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There are two kinds of dangerous temptations--those that tempt us, and those that don't. Those that don't, give us a false notion of our resisting power, and so make us easy victims to the others. I thought I knew myself pretty thoroughly, and I believed there was nothing that could tempt me to neglect my business. With this delusion of my strength firmly in mind, when Anita became a temptation to neglect business, I said to myself: "To go up-town during business hours for long lunches, to spend the mornings selecting flowers and presents for her--these things look like neglect of business, and would be so in some men. But I couldn't neglect business. I do them because my affairs are so well ordered that a few hours of absence now and then make no difference--probably send me back fresher and clearer."
When I left the office at half-past twelve on that fateful Wednesday in June, my business was never in better shape. Textile Common had dropped a point and a quarter in two days--evidently it was at last on its way slowly down toward where I could free myself and take profits. As for the Coal enterprise nothing could possibly happen to disturb it; I was all ready for the first of July announcement and boom. Never did I have a lighter heart than when I joined Anita and her friends at Sherry's. It seemed to me her friendliness was less perfunctory, less a matter of appearances. And the sun was bright, the air delicious, my health perfect. It took all the strength of all the straps Monson had put on my natural spirits to keep me from being exuberant.
I had fully intended to be back at my office half an hour before the Exchange closed--this in addition to the obvious precaution of leaving orders that they were to telephone me if anything should occur about which they had the least doubt. But so comfortable did my vanity make me that I forgot to look at my watch until a quarter to three. I had a momentary qualm; then, reassured, I asked Anita to take a walk with me. Before we set out I telephoned my right-hand man and partner, Ball. As I had thought, everything was quiet; the Exchange was closing with Textile sluggish and down a quarter. Anita and I took a car to the park.
As we strolled about there, it seemed to me I was making more headway with her than in all the times I had seen her since we became engaged. At each meeting I had had to begin at the beginning once more, almost as if we had never met; for I found that she had in the meanwhile taken on all, or almost all, her original reserve. It was as if she forgot me the instant I left her--not very flattering, that!
"You accuse me of refusing to get acquainted with you," said I, "of refusing to see that you're a different person from what I imagine. But how about you? Why do you still stick to your first notion of me? Whatever I am or am not, I'm not the person you condemned on sight."
"You have changed," she conceded. "The way you dress--and sometimes the way you act. Or, is it because I'm getting used to you?"
"No--it's--" I began, but stopped there. Some day I would confess about Monson, but not yet. Also, I hoped the change wasn't altogether due to Monson and the dancing-master and my imitation of the tricks of speech and manner of the people in her set.
She did not notice my abrupt halt. Indeed, I often caught her at not listening to me. I saw that she wasn't listening now.
"You didn't hear what I said," I accused somewhat sharply, for I was irritated--as who would not have been?
She started, gave me that hurried, apologetic look that was bitterer to me than the most savage insult would have been.
"I beg your pardon," she said. "We were talking of--of changes, weren't we?"
"We were talking of me" I answered. "Of the subject that interests you not at all."
She looked at me in a forlorn sort of way that softened my irritation with sympathy. "I've told you how it is with me," she said. "I do my best to please you. I--"
"Damn your best!" I cried. "Don't try to please me. Be yourself. I'm no slave-driver. I don't have to be conciliated. Can't you ever see that I'm not your tyrant? Do I treat you as any other man would feel he had the right to treat the girl who had engaged herself to him? Do I ever thrust my feelings or wishes--or--longings on you? And do you think repression easy for a man of my temperament?"
"You have been very good," she said humbly.
"Don't you ever say that to me again," I half commanded, half pleaded. "I won't have you always putting me in the position of a kind and indulgent master."
She halted and faced me.
"Why do you want me, anyhow?" she cried. Then she noticed several loungers on a bench staring at us and grinning; she flushed and walked on.
"I don't know," said I. "Because I'm a fool, probably. My common sense tells me I can't hope to break through that shell of self-complacence you've been cased in by your family and your associates. Sometimes I think I'm mistaken in you, think there isn't any real, human blood left in your veins, that you're like the rest of them--a human body whose heart and mind have been taken out and a machine substituted--a machine that can say and do only a narrow little range of conventional things--like one of those French dolls."
"You mustn't blame me for that," she said gently. "I realize it, too--and I'm ashamed of it. But--if you could know how I've been educated. They've treated me as the Flathead Indian women treat their babies--keep their skulls in a press--isn't that it?--until their heads and brains grow of the Flathead pattern. Only, somehow, in my case--the process wasn't quite complete. And so, instead of being contented like the other Flathead girls, I'm--almost a rebel, at times. I'm neither the one thing nor the other--not natural and not Flathead, not enough natural to grow away from Flathead, not enough Flathead to get rid of the natural."
"I take back what I said about not knowing why I--I want you, Anita," I said. "I do know why--and--well, as I told you before, you'll never regret marrying me."
"If you won't misunderstand me," she answered, "I'll confess to you my instinct has been telling me that, too. I'm not so bad as you must think. I did bargain to sell myself, but I'd have thrown up the bargain if you had been as--as you seemed at first." For some reason--perhaps it was her dress, or hat--she was looking particularly girlish that day, and her skin was even more transparent than usual. "You're different from the men I've been used to all my life," she went on, and--smiling in a friendly way--"you often give me a terrifying sense of your being a--a wild man on his good behavior. But I've come to feel that you're generous and unselfish and that you'll be kind to me--won't you? And I must make a life for myself--I must--I must! Oh, I can't explain to you, but--" She turned her little head toward me, and I was looking into those eyes that the flowers were like.
I thought she meant her home life. "You needn't tell me," I said, and I'll have to confess my voice was anything but steady. "And, I repeat, you'll never regret."
She evidently feared that she had said too much, for she lapsed into silence, and when I tried to resume the subject of ourselves, she answered me with painful constraint. I respected her nervousness and soon began to talk of things not so personal to us. Again, my mistake of treating her as if she were marked "Fragile. Handle with care." I know now that she, like all women, had the plain, tough, durable human fibre under that exterior of delicacy and fragility, and that my overconsideration caused her to exaggerate to herself her own preposterous notions of her superior fineness. We walked for an hour, talking--with less constraint and more friendliness than ever before, and when I left her I, for the first time, felt that I had left a good impression.
When I entered my offices, I, from force of habit, mechanically went direct to the ticker--and dropped all in an instant from the pinnacle of Heaven into a boiling inferno. For the ticker was just spelling out these words: "Mowbray Langdon, president of the Textile Association, sailed unexpectedly on the Kaiser Wilhelm at noon. A two per cent. raise of the dividend rate of Textile Common, from the present four per cent, to six, has been determined upon."
And I had staked up to, perhaps beyond, my limit of safety that Textile would fall!
Ball was watching narrowly for some sign that the news was as bad as he feared. But it cost me no effort to keep my face expressionless; I was like a man who has been killed by lightning and lies dead with the look on his face that he had just before the bolt struck him.
"Why didn't you tell me this," said I to Ball, "when I had you on the 'phone?" My tone was quiet enough, but the very question ought to have shown him that my brain was like a schooner in a cyclone.
"We heard it just after you rang off," was his reply. "We've been trying to get you ever since. I've gone everywhere after Textile stock. Very few will sell, or even lend, and they ask--the best price was ten points above to-day's closing. A strong tip's out that Textiles are to be rocketed."
Ten points up already--on the mere rumor! Already ten dollars to pay on every share I was "short"--and I short more than two hundred thousand! I felt the claws of the fiend Ruin sink into the flesh of my shoulders. "Ball doesn't know how I'm fixed," I remember I thought, "and he mustn't know."
I lit a cigar with a steady hand and waited for Joe's next words.
"I went to see Jenkins at once," he went on. Jenkins was then first vice-president of the Textile Trust. "He's all cut up because the news got out--says Langdon and he were the only ones who knew, so he supposed--says the announcement wasn't to have been made for a month--not till Langdon returned. He has had to confirm it, though. That was the only way to free his crowd from suspicion of intending to rig the market."
"All right," said I.
"Have you seen the afternoon paper?" he asked. As he held it out to me, my eye caught big Textile head-lines, then flashed to some others--something about my going to marry Miss Ellersly.
"All right," said I, and with the paper in my hand, went to my outside office. I kept on toward my inner office, saying over my shoulder--to the stenographer: "Don't let anybody interrupt me." Behind the closed and locked door my body ventured to come to life again and my face to reflect as much as it could of the chaos that was heaving in me like ten thousand warring devils.
Three months before, in the same situation, my gambler's instinct would probably have helped me out. For I had not been gambling in the great American Monte Carlo all those years without getting used to the downs as well as to the ups. I had not--and have not--anything of the business man in my composition. To me, it was wholly finance, wholly a game, with excitement the chief factor and the sure winning, whether the little ball rolled my way or not. I was the financier, the gambler and adventurer; and that had been my principal asset. For, the man who wins in the long run at any of the great games of life--and they are all alike--is the man with the cool head; and the only man whose head is cool is he who plays for the game's sake, not caring greatly whether he wins or loses on any one play, because he feels that if he wins to-day, he will lose to-morrow; if he loses to-day, he will win to-morrow. But now a new factor had come into the game. I spread out the paper and stared at the head-lines: "Black Matt To Wed Society Belle--The Bucket-Shop King Will Lead Anita Ellersly To The Altar." I tried to read the vulgar article under these vulgar lines, but I could not. I was sick, sick in body and in mind. My "nerve" was gone. I was no longer the free lance; I had responsibilities.
That thought dragged another in its train, an ugly, grinning imp that leered at me and sneered: "But she won't have you now!"
"She will! She must!" I cried aloud, starting up. And then the storm burst--I raged up and down the floor, shaking my clinched fists, gnashing my teeth, muttering all kinds of furious commands and threats--a truly ridiculous exhibition of impotent rage. For through it all I saw clearly enough that she wouldn't have me, that all these people I'd been trying to climb up among would kick loose my clinging hands and laugh as they watched me disappear. They who were none too gentle and slow in disengaging themselves from those of their own lifelong associates who had reverses of fortune--what consideration could "Black Matt" expect from them? And she--The necessity and the ability to deceive myself had gone, now that I could not pay the purchase price for her. The full hideousness of my bargain for her dropped its veil and stood naked before me.
At last, disgusted and exhausted, I flung myself down again, and dumbly and helplessly inspected the ruins of my projects--or, rather, the ruin of the one project upon which I had my heart set. I had known I cared for her, but it had seemed to me she was simply one more, the latest, of the objects on which I was in the habit of fixing my will from time to time to make the game more deeply interesting. I now saw that never before had I really been in earnest about anything, that on winning her I had staked myself, and that myself was a wholly different person from what I had been imagining. In a word, I sat face to face with that unfathomable mystery of sex-affinity that every man laughs at and mocks another man for believing in, until he has himself felt it drawing him against will, against reason, and sense, and interest, over the brink of destruction yawning before his eyes--drawing him as the magnet-mountain drew Sindbad and his ship. And I say to you that those who can defy and resist that compulsion are not more, but less, than man or woman; and their fancied strength is in reality a deficiency. Looking calmly back upon my follies under her spell, I think the better of myself for them. It is the splendid follies of life that redeem it from vulgarity.
But--it is not in me to despair. There never yet was an impenetrable siege line; to escape, it is only necessary by craft or by chance to hit upon the moment and the spot for the sortie. "Ruined!" I said aloud. "Trapped and trimmed like the stupidest sucker that ever wandered into Wall Street! A dead one, no doubt; but I'll see to it that they don't enjoy my funeral."
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