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Chapter 10

Mr. and Mrs. Spragg were both given to such long periods of ruminating
apathy that the student of inheritance might have wondered whence Undine
derived her overflowing activity. The answer would have been obtained
by observing her father's business life. From the moment he set foot
in Wall Street Mr. Spragg became another man. Physically the change
revealed itself only by the subtlest signs. As he steered his way to his
office through the jostling crowd of William Street his relaxed muscles
did not grow more taut or his lounging gait less desultory. His
shoulders were hollowed by the usual droop, and his rusty black
waistcoat showed the same creased concavity at the waist, the same
flabby prominence below. It was only in his face that the difference was
perceptible, though even here it rather lurked behind the features than
openly modified them: showing itself now and then in the cautious glint
of half-closed eyes, the forward thrust of black brows, or a tightening
of the lax lines of the mouth--as the gleam of a night-watchman's light
might flash across the darkness of a shuttered house-front. The shutters
were more tightly barred than usual, when, on a morning some two
weeks later than the date of the incidents last recorded, Mr. Spragg
approached the steel and concrete tower in which his office occupied a
lofty pigeon-hole. Events had moved rapidly and somewhat surprisingly in
the interval, and Mr. Spragg had already accustomed himself to the fact
that his daughter was to be married within the week, instead of awaiting
the traditional post-Lenten date. Conventionally the change meant little
to him; but on the practical side it presented unforeseen difficulties.
Mr. Spragg had learned within the last weeks that a New York marriage
involved material obligations unknown to Apex. Marvell, indeed, had
been loftily careless of such questions; but his grandfather, on the
announcement of the engagement, had called on Mr. Spragg and put before
him, with polished precision, the young man's financial situation.

Mr. Spragg, at the moment, had been inclined to deal with his visitor in
a spirit of indulgent irony. As he leaned back in his revolving chair,
with feet adroitly balanced against a tilted scrap basket, his air of
relaxed power made Mr. Dagonet's venerable elegance seem as harmless as
that of an ivory jack-straw--and his first replies to his visitor were
made with the mildness of a kindly giant.

"Ralph don't make a living out of the law, you say? No, it didn't strike
me he'd be likely to, from the talks I've had with him. Fact is, the
law's a business that wants--" Mr. Spragg broke off, checked by a
protest from Mr. Dagonet. "Oh, a PROFESSION, you call it? It ain't a
business?" His smile grew more indulgent as this novel distinction
dawned on him. "Why, I guess that's the whole trouble with Ralph. Nobody
expects to make money in a PROFESSION; and if you've taught him to
regard the law that way, he'd better go right into cooking-stoves and
done with it."

Mr. Dagonet, within a narrower range, had his own play of humour; and it
met Mr. Spragg's with a leap. "It's because I knew he would manage to
make cooking-stoves as unremunerative as a profession that I saved him
from so glaring a failure by putting him into the law."

The retort drew a grunt of amusement from Mr. Spragg; and the eyes of
the two men met in unexpected understanding.

"That so? What can he do, then?" the future father-in-law enquired.

"He can write poetry--at least he tells me he can." Mr. Dagonet
hesitated, as if aware of the inadequacy of the alternative, and then
added: "And he can count on three thousand a year from me."

Mr. Spragg tilted himself farther back without disturbing his
subtly-calculated relation to the scrap basket.

"Does it cost anything like that to print his poetry?"

Mr. Dagonet smiled again: he was clearly enjoying his visit. "Dear,
no--he doesn't go in for 'luxe' editions. And now and then he gets ten
dollars from a magazine."

Mr. Spragg mused. "Wasn't he ever TAUGHT to work?"

"No; I really couldn't have afforded that."

"I see. Then they've got to live on two hundred and fifty dollars a
month."

Mr. Dagonet remained pleasantly unmoved. "Does it cost anything like
that to buy your daughter's dresses?"

A subterranean chuckle agitated the lower folds of Mr. Spragg's
waistcoat.

"I might put him in the way of something--I guess he's smart enough."

Mr. Dagonet made a gesture of friendly warning. "It will pay us both in
the end to keep him out of business," he said, rising as if to show that
his mission was accomplished.

The results of this friendly conference had been more serious than
Mr. Spragg could have foreseen--and the victory remained with his
antagonist. It had not entered into Mr. Spragg's calculations that he
would have to give his daughter any fixed income on her marriage. He
meant that she should have the "handsomest" wedding the New York press
had ever celebrated, and her mother's fancy was already afloat on a sea
of luxuries--a motor, a Fifth Avenue house, and a tiara that should
out-blaze Mrs. Van Degen's; but these were movable benefits, to be
conferred whenever Mr. Spragg happened to be "on the right side" of the
market. It was a different matter to be called on, at such short notice,
to bridge the gap between young Marvell's allowance and Undine's
requirements; and her father's immediate conclusion was that the
engagement had better be broken off. Such scissions were almost painless
in Apex, and he had fancied it would be easy, by an appeal to the girl's
pride, to make her see that she owed it to herself to do better.

"You'd better wait awhile and look round again," was the way he had put
it to her at the opening of the talk of which, even now, he could not
recall the close without a tremor.

Undine, when she took his meaning, had been terrible. Everything had
gone down before her, as towns and villages went down before one of the
tornadoes of her native state. Wait awhile? Look round? Did he suppose
she was marrying for MONEY? Didn't he see it was all a question, now
and here, of the kind of people she wanted to "go with"? Did he want
to throw her straight back into the Lipscomb set, to have her marry a
dentist and live in a West Side flat? Why hadn't they stayed in Apex, if
that was all he thought she was fit for? She might as well have married
Millard Binch, instead of handing him over to Indiana Frusk! Couldn't
her father understand that nice girls, in New York, didn't regard
getting married like going on a buggy-ride? It was enough to ruin a
girl's chances if she broke her engagement to a man in Ralph Marvell's
set. All kinds of spiteful things would be said about her, and she would
never be able to go with the right people again. They had better go back
to Apex right off--it was they and not SHE who had wanted to leave Apex,
anyhow--she could call her mother to witness it. She had always, when it
came to that, done what her father and mother wanted, but she'd given
up trying to make out what they were after, unless it was to make her
miserable; and if that was it, hadn't they had enough of it by this
time? She had, anyhow. But after this she meant to lead her own life;
and they needn't ask her where she was going, or what she meant to do,
because this time she'd die before she told them--and they'd made life
so hateful to her that she only wished she was dead already.

Mr. Spragg heard her out in silence, pulling at his beard with one
sallow wrinkled hand, while the other dragged down the armhole of his
waistcoat. Suddenly he looked up and said: "Ain't you in love with the
fellow, Undie?"

The girl glared back at him, her splendid brows beetling like an
Amazon's. "Do you think I'd care a cent for all the rest of it if I
wasn't?"

"Well, if you are, you and he won't mind beginning in a small way."

Her look poured contempt on his ignorance. "Do you s'pose I'd drag him
down?" With a magnificent gesture she tore Marvell's ring from her
finger. "I'll send this back this minute. I'll tell him I thought he
was a rich man, and now I see I'm mistaken--" She burst into shattering
sobs, rocking her beautiful body back and forward in all the abandonment
of young grief; and her father stood over her, stroking her shoulder and
saying helplessly: "I'll see what I can do, Undine--"

All his life, and at ever-diminishing intervals, Mr. Spragg had been
called on by his womenkind to "see what he could do"; and the seeing had
almost always resulted as they wished. Undine did not have to send back
her ring, and in her state of trance-like happiness she hardly asked by
what means her path had been smoothed, but merely accepted her mother's
assurance that "father had fixed everything all right."

Mr. Spragg accepted the situation also. A son-in-law who expected to
be pensioned like a Grand Army veteran was a phenomenon new to his
experience; but if that was what Undine wanted she should have it. Only
two days later, however, he was met by a new demand--the young people
had decided to be married "right off," instead of waiting till June.
This change of plan was made known to Mr. Spragg at a moment when he was
peculiarly unprepared for the financial readjustment it necessitated. He
had always declared himself able to cope with any crisis if Undine and
her mother would "go steady"; but he now warned them of his inability to
keep up with the new pace they had set. Undine, not deigning to return
to the charge, had commissioned her mother to speak for her; and Mr.
Spragg was surprised to meet in his wife a firmness as inflexible as his
daughter's.

"I can't do it, Loot--can't put my hand on the cash," he had protested;
but Mrs. Spragg fought him inch by inch, her back to the wall--flinging
out at last, as he pressed her closer: "Well, if you want to know, she's
seen Elmer."

The bolt reached its mark, and her husband turned an agitated face on
her.

"Elmer? What on earth--he didn't come HERE?"

"No; but he sat next to her the other night at the theatre, and she's
wild with us for not having warned her."

Mr. Spragg's scowl drew his projecting brows together. "Warned her of
what? What's Elmer to her? Why's she afraid of Elmer Moffatt?"

"She's afraid of his talking."

"Talking? What on earth can he say that'll hurt HER?"

"Oh, I don't know," Mrs. Spragg wailed. "She's so nervous I can hardly
get a word out of her."

Mr. Spragg's whitening face showed the touch of a new fear. "Is she
afraid he'll get round her again--make up to her? Is that what she
means by 'talking'?" "I don't know, I don't know. I only know she is
afraid--she's afraid as death of him."

For a long interval they sat silently looking at each other while their
heavy eyes exchanged conjectures: then Mr. Spragg rose from his chair,
saying, as he took up his hat: "Don't you fret, Leota; I'll see what I
can do."

He had been "seeing" now for an arduous fortnight; and the strain on his
vision had resulted in a state of tension such as he had not undergone
since the epic days of the Pure Water Move at Apex. It was not his habit
to impart his fears to Mrs. Spragg and Undine, and they continued the
bridal preparations, secure in their invariable experience that, once
"father" had been convinced of the impossibility of evading their
demands, he might be trusted to satisfy them by means with which his
womenkind need not concern themselves. Mr. Spragg, as he approached his
office on the morning in question, felt reasonably sure of fulfilling
these expectations; but he reflected that a few more such victories
would mean disaster.

He entered the vast marble vestibule of the Ararat Trust Building and
walked toward the express elevator that was to carry him up to his
office. At the door of the elevator a man turned to him, and he
recognized Elmer Moffatt, who put out his hand with an easy gesture.

Mr. Spragg did not ignore the gesture: he did not even withhold his
hand. In his code the cut, as a conscious sign of disapproval, did not
exist. In the south, if you had a grudge against a man you tried to
shoot him; in the west, you tried to do him in a mean turn in business;
but in neither region was the cut among the social weapons of offense.
Mr. Spragg, therefore, seeing Moffatt in his path, extended a lifeless
hand while he faced the young man scowlingly. Moffatt met the hand and
the scowl with equal coolness.

"Going up to your office? I was on my way there."

The elevator door rolled back, and Mr. Spragg, entering it, found his
companion at his side. They remained silent during the ascent to Mr.
Spragg's threshold; but there the latter turned to enquire ironically of
Moffatt: "Anything left to say?"

Moffatt smiled. "Nothing LEFT--no; I'm carrying a whole new line of
goods."

Mr. Spragg pondered the reply; then he opened the door and suffered
Moffatt to follow him in. Behind an inner glazed enclosure, with its one
window dimmed by a sooty perspective barred with chimneys, he seated
himself at a dusty littered desk, and groped instinctively for the
support of the scrap basket. Moffatt, uninvited, dropped into the
nearest chair, and Mr. Spragg said, after another silence: "I'm pretty
busy this morning."

"I know you are: that's why I'm here," Moffatt serenely answered. He
leaned back, crossing his legs, and twisting his small stiff moustache
with a plump hand adorned by a cameo.

"Fact is," he went on, "this is a coals-of-fire call. You think I owe
you a grudge, and I'm going to show you I'm not that kind. I'm going
to put you onto a good thing--oh, not because I'm so fond of you; just
because it happens to hit my sense of a joke."

While Moffatt talked Mr. Spragg took up the pile of letters on his desk
and sat shuffling them like a pack of cards. He dealt them deliberately
to two imaginary players; then he pushed them aside and drew out his
watch.

"All right--I carry one too," said the young man easily. "But you'll
find it's time gained to hear what I've got to say."

Mr. Spragg considered the vista of chimneys without speaking, and
Moffatt continued: "I don't suppose you care to hear the story of my
life, so I won't refer you to the back numbers. You used to say out in
Apex that I spent too much time loafing round the bar of the Mealey
House; that was one of the things you had against me. Well, maybe I
did--but it taught me to talk, and to listen to the other fellows too.
Just at present I'm one of Harmon B. Driscoll's private secretaries, and
some of that Mealey House loafing has come in more useful than any job I
ever put my hand to. The old man happened to hear I knew something about
the inside of the Eubaw deal, and took me on to have the information
where he could get at it. I've given him good talk for his money;
but I've done some listening too. Eubaw ain't the only commodity the
Driscolls deal in."

Mr. Spragg restored his watch to his pocket and shifted his drowsy gaze
from the window to his visitor's face.

"Yes," said Moffatt, as if in reply to the movement, "the Driscolls are
getting busy out in Apex. Now they've got all the street railroads in
their pocket they want the water-supply too--but you know that as well
as I do. Fact is, they've got to have it; and there's where you and I
come in."

Mr. Spragg thrust his hands in his waistcoat arm-holes and turned his
eyes back to the window.

"I'm out of that long ago," he said indifferently.

"Sure," Moffatt acquiesced; "but you know what went on when you were in
it."

"Well?" said Mr. Spragg, shifting one hand to the Masonic emblem on his
watch-chain.

"Well, Representative James J. Rolliver, who was in it with you, ain't
out of it yet. He's the man the Driscolls are up against. What d'you
know about him?"

Mr. Spragg twirled the emblem thoughtfully. "Driscoll tell you to come
here?"

Moffatt laughed. "No, SIR--not by a good many miles."

Mr. Spragg removed his feet from the scrap basket and straightened
himself in his chair.

"Well--I didn't either; good morning, Mr. Moffatt."

The young man stared a moment, a humorous glint in his small black eyes;
but he made no motion to leave his seat. "Undine's to be married next
week, isn't she?" he asked in a conversational tone.

Mr. Spragg's face blackened and he swung about in his revolving chair.

"You go to--"

Moffatt raised a deprecating hand. "Oh, you needn't warn me off. I
don't want to be invited to the wedding. And I don't want to forbid the
banns."

There was a derisive sound in Mr. Spragg's throat.

"But I DO want to get out of Driscoll's office," Moffatt imperturbably
continued. "There's no future there for a fellow like me. I see things
big. That's the reason Apex was too tight a fit for me. It's only
the little fellows that succeed in little places. New York's my
size--without a single alteration. I could prove it to you to-morrow if
I could put my hand on fifty thousand dollars."

Mr. Spragg did not repeat his gesture of dismissal: he was once more
listening guardedly but intently. Moffatt saw it and continued.

"And I could put my hand on double that sum--yes, sir, DOUBLE--if you'd
just step round with me to old Driscoll's office before five P. M. See
the connection, Mr. Spragg?"

The older man remained silent while his visitor hummed a bar or two of
"In the Gloaming"; then he said: "You want me to tell Driscoll what I
know about James J. Rolliver?"

"I want you to tell the truth--I want you to stand for political purity
in your native state. A man of your prominence owes it to the community,
sir," cried Moffatt. Mr. Spragg was still tormenting his Masonic emblem.

"Rolliver and I always stood together," he said at last, with a tinge of
reluctance.

"Well, how much have you made out of it? Ain't he always been ahead of
the game?"

"I can't do it--I can't do it," said Mr. Spragg, bringing his clenched
hand down on the desk, as if addressing an invisible throng of
assailants.

Moffatt rose without any evidence of disappointment in his ruddy
countenance. "Well, so long," he said, moving toward the door. Near
the threshold he paused to add carelessly: "Excuse my referring to a
personal matter--but I understand Miss Spragg's wedding takes place next
Monday."

Mr. Spragg was silent.

"How's that?" Moffatt continued unabashed. "I saw in the papers the date
was set for the end of June."

Mr. Spragg rose heavily from his seat. "I presume my daughter has her
reasons," he said, moving toward the door in Moffatt's wake.

"I guess she has--same as I have for wanting you to step round with me
to old Driscoll's. If Undine's reasons are as good as mine--"

"Stop right here, Elmer Moffatt!" the older man broke out with lifted
hand. Moffatt made a burlesque feint of evading a blow; then his face
grew serious, and he moved close to Mr. Spragg, whose arm had fallen to
his side.

"See here, I know Undine's reasons. I've had a talk with her--didn't
she tell you? SHE don't beat about the bush the way you do. She told me
straight out what was bothering her. She wants the Marvells to think
she's right out of Kindergarten. 'No goods sent out on approval from
this counter.' And I see her point--_I_ don't mean to publish my
meemo'rs. Only a deal's a deal." He paused a moment, twisting his
fingers about the heavy gold watch-chain that crossed his waistcoat.
"Tell you what, Mr. Spragg, I don't bear malice--not against Undine,
anyway--and if I could have afforded it I'd have been glad enough to
oblige her and forget old times. But you didn't hesitate to kick me when
I was down and it's taken me a day or two to get on my legs again after
that kicking. I see my way now to get there and keep there; and there's
a kinder poetic justice in your being the man to help me up. If I can
get hold of fifty thousand dollars within a day or so I don't care who's
got the start of me. I've got a dead sure thing in sight, and you're the
only man that can get it for me. Now do you see where we're coming out?"

Mr. Spragg, during this discourse, had remained motionless, his hands
in his pockets, his jaws moving mechanically, as though he mumbled a
tooth-pick under his beard. His sallow cheek had turned a shade paler,
and his brows hung threateningly over his half-closed eyes. But there
was no threat--there was scarcely more than a note of dull curiosity--in
the voice with which he said: "You mean to talk?"

Moffatt's rosy face grew as hard as a steel safe. "I mean YOU to
talk--to old Driscoll." He paused, and then added: "It's a hundred
thousand down, between us."

Mr. Spragg once more consulted his watch. "I'll see you again," he said
with an effort.

Moffatt struck one fist against the other. "No, SIR--you won't! You'll
only hear from me--through the Marvell family. Your news ain't worth a
dollar to Driscoll if he don't get it to-day."

He was checked by the sound of steps in the outer office, and Mr.
Spragg's stenographer appeared in the doorway.

"It's Mr. Marvell," she announced; and Ralph Marvell, glowing with haste
and happiness, stood between the two men, holding out his hand to Mr.
Spragg.

"Am I awfully in the way, sir? Turn me out if I am--but first let me
just say a word about this necklace I've ordered for Un--"

He broke off, made aware by Mr. Spragg's glance of the presence of Elmer
Moffatt, who, with unwonted discretion, had dropped back into the
shadow of the door. Marvell turned on Moffatt a bright gaze full of the
instinctive hospitality of youth; but Moffatt looked straight past him
at Mr. Spragg. The latter, as if in response to an imperceptible signal,
mechanically pronounced his visitor's name; and the two young men moved
toward each other.

"I beg your pardon most awfully--am I breaking up an important
conference?" Ralph asked as he shook hands.

"Why, no--I guess we're pretty nearly through. I'll step outside and woo
the blonde while you're talking," Moffatt rejoined in the same key.

"Thanks so much--I shan't take two seconds." Ralph broke off to
scrutinize him. "But haven't we met before? It seems to me I've seen
you--just lately--"

Moffatt seemed about to answer, but his reply was checked by an abrupt
movement on the part of Mr. Spragg. There was a perceptible pause,
during which Moffatt's bright black glance rested questioningly on
Ralph; then he looked again at the older man, and their eyes held each
other for a silent moment.

"Why, no--not as I'm aware of, Mr. Marvell," Moffatt said, addressing
himself amicably to Ralph. "Better late than never, though--and I hope
to have the pleasure soon again."

He divided a nod between the two men, and passed into the outer office,
where they heard him addressing the stenographer in a strain of
exaggerated gallantry.

Edith Wharton