Chapter XV
 

When Jane looked up at the stroke of one and saw her aunt Lydia and Bertie Patterson enter under the escort of Truesdale, she was not completely pleased. Her rooms were no place for men, anyway--especially young ones; and she had often wished that Truesdale, however worthy her admiration and the world's, were a little less ready as to bringing his fascinations into play. "If ever he comes down here," she thought, "he'll wear something too striking, and he'll want to talk to the girls about the continued stones in the magazines, or play the piano, or something; and they'll think he's trying to flirt with them. I hate anything of that kind--here," said Jane, virtuously.

Truesdale, however, conducted himself with an immense discretion, and wore nothing out of the ordinary. His hats and shoes were now quite like those of other people. His Florentine stivaletti had drawn so much attention in the street-cars that he had been obliged to give them up; and as for the flat-brimmed high silk hat which he had brought home from the Boulevard St. Michel, that he had had to leave off after a second trial: there were some things, he found, that people would not stand. And his manner to-day was utterly stripped of gallantry; it was gauged with the precise idea of meeting the approval of Bertie Patterson. "I expect I shall seem awfully insipid," he said to himself.

Jane came to meet them from a room beyond, where she left a doughnut and a half cup of coffee standing on a round-topped oak table. The regular noon hour enjoyed by most of the girls was done; two or three remained finishing their lunch or looking over the picture papers, and a couple of them, in the little parlor, were trying duets on the piano.

"I'm the only one of the board on hand to-day," Jane explained. "So I've been doing a little book-keeping and a little waiting and a little everything. This is Miss Casey," she said, introducing one of the piano-players; "and this is Miss O'Brien," introducing the other.

Miss Casey and Miss O'Brien bowed and smiled, and made a dexterous remark apiece without too apparent an effort, and presently took an adroit departure. They had already overrun their time, they explained.

"Walk around and look at things," suggested Jane. "We're pretty high up, you see, but we don't save any rent, because the elevators make one floor worth as much as another. Still, the light's good, and the air; and there's a great deal less noise."

The others followed Jane's lead with much docility. Truesdale was profoundly impressed by his sister's aspect under these novel conditions; Bertie Patterson seemed to find in her the incarnation of all the town's philanthropy; even Aunt Lydia was almost too deeply affected to chirp and chatter with her wonted volubility.

"Here's the office," said Jane, leading them into a small, lighted closet to one side. "This book is for our account with the butcher, and that one is for our account with the baker. Our supplies are brought up on the freight elevator every morning. Come and see the gas-stove, where we cook eggs."

As they passed through the adjoining room a girl sat at one of the tables with a piece of pie and a cup of tea. She was turning the leaves of one of the comic weeklies, and a slight frown of intentness upon her face indicated either a limited sense of humor or some unfamiliarity with the subjects under review. The latter, perhaps; her face and air were distinctly foreign.

"Poor Sophie!" said Jane, indulgently; "she's trying her English on those jokes. She's improving, however; and she can speak French and German like a fire-engine. I guess she's smart enough; anyway, she looks so."

The girl seemed of a type that might have come from Baden, or Alsace, or the Franco-Swiss frontier. She had a high color and an abundance of black hair. Her eyes, as she lifted them to Bertie Patterson, were dark and narrow and full of sparkle and decision, and the half-frown, which still survived from her study of the comic paper, helped to give her a look of some force and determination.

Truesdale, on seeing her, gave a sudden start, and turned his eyes and his face away at once. Then, with a quickened pace, he followed his sister's lead towards the kitchen and pantry. He smiled half grimly. "Such a thing may happen anywhere, of course," he said to himself; "but I shouldn't have chosen it to happen right here. No--not exactly."

Bertie and Mrs. Rhodes followed after, to see the gas-stove that cooked eggs. As they crossed the threshold, Truesdale looked back between them towards the subject of his speculation. She had grasped her paper firmly with both fists, and now sat with an intent stare fixed on its pages. She neither raised nor lowered her head, nor could he observe that she looked either to the right or to the left. "Ouf!" said Truesdale, as Jane lit up the stove, "you never know when a thing is at an end."

Jane presently turned off her gas-stove. "You can go back through the other room. It isn't quite so swell," she expounded, as she moved along; "but we have several grades of girls, and each one finds her own level and her own society for herself." She led the way back into the parlor, and drew a finger along the key-board of the piano as she passed by. "Anybody who wants to send a few new pieces of lively music may do so."

Two or three late lunchers had come in and were clattering their knives and forks at the table opposite the girl whom Jane had called Sophie. Sophie still sat in her place; she held her paper with a firm hand, and turned the leaves at intervals. She looked up once--as the party was passing out. Truesdale stepped over the door-mat rapidly, on the far side of Jane and Bertie and Mrs. Rhodes. He dropped his glove that he might stoop for it, and as he stooped he shot a rapid glance through the narrow door of the other room. The girl still held her paper before her face, but she sent a single look after the party athwart its side.

Truesdale stepped into the hall and pressed the button of the elevator. "It's Sophie, true enough--not a bit of doubt about it. If she didn't recognize me just now, she'll never have I another chance to--here."

He handed his charges into the elevator. "Well, what do you think of Jane and her doings now?" he asked, briskly, as he stepped in after them. "Can you think of any better opening for the investment of your idle funds? Isn't she an able financier? Hasn't she got a great administrative capacity? Isn't she one of the rising young men of the day?" As he flung off this string of stock phrases from the newspapers, his eyes flashed brightly, a mounting color came into his cheeks, and a triumphant smile to his lips, and a caressing and ringing vibration into his voice. He seemed to coruscate with all the conquering insolence of youth; Bertie Patterson had never seen him quite so handsome.

"Down we go!" he cried to his aunt, as the cab resumed its course with a sudden, breath-taking drop. "No; don't catch hold of me--I'm only a broken reed. Yes; try the door-jamb--much more satisfactory. But look out for your fingers--never get your fingers caught." Then, as they arrived at the street level: "Wait a second; don't hurry. Be sure of your footing; don't stumble and break your neck at the last minute--one poor last little chance, after so many glorious opportunities have gone by!"

"'Sh, Truesdale!" whispered his aunt.

For there were other people in the elevator, and they looked askance at this smart volley of verbal superfluities.

He led them out to the carriage. "Here we are on solid ground once more," he continued; "best place in the world to be. No; don't ask me to get in--I'll walk on a bit. I wouldn't leave terra firma now for anything." He handed his aunt in, and then Bertie. He exacted from Bertie a perfectly superfluous shake of the hand, bowed over that hand with a sudden access of gravity, and lost himself in an abysmal reverie before he had traversed a hundred yards.

He saw before him a high-heaped assemblage of red-tiled roofs, and above them rose the fretwork of a soaring Gothic spire. A narrow river half encircled the town, and a battered old bridge, guarded by a round-towered gateway, led out into the open country towards a horizon bounded by a low range of blue hills. Trumpet-calls rang out from distant barrack-yards, and troops of dragoons clattered noisily over the rough pavement of the great square. The dragoons passed, and a colony of awnings and umbrellas sprang up in their place, and bands of stocky peasantry chattered and chaffered, and left the pavement strewn with the loose leaves of cabbages and carrot-tops. Then night came and blotted these out, and the moon rose and music played, and throngs of officers and students and towns-people sat through a long-drawn evening before the coffee-houses round-about. High towards the stars towered the columns and pediments of a vast official structure, whose broken sky-line sawed the heavens, and whose varied cornices and ledges were disjointed by deep and perplexing shadows. On each side of the great portal which opened through the pillared arcade there was stationed a mounted cuirassier, and above it there appeared in large letters--

"Marshall & Belden," said Truesdale, suddenly emerging from his reverie. He sprang lightly over the muddy gutter and found a foothold on the damp flagging. "Pshaw!" he said, rather ruefully; "in a moment more she would have come to meet me."

He looked up at the building before him. "Well, really, they've made quite a decent affair of it. But what are they doing to the sign? Oh, I see: putting 'The' to the front of it, and 'Co.' to the back. That ladder looks rather shaky. The Marshall & Belden Co.' Perhaps it would be civil of me to call on the new concern--seeing that I have chanced their way."

Truesdale picked his way choicely through the office, with the urbane affectation of never having seen the place before. One or two of the clerks recognized him, and a hurried word, passed from desk to desk, effected an immediate establishment of his identity throughout the room. Those who had never seen him had at least heard about him. Some of them had visited his pictures at the Art Institute, and, as devotees of the old school, if of any, had mildly guyed them. Others had read paragraphs in the "Chappie Chat" of the newspapers about his trousers and cravats--those genial paragraphs which may so easily endow a young man of parts and peculiarities with a quasi-celebrity. One of them now smiled broadly, and another so far forgot himself and his dignity as to wink; but all the rest, as American freemen by birth or adoption, united in a stolid determination to refrain from seeing, or at least from acknowledging, any distinguishing peculiarity, any differentiation--above all, any savor of superiority. The one of whom Truesdale inquired for his father was so Spartan in his brusqueness that Truesdale, despite himself, smiled in his face.

In the private office he found his father closeted with Roger. Crumpled and trampled on the floor, and with the effect of a matter abandoned or at least superseded, lay a large sheet of paper printed with the outlines of a real-estate subdivision, while a hundred similar sheets rested in a roll on the end of the old man's desk. Marshall himself lay back in his chair, with marks of the exhaustion that follows intense indignation and exasperation, while Roger paced the floor with all the vehemence and choler of younger blood.

"Yes," Roger was saying, explosively, "the bond was opened, and all they found was a blank paper--the alderman's name, and nothing more. Why do you blame me? What more can I do? What more could you do? What more could any decent man do? And if you wanted to find out how things are run here, you're doing it."

"What's the trouble?" asked Truesdale. He sat down with an engaging disposition to show himself interested.

Marshall passed his hand feebly over his forehead. "It's that police affair of your mother's," he said, in a tired voice.

"Well, I hope those two scamps have been sent to jail, or to Bridewell, or wherever they belong. August will carry that scar to his dying day."

"Jail!" cried Roger. "No ward-worker need ever go to jail. They sent for their alderman the minute they were caught. Our ward hasn't elected anything but crime-brokers for the last ten years."

"Well, what did the present crime-broker do?"

"He went bail for them. He made out the bond himself--inside of thirty seconds. He marked it so on the envelope, and the police-captain took it for what he called it. So when these fellows jumped their bail--"

"Our alderman lost--his autograph. A bad take-in for the police, wasn't it?" queried Truesdale, impartially.

"Take-in!" cried Roger. "It's easy enough to be taken in if you want to be taken in--if you lend yourself to being taken in!"

His father gave a long sigh and dropped a helpless hand on his desk. Truesdale looked into vacancy and gave a long, low whistle.

"And there you have it!" ended Roger. "You have lifted off the cover and looked in. Do you want to go deeper? You'll find a hell-broth--thieves, gamblers, prostitutes, pawnbrokers, saloon-keepers, aldermen, heelers, justices, bailiffs, policemen--and all concocted for us within a short quarter of a century." He drew his hands across each other. "I've never felt so cheap and filthy in my life."

Truesdale made no further inquiries about the Van Horns. His fastidious nature shrank back from all these malodorous actualities. He added his own footprints to those which already defaced the map lying on the floor, and asked about that.

"You're interesting yourself in buying land, I imagine."

"In selling," replied Roger, curtly.

David Marshall leaned laboriously over the arm of his chair with the intention, perhaps, of crowding the crumpled map into his waste-basket. Instead, he gave it several neat and careful folds and thrust it abstractedly into one of his pigeon-holes. It found place alongside of a bill for doctor's services handed in that morning. A porter who had fallen down three floors of the elevator shaft had been attended by one of his own friends. The bill was exorbitant--everybody concerned knew that. But it was rather less than a probable award for damages--everybody knew that, too. The excess was to be shared, of course, between doctor and patient.

"Was there anything special?" his father asked presently, with a wan and dejected glance towards his younger son. "If not, I think I'll put on my things and go home. I don't quite feel myself today."

"Perhaps you'd better," recommended Roger, taking the roll of maps under his arm. "I'll have these distributed from my office during the week."

"No, nothing special," answered Truesdale; "I just happened in. And I think," he added to himself, "that I had better lose no time in happening out. The idea of my running up against such a tar-kettle as this! Pouf!"

As he went out he passed along the front of Belden's desk. Belden himself sat there attended, with the sort of deferential familiarity that suggests the confidential clerk, by the Swiss, the Alsacian, or whatever else, who on a previous occasion had moved the curiosity of Bingham.

This man caught sight of Truesdale as he passed, and gave him an instant glance of recognition. He at once bowed his head over Belden's desk, so as to hide his face among its papers. "A gentleman to see you sir?" he suggested with a magnificent readiness.

Belden raised his own head and met the careless nod of the passing Truesdale with a forbidding frown. "No, he doesn't want to see me. And I don't want to see him," he muttered in a lower tone.

"You know him--is it not so?" the man insisted, with a kind of smothered determination.

"Know him? Yes"--with extreme distaste. "It's young Marshall."

"Mr. Marshall's son?"

"Yes," Belden thrust some papers towards him. "Take these as you go."

The man put out his hand. "I know him, I myself, also," he said, looking Belden full in the face with a steady eye. "Ich selbst." He struck his breast and ventured on the liberty of a smile--a smile slow and sinister, one that called for an understanding and challenged co-operation.

One might have fancied such a conjunction effected when, an evening or two later, Truesdale received a "note" from Gladys McKenna. As he sifted apart its numerous sheets he tried to recall whether he had replied to her last; he could not remember having done so. "But sometimes they will write," he said, discontentedly, "and nothing can stop them."

Her pages led him a rough and rugged chase. She wrote a large, hasty hand, with an unstinted expenditure of ink. "I declare," he said, running several sheets over in succession, "she gets blinder and blinder the further along she goes. And now"--turning back to the beginning--"let's see what it's all about."

The letter assumed from the outset a mysterious and melodramatic tone. "Perhaps, finally, she really has something to say," commented Truesdale. But she went on, circling round her theme, dipping down to it now and again, and then soaring up and away from it altogether. "Well," asked Truesdale presently, with a slight show of impatience, "what is it?--something she doesn't fully understand, or something she does understand but can't bring herself to write about? She 'listened,' she says; to very small purpose, say I." He felt one moment that she was more or less in the dark; the next, that she was making passes at some forbidden theme; the third, that she was asking a more ardent recognition of her loyalty and devotion. "She speaks of her 'position,' too. It's 'awkward,' it seems, and 'embarrassing,' and 'dangerous.' It needn't be, though. She made it for herself, and she can unmake it whenever she chooses. Well, I'll try all this again, when I've got more time; it will keep. What is this, though, it says at the end? H'm; I am to remember that if I have enemies I also have fast friends, ever yours sincerely--oh, that's all right." He crammed the sheets into his bureau-drawer, drew on his gloves, selected a stick to his taste, gave himself a last look in the glass, and sauntered out to dinner.

He had discovered a French restaurant within a kilometre of the house, where he could dine a prix fixe in a cabinet particulier for five francs, including a demi-bouteille of ordinaire.

"That's something like," he declared. "That's what I'm used to!" He thought with a shudder of the rest of the family going down to supper in the basement dining-room--that time-honored, semi-subterranean dungeon. "I'm glad, I'm sure, that they are going to have their new dining-room above-ground; for their own sakes, that is to say--not that it will matter the least to me!"