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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThat Fortune - Chapter 26
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That Fortune - Chapter 26 Post by :Finner Category :Long Stories Author :Charles Dudley Warner Date :May 2012 Read :2415

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That Fortune - Chapter 26

CHAPTER XXVI

Is justice done in this world only by a succession of injustices? Is there any law that a wrong must right a wrong? Did it rebuke the means by which the vast fortune of Henderson was accumulated, that it was defeated of any good use by the fraud of his wife? Was her action punished by the same unscrupulous tactics of the Street that originally made the fortune? And Ault? Would a stronger pirate arise in time to despoil him, and so act as the Nemesis of all violation of the law of honest relations between men?

The comfort is, in all this struggle of the evil powers, masked as justice, that the Almighty Ruler of the world does not forget his own, and shows them a smiling face in the midst of disaster. There is no mystery in this. For the noble part in man cannot be touched in its integrity by such vulgar disasters as we are considering. In those days when Evelyn saw dissolving about her the material splendors of her old life, while the Golden House was being dismantled, and she was taking sad leave of the scenes of her girlhood, so vivid with memory of affection and of intellectual activity, they seemed only the shell, the casting-off of which gave her freedom. The sun never shone brighter, there was never such singing in her heart, as on the morning when she was free to go to Mrs. Van Cortlandt's and throw herself into the arms of her dear governess and talk of Philip.

Why not? Perhaps she had not that kind of maidenly shyness, sometimes called conventional propriety, sometimes described as 'mauvaise honte' which a woman of the world would have shown. The impulses of her heart followed as direct lines as the reasoning of her brain. Was it due to her peculiar education, education only in the noblest ideas of the race, that she should be a sort of reversion, in our complicated life, to the type of woman in the old societies (we like to believe there was such a type as the poets love, the Nausicaas), who were single-minded, as frank to avow affection as opinion?

"Have you seen him?" she asked.

"No, but he has written."

"And you think he--" the girl had her arms around her friend's neck again, and concealed her blushing face, "don't make me say it, McDonald."

"Yes, dear, I am sure--I know he does."

There was a little quiver in her form, but it was not of agony; then she put her hands on the shoulders of her governess, and, looking in her eyes, said:

"When you did see him, how did he look--how did he look?--pretty sad?"

"How could he help it?"

"The dear! But was he well?"

"Splendidly, so he said. Like his old self."

"Tell me," said the girl.

And Miss McDonald went into delightful details, how he looked, how he walked, how his voice sounded, how he talked, how melancholy he was, and how full of determination he was, his eyes were so kindly, and his smile was never so sweet as now when there was sadness in it.

"It is very long since," drearily murmured the girl. And then she continued, partly to herself, partly to Miss McDonald: "He will come now, can't he? Not to that house. Never would I wish him to set foot in it. But he is not forbidden to come to the place where we are going. Soon, you think? Perhaps you might hint--oh no, not from me--just your idea. Wouldn't it be natural, after our misfortune? Perhaps mamma would feel differently after what has happened. Oh, that Montague! that horrid little man! I think--I think I shall receive him coolly at first, just to see."

But it was not immediately that the chance for a guileless woman to show her coolness to her lover was to occur. This postponement was not due to the coolness or to the good sense of Philip. When the catastrophe came, his first impulse was that of a fireman who plunges into a burning building to rescue the imperiled inmates. He pictured in his mind a certain nobility of action in going forward to the unfortunate family with his sympathy, and appearing to them in the heroic attitude of a man whose love has no alloy of self-interest. They should speedily understand that it was not the heiress, but the woman, with whom he was in love.

But Miss McDonald understood human nature better than that, at least the nature of Mrs. Mavick. People of her temperament, humiliated and enraged, are best left alone. The fierceness with which she would have turned upon any of her society friends who should have presumed to offer her condolence, however sweetly the condescension were concealed, would have been vented without mercy upon the man whose presence would have reminded her of her foolish rudeness to him, and of the bitter failure of her schemes for her daughter. "Wait, wait," said the good counselor, "until the turmoil has subsided, and the hard pressure of circumstances compels her to look at things in their natural relations. She is too sore now in--the wreck of all her hopes."

But, indeed, her hopes were not all surrendered in a moment. She had more spirit than her husband in their calamity. She was, in fact, a born gambler; she had the qualities of her temperament, and would not believe that courage and luck could not retrieve, at least partially, their fortune. It seemed incredible in the Street that the widow of Henderson should have given over her property so completely to her second husband, and it was a surprise to find that there was very little of value that the assignment of Mavick did not carry with it. The Street did not know the guilty secret between Mavick and his wife that made them cowards to each other. Nor did it understand that Carmen was the more venturesome gambler of the two, and that gradually, for the success of promising schemes, she had thrown one thing after another into the common speculation, until practically all the property stood in Mavick's name. Was she a fool in this, as so many women are about their separate property, or was she cheated?

The palace on Fifth Avenue was not even in her name. When she realized that, there was a scene--but this is not a history of the quarrels of Carmen and her husband after the break-down.

The reader would not be interested--the public of the time were not--in the adjustment of Mavick and his wife to their new conditions. The broken-down, defeated bankrupt is no novelty in Wall Street, the man struggling to keep his foothold in the business of the Street, and descending lower and lower in the scale. The shrewd curbstone broker may climb to a seat in the Stock Exchange; quite as often a lord of the Board, a commander of millions, may be reduced to the seedy watcher of the bulletin-board in a bucket-shop.

At first, in the excitement and the confusion, amid the debris of so much possible wealth, Mavick kept a sort of position, and did not immediately feel the pinch of vulgar poverty. But the day came when all illusion vanished, and it was a question of providing from day to day for the small requirements of the house in Irving Place.

It was not a cheerful household; reproaches are hard to bear when physical energy is wanting to resist them. Mavick had visibly aged during the year. It was only in his office that he maintained anything of the spruce appearance and 'sang froid' which had distinguished the diplomatist and the young adventurer. At home he had fallen into the slovenliness that marks a disappointed old age. Was Mrs. Mavick peevish and unreasonable? Very likely. And had she not reason to be? Was she, as a woman, any more likely to be reconciled to her fate when her mirror told her, with pitiless reflection, that she was an old woman?

Philip waited. Under the circumstances would not both Philip and Evelyn have been justified in disregarding the prohibition that forbade their meeting or even writing to each other? It may be a nice question, but it did not seem so to these two, who did not juggle with their consciences. Philip had given his word. Evelyn would tolerate no concealments; she was just that simple-minded in her filial notions.

The girl, however, had one comfort, and that was the knowledge of Philip through Miss McDonald, whom she saw frequently, and to whom even Mrs. Mavick was in a manner reconciled. She was often in the little house in Irving Place. There was nothing in her manner to remind Mrs. Mavick that she had done her a great wrong, and her cheerfulness and good sense made her presence and talk a relief from the monotony of the defeated woman's life.

It came about, therefore, that one day Philip made his way down into the city to seek an interview with Mr. Mavick. He found him, after some inquiry, in a barren little office, occupying one of the rented desks with three or four habitues of the Street, one of them an old man like himself, the others mere lads who did not intend to remain long in such cramped quarters.

Mr. Mavick arose when his visitor stood at his desk, buttoned up his frock-coat, and extended his hand with a show of business cordiality, and motioned him to a chair. Philip was greatly shocked at the change in Mr. Mavick's appearance.

"I beg your pardon," he said, "for disturbing you in business hours."

"No disturbance," he answered, with something of the old cynical smile on his lips.

"Long ago I called to see you on the errand I have now, but you were not in town. It was, Mr. Mavick," and Philip hesitated and looked down, "in regard to your daughter."

"Ah, I did not hear of it."

"No? Well, Mr. Mavick, I was pretty presumptuous, for I had no foothold in the city, except a law clerkship."

"I remember--Hunt, Sharp & Tweedle; why didn't you keep it?"

"I wasn't fitted for the law."

"Oh, literature? Does literature pay?"

"Not in itself, not for many," and Philip forced a laugh. "But it led to a situation in a first-rate publishing house--an apprenticeship that has now given me a position that seems to be permanent, with prospects beyond, and a very fair salary. It would not seem much to you, Mr. Mavick," and Philip tried to laugh again.

"I don't know," replied Mr. Mavick. "If a fellow has any sort of salary these times, I should advise him to hold on to it. By-the-way, Mr. Burnett, Hunt's a Republican, isn't he?"

"He was," replied Philip, "the last I knew."

"Do you happen to know whether he knows Bilbrick, the present Collector?"

"Mr. Bilbrick used to be a client of his."

"Just so. I think I'll see Hunt. A salary isn't a bad thing for a--for a man who has retired pretty much from business. But you were saying, Mr. Burnett?"

"I was going to say, Mr. Mavick, that there was a little something more than my salary that I can count on pretty regularly now from the magazines, and I have had another story, a novel, accepted, and--you won't think me vain--the publisher says it will go; if it doesn't have a big sale he will--"

"Make it up to you?"

"Not exactly," and Philip laughed; "he will be greatly mistaken."

"I suppose it is a kind of lottery, like most things. The publishers have to take risks. The only harm I wish them is that they were compelled to read all the stuff they try to make us read. Ah, well. Mr. Burnett, I hope you have made a hit. It is pretty much the same thing in our business. The publisher bulls his own book and bears the other fellow's. Is it a New York story?"

"Partly; things come to a focus here, you know."

"I could give you points. It's a devil of a place. I guess the novelists are too near to see the romance of it. When I was in Rome I amused myself by diving into the mediaeval records. Steel and poison were the weapons then. We have a different method now, but it comes to the same thing, and we say we are more civilized. I think our way is more devilishly dramatic than the old brute fashion. Yes, I could give you points."

"I should be greatly obliged," said Philip, seeing the way to bring the conversation back to its starting point; "your wide experience of life--if you had leisure at home some time."

"Oh," replied Mavick, with more good-humor in his laugh than he had shown before, "you needn't beat about the bush. Have you seen Evelyn?"

"No, not since that dinner at the Van Cortlandts'."

"Huh! for myself, I should be pleased to see you any time, Mr. Burnett. Mrs. Mavick hasn't felt like seeing anybody lately. But I'll see, I'll see."

The two men rose and shook hands, as men shake hands when they have an understanding.

"I'm glad you are doing well," Mr. Mavick added; "your life is before you, mine is behind me; that makes a heap of difference."

Within a few days Philip received a note from Mrs. Mavick--not an effusive note, not an explanatory note, not an apologetic note, simply a note as if nothing unusual had happened--if Mr. Burnett had leisure, would he drop in at five o'clock in Irving Place for a cup of tea?

Not one minute by his watch after the hour named, Philip rang the bell and was shown into a little parlor at the front. There was only one person in the room, a lady in exquisite toilet, who rose rather languidly to meet him, exactly as if the visitor were accustomed to drop in to tea at that hour.

Philip hesitated a moment near the door, embarrassed by a mortifying recollection of his last interview with Mrs. Mavick, and in that moment he saw her face. Heavens, what a change! And yet it was a smiling face.

There is a portrait of Carmen by a foreign artist, who was years ago the temporary fashion in New York, painted the year after her second marriage and her return from Rome, which excited much comment at the time. Philip had seen it in more than one portrait exhibition.

Its technical excellence was considerable. The artist had evidently intended to represent a woman piquant and fascinating, if not strictly beautiful. Many persons said it was lovely. Other critics said that, whether the artist intended it or not, he had revealed the real character of the subject. There was something sinister in its beauty. One artist, who was out of fashion as an idealist, said, of course privately, that the more he looked at it the more hideous it became to him--like one of Blake's objective portraits of a "soul"--the naked soul of an evil woman showing through the mask of all her feminine fascinations--the possible hell, so he put it, under a woman's charm.

It was this in the portrait that Philip saw in the face smiling a welcome--like an old, sweetly smiling Lalage--from which had passed away youth and the sustaining consciousness of wealth and of a place in the great world. The smile was no longer sweet, though the words from the lips were honeyed.

"It is very good of you to drop in in this way, Mr. Burnett," she said, as she gave him her hand. "It is very quiet down here."

"It is to me the pleasantest part of the city."

"You think so now. I thought so once," and there was a note of sadness in her voice. "But it isn't New York. It is a place for the people who are left."

"But it has associations."

"Yes, I know. We pretend that it is more aristocratic. That means the rents are lower. It is a place for youth to begin and for age to end. We seem to go round in a circle. Mr. Mavick began in the service of the government, now he has entered it again--ah, you did not know?--a place in the Custom-House. He says it is easier to collect other people's revenues than your own. Do you know, Mr. Burnett, I do not see much use in collecting revenues anyway--so far as New York is concerned the people get little good of them. Look out there at that cloud of dust in the street."

Mrs. Mavick rambled on in the whimsical, cynical fashion of old ladies when they cease to have any active responsibility in life and become spectators of it. Their remaining enjoyment is the indulgence of frank speech.

"But I thought," Philip interrupted, "that this part of the town was specially New York."

"New York!" cried Carmen, with animation. "The New York of the newspapers, of the country imagination; the New York as it is known in Paris is in Wall Street and in the palaces up-town. Who are the kings of Wall Street, and who build the palaces up-town? They say that there are no Athenians in Athens, and no Romans in Rome. How many New-Yorkers are there in New York? Do New-Yorkers control the capital, rule the politics, build the palaces, direct the newspapers, furnish the entertainment, manufacture the literature, set the pace in society? Even the socialists and mobocrats are not native. Successive invaders, as in Rome, overrun and occupy the town.

"No, Mr. Burnett, I have left the existing New York. How queer it is to think about it. My first husband was from New Hampshire. My second husband was from Illinois. And there is your Murad Ault. The Lord knows where he came from.

"Talk about the barbarians occupying Rome! Look at that Ault in a palace! Who was that emperor--Caligula?--I am like the young lady from a finishing-school who said she never could remember which came first in history, Greece or Rome--who stabled his horses with stalls and mangers of gold? The Aults stable themselves that way. Ah, me! Let me give you a cup of tea. Even that is English."

"It's an innocent pastime," she continued, as Philip stirred his tea, in perplexity as to how he should begin to say what he had to say--"you won't object if I light a cigarette? One ought to retain at least one bad habit to keep from spiritual pride. Tea is an excuse for this. I don't think it a bad habit, though some people say that civilization is only exchanging one bad habit for another. Everything changes."

"I don't think I have changed, Mrs. Mavick," said Philip, with earnestness.

"No? But you will. I have known lots of people who said they never would change. They all did. No, you need not protest. I believe in you now, or I should not be drinking tea with you. But you must be tired of an old woman's gossip. Evelyn has gone out for a walk; she didn't know. I expect her any minute. Ah, I think that is her ring. I will let her in. There is nothing so hateful as a surprise."

She turned and gave Philip her hand, and perhaps she was sincere--she had a habit of being so when it suited her interests--when she said, "There are no bygones, my friend."

Philip waited, his heart beating a hundred to the minute. He heard greetings and whisperings in the passage-way, and then--time seemed to stand still--the door opened and Evelyn stood on the threshold, radiant from her walk, her face flushed, the dainty little figure poised in timid expectation, in maidenly hesitation, and then she stepped forward to meet his advance, with welcome in her great eyes, and gave him her hand in the old-fashioned frankness.

"I am so glad to see you."

Philip murmured something in reply and they were seated.

That was all. It was so different from the meeting as Philip had a hundred times imagined it.

"It has been very long," said Philip, who was devouring the girl with his eyes, "very long to me."

"I thought you had been very busy," she replied, demurely. Her composure was very irritating.

"If you thought about it at all, Miss Mavick."

"That is not like you, Mr. Burnett," Evelyn replied, looking up suddenly with troubled eyes.

"I didn't mean that," said Philip, moving uneasily in his chair, "I--so many things have happened. You know a person can be busy and not happy."

"I know that. I was not always happy," said the girl, with the air of making a confession. "But I liked to hear from time to time of the success of my friends," she added, ingenuously. And then, quite inconsequently, "I suppose you have news from Rivervale?"

Yes, Philip heard often from Alice, and he told the news as well as he could, and the talk drifted along--how strange it seemed!--about things in which neither of them felt any interest at the moment. Was there no way to break the barrier that the little brown girl had thrown around herself? Were all women, then, alike in parrying and fencing? The talk went on, friendly enough at last, about a thousand things. It might have been any afternoon call on a dear friend. And at length Philip rose to go.

"I hope I may see you again, soon."

"Of course," said Evelyn, cheerfully. "I am sure father will be delighted to see you. He enjoys so little now."

He had taken both her hands to say good-by, and was looking hungrily into her eyes.

"I can't go so. Evelyn, you know, you must know, I love you."

And before the girl comprehended him he had drawn her to him and pressed his lips upon hers.

The girl started back as if stung, and looked at him with flashing eyes.

"What have you done, what have you done to me?"

Her eyes were clouded, and she put her hands to her face, trembling, and then with a cry, as of a soul born into the world, threw herself upon him, her arms around his neck--"Philip, Philip, my Philip!"

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