow rallied and, in spite of her daughter's protests, insisted on continuing with her work. Marvelling at her determination, touched by this pathetic exhibition of maternal devotion, Virginia would sit silently for hours, her eyes filled with tears, watching the dear, tired fingers swiftly and skillfully plying the needle.
One evening the little family was assembled in the stuffy parlor back of the store. Mrs. Blaine, tired after a long day's toil, had sunk back in her armchair, dozing. Her head had fallen forward on her breast, a piece of hemming on her knee. In order not to disturb her, the girls conversed in low tones. Virginia was reading, her favorite occupation, while her elder sister, engaged perhaps more usefully, was darning stockings.
Suddenly the front door bell rang. With an anxious glance at her mother to make sure that the noise had not disturbed her, Fanny tip-toed out of the room and presently returned, followed by James Gillie. The shipping clerk entered clumsily, in his characteristic, noisy style. Jocularly he cried out:
"Good evening, everybody!"
Virginia quickly held up a protesting finger, while Fanny exclaimed angrily:
"Don't you see that mother's asleep?"
Throwing his hat and coat on a sofa, the newcomer sat down gingerly on a chair. With a glance at the old lady, he demanded:
"What's she sleepin' here for? Why don't she go to bed?"
Virginia, always irritated by his gaucheries, pretended not to hear and went on with her book, but Fanny answered him. In a whisper she said:
"She's tired out." Anxiously she, added: "I don't like the way she looks to-day. I think it's the heart. I'll telephone the doctor to-morrow—"
Jimmie gave a snort of disapproval.
"Pshaw! What's the good?" he exclaimed contemptuously. "Those doctors can't do nothing; they're the worst kind of fakers. All they do is to look wise, scribble on a bit of paper some words no one can read—not even the druggist—and charge you a two-spot. It's to laugh!"
"Dr. Everett doesn't charge us anything—so you're wrong for once," interrupted Virginia, glad of the opportunity to give him a dig.
"I ain't talkin' about any particular doctor," went on the shipping clerk, unabashed. "I'm agin all doctors. They're a bunch of crooks, I tell you. It's you women with your imaginary ailments who keep 'em going. If doctors had to depend on men for a living, they'd have to take to shovelling snow."
"Hardly in summer time," said Virginia dryly.
"No," he retorted as quickly; "then they could run ice cream parlors."
Fanny, who had resumed darning her socks, smiled. She enjoyed these little encounters between her sister and her fiance. Virginia was no mean antagonist when it came to an argument, but she was no match for Jimmie. However, thinking the sparring had gone far enough, she adroitly changed the conversation.
"Well, how's business to-day, Jim?"
"Oh, on the blink—as usual. Nothing doing; I'm sick of the whole outfit. But say, girls—!"
"What?" exclaimed Fanny.
"You won't tell anyone if I tell you something?"
Virginia looked up from her book. Even she was interested.
"No," said Fanny, "we won't tell. What is it?"
Jimmie sat up and cleared his throat as if preparing to make some highly important communication. Then, leaning forward, he said in an impressive tone:
"I've got the greatest idea—"
"Really?" exclaimed Virginia sceptically.
Too full of egotism and self-importance to note her sarcasm, the young man beamed with self-satisfaction as he proceeded enthusiastically:
"Greatest thing you ever heard of! There's millions in it. My name will ring round the world. If only I can get the backing, my fortune is made—"
Fanny's face flushed with pleasure as she bent eagerly forward to hear every detail of this scheme which would some day make her a rich woman. Even if the dream never came true, the mere hope that it might was enough to give her a thrill. Virginia remained cold. She was more cynical, having already heard many speeches of the same kind and from the same quarter—all dealing with wonderful projects that invariably met with a sudden death. This announcement of a new idea, therefore, did not even make her look up.
Expanding his chest, Jimmie proceeded with dignity.
"This idea of mine will revolutionize railroad travel in this country—do you know that? It will bring Chicago far nearer New York than it is now. How? By cutting down the running time of the fastest trains. When the railroad men hear of it—and see how simple it is—they'll hail me as a public benefactor—"
"But what is it?" interrupted Fanny eagerly. "You haven't told us what it is."
Beaming with self-importance, he tilted forward on his chair. Fanny, tense with the excitement of suspense, strained her ears. Even Virginia deigned to stop reading and pay attention. Clearing his throat he began:
"You must first understand that the chief difficulty railroads meet with in maintaining a fast schedule is the vexatious delays caused by stops at way-stations. My idea does away with all stops. I eliminate them entirely, and yet I pick up all the passengers who wish to travel by that particular train—"
He stopped and looked at them as if he expected exclamations of wonder and demands for further explanation. Virginia looked puzzled. Fanny, quite excited, beamed with enthusiasm.
"How do you do it?" exclaimed the elder sister admiringly. Assuredly she had made no mistake when she had selected so gifted a life partner.
"Yes," demanded Virginia. "How do you pick them up?"
The young man laughed outright. Confidently he went on:
"Pick 'em up? It's so easy that I can't understand why no one ever thought of it before. Did you ever see the way the fast expresses pick up mail bags? Near the track there is an upright post, from which extends an arm. On this arm is suspended the mail bag. The onrushing train, which is travelling perhaps at a speed of a mile a minute, is fitted on the outside with a sort of hook which catches the mail bag and jerks it into the car. Well, that same idea can just as well be applied to waiting passengers as to waiting mail bags. The passengers would all be gathered together in a car which would wait on a siding for the arrival of the express. By some mechanical contrivance—exactly what it would be I haven't yet figured out—this waiting car would be instantly switched on to the rapidly-moving express—would become, so to speak, the rear car. The passengers would go forward through the vestibule to take their seats in the train proper and the emptied waiting car would then be unswitched and go back to the station to begin the performance all over again—all this while the train was going at top speed. Isn't that some idea? Isn't it a dandy?"
Fanny was silent. Virginia, hardly able to control her merriment, took up her book again. Jim was about to enter into further details when suddenly there was a noise behind them. Fanny started up with a cry.
"Virginia! Look!" she exclaimed.
Mrs. Blaine had half fallen out of her chair. In her sleep she had lost her balance and slipped down sideways. With the clerk's assistance the two girls sat her up again. Apparently she was not hurt, but her eyes were closed. She was strangely silent, and her hands were very cold. When they laid her head gently back on the back of the armchair they noticed that she was very white.
"She's fainted!" cried Fanny excitedly.
Virginia, greatly alarmed, exclaimed anxiously:
"Mother, dear, what's the matter? Speak to me."
Still no answer. The girls, now thoroughly frightened, ran for restoratives. Virginia poured out some brandy. Even Jimmie was frightened out of his usual levity and self-possession. Quickly taking her hand, which hung over the chair limp and lifeless, he put his finger on her pulse.
"Please telephone for the doctor, Jim!" cried Virginia, distracted, almost in tears.
The young man looked at both girls, his face serious and white. For once he controlled the situation. Soberly he said:
"It's too late."
In a luxuriously furnished suite on an upper floor of one of New York's biggest and most expensive hotels two men sat carelessly scanning the morning newspapers before a table still covered with breakfast dishes. It was nearly ten o'clock, long past the hour when most people begin the day's work, and there was nothing, either in the men's dress or manner, to suggest that they belonged to the effete and useless idle class. On the contrary, in appearance they were typical business men—energy, prosperity, masterfulness, showing in their every word and gesture, in every line of their clean-cut, strong-featured faces. On this particular morning they were not looking their best, and the reason, as well as the explanation of their late rising might possibly be found in the disorder which a cursory glance around the room revealed. Dress coats, white ties, patent leather pumps and other paraphernalia of evening wear were scattered here and there, just as each article had been thrown down when they had returned home the night before, while on a side table were a couple of champagne bottles—empty.
They were both comparatively young men. The elder of the two, a big, athletic fellow with smooth face and strong jaw, did not appear to be much over thirty-five. His companion was about the same age. Both had the blase air of men who had lived and lived hard. All of life's fiercer joys they had known to excess, which explained, perhaps, why they were tired and disillusionized long before they had attained their prime. With a gesture of disgust, the elder man threw down his paper, and, snatching up a glass of ice-water, swallowed the refreshing contents at a gulp.
"It's no use, Fred!" he exclaimed. "I'm no good for that late bumming. I guess I'm getting old. Those midnight orgies never did agree with me. Hot birds and cold wine are a barbaric mixture, anyhow. I'm going to cut it out—do you understand?—cut it out. So don't ask me again—it's no use. I've got a fearful headache this morning—and I'm so sleepy that I'd like to go to bed for a week. It's idiotic for a man to make such an infernal ass of himself. It knocks one out and renders one unfit for business. How can I go down town and understand what I'm doing when I've got such a head on as this? There's a directors' meeting to-day, too—very important. What time was it when we got home?"
"About three o'clock, I should say," rejoined his vis-a-vis laconically, without looking up from his newspaper.
In the fifteen years that they had been intimate friends Fred Hadley had grown so accustomed to these periodical outbursts from his old chum Bob Stafford that he seldom paid the slightest heed to his protests. Both self-made men, each had started practically in the gutter and by sheer dint of grit and energy forged his way to the front, the one as a captain of industry, the other as a promoter in railroading and finance. Men of exceptional capacity, success had come easily to them, and with success had come money and power. Hadley was now vice-president of one of the biggest steel concerns in the country, and Stafford had been even more successful. Attracted to railroading he had found employment with a western road, and soon displayed such a positive genius for organization that he quickly excited the attention of eastern railroad men. Quick promotion followed, until, at the end of ten years, he became himself a power in the railroad world. Shrewd deals in Wall Street had already brought him wealth, and the age of thirty-eight found him in control of half a dozen systems, his fortune already estimated at several millions, and his name in the railroad world one to conjure with, not only in Wall Street, but from New York to Frisco.
Irritated at his companion's silence, Stafford repeated more loudly:
"Do you hear? I'm going to cut it out!"
At last Hadley, his ire roused, looked up.
"Look here, Bob," he exclaimed impatiently, "you make me tired. You're a game sport, I don't think. It wasn't Maude's little party that knocked you out." Pointing significantly to the empty bottles of champagne on the side tables, he went on: "That's what did you up. Why did you soak yourself with champagne when you got home? Do you know you got away with two quarts of the stuff?"
Stafford passed a hand over his burning brow.
"The deuce I did! I don't remember. I must have been drunk when I got home. I took the 'fizz' to sober up on. Why did you let me?"
"Let you?" echoed Hadley scornfully. "Is there any man alive capable of keeping you from the bottle when you've got a thirst on?"
"Yes," admitted Stafford contritely, "I recall that I was d—d thirsty."
"And instead of drinking ice water, you rang for champagne. You're a nice kind of fellow to moralize—you are!"
Rising from the table, Hadley yawned, stretched himself, and, sauntering over to a window, stood looking out upon the busy city below. From that elevation the bird's-eye view was wonderful. The broad avenues below, teeming with life, the surging, confused mass of pedestrians and vehicles, the close network of side-streets filled with busy traffic, the silvery Hudson with sailing vessels and steamships departing for every port in the world—all this was a scene of which the eye never tired. The young man gazed at it for a moment, and then, retracing his steps, threw himself into an arm-chair. Lighting a cigar, he said:
"These are bully rooms, all right. The view is splendid. But I don't see why you need to come to a hotel when you have your apartment on Riverside—and such an apartment!—a veritable palace, filled with everything one's artistic taste cares for and furnished and decorated to suit yourself."
"That's just why," answered his companion dryly.
The railroad man had left the breakfast table, and, seated at a desk on the other side of the room, was busy glancing over a huge batch of letters which had come with the morning's mail.
"What do you mean by 'that's just why'?" demanded Hadley, puzzled.
Stafford looked up and smiled.
"Why—it's just as you said. My own place is so attractive that I can't do any work there. The paintings, statuary, bric-a-brac and what-not, distract my attention too much. If I have an important letter to draft, I can't think of what I want to say because my eyes are fascinated by the Peachblow vases on top of the bookcase. You haven't seen the vases, have you, Fred? They're 'peaches,' all right. I gave $3,000 for the pair. That's going some for a bit of breakable bric-a-brac. Come up to dinner some night and see them. I'll tell Oku you're coming, and he'll get up something good—one of his swell Japanese dishes."
"Not on your life," interrupted the other with a grimace. "Japs and Chinks eat all kinds of freak things—nightingale tongues and such stuff. No—thanks. Your Oku's a decent little sort, as Jap butlers go, but when it comes to cooking, give me Christian food and a French chef every time."
Stafford laughed heartily.
"Fred—my boy—you're shockingly provincial and bourgeois. I'm afraid I'll never make a cosmopolite out of you. Well, as I said, there is too much art about the place. It seems sacrilege to even think business there, so when I'm putting through any big deal, I just slip away and come to this hotel for a few days. At home I'm an art lover, revelling in the treasures I have succeeded in collecting; here I am a vulgar business person, occupied in the undignified task of making money. Only last week, when I was home, I got thinking out a plan one night in the library for a merger with a road which is cutting pretty badly into our business. I had thought out a plan, the details were working out nicely in my mind, when suddenly my gaze fell on the Corot hung just above my desk. You know the picture. Did you ever see more exquisite coloring, a more wonderful composition? Is it surprising that the plan for the merger quite slipped out of my head?"
"Talking of exquisite coloring," interrupted Hadley irrelevantly, "did you notice how well Maude looked last night? If she's a day, that woman is forty, yet no one would take her for more than five and twenty. She's a marvel. No wonder Stanton is crazy about her."
Stafford shrugged his shoulders.
"Cosmetics and a clever hairdresser can work miracles," he said dryly.
"She's a wonder, just the same—especially when you consider the life she's led. You know her history—a morphine fiend with the face of an angel. She knocked about for years before Stanton fell into her clutches. He's dippy about her—pays for that apartment and gives her a handsome allowance, bought her an automobile, pays her chauffeur, and all the rest of it. Did you notice that string of pearls she was wearing? It cost him a cool $10,000 in Paris last summer."
"Why doesn't he marry her, if he's got it as bad as all that?"
Hadley looked at his friend in amazement.
"You're not in earnest, are you?" he demanded. "Marry a woman of that kind?"
"Why not?" answered Stafford doggedly. "If the man thinks enough of her to waste so much time and money upon her let him try and reform her by throwing around her a cloak of respectability. Why is the woman what she is? Because pleasure-loving blackguards of Stanton's type have degraded her and made it impossible for her to hold up her head again among decent people."
Hadley laughed outright.
"Say, old man," he exclaimed, "it's easy to see you are out of sorts this morning. When did Bob Stafford start in to be a social reformer? Who ever expected such advice from the man who could always get away with more booze at a sitting than any man I ever knew, and who has been the hero of a hundred affaires de coeur, not all as respectable as that of Stanton and Maude?"
The railroad man took it good-naturedly.
"That's all right, Fred—rub it in all you like. It's because I've been an ass myself that I can see more plainly than any one, perhaps, what cursed folly it is. We spend our time and substance on some wretched wanton, who never gives us a thought save how much money she can squeeze out of us, and what have we in return? Nothing. The years slip quickly by; we find ourselves getting old, and there's no one round who really cares a jot whether we live or die—except, possibly our relatives, who look forward to the latter. Genuine affection is absolutely foreign to our existence. We have no one to bestow it on; no one to bestow it on us. To be quite frank, that is another reason why I don't care to spend too much time in my Riverside home. I feel lonesome there. The place is quiet; it lacks the life and bustle of a hotel, and Oku, decent little Jap as he is, hardly makes an ideal companion—"
Sending a cloud of tobacco smoke up to the ceiling, Hadley gave vent to a low, expressive whistle.
"So—that's where the land lays, eh? You are lonesome. In other words, you want a wife to share with you the artistic treasures of your Riverside home. You are tired of being a bachelor—"
Stafford laughed—a resounding, wholesome laugh, that fairly shook the room.
"You've guessed it, Fred, you've guessed it. You're a mind-reader. I confess I'm tired of bumming. You and Stanton and the rest of the boys are a jolly crowd. You've given me many a good time, but, I tell you, old man, I'm tired of it all. I want to cut away and settle down. If the right girl comes along, I'll marry her—"
Hadley was silent for a few moments, and, sitting lazily back in the comfortable, deep-seated armchair, contented himself with puffing his cigar vigorously and emitting a prodigious quantity of smoke. Finally he said:
"All right, Bob—you know best what you want. Try matrimony, if you've a mind to, but remember this—don't forget I gave you good warning. Marriage isn't what it's cracked up to be, by a long shot. The girl you're courting will seem to you a very different person after marriage. She'll be an old-man-of-the-sea hanging around your neck whom you can't shake off. Your trouble will only begin when you take to yourself a wife." Rising and picking up his hat and gloves, he added: "Now I must be going. I have an appointment at the office at 11:30. What are you going to do? Coming down town with me?"
Stafford pointed to the mass of papers and letters piled up on his desk. Shaking his head he replied:
"No—I can't go out yet. I must answer all these letters." Helplessly he added: "I don't know how I'm going to tackle them. I've an awful headache."
"Why not get a stenographer?"
"A stenographer? That's not a bad idea. Where can I get one?"
"Why, downstairs. There are two attached to the hotel. They attend to the telephone switchboard and do typewriting as well. One is a girl with red hair and a squint; the other is dark and rather pretty—"
"Very well," smiled Stafford. "Send me up the pretty one. I couldn't stand the red-haired girl just now. I've got an important deal on hand. She might queer my luck. Do that for me, old chap. Tell her as you go out, and don't forget—the pretty one."
"Right you are!" laughed Hadley. "I'll see you to-night at dinner. Ta ta!" He was going out when he turned round at the door. "Say—don't forget your virtuous resolution. Don't make love to the pretty typewriter."
The door slammed and Stafford was alone.
For some time after his friend disappeared, the railroad man sat idly turning over the mass of papers accumulating on the desk. There was a busy day before him—a directors' meeting at 2 o'clock, people to see at his office. But just now his thoughts were not on his work. He was cogitating on what he had just admitted to Hadley. Yes, that was it. The truth was out now. He had never acknowledged it before, even to himself. He was tired of his bachelor life. He wanted a wife.
What had all his success been to him? An empty kind of satisfaction, after all. He had made money, more money than he knew what to do with, but it had not brought him real happiness. How could he be happy, when there was no one to share his happiness, his success? His parents were dead; he had no brothers or sisters. He was all alone in the world, and the older he got the more he was beginning to realize how isolated his life was. He had hosts of so-called friends—jolly good fellows of both sexes, who were ready enough to help him spend his money; but what was such friendship as that worth?
Yet Fred might be right, after all. He had himself known men, confirmed bachelors like himself, who had got married and regretted it ever since. Their lives had become a burden to them. They were outrageously henpecked, made to dance attendance until all hours of the morning upon silly, bridge-loving wives. True, but they were poor, weak-minded simpletons, just the kind of men to be dominated, bullied by a woman. He would like to see the girl who could coerce him into doing anything he did not wish to do. If he ever married, he would rule his own household; no woman would venture to dictate to him. He would insist on his absolute independence, do as he chose, go where he liked. He would be the master. If the husband had not the right to command, who had? When a pair of horses was sold, did they not belong to the purchaser? A wife was, in a sense, a purchase. The average society girl who gets married nowadays practically sells herself. She wants a man with money—a man who will give her jewels and clothes and an establishment that will make every other girl of her acquaintance green with envy. She gets him—for a consideration. That, no doubt, was the kind of girl he would one day get. She would offer herself, and if he liked the look of her he would buy her, and, having bought her, she would learn soon enough that there was only one master in the Stafford household. It was not necessary that they love each other. They would be good friends, chums, and all that, but he would never let go of the check-rein. Certainly he would always be the master.
He was thus engrossed in his reflections, when there came a gentle rap at the door. Instantly galvanized into action, he called out in stentorian tones:
The door was pushed open, and Virginia Blaine entered, notebook in hand. Her face was slightly flushed, and she stood hesitatingly on the threshold, as if fearing to enter. She was attired in deep mourning, and the simple black dress, relieved only by a little white lace collar round the neck, enhanced the natural rich coloring of her face. Starting hastily from his seat, Stafford advanced towards her. Timidly she said:
"You asked for a stenographer?"
Impressed, as well as surprised by her beauty, at a loss for a moment what to say, the railroad promoter stammered confusedly:
"No—that is—yes—by all means—won't you sit down?"
She took a seat near the desk, and opening her notebook, got ready to take dictation. Stafford looked fixedly at her. He remembered now having seen her at the telephone switchboard downstairs in the hotel lobby. Smilingly he said:
"What is your name?"
"Miss Blaine," she replied coldly.
"We've met before, haven't we?" he went on.
She colored under his close scrutiny. Why did he stare so? It made her very uncomfortable. If he did not cease looking at her, she would close her book and walk out. It was much against her will that she had come up, alone, to a man's apartment. But she could not afford to lose an opportunity of earning a little extra money. Answering his question, she said rather curtly:
"I believe I got a long distance for you the other day. I'm on the telephone desk, you know. Stenography is only a side issue."
He still gazed at her admiringly, quick to note her well-bred manner, her quiet aloofness, unusual in girls of her occupation.
"I remember," he nodded. "We had quite some difficulty in getting in touch with Washington."
"Yes—there was trouble on the wires."
"But we got it at last, didn't we?" he smiled, making an effort to break the ice and be friendly.
But Virginia intended to stick strictly to business. She must make it plain that hers was not a social call. Quickly changing the topic, she asked:
"Is the dictation ready?"
Stafford would have liked to continue the personal conversation. After all, there was no immediate necessity of getting to work; the correspondence could wait. But there was an icy haughtiness in the girl's demeanor that discouraged any further attempt at getting acquainted. Proceeding therefore to business, he picked up a paper from the desk and commenced to dictate a letter.
The loss of her mother, following so soon after the death of her father, had come as a terrible shock to Virginia. She felt it more keenly even than Fanny, not only because her nature was more sensitive and impressionable, but also because she realized that she had been suddenly robbed of a constant and devoted companion. Fanny, who was now officially engaged to Mr. Gillie, was nearly always in his company, with the result that Virginia, more particular and more exacting in the choice of acquaintances than her sister, found the world emptier and more lonely than ever.
Graduation day had come and gone and the dress which her poor mother had not lived to finish, had to be completed by other hands. At the end of her school days and now practically alone, with no one to look to for support, Virginia began to think seriously of the future. She must get something to do, that was very certain. Fanny would soon have Jimmie to look after her, but she herself must depend on her own exertion. She was a long time making up her mind what she would do. Her education fitted her for a teacher, but she shrank from the idea. Never would she have the patience. Then she thought of trying to write for the papers or magazines. That, also, was rejected. It was too precarious; she had had no experience. There was the stage. No—that would not do. She did not like the environments. There remained only the alternative of being a saleswoman in a department store or a stenographer. Having taken a course in shorthand, and being fairly proficient, she chose the latter, and, thanks to the influence and good offices of Dr. Everett, at last succeeded in securing a fairly remunerative position.
The first few days of business employment proved a novel and trying experience. To a young girl accustomed to the quiet and exclusiveness of private life, the noise and promiscuousness of a public hotel corridor were singularly distasteful. The men ogled her; the women guests tried her patience. A pretty girl, it was only natural that she should attract attention from the men, but the persistent manner in which they stared, and tried to make acquaintance, annoyed her beyond measure. When they spoke to her in the ordinary course of business they were courteous enough, but their eyes were bold, and sometimes they said things in an undertone which made her face flush scarlet. She complained to her associates, but she got no sympathy. The other girls—sorry they were not attractive themselves—only laughed at her for being so particular. They said that the men meant no harm, and that she should consider it a compliment to her good looks if they took the trouble to address her at all.
Otherwise the work was congenial enough and the hours were not long. She still lived with her sister in the same house where their mother died. The millinery business had grown sufficiently large to take all Fanny's time, and it brought in enough to keep the little household going. When her sister married Jimmie, she would, of course, be compelled to give the shop up, but meantime it helped defray expenses and gave Fanny an occupation.
After that first morning of dictation in Robert Stafford's rooms, Virginia saw a good deal of the handsome railroad man. The first business interview had been followed by others, and when there was no regular correspondence to be answered he would stop at the desk downstairs on all sorts of pretexts. Usually it was to telephone; sometimes to write a note, and for some reason or other both of these operations took up considerably more time than was absolutely necessary. On one occasion he was sitting near her desk nearly all afternoon. He had asked her to get Chicago on the long distance. There was trouble on the wires, as had happened once before with Washington, and it was two hours before he got his number. Strangely enough, the delay did not seem to annoy him. He sat leisurely near her desk and chatted with her about theatres, music, books and art, finding her well read and conversant with every topic, especially with art, which was his hobby. He seemed sorry when at last he had no longer an excuse to stay. All that time he had watched her, quietly noting and admiring the calm, skilful way she went about her work.
The girl interested him. Not so much because she was good looking as that she was quite different from other women. Her cold, distant air, her spirit of self-reliance and independence pleased him. Most women he had known had offered themselves shamelessly; this girl had kept him at a distance. This in itself would be enough to attract most men. The very novelty of it appealed to him. She was exceedingly pretty, too, yet hers was not the banal, conventional beauty of every day, but something fresher, more fascinating, more lovable, an indefinable, elusive charm that kept him guessing, yet always accompanied by a quiet dignity that compelled respect. Instead of flirting with him or giving him any encouragement, as girls of her class often did, she studiously avoided his gaze, seeming not to know he was there, serenely indifferent as to whether he came or went. Accustomed as he—the wealthy bachelor—was to see girls literally throw themselves at him, it was a new experience to find himself apparently of so little account, and this, perhaps as much as anything else, made him all the more determined to force himself upon her attention.
Apart from this, Virginia aroused the man's sensuality, excited his imagination. It seemed to him that a girl of her impressionable nature, artistic temperament, intellectual aloofness, once her ardor was awakened would love more passionately than a woman of commoner clay; her caresses, it seemed to him, would have greater zest than those of a woman more obviously carnal. Never, in the years during which he had sown his wild oats, having learned how to control his appetites, nor in his career as a rich man about town, learned to respect woman or see in her anything else but an instrument of pleasure, it was not surprising that he looked at Virginia with eyes of lust. Apart from her spirituality which interested him, she also appealed to him physically and with the craving of an epicure, ever seeking some gastronomic novelty wherewith to gratify his jaded palate, he determined to awaken her virginal emotions and find out in what way they differed from those of other women.
He set to work to win her, taking the same keen pleasure in the pastime as does a sportsman at the hunt. He realized that it would not be easy, and vaguely he foresaw failure, but the difficulties of the task only served to spur him on to make the attempt. He began the campaign of fascination tactfully, diplomatically, careful not to offend, avoiding anything likely to excite her resentment or arouse her fears. He lent her books, gave her tickets for concerts and picture exhibitions, tried in every way to break down the barrier of haughty reserve with which she had surrounded herself and gain her confidence.
Virginia appreciated these attentions, and the well-bred ease with which she accepted them only made the would-be lover's campaign the more difficult. In fact, her very frankness and candor made it impossible, and finally disarmed him altogether, leaving him feeling very much ashamed of himself. Stafford was not a scoundrel at heart. He had gone into the game just for the sport, as many men of his class and opportunities had done before him, carelessly, thoughtlessly, and without fully realizing that he was committing a crime. And now that she had gone through the fire unscathed, he was more in love with her than ever. What a fool, what an unspeakable cad he had been to even think of her in that way!
Then another thought occurred to him. The girl whom he could never have won for a mistress might well be worth making his wife. Why not marry her? The idea had never entered his head, but it was not so preposterous as it at first seemed. He had jested with Hadley about looking for a wife, and at times had even thought seriously about getting married. Yet it was not a thing to be undertaken lightly. As head of a big railroad system, he had a certain position to keep up. This girl was poor—an obscure stenographer. There was no telling what objectionable relatives she might have. When a man marries, he marries his wife's family! How society would laugh! Well, what if it did? He had boasted to Hadley that he defied the conventions. What did he care for society? There was many a woman in society who, if the walls of alcoves could talk and it came to a show-down on conduct, would not dare hold up her head in presence of Virginia Blaine. He certainly liked the girl well enough to marry her. He could hardly say that he loved her. One does not love at first sight, no matter what the dime novelists say—and what, perhaps, was more important, he respected her. Could every man say as much of the woman he married? Love would come later, he had no doubt of that, and after all, he thought to himself, it was not so much a question of "should he marry her?" as of "would she marry him?"
Once he made up his mind, Robert Stafford was not the kind of man to let the grass grow under his feet. He started on a new campaign—an honorable campaign, this time, on which he was willing to stake his happiness. He was puzzled, at first, how to go about it. A clever way, he thought, would be to get her more interested in himself, in his home. He would ask her to visit his Riverside house and see his art treasures, his pictures. Of course, it was not likely that she would consent to go alone. He would tell her to bring her sister. If he invited the sister she could hardly refuse.
One afternoon Virginia was at work on some typewriting in his rooms at the hotel. A number of letters had accumulated and they had put in the whole afternoon at dictation. Stafford had paid little attention to her, being wholly absorbed in business detail, but about four o'clock he declared he was tired, even if she were not, and, despite her protests, insisted on telephoning downstairs and ordering tea to be sent up. When it was brought in, daintily served with cake on a silver salver, and the waiter had withdrawn, he courteously drew up a chair and asked her to serve. She must be hostess, he said laughingly.
Now the business on hand was over, his manner underwent a complete change; in place of the employer, she saw a polished man of the world entertaining a social equal. Virginia accepted his hospitality and politeness graciously, without awkwardness or false modesty, and before long found herself laughing and chatting with him on terms of delightful intimacy.
"Had any trouble with long distance lately?" he inquired, as he passed her a biscuit.
"Not more than usual," she smiled.
"Not even with Chicago?"
"No—not even Chicago. It seems to me that I have trouble only when you want the wire."
He laughed, a loud, boyish laugh, that shook the room.
"We had a hard struggle the first time we tried it, didn't we?"
"Rather," she replied.
He looked at her for a few moments without speaking, admiring her large black eyes, the finely arched eyebrows, the delicately chiselled mouth. Then he said:
"You were very patient about it."
"I couldn't do the work if I wasn't patient," she replied quietly.
"But you were exceptionally nice about it," he insisted. "It wasn't the usual external, duty-patience, but the real patience that comes from within. You know what I mean."
"Yes. My mother was the best example of that kind of patience I have ever known. She radiated it."
He knew that she had lost her mother, but from feelings of delicacy had never asked for particulars. But now circumstances seemed to invite confidences. Sympathetically he asked:
"How long has she been—gone?"
"Six years," she replied slowly, looking away past him out of the window, through which she could see the roofs of the big, careless city. Her eyes filled with tears, as she went on: "My father was a lawyer, but he didn't have a large practice, and when he died he left nothing but his insurance. It was very little—not enough to live on, and mother, with us two girls to look after, had to do something practical, so she opened a small millinery store."
"The right spirit," he said approvingly.
"It was a grim, hard struggle, particularly at first," she went on. "My sister Fanny had left school, and was able to help her, and then it wasn't quite so trying. You see, Fanny didn't care for school."
"But you did?"
"Yes," she said with enthusiasm, "I always loved it. Mother knew it, and insisted that I should go through High School. I was delighted, for I didn't realize then what struggles and sacrifices it meant for her, and here is the irony—the tragedy—of it all. I was selected as the class orator at our graduating exercises, and mother was very happy over it. She looked forward to it as one of the days of her life, and started to make my graduating dress—but never finished it!" Very softly she murmured: "Poor mother!"
Never had she looked so pretty as at this moment when, her face pale and thoughtful, her eyes dimmed with tears, she called up memories of the past. Stafford, his gaze intent on her, said gently:
"You have her memory."
"Yes," she murmured, "it is more to me than anything in the world—except Fanny."
"You love your sister, I know," he said.
"Of course I do," she replied quickly. "She took mother's place—as much as any one could—and, except on our vacations, we have never been separated."
"You soon will be though, won't you?"
She looked up at him in surprise, not understanding.
"How?" she demanded.
"Didn't you tell me that your sister was going to be married?"
Virginia laughed, a low, musical laugh, which charmed him.
"Yes," she said, "that's true. They are to be married next month." Sadly she added: "I shall miss her very much. Yet I shan't mind that kind of separation—if she's happy."
Stafford smiled. Quietly he said:
"That's the trouble with matrimony—that great, big little word—if."
"Oh," she interrupted quickly. "I feel sure they'll be happy. Theirs is a marriage for love."
Looking closely at her, he asked: "Do you believe in love?"
"Of course," she answered, raising her cup to her face to hide her embarrassment.
"What kind of love?" he persisted.
"What do you call real love?"
She opened her eyes wide, as if greatly astonished.
"Why—why," she stammered, "don't you think there is such a thing as real love?"
"Certainly I do," he laughed, amused at her ingenuousness. "But I don't think it's what the sentimental schoolgirl feels for the college football player. As for love at first sight, I consider that simply absurd. To my way of thinking, love isn't a spontaneous combustion. It's a slow, steady growth and the soil in which it grows best is—respect."
"Perhaps you are right," she said hesitatingly.
"I know that I am," he replied positively.
There was a short silence, when suddenly Stafford said:
"Who is this man that your sister is marrying?"
Virginia laid down her cup of tea and burst out laughing.
"Oh, he's so funny! I'm sure he would amuse you. Such an original! His name is James Gillie."
He liked to encourage her to speak of herself and her family. It seemed to bring them closer together. Pleasantly he asked:
"What does he do, this Mr. Gillie—doctor—lawyer—business man?"
Amused at his curiosity, Virginia shook her head. Laughingly she said:
"Nothing so substantial, I assure you. He's only a shipping clerk—getting about $14 a week—"
Stafford stared in amazement. With an incredulous smile, he exclaimed:
"Only earning $14 a week and he has the impudence to ask your sister to marry him?"
"Oh, but you don't know Mr. Gillie," she went on. "He's sure he's worth far more than that, and he has won sister over to the same opinion. I have some doubts myself, but they are both quite convinced that before long he will be a multi-millionaire. You see, he has ideas. He invents things. He told us about one of his inventions the other day. It was something that would help the railroads, and make them and him fabulously rich—"
"An inventor, eh?" exclaimed Stafford, his business instinct quickly aroused at the mention of railroads.
An idea suddenly occurred to him. Here, perhaps, was the opportunity he had been seeking, the excuse he had been looking for. Under pretence of wishing to meet the inventor, he might be able to induce her to bring her prospective brother-in-law to the house, and since Mr. Gillie could hardly accept the invitation alone, she would, of course, be compelled to accompany him. He said nothing for a moment, and then, turning and looking at his companion intently, said with great earnestness:
"Miss Blaine, I wonder if you would do me a great favor."
Surprised at the request, and rather startled, Virginia looked up, wondering what favor she, poor little stenographer, could possibly render the millionaire. Quickly she replied:
"Certainly—anything in my power."
He bowed and went on:
"As you know, I am in the railroad business. As head of an important transcontinental system, it is part of my work to investigate and look into anything that may prove of value in improving our equipment. If this Mr. Gillie has invented something really valuable, I'd like to know what it is. If there is anything in it, I might be able to render him a good service in bringing his invention promptly to the attention of the right people. You can see yourself how important it is that I should meet Mr. Gillie—"
Virginia flushed with mingled pleasure and embarrassment. She was delighted at the thought that she might be able to advance Fanny's interests, but Jimmie was such an impossible person! How could she introduce him to a man of Mr. Stafford's polish and distinction? Yet for Fanny's sake she ought not to let any opportunity slip by. Seeing her hesitate, Stafford went on:
"Why couldn't you and your sister come and dine with me at Riverside Drive next Saturday evening at seven o'clock? And bring Mr. Gillie with you. I shall be delighted to meet your sister and her fiance. It will also be a good opportunity for you to look over some of my art treasures—quite an interesting collection, I assure you, picked up here and there, all over the world. Do come. Don't say no. I'll have Oku, my Japanese butler, prepare a little dinner. We'll be merry as crickets. Besides I think I can do your future brother-in-law a good turn. You will come, won't you?"
He leaned forward, his eyes ardently fixed on hers. There was something in his look, in his manner, which brought the color to her cheeks, yet it was nothing at which she could take offence. On the contrary, she had every reason to feel flattered and pleased. In her heart she knew that this sudden anxiety to meet Jimmie was but a pretext, and that it was she alone whom he really wanted to go and admire the works of art in his beautiful Riverside home. Something told her that this man loved her, and the very thought of it, with all the possibilities it conjured up, sent through her a thrill of mingled pleasure and alarm.
"Won't you?" he said again, in earnest, pleading tones.
There was a brief silence. Then, looking up, she said with a frank smile:
"It is very good of you. Yes—we shall be very pleased. Saturday evening, at seven."
No.—Riverside Drive, an imposing apartment house of Spanish style of architecture, situated in the most select and attractive section of that aristocratic thoroughfare, was justly renowned in the neighborhood for the size and magnificence of its suites and the ultra chic quality of its exclusive, wealthy patrons. No one ever heard of rooms being vacant; people had been on the waiting list for years and they were still waiting. Tenants never dreamed of leaving, once they had been fortunate enough to secure a lease. It would be surprising if they did, for in all New York there were no apartments more desirable and comfortable.
Mr. Robert Stafford lived on the eighth floor, his rooms facing the Hudson and commanding a superb view of the stately river below, which, broad and turbulent, rushed by on its way to the sea, its surface dotted with all kinds of steam and sailing craft. To the north, away past Grant's Tomb, were the highlands of New Jersey and the precipitous cliffs of the historic Palisades, which, as far as the eye could reach, stretched away in a mist of purplish haze.
The decorations and appointments of the apartment would have brought joy into the gloomy heart of the most blase connoisseur. Entering a spacious foyer with a lofty, elaborately decorated ceiling and walls of white marble hung all round with tapestries, trophies and oil paintings, the visitor passed through a number of wide halls, treading on thick Oriental rugs until he reached the salon, a magnificent room decorated in blue and gold with heavy gilt furniture to match, which, in turn, opened on to the dining room, both looking on the Avenue and commanding a fine view of the river. At the far end of the salon was a large fireplace with a splendid mantel of beautifully carved marble, a rare piece of decorative art from the north of Italy. The dining room, panelled with rare woods, and hung with red, with panelled ceiling, was separated from the salon by a folding door. The walls of both rooms were covered with paintings, water colors and engravings, while all about was a picturesque confusion of objets d'art of every description—Japanese ivories, rare porcelains, old English china, Indian bronzes, antique watches, snuff boxes and bonbonnieres, curiously wrought brass and iron work, Peach Blow vases, Mexican pottery, Satsuma ware, richly mounted weapons of the middle ages, Japanese armor, long daggers from Toledo, delicate lattice work from Venice, Florentine carvings, valuable Gobelins tapestries from Paris, etc., etc.—a collection such as an Oriental potentate might envy. The fame of the Stafford collection had gone far and wide, and the railroad promoter had been criticized more than once because he did not open his house more frequently for society's enjoyment. Ambitious mothers saw in the wealthy bachelor a great catch for their daughters, but it was in vain that they baited their matrimonial nets. Stafford declined all invitations and lived himself the life of a hermit. He was very seldom at home, the blinds were nearly always drawn, and the place looked deserted. The only sign of life was an occasional glimpse of faithful Oku, the Japanese butler, who, with downcast eyes and stealthy tread, sometimes made a sortie in search of food or other household necessity.