E-text prepared by Al Haines
[Transcriber's note: Full names—Sidney R. Kennedy, Alden C. Noble.]
New York The MacMillan Company 1912 All rights reserved Copyright, 1912, by The MacMillan Company. Set up and electrotyped. Published April, 1912.
NATALIE STANTON KENNEDY
IS INSCRIBED BY THE AUTHORS
SIDNEY R. KENNEDY
ALDEN C. NOBLE
On the top floor of one of the lesser office buildings in the insurance district of lower New York, a man stood silent before a map desk on which was laid an opened map of the burned city. No other man was in the office, for this was on a Sunday; but it would not have mattered to the man at the map had the big room presented its usual busy appearance. All that went on about him would have passed his notice; he only gazed stolidly from the map to the newspaper with flaring headlines, and from newspaper back to map, trying to gauge the measure of his calamity.
The morning papers had been able to print nothing save the bare facts that the fire had started near a large hotel, had spread with appalling rapidity to the adjacent buildings, and getting beyond the control of the fire department was sweeping southward under a wind of thirty miles an hour. The afternoon extras, however, gave fuller—and graver—details. The central business section of the city was entirely in ruins, and the conflagration had as yet shown no sign of a stay.
Sunday though it was, in many of the greater insurance offices on William Street the executives had gathered and were endeavoring to calculate the effect of this catastrophe on their assets.
But in the office on the top floor, where the man stood alone, there was no longer any doubt. Whether the fire was checked or whether it swept onward mattered now to him not at all; he was looking into the eyes of ruin utter and absolute. . . . But this, perhaps, is premature, since before this day was to arrive much water was to flow under many bridges, and it is with the flowing of some of that water that this story has to deal.
About five o'clock, Charles Wilkinson called, as he often did, through inclinations in which the gastronomic and the amatory were about evenly divided. Long since, after a series of titanic but perfectly hopeless struggles, he had abandoned all direct attempts to borrow money from his opulent step-uncle; subsequent efforts to achieve indirectly the same result by a myriad of methods admirably subtle and of marked ingenuity had resulted only in equal failure. To be sure, there had never been any really valid reason why his endeavors should have been successful unless as compensation for years of patient labor. He conceived his esteemed relation as a sort of safe-deposit box, to a share of whose contents he was entitled if he could contrive to open it. Farther back in the quest, he had approached Mr. Hurd with the dash and confidence of a successful burglar, but of late the pursuit had lapsed to a mere occasional half-hearted fumble at the combination.
However, he often came to tea. Tea was something—tangibly of no great importance, but from Wilkinson's viewpoint a sop to his self-respect in the reflection that he was getting it from old man Hurd. Besides, it kept the proximity established. Charles was as simple an optimist as a frankly predatory young man could be; some day the vault door might quite unexpectedly swing open, and it would be highly desirable to be close at hand and to have an intimate knowledge of the exits. Mr. Hurd was his only rich relation, and the step-nephew clung to him with tentacles of despair.
Tea at John M. Hurd's was something,—comparatively a more vital factor to Wilkinson, who lived in a cheap boarding house, than to its other partakers,—and Isabel Hurd was something more.
He felt a sincere admiration for Isabel, and his admiration had the substantial foundation of real respect. It happened that his step-cousin was what is kindly called a nice girl, but Wilkinson's regard passed hurriedly across any pleasing personal qualities she might have possessed. To him she was the daughter of a magnate who lived in a large house on Beacon Street and whose traction company gave its stockholders (whatever else might be said of its passengers) very little cause for complaint. To a young man whose creditors would have harried him nearly mad but for the fact that for several years past he had been able to secure scarcely any credit from any one, Isabel assumed the calm and quiet attractiveness of a well-managed national bank. And had she seriously considered marrying him, she could have confidently relied on his loyalty so long as Mr. Hurd could sign his name to a check. This reflection might not have been a flattering one to her, but it should have been a comforting one. Had it been beauty that first attracted him, he might have wavered after the freshness faded, but the chance that the Massachusetts Light, Heat, and Traction Company would be obliged to discontinue its liberal dividends was so remote as to be negligible. And Wilkinson, at all events, was consistent.
Barnes, the stout butler, assisted him to remove his overcoat and took his hat, and he stepped unannounced into the drawing room.
John M. Hurd's drawing room reflected the substance of its master in so far that it appeared to represent lavish resources. In the rather dim light, the deep rose tapestry curtains, the really beautiful rugs on the highly polished floor, the heavy, stately furniture, and the big central crystal chandelier all made for dignity. Even the broad-framed pictures on the wall, although there were two or three old masters among them, looked above suspicion. Miss Hurd was seated near the window, talking to two young men who seemed on terms of informality in the house.
"Shall we have tea?" she asked, when her step-cousin had seated himself.
"By all means—but I hope you don't mean it literally," replied Wilkinson, promptly. "Tea, by all means, if necessary to preserve the conventionalities, but especially anything and everything else you like." He turned to Bennington Cole. "I feel rather proud of my success in this establishment, Benny. A year ago Isabel would have handed you out nothing except a couple of anemic sugar wafers with the cup; now you can get English muffins and all kinds of sandwiches and eclairs—which is at least a little better."
"Congratulate you," said Cole, with a laugh.
"Oh, I haven't finished," Wilkinson went on. "The next step in my missionary movement will be a popular demand for chicken salad. That's a big forward step—-you eat it with a fork—and from there it will be an easy gradation up the carte du jour until finally I triumph in the introduction of real food, so that when you ask for tea in this house you will get a full portion of porterhouse steak and French fried potatoes. But don't think me hypercritical, Isabel," he added. "Even now I can usually manage to part from you without reeling, faint with hunger, down your front steps and collapsing at their feet—I should say foot."
"I'm extremely relieved to hear you say so," replied the girl.
The third young man, who alone of the three wore a frock coat, and who retained on his hand his left glove while his right was laid smoothly across his knee, now entered the conversation.
"You talk as though you were really hungry, Charlie," he said.
"Well, I am, rather," the other rejoined. "And I can tell you, Stan, that if you lived in my boarding house, you never could have completed that charming still-life effect of the platter of fish that I recently saw in your studio. You would have eaten your model before you could have finished the picture."
"Why don't you change your boarding house, Charlie, if it's so bad?" Miss Hurd inquired.
"I did," her cousin replied. "Of boarding houses within my sadly circumscribed means there is a very wide but strictly numerical choice. They are all exactly alike, you understand. I changed once, twice, twenty, forty times. I grew positively dizzy caroming from one inferior boarding house to another. You would have thought I was trying a peripatetic preventative for dyspepsia. Finally the mental strain of remembering where to go home at night became so irksome that I decided to leave bad enough alone and stay where I was—one eleven Mount Vernon Place—at the sign of the three aces. It's no worse, you see, than anywhere else—it's merely a matter of living down to my painfully limited income. But," he added thoughtfully, "I sincerely wish some philanthropist would put me to the trouble of moving again."
The two men laughed at Wilkinson's frank exposition, but his cousin frowned a little.
"I wish father would do something for you," she said. "There are so many things he could do if he chose."
"He was good enough to offer me a job as conductor on one of his street cars, the last time I mentioned the subject," the other responded cheerfully. "But I told him that the company's system of espionage was reputed to be so nearly perfect that I doubted whether I could make the position pay—that is, pay as it ought. And you know, Isabel," he added, "that with all due respect to my esteemed relation, he's exceedingly awkward to get anything out of. Can either of you gentlemen," he turned to the others, "suggest anything along these lines? I would be willing to pay a liberal commission."
"Well," said the painter, "if he wanted to buy a Caneletto cheap, I know where you could pick one up for him. It would rather damage my reputation to recommend him to buy it, but you could do it all right, Charlie. Guaranteed authentic by European experts—they're easily fixed. And if he didn't like the Caneletto, you could get him a very fair Franz Hals—by the same artist."
Miss Hurd, whose feelings had not been in the least lacerated by the reference to her parent's notable eccentricity of retentiveness, but who had been amused at the suggestion, interposed.
"I'm afraid it couldn't be done," she said. "Louis von Glauber passes on every picture that father buys."
"That settles that, then," Pelgram rejoined.
"Well, Benny, anything to suggest?" Wilkinson inquired.
"I don't know," said Cole, slowly. The germ of an idea had flashed on him. "I don't know," he repeated. The impecunious one regarded him attentively.
"My dear Benny, an unconvincing prevarication is of less practical value than—" he began, but he was interrupted by the appearance of a young lady who came through the doorway.
The three men rose quickly, and even the languid face of Stanwood Pelgram took on a look of a little sharper interest than he had so far shown. From the tea table Miss Hurd cordially greeted the newcomer.
"Tea, Helen?" she asked. "You're quite late. What have you been doing?"
"Thank you, Isabel," the other replied. "Quite strong, and with sugar and lemon—both." She sat down and commenced to pull off her long gloves. "I've been helping Cousin Henrietta Lyons select wall papers for her new apartment. I still live, but I've had a very trying time."
"Was it so difficult?" Bennington Cole asked politely. He did not know her very well.
"Well," responded Miss Maitland, "I can think of nothing more difficult than selecting wall papers—excepting, perhaps, Cousin Henrietta Lyons. As I picked out her papers, I think I'm entitled to abuse her," she explained with some feeling. "Wall papers in themselves are bad enough." She paused.
"Well, they ought to be," Wilkinson cheerfully put in, adroitly diverting the attack from Miss Lyons. "I understand that most of them are designed by individuals who have failed to succeed as sign painters on account of color-blindness, or by draughtsmen who have lost their positions because of the paramount influence of epilepsy on their work."
"I should estimate that they have about twenty-eight thousand samples at Heminway and Shipman's," the girl continued. "Cousin Henrietta possesses a fine old spirit of thoroughness which made it necessary for us to see them all. We sat on a red plush sofa while a truly affable young man kept flopping the sheets of samples over the back of an easel. That is, he was truly affable for an hour or two; after that he grew a little reticent. At first some of the samples interested me. There was one design of a row of cockatoos, each one standing on a wreath of lilacs, that was fascinating, and I liked one that looked like a flock of nectarines hiding in the interstices of a steam radiator. The young man made encouraging suggestions at first, but at the last, scarcely,—although I was so nearly stupefied that I doubt whether I would have heard him even if he had said what he really thought." She took up her cup. "But the walk here did me a lot of good—I walked fast."
"Where your cousin made her mistake," Wilkinson observed, "was in going in for wall papers at all. She should have abandoned the idea of papering her walls, and retained our talented friend, Stanwood Pelgram, to paint them, instead. A splendid conception! How I should like to have attended the pirate view of Miss Lyons's flat, when the last coat of distemper had dried on the parlor ceiling and Stanwood had put the affectionate finishing touches on the decorative panel portrait of Lucretia Borgia in the oval above the kitchen stove! The whole thing would have been a magnificent and unusual symbol of the triumph of paint over paper—a new and vivid illustration of the practical value of true art."
"Oh, nonsense, Charlie!" said Pelgram, much annoyed at being made the rather vulnerable subject of Wilkinson's humor.
His tormentor was delighted at perceiving his victim writhe and went gayly on.
"But unhappily our Stanwood is so impractical. Probably he would have declined the commission. Atmospheric envelopes slowly en route to the dead letter office of dream pastels demand his whole attention. Painting is crass; he mildly cameos. Tonal nuances—shades of imperceptible difference in the shadowy debatable land between things colored exactly alike—claim his earnest interpretation. When he rarely speaks, it is usually an important contribution to the world's artistic knowledge on some such subject as 'The Influence of Rubens' Grandmother on his Portraits of his Second Wife' or 'The True Alma Mater of Alma Tadema.'"
The artist, whose round smooth face was pink with rage, almost choked, but was wholly unable to reply. That he should be made the gross butt of a man such as Wilkinson was bad enough, but that this should take place in the presence of ladies—and especially of Helen Maitland—was almost unendurable.
Miss Maitland, seeing the flames approaching the magazine with alarming rapidity, hastily started a back-fire, adapting Wilkinson's style to her purpose with a success which—repartee not being her strongest point—astonished even herself.
"Charlie's views on art," she said to the smoldering Pelgram, "are always interesting because they are so wholly free and natural. Most art critics are checked and biased by having studied their subject and formed certain fixed impressions which are bound to come to the surface in their criticisms; some critics are influenced by having gone so far as to look at meritorious pictures in an endeavor to analyze and appreciate them intelligently; but Charlie labors under no such restraints. Once he went into the Louvre, but it was to get out of the rain. Except for an acute sense of smell, he could not detect an oil painting from a water color, even if he should try; and except for an abnormal self-confidence he would hesitate in the first step of criticism—a careful consideration of the value of the canvas as compared with that of the frame. It is therefore because Charlie is the only self-admitted art critic who knows nothing whatever of the subject, that his opinions are so interesting, for they are sure to be absolutely impartial and free from all bias of every kind. But where he heard of Alma Tadema is a puzzle to me, unless that name has been utilized by the manufacturer of some new tooth powder or popular cigar that has failed to attract my notice in the street car advertisements," she concluded thoughtfully.
The harassed artist turned with a look of almost abject canine gratitude toward his defender. Intervention from any source was welcome, but Miss Maitland's unexpected appearance as his belligerent partisan lifted him with a single swing from the abysmal humiliation of ridicule to the highest summit of hope. Helen had always been polite to him, but never before had she warmed to his outspoken defense. She had usually expressed an interest in his work, but as a matter of fact some of it was worthy of her quite impersonal interest. In his own set, men accustomed to formulate their opinions with complete independence and considerable shrewdness frequently remarked that Stan was an awful ass, but he could paint some. This was the common last analysis, the degree of qualifying favor being measured in each case by the comparative pause between the last two words and the accent and inflection upon the ultimate.
And even among those who considered Pelgram's asinine qualities plainly predominant, there was an admission of his certain artistic readiness, a cleverness in his grouping, a superficial dexterity in his brush work, a smartness and facility in the method of his pursuit of false gods. The irrepressible Wilkinson had struck true to the mark of his weaknesses, but something could well be said for the unhappy poseur in whom his shaft had quivered. Some one had observed that Pelgram regarded the appearance of his person and of his studio as of more serious importance than that of his canvases, but his commissions withal came in sufficient numbers to permit his extensive indulgence in bodily and domestic adornment. Granting him to be an ass, he certainly was a reasonably successful one, and he was even generally held to be a talented one.
For all his work was cursed by his indecision, he was surprisingly steady along the line of personal relations. At one time he would devote himself wholly to the production of exotic-looking pastels; at another time to nothing but the strangest of nocturnes in which the colors were washed on in a kind of sauce so thin that the frames, instead of being placed on easels, had to be laid flat on table tops in order to keep the pictures from running off their canvases onto the floor while being painted. But with people, his first likes and dislikes were definite and usually final, and this quality of personal consistency had come to a fixed focus on Helen Maitland.
Helen, for her part, had never given him any other encouragement than to express her approval of some of his pictures that she honestly liked, but Pelgram needed no other encouragement. His cosmos bulged with ego of such density that he and his pastels and nocturnes were crowded together in it indistinguishably. Admiration of his work was necessarily admiration of himself. It was only a question of degree. With an extraordinary manifestation of good taste and common sense, amounting almost to inspiration, he had some time since decided that he would like to marry Miss Maitland, but his admiration for her was so deep that his self-assurance was shaken to the point of hesitation. Thus far he had not ventured to speak, but his heart bounded at her swift defense of him and her effective attack on Wilkinson.
In the brief pause, while Wilkinson was rallying his forces for another charge on Pelgram's tonal battlements, John M. Hurd entered the room.
Mr. Hurd was a thickset man with a firm, clean-shaven jaw and a face furrowed by deep lines, but with eyes that oddly enough looked comparatively youthful and capable not only of appreciating humor, but even of manufacturing it. He appeared to be a man who, by the exercise of his pronounced talent for commercial strategy, could drive, without an atom of pity, his opponent into a corner, but who, after penning him there, could take an almost boyish amusement in watching the unfortunate's futile efforts to escape. The magnate was dressed in a dark cutaway coat with gray trousers, a pear-shaped turquoise pin adorned his black tie, and his dress fully reflected the solid respectability of the directors' meeting from which he had just come.
He took up his position, standing with his back to the window, stirring the sugar in the cup of tea which his daughter had given him. His entrance had snapped the tension between his impecunious step-nephew and the painter.
"Well, how are you all?" he remarked genially. "Really, Isabel, you have quite a salon. How is the portrait going, Helen?—or should I have asked the artist and not the subject? Glad to see you, Cole—is the fire insurance business good? Do you know, I made quite a lot of money out of insurance last year—had it figured out recently."
"In what way, sir?" Cole politely inquired, anticipating the answer.
"By not insuring anything," replied Mr. Hurd, with a short laugh. "Hello, Charlie, had a busy day?"
As Wilkinson's extreme disinclination for industry of any legitimate sort was well known to all the party, Mr. Hurd's innocently expressed but barb-pointed question brought a general smile, and Pelgram permitted himself the luxury of a suggestive cough.
"Well, no, Uncle John," replied the young man addressed, half apologetically. "Physically, to-day has been on the whole rather restful; however, my active mind has been running as usual at top speed," he added.
Mr. Hurd felt inclined to concede the activity of his nephew's mind, in so far that he had never known its headlong flight to be delayed by contact with an idea—that is to say, an idea of any particular value. Still, in the presence of the rest he spared his young relative, merely remarking dryly and in a manner intended to create the impression of closing the incident with the honors on his own side, "I dare say if your mind runs long enough, Charlie, it will eventually be elected."
This rejoinder had no definite meaning, but that fact in itself made any retort comparatively difficult, and Wilkinson merely helped himself in silence to another sandwich.
Presently Bennington Cole announced that he must be going on, as he had an appointment with an out-of-town insurance agent who was leaving Boston that evening, and soon afterward Miss Maitland took her departure, escorted by Pelgram. Then Wilkinson went, having executed as much havoc as he could among the comestibles, and Isabel was left with her father. Mr. Hurd lit a cigar and looked thoughtfully at his daughter.
"Splendid appetite that young feller has," he observed, nodding toward the large tray which stood almost nude of food.
The girl moved a little uneasily in her chair.
"Now, father," she protested, "you shouldn't be so hard on Charlie. He's really in a very embarrassing position. He's never had a chance to show what he could do if he found something he liked and was suited for. He's as clever and amusing as he can be, but he just naturally isn't practical and no one has ever been able to make him so, and you yourself are so absolutely practical in everything that you can't excuse the lack of it in any one else. But he's really all right."
Mr. Hurd looked sharply up, and the lines around his eyes came a little closer together.
"You don't mean that you're interested in him—seriously, do you?" he said.
"Oh, no," replied his daughter. "Not at all—that way."
The traction magnate smiled indulgently, with manifest relief.
"I don't want to criticize your analysis of character, Isabel," he said, "but I think you're dead wrong on one point. In my opinion Mr. Charles Wilkinson is one of the most practical young men of my acquaintance."
Meanwhile Miss Maitland and her companion had crossed the Common, and when they came to Boylston Street the shop windows were all alit and the street lamps began to shine. It was the close of a cool September day, and a sharp wind whipped the skirt of Pelgram's frock coat around his legs and flecked the blood into the girl's cheeks as she stepped briskly westward, swinging along easily while her rather stout and soft escort, patting the walk with his cane, kept up with some little difficulty. As often as he dared, the artist glanced at her, and with hope kindled by gratitude, he thought her never so attractive. And no matter what might be said of the eccentricity of his artistic taste in pursuit of the ideal, his selection of the real was indisputably sound; Miss Maitland was well worth the admiration of any man.
As they came to Portland Street, waiting at the crossing for a motor-car to pass, Pelgram quite suddenly said, "I wish I could paint you here and just as you are looking now."
The girl flushed a little. The compliment was conventional enough, but there was a tone in his voice that she had never heard before and that carried its meaning clearly.
"Thank you. Is it because the atmosphere and background would be so ugly—wind and iron and dead leaves and raw brick walls and hideous advertising signs—and I should seem attractive by comparison?"
Her companion looked thoughtfully ahead, as they crossed the street and went on.
"No, not that," he said, more gravely than usual. "You don't need any comparison, but all this isn't really so bad. Perhaps the things you mention are ugly in themselves, but a certain combination of them caught at a certain moment can well be worthy of a painting, and I think we have that moment now. Beauty makes a more pleasant model for the artist—that is why I would have liked you in the foreground—but beauty is not the only province of art. If it were, no painter, for example, would find anything to occupy him in the foul stream that washes the London wharves—as some critic has said. Yet a great many beautiful pictures have come from the London wharves, and one, at least, could come from Boylston Street."
The girl was interested. Behind his intolerable pastels and nuances and frock coats and superficial pose the man actually had ideas; it was a pity they showed so seldom. And she wished he would confine himself to the abstract. She could tolerate his aerial monologues on art even when his pose seemed to her superficial and almost silly, for occasionally he said something which was not only clever in sound, but which, to her thinking, rang true. But on the personal side he was becoming unpleasantly aggressive. She regarded him with admittedly mixed feelings, and she was not at all sure just how well she liked him, but she felt quite certain that she did not wish to have him ask her to marry him.
When they came to the door of her apartment in Deerfield Street, where she lived with her mother, he held her hand perceptibly longer than was necessary in saying farewell.
"You will come to the studio Thursday morning at eleven?" he said tenderly.
"Yes, certainly," Miss Maitland answered in a matter-of-fact tone.
"I never wanted to do anything well so much as I want to do your portrait well. I want to make your portrait by far the finest thing that I have ever done—or that I ever shall do," he said. "Truly beautiful—and truly you."
"That is extremely good of you," replied the girl in a perfectly level voice, manifesting no more emotion than she would have displayed had he dramatically announced that he purposed executing her likeness on canvas and that he intended to use oil paints of various colors. "Good-by," she added, and the door closed behind the artist.
Charles Wilkinson, returning from the Hurds' to his boarding house, opened the front door with his latch key and stepped into the dingy hall. On a small table beside the hatrack lay the boarders' mail. He picked out three envelopes addressed to him, walked upstairs, and entered his room. Seating himself in the only comfortable chair the apartment afforded, he gloomily regarded the three missives.
The first bore on its upper left-hand corner the mark of his tailor, a chronic creditor, once patient, then consecutively surprised, annoyed, amazed, and of late showing signs of extreme exasperation accompanied by threats; at the end of the gamut the contents of this would be more vivacious reading than merely the monotonous and colorless repetition of an account rendered. The second was from his dentist, a man spurred to fury, whose extraction of two wisdom teeth had been of trifling difficulty in comparison with the task of extracting from his patient the amount named in his bill, and who had found in Wilkinson's mouth no cavity comparable in gravity with that apparently existing in his bank balance. The third envelope carried the name of a firm of lawyers not unknown to the man addressed—a firm that specialized in the collection of bad debts; Wilkinson looked at this longer than at either of the others, for he was ignorant of its contents. Then, without opening any one of the three, he thoughtfully took out his fountain pen.
Crossing out his own Mount Vernon Place address from all three envelopes, he readdressed the tailor's communication in an alien hand to the Hotel Bon Air, Augusta, Georgia. On the dentist's missive he inscribed "Auditorium Annex, Chicago, Illinois." Over the lawyer's letter he hesitated a moment, and then boldly wrote "Chateau Frontenac, Quebec, P. Q." This would at least be a grateful reprieve. After five days all these epistles would be returned to their senders, who would probably not question the fact that their failure to reach him had not been purely accidental. Moreover his credit with this trio would positively be improved by the impression that his resources were at any rate sufficient to enable him to travel far and to stop at well-known hotels.
After he had dropped the three envelopes into the post-box it occurred to him that he might just as well—perhaps even better—have sent all three to the same place, but even allowing liberally for the incorrectness of this detail, Mr. Hurd's opinion of his step-nephew seemed in a fair way of being justified.
It occurred to Mr. Smith that no one has ever determined the precise idea upon which the Boston and Manhattan Railroad bases its schedules with its infrequent adherence thereto and customary deviation therefrom. Numberless ingenious theories have been advanced from time to time by untold thousands of exasperated patrons of the line; opinions of all colors, all temperatures, all degrees of light and shade have been volunteered, many with a violence that lends conviction, but all in vain. The thing remains as secret, as recondite, as baffling as ever. Good Bostonians regard attempts to solve the problem as not only futile but impertinent—almost blasphemous—accepting it as a factor in the general inscrutability which veils the world, and are content to let it remain such.
From these reflections it is patent that this large patience, this Oriental calm, had not yet come to Mr. Richard Smith of New York, who felt a certain irritation somewhat modified by amusement as he sat looking out of the car window at an apathetic brakeman who languidly gazed down the shining rails. For no cause that could be guessed, the train had now been resting nearly half an hour. The colored porter had ceased to perform prodigies by shutting between the upper berth and the wall three times as many blankets, mattresses, board partitions, and other paraphernalia as one would have thought the space could possibly contain, and was sitting in the corner section reflectively chewing a toothpick. There appeared to be a distressing lack of interest in the train on the part of all its proximate officials; no one seemed ready to alter the status quo.
Only a few miles to the eastward the roofs of Boston and the golden dome of the Capitol glittered in the morning sun, and there were the bright rails stretching clean and straight up to the very gates of the city. Railroading was a silly business anyway, thought Smith. An express train should be consistent, and not suddenly decide to become a landmark instead of a mobile and dynamic agent. He almost wished he had taken his ticket by the Fall River boat—as he probably would have done had he been a Bostonian.
"Without reference to its political aspect," he reflected, "I believe strongly in water. I might have been deeply disturbed if there had been a ground swell or a cross sea going around Point Judith, but I wouldn't have been threatened with approaching senile decay en route."
Smith was from New York. The elderly Bostonian who shared his section had thought so from the first. He had guessed it when Smith took out for the second time his watch and replaced it with a snap; he had felt his belief strengthened when his fellow traveler raised the sash and looked impatiently up the idle track; and he had dismissed all doubt when Smith, conversing with the apathetic brakeman, crisply indicated his desire to return from a study of still life to the moving picture show for which he had paid admission. The elderly Bostonian had observed many New Yorkers, but it had never ceased to be a source of surprise to him why they all should be so incessantly restless with an electric anxiety to be getting somewhere else. To his own thinking one place was very much the same as another,—with the exception of Boston,—and a comfortable inertia was by no means to be condemned. If people were waiting for one, and one didn't appear, they merely waited a little longer—that was all. If eternity was really eternity, there was exactly as much time coming as had passed. In any event no well-regulated New England mind would permit itself to become disturbed over so small a matter.
Smith, guessing perhaps something of this from his companion's placid face, felt a momentary embarrassment at his own impatience.
"I've an engagement at ten o'clock," he remarked, somewhat apologetically, to his conservative neighbor. "Do you suppose this train is going to let me keep it?"
The gentleman addressed cautiously expressed the opinion that if no further malign influences were felt, and the train were presently to start, the remainder of the journey would occupy comparatively little time.
And so in due course it came to pass as the elderly Bostonian had predicted, clearly proving—if Smith had been open to accept proof—that the Oriental method of reasoning is the most comfortable, whatever may be said of its efficiency. He had left home at eleven on the night before, and he arrived at the offices of Silas Osgood and Company, 175 Kilby Street, at exactly half an hour before eleven in the morning.
The exercise of walking up from the South Station, although the walk was a short one, had wholly dispelled the irritation of the delay, so that his smile was as genuine as ever when Mr. Silas Osgood held out his courtly hand in welcome It would have been a very bitter mood that could have withstood the Bostonian's greeting.
"We were looking for you a little earlier in the morning," he said, when the first greetings were over. "You come so seldom nowadays that we feel you ought to come as early as possible."
"If you'd said that to me when I had been waiting two hours somewhere just the other side of North, East, West, or South Newton, I would have probably snarled like a dyspeptic terrier. Now, seeing you, sir, I can blandly reply that I came via Springfield and that the train was a trifle late."
"Exceedingly courteous, I am sure, for one not a native," agreed the other, smiling. "I am advised that the train has been known to be delayed."
"Well, I'm here now, anyway," Smith rejoined, "and very glad to be. It must be six weeks since I saw the good old gilded dome on the hill, and six weeks seems a long time—or would, if they didn't keep me pretty busy at the other end."
The two men were by this time in Mr. Osgood's private office, and the closing door shut out the click of typewriters and the other sounds of the larger room outside. As Mr. Osgood seated himself a trifle stiffly in his wide desk chair, Smith looked at him affectionately. The reflection came into his mind that the old gentleman was just a little older than when they had last met, and the thought gave a pang.
Silas Osgood was nearing his seventieth year. A long life of kindly and gentle thinking, of clean and correct living, had left him at this age as clear-eyed and direct of gaze as a child, but the veins showed blue in the rather frail hands, and the face was seamed with tiny wrinkles. Mr. Osgood had been in business in the fire insurance world of Boston for almost half a century. He was as well known as the very pavement of Kilby Street, that great local artery of insurance life, and the pulse of that life beat in him as strongly as his own.
To be an insurance man—and by that is meant primarily a fire insurance man—is in New England no mean or casual thing. South, West, in the newer and more open lands, where traditions are fewer and there is less time for the dignities and observance of the amenities of commerce, fire insurance takes its chance with a thousand other roads to an honest dollar. If a Western lawyer has a few spare hours, he hangs out an insurance sign and between briefs he or his clerk writes policies. The cashier of the Farmers' State Bank in the prairie town ekes out his small salary with the commissions he receives as agent for a few companies. If a grist-mill owner or a storekeeper has a busy corner of two Southern streets where passers-by congregate on market day, he gets the representation of a fire company or two, and from time to time sends in a risk to the head office, whose underwriters go nearly frantic in endeavoring to decipher the hidden truth in the dusty reports of these well-intentioned amateurs.
But it is not so in New England. In New England fire insurance reaches its proudest estate. It is a profession, and to its true votaries almost a religion. Its sons have, figuratively speaking, been born with a rate book in one hand and a blank proof-of-loss clutched tightly in the other. And in the mouth a silver spoon or not, as the case might be, but in any event a conclusive argument for the superior loss-paying ability and liberality in adjustment of the companies they respectively represent. They are fire insurance men by birth, education, and tradition—they and their fathers before them. Four generations back, Silas Osgood's family had been supported by the staid old English public's fear of fire. Three generations in Massachusetts had been similarly preserved from the pangs of hunger. Likenesses of all four were hanging on the wall of Mr. Osgood's office; as to identity the first two were highly questionable, but their uniforms in the old prints showed up fresh and bright. In those old days gentlemen only, men of education and station, whose judgment and courage were beyond question, were intrusted with the responsibility of fighting the flames. It is hard to say why this important and exciting work should no longer attract the same sort of men to its service.
Hanging beside the four generations were the commissions of the fire companies locally represented in the Osgood office. Stout old companies they were, too, for the most part; one of the older ones was well in the second century of its triumph over fire and the fear of fire and the ashes thereof; this was a foreign company which Osgood held for old sake's sake. The other commissions bore American signatures, most of them well known and well esteemed. On the wall right above where Smith sat was the gold seal of his own company, the Guardian, and against the seal the inexplicable hieroglyph which served Mr. James Wintermuth for his presidential signature. Then there was the great white sheet with the black border which set forth to all the world by these presents that Silas Osgood and Company were the duly accredited agents of the Atlantic Fire Insurance Company of Hartford, Connecticut. The narrow placque of the old Birmingham Indemnity of Birmingham, England, looked like a calling card beside the Atlantic's flamboyant placard.
Smith, seeing Mr. Osgood's look fixed for a moment on the parchment above his head, said inquiringly, "How long is it that you have represented the Guardian in Boston?"
The older man smiled reflectively and turned his eyeglass in his hand as he spoke.
"It was the year after the big fire when I first took the Guardian into my office. You are a close enough student of the game to know that that was just about forty years ago."
"Before Richard Smith was born. But I remember the date. Who appointed you as agent?"
Mr. Osgood pointed to the scrawl at the foot of the framed commission.
"My old friend, James Wintermuth," he said. He paused a moment. "I can almost see him now as he looked when he came to call on me—in the old office farther down the street. Tall and quick-tempered, and you can imagine how strong in the fingers he was in those days! I recall I used to keep my glove on when I shook hands with him. He was a fine young chap, was James. Perhaps a little too hasty for us conservative New Englanders, but—" He broke off, a half-smile on his lips.
Smith remained silent.
"It's a fault you young New Yorkers are apt to have," the Bostonian presently went on. "Most of you are a trifle aggressive for us over here—just a bit radical."
The other laughed good-naturedly.
"I myself should say that my honored chief had lived down his radicalism long ago. It's lucky for Silas Osgood and Company that there is a little of it left somewhere in the company, for the President convalesced from his attack of radicalism in eighteen eighty-five or thereabouts and has never been threatened with a relapse or a recurrence. You may criticize us, sir, but you will have to admit that unless there was a little radicalism in my own department, the Guardian would never have accepted the lines and the liability in this down-town district that you have sent us and are sending us now. I hope I'm conservative enough, but with all due respect to Mr. Wintermuth, what he calls conservatism often strikes me as dry rot."
He stopped, laughing again.
"This is not an explosive protest," he said. "It is merely the result of having traveled on the conservative Boston and Manhattan, which would turn a phlegmatic Pennsylvania Dutchman into a Nihilist."
Then both men laughed together, and turned their attention to the business before them, Mr. Osgood's pale silver head close beside Smith's brown one.
In the outer office typewriters clicked, clients hung over desks, and the traffic of a busy morning proceeded. It was just about twelve o'clock when the clerks nearest the door stopped their work for a brief minute to look up and smile, for Charles Wilkinson, whenever he came to that office, timed his arrival with a skill that was perfectly understood by all. Mr. Wilkinson beamed blandly over the map counter, and still more blandly inquired whether Mr. Bennington Cole was in. Mr. Cole was, it appeared, at his desk, and Mr. Wilkinson required no one to show him the way.
"Hello, Benny," he said cheerfully. "You hardly expected to see me here to-day, did you? But I'm the early bird, all right. The excessively shy and unseasonable habits of the matinal worm never appealed favorably to me, but we have to have him once in a while, so here I am. You know what for, don't you? Or do you?"
Cole surveyed his visitor dispassionately.
"I fancy I can guess," he replied.
"No, upon my word," the other rejoined with spirit; "you do me a grave injustice, Benny. I've already had luncheon—that is to say, I've just had breakfast. You can more fully appreciate the significance of my call when I tell you that I came to you directly from the breakfast table. No, sir, the object of this visit is strictly business."
Bennington Cole gravely buttoned up his coat and thrust both hands into his pockets.
Mr. Wilkinson smiled buoyantly.
"Benny, you've a delightful surprise in store for you," he said. "Having astonished you by telling you that I was not open to an invitation to lunch, I am going to follow it up by assuring you that I do not intend to suggest the extension of even the paltriest of pecuniary accommodations. I am after bigger game."
Cole's suspicion melted into a semblance of interest.
"You don't mean—" he began.
"Yes, but I do, though," said the other. "That's the precise meaning of this pious pilgrimage at this ungodly hour. I want to find out where you keep that worm. Yesterday afternoon, at the Hurds', you had an idea. You know you did—you can't conceal it from my piercing sense of penetration. And your idea had the ring of real currency when you accidentally dropped it. So I'm here to collaborate, that's all."
Mr. Osgood's junior partner looked around at the clerks, who hastily resumed their interrupted duties.
"Come in here," he said to the visitor, and he led his guest into an inner office next to Mr. Osgood's own, and closed the door behind him.
"I did have an idea," he conceded, as he motioned Wilkinson to a seat, "and it was an idea that had several things to recommend it. But it was a business proposition, and if you will pardon my saying so, Charlie, you are not the kind of a collaborator I would choose, if I were doing the choosing."
"But you're not, my boy," replied the other, unabashed. "I'm doing the choosing, myself, and I choose you. Your idea was palpably based on separating my barnacled connection from some of the ghastly pile of glittering gold that he has taken, five cents at a time, from the widows, orphans, blind, halt, and lame who patronize his trolley lines. Elucidate forthwith, Benny—in the vernacular, unbelt. I am listening."
Cole was reflecting. No one knew better than he how little regard John M. Hurd really felt for this mercurial youth. Yet Mr. Hurd had resisted with entire success all other means of approach. After all, family connections counted for something, even with the retentive old trolley magnate. So when at last he spoke, it was with the determination to show a part of his hand, at least, to Wilkinson.
"Mr. Hurd is President of the Massachusetts Light, Heat, and Traction Company," he began.
His visitor smiled affably.
"There is a popular impression to that effect," he admitted.
"Silas Osgood and Company and—" he paused a moment—"Bennington Cole are in the fire insurance business. The Massachusetts Light, Heat, and Traction Company carries no fire insurance on any of its properties. Well," he said sharply, "do you begin to see how you come into this?"
"See what?" asked Wilkinson, blankly.
"The insurable value of the various properties of the company must amount to six or eight million dollars. The average rate on those properties would probably be about seventy-five cents per hundred dollars a year for insurance. That would make a premium of say fifty thousand dollars per annum. The commission to the insurance broker who handled that line—who could secure it and control it—would be ten per cent of fifty thousand, or five thousand dollars. Half that amount—I am doing these sums for you so that you can catch the idea—would be twenty-five hundred—without any risk to yourself and every year of your life. Do you think the game worth a try?"
Wilkinson sat up with eager interest.
"Why half? Why not both halves?" he inquired.
The other man spread his hands before him in a gesture as well recognized among elder peoples as it is to-day.
"Naturally I would expect half for originating the scheme, drawing up the schedule in its proper form, securing the lowest rate, and placing the line with the various companies. You couldn't do those things, you know; it takes knowledge of the business."
His visitor once more sat back in his chair.
"And all I have to do is to get Uncle John to take out an insurance policy on his trolley cars! A mere nothing! I'm astonished that you offer me so much as half—for so simple an office. Really, Benny, you are losing your faculties. I can almost see them evaporating. Yes, the time will come when some one of our mutual friends, driving past the Meadow Creek Paresis Club, where Dr. McMullen receives certain amiable but not entirely responsible persons, will behold you hanging cheerily by one hand from the pergola roof with a vacuous smile on your twitching lips, and will say to me sadly: 'Charlie, you knew him, didn't you, in the old days, when his mind was as keen and bright as an editor's knife?' And with chastened melancholy I will respond: 'Yes, George, it is true. And moreover I was with him on the day when his mind commenced to give way. The day he offered me a full half of the spoils of my own—what do you call it?—oh, yes, arbalest.'"
Cole laughed, and not altogether pleasantly.
"Well, if you can get John M. to carry insurance, I'll see that you are not disappointed in the terms of our agreement."
"Do you know, Benny, somehow I'd rather have it in writing. Suppose we say one third to you and two thirds to me. After all, I need the money, you see, and you don't."
"Aren't we counting our chickens a good while before they have emerged from the incubator?" the other suggested.
"Very likely," Wilkinson readily agreed. "But I find that if I ever indulge in that diverting form of mathematics it has to be before the hatching. The little yellow rascals never stay around long enough afterward to permit themselves to be counted."
Bennington Cole slowly picked up a pen and drew toward him a sheet of paper; more slowly still he wrote what he described as a gentleman's agreement between Charles Wilkinson and himself. That young man sat back and studied the face of his associate with shrewd, half-shut eyes. Presently Cole stopped writing.
"I fancy this will serve," he said.
"Read the Machiavellian document," demanded Wilkinson, placidly. And Cole read.
"'Agreement between Bennington Cole and Charles Wilkinson. Said Bennington Cole agrees that if said Charles Wilkinson shall secure control of the fire insurance of the Massachusetts Light, Heat, and Traction Company, said Bennington Cole shall handle such account to the best of his ability and shall pay to said Charles Wilkinson two thirds of all brokerage commissions received thereby.'"
Said Charles Wilkinson reached for the paper.
"It seems to be in order," he said presently. "Sign it and date it, Benny, and bring in old Stewpan there to witness it. This is a business proposition, and I know how such things ought to be handled."
It was duly signed and duly witnessed by the aged and anemic cashier of the Osgood office, and Mr. Wilkinson placed it carefully in his pocketbook. Then he rose with alacrity.
"I'm sure you'll pardon my insistence on this little technicality," he said smoothly; "but you business men, you professional men, are so shrewd, so very alert and quick of mind, that a comparative novice like myself is mere wax in your strong, deft fingers. . . . And now to cipher out some way to secure the golden apple which hangs so close to hand, yet so very dragon-guarded."
"That's your work," rejoined Cole. "I won't attempt to offer suggestions. Nearly every insurance broker in Boston has at one time or another had a go at John M. Hurd. Boring him to death has been unsuccessfully tried several times, but as you are in the family, you may of course have superior facilities to any of your predecessors. Blackmail might accomplish something. But really I can't help you any, Charlie. If I had any plan, I'd deserve to hang from your friend's pergola roof for giving it to you instead of using it myself. I guess this is where you begin to do a little hard thinking."
"What marvelous incisiveness you possess, Benny," his friend commented. "It is an uplift to hear you. But you see thinking is quite in my line. Any one who has had to think as hard as I how to keep the lean white wolf of the Green Mountains—or vice versa—from my shifting doorstep, certainly need not tremble before the necessity of thought. But I have learned this—when I want to get something I don't know how to get, I invariably regard it the height of sapience to go and ask some one who does know how. In this case I can ask without going, for the very man is here at hand."
"I've already told you that I can assist you no further," said Cole. "I've given you the idea. You'll have to do the rest, yourself."
"Oh, I wasn't thinking of you," Wilkinson rejoined coolly. "I meant a man of perhaps not better, but certainly rather broader, experience. I shall go for advice to Mr. Silas Osgood."
And he opened the door and disappeared through it before Cole could voice a protest. He would have much preferred that the senior partner know nothing of the scheme unless it should take concrete form by its success. If Wilkinson by any chance should secure the traction company's insurance, the business should properly be handled by the firm of Silas Osgood and Company, and not by Bennington Cole individually. However, the mischief was already done, for he could hear Charles' cheerful voice greeting the two men in the other office. Rather reluctantly he followed.
He found Wilkinson sitting easily on the arm of a chair, talking rapidly and confidentially to Mr. Osgood, who regarded him with indulgence but wonder, as one who might come suddenly on a charming lady lunatic.
"I don't think I know your friend," Wilkinson was saying, sotto voce, in Mr. Osgood's ear. Then, as Cole entered, Smith rose to shake hands, and the introduction was made.
"Mr. Smith, General Agent of the Guardian of New York—Mr. Wilkinson."
"Delighted to meet you, Mr. Smith." He turned to the elder man. "Mr. Osgood, I've come to see you on a matter of business—an important matter upon which I wish your advice. And I not only wish it, but I need it, as you will appreciate when I tell you that my occupation for the next few weeks, months, or years—as the case may be—will consist in endeavoring to extort a little money from Mr. John M. Hurd."
"A most expressive cough, my dear Benny, and the interpretation is clearly that there is no innovation about such a battle of wits. But, Mr. Osgood, there is a difference." He looked inquiringly at Cole. "By the way, is there any reason why we should not speak freely before Mr. Smith?"
"Mr. Smith is a Company man; he will do nothing to disturb your plan," said Cole. "Go ahead, now you've started."
"I am about to take charge of insuring all the properties of the Massachusetts Light, Heat, and Traction Company, John M. Hurd, President," he announced.
Mr. Osgood permitted himself a slight smile.
"My dear young friend," he said, "you have given yourself a life sentence at hard labor."
Wilkinson sat down.
"All the better reason why I need assistance," he rejoined. "I need everybody's assistance. But only to get started. When I'm started properly I can look after myself."
"My boy," said the veteran underwriter, kindly, "I have known John M. Hurd since he was thirty years old. I knew him when what is now the Massachusetts Light, Heat, and Traction Company consisted of two cars, four horses, and three miles of single track. And he never carried a dollar of insurance then, and he never has since. I have seen the brightest brokers in Boston go into his office and come out in anywhere from three to twenty minutes; and not one of them ever got anything at all for his pains. Better give it up, my boy; you'll save yourself more or less trouble, and the result will be the same."
The young man laughed.
"There's one point of dissimilarity that I see already," he replied. "The time of the brightest brokers in Boston is valuable; mine is not. Really, you're not very encouraging, but I didn't expect you to be. I know my step-uncle, and I'm prepared for a stiff and extensive campaign. All I'm asking for is a detonator—something to start the action, you know, or something novel in the way of an explosive. Perhaps an adaptation of one of those grenades that the Chinese pirates throw when they want to drive their victims suffocating into the sea. I realize that there isn't much use engaging Uncle John with ordinary Christian weapons; he's practically bomb-proof."
"I am afraid," said Mr. Osgood, slowly, "that I am not very expert in the manufacture of noxious piratical chemicals. You will have to seek your inspiration elsewhere."
Smith turned to Wilkinson. Heretofore the representative of the Guardian had taken no part in the conversation.
"Would you mind stating, without quite so many figures of speech, just what you want?" he asked quietly.
"Certainly. What I want is something, some handle which will get me John M. Hurd's attention just long enough to make him listen to me. If I can get him to listen, I stand a chance."
"You say he carries no fire insurance on any of the trolley properties?" the New Yorker inquired thoughtfully.
"No," replied Mr. Osgood. "He has a small insurance fund—perhaps thirty or forty thousand dollars. He pays into this each year a part of what his insurance would cost him, and out of this fund is paid what losses the company sustains. And we must confess that so far the scheme has worked well. His losses have been much less than he would have paid in premiums to the companies."
"A fund—yes. That is all well and good, unless there is a great congestion of value at some single point, or at a very few points. Tell me, how much value is there in that main car barn on Pemberton Street—the new one next to the power plant?"
"Probably over a half a million dollars—at night, when the cars are all there," said Cole.
"And with the power house almost a million, then?"
"Almost," Cole agreed.
Smith rose and walked over to the window; the others watched him in silence. "What kind of people hold the stock of the traction company?" he asked suddenly.
"I fancy Mr. Hurd himself swings a very big block," Cole answered. "And his directors have a good deal. It's easily carried—the banks up here will loan on it almost up to the market value."
Smith still looked thoughtfully out the window.
"And I presume the directors and other stockholders take advantage of that fact?" he inquired.
"Oh, yes," Mr. Osgood replied. "We have a lot of it as collateral for loans in the Charlestown Trust Company, of which I am a director."
"And is it actively traded in on the Exchange?" the New Yorker continued.
"No. Odd lots mainly, from time to time. But the price is remarkably steady. It is regarded about as safe as a bond."
Smith returned to the seated group.
"Gentlemen," he said, "banks do strange things at times, but they are usually grateful for information when it is of value. They have probably never taken the trouble to find out whether the Massachusetts Light, Heat, and Traction was properly protected against a fire—by which I mean a big fire; they probably have assumed that it was. If it were to become known in financial circles that their insurance fund was forty thousand dollars and that they stood to lose one million dollars if there were a big fire in Pemberton Street to-night, how many of those borrowers do you think would be asked by the banks to reduce their loans or to substitute in part other collateral of a less speculative sort? It might even affect the price of the stock on the Exchange rather unfortunately. Some of those directors might have an unpleasant half-hour."
He paused. Wilkinson's face expressed the most eager attention.
"And I want to say to you, gentlemen, that a general fire in the congested section of this city is in my opinion not so improbable a thing as you Bostonians imagine. The conflagration hazard in Boston's congested district is not a thing one can exactly calculate, but it would be difficult to overestimate its gravity. . . . There's your grenade, Mr. Wilkinson."
Wilkinson leaped to his feet.
"I see it," he cried. "Leave it to me. It's as good as done. It's merely a question of time."
"What are you going to do?" asked Cole, curiously.
Wilkinson made for the door.
"Do?" he cried. "Do? I'm going to load the grenade. Gentlemen, good morning."
Isabel Hurd sat bolt upright on the stiff and blackly austere divan, and surveyed her friend with mingled surprise and concern.
"My dear Helen," she protested, "to my certain knowledge you have seen your cousin only twice this summer, and surely it would not hurt you to go to her reception."
"I disagree with you," replied Miss Maitland. "If there is any equity in social obligations, it would decidedly hurt me."
"Why, what do you mean?"
"Well, just because I take the trouble to watch a certain person select her wall paper, is that any valid reason why I should shed upon that person the effulgence of my eyes? Not that I am a sufferer from effulgent eyes and need the services of an oculist—I'm only quoting—but it seems to me awfully one-sided. I hate Cousin Henrietta's receptions—dull, poky affairs—where Mrs. Parkinson weeps into her teacup and the Misses Pyncheon are apt—most apt—to recite a little Browning. I detest receptions, anyway, and if I have to go to any more of them I shall scream. If you suggest my going to any, Isabel, I shall scream at you!"
Miss Hurd smiled a superior smile.
"Why, my dear child," she said, "you know perfectly well that I don't care an atom whether you go to your Cousin Henrietta's or not. But I never knew you were so down on receptions. I hope you haven't forgotten that next month you promised to receive with mother and me at ours."
Helen wavered a moment, then obstinately continued.
"Yes, I have. I've forgotten it absolutely. If I ever said it, I must have been suffering from febrile lesions,—if there are any such things,—and I hereby wave the promise aside with the magnificent gesture of a satrap ordering somebody to execution."
Isabel no longer smiled; her answer was a little acid and very distinct.
"Of course, if you don't want to help mother and me, no one will compel you to, my dear. Do precisely as you like; do not think of us in any way—we can easily get some one else."
Miss Maitland looked quickly up, and saw that there was a suspicious brightness in her friend's eyes, whereby she understood that Isabel felt actually hurt by her diatribe against the social dragon and his works—at least when his works were interwoven with Isabel's own concerns. And because Helen was tender-hearted under all her social armor, and because she and Isabel were fonder of one another than one would have thought possible, considering the diversities between them, she was smitten with swift compunction and hastily withdrew so much of her protest as touched her friend.
"You are a silly person, but a dear," she said contritely; "and I didn't really mean what I said about receptions—at least, about yours. But I meant every word about Cousin Henrietta."
A slight shadow of doubt lingered in Isabel's eyes, and Helen, seeing it, crossed quickly over to the divan and kissed her lightly on the cheek. The olive branch was accepted and peace restored.
"All the same," Miss Maitland presently went on, "there are times, I confess, when I get so tired of some of the things I do that I feel as though I couldn't possibly do them again."
Isabel nodded understandingly.
"Is there anything in particular that you are so tired of?" she insinuatingly asked.
"Yes, Miss Portia, there is. And furthermore you know as well as I do what that something is."
"I would hesitate to mention it," said Miss Hurd, with a smile.
"Well, I wouldn't. On the contrary I freely and unqualifiedly announce that I am excessively tired of a thousand things, most of which begin with P. I am tired of portraits and portrait painters; I am tired of posing and of poseurs; I am tired of palettes and paint; I am tired of—" she stopped, breaking off a little suddenly.
"Well, complete it. You are tired of Pelgram, I suppose," said Isabel, composedly.
"Pelgram, then. Yes, I am," the other girl admitted.
Her friend raised her eyebrows, and glanced at her somewhat curiously.
"You don't have to marry him, you know," she remarked in a matter-of-fact tone.
"Of course I don't," Helen replied quickly. "But I have to sit to him four times a week until that unspeakable portrait is finished. And it's my belief that it never will be finished. He won't even let me look at it now. It's my opinion that he's doing like Penelope, and destroying every night what he has accomplished during the day. I would never have promised to have it done if I had suspected what I was in for. And if it were for any one else but old Aunt Mary Wardrop, I'd back out now."
Isabel regarded her sympathetically. A portrait was bad enough without the added embarrassment of an amatory artist.
"Is he really as difficult as that?" she asked.
"Even more difficult. He's more difficult than anything conceivable—except analytical trig," she added reflectively.
"Don't mix art, psychology, and mathematics, or you will certainly get into trouble," said her friend. "And really, if I were you, I would try to forget that I had been 'higher' educated. It's enough to give one the creeps to hear a perfectly normal girl talk of analytical trig—whatever that may be—if there is such a thing."
"I'm not actually sure, myself, that there is. For, as I remember it now, it deals almost exclusively with imaginary or worse than imaginary quantities. I remember distinctly that i with the acute accent meant the square root of minus one—and stood for 'imaginary' on the face of it. That was right at the start, and the farther you went the farther from reality you found yourself. But I don't remember anything of the subject—only the name—I wouldn't dream of being so Bostonian as that."
"Well, it's almost as bad merely to refer to it," said Miss Hurd. "Especially when you know that I never could pass beginner's algebra."
The two girls laughed together. It was perfectly true that Isabel, who was keen almost to the point of brilliance in the application of mathematics to such practical matters as finance and real life, had never academically been anything but a hopeless dunce, while Helen, who had penetrated so far into the upper occult that the mind shuddered to follow, was notoriously incapable of making her personal accounts balance within fifty per cent. It was an understood situation that always amused them both.
They had been friends all their lives, these two, or so nearly all their lives that the residue was hardly worth consideration. As each was now nearing the middle twenties, it must have been almost a full generation since they had been presented to one another. It was at the respective ages of six and five that little Miss Maitland and little Miss Hurd had been discreetly conveyed to the decorous Back Bay Kindergarten which was known to all Bostonians of a certain class as the "Child's Cultural Institute" of Miss Dorcas Kingsbury. It was there they met, under the watchful eye and the eagle espionage of Miss Dorcas. That good lady was not distinguished for her social graces, but her introduction of these two small maids was an instant success. It has subsequently been established, by hesper light so to speak, that the bond which first united the two was their chastened and wide-eyed mutual marveling at six long black cockscrew curls which marked—for only by a figure of speech could they have been said to adorn—the lateral aspects of Miss Dorcas's chignon. Forth they jutted, these remarkable structures, from cul-de-lampes above the lady's ears, and thence they descended, three toward the right shoulder, three toward the left. But their most astonishing quality was their buoyancy, their resiliency, which made them vital and active things, and not mere soulless parts of an ordered design.
At all events the two little newcomers, cowering somewhat under the glittering gaze of their preceptress, drew for protection close to one another, small hand found small hand, and a friendship was cemented which the swirling years had proved unable to break.
Their later experiences at this fountain of learning served only to draw them closer still. Many a time, in later years, would they smile together, remembering incidents that had happened in the square old red brick house with the green blinds, and the orderly terrible courtyard with the straight narrow seats set bolt upright against a speechless wall, and the little green pump that only grown-up persons were permitted to touch; remembering, too, the long low-backed benches in the schoolroom, row after row to the end of the low-ceiled room, and the tiny gray blackboard, and the painful corner behind the stove where recalcitrant pupils were stood, awaiting the approach of tardy contrition or increased mental attainments; remembering, above all, the grave, kind face of the teacher herself, Miss Dorcas Kingsbury—of the Kingsburys—reduced in her middle age to conducting a "cultural institute," but as undeviating and inflexible in her idea of duty as was the very line of her uncompromising brow. Not bad training for small girls, that of Miss Dorcas; Helen and Isabel would not have changed it, in their memories at least, for the fairest lane of learning in the world.
Time went on and gradually carried them beyond the pale of Miss Dorcas's influence and over the horizon beyond the sight of her curious curls. But the school-girl lovers had become friends—which was of much more consequence. They stayed together as they grew, although in intellectual concerns Helen soon left Isabel behind. A year the elder, she was also the more dominant, and had always taken the lead in their mutual affairs. Isabel, who had a will of her own, did not always follow; but there was never any struggle for precedence, and Helen's unselfishness prevented her from ever assuming an unpleasant autocracy.
It would have been difficult, at any rate, to associate anything unpleasant with Miss Maitland. She was tall, well over the middle height, and her hair was of that uncompromising blackness that made one think of things Amazonian—or would have done so had not her deep violet eyes softened the effect in a peculiarly attractive manner. It was no wonder that poor Pelgram fluttered about so compelling a flame, and Isabel, as she looked at her friend, thought for the thousandth time that if she were a man—well, it was a little hard to say what she would do in that remote contingency, but she felt certain, at all events, that she would adore Helen.
As a matter of fact no young lady in all Boston seemed less likely to become a man in the next or any subsequent incarnation. There are Bostonian persons of the female kind who could with readiness be conceived as turning into men without any sea-change or especially startling biological transmutation. But Isabel was not one of them. Small and dainty, she was of the gold-and-white, essentially feminine type. She lived alone with her parents in the solid old-fashioned house on the north side of the Common, almost under the shadow of the State House dome. It made very little difference to Isabel where she lived, and since her father would never consider moving to any other locality nor rebuilding the rather patriarchal homestead which he had occupied for twenty-five years, it was just as well that the daughter was so complaisant. She, moreover, was the only person who looked upon John M. Hurd with a clear understanding of his habits of thought. She could herself accomplish things with him, when her way did not conflict too directly with his own, but she gained her points first by concentrating her attack on the matters really of import to her, and second by taking her way whenever she saw an avenue open, notifying her somewhat surprised parent afterward that she had done so.
"Father once told me a story," Isabel had said, "of a man who went to a railroad president about a culvert he wanted to build under the railroad track, and the president told him that he should have built his culvert first and asked permission afterwards. And I invariably say now, if father protests against any of my performances, that he never should have told me that story. And he usually gives a kind of growl which I have always interpreted to mean that all is well."
Isabel had a little money of her own, but she never used the income. Instead, she put it in the bank and lived on her allowance. She was not John M. Hurd's daughter for nothing. Her mother, a stiff, lean, gray woman with a tremendous capacity for being both busy and uncomfortable and making every one around her share the latter feeling, had little or nothing to do with Isabel or her friends. She was the typical Puritan, the salt of a somewhat dour earth, and how Isabel ever came into her household would be difficult to say. The mother had much undemonstrative affection for her daughter, but no understanding and less sympathy. She could never accustom herself to the girl's habit of facing every problem when it had to be faced but not before; she herself was used to spying trouble afar off, rushing forth with a sort of fanatical desperation, and falling upon its breast. John M. Hurd had selected her for her sterling and saving qualities, and he had always found her all he could have wished. From her daughter's viewpoint she left much to be desired, at least in the capacity of a confidante, and this prerogative had long since been assumed by Miss Maitland.
That young lady, more reserved than Isabel, usually preferred to receive rather than to bestow confidences. Only in unusual cases, such as the one now under contemplation, was Helen moved to such downright speech. But in this instance she acknowledged the presence of an irritation alien to her customary serenity, and unconsciously she hit on conversation as a soothing influence. Thus it chanced that the talk was still on Pelgram when the doorbell rang and the butler announced that Mr. Wilkinson was calling.
"I believe I could write a manual of artistic courtship," concluded Miss Maitland, "with a glossary embracing every shade of every color of an artist's mood. Charlie Wilkinson was absurd, of course, the other day, with his 'nuances,' but he was amazingly near the truth at the same time, for all that. Isabel, I'm sick and tired of nuances—I confess it freely."
"Well," said her friend, soothingly, "here is Charlie now. He ought to be a fine antidote, for Heaven knows he hasn't a nuance in his entire anatomy."
Mr. Wilkinson entered.
"My dear Isabel," he said reproachfully, as he shook hands, "I couldn't help hearing most of what you were just saying about me, and I assure you that I feel deeply flattered, but at the same time a little hurt. I dislike to be denied the possession of anything, even an abstract quality, whether I want it or have any use for it or not. Miss Maitland, I bid you an exceedingly good day, and venture to express the hope that you will concede that latent in my anatomy I may have a liberal share of that something—the name of which I failed to catch—although I may perhaps have up to now given no evidence of its possession."
"You would do much better, Charlie," said his hostess, with a laugh, "if you announced with all the emphasis at your command that you had none of this particular quality concealed about your person. Whatever it was, Helen just said that she never wanted to see or hear of such a thing again."
"Miss Maitland," said the visitor with due solemnity, "I assure you that whatever else I may be, I am as free from the taint of this unmentionable attribute as a babe unborn. Isabel, you will bear me out in this?"
"I feel sure of it," Helen replied smilingly. "In fact, I should have exonerated you even without inside information of any sort. Really, I'm awfully glad you've come. Here we are, two lone dull girls, hungry to be amused. Be as chivalrous as you can in our distressing state."
"You two lone girls lonely!" retorted Mr. Wilkinson. "Ridiculous! That is certainly a fine ground on which to seek sympathy from me! I forget who it is has the proverb, 'Never pity a woman weeping or a cat in the dark.' And I am reminded of it when I look at you two. You and my fair cousin, when you have one another to talk to, are just about as much in need of sympathy as a tiger is of tea . . . Speaking of tea—" he turned to Isabel with bland inquiry in his face, after a hasty glance about the room to make sure that no ulterior preparations had been made. "I am anxious," he explained, "to see what progress has been made since last I inculcated my theories as to edibles—and detrimentals."
Isabel rose with a sigh.
"I see that I shall have to go and superintend the matter personally," she said, "for the customs of years are too strong to be utterly overcome all at once. I can only dimly conjecture Peter's dismay if he were asked to pass the Hamburger steak to Mr. Wilkinson, yet that is the shadowy future awaiting him."
With a laugh she vanished through the doorway, and the visitor seated himself solemnly across from Miss Maitland, whom he then proceeded to regard with a gloomy eye.
"It is a fearful strain on one's comic spirit to have it suddenly cooled," he said. "It makes it liable to crack, and then when you beat on it you get nothing but a dull stodgy sound. I feel that there are times when my ebullience, my wealth of genteel diablerie, my flow of jeux d'esprit astonish even myself, but those times are never the ones when my hostess says, in effect: 'Charlie, you can be such an awful idiot when you want to that I wish you'd be one now—go on, there's a dear!'—which was substantially what you said to me. I don't mind telling you that it's very upsetting."
"Oh, I'm awfully sorry," Miss Maitland replied. "I didn't mean to. I should be simply heart-broken if your spring of divertissement should ever run dry—especially if you held me in any way responsible. Charlie serious! Good heavens! And yet, on second thought, would it not have a certain piquant lure, gained from its utter strangeness, which would be simply overwhelming? Try it and see. No audience was ever more expectant."
Wilkinson's gloom melted in meditation.
"Do you know," he said thoughtfully, "that there has never been in your attitude toward me the regard and genuine respect—I may almost say the reverence—that I could wish to see there. If it were not such a perfectly horrible thing to say, I should say that you do not understand me. As it chances—though you would be surprised to learn it—there is at this moment a mighty problem working out, or trying to work out, its solution in my brain. You tell me to be serious, and since I want the advice of every one, including those whose advice is of problematic value, I will be. And who knows but when you see me engaged, or about to engage, in practical, cosmic matters, swinging them with a gigantic intellectual force, your veneration for me may develop with remarkable rapidity?"
"Who knows, indeed? Go ahead—you have my curiosity beautifully sharpened, at any rate, before a word is said."
Wilkinson cleared his throat and bent forward with an air of concentration, meant to indicate that he was marshaling his ideas. Then he said in a hushed and confidential tone: "What do you know of trolley systems?"
Miss Maitland looked at him in surprise.
"Goodness, Charlie!" she said; "I know there are such things—the term is perfectly familiar. I have always supposed that trolley cars were part of trolley systems, but I should hesitate to go very far beyond that statement."
The young man nodded gravely.
"You are right. Your information, so far as it extends, is absolutely correct, but it hardly goes far enough. Trolley cars belong to trolley companies which operate trolley systems. That's very well put, don't you think?"
"Very. Go on—I'm awfully interested."
"I'll put it a little more simply. The scientific attitude is too difficult to maintain. And besides, that was just about as far as I could go scientifically, anyway. I had much better deal with concrete facts—or with what I hope to convert into them. Don't you agree? Although I felt rather well in my academic habiliments."
"Much better," Miss Maitland promptly agreed. "And there would be the additional advantage that I would quite likely know what you were talking about, which would not be at all a certainty if you insisted on retaining your scientific manner."
"It's this way, then," said her companion. "It's this way. John M. Hurd, Isabel's father, my step-uncle, Mrs. Hurd's husband—John M. Hurd, in short, is the President of the most important trolley system in this vicinity, the Massachusetts Light, Heat, and Traction Company. He is also, ex-officio, chairman of the board of directors, and except for some dynamos, cars, conductors, tracks, and other equipment, he is the trolley system."
"That sounds like Mr. Hurd," the girl acknowledged.
"Now I must ask you another leading question," the other continued. "What do you know about fire insurance?"
"Well, I ought to know a little about it," replied Helen, "considering the fact that my uncle, Mr. Osgood, has one of the leading fire insurance agencies in Boston. Whenever there's a big fire he's always quoted as 'Silas Osgood, the veteran underwriter, said so and so.'"
"You will pardon me," said Mr. Wilkinson, "if my legal method of thought calls to your attention that 'ought to know' and 'do know' are not in all cases coincident. My original question was, 'What do you know about fire insurance?'"
"Not as much as I ought, I'm afraid," Helen confessed. "Uncle Silas belongs to the school which believes in locking his business in the safe when he leaves the office, and as he never mentions it, I know very little about it—though I don't at all care for your legal method of establishing my ignorance."
"A true gentleman ignores a lady's embarrassments. Fire insurance, to put it briefly, is indemnity against losses by fire. Companies do it. You pay them a little money called a premium—no connection with trading stamps—and when your house burns down they pay you a tremendous amount. It's a remarkable idea."
"It certainly sounds so, as you put it."
"The personal application is this: John M. Hurd owns a trolley system which ought to be insured for five or six million dollars if it was insured at all. But it isn't. And it is my life work to make him put on that insurance, and make him do it in a way that will count—for me, you understand."