The Saturday Evening Post – October 14, 1916
AT FIVE o’clock in the afternoon, some ten days after her return to America, Mrs. Pett was at home to her friends in the house on Riverside Drive. The proceedings were on a scale that amounted to a reception, for they were not only a sort of official notification to New York that one of its most prominent hostesses was once more in its midst, but were also designed to entertain and impress Mr. Hammond Chester, Ann’s father, who had been spending a couple of days in the metropolis preparatory to departing for South America on one of his frequent trips. He was very fond of Ann in his curious, detached way, though he never ceased in his private heart to consider it injudicious of her not to have been born a boy, and he always took in New York for a day or so on his way from one wild and lonely spot to another, if he could manage it.
The large drawing-room overlooking the Hudson was filled almost to capacity with that strange mixture of humanity which Mrs. Pett chiefly affected. She prided herself on the Bohemian element in her parties, and had become during the past two years a human dragnet, scooping genius from its hiding places and bringing it into the open. At different spots in the room stood the six resident geniuses to whose presence in the home Mr. Pett had such strong objections, and in addition to these she had collected so many more of a like breed from the environs of Washington Square that the air was clamorous with the hoarse cries of futurist painters, esoteric Buddhists, vers libre poets, interior decorators and stage reformers, sifted in among the more conventional members of society who had come to listen to them.
Men with new religions drank tea with women with new hats. All over the room throats were being strained and minds broadened.
Mr. Chester, standing near the door with Ann, eyed the assemblage with the genial contempt of a large dog for a voluble pack of small ones. He was a massive, weather-beaten man, who looked very like Ann in some ways and would have looked more like her but for the misfortune of having had some of his face clawed away by an irritable jaguar with whom he had had a difference some years back in the jungles of Peru.
“Do you like this sort of thing?” he asked.
“I don’t mind it,” said Ann.
“Well, I shall be very sorry to leave you, Ann, but I’m glad I’m pulling out of here this evening. Who are all these people?”
Ann surveyed the gathering.
“That’s Ernest Wisden, the playwright, over there, talking to Lora Delane Porter, the feminist writer. That’s Clara What’s-Her-Name, the sculptor, with the bobbed hair.
“Next to her ——”
Mr. Chester cut short his daughter’s recital with a stifled yawn.
“Where’s old Pete? Doesn’t he come to these jamborees?”
“Poor Uncle Peter! If he gets back from the office before these people leave he will sneak up to his room and stay there till it’s safe to come out. The last time I made him come to one of these parties he was pounced on by a woman who talked to him for an hour about the morality of finance and seemed to think that millionaires were the scum of the earth.”
“He never would stand up for himself.” Mr. Chester’s gaze hovered about the room and paused. “Who’s that fellow? I believe I’ve seen him before somewhere.”
A constant eddying swirl was animating the multitude. Whenever the mass tended to congeal something always seemed to stir it up again. This was due to the restless activity of Mrs. Pett, who held it to be the duty of a good hostess to keep her guests moving. From the moment when the room began to fill till the moment when it began to empty she did not cease to plow her way to and fro, in a manner equally reminiscent of a hawk swooping on chickens and an earnest collegian bucking the line. Her guests were as a result perpetually forming new ententes and combinations, finding themselves bumped about like those little moving figures which one sees in shop windows on Broadway, which revolve on a metal disk until, urged by impact with other little figures, they scatter to regroup themselves elsewhere. It was a fascinating feature of Mrs. Pett’s at-homes, and one that assisted that mental broadening process already alluded to, that one never knew, when listening to a discussion on the sincerity of Oscar Wilde, whether it would not suddenly change in the middle of a sentence to an argument on the inner meaning of the Russian Ballet.
Plunging now into a group dominated for the moment by an angular woman who was saying loud and penetrating things about the suffrage, Mrs. Pett had seized and removed a tall blond young man with a mild, vacuous face. For the past few minutes this young man had been sitting bolt upright on a chair, with his hands on his knees so exactly in the manner of an end-man at a minstrel show that one would hardly have been surprised had he burst into song or asked a conundrum.
Ann followed her father’s gaze.
“Do you mean the man talking to Aunt Nesta? There, they’ve gone over to speak to Willie Partridge. Do you mean that one?”
“Yes. Who is he?”
“Well, I like that!” said Ann, “considering that you introduced him to us! That’s Lord Wisbeach, who came to Uncle Peter with a letter of introduction from you. You met him in Canada.”
“I remember now. I ran across him in British Columbia. We camped together one night. I’d never seen him before and I didn’t see him again. He said he wanted a letter to old Pete for some reason, so I scribbled him one in pencil on the back of an envelope. I’ve never met anyone who played a better game of draw poker. He cleaned me out. There’s a lot in that fellow, in spite of his looking like a musical comedy dude. He’s clever.”
Ann looked at him meditatively.
“It’s odd that you should be discovering hidden virtues in Lord Wisbeach, father. I’ve been trying to make up my mind about him. He wants me to marry him.”
“He does! I suppose a good many of these young fellows here want the same thing, don’t they, Ann?” Mr. Chester looked at his daughter with interest. Her growing up and becoming a beauty had always been a perplexity to him. He could never rid himself of the impression of her as a long-legged child in short skirts. “I suppose you’re refusing them all the time?”
“Every day from ten to four, with an hour off for lunch. I keep regular office hours. Admission on presentation of visiting card.”
“And how do you feel about this Lord Wisbeach?”
“I don’t know,” said Ann frankly. “He’s very nice. And—what is more important—he’s different. Most of the men I know are all turned out of the same mold. Lord Wisbeach, and one other man, are the only two I’ve met who might not be the brothers of all the rest.”
“Who’s the other?”
“A man I hardly know. I met him on board ship.”
Mr. Chester looked at his watch.
“It’s up to you, Ann,” he said. “There’s one comfort in being your father—I don’t mean that exactly, I mean that it is a comfort to me as your father to know that I need feel no paternal anxiety about you. I don’t have to give you advice. You’ve not only got three times the sense that I have, but you’re not the sort of girl who would take advice. You’ve always known just what you wanted ever since you were a kid. Well, if you’re going to take me down to the boat we’d better be starting. Where’s the car?”
“Waiting outside. Aren’t you going to say good-by to Aunt Nesta?”
“What! Plunge into that pack of coyotes and fight my way through to her!” exclaimed Mr. Chester in honest concern. “I’d be torn to pieces by wild poets. Besides, it seems silly to make a fuss saying good-by when I’m only going to be away a short time. I shan’t go any farther than Colombia this trip.”
“You’ll be able to run back for week-ends,” said Ann.
She paused at the door to cast a fleeting glance over her shoulder at the fair-haired Lord Wisbeach, who was now in animated conversation with her aunt and Willie Partridge, then she followed her father down the stairs. She was a little thoughtful as she took her place at the wheel of her automobile. It was not often that her independent nature craved outside support, but she was half conscious of wishing at the present juncture that she possessed a somewhat less casual father. She would have liked to ask him to help her decide a problem which had been vexing her for nearly three weeks now, ever since Lord Wisbeach had asked her to marry him and she had promised to give him his answer on her return from England. She had been back in New York several days now, but she had not been able to make up her mind. This annoyed her, for she was a girl who liked swift decisiveness of thought and action both in others and in herself. She was fond of Mr. Chester in much the same unemotional, detached way that he was fond of her, but she was perfectly well aware of the futility of expecting counsel from him.
She said good-by to him at the boat, fussed over his comfort for a while in a motherly way, and then drove slowly back. For the first time in her life she was feeling uncertain of herself. When she had left for England she had practically made up her mind to accept Lord Wisbeach, and had only deferred actual acceptance of him because in her cool way she wished to reëxamine the position at her leisure. Second thoughts had brought no revulsion of feeling. She had not wavered until her arrival in New York. Then, for some reason which baffled her, the idea of marrying Lord Wisbeach had become vaguely distasteful. And now she found herself fluctuating between this mood and her former one.
She reached the house on Riverside Drive, but did not slacken the speed of the machine. She knew that Lord Wisbeach would be waiting for her there, and she did not wish to meet him just yet. She wanted to be alone. She was feeling depressed. She wondered if this was because she had just parted from her father, and decided that it was. His swift entrances into and exits from her life always left her temporarily restless. She drove on up the river. She meant to decide her problem one way or the other before she returned home.
Lord Wisbeach, meanwhile, was talking to Mrs. Pett and Willie, its inventor, about Partridgite. Willie, on hearing himself addressed, had turned slowly with an air of absent self-importance, the air of a great thinker disturbed in midthought. He always looked like that when spoken to, and there were those—Mr. Pett belonged to this school of thought—who held that there was nothing to him beyond that look, and that he had built up his reputation as a budding master mind on a foundation that consisted entirely of a vacant eye, a mop of hair through which he could run his fingers, and the fame of his late father.
Willie Partridge was the son of the undeniably great inventor, Dwight Partridge, and it was generally understood that the explosive, Partridgite, was to be the result of a continuation of experiments which his father had been working upon at the time of his death. That Dwight Partridge had been trying experiments in the direction of a new and powerful explosive during the last year of his life was common knowledge in those circles which are interested in such things. Foreign governments were understood to have made tentative overtures to him. But a sudden illness, ending fatally, had finished the budding career of Partridgite abruptly, and the world had thought no more of it until an interview in the Sunday Chronicle, that storehouse of information about interesting people, announced that Willie was carrying on his father’s experiments at the point where he had left off. Since then there had been vague rumors of possible sensational developments, which Willie had neither denied nor confirmed. He preserved the mysterious silence which went so well with his appearance.
Having turned slowly so that his eyes rested on Lord Wisbeach’s ingenuous countenance, Willie paused, and his face assumed the expression of his photograph in the Chronicle.
“Ah, Wisbeach!” he said.
Lord Wisbeach did not appear to resent the patronage of his manner. He plunged cheerily into talk. He had a pleasant, simple way of comporting himself, which made people like him.
“I was just telling Mrs. Pett,” he said, “that I shouldn’t be surprised if you were to get an offer for your stuff from our fellows at home before long. I saw a lot of our War Office men when I was in England, don’t you know. Several of them mentioned the stuff.”
Willie resented Partridgite’s being referred to as “the stuff,” but he made allowances. All Englishmen talked that way, he supposed.
“Indeed?” he said.
“Of course,” said Mrs. Pett, “Willie is a patriot and would have to give our own authorities the first chance ——”
“But you know what officials are all over the world. They are so skeptical and they move so slowly.”
“I know. Our men at home are just the same, as a rule. I’ve got a pal who invented something-or-other, I forget what, but it was a most decent little contrivance and very useful and all that, and he simply can’t get them to say yes or no about it. But, all the same, I wonder you didn’t have some of them trying to put out feelers to you.”
“Oh, we were only in London a few hours. By the way, Lord Wisbeach, my sister ——” Mrs. Pett paused. She disliked to have to mention her sister or to refer to this subject at all, but curiosity impelled her. “My sister said that you are a great friend of her stepson, James Crocker.”
Lord Wisbeach seemed to hesitate for a moment.
“He’s not coming over, is he? Pity! It would have done him a world of good. Yes, Jimmy Crocker and I have always been great pals. He’s a bit of a nut, of course—I beg your pardon! I mean ——” He broke off confusedly, and turned to Willie again to cover himself. “How are you getting on with the jolly old stuff?” he asked.
If Willie had objected to Partridgite’s being called “the stuff,” he was still less in favor of its being termed “the jolly old stuff.” He replied coldly:
“I have ceased to get along with the jolly old stuff.”
“Struck a snag?” inquired Lord Wisbeach.
“On the contrary, my experiments have been entirely successful. I have enough Partridgite in my laboratory to blow New York to bits!”
“Willie!” exclaimed Mrs. Pett. “Why didn’t you tell me before? You know I am so interested.”
“I only completed my work last night.”
He moved off with an important nod. He was tired of Lord Wisbeach’s society. There was something about the young man which he did not like. He went to find more congenial company in a group by the window.
Lord Wisbeach turned to his hostess. The vacuous expression had dropped from his face like a mask.
A pair of keen and intelligent eyes met Mrs. Pett’s.
“Mrs. Pett, may I speak to you seriously?”
Mrs. Pett’s surprise at the alteration in the man prevented her from replying. Much as she liked Lord Wisbeach, she had never given him credit for brains, and it was a man with brains who was looking at her now. She nodded.
“If your nephew has really succeeded in his experiments you should be awfully careful. That stuff ought not to lie about in his laboratory, though no doubt he has hidden it as carefully as possible. It ought to be in a safe somewhere—in that safe in your library. News of this kind moves like lightning. At this very moment there may be people watching for a chance of getting at the stuff.”
Every nerve in Mrs. Pett’s body, every cell of a brain which had for years been absorbing and giving out sensational fiction, quivered irrepressibly at these words, spoken in a low tense voice which gave them additional emphasis. Never had she misjudged a man as she had misjudged Lord Wisbeach.
“Spies?” she quavered.
“They wouldn’t call themselves that,” said Lord Wisbeach. “Secret-service agents. Every country has its men whose only duty it is to handle this sort of work.”
“They would try to steal Willie’s ——” Mrs. Pett’s voice failed.
“They would not look on it as stealing. Their motives would be patriotic. I tell you, Mrs. Pett, I have heard stories from friends of mine in the English secret service which would amaze you. Perfectly straight men in private life, but absolutely unscrupulous when at work. They stick at nothing—nothing. If I were you I should suspect everyone, especially every stranger.” He smiled engagingly. “You are thinking that that is odd advice from one like myself, who is practically a stranger. Never mind. Suspect me, too, if you like. Be on the safe side.”
“I would not dream of doing such a thing, Lord Wisbeach,” said Mrs. Pett, horrified. “I trust you implicitly. Even supposing such a thing were possible, would you have warned me like this if you had been ——”
“That’s true,” said Lord Wisbeach. “I never thought of that. Well, let me say, suspect everybody but me.” He stopped abruptly. “Mrs. Pett,” he whispered, “don’t look round for a moment. Wait.” The words were almost inaudible. “Who is that man behind you? He has been listening to us. Turn slowly.”
With elaborate carelessness Mrs. Pett turned her head. At first she thought her companion must have alluded to one of a small group of young men who, very improperly in such surroundings, were discussing with raised voices the prospects of the clubs competing for the National League Baseball Pennant. Then, extending the sweep of her gaze, she saw that she had been mistaken. Midway between her and this group stood a single figure, the figure of a stout man in a swallow-tail suit, who bore before him a tray with cups on it. As she turned, this man caught her eye, gave a guilty start and hurried across the room.
“You saw?” said Lord Wisbeach. “He was listening. Who is that man? Your butler apparently. What do you know of him?”
“He is my new butler. His name is Skinner.”
“Ah, your new butler? He hasn’t been with you long then?”
“He arrived from England only three days ago.”
“From England? How did he get in here? I mean, on whose recommendation?”
“Mr. Pett offered him the place when we met him at my sister’s in London. We went over there to see my sister Eugenia—Mrs. Crocker. This man was the butler who admitted us. He asked Mr. Pett something about baseball, and Mr. Pett was so pleased that he offered him a place here if he wanted to come over. The man did not give any definite answer then, but apparently he sailed on the next boat, and came to the house a few days after we had returned.”
Lord Wisbeach laughed softly.
“Very smart. Of course they had him planted there for the purpose.”
“What ought I to do?” asked Mrs. Pett agitatedly.
“Do nothing. There is nothing that you can do, for the present, except keep your eyes open. Watch this man Skinner. See if he has any accomplices. It is hardly likely that he is working alone. Suspect everybody. Believe me ——”
At this moment, apparently from some upper region, there burst forth an uproar so sudden and overwhelming that it might well have been taken for a premature testing of a large sample of Partridgite, until a moment later it began to resemble more nearly the shrieks of some partially destroyed victim of that death-dealing invention.
It was a bellow of anguish, and it poured through the house in a cascade of sound, advertising to all beneath the roof the twin facts that some person unknown was suffering, and that whoever the sufferer might be he had excellent lungs.
The effect on the gathering in the drawing-room was immediate and impressive. Conversation ceased as if it had been turned off with a tap. Twelve separate and distinct discussions on twelve highly intellectual topics died instantaneously. It was as if the last trump had sounded. Futurist painters stared pallidly at vers libre poets, speech smitten from their lips, and stage reformers looked at esoteric Buddhists with a wild surmise.
The sudden silence had the effect of emphasizing the strange noise and rendering it more distinct, thus enabling it to carry its message to one at least of the listeners. Mrs. Pett, after a moment of strained attention in which time seemed to her to stand still, uttered a wailing cry and leaped for the door.
“Ogden!” she shrilled; and passed up the stairs two at a time, gathering speed as she went. A boy’s best friend is his mother.
WHILE the feast of reason and flow of soul had been in progress in the drawing-room, in the gymnasium on the top floor Jerry Mitchell, awaiting the coming of Mr. Pett, had been passing the time in improving with strenuous exercise his already impressive physique. If Mrs. Pett’s guests had been less noisily concentrated on their conversation they might have heard the muffled tap-tap-tap that proclaimed that Jerry Mitchell was punching the bag upstairs.
It was not till he had punched it for perhaps five minutes that, desisting from his labors, he perceived that he had the pleasure of the company of little Ogden Ford. The stout boy was standing in the doorway, observing him with an attentive eye.
“What are you doing?” inquired Ogden.
Jerry passed a gloved fist over his damp brow.
“Punchin’ the bag.”
He began to remove his gloves, eying Ogden the while with a disapproval which he made no attempt to conceal. An extremist on the subject of keeping in condition, the spectacle of the bulbous stripling was a constant offense to him. Ogden, in pursuance of his invariable custom on the days when Mrs. Pett entertained, had been lurking on the stairs outside the drawing-room, levying toll on the foodstuffs that passed his way. He wore a congested look, and there was jam about his mouth.
“Why?” he said, retrieving a morsel of jam from his right cheek with the tip of his tongue.
“To keep in condition.”
“Why do you want to keep in condition?”
Jerry flung the gloves into their locker.
“Fade!” he said wearily. “Fade!”
“Huh?” Much pastry seemed to have clouded the boy’s mind.
“Don’t want to run away.”
The annoyed pugilist sat down and scrutinized his visitor critically.
“You never do anything you don’t want to, I guess?”
“No,” said Ogden simply. “You’ve got a funny nose,” he added dispassionately. “What did you do to it to make it like that?”
Mr. Mitchell shifted restlessly on his chair. He was not a vain man, but he was a little sensitive about that particular item in his make-up.
“Lizzie says that you have got the funniest nose she ever saw. She says it’s like something out of a comic supplement.”
A dull flush, such as five minutes with the bag had been unable to produce, appeared on Jerry Mitchell’s peculiar countenance. It was not that he looked on Lizzie Murphy, herself no Lillian Russell, as an accepted authority on the subject of facial beauty; but he was aware that in this instance she spoke not without reason, and he was vexed, moreover, as many another had been before him, by the note of indulgent patronage in Ogden’s voice. His fingers twitched a little eagerly, and he looked sullenly at his tactless junior.
“Get outa here!”
“Don’t want to get out of here,” said Ogden with finality. He put his hand in his trousers pocket and pulled out a sticky mass which looked as if it might once have been a cream puff or a meringue. He swallowed it contentedly. “I’d forgotten I had that,” he explained. “Mary gave it to me on the stairs. Mary thinks you’ve a funny nose, too,” he proceeded, as one relating agreeable gossip.
“Can it! Can it!” exclaimed the exasperated pugilist.
“I’m only telling you what I heard her say.”
Mr. Mitchell rose convulsively and took a step toward his persecutor, breathing noisily through the criticized organ. He was a chivalrous man, a warm admirer of the sex, but he was conscious of a wish that it was in his power to give Mary what he would have described as “hers.” She was one of the parlor maids, a homely woman with a hard eye, and it was part of his grievance against her that his Maggie, alias Celestine, Mrs. Pett’s maid, had formed an enthusiastic friendship with her. He had no evidence to go on, but he suspected Mary of using her influence with Celestine to urge the suit of his leading rival, Biggs, the chauffeur, for her hand. He disliked Mary intensely even on general grounds. Ogden’s revelation added fuel to his aversion. For a moment he toyed with the fascinating thought of relieving his feelings by spanking the boy, but restrained himself reluctantly at the thought of the inevitable ruin which would ensue. He had been an inmate of the house long enough to know, with a completeness which would have embarrassed that gentleman, what a cipher Mr. Pett was in the home, and how little his championship would avail in the event of a clash with Mrs. Pett. And to give Ogden that physical treatment which should long since have formed the main plank in the platform of his education would be to invite her wrath as nothing else could. He checked himself and reached out for the skipping rope, hoping to ease his mind by further exercise.
Ogden, chewing the remains of the cream puff, eyed him with languid curiosity.
“What are you doing that for?”
Mr. Mitchell skipped grimly on.
“What are you doing that for? I thought only girls skipped.”
Mr. Mitchell paid no heed. Ogden, after a moment’s silent contemplation, returned to his original train of thought.
“I saw an advertisement in a magazine the other day of a sort of machine for altering the shape of noses. You strap it on when you go to bed. You ought to get pop to blow you to one.”
Jerry Mitchell breathed in a labored way.
“You want to look nice about the place, don’t you? Well, then! There’s no sense in going round looking like that if you don’t have to, is there? I heard Mary talking about your nose to Biggs and Celestine. She said she had to laugh every time she saw it.”
The skipping rope faltered in its sweep, caught in the skipper’s legs, and sent him staggering across the room. Ogden threw back his head and laughed merrily. He liked free entertainments, and this struck him as a particularly enjoyable one.
There are moments in the life of every man when the impulse attacks him to sacrifice his future to the alluring gratification of the present. The strong man resists such impulses. Jerry Mitchell was not a weak man, but he had been sorely tried. The annoyance of Ogden’s presence and conversation had sapped his self-restraint as dripping water will wear away a rock. A short while before, he had fought down the urgent temptation to massacre this exasperating child, but now, despised love adding its sting to that of injured vanity, he forgot the consequences. Bounding across the room he seized Ogden in a powerful grip, and the next instant the latter’s education—in the true sense of the word—so long postponed, had begun, and with it that avalanche of sound which, rolling down into the drawing-room, hurled Mrs. Pett so violently and with such abruptness from the society of her guests.
Disposing of the last flight of stairs with the agility of the chamois, which leaps from crag to crag of the snow-topped Alps, Mrs. Pett finished with a fine burst of speed along the passage on the top floor, and rushed into the gymnasium just as Jerry’s avenging hand was descending for the eleventh time.
IT WAS less than a quarter of an hour later—such was the speed with which Nemesis, usually slow, had overtaken him—that Jerry Mitchell, carrying a grip and walking dejectedly, emerged from the back premises of the Pett home and started down Riverside Drive in the direction of his boarding house, a cheap, clean and respectable establishment situated on Ninety-seventh Street between the Drive and Broadway. His usually placid nervous system was ruffled and aquiver from the events of the afternoon, and his cauliflower ears still burned reminiscently at the recollection of the uncomplimentary words shot at them by Mrs. Pett before she expelled him from the house.
Moreover, he was in a mild panic at the thought of having to see Ann later on and try to explain the disaster to her. He knew how the news would affect her. She had set her heart on removing Ogden to more disciplinary surroundings, and she could not possibly do it now that her ally was no longer an inmate of the house. He was an essential factor in the scheme, and now, to gratify the desire of the moment, he had eliminated himself. Long before he reached the brownstone house, which looked exactly like all the other brownstone houses in all the other side streets of uptown New York, the first fine careless rapture of his mad outbreak had passed from Jerry Mitchell, leaving nervous apprehension in its place. Ann was a girl whom he worshiped respectfully, but he feared her in her wrath.
Having entered the boarding house Jerry, seeking company in his hour of sorrow, climbed the stairs till he reached a door on the second floor. Sniffing and detecting the odor of tobacco he knocked, and was bidden to enter.
“Hello, Bayliss!” he said sadly, having obeyed the call.
He sat down on the end of the bed and heaved a deep sigh.
The room which he had entered was airy but small, so small, indeed, that the presence of any furniture in it at all was almost miraculous, for at first sight it seemed incredible that the bed did not fill it from side to side. There were, however, a few vacant spots, and in these had been placed a washstand, a chest of drawers and a midget rocking-chair. The window, which the thoughtful architect had designed at least three sizes too large for the room and which admitted the evening air in pleasing profusion, looked out onto a series of forlorn back yards. In boarding houses it is only the windows of the rich and haughty that face the street.
On the bed, a corncob pipe between his teeth, lay Jimmy Crocker. He was shoeless and in his shirt sleeves. There was a crumpled evening paper on the floor beside the bed. He seemed to be taking his rest after the labors of a trying day.
At the sound of Jerry’s sigh he raised his head, but, finding the attitude too severe a strain on the muscles of the neck, restored it to the pillow.
“What’s the matter, Jerry? You seem perturbed. You have the aspect of one whom Fate has smitten in the spiritual solar plexus, or of one who has been searching for the leak in life’s gaspipe with a lighted candle. What’s wrong?”
Jimmy, through long absence from his native land, was not always able to follow Jerry’s thoughts when concealed in the wrappings of the peculiar dialect which he affected.
“I get you not, friend. Supply a few footnotes.”
“I’ve been fired.”
Jimmy sat up. This was no imaginary trouble, no mere malaise of the temperament. It was concrete, and called for sympathy.
“I’m awfully sorry,” he said. “No wonder you aren’t rollicking. How did it happen?”
“That half-portion Bill Taft came joshing me about my beezer till it got something fierce,” explained Jerry. “William J. Bryan couldn’t have stood for it.”
Once again Jimmy lost the thread. The wealth of political allusion baffled him.
“What’s Taft been doing to you?”
“It wasn’t Taft. He only looks like him. It was that kid Ogden up where I work. He came butting into the gym, joshing me about—makin’ pers’nal remarks till I kind of lost my goat, and the next thing I knew I was giving him his!” A faint gleam of pleasure lightened the gloom of his face. “I cert’nly give him his!” The gleam faded. “And after that—well, here I am!”
Jimmy understood now. He had come to the boarding house the night of his meeting with Jerry Mitchell on Broadway, and had been there ever since, and frequent conversations with the pugilist had put him abreast of affairs at the Pett home. He was familiar with the personnel of the establishment on Riverside Drive, and knew precisely how great was the crime of administering correction to Ogden Ford, no matter what the cause. Nor did he require explanation of the phenomenon of Mrs. Pett dismissing one who was in her husband’s private employment. Jerry had his sympathy freely.
“You appear,” he said, “to have acted in a thoroughly capable and praiseworthy manner. The only point in your conduct that I would permit myself to criticize is your omission to slay the kid. That, however, was due, I take it, to the fact that you were interrupted. We will now proceed to examine the future. I cannot see that it is altogether murky. You have lost a good job, but there are others equally good for a man of your caliber. New York is crammed with dyspeptic millionaires who need an efficient physical instructor to look after them. Cheer up, Cuthbert, for the sun is still shining!”
Jerry Mitchell shook his head. He refused to be comforted.
“It’s Miss Ann,” he said. “What am I going to say to her?”
“What has she got to do with it?” asked Jimmy, interested.
For a moment Jerry hesitated, but the desire for sympathy and advice was too strong for him. And after all there was no harm in confiding in a good comrade like Jimmy.
“It’s like this,” he said. “Miss Ann and me had got it all fixed up to kidnap the kid!”
“Say, I don’t mean ordinary kidnaping. It’s this way. Miss Ann come to me and we agree that the kid’s a pest that had ought to have some strong-arm keep him in order, so we decide to get him away to a friend of mine who keeps a dogs’ hospital down on Long Island. Bud Smithers is the guy to handle that kid. You ought to see him take hold of a dog that’s all grouch and ugliness and make it over into a dog that it’s a pleasure to have round. I thought a few weeks with Bud was what the doctor ordered for Ogden, and Miss Ann guessed I was right, so we had it all framed. And now this happens and balls everything up! She can’t do nothing with a husky kid like that without me. And how am I going to help her if I’m not allowed in the house?”
Jimmy was conscious of a renewed admiration for a girl whom he had always considered a queen among women. How rarely in this world did one find a girl who combined every feminine charm of mind and body with a resolute determination to raise Cain at the slightest provocation!
“What an absolutely corking idea!”
Jerry smirked modestly at the approbation, but returned instantly to his gloom.
“You get me now? What am I to say to her? She’ll be sore!”
“The problem,” Jimmy had begun, “is one which, as you suggest, presents certain ——” when there was a knock at the door, and the head of the boarding house’s maid of all work popped in.
“Mr. Bayliss, is Mr. Mitchell —— Oh, say, Mr. Mitchell, there’s a lady down below wants to see you. Says her name’s Chester.”
Jerry looked at Jimmy appealingly.
“What’ll I do?”
“Do nothing,” said Jimmy, rising and reaching for his shoes. “I’ll go down and see her. I can explain for you.”
“It’s mighty good of you ——”
“It will be a pleasure. Rely on me.”
Ann, who had returned from her drive shortly after the Ogden disaster and had instantly proceeded to the boarding house, had been shown into the parlor. Jimmy found her staring in a rapt way at a statuette of the Infant Samuel that stood near a bowl of wax fruit on the mantelpiece. She was feeling aggrieved with Fate and extremely angry with Jerry Mitchell, and she turned at the sound of the opening door with a militant expression in her eyes, which changed to one of astonishment on perceiving who it was that had come in.
“Good evening, Miss Chester. We, so to speak, meet again. I have come as an intermediary. To be brief, Jerry Mitchell didn’t dare face you, so I offered to come down instead.”
“But how—but why are you here?”
“I live here.” He followed her gaze. It rested on a picture of cows in a field. “Late American school,” he said. “Attributed to the landlady’s niece, a graduate of the Wissahickon, Pa., Correspondence School of Pictorial Art. Said to be genuine.”
“You live here?” repeated Ann. She had been brought up all her life among the carefully thought-out effects of eminent interior decorators, and the room seemed more dreadful to her than it actually was. “What an awful room!”
“Awful? You must be overlooking the piano. Can’t you see the handsome plush cover from where you are standing? Move a little to the southeast and shade your eyes. We get music here of an evening—when we don’t see it coming and sidestep.”
“Why in the name of goodness do you live here, Mr. Bayliss?”
“Because, Miss Chester, I am infernally hard up! Because the Bayliss bank roll has been stricken with a wasting sickness.”
Ann was looking at him incredulously.
“But—but—then did you really mean all that at lunch the other day? I thought you were joking. I took it for granted that you could get work whenever you wanted to or you wouldn’t have made fun of it! Can’t you really find anything to do?”
“Plenty to do. But I’m not paid for it. I walk a great number of blocks and jump into a great number of cars and dive into elevators and dive out again and open doors and say ‘Good morning!’ when people tell me they haven’t a job for me. My days are quite full—but my pocketbook isn’t!”
Ann had forgotten all about her errand in her sympathy.
“I’m so sorry. Why, it’s terrible! I should have thought you could have found something.”
“I thought the same till the employers of New York in a body told me I couldn’t. Men of widely differing views on religion, politics and a hundred other points, they were unanimous on that. The nearest I came to being a financial Titan was when I landed a job in a store on Broadway, demonstrating a patent collar-clip at ten dollars a week. For a while all Nature seemed to be shouting: ‘Ten per! Ten per!’ than which there are few sweeter words in the language. But I was fired halfway through the second day, and Nature changed her act.”
“It wasn’t my fault. Just Fate. This contrivance was called Klipstone’s Kute Kollar-Klip, and it was supposed to make it easy for you to fasten your tie. My job was to stand in the window in my shirt sleeves, gnashing my teeth and registering baffled rage when I tried the old, obsolete method, and beaming on the multitude when I used the Klip. Unfortunately I got the cards mixed. I beamed when I tried the old, obsolete method, and nearly burst myself with baffled fury just after I had exhibited the card bearing the words ‘I will now try Klipstone’s Kute Klip.’ I couldn’t think what the vast crowd outside the window was laughing at till the boss, who chanced to pause on the outskirts of the gathering on his way back from lunch, was good enough to tell me.
“Nothing that I could say would convince him that I was not being intentionally humorous. I was sorry to lose the job, though it did make me feel like a goldfish. But talking of being fired brings us back to Jerry Mitchell.”
“Oh, never mind Jerry now ——”
“On the contrary, let us discuss his case and the points arising from it with care and concentration. Jerry Mitchell has told me all!”
Ann was startled. “What do you mean?”
“The word ‘all,’ ” said Jimmy, “is slang for ‘everything.’ You see in me a confidant. In a word, I am hep.”
“You know ——”
“Everything. A colloquialism,” explained Jimmy, “for ‘all.’ About Ogden, you know. The scheme. The plot. The enterprise.”
Ann found nothing to say.
“I am thoroughly in favor of the plan. So much so that I propose to assist you by taking Jerry’s place.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Do you remember at lunch that day, after that remarkable person had mistaken me for Jimmy Crocker, you suggested in a light, casual way that if I were to walk into your uncle’s office and claim to be Jimmy Crocker I should be welcomed without a question? I’m going to do it. Then, once aboard the lugger—once in the house—I am at your orders. Use me exactly as you would have used Jerry Mitchell.”
“Jerry!” said Jimmy scornfully. “Can’t I do everything that he could have done? And more. A bonehead like Jerry would have been certain to have bungled the thing somehow. I know him well. A good fellow, but in matters requiring intellect and swift thought, dead from the neck up. It’s a very lucky thing he is out of the running. I love him like a brother, but his dome is of ivory. This job requires a man of tact, sense, shrewdness, initiative, esprit and verve.” He paused. “Me!” he concluded.
“But it’s ridiculous! It’s out of the question!”
“Not at all. I must be extraordinarily like Jimmy Crocker, or that fellow at the restaurant wouldn’t have taken me for him. Leave this in my hands. I can get away with it.”
“I shan’t dream of allowing you ——”
“At nine o’clock to-morrow morning,” said Jimmy firmly, “I present myself at Mr. Pett’s office. It’s all settled.”
Ann was silent. She was endeavoring to adjust her mind to the idea. Her first startled revulsion from it had begun to wane. Soon, from being disapproving, she found herself glowing with admiration for its author. He was a young man of her own sort!
“You asked me on the boat, if you remember,” said Jimmy, “if I had an adventurous soul. I am now submitting my proofs. You also spoke highly of America as a land where there were adventures to be had. I now see that you were right.”
Ann thought for a moment.
“If I consent to your doing this insane thing, Mr. Bayliss, will you promise me something?”
“Well, in the first place I absolutely refuse to let you risk all sorts of frightful things by coming into this kidnaping plot.” She waved him down and went on. “But I see where you can help me very much. As I told you at lunch, my aunt would do anything for Jimmy Crocker if he were to appear in New York now. I want you to promise that you will confine your activities to asking her to let Jerry Mitchell come back.”
“You said you would promise me anything,”
“Anything but that.”
“Then it is all off!”
“It’s terribly tame that way.”
“Never mind. It’s the only way I will consider.”
“Very well. I protest though.”
Ann sat down.
“I think you’re splendid, Mr. Bayliss. I’m much obliged!”
“Not at all.”
“It will be such a splendid thing for Ogden, won’t it!”
“Now the only thing to do is just to see that we have got everything straight. How about this, for instance? They will ask you when you arrived in New York. How are you going to account for your delay in coming to see them?”
“I’ve thought of that. There’s a boat that docks to-morrow—the Caronia, I think. I’ve got a paper upstairs. I’ll look it up. I can say I came by her.”
“That seems all right. It’s lucky you and Uncle Peter never met on the Atlantic.”
“And now as to my demeanor on entering the home? How should I behave? Should I be jaunty or humble? What would a long-lost nephew naturally do?”
“A long-lost nephew with a record like Jimmy Crocker’s would crawl in with a white flag, I should think.”
A bell clanged in the hall.
“Supper!” said Jimmy. “To go into painful details, New England boiled dinner, or my senses deceive me—and prunes.”
“I must be going.”
“We shall meet at Philippi.”
He saw her to the door and stood at the top of the steps watching her trim figure vanish into the dusk. She passed from his sight. Jimmy drew a deep breath and, thinking hard, went down the passage to fortify himself with supper.
WHEN Jimmy arrived at Mr. Pett’s office on Pine Street at ten-thirty the next morning—his expressed intention of getting up early enough to be there by nine having proved an empty boast—he was in a high state of preparedness. He had made ready for what might be a trying interview by substituting a combination of well-chosen dishes at an expensive hotel for the less imaginative boarding-house breakfast with which he had of late been insulting his interior. His suit was pressed, his shoes gleamed brightly and his chin was smoothly shaven. These things, combined with the perfection of the morning, and that vague exhilaration which a fine day in downtown New York brings to the man who has not got to work, increased his natural optimism. Something seemed to tell him that all would be well. He would have been the last person to deny that his position was a little complicated—he had to use a pencil and a sheet of paper to show himself just where he stood, but what of that? A few complications in life are an excellent tonic for the brain. It was with a sunny geniality which startled that unaccustomed stripling considerably, and indeed caused him to swallow his chewing gum, that he handed in his card to Mr. Pett’s watchfully waiting office boy.
“This to the boss, my open-faced lad!” he said. “Get swiftly off the mark.”
The boy departed dumbly.
From where he stood, outside the barrier which separated visitors to the office from the workers within, Jimmy could see a vista of efficient-looking young men with paper protectors round their cuffs working away at mysterious jobs that seemed to involve the use of a great deal of paper. One in particular was so surrounded by it that he had the appearance of a bather in surf. Jimmy eyed these toilers with a comfortable and kindly eye. All this industry made him feel happy. He liked to think of this sort of thing going on all round him.
The office boy returned.
“This way, please.”
The respectfulness of the lad’s manner had increased noticeably. Mr. Pett’s reception of the visitor’s name had impressed him. It was an odd fact that the financier, a cipher in his own home, could impress all sorts of people at the office.
To Mr. Pett the announcement that Mr. James Crocker was waiting to see him had come like the announcement of a miracle. Not a day had passed since their return to America without lamentations from Mrs. Pett on the subject of their failure to secure the young man’s person. The occasion of Mrs. Pett’s reading of the article in the Sunday Chronicle descriptive of the Lord Percy Whipple affair had been unique in the little man’s domestic history. For the first time since he had known her the indomitable woman had completely broken down. “Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: ‘It might have been!’ ” and the thought that, if she had only happened to know it, she had had in her hands during that interview with her sister in London a weapon which would have turned defeat into triumph, was more than even Mrs. Pett’s strong spirit could endure. When she looked back on that scene and recalled the airy way in which Mrs. Crocker had spoken of her stepson’s “best friend, Lord Percy Whipple,” and realized that at that very moment Lord Percy had been recovering in bed from the effects of his first meeting with Jimmy Crocker, the iron entered into her soul and she refused to be comforted. In the first instant of realization she thought of six separate and distinct things she could have said to her sister, each more crushing than the last—things that now she would never be able to say.
And now suddenly and unaccountably the means was at hand for restoring her to her tranquil self-esteem. Jimmy Crocker, despite what his stepmother had said, probably in active defiance of her commands, had come to America after all. Mr. Pett’s first thought was that his wife would, as he expressed it to himself, be “tickled to death about this.” Scarcely waiting for the office boy to retire, he leaped toward Jimmy like a gamboling lamb and slapped him on the back with every evidence of joy.
“My dear boy!” he cried. “My dear boy! I’m delighted to see you!”
Jimmy was surprised, relieved and pleased. He had not expected this warmth. A civil coldness had been the best he had looked for. He had been given to understand that in the Pett home he was regarded as the black sheep; and, though one may admit a black sheep into the fold, it does not follow that one must of necessity fawn upon him.
“You’re very kind,” he said, rather startled.
They inspected each other for a brief moment. Mr. Pett was thinking that Jimmy was a great improvement on the picture his imagination had drawn of him. He had looked for something tougher, something flashy and bloated. Jimmy, for his part, had taken an instant liking to the financier. He, too, had been misled by imagination. He had always supposed that these millionaires down Wall Street way were keen, aggressive fellows, with gimlet eyes and sharp tongues. On the boat he had only seen Mr. Pett from afar, and had had no means of estimating his character. He found him an agreeable little man.
“We had given up all hope of your coming,” said Mr. Pett.
A little manly penitence seemed to Jimmy to be in order.
“I never expected you would receive me like this. I thought I must have made myself rather unpopular.”
Mr. Pett buried the past with a gesture.
“When did you land?” he asked.
“This morning. On the Caronia.”
There was a silence, It seemed to Jimmy that Mr. Pett was looking at him rather more closely than was necessary for the actual enjoyment of his style of beauty. He was just about to throw out some light remark about the health of Mrs. Pett, or something about porpoises on the voyage to add local color and verisimilitude, when his heart missed a beat as he perceived that he had made a blunder. Like many other amateur plotters, Ann and he had made the mistake of being too elaborate. It had struck them as an ingenious idea for Jimmy to pretend that he had arrived that morning, and superficially it was a good idea. But he now remembered for the first time that if he had seen Mr. Pett on the Atlantic the probability was that Mr. Pett had seen him. The next moment the other had confirmed this suspicion.
“I’ve an idea I’ve seen you before. Can’t think where.”
“Everybody well at home?” said Jimmy.
“I’m sure of it.”
“I’m looking forward to seeing them all.”
“I’ve seen you some place.”
“I’m often there.”
Mr. Pett seemed to be turning this remark over in his mind a trifle suspiciously. Jimmy changed the subject.
“To a young man like myself,” he said, “with life opening out before him, there is something singularly stimulating in the sight of a modern office. How busy those fellows seem!”
“Yes,” said Mr. Pett. “Yes.” He was glad that this conversational note had been struck. He was anxious to discuss the future with this young man.
“Everybody works but father!” said Jimmy.
Mr. Pett started.
Mr. Pett was vaguely ruffled. He suspected insult, but could not pin it down. He abandoned his cheeriness, however, and became the man of business.
“I hope you intend to settle down, now that you are here, and work hard,” he said, in the voice which he vainly tried to use on Ogden at home.
“Work!” said Jimmy blankly.
“I shall be able to make a place for you in my office. That was my promise to your stepmother, and I shall fulfill it.”
“But wait a minute! I don’t get this! Do you mean to put me to work?”
“Of course. I take it that that was why you came over here, because you realized how you were wasting your life and wanted a chance of making good in my office.”
A hot denial trembled on Jimmy’s tongue. Never had he been so misjudged. And then the thought of Ann checked him. He must do nothing that would interfere with Ann’s plans. Whatever the cost, he must conciliate this little man. For a moment he mused sentimentally on Ann. He hoped she would understand what he was going through for her sake. To a man with his ingrained distaste for work in any shape the sight of those wage slaves outside there in the outer office had, as he had told Mr. Pett, been stimulating; but only because it filled him with a sort of spiritual uplift to think that he had not got to do that sort of thing. Consider them in the light of fellow-workers, and the spectacle ceased to stimulate and became nauseating. And for her sake he was about to become one of them! Had any knight of old ever done anything as big as that for his lady? He very much doubted it.
“All right,” he said. “Count me in. I take it that I shall have a job like one of those out there?”
“Not presuming to dictate, I suggest that you give me something that will take some of the work off that fellow who’s swimming in paper. Only the tip of his nose was above the surface as I passed through. I never saw so many fellows working so hard at the same time in my life. All trying to catch the boss’ eye, too, I suppose? It must make you feel like a snipe.”
Mr. Pett replied stiffly. He disliked this levity on the sacred subject of office work. He considered that Jimmy was not approaching his new life in the proper spirit. Many young men had discussed with him in that room the subject of working in his employment, but none in quite the same manner.
“You are at a serious point in your career,” he said. “You will have every opportunity of rising.”
“Yes. At seven in the morning, I suppose?”
“A spirit of levity ——” began Mr. Pett.
“I laugh that I may not weep,” explained Jimmy. “Try to think what this means to a bright young man who loathes work. Be kind to me. Instruct your floorwalkers to speak gently to me at first. It may be a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done, but don’t ask me to enjoy it! It’s all right for you. You’re the boss. Any time you want to call it a day and go off and watch a ball game, all you have to do is to leave word that you have an urgent date to see Mr. Rockefeller. Whereas I shall have to submerge myself in paper, and only come up for air when the danger of suffocation becomes too great.”
It may have been the mention of his favorite game that softened Mr. Pett. The frostiness which had crept into his manner thawed.
“It beats me,” he said, “why you ever came over at all if you feel like that.”
“Duty!” said Jimmy. “Duty! There comes a time in the life of every man when he must choose between what is pleasant and what is right.”
“And that last fool game of yours, that Lord Percy Whipple business, must have made London pretty hot for you?” suggested Mr. Pett.
“Your explanation is less romantic than mine, but there is something in what you say.”
“Has it occurred to you, young man, that I am taking a chance putting a fellow like you to work in my office?”
“Have no fear. The little bit of work I shall do won’t make any difference.”
“I’ve half a mind to send you straight back to London.”
“Couldn’t we compromise?”
“Well, haven’t you some snug secretarial job you could put me into? I have an idea that I should make an ideal secretary.”
“My secretaries work.”
“I get you. Cancel the suggestion.”
Mr. Pett rubbed his chin thoughtfully.
“You puzzle me. And that’s the truth.”
“Always speak the truth,” said Jimmy approvingly.
“I’m darned if I know what to do with you. Well, you’d better come home with me now, anyway, and meet your aunt, and then we can talk things over. After all, the main thing is to keep you out of mischief.”
“You put things crudely, but no doubt you are right.”
“You’ll live with us, of course.”
“Thank you very much. This is the right spirit.”
“I’ll have to talk to Nesta about you. There may be something you can do.”
“I shouldn’t mind being a partner,” suggested Jimmy helpfully.
“Why don’t you get work on a paper again? You used to do that well.”
“I don’t think my old paper would welcome me now. They regard me rather as an entertaining news item than as a worker.”
“That’s true. Say, why on earth did you make such a fool of yourself over on the other side? That breach-of-promise case with the barmaid!” said Mr. Pett reproachfully.
“Let bygones be bygones,” said Jimmy. “I was more sinned against than sinning. You know how it is, Uncle Pete!” Mr. Pett started violently, but said nothing. “You try out of pure goodness of heart to scatter light and sweetness and protect the poor working-girl and brighten up her lot, and she turns right round and soaks it to you good! And, anyway, she wasn’t a barmaid. She worked in a florist’s shop.”
“I don’t see that that makes any difference.”
“All the difference in the world, all the difference between the sordid and the poetical. I don’t know if you have ever experienced the hypnotic intoxication of a florist’s shop? Take it from me, Uncle Pete, any girl can look an angel as long as she is surrounded by choice blooms. I couldn’t help myself. I wasn’t responsible. I only woke up when I met her outside. But all that sort of thing is different now. I am another man. Sober, steady, serious-minded!”
Mr. Pett had taken the receiver from the telephone and was talking to someone. The buzzing of a feminine voice came to Jimmy’s ears. Mr. Pett hung up the receiver. “Your aunt says we are to come up at once.”
“I’m ready. And it will be a good excuse for you to knock off work. I bet you’re glad I came! Does the carriage wait or shall we take the subway?”
“I guess it will be quicker to take the subway. Your aunt’s very surprised that you are here, and very pleased.”
“I’m making everybody happy to-day.”
Mr. Pett was looking at him in a meditative way. Jimmy caught his eye.
“You’re registering something, Uncle Peter, and I don’t know what it is. Why the glance?”
“I was just thinking of something.”
“Jimmy,” prompted his nephew.
“Add the word Jimmy to your remarks. It will help me to feel at home and enable me to overcome my shyness.”
Mr. Pett chuckled.
“Shyness! If I had your nerve ——” He broke off with a sigh and looked at Jimmy affectionately. “What I was thinking was that you’re a good boy. At least, you’re not, but you’re different from that gang of—of—that crowd uptown.”
“Your aunt is literary, you know. She’s filled the house with poets and that sort of thing. It will be a treat having you round. You’re human! I don’t see that we’re going to make much of you now that you’re here, but I’m darned glad you’ve come, Jimmy!”
“Put it there, Uncle Pete!” said Jimmy. “You’re all right. You’re the finest Captain of Industry I ever met!”