THE DAY OF DAYS
BY LOUIS JOSEPH VANCE
THE DAY OF DAYS THE DESTROYING ANGEL THE BANDBOX CYNTHIA-OF-THE-MINUTE NO MAN'S LAND THE FORTUNE HUNTER THE POOL OF FLAME THE BRONZE BELL THE BLACK BAG THE BRASS BOWL THE PRIVATE WAR TERENCE O'ROURKE
THE DAY OF DAYS
LOUIS JOSEPH VANCE
AUTHOR OF "THE BRASS BOWL," "THE BLACK BAG," "THE BANDBOX," "THE DESTROYING ANGEL," ETC.
WITH ILLUSTRATIONS BY ARTHUR WILLIAM BROWN
BOSTON LITTLE, BROWN, AND COMPANY
Copyright, 1912, 1913, BY LOUIS JOSEPH VANCE.
All rights reserved, including those of translation into foreign languages, including the Scandinavian.
Published, February, 1913 Reprinted, March, 1913
THE UNIVERSITY PRESS, CAMBRIDGE, MASS., U.S.A.
I. THE DUB II. INSPIRATION III. THE GLOVE COUNTER IV. A LIKELY STORY V. THE COMIC SPIRIT VI. SPRING TWILIGHT VII. AFTERMATH VIII. WHEELS OF CHANCE IX. THE PLUNGER X. UNDER FIRE XI. BURGLARY UNDER ARMS XII. THE LADY OF THE HOUSE XIII. RESPECTABILITY XIV. WHERE ANGELS FEAR TO TREAD XV. SUCH STUFF AS PLOTS ARE MADE OF XVI. BEELZEBUB XVII. IN A BALCONY XVIII. THE BROOCH XIX. NEMESIS XX. NOVEMBER XXI. THE SORTIE XXII. TOGETHER XXIII. PERCEVAL UNASHAMED
"What I want to say is—will you be my guest at the theatre tonight?"
"You are the one woman in a thousand who knows enough to look before she shoots!"
Facing her, he lifted his scarlet visor.
He was Red November.
THE DAY OF DAYS
"Smell," P. Sybarite mused aloud....
For an instant he was silent in depression. Then with extraordinary vehemence he continued crescendo: "Stupid-stagnant-sepulchral- sempiternally-sticky-Smell!"
He paused for both breath and words—pondered with bended head, knitting his brows forbiddingly.
"Supremely squalid, sinisterly sebaceous, sombrely sociable Smell!" he pursued violently.
Momentarily his countenance cleared; but his smile was as fugitive as the favour of princes.
Vindictively champing the end of a cedar penholder, he groped for expression: "Stygian ... sickening ... surfeiting ... slovenly ... sour...."
He shook his head impatiently and clawed the impregnated atmosphere with a tragic hand.
"Stench!" he perorated in a voice tremulous with emotion.
Even that comprehensive monosyllable was far from satisfactory.
"Oh, what's the use?" P. Sybarite despaired.
Alliteration could no more; his mother-tongue itself seemed poverty-stricken, his native wit inadequate. With decent meekness he owned himself unfit for the task to which he had set himself.
"I'm only a dub," he groaned—"a poor, God-forsaken, prematurely aged and indigent dub!"
For ten interminable years the aspiration to do justice to the Genius of the Place had smouldered in his humble bosom; to-day for the first time he had attempted to formulate a meet apostrophe to that God of his Forlorn Destiny; and now he chewed the bitter cud of realisation that all his eloquence had proved hopelessly poor and lame and halting.
Perched on the polished seat of a very tall stool, his slender legs fraternising with its legs in apparently inextricable intimacy; sharp elbows digging into the nicked and ink-stained bed of a counting-house desk; chin some six inches above the pages of a huge leather-covered ledger, hair rumpled and fretful, mouth doleful, eyes disconsolate—he gloomed...
On this the eve of his thirty-second birthday and likewise the tenth anniversary of his servitude, the appearance of P. Sybarite was elaborately normal—varying, as it did, but slightly from one year's-end to the other.
His occupation had fitted his head and shoulders with a deceptive but none the less perennial stoop. His means had endowed him with a single outworn suit of ready-made clothing which, shrinking sensitively on each successive application of the tailor's sizzling goose, had come to disclose his person with disconcerting candour—sleeves too short, trousers at once too short and too narrow, waistcoat buttons straining over his chest, coat buttons refusing to recognise a buttonhole save that at the waist. Circumstances these that added measurably to his apparent age, lending him the semblance of maturity attained while still in the shell of youth.
The ruddy brown hair thatching his well-modelled head, his sanguine colouring, friendly blue eyes and mobile lips suggested Irish lineage; and his hands which, though thin and clouded with smears of ink, were strong and graceful (like the slender feet in his shabby shoes) bore out the suggestion with an added hint of gentle blood.
But whatever his antecedents, the fact is indisputable that P. Sybarite, just then, was most miserable, and not without cause; for the Genius of the Place held his soul in Its melancholy bondage.
The Place was the counting-room in the warehouse of Messrs. Whigham & Wimper, Hides & Skins; and the Genius of it was the reek of hides both raw and dressed—an effluvium incomparable, a passionate individualist of an odour, as rich as the imagination of an editor of Sunday supplements, as rare as a reticent author, as friendly as a stray puppy.
For ten endless years the body and soul of P. Sybarite had been thrall to that Smell; for a complete decade he had inhaled it continuously nine hours each day, six days each week—and had felt lonesome without it on every seventh day.
But to-day all his being was in revolt, bitterly, hopelessly mutinous against this evil and overbearing Genius....
The warehouse—impregnable lair of the Smell, from which it leered smug defiance at the sea-sweet atmosphere of the lower city—occupied a walled-in arch of the Brooklyn Bridge, fronting on Frankfort Street, in that part of Town still known to elder inhabitants as "the Swamp." Above rumbled the everlasting inter-borough traffic; to the right, on rising ground, were haunts of roaring type-mills grinding an endless grist of news; to the left, through a sudden dip and down a long decline, a world of sober-sided warehouses, degenerating into slums, circumscribed by sleepy South Street; all, this afternoon, warm and languorous in the lazy breeze of a sunny April Saturday.
The counting-room was a cubicle contrived by enclosing a corner of the ground-floor with two walls and a ceiling of match-boarding. Into this constricted space were huddled two imposing roll-top desks, P. Sybarite's high counter, and the small flat desk of the shipping clerk, with an iron safe, a Remington typewriter, a copy-press, sundry chairs and spittoons, a small gas-heater, and many tottering columns of dusty letter-files. The window-panes, encrusted with perennial deposits of Atmosphere, were less transparent than translucent, and so little the latter that electric bulbs burned all day long whenever the skies were overcast. Also, the windows were fixed and set against the outer air—impregnable to any form of assault less impulsive than a stone cast by an irresponsible hand. A door, set craftily in the most inconvenient spot imaginable, afforded both ventilation and access to an aisle which led tortuously between bales of hides to doors opening upon a waist-high stage, where trucks backed up to receive and to deliver.
Immured in this retreat, P. Sybarite was very much shut away from all joy of living—alone with his job (which at present nothing pressed) with Giant Despair and its interlocutor Ennui, and with that blatant, brutish, implacable Smell of Smells....
To all of these, abruptly and with ceremony, Mr. George Bross, shipping clerk, introduced himself: a brawny young man in shirt-sleeves, wearing a visorless cap of soiled linen, an apron of striped ticking, pencils behind both angular red ears, and a smudge of marking-ink together with a broad irritating smile upon a clownish countenance.
Although in receipt of a smaller wage than P. Sybarite (who earned fifteen dollars per week) George squandered fifteen cents on newspapers every Sunday morning for sheer delight in the illuminated "funny sheets."
In one hand he held an envelope.
Draping himself elegantly over Mr. Wimper's desk, George regarded P. Sybarite with an indulgent and compassionate smile and wagged a doggish head at him. From these symptoms inferring that his fellow-employee was in the throes of a witticism, P. Sybarite cocked an apprehensive eye and tightened his thin-lipped, sensitive mouth.
"O you—!" said George; and checked to enjoy a rude giggle.
At this particular moment a mind-reader would have been justified in regarding P. Sybarite with suspicion. But beyond taking the pen from between his teeth he didn't move; and he said nothing at all.
The shipping clerk presently controlled his mirth sufficiently to permit unctuous enunciation of the following cryptic exclamation:
"O you Perceval!"
P. Sybarite turned pale.
"You little rascal!" continued George, brandishing the envelope. "You've been cunning, you have; but I've found you out at last.... Per-ce-val!"
Over the cheeks of P. Sybarite crept a delicate tint of pink. His eyes wavered and fell. He looked, and was, acutely unhappy.
"You're a sly one, you are," George gloated—"always signin' your name 'P. Sybarite' and pretendin' your maiden monaker was 'Peter'! But now we know you! Take off them whiskers—Perceval!"
A really wise mind-reader would have called a policeman, then and there; for mayhem was the least of the crimes contemplated by P. Sybarite. But restraining himself, he did nothing more than disentangle his legs, slip down from the tall stool, and approach Mr. Bross with an outstretched hand.
"If that letter's for me," he said quietly, "give it here, please."
"Special d'liv'ry—just come," announced George, holding the letter high, out of easy reach, while he read in exultant accents the traitorous address: "'Perceval Sybarite, Esquire, Care of Messrs. Whigham and Wimper'! O you Perceval—Esquire!"
"Give me my letter," P. Sybarite insisted without raising his voice.
"Gawd knows I don't want it," protested George. "I got no truck with your swell friends what know your real name and write to you on per-fumed paper with monograms and everything."
He held the envelope close to his nose and sniffed in ecstasy until it was torn rudely from his grasp.
"Here!" he cried resentfully. "Where's your manners?... Perceval!"
Dumb with impotent rage, P. Sybarite climbed back on his stool, while George sat down at his desk, lighted a Sweet Caporal (it was after three o'clock and both the partners were gone for the day) and with a leer watched the bookkeeper carefully slit the envelope and withdraw its enclosures.
Ignoring him, P. Sybarite ran his eye through the few lines of notably careless feminine handwriting:
MY DEAR PERCEVAL,—
Mother & I had planned to take some friends to the theatre to-night and bought a box for the Knickerbocker several weeks ago, but now we have decided to go to Mrs. Hadley-Owen's post-Lenten masquerade ball instead, and as none of our friends can use the tickets, I thought possibly you might like them. They say Otis Skinner is wonderful. Of course you may not care to sit in a stage box without a dress suit, but perhaps you won't mind. If you do, maybe you know somebody else who could go properly dressed.
Your aff'te cousin,
The colour deepened in P. Sybarite's cheeks, and instantaneous pin-pricks of fire enlivened his long-suffering eyes. But again he said nothing. And since his eyes were downcast, George was unaware of their fitful incandescence.
Puffing vigorously at his cigarette, he rocked back and forth on the hind legs of his chair and crowed in jubilation: "Perceval! O you great, big, beautiful Perc'!"
P. Sybarite made a motion as if to tear the note across, hesitated, and reconsidered. Through a long minute he sat thoughtfully examining the tickets presented him by his aff'te cousin.
In his ears rang the hideous tumult of George's joy:
Drawing to him one of the Whigham & Wimper letterheads, P. Sybarite dipped a pen, considered briefly, and wrote rapidly and freely in a minute hand:
MY DEAR MAE ALYS:—
Every man has his price. You know mine. Pocketing false pride, I accept your bounty with all the gratitude and humility becoming in a poor relation. And if arrested for appearing in the box without evening clothes, I promise solemnly to brazen it out, pretend that I bought the tickets myself—or stole them—and keep the newspapers ignorant of our kinship. Fear not—trust me—and enjoy the masque as much as I mean to enjoy "Kismet."
And if you would do me the greatest of favours—should you ever again find an excuse to write me on any matter, please address me by the initial of my ridiculous first name only; it is of course impossible for me to live down the deep damnation of having been born a Sybarite; but the indulgence of my friends can save me the further degradation of being known as Perceval.
With thanks renewed and profound, I remain, all things considered,
This he sealed and addressed in a stamped envelope: then thrust his pen into a raw but none the less antique potato; covered the red and black inkwells; closed the ledger; locked the petty-cash box and put it away; painstakingly arranged the blotters, paste-pot, and all the clerical paraphernalia of his desk; and slewed round on his stool to blink pensively at Mr. Bross.
That gentleman, having some time since despaired of any response to his persistent baiting, was now preoccupied with a hand-mirror and endeavours to erase the smudge of marking-ink from his face by means of a handkerchief which he now and again moistened in an engagingly natural and unaffected manner.
"It's no use, George," observed P. Sybarite presently. "If you're in earnest in these public-spirited endeavours to—how would you put it?—to remove the soil from your map, take a tip from an old hand and go to soap and water. I know it's painful, but, believe me, it's the only way."
George looked up in some surprise.
"Why, there you are, little Bright Eyes!" he exclaimed with spirit. "I was beginnin' to be afraid this sittin' would pass off without a visit from Uncle George's pet control. Had little Perceval any message from the Other Side th'safternoon?"
"One or two," assented P. Sybarite gravely. "To begin with, I'm going to shut up shop in just five minutes; and if you don't want to show yourself on the street looking like a difference of opinion between a bull-calf and a fountain pen—"
"Gotcha," interrupted George, rising and putting away handkerchief and mirror. "I'll drown myself, if you say so. Anythin's better'n letting you talk me to death."
"One thing more."
Splashing vigorously at the stationary wash-stand, George looked gloomily over his shoulder, and in sepulchral accents uttered the one word:
"How would you like to go to the theatre to-night?"
George soaped noisily his huge red hands.
"I'd like it so hard," he replied, "that I'm already dated up for an evenin' of intellect'al enjoyment. Me and Sammy Holt 'a goin' round to Miner's Eight' Avenoo and bust up the show. You can trail if you wanta, but don't blame me if some big, coarse, two-fisted guy hears me call you Perceval and picks on you."
He bent forward over the bowl, and the cubicle echoed with sounds of splashing broken by gasps, splutters, and gurgles, until he straightened up, groped blindly for two yards or so of dark grey roller-towel ornamenting the adjacent wall, buried his face in its hospitable obscurity, and presently emerged to daylight with a countenance bright and shining above his chin, below his eyebrows, and in front of his ears.
"How's that?" he demanded explosively. "Come off all right—didn't it?"
P. Sybarite inclined his head to one side and regarded the outcome of a reform administration.
"You look almost naked around the nose," he remarked at length. "But you'll do. Don't worry.... When I asked if you'd like to go to the theatre to-night, I meant it—and I meant a regular show, at a Broadway house."
"Quit your kiddin'," countered Mr. Bross indulgently. "Come along: I got an engagement to walk home and save a nickel, and so've you."
"Wait a minute," insisted P. Sybarite, without moving. "I'm in earnest about this. I offer you a seat in a stage-box at the Knickerbocker Theatre to-night, to see Otis Skinner in 'Kismet.'"
George's eyes opened simultaneously with his mouth.
"Me?" he gasped. "Alone?"
P. Sybarite shook his head. "One of a party of four."
"Who else?" George demanded with pardonable caution.
"Miss Prim, Miss Leasing, myself."
Removing his apron of ticking, the shipping clerk opened a drawer in his desk, took put a pair of cuffs, and begun to adjust them to the wristbands of his shirt.
"Since when did you begin to snuff coke?" he enquired with mild compassion.
"I'm not joking." P. Sybarite displayed the tickets. "A friend sent me these. I'll make up the party for to-night as I said, and let you come along—on one condition."
"Go to it."
"You must promise me to quit calling me Perceval, here or any place else, to-day and forever!"
George chuckled; paused; frowned; regarded P. Sybarite with narrow suspicion.
"And never tell anybody, either," added the other, in deadly earnest.
"Well, it's your name, ain't it?" he grumbled.
"That's not my fault. I'll be damned if I'll be called Perceval."
"And what if I keep on?"
"Then I'll make up my theatre party without you—and break your neck into the bargain," said P. Sybarite intensely.
"You?" George laughed derisively. "You break my neck? Can the comedy, beau. Why, I could eat you alive, Perceval."
P. Sybarite got down from his stool. His face was almost colourless, but for two bright red spots, the size of quarters, beneath either cheek-bone. He was half a head shorter than the shipping clerk, and apparently about half as wide; but there was sincerity in his manner and an ominous snap in the unflinching stare of his blue eyes.
"Please yourself," he said quietly. "Only—don't say I didn't warn you!"
"Ah-h!" sneered George, truculent in his amazement. "What's eatin' you?"
"We're going to settle this question before you leave this warehouse. I won't be called Perceval by you or any other pink-eared cross between Balaam's ass and a laughing hyena."
Mr. Bross gaped with resentment, which gradually overcame his better judgment.
"You won't, eh?" he said stridently. "I'd like to know what you're going to do to stop me, Perce—"
P. Sybarite stepped quickly toward him and George, with a growl, threw out his hands in a manner based upon a somewhat hazy conception of the formulae of self-defence. To his surprise, the open hand of the smaller man slipped swiftly past what he called his "guard" and placed a smart, stinging slap upon lips open to utter the syllable "val."
Bearing with indignation, he swung his right fist heavily for the head of P. Sybarite. Somehow, strangely, it missed its goal and ...
George Bross sat upon the dusty, grimy floor, batted his eyes, ruefully rubbed the back of his head, and marvelled at the reverberations inside it.
Then he became conscious of P. Sybarite some three feet distant, regarding him with tight-lipped interest.
"Good God!" George ejaculated with feeling. "Did you do that to me?"
"I did," returned P. Sybarite curtly. "Want me to prove it?"
"Plenty, thanks," returned the shipping clerk morosely, as he picked himself up and dusted off his clothing. "Gee! You got a wallop like the kick of a mule, Per—"
"P.S., I mean," George amended hastily. "Why didn't you ever tell me you was Jeffries's sparrin' partner?"
"I'm not and never was, and furthermore I didn't hit you," replied P. Sybarite. "All I did was to let you fall over my foot and bump your head on the floor. You're a clumsy brute, you know, George, and if you tried it another time you might dent that dome of yours. Better accept my offer and be friends."
"Never call you Per—"
"Don't say it!"
"Oh, all right—all right," George agreed plaintively. "And if I promise, I'm in on that theatre party?"
"That's my offer."
"It's hard," George sighed regretfully—"damn' hard. But whatever you say goes. I'll keep your secret."
"Good!" P. Sybarite extended one of his small, delicately modelled hands. "Shake," said he, smiling wistfully.
When they had locked in the Genius of the Place to batten upon itself until seven o'clock Monday morning, P. Sybarite and Mr. Bross, with at least every outward semblance of complete amity, threaded the roaring congestion in narrow-chested Frankfort Street, boldly breasted the flood tide of homing Brooklynites, won their way through City Hall Park, and were presently swinging shoulder to shoulder up the sunny side of lower Broadway.
To be precise, the swinging stride was practised only by Mr. Bross; P. Sybarite, instinctively aware that any such mode of locomotion would ill become one of his inches, contented himself with keeping up—his gait an apparently effortless, tireless, and comfortable amble, congruent with bowed shoulders, bended head, introspective eyes, and his aspect in general of patient preoccupation.
From time to time George, who was maintaining an unnatural and painful silence, his mental processes stagnant with wonder and dull resentment, eyed his companion askance, with furtive suspicion. Their association was now one of some seven years' standing; and it seemed a grievous thing that, after posing so long as the patient butt of his rude humour, P.S. should have so suddenly turned and proved himself the better man—and that not mentally alone.
"Lis'n—" George interjected of a sudden.
P. Sybarite started. "Eh?" he enquired blankly.
"I wanna know where you picked up all that classy footwork."
"Oh," returned P.S., depreciatory, "I used to spar a bit with the fellows when I was a—ah—when I was younger."
"When you was at what?" insisted Bross, declining to be fobbed off with any such flimsy evasion.
"When I was at liberty to."
"Huh! You mean, when you was at college."
"Please yourself," said P. Sybarite wearily.
"Well, you was at college oncet, wasn't you?"
"I was," P.S. admitted with reluctance; "but I never graduated. When I was twenty-one I had to quit to go to work for Whigham & Wimper."
"G'wan," commented the other. "They ain't been in business twenty-five years."
"I'm only thirty-one."
"More news for Sweeny. You'll never see forty again."
"That statement," said P. Sybarite with some asperity, "is an uncivil untruth dictated by a spirit of gratuitous contentiousness—"
"Good God!" cried Bross in alarm. "I'm wrong and you're right and I won't do it again—and forgive me for livin'!"
"With pleasure," agreed P. Sybarite pleasantly....
"It's a funny world," George resumed in philosophic humour, after a time. "You wouldn't think I could work in the same dump with you seven years and only be startin' to find out things about you—like to-day. I always thought your name was Pete—honest."
"Continue to think so," P. Sybarite advised briefly.
"Your people had money, didn't they, oncet?"
"I've been told so, but if true, it only goes to prove there's nothing in the theory of heredity...."
"I gotcha," announced Bross, upon prolonged and painful analysis.
"How?" asked P. Sybarite, who had fallen to thinking of other matters.
"I mean, I just dropped to your high-sign to mind my own business. All right, P.S. Far be it from me to wanta pry into your Past. Besides, I 'm scared to—never can tell what I'll turn up—like, f'rinstance, Per—"
"Like that they usta call you when you was innocent, I mean."
To this P. Sybarite made no response; and George subsided into morose reflections. It irked him sore to remember he had been worsted by the meek little slip of a bookkeeper trotting so quietly at his elbow.
He was a man of his word, was George Bross; not for anything would he have gone back on his promise to keep secret that afternoon's titillating discovery; likewise he was a covetous soul, loath to forfeit the promised treat; withal he was human (after his kind) and since reprisals were not barred by their understanding, he began then and there to ponder the same. One way or another, that day's humiliation must be balanced; else he might never again hold up his head in the company of gentlemen of spirit.
But how to compass this desire, frankly puzzled him. It were cowardly to contemplate knockin' the block off'n P. Sybarite; the disparity of their statures forebade; moreover, George entertained a vexatious suspicion that P. Sybarite's explanation on his recent downfall had not been altogether disingenuous; he didn't quite believe it had been due solely to his own clumsiness and an adventitious foot.
"That sort of thing don't never happen," George assured himself privately. "I was outclassed, all right, all right. What I wanna know is: where'd he couple up with the ring-wisdom?"
Repeated if covert glances at his companion supplied no clue; P. Sybarite's face remained as uncommunicative as well-to-do relations by marriage; his shadowy, pale and wistful smile denoted, if anything, only an almost childlike pleasure in anticipation of the evening's promised amusement.
Suddenly it was borne in upon the shipping clerk that in the probable arrangement of the proposed party he would be expected to dance attendance upon Miss Violet Prim, leaving P. Sybarite free to devote himself to Miss Lessing. Whereupon George scowled darkly.
"P.S.'s got his nerve with him," he protested privately, "to cop out the one pippin in the house all for his lonely. It's a wonder he wouldn't slip her a chanct to enjoy herself with summon' her own age....
"Not," he admitted ruefully, "that I'd find it healthy to pull any rough stuff with Vi lookin' on. I don't even like to think of myself lampin' any other skirt while Violet's got her wicks trimmed and burnin' bright."
Then he made an end to envy for the time being, and turned his attention to more pressing concerns; but though he pondered with all his might and main, it seemed impossible to excogitate any way to square his account with P. Sybarite. And when, at Thirty-eighth Street, the latter made an excuse to part with George, instead of going home in his company, the shipping clerk was too thoroughly disgusted to question the subterfuge. He was, indeed, a bit relieved; the temporary dissociation promised just so much more time for solitary conspiracy.
Turning west, he was presently prompted by that arch-comedian Destiny (disguised as Thirst) to drop into Clancey's for a shell of beer.
Now in Clancey's George found a crumpled copy of the Evening Journal almost afloat on the high-tide of the dregs-drenched bar. Rescuing the sheet, he smoothed it out, examined (grinning) its daily meed of comics, read every word on the "Sports Page," ploughed through the weekly vaudeville charts, scanned the advertisements, and at length reviewed the news columns with a listless eye.
It may have been the stimulation of his drink, but it was probably nothing more nor less than jealousy that sparked his sluggish imagination as he contemplated a two-column reproduction in coarse half-tone of a photograph entitled "Marian Blessington." Slowly the light dawned upon mental darkness; slowly his grin broadened and became fixed—even as his great scheme for the confusion and confounding of P. Sybarite took shape and matured.
He left Clancey's presently, stepping high, with a mind elate; foretasting victory; convinced that he harboured within him the makings of a devil of a fellow, all the essential qualifications of (not to put too fine a point upon it) a regular wag....
THE GLOVE COUNTER
With a feeling of some guilt, becoming in one who stoops to unworthy artifice, P. Sybarite walked slowly on up Broadway a little way, then doubled on his trail, going softly until a swift and stealthy survey westward from the corner of Thirty-eighth Street assured him that George was not skulking thereabouts to spy upon him. Then mending his pace, he held briskly on toward the shopping district.
From afar the clock recently restored to its coign high above unlovely Greeley Square warned him that his hour was fleeting: in twenty minutes it would be six o'clock; at six, sharp, Blessington's would close its doors. Distressed, he scurried on, crossed Thirty-fourth Street, aimed himself courageously for the wide entrance of the department store, battled manfully through the retreating army of feminine shoppers—and gained the glove counter with a good fifteen minutes to spare.
And there he halted, confused and blushing in recognition of circumstances as unpropitious as unforeseen.
These consisted in three girls behind the counter and one customer before it; the latter commanding the attention and services of a fair young woman with a pleasant manner; while of the two disengaged saleswomen, one bold, disdainful brunette was preoccupied with her back hair and prepared mutinously to ignore anything remotely resembling a belated customer whose demands might busy her beyond the closing hour, and the other had a merry eye and a receptive smile for the hesitant little man with the funny clothes and the quaint pink face of embarrassment. In most abject consternation, P. Sybarite turned and fled.
Weathering the end of the glove counter and shaping a course through the aisle that paralleled it, he found himself in a channel of horrors, threatened on one side by a display of most intimate lingerie, belaced and beribboned distractingly, on the other by a long rank of slender and gracious (if stolid) feminine limbs, one and all neatly amputated above their bended knees and bedight in silken hosiery to shame the rainbow; while to right and left, behind these impudent revelations, lurked sirens with shameless eyes and mouths of scarlet mockery.
A cold sweat damped the forehead of P. Sybarite. Inconsistently, his face flamed. He stared fixedly dead ahead and tore through that aisle like a delicate-minded jack-rabbit. He thought giggles were audible in his wake; and ere he could escape found his way barred by Authority and Dignity in one wonderfully frock-coated person.
"You were looking for something?" demanded this menace incarnate, in an awful voice accompanied by a terrible gesture.
P. Sybarite brought up standing, his nose six inches from and his eyes held in fascination to the imitation pearl scarf-pin in the beautiful cravat affected by his interlocutor.
"Gloves—!" he gasped guiltily.
"This way, if you please."
With this, Dignity and Authority clamped an inexorable hand about his upper arm, swung him round, and piloted him gently but ruthlessly back the way he had come, back to the glove counter, where he was planted directly in front of the dashing, dark saleslady with absorbing back hair and the manner of remote hauteur.
"Miss Brady, this gentleman wants to see some gloves."
The eyes of Miss Brady flashed ominously; as plain as print, they said: "Does, does he? Well, leave him to me!"
Aloud, she murmured from an incalculable distance: "Oh, ve-ry well!"
A moment later, looking over the customer's head, she added icily: "What kind?"
The floor-walker retired, leaving P. Sybarite a free agent but none the less haunted by a feeling that a suspicious eye was being kept on the small of his back. He stammered something quite inarticulate.
The brune goddess shaped ironic lips:
"Chauffeurs', I presoom?"
A measure of self-possession—akin to the deadly coolness of the cornered rat—returned to the badgered little man.
"No," he said evenly—"ladies', if you please."
Scornfully Miss Brady impaled the back of her head with a lead pencil.
"Other end of the counter, please," she announced. "I don't handle ladies' gloves!"
"I'm sure of that," returned P. Sybarite meekly; left her standing; and presented himself for the inspection of the fair young woman with the pleasant manner, who was now free of her late customer.
She recognised him with surprise, but none the less with a friendly smile.
"Why, Mr. Sybarite—!"
In his hearing, her voice was rarest music. He gulped; stammered "Miss Lessing!" and was stricken dumb by perception of his effrontery.
"Can I do anything for you?"
He breathed in panic: "Gloves—"
"For a lady, Mr. Sybarite?"
He nodded as expressively as any automaton.
"I—I don't know."
"For day or evening wear?"
He wagged a dismal head: "I don't know."
Amusement touched her eyes and lips so charmingly that he thought of the sea at dawn, rimpled by the morning breeze, gay with the laughter of young sunlight.
"Surely you must!" she insisted.
"No," he contended in stubborn melancholy.
"Oh, I see. You wish to make a present—?"
"I—ah—suppose so," he admitted under pressure—"yes."
"Evening gloves are always acceptable. Does she go often to the theatre?"
The least suspicion of perplexed frown knitted the eyebrows of Miss Lessing.
"Well ... is she old or young?"
"Mr. Sybarite!" said the young woman with decision.
He fixed an apprehensive gaze to hers—which inclined to disapproval, if with reservations.
"Yes, Miss Lessing?"
"Do you really want to buy gloves?"
"Then what under the sun do you want?"
He noticed suddenly that, however impatient her tone, her eyes were still kindly. Eyes of luminous hazel brown they were, wide open and clear beneath dark and delicate brows; eyes that assorted oddly with her hair of pale, dull gold, rendering her prettiness both individual and distinctive.
Somehow he found himself more at ease.
"Please," he begged humbly, "show me some gloves—any kind—it doesn't matter—and pretend you believe I want to buy 'em. I don't really. I—I only want—ah—word with you before you go home."
If this were impertinence, the girl elected quickly not to resent it. She turned to the shelves behind her, took down a box or two, and opened them for his inspection.
"These are very nice," she suggested quietly.
"I think so, too." He grinned uneasily. "What I want to say is—will you be my guest at the theatre to-night?"
"I'm afraid I don't understand you," she said, replacing the gloves.
"With Miss Prim and George Bross," he amended hastily. "Somebody—a friend—sent me a box for 'Kismet.' I thought—possibly—you might care to go. It—it would give me great pleasure."
Miss Lessing held up another pair of gloves.
"These are three-fifty-nine," she said absently. "Why did you come here to ask me?"
"I—I was afraid you might make some other engagement for the evening."
He couldn't have served his cause more handsomely than by uttering just that transparent evasion. In a thought she understood: at their boarding-house he could have found no ready opportunity to ask her save in the presence of others; and he was desperately afraid of a refusal.
After all, he had reason to be: they were only table acquaintances of a few weeks' standing. It was most presumptuous of him to dream that she would accept....
On the other hand, he was (she considered gravely) a decent, manly little body, and had shown her more civility and deference than all the rest of the boarding-house and shop people put together. And she rather liked him and was reluctant to hurt his feelings; for she knew instinctively he was very sensitive.
Her eyes and lips softened winningly.
"It's so good of you to think of me," she said.
"You mean—you—you will come?" he cried, transported.
"I shall be very glad."
"That's—that's awf'ly kind of you," he said huskily. "Now, do please find some way to get rid of me."
Smiling quietly, the girl recovered the glove boxes.
"I'm afraid we haven't what you want in stock," she said in a voice not loud but clear enough to carry to the ears of her inquisitive co-labourers. "We're expecting a fresh shipment in next week—if you could stop in then...."
"Thank you very much," said P. Sybarite with uncalled-for emotion.
He backed away awkwardly, spoiled the effect altogether by lifting his hat, wheeled and broke for the doors....
A LIKELY STORY
From the squalour, the heat, dirt and turmoil of Eighth Avenue, P. Sybarite turned west on Thirty-eighth Street to seek his boarding-house.
This establishment—between which and the Cave of the Smell his existence alternated with the monotony of a pendulum—was situated midway on the block on the north side of the street. It boasted a front yard fenced off from the sidewalk with a rusty railing: a plot of arid earth scantily tufted with grass, suggesting that stage of baldness which finally precedes complete nudity. Behind this, the moat-like area was spanned to the front door by a ragged stoop of brownstone. The four-story facade was of brick whose pristine coat of fair white paint had aged to a dry and flaking crust, lending the house an appearance distinctly eczematous.
The sun of April, declining, threw down the street a slant of kindly light to mitigate its homeliness. In this ethereal evanescence the house Romance took the air upon the stoop.
George Bross was eighty-five per-centum of the house Romance. The remainder was Miss Violet Prim. Mr. Bross sat a step or two below Miss Prim, his knees adjacent to his chin, his face, upturned to his charmer, wreathed in a fond and fatuous smile. From her higher plane, she smiled in like wise down upon him. She seemed in the eyes of her lover unusually fair—and was: Saturday was her day for seeming unusually fair; by the following Thursday there would begin to be a barely perceptible shadow round the roots of her golden hair....
She was a spirited and abundant creature, hopelessly healthy beneath the coat of paint, powder and peroxide with which she armoured herself against the battle of Life. Normally good-looking in ordinary daylight, she was a radiant beauty across footlights. Her eyes were bright even at such times as belladonna lacked in them; her nose pretty and pert; her mouth, open for laughter (as it usually was), disclosed twin rows of sound, white, home-made teeth. Her active young person was modelled on generous lines and, as a rule, clothed in a manner which, if inexpensive, detracted nothing from her conspicuous sightliness. She was fond of adorning her pretty, sturdy shoulders, as well as her fetching and shapely, if plump, ankles, with semi-transparent things—and she was quite as fond of having them admired.
P. Sybarite, approaching the gate, delicately averted his eyes....
At that moment, George was announcing in an undertone: "Here's the lollop now."
"You are certainly one observin' young gent," remarked Miss Prim in accents of envious admiration.
Ignoring the challenge, Bross pondered hastily. "Think I better spring it on him now?" he enquired in doubt.
"My Gawd, no!" protested the lady in alarm. "I'd spoil the plant, sure. I'd love to watch you feed it to him, but Heaven knows I'd never be able to hold in without bustin'."
"You think he'll swallow it, all right?"
"That simp?" cried Miss Prim in open derision. "Why, he'll eat it alive!"
P. Sybarite walked into the front yard, and the chorus lady began to crow with delight, welcoming him with wild wavings of a pretty, powdered forearm.
"Well, look who's here! 'Tis old George W. Postscript—as I live! Hitherwards, little one: I wouldst speech myself to thee."
Smiling, P. Sybarite approached the pair. He liked Miss Prim for her unaffected high spirits, and because he was never in the least ill at ease with her.
"Well?" he asked pleasantly, blinking up at the lady from the foot of the steps. "What is thy will, O Breaker of Hearts?"
"That'll be about all for yours," announced Violet reprovingly. "You hadn't oughta carry on like that—at your age, too! Not that I mind—I rather like it; but what'd your family say if they knew you was stuck on an actress?"
"'Love blows as the wind blows,'" P. Sybarite quoted gently. "How shall I hide the fact of my infatuation? If my family cast me off, so be it!"
"I told you, behave! Next thing you know, George will be bitin' the fence.... What's all this about you givin' a box party at the Knickerbocker to-night?"
"It's a fact," affirmed P. Sybarite. "Only I had counted on the pleasure of inviting you myself," he added with a patient glance at George.
"Never mind about that," interposed the lady. "I'm just as tickled to death, and I love you a lot more'n I do George, anyway. So that's all right. Only I was afraid for a while he was connin' me."
"You feel better now?"
Violet placed a theatrical hand above her heart. "Such a relief!" she declared intensely—"you'll never know!" Then she jumped up and wheeled about to the door with petticoats professionally a-swirl. "Well, if I'm goin' to do a stagger in society to-night, it's me to go doll myself up to the nines. So long!"
"Hold on!" George cried in alarm. "You ain't goin' to go dec—decol—low neck and all that? Cut it, kid: me and P.S. ain't got no dress soots, yunno."
"Don't fret," returned Violet from the doorway. "I know how to pretty myself for my comp'ny, all right. Besides, you'll be at the back of the box and nobody'll know you exist. Me and Molly Leasing'll get all the yearnin' stares."
She disappeared by way of the vestibule. George shook a head heavy with forebodings.
"Class to that kid, all right," he observed. "Some stepper, take it from me. Anyway, I'm glad it's a box: then I can hide under a chair. I ain't got nothin' to go in but these hand-me-downs."
"You'll be all right," said P. Sybarite hastily.
"Well, I won't feel lonely if you don't dress up like a horse. What are you going to wear, anyway?"
"A shave, a clean collar, and what I stand in. They're all I have."
"Then you got nothin' on me. What's your rush?"—as P. Sybarite would have passed on. "Wait a shake. I wanna talk to you. Sit down and have a cig."
There was a hint of serious intention in the manner of the shipping clerk to induce P. Sybarite, after the hesitation of an instant, to accede to his request. Squatting down upon the steps, he accepted a cigarette, lighted it, inhaled deeply.
"I dunno how to break it to you," Bross faltered dubiously. "You better brace yourself to lean up against the biggest disappointment ever."
P. Sybarite regarded him with sharp distrust. "You interest me strangely, George.... But perhaps you're no more addled than usual. Consider me gently prepared against the worst—and get it off your chest."
"Well," said George regretfully, "I just wanna put you next to the facts before you ask her. Miss Lessing ain't goin' to go with us to-night."
P. Sybarite looked startled and grieved.
"No?" he exclaimed.
George wagged his head mournfully. "It's a shame. I know you counted on it, but I guess you'll have to get summonelse."
"I'm afraid I don't understand. How do you know Miss Lessing won't go? Did she tell you so?"
"Not what you might call exactly, but she won't all right," George returned with confidence. "There ain't one chance in a hundred I'm in wrong."
"In wrong? How?"
"About her bein' who she is."
P. Sybarite subjected the open, naif countenance of the shipping clerk to a prolonged and doubting scrutiny.
"No, I ain't crazy in the head, neither," George asseverated with some heat. "I suspicioned somethin' was queer about that girl right along, but now I know it."
"Ah, it ain't nothin' against her! You don't have to scorch your collar. She's all right. Only—she 's in bad. I don't s'pose you seen the evenin' paper?"
"Well, I picked up the Joinal down to Clancey's—this is it." With an effective flourish, George drew the sheet from his coat pocket and unfolded its still damp and pungent pages. "And soon's I seen that," he added, indicating a smudged halftone, "I begun to wise up to that little girl. It's sure some shame about her, all right, all right."
Taking the paper, P. Sybarite examined with perplexity a portrait labelled "Marian Blessington." Whatever its original aspect, the coarse mesh of the reproducing process had blurred it to a vague presentment of the head and shoulders of almost any young woman with fair hair and regular features: only a certain, almost indefinable individuality in the pose of the head remotely suggested Molly Lessing.
In a further endeavour to fathom his meaning, the little bookkeeper conned carefully the legend attached to the putative likeness:
only daughter of the late Nathaniel Blessington, millionaire founder of the great Blessington chain of department stores. Although much sought after on account of the immense property into control of which she is to come on her twenty-fifth birthday, Miss Blessington contrived to escape matrimonial entanglement until last January, when Brian Shaynon, her guardian and executor of the Blessington estate, gave out the announcement of her engagement to his son, Bayard Shaynon. This engagement was whispered to be distasteful to the young woman, who is noted for her independent and spirited nature; and it is now persistently being rumoured that she had demonstrated her disapproval by disappearing mysteriously from the knowledge of her guardian. It is said that nothing has been known of her whereabouts since about the 1st of March, when she left her home in the Shaynon mansion on Fifth Avenue, ostensibly for a shopping tour. This was flatly contradicted this morning by Brian Shaynon, who in an interview with a reporter for the EVENING JOURNAL declared that his ward sailed for Europe February 28th on the Mauretania, and has since been in constant communication with her betrothed and his family. He also denied having employed detectives to locate his ward. The sailing list of the Mauretania fails to give the name of Miss Blessington on the date named by Mr. Shaynon.
Refolding the paper, P. Sybarite returned it without comment.
"Well?" George demanded anxiously.
"Ain't you hep yet?" George betrayed some little exasperation in addition to his disappointment.
"Hep?" P. Sybarite iterated wonderingly.
"Hep's the word," George affirmed: "John W. Hep, of the well-known family of that name—very closely related to the Jeremiah Wises. Yunno who I mean, don't you?"
"Sorry," said P. Sybarite sadly: "I'm not even distinctly connected with either family."
"You mean you don't make me?"
"God forestalled me there," protested P. Sybarite piously. "Inscrutable!"
Impatiently brushing aside this incoherent observation, George slapped the folded paper resoundingly in the palm of his hand.
"Then this here don't mean nothin' to you?"
"To me—nothing, as you say."
"You ain't dropped to the resemblance between Molly Lessing and Marian Blessington?"
"Between Miss Lessing and that portrait?" asked P. Sybarite scornfully.
"Why, they're dead ringers for each other. Any one what can't see that's blind."
"But I'm not blind."
"Well, then you gotta admit they look alike as twins—"
"But I've known twins who didn't look alike," said P.S.
"Ah, nix on the stallin'!" George insisted, on the verge of losing his temper. "Molly Lessing's the spit-'n'-image of Marian Blessington—and you know it. What's more—look at their names? Molly for Mary—you make that? Mary and Marian's near enough alike, ain't they? And what's Lessing but Blessington docked goin' and comin'?"
"Wait a second. If I understand you, George, you're trying to imply that Miss Lessing is identical with Marian Blessington."
"You said somethin' then, all right."
"Simply because of the similarity of two syllables in their surnames and a fancied resemblance of Miss Lessing to this so-called portrait?"
"Now you're gettin' warm, P.S."
P.S. laughed quietly: "George, I've been doing you a grave injustice. I apologise."
George opened his eyes and emitted a resentful "Huh?"
"For years I've believed you were merely stupid," P.S. explained patiently. "Now you develop a famous, if fatuous, gift of imagination. I'm sorry. I apologise twice."
"Imag'nation hell!" Mr. Bross exploded. "Where's your own? It's plain's daylight what I say is so. When did Miss Lessing come here? Five weeks ago, to a day—March foist, or close onto it—just when the Joinal says she did her disappearin' stunt. How you goin' to get around that?"
"You forget that the Journal simply reports a rumour. It doesn't claim it's true. In fact, the story is contradicted by the very person that ought to know—Miss Blessington's guardian."
"Well, if she sailed for Europe on the Mauretania, like he says—how's it come her name wasn't on the passenger list?"
"It's quite possible that a young woman as much sought after and annoyed by fortune hunters, may have elected to sail incognita. It can be done, you know. In fact, it has been done."
George digested this in profound gloom.
"Then you don't believe what I'm tellin' you?"
"Not one-tenth of one iota of a belief."
George betrayed in a rude, choleric grunt, his disgust to see his splendid fabrication, so painfully concocted for the delusion and discomfiture of P. Sybarite, threatening to collapse of sheer intrinsic flimsiness. He had counted so confidently on the credulity of the little bookkeeper! And Violet had supported his confidence with so much assurance! Disgusting wasn't the word for George's emotions.
In desperation he grasped at one final, fugitive hope.
"All right," he said sullenly: "all right! You don't gotta believe me if you don't wanta. Only wait—that's all I ask—wait! You'll see I'm right when she turns down your invite to-night."
P. Sybarite smiled sunnily. "So that is why you thought she wouldn't go with us, is it?"
"You got me."
"You thought she, if Marian Blessington, must necessarily be such a snob that she wouldn't associate with poor devils like us, did you?"
"Wait. You'll see."
"Well, it's none of your business, George; but I don't mind telling you, you're wrong. Quite wrong. In the head, too, George. I've already asked Miss Lessing, and she has accepted."
George's eyes, protruding, glistened with poignant surprise.
"You ast her already?"
"That's why I left you down the street. I dropped into Blessington's for the sole purpose of asking her."
"And she fell for it?"
"She accepted my invitation—yes."
After a long pause George ground his cigarette beneath his heel, and rose.
"In wrong, as usual," he admitted with winning simplicity. "I never did guess anythin' right the first time. Only—you just grab this from me: maybe she's willin' to run the risk of bein' seen with us, but that ain't sayin' she's anybody but Marian Blessington."
"You really think it likely that Miss Blessington, hiding from her guardian and anxious to escape detection, would take a job at the glove counter of her own store, where everybody must know her by sight—where her guardian, Shaynon himself, couldn't fail to see her at least twice a day, as he enters and leaves the building?"
Staggered, Bross recovered quickly.
"That's just her cuteness. She doped it out the safest place for her would be the last place he'd look for her!"
"And you really think that she, accustomed to every luxury that money can buy, would voluntarily come down to living here, at six dollars a week, and clerking in a department store—simply because, according to the papers, she's opposed to a marriage that she can't be forced to contract in a free country like this?"
"Wel-l...." George floundered helplessly for a moment; and fell back again upon an imagination for the time being stimulated to an abnormal degree of inventiveness:
"P'raps old Shaynon's double-crossed her somehow we don't know nothin' about. He ain't above it, if all they tell of him's true. Maybe he's got her coin away from her, and she had to go to work for a livin'. Stranger things have happened in this burg, P.S."
It was the turn of P.S. to hesitate in doubt; or at all events, so George Bross inferred from a sudden change in the expression of the little man's eyes. Momentarily they seemed to cloud, as if in introspection. But he rallied quickly enough.
"All things are possible, George," he admitted with his quizzical grin. "But this time you're mistaken. I'm not arguing with you, George; I'm telling you: you're hopelessly mistaken."
"You think so—huh?" growled George. "Well, I got eight iron bucks that says Marian Blessington to any five of your money."
He made a bold show of his pay envelope.
"It'd be a shame to rob you, George," said P. Sybarite. "Besides, you're bad-tempered when broke."
"Never you mind about that. Here's my eight, if you've got five that makes a noise like Molly Lessing."
P. Sybarite laughed softly and produced the little wad of bills that represented his weekly wage. At this, George involuntarily drew back.
"And how would you settle the bet?"
"Leave it to her," insisted George in an expiring gasp of bravado.
"You'd ask her yourself?"
"And let it stand on her answer?"
"Here she comes now," added P. Sybarite, glancing up the street. "Quick, now; you've only a minute to decide. Is it a bet?"
With a gesture of brave decision, George returned his money to his pocket.
"You're an easy mark," he observed in accents of deep pity. "I knew you'd think I meant it."
"But didn't you, George?"
"Nah—nothin' like that! I was just kiddin' you along, to see how much you'd swallow."
"It's all right then," agreed P. Sybarite. "Only—George!"
"Don't you breathe a word of this to Miss Lessing?"
"Because I tell you not to—because," said P. Sybarite firmly, "I forbid you."
"You—you forbid me? Holy Mike! And what—"
"Sssh!" P. Sybarite warned him sibilantly. "Miss Lessing might hear you.... What will happen if you disobey me," he added as the shop girl turned in at the gateway, lowering his own voice and fixing the shipping clerk with a steely stare, "will be another accident, much resembling that of this afternoon—if you haven't forgotten. Now mind what I tell you, and be good."
Mr. Bross swelled with resentment; exhibited a distorted and empurpled visage; but kept silence.
THE COMIC SPIRIT
Pausing at the foot of the stoop, Miss Lessing looked up at the two young men and smiled.
"Good-evening," she said with a pretty nod for P. Sybarite; and, with its fellow for George, "Good-evening, Mr. Bross," she added.
Having acknowledged this salutation with that quaint courtesy which somehow seemed to fit him like a garment, P. Sybarite smiled strangely at the shipping clerk.
The latter mumbled something incoherent, glanced wildly toward the young woman, and spluttered explosively; all with a blush so deep that its effect was apoplectic.
Alarmed by this exhibition, Miss Lessing questioned P. Sybarite with her lifted brows and puzzled eyes.
"George is a little bit excited," he apologised. "Every so often he becomes obsessed with mad desire to impose upon some simple and credulous nature like mine. And failure always unbalances him. He becomes excitable—ah—irrational—"
With an inarticulate snort, Mr. Bross turned and fled into the house.
Confusion possessed him, and with it rage: stumbling blindly on the first flight of steps, he clawed the atmosphere with fingers that itched for vengeance.
"I'll get even!" he muttered savagely—"I'll get hunk with that boob if it's the last act of my life!"
Fortunately, the hall was gloomy and at that moment deserted.
On the first landing he checked, clutched the banisters for support, and endeavoured to compose himself—but with less success than he realised.
It was with a suggestion of stealth that he ascended the second flight—with an enforced deliberateness and caution that were wasted. For as he reached the top, the door of the back hall-bedroom opened gently for the space of three inches. Through this aperture were visible a pair of bright eyes, with the curve of a plump and pretty cheek, and an adorable bare arm and shoulder.
"That you, George?" Violet Prim demanded with vivacity.
Reluctantly he stopped and in a throaty monosyllable admitted his identity.
"Well, how'd it go off?"
"He fell for it?"
"All over himself. Honest, Vi, it was a scream to watch his eyes pop. You could've clubbed 'em outa his bean without touchin' his beak. I 'most died."
Miss Prim giggled appreciatively.
"You're a wonder, George," she applauded. "It takes you to think 'em out."
"Ah, I don't know," returned her admirer with becoming modesty.
"He's gone on her, all right, ain't he?"
"Crazy about her!"
"Think he'll make a play for her now?"
George demurred. Downright lying was all very well; he could manage that with passable craft, especially when, as in this instance, detection would be difficult; but prophecy was a little out of his line. Though with misgivings, he resorted to unvarnished truth:
"You never can tell about P.S. He's a queer little gink."
Footsteps became audible on the stairs below.
"Well, so long. See you at dinner," George added in haste.
"Well?" he asked, delaying with ill grace.
"What makes you sound so funny?"
"Laughin'!" protested George convincingly.
With determination and a heavy tread he went on to his room.
When he had shaved (with particular care) and changed his linen (trimming collar and cuffs to a degree of uncommon nicety) and resumed his coat (brushing and hating it simultaneously and with equal ferocity, for its very shabbiness) P. Sybarite sought out a pipe old and disreputable enough to be a comfort to any man, and sat down by the one window of his room (top floor, hall, back) to smoke and consider the state of the universe while awaiting the dinner gong.
The window commanded an elevated if non-exhilarating view of back yards, one and all dank, dismal, and littered with the debris of a long, hard winter. Familiarity, however, had rendered P. Sybarite immune to the miasma of melancholy they exhaled; the trouble in his patient blue eyes, the wrinkles that lined his forehead, owned another cause.
In fact, George had wrought more disastrously upon his temper than P. Sybarite had let him see. His hints, innuendoes, and downright assertions had in reality distilled a subtle poison into the little man's humour. For in spite of his embattled incredulity and the clear reasoning with which he had overborne George's futile insistence, there still lingered in his mind (and always would, until he knew the truth himself) a carking doubt.
Perhaps it was true. Perhaps George had guessed shrewdly. Perhaps Molly Lessing of the glove counter really was one and the same with Marian Blessington of the fabulous fortune.
Old Brian Shaynon was a known devil of infinite astuteness; it would be quite consistent with his character and past performances if, despairing of gaining control of his ward's money by urging her into unwelcome matrimony with his son, he had contrived to over-reach her in some manner, and so driven her to become self-supporting.
Perhaps hardly likely: the hypothesis was none the less quite plausible; a thing had happened, within P. Sybarite's knowledge of Brian Shaynon....
Even if George's romance were true only in part, these were wretched circumstances for a girl of gentle birth and rearing to adopt. It was really a shocking boarding-house. P. Sybarite had known it intimately for ten years; use had made him callous to its shortcomings; but he was not yet so far gone that he could forget how unwholesome and depressing it must seem to one accustomed to better things. He could remember most vividly how he had loathed it for weeks, months, and years after the tide of evil fortunes had cast him upon its crumbling brownstone stoop (even in that distant day, crumbling).
Now, however ... P. Sybarite realised suddenly that habit had instilled into his bosom a sort of mean affection for the grim and sordid place. Time had made him sib to its spirit, close to its niggard heart. Scarcely a nook or corner of it with which he was not on terms of the most intimate acquaintance. In the adjoining room a deserted woman had died by her own hand; her moans, filtered through the dividing wall, had summoned P. Sybarite—too late. The double front room on the same floor harboured an amiable couple whose sempiternal dissensions only his tact and persistence ever served to still. The other hall-bedroom had housed for many years a dipsomaniac whose periodic orgies had cost P. Sybarite many a night of bedside vigil. On the floor below lived a maiden lady whose quenchless hopes still centred about his amiable person. Downstairs in the clammy parlour he had whiled away unnumbered hours assisting at dreary "bridge drives," or playing audience to amateur recitals on the aged and decrepit "family organ." For an entire decade he had occupied the same chair at the same table in the basement dining-room, feasting on beef, mutton, Irish stew, ham-and-beans, veal, pork, or just-hash—according to the designated day of the week....
The very room in which he sat was somehow dear to him; upon it he wasted a sentiment in a way akin to that with which one regards the grave of a beloved friend; it was, in fact, the tomb of his own youth. Its narrow and impoverished bed had groaned with the restless weight of him all those many nights through which he had lain wakeful, in impotent mutiny against the outrageous circumstances that made him a prisoner there. Its walls had muted the sighs in which the desires of youth had been spent. Its floor matting was worn threadbare with the impatient pacings of his feet (four strides from door to window: swing and repeat ad libitum). Its solitary gas-jet had, with begrudged illumination, sicklied o'er the pages of those innumerable borrowed books with which he had sought to dull poignant self-consciousness....
A tomb!... Bitterly he granted the aptness of that description of his cubicle: mausoleum of his every hope and aspiration, sepulchre of all his ability and promise. In this narrow room his very self had been extinguished: a man had degenerated into a machine. Everything that caught his eye bore mute witness to this truth: the shabby tin alarm clock on the battered bureau was one of a dynasty that had roused him at six in the morning with unfailing regularity three hundred and sixty-five times per year (Sundays were too rare in his calendar and too precious to be wasted abed). From an iron hook in the window frame dangled the elastic home-exerciser with which it was his unfailing habit to perform a certain number of matutinal contortions, to keep his body wholesome and efficient. Beneath the bed was visible the rim of a shallow English tub that made possible his subsequent sponge bath....
A machine; a fixture; creature of an implacable routine; a spirit immolated upon the altar of habit: into this he had degenerated in ten years. Such was the effect of life in this melancholy shelter for the homeless wage-slave. He was no lonely victim. In his term he had seen many another come in hope, linger in disappointment, leave only to go to a meaner cell in the same stratum of misfortune.
Was this radiant spirit of youth and gentle loveliness (who might, for all one knew to the contrary, be Marian Blessington after all) to be suffered to become one of that disconsolate crew?
What could be done to prevent it?
Nothing that the wits of P. Sybarite could compass: he was as inefficient as any gnat in any web....
Through the halls resounded the cacophonous clangour of a cracked gong announcing dinner. Sighing, P. Sybarite rose and knocked the ashes delicately from his pipe—saving the dottle for a good-night whiff after the theatre.
Being Saturday, it was the night of ham-and-beans. P. Sybarite loathed ham-and-beans with a deathly loathing. Nevertheless he ate his dole of ham-and-beans. He sat on the landlady's right, and was reluctant to hurt her feelings or incur her displeasure. Besides, he was hungry: between the home-exerciser and the daily walks to and from the Brooklyn Bridge, his normal appetite was that of an athlete in pink of training.
Miss Lessing sat on the same side of the main dining-table, but half a dozen chairs away. P. Sybarite couldn't see her save by craning his neck. He refused to crane his neck: it might seem ostentatious.
Violet and her George occupied adjoining chairs at another and smaller table. Their attendance was occasionally manifested through the medium of giggles and guffaws. P. Sybarite envied them: he had it in his heart to envy anybody young enough to be able to see a joke at that dinner table.
By custom, the landlady relinquished her seat some minutes in advance of any guest. When P. Sybarite left the room he found her established at a desk in the basement hallway. Pausing, he delivered unto her the major portion of his week's wage. Setting aside another certain amount against the cost of laundry work, tobacco, and incidentals, he had five dollars left....
He wondered if he dared risk the extravagance of a modest supper after the theatre; and knew he dared not—knew it in wretchedness of spirit, cursing his fate....
There remained half an hour to be killed before time to start for the theatre. George Bross joined him on the stoop. They smoked pensively, while the afterglow faded from the western sky and veil after veil of shadow crept stealthily out of the east, masking the rectangular, utilitarian ugliness of the street, deepening its dusk to darkness. Street lamps, touched by the flame-tipped wand of a belated lamplighter, bourgeoned spasmodically like garish flowers of the metropolitan night. Across the way gas-lit windows glowed like squares on some great, blurred checker-board. The roadway teemed with shrieking children. Somewhere—near at hand—a pianola lost its temper and whaled the everlasting daylights out of an inoffensive melody from "The Pink Lady." Other, more diffident instruments tinkled apologetically in the distance. Intermittently, across the gaunt scaffolding of the Ninth Avenue L, at one end of the block, roaring trains flashed long chains of lights. On the other hand, Eighth Avenue buzzed resonantly in stifling clouds of incandescent dust. The air smelt of warm asphalt....
And it was Spring: the tenth Spring P. Sybarite had watched from that self-same spot.
Discontent bred in him a brooding despondency. He felt quite sure that the realists were right about Life: it wasn't worth living, after all.
The prospect of the theatre lost its attraction. He was sure he wouldn't enjoy it. Such silly romantical nonsense was out of tune with the immortal Truth about Things, which he had just discovered: Life was a poor Joke....
At his side, George Bross, on his behalf, was nursing his private and personal grouch. Between them they manufactured an atmosphere of gloom that would have done credit to a brace of dumb Socialists.
But presently Miss Prim and Miss Lessing appeared, and changed all that in a twinkling.
"Well," observed Violet generously, "I thought little me was pretty well stage-broke; but I gotta hand it to Otis. He's some actor. He had me going from the first snore."
"Some actor is right," affirmed Mr. Bross with conviction, "and some show, too, if you wanta know. I could sit through it twicet. Say, I couldn't quit thinkin' what a grand young time I'd start in this old burg if I could only con this Kismet thing into slippin' me my Day of Days. Believe me or not, there would be a party."
"What would you do?" asked Molly Lessing, smiling.
"Well, the first flop I'd nail down all the coin that was handy, and then I'd buy me a flock of automobiles—and have a table reserved for me at the Knickerbocker for dinner every night—and...." Imagination flagged. "Well," he concluded defensively, "I can tell you one thing I wouldn't do."
"What?" demanded Violet.
"I wouldn't let any ward politician like that there Wazir, or whatever them A-rabs called him, kid me into trying to throw a bomb at Charlie Murphy—or anythin' like that. No-oh! Not this infant. That's where your friend Hajj the Beggar's foot slipped on him. Up to then he had everythin' his own way. If he'd only had sense enough to stall, he'd've wound up in a blaze of glory."
"But, you bonehead," Violet argued candidly, "he had to. That was his part: it was written in the play."
"G'wan. If he'd just stalled round and refused to jump through, the author'd 've framed up some other way out. Why—blame it!—he'd've had to!"
"That will be about all for me," said Violet. "I don't feel strong enough to-night to stand any more of your dramatic criticism. Lead me home—and please talk baseball all the way."
With a resentful grunt, Mr. Bross clamped a warm, moist hand round the plump arm of his charmer, and with masterful address propelled her from the curb in front of the theatre, where the little party had paused, to the northwest corner of Broadway: their progress consisting in a series of frantic rushes broken by abrupt pauses to escape annihilation in the roaring after-theatre crush of motor-cars. P. Sybarite, moving instinctively to follow, leaped back to the sidewalk barely in time to save his toes a crushing beneath the tires of a hurtling taxicab.
He smiled a furtive apology at Molly Lessing, who had demonstrated greater discretion, and she returned his smile in the friendliest manner. His head was buzzing—and her eyes were kind. Neither spoke; but for an instant he experienced a breathless sense of sympathetic isolation with her, there on that crowded corner, elbowed and shouldered in the eddy caused by the junction of the outpouring audience with the midnight tides of wayfarers surging north and south.
The wonder and the romance of the play were still warm and vital, in his imagination, infusing his thoughts with a roseate glamour of unreality, wherein all things were strangely possible. The iridescent imagery of the Arabian Nights of his boyhood (who has forgotten the fascination of those three fat old volumes of crabbed type, illuminated with their hundreds of cramped old wood-cuts?) had in a scant three hours been recreated for him by Knoblauch's fantastic drama with its splendid investment of scene and costume, its admirable histrionic interpretation, and the robust yet exquisitely tempered artistry of Otis Skinner. For three hours he had forgotten his lowly world, had lived on the high peaks of romance, breathing only their rare atmosphere that never was on land or sea.
Difficult he found it now, to divest his thoughts of that enthrallment, to descend to cold and sober reality, to remember he was a clerk, his companion a shop-girl, rather than a Prince disguised as Calander esquiring a Princess dedicated to Fatal Enchantment—that Kismet was a quaint fallacy, one with that whimsical conceit of Orient fatalism which assigns to each and every man his Day of Days, wherein he shall range the skies and plumb the abyss of his Destiny, alternately its lord and its puppet.
But presently, with an effort, blinking, he pulled his wits together; and a traffic policeman creating a favourable opening, the two scurried across and plunged into the comparative obscurity of West Thirty-eighth Street: sturdy George and his modest Violet already a full block in advance.
Discovering this circumstance by the glimmer through the shadows of Violet's conspicuously striped black-and-white taffeta, P. Sybarite commented charitably upon their haste.
"If we hurry we might catch up," suggested Molly Lessing.
"I don't miss 'em much," he admitted, without offering to mend the pace.
She laughed softly.
"Are they really in love?"
"George is," replied P. Sybarite, after taking thought.
"You mean she isn't?"
"To blush unseen is Violet's idea of nothing to do—not, at least, when one is a perfect thirty-eight and possesses a good digestion and an infinite capacity for amusement a la carte."
"That is to say—?" the girl prompted.
"Violet will marry well, if at all."
"Not Mr. Bross, then?"
"Nor any other poor man. I don't say she doesn't care for George, but before anything serious comes of it he'll have to make good use of his Day of Days—if Kismet ever sends him one. I hope it will," P. Sybarite added sincerely.
"You don't believe—really—?"
"Just now? With all my heart! I'm so full of romantic nonsense I can hardly stick. Nothing is too incredible for me to believe to-night. I'm ready to play Hajj the Beggar to any combination of impossibilities Kismet cares to brew in Bagdad-on-the-Hudson!"
Again the girl laughed quietly to his humour.
"And since you're a true believer, Mr. Sybarite, tell me, what use you would make of your Day of Days?"
"I? Oh, I—" Smiling wistfully, he opened deprecatory palms. "Hard to say.... I'm afraid I should prove a fatuous fool in George's esteem equally with old Hajj. I'm sure that, like him, the sunset of my Day would see me proscribed, a price upon my head."
"I'm afraid I'd try to use my power to right old wrongs."
After a pause, she asked diffidently: "Your own?"
"Perhaps.... Yes, my own, certainly.... And perhaps another's, not so old but possibly quite as grievous."
"Somebody you care for a great deal?"
Thus tardily made to realise into what perils his fancy was leading him, he checked and weighed her question with his answer, gravely judgmatical.
"Perhaps I'd better not say that," he announced, a grin tempering his temerity; "but I'd go far for a friend, somebody who had been kind to me, and—ah—tolerant—if she were in trouble and could use my services."
He fancied her glance was quick and sharp and searching; but her voice when she spoke was even and lightly attuned to his whimsical mood.
"Then you're not even sure she—your friend—is in trouble?"
"I've an intuition: she wouldn't be where she is if she wasn't."
Her laughter at this absurdity was delightful; whether with him or at him, it was infectious; he echoed it without misgivings.
"But—seriously—you're not sure, are you, Mr. Sybarite?"
"Only, Miss Lessing," he said soberly, "of my futile, my painfully futile good will."
She seemed to start to speak, to think better of it, to fall silent in sudden, shy constraint. He stole a side-long glance, troubled, wondering if perhaps he had ventured too impudently, pursuing his whim to the point of trespass upon the inviolable confines of her reserve.
She wore a sweet, grave face, en profile; her eyes veiled with long lashes, the haunts of tender shadows; her mouth of gracious lips unsmiling, a little triste. Compunctions smote him; with his crude and clumsy banter he had contrived to tune her thoughts to sadness. He would have given worlds to undo that blunder; to show her that he had meant neither a rudeness nor a wish to desecrate her reticence, but only an indirect assurance of gratitude to her for suffering him and willingness to serve her within the compass of his poverty-stricken powers. For in retrospect his invitation assumed the proportions of an importunity, an egregious piece of presumption: so that he could have groaned to contemplate it.
He didn't groan, save inwardly; but respected her silence, and held his own in humility and mortification of spirit until they were near the dooryard of their boarding-house. And even then it was the girl who loosed his tongue.
"Why—where are they?" she asked in surprise.
Startled out of the deeps of self-contempt, P. Sybarite discovered that she meant Violet and George, who were nowhere visible.
"Violet said something about a little supper in her room," explained the girl.
"I know," he replied: "crackers and cheese, beer and badinage: our humble pleasures. You'll be bored to extinction—but you'll come, won't you?"
"Why, of course! I counted on it. But—"
"They must have hurried on to make things ready—Violet to set her room to rights, George to tote the wash-pitcher to the corner for the beer. And very likely, pending our arrival, they're lingering at the head of the stairs for a kiss or two."
The girl paused at the gate. "Then we needn't hurry," she suggested, smiling.
"We needn't delay," he countered amiably. "If somebody doesn't interrupt 'em before long, George will be too late to get the pitcher filled. This town shuts up tight at midnight, Saturdays—if you want to believe everything you hear. So there's no need of being too indulgent with our infatuated fellow-inmates."
"But—just a minute, Mr. Sybarite," she insisted.
"As many as you wish," he laughed. "As a matter of fact, I loathe draught beer."
"Do be serious," she begged. "I want to thank you."
He was aware of a proffered hand, slender and fine in a shabby glove; and took it in his own, uneasily conscious of a curious disturbance in his bosom, of a strange and not unpleasant sense of commingled expectancy, pleasure, and diffidence (as far as he was able to analyse it—or cared to—at that instant).
"It was kind of you to come," he said jerkily, in his embarrassment.
"I enjoyed every moment," she said warmly. "But that wasn't all I meant when I thanked you."
His eyebrows climbed with surprise.
"What else, Miss Lessing?"
"Your delicacy in letting me know you understood—"
Disengaging her hand, she broke off with a startled movement, and a low cry of surprise.
A taxicab, swinging into the street from Eighth Avenue, had boiled up to the curb before the gate, and pausing, discharged a young man in a hurry; witness the facts that he had the door open when halfway between the corner and the house, and was on the running-board before the vehicle was fairly at a halt.
In a stride this one crossed the sidewalk and pulled up, silently, trying to master the temper which was visibly shaking him. Tall, well-proportioned, impressively turned out in evening clothes, he thrust forward a handsome face marred by an evil, twisted mouth, and peered searchingly at the girl.
Instinctively she shrank back inside the fence, eyeing him with a look of fascinated dismay.
As instinctively P. Sybarite bristled between the two.
"Well?" he snapped at the intruder.
An impatient gesture of a hand immaculately gloved in white abolished him completely—as far, at least, as the other was concerned.
"Ah—Miss Lessing, I believe?"
The voice was strong and musical but poisoned with a malicious triumph that grated upon the nerves of P. Sybarite; he declined to be abolished.
"Say the word," he suggested serenely to the girl, "and I'll bundle this animal back into that taxi and direct the driver to the nearest accident ward. I'd rather like to, really."
"Get rid of this microbe," interrupted the other savagely—"unless you want him buried between glass slides under a microscope."
The girl turned to P. Sybarite with pleading eyes and imploring hands.
"If you please, dear Mr. Sybarite," she begged in a tremulous voice: "I'm afraid I must speak alone with this"—there was a barely perceptible pause—gentleman. If you won't mind waiting a moment—at the door—?"
"If it pleases you, Miss Lessing—most certainly." He drew back a step or two. "But speaking of microbes," he added incisively, "a word of advice: don't tease 'em. My bite is deadly: neither Pasteur nor your family veterinary could save you."
Ignored by the man, but satisfied in his employment of the last word, he strutted back to the brownstone stoop, there to establish himself, out of earshot but within, easy hail.
Hearing nothing, he made little more of the guarded conference that began on his withdrawal. The man, entering the dooryard, had cornered the girl in an angle of the fence. He seemed at once insistent, determined, and thoroughly angry; while she exhibited perfect composure with some evident contempt and implacable obstinacy. Nevertheless, in a brace of minutes the fellow seemingly brought forth some telling argument. She wavered and her accents rose in doubt:
"Is that true?"
His reply, if inaudible, was as forcible as it was patently an affirmative.
"I don't believe you!"
"You don't dare doubt me."
This time he was clearly articulate, and betrayed a conviction that he had won the day: an impression borne out by the evident irresolution of the girl, prefacing her abrupt surrender.
"Very well," she said in a tone of resignation.
He moved aside, to give her way through the gate. But she hung back, with a glance for P. Sybarite.
"One moment, please," she said: "I must leave a message."
She showed displeasure in the lift of her chin. "I think I'm my own mistress—as yet."
He growled indistinguishably.
"You have my promise," she cut him short coldly. "Wait for me." And she turned back to the house.
Wondering, P. Sybarite went to meet her. Impulsively she gave him her hand a second time; with as little reflection, he took it in both his own.
"Is there nothing I can do?"
Her voice was broken: "I don't know. I must go—it's imperative.... Could you—?... I wonder!"
"Anything you ask," he asserted confidently.
Hesitating briefly, in a tone little above a whisper: "I must go," she repeated. "I can't refuse. But—alone. Do you understand—?"
"You mean—without him?" P. Sybarite nodded toward the man fuming in the gateway.
"Yes. If you could suggest something to detain him long enough for me to get into the cab and say one word to the chauffeur—"
The chest of P. Sybarite swelled.
"Leave it to me," he said with fine simplicity.
"Molly!" cried the man at the gate.
"Don't answer," P. Sybarite advised: "if you don't, he'll lose patience and come to fetch you. And then—"
"But I'm afraid he may—"
"Don't you fear for me: God's good to the Irish."
"Do be quiet," suggested P. Sybarite, not altogether civilly.
The other started as if slapped.
"What's that?" he barked in a rage.
"I said, hold your tongue."
"The devil you did!" With a snort the man strode in to the stoop. "Do you know who you're talking to?" he demanded wrathfully, towering over P. Sybarite, momentarily forgetful of the girl.
Stepping aside, as if in alarm, she moved behind the fellow, and darted through the gate.
"I don't," P. Sybarite admitted amiably; "but your nose annoys me."
He fixed that feature with an irritating glare.
"You impudent puppy!" stormed the other. "Who are you?"
"Who—me?" echoed P. Sybarite in surprise. (The girl was now instructing the chauffeur.) "Why," he drawled, "I'm the guy that put the point in disappointment. Sure you've heard of me?"
At the curb, the door of the taxicab closed with a slam. Simultaneously the drone of the motor thickened to a rumble. The man with the twisted mouth turned just in time to see it drawing away.
"Hi!" he cried in surprise and dismay.
But the taxi didn't pause; to the contrary, it stretched out toward Ninth Avenue at a quickening pace.
With profanity appreciating the fact that he had been tricked, he picked up his heels in pursuit. But P. Sybarite had not finished with him. Deftly plucking the man back by the tail of his full-skirted opera coat, he succeeded in arresting his flight before it was fairly started.
"Here!" he protested. "What's your hurry?"
With a vicious snarl, the man turned and snatched at his cloak. But P. Sybarite adhered tenaciously to the coat.
"We were discussing your nose—"
At discretion, he interrupted himself to duck beneath the swing of a powerful fist. And this last, failing to find a mark, threw its owner off his balance. Tripping awkwardly over the low curbing of the dooryard walk, he reeled and went a-sprawl on his knees, while his hat fell off and (such is the impish habit of toppers) rolled and bounded several feet away.
Releasing the cloak, P. Sybarite withdrew to a respectful remove and held himself coolly alert against reprisals that never came. The other picked himself up quickly, cast about for the taxicab, discovered it swiftly making off—already twenty yards distant—and with a howl of rage bounded through the gate and gave chase at the top of his speed.
Gravely, P. Sybarite retrieved the hat and followed to the curbing.
"Hey!" he shouted after the fast retreating figure—"here's your hat!"
But he wasted breath. The taxicab was nearing Ninth Avenue, its pursuer sprinting bravely a hundred feet to the rear, and as he watched, both turned the northern corner and vanished like shapes of dream.
Sighing, P. Sybarite went back to the stoop and sat down to consider the state of his soul (which was vain-glorious) and the condition of the hat (which was soiled, rumpled, and disreputable).
WHEELS OF CHANCE
Turning the affair over in his mind, and considering it from every imaginable angle, P. Sybarite decided (fairly enough) that it was, on the whole, mysterious; lending at least some colour of likelihood to George's gratuitous guess-work.
Certainly it would seem that one had now every right to assume Miss Molly Lessing to be other than as she chose to seem; nowadays the villain in shining evening dress doesn't pursue the shrinking shop-girl save through the action of the obsolescent mellerdrammer or of the ubiquitous moving-picture reel. So much must at least be said for these great educators: they have broken the villain of his open-face attire; to-day he knows better, and when prowling to devour, disguises himself in the guileless if nobby "sack suit" of the widely advertised Kollege Kut brand....
In short, Molly Lessing might very well be Marian Blessington, after all!
In which case the man with the twisted mouth was, more probably than not, none other than that same Bayard Shaynon whom the young lady was reported to have jilted so arbitrarily.
Turning the topper over in his hands, it occurred to P. Sybarite to wonder if he did not, in it, hold a valuable clue to this riddle of identity. Promptly he took the hat indoors to find out, investigating it most thoroughly by the flickering, bluish glare of the lonely gas-jet that burned in the hallway.
It was a handsome and heavy hat of English manufacture, as witness the name of a Bond Street hatter in its crown; by the slight discolouration of its leather, had seen service without, however, depreciating in utility, needing only brushing and ironing to restore its pristine brilliance; carried neither name nor initials on its lining; and lacked every least hint as to its ownership—or so it seemed until the prying fingers of P. Sybarite turned down the leather and permitted a visiting card concealed therein to flutter to the floor.
The hall rack was convenient; hanging up the hat, P. Sybarite picked up the card. It displayed in conventional script the name, Bailey Penfield, with the address, 97 West 45th Street; one corner, moreover, bore a pencilled hieroglyphic which seemed to read: "O.K.—B.P."
"Whatever," P. Sybarite mused, "that may mean."
He turned the card over and examined its unmarked and taciturn reverse.
Stealthy footsteps on the stairs distracted his studious attention from the card. He looked up, blinking and frowning thoughtfully, to see George descending with the wash-pitcher wrapped in, but by no means disguised by, brown paper. Once at the bottom of the stairs, this one expressed amazement in a whisper, to avoid rousing their landlady, who held, unreasonably, that it detracted from the tone of her establishment for gentlemen boarders to rush the growler....
"Hel-lo! We thought you must've got lost in the shuffle."
"Did you?" said P. Sybarite absently.
"Miss Lessing?" P. Sybarite looked surprised. "Isn't she upstairs—with Violet?"
"Why, when'd she leave you?"
"Oh, ten minutes ago, or so."
"She must have stopped in her room for somethin'."
"But why didn't you come on up?"
"Well, you see, I met a man outside I wanted to talk to for a moment. So I left her at the door."
"Well, Vi's waitin'. Run on up. I won't be five minutes. And knock on Molly's door and see what's the matter."
"All right," returned P. Sybarite serenely.
His constructive mendacity light upon his conscience, he permitted George time enough to leave the house and gain Clancey's, then quietly followed as far as the gate, from which point he cut across the southern sidewalk, turned west to Ninth Avenue, and there north to Forty-second Street, where he boarded a cross-town car.
This was quite the most insane freak in which he had indulged himself these many years; and frankly admitting this much, he was rather pleased than otherwise. He was bound to call on Mr. Bailey Penfield and inform that gentleman where he might find his hat. Incidentally he hoped to surprise something or other informing with regard to the fortunes of Miss Lessing subsequent to her impulsive flight by taxicab.
All of which, he calmly admitted, constituted an inexcusable impertinence: he deserved a thoroughgoing snubbing, and rather anticipated one, especially if destined to find Mr. Penfield at home or, by some vagary of chance, to encounter Miss Lessing again.
But he smiled cheerfully in contemplation of this prospect, buoyed up with a belief that his unconsciously idiotic behaviour was intrinsically more or less Quixotic, and further excited by the hope that he might possibly be permitted to serve his lady of mystery.
At all events, he meant to know more about Mr. Bailey Penfield before he slept.
Alighting at Sixth Avenue, he walked to Forty-fifth Street, turned off to the right, and in another moment was at a standstill, in the extremest perplexity, before Number 97.
By every normal indication, the house was closed and tenantless. From roof to basement its every window was blind with shades close-drawn. The front doors were closed, the basement grating likewise. An atmospheric accumulation of street debris littered the area flagstones, together with one or two empty and battered ash-cans, in whose shadows an emaciated cat skulked apprehensively. The one thing lacking to signify that the Penfield menage had moved bodily to the country, was the shield of a burglar protective association in one of the parlour windows. P. Sybarite looked for that in vain.
Disappointed in the conviction that he had drawn a false lead, the little man strolled on eastward a little distance, then on sheer impulse, gave up his project and, swinging about, started to go home. But now, as he approached Number 97 the second time, a taxicab turned in from Sixth Avenue, slid to the curb before that dwelling, and set down a smallish young man dressed in the extreme of fashion—a person of physical characteristics by no means to be confused with those of the man with the twisted mouth—who, negligently handing a bill to the chauffeur, ran nimbly up the steps, rang the door-bell, and promptly letting himself into the vestibule, closed the door behind him.
The taxicab swung round and made off. Not so P. Sybarite. Profoundly intrigued, he waited hopefully for this second midnight caller to reappear, as baffled as himself. But though he dawdled away a patient five minutes, nothing of the sort occurred. The front doors remained closed and undisturbed, as little communicative as the darkened windows.
Here was mystery within mystery, indeed! The circumstances annoyed P. Sybarite intensely. And why (he asked himself, with impatience) need he remain outside when another entered without let or hindrance?
Upon this thought he turned boldly up the steps, pressed the bell-button; laid hold of the door-knob, and entered into a vestibule as dark as his bewilderment and as empty as the palm of his hand; proving that the young gentleman of fashion had experienced no difficulty in penetrating farther into fastnesses of this singular establishment. And reflecting that where one had gone, another might follow, P. Sybarite pulled the door to behind him.
Instantly the bare and narrow vestibule was flooded with the merciless glare of half a dozen electric bulbs; and at the same time he found himself sustaining the intent scrutiny of a pair of inhospitable dark eyes set in an impassive dark face—this last abruptly disclosed in the frame of a small grille in one of the inner doors.
Though far too dumfounded for speech, he contrived to return the stare with aggressive interest, and to such effect that he presently wore through the patience of the other.
"Well?" he was gruffly asked.
"The Saints be praised!" returned P. Sybarite. "I find myself so. And yourself?" he added civilly: not to be outdone, as the saying is.
"What do you want?"
Irritating discourtesy inhered in the speaker's tone. P. Sybarite stiffened his neck.
"To see Mr. Penfield," he returned firmly—"of course!"
"What Mr. Penfield?" asked the other, after a pause so transient that it was little more than distinguishable, but which to P. Sybarite indicated beyond question that at least one Mr. Penfield was known to his cautious interlocutor.
"Mr. Bailey Penfield," he replied. "Who else?"
During a pause slightly longer than the first, the hostile and suspicious eyes summed him up a second time.
"No such party here," was the verdict. The man drew back and made as if to shut the grille.
"Nonsense!" P. Sybarite insisted sharply. "I have his card with this number—got it from him only to-night."
"Card?" The face returned to the grille.
P. Sybarite made no bones about displaying his alleged credential.
"I believe you'll find that authentic," he observed with asperity.
By way of answer, the grille closed with a snap; but his inclination to kick the door was nullified when, without further delay, it opened to admit him. Nose in air, he strutted in, and the door clanged behind him.
"Gimme another slant at that card," the guardian insisted.
Surrendering it with elaborate indifference, P. Sybarite treated himself to a comprehensive survey of the place.
He stood in the main hall of an old-fashioned residence. To his right, a double doorway revealed a drawing-room luxuriously furnished but, as far as he could determine, quite untenanted. On the left, a long staircase hugged the wall, with a glow of warm light at its head. To the rear, the hall ended in a single doorway through which he could see a handsome mahogany buffet elaborately arranged with shimmering damask, silver, and crystal.
"It's all right," announced the warden of the grille, his suspicions to all seeming completely allayed. "Mr. Penfield ain't in just at present, but"—here he grinned shrewdly—"I reckon you ain't so dead set on seein' him as you made out."
"On the contrary," P. Sybarite retorted stiffly, "my business is immediate and personal with Mr. Penfield. I will wait."
"Sure." Into the accents of the other there crept magically a trace of geniality. "Will you go right on up, or would you like a bite of somethin' to eat first?"
At the mere hint of food, a frightful pang of hunger transfixed P. Sybarite. He winked furtively, afraid to trust Iris tongue to speech.
"What d'ya say?" insinuated the doorkeeper. "Just a bit of a snack, eh? Say a caviare sandwich and a thimbleful of the grape?"
Abandoning false pride, P. Sybarite yielded:
"I don't mind if I do, thank you."
"Straight on back; Pete'll take care of you, all right."
A thumb indicated the door in the rear of the hall. Thither P. Sybarite betook himself on the instant, spurred by the demands of an appetite insatiable once it had won recognition.
He found the back room one of good proportions: whatever the architect's original intention, now serving as a combined lounge and grill, richly and comfortably furnished in sober, masculine fashion, boasting in all three buffets set forth with a lavish display of food and drink. In one of many deeply upholstered club chairs a gentleman of mature years and heavy body, with a scarlet face and a crumpled, wine-stained shirt-bosom, was slumbering serenely, two-thirds of an extravagant cigar cold between his fingers. In others two young men were confabulating quietly but with a most dissipated air, heads together over a brace of glasses. At a corner service table a negro in a white jacket was busy with a silver chafing-dish which exhaled a tantalising aroma. This last, at the entrance of P. Sybarite, glanced quickly over his shoulder, and seeing a strange face, clapped the cover on the steaming chafing-dish and discovered a round black countenance bisected by a complete mouthful of the most brilliant teeth imaginable.
"Yas-suh—comin'!" he gabbled cheerfully. "It's sho' a pleasure to see yo' again."
"At least," suggested P. Sybarite, dropping into a chair, "it will be, next time."
"Tha's right, suh—that's the troof!" The negro placed a small table adjacent to his elbow. "Tha's what Ah allus says to strange gemmun, fust time they comes hyeh, suh; makes 'em feel more at home like. Jus' lemme know what Ah kin do for yo' to-night. That 'ere lobstuh Newburg's jus' about prime fo' eatin' this very minute, ef yo' feel a bit peckish."
"I do," P. Sybarite admitted. "Just a spoonful—"
"An' uh lil drink, suh? Jus' one lil innercent cocktail to fix yo' mouf right?"
"If you insist, Pete—if you insist."
"Yas-suh; and wif the lobstuh, suh, Ah venture to sug-gest a nice cold lil ha'f-pint of Cliquot, Yallah Label? How that strike yo' fancy, suh? Er mebbe yo'd perfuh—"
"Enough!" said P. Sybarite firmly. "A mere bite and a glass are enough to sustain life."
"Ain't that the troof?"
Chuckling, the negro waddled away, returned, and offered the guest a glass brimming with amber-tinted liquid.
Poising the vessel delicately between thumb and forefinger, P. Sybarite treated himself to one small sip—an instant of lingering delectation—another sip. So only, it is asserted, must the victim of the desert begin to allay his burning thirst; with discretion—a sip at a time—gingerly.
It was years since P. Sybarite had tasted a cocktail artfully concocted.
Dreamily he closed his eyes halfway. From a point in his anatomy a degree or two south of his diaphragm, a sensation of the most warm congratulation began to pervade his famished system: as if (he thought) his domestic economy were organising a torchlight procession by way of appropriate celebration.
Tender morsels of lobster smothered in cream and sherry (piping hot) daintiest possible wafers of bread-and-butter embracing leaves of pale lettuce, a hollow-stemmed glass effervescent with liquid sunlight of a most excellent bouquet, and then another: these served not in the least to subdue his occult jubilation.