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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesHis Family - Chapter 5
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His Family - Chapter 5 Post by :seasoned Category :Long Stories Author :Ernest Poole Date :May 2012 Read :2342

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His Family - Chapter 5

CHAPTER V

One afternoon a few days later Roger was riding in the park. He rode "William," a large lazy cob who as he advanced in age had so subtly and insidiously slackened his pace from a trot to a jog that Roger barely noticed how slowly he was riding. As he rode along he liked to watch the broad winding bridle path with its bobbing procession of riders that kept appearing before him under the tall spreading trees. Though he knew scarcely anyone by name, he was a familiar figure here and he recognized scores of faces. To many men he nodded at passing, and to not a few alluring young dames, ardent creatures with bright eyes who gave him smiles of greeting, Roger gravely raised his hat. One was "The Silver Lady" in a Broadway musical show, but he thought she was "one of the Newport crowd." He liked to make shrewd guesses like that. There were so many kinds of people here. There were stout anxious ladies riding for figures and lean morose gentlemen riding for health. There were joyous care-free girls, chatting and laughing merrily. There were some gallant foreigners, and there were riding masters, and Roger could not tell them apart. There were mad boys from the Squadron who rode at a furious canter, and there were groups of children, eager and flushed, excited and gay, with stolid grooms behind them. The path in several places ran close beside the main road of the park, and with the coming of the dusk this road took on deep purple hues and glistened with reflections from countless yellow motor eyes. And from the polished limousines, sumptuous young women smiled out upon the riders.

At least so Roger saw this life. And after those bleak lonely years confronted by eternity, it was good to come here and forget, to feel himself for the moment a part of the thoughtless gaiety, the ease and luxury of the town. Here he was just on the edge of it all. Often as a couple passed he would wonder what they were doing that night. In the riding school where he kept his horse, it was a lazy pleasure to have the English "valet" there pull off his boots and breeches--though if anyone had told him so, Roger would have denied it with indignation and surprise. For was he not an American?

It had been a wonderful tonic, a great idea of Laura's, this forcing him up here to ride. In one of her affectionate moods, just after a sick spell he had been through, his gay capricious daughter had insisted that he have his horse brought down from the mountains. She had promised to ride with him herself, and she had done so--for a week. Since then he had often met her here with one of her many smart young men. What a smile of greeting would flash on her face--when Laura happened to notice him.

He was thinking of Laura now, and there was an anxious gleam in his eyes. For young Sloane was coming to dinner to-night. What was he going to say to the fellow? Bruce had learned that Sloane played polo, owned and drove a racing car and was well liked in his several clubs. But what about women and his past? Edith had urged her father to go through the lad's life with a fine tooth comb, and if he should find anything there to kick up no end of a row for the honor of the family. All of which was nothing but words, reflected Roger pettishly. It all came to this, that he had a most ticklish evening ahead! On the path as a rider greeted him, his reply was a dismal frown.

* * * * *

Laura's suitor arrived at six o'clock. In his study Roger heard the bell, listened a moment with beating heart, then raised himself heavily from his chair and went into the hallway.

"Ah, yes! It's you!" he exclaimed, with a nervous cordiality. "Come in, my boy, come right in! Here, let me help you with your coat. I don't know just where Laura is. Ahem!" He violently cleared his throat. "Suppose while we're waiting we have a smoke." He kept it up back into his den. There the suitor refused a cigar and carefully lit a cigarette. Roger noticed again how young the chap was, and marriage seemed so ridiculous! All this feverish trouble was for something so unreal!

"Well, sir," the candidate blurted forth, "I guess I'd better come right to the point. Mr. Gale, I want to marry your daughter."

"Laura?"

"Yes." Roger cursed himself. Why had he asked, "Laura?" Of course it was Laura! Would this cub be wanting Deborah?

"Well, my boy," he said thickly. "I--I wish I knew you better."

"So do I, sir. Suppose we begin." The youth took a quick pull at his cigarette. He waited, stirred nervously in his seat. "You'll have some questions to ask, I suppose--"

"Yes, there are questions." Roger had risen mechanically and was slowly walking the room. He threw out short gruff phrases. "I'm not interested in your past--I don't care about digging into a man--I never have and I never will--except as it might affect my daughter. That's the main question, I suppose. Can you make her happy?"

"I think so," said Sloane, decidedly. Roger gave him a glance of displeasure.

"That's a large order, young man," he rejoined.

"Then let's take it in sections," the youngster replied. Confound his boyish assurance! "To begin with," he was saying, "I rather think I have money enough. We'd better go into that, hadn't we?"

"Yes," said Roger indifferently. "We might as well go into it." Of course the chap had money enough. He was a money maker. You could hear it in his voice; you could see it in his jaw, in his small aggressive blonde moustache. Now he was telling briefly of his rich aunt in Bridgeport, of the generous start she had given him, his work downtown, his income.

"Twenty-two thousand this year," he said. "We can live on that all right, I guess."

"You won't starve," was the dry response. Roger walked for a moment in silence, then turned abruptly on young Sloane.

"Look here, young man, I don't want to dig," he continued very huskily. "But I know little or nothing of what may be behind you. I don't care to ask you about it now--unless it can make trouble."

"It can't make trouble." At this answer, low but sharp, Roger wheeled and shot a glance into those clear and twinkling eyes. And his own eyes gleamed with pain. Laura had been such a little thing in the days when she had been his pet, the days when he had known her well. What could he do about it? This was only the usual thing. But he felt suddenly sick of life.

"How soon do you want to get married?" he demanded harshly.

"Next month, if we can."

"Where are you going?"

"Abroad," said Sloane. Roger caught at this topic as at a straw. Soon they were talking of the trip, and the tension slackened rapidly. He had never been abroad himself but had always dreamed of going there. With maps and books of travel Judith and he had planned it out. In imagination they had lived in London and Paris, Munich and Rome, always in queer old lodgings looking on quaint crooked streets. He had dreamed of long delicious rambles, glimpses into queer old shops, vast, silent, dark cathedrals. For Laura how different it would be. This boy of hers knew Europe as a group of gorgeous new hotels.

The moment Laura joined them, her father's eye was caught and held by the ring upon her finger. Roger knew rings, they were his hobby, and this huge yellow solitaire in its new and brilliant setting at once awakened his dislike. It just fitted the life they were to lead! What life? As he listened to his daughter he kept wondering if she were so sure. Had she felt no uneasiness? She must have, he decided, for all her gay excitement. One Laura in that smiling face; another Laura deep inside, doubting and uncertain, reaching for her happiness, now elated, now dismayed, exclaiming, "Now at last I'm starting!" Oh, what an ignorant child she was. He wanted to cry out to her, "You'll _always be just starting! You'll never be sure, you'll never be happy, you'll always be just beginning to be! And the happier you are, the more you will feel it is only a start!... And then-"

More and more his spirit withdrew from these two heedless children. Later on, when Deborah came, he barely noticed her meeting with Sloane. And through dinner, while they talked of plans for the wedding, the trip abroad, still Roger took no part at all. He felt dull and heavy. Deborah too, he noticed, after her first efforts to be welcoming and friendly, had gradually grown silent. He saw her watching Laura with a mingled look of affection and of whimsical dismay. Soon after dinner she left them, and Roger smoked with the boy for a while and learned that he was twenty-nine. Both had grown uneasy and rather dull with each other. It was a relief when again Laura joined them, dressed to go out. She and her lover left the house.

Roger sat motionless for some time. His cigar grew cold unheeded. One of the sorrows of his life had been that his only son had died. Bruce had been almost like a son. But this young man of Laura's? No.

Later he went for his evening walk. And as though drawn by invisible chains he strayed far down into the ghetto. Soon he was elbowing his way through a maze of uproarious tenement streets as one who had been there many times. But he noticed little around him. He went on, as he had always gone, seeing and hearing this seething life only as a background to his own adventure. He reached his destination. Pushing his way through a swarm of urchins playing in front of a pawnshop, he entered and was a long time inside, and when he came out again at last the whole expression of his face had undergone a striking change. As one who had found the solace he needed for the moment, his pace unconsciously quickened and he looked about him with brighter eyes.

Around the corner from his home, he went into a small jewelry shop, a remnant of the town of the past. There were no customers in the place, and the old Galician jeweler sat at the back playing solitaire. At sight of Roger he arose; and presently in a small back room, beneath the glare of a powerful lamp, the two were studying the ring which Roger had found in the ghetto that night. It was plain, just a thin worn band of gold with an emerald by no means large; but the setting was old and curious, and personal, distinctive. Somebody over in Europe had worked on it long and lovingly. Now as the Galician gently rubbed and polished and turned the ring this way and that, the light revealed crude tiny figures, a man and a woman under a tree. And was that a vine or a serpent? They studied it long and absorbedly.

At home, up in his bedroom, Roger opened a safe which stood in one corner, took out a large shallow tray and sat down with it by his lamp. A strange array of rings was there, small and delicate, huge, bizarre; great signet rings and poison rings, love tokens, charms and amulets, rings which had been worn by wives, by mistresses, by favorite slaves and by young girls in convents; rings with the Madonna and rings with many other saints graven on large heavy stones; rings French and Russian, Polish, Italian, Spanish, Syrian. Some were many centuries old. In nine shallow metal trays they filled the safe in Roger's room. Although its money value was small, the Gale collection was well known to a scattered public of connoisseurs, and Roger took pride in showing it. But what had always appealed to him most was the romance, the mystery, stored up in these old talismans that had lived so many ages, travelled through so many lands, decked so many fingers. Roger had found every one of them in the pawnshops of New York. What new recruits to America had brought them here and pawned them? From what old cities had they come? What passions of love and jealousy, of hatred, faith, devotion were in this glittering array? Roger's own love affair had been deep, but quiet and even and happy. All the wild adventures, the might-have-beens in his sex life, were gathered in these dusky trays with their richly colored glints of light.

Of his daughters, Laura had been the one most interested in his rings, and so he thought of Laura now as he placed in the tray the new ring he had bought, the one he would have liked for her. But a vague uneasiness filled his mind, for he knew she had the same craving as he for what gleamed out of these somber trays. The old Galician jeweler had long been quite a friend of hers, she had often dropped in at his shop to ask him curious questions about his women patrons. And it was just this side of him that Roger did not care for. So many of those women were from a dubious glittering world, and the old Galician took a weird vicarious joy in many of the gay careers into which he sent his beloved rings, his brooches, earrings, necklaces, his clasps and diamond garters. And Laura loved to make him talk.... Yes, she was her father's child, a part of himself. He, too, had had his yearnings, his burning curiosities, his youthful ventures into the town. "You will live on in our children's lives." With her inheritance what would she do? Would she stop halfway as he had done, or would she throw all caution aside and let the flames within her rise?

He heard a step in the doorway, and Deborah stood there smiling.

"A new one?" she inquired. He nodded, and she bent over the tray. "Poor father," Deborah murmured. "I saw you eyeing Laura's engagement ring at dinner to-night. It wasn't like this one, was it?" He scowled:

"I don't like what I see ahead of her. Nor do you," he said. "Be honest." She looked at him perplexedly.

"We can't stop it, can we? And even if we could," she said, "I'm not quite sure I'd want to. It's her love affair, not yours or mine--grown out of a life she made for herself--curious, eager, thrilled by it all--and in the center of her soul the deep glad growing certainty, 'I'm going to be a beautiful woman--I myself, I, Laura Gale!' Oh, you don't know--nor do I. And so she felt her way along--eagerly, hungrily, making mistakes--and you and I left her to do it alone. I'm afraid we both rather neglected her, dad," Deborah ended sadly. "And all we can do now, I think, is to give her the kind of wedding she wants."

Roger started to speak but hesitated.

"What is it?" she inquired.

"Queer," he answered gruffly, "how a man can neglect his children--as I have done, as I do still--when the one thing he wants most in life is to see each one of 'em happy."

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