Chapter I: In Forma Pauperis
The failure of the old-time firm of Edgerton, Tennant & Co. was unusual only because it was an honest one—the bewildered creditors receiving a hundred cents on a dollar from property not legally involved.
Edgerton had been dead for several years; the failure of the firm presently killed old Tennant, who was not only old in years, but also old in fashion—so obsolete, in fact, were the fashions he clung to that he had used his last cent in a matter which he regarded as involving his personal honor.
The ethically laudable but materially ruinous integrity of old Henry Tennant had made matters rather awkward for his orphaned nieces. Similar traditions in the Edgerton family—of which there now remained only a single representative, James Edgerton 3d—devastated that young man's inheritance so completely that he came back to the United States, via Boston, on a cattle steamer and arrived in New York the following day with two dollars in loose silver and a confused determination to see the affair through without borrowing.
He walked from the station to the nearest of his clubs. It was very early, and the few club servants on duty gazed at him with friendly and respectful sympathy.
In the visitors' room he sat down, wrote out his resignation, drew up similar valedictories to seven other expensive and fashionable clubs, and then picked up his two suit cases again, declining with a smile the offered assistance from Read, the doorman who had been in service there as long as the club had existed.
"Mr. Edgerton," murmured the old man, "Mr. Inwood is in the Long Room, sir."
Edgerton thought a moment, then walked to the doorway of the Long Room and looked in. At the same time Inwood glanced up from his newspaper.
"Hello!" he exclaimed; "is that you, Edgerton?"
"Who the devil do you think it is?" replied Edgerton amiably.
They shook hands. Inwood said:
"What's the trouble—a grouch, a hangover, or a lady?"
Edgerton laughed, placed his suit cases on the floor, and seated himself in a corner of the club window for the first time in six months—and for the last time in many, many months to come.
"It's hot in town," he observed. "How are you, Billy?"
"Blooming. Accept from me a long, cold one with a permanent fizz to it. Yes? No? A Riding Club cocktail, then? What? Nix for the rose-wreathed bowl?"
Edgerton shook his head. "Nix for the bowl, thanks."
"Well, you won't mind if I ring for first-aid materials, will you?"
The other politely waved his gloved hand.
A servant arrived and departed with the emergency order. Inwood pushed an unpleasant and polychromatic mess of Sunday newspapers aside and reseated himself in the leather chair.
"I'm terribly sorry about what happened to you, Jim," he said. "So is everybody. We all thought it was to be another gay year of that dear Paris for you——"
"I thought so, too," nodded Edgerton; "but what a fellow thinks hasn't anything to do with anything. I've found out that."
Inwood emptied his glass and gazed at the frost on it, sentimentally.
"The main thing," he said, "is for your friends to stand by you——"
"No; the main thing is for them to stand aside—kindly, Billy—while I pass down and out for a while."
"My dear fellow——"
"While I pass out," repeated Edgerton. "I may return; but that will be up to me—and not up to them."
"Well, what good is friendship?"
"Good to believe in—no good otherwise. Let it alone and it's the finest thing in the world; use it, and you will have to find another name for it."
He smiled at Inwood.
"Friendship must remain always the happiest and most comforting of all—theories," he said. "Let it alone; it has a value inestimable in its own place—no value otherwise."
Inwood began to laugh.
"Your notion concerning friends and friendship isn't the popular one."
"But my friends will sleep the sounder for knowing what are my views concerning friendship."
"That's cynical and unfair," began the other, reddening.
"No, it's honest; and you notice that even my honesty puts a certain strain on our friendship," retorted Edgerton, still laughing.
"You're only partly in earnest, aren't you?"
"Oh, I'm never really in earnest about anything. That's why Fate extended an unerring and iron hand, grasped me by the slack of my pants, shook me until all my pockets turned inside out, and set me down hard on the trolley tracks of Destiny. Just now I'm crawling for the sidewalk and the skirts of Chance."
He laughed again without the slightest bitterness, and looked out of the window.
The view from the club window was soothing: Fifth Avenue lay silent and deserted in the sunshine of an early summer morning.
Inwood said: "The papers—everybody—spoke most glowingly of the way your firm settled with its creditors."
"Oh, hell! Why should ordinary honesty make such a stir in New York? Don't let's talk about it; I'm going home, anyway."
"To my place."
"It's been locked up for over a year, hasn't it?"
"Yes, but there's a janitor——"
"Come down to Oyster Bay with me," urged Inwood; "come on, Jim, and forget your troubles over Sunday."
"As for my troubles," returned the other, rising with a shrug and pulling on his gloves, "I've had leisure on the ocean to classify and pigeonhole the lot of them. I know exactly what I'm going to do, and I'm going home to begin it."
"Begin what?" inquired Inwood with a curiosity entirely friendly.
"I'm going to find out," said Edgerton, "whether any of what my friends have called my 'talents' are real enough to get me a job worth three meals a day, or whether they'll merely procure for me the hook."
"What are you thinking of trying?"
"I don't know exactly. I thought of turning some one of my parlor tricks into a future profession—if people will let me."
"Well, that, or painting, or illustrating—music, perhaps. Perhaps I could write a play, or act in some other fellow's; or do some damn thing or other—" he ended vaguely. And for the first time Inwood saw that his friend's eyes were weary, and that his face seemed unusually worn. It was plain enough that James Edgerton 3d had already journeyed many a league with Black Care, and that he had not yet outridden that shadowy horseman.
"Jim," said Inwood seriously, "why won't you let me help you—" But Edgerton checked him in a perfectly friendly manner.
"You are helping me," he said; "that's why I'm going about my business. Success to yours, Billy. Good-by! I'll be back"—glancing around the familiar room—"sometime or other; back here and around town, everywhere, as usual," he added confidently; and the haunted look faded. He smiled and nodded with a slight gesture of adieu, picked up his suit cases, and, with another friendly shake of his head for the offers of servants' assistance, walked out into the sunshine of Fifth Avenue, and west toward his own abode in Fifty-sixth Street.
When he arrived there, he was hot and dusty, and he decided to let Kenna carry up his luggage. So he descended to the area.
Every time he pulled the basement bell he could hear it jingle inside the house somewhere, but nobody responded, and after a while he remounted the area steps to the street and glanced up at the brown-stone façade. Every window was shut, every curtain drawn. That block on Fifty-sixth Street on a Sunday morning in early summer is an unusually silent and deserted region. Edgerton looked up and down the sunny street. After Paris the city of his birth seemed very mean and treeless and shabby in the merciless American sunshine.
Fumbling for his keys he wondered to what meaner and shabbier street he might soon be destined, now that fortune had tripped him up; and how soon he would begin to regret the luxury of this dusty block and the comforts of the house which he was now about to enter. And he fitted his latch-key to the front door and let himself in.
It was a very clumsy and old-fashioned apartment house, stupidly built, five stories high; there was only one apartment to a floor, and no elevator. The dark and stuffy austerity of this out-of-date building depressed him anew as he entered. Its tenants, of course, were away from town for the summer—respectable, middle-aged people—stodgy, wealthy, dull as the carved banisters that guarded the dark, gas-lit well of the staircase. Each family owned its own apartment—had been owners for years. Edgerton inherited his floor from an uncle—widely known among earlier generations as a courtly and delightful old gentleman—an amateur of antiquities and the possessor of many very extraordinary things, including his own private character and disposition.
Carrying his suit cases, which were pasted all over with tricolored labels, the young man climbed the first two flights of stairs, and then, placing his luggage on the landing, halted to recover his breath and spirits.
The outlook for his future loomed as dark as the stair well. He sat down on the top step, lighted a cigarette, and gazed up at the sham stained glass in the skylight above. And now for the first time he began to realize something of the hideousness of his present position, his helplessness, unfitted as he was to cope with financial adversity or make an honest living at anything.
If people had only let him alone when he first emerged from college as mentally naked as anything newly fledged, his more sensible instincts probably would have led him to remain in the ancient firm of his forefathers, Edgerton, Tennant & Co., dealers in iron.
But fate and his friends had done the business for him, finally persuading him to go abroad. He happened, unfortunately, to possess a light, graceful, but not at all unusual, talent for several of the arts; he could tinkle catchy improvisations on a piano, sketch in oil and water colors, model in clay, and write the sort of amateur verse popular in college periodicals. Women often evinced an inclination to paw him and tell him their troubles; fool friends spoke vaguely of genius and "achieving something distinctly worth while"—which finally spoiled a perfectly good business man, especially after a third-rate periodical had printed one of his drawings, and a fourth-rate one had published a short story by him; and the orchestra at the Colonnade had played one of his waltzes, and Bernstein of the Frivolity Theater had offered to read any libretto he might send.
So he had been ass enough to take a vacation and offer himself two years' study abroad; and he had been away almost a year when the firm went to the wall, carrying with it everything he owned on earth except this apartment and its entailed contents, which he could neither cast into the melting pot for his creditors nor even sell for his own benefit. However, the creditors were paid dollar for dollar, and those finer and entirely obsolete points of the Edgerton honor remained silver bright; and the last of the Edgertons was back once more in New York with his apartment, his carvings, tapestries and pictures, which the will forbade him to sell, and two dollars change in his pockets.
Presently he cast his cigarette from him, picked up his suit cases, and started upward, jaw set. It was a good thing for him that he had a jaw like that. It was his only asset now. So far in life, however, he had never used it.
Except the echo of his tread on the uncarpeted staircase, not another sound stirred in the house. Every landing was deserted, every apartment appeared to be empty and locked up for the summer. Dust lay gray on banister and landing; the heated atmosphere reeked with the odor of moth balls and tar paper seeping from locked doors.
On the top floor a gas jet flickered as usual in the corridor which led to his apartment. By its uncertain flame he selected a key from the bunch he carried, and let himself into his own rooms; and the instant he set foot across the threshold he knew that something was wrong.
Whether it had been a slight sound which he fancied he heard in the private passage-way, or whether he imagined some stealthy movement in the golden dusk beyond, he could not determine; but a swift instinct halted and challenged him, and left him listening.
As he stood there, checked, slowly the idea began to possess him that there was somebody else in the apartment. When the slight but sudden chill had left him, and his hair no longer tingled on the verge of rising, he moved forward a step, then again halted. For a moment, still grasping both suit cases, he stood as though at bay, listening, glancing from alcove to corridor, from one dim spot of light to another where a door ajar here and there revealed corners of empty rooms.
Whether or not there was at that moment another living being except himself in the place he did not know, but he did know that otherwise matters were not as he had left them a year ago in his apartment.
For one thing, here, under his feet, was spread his beautiful, antique Daghestan runner, soft as deep velvet, which he had left carefully rolled up, sewed securely in burlap, and stuffed full of camphor balls. For another thing, his ear had caught a low, rhythmical sound from the mantel in his bedroom. It was his frivolous Sèvres clock ticking as indiscreetly as it had ever ticked in the boudoir of its gayly patched and powdered mistress a hundred and fifty years ago—which was disturbing to Edgerton, as he had been away for a year, and had left his apartment locked up with orders to Kenna, the janitor, to keep out until otherwise instructed by letter or cable.
Listening, eyes searching the dusk, he heard somewhere the rustle of a curtain blowing at an open window; and, stepping softly to his dining-room door, he turned the knob cautiously and peered in.
No window seemed to be open there; the place was dark, the furniture still in its linen coverings.
As he moved silently to the butler's pantry, where through loosely closed blinds the sunshine glimmered, making an amber-tinted mystery of the silence, it seemed for a moment to him as though he could still hear somewhere the stir of the curtain; and he turned and retraced his steps through the library.
In the twilight of the place, half revealed as he passed, he began now to catch glimpses of a state of things that puzzled him.
Coming presently to his dressing room, he opened the door, and, sure enough, there was a window open, and beside it a curtain fluttered gayly. But what completely monopolized his attention was a number of fashionable trunks—wardrobe trunks, steamer trunks, hat trunks, shoe trunks—some open, and the expensive-looking contents partly visible; some closed and covered. And on every piece of this undoubtedly feminine luggage were the letters D.T. or S.T.
And on top of the largest trunk sat a live cat.