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THE VISION SPLENDID (chapter21)

2006-08-28 23:39

    CHAPTER 21

    Many a man has kept his self-respect through a long lifetime of decalog breaking, only to go to smash like a crushed eggshell when he commits the crime of being found out. ——From the Note Book of a Dreamer.

    THE HERO IS PAINED TO FIND THAT EVEN IN A WELLREGULATED WORLD THE GODS ARE JUST, AND OF OUR PLEASANT VICES MAKE INSTRUMENTS TO PLAGUE US

    Going back across the park Jeff trod the hilltops. He was not thinking about society, except that small unit of it represented by a slender, golden girl who had just bidden him good-bye. And because his heart sang within him his footsteps turned toward the office of his cousin. There had been between them of late an estrangement. Since the lawyer had been appointed general attorney for the Transcontinental and had formed a partnership with Scott, thus bringing to the firm the business of the public utility corporations, James had not found much time for Jeff. He was a member of the most important law firm on the Pacific Coast, judged by the business it was doing, and he had definitely cut loose politically from his former associates. His cousin blamed himself for the change in their personal relations, and he meant to bring things back to the old basis if he could.

    It was past office hours, but a light in the window of the junior member's private office gave promise that James might be in. Leaving the elevator at the fourth floor, he walked down the corridor toward the suite occupied by the firm.

    Before he reached the door Jeff stopped. Something unusual was happening within. There came to him the sounds of shuffling feet, of furniture being smashed, of an angry oath. Almost at once there was a thud, as if something heavy had fallen. The listener judged that a live body was thrashing around actively. The impact of blows, a heavy grunt, a second stifled curse, decided Farnum. Pushing through the outer office, he entered the one usually occupied by James.

    Two men were on the floor, one astride of the other. The man on top

    was driving home heavy jarring blows against his opponent's face and head. Jeff ran forward and dragged him away.

    "Good heavens, Sam! What's the matter?" his friend demanded in surprise.

    Miller waited panting, his fists still doubled, the lust of battle in his eyes.

    "The damned cad! The damned cad!" was all he could get out.

    From the floor James Farnum was rising. His forehead, his cheek, and his lips were bleeding from cuts. One of his eyes was closing rapidly. There was a dogged look of fear in the battered face.

    "I tripped over a chair, he explained, glaring at his foe.

    "Damn you then, stand up and fight!"

    Disgust and annoyance were pictured on the damaged countenance of the lawyer. "I don't fight with riff raff from the streets."

    With a lurch Miller was free from Jeff and at him again. James lashed straight out and cut open his lip without stopping him. Jeff wrenched the furious man back again. A moment later he made a discovery. The fear of his cousin was not physical.

    "Here! Stop it, man! What's the row about?" Jeff hung on with a strangle hold while he fired his questions.

    Sam turned a distorted face toward him. "Nellie."

    The truth crashed home like a bolt of lightning. James was the man who had betrayed Nellie Anderson. The thing was incredible, but Jeff knew instantly it was so.

    Except where the blood streamed down it the face of the lawyer was colorless. His lips twitched.

    "Is this true, James?"

    The sullen eyes of the detected man fell. "It will ruin me. It will ruin my career. And all because in a moment of fearful temptation I yielded, God help me."

    "God help you!" The angry scorn in Miller's voice burned like vitriol. "God help you! you selfish villain and coward! You pursued her! You hounded her. You made your own temptation——and hers. And afterward you left her to bear a lifetime of shame——to kill herself if she couldn't stand

    it. When I think of you, smug liar and hell hound, I know that killing isn't

    good enough for you."

    "Steady, old man," counseled Jeff.

    Miller began to tremble violently. Tears gathered in his eyes and coursed down his fat cheeks. "And I can't stamp him out. I can't expose him without hurting her worse. I've got to stand it without touching him."

    Faintly Jeff smiled. James did not look quite untouched. He was a much battered statue of virtue, his large dignity for once torn to shreds.

    Miller flung himself down heavily in a chair and buried his face in his hands. James began to talk, and as he talked his fluency came back to him.

    "It's the only stain on my life record . . . the only one. My life has been an open book but for that. I was only a boy——and I made a slip. Ought that to spoil my whole life, a splendid career of usefulness for the city and the state? Ought I to be branded for that one error?"

    Miller looked up whitely. "Shut up, you liar! If it had been a slip you would have stood by her, you would have married the girl you had ruined. But you left her——to death or worse. She was loyal to you. She kept your secret, you damned villain. I wrung it out of her to-day when I went home only by pretending that I knew…… And you let Jeff bear the blame of it without saying a word. I know now why her name wasn't unearthed by the reporters. You killed the story because you were afraid the truth would leak out. You haven't a straight hair in your head. You sold out Jeff's bill. You're for yourself first and last, no matter who pays the price."

    "That's your interpretation of my career. But what does Verden think of me? No man stands higher among the best people of the community."

    "To hell with you and your best people. I say you're nothing but a whited sepulchre," snarled Miller.

    Suddenly he reached for his hat and left the office. He was stifling.

    He knew that if he stayed he could not keep his hands from his enemy's throat.

    James wrung his hands. "My God, Jeff, it's awful! To think that a little fault should come out now to ruin me. After I've gone so far and am on the way to bigger things. It's ghastly luck. Can't you do something? Can't you keep the fellow quiet? I'll pay anything in reason."

    Jeff looked at him steadily. "I wouldn't say that to him if I were you."

    "Oh, I don't know what I'm saying." He mopped the blood from his face with a handkerchief. "I'm half crazy. Did he mark me up badly?" James examined himself anxiously in the glass. "He's just chopped my face to pieces. I'll have to get out of the city to-night and stay away till the marks are gone. But the main point is to keep him from talking. Can you do it?"

    For once Jeff's toleration failed him. "He's right. You are a selfish beggar. Don't you ever think of anyone except yourself?"

    "I'm not thinking of myself at all, but of——of someone else. You're wronging me, Jeff. This is not the time to go back on me, now that I'm in trouble. You've got to help me out. You've got to keep Miller quiet. If he talks I'm done for."

    His cousin looked at him with contemptuous eyes. "Can't you see-haven't you fineness enough to see that Sam Miller would cut an arm off before he would expose his wife to more talk? Your precious secret's safe."

    "It's all very well for you to talk that way," James complained. "I don't suppose you ever were put into temptation by a woman. You're not a lady's man. I'm the kind they take a shine to for some reason. Now this Anderson woman——"

    Sharply Jeff cut in. "That's enough. When you speak of her it won't be in that tone of voice. You'll speak respectfully of her. She's the wife of my friend; and before she met you was innocent as a child."

    "What do you know of her? I tell you, Jeff, there's a type of woman that's always smiling round the corner at you. I don't say I did right to yield to her. Of course I didn't. But, hang it, I'm not a block of wood. I've got red blood in my veins. The whip of youth drove me on. You've probably never noticed it, but she was a devilish pretty girl."

    He was swimming into his phrases so fluently that Jeff knew he would soon persuade himself that he had been the victim of her wiles. So, no doubt, in one sense, he had. She had laid her innocent bait to win his friendship, with never a thought of what was to come of it.

    "It happened of course while you were rooming there," the editor shot at him.

    James nodded sullenly.

    His cousin knew now that more than once he had put away doubts of James. When Sam Miller told him of her disappearance he had thought of the lawyer and had dismissed his suspicions as unworthy. He had always believed James to be a more moral man than himself, and he had turned his own back on the temptation lest it might prove too great for him. It would have been better for Nellie if he had stayed and fought it out to a finish.

    James began further explanations. "Look at it the way it is. She put herself in my way."

    Two steps carried Jeff to him. Without touching James he stood close to him, arms rigid and eyes blazing. "Don't say that again, you liar. You ruined her life. You let her suffer. She might have died for all of you. She nursed your child and never whispered the name of its father. Sam Miller is charging himself with the keep of your daughter. Do you think she hasn't paid a hundred times for her mistake? Now, by God, keep your mouth shut! Be decent enough not to fling mud at her, you of all men."

    James shrugged his shoulders and turned away in petulant disgust. "I see. You've heard her side of it and you've made up your mind. All right. I've nothing more to say."

    "I've never heard her side of it. Her own mother doesn't know the truth. Sam didn't know not till to-day. But I know her——and now I know you."

    "That's no way to talk, Jeff. I admit I did wrong. Can a man say more than that? Do you want me to crawl on my hands and knees?"

    "It's easy for you to forgive yourself."

    "Maybe you think I haven't suffered too. I've lain awake nights worrying over this."

    "Yes. For fear you might be found out."

    "I intended to look out for the girl, but she disappeared without letting me know where she was going. What could I do?" The lawyer was studying his face very carefully in the glass. "My face is a sight. It will be weeks before that eye is fit to be seen."

    Jeff turned away and left him. He walked to his rooms and found his uncle waiting for him. Robert Farnum had sold out his interests in

    Arkansas and returned to Verden with the intention of buying a small mill in the vicinity. Meanwhile he had the apartment next to the one used by his nephew.

    "Seen anything of James lately?" he inquired as they started down the street to dinner.

    "Yes. I saw him to-day. He's leaving town for a week or so."

    "On business, I suppose. He didn't mention it when I saw him Wednesday."

    "It's a matter that came up suddenly, I understand."

    The father agreed proudly. There were moments when he had doubts of James, but he always stifled them by remembering what a splendid success he was. "Probably something nobody else could attend to but him."

    "Exactly."

    "It's amazing how that boy gets along. His firm has the cream of the corporation business of Verden. I never saw anything like it."

    The younger man assented, rather wearily. Somehow to-night he did not feel like sounding the praises of James.

    His uncle's kindly gaze rested on him. "Tired, boy?"

    "I think I am a little. I'll be all right after we've had something to eat."

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