Just before crossing the bridge on the north side of the river she had caught a glimpse of a great railway terminus. Down below there, rectilinear, scientifically paralleled and squared, the Yard disclosed itself. A system of grey rails beyond words complicated opened out and spread immeasurably. Switches, semaphores, and signal towers stood here and there. A dozen trains, freight and passenger, puffed and steamed, waiting the word to depart. Detached engines hurried in and out of sheds and roundhouses, seeking their trains, or bunted the ponderous freight cars into switches; trundling up and down, clanking, shrieking, their bells filling the air with the clangour of tocsins. Men in visored caps shouted hoarsely, waving their arms or red flags; drays, their big dappled horses, feeding in their nose bags, stood backed up to the open doors of freight cars and received their loads. A train departed roaring. Before midnight it would be leagues away boring through the Great Northwest, carrying Trade—the life blood of nations—into communities of which Laura had never heard. Another train, reeking with fatigue, the air brakes screaming, arrived and halted, debouching a flood of passengers, business men, bringing Trade—a galvanising elixir—from the very ends and corners of the continent.
Or, again, it was South Water Street—a jam of delivery wagons and market carts backed to the curbs, leaving only a tortuous path between the endless files of horses, suggestive of an actual barrack of cavalry. Provisions, market produce, "garden truck" and fruits, in an infinite welter of crates and baskets, boxes, and sacks, crowded the sidewalks. The gutter was choked with an overflow of refuse cabbage leaves, soft oranges, decaying beet tops. The air was thick with the heavy smell of vegetation. Food was trodden under foot, food crammed the stores and warehouses to bursting. Food mingled with the mud of the highway. The very dray horses were gorged with an unending nourishment of snatched mouthfuls picked from backboard, from barrel top, and from the edge of the sidewalk. The entire locality reeked with the fatness of a hundred thousand furrows. A land of plenty, the inordinate abundance of the earth itself emptied itself upon the asphalt and cobbles of the quarter. It was the Mouth of the City, and drawn from all directions, over a territory of immense area, this glut of crude subsistence was sucked in, as if into a rapacious gullet, to feed the sinews and to nourish the fibres of an immeasurable colossus.
Suddenly the meaning and significance of it all dawned upon Laura. The Great Grey City, brooking no rival, imposed its dominion upon a reach of country larger than many a kingdom of the Old World. For, thousands of miles beyond its confines was its influence felt. Out, far out, far away in the snow and shadow of Northern Wisconsin forests, axes and saws bit the bark of century-old trees, stimulated by this city's energy. Just as far to the southward pick and drill leaped to the assault of veins of anthracite, moved by her central power. Her force turned the wheels of harvester and seeder a thousand miles distant in Iowa and Kansas. Her force spun the screws and propellers of innumerable squadrons of lake steamers crowding the Sault Sainte Marie. For her and because of her all the Central States, all the Great Northwest roared with traffic and industry; sawmills screamed; factories, their smoke blackening the sky, clashed and flamed; wheels turned, pistons leaped in their cylinders; cog gripped cog; beltings clasped the drums of mammoth wheels; and converters of forges belched into the clouded air their tempest breath of molten steel.
It was Empire, the resistless subjugation of all this central world of the lakes and the prairies. Here, mid-most in the land, beat the Heart of the Nation, whence inevitably must come its immeasurable power, its infinite, infinite, inexhaustible vitality. Here, of all her cities, throbbed the true life—the true power and spirit of America; gigantic, crude with the crudity of youth, disdaining rivalry; sane and healthy and vigorous; brutal in its ambition, arrogant in the new-found knowledge of its giant strength, prodigal of its wealth, infinite in its desires. In its capacity boundless, in its courage indomitable; subduing the wilderness in a single generation, defying calamity, and through the flame and the debris of a commonwealth in ashes, rising suddenly renewed, formidable, and Titanic.
Laura, her eyes dizzied, her ears stunned, watched tirelessly.
"There is something terrible about it," she murmured, half to herself, "something insensate. In a way, it doesn't seem human. It's like a great tidal wave. It's all very well for the individual just so long as he can keep afloat, but once fallen, how horribly quick it would crush him, annihilate him, how horribly quick, and with such horrible indifference! I suppose it's civilisation in the making, the thing that isn't meant to be seen, as though it were too elemental, too—primordial; like the first verses of Genesis."
The impression remained long with her, and not even the gaiety of their little supper could altogether disperse it. She was a little frightened—frightened of the vast, cruel machinery of the city's life, and of the men who could dare it, who conquered it. For a moment they seemed, in a sense, more terrible than the city itself—men for whom all this crash of conflict and commerce had no terrors. Those who could subdue it to their purposes, must they not be themselves more terrible, more pitiless, more brutal? She shrank a little. What could women ever know of the life of men, after all? Even Landry, extravagant as he was, so young, so exuberant, so seemingly innocent—she knew that he was spoken of as a good business man. He, too, then had his other side. For him the Battle of the Street was an exhilaration. Beneath that boyish exterior was the tough coarseness, the male hardness, the callousness that met the brunt and withstood the shock of onset.
Ah, these men of the city, what could women ever know of them, of their lives, of that other existence through which—freed from the influence of wife or mother, or daughter or sister—they passed every day from nine o'clock till evening? It was a life in which women had no part, and in which, should they enter it, they would no longer recognise son or husband, or father or brother. The gentle-mannered fellow, clean-minded, clean-handed, of the breakfast or supper table was one man. The other, who and what was he? Down there in the murk and grime of the business district raged the Battle of the Street, and therein he was a being transformed, case hardened, supremely selfish, asking no quarter; no, nor giving any. Fouled with the clutchings and grapplings of the attack, besmirched with the elbowing of low associates and obscure allies, he set his feet toward conquest, and mingled with the marchings of an army that surged forever forward and back; now in merciless assault, beating the fallen enemy under foot, now in repulse, equally merciless, trampling down the auxiliaries of the day before, in a panic dash for safety; always cruel, always selfish, always pitiless.
To contrast these men with such as Corthell was inevitable. She remembered him, to whom the business district was an unexplored country, who kept himself far from the fighting, his hands unstained, his feet unsullied. He passed his life gently, in the calm, still atmosphere of art, in the cult of the beautiful, unperturbed, tranquil; painting, reading, or, piece by piece, developing his beautiful stained glass. Him women could know, with him they could sympathise. And he could enter fully into their lives and help and stimulate them. Of the two existences which did she prefer, that of the business man, or that of the artist?
Then suddenly Laura surprised herself. After all, she was a daughter of the frontier, and the blood of those who had wrestled with a new world flowed in her body. Yes, Corthell's was a beautiful life; the charm of dim painted windows, the attraction of darkened studios with their harmonies of color, their orientalisms, and their arabesques was strong. No doubt it all had its place. It fascinated her at times, in spite of herself. To relax the mind, to indulge the senses, to live in an environment of pervading beauty was delightful. But the men to whom the woman in her turned were not those of the studio. Terrible as the Battle of the Street was, it was yet battle. Only the strong and the brave might dare it, and the figure that held her imagination and her sympathy was not the artist, soft of hand and of speech, elaborating graces of sound and color and form, refined, sensitive, and temperamental; but the fighter, unknown and un-knowable to women as he was; hard, rigorous, panoplied in the harness of the warrior, who strove among the trumpets, and who, in the brunt of conflict, conspicuous, formidable, set the battle in a rage around him, and exulted like a champion in the shoutings of the captains.
They were not long at table, and by the time they were ready to depart it was about half-past five. But when they emerged into the street, it was discovered that once more the weather had abruptly changed. It was snowing thickly. Again a bitter wind from off the Lake tore through the streets. The slush and melted snow was freezing, and the north side of every lamp post and telegraph pole was sheeted with ice.
To add to their discomfort, the North State Street cars were blocked. When they gained the corner of Washington Street they could see where the congestion began, a few squares distant.
"There's nothing for it," declared Landry, "but to go over and get the Clarke Street cars—and at that you may have to stand up all the way home, at this time of day."
They paused, irresolute, a moment on the corner. It was the centre of the retail quarter. Close at hand a vast dry goods house, built in the old "iron-front" style, towered from the pavement, and through its hundreds of windows presented to view a world of stuffs and fabrics, upholsteries and textiles, kaleidoscopic, gleaming in the fierce brilliance of a multitude of lights. From each street doorway was pouring an army of "shoppers," women for the most part; and these—since the store catered to a rich clientele—fashionably dressed. Many of them stood for a moment on the threshold of the storm-doorways, turning up the collars of their sealskins, settling their hands in their muffs, and searching the street for their coupes and carriages.
Among the number of those thus engaged, one, suddenly catching sight of Laura, waved a muff in her direction, then came quickly forward. It was Mrs. Cressler.
"Laura, my dearest girl! Of all the people. I am so glad to see you!" She kissed Laura on the cheek, shook hands all around, and asked about the sisters' new home. Did they want anything, or was there anything she could do to help? Then interrupting herself, and laying a glove on Laura's arm:
"I've got more to tell you."
She compressed her lips and stood off from Laura, fixing her with a significant glance.
"Me? To tell me?"
"Where are you going now?"
"Home; but our cars are stopped. We must go over to—"
"Fiddlesticks! You and Page and Mrs. Wessels—all of you are coming home and dine with me."
"But we've had dinner already," they all cried, speaking at once.
Page explained the situation, but Mrs. Cressler would not be denied.
"The carriage is right here," she said. "I don't have to call for Charlie. He's got a man from Cincinnati in tow, and they are going to dine at the Calumet Club."
It ended by the two sisters and Mrs. Wessels getting into Mrs. Cressler's carriage. Landry excused himself. He lived on the South Side, on Michigan Avenue, and declaring that he knew they had had enough of him for one day, took himself off.
But whatever Mrs. Cressler had to tell Laura, she evidently was determined to save for her ears only. Arrived at the Dearborns' home, she sent her footman in to tell the "girl" that the family would not be home that night. The Cresslers lived hard by on the same street, and within ten minutes' walk of the Dearborns. The two sisters and their aunt would be back immediately after breakfast.
When they had got home with Mrs. Cressler, this latter suggested hot tea and sandwiches in the library, for the ride had been cold. But the others, worn out, declared for bed as soon as Mrs. Cressler herself had dined.
"Oh, bless you, Carrie," said Aunt Wess'; "I couldn't think of tea. My back is just about broken, and I'm going straight to my bed."
Mrs. Cressler showed them to their rooms. Page and Mrs. Wessels elected to sleep together, and once the door had closed upon them the little girl unburdened herself.
"I suppose Laura thinks it's all right, running off like this for the whole blessed night, and no one to look after the house but those two servants that nobody knows anything about. As though there weren't heaven knows what all to tend to there in the morning. I just don't see," she exclaimed decisively, "how we're going to get settled at all. That Landry Court! My goodness, he's more hindrance than help. Did you ever see! He just dashes in as though he were doing it all, and messes everything up, and loses things, and gets things into the wrong place, and forgets this and that, and then he and Laura sit down and spoon. I never saw anything like it. First it's Corthell and then Landry, and next it will be somebody else. Laura regularly mortifies me; a great, grown-up girl like that, flirting, and letting every man she meets think that he's just the one particular one of the whole earth. It's not good form. And Landry—as if he didn't know we've got more to do now than just to dawdle and dawdle. I could slap him. I like to see a man take life seriously and try to amount to something, and not waste the best years of his life trailing after women who are old enough to be his grandmother, and don't mean that it will ever come to anything."
In her room, in the front of the house, Laura was partly undressed when Mrs. Cressler knocked at her door. The latter had put on a wrapper of flowered silk, and her hair was bound in "invisible nets."
"I brought you a dressing-gown," she said. She hung it over the foot of the bed, and sat down on the bed itself, watching Laura, who stood before the glass of the bureau, her head bent upon her breast, her hands busy with the back of her hair. From time to time the hairpins clicked as she laid them down in the silver trays close at hand. Then putting her chin in the air, she shook her head, and the great braids, unlooped, fell to her waist.
"What pretty hair you have, child," murmured Mrs. Cressler. She was settling herself for a long talk with her protege. She had much to tell, but now that they had the whole night before them, could afford to take her time.
Between the two women the conversation began slowly, with detached phrases and observations that did not call necessarily for answers—mere beginnings that they did not care to follow up.
"They tell me," said Mrs. Cressler, "that that Gretry girl smokes ten cigarettes every night before she goes to bed. You know the Gretrys—they were at the opera the other night."
Laura permitted herself an indefinite murmur of interest. Her head to one side, she drew the brush in slow, deliberate movements downward underneath the long, thick strands of her hair. Mrs. Cressler watched her attentively.
"Why don't you wear your hair that new way, Laura," she remarked, "farther down on your neck? I see every one doing it now."
The house was very still. Outside the double windows they could hear the faint murmuring click of the frozen snow. A radiator in the hallway clanked and strangled for a moment, then fell quiet again.
"What a pretty room this is," said Laura. "I think I'll have to do our guest room something like this—a sort of white and gold effect. My hair? Oh, I don't know. Wearing it low that way makes it catch so on the hooks of your collar, and, besides, I was afraid it would make my head look so flat."
There was a silence. Laura braided a long strand, with quick, regular motions of both hands, and letting it fall over her shoulder, shook it into place with a twist of her head. She stepped out of her skirt, and Mrs. Cressler handed her her dressing-gown, and brought out a pair of quilted slippers of red satin from the wardrobe.
In the grate, the fire that had been lighted just before they had come upstairs was crackling sharply. Laura drew up an armchair and sat down in front of it, her chin in her hand. Mrs. Cressler stretched herself upon the bed, an arm behind her head.
"Well, Laura," she began at length, "I have some real news for you. My dear, I believe you've made a conquest."
"I!" murmured Laura, looking around. She feigned a surprise, though she guessed at once that Mrs. Cressler had Corthell in mind.
"That Mr. Jadwin—the one you met at the opera."
Genuinely taken aback, Laura sat upright and stared wide-eyed.
"Mr. Jadwin!" she exclaimed. "Why, we didn't have five minutes' talk. Why, I hardly know the man. I only met him last night."
But Mrs. Cressler shook her head, closing her eyes and putting her lips together.
"That don't make any difference, Laura. Trust me to tell when a man is taken with a girl. My dear, you can have him as easy as that." She snapped her fingers.
"Oh, I'm sure you're mistaken, Mrs. Cressler."
"Not in the least. I've known Curtis Jadwin now for fifteen years—nobody better. He's as old a family friend as Charlie and I have. I know him like a book. And I tell you the man is in love with you."
"Well, I hope he didn't tell you as much," cried Laura, promising herself to be royally angry if such was the case. But Mrs. Cressler hastened to reassure her.
"Oh my, no. But all the way home last night—he came home with us, you know—he kept referring to you, and just so soon as the conversation got on some other subject he would lose interest. He wanted to know all about you—oh, you know how a man will talk," she exclaimed. "And he said you had more sense and more intelligence than any girl he had ever known."
"Oh, well," answered Laura deprecatingly, as if to say that that did not count for much with her.
"And that you were simply beautiful. He said that he never remembered to have seen a more beautiful woman."
Laura turned her head away, a hand shielding her cheek. She did not answer immediately, then at length:
"Has he—this Mr. Jadwin—has he ever been married before?"
"No, no. He's a bachelor, and rich! He could buy and sell us. And don't think, Laura dear, that I'm jumping at conclusions. I hope I'm woman of the world enough to know that a man who's taken with a pretty face and smart talk isn't going to rush right into matrimony because of that. It wasn't so much what Curtis Jadwin said—though, dear me suz, he talked enough about you—as what he didn't say. I could tell. He was thinking hard. He was hit, Laura. I know he was. And Charlie said he spoke about you again this morning at breakfast. Charlie makes me tired sometimes," she added irrelevantly.
"Charlie?" repeated Laura.
"Well, of course I spoke to him about Jadwin, and how taken he seemed with you, and the man roared at me."
"He didn't believe it, then."
"Yes he did—when I could get him to talk seriously about it, and when I made him remember how Mr. Jadwin had spoken in the carriage coming home."
Laura curled her leg under her and sat nursing her foot and looking into the fire. For a long time neither spoke. A little clock of brass and black marble began to chime, very prettily, the half hour of nine. Mrs. Cressler observed:
"That Sheldon Corthell seems to be a very agreeable kind of a young man, doesn't he?"
"Yes," replied Laura thoughtfully, "he is agreeable."
"And a talented fellow, too," continued Mrs. Cressler. "But somehow it never impressed me that there was very much to him."
"Oh," murmured Laura indifferently, "I don't know."
"I suppose," Mrs. Cressler went on, in a tone of resignation, "I suppose he thinks the world and all of you?"
Laura raised a shoulder without answering.
"Charlie can't abide him," said Mrs. Cressler. "Funny, isn't it what prejudices men have? Charlie always speaks of him as though he were a higher order of glazier. Curtis Jadwin seems to like him.... What do you think of him, Laura—of Mr. Jadwin?"
"I don't know," she answered, looking vaguely into the fire. "I thought he was a strong man—mentally I mean, and that he would be kindly and—and—generous. Somehow," she said, musingly, "I didn't think he would be the sort of man that women would take to, at first—but then I don't know. I saw very little of him, as I say. He didn't impress me as being a woman's man."
"All the better," said the other. "Who would want to marry a woman's man? I wouldn't. Sheldon Corthell is that. I tell you one thing, Laura, and when you are as old as I am, you'll know it's true: the kind of a man that men like—not women—is the kind of a man that makes the best husband."
Laura nodded her head.
"Yes," she answered, listlessly, "I suppose that's true."
"You said Jadwin struck you as being a kindly man, a generous man. He's just that, and that charitable! You know he has a Sunday-school over on the West Side, a Sunday-school for mission children, and I do believe he's more interested in that than in his business. He wants to make it the biggest Sunday-school in Chicago. It's an ambition of his. I don't want you to think that he's good in a goody-goody way, because he's not. Laura," she exclaimed, "he's a fine man. I didn't intend to brag him up to you, because I wanted you to like him. But no one knows—as I say—no one knows Curtis Jadwin better than Charlie and I, and we just love him. The kindliest, biggest-hearted fellow—oh, well, you'll know him for yourself, and then you'll see. He passes the plate in our church."
"Dr. Wendell's church?" asked Laura.
"Yes you know—the Second Presbyterian."
"I'm Episcopalian myself," observed Laura, still thoughtfully gazing into the fire.
"I know, I know. But Jadwin isn't the blue-nosed sort. And now see here, Laura, I want to tell you. J.—that's what Charlie and I call Jadwin—J. was talking to us the other day about supporting a ward in the Children's Hospital for the children of his Sunday-school that get hurt or sick. You see he has nearly eight hundred boys and girls in his school, and there's not a week passes that he don't hear of some one of them who has been hurt or taken sick. And he wants to start a ward at the Children's Hospital, that can take care of them. He says he wants to get other people interested, too, and so he wants to start a contribution. He says he'll double any amount that's raised in the next six months—that is, if there's two thousand raised, he'll make it four thousand; understand? And so Charlie and I and the Gretrys are going to get up an amateur play—a charity affair—and raise as much money as we can. J. thinks it's a good idea, and—here's the point—we were talking about it coming home in the carriage, and J. said he wondered if that Miss Dearborn wouldn't take part. And we are all wild to have you. You know you do that sort of thing so well. Now don't say yes or no to-night. You sleep over it. J. is crazy to have you in it."
"I'd love to do it," answered Laura. "But I would have to see—it takes so long to get settled, and there's so much to do about a big house like ours, I might not have time. But I will let you know."
Mrs. Cressler told her in detail about the proposed play. Landry Court was to take part, and she enlisted Laura's influence to get Sheldon Corthell to undertake a role. Page, it appeared, had already promised to help. Laura remembered now that she had heard her speak of it. However, the plan was so immature as yet, that it hardly admitted of very much discussion, and inevitably the conversation came back to its starting-point.
"You know," Laura had remarked in answer to one of Mrs. Cressler's observations upon the capabilities and business ability of "J.," "you know I never heard of him before you spoke of our theatre party. I don't know anything about him."
But Mrs. Cressler promptly supplied the information. Curtis Jadwin was a man about thirty-five, who had begun life without a sou in his pockets. He was a native of Michigan. His people were farmers, nothing more nor less than hardy, honest fellows, who ploughed and sowed for a living. Curtis had only a rudimentary schooling, because he had given up the idea of finishing his studies in the High School in Grand Rapids, on the chance of going into business with a livery stable keeper. Then in time he had bought out the business and had run it for himself. Some one in Chicago owed him money, and in default of payment had offered him a couple of lots on Wabash Avenue. That was how he happened to come to Chicago. Naturally enough as the city grew the Wabash Avenue property—it was near Monroe Street—increased in value. He sold the lots and bought other real estate, sold that and bought somewhere else, and so on, till he owned some of the best business sites in the city. Just his ground rent alone brought him, heaven knew how many thousands a year. He was one of the largest real estate owners in Chicago. But he no longer bought and sold. His property had grown so large that just the management of it alone took up most of his time. He had an office in the Rookery, and perhaps being so close to the Board of Trade Building, had given him a taste for trying a little deal in wheat now and then. As a rule, he deplored speculation. He had no fixed principles about it, like Charlie. Only he was conservative; occasionally he hazarded small operations. Somehow he had never married. There had been affairs. Oh, yes, one or two, of course. Nothing very serious, He just didn't seem to have met the right girl, that was all. He lived on Michigan Avenue, near the corner of Twenty-first Street, in one of those discouraging eternal yellow limestone houses with a basement dining-room. His aunt kept house for him, and his nieces and nephews overran the place. There was always a raft of them there, either coming or going; and the way they exploited him! He supported them all; heaven knew how many there were; such drabs and gawks, all elbows and knees, who soaked themselves with cologne and made companions of the servants. They and the second girls were always squabbling about their things that they found in each other's rooms.
It was growing late. At length Mrs. Cressler rose.
"My goodness, Laura, look at the time; and I've been keeping you up when you must be killed for sleep."
She took herself away, pausing at the doorway long enough to say:
"Do try to manage to take part in the play. J. made me promise that I would get you."
"Well, I think I can," Laura answered. "Only I'll have to see first how our new regime is going to run—the house I mean."
When Mrs. Cressler had gone Laura lost no time in getting to bed. But after she turned out the gas she remembered that she had not "covered" the fire, a custom that she still retained from the daily round of her life at Barrington. She did not light the gas again, but guided by the firelight, spread a shovelful of ashes over the top of the grate. Yet when she had done this, she still knelt there a moment, looking wide-eyed into the glow, thinking over the events of the last twenty-four hours. When all was said and done, she had, after all, found more in Chicago than the clash and trepidation of empire-making, more than the reverberation of the thunder of battle, more than the piping and choiring of sweet music.
First it had been Sheldon Corthell, quiet, persuasive, eloquent. Then Landry Court with his exuberance and extravagance and boyishness, and now—unexpectedly—behold, a new element had appeared—this other one, this man of the world, of affairs, mature, experienced, whom she hardly knew. It was charming she told herself, exciting. Life never had seemed half so delightful. Romantic, she felt Romance, unseen, intangible, at work all about her. And love, which of all things knowable was dearest to her, came to her unsought.
Her first aversion to the Great Grey City was fast disappearing. She saw it now in a kindlier aspect.
"I think," she said at last, as she still knelt before the fire, looking deep into the coals, absorbed, abstracted, "I think that I am going to be very happy here."
On a certain Monday morning, about a month later, Curtis Jadwin descended from his office in the Rookery Building, and turning southward, took his way toward the brokerage and commission office of Gretry, Converse and Co., on the ground floor of the Board of Trade Building, only a few steps away.
It was about nine o'clock; the weather was mild, the sun shone. La Salle Street swarmed with the multitudinous life that seethed about the doors of the innumerable offices of brokers and commission men of the neighbourhood. To the right, in the peristyle of the Illinois Trust Building, groups of clerks, of messengers, of brokers, of clients, and of depositors formed and broke incessantly. To the left, where the facade of the Board of Trade blocked the street, the activity was astonishing, and in and out of the swing doors of its entrance streamed an incessant tide of coming and going. All the life of the neighbourhood seemed to centre at this point—the entrance of the Board of Trade. Two currents that trended swiftly through La Salle and Jackson streets, and that fed, or were fed by, other tributaries that poured in through Fifth Avenue and through Clarke and Dearborn streets, met at this point—one setting in, the other out. The nearer the currents the greater their speed. Men—mere flotsam in the flood—as they turned into La Salle Street from Adams or from Monroe, or even from as far as Madison, seemed to accelerate their pace as they approached. At the Illinois Trust the walk became a stride, at the Rookery the stride was almost a trot. But at the corner of Jackson Street, the Board of Trade now merely the width of the street away, the trot became a run, and young men and boys, under the pretence of escaping the trucks and wagons of the cobbles, dashed across at a veritable gallop, flung themselves panting into the entrance of the Board, were engulfed in the turmoil of the spot, and disappeared with a sudden fillip into the gloom of the interior.
Often Jadwin had noted the scene, and, unimaginative though he was, had long since conceived the notion of some great, some resistless force within the Board of Trade Building that held the tide of the streets within its grip, alternately drawing it in and throwing it forth. Within there, a great whirlpool, a pit of roaring waters spun and thundered, sucking in the life tides of the city, sucking them in as into the mouth of some tremendous cloaca, the maw of some colossal sewer; then vomiting them forth again, spewing them up and out, only to catch them in the return eddy and suck them in afresh.
Thus it went, day after day. Endlessly, ceaselessly the Pit, enormous, thundering, sucked in and spewed out, sending the swirl of its mighty central eddy far out through the city's channels. Terrible at the centre, it was, at the circumference, gentle, insidious and persuasive, the send of the flowing so mild, that to embark upon it, yielding to the influence, was a pleasure that seemed all devoid of risk. But the circumference was not bounded by the city. All through the Northwest, all through the central world of the Wheat the set and whirl of that innermost Pit made itself felt; and it spread and spread and spread till grain in the elevators of Western Iowa moved and stirred and answered to its centripetal force, and men upon the streets of New York felt the mysterious tugging of its undertow engage their feet, embrace their bodies, overwhelm them, and carry them bewildered and unresisting back and downwards to the Pit itself.
Nor was the Pit's centrifugal power any less. Because of some sudden eddy spinning outward from the middle of its turmoil, a dozen bourses of continental Europe clamoured with panic, a dozen Old-World banks, firm as the established hills, trembled and vibrated. Because of an unexpected caprice in the swirling of the inner current, some far-distant channel suddenly dried, and the pinch of famine made itself felt among the vine dressers of Northern Italy, the coal miners of Western Prussia. Or another channel filled, and the starved moujik of the steppes, and the hunger-shrunken coolie of the Ganges' watershed fed suddenly fat and made thank offerings before ikon and idol.
There in the centre of the Nation, midmost of that continent that lay between the oceans of the New World and the Old, in the heart's heart of the affairs of men, roared and rumbled the Pit. It was as if the Wheat, Nourisher of the Nations, as it rolled gigantic and majestic in a vast flood from West to East, here, like a Niagara, finding its flow impeded, burst suddenly into the appalling fury of the Maelstrom, into the chaotic spasm of a world-force, a primeval energy, blood-brother of the earthquake and the glacier, raging and wrathful that its power should be braved by some pinch of human spawn that dared raise barriers across its courses.
Small wonder that Cressler laughed at the thought of cornering wheat, and even now as Jadwin crossed Jackson Street, on his way to his broker's office on the lower floor of the Board of Trade Building, he noted the ebb and flow that issued from its doors, and remembered the huge river of wheat that rolled through this place from the farms of Iowa and ranches of Dakota to the mills and bakeshops of Europe.
"There's something, perhaps, in what Charlie says," he said to himself. "Corner this stuff—my God!"
Gretry, Converse & Co. was the name of the brokerage firm that always handled Jadwin's rare speculative ventures. Converse was dead long since, but the firm still retained its original name. The house was as old and as well established as any on the Board of Trade. It had a reputation for conservatism, and was known more as a Bear than a Bull concern. It was immensely wealthy and immensely important. It discouraged the growth of a clientele of country customers, of small adventurers, knowing well that these were the first to go in a crash, unable to meet margin calls, and leaving to their brokers the responsibility of their disastrous trades. The large, powerful Bears were its friends, the Bears strong of grip, tenacious of jaw, capable of pulling down the strongest Bull. Thus the firm had no consideration for the "outsiders," the "public"—the Lambs. The Lambs! Such a herd, timid, innocent, feeble, as much out of place in La Salle Street as a puppy in a cage of panthers; the Lambs, whom Bull and Bear did not so much as condescend to notice, but who, in their mutual struggle of horn and claw, they crushed to death by the mere rolling of their bodies.
Jadwin did not go directly into Gretry's main office, but instead made his way in at the entrance of the Board of Trade Building, and going on past the stairways that on either hand led up to the "Floor" on the second story, entered the corridor beyond, and thence gained the customers' room of Gretry, Converse & Co. All the more important brokerage firms had offices on the ground floor of the building, offices that had two entrances, one giving upon the street, and one upon the corridor of the Board. Generally the corridor entrance admitted directly to the firm's customers' room. This was the case with the Gretry-Converse house.
Once in the customers' room, Jadwin paused, looking about him.
He could not tell why Gretry had so earnestly desired him to come to his office that morning, but he wanted to know how wheat was selling before talking to the broker. The room was large, and but for the lighted gas, burning crudely without globes, would have been dark. All one wall opposite the door was taken up by a great blackboard covered with chalked figures in columns, and illuminated by a row of overhead gas jets burning under a tin reflector. Before this board files of chairs were placed, and these were occupied by groups of nondescripts, shabbily dressed men, young and old, with tired eyes and unhealthy complexions, who smoked and expectorated, or engaged in interminable conversations.
In front of the blackboard, upon a platform, a young man in shirt-sleeves, his cuffs caught up by metal clamps, walked up and down. Screwed to the blackboard itself was a telegraph instrument, and from time to time, as this buzzed and ticked, the young man chalked up cabalistic, and almost illegible figures under columns headed by initials of certain stocks and bonds, or by the words "Pork," "Oats," or, larger than all the others, "May Wheat." The air of the room was stale, close, and heavy with tobacco fumes. The only noises were the low hum of conversations, the unsteady click of the telegraph key, and the tapping of the chalk in the marker's fingers.
But no one in the room seemed to pay the least attention to the blackboard. One quotation replaced another, and the key and the chalk clicked and tapped incessantly. The occupants of the room, sunk in their chairs, seemed to give no heed; some even turned their backs; one, his handkerchief over his knee, adjusted his spectacles, and opening a newspaper two days old, began to read with peering deliberation, his lips forming each word. These nondescripts gathered there, they knew not why. Every day found them in the same place, always with the same fetid, unlighted cigars, always with the same frayed newspapers two days old. There they sat, inert, stupid, their decaying senses hypnotised and soothed by the sound of the distant rumble of the Pit, that came through the ceiling from the floor of the Board overhead.
One of these figures, that of a very old man, blear-eyed, decrepit, dirty, in a battered top hat and faded frock coat, discoloured and weather-stained at the shoulders, seemed familiar to Jadwin. It recalled some ancient association, he could not say what. But he was unable to see the old man's face distinctly; the light was bad, and he sat with his face turned from him, eating a sandwich, which he held in a trembling hand.
Jadwin, having noted that wheat was selling at 94, went away, glad to be out of the depressing atmosphere of the room.
Gretry was in his office, and Jadwin was admitted at once. He sat down in a chair by the broker's desk, and for the moment the two talked of trivialities. Gretry was a large, placid, smooth-faced man, stolid as an ox; inevitably dressed in blue serge, a quill tooth-pick behind his ear, a Grand Army button in his lapel. He and Jadwin were intimates. The two had come to Chicago almost simultaneously, and had risen together to become the wealthy men they were at the moment. They belonged to the same club, lunched together every day at Kinsley's, and took each other driving behind their respective trotters on alternate Saturday afternoons. In the middle of summer each stole a fortnight from his business, and went fishing at Geneva Lake in Wisconsin.
"I say," Jadwin observed, "I saw an old fellow outside in your customers' room just now that put me in mind of Hargus. You remember that deal of his, the one he tried to swing before he died. Oh—how long ago was that? Bless my soul, that must have been fifteen, yes twenty years ago."
The deal of which Jadwin spoke was the legendary operation of the Board of Trade—a mammoth corner in September wheat, manipulated by this same Hargus, a millionaire, who had tripled his fortune by the corner, and had lost it by some chicanery on the part of his associate before another year. He had run wheat up to nearly two dollars, had been in his day a king all-powerful. Since then all deals had been spoken of in terms of the Hargus affair. Speculators said, "It was almost as bad as the Hargus deal." "It was like the Hargus smash." "It was as big a thing as the Hargus corner." Hargus had become a sort of creature of legends, mythical, heroic, transfigured in the glory of his millions.
"Easily twenty years ago," continued Jadwin. "If Hargus could come to life now, he'd be surprised at the difference in the way we do business these days. Twenty years. Yes, it's all of that. I declare, Sam, we're getting old, aren't we?"
"I guess that was Hargus you saw out there," answered the broker. "He's not dead. Old fellow in a stove-pipe and greasy frock coat? Yes, that's Hargus."
"What!" exclaimed Jadwin. "That Hargus?"
"Of course it was. He comes 'round every day. The clerks give him a dollar every now and then."
"And he's not dead? And that was Hargus, that wretched, broken—whew! I don't want to think of it, Sam!" And Jadwin, taken all aback, sat for a moment speechless.
"Yes, sir," muttered the broker grimly, "that was Hargus."
There was a long silence. Then at last Gretry exclaimed briskly:
"Well, here's what I want to see you about."
He lowered his voice: "You know I've got a correspondent or two at Paris—all the brokers have—and we make no secret as to who they are. But I've had an extra man at work over there for the last six months, very much on the quiet. I don't mind telling you this much—that he's not the least important member of the United States Legation. Well, now and then he is supposed to send me what the reporters call "exclusive news"—that's what I feed him for, and I could run a private steam yacht on what it costs me. But news I get from him is a day or so in advance of everybody else. He hasn't sent me anything very important till this morning. This here just came in."
He picked up a despatch from his desk and read:
"'Utica—headquarters—modification—organic—concomitant—within one month,' which means," he added, "this. I've just deciphered it," and he handed Jadwin a slip of paper on which was written:
"Bill providing for heavy import duties on foreign grains certain to be introduced in French Chamber of Deputies within one month."
"Have you got it?" he demanded of Jadwin, as he took the slip back. "Won't forget it?" He twisted the paper into a roll and burned it carefully in the office cuspidor.
"Now," he remarked, "do you come in? It's just the two of us, J., and I think we can make that Porteous clique look very sick."
"Hum!" murmured Jadwin surprised. "That does give you a twist on the situation. But to tell the truth, Sam, I had sort of made up my mind to keep out of speculation since my last little deal. A man gets into this game, and into it, and into it, and before you know he can't pull out—and he don't want to. Next he gets his nose scratched, and he hits back to make up for it, and just hits into the air and loses his balance—and down he goes. I don't want to make any more money, Sam. I've got my little pile, and before I get too old I want to have some fun out of it."
"But lord love you, J.," objected the other, "this ain't speculation. You can see for yourself how sure it is. I'm not a baby at this business, am I? You'll let me know something of this game, won't you? And I tell you, J., it's found money. The man that sells wheat short on the strength of this has as good as got the money in his vest pocket already. Oh, nonsense, of course you'll come in. I've been laying for that Bull gang since long before the Helmick failure, and now I've got it right where I want it. Look here, J., you aren't the man to throw money away. You'd buy a business block if you knew you could sell it over again at a profit. Now here's the chance to make really a fine Bear deal. Why, as soon as this news gets on the floor there, the price will bust right down, and down, and down. Porteous and his crowd couldn't keep it up to save 'em from the receiver's hand one single minute."
"I know, Sam," answered Jadwin, "and the trouble is, not that I don't want to speculate, but that I do—too much. That's why I said I'd keep out of it. It isn't so much the money as the fun of playing the game. With half a show, I would get in a little more and a little more, till by and by I'd try to throw a big thing, and instead, the big thing would throw me. Why, Sam, when you told me that that wreck out there mumbling a sandwich was Hargus, it made me turn cold."
"Yes, in your feet," retorted Gretry. "I'm not asking you to risk all your money, am I, or a fifth of it, or a twentieth of it? Don't be an ass, J. Are we a conservative house, or aren't we? Do I talk like this when I'm not sure? Look here. Let me sell a million bushels for you. Yes, I know it's a bigger order than I've handled for you before. But this time I want to go right into it, head down and heels up, and get a twist on those Porteous buckoes, and raise 'em right out of their boots. We get a crop report this morning, and if the visible supply is as large as I think it is, the price will go off and unsettle the whole market. I'll sell short for you at the best figures we can get, and you can cover on the slump any time between now and the end of May."
Jadwin hesitated. In spite of himself he felt a Chance had come. Again that strange sixth sense of his, the inexplicable instinct, that only the born speculator knows, warned him. Every now and then during the course of his business career, this intuition came to him, this flair, this intangible, vague premonition, this presentiment that he must seize Opportunity or else Fortune, that so long had stayed at his elbow, would desert him. In the air about him he seemed to feel an influence, a sudden new element, the presence of a new force. It was Luck, the great power, the great goddess, and all at once it had stooped from out the invisible, and just over his head passed swiftly in a rush of glittering wings.
"The thing would have to be handled like glass," observed the broker thoughtfully, his eyes narrowing "A tip like this is public property in twenty-four hours, and it don't give us any too much time. I don't want to break the price by unloading a million or more bushels on 'em all of a sudden. I'll scatter the orders pretty evenly. You see," he added, "here's a big point in our favor. We'll be able to sell on a strong market. The Pit traders have got some crazy war rumour going, and they're as flighty over it as a young ladies' seminary over a great big rat. And even without that, the market is top-heavy. Porteous makes me weary. He and his gang have been bucking it up till we've got an abnormal price. Ninety-four for May wheat! Why, it's ridiculous. Ought to be selling way down in the eighties. The least little jolt would tip her over. Well," he said abruptly, squaring himself at Jadwin, "do we come in? If that same luck of yours is still in working order, here's your chance, J., to make a killing. There's just that gilt-edged, full-morocco chance that a report of big 'visible' would give us."
Jadwin laughed. "Sam," he said, "I'll flip a coin for it."
"Oh, get out," protested the broker; then suddenly—the gambling instinct that a lifetime passed in that place had cultivated in him—exclaimed:
"All right. Flip a coin. But give me your word you'll stay by it. Heads you come in; tails you don't. Will you give me your word?"
"Oh, I don't know about that," replied Jadwin, amused at the foolishness of the whole proceeding. But as he balanced the half-dollar on his thumb-nail, he was all at once absolutely assured that it would fall heads. He flipped it in the air, and even as he watched it spin, said to himself, "It will come heads. It could not possibly be anything else. I know it will be heads."
And as a matter of course the coin fell heads.
"All right," he said, "I'll come in."
"For a million bushels?"
"Yes—for a million. How much in margins will you want?"
Gretry figured a moment on the back of an envelope.
"Fifty thousand dollars," he announced at length.
Jadwin wrote the check on a corner of the broker's desk, and held it a moment before him.
"Good-bye," he said, apostrophising the bit of paper. "Good-bye. I ne'er shall look upon your like again."
Gretry did not laugh.
"Huh!" he grunted. "You'll look upon a hatful of them before the month is out."
That same morning Landry Court found himself in the corridor on the ground floor of the Board of Trade about nine o'clock. He had just come out of the office of Gretry, Converse & Co., where he and the other Pit traders for the house had been receiving their orders for the day.
As he was buying a couple of apples at the news stand at the end of the corridor, Semple and a young Jew named Hirsch, Pit traders for small firms in La Salle Street, joined him.
"Hello, Court, what do you know?"
"Hello, Barry Semple! Hello, Hirsch!" Landry offered the halves of his second apple, and the three stood there a moment, near the foot of the stairs, talking and eating their apples from the points of their penknives.
"I feel sort of seedy this morning," Semple observed between mouthfuls. "Was up late last night at a stag. A friend of mine just got back from Europe, and some of the boys were giving him a little dinner. He was all over the shop, this friend of mine; spent most of his time in Constantinople; had some kind of newspaper business there. It seems that it's a pretty crazy proposition, Turkey and the Sultan and all that. He said that there was nearly a row over the 'Higgins-Pasha' incident, and that the British agent put it pretty straight to the Sultan's secretary. My friend said Constantinople put him in mind of a lot of opera bouffe scenery that had got spilled out in the mud. Say, Court, he said the streets were dirtier than the Chicago streets."
"Oh, come now," said Hirsch.
"Fact! And the dogs! He told us he knows now where all the yellow dogs go to when they die."
"But say," remarked Hirsch, "what is that about the Higgins-Pasha business? I thought that was over long ago."
"Oh, it is," answered Semple easily. He looked at his watch. "I guess it's about time to go up, pretty near half-past nine."
The three mounted the stairs, mingling with the groups of floor traders who, in steadily increasing numbers, had begun to move in the same direction. But on the way Hirsch was stopped by his brother.
"Hey, I got that box of cigars for you."
Hirsch paused. "Oh! All right," he said, then he added: "Say, how about that Higgins-Pasha affair? You remember that row between England and Turkey. They tell me the British agent in Constantinople put it pretty straight to the Sultan the other day."
The other was interested. "He did, hey?" he said. "The market hasn't felt it, though. Guess there's nothing to it. But there's Kelly yonder. He'd know. He's pretty thick with Porteous' men. Might ask him."
"You ask him and let me know. I got to go on the floor. It's nearly time for the gong."
Hirsch's brother found Kelly in the centre of a group of settlement clerks.
"Say, boy," he began, "you ought to know. They tell me there may be trouble between England and Turkey over the Higgins-Pasha incident, and that the British Foreign Office has threatened the Sultan with an ultimatum. I can see the market if that's so."
"Nothing in it," retorted Kelly. "But I'll find out—to make sure, by jingo."
Meanwhile Landry had gained the top of the stairs, and turning to the right, passed through a great doorway, and came out upon the floor of the Board of Trade.
It was a vast enclosure, lighted on either side by great windows of coloured glass, the roof supported by thin iron pillars elaborately decorated. To the left were the bulletin blackboards, and beyond these, in the northwest angle of the floor, a great railed-in space where the Western Union Telegraph was installed. To the right, on the other side of the room, a row of tables, laden with neatly arranged paper bags half full of samples of grains, stretched along the east wall from the doorway of the public room at one end to the telephone room at the other.
The centre of the floor was occupied by the pits. To the left and to the front of Landry the provision pit, to the right the corn pit, while further on at the north extremity of the floor, and nearly under the visitors' gallery, much larger than the other two, and flanked by the wicket of the official recorder, was the wheat pit itself.
Directly opposite the visitors' gallery, high upon the south wall a great dial was affixed, and on the dial a marking hand that indicated the current price of wheat, fluctuating with the changes made in the Pit. Just now it stood at ninety-three and three-eighths, the closing quotation of the preceding day.
As yet all the pits were empty. It was some fifteen minutes after nine. Landry checked his hat and coat at the coat room near the north entrance, and slipped into an old tennis jacket of striped blue flannel. Then, hatless, his hands in his pockets, he leisurely crossed the floor, and sat down in one of the chairs that were ranged in files upon the floor in front of the telegraph enclosure. He scrutinised again the despatches and orders that he held in his hands; then, having fixed them in his memory, tore them into very small bits, looking vaguely about the room, developing his plan of campaign for the morning.
In a sense Landry Court had a double personality. Away from the neighbourhood and influence of La Salle Street, he was "rattle-brained," absent-minded, impractical, and easily excited, the last fellow in the world to be trusted with any business responsibility. But the thunder of the streets around the Board of Trade, and, above all, the movement and atmosphere of the floor itself awoke within him a very different Landry Court; a whole new set of nerves came into being with the tap of the nine-thirty gong, a whole new system of brain machinery began to move with the first figure called in the Pit. And from that instant until the close of the session, no floor trader, no broker's clerk nor scalper was more alert, more shrewd, or kept his head more surely than the same young fellow who confused his social engagements for the evening of the same day. The Landry Court the Dearborn girls knew was a far different young man from him who now leaned his elbows on the arms of the chair upon the floor of the Board, and, his eyes narrowing, his lips tightening, began to speculate upon what was to be the temper of the Pit that morning.
Meanwhile the floor was beginning to fill up. Over in the railed-in space, where the hundreds of telegraph instruments were in place, the operators were arriving in twos and threes. They hung their hats and ulsters upon the pegs in the wall back of them, and in linen coats, or in their shirt-sleeves, went to their seats, or, sitting upon their tables, called back and forth to each other, joshing, cracking jokes. Some few addressed themselves directly to work, and here and there the intermittent clicking of a key began, like a diligent cricket busking himself in advance of its mates.
From the corridors on the ground floor up through the south doors came the pit traders in increasing groups. The noise of footsteps began to echo from the high vaulting of the roof. A messenger boy crossed the floor chanting an unintelligible name.
The groups of traders gradually converged upon the corn and wheat pits, and on the steps of the latter, their arms crossed upon their knees, two men, one wearing a silk skull cap all awry, conversed earnestly in low tones.
Winston, a great, broad-shouldered bass-voiced fellow of some thirty-five years, who was associated with Landry in executing the orders of the Gretry-Converse house, came up to him, and, omitting any salutation, remarked, deliberately, slowly:
"What's all this about this trouble between Turkey and England?"
But before Landry could reply a third trader for the Gretry Company joined the two. This was a young fellow named Rusbridge, lean, black-haired, a constant excitement glinting in his deep-set eyes.
"Say," he exclaimed, "there's something in that, there's something in that!"
"Where did you hear it?" demanded Landry.
"Oh—everywhere." Rusbridge made a vague gesture with one arm. "Hirsch seemed to know all about it. It appears that there's talk of mobilising the Mediterranean squadron. Darned if I know."
"Might ask that 'Inter-Ocean' reporter. He'd be likely to know. I've seen him 'round here this morning, or you might telephone the Associated Press," suggested Landry. "The office never said a word to me."
"Oh, the 'Associated.' They know a lot always, don't they?" jeered Winston. "Yes, I rung 'em up. They 'couldn't confirm the rumour.' That's always the way. You can spend half a million a year in leased wires and special service and subscriptions to news agencies, and you get the first smell of news like this right here on the floor. Remember that time when the Northwestern millers sold a hundred and fifty thousand barrels at one lick? The floor was talking of it three hours before the news slips were sent 'round, or a single wire was in. Suppose we had waited for the Associated people or the Commercial people then?"
"It's that Higgins-Pasha incident, I'll bet," observed Rusbridge, his eyes snapping.
"I heard something about that this morning," returned Landry. "But only that it was—"
"There! What did I tell you?" interrupted Rusbridge. "I said it was everywhere. There's no smoke without some fire. And I wouldn't be a bit surprised if we get cables before noon that the British War Office had sent an ultimatum."
And very naturally a few minutes later Winston, at that time standing on the steps of the corn pit, heard from a certain broker, who had it from a friend who had just received a despatch from some one "in the know," that the British Secretary of State for War had forwarded an ultimatum to the Porte, and that diplomatic relations between Turkey and England were about to be suspended.
All in a moment the entire Floor seemed to be talking of nothing else, and on the outskirts of every group one could overhear the words: "Seizure of custom house," "ultimatum," "Eastern question," "Higgins-Pasha incident." It was the rumour of the day, and before very long the pit traders began to receive a multitude of despatches countermanding selling orders, and directing them not to close out trades under certain very advanced quotations. The brokers began wiring their principals that the market promised to open strong and bullish.
But by now it was near to half-past nine. From the Western Union desks the clicking of the throng of instruments rose into the air in an incessant staccato stridulation. The messenger boys ran back and forth at top speed, dodging in and out among the knots of clerks and traders, colliding with one another, and without interruption intoning the names of those for whom they had despatches. The throng of traders concentrated upon the pits, and at every moment the deep-toned hum of the murmur of many voices swelled like the rising of a tide.
And at this moment, as Landry stood on the rim of the wheat pit, looking towards the telephone booth under the visitors' gallery, he saw the osseous, stoop-shouldered figure of Mr. Cressler—who, though he never speculated, appeared regularly upon the Board every morning—making his way towards one of the windows in the front of the building. His pocket was full of wheat, taken from a bag on one of the sample tables. Opening the window, he scattered the grain upon the sill, and stood for a long moment absorbed and interested in the dazzling flutter of the wings of innumerable pigeons who came to settle upon the ledge, pecking the grain with little, nervous, fastidious taps of their yellow beaks.
Landry cast a glance at the clock beneath the dial on the wall behind him. It was twenty-five minutes after nine. He stood in his accustomed place on the north side of the Wheat Pit, upon the topmost stair. The Pit was full. Below him and on either side of him were the brokers, scalpers, and traders—Hirsch, Semple, Kelly, Winston, and Rusbridge. The redoubtable Leaycraft, who, bidding for himself, was supposed to hold the longest line of May wheat of any one man in the Pit, the insignificant Grossmann, a Jew who wore a flannel shirt, and to whose outcries no one ever paid the least attention. Fairchild, Paterson, and Goodlock, the inseparable trio who represented the Porteous gang, silent men, middle-aged, who had but to speak in order to buy or sell a million bushels on the spot. And others, and still others, veterans of sixty-five, recruits just out of their teens, men who—some of them—in the past had for a moment dominated the entire Pit, but who now were content to play the part of "eighth-chasers," buying and selling on the same day, content with a profit of ten dollars. Others who might at that very moment be nursing plans which in a week's time would make them millionaires; still others who, under a mask of nonchalance, strove to hide the chagrin of yesterday's defeat. And they were there, ready, inordinately alert, ears turned to the faintest sound, eyes searching for the vaguest trace of meaning in those of their rivals, nervous, keyed to the highest tension, ready to thrust deep into the slightest opening, to spring, mercilessly, upon the smallest undefended spot. Grossmann, the little Jew of the grimy flannel shirt, perspired in the stress of the suspense, all but powerless to maintain silence till the signal should be given, drawing trembling fingers across his mouth. Winston, brawny, solid, unperturbed, his hands behind his back, waited immovably planted on his feet with all the gravity of a statue, his eyes preternaturally watchful, keeping Kelly—whom he had divined had some "funny business" on hand—perpetually in sight. The Porteous trio—Fairchild, Paterson, and Goodlock—as if unalarmed, unassailable, all but turned their backs to the Pit, laughing among themselves.
The official reporter climbed to his perch in the little cage on the edge of the Pit, shutting the door after him. By now the chanting of the messenger boys was an uninterrupted chorus. From all sides of the building, and in every direction they crossed and recrossed each other, always running, their hands full of yellow envelopes. From the telephone alcoves came the prolonged, musical rasp of the call bells. In the Western Union booths the keys of the multitude of instruments raged incessantly. Bare-headed young men hurried up to one another, conferred an instant comparing despatches, then separated, darting away at top speed. Men called to each other half-way across the building. Over by the bulletin boards clerks and agents made careful memoranda of primary receipts, and noted down the amount of wheat on passage, the exports and the imports.
And all these sounds, the chatter of the telegraph, the intoning of the messenger boys, the shouts and cries of clerks and traders, the shuffle and trampling of hundreds of feet, the whirring of telephone signals rose into the troubled air, and mingled overhead to form a vast note, prolonged, sustained, that reverberated from vault to vault of the airy roof, and issued from every doorway, every opened window in one long roll of uninterrupted thunder. In the Wheat Pit the bids, no longer obedient of restraint, began one by one to burst out, like the first isolated shots of a skirmish line. Grossmann had flung out an arm crying:
"'Sell twenty-five May at ninety-five and an eighth," while Kelly and Semple had almost simultaneously shouted, "'Give seven-eighths for May!"
The official reporter had been leaning far over to catch the first quotations, one eye upon the clock at the end of the room. The hour and minute hands were at right angles.
Then suddenly, cutting squarely athwart the vague crescendo of the floor came the single incisive stroke of a great gong. Instantly a tumult was unchained. Arms were flung upward in strenuous gestures, and from above the crowding heads in the Wheat Pit a multitude of hands, eager, the fingers extended, leaped into the air. All articulate expression was lost in the single explosion of sound as the traders surged downwards to the centre of the Pit, grabbing each other, struggling towards each other, tramping, stamping, charging through with might and main. Promptly the hand on the great dial above the clock stirred and trembled, and as though driven by the tempest breath of the Pit moved upward through the degrees of its circle. It paused, wavered, stopped at length, and on the instant the hundreds of telegraph keys scattered throughout the building began clicking off the news to the whole country, from the Atlantic to the Pacific and from Mackinac to Mexico, that the Chicago market had made a slight advance and that May wheat, which had closed the day before at ninety-three and three-eighths, had opened that morning at ninety-four and a half.
But the advance brought out no profit-taking sales. The redoubtable Leaycraft and the Porteous trio, Fairchild, Paterson, and Goodlock, shook their heads when the Pit offered ninety-four for parts of their holdings. The price held firm. Goodlock even began to offer ninety-four. At every suspicion of a flurry Grossmann, always with the same gesture as though hurling a javelin, always with the same lamentable wail of distress, cried out:
"'Sell twenty-five May at ninety-five and a fourth."
He held his five fingers spread to indicate the number of "contracts," or lots of five thousand bushels, which he wished to sell, each finger representing one "contract."
And it was at this moment that selling orders began suddenly to pour in upon the Gretry-Converse traders. Even other houses—Teller and West, Burbank & Co., Mattieson and Knight—received their share. The movement was inexplicable, puzzling. With a powerful Bull clique dominating the trading and every prospect of a strong market, who was it who ventured to sell short?
Landry among others found himself commissioned to sell. His orders were to unload three hundred thousand bushels on any advance over and above ninety-four. He kept his eye on Leaycraft, certain that he would force up the figure. But, as it happened, it was not Leaycraft but the Porteous trio who made the advance. Standing in the centre of the Pit, Patterson suddenly flung up his hand and drew it towards him, clutching the air—the conventional gesture of the buyer.
"'Give an eighth for May."
Landry was at him in a second. Twenty voices shouted "sold," and as many traders sprang towards him with outstretched arms. Landry, however, was before them, and his rush carried Paterson half way across the middle space of the Pit.
Paterson nodded, and as Landry noted down the transaction the hand on the dial advanced again, and again held firm.
But after this the activity of the Pit fell away. The trading languished. By degrees the tension of the opening was relaxed. Landry, however, had refrained from selling more than ten "contracts" to Paterson. He had a feeling that another advance would come later on. Rapidly he made his plans. He would sell another fifty thousand bushels if the price went to ninety-four and a half, and would then "feel" the market, letting go small lots here and there, to test its strength, then, the instant he felt the market strong enough, throw a full hundred thousand upon it with a rush before it had time to break. He could feel—almost at his very finger tips—how this market moved, how it strengthened, how it weakened. He knew just when to nurse it, to humor it, to let it settle, and when to crowd it, when to hustle it, when it would stand rough handling.
Grossmann still uttered his plaint from time to time, but no one so much as pretended to listen. The Porteous trio and Leaycraft kept the price steady at ninety-four and an eighth, but showed no inclination to force it higher. For a full five minutes not a trade was recorded. The Pit waited for the Report on the Visible Supply.
And it was during this lull in the morning's business that the idiocy of the English ultimatum to the Porte melted away. As inexplicably and as suddenly as the rumour had started, it now disappeared. Everyone, simultaneously, seemed to ridicule it. England declare war on Turkey! Where was the joke? Who was the damn fool to have started that old, worn-out war scare? But, for all that, there was no reaction from the advance. It seemed to be understood that either Leaycraft or the Porteous crowd stood ready to support the market; and in place of the ultimatum story a feeling began to gain ground that the expected report would indicate a falling off in the "visible," and that it was quite on the cards that the market might even advance another point.
As the interest in the immediate situation declined, the crowd in the Pit grew less dense. Portions of it were deserted; even Grossmann, discouraged, retired to a bench under the visitors' gallery. And a spirit of horse-play, sheer foolishness, strangely inconsistent with the hot-eyed excitement of the few moments after the opening invaded the remaining groups. Leaycraft, the formidable, as well as Paterson of the Porteous gang, and even the solemn Winston, found an apparently inexhaustible diversion in folding their telegrams into pointed javelins and sending them sailing across the room, watching the course of the missiles with profound gravity. A visitor in the gallery—no doubt a Western farmer on a holiday—having put his feet upon the rail, the entire Pit began to groan "boots, boots, boots."
A little later a certain broker came scurrying across the floor from the direction of the telephone room. Panting, he flung himself up the steps of the Pit, forced his way among the traders with vigorous workings of his elbows, and shouted a bid.
"He's sick," shouted Hirsch. "Look out, he's sick. He's going to have a fit." He grabbed the broker by both arms and hustled him into the centre of the Pit. The others caught up the cry, a score of hands pushed the newcomer from man to man. The Pit traders clutched him, pulled his necktie loose, knocked off his hat, vociferating all the while at top voice, "He's sick! He's sick!"
Other brokers and traders came up, and Grossmann, mistaking the commotion for a flurry, ran into the Pit, his eyes wide, waving his arm and wailing:
"'Sell twenty-five May at ninety-five and a quarter."
But the victim, good-natured, readjusted his battered hat, and again repeated his bid.
"Ah, go to bed," protested Hirsch.
"He's the man who struck Billy Paterson."
"Say, a horse bit him. Look out for him, he's going to have a duck-fit."
The incident appeared to be the inspiration for a new "josh" that had a great success, and a group of traders organized themselves into an "anti-cravat committee," and made the rounds of the Pit, twitching the carefully tied scarfs of the unwary out of place. Grossman, indignant at "t'ose monkey-doodle pizeness," withdrew from the centre of the Pit. But while he stood in front of Leaycraft, his back turned, muttering his disgust, the latter, while carrying on a grave conversation with his neighbour, carefully stuck a file of paper javelins all around the Jew's hat band, and then—still without mirth and still continuing to talk—set them on fire.
Landry imagined by now that ninety-four and an eighth was as high a figure as he could reasonably expect that morning, and so began to "work off" his selling orders. Little by little he sold the wheat "short," till all but one large lot was gone.
Then all at once, and for no discoverable immediate reason, wheat, amid an explosion of shouts and vociferations, jumped to ninety-four and a quarter, and before the Pit could take breath, had advanced another eighth, broken to one-quarter, then jumped to the five-eighths mark.
It was the Report on the Visible Supply beyond question, and though it had not yet been posted, this sudden flurry was a sign that it was not only near at hand, but would be bullish.
A few moments later it was bulletined in the gallery beneath the dial, and proved a tremendous surprise to nearly every man upon the floor. No one had imagined the supply was so ample, so all-sufficient to meet the demand. Promptly the Pit responded. Wheat began to pour in heavily. Hirsch, Kelly, Grossmann, Leaycraft, the stolid Winston, and the excitable Rusbridge were hard at it. The price began to give. Suddenly it broke sharply. The hand on the great dial dropped to ninety-three and seven-eighths.
Landry was beside himself. He had not foreseen this break. There was no reckoning on that cursed "visible," and he still had 50,000 bushels to dispose of. There was no telling now how low the price might sink. He must act quickly, radically. He fought his way towards the Porteous crowd, reached over the shoulder of the little Jew Grossmann, who stood in his way, and thrust his hand almost into Paterson's face, shouting:
"'Sell fifty May at seven-eighths."
It was the last one of his unaccountable selling orders of the early morning.
The other shook his head.
"'Sell fifty May at three-quarters."
Suddenly some instinct warned Landry that another break was coming. It was in the very air around him. He could almost physically feel the pressure of renewed avalanches of wheat crowding down the price. Desperate, he grabbed Paterson by the shoulder.
"'Sell fifty May at five-eighths."
"Take it," vociferated the other, as though answering a challenge.
And in the heart of this confusion, in this downward rush of the price, Luck, the golden goddess, passed with the flirt and flash of glittering wings, and hardly before the ticker in Gretry's office had signalled the decline, the memorandum of the trade was down upon Landry's card and Curtis Jadwin stood pledged to deliver, before noon on the last day of May, one million bushels of wheat into the hands of the representatives of the great Bulls of the Board of Trade.
But by now the real business of the morning was over. The Pit knew it. Grossmann, obstinate, hypnotized as it were by one idea, still stood in his accustomed place on the upper edge of the Pit, and from time to time, with the same despairing gesture, emitted his doleful outcry of "'Sell twenty-five May at ninety-five and three-quarters."
Nobody listened. The traders stood around in expectant attitudes, looking into one another's faces, waiting for what they could not exactly say; loath to leave the Pit lest something should "turn up" the moment their backs were turned.
By degrees the clamour died away, ceased, began again irregularly, then abruptly stilled. Here and there a bid was called, an offer made, like the intermittent crack of small arms after the stopping of the cannonade.
"'Sell five May at one-eighth."
"'Sell twenty at one-quarter."
"'Give one-eighth for May."
For an instant the shoutings were renewed. Then suddenly the gong struck. The traders began slowly to leave the Pit. One of the floor officers, an old fellow in uniform and vizored cap, appeared, gently shouldering towards the door the groups wherein the bidding and offering were still languidly going on. His voice full of remonstration, he repeated continually:
"Time's up, gentlemen. Go on now and get your lunch. Lunch time now. Go on now, or I'll have to report you. Time's up."
The tide set toward the doorways. In the gallery the few visitors rose, putting on coats and wraps. Over by the check counter, to the right of the south entrance to the floor, a throng of brokers and traders jostled each other, reaching over one another's shoulders for hats and ulsters. In steadily increasing numbers they poured out of the north and south entrances, on their way to turn in their trading cards to the offices.
Little by little the floor emptied. The provision and grain pits were deserted, and as the clamour of the place lapsed away the telegraph instruments began to make themselves heard once more, together with the chanting of the messenger boys.
Swept clean in the morning, the floor itself, seen now through the thinning groups, was littered from end to end with scattered grain—oats, wheat, corn, and barley, with wisps of hay, peanut shells, apple parings, and orange peel, with torn newspapers, odds and ends of memoranda, crushed paper darts, and above all with a countless multitude of yellow telegraph forms, thousands upon thousands, crumpled and muddied under the trampling of innumerable feet. It was the debris of the battle-field, the abandoned impedimenta and broken weapons of contending armies, the detritus of conflict, torn, broken, and rent, that at the end of each day's combat encumbered the field.
At last even the click of the last of telegraph keys died down. Shouldering themselves into their overcoats, the operators departed, calling back and forth to one another, making "dates," and cracking jokes. Washerwomen appeared with steaming pails, porters pushing great brooms before them began gathering the refuse of the floor into heaps.
Between the wheat and corn pits a band of young fellows, some of them absolute boys, appeared. These were the settlement clerks. They carried long account books. It was their duty to get the trades of the day into a "ring"—to trace the course of a lot of wheat which had changed hands perhaps a score of times during the trading—and their calls of "Wheat sold to Teller and West," "May wheat sold to Burbank & Co.," "May oats sold to Matthewson and Knight," "Wheat sold to Gretry, Converse & Co.," began to echo from wall to wall of the almost deserted room.
A cat, grey and striped, and wearing a dog collar of nickel and red leather, issued from the coat-room and picked her way across the floor. Evidently she was in a mood of the most ingratiating friendliness, and as one after another of the departing traders spoke to her, raised her tail in the air and arched her back against the legs of the empty chairs. The janitor put in an appearance, lowering the tall colored windows with a long rod. A noise of hammering and the scrape of saws began to issue from a corner where a couple of carpenters tinkered about one of the sample tables.
Then at last even the settlement clerks took themselves off. At once there was a great silence, broken only by the harsh rasp of the carpenters' saws and the voice of the janitor exchanging jokes with the washerwomen. The sound of footsteps in distant quarters re-echoed as if in a church.
The washerwomen invaded the floor, spreading soapy and steaming water before them. Over by the sample tables a negro porter in shirt-sleeves swept entire bushels of spilled wheat, crushed, broken, and sodden, into his dust pans.
The day's campaign was over. It was past two o'clock. On the great dial against the eastern wall the indicator stood—sentinel fashion—at ninety-three. Not till the following morning would the whirlpool, the great central force that spun the Niagara of wheat in its grip, thunder and bellow again.
Later on even the washerwomen, even the porter and janitor, departed. An unbroken silence, the peacefulness of an untroubled calm, settled over the place. The rays of the afternoon sun flooded through the west windows in long parallel shafts full of floating golden motes. There was no sound; nothing stirred. The floor of the Board of Trade was deserted. Alone, on the edge of the abandoned Wheat Pit, in a spot where the sunlight fell warmest—an atom of life, lost in the immensity of the empty floor—the grey cat made her toilet, diligently licking the fur on the inside of her thigh, one leg, as if dislocated, thrust into the air above her head.
In the front parlor of the Cresslers' house a little company was gathered—Laura Dearborn and Page, Mrs. Wessels, Mrs. Cressler, and young Miss Gretry, an awkward, plain-faced girl of about nineteen, dressed extravagantly in a decollete gown of blue silk. Curtis Jadwin and Cressler himself stood by the open fireplace smoking. Landry Court fidgeted on the sofa, pretending to listen to the Gretry girl, who told an interminable story of a visit to some wealthy relative who had a country seat in Wisconsin and who raised fancy poultry. She possessed, it appeared, three thousand hens, Brahma, Faverolles, Houdans, Dorkings, even peacocks and tame quails.
Sheldon Corthell, in a dinner coat, an unlighted cigarette between his fingers, discussed the spring exhibit of water-colors with Laura and Mrs. Cressler, Page listening with languid interest. Aunt Wess' turned the leaves of a family album, counting the number of photographs of Mrs. Cressler which it contained.
Black coffee had just been served. It was the occasion of the third rehearsal for the play which was to be given for the benefit of the hospital ward for Jadwin's mission children, and Mrs. Cressler had invited the members of the company for dinner. Just now everyone awaited the arrival of the "coach," Monsieur Gerardy, who was always late.
"To my notion," observed Corthell, "the water-color that pretends to be anything more than a sketch over-steps its intended limits. The elaborated water-color, I contend, must be judged by the same standards as an oil painting. And if that is so, why not have the oil painting at once?"
"And with all that, if you please, not an egg on the place for breakfast," declared the Gretry girl in her thin voice. She was constrained, embarrassed. Of all those present she was the only one to mistake the character of the gathering and appear in formal costume. But one forgave Isabel Gretry such lapses as these. Invariably she did the wrong thing; invariably she was out of place in the matter of inadvertent speech, an awkward accident, the wrong toilet. For all her nineteen years, she yet remained the hoyden, young, undeveloped, and clumsy.
"Never an egg, and three thousand hens in the runs," she continued. "Think of that! The Plymouth Rocks had the pip. And the others, my lands! I don't know. They just didn't lay."
"Ought to tickle the soles of their feet," declared Landry with profound gravity.
"Tickle their feet!"
"Best thing in the world for hens that don't lay. It sort of stirs them up. Oh, every one knows that."
"Fancy now! I'll write to Aunt Alice to-morrow."
Cressler clipped the tip of a fresh cigar, and, turning to Curtis Jadwin, remarked:
"I understand that Leaycraft alone lost nearly fifteen thousand."
He referred to Jadwin's deal in May wheat, the consummation of which had been effected the previous week. Squarely in the midst of the morning session, on the day following the "short" sale of Jadwin's million of bushels, had exploded the news of the intended action of the French chamber. Amid a tremendous clamour the price fell. The Bulls were panic-stricken. Leaycraft the redoubtable was overwhelmed at the very start. The Porteous trio heroically attempted to shoulder the wheat, but the load was too much. They as well gave ground, and, bereft of their support, May wheat, which had opened at ninety-three and five-eighths to ninety-two and a half, broke with the very first attack to ninety-two, hung there a moment, then dropped again to ninety-one and a half, then to ninety-one. Then, in a prolonged shudder of weakness, sank steadily down by quarters to ninety, to eighty-nine, and at last—a final collapse—touched eighty-eight cents. At that figure Jadwin began to cover. There was danger that the buying of so large a lot might bring about a rally in the price. But Gretry, a consummate master of Pit tactics, kept his orders scattered and bought gradually, taking some two or three days to accumulate the grain. Jadwin's luck—the never-failing guardian of the golden wings—seemed to have the affair under immediate supervision, and reports of timely rains in the wheat belt kept the price inert while the trade was being closed. In the end the "deal" was brilliantly successful, and Gretry was still chuckling over the set-back to the Porteous gang. Exactly the amount of his friend's profits Jadwin did not know. As for himself, he had received from Gretry a check for fifty thousand dollars, every cent of which was net profit.
"I'm not going to congratulate you," continued Cressler. "As far as that's concerned, I would rather you had lost than won—if it would have kept you out of the Pit for good. You're cocky now. I know—good Lord, don't I know. I had my share of it. I know how a man gets drawn into this speculating game."
"Charlie, this wasn't speculating," interrupted Jadwin. "It was a certainty. It was found money. If I had known a certain piece of real estate was going to appreciate in value I would have bought it, wouldn't I?"
"All the worse, if it made it seem easy and sure to you. Do you know," he added suddenly. "Do you know that Leaycraft has gone to keep books for a manufacturing concern out in Dubuque?"
Jadwin pulled his mustache. He was looking at Laura Dearborn over the heads of Landry and the Gretry girl.
"I didn't suppose he'd be getting measured for a private yacht," he murmured. Then he continued, pulling his mustache vigorously:
"Charlie, upon my word, what a beautiful—what beautiful hair that girl has!"
Laura was wearing it very high that evening, the shining black coils transfixed by a strange hand-cut ivory comb that had been her grandmother's. She was dressed in black taffeta, with a single great cabbage-rose pinned to her shoulder. She sat very straight in her chair, one hand upon her slender hip, her head a little to one side, listening attentively to Corthell.
By this time the household of the former rectory was running smoothly; everything was in place, the Dearborns were "settled," and a routine had begun. Her first month in her new surroundings had been to Laura an unbroken series of little delights. For formal social distractions she had but little taste. She left those to Page, who, as soon as Lent was over, promptly became involved in a bewildering round of teas, "dancing clubs," dinners, and theatre parties. Mrs. Wessels was her chaperone, and the little middle-aged lady found the satisfaction of a belated youth in conveying her pretty niece to the various functions that occupied her time. Each Friday night saw her in the gallery of a certain smart dancing school of the south side, where she watched Page dance her way from the "first waltz" to the last figure of the german. She counted the couples carefully, and on the way home was always able to say how the attendance of that particular evening compared with that of the former occasion, and also to inform Laura how many times Page had danced with the same young man.
Laura herself was more serious. She had begun a course of reading; no novels, but solemn works full of allusions to "Man" and "Destiny," which she underlined and annotated. Twice a week—on Mondays and Thursdays—she took a French lesson. Corthell managed to enlist the good services of Mrs. Wessels and escorted her to numerous piano and 'cello recitals, to lectures, to concerts. He even succeeded in achieving the consecration of a specified afternoon once a week, spent in his studio in the Fine Arts' Building on the Lake Front, where he read to them "Saint Agnes Eve," "Sordello," "The Light of Asia"—poems which, with their inversions, obscurities, and astonishing arabesques of rhetoric, left Aunt Wess' bewildered, breathless, all but stupefied.
Laura found these readings charming. The studio was beautiful, lofty, the light dim; the sound of Corthell's voice returned from the thick hangings of velvet and tapestry in a subdued murmur. The air was full of the odor of pastilles.
Laura could not fail to be impressed with the artist's tact, his delicacy. In words he never referred to their conversation in the foyer of the Auditorium; only by some unexplained subtlety of attitude he managed to convey to her the distinct impression that he loved her always. That he was patient, waiting for some indefinite, unexpressed development.
Landry Court called upon her as often as she would allow. Once he had prevailed upon her and Page to accompany him to the matinee to see a comic opera. He had pronounced it "bully," unable to see that Laura evinced only a mild interest in the performance. On each propitious occasion he had made love to her extravagantly. He continually protested his profound respect with a volubility and earnestness that was quite uncalled for.
But, meanwhile, the situation had speedily become more complicated by the entrance upon the scene of an unexpected personage. This was Curtis Jadwin. It was impossible to deny the fact that "J." was in love with Mrs. Cressler's protegee. The business man had none of Corthell's talent for significant reticence, none of his tact, and older than she, a man-of-the-world, accustomed to deal with situations with unswerving directness, he, unlike Landry Court, was not in the least afraid of her. From the very first she found herself upon the defensive. Jadwin was aggressive, assertive, and his addresses had all the persistence and vehemence of veritable attack. Landry she could manage with the lifting of a finger, Corthell disturbed her only upon those rare occasions when he made love to her. But Jadwin gave her no time to so much as think of finesse. She was not even allowed to choose her own time and place for fencing, and to parry his invasion upon those intimate personal grounds which she pleased herself to keep secluded called upon her every feminine art of procrastination and strategy.
He contrived to meet her everywhere. He impressed Mrs. Cressler as auxiliary into his campaign, and a series of rencontres followed one another with astonishing rapidity. Now it was another opera party, now a box at McVicker's, now a dinner, or more often a drive through Lincoln Park behind Jadwin's trotters. He even had the Cresslers and Laura over to his mission Sunday-school for the Easter festival, an occasion of which Laura carried away a confused recollection of enormous canvas mottoes, that looked more like campaign banners than texts from the Scriptures, sheaves of calla lilies, imitation bells of tin-foil, revival hymns vociferated with deafening vehemence from seven hundred distended mouths, and through it all the disagreeable smell of poverty, the odor of uncleanliness that mingled strangely with the perfume of the lilies and the aromatic whiffs from the festoons of evergreen.
Thus the first month of her new life had passed Laura did not trouble herself to look very far into the future. She was too much amused with her emancipation from the narrow horizon of her New England environment. She did not concern herself about consequences. Things would go on for themselves, and consequences develop without effort on her part. She never asked herself whether or not she was in love with any of the three men who strove for her favor. She was quite sure she was not ready—yet—to be married. There was even something distasteful in the idea of marriage. She liked Landry Court immensely; she found the afternoons in Corthell's studio delightful; she loved the rides in the park behind Jadwin's horses. She had no desire that any one of these affairs should exclude the other two. She wished nothing to be consummated. As for love, she never let slip an occasion to shock Aunt Wess' by declaring:
"I love—nobody. I shall never marry."
Page, prim, with great parades of her ideas of "good form," declared between her pursed lips that her sister was a flirt. But this was not so. Laura never manoeuvered with her lovers, nor intrigued to keep from any one of them knowledge of her companionship with the other two. So upon such occasions as this, when all three found themselves face to face, she remained unperturbed.
At last, towards half-past eight, Monsieur Gerardy arrived. All through the winter amateur plays had been in great favor, and Gerardy had become, in a sense, a fad. He was in great demand. Consequently, he gave himself airs. His method was that of severity; he posed as a task-master, relentless, never pleased, hustling the amateur actors about without ceremony, scolding and brow-beating. He was a small, excitable man who wore a frock-coat much too small for him, a flowing purple cravatte drawn through a finger ring, and enormous cuffs set off with huge buttons of Mexican onyx. In his lapel was an inevitable carnation, dried, shrunken, and lamentable. He was redolent of perfume and spoke of himself as an artist. He caused it to be understood that in the intervals of "coaching society plays" he gave his attention to the painting of landscapes. Corthell feigned to ignore his very existence.
The play-book in his hand, Monsieur Gerardy clicked his heels in the middle of the floor and punctiliously saluted everyone present, bowing only from his shoulders, his head dropping forward as if propelled by successive dislocations of the vertebrae of his neck.
He explained the cause of his delay. His English was without accent, but at times suddenly entangled itself in curious Gallic constructions.
"Then I propose we begin at once," he announced. "The second act to-night, then, if we have time, the third act—from the book. And I expect the second act to be letter-perfect—let-ter-per-fect. There is nothing there but that." He held up his hand, as if to refuse to consider the least dissention. "There is nothing but that—no other thing."
All but Corthell listened attentively. The artist, however, turning his back, had continued to talk to Laura without lowering his tone, and all through Monsieur Gerardy's exhortation his voice had made itself heard. "Management of light and shade" ... "color scheme" ... "effects of composition."
Monsieur Gerardy's eye glinted in his direction. He struck his play-book sharply into the palm of his hand.
"Come, come!" he cried. "No more nonsense. Now we leave the girls alone and get to work. Here is the scene. Mademoiselle Gretry, if I derange you!" He cleared a space at the end of the parlor, pulling the chairs about. "Be attentive now. Here"—he placed a chair at his right with a flourish, as though planting a banner—"is the porch of Lord Glendale's country house."
"Ah," murmured Landry, winking solemnly at Page, "the chair is the porch of the house."
"And here," shouted Monsieur Gerardy, glaring at him and slamming down another chair, "is a rustic bench and practicable table set for breakfast."
Page began to giggle behind her play-book. Gerardy, his nostrils expanded, gave her his back. The older people, who were not to take part—Jadwin, the Cresslers, and Aunt Wess'—retired to a far corner, Mrs. Cressler declaring that they would constitute the audience.
"On stage," vociferated Monsieur Gerardy, perspiring from his exertions with the furniture. "'Marion enters, timid and hesitating, L. C.' Come, who's Marion? Mademoiselle Gretry, if you please, and for the love of God remember your crossings. Sh! sh!" he cried, waving his arms at the others. "A little silence if you please. Now, Marion."
Isabel Gretry, holding her play-book at her side, one finger marking the place, essayed an entrance with the words:
"'Ah, the old home once more. See the clambering roses have—'"
But Monsieur Gerardy, suddenly compressing his lips as if in a heroic effort to repress his emotion, flung himself into a chair, turning his back and crossing his legs violently. Miss Gretry stopped, very much disturbed, gazing perplexedly at the coach's heaving shoulders.
There was a strained silence, then:
"Isn't—isn't that right?"
As if with the words she had touched a spring, Monsieur Gerardy bounded to his feet.
"Grand God! Is that left-centre where you have made the entrance? In fine, I ask you a little—is that left-centre? You have come in by the rustic bench and practicable table set for breakfast. A fine sight on the night of the performance that. Marion climbs over the rustic breakfast and practicable—over the rustic bench and practicable table, ha, ha, to make the entrance." Still holding the play-book, he clapped hands with elaborate sarcasm. "Ah, yes, good business that. That will bring down the house."
Meanwhile the Gretry girl turned again from left-centre.
"'Ah, the old home again. See—'"
"Stop!" thundered Monsieur Gerardy. "Is that what you call timid and hesitating? Once more, those lines.... No, no. It is not it at all. More of slowness, more of—Here, watch me."
He made the entrance with laborious exaggeration of effect, dragging one foot after another, clutching at the palings of an imaginary fence, while pitching his voice at a feeble falsetto, he quavered:
"'Ah! The old home—ah ... once more. See—' like that," he cried, straightening up. "Now then. We try that entrance again. Don't come on too quick after the curtain. Attention. I clap my hands for the curtain, and count three." He backed away and, tucking the play-book under his arm, struck his palms together. "Now, one—two—three."
But this time Isabel Gretry, in remembering her "business," confused her stage directions once more.
"'Ah, the old home—'"
"Left-centre," interrupted the coach, in a tone of long-suffering patience.
She paused bewildered, and believing that she had spoken her lines too abruptly, began again:
"'See, the clambering—'"
"'Ah, the old home—'"
Monsieur Gerardy settled himself deliberately in his chair and resting his head upon one hand closed his eyes. His manner was that of Galileo under torture declaring "still it moves."
"Oh—oh, yes. I forgot."
Monsieur Gerardy apostrophized the chandelier with mirthless humour.
"Oh, ha, ha! She forgot."
Still another time Marion tried the entrance, and, as she came on, Monsieur Gerardy made vigorous signals to Page, exclaiming in a hoarse whisper:
"Lady Mary, ready. In a minute you come on. Remember the cue."
Meanwhile Marion had continued:
"'See the clambering vines—'"