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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesSuccess: A Novel - Part 2. The Vision - Chapter 6
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Success: A Novel - Part 2. The Vision - Chapter 6 Post by :Hans_Klein Category :Long Stories Author :Samuel Hopkins Adams Date :May 2012 Read :873

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Success: A Novel - Part 2. The Vision - Chapter 6

PART II. THE VISION CHAPTER VI

Such members of the Brashear household as chose to accommodate themselves strictly to the hour could have eight o'clock breakfast in the basement dining-room for the modest consideration of thirty cents; thirty-five with special cream-jug. At these gatherings, usually attended by half a dozen of the lodgers, matters of local interest were weightily discussed; such as the progress of the subway excavations, the establishment of a new Italian restaurant in 11th Street, or the calling away of the fourth-floor-rear by the death of an uncle who would perhaps leave him money. To this sedate assemblage descended one crisp December morning young Wickert, clad in the natty outline of a new Bernholz suit, and obviously swollen with tidings.

"Whaddya know about the latest?" he flung forth upon the coffee-scented air.

"The latest" in young Wickert's compendium of speech might be the garments adorning his trim person, the current song-hit of a vaudeville to which he had recently contributed his critical attention, or some tidbit of purely local gossip. Hainer, the plump and elderly accountant, opined that Wickert had received an augmentation of salary, and got an austere frown for his sally. Evidently Wickert deemed his news to be of special import; he was quite bloated, conversationally. He now dallied with it.

"Since when have you been taking in disguised millionaires, Mrs. Brashear?"

The presiding genius of the house, divided between professional resentment at even so remotely slurring an implication (for was not the Grove Street house good enough for any millionaire, undisguised!) and human curiosity, requested an explanation.

"I was in Sherry's restaurant last night," said the offhand Wickert.

"I didn't read about any fire there," said the jocose Hainer, pointing his sally with a wink at Lambert, the art-student.

Wickert ignored the gibe. Such was the greatness of his tidings that he could afford to.

"Our firm was giving a banquet to some buyers and big folks in the trade. Private room upstairs; music, flowers, champagne by the case. We do things in style when we do 'em. They sent me up after hours with an important message to our Mr. Webler; he was in charge of arrangements."

"Been promoted to be messenger, ay?" put in Mr. Hainer, chuckling.

"When I came downstairs," continued the other with only a venomous glance toward the seat of the scorner, "I thought to myself what's the matter with taking a look at the swells feeding in the big restaurant. You may not know it, people, but Sherry's is the ree-churchiest place in Nuh Yawk to eat dinner. It's got 'em all beat. So I stopped at the door and took 'em in. Swell? Oh, you dolls! I stood there trying to work up the nerve to go in and siddown and order a plate of stew or something that wouldn't stick me more'n a dollar, just to _say I'd been dining at Sherry's, when I looked across the room, and whadda you think?" He paused, leaned forward, and shot out the climactic word, "Banneker!"

"Having his dinner there?" asked the incredulous but fascinated Mrs. Brashear.

"Like he owned the place. Table to himself, against the wall. Waiter fussin' over him like he loved him. And dressed! Oh, Gee!"

"Did you speak to him?" asked Lambert.

"He spoke to me," answered Wickert, dealing in subtle distinctions. "He was just finishing his coffee when I sighted him. Gave the waiter haffa dollar. I could see it on the plate. There I was at the door, and he said, 'Why, hello, Wickert. Come and have a liquor.' He pronounced it a queer, Frenchy way. So I said thanks, I'd have a highball."

"Didn't he seem surprised to see you there?" asked Hainer.

Wickert paid an unconscious tribute to good-breeding. "Banneker's the kind of feller that wouldn't show it if he was surprised. He couldn't have been as surprised as I was, at that. We went to the bar and had a drink, and then I ast him what'd _he_, have on _me_, and all the time I was sizing him up. I'm telling you, he looked like he'd grown up in Sherry's."

The rest of the conversation, it appeared from Mr. Wickert's spirited sketch, had consisted mainly in eager queries from himself, and good-humored replies by the other.

Did Banneker eat there every night?

Oh, no! He wasn't up to that much of a strain on his finances.

But the waiters seemed to know him, as if he was one of the regulars.

In a sense he was. Every Monday he dined there. Monday was his day off.

Well, Mr. Wickert (awed and groping) _would be damned! All alone?

Banneker, smiling, admitted the solitude. He rather liked dining alone.

Oh, Wickert couldn't see that at all! Give him a pal and a coupla lively girls, say from the Ladies' Tailor-Made Department, good-lookers and real dressers; that was _his idea of a dinner, though he'd never tried it at Sherry's. Not that he couldn't if he felt like it. How much did they stick you for a good feed-out with a cocktail and maybe a bottle of Italian Red?

Well, of course, that depended on which way was Wickert going? Could Banneker set him on his way? He was taking a taxi to the Avon Theater, where there was an opening.

Did Mr. Banneker (Wickert had by this time attained the "Mr." stage) always follow up his dinner at Sherry's with a theater?

Usually, if there were an opening. If not he went to the opera or a concert.

For his part, Wickert liked a little more spice in life. Still, every feller to his tastes. And Mr. Banneker was sure dressed for the part. Say--if he didn't mind--who made that full-dress suit?

No; of course he didn't mind. Mertoun made it.

After which Mr. Banneker had been deftly enshrouded in a fur-lined coat, worthy of a bank president, had crowned these glories with an impeccable silk hat, and had set forth. Wickert had only to add that he wore in his coat lapel one of those fancy tuberoses, which he, Wickert, had gone to the pains of pricing at the nearest flower shop immediately after leaving Banneker. A dollar apiece! No, he had not accepted the offer of a lift, being doubtful upon the point of honor as to whether he would be expected to pay a _pro rata of the taxi charge. They, the assembled breakfast company, had his permission to call him, Mr. Wickert, a goat if Mr. Banneker wasn't the swellest-looking guy he had anywhere seen on that memorable evening.

Nobody called Mr. Wickert a goat. But Mr. Hainer sniffed and said:

"And him a twenty-five-dollar-a-week reporter!"

"Perhaps he has private means," suggested little Miss Westlake, who had her own reasons for suspecting this: reasons bolstered by many and frequent manuscripts, turned over to her for typing, recast, returned for retyping, and again, in many instances, re-recast and re-retyped, the result of the sweating process being advantageous to their literary quality. Simultaneous advantage had accrued to the typist, also, in a practical way. Though the total of her bills was modest, it constituted an important extra; and Miss Westlake no longer sought to find solace for her woes through the prescription of the ambulant school of philosophic thought, and to solve her dental difficulties by walking the floor of nights. Philosophy never yet cured a toothache. Happily the sufferer was now able to pay a dentist. Hence Banneker could work, untroubled of her painful footsteps in the adjoining room, and considered the outcome cheap at the price. He deemed himself an exponent of enlightened selfishness. Perhaps he was. But the dim and worn spinster would have given half a dozen of her best and painless teeth to be of service to him. Now she came to his defense with a pretty dignity:

"I am sure that Mr. Banneker would not be out of place in any company."

"Maybe not," answered the cynical Lambert. "But where does he get it? I ask you!"

"Wherever he gets it, no gentleman could be more forehanded in his obligations," declared Mrs. Brashear.

"But what's he want to blow it for in a shirty place like Sherry's?" marveled young Wickert.

"Wyncha ask him?" brutally demanded Hainer.

Wickert examined his mind hastily, and was fain to admit inwardly that he had wanted to ask him, but somehow felt "skittish" about it. Outwardly he retorted, being displeased at his own weakness, "Ask him yourself."

Had any one questioned the subject of the discussion at Mrs. Brashear's on this point, even if he were willing to reply to impertinent interrogations (a high improbability of which even the hardy Wickert seems to have had some timely premonition), he would perhaps have explained the glorified routine of his day-off, by saying that he went to Sherry's and the opening nights for the same reason that he prowled about the water-front and ate in polyglot restaurants on obscure street-corners east of Tompkins Square; to observe men and women and the manner of their lives. It would not have been a sufficient answer; Banneker must have admitted that to himself. Too much a man of the world in many strata not to be adjustable to any of them, nevertheless he felt more attuned to and at one with his environment amidst the suave formalism of Sherry's than in the more uneasy and precarious elegancies of an East-Side Tammany Association promenade and ball.

Some of the youngsters of The Ledger said that he was climbing.

He was not climbing. To climb one must be conscious of an ascent to be surmounted. Banneker was serenely unaware of anything above him, in that sense. Eminent psychiatrists were, about that time, working upon the beginning of a theory of the soul, later to be imposed upon an impressionable and faddish world, which dealt with a profound psychical deficit known as a "complex of inferiority." In Banneker they would have found sterile soil. He had no complex of inferiority, nor, for that matter, of superiority; mental attitudes which, applied to social status, breed respectively the toady and the snob. He had no complex at all. He had, or would have had, if the soul-analysts had invented such a thing, a simplex. Relative status was a matter to which he gave little thought. He maintained personal standards not because of what others might think of him, but because he chose to think well of himself.

Sherry's and a fifth-row-center seat at opening nights meant to him something more than refreshment and amusement; they were an assertion of his right to certain things, a right of which, whether others recognized or ignored it, he felt absolutely assured. These were the readily attainable places where successful people resorted. Serenely determined upon success, he felt himself in place amidst the outward and visible symbols of it. Let the price be high for his modest means; this was an investment which he could not afford to defer. He was but anticipating his position a little, and in such wise that nobody could take exception to it, because his self-promotion demanded no aid or favor from any other living person. His interest was in the environment, not in the people, as such, who were hardly more than, "walking ladies and gentlemen" in a _mise-en-scene_. Indeed, where minor opportunities offered by chance of making acquaintances, he coolly rejected them. Banneker did not desire to know people--yet. When he should arrive at the point of knowing them, it must be upon his terms, not theirs.

It was on one of his Monday evenings of splendor that a misadventure of the sort which he had long foreboded, befell him. Sherry's was crowded, and a few tables away Banneker caught sight of Herbert Cressey, dining with a mixed party of a dozen. Presently Cressey came over.

"What have you been doing with yourself?" he asked, shaking hands. "Haven't seen you for months."

"Working," replied Banneker. "Sit down and have a cocktail. Two, Jules," he added to the attentive waiter.

"I guess they can spare me for five minutes," agreed Cressey, glancing back at his forsaken place. "This isn't what you call work, though, is it?"

"Hardly. This is my day off."

"Oh! And how goes the job?"

"Well enough."

"I'd think so," commented the other, taking in the general effect of Banneker's easy habituation to the standards of the restaurant. "You don't own this place, do you?" he added.

From another member of the world which had inherited or captured Sherry's as part of the spoils of life, the question might have been offensive. But Banneker genuinely liked Cressey.

"Not exactly," he returned lightly. "Do I give that unfortunate impression?"

"You give very much the impression of owning old Jules--or he does--and having a proprietary share in the new head waiter. Are you here much?"

"Monday evenings, only."

"This is a good cocktail," observed Cressey, savoring it expertly. "Better than they serve to me. And, say, Banneker, did Mertoun make you that outfit?"

"Yes."

"Then I quit him," declared the gilded youth.

"Why? Isn't it all right?"

"All right! Dammit, it's a better job than ever I got out of him," returned his companion indignantly. "Some change from the catalogue suit you sported when you landed here! You know how to wear 'em; I've got to say that for you.... I've got to get back. When'll you dine with me? I want to hear all about it."

"Any Monday," answered Banneker.

Cressey returned to his waiting potage, and was immediately bombarded with queries, mainly from the girl on his left.

"Who's the wonderful-looking foreigner?"

"He isn't a foreigner. At least not very much."

"He looks like a North Italian princeling I used to know," said one of the women. "One of that warm-complexioned out-of-door type, that preserves the Roman mould. Isn't he an Italian?"

"He's an American. I ran across him out in the desert country."

"Hence that burned-in brown. What was he doing out there?"

Cressey hesitated. Innocent of any taint of snobbery himself, he yet did not know whether Banneker would care to have his humble position tacked onto the tails of that work of art, his new coat. "He was in the railroad business," he returned cautiously. "His name is Banneker."

"I've been seeing him for months," remarked another of the company. "He's always alone and always at that table. Nobody knows him. He's a mystery."

"He's a beauty," said Cressey's left-hand neighbor.

Miss Esther Forbes had been quite openly staring, with her large, gray, and childlike eyes, at Banneker, eating his oysters in peaceful unconsciousness of being made a subject for discussion. Miss Forbes was a Greuze portrait come to life and adjusted to the extremes of fashion. Behind an expression of the sweetest candor and wistfulness, as behind a safe bulwark, she preserved an effrontery which balked at no defiance of conventions in public, though essentially she was quite sufficiently discreet for self-preservation. Also she had a keen little brain, a reckless but good-humored heart and a memory retentive of important trifles.

"In the West, Bertie?" she inquired of Cressey. "You were in that big wreck there, weren't you?"

"Devil of a wreck," said Cressey uneasily. You never could tell what Esther might know or might not say.

"Ask him over here," directed that young lady blandly, "for coffee and liqueurs."

"Oh, I say!" protested one of the men. "Nobody knows anything about him--"

"He's a friend of mine," put in Cressey, in a tone which ended that particular objection. "But I don't think he'd come."

Instantly there was a chorus of demand for him.

"All right, I'll try," yielded Cressey, rising.

"Put him next to me," directed Miss Forbes.

The emissary visited Banneker's table, was observed to be in brief colloquy with him, and returned, alone.

"Wouldn't he come?" interrogated the chorus.

"He's awfully sorry, but he says he isn't fit for decent human associations."

"More and more interesting!"--"Why?"--"What awful thing has he been doing?"

"Eating onions," answered Cressey. "Raw."

"I don't believe it," cried the indignant Miss Forbes. "One doesn't eat raw onions at Sherry's. It's a subterfuge."

"Very likely."

"If I went over there myself, who'll bet a dozen silk stockings that I can't--"

"Come off it, Ess," protested her brother-in-law across the table. "That's too high a jump, even for you."

She let herself be dissuaded, but her dovelike eyes were vagrant during the rest of the dinner.

Pleasantly musing over the last glass of a good but moderate-priced Rosemont-Geneste, Banneker became aware of Cressey's dinner party filing past him: then of Jules, the waiter, discreetly murmuring something, from across the table. A faint and provocative scent came to his nostrils, and as he followed Jules's eyes he saw a feminine figure standing at his elbow. He rose promptly and looked down into a face which might have been modeled for a type of appealing innocence.

"You're Mr. Banneker, aren't you?"

"Yes."

"I'm Esther Forbes, and I think I've heard a great deal about you."

"It doesn't seem probable," he replied gravely.

"From a cousin of mine," pursued the girl. "She was Io Welland. Haven't I?"

A shock went through Banneker at the mention of the name. But he steadied himself to say: "I don't think so."

Herein he was speaking by the letter. Knowing Io Welland as he had, he deemed it very improbable that she had even so much as mentioned him to any of her friends. In that measure, at least, he believed, she would have respected the memory of the romance which she had so ruthlessly blasted. This girl, with the daring and wistful eyes, was simply fishing, so he guessed.

His guess was correct. Mendacity was not outside of Miss Forbes's easy code when enlisted in a good cause, such as appeasing her own impish curiosity. Never had Io so much as mentioned that quaint and lively romance with which vague gossip had credited her, after her return from the West; Esther Forbes had gathered it in, gossamer thread by gossamer thread, and was now hoping to identify Banneker in its uncertain pattern. Her little plan of startling him into some betrayal had proven abortive. Not by so much as the quiver of a muscle or the minutest shifting of an eye had he given sign. Still convinced that he was the mysterious knight of the desert, she was moved to admiration for his self-command and to a sub-thrill of pleasurable fear as before an unknown and formidable species. The man who had transformed self-controlled and invincible Io Welland into the creature of moods and nerves and revulsions which she had been for the fortnight preceding her marriage, must be something out of the ordinary. Instinct of womankind told Miss Forbes that this and no other was the type of man to work such a miracle.

"But you did know Io?" she persisted, feeling, as she afterward confessed, that she was putting her head into the mouth of a lion concerning whose habits her knowledge was regrettably insufficient.

The lion did not bite her head off. He did not even roar. He merely said, "Yes."

"In a railroad wreck or something of that sort?"

"Something of that sort."

"Are you awfully bored and wishing I'd go away and let you alone?" she said, on a note that pleaded for forbearance. "Because if you are, don't make such heroic efforts to conceal it."

At this an almost imperceptible twist at the corners of his lips manifested itself to the watchful eye and cheered the enterprising soul of Miss Forbes. "No," he said equably, "I'm interested to discover how far you'll go."

The snub left Miss Forbes unembarrassed.

"Oh, as far as you'll let me," she answered. "Did you ride in from your ranch and drag Io out of the tangled wreckage at the end of your lasso?"

"My ranch? I wasn't on a ranch."

"Please, sir," she smiled up at him like a beseeching angel, "what did you do that kept us all talking and speculating about you for a whole week, though we didn't know your name?"

"I sat right on my job as station-agent at Manzanita and made up lists of the killed and injured," answered Banneker dryly.

"Station-agent!" The girl was taken aback, for this was not at all in consonance with the Io myth as it had drifted back, from sources never determined, to New York. "Were you the station-agent?"

"I was."

She bestowed a glance at once appraising and flattering, less upon himself than upon his apparel. "And what are you now? President of the road?"

"A reporter on The Ledger."

"Really!" This seemed to astonish her even more than the previous information. "What are you reporting here?"

"I'm off duty to-night."

"I see. Could you get off duty some afternoon and come to tea, if I'll promise to have Io there to meet you?"

"Your party seems to be making signals of distress, Miss Forbes."

"That's the normal attitude of my friends and family toward me. You'll come, won't you, Mr. Banneker?"

"Thank you: but reporting keeps one rather too busy for amusement."

"You won't come," she murmured, aggrieved. "Then it _is true about you and Io."

This time she achieved a result. Banneker flushed angrily, though he said, coolly enough: "I think perhaps you would make an enterprising reporter, yourself, Miss Forbes."

"I'm sure I should. Well, I'll apologize. And if you won't come for Io--she's still abroad, by the way and won't be back for a month--perhaps you'll come for me. Just to show that you forgive my impertinences. Everybody does. I'm going to tell Bertie Cressey he must bring you.... All right, Bertie! I wish you wouldn't follow me up like--like a paper-chase. Good-night, Mr. Banneker."

To her indignant escort she declared that it couldn't have hurt them to wait a jiffy; that she had had a most amusing conversation; that Mr. Banneker was as charming as he was good to look at; and that (in answer to sundry questions) she had found out little or nothing, though she hoped for better results in future.

"But he's Io's passion-in-the-desert right enough," said the irreverent Miss Forbes.

Banneker sat long over his cooling coffee. Through haunted nights he had fought maddening memories of Io's shadowed eyes, of the exhalant, irresistible femininity of her, of the pulses of her heart against his on that wild and wonderful night in the flood; and he had won to an armed peace, in which the outposts of his spirit were ever on guard against the recurrent thoughts of her.

Now, at the bitter music of her name on the lips of a gossiping and frivolous girl, the barriers had given away. In eagerness and self-contempt he surrendered to the vision. Go to an afternoon tea to see and speak with her again? He would, in that awakened mood, have walked across the continent, only to be in her presence, to feel himself once more within the radius of that inexorable charm.

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