Produced by Suzanne Shell, Karen Dalrymple and PG Distributed Proofreaders
[Illustration: “I’ll come here, I’ll be your model, I’ll sit for you by the hour”]
MURDER IN ANY DEGREE: ONE HUNDRED IN THE DARK: A COMEDY FOR WIVES: THE LIE: EVEN THREES: A MAN OF NO IMAGINATION: LARRY MOORE: MY WIFE’S WEDDING PRESENTS: THE SURPRISES OF THE LOTTERY
BY OWEN JOHNSON Author of “Stover at Yale,” “The Varmint,” etc., etc.
WITH ILLUSTRATIONS BY F.R. GRUGER AND LEON GUIPON
NEW YORK THE CENTURY CO. 1913
1907, 1912, 1913, THE CENTURY CO.
1911, THE CURTIS PUBLISHING COMPANY
1911, THE NATIONAL POST CO.
1912, GOOD HOUSEKEEPING MAGAZINE
1908, THE RIDGWAY COMPANY
1906, ASSOCIATED SUNDAY MAGAZINES, INCORPORATED
1910, THE PEARSON PUBLISHING COMPANY
_Published, August, 1913_
MURDER IN ANY DEGREE
ONE HUNDRED IN THE DARK
A COMEDY FOR WIVES
A MAN OF NO IMAGINATION
MY WIFE’S WEDDING PRESENTS
THE SURPRISES OF THE LOTTERY
“I’ll come here, I’ll be your model, I’ll sit for you by the hour”
From his tone the group perceived that the hazards had brought to him some abrupt coincidence
Rantoul, … decorating his ankles with lavender and black
Our Lady of the Sparrows
“Oh, tell me, little ball, is it ta-ta or good-by?”
Wild-eyed and hilarious they descended on the clubhouse with the miraculous news
A committee carefully examined the books of the club
“You gave him–the tickets! The Lottery Tickets!”
MURDER IN ANY DEGREE
One Sunday in March they had been marooned at the club, Steingall the painter and Quinny the illustrator, and, having lunched late, had bored themselves separately to their limits over the periodicals until, preferring to bore each other, they had gravitated together in easy arm-chairs before the big Renaissance fireplace.
Steingall, sunk in his collar, from behind the black-rimmed spectacles, which, with their trailing ribbon of black, gave a touch of Continental elegance to his cropped beard and colonel’s mustaches, watched without enthusiasm the three mammoth logs, where occasional tiny flames gave forth an illusion of heat.
Quinny, as gaunt as a militant friar of the Middle Ages, aware of Steingall’s protective reverie, spoke in desultory periods, addressing himself questions and supplying the answers, reserving his epigrams for a larger audience.
At three o’clock De Gollyer entered from a heavy social performance, raising his eyebrows in salute as others raise their hats, and slightly dragging one leg behind. He was an American critic who was busily engaged in discovering the talents of unrecognized geniuses of the European provinces. When reproached with his migratory enthusiasm, he would reply, with that quick, stiffening military click with which he always delivered his _bons mots_:
“My boy, I never criticize American art. I can’t afford to. I have too many charming friends.”
At four o’clock, which is the hour for the entree of those who escape from their homes to fling themselves on the sanctuary of the club, Rankin, the architect, arrived with Stibo, the fashionable painter of fashionable women, who brought with him the atmosphere of pleasant soap and an exclusive, smiling languor. A moment later a voice was heard from the anteroom, saying:
“If any one telephones, I’m not in the club–any one at all. Do you hear?”
Then Towsey, the decorator, appeared at the letterboxes in spats, militant checks, high collar and a choker tie, which, yearning toward his ears, gave him the appearance of one who had floundered up out of his clothes for the third and last time. He came forward, frowned at the group, scowled at the negative distractions of the reading-room, and finally dragged over his chair just as Quinny was saying:
“Queer thing–ever notice it?–two artists sit down together, each begins talking of what he’s doing–to avoid complimenting the other, naturally. As soon as the third arrives they begin carving up another; only thing they can agree on, see? Soon as you get four or more of the species together, conversation always comes around to marriage. Ever notice that, eh?”
“My dear fellow,” said De Gollyer, from the intolerant point of view of a bachelor, “that is because marriage is your one common affliction. Artists, musicians, all the lower order of the intellect, marry. They must. They can’t help it. It’s the one thing you can’t resist. You begin it when you’re poor to save the expense of a servant, and you keep it up when you succeed to have some one over you to make you work. You belong psychologically to the intellectually dependent classes, the clinging-vine family, the masculine parasites; and as you can’t help being married, you are always damning it, holding it responsible for all your failures.”
At this characteristic speech, the five artists shifted slightly, and looked at De Gollyer over their mustaches with a lingering appetite, much as a group of terriers respect the family cat.
“My dear chaps, speaking as a critic,” continued De Gollyer, pleasantly aware of the antagonism he had exploded, “you remain children afraid of the dark–afraid of being alone. Solitude frightens you. You lack the quality of self-sufficiency that is the characteristic of the higher critical faculties. You marry because you need a nurse.”
He ceased, thoroughly satisfied with the prospect of having brought on a quarrel, raised thumb and first finger in a gingerly loop, ordered a dash of sherry and winked across the group to Tommers, who was listening around his paper from the reading-room.
“De Gollyer, you are only a ‘who’s who’ of art,” said Quinny, with, however, a hungry gratitude for a topic of such possibilities. “You understand nothing of psychology. An artist is a multiple personality; with each picture he paints he seeks a new inspiration. What is inspiration?”
“Ah, that’s the point–inspiration,” said Steingall, waking up.
“Inspiration,” said Quinny, eliminating Steingall from his preserves with the gesture of brushing away a fly–“inspiration is only a form of hypnosis, under the spell of which a man is capable of rising outside of and beyond himself, as a horse, under extraordinary stress, exerts a muscular force far beyond his accredited strength. The race of geniuses, little and big, are constantly seeking this outward force to hypnotize them into a supreme intellectual effort. Talent does not understand such a process; it is mechanical, unvarying, chop-chop, day in and day out. Now, what you call inspiration may be communicated in many ways–by the spectacle of a mob, by a panorama of nature, by sudden and violent contrasts of points of view; but, above all, as a continual stimulus, it comes from that state of mental madness which is produced by love.”
“Huh?” said Stibo.
“Anything that produces a mental obsession, _une idee fixe_, is a form of madness,” said Quinny, rapidly. “A person in love sees only one face, hears only one voice; at the base of the brain only one thought is constantly drumming. Physically such a condition is a narcotic; mentally it is a form of madness that in the beneficent state is powerfully hypnotic.”
At this deft disentanglement of a complicated idea, Rankin, who, like the professional juryman, wagged his head in agreement with each speaker and was convinced by the most violent, gazed upon Quinny with absolute adoration.
“We were speaking of woman,” said Towsey, gruffly, who pronounced the sex with a peculiar staccato sound.
“This little ABC introduction,” said Quinny, pleasantly, “is necessary to understand the relation a woman plays to the artist. It is not the woman he seeks, but the hypnotic influence which the woman can exert on his faculties if she is able to inspire him with a passion.”
“Precisely why he marries,” said De Gollyer.
“Precisely,” said Quinny, who, having seized the argument by chance, was pleasantly surprised to find that he was going to convince himself. “But here is the great distinction: to be an inspiration, a woman should always represent to the artist a form of the unattainable. It is the search for something beyond him that makes him challenge the stars, and all that sort of rot, you know.”
“The tragedy of life,” said Rankin, sententiously, “is that one woman cannot mean all things to one man all the time.”
It was a phrase which he had heard the night before, and which he flung off casually with an air of spontaneity, twisting the old Spanish ring on his bony, white fingers, which he held invariably in front of his long, sliding nose.
“Thank you, I said that about the year 1907,” said Quinny, while Steingall gasped and nudged Towsey. “That is the tragedy of life, not the tragedy of art, two very different things. An artist has need of ten, fifteen, twenty women, according to the multiplicity of his ideas. He should be always violently in love or violently reacting.”
“And the wife?” said De Gollyer. “Has she any influence?”
“My dear fellow, the greatest. Without a wife, an artist falls a prey to the inspiration of the moment–condemned to it; and as he is not an analyst, he ends by imagining he really is in love. Take portrait-painting. Charming lady sits for portrait, painter takes up his brushes, arranges his palette, seeks inspiration,–what is below the surface?–something intangible to divine, seize, and affix to his canvas. He seeks to know the soul; he seeks how? As a man in love seeks, naturally. The more he imagines himself in love, the more completely does the idea obsess him from morning to night–plain as the nose on your face. Only there are other portraits to paint. Enter the wife.”
“Charming,” said Stibo, who had not ceased twining his mustaches in his pink fingers.
“Ah, that’s the point. What of the wife?” said Steingall, violently.
“The wife–the ideal wife, mind you–is then the weapon, the refuge. To escape from the entanglement of his momentary inspiration, the artist becomes a man: my wife and _bonjour_. He returns home, takes off the duster of his illusion, cleans the palette of old memories, washes away his vows, protestations, and all that rot, you know, lies down on the sofa, and gives his head to his wife to be rubbed. Curtain. The comedy is over.”
“But that’s what they don’t understand,” said Steingall, with enthusiasm. “That’s what they will _never_ understand.”
“Such miracles exist?” said Towsey with a short, disagreeable laugh.
“I know the wife of an artist,” said Quinny, “whom I consider the most remarkable woman I know–who sits and knits and smiles. She is one who understands. Her husband adores her, and he is in love with a woman a month. When he gets in too deep, ready for another inspiration, you know, she calls up the old love on the telephone and asks her to stop annoying her husband.”
“Marvelous!” said Steingall, dropping his glasses.
“No, really?” said Rankin.
“Has she a sister?” said Towsey.
Stibo raised his eyes slowly to Quinny’s but veiled as was the look, De Gollyer perceived it, and smilingly registered the knowledge on the ledger of his social secrets.
“That’s it, by George! that is it,” said Steingall, who hurled the enthusiasm of a reformer into his pessimism. “It’s all so simple; but they won’t understand. And why–do you know why? Because a woman is jealous. It isn’t simply of other women. No, no, that’s not it; it’s worse than that, ten thousand times worse. She’s jealous of your _art_! That’s it! There you have it! She’s jealous because she can’t understand it, because it takes you away from her, because she can’t _share_ it. That’s what’s terrible about marriage–no liberty, no individualism, no seclusion, having to account every night for your actions, for your thoughts, for the things you dream–ah, the dreams! The Chinese are right, the Japanese are right. It’s we Westerners who are all wrong. It’s the creative only that counts. The woman should be subordinated, should be kept down, taught the voluptuousness of obedience. By Jove! that’s it. We don’t assert ourselves. It’s this confounded Anglo-Saxon sentimentality that’s choking art–that’s what it is.”
At the familiar phrases of Steingall’s outburst, Rankin wagged his head in unequivocal assent, Stibo smiled so as to show his fine upper teeth, and Towsey flung away his cigar, saying:
At this moment when Quinny, who had digested Steingall’s argument, was preparing to devour the whole topic, Britt Herkimer, the sculptor, joined them. He was a guest, just in from Paris, where he had been established twenty years, one of the five men in art whom one counted on the fingers when the word genius was pronounced. Mentally and physically a German, he spoke English with a French accent. His hair was cropped _en brosse_, and in his brown Japanese face only the eyes, staccato, furtive, and drunk with curiosity, could be seen. He was direct, opinionated, bristling with energy, one of those tireless workers who disdain their youth and treat it as a disease. His entry into the group of his more socially domesticated confreres was like the return of a wolf-hound among the housedogs.
“Still smashing idols?” he said, slapping the shoulder of Steingall, with whom and Quinny he had passed his student days, “Well, what’s the row?”
“My dear Britt, we are reforming matrimony. Steingall is for the importation of Mongolian wives,” said De Gollyer, who had written two favorable articles on Herkimer, “while Quinny is for founding a school for wives on most novel and interesting lines.”
“That’s odd,” said Herkimer, with a slight frown.
“On the contrary, no,” said De Gollyer; “we always abolish matrimony from four to six.”
“You didn’t understand me,” said Herkimer, with the sharpness he used in his classes.
From his tone the group perceived that the hazards had brought to him some abrupt coincidence. They waited with an involuntary silence, which in itself was a rare tribute.
“Remember Rantoul?” said Herkimer, rolling a cigarette and using a jerky diction.
“Clyde Rantoul?” said Stibo.
“Don Furioso Barebones Rantoul, who was in the Quarter with us?” said Quinny.
“Don Furioso, yes,” said Rankin. “Ever see him?”
“He’s married,” said Quinny; “dropped out.”
“Yes, he married,” said Herkimer, lighting his cigarette. “Well, I’ve just seen him.”
“He’s a plutocrat or something,” said Towsey, reflectively.
“He’s rich–ended,” said Steingall as he slapped the table. “By Jove! I remember now.”
“Wait,” said Quinny, interposing.
[Illustration: From his tone the group perceived that the hazards had brought to him some abrupt coincidences]
“I went up to see him yesterday–just back now,” said Herkimer. “Rantoul was the biggest man of us all. It’s a funny tale. You’re discussing matrimony; here it is.”
In the early nineties, when Quinny, Steingall, Herkimer, little Bennett, who afterward roamed down into the Transvaal and fell in with the Foreign Legion, Jacobus and Chatterton, the architects, were living through that fine, rebellious state of overweening youth, Rantoul was the undisputed leader, the arch-rebel, the master-demolisher of the group.
Every afternoon at five his Gargantuan figure came thrashing through the crowds of the boulevard, as an omnibus on its way scatters the fragile fiacres. He arrived, radiating electricity, tirades on his tongue, to his chair among the table-pounders of the Cafe des Lilacs, and his first words were like the fanfare of trumpets. He had been christened, in the felicitous language of the Quarter, Don Furioso Barebones Rantoul, and for cause. He shared a garret with his chum, Britt Herkimer, in the Rue de l’Ombre, a sort of manhole lit by the stars,–when there were any stars, and he never failed to come springing up the six rickety flights with a song on his lips.
An old woman who kept a fruit store gave him implicit credit; a much younger member of the sex at the corner creamery trusted him for eggs and fresh milk, and leaned toward him over the counter, laughing into his eyes as he exclaimed:
“Ma belle, when I am famous, I will buy you a silk gown, and a pair of earrings that will reach to your shoulders, and it won’t be long. You’ll see.”
He adored being poor. When his canvas gave out, he painted his ankles to caricature the violent creations that were the pride of Chatterton, who was a nabob. When his credit at one restaurant expired, he strode confidently up to another proprietor, and announced with the air of one bestowing a favor:
“I am Rantoul, the portrait-painter. In five years my portraits will sell for five thousand francs, in ten for twenty thousand. I will eat one meal a day at your distinguished establishment, and paint your portrait to make your walls famous. At the end of the month I will immortalize your wife; on the same terms, your sister, your father, your mother, and all the little children. Besides, every Saturday night I will bring here a band of my comrades who pay in good hard silver. Remember that if you had bought a Corot for twenty francs in 1870, you could have sold it for five thousand francs in 1880, fifty thousand in 1890. Does the idea appeal to you?”
But as most keepers of restaurants are practical and unimaginative, and withal close bargainers, at the end of a week Rantoul generally was forced to seek a new sitter.
“What a privilege it is to be poor!” he would then exclaim enthusiastically to Herkimer. “It awakens all the perceptions; hunger makes the eye keener. I can see colors to-day that I never saw before. And to think that if Sherman had never gotten it in his head to march to the sea I should never have experienced this inspiration! But, old fellow, we have so short a time to be poor. We must exhibit nothing yet. We are lucky. We are poor. We can feel.”
On the subject of traditions he was at his best.
“Shakspere is the curse of the English drama,” he would declare, with a descending gesture which caused all the little glasses to rattle their alarm. “Nothing will ever come out of England until his influence is discounted. He was a primitive, a Preraphaelite. He understood nothing of form, of composition. He was a poet who wandered into the drama as a sheep strays into the pasture of the bulls, a colorist who imagines he can be a sculptor. The influence of Victoria sentimentalized the whole artistic movement in England, made it bourgeois, and flavored it with mint sauce. Modern portraiture has turned the galleries into an exhibition of wax works. What is wrong with painting to-day–do you know?”
“_Allons_, tell us!” cried two or three, while others, availing themselves of the breathing space, filled the air with their orders:
“Paul, another bock.”
“Two hard-boiled eggs.”
“And pretzels; don’t forget the pretzels.”
“The trouble with painting to-day is that it has no point of view,” cried Rantoul, swallowing an egg in the anaconda fashion. “We are interpreting life in the manner of the Middle Ages. We forget art should be historical. We forget that we are now in our century. Ugliness, not beauty, is the note of our century; turbulence, strife, materialism, the mob, machinery, masses, not units. Why paint a captain of industry against a Francois I tapestry? Paint him at his desk. The desk is a throne; interpret it. We are ruled by mobs. Who paints mobs? What is wrong is this, that art is in the bondage of literature–sentimentality. We must record what we experience. Ugliness has its utility, its magnetism; the ugliness of abject misery moves you to think, to readjust ideas. We must be rebels, we young men. Ah, if we could only burn the galleries, we should be forced to return to life.”
“Right, old chap.”
“Smash the statues!”
“Burn the galleries!”
“Down with tradition!”
“Eggs and more bock!”
But where Rantoul differed from the revolutionary regiment was that he was not simply a painter who delivered orations; he could paint. His tirades were not a furore of denunciation so much as they were the impulsive chafing of the creative energy within him. In the school he was already a marked man to set the prophets prophesying. He had a style of his own, biting, incisive, overloaded and excessive, but with something to say. He was after something. He was original.
“Rebel! Let us rebel!” he would cry to Herkimer from his agitated bedquilt in the last hour of discussion. “The artist must always rebel–accept nothing, question everything, denounce conventions and traditions.”
“Above all, work,” said Herkimer in his laconic way.
“What? Don’t I work?”
Rantoul, however, was not vulnerable on that score. He was not, it is true, the drag-horse that Herkimer was, who lived like a recluse, shunning the cafes and the dance-halls, eating up the last gray hours of the day over his statues and his clays. But Rantoul, while living life to its fullest, haunting the wharves and the markets with avid eyes, roaming the woods and trudging the banks of the Seine, mingling in the crowds that flashed under the flare of arc-lights, with a thousand mysteries of mass and movement, never relaxed a moment the savage attack his leaping nature made upon the drudgeries and routine of technic.
With the coveted admittance into the Salon, recognition came speedily to the two chums. They made a triumphal entry into a real studio in the Montparnasse Quarter, clients came, and the room became a station of honor among the young and enthusiastic of the Quarter.
Rantoul began to appear in society, besieged with the invitations that his Southern aristocracy and the romance of his success procured him.
“You go out too much,” said Herkimer to him, with a fearful growl. “What the deuce do you want with society, anyhow? Keep away from it. You’ve nothing to do with it.”
“What do I do? I go out once a week,” said Rantoul, whistling pleasantly.
“Once is too often. What do you want to become, a parlor celebrity? Society _c’est l’ennemie_. You ought to hate it.”
“Humph!” said Herkimer, eying him across his sputtering clay pipe. “Get this idea of people out of your head. Shut yourself up in a hole, work. What’s society, anyhow? A lot of bored people who want you to amuse them. I don’t approve. Better marry that pretty girl in the creamery. She’ll worship you as a god, make you comfortable. That’s all you need from the world.”
“Marry her yourself; she’ll sew and cook for you,” said Rantoul, with perfect good humor.
“I’m in no danger,” said Herkimer, curtly; “you are.”
“Listen, you old grumbler,” said Rantoul, seriously. “If I go into society, it is to see the hollowness of it all–“
“To know what I rebel against–“
“To appreciate the freedom of the life I have–“
“To have the benefit of contrasts, light and shade. You think I am not a rebel. My dear boy, I am ten times as big a rebel as I was. Do you know what I’d do with society?”
He began a tirade in the famous muscular Rantoul style, overturning creeds and castes, reorganizing republics and empires, while Herkimer, grumbling to himself, began to scold the model, who sleepily received the brunt of his ill humor.
In the second year of his success Rantoul, quite by accident, met a girl in her teens named Tina Glover, only daughter of Cyrus Glover, a man of millions, self-made. The first time their eyes met and lingered, by the mysterious chemistry of the passions Rantoul fell desperately in love with this little slip of a girl, who scarcely reached to his shoulder; who, on her part, instantly made up her mind that she had found the husband she intended to have. Two weeks later they were engaged.
She was seventeen, scarcely more than a child, with clear, blue eyes that seemed too large for her body, very timid and appealing. It is true she seldom expressed an opinion, but she listened to every one with a flattering smile, and the reputations of brilliant talkers have been built on less. She had a way of passing her two arms about Rantoul’s great one and clinging to him in a weak, dependent way that was quite charming.
When Cyrus Glover was informed that his daughter intended to marry a dauber in paints, he started for Paris on ten hours’ notice. But Mrs. Glover who was just as resolved on social conquests as Glover was in controlling the plate-glass field, went down to meet him at the boat, and by the time the train entered the St. Lazare Station, he had been completely disciplined and brought to understand that a painter was one thing and that a Rantoul, who happened to paint, was quite another. When he had known Rantoul a week; and listened open-mouthed to his eloquent schemes for reordering the universe, and the arts in particular, he was willing to swear that he was one of the geniuses of the world.
The wedding took place shortly, and Cyrus Glover gave the bridegroom a check for $100,000, “so that he wouldn’t have to be bothering his wife for pocketmoney.” Herkimer was the best man, and the Quarter attended in force, with much outward enthusiasm. The bride and groom departed for a two-year’s trip around the world, that Rantoul might inspire himself with the treasures of Italy, Greece, India, and Japan.
Every one, even Herkimer, agreed that Rantoul was the luckiest man in Paris; that he had found just the wife who was suited to him, whose fortune would open every opportunity for his genius to develop.
“In the first place,” said Bennett, when the group had returned to Herkimer’s studio to continue the celebration, “let me remark that in general I don’t approve of marriage for an artist.”
“Nor I,” cried Chatterton, and the chorus answered, “Nor I.”
“I shall never marry,” continued Bennett.
“Never,” cried Chatterton, who beat a tattoo on the piano with his heel to accompany the chorus of assent.
“But–I add but–in this case my opinion is that Rantoul has found a pure diamond.”
“In the first place, she knows nothing at all about art, which is an enormous advantage.”
“In the second place, she knows nothing about anything else, which is better still.”
“Cynic! You hate clever women,” cried Jacobus.
“There’s a reason.”
“All the same, Bennett’s right. The wife of an artist should be a creature of impulses and not ideas.”
“In the third place,” continued Bennett, “she believes Rantoul is a demigod. Everything he will do will be the most wonderful thing in the world, and to have a little person you are madly in love with think that is enormous.”
“All of which is not very complimentary to the bride,” said Herkimer.
“Find me one like her,” cried Bennett.
“Ditto,” said Chatterton and Jacobus with enthusiasm.
“There is only one thing that worries me,” said Bennett, seriously. “Isn’t there too much money?”
“Not for Rantoul.”
“He’s a rebel.”
“You’ll see; he’ll stir up the world with it.”
Herkimer himself had approved of the marriage in a whole-hearted way. The childlike ways of Tina Glover had convinced him, and as he was concerned only with the future of his friend, he agreed with the rest that nothing luckier could have happened.
Three years passed, during which he received occasional letters from his old chum, not quite so spontaneous as he had expected, but filled with the wonder of the ancient worlds. Then the intervals became longer, and longer, and finally no letters came.
He learned in a vague way that the Rantouls had settled in the East somewhere near New York, but he waited in vain for the news of the stir in the world of art that Rantoul’s first exhibitions should produce.
His friends who visited in America returned without news of Rantoul; there was a rumor that he had gone with his father-in-law into the organization of some new railroad or trust. But even this report was vague, and as he could not understand what could have happened, it remained for a long time to him a mystery. Then he forgot it.
Ten years after Rantoul’s marriage to little Tina Glover, Herkimer returned to America. The last years had placed him in the foreground of the sculptors of the world. He had that strangely excited consciousness that he was a figure in the public eye. Reporters rushed to meet him on his arrival, societies organized dinners to him, magazines sought the details of his life’s struggle. Withal, however, he felt a strange loneliness, and an aloofness from the clamoring world about him. He remembered the old friendship in the starlit garret of the Rue de l’Ombre, and, learning Rantoul’s address, wrote him. Three days later he received the following answer:
_Dear Old Boy:_
I’m delighted to find that you have remembered me in your fame. Run up this Saturday for a week at least. I’ll show you some fine scenery, and we’ll recall the days of the Cafe des Lilacs together. My wife sends her greetings also.
This letter made Herkimer wonder. There was nothing on which he could lay his finger, and yet there was something that was not there. With some misgivings he packed his bag and took the train, calling up again to his mind the picture of Rantoul, with his shabby trousers pulled up, decorating his ankles with lavender and black, roaring all the while with his rumbling laughter.
At the station only the chauffeur was down to meet him. A correct footman, moving on springs, took his bag, placed him in the back seat, and spread a duster for him. They turned through a pillared gateway, Renaissance style, passed a gardener’s lodge, with hothouses flashing in the reclining sun, and fled noiselessly along the macadam road that twined through a formal grove. All at once they were before the house, red brick and marble, with wide-flung porte-cochere and verandas, beyond which could be seen immaculate lawns, and in the middle distances the sluggish gray of a river that crawled down from the turbulent hills on the horizon. Another creature in livery tripped down the steps and held the door for him. He passed perplexed into the hall, which was fresh with the breeze that swept through open French windows.
[Illustration: Rantoul, … decorating his ankles with lavender and black]
“Mr. Herkimer, isn’t it?”
He turned to find a woman of mannered assurance holding out her hand correctly to him, and under the panama that topped the pleasant effect of her white polo-coat he looked into the eyes of that Tina Glover, who once had caught his rough hand in her little ones and said timidly:
“You’ll always be my friend, my best, just as you are Clyde’s, won’t you? And I may call you Britt or Old Boy or Old Top, just as Clyde does?”
He looked at her amazed. She was prettier, undeniably so. She had learned the art of being a woman, and she gave him her hand as though she had granted a favor.
“Yes,” he said shortly, freezing all at once. “Where’s Clyde?”
“He had to play in a polo-match. He’s just home taking a tub,” she said easily. “Will you go to your room first? I didn’t ask any one in for dinner. I supposed you would rather chat together of old times. You have become a tremendous celebrity, haven’t you? Clyde is so proud of you.”
“I’ll go to my room now,” he said shortly.
The valet had preceded him, opening his valise and smoothing out his evening clothes on the lace bedspread.
“I’ll attend to that,” he said curtly. “You may go.”
He stood at the window, in the long evening hour of the June day, frowning to himself. “By George! I’ve a mind to clear out,” he said, thoroughly angry.
At this moment there came a vigorous rap, and Rantoul in slippers and lilac dressing-gown broke in, with hair still wet from his shower.
“The same as ever, bless the Old Top!” he cried, catching him up in one of the old-time bear-hugs. “I say, don’t think me inhospitable. Had to play a confounded match. We beat ’em, too; lost six pounds doing it, though. Jove! but you look natural! I say, that was a stunning thing you did for Philadelphia–the audacity of it. How do you like my place? I’ve got four children, too. What do you think of that? Nothing finer. Well, tell me what you’re doing.”
Herkimer relented before the familiar rush of enthusiasm and questions, and the conversation began on a natural footing. He looked at Rantoul, aware of the social change that had taken place in him. The old aggressiveness, the look of the wolf, had gone; about him was an enthusiastic urbanity. He seemed clean cut, virile, overflowing with vitality, only it was a different vitality, the snap and decision of a man-of-affairs, not the untamed outrush of the artist.
They had spoken scarcely a short five minutes when a knock came on the door and a footman’s voice said:
“Mrs. Rantoul wishes you not to be late for dinner, sir.”
“Very well, very well,” said Rantoul, with a little impatience. “I always forget the time. Jove! it’s good to see you again; you’ll give us a week at least. Meet you downstairs.”
When Herkimer had dressed and descended, his host and hostess were still up-stairs. He moved through the rooms, curiously noting the contents of the walls. There were several paintings of value, a series of drawings by Boucher, a replica or two of his own work; but he sought without success for something from the brush of Clyde Rantoul. At dinner he was aware of a sudden uneasiness. Mrs. Rantoul, with the flattering smile that recalled Tina Glover, pressed him with innumerable questions, which he answered with constraint, always aware of the dull simulation of interest in her eyes.
Twice during the meal Rantoul was called to the telephone for a conversation at long distance.
“Clyde is becoming quite a power in Wall Street,” said Mrs. Rantoul, with an approving smile. “Father says he’s the strength of the younger men. He has really a genius for organization.”
“It’s a wonderful time, Britt,” said Rantoul, resuming his place. “There’s nothing like it anywhere on the face of the globe–the possibilities of concentration and simplification here in business. It’s a great game, too, matching your wits against another’s. We’re building empires of trade, order out of chaos. I’m making an awful lot of money.”
Herkimer remained obstinately silent during the rest of the dinner. Everything seemed to fetter him–the constraint of dining before the silent, flitting butler, servants who whisked his plate away before he knew it, the succession of unrecognizable dishes, the constant jargon of social eavesdroppings that Mrs. Rantoul pressed into action the moment her husband’s recollections exiled her from the conversation; but above all, the indefinable enmity that seemed to well out from his hostess, and which he seemed to divine occasionally when the ready smile left her lips and she was forced to listen to things she did not understand.
When they rose from the table, Rantoul passed his arm about his wife and said something in her ear, at which she smiled and patted his hand.
“I am very proud of my husband, Mr. Herkimer,” she said with a little bob of her head in which was a sense of proprietorship. “You’ll see.”
“Suppose we stroll out for a little smoke in the garden,” said Rantoul.
“What, you’re going to leave me?” she said instantly, with a shade of vague uneasiness, that Herkimer perceived.
“We sha’n’t be long, dear,” said Rantoul, pinching her ear. “Our chatter won’t interest you. Send the coffee out into the rose cupola.”
They passed out into the open porch, but Herkimer was aware of the little woman standing irresolutely tapping with her thin finger on the table, and he said to himself: “She’s a little ogress of jealousy. What the deuce is she afraid I’ll say to him?”
They rambled through sweet-scented paths, under the high-flung network of stars, hearing only the crunching of little pebbles under foot.
“You’ve given up painting?” said Herkimer all at once.
“Yes, though that doesn’t count,” said Rantoul, abruptly; but there was in his voice a different note, something of the restlessness of the old Don Furioso. “Talk to me of the Quarter. Who’s at the Cafe des Lilacs now? They tell me that little Ragin we used to torment so has made some great decorations. What became of that pretty girl in the creamery of the Rue de l’Ombre who used to help us over the lean days?”
“Whom you christened Our Lady of the Sparrows?” “Yes, yes. You know I sent her the silk dress and the earrings I promised her.”
Herkimer began to speak of one thing and another, of Bennett, who had gone dramatically to the Transvaal; of Le Gage, who was now in the forefront of the younger group of landscapists; of the old types that still came faithfully to the Cafe des Lilacs,–the old chess-players, the fat proprietor, with his fat wife and three fat children who dined there regularly every Sunday,–of the new revolutionary ideas among the younger men that were beginning to assert themselves.
“Let’s sit down,” said Rantoul, as though suffocating.
They placed themselves in wicker easy-chairs, under the heavy-scented rose cupola, disdaining the coffee that waited on a table. From where they were a red-tiled walk, with flower beds nodding in enchanted sleep, ran to the veranda. The porch windows were open, and in the golden lamplight Herkimer saw the figure of Tina Glover bent intently over an embroidery, drawing her needle with uneven stitches, her head seeming inclined to catch the faintest sound. The waiting, nervous pose, the slender figure on guard, brought to him a strange, almost uncanny sensation of mystery, and feeling the sudden change in the mood of the man at his side, he gazed at the figure of the wife and said to himself:
[Illustration: Our Lady of the Sparrows]
“I’d give a good deal to know what’s passing through that little head. What is she afraid of?”
“You’re surprised to find me as I am,” said Rantoul, abruptly breaking the silence.
“You can’t understand it?”
“When did you give up painting?” said Herkimer, shortly, with a sure feeling that the hour of confidences had come.
“Seven years ago.”
“Why in God’s name did you do it?” said Herkimer, flinging away his cigar angrily. “You weren’t just any one–Tom, Dick, or Harry. You had something to say, man. Listen. I know what I’m talking about,–I’ve seen the whole procession in the last ten years,–you were one in a thousand. You were a creator. You had ideas; you were meant to be a leader, to head a movement. You had more downright savage power, undeveloped, but tugging at the chain, than any man I’ve known. Why did you do it?”
“I had almost forgotten,” said Rantoul, slowly. “Are you sure?”
“Am I sure?” said Herkimer, furiously. “I say what I mean; you know it.”
“Yes, that’s true,” said Rantoul. He stretched out his hand and drank his coffee, but without knowing what he did. “Well, that’s all of the past–what might have been.”
“Britt, old fellow,” said Rantoul at last, speaking as though to himself, “did you ever have a moment when you suddenly got out of yourself, looked at yourself and at your life as a spectator?–saw the strange strings that had pulled you this way and that, and realized what might have been had you turned one corner at a certain day of your life instead of another?”
“No, I’ve gone where I wanted to go,” said Herkimer, obstinately.
“You think so. Well, to-night I can see myself for the first time,” said Rantoul. Then he added meditatively, “I have done not one single thing I wanted to.”
“You have brought it all back to me,” said Rantoul, ignoring this question. “It hurts. I suppose to-morrow I shall resent it, but to-night I feel too deeply. There is nothing free about us in this world, Britt. I profoundly believe that. Everything we do from morning to night is dictated by the direction of those about us. An enemy, some one in the open, we can combat and resist; but it is those that are nearest to us who disarm us because they love us, that change us most, that thwart our desires, and make over our lives. Nothing in this world is so inexorable, so terribly, terribly irresistible as a woman without strength, without logic, without vision, who only loves.”
“He is going to say things he will regret,” thought Herkimer, and yet he did not object. Instead, he glanced down the dimly flushed path to the house where Mrs. Rantoul was sitting, her embroidery on her lap, her head raised as though listening. Suddenly he said:
“Look here, Clyde, do you want to tell me this?”
“Yes, I do; it’s life. Why not? We are at the age when we’ve got to face things.”
“Let me go on,” said Rantoul, stopping him. He reached out absent-mindedly, and drank the second cup. “Let me say now, Britt, for fear you’ll misunderstand, there has never been the slightest quarrel between my wife and me. She loves me absolutely; nothing else in this world exists for her. It has always been so; she cannot bear even to have me out of her sight. I am very happy. Only there is in such a love something of the tiger–a fierce animal jealousy of every one and everything which could even for a moment take my thoughts away. At this moment she is probably suffering untold pangs because she thinks I am regretting the days in which she was not in my life.”
“And because she could not understand your art, she hated it,” said Herkimer, with a growing anger.
“No, it wasn’t that. It was something more subtle, more instinctive, more impossible to combat,” said Rantoul, shaking his head. “Do you know what is the great essential to the artist–to whoever creates? The sense of privacy, the power to isolate his own genius from everything in the world, to be absolutely concentrated. To create we must be alone, have strange, unuttered thoughts, just as in the realms of the soul every human being must have moments of complete isolation–thoughts, reveries, moods, that cannot be shared with even those we love best. You don’t understand that.”
“Yes, I do.”
“At the bottom we human beings come and depart absolutely alone. Friendship, love, all that we instinctively seek to rid ourselves of, this awful solitude of the soul, avail nothing. Well, what others shrink from, the artist must seek.”
“But you could not make her understand that?”
“I was dealing with a child,” said Rantoul. “I loved that child, and I could not bear even to see a frown of unhappiness cloud her face. Then she adored me. What can be answered to that?”
“At first it was not so difficult. We passed around the world–Greece, India, Japan. She came and sat by my side when I took my easel; every stroke of my brush seemed like a miracle. A hundred times she would cry out her delight. Naturally that amused me. From time to time I would suspend the sittings and reward my patient little audience–“
“And the sketches?”
“They were not what I wanted,” said Rantoul with a little laugh; “but they were not bad. When I returned here and opened my studio, it began to be difficult. She could not understand that I wanted to work eighteen hours a day. She begged for my afternoons. I gave in. She embraced me frantically and said; ‘Oh, how good you are! Now I won’t be jealous any more, and every morning I will come with you and inspire you.'”
“Every morning,” said Herkimer, softly.
“Yes,” said Rantoul, with a little hesitation, “every morning. She fluttered about the studio like a pink-and-white butterfly, sending me a kiss from her dainty fingers whenever I looked her way. She watched over my shoulder every stroke, and when I did something that pleased her, I felt her lips on my neck, behind my ear, and heard her say, ‘That is your reward.'”
“Every day?” said Herkimer.
“And when you had a model?”
“Oh, then it was worse. She treated the models as though they were convicts, watching them out of the corners of her eyes. Her demonstration of affection redoubled, her caresses never stopped, as though she wished to impress upon them her proprietorship. Those days she was really jealous.”
“God–how could you stand it?” said Herkimer, violently.
“To be frank, the more she outraged me as an artist, the more she pleased me as a man. To be loved so absolutely, especially if you are sensitive to such things, has an intoxication of its own, yes, she fascinated me more and more.”
“One day I tried to make her understand that I had need to be alone. She listened to me solemnly, with only a little quiver of her lips, and let me go. When I returned, I found her eyes swollen with weeping and her heart bursting.”
“And you took her in your arms and promised never to send her away again.”
“Naturally. Then I began to go out into society to please her. Next something very interesting came up, and I neglected my studio for a morning. The same thing happened again and again. I had a period of wild revolt, of bitter anger, in which I resolved to be firm, to insist on my privacy, to make the fight.”
“And you never did?”
“When her arms were about me, when I saw her eyes, full of adoration and passion, raised to my own, I forgot all my irritation in my happiness as a man. I said to myself, ‘Life is short; it is better to be loved than to wait for glory.’ One afternoon, under the pretext of examining the grove, I stole away to the studio, and pulled out some of the old things that I had done in Paris–and sat and gazed at them. My throat began to fill, and I felt the tears coming to my eyes, when I looked around and saw her standing wide-eyed at the door.
“‘What are you doing?’ she said.
“‘Looking at some of the old things.’
“‘You regret those days?’
“‘Of course not.’
“‘Then why do you steal away from me, make a pretext to come here? Isn’t my love great enough for you? Do you want to put me out of your life altogether? You used to tell me that I inspired you. If you want, we’ll give up the afternoons. I’ll come here, I’ll be your model, I’ll sit for you by the hour–only don’t shut the door on me!’
“She began to cry. I took her in my arms, said everything that she wished me to say, heedlessly, brutally, not caring what I said.
“That night I ran off, resolved to end it all–to save what I longed for. I remained five hours trudging in the night–pulled back and forth. I remembered my children. I came back,–told a lie. The next day I shut the door of the studio not on her, but on myself.
“For months I did nothing. I was miserable. She saw it at last, and said to me:
“‘You ought to work. You aren’t happy doing nothing. I’ve arranged something for you.’
“I raised my head in amazement, as she continued, clapping her hands with delight:
“‘I’ve talked it all over with papa. You’ll go into his office. You’ll do big things. He’s quite enthusiastic, and I promised for you.’
“I went. I became interested. I stayed. Now I am like any other man, domesticated, conservative, living my life, and she has not the slightest idea of what she has killed.”
“Let us go in,” said Herkimer, rising.
“And you say I could have left a name?” said Rantoul, bitterly.
“You were wrong to tell me all this,” said Herkimer.
“I owed you the explanation. What could I do?”
“Because, after such a confidence, it is impossible for you ever to see me again. You know it.”
“Let’s go back.”
Full of dull anger and revolt, Herkimer led the way. Rantoul, after a few steps, caught him by the sleeve.
“Don’t take it too seriously, Britt. I don’t revolt any more. I’m no longer the Rantoul you knew.”
“That’s just the trouble,” said Herkimer, cruelly.
When their steps sounded near, Mrs. Rantoul rose hastily, spilling her silk and needles on the floor. She gave her husband a swift, searching look, and said with her flattering smile:
“Mr. Herkimer, you must be a very interesting talker. I am quite jealous.”
“I am rather tired,” he answered, bowing. “If you’ll excuse me, I’ll go off to bed.”
“Really?” she said, raising her eyes. She extended her hand, and he took it with almost the physical repulsion with which one would touch the hand of a criminal. The next morning he left.
When Herkimer had finished, he shrugged his shoulders, gave a short laugh, and, glancing at the clock, went off in his curt, purposeful manner.
“Well, by Jove!” said Steingall, recovering first from the spell of the story, “doesn’t that prove exactly what I said? They’re jealous, they’re all jealous, I tell you, jealous of everything you do. All they want us to do is to adore them. By Jove! Herkimer’s right. Rantoul was the biggest of us all. She murdered him just as much as though she had put a knife in him.”
“She did it on purpose,” said De Gollyer. “There was nothing childlike about her, either. On the contrary, I consider her a clever, a devilishly clever woman.”
“Of course she did. They’re all clever, damn them!” said Steingall, explosively. “Now, what do you say, Quinny? I say that an artist who marries might just as well tie a rope around his neck and present it to his wife and have it over.”
“On the contrary,” said Quinny, with a sudden inspiration reorganizing his whole battle front, “every artist should marry. The only danger is that he may marry happily.”
“What?” cried Steingall. “But you said–“
“My dear boy, I have germinated some new ideas,” said Quinny, unconcerned. “The story has a moral,–I detest morals,–but this has one. An artist should always marry unhappily, and do you know why? Purely a question of chemistry. Towsey, when do you work the best?”
“How do you mean?” said Towsey, rousing himself.
“I’ve heard you say that you worked best when your nerves were all on edge–night out, cucumbers, thunder-storm, or a touch of fever.”
“Yes, that’s so.”
“Can any one work well when everything is calm?” continued Quinny, triumphantly, to the amazement of Rankin and Steingall. “Can you work on a clear spring day, when nothing bothers you and the first of the month is two weeks off, eh? Of course you can’t. Happiness is the enemy of the artist. It puts to sleep the faculties. Contentment is a drug. My dear men, an artist should always be unhappy. Perpetual state of fermentation sets the nerves throbbing, sensitive to impressions. Exaltation and remorse, anger and inspiration, all hodge-podge, chemical action and reaction, all this we are blessed with when we are unhappily married. Domestic infelicity drives us to our art; happiness makes us neglect it. Shall I tell you what I do when everything is smooth, no nerves, no inspiration, fat, puffy Sunday-dinner-feeling, too happy, can’t work? I go home and start a quarrel with my wife.”
“And then you _can_ work,” cried Steingall, roaring with laughter. “By Jove, you _are_ immense!”
“Never better,” said Quinny, who appeared like a prophet.
The four artists, who had listened to Herkimer’s story in that gradual thickening depression which the subject of matrimony always let down over them, suddenly brightened visibly. On their faces appeared the look of inward speculation, and then a ray of light.
Little Towsey, who from his arrival had sulked, fretted, and fumed, jumped up energetically and flung away his third cigar.
“Here, where are you going?” said Rankin in protest.
“Over to the studio,” said Towsey, quite unconsciously. “I feel like a little work.”
ONE HUNDRED IN THE DARK
They were discussing languidly, as such groups do, seeking from each topic a peg on which to hang a few epigrams that might be retold in the lip currency of the club–Steingall, the painter, florid of gesture and effete, foreign in type, with black-rimmed glasses and trailing ribbon of black silk that cut across his cropped beard and cavalry mustaches; De Gollyer, a critic, who preferred to be known as a man about town, short, feverish, incisive, who slew platitudes with one adjective and tagged a reputation with three; Rankin, the architect, always in a defensive explanatory attitude, who held his elbows on the table, his hands before his long sliding nose, and gestured with his fingers; Quinny, the illustrator, long and gaunt, with a predatory eloquence that charged irresistibly down on any subject, cut it off, surrounded it, and raked it with enfilading wit and satire; and Peters, whose methods of existence were a mystery, a young man of fifty, who had done nothing and who knew every one by his first name, the club postman, who carried the tittle-tattle, the _bon mots_ and the news of the day, who drew up a petition a week and pursued the house committee with a daily grievance.
About the latticed porch, which ran around the sanded yard with its feeble fountain and futile evergreens, other groups were eying one another, or engaging in desultory conversation, oppressed with the heaviness of the night.
At the round table, Quinny alone, absorbing energy as he devoured the conversation, having routed Steingall on the Germans and archaeology and Rankin on the origins of the Lord’s Prayer, had seized a chance remark of De Gollyer’s to say:
“There are only half a dozen stories in the world. Like everything that’s true it isn’t true.” He waved his long, gouty fingers in the direction of Steingall, who, having been silenced, was regarding him with a look of sleepy indifference. “What is more to the point, is the small number of human relations that are so simple and yet so fundamental that they can be eternally played upon, redressed, and reinterpreted in every language, in every age, and yet remain inexhaustible in the possibility of variations.”
“By George, that is so,” said Steingall, waking up. “Every art does go back to three or four notes. In composition it is the same thing. Nothing new–nothing new since a thousand years. By George, that is true! We invent nothing, nothing!”
“Take the eternal triangle,” said Quinny hurriedly, not to surrender his advantage, while Rankin and De Gollyer in a bored way continued to gaze dreamily at a vagrant star or two. “Two men and a woman, or two women and a man. Obviously it should be classified as the first of the great original parent themes. Its variations extend into the thousands. By the way, Rankin, excellent opportunity, eh, for some of our modern, painstaking, unemployed jackasses to analyze and classify.”
“Quite right,” said Rankin without perceiving the satirical note. “Now there’s De Maupassant’s Fort comma la Mort–quite the most interesting variation–shows the turn a genius can give. There the triangle is the man of middle age, the mother he has loved in his youth and the daughter he comes to love. It forms, you might say, the head of a whole subdivision of modern continental literature.”
“Quite wrong, Rankin, quite wrong,” said Quinny, who would have stated the other side quite as imperiously. “What you cite is a variation of quite another theme, the Faust theme–old age longing for youth, the man who has loved longing for the love of his youth, which is youth itself. The triangle is the theme of jealousy, the most destructive and, therefore, the most dramatic of human passions. The Faust theme is the most fundamental and inevitable of all human experiences, the tragedy of life itself. Quite a different thing.”
Rankin, who never agreed with Quinny unless Quinny maliciously took advantage of his prior announcement to agree with him, continued to combat this idea.
“You believe then,” said De Gollyer after a certain moment had been consumed in hair splitting, “that the origin of all dramatic themes is simply the expression of some human emotion. In other words, there can exist no more parent themes than there are human emotions.”
“I thank you, sir, very well put,” said Quinny with a generous wave of his hand. “Why is the Three Musketeers a basic theme? Simply the interpretation of comradeship, the emotion one man feels for another, vital because it is the one peculiarly masculine emotion. Look at Du Maurier and Trilby, Kipling in Soldiers Three–simply the Three Musketeers.”
“The Vie de Boheme?” suggested Steingall.
“In the real Vie de Boheme, yes,” said Quinny viciously. “Not in the concocted sentimentalities that we now have served up to us by athletic tenors and consumptive elephants!”
Rankin, who had been silently deliberating on what had been left behind, now said cunningly and with evident purpose:
“All the same, I don’t agree with you men at all. I believe there are situations, original situations, that are independent of your human emotions, that exist just because they are situations, accidental and nothing else.”
“As for instance?” said Quinny, preparing to attack.
“Well, I’ll just cite an ordinary one that happens to come to my mind,” said Rankin, who had carefully selected his test. “In a group of seven or eight, such as we are here, a theft takes place; one man is the thief–which one? I’d like to know what emotion that interprets, and yet it certainly is an original theme, at the bottom of a whole literature.”
This challenge was like a bomb.
“Not the same thing.”
“Detective stories, bah!”
“Oh, I say, Rankin, that’s literary melodrama.”
Rankin, satisfied, smiled and winked victoriously over to Tommers, who was listening from an adjacent table.
“Of course your suggestion is out of order, my dear man, to this extent,” said Quinny, who never surrendered, “in that I am talking of fundamentals and you are citing details. Nevertheless, I could answer that the situation you give, as well as the whole school it belongs to, can be traced back to the commonest of human emotions, curiosity; and that the story of Bluebeard and the Moonstone are to all purposes identically the same.”
At this Steingall, who had waited hopefully, gasped and made as though to leave the table.
“I shall take up your contention,” said Quinny without pause for breath, “first, because you have opened up one of my pet topics, and, second, because it gives me a chance to talk.” He gave a sidelong glance at Steingall and winked at De Gollyer. “What is the peculiar fascination that the detective problem exercises over the human mind? You will say curiosity. Yes and no. Admit at once that the whole art of a detective story consists in the statement of the problem. Any one can do it. I can do it. Steingall even can do it. The solution doesn’t count. It is usually banal; it should be prohibited. What interests us is, can we guess it? Just as an able-minded man will sit down for hours and fiddle over the puzzle column in a Sunday balderdash. Same idea. There you have it, the problem–the detective story. Now why the fascination? I’ll tell you. It appeals to our curiosity, yes–but deeper to a sort of intellectual vanity. Here are six matches, arrange them to make four squares; five men present, a theft takes place–who’s the thief? Who will guess it first? Whose brain will show its superior cleverness–see? That’s all–that’s all there is to it.”
“Out of all of which,” said De Gollyer, “the interesting thing is that Rankin has supplied the reason why the supply of detective fiction is inexhaustible. It does all come down to the simplest terms. Seven possibilities, one answer. It is a formula, ludicrously simple, mechanical, and yet we will always pursue it to the end. The marvel is that writers should seek for any other formula when here is one so safe, that can never fail. By George, I could start up a factory on it.”
“The reason is,” said Rankin, “that the situation does constantly occur. It’s a situation that any of us might get into any time. As a matter of fact, now, I personally know two such occasions when I was of the party; and devilish uncomfortable it was too.”
“What happened?” said Steingall.
“Why, there is no story to it particularly. Once a mistake had been made and the other time the real thief was detected by accident a year later. In both cases only one or two of us knew what had happened.”
De Gollyer had a similar incident to recall. Steingall, after reflection, related another that had happened to a friend.
“Of course, of course, my dear gentlemen,” said Quinny impatiently, for he had been silent too long, “you are glorifying commonplaces. Every crime, I tell you, expresses itself in the terms of the picture puzzle that you feed to your six-year-old. It’s only the variation that is interesting. Now quite the most remarkable turn of the complexities that can be developed is, of course, the well-known instance of the visitor at a club and the rare coin. Of course every one knows that? What?”
Rankin smiled in a bored, superior way, but the others protested their ignorance.
“Why, it’s very well known,” said Quinny lightly.
“A distinguished visitor is brought into a club–dozen men, say, present, at dinner, long table. Conversation finally veers around to curiosities and relics. One of the members present then takes from his pocket what he announces as one of the rarest coins in existence–passes it around the table. Coin travels back and forth, every one examining it, and the conversation goes to another topic, say the influence of the automobile on domestic infelicity, or some other such asininely intellectual club topic–you know? All at once the owner calls for his coin.
“The coin is nowhere to be found. Every one looks at every one else. First they suspect a joke. Then it becomes serious–the coin is immensely valuable. Who has taken it?
“The owner is a gentleman–does the gentlemanly idiotic thing of course, laughs, says he knows some one is playing a practical joke on him and that the coin will be returned to-morrow. The others refuse to leave the situation so. One man proposes that they all submit to a search. Every one gives his assent until it comes to the stranger. He refuses, curtly, roughly, without giving any reason. Uncomfortable silence–the man is a guest. No one knows him particularly well–but still he is a guest. One member tries to make him understand that no offense is offered, that the suggestion was simply to clear the atmosphere, and all that sort of bally rot, you know.
“‘I refuse to allow my person to be searched,’ says the stranger, very firm, very proud, very English, you know, ‘and I refuse to give my reason for my action.’
“Another silence. The men eye him and then glance at one another. What’s to be done? Nothing. There is etiquette–that magnificent inflated balloon. The visitor evidently has the coin–but he is their guest and etiquette protects him. Nice situation, eh?
“The table is cleared. A waiter removes a dish of fruit and there under the ledge of the plate where it had been pushed–is the coin. Banal explanation, eh? Of course. Solutions always should be. At once every one in profuse apologies! Whereupon the visitor rises and says:
“‘Now I can give you the reason for my refusal to be searched. There are only two known specimens of the coin in existence, and the second happens to be here in my waistcoat pocket.'”
“Of course,” said Quinny with a shrug of his shoulders, “the story is well invented, but the turn to it is very nice–very nice indeed.”
“I did know the story,” said Steingall, to be disagreeable; “the ending, though, is too obvious to be invented. The visitor should have had on him not another coin, but something absolutely different, something destructive, say, of a woman’s reputation, and a great tragedy should have been threatened by the casual misplacing of the coin.”
“I have heard the same story told in a dozen different ways,” said Rankin.
“It has happened a hundred times. It must be continually happening,” said Steingall.
“I know one extraordinary instance,” said Peters, who up to the present, secure in his climax, had waited with a professional smile until the big guns had been silenced. “In fact, the most extraordinary instance of this sort I have ever heard.”
“Peters, you little rascal,” said Quinny with a sidelong glance, “I perceive you have quietly been letting us dress the stage for you.”
“It is not a story that will please every one,” said Peters, to whet their appetite.
“Because you will want to know what no one can ever know.”
“It has no conclusion then?”
“Yes and no. As far as it concerns a woman, quite the most remarkable woman I have ever met, the story is complete. As for the rest, it is what it is, because it is one example where literature can do nothing better than record.”
“Do I know the woman?” asked De Gollyer, who flattered himself on passing through every class of society.
“Possibly, but no more than any one else.”
“What she has been in the past I don’t know–a promoter would better describe her. Undoubtedly she has been behind the scenes in many an untold intrigue of the business world. A very feminine woman, and yet, as you shall see, with an unusual instantaneous masculine power of decision.”
“Peters,” said Quinny, waving a warning finger, “you are destroying your story. Your preface will bring an anticlimax.”
“You shall judge,” said Peters, who waited until his audience was in strained attention before opening his story. “The names are, of course, disguises.”
Mrs. Rita Kildair inhabited a charming bachelor-girl studio, very elegant, of the duplex pattern, in one of the buildings just off Central Park West. She knew pretty nearly every one in that indescribable society in New York that is drawn from all levels, and that imposes but one condition for membership–to be amusing. She knew every one and no one knew her. No one knew beyond the vaguest rumors her history or her means. No one had ever heard of a Mr. Kildair. There was always about her a certain defensive reserve the moment the limits of acquaintanceship had been reached. She had a certain amount of money, she knew a certain number of men in Wall Street affairs and her studio was furnished with taste and even distinction. She was of any age. She might have suffered everything or nothing at all. In this mingled society her invitations were eagerly sought, her dinners were spontaneous, and the discussions, though gay and usually daring, were invariably under the control of wit and good taste.
On the Sunday night of this adventure she had, according to her invariable custom, sent away her Japanese butler and invited to an informal chafing-dish supper seven of her more congenial friends, all of whom, as much as could be said of any one, were habitues of the studio.
At seven o’clock, having finished dressing, she put in order her bedroom, which formed a sort of free passage between the studio and a small dining room to the kitchen beyond. Then, going into the studio, she lit a wax taper and was in the act of touching off the brass candlesticks that lighted the room when three knocks sounded on the door and a Mr. Flanders, a broker, compact, nervously alive, well groomed, entered with the informality of assured acquaintance.
“You are early,” said Mrs. Kildair, in surprise.
“On the contrary, you are late,” said the broker, glancing at his watch.
“Then be a good boy and help me with the candles,” she said, giving him a smile and a quick pressure of her fingers.
He obeyed, asking nonchalantly:
“I say, dear lady, who’s to be here to-night?”
“The Enos Jacksons.”
“I thought they were separated.”
“Very interesting! Only you, dear lady, would have thought of serving us a couple on the verge.”
“It’s interesting, isn’t it?”
“Assuredly. Where did you know Jackson?”
“Through the Warings. Jackson’s a rather doubtful person, isn’t he?”
“Let’s call him a very sharp lawyer,” said Flanders defensively. “They tell me, though, he is on the wrong side of the market–in deep.”
“Oh, I? I’m a bachelor,” he said with a shrug of his shoulders, “and if I come a cropper it makes no difference.”
“Is that possible?” she said, looking at him quickly.
“Probable even. And who else is coming?”
“Maude Lille–you know her?”
“I think not.”
“You met her here–a journalist.”
“Quite so, a strange career.”
“Mr. Harris, a clubman, is coming, and the Stanley Cheevers.”
“The Stanley Cheevers!” said Flanders with some surprise. “Are we going to gamble?”
“You believe in that scandal about bridge?”
“Certainly not,” said Flanders, smiling. “You see I was present. The Cheevers play a good game, a well united game, and have an unusual system of makes. By-the-way, it’s Jackson who is very attentive to Mrs. Cheever, isn’t it?”
“What a charming party,” said Flanders flippantly. “And where does Maude Lille come in?”
“Don’t joke. She is in a desperate way,” said Mrs. Kildair, with a little sadness in her eyes.
“Oh, he is to make the salad and cream the chicken.”
“Ah, I see the whole party. I, of course, am to add the element of respectability.”
She looked at him steadily until he turned away, dropping his glance.
“Don’t be an ass with me, my dear Flanders.”
“By George, if this were Europe I’d wager you were in the secret service, Mrs. Kildair.”
She smiled appreciatively and moved about the studio, giving the finishing touches. The Stanley Cheevers entered, a short fat man with a vacant fat face and a slow-moving eye, and his wife, voluble, nervous, overdressed and pretty. Mr. Harris came with Maude Lille, a woman, straight, dark, Indian, with great masses of somber hair held in a little too loosely for neatness, with thick, quick lips and eyes that rolled away from the person who was talking to her. The Enos Jacksons were late and still agitated as they entered. His forehead had not quite banished the scowl, nor her eyes the scorn. He was of the type that never lost his temper, but caused others to lose theirs, immovable in his opinions, with a prowling walk, a studied antagonism in his manner, and an impudent look that fastened itself unerringly on the weakness in the person to whom he spoke. Mrs. Jackson, who seemed fastened to her husband by an invisible leash, had a hunted, resisting quality back of a certain desperate dash, which she assumed rather than felt in her attitude toward life. One looked at her curiously and wondered what such a nature would do in a crisis, with a lurking sense of a woman who carried with her her own impending tragedy.
As soon as the company had been completed and the incongruity of the selection had been perceived, a smile of malicious anticipation ran the rounds, which the hostess cut short by saying:
“Well, now that every one is here, this is the order of the night: You can quarrel all you want, you can whisper all the gossip you can think of about one another, but every one is to be amusing! Also every one is to help with the dinner–nothing formal and nothing serious. We may all be bankrupt to-morrow, divorced or dead, but to-night we will be gay–that is the invariable rule of the house!”
Immediately a nervous laughter broke out and the company chattering began to scatter through the rooms.
Mrs. Kildair, stopping in her bedroom, donned a Watteaulike cooking apron, and slipping her rings from her fingers fixed the three on her pincushion with a hatpin.
“Your rings are beautiful, dear, beautiful,” said the low voice of Maude Lille, who with Harris and Mrs. Cheever were in the room.
“There’s only one that is very valuable,” said Mrs. Kildair, touching with her thin fingers the ring that lay uppermost, two large diamonds, flanking a magnificent sapphire.
“It is beautiful–very beautiful,” said the journalist, her eyes fastened to it with an uncontrollable fascination. She put out her fingers and let them rest caressingly on the sapphire, withdrawing them quickly as though the contact had burned them.
“It must be very valuable,” she said, her breath catching a little. Mrs. Cheever, moving forward, suddenly looked at the ring.
“It cost five thousand six years ago,” said Mrs. Kildair, glancing down at it. “It has been my talisman ever since. For the moment, however, I am cook; Maude Lille, you are scullery maid; Harris is the chef, and we are under his orders. Mrs. Cheever, did you ever peel onions?”
“Good Heavens, no!” said Mrs. Cheever, recoiling.
“Well, there are no onions to peel,” said Mrs. Kildair, laughing. “All you’ll have to do is to help set the table. On to the kitchen!”
Under their hostess’s gay guidance the seven guests began to circulate busily through the rooms, laying the table, grouping the chairs, opening bottles, and preparing the material for the chafing dishes. Mrs. Kildair in the kitchen ransacked the ice box, and with her own hands chopped the _fines herbes_, shredded the chicken and measured the cream.
“Flanders, carry this in carefully,” she said, her hands in a towel. “Cheever, stop watching your wife and put the salad bowl on the table. Everything ready, Harris? All right. Every one sit down. I’ll be right in.”
She went into her bedroom, and divesting herself of her apron hung it in the closet. Then going to her dressing table she drew the hatpin from the pincushion and carelessly slipped the rings on her fingers. All at once she frowned and looked quickly at her hand. Only two rings were there, the third ring, the one with the sapphire and the two diamonds, was missing.
“Stupid,” she said to herself, and returned to her dressing table. All at once she stopped. She remembered quite clearly putting the pin through the three rings.
She made no attempt to search further, but remained without moving, her fingers drumming slowly on the table, her head to one side, her lip drawn in a little between her teeth, listening with a frown to the babble from the outer room. Who had taken the ring? Each of her guests had had a dozen opportunities in the course of the time she had been busy in the kitchen.
“Too much time before the mirror, dear lady,” called out Flanders gaily, who from where he was seated could see her.
“It is not he,” she said quickly. Then she reconsidered. “Why not? He is clever–who knows? Let me think.”
To gain time she walked back slowly into the kitchen, her head bowed, her thumb between her teeth.
“Who has taken it?”
She ran over the character of her guests and their situations as she knew them. Strangely enough, at each her mind stopped upon some reason that might explain a sudden temptation.
“I shall find out nothing this way,” she said to herself after a moment’s deliberation; “that is not the important thing to me just now. The important thing is to get the ring back.”
And slowly, deliberately, she began to walk back and forth, her clenched hand beating the deliberate rhythmic measure of her journey.
Five minutes later, as Harris, installed _en maitre_ over the chafing dish, was giving directions, spoon in the air, Mrs. Kildair came into the room like a lengthening shadow. Her entrance had been made with scarcely a perceptible sound, and yet each guest was aware of it at the same moment, with a little nervous start.
“Heavens, dear lady,” exclaimed Flanders, “you come in on us like a Greek tragedy! What is it you have for us, a surprise?”
As he spoke she turned her swift glance on him, drawing her forehead together until the eyebrows ran in a straight line.
“I have something to say to you,” she said in a sharp, businesslike manner, watching the company with penetrating eagerness.
There was no mistaking the seriousness of her voice. Mr. Harris extinguished the oil lamp, covering the chafing dish clumsily with a discordant, disagreeable sound. Mrs. Cheever and Mrs. Enos Jackson swung about abruptly, Maude Lille rose a little from her seat, while the men imitated these movements of expectancy with a clumsy shuffling of the feet.
“Mr. Enos Jackson?”
“Yes, Mrs. Kildair.”
“Kindly do as I ask you.”
She had spoken his name with a peremptory positiveness that was almost an accusation. He rose calmly, raising his eyebrows a little in surprise.
“Go to the door,” she continued, shifting her glance from him to the others. “Are you there? Lock it. Bring me the key.”
He executed the order without bungling, and returning stood before her, tendering the key.
“You’ve locked it?” she said, making the words an excuse to bury her glance in his.
“As you wished me to.”
She took from him the key and, shifting slightly, likewise locked the door into her bedroom through which she had come.
Then transferring the keys to her left hand, seemingly unaware of Jackson, who still awaited her further commands, her eyes studied a moment the possibilities of the apartment.
“Mr. Cheever?” she said in a low voice.
“Yes, Mrs. Kildair.”
“Blow out all the candles except the candelabrum on the table.”
“Put out the lights, Mrs. Kildair?”
Mr. Cheever, in rising, met the glance of his wife, and the look of questioning and wonder that passed did not escape the hostess.
“But, my dear Mrs. Kildair,” said Mrs. Jackson with a little nervous catch of her breath, “what is it? I’m getting terribly worked up! My nerves–“
“Miss Lille?” said the voice of command.
The journalist, calmer than the rest, had watched the proceedings without surprise, as though forewarned by professional instinct that something of importance was about to take place. Now she rose quietly with an almost stealthy motion.
“Put the candelabrum on this table–here,” said Mrs. Kildair, indicating a large round table on which a few books were grouped. “No, wait. Mr. Jackson, first clear off the table. I want nothing on it.”
“But, Mrs. Kildair–” began Mrs. Jackson’s shrill voice again.
“That’s it. Now put down the candelabrum.”
In a moment, as Mr. Cheever proceeded methodically on his errand, the brilliant crossfire of lights dropped in the studio, only a few smoldering wicks winking on the walls, while the high room seemed to grow more distant as it came under the sole dominion of the three candles bracketed in silver at the head of the bare mahogany table.
“Now listen!” said Mrs. Kildair, and her voice had in it a cold note. “My sapphire ring has just been stolen.”
She said it suddenly, hurling the news among them and waiting ferret-like for some indications in the chorus that broke out.
“Oh, my dear Mrs. Kildair!”
“You don’t mean it!”
“What! Stolen here–to-night?”
“The ring has been taken within the last twenty minutes,” continued Mrs. Kildair in the same determined, chiseled tone. “I am not going to mince words. The ring has been taken and the thief is among you.”
For a moment nothing was heard but an indescribable gasp and a sudden turning and searching, then suddenly Cheever’s deep bass broke out:
“Stolen! But, Mrs. Kildair, is it possible?”
“Exactly. There is not the slightest doubt,” said Mrs. Kildair. “Three of you were in my bedroom when I placed my rings on the pincushion. Each of you has passed through there a dozen times since. My sapphire ring is gone, and one of you has taken it.”
Mrs. Jackson gave a little scream, and reached heavily for a glass of water. Mrs. Cheever said something inarticulate in the outburst of masculine exclamation. Only Maude Lille’s calm voice could be heard saying:
“Quite true. I was in the room when you took them off. The sapphire ring was on top.”
“Now listen!” said Mrs. Kildair, her eyes on Maude Lille’s eyes. “I am not going to mince words. I am not going to stand on ceremony. I’m going to have that ring back. Listen to me carefully. I’m going to have that ring back, and until I do, not a soul shall leave this room.” She tapped on the table with her nervous knuckles. “Who has taken it I do not care to know. All I want is my ring. Now I’m going to make it possible for whoever took it to restore it without possibility of detection. The doors are locked and will stay locked. I am going to put out the lights, and I am going to count one hundred slowly. You will be in absolute darkness; no one will know or see what is done. But if at the end of that time the ring is not here on this table I shall telephone the police and have every one in this room searched. Am I quite clear?”
Suddenly she cut short the nervous outbreak of suggestions and in the same firm voice continued:
“Every one take his place about the table. That’s it. That will do.”
The women, with the exception of the inscrutable Maude Lille, gazed hysterically from face to face while the men, compressing their fingers, locking them or grasping their chins, looked straight ahead fixedly at their hostess.
Mrs. Kildair, having calmly assured herself that all were ranged as she wished, blew out two of the three candles.
“I shall count one hundred, no more, no less,” she said. “Either I get back that ring or every one in this room is to be searched, remember.”
Leaning over, she blew out the remaining candle and snuffed it.
“One, two, three, four, five–“
She began to count with the inexorable regularity of a clock’s ticking.
In the room every sound was distinct, the rustle of a dress, the grinding of a shoe, the deep, slightly asthmatic breathing of a man.
“Twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two, twenty-three–“
She continued to count, while in the methodic unvarying note of her voice there was a rasping reiteration that began to affect the company. A slight gasping breath, uncontrollable, almost on the verge of hysterics, was heard, and a man nervously clearing his throat.
“Forty-five, forty-six, forty-seven–“
Still nothing had happened. Mrs. Kildair did not vary her measure the slightest, only the sound became more metallic.
“Sixty-six, sixty-seven, sixty-eight, sixty-nine and seventy–“
Some one had sighed.
“Seventy-three, seventy-four, seventy-five, seventy-six, seventy-seven–“
All at once, clear, unmistakable, on the resounding plane of the table was heard a slight metallic note.
It was Maude Lille’s quick voice that had spoken. Mrs. Kildair continued to count.
“Eighty-nine, ninety, ninety-one–“
The tension became unbearable. Two or three voices protested against the needless prolonging of the torture.
“Ninety-six, ninety-seven, ninety-eight, ninety-nine and one hundred.”
A match sputtered in Mrs. Kildair’s hand and on the instant the company craned forward. In the center of the table was the sparkling sapphire and diamond ring. Candles were lit, flaring up like searchlights on the white accusing faces.
“Mr. Cheever, you may give it to me,” said Mrs. Kildair. She held out her hand without trembling, a smile of triumph on her face, which had in it for a moment an expression of positive cruelty.
Immediately she changed, contemplating with amusement the horror of her guests, staring blindly from one to another, seeing the indefinable glance of interrogation that passed from Cheever to Mrs. Cheever, from Mrs. Jackson to her husband, and then without emotion she said:
“Now that that is over we can have a very gay little supper.”
When Peters had pushed back his chair, satisfied as only a trained raconteur can be by the silence of a difficult audience, and had busied himself with a cigar, there was an instant outcry.
“I say, Peters, old boy, that is not all!”
“The story ends there?”
“That ends the story.”
“But who took the ring?”
Peters extended his hands in an empty gesture.
“What! It was never found out?”
“I don’t like the story,” said De Gollyer.
“It’s no story at all,” said Steingall.
“Permit me,” said Quinny in a didactic way; “it is a story, and it is complete. In fact, I consider it unique because it has none of the banalities of a solution and leaves the problem even more confused than at the start.”
“I don’t see–” began Rankin.
“Of course you don’t, my dear man,” said Quinny crushingly. “You do not see that any solution would be commonplace, whereas no solution leaves an extraordinary intellectual problem.”
“In the first place,” said Quinny, preparing to annex the topic, “whether the situation actually happened or not, which is in itself a