THE BREATH OF SCANDAL
GREGG MOWBRY, who had come home with nothing unusual on his mind, flung his new brown overcoat on a hook in the hall closet, tossed his hat after it, and was cheerfully whistling on his way to his room when the maid appeared from the rear hall and spoke to him shyly.
"Why, good evening," he replied in his pleasant way, halting. "Mr. Whittaker home yet?"
"No, sir; but he should be soon. He wanted early dinner to-night."
"Mail or telephone to-day, Dora?"
"I put two letters on your dresser. Mr. Hartford called; and Miss Hale telephoned for you from Evanston about five o'clock; she left her name and said to tell you. A young lady—I think Miss Hale again, Mr. Mowbry—called about ten minutes ago. She didn't say her name that time," the girl added.
"Thanks," Gregg said. "No message then?"
"Oh, yes, sir, a particular one. The first time she called, she said would you please be sure to telephone her when you came in."
"Thanks," he said, and half turned for her to pass him in the narrow hallway of the apartment; and she went forward to bestow the inconspicuous attentions which everywhere made life smooth for Gregg Mowbry; she opened the coat closet and carefully arranged his overcoat upon a hanger and took out the evening newspaper he had thrust into the pocket.
Gregg went on to his room which was the first of three large bedchambers described, in the agent's embossed booklet of Number—East Pearson Street, as "Master's Rooms." These were on the east, facing lakeward over a vacant, flat stretch of that newly made promontory just north of the Chicago River and east of the original shore of the lake. A few years ago, indeed, there was only a sandbar upon which that picturesque lake mariner, "Cap" Streeter, grounded his schooner; there he squatted upon the emerging sands and, with an eye to the exceptional advantages of real estate in such a situation, he asserted title to the strip by right of discovery and defended himself with his rifle from behind his driftwood barricades. The old skipper long ago was run out, of course, and, in the manner of extending Chicago lakeward, many thousands of cubic yards of refuse, tin cans, cinders, stone and sand were carted in; upon these was spread loam from the prairie; tall, well-designed, luxurious apartment buildings rose on that land, so that now the captain's "Deestrict of Lake Michigan" has become the newest and most preferred part of the new, ever-spreading city.
No place is more popular with young Chicago couples possessing money and social opportunities; consequently no place is more desirable in the eyes of those people eager to appear to possess both. But besides being fashionable, it is convenient and pleasant, so it is chosen by many without ulterior purposes. Of these was Gregg Mowbry, who was there, as he cheerfully would have been almost anywhere else, because Bill Whittaker liked "the place"—this being, specifically, the east apartment on the third floor of an expensive building which otherwise was let to some of those young married people, whose parents were helping them pay the rent, or else to middle-aged, established men with families, each of whom could afford four or five thousand a year for a few rooms.
William Whittaker liked the place, not solely for its unquestionable value in the minds of persons you met socially but even more because to live here evidently was an advantage in his business; for Bill was a lawyer and, though only twenty-eight, Whittaker undoubtedly would be the next name to be lettered on the many doors of Kemphill, James, Jones and Stern in the First National Bank Building. Their clients were such obviously successful people as lived within the new loop of the Lake Shore Drive about "Streeterville"; and Billy's father (who was a banker in Bay City, Michigan), recognizing that it was an asset to a young lawyer in Chicago to live in evident prosperity, sent regularly the difference between what Bill earned and what he necessarily spent. Gregg had no help from home; and his salary and commissions seldom equalled Bill's earnings; so Gregg had no business to spend so much on living; but, persistently, it was Gregg who in the council of two downright opposed the taking of a third partner. He put it on the ground that they ought to keep a guest room.
"You can't call a place a home where you can't put up a man overnight," he argued; but his real reason was not to have others in but to keep another out. Gregg and Bill had been together since they were freshmen at the University of Michigan. That was for eleven years, now; and whatever their association meant to Bill, it meant far more to Gregg; for Bill had always had brothers of his own in Bay City, but Gregg was one of those only children who ought to have been born in a large family. To come back to his own possessions meant, to Gregg, to return to things shared by Bill; he could never enter his door without at once thinking of Bill; and to-night this was with special keenness when he went to his room and picked up the letters from his dresser.
The one which Dora had left on top was from his father in Muskegon; and the sight of the familiar blue paper and the firm, friendly handwriting gave Gregg an image of the doctor, sitting at his old desk in the office overlooking the lake, away up there on the Michigan shore, and writing his regular Saturday letter. Gregg opened it and glanced through its three pages to make sure that everything was all right at home; then he ripped the envelope addressed in the impulsive, interesting-looking writing of Marjorie Hale.
His hand suddenly clamped upon the note and he looked down, breathing a little quicker while he listened to a strong, steady step which told him that Whittaker had come home. Billy went on to his own room, so Gregg read:
Dear Mr. Mowbry:
You knew me better than I; for I didn't like "Aphrodite" a bit; but still I'm glad I saw it. And that's not inconsistent.
But the purpose of this epistle is this: mother's having a few people in for dinner before we go over to the Lovells' dance; will you come? Mother or I've telephoned mostly for this spur-of-the-instant gathering; in comparison, this invitation to you is pompous. So just 'phone and come.
Billy Whittaker's hand struck the door of the bathroom between the bedrooms and Gregg thrust Marjorie's note into his pocket.
"Hello, Bill," he hailed casually, as Whittaker stood in the doorway. Communistic use of personal possessions, between these two friends, had been stopped short of apparel by the fact that, though Gregg was tall enough, Billy was a big man. His light, yellow hair, half upright in obstinate, boyish pompadour, whenever not recently brushed down, almost touched the top of the low doorframe; Billy's was a broad, good-natured face, with steady and reliable eyes, hazel in color. Billy usually seemed a little flushed, especially when he was pleased and now he was warmly red in his satisfaction over the note which he held.
"Mrs. Hale's giving a dinner to-night before the Lovells' dance, Gregg," he announced. "I told Marjorie we were both going there; so she's asked me to dinner and told me to bring you along. You'll come, of course."
"Why, I don't know, Bill," Gregg said, temporizing.
"Hartford"; Gregg recollected an excuse. "I ought to see him to-night. If I'm going up to that dance later, I'll have to get about to Hartford's place for dinner."
"What have you up with that fellow now?" Billy demanded, entering the room; and Gregg knew that, temporarily at least, he had diverted Bill by a challenge to his dearest ideals of man's work and life. "You're not thinking of changing into another line of business again to go with Hartford?"
"Why not?" Gregg this time inquired.
"You know the reasons; the question is, why should you?"
"A couple of thousand more a year, Bill."
"To do what?"
"Market that new carburetor of his."
"Do you want to market carburetors the rest of your life?"
Gregg laughed disarmingly; it was always impossible for Billy to get wholly angry with him, much as the serious and conscientious Whittaker would have liked to punch Gregg's careless, handsome head, if that would put some sense of self-accountability into it.
"Look here, Bill; I don't really get any deep experience out of selling refrigerating machines; but I do it—for seven thousand a year. Honestly, I don't see any spiritual or moral difference, except for the possible effect of shock on my creditors, if I'm able to pay 'em by taking nine thousand from Hartford for boosting a kerosene carburetor for Fords."
"Damn!" said Whittaker, who seldom swore. "No one's comparing the moralities of refrigeration and carburetors. We're talking about what you're doing to your life in shifting about whenever you get a good offer. If selling kerosene carburetors is what you want to do to develop yourself, you know I say, 'Go to it.' No matter what you want to do, find the thing that is and stick to it. To do something else only for the sake of taking in more money now is——" he halted in the earnestness of his exasperation.
"Say it, Bill."
"Selling yourself, Gregg; and you've no end of offers for yourself. That's your trouble. Everybody likes you, whether you care to have 'em or not. Everybody wants to please you; everybody that's got something to sell wants you to go with him; and a man who's buying your line likes to wait to see you. There's no development in that for you; just a little more money without any more effort. Oh, you don't even know what I'm talking about."
"Of course I do, Bill. You want me to be making effort, for effort's sake, even when it's not necessary; you want——"
But Bill had turned in his hopelessness and gone back through the bathroom into his own room, pulling the door firmly shut behind him. Gregg, left alone, put his hand in his pocket over the note from Marjorie Hale, and he was standing at his window looking out at the lights by the breakwater and whistling quietly when somebody tapped cautiously on his door to the hall, opened it and looked in.
He was a compact, alert-looking young man, a few years older than Gregg and Billy; Cuncliffe by name, and the Chicago agent for an Akron tire company. He was wearing a silk hat and had on a dark overcoat above evening clothes, evidently.
"Come in, Jim!" Gregg welcomed him. "When did you drop up? I didn't hear you."
"Um!"warned, shaking his head and raising his hand toward Whittaker's room as he came in. "I came up during the discussion. What was that Bill's all worked up about anyway, Gregg?"
"Oh," said Gregg. "Just me; another round of the ordinary riot we stage whenever we're bored. Hartford—you know him—made a proposition to me; I mentioned it to Bill and, of course, he thinks I shouldn't go to selling carburetors unless I can feel sort of religious about them; so I could go into a Billy Sunday frenzy for kerosene combustion."
"I know his line of thought; so that's all?" said Cuncliffe, relieved. "From the sounds that drifted into the hall, I thought possibly he'd heard of the hell to pay at the Hales'."
"What hell to pay?" Gregg said quickly, his voice now even more careful than his visitor's.
Cuncliffe lit a cigarette and tossed the box to Gregg, who seated himself on the bed. "With Mr. Hale. Don't you know anything about it?"
"What?" said Gregg cautiously.
"Sybil Russell," Cuncliffe replied, and turned toward Gregg's glass; he took off his hat and laid it down and, picking up Gregg's brushes, he busied himself smoothing his hair.
Gregg said nothing for several moments; then he went into the bathroom and made sure that Whittaker's door was firmly shut; he returned and closed his own door.
"Yes; I heard Mr. Hale knows a girl named Russell," he admitted at last. "She'd married a man named Russell during the war. He came from Rockford, and was in the army, wasn't he?"
"That's the one."
"She busted up with him even before his division sailed, I understand."
"Yes; she'd been out at Rockford with him, but she came to Chicago and took a flat up north near Wilson Avenue," Cuncliffe informed, putting down the brushes and turning around.
Gregg refrained from further comment; he merely waited, holding an unlit cigarette in one hand, the other in his side pocket clasped, unconsciously, over Marjorie Hale's note to him. He felt queerly unsteady as he thought of Marjorie, and then he tried not to think of her.
"A salesman of mine, Nyman, lives up that way; in the next building, in fact," Cuncliffe continued. "Nyman's married; has a baby; a darned decent fellow. He says his wife made friends with Mrs. Russell at the markets up there; she liked her. Mrs. Russell came to Nyman's flat a couple of times and listened for the baby while Nyman took his wife to picture shows. Then they found out about her; he mentioned it to me one day when he happened to recognize Mr. Hale in our shop. Remember you told him I'd give him wholesale prices on tires? He came down with his driver to arrange about it, and Nyman told me he was the man who goes to that flat."
Cuncliffe hesitated and Gregg waited, silent.
"Of course, I told Nyman to keep his mouth shut and be careful," Cuncliffe continued. "But he talked to me about it again to-day. It seems that Russell's hanging around home."
Gregg jerked and looked over at Jim. "Home?" he repeated, quickly. "That's Russell's home?"
"Didn't mean that. She got a divorce from Russell a couple of years ago, I understand. Nyman says he's no real claim on her; but he's down and out and also wise to the situation with her; he's found out who Hale is and he means to make something out of it. Now you know Mr. Hale better than I do; is he the kind to stand for a hold-up?"
Gregg stared at Jim and, almost absent-mindedly, shook his head.
"Then Russell is all set to start something. He has an army pistol and he's in steady connection with some one's private still. Nyman says the next time Hale leaves his home to go 'out of town,' he's going to get satisfaction or get Hale."
Cuncliffe sat down and leaned over, flecking an imperceptible speck from his dancing shoe; Gregg lit his cigarette, his slender, strong hands quivering in a manner strange to him.
"What are you telling me all this for, Jim?" he demanded directly at last.
"Nyman passed it to me, because I knew Hale and the family."
"So you're passing it on to me."
"I hardly know them at all; you're a friend of theirs and didn't you say something about going to a dance up in Evanston to-night?"
"I'm going with Bill," Gregg said. "He's the friend there. I should think Bill would be the one to——" but he stopped, ashamed of himself.
"Bill take care of this?" Jim said, smiling grimly as he glanced toward the door which Gregg himself had so carefully closed. "You don't want Bill even to know about it, do you? You bet not; you know Bill, Gregg. Can you just imagine him trying to tackle this? First he'd be knocked absolutely flat; he'd take the count; and when he came to, he'd have to start reforming everybody concerned and work up a strong penitential sentiment. Good old Bill; he thinks the world can run on ten commandments and fourteen points; nothing but open alliances, openly arrived at. It's not only impossible for Bill but figure where it would land him to cut into that mix-up; he'd lose his Marjorie sure."
"Where've you been recently? You never heard of Bill looking twice at a girl before; but he's her picture next to his mother's on the dresser in there, hasn't he? He's up in Evanston every time I hear of him out anywhere; looks to me he has to have that girl, Gregg, or he'll never have any one. If there ever was a one-woman man, that's Bill. Lucky she seems to like him; of course she ought to, if she knows a good man when she sees one. Now, do you want to slip him the job of mixing into that affair?"
Gregg shook his head, hoping that the cigarette smoke was hiding the redness of his face. "No, Jimmie—but how the devil can I?"
"What've you got to lose?"
"I mean, how can a fellow like me mix into Mr. Hale's personal concerns? Damn it, it's his own life."
"You haven't got to argue it's not; no one's expecting you to start a reform; you simply have to tip him not to give Russell any opportunity for action just now. Why, he'll thank you for it, Gregg. He has his family to protect and his job to look out for, too. He's worked up into a big position; making a lot of money, but he hasn't a stock interest that amounts to anything yet; and a man doesn't advance himself to be general manager of a big company like Tri-Lake Materials without pushing aside a lot of others and making his enemies. Take E. H. Stanway, right there in his company; he figured only a year or so ago there was nothing surer in the world than for him to step into the presidency of a ten-million-dollar corporation when old Dorsett shuffles off or gives up; but here's Charles Hale coming along so fast that, if Stanway is vice-president, he knows that Hale's practically past him. He don't want Dorsett to resign any more, unless he can kill off Hale first. Now suppose Russell takes a shot at Hale near that flat to-night or anything else happens to bring the police into the case and the newspapers get hold of it,—that wouldn't do a thing to Hale, would it? Stanway would use it so they'd not only knock out all Hale's chances for the big job but—to take no chances at all—Stanway'd see that Tri-Lake kicked Hale out on the street right now; and, after the way that'd be done, who'd pick him up? I'd risk a word for his family's sake, and Bill's, if I was going by his house to-night!"
Gregg walked to the window, his head down; and slowly he came back. "Glad you told me," he said at last to Jim. "What direction are you going to-night?"
"South Shore Club."
"I thought it wasn't in the direction of Evanston. Have a good time, Jimmy."
Left alone in his room, Gregg stared at the wall. Suppose that this, which threatened, should happen; suppose he stood by and let it, without making a move to save any one. Bill? Gregg jerked, almost with a shudder, as he thought of what that would do to Bill. And what to Marjorie? Something too frightful for Gregg to imagine happening to her. For to her, how wonderful and honorable a man was her father; to her, how wonderful and glorious and clean was life! Gregg knew no one else who felt such faith in goodness of living; to her, to be alive meant to be gay and confident and unafraid. He could not think of her after that, if it found her;in ignominy and shame!
Gregg straightened about, suddenly, as he did when making a decision; he went through the bathroom, and without ceremony, opened Billy Whittaker's door to find Billy standing before his dresser with his photograph of Marjorie in his hands.
"Oh, Bill," Gregg said carelessly. "Are you calling up the Hales'? Then will you tell Mrs. Hale that I'm coming for dinner with you?"