Collier’s Weekly, August 14, 1920
OUT in the street Wally had overtaken Jill, and they faced one another in the light of a street lamp. Forty-first Street at midnight is quiet. They had it to themselves.
Jill was pale, and she was breathing quickly, but she forced a smile.
“Well, Wally,” she said, “my career as a manager didn’t last long, did it?”
“What are you going to do?”
Jill looked down the street.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I suppose I shall have to start trying to find something.”
“But . . .”
Jill drew him suddenly into the dark alleyway leading to the stage door of the Gotham Theatre’s nearest neighbor, and as she did so a long, thin form, swathed in an overcoat and surmounted by an opera hat, flashed past.
“I don’t think I could have gone through another meeting with Mr. Pilkington,” said Jill. “It wasn’t his fault, and he was quite justified, but what he said about Uncle Chris rather hurt.”
Wally, who had ideas of his own, similar to those of Mr. Pilkington, on the subject of Uncle Chris, and had intended to express them, prudently kept them unspoken.
“I suppose,” he said, “there is no doubt . . .?”
“There can’t be. Poor Uncle Chris! He is like Freddie. He means well!”
There was a pause. They left the alley and walked down the street.
“Where are you going now?” asked Wally.
“I’m going home.”
“Forty-ninth Street. I live in a boarding house there.”
A sudden recollection of the boarding house at which she had lived in Atlantic City smote Wally, and it turned the scale. He had not intended to speak, but he could not help himself.
“Jill!” he cried. “It’s no good. I must say it! I want to get you out of all this. I want to take care of you. Why should you go on living this sort of life when . . . Why don’t you let me . . .?”
He stopped. Even as he spoke he realized the futility of what he was saying. Jill was not a girl to be won with words. They walked on in silence for a moment. They crossed Broadway, noisy with night traffic, and passed into the stillness on the other side.
“Wally,” said Jill at last.
She was looking straight in front of her. Her voice was troubled.
Jill hesitated. “Wally, you wouldn’t want me to marry you if you knew you weren’t the only man in the world that mattered to me, would you?”
They had reached Sixth Avenue before Wally replied. “No!” he said.
FOR an instant Jill could not have said whether the feeling that shot through her like the abrupt touching of a nerve was relief or disappointment. Then suddenly she realized that it was disappointment. It was absurd of her to feel disappointed, but at that moment she would have welcomed a different attitude in him. If only this problem of hers could be taken forcefully out of her hands, what a relief it would be. If only Wally, masterfully insistent, would batter down her hesitations and grab her, knock her on the head and carry her off like a cave man, care less about her happiness and concentrate on his own, what a solution it would be. But then he wouldn’t be Wally. Nevertheless Jill gave a little sigh. Her new life had changed her already. It had blunted the sharp edge of her independence. To-night she was feeling the need of some one to lean on—some one strong and cozy and sympathetic who would treat her like a little girl and shield her from all the roughness of life. The fighting spirit had gone out of her, and she was no longer the little warrior facing the world with a brave eye and a tilted chin. She wanted to cry and be petted.
“No!” said Wally again. There had been the faintest suggestion of a doubt when he had spoken the word before, but now it shot out like a bullet. “And I’ll tell you why. I want you—and if you married me feeling like that, it wouldn’t be you. I want Jill, the whole Jill, and nothing but Jill, and if I can’t have that I’d rather not have anything. Marriage isn’t a motion-picture close-up with a slow fade-out on the embrace. It’s a partnership, and what’s the good of a partnership if your heart’s not in it? It’s like collaborating with a man you dislike. I believe you wish sometimes—not often, perhaps, but when you’re feeling lonely and miserable—that I would pester and bludgeon you into marrying me. What’s the matter?”
Jill had started. It was disquieting to have her thoughts read with such accuracy.
“Nothing,” she said.
“It wouldn’t be any good,” Wally went on, “because it wouldn’t be me. I couldn’t keep that attitude up, and I know I should hate myself for ever having tried it. There’s nothing in the world I wouldn’t do to help you, though I know it’s no use offering to do anything. You’re a fighter, and you mean to fight your own battle. It might happen that, if I kept after you and badgered you and nagged you, one of these days, when you were feeling particularly all alone in the world and tired of fighting for yourself, you might consent to marry me. But it wouldn’t do. Even if you reconciled yourself to it, it wouldn’t do. I suppose the cave woman sometimes felt rather relieved when everything was settled for her with a club, but I’m sure the cave man must have had a hard time ridding himself of the thought that he had behaved like a cad and taken a mean advantage. I don’t want to feel like that. I couldn’t make you happy if I felt like that. Much better to have you go on regarding me as a friend—knowing that, if ever your feelings do change, that I am right there, waiting.”
“But by that time your feelings will have changed!”
Wally laughed. “Never!”
“You’ll meet some other girl . . .”
“I’ve met every girl in the world! None of them will do!” The lightness came back into Wally’s voice. “I’m sorry for the poor things, but they won’t do! Take ’em away! There’s only one girl in the world for me—oh, confound it! why is it that one always thinks in song titles! Well, there it is. I’m not going to bother you. We’re pals! And, as a pal, may I offer you my bank roll?”
“No!” said Jill. She smiled up at him. “I believe you would give me your coat if I asked for it!”
Wally stopped. “Do you want it? Here you are!”
“Wally, behave! There’s a policeman looking at you!”
“Oh, well, if you won’t! It’s a good coat all the same.”
They turned the corner and stopped before a brown-stone house with a long ladder of untidy steps running up to the front door.
“Is this where you live?” Wally asked. He looked at the gloomy place disapprovingly. “You do choose the most awful places!”
“I don’t choose them. They’re thrust on me. Yes, this is where I live. If you want to know the exact room, it’s the third window up there over the front door. Well, good night.”
“Good night,” Wally said. He paused. “Jill!”
“I know it’s not worth mentioning, and it’s breaking our agreement to mention it, but you do understand, don’t you?”
“Yes, Wally dear, I understand.”
“I’m round the corner, you know, waiting! And if you ever do change, all you’ve got to do is just to come to me and say: ‘It’s all right!’ ”
Jill laughed a little shakily. “That doesn’t sound very romantic!”
“Not sound romantic! If you can think of any three words in the language that sound more romantic, let me have them! Well, never mind how they sound, just say them and watch the result! But you want to get to bed. Good night.”
“Good night, Wally.”
She passed in through the dingy door. It closed behind her, and Wally stood for some moments staring at it with a gloomy repulsion. He thought he had never seen a dingier door.
Then he started to walk back to his apartment. He walked very quickly, with clenched hands. He was wondering if, after all, there was not something to be said for the methods of the cave man when he went awooing. Twinges of conscience the cave man may have had when all was over, but at least he had established his right to look after the woman he loved.
“THEY tell me . . . I am told . . . I am informed . . . No, one moment, Miss Frisby.”
Mrs. Peagrim wrinkled her fair forehead. It has been truly said that there is no agony like the agony of literary composition, and Mrs. Peagrim was having rather a bad time getting the requisite snap and ginger into her latest communication to the press.
She bit her lip, and would have passed her twitching fingers restlessly through her hair but for the thought of the damage which such an action must do to her coiffure. Miss Frisby, her secretary, an anemic and negative young woman, waited patiently, pad on knee, and tapped her teeth with her pencil.
“Please do not make that tapping noise, Miss Frisby,” said the sufferer querulously. “I cannot think. Otie, dear, can’t you suggest a good phrase? You ought to be able to, being an author.”
Mr. Pilkington, who was strewn over an armchair by the window, awoke from his meditations, which, to judge from the furrow just above the bridge of his tortoise-shell spectacles and the droop of his weak chin, were not pleasant. It was the morning after the production of “The Rose of America,” and he had passed a sleepless night, thinking of the harsh words he had said to Jill. Could she ever forgive him? Would she have the generosity to realize that a man ought not to be held accountable for what he says in the moment when he discovers that he has been cheated, deceived, robbed—in a word, hornswoggled?
He had been brooding on this all night, and he wanted to go on brooding now. His aunt’s question interrupted his train of thought.
“Eh?” he said vaguely, gaping.
“Oh, don’t be so absent-minded!” snapped Mrs. Peagrim, not unjustifiably annoyed. “I am trying to compose a paragraph for the papers about our party to-night, and I can’t get the right phrase. Read what you’ve written, Miss Frisby.”
Miss Frisby, having turned a pale eye on the pothooks and twiddleys in her notebook, translated them in a pale voice:
“ ‘Surely, of all the leading hostesses in New York society, there can be few more versatile than Mrs. Waddesleigh Peagrim. I am amazed every time I go to her delightful home on West End Avenue to see the scope and variety of her circle of intimates. Here you will see an ambassador with a fever . . .’ ”
“With a what?” demanded Mrs. Peagrim sharply.
“ ‘Fever,’ I thought you said,” replied Miss Frisby stolidly. “I wrote ‘fever’.”
“ ‘Diva.’ Do use your intelligence, my good girl. Go on.”
“ ‘Here you will see an ambassador with a diva from the opera, exchanging the latest gossip from the chancelleries for intimate news of the world behind the scenes. There the author of the latest novel talking literature to the newest debutante. Truly, one may say that Mrs. Peagrim has revived the saloon.’ ”
Mrs. Peagrim bit her lip. “ ‘Salon.’ ”
“ ‘Salon,’ ” said Miss Frisby unemotionally. “ ‘They tell me, I am told, I am informed . . .’ ” She paused. “That’s all I have.”
“Scratch out those last words,” said Mrs. Peagrim irritably. “You really are hopeless, Miss Frisby! Couldn’t you see that I had stopped dictating and was searching for a phrase? Otie, what is a good phrase for ‘I am told’?”
Mr. Pilkington forced his wandering attention to grapple with the problem.
“ ‘I hear,’ ” he suggested at length.
“Tchah!” ejaculated his aunt. Then her face brightened. “I have it. Take dictation, please, Miss Frisby. ‘A little bird whispers to me that there were great doings last night on the stage of the Gotham Theatre after the curtain had fallen on “The Rose of America,” which, as everybody knows, is the work of Mrs. Peagrim’s clever young nephew, Otis Pilkington.’ ” Mrs. Peagrim shot a glance at her clever young nephew, to see how he appreciated the boost, but Otis’s thoughts were far away once more. He was lying on his spine, brooding, brooding.
Mrs. Peagrim resumed her dictation. “ ‘In honor of the extraordinary success of the piece, Mrs. Peagrim, who certainly does nothing by halves, entertained the entire company to a supper-dance after the performance. A number of prominent people were among the guests, and Mrs. Peagrim was a radiant and vivacious hostess. She has never looked more charming. The high jinks were kept up to an advanced hour, and everyone agreed that they had never spent a more delightful evening.’ There! Type as many copies as are necessary, Miss Frisby, and send them out this afternoon with photographs.”
MISS FRISBY having vanished in her pallid way, the radiant and vivacious hostess turned on her nephew again.
“I must say, Otie,” she began complainingly, “that for a man who has had a success like yours, you are not very cheerful. I should have thought the notices of the piece would have made you the happiest man in New York.”
There was once a melodrama where the child of the persecuted heroine used to dissolve the gallery in tears by saying: “Happiness? What is happiness, moth-aw?” Mr. Pilkington did not use these actual words, but he reproduced the stricken infant’s tone with great fidelity.
“Notices! What are notices to me?”
“Oh, don’t be so affected!” cried Mrs. Peagrim. “Don’t pretend that you don’t know every word of them by heart!”
“I have not seen the notices, Aunt Olive,” said Mr. Pilkington dully.
Mrs. Peagrim looked at him with positive alarm. She had never been overwhelmingly attached to her long nephew, but since his rise to fame something resembling affection had sprung up in her, and his attitude now disturbed her.
“You can’t be well, Otis!” she said solicitously. “Are you ill?”
“I have a severe headache,” replied the martyr. “I passed a wakeful night.”
“Let me go and mix you a dose of the most wonderful mixture,” said Mrs. Peagrim maternally. “Poor boy! I don’t wonder, after all the nervousness and excitement. You sit quite still and rest. I will be back in a moment.”
She hustled out of the room, and Mr. Pilkington sagged back into his chair. He had hardly got his meditations going once more when the door opened and the maid announced: “Major Selby.”
“Good morning,” said Uncle Chris breezily, sailing down the fairway with outstretched hand. “How are—oh!”
He stopped abruptly, perceiving that Mrs. Peagrim was not present and—a more disturbing discovery—that Otis Pilkington was. It would be exaggeration to say that Uncle Chris was embarrassed. That master mind was never actually embarrassed. But his jauntiness certainly ebbed a little, and he had to pull his mustache twice before he could face the situation with his customary aplomb. He had not expected to find Otis Pilkington here, and Otis was the last man he wished to meet. He had just parted from Jill, who had been rather plain-spoken with regard to the recent financial operations, and, though possessed only of a rudimentary conscience, Uncle Chris was aware that his next interview with young Mr. Pilkington might have certain aspects bordering on awkwardness, and he would have liked time to prepare a statement for the defense. However, here the man was, and the situation must be faced.
“Pilkington!” he cried. “My dear fellow! Just the man I wanted to see! I’m afraid there has been a little misunderstanding. Of course it has all been cleared up now, but still I must insist on making a personal explanation; really, I must insist. The whole matter was a most absurd misunderstanding. It was like this . . .”
UNCLE CHRIS paused in order to devote a couple of seconds to thought. He had said that his operations with Otis Pilkington’s ten thousand dollars were “like this,” but he had no notion what this was “like,” and he gave his mustache another pull as though he were trying to drag inspiration out of it. His blue eyes were as frank and honest as ever, and showed no trace of the perplexity in his mind. But he had to admit to himself that if he managed to satisfy his hearer that all was for the best, and that he had acted uprightly and without blame, he would be doing well.
Fortunately, the commercial side of Mr. Pilkington was entirely dormant this morning. The matter of the ten thousand dollars seemed trivial to him in comparison with the weightier problems which occupied his mind.
“Have you seen Miss Mariner?” he asked eagerly.
“Yes. I have just parted from her. She was upset, poor girl, of course, exceedingly upset.”
Mr. Pilkington moaned hollowly: “Is she very angry with me?”
For a moment the utter inexplicability of the remark silenced Uncle Chris. Why Jill should be angry with Mr. Pilkington for being robbed of ten thousand dollars he could not understand, for Jill had told him nothing of the scene that had taken place on the previous night. But evidently this point was to Mr. Pilkington the nub of the matter, and Uncle Chris, like the strategist he was, rearranged his forces to meet the new development.
“Angry?” he said slowly. “Well, of course . . .”
He did not know what it was all about, but no doubt, if he confined himself to broken sentences which meant nothing, light would shortly be vouchsafed to him.
“In the heat of the moment,” confessed Mr. Pilkington, “I’m afraid I said things to Miss Mariner which I now regret.”
Uncle Chris began to feel on solid ground again. “Dear, dear!” he murmured regretfully.
“I spoke hastily.”
“Always think before you speak, my boy.”
“I considered that I had been cheated . . .”
“My dear boy!” Uncle Chris’s blue eyes opened wide. “Please! Haven’t I said that I could explain all that? It was a pure misunderstanding . . .”
“Oh, I don’t care about that part of it . . .”
“Quite right,” said Uncle Chris cordially. “Let bygones be bygones. Start with a clean slate. You have your money back, and there’s no need to say another word about it. Let us forget it,” he concluded generously. “And if I have any influence with Jill, you may count on me to use it to dissipate any little unfortunate rift which may have occurred between you.”
“You think there’s a chance that she might overlook what I said?”
“As I say, I will use any influence I may possess to heal the breach. I like you, my boy. And I am sure that Jill likes you. She will make allowances for any ill-judged remarks you may have uttered in a moment of heat.”
MR. PILKINGTON brightened, and Mrs. Peagrim, returning with a medicine glass, was pleased to see him looking so much better.
“You are a positive wizard, Major Selby,” she said archly. “What have you been saying to the poor boy to cheer him up so? He has a bad headache this morning.”
“Headache?” said Uncle Chris, starting like a war horse that has heard the bugle. “I don’t know if I have ever mentioned it, but I used to suffer from headaches at one time. Extraordinarily severe headaches. I tried everything, until one day a man I knew recommended a thing called—don’t know if you have ever heard of it . . .”
Mrs. Peagrim, in her rôle of ministering angel, was engrossed with her errand of mercy. She was holding the medicine glass to Mr. Pilkington’s lips, and the seed fell on stony ground.
“Drink this, dear,” urged Mrs. Peagrim.
“Nervino,” said Uncle Chris.
“There!” said Mrs. Peagrim. “That will make you feel much better. How well you always look, Major Selby!”
“And yet at one time,” said Uncle Chris perseveringly, “I was a martyr . . .”
“I can’t remember if I told you last night about the party. We are giving a little supper-dance to the company of Otie’s play after the performance this evening. Of course you will come?”
Uncle Chris philosophically accepted his failure to secure the ear of his audience. Other opportunities would occur.
“Delighted,” he said. “Delighted.”
“Quite a simple, bohemian little affair,” proceeded Mrs. Peagrim. “I thought it was only right to give the poor things a little treat after they have all worked so hard.”
“Certainly, certainly. A capital idea.”
“We shall be quite a small party. If I once started asking anybody outside our real friends, I should have to ask everybody.”
The door opened.
“Mr. Rooke,” announced the maid.
Printer’s error corrected above:
In ch. XIX, magazine omitted “an” from “an anemic and negative young woman”; the indefinite article is in both book versions.