Liberty, October 2, 1926
MRS. WADDINGTON, having given George one long, steady look that blistered his forehead, turned away and began to talk to a soda-water magnate. She had no real desire to ascertain George’s name, though she would have read it with pleasure on a tombstone.
“Dinner is served,” announced Ferris, the butler, appearing noiselessly.
George found himself swept up in the stampede of millionaires.
There are few things more embarrassing to a shy and sensitive young man than to be present at a dinner party where something seems to tell him that he is not wanted. The something that seemed to tell George he was not wanted at tonight’s festive gathering was Mrs. Waddington’s eye, which kept shooting down the table at intervals and reducing him to pulp at those very moments when he was beginning to feel that, if treated with gentle care and kindness, he might recover.
IT was an eye that, like a thermos flask, could be alternately extremely hot and intensely cold. When George met it during the soup course he had the feeling of having encountered a simoom while journeying across an African desert. When, on the other hand, it sniped him as he toyed with his fish, his sensations were those of a searcher for the Pole who unexpectedly bumps into a blizzard. But, whether it was cold or hot, there was always in Mrs. Waddington’s gaze one constant factor—a sort of sick loathing which nothing that he could ever do, George felt, would have the power to allay. It was the kind of look which Sisera might have surprised in the eye of Jael, the wife of Heber, had he chanced to catch it immediately before she began operations with the spike.
The consequence was that, as regards George Finch’s contribution to the feast of wit and flow of soul at that dinner party, we have nothing to report. He uttered no epigrams. He told no good stories. Indeed, the only time he spoke at all was when he said “sherry” to the footman when he meant hock.
Even, however, had the conditions been uniformly pleasant, it is to be doubted whether he would have really dominated the gathering. Mrs. Waddington, in her selection of guests, confined herself to the extremely wealthy; and while the conversation of the extremely wealthy is fascinating in its way, it tends to be a little too technical for the average man.
With the soup, someone, who looked like a cartoon of Capital in a socialistic newspaper, said he was glad to see that Westinghouse Common was buoyant again. A man who might have been his brother agreed that they had firmed up nicely at closing. Whereas Wabash Pref. A., falling to 73⅞, caused shakings of the head.
With the fish, United Beef began to tell a neat, though rather long, story about the Bolivian Land Concession, the gist of which was that the Bolivian Oil and Land Syndicate, acquiring from the Bolivian Government the land and prospecting concessions of Bolivia, would be known as Bolivian Concessions, Ltd., and would have a capital of $1,000,000, in 200,000 five-dollar “A” shares and 200,000 half-dollar “B” shares, and that while no cash payment was to be made to the vendor syndicate, the latter was being allotted the whole of the “B” shares as consideration for the concession. And—this was where the raconteur made his point—the “B” shares were to receive half the divisible profits and to rank equal with the “A” shares in any distribution of assets.
THE story went well, and conversation became general. There was a certain amount of good-natured chaff about the elasticity of the form of credit handled by the Commercial Banks, and once somebody raised a laugh with a sly retort about the Reserve against Circulation and Total Deposits. On the question of the collateral liability of shareholders, however, argument ran high, and it was rather a relief when, as tempers began to get a little heated, Mrs. Waddington gave the signal and the women left the table.
Coffee having been served and cigars lighted, the magnates drew together at the end of the table where Mr. Waddington sat. But Mr. Waddington, adroitly side-stepping, left them and came down to George.
“Out West,” said Mr. Waddington in a rumbling undertone, malevolently eying Amalgamated Tooth Brushes, who had begun to talk about the Mid-Continent Fiduciary Conference at St. Louis, “they would shoot at that fellow’s feet.”
George agreed that such behavior could reflect nothing but credit on the West.
“These Easterners make me tired,” said Mr. Waddington.
George confessed to a similar fatigue.
“When you think that at this very moment out in Utah and Arizona,” said Mr. Waddington, “strong men are packing their saddlebags and making them secure with their lassos, you kind of don’t know whether to laugh or cry, do you?”
That was the very problem, said George.
“Say, listen,” said Mr. Waddington, “I’ll just push these pot-bellied guys off upstairs, and then you and I will sneak off to my study and have a real talk.”
Nothing spoils a tete-a-tete chat between two newly made friends more than a disposition toward reticence on the part of the senior of the pair; and it was fortunate, therefore, that, by the time he found himself seated opposite to George in his study, the heady influence of Zane Grey and the rather generous potations in which he had indulged during dinner had brought Sigsbee H. Waddington to a quite reasonably communicative mood. He had reached the stage when men talk disparagingly about their wives.
He tapped George’s knee, told him three times that he liked his face, and began:
“You married, Winch?”
“Finch,” said George.
“How do you mean, Finch?” asked Mr. Waddington, puzzled.
“My name is Finch.”
“What of it?”
“You called me Winch.”
“I think you thought it was my name.”
“You said just now it was Finch.”
“Yes, it is. I was saying——”
Mr. Waddington tapped his knee again.
“Young man,” he said, “pull yourself together. If your name is Finch, why pretend that it is Winch? I don’t like this shiftiness. It does not come well from a Westerner. Leave this petty shilly-shallying to Easterners like that vile rabble of widow-and-orphan oppressors upstairs. If your name is Finch, admit it like a man. Let your yea be yea and your nay be nay,” said Mr. Waddington severely, holding a match to the fountain pen which, as will happen to the best of us in moments of emotion, he had mistaken for his cigar.
“As a matter of fact, I’m not,” said George.
“I never said you were.”
“You asked me if I was.”
“YOU’RE sure of that?” said Mr. Waddington keenly.
“Quite. Just after we sat down, you asked me if I was married.”
“And your reply was—?”
Mr. Waddington breathed a sigh of relief.
“Now we have got it straight at last,” he said, “and why you beat about the bush like that, I cannot imagine. Well, what I say to you, Pinch—and I say it very seriously as an older, wiser, and better-looking man—is this.” Mr. Waddington drew thoughtfully at the fountain pen for a moment. “I say to you, Pinch, be very careful, when you marry, that you have money of your own. And, having money of your own, keep it. Never be dependent on your wife for the little sums which even the most prudent man requires to see him through the day. Take my case. When I married, I was a wealthy man. I had money of my own. Lots of it. I was beloved by all, being generous to a fault. I bought my wife—I am speaking now of my first wife—a pearl necklace that cost fifty thousand dollars.”
He cocked a bright eye at George, and George, feeling that comment was required, said that it did him credit.
“Not credit,” said Mr. Waddington. “Cash. Cold cash. Fifty thousand dollars. And what happened? Shortly after I married again I lost all my money through unfortunate speculations on the Stock Exchange and became absolutely dependent on my second wife. And that is why you see me today, Winch, a broken man. I will tell you something, Pinch—something no one suspects and which I have never told anybody else and wouldn’t be telling you now if I didn’t like your face—I am not master in my own home.”
“No. Not master in my own home. I want to live in the great, glorious West and my second wife insists on remaining in the soul-destroying East. And I’ll tell you something else.” Mr. Waddington paused and scrutinized the fountain pen with annoyance. “This darned cigar won’t draw,” he said petulantly.
“I think it’s a fountain pen,” said George.
“A fountain pen?” Mr. Waddington, shutting one eye, tested this statement and found it correct. “There!” he said, with a certain moody satisfaction. “Isn’t that typical of the East? You ask for cigars and they sell you fountain pens. No honesty, no sense of fair trade.”
“Miss Waddington was looking very charming at dinner, I thought,” said George, timidly broaching the subject nearest his heart.
“Yes, Pinch,” said Mr. Waddington, resuming his theme, “my wife oppresses me.”
“HOW wonderfully that bobbed hair suits Miss Waddington.”
“I don’t know if you noticed a pie-faced fellow with an eyeglass and a toothbrush mustache at dinner? That was Lord Hunstanton. He keeps telling me about etiquette.”
“Very kind of him,” hazarded George.
Mr. Waddington eyed him in a manner that convinced him that he had said the wrong thing.
“What do you mean, kind of him? It’s officious and impertinent. He is a pest,” said Mr. Waddington. “They wouldn’t stand for him in Arizona. They would put hydrophobia skunks in his bed. What does a man need with etiquette? As long as a man is fearless and upstanding and can shoot straight and look the world in the eye, what does it matter if he uses the wrong fork?”
“Or wears the wrong sort of hat?”
“I particularly admired the hat which Miss Waddington was wearing when I first saw her,” said George. “It was of some soft material and of a light brown color and——”
“My wife—I am still speaking of my second wife. My first, poor soul, is dead—sicks this Hunstanton guy on to me, and for financial reasons, darn it, I am unable to give him the sock on the nose to which all my better instincts urge me. And guess what she’s got into her head now!”
“I can’t imagine.”
“She wants Molly to marry the fellow.”
“I should not advise that,” said George seriously. “No, no, I am strongly opposed to that. So many of these Anglo-American marriages turn out unhappily.”
“I am a man of broad sympathies and a very acute sensibility,” began Mr. Waddington, apropos, apparently, of nothing.
“Besides,” said George, “I did not like the man’s looks.”
“Don’t talk of that guy! He gives me a pain in the neck.”
“Me, too,” said George. “And I was saying——”
“Shall I tell you something?” said Mr. Waddington.
“My second wife—not my first—wants Molly to marry him. Did you notice him?”
“I did,” said George patiently. “And I did not like his looks. He looked to me cold and sinister; the sort of man who might break the heart of an impulsive young girl. What Miss Waddington wants, I feel convinced, is a husband who would give up everything for her—a man who would sacrifice his heart’s desire to bring one smile to her face—a man who would worship her, set her in a shrine, make it his only aim in life to bring her sunshine and happiness.”
“My wife,” said Mr. Waddington, “is much too stout.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Much too stout.”
“Miss Waddington, if I may say so, has a singularly beautiful figure.”
“Too much starchy food and no exercise, that’s the trouble. What my wife needs is a year on a ranch, riding over the prairies in God’s sunshine.”
“I happened to catch sight of Miss Waddington the other day in riding costume. I thought it suited her admirably. So many girls look awkward in riding breeches, but Miss Waddington was charming. The costume seemed to accentuate what I might describe as that strange boyish jauntiness of carriage which, to my mind, is one of Miss Waddington’s chief——”
“AND I’ll have her doing it before long. As a married man, Winch—twice married, but my first wife, poor thing, passed away some years back—let me tell you something. To assert himself with his wife, to bend her to his will, if I may put it that way, a man needs complete financial independence. It is no use trying to bend your wife to your will when five minutes later you have got to try and wheedle two bits out of her for a cigar. Complete financial independence is essential, Pinch, and that is what I am on the eve of achieving. Some little time back, having raised a certain sum of money—we need not go into the methods which I employed to do so—I bought a large block of stock in a motion picture company. Have you ever heard of the Finer and Better Motion Picture Company of Hollywood, California? Let me tell you that you will. It is going to be big, and I shall very shortly make an enormous fortune.”
“Talking of the motion pictures,” said George, “I do not deny that many of the women engaged in that industry are superficially attractive, but what I do maintain is that they lack Miss Waddington’s intense purity of expression. To me Miss Waddington seems like some——”
“I SHALL clean up big! It is only a question of time.”
“The first thing anyone would notice on seeing Miss Waddington——”
“Thousands and thousands of dollars. And then——”
“A poet has spoken of a young girl as ‘standing with reluctant feet where the brook and river meet.’ ”
Mr. Waddington shook his head.
“It isn’t only meat. What causes the trouble is the desserts. It stands to reason that if a woman crams herself with rich stuff like what we were having tonight, she is bound to put on weight. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a hundred times——”
What Mr. Waddington was about to say for the hundredth and first time must remain one of the historic mysteries. For, even as he drew in breath, the better to say it, the door opened and a radiant vision appeared. Mr. Waddington stopped in mid-sentence, and George’s heart did three back somersaults and crashed against his front teeth.
“Mother sent me down to see what had become of you,” said Molly.
Mr. Waddington got about halfway toward a look of dignity.
“I am not aware, my dear child,” he said, “that anything has ‘become’ of me. I merely snatched the opportunity of having a quiet talk with this young friend of mine from the West.”
“Well, you can’t have quiet talks with your young friends when you’ve got a lot of important people to dinner.”
“Important people!” Mr. Waddington snorted sternly. “A bunch of super-fatted bits of bad news! In God’s country they would be lynched on sight.”
“Mr. Brewster Bodthorne has been asking for you. He wants to play checkers.”
“Hell,” said Mr. Waddington, with the air of quoting something out of Dante, “is full of Brewster Bodthornes.”
Molly put her arms round her father’s neck and kissed him fondly—a proceeding which drew from George a low, sharp howl of suffering like the bubbling cry of some strong swimmer in his agony. There is a limit to what flesh can bear.
“Darling, you must be good. Up you go at once and be very nice to everybody. I’ll stay here and entertain Mr.——”
“His name is Pinch,” said Mr. Waddington, rising reluctantly and making for the door. “I met him out on the sidewalk, where men are men. Get him to tell you all about the West. I can’t remember when I’ve heard a man talk so arrestingly. Mr. Winch has held me spellbound. And my name,” he concluded, a little incoherently, groping for the door handle, “is Sigsbee Horatio Waddington, and I don’t care who knows it.”
* * *
The chief drawback to being a shy man is that in the actual crises of real life you are a very different person from the dashing individual whom you have pictured in your solitary daydreams. George Finch, finding himself in the position in which he had so often yearned to be—alone with the girl he loved—felt as if his true self had been suddenly withdrawn and an incompetent understudy substituted at the last moment.
THE George with whom he was familiar in daydreams was a splendid fellow—graceful, thoroughly at his ease, and full of the neatest sort of ingratiating conversation. He looked nice, and you could tell by the way he spoke that he was nice. Clever, beyond a doubt—you knew that at once by his epigrams; but not clever in that repellent, cold-hearted, modern fashion; for, no matter how brilliantly his talk sparkled, it was plain all the while that his heart was in the right place and that, despite his wonderful gifts, there was not an atom of conceit in his composition. His eyes had an attractive twinkle; his mouth curved from time to time in an alluring smile; his hands were cool and artistic; and his shirt front did not bulge. George, in short, as he had imagined himself in his daydreams, was practically the answer to the Maiden’s Prayer.
How different was this loathly changeling who now stood on one leg in the library of No. 16 Seventy-ninth Street, East. In the first place, the fellow had obviously not brushed his hair for several days. Also, he had omitted to wash his hands, and something had caused them to swell up and turn scarlet. Furthermore, his trousers bagged at the knees; his tie was moving up toward his left ear; and his shirt front protruded hideously like the chest of a pouter pigeon. A noisome sight.
Still, looks are not everything; and if this wretched creature had been able to talk one-tenth as well as the George of the daydreams, something might yet have been saved out of the wreck. But the poor blister was inarticulate as well. All he seemed able to do was clear his throat. And what nice girl’s heart has ever been won by a series of roupy coughs?
And he could not even achieve a reasonably satisfactory expression. When he tried to relax his features (such as they were) into a charming smile, he merely grinned weakly. When he forced himself not to grin, his face froze into a murderous scowl.
But it was his inability to speak that was searing George’s soul. Actually, since the departure of Mr. Waddington, the silence had lasted for perhaps six seconds; but to George Finch it seemed like a good hour. He goaded himself to utterance.
“My name,” said George, speaking in a low, husky voice, “is not Pinch.”
“Isn’t it?” said the girl. “How jolly!”
“It is Finch. George Finch.”
She seemed genuinely pleased. She beamed upon him.
“Your father,” proceeded George, not having anything to add by way of development of the theme, but unable to abandon it, “thought it was Pinch. Or Winch. But it is not. It is Finch.”
His eye, roaming nervously about the room, caught hers for an instant, and he was amazed to perceive that there was in it nothing of that stunned abhorrence which he felt his appearance and behavior should rightly have aroused in any nice-minded girl. Astounding though it seemed, she appeared to be looking at him in a sort of pleased, maternal way, as if he were a child she was rather fond of. For the first time a faint, far-off glimmer of light shone upon George’s darkness. It would be too much to say that he was encouraged, but out of the night that covered him, black as the pit from pole to pole, there did seem to sparkle for an instant a solitary star.
“HOW did you come to know father?”
George could answer that. He was all right if you asked him questions. It was the having to invent topics of conversation that baffled him.
“I met him outside the house; and when he found I came from the West he asked me to dinner.”
“Do you mean he rushed at you and grabbed you as you were walking by?”
“Oh, no. I wasn’t walking by. I was—er—sort of standing on the doorstep. At least——”
“Standing on the doorstep? Why?”
George’s ears turned a riper red.
“Well, I was—er—coming, as it were, to pay a call.”
The girl’s eyes widened.
“To make inquiries.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Well, I thought—result of the excitement—and nerve-strain—I thought he might be upset.”
“Because he ran away, do you mean?”
“You thought he would have a nervous breakdown because he ran away?”
“Dangerous traffic,” explained George. “Might have been run over. Reaction. Nervous collapse.”
WOMAN’S intuition is a wonderful thing. There was probably not an alienist in the land who, having listened so far, would not have sprung at George and held him down with one hand while with the other he signed the necessary certificate of lunacy. But Molly Waddington saw deeper into the matter. She was touched. As she realized that this young man thought so highly of her that, despite his painful shyness, he was prepared to try to worm his way into her house on an excuse which even he must have recognized as pure banana oil, her heart warmed to him. More than ever, she became convinced that George was a lamb and that she wanted to stroke his head and make cooing noises to him.
“How very sweet of you,” she said.
“Fond of dogs,” mumbled George.
“You must be fond of dogs.”
“Are you fond of dogs?”
“Yes, I’m very fond of dogs.”
“So am I. Very fond of dogs.”
“Yes. Very fond of dogs. Some people are not fond of dogs, but I am.”
And suddenly eloquence descended upon George Finch. With gleaming eyes he broke out into a sort of litany. He began to talk easily and fluently.
“I am fond of Airedales and wire-haired terriers and bulldogs and Pekingese and Sealyhams and Alsatians and fox-terriers and greyhounds and Aberdeens and West Highlands and Cairns and Pomeranians and spaniels and schipperkes and pugs and Maltese and Yorkshires and borzois and bloodhounds and Bedlingtons and pointers and setters and mastiffs and Newfoundlands and St. Bernards and Great Danes and dachshunds and collies and chows and poodles and——”
“I see,” said Molly. “You’re fond of dogs.”
“Yes,” said George. “Very fond of dogs.”
“So am I. There’s something about dogs.”
“Yes,” said George. “Of course, there’s something about cats, too.”
“Yes, isn’t there!”
“But still, cats aren’t dogs.”
“No, I’ve noticed that.”
There was a pause. With a sinking of the heart—for the topic was one on which he felt he could rather spread himself—George perceived that the girl regarded the subject of dogs as fully threshed out. He stood for a while licking his lips in thoughtful silence.
“So you come from the West?” said Molly.
“It must be nice out there.”
“Prairies and all that sort of thing.”
“You aren’t a cowboy, are you?”
“No. I am an artist,” said George proudly.
“An artist? Paint pictures, you mean?”
“Have you a studio?”
“Yes. I mean near Washington Square. In a place called the Sheridan.”
“The Sheridan? Really? Then perhaps you know Mr. Beamish?”
“Yes. Oh, yes. Yes.”
“He’s a dear, isn’t he? I’ve known him all my life.”
“It must be jolly to be an artist.”
“I’d love to see some of your pictures.”
Warm thrills permeated George’s system.
“May I send you one of them?” he bleated.
“That’s awfully sweet of you.”
SO uplifted was George Finch by this wholly unexpected development that there is no saying what heights of eloquence he might not have reached, had he been given another ten minutes of the girl’s uninterrupted society. The fact that she was prepared to accept one of his pictures seemed to bring them very close together. He had never met anybody who would. For the first time since their interview had begun he felt almost at his ease.
Unfortunately, at this moment the door opened; and like a sharp attack of poison gas Mrs. Waddington waded into the room.
“What are you doing down here, Molly?” she demanded.
She gave George one of those looks of hers, and his newly born sang-froid immediately turned blue at the roots.
“I’ve been talking to Mr. Finch, mother. Isn’t it interesting?—Mr. Finch is an artist. He paints pictures.”
Mrs. Waddington did not reply, for she was struck suddenly dumb by a hideous discovery.
Until this moment she had not examined George with any real closeness. When she had looked at him before it had been merely with the almost impersonal horror and disgust with which any hostess looks at an excrescence who at the eleventh hour horns in on one of her carefully planned dinners.
His face, though revolting, had had no personal message for her.
But now it was different. Suddenly this young man’s foul features had become fraught with a dreadful significance.
Subconsciously Mrs. Waddington had been troubled ever since she had heard them by the words Molly had spoken in her bedroom, and now they shot to the surface of her mind like gruesome things from the dark depths of some sinister pool: “The sort of man I think I should rather like,” Molly had said, “would be a sort of slimmish, smallish man, with nice brown eyes and rather goldy, chestnutty hair.”
SHE stared at George. Yes! He was slimmish. He was also smallish. His eyes, though far from nice, were brown; and his hair was undeniably of a chestnut hue.
“Who sort of chokes and turns pink and twists his fingers and makes funny noises and trips over his feet.”
Thus had the description continued, and precisely thus was this young man before her now behaving.
For her gaze had had the worst effect on George Finch, and seldom in his career had he choked more throatily, turned a brighter pink, twisted his fingers into a more intricate pattern, made funnier noises, and tripped more heartily over his feet than he was doing now.
Mrs. Waddington was convinced.
It had been no mere imaginary figure Molly had described, but a living, breathing pestilence—and this was he.
And he was an artist! Mrs. Waddington shuddered.
Of all the myriad individuals that went to make up the kaleidoscopic life of New York, she disliked artists most. They never had any money. They were dissolute and feckless. They attended dances at Webster Hall in strange costumes, and frequently played the ukulele.
And this man was one of them.
Will Molly fall in love with George? If she does, you can bet your summer hat that Cupid himself will chortle at the way she does so. It begins to look as if it might tax the giant intellect of J. Hamilton Beamish to guide George Finch safely through the perils created by Mrs. Waddington’s hostility. Poor, innocent George, Molly’s little lambkin, did not dream what a lot he has to live down. But he must dare even greater dangers for the sake of love. Watch for next week’s installment of this great serial and get your sympathy ready, because George is going to need it all.
Printer’s errors corrected above:
Magazine had quotation marks around George’s indirectly reported speech: “That was the very problem,” said George. It is printed without quotes in the other three versions.