By Margaret Mayo
To my Helper and Husband
Even in college Alfred Hardy was a young man of fixed ideas and high ideals and proud of it.
His friend, Jimmy Jinks, had few ideas and no ideals, and was glad of it, and before half of their first college term had passed, Jimmy had ridded himself of all such worries as making up his own mind or directing his own morals. Alfred did all these things so much better, argued Jimmy, furthermore, Alfred LIKED to do them—Jimmy owed it to his friend to give him that pleasure.
The fact that Jimmy was several years Alfred's senior and twice his size, in no way altered his opinion of Alfred's judgment, and through their entire college course they agreed as one man in all their discussions—or rather—in all Alfred's discussions.
But it was not until the close of their senior year that Alfred favoured Jimmy with his views on matrimony.
Sitting alone in a secluded corner of the campus waiting for Alfred to solve a problem in higher mathematics, Jimmy now recalled fragments of Alfred's last conversation.
"No twelve dollar shoes and forty dollar hats for MY wife," his young friend had raged and he condemned to Jimmy the wicked extravagance of his own younger sisters. "The woman who gets me must be a home-maker. I'll take her to the theatre occasionally, and now and then we'll have a few friends in for the evening; but the fireside must be her magnet, and I'll be right by her side each night with my books and my day's worries. She shall be taken into my confidence completely; and I'll take good care to let her know, before I marry her, just what I expect in return."
"Alfred certainly has the right idea about marriage," mused Jimmy, as the toe of his boot shoved the gravel up and down the path. "There's just one impractical feature about it." He was conscious of a slight feeling of heresy when he admitted even ONE flaw in his friend's scheme of things. "Where is Alfred to find such a wife?"
Jimmy ran through the list of unattached girls to whom Alfred had thus far presented him. It was no doubt due to his lack of imagination, but try as he would, he could not see any one of these girls sitting by the fireside listening to Alfred's "worries" for four or five nights each week. He recalled all the married women whom he had been obliged, through no fault of his own, to observe.
True, all of them did not boast twelve dollar shoes or forty dollar hats—for the very simple reason that the incomes or the tempers of their husbands did not permit of it. In any case, Jimmy did not remember having seen them spend many evenings by the fireside. Where then was Alfred to find the exceptional creature who was to help "systematise his life"? Jimmy was not above hoping that Alfred's search might be a long one. He was content for his friend to go jogging along by his side, theorising about marriage and taking no chances with facts. Having come to this conclusion, he began to feel uneasy at Alfred's non-appearance. Alfred had promised to meet him on this spot at four-thirty, and Alfred had decided ideas about punctuality. It was now five-thirty. Ought Jimmy to look for him, or would he be wiser to remain comfortably seated and to try to digest another of his friend's theories?
While Jimmy was trying to decide this vexed question, his ear caught the sound of a girlish titter. Turning in embarrassment toward a secluded path just behind him, whom did he see coming toward him but Alfred, with what appeared to be a bunch of daffodils; but as Alfred drew nearer, Jimmy began to perceive at his elbow a large flower-trimmed hat, and—"horrors!"—beneath it, with a great deal of filmy white and yellow floating from it, was a small pink and white face.
Barely had Jimmy reversed himself and rearranged his round, astonished features, when Alfred, beaming and buoyant, brought the bundle of fluff to a full stop before him.
"Sorry to be late, old chap," said Alfred. "I have brought my excuse with me. I want you to know Miss Merton." Then turning to the small creature, whose head peeped just above his elbow, Alfred explained to her graciously that Jimmy Jinks was his very best friend, present company excepted, of course, and added that she and Jimmy would no doubt "see a great deal of each other in the future."
In his embarrassment, Jimmy's eyes went straight to the young lady's shoes. It was possible that there might be more expensive shoes in this world, but Jimmy had certainly never seen daintier.
"I hope we didn't disturb you," a small voice was chirping; and innocent and conventional as the remark surely was, Jimmy was certain of an undercurrent of mischief in it. He glanced up to protest, but two baby-blue eyes fixed upon him in apparent wonderment, made him certain that anything he could say would seem rude or ridiculous; so, as usual when in a plight, he looked to Alfred for the answer.
Slapping Jimmy upon the shoulder in a condescending spirit, Alfred suggested that they all sit down and have a chat.
"Oh, how nice," chirped the small person.
Jimmy felt an irresistible desire to run, but the picture of himself, in his very stout person, streaking across the campus to the giggled delight of Miss Fluff, soon brought him submissively to the seat, where he sat twiddling his straw hat between his fingers, and glancing uncertainly at Alfred, who was thoughtful enough to sit next him.
"Goodness, one could almost dance out here, couldn't one?" said the small person, named Zoie, as her eyes roved over the bit of level green before them.
"Would you like to try?" asked Alfred, apparently agreeable to her every caprice.
"I'd love it!" cried Zoie. "Come along." She sprang up and held out her hands to him.
"I'm going to be unselfish," answered Alfred, "and let Jimmy have that fun."
By this time, Jimmy had been seized with an intuitive feeling that his friend was in immediate danger.
"Was this the young woman who was to sit opposite the fireside five nights a week and systematise Alfred's life?"
Jimmy stared at the intruder blankly. For answer, two small hands were thrust out toward him and an impatient little voice was commanding him to "Come, dance." He heard Alfred's laughter. He had no intention of accommodating the small person in this or any other matter, yet, before he realised quite how it had happened, he was two-stepping up and down the grass to her piping little voice; nor did she release him until the perspiration came rolling from his forehead; and, horror of horrors, his one-time friend, Alfred, seemed to find this amusing, and laughed louder and louder when Jimmy sank by his side exhausted.
When Jimmy was again able to think consecutively, he concluded that considerable conversation must have taken place between Alfred and the small one, while he was recovering his breath and re-adjusting his wilted neckwear. He was now thrown into a fresh panic by an exclamation from the excitable Zoie.
"You must both meet my friend, Aggie Darling," she was saying. "I am bringing her with me to the hop to-night. She is not at all like me. You will like her dreadfully." She smiled at Jimmy as though she were conferring a great favour upon him.
"Like her dreadfully," commented Jimmy to himself. "It was just the kind of expression one might expect from a mind in such disorder as hers. 'Systematise Alfred's life,' indeed!"
There was more nonsensical chatter, or so it seemed to Jimmy, then Zoie and Alfred rose to go, and Jimmy was told by both of them that he was to put in an appearance at the Fraternity "hop" that night.
"I'll see you at dinner," called Alfred gaily over his shoulder and Jimmy was left to grapple with his first disappointment at his friend's lack of discrimination.
"It's her fault," concluded Jimmy, as he lifted himself heavily off the bench and started down the campus, resolved to console himself with food.
Now Jimmy had no intention of going to the "hop." He had tried to tell Alfred so a dozen times during dinner, but each time he had been interrupted by one of Alfred's enthusiastic rhapsodies about Zoie.
"Most marvellous girl I have ever met!" exclaimed Alfred over his soup. "So sensible; so modest. And did you see how simply she dresses?" he asked. Jimmy recalled his first vision of billowy fluff; but before he could answer, Alfred had continued excitedly:
"I'll tell you what first attracted me toward her." He looked at Jimmy as though he expected some especial mark of gratitude for the favour about to be bestowed; then he explained with a serious weighing of his words, "It was her love of children. I had barely been introduced to her when she turned her back upon me and gave her whole attention to Professor Peck's little boy Willie. I said to myself, 'any girl of that age who prefers children to young chaps of my age, is the girl for me.'"
"I see," assented Jimmy lamely. It was his first remark during dinner.
"After that, I no longer hesitated. You know, Jimmy, I have decision."
"Yes, I have noticed," admitted Jimmy, without conviction.
"In fifteen minutes," said Alfred, "I had learned all about the young lady's antecedents."
Having finished his soup, and resisted a childish impulse to tip the plate and scrape the bottom of it, Jimmy was now looking anxiously toward the door through which the roast ought to come.
"I'll tell you all about her," volunteered Alfred. But Jimmy's eyes were upon Alfred's plate; his friend had not yet devoured more than two spoonfuls of soup; at that rate, argued Jimmy, the roast would reach them about the time that he was usually trying to make his dessert last as long as possible.
"She is here with her aunt," continued Alfred. "They are on a short visit to Professor Peck."
Jimmy approved of the "short."
"That's good," he murmured, hopeful that a separation from the minx might restore his friend's reason.
"And Jimmy," exclaimed Alfred with glistening eyes, "what do you think?"
Jimmy thought a great deal but he forebore to say it, and Alfred continued very enthusiastically.
"She lives right in the same town with us."
"What!" ejaculated Jimmy, and he felt his appetite going.
"Within a stone's throw of my house—and yours," added Alfred triumphantly. "Think of our never having met her before!"
"I am thinking," said Jimmy.
"Of course she has been away from home a great deal," went on Alfred. "She's been in school in the East; but there were the summers."
"So there were," assented Jimmy, thinking of his hitherto narrow escapes.
"Her father is old John Merton," continued Alfred. "Merton the stationer—you know him, Jimmy. Unfortunately, he has a great deal of money; but that hasn't spoilt her. Oh no! She is just as simple and considerate in her behaviour as if she were some poor little struggling school teacher. She is the one for me, Jimmy. There is no doubt about it, and I'll tell you a secret."
Jimmy looked at him blankly.
"I am going to propose to her this very night."
"Good Lord!" groaned Jimmy, as if his friend had been suddenly struck down in the flower of his youth.
"That's why you simply must come with me to the hop," continued Alfred. "I want you to take care of her friend Aggie, and leave me alone with Zoie as much as possible."
"Zoie!" sniffed Jimmy. The name to him was as flippant as its owner.
"True, strong name," commented Alfred. "So simple, so direct, so like her. I'll have to leave you now," he said, rising. "I must send her some flowers for the dance." He turned at the door. Suppose I add a few from you for Aggie."
"What!" exploded Jimmy.
"Just by way of introduction," called Alfred gaily. "It's a good idea."
Before Jimmy could protest further, he found himself alone for the second time that day. He ate his roast in gloomy silence. It seemed dry and tasteless. Even his favourite desert of plum pudding failed to rouse him from his dark meditations, and he rose from the table dejected and forlorn.
A few hours later, when Alfred led Jimmy into the ballroom, the latter was depressed, not only by his friend's impending danger, but he felt an uneasy foreboding as to his own future. With his college course practically finished and Alfred attaching himself to unforeseen entities, Jimmy had come to the ball with a curious feeling of having been left suspended in mid-air.
Before he could voice his misgivings to Alfred, the young men were surrounded by a circle of chattering females. And then it was that Jimmy found himself looking into a pair of level brown eyes, and felt himself growing hot and cold by turns. When the little knot of youths and maidens disentangled itself into pairs of dancers, it became clear to Jimmy that he had been introduced to Aggie, and that he was expected to dance with her.
As a matter of fact, Jimmy had danced with many girls; true, it was usually when there was no other man left to "do duty"; but still he had done it. Why then should he feel such distressing hesitation about placing his arm around the waist of this brown-eyed Diana? Try as he would he could not find words to break the silence that had fallen between them. She was so imposing; so self-controlled. It really seemed to Jimmy that she should be the one to ask him to dance. As a matter of fact, that was just what happened; and after the dance she suggested that they sit in the garden; and in the garden, with the moonlight barely peeping through the friendly overhanging boughs of the trees, Jimmy found Aggie capable of a courage that filled him with amazement; and later that night, when he and Alfred exchanged confidences, it became apparent to the latter that Aggie had volunteered to undertake the responsibility of outlining Jimmy's entire future.
He was to follow his father's wishes and take up a business career in Chicago at once; and as soon as all the relatives concerned on both sides had been duly consulted, he and Aggie were to embark upon matrimony.
"Good!" cried Alfred, when Jimmy had managed to stammer his shame-faced confession. "We'll make it a double wedding. I can be ready to-morrow, so far as I'm concerned." And then followed another rhapsody upon the fitness of Zoie as the keeper of his future home and hearth, and the mother of his future sons and daughters. In fact, it was far into the night when the two friends separated—separated in more than one sense, as they afterward learned.
While Alfred and Jimmy were saying "good-night" to each other, Zoie and Aggie in one of the pretty chintz bedrooms of Professor Peck's modest home, were still exchanging mutual confidences.
"The thing I like about Alfred," said Zoie, as she gazed at the tip of her dainty satin slipper, and turned her head meditatively to one side, "is his positive nature. I've never before met any one like him. Do you know," she added with a sly twinkle in her eye, "it was all I could do to keep from laughing at him. He's so awfully serious." She giggled to herself at the recollection of him; then she leaned forward to Aggie, her small hands clasped across her knees and her face dimpling with mischief. "He hasn't the remotest idea what I'm like."
Aggie studied her young friend with unmistakable reproach. "I MADE Jimmy know what I'M like," she said. "I told him ALL my ideas about everything."
"Good Heavens!" exclaimed Zoie in shocked surprise.
"He's sure to find out sooner or later," said Aggie sagely. "I think that's the only sensible way to begin."
"If I'd told Alfred all MY ideas about things," smiled Zoie, "there'd have BEEN no beginning."
"What do you mean?" asked Aggie, with a troubled look.
"Well, take our meeting," explained Zoie. "Just as we were introduced, that horrid little Willie Peck caught his heel in a flounce of my skirt. I turned round to slap him, but I saw Alfred looking, so I patted his ugly little red curls instead. And what do you think? Alfred told me to-night that it was my devotion to Willie that first made him adore me."
"And you didn't explain to him?" asked Aggie in amazement.
"And lose him before I'd got him!" exclaimed Zoie.
"It might be better than losing him AFTER you've got him," concluded the elder girl.
"Oh, Aggie," pouted Zoie, "I think you are horrid. You're just trying to spoil all the fun of my engagement."
"I am not," cried Aggie, and the next moment she was sitting on the arm of Zoie's chair.
"Goose!" she said, "how dare you be cross with me?"
"I am NOT cross," declared Zoie, and after the customary apologies from Aggie, confidence was fully restored on both sides and Zoie continued gaily: "Don't you worry about Alfred and me," she said as she kicked off her tiny slippers and hopped into bed. "Just you wait until I get him. I'll manage him all right."
"I dare say," answered Aggie; not without misgivings, as she turned off the light.
The double wedding of four of Chicago's "Younger Set" had been adequately noticed in the papers, the conventional "honeymoon" journey had been made, and Alfred Hardy and Jimmy Jinks had now settled down to the routine of their respective business interests.
Having plunged into his office work with the same vigour with which he had attacked higher mathematics, Alfred had quickly gained the confidence of the elders of his firm, and they had already begun to give way to him in many important decisions. In fact, he was now practically at the head of his particular department with one office doing well in Chicago and a second office promising well in Detroit.
As for Jimmy, he had naturally started his business career with fewer pyrotechnics; but he was none the less contented. He seldom saw his old friend Alfred now, but Aggie kept more or less in touch with Zoie; and over the luncheon table the affairs of the two husbands were often discussed by their wives. It was after one of these luncheons that Aggie upset Jimmy's evening repose by the fireside by telling him that she was a wee bit worried about Zoie and Alfred.
"Alfred is so unreasonable," said Aggie, "so peevish."
"Nonsense!" exclaimed Jimmy shortly. "If he's peevish he has some good reason. You can be sure of that."
"You needn't get cross with me, Jimmy," said Aggie in a hurt voice.
"Why should I be cross with you?" snapped Jimmy. "It isn't YOUR fault if Alfred's made a fool of himself by marrying the last person on earth whom he should have married."
"I think he was very lucky to get her," argued Aggie in defence of her friend.
"Oh, you do, do you?" answered Jimmy in a very aggrieved tone.
"She is one of the prettiest girls in Chicago," said Aggie.
"You're pretty too," answered Jimmy, "but it doesn't make an idiot of you."
"It's TIME you said something nice to me," purred Aggie; and her arm stole fondly around Jimmy's large neck.
"I don't know why it is," said Jimmy, shaking his head dejectedly, "but every time Zoie Hardy's name is mentioned in this house it seems to stir up some sort of a row between you and me."
"That's because you're so prejudiced," answered Aggie with a touch of irritation.
"There you go again," said Jimmy.
"I didn't mean it!" interposed Aggie contritely. "Oh, come now, Jimmy," she pleaded, "let's trundle off to bed and forget all about it." And they did.
But the next day, as Jimmy was heading for the La Salle restaurant to get his luncheon, who should call to him airily from a passing taxi but Zoie. It was apparent that she wished him to wait until she could alight; and in spite of his disinclination to do so, he not only waited but followed the taxi to its stopping place and helped the young woman to the pavement.
"Oh, you darling!" exclaimed Zoie, all of a flutter, and looking exactly like an animated doll. "You've just saved my life." She called to the taxi driver to "wait."
"Are you in trouble?" asked the guileless Jimmy.
"Yes, dreadful," answered Zoie, and she thrust a half-dozen small parcels into Jimmy's arms. "I have to be at my dressmaker's in half an hour; and I haven't had a bite of lunch. I'm miles and miles from home; and I can't go into a restaurant and eat just by myself without being stared at. Wasn't it lucky that I saw you when I did?"
There was really very little left for Jimmy to say, so he said it; and a few minutes later they were seated tete-a-tete in one of Chicago's most fashionable restaurants, and Zoie the unconscious flirt was looking up at Jimmy with apparently adoring eyes, and suggesting all the eatables which he particularly abominated.
No sooner had the unfortunate man acquiesced in one thing and communicated Zoie's wish to the waiter, than the flighty young person found something else on the menu that she considered more tempting to her palate. Time and again the waiter had to be recalled and the order had to be given over until Jimmy felt himself laying up a store of nervous indigestion that would doubtless last him for days.
When the coveted food at last arrived, Zoie had become completely engrossed in the headgear of one of her neighbours, and it was only after Jimmy had been induced to make himself ridiculous by craning his neck to see things of no possible interest to him that Zoie at last gave her attention to her plate.
In obeyance of Jimmy's order the waiter managed to rush the lunch through within three-quarters of an hour; but when Jimmy and Zoie at length rose to go he was so insanely irritated, that he declared they had been in the place for hours; demanded that the waiter hurry his bill; and then finally departed in high dudgeon without leaving the customary "tip" behind him.
But all this was without its effect upon Zoie, who, a few moments later rode away in her taxi, waving gaily to Jimmy who was now late for business and thoroughly at odds with himself and the world.
As a result of the time lost at luncheon Jimmy missed an appointment that had to wait over until after office hours, and as a result of this postponement, he missed Aggie, who went to a friend's house for dinner, leaving word for him to follow. For the first time in his life, Jimmy disobeyed Aggie's orders, and, later on, when he "trundled off to bed" alone, he again recalled that it was Zoie Hardy who was always causing hard feeling between him and his spouse.
Some hours later, when Aggie reached home with misgivings because Jimmy had not joined her, she was surprised to find him sleeping as peacefully as a cherub. "Poor dear," she murmured, "I hope he wasn't lonesome." And she stole away to her room.
The next morning when Aggie did not appear at the breakfast table, Jimmy rushed to her room in genuine alarm. It was now Aggie's turn to sleep peacefully; and he stole dejectedly back to the dining-room and for the first time since their marriage, he munched his cold toast and sipped his coffee alone.
So thoroughly was his life now disorganised, and so low were his spirits that he determined to walk to his office, relying upon the crisp morning air to brace him for the day's encounters. By degrees, he regained his good cheer and as usual when in rising spirits, his mind turned toward Aggie. The second anniversary of their wedding was fast approaching—he began to take notice of various window displays. By the time he had reached his office, the weightiest decision on his mind lay in choosing between a pearl pendant and a diamond bracelet for his now adorable spouse.
But a more difficult problem awaited him. Before he was fairly in his chair, the telephone bell rang violently. Never guessing who was at the other end of the wire, he picked up his receiver and answered.
"What?" he exclaimed in surprise. "Mrs. Hardy?" Several times he opened his lips to ask a question, but it was apparent that the person at the other end of the line had a great deal to say and very little time to say it, and it was only after repeated attempts that he managed to get in a word or so edgewise.
"What's happened?" he asked.
"Say nothing to anybody," was Zoie's noncommittal answer, "not even to Aggie. Jump in a taxi and come as quickly as you can."
"But what IS it?" persisted Jimmy. The dull sound of the wire told him that the person at the other end had "hung up."
Jimmy gazed about the room in perplexity. What was he to do? Why on earth should he leave his letters unanswered and his mail topsy turvy to rush forth in the shank of the morning at the bidding of a young woman whom he abhorred. Ridiculous! He would do no such thing. He lit a cigar and began to open a few letters marked "private." For the life of him he could not understand one word that he read. A worried look crossed his face.
"Suppose Zoie were really in need of help, Aggie would certainly never forgive him if he failed her." He rose and walked up and down.
"Why was he not to tell Aggie?"
"Where was Alfred?" He stopped abruptly. His over excited imagination had suggested a horrible but no doubt accurate answer. "Wedded to an abomination like Zoie, Alfred had sought the only escape possible to a man of his honourable ideals—he had committed suicide."
Seizing his coat and hat Jimmy dashed through the outer office without instructing his astonished staff as to when he might possibly return.
"Family troubles," said the secretary to himself as he appropriated one of Jimmy's best cigars.
LESS than half an hour later, Jimmy's taxi stopped in front of the fashionable Sherwood Apartments where Zoie had elected to live. Ascending toward the fifth floor he scanned the face of the elevator boy expecting to find it particularly solemn because of the tragedy that had doubtless taken place upstairs. He was on the point of sending out a "feeler" about the matter, when he remembered Zoie's solemn injunction to "say nothing to anybody." Perhaps it was even worse than suicide. He dared let his imagination go no further. By the time he had put out his hand to touch the electric button at Zoie's front door, his finger was trembling so that he wondered whether he could hit the mark. The result was a very faint note from the bell, but not so faint that it escaped the ear of the anxious young wife, who had been pacing up and down the floor of her charming living room for what seemed to her ages.
"Hurry, hurry, hurry!" Zoie cried through her tears to her neat little maid servant, then reaching for her chatelaine, she daubed her small nose and flushed cheeks with powder, after which she nodded to Mary to open the door.
To Jimmy, the maid's pert "good-morning" seemed to be in very bad taste and to properly reprove her he assumed a grave, dignified air out of which he was promptly startled by Zoie's even more unseemly greeting.
"Hello, Jimmy!" she snapped. Her tone was certainly not that of a heart-broken widow. "It's TIME you got here," she added with an injured air.
Jimmy gazed at Zoie in astonishment. She was never what he would have called a sympathetic woman, but really——!
"I came the moment you 'phoned me," he stammered; "what is it? What's the matter?"
"It's awful," sniffled Zoie. And she tore up and down the room regardless of the fact that Jimmy was still unseated.
"Awful what?" questioned Jimmy.
"Worst I've ever had," sobbed Zoie.
"Is anything wrong with Alfred?" ventured Jimmy. And he braced himself for her answer.
"He's gone," sobbed Zoie.
"Gone!" echoed Jimmy, feeling sure that his worst fears were about to be realised. "Gone where?"
"I don't know," sniffled Zoie, "I just 'phoned his office. He isn't there."
"Oh, is that all?" answered Jimmy, with a sigh of relief. "Just another little family tiff," he was unable to conceal a feeling of thankfulness. "What's up?"
Zoie measured Jimmy with a dangerous gleam in her eyes. She resented the patronising tone that he was adopting. How dare he be cheerful when she was so unhappy—and because of him, too? She determined that his self-complacency should be short-lived.
"Alfred has found out that I lied about the luncheon," she said, weighing her words and their effect upon Jimmy.
"What luncheon?" stuttered Jimmy, feeling sure that Zoie had suddenly marked him for her victim, but puzzled as to what form her persecution was about to take.
"What luncheon?" repeated Zoie, trying apparently to conceal her disgust at his dulness. "OUR luncheon yesterday."
"Why did you LIE," asked Jimmy, his eyes growing rounder and rounder with wonder.
"I didn't know he KNEW," answered Zoie innocently.
"Knew what?" questioned Jimmy, more and more befogged.
"That I'd eaten with a man," concluded Zoie impatiently. Then she turned her back upon Jimmy and again dashed up and down the room occupied with her own thoughts.
It was certainly difficult to get much understanding out of Zoie's disjointed observations, but Jimmy was doing his best. He followed her restless movements about the room with his eyes, and then ventured a timid comment.
"He couldn't object to your eating with me."
"Oh, couldn't he?" cried Zoie, and she turned upon him with a look of contempt. "If there's anything that he DOESN'T object to," she continued, "I haven't found it out yet." And with that she threw herself in a large arm chair near the table, and left Jimmy to draw his own conclusions.
Jimmy looked about the room as though expecting aid from some unseen source; then his eyes sought the floor. Eventually they crept to the tip of Zoie's tiny slipper as it beat a nervous tattoo on the rug. To save his immortal soul, Jimmy could never help being hypnotised by Zoie's small feet. He wondered now if they had been the reason of Alfred's first downfall. He recalled with a sigh of relief that Aggie's feet were large and reassuring. He also recalled an appropriate quotation: "The path of virtue is not for women with small feet," it ran. "Yes, Aggie's feet are undoubtedly large," he concluded. But all this was not solving Zoie's immediate problem; and an impatient cough from her made him realise that something was expected of him.
"Why did you lunch with me," he asked, with a touch of irritation, "if you thought he wouldn't like it?"
"I was hungry," snapped Zoie.
"Oh," grunted Jimmy, and in spite of his dislike of the small creature his vanity resented the bald assertion that she had not lunched with him for his company's sake.
"I wouldn't have made an engagement with you of course," she continued, with a frankness that vanquished any remaining conceit that Jimmy might have brought with him. "I explained to you how it was at the time. It was merely a case of convenience. You know that."
Jimmy was beginning to see it more and more in the light of an inconvenience.
"If you hadn't been in front of that horrid old restaurant just when I was passing," she continued, "all this would never have happened. But you were there, and you asked me to come in and have a bite with you; and I did, and there you are."
"Yes, there I am," assented Jimmy dismally. There was no doubt about where he was now, but where was he going to end? That was the question. "See here," he exclaimed with fast growing uneasiness, "I don't like being mixed up in this sort of thing."
"Of course you'd think of yourself first," sneered Zoie. "That's just like a man."
"Well, I don't want to get your husband down on me," argued Jimmy evasively.
"Oh, I didn't give YOU away," sneered Zoie. "YOU needn't worry," and she fixed her eyes upon him with a scornful expression that left no doubt as to her opinion that he was a craven coward.
"But you said he'd 'found out,'" stammered Jimmy.
"He's found out that I ate with a MAN," answered Zoie, more and more aggrieved at having to employ so much detail in the midst of her distress. "He doesn't know it was you."
"But Zoie——" protested Jimmy.
She lifted a small hand, begging him to spare her further questions. It was apparent that she must explain each aspect of their present difficulty, with as much patience as though Jimmy were in reality only a child. She sank into her chair and then proceeded, with a martyred air.
"You see it was like this," she said. "Alfred came into the restaurant just after we had gone out and Henri, the waiter who has taken care of him for years, told him that I had just been in to luncheon with a gentleman."
Jimmy shifted about on the edge of his chair, ill at ease.
"Now if Alfred had only told me that in the first place," she continued, "I'd have known what to say, but he didn't. Oh no, he was as sweet as could be all through breakfast and last night too, and then just as he was leaving this morning, I said something about luncheon and he said, quite casually, 'Where did you have luncheon YESTERDAY, my dear?' So I answered quite carelessly, 'I had none, my love.' Well, I wish you could have seen him. He called me dreadful things. He says I'm the one thing he can't endure."
"What's that?" questioned Jimmy, wondering how Alfred could confine himself to any "ONE thing."
"He says I'm a liar!" shrieked Zoie tearfully.
"Well, aren't you?" asked Jimmy.
"Of course I am," declared Zoie; "but why shouldn't I be?" She looked at Jimmy with such an air of self-approval that for the life of him he could find no reason to offer. "You know how jealous Alfred is," she continued. "He makes such a fuss about the slightest thing that I've got out of the habit of EVER telling the TRUTH." She walked away from Jimmy as though dismissing the entire matter; he shifted his position uneasily; she turned to him again with mock sweetness. "I suppose YOU told AGGIE all about it?" she said.
Jimmy's round eyes opened wide and his jaw dropped lower. "I—I—don't believe I did," he stammered weakly. "I didn't think of it again."
"Thank heaven for that!" concluded Zoie with tightly pressed lips. Then she knotted her small white brow in deep thought.
Jimmy regarded her with growing uneasiness. "What are you up to now?" he asked.
"I don't know yet," mused Zoie, "BUT YOU'RE NOT GOING TO TELL AGGIE—that's ONE SURE thing." And she pinned him down with her eyes.
"I certainly will tell her," asserted Jimmy, with a wag of his very round head. "Aggie is just the one to get you out of this."
"She's just the one to make things worse," said Zoie decidedly. Then seeing Jimmy's hurt look, she continued apologetically: "Aggie MEANS all right, but she has an absolute mania for mixing up in other people's troubles. And you know how THAT always ends."
"I never deceived my wife in all my life," declared Jimmy, with an air of self approval that he was far from feeling.
"Now, Jimmy," protested Zoie impatiently, "you aren't going to have moral hydrophobia just when I need your help!"
"I'm not going to lie to Aggie, if that's what you mean," said Jimmy, endeavouring not to wriggle under Zoie's disapproving gaze.
"Then don't," answered Zoie sweetly.
Jimmy never feared Zoie more than when she APPEARED to agree with him. He looked at her now with uneasy distrust.
"Tell her the truth," urged Zoie.
"I will," declared Jimmy with an emphatic nod.
"And I'LL DENY IT," concluded Zoie with an impudent toss of her head.
"What!" exclaimed Jimmy, and he felt himself getting onto his feet.
"I've already denied it to Alfred," continued Zoie. "I told him I'd never been in that restaurant without him in all my life, that the waiter had mistaken someone else for me." And again she turned her back upon Jimmy.
"But don't you see," protested Jimmy, "this would all be so very much simpler if you'd just own up to the truth now, before it's too late?"
"It IS too late," declared Zoie. "Alfred wouldn't believe me now, whatever I told him. He says a woman who lies once lies all the time. He'd think I'd been carrying on with you ALL ALONG."
"Good Lord!" groaned Jimmy as the full realisation of his predicament thrust itself upon him.
"We don't DARE tell him now," continued Zoie, elated by the demoralised state to which she was fast reducing him. "For Heaven's sake, don't make it any worse," she concluded; "it's bad enough as it is."
"It certainly is," agreed Jimmy, and he sank dejectedly into his chair.
"If you DO tell him," threatened Zoie from the opposite side of the table, "I'll say you ENTICED me into the place."
"What!" shrieked Jimmy and again he found himself on his feet.
"I will," insisted Zoie, "I give you fair warning."
He stared at her in absolute horror. "I don't believe you've any conscience at all," he said.
"I haven't," she sniffled. "I'm too miserable." And throwing herself into the nearest armchair she wept copiously at the thought of her many injuries.
Uncertain whether to fly or to remain, Jimmy gazed at her gloomily. "Well, I'M not laughing myself to death," he said.
For answer Zoie turned upon him vehemently. "I just wish I'd never laid eyes on you, Jimmy," she cried.
Jimmy was wishing the very same thing.
"If I cared about you," she sobbed, "it wouldn't be so bad; but to think of losing my Alfred for——" words failed her and she trailed off weakly,—"for nothing!"
"Thanks," grunted Jimmy curtly. In spite of himself he was always miffed by the uncomplimentary way in which she disposed of him.
His sarcasm was lost upon Zoie. Having finished all she had to say to him, she was now apparently bent upon indulging herself in a first class fit of hysterics.
There are critical moments in all of our lives when our future happiness or woe hangs upon our own decision. Jimmy felt intuitively that he was face to face with such a moment, but which way to turn? that was the question. Being Jimmy, and soft-hearted in spite of his efforts to conceal it, he naturally turned the wrong way, in other words, towards Zoie.
"Oh, come now," he said awkwardly, as he crossed to the arm of her chair. "This will soon blow over."
Zoie only sobbed the louder.
"This isn't the first time you and Alfred have called it all off," he reminded her.
Again she sobbed.
Jimmy could never remember quite how it happened. But apparently he must have patted Zoie on the shoulder. At any rate, something or other loosened the flood-gates of her emotion, and before Jimmy could possibly escape from her vicinity she had wheeled round in her chair, thrown her arms about him, and buried her tear-stained face against his waist-coat.
"Good Lord!" exclaimed Jimmy, for the third time that morning, as he glanced nervously toward the door; but Zoie was exclaiming in her own way and sobbing louder and louder; furthermore she was compelling Jimmy to listen to an exaggerated account of her many disappointments in her unreasonable husband. Seeing no possibility of escape, without resorting to physical violence, Jimmy stood his ground, wondering what to expect next. He did not have long to wonder.
WITHIN an hour from the time Alfred had entered his office that morning he was leaving it, in a taxi, with his faithful secretary at his side, and his important papers in a bag at his feet. "Take me to the Sherwood," he commanded the driver, "and be quick."
As they neared Alfred's house, Johnson could feel waves of increasing anger circling around his perturbed young employer and later when they alighted from the taxi it was with the greatest difficulty that he could keep pace with him.
Unfortunately for Jimmy, the outer door of the Hardy apartment had been left ajar, and thus it was that he was suddenly startled from Zoie's unwelcome embraces by a sharp exclamation.
"So!" cried Alfred, and he brought his fist down with emphasis on the centre table at Jimmy's back.
Wheeling about, Jimmy beheld his friend face to face with him. Alfred's lips were pressed tightly together, his eyes flashing fire. It was apparent that he desired an immediate explanation. Jimmy turned to the place where Zoie had been, to ask for help; like the traitress that she was, he now saw her flying through her bedroom door. Again he glanced at Alfred, who was standing like a sentry, waiting for the pass-word that should restore his confidence in his friend.
"I'm afraid I've disturbed you," sneered Alfred.
"Oh, no, not at all," answered Jimmy, affecting a careless indifference that he did not feel and unconsciously shaking hands with the waiting secretary.
Reminded of the secretary's presence in such a distinctly family scene, Alfred turned to him with annoyance.
"Go into my study," he said. "I'll be with you presently. Here's your list," he added and he thrust a long memorandum into the secretary's hand. Johnson retired as unobtrusively as possible and the two old friends were left alone. There was another embarrassed silence which Jimmy, at least, seemed powerless to break.
"Well?" questioned Alfred in a threatening tone.
"Tolerably well," answered Jimmy in his most pleasant but slightly nervous manner. Then followed another pause in which Alfred continued to eye his old friend with grave suspicion.
"The fact is," stammered Jimmy, "I just came over to bring Aggie——" he corrected himself—"that is, to bring Zoie a little message from Aggie."
"It seemed to be a SAD one," answered Alfred, with a sarcastic smile, as he recalled the picture of Zoie weeping upon his friend's sleeve.
"Oh no—no!" answered Jimmy, with an elaborate attempt at carelessness.
"Do you generally play the messenger during business hours?" thundered Alfred, becoming more and more enraged at Jimmy's petty evasions.
"Just SOMETIMES," answered Jimmy, persisting in his amiable manner.
"Jimmy," said Alfred, and there was a solemn warning in his voice, "don't YOU lie to me!"
Jimmy started as though shot. The consciousness of his guilt was strong upon him. "I beg your pardon," he gasped, for the want of anything more intelligent to say.
"You don't do it well," continued Alfred, "and you and I are old friends."
Jimmy's round eyes fixed themselves on the carpet.
"My wife has been telling you her troubles," surmised Alfred.
Jimmy tried to protest, but the lie would not come.
"Very well," continued Alfred, "I'll tell you something too. I've done with her." He thrust his hands in his pockets and began to walk up and down.
"What a turbulent household," thought Jimmy and then he set out in pursuit of his friend. "I'm sorry you've had a misunderstanding," he began.
"Misunderstanding!" shouted Alfred, turning upon him so sharply that he nearly tripped him up, "we've never had anything else. There was never anything else for us TO have. She's lied up hill and down dale from the first time she clinched her baby fingers around my hand—" he imitated Zoie's dainty manner—"and said 'pleased to meet you!' But I've caught her with the goods this time," he shouted, "and I've just about got HIM."
"Him!" echoed Jimmy weakly.
"The wife-stealer," exclaimed Alfred, and he clinched his fists in anticipation of the justice he would one day mete out to the despicable creature.
Now Jimmy had been called many things in his time, he realised that he would doubtless be called many more things in the future, but never by the wildest stretch of imagination, had he ever conceived of himself in the role of "wife-stealer."
Mistaking Jimmy's look of amazement for one of incredulity, Alfred endeavoured to convince him.
"Oh, YOU'LL meet a wife-stealer sooner or later," he assured him. "You needn't look so horrified."
Jimmy only stared at him and he continued excitedly: "She's had the effrontery—the bad taste—the idiocy to lunch in a public restaurant with the blackguard."
The mere sound of the word made Jimmy shudder, but engrossed in his own troubles Alfred continued without heeding him.
"Henri, the head-waiter, told me," explained Alfred, and Jimmy remembered guiltily that he had been very bumptious with the fellow. "You know the place," continued Alfred, "the LaSalle—a restaurant where I am known—where she is known—where my best friends dine—where Henri has looked after me for years. That shows how desperate she is. She must be mad about the fool. She's lost all sense of decency." And again Alfred paced the floor.
"Oh, I wouldn't go as far as that," stammered Jimmy.
"Oh, wouldn't you?" cried Alfred, again turning so abruptly that Jimmy caught his breath. Each word of Jimmy's was apparently goading him on to greater anger.
"Now don't get hasty," Jimmy almost pleaded. "The whole thing is no doubt perfectly innocent. Talk to her gently. Win her confidence. Get her to tell you the truth."
"The truth!" shouted Alfred in derision. "Zoie! The truth!"
Jimmy feared that his young friend might actually become violent. Alfred bore down upon him like a maniac.
"The truth!" he repeated wildly. "She wouldn't know the truth if she saw it under a microscope. She's the most unconscionable little liar that ever lured a man to the altar."
Jimmy rolled his round eyes with feigned incredulity.
"I found it out before we'd been married a month," continued Alfred. "She used to sit evenings facing the clock. I sat with my back to it. I used to ask her the time. Invariably she would lie half an hour, backward or forward, just for practice. THAT was the BEGINNING. Here, listen to some of these," he added, as he drew half a dozen telegrams from his inner pocket, and motioned Jimmy to sit at the opposite side of the table.
Jimmy would have preferred to stand, but it was not a propitious time to consult his own preferences. He allowed himself to be bullied into the chair that Alfred suggested.
Throwing himself into the opposite chair, Alfred selected various exhibits from his collection of messages. "I just brought these up from the office," he said. "These are some of the telegrams that she sent me each day last week while I was away. This is Monday's." And he proceeded to read with a sneering imitation of Zoie's cloy sweetness.
"'Darling, so lonesome without you. Cried all day. When are you coming home to your wee sad wifie? Love and kisses. Zoie.'" Tearing the defenceless telegram into bits, Alfred threw it from him and waited for his friend's verdict.
"She sent that over the wire?" gasped Jimmy.
"Oh, that's nothing," answered Alfred. "That's a mild one." And he selected another from the same pocket. "Here, listen to this. This is what she REALLY did. This is from my secretary the same night."
"You spied upon her!" asked Jimmy, feeling more and more convinced that his own deceptions would certainly be run to earth.
"I HAVE to spy upon her," answered Alfred, "in self-defence. It's the only way I can keep her from making me utterly ridiculous." And he proceeded to read from the secretary's telegram. "'Shopped all morning. Lunched at Martingale's with man and woman unknown to me—Martingale's,'" he repeated with a sneer—"'Motored through Park with Mrs. Wilmer until five.' Mrs. Wilmer," he exclaimed, "there's a woman I've positively forbidden her to speak to."
Jimmy only shook his head and Alfred continued to read.
"'Had tea with Mr. and Mrs. Thompson and young Ardesley at the Park View.' Ardesley is a young cub," explained Alfred, "who spends his time running around with married women while their husbands are away trying to make a living for them."
"Shocking!" was the extent of Jimmy's comment, and Alfred resumed reading.
"'Dinner and theatre same party. Supper at Wellingford. Home two A. M.'" He looked at Jimmy, expecting to hear Zoie bitterly condemned. Jimmy only stared at him blankly. "That's pretty good," commented Alfred, "for the woman who 'CRIED' all day, isn't it?"
Still Jimmy made no answer, and Alfred brought his fist down upon the table impatiently. "Isn't it?" he repeated.
"She was a bit busy THAT day," admitted Jimmy uneasily.
"The truth!" cried Alfred again, as he rose and paced about excitedly. "Getting the truth out of Zoie is like going to a fire in the night. You think it's near, but you never get there. And when she begins by saying that she's going to tell you the 'REAL truth'"—he threw up his hands in despair—"well, then it's time to leave home."
There was another pause, then Alfred drew in his breath and bore down upon Jimmy with fresh vehemence. "The only time I get even a semblance of truth out of Zoie," he cried, "is when I catch her red-handed." Again he pounded the table and again Jimmy winced. "And even then," he continued, "she colours it so with her affected innocence and her plea about just wishing to be a 'good fellow,' that she almost makes me doubt my own eyes. She is an artist," he declared with a touch of enforced admiration. "There's no use talking; that woman is an artist."
"What are you going to do?" asked Jimmy, for the want of anything better to say.
"I am going to leave her," declared Alfred emphatically. "I am going away."
A faint hope lit Jimmy's round childlike face. With Alfred away there would be no further investigation of the luncheon incident.
"That might be a good idea," he said.
"It's THE idea," said Alfred; "most of my business is in Detroit anyhow. I'm going to make that my headquarters and stay there."
Jimmy was almost smiling.
"As for Zoie," continued Alfred, "she can stay right here and go as far as she likes."
"Not with me," thought Jimmy.
"But," shrieked Alfred, with renewed emphasis, "I'm going to find out who the FELLOW is. I'll have THAT satisfaction!"
Jimmy's spirits fell.
"Henri knows the head-waiter of every restaurant in this town," said Alfred, "that is, every one where she'd be likely to go; and he says he'd recognise the man she lunched with if he saw him again."
Jimmy's features became suddenly distorted.
"The minute she appears anywhere with anybody," explained Alfred, "Henri will be notified by 'phone. He'll identify the man and then he'll wire me."
"What good will that do?" asked Jimmy weakly.
"I'll take the first train home," declared Alfred.
"For what?" questioned Jimmy.
"To shoot him!" exclaimed Alfred.
"What!" gasped Jimmy, almost losing his footing.
Alfred mistook Jimmy's concern for anxiety on his behalf.
"Oh, I'll be acquitted," he declared. "Don't you worry. I'll get my tale of woe before the jury."
"But I say," protested Jimmy, too uneasy to longer conceal his real emotions, "why kill this one particular chap when there are so many others?"
"He's the only one she's ever lunched with, ALONE," said Alfred. "She's been giddy, but at least she's always been chaperoned, except with him. He's the one all right; there's no doubt about it. He's the beginning of the end."
"His own end, yes," assented Jimmy half to himself. "Now, see here, old man," he argued, "I'd give that poor devil a chance to explain."
"Explain!" shouted Alfred so sharply that Jimmy quickly retreated. "I wouldn't believe him now if he were one of the Twelve Apostles."
"That's tough," murmured Jimmy as he saw the last avenue of honourable escape closed to him.
"Tough!" roared Alfred, thinking of himself. "Hah."
"On the Apostles, I mean," explained Jimmy nervously.
Again Alfred paced up and down the room, and again Jimmy tried to think of some way to escape from his present difficulty. It was quite apparent that his only hope lay not in his own candor, but in Alfred's absence. "How long do you expect to be away?" he asked.
"Only until I hear from Henri," said Alfred.
"Henri?" repeated Jimmy and again a gleam of hope shone on his dull features. He had heard that waiters were often to be bribed. "Nice fellow, Henri," he ventured cautiously. "Gets a large salary, no doubt?"
"Does he!" exclaimed Alfred, with a certain pride of proprietorship. "No tips could touch Henri, no indeed. He's not that sort of a person."
Again the hope faded from Jimmy's round face.
"I look upon Henri as my friend," continued Alfred enthusiastically. "He speaks every language known to man. He's been in every country in the world. HENRI UNDERSTANDS LIFE."
"LOTS of people UNDERSTAND LIFE," commented Jimmy dismally, "but SOME people don't APPRECIATE it. They value it too lightly, to MY way of thinking."
"Ah, but you have something to live for," argued Alfred.
"I have indeed; a great deal," agreed Jimmy, more and more abused at the thought of what he was about to lose.
"Ah, that's different," exclaimed Alfred. "But what have I?"
Jimmy was in no frame of mind to consider his young friend's assets, he was thinking of his own difficulties.
"I'm a laughing stock," shouted Alfred. "I know it. A 'good thing' who gives his wife everything she asks for, while she is running around with—with my best friend, for all I know."
"Oh, no, no," protested Jimmy nervously. "I wouldn't say that."
"Even if she weren't running around," continued Alfred excitedly, without heeding his friend's interruption, "what have we to look forward to? What have we to look backward to?"
Again Jimmy's face was a blank.
Alfred answered his own question by lifting his arms tragically toward Heaven. "One eternal round of wrangles and rows! A childless home! Do you think she wants babies?" he cried, wheeling about on Jimmy, and daring him to answer in the affirmative. "Oh, no!" he sneered. "All she wants is a good time."
"Well," mumbled Jimmy, "I can't see much in babies myself, fat, little, red worms."
Alfred's breath went from him in astonishment
"Weren't YOU ever a fat, little, red worm?" he hissed. "Wasn't I ever a little, fat, red——" he paused in confusion, as his ear became puzzled by the proper sequence of his adjectives, "a fat, red, little worm," he stammered; "and see what we are now!" He thrust out his chest and strutted about in great pride.
"Big red worms," admitted Jimmy gloomily.
But Alfred did not hear him. "You and I ought to have SONS on the way to what we are," he declared, "and better."
"Oh yes, better," agreed Jimmy, thinking of his present plight. "Much better."
"But HAVE we?" demanded Alfred.
Jimmy glanced about the room, as though expecting an answering demonstration from the ceiling.
"Have YOU?" persisted Alfred.
Jimmy shook his head solemnly.
"Have I?" asked the irate husband.
Out of sheer absent mindedness Jimmy shrugged his shoulders.
As usual Alfred answered his own question. "Oh, no!" he raged. "YOU have a wife who spends her time and money gadding about with——"
Jimmy's face showed a new alarm.
"—my wife," concluded Alfred.
Jimmy breathed a sigh of relief.
"I have a wife," said Alfred, "who spends her time and my money gadding around with God knows whom. But I'll catch him!" he cried with new fury. "Here," he said, pulling a roll of bills from his pocket. "I'll bet you I'll catch him. How much do you want to bet?"
Undesirous of offering any added inducements toward his own capture, Jimmy backed away both literally and figuratively from Alfred's proposition.
"What's the use of getting so excited?" he asked.
Mistaking Jimmy's unwillingness to bet for a disinclination to take advantage of a friend's reckless mood, Alfred resented the implied insult to his astuteness.
"You think I can't catch him?" he exclaimed. "Let's see the colour of your money," he demanded.
But before Jimmy could comply, an unexpected voice broke into the argument and brought them both round with a start.
"Good Heavens," exclaimed Aggie, who had entered the room while Alfred was talking his loudest. "What a racket!"
Her eyes fell upon Jimmy who was teetering about uneasily just behind Alfred. She stared at him in amazement. Was it possible that Jimmy, the methodical, had left his office at this hour of the morning, and for what?
Avoiding the question in Aggie's eyes, Jimmy pretended to be searching for his pocket handkerchief—but always with the vision of Aggie in her new Fall gown and her large "picture" hat at his elbow. Never before had she appeared so beautiful to him, so desirable—suppose he should lose her? Life spread before him as a dreary waste. He tried to look up at her; he could not. He feared she would read his guilt in his eyes. "What guilt?" he asked himself. There was no longer any denying the fact—a secret had sprung up between them.
Annoyed at receiving no greeting, Aggie continued in a rather hurt voice:
"Aren't you two going to speak to me?"
Alfred swallowed hard in an effort to regain his composure.
"Good-morning," he said curtly.
Fully convinced of a disagreement between the two old friends, Aggie addressed herself in a reproachful tone to Jimmy.
"My dear," she said, "what are you doing here this time of day?"
Jimmy felt Alfred's steely eyes upon him. "Why!" he stammered. "Why, I just came over to—bring your message."
"My message?" repeated Aggie in perplexity. "What message?"
Alfred's eyebrows drew themselves sharply together.
Jimmy had told so many lies this morning that another more or less could not matter; moreover, this was not a time to hesitate.
"Why, the message you sent to Zoie," he answered boldly.
"But I sent no message to Zoie," said Aggie.
"What!" thundered Alfred, so loud that Aggie's fingers involuntarily went to her ears. She was more and more puzzled by the odd behaviour of the two.
"I mean yesterday's message," corrected Jimmy. And he assumed an aggrieved air toward Aggie.
"You villain," exclaimed Aggie. "I told you to 'phone her yesterday morning from the office."
"Yes, I know," agreed Jimmy placidly, "but I forgot it and I just came over to explain." Alfred's fixed stare was relaxing and at last Jimmy could breathe.
"Oh," murmured Aggie, with a wise little elevation of her eye-brows, "then that's why Zoie didn't keep her luncheon appointment with me yesterday."
Jimmy felt that if this were to go on much longer, he would utter one wild shriek and give himself up for lost; but at present he merely swallowed with an effort, and awaited developments.
It was now Alfred's turn to become excited.
"Oh, IS it!" he cried with hysterical laughter.
Aggie regarded him with astonishment. Was this her usually self-controlled friend?
"Oh, no!" sneered Alfred with unmistakable pity for her credulity. "That's not why my wife didn't eat luncheon with you. She may TELL you that's why. She undoubtedly will; but it's NOT why. Oh, no!" and running his hands through his hair, Alfred tore up and down the room.
"What do you mean by that?" Aggie asked in amazement.
"Your dear husband Jimmy will doubtless explain," answered Alfred with a slur on the "dear." Then he turned toward the door of his study. "Pray excuse me—I'M TOO BUSY," and with that he strode out of the room and banged the study door behind him.
"Goodness gracious!" gasped Aggie. She looked after Alfred, then at Jimmy. She was the picture of consternation. "What's the matter with him?" she asked.
"Just another little family tiff," answered Jimmy, trying to assume a nonchalant manner.
"Not about YOU!" gasped Aggie.
"Me!" cried Jimmy, his equilibrium again upset. "Certainly not!" he declared. "What an idea!"
"Yes, wasn't it?" answered Aggie. "That just shows how silly one can be. I almost thought Alfred was going to say that Zoie had lunched with you."
"Me?" again echoed Jimmy, and he wondered if everybody in the world had conspired to make him the target of their attention. He caught Aggie's eye and tried to laugh carelessly. "That would have been funny, wouldn't it?" he said.
"Yes, wouldn't it," repeated Aggie, and he thought he detected a slight uneasiness in her voice.
"Speaking of lunch," added Jimmy quickly, "I think, dearie, that I'll come home for lunch in the future."
"What?" exclaimed Aggie in great amazement.
"Those downtown places upset my digestion," explained Jimmy quickly.
"Isn't this very SUDDEN," she asked, and again Jimmy fancied that there was a shade of suspicion in her tone.
His face assumed a martyred expression. "Of course, dear," he said, "if you insist upon my eating downtown, I'll do it; but I thought you'd be glad to have me at home."
Aggie turned to him with real concern. "Why, Jimmy," she said, "what's the matter with you?" She took a step toward him and anxiously studied his face. "I never heard you talk like that before. I don't think you're well."
"That's just what I'm telling you," insisted Jimmy vehemently, excited beyond all reason by receiving even this small bit of sympathy. "I'm ill," he declared. No sooner had he made the declaration than he began to believe in it. His doleful countenance increased Aggie's alarm.
"My angel-face," she purred, and she took his chubby cheeks in her hands and looked down at him fondly. "You know I ALWAYS want you to come home." She stooped and kissed Jimmy's pouting lips. He held up his face for more. She smoothed the hair from his worried brow and endeavoured to cheer him. "I'll run right home now," she said, "and tell cook to get something nice and tempting for you! I can see Zoie later."
"It doesn't matter," murmured Jimmy, as he followed her toward the door with a doleful shake of his head. "I don't suppose I shall ever enjoy my luncheon again—as long as I live."
"Nonsense," cried Aggie, "come along."
WHEN Alfred returned to the living room he was followed by his secretary, who carried two well-filled satchels. His temper was not improved by the discovery that he had left certain important papers at his office. Dispatching his man to get them and to meet him at the station with them, he collected a few remaining letters from the drawer of the writing table, then uneasy at remaining longer under the same roof with Zoie, he picked up his hat, and started toward the hallway. For the first time his eye was attracted by a thick layer of dust and lint on his coat sleeve. Worse still, there was a smudge on his cuff. If there was one thing more than another that Alfred detested it was untidiness. Putting his hat down with a bang, he tried to flick the dust from his sleeve with his pocket handkerchief; finding this impossible, he removed his coat and began to shake it violently.
It was at this particular moment that Zoie's small face appeared cautiously from behind the frame of the bedroom door. She was quick to perceive Alfred's plight. Disappearing from view for an instant, she soon reappeared with Alfred's favourite clothes-brush. She tiptoed into the room.
Barely had Alfred drawn his coat on his shoulders, when he was startled by a quick little flutter of the brush on his sleeve. He turned in surprise and beheld Zoie, who looked up at him as penitent and irresistible as a newly-punished child.
"Oh," snarled Alfred, and he glared at her as though he would enjoy strangling her on the spot.
"Alfred," pouted Zoie, and he knew she was going to add her customary appeal of "Let's make up." But Alfred was in no mood for nonsense. He thrust his hands in his pockets and made straight for the outer doorway.
Smiling to herself as she saw him leaving without his hat, Zoie slipped it quickly beneath a flounce of her skirt. No sooner had Alfred reached the sill of the door than his hand went involuntarily to his head; he turned to the table where he had left his hat. His face wore a puzzled look. He glanced beneath the table, in the chair, behind the table, across the piano, and then he began circling the room with pent up rage. He dashed into his study and out again, he threw the chairs about with increasing irritation, then giving up the search, he started hatless toward the hallway. It was then that a soft babyish voice reached his ear.
"Have you lost something, dear?" cooed Zoie.
Alfred hesitated. It was difficult to lower his dignity by answering her, but he needed his headgear. "I want my hat," he admitted shortly.
"Your hat?" repeated Zoie innocently and she glanced around the room with mild interest. "Maybe Mary took it."
"Mary!" cried Alfred, and thinking the mystery solved, he dashed toward the inner hallway.
"Let ME get it, dear," pleaded Zoie, and she laid a small detaining hand upon his arm as he passed.
"Stop it!" commanded Alfred hotly, and he shook the small hand from his sleeve as though it had been something poisonous.
"But Allie," protested Zoie, pretending to be shocked and grieved.
"Don't you 'but Allie' me," cried Alfred, turning upon her sharply. "All I want is my hat," and again he started in search of Mary.
"But—but—but Allie," stammered Zoie, as she followed him.
"But—but—but," repeated Alfred, turning on her in a fury. "You've butted me out of everything that I wanted all my life, but you're not going to do it again."
"You see, you said it yourself," laughed Zoie.
"Said WHAT," roared Alfred.
"But," tittered Zoie.
The remnants of Alfred's self-control were forsaking him. He clinched his fists hard in a final effort toward restraint. "You'd just as well stop all these baby tricks," he threatened between his teeth, "they're not going to work. THIS time my mind is made up."
"Then why are you afraid to talk to me?" asked Zoie sweetly.
"Who said I was afraid?" demanded Alfred hotly.
"You ACT like it," declared Zoie, with some truth on her side. "You don't want——" she got no further.
"All I want," interrupted Alfred, "is to get out of this house once and for all and to stay out of it." And again he started in pursuit of his hat.
"Why, Allie," she gazed at him with deep reproach. "You liked this place so much when we first came here."
Again Alfred picked at the lint on his coat sleeve. Edging her way toward him cautiously she ventured to touch his sleeve with the brush.
"I'll attend to that myself," he said curtly, and he sank into the nearest chair to tie a refractory shoe lace.
"Let me brush you, dear," pleaded Zoie. "I don't wish you to start out in the world looking unbrushed," she pouted. Then with a sly emphasis she added teasingly, "The OTHER women might not admire you that way."
Alfred broke his shoe string then and there. While he stooped to tie a knot in it, Zoie managed to perch on the arm of his chair.
"You know, Allie," she continued coaxingly, "no one could ever love you as I do."
Again Alfred broke his shoe lace.
"Oh, Allie!" she exclaimed with a little ripple of childish laughter, "do you remember how absurdly poor we were when we were first married, and how you refused to take any help from your family? And do you remember that silly old pair of black trousers that used to get so thin on the knees and how I used to put shoe-blacking underneath so the white wouldn't show through?" By this time her arm managed to get around his neck.
"Stop it!" shrieked Alfred as though mortal man could endure no more. "You've used those trousers to settle every crisis in our lives."
Zoie gazed at him without daring to breathe; even she was aghast at his fury, but only temporarily. She recovered herself and continued sweetly:
"If everything is SETTLED," she argued, "where's the harm in talking?"
"We've DONE with talking," declared Alfred. "From this on, I act." And determined not to be cheated out of this final decision, he again started for the hall door.
"Oh, Allie!" cried Zoie in a tone of sharp alarm.
In spite of himself Alfred turned to learn the cause of her anxiety.
"You haven't got your overshoes on," she said.
Speechless with rage, Alfred continued on his way, but Zoie moved before him swiftly. "I'll get them for you, dear," she volunteered graciously.
"Stop!" thundered Alfred. They were now face to face.
"I wish you wouldn't roar like that," pouted Zoie, and the pink tips of her fingers were thrust tight against her ears.
Alfred drew in his breath and endeavoured for the last time to repress his indignation. "Either you can't, or you won't understand that it is extremely unpleasant for me to even talk to you—much less to receive your attentions."
"Very likely," answered Zoie, unperturbed. "But so long as I am your lawful wedded wife——" she emphasised the "lawful"—"I shan't let any harm come to you, if I can help it." She lifted her eyes to heaven bidding it to bear witness to her martyrdom and looking for all the world like a stained glass saint.
"Oh, no!" shouted Alfred, almost hysterical at his apparent failure to make himself understood. "You wouldn't let any harm come to me. Oh, no. You've only made me the greatest joke in Chicago," he shouted. "You've only made me such a laughing stock that I have to leave it. That's all—that's all!"
"Leave Chicago!" exclaimed Zoie incredulously. Then regaining her self-composure, she edged her way close to him and looked up into his eyes in baby-like wonderment. "Why, Allie, where are we going?" Her small arm crept up toward his shoulder. Alfred pushed it from him rudely.
"WE are not going," he asserted in a firm, measured voice. "I am going. Where's my hat?" And again he started in search of his absent headgear.
"Oh, Allie!" she exclaimed, and this time there was genuine alarm in her voice, "you wouldn't leave me?"
"Wouldn't I, though?" sneered Alfred. Before he knew it, Zoie's arms were about him—she was pleading desperately.
"Now see here, Allie, you may call me all the names you like," she cried with great self-abasement, "but you shan't—you SHAN'T go away from Chicago."
"Oh, indeed?" answered Alfred as he shook himself free of her. "I suppose you'd like me to go on with this cat and dog existence. You'd like me to stay right here and pay the bills and take care of you, while you flirt with every Tom, Dick and Harry in town."
"It's only your horrid disposition that makes you talk like that," whimpered Zoie. "You know very well that I never cared for anybody but you."
"Until you GOT me, yes," assented Alfred, "and NOW you care for everybody BUT me." She was about to object, but he continued quickly. "Where you MEET your gentlemen friends is beyond me. I don't introduce them to you."
"I should say not," agreed Zoie, and there was a touch of vindictiveness in her voice. "The only male creature that you ever introduced to me was the family dog."
"I introduce every man who's fit to meet you," declared Alfred with an air of great pride.
"That doesn't speak very well for your acquaintances," snipped Zoie. Even HER temper was beginning to assert itself.
"I won't bicker like this," declared Alfred.
"That's what you always say, when you can't think of an answer," retorted Zoie.
"You mean when I'm tired of answering your nonsense!" thundered Alfred.
Realising that she was rapidly losing ground by exercising her advantage over Alfred in the matter of quick retort, Zoie, with her customary cunning, veered round to a more conciliatory tone. "Well," she cooed, "suppose I DID eat lunch with a man?"
"Ah!" shrieked Alfred, as though he had at last run his victim to earth.
She retreated with her fingers crossed. "I only said suppose," she reminded him quickly. Then she continued in a tone meant to draw from him his heart's most secret confidence. "Didn't you ever eat lunch with any woman but me?"
"Never!" answered Alfred firmly.
There was an unmistakable expression of pleasure on Zoie's small face, but she forced back the smile that was trying to creep round her lips, and sidled toward Alfred, with eyes properly downcast. "Then I'm very sorry I did it," she said solemnly, "and I'll never do it again."
"So!" cried Alfred with renewed indignation. "You admit it?"
"Just to please you, dear," explained Zoie sweetly, as though she were doing him the greatest possible favour.
"To please me?" gasped Alfred. "Do you suppose it pleases me to know that you are carrying on the moment my back is turned, making a fool of me to my friends?"
"Your friends?" cried Zoie with a sneer. This time it was her turn to be angry. "So! It's your FRIENDS that are worrying you!" In her excitement she tossed Alfred's now damaged hat into the chair just behind her. He was far too overwrought to see it. "I haven't done you any harm," she continued wildly. "It's only what you think your friends think."
"You haven't done me any harm?" repeated Alfred, in her same tragic key, "Oh no! Oh no! You've only cheated me out of everything I expected to get out of life! That's all!"
Zoie came to a full stop and waited for him to enumerate the various treasures that he had lost by marrying her. He did so.
"Before we were married," he continued, "you pretended to adore children. You started your humbugging the first day I met you. I refer to little Willie Peck."
A hysterical giggle very nearly betrayed her. Alfred continued:
"I was fool enough to let you know that I admire women who like children. From that day until the hour that I led you to the altar, you'd fondle the ugliest little brats that we met in the street, but the moment you GOT me——"
"Alfred!" gasped Zoie. This was really going too far.
"Yes, I repeat it!" shouted Alfred, pounding the table with his fist for emphasis. "The moment you GOT me, you declared that all children were horrid little insects, and that someone ought to sprinkle bug-powder on them."
"Oh!" protested Zoie, shocked less by Alfred's interpretation of her sentiments, than by the vulgarity with which he expressed them.
"On another occasion," declared Alfred, now carried away by the recital of his long pent up wrongs, "you told me that all babies should be put in cages, shipped West, and kept in pens until they got to be of an interesting age. 'Interesting age!'" he repeated with a sneer, "meaning old enough to take YOU out to luncheon, I suppose."
"I never said any such thing," objected Zoie.
"Well, that was the idea," insisted Alfred. "I haven't your glib way of expressing myself."
"You manage to express yourself very well," retorted Zoie. "When you have anything DISAGREEABLE to say. As for babies," she continued tentatively, "I think they are all very well in their PLACE, but they were NEVER meant for an APARTMENT."
"I offered you a house in the country," shouted Alfred.
"The country!" echoed Zoie. "How could I live in the country, with people being murdered in their beds every night? Read the papers."
"Always an excuse," sighed Alfred resignedly. "There always HAS been and there always would be if I'd stay to listen. Well, for once," he declared, "I'm glad that we have no children. If we had, I might feel some obligation to keep up this farce of a marriage. As it is," he continued, "YOU are free and I am free." And with a courtly wave of his arm, he dismissed Zoie and the entire subject, and again he started in pursuit of Mary and his hat.
"If it's your freedom you wish," pouted Zoie with an abused air, "you might have said so in the first place."
Alfred stopped in sheer amazement at the cleverness with which the little minx turned his every statement against him.
"It's not very manly of you," she continued, "to abuse me just because you've found someone whom you like better."
"That's not true," protested Alfred hotly, "and you know it's not true." Little did he suspect the trap into which she was leading him.
"Then you DON'T love anybody more than you do me?" she cried eagerly, and she gazed up at him with adoring eyes.
"I didn't say any such thing," hedged Alfred.
"Then you DO," she accused him.
"I DON'T," he declared in self defence.
With a cry of joy, she sprang into his arms, clasped her fingers tightly behind his neck, and rained impulsive kisses upon his unsuspecting face.
For an instant, Alfred looked down at Zoie, undecided whether to strangle her or to return her embraces. As usual, his self-respect won the day for him and, with a determined effort, he lifted her high in the air, so that she lost her tenacious hold of him, and sat her down with a thud in the very same chair in which she had lately dropped his hat. Having acted with this admirable resolution, he strode majestically toward the inner hall, but before he could reach it, Zoie was again on her feet, in a last vain effort to conciliate him. Turning, Alfred caught sight of his poor battered hat. This was the final spur to action. Snatching it up with one hand, and throwing his latchkey on the table with the other, he made determinedly for the outer door.
Screaming hysterically, Zoie caught him just as he reached the threshold and threw the whole weight of her body upon him.
"Alfred," she pleaded, "if you REALLY love me, you CAN'T leave me like this!" Her emotion was now genuine. He looked down at her gravely—then into the future.
"There are other things more important than what YOU call 'love,'" he said, very solemnly.
"There is such a thing as a soul, if you only knew it. And you have hurt mine through and through."
"But how, Alfred, how?" asked the small person, and there was a frown of genuine perplexity on her tiny puckered brow. "What have I REALLY DONE," She stroked his hand fondly; her baby eyes searched his face.
"It isn't so much what people DO to us that counts," answered Alfred in a proud hurt voice. "It's how much they DISAPPOINT us in what they do. I expected better of YOU," he said sadly.
"I'll DO better," coaxed Zoie, "if you'll only give me a chance."
He was half inclined to believe her.
"Now, Allie," she pleaded, perceiving that his resentment was dying and resolved to, at last, adopt a straight course, "if you'll only listen, I'll tell you the REAL TRUTH."
Unprepared for the electrical effect of her remark, Zoie found herself staggering to keep her feet. She gazed at Alfred in amazement. His arms were lifted to Heaven, his breath was coming fast.
"'The REAL TRUTH!'" he gasped, then bringing his crushed hat down on his forehead with a resounding whack, he rushed from her sight.
The clang of the closing elevator door brought Zoie to a realisation of what had actually happened. Determined that Alfred should not escape her she rushed to the hall door and called to him wildly. There was no answer. Running back to the room, she threw open the window and threw herself half out of it. She was just in time to see Alfred climb into a passing taxi. "Alfred!" she cried. Then automatically she flew to the 'phone. "Give me 4302 Main," she called and she tried to force back her tears. "Is this Hardy & Company?" she asked.
"Well, this is Mrs. Hardy," she explained.
"I wish you'd ring me up the moment my husband comes in." There was a slight pause, then she clutched the receiver harder. "Not COMING back?" she gasped. "Gone!—to Detroit?" A short moan escaped her lips. She let the receiver fall back on the hook and her head went forward on her outstretched arms.
When Jimmy came home to luncheon that day, Aggie succeeded in getting a general idea of the state of affairs in the Hardy household. Of course Jimmy didn't tell the whole truth. Oh, no—far from it. In fact, he appeared to be aggravatingly ignorant as to the exact cause of the Hardy upheaval. Of ONE thing, however, he was certain. "Alfred was going to quit Chicago and leave Zoie to her own devices."
"Jimmy!" cried Aggie. "How awful!" and before Jimmy was fairly out of the front gate, she had seized her hat and gloves and rushed to the rescue of her friend.
Not surprised at finding Zoie in a state of collapse, Aggie opened her arms sympathetically to receive the weeping confidences that she was sure would soon come.
"Zoie dear," she said as the fragile mite rocked to and fro. "What is it?" She pressed the soft ringlets from the girl's throbbing forehead.
"It's Alfred," sobbed Zoie. "He's gone!"
"Yes, I know," answered Aggie tenderly. "Isn't it awful? Jimmy just told me."
"Jimmy told you WHAT?" questioned Zoie, and she lifted her head and regarded Aggie with sudden uneasiness. Her friend's answer raised Jimmy considerably in Zoie's esteem. Apparently he had not breathed a word about the luncheon.
"Why, Jimmy told me," continued Aggie, "that you and Alfred had had another tiff, and that Alfred had gone for good."
"For GOOD!" echoed Zoie and her eyes were wide with terror. "Did Alfred tell Jimmy that?"
"Then he MEANS it!" cried Zoie, at last fully convinced of the strength of Alfred's resolve. "But he shan't," she declared emphatically. "I won't let him. I'll go after him. He has no right——" By this time she was running aimlessly about the room.
"What did you do to him?" asked Aggie, feeling sure that Zoie was as usual at fault.
"Nothing," answered Zoie with wide innocent eyes.
"Nothing?" echoed Aggie, with little confidence in her friend's ability to judge impartially about so personal a matter.
"Absolutely nothing," affirmed Zoie. And there was no doubting that she at least believed it.
"What does he SAY," questioned Aggie diplomatically.
"He SAYS I 'hurt his soul.' Whatever THAT is," answered Zoie, and her face wore an injured expression. "Isn't that a nice excuse," she continued, "for leaving your lawful wedded wife?" It was apparent that she expected Aggie to rally strongly to her defence. But at present Aggie was bent upon getting facts.
"HOW did you hurt him?" she persisted.
"I ate lunch," said Zoie with the face of a cherub.
"With whom?" questioned Aggie slyly. She was beginning to scent the probable origin of the misunderstanding.
"It's of no consequence," answered Zoie carelessly; "I wouldn't have wiped my feet on the man." By this time she had entirely forgotten Aggie's proprietorship in the source of her trouble.
"But who WAS the man?" urged Aggie, and in her mind, she had already condemned him as a low, unprincipled creature.
"What does that matter?" asked Zoie impatiently. "It's ANY man with Alfred—you know that—ANY man!"
Aggie sank in a chair and looked at her friend in despair. "Why DO you do these things," she said wearily, "when you know how Alfred feels about them?"
"You talk as though I did nothing else," answered Zoie with an aggrieved tone. "It's the first time since I've been married that I've ever eaten lunch with any man but Alfred. I thought you'd have a little sympathy with me," she whimpered, "instead of putting me on the gridiron like everyone else does."
"Everyone else?" questioned Aggie, with recurring suspicion.
"I mean Alfred," explained Zoie. "HE'S 'everyone else' to me." And then with a sudden abandonment of grief, she threw herself prostrate at her friend's knees. "Oh, Aggie, what can I do?" she cried.
But Aggie was not satisfied with Zoie's fragmentary account of her latest escapade. "Is that the only thing that Alfred has against you?" she asked.
"That's the LATEST," sniffled Zoie, in a heap at Aggie's feet. And then she continued in a much aggrieved tone, "You know he's ALWAYS rowing because we haven't as many babies as the cook has cats."
"Well, why don't you get him a baby?" asked the practical, far-seeing Aggie.
"It's too late NOW," moaned Zoie.
"Not at all," reassured Aggie. "It's the very thing that would bring him back."
"How COULD I get one?" questioned Zoie, and she looked up at Aggie with round astonished eyes.
"Adopt it," answered Aggie decisively.
Zoie regarded her friend with mingled disgust and disappointment. "No," she said with a sigh and a shake of her head, "that wouldn't do any good. Alfred's so fussy. He always wants his OWN things around."
"He needn't know," declared Aggie boldly.
"What do you mean?" whispered Zoie.
Drawing herself up with an air of great importance, and regarding the wondering young person at her knee with smiling condescension, Aggie prepared to make a most interesting disclosure.
"There was a long article in the paper only this morning," she told Zoie, "saying that three thousand husbands in this VERY CITY are fondling babies not their own."
Zoie turned her small head to one side, the better to study Aggie's face. It was apparent to the latter that she must be much more explicit.
"Babies adopted in their absence," explained Aggie, "while they were on trips around the country."
A dangerous light began to glitter in Zoie's eyes.
"Aggie!" she cried, bringing her small hands together excitedly, "do you think I COULD?"
"Why not?" asked Aggie, with a very superior air. Zoie's enthusiasm was increasing her friend's admiration of her own scheme. "This same paper tells of a woman who adopted three sons while her husband was in Europe, and he thinks each one of them is his."
"Where can we get some?" cried Zoie, now thoroughly enamoured of the idea.
"You can always get TONS of them at the Children's Home," answered Aggie confidently.
"I can't endure babies," declared Zoie, "but I'd do ANYTHING to get Alfred back. Can we get one TO-DAY?" she asked.
Aggie looked at her small friend with positive pity. "You don't WANT one TO-DAY," she explained.
Zoie rolled her large eyes inquiringly.
"If you were to get one to-day," continued Aggie, "Alfred would know it wasn't yours, wouldn't he?"
A light of understanding began to show on Zoie's small features.
"There was none when he left this morning," added Aggie.