XI. Broken Hopes
What Joe Hamilton lacked more than anything else in the world was some one to kick him. Many a man who might have lived decently and become a fairly respectable citizen has gone to the dogs for the want of some one to administer a good resounding kick at the right time. It is corrective and clarifying.
Joe needed especially its clarifying property, for though he knew himself a cur, he went away from his mother's house feeling himself somehow aggrieved, and the feeling grew upon him the more he thought of it. His mother had ruined his chance in life, and he could never hold up his head again. Yes, he had heard that several of the fellows at the club had shady reputations, but surely to be the son of a thief or a supposed thief was not like being the criminal himself.
At the Banner he took a seat by himself, and, ordering a cocktail, sat glowering at the few other lonely members who had happened to drop in. There were not many of them, and the contagion of unsociability had taken possession of the house. The people sat scattered around at different tables, perfectly unmindful of the bartender, who cursed them under his breath for not "getting together."
Joe's mind was filled with bitter thoughts. How long had he been away from home? he asked himself. Nearly a year. Nearly a year passed in New York, and he had come to be what he so much desired,--a part of its fast life,--and now in a moment an old woman's stubbornness had destroyed all that he had builded.
What would Thomas say when he heard it? What would the other fellows think? And Hattie? It was plain that she would never notice him again. He had no doubt but that the malice of Minty Brown would prompt her to seek out all of his friends and make the story known. Why had he not tried to placate her by disavowing sympathy with his mother? He would have had no compunction about doing so, but he had thought of it too late. He sat brooding over his trouble until the bartender called with respectful sarcasm to ask if he wanted to lease the glass he had.
He gave back a silly laugh, gulped the rest of the liquor down, and was ordering another when Sadness came in. He came up directly to Joe and sat down beside him. "Mr. Hamilton says 'Make it two, Jack,'" he said with easy familiarity. "Well, what 's the matter, old man? You 're looking glum."
"I feel glum."
"The divine Hattie has n't been cutting any capers, has she? The dear old girl has n't been getting hysterical at her age? Let us hope not."
Joe glared at him. Why in the devil should this fellow be so sadly gay when he was weighted down with sorrow and shame and disgust?
"Come, come now, Hamilton, if you 're sore because I invited myself to take a drink with you, I 'll withdraw the order. I know the heroic thing to say is that I 'll pay for the drinks myself, but I can't screw my courage up to the point of doing so unnatural a thing."
Young Hamilton hastened to protest. "Oh, I know you fellows now well enough to know how many drinks to pay for. It ain't that."
"Well, then, out with it. What is it? Have n't been up to anything, have you?"
The desire came to Joe to tell this man the whole truth, just what was the matter, and so to relieve his heart. On the impulse he did. If he had expected much from Sadness he was disappointed, for not a muscle of the man's face changed during the entire recital.
When it was over, he looked at his companion critically through a wreath of smoke. Then he said: "For a fellow who has had for a full year the advantage of the education of the New York clubs, you are strangely young. Let me see, you are nineteen or twenty now--yes. Well, that perhaps accounts for it. It 's a pity you were n't born older. It 's a pity most men are n't. They would n't have to take so much time and lose so many good things learning. Now, Mr. Hamilton, let me tell you, and you will pardon me for it, that you are a fool. Your case is n't half as bad as that of nine-tenths of the fellows that hang around here. Now, for instance, my father was hung."
Joe started and gave a gasp of horror.
"Oh, yes, but it was done with a very good rope and by the best citizens of Texas, so it seems that I really ought to be very grateful to them for the distinction they conferred upon my family, but I am not. I am ungratefully sad. A man must be very high or very low to take the sensible view of life that keeps him from being sad. I must confess that I have aspired to the depths without ever being fully able to reach them.
"Now look around a bit. See that little girl over there? That 's Viola. Two years ago she wrenched up an iron stool from the floor of a lunch-room, and killed another woman with it. She 's nineteen,--just about your age, by the way. Well, she had friends with a certain amount of pull. She got out of it, and no one thinks the worse of Viola. You see, Hamilton, in this life we are all suffering from fever, and no one edges away from the other because he finds him a little warm. It 's dangerous when you 're not used to it; but once you go through the parching process, you become inoculated against further contagion. Now, there 's Barney over there, as decent a fellow as I know; but he has been indicted twice for pocket-picking. A half-dozen fellows whom you meet here every night have killed their man. Others have done worse things for which you respect them less. Poor Wallace, who is just coming in, and who looks like a jaunty ragpicker, came here about six months ago with about two thousand dollars, the proceeds from the sale of a house his father had left him. He 'll sleep in one of the club chairs to-night, and not from choice. He spent his two thousand learning. But, after all, it was a good investment. It was like buying an annuity. He begins to know already how to live on others as they have lived on him. The plucked bird's beak is sharpened for other's feathers. From now on Wallace will live, eat, drink, and sleep at the expense of others, and will forget to mourn his lost money. He will go on this way until, broken and useless, the poor-house or the potter's field gets him. Oh, it 's a fine, rich life, my lad. I know you 'll like it. I said you would the first time I saw you. It has plenty of stir in it, and a man never gets lonesome. Only the rich are lonesome. It 's only the independent who depend upon others."
Sadness laughed a peculiar laugh, and there was a look in his terribly bright eyes that made Joe creep. If he could only have understood all that the man was saying to him, he might even yet have turned back. But he did n't. He ordered another drink. The only effect that the talk of Sadness had upon him was to make him feel wonderfully "in it." It gave him a false bravery, and he mentally told himself that now he would not be afraid to face Hattie.
He put out his hand to Sadness with a knowing look. "Thanks, Sadness," he said, "you 've helped me lots."
Sadness brushed the proffered hand away and sprung up. "You lie," he cried, "I have n't; I was only fool enough to try;" and he turned hastily away from the table.
Joe looked surprised at first, and then laughed at his friend's retreating form. "Poor old fellow," he said, "drunk again. Must have had something before he came in."
There was not a lie in all that Sadness had said either as to their crime or their condition. He belonged to a peculiar class,--one that grows larger and larger each year in New York and which has imitators in every large city in this country. It is a set which lives, like the leech, upon the blood of others,--that draws its life from the veins of foolish men and immoral women, that prides itself upon its well-dressed idleness and has no shame in its voluntary pauperism. Each member of the class knows every other, his methods and his limitations, and their loyalty one to another makes of them a great hulking, fashionably uniformed fraternity of indolence. Some play the races a few months of the year; others, quite as intermittently, gamble at "shoestring" politics, and waver from party to party as time or their interests seem to dictate. But mostly they are like the lilies of the field.
It was into this set that Sadness had sarcastically invited Joe, and Joe felt honoured. He found that all of his former feelings had been silly and quite out of place; that all he had learned in his earlier years was false. It was very plain to him now that to want a good reputation was the sign of unpardonable immaturity, and that dishonour was the only real thing worth while. It made him feel better.
He was just rising bravely to swagger out to the theatre when Minty Brown came in with one of the club-men he knew. He bowed and smiled, but she appeared not to notice him at first, and when she did she nudged her companion and laughed.
Suddenly his little courage began to ooze out, and he knew what she must be saying to the fellow at her side, for he looked over at him and grinned. Where now was the philosophy of Sadness? Evidently Minty had not been brought under its educating influences, and thought about the whole matter in the old, ignorant way. He began to think of it too. Somehow old teachings and old traditions have an annoying way of coming back upon us in the critical moments of life, although one has long ago recognised how much truer and better some newer ways of thinking are. But Joe would not allow Minty to shatter his dreams by bringing up these old notions. She must be instructed.
He rose and went over to her table.
"Why, Minty," he said, offering his hand, "you ain't mad at me, are you?"
"Go on away f'om hyeah," she said angrily; "I don't want none o' thievin' Berry Hamilton's fambly to speak to me."
"Why, you were all right this evening."
"Yes, but jest out o' pity, an' you was nice 'cause you was afraid I 'd tell on you. Go on now."
"Go on now," said Minty's young man; and he looked menacing.
Joe, what little self-respect he had gone, slunk out of the room and needed several whiskeys in a neighbouring saloon to give him courage to go to the theatre and wait for Hattie, who was playing in vaudeville houses pending the opening of her company.
The closing act was just over when he reached the stage door. He was there but a short time, when Hattie tripped out and took his arm. Her face was bright and smiling, and there was no suggestion of disgust in the dancing eyes she turned up to him. Evidently she had not heard, but the thought gave him no particular pleasure, as it left him in suspense as to how she would act when she should hear.
"Let 's go somewhere and get some supper," she said; "I 'm as hungry as I can be. What are you looking so cut up about?"
"Oh, I ain't feelin' so very good."
"I hope you ain't lettin' that long-tongued Brown woman bother your head, are you?"
His heart seemed to stand still. She did know, then.
"Do you know all about it?"
"Why, of course I do. You might know she 'd come to me first with her story."
"And you still keep on speaking to me?"
"Now look here, Joe, if you 've been drinking, I 'll forgive you; if you ain't, you go on and leave me. Say, what do you take me for? Do you think I 'd throw down a friend because somebody else talked about him? Well, you don't know Hat Sterling. When Minty told me that story, she was back in my dressing-room, and I sent her out o' there a-flying, and with a tongue-lashing that she won't forget for a month o' Sundays."
"I reckon that was the reason she jumped on me so hard at the club." He chuckled. He had taken heart again. All that Sadness had said was true, after all, and people thought no less of him. His joy was unbounded.
"So she jumped on you hard, did she? The cat!"
"Oh, she did n't say a thing to me."
"Well, Joe, it 's just like this. I ain't an angel, you know that, but I do try to be square, and whenever I find a friend of mine down on his luck, in his pocket-book or his feelings, why, I give him my flipper. Why, old chap, I believe I like you better for the stiff upper lip you 've been keeping under all this."
"Why, Hattie," he broke out, unable any longer to control himself, "you 're--you 're----"
"Oh, I 'm just plain Hat Sterling, who won't throw down her friends. Now come on and get something to eat. If that thing is at the club, we 'll go there and show her just how much her talk amounted to. She thinks she 's the whole game, but I can spot her and then show her that she ain't one, two, three."
When they reached the Banner, they found Minty still there. She tried on the two the same tactics that she had employed so successfully upon Joe alone. She nudged her companion and tittered. But she had another person to deal with. Hattie Sterling stared at her coldly and indifferently, and passed on by her to a seat. Joe proceeded to order supper and other things in the nonchalant way that the woman had enjoined upon him. Minty began to feel distinctly uncomfortable, but it was her business not to be beaten. She laughed outright. Hattie did not seem to hear her. She was beckoning Sadness to her side. He came and sat down.
"Now look here," she said, "you can't have any supper because you have n't reached the stage of magnificent hunger to make a meal palatable to you. You 've got so used to being nearly starved that a meal don't taste good to you under any other circumstances. You 're in on the drinks, though. Your thirst is always available.--Jack," she called down the long room to the bartender, "make it three.--Lean over here, I want to talk to you. See that woman over there by the wall? No, not that one,--the big light woman with Griggs. Well, she 's come here with a story trying to throw Joe down, and I want you to help me do her."
"Oh, that 's the one that upset our young friend, is it?" said Sadness, turning his mournful eyes upon Minty.
"That 's her. So you know about it, do you?"
"Yes, and I 'll help do her. She must n't touch one of the fraternity, you know." He kept his eyes fixed upon the outsider until she squirmed. She could not at all understand this serious conversation directed at her. She wondered if she had gone too far and if they contemplated putting her out. It made her uneasy.
Now, this same Miss Sterling had the faculty of attracting a good deal of attention when she wished to. She brought it into play to-night, and in ten minutes, aided by Sadness, she had a crowd of jolly people about her table. When, as she would have expressed it, "everything was going fat," she suddenly paused and, turning her eyes full upon Minty, said in a voice loud enough for all to hear,--
"Say, boys, you 've heard that story about Joe, have n't you?"
"Well, that 's the one that told it; she 's come here to try to throw him and me down. Is she going to do it?"
"Well, I guess not!" was the rousing reply, and every face turned towards the now frightened Minty. She rose hastily and, getting her skirts together, fled from the room, followed more leisurely by the crestfallen Griggs. Hattie's laugh and "Thank you, fellows," followed her out.
Matters were less easy for Joe's mother and sister than they were for him. A week or more after this, Kitty found him and told him that Minty's story had reached their employers and that they were out of work.
"You see, Joe," she said sadly, "we 've took a flat since we moved from Mis' Jones', and we had to furnish it. We 've got one lodger, a race-horse man, an' he 's mighty nice to ma an' me, but that ain't enough. Now we 've got to do something."
Joe was so smitten with sorrow that he gave her a dollar and promised to speak about the matter to a friend of his.
He did speak about it to Hattie.
"You 've told me once or twice that your sister could sing. Bring her down here to me, and if she can do anything, I 'll get her a place on the stage," was Hattie's answer.
When Kitty heard it she was radiant, but her mother only shook her head and said, "De las' hope, de las' hope."