By Booth Tarkington
There is a midland city in the heart of fair, open country, a dirty and wonderful city nesting dingily in the fog of its own smoke. The stranger must feel the dirt before he feels the wonder, for the dirt will be upon him instantly. It will be upon him and within him, since he must breathe it, and he may care for no further proof that wealth is here better loved than cleanliness; but whether he cares or not, the negligently tended streets incessantly press home the point, and so do the flecked and grimy citizens. At a breeze he must smother in the whirlpools of dust, and if he should decline at any time to inhale the smoke he has the meager alternative of suicide.
The smoke is like the bad breath of a giant panting for more and more riches. He gets them and pants the fiercer, smelling and swelling prodigiously. He has a voice, a hoarse voice, hot and rapacious trained to one tune: "Wealth! I will get Wealth! I will make Wealth! I will sell Wealth for more Wealth! My house shall be dirty, my garment shall be dirty, and I will foul my neighbor so that he cannot be clean—but I will get Wealth! There shall be no clean thing about me: my wife shall be dirty and my child shall be dirty, but I will get Wealth!" And yet it is not wealth that he is so greedy for: what the giant really wants is hasty riches. To get these he squanders wealth upon the four winds, for wealth is in the smoke.
Not so long ago as a generation, there was no panting giant here, no heaving, grimy city; there was but a pleasant big town of neighborly people who had understanding of one another, being, on the whole, much of the same type. It was a leisurely and kindly place—"homelike," it was called—and when the visitor had been taken through the State Asylum for the Insane and made to appreciate the view of the cemetery from a little hill, his host's duty as Baedeker was done. The good burghers were given to jogging comfortably about in phaetons or in surreys for a family drive on Sunday. No one was very rich; few were very poor; the air was clean, and there was time to live.
But there was a spirit abroad in the land, and it was strong here as elsewhere—a spirit that had moved in the depths of the American soil and labored there, sweating, till it stirred the surface, rove the mountains, and emerged, tangible and monstrous, the god of all good American hearts—Bigness. And that god wrought the panting giant.
In the souls of the burghers there had always been the profound longing for size. Year by year the longing increased until it became an accumulated force: We must Grow! We must be Big! We must be Bigger! Bigness means Money! And the thing began to happen; their longing became a mighty Will. We must be Bigger! Bigger! Bigger! Get people here! Coax them here! Bribe them! Swindle them into coming, if you must, but get them! Shout them into coming! Deafen them into coming! Any kind of people; all kinds of people! We must be Bigger! Blow! Boost! Brag! Kill the fault-finder! Scream and bellow to the Most High: Bigness is patriotism and honor! Bigness is love and life and happiness! Bigness is Money! We want Bigness!
They got it. From all the states the people came; thinly at first, and slowly, but faster and faster in thicker and thicker swarms as the quick years went by. White people came, and black people and brown people and yellow people; the negroes came from the South by the thousands and thousands, multiplying by other thousands and thousands faster than they could die. From the four quarters of the earth the people came, the broken and the unbroken, the tame and the wild—Germans, Irish, Italians, Hungarians, Scotch, Welsh, English, French, Swiss, Swedes, Norwegians, Greeks, Poles, Russian Jews, Dalmatians, Armenians, Rumanians, Servians, Persians, Syrians, Japanese, Chinese, Turks, and every hybrid that these could propagate. And if there were no Eskimos nor Patagonians, what other human strain that earth might furnish failed to swim and bubble in this crucible?
With Bigness came the new machinery and the rush; the streets began to roar and rattle, the houses to tremble; the pavements were worn under the tread of hurrying multitudes. The old, leisurely, quizzical look of the faces was lost in something harder and warier; and a cockney type began to emerge discernibly—a cynical young mongrel barbaric of feature, muscular and cunning; dressed in good fabrics fashioned apparently in imitation of the sketches drawn by newspaper comedians. The female of his kind came with him—a pale girl, shoddy and a little rouged; and they communicated in a nasal argot, mainly insolences and elisions. Nay, the common speech of the people showed change: in place of the old midland vernacular, irregular but clean, and not unwholesomely drawling, a jerky dialect of coined metaphors began to be heard, held together by GUNNAS and GOTTAS and much fostered by the public journals.
The city piled itself high in the center, tower on tower for a nucleus, and spread itself out over the plain, mile after mile; and in its vitals, like benevolent bacilli contending with malevolent in the body of a man, missions and refuges offered what resistance they might to the saloons and all the hells that cities house and shelter. Temptation and ruin were ready commodities on the market for purchase by the venturesome; highwaymen walked the streets at night and sometimes killed; snatching thieves were busy everywhere in the dusk; while house-breakers were a common apprehension and frequent reality. Life itself was somewhat safer from intentional destruction than it was in medieval Rome during a faction war—though the Roman murderer was more like to pay for his deed—but death or mutilation beneath the wheels lay in ambush at every crossing.
The politicians let the people make all the laws they liked; it did not matter much, and the taxes went up, which is good for politicians. Law-making was a pastime of the people; nothing pleased them more. Singular fermentation of their humor, they even had laws forbidding dangerous speed. More marvelous still, they had a law forbidding smoke! They forbade chimneys to smoke and they forbade cigarettes to smoke. They made laws for all things and forgot them immediately; though sometimes they would remember after a while, and hurry to make new laws that the old laws should be enforced—and then forget both new and old. Wherever enforcement threatened Money or Votes—or wherever it was too much to bother—it became a joke. Influence was the law.
So the place grew. And it grew strong.
Straightway when he came, each man fell to the same worship:
Give me of thyself, O Bigness: Power to get more power! Riches to get more riches! Give me of thy sweat that I may sweat more! Give me Bigness to get more Bigness to myself, O Bigness, for Thine is the Power and the Glory! And there is no end but Bigness, ever and for ever!
The Sheridan Building was the biggest skyscraper; the Sheridan Trust Company was the biggest of its kind, and Sheridan himself had been the biggest builder and breaker and truster and buster under the smoke. He had come from a country cross-roads, at the beginning of the growth, and he had gone up and down in the booms and relapses of that period; but each time he went down he rebounded a little higher, until finally, after a year of overwork and anxiety—the latter not decreased by a chance, remote but possible, of recuperation from the former in the penitentiary—he found himself on top, with solid substance under his feet; and thereafter "played it safe." But his hunger to get was unabated, for it was in the very bones of him and grew fiercer.
He was the city incarnate. He loved it, calling it God's country, as he called the smoke Prosperity, breathing the dingy cloud with relish. And when soot fell upon his cuff he chuckled; he could have kissed it. "It's good! It's good!" he said, and smacked his lips in gusto. "Good, clean soot; it's our life-blood, God bless it!" The smoke was one of his great enthusiasms; he laughed at a committee of plaintive housewives who called to beg his aid against it. "Smoke's what brings your husbands' money home on Saturday night," he told them, jovially. "Smoke may hurt your little shrubberies in the front yard some, but it's the catarrhal climate and the adenoids that starts your chuldern coughing. Smoke makes the climate better. Smoke means good health: it makes the people wash more. They have to wash so much they wash off the microbes. You go home and ask your husbands what smoke puts in their pockets out o' the pay-roll—and you'll come around next time to get me to turn out more smoke instead o' chokin' it off!"
It was Narcissism in him to love the city so well; he saw his reflection in it; and, like it, he was grimy, big, careless, rich, strong, and unquenchably optimistic. From the deepest of his inside all the way out he believed it was the finest city in the world. "Finest" was his word. He thought of it as his city as he thought of his family as his family; and just as profoundly believed his city to be the finest city in the world, so did he believe his family to be—in spite of his son Bibbs—the finest family in the world. As a matter of fact, he knew nothing worth knowing about either.
Bibbs Sheridan was a musing sort of boy, poor in health, and considered the failure—the "odd one"—of the family. Born during that most dangerous and anxious of the early years, when the mother fretted and the father took his chance, he was an ill-nourished baby, and grew meagerly, only lengthwise, through a feeble childhood. At his christening he was committed for life to "Bibbs" mainly through lack of imagination on his mother's part, for though it was her maiden name, she had no strong affection for it; but it was "her turn" to name the baby, and, as she explained later, she "couldn't think of anything else she liked AT ALL!" She offered this explanation one day when the sickly boy was nine and after a long fit of brooding had demanded some reason for his name's being Bibbs. He requested then with unwonted vehemence to be allowed to exchange names with his older brother, Roscoe Conkling Sheridan, or with the oldest, James Sheridan, Junior, and upon being refused went down into the cellar and remained there the rest of that day. And the cook, descending toward dusk, reported that he had vanished; but a search revealed that he was in the coal-pile, completely covered and still burrowing. Removed by force and carried upstairs, he maintained a cryptic demeanor, refusing to utter a syllable of explanation, even under the lash. This obvious thing was wholly a mystery to both parents; the mother was nonplussed, failed to trace and connect; and the father regarded his son as a stubborn and mysterious fool, an impression not effaced as the years went by.
At twenty-two, Bibbs was physically no more than the outer scaffolding of a man, waiting for the building to begin inside—a long-shanked, long-faced, rickety youth, sallow and hollow and haggard, dark-haired and dark-eyed, with a peculiar expression of countenance; indeed, at first sight of Bibbs Sheridan a stranger might well be solicitous, for he seemed upon the point of tears. But to a slightly longer gaze, not grief, but mirth, was revealed as his emotion; while a more searching scrutiny was proportionately more puzzling—he seemed about to burst out crying or to burst out laughing, one or the other, inevitably, but it was impossible to decide which. And Bibbs never, on any occasion of his life, either laughed aloud or wept.
He was a "disappointment" to his father. At least that was the parent's word—a confirmed and established word after his first attempt to make a "business man" of the boy. He sent Bibbs to "begin at the bottom and learn from the ground up" in the machine-shop of the Sheridan Automatic Pump Works, and at the end of six months the family physician sent Bibbs to begin at the bottom and learn from the ground up in a sanitarium.
"You needn't worry, mamma," Sheridan told his wife. "There's nothin' the matter with Bibbs except he hates work so much it makes him sick. I put him in the machine-shop, and I guess I know what I'm doin' about as well as the next man. Ole Doc Gurney always was one o' them nutty alarmists. Does he think I'd do anything 'd be bad for my own flesh and blood? He makes me tired!"
Anything except perfectly definite health or perfectly definite disease was incomprehensible to Sheridan. He had a genuine conviction that lack of physical persistence in any task involving money must be due to some subtle weakness of character itself, to some profound shiftlessness or slyness. He understood typhoid fever, pneumonia, and appendicitis—one had them, and either died or got over them and went back to work—but when the word "nervous" appeared in a diagnosis he became honestly suspicious: he had the feeling that there was something contemptible about it, that there was a nigger in the wood-pile somewhere.
"Look at me," he said. "Look at what I did at his age! Why, when I was twenty years old, wasn't I up every morning at four o'clock choppin' wood—yes! and out in the dark and the snow—to build a fire in a country grocery store? And here Bibbs has to go and have a DOCTOR because he can't—Pho! it makes me tired! If he'd gone at it like a man he wouldn't be sick."
He paced the bedroom—the usual setting for such parental discussions—in his nightgown, shaking his big, grizzled head and gesticulating to his bedded spouse. "My Lord!" he said. "If a little, teeny bit o' work like this is too much for him, why, he ain't fit for anything! It's nine-tenths imagination, and the rest of it—well, I won't say it's deliberate, but I WOULD like to know just how much of it's put on!"
"Bibbs didn't want the doctor," said Mrs. Sheridan. "It was when he was here to dinner that night, and noticed how he couldn't eat anything. Honey, you better come to bed."
"Eat!" he snorted. "Eat! It's work that makes men eat! And it's imagination that keeps people from eatin'. Busy men don't get time for that kind of imagination; and there's another thing you'll notice about good health, if you'll take the trouble to look around you Mrs. Sheridan: busy men haven't got time to be sick and they don't GET sick. You just think it over and you'll find that ninety-nine per cent. of the sick people you know are either women or loafers. Yes, ma'am!"
"Honey," she said again, drowsily, "you better come to bed."
"Look at the other boys," her husband bade her. "Look at Jim and Roscoe. Look at how THEY work! There isn't a shiftless bone in their bodies. Work never made Jim or Roscoe sick. Jim takes half the load off my shoulders already. Right now there isn't a harder-workin', brighter business man in this city than Jim. I've pushed him, but he give me something to push AGAINST. You can't push 'nervous dyspepsia'! And look at Roscoe; just LOOK at what that boy's done for himself, and barely twenty-seven years old—married, got a fine wife, and ready to build for himself with his own money, when I put up the New House for you and Edie."
"Papa, you'll catch cold in your bare feet," she murmured. "You better come to bed."
"And I'm just as proud of Edie, for a girl," he continued, emphatically, "as I am of Jim and Roscoe for boys. She'll make some man a mighty good wife when the time comes. She's the prettiest and talentedest girl in the United States! Look at that poem she wrote when she was in school and took the prize with; it's the best poem I ever read in my life, and she'd never even tried to write one before. It's the finest thing I ever read, and R. T. Bloss said so, too; and I guess he's a good enough literary judge for me—turns out more advertisin' liter'cher than any man in the city. I tell you she's smart! Look at the way she worked me to get me to promise the New House—and I guess you had your finger in that, too, mamma! This old shack's good enough for me, but you and little Edie 'll have to have your way. I'll get behind her and push her the same as I will Jim and Roscoe. I tell you I'm mighty proud o' them three chuldern! But Bibbs—" He paused, shaking his head. "Honest, mamma, when I talk to men that got ALL their boys doin' well and worth their salt, why, I have to keep my mind on Jim and Roscoe and forget about Bibbs."
Mrs. Sheridan tossed her head fretfully upon the pillow. "You did the best you could, papa," she said, impatiently, "so come to bed and quit reproachin' yourself for it."
He glared at her indignantly. "Reproachin' myself!" he snorted. "I ain't doin' anything of the kind! What in the name o' goodness would I want to reproach myself for? And it wasn't the 'best I could,' either. It was the best ANYBODY could! I was givin' him a chance to show what was in him and make a man of himself—and here he goes and gets 'nervous dyspepsia' on me!"
He went to the old-fashioned gas-fixture, turned out the light, and muttered his way morosely into bed.
"What?" said his wife, crossly, bothered by a subsequent mumbling.
"More like hook-worm, I said," he explained, speaking louder. "I don't know what to do with him!"
Beginning at the beginning and learning from the ground up was a long course for Bibbs at the sanitarium, with milk and "zwieback" as the basis of instruction; and the months were many and tiresome before he was considered near enough graduation to go for a walk leaning on a nurse and a cane. These and subsequent months saw the planning, the building, and the completion of the New House; and it was to that abode of Bigness that Bibbs was brought when the cane, without the nurse, was found sufficient to his support.
Edith met him at the station. "Well, well, Bibbs!" she said, as he came slowly through the gates, the last of all the travelers from that train. She gave his hand a brisk little shake, averting her eyes after a quick glance at him, and turning at once toward the passage to the street. "Do you think they ought to've let you come? You certainly don't look well!"
"But I certainly do look better," he returned, in a voice as slow as his gait; a drawl that was a necessity, for when Bibbs tried to speak quickly he stammered. "Up to about a month ago it took two people to see me. They had to get me in a line between 'em!"
Edith did not turn her eyes directly toward him again, after her first quick glance; and her expression, in spite of her, showed a faint, troubled distaste, the look of a healthy person pressed by some obligation of business to visit a "bad" ward in a hospital. She was nineteen, fair and slim, with small, unequal features, but a prettiness of color and a brilliancy of eyes that created a total impression close upon beauty. Her movements were eager and restless: there was something about her, as kind old ladies say, that was very sweet; and there was something that was hurried and breathless. This was new to Bibbs; it was a perceptible change since he had last seen her, and he bent upon her a steady, whimsical scrutiny as they stood at the curb, waiting for an automobile across the street to disengage itself from the traffic.
"That's the new car," she said. "Everything's new. We've got four now, besides Jim's. Roscoe's got two."
"Edith, you look—" he began, and paused.
"Oh, WE're all well," she said, briskly; and then, as if something in his tone had caught her as significant, "Well, HOW do I look, Bibbs?"
"You look—" He paused again, taking in the full length of her—her trim brown shoes, her scant, tapering, rough skirt, and her coat of brown and green, her long green tippet and her mad little rough hat in the mad mode—all suited to the October day.
"How do I look?" she insisted.
"You look," he answered, as his examination ended upon an incrusted watch of platinum and enamel at her wrist, "you look—expensive!" That was a substitute for what he intended to say, for her constraint and preoccupation, manifested particularly in her keeping her direct glance away from him, did not seem to grant the privilege of impulsive intimacies.
"I expect I am!" she laughed, and sidelong caught the direction of his glance. "Of course I oughtn't to wear it in the daytime—it's an evening thing, for the theater—but my day wrist-watch is out of gear. Bobby Lamhorn broke it yesterday; he's a regular rowdy sometimes. Do you want Claus to help you in?"
"Oh no," said Bibbs. "I'm alive." And after a fit of panting subsequent to his climbing into the car unaided, he added, "Of course, I have to TELL people!"
"We only got your telegram this morning," she said, as they began to move rapidly through the "wholesale district" neighboring the station. "Mother said she'd hardly expected you this month."
"They seemed to be through with me up there in the country," he explained, gently. "At least they said they were, and they wouldn't keep me any longer, because so many really sick people wanted to get in. They told me to go home—and I didn't have any place else to go. It'll be all right, Edith; I'll sit in the woodshed until after dark every day."
"Pshaw!" She laughed nervously. "Of course we're all of us glad to have you back."
"Yes?" he said. "Father?"
"Of course! Didn't he write and tell you to come home?" She did not turn to him with the question. All the while she rode with her face directly forward.
"No," he said; "father hasn't written."
She flushed a little. "I expect I ought to've written sometime, or one of the boys—"
"Oh no; that was all right."
"You can't think how busy we've all been this year, Bibbs. I often planned to write—and then, just as I was going to, something would turn up. And I'm sure it's been just the same way with Jim and Roscoe. Of course we knew mamma was writing often and—"
"Of course!" he said, readily. "There's a chunk of coal fallen on your glove, Edith. Better flick it off before it smears. My word! I'd almost forgotten how sooty it is here."
"We've been having very bright weather this month—for us." She blew the flake of soot into the air, seeming relieved.
He looked up at the dingy sky, wherein hung the disconsolate sun like a cold tin pan nailed up in a smoke-house by some lunatic, for a decoration. "Yes," said Bibbs. "It's very gay." A few moments later, as they passed a corner, "Aren't we going home?" he asked.
"Why, yes! Did you want to go somewhere else first?"
"No. Your new driver's taking us out of the way, isn't he?"
"No. This is right. We're going straight home."
"But we've passed the corner. We always turned—"
"Good gracious!" she cried. "Didn't you know we'd moved? Didn't you know we were in the New House?"
"Why, no!" said Bibbs. "Are you?"
"We've been there a month! Good gracious! Didn't you know—" She broke off, flushing again, and then went on hastily: "Of course, mamma's never been so busy in her life; we ALL haven't had time to do anything but keep on the hop. Mamma couldn't even come to the station to-day. Papa's got some of his business friends and people from around the OLD-house neighborhood coming to-night for a big dinner and 'house-warming'—dreadful kind of people—but mamma's got it all on her hands. She's never sat down a MINUTE; and if she did, papa would have her up again before—"
"Of course," said Bibbs. "Do you like the new place, Edith?"
"I don't like some of the things father WOULD have in it, but it's the finest house in town, and that ought to be good enough for me! Papa bought one thing I like—a view of the Bay of Naples in oil that's perfectly beautiful; it's the first thing you see as you come in the front hall, and it's eleven feet long. But he would have that old fruit picture we had in the Murphy Street house hung up in the new dining-room. You remember it—a table and a watermelon sliced open, and a lot of rouged-looking apples and some shiny lemons, with two dead prairie-chickens on a chair? He bought it at a furniture-store years and years ago, and he claims it's a finer picture than any they saw in the museums, that time he took mamma to Europe. But it's horribly out of date to have those things in dining-rooms, and I caught Bobby Lamhorn giggling at it; and Sibyl made fun of it, too, with Bobby, and then told papa she agreed with him about its being such a fine thing, and said he did just right to insist on having it where he wanted it. She makes me tired! Sibyl!"
Edith's first constraint with her brother, amounting almost to awkwardness, vanished with this theme, though she still kept her full gaze always to the front, even in the extreme ardor of her denunciation of her sister-in-law.
"SIBYL!" she repeated, with such heat and vigor that the name seemed to strike fire on her lips. "I'd like to know why Roscoe couldn't have married somebody from HERE that would have done us some good! He could have got in with Bobby Lamhorn years ago just as well as now, and Bobby'd have introduced him to the nicest girls in town, but instead of that he had to go and pick up this Sibyl Rink! I met some awfully nice people from her town when mamma and I were at Atlantic City, last spring, and not one had ever heard of the Rinks! Not even HEARD of 'em!"
"I thought you were great friends with Sibyl," Bibbs said.
"Up to the time I found her out!" the sister returned, with continuing vehemence. "I've found out some things about Mrs. Roscoe Sheridan lately—"
"It's only lately?"
"Well—" Edith hesitated, her lips setting primly. "Of course, I always did see that she never cared the snap of her little finger about ROSCOE!"
"It seems," said Bibbs, in laconic protest, "that she married him."
The sister emitted a shrill cry, to be interpreted as contemptuous laughter, and, in her emotion, spoke too impulsively: "Why, she'd have married YOU!"
"No, no," he said; "she couldn't be that bad!"
"I didn't mean—" she began, distressed. "I only meant—I didn't mean—"
"Never mind, Edith," he consoled her. "You see, she couldn't have married me, because I didn't know her; and besides, if she's as mercenary as all that she'd have been too clever. The head doctor even had to lend me the money for my ticket home."
"I didn't mean anything unpleasant about YOU," Edith babbled. "I only meant I thought she was the kind of girl who was so simply crazy to marry somebody she'd have married anybody that asked her."
"Yes, yes," said Bibbs, "it's all straight." And, perceiving that his sister's expression was that of a person whose adroitness has set matters perfectly to rights, he chuckled silently.
"Roscoe's perfectly lovely to her," she continued, a moment later. "Too lovely! If he'd wake up a little and lay down the law, some day, like a MAN, I guess she'd respect him more and learn to behave herself!"
"Oh, well, I mean she's so insincere," said Edith, characteristically evasive when it came to stating the very point to which she had led, and in this not unique of her sex.
Bibbs contented himself with a non-committal gesture. "Business is crawling up the old streets," he said, his long, tremulous hand indicating a vasty structure in course of erection. "The boarding-houses come first and then the—"
"That isn't for shops," she informed him. "That's a new investment of papa's—the 'Sheridan Apartments.'"
"Well, well," he murmured. "I supposed 'Sheridan' was almost well enough known here already."
"Oh, we're well enough known ABOUT!" she said, impatiently. "I guess there isn't a man, woman, child, or nigger baby in town that doesn't know who we are. But we aren't in with the right people."
"No!" he exclaimed. "Who's all that?"
"Who's all what?"
"The 'right people.'"
"You know what I mean: the best people, the old families—the people that have the real social position in this town and that know they've got it."
Bibbs indulged in his silent chuckle again; he seemed greatly amused. "I thought that the people who actually had the real what-you-may-call-it didn't know it," he said. "I've always understood that it was very unsatisfactory, because if you thought about it you didn't have it, and if you had it you didn't know it."
"That's just bosh," she retorted. "They know it in this town, all right! I found out a lot of things, long before we began to think of building out in this direction. The right people in this town aren't always the society-column ones, and they mix around with outsiders, and they don't all belong to any one club—they're taken in all sorts into all their clubs—but they're a clan, just the same; and they have the clan feeling and they're just as much We, Us and Company as any crowd you read about anywhere in the world. Most of 'em were here long before papa came, and the grandfathers of the girls of my age knew each other, and—"
"I see," Bibbs interrupted, gravely. "Their ancestors fled together from many a stricken field, and Crusaders' blood flows in their veins. I always understood the first house was built by an old party of the name of Vertrees who couldn't get along with Dan'l Boone, and hurried away to these parts because Dan'l wanted him to give back a gun he'd lent him."
Edith gave a little ejaculation of alarm. "You mustn't repeat that story, Bibbs, even if it's true. The Vertreeses are THE best family, and of course the very oldest here; they were an old family even before Mary Vertrees's great-great-grandfather came west and founded this settlement. He came from Lynn, Massachusetts, and they have relatives there YET—some of the best people in Lynn!"
"No!" exclaimed Bibbs, incredulously.
"And there are other old families like the Vertreeses," she went on, not heeding him; "the Lamhorns and the Kittersbys and the J. Palmerston Smiths—"
"Strange names to me," he interrupted. "Poor things! None of them have my acquaintance."
"No, that's just it!" she cried. "And papa had never even heard the name of Vertrees! Mrs. Vertrees went with some anti-smoke committee to see him, and he told her that smoke was what made her husband bring home his wages from the pay-roll on Saturday night! HE told us about it, and I thought I just couldn't live through the night, I was so ashamed! Mr. Vertrees has always lived on his income, and papa didn't know him, of course. They're the stiffist, most elegant people in the whole town. And to crown it all, papa went and bought the next lot to the old Vertrees country mansion—it's in the very heart of the best new residence district now, and that's where the New House is, right next door to them—and I must say it makes their place look rather shabby! I met Mary Vertrees when I joined the Mission Service Helpers, but she never did any more than just barely bow to me, and since papa's break I doubt if she'll do that! They haven't called."
"And you think if I spread this gossip about Vertrees the First stealing Dan'l Boone's gun, the chances that they WILL call—"
"Papa knows what a break he made with Mrs. Vertrees. I made him understand that," said Edith, demurely, "and he's promised to try and meet Mr. Vertrees and be nice to him. It's just this way: if we don't know THEM, it's practically no use in our having build the New House; and if we DO know them and they're decent to us, we're right with the right people. They can do the whole thing for us. Bobby Lamhorn told Sibyl he was going to bring his mother to call on her and on mamma, but it was weeks ago, and I notice he hasn't done it; and if Mrs. Vertrees decides not to know us, I'm darn sure Mrs Lamhorn'll never come. That's ONE thing Sibyl didn't manage! She SAID Bobby offered to bring his mother—"
"You say he is a friend of Roscoe's?" Bibbs asked.
"Oh, he's a friend of the whole family," she returned, with a petulance which she made an effort to disguise. "Roscoe and he got acquainted somewhere, and they take him to the theater about every other night. Sibyl has him to lunch, too, and keeps—" She broke off with an angry little jerk of the head. "We can see the New House from the second corner ahead. Roscoe has built straight across the street from us, you know. Honestly, Sibyl makes me think of a snake, sometimes—the way she pulls the wool over people's eyes! She honeys up to papa and gets anything in the world she wants out of him, and then makes fun of him behind his back—yes, and to his face, but HE can't see it! She got him to give her a twelve-thousand-dollar porch for their house after it was—"
"Good heavens!" said Bibbs, staring ahead as they reached the corner and the car swung to the right, following a bend in the street. "Is that the New House?"
"Yes. What do you think of it?"
"Well," he drawled, "I'm pretty sure the sanitarium's about half a size bigger; I can't be certain till I measure."
And a moment later, as they entered the driveway, he added, seriously: "But it's beautiful!"
It was gray stone, with long roofs of thick green slate. An architect who loved the milder "Gothic motives" had built what he liked: it was to be seen at once that he had been left unhampered, and he had wrought a picture out of his head into a noble and exultant reality. At the same time a landscape-designer had played so good a second, with ready-made accessories of screen, approach and vista, that already whatever look of newness remained upon the place was to its advantage, as showing at least one thing yet clean under the grimy sky. For, though the smoke was thinner in this direction, and at this long distance from the heart of the town, it was not absent, and under tutelage of wind and weather could be malignant even here, where cows had wandered in the meadows and corn had been growing not ten years gone.
Altogether, the New House was a success. It was one of those architects' successes which leave the owners veiled in privacy; it revealed nothing of the people who lived in it save that they were rich. There are houses that cannot be detached from their own people without protesting: every inch of mortar seems to mourn the separation, and such a house—no matter what be done to it—is ever murmurous with regret, whispering the old name sadly to itself unceasingly. But the New House was of a kind to change hands without emotion. In our swelling cities, great places of its type are useful as financial gauges of the business tides; rich families, one after another, take title and occupy such houses as fortunes rise and fall—they mark the high tide. It was impossible to imagine a child's toy wagon left upon a walk or driveway of the New House, and yet it was—as Bibbs rightly called it—"beautiful."
What the architect thought of the "Golfo di Napoli," which hung in its vast gold revel of rococo frame against the gray wood of the hall, is to be conjectured—perhaps he had not seen it.
"Edith, did you say only eleven feet?" Bibbs panted, staring at it, as the white-jacketed twin of a Pullman porter helped him to get out of his overcoat.
"Eleven without the frame," she explained. "It's splendid, don't you think? It lightens things up so. The hall was kind of gloomy before."
"No gloom now!" said Bibbs.
"This statue in the corner is pretty, too," she remarked. "Mamma and I bought that." And Bibbs turned at her direction to behold, amid a grove of tubbed palms, a "life-size," black-bearded Moor, of a plastic composition painted with unappeasable gloss and brilliancy. Upon his chocolate head he wore a gold turban; in his hand he held a gold-tipped spear; and for the rest, he was red and yellow and black and silver.
"Hallelujah!" was the sole comment of the returned wanderer, and Edith, saying she would "find mamma," left him blinking at the Moor. Presently, after she had disappeared, he turned to the colored man who stood waiting, Bibbs's traveling-bag in his hand. "What do YOU think of it?" Bibbs asked, solemnly.
"Gran'!" replied the servitor. "She mighty hard to dus'. Dus' git in all 'em wrinkles. Yessuh, she mighty hard to dus'."
"I expect she must be," said Bibbs, his glance returning reflectively to the black bull beard for a moment. "Is there a place anywhere I could lie down?"
"Yessuh. We got one nem spare rooms all fix up fo' you, suh. Right up staihs, suh. Nice room."
He led the way, and Bibbs followed slowly, stopping at intervals to rest, and noting a heavy increase in the staff of service since the exodus from the "old" house. Maids and scrubwomen were at work under the patently nominal direction of another Pullman porter, who was profoundly enjoying his own affectation of being harassed with care.
"Ev'ything got look spick an' span fo' the big doin's to-night," Bibbs's guide explained, chuckling. "Yessuh, we got big doin's to-night! Big doin's!"
The room to which he conducted his lagging charge was furnished in every particular like a room in a new hotel; and Bibbs found it pleasant—though, indeed, any room with a good bed would have seemed pleasant to him after his journey. He stretched himself flat immediately, and having replied "Not now" to the attendant's offer to unpack the bag, closed his eyes wearily.
White-jacket, racially sympathetic, lowered the window-shades and made an exit on tiptoe, encountering the other white-jacket—the harassed overseer—in the hall without. Said the emerging one: "He mighty shaky, Mist' Jackson. Drop right down an' shet his eyes. Eyelids all black. Rich folks gotta go same as anybody else. Anybody ast me if I change 'ith 'at ole boy—No, suh! Le'm keep 'is money; I keep my black skin an' keep out the ground!"
Mr. Jackson expressed the same preference. "Yessuh, he look tuh me like somebody awready laid out," he concluded. And upon the stairway landing, near by, two old women, on all-fours at their work, were likewise pessimistic.
"Hech!" said one, lamenting in a whisper. "It give me a turn to see him go by—white as wax an' bony as a dead fish! Mrs. Cronin, tell me: d'it make ye kind o' sick to look at um?"
"Sick? No more than the face of a blessed angel already in heaven!"
"Well," said the other, "I'd a b'y o' me own come home t' die once—" She fell silent at a rustling of skirts in the corridor above them.
It was Mrs. Sheridan hurrying to greet her son.
She was one of those fat, pink people who fade and contract with age like drying fruit; and her outside was a true portrait of her. Her husband and her daughter had long ago absorbed her. What intelligence she had was given almost wholly to comprehending and serving those two, and except in the presence of one of them she was nearly always absent-minded. Edith lived all day with her mother, as daughters do; and Sheridan so held his wife to her unity with him that she had long ago become unconscious of her existence as a thing separate from his. She invariably perceived his moods, and nursed him through them when she did not share them; and she gave him a profound sympathy with the inmost spirit and purpose of his being, even though she did not comprehend it and partook of it only as a spectator. They had known but one actual altercation in their lives, and that was thirty years past, in the early days of Sheridan's struggle, when, in order to enhance the favorable impression he believed himself to be making upon some capitalists, he had thought it necessary to accompany them to a performance of "The Black Crook." But she had not once referred to this during the last ten years.
Mrs. Sheridan's manner was hurried and inconsequent; her clothes rustled more than other women's clothes; she seemed to wear too many at a time and to be vaguely troubled by them, and she was patting a skirt down over some unruly internal dissension at the moment she opened Bibbs's door.
At sight of the recumbent figure she began to close the door softly, withdrawing, but the young man had heard the turning of the knob and the rustling of skirts, and he opened his eyes.
"Don't go, mother," he said. "I'm not asleep." He swung his long legs over the side of the bed to rise, but she set a hand on his shoulder, restraining him; and he lay flat again.
"No," she said, bending over to kiss his cheek, "I just come for a minute, but I want to see how you seem. Edith said—"
"Poor Edith!" he murmured. "She couldn't look at me. She—"
"Nonsense!" Mrs. Sheridan, having let in the light at a window, came back to the bedside. "You look a great deal better than what you did before you went to the sanitarium, anyway. It's done you good; a body can see that right away. You need fatting up, of course, and you haven't got much color—"
"No," he said, "I haven't much color."
"But you will have when you get your strength back."
"Oh yes!" he responded, cheerfully. "THEN I will."
"You look a great deal better than what I expected."
"Edith must have a great vocabulary!" he chuckled.
"She's too sensitive," said Mrs. Sheridan, "and it makes her exaggerate a little. What about your diet?"
"That's all right. They told me to eat anything."
"Anything at all?"
"Well—anything I could."
"That's good," she said, nodding. "They mean for you just to build up your strength. That's what they told me the last time I went to see you at the sanitarium. You look better than what you did then, and that's only a little time ago. How long was it?"
"Eight months, I think."
"No, it couldn't be. I know it ain't THAT long, but maybe it was longer'n I thought. And this last month or so I haven't had scarcely even time to write more than just a line to ask how you were gettin' along, but I told Edith to write, the weeks I couldn't, and I asked Jim to, too, and they both said they would, so I suppose you've kept up pretty well on the home news."
"What I think you need," said the mother, gravely, "is to liven up a little and take an interest in things. That's what papa was sayin' this morning, after we got your telegram; and that's what'll stimilate your appetite, too. He was talkin' over his plans for you—"
"Plans?" Bibbs, turning on his side, shielded his eyes from the light with his hand, so that he might see her better. "What—" He paused. "What plans is he making for me, mother?"
She turned away, going back to the window to draw down the shade. "Well, you better talk it over with HIM," she said, with perceptible nervousness. "He better tell you himself. I don't feel as if I had any call, exactly, to go into it; and you better get to sleep now, anyway." She came and stood by the bedside once more. "But you must remember, Bibbs, whatever papa does is for the best. He loves his chuldern and wants to do what's right by ALL of 'em—and you'll always find he's right in the end."
He made a little gesture of assent, which seemed to content her; and she rustled to the door, turning to speak again after she had opened it. "You get a good nap, now, so as to be all rested up for to-night."
"You—you mean—he—" Bibbs stammered, having begun to speak too quickly. Checking himself, he drew a long breath, then asked, quietly, "Does father expect me to come down-stairs this evening?"
"Well, I think he does," she answered. "You see, it's the 'house-warming,' as he calls it, and he said he thinks all our chuldern ought to be around us, as well as the old friends and other folks. It's just what he thinks you need—to take an interest and liven up. You don't feel too bad to come down, do you?"
"Take a good look at me," he said.
"Oh, see here!" she cried, with brusque cheerfulness. "You're not so bad off as you think you are, Bibbs. You're on the mend; and it won't do you any harm to please your—"
"It isn't that," he interrupted. "Honestly, I'm only afraid it might spoil somebody's appetite. Edith—"
"I told you the child was too sensitive," she interrupted, in turn. "You're a plenty good-lookin' enough young man for anybody! You look like you been through a long spell and begun to get well, and that's all there is to it."
"All right. I'll come to the party. If the rest of you can stand it, I can!"
"It 'll do you good," she returned, rustling into the hall. "Now take a nap, and I'll send one o' the help to wake you in time for you to get dressed up before dinner. You go to sleep right away, now, Bibbs!"
Bibbs was unable to obey, though he kept his eyes closed. Something she had said kept running in his mind, repeating itself over and over interminably. "His plans for you—his plans for you—his plans for you—his plans for you—" And then, taking the place of "his plans for you," after what seemed a long, long while, her flurried voice came back to him insistently, seeming to whisper in his ear: "He loves his chuldern—he loves his chuldern—he loves his chuldern"—"you'll find he's always right—you'll find he's always right—" Until at last, as he drifted into the state of half-dreams and distorted realities, the voice seemed to murmur from beyond a great black wing that came out of the wall and stretched over his bed—it was a black wing within the room, and at the same time it was a black cloud crossing the sky, bridging the whole earth from pole to pole. It was a cloud of black smoke, and out of the heart of it came a flurried voice whispering over and over, "His plans for you—his plans for you—his plans for you—" And then there was nothing.
He woke refreshed, stretched himself gingerly—as one might have a care against too quick or too long a pull upon a frayed elastic—and, getting to his feet, went blinking to the window and touched the shade so that it flew up, letting in a pale sunset.
He looked out into the lemon-colored light and smiled wanly at the next house, as Edith's grandiose phrase came to mind, "the old Vertrees country mansion." It stood in a broad lawn which was separated from the Sheridans' by a young hedge; and it was a big, square, plain old box of a house with a giant salt-cellar atop for a cupola. Paint had been spared for a long time, and no one could have put a name to the color of it, but in spite of that the place had no look of being out at heel, and the sward was as neatly trimmed as the Sheridans' own.
The separating hedge ran almost beneath Bibbs's window—for this wing of the New House extended here almost to the edge of the lot—and, directly opposite the window, the Vertreeses' lawn had been graded so as to make a little knoll upon which stood a small rustic "summer-house." It was almost on a level with Bibbs's window and not thirty feet away; and it was easy for him to imagine the present dynasty of Vertreeses in grievous outcry when they had found this retreat ruined by the juxtaposition of the parvenu intruder. Probably the "summer-house" was pleasant and pretty in summer. It had the look of a place wherein little girls had played for a generation or so with dolls and "housekeeping," or where a lovely old lady might come to read something dull on warm afternoons; but now in the thin light it was desolate, the color of dust, and hung with haggard vines which had lost their leaves.
Bibbs looked at it with grave sympathy, probably feeling some kinship with anything so dismantled; then he turned to a cheval-glass beside the window and paid himself the dubious tribute of a thorough inspection. He looked the mirror up and down, slowly, repeatedly, but came in the end to a long and earnest scrutiny of the face. Throughout this cryptic seance his manner was profoundly impersonal; he had the air of an entomologist intent upon classifying a specimen, but finally he appeared to become pessimistic. He shook his head solemnly; then gazed again and shook his head again, and continued to shake it slowly, in complete disapproval.
"You certainly are one horrible sight!" he said, aloud.
And at that he was instantly aware of an observer. Turning quickly, he was vouchsafed the picture of a charming lady, framed in a rustic aperture of the "summer-house" and staring full into his window—straight into his eyes, too, for the infinitesimal fraction of a second before the flashingly censorious withdrawal of her own. Composedly, she pulled several dead twigs from a vine, the manner of her action conveying a message or proclamation to the effect that she was in the summer-house for the sole purpose of such-like pruning and tending, and that no gentleman could suppose her presence there to be due to any other purpose whatsoever, or that, being there on that account, she had allowed her attention to wander for one instant in the direction of things of which she was in reality unconscious.
Having pulled enough twigs to emphasize her unconsciousness—and at the same time her disapproval—of everything in the nature of a Sheridan or belonging to a Sheridan, she descended the knoll with maintained composure, and sauntered toward a side-door of the country mansion of the Vertreeses. An elderly lady, bonneted and cloaked, opened the door and came to meet her.
"Are you ready, Mary? I've been looking for you. What were you doing?"
"Nothing. Just looking into one of Sheridans' windows," said Mary Vertrees. "I got caught at it."
"Mary!" cried her mother. "Just as we were going to call! Good heavens!"
"We'll go, just the same," the daughter returned. "I suppose those women would be glad to have us if we'd burned their house to the ground."
"But WHO saw you?" insisted Mrs. Vertrees.
"One of the sons, I suppose he was. I believe he's insane, or something. At least I hear they keep him in a sanitarium somewhere, and never talk about him. He was staring at himself in a mirror and talking to himself. Then he looked out and caught me."
"What did he—"
"Nothing, of course."
"How did he look?"
"Like a ghost in a blue suit," said Miss Vertrees, moving toward the street and waving a white-gloved hand in farewell to her father, who was observing them from the window of his library. "Rather tragic and altogether impossible. Do come on, mother, and let's get it over!"
And Mrs. Vertrees, with many misgivings, set forth with her daughter for their gracious assault upon the New House next door.
Mr. Vertrees, having watched their departure with the air of a man who had something at hazard upon the expedition, turned from the window and began to pace the library thoughtfully, pending their return. He was about sixty; a small man, withered and dry and fine, a trim little sketch of an elderly dandy. His lambrequin mustache—relic of a forgotten Anglomania—had been profoundly black, but now, like his smooth hair, it was approaching an equally sheer whiteness; and though his clothes were old, they had shapeliness and a flavor of mode. And for greater spruceness there were some jaunty touches; gray spats, a narrow black ribbon across the gray waistcoat to the eye-glasses in a pocket, a fleck of color from a button in the lapel of the black coat, labeling him the descendant of patriot warriors.
The room was not like him, being cheerful and hideous, whereas Mr. Vertrees was anxious and decorative. Under a mantel of imitation black marble a merry little coal-fire beamed forth upon high and narrow "Eastlake" bookcases with long glass doors, and upon comfortable, incongruous furniture, and upon meaningless "woodwork" everywhere, and upon half a dozen Landseer engravings which Mr. and Mrs. Vertrees sometimes mentioned to each other, after thirty years of possession, as "very fine things." They had been the first people in town to possess Landseer engravings, and there, in art, they had rested, but they still had a feeling that in all such matters they were in the van; and when Mr. Vertrees discovered Landseers upon the walls of other people's houses he thawed, as a chieftain to a trusted follower; and if he found an edition of Bulwer Lytton accompanying the Landseers as a final corroboration of culture, he would say, inevitably, "Those people know good pictures and they know good books."
The growth of the city, which might easily have made him a millionaire, had ruined him because he had failed to understand it. When towns begin to grow they have whims, and the whims of a town always ruin somebody. Mr. Vertrees had been most strikingly the somebody in this case. At about the time he bought the Landseers, he owned, through inheritance, an office-building and a large house not far from it, where he spent the winter; and he had a country place—a farm of four hundred acres—where he went for the summers to the comfortable, ugly old house that was his home now, perforce, all the year round. If he had known how to sit still and let things happen he would have prospered miraculously; but, strangely enough, the dainty little man was one of the first to fall down and worship Bigness, the which proceeded straightway to enact the role of Juggernaut for his better education. He was a true prophet of the prodigious growth, but he had a fatal gift for selling good and buying bad. He should have stayed at home and looked at his Landseers and read his Bulwer, but he took his cow to market, and the trained milkers milked her dry and then ate her. He sold the office-building and the house in town to buy a great tract of lots in a new suburb; then he sold the farm, except the house and the ground about it, to pay the taxes on the suburban lots and to "keep them up." The lots refused to stay up; but he had to do something to keep himself and his family up, so in despair he sold the lots (which went up beautifully the next year) for "traction stock" that was paying dividends; and thereafter he ceased to buy and sell. Thus he disappeared altogether from the commercial surface at about the time James Sheridan came out securely on top; and Sheridan, until Mrs. Vertrees called upon him with her "anti-smoke" committee, had never heard the name.
Mr. Vertrees, pinched, retired to his Landseers, and Mrs. Vertrees "managed somehow" on the dividends, though "managing" became more and more difficult as the years went by and money bought less and less. But there came a day when three servitors of Bigness in Philadelphia took greedy counsel with four fellow-worshipers from New York, and not long after that there were no more dividends for Mr. Vertrees. In fact, there was nothing for Mr. Vertrees, because the "traction stock" henceforth was no stock at all, and he had mortgaged his house long ago to help "manage somehow" according to his conception of his "position in life"—one of his own old-fashioned phrases. Six months before the completion of the New House next door, Mr. Vertrees had sold his horses and the worn Victoria and "station-wagon," to pay the arrears of his two servants and re-establish credit at the grocer's and butcher's—and a pair of elderly carriage-horses with such accoutrements are not very ample barter, in these days, for six months' food and fuel and service. Mr. Vertrees had discovered, too, that there was no salary for him in all the buzzing city—he could do nothing.
It may be said that he was at the end of his string. Such times do come in all their bitterness, finally, to the man with no trade or craft, if his feeble clutch on that slippery ghost, Property, shall fail.
The windows grew black while he paced the room, and smoky twilight closed round about the house, yet not more darkly than what closed round about the heart of the anxious little man patrolling the fan-shaped zone of firelight. But as the mantel clock struck wheezily six there was the rattle of an outer door, and a rich and beautiful peal of laughter went ringing through the house. Thus cheerfully did Mary Vertrees herald her return with her mother from their expedition among the barbarians.
She came rushing into the library and threw herself into a deep chair by the hearth, laughing so uncontrollably that tears were in her eyes. Mrs. Vertrees followed decorously, no mirth about her; on the contrary, she looked vaguely disturbed, as if she had eaten something not quite certain to agree with her, and regretted it.
"Papa! Oh, oh!" And Miss Vertrees was fain to apply a handkerchief upon her eyes. "I'm SO glad you made us go! I wouldn't have missed it—"
Mrs. Vertrees shook her head. "I suppose I'm very dull," she said, gently. "I didn't see anything amusing. They're most ordinary, and the house is altogether in bad taste, but we anticipated that, and—"
"Papa!" Mary cried, breaking in. "They asked us to DINNER!"
"And I'm GOING!" she shouted, and was seized with fresh paroxysms. "Think of it! Never in their house before; never met any of them but the daughter—and just BARELY met her—"
"What about you?" interrupted Mr. Vertrees, turning sharply upon his wife.
She made a little face as if positive now that what she had eaten would not agree with her. "I couldn't!" she said. "I—"
"Yes, that's just—just the way she—she looked when they asked her!" cried Mary, choking. "And then she—she realized it, and tried to turn it into a cough, and she didn't know how, and it sounded like—like a squeal!"
"I suppose," said Mrs. Vertrees, much injured, "that Mary will have an uproarious time at my funeral. She makes fun of—"
Mary jumped up instantly and kissed her; then she went to the mantel and, leaning an elbow upon it, gazed thoughtfully at the buckle of her shoe, twinkling in the firelight.
"THEY didn't notice anything," she said. "So far as they were concerned, mamma, it was one of the finest coughs you ever coughed."
"Who were 'they'?" asked her father. "Whom did you see?"
"Only the mother and daughter," Mary answered. "Mrs. Sheridan is dumpy and rustly; and Miss Sheridan is pretty and pushing—dresses by the fashion magazines and talks about New York people that have their pictures in 'em. She tutors the mother, but not very successfully—partly because her own foundation is too flimsy and partly because she began too late. They've got an enormous Moor of painted plaster or something in the hall, and the girl evidently thought it was to her credit that she selected it!"
"They have oil-paintings, too," added Mrs. Vertrees, with a glance of gentle price at the Landseers. "I've always thought oil-paintings in a private house the worst of taste."
"Oh, if one owned a Raphael or a Titian!" said Mr. Vertrees, finishing the implication, not in words, but with a wave of his hand. "Go on, Mary. None of the rest of them came in? You didn't meet Mr. Sheridan or—" He paused and adjusted a lump of coal in the fire delicately with the poker. "Or one of the sons?"
Mary's glance crossed his, at that, with a flash of utter comprehension. He turned instantly away, but she had begun to laugh again.
"No," she said, "no one except the women, but mamma inquired about the sons thoroughly!"
"Mary!" Mrs. Vertrees protested.
"Oh, most adroitly, too!" laughed the girl. "Only she couldn't help unconsciously turning to look at me—when she did it!"
"Never mind, mamma! Mrs. Sheridan and Miss Sheridan neither of THEM could help unconsciously turning to look at me—speculatively—at the same time! They all three kept looking at me and talking about the oldest son, Mr. James Sheridan, Junior. Mrs. Sheridan said his father is very anxious 'to get Jim to marry and settle down,' and she assured me that 'Jim is right cultivated.' Another of the sons, the youngest one, caught me looking in the window this afternoon; but they didn't seem to consider him quite one of themselves, somehow, though Mrs. Sheridan mentioned that a couple of years or so ago he had been 'right sick,' and had been to some cure or other. They seemed relieved to bring the subject back to 'Jim' and his virtues—and to look at me! The other brother is the middle one, Roscoe; he's the one that owns the new house across the street, where that young black-sheep of the Lamhorns, Robert, goes so often. I saw a short, dark young man standing on the porch with Robert Lamhorn there the other day, so I suppose that was Roscoe. 'Jim' still lurks in the mists, but I shall meet him to-night. Papa—" She stepped nearer to him so that he had to face her, and his eyes were troubled as he did. There may have been a trouble deep within her own, but she kept their surface merry with laughter. "Papa, Bibbs is the youngest one's name, and Bibbs—to the best of our information—is a lunatic. Roscoe is married. Papa, does it have to be Jim?"
"Mary!" Mrs. Vertrees cried, sharply. "You're outrageous! That's a perfectly horrible way of talking!"
"Well, I'm close to twenty-four," said Mary, turning to her. "I haven't been able to like anybody yet that's asked me to marry him, and maybe I never shall. Until a year or so ago I've had everything I ever wanted in my life—you and papa gave it all to me—and it's about time I began to pay back. Unfortunately, I don't know how to do anything—but something's got to be done."
"But you needn't talk of it like THAT!" insisted the mother, plaintively. "It's not—it's not—"
"No, it's not," said Mary. "I know that!"
"How did they happen to ask you to dinner?" Mr. Vertrees inquired, uneasily. "'Stextrawdn'ry thing!"
"Climbers' hospitality," Mary defined it. "We were so very cordial and easy! I think Mrs. Sheridan herself might have done it just as any kind old woman on a farm might ask a neighbor, but it was Miss Sheridan who did it. She played around it awhile; you could see she wanted to—she's in a dreadful hurry to get into things—and I fancied she had an idea it might impress that Lamhorn boy to find us there to-night. It's a sort of house-warming dinner, and they talked about it and talked about it—and then the girl got her courage up and blurted out the invitation. And mamma—" Here Mary was once more a victim to incorrigible merriment. "Mamma tried to say yes, and COULDN'T! She swallowed and squealed—I mean you coughed, dear! And then, papa, she said that you and she had promised to go to a lecture at the Emerson Club to-night, but that her daughter would be delighted to come to the Big Show! So there I am, and there's Mr. Jim Sheridan—and there's the clock. Dinner's at seven-thirty!"
And she ran out of the room, scooping up her fallen furs with a gesture of flying grace as she sped.
When she came down, at twenty minutes after seven, her father stood in the hall, at the foot of the stairs, waiting to be her escort through the dark. He looked up and watched her as she descended, and his gaze was fond and proud—and profoundly disturbed. But she smiled and nodded gaily, and, when she reached the floor, put a hand on his shoulder.
"At least no one could suspect me to-night," she said. "I LOOK rich, don't I, papa?"
She did. She had a look that worshipful girl friends bravely called "regal." A head taller than her father, she was as straight and jauntily poised as a boy athlete; and her brown hair and her brown eyes were like her mother's, but for the rest she went back to some stronger and livelier ancestor than either of her parents.
"Don't I look too rich to be suspected?" she insisted.
"You look everything beautiful, Mary," he said, huskily.
"And my dress?" She threw open her dark velvet cloak, showing a splendor of white and silver. "Anything better at Nice next winter, do you think?" She laughed, shrouding her glittering figure in the cloak again. "Two years old, and no one would dream it! I did it over."
"You can do anything, Mary."
There was a curious humility in his tone, and something more—a significance not veiled and yet abysmally apologetic. It was as if he suggested something to her and begged her forgiveness in the same breath.
And upon that, for the moment, she became as serious as he. She lifted her hand from his shoulder and then set it back more firmly, so that he should feel the reassurance of its pressure.
"Don't worry," she said, in a low voice and gravely. "I know exactly what you want me to do."
It was a brave and lustrous banquet; and a noisy one, too, because there was an orchestra among some plants at one end of the long dining-room, and after a preliminary stiffness the guests were impelled to converse—necessarily at the tops of their voices. The whole company of fifty sat at a great oblong table, improvised for the occasion by carpenters; but, not betraying itself as an improvisation, it seemed a permanent continent of damask and lace, with shores of crystal and silver running up to spreading groves of orchids and lilies and white roses—an inhabited continent, evidently, for there were three marvelous, gleaming buildings: one in the center and one at each end, white miracles wrought by some inspired craftsman in sculptural icing. They were models in miniature, and they represented the Sheridan Building, the Sheridan Apartments, and the Pump Works. Nearly all the guests recognized them without having to be told what they were, and pronounced the likenesses superb.
The arrangement of the table was visibly baronial. At the head sat the great Thane, with the flower of his family and of the guests about him; then on each side came the neighbors of the "old" house, grading down to vassals and retainers—superintendents, cashiers, heads of departments, and the like—at the foot, where the Thane's lady took her place as a consolation for the less important. Here, too, among the thralls and bondmen, sat Bibbs Sheridan, a meek Banquo, wondering how anybody could look at him and eat.
Nevertheless, there was a vast, continuous eating, for these were wholesome folk who understood that dinner meant something intended for introduction into the system by means of an aperture in the face, devised by nature for that express purpose. And besides, nobody looked at Bibbs.
He was better content to be left to himself; his voice was not strong enough to make itself heard over the hubbub without an exhausting effort, and the talk that went on about him was too fast and too fragmentary for his drawl to keep pace with it. So he felt relieved when each of his neighbors in turn, after a polite inquiry about his health, turned to seek livelier responses in other directions. For the talk went on with the eating, incessantly. It rose over the throbbing of the orchestra and the clatter and clinking of silver and china and glass, and there was a mighty babble.
"Yes, sir! Started without a dollar."... "Yellow flounces on the overskirt—"... "I says, 'Wilkie, your department's got to go bigger this year,' I says."... "Fifteen per cent. turnover in thirty-one weeks."... "One of the biggest men in the biggest—"... "The wife says she'll have to let out my pants if my appetite—"... "Say, did you see that statue of a Turk in the hall? One of the finest things I ever—"... "Not a dollar, not a nickel, not one red cent do you get out o' me,' I says, and so he ups and—"... "Yes, the baby makes four, they've lost now."... "Well, they got their raise, and they went in big."... "Yes, sir! Not a dollar to his name, and look at what—"... "You wait! The population of this town's goin' to hit the million mark before she stops."... "Well, if you can show me a bigger deal than—"
And through the interstices of this clamoring Bibbs could hear the continual booming of his father's heavy voice, and once he caught the sentence, "Yes, young lady, that's just what did it for me, and that's just what'll do it for my boys—they got to make two blades o' grass grow where one grew before!" It was his familiar flourish, an old story to Bibbs, and now jovially declaimed for the edification of Mary Vertrees.
It was a great night for Sheridan—the very crest of his wave. He sat there knowing himself Thane and master by his own endeavor; and his big, smooth, red face grew more and more radiant with good will and with the simplest, happiest, most boy-like vanity. He was the picture of health, of good cheer, and of power on a holiday. He had thirty teeth, none bought, and showed most of them when he laughed; his grizzled hair was thick, and as unruly as a farm laborer's; his chest was deep and big beneath its vast facade of starched white linen, where little diamonds twinkled, circling three large pearls; his hands were stubby and strong, and he used them freely in gestures of marked picturesqueness; and, though he had grown fat at chin and waist and wrist, he had not lost the look of readiness and activity.
He dominated the table, shouting jocular questions and railleries at every one. His idea was that when people were having a good time they were noisy; and his own additions to the hubbub increased his pleasure, and, of course, met the warmest encouragement from his guests. Edith had discovered that he had very foggy notions of the difference between a band and an orchestra, and when it was made clear to him he had held out for a band until Edith threatened tears; but the size of the orchestra they hired consoled him, and he had now no regrets in the matter.
He kept time to the music continually—with his feet, or pounding on the table with his fist, and sometimes with spoon or knife upon his plate or a glass, without permitting these side-products to interfere with the real business of eating and shouting.
"Tell 'em to play 'Nancy Lee'!" he would bellow down the length of the table to his wife, while the musicians were in the midst of the "Toreador" song, perhaps. "Ask that fellow if they don't know 'Nancy Lee'!" And when the leader would shake his head apologetically in answer to an obedient shriek from Mrs. Sheridan, the "Toreador" continuing vehemently, Sheridan would roar half-remembered fragments of "Nancy Lee," naturally mingling some Bizet with the air of that uxorious tribute.
"Oh, there she stands and waves her hands while I'm away! A sail-er's wife a sail-er's star should be! Yo ho, oh, oh! Oh, Nancy, Nancy, Nancy Lee! Oh, Na-hancy Lee!"
"HAY, there, old lady!" he would bellow. "Tell 'em to play 'In the Gloaming.' In the gloaming, oh, my darling, la-la-lum-tee—Well, if they don't know that, what's the matter with 'Larboard Watch, Ahoy'? THAT'S good music! That's the kind o' music I like! Come on, now! Mrs. Callin, get 'em singin' down in your part o' the table. What's the matter you folks down there, anyway? Larboard watch, ahoy!"
"What joy he feels, as—ta-tum-dum-tee-dee-dum steals. La-a-r-board watch, ahoy!"
No external bubbling contributed to this effervescence; the Sheridans' table had never borne wine, and, more because of timidity about it than conviction, it bore none now; though "mineral waters" were copiously poured from bottles wrapped, for some reason, in napkins, and proved wholly satisfactory to almost all of the guests. And certainly no wine could have inspired more turbulent good spirits in the host. Not even Bibbs was an alloy in this night's happiness, for, as Mrs. Sheridan had said, he had "plans for Bibbs"—plans which were going to straighten out some things that had gone wrong.
So he pounded the table and boomed his echoes of old songs, and then, forgetting these, would renew his friendly railleries, or perhaps, turning to Mary Vertrees, who sat near him, round the corner of the table at his right, he would become autobiographical. Gentlemen less naive than he had paid her that tribute, for she was a girl who inspired the autobiographical impulse in every man who met her—it needed but the sight of her.
The dinner seemed, somehow, to center about Mary Vertrees and the jocund host as a play centers about its hero and heroine; they were the rubicund king and the starry princess of this spectacle—they paid court to each other, and everybody paid court to them. Down near the sugar Pump Works, where Bibbs sat, there was audible speculation and admiration. "Wonder who that lady is—makin' such a hit with the old man." "Must be some heiress." "Heiress? Golly, I guess I could stand it to marry rich, then!"
Edith and Sibyl were radiant: at first they had watched Miss Vertrees with an almost haggard anxiety, wondering what disasterous effect Sheridan's pastoral gaieties—and other things—would have upon her, but she seemed delighted with everything, and with him most of all. She treated him as if he were some delicious, foolish old joke that she understood perfectly, laughing at him almost violently when he bragged—probably his first experience of that kind in his life. It enchanted him.
As he proclaimed to the table, she had "a way with her." She had, indeed, as Roscoe Sheridan, upon her right, discovered just after the feast began. Since his marriage three years before, no lady had bestowed upon him so protracted a full view of brilliant eyes; and, with the look, his lovely neighbor said—and it was her first speech to him—
"I hope you're very susceptible, Mr. Sheridan!"
Honest Roscoe was taken aback, and "Why?" was all he managed to say.
She repeated the look deliberately, which was noted, with a mystification equal to his own, by his sister across the table. No one, reflected Edith, could image Mary Vertrees the sort of girl who would "really flirt" with married men—she was obviously the "opposite of all that." Edith defined her as a "thoroughbred," a "nice girl"; and the look given to Roscoe was astounding. Roscoe's wife saw it, too, and she was another whom it puzzled—though not because its recipient was married.
"Because!" said Mary Vertrees, replying to Roscoe's monosyllable. "And also because we're next-door neighbors at table, and it's dull times ahead for both of us if we don't get along."
Roscoe was a literal young man, all stocks and bonds, and he had been brought up to believe that when a man married he "married and settled down." It was "all right," he felt, for a man as old as his father to pay florid compliments to as pretty a girl as this Miss Vertrees, but for himself—"a young married man"—it wouldn't do; and it wouldn't even be quite moral. He knew that young married people might have friendships, like his wife's for Lamhorn; but Sibyl and Lamhorn never "flirted"—they were always very matter-of-fact with each other. Roscoe would have been troubled if Sibyl had ever told Lamhorn she hoped he was susceptible.
"Yes—we're neighbors," he said, awkwardly.
"Next-door neighbors in houses, too," she added.
"No, not exactly. I live across the street."
"Why, no!" she exclaimed, and seemed startled. "Your mother told me this afternoon that you lived at home."
"Yes, of course I live at home. I built that new house across the street."
"But you—" she paused, confused, and then slowly a deep color came into her cheek. "But I understood—"
"No," he said; "my wife and I lived with the old folks the first year, but that's all. Edith and Jim live with them, of course."
"I—I see," she said, the deep color still deepening as she turned from him and saw, written upon a card before the gentleman at her left the name, "Mr. James Sheridan, Jr." And from that moment Roscoe had little enough cause for wondering what he ought to reply to her disturbing coquetries.
Mr. James Sheridan had been anxiously waiting for the dazzling visitor to "get through with old Roscoe," as he thought of it, and give a bachelor a chance. "Old Roscoe" was the younger, but he had always been the steady wheel-horse of the family. Jim was "steady" enough, but was considered livelier than Roscoe, which in truth is not saying much for Jim's liveliness. As their father habitually boasted, both brothers were "capable, hard-working young business men," and the principal difference between them was merely that which resulted from Jim's being still a bachelor. Physically they were of the same type: dark of eyes and of hair, fresh-colored and thick-set, and though Roscoe was several inches taller than Jim, neither was of the height, breadth, or depth of the father. Both wore young business men's mustaches, and either could have sat for the tailor-shop lithographs of young business men wearing "rich suitings in dark mixtures."
Jim, approving warmly of his neighbor's profile, perceived her access of color, which increased his approbation. "What's that old Roscoe saying to you, Miss Vertrees?" he asked. "These young married men are mighty forward nowadays, but you mustn't let 'em make you blush."
"Am I blushing?" she said. "Are you sure?" And with that she gave him ample opportunity to make sure, repeating with interest the look wasted upon Roscoe. "I think you must be mistaken," she continued. "I think it's your brother who is blushing. I've thrown him into confusion."
She laughed, and then, leaning to him a little, said in a tone as confidential as she could make it, under cover of the uproar. "By trying to begin with him a courtship I meant for YOU!"
This might well be a style new to Jim; and it was. He supposed it a nonsensical form of badinage, and yet it took his breath. He realized that he wished what she said to be the literal truth, and he was instantly snared by that realization.
"By George!" he said. "I guess you're the kind of girl that can say anything—yes, and get away with it, too!"
She laughed again—in her way, so that he could not tell whether she was laughing at him or at herself or at the nonsense she was talking; and she said: "But you see I don't care whether I get away with it or not. I wish you'd tell me frankly if you think I've got a change to get away with YOU?"
"More like if you've got a chance to get away FROM me!" Jim was inspired to reply. "Not one in the world, especially after beginning by making fun of me like that."
"I mightn't be so much in fun as you think," she said, regarding him with sudden gravity.
"Well," said Jim, in simple honesty, "you're a funny girl!"
Her gravity continued an instant longer. "I may not turn out to be funny for YOU."
"So long as you turn out to be anything at all for me, I expect I can manage to be satisfied." And with that, to his own surprise, it was his turn to blush, whereupon she laughed again.
"Yes," he said, plaintively, not wholly lacking intuition, "I can see you're the sort of girl that would laugh the minute you see a man really means anything!"
"'Laugh'!" she cried, gaily. "Why, it might be a matter of life and death! But if you want tragedy, I'd better put the question at once, considering the mistake I made with your brother."
Jim was dazed. She seemed to be playing a little game of mockery and nonsense with him, but he had glimpses of a flashing danger in it; he was but too sensible of being outclassed, and had somewhere a consciousness that he could never quite know this giddy and alluring lady, no matter how long it pleased her to play with him. But he mightily wanted her to keep on playing with him.
"Put what question?" he said, breathlessly.
"As you are a new neighbor of mine and of my family," she returned, speaking slowly and with a cross-examiner's severity, "I think it would be well for me to know at once whether you are already walking out with any young lady or not. Mr. Sheridan, think well! Are you spoken for?"
"Not yet," he gasped. "Are you?"
"NO!" she cried, and with that they both laughed again; and the pastime proceeded, increasing both in its gaiety and in its gravity.
Observing its continuance, Mr. Robert Lamhorn, opposite, turned from a lively conversation with Edith and remarked covertly to Sibyl that Miss Vertrees was "starting rather picturesquely with Jim." And he added, languidly, "Do you suppose she WOULD?"
For the moment Sibyl gave no sign of having heard him, but seemed interested in the clasp of a long "rope" of pearls, a loop of which she was allowing to swing from her fingers, resting her elbow upon the table and following with her eyes the twinkle of diamonds and platinum in the clasp at the end of the loop. She wore many jewels. She was pretty, but hers was not the kind of prettiness to be loaded with too sumptuous accessories, and jeweled head-dresses are dangerous—they may emphasize the wrongness of the wearer.
"I said Miss Vertrees seems to be starting pretty strong with Jim," repeated Mr. Lamhorn.
"I heard you." There was a latent discontent always somewhere in her eyes, no matter what she threw upon the surface of cover it, and just now she did not care to cover it; she looked sullen. "Starting any stronger than you did with Edith?" she inquired.
"Oh, keep the peace!" he said, crossly. "That's off, of course."
"You haven't been making her see it this evening—precisely," said Sibyl, looking at him steadily. "You've talked to her for—"
"For Heaven's sake," he begged, "keep the peace!"
"Well, what have you just been doing?"
"SH!" he said. "Listen to your father-in-law."
Sheridan was booming and braying louder than ever, the orchestra having begun to play "The Rosary," to his vast content.
"I COUNT THEM OVER, LA-LA-TUM-TEE-DUM," he roared, beating the measures with his fork. "EACH HOUR A PEARL, EACH PEARL TEE-DUM-TUM-DUM—What's the matter with all you folks? Why'n't you SING? Miss Vertrees, I bet a thousand dollars YOU sing! Why'n't—"
"Mr. Sheridan," she said, turning cheerfully from the ardent Jim, "you don't know what you interrupted! Your son isn't used to my rough ways, and my soldier's wooing frightens him, but I think he was about to say something important."
"I'll say something important to him if he doesn't!" the father threatened, more delighted with her than ever. "By gosh! if I was his age—or a widower right NOW—"
"Oh, wait!" cried Mary. "If they'd only make less noise! I want Mrs. Sheridan to hear."
"She'd say the same," he shouted. "She'd tell me I was mighty slow if I couldn't get ahead o' Jim. Why, when I was his age—"
"You must listen to your father," Mary interrupted, turning to Jim, who had grown red again. "He's going to tell us how, when he was your age, he made those two blades of grass grow out of a teacup—and you could see for yourself he didn't get them out of his sleeve!"
At that Sheridan pounded the table till it jumped. "Look here, young lady!" he roared. "Some o' these days I'm either goin' to slap you—or I'm goin' to kiss you!"
Edith looked aghast; she was afraid this was indeed "too awful," but Mary Vertrees burst into ringing laughter.
"Both!" she cried. "Both! The one to make me forget the other!"
"But which—" he began, and then suddenly gave forth such stentorian trumpetings of mirth that for once the whole table stopped to listen. "Jim," he roared, "if you don't propose to that girl to-night I'll send you back to the machine-shop with Bibbs!"
And Bibbs—down among the retainers by the sugar Pump Works, and watching Mary Vertrees as a ragged boy in the street might watch a rich little girl in a garden—Bibbs heard. He heard—and he knew what his father's plans were now.
Mrs. Vertrees "sat up" for her daughter, Mr. Vertrees having retired after a restless evening, not much soothed by the society of his Landseers. Mary had taken a key, insisting that he should not come for her and seeming confident that she would not lack for escort; nor did the sequel prove her confidence unwarranted. But Mrs. Vertrees had a long vigil of it.
She was not the woman to make herself easy—no servant had ever seen her in a wrapper—and with her hair and dress and her shoes just what they had been when she returned from the afternoon's call, she sat through the slow night hours in a stiff little chair under the gaslight in her own room, which was directly over the "front hall." There, book in hand, she employed the time in her own reminiscences, though it was her belief that she was reading Madame de Remusat's.
Her thoughts went backward into her life and into her husband's; and the deeper into the past they went, the brighter the pictures they brought her—and there is tragedy. Like her husband, she thought backward because she did not dare think forward definitely. What thinking forward this troubled couple ventured took the form of a slender hope which neither of them could have borne to hear put in words, and yet they had talked it over, day after day, from the very hour when they heard Sheridan was to build his New House next door. For—so quickly does any ideal of human behavior become an antique—their youth was of the innocent old days, so dead! of "breeding" and "gentility," and no craft had been more straitly trained upon them than that of talking about things without mentioning them. Herein was marked the most vital difference between Mr. and Mrs. Vertrees and their big new neighbor. Sheridan, though his youth was of the same epoch, knew nothing of such matters. He had been chopping wood for the morning fire in the country grocery while they were still dancing.
It was after one o'clock when Mrs. Vertrees heard steps and the delicate clinking of the key in the lock, and then, with the opening of the door, Mary's laugh, and "Yes—if you aren't afraid—to-morrow!"
The door closed, and she rushed up-stairs, bringing with her a breath of cold and bracing air into her mother's room. "Yes," she said, before Mrs. Vertrees could speak, "he brought me home!"
She let her cloak fall upon the bed, and, drawing an old red-velvet rocking-chair forward, sat beside her mother after giving her a light pat upon the shoulder and a hearty kiss upon the cheek.
"Mamma!" Mary exclaimed, when Mrs. Vertrees had expressed a hope that she had enjoyed the evening and had not caught cold. "Why don't you ask me?"
This inquiry obviously made her mother uncomfortable. "I don't—" she faltered. "Ask you what, Mary?"
"How I got along and what he's like."
"Oh, it isn't distressing!" said Mary. "And I got along so fast—" She broke off to laugh; continuing then, "But that's the way I went at it, of course. We ARE in a hurry, aren't we?"
"I don't know what you mean," Mrs. Vertrees insisted, shaking her head plaintively.
"Yes," said Mary, "I'm going out in his car with him to-morrow afternoon, and to the theater the next night—but I stopped it there. You see, after you give the first push, you must leave it to them while YOU pretend to run away!"
"My dear, I don't know what to—"
"What to make of anything!" Mary finished for her. "So that's all right! Now I'll tell you all about it. It was gorgeous and deafening and tee-total. We could have lived a year on it. I'm not good at figures, but I calculated that if we lived six months on poor old Charlie and Ned and the station-wagon and the Victoria, we could manage at least twice as long on the cost of the 'house-warming.' I think the orchids alone would have lasted us a couple of months. There they were, before me, but I couldn't steal 'em and sell 'em, and so—well, so I did what I could!"
She leaned back and laughed reassuringly to her troubled mother. "It seemed to be a success—what I could," she said, clasping her hands behind her neck and stirring the rocker to motion as a rhythmic accompaniment to her narrative. "The girl Edith and her sister-in-law, Mrs. Roscoe Sheridan, were too anxious about the effect of things on me. The father's worth a bushel of both of them, if they knew it. He's what he is. I like him." She paused reflectively, continuing, "Edith's 'interested' in that Lamhorn boy; he's good-looking and not stupid, but I think he's—" She interrupted herself with a cheery outcry: "Oh! I mustn't be calling him names! If he's trying to make Edith like him, I ought to respect him as a colleague."
"I don't understand a thing you're talking about," Mrs. Vertrees complained.
"All the better! Well, he's a bad lot, that Lamhorn boy; everybody's always known that, but the Sheridans don't know the everybodies that know. He sat between Edith and Mrs. Roscoe Sheridan. SHE'S like those people you wondered about at the theater, the last time we went—dressed in ball-gowns; bound to show their clothes and jewels SOMEwhere! She flatters the father, and so did I, for that matter—but not that way. I treated him outrageously!"
"That's what flattered him. After dinner he made the whole regiment of us follow him all over the house, while he lectured like a guide on the Palatine. He gave dimensions and costs, and the whole b'ilin' of 'em listened as if they thought he intended to make them a present of the house. What he was proudest of was the plumbing and that Bay of Naples panorama in the hall. He made us look at all the plumbing—bath-rooms and everywhere else—and then he made us look at the Bay of Naples. He said it was a hundred and eleven feet long, but I think it's more. And he led us all into the ready-made library to see a poem Edith had taken a prize with at school. They'd had it printed in gold letters and framed in mother-of-pearl. But the poem itself was rather simple and wistful and nice—he read it to us, though Edith tried to stop him. She was modest about it, and said she'd never written anything else. And then, after a while, Mrs. Roscoe Sheridan asked me to come across the street to her house with them—her husband and Edith and Mr. Lamhorn and Jim Sheridan—"