Chapter X
 

Bingham half folded the newspaper, and laid it again on Marshall's desk. Then he settled his large, long figure back in Marshall's other chair, and placed a broad finger or two upon each of its curved and varnished arms.

"Yes," he observed, slowly, with a smile in the direction of the old man, "the younger generation are holding up their end."

"So it seems," said Marshall, in return, while he scanned the other's face closely to see what his precise meaning might be. Bingham's remark had been uttered with an even intonation; it was difficult to determine whether, after all, he had emphasized "younger" more than "generation," or "their" more than "end," or, indeed, whether he had given an undue stress to either.

"Yes," the old man repeated. He made another reference to the newspaper. "Yes; that is my child."

He fixed an eye, half fascinated, half protesting, upon a large cut which was set to fill the width of two columns. It was a portrait of Rosy--of "Miss Rosamund Marshall," as it read--with a line or two more, vaguely biographical in character, in italics, beneath. It was engraved with more than the usual care, and printed with more than the usual success.

This was the first time that any woman of his family had ever been exposed in the public prints. "And here are five or six lines telling how she was dressed. Is that right, Bingham?"

"Well, I'm no hand at describing. I suppose it reads correctly enough. At any rate, Rosamund was the handsomest girl there, and the best dressed--so several said--and the one who drew the most attention."

"Is that right, Bingham?" the old man repeated. He was accustomed enough to the public presentation of other men's daughters, but this was the first time that such a thing had befallen one of his own.

"Oh," replied Bingham; "you mean that way. Well, times change. Ten years ago this would have brought a protest, and twenty a flogging. And we change with them. However, if this is the Miss Rosamund Marshall who has begun lately to figure at teas and receptions and cotillons, and always contrives to be the bright particular--Is it?"

Marshall smiled slowly. All this was true enough, and he could not profess himself completely displeased. He nodded.

"Well, then, you'll have to stand it; you can't avoid it; it can't be helped. And there's one more thing, too."

"What?"

"There was a young man present on this same occasion," Bingham proceeded; "a decorative, diffusive young man--with a badge. Richard Truesdale Marshall--was that his name? Any son of yours?"

Marshall nodded again, but his smile was distinctly less complacent.

"I am beginning to meet his name in print quite frequently," pursued Bingham, serenely. "Is he the same Truesdale Marshall who has a collection of water-colors in the current exhibition at the Art Institute?"

"I believe so," responded the old man, with some lack of warmth.

"Is it the same Truesdale Marshall who sang last Friday at the residence of Mrs. Granger S. Bates, for the benefit of--of--"

David Marshall smiled broadly. "Our Jennie--what a girl she is coming to be! That Lunch Club is one of her pet notions; she pushes it at all times--in season and out."

"She seems to be pushing it to good purpose just now," commented Bingham. "By-the-way, I suppose she is the same Miss Marshall I danced with last night. She sat in one of the upper places, so to speak, but she was induced to go down on the floor for a few minutes."

"Well, Bingham," said Marshall, "I knew you went to that sort of thing once in a while, and I thought that that in itself was a good deal for a man like you; but for you to dance there--I shouldn't have imagined your doing it; well, no."

"I didn't but once," responded the other, apologetically. "Still, if you're going to get along in this world, you've got to be of it. Besides, I thought"--argumentum ad hominem--"that she was entitled to show that dress; hers was described, too."

"Um!" said her father, soberly, with a sidelong glance towards his pigeon-holes. "But no picture."

"Well, let that pass," responded Bingham, with a slight touch of pique. "Is this the Miss Marshall who read lately at the Fortnightly?"

"Yes."

"Is it the same one who is announced to lecture at Hull House on the Russian novelists?"

"See here, Bingham!" The old man wheeled about sharply in his chair, and fastened a keen scrutiny upon the other's face. Bingham had never talked to him like this before; he had never seemed so light-minded, so slanted towards the jocular. "See here, Bingham, what are you driving at?"

Bingham fitted himself solidly into the curved back of the chair, and laid his hands out ponderously upon its arms. He had something to say, and he wondered how best he might say it. "Marshall is twenty years older than I am," he thought, as his eye traversed the shelves of nutmegs and orris-root and lit upon the discolored awnings over the way, "and I must be careful. I'm young to him, of course; but I can't ask the indulgence due to a boy. How shall I work it?"

He felt that he had earned the right to speak. He had done well by Marshall, and he knew that Marshall was pleased. It was more as a personal favor than anything else that he had undertaken the work upon the warehouse; he had put it through more promptly than anybody else could have done, and with less interruption to the course of trade than either of the firm would have imagined possible. For the past month the business had been comfortably accommodated in its enlarged quarters, and the two new floors were already habituated to the occult processes which competition and a minutely graded scale of prices impose upon even the most righteous of the trade. It is but fair to say, however, that Marshall & Belden always saw that their sugar was as saccharine as a specified price would permit, and that their coffee-roasters met the lowered standard of cheap purchasers as well as the apparatus of any rival did.

Yes, everything was running smoothly, and Bingham felt that he might venture a slight trespass upon the friendliness and tolerance of his last client.

He looked at Marshall for a moment with a slow and cautious smile. "Yes, the young people are holding up their end; but how about the 'old man' himself?"

"Oh, that's it!" thought Marshall. He made an instant and intuitive application of this remark. He was declining towards the horizon; he was shining but dimly compared with the twinkling of his attendant satellites.

"Well, the 'old man' isn't altogether useless by a long shot. The young people dance--and the old people furnish the platform. See here, Bingham. I don't have to go to the papers to learn what my daughters wear to parties; I've got my own papers here right within easy reach." He contracted his brows as his eyes turned towards the pigeon-holes. "A better account, too, than the newspaper one--fuller, exacter, more detailed, backed up by figures--down three long sheets and half-way down a fourth. And I don't need to go to art-galleries to understand what opportunities my son has had to learn to paint; the foreign exchange man at our bank could tell me all about that. And I don't have to go to concerts, either, when I want to make my contribution to a benevolent object: I can sit right in this room and draw checks, and be told just how much to draw them for, too. Yes, Bingham, there are a great many ways for an old fellow like me to make himself useful, and I am not allowed to overlook any of them."

Marshall's tone and expression during this exposition had wavered back and forth between jest and protest. But his eyes wandered towards those pigeon-holes again, and his mien and accents drew on a shade of distinct melancholy.

These receptacles contained other bills than those of the dress-makers. There was one, for example, from a carriage-maker, and another from a horse-dealer. For Rosamund, at the very outset of her career, had set her face against old Mabel and the carry-all. She declined to appear in any such fashion among the landaus and broughams of her newly-chosen associates. She represented, furthermore, that it was extremely awkward to depend upon the equipages of friends; and she protested that it was far beneath their dignity to hire a conveyance from a livery-stable. Her father had succumbed. Along with the bills for the new carriage and pair were bills for a coachman's hat and cape-coat. Besides these, there was the first month's statement of board for Mabel and storage for the carry-all--both having been crowded out of the cramped stable to another across the alley.

"Yes," resumed Bingham, availing himself of Marshall's own figure, "the young people are dancing--though no more briskly than they should; but why may not the old people dance, too? When the young ones are making their youth and their beauty and their cleverness tell as they do, may they not expect the old ones to come forward as well? Aren't there times when they should do it in mere justice to themselves? After your children have led so many more germans and adorned so many more receptions and founded so many more clubs and really worked their way into the life of the town, they may look to their father to put himself in evidence also. One of them, I can swear, is already a little jealous on your account."

"Jane? Oh yes; she is always trying to make her poor old father toe the mark."

"She has plans for you--ambitions for you. If you meet the expectations that the future is likely to develop, you will be carrying through a pretty big contract. I was surprised, myself, to learn how many diverse opportunities this town offers--enough to extend through three dances. People may preside at banquets, I learned, and address political meetings, and head subscription papers, and found public baths, and build and endow colleges. And there are others who donate telescopes, or erect model lodging-houses, or set up statues and fountains, or give--Marshall," he said, suddenly, "do something for yourself and for the town; nothing that you are doing here"--he waved his hand towards the larger office outside--"is enough for a man of your means and standing."

Bingham was now speaking with increased confidence and with greater seriousness. He felt himself entitled to say these things by reason of their personal relations and by virtue of his own standing before the public. He was twenty years younger than Marshall, but he was twenty times as great a figure in the public eye. He had had no mean share in those two fast and crowded years through which the city had striven towards readiness for the coming of the world. Like the Christians at Ephesus, he, too, had "fought with the wild beasts"--with time, with the elements, with Labor, with National niggardliness, with a hundred-headed management; and he had expanded and ripened in the struggle. He saw the world with a wider vision; he inhaled the vast and palpitating present with a deeper breath. He beheld, too, a triumphant and wide-spreading future, and he felt with the utmost keenness the opportunities that the town offered even to the older and departing generation--crabbed and reluctant though it be.

Marshall listened to his remarks and indicated an unremitted attention by bowing now and then with a subdued gravity. The strain seemed familiar; where had he heard it before? Why, from Susan Bates, to be sure--and in this very place: strophe and antistrophe. Could it be possible that he was so remiss towards himself and towards the community? Could it be true that he was doing himself such scant and graceless justice? What answer had he to make to this new advocate? The old one--with additions.

"I have been thinking about these matters. I have been considering the public that so much is asked for. It is not the old public I used to know twenty years ago--it has changed a good deal. It is better organized against us--a banding together of petty officials with their whole contemptible following: steerage-rats that have left their noisome holds to swarm into our houses, over them, through them, everywhere--between the floors, behind the wainscoting--everywhere. Do you know anything about cheap law?"

"Justice courts? Don't let's go into that," said Bingham, quickly.

"I am in that," retorted Marshall, angrily. His blue eyes took on an unwonted gleam. "And I shall stay in until I have satisfied myself."

"Drop it," said Bingham. "It's a terrible thing--rotten, deplorable, an out-and-out curse."

"I will not," returned Marshall. He struck his thin old hand on the edge of his desk. "I'll see it through. They live within two blocks of my house. Her son is an alderman; her nephew is a bailiff; two or three others of them keep saloons. They are Poles, or Bohemians, or Jews--Heaven knows what. They do business on the premises--they stick to their burrow. Yet we couldn't get a summons served by a constable. And when we finally got the matter before a court--it was continued. No defendants there--only a filthy little creature who called himself their attorney. We were never so blackguarded in our lives. Then another continuance; and a third. Roger, poor boy, makes no headway at all. He knows the law; he has a good practice; he leases and collects for me--and buys and sells. But he is getting to be almost ashamed to come here to see me about it."

"I know," assented Bingham; "a kind of camorra. Get a shyster; fight the devil with fire. What can a gentleman do in a justice's court? If the rats are behind the wainscot, don't stick your own hand into the hole. Hire somebody else."

"I won't!" cried the old man, stubbornly. "I want to see for myself how things actually are. I want to learn what conditions we are living under. I want to understand the things that are really going on about us. I want to see what a good citizen and a tax-payer can count upon by way of redress." He picked at his petty grievance as a child torments a sore. Yet a sore, in justice, may mean little, or it may mean much. Any physician will tell you that.

"Drop it," counselled Bingham again. "It will irritate you and exasperate you out of all proportion to its importance. And if you have been wronged in a lower court, remember that many poorer men have been wronged in higher ones. Come; keep your head clear and your temper calm, and save them for important things."

The door of the little office opened softly, and one of the important things began. The door had opened none too widely, yet sufficiently for the entrance of the thin edge of a wedge--a wedge that was to gain a tyrannizing force with each inch of advance, as is the wont.

To Bingham it seemed like another of those rats--one that had left the wainscoting and taken to the floor, regardless (in a boldness at once insolent and sly) of the presence of humankind. To Marshall it was only an office-hand from the outer room who now entered with a handful of mail matter, which he placed, with an air not wholly guiltless of servility and stealth, upon his employer's desk.

He was a dark man of forty-five, with a black beard and a pair of narrow eyes. He looked neither of the two occupants of the room full in the face. His glance was searching and sidelong rather, not so much from the presence of anything to spy upon as from habit and instinct. One fancied a man too accustomed to the heavy foot of superiors to decline willingly any minor advantage that came his way--or any major one.

Bingham's eyes followed him out. "Whom have you there?"

"Somebody of Belden's--a new hand; some of the sediment left from the Fair."

"That's where I've seen him. He was in the Service building--draughtsman, clerk, or something. Swiss? Alsacian?"

"I don't know," replied Marshall. "He speaks German and some French." Half unconsciously he began upon his mail. "It would be more to the purpose if he spoke English--better."

Bingham reached for his hat. "Well, time's money to both of us. English is an easy thing to pick up--as witness Midway. I dare say he'll be able to express himself fluently enough inside of another six months. Good-morning."