Whom the Gods Destroyed (collection)/A Bayard of Broadway
A BAYARD OF BROADWAY
A BAYARD OF BROADWAY
THE younger man—he was only a boy—grinned impishly at the elder, bringing out the two dimples in his flushed, girlish cheeks.
"That's all right enough, Dill," he drawled; he always drawled when he had been drinking. When he was sober the familiar Huntington staccato was very marked in him.
"That's all right, Dilly, my boy, and a grand truth, as old Jim used to tell us at chapel, but maybe little Robert doesn't see your game? Oh, yes, he sees it, fast enough. Sis hands it out to you, and you recite it to Robbie, and Robbie reforms, and you get Sis! How's that for a young fellow who flunks his math? Not bad, eh?"
Dillon flushed and set his teeth, mastering an almost irresistible longing to slap those red cheeks in vicious alternation. To think that this chattering young idiot stood between him and his heart's desire!
Bob drawled on: "Anyhow, Dill, I think it's right queer, you know. Why don't she marry you? She can't love you very much, if it depends on me. You're a man o' the world, you know, man o' world"—he grew absent-minded and stared at the wall. Dillon snapped his fingers nervously, and the speaker began again with a start:
"That's what I say—a man o' world. Tell her it's all bosh worryin' over me, tell her that, Dill, tell her I say so. No use her tryin' to be my mother. Now is there, Dill, as a man, is there? If she got married and had some children of her own——"
"Bob," the older man burst out, "for heaven's sake, shut up, will you, and listen to me! I'm going to tell you the truth. You've got the whole thing in your hands—God knows why, but you have—and I'm going to lay it before you once for all. Then do as you please: make us all happy, or go to the devil your own way—and I'll go mine," he added, lower and quicker.
Bob sat up, blinked rapidly, and smoothed his hair down tight over his ears—sure sign that he was nearly himself.
"Go ahead," he said shortly, "I'll come in."
Dillon bit his lip a moment; he would rather have taken a whipping than say what he had to say. The clock ticked loud in the pause, and Bob, every moment clearer-eyed, heavy sleep a thing of the past, stared at him disconcertingly.
"What I'm going to say to you," Dillon began, "isn't very often said by one man to another, I imagine. Few men are placed in just my position. I've known you all so well, I've seen so much of you all my life——" he paused.
"I needn't say how much I thought of your mother. When your father was—when he broke down so often at the last, of course I saw a great deal of her, and she trusted me a lot—she had to, once she began. When she died, and you weren't there, because you——"
"Don't! please don't, Dill!" the boy's lips contracted; his slim body twisted with a helpless remorse.
"Well, then, when she died she asked me to look out for you, because she knew how I loved her and—and Helena. She knew you had it in you, and she didn't blame you—they never do, I suppose, mothers—but she asked me if I'd try to look out for you. She knew I wasn't perfect myself. That's—that's why she thought I wouldn't do for Helena. Helena was always so wonderful, so high above——"
Again he stopped, and the boy's voice broke in: "Helena's made of snow and ice-water," he said moodily, "she's too good for this earth. She doesn't know——"
"She knows what her brother should be, and she knows what her husband must be," Dillon interrupted sternly. "No sister could have been more of an angel to you. Bob.
"Now I'll go on. It's going to be necessary just here for me to tell you that I love your sister. You don't know anything about that, of course. You don't for a second of your life realise what it is to love a woman as I've loved her for—for five years, we'll say. I put it five because, though I loved her long before, things happened in between, and I don't count it till five years ago. Heaven knows I'm not worth her shoe-laces. Once or twice—before the five years—I've realised that a little too much, and then—the things happened. But since then I've honestly tried to keep to the mark your mother set me. She said to me once, 'If you would only keep as good as you are at your best, Lawrence, you'd be good enough for Helena,' and—perhaps because that wasn't so very good, after all—I've really been keeping there, after a fashion."
Bob stared at him in unaffected amazement. This clubman, this elegant, this social arbiter was standing before him with tears in his level grey eyes. It dawned upon his reckless young soul that the soul of another man was slowly and painfully stripping itself before him.
"We'll let that part of it go," Dillon went on hurriedly, "you couldn't see. I—I think I could make her happy. Bob. I know her better than she thinks. She almost said she'd have me, and then you went on that spree. You nearly broke her heart—I needn't go over it. Only she made a vow, then—it was when she went into that convent-place in Holy Week, and she's never been the same since—and it was about you."
"About me? What d'you mean?"
"She told me she never could marry till she was certain whether you were just obstinate and wild, or—or like your father; and that in that case ——"
"What, in that case?" Bob muttered through his teeth.
"She was going to devote her life to taking care of you."
There was a silence.
"There's no use in going over all the arguments now, Bob—you know what the doctor said. Three months without a drop, and then he'd warrant you. Every day that goes by makes it harder for you. And here's your Uncle Owen promising that the first month you go without a spree he'll send you for a three months' cruise on the yacht with Stebbins—you know what a chance that is."
Bob looked fairly up for the first time.
"Stebbins! Would Stebbins go? I don't believe you!" he cried eagerly.
"He told me he would," said Dillon.
"Why on earth should he?"
"He's a friend of mine," the other answered simply.
Bob twisted his lips together a moment, while the muscles around his mouth worked. Suddenly he gave way and broke into sobbing speech.
"You're a good fellow. Dill—I'm not worth it—truly, I'm not! I've been a beast—and the college and all that—you all despise me—but so do I!"
He gripped the chair, turning his handsome, tear-stained face up to his friend's. How the straight, thin nose, the black-lashed blue eyes, the white forehead reflected Helena! Dillon could have kissed him for the likeness.
"Will you, Bob? Will you? We'll all stand by you!"
"I will, Dillon, I will, so help me—Bob!" he smiled through wet lashes. "You hang on, and I will! But look out for that rector—he's running a close second, and Aunt Sarah's backing him for all she's worth!" He was smiling wisely now; the strain was lifted, and he was almost himself again. Dillon scowled.
"He takes her slumming, you know, and, say, you ought to hear him give it to Aunt Sarah about knowing the condition the poor devils are in before you deal out the tracts, you know. He wants the good ladies and gentlemen to come and see—that way, you know."
"He's right enough there," Dillon said constrainedly, "and I suppose he's better for her than I'd be—no, by Greorge, he's not! Bob, I tell you, I know her better than he does—I tell you I've waited five years—Oh, Lord, I can't talk any more about it!"
They went out arm in arm, the boy warm and friendly, proud of his confidence and full of high resolve, Dillon impassive outwardly, but conscious of great stakes. To say, in four short weeks, to those wide, blue eyes, a little scornful, perhaps, but with so sweet, so pure a scorn! 'The strain is over: he is safe; can you not trust me now?' His heart leaped and grew large at the thought.
It was so like Helena, this service, half-sacred in her mother's trust, half -shy in maidenly delaying. "She is afraid of me!" he thought exultingly—indeed, she admitted as much.
"You and your set—one knows you, and yet one oesn't," she said to him. "You seem so still, so satisfied, so sure about life—there seems to be so much you don't tell! Do you see what I mean? It frightens me. There is so much we don't think the same about, Lawrence—so much of you I don't know! I wanted, when I married, to come into a—a peace. I wanted it to be—don't laugh—like my Confirmation: do you think it would, if I married you? Do you, Lawrence?"
He turned his head away. A vision of her, those ten short years ago, in white procession down the aisle of Easter lilies, rapt and aloof, flashed before him. For one sweet second he saw her in fancy, again in white, but trembling now, and near him——
"Oh, dearest child," he begged, "I don't know about the peace—how can I? The things are so different! But we could be happy—I know we could! Is peace all you want, sweetheart, all?"
Caught by his eyes, her own wavered and dropped; a flood of red rose to her hair.
"Don't, Lawrence, you frighten me! When you look like that—Oh, wait a month, only this month, Lawrence, till Bob has gone and we're sure!"
"You want that more than anything else, don't you? You'd give up anything——"
Her eyes grew soft, then stern, and looked clearly into his.
"Anything in the world," she said instantly, "so that mamma could see he was—safe. I am all Bob has. Oh, if he can only——"
"He shall," Dillon assured her stoutly, "he shall, this time!"
And indeed it seemed that he would. He seemed awakened to the strongest effort they had known him to make. His uncle's offer, grimly set for one month from its date, or never, took on for him a superstitious colour of finality. He was convinced that it was his last chance.
"If I'm downed this time. Dill, it's all up," he would say, wearily, as they paced the endless city blocks together, arm in arm, under the night. "If I can keep up till the yacht—how long is it, a week?—then, something tells me I'm all right. I swear it's so. I never felt that before. But if I don't"—he paused ominously. "There's always one way out," he added.
"You will break Helena's heart, then."
"Heart? I don't think she has one. If she had, you'd have had her long ago. Oh, no, I sha'n't. She'll go into that beastly retreat for a while, and then she'll marry that crazy rector-man and go about saving souls. You'll see."
The week was nearly up. The yacht was ready in the harbour. The boy, though, showed the strain, and Dillon, fearful of too much dogging him, and warned by his furtive eyes and narrowed lips, called in Stebbins to the rescue.
"I can't have him hate me, Steb," he explained. "We're both of us worn pretty thin. If you could give up to-day and to-night——"
They shook hands.
"It's every minute, practically, you know, Steb," he added doubtfully, "it's a good deal."
"Oh, get on!" the other broke in, with a good-natured shoulder clap.
As he swung the glass door of the club behind him, Dillon ran down a messenger-boy, bulging with yellow envelopes. The boy glanced at him questioningly.
"Mist' Wardwell, Adams, Stebbins, 'r Waite?" he inquired, holding out four telegrams as he slipped in.
Dillon shook his head, and walked down the steps.
One more night and she would be all to win, no promise between, no scruple that a lover might not smother. Shame on him if he could not woo more persuasively than a mystical evangelist! In the evening he would see her; the precious little note lay warm over his heart.
He dined alone, he could not have said where, and an idle impulse for the lights and bustle of the great thoroughfare sent him strolling down Broadway. It was too early for the crowd, and he found himself guessing vaguely as to the characteristics of the couples that met and passed him. That tall, slender lad, for instance, with such a hint of Bob—poor, troublesome Bob!—in his loose, telltale swagger, what had led him to the dark-eyed creature that tapped her high heels beside him? As she came under the light, one saw better; her flashing smile, her careless carriage of the head, her broad sweep of shoulder, had a certain charm—great heavens, it was Bob steadying himself on her arm! A moment, and the familiar drawl reached his ear:
"An' so you always want to choose mos' prominent place, every time, an' you're safe's a church. No chance to meet y'r dear frien's——"
Dillon strode to his side, raising his hat to the surprised woman.
"I beg your pardon. Bob, but had you forgotten your engagement this evening?" he said smoothly. Bob stopped, glared a moment uncertainly, but the scrupulous courtesy of Dillon's bearing had its intended effect.
"What—what engagement?" he inquired suspiciously. "Friend o' mine," he added to his companion.
"Haven't you met Stebbins? He—he was expecting you." Lawrence felt his heart sink. Where was Stebbins? Oh, fool, to have lost hold at the eleventh hour!
"Stebbins? Stebbins?" Bob murmured to himself. "Ah, yes; the beastly boat got afire, and he had to go down; I'm going too, after a while—too early yet—take a little walk, first, with Miss—Miss——" He paused, and stared thoughtfully at the woman. "I don't seem to just recall your name," he said pleasantly. "Would you mind telling me so that I can introduce you? Bad form, his poking in, though, terribly bad form."
Dillon noted with anger that Bob was at his most argumentative, obstinate stage; at this point, if he felt the necessity, he could speak most correctly and clearly, by giving some thought to the matter, and it was almost impossible to alter his determinations.
"My name is Williams," said the woman. Dillon bowed.
"What have you had, Bob?" he inquired, moving along with them.
"Oh, only a cocktail—here and there—Miss—Miss Willis likes 'em as well as anything. About time we had another?" he suggested, eyeing Lawrence combatively.
The older man stopped dead. A weary despair of the whole business seized him. It was all up, then. Even if he went about with the boy, which Bob would hardly allow, his condition next morning would be all too apparent. And then Uncle Owen would wash his hands of it all. Aunt Sarah would never consent to any institutional cure. Helena would never marry while Bob needed her—thank God, she had never suspected the woman!
As if in answer to his thoughts. Bob complained loudly:
"I say it's a blamed shame, the first time I go out with a girl to enjoy the evening, to have you pokin' in, Dill! Always stuck with the fellows before; and now I get a girl, like anybody else, and here you come! Why don't you get out? Two's company."
Dillon caught his arm.
"Bob," he said beseechingly, "you don't know what you're doing. Surely you know what this means! Don't you remember that the Eider-duck sails to-morrow at nine? Don't you realise that by this night's folly you're losing your last chance? Your last chance, Bob! Think how you called it that yourself! If this lady realised all this meant to you, she'd excuse you, I'm sure. Don't be a fool, Bob! Let me put you in a cab and go right to Stebbins—old Steb'll put you up, and nobody will ever know! You can sleep it off—it's only eight o'clock."
To his unexpected delight Bob yawned sleepily. His eyes were dull, his mouth drooped.
"Sleep it off," he murmured. "I wish I was in bed this minute. Lord, I'm tired. And I know, why, too. I told her bromo-seltzer would settle me. Always puts me to sleep—no good at all. Fool to drink it. Told her so.…"
Dillon's spirits rose.
"That's so," he assented, "it always acts that way with you, doesn't it? Especially with cocktails. Now, you be a wise man. Bob," he urged "and get into this cab——"
"And where do I come in?" said the woman sharply. "I call this a little queer, if you don't mind my saying so."
Bob roused himself for a moment.
"Just so," he declared heavily, "just so. Where does Miss Willard come in? You must think I'm a terrible cad, Dill, to ask a lady out for the evening, and leave her like that! Not a bit of it! You go on! Sorry, but can't leave the lady."
Lawrence moved toward his pocket involuntarily. The woman struck his arm lightly.
"That'll do," she said sullenly. "I don't want your money. You think I'm a kind of a bundle, do you? Pick me up and drop me. Well, that's where you make a mistake. Why don't you let your friend alone?"
"Helen—she'll know. You say nobody will," Bob broke in suddenly. "She won't lie, if you will. She'll tell Uncle Owen. What's the use?"
"I won't tell her," Lawrence returned quickly, "and nobody else knows."
"Well, then," Bob faced him cunningly, walking backwards through the comparatively empty cross-street they had turned down, "I think maybe I'll do it. I want to go with Stebbins, all right. But"—his obstinacy rose again, suddenly—"I swear I won't go back on a lady! Nobody offer a lady money in my presence! 'Twon't do, Dill! Get out!"
"Bob," Lawrence urged, despairingly, "if I take Miss Williams wherever she wants to go, and she will accept my escort"—he half turned to her, but his doubt was not evident, if he had it—"will you go to Stebbins?"
Bob stopped short, nearly falling backwards.
"Great head!" he cried. "Never thought old Dilly had it in him ! I'll—I'll consider the prop—the prop—the plan." He yawned widely. "I certainly am sleepy," he observed, sinking on a convenient step.
Dillon shook him and dragged him up.
"Come," he said, shortly, "will you?"
Bob pointed a theatrical finger at them.
"Do you, Dilly, being of sound mind, body, or estate, give me your solemn word of honour as a gentleman to escort Miss Willins wherever she wants to go? Do you?"
"And drop me when your back's turned," interposed the woman, laconically, but not angrily. Her interest was awakened, perhaps her sense of humour, too, and she awaited developments philosophically.
"Never a bit," Bob returned. "You don't know old Dill. If he says it, he'll do it, if there were what-do-you-call-'ems in the way."
"I give you my word of honour," said Lawrence, steadily.
"And you'll never tell Helen? Because if you do, she tells Uncle Owen, and it's all up with Robbie."
"I will never tell her."
"On your word of honour?"
"On my word of honour."
"Then call your cab and tuck me in my little bed. My eyes will crack if I prop 'em up any longer."
"Miss—Miss—I can't recall your name, but you don't object?…"
"Oh, no, I don't object in the least," said Miss Williams satirically, with a wondering glance at the tall, immaculate gentleman at her side, his face stern in the electric-light, his evening clothes in marked contrast to Bob's negligée. "In fact, I rather——"
Dillon whistled a cab and gave the driver whispered directions. A bill fluttered as he passed it up. The man nodded, respectful.
"And now I am at your service," said Dillon, standing tall and straight before her. "Where did you wish to go?"
Not for one moment did it occur to him to evade his duty, and not for one moment did she intend that he should. Where they went, through all that nightmare evening, he could never afterward tell. From dance-hall to concert-hall they wandered, sat awhile, and departed. Nor were they silent on the way. What they spoke of he could not have told for his life, but they talked, fairly steadily at first, less and less as the night wore on, and the woman grew dreamily content with the lights, the warmth, and the liquor. Dillon was imperturbably polite, gravely attentive to her wishes, curiously conscious of one life with her and another distinct existence at Helena's home. Now he was waiting, waiting, waiting in front of the close-shaded windows to see if she had left the house or if she still sat in surprised idleness expecting him. Now he was at Stebbins's house watching Bob as he lay asleep there.
He remembered afterward thinking that the woman must have been a Southerner, for, as she drank, her tongue turned to those softer tones, slurred vowels and quaint idioms.
"It seems like you're having a good time, after all," she said once. He bowed gravely.
By eleven they were well down-town, he was not quite certain where. They stayed but little time in any one place. It seemed as if they had been on this endless journey for years. Now and then he saw a man he knew. In one place he wakened, with a shock of remembrance, to the fact that he had been there before: there, and at the place opposite, too. How little it had hanged! It was before the five years.…
They were at a corner table, he with his back to the room, the woman facing it. On a platform opposite a young fellow sat before a piano, striking desultory chords. Presently he began to sing, in a sweet, piercing tenor:
"Oh, promise me that some day you and I——"
There was a moved silence through the room; his voice had a quality that reached for the heart:
"Those first sweet violets of early spring——"
Dillon glanced at the woman; her large, dark eyes were brimmed with tears. A great pity surged over him: he would have given anything he owned to be able to offer her her life to live again. Tenderly, as over a dusty, broken bird, he laid his hand over her clasped ones on the table. They sat in awed silence; the song swelled on. He did not hear the door open behind him, nor turn as a new party of four entered quietly. Directly behind his chair a man's voice spoke softly.
"This is a fair sample. Not very bad, you think? But every man in this room is a confirmed opium-eater, and the women——"
The two at the table hardly heard.
"Oh, the women!" said a woman's voice in a rough whisper. "I cannot bear to think——"
"Oh, it isn't the women, Aunty! You sha'n't say that—they are heart-breaking. It's the men, the men I bl——"
Swiftly, hopelessly, as the steel turns to the magnet, Dillon turned and faced Helena Huntington.
As her eyes met his all the rose colour in her soft cheeks seemed to sweep into his and burn dully there, leaving her whiter than bone. For one fiery second her eyes rested on the table, the half-emptied glasses, the clasped hands of the pair, the tear-stained cheeks of the handsome girl. For one breath two groups of stone confronted each other. Then, with no sign of recognition, she swept from her seat, her hand on the rector's arm, her aunt and an older man behind them. Her aunt looked at Dillon as if he were the chair he sat in.
The door swung behind them.
"No life so perfect as a life with thee,
Oh, promise me; oh, promise me!"
the tenor shrilled. Lawrence burst into jangling laughter.
"The evening is over," he said, still red and shaking. "Allow me to escort you home."
He never remembered the time between this speech and the moment when she asked him to step in for a while, and he laughed in her face. Then there was another time, and he was at his rooms at the club. But that was early morning. He was lame and his shoes hurt his feet—he must have walked a great deal.
At eight o'clock Stebbins dashed into the room.
"Well, of all the fellows! What's the matter with you?"
He was fresh and rosy; a faint, wholesome aroma of cigars and eau-de-cologne swept in with him.
"Why the deuce aren't you down to see us off? They're all there. Got my telegram yesterday? Fire didn't amount to much, but the fools hadn't half the stuff I ordered. I was down there all the afternoon seeing to it. I sent Bob right around to you. You must have walked him well. Stevens said he came in at eight and tumbled straight to bed. He's fresh as paint this morning. Asked him where he'd been, and I swear he didn't know. Says you told him to go to bed, and he went. Drove home, he says. Actually doesn't remember a living thing but that, since dinner. When you said he'd be that way sometimes I didn't really believe you, but I do now. Where were you?"
Dillon faced him.
"For God's sake, Lawrence, what is it? Are you sick? She said you wouldn't be there——"
"The old one—the aunt. Bob was wondering about it, and she says directly, 'No, he won't be here this morning,' so I slipped off. Bob said if you were tired, never mind.
"I say, Lawrence, that's an awfully attractive boy. You can't help liking him. He called me aside, and, 'Look here,' says he, 'Uncle Owen says there's to be no wine packed for you. Now I can't have that, Stebbins it won't do. It's awfully bully of you to come, and you must have everything you want.' I told him that would be all right and what a fine vacation it was going to be for me ——"
Lawrence turned the water into the tub and began to pull at his shoes. Never had he felt so grateful for Stebbins's constant chatter.
"I don't believe I'll come down," he heard himself say, "I have a beastly headache. I didn't get much sleep——"
"Well, for heaven's sake get some, if it makes you look like that! Where'd you go, anyway, after you put Bob to bed?"
Lawrence pulled off his coat.
"Parson's down there, you know. He and uncle seem to be hand in glove. He's pretty well fixed with most of the family, I shouldn't wonder."
"How much time have you got?" said Lawrence's voice.
"George, not much! Cab's waiting outside. I won't mention how you look, then—just tell 'em good-bye."
"That's all. Just tell 'em good-bye."
Lawrence was in the bath-room as Stebbins hurried out. He sat down on the porcelain rim of the tub, his face drawn and grey above his white shirt.
"It seems to be pretty well settled up," he said quietly. "I hope his mother's pleased!"