Chapter IV. The Skies Darkening
 

The game of cards fared indifferently, for they were all too intent on little games of their own to give close attention. Mr. Van Dam won when he chose, and gave the game away when he chose, but made Zell think the skill was mainly hers.

Still, in common parlance, they had a "good time." From such clever men the jests and compliments were rather better than the average, and repartee from the ruby lips that smiled upon them could not seem other than brilliant.

Edith soon added to the sources of enjoyment by ordering cake and wine, for though not the eldest she seemed naturally to take the lead.

Mr. Goulden drank sparingly. He meant that not a film should come across his judgment. Mr. Van Dam drank freely, but he was seasoned to more fiery potations than sherry. Not so poor Gus, who, while he could never resist the wine, soon felt its influence. But he had sufficient control never to go beyond the point of tipsiness that fashion allows in the drawing-room.

Of course through Zell's unrestrained chatter the recently made plans soon came out.

Adroit Mr. Van Dam turned to Zell with an expression of much pleased surprise, exclaiming:

"How fortunate I am! I had completed my plans to go abroad some little time since."

Zell clapped her hands with delight, but an involuntary shadow darkened. Edith's face.

Gus looked nonplussed. He knew that his father and mother with difficulty kept pace with his home expenses and that a Continental tour was impossible for him. Mr. Goulden looked a little thoughtful, as if a new element had entered into the problem.

"Oh, come," laughed Zell. "Let us all be good, and go on a pilgrimage together to Paris--I mean Jerusalem."

"I will worship devoutly with you at either shrine," said Mr. Van Dam.

"And with equal sincerity, I suppose," said Edith, rather coldly.

"I sadly fear, Miss Edith, that my sincerity will not be superior to that of the other devotees," was the keen retort, in blandest tones.

Edith bit her lip, but said gayly, "Count me out of your pilgrim band. I want no shrine with relics of the past. I wish no incense rising about me obscuring the view. I like the present, and wish to see what is beyond."

"But suppose you are both shrine and divinity yourself?" said Gus, with what he meant for a killing look.

"Do you mean that compliment for me?" asked Edith, all sweetness.

Between wine and love Gus was inclined to be sentimental, and so in a low, meaning tone answered:

"Who more deserving?"

Edith's eyes twinkled a moment, but with a half sigh she replied:

"I fear you read my character rightly. A shrine suggests many offerings, and a divinity many worshippers."

Zell laughed outright, and said, "In that respect all women would be shrines and divinities if they could."

Van Dam and Goulden could not suppress a smile at the unfortunate issue of Elliot's sentiment, while the latter glanced keenly to see how much truth was hinted in the badinage.

"For my part," said Laura, looking fixedly at nothing, "I would rather have one true devotee than a thousand pilgrims who were gushing at every shrine they met."

"Brava!" cried Mr. Goulden. "That was the keenest arrow yet flown;" for the other two men were notorious flirts.

"I do not think so. Its point was much too broad," said Zell, with a meaning look at Mr. Goulden, that brought a faint color into his imperturbable face, and an angry flush to Laura's.

A disconcerted manner had shown that even Gus's vanity had not been impervious to Edith's barb, but he had now recovered himself, and ventured again:

"I would have my divinity a patron saint sufficiently human to pity human weakness, and so come at last to listen to no other prayer than mine."

"Surely, Mr. Elliot, you would wish your saint to listen for some other reason than your weakness only," said Edith.

"Come, ladies and gentlemen, I move this party breaks up, or some one will get hurt," said Gus, with a half-vexed laugh.

"What is the matter?" asked Edith innocently.

"Yes," echoed Zell, rising, "what is the matter with you, Mr. Van Dam? Are you asleep, that you are so quiet? Tell us about your divinity."

"I am an astronomer and fire-worshipper, somewhat dazzled at present by the nearness and brilliancy of my bright luminary."

"Nonsense! your sight is failing, and you have mistaken a will-o'-the- wisp for the sun.

"'Dancing here, dancing there, Catch it if you can and dare,'" and she flitted away before him.

He followed with his intent eyes and graceful, serpent-like gliding, knowing her to be under a spell that would soon bring her fluttering back.

After circling round him a few moments she took his arm and he commenced breathing into her ear the poison of his passion.

No woman could remain the same after being with Mr. Van Dam. Out of the evil abundance of his heart he spoke, but the venom of his words and manner were all the more deadly because so subtle, so minutely and delicately distributed, that it was like a pestilential atmosphere, in which truth and purity withered.

No parent should permit to his daughters the companionship of a thoroughly bad man, whatever his social standing. His very tone and glance are unconsciously demoralizing, and, even if he tries, he cannot prevent the bitter waters overflowing from their bad source, his heart.

Mr. Van Dam did not try. He meant to secure Zell, with or without her father's approval, believing that when the marriage was once consummated Mr. Allen's consent and money would follow eventually.

For some little time longer the young ladies and their favored attendants strolled about the room in quiet tete-a-tete, and then the gentlemen bowed themselves out.

The door-bell had rung several times during the evening, but Hannibal, with the solemnity of a funeral, had quenched each comer by saying with the decision of the voice of fate:

"De ladies am engaged, sah," and no Cerberus at the door, or mailed warder of the middle ages, could have proved such an effectual barrier against all intruders as this old negro in his white waistcoat and stiff necktie, backed by the usage of modern society. Indeed, in some respects he was a greater potentate than old King Canute, for he could say to the human passions, inclinations, and desires that surged up to Mr. Allen's front door, "Thus far and no farther."

But upon this evening there was a caller who looked with cool, undaunted eyes upon the stiff necktie and solemn visage rising above it, and to Hannibal's reiterated statement, "Dey am engaged," replied in a quiet tone of command:

"Take that card to Miss Edith."

Even Hannibal's sovereignty broke down before this persistent, imperturbable visitor, and scratching his head with a perplexed grin he half soliloquized, half replied:

"Miss Edith mighty 'ticlar to hab her orders obeyed."

"I am the best judge in this case," was the decisive response. "You take the card and I will be responsible."

Hannibal came to the conclusion that for some occult reason the gentleman, who was well known to him, had a right to pronounce the "open sesame" where the portal had been remained closed to all others, and, being a diplomatist, resolved to know more fully the quarter of the wind before assuming too much. But his statecraft was sorely puzzled to know why one of Mr. Allen's under-clerks should suddenly appear in the role of social caller upon the young ladies, for Mr. Fox, the gentleman in question, ostensibly had no higher position. His appearance and manner indicated a mystery. Old Hannibal's wool had not grown white for nothing, and he was the last man in the world to go through a mystery as a blundering bumblebee would through a spider's web. He was for leaving the web all intact till he knew who spun it and whom it was to catch. If it was Mr. Allen's work or Miss Edith's, it must stand; if not, he could play bumblebee with a vengeance, and carry off the gossamer of intrigue with one sweep.

So, showing Mr. Fox into a small reception room, he made his way to the library door with a motion that would have reminded you of a great, stealthy cat, and called in a loud, impressive whisper:

"Miss Edith!"

Edith at once rose and went to him, knowing that her prime minister had some important question of state to present when summoning her in that tone.

Screened by the library door, Hannibal commenced in a deprecating way:

"I told Mr. Fox you'se engaged, but he say I must give you dis card. He kinder acted as if he own dis niggar and de whole establishment."

A sudden heavy frown drew Edith's dark eyebrows together and she said loud enough for Mr. Fox in his ambush to hear:

"Was there ever such impudence!" and straightway the frown passed to the listener, intensified, like a flying cloud darkening one spot now and another a moment later.

"Return the card, and say I am engaged," she said haughtily. "Stay," she added thoughtfully. "Perhaps he wished to see papa, or there is some important business matter which needs immediate attention. If not, dismiss him," and Edith returned to the library quite as much puzzled as Hannibal had been. Two or three times recently she had found Mr. Fox's card on returning from evenings out. Why had he called? She had only a cool, bowing acquaintance with him, formed by his coming occasionally to see her father on business, and her father had not thought it worth while to formally introduce Mr. Fox to any of his family at such times, but had treated him as a sort of upper servant. Her certainly was putting on strange airs, as her old grand- vizier had intimated. But in the game of cards, and her other little game with Grus, she soon forgot his existence.

Meantime Hannibal, reassured, was regal again, and marched down the marble hall with something like the feeling and bearing of his great namesake. If there were a web here, the Allens were not spinning it, and he owed. Mr. Fox nothing but a slight grudge for his "airs."

Therefore with the manner of one feeling himself master of the situation he said:

"Hab you a message for Mr. Allen?"

"No," replied Mr. Fox quietly.

"Den I tell you again Miss Edith am engaged."

Looking straight into Hannibal's eyes, without a muscle changing in his impassive face, Mr. Fox said in the steady tone of command:

"Say to Miss Edith I will call again," and he passed out of the door as if he were master of the situation.

Hannibal rolled up his eyes till nothing but the whites were seen, and muttered:

"Brass ain't no name for it."

Mr. Fox's action can soon be explained. Mr. Allen, while accustomed to operate largely in Wall Street through his brokers, was also the head of a cloth-importing firm. This in fact had been his regular and legitimate business, but like so many others he had been drawn into the vortex of speculation, and after many lucky hits had acquired that overweening confidence that prepares the way for a fall. He came to believe that he had only to put his hand to a thing to give it the needful impulse to success. In his larger and more exciting operations in Wall Street he had left the cloth business mainly to his junior partners and dependants, they employing his capital. Mr. Fox was merely a clerk in this establishment, and not in very high standing either. He was also another unwholesome product of metropolitan life. As office boy among the lawyers, as a hanger-on of the criminal courts, he had scrambled into a certain kind of legal knowledge and had gained a small pettifogging practice when an opening in Mr. Allen's business led to his present connection. Mr. Allen felt that in his varied and extended business he needed a man of Mr. Fox's stamp to deal with the legal questions that came up, look after the intricacies of the revenue laws, and manage the immaculate saints of the custom- house. As far as the firm had dirty, disagreeable, perplexing work to do, Mr. Fox was to do it. Whenever it came in contact with the majesty of the law and government, Mr. Fox was to represent it. Whenever some Israelite in whom was guile sought, on varied pretext, to wriggle out of the whole or part of a bill, the wary Mr. Fox met him on his own plane and with his own weapons, skirmished with him, and won the little fight.

I would not for a moment give the impression that Mr. Allen was in favor of sharp practice. He merely wished to conduct his business on the business principles and practice of the day, and it was not his purpose, and certainly not his policy, to pass beyond the law. But even the judges disagree as to what the law is, and he was dealing with many who thrived by evading it; therefore the need of a nimble Mr. Fox who could burrow and double on his tracks with the best of them. All went well for years, and the firm was saved many an annoyance, many a loss, and if this guerilla of the house, as perhaps we may term him, had been as devoted to Mr. Allen's interests as to his own, all might have gone well to the end. But these very sharp tools are apt to cut both ways, and so it turned out in this case. The astute Mr. Fox determined to serve Mr. Allen faithfully as long as he could faithfully and pre-eminently serve himself. If he who had scrambled from the streets to his present place of power could reach a higher position by stepping on the great rich merchant, such power would have additional satisfaction. He was as keen-scented after money as Mr. Allen, only the latter hunted like a lion, and the former like a fox. He mastered Mr. Allen's business thoroughly in all its details. Until recently no opportunity had occurred save work which, though useful, caused him to be half-despised by the others who would not or could not do it. But of late he had gained a strong vantage point. He watched with intense interest Mr. Allen's attraction toward, and entrance upon, a speculation that he knew to be as uncertain of issue as it was large in proportions, for, if the case ever became critical, he was conscious of the power of introducing a very important element into the problem.

In his care of the custom-house business he had discovered technical violations of the revenue laws which already involved the loss to the firm of a million dollars, and, with his peculiar loyalty to himself, thought this knowledge ought to be worth a great deal. As Mr. Allen went down into the deep waters of Wall Street, he saw that it might be. In saving his employer from wreck he might virtually become captain of the ship.

After this brief delineation of character, it would strike the reader as very incongruous to say that Mr. Fox had fallen in love with Edith. Mr. Fox never stumbled or fell. He could slide down and scramble up to any extent, and when cornered could take a flying leap like that of a cat. But he had been greatly impressed by Edith's beauty, and to win her also would be an additional and piquant feature in the game. He had absolute confidence in money, much of which he might have gained from Mr. Allen himself. He knew a million of her father's money was in his power, and this, in a certain sense, placed him in the position of a suitor worth a million, and such he knew to be almost omnipotent on the avenue. If this money could also be the means of causing Mr. Allen's ruin, or saving him from it, he believed that Edith would be his as truly as the bonds and certificates of stock that he often counted and gloated over. Even before Mr. Allen entered on what he called his great and final operation for the present, Mr. Fox was half inclined to show his hand and make the most of it, but within the last few days he had learned that perhaps a greater opportunity was opening before him. Meantime in the full consciousness of power he had begun to call on Edith, as we have seen, something as a cat plays around and watches a caged bird, which it expects to have in its claws before long.

The next morning at breakfast Edith mentioned Mr. Fox's recent calls.

"What is he coming here for?" growled Mr. Allen, looking with a frown at his daughter.

"I'm sure I don't know."

"I hope you don't see him."

"Certainly not. I was out the first two times, and last night sent word that I was engaged. But he insisted on his card being given to me and put on airs generally, so Hannibal seems to think."

That dignitary gave a confirming and indignant grunt.

"He said he would call again, didn't he, Hannibal?"

"Yes'm," blurted Hannibal, "and he looked as if de next time he'd put us all in his breeches pocket and carry us off."

"What's Fox up to now?" muttered Mr. Allen, knitting his brows. "I must look into this."

But even within a few hours the cloud land of Wall Street had changed some of its aspects. The serenity of the preceding day was giving place to indications of a disturbance in the financial atmosphere. He had to buy more stock to keep the control he was gaining on the market, and things were not shaping favorably for its rise. He was already carrying a tremendous load, and even his herculean shoulders began to feel the burden. In the press and rush of business he forgot about Fox's social ambition in venturing to call where such men as Van Dam and Gus Elliot had undisputed rights.

Those upon whom society lays its hands are orthodox of course.

The wary Fox was watching the stock market as closely as Mr. Allen, and chuckled over the aspect of affairs; and he concluded to keep quietly out of the way a little longer, and await further developments.

Things moved rapidly as they usually do in the maelstrom of speculation. Though Mr. Allen was a trained athlete in business, the strain upon him grew greater day by day. But true to his promise, and in accordance with his habit of promptness, he transferred the deed for the little place in the country to Edith, who gloated over its dry technicalities as if they were full of romantic hope and suggestion to her.

One day when alone with Laura, Mr. Allen asked her suddenly:

"Has Mr. Goulden made any formal proposal yet?"

With rising color Laura answered:

"No."

"Why not? He seems very slow about it."

"I hardly know how you expect me to reply to such a question," said Laura, a little haughtily.

"Is he as attentive as ever?"

"Yes, I suppose so, though he has not called quite so often of late."

"Humph!" ejaculated Mr. Allen meditatively, adding after a moment, "Can't you make him speak out?"

"You certainly don't mean me to propose to him?" asked Laura, reddening.

"No, no, no!" said her father with some irritation, "but any clever woman can make a man who has gone as far as Mr. Goulden commit himself whenever she chooses. Your mother would have had the thing settled long ago, or else would have enjoyed the pleasure of refusing him."

"I am not mistress of that kind of finesse," said Laura coldly.

"You are a woman," replied her father coolly, "and don't need any lessons. It would be well for us both if you would exert your native power in this case."

Laura glanced keenly at her father and asked quickly:

"What do you mean?"

"Just what I say. A word to the wise is sufficient."

Having thus indicated to his daughter that phase of Wall Street tactics and principles that could be developed on the avenue, he took himself off to the central point of operations.