The Riverman by Stewart Edward White
Orde's bank account, in spite of his laughing assertion to Newmark, contained some eleven hundred dollars. After a brief but comprehensive tour of inspection over all the works then forward, he drew a hundred of this and announced to Newmark that business would take him away for about two weeks.
"I have some private affairs to attend to before settling down to business for keeps," he told Newmark vaguely.
At Redding, whither he went to pack his little sole-leather trunk, he told Grandma Orde the same thing. She said nothing at the time, but later, when Grandpa Orde's slender figure had departed, very courteous, very erect, very dignified, with its old linen duster flapping around it, she came and stood by the man leaning over the trunk.
"Speak to her, Jack," said she quietly. "She cares for you."
Orde looked up in astonishment, but he did not pretend to deny the implied accusation as to his destination.
"Why, mother!" he cried. "She's only seen me three or four times! It's absurd--yet."
"I know," nodded Grandma Orde, wisely. "I know. But you mark my words; she cares for you."
She said nothing more, but stood looking while Orde folded and laid away, his head bent low in thought. Then she placed her hand for an instant on his shoulder and went away. The Ordes were not a demonstrative people.
The journey to New York was at that time very long and disagreeable, but Orde bore it with his accustomed stoicism. He had visited the metropolis before, so it was not unfamiliar to him. He was very glad, however, to get away from the dust and monotony of the railroad train. The September twilight was just falling. Through its dusk the street lamps were popping into illumination as the lamp-lighter made his rapid way. Orde boarded a horse-car and jingled away down Fourth Avenue. He was pleased at having arrived, and stretched his legs and filled his lungs twice with so evident an enjoyment that several people smiled.
His comfort was soon disturbed, however, by an influx of people boarding the car at Twenty-third Street. The seats were immediately filled, and late comers found themselves obliged to stand in the aisle. Among these were several women. The men nearest buried themselves in the papers after the almost universal metropolitan custom. Two or three arose to offer their seats, among them Orde. When, however, the latter had turned to indicate to one of the women the vacated seat, he discovered it occupied by a chubby and flashily dressed youth of the sort common enough in the vicinity of Fourteenth Street; impudent of eye, cynical of demeanour, and slightly contemptuous of everything unaccustomed. He had slipped in back of Orde when that young man arose, whether under the impression that Orde was about to get off the car or from sheer impudence, it would be impossible to say.
Orde stared at him, a little astonished.
"I intended that seat for this lady," said Orde, touching him on the shoulder.
The youth looked up coolly.
"You don't come that!" said he.
Orde wasted no time in discussion, which no doubt saved the necessity of a more serious disturbance. He reached over suddenly, seized the youth by the collar, braced his knee against the seat, and heaved the interloper so rapidly to his feet that he all but plunged forward among the passengers sitting opposite.
"Your seat, madam," said Orde.
The woman, frightened, unwilling to become the participant of a scene of any sort, stood looking here and there. Orde, comprehending her embarrassment, twisted his antagonist about, and, before he could recover his equilibrium sufficiently to offer resistance, propelled him rapidly to the open door, the passengers hastily making way for them.
"Now, my friend," said Orde, releasing his hold on the other's collar, "don't do such things any more. They aren't nice."
Trivial as the incident was, it served to draw Orde to the particular notice of an elderly man leaning against the rear rail. He was a very well-groomed man, dressed in garments whose fit was evidently the product of the highest art, well buttoned up, well brushed, well cared for in every way. In his buttonhole he wore a pink carnation, and in his gloved hand he carried a straight, gold- headed cane. A silk hat covered his head, from beneath which showed a slightly empurpled countenance, with bushy white eyebrows, a white moustache, and a pair of rather bloodshot, but kindly, blue eyes. In spite of his somewhat pudgy rotundity, he carried himself quite erect, in a manner that bespoke the retired military man.
"You have courage, sir," said this gentleman, inclining his bead gravely to Orde.
The young man laughed in his good-humoured fashion.
"Not much courage required to root out that kind of a skunk," said he cheerfully.
"I refer to the courage of your convictions. The young men of this generation seem to prefer to avoid public disturbances. That breed is quite capable of making a row, calling the police, raising the deuce, and all that."
"What of it?" said Orde.
The elderly gentleman puffed out his cheeks.
"You are from the West, are you not?" he stated, rather than asked.
"We call it the East out there," said Orde. "It's Michigan."
"I should call that pretty far west," said the old gentleman.
Nothing more was said. After a block or two Orde descended on his way to a small hotel just off Broadway. The old gentleman saluted. Orde nodded good-humouredly. In his private soul he was a little amused at the old boy. To his view a man and clothes carried to their last refinement were contradictory terms.
Orde ate, dressed, and set out afoot in search of Miss Bishop's address. He arrived in front of the house a little past eight o'clock, and, after a moment's hesitation, mounted the steps and rang the bell.
The door swung silently back to frame an impassive man-servant dressed in livery. To Orde's inquiry he stated that Miss Bishop had gone out to the theatre. The young man left his name and a message of regret. At this the footman, with an irony so subtle as to be quite lost on Orde, demanded a card. Orde scribbled a line in his note-book, tore it out, folded it, and left it. In it he stated his regret, his short residence in the city, and desired an early opportunity to call. Then he departed down the brownstone steps, totally unconscious of the contempt he had inspired in the heart of the liveried man behind him.
He retired early and arose early, as had become his habit. When he descended to the office the night clerk, who had not yet been relieved, handed him a note delivered the night before. Orde ripped it open eagerly.
"MY DEAR MR. ORDE:
"I was so sorry to miss you that evening because of a stupid play. Come around as early as you can to-morrow morning. I shall expect you.
Orde glanced at the clock, which pointed to seven. He breakfasted, read the morning paper, finally started leisurely in the direction of West Ninth Street. He walked slowly, so as to consume more time, then at University Place was seized with a panic, and hurried rapidly to his destination. The door was answered by the same man who had opened the night before, but now, in some indefinable way, his calm, while flawless externally, seemed to have lifted to a mere surface, as though he might hastily have assumed his coat. To Orde's inquiry he stated with great brevity that Miss Bishop was not yet visible, and prepared to close the door.
"You are mistaken," said Orde, with equal brevity, and stepped inside. "I have an engagement with Miss Bishop. Tell her Mr. Orde is here."
The man departed in some doubt, leaving Orde standing in the gloomy hall. That young man, however, quite cheerfully parted the heavy curtains leading into a parlour, and sat down in a spindle-legged chair. At his entrance, a maid disappeared out another door, carrying with her the implements of dusting and brushing.
Orde looked around the room with some curiosity. It was long, narrow, and very high. Tall windows admitted light at one end. The illumination was, however, modified greatly by hangings of lace covering all the windows, supplemented by heavy draperies drawn back to either side. The embrasure was occupied by a small table, over which seemed to flutter a beautiful marble Psyche. A rubber plant, then as now the mark of the city and suburban dweller, sent aloft its spare, shiny leaves alongside a closed square piano. The lack of ornaments atop the latter bespoke the musician. Through the filtered gloom of the demi-light Orde surveyed with interest the excellent reproductions of the Old World masterpieces framed on the walls--"Madonnas" by Raphael, Murillo, and Perugino, the "Mona Lisa," and Botticelli's "Spring"--the three oil portraits occupying the large spaces; the spindle-legged chairs and tables, the tea service in the corner, the tall bronze lamp by the piano, the neat little grate-hearth, with its mantel of marble; the ormolu clock, all the decorous and decorated gentility which marked the irreproachable correctness of whoever had furnished the apartment. Dark and heavy hangings depended in front of a double door leading into another room beyond. Equally dark and heavy hangings had closed behind Orde as he entered. An absolute and shrouded stillness seemed to settle down upon him. The ormolu clock ticked steadily. Muffled sounds came at long intervals from behind the portieres. Orde began to feel oppressed and subdued.
For quite three quarters of an hour he waited without hearing any other indications of life than the muffled sounds just remarked upon. Occasionally he shifted his position, but cautiously, as though he feared to awaken some one. The three oil portraits stared at him with all the reserved aloofness of their painted eyes. He began to doubt whether the man had announced him at all.
Then, breaking the stillness with almost startling abruptness, he heard a clear, high voice saying something at the top of the stairs outside. A rhythmical swish of skirts, punctuated by the light pat- pat of a girl tripping downstairs, brought him to his feet. A moment later the curtains parted and she entered, holding out her hand.
"Oh, I did keep you waiting such a long time!" she cried.
He stood holding her hand, suddenly unable to say a word, looking at her hungrily. A flood of emotion, of which he had had no prevision, swelled up within him to fill his throat. An almost irresistible impulse all but controlled him to crush her to him, to kiss her lips and her throat, to lose his fingers in the soft, shadowy fineness of her hair. The crest of the wave passed almost immediately, but it left him shaken. A faint colour deepened under the transparence of her skin; her fathomless black eyes widened ever so little; she released her hand.
"It was good of you to come so promptly," said she. "I'm so anxious to hear all about the dear people at Redding."
She settled gracefully in one of the little chairs. Orde sat down, once more master of himself, but still inclined to devour her with his gaze. She was dressed in a morning gown, all laces and ribbons and long, flowing lines. Her hair was done low on the back of her head and on the nape of her neck. The blood ebbed and flowed beneath her clear skin. A faint fragrance of cleanliness diffused itself about her--the cool, sweet fragrance of daintiness. They entered busily into conversation. Her attitudes were no longer relaxed and languidly graceful as in the easy chairs under the lamplight. She sat forward, her hands crossed on her lap, a fire smouldering deep beneath the cool surface lights of her eyes.
The sounds in the next room increased in volume, as though several people must have entered that apartment. In a moment or so the curtains to the hall parted to frame the servant.
"Mrs. Bishop wishes to know, miss," said that functionary, "if you're not coming to breakfast."
Orde sprang to his feet.
"Haven't you had your breakfast yet?" he cried, conscience stricken.
"Didn't you gather the fact that I'm just up?" she mocked him. "I assure you it doesn't matter. The family has just come down."
"But," cried Orde, "I wasn't here until nine o'clock. I thought, of course, you'd be around. I'm mighty sorry--"
"Oh, la la!" she cried, cutting him short. "What a bother about nothing. Don't you see--I'm ahead a whole hour of good talk."
"You see, you told me in your note to come early," said Orde.
"I forgot you were one of those dreadful outdoor men. You didn't see any worms, did you? Next time I'll tell you to come the day after."
Orde was for taking his leave, but this she would not have.
"You must meet my family," she negatived. "For if you're here for so short a time we want to see something of you. Come right out now."
Orde thereupon followed her down a narrow, dark hall, squeezed between the stairs and the wall, to a door that opened slantwise into a dining-room the exact counterpart in shape to the parlour at the other side of the house. Only in this case the morning sun and more diaphanous curtains lent an air of brightness, further enhanced by a wire stand of flowers in the bow-windows.
The centre of the room was occupied by a round table, about which were grouped several people of different ages. With her back to the bow-window sat a woman well beyond middle age, but with evidently some pretensions to youth. She was tall, desiccated, quick in movement. Dark rings below her eyes attested either a nervous disease, an hysterical temperament, or both. Immediately at her left sat a boy of about fourteen years of age, his face a curious contradiction between a naturally frank and open expression and a growing sullenness. Next him stood a vacant chair, evidently for Miss Bishop. Opposite lolled a young man, holding a newspaper in one hand and a coffee cup in the other. He was very handsome, with a drooping black moustache, dark eyes, under lashes almost too luxuriant, and a long, oval face, dark in complexion, and a trifle sardonic in expression. In the vis-a-vis to Mrs. Bishop, Orde was surprised to find his ex-military friend of the street car. Miss Bishop performed the necessary introductions, which each acknowledged after his fashion, but with an apparent indifference that dashed Orde, accustomed to a more Western cordiality. Mrs. Bishop held out a languidly graceful hand, the boy mumbled a greeting, the young man nodded lazily over his newspaper. Only General Bishop, recognising him, arose and grasped his hand, with a real, though rather fussy, warmth.
"My dear sir," he cried, "I am honoured to see you again. This, my dear," he addressed his wife, "is the young man I was telling you about--in the street car," he explained.
"How very interesting," said Mrs. Bishop, with evidently no comprehension and less interest.
Gerald Bishop cast an ironically amused glance across at Orde. The boy looked up at him quickly, the sullenness for a moment gone from his face.
Carroll Bishop appeared quite unconscious of an atmosphere which seemed to Orde strained, but sank into her place at the table and unfolded her napkin. The silent butler drew forward a chair for Orde, and stood looking impassively in Mrs. Bishop's direction.
"You will have some breakfast with us?" she inquired. "No? A cup of coffee, at least?"
She began to manipulate the coffee pot, without paying the slightest attention to Orde's disclaimer. The general puffed out his cheeks, and coughed a bit in embarrassment.
"A good cup of coffee is never amiss to an old campaigner," he said to Orde. "It's as good as a full meal in a pinch. I remember when I was a major in the Eleventh, down near the City of Mexico, in '48, the time Hardy's command was so nearly wiped out by that viaduct--" He half turned toward Orde, his face lighting up, his fingers reaching for the fork with which, after the custom of old soldiers, to trace the chart of his reminiscences.
Mrs. Bishop rattled her cup and saucer with an uncontrollably nervous jerk of her slender body. For some moments she had awaited a chance to get the general's attention. "Spare us, father," she said brusquely. "Will you have another cup of coffee?"
The old gentleman, arrested in mid-career, swallowed, looked a trifle bewildered, but subsided meekly.
"No, thank you, my dear," said he, and went furiously at his breakfast.
Orde, overwhelmed by embarrassment, discovered that none of the others had paid the incident the slightest attention. Only on the lips of Gerald Bishop he surprised a fine, detached smile.
At this moment the butler entered bearing the mail. Mrs. Bishop tore hers open rapidly, dropping the mangled envelopes at her side. The contents of one seemed to vex her.
"Oh!" she cried aloud. "That miserable Marie! She promised me to have it done to-day, and now she puts it off until Monday. It's too provoking!" She turned to Orde for sympathy. "Do you know anything more aggravating than to work and slave to the limit of endurance, and then have everything upset by the stupidity of some one else?"
Orde murmured an appropriate reply, to which Mrs. Bishop paid no attention whatever. She started suddenly up from the table.
"I must see about it!" she cried. "I plainly see I shall have to do it myself. I will do it myself. I promised it for Sunday."
"You mustn't do another stitch, mother," put in Carroll Bishop decidedly. "You know what the doctor told you. You'll have yourself down sick."
"Well, see for yourself!" cried Mrs. Bishop. "That's what comes of leaving things to others! If I'd done it myself, it would have saved me all this bother and fuss, and it would have been done. And now I've got to do it anyway."
"My dear," put in the general, "perhaps Carroll can see Marie about it. In any case, there's nothing to work yourself up into such an excitement about."
"It's very easy for you to talk, isn't it?" cried Mrs. Bishop, turning on him. "I like the way you all sit around like lumps and do nothing, and then tell me how I ought to have done it. John, have the carriage around at once." She turned tensely to Orde. "I hope you'll excuse me," she said very briefly; "I have something very important to attend to."
Carroll had also risen. Orde held out his hand.
"I must be going," said he.
"Well," she conceded, "I suppose I'd better see if I can't help mother out. But you'll come in again. Come and dine with us this evening. Mother will be delighted."
As Mrs. Bishop had departed from the room, Orde had to take for granted the expression of this delight. He bowed to the other occupants of the table. The general was eating nervously. Gerald's eyes were fixed amusedly on Orde.
To Orde's surprise, he was almost immediately joined on the street by young Mr. Bishop, most correctly appointed.
"Going anywhere in particular?" he inquired. "Let's go up the avenue, then. Everybody will be out."
They turned up the great promenade, a tour of which was then, even more than now, considered obligatory on the gracefully idle. Neither said anything--Orde because he was too absorbed in the emotions this sudden revelation of Carroll's environment had aroused in him; Gerald, apparently, because he was too indifferent. Nevertheless it was the young exquisite who finally broke the silence.
"It was an altar cloth," said he suddenly.
"What?" asked Orde, rather bewildered.
"Mother is probably the most devout woman in New York," went on Gerald's even voice. "She is one of the hardest workers in the church. She keeps all the fast days, and attends all the services. Although she has no strength to speak of, she has just completed an elaborate embroidered altar cloth. The work she accomplished while on her knees. Often she spent five or six hours a day in that position. It was very devout, but against the doctor's orders, and she is at present much pulled down. Finally she gave way to persuasion to the extent of sending the embroidery out to be bound and corded. As a result, the altar cloth will not be done for next Sunday."
He delivered this statement in a voice absolutely colourless, without the faintest trace discernible of either approval or disapproval, without the slightest irony, yet Orde felt vaguely uncomfortable.
"It must have been annoying to her," he said gravely, "and I hope she will get it done in time. Perhaps Miss Bishop will be able to do it."
"That," said Gerald, "is Madison Square--or perhaps you know New York? My sister would, of course, be only too glad to finish the work, but I fear that my mother's peculiarly ardent temperament will now insist on her own accomplishment of the task. But perhaps you do not understand temperaments?"
"Very little, I'm afraid," confessed Orde.
They walked on for some distance farther.
"Your father was in the Mexican War?" said Orde, to change the trend of his own thoughts.
"He was a most distinguished officer. I believe he received the Medal of Honour for a part in the affair of the Molina del Rey."
"What command had he in the Civil War?" asked Orde. "I fooled around the outskirts of that a little myself."
"My father resigned from the army in '54," replied Gerald, with his cool, impersonal courtesy.
"That was too bad; just before the chance for more service," said Orde.
"Army life was incompatible with my mother's temperament," stated Gerald.
Orde said nothing more. It was Gerald's turn to end the pause.
"You are from Redding, of course," said he. "My sister is very enthusiastic about the place. You are in business there?"
Orde replied briefly, but, forced by the direct, cold, and polite cross-questioning of his companion, he gave the latter a succinct idea of the sort of operations in which he was interested.
"And you," he said at last; "I suppose you're either a broker or lawyer; most men are down here."
"I am neither one nor the other," stated Gerald. "I am possessed of a sufficient income from a legacy to make business unnecessary."
"I don't believe I'd care to--be idle," said Orde vaguely.
"There is plenty to occupy one's time," replied Gerald. "I have my clubs, my gymnasium, my horse, and my friends."
"Isn't there anything that particularly attracts you?" asked Orde.
The young man's languid eyes grew thoughtful, and he puffed more strongly on his cigarette.
"I should like," said he slowly, at last, "to enter the navy."
"Why don't you?" asked Orde bluntly.
"Certain family reasons make it inexpedient at present," said Gerald. "My mother is in a very nervous state; she depends on us, and any hint of our leaving her is sufficient to render her condition serious."
By this time the two young men were well uptown. On Gerald's initiative, they turned down a side street, and shortly came to a stop.
"That is my gymnasium," said Gerald, pointing to a building across the way. "Won't you come in with me? I am due now for my practice."