Chapter XVII
 

"Well, those are my views," said Belden. He elevated his eyebrows slightly as he dropped his glance to a row of shapely nails that lay closely together on the thick of his thumb, and an imperceptible smile moved slowly under the cover of his thick mustache. "To right completely such a wrong as this there is only one course that I know of."

Marshall ceased his earnest scrutiny of his partner's face to rest his elbow on the edge of his desk and to drop his weary old face into the hollow of his hand. There were more wrinkles on his cheeks, more white hairs in the dull dry red of his beard, more signs of sleepless hours in his anxious eyes.

Belden raised his hand and swept it across his mustache. The smile beneath escaped and spread upward over his face. His nostrils, too, dilated--half triumphally.

"It's a most unfortunate affair," he observed further, continuing his series of careful modulations. "There is an error made, a false step taken; the family flee their past to begin life anew in another land; yet at the very threshold of their new life they meet the first cause of all their misfortune and misery." Belden sighed.

His sigh seemed at once to breathe a deep sympathy and to call for the meting out of justice at whatever cost--to some one else. As Belden sighed, Marshall himself almost gave a groan.

He accepted these carefully composed observations for precisely what they seemed. He was too inexperienced in the drama to detect the essential insincerity of every word, though there was not one of the lowliest of his clerks but had heard every one of these phrases bandied across the footlights time and time again.

"I must acknowledge," continued Belden, as he moved towards the door, "that her father has acted with a good deal of reasonableness and forbearance. You can imagine Leppin's anxiety, without any word from me. You can feel how keenly he looks forward to having justice done--to having complete reparation made. You know what that means as well as I do."

And he passed out, leaving his senior to ponder the matter alone.

Belden was the first person with whom Marshall had permitted himself a full canvass of the situation, the sole husbandman towards whom he had turned for assistance in garnering the first-fruits of Truesdale's career abroad. Never before had evil grazed against him and his; he had regarded it, in fact, as something appertaining principally to ill-regulated persons in a lower walk of life. He had heard of such subjects as being handled in fiction, and he had noticed them touched upon in the theatrical reviews of the newspapers. But nothing of the sinful, the vicious, the malodorous had ever, within his recollection, come to his family, to his friends, or even to any of his business associates. Yet here it had come at last, and it must be confronted.

He had quite shrank from the ordeal of considering the matter with so nimble and experienced a person as Truesdale himself, and he was almost too Anglo-Saxon in his pure-mindedness to attempt an over-intimate discussion of it with his own wife; it took a large share of his fortitude to broach the matter even to his elder son.

"I can't talk to Truesdale about it," said this virginal old man, as he sat in Roger's office; "you've got to do it. I can't."

"Well, really, father," began Roger. He had almost the air of resenting an imputation.

"I don't mean that, Roger," said his father, in some distress. "I have every confidence in you; I believe you're all right. But--"

"Has anybody seen the girl?"

"Your mother says that--well, she says that Jane has seen her"--he brought in his daughter's name with a great distress--"and your aunt Lydia. She told your mother she was sure this girl was one to lend herself to--to--"

"H'm," said Roger, in a non-committal way. He always subjected his aunt Lydia's opinions and impressions to a double discount.

Meanwhile the odor of Truesdale's offence permeated the house as completely as the office. Rosy wondered what could be under way as she saw her mother and Jane seated on unaccustomed chairs in unaccustomed attitdues at unaccustomed times in unaccustomed rooms while they engaged in brief and infrequent interchanges of words, or co-operated for the production of long and eloquent silences. Jane, in fact, took the matter with the rigorous thoroughness of the complete theorist. She knew what it was to thread the mazes of a guilty conscience through half a dozen consecutive chapters; she knew how it felt to see the agonies of acknowledged sin transferred from chair to sofa and sofa to chair over the full extent of a large and well-equipped stage. How the leaves had fluttered! How the footlights had palpitated! How those people had suffered--and how she had suffered with them! How she was suffering now--and how much greater still must be the suffering of her erring and idolized brother!

"If he had only been born with eyes like other people's!" she would moan.

The actual mental state of Truesdale was, however, with Jane and with everybody else, a matter of pure conjecture. Very little, in fact, was seen of him. He breakfasted in his own room, as he had done ever since his return home. When the waitress had declined to enter the chamber with his coffee and rolls he had shrugged his shoulders and had directed to have them set on the floor outside. "Quelle pudeur!" he more than once observed, as her knock drew him towards the door. His lunch he took wherever he happened to be, and he dined at his French restaurant, or at a new Italian one where the spaghetti was unapproachable, and where everything was cheap, plentiful, and informal. He returned home at his own discretion, and sometimes was heard working upon the obdurate old night-lock at midnight or later.

Among the first of the family to have extended speech with him after the expose was his aunt Lydia. He had gone to her house to put the last few finishing touches to Bertie Patterson's portrait. To his aunt and to Bertie herself the portrait seemed already finished, but it is only the artist who knows when the end has really been reached. He asked his aunt for Bertie.

"Well," she hesitated, as she looked at him with a kind of furtive and wondering interest, "Bertie is very busy this afternoon. If there is anything more to be done--and I don't exactly see that there is--it must be done without her, I'm afraid."

"Can't I see her?" he asked, brusquely. "This is the very time I need her. What is she so busy about?"

"She is packing. You know I've kept her a good deal longer already than I expected to--she can't stay into summer. Her mother has written several times, asking for her, and now, finally, she's really got to go." There was a grieving disappointment in Mrs. Rhodes's voice, and a cast of keen but discreet curiosity in her eye.

"When is she going?"

"In the morning. Then her own people will get her well before dark."

"I'm not to see her to say good-bye?--my own cousin, almost."

"Nonsense--not at all. I'll tell her good-bye for you."

"And the picture?"

"Well, that we may consider finished, I think." Her eyes were resting on the wall behind him. He turned and saw the portrait fastened upon it.

"So she is not even to have--" he began.

"Now, Truesdale," interrupted his aunt, "the picture is not Bertie's, but mine. I thought you understood that."

She followed him to the door. "You won't stay a few minutes longer?" she inquired, with an emollient intention. He shook his head.

"I won't say, Truesdale," she proceeded, with her hand on the knob, "how disappointed I am. Everything, of course, is at a stand-still now. Whether things ever go on again will depend upon you yourself. I am sure that any--any expression of regret, any promise of--of--"

"Ouf!" said Truesdale, as he descended the steps, undecided whether to laugh or to curse. "'When I was a student at Cadiz,'" he found himself humming, half-unconsciously. "H'm! one thing learned in the study of this peculiar civilization: general badness jollied up, specific badness frowned down. What other discoveries await me, I wonder?"

Before he had taken a dozen steps a brougham drawn by a pair of blacks in glittering, gold-plated harness drew up suddenly at the curbstone, in obedience to directions given through the half-open door. In a second the door opened wide, and Gladys McKenna beckoned to him. "Get in," she uttered, in a half-repressed cry.

She had divined the situation in two swift glances. She had witnessed the moody exit of Truesdale, and she had had a glimpse of the anxious little face of Bertie Patterson in the bay-window above. Her desire to live life, to dramatize it as promptly and effectively as possible, had led her to the instant appropriation of the banned and rejected Truesdale--thus it was that she figured him.

"Get in," she repeated; "I can take you along six or eight blocks. The coachman knows you by sight, I'm sure. But never mind; nothing matters now. My letter--did you get it?"

"Another!" thought Truesdale. He made the door fast. "No."

"I felt sure you wouldn't," she panted, excitedly. "I gave it to that man to mail." She pointed towards the occupant of the box-seat. "He has played me false."

Truesdale smiled at her phrase. "Well, never mind; you can tell me what there was in it." He stretched out his long legs negligently under the opposite seat, determined to take this new ordeal as lightly as possible. From his point of view the girl was doing nothing towards gaining a greater measure of approval. "She never had any consideration for me," he was thinking, "until she saw that I cared for the town as little as she did; and she has waited to fling herself at me unreservedly until I have shown myself too awful for anybody else. Why did I let her pick me up? and how soon can I have her set me down?"

"You will learn now who your real friends are," she declared, casting herself energetically into a leading role; "not fair-weather friends, but friends through thick and thin. Let me tell you: there is a conspiracy against you." She laid her hand on his arm, and looked at him with a wide stare; she seemed to thrill with the consciousness of an important participation in a succession of stirring actualities.

"Is there, indeed?" Whatever one's plight, there is little consolation in the ministrations of an unwelcome hand. Considering this, that, and the other, he was now, as at his aunt's door, again midway between a laugh and a curse.

"Yes. That man--that German, or whatever--was at the house last evening, and--oh, why will Albert drive so fast?" she complained, as she made a seeming calculation of the many things she had to say and the little time she had to say them in. "Can't something be done to make him go a little slower?"

"The horses feel lively," answered Truesdale, to whom the present rapid course was perfectly agreeable; "I expect he'll have to let them go their own gait." He glanced out at a passing church or two, and frowned slightly; why did this girl insist upon doing his mathematical problems for him? Had not he himself already put his two and two together and made them four?

Gladys went on, telling him what she knew, guessed, surmised, suspected. "And they--they suspect me," she continued, in a mounting tone of tragedy. "And I'm--I'm going home in a few days." There were tears on the dark fringes of her eyes; he thought of a wax image exposed overnight to a heavy dew. "And all for your sake," the moisture seemed to say. Truesdale began to feel uncomfortable and a shade ungrateful. "I dare say she means well," he thought; "but I--I wish she wouldn't."

The carriage was passing between two other churches; he saw that he might alight after another square of it. "One more will be plenty," he muttered, and already his hand stole towards the handle of the door.

"You can't think how they both hate you--my aunt and uncle--and me, too, I'm afraid. They're really driving me out of the house. But never mind; I can endure even more than that for one that--for the right."

"When did you say you were going?" inquired Truesdale. It was only by asking plain, every-day questions that he could oppose this robust romanticism.

"Day after to-morrow--or the next."

"Well," said Truesdale, quietly, "I should think you would do very well at home--much better than here."

"But where am I to see you before I go? Where are we to say good-bye?"

A cable-car clanged along the cross-street immediately ahead of them, and the ten yellow stories of a vast hotel loomed up just beyond. "Right on this corner," replied Truesdale, as the carriage bumped across the tracks. "The interval is short, as you suggest, and there is no time like the present." He put his hand on the door and fixed his eye upon the corner shop; he often bought a cigar there, and meant to buy one now. He also meant this good-bye as literally final.

"You want me to let you out here? Stop, Albert. Well, good-afternoon," she said, smilingly waiving the idea of finality; "you shall know to-morrow where you can meet me. You are not deserted by everybody, after all, you see." She gave him her hand, or rather laid hold of his. "But take good care of yourself, all the same."

Truesdale stepped out. "I'll try to," he said, mumblingly; "I always have."

Being thus minded, Truesdale received but grudgingly the tenders of his brother Roger to assist in the caretaking. He admitted, however, that it would be less embarrassing to confer with one person than a dozen, and that if the whole connection were to be represented by a single spokesman, then Roger was the one that he preferred.

Roger was held by his family to be above all foibles and frailties; his aunt Lydia had once told him, on the day of a niece's hopeless return to the East, that he had too much head and not enough heart. It is certain that he had marked out a definite course for himself, and that nothing, so far, had had the power to divert him materially from it; and he had a far-reaching contempt for the man who permitted the gray matter of his brain to be demoralized by the red matter in his veins. He kept a firm hand on his own affairs and on those of his father that were not immediately connected with the business of his father's firm. His severe face was smooth-shaven, as he thought the face of a lawyer ought to be, and he could address the higher courts with such a loud and brazen utterance as to cause the court-loungers almost to feel the judges shrinking and shrivelling under their robes. His was a hot and vehement nature, but it burned with a flame blue rather than red.

"Well," he said, with a look of extreme distaste fixed half on his brother and half on his book-shelves, "we can accept her and make the best of her. I have seen her and her father. While I can't say I admire the personal character of either, I am not prejudiced by the fact that he is only a clerk and she only a shop-girl. They are beginners here; I am willing to believe that they were something better at home. We can accept her; we shall have to, I suppose."

Truesdale reared his beautiful brazen front and flashed on his brother a haughty and disdainful smile. "You can accept her? Will you please tell me what you mean by that? And 'better at home'!" He burst into open and derisive laughter. "What new Arcadia is this, where even the lawyers walk about with their beribboned crooks and the little baa-lambs following behind them? We have been sitting in conclave, have we, on a mossy bank in some sylvan shade, with chaplets on our brows, and we have piped and twittered over the matter, and have decided that we can 'accept her'? Well, you can do more than I can," he added, abruptly. His foot slipped from the rung of the opposite chair and fell to the bare floor with a contemptuous clump.

"You've got your own character to clear, haven't you?" asked Roger, with a severe brevity.

Truesdale replaced his foot on the rung of the other chair and slid down into his own as he thrust his hands deeper into his pockets. "Dear me," he said, in affected apprehension, "am I in any danger? Well, well; if such a thing can hurt a young man, I shall be glad to know it--I never knew it before. Now, la-bas, for example--"

He drew out one of his hands and waved it vaguely; he seemed to be conjuring up a wider and more liberal world--the only one he had learned.

"It can," insisted his brother; "it will. Both you and your family."

Truesdale's thought flashed back to Bertie Patterson and the unfinished picture. It came to him all at once that his brother might be better worth listening to than he had been disposed to concede.

"And your family," Roger repeated.

But Truesdale's thought, lingering over the picture, made little of this second point. He did scant justice to the mortification of his mother before her church-members and her few remaining neighbors, or that of his sisters within the circle which they had lately constructed for themselves. Nor did he yet realize, even with Bertie's picture in mind, the hundred checks and bars that awaited him in a society of whose primitive purity he had made a jest whenever occasion came.

"Dear Roger," he presently rejoined, in his most genial and winning voice, "you mean well, I am sure--well by me and by the family and by everybody. And I dare say you do very nicely in your own narrow field; but as for knowing life--well, really now, do you think you understand what it is to live?"

"Live!" cried Roger, with a sonorous contempt. "Who does understand what it is to live, then--the man who has all his work and worry done for him by some one else?"

Truesdale smiled, serene and unabashed. "The world is wide," he said, with an exquisite tolerance. "It is a very comprehensive subject. You must take it up one of these days--you've hardly made a beginning on it yet."

"The world!" cried Roger again, with a vibrant indignation at this impertinence. "Who are the world if not my father and I and all the other earnest men who work to make the frame of things and to hold it together? We are the world, and you--you are only the rubbish strewn over the top of it!"

He collected this rubbish and constructed from it a Frankenstein monster, with a heart of cork, a brow of brass, and a triple-plating of self-conceit. Then with a harsh laugh and a wide-flung arm he scattered it apart again.

Perhaps Truesdale took these words and gestures merely as an example of Roger's forensic eloquence. For--

"My dear brother," he began, quietly, while Roger beat his foot upon the floor, stung to increased indignation by the conscious artificiality of such an address--"my dear brother," said Truesdale, "you don't quite get my position in this trifling episode. Every little conte drolatique has its Monsieur X, of course--myself, in this instance, and rightfully enough. But is Monsieur X the only gentleman involved? Let us see. Who comes before Monsieur X? Why, Monsieur W, to be sure. And who before Monsieur W? Monsieur V, n'est-ce pas? And there is somebody still in front of Monsieur V. And if we go far enough back, we may come at last even to Monsieur A. Now, why are all these worthy gentlemen passed over in favor of ce cher Monsieur X? Well, perhaps Monsieur W, for example, is a captain of dragoons and already mated. And maybe Monsieur V is a young baron whose family won't stand any nonsense about him--families are different. And as for Monsieur A--well, let us put him down for a poor devil of a student who cuts no figure at all. But Monsieur X--ah, that is different! he is pounced upon in the bosom of his family. It is Monsieur X who has the scrupulous and strait-laced mother--"

"Truesdale!"

"And the little coterie of lily-sisters who never--"

"Truesdale! For shame!"

"And the over-conscientious and supersensitive father with millions and millions stored away in bursting money-bags somewhere or other. Oh, those money-bags, those money-bags, those money-bags!"

"Truesdale, what do you mean? Are they adventurers? Are they after black-mail?"

Truesdale threw back his head, closing his eyes and twirling his thumbs. "I knew them there; I know them here." Then he opened his eyes and gave his brother a glance of satirical approval. "Complimenti, Roger; you are ending where I should have expected you to begin."

"It is not the end," cried Roger, savagely. He saw that he had allowed his view of the matter to be wrongly colored by the impressions of his father and the representations of Belden; and Truesdale's comments lacerated his self-esteem as with griffins' claws. "Haven't I told you that they have taken legal advice, and that--"

"And that the whole grovelling tribe of Leppins, outnumbering the Van Horns, possibly, are ready with oral testimony and a shower of depositions, and what all besides. Ouf! not an inch do I yield. J'y suis; j'y reste. Not an inch should anybody else yield. Well, thank me, Roger, for having given you this little glimpse into the great big world. It's full of interest." He rose suddenly, stiff and straight and slender as some young fir-tree. "Come, Roger, put on your hat and go with me to Japan."

He looked over into the half-open drawer of his brother's desk. "More of those maps, I see."

"Other maps; another subdivision. I can do my work without trotting over the whole globe; Cook County is big enough for me."

"H'm; you seem to be branching out quite extensively. Only, don't get in too deep." Truesdale gave this valuable advice in a patronizing tone of which he alone was master. "Yes, I should think Cook County would do very well for you--until you have learned to spik something besides ze Engleesh." He picked up his hat and moved towards the door.

"English will do for me!" retorted Roger, savagely.

"Well, turn the thing over in this new light," continued his brother, pleasantly. "And one thing more--a little suggestion: you have some notion of the man who comes before Monsieur X; give a bit of attention, now, to the man who comes after. He could be of the greatest service to us--permanent service. Comprenez-vous? Find him; find Monsieur Y--and arrange it that he shall be the last!"

And Truesdale sauntered airily out of the room.