Alice had been gone for a couple of weeks, and the day was drawing near when the Hasbrook case came up for trial. The Saturday before that being the date of the Mi-carême dance of the Long Island Hunt Club, Siegfried Harvey was to have a house-party for the week-end, and Montague accepted his invitation. He had been working hard, putting the finishing touches to his brief, and he thought that a rest would be good for him.
He and his brother went down upon Friday afternoon, and the first person he met was Betty Wyman, whom he had not seen for quite a while. Betty had much to say, and said it. As Montague had not been seen with Mrs. Winnie since the episode in her house, people had begun to notice the break, and there was no end of gossip; and Mistress Betty wanted to know all about it, and how things stood between them.
But he would not tell her, and so she saucily refused to tell him what she had heard. All the while they talked she was eyeing him quizzically, and it was evident that she took the worst for granted; also that he had become a much more interesting person to her because of it. Montague had the strangest sensations when he was talking with Betty Wyman; she was delicious and appealing, almost irresistible; and yet her views of life were so old! "I told you you wouldn't do for a tame cat!" she said to him.
Then she went on to talk to him about his case, and to tease him about the disturbance he had made.
"You know," she said, "Ollie and I were in terror—we thought that grandfather would be furious, and that we'd be ruined. But somehow, it didn't work out that way. Don't you say anything about it, but I've had a sort of a fancy that he must be on your side of the fence."
"I'd be glad to know it," said Montague, with a laugh—"I've been trying for a long time to find out who is on my side of the fence."
"He was talking about it the other day," said Betty, "and I heard him tell a man that he'd read your argument, and thought it was good."
"I'm glad to hear that," said Montague.
"So was I," replied she. "And I said to him afterward, 'I suppose you don't know that Allan Montague is my Ollie's brother.' And he did you the honour to say that he hadn't supposed any member of Ollie's family could have as much sense!"
Betty was staying with an aunt near by, and she went back before dinner. In the automobile which came for her was old Wyman himself, on his way home from the city; and as a snowstorm had begun, he came in and stood by the fire while his car was exchanged for a closed one from Harvey's stables. Montague did not meet him, but stood and watched him from the shadows-a mite of a man, with a keen and eager face, full of wrinkles. It was hard to realize that this little body held one of the great driving minds of the country. He was an intensely nervous and irritable man, bitter and implacable—by all odds the most hated and feared man in Wall Street. He was swift, imperious, savage as a hornet. "Directors at meetings that I attend vote first and discuss afterward," was one of his sayings that Montague had heard quoted. Watching him here by the fireside, rubbing his hands and chatting pleasantly, Montague had a sudden sense of being behind the scenes, of being admitted to a privilege denied to ordinary mortals—the beholding of royalty in everyday attire!
After dinner that evening Montague had a chat in the smoking-room with his host; and he brought up the subject of the Hasbrook case, and told about his trip to Washington, and his interview with Judge Ellis.
Harvey also had something to communicate. "I had a talk with Freddie Vandam about it," said he.
"What did he say?" asked Montague.
"Well," replied the other, with a laugh, "he's indignant, needless to say. You know, Freddie was brought up by his father to regard the Fidelity as his property, in a way. He always refers to it as 'my company.' And he's very high and mighty about it—it's a personal affront if anyone attacks it. But it was evident to me that he doesn't know who's behind this case."
"Did he know about Ellis?" asked Montague.
"Yes," said the other, "he had found out that much. It was he who told me that originally. He says that Ellis has been sponging off the company for years—he has a big salary that he never earns, and has borrowed something like a quarter of a million dollars on worthless securities."
Montague gave a gasp.
"Yes," laughed Harvey. "But after all, that's a little matter. The trouble with Freddie Vandam is that that sort of thing is all he sees; and so he'll never be able to make out the mystery. He knows that this clique or that in the company is plotting to get some advantage, or to use him for their purposes—but he never realizes how the big men are pulling the wires behind the scenes. Some day they'll throw him overboard altogether, and then he'll realize how they've played with him. That's what this Hasbrook case means, you know—they simply want to frighten him with a threat of getting the company's affairs into the courts and the newspapers."
Montague sat for a while in deep thought.
"What would you think would be Wyman's relation to the matter?" he asked, at last.
"I wouldn't know," said Harvey. "He's supposed to be Freddie's backer—but what can you tell in such a tangle?"
"It is certainly a mess," said Montague.
"There's no bottom to it," said the other. "Absolutely—it would take your breath away! Just listen to what Vandam told me to-day!"
And then Harvey named one of the directors of the Fidelity who was well known as a philanthropist. Having heard that the wife of one of his junior partners had met with an accident in childbirth, and that the doctor had told her husband that if she ever had another child, she would die, this man had asked, "Why don't you have her life insured?" The other replied that he had tried, and the companies had refused her. "I'll fix it for you," said he; and so they put in another application, and the director came to Freddie Vandam and had the policy put through "by executive order." Seven months later the woman died, and the Fidelity had paid her husband in full—a hundred thousand or two!
"That's what's going on in the insurance world!" said Siegfried Harvey.
And that was the story which Montague took with him to add to his enjoyment of the festivities at the country club. It was a very gorgeous affair; but perhaps the sombreness of his thoughts was to blame; the flowers and music and beautiful gowns failed entirely in their appeal, and he saw only the gluttony and drunkenness—more of it than ever before, it seemed to him.
Then, too, he had an unpleasant experience. He met Laura Hegan; and presuming upon her cordial reception of his visit, he went up and spoke to her pleasantly. And she greeted him with frigid politeness; she was so brief in her remarks and turned away so abruptly as almost to snub him. He went away quite bewildered. But later on he recalled the gossip about himself and Mrs. Winnie, and he guessed that that was the explanation of Miss Hegar's action.
The episode threw a shadow over his whole visit. On Sunday he went out into the country and tramped through a snowstorm by himself, filled with a sense of disgust for all the past, and of foreboding for the future. He hated this money-world, in which all that was worst in human beings was brought to the surface; he hated it, and wished that he had never set foot within its bounds. It was only by tramping until he was too tired to feel anything that he was able to master himself.
And then, toward dark, he came back, and found a telegram which had been forwarded from New York.
"Meet me at the Penna depot, Jersey City, at nine to-night. Alice."
This message, of course, drove all other thoughts from his mind. He had no time even to tell Oliver about it—he had to jump into an automobile and rush to catch the next train for the city. And all through the long, cold ride in ferry-boats and cabs he pondered this mystery. Alice's party had not been expected for two weeks yet; and only two days before there had come a letter from Los Angeles, saying that they would probably be a week over time. And here she was home again!
He found there was an express from the West due at the hour named; apparently, therefore, Alice had not come in the Prentice's train at all. The express was half an hour late, and so he paced up and down the platform, controlling his impatience as best he could. And finally the long train pulled in, and he saw Alice coming down the platform. She was alone!
"What does it mean?" were the first words he said to her.
"It's a long story," she answered. "I wanted to come home.";
"You mean you've come all the way from the coast by yourself!" he gasped.
"Yes," she said, "all the way."
"What in the world—" he began.
"I can't tell you here, Allan," she said. "Wait till we get to some quiet place."
"But," he persisted. "The Prentice? They let you come home alone?"
"They didn't know it," she said. "I ran away."
He was more bewildered than ever. But as he started to ask more questions, she laid a hand upon his arm. "Please wait, Allan," she said. "It upsets me to talk about it. It was Charlie Carter."
And so the light broke. He caught his breath and gasped, "Oh!"
He said not another word until they had crossed the ferry and settled themselves in a cab, and started. "Now," he said, "tell me."
Alice began. "I was very much upset," she said. "But you must understand, Allan, that I've had nearly a week to think it over, and I don't mind it now. So I want you please not to get excited about it; it wasn't poor Charlie's fault—he can't help himself. It was my mistake. I ought to have taken your advice and had nothing to do with him."
"Go on," said he; and Alice told her story.
The party had gone sight-seeing, and she had had a headache and had stayed in the car. And Charlie Carter had come and begun making love to her. "He had asked me to marry him already—that was at the beginning of the trip," she said. "And I told him no. After that he would never let me alone. And this time he went on in a terrible way—he flung himself down on his knees, and wept, and said he couldn't live without me. And nothing I could say did any good. At last he—he caught hold of me—and he wouldn't let me go. I was furious with him, and frightened. I had to threaten to call for help before he would stop. And so—you see how it was."
"I see," said Montague, gravely. "Go on."
"Well, after that I made up my mind that I couldn't stay anywhere where I had to see him. And I knew he would never go away without a scene. If I had asked Mrs. Prentice to send him away, there would have been a scandal, and it would have spoiled everybody's trip. So I went out, and found there was a train for the East in a little while, and I packed up my things, and left a note for Mrs. Prentice. I told her a story—I said I'd had a telegram that your mother was ill, and that I didn't want to spoil their good time, and had gone by myself. That was the best thing I could think of. I wasn't afraid to travel, so long as I was sure that Charlie couldn't catch up with me."
Montague said nothing; he sat with his hands gripped tightly.
"It seemed like a desperate thing to do," said Alice, nervously. "But you see, I was upset and unhappy. I didn't seem to like the party any more—I wanted to be home. Do you understand?"
"Yes," said Montague, "I understand. And I'm glad you are here."
They reached home, and Montague called up Harvey's and told his brother what had happened. He could hear Oliver gasp with astonishment. "That's a pretty how-do-you-do!" he said, when he had got his breath back; and then he added, with a laugh, "I suppose that settles poor Charlie's chances."
"I'm glad you've come to that conclusion," said the other, as he hung up the receiver.
This episode gave Montague quite a shock. But he had little time to think about it—the next morning at eleven o'clock his case was to come up for trial, and so all his thoughts were called away. This case had been the one real interest of his life for the last three months; it was his purpose, the thing for the sake of which he endured everything else that repelled him. And he had trained himself as an athlete for a great race; he was in form, and ready for the effort of his life. He went down town that morning with every fibre of him, body and mind, alert and eager; and he went into his office, and in his mail was a letter from Mr. Hasbrook. He opened it hastily and read a message, brief and direct and decisive as a sword-thrust:
"I beg to inform you that I have received a satisfactory proposition from the Fidelity Company. I have settled with them, and wish to withdraw the suit. Thanking you for your services, I remain, sincerely."
To Montague the thing came like a thunderbolt. He sat utterly dumbfounded—his hands went limp, and the letter fell upon the desk in front of him.
And at last, when he did move, he picked up the telephone, and told his secretary to call up Mr. Hasbrook. Then he sat waiting; and when the bell rang, picked up the receiver, expecting to hear Mr. Hasbrook's voice, and to demand an explanation. But he heard, instead, the voice of his own secretary: "Central says the number's been discontinued, sir."
And he hung up the receiver, and sat motionless again. The dummy had disappeared!
To Montague this incident meant a change in the prospect of his whole life. It was the collapse of all his hopes. He had nothing more to work for, nothing more to think about; the bottom had fallen out of his career!
He was burning with a sense of outrage. He had been tricked and made a fool of; he had been used and flung aside. And now there was nothing he could do—he was utterly helpless. What affected him most was his sense of the overwhelming magnitude of the powers which had made him their puppet; of the utter futility of the efforts that he or any other man could make against them. They were like elemental, cosmic forces; they held all the world in their grip, and a common man was as much at their mercy as a bit of chaff in a tempest.
All day long he sat in his office, brooding and nursing his wrath. He had moods when he wished to drop everything, to shake the dust of the city from his feet, and go back home and recollect what it was to be a gentleman. And then again he had fighting moods, when he wished to devote all his life to punishing the men who had made use of him. He would get hold of some other policy-holder in the Fidelity, one whom he could trust; he would take the case without pay, and carry it through to the end! He would force the newspapers to talk about it—he would force the people to heed what he said!
And then, toward evening, he went home, bitter and sore. And there was his brother sitting in his study, waiting for him.
"Hello," he said, and took off his coat, preparing his mind for one more ignominy—the telling of his misfortune to Oliver, and listening to his inevitable, "I told you so."
But Oliver himself had something to communicate something that would not bear keeping. He broke out at once—"Tell me, Allan! What in the world has happened between you and Mrs. Winnie?"
"What do you mean?" asked Montague, sharply.
"Why," said Oliver, "everybody is talking about some kind of a quarrel."
"There has been no quarrel," said Montague.
"Well, what is it, then?"
"It must be something!" exclaimed Oliver. "What do all the stories mean?"
"About you two. I met Mrs. Vivie Patton just now, and she swore me to secrecy, and told me that Mrs. Winnie had told some one that you had made love to her so outrageously that she had to ask you to leave the house."
Montague shrunk as from a blow. "Oh!" he gasped.
"That's what she said," said he.
"It's a lie!" he cried.
"That's what I told Mrs. Vivie," said the other; "it doesn't sound like you—"
Montague had flushed scarlet. "I don't mean that!" he cried. "I mean that Mrs. Winnie never said any such thing."
"Oh," said Oliver, and he shrugged his shoulders. "Maybe not," he added. "But I know she's furious with you about something—everybody's talking about it. She tells people that she'll never speak to you again. And what I want to know is, why is it that you have to do things to make enemies of everybody you know?"
Montague said nothing; he was trembling with anger.
"What in the world did you do to her?" began the other. "Can't you trust me—-"
And suddenly Montague sprang to his feet. "Oh, Oliver," he exclaimed, "let me alone! Go away!"
And he went into the next room and slammed the door, and began pacing back and forth like a caged animal.
It was a lie! It was a lie! Mrs. Winnie had never said such a thing! He would never believe it—it was a nasty piece of backstairs gossip!
But then a new burst of rage swept over him What did it matter Whether it was true or not—whether anything was true or not? What did it matter if anybody had done all the hideous and loathsome things that everybody else said they had done? It was what everybody was saying! It was what everybody believed—what everybody was interested in! It was the measure of a whole society—their ideals and their standards! It was the way they spent their time, repeating nasty scandals about each other; living in an atmosphere of suspicion and cynicism, with endless whispering and leering, and gossip of lew intrigue.
A flood of rage surged up within him, and swept him, away—rage against the world into which he had come, and against himself for the part he had played in it. Everything seemed to have come to a head at once; and he hated everything—hated the people he had met, and the things they did, and the things they had tempted him to do. He hated the way he had got his money, and the way he had spent it. He hated the idleness and wastefulness, the drunkenness and debauchery, the meanness and the snobbishness.
And suddenly he turned and flung open the door of the room where Oliver still sat. And he stood in the doorway, exclaiming, "Oliver, I'm done with it!"
Oliver stared at him. "What do you mean?" he asked.
"I mean," cried his brother, "that I've had all I can stand of 'Society!' And I'm going to quit. You can go on—but I don't intend to take another step with you! I've had enough—and I think Alice has had enough, also. We'll take ourselves off your hands—we'll get out!"
"What are you going to do?" gasped Oliver.
"I'm going to give up these expensive apartments—give them up to-morrow, when our week is up. And I'm going to stop squandering money for things I don't want. I'm going to stop accepting invitations, and meeting people I don't like and don't want to know. I've tried your game—I've tried it hard, and I don't like it; and I'm going to get out before it's too late. I'm going to find some decent and simple place to live in; and I'm going down town to find out if there isn't some way in New York for a man to earn an honest living!"