The Right of Way by Gilbert Parker
Chapter VI. The Wind and the Shorn Lamb
A half-hour later Charley Steele sat in his office alone with Billy Wantage, his brother-in-law, a tall, shapely fellow of twenty-four. Billy had been drinking, his face was flushed, and his whole manner was indolently careless and irresponsible. In spite of this, however, his grey eyes were nervously fixed on Charley, and his voice was shaky as he said, in reply to a question as to his finances: "That's my own business, Charley."
Charley took a long swallow from the tumbler of whiskey and soda beside him, and, as he drew some papers towards him, answered quietly: "I must make it mine, Billy, without a doubt."
The tall youth shifted in his chair and essayed to laugh.
"You've never been particular about your own business. Pshaw, what's the use of preaching to me!"
Charley pushed his chair back, and his look had just a touch of surprise, a hint of embarrassment. This youth, then, thought him something of a fool: read him by virtue of his ornamentations, his outer idiosyncrasy! This boy, whose iniquity was under his finger on that table, despised him for his follies, and believed in him less than his wife--two people who had lived closer to him than any others in the world. Before he answered he lifted the glass beside him and drank to the last drop, then slowly set it down and said, with a dangerous smile:
"I have always been particular about other people's finances, and the statement that you haven't isn't preaching, it's an indictment--so it is, Billy."
"An indictment!" Billy bit his finger-nails now, and his voice shook.
"That's what the jury would say, and the judge would do the preaching. You have stolen twenty-five thousand dollars of trust-moneys!"
For a moment there was absolute silence in the room. From outside in the square came the Marche-t'en! of a driver, and the loud cackling laugh of some loafer at the corner. Charley's look imprisoned his brother-in-law, and Billy's eyes were fixed in a helpless stare on Charley's finger, which held like a nail the record of his infamy.
Billy drew himself back with a jerk of recovery, and said with bravado, but with fear in look and motion: "Don't stare like that. The thing's done, and you can't undo it, and that's all there is about it." Charley had been staring at the youth-staring and not seeing him really, but seeing his wife and watching her lips say again: "You are ruining Billy!" He was not sober, but his mind was alert, his eccentric soul was getting kaleidoscopic glances at strange facts of life as they rushed past his mind into a painful red obscurity.
"Oh yes, it can be undone, and it's not all there is about it!" he answered quietly.
He got up suddenly, went to the door, locked it, put the key in his pocket, and, coming back, sat down again beside the table.
Billy watched him with shrewd, hunted eyes. What did Charley mean to do? To give him in charge? To send him to jail? To shut him out from the world where he had enjoyed himself so much for years and years? Never to go forth free among his fellows! Never to play the gallant with all the pretty girls he knew! Never to have any sports, or games, or tobacco, or good meals, or canoeing in summer, or tobogganing in winter, or moose- hunting, or any sort of philandering!
The thoughts that filled his mind now were not those of regret for his crime, but the fears of the materialist and sentimentalist, who revolted at punishment and all the shame and deprivation it would involve.
"What did you do with the money?" said Charley, after a minute's silence, in which two minds had travelled far.
"I put it into mines."
"Out on Lake Superior."
"What sort of mines?"
Charley's eye-glass dropped, and rattled against the gold button of his white waistcoat.
"In arsenic-mines!" He put the monocle to his eye again. "On whose advice?"
"John Brown's!" Charley Steele's ideas were suddenly shaken and scattered by a man's name, as a bolting horse will crumple into confusion a crowd of people. So this was the way his John Brown had come home to roost. He lifted the empty whiskey-glass to his lips and drained air. He was terribly thirsty; he needed something to pull himself together. Five years of dissipation had not robbed him of his splendid native ability, but it had, as it were, broken the continuity of his will and the sequence of his intellect.
"It was not investment?" he asked, his tongue thick and hot in his mouth.
"No. What would have been the good?"
"Of course. Speculation--you bought heavily to sell on an expected rise?"
There was something so even in Charley's manner and tone that Billy misinterpreted it. It seemed hopeful that Charley was going to make the best of a bad job.
"You see," Billy said eagerly, "it seemed dead certain. He showed me the way the thing was being done, the way the company was being floated, how the market in New York was catching hold. It looked splendid. I thought I could use the money for a week or so, then put it back, and have a nice little scoop, at no one's cost. I thought it was a dead-sure thing--and I was hard up, and Kathleen wouldn't lend me any more. If Kathleen had only done the decent thing--"
A sudden flush of anger swept over Charley's face--never before in his life had that face been so sensitive, never even as a child. Something had waked in the odd soul of Beauty Steele.
"Don't be a sweep--leave Kathleen out of it!" he said, in a sharp, querulous voice--a voice unnatural to himself, suggestive of little use, as though he were learning to speak, using strange words stumblingly through a melee of the emotions. It was not the voice of Charley Steele the fop, the poseur, the idlest man in the world.
"What part of the twenty-five thousand went into the arsenic?" he said, after a pause. There was no feeling in the voice now; it was again even and inquiring.
"Don't lie. You've been living freely. Tell the truth, or--or I'll know the reason why, Billy."
"About two-thirds-that's the truth. I had debts, and I paid them."
"And you bet on the races?"
"Yes. See here, Charley; it was the most awful luck--"
"Yes, for the fatherless children and widows, and all that are oppressed!"
Charley's look again went through and beyond the culprit, and he recalled his wife's words and his own reply. A quick contempt and a sort of meditative sarcasm were in the tone. It was curious, too, that he could smile, but the smile did not encourage Billy Wantage now.
"It's all gone, I suppose?" he added.
"All but about a hundred dollars."
"Well, you have had your game; now you must pay for it."
Billy had imagination, and he was melodramatic. He felt danger ahead.
"I'll go and shoot myself!" he said, banging the table with his fist so that the whiskey-tumbler shook.
He was hardly prepared for what followed. Charley's nerves had been irritated; his teeth were on edge. This threat, made in such a cheap, insincere way, was the last thing in the world he could bear to hear. He knew that Billy lied; that if there was one thing Billy would not do, shooting himself was that one thing. His own life was very sweet to Billy Wantage. Charley hated him the more at that moment because he was Kathleen's brother. For if there was one thing he knew of Kathleen, it was that she could not do a mean thing. Cold, unsympathetic she might be, cruel at a pinch perhaps, but dishonourable--never! This weak, cowardly youth was her brother! No one had ever seen such a look on Charley Steele's face as came upon it now--malicious, vindictive. He stooped over Billy in a fury.
"You think I'm a fool and an ass--you ignorant, brainless, lying cub! You make me a thief before all the world by forging my name, and stealing the money for which I am responsible, and then you rate me so low that you think you'll bamboozle me by threats of suicide. You haven't the courage to shoot yourself--drunk or sober. And what do you think would be gained by it? Eh, what do you think would be gained? You can't see that you'd insult your sister as well as--as rob me."
Billy Wantage cowered. This was not the Charley Steele he had known, not like the man he had seen since a child. There was something almost uncouth in this harsh high voice, these gauche words, this raw accent; but it was powerful and vengeful, and it was full of purpose. Billy quivered, yet his adroit senses caught at a straw in the words, "as rob me!" Charley was counting it a robbery of himself, not of the widows and orphans! That gave him a ray of hope. In a paroxysm of fear, joined to emotional excitement, he fell upon his knees, and pleaded for mercy--for the sake of one chance in life, for the family name, for Kathleen's sake, for the sake of everything he had ruthlessly dishonoured. Tears came readily to his eyes, real tears--of excitement; but he could measure, too, the strength of his appeal.
"If you'll stand by me in this, I'll pay you back every cent, Charley," he cried. "I will, upon my soul and honour! You shan't lose a penny, if you'll only see me through. I'll work my fingers off to pay it back till the last hour of my life. I'll be straight till the day I die--so help me God!"
Charley's eyes wandered to the cupboard where the liqueurs were. If he could only decently take a drink! But how could he with this boy kneeling before him? His breath scorched his throat.
"Get up!" he said shortly. "I'll see what I can do--to-morrow. Go away home. Don't go out again to-night. And come here at ten o'clock in the morning."
Billy took up his hat, straightened his tie, carefully brushed the dust from his knees, and, seizing Charley's hand, said: "You're the best fellow in the world, Charley." He went towards the door, dusting his face of emotion as he had dusted his knees. The old selfish, shrewd look was again in his eyes. Charley's gaze followed him gloomily. Billy turned the handle of the door. It was locked.
Charley came forward and unlocked it. As Billy passed through, Charley, looking sharply in his face, said hoarsely: "By Heaven, I believe you're not worth it!" Then he shut the door again and locked it.
He almost ran back and opened the cupboard. Taking out the bottle of liqueur, he filled a glass and drank it off. Three times he did this, then seated himself at the table with a sigh of relief and no emotion in his face.