Half A Rogue
To The Memory Of My Mother
Half A Rogue
It was Warrington's invariable habit—when no business or social engagement pressed him to go elsewhere—to drop into a certain quaint little restaurant just off Broadway for his dinners. It was out of the way; the throb and rattle of the great commercial artery became like the far-off murmur of the sea, restful rather than annoying. He always made it a point to dine alone, undisturbed. The proprietor nor his silent-footed waiters had the slightest idea who Warrington was. To them he was simply a profitable customer who signified that he dined there in order to be alone. His table was up stairs. Below, there was always the usual dinner crowd till theater time; and the music had the faculty of luring his thoughts astray, being, as he was, fonder of music than of work. As a matter of fact, it was in this little restaurant that he winnowed the day's ideas, revamped scenes, trimmed the rough edges of his climaxes, revised this epigram or rejected this or that line; all on the backs of envelopes and on the margins of newspapers. In his den at his bachelor apartments, he worked; but here he dreamed, usually behind the soothing, opalescent veil of Madame Nicotine.
What a marvelous thing a good after-dinner cigar is! In the smoke of it the poor man sees his ships come in, the poet sees his muse beckoning with hands full of largess, the millionaire reverts to his early struggles, and the lover sees his divinity in a thousand graceful poses.
To-night, however, Warrington's cigar was without magic. He was out of sorts. Things had gone wrong at the rehearsal that morning. The star had demanded the removal of certain lines which gave the leading man an opportunity to shine in the climax of the third act. He had labored a whole month over this climax, and he revolted at the thought of changing it to suit the whim of a capricious woman.
Everybody had agreed that this climax was the best the young dramatist had yet constructed. A critic who had been invited to a reading had declared that it lacked little of being great. And at this late hour the star wanted it changed in order to bring her alone in the lime-light! It was preposterous. As Warrington was on the first wave of popularity, the business manager and the stage manager both agreed to leave the matter wholly in the dramatist's hands. He resolutely declined to make a single alteration in the scene. There was a fine storm. The star declared that if the change was not made at once she would leave the company. In making this declaration she knew her strength. Her husband was rich; a contract was nothing to her. There was not another actress of her ability to be found; the season was too late. There was not another woman available, nor would any other manager lend one. As the opening performance was but two weeks hence, you will realize why Warrington's mood this night was anything but amiable.
He scowled at his cigar. There was always something, some sacrifice to make, and seldom for art's sake. It is all very well to witness a play from the other side of the footlights; everything appears to work out so smoothly, easily and without effort. To this phenomenon is due the amateur dramatist—because it looks simple. A play is not written; it is built, like a house. In most cases the dramatist is simply the architect. The novelist has comparatively an easy road to travel. The dramatist is beset from all sides, now the business manager—that is to say, the box-office—now the stage manager, now the star, now the leading man or woman. Jealousy's green eyes peer from behind every scene. The dramatist's ideal, when finally presented to the public, resembles those mutilated marbles that decorate the museums of Rome and Naples. Only there is this difference: the public can easily imagine what the sculptor was about, but seldom the dramatist.
Warrington was a young man, tolerably good-looking, noticeably well set up. When they have good features, a cleft chin and a generous nose, clean-shaven men are good to look at. He had fine eyes, in the corners of which always lurked mirth and mischief; for he possessed above all things an inexhaustible fund of dry humor. His lines seldom provoked rough laughter; rather, silent chuckles.
Warrington's scowl abated none. In business, women were generally nuisances; they were always taking impossible stands. He would find some way out; he was determined not to submit to the imperious fancies of an actress, however famous she might be.
"Sir, will you aid a lady in distress?" The voice was tremulous, but as rich in tone as the diapason of an organ.
Warrington looked up from his cigar to behold a handsome young woman standing at the side of his table. Her round, smooth cheeks were flushed, and on the lower lids of her splendid dark eyes tears of shame trembled and threatened to fall. Behind her stood a waiter, of impassive countenance, who was adding up the figures on a check, his movement full of suggestion.
The dramatist understood the situation at once. The young lady had ordered dinner, and, having eaten it, found that she could not pay for it. It was, to say the least, a trite situation. But what can a man do when a pretty woman approaches him and pleads for assistance? So Warrington rose.
"What may the trouble be?" he asked coldly, for all that he instantly recognized her to be a person of breeding and refinement.
"I—I have lost my purse, and I have no money to pay the waiter." She made this confession bravely and frankly.
He looked about. They were alone. She interpreted his glance rather shrewdly.
"There were no women to appeal to. The waiter refused to accept my word, and I really can't blame him. I had not even the money to send a messenger home."
One of the trembling tears escaped and rolled down the blooming cheek. Warrington surrendered. He saw that this was an exceptional case. The girl was truly in distress. He knew his New York thoroughly; a man or woman without funds is treated with the finished cruelty with which the jovial Romans amused themselves with the Christians. Lack of money in one person creates incredulity in another. A penniless person is invariably a liar and a thief. Only one sort of person is pitied in New York: the person who has more money than she or he can possibly spend.
The girl fumbled in her hand-bag and produced a card, which she gave to Warrington—"Katherine Challoner." He looked from the card to the girl and then back to the card. Somehow, the name was not wholly unfamiliar, but at that moment he could not place it.
"Waiter, let me see the check," he said. It amounted to two dollars and ten cents. Warrington smiled. "Scarcely large enough to cause all this trouble," he added reassuringly. "I will attend to it."
The waiter bowed and withdrew. So long as the check was paid he did not care who paid it.
"Oh, it is so horribly embarrassing! What must you think of me?" She twisted her gloves with a nervous strength which threatened to rend them.
"May I give you a bit of friendly advice?" he asked.
She nodded, hiding the fall of the second tear.
"Well, never dine alone in public; at any rate, in the evening. It is not wise for a woman to do so. She subjects herself to any number of embarrassments."
She did not reply, and for a moment he believed that she was about to break down completely. He aimlessly brushed the cigar ashes from the tablecloth. He hated a scene in public. In the theater it was different; it was a part of the petty round of business to have the leading lady burst into tears when things didn't suit her. What fools women are in general! But the girl surprised him by holding up determinedly, and sinking her white teeth into her lips to smother the sob which rose in her throat.
"Be seated," he said, drawing out the opposite chair.
A wave of alarm spread over her face. She clasped her hands.
"Sir, if you are a gentleman—"
Warrington interrupted her by giving her his card, which was addressed. She glanced at it through a blur of tears, then sat down. He shrugged his shoulders slightly; his vanity was touched. There was, then, a young woman in New York who had not heard of Richard Warrington.
"In asking you to be seated," he explained, "it was in order that you might wait in comfort while I despatched a messenger to your home. Doubtless you have a brother, a father, or some male relative, who will come at once to your assistance." Which proved that Warrington was prudent.
But instead of brightening as he expected she would, she straightened in her chair, while her eyes widened with horror, as if she saw something frightful in perspective.
What the deuce could be the matter now? he wondered, as he witnessed this inexplicable change.
"No, no! You must not send a messenger!" she protested.
"No, no!" tears welling into her beautiful eyes again. They were beautiful, he was forced to admit.
"But," he persisted, "you wished the waiter to do so. I do not understand." His tone became formal again.
"I have reasons. Oh, heavens! I am the most miserable woman in all the world!" She suddenly bowed her head upon her hands and her shoulders rose and fell with silent sobs.
Warrington stared at her, dumfounded. NOW what? He glanced cautiously around as if in search of some avenue of escape. The waiter, ever watchful, assumed that he was wanted, and made as though to approach the table; but Warrington warned him off. All distrust in the girl vanished. Decidedly she was in great trouble of some sort, and it wasn't because she could not pay a restaurant check. Women—and especially New York women—do not shed tears when a stranger offers to settle for their dinner checks.
"If you will kindly explain to me what the trouble is," visibly embarrassed, "perhaps I can help you. Have you run away from home?" he asked.
A negative nod.
"Are you married?"
Another negative nod.
Warrington scratched his chin. "Have you done anything wrong?"
A decided negative shake of the head. At any other time the gesticulation of the ostrich plume, so close to his face, would have amused him; but there was something eminently pathetic in the diapasm which drifted toward him from the feather.
"Come, come; you may trust me thoroughly. If you are afraid to return home alone—"
He was interrupted by an affirmative nod this time. Possibly, he conjectured, the girl had started out to elope and had fortunately paused at the brink.
"Will it help you at all if I go home with you?" he asked.
His ear caught a muffled "Yes."
Warrington beckoned to the waiter.
"Order a cab at once," he said.
The waiter hurried away, with visions of handsome tips.
Presently the girl raised her head and sat up. Her eyes, dark as shadows in still waters, glistened.
"Be perfectly frank with me; and if I can be of service to you, do not hesitate to command me." He eyed her thoughtfully. Everything attached to her person suggested elegance. Her skin was as fine as vellum; her hair had a dash of golden bronze in it; her hands were white and shapely, and the horn on the tips of the fingers shone rosily. Now, what in the world was there to trouble a young woman who possessed these favors, who wore jewels on her fingers and sable on her shoulders? "Talk to me just as you would to a brother," he added presently.
"You will take this ring," she said irrelevantly. She slipped a fine sapphire from one of her fingers and pushed it across the table.
"And for what reason?" he cried.
"Security for my dinner. I can not accept charity," with a hint of hauteur which did not in the least displease him.
"But, my dear young woman, I can not accept this ring. You have my address. You may send the sum whenever you please. I see no reason why, as soon as you arrive home, you can not refund the small sum of two dollars and ten cents. It appears to me very simple."
"There will be no one at home, not even the servants," wearily.
Warrington's brows came together. Was the girl fooling him, after all? But for what reason?
"You have me confused," he admitted. "I can do nothing blindly. Tell me what the trouble is."
"How can I tell you, an absolute stranger? It is all so frightful, and I am so young!"
Frightful? Young? He picked up his half-finished cigar, but immediately let it fall. He stole a look at his watch; it was seven.
"Oh, I know what you must think of me," despairingly. "Nobody believes in another's real misfortune in this horrid city. There are so many fraudulent methods used to obtain people's sympathies that every one has lost trust. I had no money when I entered here; but outside it was so dark. Whenever I stopped, wondering where I should go, men turned and stared at me. Once a policeman peered into my face suspiciously. And I dared not return home, I dared not! No, no; I promise not to embarrass you with any more tears." She brushed her eyes with a rapid movement.
Warrington's success as a dramatist was due largely to his interest in all things that passed under his notice. Nothing was too trivial to observe. The tragic threads of human life, which escaped the eyes of the passing many or were ignored by them, always aroused his interest and attention; and more than once he had picked up one of these threads and followed it to the end. Out of these seemingly insignificant things he often built one of those breathless, nerve-gripping climaxes which had, in a few years' time, made him famous. In the present case he believed that he had stumbled upon something worthy his investigation. This handsome young woman, richly dressed, who dared not go home, who had jewels but no money—there was some mystery surrounding her, and he determined to find out what it was. And then, besides, for all that he was worldly, he was young and still believed in his Keats.
"If, as you say, there is no one at your home, why do you fear to go there?" he asked, with some remnant of caution.
"It is the horror of the place," shuddering; "the horror!" And indeed, at that moment, her face expressed horror.
"Is it some one dead?" lowering his voice.
"Dead?" with a flash of cold anger in her eyes. "Yes—to me, to truth, to honor; dead to everything that should make life worth the living. Oh, it is impossible to say more in this place, to tell you here what has happened this day to rob me of all my tender illusions. This morning I awoke happy, my heart was light; now, nothing but shame and misery!" She hid her eyes for a space behind the back of her hand.
"I will take you home," he said simply.
"You trust me?"
"Why not? I am a man, and can take care of myself."
What a voice! It possessed a marvelous quality, low and penetrating, like the voices of great singers and actresses. Any woman with such a voice ...
Here the waiter returned to announce that a cab awaited them in the street below. Warrington paid the two checks, dropped a liberal tip, rose and got into his coat. The girl also rose, picked up his card, glanced carelessly at it, and put it into her hand-bag—a little gold-link affair worth many dinners. It was the voice and these evidences of wealth, more than anything else, that determined Warrington. Frauds were always perpetrated for money, and this exquisite creature had a small fortune on her fingers.
Silently they left the restaurant, entered the cab, and went rolling out into Broadway. Warrington, repressing his curiosity, leaned back against the cushions. The girl looked dully ahead.
What manner of tragedy was about to unfold itself to his gaze?
The house was situated in Central Park, West. It was of modern architecture, a residence such as only rich men can afford to build. It was in utter gloom; not a single light could be seen at any window. It looked, indeed, as if tragedy sat enthroned within. Warrington's spine wrinkled a bit as he got out of the cab and offered his hand to the girl.
Mute and mysterious as a sphinx, the girl walked to the steps, not even looking around to see if he was coming after her. Perhaps she knew the power of curiosity. Without hesitance she mounted the steps; he followed, a step behind. At the door, however, she paused. He could hear her breath coming in quick gasps. Oddly enough, the recollection of some detective stories flashed through his mind.
"What is it?" he asked.
"Nothing, nothing; only I am afraid."
She stooped; there was a grating sound, a click, and the door opened. Warrington was a man of courage, but he afterward confessed that it took all his nerve force to move his foot across the threshold.
"Do not be frightened," she said calmly; "there is nothing but ghosts here to frighten any one."
"Have you brought me here to tell me a ghost story?" with an effort at lightness. What misery the girl's tones conveyed to his ears!
"The ghosts of things that ought to, and should, have been; are not those the most melancholy?" She pressed a button and flooded the hallway with light.
His keen eyes roving met nothing but signs of luxury. She led him into the library and turned on the lights. Not a servant anywhere in sight; the great house seemed absolutely empty. Not even the usual cat or dog came romping inquisitively into the room. The shelves of books stirred his sense of envy; what a den for a literary man to wander in! There were beautiful marbles, splendid paintings, taste and refinement visible everywhere.
Warrington stood silently watching the girl as she took off her hat and carelessly tossed it on the reading-table. The Russian sables were treated with like indifference. The natural abundance of her hair amazed him; and what a figure, so elegant, rounded, and mature! The girl, without noticing him, walked the length of the room and back several times. Once or twice she made a gesture. It was not addressed to him, but to some conflict going on in her mind.
He sat down on the edge of a chair and fell to twirling his hat, a sign that he was not perfectly at his ease.
"I am wondering where I shall begin," she said.
Warrington turned down his coat-collar, and the action seemed to relieve him of the sense of awkwardness.
"Luxury!" she began, with a sweep of her hand which was full of majesty and despair. "Why have I chosen you out of all the thousands? Why should I believe that my story would interest you? Well, little as I have seen of the world, I have learned that woman does not go to woman in cases such as mine is." And then pathetically: "I know no woman to whom I might go. Women are like daws; their sympathy comes but to peck. Do you know what it is to be alone in a city? The desert is not loneliness; it is only solitude. True loneliness is to be found only in great communities. To be without a single friend or confidant, when thousand of beings move about you; to pour your sorrows into cold, unfeeling ears; to seek sympathy in blind eyes—that is loneliness. That is the loneliness that causes the heart to break."
Warrington's eyes never left hers; he was fascinated.
"Luxury!" she repeated bitterly. "Surrounding me with all a woman might desire—paintings that charm the eye, books that charm the mind, music that charms the ear. Money!"
"Philosophy in a girl!" thought Warrington. His hat became motionless.
"It is all a lie, a lie!" The girl struck her hands together, impotent in her wrath.
It was done so naturally that Warrington, always the dramatist, made a mental note of the gesture.
"I was educated in Paris and Berlin; my musical education was completed in Dresden. Like all young girls with music-loving souls, I was something of a poet. I saw the beautiful in everything; sometimes the beauty existed only in my imagination. I dreamed; I was happy. I was told that I possessed a voice such as is given to few. I sang before the Emperor of Austria at a private musicale. He complimented me. The future was bright indeed. Think of it; at twenty I retained all my illusions! I am now twenty-three, and not a single illusion is left. I saw but little of my father and mother, which is not unusual with children of wealthy parents. The first shock that came to my knowledge was the news that my mother had ceased to live with my father. I was recalled. There were no explanations. My father met me at the boat. He greeted my effusive caresses—caresses that I had saved for years!—with careless indifference. This was the second shock. What did it all mean? Where was my mother? My father did not reply. When I reached home I found that all the servants I had known in my childhood days were gone. From the new ones I knew that I should learn nothing of the mystery which, like a pall, had suddenly settled down upon me."
She paused, her arms hanging listless at her sides, her gaze riveted upon a pattern in the rug at her feet. Warrington sat like a man of stone; her voice had cast a spell upon him.
"I do not know why I tell you these things. It may weary you. I do not care. Madness lay in silence. I had to tell some one. This morning I found out all. My mother left my father because he was ... a thief!"
"A thief!" fell mechanically from Warrington's lips.
"A thief, bold, unscrupulous; not the petty burglar, no. A man who has stolen funds intrusted to him for years; a man who has plundered the orphan and the widow, the most despicable of all men. My mother died of shame, and I knew nothing. My father left last night for South America, taking with him all the available funds, leaving me a curt note of explanation. I have neither money, friends, nor home. The newspapers as yet know nothing; but to-morrow, to-morrow! The banks have seized everything."
She continued her story. Sometimes she was superb in her wrath; at others, abject in her misery. She seemed to pass through the whole gamut of the passions.
And all this while it ran through Warrington's head—"What a theme for a play! What a voice!"
He pitied the girl from the bottom of his heart; but what could he do for her other than offer her cold sympathy? He was ill at ease in the face of this peculiar tragedy.
All at once the girl stopped and faced him, There was a smile on her lips, a smile that might be likened to a flash of sunlight on a wintry day. Directly the smile melted into a laugh, mellow, mischievous, reverberating.
Warrington sat up stiffly in his chair.
"I beg your pardon!" he said.
The girl sat down before a small writing-table. She reached among some papers and finally found what she sought.
"Mr. Warrington, all this has been in very bad taste; I frankly confess it. There are two things you may do: leave the house in anger, or remain to forgive me this imposition."
"I fail to understand." He was not only angered, but bewildered.
"I have deceived you."
"You mean that you have lured me here by trick? That you have played upon my sympathies to gratify ..."
"Wait a moment," she interrupted proudly, her cheeks darkening richly. "A trick, it is true; but there are extenuating circumstances. What I have told you HAS happened, only it was not to-day nor yesterday. Please remain seated till I have done. I AM poor; I WAS educated in the cities I have named; I have to earn my living."
She rose and came over to his chair. She gave him a letter.
"Read this; you will fully understand."
Warrington experienced a mild chill as he saw a letter addressed to him, and his rude scribble at the bottom of it.
Miss Challoner—I beg to state that I have neither the time nor the inclination to bother with amateur actresses. Richard Warrington.
"It was scarcely polite, was it?" she asked, with a tinge of irony. "It was scarcely diplomatic, either, you will admit. I simply asked you for work. Surely, an honest effort to obtain employment ought not to be met with insolence."
He stared dumbly at the evidence in his hand. He recalled distinctly the rage that was in his heart when he penned this note. The stage manager had lost some valuable manuscript that had to be rewritten from memory, the notes having been destroyed.
"For weeks," said the girl, "I have tried to get a hearing. Manager after manager I sought; all refused to see me. I have suffered a hundred affronts, all in silence. Your manager I saw, but he referred me to you, knowing that probably I should never find you. But I was determined. So I wrote; that was your answer. I confess that at the time I was terribly angry, for courtesy is a simple thing and within reach of every one."
To receive a lesson in manners from a young woman, when that young woman is handsome and talented, is not a very pleasant experience. But Warrington was, a thorough gentleman, and he submitted with grace.
"I know that you are a busy man, that you are besieged with applications. You ought, at least, to have formal slips, such as editors have. I have confidence in my ability to act, the confidence which talent gives to all persons. After receiving your letter I was more than ever determined to see you. So I resorted to this subterfuge. It was all very distasteful to me; but I possess a vein of wilfulness. This is not my home. It is the home of a friend who was kind enough to turn it over to me this night, relying upon my wit to bring about this meeting."
"It was neatly done," was Warrington's comment. He was not angry now at all. In fact, the girl interested him tremendously. "I am rather curious to learn how you went about it."
"You are not angry?"
This seemed to satisfy her.
"Well, first I learned where you were in the habit of dining. All day long a messenger has been following you. A telephone brought me to the restaurant. The rest you know. It was simple."
"Very simple," laconically.
"You listened and believed. I have been watching you. You believed everything I have told you. You have even been calculating how this scene might go in a play. Have I convinced you that I have the ability to act?"
Warrington folded the letter and balanced it on his palm.
"You have fooled me completely; that ought to be sufficient recommendation."
"Thank you." But her eyes were eager with anxiety.
"Miss Challoner, I apologize for this letter. I do more than that. I promise not to leave this house till you agree to call at the theater at ten to-morrow morning." He was smiling, and Warrington had a pleasant smile. He had an idea besides. "Good fortune put it into my head to follow you here. I see it all now, quite plainly. I am in a peculiar difficulty, and I honestly believe that you can help me out of it. How long would it take you to learn a leading part? In fact, the principal part?"
"Have you had any experience?"
"A short season out west in a stock company."
"And I love work."
"Do not build any great hopes," he warned, "for your chance depends upon the whim of another woman. But you have my word and my good offices that something shall be put in your way. You will come at ten?" drawing on his gloves.
"I believe that we both have been wise to-night; though it is true that a man dislikes being a fool and having it made manifest."
"And how about the woman scorned?" with an enchanting smile.
"It is kismet," he acknowledged.
Warrington laid down his pen, brushed his smarting eyes, lighted his pipe, and tilted back his chair. With his hands clasped behind his head, he fell into a waking dream, that familiar pastime of the creative mind. It was half after nine, and he had been writing steadily since seven. The scenario was done; the villain had lighted his last cigarette, the hero had put his arms protectingly around the heroine, and the irascible rich uncle had been brought to terms. All this, of course, figuratively speaking; for no one ever knew what the plot of that particular play was, insomuch as Warrington never submitted the scenario to his manager, an act which caused almost a serious rupture between them. But to-night his puppets were moving hither and thither across the stage, pulsing with life; they were making entrances and exits; developing this climax and that; with wit and satire, humor and pathos. It was all very real to the dreamer.
The manuscript lay scattered about the top of his broad flat desk, and the floor beside the waste-basket was flaked with the remains of various futile lines and epigrams. The ash-pan was littered with burnt matches, ends of cigars and pipe tobacco, while the ash-crumbs speckled all dark objects, not excepting the green rug under his feet. Warrington smoked incessantly while at work, now a cigarette, now a cigar, now a pipe. Specialists declare with cold authoritative positiveness that the use of tobacco blunts the thought, dulls the edge of invention; but Warrington knew better. Many a night he had thrown his coat over his smoking-jacket and dashed down the street to the corner drug-store for a fresh supply of tobacco. He simply could not work without it. I do not know that he saw his heroes and heroines any plainer for the smoke; but I do know that when their creator held a cigar between his teeth, they frowned less, and the spirit of malice and irony, of which he was master, became subdued.
Warrington was thirty-five now. The grey hair at the temples and the freshness of his complexion gave him a singularly youthful appearance. His mouth was even-lipped and rather pleasure-loving, which, without the balance of a strong nose, would have appealed to you as effeminate. Warrington's was what the wise phrenologists call the fighting nose; not pugnacious, but the nose of a man who will fight for what he believes to be right, fight bitterly and fearlessly. To-day he was famous, but only yesterday he had been fighting, retreating, throwing up this redoubt, digging this trench; fighting, fighting. Poverty, ignorance and contempt he fought; fought dishonesty, and vice, and treachery, and discouragement.
Presently he leaned toward the desk and picked up a letter. He read it thoughtfully, and his brows drew together. A smile, whimsically sad, stirred his lips, and was gone. It was written by a girl or a very young woman. There was no signature, no address, no veiled request for an autograph. It was one of those letters which bring to the novelist or dramatist, or any man of talent, a real and singular pleasure. It is precious because honest and devoid of the tawdry gilt of flattery.
Richard Warrington—You will smile, I know, when you read this letter, doubtless so many like it are mailed to you day by day. You will toss it into the waste-basket, too, as it deserves to be. But it had to be written. However, I feel that I am not writing to a mere stranger, but to a friend whom I know well. Three times you have entered into my life, and on each occasion you have come by a different avenue. I was ill at school when you first appeared to me. It was a poem in a magazine. It was so full of the spirit of joyousness, so full of kindliness, so rich in faith and hope, that I cried over it, cut it out and treasured it, and re-read it often in the lonely hours when things discouraged me,—things which mean so little to women but so much to girls. Two years went by, and then came that brave book! It was like coming across a half-forgotten friend. I actually ran home with it, and sat up all night to complete it. It was splendid. It was the poem matured, broadened, rounded. And finally your first play! How I listened to every word, watched every move! I wrote you a letter that night, but tore it up, not having the courage to send it to you. How versatile you must be: a poem, a book, a play! I have seen all your plays these five years, plays merry and gay, sad and grave. How many times you have mysteriously told me to be brave! I envy and admire you. What an exquisite thing it must be to hear one's thoughts spoken across the footlights! Please do not laugh. It would hurt me to know that you could laugh at my honest admiration. You won't laugh, will you? I am sure you will value this letter for its honesty rather than for its literary quality. I have often wondered what you were like. But after all, that can not matter, since you are good and kind and wise; for you can not be else, and write the lofty things you do.
Warrington put the letter away, placed it carefully among the few things he held of value. It would not be true to say that it left him unaffected. There was an innocent barb in this girlish admiration, and it pierced the quick of all that was good in him.
"Good and kind and wise," he mused. "If only the child knew! Heigh-ho! I am kind, sometimes I've been good, and often wise. Well, I can't disillusion the child, happily; she has given me no address."
He rose, wheeled his chair to a window facing the street, and opened it. The cool fresh April air rushed in, clearing the room of its opalescent clouds, cleansing his brain of the fever that beset it. He leaned with his elbows on the sill and, breathed noisily, gratefully. Above, heaven had decked her broad bosom with her flickering stars, and from the million lamps of the great city rose and floated a tarnished yellow haze. So many sounds go forth to make the voices of the night: somewhere a child was crying fretfully, across the way the faint tinkle of a piano, the far-off rattle of the elevated, a muffled laugh from a window, above, the rat-tat of a cab-horse, the breeze in the ivy clinging to the walls of the church next door, the quarrelsome chirp of the sleepy sparrows; and then, recurrence. Only the poet or the man in pain opens his ears to these sounds.
Over on Broadway a child of his fertile brain was holding the rapt attention of several hundred men and women; and across the broad land that night four other dramas were being successfully acted. People were discussing his theories, denouncing or approving his conception of life. The struggle was past, his royalties were making him rich. And here he was this night, drinking the cup of bitterness, of unhappiness, the astringent draft of things that might and should have been. The coveted grape was sour, the desired apple was withered. Those who traverse the road with Folly as boon companion find only emptiness.
And so it was with Warrington. He had once been good, wholly good and kind and wise, lofty as a rural poet who has seen nothing of life save nature's pure and visible face. In the heat of battle he had been strong, but success had subtly eaten into the fibers and loosed his hold, and had swept him onward into that whirlpool out of which no man emerges wholly undefiled. It takes a great and strong man to withstand success, and Warrington was only a genius. It was not from lack of will power; rather it was because he was easy-going and loved pleasure for its own sake. He had fought and starved, and now for the jingle of the guinea in his pocket and the junkets of the gay! The prodigality of these creative beings is not fully understood by the laity, else they would forgive more readily the transgressions. Besides, the harbor of family ties is a man's moral bulwark; and Warrington drifted hither and thither with no harbor in view at all.
He had been an orphan since his birth; a mother meant simply a giver of life, and a father meant, even less. Until he had read the reverse and obverse sides of life, his sense of morality had lain dormant and untilled. Such was his misfortune. The solitary relative he laid claim to was an aged aunt, his father's sister. For her he had purchased a beautiful place in the town of his birth, vaguely intending to live out his old age there.
There had been a fight for all he possessed. Good had not come easily, as it does to some particularly favored mortals. There was no family, aristocracy to back him up, no melancholy recollections of past grandeur to add the interest of romance to his endeavors. His father had been a poor man of the people, a farmer. And yet Warrington was by no means plebeian. Somewhere there was a fine strain. It had been a fierce struggle to complete a college education. In the summer-time he had turned his hand to all sorts of things to pay his winter's tuition. He had worked as clerk in summer hotels, as a surveyor's assistant in laying street-railways, he had played at private secretary, he had hawked vegetables about the streets at dawn. Happily, he had no false pride. Chance moves quite as mysteriously as the tides. On leaving college he had secured a minor position on one of the daily newspapers, and had doggedly worked his way up to the coveted position of star-reporter. Here the latent power of the story-teller, the poet and the dramatist was awakened; in any other pursuit the talent would have quietly died, as it has died in the breasts of thousands who, singularly enough, have not stood in the path of Chance.
Socially, Warrington was one of the many nobodies; and if he ever attended dinners and banquets and balls, it was in the capacity of reporter. But his cynical humor, which was manifest even in his youth, saved him the rancor and envy which is the portion of the outsider.
At length the great city called him, and the lure was strong. He answered, and the long battle was on. Sometimes he dined, sometimes he slept; for there's an old Italian saying that he who sleeps dines. He drifted from one paper to another, lived in prosperity one week and in poverty the next; haggled with pawnbrokers and landladies, and borrowed money and lent it. He never saved anything; the dreamer never does. Then one day the end came to the long lane, as it always does to those who keep on. A book was accepted and published; and then followed the first play.
By and by, when his name began to figure in the dramatic news items, and home visitors in New York returned to boast about the Warrington "first nights," the up-state city woke and began to recollect things—what promise Warrington had shown in his youth, how clever he was, and all that. Nothing succeeds like success, and nobody is so interesting as the prophet who has shaken the dust of his own country and found honor in another. Human nature can't help itself: the women talked of his plays in the reading-clubs, the men speculated on the backs of envelopes what his royalties were, and the newspaper that had given him a bread-and-butter pittance for a man's work proudly took it upon itself to say that its columns had fostered the genius in the growing. This was not because the editors were really proud of their townsman's success; rather it was because it made a neat little advertisement of their own particular foresight, such as it was. In fact, in his own town (because he had refused to live in it!) Warrington was a lion of no small dimensions.
Warrington's novel (the only one he ever wrote) was known to few. To tell the truth, the very critics that were now praising the dramatist had slashed the novelist cruelly. And thereby hangs a tale. A New York theatrical manager sent for Warrington one day and told him that he had read the book, and if the author would attempt a dramatic version, the manager would give it a fair chance. Warrington, the bitterness of failure in his soul, undertook the work, and succeeded. Praise would have made an indifferent novelist of him, for he was a born dramatist.
Regularly each year he visited his birthplace for a day or so, to pay in person his taxes. For all that he labored in New York, he still retained his right to vote in his native town.
A sudden desire seized him to-night to return to his home, to become a citizen in fact and deed. It was now the time of year when the spring torrents flood the lowlands, when the melting snows trickle down the bleak hillsides, when the dead hand of winter lies upon the bosom of awakening spring, and the seed is in travail. Heigh-ho! the world went very well in the springs of old; care was in bondage, and all the many gateways to the heart were bastioned and sentineled.
"Sir, a lady wishes to see you."
Warrington turned. His valet stood respectfully in the doorway.
"The name?" Warrington rose impatiently. Nobody likes to have his dreams disturbed.
"Miss Challoner, sir."
"Challoner!" in surprise; "and this time of night?" He stroked his chin. A moment passed. Not that he hesitated to admit her; rather he wished to make a final analysis of his heart before his eyes fell down to worship her beauty. "Admit her at once." He brushed the ashes from his jacket and smoothed his hair. The valet disappeared. "If I only loved the woman, loved her honestly, boldly, fearlessly, what a difference it would make! I don't love her, and I realize that I never did. She never touched my heart, only my eye and mind. I may be incapable of loving any one; perhaps that's it. But what can have possessed her to leave the theater this time of night?"
A swish of petticoats, a rush of cool air with which mingled an indefinable perfume, and, like a bird taking momentary rest in the passage, she stood poised on the threshold. A beautiful woman is a tangible enchantment; and fame and fortune had made Katherine Challoner beautiful, roguishly, daringly, puzzlingly beautiful. Her eyes sparkled like stars on ruffled waters, the flame of health and life burned in her cheeks, and the moist red mobile mouth expressed emotions so rapidly and irregularly as to bewilder the man who attempted to follow them. Ah, but she could act; comedy or tragedy, it mattered not; she was always superb.
There was a tableau of short duration. Her expression was one of gentle inquiry, his was one of interest not unmixed with fascination. He felt a quick touch of compassion, of embarrassment. There had been times when yonder woman had seemed to show him the preference that is given only to men who are loved. Even as the thought came to him, he prayed that it was only his man's vanity that imagined it. As he stared at her, there came the old thrill: beauty is a power tremendous.
"Dick, you do not say you are glad to see me."
"Beauty striketh the sage dumb," he laughed. "What good fortune brings you here to-night? What has happened? How could you find time between the acts to run over?"
"I am not acting to-night."
"No. Nor shall I be to-morrow night, nor the thousand nights that shall follow."
"Why, girl!" he cried, pushing out a chair. He had not seen her for two weeks. He had known nothing of her movements, save that her splendid talents had saved a play from utter ruin. Her declaration was like a thunderbolt. "Explain!"
"Well, I am tired, Dick; I am tired." She sat down, and her gaze roved about the familiar room with a veiled affection for everything she saw. "The world is empty. I have begun to hate the fools who applaud me. I hate the evil smells which hang about the theater. I hate the overture and the man with the drums," whimsically.
"What's he done to you?"
"Nothing, only he makes more noise than the others. I'm tired. It is not a definite reason; but a woman is never obliged to be definite."
"No; I never could understand you, even when you took the trouble to explain things."
"Yes, I know." She drew off her gloves and rubbed her fingers, which were damp and cold.
"But, surely, this is only a whim. You can't seriously mean to give up the stage when the whole world is watching you!"
She did not answer him, but continued to rub her fingers. She wore several rings, among which was a brilliant of unusual luster. Warrington, however, had eyes for nothing but her face. For the past six months he had noted a subtle change in her, a growing reserve, a thoughtfulness that was slowly veiling or subduing her natural gaiety. She now evaded him when he suggested one of their old romps in queer little restaurants; she professed illness when he sent for her to join him in some harmless junketing. She was slowly slipping away from him; no, drifting, since he made no real effort to hold her. And why had he made no real effort? Sometimes he thought he could answer this question, and then again he knew that he could not. Ah, if he only loved her! What a helpmeet: cheerful, resourceful, full of good humor and practical philosophy, a brilliant wit, with all the finished graces of a goddess. Ah, if indeed he only loved her! This thought kept running through his mind persistently; it had done so for days; but it had always led him back to the starting point. Love is not always reasoning with itself. Perhaps—and the thought filled him with regret—perhaps he was indeed incapable of loving any one as his poet's fancy believed he ought to love. And this may account for the truth of the statement that genius is rarely successful in love; the ideal is so high that it is out of the reach of life as we, genius or clod, live it.
"Isn't this determination rather sudden?" he asked, when the pause grew insupportable.
"I have been thinking of it for some time," she replied, smiling. A woman always finds herself at ease during such crises. "Only, I hadn't exactly made up my mind. You were at work?" glancing at the desk.
"Yes, but I'm through for the night. It's only a scenario, and I am not entirely satisfied with it."
She walked over to the desk and picked up a sheet at random. She was a privileged person in these rooms. Warrington never had any nervous dread when she touched his manuscript.
"How is it going to end?" she asked.
"Oh, they are going to marry and be happy ever after," he answered, smiling.
"Ah; then they are never going to have any children?" she said, with a flash of her old-time mischief.
"Will you have a cigarette?" lighting one and offering her the box.
"No; I have a horror of cigarettes since that last play. To smoke in public every night, perforce, took away the charm. I hated that part. An adventuress! It was altogether too close to the quick; for I am nothing more or less than an adventuress who has been successful. Why, the very method I used to make your acquaintance years and years ago, wasn't it?—proved the spirit. 'We hate two kinds of people,'" she read, taking up another page of manuscript; "'the people we wrong and the people who wrong us. Only, the hate for those we have wronged is most enduring.' That isn't half bad, Dick. How do you think of all these things?"
She crossed over to the window to cool her hot face. She, too, heard the voices of the night; not as the poet hears them, but as one in pain. "He never loved me!" she murmured, so softly that even the sparrows in the vine heard her not. And bitter indeed was the pain. But of what use to struggle, or to sigh, or vainly to regret? As things are written, so must they be read. She readily held him guiltless; what she regretted most deeply was the lack of power to have him and to hold him. Long before, she had realized the hopelessness of it all. Knowing that he drank from the cup of dissipation, she had even sought to hold him in contempt; but to her he had never ceased to be a gentleman, tender, manly and kind. It is contempt that casts the first spadeful in the grave of love.
"Come, girl," he said, going to her side; "you have something to tell me. What is it?"
She turned to find his hand outstretched and a friendly look in his eyes. Impulsively she gave him both her hands. He bowed over them with the grave air of the days of powdered wigs. There was not a particle of irony in the movement; rather it was a quiet acknowledgment that he recollected the good influence she had at times worked upon him in some dark days. As he brushed her fingers with his lips, he saw. His head came up quickly.
"Yes." Her voice was steady and her eyes were brave.
He drew her to the lamp and studied the ring. The ruddy lights dartled as he slowly turned the jewel around.
"It is a beauty. No one but a rich man could have given a ring like that. And on your finger it means but one thing."
"I am to be married in June."
"Do you love him?"
"I respect him; he is noble and good and kind."
Warrington did not press the question. He still retained the hand, though he no longer gazed at the ring.
"I have always wanted a home. The stage never really fascinated me; it was bread and butter."
"Is it necessary to marry in order to have a home?" he asked quietly, letting the hand gently slide from his. "You are wealthy, after a fashion; could you not build a home of your own?"
"Always to be identified as the actress? To be looked at curiously, to be annoyed by those who are not my equals, and only tolerated by those who are? No! I want a man who will protect me from all these things, who will help me to forget some needless follies and the memory that a hundred different men have made play-love to me on the other side of the footlights."
"Some men marry actresses to gratify their vanity; does this man love you?"
"Yes; and he will make me what Heaven intended I should be—a woman. Oh, I have uttered no deceit. This man will take me for what I am."
"And you have come here to-night to ask me to forget, too?" There was no bitterness in his tone, but there was a strong leaven of regret. "Well, I promise to forget."
"It was not necessary to ask you that," generously. "But I thought I would come to you and tell you everything. I did not wish you to misjudge me. For the world will say that I am marrying this good man for his money; whereas, if he was a man of the most moderate circumstances, I should still marry him."
"And who might this lucky man be? To win a woman, such as I know you to be, this man must have some extraordinary attributes." And all at once a sense of infinite relief entered into his heart: if she were indeed married, there would no longer be that tantalizing doubt on his part, that peculiar attraction which at one time resembled love and at another time was simply fascination. She would pass out of his life definitely. He perfectly recognized the fact that he admired her above all other women he knew; but it was also apparent that to see her day by day, year by year, his partner in the commonplaces as well as in the heights, romance would become threadbare quickly enough. "Who is he?" he repeated.
"That I prefer not to disclose to you just yet. What are you going to call your new play?" with a wave of her hand toward the manuscript.
"I had intended to call it Love and Money, but the very name presages failure."
"Yes, it needs the cement of compatibility to keep the two together."
"Well, from my heart I wish you all the best luck in the world," he said, the absence of any mental reservation in his eyes. "You would make any man a good wife. If I weren't a born fool—"
She leaned toward him, her face suddenly tense and eager.
"—if I weren't a born fool," with a smile that was whimsical, "I'd have married you myself, long ago. But fate has cut me out for a bachelor." He knocked the ash from a cold pipe, filled and lighted it. "By the way," he said, "I received a curious letter to-day." Its production would relieve the awkwardness of the moment. "Would you like to see it?" opening the drawer and handing the letter to her. "It's one of the few letters of the sort I'm going to keep."
She accepted the letter, but without any spirit of interest. For a moment a thought had all but swept her off her feet; yet she realized instantly that this thought was futile. Warrington did not love her; and there was nothing to do but to follow out the course she had planned. She had come to him that night with a single purpose in mind: to plumb the very heart of this man who was an enigma to every woman he met. She had plumbed it. Warrington loved nobody but Warrington and pleasure. Oh, he was capable of the grand passion, she very well knew, but the woman to arouse it had not yet crossed his path.
"What do you think of it?" he asked.
She came closer to the lamp. It was only pretense, but Warrington was not aware of it. She had stared at the sheet, reading only her miserable thoughts. Presently she smiled; the girlish exuberance amused her.
"She has put you quite out of reach. What a fine thing it must be to have such faith in any man!"
"And I'm not worth in her esteem an ounce to the pound." He was quite frank with himself. "I would to Heaven I were!"
"And this is the kind of woman that you will fall violently in love with, some day, Dick. It will be your punishment." She had fully recovered by now, and the old-time raillery was in the ascendant. "Oh, she has read you fairly well. You are good and kind and wise, but these virtues are not of equal weight. Your goodness and wisdom will never catch up with your abundant kindness. I've a good deal to thank you for, Dick; a good deal."
"Nonsense! The shoe is on the other foot. You have made half my plays what they are to-day." He rang and ordered some coffee.
She dropped into his desk-chair and propped her chin in her palms, viewing him through half-closed, speculative eyes.
"We've had some jolly larks together," he said. "I shall miss you; how much I shall know only when you are gone. Is he good-looking?"
"Very. He is tall and straight, with a manly face, fine eyes, and a good nose. You know that I'm always particular about a man's nose."
"And young, of course?" not without some feeling of jealousy.
"Tell me all about him," drawing up a chair and facing her.
"He is a lucky chap," he summed up when she had done.
"That remains to be seen," lightly. "I may prove the worst wife possible. Perhaps, when I have burned my bridges, I shall be mad for the very publicity I'm trying to escape. Women are like extinct volcanos; they are most to be dreaded when written perfectly harmless."
Warrington shook his head and laughed. Here the coffee came in. He dismissed his man, and poured the nectar himself.
"You are the one man I know who never asks to sweeten my coffee," she observed.
"And yet I had to learn. You haven't taught this other fellow yet, I see. Is he warranted house-broken, or will he have to be chained?"
"He will not have to be chained; and a man who is a recluse seldom has to be broken in."
"A recluse? What's his hobby: butterflies, stones, stamps, or coins?—No, girl; I don't mean that. I'm a little heavy to-night. Do you recollect the night you donned a suit of mine, bundled your hair under a felt hat, and visited the studios? What a romp! Not a soul ever found out who you were; and if I hadn't been in the secret, I shouldn't have known, either. I shall never forget how funny Dolman looked when he started a certain popular story of his and you shut him up. 'Gentlemen,' you said, 'neither listen to, nor repeat that kind of story in the presence of ladies.' 'Ladies?' cried Dolman. 'I see no ladies.' 'But there are gentlemen,' you added quickly. Later, Dolman advised me not to bring any more of my Sunday-school friends to HIS studio."
The woman smiled, but the smile was only on the lips. All those happy frolics were to be no more. Heigh-ho! Over the mantel there were several photographs of herself. Like all celebrities of her kind, the camera was a constant source of amusement. It was not necessarily vanity. The rose is not vain, yet it repeats its singular beauty as often as the seasons permit it. Across these pictures she had scrawled numerous signatures, "Kate" and "Kit" and "Kitty" and "Katherine Challoner," with here and there a phrase in French and Italian.
"You wouldn't return those under any circumstances?"
"No, indeed! That's all I'll have. And besides, you wouldn't ask me to give them up?"
Her answer remained unspoken. The valet appeared deferentially.
"Well?" said Warrington.
"A gentleman to see you, sir. He said he wouldn't need any card. Mr. John Bennington, sir.
"John Bennington!" Warrington sprang from his chair, his face joyous. "Old John here to-night! Finest chap on earth, Kate; my roommate at college, and the only chap in my town who was my friend when I was a nobody. Old John ..."
"Richard, you must hide me quickly. I mustn't be seen here. There is no way of passing him the hall."
"Good Lord!" He did not notice her pallor. "The butler's pantry," he said hastily.
She slipped out of sight noiselessly. Presently she heard sounds, men's voices, a hearty greeting and for a moment the world seemed gliding from under her feet. Her gloves! She had forgotten her gloves!
Men have a way of greeting which is all their own. It is unlike the kiss and flutter of women, which may signify frankness or deceit, generosity or selfishness, some favor to gain, some treachery to forestall. Men's likes and dislikes are generally visible. The dog wags his tail, or he warns you away with a growl; there is no mistaking his attitude. On the other hand, the cat purrs and rubs against your leg, and when you reach down to smooth her, as likely as not she gives you a dig for your pains. True, there are always exceptions to this rule.
With their hands on each other's shoulders, at arm's length they stood, a likely pair to look at, smiling frankly and joyfully into each other's eyes. When it is without self-interest, friendship between man and man is a fine and noble thing. It is known best in the stress of storms, in the hour of sorrow and adversity. Friendship, to be perfect, must be without any sense of obligation; for obligation implies that one or the other is in debt, and the debtor is always wondering when he will have to pay. Between these two men only the slightest favors had been exchanged. They had grown up together, one the son of a rich steel-mill owner, the other the son of a poor farmer. The one had entered college to the sounding of golden cymbals, the other had marched in with nothing but courage in his pocket. It is impossible to describe how these great friendships come about; generally they begin with some insignificant trifle, soon forgotten. Warrington had licked Bennington in the boyhood days; why, I doubt that the Recording Angel himself remembers. So the friendship began with secret admiration on one side and good-natured toleration on the other. One day Warrington broke a colt for Bennington, and later Bennington found a passably good market for Warrington's vegetables. Friendship, like constancy, finds strange niches. The Bennington family were not very cordial to the young vegetable grower. On the mother's side there was a long line of military ancestors. It is impossible that a cabbage and a uniform should cohere. Warrington's great-grandsires had won honors in the Revolution, but as this fact did not make cabbages grow any faster he kept the faded glory to himself.
In college the two lads were as inseparable as La Mole and Coconnas; they played on the same teams, rowed on the same crews and danced with the same girls. The only material difference in their respective talents lay in one thing: Bennington could not write a respectable rhyme, and I'm not sure that he wasn't proud of it. It distinguished him from the other members of his class. As for Warrington, there wasn't a pretty girl in the whole college town who couldn't boast of one or more of his impassioned stanzas. And you may be sure that when Warrington became talked about these self-same halting verses were dug up from the garret and hung in sundry parlors.
Bennington was handsome, and, but for his father's blood, the idleness of his forebears would have marked him with effeminateness. His head, his face, the shape of his hands and feet, these proclaimed the aristocrat. It was only in the eyes and the broad shoulders that you recognized the iron-monger's breed. His eyes were as blue as his own hammered steel; but, like the eyes of the eagle at peace, they were mild and dreamy and deceptive to casual inspection. In the shops the men knew all about those eyes and shoulders. They had been fooled once, but only once. They had felt the iron in the velvet.
"I'm mighty glad to see you, boy," said Warrington, dropping his arms. "You haven't changed a bit."
"Nor you, Dick; if anything you look younger."
"How many years is it, John?"
"Six or seven; not very long."
"Time never seems long to a man who never has to wait for anything. I have had to reckon time with hours full of suspense, and those hours have aged me; perhaps not outwardly, but all the same, I'm an old man, John."
"When did you cross?"
"About a year ago, when father died. I had given up the English end of the concern two years before, and was just wandering about the continent. I was dreadfully disappointed when I learned that you had visited the shops in ninety-eight. That summer I was in Switzerland. I had no idea there was going to be war, and never saw a newspaper till it was nearly over. I should have enlisted. And another year we passed within two days of each other."
"No!" Bennington exclaimed.
"Yes. It was in Italy, at Sorrento, that I learned of your nearness. You were off for Amalfi and I had just come from there. For three days I ran across your name in the hotel registers. I tried to find your permanent address, but failed. Cook's nor the bankers in Naples knew anything about you. I tell you what, it was discouraging."
"What luck! I was having all my mail sent direct to Mentone, where I spent the winter. Say, what do you think?"
"Won five thousand at Monte Carlo in one play."
"Pounds?" exclaimed Bennington.
"Ah! But of course you went back and lost it?" ironically.
"On the contrary, I've never staked a dollar since. Gambling was never a habit of mine, though I dare say the moral side of the subject would not have held me back. Simply, I know that the gambler always loses, and the banker always wins, in the end. Common sense told me to quit, and I did. I brought my letter of credit home practically intact."
"You used to play poker," dubiously.
"Poker isn't gambling. It's surreptitiously lending money to your friends."
"You were always good at definitions," sighed Bennington.
"I understand you've sold your holdings in the English shops?"
"Yes. I was weary of the people and what they called their conservatism, which is only a phase of stupidity. And then, besides, I loved the old home up there. I've been living there about a year now."
"It's a pity you couldn't have looked me up before this," Warrington complained.
Bennington only laughed affectionately.
"Take a look around the room while I get the whisky and soda."
"Don't bother, Dick."
"Boy, I licked you once, and I'll do it again if you don't sit down. A little extra attention won't hurt; and I'll guarantee the whisky." Waving his arms toward all the desirable things in the room, he vanished beyond the curtain.
Bennington looked about leisurely. It was just the kind of room he had always imagined; it was like the man who occupied it. Simplicity and taste abounded; the artist and the collector, the poet and the musician, were everywhere in evidence. He strolled over to the mantel and took down one of the pictures signed "Kate." He smiled. It was not an indulgent smile, nor the smile of a man who has stumbled upon another man's secret. The smile was rather exultant. He leaned against the mantel and studied the face in its varied expressions. He nodded approvingly. It was a lovely face; it was more than lovely,—it was tender and strong. Presently he returned to his chair and sat down, the photograph still in his hand. And in this position Warrington found him.
"Ah, you sly dog!" he hailed, setting down the glasses and pouring out a liberal bumper. "So I've caught you? Well, you're not the only man who has been conquered by that very photograph." He had half a notion to go in and bring her out; but then, women are such finicky beings!
Bennington laid aside the photograph, a certain reverence in his action that in ordinary times would not have escaped Warrington's notice.
"What's this to be?" asked Bennington, lifting his glass and stirring the ice.
"Immer und immer, as the German has it," Warrington replied.
"For ever and ever, then!"
And the two lightly touched glasses, with that peculiar gravity which always accompanies such occasions.
"When a man drinks your health in bad whisky, look out for him; but this whisky is very good, Dick." Bennington set down his glass and wiped his lips. "It is very good, indeed."
"Well, how are things up in Herculaneum?" asked Warrington. "You know, or ought to know, that I get up there only once a year."
"Things are not very well. There's the devil to pay in politics, and some day I may have a jolly long strike on my hands," grimly. "But I shall know exactly what to do. That man McQuade owns about all the town now. He controls congressmen, state senators and assemblymen, and the majority of the Common Council is his, body and soul. Only recently he gave the traction company a new right of way. Not a penny went into the city's purse. And you know these street-railways; they never pay their taxes. A franchise for ninety-nine years; think of it!"
"Why don't you men wake up and oust McQuade? I'll tell you right here, Jack, you have no one to blame but yourself. Scoundrels like McQuade are always in the minority; but they remain in power simply because men like you think politics a dirty business and something for an honest man to keep out of. Run for mayor yourself, if you want clean politics. Rouse up an independent party."
"Do you know what they call me up there?" Bennington laughed.
"I confess to ignorance."
"Well, the newspapers say covertly that I'm all but a naturalized Englishman, a snob, when I'm only a recluse, a man who dresses every night for dinner, who dines instead of eats. There are some things it is impossible to understand, and one is the interest the newspapers take in the private affairs of men. If they jumped on me as a mill-owner, there might be some excuse, but they are always digging me on the private-citizen side. Every man, in his own house, ought to be allowed to do as he pleases. They never bothered the governor any, when he was alive. I believe they were afraid of him."
"I can explain all that, my boy. Buy your clothes of the local tailors; get rid of your valet; forget that you have lived in England. They'll come around to you, then. You may talk as much as you like about the friendliness between the Englishman and the American. It is simply a case of two masters who are determined that their dogs shall be friendly. Let the masters drop out of sight for a moment, and you will find the dogs at each other's throat. And the masters? The dollar on this side and the sovereign on the other. There is a good deal of friendship these days that is based upon three and a half per cent. Get into politics, my boy."
"Bah! I'd look nice running for mayor, wouldn't I? The newspapers would howl calamity, and the demagogues would preach that I would soon impose English wages in the shops, and all that tommyrot. No, thank you; I'll take trouble as it comes, but I'm not looking for it."
"I see that I shall have to go back there and start the ball myself," said Warrington, jesting.
"Why don't you? You are not a rank outsider. The people are proud of you."
"And always will be, so long as I have sense enough to remain here in New York," dryly. "But if I lived there ...!"
"You are not always going to live in New York?"
"You've a beautiful old home up there."
"I bought that just to show the people I had the money," laughing. "They may never forget my cabbages, but they'll forgive them."
"Nevertheless, you ought to return."
"Listen," said Warrington, lifting his hand. They became silent, and presently the voice of the city came into the room. "I'm afraid I could not live away from that. How many times have I stopped work to listen to it! How many inspirations have I drawn from it! It is the siren's music, I know, but I am no longer afraid of the reefs. Perhaps I have become enamored with noise; it is quite possible."
"I have lived in London. I thought it was going to be hard to break away, but it wasn't."
They lighted cigars, and Bennington took up the photograph again.
"A lovely face," was his comment.
"With a heart and a mind even more lovely," supplemented Warrington. "She is one of the most brilliant women I have ever met, and what is more, humorous and good-humored. My word for it, she may have equals, but she has no superiors on this side of the ocean."
Bennington looked up sharply.
"Nothing serious?" he asked gently.
"Serious? No. We are capital friends, but nothing more. There's been too much comradeship to admit anything like sentimentality. Ah, boy, you should see her act!"
"I have. I saw her in London last season. She was playing your War of Women. She appeared to me enchanting. But about these actresses ..."
"I know, I know," interrupted Warrington. "Some of them are bad, but some of them are the noblest creatures God ever put on earth; and yonder is one of them. I remember. Often we were both in debt; plays went wrong; sometimes I helped her out, sometimes she returned the favor. We were more like two men. Without her help I shouldn't be where I am to-day. I always read the scenario of a play to her first; and often we've worked together half a night on one scene. I shall miss her."
"What! Is she going away?"
"After a fashion. She has retired from the stage."
"Do you believe she means it?" asked Bennington. "You know how changeable actresses' moods are."
"I think Miss Challoner will never act again. She has always been an enigma to the majority of the show people. Never any trumpets, jewelry, petty squabbles, lime-lights, and silks; she never read criticisms, save those I sent her. Managers had to knock on her dressing-room door. Oh, I do not say that she is an absolute paragon, but I do say that she is a good woman, of high ideals, loyal, generous, frank, and honest. And I have often wondered why the devil I couldn't fall in love with her myself," moodily.
Bennington was silent for a moment. Finally he said: "How does it feel to be famous, to have plays produced simultaneously in New York and London?"
"After the first success there is never anything but hard work. A failure once in a while acts like a tonic. And sometimes we get an anonymous letter that refreshes us—a real admirer, who writes from the heart and doesn't fish for a letter or an autograph in return. I received one of these only a few days ago, and I want you to read it." Warrington produced the missive and tossed it into Bennington's hands. "Read that. It's worth while to get a letter like that one."
Bennington took up the letter, smiling at his friend's enthusiasm. A single glance at the graceful script, however, changed his expression. He sat back and stared at Warrington.
"What's the matter?"
Bennington did not answer, but settled down to his task, reading carefully and slowly. He did not look for any signature, for he knew there would be none. He returned the letter, his face sober, but his eyes dancing.
"Now, what the deuce do you see that is so amusing?"
"Don't tell me there isn't any romance in the world. But, hang it, Jack, I'm not worth a letter like that," earnestly.
"Of course not."
"I'm not jesting. I've sown wild oats, and God knows what the harvest will be. There's a law that exacts payment. Retribution is the only certain thing in this world."
"Oh, you're no worse than the average man. But the average man is jolly bad," Bennington added gravely. "But you, Dick; I'm not worrying about you. Perhaps the writer of that letter sees good in you that you can't see yourself; good that is in you but of which you are unconscious. One thing, you have never besmirched the talents God gave you. Everything you have done has been clean and wholesome—like yourself."
"I wish I could believe that! But I've had no ties, Jack, none. You can't keep to a course without a compass. The real good in life, the good that makes life worth while, is the toil for those you love. I love nobody, not even myself. But this girl rather woke me up. I began to look inward, as they say. So far I've not discovered much good. I'd give a good deal to meet this writer."
"Doubtless you will find her charming."
Suddenly Warrington turned upon his friend. "But what I want to know is, what brought you around here this time o' night? I never knew you to do anything without a definite purpose."
"That's precisely what I've been waiting for you to lead up to. The truth is—" Bennington hesitated. His hand, idly trailing over the desk, came into contact with something smooth and soft. It was a pair of white kid gloves, a woman's. Absently he drew them through his hand. He was only half conscious of his action, and he did not observe Warrington's sudden agitation. "The truth is, I've gone and done it. I'm going to be married in June, and I want you to be my best man."
Warrington's hand went out impulsively.
"Oh, I felt it in my bones when your card came in," he said, rearranging the glasses. "Lucky woman! Long life to you, Jack, and long happiness!"
"Thank you, Dick." (Ceremonial recurrence of drinking a health.)
"Now, out with it. Who is she, and all about her?"
"Dick, I'm genuinely sorry, but I'm still under bond of silence."
"More mysteries!" cried Warrington, with evident discontent.
"Only for a week, when, if you say, we'll have breakfast here in these very rooms.
"Done. Only I must say you're a bit hard on me to-night.
"Let me see; I'll describe her for you. Beautiful."
"A woman who will be both wife and comrade."
"In all things."
"You make me envious."
"Why don't you get married yourself?"
"Bah!" Warrington went to the window and looked down upon the street.
Bennington eyed his broad shoulders sympathetically. He looked down at the limp, smooth skins in his hand, and sat up stiffly. From the gloves to Warrington and back again to the gloves, his gaze traveled. With an impulse rather mechanical he raised the gloves to his nose. Quickly he dropped them on the desk, took up the photograph, rose and replaced it on the mantel. Hearing him, Warrington turned.
"No, Jack, I doubt if I shall ever be lucky enough to find the one woman. I've been so busy that I've never had time to hunt for happiness. And those who hunt for it never find it, and those who wait for it can not see it standing at their side."
Bennington wandered about, from object to object. Here he picked up a dagger, there a turquoise in the matrix, and again some inlaid wood from Sorrento. From these his interest traveled to and lingered over some celebrated autographs.
"Happiness is a peculiar thing," went on the dramatist. "It is far less distinctive than fame or fortune. They sometimes knock at your door, but happiness steals in without warning, and often leaves as mysteriously as it comes."
Bennington paused to examine a jade cigarette case, which he opened and closed aimlessly. And there were queer little Japanese ash-trays that arrested his attention.
"Men like you and me, Jack, never marry unless we love. It is never a business transaction."
"It is love or nothing," said Bennington, turning his face toward Warrington. The smile he gave was kindly. "Yes, true happiness can be sought only in those we love. There is happiness even in loving some one who does not love you." Bennington repressed a sigh. "But, Dick, you'll be the best man?"
"Depend upon me. What do you say to this day week for breakfast here?"
"That will be wholly agreeable to me."
Bennington's cigar had gone out. He leaned upon the desk and took his light from the chimney. Men who have traveled widely never waste matches.
"Can't you bunk here for the night? There's plenty of room," said Warrington.
"Impossible, Dick. I leave at midnight for home. I must be there to-morrow morning. I'm afraid of trouble in the shops. The unions are determined to push me to the limit of my patience."
"Why the deuce don't you get rid of the shops?"
"They're the handiwork of my father, and I'm proud to follow his steps." Bennington's eyes were no longer at peace; they sparkled with defiance. "Half-past ten!" suddenly. "I must be going. My luggage is still at the hotel. God bless you, Dick!"
Their hands met once again.
"You know, jack, that I love you best of all men."
"You are sure there is no woman?"
Warrington laughed easily. "Ah, if there was a woman! I expect to be lonely some day."
Bennington put on his hat and gloves, and Warrington followed him into the hall. Once the prospective bridegroom paused, as if he had left something unsaid; but he seemed to think the better of silence, and went on.
"Tuesday morning, then?"
"Tuesday morning. Good night."
"Good night, and luck attend you."
The door closed, and Warrington went slowly back to his desk, his mind filled with pleasant recollections of youth. He re-read the letter, studied it thoroughly, in hopes that there might be an anagram. There was nothing he could see, and he put it away, rather annoyed. He arranged the sheets and notes of the scenario, marshaled the scattered pencils, and was putting the glasses on the tray, when a sound in the doorway caused him to lift his head. One of the glasses tumbled over and rolled across the desk, leaving a trail of water which found its level among the ash-trays.
"It is quite evident that you forgot me," said the woman, a faint mirthless smile stirring her lips. "It was very close in there, and I could hear nothing." She placed a hand on her forehead, swayed, and closed her eyes for a second.
"You are faint!" he cried, springing toward her.
"It is nothing," she replied, with a repelling gesture. "John Bennington, was it not?"
"Yes." His eyes grew round with wonder.
"I was going to keep it secret as long as I could, but I see it is useless. He is the man I have promised to marry." Her voice had a singular quietness.
Warrington retreated to his desk, leaning heavily against it.
"Bennington? You are going to marry John Bennington?" dully.
He sat down abruptly and stared at her with the expression of one who is suddenly confronted by some Medusa's head, as if in the straggling wisps of hair that escaped from beneath her hat he saw the writhing serpents. She was going to marry John Bennington!
She stepped quickly up to the desk and began to scatter things about. Her hands shook, she breathed rapidly, her delicate nostrils dilating the while.
"Look out!" he warned, at her side the same instant. "Your hat is burning!" He smothered the incipient flame between his palms.
"Never mind the hat. My gloves, Dick, my gloves! I left them here on the desk."
"Your gloves?" Then immediately he recollected that he had seen them in Bennington's hands, but he was positive that the gloves meant nothing to Bennington. He had picked them up just as he would have picked up a paper-cutter, a pencil, a match-box, if any of these had been within reach of his nervous fingers. Most men who are at times mentally embarrassed find relief in touching small inanimate objects. So he said reassuringly: "Don't let a pair of gloves worry you, girl."
"He bought them for me this morning," a break in her voice. "I MUST find them!"
The situation assumed altogether a different angle. There was a hint of tragedy in her eyes. More trivial things than a forgotten pair of gloves have brought about death and division. Together they renewed the search. They sifted the manuscripts, the books, the magazines, burrowed into the drawers; and sometimes their hands touched, but they neither noticed nor felt the contact. Warrington even dropped to his knees and hunted under the desk, all the while "Jack Bennington, Jack Bennington!" drumming in his ears. The search was useless. The gloves were nowhere to be found. He stood up irresolute, dismayed and anxious, keenly alive to her misery and to the inferences his best friend might draw. The desk stood between them, but their faces were within two spans of the hand.
"I can't find them."
"They are gone!" she whispered.
When the pathfinders came into the territory which is now called the Empire State, they carried muskets and tripods under one arm and Greek dictionaries under the other. They surveyed all day and scanned all night, skirmishing intermittently with prowling redskins. They knew something about elementary geometry, too, and you will find evidences of it everywhere, even in the Dutch settlements. The Dutchman always made the beauty of geometry impossible. Thus, nowadays, one can not move forward nor backward fifty miles in any direction without having the classic memory jarred into activity. Behold Athens, Rome, Ithaca, Troy; Homer, Virgil, Cicero; Pompey and Hannibal; cities and poets and heroes! It was, in those early days, a liberal education to be born in any one of these towns. Let us take Troy, for instance. When the young mind learned to spell it, the young mind yearned to know what Troy signified. Then came Homer, with his heroic fairy-story of gods, demigods and mortals. Of one thing you may be reasonably sure: Helen was kept religiously in the background. You will find no city named after her; nor Sappho, nor Aspasia. The explorer and the geographer have never given woman any recognition; it was left to the poets to sing her praise. Even Columbus, fine old gentleman that he was, absolutely ignored Isabella as a geographical name.
The city of Herculaneum (so called in honor of one Hercules) was very well named. To become immortal it had the same number of tasks to perform as had old Hercules. The Augean Stables were in the City Hall; and had Hercules lived in Herculaneum, he never would have sat with the gods. The city lay in a pleasant valley, embraced by imposing wooded hills. There was plenty of water about, a lake, a river, a creek; none of these, however, was navigable for commercial purposes. But this in nowise hindered the city's progress. On the tranquil bosom of the Erie Canal rode the graceful barges of commerce straight and slowly through the very heart of the town. Like its historic namesake, the city lived under the eternal shadow of smoke, barring Sundays; but its origin was not volcanic, only bituminous. True, year in and year out the streets were torn up, presenting an aspect not unlike the lava-beds of Vesuvius; but as this phase always implies, not destruction, but construction, murmurs were only local and few. It was a prosperous and busy city. It grew, it grows, and will grow. Long life to it! Every year the city directory points with pride to its growing bulk. A hundred thousand people; and, as Max O'Rell said—"All alive and kicking!" Herculaneum held its neighbors in hearty contempt, like the youth who has suddenly found his man's strength, and parades round with a chip on his shoulder.
Three railroad lines ran through the business section, bisecting the principal thoroughfares. The passenger trains went along swiftly enough, but often freights of almost interminable length drawled through the squares. I say drawled advisedly. Surely the whuff-whuff of the engine seems to me a kind of mechanical speech; and to this was often added the sad lowing of cattle. From time to time some earnest but misdirected young man would join the aldermanic body, and immediately lift up his voice in protest. It was outrageous, and so forth; the railroads must be brought to their senses, and so forth. Presently a meeting would come and go without his voice being heard, another, and yet another. By and by he would silently cast his vote for the various businesses under hand, and go home. The old-timers would smile. They understood. They rode on annuals themselves.
All the same, Herculaneum was a beautiful city in parts. Great leafy maples and elms arched the streets in the residential quarters, and the streets themselves were broad and straight. There were several dignified buildings of ten and twelve stories, many handsome banks, several clubs, and two or three passable monuments. There were at that time five enterprising newspapers, four frankly partizan and one independent. Personalities entered freely into the editorials, which often abounded in wit and scholarship. There were three theaters, and many churches of many denominations; religion and amusement, to thrive, must have variety. There were great steel shops, machine-shops, factories and breweries. And there were a few people who got in touch with one another, and invented society.
Herculaneum has its counterpart in every state; each city is a composite of all the others. A fashion in New York is immediately reproduced in every other city on the continent. Conservatism, day by day, becomes more and more retiring; presently it will exist only in Webster, side by side with the word prehistoric.
It was Sunday in Herculaneum, a June Sunday, radiant with sunshine. The broad green leaves of the maples shivered, lacing the streets with amber and jade, and from a thousand emerald gardens rose the subtle, fragrant incense of flowers. How still and beautiful this day seems to us who have hurried hither and thither for six long days, sometimes in anger, sometimes in exultation, failure or success! It breathes a peace and quiet that is tonic. Upon this day there is truce between us and the enemy.
In Herculaneum they still went to church on a Sunday morning. Perhaps it was merely habit, perhaps it was simply formality, perhaps it was only to parade new clothes; anyhow, they went to church. At ten-thirty the procession started; gentlemen in their tiles, ladies in their furbelows, children stiffly starched. Some rode to church, but the majority walked. There were many store-windows to preen before, as in a mirror. Vanity has something to her credit, after all; it is due to her that most of us make an effort to keep spruce and clean.
Comment passed like the fall of dominoes. Some woman, ultra-fashionable, would start the chatter. She NEVER saw anything like the gowns Mrs. Jones wore; Mrs. Jones touched upon the impossible feathers of Mrs. Smith's hat, and Mrs. Smith in turn questioned the exquisite complexion of Mrs. Green, who thought Mrs. White's children the homeliest in the city. (Can't you hear the dominoes going down?)
The men nodded here and there, briefly. Saturday night in a provincial town holds many recollections.
The high church was a stately pile of granite, with lofty spire and fine memorial windows. Doves fluttered about the eaves. Upon this particular Sunday morning there seemed to be something in the air that was not a component part of any of the elements. It was simply a bit of news which the church-goers had read in the papers that morning. To many a bud and belle it was a thunder-clap, a bolt from a cloudless heaven. They whispered about it, lifted their eyebrows, and shrugged their shoulders. But their mamas gave no sign. If the fox of disappointment ate into their vitals, they determined, Spartan-like, that none should know it. An actress! Men might marry actresses in England, but Herculaneum still clung to the belief that actresses were not eligible.
Some of the men had seen Katherine Challoner act, and they sighed, retrospectively and introspectively.
"I feel for Mrs. Bennington and her daughter. It must be a great blow to their pride." Mrs. Franklyn-Haldene sat down in her pew-seat and arranged her silk petticoats. Mrs. Wilmington-Fairchilds sat down beside her. "You know I never meddle with scandal."
Mrs. Fairchilds nodded brightly.
"Never. I never repeat anything I hear. The Archibald affair was enacted right under my very nose; but did I circulate what I saw? I think not! That woman!—but there! I pray for her every night."
"Was it really true, then?" asked Mrs. Fairchilds, breathless. She knew something about the Archibald affair, but not enough.
"I saw it all with these eyes," flatly. "But, as I said, I keep my hands clean of scandal." Her hands were white and flabby. "I consider it not only wicked to start a scandal, but positively bad taste. The lightest word sometimes ruins a reputation."
"Mrs. Archibald—" began Mrs. Fairchilds.
"Not another word, my dear. I've said nothing at all; I haven't even told you what I saw. But an actress is different. Think of it, my dear! She will live among us and we shall have to meet her. Think of the actors who have kissed her in their make-believe love affairs! It is so horribly common. I have heard a good many things about her. She has romped in studios in male attire and smokes cigarettes. I should not want any son of mine to be seen with her. I'm not saying a single word against her, mind you; not a single word. You know as well as I do what a wild fellow Warrington is. Well, she has been going around with him."
"But they took him up in London," said Mrs. Wilmington-Fairchilds.
"London! London society, indeed! It's the greatest jumble in the world: nobility hobnobs with jockeys, piano-players, writers and actors."
Mrs. Fairchilds shook her head sadly. She had always believed London society quite the proper thing, and she had followed the serials of "The Duchess" with reverent awe. But Mrs. Franklyn-Haldene ought to know; she had traveled in Europe several seasons. Mrs. Franklyn-Haldene was one of the prominent social leaders, and Mrs. Fairchilds had ambitions. The ready listener gets along very well in this old world of ours.
"I always knew that some time or other the plebeian Bennington blood would crop out," went on Mrs. Haldene. "But we must not criticize the dead," benignly.
"We shall have to receive her."
"After a fashion," replied Mrs. Haldene, opening her prayer-book. Her tone implied that things would not go very smoothly for the interloper. "All this comes from assimilating English ideas," she added.
Mrs. Franklyn-Haldene was one of those fortunate persons who always have their names in the society columns of the Sunday newspapers. Either she was among those present, or she gave a luncheon, or she assisted at a reception, or was going out of town, or coming back. Those who ran their husbands in debt to get into society always looked to see what Mrs. Haldene had been doing the past week. The society reporters, very often smug young women of aristocratic but impoverished families, called her up by telephone every day in the week. Mrs. Haldene pretended to demur, but the reporters found her an inexhaustible mine of tittle-tattle. Sometimes they omitted some news which she considered important; and, as the saying goes, the hair flew. She found many contestants for the leadership; but her rivals never lasted more than a month. She was president of hospital societies, orphan asylums, and the auxiliary Republican Club, and spoke at a bimonthly club on the servant question. Everybody was a little afraid of her, with one exception.