By Alice Duer Miller
Illustrations by T. K. Hanna, Jr.
HIS friends were in the habit of saying that Bill Emmons had always had everything he had tried for, and there was enough truth in the assertion to save it from fatuity. Achievement had marked every stage of his career.
He had gone to a college whose democracy and whose millionaires are usually mentioned in the same breath, and here he had been so democratic that old graduates, who feared that the millionaires were too much in the ascendant, pointed him out as the best example of the true ideals of the university. The millionaires, meanwhile, walked humbly and appreciatively before Bill, as behooved those who did not represent true ideals.
Now Bill was not only extremely popular with all sets and ages (and that, without the artificial fascination of being on the crew, or the eleven, for he had never gone in for athletics), but, as if to show his originality, he actually studied: and, not content with this, he even went so far as to take honors and prizes. The faculty distinguished him, not because he was the "strongest" man in the class, but because, from their own point of view, he was the most prominent.
It need scarce be said that Bill liked all this. His spirits were high, and he said openly that this was the happiest time of a man's life, to which people often replied: "Ah, well, we don't all do it like you, you know," an answer which did not lessen Bill's appreciation of his own blessings.
There was, indeed, only one little ripple upon the sea of his content, and this was a man nominally his friend, at least, all their friends were mutual, and they themselves found enough interest in each other's company to be often in the other's room, discussing the questions of the minute. Dale Fenton belonged to about the same organizations that Bill did, only his membership was more of a matter of course and less of a triumph for pure democracy. This was precisely the fact that sometimes annoyed and sometimes flattered Bill. Fenton had no other spheres of activity at college. He did not feel the obligations of putting the millionaires in their proper place; of being a true ideal.
But it was not Dale's success that irritated Bill. His own was on a larger scale. It was rather the knowledge that Fenton did not value his. Bill was anything but analytical, and he had never been able to explain to himself the disquieting effect of Fenton's presence. If he had asked Fenton, he could have found out. Dale knew that the key-note of Bill's success was not irrepressible natural ability, no triumphant expression of character. The demon that drove him on was the spirit of emulation—a sort of unselective, ubiquitous ambition that never let him rest. He could not see anyone excelling in anything, without being compelled to outdo him. Ambition is generally supposed to be a hard master. But this was something worse. His widespread susceptibility to rivalry worked him like a slave-driver. On this susceptibility Fenton continually touched in a way too subtle for Bill to grasp. He only knew that he never left Fenton without wondering whether he really had got so very far, without feeling the necessity of again asserting himself; of achieving some new pre-eminence—a pre-eminence which, it always subsequently appeared, Fenton did not so particularly respect.
After they left college, though they both came to New York, they saw but little of each other. Bill went into business, taking his place in the broking-house of which his father had been a member. One native capacity he undoubtedly had—the power of work-and this he began to display to a degree positively dazzling to men who had settled down into complaisant routine. Yet he still found opportunity in leisure moments for activity that manifested itself in an occasional article in the magazines on the political aspects of business.
The rest of the time he spent in maintaining the old college spirit which, he had heard graduates lament, was never kept up after a year. He went about in an overcoat ostentatiously old, with the collar turned up, and smoked many pipes, with his feet on the mantel-pieces of former classmates. All such conduct was very distressing to his mother.
She was a pretty capable little woman, from whom, it took no great imagination to discover, Bill had inherited some of his characteristics. Her success, however, was more in details, was more complete, but of smaller scope. With no very large share of either brains or money, she had managed to arrange her life exactly to suit her. She was no sooner left a widow than she set about this task. She wanted, happily, nothing more than to go about among the people she selected, wearing clothes which were admired.
Bill's course of ignoring all things social was disappointing to her. She had always looked upon him as "bound to succeed," and it seemed to her that he was wilfully neglecting a particularly conspicuous sphere of success. She had, however, learnt the most difficult of feminine arts—to exert pressure without nagging.
Bill could hardly have said when it was that he awoke to the fact that a struggle, more or less bitter according to the position you had attained in it, was going on about him, while he stood inactive in the midst. Society, he had thought of, inasmuch as he had thought of it at all, as a poor sort of amusement in which girls and those who basked in their smiles indulged. Suddenly it flashed upon him that it was not exactly an amusement, but a difficult and sometimes dangerous game. He could make out no set rules, no line along which one could develop special expertness. Simply one had to have something to bring, to contribute in some way to the gayety of one's fellows, and then, presto, one's hand was taken, and one was whirled along with the others. Not the faintest sensation of whirling, or of the first advances thereunto, had come to Bill.
Day after day fresh examples of the value of such success greeted his quickened sensibility. He saw men, even great men, measuring by this standard. His nature responded to this stimulus like a war-horse to the bugle.
Who can tell that it was not in recognition of the psychological moment that his mother said to him one morning, as she poured out his commendably early cup of coffee:
"Why did you never tell me that Mr. Fenton was a classmate of yours? He spoke so warmly of you last evening."
Bill said nothing, though the arrow pierced him. He knew the slim enviable company of which his mother had made one the previous evening. He had grown suddenly acute. Formerly her engagements had been merely names and dates to him—evenings on which he might count most surely on his own time.
"Such music, dear," his mother went on. "It seems wicked to offer it to only a score of people half of whom don't know one note from another. Not that that applies to Mr. Fenton, who was extremely technical."
"Trust him to be that," said Bill, and then added, as if a little ashamed of himself: "I had really no idea Dale went in for that sort of thing."
Mrs. Emmons had a delightful little air of being about to bestow a confidence. "Do you know," she said, "I believe it is one of the few instances of the things going in for him. You have no notion how foolish the girls are about him, and older women, too, who ought to know better. He is, of course, an intelligent, well-looking young man, but after all, we know of others." She smiled at Bill across the table.
"The others can only envy his leisure," returned her son.
"Leisure, my dear boy; he is a hard worker, and doing wonderfully well. I thought," she added, "that I would send him a ticket for the opera to-night. You, I know, won't want to go. I have only one left."
"Why, no, I suppose not, though I don't know why I should not," said Bill, disagreeably conscious of a vague emotion that the subject scarcely warranted.
Mrs. Emmons did not seem as much pleased at the possibility of his company as he had expected. He looked up inquiringly, to find her hesitating.
"The only thing is," she said, "that Miss Gerard is going with me, and she would prefer—she would enjoy herself more—though I doubt if it is an engagement between them as yet, still——"
"What!" cried Bill, "the great John Q.'s daughter and Dale Fenton!" Mrs. Emmons nodded, and after a second he broke out with "Good Lord!"
He saw Dale the son-in-law of the most prominent railway man in the country, and for a moment to his distorted vision it seemed as if life could hold nothing more worth while.
"It will be interesting to see how it will turn out, what he will do," Mrs. Emmons went on; "a clever young man like that plunged into such a position!"
Bill had risen and was looking at his watch. "Well, Mother," he said, "send him the ticket, by all means. If I want to, I can take an entrance, and I dare say I shan't much want to." But his mother insisted she preferred his having the ticket, anyhow, and by not answering he seemed to think he had left the question in abeyance.
Miss Gerard and a man, not Dale, an older gentleman, a friend of Mrs. Emmons, were to dine with them. Though Bill would have said that he had not thought of the girl since he had heard her name for the first time at breakfast, something may be gathered from the fact that on beholding her he was acutely disappointed. The fact that she had not a trace of good looks gave him the feeling of having been defrauded. His taste had not yet become sufficiently artificial to find that her pretty, perfect clothes relieved her appearance from the ordinary. She herself seemed to be utterly unconscious of any necessity for relief. Her bearing, without being actually aggressive, was self-confident to a degree Bill found positively shocking in a woman he just refrained from summing up as plain. It is not, after all, beauty that gives women assurance, as much as the experience of having often pleased, and this experience had always been Miss Gerard's. The trouble was, of course, that she did not consider that causes other than her personal charm had been operative.
Bill had scarcely been introduced to her when she turned to him confidently: "I want to thank you, Mr. Emmons," she said, "for your last article in the Overseer. It helped me so much. It said so many things that had been floating in the back of my own mind for months."
Bill was naturally pleased, and though he could have wished that his ideas had floated in nobody's mind but his own, he answered cheerfully that he had hardly expected to be so fortunate as to be read by young ladies.
She smiled at him intensely. "No doubt you would have said the same of the poets in the time of Dante; but the poets to-day have become almost exclusively the property of my sex, and the essayists are following. Soon, even the scientists will find in us their only readers. You men wall be too deeply engaged in the struggle for the World's Common Necessities." She was quoting his article, and Bill writhed between pain and pleasure. The same phenomenon may be observed in the cat, proudest of animals, when its back is rubbed. It enjoys the sensation and yet prefers not to be touched.
"And yet," continued Miss Gerard, as, dinner being announced she rose and took his arm with an impulsive air, as if it were a delightful way of her own rather than a convention of generations—"and yet, of what real importance is pure thought, compared to feeling? I often say, Mr. Emmons, that I would gladly become an abject fool for the sake of gaining the smallest spiritual truth—a grain of the wisdom of the heart."
Bill looked, as he felt, hopeless.
Throughout dinner she continued to talk to him in this vein. He could not enjoy his whitebait, without her finding in the taste a point of contact with the larger elements of his nature—an intense appropriateness to what she already knew. The most casual remark presented itself as an instance of self-revelation, as a signal for her to spring into the deeper intricacies of intimacy. Bill, who, as we have said, was not analytical, only said to himself that the girl talked like an ass. Yet, when his other guest, a man of affairs, leant across the table to ask pointedly if her father had returned from Arizona, Bill was reminded that it was, after all, by the daughter of the great John Q. that his mind had just been rummaged.
At the opera, after all, Dale appeared. He and Bill met cordially, and stood talking in the back of the box, until the importunities of a lady in the next box, wearing pearls as large as young onions, interrupted them. She wanted to know whether Mr. Fenton were coming to dine with her on the sixth? Miss Gerard, overhearing, replied for him that he certainly was not, as he was dining with her. The ladies contested the point prettily, and Bill noticed that Dale looked as little like a fool as a man under the circumstances could. When Miss Gerard had established her claim she turned to Bill:
"You will come, too, won't you, Mr. Emmons?" she said. "I shall like to hear you two clever men talk together about the things that are worth while."
Bill was annoyed to find himself elated, and accepted so coolly that Fenton said, pleasantly:
"Don't mind his manner, Miss Gerard. It is the greatest compliment possible that he accepts at all. I don't believe he has dined out six times this winter." This was quite true, but not because he had persistently refused. As usual in Dale's presence Bill felt ruffled.
One day, not long after this, he saw among the distinguished directors of a new trust company the name of Dale Fenton. He tried to take it as a matter of course, but during the day it kept returning to his mind, until, in self-defence, he mentioned it to his senior partner, who offered an explanation, not much more agreeable than the thing itself.
"Oh, there were reasons why they could not put on old John Q. himself, and this, I suppose, was about the same thing."
"That's it, is it?" said Bill, but he knew Fate had made another pull at the string.
For about this time a number of things, he would have said, combined to throw him with Miss Gerard. In the first place, she was, for a little while, the only girl he knew, so that he naturally looked for her when he entered a ballroom, and nowadays he entered a good many. Then, too, it was both easy and sometimes pleasant to talk to her, and he was not averse, as he himself would have put it, to giving Dale a run for his money.
Before a month had gone by, before he thoroughly realized it, people began to exchange smiles when he and Dale were seen together in Miss Gerard's company. He had, in fact, engaged in a contest which many were amused to watch. When Bill did recognize this state of affairs, he could not resist the glory of a few cheap triumphs. Once or twice, in public, he skilfully whisked the lady away from Dale, almost amid applauding hands. By this time it was too late to draw back.
His life would have been pleasanter if in his heart he had liked the girl better. He did like her keen interest, the flattery that her excellent memory and love of admiration combined to enable her to bestow upon all such as would give ear to her at all. But the wear and tear, the high pressure of her intellectuality, he found at times an intolerable bore. He often wondered frankly how Dale, who was so much more intolerant, stood her at all, feeling inclined to despise the other for being so little fastidious. At length, however, it occurred to him, on overhearing a few words of conversation between them, that Dale stood her by amusing himself in out-Heroding Herod; that, in an unobtrusive way, he relieved his feelings by making game of her.
As far as Dale himself was concerned, Bill could find no fault with his behavior. He Was the most courteous of antagonists, always giving Bill every opportunity, as if, Bill sometimes thought bitterly, he had nothing to fear. Only now and then Fenton had a way of offering the girl a word of advice, to which she always listened, or of bringing a message from her father with an air strangely proprietary. Such things acted on Bill like a spur.
Fenton had now, also, struck up quite a friendship with Mrs. Emmons, one of those cheerful irresponsible relations possible between an entertaining older woman and a clever boy. They discussed art, society, and often, Bill feared, himself.
He would have been more annoyed if he had had time to think about the matter, but his thoughts were suddenly taken up by alarming hints of disaster. The air was full of threatenings. If books had been opened, it would have been said that the odds had turned heavily against him. He felt this without actually seeing any definite proof of it. Far less could he see any reason for it. Only it now became manifest that Dale was looked upon as an easy winner. Yet, as far as Bill knew, he and Miss Gerard were as good friends as ever.
At length her best friend, in so many words, warned him. As he was putting her into her cab after a ball, she whispered in his ear:
"Be on your guard. Something important is trembling in the balance."
He spent a night bitter and sleepless. What could be trembling in the balance but her decision to marry Dale? He actually groaned aloud in the darkness; he had seen the first hint of how he would be regarded, how he would be pitied and ignored. He wondered how he would first hear positively of the engagement. Would she tell him, or would Dale, with perfect good taste? He looked forward and saw Dale, the great business man, and all the praise and opportunity that would be his. The night was bitter.
In the morning, however, he was inclined to feel that he was not beaten yet. In the afternoon, he went to see Miss Gerard, and found her alone.
She came into the room—her own well-considered drawing-room, wherein every object made a conscious claim to cultivation—dressed in a dark velvet, her hair done low at her neck. It was not particularly becoming, but it served admirably to emphasize her pose. She held out both hands.
"Ah, dear friend!" she said. "Did you guess I was just writing you a note asking you to come? Sit down and tell me about yourself. What have you been doing and thinking?"
"I have been thinking of you and feeling very uncomfortable," said Bill, with perfect truth. "I wish I had had your note. I wish I had anything from you that convinced me that you really want to see me."
If Miss Gerard had been good-looking, she would have been called a flirt. As it was, no one had the temerity to do so.
"You have my word," she now answered, with a look. Then, just as she saw that he was about to respond to it, she added: "I wanted to see you before we go. We start on Saturday, you know."
Bill did not know; he had heard of no threatened departure. It took him some moments to pluck from her enthusiasm the fact that she was about to make a tour of the West with her father in his private car. They were to be gone six weeks.
Bill's feelings at these tidings were confused, but principally he experienced a certain sense of reprieve, of relaxation. He looked forward to this brief cessation in the struggle. Yet, even as he thought this, he became aware that Miss Gerard was not talking quite spontaneously. A shade of constraint in her manner, or, if not this, then his own supersensitiveness to such suspicions, the concrete dread we all feel of the worst that can possibly happen, caused him to turn on her abruptly.
"Who else is going?"
She tried to be very direct, without injuring her cause.
"A few railroad men, friends of papa's, and Mr. Fenton, whom he also asked."
Silence followed. Bill was alarmed to find himself actually, though very slightly, trembling. This indeed was final. Six weeks of her interrupted society; six weeks of being pointed out as a young man John Gerard thought it worth his while to take about with him. And for Bill, six weeks waiting for the bolt to fall; six weeks of the ridiculous position in which his brilliant little struggle had left him.
At length he held out his hand. "Good-by," he said.
Miss Gerard was clearly nervous. "I'll see you as soon as we come back," she said, combating not very happily the finality of his manner.
"You'll never see me; not this way, at least. Why should I come? It is not worth while to go on being tortured for nothing. What do I mean by being tortured? Seeing you go off for six weeks on a party in which Dale Fenton is the only man you will speak to. I have been restless since I first knew you. I have given you everything that I had to give. And what is my reward? You do the one thing of all others to hurt me. I would almost rather see you dead. There! Think what you like!"
Miss Gerard did her thinking quickly. She rose and laid her hand on his arm. "Hush! you must not talk like that," she whispered. "I won't go. I am not going. If you feel like that, I would rather stay here."
An hour later Bill left the house an engaged man. As he went down the steps he was almost giddy with excitement. He could smile to think of the humor of the Western trip without its hostess, and wondered lightly whether Dale would render him the satisfaction of backing out of it. Then he recalled that his future wife had insisted that Dale had never once made love to her. The idea took the edge off.
He was still cheerful when he let himself into his own house, and managed to tell his mother, but, in the midst of her too jubilant congratulations, he broke away from her and went to his own room.
Here, behind locked doors, blank despair took him.
It does not require much imagination to follow. He was a young man, not without his ideals, and of great capacity for happiness. Marriage was a step on which he had always looked with theoretical dread. It was a closing of many doors, a leaving behind of much, a bound into responsibilities and middle age. And this renunciation, which he had fancied himself making only for the choice of his heart, he was about to make for a silly, gushing girl, with unreasoned, obtrusive ideas. It came to him that it would be one of her ideals to share his every thought, and understand his business life.
He had intended something different. He had expected to do more important things in the future than to expose his soul to her excavations.
He heard the bell ring, and in a moment of second sight knew that it was Dale. He started to the staircase to send word that he could see no one, and was arrested by voices in the hallway below him.
His mother's voice was saying:
"He has just told me," and Dale answered, meditatively:
"Why, then, I think I won't go up."
His mother laughed gently.
"I believe you are jealous."
Dale's answering laugh was no less cordial.
"Jealous! My dear lady, you know very well that it was I made the match."