The Warning (Daskam)
He had a sudden flashing sense of being in a net that was softly tightening.
By Josephine Daskam Bacon
Illustration by W. J. Aylward
WELDON leaned forward slightly in his chair, his hands loose between his knees, and faced the president steadily. The moment had come. All his rehearsals of it, all his tremors, all his incredulities must end here. He felt a distinct surprise at his collected coolness, his almost amused grasp of the situation. Except for the tense, guarded muscles that a month's racking, overworked strain had left conscious of their possible trickiness, he was absolutely himself.
The president's careless glance conveyed just such a tinge of critical surprise as the occasion called for: he toyed with a slender tortoise-shell paper-cutter. The pendulum of the sombre, costly grandfather clock behind him swung tolerantly, silently; the murmur of the bank beyond them was utterly lost behind the heavy double doors and forgotten behind the bronze velvet curtains. The president's voice sounded on—he seemed to Weldon to have been uttering pompous platitudes since time began. His voice was as meaningless as a cardboard mask: how could people pay attention to him? Weldon wondered irritably.
"... nor has it ever been my policy to render myself inaccessible to my—my corps of assistants. No. Not in the slightest degree. Our interests..."
Here Weldon's mind slipped softly from its moorings and drifted off on seas that soon grew tropic: should it be Bermuda, after all? Oleanders and a turquoise bay—what a relief to pavement-gritted eyes!
"Nevertheless, trivial, inconsequent interviews between one in my position and those of my—my corps of assistants who may so far forget themselves as to seek them, must always be deplored. They tend only to weaken..."
And yet this man had a reputation for cleverness—nay, it was no empty reputation. Did not Weldon know what he could do, know better than any living man? And yet, how he babbled! Hark, here was his own name.
"You inform me, Mr. Weldon, that you have been ten years in the employ of the bank, a gratifying but by no means unusual record. Our cashier, you know, is now in his twenty-third year, if I am not mistaken. Yes. Was it to inform me of this only that you requested this interview?"
"No," said Weldon wearily, for the president's voice hit like a dull hammer on his ear. "No, it was not for that."
"I trust, Mr. Weldon, that your mention of the fact that your salary is two thousand dollars was not intended in any way ... was not, in short, to be regarded in the light of..."
"No, oh, no," Weldon murmured impatiently, trying to shake off a compelling drowsiness that threatened him.
"Because in that case ... in that case ... it was, I remember, only upon Mr. Bingham's urgent recommendation that it was made two thousand. The post has never carried but eighteen hundred. But your exceptional work, according to Mr. Bingham ... I am glad to hear it is not a question of salary. I never discuss..."
Again Weldon's mind slipped off and this time groves of palms hovered between the grooved Corinthian pillars of the president's office, palms and frosty coral wreaths. To breathe that languid, blue-stained air!
"... May I ask, then, Mr. Weldon, for what purpose you have requested this interview?"
Consciousness returned with a flash and Weldon straightened in his red leather chair.
"I have been waiting for some time the opportunity to tell you, sir," he said coolly, and the angry start that greeted this positively strengthened him. It was a natural start, at least.
"Mr. Deeping," he continued, with only a little catch of the breath, "what you describe as my 'exceptional work' has led me to request this interview. I believe it to be in many ways exceptional. During Mr. Russell's illness I assisted Mr. Bingham, and after his recovery I continued this assistance in other ways. Mr. Bingham has perhaps intrusted me with more responsibility than was in every respect wise—certainly with more than he realized. I was enabled to give him some opportune help on the occasion of the last inspection and this gave me a fairly general survey——"
"One moment, Mr. Weldon."
The president glanced at the clock and laid the paper-cutter down with a decisive motion.
"Let me suggest to you that whatever assistance you may have rendered Mr. Bingham (for which, by the way, I consider you have received ample compensation), you rendered it entirely of your own volition and, and on your own responsibility. It is quite your own personal affair. I could not for a moment consider——"
Weldon 's taut control snapped short under these booming syllables.
"Damn it all!" he cried fiercely, "shall we talk here all night? This should have been over long ago. Listen to me, if you can. I have been for a month convinced that there is something vitally wrong in this bank. In the beginning I couldn't tell why. Some men have an instinct for false figures, a sort of scent for rotten conditions, I suppose. I'm one of them. I've been working at it for a month. And now I know."
The president laid the paper-cutter gently down again, and Weldon realized that he must have picked it up. As it touched the polished desk one half of it was seen to be at the least angle from the other: it was in two parts.
"And now you know, Mr. Weldon?" he repeated quietly, "you surprise me. What do you know?"
Weldon smiled approvingly at him. There was stuff in this babbler, this hypnotist, this phrase maker.
"I know that one of the cleverest frauds in the history of banking has been accomplished in this bank, Mr. Deeping, and I know by whom and how it has been accomplished. I know how Mr. Bingham has been used in the matter and how ignorant he is of the tool he has been. I know how completely the directors have been deceived and how ably the books have been doctored. I know precisely where the discrepancies are and how great they are."
"You have been very diligent, Mr. Weldon," said the president gently. "I presume you to have the proofs of all you assert?"
Weldon put his hand into an inner pocket and drew out a slip—a small slip—of paper.
"You must, of course, have a memorandum by which to check this," he said a little huskily, but meeting the older man's eyes steadily, "so I made it as condensed as possible. You will understand it, however, I am sure."
Without a moment's hesitation the president put out his hand and took the slip. Weldon touched his thumb and it was like an icicle. For a brief space he studied the close, tiny figures, then he raised his eyes from them.
"You are to be congratulated, young man," he said, pausing slightly between his words, "on the possession of a very keen mind and abilities far from ordinary. I believe you said you had no assistance in all this?"
"I did not say so," Weldon replied, "but it is true."
"And no confidants, I infer?"
"It would be idle," said the president, "to assume ignorance of your motive in obtaining this interview."
Weldon bowed in silence.
"I will merely inquire of you what guaranty I have, in case I arrange for the purchase of this slip from you, that the terms will be final?"
"Only my word to that effect," said Weldon composedly, "which I do not think I have broken since I was eighteen. Also the fact that I intend to leave the country—finally, to the best of my belief."
"But you must have a duplicate of this slip?"
"None. I have a mass of rough memoranda, from which I could after some trouble reconstruct it, but this I should destroy. After that, unless I had free access to the bank, I should be helpless. And in six months, barring accidents, you will be able to set everything straight: you have left the way open admirably."
The president folded the list small, and pushing aside the tail of his frock-coat, put the square of paper into his hip pocket—an odd selection, it seemed to Weldon.
"And where did you say you were going?" he inquired, in his perfunctory voice.
"I did not say," Weldon returned, marvelling at the man's control, "but I am going South somewhere."
"No," said the president quickly, still pushing the list deep into his hip pocket, "you are not. You are going to die, Mr. Weldon," and something shone in his hand on the flap of the pocket.
His elbow was crooked back; his muscles were those of an elderly man, not quite coordinated with his tongue. In a breath, a space too short for thought, Weldon flung himself across the gap between them and drove his head and shoulders straight at the rounded, broadcloth vest: under his impact the elaborate swivel-chair slipped, swayed, crashed to the ground, and they went down together, Weldon's weight on the bent arm.
He raised himself cautiously, hands pressed on the fat shoulder under him.
"The old fox! The old fox!" he muttered aggrievedly. "Shoot me, would he? Murdering old fox!"
There was no heaving in the heavy body under him, but he was not to be easily hoodwinked now—he had had a taste of the man's mettle. He held his breath and listened: the clock ticked tolerantly, wealthily; the flames flickered in the open, sea-coal fire; there were no other sounds at all.
Reaching with infinite care around the relaxed portly body he felt for the hip pocket and drew out the small revolver, then sprang quickly backward.
"Get up, Mr. Deeping!" he said softly, "get up, sir, some one may come."
But it seemed that for once the president was indifferent to appearances, for he did not move, but lay as he had fallen, with one bent arm. Weldon walked over to him and lifted the coat-tail from his face. Then he perceived that it was improbable that Mr. Deeping would ever get up again. His face had long been a mask, but never had it been colored in this way, and Weldon knew that the artist responsible for that tinting never worked on any subject but once.
Between two ticks of the clock, it might be, Weldon saw himself leaping to the window, pouring water from the inner lavatory, calling for brandy, Loosening tin-collar. So vivid was this vision that it seemed he must be doing all this, actually, and he stood vacant-eyed, staring at the dead man. Once he tried to take a step, but his very muscles seemed paralyzed, and a voice, steady as the clock, seemed to tell him:
"How senseless! The man is dead. Dead. You know it. Let him alone. Think what to do. How can you escape? Think! Think!"
Suddenly his mind cleared and he laughed shortly, with relief. He had felt literally guilty. But he had not killed the president. It was the president who would have killed him. What had he done but protect himself? If the shock of his defensive lunge had done for Mr. Deeping, how could he help that? The man's time had come, that was all. And it was a quick death, a good way. He moved toward the body again and tried to lift it, but had not the strength. He could not do it decently. The revolver was still in his hand, and with a quick exclamation he pushed in into the hip pocket again, considered a moment, took it out, felt for his folded list at the bottom of the pocket, got it, and restored the revolver. Moving toward the little mirror in the lavatory, he straightened his tie, wiped his face, then stood, thinking, between the body and the door.
Curiously enough, the figure on the floor hardly disturbed his consciousness. It was difficult for him to take Mr. Deeping seriously, even in death. He had always been an absurdity; posturing, phrase making,. Death conferred a dignity, he had supposed, but death had not done this for the president. Another time-worn superstition, that: humanity had invented so many. Suppose all those old ideas should turn out, on the event, to be as threadbare and empty? Remorse, for instance? Would one dishonesty, one violent break with the canons of honor, never repeated, oh, surely never repeated! tincture all the future with a slow, spreading black drop? If so ... but why imagine it? It was unlikely. A whip in the closet to frighten the timid children. ...
He shook himself briskly. A clever business, to stand philosophizing, with a dead man in the room, and all his work to do! Now, what was the next step? To see the directors? There was Webb; would he be clever enough for Webb? And yet, if Webb had not been able to detect the frauds that juggled along under his nose, how should he not be a match for him, when he had thus detected them? It would certainly be to Webb's interest to keep this quiet till they could straighten it all out. Then they could divide what the president would have got. And nobody would be a penny the poorer. It was absurd to call it a crime—if the event proved successful. And it would be more than absurd to refuse him the reasonable amount he would ask for: the gain would far exceed his, even if five of them should divide the whole.
Stop a moment! Suppose he could confront them with Deeping's own memoranda? Suppose he should control the material the president must have had ready, in case ... why, he must have an incredible sum by him, all ready at a moment's notice, something he could convert in an hour into cash, before he fled. He kept the revolver: he would have kept this. He was ready for anything. His pockets....
Weldon pushed aside the coat flap, but his hands refused the further motions. To go through another man's pockets! And yet Deeping had done worse than this: what sums had he not twisted and turned, added and subtracted, borrowed and replaced? But not an actual pocket. No, no. He cursed himself for a weak fool, but the pockets he could not touch. The spirit indeed was willing, but the flesh, tyrant after years of honest, deep-indenting habit, travelled its accustomed grooves and would none of such muscular innovations. Well, he must take his chance with the Board. He flung open the door and seized a brass-buttoned official of many years' inferior but faithful service.
"Run," he muttered, "run, Henry, for Mr. Dupont! Mr. Deeping has had some sort of stroke. Get him and call a doctor quickly—don't make any row now about it, you understand. I'll stay here."
The man touched his cap and hurried off and Weldon stood nervously by the door. A minute passed, two minutes. Suddenly he turned, slipped the ornate brass bolt above the Yale lock, stepped quickly to the dead man's side, and went with rapid, tactful fingers from one pocket to another. The clock ticked leisurely, and unconsciously he muttered, counting the strokes,
"Seven, eight, nine ... he must have them here...."
A low knock at the door caught his strained ear. His hand held a thick time-table; New York, New Haven and Hartford stared him in the face. The leaves fell apart as his hand for the first time shook, and between them—ah! there they were! "Memoranda, etc.," was written on the top paper. Thrusting the slender sheaf into his pocket, he threw the time-table on the desk and drew the bolt slowly, peering out between the bronze curtains with caution.
"How is he—gone?" whispered Dupont, the dead man's brother-in-law, tip-toeing across the room. "Heart, I suppose. Henry's called the doctor, but he said he guessed it was no good, from your face. Nobody has an idea of it—you managed very well, Mr. Weldon."
He glanced at the body and said a few perfunctory words.
"Well, well, we all have to go. Sixty-one, I think. Has any one sent for Webb? I think Webb should be sent for."
Weldon glanced curiously at the mild, unimportant brother-in-law. He was always thought of and mentioned in his capacity of brother-in-law. Why should he think of Webb? Common-sense answered, why not? He was immeasurably the head of them all. Opening the door to discover if there were yet any disturbance in the bank, he confronted Potter, a fat, red-faced, many-millioned man, who puffed excitedly by him.
"Terrible thing, isn't it, Dupont? Great shock to you. Naturally. Has—has Webb been informed? Quite right, quite right."
He dropped into a chair and wiped his pink, fat forehead, looked once sharply at the body on the floor, then obstinately at his knees. He appeared very excited to Weldon; more so than the death of his associate could properly explain, perhaps? No, no: what folly! Probably it made them all feel rather shaky—overfed, weak-hearted old fellows, all of them. They saw their end.
A soft tap on the door followed, and as the two older men looked with one accord at Weldon, he pushed aside the portières and admitted Mr. Fayles, a thin, aristocratic, iron-gray man, who made himself one of them without a word. Stepping to the body he looked a moment, then sank into the chair Weldon had occupied during his interview, fitted his gloves into his top hat, dropped it beside him, and with an extraordinary convulsion of countenance buried his face in his hands. After a moment's annoyed contemplation of his motionless figure, Weldon met Dupont's eyes inquiringly. The brother-in-law shook his head, no wiser, evidently. Weldon gestured imperiously toward the fat man, and Dupont tiptoed over to him, whispering hoarsely, "I didn't know he was so attached to Edward, did you, Potter?"
Potter pressed his puffy hands together till they streaked red and white.
"Good Heavens! Good Heavens!" he burst out, "this is awful! Where can Webb be?"
Dupont stared, then shrugged his shoulders vaguely and returned to his seat. "I really didn't know he was so attached to Edward," he murmured to Weldon confidentially.
They sat in silence. The president's great bulk stretched among them like some sleeping, foreign animal in a zoological garden. It was like a funeral; the funeral of some associate, attended with perfunctory punctiliousness. The blow was financial, not human; it was the death of so much bank stock.
Another knock. Again Weldon, recognized master of ceremonies now, opened the door, this time for the doctor. It was the president's own doctor; Weldon wondered why it was that important men's doctors were always to be got so quickly. Did they have a secret call in the event of a bank president's death? What would happen in case one were called from the birth, say, of another bank president's son? Imagine the doctor's state of mind ... he shook himself to dissipate such idiotic thoughts: his mind worked as the mind of one in a worried, hurried dream.
"Good-day, gentlemen, a sad errand for me," said the doctor gravely. "Ah, yes, a little more light, please? Ah, yes. Instantaneous, of course, Half an hour, forty minutes, I should say? Ah, yes. I supposed so. Any one present ... any shock or excitement?"
Weldon spoke briefly. He had been discussing bank matters with Mr. Deeping. He had mentioned a few of the matters in discussion when Mr. Deeping had put his hand into his pocket, appeared to sustain some stroke, slipped back in his chair, and fallen dead-weight on the bent arm. Just as they saw him. It was impossible to move him, except to free him from the chair. He appeared to have died instantly. It had been made known immediately.
"Ah, yes," said the doctor. "Just as I expected. I warned him of it. Not a month ago. A great loss to the community, gentlemen. All the arrangements, now ... Mr. Dupont, I suppose you ... or if you had rather that I...."
"If you would, please," said the brother-in-law gratefully, "I am bad at that sort of thing—I—my head——"
"Ah, yes. Perfectly natural. I will have the body removed, then, as soon as possible"
"Not till Webb gets here!" Potter broke out, twisting his hands convulsively, "wait for Webb. I insist on Webb!"
The doctor stared.
"Mr. Potter, I believe?" he inquired courteously. Then turning to the others generally, "Do I understand that there is any reason——"
"No reason at all," Dupont interrupted irritably, "not the least. Webb will be informed, fast enough. If you are kind enough, Doctor——"
It was obvious that he dreaded the chance of any personal responsibility. What a rabbit of a man he was! Weldon remembered suddenly that a night watchman had been dismissed for saying that Mrs. Dupont blew her husband's nose for him! One could almost believe it. Hear him, now.
"Mr. Fayles will, I am sure, agree with me——"
"With you? With you?"
Mr. Fayles's voice was hollow, tortured. His face was wet. He turned his red- rimmed eyes on the man before him.
"What in God's name are you?" he said ferociously. '"Wait for Webb, of course."
His head went back in his hands and they stared at one another. Fayles, the cold aristocrat. Fayles, the unruffled! The doctor's glance settled finally on Weldon, as a possible clew to the situation.
"This is—this is—we make every allowance, of course," he began, "for such an unsettling occurrence. Of course. Mr. Webb, of course, would naturally ... and yet I hardly like the idea ... it seems...."
There was a strange sense of tension in the room, not to be accounted for by that dead creature on the floor. No, there was something else. Weldon with difficulty repressed a smile. That fool of a brother-in-law knew nothing, clearly. Potter was merely irritable and at sea generally, he was sure. He could swear that whatever alarmed Potter alarmed him only through Fayles, whose collapse was unprecedented. Did Fayles know? Impossible. Fayles stood for old-fashioned, delicate scruples, finical standards. "As straight as Joseph Fayles," they said. And yet, why.... He remembered that he had not yet answered the doctor. How his thoughts ran away with him!
"Mr. Webb's connection, of course," he murmured, "principal director, you might say, made it natural to lean on him ... to depend ... undoubtedly he would have been notified. Probably if the doctor were to send for the body, Mr. Webb would have got there before, and his colleagues be satisfied. They depended on his judgment to such an extent...."
The air of the room seemed to tighten round them. That doctor was no fool. He must feel something—what, how much? He pursed his lips.
"Just as you like, of course," he said briefly. " It would seem that there can be very little difference in judgment as to the expediency of burying a dead man, however. If that is what you mean. I will do as this young man suggests. These matters, of course, have a certain formality. There are precedents.... Ah, yes. Good-day, gentlemen."
He looked toward the door, which Weldon, in his capacity of master of ceremonies, opened for him, and passed out, drawing a deep breath as he crossed the threshold and hurrying, it seemed to Weldon, down the corridor. Did he want to be rid of them? It seemed so.
There they were. All the directors but Webb. All that counted, that is. One would imagine it a meeting of the board. Then why was he here? Suddenly he lost himself in a great yawn, and realized that he was dying of sleepiness. Neither last night nor the night before had he closed his eyes.
"As there seems nothing more for me to do, gentlemen," he said abruptly, "I think I will go now. There is no more assistance——"
"Wait for Webb," cried Potter nervously, "w; it, won't you? I—I insist on it!"
One felt really sorry for this rich, fat man. How ludicrously he resembled his caricatures!
"I really wish you would wait for Mr. Webb, Mr. Weldon," Dupont assured him, "it would be a great convenience. You could tell him just how it happened, you know. Just. You see, your being there, you know...."
"Of course I will stay, if you desire it," Weldon answered gravely, wondering if he could keep awake. His eyeballs fairly dragged down. The tall clock's tick confused itself with his thoughts: one, two! one, two! one, two! Suppose he were to run now, with the "memoranda, etc.," and take whatever Mr. Deeping had been going to take? That was folly, if the rest didn't know. Then he would be a common criminal. If they did know, then he could leave his memoranda slip and they would understand and make up the sum amongst them. Let Webb and Potter fork out, for once. Let them bleed the depositors. One, two! one, two! one, two! Why not? why not? why not? His eyes fairly closed for a second.
But a soft click of the door opened them. There was no knocking here. The curtain moved and Mr. Webb was in the room. Involuntarily they rose to meet him, and Fayles for the first time took his hands down. Tall and unnaturally thin, his sallow cheeks framed in lank, sandy hair, his eyes turned down, it was hard to realize that this almost slouching fellow held the attention of the shrewd in these matters as the certain head of them all, when the present great leader should have dropped his sceptre. But this was the Webb in whose labyrinthine meshes the cartoonists, delighted to picture the unhappy flies of their country's financial system; this was the weaver whose warp was of railroads and his woof the unhappy populace, in yet other pictorial fancies. This was that Webb before which many patient Penelopes had sat through many Sunday editions, dressed in stars and stripes, a sorrowing, perplexed America, and gaped to find it unwoven by day, though thick patterned with rich promises in the evening.
"All over, is it?" he said in his dry, sceptical voice, "too bad, too bad."
His eye shot out from its heavy lid and took them all in. It lingered on Weldon. "This the young man with him at the time? Sudden shock, eh?"
Weldon told his story again. They had talked of business. The president had put his hand in his pocket. Handkerchief, probably. Had experienced some shock and fallen, dead-weight, on his bent arm. As you see him now. Unable to lift him. Notified Mr. Dupont immediately. Nothing more.
"Dear, dear!" said Mr. Webb. "As quickly as that! Hard on you. Nothing handy, I suppose; only window up and water and such things?"
For the life of him Weldon could not help the slow red in his face. He glanced at the window: it was locked. For Heaven's sake, why lie? He was no murderer. And yet—any one, any one would have opened that window.
"I did what I could," he said in a low voice, "but it was plain that Mr. Deeping was dead. He never drew another breath."
"No brandy about, I suppose?" pursued Webb.
But Potter interrupted.
"For Heaven's sake, Webb," he implored, "let all that go! He's gone. You know he never touched a drop of anything. Of course there was no brandy."
"Of course," Weldon interrupted, relieved. Every one knew the president's views on that subject: he had forgotten them.
"Of course," repeated Mr. Webb softly and glanced again at the window. An intense irritation flared up in Weldon: this man flicked him on the raw with every syllable.
"If you have no further use for me, gentlemen," he began, but Webb waved his. thin, small-boned hand negligently.
"One moment, Mr.—Mr. Weldon, I think? What business did you say you were discussing with my poor friend?"
Mr. Fayles took a quick step and grasped his colleague's arm.
"For God's sake, Webb," he muttered huskily, "look at us! Where are we? What's to be done? They've sent for the body by now."
Potter seized the other arm.
"Will you tell me what all this means, Webb?" he blustered, "what's the matter with Joe Fayles? Is it possible that—is anything——"
Webb's lids lifted and the snake-like swiftness of his glance at Fayles was not lost on the others.
"If Mr. Fayles," he began slowly, "has occupied himself in spreading the disquiet he has endured since he discovered (and imparted to me) the fact that my poor friend here carried a revolver about with him, he has done a mighty foolish job. That's all I have to say."
Even Dupont was alarmed now. It was with a grim amusement that Weldon watched them all. Dupont suspected Potter, was staring malevolently at him and chewing his slight moustache nervously. Potter never took his eyes from Fayles, whose clutch on Webb was the anguished clutch of the drowning man that has caught at sea-weeds. They seemed to Weldon like actors in a play, and he was the spectator. He observed them from his red plush seat, almost despising them for the entertainment they gave him. How absurd they were, with their dead president and their suspicions. They were mad to get at the pockets—he knew! But they hadn't the nerve. And Webb, crafty old Webb, was holding them in like dogs on a leash.
"Did he really carry a pistol?" he said gently, "let's see."
He leaned over the body.
"I wonder why he wanted the pistol pocket?" he went on casually, "any idea, Mr. Weldon?"
A tiny, fine chill tingled at Weldon's heels and flew up to his hair. He had a sudden flashing sense of being in a net that was softly tightening. In an agony of regret he wished that he had not that sheaf of "memoranda, etc." It was suddenly clear to him that he had stolen them.
"I have no idea, sir," his tongue answered stolidly.
"No, ... of course not," said Mr.Webb thoughtfully. "Well, gentlemen, I can't see the need for any more discussion. This is very deplorable—a great shock. He was very methodical and no doubt everything is in easy shape...."
They drew close to him and Weldon, though he caught the murmur of voices, distinguished nothing but the steady notes of the clock: one, two! one, two! His head nodded a trifle and for one blissful second his eyelids fell. The clock began to strike eleven. One! he struggled, but it was too sweet. Two! He became dimly conscious of a rustling and movement by him. Three! there was a light touch on his arm and Webb stood near the chair he had dropped into. The others must have gone.
"You seem exhausted, Mr. Weldon," he said quietly.
"I—I have missed my sleep lately," Weldon stammered, trying to control the motions of his mouth, his voice striking his own ear as mechanical, far away, labored.
"Exactly," said Webb suavely. "And now, Mr. Weldon, how much do you expect for those papers?"
Weldon drew his chair across the broad veranda in an aimless, leisurely way, anchored it in the shadow of a wicker table laden with cool glass pitchers and iced fruits and sank into it, sighing restlessly. The pillars of coral that supported the veranda roof framed, each pair of them, an oblong of sapphire bay; vivid masses of pink oleanders hedged the foreground; the tremulous sapphire crawled softly over a creamy crescent beach. In the pleasant noon stillness the mild whine of a patient puppy broken by the chuckles of some young human thing rose on the air. Jars of sweet flowers sent out their almost tropical odors with each tiny, invisible wind-current: they seemed to puff it into his face.
A great green and flame-colored parrot, hung head downward in his yellow cage, began suddenly a mechanical, dry, litany:
"Mañana! mañana! mañana!" It was like a clock—passionless, regular, meditative. Weldon shrugged his shoulders distastefully; he had never been able to conquer his dislike of steady, measured sounds. It was an unreasonable weakness, but incurable. He twisted uneasily in his white flannels as the bird droned on,
"Mañana! mañana! mañana!"
"He still, Chico, be still, sir!"
A fair, finely grown boy took the coral steps two at a bound and threatened the parrot.
"Daddy, keep him quiet, won't you? He frightens my white mice awfully. Why do mice hate parrots? Do you know, daddy?"
Weldon's face cleared and he threw his arm over the slender shoulders.
"I don't know, Pippo, I can't guess," he said. "Where's your mother?"
"Just beyond you," and the boy slipped away to his pets, grudging the time for her kiss in passing.
She stood softly behind the wicker chair and laid her hand on his forehead. Her lips were only a little smoother.
"Still troubled, dearest?" she asked him in her pleasant English voice. "Still dreaming?"
She was very fair, with reddish lights in her thick, low-growing hair, and brown, broad eyebrows. Under them her eyes shone, a frank, dark blue; she bore a curious likeness to a colored print that, pinned to his dark hall bedroom in his first days of dull clerkship, twenty year-ago, had smiled over his narrow bed and set his ideal of dear and loving women forever. She had even the same small dimple at the left of her mouth.
She slipped to the floor beside him and laid her head in her wifely English way against his knee.
"I'm so sorry it bothers you, Phil," she murmured, her cheek against his hand. "One would think you were a superstition boy, you silly! Hear baby—he's playing so dearly with those puppies! He pats them and then pinches their tails so slyly! Oh, Ted! Oh, baby! Call to mummy!"
From the balcony above a shrill crow drowned the complaint of the puppies.
"Doesn't he say it plainly!" she cried, flushing a beautiful mother-rose. "And he is so strong, Phil!"
He caressed her absently. Ten years gone, and a dream had swept those years to one side as one would draw a bronze curtain, had opened the past as one would open a heavy mahogany door! All night a tall, carved clock had ticked, ticked through his dreams, one! two! one, two! one, two! A sinister, sandy face had mocked and probed him, a fat, animal face had irritated him, a pale, haunted face had pleaded with him. He had tossed himself awake, had listened thankfully to the soft breathing beside him, had kissed the fragrant braid across his face, and sunk again into heavy, sultry nightmare, doomed to live that shameful day through every clock-tick. And now his brain was cloudy with it. His hand lay listless on her shoulder.
A five-year-old girl, lovely as a tea rose, stood doubtfully in the cedar-wood door, poised for flight either way, sucking in the dimple at the left of her mouth. Running at his call she flew into his arms and dropped her buttercup head on his shoulder. For the first time he smiled, and the wise wife slipped quietly away and watched them from the door, guessing at their murmurs, counting their kisses. Later she disturbed them reluctantly.
"I want to say you are not at home," she said, "but I daren't quite do that, for he is from the States, dear, and it is important business. His name," dropping her eyes to the white rectangle in her hand, "is Webb. Shall I send him out here?"
Weldon put the child down from his knees and half rose.
"Yes," he said clearing his throat, "send him out here. And keep the children away."
So this was it. It had not been for nothing, that dream.
The tall, lank figure was before him, the ironical smile drooped on the tight lips. Ten years had left him as they found him, but for a thought of gray in the sandy hair.
"Sit down," said Weldon briefly, "what is it?"
"You've put on a little weight, I see," said Webb, nodding at the proffered chair, "but that's only proper in the president of a bank, I suppose. You've done well, Mr. Weldon."
"You did not come to Bermuda to tell me this, Mr. Webb, I think?"
"No," said Webb, "I didn't. Ten years ago, Mr. Weldon, you called me a mind-reader when I had put two and two together once or twice, put myself in your place for ten minutes, complimented you by assuming that your course had been what mine would have been, and spoken to you accordingly. Can't you do a little mind-reading on your own account, now?"
"I confess myself unequal to it," Weldon said coldly.
Webb nodded indulgently.
"All right," he returned, "we'll take it that way, if you want to. Mr. Weldon, I don't know if you read our papers down here at all?"
"I have never opened an American newspaper since I left the country," said Weldon briefly.
"I see. I suppose you know that Blickenstern's dying, though?"
"Yes," Weldon answered indifferently, "we all know that, of course."
"Yes. Well, Mr. Weldon, I'm supposed to inherit his shoes. It's not much to you, of course, but a lot to me—and to a lot of other people, too. Now for something you don't know. In just about five days, Mr. Weldon, we're going to break through the crust and drop into the biggest panic since '93. That and Blickenstern's death—he must go soon, now—and this fearful railroad business—I won't bore you—will put me into a bad hole. A worse hole, I don't mind telling you, Mr. Weldon, than Blick's successor can afford to get into. It's all a matter of balance, now; pretty fine balancing, too, for the next week. In six weeks there'll be enough for most of us, but just now—well, there'll be dozens of us in the Street who'll be grateful for ten thousand in cash around the corner. Think of it—ten thousand! Now I'll be short. I need some money—not stage money, Mr. Weldon, real money! I wouldn't take Blick's name on paper for what I want this week—and getting it or not getting it means the top of the heap for me, or three years' fight for it. I can't afford three years. I wasn't a bank president at forty, you know."
"You mean you want the ten thousand pounds you gave me?"
"Just so. I want fifty thousand dollars, Mr. Weldon—for six weeks. I hate to do it, honestly. Nothing but this infernal panic could have driven me to this. But I'm helpless. And it's worth millions to me to have no one suspect it. I can't touch a penny elsewhere—it's all tied up. I must be able to produce it without any fuss, or disturbing the jack-straws a particle. There's no use in going into the details."
"No use at all," said Weldon stiffly, "for it will be impossible for me to lend you such a sum, Mr. Webb, impossible. I have paid well for my position here."
"And a good move, too," said the other heartily. "You stand well, Weldon; none better."
"I have never been what you would call ambitious," Weldon went on, more passionately, now. "When you yourself asked me why I demanded no more than the ten—the fifty thousand, you remember my answer. I knew that it would buy me a good, respectable interest out here, assure me of a position I had every capacity to sustain honorably and efficiently, and give me the leisure and climate that I wanted. I shall never be a rich man—by your standards. I don't care. I thought my brains and initiative were worth what I asked, and you agreed with me. I promised utter silence and have kept my word. You promised the same and have broken yours. I can do nothing for you, even if I wished to. I'd rather not discuss it further."
"Mañana! mañana! mañana!" the parrot shrilled. It still hung head down in the shining cage. Weldon could have wrung its neck. It was worse than a clock. Webb sighed regretfully and raised his heavy lids. As the old snakish glance reached him Weldon felt the old net-like sensation, the old baffled rage.
"I'm sorry, Weldon, but I can't let it go. It's no use—you can't afford it. It's all like a house you build out of cards, you see, and you can't slip out one without the whole thing caving in. Whatever I pull out I have to explain. How do you suppose I got you your fifty thousand, back there? You know I've never had much money—to call money. It's brains—what you call mind-reading, you other fellows—that I've matched against the rest of them. And I've got them where they're afraid of me. I can't drop back. Listen to me, Weldon!"
He drew his chair close and talked low and steadily for five minutes. The air seemed to grow dense; the rustling hiss of the foam on the creamy beach was the hiss and flicker of a sea-coal fire; the grotesque shadow of the wicker chair, black on the white veranda floor, was the spread, silent bulk of a dead man.
The low voice ceased.
"How about it, Weldon?" it added abruptly, "can you afford that?"
Weldon pushed away his chair roughly. "Come down to my room at the bank," he said.
Hours afterward he dragged himself into his bedroom, an older man by ten years than when he had quitted it. His body seemed heavier, his face hollower, with pinched lips and sunken eyes. The man who waited on him stared openly and mentioned the doctor, only to receive a curse for his pains—the first he had ever heard from his master.
In the late dusk his wife found him asleep in a long chair with an empty decanter beside him and heavy rugs dragged up to his chin. They tried, both of them, to make that nervous chill account for the change in him, but she watched him narrowly and he felt her eyes day and night.
Something tolled like a bell in him and never stopped for a moment: six weeks! six weeks! six weeks! all his waking movements went to that intolerable rhythm; he was like a man under a gallows, with a reprieve coming to him, at the mercy of all the elements. It was observed at the bank that he worked harder and longer and much alone: they said the American blood was coming out at last, and smiled at each other.
"Only mind you don't engage us in speculations, old man," said one of his colleagues jocosely, " 'safe and sound,' you know! Look at the States—a pretty mess that!"
Weldon turned on him in a fury of anger.
"Speculation! speculation!" he cried harshly, "you know that I hate it like hell!"
They were genuinely anxious about him.
One morning he found his wife in his dressing-room, white faced over something in her hand.
"Philip! Philip!" she whispered and clung to him.
He put the shining little steel-eyed thing behind him.
"My dear, don't be foolish," he said quietly, "if I have my reasons for wishing a certain sort of protection for a few days, will you make me regret my sparing you?"
"You—you mean the bank?" she gasped.
"What else could I mean?" he said steadily, and in some quaint woman's reasoning she was appeased.
At the end of three weeks the strain eased a little. He read a letter from Webb with a grim smile, bought an American newspaper, and passed an entire day away from the bank. His wife held her breath as she watched him, but affected not to notice the change, and he blessed her for it: his nerves were raw. Two days, three days went by. He sent out for another newspaper and later in the day raised the tiny salary of the page who had brought it to him. In the cool of the afternoon he rode with his wife, the boy on a shaggy pony beside them, and kissed her as she turned in the saddle in the shadow of the dusk.
"You are the best wife a man ever had," he said, looking deep into her honest blue eyes, and she galloped away from him to hide her happy tears.
The next day he told the servant to bring the parrot cage back to the veranda, where the little daughter liked to have it, and grimaced tolerantly at its strident cry.
Life is as it is, he thought, and can we hope to change it because we change? Surely not. Everything had its price, and he had really never paid the price of that ten-years-old bargain till now—he acknowledged it. Out of that blue-stained air the messenger of fate had dropped and taken his toll of youth and candor and elasticity and departed again, and now the weight was slackening from his chest and there were but fourteen days to wait.
The next day he found a second letter from Webb on his desk. To relieve him from needless anxiety, wrote the great financier, he wrote to inform Mr. Weldon that six weeks had proved too wide a margin and he promised himself the pleasure of a complete settlement six days from the date of writing. Weldon stared at the letter head: it had been three days on the way—that meant in three days—by the next boat! The letter was grave, but subtly jubilant. The railroads were subdued. Blickenstern was dead, the country hailed his successor. A foundation of millions lay firm beneath his feet.
The president left his bank early and went home on horseback to luncheon. His wife saw the husband of many days ago and asked no more of life, but sang among her flower jars.
"Will you tome up to Government House this afternoon, dear? It's weeks since you've been," she said, and he smiled and promised. "I've a new frock," she confided shyly, like a girl, "and I think you'll like to see it—now."
"I'll be back before four," he told her, "a little late, but I promised one of our young fellows an appointment."
She pouted as she had used in her courtship days.
"A young man!"
"I can't disappoint him, sweetheart. Youngsters feel those things. He wants more money and I really believe he's worth it."
As he entered his private room something struck him disagreeably. He glanced about—a sea-coal fire burned in the tiny English grate. He scowled and touched a bell. Asked to explain, the page confessed that he had promised Mrs. Weldon to put a fire there whenever any dampness should threaten, and that to-day being noticeably damp he had kept his word. The president nodded and the lad made his escape.
In another moment a slender young man entered, with a discreet knock, and faced him. He seemed unaccountably excited—even blustering, for a young man in his position.
The president took out his watch and counted the ticks to quiet his irritation. We must be kind to the young ones—promotion means so much to them. He remembered his own successive steps, and how the blue-eyed girl in the picture had smiled on them all, above his narrow bed.
"Let us look at all this a little quietly," he said, softened already, "believe me, I want to satisfy every reasonable claim. It is to my interest——"
He caught his breath. Something in the young man's attitude as he faced him, level eyed, hands between his knees, a contemptuous smile on his hard young face, smote him to the very marrow.
"What is he thinking of me?" flashed through him. The answer came like the shot from a cannon.
"Is it to your interest to satisfy every reasonable claim on the ten thousand pounds you borrowed from the bank last month, Mr. Weldon?"
The soft lines faded from his face and two gray streaks grew around his mouth. The ticking of the watch in his hand rose and swelled and filled the room—one, two! one, two! our, two!
So this was the end. Never a night of honest sleep again. Never a free swell of the chest. To go down in sight of land, to drop just outside the fort! All over! All over! All over!
The young man was still talking, quicklv, definitely enough, but it grew blurred as it reached his brain. He found his tongue, dry and stiff in his mouth, asking questions mechanically.
Did any one know of this?
No, only the young man. He was not inclined to be rapacious. He had an interest in a bank in Gibraltar, and two thousand pounds would establish him there. He had thought it might be worth the president's while to put him in the way of two thousand pounds—considering everything. Promotion was slow in Bermuda ... dead men's shoes....
The tongue in Weldon's mouth asked, calmly enough, how he was to be protected against further demands. The young man explained very clearly. The president had managed thoroughly well: in a few days the recent transaction would be a ripple under water. But during those few days ... he smiled disagreeably.
The fire whistled in the grate; the bank was utterly still. They were alone in it. In one second of time years and the future itself wheeled before Philip Weldon's sunken eyes. So the black drop had lasted, after all, and would tint his life as long as that life lasted on earth ... and longer? Anything was possible. Must the sordid drama play itself eternally, through the years and countries, till the final ripple hit the southern-most port of refuge? Would this man sit before a sea-coal fire in his bank in Gibraltar, frozen, his life and honor nipped at the root by the triumphant hound who had tracked down his one fault? Before God, his only one! He was white beside some others who lived and died respected. Prove the contrary, any one!
One, two! one, two! one, two! That watch. Either he was going mad or it could be heard in the street outside, it shouted so. Who was he, anyway—Deeping or himself? Who was that young man?
Suddenly his head cleared. He moistened his lips and leaned forward, the watch crystal shivered in his grasp.
"And you are going——"
"To Gibraltar," said the young man briskly. "I am glad that you——"
"No," said Weldon thoughtfully, "I am afraid you are not going to Gibraltar. You are going to die."
He pushed his hand back into his pocket and felt the precious hard little object there. His fingers clasped it, when a heavy blow sent him reeling in his chair. A pain like a knife cut through his heart and he fell heavily backward on his bent arm.
His eyes opened. He drew a deep breath. A tall, carved clock in the corner struck, and a man, a lank, sandy man beside him, seemed to have said something, for his voice was in the air.
"He must have had some papers—if there is anything wrong—good God, Webb, what shall we do?"
This was a slender, foppish man, iron gray.
Weldon sprang to his feet, pulling his right arm from behind him, wide, wide awake now. He was free! He was free!
The clock struck again.
Thrusting his hand in his coat he drew out a sheaf of papers and pressed them upon Webb.
"Here, gentlemen," he cried breathlessly, "are the papers you want! And here," he threw a small folded slip on the floor, "is an explanation that may help you with them. I wish you good-day."
To get out! To get out! He burst through the portières and the door, as four men, uniformed, with a black stretcher between them, entered it from without. In the moment of his withdrawal from them he saw, as one sees a stage group from his red plush seat, Potter, panting and terrified, Fayles, anguished, Dupont dazed and suspicious, their eyes fixed on Webb, who, calm as in his own office, ran over the sheaf with his snake-like eye. Even as he nodded shrewdly, the stretcher was in the room and the group dissolved.
Weldon found his hat in his hand; he polished it furiously as he strode down the corridor. He threw himself on the outside door and as he opened it, he heard through the unclosed door of the private room, the great clock strike eleven. With a shudder he plunged across the threshold, out, out into the clean, free air.