OLD CYRUS MARTIN, the soap king, sat in his library in no very contented frame of mind. There was a thorn in his flesh and he began to feel it more and more. It was not an agreeable sensation, a thorn in the flesh, for a soap king whose cuticle was not accustomed to it.
The fact was that Mr. Cyrus Martin, sixty-five years old, richer than it is wholesome for most people to be, in fairly good health, except for a touch of real or imaginary gout now and then, enjoying his semi-retirement from an old established and lucrative business, was nevertheless conscious this afternoon of a distinct subcurrent of irritation. He traced it more or less vaguely to his meeting that morning with his old friend and rival in the soap business, John Clark., They had fallen in with each other, as often happened, at the Directors’ Club, about lunch time, and had one of their half friendly, half hostile chats together. And to make a long story short, Martin had bet Clark thirty thousand dollars that his son, Rodney Martin, would be making more money in a year’s time than Clark’s son Ellery. As neither boy had ever made a penny in his life, unless betting on a football game or winning a jackpot could be called making money, there was a fairly sporty flavor to the bargain.
The Directors’ Club was one of those sumptuous rich men’s lunch associations that are fairly numerous in the lower regions of Manhattan. It occupied a triad of floors in a skyscraper situate in that extremity of the Island where the East River and the North converge. From its windows, as the doughty magnates, its members, sat in the fine lounging rooms, superb views of the harbor were revealed, sharp and clear even through the haze of expensive cigars that floated lazily upward to the high ceilings. Old John Clark had come in and thrown himself into the huge cavern of a brown leather armchair near Martin’s, with a cup of garnet-colored coffee in a tabouret at his elbow, and in no time at all was on his favorite topic of Ellery, that young prodigy of a son of his (in Clark’s estimation) which was sure to crop up with the last two inches of his Havana. The joke of it was that Ellery’s business ability was entirely a figment of the paternal imagination. To Mr. Martin, Ellery always seemed, as he used to say, ” a nasty, egotistical, self-satisfied young puppy.” Nevertheless the bits of business lore, and anecdotes of sagacity and trade that Clark represented as coming from the precocious lips of the marvelous Ellery had finally goaded old Mar-tin into fury. He, at least, knew that Rodney was a nincompoop in business, if he was his son; he had no illusions about that. But the comparisons had reached a point finally beyond which he would not let them proceed unchallenged, and so he had made his ridiculous wager, and must abide by it. As he reviewed the matter in his own library, in the let down mood of five o’clock, the memory of it all was enough to make his lunch rankle and impair digestion, a very unfortunate state of affairs for sedentary old gentlemen like retired soap kings. The prospect of turning over thirty thou-sand dollars to John Clark in a year’s time, and admitting Rodney’s incompetence to boot, was devilish.
What was the matter with rich men’s sons anyway? thought Cyrus Martin. Rodney’s father had not spoiled him: his father’s conscience was clear on that point’ at least. Perhaps he had not spoiled him enough : his mother used to think so. Perhaps his mother, had she lived, with that new ous way she had of prodding people on, would have been of benefit when mere sternness had failed. Rodney’s mother was the subject of occasional practical regrets such as these on her husband’s part, though otherwise she was one of those formally enshrined memories before which he did not always candidly raise his eyes and read the truth. She had not been his first love, but she had been a faithful and devoted wife; she had borne him only one son and heir for all his millions, but she had brought him social distinction and rank in that vaguely defined but inescapable nobility of New York democracy. It had been her idea to send Rodney to a fashionable school. Had he not indeed been entered there at birth, with a good bit of quiet trumpeting over feminine tea-cups in the drawing-room, and tall masculine glasses at the club? And from school he had naturally gone to college, though his father could not honestly see that these four years of expensive tuition had increased his efficiency by one per cent. The boy had spent more money in college each year than the sum total of his father’s and mother’s expenses during the first childless years of their married life; not necessarily on fast living, his father was reasonably sure of that, but for luxuries and gewgaws at which young men in the old days would have turned up their noses. Rodney’s father had not gone to college himself, though his parents could have sent him. He was not altogether a self-made man. His own father, Rodney’s grand-father, a country banker in Connecticut, had left him the heritage of a modest fortune and thrifty habits, and in the soap king’s mind now these seemed more to be thankful for than half a dozen college professors and their snap courses. Yet there was nothing particular the matter with Rodney’s inheritance and environment; there was just something lacking in the boy himself.
Compare Rodney, for instance, with young Rufus Plodman, son of old Elihu Plodman of the Rock Rib Wire and Iron Works. Rufus was one of the liveliest young men in the business world, married to a nice wife and with a family, growing up already; his name was beginning to be mentioned more and more. Then there was Chauncey Brinkhurst, who took the burden of the Excelsior National Bank almost entirely off old Brinkhurst’s shoulders; and a good thing for the depositors too. There was even Will J. Robin-son Jr. of the Pulver Dye Works Company, who had brought in orders that set the concern on its feet, there was good reason to believe, in just the nick of time. Compare all these and a good few others with his own young hopeful, and which name got the best of it?
What was it? Was there really something lacking in Rodney, or had he just escaped the combination that would throw open the abilities locked up in him? Old Cyrus Martin could not help chafing at the thought of Rodney going through life without definite aim or distinction. He could not bear to think of his being just a social butterfly, fluttering from one fashionable rendezvous to another, an unproductive laborer to the end. Had he not read of some young Englishman of title who had gone down in the book of fame as an amateur dancer? Heaven forbid that Rodney should live in history as a chaser of tango teas.
The boy was attractive too; his father had al-ways liked him. Perhaps that was’ one of the chief troubles. Even as a little child he had never flown into tempers or had hateful ways. His own winning and non-combative disposition had been the chief means, no doubt, of warding off the disciplines of life. He was amiable and good-looking in an unobtrusive way, and everybody liked him. To look at him impartially you would not have thought he lacked character, unless you yielded too much to your prejudice against a slight lisp and an otherwise somewhat finicky way of talking. He did not run into debt now, or over-draw his allowance, or at any rate not very much; he had never done so much, and in college he had got fairly good marks, as nearly as his father could make out, and had won his degree of A. B. without too obvious difficulty. Didn’t the precious sheepskin hang framed on the wall of his room, surrounded by a veritable picture gallery of college glee clubs and elevens and nines? Cyrus Martin had been credibly informed that you could not actually graduate from Harvard or Yale or Princeton without some portion of mentality. Where did it show itself in Rodney? As a boy he had had his flashes of cleverness and wit; what propensity had been revealed in them? Ran-sacking his memories, old Martin could not remember what they were; had they been merely the subjective readings of fond parents’ minds? Why was Rodney so different from old Clark’s boy Ellery?
Well, perhaps Clark was a good deal of a bluffer in this instance. Martin must call the bluff and win out somehow in the matter of this bet, or his life would not be worth living.
He rang the bell sharply for Johnson, his butler, prepared to have a pretty sharp twinge of gout if the summons was not promptly answered.
” Any one call this afternoon, Johnson? ” he asked, when that silent-footed dignitary appeared.
Johnson took a silver tray from the table near the hall door and glanced downward at it stiffly. ” The Countess de Beaurien,” he said, impassively.
Who the Devil’s she? ” asked Mr. Martin.
” I don’t know, sir. She couldn’t speak a word of anything but French. Marie was off today, sir, and nobody else could get anything out of her. She claims she had a letter of introduction to you from your Paris partner, Monsieur Rivard.”
” Has Rivard lost his mind? ” muttered Martin. “Was she old or young or pretty or what? ”
” I couldn’t say, sir. You can’t sometimes always tell with them French ladies, sir.”
“A letter from Rivard? ” muttered Martin. ” I don’t believe it. He’s never given any one a letter to me without tipping me off. Johnson, hand me that fat red book in the lower right hand corner there.”
Johnson stooped obediently and extracted an Almanach de Gotha from the revolving bookcase. Mr. Martin took it and began turning over the leaves rapidly, observing as he did so:
” You know, Johnson, it’s easier to read French than speak it.”
So I understand, sir,” returned the butler. Beauclair, Beauvale oh, here she is, Beaurien. No, she is not. A fake, Johnson, just as I supposed. The Countess de Beaurien is seventy years old, and at her death the title becomes extinct. Was the lady this afternoon as old as seventy, Johnson? ”
” Oh no, sir. Not at all, sir.”
” Are you sure she asked for me and not Mr. Rodney? ”
” Quite sure, sir. Miss Grayson was here, sir, and can tell you. We had a time of it.”
” Some lady going into business to do America or the Americans,” was Mr. Martin’s inward comment. ” Anybody else? ” he added aloud.
” Yes, sir,” said Johnson. ” Mrs. Cheysemore. She left the blank for the Y.M.C.A. subscription.”
” I hope you remember that I’m always out for her, Johnson.”
” Yes, sir. I know, sir.”
Mr. Martin thought it really a little shameful how many times this pious lady came to see him, and he was a bit ashamed too for the whole mod-ern female sex to think how many others, her contemporaries, and at least her equals in looks, original or restored, would set their caps for an old widower like himself if they received the slightest encouragement. Some of them did not wait for the encouragement, of whom Mrs. Cheysemore was one, and they were religiously kept upon the out list by the redoubtable Johnson.
” And who else? Give me that tray.”
Mr. Martin took the salver and peered beneath the rims of his glasses at the bits of pasteboard. ” Ambrose Peale,” he read. Press representative : Belle of Broadway Company.”
” Now who was that, Johnson?
“He was calling on Mr. Rodney, sir,” said Johnson. ” He’s been here several times, but never left his card before.”
A press agent from a Broadway show after Rodney? The young man’s father groaned inwardly. Oh Lord, he thought, what next ! Visions of breach of promise, of black bird dinners, or even elopements, flashed through his mind. This settled it. Rodney simply must be anchored somehow.
” Is Mr. Rodney in, Johnson? ” was the next inquiry.
No, sir. Not now, sir.”
Do you know where he is now?”
From one to two he was at the Knickerbocker at lunch, sir. From two thirty to three he was at Farrell’s looking at a new hunter, sir. From four to five he’s at the Raquet Club, sir.”
” Good heavens, Johnson, how do you know all that? ” exclaimed Mr. Martin.
” Because he left the telephone numbers, sir, and I was to let him know if Miss Grayson came in, sir.”
” And has she been here, Miss Grayson? ”
Yes, sir, she’s been here since four o’clock,, sir, doing some typing. She’s still waiting for you.”
” Why the devil didn’t you say so, then? ” ” I was coming to her presently, sir.”
“Tell her to come in, then, to the library. And, Johnson, don’t you bother to ring up and tell Mr. Rodney anything, do you understand? ”
” Yes, sir. Nothing, sir.”
It was really faithless of Johnson, the soap king thought, to betray Rodney’s well-laid plans, but Rodney’s father had plans of his own in frustrating them. Let that silly ass Johnson think what he had a mind to : he didn’t want Mary Grayson for himself, and he didn’t care if she was poor. She came of good stock he had known her mother and there could be many a worse fate for Rodney than being caught in her net. He was ,not sure, in point of fact, if the girl wasn’t spreading her nets quietly. The old man was a shrewd judge of character, and there was an idea taking shape in the back of his mind that Mary Grayson might help him earn that thirty thousand dollars.
His library was a large square room, the whole width of the house and as many feet deep. The walls were lined with tapestries, and behind the leaded glass of the dark oak bookcases were many rows of leather bound volumes, not all of which the soap man pretended to have read. A fire of well dried wood burned brightly in the grate, for the September day had turned very cool, and a clock from Tiffany’s ticked and swung its diamond studded pendulum on the mantelpiece between the symmetrical candlesticks that flanked it on either side. Through the heavy curtains the rays of the setting sun came into the room across the Park, and the screeching of a motor bus every now and then drowned the ticking clock and the crackling wood. Old Martin sat and thought.
Mary Grayson ! Well, what made young men work? Love, sometimes, and poverty and necessity. The first might stir Rodney up, if not the second and third. But why not all three?
” She stoops to conquer,” he muttered to him-self. To tell the truth he had heard this phrase all his life without really taking in the meaning of it. Now he had seen the old farce comedy prettily played not long ago, and the hackneyed title of it had been ringing in his ears with rather a new meaning. Rodney might be made to stoop to be conquered to conquer himself and his laziness of a rich man’s son. On Mary Grayson’s part it was not really stooping if you considered Rodney’s mentality and character; he admitted it sourly. If Rodney could find an incentive in Mary Grayson, the stenographer, what did old man Martin care? He knew her for a good girl, as she was a pretty one, and nicer in speech and manners than some of the widows who made heavy eyes at him from the windows of their limousines. Lots of old fellows, he thought, might feel like making up to Mary themselves; and why not? Well, one reason for Cyrus Martin was that he had known her mother. Besides ” Did you want me, Mr. Martin?” said Miss Grayson quietly, interrupting his revery.