Chapter VI. Mrs. Whitney Negotiates
 

The Rangers' neighbors saw the visits of Hargrave and Torrey. Immediately a rumor of a bequest to Tecumseh was racing through the town and up the Bluffs and through the fashionable suburb. It arrived at Point Helen, the seat of the Whitneys, within an hour after Torrey left Ranger. It had accumulated confirmatory detail by that time--the bequest was large; was very large; was half his fortune--and the rest of the estate was to go to the college should Arthur and Adelaide die childless.

Mrs. Whitney lost no time. At half-past four she was seated in the same chair in which Hargrave and Torrey had sat. It was not difficult to bring up the subject of the two marriages, which were doubly to unite the houses and fortunes of Ranger and Whitney--the marriages of Arthur and Janet, of Ross and Adelaide. "And, of course," said Mrs. Whitney, "we all want the young people started right. I don't believe children ought to feel dependent on their parents. It seems to me that puts filial and parental love on a very low plane. Don't you think so?"

"Yes," said Hiram.

"The young people ought to feel that their financial position is secure. And, as you and Ellen and Charles and I have lived for our children, have toiled to raise them above the sordid cares and anxieties of life, we ought to complete our work now and make them--happy."

Hiram did not speak, though she gave him ample time.

"So," pursued Mrs. Whitney, "I thought I wouldn't put off any longer talking about what Charles and I have had in mind some months. Ross and Janet will soon be here, and I know all four of the children are anxious to have the engagements formally completed."

"Completed?" said Hiram.

"Yes," reaffirmed Matilda. "Of course they can't be completed until we parents have done our share. You and Ellen want to know that Arthur and Adelaide won't be at the mercy of any reverse in business Charles might have--or of any caprice which might influence him in making his will. And Charles and I want to feel the same way as to our Ross and Janet."

"Yes," said Hiram. "I see." A smile of stern irony roused his features from their repose into an expressiveness that made Mrs. Whitney exceedingly uncomfortable--but the more resolute.

"Charles is willing to be liberal both in immediate settlement and in binding himself in the matter of his will," she went on. "He often says, 'I don't want my children to be impatient for me to die. I want to make 'em feel they're getting, if anything, more because I'm alive.'"

A long pause, then Hiram said: "That's one way of looking at it."

"That's your way," said Matilda, as if the matter were settled. And she smiled her softest and sweetest. But Hiram saw only the glitter in her cold brown eyes, a glitter as hard as the sheen of her henna-stained hair.

"No," said he emphatically, "that's not my way. That's the broad and easy way that leads to destruction. Ellen and I," he went on, his excitement showing only in his lapses into dialect, "we hain't worked all our lives so that our children'll be shiftless idlers, settin' 'round, polishin' their fingernails, and thinkin' up foolishness and breedin' fools."

Matilda had always known that Hiram and Ellen were hopelessly vulgar; but she had thought they cherished a secret admiration for the "higher things" beyond their reach, and were resolved that their son should be a gentleman and their daughter a lady. She found in Hiram's energetic bitterness nothing to cause her to change her view. "He simply wants to hold on to his property to the last, and play the tyrant," she said to herself. "All people of property naturally feel that way." And she held steadily to her programme. "Well, Hiram," she proceeded tranquilly, "if those marriages are to take place, Charles and I will expect you to meet us halfway."

"If Ross and my Delia and Arthur and your Jane are fond of each other, let 'em marry as you and Charles, as Ellen and I married. I ain't buyin' your son, nor sellin' my daughter. That's my last word, Tillie."

On impulse, he pressed the electric button in the wall behind him. When the new upstairs girl came, he said: "Tell the children I want to see 'em."

Arthur and Adelaide presently came, flushed with the exercise of the tennis the girl had interrupted.

"Mrs. Whitney, here," said Hiram, "tells me her children won't marry without settlements, as it's called. And I've been tellin' her that my son and daughter ain't buyin' and sellin'."

Mrs. Whitney hid her fury. "Your father has a quaint way of expressing himself," she said, laughing elegantly. "I've simply been trying to persuade him to do as much toward securing the future of you two as Mr. Whitney is willing to do. Don't be absurd, Hiram. You know better than to talk that way."

Hiram looked steadily at her. "You've been travelin' about, 'Tilda," he said, "gettin' together a lot of newfangled notions. Ellen and I and our children stick to the old way." And he looked at Arthur, then at Adelaide.

Their faces gave him a twinge at the heart. "Speak up!" he said. "Do you or do you not stick to the old way?"

"I can't talk about it, father," was Adelaide's evasive answer, her face scarlet and her eyes down.

"And you, sir?" said Hiram to his son.

"You'll have to excuse me, sir," replied Arthur coldly.

Hiram winced before Mrs. Whitney's triumphant glance. He leaned forward and, looking at his daughter, said: "Del, would you marry a man who wouldn't take you unless you brought him a fortune?"

"No, father," Adelaide answered. She was meeting his gaze now. "But, at the same time, I'd rather not be dependent on my husband."

"Do you think your mother is dependent on me?"

"That's different," said Adelaide, after a pause.

"How?" asked Hiram.

Adelaide did not answer, could not answer. To answer honestly would be to confess that which had been troubling her greatly of late--the feeling that there was something profoundly unsatisfactory in the relations between Ross and herself; that what he was giving her was different not only in degree but even in kind from what she wanted, or ought to want, from what she was trying to give him, or thought she ought to try to give him.

"And you, Arthur?" asked Hiram in the same solemn, appealing tone.

"I should not ask Janet to marry me unless I was sure I could support her in the manner to which she is accustomed," said Arthur. "I certainly shouldn't wish to be dependent upon her."

"Then, your notion of marrying is that people get married for a living, for luxury. I suppose you'd expect her to leave you if you lost your money?"

"That's different," said Arthur, restraining the impulse to reason with his illogical father whose antiquated sentimentalism was as unfitted to the new conditions of American life as were his ideas about work.

"You see, Hiram," said Mrs. Whitney, good-humoredly, "your children outvote you."

The master workman brought his fist down on the arm of his chair--not a gesture of violence, but of dignity and power. "I don't stand for the notion that marriage is living in luxury and lolling in carriages and showing off before strangers. I told you what my last word was, Matilda."

Mrs. Whitney debated with herself full half a minute before she spoke. In a tone that betrayed her all but departed hope of changing him, she said: "It is a great shock to me to have you even pretend to be so heartless--to talk of breaking these young people's hearts--just for a notion."

"It's better to break their hearts before marriage," replied Hiram, "than to let them break their lives, and their hearts, too, on such marriages. The girl that wants my son only if he has money to enable her to make a fool of herself, ain't fit to be a wife--and a mother. As for Del and Ross--The man that looks at what a woman has will never look at what she is--and my daughter's well rid of him."

A painful silence, then Mrs. Whitney rose. "If I hadn't suspected, Hiram, that you intended to cheat your children out of their rights in order to get a reputation as a philanthropist, I'd not have brought this matter up at this time. I see my instincts didn't mislead me. But I don't give up hope. I've known you too many years, Hiram Ranger, not to know that your heart is in the right place. And, after you think it over, you will give up this wicked--yes, wicked--plan old Doctor Hargrave has taken advantage of your sickness to wheedle you into."

Hiram, his face and hands like yellow wax, made no answer. Arthur and Adelaide followed Mrs. Whitney from the room. "Thank you, Mrs. Whitney," said Arthur, gratefully, when they were out of his father's hearing. "I don't know what has come over him of late. He has gone back to his childhood and under the spell of the ideas that seemed, and no doubt were, right then. I believe you have set him to thinking. He's the best father in the world when he is well and can see things clearly."

Mrs. Whitney was not so sanguine, but she concealed it. She appreciated what was troubling Hiram. While she encouraged her own son, her Ross, to be a "gentleman," she had enough of the American left to see the flaws in that new ideal of hers--when looking at another woman's son. And the superciliousness which delighted her in Ross, irritated her in Arthur; for, in him, it seemed a sneering reflection upon the humble and toilsome beginnings of Charles and herself. She believed--not without reason--that, under Ross's glossy veneer of gentleman, there was a shrewd and calculating nature; it, she thought, would not permit the gentleman to make mess of those matters, which, coarse and sordid though they were, still must be looked after sharply if the gentleman was to be kept going. But she was, not unnaturally, completely taken in by Arthur's similar game, the more easily as Arthur put into it an intensity of energy which Ross had not. She therefore thought Arthur as unpractical as he so fashionably professed, thought he accepted without reservation "our set's" pretenses of aristocracy for appearance's sake. "Of course, your father'll come round," she said, friendly but not cordial. "All that's necessary is that you and Adelaide use a little tact."

And she was in her victoria and away, a very grand-looking lady, indeed, with two in spick and span summer livery on the box, with her exquisite white and gold sunshade, a huge sapphire in the end of the handle, a string of diamonds worth a small fortune round her neck, a gold bag, studded with diamonds, in her lap, and her superb figure clad in a close-fitting white cloth dress. In the gates she swept past Torrey and his two clerks accompanying him as witnesses. She understood; her face was anything but an index to her thoughts as she bowed and smiled graciously in response to the old judge's salutation.

       *       *       *       *       *

Torrey read the will to Hiram slowly, pausing after each paragraph for sign of approval or criticism. But Hiram gave no more indication of his thought, by word or expression or motion, than if he had been a seated statue. The reading came to an end, but neither man spoke. The choir of birds, assembled in the great trees round the house, flooded the room with their evening melody. At last, Hiram said: "Please move that table in front of me."

Torrey put the table before him, laid the will upon it ready for the signing.

Hiram took a pen; Torrey went to the door and brought in the two clerks waiting in the hall. The three men stood watching while Hiram's eyes slowly read each word of the will. He dipped the pen and, with a hand that trembled in spite of all his obvious efforts to steady it, wrote his name on the line to which Torrey silently pointed. The clerks signed as witnesses.

"Thank you," said Hiram. "You had better take it with you, judge."

"Very well," said Torrey, tears in his eyes, a quaver in his voice.

A few seconds and Hiram was alone staring down at the surface of the table, where he could still see and read the will. His conscience told him he had "put his house in order"; but he felt as if he had set fire to it with his family locked within, and was watching it and them burn to ashes, was hearing their death cries and their curses upon him.

       *       *       *       *       *

The two young people, chilled by Mrs. Whitney's manner, flawless though it was, apparently, had watched with sinking hearts the disappearance of her glittering chariot and her glistening steeds. Then they had gone into the garden before Torrey and the clerks arrived. And they sat there thinking each his own kind of melancholy thoughts.

"What did she mean by that remark about Doctor Hargrave?" asked Arthur, after some minutes of this heavy silence.

"I don't know," said Adelaide.

"We must get mother to go at father," Arthur continued.

Adelaide made no answer.

Arthur looked at her irritably. "What are you thinking about, Del?" he demanded.

"I don't like Mrs. Whitney. Do you?"

"Oh, she's a good enough imitation of the real thing," said Arthur. "You can't expect a lady in the first generation."

Adelaide's color slowly mounted. "You don't mean that," said she.

He frowned and retorted angrily: "There's a great deal of truth that we don't like. Why do you always get mad at me for saying what we both think?"

"I admit it's foolish and wrong of me," said she; "but I can't help it. And if I get half-angry with you, I get wholly angry with myself for being contemptible enough to think those things. Don't you get angry at yourself for thinking them?"

Arthur laughed mirthlessly--an admission.

"We and father can't both be right," she pursued. "I suppose we're both partly right and partly wrong--that's usually the way it is. But I can't make up my mind just where he begins to be wrong."

"Why not admit he's right through and through, and be done with it?" cried Arthur impatiently. "Why not tell him so, and square yourself with him?"

Adelaide, too hurt to venture speech, turned away. She lingered a while in the library; on her way down the hall to ascend to her own room she looked in at her father. There he sat so still that but for the regular rise and fall of his chest she would have thought him dead. "He's asleep," she murmured, the tears standing in her eyes and raining in her heart. Her mother she could judge impartially; her mother's disregard of the changes which had come to assume so much importance in her own and Arthur's lives often made her wince. But the same disregard in a man did not offend her; it had the reverse effect. It seemed to her, to the woman in her, the fitting roughness of the colossal statue. "That's a man!" she now said to herself proudly, as she gazed at him.

His eyes opened and fixed upon her in a look so agonized, that she leaned, faint, against the door jamb. "What is it, father?" she gasped.

He did not answer--did not move--sat rigidly on, with that expression unchanging, as if it had been fixed there by the sculptor who had made the statue. She tried to go to him, but at the very thought she was overwhelmed by such fear as she had not had since she, a child, lay in her little bed in the dark, too terrified by the phantoms that beset her to cry out or to move. "Father! What is it?" she repeated, then wheeled and fled along the hall crying: "Mother! Mother!"

Ellen came hurrying down the stairs.

"It's father!" cried Adelaide.

Together they went into the back parlor. He was still motionless, with that same frozen yet fiery expression. They went to him, tried to lift him. Ellen dropped the lifeless arm, turned to her daughter. And Adelaide saw into her mother's inmost heart, saw the tragic lift of one of those tremendous emotions, which, by their very coming into a human soul, give it the majesty and the mystery of the divine.

"Telephone for Dr. Schulze," she commanded; then, as Adelaide sped, she said tenderly to her husband: "Where is the pain? What can I do?"

But he did not answer. And if he could have answered, what could she have done? The pain was in his heart, was the burning agony of remorse for having done that which he still believed to be right, that which he now thought he would give his soul's salvation for the chance to undo. For, as the paralysis began to lock his body fast in its vise, the awful thought had for the first time come to him: "When my children know what I have done they will hate me! They will hate me all their lives."

Dr. Schulze examined him. "Somewhat sooner than I expected," he muttered.

"How long will it last?" said Ellen.

"Some time--several weeks--months--perhaps." He would let her learn gradually that the paralysis would not relax its grip until it had borne him into the eternal prison and had handed him over to the jailer who makes no deliveries.