WHEN EGYPT WENT BROKE
By Holman Day
WHEN EGYPT WENT BROKE
T. BRITT STARTS TO COLLECT
Tasper Britt arose in the gray dawn, as usual.
Some fishermen, seeking bait, stay up late and "jack" angleworms with a bull's-eye light. The big worms are abroad on the soil under cover of the darkness. Other fishermen get up early and dig while the dew is holding the smaller worms near the surface of the ground; in going after worms the shrewd operator makes the job easy for himself.
Tasper Britt—"Twelve-per-cent Britt"—trimmed his slumber at both ends—was owl and early bird, both, in his pursuit of the pence of the people, and got 'em coming and going.
He was the money boss for the town of Egypt, and those who did not give him his per cent nickname called him "Phay-ray-oh"—but behind his back, of course. To his face his debt slaves bespoke his favor obsequiously. Seeing that nearly every "Egyptian" with collateral owed him money, Mr. Britt had no fault to find with his apparent popularity. He did believe, complacently, that he was popular. A man who was less sure of himself would not have dared to appear out, all at once, with his beard dyed purple-black and with a scratch wig to match. Men gasped when they came into his office in Britt Block, but men held their faces measurably under control even though their diaphragms fluttered; the need of renewing a note—paying a bonus for the privilege—helped supplicants to hold in any bubbling hilarity. Therefore, Mr. Britt continued to be assured that he was pretty generally all right, so far as the folks of Egypt were concerned.
Mr. Britt dyed after Hittie died. That was when he was past sixty-five.
It was only the familiar, oft-repeated instance of temperament being jounced out of a lifelong rut by a break in wedlock relations.
Hittie was his yoke-mate, pulling hard at his side with wages of food and drink. The two of them kept plodding steadily in the dry and rocky road all the years, never lifting their eyes to look over into pastures forbidden. Perhaps if Hittie had been left with the money, after the yoke had been sundered, she would have kicked up her heels in a few final capers of consolation, in order to prove to herself, by brief experience, how much better consistent sainthood was as a settled state.
In view of such a possibility—and widows are not altogether different from widowers—it was hardly fair in the folks of Egypt to twist every act of Widower Britt to his discredit and to make him out a renegade of a relict. He did go through all the accepted motions as a mourner. He took on "something dreadful" at the funeral. He placed in the cemetery lot a granite statue of himself, in a frock coat of stone and holding a stone plug hat in the hook of the elbow. That statue cost Tasper Britt rising sixteen hundred dollars—and after he dyed his beard and bought the top piece of hair, the satirists of Egypt were unkind enough to say that he had set his stone image out in the graveyard to scare Hittie if she tried to arise and spy on his new carryings-on.
Mr. Britt had continued to be a consistent mourner, according to the old-fashioned conventions.
When he arose in the dawn of the day with which the tale begins and unwound a towel from his jowls—for the new Magnetic Hair Restorer had an ambitious way of touching up the pillow-slip with color—he beheld a memento, composed of assembled objects, "sacred to the memory of Mehitable." In a frame, under glass, on black velvet were these items: silver plate from casket, hair switch, tumbler and spoon with which the last medicine had been administered, wedding ring and marriage certificate; photograph in center. The satirists had their comment for that memento—they averred that it was not complete without the two dish towels to which Hittie had been limited.
Mr. Britt inspected the memento and sighed; that was before he had touched up his beard with a patent dye comb.
After he had set the scratch wig on his glossy poll and had studied himself in the mirror he looked more cheerful and pulled a snapshot photograph from a bureau drawer, gazed on it and sighed again. It was the picture of a girl, a full-length view of a mighty pretty girl whose smiling face was backed by an open sunshade. She was in white garb and wore no hat.
"Vona," said Mr. Britt, talking out as if the sound of his voice fortified his faith, "you're going to see this thing in the right way, give you time. I'm starting late—but I'm blasted wide awake from now on. I have gone after money, but money ain't everything. I reckon that by to-night I can show you honors that you'll share with me—they've been waiting for me, and now I'll reach out and take 'em for your sake. Hittie didn't know what to do with money—honors would have bothered her. But with a girl like you I can grab in and relish living for the rest of this life."
Then Mr. Britt went over to the tavern to get his breakfast.
By eating his three meals per day at the tavern he was indulging his new sense of liberty. He and Hittie always used to eat in the kitchen—meals on the dot, as to time. The tavern was little and dingy, and Egypt was off the railroad line, and there were few patrons, and old Files cut his steak very close to the critter's horn. But after the years of routine at a home table there was a sort of clubman, devil-may-care suggestion about this new regime at the tavern; and after his meals Britt sat in the tavern office and smoked a cigar. Furthermore, he held a mortgage on the tavern and Files was behind on the interest and was eagerly and humbly glad to pay his creditor with food. In order to impress a peddler or other transient guest the creditor was in the habit of calling in Files and ordering him to recook portions.
In his new sense of expansion as a magnate, Tasper Britt took his time about eating and allowed men with whom he had dealings to come into the dining room and sit down opposite and state their cases.
That morning Ossian Orne came in and sat at the table without asking for permission to be admitted to such intimacy. He came with the air of a man who was keeping an appointment, and Mr. Britt's manner of greeting Orne showed that this was so.
Mr. Orne did not remove the earlapper cap which the nippy February day demanded; nor did he shuck off the buffalo coat whose baldness in the rear below the waistline suggested the sedentary habits of Mr. Orne. He selected a doughnut from the plate at Britt's elbow and munched placidly.
Landlord Files, who was bringing ham and eggs to a commercial drummer, was amazed by this familiarity and stopped and showed that amazement. He was more astonished by what he overheard. Mr. Orne was saying, "As your manager, Britt—"
Mr. Britt scowled at Mr. Files, and the latter slap-slupped on his slippered way; it was certainly news that Britt had taken on a manager. Such a personage must be permitted to be familiar. When Mr. Files looked again, Mr. Orne was eating a second doughnut. He was laying down the law to a nodding and assenting Mr. Britt on some point, and then he took a third doughnut and rose to his feet.
"I'll be back to-night, with full details and further instructions to you, Britt," declared Mr. Orne, who was known in the county political circles as "Sniffer" Orne. He combined politics with nursery-stock canvassing and had a way of his own in getting under the skins of men when he went in search of information. "If I ain't back to-night I'll report to-morrow. I may have to take a run over into Norway, Vienna, and Peru to make sure of how things stand generally."
He trudged out, stooping forward and waddling with the gait of a parrot ambling along on a pole; his projecting coat tail and his thin beak gave him a sort of avian look. The commercial drummer, overhearing his projected itinerary, glanced out of the window as if he expected to see Mr. Orne spread wings and fly. But Mr. Orne tucked himself into a high-backed sleigh and went jangling off along Egypt's single street.
The stranger, inquiring of Mr. Files, learned that Mr. Orne was not as much of a globe-trotter as he sounded.
"It's only the way the Old Sirs named the towns in the ranges about here when the land was took up. In this range we have Egypt and them other towns you heard him speak of. In the next range below are Jerusalem and Damascus and Levant and Purgatory Mills. If them unorganized townships to the north of us are ever took up and made towns of, it would be just like some whifflehead to name 'em Heaven, Hell, Hooray, and Hackmetack. But the name of Egypt fits this town all right," stated Mr. Files, disconsolately, and in his perturbation raising his voice.
"Files, don't run down your home town," rasped Mr. Britt.
"What has been run down as far's it can be run can't be run no farther," said the landlord. "And I 'ain't said why the name Egypt fits the town, for that matter." Britt's ugly stare was taking the spirit out of the landlord's rebelliousness.
"Suppose you do say!" counseled Mr. Britt, menace in his tones. "I've got a new and special reason, right now, why I demand that every citizen must uphold the good name of our town—especially a citizen in your position, first to meet all arriving strangers. Why does the name fit this town?" He banged the handle of his knife on the table.
Mr. Britt had reason for the heat which he was displaying and which caused the stranger to open his eyes more widely. Mr. Britt was fully aware that men called him "Phay-ray-oh" and that his statue in the cemetery was called "The Sphinx." He knew that since the town had gone on the down grade through debt and the decay of industries the inhabitants had begun to call themselves "The Children of Israel," and to say they were trying to make bricks without straw. In fact, an itinerant evangelist who called himself "The Light of the World" had come to town and was trying to exhort the inhabitants into rebellion against conditions, and in his crack-brained hysteria was having some success in exciting "The Children" to protest against the domination by Tasper Britt.
Mr. Files was not as handy with his tongue as he was with the mallet with which he pounded steak. He struggled with an inept reply about an old town having a dignified old name. He stuttered and stopped when Britt came and stood in front of him, chewing savagely on a toothpick.
"Files, I wasn't intending to make a formal announcement till my political manager, Ossian Orne, gets back with reports from the field. Not but what I expect that when it is known that I'm willing to accept political honor it will be given to me. But when I sit in the next legislature of this state as Representative Britt of Egypt, I propose to represent a town that ain't slurred at home or abroad. Hereafter, mind your tongue and advise others to do the same."
He stamped out. Landlord Files was left standing with an open mouth from which no speech issued.
"Emperor, or only a plain king?" inquired the bagman.
"You being a stranger, I can let out some of my feelings," returned Mr. Files. "Emperor, you say? He might just as well try to be one as to run for the legislature."
The drummer showed interest.
"That's what getting to be a widderer can do to some men," confided the landlord. He placed a smutty hand on the table and leaned down. "That legislature thing ain't the half of it, mister! He hasn't blacked his whiskers and bought that false mane simply so as to get into politics. He's trying to court the prettiest girl in this town."
"Aha!" said the drummer. "The old story! Cleopatra, queen of Egypt, is doing the job over again with the local Mark Antony!"
"Mebbe," admitted Mr. Files, his fishy gaze revealing that he had no personal knowledge of the parties mentioned. "It's the old story, all right. Widdereritis, and a bad run of it."
The bagman had a scarfpin in the shape of a horse shoe. His comment was in line with his taste in adornment. "Files, old scout, if a colt is put to harness so early that he can't get his natural fling in the fields, he'll have it at the other end of his life, when he's let run to pasture, spavin or no spavin. Why don't Egypt hold off and let Uncle What's-his-name enjoy his new hair and hopes?"
"He has known how to collect in the money that's due him," stated Mr. Files, "compound interest and all! He was only getting back his investments. But he has never put out any of the kind of capital that earns liking or respect or love. He has woke up to what he has been missing. He's trying to collect what he has never invested. And he can't do it, mister! No, sir, he can't!"
The drummer was a young man. He asked a natural question. "Isn't the girl willing to be an old man's darling?"
"You might go over to Britt's bank and ask her," suggested Mr. Files, crisply. "She's bookkeeper there. But you'd better not let that young fellow that's cashier overhear you."
"So that's it? Say, events in Egypt in the near future may make some of the mummies here sit up and take notice!"
"Shouldn't wonder a mite," agreed Mr. Files, beginning to gather up the dishes.
That morning Mr. Britt did not dawdle in the hotel office with his cigar. He knew perfectly well that he merely had been making a pretense of enjoying that sybaritism, putting on his new clubman airs along with his dye and his toupee.
Among other curios in the office was a dusty, stuffed alligator, hanging from the ceiling over the desk. The jaws were widely agape and Mr. Britt always felt an inclination to yawn when he looked alligatorward. Therefore, the alligator offended Mr. Britt by suggesting drowsiness in the morning; Mr. Britt, up early, and strictly after any worm that showed itself along the financial path, resented the feeling of daytime sleepiness as heresy. Furthermore, that morning the gaping alligator also suggested the countenance of the open-mouthed Files whom Britt had just left in the dining room, and Files had been irritating. Britt scowled at the alligator, lighted a cigar, and hustled outdoors; he had the feeling that the day was to be an important one in his affairs.
Egypt's Pharaoh was able to view considerable of the town from the tavern porch. The tavern was an old stage-coach house and was boosted high on a hill, according to the pioneer plan of location. The houses of the little village straggled down the hill.
The aspect was not uninviting, seen under the charitable cloak of February's snow, sun-touched by the freshly risen luminary, the white expanses glinting; all the rocks and ledges and the barren shapes were covered. But under summer's frank sunlight Egypt was as disheartening a spectacle as a racked old horse, ribs and hip bones outthrust, waiting for the knacker's offices.
There were men in Egypt—men whose reverses had put them in a particularly ugly mood—who said out loud in places where Britt could not hear them that the money-grabber could not get much more than twelve-per-cent blood out of the nag he had ridden for so long, and might as well set knife to neck and put the town out of its misery.
Right behind Britt, as he stood on the porch, was a sheaf of yellowed papers nailed to the side of the tavern. Nobody in Egypt bothered to look at the papers; all the taxpayers knew what they were; the papers were signed by the high sheriff of the county and represented that all the real estate of Egypt had been sold over and over for taxes and had been bid in by the town as a municipality—and there the matter rested. Egypt, in other words, had been trying to lift itself by the bootstraps and was not merely still standing on the ground, but was considerably sunk in the hole that had been dug by the boot heels while Egypt was jumping up and down. Mr. Britt was not troubled by the sight of the yellowed papers; he owned mortgages and pulled in profit by the legal curiosities known as "Holmes notes"—leeches of particular drawing power. Mr. Britt did not own real estate. Egypt, in its financial stress and snarl of litigation, was a wonderful operating field for a man with loose money and a tight nature.
From far swamps the whack of axes sounded. Mr. Britt knew that men were cutting hoop poles and timber for shooks; Egypt earned ready money with which to pay interest, getting out shooks and hoop poles. That occupation had been the resource of the pioneers, and the descendants stuck to the work, knowing how to do it better than anything else. There was not enough soil for farming on a real money-making scale. The old sheep, so cynics said, were trained to hold the lambs by their tails and lower them head downward among the rocks to graze. Poor men usually own dogs. But dogs would not live long in Egypt, the cynics went on to assert; the dogs ran themselves to death hustling over the town line to find dirt enough to bury a bone.
Mr. Britt could see his statue in the cemetery.
Down the street was a one-story brick building, the only brick structure in the town. Set into the front of this building was a replica of the statue in the cemetery. Britt had secured special rates by ordering two statues from the stonecutter. Britt possessed vanity. He had hidden it, begrudging the cost of gratifying it. The crust of his nature, hardening through the years, had pressed upon that vanity. The statues, his refurbished beard, and his rehaired head had relieved the pressure somewhat, but the vanity was still sore. In his new mood he was dreading a blow on that sore spot. He realized what kind of a grudge he was carrying around. A vague sense of an unjust deal in life is more dangerous to the possessor than an acute and concrete knowledge of specific injury. The vagueness causes it to be correlated to insanity. Britt, putting his belated aspirations to the test, hoped that nobody would presume to hit on that sore spot. He knew that such an adventure might be dangerous for the person or persons who went up against him.
He buttoned his overcoat, settled the cigar rigidly into one corner of his mouth, stared with approval at the stone image of himself in the facade of Britt Block, and walked to the edge of the porch.
Across the street sat a little building above the door of which was a sign inscribed, "Usial Britt, Shoemaker." That it was a dwelling as well as a shop was indicated when a bare and hairy arm was thrust from a side window and the refuse in a smoking iron spider was dumped upon the snow. Simultaneously it was shown that more than one person tenanted the building: a man, bareheaded, but with a shaggy mat of roached hair that served in lieu of a hat, issued from the door. The wanton luxuriance of the hair would have stirred envy in any baldheaded man; but Tasper Britt exhibited a passion that was more virulent than envy.
The man who came forth was "Prophet Elias." It was the newcomer, the religious fanatic, the exhorter against oppression of the people by usury, the fearless declaimer who named Tasper Britt in diatribe and was setting the folks by the ears.
The Prophet's morning greeting did not make for amity. He stood straight and pointed in turn to the visible statues and then to Tasper Britt, in person. "Baal, and the images of Baal!" he shouted. "Stone, all three!"
Then he stepped from the door and spread a prodigiously big umbrella—an umbrella striped in dingy colors and of the size of the canopies seen over the drivers of delivery wagons. The employment of such a shield from the sun in midwinter indicated that the Prophet was rather more than eccentric; his garb conveyed the same suggestion. He wore a frayed purple robe that hung on his heels when he came striding across the street. On a broad band of cloth that once had been white, reaching from shoulder to waist, diagonally across his breast, were the words, "The Light of the World."
Tasper Britt surveyed him with venomous gaze as he advanced. But Britt shifted his stare and put additional venom into the look he gave a man who came to the door and stood there, leaning against the jamb and surveying the scene with a satisfied grin. There was no need of the name "Britt" above his head to proclaim his kinship with the man who stood on the tavern porch. The beard of the Britt in the door was gray, and his head was bald. But he was Tasper Britt, in looks, as Britt unadorned ought to have been. There was something like subtle reproach in his sticking to nature as nature had ordained. And the folks of Egypt had been having much to say about Usial Britt putting this new touch of malice into the long-enduring feud between twin brothers—even though he merely went on as he had been going, bald and gray. But because Usial had taken to going about in public places wherever Tasper appeared, and unobtrusively got as near his brother as possible on those occasions, and winked and pointed to himself and suggested "Before using!" the malice was apparent.
Usial, in the door, stroked his smooth poll complacently and grinned.
Tasper, on the porch, shook his fist.
Prophet Elias marched close to the porch and struck an attitude. "Hear ye! Hath not Job said, 'The triumphing of the wicked is short, and the joy of the hypocrite but for a moment'?"
A man who was humped over a sawbuck in a nearby yard straightened up and began to pay strict attention. A driver halted a sled loaded with unshaved hoop poles, and listened. The commercial drummer came out on the porch.
"Look here, you crazy coot, haven't I given you fair warning about tongue-whaling me in public?" demanded the man who was pilloried.
"'Behold, all they that are incensed against thee shall be ashamed and confounded,'" quoted the Prophet, pounding his fist against the lettered breast. "'They shall be as nothing; and they that strive with thee shall perish.'"
Mr. Britt leaped off the porch, thrust the Prophet from his path, and strode across the street toward the man in the door. The brother did not lose his smile. He maintained his placid demeanor even when an angry finger slashed through the air close under his nose.
"I never intended to pass speech with you again, you renegade," stormed Tasper. "But I'm talking to-day for a town that I propose to represent in the legislature, and I won't have it shamed any longer by a lunatic that you're harboring."
Usial Britt lifted his eyebrows. "The legislature?" He puckered his lips and whistled a few bars of "Hail to the Chief."
Candidate Britt waggled the monitory finger more energetically. "You are sheltering and ste'boying on a crazy man who is making the rest of the people in this town crazy. If they hadn't grown loony they'd ride him out over the line on a rail."
The Prophet had arrived at Britt's shoulder. "'But God has chose the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God has chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty.'"
"I don't guarantee my guest's brains," said the Britt in the door, "but I do vouch for the correctness of his memory when it comes to the matter of Gospel quotations. And a cracked record doesn't always spoil a good tune."
"I'll have him in the lockup as a tramp, or on the poor farm as a lunatic."
"You mean, that's where you would have him if the shelter of my roof didn't give him legal protection," returned Usial, calm in the face of wrath.
"'I was a stranger, and ye took me in,'" declaimed the Prophet.
"And I'm keeping you on," stated the cynical Usial, speaking for his brother's benefit, "because you're a self-operating, red-hot gad that is helping me torment yon pirate with texts after I had run out of cuss words. Go ahead, Prophet! Shoot anything. It's a poor text that will not hit him some place."
Obediently, the fanatic began to mouth Holy Writ in orotund. Tasper Britt raised his fist. But the devil himself shrinks before The Word. Britt did not strike. His face revealed his emotions; he could not bring himself to assault this fountain of sacred aphorisms.
He turned and marched away down the middle of the road, stamping hard into the snow.
One of the listeners was a man who came bearing a pair of shoes. Usial Britt took them from the man's hand. "You can have 'em to-morrow night."
"But there's only a little patch needed—"
"To-morrow night, I said. I've got other business for to-day." He went into the house and slammed the door.
The Prophet set his umbrella over his head and went away on the trail of Egypt's Pharaoh.
There was a door in the middle of the facade of the low brick building; there were two windows on either side of the door. On the left-hand windows was painted in black letters, "Egypt Trust Company." On the right-hand windows was painted, "T. Britt." There was no legend to indicate what the business of T. Britt might be. None was required. The mere name carried full information for all Egypt.
Mr. Britt glanced in at the left-hand windows as he approached the door. Cashier Frank Vaniman was sweeping out.
When President Britt of the new Egypt Trust company went down to a business college in the city in search of a cashier, he quizzed candidates in quest of what he termed "foolish notions." Young Mr. Vaniman, who had supported himself ever since he was fourteen years old, and had done about everything in the ten years since then in the way of work, grabbing weeks or months for his schooling when he had a bit of money ahead, passed the test very well, according to Mr. Britt's notion. Young Mr. Vaniman had secured a business education piecemeal, and was a bit late in getting it, but Mr. Britt promptly perceived that the young man had not been hung up by stupidity or sloth. So he hired Vaniman, finding him a strapping chap without foolish notions.
Vaniman was cashier, receiving teller, paying teller, swept out, tended the furnace, and kept the books of the bank until Britt hired Vona Harnden for that job. Vona had been teaching school to help out her folks, in the prevailing Egyptian famine in finance.
But folks stopped paying taxes, and the town orders by the school committee on the treasurer were not honored; therefore, Vona gratefully took a place in the bank when Mr. Britt called her into his office one day and offered the job to her. He said that the work was getting to be too much for Frank. That consideration for hired help impressed Miss Harnden and she smiled very sweetly indeed, and Mr. Britt beamed back at her in a fashion that entirely disarranged for the rest of the day the set look that he creased into his features before his mirror every morning. Several clients took advantage of his blandness and renewed notes without paying the premium that Britt exacted when he loaned his own money as a private venture.
President Britt entered the door, but he did not go into the bank at once. He marched along the corridor and unlocked his office and toasted himself over the furnace register while he finished his cigar; Vaniman was a good fireman and was always down early. Mr. Britt kept his ear cocked; he knew well the tap of certain brisk boot heels that sounded in the corridor every morning and he timed his movements accordingly.
By being on the alert for sounds, he heard what did not comport with the comfort of his office. Prophet Elias was engaged in his regular morning tour of duty, picketing T. Britt's domains, giving an hour to deliverance of taunting texts before going abroad through the town on his mission to the people with texts of comfort; the Prophet carried plenty of penetrating, textual ammunition, but he carried poultices for the spirit as well.
Mr. Britt heard: "'Will he esteem thy riches? No, not gold, nor all the forces of strength.'"
The usurer commented under his breath with remarks that were not scriptured. He threw away his cigar and went to a case where he kept some law books which contained the statutes that were concerned with money and debts and dependence; he had been hunting through the legislative acts regarding vagrants and paupers and had been hoping to light on some legal twist that would serve him. The Prophet kept on proclaiming. But all at once he shifted from taunts about riches. His voice was mellow with sincere feeling.
Said the Prophet: "'Behold, thou art fair, my love; thou hast doves' eyes within thy locks. Thy teeth are like a flock of sheep which came up from the washing. Thy lips are like a thread of scarlet, and thy speech is comely. Thou art all fair, my love; there is no spot in thee.'"
Mr. Britt did not wait in his office for the completion of the panegyric. He knew well enough what arriving personage it heralded. He hurried out into the corridor and faced the radiant girl who came in from the sunshine. Even one who might question the Prophet's tact would not have blamed his enthusiasm.
"Vona, you swear out a warrant and I'll have him arrested," stammered the employer.
She checked a chirrup of laughter and her smile faded when she opened her eyes on Britt's sourness.
"There's a law about hectoring and insulting a female person on the street—some kind of a law—and we'll invoke it in this case," Britt insisted.
"Why, Mr. Britt, he's only a harmless old man with extremely poor judgment about most things, including a girl's looks," she protested.
"Don't you call that gabble an insult to you, walking along and minding your own business?" His heat was alarming; he shook his fist to indicate the Prophet.
She was unable to restrain her demure smile. "The specifications, sir, are overflattering; but I'm sure I don't feel insulted."
In the past Britt had purred paternally in her presence and had stared at her in a way that often disconcerted her. Now his expression alarmed her. His face grew red. At first she thought he was embarrassed by the reflection that he had been terming the Prophet's compliments an insult—intimating that she had no claim to such compliments. But Mr. Britt did not bother to deal with that phase of the matter. The flame was shifted from his face to his eyes; his cheeks grew pale. He tried to put his arm about her. She set her gloved hands against the arm and pushed it away, fright popping her eyelids wide apart.
"I want to protect you," Britt stuttered. "I don't want any harm or trouble to come to you."
He stepped back and gazed at her imploringly. His abashed obedience, his promptness in desisting, restored her self-possession immediately. She had the air of one who had misunderstood friendly interest. "Oh, Mr. Britt, I know you have a kind heart underneath your—I mean that folks don't realize how good you are unless they are near to you, as Frank and I are. We often speak of it." She hurried on. She opened the door admitting to the bank from the corridor and cheerily called her "Good morning!" to the cashier as she crossed the threshold.
Mr. Britt stood in his tracks in the corridor after she closed the door. He stared at the floor with eyes that saw nothing. He slowly raised his hand and set his right index finger upon the toupee and scratched meditatively through the mesh—scratched carefully, having accustomed himself to handling his boughten hair with cautious touch. He had not liked her intonation when she said "Frank and I." He muttered something about his feelings. He had never thought of Frank as belonging in Vona's calculations. He had never considered even the linking of their names, much less their interests.
But Mr. Britt, having made money his idol, could not understand worship directed to any other shrine. His face cleared while he pondered. A girl who frankly declared at all times that she would do 'most anything to help her family out of their troubles was not of a mind to hitch up with another pauper—a combination of choreman and cashier—even though she had linked their names casually in speech. And Mr. Britt mouthed mumblingly some of the sentiments he had put into words that morning when he arose. He smoothed down the top piece and looked more at ease. He smiled when he reflected on what he would have to say to her after Emissary Orne had returned with something in the line of fruits from the Promised Land. His self-assurance revived; nevertheless, he tiptoed along the corridor and listened at the door of the bank.
The reassuring swish of a broom and their casual chatter—he heard only those commonplace sounds!
She was asking Vaniman if he had mislaid her dustcloth.
Vaniman replied in a tone which indicated that the two were at some distance from each other. There was no subdued conference—no murmuring of mushiness such as a meeting in the morning might be expected to elicit in case there was any sort of an understanding between them. Mr. Britt tiptoed away from the door and braced back his shoulders and gave himself a shake of satisfied confidence, and went serenely into his office, plucking a cigar from his vest pocket. By permitting himself to smoke again he was breaking the habit of confining himself to one cigar after breakfast. But many men in moments of exaltation seek tobacco or alcohol.
Mr. Britt felt that he had broken the ice, at any rate. Mr. Britt decided that the girl was heart-free and entertained sensible ideas about the main chance—and she had had a good word to say about Britt's kind heart. Mr. Britt was sure that Frank Vaniman knew his place and was keeping it. Therefore, Mr. Britt lighted a fresh cigar and blew visible smoke rings and inflated invisible mental bubbles and did not pay any more attention to what Prophet Elias was saying outside. And as if the Prophet had received a psychological hint that his text shafts were no longer penetrating the money king's tough hide, the diminuendo of his orotund marked the progress of his departure.
Usually Mr. Britt went across into the bank and hung around after the girl arrived. On this morning he stayed in his office. According to his notion, his advances to her in the corridor, though he had not intended to be so precipitate in the matter, had given her something to think about—and he decided to keep away and let her think. If she saw him following the usual routine, her thoughts might drop back into routine channels.
He thrilled at the memory of her touch on his arm, even though the touch had been a thrusting of her hands in self-defense and her eyes had been big with fright.
He sat down at his desk and tore the leaf off his pad calendar, starting his business day as usual. He looked at the disclosed date and his eyes became humid. It was February 14th, the day of St. Valentine. An idea came to Mr. Britt. He had been wondering how to approach the question with Vona without blurting the thing and making a mess of it. He determined to do something that he had not attempted since he had beaued Hittie; he set himself to compose a few verses for a valentine—verses that would pave the way for a formal declaration of his love and his hopes.
The determination indicated that Mr. Britt was having a severe run of a second attack of the same malady, and he acknowledged that much to himself as he sat there and chewed the soggy end of an extinguished cigar and gazed aloft raptly, seeking rhymes.
He made slow progress; his pen trailed as sluggishly as a tracking snail—a word at a time. He lost all notion of how the hours were slipping past.
A man walked in. He was Stickney, a cattle buyer, and a minor stockholder in the bank. Mr. Britt, his eyes filmy with prolonged abstraction, hooked his chin over his shoulder and scowled on the intruder; a man bringing business into that office that day was an intruder, according to Mr. Britt's opinion.
Stickney walked close to the desk and displayed a flash of curiosity when Britt laid his forearm over his writing.
"Spring pome, or only a novel?" queried Stickney, genially, figuring that such a question was the height of humor when put to a man of Tasper Britt's flinty, practical nature.
Mr. Britt, like a person touched smartly by a brad, twitched himself in his chair and asked in chilly tone what he could do for Stickney. The caller promptly became considerable of an icicle himself. He laid down a little sheaf of papers beside the shielding forearm.
"If you'll O. K. them notes for discount, I'll be much obliged, and won't take up valuable time."
"We're tightening up on discounts—calling in many loans, too," stated President Britt, with financial frigidity.
"I know all about your calling loans, Mr. Britt. Much obliged. It makes a crackerjack market for me in the cattle business. They've got to raise money, and I'm setting my own prices." Stickney thawed and beamed on Britt with a show of fraternal spirit, as if the banker were a co-conspirator in the job of shaking down the public. "However, my notes there are all good butchers' paper—sound as a pennyroyal hymn! I've got to have the cash so as to steal more cattle while the market is as it is."
Britt pushed away the notes and seized the opportunity to turn his own papers upside down on the desk. "We can't accommodate you at present, Stickney."
The customer stepped back and propped his palms on his hips. "I reckon I've got to call for an explanation."
"We're not in the habit of explaining the details of our business to individuals."
Stickney slipped the leash on his indignation. "'We,' say you? All right! 'We' it is. I'm in on that 'we.' I'm a stockholder in the bank. What sort of investments are 'we' making that have caused money to be so tight here that a regular customer is turned down—and after enough loans have been called to make the vault bulge?"
"The report will show," returned Britt, coldly. "I am not called on to issue that report in installments every time a stockholder turns in here."
The especial stockholder stepped forward and tapped his finger on the desk. "I don't say that you are. But now that this subject is opened up—"
"The subject is closed, Stickney."
"Now that the subject is opened up," insisted the other man, "I'll make mention of what you probably know—that I have regular business 'most every day down in Levant at the railroad terminus. And I'm knowing to it that regular shipments of specie have been coming to the bank. If that specie is in our vaults it ain't sweating off more gold and silver, is it, or drawing interest? I know you're a shrewd operator, Britt. I ain't doubting but what your plans may be good."
"They are!" President Britt's retort was crisp.
"But when those plans put a crimp into my plans—and me a steady customer—I'm opening my mouth to ask questions."
"You—and all other stockholders—will be fully informed by the annual report—and will be pleased." Britt's air was one of finality.
"Let me tell you that the mouth I have opened to ask questions will stay open in regard to hoarding that specie where it ain't drawing interest."
Britt jumped up and shook his fist under Stickney's snub nose. "Don't you dare to go blabbing around the country! You might as well set off a bomb under our bank as to circulate news that will attract robbers."
"Bomb? Britt, I'm safe when I'm handled right, but if I'm handled wrong—" Stickney did not finish his sentence; but his truculent air was pregnant with suggestion.
"Do you think you can blackmail me or this bank into making an exception in your case against our present policy? Go ahead and talk, Stickney, and I'll post the people of this town on your selfish tactics—and you'll see where you get off!"
Stickney did not argue the matter further. He looked like a man who was disgusted because he had wasted so much time trying to get around a Tasper Britt stony "No!" He picked up his papers, stamped out, and slammed the door.
Britt shook himself, like a spiritualist medium trying to induce the trance state, and went back to his writing.
After a time a dull, thrumming sound attracted his attention. It was something like Files's dinner gong, whose summons Mr. Britt was wont to obey on the instant.
Mr. Britt was certain that it was not the gong; however, he glanced up at the clock on the wall, then he leaped out of his chair. In his amazement he rapped out, "Well, I'll be—"
That clock was reliable; it marked the hour of twelve.
Mr. Britt had received convincing evidence that the rhapsody of composition makes morsels of hours and gulps days in two bites.
But he had completed five stanzas. He concluded that they would do, though he had planned on five more. Glancing over his composition, he decided that it might be better to leave the matter a bit vague, just as the poem left it at the end of the fifth stanza. In the corridor that morning Vona had shown that too much precipitateness alarmed her; he might go too far in five more stanzas. The five he had completed would give her a hint—something to think of. He pondered on that point while he stuck the paper into an envelope and sealed it.
Mr. Britt hurried the rest of his movements; Files's kitchen conveniences were archaic, and the guest who was not on time got cold viands.
The lover who had begun to stir Miss Harnden's thoughts into rather unpleasant roiliness of doubts came hustling into the bank, hat and coat on.
The girl and young Vaniman were spreading their respective lunches on the center table inside the grille.
Britt called Vona to the wicket. He slipped the envelope through to her. "There's no hurry, you understand! Take your time. Read it in a slack moment—later! And"—he hesitated and gulped—"I want to see you after bank hours. If you'll step in—I'll be much obliged."
She did not assent orally, nor show especial willingness to respond to his invitation. She took the envelope and turned toward the table after Britt had left the wicket.
She walked to the window and gazed at the retreating back of Mr. Britt, and put the envelope into a velvet bag that was attached by slender chains to her girdle.
When she faced Vaniman, the young cashier was regarding her archly.
"I wonder if congratulations are in order," he suggested.
Her quick flush was followed by a pallor that gave her an appearance of anger. "I don't relish that sort of humor."
"My gracious, Vona, I wasn't trying to be especially humorous," he protested, staring at her so ingenuously that his candor could not be questioned. "I reckoned that the boss was raising your pay, and was being a bit sly about it! What else can it be?"
Then she was truly disconcerted; at a loss for a reply; ashamed of her display of emotion.
He stared hard at her. His face began to show that he was struggling with an emotion of his own. "Vona," he faltered, after a time, "I haven't any right to ask you—but do you have any—is that paper—"
He was unable to go on under the straight and strange gaze she leveled at him. She was plainly one who was taking counsel with herself. She came to a sudden decision, and drew forth the envelope and tore it open, unfolded the paper, and began to read.
When her eyes were not on him Vaniman revealed much of what a discerning person would have known to be love; love that had been pursuing its way quietly, but was now alarmed and up in arms. He narrowed his eyes and studied her face while she read. But she did not reveal what she thought and he became more perturbed. She finished and looked across at him and then she narrowed her eyes to match his expression. Suddenly she leaned forward and gave him the paper. He read it, amazement lifting his eyebrows.
When he met her stare again they were moved by a common impulse—mirth; mirth that was born out of their mutual amazement and was baptized by the tears that their merriment squeezed from their eyes.
"I am not laughing at Tasper Britt," he gasped, checking his hilarity. "I would not laugh at any man who falls in love with you, Vona. I am laughing at the idea of Tasper Britt writing poetry. Let me look out of the window! Has Burkett Hill tipped over? Has the sun turned in the heavens at high noon and started back to the east?"
"What does it mean?" she asked. Her expression excused the banality of her query; her eyes told him that she knew, but her ears awaited his indorsement of her woman's conviction.
He pointed to the big calendar on the wall. "It's a valentine," he said, gravely. But the twinkle reappeared in his eyes when he added, "And valentines have always been used for prefaces in the volume of Love."
She did not reflect any of his amusement. She clasped her hands and gazed down on them, and her forehead was wrinkled with honest distress.
"Of course, you have sort of been guessing," he ventured. "All the renovating process—the way he has been tiptoeing around and squinting at you!"
She looked up suddenly and caught his gaze; his tone had been hard, but his eyes were tender.
Then it happened!
They had been hiding their deeper feelings under the thin coating of comradeship for a long time. As in the instance of other pent-up explosives, only the right kind of a jar was needed to "trip" the mass.
The threat of a rival—even of such a preposterous rival as Tasper Britt—served as detonator in the case of Frank Vaniman, and the explosion of his emotions produced sympathetic results in the girl across the table from him. He leaped up, strode around to her and put out his arms, and she rushed into the embrace he offered.
But their mutual consolations were denied them—he was obliged to dam back his choking speech and she her blessed tears.
A depositor came stamping in.
They were calm, with their customary check on emotions, when they were free to talk after the man had gone away.
"Vona, I did not mean to speak out to you so soon," he told her. "Not but what it was in here"—he patted his breast—"and fairly boiling all the time!"
She assured him, with a timid look, that her own emotions had not been different from his.
"But I have respected your obligations," he went on, with earnest candor. "And this is the first real job I've ever had. It's best to be honest with each other."
She agreed fervently.
"I wish we could be just as honest with Britt. But we both know what kind of a man he is. The sentiment of 'Love, and the world well lost' is better in a book than it is in this bank just now, as matters stand with us. I have had so many hard knocks in life that I know what they mean, and I want to save you from them. Isn't it best to go along as we are for a little while, till I can see my way to get my feet placed somewhere else?"
"We must do so, Frank—for the time being." Her candor matched his. "I do need this employment for the sake of my folks. Both of us must be fair to ourselves—not silly. Only—"
Her forehead wrinkled again.
"I know, Vona! Britt's attentions! I'll take it on myself—"
"No," she broke in, with dignity. "I must make that my own affair. It can be easily settled. It's pure folly on his part. I'll make him understand it when I talk with him this afternoon."
"But I'll feel like a coward," he protested, passionately.
She put up her hand and smiled. "You're not a coward, dear! Nor am I a hypocrite. We're just two poor toilers who must do the best we can till the clouds clear away."
She went to him, and when her hands caressed his cheeks he bent down and kissed her.
Then they applied themselves to their tasks in Mr. Britt's bank.
THE ACHE OF RAPPED KNUCKLES
Landlord Files set forth a boiled dinner that day; he skinched on corned beef and made up on cabbage; but he economized on fuel, and the cabbage was underdone.
Mr. Britt, back in his office, allowing his various affairs to be digested—his dinner, his political project, the valentine—his hopes in general—found that soggy cabbage to be a particularly tough proposition. He was not sufficiently imaginative to view his punishment by the intractable cabbage as a premonitory hint that he was destined to suffer as much in his pride as he did in his stomach. His pangs took his mind off the other affairs. He was pallid and his lips were blue when Emissary Orne came waddling into the office.
Mr. Orne, in addition to other characteristics that suggested a fowl, had a sagging dewlap, and the February nip had colored it into resemblance to a rooster's wattles. When he came in Mr. Orne's face was sagging, in general. It was a countenance that was already ridged into an expression of sympathy. When he set eyes on Britt the expression of woe was touched up with alarm. But that the alarm had to do with the personal affairs of Mr. Orne was shown when he inquired apprehensively whether Mr. Britt would settle then and there for the day's work.
The candidate looked up at the office timepiece. "It ain't three o'clock. I don't call it a day."
"You call it a day in banking. I've got the same right to call it a day in politics."
"What infernal notion is afoul of you, Orne, grabbing for my money before you report?"
"I do business with a man according to his own rules—and then he's suited, or ought to be. You collect sharp on the dot after service has been rendered. So do I." Mr. Orne was displaying more acute nervous apprehension. "And the understanding was that you'd leave it to me as your manager, and wouldn't go banging around, yourself."
Britt found the agent's manner puzzling. "I haven't been out of this office, except to go to my dinner. I haven't talked politics with anybody."
"Oh!" remarked Orne, showing relief. "Perhaps, then, it was the way the light fell on your face." He peered closely at his client. Mr. Britt's color was coming back. Orne's cryptic speeches and his haste to collect had warmed the banker's wrath. "It'll be ten dollars, as we agreed."
Britt yanked a big wallet from his breast pocket, plucked out a bill, and shoved it at Orne. The latter set the bill carefully into a big wallet of his own, "sunk" the calfskin, and buttoned up his buffalo coat.
"It does beat blazes," stated "Sniffer" Orne, "what a messed up state all politics is in since this prim'ry business has put the blinko onto caucuses and conventions. Caucuses was sensible, Mr. Britt. Needn't tell me! Voters liked to have the wear and tear off 'em. Now a voter gets into that booth and has to caucus by himself, and he's either so puffed up by importance that he thinks he's the whole party or else—"
Mr. Britt's patience was ground between the millstones of anger and indigestion. He smacked the flat of his hand on his desk. "When I want a stump speech out of you, Orne, I'll drop you a postcard and give you thirty days' notice so that you can get up a good one. You have made a short day of it, as I said, but you needn't feel called on to fill it up with a lecture." Mr. Britt continued on pompously and revealed that he placed his own favorable construction on the emissary's early return from the field. "You didn't have to go very far, hey, to find out how I stand for that nomination?"
"I went far enough so that you can depend on what I tell you."
"Go ahead and tell, then."
Mr. Orne slowly fished a quill toothpick from the pocket of his overcoat, set the end of the quill in his mouth, and "sipped" the air sibilantly, gazing over Britt's head with professional gravity. "Of course, you're the doctor in this case and are paying the money, and if you don't want any soothing facts, like I was intending to throw in free of charge and for good measure, showing how the best of politicians—"
There were ominous sounds from the direction of Britt. Orne checked his discourse, but he did not look at the candidate. "But no matter," said the agent. "That may be neither here nor there. You're the doctor, I say! When I first came in here I thought you had been disobeying my orders and had dabbled into the thing. Your face looked like you was posted."
"I'm paying for the goods, not for gobbling, you infernal old turkey! Come out with the facts!"
"Facts is that the whole thing is completely gooly-washed up," stated Mr. Orne, with an oracle's decisiveness.
But that declaration in Mr. Orne's political terminology did not convey much information to the candidate. Britt, thoroughly incensed by what seemed to be evasion, leaped up, twitched the toothpick from Orne's lips, and flung it away. "I've paid for the English language, and I want it straight and in short words, and not trigged by a toothpick."
"All right! You're licked before you start."
It was a bit too straight from the shoulder—that piece of news! Britt blinked as if he had received a blow between the eyes. He sat down and stared at Orne, elbows on the arms of the chair, hands limply hanging from lax wrists.
"It's this way!" Mr. Orne started, briskly, with upraised forefinger; but he shook his head and put down his hand. He turned away. "I forgot. You ordered plain facts."
"You hold on!" Britt thundered. "How do you dare to tell me that you can go out and in fifteen minutes come back with information of that sort?"
Mr. Orne glanced reproachfully from his detractor to the clock; he had not the same reasons as Mr. Britt had for finding the hours of the day fleeting. "Mr. Britt, a man doesn't need to make a hoss of himself and eat a whole head of cabbage by way of sampling it." Britt winced at the random simile. "It's the same way with me in sampling politics, being an expert. Your case, to start with, had me gy-poogled and—"
"English language, I tell you!" Britt emphasized his stand as a stickler by a tremendous thump of his fist on the desk.
Orne jabbed his finger back and forth from his breast to the direction of Britt, with the motions of the "eeny, meeny" game. "I was mistook. You was mistook. I figgered on your money. So did you. I figgered you'd go strong in politics like you had in finance. So did you." Mr. Orne put his hand up sidewise and sliced the air. "Nothing doing in politics, Mr. Britt! You can cash in on straight capital, but there ain't a cent in the dollar for you when you try to collect in what you 'ain't ever invested. A man don't have to be so blamed popular after he is well settled in politics; but you've got to have some real human-nature assets to get a start with. You've got to depend on given votes—not the boughten ones."
"Orne, you're rasping me mighty hard."
"You demanded facts—not hair-oil talk."
"Then the facts are—" Britt hesitated.
"Facts is that, by the usual arrangement in the legislative class of towns, Egypt had the choice this year. You won't get a vote in Egypt."
"But the men who come in here—" Again Britt halted in a sentence.
"The men who come in here and sit down at that desk and pick up a pen to sign a note have fixed on their grins before they open your door. But the men who get into a voting booth alone with God and a lead pencil, they'll jab down on to that ballot a cross for t'other candidate that'll look like a dent in a tin dipper. Somebody else might lie to you about the situation, Mr. Britt. I've done consid'able lying in politics, too. But when I'm hired by a man to deliver goods—and same has been paid for—my word can be depended on."
Britt turned around and looked into the depths of his desk, staring vacantly. His rounded shoulders suggested grief. Orne settled his wallet more firmly, pressing on the outside of the buffalo coat. His face again sagged with sympathy. "Mr. Britt, it's only like what most of us do in this life—take smiles without testing 'em with acid—take words-current for what they seem to be worth, and then we do test 'em out and—"
Britt whirled and broke on this fatuous preachment with an oath. Mr. Orne thriftily withheld further sympathy; it was plainly wasted.
"Orne, I hope it's about due to revise the New Testament again. I want to send in some footnotes for that page where Judas Iscariot is mentioned. I want a full roster of his descendants to appear; I'll furnish the voting list of this town. Get out of here and pass that word."
But a yelp from the candidate halted the departing Orne at the door. "Seeing that you have my ten dollars and are full of political information, perhaps you'll throw in free of charge who it is this town is going to send to the legislature!"
"Only one thing has been decided on so far," returned the politician. "And, having no desire to rub it in, I'll let you draw your own conclusions." Mr. Orne had the door open; he dodged out and slammed the door shut.
It was promptly opened—so promptly that Mr. Britt was fairly caught at what he was about. He was standing up, shaking both fists at the door and cursing roundly. Vona was gazing at him in alarm.
"I was waiting in the corridor, sir, till you—till your business—till Mr. Orne went away," she stammered.
"Come in!" muttered Britt, even more disconcerted than the girl.
Then he wished that he had told her to go away. He realized that he was in no mood or condition to woo; the cabbage had tortured him, but this new sort of indigestion in the very soul of him had left him without poise or courage.
He slumped down in his chair and waved a limp hand in invitation for her to take a seat near him. But she merely came and stood in the middle of the room and surveyed him with an uncompromising air of business. From the velvet toque, with just a suggestion of a coquettish cant on her brown curls, down her healthily round cheeks, a bit flushed, above the fur neckpiece that clasped her throat, Britt's fervent eyes strayed. And some of the words of the Prophet's singsong monotone echoed in the empty chambers of Britt's consciousness, "'Thou hast dove's eyes within thy locks—thy lips are like a thread of scarlet.'"
But she was aloof. She held herself rigidly erect. Her eyes were coldly inquiring. Those lips were set tightly. Mr. Britt had just been reaching out for honors, and his knuckles had been rapped cruelly. He wanted to reach out for love—and he dared not. The girl, as she stood there, was so patently among the things he was not able to possess!
She had come into his presence with expectation keenly alert, with her fears putting her into a mental posture of defense. She felt that she knew just what was going to happen, and she was assuring herself that she would be able to meet the situation. But she was not prepared for what did happen. She did not understand Britt's mental state of that moment. Mr. Britt, himself, did not understand. He had never been up against conditions of that sort. He had not had time to fix his face and his mood, as he did daily before the mirror in his bedroom. He did what nobody had ever seen him do—what neither he nor the girl would have predicted one minute before as among human probabilities—he broke down and blubbered like a whipped urchin.
And after he had recovered some of his composure and was gazing up at her again, sniffling and scrubbing his reddened eyes with the bulge at the base of his thumb, knowing that he must say something by way of legitimate excuse, dreading the ridicule that a girl's gossip might bring upon him, a notion that was characteristic of Mr. Britt came to him: he grimly weighed the idea of telling her that Files's boiled dinner was the cause of his breakdown. However, in his weakness, his love flamed more hotly than ever before.
"Vona, I'm so lonesome!" he gulped.
Miss Harnden had entered behind her shield, nerved like a battling Amazon. She promptly lowered that shield and became all woman, with a woman's instinctive sympathetic understanding, but womanlike, she took the opportunity to introduce for her own defense a bit of guile with her sympathy. "I quite understand how you feel about the loss of Mrs. Britt, sir. And I'm glad because you remain so loyal to her memory."
Mr. Britt, like a man who had received a dipperful of cold water in the face, backed away from anything like a proposal at that unpropitious moment. But in all his arid nature he felt the need of some sort of consolation from a feminine source. "Vona, I've just had a terrible setback," he mourned. "There's only one other disappointment that could be any worse—and I don't dare to think of that right now."
Miss Harnden apprehensively proceeded to keep him away from the prospective disappointment, dwelling on the present, asking him solicitously what had happened.
He told her of his ambition and of what Ossian Orne had reported.
"But why should that be so very important for a man like you—to go to the legislature—Mr. Britt?"
He opened his mouth, hankering to blurt out what he had been treasuring as dreams whose realization would serve as an inducement to her. He had been picturing to himself their honeymoon at the state capital, away from the captious tongues of Egypt—how he would stalk with his handsome bride into the dining room of the capital's biggest hotel; how she would attract the eyes of jealous men, in her finery and with her jewels; how she would sit in the gallery at the State House and survey him making his bigness among the lawmakers; for some weeks he had been laboring on the composition of a speech that he intended to deliver. But her second dash of cold water kept him from the disclosure of his feelings. He went on so far as to ask her if she did not think a session at the state capital would be interesting.
"I have never thought anything about such a matter, of course, Mr. Britt, being only a girl and not a politician."
"But women who are there get into high society and wear fine clothes and have a grand time, Vona."
"It must be a tedious life," she replied, indifferently.
"Wouldn't you like to try it?" Now that he could not offer her the grand inducement he had planned as an essential part of his campaign of love he sought consolation in her assurance that the prospect did not tempt her. His hopes revived. He was reflecting that his money could buy railroad tickets, even if he had not the popularity with which to win votes. She shook her head promptly when he asked the question, and he went on with his new idea. "I suppose what a girl really enjoys is to see the world, after she has been penned up all her life in a town like this."
"I don't waste my time in foolish longings, Mr. Britt. In fact, I have no time to waste on anything." She gave him a bit of a smile. "In that connection I'll confess that I must hurry home and help mother with some sewing. Did you want anything especial of me?" Her smile had vanished, and in her tone there was a clink of the metallic that was as subtly suggestive of "On guard" as the click of a trigger.
Mr. Britt had planned upon a radiant disclosing of his projects—expecting to be spurred in his advances by the assurance of what he could offer her as the consort of a legislator—as high an honor as his narrow vision could compass. She had found him cursing, had kept him at bay, and he had already had evidence of the danger of precipitateness in her case. And his tears made him feel foolish. His ardor had been wet down; it took a back seat. His natural good judgment was again boss of the situation.
"I had something on my mind—but it can wait till you're in less of a hurry, Vona. Never neglect a mother. That's my attitude toward women. I'm always considerate where they're concerned. It's my nature. I hope you'll hold that in mind."
"Yes, Mr. Britt." She turned and hurried to the door, getting away from a fire that was showing signs of breaking out of its smoldering brands once more.
Britt recovered some of his courage when her back was turned. "You haven't said anything about those verses," he stammered.
"I think it's a beautiful way of putting aside your business cares for a time. I'm taking them home to read to mother."
He marched to the window and watched her as long as she was in sight.
Then he glowered on such of the Egyptians as passed to and fro along the street on their affairs. He muttered, spicing his comments with profanity. The girl's disclaimer of personal interest in Britt's ambitions did not soften his rancorous determination to make the voters of Egypt suffer for the stand they had taken—suffer to the bitter limit to which unrelenting persecution could drive them. He gritted his teeth and raved aloud. "From now on! From now on! Anything short of murder to show 'em! And as for that girl—if there's somebody—"
Britt stopped short of what that rival might expect, but his expression indicated that the matter was of even more moment than his affair with the voters of the town.
"AND PHARAOH'S HEART WAS HARDENED"
When Vona left him that afternoon, Vaniman paced the floor.
She had gone bravely to her meeting with Britt, bearing Frank's kiss on her cheek—a caress of encouragement when he had walked with her to the door in order to lock it after her.
It was not worry that caused him to tramp to and fro, frowning. Vona's demeanor of self-reliance had helped his feelings a great deal. But the corollary of devoted love is chivalry, and he felt that he was allowing her to do something that belonged to him to so, somehow. The policy which they had so sanely discussed did not seem to be such a comfortable course when he was alone, wondering what was going on across the corridor.
At last the sound of a door and the click of her heels signaled the end of the interview. He hoped that she would come back into the bank, making an excuse of something forgotten, in order to give him a soothing bulletin. He ran to the door and opened it. But the slam of the outside door informed him that she had gone on her way. Her prompt departure indicated that she was consistently pursuing the level-headed policy they had adopted; but the young man, impatient and wondering, was wishing she had taken a change, for once, even to the prejudice of policy. He shut his door and hurried to the window.
Though two men were watching her going-away, and though she must have been conscious of the fact, she did not turn her head to glance behind her.
At any rate, the thing was over, whatever had happened, the cashier reflected with relief. Nevertheless, curiosity was nagging at him; he felt an impulse to go in and inspect the condition of Tasper Britt by way of securing a hint.
Vaniman, however, shook his head and dropped into the routine of his duties. The ruts of life in Egypt, especially in the winter, were deep ones. The cashier had become contented with his little circle of occupation and recreation.
He carried the books into the vault. He wound the clock that controlled the mechanism of bolts and bars, and pushed the big outer door shut and made certain that it was secure.
Having finished as cashier, he became janitor.
Egypt had no electric lights. Vaniman trimmed the kerosene reflector lamp and set it on the table so that the front of the safe would be illuminated for the benefit of the village's night watchman.
Then he put on his cap and overcoat and locked the grille door and the bank door after he had passed each portal. His last chore of the day was always a trip into the basement to make sure that the dying fire in the wood furnace was carefully closed in for the night.
The basement stairs led from the rear of the corridor. When Vaniman returned up the stairs he had settled on a small matter of business which would serve as a valid excuse for entering the presence of President Britt. But he did not need to employ the excuse. Britt stood in his open door and called to the cashier and walked back to his chair, leaving Vaniman to follow, and the employee obeyed the summons with alacrity; he was consumed with desire to get a line on the situation that had been troubling him.
An observer would have called the contest of mutual inspection a fifty-fifty break—perhaps with a shade in favor of Britt, for the usurer's face was like leather and his goggling marbles of eyes under the lids that resembled little tents did not flicker.
"What can I do for you?" Britt demanded, and the query made for the young man's discomposure.
"Why, you called me in, sir!"
"Uh-huh!" the president admitted, "but somehow I had the impression that you said you wanted to see me after the bank closed." He was taking account of stock of Vaniman's personality, his eyes going up and down the stalwart figure and dwelling finally and persistently on the young man's hair; it was copper-bronze in hue, it had an attractive wave, there was plenty of it, and it seemed to be very firmly rooted.
"I don't remember that I mentioned it, Mr. Britt, but I do have an errand with you."
"All right! What is it?" Mr. Britt was not revealing any emotions that Vaniman found illuminating in regard to his particular quest.
"I am being tongue-lashed terribly through the wicket. Men won't believe that I'm obeying the orders of you and the board when accommodation is refused. Won't you take the matter off my hands—let me refer all to you?"
"I don't keep a dog and do my own barking," rasped the president. He brought his eyes down from the young man's hair and noted that Vaniman stiffened and was displaying resentment.
"That's only a Yankee motto—you needn't take it as personal, Vaniman. I have turned over to you the running of the bank. I say to all that you're running it. You ought to feel pretty well set up!"
"I obey your orders, sir," returned the cashier, not warming.
"That's all right for an understanding between us two. But I let the public think you're the whole thing. I tell 'em I've got full confidence in you. You don't want the public to think you're only a rubber stamp, do you?"
"The general opinion right now seems to be that I'm either a first-class liar or Shylock sentenced to a second term on earth," retorted Vaniman, with bitterness.
There was a long silence in the room, where the early dusk was deepening. The two men regarded each other with expressions that did not soften.
After a time Britt turned to his desk, unlocked a compartment, and produced a letter, which he unfolded slowly, again staring hard at the cashier.
"Speaking of being sentenced!" There was something ominous in his drawl. "You told me a whole lot about yourself, Vaniman, when I was talking of hiring you. But there was one important thing you didn't mention—mighty important, seeing that you wanted a job as boss of a bank." He tapped the open letter. "I've had this letter for a good many weeks, not saying anything about it to you or anybody else. I'm not sure just why I'm saying anything now."
Vaniman flushed. His face worked with emotion. He put up his hand and started to speak, but Britt put up a more compelling hand and went on. "I reckon I'm bringing this matter up so that you'll know just where you stand—so that you'll mind your eye and look out for my interests in every way from now on—so that—" He hesitated a moment. His eyes flamed. "So that you'll know your place! That's it! Know your place—and be mighty careful how you go against me in anything—anything where I'm interested." Britt had whipped himself into anger. That anger, fanned by a flame of jealousy after it had been touched off by his inspection of youth and good looks, had carried Mr. Britt far. He shook the letter at the young man. "There's a reliable name signed to this letter; he is a friend of mine, one of the big financiers in the city, and this was in the way of friendly warning."
"I understand, Mr. Britt." The cashier had recovered his self-possession. "You are warned that my father was sentenced to the penitentiary for embezzlement. No, I did not mention that to you. It concerned a man who is dead. It has nothing to do with my honesty."
"Well, there's another motto about 'blood will tell,'" sneered Britt.
Vaniman stepped forward, honestly indignant, manfully resolute. "Let me tell you, sir, that the letter you hold there—no matter who wrote it—concerns a good man who is dead. He was the scapegoat of one of those big financiers." Vaniman's lip curled. "My father was railroaded to jail on a track greased with lies—and died because the heart had been ripped out of him and—"
"Hold on! It won't get us anywhere to try that case all over, Vaniman. Let the letter stand as it is—it was probably meant in the right spirit. But I didn't write it. You and I better not fight over it. I've shown, by laying it away and saying nothing, that I have a decent nature in me. I hope I'll never have any need to take it out of this desk again." He turned and shoved the paper back and locked the compartment.
"I think it is best for me to resign, Mr. Britt."
"Don't be a fool, young man. Now that this thing is off our minds there's a better understanding between us than ever. I don't think—I hope"—he surveyed Vaniman with leisure in which there was the suggestion of a threat—"I'll never have any occasion to take that letter out again. Er—ah—" Britt joggled a watch charm and inquired, casually, "Would you plan on getting married if I boost your wages a little?"
In spite of an effort to control himself under Britt's basilisk stare, Vaniman showed how much the query had jumped him.
"Of course, a chap like you has had his sweetheart down in the city," pursued the inquisitor when the young man failed to answer. "Must be one there now."
"I have no sweetheart in the city, Mr. Britt."
Then there was a longer silence in the room. The cashier was not enduring inspection with an air that did credit to his promise to keep a secret. Britt had made a breach in the wall of Vaniman's mental defense by the means of that letter and its implied accusation; Britt was taking advantage of that breach. Right then the young man was in a mood that would have prompted him to fling the truth and his defiance at Britt if the latter had kept on to the logical conclusion of his interrogation and had asked whether there was a sweetheart elsewhere; Vaniman had the feeling that by denying his love at that moment—to that man of all others—he would be dealing insult to Vona Harnden, as well as taking from her the protection that his affection gave her.
The attention of Britt was diverted from the quarry he was pursuing.
Outside Britt Block, Prophet Elias raised his voice in his regular "vesper service." It was his practice, on his way to Usial Britt's cottage from his daily domiciliary visits, to halt in front of the bank and deliver a few texts. The first one—and the two men in the office listened—was of the general tenor of those addressed to "Pharaoh." Said the Prophet, in resounding tones, "'As a roaring lion and a ranging bear, so is a wicked ruler over the poor people.'"
"Vaniman, go out and tell that old hoot owl to move on! I'm in a dangerous frame of mind to-day." Britt's lips were pulled tightly against his yellow teeth.
The Prophet's next deliverance was more concretely to the point—indicating that the exhorter was not so much wrapped up in religion that he had no ear out for the political news current in Egypt that day, "'Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.'"
There was a fireplace in the office and Britt leaped to it and grabbed a poker. The cashier was moved to interfere, urged by two compelling motives. He wanted to get away from his own dangerous situation of the moment in that office—and he wanted to protect the old man outside from assault. "I'll attend to him, sir!" But he halted at the door and turned. "Mr. Britt, our talk has driven an important matter from my mind. The men who bellow at me through the wicket have considerable to say about our hoarding specie. It makes me uneasy to have that sort of gossip going the rounds."
"We'll have the money out of here in a short time, Vaniman, as I have told you. That broker says that foreign money is going lower yet—and seeing that we've taken all this trouble to get the hard cash ready for the deal, we may as well make the clean-up as big as we can."
"Don't you think we'd better hire a couple of good men with rifles and put 'em in the bank nights, sir?"
President Britt declared with scorn that the expense was not necessary, that putting guards in the bank would only start more talk, and that it also would be essential to hire old Ike Jones to sit in front of the vault and play all night on his trombone to keep awake any two men picked from Egypt. While Britt was expressing his opinion of inefficiency and expense, the Prophet was furnishing this obbligato outside, "'He that by usury and unjust gain increaseth his substance, he shall gather it for him that will pity the poor.'"
Vaniman closed the door on Britt's objurgations.
The young man did not find it necessary to prevail upon the Prophet to give over his discourse. As soon as the emissary appeared Elias folded his ample umbrella, tucked it under his arm, gave Vaniman a friendly greeting, and winked at him. The twilight dimmed the seamed face and the young man wondered whether he had been mistaken about the sly suggestiveness of that wink.
"Joseph, how doth Pharaoh rest on his throne? Doth he sit easy?"
Always in their brief but good-natured interviews the evangelist called the young man "Joseph." Elias took Vaniman's arm and walked along with him.
"I'm afraid, Prophet Elias, that you'll provoke Mr. Britt too far. Take my advice. Keep away from him for a time."
"'There be three things which are too wonderful for me, yeah, four which I know not: the way of an eagle in the air, the way of a serpent upon a rock, the way of a ship in the midst of the sea, and the way of a man with a maid,'" said the Prophet, placidly. "Furthermore, 'The proud have digged pits for me.' Joseph, the pitfalls encompass thee."
Vaniman refrained from making a reply; the Prophet was displaying an embarrassing amount of sapience as to conditions.
In front of Usial Britt's cot they halted and the eccentric leaned close to Vaniman's ear. "Joseph, my son, keep thine eye peeled." He released the cashier's arm and strode to the door of Usial's house.
Vaniman, delaying his departure, noted that the door did not give way when the Prophet wrenched at the knob. The guest banged his fist against a panel. "Let it be opened unto me!" he shouted.
His voice served as his guaranty; Usial Britt opened the door and slammed it shut so suddenly after the Prophet had entered that it was necessary to reopen the portal and release the tail of Elias's robe.
"THE HORNET" GOES TO PRESS
Vaniman did not go on his way at once, though, by his daily routine, he was headed toward his bit of recreation which cheered the end of his day of occupation. Every afternoon he dropped in at the office of Notary Amos Hexter—"Squire" Hexter, the folks of Egypt called him—and played euchre with the amiable old chap. After the euchre, the Squire and Frank trudged over to the Hexter home; the cashier boarded with the Squire and his wife, Xoa.
In his general uneasiness, in his hankering for any sort of information that would help his affairs, the young man was tempted to follow the provocative Elias and pin him down to something definite; the flashes of shrewd sanity in the fanatic's mouthings had encouraged Frank to believe that the Prophet was not quite as much of an ingenuous lunatic as his gab and garb suggested.
Right away, curiosity of another sort added its impulse.
Usial's windows were uncurtained, though the grime on them helped to conceal activities within by a sort of ground-glass effect. But Vaniman could see well enough to understand what was going on. Every once in a while a canvas flap came over in a half circle across Vaniman's line of vision through one of the windows. Then a hairy arm turned a crank briskly; a moment later the arm pulled at a horizontal bar with vigor.
It was plain that Usial Britt was printing.
Vaniman had seen the shoemaker's printing equipment in common with everybody else who dropped into the shop. There were a few cases of worn type; there was a venerable Washington hand press. Vaniman had even been down on his knees, by Usial's invitation, and had peered up at the under surface of the imposing stone.
When Tasper Britt wanted a burial lot in the Egypt cemetery of a size sufficient to set off his statue in good shape, he secured a hillock in which some of the patriarchs of the pioneers had been interred. There was no known descendants to say him nay. A fallen slate slab that had been long concealed in the tangled grass was tossed over the cemetery fence by the men who cleared up the hillock. Usial Britt considered the slab a legitimate find and with it replaced a marble imposing stone that had become gouged and cracked. Vaniman had found the inscription interesting when he knelt and peered up:
Here Lies the Body of THOSPIT WAGG, In Politics a Whig. By Occupation a Cooper in a Hoop-pole Town. Now Food for Worms. Here I Lie, Like an Old Rum Puncheon, Marked, Numbered and Shooked, To be Raised at Last and Finished by the Hand of My Maker.
As Egypt knew, Usial Britt did not print for profit. He accepted no pay of any sort for the product of his press. When the spirit moved, or he felt that the occasion demanded comment in print, he "stuck" the worn type, composing directly from the case without first putting his thoughts on paper, and printed and issued a sheet which he titled The Hornet. Sometimes The Hornet buzzed blandly—more often it stung savagely.
Vaniman obeyed his impulse; he went to the door and knocked. He had always found Usial Britt in a sociable mood.
"Who is it?" inquired the shoemaker.
"Vaniman of the bank."
"Leave your job, whatever it is, on the threshold, sir."
"I am not bringing you any work, Mr. Britt."
"Then kindly pass on; I'm in executive session, sir."
The grumble of the cogs and the squeak of the press went on.
So did Vaniman, after he had waited at the door for a few moments.
Squire Hexter had a corner of his table cleaned of paper litter, in readiness for the euchre game.
He was tilted back in his chair, smoking his blackened T. D. pipe, and a swinging boot was scraping to and fro along the spine of a fuzzy old dog whose head was meditatively lowered while he enjoyed the scratching. The Squire called the old dog "Eli"; that name gave Hexter a frequent opportunity to turn his little joke about having owned another dog that he called "Uli" and presented to a brother lawyer as an appropriate gift.
The Squire had little dabs of whiskers on his cheeks like fluffs of cotton batting, and his wide mouth linked those dabs when he smiled.
He came forward promptly in his chair, slapped his palm on the waiting pack of cards, and cut for the deal while Vaniman was throwing off his coat.
"Judging by signs, as I came past Britt's shop, The Hornet is getting ready to buzz again," said the cashier.
"Aye! I reckoned as much. I have looked across there from time to time to-day and have seen customers knocking in vain on the door. It's your deal, boy!"
Vaniman shuffled obediently.
"And there was a run-in this morning between your boss and his brother," observed the Squire, scratching a match. "And Eli, here, called my attention to the fact that two sun dogs, strangers to him, were chasing along with the sun all the forenoon. Signs of trouble, boy—sure signs!" He sorted his cards. It was more of the Squire's regular line of humor to ascribe to Eli various sorts of comment and counsel.
"How crazy do you think Prophet Elias is?" inquired the young man, avoiding further reference to his employer.
"After listening many times to the testimony of expert alienists in court trials I have come to the conclusion that all the folks in the world are crazy, son, or else nobody is ever crazy. I don't think I'll express any opinion on the Prophet. I might find myself qualifying as an alienist expert. I'd hate to!"
After that mild rebuff Vaniman gave all his mind to the game—for when the Squire played euchre he wanted to attend strictly to the business in hand. And in the span of time between dusk and supper the two were rarely interrupted.
But on this afternoon they were out of luck.
Men came tramping up the screaking outside stairs that conducted to the office; the Squire had a room over Ward's general store.
The men were led into the office by Isaac Jones—"Gid-dap Ike," he was named—the driver of the mail stage between Egypt and the railroad at Levant.
For a moment Squire Hexter looked really alarmed. There were half a dozen men in the party and he was not accustomed to irruptions of numbers. Then his greeting smile linked his whisker tufts. Mr. Jones and his party pulled off their hats and by their demeanor of awkward dignity stood convicted as being members of a delegation formally presenting themselves.
"Hullo, boys! Have chairs. Excuse the momentary hesitation. I was afraid you had come after me with a soaped rope."
"I reckon we won't set," stated Mr. Jones. "And we'll be straight and to the point, seeing that a game is on. Squire Hexter, me and these gents represent the voters of Egypt. We ask you to accept the nomination to the legislature from this town for next session. So say I."
"So say we all!" chorused the other men.
The Squire set the thumb and forefinger of each hand into a whisker fluff and twisted a couple of spills, squinting at them. "The compliment is esteemed, boys. But the previousness is perplexing. This is February, and the primaries are not till June."
"Squire Hexter, it ain't too early to show a man in this town where he gets off. That man is Tasper Britt. He has had ten dollars' worth of telling to-day by 'Sniffer' Orne. But telling ain't showing. What do you say?"
The Squire gave Jones a whimsical wink and indicated the attentive Vaniman with a jab of the thumb. "S-s-sh! Look out, or the rate of interest will go up."
Jones and his associates scowled at the cashier, and Vaniman understood with added bitterness the extent of his vicarious atonement as Britt's mouthpiece at the wicket of the bank.
"The interest-payers of this town have been well dreened. But the voters—the voters, understand, still have assets. The voters have got to the point where they ain't afraid of Tasper Britt. The cashier of his bank can so report to him, if the said cashier so chooses—and, as cashier, probably will."
"The cashier will attend strictly and exclusively to his bank duties, and to nothing else," declared Vaniman, with heat.
"Hope you're enjoying 'em, such as they are of late," Jones retorted. "But once again, what say, Squire Hexter?"
"Boys, you'd better get somebody else to sandpaper Tasper Britt with. I'm not gritty enough."
"I'll come across with our full idea, Squire. It ain't simply to sandpaper Britt with that we want you to go. But we need some kind of legislation to help this town out of the hole. We don't know where we are. We can't raise money to pay state taxes, and we ain't getting our school money from the state, nor any share of the roads appropriation, nor—"
"I know, Ike," broke in the Squire, not requiring any legal posting from a layman. "But it's the lobbyist, instead of the legislator, who really counts at the state capital. I've been planning to do a little lobbying at the next session. I'll tell you now that I'll go, and, by hooking a clean collar around each ankle under my socks, I'll be prepared for a two weeks' stay. Send somebody else to work for the state and I'll go and work for Egypt."
"The voters want you," Jones insisted.
The Squire rapped his toe against the old dog at his feet. "What say, Eli?"
"Wuff!" the dog replied, emphatically.
"Can't go as a legislator, boys! Eli says 'No.'"
"This ain't no time for joking," growled the spokesman.
"Certainly not!" The Squire snapped back his retort briskly. He was serious. "I agree with you that this poor old town needs help and a hearing. But when I go to the State House I propose to wear out shoe leather instead of pants cloth. If you must rasp Britt, go get a real file!"
"Who in the blazes can we get?" demanded Jones, helplessly.
The Squire laid down the hand of cards which he had just picked up, thus signaling the end of the interview, impatiently motioning to Vaniman to play; then the notary narrowed his eyes and pondered.
The silence was broken by more screaking of the outside stairs.
Prophet Elias stalked into the office. He carried limp, damp sheets across a forearm—papers that had been well wet down in order to take impressions from the Washington press. The men in the room waited for one of his sonorous promulgations of biblical truth. But he said no word, and his silence was more impressive because it was unwonted. He marched straight to the Squire and gave him one of the sheets. Then the Prophet turned and strode toward the door. Jones put out his hand, asking for one of the papers. Elias shook his head. "Yon scribe has a voice. Let him read aloud. I have but few papers—they must be spent thriftily." He passed on and went out.