THE DEFINITE OBJECT
A Romance of New York
Author of The Broad Highway, The Amateur Gentleman, The Honourable Mr. Tawnish, Beltane the Smith
I Which Describes, among Other Things, a Pair of Whiskers II Of a Mournful Millionaire Who Lacked an Object III How Geoffrey Ravenslee Went Seeking an Object IV Telling How He Came to Hell's Kitchen at Peep o' Day V How Mrs. Trapes Acquired a New Lodger, Despite her Elbows VI How Spike Initiated Mr. Ravenslee into the Gentle Art of Shopping VII Concerning Ankles, Stairs, and Neighbourliness VIII Of Candies and Confidences IX Which Recounts the End of an Episode X Tells How Mr. Ravenslee Went into Trade XI Antagonism is Born and War Declared XII Containing Some Description of a Supper Party XIII Wherein may be Found Some Particulars of the Beautiful City of Perhaps XIV Of a Text, a Letter, and a Song XV Which Introduces Joe and the Old Un XVI Of the First and Second Persons, Singular Number XVII How Geoffrey Ravenslee Made a Deal in Real Estate XVIII How Spike Hearkened to Poisonous Suggestion and Soapy Began to Wonder XIX In which the Poison Begins to Work XX Of an Expedition by Night XXI How M'Ginnis Threatened and—Went XXII Tells of an Early Morning Visit and a Warning XXIII Chiefly Concerning a Letter XXIV How the Old Un and Certain Others had Tea XXV How Spike Made a Choice and a Promise XXVI Which Makes Further Mention of a Ring XXVII Mrs. Trapes Upon the Millennium XXVIII Which should have Related Details of a Wedding XXIX In which Hermione Makes a Fateful Decision XXX How Geoffrey Ravenslee Departed from Hell's Kitchen XXXI In which Soapy Takes a Hand XXXII Of Harmony and Discord XXXIII Of Tragedy XXXIV Of Remorse XXXV How Geoffrey Ravenslee Came Out of the Dark XXXVI Concerning a Clew XXXVII The Woes of Mr. Brimberly XXXVIII In which Soapy Takes upon Himself a New Role XXXIX The Old Un Advises and Ravenslee Acts XL Concerning a Handful of Pebbles XLI Of a Packet of Letters XLII Tells How Ravenslee Broke his Word and Why XLIII How Spike Got Even XLIV Retribution XLV Of the Old Un and Fate XLVI In which Geoffrey Ravenslee Obtains his Object
WHICH DESCRIBES, AMONG OTHER THINGS, A PAIR OF WHISKERS
In the writing of books, as all the world knows, two things are above all other things essential—the one is to know exactly when and where to leave off, and the other to be equally certain when and where to begin.
Now this book, naturally enough, begins with Mr. Brimberly's whiskers; begins at that moment when he coughed and pulled down his waistcoat for the first time. And yet (since action is as necessary to the success of a book as to life itself) it should perhaps begin more properly at the psychological moment when Mr. Brimberly coughed and pulled down the garment aforesaid for the third time, since it is then that the real action of this story commences.
Be that as it may, it is beyond all question that nowhere in this wide world could there possibly be found just such another pair of whiskers as those which adorned the plump cheeks of Mr. Brimberly; without them he might have been only an ordinary man, but, possessing them, he was the very incarnation of all that a butler could possibly be.
And what whiskers these were! So soft, so fleecy, so purely white, that at times they almost seemed like the wings of cherubim, striving to soar away and bear Mr. Brimberly into a higher and purer sphere. Again, what Protean whiskers were these, whose fleecy pomposity could overawe the most superior young footmen and reduce page-boys, tradesmen, and the lower orders generally, to a state of perspiring humility; to his equals how calmly aloof, how blandly dignified; and to those a misguided fate had set above him, how demurely deferential, how obligingly obsequious! Indeed, Mr. Brimberly's whiskers were all things to all men, and therein lay their potency.
Mr. Brimberly then, pompous, affable, and most sedate, having motioned his visitor into his master's favourite chair, set down the tray of decanters and glasses upon the piano, coughed, and pulled down his waistcoat; and Mr. Brimberly did it all with that air of portentous dignity and leisurely solemnity which, together with his whiskers, made him the personality he was.
"And you're still valeting for Barberton, are you, Mr. Stevens?" he blandly enquired.
"I've been with his lordship six months, now," nodded Mr. Stevens.
"Ah!" said Mr. Brimberly, opening a certain carved cabinet and reaching thence a box of his master's choicest Havanas, "six months, indeed! And 'ow is Barberton? I hacted in the capacity of his confidential valet a good many years ago, as I told you, and we always got on very well together, very well, indeed. 'ow is Barberton?"
"Oh, 'e 'd be right enough if it warn't for 'is gout which gets 'im in the big toe now and then, and 'is duns and creditors and sich-like low fellers, as gets 'im everywhere and constant! 'E'll never be quite 'imself until 'e marries money—and plenty of it!"
"A American hair-ess!" nodded Mr. Brimberly. "Pre-cisely! I very nearly married 'im to a rich widder ten years ago. 'E'd 'ave been settled for life if 'e 'd took my advice! But Barberton was always inclined to be a little 'eadstrong. The widder in question 'appened to be a trifle par-say, I'll admit, also it was 'inted that one of 'er—lower limbs was cork. But then, 'er money, sir—'er jools!" Mr. Brimberly raised eyes and hands and shook his head until his whiskers quivered in a very ecstasy.
"But a wooden leg—" began Mr. Stevens dubiously.
"I said 'limb', sir!" said Mr. Brimberly, his whiskers distinctly agitated, "a cork limb, sir! And Lord bless me, a cork limb ain't to be sniffed at contemptuous when it brings haffluence with it, sir! At least, my sentiments leans that way."
"Oh—ditto, certainly, sir! I'd take haffluence to my 'eart if she came with both le—both of 'em cork, if it meant haffluence like this!" Mr. Stevens let his pale, prominent eyes wander slowly around the luxuriant splendour of the room. "My eye!" he exclaimed, "it's easy to see as your governor don't have to bother about marrying money, cork limbs or otherwise! Very rich, ain't 'e, Mr. Brimberly?"
Mr. Brimberly set down the decanter he chanced to be holding, and having caressed each fluffy whisker, smiled.
"I think, sir," said he gently, "y-es, I think we may answer 'yes' to your latter question. I think we may tell you and admit 'ole-'earted and frank, sir, that the Ravenslee fortune is fab'lous, sir, stoopendious and himmense!"
"Oh, Lord!" exclaimed Mr. Stevens, and his pale eyes, much wider, now wandered up from the Persian rug beneath his boots to the elaborately carved ceiling above his head. "My aunt!" he murmured.
"Oh, I think we're fairly comfortable 'ere, sir," nodded Mr. Brimberly complacently, "yes, fairly comfortable, I think."
"Comfortable!" ejaculated the awe-struck Mr. Stevens, "I should say so! My word!"
"Yes," pursued Mr. Brimberly, "comfortable, and I ventur' to think, tasteful, sir, for I'll admit young Ravenslee—though a millionaire and young—'as taste. Observe this costly bricky-brack! Oh, yes, young Har is a man of taste indoobitably, I think you must admit."
"Very much so indeed, sir!" answered Mr. Stevens with his pallid glance on the array of bottles. "'Three Star,' I think, Mr. Brimberly?"
"Sir," sighed Mr. Brimberly in gentle reproach, "you 'ere be'old Cognac brandy as couldn't be acquired for twenty-five dollars the bottle! Then 'ere we 'ave jubilee port, a rare old sherry, and whisky. Now what shall we make it? You, being like myself, a Englishman in this 'ere land of eagles, spread and otherwise, suppose we make it a B and a Hess?"
"By all means!" nodded Mr. Stevens.
"I was meditating," said Mr. Brimberly, busied with the bottles and glasses, "I was cogitating calling hup Mr. Jenkins, the Stanways' butler across the way. The Stanways is common people, parvynoo, Mr. Stevens, parvynoo, but Mr. Jenkins is very superior and plays the banjer very affecting. Our 'ousekeeper and the maids is gone to bed, and I've give our footmen leave of habsence—I thought we might 'ave a nice, quiet musical hour or so. You perform on the piano-forty, I believe, sir?"
"Only very occasional!" Mr. Stevens admitted. "But," and here his pale eyes glanced toward the door, "do I understand as he is out for the night?"
"Sir," said Mr. Brimberly ponderously, "what ''e' might you be pleased to mean?"
"I was merely allooding to—to your governor, sir."
Mr. Brimberly glanced at his guest, set down the glass he was in the act of filling and—pulled down his waistcoat for the second time.
"Sir," said he, and his cherubic whiskers seemed positively to quiver, "I presoom—I say, I presoom you are referring to—Young Har?"
"I meant Mr. Ravenslee."
"Then may I beg that you'll allood to him 'enceforth as Young Har? This is Young Har's own room, sir. These is Young Har's own picters, sir. When Young Har is absent, I generally sit 'ere with me cigar and observe said picters. I'm fond of hart, sir; I find hart soothing and restful. The picters surrounding of you are all painted by Young Har's very own 'and—subjeks various. Number one—a windmill very much out o' repair, but that's hart, sir. Number two—a lady dressed in what I might term dish-a-bell, sir, and there isn't much of it, but that's hart again. Number three—a sunset. Number four—moonlight; 'e didn't get the moon in the picter but the light's there and that's the great thing—effect, sir, effect! Of course, being only studies, they don't look finished—which is the most hartisticest part about 'em! But, lord! Young Har never finishes anything—too tired! 'Ang me, sir, if I don't think 'e were born tired! But then, 'oo ever knew a haristocrat as wasn't?"
"But," demurred Mr. Stevens, staring down into his empty glass, "I thought 'e was a American, your—Young Har?"
"Why, 'e is and 'e ain't, sir. His father was only a American, I'll confess, but his mother was blue blood, every drop guaranteed, sir, and as truly English as—as I am!"
"And is 'e the Mr. Ravenslee as is the sportsman? Goes in for boxing, don't 'e? Very much fancied as a heavyweight, ain't 'e? My governor's seen him box and says 'e's a perfect snorter, by Jove!"
Mr. Brimberly sighed, and soothed a slightly agitated whisker.
"Why, yes," he admitted, "I'm afraid 'e does box—but only as a ammitoor, Mr. Stevens, strickly as a ammitoor, understand!"
"And he's out making a night of it, is 'e?" enquired Mr. Stevens, leaning back luxuriously and stretching his legs. "Bit of a rip, ain't 'e?"
"A—wot, sir?" enquired Mr. Brimberly with raised brows.
"Well, very wild, ain't he—drinks, gambles, and hetceteras, don't he?"
"Why, as to that, sir," answered Mr. Brimberly, dexterously performing on the syphon, "I should answer you, drink 'e may, gamble 'e do, hetceteras I won't answer for, 'im being the very hacme of respectability though 'e is a millionaire and young."
"And when might you expect 'im back?"
"Why, there's no telling, Mr. Stevens."
"Eh?" exclaimed Mr. Stevens, and sat up very suddenly.
"'Is movements, sir, is quite—ah—quite metehoric!"
"My eye!" exclaimed Mr. Stevens, gulping his brandy and soda rather hastily.
"Metehoric is the only word for it, sir!" pursued Mr. Brimberly with a slow nod. "'E may drop in on me at any moment, sir!"
"Why, then," said his guest, rising, "p'r'aps I'd better be moving?"
"On the other 'and," pursued Mr. Brimberly, smiling and caressing his left whisker, "'e may be on 'is way to Hafghanistan or Hasia Minor at this pre-cise moment—'e is that metehoric, lord! These millionaires is much of a muchness, sir, 'ere to-day, gone to-morrer. Noo York this week, London or Paris the next. Young Har is always upsetting my plans, 'e is, and that's a fact, sir! Me being a nat'rally quiet, reasonable, and law-abiding character, I objects to youthful millionaires on principle, Mr. Stevens, on principle!"
"Ditto!" nodded Mr. Stevens, his glance wandering uneasily to the door again, "ditto with all my 'eart, sir. If it's all the same to you, I think p'r'aps I'd better be hopping—you know—"
"Oh, don't you worry about Young Har; 'e won't bother us to-night; 'e's off Long Island way to try his newest 'igh-power racing car—'e's driving in the Vanderbilt Cup Race next month. To-night 'e expects to do eighty miles or so, and 'opes to sleep at one of 'is clubs. I say 'e 'opes an' expects so to do!"
"Yes," nodded Mr. Stevens, "certainly, but what do you mean?"
"Sir," sighed Mr. Brimberly, "if you'd been forced by stern dooty to sit be'ind Young Har in a fast automobile as I 'ave, you'd know what I mean. Reckless? Speed? Well, there!" and Mr. Brimberly lifted hands and eyes and shook his head until his whiskers vibrated with horror.
"Then you're pretty sure," said Mr. Stevens, settling luxurious boots upon a cushioned chair, "you're pretty sure he won't come bobbing up when least expected?"
"Pretty sure!" nodded Mr. Brimberly. "You see, this nooest car is the very latest thing in racing cars—cost a fortune, consequently it's bound to break down—these here expensive cars always do, believe me!"
"Why, then," said Mr. Stevens, helping himself to one of Mr. Brimberly's master's cigars, "I say let joy and 'armony be unconfined! How about Jenkins and 'is banjer?"
"I'll call 'im up immediate!" nodded Mr. Brimberly, rising. "Mr. Jenkins is a true hartist, equally facetious and soulful, sir!"
So saying, Mr. Brimberly arose and crossed toward the telephone. But scarcely had he taken three steps when he paused suddenly and stood rigid and motionless, his staring gaze fixed upon the nearest window; for from the shadowy world beyond came a sound, faint as yet and far away, but a sound there was no mistaking—the dismal tooting of an automobile horn.
"'Eavens an' earth!" exclaimed Mr. Brimberly, and crossing to the window he peered out. Once again the horn was heard, but very much nearer now, and louder, whereupon Mr. Brimberly turned, almost hastily, and his visitor rose hurriedly.
"It's very annoying, Mr. Stevens," said he, "but can I trouble you to—to step—er—down—stairs—with the glasses? It's 'ighly mortifying, but may I ask you to—er—step a little lively, Mr. Stevens?"
Without a word, Mr. Stevens caught up the tray from the piano and glided away on his toe-points; whereupon Mr. Brimberly (being alone) became astonishingly agile and nimble all at once, diving down to straighten a rug here and there, rearranging chairs and tables; he even opened the window and hurled two half-smoked cigars far out into the night; and his eye was as calm, his brow as placid, his cheek as rosy as ever, only his whiskers—those snowy, telltale whiskers, quivered spasmodically, very much as though endeavouring to do the manifestly impossible and flutter away with Mr. Brimberly altogether; yes, it was all in his whiskers.
Thus did Mr. Brimberly bustle softly to and fro until he paused, all at once, arrested by the sound of a slow, firm step near by. Then Mr. Brimberly coughed, smoothed his winglike whiskers, and—pulled down his waistcoat for the third time. And lo! even as he did so, the door opened, and the hero of this history stood upon the threshold.
OF A MOURNFUL MILLIONAIRE WHO LACKED AN OBJECT
Geoffrey Ravenslee was tall and pale and very languid, so languid indeed that the automobile coat he bore across his arm slipped to the floor ere Mr. Brimberly could take it, after which he shed his cap and goggles and dropped them, drew off his gauntlets and dropped them and, crossing to his favourite lounge chair, dropped himself into it, and lay there staring into the fire.
"Ah, Brimberly," he sighed gently, "making a night of it?"
"Why, sir," bowed his butler, "indeed, sir—to tell the truth, sir—"
"You needn't, Brimberly. Excellent cigars you smoke—judging from the smell. May I have one?"
"Sir," said Brimberly, his whiskers slightly agitated, "cigars, sir?"
"In the cabinet, I think," and Mr. Ravenslee motioned feebly with one white hand towards the tall, carved cabinet in an adjacent corner.
Mr. Brimberly coughed softly behind plump fingers.
"The—the key, sir?" he suggested.
"Oh, not at all necessary, Brimberly; the lock is faulty, you know."
"Sir?" said Brimberly, soothing a twitching whisker.
"If you are familiar with the life of the Fourteenth Louis, Brimberly, you will remember that the Grand Monarch hated to be kept waiting—so do I. A cigar—in the cabinet yonder."
With his whiskers in a high state of agitation, Mr. Brimberly laid by the garments he held clutched in one arm and coming to the cabinet, opened it, and taking thence a box of cigars, very much at random, came back, carrying it rather as though it were a box of highly dangerous explosives, and setting it at his master's elbow, struck a match.
As Mr. Brimberly watched his master select and light his cigar, it chanced that Young R. raised his eyes and looked at him, and to be sure those eyes were surprisingly piercing and quick for one so very languid. Indeed, Mr. Brimberly seemed to think so, for he coughed again, faint and discreetly, behind his hand, while his whiskers quivered slightly, though perceptibly.
"You're 'ome quite—quite unexpected, sir!"
"Brimberly, I'm afraid I am, but I hope I don't intrude?"
"Intrude, sir!" repeated Mr. Brimberly. "Oh, very facetious, sir, very facetious indeed!" and he laughed, deferentially and soft.
"I blew the horn, but I see he left his hat behind him!" sighed Young R., nodding languidly toward the headgear of Mr. Stevens, which had fallen beneath a chair and thus escaped notice.
"Why, I—indeed, sir," said Mr. Brimberly, stooping to make a fierce clutch at it, "I took the liberty of showing a friend of mine your—your picters, sir—no offence, I 'ope, sir?"
"Friend?" murmured his master.
"Name of Stevens, sir, valet to Lord Barberton—a most sooperior person indeed, sir!"
"Barberton? I don't agree with you, Brimberly."
"Ah! And you showed him my—pictures, did you?"
"Yes, sir, I did take that liberty—no offence, sir, I—"
"Hum! Did he like 'em?"
"Like them, sir! 'E were fair overpowered, sir! Brandy and soda, sir?"
"Thanks! Did he like that, too?"
"Oh, never mind—to-night is an occasion, anyway—just a splash of soda! Yes, Brimberly, when the clocks strike midnight I shall be thirty-five years old—"
"Indeed, sir!" exclaimed Brimberly, clasping his plump hands softly and bowing, "then allow me to wish you many, many 'appy returns, sir, with continued 'ealth, wealth, and all 'appiness, sir!"
"Happiness?" repeated Young R., and smiled quite bitterly, as only the truly young can smile. "Happiness!" said he again, "thank you, Brimberly—now take your friend his hat, and have the extreme goodness to make up the fire for me. I love a fire, as you know, but especially when I am mournful. And pray—hurry, Brimberly!"
Forthwith Mr. Brimberly bowed and bustled out, but very soon bustled in again; and now, as he stooped, menial-like, to ply the coal tongs, though his domelike brow preserved all its wonted serenity, no words could possibly express all the mute rebellion of those eloquent whiskers.
"Hanything more, sir?" he enquired, as he rose from his knees.
"Why, yes," said Young R., glancing up at him, and beneath the quizzical look in those sleepy grey eyes, Mr. Brimberly's whiskers wilted slightly. "You're getting a trifle too—er—portly to hop round on your knees, aren't you, Brimberly? Pray sit down and talk to me."
Mr. Brimberly bowed and took a chair, sitting very upright and attentive while his master frowned into the fire.
"Thirty-five is a ripe age, Brimberly!" said he at last; "a man should have made something of his life—at thirty-five!"
"And I'm getting quite into the sere and yellow leaf, am I not, Brimberly?"
Mr. Brimberly raised a plump, protesting hand.
"'Ardly that, sir, 'ardly that!" said he, "we are hall of us getting on, of course—"
"Where to, Brimberly? On where, Brimberly—on what?"
"Why, sir, since you ask me, I should answer—begging your parding—'eavens knows, sir!"
"Precisely! Anyway, I'm going there fast."
"Heaven knows, Brimberly."
"Now, Brimberly, as a hard-headed, matter-of-fact, common-sense being, what would you suggest for a poor devil who is sick and tired of everything and most of all—of himself?"
"Why, sir, I should prescribe for that man change of hair, sir—travel, sir. I should suggest to that man Hafghanistan or Hasia Minor, or both, sir. There's your noo yacht a-laying in the river, sir—"
His master leant his square chin upon his square fist and still frowning at the fire, gently shook his head.
"My good Brimberly," he sighed, "haven't I travelled in most parts of the world?"
"Why, yes, sir, you've travelled, sir, very much so indeed, sir—you've shot lions and tigers and a helephant or so, and exchanged sentiments with raging 'eathen—as rage in nothing but a string o' beads—but what about your noomerous possessions in Europe, sir?"
"Ah, yes," nodded Young R., "I do possess some shanties and things over there, don't I, Brimberly?"
"Shanties, sir!" Mr. Brimberly blinked, and his whiskers bristled in horrified reproof. "Shanties!—Oh, dear me, sir!" he murmured. "Shanties—your magnificent town mansion situate in Saint James's Square, London, as your respected father hacquired from a royal dook, sir! Shanties!—your costly and helegant res-eye-dence in Park Lane, sir!"
"Hum!" said Young R. moodily.
"Then, in Scotland, sir, we 'ave your castle of Drumlochie, sir—rocks, turrets, battlements, 'ighly grim and romantic, sir!"
"Ha!" sighed his young master, frowning at his cigar.
"Next, sir,—in Italy we find your ancient Roman villa, sir—halabaster pillows and columns, sir—very historical though a trifle wore with wars and centuries of centoorians, sir, wherefore I would humbly suggest a coat or two of paint, sir, applied beneath your very own eye, sir—"
"No, Brimberly," murmured Young R., "paint might have attractions—Italy, none!"
"Certingly not, sir, cer-tingly not! Which brings us to your schloss in Germany, sir—"
"Nor Germany! Lord, Brimberly, are there many more?"
"Ho, yes, sir, plenty!" nodded Mr, Brimberly, "your late honoured and respected father, sir, were a rare 'and at buying palaces, sir; 'e collected 'em, as you might say, like some folks collects postage starmps, sir!"
"And a collection of the one is about as useless as a collection of the other, Brimberly!"
"Why, true, sir, one man can't live in a dozen places all at once, but why not work round 'em in turn, beginning, say, at your imposing Venetian palazzo—canals, sir, gondoleers—picturesque though dampish? Or your shally in the Tyro-leen Halps, sir, or—"
"Brimberly, have the goodness to—er—shut up!"
"To-day is my birthday, Brimberly, and to-night I've reached a kind of 'jumping off' place in my life, and—between you and me—I'm seriously thinking of—er—jumping off!"
"I crave parding, sir?"
"I'm thirty-five years old," continued Young R., his frown growing blacker, "and I've never done anything really worth while in all my useless life! Have the goodness to look at me, will you?"
"With pleasure, sir!"
"Well, what do I look like?"
"The very hacme of a gentleman, sir!"
"Kind of you, Brimberly, but I know myself for an absolutely useless thing—a purposeless, ambitionless wretch, drifting on to God knows what. I'm a hopeless wreck, a moral derelict, and it has only occurred to me to-night—but"—and here the speaker paused to flick the ash from his cigar—"I fear I'm boring you?"
"No, sir—ho, no, not at all, indeed, sir!"
"You're very kind, Brimberly—light a cigarette! Ah, no, pardon me, you prefer my cigars, I know."
"Why—why, sir—" stammered Mr. Brimberly, laying a soothing hand upon his twitching whisker, "indeed, I—I—"
"Oh—help yourself, pray!"
Hereupon Mr. Brimberly took a cigar very much at random, and, while Young R. watched with lazy interest, proceeded to cut it—though with singularly clumsy fingers.
"A light, Mr. Brimberly—allow me!"
So Ravenslee held the light while Mr. Brimberly puffed his cigar to a glow, though to be sure he coughed once and choked, as he met Young R.'s calm grey eye.
"Now," pursued his master, "if you're quite comfortable, Mr. Brimberly, perhaps you'll be good enough to—er—hearken further to my tale of woe?"
Mr. Brimberly choked again and recovering, smoothed his writhing whiskers and murmured: "It would be a honour!"
"First, then, Brimberly, have you ever hated yourself—I mean, despised yourself so utterly and thoroughly that the bare idea of your existence makes you angry and indignant?"
"Why—no, sir," answered Mr. Brimberly, staring, "I can't say as I 'ave, sir."
"No," said his master with another keen glance, "and I don't suppose you ever will!" Now here again, perhaps because of the look or something in Young R.'s tone, Mr. Brimberly took occasion to emit a small, apologetic cough.
"You have never felt yourself to be a—cumberer of the earth, Brimberly?"
Mr. Brimberly, having thought the matter over, decided that he had not.
"You are not given to introspection, Brimberly?"
"Intro—ahem! No, sir, not precisely—'ardly that, sir, and then only very occasional, sir!"
"Then you've never got on to yourself—got wise to yourself—seen yourself as you really are?"
Mr. Brimberly goggled and groped for his whisker.
"I mean," pursued his master, "you have never seen all your secret weaknesses and petty meannesses stripped stark naked, have you?"
"N-naked, sir!" faltered Mr. Brimberly, "very distressing indeed, sir—oh, dear me!"
"It's a devilish unpleasant thing," continued Young R., scowling at the fire again, "yes, it's a devilish unpleasant thing to go serenely on our flowery way, pitying and condemning the sins and follies of others and sublimely unconscious of our own until one day—ah, yes—one day we meet Ourselves face to face and see beneath all our pitiful shams and hypocrisies and know ourselves at last for what we really are—behold the decay of faculties, the degeneration of intellect bred of sloth and inanition and know ourselves at last—for exactly what we are!"
Mr. Brimberly stared at the preoccupation of his master's scowling brow and grim-set mouth, and, clutching a soft handful of whisker, murmured: "Certingly, sir!"
"When I was a boy," continued Ravenslee absently, "I used to dream of the wonderful things I would do when I was a man—by the way, you're quite sure I'm not boring you—?"
"No, sir—certingly not, sir—indeed, sir!"
"Take another cigar, Brimberly—oh, put it in your pocket, it will do to—er—to add to your collection! But, as I was saying, as a boy I was full of a godlike ambition—but, as I grew up, ambition and all the noble things it leads to, sickened and died—died of a surfeit of dollars! And to-day I am thirty-five and feel that I can't—that I never shall—do anything worth while—"
"But, sir," exclaimed Mr. Brimberly with a bland and reassuring smile, "you are one as don't have to do nothing—you're rich!"
Mr. Ravenslee started.
"Rich!" he cried, and turning, he glanced at Mr. Brimberly, and his square chin looked so very square and his grey eyes so very piercing that Mr. Brimberly, loosing his whisker, coughed again and shifted his gaze to the Persian rug beneath his feet; yet when Young R. spoke again, his voice was very soft and sleepy.
"Rich!" he repeated, "yes, that's just the unspeakable hell of it—it's money that has crippled all endeavours and made me what I am! Rich? I'm so rich that my friends are all acquaintances—so rich that I might buy anything in the world except what I most desire—so rich that I am tired of life, the world, and everything in the world, and have been seriously considering a—er—a radical change. It is a comfort to know that we may all of us find oblivion when we so desire."
"Oblivion!" nodded Mr. Brimberly, mouthing the word sonorously, "oblivion, sir, certingly—my own sentiments exactly, sir—for, though not being a marrying man myself, sir, I regard it with a truly reverent heye and 'umbly suggest that for you such a oblivious change would be—"
"Brimberly," said Young R., turning to stare in lazy wonder, "where in the world are you getting to now?"
Mr. Brimberly coughed and touched a whisker with dubious finger.
"Wasn't you allooding to—hem!—to matrimony, sir?"
"Matrimony! Lord, no! Hardly so desperate a course as that, Brimberly. I was considering the advisability of—er—this!" And opening a drawer in the escritoire, Young R. held up a revolver, whereat Mr. Brimberly's whiskers showed immediate signs of extreme agitation, and he started to his feet.
"Mr. Ravenslee, sir—for the love o' Gawd!" he exclaimed, "if it's a choice between the two—try matrimony first, it's so much—so much wholesomer, sir!"
"Is it, Brimberly? Let me see, there are about five hundred highly dignified matrons in this—er—great city, wholly eager and anxious to wed their daughters to my dollars (and incidentally myself) even if I were the vilest knave or most pitiful piece of doddering antiquity—faugh! Let's hear no more of matrimony."
"Certingly not, sir!" bowed Mr. Brimberly.
"And I'm neither mad, Brimberly, nor drunk, only—speaking colloquially—I'm 'on to' myself at last. If my father had only left me fewer millions, I might have been quite a hard-working, useful member of society, for there's good in me, Brimberly. I am occasionally aware of quite noble impulses, but they need some object to bring 'em out. An object—hum!" Here Mr. Ravenslee put away the revolver. "An object to work for, live for, be worthy of!" Here he fell to frowning into the fire again and stared thus so long that at last Mr. Brimberly felt impelled to say:
"A hobject, of course, sir! A hobject—certingly, sir!" But here he started and turned to stare toward the windows as from the darkness beyond two voices were uplifted in song; two voices these which sang the same tune and words but in two different keys, uncertain voices, now shooting up into heights, now dropping into unplumbable deeps, two shaky voices whose inconsequent quaverings suggested four legs in much the same condition.
"Brimberly," sighed his master, "what doleful wretches have we here?"
"Why, sir, I—I rather fancy it's William and James—the footmen, sir," answered Mr. Brimberly between bristling whiskers. "Hexcuse me, sir—I'll go and speak to 'em, sir—"
"Oh, pray don't trouble yourself, Mr. Brimberly; sit down and hearken! These sad sounds are inspired by deep potations—beer, I fancy. Be seated, Mr. Brimberly."
Mr. Brimberly obeyed, and being much agitated dropped his cigar and grovelled for it, and it was to be noted thereafter that as the singers drew nearer, he shuffled on his chair with whiskers violently a-twitch, while his eyes goggled more and his domelike brow grew ever moister. But on came the singing footmen and passed full-tongued, wailing out each word with due effect, thus:
"—my sweet 'eart's—me mother The best—the dearest—of—'em all."
"Hum!" murmured Young R., "I admire the sentiment, Brimberly, but the execution leaves something to be desired, perhaps—"
"If you'll only let me go out to 'em, sir!" groaned Mr. Brimberly, mopping himself with a very large, exceeding white handkerchief, "if you honly will, sir!"
"No, Brimberly, no—it would only distress you, besides—hark! their song is ended, and rather abruptly—I rather fancy they have fallen down the terrace steps."
"And I 'opes," murmured Mr. Brimberly fervently, "I do 'ope as they've broke their necks!"
"Of course I ought to have gone out and switched on the lights for them," sighed Young R, "but then, you see, I thought they were safe in bed, Brimberly!"
"Why, sir," said Mr. Brimberly, mopping furiously, "I—I ventured to give 'em a hour's leave of habsence, sir; I ventured so to do, sir, because, sir—"
"Because you are of rather a venturesome nature, aren't you, Brimberly?"
"No offence, sir, I 'ope?"
"None at all, Mr. Brimberly—pray calm yourself and—er—take a little brandy."
"Your glass is under the chair yonder, or is it your friend's?"
Mr. Brimberly goggled toward Mr. Stevens' betraying glass, picked it up, and sat staring at it in vague and dreamy fashion until, rousing at his master's second bidding, he proceeded to mix brandy and soda, his gaze still profoundly abstracted and his whiskers drooping with an abnormal meekness.
At this juncture a knock sounded at the door, and a chauffeur appeared, looking very smart in his elegant livery; a thick-set man, mightily deep of chest, whose wide shoulders seemed to fill the doorway, and whose long, gorilla-like arms ended in two powerful hands; his jaw was squarely huge, his nose broad and thick, but beneath his beetling brows blinked two of the mildest blue eyes in the world.
"What is it, Joe?"
"And what time will ye be wantin' the car in the mornin', sir?" he enquired.
"The morning, Joe? Who can say what may happen between now and then?"
"Shall I have her round at eleven, sir, or—"
"Eleven will do as well as any other time—let it go at that."
"You was to see your broker, Mr. Anderson, in the morning over them steamship shares, sir."
"Shares, Joe, are a vanity; all is vanity—they weary me. Mr. Brimberly yawns, and you look sleepy—good night, Joe; pleasant dreams."
"Good night, sir!" and touching his right eyebrow, Joe went out, closing the door behind him.
"And now," said Mr. Ravenslee, puffing languidly at his cigar, "referring to the necessary object, there is a chance that it may be found—even yet, Mr. Brimberly!"
"Object, sir," murmured Mr. Brimberly, "found, sir—to be sure, sir."
"Yes; I intend you shall find it for me, Brimberly."
Mr. Brimberly's abstraction gave place to sudden amaze.
"Find it—wot, me, sir? Hexcuse me, sir, but did you say—" Mr. Brimberly actually gaped!
"You, Brimberly, of course!"
"But—but wot kind of a hobject—and where, sir?"
"Really," sighed Young R., "these are quite fool questions for one of your hard-headed common sense! If I knew exactly 'what' and 'where', I'd go and find it myself—at least, I might!"
"But—'ow in the world, sir—begging your parding I'm sure, but 'ow am I to go a-finding hobjex as I've never seen nor 'eard of?"
"Brimberly, I pass! But if you manage it in—say a week, I'll double your wages and give you a—er—a bonus into the bargain; think it over."
"I—I will, sir—indeed, sir!"
"Very well; you may go."
"Certingly, sir." Mr. Brimberly bowed and crossed to the door but, being there, paused. "Double me wages I think it were, sir, and a bonus? Very 'andsome, very 'andsome indeed, sir—thank you, sir." Saying which, Mr. Brimberly bowed himself out, but immediately bowed himself in again.
"Sir," said he, "if you could give me some hidea, sir—"
"A few 'ints, sir, as to the nature of said hobject—whether animal, mineral, or nooter, sir?"
"Well—perhaps 'animal' might be the more interesting."
"Now—as to gender, sir—masculine shall we say, or shall we make it feminine?"
"Oh—either will do! And yet, since you offer so wide a selection, perhaps—er—feminine—?"
"Very good, sir!"
"And you'd better make it singular number, Brimberly."
"Certingly, sir, much obliged, sir! Will you be wanting me again, sir?"
"Not again, Brimberly."
"Then good night, sir—thank you, sir!" And Mr. Brimberly went softly forth and closed the door noiselessly behind him.
Being alone, Mr. Ravenslee switched off the lights and sat in the fire-glow.
"Feminine gender, singular number, objective case, governed by the verb—to love—I wonder!"
And he laughed a little bitterly (and very youthfully) as he stared down into the dying fire.
HOW GEOFFREY RAVENSLEE WENT SEEKING AN OBJECT
A clock in the hall without struck midnight, but Mr. Ravenslee sat there long after the silvery chime had died away, his chin sunk upon his broad chest, his sombre eyes staring blindly at the fading embers, lost in profound and gloomy meditation. But, all at once, he started and glanced swiftly around toward a certain window, the curtains of which were only partly drawn, and his lounging attitude changed instantly to one of watchful alertness.
As he sat thus, broad shoulders stooped, feet drawn up—poised for swift action, he beheld a light that flashed here and there, that vanished and came again, hovering up and down and to and fro outside the window; wherefore he reached out a long arm in the gloom and silently opened a certain drawer in the escritoire.
Came a soft click, a faint creak, and a breath of cool, fragrant air as the window was cautiously opened, and a shapeless something climbed through, while Mr. Ravenslee sat motionless—waiting.
The flashing light winked again, a small, bright disc that hovered uncertainly and finally steadied upon the carved cabinet in the corner, and the Something crept stealthily thither. A long-drawn, breathless minute and then—the room was flooded with brilliant light, and a figure, kneeling before the cabinet, uttered a strangled cry and leapt up, only to recoil before Mr. Ravenslee's levelled revolver.
A pallid-faced, willowy lad, this, of perhaps seventeen, who, sinking to his knees, threw up an arm across his face, then raised both hands above his head.
"Ah, don't shoot, mister!" he gasped. "Oh, don't shoot—I got me hands up!"
"Stand up!" said Ravenslee grimly, "up with you and shutter that window—you may have friends outside, and I'm taking no chances! Quick—shutter that window, I say."
The lad struggled to his feet and, crossing to the window, fumbled the shutter into place, his ghastly face turning and turning toward the revolver that glittered in such deadly fashion in Mr. Ravenslee's steady hand. At length, the shutters barred, the boy turned, and moistening dry lips, spoke hoarsely and with apparent effort.
"Oh, mister—don't go for to—croak a guy as—as ain't done nothing!"
"You broke into my house!"
"But I—haven't took nothin'!"
"Because I happened to catch you!"
"But—but—oh, sir," stammered the boy, taking off his cap and fumbling with it while he stared wide-eyed at the threatening revolver, "I—I ain't a real thief—cross me heart and hope to die, I ain't! Don't croak me, sir!"
"But why in the world not?" enquired Mr. Ravenslee. "Alone and unaided I have captured a desperate criminal, a bloodthirsty villain—caught him in the very act of burgling a cabinet where I keep my cigars of price—and Mr. Brimberly's, of course! Consequently to—er—croak you is my privilege as a citizen; it's all quite just and proper—really, I ought to croak you, you know."
"I—ain't desprit, mister," the boy pleaded, "I ain't a reg'lar crook; dis is me first try-out—honest it is!"
"But then I prefer to regard you as a deep-dyed desperado—you must be quite—er—sixteen! Consequently it is my duty to croak you on the spot, or hand you over to the police—"
"No, no!" cried the boy, his tremulous hands reached out in a passion of supplication, "not d' cops—don't let th' p'lice get me. Oh, I never took nothin' from nobody—lemme go! Be a sport and let me beat it, please, sir!"
All Mr. Ravenslee's chronic languor seemed to have returned as, leaning back in the deep-cushioned chair, he regarded this youthful malefactor with sleepy eyes, yet eyes that missed nothing of the boy's quivering earnestness as he continued, breathlessly:
"Oh, I ain't a real crook, I never done nothin' like this before, an' I never will again if—if you'll only let me chase meself—"
"And now," sighed Mr. Ravenslee, "I'll trouble you for the 'phone, yonder."
"Are ye goin' to—call in de cops?"
"That is my intention. Give me the 'phone."
"No!" cried the boy, and springing before the telephone he stood there, trembling but defiant.
"Give me that telephone!"
"Not much I won't!"
"Then of course I must shoot you!"
The boy stood with head up-flung and fists tight-clenched; Mr. Ravenslee lounged in his chair with levelled pistol. So they fronted each other—but, all at once, with a sound between a choke and a groan, the lad covered his face.
"Go on!" he whispered hoarsely, "go on—what's keepin' you? If it's the cops or croaking, I—I'd rather croak."
"'Cause if I was ever sent to—prison—it 'ud break her heart, I guess."
"Her heart?" said Mr. Ravenslee, and lowered the pistol.
"Ah—so you have a sister?" and Mr. Ravenslee sat up suddenly.
"Lots o' guys has, but there ain't a sister like mine in all N' York—nor nowheres else."
"Who are you? What's your name?"
"Spike. Me real name's Arthur, but Arthur sounds kinder soft an' sissy; nobody don't call me Arthur 'cept her, an' I don't mind her."
"And what's her name?"
"Hermione—why, that's Greek! It's a very beautiful name!"
"Kind of fits her too!" nodded Spike, warming to his theme. "Hermy's ace-high on the face and figure question! Why, there ain't a swell dame on Fift' Av'ner, nor nowheres else, got anything on Hermy as a looker!"
"And what of your father and mother?"
"Ain't got none—don't remember having none—don't want none; Hermy's good 'nuff for me."
"Good to you, is she?" enquired Mr. Ravenslee.
"Good t' me!" cried Spike, "good? Well, say—when I think about it I—I gets watery in me lamps, kinder sloppy in me talk, an' all mushy inside! Good t' me? Well, you can just bet on that!"
"And," enquired Mr. Ravenslee sleepily, "are you as good to her?"
Hereupon Spike turned his cap inside out and looked at it thoughtfully. "I—I dunno, mister."
"Ah! perhaps you—make her cry, sometimes?"
Hereupon Spike began to pick at the lining of his cap and finally answered: "Sometimes, I guess."
"Would she cry if she could see you now, I wonder?"
Hereupon Spike began to wring and twist his cap in nervous hands ere he answered: "I—I guess she might, perhaps."
"She must love you a good deal."
At this, Spike twisted his cap into a ball but spoke nothing; seeing which Mr. Ravenslee proceeded.
"You are luckier than I; there isn't a soul in the world to do as much for me."
Spike gulped audibly and, thereafter, sniffed.
"Now suppose," said Mr. Ravenslee, "let us suppose she found out that the brother she loved so much was a—thief?"
Hereupon Spike unrolled his cap and proceeded to rub his eyes with it, and, when at last he spoke, it was in a voice broken by great sobs.
"Say—cut it out—cut it out! I never meant to—to do it. They got me soused—doped me, I think, else I'd never have done it. I ain't good, but I ain't so rotten bad as—what I seem. I ain't no real crook, but if you wanter croak me for what I done—go ahead! Only don't—don't let d' cops get me, 'cause o' Hermy. If you croak me, she'll think I got it in a scrap, maybe; so if you wanter plug me, go ahead!"
"But what are you shivering for?"
"I—I'm just waitin', sir," answered Spike, closing his eyes, "I—I seen a guy shot once!"
Mr. Ravenslee sighed and nodded.
"After all," said he, "I don't think I'll croak you," and he slipped the revolver into his pocket while Spike watched him in sudden tense eagerness.
"What yer mean to do wi' me?" he asked.
"That's the question; what shall I do with you? Let me think."
"Say," cried the boy eagerly, "you don't have to do no thinkin'—leave it all to me! It's de winder for mine; I'll chase meself quick—"
"No you don't! Sit down—sit down, I say!"
Spike sighed and seated himself on the extreme edge of the chair his captor indicated.
"Won't yer lemme beat it, sir?" he pleaded.
"No, some one else might catch you next time and have the pleasure of—er—croaking you or handing you over to the police—"
"There won't be no next time, sir!" cried Spike eagerly. "I'll never do it no more—I'll cut d' whole gang, I'll give Bud M'Ginnis d' throw-down—on d' dead level I will, if you'll only let me—"
"Who's Bud M'Ginnis?"
"Say," exclaimed the boy, staring, "don't yer know that? Why, Bud's d' main squeeze with d' gang, d' whole cheese, he is—an' he kind o' thinks I'm d' candy-kid 'cause he's stuck on me sister—".
"Ah!" nodded Mr. Ravenslee, frowning a little, "and is she—er—stuck on him?"
"Not so as you could notice it, she ain't! No, she can't see Bud with a pair of opry-glasses, an' he's a dead game sport, too! Oh, there ain't no flies on Bud, an' nobody can lick him, either; but Hermy don't cotton none, she hasn't got no use for him, see? But say—" Spike rose tentatively and looked on his captor with eyes big and supplicating.
"Well, what now?"
"Why, I thought if you was tired of me chewing d' rag and wanted to hit the feathers, I'd just cop a sneak. See, if you'll only lemme go, I'll do d' square thing and get a steady job like Hermy wants me to—honest, I will, sir! Y' see, me sister's away to-night—she does needleworks for swell folks an' stops with 'em sometimes—so if you'll only let me beat it, I can skin back an' she'll never know! Ah!—lemme go, sir!"
"Well then," sighed Mr. Ravenslee, "for her sake I will let you go—wait! I'll let you go and never speak of your—er—little escapade here, if you will take me with you."
Now at this, Spike gaped and fell back a step.
"Go wi' me—wi' me?" he stammered. "You—go wi' me to Hell's Kitchen—to Mulligan's Dump—you! Say, what kind o' song and dance are you giving me, anyway? Aw—quit yer kiddin', sir!"
"But I mean it."
"On—on d' level?"
"On the level."
"Holy Gee!" and Spike relapsed into wide-eyed, voiceless wonder.
"Is it a go?" enquired Mr. Ravenslee.
"But—but, say—" stammered the boy, glancing from the elegant figure in the chair around the luxurious room and back again, "but you're a—a—"
"Just a poor, disconsolate, lonely—er—guy!"
"What!" cried Spike, staring around him again, "with all this? Oh, yes, you're homeless and starving, you are—I don't think!"
"Is it a go?"
"But say—whatcher want to go wi' me for? What's yer game? Put me wise."
"I am filled with desire to breathe awhile the salubrious air of Hell's Kitchen; will you take me?" Now as he spoke, beholding the boy's staring amaze, Mr. Ravenslee's frowning brows relaxed, his firm, clean-shaven lips quivered, and all at once curved up into a smile of singular sweetness—a smile before which the hopelessness and fear died out of the boy's long-lashed eyes, his whole strained attitude vanished, and he smiled also—though perhaps a little tremulously.
"Will you take me, Spike?"
"You bet I will!" exclaimed the boy, his blue eyes shining, "and I'll do my best to show you I—I ain't so bad as I—as I seem—an' we'll shake on it if you like." And Spike advanced with his hand outstretched, then paused, suddenly abashed, and drooping his head, turned away. "I—I forgot," he muttered, "—I'm—you said I was a—thief!"
"You meant to be!" said Mr. Ravenslee, and rising, he stretched himself and glanced at his watch.
"Are you coming wi' me, sir?" enquired Spike, regarding Mr. Ravenslee's length and breadth with quick, appraising eyes.
"I surely am!"
"But—but not in them glad rags!" and Spike pointed to Mr. Ravenslee's exquisitely tailored garments.
"Ah—to be sure!" nodded their wearer. "We'll soon fix that," and he touched the electric bell.
"Say," cried Spike, starting forward in sudden terror, "you—you ain't goin' to give me away?"
"Cross your heart—hope to die, you ain't?"
"Across my heart and hope to die, I'm not—and there's my hand on it, Spike."
"What?" exclaimed the boy, his eyes suspiciously bright, "d' you mean you will shake—after—after what I—"
"There's my hand, Spike!" So their hands met and gripped, the boy's hot and eagerly tremulous, the man's cool and steady and strong; then of a sudden Spike choked and turning his back brushed away his tears with his cap. Also at this moment, with a soft and discreet knock, Mr. Brimberly opened the door and bowed himself into the room; his attitude was deferential as always, his smile as respectful, but, beholding Spike, his round eyes grew rounder and his whiskers slightly bristly.
"Ah, Brimberly," nodded his master, "you are not in bed yet—good!"
"No, sir," answered Mr. Brimberly, "I'm not in bed yet, sir, but when you rang I was in the very hact, sir—"
"First of all," said Young R., selecting a cigar, "let me introduce you to—er—my friend, Spike!"
Hereupon Mr. Brimberly rolled his eyes in Spike's direction, glanced him over, touched either whisker, and bowed—and lo! those fleecy whiskers were now eloquent of pompous dignity, beholding which Spike shuffled his feet, averted his eyes, and twisted his cap into a very tight ball indeed.
But now Brimberly turned his eyes (and his whiskers) on his master, who had taken out his watch.
"Brimberly," said he, "it is now very nearly two o'clock."
"Very late, sir—oh, very late, sir—indeed, I was in the very hact of goin' to bed, sir—I'd even unbuttoned my waistcoat, sir, when you rang—two o'clock, sir—dear me, a most un-'oly hour, sir—"
"Consequently, Brimberly, I am thinking of taking a little outing—"
"Certingly, sir—oh, certingly!"
"And I want some other clothes—"
"Clothes, sir—yessir. There's the noo 'arris tweed, sir—"
"With holes in them, if possible, Brimberly."
"'Oles, sir! Beg parding, sir, but did you say 'oles, sir?"
"Also patches, Brimberly, the bigger the better!"
"Patches! Hexcuse me, sir, but—patches! I beg parding, but—" Mr. Brimberly laid a feeble hand upon a twitching whisker.
"In a word, Brimberly," pursued his master, seating himself upon the escritoire and swinging his leg, "I want some old clothes, shabby clothes—moth-eaten, stained, battered, and torn. Also a muffler and an old hat. Can you find me some?"
"No, sir, I don't—that is, yessir, I do. Hexcuse me, sir—'arf a moment, sir." Saying which, Mr. Brimberly bowed and went from the room with one hand still clutching his whisker very much as though he had taken himself into custody and were leading himself out.
"Say," exclaimed Spike in a hoarse whisper and edging nearer to Mr. Ravenslee, "who's His Whiskers—de swell guy with d' face trimmings?"
"Why, since you ask, Spike, he is a very worthy person who devotes his life to—er—looking after my welfare and—other things."
"Holy Gee!" exclaimed Spike, staring, "I should have thought you was big 'nuff to do that fer yourself, unless—" and here he broke off suddenly and gazed on Mr. Ravenslee's long figure with a new and more particular interest.
"Say—you ain't got bats in your belfry, have you—you ain't weak in the think-box, or soft in the nut, are ye?"
"No—at least not more than the average, I believe."
"I mean His Whiskers don't have to lead you around on a string or watch out you don't set fire to yourself, does he?"
"Well, strictly speaking, I can't say that his duties are quite so far-reaching."
"Who are you, anyway?"
"Well, my names are Geoffrey, Guy, Eustace, Hughson-and—er—a few others, but these will do to go on with, perhaps?"
"Well, I guess yes!"
"You can take your choice."
"Well, Guy won't do—no siree—ye see every mutt's a guy down our way—so I guess we'll make it Geoff. But, say, if you ain't weak on the think-machinery, why d' ye keep a guy like His Whiskers hanging around?"
"Because he has become a habit, Spike—and habits cling—and speaking of habits—here it is!" Sure enough, at that moment Brimberly's knuckles made themselves discreetly heard, and Brimberly himself appeared with divers garments across his arm, at sight of which Spike stood immediately dumb in staring, awe-struck wonder.
"Ah, you've got them, Brimberly?"
"Yessir! These is the best I can do, sir—"
"Say rather—the worst!"
"'Ere's a nice, big 'ole in the coat, sir," said Mr. Brimberly, unfolding the garment in question, "and the weskit, sir; the pocket is tore, you'll notice, sir."
"As for these trousis, sir—"
"They seem rather superior garments, I'm afraid!" said Mr. Ravenslee, shaking his head.
"But you'll notice as they're very much wore round the 'eels, sir."
"They'll do. Now the hat and muffler."
"All 'ere, sir—the 'at's got its brim broke, sir."
"Couldn't be better, Brimberly!" So saying, Mr. Ravenslee took up the clothes and turned toward the door. "Now I'll trouble you to keep an eye on—er—young America here while I get into these."
"Sir," said Mr. Brimberly, turning his whiskers full upon Spike, who immediately fell to shuffling and wringing at his cap. "Sir—I will, certingly, sir."
Now when the door had shut after his master, Mr. Brimberly raised eyes and hands to the ceiling and shook his head until his whiskers quivered. Quoth he: "Hall I arsks is—wot next!" Thereafter he lowered his eyes and regarded Spike as if he had been that basest of base minions—a boy in buttons. At last he deigned speech.
"And w'en did you come in, pray?"
"'Bout a hour ago, sir," answered Spike, dropping his cap in his embarrassment.
"Ah!" nodded Mr. Brimberly, "about a hour ago—ho! By appointment, I pre-zoom?"
"No, sir—by a winder."
"A winder, sir."
"A—winder? 'Eavens and earth—a winder—ow? Where? Wot for?"
"Say, mister," said Spike, breaking in upon Mr. Brimberly's astounded questioning, "is he nutty?" And he jerked his thumb toward the door through which Mr. Ravenslee had gone.
"Nutty!" said Mr. Brimberly, staring.
"Yes—I mean is he batty? Has he got wheels?"
"W'eels?" said Mr. Brimberly, his eyes rounder than usual.
"Well, then, is he daffy?—off his trolley?"
"Off 'is wot?" said Mr. Brimberly, fumbling for his whisker.
"Holy Gee!" exclaimed Spike, "can't you understand English? Say, is your brother as smart as you?"
"The honly brother as ever I 'ad was a infant as died and—but wot was you saying about a winder?"
"Come, speak up, you young vagabone—" began Mr. Brimberly, his whiskers suddenly fierce and threatening, but just then, fortunately for Spike, the door swung, open, and Mr. Ravenslee entered.
And lo! what a change was here! The battered hat, the faded muffler and shabby clothes seemed only to show off all the hitherto hidden strength and vigour of the powerful limbs below; indeed it almost seemed that with his elegant garments he had laid aside his lassitude also and taken on a new air of resolution, for his eyes were sleepy no longer, and his every gesture was lithe and quick. So great was the change that Spike stared speechless, and Mr. Brimberly gaped with whiskers a-droop.
"Well, shall I do?" enquired Mr. Ravenslee, tightening his faded neckerchief.
"Do?" repeated Spike, "say—you look all to d' mustard, Geoff! You—you look as if you could—do things, now!"
"Strangely enough, Spike, I rather feel that way too!" So saying, Mr. Ravenslee took a pipe from the rack, filled it with quick, energetic fingers, and proceeded to light it, watched in dumb amaze by the gaping Brimberly.
"Brimberly," said he, "I shall probably return to-morrow."
"Yes, sir," said he faintly.
"Or the day after."
"Or the day after."
"Or the day after that; anyhow, I shall probably return. Should any one call—business or otherwise—tell 'em to call again; say I'm out of town—you understand?"
"Out of town—certingly, sir."
"Referring to—to the matter we talked of to-night, Brimberly—"
"Meaning the hobject, sir?"
"Precisely! Don't trouble yourself about it."
"No, Brimberly—I'm going to try and find one for myself."
"Ho—very good, sir!"
"And now," said the new Mr. Ravenslee, laying one white, ringless hand on Spike's shoulder and pointing toward the open door with the other, "lead on—young Destiny!"
TELLING HOW HE CAME TO HELL'S KITCHEN AT PEEP O' DAY
It was past three o'clock and dawn was at hand as, by devious ways, Spike piloted his companion through that section of New York City which is known to the initiated as "Hell's Kitchen." By dismal streets they went, past silent, squalid houses and tall tenements looming grim and ghostly in the faint light; crossing broad avenues very silent and deserted at this hour, on and on until, dark and vague and mysterious, the great river flowed before them only to be lost again as they plunged into a gloomy court where tall buildings rose on every hand, huge and very silent, teeming with life—but life just now wrapped in that profound quietude of sleep which is so much akin to death. Into one of these tall tenement buildings, its ugliness rendered more ugly by the network of iron fire-escape ladders that writhed up the face of it, Spike led the way, first into a dark hallway and thence up many stairs that echoed to their light-treading feet—on and up, past dimly lit landings where were doors each of which shut in its own little world, a world distinct and separate wherein youth and age, good and evil, joy and misery, lived and moved and had their being; behind these dingy panels were smiling hope and black despair, blooming health and pallid sickness, and all those sins and virtues that go to make up the sum total of humanity.
Something of all this was in Geoffrey Ravenslee's mind as he climbed the dingy, interminable stair behind Spike, who presently halted to get his wind and whisper:
"It ain't much further now, Geoff, only another two flights and—" He stopped suddenly to listen, and from the landing above a sound reached them, a sound soft but unmistakable—a woman's muffled sobbing.
Slowly, cautiously, they mounted the stair until in the dim light of a certain landing they beheld a slim figure bowed upon its knees in an agony of abasement before a scarred and dingy door. Even as they stared, the slender, girlish figure sobbed again, and, with a sudden, yearning gesture, lifted a face, pale in the half-light, and kissed that battered door; thereafter, weeping still, she rose to her feet and turned, but seeing Spike, stood very still all at once and with hands clasped tight together.
"Holy Gee!" exclaimed Spike beneath his breath; then, in a hoarse whisper: "Is that Maggie—Maggie Finlay?"
"Oh—is that you, Arthur?" she whispered back. "Arthur—oh, Arthur, I, I'm going away, but I couldn't go without coming to—to kiss dear mother good-by—and now I'm here I daren't knock for fear of—father. I've been up to your door and knocked, but Hermy's away, I guess. Anyway, you—you'll say I came to thank her and—kiss her for the last time, won't you, Arthur?"
"Sure I will—but where ye goin', Maggie?"
"A long way, Arthur! I don't s'pose I shall ever—see this place any more—or you—so, Arthur, will you—kiss me good-by—just once?"
Spike hesitated, but she, quick and light-treading, came down to him and caught his hand and would have kissed that, but he snatched it away and, leaning forward, kissed her tear-stained cheek, and blushed thereafter despite the dark.
"Good-by, Arthur!" she whispered, "and thank you—and dear Hermy—oh, good-by!" So saying, she hurried on past Ravenslee, down the dark stairway, while Spike leaned over the balustrade to whisper:
"Good-by, Maggie—an' good luck, Kid!" At this she paused to look up at him with great, sad eyes—a long, wistful look, then, speaking no more, hurried on down the stair—down, down into the shadows, and was gone.
"We used to go to school together, Geoff," the boy explained a little self-consciously, "she never—kissed me before; she ain't the kissin' sort. I wonder why she did it to-night? I wonder—"
So saying, Spike turned and led the way on again until they reached the landing above, across which two doors, dark and unlovely, seemed to scowl upon each other. One of these Spike proceeded to open with a latchkey, and so led Ravenslee into the dark void beyond. Spike struck a match and lighted the gas, and, looking about him, Ravenslee stared.
A little, cramped room, sparsely furnished yet dainty and homelike, for the small, deal table hid its bare nakedness beneath a dainty cloth; the two rickety armchairs veiled their faded tapestry under chintz covers, cunningly contrived and delicately tinted to match the cheap but soft-toned drugget on the floor and the self-coloured paper on the walls, where hung two or three inexpensive reproductions of famous paintings; and in all things there breathed an air of refinement wholly unexpected in Hell's Kitchen. Wherefore Mr. Ravenslee, observing all things with his quick glance, felt an ever-growing wonder. But now Spike, who had been clattering plates and dishes in the kitchen hard by, thrust his head around the door to say:
"Oh, Geoff—I don't feel like doin' the shut-eye business, d' you? How about a cup of coffee, an' I daresay I might dig out some eats; what d' ye say?"
"Is this—your sister?" enquired Mr. Ravenslee, taking up a photograph from the little sideboard.
"Yep, that's Hermy all right—taken las' year—does her hair different now. How about some coffee, Geoff?"
"Coffee?" said Mr. Ravenslee, staring at the picture, "coffee—certainly—er—thanks! She has—light hair, Spike?"
"Gold!" said Spike, and vanished; whereupon Mr. Ravenslee laid the photograph on the table, and sitting down, fell to viewing it intently.
A wonderful face, low-browed, deep-eyed, full-lipped. Here was none of smiling prettiness, for these eyes were grave and thoughtful, these lips, despite their soft, voluptuous curves, were firmly modelled like the rounded chin below, and, in all the face, despite its vivid youth, was a vague and wistful sadness.
"Oh, Geoff," called Spike, "d' ye mind having yer coffee a la milko condenso?"
"Milk?" exclaimed Mr. Ravenslee, starting. "Oh—yes—anything will do!"
"Why, hello!" exclaimed Spike, reappearing with a cup and saucer, "still piping off Hermy's photo, Geoff?"
"I'm wondering why she looks so sad?"
"Sad?" repeated Spike, setting down the crockery with a rattle, "Hermy ain't sad; she always looks like that. Y' see, she ain't much on the giggle, Geoff, but she's most always singing, 'cept when her kids is sick or Mulligan calls—"
"What do you mean?"
"Oh, Hermy mothers all the kids around here when they're sick, an' lots o' kids is always getting sick. And when Mulligan comes it's rent day, an' sometimes Hermy's a bit shy on the money—"
"Is she?" said Mr. Ravenslee, frowning.
"You bet she is, Geoff! An' Mulligan's an Irishman an' mean—say, he's the meanest mutt you ever see. A Jew's mean, so's a Chink, but a mean Harp's got 'em both skinned 'way to 'Frisco an' back again! Why, Mulligan's that mean he wouldn't cough up a nickel to see the Statue o' Liberty do a Salomy dance in d' bay. So when the mazuma's shy Hermy worries some—"
"Don't you help her?" demanded Mr. Ravenslee.
"Help her—why, y' see, Geoff, I—I ain't in a steady job yet. But I do my best an'—why, there's d' kettle boilin' at last!" saying which, Spike turned and vanished again, leaving Mr. Ravenslee still staring down at the pictured face. Presently he sank back in his chair, and, lolling thus, looked sleepily at the opposite wall but saw it not, nor heard the clatter of cups and saucers from the kitchen accompanied by Spike's windy whistling; and, as he lounged thus, he spoke softly, and to himself.
"An object!" he murmured.
"Hey, Geoff," Spike called, "this ain't goin' to be no a la carte, hock an' claret feedin' match, nor yet no table-de-hoty eat-fest, but if you can do in some bacon an' eggs, you're on!"
"Why, then," said Mr. Ravenslee, rising and yawning, "count me decidedly 'on.'"
"Then d' you mind givin' me a hand wid d' coffee?"
"Delighted!" and forthwith Mr. Ravenslee stepped out into the kitchen; and there, in a while, upon a rickety table covered with a greasy newspaper, they ate and drank with great relish and gusto, insomuch that Mr. Ravenslee marvelled at his own appetite.
"Say, Geoff," enquired Spike as hunger waned, "how long are you stoppin' at Mulligan's—a week?"
"A week—a month—six months," replied his guest sleepily. "It's all according—"
"Accordin' to what?"
"Circumstances over which I have no control—yet!"
"You don't mean me?" queried Spike, with an anxious expression.
"And you'll never tell nobody that I—that I—"
"Meant to be—a thief?" drawled Mr. Ravenslee. "Not a word!"
Spike flushed, took a gulp of coffee, choked, and fell to sulky silence, while Mr. Ravenslee filled his pipe and yawned.
"Say," demanded Spike at last, "where'll you live while you're here?"
"Oh—somewhere, I suppose; I haven't bothered about where yet."
"Well, I been thinkin' I know where I can fix you up—perhaps!"
"Very kind of you, Spike!"
"There's Mrs. Trapes 'cross d'landing; she lost her lodger last week—mean guy skinned off without paying d' rent—she might take you."
"Across the landing? She'll do!" nodded Mr. Ravenslee.
"But I'm wonderin' if you'll do; she's a holy terror when she likes, Geoff."
"Across the landing? I'll put up with her!" murmured Mr. Ravenslee.
"But, say, you don't know Mrs. Trapes."
"Not yet, Spike."
"Well, she ain't no easy mark, Geoff! Most everybody in Mulligan's is scared of her when she cuts loose; she can talk ye deaf, dumb an' paralysed, she can so. She sure is aces up on d' chin-music, Geoff!"
"But then she lives just opposite, and that circumstance, methinks, doth cover a multitude of—" Mr. Ravenslee yawned again.
"Anyway, it's a sure thing she won't take you if she don't like ye, Geoff."
"Why, then, she must like me!" said Mr. Ravenslee and proceeded to light his pipe; whereupon Spike produced a box of cigarettes, but, in the act of lighting one, paused, and sighing, put it away again.
"I promised d' Spider I wouldn't, Geoff," he explained. "Y' see, I'm sort of in trainin', and Spider says smoke's bad for d' wind, and d' Spider knows."
"Spider?" said Mr. Ravenslee, glancing up, "do you mean Spider Connolly the lightweight?"
"That's d' guy!" nodded Spike.
"Is he a friend of yours?"
"Sure! Him an' Bud M'Ginnis is goin' to get me some good matches soon."
"That's what they call 'em, Geoff—but there ain't much boxin' to it; real boxin' don't go down wid d' sports, it's d' punch they wanter see—good, stiff wallops as jars a guy an' makes his knees get wobbly—swings and jolts as makes a guy blind an' deaf an' sick. Oh, I been like that, an' I know—an' it ain't all candy t' hear everybody yellin' to the other guy to go in an' finish ye!"
"Does your sister know you fight?"
"Not much, she don't! I guess she'd like me to be a mommer's pet in lace collars an' a velvet suit, an' soft an' pretty in me talk. She's made me promise t' cut out d' tough-spiel, an' so I'm tryin' to—"
"Are you really, Spike?"
"Well—when she's around I do, Geoff!"
"And she doesn't like you to fight, eh?"
"Nope! But y' see—she's only a girl, Geoff!"
"And that's the wonder of it!" nodded Mr. Ravenslee.
"Wonder? What d' ye mean?"
"I mean that all these years she has managed to feed you, and clothe you, and keep a comfortable home for you, and she's—only a girl!"
"Well, and ain't I tryin' to make good?" cried the boy eagerly.
"Are you really, Spike?"
"Sure! There's lots o' money in d' fightin' game, an' I'm fightin' all for Hermy. If ever I get a champ, I'll have money to burn, an' then she'll never be shy on d' dollar question no more, you bet! There'll be no more needlework or Mulligan's for Hermy; it'll be a farm in d' country wid roses climbin' around, an' chickens, an'—an' automobiles, an' servants to come when she pushes d' button—you bet!"
"Is she so fond of the country?"
"Well, I guess yes! An' flowers—Gee, she nearly eats 'em!"
"On the other hand," said Mr. Ravenslee, watching the smoke from his pipe with a dreamy eye, "on the other hand I gather she does not like—Mr. M'Ginnis! I wonder why?"
"You can search me!" answered Spike, shaking his head, "but it's a sure thing she ain't got no use for Bud."
"And yet—you go around with him, Spike."
"But don't I tell ye he's been good t' me! He's goin' t' match me with some top-liners; he says if I can stick it I'll be a champion sure."
"Yes," nodded Mr. Ravenslee, "but when?"
"Oh, Bud's got it all doped out. But say—"
"And in the meantime your sister will go on feeding you and clothing you and—"
"Cheese it, Geoff," cried the boy, flushing. "You make a guy feel like a two-spot in the discard! I told you I'd try to get a steady job, an' so I will—but I ain't goin' to quit the fightin' game for nobody! 'N' say—I'm sleepy. How about it? You can have my bed, or the couch here, or you can get in Hermy's—"
"Thanks, the couch will do, Spike."
"Then I guess it's me for the feathers!" said Spike, rising and stretching, "so long, Geoff!"
And in a while, having finished his pipe and knocked out the ashes, Mr. Ravenslee stretched his long limbs upon the chintz-covered sofa, and, mirabile dictu, immediately fell asleep.
HOW MRS. TRAPES ACQUIRED A NEW LODGER, DESPITE HER ELBOWS
He awoke suddenly and sat up to find the room full of sunshine and Spike standing beside him, a bright-faced, merry-eyed Spike, very spruce and neat as to person.
"Say, Geoff," said he, "I've seen Mrs. Trapes, an' she wants you to go over so she can pipe you off. 'N' say, you're sure up against a catty proposition in her; if you don't hit it off on the spot as soon as she gets her lamps onto you, it'll be nix for you, Geoff, an' nothin' doin'!"
"Lucid!" said Ravenslee, yawning, "and sounds promising!"
"Why, y' see, Geoff, she's got a grouch on because I was out last night, so, if she gives you the gimlet eye at first, just josh her along a bit. Now slick yourself up an' come on." Obediently Mr. Ravenslee arose and having tightened his neckerchief and smoothed his curly hair, crossed the landing and followed Spike into the opposite flat, a place of startling cleanliness as to floors and walls, and everything therein; uncomfortably trim of aspect and direfully ornate as to rugs and carpet and sofa cushions.
Mrs. Trapes herself was elderly; she was also a woman of points, being bony and sharp featured, particularly as to elbows, which were generally bare. Indeed, they might be said to be her most salient and obtrusive features; but her shrewd, sharp eyes held an elusive kindliness at times, and when she smiled, which was very rarely, her elbows and her general sharpness were quite forgotten.
She was awaiting them in her parlour, enthroned in her best easy chair, a chair of green velvet where purple flowers bloomed riotously, her feet firm-planted upon a hearthrug cunningly enwrought with salmon-pink sunflowers. Bolt upright and stiff of back she sat, making the very utmost of her elbows, for her sleeves being rolled high (as was their wont) and her arms being folded within her apron, they projected themselves to left and right in highly threatening fashion. Sphinx-like she sat, very silent and very still, while her sharp eyes roved over Mr. Ravenslee's person from the toes of his boots to the dark hair that curled short and crisp above his brow. Thus she looked him up and she looked him down, viewing each garment in turn; lastly, she lifted her gaze to his face and stared at him—eye to eye.
And eye to eye Mr. Ravenslee, serene and calm as ever, met her look, while Spike, observing her granite-like expression and the fierce jut of her elbows, shuffled, and glanced toward the door. But still Mrs. Trapes glared up at Mr. Ravenslee, and still Mr. Ravenslee glanced down at Mrs. Trapes wholly unabashed, nay—he actually smiled, and, bowing his dark head, spoke in his easy, pleasant voice.
"A beautiful afternoon, Mrs. Trapes!"
Mrs. Trapes snorted.
"This room will suit me—er—admirably."
Mrs. Trapes started slightly, opened her grim lips, shut them again, and—wriggled her elbows.
"Yes, indeed," continued Mr. Ravenslee pleasantly, "I like this room—so nice and bright, like the rug and wall paper—especially the rug. Yes, I like the rug and the—er—stuffed owl in the corner!" and he nodded to a shapeless, moth-eaten something under a glass case against the wall.
Mrs. Trapes wriggled her elbows again and, glaring still, spoke harsh-voiced.
"Young feller, that owl's a parrot!"
"A parrot—of course!" assented Mr. Ravenslee gently, "and a very fine parrot too! Then the wax flowers and the antimacassars! What would a home be without them?" said he, dreamy-eyed and grave. "I think I shall be very bright and cheerful here, my dear Mrs. Trapes."
Mrs. Trapes swallowed audibly, stared at Spike until he writhed, and finally bored her sharp eyes into Mr. Ravenslee again.
"Young man," said she, "what name?"
"I think our friend Spike has informed you that I am sometimes called Geoffrey. Mrs. Trapes, our friend Spike told the truth."
"Young feller," she demanded, "'oo are you and—what?"
"Mrs. Trapes," he sighed, "I am a lonely wight, a wanderer in wild places, a waif, a stray, puffed hither and thither by a fate perverse—"
"Talking o' verses, you ain't a poet, are you?" enquired Mrs. Trapes, "last poet as lodged wi' me useter go to bed in 'is boots reg'lar! Consequently I ain't nowise drawed to poets—"
Mr. Ravenslee laughed and shook his head.
"Have no fear," he answered, "I'm no poet nor ever shall be. I'm quite an ordinary human being, I assure you."
"Mrs. Trapes, I have none—except my face. But you have very sharp eyes; look at me well. Do I strike you as a rogue or a thief?"
Here Spike, chancing to catch his eye, blushed painfully, while Mr. Ravenslee continued:
"Come, Mrs. Trapes, you have a motherly heart, I know, and I am a very lonely being who needs one like you to—to cook and care for his bodily needs and to look after the good of his solitary soul. Were I to search New York I couldn't find another motherly heart so suited to my crying needs as yours; you won't turn me away, will you?" Saying which, Mr. Ravenslee smiled his slow, sleepy smile and—wonder of wonders—Mrs. Trapes smiled too!
"When d' ye wanter come?"
"Land sakes!" she exclaimed.
"If it won't trouble you too much?" he added.
"There's sheets to be aired—" she began, but checked suddenly to stare at him again. "Look a here, Mr. Geoffrey," she went on, "my terms is two-fifty a week, ten dollars with board, and a week in advance."
"Good!" nodded Mr. Ravenslee, "but since I'm coming in at such short notice, I'll pay three weeks ahead just to—er—bind the bargain. See—that will be thirty dollars, won't it?" And speaking, he drew a handful of crumpled bills from his pocket and proceeded to count out thirty dollars upon the green and yellow tablecloth.
"Sakes alive!" murmured Mrs. Trapes.
"And now," said he, "I'll just step around the corner with Spike to buy—er—a toothbrush."
"Toothbrush!" echoed Mrs. Trapes faintly.
"And a few other things. I shall be in early to supper."
"Would a nice, English mutton chop wiv tomatoes—"
"Excellent; and thank you, Mrs. Trapes, for sheltering a homeless wretch." So saying, her new boarder smiled and nodded and, following Spike out into the hallway, was gone.
But Mrs. Trapes stood awhile to stare after him, lost in speculation.
"A toothbrush!" said she. "My! My!" Then she turned to stare down at the pile of bills. "Now I wonder," said she, right hand caressing left elbow-point, "I jest wonder who he's been a-choking of to get all that money? But I like his eyes! And his smile! And he looks a man—and honest! Well, well!"
HOW SPIKE INITIATED MR. RAVENSLEE INTO THE GENTLE ART OF SHOPPING
"Gee!" exclaimed Spike, as they descended the many stairs, "she sure gave you the frosty-face, Geoff, but it didn't seem to joggle you any!"
"No, it didn't joggle me, Spike, because you see—I like her."
"Like Mrs. Trapes? You 'n' Hermy are about the only ones then; most every one in Mulligan's hates her an' gets scared stiff when she cuts loose! But say, you do keep on rubbing it in, I mean about—about thieving!"
"Probably it's your conscience, Spike."
"You won't ever go telling any one or blowing d' game on me?"
"Spike, when I make a promise I generally keep it."
"Y' see, Geoff, it ain't as though I was a—a real crook."
"You meant to be."
"But I never stole nothin' in my life, Geoff."
"Suppose I hadn't caught you?"
"Oh, well, cheese it, Geoff, cheese it! Let's talk about something else."
"With pleasure. When does your sister return?"
"This evening, I guess. But, Geoff—say now, do I look like a real crook—do I?"
"No, you don't, Spike, that's sure! And yet—only last night—"
"Ah, yes, I know—I know!" groaned the lad, "but I was crazy, I think. It was the whisky, Geoff, an' they doped me too, I guess! I don't remember much after we left till I found myself in your swell joint. God! if I was only sure they doped me."
"Who? Why—gee, you nearly had me talking that time! Nix on the questions, Geoff, I ain't goin' to give 'em away; it ain't playin' square. Only, if two or three guys dopes a guy till a guy's think-box is like a cheese an' his mind as clear as mud, that poor guy ain't to be blamed for it, now, is he?"
"Why, certainly!" nodded Ravenslee.
"How d' ye make that out?"
"For being such a fool of a guy as to let other guys fool him, of course. Sounds a little cryptic, but I guess you understand."
"Oh, I get you!" sighed Spike drearily. "But say, didn't you come out to buy a toothbrush?"
"And other things, yes."
"Well, say, s'pose we quit chewing th' rag an' start in an' get 'em. There's a Sheeny store on Ninth Avenue where you can get dandy shirts for fifty cents a throw."
"Sounds fairly reasonable!" nodded Mr. Ravenslee as they turned up Thirty-ninth Street.
"Then you want a new lid, Geoff!"
Mr. Ravenslee took off the battered hat and looked at it.
"What's the matter with this?" he enquired.
"Nothin', Geoff, only it wants burnin'," sighed Spike. "An' then—them boots—oh, gee!"
"Are they so bad as that?"
"Geoff, they sure are the punkest pavement pounders in little old N' York. Why, a Dago hodcarrier wouldn't be seen dead in 'em; look at th' patches. Gee whizz! Where did His Whiskers dig 'em up from?"
"I fancy they were his own—once," answered Mr. Ravenslee, surveying his bulbous, be-patched footgear a little ruefully.
"Well, I'll gamble a stack of blue chips there ain't such a phoney pair in Manhattan Village."
"They're not exactly things of beauty, I'll admit," sighed Mr. Ravenslee, "but still—"
"They're rotten, Geoff! They're all to the garbage can! They are the cheesiest proposition in sidewalk slappers I ever piped off!"
"Hum! You're inclined to be a trifle discouraging, Spike!"
"Why, ye see, Geoff, I wan'cher t' meet th' push, an' I don't want 'em to think I'm floatin' around with a down-an'-out from Battyville! You must have some real shoes, Geoff."
"Enough—it shall be done!" nodded Mr. Ravenslee.
"Well, tan Oxfords are all to th' grapes just now, Geoff. I don't mean those giddy-lookin' pumps with flossy bows onto 'em, but somethin' sporty, good an' yellow that'll flash an' let folks know you're comin'. And here's Eckstein's!"
With which abrupt remark Spike plunged into a shop, very dark and narrow by reason of a heterogeneous collection of garments, of ribbons and laces, of collars and ties of many shapes and hues, together with a thousand and one other things that displayed themselves from floor to ceiling; amidst which, Mr. Ravenslee observed a stir, a slight confusion, and from a screen of vivid-bosomed shirts a head protruded itself, round as to face and sleek as to hair.
"Greetin's, Ikey!" said Spike, nodding to the head. "How's pork to-day?"
"Aw—vat you vant now, hey?" enquired the head. "Vat's the vord; now—shpit it out!"
"It ain't me, Moses, it's me friend wants a sporty fit-out an' discount for spot cash, see? Show us your half-dollar shirts for a starter—an' sporty ones, mind!"
Immediately out came drawers and down came boxes, and very soon the small counter was littered with piles of raiment variously gaudy which Spike viewed and disparaged with such knowing judgment that the salesman's respect proportionately grew, and Mr. Ravenslee, lounging in the background, was forgotten quite, the while they chaffered after this manner:
Salesman. "Here vos a shirt as can't be beat for der money—neglegee boosom an' turnover cuffs, warranted shrunk, and all for vun dollar."
Spike. "Come off, Aaron, come off! Fifty cents is th' bid!"
Salesman. "Fifty cents? Vy, on Broadvay dey'd sharge you—"
Spike. "Wake up, Ike! This ain't Broadway! And fifty's the limit!"
Salesman. "But shust look at dem pink shtripes—so vide as an inch! Dere's fifty cents' vorth of dye in dem shtripes, an' I'll give it you for seventy-five cents! On Broadvay—"
Spike. "We're gettin' there, Ikey, we're gettin' there; keep on, fifty's the call!"
Salesman. "Fifty cents! Oi! Oi! I vould be ruined! A neglegee boosom and turnover cuffs! Vell, vell—I'll wrap it up, so—an' I make you a present of it for—sixty! An' on Broadvay—"
Spike. "Come on, Geoff, Aaron's talking in his sleep! Come on, we'll go on to Mendelbaum's; see—we want shirts, an' ties, an' socks, an' collars, an'—"
Salesman. "Vait—vait! Mendelbaum's a grafter—vait! I got th' best selection of socks an' ties on Ninth Av'noo, an' here's a neglegee shirt with turnover cuffs—an' only fifty cents. But at Mendelbaum's or on Broadvay—"
In this way Mr. Ravenslee became possessed of sundry shirts whose bosoms blushed in striped and spotted splendour, of vivid-hued ties and of handkerchiefs with flaming borders. From shop to shop Spike led him and, having a free hand, bought right royally, commanding that their purchases be sent around hotfoot to Mulligan's. Thus Spike ordered, and Mr. Ravenslee dutifully paid, marvelling that so much might be bought for so little.
"I guess that's about all the fixings you'll need, Geoff!" said Spike, as they elbowed their way along the busy avenue.
"Well," answered Mr. Ravenslee, as he filled his pipe, "it will certainly take me some time to wear 'em out—especially those shirts!"
"They sure are dandies, Geoff! Yes, those shirts are all to the lollipops, but say, you made a miscue gettin' them black shoes," and here Spike turned to stare down at his companion's newly acquired footwear. "Why not buy the yellow boys I rustled up for you. They sure were some shoes!"
"They were indeed, Spike."
"Gee, but it must feel good t' be able t' buy whatever you want!" sighed Spike dreamily. "Some day I mean to have a wad big enough t' choke a cow—but I wish I had it right now!"
"What would you do with it?"
"Do with it! Well, say, first off I'd—I'd buy Hermy them roses—th' whole lot," and he pointed where, among the pushcarts drawn up against the curb, was one where roses bloomed, filling the air with their sweetness. "An' next she should—"
"Then go and buy 'em, Spike!" and speaking, Mr. Ravenslee thrust a bill into Spike's hand.
"Gee—a twenty-spot! Can I, Geoff?" he cried, his blue eyes shining. "Th' whole lot—on d' level?"
"On the level."
Spike started joyfully away, paused, turned, and came back with head a-droop.
"I guess it can't be done, Geoff," he sighed.
"Well, y' see, it ain't as it was my own money, really."
"But it is!"
"No, it ain't! I haven't earned it, Geoff, an' I ain't a guy as sponges on his pals, not much I ain't. Take your money, Geoff. When I buy Hermy anything it's goin' to be bought with money as I've earned."
So Mr. Ravenslee thrust the bill back into his pocket and thereafter walked on, frowning and very silent, as one lost in perplexed thought. Wherefore, after more than one furtive glance at him, Spike addressed him with a note of diffidence in his voice.
"You ain't sore with me, are you, Geoff?"
"Sore with you?"
"I mean, because I—I didn't take your money?"
Here Mr. Ravenslee turned to glance down at Spike and clap a hand upon his shoulder.
"No," he answered, "I'm not sore with you. And I think—yes, I think your sister is going to be proud of you one day."
And now it was Spike's turn to grow thoughtful, while his companion, noting the flushed brow and the firm set of the boyish lips, frowned no longer.
"Hello, there's Tony!" exclaimed Spike as they turned into Forty-second Street, "over there—behind the pushcart—th' guy with th' peanuts!" And he pointed where, from amid a throng of vehicles, a gaily painted barrow emerged, a barrow whereon were peanuts unbaked, baked, and baking as the shrill small whistle above its stove proclaimed to all and sundry. It was propelled by a slender, graceful, olive-skinned man, who, beholding Spike, flashed two rows of brilliant teeth and halted his barrow beside the curb.
"How goes it, Tony?" questioned Spike, whereat the young Italian smiled, and thereafter sighed and shook his head.
"Da beezeneez-a ver' good," he sighed, "da peanut-a sell-a all-a da time! But my lil' Pietro he sick, he no da same since his moder die-a, me no da same—have-a none of da luck—noding—nix!"
"Hard cheese, Tony!" quoth Spike. "But say, have you seen th' Spider kickin' around?"
"No, I ain't! But you tell-a da Signorina—"
"Sure I will—"
"My lil' Pietro he love-a da Signorina; me, I love-a her—she so good, so generosa, ah, yes!" And taking off his hat in one hand, Tony kissed the other and waved it gracefully in the air.
"Right-o, Tony!" nodded Spike. "You can let it go at that. An' say—this is me friend Geoff."
Tony gripped Mr. Ravenslee's hand and shook it.
"You one o' da bunch—one o' da boys, hey? Good-a luck." So saying, Tony nodded, flashed his white teeth again, and seizing the handles of his barrow, trundled off his peanut oven, whistling soft and shrill.
"Tony's only a guinney," Spike explained as they walked on again. "But he's white, Geoff—'n' say, he's a holy terror in a mix-up! Totes one o' them stiletto knives. I've seen him stab down into a glass full of water an' never spill a drop, which sure wants some doing."
Evening was falling, and dismal Tenth Avenue was wrapping itself in shadow, a shadow made more manifest by small lights that burned dismally in small and dingy shops, a shadow, this, wherein moving shadows jostled with lounging shoulder or elbow. As they passed a certain dark entry where divers of these vague shadows lounged, a long arm was stretched thence, and a large hand gripped Spike's shoulder.
"Why—hello, Spider," said he, halting. "What's doin'?"
"Nawthin' much, Kid—only little M—'say, who's wid you?"
"Oh, this is a friend o' mine—Geoff, dis is d' Spider!" explained Spike.
Visualised in "the Spider" Ravenslee saw a tall, slender youth, very wide in the shoulder and prodigiously long of arm and leg, and who looked at him keen-eyed from beneath a wide cap brim, while his square jaws worked with untiring industry upon a wad of chewing gum.
"Good evening!" said Ravenslee and held out his hand. The Spider ceased chewing for a moment, nodded, and turning to Spike, chewed fiercer than ever.
"Where youse goin', Kid?" he enquired, masticating the while.
"What was you goin' to tell me, Spider?" demanded Spike, a note of sudden anxiety in his voice.
"Aw—come off, Spider! What was it?"
The Spider glanced up at the gloomy sky, glanced down at the dingy pavement, and finally beckoned Spike aside with a quick back-jerk of the head, and, stooping close, whispered something in his ear—something that caused the boy to start away with clenched hands and face of horror, something that seemed to trouble him beyond speech, for he stood a moment dumb and staring, then found utterance in a sudden, hoarse cry:
"No—no! It ain't true—oh, my God!"
And with the cry, Spike turned sharp about and, springing to a run, vanished into the shadows.
"What's the matter?" demanded Ravenslee, turning on the Spider.
"Matter?" repeated that youth, staring at him under his cap brim again; "well, say—I guess you'd better ask d' Kid."
"Where's he gone?"
"How do I know?"
"It isn't—his sister, is it?"
"Miss Hermione? Well, I guess not!" So saying, the Spider, chewing ferociously, turned and vanished down the dark entry with divers other shadows.
For a moment Mr. Ravenslee stood where he was, staring uncertainly after him; presently however he went on toward Mulligan's, though very slowly, and with black brows creased in frowning perplexity.
CONCERNING ANKLES, STAIRS, AND NEIGHBOURLINESS
It was in no very pleasant humour that Geoffrey Ravenslee began to climb the many stairs (that much-trodden highway) that led up to his new abode; he climbed them slowly, frowning in a dark perplexity, and wholly unconscious of the folk that jostled him or paused to stare after him as he went.
But presently, and all at once, he became aware of one who climbed half a flight above him, and, glancing up, he saw a foot in a somewhat worn shoe, a shapely foot nevertheless, joined to a slender ankle which peeped and vanished alternately beneath a neat, well-brushed skirt that swayed to the vigorous action of the shapely limbs it covered. He was yet observing the soft, rounded curves of this most feminine back when he became aware of two facts: one, that she bore a heavy suit case in her neatly gloved hand; two, that the tress of hair peeping rebellious beneath the neat hat brim was of a wondrous yellow gold. Instantly he hastened his steps, and reaching out his hand almost instinctively, sought to relieve her of her burden.
"Allow me!" said he.
She stopped, and turning on the stair above, looked down on him with a pair of wondering blue eyes; her cheeks glowed, and she was panting a little. For a long moment they fronted each other thus silently upon that grimy, narrow stair, she above with gracious head stooped, her dark eyes questioning and wistful. And looking up into the flushed loveliness of her face, those eyes deep and soft beneath their long, black lashes, the tender droop of those vivid lips, beholding all this, he knew her to be a thousand times more beautiful than any photograph could possibly portray, wherefore he bared his head, and striving to speak, could find no words to utter. For a moment longer she hesitated while her clear eyes searched his face, then the red lips curved in a little wistful smile.
"Thank you!" she said, and, yielding him her burden, led the way up-stairs. "I'm afraid it's rather heavy," she said over her shoulder after they had climbed another flight.
"It's quite too heavy for you!" he answered.
"Oh, but I've carried it often before now."
"Then you shouldn't!"
"But I have to!"
"No," said Ravenslee, shaking his head, "you should let your brother bring it up for you."
"My brother!" she exclaimed, pausing to look her amazement. And again as she stood thus poised above him, he took joy to note the warmth of her rich colouring, the soft, round column of her white throat, the gracious breadth of hip and shoulder.
"You know I have a brother?"
"Oh, yes, Spike—er—that is, Arthur and I are quite—er—ancient cronies—pals, you know—friends, I mean—" Mr. Ravenslee was actually stammering.
"Oh, really?" she said softly; but all at once, becoming aware of the fixity of his regard, the colour deepened in her cheek, the long lashes drooped and, turning away, she went on up the stair.
"It's a long way up yet! Hadn't you better let me take it?"
"Not for worlds!" he answered.
"Isn't it getting heavier?" she enquired, as they climbed the next flight.
"Then please," said she, slackening her pace, "please let me take it!"
"On the contrary," he answered, his gaze on her slender foot and ankle, "I should like to carry it for you all my—er—ah, that is—I mean—"
Mr. Ravenslee was stammering again.
He was aware that the shapely foot had faltered in its going.
"As often as I may, Miss Hermione."
Hereupon the shapely foot halted altogether, and once again she turned to look at him in wide-eyed surprise.
"You know my name?"
"I learned it from Arthur, and—I shall never forget it!"
"Well, because it is rather uncommon and—very beautiful!"
"Oh!" said Hermione, and went on up the stair again, yet not before he had seen the flush was back in her cheek.
"Are you getting tired yet?" she enquired, without looking round.
"Not appreciably," he answered, "but if you think I need a rest—"
"No, no!" she laughed, "we should never get off these frightful stairs!"
"Even that might have its compensations!" he murmured.
"And we've been much longer than if you'd let me carry it up myself."
"But then we've no cause for panting haste, have we?" he suggested.
"And we have four more flights to climb."
"So few!" he sighed.
"You see, I live at the very tip-top."
"Good!" said he.
At this she glanced down at him over the sweep of her shoulder.
"Why 'good'?" she demanded.
"Because I also live at the tip-top."
"With the excellent Mrs. Trapes."
"But I thought she had lost her lodger?"
"She had the—er—extreme good fortune to find a new one to-day."
By this time they had reached the topmost landing, where Mr. Ravenslee set down the suit case almost reluctantly.
"Thank you!" said Hermione, looking at him with her frank gaze.
"Heaven send I may earn your thanks again—and very soon," he answered, lifting the battered hat.
"You didn't tell me your name!" said she, fumbling in a well-worn little hand bag for her latchkey.
"I am called Geoffrey."
Hermione opened the door and, taking up the suit case, held out her hand.
"Good-by, Mr. Geoffrey!"
"For the present!" said he, and though his tone was light there was a very real humility in his attitude as he stood bareheaded before her. "For the present!" he repeated.
"Well—we are very near neighbours," said she, dark lashes a-droop.
"And neighbourliness is next to godliness—isn't it?"
"Well, I think so, anyway? So, Miss Hermione—not 'good-by.'"
She glanced swiftly up at him, flushed, and turning about, was gone. But even so, before her door closed quite, she spoke soft-voiced: "Good—evening, Mr. Geoffrey!"
Thereafter, for a space, Mr. Ravenslee stood precisely where he was, staring hard at the battered hat; yet it is not to be supposed that the sight of this could possibly have brought the smile to his lips, and into his eyes a look that surely none had ever seen there before—such a preposterously shabby, disreputable old hat! Of course not!