A Novel of Which He is Not the Hero
By F. Hopkinson Smith
Peter was still poring over his ledger one dark afternoon in December, his bald head glistening like a huge ostrich egg under the flare of the overhead gas jets, when Patrick, the night watchman, catching sight of my face peering through the outer grating, opened the door of the Bank.
The sight so late in the day was an unusual one, for in all the years that I have called at the Bank—ten, now—no, eleven since we first knew each other—Peter had seldom failed to be ready for our walk uptown when the old moon-faced clock high up on the wall above the stove pointed at four.
"I thought there was something up!" I cried. "What is it, Peter—balance wrong?"
He did not answer, only waved his hand in reply, his bushy gray eyebrows moving slowly, like two shutters that opened and closed, as he scanned the lines of figures up and down, his long pen gripped tight between his thin, straight lips, as a dog carries a bone.
I never interrupt him when his brain is nosing about like this; it is better to keep still and let him ferret it out. So I sat down outside the curved rail with its wooden slats backed by faded green curtains, close to the big stove screened off at the end of the long room, fixed one eye on the moon-face and the other on the ostrich egg, and waited.
There are no such banks at the present time—were no others then, and this story begins not so very many years' ago—A queer, out-of-date, mouldy old barn of a bank, you would say, this Exeter—for an institution wielding its influence. Not a coat of paint for half a century; not a brushful of whitewash for goodness knows how much longer. As for the floor, it still showed the gullies and grooves, with here and there a sturdy knot sticking up like a nut on a boiler, marking the track of countless impatient depositors and countless anxious borrowers, it may be, who had lock-stepped one behind the other for fifty years or more, in their journey from the outer door to the windows where the Peters of the old days, and the Peter of the present, presided over the funds entrusted to their care.
Well enough in its day, you might have said, with a shrug, as you looked over its forlorn interior. Well enough in its day! Why, man, old John Astor, James Beekman, Rhinelander Stewart, Moses Grinnell, and a lot of just such worthies—men whose word was as good as their notes—and whose notes were often better than the Government's, presided over its destinies, and helped to stuff the old-fashioned vault with wads of gilt-edged securities—millions in value if you did but know it—and making it what it is to-day. If you don't believe the first part of my statement, you've only to fumble among the heap of dusty ledgers piled on top of the dusty shelves; and if you doubt the latter part, then try to buy some of the stock and see what you have to pay for it. Although the gas was turned off in the directors' room, I could still see from where I sat the very mahogany table under which these same ruffle-shirted, watch-fobbed, snuff-taking old fellows tucked their legs when they decided on who should and who should not share the bank's confidence.
And the side walls and surroundings were none the less shabby and quite as dilapidated. Even the windows had long since given up the fight to maintain a decent amount of light, and as for the grated opening protected by iron shutters which would have had barely room to swing themselves clear of the building next door, no Patrick past or present had ever dared loosen their bolts for a peep even an inch wide into the canyon below, so gruesome was the collection of old shoes, tin cans, broken bottles and battered hats which successive generations had hurried into the narrow un-get-at-able space that lay between the two structures.
Indeed the only thing inside or out of this time-worn building which the most fertile of imaginations could consider as being at all up to date was the clock. Not its face—that was old-timey enough with its sun, moon and stars in blue and gold, and the name of the Liverpool maker engraved on its enamel; nor its hands, fiddle-shaped and stiff, nor its case, which always reminded me of a coffin set up on end awaiting burial—but its strike. Whatever divergences the Exeter allowed itself in its youth, or whatever latitude or longitude it had given its depositors, and that, we may be sure, was precious little so long as that Board of Directors was alive, there was no wabbling or wavering, no being behind time, when the hour hand of the old clock reached three and its note of warning rang out.
Peter obeyed the ominous sound and closed his Teller's window with a gentle bang. Patrick took notice and swung to the iron grating of the outer door. You might peer in and beg ever so hard—unless, of course, you were a visitor like myself, and even then Peter would have to give his consent—you might peer through, I say, or tap on the glass, or you might plead that you were late and very sorry, but the ostrich egg never turned in its nest nor did the eyebrows vibrate. Three o'clock was three o'clock at the Exeter, and everybody might go to the devil—financially, of course—before the rule would be broken. Other banks in panicky times might keep a side door open until four, five or six—that is, the bronze-rail, marble-top, glass-front, certify-your-checks-as-early-as- ten-in-the-morning-without-a-penny-on-deposit kind of banks—but not the Exeter—that is, not with Peter's consent—and Peter was the Exeter so far as his department was concerned—and had been for nearly thirty years—twenty as bookkeeper, five as paying teller and five as receiving teller.
And the regularity and persistency of this clock! Not only did it announce the hours, but it sounded the halves and quarters, clearing its throat with a whirr like an admonitory cough before each utterance. I had samples of its entire repertoire as I sat there:
One...two...three...four...five—then half an hour later a whir-r and a single note. "Half-past five," I said to myself. "Will Peter never find that mistake?" Once during the long wait the night watchman shifted his leg—he was on the other side of the stove—and once Peter reached up above his head for a pile of papers, spreading them out before him under the white glare of the overhead light, then silence again, broken only by the slow, dogged tock-tick, tock-tick, or the sagging of a hot coal adjusting itself for the night.
Suddenly a cheery voice rang out and Peter's hands shot up above his head.
"Ah, Breen & Co.! One of those plaguey sevens for a nine. Here we are! Oh, Peter Grayson, how often have I told you to be careful! Ah, what a sorry block of wood you carry on your shoulders. I won't be a minute now, Major." A gratuitous compliment on the part of my friend, I being a poor devil of a contractor without military aspirations of any kind. "Well, well, how could I have been so stupid. Get ready to close up, Patrick. No, thank you, Patrick, my coat's inside; I'll fetch it."
He was quite another man now, closing the great ledger with a bang; shouldering it as Moses did the Tables of the Law, and carrying it into the big vault behind him—big enough to back a buggy into had the great door been wider—shooting the bolts, whirring the combination into so hopeless and confused a state that should even the most daring and expert of burglars have tried his hand or his jimmy on its steel plating he would have given up in despair (that is unless big Patrick fell asleep—an unheard-of occurrence) and all with such spring and joyousness of movement that had I not seen him like this many times before I would have been deluded into the belief that the real Peter had been locked up in the dismal vault with the musty books and that an entirely different kind of Peter was skipping about outside.
But that was nothing to the air with which he swept his papers into the drawer of his desk, brushed away the crumpled sheets upon which he had figured his balance, and darted to the washstand behind the narrow partition. Nor could it be compared to the way in which he stripped off his black bombazine office-coat with its baggy pockets—quite a disreputable-looking coat I must say—taking it by the nape of the neck, as if it were some loathsome object to be got rid of, and hanging it upon a hook behind him; nor to the way in which he pulled up his shirt sleeves and plunged his white, long-fingered, delicately modeled hands into the basin, as if cleanliness were a thing to be welcomed as a part of his life. These carefully dried, each finger by itself—not forgetting the small seal ring on the little one—he gave an extra polish to his glistening pate with the towel, patted his fresh, smooth-shaven cheeks with an unrumpled handkerchief which he had taken from his inside pocket, carefully adjusted his white neck-cloth, refastening the diamond pin—a tiny one but clear as a baby's tear—put on his frock-coat with its high collar and flaring tails, took down his silk hat, gave it a flourish with his handkerchief, unhooked his overcoat from a peg behind the door (a gray surtout cut something like the first Napoleon's) and stepped out to where I sat.
You would never have put him down as being sixty years of age had you known him as well as I did—and it is a great pity you didn't. Really, now that I come to think of it, I never did put him down as being of any age at all. Peter Grayson and age never seemed to have anything to do with each other. Sometimes when I have looked in through the Receiving Teller's window and have passed in my book—I kept my account at the Exeter—and he has lifted his bushy shutters and gazed at me suddenly with his merry Scotch-terrier eyes, I have caught, I must admit, a line of anxiety, or rather of concentrated cautiousness on his face, which for the moment made me think that perhaps he was looking a trifle older than when I last saw him; but all this was scattered to the winds when I met him an hour afterward swinging up Wall Street with that cheery lift of the heels so peculiarly his own, a lift that the occupants of every office window on both sides of the street knew to be Peter's even when they failed to recognize the surtout and straight-brimmed high hat. Had any doubting Thomas, however, walked beside him on his way up Broadway to his rooms on Fifteenth Street, and had the quick, almost boyish lift of Peter's heels not entirely convinced the unbeliever of Peter's youth, all questions would have been at once disposed of had the cheery bank teller invited him into his apartment up three flights of stairs over the tailor's shop—and he would have invited him had he been his friend—and then and there forced him into an easy chair near the open wood fire, with some such remark as: "Down, you rascal, and sit close up where I can get my hands on you!" No—there was no trace of old age about Peter.
He was ready now—hatted, coated and gloved—not a hint of the ostrich egg or shaggy shutters visible, but a well-preserved bachelor of forty or forty-five; strictly in the mode and of the mode, looking more like some stray diplomat caught in the wiles of the Street, or some retired magnate, than a modest bank clerk on three thousand a year. The next instant he was tripping down the granite steps between the rusty iron railings—on his toes most of the way; the same cheery spring in his heels, slapping his thin, shapely legs with his tightly rolled umbrella, adjusting his hat at the proper angle so that the well-trimmed side whiskers—the veriest little dabs of whiskers hardly an inch long—would show as well as the fringes of his grey hair.
Not that he was anxious to conceal these slight indications of advancing years, nor did he have a spark of cheap personal vanity about him, but because it was his nature always to put his best foot foremost and keep it there; because, too, it behooved him in manner, dress and morals, to maintain the standards he had set for himself, he being a Grayson, with the best blood of the State in his veins, and with every table worth dining at open to him from Fourteenth Street to Murray Hill, and beyond.
"Now, it's all behind me, my dear boy," he cried, as we reached the sidewalk and turned our faces up Wall Street toward Broadway. "Fifteen hours to live my own life! No care until ten o'clock to-morrow. Lovely life, my dear Major, when you think of it. Ah, old Micawber was right—income one pound, expense one pound ten shillings; result, misery: income one pound ten, expense one pound, outcome, happiness! What a curse this Street is to those who abuse its power for good; half of them trying to keep out of jail and the other half fighting to keep out of the poor-house! And most of them get so little out of it. Just as I can detect a counterfeit bill at sight, my boy, so can I put my ringer on these money-getters when the poison of money-getting for money's sake begins to work in their veins. I don't mean the laying up of money for a rainy day, or the providing for one's family. Every man should lay up a six-months' doctor's bill, just as every man should lay up money enough to keep his body out of Potter's Field. It's laying up the SURPLUS that hurts."
Peter had his arm firmly locked in mine now.
"Now that concern of Breen & Company, where I found my error, are no better than the others. They are new to this whirlpool, but they will soon get in over their heads. I think it is only the third or fourth year since they started business, but they are already floating all sorts of schemes, and some of them—if you will permit me in confidence, strictly in confidence, my dear boy—are rather shady, I think: at least I judge so from their deposits."
"What are they, bankers?" I ventured. I had never heard of the firm; not an extraordinary thing in my case when bankers were concerned.
"Yes, BANKERS—all in capital letters—the imitation kind. Breen came from some place out of town and made a lucky hit in his first year—mines or something—I forget what. Oh, but you must know that it takes very little now-a-days to make a full-fledged banker. All you have to do is to hoist in a safe—through the window, generally, with the crowd looking on; rail off half the office; scatter some big ledgers over two or three newly varnished desks; move in a dozen arm-chairs, get a ticker, a black-board and a boy with a piece of chalk; be pleasant to every fellow you meet with his own or somebody else's money in his pocket, and there you are. But we won't talk of these things—it isn't kind, and, really, I hardly know Breen, and I'm quite sure he wouldn't know me if he saw me, and he's a very decent gentleman in many ways, I hear. He never overdraws his account, any way—never tries—and that's more than I can say for some of his neighbors."
The fog, which earlier in the afternoon had been but a blue haze, softening the hard outlines of the street, had now settled down in earnest, choking up the doorways, wiping out the tops of the buildings, their facades starred here and there with gas-jets, and making a smudged drawing of the columns of the Custom House opposite.
"Superb, are they not?" said Peter, as he wheeled and stood looking at the row of monoliths supporting the roof of the huge granite pile, each column in relief against the dark shadows of the portico. "And they are never so beautiful to me, my boy, as when the ugly parts of the old building are lost in the fog. Follow the lines of these watchmen of the temple! These grave, dignified, majestic columns standing out in the gloom keeping guard! But it is only a question of time—down they'll come! See if they don't!"
"They will never dare move them," I protested. "It would be too great a sacrilege." The best way to get Peter properly started is never to agree with him.
"Not move them! They will break them up for dock-filling before ten years are out. They're in the way, my boy; they shut out the light; can't hang signs on them; can't plaster them over with theatre bills; no earthly use. 'Wall Street isn't Rome or any other excavated ruin; it's the centre of the universe'—that's the way the fellows behind these glass windows talk." Here Peter pointed to the offices of some prominent bankers, where other belated clerks were still at work under shaded gas-jets. "These fellows don't want anything classic; they want something that'll earn four per cent."
We were now opposite the Sub-Treasury, its roof lost in the settling fogs, the bronze figure of the Father of His Country dominating the flight of marble steps and the adjacent streets.
Again Peter wheeled; this time he lifted his hat to the statue.
"Good evening, your Excellency," he said in a voice mellowed to the same respectful tone with which he would have addressed the original in the flesh.
Suddenly he loosened his arm from mine and squared himself so he could look into my face.
"I notice that you seldom salute him, Major, and it grieves me," he said with a grim smile.
I broke into a laugh. "Do you think he would feel hurt if I didn't."
"Of course he would, and so should you. He wasn't put there for ornament, my boy, but to be kept in mind, and I want to tell you that there's no place in the world where his example is so much needed as right here in Wall Street. Want of reverence, my dear boy"—here he adjusted his umbrella to the hollow of his arm—"is our national sin. Nobody reveres anything now-a-days. Much as you can do to keep people from running railroads through your family vaults, and, as to one's character, all a man needs to get himself battered black and blue, is to try to be of some service to his country. Even our presidents have to be murdered before we stop abusing them. By Jove! Major, you've GOT to salute him! You're too fine a man to run to seed and lose your respect for things worth while. I won't have it, I tell you! Off with your hat!"
I at once uncovered my head (the fog helped to conceal my own identity, if it didn't Peter's) and stood for a brief instant in a respectful attitude.
There was nothing new in the discussion. Sometimes I would laugh at him; sometimes I would only touch my hat in unison; sometimes I let him do the bowing alone, an act on his part which never attracted attention—looking more as if he had accosted some passing friend.
We had reached Broadway by this time and were crossing the street opposite Trinity Churchyard.
"Come over here with me," he cried, "and let us look in through the iron railings. The study of the dead is often more profitable than knowledge of the living. Ah, the gate is open! It is not often I am here at this time, and on a foggy afternoon. What a noble charity, my boy, is a fog—it hides such a multitude of sins—bad architecture for one," and he laughed softly.
I always let Peter run on—in fact I always encourage him to run on. No one I know talks quite in the same way; many with a larger experience of life are more profound, but none have the personal note which characterizes the old fellow's discussions.
"And how do you suppose these by-gones feel about what is going on around them?" he rattled on, tapping the wet slab of a tomb with the end of his umbrella. "And not only these sturdy patriots who lie here, but the queer old ghosts who live in the steeple?" he added, waving his hand upward to the slender spire, its cross lost in the fog. "Yes, ghosts and goblins, my boy. You don't believe it?—I do—or I persuade myself I do, which is better. Sometimes I can see them straddling the chimes when they ring out the hours, or I catch them peeping out between the slats of the windows away up near the cross. Very often in the hot afternoons when you are stretching your lazy body under the tents of the mighty—" (Peter referred to some friends of mine who owned a villa down on Long Island, and were good enough to ask me down for a week in August) "I come up here out of the rush and sit on these old tombstones and talk to these old fellows—both kinds—the steeple boys and the old cronies under the sod. You never come, I know. You will when you're my age."
I had it in my mind to tell him that the inside of a dry tent had some advantages over the outside of a damp tomb, so far as entertaining one's friends, even in hot weather, was concerned, but I was afraid it might stop the flow of his thoughts, and checked myself.
"It is not so much the rest and quiet that delights me, as the feeling that I am walled about for the moment and protected; jerked out of the whirlpool, as it were, and given a breathing spell. On these afternoons the old church becomes a church once more—not a gate to bar out the rush of commercialism. See where she stands—quite out to the very curb, her warning finger pointing upward. 'Thus far shalt thou come, and no farther,' she cries out to the Four Per Cents. 'Hug up close to me, you old fellows asleep in your graves; get under my lea. Let us fight it out together, the living and the dead!' And now hear these abominable Four Per Cents behind their glass windows: 'No place for a church,' they say. 'No place for the dead! Property too valuable. Move it up town. Move it out in the country—move it any where so you get it out of our way. We are the Great Amalgamated Crunch Company. Into our maw goes respect for tradition, reverence for the dead, decency, love of religion, sentiment, and beauty. These are back numbers. In their place, we give you something real and up-to-date from basement to flagstaff, with fifty applicants on the waiting list. If you don't believe it read our prospectus!'"
Peter had straightened and was standing with his hand lifted above his head, as if he were about to pronounce a benediction. Then he said slowly, and with a note of sadness in his voice:
"Do you wonder, now, my boy, why I touch my hat to His Excellency?"
All the way up Broadway he kept up his good-natured tirade, railing at the extravagance of the age, at the costly dinners, equipages, dress of the women, until we reached the foot of the dilapidated flight of brown-stone steps leading to the front door of his home on Fifteenth Street. Here a flood of gas light from inside a shop in the basement brought into view the figure of a short, squat, spectacled little man bending over a cutting-table, a pair of shears in his hand.
"Isaac is still at work," he cried. "If we were not so late we'd go in and have a word with him. Now there's a man who has solved the problem, my boy. Nobody will ever coax Isaac Cohen up to Fifth Avenue and into a 'By appointment to His Majesty' kind of a tailor shop. Just pegs away year after year—he was here long before I came—supporting his family, storing his mind with all sorts of rare knowledge. Do you know he's one of the most delightful men you will meet in a day's journey?"
"No—never knew anything of the kind. Thought he was just plain tailor."
"And an intimate friend of many of the English actors who come over here?" continued Peter.
"I never heard a word about it" I answered meekly; Peter's acquaintances being too varied and too numerous for me to keep track of. That he should have a tailor among them as learned and wise as Solomon, and with friends all over the globe, was quite to be expected.
"Well, he is," answered Peter. "They always hunt him up the first thing they do. He lived in London for years and made their costumes. There's no one, I assure you, I am more glad to see when he makes an excuse to rap at my door. You'll come up, of course, until I read my letters."
"No, I'll keep on to my rooms and meet you later at the club."
"You'll do nothing of the kind, you restless mortal. You'll come upstairs with me until I open my mail. It's really like touching the spring of a Jack-in-the-box, this mail of mine—all sorts of things pop out, generally the unexpected. Mighty interesting, I tell you," and with a cheery wave of the hand to his friend Isaac, whose eyes had been looking streetward at the precise moment, Peter pushed me ahead of him up the worn marble steps flanked by the rust-eaten iron railing which led to the hallway and stairs, and so on up to his apartment.
It was just the sort of house Peter, of all men in the world, would have picked out to live in—and he had been here for twenty years or more. Not only did the estimable Isaac occupy the basement, but Madame Montini, the dress-maker, had the first floor back; a real-estate agent made free with the first floor front, and a very worthy teacher of music, whose piano could be heard at all hours of the day, and far into the night, was paying rent for the second, both front and back. Peter's own apartments ran the whole length of the third floor, immediately under the slanting, low-ceiled garret, which was inhabited by the good Mrs. McGuffey, the janitress, who, in addition to her regular duties, took especial care of Peter's rooms. Adjoining these was a small apartment consisting of two rooms, connecting with Peter's suite by a door cut through for some former lodger. These were also under Mrs. McGuffey's special care and very good care did she take of them, especially when Peter's sister, Miss Felicia Grayson, occupied them for certain weeks in the year.
These changes had all taken place in the time the old fellow had mounted the quaint stairs with the thin mahogany banisters, and yet Peter stayed on. "The gnarled pear tree in the back yard is so charming," he would urge in excuse, "especially in the spring, when the perfume of its blossoms fills the air," or, "the view overlooking Union Square is so delightful," or, "the fireplace has such a good draught." What mattered it who lived next door, or below, or overhead, for that matter, so that he was not disturbed—and he never was. The property, of course, had gone from bad to worse since the owner had died; the neighborhood had run down, and the better class of tenants down, up, and even across the street—had moved away, but none of these things had troubled Peter.
And no wonder, when once you got inside the two rooms and looked about!
There was a four-post bedstead with chintz curtains draped about the posts, that Martha Washington might have slept in, and a chintz petticoat which reached the floor and hid its toes of rollers, which the dear lady could have made with her own hands; there was a most ancient mahogany bureau to match, all brass fittings. There were easy chairs with restful arms within reach of tables holding lamps, ash receivers and the like; and rows and rows of books on open shelves edged with leather; not to mention engravings of distinguished men and old portraits in heavy gilt frames: one of his grandfather who fought in the Revolution, and another of his mother—this last by Rembrandt Peale—a dear old lady with the face of a saint framed in a head of gray hair, the whole surmounted by a cluster of silvery curls. There were quaint brass candelabra with square marble bases on each end of the mantel, holding candles showing burnt wicks in the day time and cheery lights at night; and a red carpet covering both rooms and red table covers and red damask curtains, and a lounge with a red afghan thrown over it; and last, but by no means least—in fact it was the most important thing in the sitting-room, so far as comfort was concerned—there was a big open-hearth Franklin, full of blazing red logs, with brass andirons and fender, and a draught of such marvellous suction that stray scraps of paper, to say nothing of uncommonly large sparks, had been known more than once to have been picked up in a jiffy and whirled into its capacious throat.
Just the very background for dear old Peter, I always said, whenever I watched him moving about the cheery interior, pushing up a chair, lighting a fresh candle, or replacing a book on the shelf. What a half-length the great Sully would have made of him, with his high collar, white shirt-front and wonderful neck-cloth with its pleats and counterpleats, to say nothing of his rosy cheeks and bald head, the high light glistening on one of his big bumps of benevolence. And what a background of deep reds and warm mahoganys with a glint of yellow brass for contrast!
Indeed, I have often thought that not only Peter's love of red, but much of Peter's quaintness of dress, had been suggested by some of the old portraits which lined the walls of his sitting-room—his grandfather, by Sully, among them; and I firmly believe, although I assure you I have never mentioned it to any human being before, that had custom permitted (the directors of his bank, perhaps), Peter would not only have indulged in the high coat-collar and quaint neck-cloths of his fathers, but would also have worn a dainty cue tied with a flowing black ribbon, always supposing, of course, that his hair had held out, and, what is more important, always supposing, that the wisp was long enough to hold on.
The one article, however, which, more than any other one thing in his apartment, revealed his tastes and habits, was a long, wide, ample mahogany desk, once the property of an ancestor, which stood under the window in the front room. In this, ready to his hand, were drawers little and big, full of miscellaneous papers and envelopes; pigeon-holes crammed full of answered and unanswered notes, some with crests on them, some with plain wax clinging to the flap of the broken envelopes; many held together with the gum of the common world. Here, too, were bundles of old letters tied with tape; piles of pamphlets, quaint trays holding pens and pencils, and here too was always to be found, in summer or in winter, a big vase full of roses or blossoms, or whatever was in season—a luxury he never denied himself.
To this desk, then, Peter betook himself the moment he had hung his gray surtout on its hook in the closet and disposed of his hat and umbrella. This was his up-town office, really, and here his letters awaited him.
First came a notice of the next meeting of the Numismatic Society of which he was an honored member; then a bill for his semi-annual dues at the Century Club; next a delicately scented sheet inviting him to dine with the Van Wormleys of Washington Square, to meet an English lord and his lady, followed by a pressing letter to spend Sunday with friends in the country. Then came a long letter from his sister, Miss Felicia Grayson, who lived in the Genesee Valley and who came to New York every winter for what she was pleased to call "The Season" (a very remarkable old lady, this Miss Felicia Grayson, with a mind of her own, sections of which she did not hesitate to ventilate when anybody crossed her or her path, and of whom we shall hear more in these pages), together with the usual assortment of bills and receipts, the whole an enlivening record not only of Peter's daily life and range of taste, but of the limitations of his purse as well.
One letter was reserved for the last. This he held in his hand until he again ran his eye over the pile before him. It was from Holker Morris the architect, a man who stood at the head of his profession.
"Yes, Holker's handwriting," he said as he inserted the end of the paper cutter. "I wonder what the dear fellow wants now?" Here he ran his eye over the first page. "Listen, Major. What an extraordinary man... He's going to give a dinner, he says, to his draughtsmen... in his offices at the top of his new building, six stories up. Does the rascal think I have nothing to do but crawl up his stairs? Here, I'll read it to you."
"'You, dear Peter:' That's just like Holker! He begins that way when he wants me to do something for him. 'No use saying you won't come, for I shall be around for you at seven o'clock with a club—'No, that's not it—he writes so badly—'with a cab.' Yes, that's it—'with a cab.' I wonder if he can drive me up those six flights of stairs? 'There'll be something to eat, and drink, and there will be fifty or more of my draughtsmen and former employees. I'm going to give them a dinner and a house-warming. Bring the Major if you see him. I have sent a note to his room, but it may not reach him. No dress suit, remember. Some of my men wouldn't know one if they saw it."
As the letter dropped from Peter's hand a scraping of feet was heard at the hall door, followed by a cheery word from Mrs. McGuffey—she had her favorites among Peter's friends—and Holker Morris burst into the room.
"Ah, caught you both!" he cried, all out of breath with his run upstairs, his hat still on his head. No one blew in and blew out of Peter's room (literally so) with the breeze and dash of the distinguished architect. "Into your coats, you two—we haven't a moment to spare. You got my letter, of course," he added, throwing back the cape of his raincoat.
"Yes, Holker, just opened it!" cried Peter, holding out both hands to his guest. "But I'm not going. I am too old for your young fellows—take the Major and leave me behind."
The architect grabbed Peter by the arm. "When did that mighty idea crack its way through that shell of yours, you tottering Methusaleh! Old! You're spryer than a frolicking lamb in March. You are coming, too, Major. Get into your coats and things!"
"But Isaac is pressing my swallow-tail."
"I don't mean your dress-coat, man—your OVERCOAT! Now I am sure you didn't read my letter? Some of my young fellows haven't got such a thing—too poor."
"But look at YOURS!"
"Yes, I had to slip into mine out of respect to the occasion; my boys wouldn't like it if I didn't. Sort of uniform to them, but they'd be mighty uncomfortable if you wore yours. Hurry up, we haven't a minute to lose."
Peter had forced the architect into one of the big chairs by the fire by this time, and stood bending over him, his hands resting on Morris's broad shoulders.
"Take the Major with you, that's a good fellow, and let me drop in about eleven o'clock," he pleaded, an expression on his face seen only when two men understand and love each other. "There's a letter from Felicia to attend to; she writes she is coming down for a couple of weeks, and then I've really had a devil of a day at the bank."
"No, you old fraud, you can't wheedle me that way. I want you before everybody sits down, so my young chaps can look you over. Why, Peter, you're better than a whole course of lectures, and you mean something, you beggar! I tell you" (here he lifted himself from the depths of the chair and scrambled to his feet) "you've got to go if I have to tie your hands and feet and carry you downstairs on my back! And you, too, Major—both of you. Here's your overcoat—into it, you humbug!... the other arm. Is this your hat? Out you go!" and before I had stopped laughing—I had refused to crowd the cab—Morris had buttoned the surtout over Peter's breast, crammed the straight-brimmed hat over his eyes, and the two were clattering downstairs.
Long before the two had reached the top floor of the building in which the dinner was to be given, they had caught the hum of the merrymakers, the sound bringing a smile of satisfaction to Peter's face, but it was when he entered the richly colored room itself, hazy with cigarette smoke, and began to look into the faces of the guests grouped about him and down the long table illumined by myriads of wax candles that all his doubts and misgivings faded into thin air. Never since his school days, he told me afterwards, had he seen so many boisterously happy young fellows grouped together. And not only young fellows, with rosy cheeks and bright eyes, but older men with thoughtful faces, who had relinquished for a day the charge of some one of the important buildings designed in the distinguished architect's office, and had spent the night on the train that they might do honor to their Chief.
But it was when Morris, with his arm fast locked in his, began introducing him right and left as the "Guest of Honor of the Evening," the two shaking hands first with one and then another, Morris breaking out into joyous salvos of welcome over some arrival from a distant city, or greeting with marked kindness and courtesy one of the younger men from his own office, that the old fellow's enthusiasm became uncontrollable.
"Isn't it glorious, Holker!" he cried joyously, with uplifted hands. "Oh, I'm so glad I came! I wouldn't have missed this for anything in the world. Did you ever see anything like it? This is classic, my boy—it has the tang and the spice of the ancients."
Morris's greeting to me was none the less hearty, although he had left me but half an hour before.
"Late, as I expected, Major," he cried with out-stretched hand, "and serves you right for not sitting in Peter's lap in the cab. Somebody ought to sit on him once in a while. He's twenty years younger already. Here, take this seat alongside of me where you can keep him in order—they were at table when I entered. Waiter, bring back that bottle—Just a light claret, Major—all we allow ourselves."
As the evening wore away the charm of the room grew upon me. Vistas hazy with tobacco smoke opened up; the ceiling lost in the fog gave one the impression of out-of-doors—like a roof-garden at night; a delusion made all the more real by the happy uproar. And then the touches here and there by men whose life had been the study of color and effects; the appointments of the table, the massing of flowers relieving the white cloth; the placing of shaded candles, so that only a rosy glow filtered through the loom, softening the light on the happy faces—each scalp crowned with chaplets of laurel tied with red ribbons: an enchantment of color, form and light where but an hour before only the practical and the commonplace had held sway.
No vestige of the business side of the offices remained. Peter pointed out to me a big plaster model of the State House, which filled one end of the room, and two great figures, original plaster casts, heroic in size, that Harding, the sculptor, had modelled for either side of the entrance of the building; but everything that smacked of T-square or scale was hidden from sight. In their place, lining the walls, stood a row of standards of red and orange silk, stretched on rods and supported by poles; the same patterns of banners which were carried before Imperial Caesars when they took an airing; and now emblazoned with the titles of the several structures conceived in the brain of Holker Morris and executed by his staff: the Imperial Library in Tokio; the great Corn Exchange covering a city block; the superb Art Museum crowning the highest hill in the Park; the beautiful chateau of the millionaire surrounded by thousands of acres of virgin forest; the spacious warehouses on the water front, and many others.
With the passing of the flagons an electric current of good fellowship flashed around the circle. Stories that would have been received with but a bare smile at the club were here greeted with shouts of laughter. Bon-mots, skits, puns and squibs mouldy with age or threadbare with use, were told with a new gusto and welcomed with delight.
Suddenly, and without any apparent reason, these burst forth a roar like that of a great orchestra with every instrument played at its loudest—rounds of applause from kettle-drums, trombones and big horns; screams of laughter from piccolos, clarionettes and flutes, buzzings of subdued talk by groups of bass viols and the lesser strings, the whole broken by the ringing notes of a song that soared for an instant clear of the din, only to be overtaken and drowned in the mighty shout of approval. This was followed by a stampede from the table; the banners were caught up with a mighty shout and carried around the room; Morris, boy for the moment, springing to his feet and joining in the uproar.
The only guest who kept his chair, except Peter and myself, was a young fellow two seats away, whose eyes, brilliant with excitement, followed the merrymaking, but who seemed too much abashed, or too ill at ease, to join in the fun. I had noticed how quiet he was and wondered at the cause. Peter had also been watching the boy and had said to me that he had a good face and was evidently from out of town.
"Why don't you get up?" Peter called to him at last. "Up with you, my lad. This is one of the times when every one of you young fellows should be on your feet." He would have grabbed a banner himself had any one given him the slightest encouragement.
"I would, sir, but I'm out of it," said the young man with a deferential bow, moving to the empty seat next to Peter. He too had been glancing at Peter from time to time.
"Aren't you with Mr. Morris?"
"No, I wish I were. I came with my friend, Garry Minott, that young fellow carrying the banner with 'Corn Exchange' marked on it."
"And may I ask, then, what you do?" continued Peter.
The young fellow looked into the older man's kindly eyes—something in their expression implied a wish to draw him the closer—and said quite simply: "I don't do anything that is of any use, sir. Garry says that I might as well work in a faro bank."
Peter leaned forward. For the moment the hubbub was forgotten as he scrutinized the young man, who seemed scarcely twenty-one, his well-knit, well-dressed body, his soft brown hair curled about his scalp, cleanly modelled ears, steady brown eyes, white teeth—especially the mobile lips which seemed quivering from some suppressed emotion—all telling of a boy delicately nurtured.
"And do you really work in a faro bank?" Peter's knowledge of human nature had failed him for once.
"Oh, no sir, that is only one of Garry's jokes. I'm clerk in a stock broker's office on Wall Street. Arthur Breen & Company. My uncle is head of the firm."
"Oh, that's it, is it?" answered Peter in a relieved tone.
"And now will you tell me what your business is, sir?" asked the young man. "You seem so different from the others."
"Me! Oh, I take care of the money your gamblers win," replied Peter, at which they both laughed, a spark of sympathy being kindled between them.
Then, seeing the puzzled expression on the boy's face, he added with a smile: "I'm Receiving Teller in a bank, one of the oldest in Wall Street."
A look of relief passed over the young fellow's face.
"I'm very glad, sir," he said, with a smile. "Do you know, sir, you look something like my own father—what I can remember of him—that is, he was—" The lad checked himself, fearing he might be discourteous. "That is, he had lost his hair, sir, and he wore his cravats like you, too. I have his portrait in my room."
Peter leaned still closer to the speaker. This time he laid his hand on his arm. The tumult around him made conversation almost impossible. "And now tell me your name?"
"My name is Breen, sir. John Breen. I live with my uncle."
The roar of the dinner now became so fast and furious that further confidences were impossible. The banners had been replaced and every one was reseated, talking or laughing. On one side raged a discussion as to how far the decoration of a plain surface should go—"Roughing it," some of them called it. At the end of the table two men were wrangling as to whether the upper or the lower half of a tall structure should have its vertical lines broken; and, if so, by what. Further down high-keyed voices were crying out against the abomination of the flat roof on the more costly buildings; wondering whether some of their clients would wake up to the necessity of breaking the sky-line with something less ugly—even if it did cost a little more. Still a third group were in shouts of laughter over a story told by one of the staff who had just returned from an inspection trip west.
Young Breen looked down the length of the table, watched for a moment a couple of draughtsmen who stood bowing and drinking to each other in mock ceremony out of the quaint glasses filled from the borrowed flagons, then glanced toward his friend Minott, just then the centre of a cyclone that was stirring the group midway the table.
"Come over here, Garry," he called, half rising to his feet to attract his friend's attention.
Minott waved his hand in answer, waited until the point of the story had been reached, and made his way toward Peter's end of the table.
"Garry," he whispered, "I want to introduce you to Mr. Grayson—the very dearest old gentleman you ever met in your whole life. Sits right next to me."
"What, that old fellow that looks like a billiard ball in a high collar?" muttered Minott with a twinkle in his eye. "We've been wondering where Mr. Morris dug him up."
"Hush," said Breen—"he'll hear you."
"All right, but hurry up. I must say he doesn't look near so bad when you get close to him."
"Mr. Grayson, I want you to know my friend Garry Minott."
Peter rose to his feet. "I DO know him," he said, holding out his hand cordially. "I've been knowing him all the evening. He's made most of the fun at his end of the table. You seem to have flaunted your Corn Exchange banner on the smallest provocation, Mr. Minott," and Peter's fingers gripped those of the young man.
"That's because I've been in charge of the inside work. Great dinner, isn't it, Mr. Grayson. But it's Britton who has made the dinner. He's more fun than a Harlem goat with a hoopskirt. See him—that's Brit with a red head and blue neck-tie. He's been all winter in Wisconsin looking after some iron work and has come back jam full of stories." The dignity of Peter's personality had evidently not impressed the young man, judging from the careless tone with which he addressed him. "And how are you getting on, Jack—glad you came, ar'n't you?" As he spoke he laid his hand affectionately on the boy's shoulder. "Didn't I tell you it would be a corker? Out of sight, isn't it? Everything is out of sight around our office." This last remark was directed to Peter in the same casual way.
"I should say that every stopper was certainly out," answered Peter in graver tones. He detested slang and would never understand it. Then again the bearing and air of Jack's friend jarred on him. "You know, of course, the old couplet—'When the wine flows the—'"
"No, I don't know it," interrupted Minott with an impatient glance. "I'm not much on poetry—but you can bet your bottom dollar it's flowing all right." Then seeing the shade of disappointment on Breen's face at the flippant way in which he had returned Peter's courtesies, but without understanding the cause, he added, tightening his arm around his friend's neck, "Brace up, Jack, old man, and let yourself go. That's what I'm always telling Jack, Mr. Grayson. He's got to cut loose from a lot of old-fashioned notions that he brought from home if he wants to get anywhere around here. I had to."
"What do you want him to give up, Mr. Minott?" Peter had put on his glasses now, and was inspecting Garry at closer range.
"Oh, I don't know—just get into the swing of things and let her go."
"That is no trouble for you to do," rejoined Jack, looking into his friend's face. "You're doing something that's worth while."
"Well, aren't you doing something that's worth while? Why you'll be a millionaire if you keep on. First thing you know the lightning will strike you just as it did your uncle."
Morris leaned forward at the moment and called Minott by name. Instantly the young man's manner changed to one of respectful attention as he stepped to his Chief's side.
"Yes, Mr. Morris."
"You tell the men up your way to get ready to come to order, or we won't get through in time—it's getting late."
"All right, sir, I'll take care of 'em. Just as soon as you begin to speak you won't hear a sound."
As Minott moved from Morris's seat another and louder shout arose from the other end of the table:
"Garry, Garry, hurry up!" came the cry. It was evident the young man was very popular.
Peter dropped his glasses from his nose, and turning toward Morris said in a low voice:
"That's a very breezy young man, Holker, the one who has just left us. Got something in him, has he, besides noise?"
"Yes, considerable. Wants toning down once in a while, but there's no question of his ability or of his loyalty. He never shirks a duty and never forgets a kindness. Queer combination when you think of it, Peter. What he will make of himself is another matter."
Peter drew his body back and sent his thoughts out on an investigating tour. He was wondering what effect the influence of a young man like Minott would have on a young man like Breen.
The waiters at this point brought in huge trays holding bowls of tobacco and long white clay pipes, followed by even larger trays bearing coffee in little cups. Morris waited a moment and then rapped for order. Instantly a hush fell upon the noisy room; plates and glasses were pushed back so as to give the men elbow room; pipes were hurriedly lighted, and each guest turned his chair so as to face the Chief, who was now on his feet.
As he stood erect, one hand behind his back, the other stretched toward the table in his appeal for silence, I thought for the hundredth time how kind his fifty years had been to him; how tightly knit his figure; how well his clothes became him. A handsome, well-groomed man at all times and in any costume—but never so handsome or so well groomed as in evening dress. Everything in his make-up helped: the broad, square shoulders, arms held close to his side; flat waist; incurving back and narrow hips. His well-modelled, aristocratic head, too, seemed to gain increased distinction when it rose clear from a white shirt-front which served as a kind of marble pedestal for his sculptured head. There was, moreover, in his every move and look, that quality of transparent sincerity which always won him friends at sight. "If men's faces are clocks," Peter always said, "Holker's is fitted with a glass dial. You can not only see what time it is, but you can see the wheels that move his heart."
He was about to speak now, his eyes roaming the room waiting for the last man to be still. No fumbling of glasses or rearranging of napkin, but erect, with a certain fearless air that was as much a part of his nature as was his genius. Beginning in a clear, distinct voice which reached every ear in the room, he told them first how welcome they were. How great an honor it was for him to have them so close to him—so close that he could look into all their faces with one glance; not only those who came from a distance but those of his personal staff, to whom really the success of the year's work had been due. As for himself, he was, as they knew, only the lead horse in the team, going ahead to show them the way, while they did the effective pulling that brought the load to market! Here he slipped his hand in his pocket, took from it a small box which he laid beside his plate, and continued:
"At these festivals, as you know, and if my memory serves me this is our third, it has always been our custom to give some slight token of our appreciation to the man who has done most during the year to further the work of the office. This has always been a difficult thing to decide, because every one of you, without a single exception, has given the best that is in you in the general result. Three years ago, you remember, it was awarded to the man who by common consent had carried to completion, and without a single error, the detailed drawings of the Museum which was finished last year. I am looking at you, Mr. Downey, and again congratulate you. Last year it was awarded to Mr. Buttrick for the masterly way with which he put together the big arches of the Government warehouses—a man whom it would have been my pleasure to congratulate again to-night had it been possible for him to reach us. To-night I think you will all agree with me that this small token, not only of my own, but of your 'personal regard and appreciation'" (here he opened the box and took from it a man's ring set with three jewels), "should be given to the man who has carried out in so thorough a way the part allotted to him in the Corn Exchange, and who is none other than Mr. Garrison Minott, who for—"
The rest of the sentence was lost in the uproar.
"Garry! Garry! Garry Minott!" came from all parts of the room. "Bully for Garry! You deserve it, old man! Three cheers for Garry Minott! Hip... Hip...!"
Morris's voice now dominated the room.
"Come this way, Mr. Minott."
The face of the young superintendent, which had been in a broad laugh all the evening, grew white and red by turns. Out of pure astonishment he could neither move nor speak.
"All right—stay where you are!" cried Morris laughing. "Pass it up to him, please."
John Breen sprang from his chair with the alertness of a man who had been accustomed to follow his impulse. In his joy over his friend's good fortune he forgot his embarrassment, forgot that he was a stranger; forgot that he alone, perhaps, was the only young man in the room whose life and training had not fitted him for the fullest enjoyment of what was passing around him; forgot everything, in fact, but that his comrade, his friend, his chum, had won the highest honors his Chief could bestow.
With cheeks aflame he darted to Morris's chair.
"Let me hand it to him, sir," he cried, all the love for his friend in his eyes, seizing the ring and plunging toward Garry, the shouts increasing as he neared his side and placed the prize in his hand. Only then did Minott find his breath and his feet.
"Why, Mr. Morris!—Why, fellows!—Why, there's plenty of men in the office who have done more than I have to—"
Then he sat down, the ring fast in his hand.
When the applause had subside—the young fellow's modesty had caused a fresh outburst—Morris again rose in his chair and once more the room grew still.
"Twelve o'clock, gentlemen," he said. "Mr. Downey, you are always our stand-by in starting the old hymn."
The diners—host and guests alike—rose to their feet as one man. Then to Peter's and my own intense surprise that most impressive of all chants, the Doxology in long metre, surged out, gaining in volume and strength as its strains were caught up by the different voices.
With the ending of the grand old hymn—it had been sung with every mark of respect by every man in the room—John Breen walked back to his chair, leaned toward Peter, and with an apologetic tone in his voice—he had evidently noticed the unfavorable impression that Garry had made on his neighbor—said:
"Don't misjudge Garry, Mr. Grayson; he's the kindest hearted fellow in the world when you know him. He's a little rough sometimes, as you can see, but he doesn't mean it. He thinks his way of talking and acting is what he calls 'up-to-date.'" Then he added with a sigh: "I wish I had a ring like that—one that I had earned. I tell you, Mr. Grayson, THAT'S something worth while."
Peter laid his hand on the young man's shoulder and looked him straight in the face, the same look in his eyes that a proud father would have given a son who had pleased him. He had heard with delight the boy's defence of his friend and he had read the boy's mind as he sang the words of the hymn, his face grave, his whole attitude one of devotion. "You'd think he was in his father's pew at home," Peter had whispered to me with a smile. It was the latter outburst though—the one that came with a sigh—that stirred him most.
"And you would really have liked a ring yourself, my lad?"
"Would I like it! Why, Mr. Grayson, I'd rather have had Mr. Morris give me a thing like that and DESERVED IT, than have all the money you could pile on this table."
One of those sudden smiles which his friends loved so well irradiated Peter's face.
"Keep on the way you're going, my son," he said, seizing the boy's hand, a slight tremble in his voice, "and you'll get a dozen of them."
"How?" The boy's eyes were wide in wonderment.
"By being yourself. Don't let go of your ideals no matter what Minott or anybody else says. Let him go his way and do you keep on in yours. Don't... but I can't talk here. Come and see me. I mean it."
Breen's eyes glistened. "When?"
"To-morrow night, at my rooms. Here's my card. And you, too, Mr. Minott—glad to see both of you." Garry has just joined them.
"Thanks awfully," answered Minott. "I'm very sorry, Mr. Grayson, but I'm booked for a supper at the Magnolia. Lot of the fellows want to whoop up this—" and he held the finger bearing the ring within an inch of Peter's nose. "And they want you, too, Jack."
"No, please let me have him," Peter urged. Minott, I could see, he did not want; Breen he was determined to have.
"I would love to come, sir, and it's very kind of you to ask me. There's to be a dance at my uncle's tomorrow night, though I reckon I can be excused. Would you—would you come to see me instead? I want you to see my father's portrait. It's not you, and yet it's like you when you turn your head; and there are some other things. I'd like—" Here the boy stopped.
Peter considered for a moment. Calling at the house of a man he did not know, even to continue the acquaintance of so charming a young fellow as his nephew, was not one of the things punctilious Mr. Grayson—punctilious as to forms of etiquette—was accustomed to do. The young man read his thoughts and added quickly:
"Of course I'll do just as you say, but if you only would come we will be entirely alone and won't see anybody else in the house."
"But couldn't you possibly come to me?" Peter urged. The fact that young Breen had a suite of rooms so sequestered as to be beyond the reach even of a dance, altered the situation to some extent, but he was still undecided. "I live all alone when my sister is not with me, and I, too, have many things I am sure would interest you. Say you'll come now—I shall expect you, shall I not?"
The boy hesitated. "You may not know exactly what I mean," he said slowly. "Maybe you can't understand, for everybody about here seems to love you, and you must have lots of friends. The fact is, I feel out of everything. I get pretty lonely sometimes. Garry, here, never stays five minutes when he comes to see me, so many people are after him all the time. Please say you'll come!"
There was a note in the boy's voice that swept away all the older man's scruples.
"Come, my son! Of course I'll come," burst out Peter. "I'll be there at nine o'clock."
As Morris and the others passed between the table and the wall on their way to the cloak-room, Minott, who had listened to the whole conversation, waited until he thought Peter had gone ahead, and then, with an impatient gesture, said:
"What the devil, Jack, do you want to waste your time over an old fellow like that for?"
"Oh, Garry, don't—"
"Don't! A bald-headed old pill who ought to have—"
Then the two passed out of hearing.
Breakfast—any meal for that matter—in the high-wainscoted, dark-as-a-pocket dining-room of the successful Wall Street broker—the senior member of the firm of A. Breen & Co., uncle, guardian and employer of the fresh, rosy-cheeked lad who sat next to Peter on the night of Morris's dinner, was never a joyous function.
The room itself, its light shut out by the adjoining extensions, prevented it; so did the glimpse of hard asphalt covering the scrap of a yard, its four melancholy posts hung about with wire clothes-lines; and so did the clean-shaven, smug-faced butler, who invariably conducted his master's guests to their chairs with the movement of an undertaker, and who had never been known to crack a smile of any kind, long or short, during his five years' sojourn with the family of Breen.
Not that anybody wanted Parkins to crack one, that is, not his master, and certainly not his mistress, and most assuredly not his other mistress, Miss Corinne, the daughter of the lady whom the successful Wall Street broker had made his first and only wife.
All this gloomy atmosphere might have been changed for the better had there been a big, cheery open wood fire snapping and blazing away, sputtering out its good morning as you entered—and there would have been if any one of the real inmates had insisted upon it—fought for it, if necessary; or if in summer one could have seen through the curtained windows a stretch of green grass with here and there a tree, or one or two twisted vines craning their necks to find out what was going on inside; or if in any or all seasons, a wholesome, happy-hearted, sunny wife looking like a bunch of roses just out of a bath, had sat behind the smoking coffee-urn, inquiring whether one or two lumps of sugar would be enough; or a gladsome daughter who, in a sudden burst of affection, had thrown her arms around her father's neck and kissed him because she loved him, and because she wanted his day and her day to begin that way:—if, I say, there had been all, or one-half, or one-quarter of these things, the atmosphere of this sepulchral interior might have been improved—but there wasn't.
There was a wife, of course, a woman two years older than Arthur Breen—the relict of a Captain Barker, an army officer—who had spent her early life in moving from one army post to another until she had settled down in Washington, where Breen had married her, and where the Scribe first met her. But this sharer of the fortunes of Breen preferred her breakfast in bed, New York life having proved even more wearing than military upheavals. And there was also a daughter, Miss Corinne Barker, Captain and Mrs. Barker's only offspring, who had known nothing of army posts, except as a child, but who had known everything of Washington life from the time she was twelve until she was fifteen, and she was now twenty; but that young woman, I regret to say, also breakfasted in bed, where her maid had special instructions not to disturb her until my lady's jewelled fingers touched a button within reach of her dainty hand; whereupon another instalment of buttered rolls and coffee would be served with such accessories of linen, porcelain and silver as befitted the appetite and station of one so beautiful and so accomplished.
These conditions never ceased to depress Jack. Fresh from a life out of doors, accustomed to an old-fashioned dining-room—the living room, really, of the family who had cared for him since his father's death, where not only the sun made free with the open doors and windows, but the dogs and neighbors as well—the sober formality of this early meal—all of his uncle's meals, for that matter—sent shivers down his back that chilled him to the bone.
He had looked about him the first morning of his arrival, had noted the heavy carved sideboard laden with the garish silver; had examined the pictures lining the walls, separated from the dark background of leather by heavy gold frames; had touched with his fingers the dial of the solemn bronze clock, flanked by its equally solemn candelabra; had peered between the steel andirons, bright as carving knives, and into the freshly varnished, spacious chimney up which no dancing blaze had ever whirled in madcap glee since the mason's trowel had left it and never would to the end of time,—not as long as the steam heat held out; had watched the crane-like step of Parkins as he moved about the room—cold, immaculate, impassive; had listened to his "Yes, sir—thank you, sir, very good, sir," until he wanted to take him by the throat and shake something spontaneous and human out of him, and as each cheerless feature passed in review his spirits had sunk lower and lower.
This, then, was what he could expect as long as he lived under his uncle's roof—a period of time which seemed to him must stretch out into dim futurity. No laughing halloos from passing neighbors through wide-open windows; no Aunt Hannahs running in with a plate of cakes fresh from the griddle which would cool too quickly if she waited for that slow-coach of a Tom to bring them to her young master. No sweep of leaf-covered hills seen through bending branches laden with blossoms; no stretch of sky or slant of sunshine; only a grim, funereal, artificial formality, as ungenial and flattening to a boy of his tastes, education and earlier environment as a State asylum's would have been to a red Indian fresh from the prairie.
On the morning after Morris's dinner (within eight hours really of the time when he had been so thrilled by the singing of the Doxology), Jack was in his accustomed seat at the small, adjustable accordion-built table—it could be stretched out to accommodate twenty-four covers—when his uncle entered this room. Parkins was genuflecting at the time with his—"Cream, sir,—yes, sir. Devilled kidney, sir? Thank you, sir." (Parkins had been second man with Lord Colchester, so he told Breen when he hired him.) Jack had about made up his mind to order him out when a peculiar tone in his uncle's "Good morning" made the boy scan that gentleman's face and figure the closer.
His uncle was as well dressed as usual, looking as neat and as smart in his dark cut-away coat with the invariable red carnation in his buttonhole, but the boy's quick eye caught the marks of a certain wear and tear in the face which neither his bath nor his valet had been able to obliterate. The thin lips—thin for a man so fat, and which showed, more than any other feature, something of the desultory firmness of his character—drooped at the corners. The eyes were half their size, the snap all out of them, the whites lost under the swollen lids. His greeting, moreover, had lost its customary heartiness.
"You were out late, I hear," he grumbled, dropping into his chair. "I didn't get in myself until two o'clock and feel like a boiled owl. May have caught a little cold, but I think it was that champagne of Duckworth's; always gives me a headache. Don't put any sugar and cream in that coffee, Parkins—want it straight."
"Yes, sir," replied the flunky, moving toward the sideboard.
"And now, Jack, what did you do?" he continued, picking up his napkin. "You and Garry made a night of it, didn't you? Some kind of an artist's bat, wasn't it?"
"No, sir; Mr. Morris gave a dinner to his clerks, and—"
"Why, the great architect."
"Oh, that fellow! Yes, I know him, that is, I know who he is. Say the rest. Parkins! didn't I tell you I didn't want any sugar or cream."
Parkins hadn't offered any. He had only forgotten to remove them from the tray.
Jack kept straight on; these differences between the master and Parkins were of daily occurrence.
"And, Uncle Arthur, I met the most wonderful gentleman I ever saw; he looked just as if he had stepped out of an old frame, and yet he is down in the Street every day and—"
"No firm, he is—"
"Curbstone man, then?" Here Breen lifted the cup to his lips and as quickly put it down. "Parkins!"
"Yes, sir," came the monotone.
"Why the devil can't I get my coffee hot?"
"Is it cold, sir?"—slight modulation, but still lifeless.
"IS IT COLD? Of course it's cold! Might have been standing in a morgue. Take that down and have some fresh coffee sent up. Servants running o'er each other and yet I can't get a—Go on, Jack! I didn't mean to interrupt, but I'll clean the whole lot of 'em out of here if I don't get better service."
"No, Uncle Arthur, he isn't a banker—isn't even a broker; he's only a paying teller in a bank," continued Jack.
The older man turned his head and a look of surprise swept over his round, fat face.
"Teller in a BANK?" he asked in an altered tone.
"Yes, the most charming, the most courteous old gentleman I have ever met; I haven't seen anybody like him since I left home, and, just think, he has promised to come and see me to-night."
The drooping lips straightened and a shrewd, searching glance shot from Arthur Breen's eyes. There was a brain behind this sleepy face—as many of his competitors knew. It was not always in working order, but when it was the man became another personality.
"Jack—" The voice was now as thin as the drawn lips permitted, with caution in every tone, "you stop short off. You mustn't cotton to everybody you pick up in New York—it won't do. Get you into trouble. Don't bring him here; your aunt won't like it. When you get into a hole with a fellow and can't help yourself, take him to the club. That's one of the things I got you into the Magnolia for; but don't ever bring 'em here."
"But he's a personal friend of Mr. Morris, and a friend of another friend of Mr. Morris's they called 'Major.'" It was not the first time he had heard such inhospitable suggestions from his uncle.
"Oh, yes, I know; they've all got some old retainers hanging on that they give a square meal to once a year, but don't you get mixed up with 'em."
Parkins had returned by this time and was pouring a fresh cup of coffee.
"Now, Parkins, that's something like—No, I don't want any kidneys—I don't want any toast—I don't want anything, Parkins—haven't I told you so?"
"Yes, sir; thank you sir."
"Black coffee is the only thing that'll settle this head. What you want to do, Jack, is to send that old fossil word that you've got another engagement, and... Parkins, is there anything going on here to-night?"
"Yes, sir; Miss Cocinne is giving a small dance."
"There, Jack—that's it. That'll let you out with a whole skin."
"No, I can't, and I won't, Uncle Arthur," he answered in an indignant tone. "If you knew him as I do, and had seen him last night, you would—"
"No, I don't want to know him and I don't want to see him. You are all balled up, I see, and can't work loose, but take him upstairs; don't let your aunt come across him or she'll have a fit." Here he glanced at the bronze clock. "What!—ten minutes past nine! Parkins, see if my cab is at the door.... Jack, you ride down with me. I walked when I was your age, and got up at daylight. Some difference, Jack, isn't there, whether you've got a rich uncle to look after you or not." This last came with a wink.
It was only one of his pleasantries. He knew he was not rich; not in the accepted sense. He might be a small star in the myriads forming the Milky-Way of Finance, but there were planets millions of miles beyond him, whose brilliancy he was sure he could never equal. The fact was that the money which he had accumulated had been so much greater sum than he had ever hoped for when he was a boy in a Western State—his father went to Iowa in '49—and the changes in his finances had come with such lightning rapidity (half a million made on a tip given him by a friend, followed by other tips more or less profitable) that he loved to pat his pride, so to speak, in speeches like this.
That he had been swept off his feet by the social and financial rush about him was quite natural. His wife, whose early life had been one long economy, had ambitions to which there was no limit and her escape from her former thraldom had been as sudden and as swift as the upward spring of a loosened balloon. Then again all the money needed to make the ascension successful was at her disposal. Hence jewels, laces, and clothes; hence elaborate dinners, the talk of the town: hence teas, receptions, opera parties, week-end parties at their hired country seat on Long Island; dances for Corinne; dinners for Corinne; birthday parties for Corinne; everything, in fact, for Corinne, from manicures to pug dogs and hunters.
His two redeeming qualities were his affection for his wife and his respect for his word. He had no child of his own, and Corinne, though respectful never showed him any affection. He had sent Jack to a Southern school and college, managing meanwhile the little property his father had left him, which, with some wild lands in the Cumberland Mountains, practically worthless, was the boy's whole inheritance, and of late had treated him as if he had been his own son.
As to his own affairs, close as he sailed to the wind in his money transactions—so close sometimes that the Exchange had more than once overhauled his dealings—it was generally admitted that when Arthur Breen gave his WORD—a difficult thing often to get—he never broke it. This was offset by another peculiarity with less beneficial results: When he had once done a man a service only to find him ungrateful, no amount of apologies or atonement thereafter ever moved him to forgiveness. Narrow-gauge men are sometimes built that way.
It was to be expected, therefore, considering the quality of Duckworth's champagne and the impression made on Jack by his uncle's outburst, that the ride down town in the cab was marked by anything but cheerful conversation between Breen and his nephew, each of whom sat absorbed in his own reflections. "I didn't mean to be hard on the boy," ruminated Breen, "but if I had picked up everybody who wanted to know me, as Jack has done, where would I be now?" Then, his mind still clouded by the night at the club (he had not confined himself entirely to champagne), he began, as was his custom, to concentrate his attention upon the work of the day—on the way the market would open; on the remittance a belated customer had promised and about which he had some doubt; the meeting of the board of directors in the new mining company—"The Great Mukton Lode," in which he had an interest, and a large one—etc.
Jack looked out of the windows, his eyes taking in the remnants of the autumnal tints in the Park, now nearly gone, the crowd filling the sidewalks; the lumbering stages and the swifter-moving horse-cars crammed with eager men anxious to begin the struggle of the day—not with their hands—that mob had swept past hours before—but with their brains—wits against wits and the devil take the man who slips and falls.
Nothing of it all interested him. His mind was on the talk at the breakfast table, especially his uncle's ideas of hospitality, all of which had appalled and disgusted him. With his father there had always been a welcome for every one, no matter what the position in life, the only standard being one of breeding and character—and certainly Peter had both. His uncle had helped him, of course—put him under obligations he could never repay. Yet after all, it was proved now to him that he was but a guest in the house enjoying only such rights as any other guest might possess, and with no voice in the welcome—a condition which would never be altered, until he became independent himself—a possibility which at the moment was too remote to be considered. Then his mind reverted to his conversation the night before with Mr. Grayson and with this change of thought his father's portrait—the one that hung in his room—loomed up. He had the night before turned on the lights—to their fullest—and had scanned the picture closely, eager to find some trace of Peter in the counterfeit presentment of the man he loved best, and whose memory was still almost a religion, but except that both Peter and his father were bald, and that both wore high, old-fashioned collars and neck-cloths, he had been compelled to admit with a sigh that there was nothing about the portrait on which to base the slightest claim to resemblance.
"Yet he's like my father, he is, he is," he kept repeating to himself as the cab sped on. "I'll find out what it is when I know him better. To-night when Mr. Grayson comes I'll study it out," and a joyous smile flashed across his features as he thought of the treat in store for him.
When at last the boy reached his office, where, behind the mahogany partition with its pigeon-hole cut through the glass front he sat every day, he swung back the doors of the safe, took out his books and papers and made ready for work. He had charge of the check book, and he alone signed the firm's name outside of the partners. "Rather young," one of them protested, until he looked into the boy's face, then he gave his consent; something better than years of experience and discretion are wanted where a scratch of a pen might mean financial ruin.
Breen had preceded him with but a nod to his clerks, and had disappeared into his private office—another erection of ground glass and mahogany. Here the senior member of the firm shut the door carefully, and turning his back fished up a tiny key attached to a chain leading to the rear pocket of his trousers. With this he opened a small closet near his desk—a mere box of a closet—took from it a squatty-shaped decanter labelled "Rye, 1840," poured out half a glass, emptied it into his person with one gulp, and with the remark in a low voice to himself that he was now "copper fastened inside and out"—removed all traces of the incident and took up his morning's mail.
By this time the circle of chairs facing the huge blackboard in the spacious outer office had begun to fill up. Some of the customers, before taking their seats, hurried anxiously to the ticker, chattering away in its glass case; others turned abruptly and left the room without a word. Now and then a customer would dive into Breen's private room, remain a moment and burst out again, his face an index of the condition of his bank account.
When the chatter of the ticker had shifted from the London quotations to the opening sales on the Exchange, a sallow-faced clerk mounted a low step-ladder and swept a scurry of chalk marks over the huge blackboard, its margin lettered with the initials of the principal stocks. The appearance of this nimble-fingered young man with his piece of chalk always impressed Jack as a sort of vaudeville performance. On ordinary days, with the market lifeless, but half of the orchestra seats would be occupied. In whirl-times, with the ticker spelling ruin, not only were the chairs full, but standing room only was available in the offices.
Their occupants came from all classes; clerks from up-town dry-goods houses, who had run down during lunch time to see whether U.P. or Erie, or St. Paul had moved up an eighth, or down a quarter, since they had devoured the morning papers on their way to town; old speculators who had spent their lives waiting buzzard-like for some calamity, enabling them to swoop down and make off with what fragments they could pick up; well-dressed, well-fed club men, who had had a run of luck and who never carried less than a thousand shares to keep their hands in; gray-haired novices nervously rolling little wads of paper between their fingers and thumbs—up every few minutes to listen to the talk of the ticker, too anxious to wait until the sallow-faced young man with the piece of chalk could make his record on the board. Some of them had gathered together their last dollar. Two per cent. or one percent, or even one-half of one per cent. rise or fall was all that stood between them and ruin.
"Very sorry, sir, but you know we told you when you opened the account that you must keep your margins up," Breen had said to an old man. The old man knew; had known it all night as he lay awake, afraid to tell his wife of the sword hanging above their heads. Knew it, too, when without her knowledge he had taken the last dollar of the little nest-egg to make good the deficit owed Breen & Co. over and above his margins, together with some other things "not negotiable"—not our kind of collateral but "stuff" that could "lie in the safe until he could make some other arrangement," the cashier had said with the firm's consent.
Queer safe, that of Breen & Co., and queer things went into it. Most of them were still there. Jack thought some jeweller had sent part of his stock down for safe-keeping when he first came across a tiny drawer of which Breen alone kept the key. Each object could tell a story: a pair of diamond ear-rings surely could, and so could four pearls on a gold chain, and perhaps, too, a certain small watch, the case set with jewels. One of these days they may be redeemed, or they may not, depending upon whether the owners can scrape money enough together to pay the balances owed in cash. But the four pearls on the gold chain are likely to remain there—that poor fellow went overboard one morning off Nantucket Light, and his secret went with him.
During the six months Jack had stood at his desk new faces had filled the chairs—the talk had varied; though he felt only the weary monotony of it all. Sometimes there had been hours of tense excitement, when even his uncle had stood by the ticker, and when every bankable security in the box had been overhauled and sent post-haste to the bank or trust company. Jack, followed by the porter with a self-cocking revolver in his outside pocket, had more than once carried the securities himself, returning to the office on the run with a small scrap of paper good for half a million or so tucked away in his inside pocket. Then the old monotony had returned with its dull routine and so had the chatter and talk. "Buy me a hundred." "Yes, let 'em go." "No, I don't want to risk it." "What's my balance?" "Thought you'd get another eighth for that stock." "Sold at that figure, anyhow," etc.
Under these conditions life to a boy of Jack's provincial training and temperament seemed narrowed down to an arm-chair, a black-board, a piece of chalk and a restless little devil sputtering away in a glass case, whose fiat meant happiness or misery. Only the tongue of the demon was in evidence. The brain behind it, with its thousand slender nerves quivering with the energy of the globe, Jack never saw, nor, for that matter, did nine-tenths of the occupants of the chairs. To them its spoken word was the dictum of fate. Success meant debts paid, a balance in the bank, houses, horses, even yachts and estates—failure meant obscurity and suffering. The turn of the roulette wheel or the roll of a cube of ivory they well knew brought the same results, but these turnings they also knew were attended with a certain loss of prestige. Taking a flier in the Street was altogether different—great financiers were behind the fluctuations of values told by the tongue of the ticker, and behind them was the wealth of the Republic and still in the far distance the power of the American people. Few of them ever looked below the grease paint, nor did the most discerning ever detect the laugh on the clown's face.
The boy half hidden by the glass screen, through which millions were passed and repassed every month, caught now and then a glimpse.
Once a faded, white-haired old man had handed Jack a check after banking hours to make good an account—a man whose face had haunted him for hours. His uncle told him the poor fellow had "run up solid" against a short interest in a stock that some Croesus was manipulating to get even with another Croesus who had manipulated HIM, and that the two Croesuses had "buried the old man alive." The name of the stock Jack had forgotten, but the suffering in the victim's face had made an indelible impression. In reply to Jack's further inquiry, his uncle had spoken as if the poor fellow had been wandering about on some unknown highway when the accident happened, failing to add that he himself had led him through the gate and started him on the road; forgetting, too, to say that he had collected the toll in margins, a sum which still formed a considerable portion of Breen & Co.'s bank account. One bit of information which Breen had vouchsafed, while it did not relieve the gloom of the incident, added a note of courage to the affair:
"He was game, however, all the same, Jack. Had to go down into his wife's stocking, I hear. Hard hit, but he took it like a man."
While all this was going on downtown under the direction of the business end of the house of Breen, equally interesting events were taking place uptown under the guidance of its social head. Strict orders had been given by Mrs. Breen the night before that certain dustings and arrangings of furniture should take place, the spacious stairs swept, and the hectic hired palms in their great china pots watered. I say "the night before," because especial stress was laid upon the fact that on no account whatever were either Mrs. Breen or her daughter Corinne to be disturbed until noon—neither of them having retired until a late hour the night before.
So strictly were these orders carried out that all that did reach the younger woman's ear—and this was not until long after mid-day—was a scrap of news which crept upstairs from the breakfast table via Parkins wireless, was caught by Corinne's maid and delivered in manifold with that young lady's coffee and buttered rolls. This when deciphered meant that Jack was not to be at the dance that evening—he having determined instead to spend his time up stairs with a disreputable old fellow whom he had picked up somewhere at a supper the preceding night.
Corinne thought over the announcement for a moment, gazed into the egg-shell cup that Hortense was filling from the tiny silver coffee-pot, and a troubled expression crossed her face. "What has come over Jack?" she asked herself. "I never knew him to do anything like this before. Is he angry, I wonder, because I danced with Garry the other night? It WAS his dance, but I didn't think he would care. He has always done everything to please me—until now." Perhaps the boy was about to slip the slight collar he had worn in her service—one buckled on by him willingly because—though she had not known it—he was a guest in the house. Heretofore she said to herself Jack had been her willing slave, a feather in her cap—going everywhere with her; half the girls were convinced he was in love with her—a theory which she had encouraged. What would they say now? This prospect so disturbed the young woman that she again touched the button, and again Hortense glided in.
"Hortense, tell Parkins to let me know the moment Mr. John comes in—and get me my blue tea-gown; I sha'n't go out to-day." This done she sank back on her pillows.
She was a slight little body, this Corinne—blue-eyed, fair-haired, with a saucy face and upturned nose. Jack thought when he first saw her that she looked like a wren with its tiny bill in the air—and Jack was not far out of the way. And yet she was a very methodical, level-headed little wren, with several positive convictions which dominated her life—one of them being that everybody about her ought to do, not as they, but as she, pleased. She had begun, and with pronounced success, on her mother as far back as she could remember, and had then tried her hand on her stepfather until it became evident that as her mother controlled that gentleman it was a waste of time to experiment further. All of which was a saving of stones without the loss of any birds.
Where she failed—and she certainly had failed, was with Jack, who though punctiliously polite was elusive and—never quite subdued. Yet the discovery made, she neither pouted nor lost her temper, but merely bided her time. Sooner or later, she knew, of course, this boy, who had seen nothing of city life and who was evidently dazed with all the magnificence of the stately home overlooking the Park, would find his happiest resting-place beneath the soft plumage of her little wing. And if by any chance he should fall in love with her—and what more natural; did not everybody fall in love with her?—would it not be wiser to let him think she returned it, especially if she saw any disposition on the young man's part to thwart her undisputed sway of the household?
For months she had played her little game, yet to her amazement none of the things she had anticipated had happened. Jack had treated her as he would any other young woman of his acquaintance—always with courtesy—always doing everything to oblige her, but never yielding to her sway. He would laugh sometimes at her pretensions, just as he would have laughed at similar self-assertiveness on the part of any one else with whom he must necessarily be thrown, but never by thought, word or deed had he ever given my Lady Wren the faintest suspicion that he considered her more beautiful, better dressed, or more entertaining, either in song, chirp, flight or plumage, than the flock of other birds about her. Indeed, the Scribe knows it to be a fact that if Jack's innate politeness had not forbidden, he would many times have told her truths, some of them mighty unpleasant ones, to which her ears had been strangers since her school-girl days.