William Holton spoke the truth to Amzi when he said that he had had no warnin_f his brother's return. William, with all his apparent prosperity, was no_ithout his troubles, and he took it unkindly that this brother, who fo_ixteen years had kept out of the way, should have chosen so unfortunate _oment for reintroducing himself to his native town. He had not set eyes o_ack since his flight with Lois Kirkwood, though Samuel had visited th_estern coast several times on business errands and had kept in touch wit_im. William had been glad enough to forget Jack's existence, particularly a_he reports that had reached him—even those brought back by the sanguin_amuel—had been far from reassuring as to Jack's status in Seattle.
Jack's return meant a recrudescence of wounds which time had seemingly healed, with resulting discomforts that might have far-reaching consequences. Mrs.
William had a pride of her own, and it was unjust to her for a man who had s_hocked the moral sensibilities of the town to thrust himself back upon hi_amily, especially when he had chosen to present himself first at the domicil_f the head of a house against which he had so grossly sinned.
William took Jack home and put him to bed; and when Charles followed a littl_ater with Mrs. Holton, the prodigal slept the sleep of weary intoxication i_er guest chamber.
The next day the town buzzed, and the buzzing was loud enough to make itsel_eard at the desk of the president of the First National Bank. William ha_eft word at home that when Jack came to himself, he was to be dispatched t_he bank forthwith. He meant to deal with this unwelcome pilgrim upon _usiness basis strictly, without any softening domestic influences. The hono_f the Holtons was touched nearly and Jack must be got rid of. Mrs. Holto_elephoned at eleven o'clock that Jack was on his way downtown, and Willia_as prepared for the interview when his brother strolled in with something o_is old jauntiness.
The door of the directors' room closed upon them. The word passed along Mai_treet that Jack and William were closeted in the bank. Phil, walking downtow_n an errand, with the happiness of her party still in her eyes, was no_ithout her sense of the situation. At the breakfast-table her father, deepl_reoccupied, had brought himself with an effort to review the happier event_f the party. Knowing what was in his mind Phil mentioned the untowar_isfortune that had cast Jack Holton of all men upon the threshold of he_ncle's house.
"It really didn't make any difference, daddy,—that man's coming. Everybod_ried to forget it. And some of the young people didn't know him at all."
"No; it didn't matter, Phil. Your Uncle Amzi is a fine gentleman: I neve_ully appreciated his goodness and generosity as much as I did last night."
Phil did not know that Amzi had sought Kirkwood in the den where the lawye_ad gone to take counsel with himself, and had blown himself purple in th_ace in his kind efforts to make light of the incident. The two men had neve_een drawn closer together in their lives than in that meeting.
"It wasn't Uncle Amy's fault that the William Holtons were asked to the party; I think it was Aunt Kate who started that. And when I heard of it, it was al_ver and the invitations had been sent," Phil said.
Kirkwood repeated his assurance that it made no difference in any way. An_hil remembered for a long time a certain light in his gentle, candid eyes a_e said:—
"We get over most of our troubles in this world, Phil; and I want you to kno_hat that particular thing doesn't hurt me any more. Only it was a shock; th_an had aged so and his condition and the suddenness of it—But it's all ove_nd it didn't spoil the party; that's the main thing."
Phil was immensely relieved, for she knew that her father told the truth.
Jack Holton greeted a number of old friends on his way to the bank, but th_resident emeritus of the college cut him. The cold stare he received fro_his old man, who had been president of Madison College for forty years, expressed a contempt that hurt. Mrs. King, in whose yard he had played as _oy, looked over his head, though he was confident she knew him. His nostril_aught no scent of roast veal in the familiar streets. At his brother's hous_is sister-in-law, whom he had never seen, had not appeared when he went dow_or his breakfast.
He followed his brother into the directors' room in a defiant humor. They too_ccount of each other with a frank curiosity begotten of their lon_eparation.
"You haven't changed much, Will. You've grown a little stouter than fathe_id, but dear old Sam never lost his shape, and you're like him."
There was little resemblance between the two men. William's face, clean-shave_ave for a mustache, showed few lines, though his hair had whitened at th_emples. Jack's hair and mustache were well sprinkled with gray, and his crow_as bald. He fingered a paper-weight on the table nervously. A history o_issipation was written legibly in his eyes and he had a disconcerting way o_erking his head.
"Damn it all! I guess you're not tickled to death to see me. And I need hardl_ay that if I hadn't been drunk, I wouldn't have turned up at old Amzi's o_he night of that kid's coming-out party. Drunk when I struck town—hadn't bee_eeling well, and fell in with some old friends at Indianapolis and filled up.
Hope you'll overlook my little indiscretions. Reckon the town would have foun_ut I was here soon enough and there's nothing like coming right out in th_pen. When they told me at your house you were at Amzi's, I couldn't believ_t and I was just drunk enough to want to investigate."
William muttered something that Jack preferred to ignore.
"Well, I wasn't so drunk I didn't take in Kirkwood. Old Tom has held his ow_retty well; but he's the type Time don't batter much. I'd thought a good dea_bout what might happen if we ever met—had rather figured on a little pisto_ork; but Lord! it's funny how damned soon we get over these things. Trifles, Will, trifles—bubbles of human experience that vanish in thin air. Damn i_ll! life's a queer business. We put our faith in women and they're a ba_nvestment, damned uncertain and devilish hard to please, and shake you whe_he night falleth and you need a prop to lean on. By the way, your own consor_ucked me this morning; I had to have breakfast alone, with only one o_frica's haughty daughters to break my eggs. I hope madam your wife is well.
By the way, has she given any hostages to fortune? Thought I hadn't heard o_t. You've treated me in a hell of a little brotherly fashion, Will. If i_adn't been for Sam, who was a true sport if I know one, I shouldn't hav_nown anything about you, dead or alive."
William had listened with an almost imperceptible frown while he minutel_tudied his brother. The items he collected were not calculated to inspir_onfidence or quicken fraternal feeling. Jack, whom he remembered a_astidious in old times, was sadly crumpled. The cuffs of his colored shir_ere frayed; there were spots on his tie, and his clothes looked as thoug_hey had been slept in. The lining of the ulster he had thrown across a chai_ad been patched, and threads hung where his legs had rubbed it. Th_mpressions reflected in William's eyes were increasingly disagreeable ones, as he diagnosed moral, physical, and financial decrepitude. It was nothin_hort of impudence on Jack's part to intrude himself upon the town and upo_is family. It was with a slight sneer that William replied to his brother'_ong speech by ejaculating:—
"Well, I like your nerve! You come back drunk just when the community ha_egun to forget you, and wander into the last house in the world where yo_ught to show yourself. Your being drunk doesn't excuse you. Why didn't yo_ell me you were coming?"
Jack smiled ironically.
"Suppose you climb off your high horse for a little bit. If I have to get _ermit from my only brother to come back to the town where I was born, thing_ave come to a nice pass. Better cut all that out."
"You're certainly a past-master at making a mess of things," Willia_ontinued. "Your coming back that way fits neatly into your departure. Yo_eedn't think people have forgotten that you ran off with another man's wife.
And your coming back right now, just when the Montgomerys had buried th_atchet, was calculated with the Devil's own mind."
"So that's the tune, is it?" said Jack, stretching his arms upon the table an_lasping his fingers to subdue their nervous twitchings.
"That's just the tune! This town isn't big enough to hold you and the rest o_s. You've cost me a lot of money first and last. You made it necessary for u_o pull away from Amzi and start all over again, and there was a prejudic_gainst me from the start that I've just about lived down."
Jack grinned unpleasantly.
"Oh, the bank hasn't been terribly prosperous, then!"
William blinked at the thrust. He had given the conversation an unfortunat_urn, and he sought uncomfortably for another line of attack. Jack unwittingl_pened the way for him.
"You were the good boy of the family and used to be a pillar in the church. _ave a distinct though melancholy impression that when I took myself hence yo_ere passing the basket in Center Church every Sunday morning. I don't recal_hat I ever _saw_ you do it, but it was a matter of common knowledge in thi_own, Will, that you did that very thing. And being a Christian, just how d_ou square your effusive brotherly welcome with the gospel? The only reaso_od makes sinners is to give 'em a chance to repent. Without repentance wha_o you suppose would become of your churches anyhow?"
"I don't see any repentance in you; and I want to know right now what you'v_one with that woman?"
Jack blinked, then smiled and gave a laugh expressive of disdain and contempt.
"If you please, which woman?"
William's frown deepened. The one woman was certainly enough, and his rage wa_ncreased by the leer that accompanied the question.
"Oh, I dare say there have been enough of them! I mean the one you took awa_rom here; I mean Lois Kirkwood."
"Oh, Lois!" He spoke as though surprised that she should be chosen fo_articular attention, and his lip curled scornfully. "When a man goes wrong, Will, he pays for it. Take it from me that that's one gospel truth that I'v_roved to my entire satisfaction. It's queer, Will, how soon a bonfire burn_ut—the bigger the fire the quicker it goes. I went plum crazy about tha_irl. She'd married the one particular man on earth who was least likely t_ake her happy. He bored her. And I guess her baby bored her, too,—she wasn'_ domestic animal,—no pussy cat to sit by the fire and play with the baby an_ave hubby's slippers toasting when he came home to supper. And I had time t_lay with her; I wasn't so intellectual as Tom, but my nature was a damne_ight more sympathetic. It looked as though we had been made for each other, and I was fooled into thinking so. And I was bored myself—this silly littl_own, with nothing to hold anybody. Lois and I were made for a bigger world—a_east we thought so: and by Jove, it was funny how we fooled each other—it wa_ltogether too damned funny!"
"I'm glad you take a humorous view of it," replied William coldly. "No_atisfied with disgracing the family, you come back to rub it in. Where di_ou leave the woman? I suppose you've chucked her—the usual way."
Jack threw back his head and laughed.
"Well, I like that! You don't know what I had to put up with! She made m_uffer, I can tell you! I don't believe she'd deny herself that she made i_amned uncomfortable for me. She liked to spend money, for one thing, and _ouldn't make it fast enough; and she wanted to mingle with the rich and gay, and our story had followed us, and it's funny, Will, what a lot of old- fashioned, stupid, Thursday-night-prayer-meeting and the-pastor-in-to-te_orality there is left in this fool world! It cut Lois up a good deal, bein_nubbed by people she wanted to stand well with. It gave me a jolt to fin_hat I wasn't all-sufficient for her after all; which hurt some when we'_ecided we could be happy alone together in the woods for the rest of ou_ays. It's a long story, and I'm not going to talk about it. With the money _ook away from here I began monkeying with real estate; it didn't seem tha_nybody out there could lose just then: but I was a bad guesser. In five year_ had played in all my chips, and had to sneak around office buildings tryin_o sell life insurance, which wasn't dignified nor becoming in a member of th_aughty house of Holton."
"Sam told me a different story. Why don't you tell the truth if you talk abou_t at all? You gambled and lost your money—that's what happened; and rea_state speculation was only a side line. But Lois had money; I suppose yo_layed that away, too. Sam never seemed quite clear about your relations wit_er."
"I guess he didn't! There's a queer woman, Will. The inscrutable ways o_rovidence were not in it with hers. She hated me, but she wouldn't let go o_e; seemed to be her idea that shaking one man was enough and she wouldn't le_e make her a widow a second time. By George, I couldn't shake her—I had t_ive off her!"
William shrugged his shoulders and scowled. It was incredible that this coul_e his own brother who spoke thus of the gravest relationships of life. And i_as with a steady sinking of spirit that it was beaten in upon him that thi_an had come back to plant himself at his door. He was busy calculating th_ffect upon himself, his family, and his business of the prodigal's return. H_as shocked, disgusted, alarmed.
His wife had told him in the long vigil that followed her return from Amz_ontgomery's house, when she learned that her brother-in-law was sleeping of_is spree in her guest-room, that Jack had to go. She was proud and arrogant, and she had no idea of relinquishing her social pre-eminence—not too easil_on—in the town to which William Holton had brought her to live out her life.
One or two of the old families had never received her with any cordiality, clearly by reason of the old scandal. And where there are only seventee_housand people in a town the indifference of two or three, when they happe_o include a woman like Mrs. King, was not to be ignored or borne withou_ancor. William's indignation was intensified as he reviewed Jack'_isclosures from the angle his wife had drawn for him in the midnigh_onference. His curiosity was sharpened, however, as to the subsequen_elationship of Jack and Lois Kirkwood. Seattle is a long way from Montgomer_nd lines of communication few and slight. Samuel, returning from his visit_o the coast, had usually been too full of his own schemes to furnish an_atisfactory details of Jack and his wife. William dropped his plumb-line in _ew spot where he fancied the water would prove shallow.
"You lived off her, didn't you, until you had lived up all she had? The gospe_idn't neglect her; she got her share of the punishment."
"Look here, Will, you mustn't make me laugh like that! You know I used t_hink I understood human nature, but I never started with that woman. I di_ive at her expense,—I had to,—and she stood for it until I got to hangin_ound the saloons too much. She used to pay my dues in the club, damned if sh_idn't, until I got fired for too much poker in the chamber over the gate. _ust say she was a good sport: as a fair-minded man, I've got to admit that.
And she swung the lash over me—never laid it on, but made it sizz—whistle—til_'d duck and sniffle; and she did exactly what she pleased without caring _amn whether I liked it or not! By George, I knew she was a wonder when I too_er off Kirkwood's hands, but she wasn't wonderful in just the way I though_he'd be. That was where the joke came in. And she made people like her; sh_ould do that; and she got on, so that wherever she could go without me sh_as welcome. That was after people got sorry for her because she was hooked u_o me; but most of 'em, I guess, liked her on her own account. A quee_evelopment, Will. For the past five years I've just been a piece o_urniture, to be dusted and moved occasionally like an old rocking-chair tha_ets into a house, nobody knows exactly how, and is shoved around, tryin_orners where it won't be noticed much, until it winds up in the garret. Bu_fter all the corners had been tried,—she didn't have any garret; we live_ostly in hotels and flats,—I was gradually worked out on the second-han_an's wagon, and here I am."
"She kept her money, then?" asked William with assumed indifference.
"Will," said Jack with a mockingly confidential air, leaning forward on th_able, "after the first two or three years I never knew whether she had a cen_r not, that's the straight of it. Considering that she had thrown away he_eputation like an old shoe just for me, and that we lived along under th_ame roof, that was the most astonishing thing of all. She began by handing m_ut a hundred now and then when I was broke; then it dropped to ten, and the_t got down to a dollar a week,—humiliating, Will, considering that I ha_iven up my interest in the ancient and honorable firm of Montgomery & Holton, Bankers, just for her! But when she shook me for good, I'm damned if sh_idn't give me a clean thousand just as a consolation prize."
William was more interested in this phase of the relationship than in anythin_hat had gone before. He was aware of the local belief that Jack had throw_way his wife's share of her father's estate in his real estate speculation_n Seattle and that Amzi supported her dutifully by a regular allowance; i_act, the three sisters had encouraged this impression by characteristi_nsinuations.
"What's become of her? Where is she now?"
"That's where you've got me stung: how do I know where she is! After sh_lipped me the thousand and bade me a long and chilling farewell, I used t_eep track of her in one way or another. She had a restless streak i_er,—that's why she couldn't stand Tom and the rest of it,—and when it was al_each blossoms and spring with us she liked to take spurts over the world. W_sed to run down to San Francisco for little sprees, and then when that playe_ut she shifted to New York. But I've lost her trail—I don't any more kno_here she is than if I'd never laid eyes on her. She went abroad a couple o_imes and she may be over there now. Say, if Amzi's putting up for her yo_ill lose your main competitor one of these days! She'd bust the biggest ban_n Wall Street, that woman! She's a luxurious little devil, and a wonder fo_ooks. Even the harsh trial of living with me didn't wear her to a frazzle th_ay you might suppose it would. I guess if I hadn't poisoned the wells fo_er, she could have shaken me for most any man she liked. By George, I'll ge_o weeping on your neck in a minute, just thinking about her. I started in t_ell you what a miserable little wretch she is and I'm winding up by braggin_bout her. She's got that in her! But she'll bust Amzi before she winds up.
And I hope you appreciate the value of that news. Old Amzi, if he hasn'_hanged, is a fat-head who's content to sit in his little bank and watch th_orld go by. And I guess he's got a nice bunch of brothers-in-law on hi_ands. Poor old Amzi! There was always something amusing about the cuss, eve_hen he was a smug little roly-poly as a boy. But I passed his bank thi_orning and it looked like an undertaker's office. The contrast between tha_ld tomb and your plant pleases me, Will; it soothes my family pride. You ar_n able man and I congratulate you on your success. Sam liked to cut didoes o_hin ice a little too well; but you're a born banker—inherited it from father; and I guess I didn't do you so ill a turn after all when I cut loose with Loi_nd broke up the old partnership. There wasn't enough room in Montgomery & Holton for all of us."
Several times William shifted his position uneasily. His brother's flatter_erely paved the way to a demand—he was confident of this; and he had n_ntention of yielding to demands. To begin advances to this melancholy wrec_ould be to establish a precedent for interminable benefactions. It was bette_o deal with the matter at once. A clerk called him out to speak to a custome_nd when he came back, Jack was moodily glaring out upon the little court a_he rear of the bank. William did not seat himself again, but stood by th_able, as though to indicate his intention of terminating the interview.
"I can't give you any more time. Just what have you come back for? I'_ntitled to know, and we may as well have it out."
"What have I come back for? I've come back to stay, that's what I'm back for!
I want a job, that's all, and if you won't give me one, I'd like to know jus_here your brotherly heart expects me to go."
"You can't stay here, Jack. You've got to clear out. I don't mean to be har_n you, and I'll give you enough to take you wherever you want to go; but yo_an't camp here; you've got to move on. If you'd come back like a gentleman, it might have been different; but the whole town's upset. I'd just about live_ou down, and here you come back and stir up the whole mess. The way you cam_ack puts us all in the hole; the sympathy of the community was swinging roun_o our side a little, and even the Montgomerys were making it clear that the_ere willing to let bygones be bygones and here you come to spoil it all! An_ou've not only got to go, but you've got to go now, this very day by th_irst train."
This was received blinkingly. Jack shook his head as though in pity for hi_rother's harshness.
"For a man brought up by a Christian father and mother to point the door to _ong-lost brother is painful, Will. It wounds me deeply. I tell you right no_hat I'm not going away from here until I get good and ready. Do you follo_e?"
He rested the tips of his fingers on the table and bent toward his brothe_ith a cold glitter in his eyes. Under the mockery of his phrases a hot ange_urked.
"All right," said William. "Stay, then. But you can't hang yourself around m_eck. Understand that right here."
"You haven't heard all my story yet—"
"I've heard all I'm going to hear. I've heard enough to make me sick. I hop_obody else in this town will ever hear it. It's worse than I had eve_magined—you allowing that woman to support you! And it's nauseating to thin_hat you don't realize the rottenness of it. But you seem to be incapable o_ny decent feeling about anything."
"Stop sentimentalizing and listen to me. I didn't come back here to enter upo_ new social career; I came back on business. You remember, Will, that Sa_ame West when you and he were selling bonds in this Sycamore Traction line o_hich I rode proudly home last night. I helped Sam sell a pretty big bunch o_hose bonds out there. Sam could sell anything—Sam was a wonder! and h_lanted a big bunch of those things along the coast—my friends, you know.
Sam's dead and gone now and I ain't going to knock him—but Sam was a_xuberant chap and he overcalculated the cost of building the road. That wa_n the construction company, but you and Sam were in that—same old game o_orking both sides of the street. It was just a mistake in figures, of course, but some of those people out there hear the road ain't doing well, and they'r_riends of mine, Will, valued friends, and now that Sam's gone it's up to yo_nd me to take care of 'em—do you follow me?"
"If that's what you're up to you've made a big mistake. That road's one of th_ost successful traction lines in the West, and pays its bond interest on th_ot."
"Nothing easier; but I happen to know that the last payment was made wit_orrowed money. Of course, only a little temporary accommodation, but just th_ame it wasn't paid out of earnings. And, Will, you ought to be might_areful—you oughtn't to advance bank funds for such a purpose; it's damned ba_usiness; it's downright immoral; that's all! But how about the bonds you_onstruction company got—that nice little margin between a fair profit fo_uilding the road and a big fat steal at the expense of the bondholders? An_ou authorized the sale of bonds at eighty to pay the construction bill, go_inety, and pocketed the difference. Oh, you needn't get white and blink a_e. I know what he did with his share of the boodle—he had to take care of hi_olitical chums he got into other schemes. I know all about Sam—he was alway_orrowing, we will call it, from Peter to pay Paul, and most of it got int_am's pocket. Now here's my position; right here's where I come in. I'm goin_o help you take care of this, but you've got to act white with me. I'm no_oing to be kicked out of town—not unless you go with me. Is that plain?"
"You're a fool. I understand nothing except that you're trying to blackmai_e; and it won't go. Why, you ought to know that the thing you accuse Sam o_oing would have landed him and me, too, in the penitentiary. What do yo_uppose the trustee for the bondholders was doing? What do you imagine the Ne_ork investors were thinking about?"
"They were asleep, Will," Jack replied, with a gleam of malignant humor. "An_am was awful slick. Sam could sell winter underwear in hell. And I guess yo_ould sell anthracite at a profit down there, too. You talk about the famil_ignity;—by George, I never started with you fellows! Running away wit_nother man's wife is tame business compared with your grafting. And I've go_ little more news for you. The clouds are gathering, you might say, in al_arts of the horizon." He swept the room with a comprehensive gesture. "It'_ust one of those queer twists of the screw of fate that brings us all u_gainst Tom Kirkwood. Tom's smart: he always was, and as straight a man as Go_lmighty ever put on the footstool, and he's prying into Sycamore Traction. _topped off for a day or two in Indianapolis and got on to this. There was _awyer and an officer of the Desbrosses Trust & Guaranty Company out here fro_ew York to talk things over with Kirkwood,—he has some pull down there,—an_hey've employed him. While Sam lived he watched little things like that; filled up the accountants with champagne and took care of the statements, bu_ guess you are not quite as smart as Sam. I guess it's about all you can d_o take care of the bank examiner when he drops in to shake hands."
William had listened intently, his arms folded, a smile of derision on hi_ace.
"Just how much do you charge for this information?" he demanded coldly.
"I'm not going to charge you; I'm going to help you, Will. It's my duty as _rother to warn you and help you out of trouble. Family feeling is strong i_e: I'm not a man to let my own brother go down if I can keep him up. I see i_n your eye that—"
William flung round to the door and swung it open.
"Get out of here!"
"Oh, is that the answer? Then, all right!"
He picked up his hat, drew on his coat unhurriedly, walked calmly round th_able and lounged out of the bank.