At last he reached his hotel. It was a new one, the latest creation of a feverish progress in hotel-building which had covered five years and as many squares with large showy erections, utterly beyond the needs of the community, yet each superior in size and adornment to its predecessor. It struck him as being the one evidence of an abiding faith in the future of the metropolis that he had seen in nothing else. As he entered its frescoed hall that afternoon he was suddenly reminded, by its challenging opulency, of the bank he had just quitted, without knowing that the bank had really furnished its capital and its original design. The gilded bar-rooms, flashing with mirrors and cut glass; the saloons, with their desert expanse of Turkey carpet and oasis of clustered divans and gilded tables; the great dining-room, with porphyry columns, and walls and ceilings shining with allegory—all these things which had attracted his youthful wonder without distracting his correct simplicity of taste he now began to comprehend. It was the bank’s money “at work.” In the clatter of dishes in the dining-room he even seemed to hear again the chinking of coin.
It was a short cut to his apartments to pass through a smaller public sitting-room popularly known as “Flirtation Camp,” where eight or ten couples generally found refuge on chairs and settees by the windows, half concealed by heavy curtains. But the occupants were by no means youthful spinsters or bachelors; they were generally married women, guests of the hotel, receiving other people’s husbands whose wives were “in the States,” or responsible middle-aged leaders of the town. In the elaborate toilettes of the women, as compared with the less formal business suits of the men, there was an odd mingling of the social attitude with perhaps more mysterious confidences. The idle gossip about them had never affected Barker; rather he had that innate respect for the secrets of others which is as inseparable from simplicity as it is from high breeding, and he scarcely glanced at the different couples in his progress through the room. He did not even notice a rather striking and handsome woman, who, surrounded by two or three admirers, yet looked up at Barker as he passed with self-conscious lids as if seeking a return of her glance. But he moved on abstractedly, and only stopped when he suddenly saw the familiar skirt of his wife at a further window, and halted before it.
“Oh, it’s you,” said Mrs. Barker, with a half-nervous, half-impatient laugh. “Why, I thought you’d certainly stay half the afternoon with your old partner, considering that you haven’t met for three years.”
There was no doubt she had thought so; there was equally no doubt that the conversation she was carrying on with her companion—a good-looking, portly business man—was effectually interrupted. But Barker did not notice it. “Captain Heath, my husband,” she went on, carelessly rising and smoothing her skirts. The captain, who had risen too, bowed vaguely at the introduction, but Barker extended his hand frankly. “I found Stacy busy,” he said in answer to his wife, “but he is coming to dine with us to-night.”
“If you mean Jim Stacy, the banker,” said Captain Heath, brightening into greater ease, “he’s the busiest man in California. I’ve seen men standing in a queue outside his door as in the old days at the post-office. And he only gives you five minutes and no extension. So you and he were partners once?” he said, looking curiously at the still youthful Barker.
But it was Mrs. Barker who answered, “Oh yes! and always such good friends. I was awfully jealous of him.” Nevertheless, she did not respond to the affectionate protest in Barker’s eyes nor to the laugh of Captain Heath, but glanced indifferently around the room as if to leave further conversation to the two men. It was possible that she was beginning to feel that Captain Heath was as de trop now as her husband had been a moment before. Standing there, however, between them both, idly tracing a pattern on the carpet with the toe of her slipper, she looked prettier than she had ever looked as Kitty Carter. Her slight figure was more fully developed. That artificial severity covering a natural virgin coyness with which she used to wait at table in her father’s hotel at Boomville had gone, and was replaced by a satisfied consciousness of her power to please. Her glance was freer, but not as frank as in those days. Her dress was undoubtedly richer and more stylish; yet Barker’s loyal heart often reverted fondly to the chintz gown, coquettishly frilled apron, and spotless cuffs and collar in which she had handed him his coffee with a faint color that left his own face crimson.
Captain Heath’s tact being equal to her indifference, he had excused himself, although he was becoming interested in this youthful husband. But Mrs. Barker, after having asserted her husband’s distinction as the equal friend of the millionaire, was by no means willing that the captain should be further interested in Barker for himself alone, and did not urge him to stay. As he departed she turned to her husband, and, indicating the group he had passed the moment before, said:—
“That horrid woman has been staring at us all the time. I don’t see what you see in her to admire.”
Poor Barker’s admiration had been limited to a few words of civility in the enforced contact of that huge caravansary and in his quiet, youthful recognition of her striking personality. But he was just then too preoccupied with his interview with Stacy to reply, and perhaps he did not quite understand his wife. It was odd how many things he did not quite understand now about Kitty, but that he knew must be his fault. But Mrs. Barker apparently did not require, after the fashion of her sex, a reply. For the next moment, as they moved towards their rooms, she said impatiently, “Well, you don’t tell what Stacy said. Did you get the money?”
I grieve to say that this soul of truth and frankness lied—only to his wife. Perhaps he considered it only lying to himself, a thing of which he was at times miserably conscious. “It wasn’t necessary, dear,” he said; “he advised me to sell my securities in the bank; and if you only knew how dreadfully busy he is.”
Mrs. Barker curled her pretty lip. “It doesn’t take very long to lend ten thousand dollars!” she said. “But that’s what I always tell you. You have about made me sick by singing the praises of those wonderful partners of yours, and here you ask a favor of one of them and he tells you to sell your securities! And you know, and he knows, they’re worth next to nothing.”
“You don’t understand, dear”—began Barker.
“I understand that you’ve given your word to poor Harry,” said Mrs. Barker in pretty indignation, “who’s responsible for the Ditch purchase.”
“And I shall keep it. I always do,” said Barker very quietly, but with that same singular expression of face that had puzzled Stacy. But Mrs. Barker, who, perhaps, knew her husband better, said in an altered voice:—
“But how can you, dear?”
“If I’m short a thousand or two I’ll ask your father.”
Mrs. Barker was silent. “Father’s so very much harried now, George. Why don’t you simply throw the whole thing up?”
“But I’ve given my word to your cousin Henry.”
“Yes, but only your word. There was no written agreement. And you couldn’t even hold him to it.”
Barker opened his frank eyes in astonishment. Her own cousin, too! And they were Stacy’s very words!
“Besides,” added Mrs. Barker audaciously, “he could get rid of it elsewhere. He had another offer, but he thought yours the best. So don’t be silly.”
By this time they had reached their rooms. Barker, apparently dismissing the subject from his mind with characteristic buoyancy, turned into the bedroom and walked smilingly towards a small crib which stood in the corner. “Why, he’s gone!” he said in some dismay.
“Well,” said Mrs. Barker a little impatiently, “you didn’t expect me to take him into the public parlor, where I was seeing visitors, did you? I sent him out with the nurse into the lower hall to play with the other children.”
A shade momentarily passed over Barker’s face. He always looked forward to meeting the child when he came back. He had a belief, based on no grounds whatever, that the little creature understood him. And he had a father’s doubt of the wholesomeness of other people’s children who were born into the world indiscriminately and not under the exceptional conditions of his own. “I’ll go and fetch him,” he said.
“You haven’t told me anything about your interview; what you did and what your good friend Stacy said,” said Mrs. Barker, dropping languidly into a chair. “And really if you are simply running away again after that child, I might just as well have asked Captain Heath to stay longer.”
“Oh, as to Stacy,” said Barker, dropping beside her and taking her hand; “well, dear, he was awfully busy, you know, and shut up in the innermost office like the agate in one of the Japanese nests of boxes. But,” he continued, brightening up, “just the same dear old Jim Stacy of Heavy Tree Hill, when I first knew you. Lord! dear, how it all came back to me! That day I proposed to you in the belief that I was unexpectedly rich and even bought a claim for the boys on the strength of it, and how I came back to them to find that they had made a big strike on the very claim. Lord! I remember how I was so afraid to tell them about you—and how they guessed it—that dear old Stacy one of the first.”
“Yes,” said Mrs. Barker, “and I hope your friend Stacy remembered that but for me, when you found out that you were not rich, you’d have given up the claim, but that I really deceived my own father to make you keep it. I’ve often worried over that, George,” she said pensively, turning a diamond bracelet around her pretty wrist, “although I never said anything about it.”
“But, Kitty darling,” said Barker, grasping his wife’s hand, “I gave my note for it; you know you said that was bargain enough, and I had better wait until the note was due, and until I found I couldn’t pay, before I gave up the claim. It was very clever of you, and the boys all said so, too. But you never deceived your father, dear,” he said, looking at her gravely, “for I should have told him everything.”
“Of course, if you look at it in that way,” said his wife languidly, “it’s nothing; only I think it ought to be remembered when people go about saying papa ruined you with his hotel schemes.”
“Who dares say that?” said Barker indignantly.
“Well, if they don’t say it they look it,” said Mrs. Barker, with a toss of her pretty head, “and I believe that’s at the bottom of Stacy’s refusal.”
“But he never said a word, Kitty,” said Barker, flushing.
“There, don’t excite yourself, George,” said Mrs. Barker resignedly, “but go for the baby. I know you’re dying to go, and I suppose it’s time Norah brought it upstairs.”
At any other time Barker would have lingered with explanations, but just then a deeper sense than usual of some misunderstanding made him anxious to shorten this domestic colloquy. He rose, pressed his wife’s hand, and went out. But yet he was not entirely satisfied with himself for leaving her. “I suppose it isn’t right my going off as soon as I come in,” he murmured reproachfully to himself, “but I think she wants the baby back as much as I; only, womanlike, she didn’t care to let me know it.”
He reached the lower hall, which he knew was a favorite promenade for the nurses who were gathered at the farther end, where a large window looked upon Montgomery Street. But Norah, the Irish nurse, was not among them; he passed through several corridors in his search, but in vain. At last, worried and a little anxious, he turned to regain his rooms through the long saloon where he had found his wife previously. It was deserted now; the last caller had left—even frivolity had its prescribed limits. He was consequently startled by a gentle murmur from one of the heavily curtained window recesses. It was a woman’s voice—low, sweet, caressing, and filled with an almost pathetic tenderness. And it was followed by a distinct gurgling satisfied crow.
Barker turned instantly in that direction. A step brought him to the curtain, where a singular spectacle presented itself.
Seated on a lounge, completely absorbed and possessed by her treasure, was the “horrid woman” whom his wife had indicated only a little while ago, holding a baby—Kitty’s sacred baby—in her wanton lap! The child was feebly grasping the end of the slender jeweled necklace which the woman held temptingly dangling from a thin white jeweled finger above it. But its eyes were beaming with an intense delight, as if trying to respond to the deep, concentrated love in the handsome face that was bent above it.
At the sudden intrusion of Barker she looked up. There was a faint rise in her color, but no loss of sell-possession.
“Please don’t scold the nurse,” she said, “nor say anything to Mrs. Barker. It is all my fault. I thought that both the nurse and child looked dreadfully bored with each other, and I borrowed the little fellow for a while to try and amuse him. At least I haven’t made him cry, have I, dear?” The last epithet, it is needless to say, was addressed to the little creature in her lap, but in its tender modulation it touched the father’s quick sympathies as if he had shared it with the child. “You see,” she said softly, disengaging the baby fingers from her necklace, “that our sex is not the only one tempted by jewelry and glitter.”
Barker hesitated; the Madonna-like devotion of a moment ago was gone; it was only the woman of the world who laughingly looked up at him. Nevertheless he was touched. “Have you—ever—had a child, Mrs. Horncastle?” he asked gently and hesitatingly. He had a vague recollection that she passed for a widow, and in his simple eyes all women were virgins or married saints.
“No,” she said abruptly. Then she added with a laugh, “Or perhaps I should not admire them so much. I suppose it’s the same feeling bachelors have for other people’s wives. But I know you’re dying to take that boy from me. Take him, then, and don’t be ashamed to carry him yourself just because I’m here; you know you would delight to do it if I weren’t.”
Barker bent over the silken lap in which the child was comfortably nestling, and in that attitude had a faint consciousness that Mrs. Horncastle was mischievously breathing into his curls a silent laugh. Barker lifted his firstborn with proud skillfulness, but that sagacious infant evidently knew when he was comfortable, and in a paroxysm of objection caught his father’s curls with one fist, while with the other he grasped Mrs. Horncastle’s brown braids and brought their heads into contact. Upon which humorous situation Norah, the nurse, entered.
“It’s all right, Norah,” said Mrs. Horncastle, laughing, as she disengaged herself from the linking child. “Mr. Barker has claimed the baby, and has agreed to forgive you and me and say nothing to Mrs. Barker.” Norah, with the inscrutable criticism of her sex on her sex, thought it extremely probable, and halted with exasperating discretion. “There,” continued Mrs. Horncastle, playfully evading the child’s further advances, “go with papa, that’s a dear. Mr. Barker prefers to carry him back, Norah.”
“But,” said the ingenuous and persistent Barker, still lingering in hopes of recalling the woman’s previous expression, “you DO love children, and you think him a bright little chap for his age?”
“Yes,” said Mrs. Horncastle, putting back her loosened braid, “so round and fat and soft. And such a discriminating eye for jewelry. Really you ought to get a necklace like mine for Mrs. Barker—it would please both, you know.” She moved slowly away, the united efforts of Norah and Barker scarcely sufficing to restrain the struggling child from leaping after her as she turned at the door and blew him a kiss.
When Barker regained his room he found that Mrs. Barker had dismissed Stacy from her mind except so far as to invoke Norah’s aid in laying out her smartest gown for dinner. “But why take all this trouble, dear?” said her simple-minded husband; “we are going to dine in a private room so that we can talk over old times all by ourselves, and any dress would suit him. And, Lord, dear!” he added, with a quick brightening at the fancy, “if you could only just rig yourself up in that pretty lilac gown you used to wear at Boomville—it would be too killing, and just like old times. I put it away myself in one of our trunks—I couldn’t bear to leave it behind; I know just where it is. I’ll”—But Mrs. Barker’s restraining scorn withheld him.
“George Barker, if you think I am going to let you throw away and utterly waste Mr. Stacy on us, alone, in a private room with closed doors—and I dare say you’d like to sit in your dressing-gown and slippers—you are entirely mistaken. I know what is due, not to your old partner, but to the great Mr. Stacy, the financier, and I know what is due from him to us! No! We dine in the great dining-room, publicly, and, if possible, at the very next table to those stuck-up Peterburys and their Eastern friends, including that horrid woman, which, I’m sure, ought to satisfy you. Then you can talk as much as you like, and as loud as you like, about old times,—and the louder and the more the better,—but I don’t think he’ll like it.”
“But the baby!” expostulated Barker. “Stacy’s just wild to see him—and we can’t bring him down to the table—though we might,” he added, momentarily brightening.
“After dinner,” said Mrs. Barker severely, “we will walk through the big drawing-rooms, and then Mr. Stacy may come upstairs and see him in his crib; but not before. And now, George, I do wish that to-night, For once, you would not wear a turn-down collar, and that you would go to the barber’s and have him cut your hair and smooth out the curls. And, for Heaven’s sake! let him put some wax or gum or something on your mustache and twist it up on your cheek like Captain Heath’s, for it positively droops over your mouth like a girl’s ringlet. It’s quite enough for me to hear people talk of your inexperience, but really I don’t want you to look as if I had run away with a pretty schoolboy. And, considering the size of that child, it’s positively disgraceful. And, one thing more, George. When I’m talking to anybody, please don’t sit opposite to me, beaming with delight, and your mouth open. And don’t roar if by chance I say something funny. And—whatever you do—don’t make eyes at me in company whenever I happen to allude to you, as I did before Captain Heath. It is positively too ridiculous.”
Nothing could exceed the laughing good humor with which her husband received these cautions, nor the evident sincerity with which he promised amendment. Equally sincere was he, though a little more thoughtful, in his severe self-examination of his deficiencies, when, later, he seated himself at the window with one hand softly encompassing his child’s chubby fist in the crib beside him, and, in the instinctive fashion of all loneliness, looked out of the window. The southern trades were whipping the waves of the distant bay and harbor into yeasty crests. Sheets of rain swept the sidewalks with the regularity of a fusillade, against which a few pedestrians struggled with flapping waterproofs and slanting umbrellas. He could look along the deserted length of Montgomery Street to the heights of Telegraph Hill and its long-disused semaphore. It seemed lonelier to him than the mile-long sweep of Heavy Tree Hill, writhing against the mountain wind and its æolian song. He had never felt so lonely there. In his rigid self-examination he thought Kitty right in protesting against the effect of his youthfulness and optimism. Yet he was also right in being himself. There is an egoism in the highest simplicity; and Barker, while willing to believe in others’ methods, never abandoned his own aims. He was right in loving Kitty as he did; he knew that she was better and more lovable than she could believe herself to be; but he was willing to believe it pained and discomposed her if he showed it before company. He would not have her change even this peculiarity—it was part of herself—no more than he would have changed himself. And behind what he had conceived was her clear, practical common sense, all this time had been her belief that she had deceived her father! Poor dear, dear Kitty! And she had suffered because stupid people had conceived that her father had led him away in selfish speculations. As if he—Barker—would not have first discovered it, and as if anybody—even dear Kitty herself—was responsible for his convictions and actions but himself. Nevertheless, this gentle egotist was unusually serious, and when the child awoke at last, and with a fretful start and vacant eyes pushed his caressing hand away, he felt lonelier than before. It was with a slight sense of humiliation, too, that he saw it stretch its hands to the mere hireling, Norah, who had never given it the love that he had seen even in the frivolous Mrs. Horncastle’s eyes. Later, when his wife came in, looking very pretty in her elaborate dinner toilette, he had the same conflicting emotions. He knew that they had already passed that phase of their married life when she no longer dressed to please him, and that the dictates of fashion or the rivalry of another woman she held superior to his tastes; yet he did not blame her. But he was a little surprised to see that her dress was copied from one of Mrs. Horncastle’s most striking ones, and that it did not suit her. That which adorned the maturer woman did not agree with the demure and slightly austere prettiness of the young wife.
But Barker forgot all this when Stacy—reserved and somewhat severe-looking in evening dress—arrived with business punctuality. He fancied that his old partner received the announcement that they would dine in the public room with something of surprise, and he saw him glance keenly at Kitty in her fine array, as if he had suspected it was her choice, and understood her motives. Indeed, the young husband had found himself somewhat nervous in regard to Stacy’s estimate of Kitty; he was conscious that she was not looking and acting like the old Kitty that Stacy had known; it did not enter his honest heart that Stacy had, perhaps, not appreciated her then, and that her present quality might accord more with his worldly tastes and experience. It was, therefore, with a kind of timid delight that he saw Stacy apparently enter into her mood, and with a still more timorous amusement to notice that he seemed to sympathize not only with her, but with her half-rallying, half-serious attitude towards his (Barker’s) inexperience and simplicity. He was glad that she had made a friend of Stacy, even in this way. Stacy would understand, as he did, her pretty willfulness at last; she would understand what a true friend Stacy was to him. It was with unfeigned satisfaction that he followed them in to dinner as she leaned upon his guest’s arm, chatting confidentially. He was only uneasy because her manner had a slight ostentation.
The entrance of the little party produced a quick sensation throughout the dining-room. Whispers passed from table to table; all heads were turned towards the great financier as towards a magnet; a few guests even shamelessly faced round in their chairs as he passed. Mrs. Barker was pink, pretty, and voluble with excitement; Stacy had a slight mask of reserve; Barker was the only one natural and unconscious.
As the dinner progressed Barker found that there was little chance for him to invoke his old partner’s memories of the past. He found, however, that Stacy had received a letter from Demorest, and that he was coming home from Europe. His letters were still sad; they both agreed upon that. And then for the first time that day Stacy looked intently at Barker with the look that he had often worn on Heavy Tree Hill.
“Then you think it is the same old trouble that worries him?” said Barker in an awed and sympathetic voice.
“I believe it is,” said Stacy, with an equal feeling. Mrs. Barker pricked up her pretty ears; her husband’s ready sympathy was familiar enough; but that this cold, practical Stacy should be moved at anything piqued her curiosity.
“And you believe that he has never got over it?” continued Barker.
“He had one chance, but he threw it away,” said Stacy energetically. “If, instead of going off to Europe by himself to brood over it, he had joined me in business, he’d have been another man.”
“But not Demorest,” said Barker quickly.
“What dreadful secret is this about Demorest?” said Mrs. Barker petulantly. “Is he ill?”
Both men were silent by their old common instinct. But it was Stacy who said “No” in a way that put any further questioning at an end, and Barker was grateful and for the moment disloyal to his Kitty.
It was with delight that Mrs. Barker had seen that the attention of the next table was directed to them, and that even Mrs. Horncastle had glanced from time to time at Stacy. But she was not prepared for the evident equal effect that Mrs. Horncastle had created upon Stacy. His cold face warmed, his critical eye softened; he asked her name. Mrs. Barker was voluble, prejudiced, and, it seemed, misinformed.
“I know it all,” said Stacy, with didactic emphasis. “Her husband was as bad as they make them. When her life had become intolerable with him, he tried to make it shameful without him by abandoning her. She could get a divorce a dozen times over, but she won’t.”
“I suppose that’s what makes her so very attractive to gentlemen,” said Mrs. Barker ironically.
“I have never seen her before,” continued Stacy, with business precision, “although I and two other men are guardians of her property, and have saved it from the clutches of her husband. They told me she was handsome—and so she is.”
Pleased with the sudden human weakness of Stacy, Barker glanced at his wife for sympathy. But she was looking studiously another way, and the young husband’s eyes, still full of his gratification, fell upon Mrs. Horncastle’s. She looked away with a bright color. Whereupon the sanguine Barker—perfectly convinced that she returned Stacy’s admiration—was seized with one of his old boyish dreams of the future, and saw Stacy happily united to her, and was only recalled to the dinner before him by its end. Then Stacy duly promenaded the great saloon with Mrs. Barker on his arm, visited the baby in her apartments, and took an easy leave. But he grasped Barker’s hand before parting in quite his old fashion, and said, “Come to lunch with me at the bank any day, and we’ll talk of Phil Demorest,” and left Barker as happy as if the appointment were to confer the favor he had that morning refused. But Mrs. Barker, who had overheard, was more dubious.
“You don’t suppose he asks you to talk with you about Demorest and his stupid secret, do you?” she said scornfully.
“Perhaps not only about that,” said Barker, glad that she had not demanded the secret.
“Well,” returned Mrs. Barker as she turned away, “he might just as well lunch here and talk about her—and see her, too.”
Meantime Stacy had dropped into his club, only a few squares distant. His appearance created the same interest that it had produced at the hotel, but with less reserve among his fellow members.
“Have you heard the news?” said a dozen voices. Stacy had not; he had been dining out.
“That infernal swindle of a Divide Railroad has passed the legislature.”
Stacy instantly remembered Barker’s absurd belief in it and his reasons. He smiled and said carelessly, “Are you quite sure it’s a swindle?”
There was a dead silence at the coolness of the man who had been most outspoken against it.
“But,” said a voice hesitatingly, “you know it goes nowhere and to no purpose.”
“But that does not prevent it, now that it’s a fact, from going anywhere and to some purpose,” said Stacy, turning away. He passed into the reading-room quietly, but in an instant turned and quickly descended by another staircase into the hall, hurriedly put on his overcoat, and slipping out was a moment later re-entering the hotel. Here he hastily summoned Barker, who came down, flushed and excited. Laying his hand on Barker’s arm in his old dominant way, he said:—
“Don’t delay a single hour, but get a written agreement for that Ditch property.”
Barker smiled. “But I have. Got it this afternoon.”
“Then you know?” ejaculated Stacy in surprise.
“I only know,” said Barker, coloring, “that you said I could back out of it if it wasn’t signed, and that’s what Kitty said, too. And I thought it looked awfully mean for me to hold a man to that kind of a bargain. And so—you won’t be mad, old fellow, will you?—I thought I’d put it beyond any question of my own good faith by having it in black and white.” He stopped, laughing and blushing, but still earnest and sincere. “You don’t think me a fool, do you?” he said pathetically.
Stacy smiled grimly. “I think, Barker boy, that if you go to the Branch you’ll have no difficulty in paying for the Ditch property. Good-night.”
In a few moments he was back at the club again before any one knew he had even left the building. As he again re-entered the smoking-room he found the members still in eager discussion about the new railroad. One was saying, “If they could get an extension, and carry the road through Heavy Tree Hill to Boomville they’d be all right.”
“I quite agree with you,” said Stacy.