Chapter V. The Storm Threatening
 

Laura had a better motive than that suggested by her father for wishing to lead Mr. Goulden to commit himself, for as far as she could love any one beyond herself she loved him, and she also realized fully that he could continue to her all that her elegant and expensive tastes craved. Notwithstanding her show of maidenly pride and reserve, she was ready enough to do as she had been bidden. Mr. Allen guessed as much. Indeed, as was quite natural, his wife was the type of the average woman to his mind, only he believed that she was a little cleverer in these matters than the majority. The manner in which she had "hooked" him made a deep and lasting impression on his memory.

But Mr. Goulden was a wary fish. He had no objection to being hooked if the conditions were all right, and until satisfied as to these he would play around at a safe distance. As he saw Mr. Allen daily getting into deeper water, he grew more cautious. His calls were not quite so frequent. He managed never to be with Laura except in company with others, and while his manner was very complimentary it was never exactly lover-like. Therefore, all Laura's feminine diplomacy was in vain, and that which a woman can say frankly the moment a man speaks, she could scarcely hint. Moreover, Mr. Goulden was adroit enough to chill her heart while he flattered her vanity. There was something about his manner she could not understand, but it was impossible to take offence at the polished gentleman.

Her father understood him better. He saw that Mr. Goulden had resolved to settle the question on financial principles only.

As the chances diminished of securing him indirectly through Laura as a prop to his tottering fortunes, he at last came to the conclusion to try to interest him directly in his speculation, feeling sure if he could control only a part of Mr. Goulden's large means and credit, he could carry his operation through successfully.

Mr. Goulden warily listened to the scheme, warily weighed it, and concluded within the brief compass of Mr. Allen's explanation to have nothing to do with it. But his outward manner was all deference and courteous attention.

At the end of Mr. Allen's rather eager and rose-colored statements, he replied in politest and most regretful tones that he "was very sorry he could not avail himself of so promising an opening, but in fact, he was 'in deep' himself--carrying all he could stand up under very well, and was rather in the borrowing than in the lending line at present."

Keen Mr. Allen saw through all this in a moment, and his face flushed angrily in spite of his efforts at self-control. Muttering something to the effect:

"I thought I would give you a chance to make a good thing," he bade a rather abrupt "good-morning."

As the pressure grew heavier upon him he was led to do a thing the suggestion of which a few weeks previously he would have regarded as an insult. Mrs. Allen had a snug little property of her own, which had been secured to her on first mortgages, and in bonds that were quiet and safe. These her husband held in trust for her, and now pledged them as collateral on which to borrow money to carry through his gigantic operation. In respect to part of this transaction, Mrs. Allen was obliged to sign a paper which might have revealed to her the danger involved, but she languidly took the pen, yawned, and signed away the result of her father's long years of toil without reading a line.

"There," she said, "I hope you will not bother me about business again. Now in regard to this party--" and she was about to enter into an eager discussion of all the complicated details, when her husband, interrupting, said:

"Another time, my dear--I am very much pressed by business at present."

"Oh, business, nothing but business," whined his wife. "You never have time to attend to me or your family."

But Mr. Allen was out of hearing of the querulous tones before the sentence was finished.

Of course he never meant that his wife should lose a cent, and to satisfy his conscience, and impressed by his danger, he resolved that as soon as he was out of this quaking morass of speculation he would settle on his wife and each daughter enough to secure them in wealth through life, and arrange it in such a way that no one could touch the principal.

The large sum that he now secured eased up matters and helped him greatly, and affairs began to wear a brightening aspect. He felt sure that the stock he had invested in was destined to rise in time, and indeed it already gave evidences of buoyancy. He noticed with an inward chuckle that Mr. Goulden began to call a little oftener. He was the best financial barometer in Wall Street.

But the case would require the most adroit and delicate management for weeks still, and this Mr. Allen could have given. Success also depended on a favorable state of the money market, and a good degree of stability and quietness throughout the financial world. Political changes in Europe, a war in Asia, heavy failures in Liverpool, London, or Paris, might easily spoil all. Reducing Mr. Allen's vast complicated operation to its final analysis, he had simply bet several millions--all he had--that nothing would happen throughout the world that could interfere with a scheme so problematical that the chances could scarcely be called even.

But gambling is occasionally successful, and it began to look as if Mr. Allen would win his bet; and so he might had nothing happened. The world was quiet enough, remarkably quiet, considering the superabundance of explosive elements everywhere.

The financial centres seethed on as usual, like a witch's caldron, but there were no infernal ebullitions in the form of "Black Fridays." The storm that threatened to wreck Mr. Allen was no wide, sweeping tempest, but rather one of those little local whirlwinds that sometimes in the west destroy a farm or township.

For the last few weeks Mr. Fox had quietly watched the game, matured his plans, and secured his proof in the best legal form. He now concluded it was time to act, as he believed Mr. Allen to be in his power. So one morning he coolly walked into that gentleman's office, closed the door, and took a seat. Mr. Allen looked up with an expression of surprise and annoyance on his face. He instinctively disliked Mr. Fox, as a lion might be irritated by a cat, and the instinctive enmity was all the stronger because of a certain family likeness. But Mr. Allen's astuteness had nothing mean or cringing in it, while Mr. Fox heretofore had been a sort of Uriah Heep to him. Therefore his surprise and annoyance at his new role of cool confidence.

"Well, sir," said he, rather impatiently, returning to his writing, as a broad hint that communications must be brief if made at all.

"Mr. Allen," said Mr. Fox, in that clear-cut, decisive tone, that betokens resolute purpose, and a little anger also "I must request you to give me your undivided attention for a little time, and surely what I am about to say is important enough to make it worth the while."

Though Mr. Allen flushed angrily, he knew that his clerk would not employ such a tone and manner without reason, so he raised his head and looked steadily at his unwelcome visitor and again said briefly:

"Well, sir?"

"I wish, in the first place," said Mr. Fox, thinking to begin with the least important exaction, and gradually reach, a climax in his extortion, "I wish permission to pay my addresses to your daughter Miss Edith."

Knowing nothing of a father's pride and affection, he had unwittingly brought in the climax first.

The angry flush deepened on Mr. Allen's face, but he still managed to control himself, and to remember that the father of three pretty daughters must expect some scenes like these, and that the only thing to do was to get rid of the objectionable suitors as civilly as possible. He was also too much of an American to put on any of the high-stepping airs of the European aristocracy. Here it is simply one sovereign proposing for the daughter of another, and generally the young people practically arrange it all before asking any consent in the case. After all, Mr. Fox had only paid his daughter the highest compliment in his power, and if any other of his clerks had made a similar request he would probably have given as kind and delicate a refusal as possible. It was because he disliked Mr. Fox, and instinctively gauged his character, that he said with a short, dry laugh:

"Come, Mr. Fox, you are forgetting yourself. You have been a useful employe" in my store. If you feel that you should have more salary, name what will satisfy you, and I will consult my partners, and try and arrange it."--"There," thought he, "if he can't take that hint as to his place, I shall have to give him a kick." But both surprise and anger began to get the better of him when Mr. Fox replied:

"I must really beg your closer attention; I said nothing of increased salary. You will soon see that is no object with me now. I asked your permission to pay my addresses to your daughter."

"I decline to give it," said Mr. Allen, harshly, "and if I hear any more of this nonsense I will discharge you from my employ."

"Why?" was the quiet response, yet spoken with the intensity of passion.

"Because I never would permit my daughter to marry a man in your circumstances, and, if you will have it, you are not the style of a man I would wish to take into my family."

"If a man who was worth a million asked for your daughter's hand would you answer him in this manner?"

"Perhaps not," said Mr. Allen, with another of his short, dry laughs, which expressed little save irritation, "but you have my answer as respects yourself."

"I am not so sure of that," was the bold retort. "I am practically worth a million--indeed several millions to you, as you are now situated. You have talked long enough in the dark, Mr. Allen. For some time back there have been in your importations violations of the revenue laws. I have only to give the facts in my possession to the proper authorities and the government would legally claim from you a million of dollars, of which I should get half. So you see that I am positively worth five hundred thousand, and to you I am worth a million with respect to this item alone."

Mr. Allen sprang excitedly to his feet. Mr. Fox coolly got up and edged toward the door, which he had purposely left unlatched.

"Moreover," continued Mr. Fox, in his hard metallic voice, "in view of your other operations in Wall Street, which I know all about, the loss of a million would involve the loss of all you have."

Mr. Fox now had his hand on the door-knob, and Mr. Allen was glaring at him as if purposing to rush upon him and rend him to pieces.

Standing in the passageway, Mr. Fox concluded, in a low, meaning tone:

"You had better make terms with me within twenty-four hours."

And the door closed sharply, reminding one of the shutting of a steel trap.

Mr. Allen sank suddenly back in his chair and stared at the closed door, looking as if he were a prisoner and all escape cut off.

He seemed to be in a lethargy or under a partial paralysis; he slowly and weakly rubbed his head with his hand, as if vaguely conscious that the trouble was there.

Gradually the stupor began to pass off, his blood to circulate, and his mind to realize the situation.

Rising feebly, as if a sudden age had fallen, on him, he went to the door and gave orders that he must not be disturbed, and then sat down to think. Half an hour later he sent for his lawyer, stated the case to him, enjoined secrecy, and asked him to see Fox, hoping that it might be a case of mere blackmailing bravado. Keen as Mr. Allen's lawyer was, he had more than his match in the astute Mr. Fox. Moreover the latter had everything in his favor. There had been a slight infringement of the revenue laws, and though involving but small loss to the government, the consequences were the same. The invoice would be confiscated as soon as the facts were known. Mr. Fox had secured ample proof of this.

Mr. Allen might be able to prove that there was no intention to violate the law, as indeed there had not been. In fact, he had left those matters to his subordinates, and they had been a little careless, averaging matters, contenting themselves with complying with the general intent of the law, rather than, with painstaking care, conforming to its letter. Bat the law is very matter-of-fact, and can be excessively literal when money is to be made by those who live by enforcing or evading it, as may suit them. Mr. Fox could carry his case, if he pressed it, and secure his share of the plunder. On account of a very slight loss, Mr. Allen might be compelled to lose a million.

Before the day's decline the lawyer had asked Mr. Fox to take no further steps, stating vaguely that Mr. Allen would look into the matter, and would not be unreasonable.

A sardonic grin gave a momentary lurid hue to Mr. Fox's sallow face. Knowing the game to be in his own hands, he could quietly bide his time; so, assuming a tone of much moderation and dignity, he replied, he had no wish to be hard, and could be reasonable also. "But," added he, in a meaning tone, "there must be no double work in this matter. Mr. Allen must see what I am worth to him--nothing could be plainer. His best policy now is to act promptly and liberally toward me, for I pledge you my word that if I see any disposition to evade my requirements I will blow out the bottom of everything," and a snaky glitter in his small black eyes showed how remorselessly he could scuttle the ship bearing Mr. Allen's fortunes.

A speedy investigation showed Mr. Fox's fatal power, and Mr. Allen's partners were for paying him off, but when they found that he exacted an interest in the business that quite threw them into the background, they were indignant and inclined to fight it out. Mr. Allen could not tell them that he was in no condition to fight. If his financial status had been the same as some weeks previously, he would rather have lost the million than have listened one moment to Mr. Fox's repulsive conditions, but now to risk litigation and commercial reputation on one hand, and total ruin on the other, was an abyss from which he shrank back appalled.

His only resource was to temporize, both with his partners and Mr. Fox, and so gain time, hoping that the Wall Street scheme, that had caused so much evil, might also cure it. Of course he could not tell his partners how he was situated. The slightest breath of suspicion might cause the evenly balanced scales in which hung all chances to hopelessly decline. The speculation now promised well.

If he could only keep things quiet a little longer--

Edith must help him. Calling her into the library after dinner, he asked:

"Has Mr. Fox called lately?"

"No, sir, not for some little time."

"Will you oblige me by seeing him and being civil if he calls again?" "Why, papa, I thought you did not wish me to see him."

"Circumstances have altered since then. Is he very disagreeable to you?"

"Well, papa, I have scarcely thought of him, but to tell you the truth when he has been here on business I have involuntarily thought of a mousing cat, or the animal he is named after on the scent of a hen- roost. But of course I can be civil or even polite to him if you wish it."

A spasm of pain crossed her father's face and he put his hand hastily to his head, a frequent act of late. He rose and took a few turns up and down the room, muttering:

"Curse it all, I must tell her. Half knowledge is always dangerous, and is sure to lead to blunders, and there must be no blunders now."

Stopping abruptly before his daughter, he said, "He has proposed for your hand."

An expression of disgust flitted across Edith's face, and she replied quickly:

"We both have surely but one answer to such a proposition from him."

"Edith, you seem to have more sense in regard to business and such matters than most young ladies. I must now test you, and it is for you to show whether you are a woman or a shallow-brained girl. I am sorry to tell you these things. They are not suited to your age or sex, but there is no help for it," and he explained how he was situated.

Edith listened with paling cheek, dilating eyes, and parting lips, but still with rising courage and a growing purpose to help her father.

"I do not wish you to marry this villain," he continued. "Heaven forbid!" (Not that Mr. Allen referred this or any other matter to Heaven; it was only a strong way of expressing his own disapproval.) "But we must manage to temporize and keep this man at bay till I can extricate myself from my difficulties. As soon as I stand on firm ground I will defy him."

To Edith, with her standard of morality, the course indicated by her father seemed eminently filial and praiseworthy. The thought of marrying Mr. Fox made her flesh creep, but a brief flirtation was another affair. She had flirted not a little in her day for the mere amusement of the thing, and with the motives her father had presented she could do it in this case as if it were an act of devotion. Of the pure and lofty morality of the Bible she had as little idea as a Persian houri, and rugged Roman virtue could not develop in the social atmosphere in which the Allens lived. It was with a clear conscience that she resolved to beguile Mr. Fox, and signified as much to her father.

"Play him off," said this model father, "as Mr. Goulden does Laura. Curse him!--how I would like to slam the front door in his face. But my time may come yet," he added with set teeth.

That morning Mr. Allen sent for Mr. Fox, as he dared brave him no longer without some definite show of yielding, in order to keep back his fatal disclosures. With a dignity and formality scarcely in keeping with his fear and the import of his words, he said:

"I have considered your statements, sir, and admit their weight. As I informed you through my lawyer, I wish to be reasonable and hope you intend to be the same, for these are very grave matters. In regard to my daughter, you have my permission to call upon her as do her other gentleman friends, and she will receive you. In this land, that is all the vantage-ground a gentleman asks, as indeed it is all that can be granted. I am not the King of Dahomey or the Shah of Persia, and able to give my daughters where interest may dictate. A lady's inclination must be consulted. But I give you the permission you ask; you may pay your addresses to my daughter. You could scarcely ask a father to say more."

"It matters little to me what you or others say, but much what they do. My action shall be based upon yours and Miss Edith's. I have learned in your employ the value of promptness in all business matters. I hope you understand me."

"I do, sir, but there can be no indecent haste in these matters. In gaining the important position--in assuming the relations you desire-- there should be some show of dignity, otherwise society would be disgusted, and you would lose the respect which should follow such vast acquirements."

"Where I can secure the whole cloth, I shall not worry about the selvage of etiquette and passing opinion," was Mr. Fox's cynical reply.

Mr. Allen could not prevent an expression of intense disgust from coming out upon his face, and he replied with some heat:

"Well, sir, something is due to my own position, and I cannot treat my daughter like a bale of cloth, as you suggest in your figurative speech. However," he added, warily, "I will take the necessary steps as soon as possible, and will trespass upon your time no longer."

As Mr. Fox glided out of the office with his sardonic smile, Mr. Allen felt for the moment that he would rather become bankrupt than make terms with him.

Meanwhile the month of February was rapidly passing, though each day was an age of anxiety and suspense to Mr. Allen. The tension was too much for him, and he evidently aged and failed under it. He drank more than he ate, and his temper was very variable. From his wife he only received chidings and complaints that in his horrid "mania for business" he was neglecting her and his family in general. She could never get him to sit down and talk sensibly of the birthday and debut party that was now so near. He would always say, testily, "Manage it to suit yourselves."

Laura and Zell were too much wrapped up in their own affairs to give much thought to anything else. But Edith, of late, understood her father and felt deeply for him. One evening finding him sitting dejectedly alone in the library after dinner, she said:

"Why go on with this party, papa? I am sure I am ready to give it up if it will be any relief to you."

The heart of this strong, confident man of the world was sore and lonely. For perhaps the first time he felt the need of support and sympathy. He drew his beautiful daughter, whom thus far he had scarcely more than admired, down upon his lap and buried his face upon her shoulder. A breath of divine impulse swept aside for a moment the stifling curtains of his sordid life, and he caught a glimpse of the large happy realm of love.

"And would you really give up anything for the sake of your old father?" he asked in a low tone.

"Everything," cried Edith, much moved by the unusual display of affection and feeling on the part of her father.

"The others would not," said he bitterly.

"Indeed, papa, I think they would if they only knew. We would all do anything to see you your old jovial self again. Give up this wretched struggle; tell Mr. Fox to do his worst. I am not afraid of being poor; I am sure we could work up again."

"You know nothing about poverty," sighed her father. "When you are down, the world that bowed at your feet will run over and trample on you. I have seen it so often, but never thought of danger to me and mine."

"But this party," said the practical Edith, "why not give this up? It will cost a great deal."

"By no means give it up," said her father. "It may help me very much. My credit is everything now. The appearance of wealth which such, a display insures will do much to secure the wealth. I am watched day and night, and must show no sign of weakness. Go on with the party and make it as brilliant as possible. If I fail, two or three thousand will make no difference, and it may help me to succeed. Whatever strengthens my credit for the next few days is everything to me. My stock is rising, only it is too slow. Things look better--if I could only gain time. But I am very uneasy--my head troubles me," and he put his hand to his head, and Edith remembered how often, she had seen him do that of late.

"By the way," said he, abruptly, "tell me how you get on with Mr. Fox."

"Oh, never mind about that now; do rest a little, mind and body."

"No, tell me," said her father sharply, showing how little control he had over himself.

"Well, I think I have beaten him so far. He is very demonstrative, and acts as if I belonged to him. Did I not manage to always meet him in company with others, he would come at once to an open declaration. As it is, I cannot prevent it much longer. He is coming this evening, and I fear he will press matters. He seems to think that the asking is a mere form, and that our extremity will leave no choice."

"You must avoid him a little longer. Come, we will go to the theatre, and then you might be sick for a few days."

In a few minutes they were off, and were scarcely well away when Mr. Fox, dressed in more style than he could carry gracefully, appeared.

"Miss Edith am out," said Hannibal loftily.

"I half believe you lie," muttered Mr. Fox, looking very black.

"Sarch de house, sah. It am a berry gentlemanly proceeding."

"Where has she gone? and whom did she go with?"

"I hab no orders to say," said Hannibal, looking fixedly at the ceiling of the vestibule.

The knightly suitor turned on his heel, muttering, "They are playing me false."

'Twas a pity, and he so true.

The next day Edith was sick and Mr. Allen's stock was rising. Hannibal again sent Mr. Fox baffled away, but with a dangerous gleam in his eyes.

On the following morning Mr. Allen found a note on his desk. His face grew livid as he read it, and he often put his hand to his head. He sat down and wrote to this effect, however:

"I am arranging the partnership matter as rapidly as possible. In regard to my daughter you will ruin all if you show no more discretion. I cannot compel her to marry you. You may make it impossible to influence her in your favor. You have been well received. What more can you ask? A matter of this kind must be arranged delicately."

Mr. Fox pondered over this with a peculiarly foxy expression. "It sounds plausible. If I only thought he was true," soliloquized this embodiment of truth.

Mr. Allen's stock was higher, and Mr. Fox watched the rise grimly, but he saw Edith, who was all smiles and graciousness, and gave him a verbal invitation to her birthday-party which was to take place early in the following week.

The fellow had not a little vanity, and was insnared, his suspicions quieted for the time. Valuing money himself supremely, it seemed most rational that father and daughter should regard him as the most eligible young man in the city.

Edith's friends, and Gus in particular, were rather astonished at the new-comer. Laura was frigid and remonstrant, Zell and Mr. Van Dam satirical, but Edith wilfully tossed her head and said he was clever and well off, and she liked him well enough to talk to him a little. Society had made her a good actress. Meanwhile on the Tuesday following (and this was Friday) the long expected party would take place.