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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesPeter: A Novel Of Which He Is Not The Hero - Chapter 6
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Peter: A Novel Of Which He Is Not The Hero - Chapter 6 Post by :beetee Category :Long Stories Author :Francis Hopkinson Smith Date :May 2012 Read :1987

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Peter: A Novel Of Which He Is Not The Hero - Chapter 6

CHAPTER VI

Jack's impatience increased as the hour for Peter's visit approached. Quarter of nine found him leaning over the banisters outside his small suite of rooms, peering down between the hand- rails watching the top of every head that crossed the spacious hall three flights below--he dare not go down to welcome his guest, fearing some of the girls, many of whom had already arrived, would know he was in the house. Fifteen minutes later the flash of a bald head, glistening in the glare of the lower hall lantern, told him that the finest old gentleman in the world had arrived, and on the very minute. Parkins's special instructions, repeated for the third time, were to bring Mr. Peter Grayson--it was wonderful what an impressive note was in the boy's voice when he rolled out the syllables--up at once, surtout, straight-brimmed hat, overshoes (if he wore any), umbrella and all, and the four foot-falls--two cat-like and wabbly, as befitted the obsequious flunky, and two firm and decided, as befitted a grenadier crossing a bridge--could now be heard mounting the stairs.

"So here you are!" cried Peter, holding out both hands to the overjoyed boy--"'way up near the sky. One flight less than my own. Let me get my breath, my boy, before I say another word. No, don't worry, only Anno Domini--you'll come to it some day. How delightfully you are settled!"

They had entered the cosey sitting-room and Jack was helping with his coat; Parkins, with his nose in the air (he had heard his master's criticism), having already placed his hat on a side table and the umbrella in the corner.

"Where will you sit--in the big chair by the fire or in this long straw one?" cried the boy, Peter's coat still in his hand.

"Nowhere yet; let me look around a little." One of Peter's tests of a man was the things he lived with. "Ah! books?" and he peered at a row on the mantel. "Macaulay, I see, and here's Poe: Good, very good--why, certainly it is--Where did you get this Morland?" and again Peter's glasses went up. "Through that door is your bedroom--yes, and the bath. Very charming, I must say. You ought to live very happily here; few young fellows I know have half your comforts."

Jack had interrupted him to say that the Morland print was one that he had brought from his father's home, and that the books had come from the same source, but Peter kept on in his tour around the room. Suddenly he stopped and looked steadily at a portrait over the mantel.

"Yes--your father--"

"You knew!" cried Jack.

"Knew! How could any one make a mistake? Fine head. About fifty I should say. No question about his firmness or his kindness. Yes-- fine head--and a gentleman, that is best of all. When you come to marry always hunt up the grandfather--saves such a lot of trouble in after life," and one of Peter's infectious laughs filled the room.

"Do you think he looks anything like Uncle Arthur? You have seen him, I think you said."

Peter scanned the portrait. "Not a trace. That may also be a question of grandfathers--" and another laugh rippled out. "But just be thankful you bear his name. It isn't always necessary to have a long line of gentlemen behind you, and if you haven't any, or can't trace them, a man, if he has pluck and grit, can get along without them; but it's very comforting to know they once existed. Now let me sit down and listen to you," added Peter, whose random talk had been inspired by the look of boyish embarrassment on Jack's face. He had purposely struck many notes in order to see which one would echo in the lad's heart, so that his host might find himself, just as he had done when Jack with generous impulse had sprang from his chair to carry Minott the ring.

The two seated themselves--Peter in the easy chair and Jack opposite. The boy's eyes roamed from the portrait, with its round, grave face, to Peter's head resting on the cushioned back, illumined by the light of the lamp, throwing into relief the clear-cut lips, little gray side-whiskers and the tightly drawn skin covering his scalp, smooth as polished ivory.

"Am I like him?" asked Peter. He had caught the boy's glances and had read his thoughts.

"No--and yes. I can't see it in the portrait, but I do in the way you move your hands and in the way you bow. I keep thinking of him when I am with you. It may, as you say, be a good thing to have a gentleman for a father, sir, but it is a dreadful thing, all the same, to lose him just as you need him most. I wouldn't hate so many of the things about me if I had him to go to now and then."

"Tell me about him and your early life," cried Peter, crossing one leg over the other. He knew the key had been struck; the boy might now play on as he chose.

"There is very little to tell. I lived in the old home with an aunt after my father's death. And went to school and then to college at Hagerstown--quite a small college--where uncle looked after me--he paid the expenses really--and then I was clerk in a law office for a while, and at my aunt's death about a year ago the old place was sold and I had no home, and Uncle Arthur sent for me to come here."

"Very decent in him, and you should never forget him for it," and again Peter's eyes roamed around the perfectly appointed room.

"I know it, sir, and at first the very newness and strangeness of everything delighted me. Then I began to meet the people. They were so different from those in my part of the country, especially the young fellows--Garry is not so bad, because he really loves his work and is bound to succeed--everybody says he has a genius for architecture--but the others--and the way they treat the young girls, and what is more unaccountable to me is the way the young girls put up with it."

Peter had settled himself deeper in his chair, his eyes shaded with one hand and looked intently at the boy.

"Uncle Arthur is kind to me, but the life smothers me. I can't breathe sometimes. Nothing my father taught me is considered worth while here. People care for other things."

"What, for instance?" Peter's hand never moved, nor did his body.

"Why stocks and bonds and money, for instance," laughed Jack, beginning to be annoyed at his own tirade--half ashamed of it in fact. "Stocks are good enough in their way, but you don't want to live with them from ten o'clock in the morning till four o'clock in the afternoon, and then hear nothing else talked about until you go to bed. That's why that dinner last night made such an impression on me. Nobody said money once."

"But every one of those men had his own hobby--"

"Yes, but in my uncle's world they all ride one and the same horse. I don't want to be a pessimist, Mr. Grayson, and I want you to set me straight if I am wrong, but Mr. Morris and every one of those men about him were the first men I've seen in New York who appear to me to be doing the things that will live after them. What are we doing down-town? Gambling the most of us."

"But your life here isn't confined to your uncle and his stock- gambling friends. Surely these lovely young girls--two of them came in with me--" and Peter smiled, "must make your life delightful."

Jack's eyes sought the floor, then he answered slowly:

"I hope you won't think me a cad, but--No, I'm not going to say a word about them, only I can't get accustomed to them and there's no use of my saying that I can. I couldn't treat any girl the way they are treated here. And I tell you another thing--none of the young girls whom I know at home would treat me as these girls treat the men they know. I'm queer, I guess, but I might as well make a clean breast of it all. I am an ingrate, perhaps, but I can't help thinking that the old life at home was the best. We loved our friends, and they were welcome at our table any hour, day or night. We had plenty of time for everything; we lived out of doors or in doors, just as we pleased, and we dressed to suit ourselves, and nobody criticised. Why, if I drop into the Magnolia on my way up-town and forget to wear a derby hat with a sack coat, or a black tie with a dinner-jacket, everybody winks and nudges his neighbor. Did you ever hear of such nonsense in your life?"

The boy paused as if the memory of some incident in which he was ridiculed was alive in his mind. Peter's eyes were still fixed on his face.

"Go on--I'm listening; and what else hurts you? Pour it all out. That's what I came for. You said last night nobody would listen--I will."

"Well, then, I hate the sham of it all; the silly social distinctions; the fits and starts of hospitality; the dinners given for show. Nothing else going on between times; even the music is hired. I want to hear music that bubbles out--old Hannah singing in the kitchen, and Tom, my father's old butler, whistling to himself--and the dogs barking, and the birds singing outside. I'm ashamed of myself making comparisons, but that was the kind of life I loved, because there was sincerity in it."

"No work?" There was a note of sly merriment in the inquiry, but Jack never caught it.

"Not much. My father was Judge and spent part of the time holding court, and his work never lasted but a few hours a day, and when I wanted to go fishing or shooting, or riding with the girls, Mr. Larkin always let me off. And I had plenty of time to read--and for that matter I do here, if I lock myself up in this room. That low library over there is full of my father's books."

Again Peter's voice had a tinge of merriment in it.

"And who supported the family?" he asked in a lower voice.

"My father."

"And who supported him?"

The question brought Jack to a full stop. He had been running on, pouring out his heart for the first time since his sojourn in New York, and to a listener whom he knew he could trust.

"Why--his salary, of course," answered Jack in astonishment, after a pause.

"Anything else?"

"Yes--the farm."

"And who worked that?"

"My father's negroes--some of them his former slaves."

"And have you any money of your own--anything your father left you?"

"Only enough to pay taxes on some wild lands up in Cumberland County, and which I'm going to hold on to for his sake."

Peter dropped his shading fingers, lifted his body from the depths of the easy chair and leaned forward so that the light fell full on his face. He had all the information he wanted now.

"And now let me tell you my story, my lad. It is a very short one. I had the same sort of a home, but no father--none that I remember--and no mother, they both died before my sister Felicia and I were grown up. At twelve I left school; at fifteen I worked in a country store--up at daylight and to bed at midnight, often. From twenty to twenty-five I was entry clerk in a hardware store; then book-keeper; then cashier in a wagon factory; then clerk in a village bank--then book-keeper again in my present bank, and there I have been ever since. My only advantages were a good constitution and the fact that I came of gentle people. Here we are both alike--you at twenty--how old?--twenty two? ... Well, make it twenty-two. ... You at twenty-two and I at twenty-two seem to have started out in life with the same natural advantages, so far as years and money go, but with this difference--Shall I tell you what it is?"

"Yes."

"That I worked and loved it, and love it still, and that you are lazy and love your ease. Don't be offended--" Here Peter laid his hand on the boy's knee. He waited an instant, and not getting any reply, kept on: "What you want to do is to go to work. It wouldn't have been honorable in you to let your father support you after you were old enough to earn your own living, and it isn't honorable in you, with your present opinions, to live on your uncle's bounty, and to be discontented and rebellious at that, for that's about what it all amounts to. You certainly couldn't pay for these comforts outside of this house on what Breen & Co. can afford to pay you. Half of your mental unrest, my lad, is due to the fact that you do not know the joy and comfort to be got out of plain, common, unadulterated work."

"I'll do anything that is not menial."

"What do you mean by 'menial'?"

"Well, working like a day-laborer."

"Most men who have succeeded have first worked with their hands."

"Not my uncle."

"No, not your uncle--he's an exception--one among a million, and then again he isn't through."

"But he's worth two million, they say."

"Yes, but he never earned it, and he never worked for it, and he doesn't now. Do you want to follow in his footsteps?"

"No--not with all his money." This came in a decided tone. "But surely you wouldn't want me to work with my hands, would you?"

"I certainly should, if necessary."

Jack looked at him, and a shade of disappointment crossed his face.

"But I COULDN'T do anything menial."

"There isn't anything menial in any kind of work from cleaning a stable up! The menial things are the evasions of work--tricks by which men are cheated out of their just dues."

"Stock gambling?"

"Yes--sometimes, when the truth is withheld."

"That's what I think; that's what I meant last night when I told you about the faro-bank. I laughed over it, and yet I can't see much difference, although I have never seen one."

"So I understood, but you were wrong about it. Your uncle bears a very good name in the Street. He is not as much to blame as the system. Perhaps some day the firm will become real bankers, than which there is no more honorable calling."

"But is it wrong to want to fish and shoot and have time to read."

"No, it is wrong not to do it when you have the time and the money. I like that side of your nature. My own theory is that every man should in the twenty-four hours of the day devote eight to work, eight to sleep and eight to play. But this can only be done when the money to support the whole twenty-four hours is in sight, either in wages, or salary, or invested securities. More money than this--that is the surplusage that men lock up in their tin boxes, is a curse. But with that you have nothing to do--not yet, anyhow. Now, if I catch your meaning, your idea is to go back to your life at home. In other words you want to live the last end of your life first--and without earning the right to it. And because you cannot do this you give yourself up to criticising everything about you. Getting only at the faults and missing all the finer things in life. If you would permit me to advise you--" he still had his hand on the lad's knee, searching the soft brown eyes--"I would give up finding fault and first try to better things, and I would begin right here where you are. Some of the great banking houses which keep the pendulum of the world swinging true have grown to importance through just such young men as yourself, who were honest and had high ideals and who so impressed their own personalities upon everybody about them--customers and employers--that the tone of the concern was raised at once and with it came a world-wide success. I have been thirty years on the Street and have watched the rise of half the firms about me, and in every single instance some one of the younger men--boys, many of them--has pulled the concern up and out of a quagmire and stood it on its feet. And the reverse is true: half the downfalls have come from those same juniors, who thought they knew some short road to success, which half the time was across disreputable back lots. Why not give up complaining and see what better things you can do? I'm not quite satisfied about your having stayed upstairs even to receive me. Your aunt loves society and the daughter--what did you say her name was--Corinne? Yes, Miss Corinne being young, loves to have a good time. Listen! do you hear?--there goes another waltz. Now, as long as you do live here, why not join in it too and help out the best you can?--and if you have anything of your own to offer in the way of good cheer, or thoughtfulness, or kindness, or whatever you do have which they lack--or rather what you think they lack--wouldn't it be wiser--wouldn't it--if you will permit me, my lad--be a little BETTER BRED to contribute something of your own excellence to the festivity?"

It was now Jack's turn to lean back in his chair and cover his face, but with two ashamed hands. Not since his father's death had any one talked to him like this--never with so much tenderness and truth and with every word meant for his good. All his selfrighteousness, his silly conceit and vainglory stood out before him. What an ass he had been. What a coxcomb. What a boor, really.

"What would you have me do?" he asked, a tone of complete surrender in his voice. The portrait and Peter were one and the same! His father had come to life.

"I don't know yet. We'll think about that another time, but we won't do it now. I ought to be ashamed of myself for having spoiled your evening by such serious talk (he wasn't ashamed--he had come for that very purpose). Now show me some of your books and tell me what you read, and what you love best."

He was out of the chair before he ceased speaking, his heels striking the floor, bustling about in his prompt, exact manner, examining the few curios and keepsakes on the mantel and tables, running his eyes over the rows of bindings lining the small bookcase; his hand on Jack's shoulder whenever the boy opened some favorite author to hunt for a passage to read aloud to Peter, listening with delight, whether the quotation was old or new to him.

Jack, suddenly remembering that his guest was standing, tried to lead him back to his seat by the fire, but Peter would have none of it.

"No--too late. Why, bless me, it's after eleven o'clock! Hear the music--they are still at it. Now I'm going to insist that you go down and have a turn around the room yourself; there were such a lot of pretty girls when I came in."

"Too late for that, too," laughed Jack, merry once more. "Corinne wouldn't speak to me if I showed my face now, and then there will be plenty more dances which I can go to, and so make it all up with her. I'm not yet as sorry as I ought to be about this dance. Your being here has been such a delight. May I--may--I come and see you some time?"

"That's just what you will do, and right away. Just as soon as my dear sister Felicia comes down, and she'll be here very soon. I'll send for you, never fear. Yes, the right sleeve first, and now my hat and umbrella. Ah, here they are. Now, good night, my boy, and thank you for letting me come."

"You know I dare not go down with you," explained Jack with a smile.

"Oh, yes--I know--I know. Good night--" and the sharp, quick tread of the old man grew fainter and fainter as he descended the stairs.

Jack waited, craning his head, until he caught a glimpse of the glistening head as it passed once more under the lantern, then he went into his room and shut the door.

Had he followed behind his guest he would have witnessed a little comedy which would have gone far in wiping clean all trace of his uncle's disparaging remarks of the morning. He would have enjoyed, too, Parkins's amazement. As the Receiving Teller of the Exeter Bank reached the hall floor the President of the Clearing House-- the most distinguished man in the Street and one to whom Breen kotowed with genuflections equalling those of Parkins--accompanied by his daughter and followed by the senior partner of Breen & Co., were making their way to the front door. The second man in the chocolate livery with the potato-bug waistcoat had brought the Magnate's coat and hat, and Parkins stood with his hand on the door-knob. Then, to the consternation of both master and servant, the great man darted forward and seized Peter's hand.

"Why, my dear Mr. Grayson! This is indeed a pleasure. I didn't see you--were you inside?"

"No--I've been upstairs with young Mr. Breen," replied Peter, with a comprehensive bow to Host, Magnate and Magnate's daughter. Then, with the grace and dignity of an ambassador quitting a salon, he passed out into the night.

Breen found his breath first: "And you know him?"

"Know him!" cried the Magnate--"of course I know him! One of the most delightful men in New York; and I'm glad that you do--you're luckier than I--try as I may I can hardly ever get him inside my house."

I was sitting up for the old fellow when he entered his cosey red room and dropped into a chair before the fire. I had seen the impression the young man had made upon him at the dinner and was anxious to learn the result of his visit. I had studied the boy somewhat myself, noting his bright smile, clear, open face without a trace of guile, and the enthusiasm that took possession of him when his friend won the prize That he was outside the class of young men about him I could see from a certain timidity of glance and gesture--as if he wanted to be kept in the background. Would the old fellow, I wondered, burden his soul with still another charge?

Peter was laughing when he entered; he had laughed all the way down-town, he told me. What particularly delighted him--and here he related the Portman incident--was the change in Breen's face when old Portman grasped his hand so cordially.

"Made of pinchbeck, my dear Major, both of them, and yet how genuine it looks on the surface, and what a lot of it is in circulation. Quite as good as the real thing if you don't know the difference," and again he laughed heartily.

"And the boy," I asked, "was he disappointing?"

"Young Breen?--not a bit of it. He's like all the young fellows who come up here from the South--especially the country districts--and he's from western Maryland, he says. Got queer ideas about work and what a gentleman should do to earn his living--same old talk. Hot-house plants most of them--never amount to anything, really, until they are pruned and set out in the cold."

"Got any sense?" I ventured.

"No, not much--not yet--but he's got temperament and refinement and a ten commandments' code of morals."

"Rather rare, isn't it?" I asked.

"Yes--perhaps so."

"And I suppose you are going to take him up and do for him, like the others."

Peter picked up the poker and made a jab at the fire; then he answered slowly:

"Well, Major, I can't tell yet--not positively. But he's certainly worth saving."

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