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The Blond Beast

I

IT had been almost too easy--that was young Millner's first feeling,
as he stood again on the Spence door-step, the great moment of his
interview behind him, and Fifth Avenue rolling its grimy Pactolus at
his feet.

Halting there in the winter light, with the clang of the ponderous
vestibule doors in his ears, and his eyes carried down the
perspective of the packed interminable thoroughfare, he even dared
to remember Rastignac's apostrophe to Paris, and to hazard
recklessly under his small fair moustache: "Who knows?"

He, Hugh Millner, at any rate, knew a good deal already: a good deal
more than he had imagined it possible to learn in half an hour's
talk with a man like Orlando G. Spence; and the loud-rumouring city
spread out there before him seemed to grin like an accomplice who
knew the rest.

A gust of wind, whirling down from the dizzy height of the building
on the next corner, drove sharply through his overcoat and compelled
him to clutch at his hat. It was a bitter January day, a day of
fierce light and air, when the sunshine cut like icicles and the
wind sucked one into black gulfs at the street corners. But
Millner's complacency was like a warm lining to his shabby coat, and
heaving steadied his hat he continued to stand on the Spence
threshold, lost in the vision revealed to him from the Pisgah of its
marble steps. Yes, it was wonderful what the vision showed him. ...
In his absorption he might have frozen fast to the door-step if
the Rhadamanthine portals behind him had not suddenly opened to let
out a slim fur-coated figure, the figure, as he perceived, of the
youth whom he had caught in the act of withdrawal as he entered Mr.
Spence's study, and whom the latter, with a wave of his affable
hand, had detained to introduce as "my son Draper."

It was characteristic of the odd friendliness of the whole scene
that the great man should have thought it worth while to call back
and name his heir to a mere humble applicant like Millner; and that
the heir should shed on him, from a pale high-browed face, a smile
of such deprecating kindness. It was characteristic, equally, of
Millner, that he should at once mark the narrowness of the shoulders
sustaining this ingenuous head; a narrowness, as he now observed,
imperfectly concealed by the wide fur collar of young Spence's
expensive and badly cut coat. But the face took on, as the youth
smiled his surprise at their second meeting, a look of almost
plaintive good-will: the kind of look that Millner scorned and yet
could never quite resist.

"Mr. Millner? Are you--er--waiting?" the lad asked, with an
intention of serviceableness that was like a finer echo of his
father's resounding cordiality.

"For my motor? No," Millner jested in his frank free voice. "The
fact is, I was just standing here lost in the contemplation of my
luck"--and as his companion's pale blue eyes seemed to shape a
question, "my extraordinary luck," he explained, "in having been
engaged as your father's secretary."

"Oh," the other rejoined, with a faint colour in his sallow cheek.
"I'm so glad," he murmured: "but I was sure--" He stopped, and the
two looked kindly at each other.

Millner averted his gaze first, almost fearful of its betraying the
added sense of his own strength and dexterity which he drew from the
contrast of the other's frailness.

"Sure? How could any one be sure? I don't believe in it yet!" he
laughed out in the irony of his triumph.

The boy's words did not sound like a mere civility--Millner felt in
them an homage to his power.

"Oh, yes: I was sure," young Draper repeated. "Sure as soon as I saw
you, I mean."

Millner tingled again with this tribute to his physical straightness
and bloom. Yes, he looked his part, hang it--he looked it!

But his companion still lingered, a shy sociability in his eye.

"If you're walking, then, can I go along a little way?" And he
nodded southward down the shabby gaudy avenue.

That, again, was part of the high comedy of the hour--that Millner
should descend the Spence steps at young Spence's side, and stroll
down Fifth Avenue with him at the proudest moment of the afternoon;
O. G. Spence's secretary walking abroad with O. G. Spence's heir! He
had the scientific detachment to pull out his watch and furtively
note the hour. Yes--it was exactly forty minutes since he had rung
the Spence door-bell and handed his card to a gelid footman, who,
openly sceptical of his claim to be received, had left him
unceremoniously planted on the cold tessellations of the vestibule.

"Some day," Miller grinned to himself, "I think I'll take that
footman as furnace-man--or to do the boots." And he pictured his
marble palace rising from the earth to form the mausoleum of a
footman's pride.

Only forty minutes ago! And now he had his opportunity fast! And he
never meant to let it go! It was incredible, what had happened in
the interval. He had gone up the Spence steps an unknown young man,
out of a job, and with no substantial hope of getting into one: a
needy young man with a mother and two limp sisters to be helped, and
a lengthening figure of debt that stood by his bed through the
anxious nights. And he went down the steps with his present assured,
and his future lit by the hues of the rainbow above the pot of gold.
Certainly a fellow who made his way at that rate had it "in him,"
and could afford to trust his star.

Descending from this joyous flight he stooped his ear to the
discourse of young Spence.

"My father'll work you rather hard, you know: but you look as if you
wouldn't mind that."

Millner pulled up his inches with the self-consciousness of the man
who had none to waste. "Oh, no, I shan't mind that: I don't mind any
amount of work if it leads to something."

"Just so," Draper Spence assented eagerly. "That's what I feel. And
you'll find that whatever my father undertakes leads to such awfully
fine things."

Millner tightened his lips on a grin. He was thinking only of where
the work would lead him, not in the least of where it might land the
eminent Orlando G. Spence. But he looked at his companion
sympathetically.

"You're a philanthropist like your father, I see?"

"Oh, I don't know." They had paused at a crossing, and young Draper,
with a dubious air, stood striking his agate-headed stick against
the curb-stone. "I believe in a purpose, don't you?" he asked,
lifting his blue eyes suddenly to Millner's face.

"A purpose? I should rather say so! I believe in nothing else,"
cried Millner, feeling as if his were something he could grip in his
hand and swing like a club.

Young Spence seemed relieved. "Yes--I tie up to that. There _is_ a
Purpose. And so, after all, even if I don't agree with my father on
minor points ..." He coloured quickly, and looked again at
Millner. "I should like to talk to you about this some day."

Millner smothered another smile. "We'll have lots of talks, I hope."

"Oh, if you can spare the time--!" said Draper, almost humbly.

"Why, I shall be there on tap!"

"For father, not me." Draper hesitated, with another self-confessing
smile. "Father thinks I talk too much--that I keep going in and out
of things. He doesn't believe in analyzing: he thinks it's
destructive. But it hasn't destroyed my ideals." He looked wistfully
up and down the clanging street. "And that's the main thing, isn't
it? I mean, that one should have an Ideal." He turned back almost
gaily to Millner. "I suspect you're a revolutionist too!"

"Revolutionist? Rather! I belong to the Red Syndicate and the Black
Hand!" Millner joyfully assented.

Young Draper chuckled at the enormity of the joke. "First rate!
We'll have incendiary meetings!" He pulled an elaborately armorial
watch from his enfolding furs. "I'm so sorry, but I must say
good-bye--this is my street," he explained. Millner, with a faint
twinge of envy, glanced across at the colonnaded marble edifice in
the farther corner. "Going to the club?" he said carelessly.

His companion looked surprised. "Oh, no: I never go _there_. It's
too boring." And he brought out, after one of the pauses in which he
seemed rather breathlessly to measure the chances of his listener's
indulgence: "I'm just going over to a little Bible Class I have in
Tenth Avenue."

Millner, for a moment or two, stood watching the slim figure wind
its way through the mass of vehicles to the opposite corner; then he
pursued his own course down Fifth Avenue, measuring his steps to the
rhythmic refrain: "It's too easy--it's too easy--it's too easy!"

His own destination being the small shabby flat off University Place
where three tender females awaited the result of his mission, he had
time, on the way home, after abandoning himself to a general sense
of triumph, to dwell specifically on the various aspects of his
achievement. Viewed materially and practically, it was a thing to be
proud of; yet it was chiefly on aesthetic grounds--because he had
done so exactly what he had set out to do--that he glowed with pride
at the afternoon's work. For, after all, any young man with the
proper "pull" might have applied to Orlando G. Spence for the post
of secretary, and even have penetrated as far as the great man's
study; but that he, Hugh Millner, should not only have forced his
way to this fastness, but have established, within a short half
hour, his right to remain there permanently: well, this, if it
proved anything, proved that the first rule of success was to know
how to live up to one's principles.

"One must have a plan--one must have a plan," the young man
murmured, looking with pity at the vague faces which the crowd bore
past him, and feeling almost impelled to detain them and expound his
doctrine. But the planlessness of average human nature was of course
the measure of his opportunity; and he smiled to think that every
purposeless face he met was a guarantee of his own advancement, a
rung in the ladder he meant to climb.

Yes, the whole secret of success was to know what one wanted to do,
and not to be afraid to do it. His own history was proving that
already. He had not been afraid to give up his small but safe
position in a real-estate office for the precarious adventure of a
private secretaryship; and his first glimpse of his new employer had
convinced him that he had not mistaken his calling. When one has a
"way" with one--as, in all modesty, Millner knew he had--not to
utilize it is a stupid waste of force. And when he had learned that
Orlando G. Spence was in search of a private secretary who should be
able to give him intelligent assistance in the execution of his
philanthropic schemes, the young man felt that his hour had come. It
was no part of his plan to associate himself with one of the masters
of finance: he had a notion that minnows who go to a whale to learn
how to grow bigger are likely to be swallowed in the process. The
opportunity of a clever young man with a cool head and no prejudices
(this again was drawn from life) lay rather in making himself
indispensable to one of the beneficent rich, and in using the
timidities and conformities of his patron as the means of his
scruples about formulating these principles to himself. It was not
for nothing that, in his college days, he had hunted the
hypothetical "moral sense" to its lair, and dragged from their
concealment the various self-advancing sentiments dissembled under
its edifying guise. His strength lay in his precocious insight into
the springs of action, and in his refusal to classify them according
to the accepted moral and social sanctions. He had to the full the
courage of his lack of convictions.

To a young man so untrammelled by prejudice it was self-evident that
helpless philanthropists like Orlando G. Spence were just as much
the natural diet of the strong as the lamb is of the wolf. It was
pleasanter to eat than to be eaten, in a world where, as yet, there
seemed to be no third alternative; and any scruples one might feel
as to the temporary discomfort of one's victim were speedily
dispelled by that larger scientific view which took into account the
social destructiveness of the benevolent. Millner was persuaded that
every individual woe mitigated by the philanthropy of Orlando G.
Spence added just so much to the sum-total of human inefficiency,
and it was one of his favourite subjects of speculation to picture
the innumerable social evils that may follow upon the rescue of one
infant from Mount Taygetus.

"We're all born to prey on each other, and pity for suffering is one
of the most elementary stages of egotism. Until one has passed
beyond, and acquired a taste for the more complex forms of the
instinct--"

He stopped suddenly, checked in his advance by a sallow wisp of a
dog which had plunged through the press of vehicles to hurl itself
between his legs. Millner did not dislike animals, though he
preferred that they should be healthy and handsome. The dog under
his feet was neither. Its cringing contour showed an injudicious
mingling of races, and its meagre coat betrayed the deplorable habit
of sleeping in coal-holes and subsisting on an innutritious diet. In
addition to these physical disadvantages, its shrinking and
inconsequent movements revealed a congenital weakness of character
which, even under more favourable conditions, would hardly have
qualified it to become a useful member of society; and Millner was
not sorry to notice that it moved with a limp of the hind leg that
probably doomed it to speedy extinction.

The absurdity of such an animal's attempting to cross Fifth Avenue
at the most crowded hour of the afternoon struck him as only less
great than the irony of its having been permitted to achieve the
feat; and he stood a moment looking at it, and wondering what had
moved it to the attempt. It was really a perfect type of the human
derelict which Orlando G. Spence and his kind were devoting their
millions to perpetuate, and he reflected how much better Nature knew
her business in dealing with the superfluous quadruped.

An elderly lady advancing in the opposite direction evidently took a
less dispassionate view of the case, for she paused to remark
emotionally: "Oh, you poor thing!" while she stooped to caress the
object of her sympathy. The dog, with characteristic lack of
discrimination, viewed her gesture with suspicion, and met it with a
snarl. The lady turned pale and shrank away, a chivalrous male
repelled the animal with his umbrella, and two idle boys backed his
action by a vigorous "Hi!" The object of these hostile
demonstrations, apparently attributing them not to its own unsocial
conduct, but merely to the chronic animosity of the universe, dashed
wildly around the corner into a side street, and as it did so
Millner noticed that the lame leg left a little trail of blood.
Irresistibly, he turned the corner to see what would happen next. It
was deplorably clear that the animal itself had no plan; but after
several inconsequent and contradictory movements it plunged down an
area, where it backed up against the iron gate, forlornly and
foolishly at bay.

Millner, still following, looked down at it, and wondered. Then he
whistled, just to see if it would come; but this only caused it to
start up on its quivering legs, with desperate turns of the head
that measured the chances of escape.

"Oh, hang it, you poor devil, stay there if you like!" the young man
murmured, walking away.

A few yards off he looked back, and saw that the dog had made a rush
out of the area and was limping furtively down the street. The idle
boys were in the offing, and he disliked the thought of leaving them
in control of the situation. Softly, with infinite precautions, he
began to follow the dog. He did not know why he was doing it, but
the impulse was overmastering. For a moment he seemed to be gaining
upon his quarry, but with a cunning sense of his approach it
suddenly turned and hobbled across the frozen grass-plot adjoining a
shuttered house. Against the wall at the back of the plot it cowered
down in a dirty snow-drift, as if disheartened by the struggle.
Millner stood outside the railings and looked at it. He reflected
that under the shelter of the winter dusk it might have the luck to
remain there unmolested, and that in the morning it would probably
be dead of cold. This was so obviously the best solution that he
began to move away again; but as he did so the idle boys confronted
him.

"Ketch yer dog for yer, boss?" they grinned.

Millner consigned them to the devil, and stood sternly watching them
till the first stage of the journey had carried them around the
nearest corner; then, after pausing to look once more up and down
the empty street, laid his hand on the railing, and vaulted over it
into the grass-plot. As he did so, he reflected that, since pity for
suffering was one of the most elementary forms of egotism, he ought
to have remembered that it was necessarily one of the most
tenacious.


II

"My chief aim in life?" Orlando G. Spence repeated. He threw himself
back in his chair, straightened the tortoise-shell _pince-nez_, on
his short blunt nose, and beamed down the luncheon table at the two
young men who shared his repast.

His glance rested on his son Draper, seated opposite him behind a
barrier of Georgian silver and orchids; but his words were addressed
to his secretary who, stylograph in hand, had turned from the
seductions of a mushroom _souffle_ in order to jot down, for the
Sunday _Investigator_, an outline of his employer's views and
intentions respecting the newly endowed Orlando G. Spence College
for Missionaries. It was Mr. Spence's practice to receive in person
the journalists privileged to impart his opinions to a waiting
world; but during the last few months--and especially since the vast
project of the Missionary College had been in process of
development--the pressure of business and beneficence had
necessitated Millner's frequent intervention, and compelled the
secretary to snatch the sense of his patron's elucubrations between
the courses of their hasty meals.

Young Millner had a healthy appetite, and it was not one of his
least sacrifices to be so often obliged to curb it in the interest
of his advancement; but whenever he waved aside one of the triumphs
of Mr. Spence's _chef_ he was conscious of rising a step in his
employer's favour. Mr. Spence did not despise the pleasures of the
table, though he appeared to regard them as the reward of success
rather than as the alleviation of effort; and it increased his sense
of his secretary's merit to note how keenly the young man enjoyed
the fare which he was so frequently obliged to deny himself. Draper,
having subsisted since infancy on a diet of truffles and terrapin,
consumed such delicacies with the insensibility of a traveller
swallowing a railway sandwich; but Millner never made the mistake of
concealing from Mr. Spence his sense of what he was losing when duty
constrained him to exchange the fork for the pen.

"My chief aim in life!" Mr. Spence repeated, removing his eye-glass
and swinging it thoughtfully on his finger. ("I'm sorry you should
miss this _souffle_, Millner: it's worth while.) Why, I suppose I
might say that my chief aim in life is to leave the world better
than I found it. Yes: I don't know that I could put it better than
that. To leave the world better than I found it. It wouldn't be a
bad idea to use that as a head-line. _'Wants to leave the world
better than he found it.'_ It's exactly the point I should like to
make in this talk about the College."

Mr. Spence paused, and his glance once more reverted to his son,
who, having pushed aside his plate, sat watching Millner with a
dreamy intensity.

"And it's the point I want to make with you, too, Draper," his
father continued genially, while he turned over with a critical fork
the plump and perfectly matched asparagus which a footman was
presenting to his notice. "I want to make you feel that nothing else
counts in comparison with that--no amount of literary success or
intellectual celebrity."

"Oh, I _do_ feel that," Draper murmured, with one of his quick
blushes, and a glance that wavered between his father and Millner.
The secretary kept his eyes on his notes, and young Spence
continued, after a pause: "Only the thing is--isn't it?--to try and
find out just what _does_ make the world better?"

"To _try_ to find out?" his father echoed compassionately. "It's not
necessary to try very hard. Goodness is what makes the world
better."

"Yes, yes, of course," his son nervously interposed; "but the
question is, what _is_ good--"

Mr. Spence, with a darkening brow, brought his fist down
emphatically on the damask. "I'll thank you not to blaspheme, my
son!"

Draper's head reared itself a trifle higher on his thin neck. "I was
not going to blaspheme; only there may be different ways--"

"There's where you're mistaken, Draper. There's only one way:
there's my way," said Mr. Spence in a tone of unshaken conviction.

"I know, father; I see what you mean. But don't you see that even
your way wouldn't be the right way for you if you ceased to believe
that it was?"

His father looked at him with mingled bewilderment and reprobation.
"Do you mean to say that the fact of goodness depends on my
conception of it, and not on God Almighty's?"

"I do ... yes ... in a specific sense ..." young Draper
falteringly maintained; and Mr. Spence turned with a discouraged
gesture toward his secretary's suspended pen.

"I don't understand your scientific jargon, Draper; and I don't want
to.--What's the next point, Millner? (No; no _savarin_. Bring the
fruit--and the coffee with it.)"

Millner, keenly aware that an aromatic _savarin au rhum_ was
describing an arc behind his head previous to being rushed back to
the pantry under young Draper's indifferent eye, stiffened himself
against this last assault of the enemy, and read out firmly: "_ What
relation do you consider that a man's business conduct should bear
to his religious and domestic life?_"

Mr. Spence mused a moment. "Why, that's a stupid question. It goes
over the same ground as the other one. A man ought to do good with
his money--that's all. Go on."

At this point the butler's murmur in his ear caused him to push back
his chair, and to arrest Millner's interrogatory by a rapid gesture.
"Yes; I'm coming. Hold the wire." Mr. Spence rose and plunged into
the adjoining "office," where a telephone and a Remington divided
the attention of a young lady in spectacles who was preparing for
Zenana work in the East.

As the door closed, the butler, having placed the coffee and
liqueurs on the table, withdrew in the rear of his battalion, and
the two young men were left alone beneath the Rembrandts and
Hobbemas on the dining-room walls.

There was a moment's silence between them; then young Spence,
leaning across the table, said in the lowered tone of intimacy: "Why
do you suppose he dodged that last question?"

Millner, who had rapidly taken an opulent purple fig from the
fruit-dish nearest him, paused in surprise in the act of hurrying it
to his lips.

"I mean," Draper hastened on, "the question as to the relation
between business and private morality. It's such an interesting one,
and he's just the person who ought to tackle it."

Millner, despatching the fig, glanced down at his notes. "I don't
think your father meant to dodge the question."

Young Draper continued to look at him intently. "You think he
imagined that his answer really covers the ground?"

"As much as it needs to be covered."

The son of the house glanced away with a sigh. "You know things
about him that I don't," he said wistfully, but without a tinge of
resentment in his tone.

"Oh, as to that--(may I give myself some coffee?)" Millner, in his
walk around the table to fill his cup, paused a moment to lay an
affectionate hand on Draper's shoulder. "Perhaps I know him
_better_, in a sense: outsiders often get a more accurate focus."

Draper considered this. "And your idea is that he acts on principles
he has never thought of testing or defining?"

Millner looked up quickly, and for an instant their glances crossed.
"How do you mean?"

"I mean: that he's an inconscient instrument of goodness, as it
were? A--a sort of blindly beneficent force?"

The other smiled. "That's not a bad definition. I know one thing
about him, at any rate: he's awfully upset at your having chucked
your Bible Class."

A shadow fell on young Spence's candid brow. "I know. But what can I
do about it? That's what I was thinking of when I tried to show him
that goodness, in a certain sense, is purely subjective: that one
can't do good against one's principles." Again his glance appealed
to Millner. "_ You_ understand me, don't you?"

Millner stirred his coffee in a silence not unclouded by perplexity.
"Theoretically, perhaps. It's a pretty question, certainly. But I
also understand your father's feeling that it hasn't much to do with
real life: especially now that he's got to make a speech in
connection with the founding of this Missionary College. He may
think that any hint of internecine strife will weaken his prestige.
Mightn't you have waited a little longer?"

"How could I, when I might have been expected to take a part in this
performance? To talk, and say things I didn't mean? That was exactly
what made me decide not to wait."

The door opened and Mr. Spence re-entered the room. As he did so his
son rose abruptly as if to leave it.

"Where are you off to, Draper?" the banker asked.

"I'm in rather a hurry, sir--"

Mr. Spence looked at his watch. "You can't be in more of a hurry
than I am; and I've got seven minutes and a half." He seated himself
behind the coffee--tray, lit a cigar, laid his watch on the table,
and signed to Draper to resume his place. "No, Millner, don't you
go; I want you both." He turned to the secretary. "You know that
Draper's given up his Bible Class? I understand it's not from the
pressure of engagements--" Mr. Spence's narrow lips took an ironic
curve under the straight-clipped stubble of his moustache--"it's on
principle, he tells me. He's _principled_ against doing good!"

Draper lifted a protesting hand. "It's not exactly that, father--"

"I know: you'll tell me it's some scientific quibble that I don't
understand. I've never had time to go in for intellectual
hair-splitting. I've found too many people down in the mire who
needed a hand to pull them out. A busy man has to take his choice
between helping his fellow-men and theorizing about them. I've
preferred to help. (You might take that down for the _Investigator_,
Millner.) And I thank God I've never stopped to ask what made me
want to do good. I've just yielded to the impulse--that's all." Mr.
Spence turned back to his son. "Better men than either of us have
been satisfied with that creed, my son."

Draper was silent, and Mr. Spence once more addressed himself to his
secretary. "Millner, you're a reader: I've caught you at it. And I
know this boy talks to you. What have you got to say? Do you suppose
a Bible Class ever _hurt_ anybody?"

Millner paused a moment, feeling all through his nervous system the
fateful tremor of the balance. "That's what I was just trying to
tell him, sir--"

"Ah; you were? That's good. Then I'll only say one thing more. Your
doing what you've done at this particular moment hurts me more,
Draper, than your teaching the gospel of Jesus could possibly have
hurt those young men over in Tenth Avenue." Mr. Spence arose and
restored his watch to his pocket. "I shall want you in twenty
minutes, Millner."

The door closed on him, and for a while the two young men sat silent
behind their cigar fumes. Then Draper Spence broke out, with a catch
in his throat: "That's what I can't bear, Millner, what I simply
can't _bear:_ to hurt him, to hurt his faith in _me!_ It's an awful
responsibility, isn't it, to tamper with anybody's faith in
anything?"


III

THE twenty minutes prolonged themselves to forty, the forty to
fifty, and the fifty to an hour; and still Millner waited for Mr.
Spence's summons.

During the two years of his secretaryship the young man had learned
the significance of such postponements. Mr. Spence's days were
organized like a railway time-table, and a delay of an hour implied
a casualty as far-reaching as the breaking down of an express. Of
the cause of the present derangement Hugh Millner was ignorant; and
the experience of the last months allowed him to fluctuate between
conflicting conjectures. All were based on the indisputable fact
that Mr. Spence was "bothered"--had for some time past been
"bothered." And it was one of Millner's discoveries that an
extremely parsimonious use of the emotions underlay Mr. Spence's
expansive manner and fraternal phraseology, and that he did not
throw away his feelings any more than (for all his philanthropy) he
threw away his money. If he was bothered, then, it could be only
because a careful survey of his situation had forced on him some
unpleasant fact with which he was not immediately prepared to deal;
and any unpreparedness on Mr. Spence's part was also a significant
symptom.

Obviously, Millner's original conception of his employer's character
had suffered extensive modification; but no final outline had
replaced the first conjectural image. The two years spent in Mr.
Spence's service had produced too many contradictory impressions to
be fitted into any definite pattern; and the chief lesson Millner
had learned from them was that life was less of an exact science,
and character a more incalculable element, than he had been taught
in the schools. In the light of this revised impression, his own
footing seemed less secure than he had imagined, and the rungs of
the ladder he was climbing more slippery than they had looked from
below. He was not without the reassuring sense of having made
himself, in certain small ways, necessary to Mr. Spence; and this
conviction was confirmed by Draper's reiterated assurance of his
father's appreciation. But Millner had begun to suspect that one
might be necessary to Mr. Spence one day, and a superfluity, if not
an obstacle, the next; and that it would take superhuman astuteness
to foresee how and when the change would occur. Every fluctuation of
the great man's mood was therefore anxiously noted by the young
meteorologist in his service; and this observer's vigilance was now
strained to the utmost by the little cloud, no bigger than a man's
hand, adumbrated by the banker's unpunctuality.

When Mr. Spence finally appeared, his aspect did not tend to
dissipate the cloud. He wore what Millner had learned to call his
"back-door face": a blank barred countenance, in which only an
occasional twitch of the lids behind his glasses suggested that some
one was on the watch. In this mood Mr. Spence usually seemed
unconscious of his secretary's presence, or aware of it only as an
arm terminating in a pen. Millner, accustomed on such occasions to
exist merely as a function, sat waiting for the click of the spring
that should set him in action; but the pressure not being applied,
he finally hazarded: "Are we to go on with the _Investigator_, sir?"

Mr. Spence, who had been pacing up and down between the desk and the
fireplace, threw himself into his usual seat at Millner's elbow.

"I don't understand this new notion of Draper's," he said abruptly.
"Where's he got it from? No one ever learned irreligion in my
household."

He turned his eyes on Millner, who had the sense of being
scrutinized through a ground-glass window which left him visible
while it concealed his observer. The young man let his pen describe
two or three vague patterns on the blank sheet before him.

"Draper has ideas--" he risked at last.

Mr. Spence looked hard at him. "That's all right," he said. "I want
my son to have everything. But what's the point of mixing up ideas
and principles? I've seen fellows who did that, and they were
generally trying to borrow five dollars to get away from the
sheriff. What's all this talk about goodness? Goodness isn't an
idea. It's a fact. It's as solid as a business proposition. And it's
Draper's duty, as the son of a wealthy man, and the prospective
steward of a great fortune, to elevate the standards of other young
men--of young men who haven't had his opportunities. The rich ought
to preach contentment, and to set the example themselves. We have
our cares, but we ought to conceal them. We ought to be cheerful,
and accept things as they are--not go about sowing dissent and
restlessness. What has Draper got to give these boys in his Bible
Class, that's so much better than what he wants to take from them?
That's the question I'd like to have answered?"

Mr. Spence, carried away by his own eloquence, had removed his
_pince-nez_ and was twirling it about his extended fore-finger with
the gesture habitual to him when he spoke in public. After a pause,
he went on, with a drop to the level of private intercourse: "I tell
you this because I know you have a good deal of influence with
Draper. He has a high opinion of your brains. But you're a practical
fellow, and you must see what I mean. Try to make Draper see it.
Make him understand how it looks to have him drop his Bible Class
just at this particular time. It was his own choice to take up
religious teaching among young men. He began with our office-boys,
and then the work spread and was blessed. I was almost alarmed, at
one time, at the way it took hold of him: when the papers began to
talk about him as a formative influence I was afraid he'd lose his
head and go into the church. Luckily he tried University Settlement
first; but just as I thought he was settling down to that, he took
to worrying about the Higher Criticism, and saying he couldn't go on
teaching fairy-tales as history. I can't see that any good ever came
of criticizing what our parents believed, and it's a queer time for
Draper to criticize _my_ belief just as I'm backing it to the extent
of five millions."

Millner remained silent; and, as though his silence were an
argument, Mr. Spence continued combatively: "Draper's always talking
about some distinction between religion and morality. I don't
understand what he means. I got my morals out of the Bible, and I
guess there's enough left in it for Draper. If religion won't make a
man moral, I don't see why irreligion should. And he talks about
using his mind--well, can't he use that in Wall Street? A man can
get a good deal farther in life watching the market than picking
holes in Genesis; and he can do more good too. There's a time for
everything; and Draper seems to me to have mixed up week-days with
Sunday."

Mr. Spence replaced his eye-glasses, and stretching his hand to the
silver box at his elbow, extracted from it one of the long cigars
sheathed in gold-leaf which were reserved for his private
consumption. The secretary hastened to tender him a match, and for a
moment he puffed in silence. When he spoke again it was in a
different note.

"I've got about all the bother I can handle just now, without this
nonsense of Draper's. That was one of the Trustees of the College
with me. It seems the _Flashlight_ has been trying to stir up a
fuss--" Mr. Spence paused, and turned his _pince-nez_ on his
secretary. "You haven't heard from them?" he asked.

"From the _Flashlight?_ No." Millner's surprise was genuine.

He detected a gleam of relief behind Mr. Spence's glasses. "It may
be just malicious talk. That's the worst of good works; they bring
out all the meanness in human nature. And then there are always
women mixed up in them, and there never was a woman yet who
understood the difference between philanthropy and business." He
drew again at his cigar, and then, with an unwonted movement, leaned
forward and mechanically pushed the box toward Millner. "Help
yourself," he said.

Millner, as mechanically, took one of the virginally cinctured
cigars, and began to undo its wrappings. It was the first time he
had ever been privileged to detach that golden girdle, and nothing
could have given him a better measure of the importance of the
situation, and of the degree to which he was apparently involved in
it. "You remember that San Pablo rubber business? That's what
they've been raking up," said Mr. Spence abruptly.

Millner paused in the act of striking a match. Then, with an
appreciable effort of the will, he completed the gesture, applied
the flame to his cigar, and took a long inhalation. The cigar was
certainly delicious.

Mr. Spence, drawing a little closer, leaned forward and touched him
on the arm. The touch caused Millner to turn his head, and for an
instant the glance of the two men crossed at short range. Millner
was conscious, first, of a nearer view than he had ever had of his
employer's face, and of its vaguely suggesting a seamed sandstone
head, the kind of thing that lies in a corner in the court of a
museum, and in which only the round enamelled eyes have resisted the
wear of time. His next feeling was that he had now reached the
moment to which the offer of the cigar had been a prelude. He had
always known that, sooner or later, such a moment would come; all
his life, in a sense, had been a preparation for it. But in entering
Mr. Spence's service he had not foreseen that it would present
itself in this form. He had seen himself consciously guiding that
gentleman up to the moment, rather than being thrust into it by a
stronger hand. And his first act of reflection was the resolve that,
in the end, his hand should prove the stronger of the two. This was
followed, almost immediately, by the idea that to be stronger than
Mr. Spence's it would have to be very strong indeed. It was odd that
he should feel this, since--as far as verbal communication went--it
was Mr. Spence who was asking for his support. In a theoretical
statement of the case the banker would have figured as being at
Millner's mercy; but one of the queerest things about experience was
the way it made light of theory. Millner felt now as though he were
being crushed by some inexorable engine of which he had been playing
with the lever. ...

He had always been intensely interested in observing his own
reactions, and had regarded this faculty of self-detachment as of
immense advantage in such a career as he had planned. He felt this
still, even in the act of noting his own bewilderment--felt it the
more in contrast to the odd unconsciousness of Mr. Spence's
attitude, of the incredible candour of his self-abasement and
self-abandonment. It was clear that Mr. Spence was not troubled by
the repercussion of his actions in the consciousness of others; and
this looked like a weakness--unless it were, instead, a great
strength. ...

Through the hum of these swarming thoughts Mr. Spence's voice was
going on. "That's the only rag of proof they've got; and they got it
by one of those nasty accidents that nobody can guard against. I
don't care how conscientiously a man attends to business, he can't
always protect himself against meddlesome people. I don't pretend to
know how the letter came into their hands; but they've got it; and
they mean to use it--and they mean to say that you wrote it for me,
and that you knew what it was about when you wrote it. ... They'll
probably be after you tomorrow--"

Mr. Spence, restoring his cigar to his lips, puffed at it slowly. In
the pause that followed there was an instant during which the
universe seemed to Hugh Millner like a sounding-board bent above his
single consciousness. If he spoke, what thunders would be sent back
to him from that intently listening vastness?

"You see?" said Mr. Spence.

The universal ear bent closer, as if to catch the least articulation
of Millner's narrowed lips; but when he opened them it was merely to
re-insert his cigar, and for a short space nothing passed between
the two men but an exchange of smoke-rings.

"What do you mean to do? There's the point," Mr. Spence at length
sent through the rings.

Oh, yes, the point was there, as distinctly before Millner as the
tip of his expensive cigar: he had seen it coming quite as soon as
Mr. Spence. He knew that fate was handing him an ultimatum; but the
sense of the formidable echo which his least answer would rouse kept
him doggedly, and almost helplessly, silent. To let Mr. Spence talk
on as long as possible was no doubt the best way of gaining time;
but Millner knew that his silence was really due to his dread of the
echo. Suddenly, however, in a reaction of impatience at his own
indecision, he began to speak.

The sound of his voice cleared his mind and strengthened his
resolve. It was odd how the word seemed to shape the act, though one
knew how ancillary it really was. As he talked, it was as if the
globe had swung around, and he himself were upright on its axis,
with Mr. Spence underneath, on his head. Through the ensuing
interchange of concise and rapid speech there sounded in Millner's
ears the refrain to which he had walked down Fifth Avenue after his
first talk with Mr. Spence: "It's too easy--it's too easy--it's too
easy." Yes, it was even easier than he had expected. His sensation
was that of the skilful carver who feels his good blade sink into a
tender joint.

As he went on talking, this surprised sense of mastery was like wine
in his veins. Mr. Spence was at his mercy, after all--that was what
it came to; but this new view of the case did not lessen Millner's
sense of Mr. Spence's strength, it merely revealed to him his own
superiority. Mr. Spence was even stronger than he had suspected.
There could be no better proof of that than his faith in Millner's
power to grasp the situation, and his tacit recognition of the young
man's right to make the most of it. Millner felt that Mr. Spence
would have despised him even more for not using his advantage than
for not seeing it; and this homage to his capacity nerved him to
greater alertness, and made the concluding moments of their talk as
physically exhilarating as some hotly contested game.

When the conclusion was reached, and Millner stood at the goal, the
golden trophy in his grasp, his first conscious thought was one of
regret that the struggle was over. He would have liked to prolong
their talk for the purely aesthetic pleasure of making Mr. Spence
lose time, and, better still, of making him forget that he was
losing it. The sense of advantage that the situation conferred was
so great that when Mr. Spence rose it was as if Millner were
dismissing him, and when he reached his hand toward the cigar-box it
seemed to be one of Millner's cigars that he was taking.


IV

THERE had been only one condition attached to the transaction:
Millner was to speak to Draper about the Bible Class.

The condition was easy to fulfil. Millner was confident of his power
to deflect his young friend's purpose; and he knew the opportunity
would be given him before the day was over. His professional duties
despatched, he had only to go up to his room to wait. Draper nearly
always looked in on him for a moment before dinner: it was the hour
most propitious to their elliptic interchange of words and silences.

Meanwhile, the waiting was an occupation in itself. Millner looked
about his room with new eyes. Since the first thrill of initiation
into its complicated comforts--the shower-bath, the telephone, the
many-jointed reading-lamp and the vast mirrored presses through
which he was always hunting his scant outfit--Millner's room had
interested him no more than a railway-carriage in which he might
have been travelling. But now it had acquired a sort of historic
significance as the witness of the astounding change in his fate. It
was Corsica, it was Brienne--it was the kind of spot that posterity
might yet mark with a tablet. Then he reflected that he should soon
be leaving it, and the lustre of its monumental mahogany was veiled
in pathos. Why indeed should he linger on in bondage? He perceived
with a certain surprise that the only thing he should regret would
be leaving Draper. ...

It was odd, it was inconsequent, it was almost exasperating, that
such a regret should obscure his triumph. Why in the world should he
suddenly take to regretting Draper? If there were any logic in human
likings, it should be to Mr. Spence that he inclined. Draper, dear
lad, had the illusion of an "intellectual sympathy" between them;
but that, Millner knew, was an affair of reading and not of
character. Draper's temerities would always be of that kind; whereas
his own--well, his own, put to the proof, had now definitely classed
him with Mr. Spence rather than with Mr. Spence's son. It was a
consequence of this new condition--of his having thus distinctly and
irrevocably classed himself--that, when Draper at length brought
upon the scene his shy shamble and his wistful smile, Millner, for
the first time, had to steel himself against them instead of
yielding to their charm.

In the new order upon which he had entered, one principle of the old
survived: the point of honour between allies. And Millner had
promised Mr. Spence to speak to Draper about his Bible Class. ...

Draper, thrown back in his chair, and swinging a loose leg across a
meagre knee, listened with his habitual gravity. His downcast eyes
seemed to pursue the vision which Millner's words evoked; and the
words, to their speaker, took on a new sound as that candid
consciousness refracted them.

"You know, dear boy, I perfectly see your father's point. It's
naturally distressing to him, at this particular time, to have any
hint of civil war leak out--"

Draper sat upright, laying his lank legs knee to knee.

"That's it, then? I thought that was it!"

Millner raised a surprised glance. "_ What's_ it?"

"That it should be at this particular time--"

"Why, naturally, as I say! Just as he's making, as it were, his
public profession of faith. You know, to men like your father
convictions are irreducible elements--they can't be split up, and
differently combined. And your exegetical scruples seem to him to
strike at the very root of his convictions."

Draper pulled himself to his feet and shuffled across the room. Then
he turned about, and stood before his friend.

"Is it that--or is it this?" he said; and with the word he drew a
letter from his pocket and proffered it silently to Millner.

The latter, as he unfolded it, was first aware of an intense
surprise at the young man's abruptness of tone and gesture. Usually
Draper fluttered long about his point before making it; and his
sudden movement seemed as mechanical as the impulsion conveyed by
some strong spring. The spring, of course, was in the letter; and to
it Millner turned his startled glance, feeling the while that, by
some curious cleavage of perception, he was continuing to watch
Draper while he read.

"Oh, the beasts!" he cried.

He and Draper were face to face across the sheet which had dropped
between them. The youth's features were tightened by a smile that
was like the ligature of a wound. He looked white and withered.

"Ah--you knew, then?"

Millner sat still, and after a moment Draper turned from him, walked
to the hearth, and leaned against the chimney, propping his chin on
his hands. Millner, his head thrown back, stared up at the ceiling,
which had suddenly become to him the image of the universal
sounding-board hanging over his consciousness.

"You knew, then?" Draper repeated.

Millner remained silent. He had perceived, with the surprise of a
mathematician working out a new problem, that the lie which Mr.
Spence had just bought of him was exactly the one gift he could give
of his own free will to Mr. Spence's son. This discovery gave the
world a strange new topsy-turvyness, and set Millner's theories
spinning about his brain like the cabin furniture of a tossing ship.

"You _knew_," said Draper, in a tone of quiet affirmation.

Millner righted himself, and grasped the arms of his chair as if
that too were reeling. "About this blackguardly charge?"

Draper was studying him intently. "What does it matter if it's
blackguardly?"

"Matter--?" Millner stammered.

"It's that, of course, in any case. But the point is whether it's
true or not." Draper bent down, and picking up the crumpled letter,
smoothed it out between his fingers. "The point, is, whether my
father, when he was publicly denouncing the peonage abuses on the
San Pablo plantations over a year ago, had actually sold out his
stock, as he announced at the time; or whether, as they say
here--how do they put it?--he had simply transferred it to a dummy
till the scandal should blow over, and has meanwhile gone on drawing
his forty per cent interest on five thousand shares? There's the
point."

Millner had never before heard his young friend put a case with such
unadorned precision. His language was like that of Mr. Spence making
a statement to a committee meeting; and the resemblance to his
father flashed out with ironic incongruity.

"You see why I've brought this letter to you--I couldn't go to _him_
with it!" Draper's voice faltered, and the resemblance vanished as
suddenly as it had appeared.

"No; you couldn't go to him with it," said Millner slowly.

"And since they say here that _you_ know: that they've got your
letter proving it--" The muscles of Draper's face quivered as if a
blinding light had been swept over it. "For God's sake,
Millner--it's all right?"

"It's all right," said Millner, rising to his feet.

Draper caught him by the wrist. "You're sure--you're absolutely
sure?"

"Sure. They know they've got nothing to go on."

Draper fell back a step and looked almost sternly at his friend.
"You know that's not what I mean. I don't care a straw what they
think they've got to go on. I want to know if my father's all right.
If he is, they can say what they please."

Millner, again, felt himself under the concentrated scrutiny of the
ceiling. "Of course, of course. I understand."

"You understand? Then why don't you answer?"

Millner looked compassionately at the boy's struggling face.
Decidedly, the battle was to the strong, and he was not sorry to be
on the side of the legions. But Draper's pain was as awkward as a
material obstacle, as something that one stumbled over in a race.

"You know what I'm driving at, Millner." Again Mr. Spence's
committee-meeting tone sounded oddly through his son's strained
voice. "If my father's so awfully upset about my giving up my Bible
Class, and letting it be known that I do so on conscientious
grounds, is it because he's afraid it may be considered a criticism
on something _he_ has done which--which won't bear the test of the
doctrines he believes in?"

Draper, with the last question, squared himself in front of Millner,
as if suspecting that the latter meant to evade it by flight. But
Millner had never felt more disposed to stand his ground than at
that moment.

"No--by Jove, no! It's not _that_." His relief almost escaped him in
a cry, as he lifted his head to give back Draper's look.

"On your honour?" the other passionately pressed him.

"Oh, on anybody's you like--on _yours!_" Millner could hardly
restrain a laugh of relief. It was vertiginous to find himself
spared, after all, the need of an altruistic lie: he perceived that
they were the kind he least liked.

Draper took a deep breath. "You don't--Millner, a lot depends on
this--you don't really think my father has any ulterior motive?"

"I think he has none but his horror of seeing you go straight to
perdition!"

They looked at each other again, and Draper's tension was suddenly
relieved by a free boyish laugh. "It's his convictions--it's just
his funny old convictions?"

"It's that, and nothing else on earth!"

Draper turned back to the arm-chair he had left, and let his narrow
figure sink down into it as into a bath. Then he looked over at
Millner with a smile. "I can see that I've been worrying him
horribly. So he really thinks I'm on the road to perdition? Of
course you can fancy what a sick minute I had when I thought it
might be this other reason--the damnable insinuation in this
letter." Draper crumpled the paper in his hand, and leaned forward
to toss it into the coals of the grate. "I ought to have known
better, of course. I ought to have remembered that, as you say, my
father can't conceive how conduct may be independent of creed.
That's where I was stupid--and rather base. But that letter made me
dizzy--I couldn't think. Even now I can't very clearly. I'm not sure
what _my_ convictions require of me: they seem to me so much less to
be considered than his! When I've done half the good to people that
he has, it will be time enough to begin attacking their beliefs.
Meanwhile--meanwhile I can't touch his. ..." Draper leaned
forward, stretching his lank arms along his knees. His face was as
clear as a spring sky. "I _won't_ touch them, Millner--Go and tell
him so. ..."


V

In the study a half hour later Mr. Spence, watch in hand, was doling
out his minutes again. The peril conjured, he had recovered his
dominion over time. He turned his commanding eye-glasses on Millner.

"It's all settled, then? Tell Draper I'm sorry not to see him again
to-night--but I'm to speak at the dinner of the Legal Relief
Association, and I'm due there in five minutes. You and he dine
alone here, I suppose? Tell him I appreciate what he's done. Some
day he'll see that to leave the world better than we find it is the
best we can hope to do. (You've finished the notes for the
_Investigator?_ Be sure you don't forget that phrase.) Well, good
evening: that's all, I think."

Smooth and compact in his glossy evening clothes, Mr. Spence
advanced toward the study door; but as he reached it, his secretary
stood there before him.

"It's not quite all, Mr. Spence."

Mr. Spence turned on him a look in which impatience was faintly
tinged with apprehension. "What else is there? It's two and a half
minutes to eight."

Millner stood his ground. "It won't take longer than that. I want to
tell you that, if you can conveniently replace me, I'd like--there
are reasons why I shall have to leave you."

Millner was conscious of reddening as he spoke. His redness deepened
under Mr. Spence's dispassionate scrutiny. He saw at once that the
banker was not surprised at his announcement.

"Well, I suppose that's natural enough. You'll want to make a start
for yourself now. Only, of course, for the sake of appearances--"

"Oh, certainly," Millner hastily agreed.

"Well, then: is that all?" Mr. Spence repeated.

"Nearly." Millner paused, as if in search of an appropriate formula.
But after a moment he gave up the search, and pulled from his pocket
an envelope which he held out to his employer. "I merely want to
give this back."

The hand which Mr. Spence had extended dropped to his side, and his
sand-coloured face grew chalky. "Give it back?" His voice was as
thick as Millner's. "What's happened? Is the bargain off?"

"Oh, no. I've given you my word."

"Your word?" Mr. Spence lowered at him. "I'd like to know what
that's worth!"

Millner continued to hold out the envelope. "You do know, now. It's
worth _that_. It's worth my place."

Mr. Spence, standing motionless before him, hesitated for an
appreciable space of time. His lips parted once or twice under their
square-clipped stubble, and at last emitted: "How much more do you
want?"

Millner broke into a laugh. "Oh, I've got all I want--all and more!"

"What--from the others? Are you crazy?"

"No, you are," said Millner with a sudden recovery of composure.
"But you're safe--you're as safe as you'll ever be. Only I don't
care to take this for making you so."

Mr. Spence slowly moistened his lips with his tongue, and removing
his _pince-nez_, took a long hard look at Millner.

"I don't understand. What other guarantee have I got?"

"That I mean what I say?" Millner glanced past the banker's figure
at his rich densely coloured background of Spanish leather and
mahogany. He remembered that it was from this very threshold that he
had first seen Mr. Spence's son.

"What guarantee? You've got Draper!" he said.

Edith Wharton


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