The Sisters-In-Law by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
Mortimer was walking up and down the hall.
"Come in here," he said. He entered the drawing-room, and Alexina followed like a culprit led to the bar. Nevertheless, it crossed her mind that he wanted the moral support of a mantelpiece.
She almost stumbled into a chair. Mortimer did not avail himself of the chimneypiece toward which he had unconsciously gravitated, but walked back and forth. Two electric lights hidden under lamp shades were burning, but the large room was rather somber.
Alexina composed herself once more with a violent effort and asked in a crisp tone: "Well? What is this mystery? Are you in love with some one else? Been, making love--"
He confronted her with stricken eyes. "You know that I am literally incapable of such a thing. But of course you were jesting."
"Of course. But something is so manifestly wrong with you, and...well...of course you would be justified."
"Not in my own eyes. Besides, I shall never give up the hope of winning you back again. I live for that...although now!...that is the whole trouble....How am I going to say it?"
"Well, let me help you out. You took the bonds."
"You've been to the bank! I wanted to tell you first...the day you came back....I couldn't...."
"There is only one thing I am really curious about. How did you get in? Of course you knew where I kept the key, but--"
"I--" His voice was so lifeless that if dead men could speak it must be in the same flat faint tones. "I had the old power of attorney."
"But I revoked it."
"I mean the instrument--the paper. You did not ask for it. I did not think of it either....I trusted to the keeper taking it on its face value, not looking it up. He didn't. You see--" He gave a dreadful sort of laugh. "I am well known and have a good reputation."
"Why didn't you cable and ask me to lend you the money?"
"There wasn't time. Besides, you might have refused. I was desperate--"
"I don't want to hear the particulars. I am not in the least curious. What I must talk to you about--"
"I must tell you the whole thing. I can't go about with it any longer. Then, perhaps, you will understand."
His voice was still flat and as he continued to walk he seemed to draw half-paralyzed legs after him. Alexina set her lips and stared at the floor. He meant to talk. No getting out of it.
"I--I--have only done well occasionally since the very first. It didn't matter so long as your mother was alive, and for a little while after. But when you took things into your own hands...after that it was capital I turned over to you nearly every month--hardly ever profits."
"What? Why didn't you tell me?"
"I hadn't the courage. I was too anxious to stand well with you. And I always hoped, believed, I would do better as times improved. I had great hopes of myself and I had a pretty good start. But as time went on I grew to understand that my abilities were third-rate. I should have done all right with a large capital--say a hundred and fifty thousand dollars--but only a man far cleverer than I am could have got anywhere in that business with a paltry sixteen thousand to begin on. I got one or two connections and did pretty well, off and on, for a time; but if I hadn't made one or two lucky strikes in stocks my capital would simply have run away in household expenses long ago."
"Then why did you join that expensive club?"
"It was good business," he said evasively. "I meet the right sort of men there. That's where I got my stock pointers."
"Did you take the bonds to gamble with?"
"No. I'd never have done that. I gambled in another way, though. I thought I saw a chance to sell a certain commodity at that particular time and I plunged and sent for a large quantity of it. It looked sure. I have a friend over there and got it on credit. I banked on an immediate sale and a big profit. But something delayed the shipping in Hong Kong. When it arrived the market was swamped. Some one else had had the same idea. I had to pay for the goods, as well as other big outstanding bills, or go into bankruptcy. So I took the bonds. It wasn't easy. But there was nothing else to do....There were about ten thousand dollars left and I tried another coup. That failed too."
"How is it possible to go on with the business?"
"It isn't. I have closed out. But I have escaped bankruptcy. People on the street think that I wanted to get into the real estate business--with Andrew Weston, a young man who has recently come here from Los Angeles. He's doing fairly well and has a good office. He wanted a hustler and a partner who had good connections. But it is slow work. There are the old firms, again, to compete with. I wouldn't have looked at it if I'd had any choice, but it was a case of a port in a storm."
"Well? Is that all? There is another matter to discuss. Our future mode of living."
"No, it isn't all. I wish you would tell Gora something. I can never go through this again. While she was away--in Honolulu--that lawyer of my aunt sent out ten thousand dollars' worth more of stock, that had been looked upon as so much waste paper, but suddenly appreciated--some little railroad that was abandoned half finished, but has since been completed. This had been left to Gora alone. We had some correspondence and he sent it to me as Gora was traveling. It came at the wrong time for me...on top of everything else....I plunged in a new mine Bob Cheever and Baseom Luning were interested in. It turned out to be no good. We lost every cent."
Alexina sat cold and rigid. Once she pinched her arm. She fancied it had turned to stone.
He dropped into a chair and leaning forward twisted his hands together.
"If you knew...if you knew...what I have been through....At first it was only the anxiety and excitement. But afterward, when it was over...when there was nothing left to speculate with...then I realized what I had done...I...a thief...a thief....I had been so proud of my honor, my honesty. I never had believed that I could even be tempted. And I went to pieces like a cheaply built schooner in its first storm. There's nothing, it seems, in being well brought up, when circumstances are too strong for you."
Alexina forebore the obvious reply. "Of course you were a little mad," she said, rather at a loss.
"No, I wasn't. I'd always been a cool speculator, and I'd never taken long chances in business before. It all looked too good and I got in too deep. But if I could have repaid it all I'd feel nearly as demoralized. That I should have stolen...and from women...."
Again Alexina restrained herself. The dead monotonous voice went on.
"I thought once or twice of killing myself. It didn't seem to me that I had the right to live. I had always had the best ideals, the strictest sense of right and wrong...It does not seem possible even now."
Alexina could endure no more. Another moment and she felt that she should be looking straight into a naked soul. She felt so sorry for him that she quite forgot her own wrongs or her horror of his misdeeds. She wished that she still loved him, he looked so forlorn and in need of the physical demonstrations of sympathy; but although she was prepared to defend him if need be, and help him as best she could, she felt that she would willingly die rather than touch him....She wondered if souls in dissolution subtly wafted their odors of corruption if you drew too close....
"Well, what is done is done," she said briskly. "I'll tell Gora and engage that she will never mention it. You have suffered enough. Now let us discuss ways and means. Does this new business permit you to contribute anything to the household expenses?"
"I'm afraid not. It takes time to work up a business."
"Then we must live on what I have left, and you know what taxes are. I suppose I had better look for a job."
"What?" He seemed to spring out of his apathy, and stared at her incredulously. "You?"
"Yes. We must have more money. I could sell the flats and go into the decorating business."
"And advertise to all San Francisco that I am a failure! Do you think I could fool them then!"
"Are you sure you have fooled them now! They must know you would have stuck to the old business if it had paid."
"It isn't the first time a man has changed his business. But if you go out to earn money--why, I'd be a laughing stock."
"Then we shall have to give up the house. The city has long wanted this lot--"
"That would never do, either. Everybody knows how devoted you are to your old home...and after fixing it up...."
"Well, what, do you suggest? You know perfectly well we can't go on."
"My brain seems to have stopped. I can't do much thinking. But...well...you might sell the flats and we could go on as before until my business begins to pay."
"Sacrifice more of my capital? That I won't do. Why don't you see if you can get back with Cheever Harrison and Cheever? I know that Bob--"
"I won't go back to being a salaried man. You can't go back like that when you've been in the other class." He beat a fist into a palm. "Why couldn't Bob Cheever have left me alone? So long as I didn't know anything about Society I never thought about it. Why couldn't your family have let me stay where I was? I should have been head clerk with a good salary by this time, and we would have arranged our expenses accordingly when your mother died. Why can't men give a young fellow a better chance when he goes into business for himself? Every man trying to cut every other man's throat. "What chance has a young fellow with a small capital?"
"Do you know that you have blamed everybody but yourself? However...perhaps you are right....Mr. Kirkpatrick puts it down to the system. I feel more inclined to trace it straight back to old Dame Nature--all the ancestral inheritances down in our sub-cellars. We are as we are made and our characters are certainly our fate. I suppose you will at least resign from the club?"
He set his lips in the hard line that made him look the man of character his ancestor, John Dwight, had been when he legislated in the first Congress. "No, I shall not resign. It would be bad business in two ways: they would know I was hard up, and I should no longer meet in the same way the men who can give me a leg up in business."
"Are you sure those are the only reasons?"
To this he did not deign to reply, and she asked: "Do you mean that you shall go on speculating?"
"I've nothing to speculate with. I mean that the men I cultivate can help me in business."
"They don't seem to have done much in the past. However...At least I'll send in our resignations to the Golf Club. As we use it so seldom no one will notice. Now I'm going upstairs to think it all over. To-morrow I shall do something. I don't know what it will be, yet."
He stood up. "Promise me," he said with firm masculine insistence, "that you will neither go into any sort of money-making scheme or sell this house." His tones had distinctly more life in them and he had recovered his usual bearing of the lordly but gallant male. His eyes were as stern as his lips.
Alexina stared at him for a moment in amazement, then reflected that apparently the stupider a man was the more difficult he was to understand. She nodded amiably.
"No doubt I'll think of some other way out. Will let you know at dinner time. Don't expect me at breakfast. Good-night."