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The "Goldfish" by Arthur Train

Part 4 out of 4

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good night!"

He sprang into the only remaining taxi without asking me to share it and
vanished in a cloud of gasoline smoke. I was in no mood for waiting;
besides I was going to be democratic. I took a surface car up Lexington
Avenue and stood between the distended knees of a fat and somnolent
Italian gentleman for thirty blocks. The car was intolerably stuffy and
smelled strongly of wet umbrellas and garlic. By the time I reached the
cross-street on which I lived it had begun to pour. I turned up my coat
collar and ran to my house.

Somehow I felt like a small boy as I threw myself panting inside my own
marble portal. My butler expressed great sympathy for my condition and
smuggled me quickly upstairs. I fancy he suspected there was something
discreditable about my absence. A pungent aroma floated up from the
drawing room, where the bridge players were steadily at work. I confess
to feeling rather dirty, wet and disreputable.

"I'm sorry, sir," said my butler as he turned on the electric switch in
my bedroom, "but I didn't expect you back this evening, and so I told
Martin he might go out."

A wave of irritation, almost of anger, swept over me. Martin was my
perfect valet.

"What the devil did you do that for!" I snapped.

Then, realizing my inconsistency, I was ashamed, utterly humiliated and
disgusted with myself. This, then, was all that my resolution amounted
to after all!

"I am very sorry, sir," repeated my butler. "Very sorry, sir, indeed.
Shall I help you off with your things?"

"Oh, that's all right!" I exclaimed, somewhat to his surprise. "Don't
bother about me. I'll take care of myself."

"Can't I bring you something?" he asked solicitously.

"No, thanks!" said I. "I don't need anything that you can give me!"

"Very good, sir," he replied. "Good night, sir."

"Good night," I answered, and he closed the door noiselessly.

I lit a cigarette and, tossing off my coat, sank into a chair. My mere
return to that ordered elegance seemed to have benumbed my
individuality. Downstairs thirty of our most intimate friends were
amusing themselves at the cardtables, confident that at eleven-thirty
they would be served with supper consisting of salads, ice-cream and
champagne. They would not hope in vain. If they did not get it--speaking
broadly--they would not come again. They wanted us as we were--house,
food, trappings--the whole layout. They meant well enough. They simply
had to have certain things. If we changed our scale of living we should
lose the acquaintance of these people, and we should have nobody in
their place.

We had grown into a highly complicated system, in which we had a settled
orbit. This orbit was not susceptible of change unless we were willing
to turn everything topsy-turvy. Everybody would suppose we had lost our
money. And, not being brilliant or clever people, who paid their way as
they went by making themselves lively and attractive, it would be
assumed that we could not keep up our end; so we should be gradually
left out.

I said to myself that I ought not to care--that being left out was what
I wanted; but, all the same, I knew I did care. You cannot tear yourself
up by the roots at fifty unless you are prepared to go to a far country.
I was not prepared to do that at a moment's notice. I, too, was used to
a whole lot of things--was solidly imbedded in them.

My very house was an overwhelming incubus. I was like a miserable snail,
forever lugging my house round on my back--unable to shake it off. A
change in our mode of life would not necessarily in itself bring my
children any nearer to me; it would, on the contrary, probably
antagonize them. I had sowed the seed and I was reaping the harvest. My
professional life I could not alter. I had my private clients--my
regular business. Besides there was no reason for altering it. I
conducted it honorably and well enough.

Yet the calm consideration of those very difficulties in the end only
demonstrated the clearer to me the perilous state in which I was. The
deeper the bog, the more my spirit writhed to be free. Better, I
thought, to die struggling than gradually to sink down and be suffocated
beneath the mire of apathy and self-indulgence.

Hastings' little home--or something--had wrought a change in me. I had
gone through some sort of genuine emotional experience. It seemed
impossible to reform my mode of life and thought, but it was equally
incredible that I should fall back into my old indifference. Sitting
there alone in my chamber I felt like a man in a nightmare, who would
give his all to be able to rise, yet whose limbs were immovable, held by
some subtle and cruel power. I had read in novels about men agonized by
remorse and indecision. I now experienced those sensations myself. I
discovered they were not imaginary states.

My meditations were interrupted by the entrance of my wife, who, with an
anxious look on her face, inquired what was the matter. The butler had
said I seemed indisposed; so she had slipped away from our guests and
come up to see for herself. She was in full regalia--elaborate gown,
pearls, aigret.

"There's nothing the matter with me," I answered, though I know full
well I lied--I was poisoned.

"Well, that's a comfort, at any rate!" she replied, amiably enough.

"Where's Tom?" I asked wearily.

"I haven't any idea," she said frankly. "You know he almost never comes

"And the girls?"

"Visiting the Devereuxs at Staatsburg," she answered. "Aren't you coming
down for some bridge?"

"No," I said. "To tell you the truth I never want to see a pack of cards
again. I want to cut the game. I'm sick of our life and the useless
extravagance. I want a change. Let's get rid of the whole thing--take a
smaller house--have fewer servants. Think of the relief!"

"What's the matter?" she cried sharply. "Have you lost money?"

Money! Money!

"No," I said, "I haven't lost money--I've lost heart!"

She eyed me distrustfully.

"Are you crazy?" she demanded.

"No," I answered. "I don't think I am."

"You act that way," she retorted. "It's a funny time to talk about
changing your mode of life--right in the middle of a bridge party! What
have you been working for all these years? And where do I come in? You
can go to your clubs and your office--anywhere; but all I've got is the
life you have taught me to enjoy! Tom is grown up and never comes near
me. And the girls--why, what do you think would happen to them if you
suddenly gave up your place in society? They'd never get married so long
as they lived. People would think you'd gone bankrupt! Really"--her eyes
filled and she dabbed at them with a Valenciennes handkerchief--"I think
it too heartless of you to come in this way--like a skeleton at the
feast--and spoil my evening!"

I felt a slight touch of remorse. I had broached the matter rather
roughly. I laid my hand on her shoulder--now so round and matronly, once
so slender.

"Anna," I said as tenderly as I could, "suppose I _did_ give it all up?"

She rose indignantly to her feet and shook off my hand.

"You'd have to get along without me!" she retorted; then, seeing the
anguish on my face, she added less harshly: "Take a brandy-and-soda and
go to bed. I'm sure you're not quite yourself."

I was struck by the chance significance of her phrase--"Not quite
yourself." No; ever since I had left the house that morning I had not
been quite myself. I had had a momentary glimpse--had for an instant
caught the glint of an angel's wing--but it was gone. I was almost
myself--my old self; yet not quite.

"I didn't mean to be unkind," I muttered. "Don't worry about me. I've
merely had a vision of what might have been, and it's disgusted me. Go
on down to the bridge fiends. I'll be along shortly--if you'll excuse my

"Poor boy!" she sighed. "You're tired out! No; don't come down--in those

* * * * *

I laughed a hollow laugh when she had gone. Really there was something
humorous about it all. What was the use even of trying? I did not seem
even to belong in my own house unless my clothes matched the wall paper!
I lit cigarette after cigarette, staring blankly at my silk pajamas laid
out on the bed.

I could not change things! It was too late. I had brought up my son and
daughters to live in a certain kind of way, had taught them that
luxuries were necessities, had neglected them--had ruined them perhaps;
but I had no moral right now to annihilate that life--and their
mother's--without their consent. They might be poor things; but, after
all, they were my own. They were free, white and twenty-one. And I knew
they would simply think me mad!

I had a fixed place in a complicated system, with responsibilities and
duties I was morally bound to recognize. I could not chuck the whole
business without doing a great deal of harm. My life was not so simple
as all that. Any change--if it could be accomplished at all--would have
to be a gradual one and be brought about largely by persuasion. Could it
be accomplished?

It now seemed insuperably difficult. I was bound to the wheel--and the
habits of a lifetime, the moral pressure of my wife and children, the
example of society, and the force of superficial public opinion and
expectation were spinning it round and round in the direction of least
resistance. As well attempt to alter my course as to steer a locomotive
off the track! I could not ditch the locomotive, for I had a trainload
of passengers! And yet--

I groaned and buried my face in my hands. I--successful? Yes, success
had been mine; but success was failure--naught else--failure, absolute
and unmitigated! I had lost my wife and family, and my home had become
the resort of a crew of empty-headed coxcombs.

I wondered whether they were gone. I looked at the clock. It was
half-past twelve--Sunday morning. I opened my bedroom door and crept
downstairs. No; they were not gone--they had merely moved on to supper.

My library was in the front of the house, across the hall from the
drawing room, and I went in there and sank into an armchair by the fire.
The bridge party was making a great to-do and its strident laughter
floated up from below. By contrast the quiet library seemed a haven of
refuge. Here were the books I might have read--which might have been my
friends. Poor fool that I was!

I put out my hand and took down the first it encountered--John Bunyan's
Pilgrim's Progress. It was a funny old volume--a priceless early edition
given me by a grateful client whom I had extricated from some
embarrassment. I had never read it, but I knew its general trend. It was
about some imaginary miserable who, like myself, wanted to do things
differently. I took a cigar out of my pocket, lit it and, opening the
book haphazard, glanced over the pages in a desultory fashion.

"_That is that which I seek for, even to be rid of this heavy Burden;
but get it off myself, I cannot; nor is there any man in our country
that can take it off my shoulders_--"

So the Pilgrim had a burden too! I turned back to the beginning and read
how Christian, the hero, had been made aware of his perilous condition.

"_In this plight therefore he went home, and refrained himself as long
as he could, that his Wife and Children should not perceive his
distress, but he could not be silent long, because that his trouble
increased: Wherefore at length he brake his mind to his Wife and
Children; and thus he began to talk to them: 'Oh, my dear Wife,' said
he, 'and you the Children of my bowels, I, your dear Friend, am in
myself undone by reason of a Burden that lieth hard upon me.' ... At
this his_ _Relations were sore amazed; not for that they believed that
what he had said to them was true, but because they thought that some
frenzy distemper had got into his head; therefore, it drawing toward
night, and they hoping that sleep might settle his brains, with all
haste they got him to bed: But the night was as troublesome to him as
the day; wherefore, instead of sleeping, he spent it in sighs and

Surely this Pilgrim was strangely like myself! And, though sorely beset,
he had struggled on his way.

"_Hast thou a Wife and Children_?

"_Yes, but I am so laden with this Burden that I cannot take that
pleasure in them as formerly; methinks I am as if I had none_."

Tears filled my eyes and I laid down the book. The bridge party was
going home. I could hear them shouting good-bys in the front hall and my
wife's shrill voice answering Good night! From outside came the toot of
horns and the whir of the motors as they drew up at the curb. One by one
the doors slammed, the glass rattled and they thundered off. The noise
got on my nerves and, taking my book, I crossed to the deserted drawing
room, the scene of the night's social carnage. The sight was enough to
sicken any man! Eight tables covered with half-filled glasses; cards
everywhere--the floor littered with them; chairs pushed helter-skelter
and one overturned; and from a dozen ash-receivers the slowly ascending
columns of incense to the great God of Chance. On the middle table lay
a score card and pencil, a roll of bills, a pile of silver, and my
wife's vanity box, with its chain of pearls and diamonds.

Fiercely I resolved again to end it all--at any cost. I threw open one
of the windows, sat myself down by a lamp in a corner, and found the
place where I had been reading. Christian had just encountered Charity.
In the midst of their discussion I heard my wife's footsteps in the
hall; the portieres rustled and she entered.

"Well!" she exclaimed. "I thought you had gone to bed long ago. I had
good luck to-night. I won eight hundred dollars! How are you feeling?"

"Anna," I answered, "sit down a minute. I want to read you something."

"Go ahead!" she said, lighting a cigarette, and throwing herself into
one of the vacant chairs.

"_Then said Charity to Christian: Have you a family? Are you a married

"CHRISTIAN: _I have a Wife and_ ... _Children_."

"CHARITY: _And why did you not bring them along with you_?"

"_Then Christian wept and said: Oh, how willingly would I have done it,
but they were all of them utterly averse to my going on Pilgrimage_."

"CHARITY: _But you should have talked to them, and_ _have endeavored to
have shown them the danger of being behind_.

"CHRISTIAN: _So I did, and told them also what God had shewed to me of
the destruction of our City; but I seemed to them as one that mocked,
and they believed me not_.

"CHARITY: _And did you pray to God that He would bless your counsel to

"CHRISTIAN: _Yes, and that with much affection; for you must think that
my Wife and poor Children were very dear unto me_.

"CHARITY: _But did you tell them of your own sorrow and fear of
destruction?--for I suppose that destruction was visible enough to you_.

"CHRISTIAN: _Yes, over and over, and over. They might also see my fears
in my countenance, in my tears, and also in my trembling under the
apprehension of the Judgment that did hang over our heads; but all was
not sufficient to prevail with them to come with me_.

"CHARITY: _But what could they say for themselves, why they come not_?

"CHRISTIAN: _Why, my Wife was afraid of losing this World, and my
Children were given to the foolish Delights of youth; so, what by one
thing and what by another, they left me to wander in this manner

An unusual sound made me look up. My wife was weeping, her head on her
arms among the money and debris of the card-table.

"I--I didn't know," she said in a choked, half-stifled voice, "that you
really meant what you said upstairs."

"I mean it as I never have meant anything since I told you that I loved
you, dear," I answered gently.

She raised her face, wet with tears.

"That was such a long time ago!" she sobbed. "And I thought that all
this was what you wanted." She glanced round the room.

"I did--once," I replied; "but I don't want it any longer. We can't live
our lives over again; but"--and I went over to her--"we can try to do a
little better from now on."

She laid her head on my arm and took my hand in hers.

"What shall we do?" she asked.

"We must free ourselves from our Burden," said I; "break down the wall
of money that shuts us in from other people, and try to pay our way in
the world by what we are and do rather than by what we have. It may be
hard at first; but it's worth while--for all of us."

She disengaged one hand and wiped her eyes.

"I'll help all I can," she whispered.

"That's what I want!" cried I, and my heart leaped.

Again I saw the glint of the angel's wing!

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