GARRISON'S FINISH, A ROMANCE OF THE RACE-COURSE
by W. B. M. Ferguson
A SHATTERED IDOL.
As he made his way out of the paddock Garrison carefully tilted his bag of Durham into the curved rice-paper held between nicotine-stained finger and thumb, then deftly rolled his "smoke" with the thumb and forefinger, while tying the bag with practised right hand and even white teeth. Once his reputation had been as spotless as those teeth.
He smiled cynically as he shouldered his way through the slowly moving crowd—that kaleidoscope of the humanities which congregate but do not blend; which coagulate wherever the trial of science, speed, and stamina serves as an excuse for putting fortune to the test.
It was a cynical crowd, a quiet crowd, a sullen crowd. Those who had won, through sheer luck, bottled their joy until they could give it vent in a safer atmosphere—one not so resentful. For it had been a hard day for the field. The favorite beaten in the stretch, choked off, outside the money——
Garrison gasped as the rushing simulacra of the Carter Handicap surged to his beating brain; that brain at bursting pressure. It had recorded so many things—recorded faithfully so many, many things he would give anything to forget.
He was choking, smothering—smothering with shame, hopelessness, despair. He must get away; get away to breathe, to think; get away out of it all; get away anywhere—oblivion.
To the jibes, the sneers flung at him, the innuendos, the open insults, and worst of all, the sad looks of those few friends who gave their friendship without conditions, he was not indifferent, though he seemed so. God knows how he felt it at all. And all the more so because he had once been so high. Now his fall was so low, so pitifully low; so contemptible, so complete.
He knew what the action of the Jockey Club would be. The stewards would do only one thing. His license would be revoked. To-day had seen his finish. This, the ten-thousand dollar Carter Handicap, had seen his final slump to the bottom of the scale. Worse. It had seen him a pauper, ostracized; an unclean thing in the mouth of friend and foe alike. The sporting world was through with him at last. And when the sporting world is through—
Again Garrison laughed harshly, puffing at his cigarette, dragging its fumes into his lungs in a fierce desire to finish his physical cataclysm with his moral. Yes, it had been his last chance. He, the popular idol, had been going lower and lower in the scale, but the sporting world had been loyal, as it always is to "class." He had been "class," and they had stuck to him.
Then when he began to go back—No; worse. Not that. They said he had gone crooked. That was it. Crooked as Doyers Street, they said; throwing every race; standing in with his owner to trim the bookies, and they couldn't stand for that. Sport was sport. But they had been loyal. They had warned, implored, begged. What was the use soaking a pile by dirty work? Why not ride straight—ride as he could, as he did, as it had been bred in him to? Any money, any honor was his. Instead—
Garrison, stung to madness by retrospect, humped his way through the crowd at the gates of the Aqueduct. There was not a friendly eye in that crowd. He stuffed his ears with indifference. He would not bear their remarks as they recognized him. He summoned all his nerve to look them in the face unflinchingly—that nerve that had been frayed to ribbons.
And then he heard quick footsteps behind him; a hand was laid heavily on his shoulder, and he was twisted about like a chip. It was his stable owner, his face flushed with passion and drink. Waterbury was stingy of cash, but not of words.
"I've looked for you," he whipped out venomously, his large hands ravenous for something to rend. "Now I've caught you. Who was in with you on that dirty deal? Answer, you cur! Spit it out before the crowd. Was it me? Was it me?" he reiterated in a frenzy, taking a step forward for each word, his bad grammar coming equally to the fore.
The crowd surged back. Owner and jockey were face to face. "When thieves fall out!" they thought; and they waited for the fun. Something was due them. It came in a flash. Waterbury shot out his big fist, and little Garrison thumped on the turf with a bang, a thin streamer of blood threading its way down his gray-white face.
"You miserable little whelp!" howled his owner. "You've dishonored me. You threw that race, damn you! That's what I get for giving you a chance when you couldn't get a mount anywhere." His long pent-up venom was unleashed. "You threw it. You've tried to make me party to your dirty work—me, me, me!"—he thumped his heaving chest. "But you can't heap your filth on me. I'm done with you. You're a thief, a cur—"
"Hold on," cut in Garrison. He had risen slowly, and was dabbing furtively at his nose with a silk red-and-blue handkerchief—the Waterbury colors.
"Just a minute," he added, striving to keep his voice from sliding the scale. He was horribly calm, but his gray eyes were quivering as was his lip. "I didn't throw it. I—I didn't throw it. I was sick. I—I've been sick. I—I——" Then, for he was only a boy with a man's burdens, his lip began to quiver pitifully; his voice shrilled out and his words came tumbling forth like lava; striving to make up by passion and reiteration what they lacked in logic and coherency. "I'm not a thief. I'm not. I'm honest. I don't know how it happened. Everything became a blur in the stretch. You—you've called me a liar, Mr. Waterbury. You've called me a thief. You struck me. I know you can lick me," he shrilled. "I'm dishonored—down and out. I know you can lick me, but, by the Lord, you'll do it here and now! You'll fight me. I don't like you. I never liked you. I don't like your face. I don't like your hat, and here's your damn colors in your face." He fiercely crumpled the silk handkerchief and pushed it swiftly into Waterbury's glowering eye.
Instantly there was a mix-up. The crowd was blood-hungry. They had paid for sport of some kind. There would be no crooked work in this deal. Lustfully they watched. Then the inequality of the boy and the man was at length borne in on them, and it roused their stagnant sense of fair play.
Garrison, a small hell let loose, had risen from the turf for the third time! His face was a smear of blood, venom, and all the bandit passions. Waterbury, the gentleman in him soaked by the taint of a foisted dishonor and his fighting blood roused, waited with clenched fists. As Garrison hopped in for the fourth time, the older man feinted quickly, and then swung right and left savagely.
The blows were caught on the thick arm of a tan box-coat. A big hand was placed over Waterbury's face and he was given a shove backward. He staggered for a ridiculously long time, and then, after an unnecessary waste of minutes, sat down. The tan overcoat stood over him. It was Jimmy Drake, and the chameleonlike crowd applauded.
Jimmy was a popular book-maker with educated fists. The crowd surged closer. It looked as if the fight might change from bantam-heavy to heavy-heavy. And the odds were on Drake.
"If yeh want to fight kids," said the book-maker, in his slow, drawling voice, "wait till they're grown up. Mebbe then yeh'll change your mind."
Waterbury was on his feet now. He let loose some vitriolic verbiage, using Drake as the objective-point. He told him to mind his own business, or that he would make it hot for him. He told him that Garrison was a thief and cur; and that he would have no book-maker and tout—
"Hold on," said Drake. "You're gettin' too flossy right there. When you call me a tout you're exceedin' the speed limit." He had an uncomfortable steady blue eye and a face like a snow-shovel. "I stepped in here not to argue morals, but to see fair play. If Billy Garrison's done dirt—and I admit it looks close like it—I'll bet that your stable, either trainer or owner, shared the mud-pie, all right—"
"I've stood enough of those slurs," cried Waterbury, in a frenzy. "You lie."
Instantly Drake's large face stiffened like cement, and his overcoat was on the ground.
"That's a fighting word where I come from," he said grimly.
But before Drake could square the insult a crowd of Waterbury's friends swirled up in an auto, and half a dozen peacemakers, mutual acquaintances, together with two somnambulistic policemen, managed to preserve the remains of the badly shattered peace. Drake sullenly resumed his coat, and Waterbury was driven off, leaving a back draft of impolite adjectives and vague threats against everybody. The crowd drifted away. It was a fitting finish for the scotched Carter Handicap.
Meanwhile, Garrison, taking advantage of the switching of the lime-light from himself to Drake, had dodged to oblivion in the crowd.
"I guess I don't forget Jimmy Drake," he mused grimly to himself. "He's straight cotton. The only one who didn't give me the double-cross out and out. Bud, Bud!" he declared to himself, "this is sure the wind-up. You've struck bed-rock and the tide's coming in—hard. You're all to the weeds. Buck up, buck up," he growled savagely, in fierce contempt. "What're you dripping about?" He had caught a tear burning its way to his eyes—eyes that had never blinked under Waterbury's savage blows. "What if you are ruled off! What if you are called a liar and crook; thrown the game to soak a pile? What if you couldn't get a clotheshorse to run in a potato-race? Buck up, buck up, and plug your cotton pipe. They say you're a crook. Well, be one. Show 'em you don't care a damn. You're down and out, anyway. What's honesty, anyway, but whether you got the goods or ain't? Shake the bunch. Get out before you're kicked out. Open a pool-room like all the has-beens and trim the suckers right, left, and down the middle. Money's the whole thing. Get it. Don't mind how you do, but just get it. You'll be honest enough for ten men then. Anyway, there's no one cares a curse how you pan out—"
He stopped, and his face slowly relaxed. The hard, vindictive look slowly faded from his narrowed eyes.
"Sis," he said softly. "Sis—I was going without saying good-by. Forgive me."
He swung on his heel, and with hunched shoulders made his way back to Aqueduct. Waterbury's training-quarters were adjacent, and, after lurking furtively about like some hunted animal, Garrison summoned all his nerve and walked boldly in.
The only stable-boy about was one with a twisted mouth and flaming red hair, which he was always curling; a remarkably thin youth he was, addicted to green sweaters and sentimental songs. He was singing one now in a key entirely original with himself. "Red's" characteristic was that when happy he wore a face like a tomb-stone. When sad, the sentimental songs were always in evidence.
"Hello, Red!" said Garrison gruffly. He had been Red's idol once. He was quite prepared now, however, to see the other side of the curtain. He was no longer an idol to any one.
"Hello!" returned Red non-committally.
"In there." Red nodded to the left where were situated the stalls. "Gettin' Sis ready for the Belmont opening."
"Riding for him now?"
"Yeh. Promised a mount in th' next run-off. 'Bout time, I guess."
There was silence. Garrison pictured to himself the time when he had won his first mount. How long ago that was! Time is reckoned by events, not years. How glorious the future had seemed! He slowly seated himself on a box by the side of Red and laid a hand on the other's thin leg.
"Kid," he said, and his voice quivered, "you know I wish you luck. It's a great game—the greatest game in the world, if you play it right." He blundered to silence as his own condition surged over him.
Red was knocking out his shabby heels against the box in an agony of confusion. Then he grew emboldened by the other's dejected mien. "No, I'd never throw no race," he said judicially. "It don't pay—"
"Red," broke in Garrison harshly, "you don't believe I threw that race? Honest, I'm square. Why, I was up on Sis—Sis whom I love, Red—honest, I was sure of the race. Dead sure. I hadn't much money, but I played every cent I had on her. I lost more than any one. I lost—everything. See," he ran on feverishly, glad of the opportunity to vindicate himself, if only to a stable-boy. "I guess the stewards will let the race stand, even if Waterbury does kick. Rogue won square enough."
"Yeh, because yeh choked Sis off in th' stretch. She could ha' slept home a winner, an' yeh know it, Billy," said Red, with sullen regret.
There was a time when he never would have dared to call Garrison by his Christian name. Disgrace is a great leveler. Red grew more conscious of his own rectitude.
"I ain't knockin' yeh, Billy," he continued, speaking slowly, to lengthen the pleasure of thus monopolizing the pulpit. "What have I to say? Yeh can ride rings round any jockey in the States—at least, yeh could." And then, like his kind, Red having nothing to say, proceeded to say it.
"But it weren't your first thrown race, Billy. Yeh know that. I know how yeh doped it out. I know we ain't got much time to make a pile if we keep at th' game. Makin' weight makes yeh a lunger. We all die of th' hurry-up stunt. An' yeh're all right to your owner so long's yeh make good. After that it's twenty-three, forty-six, double time for yours. I know what th' game is when you've hit th' top of th' pile. It's a fast mob, an' yeh got to keep up with th' band-wagon. You're makin' money fast and spendin' it faster. Yeh think it'll never stop comin' your way. Yeh dip into everythin'. Then yeh wake up some day without your pants, and yeh breeze about to make th' coin again. There's a lot of wise eggs handin' out crooked advice—they take the coin and you th' big stick. Yeh know, neither Crimmins or the Old Man was in on your deals, but yeh had it all framed up with outside guys. Yeh bled the field to soak a pile. See, Bill," he finished eloquently, "it weren't your first race."
"I know, I know," said Garrison grimly. "Cut it out. You don't understand, and it's no good talking. When you have reached the top of the pile, Red, you'll travel with as fast a mob as I did. But I never threw a race in my life. That's on the level. Somehow I always get blind dizzy in the stretch, and it passed when I crossed the post. I never knew when it was coming on. I felt all right other times. I had to make the coin, as you say, for I lived up to every cent I made. No, I never threw a race—Yes, you can smile, Red," he finished savagely. "Smile if your face wants stretching. But that's straight. Maybe I've gone back. Maybe I'm all in. Maybe I'm a crook. But there'll come a time, it may be one year, it may be a hundred, when I'll come back—clean. I'll make good, and if you're on the track, Red, I'll show you that Garrison can ride a harder, straighter race than you or any one. This isn't my finish. There's a new deal coming to me, and I'm going to see that I get it."
Without heeding Red's pessimistic reply. Garrison turned on his heel and entered the stall where Sis, the Carter Handicap favorite, was being boxed for the coming Belmont opening.
Crimmins, the trainer, looked up sharply as Garrison entered. He was a small, hard man, with a face like an ice-pick and eyes devoid of pupils, which fact gave him a stony, blank expression. In fact, he had been likened once, by Jimmy Drake, to a needle with two very sharp eyes, and the simile was merited. But he was an excellent flesh handler; and Waterbury, an old ex-bookie, knew what he was about when he appointed him head of the stable.
"Hello, Dan!" said Garrison, in the same tone he had used to greet Red. He and the trainer had been thick, but it was a question whether that thickness would still be there. Garrison, alone in the world since he had run away from his home years ago, had no owner as most jockeys have, and Crimmins had filled the position of mentor. In fact, he had trained him, though Garrison's riding ability was not a foreign graft, but had been bred in the bone.
"Hello!" echoed Crimmins, coming forward. His manner was cordial, and Garrison's frozen heart warmed. "Of course you'll quit the game," ran on the trainer, after an exchange of commonalities. "You're queered for good. You couldn't get a mount anywhere. I ain't saying anything about your pulling Sis, 'cause there ain't no use now. But you've got me and Mr. Waterbury in trouble. It looked as if we were in on the deal. I should be sore on you, Garrison, but I can't be. And why? Because Dan Crimmins has a heart, and when he likes a man he likes him even if murder should come 'atween. Dan Crimmins ain't a welcher. You've done me as dirty a deal as one man could hand another, but instead of getting hunk, what does Dan Crimmins do? Why, he agitates his brain thinking of a way for you to make a good living, Bud. That's Dan Crimmins' way."
Garrison was silent. He did not try to vindicate himself. He had given that up as hopeless. He was thinking, oblivious to Crimmins' eulogy.
"Yeh," continued the upright trainer; "that's Dan Crimmins' way. And after much agitating of my brain I've hit on a good money-making scheme for you, Bud."
"Eh?" asked Garrison.
"Yeh." And the trainer lowered his voice. "I know a man that's goin' to buck the pool-rooms in New York. He needs a chap who knows the ropes—one like you—and I gave him your name. I thought it would come in handy. I saw your finish a long way off. This fellah's in the Western Union; an operator with the pool-room lines. You can run the game. It's easy. See, he holds back the returns, tipping you the winners, and you skin round and lay the bets before he loosens up on the returns. It's easy money; easy and sure."
Again Garrison was silent. But now a smile was on his face. He had been asking himself what was the use of honesty.
"What d'you say?" asked Crimmins, his head on one side, his small eyes calculating.
The smile was still twisting Garrison's lip. "I was going to light out, anyway," he answered slowly. "I'll answer you when I say good-by to Sis."
"All right. She's over there."
The handlers fell back in silence as Garrison approached the filly. He was softly humming the music-hall song, "Good-by, Sis." With all his faults, the handlers to a man liked Garrison. They knew how he had professed to love the filly, and now they sensed that he would prefer to say his farewell without an audience. Sis whinnied as Garrison raised her small head and looked steadily into her soft, dark eyes.
"Sis," he said slowly, "it's good-by. We've been pals, you and I; pals since you were first foaled. You're the only girl I have; the only sweetheart I have; the only one to say good-by to me. Do you care?"
The filly nuzzled at his shoulder. "I've done you dirt to-day," continued the boy a little unsteadily. "It was your race from the start. You know it; I know it. I can't explain now, Sis, how it came about. But I didn't go to do it. I didn't, girlie. You understand, don't you? I'll square that deal some day, Sis. I'll come back and square it. Don't forget me. I won't forget you—I can't. You don't think me a crook, Sis? Say you don't. Say it," he pleaded fiercely, raising her head.
The filly understood. She lipped his face, whinnying lovingly. In a moment Garrison's nerve had been swept away, and, arms flung about the dark, arched neck, he was sobbing his heart out on the glossy coat; sobbing like a little child.
How long he stayed there, the filly nuzzling him like a mother, he did not know. It seemed as if he had reached sanctuary after an aeon of chaos. He had found love, understanding in a beast of the field. Where his fellow man had withheld, the filly had given her all and questioned not. For Sis, by Rex out of Reine, two-year filly, blooded stock, was a thoroughbred. And a thoroughbred, be he man, beast, or bird, does not welch on his hand. A stranger only in prosperity; a chum in adversity. He does not question; he gives.
"Well," said Crimmins, as Garrison slowly emerged from the stall, "you take the partin' pretty next your skin. What's your answer to the game I spoke of? Mulled it over? It don't take much thinking, I guess." He was paring his mourning fringed nails with great indifference.
"No, it doesn't take much thinking, Dan," agreed Garrison slowly, his eyes narrowed. "I'll rot first before I touch it."
"Yes?" The trainer raised his thick eyebrows and lowered his thin voice. "Kind of tony, ain't yeh? Beggars can't be choosers."
"They needn't be crooks, Dan. I know you meant it all right enough," said Garrison bitterly. "You think I'm crooked, and that I'd take anything—anything; dirt of any kind, so long's there's money under it."
"Aw, sneeze!" said Crimmins savagely. Then he checked himself. "It ain't my game. I only knew the man. There's nothing in it for me. Suit yourself;" and he shrugged his shoulders. "It ain't Crimmins' way to hump his services on any man. Take it or leave it."
"You wanted me to go crooked, Dan," said Garrison steadily. "Was it friendship—"
"Huh! Wanted you to go crooked?" flashed the trainer with a sneer. "What are y' talking about? Ain't yeh a welcher now? Ain't yeh crooked—hair, teeth, an' skin?"
"You mean that, Dan?" Garrison's face was white. "You've trained me, and yet you, too, believe I was in on those lost races? You know I lost every cent on Sis—"
"It ain't one race, it's six," snorted Crimmins. "It's Crimmins' way to agitate his brain for a friend, but it ain't his way to be a plumb fool. You can't shoot that bull con into me, Bud. I know you. I give you an offer, friend and friend. You turn it down and 'cuse me of making you play crooked. I'm done with you. It ain't Crimmins' way."
Billy Garrison eyed his former trainer and mentor steadily for a long time. His lip was quivering.
"Damn your way!" he said hoarsely at length, and turned on his heel. His hands were deep in his pockets, his shoulders hunched as he swung out of the stable. He was humming over and over the old music-hall favorite, "Good-by, Sis"—humming in a desperate effort to keep his nerve. Billy Garrison had touched bottom in the depths.
THE HEAVY HAND OF FATE.
Garrison left Long Island for New York that night. When you are hard hit the soul suffers a reflex-action. It recoils to its native soil. New York was Garrison's home. He was a product of its sporting soil. He loved the Great White Way. But he had drunk in the smell, the intoxication of the track with his mother's milk. She had been from the South; the land of straight women, straight men, straight living, straight riding. She had brought blood—good, clean blood—to the Garrison-Loring entente cordiale—a polite definition of a huge mistake.
From his mother Garrison had inherited his cool head, steady eye, and the intuitive hands that could compel horse-flesh like a magnet. From her he had inherited a peculiar recklessness and swift daring. From his father—well, Garrison never liked to talk about his father. His mother was a memory; his father a blank. He was a good-looking, bad-living sprig of a straight family-tree. He had met his wife at the New Orleans track, where her father, an amateur horse-owner, had two entries. And she had loved him. There is good in every one. Perhaps she had discovered it in Garrison's father where no one else had.
Her family threw her off—at least, when she came North with her husband, she gradually dropped out of her home circle; dropped of her own volition. Perhaps she was afraid that the good she had first discovered in her husband had been seen through a magnifying-glass. Her life with Garrison was a constant whirlwind of changing scene and fortune—the perpetual merry—or sorry—go-round of a book-maker; going from track to track, and from bad to worse. His friends said he was unlucky; his enemies, that the only honest thing in him was his cough. He had incipient consumption. So Mrs. Garrison's life, such as it was, had been lived in a trunk—when it wasn't held for hotel bills—but she had lived out her mistake gamely.
When the boy came—Billy—she thought Heaven had smiled upon her at last. But it was only hell. Garrison loved his wife, for love is not a quality possessed only by the virtuous. Sometimes the worst man can love the most—in his selfish way. And Garrison resented the arrival of Billy. He resented sharing his wife's affection with the boy.
In time he came to hate his son. Billy's education was chiefly constitutional. There wasn't the money to pay for his education for any length of time. His mother had to fight for it piecemeal. So he took his education in capsules; receiving a dose in one city and jumping to another for the next, according as a track opened.
He knew his father never cared for him, though his mother tried her best to gloze over the indifference of her husband. But Billy understood and resented it. He and his mother loved in secret. When she died, her mistake lived out to the best of her ability, young Garrison promptly ran away from his circulating home. He knew nothing of his father's people; nothing of his mother's. He was a young derelict; his inherent sense of honor and an instinctive desire for cleanliness kept him off the rocks.
The years between the time he left home and the period when he won his first mount on the track, his natural birthright, Billy Garrison often told himself he would never care to look back upon. He was young, and he did not know that years of privation, of hardship, of semi-starvation—but with an insistent ambition goading one on—are not years to eliminate in retrospect. They are years to reverence.
He did not know that prosperity, not adversity, is the supreme test. And when the supreme test came; when the goal was attained, and the golden sun of wealth, fame, and honor beamed down upon him, little Billy Garrison was found wanting. He was swamped by the flood. He went the way of many a better, older, wiser man—the easy, rose-strewn way, big and broad and scented, that ends in a bottomless abyss filled with bitter tears and nauseating regrets; the abyss called, "It might have been."
Where he had formerly shunned vice by reason of adversity and poverty making it appear so naked, revolting, unclean, foreign to his state, prosperity had now decked it out in her most sensuous, alluring garments. Red's moral diatribe had been correct. Garrison had followed the band-wagon to the finish, never asking where it might lead; never caring. He had youth, reputation, money—he could never overdraw that account. And so the modern pied piper played, and little Garrison blindly danced to the music with the other fools; danced on and on until he was swallowed up in the mountain.
Then he awoke too late, as they all awake; awoke to find that his vigor had been sapped by early suppers and late breakfasts; his finances depleted by slow horses and fast women; his nerve frayed to ribbons by gambling. And then had come that awful morning when he first commenced to cough. Would he, could he, ever forget it?
Billy Garrison huddled down now in the roaring train as he thought of it. It was always before him, a demoniacal obsession—that morning when he coughed, and a bright speck of arterial blood stood out like a tardy danger-signal against the white of his handkerchief; it was leering at him, saying: "I have been here always, but you have chosen to be blind."
Consumption—the jockey's Old Man of the Sea—had arrived at last. He had inherited the seeds from his father; he had assiduously cultivated them by making weight against all laws of nature; by living against laws of God and man. Now they had been punished as they always are. Nature had struck, struck hard.
That had been the first warning, and Garrison did not heed it. Instead of quitting the game, taking what little assets he had managed to save from the holocaust, and living quietly, striving for a cure, he kicked over the traces. The music of the pied piper was still in his ears; twisting his brain. He gritted his teeth. He would not give in. He would show that he was master. He would fight this insidious vitality vampire; fight and conquer.
Besides, he had to make money. The thought of going back to a pittance a year sickened him. That pittance had once been a fortune to him. But his appetite had not been gorged, satiated; rather, it had the resilience of crass youth; jumping the higher with every indulgence. It increased in ratio with his income. He had no one to guide him; no one to compel advice with a whip, if necessary. He knew it all. So he kept his curse secret. He would pile up one more fortune, retain it this time, and then retire. But nature had balked. The account—youth, reputation, money—was overthrown at last.
Came a day when in the paddock Dan Crimmins had seen that fleck of arterial blood on the handkerchief. Then Dan shared the secret. He commenced to doctor Garrison. Before every race the jockey had a drug. But despite it he rode worse than an exercise-boy; rode despicably. The Carter Handicap had finished his deal. And with it Garrison had lost his reputation.
He had done many things in his mad years of prosperity—the mistakes, the faults of youth. But Billy Garrison was right when he said he was square. He never threw a race in his life. Horseflesh, the "game," was sacred to him. He had gone wild, but never crooked. But the world now said otherwise, and it is only the knave, the saint, and the fool who never heed what the world says.
And so at twenty-two, when the average young man is leaving college for the real taste of life, little Garrison had drained it to the dregs; the lees tasted bitter in his mouth.
For obvious reasons Garrison had not chosen his usual haven, the smoking-car, on the train. It was filled to overflowing from the Aqueduct track, and he knew that his name would be mentioned frequently and in no complimentary manner. His soul had been stripped bare, sensitive to a breath. It would writhe under the mild compassion of a former admirer as much as it would under the open jibes of his enemies. He had plenty of enemies. Every "is," "has-been," "would-be," "will-be" has enemies. It is well they have. Nothing is lost in nature. Enemies make you; not your friends.
Garrison had selected a car next to the smoker and occupied a seat at the forward end, his back to the engine. His hands were deep in his pockets, his shoulders hunched, his eyes staring straight ahead under the brim of his slouch-hat. His eyes were looking inward, not outward; they did not see his surroundings; they were looking in on the ruin of his life.
The present, the future, did not exist; only the past lived—lived with all the animalism of a rank growth. He was too far in the depths to even think of reerecting his life's structure. His cough was troubling him; his brain throbbing, throbbing.
Then, imperceptibly, as Garrison's staring, blank eyes slowly turned from within to without, occasioned by a violent jolt of the train, something flashed across their retina; they became focused, and a message was wired to his brain. Instantly his eyes dropped, and he fidgeted uncomfortably in his seat.
He found he had been staring into a pair of slate-gray eyes; staring long, rudely, without knowing it. Their owner was occupying a seat three removed down the aisle. As he was seated with his back to the engine, he was thus confronting them.
She was a young girl with indefinite hair, white skin coated with tan, and a very steady gaze. She would always be remembered for her eyes. Garrison instantly decided that they were beautiful. He furtively peered up from under his hat. She was still looking at him fixedly without the slightest embarrassment.
Garrison was not susceptible to the eternal feminine. He was old with a boy's face. Yet he found himself taking snap-shots at the girl opposite. She was reading now. Unwittingly he tried to criticize every feature. He could not. It was true that they were far from being regular; her nose went up like her short upper lip; her chin and under lip said that she had a temper and a will of her own. He noted also that she had a mole under her left eye. But one always returned from the facial peregrinations to her eyes. After a long stare Garrison caught himself wishing that he could kiss those eyes. That threw him into a panic.
"Be sad, be sad," he advised himself gruffly. "What right have you to think? You're rude to stare, even if she is a queen. She wouldn't wipe her boots on you."
Having convinced himself that he should not think, Garrison promptly proceeded to speculate. How tall was she? He likened her flexible figure to Sis. Sis was his criterion. Then, for the brain is a queer actor, playing clown when it should play tragedian, Garrison discovered that he was wishing that the girl would not be taller than his own five feet two.
"As if it mattered a curse," he laughed contemptuously.
His eyes were transferred to the door. It had opened, and with the puff of following wind there came a crowd of men, emerging like specters from the blue haze of the smoker. They had evidently been "smoked out." Some of them were sober.
Garrison half-lowered his head as the crowd entered. He did not wish to be recognized. The men, laughing noisily, crowded into what seats were unoccupied. There was one man more than the available space, and he started to occupy the half-vacant seat beside the girl with the slate-colored eyes. He was slightly more than fat, and the process of making four feet go into two was well under way when the girl spoke.
"Pardon me, this seat is reserved."
"Don't look like it," said Behemoth.
"But I say it is. Isn't that enough?"
"Full house; no reserved seats," observed the man placidly, squeezing in.
The girl flashed a look at him and then was silent. A spot of red was showing through the tan on her cheek; Garrison was watching her under his hat-brim. He saw the spot on her cheeks slowly grow and her eyes commence to harden. He saw that she was being annoyed surreptitiously and quietly. Behemoth was a Strephon, and he thought that he had found his Chloe.
Garrison pulled his hat well down over his face, rose negligently, and entered the next car. He waited there a moment and then returned. He swung down the aisle. As he approached the girl he saw her draw back. Strephon's foot was deliberately pressing Chloe's.
Garrison avoided a scene for the girl's sake. He tapped the man on the shoulder.
"Pardon me. My seat, if you please. I left it for the smoker."
The man looked up, met Garrison's cold, steady eyes, rose awkwardly, muttered something about not knowing it was reserved, and squeezed in with two of his companions farther down the aisle.
Garrison sat down without glancing at the girl. He became absorbed in the morning paper—twelve hours old.
Silence ensued. The girl had understood the fabrication instantly. She waited, her antagonism roused, to see whether Garrison would try to take advantage of his courtesy. When he was entirely oblivious of her presence she commenced to inspect him covertly out of the corners of her gray eyes. After five minutes she spoke.
"Thank you," she said simply. Her voice was soft and throaty.
Garrison absently raised his hat and was about to resume the defunct paper when he was interrupted. A hand reached over the back of the seat, and before he had thought of resistance, he was flung violently down the aisle.
He heard a great laugh from the Behemoth's friends. He rose slowly, his fighting blood up. Then he became aware that his ejector was not one of the crowd, but a newcomer; a tall man with a fierce white mustache and imperial; dressed in a frock coat and wide, black slouch hat. He was talking.
"How dare you insult my daughter, suh?" he thundered. "By thunder, suh, I've a good mind to make you smart right proper for your lack of manners, suh! How dare you, suh? You—you contemptible little—little snail, suh! Snail, suh!" And quite satisfied at thus selecting the most fitting word, glaring fiercely and twisting his white mustache and imperial with a very martial air, he seated himself majestically by his daughter.
Garrison recognized him. He was Colonel Desha, of Kentucky, whose horse, Rogue, had won the Carter Handicap through Garrison's poor riding of the favorite, Sis. His daughter was expostulating with him, trying to insert the true version of the affair between her father's peppery exclamations of "Occupying my seat!" "I saw him raise his hat to you!" "How dare he?" "Complain to the management against these outrageous flirts!" "Abominable manners!" etc., etc.
Meanwhile Garrison had silently walked into the smoker. He tried to dismiss the incident from his mind, but it stuck; stuck as did the girl's eyes.
At the next station a newsboy entered the car. Garrison idly bought a paper. It was full of the Carter Handicap, giving both Crimmins' and Waterbury's version of the affair. Public opinion, it seemed, was with them. They had protested the race. It had been thrown, and Garrison's dishonor now was national.
There was a column of double-leaded type on the first page, run in after the making up of the paper's body, and Garrison's bitter eyes negligently scanned it. But at the first word he straightened up as if an electric shock had passed through him.
"Favorite for the Carter Handicap Poisoned," was the great, staring title. The details were meager; brutally meager. They were to the effect that some one had gained access to the Waterbury stable and had fed Sis strychnine.
Garrison crumpled up the paper and buried his face in his hands, making no pretense of hiding his misery. She had been more than a horse to him; she had been everything.
"Sis—Sis," he whispered over and over again, the tears burning to his eyes, his throat choking: "I didn't get a chance to square the deal. Sis—Sis it was good-by—good-by forever."
BEGINNING A NEW LIFE.
On arriving at the Thirty-fourth Street ferry Garrison idly boarded a Forty-second Street car, drifting aimlessly with the main body of Long Island passengers going westward to disintegrate, scatter like the fragments of a bursting bomb, at Broadway. A vague sense of proprietorship, the kiss of home, momentarily smoothed out the wrinkles in his soul as the lights of the Great White Way beamed down a welcome upon him. Then it was slowly borne in on him that, though with the crowd, he was not of it. His mother, the great cosmopolitan city, had repudiated him. For Broadway is a place for presents or futures; she has no welcome for pasts. With her, charity begins at home—and stays there.
Garrison drifted hither and thither with every cross eddy of humanity, and finally dropped into the steady pulsating, ever-moving tide on the west curb going south—the ever restless tide that never seems to reach the open sea. As he passed one well-known cafe after another his mind carried him back over the waste stretch of "It might have been" to the time when he was their central figure. On every block he met acquaintances who had even toasted him—with his own wine; toasted him as the kingpin. Now they either nodded absently or became suddenly vitally interested in a show-window or the new moon.
All sorts and conditions of men comprised that list of former friends, and not one now stepped out and wrung his hand; wrung it as they had only the other day, when they thought he would retrieve his fortunes by pulling off the Carter Handicap. They did not wring it now, for there was nothing to wring out of it. Now he was not only hopelessly down in the muck of poverty, but hopelessly dishonored. And gentlemanly appearing blackguards, who had left all honesty in the cradle, now wouldn't for the world be seen talking on Broadway to little Billy Garrison, the horribly crooked jockey.
It wouldn't do at all. First, because their own position was so precarious that a breath would send it tottering. Secondly, because Billy might happen to inconveniently remember all the sums of money he had "loaned" them time and again. Actual necessity might tend to waken his memory. For they had modernized the proverb into: "A friend in need is a friend to steer clear of."
A lesson in mankind and the making had been coming to Garrison, and in that short walk down Broadway he appreciated it to the uttermost.
"Think I had the mange or the plague," he mused grimly, as a plethoric ex-alderman passed and absent-mindedly forgot to return his bow—an alderman who had been tipped by Garrison in his palmy days to a small fortune. "What if I had thrown the race?" he ran on bitterly. "Many a jockey has, and has lived to tell it. No, there's more behind it all than that. I've passed sports who wouldn't turn me down for that. But I suppose Bender" (the plethoric alderman) "staked a pot on Sis, she being the favorite and I up. And when he loses he forgets the times I tipped him to win. Poor old Sis!" he added softly, as the fact of her poisoning swept over him. "The only thing that cared for me—gone! I'm down on my luck—hard. And it's not over yet. I feel it in the air. There's another fall coming to me."
He shivered through sheer nervous exhaustion, though the night was warm for mid-April. He rummaged in his pocket.
"One dollar in bird-seed," he mused grimly, counting the coins under the violet glare of a neighboring arc light. "All that's between me and the morgue. Did I ever think it would come to that? Well, I need a bracer. Here goes ten for a drink. Can only afford bar whisky."
He was standing on the corner of Twenty-fifth Street, and unconsciously he turned into the cafe of the Hoffman House. How well he knew its every square inch! It was filled with the usual sporting crowd, and Garrison entered as nonchalantly as if his arrival would merit the same commotion as in the long ago. He no longer cared. His depression had dropped from him. The lights, the atmosphere, the topics of conversation, discussion, caused his blood to flow like lava through his veins. This was home, and all else was forgotten. He was not the discarded jockey, but Billy Garrison, whose name on the turf was one to conjure with.
And then, even as he had awakened from his dream on Broadway, he now awoke to an appreciation of the immensity of his fall from grace. He knew fully two-thirds of those present. Some there were who nodded, some kindly, some pityingly. Some there were who cut him dead, deliberately turning their backs or accurately looking through the top of his hat.
Billy's square chin went up to a point and his under lip came out. He would not be driven out. He would show them. He was as honest as any there; more honest than many; more foolish than all. He ordered a drink and seated himself by a table, indifferently eyeing the shifting crowd through the fluttering curtain of tobacco-smoke.
The staple subject of conversation was the Carter Handicap, and he sensed rather than noted the glances of the crowd as they shifted curiously to him and back again. At first he pretended not to notice them, but after a certain length of time his oblivion was sincere, for retrospect came and claimed him for its own.
He was aroused by footsteps behind him; they wavered, stopped, and a large hand was laid on his shoulder.
"Hello, kid! You here, too?"
He looked up quickly, though he knew the voice. It was Jimmy Drake, and he was looking down at him, a queer gleam in his inscrutable eyes. Garrison nodded without speaking. He noticed that the book-maker had not offered to shake hands, and the knowledge stung. The crowd was watching them curiously, and Drake waved off, with a late sporting extra he carried, half a dozen invitations to liquidate.
"Kid," he said, lowering his voice, his hand still on Garrison's shoulder, "what did you come here for? Why don't you get away? Waterbury may be here any minute."
"What's that to me?" spat out Billy venomously. "I'm not afraid of him. No call to be."
Drake considered, the queer look still in his eyes.
"Don't get busty, kid. I don't know how you ever come to do it, but it's a serious game, a dirty game, and I guess it may mean jail for you, all right."
"What do you mean?" Garrison's pinched face had gone slowly white. A vague premonition of impending further disaster possessed him, amounting almost to an obsession. "What do you mean, Jimmy?" he reiterated tensely.
Drake was silent, still scrutinizing him.
"Kid," he said finally, "I don't like to think it of you—but I know what made you do it. You were sore on Waterbury; sore for losing. You wanted to get hunk on something. But I tell you, kid, there's no deal too rotten for a man who poisons a horse—"
"Poisons a horse," echoed Garrison mechanically. "Poisons a horse. Good Lord, Drake!" he cried fiercely, in a sudden wave of passion and understanding, jumping from his chair, "you dare to say that I poisoned Sis! You dare—"
"No, I don't. The paper does."
"The paper lies! Lies, do you hear? Let me see it! Let me see it! Where does it say that? Where, where? Show it to me if you can! Show it to me—"
His eyes slowly widened in horror, and his mouth remained agape, as he hastily scanned the contents of an article in big type on the first page. Then the extra dropped from his nerveless fingers, and he mechanically seated himself at the table, his eyes vacant. To his surprise, he was horribly calm. Simply his nerves had snapped; they could torture him no longer by stretching.
"It's not enough to have—have her die, but I must be her poisoner," he said mechanically.
"It's all circumstantial evidence, or nearly so," added Drake, shifting from one foot to the other. "You were the only one who would have a cause to get square. And Crimmins says he gave you permission to see her alone. Even the stable-hands say that. It looks bad, kid. Here, don't take it so hard. Get a cinch on yourself," he added, as he watched Garrison's blank eyes and quivering face.
"I'm all right. I'm all right," muttered Billy vaguely, passing a hand over his throbbing temples.
Drake was silent, fidgeting uneasily.
"Kid," he blurted out at length, "it looks as if you were all in. Say, let me be your bank-roll, won't you? I know you lost every cent on Sis, no matter what they say. I'll give you a blank check, and you can fill it out—"
"No, thanks, Jimmy."
"Don't be touchy, kid. You'd do the same for me—"
"I mean it, Drake. I don't want a cent. I'm not hard up. Thanks all the same." Garrison's rag of honor was fluttering in the wind of his pride.
"Well," said Drake, finally and uncomfortably, "if you ever want it, Billy, you know where to come for it. I want to go down on the books as your friend, hear? Mind that. So-long."
"So-long, Jimmy. And I won't forget your stand."
Garrison continued staring at the floor. This, then, was the reason why the sporting world had cut him dead; for a horse-poisoner is ranked in the same category as that assigned to the horse-stealer of the Western frontier. There, a man's horse is his life; to the turfman it is his fortune—one and the same. And so Crimmins had testified that he had permitted him, Garrison, to see Sis alone!
Yes, the signals were set dead against him. His opinion of Crimmins had undergone a complete revolution; first engendered by the trainer offering him a dishonorable opportunity of fleecing the New York pool-rooms; now culminated by his indirect charge.
Garrison considered the issue paramount. He was furious, though so seemingly indifferent. Every ounce of resentment in his nature had been focused to the burning-point. Now he would not leave New York. Come what might, he would stand his ground. He would not run away. He would fight the charge; fight Waterbury, Crimmins—the world, if necessary. And mingled with the warp and woof of this resolve was another; one that he determined would comprise the color-scheme of his future existence; he would ferret out the slayer of Sis; not merely for his own vindication, but for hers. He regarded her slayer as a murderer, for to him Sis had been more than human.
Garrison came to himself by hearing his name mentioned. Behind him two young men were seated at a table, evidently unaware of his identity, for they were exchanging their separate views on the running of the Carter Handicap and the subsequent poisoning of the favorite.
"And I say," concluded the one whose nasal twang bespoke the New Englander; "I say that it was a dirty race all through."
"One paper hints that the stable was in on it; wanted to hit the bookies hard," put in his companion diffidently.
"No," argued the wise one, some alcohol and venom in his syllables, "Waterbury's all right. He's a square sport. I know. I ought to know, for I've got inside information. A friend of mine has a cousin who's married to the brother of a friend of Waterbury's aunt's half-sister. So I ought to know. Take it from me," added this Bureau of Inside Information, beating the table with an insistent fist; "it was a put-up job of Garrison's. I'll bet he made a mint on it. All these jockeys are crooked. I may be from Little Falls, but I know. You can't fool me. I've been following Garrison's record—"
"Then what did you bet on him for?" asked his companion mildly.
"Because I thought he might ride straight for once. And being up on Sis, I thought he couldn't help but win. And so I plunged—heavy. And now, by Heck! ten dollars gone, and I'm mad; mad clear through. Sis was a corker, and ought to have had the race. I read all about her in the Little Falls Daily Banner. I'd just like to lay hands on that Garrison—a miserable little whelp; that's what he is. He ought to have poisoned himself instead of the horse. I hope Waterbury'll do him up. I'll see him about it."
Garrison slowly rose, his face white, eyes smoldering. The devil was running riot through him. His resentment had passed from the apathetic stage to the fighting. So this was the world's opinion of him! Not only the world, but miserable wastrels of sports who "plunged heavy" with ten dollars! His name was to be bandied in their unclean mouths! He, Billy Garrison, former premier jockey, branded as a thing beyond redemption! He did not care what might happen, but he would kill that lie here and now. He was glad of the opportunity; hungry to let loose some of the resentment seething within him.
The Bureau of Inside Information and his companion looked up as Billy Garrison stood over them, hands in pockets. Both men had been drinking. Drake and half the cafe's occupants had drifted out.
"Which of you gentlemen just now gave his opinion of Billy Garrison?" asked the jockey quietly.
"I did, neighbor. Been roped in, too?" Inside Information splayed out his legs, and, with a very blase air, put his thumbs in the armholes of his execrable vest. He owned a rangy frame and a loose mouth. He was showing the sights of Gotham to a friend, and was proud of his knowledge. But he secretly feared New York because he did not know it.
"Oh, it was you?" snapped Garrison venomously. "Well, I don't know your name, but mine's Billy Garrison, and you're a liar!" He struck Inside Information a whack across the face that sent him a tumbled heap on the floor.
There is no one so dangerous as a coward. There is nothing so dangerous as ignorance. The New Englander had heard much of Gotham's undercurrent and the brawls so prevalent there. He had heard and feared. He had looked for them, fascination in his fear, but till the present had never experienced one. He had heard that sporting men carried guns and were quick to use them; that when the lie was passed it meant the hospital or the morgue. He was thoroughly ignorant of the ways of a great city, of the world; incapable of meeting a crisis; of apportioning it at its true value. And so now he overdid it.
As Garrison, a contemptuous smile on his face, turned away, and started to draw a handkerchief from his hip pocket, the New Englander, thinking a revolver was on its way, scrambled to his feet, wildly seized the heavy spirit-bottle, and let fly at Garrison's head. There was whisky, muscle, sinew, and fear behind the shot.
As Billy turned about to ascertain whether or not his opponent meant fight by rising from under the table, the heavy bottle landed full on his temple. He crumpled up like a withered leaf, and went over on the floor without even a sigh.
It was two weeks later when Garrison regained full consciousness; opened his eyes to gaze upon blank walls, blank as the ceiling. He was in a hospital, but he did not know it. He knew nothing. The past had become a blank. An acute attack of brain-fever had set in, brought on by the excitement he had undergone and finished by the smash from the spirit-bottle.
There followed many nights when doctors shook their heads and nurses frowned; nights when it was thought little Billy Garrison would cross the Great Divide; nights when he sat up in the narrow cot, his hands clenched as if holding the reins, his eyes flaming as in his feverish imagination he came down the stretch, fighting for every inch of the way; crying, pleading, imploring: "Go it, Sis; go it! Take the rail! Careful, careful! Now—now let her out; let her out! Go, you cripple, go—" All the jargon of the turf.
He was a physical, nervous wreck, and the doctors said that he couldn't last very long, for consumption had him. It was only a matter of time, unless a miracle happened. The breath of his life was going through his mouth and nostrils; the breath of his lungs.
No one knew his name at the hospital, not even himself. There was nothing to identify him by. For Garrison, after the blow that night, had managed to crawl out to the sidewalk like a wounded beast striving to find its lair and fighting to die game.
There was no one to say him nay, no friend to help him. And hotel managements are notoriously averse to having murder or assault committed in their house. So when they saw that Garrison was able to walk they let him go, and willingly. Then he had collapsed, crumpled in a heap on the sidewalk.
A policeman had eventually found him, and with the uncanny acumen of his ilk had unerringly diagnosed the case as a "drunk." From the stationhouse to Bellevue, Garrison had gone his weary way, and from there, when it was finally discovered he was neither drunk nor insane, to Roosevelt Hospital. And no one knew who or what he was, and no one cared overmuch. He was simply one of the many unfortunate derelicts of a great city.
It was over six months before he left the hospital, cured so far as he could be. The doctors called his complaint by a learned and villainously unpronounceable name, which, interpreted by the Bowery, meant that Billy Garrison "had gone dippy."
But Garrison had not. His every faculty was as acute as it ever had been. Simply, Providence had drawn an impenetrable curtain over his memory, separating the past from the present; the same curtain that divides our presents from our futures. He had no past. It was a blank, shot now and then with a vague gleam of things dead and gone.
This oblivion may have been the manifestation of an all-wise Almighty. Now, at least, he could not brood over past mistakes, though, unconsciously, he might have to live them out. Life to him was a new book, not one mark appeared on its clean pages. He did not even know his name—nothing.
From the "W. G." on his linen he understood that those were his initials, but he could not interpret them; they stood for nothing. He had no letters, memoranda in his pockets, bearing his name. And so he took the name of William Good. Perhaps the "William" came to him instinctively; he had no reason for choosing "Good."
Garrison left the hospital with his cough, a little money the superintendent had kindly given to him, and his clothes; that was all.
Handicapped as he was, harried by futile attempts of memory to fathom his identity, he was about to renew the battle of life; not as a veteran, one who has earned promotion, profited by experience, but as a raw recruit.
The big city was no longer an old familiar mother, whose every mood and whimsy he sensed unerringly; now he was a stranger. The streets meant nothing to him. But when he first turned into old Broadway, a vague, uneasy feeling stirred within him; it was a memory struggling like an imprisoned bird to be free. Almost the first person he met was Jimmy Drake. Garrison was about to pass by, oblivious, when the other seized him by the arm.
"Hello, Billy! Where did you drop from—"
"Pardon me, you have made a mistake." Garrison stared coldly, blankly at Drake, shook free his arm, and passed on.
"Gee, what a cut!" mused the book-maker, staring after the rapidly retreating figure of Garrison. "The frozen mitt for sure. What's happened now? Where's he been the past six months? Wearing the same clothes, too! Well, somehow I've queered myself for good. I don't know what I did or didn't. But I'll keep my eye on him, anyway." To cheer his philosophy, Drake passed into the Fifth Avenue for a drink.
A READY-MADE HEIR.
Garrison had flattered himself that he had known adversity in his time, but in the months succeeding his dismissal from the hospital he qualified for a post-graduate course in privation. He was cursed with the curse of the age; it was an age of specialties, and he had none. His only one, the knowledge of the track, had been buried in him, and nothing tended to awaken it.
He had no commercial education; nothing but the savoir-faire which wealth had given to him, and an inherent breeding inherited from his mother. By reason of his physique he was disbarred from mere manual labor, and that haven of the failure—the army.
So Garrison joined the ranks of the Unemployed Grand Army of the Republic. He knew what it was to sleep in Madison Square Park with a newspaper blanket, and to be awakened by the carol of the touring policemen. He came to know what it meant to stand in the bread-line, to go the rounds of the homeless "one-night stands."
He came perilously near reaching the level of the sodden. His morality had suffered with it all. Where in his former days of hardship he had health, ambition, a goal to strive for, friends to keep him honest with himself, now he had nothing. He was alone; no one cared.
If he had only taken to the track, his passion—legitimate passion—for horse-flesh would have pulled him through. But the thought that he ever could ride never suggested itself to him.
He had no opportunity of inhaling the track's atmosphere. Sometimes he wondered idly why he liked to stop and caress every stray horse. He could not know that those same hands had once coaxed thoroughbreds down the stretch to victory. His haunts necessarily kept him from meeting with those whom he had once known. The few he did happen to meet he cut unconsciously as he had once cut Jimmy Drake.
And so day by day Garrison's morality suffered. It is so easy for the well-fed to be honest. But when there is the hunger cancer gnawing at one's vitals, not for one day, but for many, then honesty and dishonesty cease to be concrete realities. It is not a question of piling up luxuries, but of supplying mere necessity.
And day by day as the hunger cancer gnawed at Garrison's vitals it encroached on his original stock of honesty. He fought every minute of the day, but he grimly foresaw that there would come a time when he would steal the first time opportunity afforded.
Day by day he saw the depletion of his honor. He was not a moralist, a saint, a sinner. Need sweeps all theories aside; in need's fierce crucible they are transmuted to concrete realities. Those who have never known what it is to be thrown with Garrison's handicap on the charity of a great city will not understand. But those who have ever tasted the bitter crust of adversity will. And it is the old blatant advice from the Seats of the Mighty: "Get a job." The old answer from the hopeless undercurrent: "How?"
There came a day when the question of honesty or dishonesty was put up to Garrison in a way he had not foreseen. The line was drawn distinctly; there was no easy slipping over it by degrees, unnoticed.
The toilet facilities of municipal lodging-houses are severely crude and primitive. For the sake of sanitation, the whilom lodger's clothes are put in a net and fumigated in a germ-destroying temperature. The men congregate together in one long room, in various stages of pre-Adamite costumes, and the shower is turned upon them in numerical rotation.
This public washing was one of the many drawbacks to public charity which Garrison shivered at. As the warm weather set in he accordingly took full advantage of the free baths at the Battery. On his second day's dip, as he was leaving, a man whom he had noticed intently scanning the bathers tapped him on the arm.
He was shaped like an olive, with a pair of shrewd gray eyes, and a clever, clean-shaven mouth. He was well-dressed, and was continually probing with a quill tooth-pick at his gold-filled front teeth, evidently desirous of excavating some of the precious metal.
"My name's Snark—Theobald D. Snark," he said shortly, thrusting a card into Garrison's passive hand. "I am an eminent lawyer, and would be obliged if you would favor me with a five minutes' interview in my office—American Tract Building."
"Don't know you," said Garrison blandly.
"You'll like me when you do," supplemented the eminent lawyer coolly. "Merely a matter of business, you understand. You look as if a little business wouldn't hurt you."
"Feel worse," added Billy mildly, inspecting his crumpled outfit.
He was very hungry. He caught eagerly at this quondam opening. Perhaps it would be the means of starting him in some legitimate business. Then a wild idea came to him, and slowly floated away again as he remembered that Mr. Snark had agreed that he did not know him. But while it lasted, the idea had been a thrilling one for a penniless, homeless wanderer. It had been: Supposing this lawyer knew him? Knew his real identity, and had tracked him down for clamoring relatives and a weeping father and mother? For to Garrison his parents might have been criminals or millionaires so far as he remembered.
The journey to Nassau Street was completed in silence, Mr. Snark centering all his faculties on his teeth, and Garrison on the probable outcome of this chance meeting.
The eminent lawyer's office was in a corner of the fifth shelf of the American Tract Building bookcase. It was unoccupied, Mr. Snark being so intelligent as to be able to dispense with the services of office-boy and stenographer; it was small but cozy. Offices in that building can be rented for fifteen dollars per month.
After the eminent lawyer had fortified himself from a certain black bottle labeled "Poison: external use only," which sat beside the soap-dish in the little towel-cabinet, he assumed a very preoccupied and highly official mien at his roller-top desk, where he became vitally interested in a batch of letters, presumably that morning's mail, but which in reality bore dates ranging back to the past year.
Then the eminent lawyer delved importantly into an empty letter-file; emerged after ten minutes' study in order to give Blackstone a few thoroughly familiar turns, opened the window further to cool his fevered brain, lit a highly athletic cigar, crossed his legs, and was at last at leisure to talk business with Garrison, who had almost fallen asleep during the business rush.
"What's your name?" he asked peremptorily.
Ordinarily Garrison would have begged him to go to a climate where thermometers are not in demand, but now he was hungry, and wanted a job, so he answered obediently: "William Good."
"Good, William," said the eminent lawyer, smiling at himself in the little mirror of the towel-cabinet. He understood that he possessed a thin vein of humor. Necessary quality for an eminent lawyer. "And no occupation, I presume, and no likelihood of one, eh?"
"Well"—and Mr. Snark made a temple of worship from his fat fingers, his cigar at right angles, his shrewd gray eyes on the ceiling—"I have a position which I think you can fill. To make a long story short, I have a client, a very wealthy gentleman of Cottonton, Virginia; name of Calvert—Major Henry Clay Calvert. Dare say you've heard of the Virginia Calverts," he added, waving the rank incense from the athletic cigar.
He had only heard of the family a week or two ago, but already he persuaded himself that their reputation was national, and that his business relations with them dated back to the Settlement days.
Garrison found occasion to say he'd never heard of them, and the eminent lawyer replied patronizingly that "we all can't be well-connected, you know." Then he went on with his short story, which, like all short stories, was a very long one.
"Now it appears that Major Calvert has a nephew somewhere whom he has never seen, and whom he wishes to recognize; in short, make him his heir. He has advertised widely for him during the past few months, and has employed a lawyer in almost every city to assist in this hunt for a needle in a haystack. This nephew's name is Dagget—William C. Dagget. His mother was a half-sister of Major Calvert's. The search for this nephew has been going on for almost a year—since Major Calvert heard of his brother-in-law's death—but the nephew has not been found."
The eminent lawyer cleared his throat eloquently and relighted the athletic cigar, which had found occasion to go out.
"It will be a very fine thing for this nephew," he added speculatively. "Very fine, indeed. Major Calvert has no children, and, as I say, the nephew will be his heir—if found. Also the lawyer who discovers the absent youth will receive ten thousand dollars. Ten thousand dollars is not a sum to be sneezed at, Mr. Good. Not to be sneezed at, sir. Not to be sneezed at," thundered the eminent lawyer forensically.
Garrison agreed. He would never think of sneezing at it, even if he was subject to that form of recreation. But what had that to do with him?
The eminent lawyer attentively scrutinized the blue streamer from his cigar.
"Well, I've found him at last. You are he, Mr. Good. Mr. Good, my heartiest congratulations, sir." And Mr. Snark insisted upon shaking the bewildered Garrison impressively by the hand.
Garrison's head swam. Then his wild dream had come true! His identity had been at last discovered! He was not the offspring of some criminal, but the scion of a noble Virginia house! But Mr. Snark was talking again.
"You see," he began slowly, focusing an attentive eye on Garrison's face, noting its every light and shade, "this nice old gentleman and his wife are hard up for a nephew. You and I are hard up for money. Why not effect a combination? Eh, why not? It would be sinful to waste such an opportunity of doing good. In you I give them a nice, respectable nephew, who is tired of reaping his wild oats. You are probably much better than the original. We are all satisfied. I do everybody a good turn by the exercise of a little judgment."
Garrison's dream crumbled to ashes.
"Oh!" he said blankly, "you—you mean to palm me off as the nephew?"
"Exactly, my son, the long-lost nephew. You are fitted for the role. They haven't ever seen the original, and then, by chance, you have a birthmark, shaped like a spur, beneath your right collar-bone. Oh, yes, I marked it while you were bathing. I've hunted the baths in the chance of finding a duplicate, for I could not afford to run the risks of advertising.
"It seems this nephew has a similar mark, his mother having mentioned it once in a letter to her brother, and it is the only means of identification. Luck is with us, Mr. Good, and of course you will take full advantage of it. As a side bonus you can pay me twenty-five thousand or so when you come into the estate on your uncle's death."
The eminent lawyer, his calculating eye still on Garrison, then proceeded with much forensic ability and virile imagination to lay the full beauties of the "cinch" before him.
"But supposing the real nephew shows up?" asked Garrison hesitatingly, after half an hour's discussion.
"Impossible. I am fully convinced he's dead. Possession is nine points of the law, my son. If he should happen to turn up, which he won't, why, you have only to brand him as a fraud. I'm a kind-hearted man, and I merely wish Major Calvert to have the pleasure of killing fatted calf for one instead of a burial. I'm sure the real nephew is dead. Anyway, the search will be given up when you are found."
"But about identification?"
"Oh, the mark's enough, quite enough. You've never met your kin, but you can have very sweet, childish recollections of having heard your mother speak of them. I know enough of old Calvert to post you on the family. You've lived North all your life. We'll fix up a nice respectable series of events regarding how you came to be away in China somewhere, and thus missed seeing the advertisement.
"We'll let my discovery of you stand as it is, only we'll substitute the swimming-pool of the New York Athletic Club in lieu of the Battery. The Battery wouldn't sound good form. Romanticism always makes truth more palatable. Trust me to work things to a highly artistic and flawless finish. I can procure any number of witnesses—at so much per head—who have time and again distinctly heard your childish prattle regarding dear Uncle and Aunty Calvert.
"I'll wire on that long-lost nephew has been found, and you can proceed to lie right down in your ready-made bed of roses. There won't be any thorns. Bit of a step up from municipal lodging-houses, eh?"
Garrison clenched his hands. His honor was in the last ditch. The great question had come; not in the guise of a loaf of bread, but this. How long his honor put up a fight he did not know, but the eminent lawyer was apparently satisfied regarding the outcome, for he proceeded very leisurely to read the morning paper, leaving Garrison to his thoughts.
And what thoughts they were! What excuses he made to himself—poor hostages to a fast-crumbling honor! Only the exercise of a little subterfuge and all this horrible present would be a past. No more sleeping in the parks, no more of the hunger cancer. He would have a name, friends, kin, a future. Something to live for. Some one to care for; some one to care for him. And he would be all that a nephew should be; all that, and more. He would make all returns in his power.
He had even reached the point when he saw in the future himself confessing the deception; saw himself forgiven and being loved for himself alone. And he would confess it all—his share, but not Snark's. All he wanted was a start in life. A name to keep clean; traditions to uphold, for he had none of his own. All this he would gain for a little subterfuge. And perhaps, as Snark had acutely pointed out, he might be a better nephew than the original. He would be.
When a man begins to compromise with dishonesty, there is only one outcome. Garrison's rag of honor was hauled down. He agreed to the deception. He would play the role of William C. Dagget, the lost nephew.
When he made his intention known, the eminent lawyer nodded as if to say that Garrison wasted an unnecessary amount of time over a very childish problem, and then he proceeded to go into the finer points of the game, building up a life history, supplying dates, etc. Then he sent a wire to Major Calvert. Afterward he took Garrison to his first respectable lunch in months and bought him an outfit of clothes. On their return to the corner nook, fifth shelf of the bookcase, a reply was awaiting them from Major Calvert. The long-lost nephew, in company with Mr. Snark, was to start the next day for Cottonton, Virginia. The telegram was warm, and commended the eminent lawyer's ability.
"Son," said the eminent lawyer dreamily, carefully placing the momentous wire in his pocket, "a good deed never goes unrewarded. Always remember that. There is nothing like the old biblical behest: 'Let us pray.' You for your bed of roses; me for—for——" mechanically he went to the small towel-cabinet and gravely pointed the unfinished observation with the black bottle labeled "Poison."
"To the long-lost nephew, Mr. William C. Dagget. To the bed of roses. And to the eminent lawyer, Theobald D. Snark, Esq., who has mended a poor fortune with a better brain. Gentlemen," he concluded grandiloquently, slowly surveying the little room as if it were an overcrowded Colosseum—"gentlemen, with your permission, together with that of the immortal Mr. Swiveller, we will proceed to drown it in the rosy. Drown it in the rosy, gentlemen." And so saying, Mr. Snark gravely tilted the black bottle ceilingward.
The following evening, as the shadows were lengthening, Garrison and the eminent lawyer pulled into the neat little station of Cottonton. The good-by to Gotham had been said. It had not been difficult for Garrison to say good-by. He was bidding farewell to a life and a city that had been detestable in the short year he had known it. The lifetime spent in it had been forgotten. But with it all he had said good-by to honor. On the long train trip he had been smothering his conscience, feebly awakened by the approaching meeting, the touch of new clothes, and the prospect of a consistently full stomach. He even forgot to cough once or twice.
But the conscience was only feebly awakened. The eminent lawyer had judged his client right. For as one is never miserly until one has acquired wealth, so Garrison was loath to vacate the bed of roses now that he had felt how exceedingly pleasant it was. To go back to rags and the hunger cancer and homelessness would be hard; very hard even if honor stood at the other end.
"There they are—the major and his wife," whispered Snark, gripping his arm and nodding out of the window to where a tall, clean-shaven, white-haired man and a lady who looked the thoroughbred stood anxiously scanning the windows of the cars. Drawn up at the curb behind them was a smart two-seated phaeton, with a pair of clean-limbed bays. The driver was not a negro, as is usually the case in the South, but a tight-faced little man, who looked the typical London cockney that he was.
Garrison never remembered how he got through his introduction to his "uncle" and "aunt." His home-coming was a dream. The sense of shame was choking him as Major Calvert seized both hands in a stone-crushed grip and looked down upon him, steadily, kindly, for a long time.
And then Mrs. Calvert, a dear, middle-aged lady, had her arms about Garrison's neck and was saying over and over again in the impulsive Southern fashion: "I'm so glad to see you, dear. You've your mother's own eyes. You know she and I were chums."
Garrison had choked, and if the eminent lawyer's wonderful vocabulary and eloquent manner had not just then intervened, Garrison then and there would have wilted and confessed everything. If only, he told himself fiercely, Major Calvert and his wife had not been so courteous, so trustful, so simple, so transparently honorable, incapable of crediting a dishonorable action to another, then perhaps it would not have been so difficult.
The ride behind the spanking bays was all a dream; all a dream as they drove up the long, white, wide Logan Pike under the nodding trees and the soft evening sun. Everything was peaceful—the blue sky, the waving corn-fields, the magnolia, the songs of the homing birds. The air tasted rich as with great breaths he drew it into his lungs. It gave him hope. With this air to aid him he might successfully grapple with consumption.
Garrison was in the rear seat of the phaeton with Mrs. Calvert, mechanically answering questions, giving chapters of his fictitious life, while she regarded him steadily with her grave blue eyes. Mr. Snark and the major were in the middle seat, and the eminent lawyer was talking a veritable blue streak, occasionally flinging over his shoulder a bolstering remark in answer to one of Mrs. Calvert's questions, as his quick ear detected a preoccupation in Garrison's tones, and he sensed that there might be a sudden collapse to their rising fortunes. He was in a very good humor, for, besides the ten thousand, and the bonus he would receive from Garrison on the major's death, he had accepted an invitation to stay the week end at Calvert House.
Garrison's inattention was suddenly swept away by the clatter of hoofs audible above the noise contributed by the bays. A horse, which Garrison instinctively, and to his own surprise, judged to be a two-year-old filly, was approaching at a hard gallop down the broad pike. Her rider was a young girl, hatless, who now let loose a boyish shout and waved a gauntleted hand. Mrs. Calvert, smilingly, returned the hail.
"A neighbor and a lifelong friend of ours," she said, turning to Garrison. "I want you to be very good friends, you and Sue. She is a very lovely girl, and I know you will like her. I want you to. She has been expecting your coming. I am sure she is anxious to see what you look like."
Garrison made some absent-minded, commonplace answer. His eyes were kindling strangely as he watched the oncoming filly. His blood was surging through him. Unconsciously, his hands became ravenous for the reins. A vague memory was stirring within him. And then the girl had swung her mount beside the carriage, and Major Calvert, with all the ceremonious courtesy of the South, had introduced her.
She was a slim girl, with a wealth of indefinite hair, now gold, now bronze, and she regarded Garrison with a pair of very steady gray eyes. Beautiful eyes they were; and, as she pulled off her gauntlet and bent down a slim hand from the saddle, he looked up into them. It seemed as if he looked into them for ages. Where had he seen them before? In a dream? And her name was Desha. Where had he heard that name? Memory was struggling furiously to tear away the curtain that hid the past.
"I'm right glad to see you," said the girl, finally, a slow blush coming to the tan of her cheek. She slowly drew away her hand, as, apparently, Garrison had appropriated it forever.
"The honor is mine," returned Garrison mechanically, as he replaced his hat. Where had he heard that throaty voice?
ALSO A READY-MADE HUSBAND.
A week had passed—a week of new life for Garrison, such as he had never dreamed of living. Even in the heyday of his fame, forgotten by him, unlimited wealth had never brought the peace and content of Calvert House. It seemed as if his niche had long been vacant in the household, awaiting his occupancy, and at times he had difficulty in realizing that he had won it through deception, not by right of blood.
The prognostications of the eminent lawyer, Mr. Snark, to the effect that everything would be surprisingly easy, were fully realized. To the major and his wife the birthmark of the spur was convincing proof; and, if more were needed, the thorough coaching of Snark was sufficient.
More than that, a week had not passed before it was made patently apparent to Garrison, much to his surprise and no little dismay, that he was liked for himself alone. The major was a father to him, Mrs. Calvert a mother in every sense of the word. He had seen Sue Desha twice since his "home-coming," for the Calvert and Desha estates joined.
Old Colonel Desha had eyed Garrison somewhat queerly on being first introduced, but he had a poor memory for faces, and was unable to connect the newly discovered nephew of his neighbor and friend with little Billy Garrison, the one-time premiere jockey, whom he had frequently seen ride.
The week's stay at Calvert House had already begun to show its beneficial effect upon Garrison. The regular living, clean air, together with the services of the family doctor, were fighting the consumption germs with no little success. For it had not taken the keen eye of the major nor the loving one of the wife very long to discover that the tuberculosis germ was clutching at Garrison's lungs.
"You've gone the pace, young man," said the venerable family doctor, tapping his patient with the stethoscope. "Gone the pace, and now nature is clamoring for her long-deferred payment."
The major was present, and Garrison felt the hot blood surge to his face, as the former's eyes were riveted upon him.
"Youth is a prodigal spendthrift," put in the major sadly. "But isn't it hereditary, doctor? Perhaps the seed was cultivated, not sown, eh?"
"Assiduously cultivated," replied Doctor Blandly dryly. "You'll have to get back to first principles, my boy. You've made an oven out of your lungs by cigarette smoke. You inhale? Of course. Quite the correct thing. Have you ever blown tobacco smoke through a handkerchief? Yes? Well, it leaves a dark-brown stain, doesn't it? That's what your lungs are like—coated with nicotine. Your wind is gone. That is why cigarettes are so injurious. Not because, as some people tell you, they are made of inferior tobacco, but because you inhale them. That's where the danger is. Smoke a pipe or cigar, if smoke you must; those you don't inhale. Keep your lungs for what God intended them for—fresh air. Then, your vitality is nearly bankrupt. You've made an old curiosity-shop out of your stomach. You require regular sleep—tons of it——"
"But I'm never sleepy," argued Garrison, feeling very much like a schoolboy catechised by his master. "When I wake in the morning, I awake instantly, every faculty alert—"
"Naturally," grunted the old doctor. "Don't you know that is proof positive that you have lived on stimulants? It is artificial. You should be drowsy. I'll wager the first thing you do mornings is to roll a smoke; eh? Exactly. Smoke on an empty stomach! That's got to be stopped. It's the simple life for you. Plenty of exercise in the open air; live, bathe, in sunshine. It is the essence of life. I think, major, we can cure this young prodigal of yours. But he must obey me—implicitly."
Subsequently, Major Calvert had, for him, a serious conversation with Garrison.
"I believe in youth having its fling," he said kindly, in conclusion; "but I don't believe in flinging so far that you cannot retrench safely. From Doctor Blandly's statements, you seem to have come mighty near exceeding the speed limit, my boy."
He bent his white brows and regarded Garrison steadily out of his keen eyes, in which lurked a fund of potential understanding.
"But sorrow," he continued, "acts on different natures in different ways. Your mother's death must have been a great blow to you. It was to me." He looked fixedly at his nails. "I understand fully what it must mean to be thrown adrift on the world at the age you were. I don't wish you ever to think that we knew of your condition at the time. We didn't—not for a moment. I did not learn of your mother's death until long afterward, and only of your father's by sheer accident. But we have already discussed these subjects, and I am only touching on them now because I want you, as you know, to be as good a man as your mother was a woman; not a man like your father was. You want to forget that past life of yours, my boy, for you are to be my heir; to be worthy of the name of Calvert, as I feel confident you will. You have your mother's blood. When your health is improved, we will discuss more serious questions, regarding your future, your career; also—your marriage." He came over and laid a kindly hand on Garrison's shoulder.
And Garrison had been silent. He was in a mental and moral fog. He guessed that his supposed father had not been all that a man should be. The eminent lawyer, Mr. Snark, had said as much. He knew himself that he was nothing that a man should be. His conscience was fully awakened by now. Every worthy ounce of blood he possessed cried out for him to go; to leave Calvert House before it was too late; before the old major and his wife grew to love him as there seemed danger of them doing.
He was commencing to see his deception in its true light; the crime he was daily, hourly, committing against his host and hostess; against all decency. He had no longer a prop to support him with specious argument, for the eminent lawyer had returned to New York, carrying with him his initial proceeds of the rank fraud—Major Calvert's check for ten thousand dollars.
Garrison was face to face with himself; he was beginning to see his dishonesty in all its hideous nakedness. And yet he stayed at Calvert House; stayed on the crater of a volcano, fearing every stranger who passed, fearing to meet every neighbor; fearing that his deception must become known, though reason told him such fear was absurd. He stayed at Calvert House, braving the abhorrence of his better self; stayed not through any appreciation of the Calvert flesh-pots, nor because of any monetary benefits, present or future. He lived in the present, for the hour, oblivious to everything.
For Garrison had fallen in love with his next-door neighbor, Sue Desha. Though he did not know his past life, it was the first time he had understood to the full the meaning of the ubiquitous, potential verb "to love." And, instead of bringing peace and content—the whole gamut of the virtues—hell awoke in little Billy Garrison's soul.
The second time he had seen her was the day following his arrival, and when he had started on Doctor Blandly's open-air treatment.
"I'll have a partner over to put you through your paces in tennis," Mrs. Calvert had said, a quiet twinkle in her eye. And shortly afterward, as Garrison was aimlessly batting the balls about, feeling very much like an overgrown schoolboy, Sue Desha, tennis-racket in hand, had come up the drive.
She was bareheaded, dressed in a blue sailor costume, her sleeves rolled high on her firm, tanned arms. She looked very businesslike, and was, as Garrison very soon discovered.
Three sets were played in profound silence, or, rather, the girl made a spectacle out of Garrison. Her services were diabolically unanswerable; her net and back court game would have merited the earnest attention of an expert, and Garrison hardly knew where a racket began or ended.
At the finish he was covered with perspiration and confusion, while his opponent, apparently, had not begun to warm up. By mutual consent, they occupied a seat underneath a spreading magnolia-tree, and then the girl insisted upon Garrison resuming his coat. They were like two children.
"You'll get cold; you're not strong," said the girl finally, with the manner of a very old and experienced mother. She was four years younger than Garrison. "Put it on; you're not strong. That's right. Always obey."
"I am strong," persisted Garrison, flushing. He felt very like a schoolboy.
The girl eyed him critically, calmly.
"Oh, but you're not; not a little bit. Do you know you're very—very—rickety? Very rickety, indeed."
Garrison eyed his flannels in visible perturbation. They flapped about his thin, wiry shanks most disagreeably. He was painfully conscious of his elbows, of his thin chest. Painfully conscious that the girl was physical perfection, he was a parody of manhood. He looked up, with a smile, and met the girl's frank eyes.
"I think rickety is just the word," he agreed, spanning a wrist with a finger and thumb.
"You cannot play tennis, can you?" asked the girl dryly. "Not a little, tiny bit."
"No; not a little bit."
"Golf?" Head on one side.
"Gloriously. Like a stone."
"Run?" Head on the other side.
"If there's any one after me."
"Ride? Every one rides down this-away, you know."
A sudden vague passion mouthed at Garrison's heart. "Ride?" he echoed, eyes far away. "I—I think so."
"Only think so! Humph!" She swung a restless foot. "Can't you do anything?"
"Well," critically. "I think I can eat, and sleep——"
"And talk nonsense. Let me see your hand." She took it imperiously, palm up, in her lap, and examined it critically, as if it were the paw of some animal. "My! it's as small as a woman's!" she exclaimed, in dismay. "Why, you could wear my glove, I believe." There was one part disdain to three parts amusement, ridicule, in her throaty voice.
"It is small," admitted Garrison, eyeing it ruefully. "I wish I had thought of asking mother to give me a bigger one. Is it a crime?"
"No; a calamity." Her foot was going restlessly. "I like your eyes," she said calmly, at length.
Garrison bowed. He was feeling decidedly uncomfortable. He had never met a girl like this. Nothing seemed sacred to her. She was as frank as the wind, or sun.
"You know," she continued, her great eyes half-closed, "I was awfully anxious to see you when I heard you were coming home——"
She turned and faced him, her grey eyes opened wide. "Why? Isn't one always interested in one's future husband?"
It was Garrison who was confused. Something caught at his throat. He stammered, but words would not come. He laughed nervously.
"Didn't you know we were engaged?" asked the girl, with childlike simplicity and astonishment. "Oh, yes. How superb!"
"Of course. Before we were born. Your uncle and aunt and my parents had it all framed up. I thought you knew. A cut-and-dried affair. Are you not just wild with delight?"
"But—but," expostulated Garrison, his face white, "supposing the real me—I mean, supposing I had not come home? Supposing I had been dead?"
"Why, then," she replied calmly, "then, I suppose, I would have a chance of marrying some one I really loved. But what is the use of supposing? Here you are, turned up at the last minute, like a bad penny, and here I am, very much alive. Ergo, our relatives' wishes respectfully fulfilled, and—connubial misery ad libitum. Mes condolences. If you feel half as bad as I do, I really feel sorry for you. But, frankly, I think the joke is decidedly on me."
Garrison was silent, staring with hard eyes at the ground. He could not begin to analyze his thoughts.
"You are not complimentary, at all events," he said quietly at length.
"So every one tells me," she sighed.
"I did not know of this arrangement," he added, looking up, a queer smile twisting his lips.
"And now you are lonesomely miserable, like I am," she rejoined, crossing a restless leg. "No doubt you left your ideal in New York. Perhaps you are married already. Are you?" she cried eagerly, seizing his arm.
"No such good luck—for you," he added, under his breath.
"I thought so," she sighed resignedly. "Of course no one would have you. It's hopeless."
"It's not," he argued sharply, his pride, anger in revolt. He, who had no right to any claim. "We're not compelled to marry each other. It's a free country. It is ridiculous, preposterous."
"Oh, don't get so fussy!" she interrupted petulantly. "Don't you think I've tried to kick over the traces? And I've had more time to think of it than you—all my life. It is a family institution. Your uncle pledged his nephew, if he should have one, and my parents pledged me. We are hostages to their friendship. They wished to show how much they cared for one another by making us supremely miserable for life. Of course, I spent my life in arranging how you should look, if you ever came home—which I devoutly hoped you wouldn't. It wouldn't be so difficult, you see, if you happened to match my ideals. Then it would be a real love-feast, with parents' blessings and property thrown in to boot."
"And then I turned up—a little, under-sized, nothingless pea, instead of the regular patented, double-action, stalwart Adonis of your imagination," added Garrison dryly.
"How well you describe yourself!" said the girl admiringly.
"It must be horrible!" he condoled half-cynically.
"And of course you, too, were horribly disappointed?" she added, after a moment's pause, tapping her oxford with tennis-racket.
Garrison turned and deliberately looked into her gray eyes.
"Yes; I am—horribly," he lied calmly. "My ideal is the dark, quiet girl of the clinging type."
"She wouldn't have much to cling to," sniffed the girl. "We'll be miserable together, then. Do you know, I almost hate you! I think I do. I'm quite sure I do."
Garrison eyed her in silence, the smile on his lips. She returned the look, her face flushed.
"You'll have to call me Sue. You're Billy; I'm Sue. That's one of the minor penalties. Our prenatal engagement affords us this charming familiarity," she interrupted scathingly.
"Sue, then. Sue," continued Garrison quietly, "from your type, I thought you fashioned of better material. Now, don't explode—yet a while. I mean property and parents' blessing should not weigh a curse with you. Yes; I said curse—damn, if you wish. If you loved, this burlesque engagement should not stand in your way. You would elope with the man you love, and let property and parents' blessings——"
"That would be a good way for you to get out of the muddle unscathed, wouldn't it?" she flashed in. "How chivalrous! Why don't you elope with some one—the dark, clinging girl—and let me free? You want me to suffer, not yourself. Just like you Yankees—cold-blooded icicles!"
Garrison considered. "I never thought of that, honestly!" he said, with a laugh. "I would elope quick enough, if I had only myself to consider."
"Then your dark, clinging girl is lacking in the very virtues you find so woefully missing in me. She won't take a risk. I cannot say I blame her," she added, scanning the brooding Garrison.
He laughed good-humoredly. "How you must detest me! But cheer up, my sister in misery! You will marry the man you love, all right. Never fear."
"Will I?" she asked enigmatically. Her eyes were half-shut, watching Garrison's profile. "Will I, soothsayer?"
He nodded comprehensively, bitterly.
"You will. One of the equations of the problem will be eliminated, and thus will be found the answer."
"Which?" she asked softly, heel tapping gravel.
"The unnecessary one, of course. Isn't it always the unnecessary one?"
"You mean," she said slowly, "that you will go away?"
"Of course," she added, after a pause, "the dark, clinging girl is waiting?"
"Of course," he bantered.
"It must be nice to be loved like that." Her eyes were wide and far away. "To have one renounce relatives, position, wealth—all, for love. It must be very nice, indeed."
Still, Garrison was silent. He had cause to be.
"Do you think it is right, fair," continued the girl slowly, her brow wrinkled speculatively, "to break your uncle's and aunt's hearts for the sake of a girl? You know how they have longed for your home-coming. How much you mean to them! You are all they have. Don't you think you are selfish—very selfish?"
"I believe the Bible says to leave all and cleave unto your wife," returned Garrison.
"Yes. But not your intended wife."
"But, you see, she is of the cleaving type."
"And why this hurry? Aren't you depriving your uncle and aunt unnecessarily early?"
"But it is the only answer, as you pointed out. You then would be free."
He did not know why he was indulging in this repartee. Perhaps because the situation was so novel, so untenable. But a strange, new force was working in him that day, imparting a peculiar twist to his humor. He was hating himself. He was hopeless, cynical, bitter.
If he could have laid hands upon that eminent lawyer, Mr. Snark, he would have wrung his accomplished neck to the best of his ability. He, Snark, must have known about this prenatal engagement. And his bitterness, his hopelessness, were all the more real, for already he knew that he cared, and cared a great deal, for this curious girl with the steady gray eyes and wealth of indefinite hair; cared more than he would confess even to himself. It seemed as if he always had cared; as if he had always been looking into the depths of those great gray eyes. They were part of a dream, the focusing-point of the misty past—forever out of focus.
The girl had been considering his answer, and now she spoke.
"Of course," she said gravely, "you are not sincere when you say your primal reason for leaving would be in order to set me free. Of course you are not sincere."
"Is insincerity necessarily added to my numerous physical infirmities?" he bantered.
"Not necessarily. But there is always the love to make a virtue of necessity—especially when there's some one waiting on necessity."
"But did I say that would be my primal reason for leaving—setting you free? I thought I merely stated it as one of the following blessings attendant on virtue."
"Equivocation means that you were not sincere. Why don't you go, then?"
"Eh?" Garrison looked up sharply at the tone of her voice.
"Why don't you go? Hurry up! Reward the clinging girl and set me free."
"Is there such a hurry? Won't you let me ferret out a pair of pajamas, to say nothing of good-bys?"