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This brings me to the ugliest story my enemies have concocted against me. No one appreciates more thoroughly than I that, to rise high, a man must have his own efforts seconded by the flood of vituperation that his enemies send to overwhelm him, and which washes him far higher than he could hope to lift himself. So I do not here refer to any attack on me in the public prints; I think of them only with amusement and gratitude. The story that rankles is the one these foes of mine set creeping, like a snake under the fallen leaves, everywhere, anywhere, unseen, without a trail. It has been whispered into every ear--and it is, no doubt, widely believed--that I deliberately put old Bromwell Ellersly "in a hole," and there tortured him until he consented to try to compel his daughter to marry me.
It is possible that, if I had thought of such a devilish device, I might have tried it--is not all fair in love? But there was no need for my cudgeling my brains to carry that particular fortification on my way to what I had fixed my will upon. Bromwell Ellersly came to me of his own accord.
I suppose the Ellerslys must have talked me over in the family circle. However this may be, my acquaintance with her father began with Sam's asking me to lunch with him. "The governor has heard me talk of you so much," said he, "that he is anxious to meet you."
I found him a dried-up, conventional old gentleman, very proud of his ancestors, none of whom I had ever heard of, and very positive that a great deal of deference was due him--though on what grounds I could not then, and can not now, make out. I soon discovered that it was the scent of my stock-tip generosity, wafted to him by Sammy, that had put him hot upon my trail. I hadn't gone far into his affairs before I learned that he had been speculating, mortgaging, kiting notes, doing what he called, and thought, "business" on a large scale. He regarded business as beneath the dignity and the intellect of a "gentleman"--how my gorge does rise at that word! So he put his great mind on it only for a few hours now and then; he reserved the rest of his time for what he regarded as the proper concerns of a gentleman--attending to social "duties," reading pretentious books, looking at the pictures and listening to the music decreed fashionable.
They charge that I put him "in a hole." In fact, I found him at the bottom of a deep pit he had dug for himself; and when he first met me he was, without having the sense to realize it, just about to go smash, with not a penny for his old age. As soon as I had got this fact clear of the tangle, I showed it to him.
"My God, what is to become of me?" he said, That was his only thought--not, what is to become of my wife and daughter; but, what is to become of "me!" I do not blame him for this. Naturally enough, people who have always been used to everything become, unconsciously, monsters of egotism and selfishness; it is natural, too, that they should imagine themselves liberal and generous if they give away occasionally something that costs them, at most, nothing more serious than the foregoing of some extravagant luxury or other. I recite his remark simply to show what manner of man he was, what sort of creature I had to deal with.
I offered to help him, and I did help him. Is there any one, knowing anything of the facts of life, who will censure me when I admit that I--with deliberation--simply tided him over, did not make for him and present to him a fortune? What chance should I have had, if I had been so absurdly generous to a man who deserved nothing but punishment for his selfish and bigoted mode of life? I took away his worst burdens; but I left him more than he could carry without my help. And it was not until he had appealed, in vain to all his social friends to relieve him of the necessity of my aid, not until he realized that I was his only hope of escaping a sharp comedown from luxury to very modest comfort in a flat somewhere--not until then did his wife send me an invitation to dinner. And I had not so much as hinted that I wanted it.
I shall never forget the smallest detail of that dinner--it was a purely "family" affair, only the Ellerslys and I. I can feel now the oppressive atmosphere, the look as of impending sacrilege upon the faces of the old servants; I can see Mrs. Ellersly trying to condescend to be "gracious," and treating me as if I were some sort of museum freak or menagerie exhibit. I can see Anita. She was like a statue of snow; she spoke not a word; if she lifted her eyes, I failed to note it. And when I was leaving--I with my collar wilted from the fierce, nervous strain I had been enduring--Mrs. Ellersly, in that voice of hers into which I don't believe any shade of a real human emotion ever penetrated, said: "You must come to see us, Mr. Blacklock. We are always at home after five."
I looked at Miss Ellersly. She was white to the lips now, and the spangles on her white dress seemed bits of ice glittering there. She said nothing; but I knew she felt my look, and that it froze the ice the more closely in around her heart. "Thank you," I muttered.
I stumbled in the hall; I almost fell down the broad steps. I stopped at the first bar and took three drinks in quick succession. I went on down the avenue, breathing like an exhausted swimmer. "I'll give her up!" I cried aloud, so upset was I.
I am a man of impulse; but I have trained myself not to be a creature of impulse, at least not in matters of importance. Without that patient and painful schooling, I shouldn't have got where I now am; probably I'd still be blacking boots, or sheet-writing for some bookmaker, or clerking it for some broker. Before I got to my rooms, the night air and my habit of the "sober second thought" had cooled me back to rationality.
"I want her, I need her," I was saying to myself. "I am worthier of her than are those mincing manikins she has been bred to regard as men. She is for me--she belongs to me. I'll abandon her to no smirking puppet who'd wear her as a donkey would a diamond. Why should I do myself and her an injury simply because she has been too badly brought up to know her own interest?"
And now I see all the smooth frauds, all the weak people who never have purposes or passions worthy of the name, all the finicky, finger-dusting gentry with the "fine souls," who flatter themselves that their timidity is the squeamishness of superior sensibilities--I see all these feeble folk fluttering their feeble fingers in horror of me. "The brute!" they cry; "the bounder!" Well, I accept the names quite cheerfully. Those are the epithets the wishy-washy always hurl at the strong; they put me in the small and truly aristocratic class of men who do. I proudly avow myself no subscriber to the code that was made by the shearers to encourage the sheep to keep on being nice docile animals, trotting meekly up to be shorn or slaughtered as their masters may decide. I harm no man, and no woman; but neither do I pause to weep over any man or any woman who flings himself or herself upon my steady spear. I try to be courteous and considerate to all; but I do not stop when some fellow who has something that belongs to me shouts "Rude!" at me to sheer me off.
At the same time, her delicate beauty, her quiet, distinctive, high-bred manner, had thrust it home to me that in certain respects I was ignorant and crude--as who would not have been, brought up as was I? I knew there was, somewhere between my roughness of the uncut individuality and the smoothness of the planed and sand-papered nonentity of her "set," a mean, better than either, better because more efficient.
When this was clear to me I sent for my trainer. He was one of those spare, wiry Englishmen, with skin like tanned and painted hide--brown except where the bones seem about to push their sharp angles through, and there a frosty, winter-apple red. He dressed like a Deadwood gambler, he talked like a stable boy; but for all that, you couldn't fail to see he was a gentleman born and bred. Yes, he was a gentleman, though he mixed profanity into his ordinary flow of conversation more liberally than did I when in a rage.
I stood up before him, threw my coat back, thrust my thumbs into my trousers pockets and slowly turned about like a ready-made tailor's dummy. "Monson," said I, "what do you think of me?"
He looked me over as if I were a horse he was about to buy. "Sound, I'd say," was his verdict. "Good wind--uncommon good wind. A goer, and a stayer. Not a lump. Not a hair out of place." He laughed. "Action a bit high perhaps--for the track. But a grand reach."
"I know all that," said I. "You miss my point. Suppose you wanted to enter me for--say, the Society Sweepstakes--what then?"
"Um--um," he muttered reflectively. "That's different."
"Don't I look--sort of--new--as if the varnish was still sticky and might come off on the ladies' dresses and on the fine furniture?"
"Oh--that!" said he dubiously. "But all those kinds of things are matters of taste."
"Out with it!" I commanded. "Don't be afraid. I'm not one of those damn fools that ask for criticism when they want only flattery, as you ought to know by this time. I'm aware of my good points, know how good they are better than anybody else in the world. And I suspect my weak points--always did. I've got on chiefly because I made people tell me to my face what they'd rather have grinned over behind my back."
"What's your game?" asked Monson. "I'm in the dark."
"I'll tell you, Monson. I hired you to train horses. Now I want to hire you to train me, too. As it's double work, it's double pay."
"Say on," said he, "and say it slow."
"I want to marry," I explained. "I want to inspect all the offerings before I decide. You are to train me so that I can go among the herds that'd shy off from me if I wasn't on to their little ways."
He looked suspiciously at me, doubtless thinking this some new development of "American humor."
"I mean it," I assured him. "I'm going to train, and train hard. I've got no time to lose. I must be on my way down the aisle inside of three months. I give you a free hand. I'll do just what you say."
"The job's out of my line," he protested.
"I know better," said I. "I've always seen the parlor under the stable in you. We'll begin right away. What do you think of these clothes?"
"Well--they're not exactly noisy," he said. "But--they're far from silent. That waistcoat--" He stopped and gave me another nervous, timid look. He found it hard to believe a man of my sort, so self-assured, would stand the truth from a man of his second-fiddle sort.
"Go on!" I commanded. "Speak out! Mowbray Langdon had on one twice as loud the other day at the track."
"But, perhaps you'll remember, it was only his waistcoat that was loud--not he himself. Now, a man of your manner and voice and--you've got a look out of the eyes that'd wake the dead all by itself. People can feel you coming before they hear you. When they feel and hear and see all together--it's like a brass band in scarlet uniform, with a seven-foot, sky-blue drum major. If your hair wasn't so black and your eyes so steel-blue and sharp, and your teeth so big and strong and white, and your jaw such a--such a--jaw--"
"I see the point," said I. And I did. "You'll find you won't need to tell me many things twice. I've got a busy day before me here; so we'll have to suspend this until you come to dine with me at eight--at my rooms. I want you to put in the time well. Go to my house in the country and then up to my apartment; take my valet with you; look through all my belongings--shirts, ties, socks, trousers, waistcoats, clothes of every kind. Throw out every rag you think doesn't fit in with what I want to be. How's my grammar?"
I was proud of it; I had been taking more or less pains with my mode of speech for a dozen years. "Rather too good," said he. "But that's better than making the breaks that aren't regarded as good form."
"Good form!" I exclaimed. "That's it! That's what I want! What does 'good form' mean?"
He laughed. "You can search me," said he. "I could easier tell you--anything else. It's what everybody recognizes on sight, and nobody knows how to describe. It's like the difference between a cultivated 'jimson' weed and a wild one."
"Like the difference between Mowbray Langdon and me," I suggested good-naturedly. "How about my manners?"
"Not so bad," said he. "Not so rotten bad. But--when you're polite, you're a little too polite; when you're not polite, you--"
"Show where I came from too plainly?" said I. "Speak right out--hit good and hard. Am I too frank for 'good form'?"
"You needn't bother about that," he assured me. "Say whatever comes into your head--only, be sure the right sort of thing comes into your head. Don't talk too much about yourself, for instance. It's good form to think about yourself all the time; it's bad form to let people see it--in your talk. Say as little as possible about your business and about what you've got. Don't be lavish with the I's and the my's."
"That's harder," said I. "I'm a man who has always minded his own business, and cared for nothing else. What could I talk about, except myself?"
"Blest if I know," replied he. "Where you want to go, the last thing people mind is their own business--in talk, at least. But you'll get on all right if you don't worry too much about it. You've got natural independence, and an original way of putting things, and common sense. Don't be afraid."
"Afraid!" said I. "I never knew what it was to be afraid."
"Your nerve'll carry you through," he assured me. "Nerve'll take a man anywhere."
"You never said a truer thing in your life," said I. "It'll take him wherever he wants, and, after he's there, it'll get him whatever he wants."
And with that, I, thinking of my plans and of how sure I was of success, began to march up and down the office with my chest thrown out--until I caught myself at it. That stopped me, set me off in a laugh at my own expense, he joining in with a kind of heartiness I did not like, though I did not venture to check him.
So ended the first lesson--the first of a long series. I soon saw that Monson was being most useful to me--far more useful than if he were a "perfect gentleman" with nothing of the track and stable and back stairs about him. Being a sort of betwixt and between, he could appreciate my needs as they could not have been appreciated by a fellow who had never lived in the rough-and-tumble I had fought my way up through. And being at bottom a real gentleman, and not one of those nervous, snobbish make-believes, he wasn't so busy trying to hide his own deficiencies from me that he couldn't teach me anything. He wasn't afraid of being found out, as Sam--or perhaps, even Langdon--would have been in the same circumstances. I wonder if there is another country where so many gentlemen and ladies are born, or another where so many of them have their natural gentility educated out of them.
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