Chapter XVI
 

Truesdale airily waved the remaining coin from the plate to the waiter's pocket and rose to go. He never omitted the giving of a pour-boire; "it helps so much to increase the illusion," he said. The waiters, accordingly, bestowed an exaggerated attention upon his hat and coat, and had developed an almost clinging affection for his stick. They also insisted upon passing things that he could very well reach for himself, and their "bon soir, m'sieu'" was quite unfailing in its regularity. "This shaggy town may have a silver lining, after all," he would think; "but you've got to turn things inside out to find it."

Near the exit Truesdale noticed Theodore Brower sitting with a demi-tasse before him. "Hallo!" he called to Brower, "I didn't know you came here."

"Once in a while," returned Brower. "I shop around. I'm a tramp. I eat anywhere. And I'm getting tired of it, too." He rose. "Give me a lift with this coat and I'll go along with you."

Brower was too incorruptibly native to give a fee; usually therefore, he put on his coat for himself. "Well, what's the programme?" he asked, feeling for his inside sleeves.

"Nothing," said Truesdale; "or anything. Only, I bar law, and philanthropy, and the Complete Letter-writer. What have you got in mind yourself?

"I though of going up to the Consolation Club; this is their night."

"Sounds sort of soothing," observed Truesdale. "Well, what do they do?--nothing like the pow-wow at the Crepuscular, I hope. Are strangers admitted?"

"What do they do? They try to show that the world isn't so bad as it seems. They'll let you in all right."

"Because I'm not so bad as I seem? Thanks. They don't have a dinner, I hope."

"No dinner."

"But they give you a bite later on, don't they? I was almost famished at the Simplicity. What will they talk about?"

"Almost anything; you never can tell. Come along." Truesdale, as an individual, interested Brower but moderately; Truesdale, as Jane's brother, interested him extremely. "You state your case--that's the idea; and the worse you make it, the better the face they try to put on it."

"Do I? Well, I don't know that I've got a case. And if I had, I might prefer to keep it to myself. However...."

The Consolation Club met in an upper chamber on Erie Street, and carried on their deliberations under a large plaster bust of the prince of optimists. The patient Emerson listened to the discussion of many a burning question, and witnessed the application of many an alleviating salve. Sometimes the question was personal; they soothed the book-keeper who had been cut on the street by his employer's daughter. Sometimes it was national; they commiserated the citizen who had been intimidated at the polling-booth. Sometimes it was a question of right--like a uniform divorce law; sometimes merely a question of expediency--like the tariff. But principally they discussed the affairs of a vast and sudden municipality; they bade one another not to despair, after all, either of the city or of the republic. And towards eleven o'clock the priests of the cult saw an offering of cheese-sandwiches and beer set before their idol, and presently, in true sacerdotal fashion, they fell upon these viands on their own account.

"Oh, come," said Truesdale, shrugging his shoulders, as he cast on Brower and his circle a look half of expostulation and half of embarrassment, "I'm not entitled to annoy your friends with any such filthy trifle as that. Besides, I don't claim it as any grievance of mine." He thought, privately, that his mother's disposition to dicker with the populace was no more creditable than necessary; he could take no great pleasure in dwelling upon it too lingeringly.

"Oh, go ahead," urged Brower; "our fellows here are interested in just that sort of thing. If you should want to come in, we'll take it as your initiation."

"Do," added another member. "I believe that for every one man who leaves the polling-place with a waning confidence in the present and a clouded hope for the future, there are scores who thus leave the lower courts of justice."

"Oh, very well," replied Truesdale, throwing out his hands in his light French fashion. And he recounted the whole chain of circumstances which had so exasperated his father and baffled his brother, from the first panting appearance of frowzy old Mother Van Horn on his own mother's door-step down to the forfeiture of the fictitious bail-bond by her two grandnephews. He gave his narrative in a series of light, graphic, delicate touches. He almost saw it print itself before his very eyes, like a page from one of those beautiful little volumes made by Hachette or by Lemerre--those sprightly, broken pages, where a paragraph consists of a line or even a word, where brief exclamatory phrases abound, and where short rows of dots leave the reader to complete the meaning at his own pleasure. He even gesticulated a tiny illustration or two into the edge of the text. Seldom had these earnest and intent young men heard such a theme presented with so many nods and becks and wreathed smiles; it seemed like the stirring of a cesspool with a silver soup-ladle.

"And what consolation have you to offer me for that?" smiled Truesdale, as he finished.

He himself appeared to share but slightly the indignation that his recital aroused; after all, these doings were alien to him--like the domestic difficulties that might be distracting some ant-hill in mid-Africa. But on the others it produced the effect that the recital of specific injuries always does--and should.

"This, for example," answered a sardonic young man, whose close-shaven black beard showed through his drawn and sallow skin: "that we are at last playing the game with all the pieces on the board, with all the cards in the pack; with all the elements, in other words, of a vast and diversified human nature. The simple hopes and ideals of this Western world of fifty years ago--even of twenty years ago--where are they now? What the country really celebrated at Philadelphia in 1876, however unconsciously, as the ending of its minority and the assumption of full manhood with all its perplexities and cares. The broad life of the real world began for us the very next year--"

"You mean with the railroad riots?" asked Brower.

--"and has been going on more fiercely ever since. Take a man who was born in 1860, and who is to die with the century--what would be his idea of life? Contention, bickering, discontent, chronic irritation--a regime of hair-cloth tempered by finger-nails."

"Yes," said another, "as you say, we have all the elements at last. And the elements of human nature are unchanging--like the elements of chemistry; and they combine in the same unchanging fashions. Imagine a reconstructed universe without sulphur or nitrogen; or imagine elements that combine to one purpose in this corner of the laboratory combining to another purpose in that. The same human compounds are produced through the ages, and the elements that follow one formula in the old world will follow the same formula in the new--even if they break the crucible. A generation ago we thought--poor pathetic creatures--that our pacific processes showed social science in its fullest development. But to-day we have all the elements possessed by the old world itself, and we must take whatever they develop, as the old world does. We have the full working apparatus finally, with all its resultant noise, waste, stenches, stains, dangers, explosions."

"Um," said Truesdale, to whom these observations sounded disagreeably like oratory; "how does all this bear on my case? I call it mine, to observe the forms," he added, with a smile to which no one responded.

"I can tell you that myself," broke in Brower. "The last twenty years have brought us elements that have never been in our national life before: a heavy immigration from southeastern Europe, for example. The populations of Italy and Poland and Hungary--what view, now, do they take of the government--their government, all government? Isn't it an implacable and immemorial enemy--a great and cruel and dreadful monster to be evaded, hoodwinked, combated, stabbed in the dark if occasion offers?"

"Quite right," acknowledged Truesdale. "Why, to-day, when the peasants come into Rome from the Campagna, they always bring their pitchforks with them--you can see them any Sunday behind the Capitol. They're going to be murdered or robbed or imprisoned or something."

"And when these people have been out of the government from generation to generation, and opposed to it and mistrustful of it, is it an easy matter, on their coming over here, to make them feel themselves a part of it, and to imbue them with a loyalty to it?"

"One thing more," broke in the first speaker. "There is another element; it is imported from the nearer half of Europe, and is a more dangerous element still. I mean the element of feudality."

"Oh," said Truesdale, "now I begin to see."

"The essence of feudality is the idea of personal loyalty. Now, loyalty to another individual is a good thing in its way and in its own field and in a certain measure and at a certain juncture.

"But it is not the right prop for a great republic. That requires not the idea of personal loyalty to some chief, but the idea of personal responsibility to a cause above all chiefs. This takes a breadth of view and a loftiness of ideal that only one race in the world has ever possessed--our own. The great man, politically, is the man who can eliminate the personal element from a great cause. The little man is the--well," turning to Truesdale, "there are the general data; make your own application of them."

"I see," said Truesdale; "my people are naturally against the governing powers anyway, from instinct and heredity; even when one of them does attain official position, it is only the position of the worm in the apple. And they think, too, that it is a more sane and practical thing to help one another out of a tangible difficulty than to sacrifice one another to an intangible cause. I never contended they were not human!"

"That isn't all, by any means," said Brower, determinedly. "There's just as bad behind." He resettled himself in his chair, as he claimed the attention of the room. He seemed to Truesdale as if seating himself in a saddle--a saddle on the back of some well-ridden hobby. Truesdale already heard the steed pant and champ.

"This town of ours labors under one peculiar disadvantage: it is the only great city in the world to which all its citizens have come for the one common, avowed object of making money. There you have its genesis, its growth, its end and object; and there are but few of us who are not attending to that object very strictly. In this Garden City of ours every man cultivates his own little bed and his neighbor his; but who looks after the paths between? They have become a kind of No Man's Land, and the weeds of a rank iniquity are fast choking them up. The thing to teach the public is this: that the general good is a different thing from the sum of the individual goods. Over in the Settlement we are trying to make those new-comers realize that they are a part of the body politic; perhaps we need another settlement to remind some of the original charter-members of the same fact!"

"H'm," thought Truesdale, "I believe Brower is an awfully fine fellow; but if he keeps up this kind of talk all the time with Jane...."

Then, as they passed out into the street a few minutes later: "I don't just see where my consolation comes in, after all."

"Perhaps they thought," responded Brower, "that you wouldn't appreciate the beauty of consolation until you had first appreciated the gravity of your case. I think their idea was less consolation than instruction."

"Ouf!" said Truesdale, who disdained instruction from whatever source.

"Do you know," said Brower, at the first crossing, "I'm going to talk to your father about this justice business."

"Well," rejoined Truesdale, "he'll listen to you if he'll listen to anybody; but he's awfully sore about it."

"So are other people sore about it--hundreds of people much poorer and humbler than any of us, people to whom the miscarriage of justice is not a mere matter of exasperation and annoyance, but a real matter of life and death. They want care and attention--as the doctors say; they need a law-dispensary--that's about it. There are institutions that look after people's minds and bodies gratis; I want to see an institution started up that will do as much for their estates. I want to see a building for it, with an endowment and a library and a force of practitioners. To think of all the things that a man with money and ideas and sympathies might do--and should do--in a town like this!"

"You might try him," said Truesdale, doubtfully; "but I think Jane has got the inside track. You've heard about her Home, I suppose, and seen the plans for it. I should want to put up an architectural monument in such a ghastly town as this; I should as soon think of ramming an angel into a coal-hole."

Yes, Brower knew all about Jane's Home--much more than Truesdale did, in fact; but this did not prevent him from asking for all manner of information about the project. He did this purely for the pleasure of talking about Jane herself; and he wondered time and time again whether he had not betrayed to Jane's brother the particular kind of interest he was developing in her. He felt that his beard offered but a slight concealment to the nervous twitching of his mouth, and that, despite the muffling of his heavy overcoat, the throbbings of his heart must be as perceptible to Truesdale as to himself. And when Truesdale presently made the ungrudging avowal that Jane was a pretty good sort of girl, after all--the ne plus ultra of a brother's praise--Brower was driven to thrust a trembling hand inside his coat to reduce his thumping organ to something like subjection.

His admiration for Jane had been based originally on her essential qualities; certainly he had received no quickening impulse, at the beginning, from a contemplation of her mere exterior. He had looked upon her as a valuable text put at a disadvantage by an unprepossessing binding. But now there came the issue of a new edition, in a tastefully designed cover, with additions and corrections, with extra illustrations, too--illustrations of a startling social aptitude; and with even a hint of illumination--the illumination that comes from the consciousness of a noble purpose. Brower now began to feel, with a rising pride and pleasure, that Jane was at last doing herself the fullest justice.

Jane, in the meanwhile, with no thought of a possible competition between rival collectors for a certain rare old volume, was helping Tom Bingham to build the new house. She went out southward two or three times a week, and carried a tape-line with her. As she once explained it to Bingham: "You can't be too sure of having things right at the start." So she measured the foundations with her tape-line when the distances were short, and paced them off when they were long. She kept a close eye on the work through each advancing stage, and saw that it was good.

One Sunday morning in mid-May, Jane took the street-car--one of those leisurely green ones that run to the Old People's Home--and went out to satisfy herself that the first courses of dressed stone were going into place as they should. May was speaking truly in the mildness and freshness of the air, in the slow passing of the light and expansive cumuli across the wide blueness of the sky, in the grasses and dandelions springing up among the stark weeds of last year that swayed and rustled on every vacant lot. From her stand-point among the heaps of brick and sand and yellow lumber that surrounded the site of the new house, Jane saw the fronts or sides or backs of other new houses placed dispersedly round about: their towers and turrets and porches and oriels and the myriad other massive manifestations proper to the new Stone Age. Between them and beyond them her eye took transversely the unkempt prairie as it lay cut up by sketchy streets and alleys, and traversed by street-car tracks and rows of lamp-posts and long lines of telegraph poles and the gaunt framework of an elevated road. In one direction she saw above the dead crop of rustling weeds the heads of a long line of people on their way to church; in the other direction, the distant clang of a passing gong drew her eye to the vast advertisement which glared in the sun from the four-story flank of an outlying shoe-store. "I hope the next man who builds will shut that out," she thought.

Presently a light buggy drove up to the curbstone, and a large, stout man within it squeezed his way out carefully between its muddy wheels. Then with a jerk he landed his hitching-weight in the roadway, clicked the catch in the end of its strap to the ring at his horse's bit, and advanced towards the house. It was Bingham.

"So you have concluded to give us a little attention, finally?" was Jane's greeting. Her tone was slightly hectoring; this was to punish him for having lately taken more of her thought than she felt him entitled to.

As a matter of fact, Jane was uncomfortably mindful that more than once within the past month she had opened the morning paper to Building Notes before giving due heed to Insurance News. She had been distinctly pleased to read that the Bingham Construction Company had just got one big building ready for tenancy, or had just been awarded the contract for another; and once, for a week, she had followed the head of it through a particularly stubborn bricklayers' strike with the most avid interest. Indeed, she had only been brought back to herself by a fire which had damaged one of Brower's companies to the extent of five thousand dollars and another to the extent of ten. After that she chained her wandering attention to such matters as short rates and unearned premiums, the organization of new companies and the bankruptcies of old ones, the upward climbing of sub-solicitors and assistant managers, the losses suffered by the companies represented by the agency of Brower & Brand, and, above all, the closest scrutiny for the name of Theodore L. Brower himself. Nothing pleased her more than to read a paragraph announcing that he had gone East to attend a general conference--except, of course, his return.

Sometimes, as she sat alone in her room, mending her stockings or taking timely stitches in the fingers of her gloves, she would further fortify herself by humming a scrap from the refrain of a song she had once heard at a concert. "Toujours fidele," she would moan in a deep contralto voice, as she drew her needle slowly in and out; "toujours fidele." She paused lingeringly on the second syllable of toujours and on the middle syllable of fidele, and repeated the phrase over and over again at short intervals--that was all of the song that she knew. And after she had chanted it a dozen times or so, her heart would soften and her eyes would overflow, and she would have to pause in her work. Then she would look at her brimming eyes in the glass, and wonder how she could ever have had a thought for any other man than Theodore.

While poor Brower would sit at his desk and bemoan the fate that compelled him to insure houses instead of building them. He had waited until thirty-five for his first affair, and he was foredoomed to take it has hard as a man may.

"Yes," pursued Jane, "you thought you would come and see whether they were building us upside down or hindside before, I suppose."

"Everything looks all right," said Bingham, serenely. "The foreman can be trusted, I imagine. What's that you've got in your hand?"

Jane held out a battered horseshoe, to which a few twisted nails were still clinging. "I picked it up a minute ago. I was thinking about laying a corner-stone--or relaying it."

"Good!" said Bingham; "the better the day, the better the deed. Do you want to put that horseshoe under it?"

"Um, h'm," replied Jane. She walked along the top of the foundation, and Bingham followed her.

Jane moved on until she found a practicable stone in a suitable angle. "About here, I think," she said, tapping the stone with her toe.

"Do you want me to pry it out?"

"If you can. There's a sort of sharp stick over on that sand-pile."

Bingham removed the stone, and imbedded the horseshoe among the sharp-edged fragments which had been worked into the course beneath.

"I want it to stay, too," declared Jane, as her eye roamed towards the half-dried mortar-bed just beyond the foundation trench. "Wait a second." She skipped across the small chasm which intervened between the foundation-wall and solid ground. She scooped up some water from a hallow puddle with a battered tin can, and began the formation of an oozy little pocket in the middle of the mortar-bed. "Now if I only had a shingle," she said, after she had reduced the mortar to the consistency of slime.

"No shingle would hold that," said Bingham, jumping across after her. "Here, give me that can."

He poured a quart or two of mortar on top of the horseshoe and reset the stone "There!" said Jane, bringing her whole weight upon it.

"Good-luck to this house and household!" said Bingham. He raised his hat; she could not tell whether he were in jest or in earnest.

"It needs all the luck it can have," said Jane. "It may be a nice house, but it will never be home."

"Oh yes, it will," said Bingham, soothingly.

"Oh no, it won't," returned Jane, permitting herself the luxury of a little woe. "Even if we do have wreaths of flowers in all the washbowls, and transoms that you can open and shut without getting on to chairs, and a what-you-may-call-it to regulate the furnace heat without going down cellar--all the same, it won't be our dear old home."

"No; a better one."

"Well," said Jane, resignedly. She lifted her eyes and pointed her finger aloft. "I suppose I shall be up there, somewhere."

"Oh, not yet," replied Bingham, bringing his eyes back from the clouds. "You look very well fitted for your present sphere."

"I didn't mean all the way up," said Jane, smilingly dismal. "I only meant the next floor--yet awhile."

"That's better. Don't be an angel just yet; you're too useful here."

"If not ornamental."

"Too ornamental, too."

"I never claimed to be that," observed Jane, dropping her eyes. "Do you think I'm--improving?"

Jane stood there on the foundations, clad in the ample and voluminous fashion of the day and topped off with a distinctly stylish hat. She had had a long regimen of fencing and dumbbells, and her self-imposed superintendence of the new house had led to many hours spent in the open air. Her hair was blowing airily about her face, and on her cheek there was a slight flush--produced, perhaps, by her own question.

"Decidedly," replied Bingham, promptly.

"Thanks. There's always room for improvement. It's the biggest room in the world, somebody says."

She gave another look at her corner-stone. "Well, what do they do after the last sad rites? They go home, don't they? Yes; let's go home."

"Suppose I drive you down? I'm going your way."

"I have got a nickel, somewhere," said Jane, "and I was going back on the elevated, for a change; but--well, all right."

And she let him help her into the buggy.

"Monstrous big house, isn't it?" she commented, as she overlooked the foundations from this loftier point. "I don't know how we are ever going to fill it."

"Oh yes, you will," said Bingham, gathering up the lines. "Your father and mother, and your brother and Rosy..."

"I don't know as to Truesdale; he's such a fly-about. You can't depend very much on him. And I don't feel any too sure about Rosy, either," she added, inwardly.

Her state of uncertainty about Rosy was shared, in fact, by all the rest of the family; it looked decidedly as if the youngest daughter were to leave the shelter of her father's roof before the completion of her first year in the world. She was a maiden choosing, and the absorbing question was--which? On the side of William Bates there was his position, his ability, his certain future, and the sentimental resumption of old family relations. On the side of Paston there was an entertaining personality and the paragraph in Debrett. The two met occasionally in the Marshalls' front parlor, and sat each other out with much civility and pertinacity--Bates somewhat firm and severe, Paston extremely gay and diverting. Jane and her mother lingered in the coulisses and even ventured a word now and then with the ingenue after she had left the boards. But the more the family found to say directly and indirectly on behalf of William Bates, the more resolutely Rosamund turned her face in the opposite direction.

"You can't influence Rosy," said Jane; "she'll have her own way--that's a point there needn't be any doubt on. And that boudoir of hers in the new house may come around to me, after all, unless I--"

Jane flushed vividly as she thus cast her own horoscope. Bingham at this moment drew the buggy up alongside the curb in front of the old house. A young man on the sidewalk was just approaching the front gate. "Dear me!" gasped Jane, inwardly, "what a miserable sinner I am!" Her heart sank and her appetite left her. The young man was Theodore Brower; she had invited him to dinner and had forgotten all about it.