One day when the young Mathers had been married for about a year, Jaqueline walked inti the rooms of the hardware brekerage which her husband carried on with more than average success. At the open door of the inner office she stopped and said: “Oh, excuse me -” She had interrupted an apparently trivial yet somehow intriguing scene. A young man named Bronson whom she knew slightly was standing with her husband; the latter had risen from his desk. Bronson seized her husband’s hand and shook it earnestly—something more than earnestly. When they heard Jaqueline’s step in the doorway both men turned and Jaqueline saw that Bronson’s eyes were red.
A moment later he came out, passing her with a somewhat embarrassed “How do you do?” She walked into her husband’s office.
“What was Ed Bronson doing here?” she demanded curiously, and at once.
Jim Mather smiled at her, half shutting his gray eyes, and drew her quietly to a sitting position on his desk.
“He just dropped in for a minute,” he answered easily. “How’s everything at home?”
“All right.” She looked at him with curiosity. “What did he want?” she insisted.
“Oh, he just wanted to see me about something.”
“Oh, just something. Business.”
“Why were his eyes red?”
“Were they?” He looked at her innocently, and then suddenly they both began to laugh. Jaqueline rose and walked around the desk and plumped down into his swivel chair.
“You might as well tell me,” she announced cheerfully, “because I’m going to stay right here till you do.”
“Well -” he hesitated, frowning. “He wanted me to do him a little favor.”
Then Jaqueline understood, or rather her mind leaped half accidentally to the truth.
“Oh.” Her voice tightened a little. “You’ve been lending him some money.”
“Only a little.”
“Only three hundred.” “Only three hundred.” The voice was of the texture of Bessemer cooled. “How much do we spend a month, Jim?”
“Why—why, about five or six hundred, I guess.” He shifted uneasily.
“Listen, Jack. Bronson’ll pay that back. He’s in a little trouble. He’s made a mistake about a girl out in Woodmere-”
“And he knows you’re famous for being an easy mark, so he comes to you,” interrupted Jaqueline.
“No.” He denied this formally.
“Don’t you suppose I could use that three hundred dollars?” she demanded. “How about that trip to New York we couldn’t afford last November?”
The lingering smile faded from Mather’s face. He went over and shut the door to the outer office.
“Listen, Jack,” he began, “you don’t understand this. Bronson’s one of the men I eat lunch with almost every day. We used to play together when we were kids, we went to school together. Don’t you see that I’m just the person he’d be right to come to in trouble? And that’s just why I couldn’t refuse.”
Jaqueline gave her shoulders a twist as if to shake off this reasoning.
“Well,” she answered decidedly, “all I know is that he’s no good. He’s always lit and if he doesn’t choose to work he has no business living off the work you do.”
They were sitting now on either side of the desk, each having adopted the attitude of one talking to a child. They began their sentences with “Listen!” and their faces wore expressions of rather tried patience.
“If you can’t understand, I can’t tell you,” Mather concluded, at the end of fifteen minutes, on what was, for him, an irritated key. “Such obligations do happen to exist sometimes among men and they have to be met. It’s more complicated than just refusing to lend money, especially in a business like mine where so much depends on the good-will of men down-town.”
Mather was putting on his coat as he said this. He was going home with her on the street-car to lunch. They were between automobiles—they had sold their old one and were going to get a new one in the spring. Now the street-car, on this particular day, was distinctly unfortunate. The argument in the office might have been forgotten under other circumstances, but what followed irritated the scratch until it became a serious temperamental infection.
They found a seat near the front of the car. It was late February an eager, unpunctilious sun was turning the scrawny street snow into dirty, cheerful rivulets that echoed in the gutters. Because of this the car was less full than usual—there was no one standing. The motorman had even opened his window and a yellow breeze was blowing the late breath of winter from the car.
It occurred pleasurably to Jaqueline that her husband sitting beside her was handsome and kind above other men. It was silly to try to change him. Perhaps Bronson might return the money after all, and anyhow three hundred dollars wasn’t a fortune. Of course he had no business doing it—but then -
Her musings were interrupted as an eddy of passengers pushed up the aisle, Jaqueline wished they’d put their hands over their mouths when they coughed, and she hoped that Jim would get a new machine pretty soon. You couldn’t tell what disease you’d run into in these trolleys.
She turned to Jim to discuss the subject—but Jim had stood up and was offering his seat to a woman who had been standing beside him in the aisle. The woman, without so much as a grunt, sat down. Jaqueline frowned.
The woman was. about fifty and enormous. When she first sat down she was content merely to fill the unoccupied part of the seat, but after a moment she began to expand and to spread her great rolls of fat over a larger and larger area until the process took on the aspect of violent trespassing. When the car rocked in Jaqueline’s direction the woman slid with it, but when it rocked back she managed by some exercise of ingenuity to dig in and hold the ground won.
Jaqueline caught her husband’s eye—he was swaying on a strap—and in an angry glance conveyed to him her entire disapproval of his action. He apologized mutely and became urgently engrossed in a row of car cards. The fat woman moved once more against Jaqueline—she was now practically overlapping her. Then she turned puffy, disagreeable eyes full on Mrs. James Mather, and coughed rousingly in her face.
With a smothered exclamation Jaqueline got to her feet, squeezed with brisk violence past the fleshy knees, and made her way, pink with rage, toward the rear of the car. There she seized a strap, and there she was presently joined by her husband in a state of considerable alarm.
They exchanged no word, but stood silently side by side for ten minutes while a row of men sitting in front of them crackled their newspapers and kept their eyes fixed virtuously upon the day’s cartoons.
When they left the car at last Jaqueline exploded.
“You big fool!” she cried wildly. “Did you see that horrible woman you gave your seat to? Why don’t you consider me occasionally instead of every fat selfish washwoman you meet?”
“How should I know-”
But Jaqueline was as angy at him as she had ever been—it was unusual for anyone to get angry at him.
“You didn’t see any of those men getting up for me, did you? No—wonder you were too tired to go out last Monday night. You’d probably given your seat to some—to some horrible, Polish washwoman that’s strong as an ox and likes to stand up!”
They were walking along the slushy street stepping wildly into great pools of water. Confused and distressed, Mather could utter neither apology nor defense.
Jaqueline broke off and then turned to him with a curious light in her eyes. The words in which she couched her summary of the situation were probably the most disagreeable that had ever been addressed to him in his life.
“The trouble with you, Jim, the reason you’re such an easy mark, is that you’ve got the ideas of a college freshman—you’re a professional nice fellow.”
The incident and the unpleasantness were forgotten. Mather’s vast good nature had smoothed over the roughness within an hour. References to it fell with a dying cadence throughout several days—then ceased and tumbled into the limbo of oblivion. I say “limbo,” for oblivion is, unfortunately, never quite oblivious. The subject was drowned out by the fact that Jaqueline with her customary spirit and coolness began the long, arduous, up-hill business of bearing a child. Her natural traits and prejudices became intensified and she was less inclined to let things pass. It was April now, and as yet they had not bought a car. Mather had discovered that he was saving practically nothing and that in another half-year he would have a family on his hands. It worried him. A wrinkle—small, tentative, undisturbing—appeared for the first time as a shadow around his honest, friendly eyes. He worked far into the spring twilight now, and frequently brought home with him the overflow from his office day. The new car would have to be postponed for a while.
April afternoon, and all the city shopping on Washington Street. Jaqueline walked slowly past the shops, brooding without fear or depression on the shape into which her life was now being arbitrarily forced. Dry summer dust was in the wind; the sun bounded cheerily from the plate-glass windows and made radiant gasoline rainbows where automobile drippings had formed pools on the street.
Jaqueline stopped. Not six feet from her a bright new sport roadster was parked at the curb. Beside it stood two men in conversation, and at the moment when she identified one of them as young Bronson she heard him say to the other in a casual tone: “What do you think of it? Just got it this morning.” -Jaqueline turned abruptly and walked with quick tapping steps to her husband’s office. With her usual curt nod to the stenographer she strode by her to the inner room. Mather looked up from his desk in surprise at her brusque entry.
“Jim,” she began breathlessly, “did Bronson ever pay you that three hundred?”
“Why—no” he answered hesitantly, “not yet. He was in here last week and he explained that he was a little bit hard up.” Her eyes gleamed with angry triumph.
“Oh, he did?” she snapped. “Well, he’s just bought a new sport roadster that must have cost anyhow twenty-five hundred dollars.” He shook his head, unbelieving.
“I saw it,” she insisted. “I heard him say he’d just bought it.” “He told me he was hard up,” repeated Mather helplessly. Jaqueline audibly gave up by heaving a profound noise, a sort of groanish sigh.
“He was using you! He knew you were easy and he was using you. Can’t you see? He wanted you to buy him the car and you did!” She laughed bitterly. “He’s probably roaring his sides out to think how easily he worked you.”
“Oh, no,” protested Mather with a shocked expression, you must have mistaken somebody for him-
“We walk—and he rides on our money,” she interrupted excitedly.
“Oh, it’s rich—it’s rich. If it wasn’t so maddening, it’d be absurd. Look here—!” Her voice grew sharper, more restrained—there was a touch of contempt in it now. “You spend half your time doing things for people who don’t give a damn about you or what becomes of you. You give up your seat on the street-car to hogs, and come home too dead tired to even move. You’re on all sorts of committees that take at least an hour a day out of your business and you don’t get a cent out of them. You’re—eternally—being used!—I won’t stand it! I thought I married a man—not a professional Samaritan who’s going to fetch and carry for the world!”
As she finished her invective Jaqueline reeled suddenly and sank into a chair—nervously exhausted.
“Just at this time,” she went on brokenly, “I need you. I need your strength and your health and your arms around me. And if you—if you just give it to every one, it’s spread so thin when it reaches me-”
He knelt by her side, moving her tired young head until it lay against his shoulder.
“I’m sorry, Jaqueline,” he said humbly, “I’ll be more careful. I didn’t realize what I was doing.”
“You’re the dearest person in the world,” murmured Jaqueline huskily, “but I want all of you and the best of you for me.” He smoothed her hair over and over. For a few minutes they rested there silently, having attained a sort of Nirvana of peace and understanding. Then Jaqueline reluctantly raised her head as they were interrupted by the voice of Miss Clancy in the doorway.
“Oh, I beg your pardon.”
“What is it?”
“A boy’s here with some boxes. It’s C. O. D.”
Mather rose and followed Miss Clancy into the outer office.
“It’s fifty dollars.”
He searched his wallet—he had omitted to go to the bank that morning.
“Just a minute,” he said abstractedly. His mind was on Jaqueline, Jaqueline who seemed forlorn in her trouble, waiting for him in the other room. He walked into the corridor, and opening the door of
“Clayton and Drake, Brokers” across the way, swung wide a low gate and went up to a man seated at a desk.
“Morning, Fred,” said Mather.
Drake, a little man of thirty with pince-nez and bald head, rose and shook hands.
“Morning, Jim. What can I do for you?”
“Why, a hoy’s in my office with some stuff C. O. D. and I haven’t a cent. Can you let me have fifty till this afternoon?”
Drake looked closely at Mather. Then, slowly and startlingly, he shook his head—not up and down but from side to side.
“Sorry, Jim,” he answered stiffly, “I’ve made a rule never to make a personal loan to anybody on any conditions. I’ve seen it break up too many friendships.”
Mather had come out of his abstraction now, and the monosyllable held an undisguised quality of shock. Then his natural tact acted automatically, springing to his aid and dictating his words though his brain was suddenly numb. His immediate instinct was to put Drake at ease in his refusal.
“Oh, I see.” He nodded his head as if in full agreement, as if he himself had often considered adopting just such a rule. “Oh, I see how you feel. Well—I just—I wouldn’t have you break a rule like that for anything. It’s probably a good thing.”
They talked for a minute longer. Drake justified his position easily; he had evidently rehearsed the part a great deal. He treated Mather to an exquisitely frank smile.
Mather went politely back to his office leaving Drake under the impression that the latter was the most tactful man in the city. Mather knew how to leave people with that impression. But when he entered his own office and saw his wife staring dismally out the window into the sunshine he clinched his hands, and his mouth moved in an unfamiliar shape.
“All right, Jack,” he said slowly, “I guess you’re right about most things, and I’m wrong as hell.”
During the next three months Mather thought back through many years. He had had an unusually happy life. Those frictions between man and man, between man and society, which harden most of us into a rough and cynical quarrelling trim, had been conspicuous by their infrequency in his life. It had never occurred to him before that he had paid a price for this immunity, but now he perceived how here and there, and constantly, he had taken the rough side of the road to avoid enmity or argument, or even question.
There was, for instance, much money that he had lent privately about thirteen hundred dollars in all, which he realized, in his new enlightenment, he would never see again. It had taken Jaqueline’s harder, feminine intelligence to know this. It was only now when he owed it to Jaqueline to have money in the bank that he missed these loans at all.
He realized too the truth of her assertions that he was continually doing favors—a little something here, a little something there; the sum total, in time and energy expended, was appalling. It had pleased him to do the favors. He reacted warmly to being thought well of, but he wondered now if he had not been merely indulging a selfish vanity of his own. In suspecting this, he was, as usual, not quite fair to himself. The truth was that Mather was essentially and enormously romantic.
He decided that these expenditures of himself made him tired at night, less efficient in his work, and less of a prop to Jaqueline, who, as the months passed, grew more heavy and bored, and sat through the long summer afternoons on the screened veranda waiting for his step at the end of the walk.
Lest that step falter, Mather gave up many things—among them the presidency of his college alumni association. He let slip other labors less prized. When he was put on a committee, men had a habit of electing him chairman and retiring into a dim background, where they were inconveniently hard to find. He was done with such things now. Also he avoided those who were prone to ask favors—fleeing a certain eager look that would be turned on him from some group at his club.
The change in him came slowly. He was not exceptionally unworldly—under other circumstances Drake’s refusal of money would not have surprised him. Had it come to him as a story he would scarcely have given it a thought. But it had broken in with harsh abruptness upon a situation existing in his own mind, and the shock had given it a powerful and literal significance.
It was mid-August now, and the last of a baking week. The curtains of his wide-open office windows had scarcely rippled all the day, but lay like sails becalmed in warm juxtaposition with the smothering screens. Mather was worried-Jaqueline had over-tired herself, and was paying for it by violent sick headaches, and business seemed to have come to an apathetic standstill. That morning he had been so irritable with Miss Clancy that she had looked at him in surprise. He had immediately apologized, wishing afterward that he hadn’t. He was working at high speed through this heat—why shouldn’t she?
She came to his door now, and he looked up faintly frowning.
“Mr. Edward Lacy.”
“All right,” he answered listlessly. Old man Lacy—he knew him slightly. A melancholy figure—a brilliant start back in the eighties, and now one of the city’s failures. He couldn’t imagine what Lacy wanted unless he were soliciting.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Mather.”
A little, solemn, gray-haired man stood on the threshold. Mather rose and greeted him politely.
“Are you busy, Mr. Mather?”
“Well, not so very” He stressed the qualifying word slightly.
Mr. Lacy sat down, obviously ill at ease. He kept his hat in his hands, and clung to it tightly as he began to speak.
“Mr. Mather, if you’ve got five minutes to spare, I’m going to tell you something that—that I find at present it’s necessary for me to tell you.”
Mather nodded. His instinct warned him that there was a favor to be asked, but he was tired, and with a sort of lassitude he let his chin sink into his hand, welcoming any distraction from his more immediate cares.
“You see,” went on Mr. Lacy—Mather noticed that the hands which fingered at the hat were trembling—“back in eighty-four your” father and I were very good friends. You’ve heard him speak of me no doubt.“Mather nodded.
“I was asked to be one of the pallbearers. Once we were—very close. It’s because of that that I come to you now. Never before in my life have I ever had to come to any one as I’ve come to you now, Mr. Mather—come to a stranger. But as you grow older your friends die or move away or some misunderstanding separates you. And your children die unless you’re fortunate enough to go first—and pretty soon you get to be alone, so that you don’t have any friends at all. You’re isolated.” He smiled faintly. His hands were trembling violently now.
“Once upon a time almost forty years ago your father came to me and asked me for a thousand dollars. I was a few years older than he was, and though I knew him only slightly, I had a high opinion of him. That was a lot of money in those days, and he had no security—he had nothing but a plan in his head—but I liked the way he had of looking out of his eyes—you’ll pardon me if I say you look not unlike him—so I gave it to him without security.”
Mr. Lacy paused.
“Without security,” he repeated. “I could afford it then. I didn’t lose by it. He paid it back with interest at six per cent before the year was up.”
Mather was looking down at his blotter, tapping out a series of triangles with his pencil. He knew what was coming now, and his muscles physically tightened as he mustered his forces for the refusal he would have to make.
“I’m now an old man, Mr. Mather,” the cracked voice went on.
“I’ve made a failure—I am a failure—only we needn’t go into that now. I have a daughter, an unmarried daughter who lives with me. She does stenographic work and has been very kind to me. We live together, you know, on Selby Avenue—we have an apartment, quite a nice apartment.”
The old man sighed quaveringly. He was trying—and at the same time was afraid—to get to his request. It was insurance, it seemed. He had a ten-thousand-dollar policy, he had borrowed on it up to the limit, and he stood to lose the whole amount unless he could raise four hundred and fifty dollars. He and his daughter had about seventy-five dollars between them. They had no friends—he had explained that—and they had found it impossible to raise the money…
Mather could stand the miserable story no longer. He could not spare the money, but he could at least relieve the old man of the blistered agony of asking for it.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Lacy,” he interrupted as gently as possible, “but I can’t lend you that money.”
“No?” The old man looked at him with faded, blinking eyes that were beyond all shock, almost, it seemed, beyond any human emotion except ceaseless care. The only change in his expression was that his mouth dropped slowly ajar. Mather fixed his eyes determinedly upon his blotter.
“We’re going to have a baby in a few months, and I’ve been saving for that. It wouldn’t be fair to my wife to take anything from her—or the child—right now.”
His voice sank to a sort of mumble. He found himself saying platitudinously that business was bad—saying it with revolting facility.
Mr. Lacy made no argument. He rose without visible signs of disappointment. Only his hands were still trembling and they worried Mather. The old man was apologetic—he was sorry to have bothered him at a time like this. Perhaps something would turn up. He had thought that if Mr. Mather did happen to have a good deal extra—why, he might be the person to go to because he was the son of an old friend.
As he left the office he had trouble opening the outer door. Miss Clancy helped him. He went shabbily and unhappily down the corridor with his faded eyes blinking and his mouth still faintly ajar.
Jim Mather stood by his desk, and put his hand over his face and shivered suddenly as if he were cold. But the five-o’clock air outside was hot as a tropic noon.
The twilight was hotter still an hour later as he stood at the corner waiting for his car. The trolley-ride to his house was twenty-five minutes, and he bought a pink-jacketed newspaper to appetize his listless mind. Life had seemed less happy, less glamorous of late. Perhaps he had learned more of the world’s ways—perhaps its glamour was evaporating little by little with the hurried years.
Nothing like this afternoon, for instance, had ever happened to him before. He could not dismiss the old man from his mind. He pictured him plodding home in the weary heat—on foot, probably, to save carfare—opening the door of a hot little flat, and confessing to his daughter that the son of his friend had not been able to help him out. All evening they would plan helplessly until they said good night to each other—father and daughter, isolated by chance in this world—and went to lie awake with a pathetic loneliness in their two beds.
Mather’s street-car came along, and he found a scat near the front, next to an old lady who looked at him grudgingly as she moved over. At the-next block a crowd of girls from the department-store district flowed up the aisle, and Mather unfolded his paper. Of late he had not indulged in his habit of giving up his seat. Jaqueline was right—the average young girl was able to stand as well as he was. Giving up his seat was silly, a mere gesture. Nowadays not one woman in a dozen even bothered to thank him.
It was stifling hot in the car, and he wiped the heavy damp from his forehead. The aisle was thickly packed now, and a woman standing beside his seat was thrown momentarily against his shoulder as the car turned a corner. Mather took a long breath of the hot foul air, which persistently refused to circulate, and tried to centre his mind on a cartoon at the top of the sporting page.
“Move for’ard ina car, please!” The conductor’s voice pierced the opaque column of humanity with raucous irritation. “Plen’y of room for’ard!”
The crowd made a feeble attempt to shove forward, but the unfortunate fact that there was no space into which to move precluded any marked success. The car turned another corner, and again the woman next to Mather swayed against his shoulder. Ordinarily he would have given up his seat if only to avoid this reminder that she was there. It made him feel unpleasantly cold-blooded. And the car was horrible—horrible. They ought to put more of them on the line these sweltering days.
For the fifth time he looked at the pictures in the comic strip. There was a beggar in the second picture, and the wavering image of Mr. Lacy persistently inserted itself in the beggar’s place. God! Suppose the old man really did starve to death—suppose he threw himself into the river.
“Once,” thought Mather, “he helped my father. Perhaps, if it hadn’t, my own life would have been different than it has been. But Lacy could afford it then—and I can’t.”
To force out the picture of Mr. Lacy, Mather tried to think of Jaqueline. He said to himself over and over that he would have been sacrificing Jaqueline to a played-out man who had had his chance and failed. Jaqueline needed her chance now as never before.
Mather looked at his watch. He had been on the car ten minutes. Fifteen minutes still to ride, and the heat increasing with breathless intensity. The woman swayed against him once more, and looking out the window he saw that they were turning the last down-town corner.
It occurred to him that perhaps he ought, after all, to give the woman his seat—her last sway toward him had been a particularly tired sway. If he were sure she was an older woman—but the texture of her dress as it brushed his hand gave somehow the impression that she was a young girl. He did not dare look up to see. He was afraid of the appeal that might look out of her eyes if they were old—eyes or the sharp contempt if they were young.
For the next five minutes his mind worked in a vague suffocated way on what now seemed to him the enormous problem of whether or not to give her the seat. He felt dimly that doing so would partially atone for his refusal to Mr. Lacy that afternoon. It would be rather terrible to have done those two cold-blooded things in succession—and on such a day.
He tried the cartoon again, but in vain. He must concentrate on Jaqueline. He was dead tired now, and if he stood up he would be more tired. Jaqueline would be waiting for him, needing him. She—would be depressed and she would want him to hold her quietly in his arms for an hour after dinner. When he was tired this was rather a strain. And afterward when they went to bed she would ask him from time to time to get her medicine or a glass of ice-water. He hated to show any weariness in doing these things. She might notice and, needing something, refrain from asking for it.
The girl in the aisle swayed against him once more—this time it was more like a sag. She was tired, too. Well, it was weary to work. The ends of many proverbs that had to do with toil and the long day floated fragmentarily through his mind. Everybody in the world was tired—this woman, for instance, whose body was sagging so wearily, so strangely against his. But his home came first and his girl that he loved was waiting for him there. He must keep his strength for her, and he said to himself over and over that he would not give up his seat.
Then he heard a long sigh, followed by a sudden exclamation, and he realized that the girl was no longer leaning against him. The exclamation multiplied into a clatter of voices—then came a pause—then a renewed clatter that travelled down the car in calls and little staccato cries to the conductor. The bell clanged violently, and the hot car jolted to a sudden stop.
“Girl fainted up here!”
’Too hot for her!““Just keeled right over!”
“Get back there! Gangway, you!”
The crowd eddied apart. The passengers in front squeezed back and those on the rear platform temporarily disembarked. Curiosity and pity bubbled out of suddenly conversing groups. People tried to help, got in the way. Then the bell rang and voices rose stridently again.
“Get her out all right?”
“Say, did you see that?””This damn’ company ought to—““Did you see the man that carried her out? He was pale as a ghost, too.”
“Yes, but did you hear—?” “What?”
“That fella. That pale fella that carried her out. He was sittin’ beside her—he says she’s his wife!”
The house was quiet. A breeze pressed back the dark vine leaves of the veranda, letting in thin yellow rods of moonlight on the wicker chairs. Jaqueline rested placidly on the long settee with her head in his arms. After a while she stirred lazily; her hand reaching up patted his cheek. “I think I’ll go to bed now. I’m so tired. Will you help me up?”
He lifted her and then laid her back among the pillows.
“I’ll be with you in a minute,” he said gently. “Can you wait for just a minute?”
He passed into the lighted living-room, and she heard him thumbing the pages of a telephone directory; then she listened as he called a number.
“Hello, is Mr. Lacy there? Why—yes, it is pretty important—if he hasn’t gone to sleep.”
A pause. Jaqueline could hear restless sparrows splattering through the leaves of the magnolia over the way. Then her husband at the telephone:
“Is this Mr. Lacy? Oh, this is Mather. Why—why, in regard to that matter we talked about this afternoon, I think I’ll be able to fix that up after all.” He raised his voice a little as though some one at the other end found it difficult to hear.”James Mather’s son, I said—About that little matter this afternoon—“
Перевод А. Б. Руднева: Лёд и пламень