O. Henry Memorial Award Prize Stories of 1924/Uriah's Son

Garden City, New York, United States: Doubleday, Page & Co., pages 53–70

URIAH’S SON

By STEPHEN VINCENT BENET

From Red Book

CERTAIN stories have a way of repeating themselves: the transfer of Naboth’s vineyard turns up in the real-estate columns; the steel-and-concrete walls of a modern Jericho crumble at the blast of the strong man’s trumpet; a businesslike Jacob in a battered derby tricks a hungry Esau into signing away his rightful inheritance on the dotted line. Life may have more possible permutations than a hand of cards, but certain combinations recur—only sometimes the sleight of circumstance provides a new and unexpected ending to an ancient gambit. It was so with David Davenant and Frances Jerome.

David, king over Israel, was a strong, cunning, diverse man. So was David Davenant—and a little king in the New York of his day, as well. As for Frances—no, the sumptuous beauty of Bathsheba, pale and burning, was hardly hers, though she was beautiful. She was kind, forgiving, and gentle, with cool hands and a delicate gaiety when she was pleased—the kind of woman life seems to delight in forcing into traps that would break the strong.

Everybody expected her to marry badly—for she had what people considered a terrible weakness for taking care of crippled things. So everybody was disappointed—most favourably, of course—when she married Dicky Jerome.

Dicky was your fortunate youth, par excellence—you know the school legend—the life of the party, the man who can arrive as late as he pleases, anywhere, and always be more than forgiven. He was handsome in his youth, without a trace of slickness—the pleasantest of company—dogs adored him—success came rubbing against his legs like an affectionate cat. Life had no corners for him, as it had for David Davenant. Why he ever picked out Frances—but he did, to the temporary discomfiture of the prophets, who had to fall back upon the comment that poor Frances sometimes seemed a little dazed with her own good fortune. They had been married three years, and had a son who looked absurdly like Dicky from the first—that Dicky’s first child should be a son was as much to be expected as that it should be spoken of as Dicky’s son—and everybody knew how well Dicky was doing with D. Davenant and Co.—when David Davenant came to the Jeromes' for dinner one night.

His coming was not quite as much of an individual triumph for Dicky’s luck as it sounds. After all—David Davenant had known Frances’ father—and David was famous for keeping rather uncanny track of the private affairs of his brilliant young men. But for all that, Frances must have been rather excited about that evening. As for Dicky, who never was nervous—the evening must have made him believe more firmly than ever in his peculiar star.

You can see Frances, shy and anxious—a gentle kitten being modestly polite to a king, whenever opportunity offered, which was seldom, for Dicky carried the brunt of the conversation with his usual aplomb. And David—looking at Frances—and looking again!

What could it have been in Frances that stirred such in- tense and ruthless purpose in the heart of a dour, self-sufficient man some twenty years older than herself? A gaunt lion, staring enchanted at a spray of spring cherry blossoms—a cold king, stung to the soul by beauty demure as a child’s, unconscious as a child’s. But it happened—and Frances, I think, did not even know it was happening, in spite of what people said later. The king came to dinner oftener—the other brilliant young men began to watch Dicky with wary eyes. One wonders if David of Israel ever went to dinner at the Uriahs—and if the captains of his host were envious and said that Uriah had all the luck.

Modern kings manage these affairs a little less crudely, perhaps, than their forbears did. The blue envelope has supplanted the executioner’s sword. So David did not set Dicky in the forefront of the battle and bid his companions retire from him that he might die. Instead he raised Dicky’s salary and sent him on a trip of investigation to Cholopan.

White women with young children do not go to Cholopan if they want to live—or did not, then; and even the strictest living "of white men used to come back shaken. As for the other white men, they did not last long. Dicky did not last Long.

A year and a half after his death, Frances married David Davenant. Then the whispers began. The kindest said that he must have terrified her into it, and told tales of the implacable, bearish strength that had always got him the thing he desired. Or else, that of course it was for the child, poor thing, and they pitied her. Indeed, Dicky’s death had left her in actual poverty; it is really astonishing how much it costs for even the most fortunate of pleasant young men to maintain a home in a properly agreeable way. As for what the more malicious agreed about the whole affair—but why bother with them? The one point on which all were agreed was that Frances certainly had no right to seem at all happy in her second marriage. And she did seem—not unhappy, at least—at first.

David must have reckoned that a king could crush such gossip like a snapping little animal under his heel, by mere strength. But gossip is fog that comes seeping in through the tiny cracks of existence—seeping in and in, no matter how firmly one tries to stuff the cracks.

As it was, he broke one twenty-year friendship in the first months of his marriage—when Rufus Malone, who feared neither God nor David, greeted him one day with: “Well, David—and how is the fair Bathsheba to-day?” David turned on his heel and never spoke to the man again. The incident made more gossip—and after that, David may have thought, with some wisdom, that the best thing to do was to wait and let the gossip wear out with time. But Frances wore out first.

She died four years after her second marriage—taking leave of life as gently and civilly as she had always taken leave of her friends. And the friends who had thought her first apparent happiness unseemly were satisfied, for when she died, she had certainly not been what the world calls happy for along time. The gossip had reached her and touched her—and some natures cannot endure a lifelong warfare with fog. Toward the last, I think, she lived wholly for her boy—but she must have trusted David, or she could not have borne ft to leave the boy alone with him. He was seven or so when she died—a handsome, charming child, a little delicate, with his father’s graces of manner. So Frances’ story ended—and the prophets of her world were satisfied—for their prophecies had been fulfilled at last. As for David, who had grimly adored her and loaded her - docile fragility with gifts so properly kingly, they weighed her down like golden armour—no one knew if or what he suffered, or with what private agony of iron tears he tried to buy off Death. Kings have no time for long grief, and he went on —only something seemed to shut up in his mind with a click of steel. If he had been grim before, he was grimmer now— the rare, odd, awkward tenderness he had sometimes shown with Frances, the strange occasional attempts at light- heartedness, as at the playing of an unaccustomed game— _ these disappeared. His hair whitened; he grew leaner—but his mind retained the relentless precision of a strong machine —and D. Davenant and Co. prospered till few competitors dared stand in its shadow. After a while men began to say jokingly that he would never die—unless, they added, half-believing it, the Devil flew away with him. For even after Frances’ death, he displayed no slightest sign of repentance for what he had done—though, by now, his story, and Frances’, and Dicky Jerome’s, had well nigh taken on the proportions of a legend—and people called him “King David,” under their breath. Then, as the boy grew up, there began to be talk about “King David” and “‘Uriah’s son.” Frank Jerome’s first real memory of his stepfather was one of fear. A gaunt figure stalking about the tiny apartment where Frances had gone to live after Dicky’s death—a figure so tall and strange and with such a frightening air of power about it that Frank always felt that he and his mother and the apartment lived only on sufferance in its presence—that, if it wished, it could stamp with its foot like a lanky master magician and crumple the neat little rooms to pieces like a house of cards. A gaunt face coming close to him, the eyes staring at him unblinkingly, seeming to count and judge every childish mistake without mercy or comprehension—knotty, powerful hands, bestowing mysterious parcels of toys that were wonderful enough in themselves, but took a long time to get used to, because they, too, had an air of power and con- descension from which he shrank. Then the house on Riverside Drive—vast and gloomy, dark curtains, soft funereal carpets—and the first terrors of finding the gaunt figure unexpectedly there, at meals, follow- ing his mother about like a tall, overpowering shadow, asking penetrating questions for which there were no right answers, horrifically seated, smoking a gaunt cigar in rooms that had begun to seem a little familiar—everywhere! The child can really have seen very little of David those first years—but the presence of him obsessed his days. And when he was told about God, he made Him in David’s image —a gaunt figure in white robes, spiky-crowned, appallingly just and omnipresent, striding the floors of heaven with a pitiless eye alert. Then the memories grew brighter and clearer—his mother’s death, the numb, uncomprehending shock, the gaunt figure with its face set and rigid, saying, “Frances! Frances!” Sn a harsh, dull voice—his mother, smiling tinily: ‘Take care of your father, Frank!”’ But David wasn’t his father—and as for taking care of him—F rank would as soon have thought of trying to take care of God. A strange life, after that, for the two of them in the huge, melancholy house. Nurses and governesses—the servants— days and weeks when David hardly seemed to see the little boy who played in the corner. Did David hate him, or was it merely with bleak indifference that the deep eyes regarded him and his games? He didn’t know. But he began to think that David hated him, after the incident of the closet under the stairs. Frank hated the stairs and the black and cavernous hall. Sinister shadows lurked there in the long, gray winter after- noons—dark, faceless shapes of shadow, ready to catch at a little boy’s feet. And the closet under the stairs was thejr most secret fastness. Perhaps David noticed this aversion of Frank’s, with those bleak eyes that seemed to see nothing and everything. At any rate one afternoon, when they were alone, he spoke: “Frank.” “Yes, sir ” “I left a box of cigars in the closet under the stairs. Go and get it for me, please.” The request left Frank aghast. Why, even the lights in the hall were not on yet—not that they helped much! The hall was packed with shadows. ‘Well, Frank? What’s the matter?” “N-nothing.” ‘““What’s the matter?” “‘C-can’t I ask Miss Tyler? I-——” “Frank, are youafraid? Afraid of the dark?” The gaunt face stiffened—the last words were a delicate lash of scorn. ‘“Y-yes!’’—defiantly. The set visage relaxed a trifle. “Why? ‘There’s nothing to be afraid of. Nothing will hurt you.” But he didn’t know. How could he know? Even the shadows would be afraid of Aim. ‘Frank, go and get that box.” Slowly, rebelliously, Frank turned to face the shadows. There were even more of them than he had feared. But he could feel David’s eyes on his back, burning. He caught his breath and walked straight into the heart of the darkness. “On the second shelf, Frank.” He wanted to grab with icy hands and run back, but he could not. If he did he would be ashamed in the sight of those hateful eyes. He found the box, and turned, trembling, to face the terrible shadows again. Why—they were only shadows! Just ordinary shadows! He gasped with astonish- ment—and walked back slowly—even dallying a little, in fearful defiance. After that, he could not afford to be afraid of the closet, for he never knew when David might send him there again. But at times he felt quite sure that David had hated him, and had been disappointed that he had not failed in the cruel adventure. That, more than anything else, helped him to conquer his fear. And then he felt more certain than ever that David hated him, for a month or so after the incident, David suddenly informed him that he was to be sent away to school. | He didn’t want to go to school—it meant discomfort, change, a whole host of possible terrors. But being his father’s son, when he got to school, he prospered—he had that indefinable engagingness that, in man or woman, makes the run of mankind follow the proverb and give to him that hath. He had his father’s facility—his father’s ease. And his school and college life could easily have been like his father’s, a pleasant, triumphal passage through an admiring throng. But it was not—because of David.

David did not fit in at all with the admiring throng. Indeed, he seemed often to grudge what success his stepson had, and certainly never praised him. Coming back to David, on vacations, was like stepping from a warm room under the freezing needles of a shower-bath. After a while Frank learned to brace and inure himself against that shock. The fact that David certainly disliked him, very possibly hated him, became merely a fact—a weight to carry, but not a crushing weight, for, oddly enough, Frank could never find the flicker of meanness or spite in those deep and hostile eyes. He knew what some of his friends thought of David’s attitude but he could not agree with them. The hate that was set against him was a superb hate. It had an iron quality. He strove against it as against a bar of iron—and grew strong. David gave him a ridiculously tiny allowance, considering, but he lived within it rigidly, contracting none of the pleasant debts of some of his classmates. He would not give David

the opportunity for easy scorn such debts might afford. He played football for four years on the scrub team, knowing perfectly well that he had no chance for a letter—but he would not give up the game and hear David’s voice: "So you've given up football, Frank?" and see the thought in his mind: "I thought you couldn't stick it out."

It must not be understood that his youth was either doleful or priggishly self—centred—it was not. He enjoyed himself greatly and was well liked; but under the surface of his days lay a certain backbone of purpose, rare among his fellows. When he was graduated, he received no votes for "most popular man," but he had, without knowing it, the respect of his entire class.

The war came when he was twenty-one, in his last year of college. David wrote a characteristic letter. "So you intend to enlist in the Marines. Considering your and the scarcity of officer material, you would probably be rather more useful if you tried for an officers' training camp —but I realize that the job for which a man is best suited is seldom the one that appeals to him. Besides, as a private, you would have much less responsibility—which is always pleasanter.” The unit Frank had intended to join went overseas without him. He went to camp and spent his war service training recruits in Texas. But the recruits were well trained—even David would have admitted that.

After the war he came back to the house on Riverside Drive, and David frigidly offered him a chance with D. Davenant and Co. “You realize that, though the other men may not think so at first, you will be treated exactly like any other employee. Your success, should you make it, you will have to make yourself. I have never played favourites.”

Frank smiled. “Of course, sir.” At last they were coming to grips.

“In fact,” said David, doubtfully, “—don’t grin at me, Frank !—it will probably be a little harder for you than the ordinary man. Your superiors will be informed that you need expect no private favours from me——”

“Very well, sir.”

“Very well. You will report at the office in the morning. I shall, naturally, discontinue your allowance, but you may live here if you prefer it.”

“I'll pay you rent.”

“Don’t be nonsensical,” said David, contemptuously.

“Then I'll live somewhere else.”

A gleam lighted David’s eyes.

“As you please. However, in that case—if you wish to stay here—you may pay me the average rent my clerks pay.” He named figures.

“Very well.”

Frank had been working six months when he made the discovery. Gossip sleeps—but it does not die. He overheard the office whispers behind his back—the whispers that called him Uriah’s son. So he came to know, at last.

When he was quite sure, and the first bitterness was still upon him, he went to David. It was after a dinner as silent as most of their meals together. The interview took place in the vast, funereal room whence David had sent him out that time to look for the cigar box in the closet under the stairs. David had just lighted one of that same brand of cigars. “I want to talk to you, sir.”

“Well, Frank? Getting tired of the grind?”

“No. I want to ask you some things about my father.”

The knotty fingers of David’s hand clenched suddenly about his cigar. Then, gradually, they unclosed. “I’ve spoiled my cigar,” he said, in a musing voice. He took an- other cigar from the box, clipped, lighted it. Then he turned to Frank.

“So? Well?”

Frank told him what he had heard. As David failed to reply, sitting stiff in his chair, the accusing voice grew more passionate. There was nothing young about that voice any longer—the heat in it was the heat of a deep, steady flame, too white-hot to sputter or roar.

When Frank was quite done, the composed figure stirred a little.

“Well? Is that all?”

“You don’t deny it?”

“No,” said the quiet image, “I don’t deny it.”

Frank passed his hand over his forehead with an odd, mechanical gesture. He had expected raging denial—mountainous anger—lies that stuck in in the throat—anything but this quietude. He could hardly believe his own accusation, even now. There had been hate between them before— strong hate—but nothing like this, nothing crawling. He looked at David as a child might look at a monster. A sudden horror seized him—a horror that, if he looked long enough, he might see blood upon David’s hands—and he shook.

“You don’t deny it?” he repeated, stupidly.

“No,” came the quiet answer again. “I don’t deny it. Your father was worthless and useless——”

“You liar! Oh, I’ve heard! He was——”

“Worthless and useless. He crossed me—I put him out of my way. What are you going to do?”

"I'm going to kill you, I think,” said Frank; and he believed it—then.

“Well,” said the figure, with a certain horrible mockery, “as you will. I’ve lived a long time.”

The hands that were almost at David’s throat dropped away. “No,” said Frank, in a cracking voice, “that wouldn’t be enough. I’d rather have everybody know what you are—and they will. I'll put you in jail for my father’s murder, if it takes me——

“It would be like your father's son,” said David, “to dirty your mother’s memory—if he could.”

“You devil!” said Frank, half sobbing. He pressed his hands against his eyes.

David carefully extinguished his cigar.

“If you are quite through——” he said.

“No,” said Frank, and this time the eyes that looked into David’s eyes were calm as his own. “I can’t kill you—I can’t disgrace you—but I can break you. You don't care about God or death or disgrace—but you care about D. Davenant and Company! And I’ll break D. Davenant and Company! I think that would hurt you more than anything else.”

“Try it,” said David Davenant, and rose to his feet. He laughed. “If you were my son—perhaps. But not the son of your father. He was worthless and useless—and you are too much like him. It would take a strong man to break me, Frank—not you.”

“You lie,” said Frank, steadily. “You were afraid of my father. You murdered him because you were afraid. You could because he trusted you. But I know you—and you sha’n’t murder me—and I’ll break you.”

“Try it,” said David Davenant again, and walked out of the room.

Hot resolutions cool between night and morning, as a rule. The next morning Frank’s resolution had not cooled, but he began to realize the enormous difficulty of his task.

He realized it even more in the next few months. But when a man is willing to work twenty-four hours a day for purpose, and subordinate everything else in life to that purpose, he either breaks himself or accomplishes his task.

The first step took him two hard and discouraging years. But the time had long been ripe in the trade for an organized fight of the independents against D. Davenant and Company, and Frank found himself at last a small but growingly important figure in the forces preparing for that fight.

Luck helped him somewhat, but not more than it generally helps the man who bullies rather than beseeches it. And the fires of his purpose never had time to grow cold, for whenever they sank down a little, his path and David’s would cross. After a time he began to suspect that David, in his kingly way, was keeping very close track of him, and the suspicion tightened his grip on his weapons. David was watching for a slip—he must make no slips.

There was the incident of Mrs. Dixon, for instance. Mrs. Dixon was, to the eye, merely a comely, rather flirtatious young widow with a certain quite pleasant foolishness about her. Frank liked her. They told stories about her, of course—and some not very nice ones; but they told stories about everyone. She had never been actually touched by scandal; and if she lived rather expensively and maintained a discreet silence about the presumably defunct Mr. Dixon—that was her own affair.

Frank’s friendship with her was progressing very pleasantly when, one evening as they were dining together in a restaurant whose reputation leaned toward the indiscreet, David came in, alone, and sat down at the table opposite them.

It spoiled an agreeable dinner party; Mrs. Dixon’s sallies began to seem vapid or a little too eager. Frank kept looking at David, who did not seem to observe him. But Frank knew he did. He could hear David’s voice—“like your father—worthless—useless——” Frank and David exchanged no words, but the dinner ended in unacknowledged discord. Nor did Frank accept Mrs. Dixon’s carefully casual invitation to stop in at her apartment for a last cigarette before he went home. After that, their friendship lapsed, in spite of Mrs. Dixon’s letters. When the Harcourt scandal broke next year, Frank was just as glad that he had not answered those letters. If David had not come that evening—David might have triumphed. So David’s wariness had done him a bad turn, for once. But that wariness kept on.

There were other incidents like that of Mrs. Dixon—other unexpected meetings with David in the flesh, a dour figure watching with terrible persistence for Frank to stumble and fall. And David in the spirit was always watching. “Just like your father,” the phantom said—and Frank buckled to and disproved him—or rather proved him wrong in a different way—for it came to seem to him as if every mistake he made counted doubly, against himself, and against his father in his grave. So the pitfalls that lie in wait for the fool and the rogue were evaded—and every day they were evaded brought Frank nearer to his goal.

Sometimes he had the fear that David might die before he was able to break him—but David seemed as unchanging and perdurable as his hate. And then, in the beginning of the fourth year of his purpose, Frank fell in love with Shirley Free.

He was lucky—Shirleys are infrequent. She was everything he had wanted rather dumbly and never had. They were very happy. But he did not tell her the whole of his purpose, for he knew her to be forgiving. Perhaps it was as well; for, abruptly, the invisible persecution tightened its net, and David appeared anew.

A glimpse of David, passing them in an automobile as Shirley and he were walking a country road; on another occasion looking out of the window and seeing a gaunt observant figure on the other side of the street—an ominous coincidence, too often repeated to be accidental.

The wedding was to be in October. The plans of the independents were coming to a head—and only the certainty of Shirley and Shirley’s devotion kept Frank up through the straining summer months. As it was, he grew nervous and edgy—and David walked through his dreams.

When Frank discovered, a month before the date of the wedding, that David had actually seen and talked with Shirley—it was the last straw.

“But, Frank,” said Shirley, puzzled, “after all—I’ll admit I was a little scared at first, he is rather scary. But he didn’t say anything that——”

“H’m,” said Frank, “did he try to—bully——”

“Why—no, dear. I don’t see quite why he came—except——”

“Yes?”

“Well—I had a vague sort of feeling that he was—well— looking me over—like a judge—only I don’t know what he thought. He said he was coming again——”

“Well, he won’t,” said Frank, briefly. “This has to stop. I can stand his spying on me, but he sha’n’t touch you. I'll stop it, I tell you—I'll stop it———” His voice rose harshly. “Oh, I know him, Shirley—God knows what he’s up to now; but he’s a devil, I tell you—a devil——”

Shirley managed to quiet him for a time. But when he left her, he went straight to David’s house. He walked there —it was a long way—but he felt no fatigue. The consuming rage that burned in him was too intense. It made his body feel light as pith and very strong—he was quite calm, but he felt as if, this time, he could take David and break him in his hands like a crust.

He noticed with strange detachment, as he sat there, waiting for David, that the gloomy living room had not changed since the last time he had seen it, years before. There was David’s cigar box on the table, and the picture of Frances above the fireplace. The room was terribly full of David’s presence. For an instant Frank was a haunted small boy again, looking round the room with scared eyes, listening for the majestic footfalls of a great, gaunt figure that stalked over gloomy carpets with the terrifying pride of a damned archangel. Then his courage and rage returned—for David came in.

David had not altered in the years. The deep eyes still burned; the grim, imperious face kept its lean and haughty repose. His walk was not quite so certain—that was all.

He carried a bundle of papers in his hand. “Well, Frank,” he said, without surprise, “sit down.”

He sat down himself and began to look through the papers, now and then making a little correction with a fountain pen. The sudden assurance of triumph flared up in Frank’s mind. The papers were a shield—and an ineffective shield. David was afraid of him, at last.

Frank began to speak, and his voice had the intense composure of a man who has finally mastered his bitterest enemy. David heard him out, toward the end his pen moving slowly over a fresh sheet of paper as he listened. His attitude seemed to acknowledge defeat. “I told you I’d break you,” Frank ended, “and I’m going to. You'll be broken within six months, no matter what happens. This is the end.” “Broken—by you?” said David rather quietly.

Frank smiled. “Not entirely—but you couldn’t have been broken without me—yet. You need some sort of a string to tie the loose sticks together into a club. I’ve been the string. It’s taken four years, but I’ve tied the sticks together—in spite of your spying and watching—in spite of all you could do——”

“So you noticed my—spying,” said David, and smiled.

“But now,” said Frank, unheeding, “the spying must stop. Stop—do you understand? You can spy on me all you like—but you'll leave Shirley alone! I don’t know what your idea was in spying on her—but this is the end of it! Do you hear?”

“Yes,” said David, going on with his writing. “This is the end of it. I sha’n’t bother her any more.”

“Very well,” said Frank. “Then——” And suddenly, in spite of the conclusiveness of his victory, he was irritated by the other’s calm. “What are you writing?” he ended, illogically.

“A letter.” David smiled. He came to the end of a paragraph, hesitated, and carefully signed his name. “Here,” he said, and passed the papers over to Frank.

“What on——” said Frank, amazed.

“Read it,” said David, and sank back in his chair.

Frank took the pages gingerly. He glanced at the heading of the letter. It began “My dear son.” He looked at David, astounded, but David gave no sign. Frank settled himself to read.


My Dear Son:

“I had at one time hoped to make this explanation of certain matters to you in a different manner—but I am a sick old man, now, and talk tires me. Besides, there are other reasons. So you will receive this letter in the approved manner —either after my death, or when I am so near it that there need be no hesitancy on your part in believing what I say. The doctor gives me a little while now—if I live piddlingly— which I do not intend to do.

“You may, perhaps, have wondered at many things in my attitude toward you, before you discovered what seemed to you the logical explanation of that attitude. The real explanation goes back into the past, to the days when I’ first knew your mother and your father.

“There is no need of telling you what your mother was. She was an incomparable creature—a saint without pretence —the kindest and gentlest of women. Your mother gave me what happiness I have had, except the brief happiness that comes from crushing an obstacle; and if I have been able to live through these last years, it has been by remembering her. I do not demand that you believe this—but it is true.

“Your father was one of the most charming men that I have ever known—and one of the worst. He was one of those rare people whom life rots with too much sun—with too great good-fortune—and who spoil the lives closest to them with the careless cruelty of a pampered child. With every facility, with every opportunity, he was profligate, cowardly, eaten with mean little sins. I do not ask you to accept this statement on hearsay; I offer letters of his own—of your mother’s—of his friends—other testimony.

“He was breaking your mother’s heart when he died—and she did not know the worst—he had great skill in concealment. And now the worst is long dead and will not rise— I have seen to that. Here is the evidence, my son.”


Frank, white to the lips, examined the attached sheaf of papers. He did not have to read them to the end—the damnation of a soul was written too plainly across the mildest of them. They could not have been forged; every line had the accent of truth; he knew three of the handwritings at least; he knew his mother’s way of putting a thing. He sucked in a sobbing breath through tight lips, and went on reading:


“You will destroy these papers, of course.

“You must remember that I had known your mother from a child—slightly enough, but enough to know what she was. I know the men who work for me—I knew your father, too. And knowing that—I knew what the end would be, unless Chance intervened. Your mother was fatally loyal.

“Well, I took upon myself the prerogative of Chance—the prerogative of God. I was a younger man then, and I knew my strength. I made a resolve—if Chance did not intervene within a certain space of time, I would.

“Yes, I was in love with your mother. But I gave him his chance—I stuck to my bargain. I had him in and talked to him, with some frankness. I had the right, considering his position in the company. He was as sneering as he dared— what business was it of mine? What he did in private—his private life was his own affair. He as much as boasted of your mother’s forgiveness of him—he seemed to think it a little absurd. That was hard for me to bear—but I gave him his chance.

“If he had been anything but appetites and grace, the place where I sent him might have made a man of him. But he was not—I had thought he would not be. He died there as I had thought he would die. I killed him—if you like. Deliberately! Those who assume God’s prerogative of mortal justice have their own punishment. Your mother married me—and we were happy, for a time. Yes, she was happy. Then the people began to whisper—and she died. I had not calculated upon the strength of whispers. She died. That was my punishment. But in spite of everything, I cannot regret what I did—for if it were to do over again, I would do the same.

“At least your mother trusted me till the end. If she had not, she would not have left you in my charge.

“You may never have seen your father’s picture as a child. Your physical likeness to him was startling—and it went to more than externals. You have some of his tricks of manner, even now. And, when you were a boy, you were almost entirely his.

“You could have been spoiled and petted as he was spoiled. You could have been trained in his precise likeness, body and mind—a child is impressionable, and you were very like him from the start. Sometimes it frightened me to see how like him you were. But I had a charge from your mother. I could not see you grow and become like him while I had my strength.

“You may often have thought your training a rigorous one. It was. I made it so. You may have thought me unfriendly, scornful, hateful. I was. I chose to be your enemy rather than your friend, because it is by wrestling with an enemy almost too much for one that one gets courage and endurance and fortitude. I chose to make life hard and difficult for you, where it might have been smooth and easy, so that you would not drown in stale honey, as your father drowned. I do not repent.

“I do not repent, for with test after test, you got hardier, and surer, and less afraid of anything, even of me. I made you my worthy enemy. I bound the difficult habit of years upon you like an honourable chain—and hardened, hardened it, till at last your father lay dead in you, and you had an armour not even success could pierce.

“Then, when you were a man, I let you find out, as you thought. You took it as I hoped you would take it—and the night you said you would break me, I looked at you and knew that between us we had made a man. But you were very young, and I was not quite certain.

“I made it my business to be entirely certain, though my time was growing short. But I could not face your mother and not be certain. So once again I took upon myself a certain prerogative, and where you went, I spied upon you like a ghost. In all ways I left you free to make your own decisions—and if you had fallen in the mire deliberately, I would not have raised you—or I might have raised you scornfully, and given you the petty damnation of easy riches, and died. But you did not fall. A strong man does not lie down before his enemy. You prospered instead, till now you are ready to break me, and I can go.

“I can go, for your marriage was my last concern, and I have seen you with the girl you are to marry, and seen her alone and heard her talk of you. You do not lie to women, as your father did, and you have chosen as I hoped you would choose. Your mother would like her, my son.

“Well, it has been a long task, and it is finished. I could have been kinder to you easily, though you may doubt that. I have had no son of my body. You have been my son. Sometimes, indeed more frequently than you might suppose, it was somewhat difficult not to be too kind.

“Do not think, by the way, that your present success is in any way due to me. I fought your business combinations with all my skill. But you have been too strong and adroit for me there. That is all. “As for my material fortune, such as it is, it will go not to you but to charity, except for a certain portion, justly yours. You do not need the rest now. You would only have needed it if you had failed. There are certain things of your mother’s you will probably wish to keep. I have made arrangements for that. Of course” (a line of erasure) “you are welcome to any of my personal effects, should you desire them. “I wish you good fortune, my son, with a free mind, now. Perhaps it is nothing to you that when I die, I shall be able to rest, now, but it is something to me. Perhaps you have a——(the line was unfinished).

“Very sincerely,

“Your father,

David Davenant.

Frank stared up from the last page. Strange, difficult tears stung at his eyes. “Father,” he said, gently. There was no answer. He sprang up. ‘‘Father—Father,” he called over and over; but the figure in the other chair did not stir.