Five years is but a short time in the life of a man, and yet many things may happen therein. For instance, the whole way of a family's life may be changed. Good natures may be made into bad ones and out of a soul of faith grow a spirit of unbelief. The independence of respectability may harden into the insolence of defiance, and the sensitive cheek of modesty into the brazen face of shamelessness. It may be true that the habits of years are hard to change, but this is not true of the first sixteen or seventeen years of a young person's life, else Kitty Hamilton and Joe could not so easily have become what they were. It had taken barely five years to accomplish an entire metamorphosis of their characters. In Joe's case even a shorter time was needed. He was so ready to go down that it needed but a gentle push to start him, and once started, there was nothing within him to hold him back from the depths. For his will was as flabby as his conscience, and his pride, which stands to some men for conscience, had no definite aim or direction.
Hattie Sterling had given him both his greatest impulse for evil and for good. She had at first given him his gentle push, but when she saw that his collapse would lose her a faithful and useful slave she had sought to check his course. Her threat of the severance of their relations had held him up for a little time, and she began to believe that he was safe again. He went back to the work he had neglected, drank moderately, and acted in most things as a sound, sensible being. Then, all of a sudden, he went down again, and went down badly. She kept her promise and threw him over. Then he became a hanger-on at the clubs, a genteel loafer. He used to say in his sober moments that at last he was one of the boys that Sadness had spoken of. He did not work, and yet he lived and ate and was proud of his degradation. But he soon tired of being separated from Hattie, and straightened up again. After some demur she received him upon his former footing. It was only for a few months. He fell again. For almost four years this had happened intermittently. Finally he took a turn for the better that endured so long that Hattie Sterling again gave him her faith. Then the woman made her mistake. She warmed to him. She showed him that she was proud of him. He went forth at once to celebrate his victory. He did not return to her for three days. Then he was battered, unkempt, and thick of speech.
She looked at him in silent contempt for a while as he sat nursing his aching head.
"Well, you 're a beauty," she said finally with cutting scorn. "You ought to be put under a glass case and placed on exhibition."
He groaned and his head sunk lower. A drunken man is always disarmed.
His helplessness, instead of inspiring her with pity, inflamed her with an unfeeling anger that burst forth in a volume of taunts.
"You 're the thing I 've given up all my chances for--you, a miserable, drunken jay, without a jay's decency. No one had ever looked at you until I picked you up and you 've been strutting around ever since, showing off because I was kind to you, and now this is the way you pay me back. Drunk half the time and half drunk the rest. Well, you know what I told you the last time you got 'loaded'? I mean it too. You 're not the only star in sight, see?"
She laughed meanly and began to sing, "You 'll have to find another baby now."
For the first time he looked up, and his eyes were full of tears--tears both of grief and intoxication. There was an expression of a whipped dog on his face.
"Do'--Ha'ie, do'--" he pleaded, stretching out his hands to her.
Her eyes blazed back at him, but she sang on insolently, tauntingly.
The very inanity of the man disgusted her, and on a sudden impulse she sprang up and struck him full in the face with the flat of her hand. He was too weak to resist the blow, and, tumbling from the chair, fell limply to the floor, where he lay at her feet, alternately weeping aloud and quivering with drunken, hiccoughing sobs.
"Get up!" she cried; "get up and get out o' here. You sha'n't lay around my house."
He had already begun to fall into a drunken sleep, but she shook him, got him to his feet, and pushed him outside the door. "Now, go, you drunken dog, and never put your foot inside this house again."
He stood outside, swaying dizzily upon his feet and looking back with dazed eyes at the door, then he muttered: "Pu' me out, wi' you? Pu' me out, damn you! Well, I ki' you. See 'f I don't;" and he half walked, half fell down the street.
Sadness and Skaggsy were together at the club that night. Five years had not changed the latter as to wealth or position or inclination, and he was still a frequent visitor at the Banner. He always came in alone now, for Maudie had gone the way of all the half-world, and reached depths to which Mr. Skaggs's job prevented him from following her. However, he mourned truly for his lost companion, and to-night he was in a particularly pensive mood.
Some one was playing rag-time on the piano, and the dancers were wheeling in time to the music. Skaggsy looked at them regretfully as he sipped his liquor. It made him think of Maudie. He sighed and turned away.
"I tell you, Sadness," he said impulsively, "dancing is the poetry of motion."
"Yes," replied Sadness, "and dancing in rag-time is the dialect poetry."
The reporter did not like this. It savoured of flippancy, and he was about entering upon a discussion to prove that Sadness had no soul, when Joe, with blood-shot eyes and dishevelled clothes, staggered in and reeled towards them.
"Drunk again," said Sadness. "Really, it 's a waste of time for Joe to sober up. Hullo there!" as the young man brought up against him; "take a seat." He put him in a chair at the table. "Been lushin' a bit, eh?"
"Gi' me some'n' drink."
"Oh, a hair of the dog. Some men shave their dogs clean, and then have hydrophobia. Here, Jack!"
They drank, and then, as if the whiskey had done him good, Joe sat up in his chair.
"Ha'ie 's throwed me down."
"Lucky dog! You might have known it would have happened sooner or later. Better sooner than never."
Skaggs smoked in silence and looked at Joe.
"I 'm goin' to kill her."
"I would n't if I were you. Take old Sadness's advice and thank your stars that you 're rid of her."
"I 'm goin' to kill her." He paused and looked at them drowsily. Then, bracing himself up again, he broke out suddenly, "Say, d' ever tell y' 'bout the ol' man? He never stole that money. Know he di' n'."
He threatened to fall asleep now, but the reporter was all alert. He scented a story.
"By Jove!" he exclaimed, "did you hear that? Bet the chap stole it himself and 's letting the old man suffer for it. Great story, ain't it? Come, come, wake up here. Three more, Jack. What about your father?"
"Father? Who's father. Oh, do' bother me. What?"
"Here, here, tell us about your father and the money. If he did n't steal it, who did?"
"Who did? Tha' 's it, who did? Ol' man di' n' steal it, know he di' n'."
"Oh, let him alone, Skaggsy, he don't know what he 's saying."
"Yes, he does, a drunken man tells the truth."
"In some cases," said Sadness.
"Oh, let me alone, man. I 've been trying for years to get a big sensation for my paper, and if this story is one, I 'm a made man."
The drink seemed to revive the young man again, and by bits Skaggs was able to pick out of him the story of his father's arrest and conviction. At its close he relapsed into stupidity, murmuring, "She throwed me down."
"Well," sneered Sadness, "you see drunken men tell the truth, and you don't seem to get much guilt out of our young friend. You 're disappointed, are n't you?"
"I confess I am disappointed, but I 've got an idea, just the same."
"Oh, you have? Well, don't handle it carelessly; it might go off." And Sadness rose. The reporter sat thinking for a time and then followed him, leaving Joe in a drunken sleep at the table. There he lay for more than two hours. When he finally awoke, he started up as if some determination had come to him in his sleep. A part of the helplessness of his intoxication had gone, but his first act was to call for more whiskey. This he gulped down, and followed with another and another. For a while he stood still, brooding silently, his red eyes blinking at the light. Then he turned abruptly and left the club.
It was very late when he reached Hattie's door, but he opened it with his latch-key, as he had been used to do. He stopped to help himself to a glass of brandy, as he had so often done before. Then he went directly to her room. She was a light sleeper, and his step awakened her.
"Who is it?" she cried in affright.
"It 's me." His voice was steadier now, but grim.
"What do you want? Did n't I tell you never to come here again? Get out or I 'll have you taken out."
She sprang up in bed, glaring angrily at him.
His hands twitched nervously, as if her will were conquering him and he were uneasy, but he held her eye with his own.
"You put me out to-night," he said.
"Yes, and I 'm going to do it again. You 're drunk."
She started to rise, but he took a step towards her and she paused. He looked as she had never seen him look before. His face was ashen and his eyes like fire and blood. She quailed beneath the look. He took another step towards her.
"You put me out to-night," he repeated, "like a dog."
His step was steady and his tone was clear, menacingly clear. She shrank back from him, back to the wall. Still his hands twitched and his eye held her. Still he crept slowly towards her, his lips working and his hands moving convulsively.
"Joe, Joe!" she said hoarsely, "what 's the matter? Oh, don't look at me like that."
The gown had fallen away from her breast and showed the convulsive fluttering of her heart.
He broke into a laugh, a dry, murderous laugh, and his hands sought each other while the fingers twitched over one another like coiling serpents.
"You put me out--you--you, and you made me what I am." The realisation of what he was, of his foulness and degradation, seemed just to have come to him fully. "You made me what I am, and then you sent me away. You let me come back, and now you put me out."
She gazed at him fascinated. She tried to scream and she could not. This was not Joe. This was not the boy that she had turned and twisted about her little finger. This was a terrible, terrible man or a monster.
He moved a step nearer her. His eyes fell to her throat. For an instant she lost their steady glare and then she found her voice. The scream was checked as it began. His fingers had closed over her throat just where the gown had left it temptingly bare. They gave it the caress of death. She struggled. They held her. Her eyes prayed to his. But his were the fire of hell. She fell back upon her pillow in silence. He had not uttered a word. He held her. Finally he flung her from him like a rag, and sank into a chair. And there the officers found him when Hattie Sterling's disappearance had become a strange thing.