To the assistant editor had been assigned both campaigns, and he had developed his argument with a deadly persistence. A legislature could no more ignore him than you could ignore a man who is pounding you over the head with a bed-slat. Queed had proved his cases in a dozen ways, historically and analogically, politically, morally, and scientifically, socially and sociologically. Then, for luck, he proceeded to run through the whole list again a time or two; and now faithful readers of the Post cried aloud for mercy, asking each other what under the sun had got into the paper that it thus massacred and mutilated the thrice-slain.
But the Post, aided by the press of the State which had been captivated by its ringing logic, continued its merciless fire, and, as it proved, not insanely. For when the legislature came together, it tuned out to be one of those “economy” sessions, periodically thrust down the throats of even the wiliest politicians. Not “progress” was its watchword, but “wise retrenchment.” Every observer of events, especially in states where one party has been long in control, is familiar with these recurrent manifestations. There is a long 291 period of systematic reduplication of the offices, multiplying generosity to the faithful, and enormous geometrical progression of the public payroll. Some mishap, one day, focuses attention upon the princely totalities of the law-making spenders, and a howl goes up from the “sovereigns,” who, as has been wisely observed, never have any power until they are mad. The party managers, always respectful to an angry electorate, thereupon announce that, owing to the wonderful period of progress and expansion brought about by their management, the State can afford to slow up for a brief period, hold down expenses and enjoy its (party-made) prosperity. This strikes the “keynote” for the next legislature, which pulls a long face, makes a tremendous noise about “economy,” and possibly refrains from increasing expenses, or even shades them down about a dollar and a half. Flushed with their victory, the innocent sovereigns return, Cincinnatus-wise, to their plows, and the next session of the legislature, relieved of that suspicionful scrutiny so galling to men of spirit, proceeds to cut the purse-strings loose with a whoop.
Such a brief spasm had now seized the State. Expenses had doubled and redoubled with a velocity which caused even hardened prodigals to view with alarm. The number of commissions, boards, assistant inspectors, and third deputy clerks was enormous, far larger than anybody realized. If you could have taken a biological cross-section through the seat of State Government, you would doubtless have discovered a most amazing number of unobtrusive gentlemen with queer little titles and odd little duties, sitting silent and sleek under their cover; their hungry little mouths affixed last year to the public breast, or two years ago, or twenty, and ready to open in fearful wailing if anybody sought to pluck them off. In an aggregate way, attention had been called to them during the gubernatorial campaign of the summer. Attacks from the rival stump had, of course, been successfully “answered” by the loyal leaders and party press. But the bare statement of the annual expenditures, as compared with the annual expenditures of ten years ago, necessarily 292stood, and in cold type it looked bad. Therefore the legislature met now for an “economy session.” The public was given to understand that every penny would have to give a strict account of itself before it would receive a pass from the treasury, and that public institutions, asking for increased support, could consider themselves lucky if they did not find their appropriations scaled down by a fourth or so.
The Post’s tax reform scheme went through with a bang. Out of loose odds and ends of vague discontent, Queed had succeeded in creating a body of public sentiment that became invincible. Moreover, this scheme cost nothing. On the contrary, by a rearrangement of items and a stricter system of assessment, it promised, as the Post frequently remarked, to put hundreds of thousands into the treasury. But the reformatory was a horse of a totally different color. Here was a proposal, for a mere supposititious moral gain, evanescent as air, to take a hundred thousand dollars of hard money out of the crib, and saddle the State with an annual obligation, to boot. An excellent thing in itself, but a most unreasonable request of an economy session, said the organization leaders. In fact, this hundred thousand dollars happened to be precisely the hundred thousand dollars they needed to lubricate “the organization,” and discharge, by some choice new positions, a few honorable obligations incurred during the campaign.
Now it was written in the recesses of the assistant editor’s being, those parts of him which he never thought of mentioning to anybody, that the reformatory bill must pass. Various feelings had gradually stiffened an early general approval into a rock-ribbed resolve. It was on a closely allied theme that he had first won his editorial spurs — the theme of Klinker’s “blaggards,” who made reformatories necessary. That was one thing: a kind of professional sentiment which the sternest scientist need not be ashamed to acknowledge. And then, beyond that, his many talks with Klinker had invested the campaign for the reformatory with a warmth of meaning which was without precedent in his experience. 293 This was, in fact, his first personal contact with the suffering and sin of the world, his first grapple with a social problem in the raw. Two years before, when he had offered to write an article on this topic for the Assistant Secretary of Charities, his interest in a reformatory had been only the scientific interest which the trained sociologist feels in all the enginery of social reform. But now this institution had become indissolubly connected in Queed’s mind with the case of Eve Bernheimer, whom Buck Klinker knew, Eva Bernheimer, who was “in trouble” at sixteen, and had now “dropped out.” A reformatory had become in his thought a living instrument to catch the Eve Bernheimers of this world, and effectually prevent them from dropping out.
And apart from all this, here was the first chance he had ever had to do a service for Sharlee Weyland.
However, the bill stuck obstinately in committee. Now the session was more than half over, February was nearly gone, and there it still stuck. And when it finally came out, it was evidently going to be a toss of a coin whether it would be passed by half a dozen votes, or beaten by an equal number. But there was not the slightest doubt that the great majority of the voters, so far as they were interested in it at all, wanted it passed, and the tireless Post was prodding the committee every other day, observing that now was the time, etc., and demanding in a hundred forceful ways, how about it?
With cheerfulness and confidence had West intrusted these important matters to his young assistant. Not only was Queed an acknowledged authority on both taxation and penological science, but he had enjoyed the advantage of writing articles on both themes under Colonel Cowles’s personal direction. The Colonel’s bones were dust, his pen was rust, his soul was with the saints, we trust; but his gallant spirit went marching on. He towered out of memory a demi-god, and what he said and did in his lifetime had become as the law of the Medes and Persians now.
But there was never any dispute about the division of editorial honors on the Post, anyway. The two young men, in 294 fact, were so different in every way that their relations were a model of mutual satisfaction. Never once did Queed’s popular chief seek to ride over his valued helper, or deny him his full share of opportunity in the department. If anything, indeed, he leaned quite the other way. For West lacked the plodder’s faculty for indefatigable application. Like some rare and splendid bird, if he was kept too closely in captivity, his spirit sickened and died.
It is time to admit frankly that West, upon closer contact with newspaper work, had been somewhat disillusioned, and who that knows will be surprised at that? To begin with, he had been used to much freedom, and his new duties were extremely confining. They began soon after breakfast, and no man could say at what hour they would end. The night work, in especial, he abhorred. It interfered with much more amusing things that had hitherto beguiled his evenings, and it also conflicted with sleep, of which he required a good deal. There was, too, a great amount of necessary but most irksome drudgery connected with his editorial labors. Because the Post was a leader of public thought in the State, and as such enjoyed a national standing, West found it necessary to read a vast number of papers, to keep up with what was going on. He was also forced to write many perfunctory articles on subjects which did not interest him in the least, and about which, to tell the truth, he knew very little. There were also a great many letters either to be answered, or to be prepared for publication in the People’s Forum column, and these letters were commonly written by dull asses who had no idea what they were talking about. Prosy people were always coming in with requests or complaints, usually the latter. First and last there was a quantity of grinding detail which, like the embittered old fogeyism of the Blaines College trustees, had not appeared on his rosy prospect in the Maytime preceding.
With everything else favorable, West would cheerfully have accepted these things, as being inextricably embedded in the nature of the work. But unfortunately, everything else 295 was not favorable. Deeper than the grind of the routine detail, was the constant opposition and adverse criticism to which his newspaper, like every other one, was incessantly subjected. It has long been a trite observation that no reader of any newspaper is so humble as not to be outspokenly confident that he could run that paper a great deal better than those who actually are running it. Every upstanding man who pays a cent for a daily journal considers that he buys the right to abuse it, nay incurs the manly duty of abusing it. Every editor knows that the highest praise he can expect is silence. If his readers are pleased with his remarks, they nobly refrain from comment. But if they disagree with one jot or tittle of his high-speed dissertations, he must be prepared to have quarts of ink squirted at him forthwith.
Now this was exactly the reverse of Editor West’s preferences. He liked criticism of him to be silent, and praise of him to be shouted in the market-place. For all his good-humor and poise, the steady fire of hostile criticism fretted him intensely. He did not like to run through his exchanges and find his esteemed contemporaries combating his positions, sometimes bitterly or contemptuously, and always, so it seemed to him, unreasonably and unfairly. He did not like to have friends stop him on the street to ask why in the name of so-and-so he had said such-and-such; or, more trying still, have them pass him with an icy nod, simply because he, in some defense of truth and exploitation of the uplift, had fearlessly trod upon their precious little toes. He did not like to have his telephone ring with an angry protest, or to get a curt letter from a railroad president (supposedly a good friend of the paper’s) desiring to know by return mail whether the clipping therewith inclosed represented the Post’s attitude toward the railroads. A steady procession of things like these wears on the nerves of a sensitive man, and West, for all his confident exterior, was a sensitive man. A heavy offset in the form of large and constant public eulogies was needed to balance these annoyances, and such an offset was not forthcoming.
West was older now, a little less ready in his enthusiasms, a shade less pleased with the world, a thought less sure of the eternal merits of the life of uplift. In fact he was thirty-three years old, and he had moments, now and then, when he wondered if he were going forward as rapidly and surely as he had a right to expect. This was the third position he had had since he left college, and it was his general expectation to graduate into a fourth before a great while. Semple frequently urged him to return to the brokerage business; he had made an unquestioned success there at any rate. As to Blaines College, he could not be so confident. The college had opened this year with an increased enrollment of twenty-five; and though West privately felt certain that his successor was only reaping where he himself had sown, you could not be certain that the low world would so see it. As for the Post, it was a mere stop-gap, a momentary halting-place where he preened for a far higher flight. There were many times that winter when West wondered if Plonny Neal, whom he rarely or never saw, could possibly have failed to notice how prominently he was in line.
But these doubts and dissatisfactions left little mark upon the handsome face and buoyant manner. Changes in West, if there were any, were of the slightest. Certainly his best friends, like those two charming young women, Miss Weyland and Miss Avery, found him as delightful as ever.
In these days, West’s mother desired him to marry. After the cunning habit of women, she put the thought before him daily, under many an alluring guise, by a thousand engaging approaches. West himself warmed to the idea. He had drunk freely of the pleasures of single blessedness, under the most favorable conditions; was now becoming somewhat jaded with them; and looked with approval upon the prospect of a little nest, or indeed one not so little, duly equipped with the usual faithful helpmeet who should share his sorrows, joys, etc. The nest he could feather decently enough himself; the sole problem, a critical one in its way, 297 was to decide upon the helpmeet. West was neither college boy nor sailor. His heart was no harem of beautiful faces. Long since, he had faced the knowledge that there were but two girls in the world for him. Since, however, the church and the law allowed him but one, he must more drastically monogamize his heart; and this he found enormously difficult. It was the poet’s triangle with the two dear charmers over again.
One blowy night in late February, West passed by the brown stone palace which Miss Avery’s open-handed papa, from Mauch Chunk, occupied on a three years’ lease with privilege of buying; and repaired to the more modest establishment where dwelt Miss Weyland and her mother. The reformatory issue was then at the touch. The bill had come out of committee with a six-and-six vote; rumor had it that it would be called up in the House within the week; and it now appeared as though a push of a feather’s weight might settle its fate either way. Sharlee and West spoke first of this. She was eagerly interested, and praised him warmly for the interest and valuable help of the Post. Her confidence was unshaken that that the bill would go through, though by a narrow margin.
“The opposition is of the deadliest sort,” she admitted, “because it is silent. It is silent because it knows that its only argument — all this economy talk — is utterly insincere. But Mr. Dayne knows where the opposition is — and the way he goes after it! Never believe any more that ministers can’t lobby!”
“Probably the root of the whole matter,” offered West, easing himself back into his chair, “is that the machine fellows want this particular hundred thousand dollars in their business.”
“Is n’t it horrid that men can be so utterly selfish? You don’t think they will really venture to do that?”
“I honestly don’t know. You see I have turned it all over to Queed, and I confess I have n’t studied it with anything like the care he has.”
Sharlee, who was never too engrossed in mere subjects to notice people’s tones, said at once: “Oh, I am sure they won’t dare do it,” and immediately changed the subject. “You are going to the German, of course?”
“Oh, surely, unless the office pinches me.”
“You must n’t let it pinch you — the last of the year, heigho! Did you hear about Robert Byrd and Miss — no, I won’t give you her name — and the visiting girl?”
“Never a word.”
“She’s a thoroughly nice girl, but — well, not pretty, I should say, and I don’t think she has had much fun here. Beverley and Robert Byrd were here the other night. Why will they hunt in pairs, do you know? I told Beverley that he positively must take this girl to the German. He quarreled and complained a good deal at first, but finally yielded like a dear boy. Then he seemed to enter in the nicest way into the spirit of our altruistic design. He said that after he had asked the girl, it would be very nice if Robert should ask her too. He would be refused, of course, but the girl would have the pleasant feeling of getting a rush, and Robert would boost his standing as a philanthropist, all without cost to anybody. Robert was good-natured, and fell in with the plan. Three days later he telephoned me, simply furious. He had asked the girl — you know he has n’t been to a German for five years — and she accepted at once with tears of gratitude.”
“But how —?”
“Of course Beverley never asked her. He simply trapped Robert, which he would rather do than anything else in the world.”
West shouted. “Speaking of Germans,” he said presently, “I am making up my list for next year — the early bird, you know. How many will you give me?”
“Will you kindly sign up the papers to-night?”
“No — my mother won’t let me. I might sign up for one if you want me to.”
“What possible use has your mother for the other five that is better than giving them all to me?”
“Perhaps she does n’t want to spoil other men for me.”
West leaned forward, interest fully awakened on his charming face, and Sharlee watched him, pleased with herself.
It had occurred to her, in fact, hat Mr. West was tired; and this was the solemn truth. He was a man of large responsibilities, with a day’s work behind him and a night’s work ahead of him. His personal conception of the way to occupy the precious interval did not include the conscientious talking of shop. Jaded and brain-fagged, what he desired was to be amused, beguiled, soothed, fascinated, even flattered a bit, mayhap. Sharlee’s theory of hospitality was that a guest was entitled to any type of conversation he had a mind to. Having dismissed her own troubles, she now proceeded to make herself as agreeable as she knew how: and he has read these pages to little purpose who does not know that that was very agreeable indeed.
West, at least, appeared to think so. He lingered, charmed, until quarter past eleven o’clock, at which hour Mrs. Weyland, in the room above, began to let the tongs and poker fall about with unmistakable significance; and went out into the starlit night radiant with the certainty that his heart, after long wandering, had found its true mate at last.
His advent was a complete surprise to Sharlee. For these nine months, her suggestion that he should call upon her had lain utterly neglected. Since the Reunion she had seen him but four times, twice on the street, and once at each of their offices, when the business of the reformatory had happened to draw them together. The last of these meetings, which had been the briefest, was already six weeks old. In all of her acquaintance with him, extending now over two years and a half, this was the first time that he had ever sought her out with intentions that were, presumably, deliberately social.
The event, Sharlee felt in greeting him, could not have happened more unfortunately. Queed found the parlor occupied, and the lady’s attention engaged, by two young men before him. One of them was Beverley Byrd, who saluted him somewhat moodily. The other was a Mr. Miller — no relation to Miss Miller of Mrs. Paynter’s though a faint something in his ensemble lent plausibility to that conjecture — a newcomer to the city who, having been introduced to Miss Weyland somewhere, had taken the liberty of calling without invitation or permission. It was impossible for Sharlee to be rude to anybody under her own roof, but it is equally impossible to describe her manner to Mr. Miller as exactly cordial. He himself was a cordial man, mustached 301 and anecdotal, who assumed rather more confidence than he actually felt. Beverley Byrd, who did not always hunt in pairs, had taken an unwonted dislike to him at sight. He did not consider him a suitable person to be calling on Sharlee, and he had been doing his best, with considerable deftness and success, to deter him from feeling too much at home.
Byrd wore a beautiful dinner jacket. So did Mr. Miller, with a gray tie, and a gray, brass-buttoned vest, to boot. Queed wore his day clothes of blue, which were not so new as they were the day Sharlee first saw them, on the rustic bridge near the little cemetery. He had, of course, taken it for granted that he would find Miss Weyland alone. Nevertheless, he did not appear disconcerted by the sudden discovery of his mistake, or even by Mr. Miller’s glorious waistcoat; he was as grave as ever, but showed no signs of embarrassment. Sharlee caught herself observing him closely, as he shook hands with the two men and selected a chair for himself; she concluded that constant contact with the graces of Charles Gardiner West had not been without its effect upon him. He appeared decidedly more at his ease than Mr. Miler, for instance, and he had another valuable possession which that personage lacked, namely, the face of a gentleman.
But it was too evident that he felt little sense of responsibility for the maintenance of the conversation. He sat back in a chair of exceptionable comfortableness, and allowed Beverley Byrd to discourse with him; a privilege which Byrd exercised fitfully, for his heart was in the talk that Sharlee was dutifully supporting with Mr. Miller. Into this talk he resolutely declined to be drawn, but his ear was alert for opportunities — which came not infrequently — to thrust in a polished oar to the discomfiture of the intruder.
Not that he would necessarily care to do it, but the runner could read Mr. Miller, without a glass, at one hundred paces’ distance. He was of the climber type, a self-made man in the earlier and less inspiring stages of the making. Culture had 302 a dangerous fascination for him. He adored to talk of books; a rash worship, it seemed, since his but bowing acquaintance with them trapped him frequently into mistaken identities over which Sharlee with difficulty kept a straight face, while Byrd palpably rejoiced.
“You know Thanatopsis, of course,” he would ask, with a rapt and glowing eye — “Lord Byron’s beautiful poem on the philosophy of life? Now that is my idea of what poetry ought to be, Miss Weyland. . . .”
And Beverley Byrd, breaking his remark to Queed off short in the middle, would turn to Sharlee with a face of studious calm and say: —
“Will you ever forget, Sharlee, the first time you read the other Thanatopsis — the one by William Cullen Bryant? Don’t you remember how it looked — with the picture of Bryant — in the old Fifth Reader?”
Mr. Miller proved that he could turn brick-red, but he learned nothing from experience.
In time, the talk between the two young men, which had begun so desultorily, warmed up. Byrd had read something besides the Fifth Reader, and Queed had discovered before to-night that he had ideas to express. Their conversation progressed with waxing interest, from the President’s message to the causes of the fall of Rome, and thence by wholly logical transitions to the French Revolution and Women’s Suffrage. Byrd gradually became so absorbed that he almost, but not quite, neglected to keep Mr. Miller in his place. As for Queed, he spoke in defense of the “revolt of woman” for five minutes without interruption, and his masterly sentences finally drew the silence and attention of Mr. Miller himself.
“Who is that fellow?” he asked in an undertone. “I did n’t catch his name.”
Sharlee told him.
“He’s got a fine face,” observed Mr. Miller. “I’ve made quite a study of faces, and I never saw one just like his — so absolutely on one note, if you know what I mean.”
“What note is that?” asked Sharlee, interested by him for the only time so long as they both did live.
“Well, it’s not always easy to put a name to it, but I’d call it . . . honesty. — If you know what I mean.”
Mr. Miller stayed until half-past ten. The door had hardly shut upon him when Byrd, too, rose.
“Oh, don’t go, Beverley!” protested Sharlee. “I’ve hardly spoken to you.”
“Duty calls,” said Byrd. “I’m going to walk home with Mr. Miller.”
“Beverley — don’t! You were quite horrid enough while he was here.”
“But you spoiled it all by being so unnecessarily agreeable! It is my business, as your friend and well-wisher, to see that he does n’t carry away too jolly a memory of his visit. Take lunch downtown with me to-morrow, won’t you, Mr. Queed — at the Business Men’s Club? I want to finish our talk about the Catholic nations, and why they’re decadent.”
Queed said that he would, and Byrd hurried away to overtake Mr. Miller. Or, perhaps that gentleman was only a pretext, and the young man’s experienced eye had read that any attempt to outsit the learned assistant editor was foredoomed to failure.
“I’m so glad you stayed,” said Sharlee, as Queed reseated himself. “I should n’t have liked not to exchange a word with you on your first visit here.”
“Oh! This is not by first visit, you may remember.”
“Your first voluntary visit, perhaps I should have said.”
He let his eyes run over the room, and she could see that he was thinking, half-unconsciously, of the last time when he and she had sat here.
“I had no idea of going,” he said absently, “till I had the opportunity of speaking to you.”
A brief silence followed, which clearly did not embarrass him, at any rate. Sharlee, feeling the necessity of breaking it, still puzzling herself with speculations as to what had put it into his head to come, said at random: —
“Oh, do tell me — how is old Père Goriot?”
“Père Goriot? I never heard of him.”
“Oh, forgive me! It is a name we used to have, long ago, for Professor Nicolovius.”
A shadow crossed his brow. “He is extremely well, I believe.”
“You are still glad that you ran off with him to live tête-à-tête in a bridal cottage?”
“Oh, I suppose so. Yes, certainly!”
His frank face betrayed that the topic was unwelcome to him. For he hated all secrets, and this secret, from this girl, was particularly obnoxious to him. And beyond all that part of it, how could he analyze for anybody his periods of strong revolt against his association with Henry G. Surface, followed by longer and stranger periods when quite apart form the fact that his word was given and regrets were vain, his consciousness embraced it as having a certain positive value?
He rose restlessly, and in rising his eye fell upon the little clock on the mantel.
“Good heavens!” broke from him. “I had no idea it was so late! I must go directly. Directly.”
“Oh, no, you must n’t think of it. Your visit to me has just begun — all this time you have been calling on Beverley Byrd.”
“Why do you think I came here to-night?” he asked abruptly.
Sharlee from her large chair, smiled. “I think to see me.”
“Oh! — Yes, naturally, but — ”
“Well, I think this is the call plainly due me from my Reunion party last year.”
“No! Not at all! At the same time, it has been since that day that I have had you on my mind so much.”
He said this in a perfectly matter-of-fact voice, but a certain nervousness had broken through into his manner. He took a turn up and down the room, and returned suddenly to his seat.
“Oh, have you had me on your mind?”
“Do you remember my saying that day,” he began, resolutely, “that I was not sure whether I had got the better of you or you had got the better of me?”
“I remember very well.”
“Well, I have come to tell you that — you have won.”
He had plucked a pencil from the arsenal of them in his breast-pocket, and with it was beating a noiseless tattoo on his open left palm. With an effort he met her eyes.
“I say you were right,” came from him nervously. “Don’t you hear?”
“Was I? Won’t you tell me just what you mean?”
“Don’t you know?”
“Really I don’t think I do. You see, when I used that expression that day, I was speaking only of the editorship — ”
“But I was speaking of a theory of life. After all, the two things seem to have been bound together rather closely — just as you said.”
He restored his pencil to his pocket, palpably pulled himself together, and proceeded:
“Oh, my theory was wholly rational — far more rational than yours; rationally it was perfect. It was a wholly logical recoil from the idleness, the lack of purpose, the slipshod self-indulgence under many names that I saw, and see, everywhere about me. I have work to do — serious work of large importance — and it seemed to me my duty to carry it through at all hazards. I need not add that it still seems so. Yet it was a life’s work, already well along, and there was no need for me to pay an excessive price for mere speed. I elected to let everything go but intellect; I felt that I must do so; and in consequence, by the simplest sort of natural law, all the rest of me was shriveling up — had shriveled up, you will say. Yet I knew very well that my intellect was not the biggest part of me. I have always understood that. . . . Still, it seems that I required you to rediscover it for me in terms of everyday life. . . .”
“No, no!” she interrupted, “I did n’t do that. Most of 306 it you did yourself. The start, the first push — don’t you know? — it came from Fifi.”
“Well,” he said slowly, “what was Fifi but you again in miniature?”
“A great deal else,” said Sharlee.
Her gaze fell. She sunk her chin upon her hand, and a silence followed, while before the mind’s eye of each rose a vision of Fifi, with her wasted cheeks and great eyes.
“As I say, I sacrificed everything to reason,” continued Queed, obviously struggling against embarrassment, “and yet pure reason was never my ideal. I have impressed you as a thoroughly selfish person — you have told me that — and so far as my immediate environment is concerned, I have been, and am. So it may surprise you to be told that a life of service has been from the beginning my ambition and my star. Of course I have always interpreted service in the broadest sense, in terms of the world; that was why I deliberately excluded all purely personal applications of it. Yet it is from a proper combination of reason with — the sociologist’s ‘consciousness of kind’ — fellow-feeling, sympathy, if you prefer, that is derived a life of fullest efficiency. I have always understood the truth of this formula as applied to peoples. It seems that I — rather missed its force as to individuals. I — I am ready to admit that an individual life can draw an added meaning — and richness from a service, not of the future, but of the present — not of the race . . . well, of the unfortunate on the doorstep. Do you understand,” he asked abruptly,” what I am trying to tell you?”
She assured him that she understood perfectly.
A slow painful color came into his face.
“Then you appreciate the nature and the size of the debt I owe you.”
“Oh, no, no, no! If I have done anything at all to help you,” said Sharlee, considerably moved, “then I am very glad and proud. But as for what you speak of . . . no, no, 307 people always do these things for themselves. The help comes from within — ”
“Oh, don’t talk like that!” broke from him. “You throw out the idea somehow that I consider that I have undergone some remarkable conversion and transformation. I have n’t done anything of the sort. I am just the same as I always was. Just the same. . . . Only now I am willing to admit, as a scientific truth, that time given to things not in themselves directly productive, can be made to pay a good dividend. If what I said led you to think that I meant more than that, then I have, for once, expressed myself badly. I tell you this,” he went on hurriedly, “simply because you once interested your self in trying to convince me of the truth of these views. Some of the things you said that night managed to stick. They managed to stick. Oh, I give you that. I suppose you might say that they gradually became like mottoes or texts — not scientific, of course . . . personal. Therefore, I thought it only fair to tell you that while my cosmos is still mostly Ego — I suppose everybody’s is in one way or another — I have — made changes, so that I am no longer wholly out of relation with life.”
“I am glad you wanted to tell me,” said Sharlee, “but I have known it for — oh, the longest time.”
“In a certain sense,” he hurried on — “quite a different sense — I should say that your talk — the only one of the kind I ever had — did for me the sort of thing . . . that most men’s mothers do for them when they are young.”
She made no reply.
“Perhaps,” he said, almost defiantly, “you don’t like my saying that?”
“Oh, yes! I like it very much.”
“And yet,” he said, “I don’t think of you as I fancy a man would think of his mother, or even of his sister. It is rather extraordinary. It has become clear to me that you have obtained a unique place in my thought — in my regard. Well, good-night.”
She looked up at him, without, however, quite meeting his eyes.
“Oh! Do you think you must go?”
“Well — yes. I have said everything that I came to say. Did you want me to stay particularly?”
“Not if you feel that you should n’t. You’ve been very good to give me a whole evening, as it is.”
“I’ll tell you one more thing before I go.”
He took another turn up and down the room and halted frowning in front of her.
“I am thinking of making an experiment in practical social work next year. What would be your opinion of a free night-school for working boys?”
Sharlee, greatly surprised by the question, said that the field was a splendid one.
He went on at once: “Technical training, of course, would be the nominal basis of it. I could throw in, also, boxing and physical culture. Buck Klinker would be delighted to help there. By the way, you must know Klinker: he has some first-rate ideas about what to do for the working population. Needless to say, both the technical and physical training would be only baits to draw attendance, though both could be made very valuable. My main plan is along a new line. I want to teach what no other school attempts — only one thing, but that to be hammered in so that it can never be forgotten.”
“What is that?”
“You might sum it all up as the doctrine of individual responsibility.”
She echoed his term inquiringly, and he made a very large gesture.
“I want to see if I can teach boys that they are not individuals — not unrelated atoms in a random universe. Teach them that they live in a world of law — of evolution by law — that they are links, every one of them, in a splendid chain that has been running since life began, and will run on to the end of time. Knock into their heads that no chain 309 is stronger that its weakest link, and that this means them. Don’t you see what a powerful socializing force there is in the sense of personal responsibility, if cultivated in the right direction? A boy may be willing to take his chances on going to the bad — economically and socially, as well as morally — if he thinks that it is only his own personal concern. But he will hesitate when you once impress upon him that, in doing so, he is blocking the whole magnificent procession. My plan would be to develop these boys’ social efficiency by stamping upon them the knowledge that the very humblest of them holds a trusteeship of cosmic importance.”
“I understand. . . . How splendid! — not to practice sociology on them, but to teach it to them — ”
“But could we get the boys?”
She felt that the unconsciousness with which he took her into partnership was one of the finest compliments that had ever been paid her.
“Oh, I think so! The Department has all sorts of connections, as well as lots of data which would be useful in that way. How Mr. Dayne will welcome you as an ally! And I, too. I think it is fine of you, Mr. Queed, so generous and kind, to — ”
“Not at all! Not in the least! I beg you,” he interrupted, irritably, “not to go on misunderstanding me. I propose this simply as an adjunct of my own work. It is simply in the nature of a laboratory exercise. In five years the experiment might enable me to check up some of my own conclusions, and so prove very valuable to me.”
“In the meantime the experiment will have done a great deal for a certain number of poor boys — unfortunates on your doorstep. . . .”
“That,” he said shortly, “is as it may be. But — ”
“Mr. Queed,” said Sharlee, “why are you honest in every way but one? Why won’t you admit that you have thought of this school because you would like to do something help in the life of this town?”
“Because I am not doing anything of the sort! Why will 310 you harp on that one string? Good heavens! Are n’t you yourself the author of the sentiment that a sociologist ought to have some first-hand knowledge of the problems of society?”
Standing, he gazed down at her, frowning insistently, bent upon staring her out of countenance; and he looked up at him with a Didymus smile which slowly grew. Presently his eyes fell.
“I cannot undertake,” he said, in his stiffest way, “to analyze all my motives at all times for your satisfaction. They have nothing whatever to do with the present matter. The sole point up for discussion is the practical question of getting such a school started. Keep it in mind, will you? Give some thought as to ways and means. Your experience with the Department should be helpful to me in getting the plan launched.”
“Certainly I will. If you don’t object, I’ll talk with Mr. Dayne about it, too. He — ”
“All right, I don’t object. Well, good-night.”
Sharlee rose and held out her hand. His expression, as he took and shook it, suddenly changed.
“I suppose you think I have acquired the habit,” he said, with an abrupt recurrence of his embarrassment, “of coming to you for counsel and assistance?”
“Well, why should n’t you?” she answered seriously. “I have had the opportunity and the time to learn some things — ”
“You can’t dismiss your kindness so easily as that.”
“Oh, I don’t think I have been particularly kind.”
“Yes, you have. I admit that. You have.”
He took the conversation with such painful seriousness that she was glad to lighten it with a smile.
“If you persist in thinking so, you might feel like rewarding me by coming to see me soon again.”
“Yes, yes! I shall come to see you soon again. Certainly. Of course,” he added hastily, “it is desirable that I should talk with you more at length about my school.”
He was staring at her with a conflict of expressions in which, curiously enough, pained bewilderment seemed uppermost. Sharlee laughed, not quite at her ease.
“Do you know, I am still hoping that some day you will come to see me, not to talk about anything definite — just to talk.”
“As to that,” he replied, “I cannot say. Good-night.”
Forgetting that he had already shaken hands, he now went through with it again. This time the ceremony had unexpected results. For now at the first touch of her hand, a sensation closely resembling chain-lightning sprang up his arm, and tingled violently down through all his person. It was as if his arm had not merely fallen suddenly asleep, but was singing uproariously in it slumbers.
“I’m so glad you came,” said Sharlee.
He retired in a confusion which he was too untrained to hide. At the door he wheeled abruptly, and cleared himself, with a white face, of evasions that were torturing his conscience.
“I will not say that a probable benefit to the boys never entered into my thoughts about the school Nor do I say that my next visit will be wholly to talk about definite things, as you put it. For part of the time, I daresay I should like — just to talk.”
Sharlee went up stairs, and stood for a long time gazing at herself in the mirror. Vainly she tried to glean from it the answer to a most interesting conundrum: Did Mr. Queed still think her very beautiful?