White Ashes by Kennedy, Sidney R. (Sidney Robinson)

WHITE ASHES

by

KENNEDY-NOBLE

[Transcriber's note: Full names--Sidney R. Kennedy, Alden C. Noble.]

New York The MacMillan Company 1912 All rights reserved Copyright, 1912, by The MacMillan Company. Set up and electrotyped. Published April, 1912.

TO

NATALIE STANTON KENNEDY

THIS BOOK

IS INSCRIBED BY THE AUTHORS

SIDNEY R. KENNEDY

ALDEN C. NOBLE

WHITE ASHES

CHAPTER I

On the top floor of one of the lesser office buildings in the insurance district of lower New York, a man stood silent before a map desk on which was laid an opened map of the burned city. No other man was in the office, for this was on a Sunday; but it would not have mattered to the man at the map had the big room presented its usual busy appearance. All that went on about him would have passed his notice; he only gazed stolidly from the map to the newspaper with flaring headlines, and from newspaper back to map, trying to gauge the measure of his calamity.

The morning papers had been able to print nothing save the bare facts that the fire had started near a large hotel, had spread with appalling rapidity to the adjacent buildings, and getting beyond the control of the fire department was sweeping southward under a wind of thirty miles an hour. The afternoon extras, however, gave fuller--and graver--details. The central business section of the city was entirely in ruins, and the conflagration had as yet shown no sign of a stay.

Sunday though it was, in many of the greater insurance offices on William Street the executives had gathered and were endeavoring to calculate the effect of this catastrophe on their assets.

But in the office on the top floor, where the man stood alone, there was no longer any doubt. Whether the fire was checked or whether it swept onward mattered now to him not at all; he was looking into the eyes of ruin utter and absolute. . . . But this, perhaps, is premature, since before this day was to arrive much water was to flow under many bridges, and it is with the flowing of some of that water that this story has to deal.

About five o'clock, Charles Wilkinson called, as he often did, through inclinations in which the gastronomic and the amatory were about evenly divided. Long since, after a series of titanic but perfectly hopeless struggles, he had abandoned all direct attempts to borrow money from his opulent step-uncle; subsequent efforts to achieve indirectly the same result by a myriad of methods admirably subtle and of marked ingenuity had resulted only in equal failure. To be sure, there had never been any really valid reason why his endeavors should have been successful unless as compensation for years of patient labor. He conceived his esteemed relation as a sort of safe-deposit box, to a share of whose contents he was entitled if he could contrive to open it. Farther back in the quest, he had approached Mr. Hurd with the dash and confidence of a successful burglar, but of late the pursuit had lapsed to a mere occasional half-hearted fumble at the combination.

However, he often came to tea. Tea was something--tangibly of no great importance, but from Wilkinson's viewpoint a sop to his self-respect in the reflection that he was getting it from old man Hurd. Besides, it kept the proximity established. Charles was as simple an optimist as a frankly predatory young man could be; some day the vault door might quite unexpectedly swing open, and it would be highly desirable to be close at hand and to have an intimate knowledge of the exits. Mr. Hurd was his only rich relation, and the step-nephew clung to him with tentacles of despair.

Tea at John M. Hurd's was something,--comparatively a more vital factor to Wilkinson, who lived in a cheap boarding house, than to its other partakers,--and Isabel Hurd was something more.

He felt a sincere admiration for Isabel, and his admiration had the substantial foundation of real respect. It happened that his step-cousin was what is kindly called a nice girl, but Wilkinson's regard passed hurriedly across any pleasing personal qualities she might have possessed. To him she was the daughter of a magnate who lived in a large house on Beacon Street and whose traction company gave its stockholders (whatever else might be said of its passengers) very little cause for complaint. To a young man whose creditors would have harried him nearly mad but for the fact that for several years past he had been able to secure scarcely any credit from any one, Isabel assumed the calm and quiet attractiveness of a well-managed national bank. And had she seriously considered marrying him, she could have confidently relied on his loyalty so long as Mr. Hurd could sign his name to a check. This reflection might not have been a flattering one to her, but it should have been a comforting one. Had it been beauty that first attracted him, he might have wavered after the freshness faded, but the chance that the Massachusetts Light, Heat, and Traction Company would be obliged to discontinue its liberal dividends was so remote as to be negligible. And Wilkinson, at all events, was consistent.

Barnes, the stout butler, assisted him to remove his overcoat and took his hat, and he stepped unannounced into the drawing room.

John M. Hurd's drawing room reflected the substance of its master in so far that it appeared to represent lavish resources. In the rather dim light, the deep rose tapestry curtains, the really beautiful rugs on the highly polished floor, the heavy, stately furniture, and the big central crystal chandelier all made for dignity. Even the broad-framed pictures on the wall, although there were two or three old masters among them, looked above suspicion. Miss Hurd was seated near the window, talking to two young men who seemed on terms of informality in the house.

"Shall we have tea?" she asked, when her step-cousin had seated himself.

"By all means--but I hope you don't mean it literally," replied Wilkinson, promptly. "Tea, by all means, if necessary to preserve the conventionalities, but especially anything and everything else you like." He turned to Bennington Cole. "I feel rather proud of my success in this establishment, Benny. A year ago Isabel would have handed you out nothing except a couple of anemic sugar wafers with the cup; now you can get English muffins and all kinds of sandwiches and éclairs--which is at least a little better."

"Congratulate you," said Cole, with a laugh.

"Oh, I haven't finished," Wilkinson went on. "The next step in my missionary movement will be a popular demand for chicken salad. That's a big forward step---you eat it with a fork--and from there it will be an easy gradation up the _carte du jour_ until finally I triumph in the introduction of real food, so that when you ask for tea in this house you will get a full portion of porterhouse steak and French fried potatoes. But don't think me hypercritical, Isabel," he added. "Even now I can usually manage to part from you without reeling, faint with hunger, down your front steps and collapsing at their feet--I should say foot."

"I'm extremely relieved to hear you say so," replied the girl.

The third young man, who alone of the three wore a frock coat, and who retained on his hand his left glove while his right was laid smoothly across his knee, now entered the conversation.

"You talk as though you were really hungry, Charlie," he said.

"Well, I am, rather," the other rejoined. "And I can tell you, Stan, that if you lived in my boarding house, you never could have completed that charming still-life effect of the platter of fish that I recently saw in your studio. You would have eaten your model before you could have finished the picture."

"Why don't you change your boarding house, Charlie, if it's so bad?" Miss Hurd inquired.

"I did," her cousin replied. "Of boarding houses within my sadly circumscribed means there is a very wide but strictly numerical choice. They are all exactly alike, you understand. I changed once, twice, twenty, forty times. I grew positively dizzy caroming from one inferior boarding house to another. You would have thought I was trying a peripatetic preventative for dyspepsia. Finally the mental strain of remembering where to go home at night became so irksome that I decided to leave bad enough alone and stay where I was--one eleven Mount Vernon Place--at the sign of the three aces. It's no worse, you see, than anywhere else--it's merely a matter of living down to my painfully limited income. But," he added thoughtfully, "I sincerely wish some philanthropist would put me to the trouble of moving again."

The two men laughed at Wilkinson's frank exposition, but his cousin frowned a little.

"I wish father would do something for you," she said. "There are so many things he could do if he chose."

"He was good enough to offer me a job as conductor on one of his street cars, the last time I mentioned the subject," the other responded cheerfully. "But I told him that the company's system of espionage was reputed to be so nearly perfect that I doubted whether I could make the position pay--that is, pay as it ought. And you know, Isabel," he added, "that with all due respect to my esteemed relation, he's exceedingly awkward to get anything out of. Can either of you gentlemen," he turned to the others, "suggest anything along these lines? I would be willing to pay a liberal commission."

"Well," said the painter, "if he wanted to buy a Caneletto cheap, I know where you could pick one up for him. It would rather damage my reputation to recommend him to buy it, but you could do it all right, Charlie. Guaranteed authentic by European experts--they're easily fixed. And if he didn't like the Caneletto, you could get him a very fair Franz Hals--by the same artist."

Miss Hurd, whose feelings had not been in the least lacerated by the reference to her parent's notable eccentricity of retentiveness, but who had been amused at the suggestion, interposed.

"I'm afraid it couldn't be done," she said. "Louis von Glauber passes on every picture that father buys."

"That settles _that_, then," Pelgram rejoined.

"Well, Benny, anything to suggest?" Wilkinson inquired.

"I don't know," said Cole, slowly. The germ of an idea had flashed on him. "I don't know," he repeated. The impecunious one regarded him attentively.

"My dear Benny, an unconvincing prevarication is of less practical value than--" he began, but he was interrupted by the appearance of a young lady who came through the doorway.

The three men rose quickly, and even the languid face of Stanwood Pelgram took on a look of a little sharper interest than he had so far shown. From the tea table Miss Hurd cordially greeted the newcomer.

"Tea, Helen?" she asked. "You're quite late. What have you been doing?"

"Thank you, Isabel," the other replied. "Quite strong, and with sugar and lemon--both." She sat down and commenced to pull off her long gloves. "I've been helping Cousin Henrietta Lyons select wall papers for her new apartment. I still live, but I've had a very trying time."

"Was it so difficult?" Bennington Cole asked politely. He did not know her very well.

"Well," responded Miss Maitland, "I can think of nothing more difficult than selecting wall papers--excepting, perhaps, Cousin Henrietta Lyons. As I picked out her papers, I think I'm entitled to abuse her," she explained with some feeling. "Wall papers in themselves are bad enough." She paused.

"Well, they ought to be," Wilkinson cheerfully put in, adroitly diverting the attack from Miss Lyons. "I understand that most of them are designed by individuals who have failed to succeed as sign painters on account of color-blindness, or by draughtsmen who have lost their positions because of the paramount influence of epilepsy on their work."

"I should estimate that they have about twenty-eight thousand samples at Heminway and Shipman's," the girl continued. "Cousin Henrietta possesses a fine old spirit of thoroughness which made it necessary for us to see them all. We sat on a red plush sofa while a truly affable young man kept flopping the sheets of samples over the back of an easel. That is, he was truly affable for an hour or two; after that he grew a little reticent. At first some of the samples interested me. There was one design of a row of cockatoos, each one standing on a wreath of lilacs, that was fascinating, and I liked one that looked like a flock of nectarines hiding in the interstices of a steam radiator. The young man made encouraging suggestions at first, but at the last, scarcely,--although I was so nearly stupefied that I doubt whether I would have heard him even if he had said what he really thought." She took up her cup. "But the walk here did me a lot of good--I walked fast."

"Where your cousin made her mistake," Wilkinson observed, "was in going in for wall papers at all. She should have abandoned the idea of papering her walls, and retained our talented friend, Stanwood Pelgram, to paint them, instead. A splendid conception! How I should like to have attended the pirate view of Miss Lyons's flat, when the last coat of distemper had dried on the parlor ceiling and Stanwood had put the affectionate finishing touches on the decorative panel portrait of Lucretia Borgia in the oval above the kitchen stove! The whole thing would have been a magnificent and unusual symbol of the triumph of paint over paper--a new and vivid illustration of the practical value of true art."

"Oh, nonsense, Charlie!" said Pelgram, much annoyed at being made the rather vulnerable subject of Wilkinson's humor.

His tormentor was delighted at perceiving his victim writhe and went gayly on.

"But unhappily our Stanwood is so impractical. Probably he would have declined the commission. Atmospheric envelopes slowly en route to the dead letter office of dream pastels demand his whole attention. Painting is crass; he mildly cameos. Tonal nuances--shades of imperceptible difference in the shadowy debatable land between things colored exactly alike--claim his earnest interpretation. When he rarely speaks, it is usually an important contribution to the world's artistic knowledge on some such subject as 'The Influence of Rubens' Grandmother on his Portraits of his Second Wife' or 'The True Alma Mater of Alma Tadema.'"

The artist, whose round smooth face was pink with rage, almost choked, but was wholly unable to reply. That he should be made the gross butt of a man such as Wilkinson was bad enough, but that this should take place in the presence of ladies--and especially of Helen Maitland--was almost unendurable.

Miss Maitland, seeing the flames approaching the magazine with alarming rapidity, hastily started a back-fire, adapting Wilkinson's style to her purpose with a success which--repartee not being her strongest point--astonished even herself.

"Charlie's views on art," she said to the smoldering Pelgram, "are always interesting because they are so wholly free and natural. Most art critics are checked and biased by having studied their subject and formed certain fixed impressions which are bound to come to the surface in their criticisms; some critics are influenced by having gone so far as to look at meritorious pictures in an endeavor to analyze and appreciate them intelligently; but Charlie labors under no such restraints. Once he went into the Louvre, but it was to get out of the rain. Except for an acute sense of smell, he could not detect an oil painting from a water color, even if he should try; and except for an abnormal self-confidence he would hesitate in the first step of criticism--a careful consideration of the value of the canvas as compared with that of the frame. It is therefore because Charlie is the only self-admitted art critic who knows nothing whatever of the subject, that his opinions are so interesting, for they are sure to be absolutely impartial and free from all bias of every kind. But where he heard of Alma Tadema is a puzzle to me, unless that name has been utilized by the manufacturer of some new tooth powder or popular cigar that has failed to attract my notice in the street car advertisements," she concluded thoughtfully.

The harassed artist turned with a look of almost abject canine gratitude toward his defender. Intervention from any source was welcome, but Miss Maitland's unexpected appearance as his belligerent partisan lifted him with a single swing from the abysmal humiliation of ridicule to the highest summit of hope. Helen had always been polite to him, but never before had she warmed to his outspoken defense. She had usually expressed an interest in his work, but as a matter of fact some of it was worthy of her quite impersonal interest. In his own set, men accustomed to formulate their opinions with complete independence and considerable shrewdness frequently remarked that Stan was an awful ass, but he could paint some. This was the common last analysis, the degree of qualifying favor being measured in each case by the comparative pause between the last two words and the accent and inflection upon the ultimate.

And even among those who considered Pelgram's asinine qualities plainly predominant, there was an admission of his certain artistic readiness, a cleverness in his grouping, a superficial dexterity in his brush work, a smartness and facility in the method of his pursuit of false gods. The irrepressible Wilkinson had struck true to the mark of his weaknesses, but something could well be said for the unhappy poseur in whom his shaft had quivered. Some one had observed that Pelgram regarded the appearance of his person and of his studio as of more serious importance than that of his canvases, but his commissions withal came in sufficient numbers to permit his extensive indulgence in bodily and domestic adornment. Granting him to be an ass, he certainly was a reasonably successful one, and he was even generally held to be a talented one.

For all his work was cursed by his indecision, he was surprisingly steady along the line of personal relations. At one time he would devote himself wholly to the production of exotic-looking pastels; at another time to nothing but the strangest of nocturnes in which the colors were washed on in a kind of sauce so thin that the frames, instead of being placed on easels, had to be laid flat on table tops in order to keep the pictures from running off their canvases onto the floor while being painted. But with people, his first likes and dislikes were definite and usually final, and this quality of personal consistency had come to a fixed focus on Helen Maitland.

Helen, for her part, had never given him any other encouragement than to express her approval of some of his pictures that she honestly liked, but Pelgram needed no other encouragement. His cosmos bulged with ego of such density that he and his pastels and nocturnes were crowded together in it indistinguishably. Admiration of his work was necessarily admiration of himself. It was only a question of degree. With an extraordinary manifestation of good taste and common sense, amounting almost to inspiration, he had some time since decided that he would like to marry Miss Maitland, but his admiration for her was so deep that his self-assurance was shaken to the point of hesitation. Thus far he had not ventured to speak, but his heart bounded at her swift defense of him and her effective attack on Wilkinson.

In the brief pause, while Wilkinson was rallying his forces for another charge on Pelgram's tonal battlements, John M. Hurd entered the room.

Mr. Hurd was a thickset man with a firm, clean-shaven jaw and a face furrowed by deep lines, but with eyes that oddly enough looked comparatively youthful and capable not only of appreciating humor, but even of manufacturing it. He appeared to be a man who, by the exercise of his pronounced talent for commercial strategy, could drive, without an atom of pity, his opponent into a corner, but who, after penning him there, could take an almost boyish amusement in watching the unfortunate's futile efforts to escape. The magnate was dressed in a dark cutaway coat with gray trousers, a pear-shaped turquoise pin adorned his black tie, and his dress fully reflected the solid respectability of the directors' meeting from which he had just come.

He took up his position, standing with his back to the window, stirring the sugar in the cup of tea which his daughter had given him. His entrance had snapped the tension between his impecunious step-nephew and the painter.

"Well, how are you all?" he remarked genially. "Really, Isabel, you have quite a salon. How is the portrait going, Helen?--or should I have asked the artist and not the subject? Glad to see you, Cole--is the fire insurance business good? Do you know, I made quite a lot of money out of insurance last year--had it figured out recently."

"In what way, sir?" Cole politely inquired, anticipating the answer.

"By not insuring anything," replied Mr. Hurd, with a short laugh. "Hello, Charlie, had a busy day?"

As Wilkinson's extreme disinclination for industry of any legitimate sort was well known to all the party, Mr. Hurd's innocently expressed but barb-pointed question brought a general smile, and Pelgram permitted himself the luxury of a suggestive cough.

"Well, no, Uncle John," replied the young man addressed, half apologetically. "Physically, to-day has been on the whole rather restful; however, my active mind has been running as usual at top speed," he added.

Mr. Hurd felt inclined to concede the activity of his nephew's mind, in so far that he had never known its headlong flight to be delayed by contact with an idea--that is to say, an idea of any particular value. Still, in the presence of the rest he spared his young relative, merely remarking dryly and in a manner intended to create the impression of closing the incident with the honors on his own side, "I dare say if your mind runs long enough, Charlie, it will eventually be elected."

This rejoinder had no definite meaning, but that fact in itself made any retort comparatively difficult, and Wilkinson merely helped himself in silence to another sandwich.

Presently Bennington Cole announced that he must be going on, as he had an appointment with an out-of-town insurance agent who was leaving Boston that evening, and soon afterward Miss Maitland took her departure, escorted by Pelgram. Then Wilkinson went, having executed as much havoc as he could among the comestibles, and Isabel was left with her father. Mr. Hurd lit a cigar and looked thoughtfully at his daughter.

"Splendid appetite that young feller has," he observed, nodding toward the large tray which stood almost nude of food.

The girl moved a little uneasily in her chair.

"Now, father," she protested, "you shouldn't be so hard on Charlie. He's really in a very embarrassing position. He's never had a chance to show what he could do if he found something he liked and was suited for. He's as clever and amusing as he can be, but he just naturally isn't practical and no one has ever been able to make him so, and you yourself are so absolutely practical in everything that you can't excuse the lack of it in any one else. But he's really all right."

Mr. Hurd looked sharply up, and the lines around his eyes came a little closer together.

"You don't mean that you're interested in him--seriously, do you?" he said.

"Oh, no," replied his daughter. "Not at all--that way."

The traction magnate smiled indulgently, with manifest relief.

"I don't want to criticize your analysis of character, Isabel," he said, "but I think you're dead wrong on one point. In my opinion Mr. Charles Wilkinson is one of the most practical young men of my acquaintance."

Meanwhile Miss Maitland and her companion had crossed the Common, and when they came to Boylston Street the shop windows were all alit and the street lamps began to shine. It was the close of a cool September day, and a sharp wind whipped the skirt of Pelgram's frock coat around his legs and flecked the blood into the girl's cheeks as she stepped briskly westward, swinging along easily while her rather stout and soft escort, patting the walk with his cane, kept up with some little difficulty. As often as he dared, the artist glanced at her, and with hope kindled by gratitude, he thought her never so attractive. And no matter what might be said of the eccentricity of his artistic taste in pursuit of the ideal, his selection of the real was indisputably sound; Miss Maitland was well worth the admiration of any man.

As they came to Portland Street, waiting at the crossing for a motor-car to pass, Pelgram quite suddenly said, "I wish I could paint you here and just as you are looking now."

The girl flushed a little. The compliment was conventional enough, but there was a tone in his voice that she had never heard before and that carried its meaning clearly.

"Thank you. Is it because the atmosphere and background would be so ugly--wind and iron and dead leaves and raw brick walls and hideous advertising signs--and I should seem attractive by comparison?"

Her companion looked thoughtfully ahead, as they crossed the street and went on.

"No, not that," he said, more gravely than usual. "You don't need any comparison, but all this isn't really so bad. Perhaps the things you mention are ugly in themselves, but a certain combination of them caught at a certain moment can well be worthy of a painting, and I think we have that moment now. Beauty makes a more pleasant model for the artist--that is why I would have liked you in the foreground--but beauty is not the only province of art. If it were, no painter, for example, would find anything to occupy him in the foul stream that washes the London wharves--as some critic has said. Yet a great many beautiful pictures have come from the London wharves, and one, at least, could come from Boylston Street."

The girl was interested. Behind his intolerable pastels and nuances and frock coats and superficial pose the man actually had ideas; it was a pity they showed so seldom. And she wished he would confine himself to the abstract. She could tolerate his aerial monologues on art even when his pose seemed to her superficial and almost silly, for occasionally he said something which was not only clever in sound, but which, to her thinking, rang true. But on the personal side he was becoming unpleasantly aggressive. She regarded him with admittedly mixed feelings, and she was not at all sure just how well she liked him, but she felt quite certain that she did not wish to have him ask her to marry him.

When they came to the door of her apartment in Deerfield Street, where she lived with her mother, he held her hand perceptibly longer than was necessary in saying farewell.

"You will come to the studio Thursday morning at eleven?" he said tenderly.

"Yes, certainly," Miss Maitland answered in a matter-of-fact tone.

He hesitated.

"I never wanted to do anything well so much as I want to do your portrait well. I want to make your portrait by far the finest thing that I have ever done--or that I ever shall do," he said. "Truly beautiful--and truly you."

"That is extremely good of you," replied the girl in a perfectly level voice, manifesting no more emotion than she would have displayed had he dramatically announced that he purposed executing her likeness on canvas and that he intended to use oil paints of various colors. "Good-by," she added, and the door closed behind the artist.

Charles Wilkinson, returning from the Hurds' to his boarding house, opened the front door with his latch key and stepped into the dingy hall. On a small table beside the hatrack lay the boarders' mail. He picked out three envelopes addressed to him, walked upstairs, and entered his room. Seating himself in the only comfortable chair the apartment afforded, he gloomily regarded the three missives.

The first bore on its upper left-hand corner the mark of his tailor, a chronic creditor, once patient, then consecutively surprised, annoyed, amazed, and of late showing signs of extreme exasperation accompanied by threats; at the end of the gamut the contents of this would be more vivacious reading than merely the monotonous and colorless repetition of an account rendered. The second was from his dentist, a man spurred to fury, whose extraction of two wisdom teeth had been of trifling difficulty in comparison with the task of extracting from his patient the amount named in his bill, and who had found in Wilkinson's mouth no cavity comparable in gravity with that apparently existing in his bank balance. The third envelope carried the name of a firm of lawyers not unknown to the man addressed--a firm that specialized in the collection of bad debts; Wilkinson looked at this longer than at either of the others, for he was ignorant of its contents. Then, without opening any one of the three, he thoughtfully took out his fountain pen.

Crossing out his own Mount Vernon Place address from all three envelopes, he readdressed the tailor's communication in an alien hand to the Hotel Bon Air, Augusta, Georgia. On the dentist's missive he inscribed "Auditorium Annex, Chicago, Illinois." Over the lawyer's letter he hesitated a moment, and then boldly wrote "Chateau Frontenac, Quebec, P. Q." This would at least be a grateful reprieve. After five days all these epistles would be returned to their senders, who would probably not question the fact that their failure to reach him had not been purely accidental. Moreover his credit with this trio would positively be improved by the impression that his resources were at any rate sufficient to enable him to travel far and to stop at well-known hotels.

After he had dropped the three envelopes into the post-box it occurred to him that he might just as well--perhaps even better--have sent all three to the same place, but even allowing liberally for the incorrectness of this detail, Mr. Hurd's opinion of his step-nephew seemed in a fair way of being justified.

CHAPTER II

It occurred to Mr. Smith that no one has ever determined the precise idea upon which the Boston and Manhattan Railroad bases its schedules with its infrequent adherence thereto and customary deviation therefrom. Numberless ingenious theories have been advanced from time to time by untold thousands of exasperated patrons of the line; opinions of all colors, all temperatures, all degrees of light and shade have been volunteered, many with a violence that lends conviction, but all in vain. The thing remains as secret, as recondite, as baffling as ever. Good Bostonians regard attempts to solve the problem as not only futile but impertinent--almost blasphemous--accepting it as a factor in the general inscrutability which veils the world, and are content to let it remain such.

From these reflections it is patent that this large patience, this Oriental calm, had not yet come to Mr. Richard Smith of New York, who felt a certain irritation somewhat modified by amusement as he sat looking out of the car window at an apathetic brakeman who languidly gazed down the shining rails. For no cause that could be guessed, the train had now been resting nearly half an hour. The colored porter had ceased to perform prodigies by shutting between the upper berth and the wall three times as many blankets, mattresses, board partitions, and other paraphernalia as one would have thought the space could possibly contain, and was sitting in the corner section reflectively chewing a toothpick. There appeared to be a distressing lack of interest in the train on the part of all its proximate officials; no one seemed ready to alter the status quo.

Only a few miles to the eastward the roofs of Boston and the golden dome of the Capitol glittered in the morning sun, and there were the bright rails stretching clean and straight up to the very gates of the city. Railroading was a silly business anyway, thought Smith. An express train should be consistent, and not suddenly decide to become a landmark instead of a mobile and dynamic agent. He almost wished he had taken his ticket by the Fall River boat--as he probably would have done had he been a Bostonian.

"Without reference to its political aspect," he reflected, "I believe strongly in water. I might have been deeply disturbed if there had been a ground swell or a cross sea going around Point Judith, but I wouldn't have been threatened with approaching senile decay en route."

Smith was from New York. The elderly Bostonian who shared his section had thought so from the first. He had guessed it when Smith took out for the second time his watch and replaced it with a snap; he had felt his belief strengthened when his fellow traveler raised the sash and looked impatiently up the idle track; and he had dismissed all doubt when Smith, conversing with the apathetic brakeman, crisply indicated his desire to return from a study of still life to the moving picture show for which he had paid admission. The elderly Bostonian had observed many New Yorkers, but it had never ceased to be a source of surprise to him why they all should be so incessantly restless with an electric anxiety to be getting somewhere else. To his own thinking one place was very much the same as another,--with the exception of Boston,--and a comfortable inertia was by no means to be condemned. If people were waiting for one, and one didn't appear, they merely waited a little longer--that was all. If eternity was really eternity, there was exactly as much time coming as had passed. In any event no well-regulated New England mind would permit itself to become disturbed over so small a matter.

Smith, guessing perhaps something of this from his companion's placid face, felt a momentary embarrassment at his own impatience.

"I've an engagement at ten o'clock," he remarked, somewhat apologetically, to his conservative neighbor. "Do you suppose this train is going to let me keep it?"

The gentleman addressed cautiously expressed the opinion that if no further malign influences were felt, and the train were presently to start, the remainder of the journey would occupy comparatively little time.

And so in due course it came to pass as the elderly Bostonian had predicted, clearly proving--if Smith had been open to accept proof--that the Oriental method of reasoning is the most comfortable, whatever may be said of its efficiency. He had left home at eleven on the night before, and he arrived at the offices of Silas Osgood and Company, 175 Kilby Street, at exactly half an hour before eleven in the morning.

The exercise of walking up from the South Station, although the walk was a short one, had wholly dispelled the irritation of the delay, so that his smile was as genuine as ever when Mr. Silas Osgood held out his courtly hand in welcome It would have been a very bitter mood that could have withstood the Bostonian's greeting.

"We were looking for you a little earlier in the morning," he said, when the first greetings were over. "You come so seldom nowadays that we feel you ought to come as early as possible."

Smith laughed.

"If you'd said that to me when I had been waiting two hours somewhere just the other side of North, East, West, or South Newton, I would have probably snarled like a dyspeptic terrier. Now, seeing you, sir, I can blandly reply that I came via Springfield and that the train was a trifle late."

"Exceedingly courteous, I am sure, for one not a native," agreed the other, smiling. "I am advised that the train has been known to be delayed."

"Well, I'm here now, anyway," Smith rejoined, "and very glad to be. It must be six weeks since I saw the good old gilded dome on the hill, and six weeks seems a long time--or would, if they didn't keep me pretty busy at the other end."

The two men were by this time in Mr. Osgood's private office, and the closing door shut out the click of typewriters and the other sounds of the larger room outside. As Mr. Osgood seated himself a trifle stiffly in his wide desk chair, Smith looked at him affectionately. The reflection came into his mind that the old gentleman was just a little older than when they had last met, and the thought gave a pang.

Silas Osgood was nearing his seventieth year. A long life of kindly and gentle thinking, of clean and correct living, had left him at this age as clear-eyed and direct of gaze as a child, but the veins showed blue in the rather frail hands, and the face was seamed with tiny wrinkles. Mr. Osgood had been in business in the fire insurance world of Boston for almost half a century. He was as well known as the very pavement of Kilby Street, that great local artery of insurance life, and the pulse of that life beat in him as strongly as his own.

To be an insurance man--and by that is meant primarily a fire insurance man--is in New England no mean or casual thing. South, West, in the newer and more open lands, where traditions are fewer and there is less time for the dignities and observance of the amenities of commerce, fire insurance takes its chance with a thousand other roads to an honest dollar. If a Western lawyer has a few spare hours, he hangs out an insurance sign and between briefs he or his clerk writes policies. The cashier of the Farmers' State Bank in the prairie town ekes out his small salary with the commissions he receives as agent for a few companies. If a grist-mill owner or a storekeeper has a busy corner of two Southern streets where passers-by congregate on market day, he gets the representation of a fire company or two, and from time to time sends in a risk to the head office, whose underwriters go nearly frantic in endeavoring to decipher the hidden truth in the dusty reports of these well-intentioned amateurs.

But it is not so in New England. In New England fire insurance reaches its proudest estate. It is a profession, and to its true votaries almost a religion. Its sons have, figuratively speaking, been born with a rate book in one hand and a blank proof-of-loss clutched tightly in the other. And in the mouth a silver spoon or not, as the case might be, but in any event a conclusive argument for the superior loss-paying ability and liberality in adjustment of the companies they respectively represent. They are fire insurance men by birth, education, and tradition--they and their fathers before them. Four generations back, Silas Osgood's family had been supported by the staid old English public's fear of fire. Three generations in Massachusetts had been similarly preserved from the pangs of hunger. Likenesses of all four were hanging on the wall of Mr. Osgood's office; as to identity the first two were highly questionable, but their uniforms in the old prints showed up fresh and bright. In those old days gentlemen only, men of education and station, whose judgment and courage were beyond question, were intrusted with the responsibility of fighting the flames. It is hard to say why this important and exciting work should no longer attract the same sort of men to its service.

Hanging beside the four generations were the commissions of the fire companies locally represented in the Osgood office. Stout old companies they were, too, for the most part; one of the older ones was well in the second century of its triumph over fire and the fear of fire and the ashes thereof; this was a foreign company which Osgood held for old sake's sake. The other commissions bore American signatures, most of them well known and well esteemed. On the wall right above where Smith sat was the gold seal of his own company, the Guardian, and against the seal the inexplicable hieroglyph which served Mr. James Wintermuth for his presidential signature. Then there was the great white sheet with the black border which set forth to all the world by these presents that Silas Osgood and Company were the duly accredited agents of the Atlantic Fire Insurance Company of Hartford, Connecticut. The narrow placque of the old Birmingham Indemnity of Birmingham, England, looked like a calling card beside the Atlantic's flamboyant placard.

Smith, seeing Mr. Osgood's look fixed for a moment on the parchment above his head, said inquiringly, "How long is it that you have represented the Guardian in Boston?"

The older man smiled reflectively and turned his eyeglass in his hand as he spoke.

"It was the year after the big fire when I first took the Guardian into my office. You are a close enough student of the game to know that that was just about forty years ago."

Smith nodded.

"Before Richard Smith was born. But I remember the date. Who appointed you as agent?"

Mr. Osgood pointed to the scrawl at the foot of the framed commission.

"My old friend, James Wintermuth," he said. He paused a moment. "I can almost see him now as he looked when he came to call on me--in the old office farther down the street. Tall and quick-tempered, and you can imagine how strong in the fingers he was in those days! I recall I used to keep my glove on when I shook hands with him. He was a fine young chap, was James. Perhaps a _little_ too hasty for us conservative New Englanders, but--" He broke off, a half-smile on his lips.

Smith remained silent.

"It's a fault you young New Yorkers are apt to have," the Bostonian presently went on. "Most of you are a trifle aggressive for us over here--just a bit radical."

The other laughed good-naturedly.

"I myself should say that my honored chief had lived down his radicalism long ago. It's lucky for Silas Osgood and Company that there is a little of it left somewhere in the company, for the President convalesced from his attack of radicalism in eighteen eighty-five or thereabouts and has never been threatened with a relapse or a recurrence. You may criticize us, sir, but you will have to admit that unless there was a little radicalism in my own department, the Guardian would never have accepted the lines and the liability in this down-town district that you have sent us and are sending us now. I hope I'm conservative enough, but with all due respect to Mr. Wintermuth, what he calls conservatism often strikes me as dry rot."

He stopped, laughing again.

"This is not an explosive protest," he said. "It is merely the result of having traveled on the conservative Boston and Manhattan, which would turn a phlegmatic Pennsylvania Dutchman into a Nihilist."

Then both men laughed together, and turned their attention to the business before them, Mr. Osgood's pale silver head close beside Smith's brown one.

In the outer office typewriters clicked, clients hung over desks, and the traffic of a busy morning proceeded. It was just about twelve o'clock when the clerks nearest the door stopped their work for a brief minute to look up and smile, for Charles Wilkinson, whenever he came to that office, timed his arrival with a skill that was perfectly understood by all. Mr. Wilkinson beamed blandly over the map counter, and still more blandly inquired whether Mr. Bennington Cole was in. Mr. Cole was, it appeared, at his desk, and Mr. Wilkinson required no one to show him the way.

"Hello, Benny," he said cheerfully. "You hardly expected to see me here to-day, did you? But I'm the early bird, all right. The excessively shy and unseasonable habits of the matinal worm never appealed favorably to me, but we have to have him once in a while, so here I am. You know what for, don't you? Or do you?"

Cole surveyed his visitor dispassionately.

"I fancy I can guess," he replied.

"No, upon my word," the other rejoined with spirit; "you do me a grave injustice, Benny. I've already had luncheon--that is to say, I've just had breakfast. You can more fully appreciate the significance of my call when I tell you that I came to you directly from the breakfast table. No, sir, the object of this visit is strictly business."

Bennington Cole gravely buttoned up his coat and thrust both hands into his pockets.

Mr. Wilkinson smiled buoyantly.

"Benny, you've a delightful surprise in store for you," he said. "Having astonished you by telling you that I was not open to an invitation to lunch, I am going to follow it up by assuring you that I do not intend to suggest the extension of even the paltriest of pecuniary accommodations. I am after bigger game."

Cole's suspicion melted into a semblance of interest.

"You don't mean--" he began.

"Yes, but I do, though," said the other. "That's the precise meaning of this pious pilgrimage at this ungodly hour. I want to find out where you keep that worm. Yesterday afternoon, at the Hurds', you had an idea. You know you did--you can't conceal it from my piercing sense of penetration. And your idea had the ring of real currency when you accidentally dropped it. So I'm here to collaborate, that's all."

Mr. Osgood's junior partner looked around at the clerks, who hastily resumed their interrupted duties.

"Come in here," he said to the visitor, and he led his guest into an inner office next to Mr. Osgood's own, and closed the door behind him.

"I _did_ have an idea," he conceded, as he motioned Wilkinson to a seat, "and it was an idea that had several things to recommend it. But it was a business proposition, and if you will pardon my saying so, Charlie, you are not the kind of a collaborator I would choose, if I were doing the choosing."

"But you're not, my boy," replied the other, unabashed. "I'm doing the choosing, myself, and I choose you. Your idea was palpably based on separating my barnacled connection from some of the ghastly pile of glittering gold that he has taken, five cents at a time, from the widows, orphans, blind, halt, and lame who patronize his trolley lines. Elucidate forthwith, Benny--in the vernacular, unbelt. I am listening."

Cole was reflecting. No one knew better than he how little regard John M. Hurd really felt for this mercurial youth. Yet Mr. Hurd had resisted with entire success all other means of approach. After all, family connections counted for something, even with the retentive old trolley magnate. So when at last he spoke, it was with the determination to show a part of his hand, at least, to Wilkinson.

"Mr. Hurd is President of the Massachusetts Light, Heat, and Traction Company," he began.

His visitor smiled affably.

"There is a popular impression to that effect," he admitted.

"Silas Osgood and Company and--" he paused a moment--"Bennington Cole are in the fire insurance business. The Massachusetts Light, Heat, and Traction Company carries no fire insurance on any of its properties. Well," he said sharply, "do you begin to see how you come into this?"

"See what?" asked Wilkinson, blankly.

"The insurable value of the various properties of the company must amount to six or eight million dollars. The average rate on those properties would probably be about seventy-five cents per hundred dollars a year for insurance. That would make a premium of say fifty thousand dollars per annum. The commission to the insurance broker who handled that line--who could secure it and control it--would be ten per cent of fifty thousand, or five thousand dollars. Half that amount--I am doing these sums for you so that you can catch the idea--would be twenty-five hundred--without any risk to yourself and every year of your life. Do you think the game worth a try?"

Wilkinson sat up with eager interest.

"Why half? Why not both halves?" he inquired.

The other man spread his hands before him in a gesture as well recognized among elder peoples as it is to-day.

"Naturally I would expect half for originating the scheme, drawing up the schedule in its proper form, securing the lowest rate, and placing the line with the various companies. You couldn't do those things, you know; it takes knowledge of the business."

His visitor once more sat back in his chair.

"And all I have to do is to get Uncle John to take out an insurance policy on his trolley cars! A mere nothing! I'm astonished that you offer me so much as half--for so simple an office. Really, Benny, you are losing your faculties. I can almost see them evaporating. Yes, the time will come when some one of our mutual friends, driving past the Meadow Creek Paresis Club, where Dr. McMullen receives certain amiable but not entirely responsible persons, will behold you hanging cheerily by one hand from the pergola roof with a vacuous smile on your twitching lips, and will say to me sadly: 'Charlie, you knew him, didn't you, in the old days, when his mind was as keen and bright as an editor's knife?' And with chastened melancholy I will respond: 'Yes, George, it is true. And moreover I was with him on the day when his mind commenced to give way. The day he offered me a full half of the spoils of my own--what do you call it?--oh, yes, arbalest.'"

Cole laughed, and not altogether pleasantly.

"Well, if you can get John M. to carry insurance, I'll see that you are not disappointed in the terms of our agreement."

"Do you know, Benny, somehow I'd rather have it in writing. Suppose we say one third to you and two thirds to me. After all, I need the money, you see, and you don't."

"Aren't we counting our chickens a good while before they have emerged from the incubator?" the other suggested.

"Very likely," Wilkinson readily agreed. "But I find that if I ever indulge in that diverting form of mathematics it has to be before the hatching. The little yellow rascals never stay around long enough afterward to permit themselves to be counted."

Bennington Cole slowly picked up a pen and drew toward him a sheet of paper; more slowly still he wrote what he described as a gentleman's agreement between Charles Wilkinson and himself. That young man sat back and studied the face of his associate with shrewd, half-shut eyes. Presently Cole stopped writing.

"I fancy this will serve," he said.

"Read the Machiavellian document," demanded Wilkinson, placidly. And Cole read.

"'Agreement between Bennington Cole and Charles Wilkinson. Said Bennington Cole agrees that if said Charles Wilkinson shall secure control of the fire insurance of the Massachusetts Light, Heat, and Traction Company, said Bennington Cole shall handle such account to the best of his ability and shall pay to said Charles Wilkinson two thirds of all brokerage commissions received thereby.'"

Said Charles Wilkinson reached for the paper.

"It seems to be in order," he said presently. "Sign it and date it, Benny, and bring in old Stewpan there to witness it. This is a business proposition, and I know how such things ought to be handled."

It was duly signed and duly witnessed by the aged and anemic cashier of the Osgood office, and Mr. Wilkinson placed it carefully in his pocketbook. Then he rose with alacrity.

"I'm sure you'll pardon my insistence on this little technicality," he said smoothly; "but you business men, you professional men, are so shrewd, so very alert and quick of mind, that a comparative novice like myself is mere wax in your strong, deft fingers. . . . And now to cipher out some way to secure the golden apple which hangs so close to hand, yet so very dragon-guarded."

"That's your work," rejoined Cole. "I won't attempt to offer suggestions. Nearly every insurance broker in Boston has at one time or another had a go at John M. Hurd. Boring him to death has been unsuccessfully tried several times, but as you are in the family, you may of course have superior facilities to any of your predecessors. Blackmail might accomplish something. But really I can't help you any, Charlie. If I had any plan, I'd deserve to hang from your friend's pergola roof for giving it to you instead of using it myself. I guess this is where you begin to do a little hard thinking."

"What marvelous incisiveness you possess, Benny," his friend commented. "It is an uplift to hear you. But you see thinking is quite in my line. Any one who has had to think as hard as I how to keep the lean white wolf of the Green Mountains--or vice versa--from my shifting doorstep, certainly need not tremble before the necessity of thought. But I have learned this--when I want to get something I don't know how to get, I invariably regard it the height of sapience to go and ask some one who does know how. In this case I can ask without going, for the very man is here at hand."

"I've already told you that I can assist you no further," said Cole. "I've given you the idea. You'll have to do the rest, yourself."

"Oh, I wasn't thinking of you," Wilkinson rejoined coolly. "I meant a man of perhaps not better, but certainly rather broader, experience. I shall go for advice to Mr. Silas Osgood."

And he opened the door and disappeared through it before Cole could voice a protest. He would have much preferred that the senior partner know nothing of the scheme unless it should take concrete form by its success. If Wilkinson by any chance should secure the traction company's insurance, the business should properly be handled by the firm of Silas Osgood and Company, and not by Bennington Cole individually. However, the mischief was already done, for he could hear Charles' cheerful voice greeting the two men in the other office. Rather reluctantly he followed.

He found Wilkinson sitting easily on the arm of a chair, talking rapidly and confidentially to Mr. Osgood, who regarded him with indulgence but wonder, as one who might come suddenly on a charming lady lunatic.

"I don't think I know your friend," Wilkinson was saying, _sotto voce_, in Mr. Osgood's ear. Then, as Cole entered, Smith rose to shake hands, and the introduction was made.

"Mr. Smith, General Agent of the Guardian of New York--Mr. Wilkinson."

"Delighted to meet you, Mr. Smith." He turned to the elder man. "Mr. Osgood, I've come to see you on a matter of business--an important matter upon which I wish your advice. And I not only wish it, but I need it, as you will appreciate when I tell you that my occupation for the next few weeks, months, or years--as the case may be--will consist in endeavoring to extort a little money from Mr. John M. Hurd."

Cole coughed.

"A most expressive cough, my dear Benny, and the interpretation is clearly that there is no innovation about such a battle of wits. But, Mr. Osgood, there is a difference." He looked inquiringly at Cole. "By the way, is there any reason why we should not speak freely before Mr. Smith?"

"Mr. Smith is a Company man; he will do nothing to disturb your plan," said Cole. "Go ahead, now you've started."

Wilkinson proceeded.

"I am about to take charge of insuring all the properties of the Massachusetts Light, Heat, and Traction Company, John M. Hurd, President," he announced.

Mr. Osgood permitted himself a slight smile.

"My dear young friend," he said, "you have given yourself a life sentence at hard labor."

Wilkinson sat down.

"All the better reason why I need assistance," he rejoined. "I need everybody's assistance. But only to get started. When I'm started properly I can look after myself."

"My boy," said the veteran underwriter, kindly, "I have known John M. Hurd since he was thirty years old. I knew him when what is now the Massachusetts Light, Heat, and Traction Company consisted of two cars, four horses, and three miles of single track. And he never carried a dollar of insurance then, and he never has since. I have seen the brightest brokers in Boston go into his office and come out in anywhere from three to twenty minutes; and not one of them ever got anything at all for his pains. Better give it up, my boy; you'll save yourself more or less trouble, and the result will be the same."

The young man laughed.

"There's one point of dissimilarity that I see already," he replied. "The time of the brightest brokers in Boston is valuable; mine is not. Really, you're not very encouraging, but I didn't expect you to be. I know my step-uncle, and I'm prepared for a stiff and extensive campaign. All I'm asking for is a detonator--something to start the action, you know, or something novel in the way of an explosive. Perhaps an adaptation of one of those grenades that the Chinese pirates throw when they want to drive their victims suffocating into the sea. I realize that there isn't much use engaging Uncle John with ordinary Christian weapons; he's practically bomb-proof."

"I am afraid," said Mr. Osgood, slowly, "that I am not very expert in the manufacture of noxious piratical chemicals. You will have to seek your inspiration elsewhere."

Smith turned to Wilkinson. Heretofore the representative of the Guardian had taken no part in the conversation.

"Would you mind stating, without quite so many figures of speech, just what you want?" he asked quietly.

"Certainly. What I want is something, some handle which will get me John M. Hurd's attention just long enough to make him listen to me. If I can get him to listen, I stand a chance."

"You say he carries no fire insurance on any of the trolley properties?" the New Yorker inquired thoughtfully.

"No," replied Mr. Osgood. "He has a small insurance fund--perhaps thirty or forty thousand dollars. He pays into this each year a part of what his insurance would cost him, and out of this fund is paid what losses the company sustains. And we must confess that so far the scheme has worked well. His losses have been much less than he would have paid in premiums to the companies."

"A fund--yes. That is all well and good, unless there is a great congestion of value at some single point, or at a very few points. Tell me, how much value is there in that main car barn on Pemberton Street--the new one next to the power plant?"

"Probably over a half a million dollars--at night, when the cars are all there," said Cole.

"And with the power house almost a million, then?"

"Almost," Cole agreed.

Smith rose and walked over to the window; the others watched him in silence. "What kind of people hold the stock of the traction company?" he asked suddenly.

"I fancy Mr. Hurd himself swings a very big block," Cole answered. "And his directors have a good deal. It's easily carried--the banks up here will loan on it almost up to the market value."

Smith still looked thoughtfully out the window.

"And I presume the directors and other stockholders take advantage of that fact?" he inquired.

"Oh, yes," Mr. Osgood replied. "We have a lot of it as collateral for loans in the Charlestown Trust Company, of which I am a director."

"And is it actively traded in on the Exchange?" the New Yorker continued.

"No. Odd lots mainly, from time to time. But the price is remarkably steady. It is regarded about as safe as a bond."

Smith returned to the seated group.

"Gentlemen," he said, "banks do strange things at times, but they are usually grateful for information when it is of value. They have probably never taken the trouble to find out whether the Massachusetts Light, Heat, and Traction was properly protected against a fire--by which I mean a big fire; they probably have assumed that it was. If it were to become known in financial circles that their insurance fund was forty thousand dollars and that they stood to lose one million dollars if there were a big fire in Pemberton Street to-night, how many of those borrowers do you think would be asked by the banks to reduce their loans or to substitute in part other collateral of a less speculative sort? It might even affect the price of the stock on the Exchange rather unfortunately. Some of those directors might have an unpleasant half-hour."

He paused. Wilkinson's face expressed the most eager attention.

"And I want to say to you, gentlemen, that a general fire in the congested section of this city is in my opinion not so improbable a thing as you Bostonians imagine. The conflagration hazard in Boston's congested district is not a thing one can exactly calculate, but it would be difficult to overestimate its gravity. . . . There's your grenade, Mr. Wilkinson."

Wilkinson leaped to his feet.

"I see it," he cried. "Leave it to me. It's as good as done. It's merely a question of time."

"What are you going to do?" asked Cole, curiously.

Wilkinson made for the door.

"Do?" he cried. "Do? I'm going to load the grenade. Gentlemen, good morning."

CHAPTER III

Isabel Hurd sat bolt upright on the stiff and blackly austere divan, and surveyed her friend with mingled surprise and concern.

"My dear Helen," she protested, "to my certain knowledge you have seen your cousin only twice this summer, and surely it would not hurt you to go to her reception."

"I disagree with you," replied Miss Maitland. "If there is any equity in social obligations, it would decidedly hurt me."

"Why, what do you mean?"

"Well, just because I take the trouble to watch a certain person select her wall paper, is that any valid reason why I should shed upon that person the effulgence of my eyes? Not that I am a sufferer from effulgent eyes and need the services of an oculist--I'm only quoting--but it seems to me awfully one-sided. I hate Cousin Henrietta's receptions--dull, poky affairs--where Mrs. Parkinson weeps into her teacup and the Misses Pyncheon are apt--most apt--to recite a little Browning. I detest receptions, anyway, and if I have to go to any more of them I shall scream. If you suggest my going to any, Isabel, I shall scream at you!"

Miss Hurd smiled a superior smile.

"Why, my dear child," she said, "you know perfectly well that I don't care an atom whether you go to your Cousin Henrietta's or not. But I never knew you were so down on receptions. I hope you haven't forgotten that next month you promised to receive with mother and me at ours."

Helen wavered a moment, then obstinately continued.

"Yes, I have. I've forgotten it absolutely. If I ever said it, I must have been suffering from febrile lesions,--if there are any such things,--and I hereby wave the promise aside with the magnificent gesture of a satrap ordering somebody to execution."

Isabel no longer smiled; her answer was a little acid and very distinct.

"Of course, if you don't want to help mother and me, no one will compel you to, my dear. Do precisely as you like; do not think of us in any way--we can easily get some one else."

Miss Maitland looked quickly up, and saw that there was a suspicious brightness in her friend's eyes, whereby she understood that Isabel felt actually hurt by her diatribe against the social dragon and his works--at least when his works were interwoven with Isabel's own concerns. And because Helen was tender-hearted under all her social armor, and because she and Isabel were fonder of one another than one would have thought possible, considering the diversities between them, she was smitten with swift compunction and hastily withdrew so much of her protest as touched her friend.

"You are a silly person, but a dear," she said contritely; "and I didn't really mean what I said about receptions--at least, about yours. But I meant every word about Cousin Henrietta."

A slight shadow of doubt lingered in Isabel's eyes, and Helen, seeing it, crossed quickly over to the divan and kissed her lightly on the cheek. The olive branch was accepted and peace restored.

"All the same," Miss Maitland presently went on, "there are times, I confess, when I get so tired of some of the things I do that I feel as though I couldn't possibly do them again."

Isabel nodded understandingly.

"Is there anything in particular that you are so tired of?" she insinuatingly asked.

"Yes, Miss Portia, there is. And furthermore you know as well as I do what that something is."

"I would hesitate to mention it," said Miss Hurd, with a smile.

"Well, I wouldn't. On the contrary I freely and unqualifiedly announce that I am excessively tired of a thousand things, most of which begin with P. I am tired of portraits and portrait painters; I am tired of posing and of poseurs; I am tired of palettes and paint; I am tired of--" she stopped, breaking off a little suddenly.

"Well, complete it. You are tired of Pelgram, I suppose," said Isabel, composedly.

"Pelgram, then. Yes, I am," the other girl admitted.

Her friend raised her eyebrows, and glanced at her somewhat curiously.

"You don't have to marry him, you know," she remarked in a matter-of-fact tone.

"Of course I don't," Helen replied quickly. "But I have to sit to him four times a week until that unspeakable portrait is finished. And it's my belief that it never will be finished. He won't even let me look at it now. It's my opinion that he's doing like Penelope, and destroying every night what he has accomplished during the day. I would never have promised to have it done if I had suspected what I was in for. And if it were for any one else but old Aunt Mary Wardrop, I'd back out now."

Isabel regarded her sympathetically. A portrait was bad enough without the added embarrassment of an amatory artist.

"Is he really as difficult as that?" she asked.

"Even more difficult. He's more difficult than anything conceivable--except analytical trig," she added reflectively.

"Don't mix art, psychology, and mathematics, or you will certainly get into trouble," said her friend. "And really, if I were you, I would try to forget that I had been 'higher' educated. It's enough to give one the creeps to hear a perfectly normal girl talk of analytical trig--whatever that may be--if there is such a thing."

Helen laughed.

"I'm not actually sure, myself, that there is. For, as I remember it now, it deals almost exclusively with imaginary or worse than imaginary quantities. I remember distinctly that _i_ with the acute accent meant the square root of minus one--and stood for 'imaginary' on the face of it. That was right at the start, and the farther you went the farther from reality you found yourself. But I don't remember anything of the subject--only the name--I wouldn't dream of being so Bostonian as that."

"Well, it's almost as bad merely to refer to it," said Miss Hurd. "Especially when you know that I never could pass beginner's algebra."

The two girls laughed together. It was perfectly true that Isabel, who was keen almost to the point of brilliance in the application of mathematics to such practical matters as finance and real life, had never academically been anything but a hopeless dunce, while Helen, who had penetrated so far into the upper occult that the mind shuddered to follow, was notoriously incapable of making her personal accounts balance within fifty per cent. It was an understood situation that always amused them both.

They had been friends all their lives, these two, or so nearly all their lives that the residue was hardly worth consideration. As each was now nearing the middle twenties, it must have been almost a full generation since they had been presented to one another. It was at the respective ages of six and five that little Miss Maitland and little Miss Hurd had been discreetly conveyed to the decorous Back Bay Kindergarten which was known to all Bostonians of a certain class as the "Child's Cultural Institute" of Miss Dorcas Kingsbury. It was there they met, under the watchful eye and the eagle espionage of Miss Dorcas. That good lady was not distinguished for her social graces, but her introduction of these two small maids was an instant success. It has subsequently been established, by hesper light so to speak, that the bond which first united the two was their chastened and wide-eyed mutual marveling at six long black cockscrew curls which marked--for only by a figure of speech could they have been said to adorn--the lateral aspects of Miss Dorcas's chignon. Forth they jutted, these remarkable structures, from cul-de-lampes above the lady's ears, and thence they descended, three toward the right shoulder, three toward the left. But their most astonishing quality was their buoyancy, their resiliency, which made them vital and active things, and not mere soulless parts of an ordered design.

At all events the two little newcomers, cowering somewhat under the glittering gaze of their preceptress, drew for protection close to one another, small hand found small hand, and a friendship was cemented which the swirling years had proved unable to break.

Their later experiences at this fountain of learning served only to draw them closer still. Many a time, in later years, would they smile together, remembering incidents that had happened in the square old red brick house with the green blinds, and the orderly terrible courtyard with the straight narrow seats set bolt upright against a speechless wall, and the little green pump that only grown-up persons were permitted to touch; remembering, too, the long low-backed benches in the schoolroom, row after row to the end of the low-ceiled room, and the tiny gray blackboard, and the painful corner behind the stove where recalcitrant pupils were stood, awaiting the approach of tardy contrition or increased mental attainments; remembering, above all, the grave, kind face of the teacher herself, Miss Dorcas Kingsbury--of _the_ Kingsburys--reduced in her middle age to conducting a "cultural institute," but as undeviating and inflexible in her idea of duty as was the very line of her uncompromising brow. Not bad training for small girls, that of Miss Dorcas; Helen and Isabel would not have changed it, in their memories at least, for the fairest lane of learning in the world.

Time went on and gradually carried them beyond the pale of Miss Dorcas's influence and over the horizon beyond the sight of her curious curls. But the school-girl lovers had become friends--which was of much more consequence. They stayed together as they grew, although in intellectual concerns Helen soon left Isabel behind. A year the elder, she was also the more dominant, and had always taken the lead in their mutual affairs. Isabel, who had a will of her own, did not always follow; but there was never any struggle for precedence, and Helen's unselfishness prevented her from ever assuming an unpleasant autocracy.

It would have been difficult, at any rate, to associate anything unpleasant with Miss Maitland. She was tall, well over the middle height, and her hair was of that uncompromising blackness that made one think of things Amazonian--or would have done so had not her deep violet eyes softened the effect in a peculiarly attractive manner. It was no wonder that poor Pelgram fluttered about so compelling a flame, and Isabel, as she looked at her friend, thought for the thousandth time that if she were a man--well, it was a little hard to say what she would do in that remote contingency, but she felt certain, at all events, that she would adore Helen.

As a matter of fact no young lady in all Boston seemed less likely to become a man in the next or any subsequent incarnation. There are Bostonian persons of the female kind who could with readiness be conceived as turning into men without any sea-change or especially startling biological transmutation. But Isabel was not one of them. Small and dainty, she was of the gold-and-white, essentially feminine type. She lived alone with her parents in the solid old-fashioned house on the north side of the Common, almost under the shadow of the State House dome. It made very little difference to Isabel where she lived, and since her father would never consider moving to any other locality nor rebuilding the rather patriarchal homestead which he had occupied for twenty-five years, it was just as well that the daughter was so complaisant. She, moreover, was the only person who looked upon John M. Hurd with a clear understanding of his habits of thought. She could herself accomplish things with him, when her way did not conflict too directly with his own, but she gained her points first by concentrating her attack on the matters really of import to her, and second by taking her way whenever she saw an avenue open, notifying her somewhat surprised parent afterward that she had done so.

"Father once told me a story," Isabel had said, "of a man who went to a railroad president about a culvert he wanted to build under the railroad track, and the president told him that he should have built his culvert first and asked permission afterwards. And I invariably say now, if father protests against any of my performances, that he never should have told me that story. And he usually gives a kind of growl which I have always interpreted to mean that all is well."

Isabel had a little money of her own, but she never used the income. Instead, she put it in the bank and lived on her allowance. She was not John M. Hurd's daughter for nothing. Her mother, a stiff, lean, gray woman with a tremendous capacity for being both busy and uncomfortable and making every one around her share the latter feeling, had little or nothing to do with Isabel or her friends. She was the typical Puritan, the salt of a somewhat dour earth, and how Isabel ever came into her household would be difficult to say. The mother had much undemonstrative affection for her daughter, but no understanding and less sympathy. She could never accustom herself to the girl's habit of facing every problem when it had to be faced but not before; she herself was used to spying trouble afar off, rushing forth with a sort of fanatical desperation, and falling upon its breast. John M. Hurd had selected her for her sterling and saving qualities, and he had always found her all he could have wished. From her daughter's viewpoint she left much to be desired, at least in the capacity of a confidante, and this prerogative had long since been assumed by Miss Maitland.

That young lady, more reserved than Isabel, usually preferred to receive rather than to bestow confidences. Only in unusual cases, such as the one now under contemplation, was Helen moved to such downright speech. But in this instance she acknowledged the presence of an irritation alien to her customary serenity, and unconsciously she hit on conversation as a soothing influence. Thus it chanced that the talk was still on Pelgram when the doorbell rang and the butler announced that Mr. Wilkinson was calling.

"I believe I could write a manual of artistic courtship," concluded Miss Maitland, "with a glossary embracing every shade of every color of an artist's mood. Charlie Wilkinson was absurd, of course, the other day, with his 'nuances,' but he was amazingly near the truth at the same time, for all that. Isabel, I'm sick and tired of nuances--I confess it freely."

"Well," said her friend, soothingly, "here is Charlie now. He ought to be a fine antidote, for Heaven knows he hasn't a nuance in his entire anatomy."

Mr. Wilkinson entered.

"My dear Isabel," he said reproachfully, as he shook hands, "I couldn't help hearing most of what you were just saying about me, and I assure you that I feel deeply flattered, but at the same time a little hurt. I dislike to be denied the possession of anything, even an abstract quality, whether I want it or have any use for it or not. Miss Maitland, I bid you an exceedingly good day, and venture to express the hope that you will concede that latent in my anatomy I may have a liberal share of that something--the name of which I failed to catch--although I may perhaps have up to now given no evidence of its possession."

"You would do much better, Charlie," said his hostess, with a laugh, "if you announced with all the emphasis at your command that you had none of this particular quality concealed about your person. Whatever it was, Helen just said that she never wanted to see or hear of such a thing again."

"Miss Maitland," said the visitor with due solemnity, "I assure you that whatever else I may be, I am as free from the taint of this unmentionable attribute as a babe unborn. Isabel, you will bear me out in this?"

"I feel sure of it," Helen replied smilingly. "In fact, I should have exonerated you even without inside information of any sort. Really, I'm awfully glad you've come. Here we are, two lone dull girls, hungry to be amused. Be as chivalrous as you can in our distressing state."

"You two lone girls lonely!" retorted Mr. Wilkinson. "Ridiculous! That is certainly a fine ground on which to seek sympathy from me! I forget who it is has the proverb, 'Never pity a woman weeping or a cat in the dark.' And I am reminded of it when I look at you two. You and my fair cousin, when you have one another to talk to, are just about as much in need of sympathy as a tiger is of tea . . . Speaking of tea--" he turned to Isabel with bland inquiry in his face, after a hasty glance about the room to make sure that no ulterior preparations had been made. "I am anxious," he explained, "to see what progress has been made since last I inculcated my theories as to edibles--and detrimentals."

Isabel rose with a sigh.

"I see that I shall have to go and superintend the matter personally," she said, "for the customs of years are too strong to be utterly overcome all at once. I can only dimly conjecture Peter's dismay if he were asked to pass the Hamburger steak to Mr. Wilkinson, yet that is the shadowy future awaiting him."

With a laugh she vanished through the doorway, and the visitor seated himself solemnly across from Miss Maitland, whom he then proceeded to regard with a gloomy eye.

"It is a fearful strain on one's comic spirit to have it suddenly cooled," he said. "It makes it liable to crack, and then when you beat on it you get nothing but a dull stodgy sound. I feel that there are times when my ebullience, my wealth of genteel diablerie, my flow of _jeux d'esprit_ astonish even myself, but those times are never the ones when my hostess says, in effect: 'Charlie, you can be such an awful idiot when you want to that I wish you'd be one now--go on, there's a dear!'--which was substantially what you said to me. I don't mind telling you that it's very upsetting."

"Oh, I'm awfully sorry," Miss Maitland replied. "I didn't mean to. I should be simply heart-broken if your spring of divertissement should ever run dry--especially if you held me in any way responsible. Charlie serious! Good heavens! And yet, on second thought, would it not have a certain piquant lure, gained from its utter strangeness, which would be simply overwhelming? Try it and see. No audience was ever more expectant."

Wilkinson's gloom melted in meditation.

"Do you know," he said thoughtfully, "that there has never been in your attitude toward me the regard and genuine respect--I may almost say the reverence--that I could wish to see there. If it were not such a perfectly horrible thing to say, I should say that you do not understand me. As it chances--though you would be surprised to learn it--there is at this moment a mighty problem working out, or trying to work out, its solution in my brain. You tell me to be serious, and since I want the advice of every one, including those whose advice is of problematic value, I will be. And who knows but when you see me engaged, or about to engage, in practical, cosmic matters, swinging them with a gigantic intellectual force, your veneration for me may develop with remarkable rapidity?"

"Who knows, indeed? Go ahead--you have my curiosity beautifully sharpened, at any rate, before a word is said."

Wilkinson cleared his throat and bent forward with an air of concentration, meant to indicate that he was marshaling his ideas. Then he said in a hushed and confidential tone: "What do you know of trolley systems?"

Miss Maitland looked at him in surprise.

"Goodness, Charlie!" she said; "I know there are such things--the term is perfectly familiar. I have always supposed that trolley cars were part of trolley systems, but I should hesitate to go very far beyond that statement."

The young man nodded gravely.

"You are right. Your information, so far as it extends, is absolutely correct, but it hardly goes far enough. Trolley cars belong to trolley companies which operate trolley systems. That's very well put, don't you think?"

"Very. Go on--I'm awfully interested."

"I'll put it a little more simply. The scientific attitude is too difficult to maintain. And besides, that was just about as far as I could go scientifically, anyway. I had much better deal with concrete facts--or with what I hope to convert into them. Don't you agree? Although I felt rather well in my academic habiliments."

"Much better," Miss Maitland promptly agreed. "And there would be the additional advantage that I would quite likely know what you were talking about, which would not be at all a certainty if you insisted on retaining your scientific manner."

"It's this way, then," said her companion. "It's this way. John M. Hurd, Isabel's father, my step-uncle, Mrs. Hurd's husband--John M. Hurd, in short, is the President of the most important trolley system in this vicinity, the Massachusetts Light, Heat, and Traction Company. He is also, ex-officio, chairman of the board of directors, and except for some dynamos, cars, conductors, tracks, and other equipment, he is the trolley system."

"That sounds like Mr. Hurd," the girl acknowledged.

"Now I must ask you another leading question," the other continued. "What do you know about fire insurance?"

"Well, I ought to know a little about it," replied Helen, "considering the fact that my uncle, Mr. Osgood, has one of the leading fire insurance agencies in Boston. Whenever there's a big fire he's always quoted as 'Silas Osgood, the veteran underwriter, said so and so.'"

"You will pardon me," said Mr. Wilkinson, "if my legal method of thought calls to your attention that 'ought to know' and 'do know' are not in all cases coincident. My original question was, 'What do you know about fire insurance?'"

"Not as much as I ought, I'm afraid," Helen confessed. "Uncle Silas belongs to the school which believes in locking his business in the safe when he leaves the office, and as he never mentions it, I know very little about it--though I don't at all care for your legal method of establishing my ignorance."

"A true gentleman ignores a lady's embarrassments. Fire insurance, to put it briefly, is indemnity against losses by fire. Companies do it. You pay them a little money called a premium--no connection with trading stamps--and when your house burns down they pay you a tremendous amount. It's a remarkable idea."

"It certainly sounds so, as you put it."

"The personal application is this: John M. Hurd owns a trolley system which ought to be insured for five or six million dollars if it was insured at all. But it isn't. And it is my life work to make him put on that insurance, and make him do it in a way that will count--for me, you understand."

"But how do you expect to convince him?" asked the girl. "If he never has insured the system, the chances are that he doesn't believe in insurance, or that he doesn't think the system is likely to burn up, or that he has some other good reason for not insuring it."

"That's exactly why I'm asking your advice," her companion replied. "Probably you are correct in all three of your conjectures. What I want is some way to make him do something that he doesn't believe in and from which he never expects to get his money back and that he has some other perfectly proper argument for turning down--and make him do it, just the same. Eventually he's _got_ to do it--it's a case of sheer necessity--for me."

"Why don't you ask Isabel? I think I hear her coming."

And Isabel entered, the teakettle boiling in her wake. As she dispensed the material concomitants, the conversation went on.

"We have been talking about fire insurance and trolley systems," said Helen. And she summarized Wilkinson's remarks for her friend's benefit. Isabel listened with interest but skepticism.

"If you really expect father to insure anything, Charlie, I'm afraid you will be disappointed," she said frankly. "I hope you're not serious about it."

"Serious! I should think I was! I would naturally be just a little serious about something on which depended the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness of Charles S. Wilkinson, Esquire. It is a matter of most vital necessity, I assure you--nothing less. And now having acquainted you with the salience of the situation, I will allow you a period for reflection undisturbed by pleasantries or philosophic observations from myself which might conceivably divert the currents of your minds. Meanwhile _I_ shall devote this period to an intelligent appreciation of Isabel's compendious and soul-satisfying tea."

The two girls looked blankly at one another.

"My dear Charlie," Miss Hurd said, "it is very painful to have to overturn the family water cooler on your ambitious young hopes, but are you aware that for thirty years my mother--or her representative--has carried the silver upstairs every night because as a family we did not believe in insuring it? Burglary insurance, life insurance, fire insurance--father has never paid a dollar for any one of them. And do you happen to recall the line of my distinguished parent's jaw? If I were you, Charlie, I would try to insure somebody else's trolley system."

Wilkinson shook his head sadly.

"No, that won't do, Isabel. John M. is the only relative I have who owns a trolley system, or much of anything else. Most of the other systems are insured already, anyway, and the people who own them undoubtedly insure them through their own connections--I was about to say poor relations. No, my only hope is here, and it grieves me deeply, Isabel, to see you take so pessimistic a view. Nevertheless, I am not downcast; I will arise buoyantly to ask whether you cannot do better?--whether you cannot devise some expedient whereby the heart of your worthy father may be melted and become as other men's hearts. I don't demand a permanent or even a protracted melting--all I ask is a temporary thaw, just long enough to let me extract a promise from him to let me insure those car barns and power houses. Then he can revert to adamant and be--and welcome, so far as I am concerned. Now, Miss Maitland, have you nothing to suggest?"

"Wouldn't it be more satisfactory to succeed by your own ideas and devices?" Helen inquired.

"All very pretty, my plausible girl, but what if one has no ideas or devices? That is very nearly my case, and it is a hard one. I've only one real shot in my locker, and if that doesn't reach its mark, I'm lost."

"And what is that?" Helen and Isabel asked almost simultaneously.

"In my single way I will endeavor to answer both these interrogations at once. It is, then, the suggestion of a man I met in the office of Silas Osgood and Company, a man by the wild, barbaric, outré name of Smith. Richard Smith, I believe. And his suggestion--I tell it to you in confidence, relying on your honor not to steal my stolen thunder--was, very briefly, to put before my distinguished relation the sad, disheartening effect it would have on the popularity of the trolley stock in the banks and on the stock exchange if it became generally noised abroad that the road carried no insurance and maintained no proper insurance fund. What do you think of that?"

"I begin to see," said Isabel, thoughtfully. "People have bought the stock and banks have lent money on it without knowing whether the property was protected by insurance or not?"

"On the contrary, rather assuming that it was. Your father's antipathy to insurance is a little unusual, you know. So far no one has ever made a point of bringing it strongly before the public. And banks and stock markets are queer things--and confidence is jarred with singular ease. There are a number of pretty important men in this town who would dislike to have some of their loans called or to have Massachusetts Light, Heat, and Traction drop ten or fifteen points. Of course this needn't happen--and for a preventative, apply to Charles Wilkinson, Esquire, restorer of lost confidences."

Helen spoke.

"Whose idea was this, did you say?" she asked.

"His name was Smith," said Wilkinson, soberly.

Helen started to ask another question; then changed her mind, and was silent. What surprised her was the fact that she found herself interested, sharply interested, in the problem Charles had presented. She was, in fact, more interested than she had been in anything for some time. She was astonished to find this to be so. She had always been under the impression, common enough among the more sheltered of her class, that business was a thing in which only the men who carried it on could possibly be absorbed. Yet here she had been interested to the exclusion of all else in a matter that was of absolutely no aesthetic value and with the terms and locale of which she was quite unfamiliar. As it had been presented to her and she had tried, at Charles's demand, to find a way out for him--she stated the problem over more clearly--she admitted feeling a trifle piqued when she racked her brain for a solution only to find it barren of expedients and a hopeless blank. Yet this chance acquaintance of Charlie's had apparently hit on _his_ expedient casually enough. Once more she restrained the impulse to ask another question, although she scarcely knew why she did so, and she remained silent until, a few moments later, she was roused by the departure of the satiated Wilkinson.

"Wish me luck," he said, as he turned to go. "More depends upon this than you pampered children of luxury can ever guess. Isabel, I congratulate you on the educational advance of your butler. Miss Maitland, I am your very devoted."

The curtains of the drawing room shut him from sight and sound, except the faint rumor of his descending feet upon the steps.

CHAPTER IV

There are, in the side streets of many if not all the greater cities of the civilized world, shops where skilled artisans are busily at work in the manufacture of "antiques"--antique furniture, antique rugs or brasses or clocks or violins. The ingenious persons engaged in this reprehensible activity have developed their skill to such a point that it seems probable that fully half their deceit never comes to light at all, and it is certain that their products rarely suffer much by contrast with the things which they seek to imitate. It is only when the maker of the original was a great master that his modern counterfeiter fails--and not always then.

It is, at first thought, a strange business--not so strange that men should give their lives to it as that there should be so much demand for a purely apocryphal product. Looked at more carefully, however, the oddness disappears, and these men are found to be catering to a most legitimate appetite--an appetite which had its origin deep in the early mind of the race, even though it is now, perhaps, passing from the control of one of man's senses into that of another.

Latinism, as a creed, is dead, or dying. There are not many Latinists left, find the pessimistic, melancholy folk who found all the beauty of the world in "youth and death and the old age of roses" have appeared, probably never to return. Latinism was a flavor of the soul, and the modern soul rarely, if ever, assumes that flavor. What Latinism did, however, was to teach the appreciation of the dignity of time, the beauty of the passing years, and their enriching effect on things and men. This quality is now extant as a matter of taste, a mental attribute, and it is widely conceived to be a sign of cultivation to "pooh-pooh whatever's fresh and new" in favor of something which has at least the appearance of age with or without the richness and mellowness thereof. After all, the mellowness is the essence; if the years merely age without mellowing a thing, they have done it no good; the same thing new is the more desirable article.

The larger and more important a thing is, the less effect the years have upon it, and the more difficult becomes the task of the enterprising workman who seeks to simulate the wrinkles time would leave. In the case of cities, the task is practically hopeless. There is only one way for a city to attain the beauty and the haunting charm of age, and that is to wait patiently until time has finished his slow work. It is hard to wait, and a new city is a crude and painful thing. One can easily imagine the older cities looking scornfully or pityingly down upon it, themselves secure in the grim or the delicate beauty of their age. Only once in many generations does a city rise which achieves a character, an individuality, without waiting for the lingering years to bestow it. It happens so seldom as to come almost into the realm of the miraculous. Yet to him who for the first time sees New York at night, or as the declining sun sets ten thousand roofs for the moment aflame--a miracle seems not more wonderful than this.

There are miles on miles of roofs in many a town, stretching away beyond the reach of sight; there is, especially in the great cities of the old world, an immensity of movement which is at once alien and akin to the great movements of earth and sea; there are cities which seem great because of the multiplicity of things--men and ships and creeds and costumes which jostle one another in every market place. New York has all these things--yet they do not explain New York--they are almost inconsiderable elements in the greater thing that is the city itself. Wherein the essence lies--whether it is the purely superficial aspect of it, the imaginative daring of its architecture, or some deeper and more subtle thing--no man can surely say.

There are strewn about in a thousand niches of the city little groups of buildings which seem to have assembled themselves, by some lonesome impulse, into communities. Primarily, of course, these groupings are ethnological, these cities within a city being originally created largely by the timidity of strangers in a strange land. There are little Italys, and Chinatowns, and diminutive Bohemias, all swung together by the action of this great centripetal force of loneliness. The buildings in these communities, inflexible enough in all conscience as regards design, contrive none the less to take on in some way a character and appearance peculiar to their inhabitants; this may be a matter only of red Turkey turbans flapping in the breeze, or perhaps of the haunting aroma of some national staple of food--but certainly it is there. Scattered through Manhattan, from the Battery to the Bronx, these five centers are witnesses as they stand to the effect of circumstance on bricks and mortar. And that there should be this visible effect is no doubt natural enough, for the difference between nation and nation is a salient thing. It would be far stranger were it to fail of effect even on so unimpressionable a thing as a six-story red-brick tenement house.

There are forces, however, which prove themselves hardly less potent than this force of fellow-nationality, but which would at first thought be denied any vital molding power over people or over things. These are the trades, and--less distinctive in their outward aspects, at least--the professions. It is not odd that a fishing village or a mining camp should take on a certain character unique to itself, but surely one would not expect a lawyer to impress on his environment a stamp so unmistakable that one could say, observing it from without, "In this building lawyers plot." Superficially there would be said to be scant difference between a lawyer and a broker or a real estate dealer or an insurance man. Yet in New York City, where communities of these professions mesh and intermesh and overlap, there are still streets which are, and which could be, to a trained eye, the habitat of financiers alone, and where at once all other wayfarers are seen to be interlopers, or at best mere visitors at a fair.

Such a street is Wall Street, and such is Broad. And on the eastern rim of this same zone runs a street which, despite the countless changes that the years untiringly bring, could not possibly be mistaken for anything but what it is, the great aorta of the fire insurance world. William Street is as distinctly a fire insurance street as any street could possibly be distinctive of its profession.

Scattered along the intersecting ways, but lining William Street from Pine to Fulton, are gathered the fire insurance companies and the brokers, respectively the sellers and the buyers of insurance. There you will find the homes of the big alert New York companies whose lofty steel and granite buildings stand as fit monuments to their strength and endurance and enterprise, and the United States headquarters of the dignified but aggressive British fire offices whose risks are scattered over every portion of the earth where there is property to insure, and the metropolitan departments of the great corporations that have made the name of Hartford, Connecticut, almost symbolic of fire insurance. There are also the agencies, in each of which from one to a dozen smaller companies have intrusted their local underwriting to some agency firm. There too are the offices of the world's leading reinsurance companies, most of them German or Russian, who accept their business not from agents or property owners, but entirely from other insurance companies. There are the elaborately equipped offices of the local inspection and rating bureau maintained by all the companies, and there are the offices of the dealers in automatic sprinklers, fire alarms, extinguishers, and hose. And throughout the whole district the buildings are honeycombed with the almost countless brokers--from firms who transact as much business as a large insurance company down to shabby men who have failed to succeed in other lines and who eke out an existence on the commissions from an account or two handed them in friendship or in charity--all of them the busy intermediaries between the insurers and the insured.

From morning till night these insurance men throng William Street, most of them representing the brokers who feed the business into the great machine. And it is no wonder that the street is thronged, for the amount of detail requisite for every insurance effected is surprisingly great. Let us suppose that Brown, owning a building, desires to insure it. He sends his order to Jones, a broker who has solicited the business. Jones's clerk enters up the order and makes out a slip called a binder, which is an abbreviated form of contract insuring the customer until a complete contract in the form of a policy can be issued. This binding slip is given to a clerk called the placer, whose duty it is to place the risk, or in other words to secure the acceptance of the insurance by some company or companies. The placer then goes into the street, returning when his binder is completed by the acceptance of the amount desired, the name of each company with the amount assumed and the initials of its representative being signed in the spaces left for that purpose. Forms must then be prepared by the broker to suit the conditions of the risk and delivered to the companies, the rate schedule must be scrutinized to see whether in any way a lower rate can be obtained, and as soon as possible the policies themselves must be secured and delivered to the assured. The premium must then be collected and remitted, less the broker's commission, to the companies. And the broker's duty does not end even here. He must watch the risk for changes in occupancy, protect his client's interests in the event of a loss, and constantly fight like a tiger before the rating bureau to reduce the rate lest some alert rival offer his customer better terms.

All this detail is quite smoothly transacted, supposing the business to be in the companies' opinion desirable, but when the risk offered is what the street terms a "skate" or a "target," there is a sudden halt, and the completion of the binder becomes a more difficult matter. Then the really astute placer has a chance to demonstrate his efficiency. It is his function to persuade with winged words his adversary, the company's local underwriter or "counterman," that the stock of cheap millinery belonging to the Slavonic gentlemen with the unfortunate record of two fires of unknown origin and two opportune failures is even more desirable--at the rate--than the large line on the substantial office building which he half exhibits, holding suggestively back. It is his duty to place all his business, not the good alone, and generally he succeeds in eventually doing so, although some binders become tattered and grimy with age and from having been handed futilely back and forth over the company counters. The owner of many a Fifth Avenue dwelling would be surprised could he know that the insurance on his property had been utilized to force on some reluctant company a small line covering the sewing machines in Meyer Leshinsky's Pike Street sweatshop. Many an ingenious placer has had the binders of his very worst risks--that he had been totally unable to cover--freshly typewritten every morning in order to convey the impression that the order had that moment been secured by his firm and that the hesitating counterman to whom it was being presented with elaborate indifference was the first--the best friend of the placer--to whom the line had been offered.

On an eligible corner on the west side of William Street, at the very center of the Street's activity, stood, in the year 1912, a gray stone structure of dignified though scarcely decorative appearance. On the stone slabs each side of the doorway, old style brass letters proclaimed--if so modest an announcement could be termed a proclamation--that here were the offices of

THE GUARDIAN FIRE INSURANCE COMPANY OF THE CITY OF NEW YORK

Over this portal gray walls rose to the height of eight stories. Such was the headquarters, from an external aspect, of one of the oldest, safest, and best of local companies, which invariably, for brevity, was known to friends and foes alike as "The Guardian of New York."

Entering the somewhat narrow vestibule, the visitor found himself in a small and gloomy hall, confronted by two debilitated grille elevator doors which seemed sadly to need oiling, the elevators behind which carried conservatively and without precipitancy those who wished to ascend. The two individuals who directed the leisurely progress of these cars were elderly men who, like most of those in the Guardian's employment, had been in the service of the company since it moved into the "new" building. This migration had occurred about the time that torch-light parades were marching up Broadway to the rhythmic cheers for "Blaine! Blaine! James G. Blaine!" It is a melancholy truth that in a generation and a half eyes grow dim and limbs falter, but in the opinion of the Guardian's management the fact that a man was no longer as young as he had once been was no valid reason, unless he were actually incompetent, why he should not be allowed to continue doing the best he could. President Wintermuth himself had once been considerably younger, and he knew it. He called all his old employees by their first names, and unless there rose a question of fidelity, he would no sooner have thought of discharging one of them than he would have thought of going home and discharging his wife. Some of the older ones, indeed, antedated Mr. Wintermuth himself, and still regarded him with the kindly tolerance of the days when they were the _cognoscenti_, and he the neophyte, learning the ropes at their hands.

One of the oldest in tenure, but a man incurably young for all that, was James Cuyler, the head of the company's local department, in charge of all the business of the Metropolitan District, and an underwriter as well known to the fraternity as the asphalt pavement of the street. The Guardian's local department, which occupied the entire first floor of the building, except the elevator space, was a busy place from nine o'clock till five on ordinary days and from nine till one on Saturdays. Hour after hour, day after day, year after year, Mr. Cuyler stood behind his long map counter, his genial but penetrating eye instantly assessing each man that approached, sifting with quick glance the business offered, and detecting almost automatically any trick or "joker" in that which his visitors presented. Most of the men across the counter naturally were brokers or their placing clerks, armed with binders on risks of all kinds, some good and many more bad, for the good risks are usually snapped up in large amounts by the first companies to whom they are taken, but the bad ones make their weary and often fruitless tour of the entire street. All of them, the good and bad alike, the placers commonly presented to Mr. Cuyler with a bland innocence which deceived that astute veteran not at all. The purpose of the average broker was to induce the Guardian to accept his chaff with as little wheat as he could possibly bestow, while Mr. Cuyler's, on the contrary, was to take the wheat and the wheat alone. The chaff he declined in three thousand manners, in every case fitting his refusal to the refused one, always bearing in mind that that worthy's affections must not be permanently and hopelessly alienated.

"John," he would say with a smile, "I'll write thirty-five thousand on that fireproof building for you, but I can't take that rag stock. I'd like to help you out, you understand, but I simply can't touch the class. Two years ago I wrote an accommodation line for Billy Heilbrun--some old junk shop in Sullivan Street--and she smoked for a total loss in about a month, and I can still recall the post-mortem I had with the President."

And under cover of this painful but purely fictitious incident he would whisk away the binder on the fireproof building, returning it signed with one and the same movement, and smiling a smile of chastened sorrow over his inability to assist his friend with the undesirable rag offering. Or else the office would see him lean forward impressively, and say, in a hushed whisper, across the counter: "Now, Mr. Charles Webb, you're wasted in the insurance business. If you have the cold nerve to offer me that old skate that's been turned down by every company from the Continental down to the Kickapoo Lloyds--well, you ought to be in the legislature, that's where you ought to be!"

"But here's something to go with it--to sweeten it up," the unabashed Mr. Webb would probably protest, producing another risk of equally detrimental description. Then Mr. Cuyler would turn.

"Harry," he would say, "put on your hat and take Mr. Webb back to his office. He's not himself; the heat is too much for him."

And Mr. Webb would smile--and be lost.

There are very few positions which make greater demands upon one's judgment, one's diplomacy, and one's temper than this one which Mr. Cuyler had filled so long and so inimitably. To pick a man's pocket of all its contents, deliberately selecting those of sufficient value to retain and throwing the remainder back in his face, is a matter for fine art, for the broker must not be angered or a good connection is lost to the office.

And there are artists in both galleries. There are placers who have all the fine frenzy of a starving poet in a midnight garret, men who would make the fortune of a country hotel if they would but write for it a single testimonial advertisement, men whose flow of persuasive talk is almost hypnotic, whose victims are held just as surely as ever was Wedding Guest--and with this difference, that while that classic personage merely turned up late to the ceremony, these charmed men listen to the siren tongue until they find themselves doing things which may very readily--if fate is unkind and the risk burns--cost them their repute and their positions as well.

When such a Pan-Hellenic meeting occurred, Mr. Cuyler rose to his highest triumphs. It was perhaps a frame celluloid goods factory in Long Island City, which some soul-compelling voice had just finished describing, accoutering the grisly thing in all the garments of verbal glory. One gathered that the Guardian's fate hung on the acceptance of this translucent risk, that it was a prize saved from the clutches of a hundred grasping competitors and brought to the counter of the Guardian like a pure white lamb to the altar of the gods. When it was all over, and nothing was wanting except Mr. Cuyler's signature to the binder--then Mr. Cuyler came into his own.

"Joe," the organ note would start--"Joe, that looks as if it might be a first-rate risk of its class, and some folks think it's not a bad class, too, when the hazards are properly arranged. I've always thought myself that the bad record on celluloid workers was largely accidental. And I don't see how I can turn down anything that comes from your office--I guess I'll have to help you out with a small line, anyway. Where's your binder? Wait a second, though. Let me look at that map again--I forgot my exposing lines. Well! we seem to be pretty full in that block--eighty-five, ten, twelve-five, sixteen--by Jove! I'm afraid I'll have to pass that up, after all--I didn't think I had so much around there. Awfully sorry, old man; I'd take it for you if I could for any man in the world."

And the binder was affably passed back over the counter. But when, as probably developed at this point, Mr. Cuyler was advised that his remarks bore convincing traces of the proximity of an active steam-radiator and that the broker knew perfectly well that the Guardian hadn't a dollar at risk within three blocks--it was then that the real contest began. Celluloid was a mighty hazardous article--was Joe aware that in New York State alone the losses had been nearly three times the premiums on the class? Perhaps this was accidental, but it was a fact just the same. But after all, what else could one expect? Celluloid was very much like gun-cotton--made out of practically the same constituents--and only a little less dangerous to handle. It also appeared that celluloid works all over the country had for the last year been _unusually_ disastrous to the underwriters, and that the President himself had written a letter on the subject to the various rating bureaus. Honestly, it would be more than Cuyler, with all his extreme desire to oblige, would dare do--to tell the old man that the local department had written a celluloid factory. His good friend, the caller, Mr. Cuyler felt certain, would not wish to see the venerable hairs of the Guardian's local secretary trampled into the dust by the infuriate heels of the board of directors, led by the outraged President Wintermuth himself. No, he was extremely sorry, but he simply--could not--take--the risk.

And take it he would not. Such was James Cuyler. For thirty years he had stood at the Guardian's local threshold, fidelity personified, a watch-dog extraordinary that could not have been duplicated in all watchdogdom. He had but one superstition and but one grievance.

His superstition was that he would not allow a customer to enter the office after the clock struck the first blow of five. At that moment, if no employee was at hand, he himself would step out from behind the counter, close the door, and turn the key in the lock. And the best friend of the office could not have gained admission once the key was turned.

"Why do I do it?" he would say. "My boy, at about half-past five P.M. on June fourteenth, eighteen eighty-nine, I was alone in the office, and Herman White, who used to be placer for Schmidt and Sulzbacher, came in with a ten thousand dollar line on coffee in one of those Brooklyn shorefront warehouses. I guess all the other offices must have shut up, for Herman never gave me anything he didn't have to. He banged on the door, and I let him in, and the risk was all right and we were wide open, and I took his ten thousand. . . . And about twenty minutes later, as I stood on the front deck of the Wall Street ferryboat crossing the river, the flames burst out of the roof of that warehouse, and we paid nine thousand two hundred and thirty-seven dollars for that coffee. . . . This office closes at five P.M."

This was his superstition, and he lived up to it with absolute consistency. His one grievance was not quite so deep, which probably explained his lesser insistence upon it. This grievance was simply that the conservative policy of the company would not let him accept more than a fraction of what he would have wished to write on the island of Manhattan. Like all men who constantly live in the presence of a peril and grow thus to minimize it, Mr. Cuyler had grown to think and to feel that New York, _his_ New York, could never have a serious, sweeping fire, a conflagration. This being so, and the local business being profitable, to write so small an amount in the city was equivalent to throwing money sinfully away. Why, companies not half so large were doing double the Guardian's business, and with golden results. But only at long intervals did he permit himself the luxury of articulately bemoaning his fate, for in spite of his own conviction he felt that any implied criticism of his chief was disloyal. Occasionally, however, his feelings would overcome him, and then he would burst forth into a hurricane of lamentations.

"The finest town in the country," he would say; "and look at what we write! I could double our income in a week if the old man would let me. But he won't. He keeps talking 'conflagration hazard' and 'keep your lines down in the dry goods district' and 'aggregate liability,' and I can't get him to loosen up a particle. He always says we have enough at risk now. Enough at risk! Look at what the company writes in Boston! Why, the Guardian must have half as much at risk in the congested district of Boston as I write here! And Boston! Of all towns in the world!"

Mr. Cuyler was not a Bostonian.

It was perfectly true; Mr. Wintermuth was not a strictly consistent underwriter, and perhaps some day he would adopt Mr. Cuyler's viewpoint. And then, the flood-gates open, the local secretary would come into his metropolitan own. Certainly, if the Guardian's line in Boston was safe, its liability in New York was small indeed. But the Boston business had always shown a profit, and James Wintermuth and Silas Osgood had grown up together in the insurance world; and so for the present the Boston line would stand. And it was impossible to satisfy Mr. Cuyler,--he was continually moaning about the restrictions under which he labored,--and so it was likely that nothing would be done in New York, either. James Wintermuth was a conservative man.

One could have told it at his first glance about the President's office, on the top floor of the Guardian building. In the first place, the office, although it was located in the sunniest corner of the building, preserved nevertheless a kind of cathedral gloom. Dark shades in the windows reduced the light across Mr. Wintermuth's obsolete roll-top desk to never more than that of a dull afternoon. No impertinent rays of the sun could further fade the faded rug which clothed the center of the room. On the wall hung likenesses of the former heads of the company, now long since in their graves. Over the desk was an old print of the Lisbon earthquake; the germaneness of this did not at once appear,--in fact, it never appeared,--but the picture had always hung there, and in Mr. Wintermuth's opinion that was ample cause and justification.

Only in the corner, almost out of sight behind the desk, was the room's single absolute incongruity. There the surprised visitor saw, reposing quietly in its shadowy retreat, a hundred pound dumb-bell. This was the President's sole remaining animal joy, the presence of this dumb-bell. He rarely touched it now, although the colored janitor's assistant scrupulously dusted it each morning, but it was an agreeable reminder of the days when the old lion was young and when his teeth, metaphorically speaking, were new and sharp. For years it had been his custom to lift this ponderous object three times above his head before opening his mail in the morning--and he would never hire a field man or inspector who could not do likewise.

Now, of course, these trials of strength were over for Mr. Wintermuth--and what he no longer did himself he asked none other to do. But there the relic lay, a substantial memorial of Spring in the veins. Once in a while, at long intervals, Smith, in whom the old man had a sort of shamefaced pride, would eye the thing respectfully.

"Put it up, Richard," Mr. Wintermuth would direct; "I used to do it every morning for twenty years." And Smith--with considerable effort--would put it up.

"I'd never have let you go to work for the Guardian, when you came and struck me for a position, if you hadn't been able to do that, my boy," said the President, reflectively.

And Smith would listen patiently to the oft-told tale. He was sincerely fond of the old autocrat, and able to bear with his growing acerbity better than he could have done had he not known the real spirit of the man. During the past year or two it seemed to Smith that his chief was showing his age more plainly than ever before. He was still under sixty-five, but he was coming to live more than ever in the past, and was growing more and more impervious to the new ideas and new methods which modern conditions constantly brought.

"The greatest trouble with the old man is," as Cuyler was heard to say on one occasion, "he has the 4 per cent bond habit."

It was perfectly, true. What was safe and what was sure appealed more strongly to James Wintermuth with the passage of every year. Not for him were the daring methods of those companies who employed their resources in tremendous plunges in and out of the stock market, not for him the long chances in which most of his competitors gloried. The Guardian was doing well enough. Its capital of $750,000 was ample; its surplus of $500,000 very respectable; its premium income of a million and three quarters perfectly adequate, in Mr. Wintermuth's opinion. And the stockholders, receiving dividends of 12 per cent per annum, lean years and fat alike, never audibly complained.

In appearance the Guardian's President upheld the best traditions of the old school from which he sprang. Above middle height, his erect figure gave him still much the air of a cavalier. His acute black eyes and trim white mustache made him certain to attract notice wherever he went--a fact of which he was not wholly unconscious. Even now, when gradually, almost imperceptibly, the springiness was fading from his step, he seemed a strong and virile man. His directors, most of them his contemporaries and whose insurance knowledge was limited to what they had learned on the Guardian directorate, trusted and believed in him with absolute implicitness. Any act on behalf of the company, when done by the President, they promptly ratified; and indeed they had for many years made it palpable to the meanest intelligence that they considered James Wintermuth the head, brain, heart, and all the other vital organs of the company which they--nominally--directed. In short, James Wintermuth _was_ the Guardian.

There was in all the Street one man alone who would have taken exception to this analysis--and he kept his opinion securely locked in his secretive, his very secretive brain. This man was F. Mills O'Connor, Vice-President of the Guardian.

CHAPTER V

"Turn up Providence Two," said Mr. O'Connor. As the gentleman in question appeared at his office door en route to the map desk, his asperity of manner seemed to Herbert, the map clerk, even more pronounced than usual, and his voice was fully accordant. It was never a dulcet organ, at best; but its owner rarely felt that his business transactions could be assisted by the employment of flute notes; when he did, he sank his tones to a confidential whisper intended to flatter and impress his auditor, and it usually seemed to serve the purpose. But with his map clerks and his subordinates generally he gave free play to his natural raucousness, and he probably acted upon excellent judgment.

Herbert, whose eye and ear from long practice had grown to detect the exact degree of urgency in every call, with the agility of his Darwinian ancestry quickened by his native wit, dashed over to the desk under which the Rhode Island maps reposed. He swung the big gray-bound volume up onto the broad, flat counter with all the skill of a successful vaudeville artist, and none too soon, for he who had demanded it was at his elbow.

"What page do you want, Mr. O'Connor?" asked Herbert.

The Vice-president glanced at the daily report he held in his hand, and turned back the yellow telegraph blank that was pinned to it.

"Sheet one fifty-six," he said shortly. "No--one _fifty_-six. That will do." He turned to a boy. "Find out for me if Mr. Wintermuth is in his office."

The boy, whose name was Jimmy, sped off, soliloquizing as he went: "Gee, there must be somethin' up to get O'C. as hot as that!" Arrived at the opposite end of the big room, he reconnoitered for a view of the President's office. By virtue of some little strategy he presently managed to catch sight of Mr. Wintermuth, seated at his desk, pen in hand, in his most magisterial attitude, listening judicially to the remarks of some visitor. Jimmy, who was no fool, recognized the stranger as the business manager of an insurance paper about half whose space was given to articles highly eulogistic of certain insurance companies whose advertisements, by some singular coincidence, invariably appeared further on in the publication. From the position of the two Jimmy deduced that the conversation was not likely to be terminated very soon, and dashed back to Mr. O'Connor with that intelligence. The Vice-President was still studying the many-colored sheet.

"Busy, eh? Well, leave that map turned up, and let me know as soon as he is at liberty." And he strode back to his own office and shut the door with a slam that disturbed the serene spectacles of Mr. Otto Bartels, who was sedulously studying a long row of figures on a reinsurance bordereau.

Mr. Bartels was Secretary of the Guardian, and his office adjoined that of the Vice-president. Mr. Bartels, who was very short and stout, and very methodical, and Teutonic beyond all else, looked up with mild surprise in his placid eyes and the hint of something on his face which in a more mobile countenance would have been an expression of gentle remonstrance. His place was lost, in the column he was scanning, by the dislodgment of his spectacles, which he wore well down toward the lower reaches of his nose--it would have been out of place to speak of that organ as possessing an end or a tip, for it was much too bulbous for any such term to fit. Taking the spectacles with both hands, he replaced them at their wonted angle, and with that phantom of disapproval still striving for expression and outlet among his features, he resumed his employment.

Otto Bartels was a discovery of Mr. Wintermuth's, many years before, when that gentleman occupied a less conspicuous position with the corporation of which he was now long since the head. One day, sitting at his desk, he looked up to observe a youth who stood gravely regarding him in silence for at least three minutes before his speech struggled near enough the surface to make itself audible. It appeared that the stranger was in need of a position, that he was accurate, though not quick at figures, and that he would begin work for whatever wage was found proper. He was given a trial in the accounts department, and for five years his sponsor heard no more of him. At the end of that time he found that his protégé had worked up to the position of assistant chief clerk. Three years later the drinking water of the New Jersey suburb where he resided terminated the earthly career of the chief clerk, and Bartels became chief clerk, managing the department as nearly as was humanly possible without speech of any kind. And when, twenty years from the time the Guardian saw him first, Otto Bartels found himself authorized to write Secretary after his flowing signature, it was an appointment inevitable. He had simply pushed his way out of the crowd by grace of his unremitting thoroughness, his industry, which was really not especially creditable, as nothing but work ever occurred to him, and a gratifying inability to make errors of detail. He knew the name of every agent on the company's list, when each one was expected to pay his balances, and how much in premiums each annually reported. He never wrote letters, for it was impossible for him to dictate to a stenographer; he rarely took a vacation, for he had nowhere to go and nothing to do outside the office; he never engaged in discernible social intercourse of any sort, for he had never known how to begin. Such was the methodical man who so efficiently kept the books and records of the Guardian. He knew and cared nothing about underwriting, regarding the insurance operations of the company as a possibly important but purely secondary consideration. In Mr. Bartels's opinion the company's records were the company.

The underwriting department of the Guardian occupied, with the officers' quarters, the upper two floors of the rather narrow building. On the top floor were the East and the South, under the immediate supervision of Smith, the General Agent, and the offices of Mr. Wintermuth, Mr. O'Connor, and Mr. Bartels. The President occupied the southeast corner and the two others the northeast end, while Smith's desk was out in the open office, with the maps and files and survey cases and his subordinates under his eye.

On the floor below Assistant-Secretary Wagstaff held forth; he was in charge of the Western Department, which comprised the states from Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee westward to the coast. Mr. Wagstaff was a competent, careful, unimaginative, unambitious man who did his work from day to day. He enters this story virtually not at all; be it enough to say that he had a red mustache and a bald, bright head and wore shoes with cloth tops. He took good care of his territory, and if he never made much money for the company, he never lost any. So much for Edgar Wagstaff.

Before returning to the top floor, however, one character in Mr. Wagstaff's entourage must be brought majestically forward into view. This dignified personage was Jenkins, the clerk of the Pacific Coast accounts. Mr. Jenkins was, in his youth, a mathematician of remarkable promise. His dexterity with arithmetic and algebra was such that his family began to think that could this ability at figures be translated into terms of Wall Street there might be a Napoleon of finance bearing the proud if somewhat homely name of Jenkins. But unfortunately it seemed otherwise to the fates, for Mr. Jenkins, with advancing years, found his Napoleonic onrush irresistibly diverted toward pleasant byways frequented in the golden age by one Bacchus, god of wine. Apparently the disinclination for the dusty road of duty had resulted in much satisfaction and no lasting damage to Bacchus, but far otherwise was it with Jenkins. He fared as conscientiously in Bacchus's footsteps as he could, but his was not the true Bacchanalian temperament. Under the influence of the grape Jenkins, instead of becoming gay, waxed ever more portentous and sublime. When he was almost sober, say of a Friday afternoon, he was grave, merely creating the impression that some long-past tragedy had clouded his life. When he was by way of being what one may denominate half-interested, his face assumed the saturnine expression of an ancient misanthrope, but when at last he reached the full flower of his magnificent endeavors, the silent severity of his countenance became so forbidding and sinister as to freeze the smile from the lips of a happy child. By his face you might know him, but it would of necessity be by the face alone, for so perfect was his control of his dominated limbs that never a quiver betrayed him, and no degree of saturation seemed to affect at all the impeccable footing of his columns.

A spiral staircase connected the seventh and eighth floors of the Guardian building, constructed for the convenience of the clerks who had to do with several departments. It was near the top of this staircase that Smith had his desk, in the center of the maelstrom. Smith strongly believed in being in the center of things, and from where he sat he could overlook every foot of the space occupied by the Eastern Department. As he was supervisor, he intended to supervise--wherein lay one of the chief sources of his value.

"Jimmy, bring me the _Journal of Commerce_," he said to the invaluable and ubiquitous one.

"Mr. O'Connor's got it on his desk, sir," replied that youth, almost breathlessly. Speed in action had so demanded equivalent celerity in diction that often speech came badly second in endurance, causing him to sputter and gasp for completed utterance.

"Well, go and see if he isn't through with it," Smith directed. "I haven't seen the losses yet this morning."

Almost immediately, a modern Manhattan Mercury, Jimmy was again at his side.

"No, sir--he says he's still usin' it," he reported.

"Bring it to me when he's finished," Smith closed the matter, devoting himself to other things. Those requiring his attention were numerous enough, but first of all came an interruption in the shape of a caller.

All manner of men come into the agency department of an insurance company. Smith's field covered the whole Atlantic Coast and Gulf sections of the country, and the agents from these states alone made quite an army, and any one of these agents was likely at any time to appear from a bland blue sky, completely upsetting the General Agent's continuity of work. Then there were the placers from the brokerage firms, offering out-of-town risks which most of them had personally never seen and knew little or nothing about, and whose descriptive powers were all the greater for being unhampered by any blunt facts, a few of which are so often fatal to a successful rhetorical ascension. Then there were the various clients of the company who came straggling in to have a New York City policy transferred to cover for six days at Old Point Comfort, or to ask whether the presence of a Japanese heater--size two by three and one half inches--would destroy the validity of their policy; and there was the lady whose false teeth fell into the kitchen stove while she was putting on a scuttle of coal, and who thought the company should reimburse her for the loss under her policy which covered all her personal effects and wearing apparel; and then there was the suspicious individual who called to make sure that his premium had been properly transmitted to the company, for the local agent in his town has strange ways and looked very peculiar when accepting the money.

These and a hundred others, all in the way of business; and in addition there were the shifting atoms of humanity who float in and out of the office buildings of a great city, pensioners for the most part on either the bounty or the carelessness of busy men--waifs in the industrial orbit who gain their living by various established or ingenious variations of the more indirect forms of brigandage. There were men selling books that probably no one in the world would ever wish to buy or to read; women soliciting funds for charitable institutions which might or might not exist; salesmen positively enthusiastic in their desire to give the Guardian the benefit of their patent pencil sharpeners, or gas crowns, or asbestos window shades, or loose-leaf ledgers, or roach powder of peculiar pungency and efficiency. Of course the elevator attendants were supposed to distinguish between the sheep and the goats, and to let only legitimate callers ascend, but the discretionary power of the Ethiopian is scarcely subtle--or at least such was the case with the Guardian's staff of watchdogs--and as a result many a visitor reached the floor where Smith presided only to have his disguise fall from him at his first word and to be politely ejected by the invaluable Jimmy, who was accustomed to accompany the gentle strangers as far as the street door in order that there might be no misapprehension on their part.

This particular morning Smith disposed with more or less ease of several claimants to his attention, before he was finally brought to a pause by the appearance of Mr. Darius Howell of Schuyler, Maine, who had come to New York in connection with his potato business, and who had incidentally decided to call at the office of the Guardian which he also had the honor locally to represent. Years before, Smith had once visited Schuyler, and at that time had met the small, grizzled individual who now stood before him. He had not, however, the slightest idea of the identity of his visitor, and waited a brief moment for a clew to aid him.

"You don't remember me, I reckon," said the caller. "I remember you, though, Mr. Smith. My name is Darius--"

"Howell," said Smith, instantly, getting up to shake hands. Of all the agents reporting to him there was only one Darius. "I remember you very well. I hope you haven't come to tell me that Schuyler has burned up. Come in and sit down. It must be five years since I've seen you."

"Six years come next July," agreed the other, cautiously. It would have been impossible for him to admit the simplest proposition without some sort of qualification; he never had done so, and there seemed no valid reason to suppose that he ever would.

"And how is Schuyler coming along?" inquired the General Agent, with decided deference to the conventionalities of such interviews.

"Oh, so so," replied the man from Maine. "There ain't been much change up there since you was there. That is, not what you'd really call a change. How's things with you? The company still pays dividends, I see."

Mr. Howell was the owner of four shares of the company's stock.

"Doing all right," Smith responded. "The Guardian believes in making haste slowly, you know; we don't go ahead very fast, but we keep plugging along. Mr. Wintermuth feels it's always best to be on the safe side. Occasionally it's discouraging when we see some competitor build up an income in three or four years as big as ours that it's taken three or four generations to establish, but when we read some morning that our enterprising friends have had to reinsure their liability with some stronger concern and retire from business because their losses have caught up to them, we don't feel quite so badly. Personally I think we could travel a little faster, and I'd like to see our premiums twice what they are now. And I hope you'll double them this year in Schuyler, anyway."

"Maybe so, but you never can tell. Business is liable to slack up just when you think it's going along all right. And there ain't been any new building in Schuyler of any account for two years back but Dodge's feed mill and the new Union School. You've got a line on both of them."

At this point their conversation was interrupted because of the departure of the persistent gentleman, who had been closeted with Mr. Wintermuth. As the door closed on him, Jimmy disappeared around the corner and thrust his head and fore quarters, so to speak, into O'Connor's open doorway.

"Th' President's at liberty now," he announced.

Without replying, the Vice-President picked up the _Journal of Commerce_ and the daily report with the yellow telegram affixed to it, and strode over, past Smith's desk, to the office of his chief.

"Can you come out and look at the map a minute, sir?" he asked respectfully.

"Certainly. What is it? A loss?" replied Mr. Wintermuth, noticing the telegraph slip as he rose from his chair and followed O'Connor toward the map counter.

"Yes," said the Vice-president. He was passing the desk of the General Agent, and he took care that his remark might be overheard. "And it looks to me like something we ought not to have had."

"What's that?" rejoined the older man, quickly. "We're not accepting business that we shouldn't write, are we? What is it? And who passed it?"

"Smith seems to have approved the line," O'Connor said slowly. "Herbert, I thought I told you to leave that Providence map out for me."

"It's right there, sir," said the map clerk; "right where you left it, sir."

"Here's the risk," said the Vice-president, pointing it out to his superior with every sign of decent regret. "It seems to be a mattress factory, a class we never write. . . . Smith appears to have passed it--there's his initial. Of course, he may have had some special reason for--"

Mr. Wintermuth interrupted him.

"Herbert, ask Mr. Smith if he will not step this way for a moment, please."

To the man from Maine the General Agent said: "You'll excuse me for a minute?"

And Darius Howell, with astonishing definiteness, replied: "Sure--go ahead."

Smith found his two officers awaiting him by the open map. From the expression on O'Connor's face he suspected that that gentleman had discovered something not displeasing to him, and unconsciously he found his own shoulders squaring themselves as though for a conflict.

"We have here," began the President, slowly, "a loss at Providence on a risk which Mr. O'Connor seems to think we should not have written."

"Where is the risk, sir?" Smith asked quietly.

"Here. Here is the daily report. It is approved by you. . . . Probably there is something about the risk which does not appear on the face of it. Do you remember the circumstances?"

Smith looked the daily report over carefully. It certainly showed the risk, just as plainly as the map also showed it, to be a mattress factory, a class prohibited by the Guardian, and there were Smith's own interwoven initials. Then, suddenly, at the sight of the hieroglyph, he remembered. "Why, you passed this line yourself, Mr. O'Connor," was on his lips to say. But he did not say it. For by the cold light in the eyes of the Vice-President he knew that course useless.

"I remember the risk," he said, addressing himself to Mr. Wintermuth. "It was a direct line of our local agents, and they were very anxious to have us take a small amount. It was accepted as an accommodation, and I reinsured one half, as you see, sir. Is it a bad loss?"

"Reported total," replied the other, turning over the telegram. "My boy, you're usually so careful, I don't understand how you came to put through such business. You ought at least to have referred it to Mr. O'Connor or myself."

Smith glanced again at the Vice-president, but that gentleman remained silent, and the General Agent again swallowed what was on his tongue to utter.

"Yes, sir, I should have done so," he substituted.

Mr. Wintermuth continued: "We cannot write such risks as that and hope to make an underwriting profit. They say I am a believer in 4 per cent bonds--perhaps I am, but I am _not_ a believer in 4 per cent mattress factories." The old gentleman softened his criticism with a smile.

But to Smith, feeling rather than seeing the half-hidden satisfaction of the Vice-president, the President's kindly manner proved of little comfort. For Smith and O'Connor knew that the line in question had been submitted to O'Connor, and that in view of the competition of several very liberal companies in the Providence agency, the Vice-president had authorized its acceptance. With his wonted caution, however, he had refrained from putting himself on record, other than orally.

"Reinsure half, and put it through, Smith," he had directed; and Smith had done so.

In cases where his own security was involved, Mr. F. Mills O'Connor was an exceedingly cautious man. Looking before he leaped was with him almost a passion; and if he expected to leap on a Thursday, it was generally estimated that he began his preliminary looking on Monday of the week before.

He was a large, clean-shaven, dark-haired man of indeterminate age. By his profession at large he was little known, but in the Guardian office he was very well known indeed and excellently understood, and an appreciation of his character and qualities truthfully set down by the observant Jimmy or by Herbert, the map clerk, would never have been selected by the O'Connor family as satisfactory material for a flattering obituary notice.

It appeared likely, however, that it would be a long time before his obituary would be written. He was probably, at this time, a year or two the other side of forty, and his care of himself was unimpeachable, for he guarded his health as carefully as he did his other assets. He had become Vice-President and underwriting head of the company several years before this story opens, and it seemed probable that he would hold that position indefinitely--or perhaps it would be nearer the truth to say until some more advantageous position lay open to him.

Mr. O'Connor was what is commonly termed a cold proposition, and if there was any sentiment in him it was so carefully secreted that for ordinary purposes it was non-existent. Yet he was not unpopular. When he so desired, he could assume a spurious geniality so closely resembling the genuine article that few persons, and none of his agents, ever discovered the difference. And his business efficiency was commonly taken for granted.

Indeed, there was but one man in the insurance fraternity who assessed Mr. O'Connor at very nearly his proper value, and that man O'Connor disliked and feared as vividly as his rather apathetic nature would admit. The one man was Smith. Whoever might sail the seas in ships of illusion regarding the Vice-president of the Guardian, Smith saw the facts clear and looked at them squarely.

The principal cause of Smith's own position in the company was his own vitality and industry, but next to that was the fact that Mr. Wintermuth had originally given him a chance and then declined to permit any one to impede his natural progression. This attitude was due principally to the President's conviction of his own ability to judge men. Having once made up his mind, he allowed no one to tell him anything about any of his employees. He always said: "I watch the boys myself, and what I can't see I don't want to know." In the old days what he did not see was of no especial importance to the Guardian Insurance Company, but the eyes of an old lion grow also old. Yet the habit remained, and thus all Mr. O'Connor's efforts to discredit his ambitious young assistant had so far fallen on ears stone-deaf and hermetically sealed. But the Vice-president could never forgive the younger man for looking at him with so unimpressed a gaze, and never missed an opportunity to show his prejudice to their mutual chief.

There had been several incidents of a similar nature previous to the mattress factory loss, where Smith had been either indirectly advised or permitted by O'Connor to take a certain course, only to find himself excoriated when the risk burned or the outcome proved otherwise disastrous. Only a short time before, Smith had been sent into New York State, acting under vice-presidential order of procedure, to straighten out the Guardian's relations with the local division of the Eastern Conference. The Eastern Conference was an organization to which most of the leading companies belonged. Its function was the orderly regulation of all matters affecting its members' relations with their agents. Theoretically its primary purpose was to prevent the overcompensation of some agents at the expense of others. If it did not always succeed in doing this, it did at least succeed in making extremely embarrassing the lot of any company operating outside of its organization. It was everywhere an arbitrary body, and its New York State branch was perhaps the least disciplined of any of its constituent parts, and was moreover suspected of favoring some of its own members at the expense of others. President Wintermuth, loyal to his associates, but patient only up to a certain point, had of late begun to consider that his company was decidedly in the latter class. It was easy to see that a diplomat's hand was needed to accomplish what Smith was sent to accomplish, and Smith could be a diplomat of parts when the need arose; but his instructions from Mr. O'Connor had left him so little latitude that he was obliged to return without securing any positive action of any sort.

"They will take the matter up at the next meeting," he reported.

O'Connor transmitted this report to the President with an expression of disappointment.

"We ought to have had that thing fixed up. And if it had been handled right, it would have been fixed up now," he said.

Whereat the President, with one of his flashes of clear vision, replied suavely, "And who gave Smith his instructions?"

It was only a chance shot on Mr. Wintermuth's part, but it went straight to the mark, and it rankled. O'Connor knew--or felt reasonably sure--that Smith had not mentioned the matter to any one but himself, yet the chief had struck unerringly the nail's head. And all this endeared Smith but little to the man who had never liked him.

It is none too comfortable to work for a man who will covertly begrudge you your successes and indifferently conceal his satisfaction at your mistakes; for the stoutest hearted it is a discouraging business. This Smith found it, and he would have found it still more discouraging had it not been for the exuberance of his enthusiasm for his profession and his healthy appetite for most real things that came his way--real work, real pleasures, real sport, and perhaps a few real follies. Many times, after a bad hour spent in a futile defense against the only half-perceptible hostility of O'Connor, he would find himself seriously questioning whether he would not do more wisely to leave the Guardian and hazard a new fortune in another field. Yet all the while he knew that this course of speculation was idle and a waste of time and cerebral tissues. He was a Guardian man, and with the Guardian he was going to stay--unless the Company itself took a different view. Of course there was a time coming when Mr. Wintermuth would lay down his badge of office, but before that time much would occur. Sufficient unto that day would be its own evil, without enhancing it by imaginary additions. So Smith stood by his post, but there was at times an expression in his face which gave F. Mills O'Connor himself cause for careful consideration.

But to Darius Howell, somewhat awkwardly saying good-by at the Guardian's door, Smith's smile was as sunny as the skies of Schuyler, Maine. For troubles often turned out to be largely imaginary, while Darius was indubitably real.

CHAPTER VI

Promptly at nine o'clock in the morning of every business day for fifteen years, Hannibal G. Pelgram, uncle of Stanwood Pelgram, had seated himself at his desk in the office of the Pelgram Plumbers' Supply Company, and it was rarely that he left before his stenographer had begun to show signs of impatience and anxiety. But in the sixteenth year of his reign his liver, which up to that time had acted with the most commendable regularity, began to develop alarming eccentricities of behavior. Mr. Pelgram became gradually less certain in his attendance, and finally his struggle with the refractory liver ended in the victory of that inconspicuous but important organ, and he passed peacefully away at a German spa in the course of taking a cure which would very likely have killed him even had he been in perfectly normal health.

His will began by the customary direction to his executor to pay his just debts and funeral expenses--exactly as though the executor was assumed to be a thoroughly unscrupulous person who, although not benefiting himself in the least by his dishonesty, would try in every possible way to evade settlement with all the dead man's legitimate creditors, including the undertaker. Then he left a small bequest to a faithful cook and another to an endowed retreat for tuberculous Baptists which already had more money than it could hope ever to use. The residue, consisting principally of stock in the Plumbers' Supply Company, went to Stanwood, with the earnest wish that his nephew enter and eventually assume the direction of the business with which the family name had been so long and so honorably identified.

Stanwood received the news with modified rapture. He was grateful for financial independence, but the idea of taking up the bathtub business struck him with dismay. So with prudent forethought he sought out Amory Carruth, a lawyer of his acquaintance; and to him explained his dilemma. It required some measure of specious ingenuity to explain his errand as he wished; but Mr. Carruth, being used to squirming legatees, understood and came to the point with a candor which made Pelgram wince. After first flippantly suggesting that the plumbing business would at least afford Pelgram the chance to indulge his taste in porcelains, he eased the artist's mind by a phrase as soothing as it was noncommittal.

"You can follow your uncle's will as regards the disposition of his property. That part is sane enough. Whether it was equally sagacious, equally sane, to try to plunge you into the plumbing business is not so clear. We are, therefore, clearly justified if we say that he knew how he wished to dispose of his estate, but his mental condition was such that his legatee felt justified in modifying--in some degree--certain of his requests."

This apologetic theory was finally accepted. Dawes, the manager, whose surplus income had gone into the bank rather than into his liver, purchased the estate's interest, and on the proceeds Stanwood had now for five years been conducting his elaborate studio on Copley Square.

The completion of Miss Maitland's portrait was marked by one of the artist's characteristic functions. By any person in the ordinary walks of life it would have been called a tea, but Pelgram preferred to denominate it a private view. Every time he completed a work that he considered of real importance--relatively more often than modesty might have prescribed--he celebrated the birth of the masterpiece by one of these oddly termed baptisms in tannin. Possibly they were entitled to be called views, as the opus bravely challenged the tea table in popularity, and occasionally won by superior powers of endurance over a necessarily limited supply of edibles, but certainly the privacy was questionable, as to each one of them Stanwood invited nearly every one who might be expected to come.

Fortunately not a large proportion of these actually turned up. Some came because they were under obligations to the artist, and some because he was under obligations to them; some from vague curiosity, and others from sheer ignorance. Those who appeared at such a one as this, where the portrait of a young girl was displayed, were roughly limited to a few easily identified classes. There was centrally the young girl herself, and then there were the members of her family, all radiant except the purchaser of the picture, who customarily showed traces of sobriety and skepticism. There were one or two prospective patrons lured to the trap; some ephemeral sycophants, volunteer or mercenary; a few idle fellow artists who enjoyed seeing a colleague make what they considered to be an exhibition of himself; some inevitable people who went everywhere they were asked, especially when there was a prospect of something to eat; and a few puzzled and lonely-looking souls who could furnish no explanation of their attendance, did not stay very long, and never came a second time.

At this view the role of sycophants was to be played by two young girls who had taken up self-cultivation as a sort of fad, and had somehow become obsessed with the curious idea that art such as was found in Pelgram's studio could assist them in their commendable pursuit of culture. Their host was consequently delighted when, at an early hour, Miss Heatherton and Miss Long arrived, as they had promised to do. Their manifest adoration would produce an admirable spot light in which he might stand during the function, but more than that, he hoped that Helen herself would be impressed by the deep regard in which these fair disciples evidently held him and his work. Miss Heatherton was to pour the tea, and Miss Long was to distribute the thin lettuce sandwiches which formed its somewhat unsubstantial accompaniment.

Miss Heatherton's initial remark demonstrated the fact that, despite her plunge into what her family considered a dangerous part of Bohemia, she had managed to preserve intact her adherence to the traditional in conversational matters. When Pelgram escorted her to the tea table, she bleated a pathetic protest against his positive inhumanity in placing her where the great work was invisible.

"Oh, Mr. Pelgram, you are really cruel! Eleanor, don't you think he might have put me where I could sit and look at that beautiful portrait, and not down here at the other end of the room?"

Miss Long, a tall girl with large liquid eyes and a weak red mouth, languidly murmured a sympathetic assent, and their host smiled deprecatingly, but with an inward glow of satisfaction; such a remark was obviously not inspired by the exact truth, but it was nevertheless pleasant to hear.

"Ah, Miss Heatherton," he replied, "perhaps after all it is better as I have ordered it. For its little hour the picture should reign with its sovereignty unquestioned, while if you were near by--" he broke off meaningly, and Miss Long rewarded his compliment with a bovine glance of rapture, while Miss Heatherton looked modestly down at the teapot. Even to an unaesthetic person the arrangement seemed very good indeed, but rather for the more practical reason that the proximity of food and drink would very likely have distracted the attention of some of the more hungry visitors to such a degree that the work of art might have been comparatively ignored.

The next to arrive were Isabel Hurd and Wilkinson. Wilkinson had not been invited, but on hearing his cousin say that she was starting for the studio, he promptly announced that he would accompany her. He knew that Pelgram disliked him intensely, but he did not feel the slightest hesitation on that account in accepting the artist's hospitality, and in fact quite enjoyed the prospect of a dash into the enemy's country. To be sure, he saw little chance of loot except a trifling modification of his chronic afternoon hunger; but Isabel's society was desirable, and Pelgram appealed vividly to his sense of the ludicrous. His reception was all he could have hoped; his host greeted him with outward affability, but when he extended his hand from the black velvet cuff with the handkerchief tucked into it, his face expressed the hidden anguish of anticipated ridicule to such a degree that Wilkinson felt his visit already justified.

"It is very good of you to come," said the artist, with a forced smile. "I had no idea you were interested in art."

"Oh, but I am, though," returned the other, confidently. "I have no idea what it is, but I'm very much interested in it. And every one says I have the artistic temperament in the highest degree. By the way, what is art, anyway? No one ever told me."

Pelgram gave a preliminary cough, and glanced hastily about the room, but calculating that his audience would be larger later on, he restrained himself.

"What is art?" he slowly repeated, half-closing his eyes and smiling mystically on his guests. "What is art?" Miss Long hung breathlessly on his words.

As, however, he seemed more interested in the question than apt to reply to it, Wilkinson moved on toward Miss Heatherton and the tea table, while his place was taken by Miss Maitland and her mother, who had just come into the room.

The studio was presently quite full, and conversation rose to a shriller pitch. The talk was mostly of art. Catch phrases indicative of informality and intimacy with the manufacture of the beautiful were recklessly flung about. The pace quickened. The operations of Miss Heatherton and Miss Long threatened speedily to be terminated because of exhausted resources as well as insufficient space. It was warmer, and there was a queer mixed odor of tea, roses, and paint. John M. Hurd, greatly relieved after he discovered that he was not immediately expected to buy anything, was recounting with animation to a fat man in a frock coat how the basis of the family fortune had been laid by Mr. Hurd's grandfather whose one life rule was never to invest his money in anything west of Albany, New York. One of Pelgram's colleagues had pinned Miss Maitland into a corner and was raptly telling her how great an influence a certain old master of whom she had never heard had exerted on the work of an extraordinarily talented young man from Fall River whose name and pictures alike were entirely unknown to her.

Pelgram went by with his arm familiarly passed through that of a phlegmatic-looking young Chinaman whom he led up to Miss Maitland's portrait. Ling Hop had been cook on a yacht, when an artistic friend of Pelgram's and a parasite of the yacht's owner had discovered one day that the guardian of the galley was a fair draughtsman with some little imagination; and much to his own surprise the Oriental had been snatched from the cook stove and thrust into the artistic arena. It was lucky for him that his scene was set in Boston, which is always sympathetically on edge to embrace exotic genius. In a society delicately attuned to intellectual harmonies from all sources, however strange or weird, the success of a Chinaman possessing the slightest facility with the brush was assured from the first. His industrious compatriots in the local laundries, themselves more impassionate critics, doubtless regarded Ling Hop as an impudent charlatan; but Boston in its most restricted and exclusive sense looked at his work with interest and respect, though sadly without humor. The guest stood silently before the portrait, scanning it earnestly, almost with anxiety, blinking his almond eyes behind his shell-rimmed glasses. As, however, he did not know enough about the technique of painting to offer a sensible appreciation, he wisely confined himself to a very few vaguely eulogistic monosyllables, which seemed greatly to gratify the artist.

"Ah," said Ling Hop, "delicate--delicate!" the adjective being pronounced with a haunting repetition of its most melodious letter. Years of more or less familiarity with the English language had not been able to efface his racial penchant for the labial. One might naturally suppose that to compress a native alphabet of some one hundred and twenty-six letters into one of twenty-six would result in much confusion and some inexplicable preferences, but no one has ever been able to point out why the functions of the extra hundred should have to be assumed by the letter "l" alone.

But to Pelgram the vague liquid sound fell dulcetly on the ear, and by Miss Long and Miss Heatherton no flaw in this art criticism could be discerned. And the artist, glancing about him, saw with gratification that, in addition to the two young ladies, there had by some vague current of motion been swept into his immediate vicinity human flotsam to the extent of perhaps half a dozen irresponsible souls, ignorant that their immediate fate was to be not guests, but auditors.

"Do you feel that? I strove for it," he said in a clear, penetrating voice, calculated to attract the attention, if not the interest, of those even outside the charmed though widening circle. "I strove for just that, feeling that here, above all, it was the one desideratum. At times I feared--" he turned to the impassive Mongolian a puckered forehead--"that I might be sacrificing somewhat of the virile. But no! I said--surely I can sacrifice all things, all considerations, save one."

"You were right," said Ling Hop, cryptically, feeling that he was called upon to say something, but still with that faint adumbration of the inevitable letter.

"In these days of strange, wild gods, in whose temples the heathen riot in flames and flares and orgies of color, it seems to me incumbent upon the saner among the craft to cling perhaps closer than ever to the great canons that the great masters have set forth for us. What do these new men worship? Color--color--blobs and blotches of raw, crude color! They think of nothing else, these barbarians. Let drawing, arrangement, construction even, go--they say--and with bloodshot eyes they dance in one wild debauch of life and light! It is not art!"

Casting an imperceptibly alert eye to right and left, Pelgram saw that he was now in possession of the maximum audience he was likely to achieve. In a near-by corner, blockaded by three attentive gentlemen who seemed much less interested in art than in nature, sat Miss Maitland, within easy though obstructed earshot. She could hardly help hearing, and with an inward sigh of satisfaction the artist gave himself over utterly to the exordium which for some inexplicable reason formed the nucleus of his idea of a properly conducted studio affair. He felt that he was going to be very eloquent, and he felt reasonably secure from interruption, for no one in that company would have the temerity to question, on his own hearthstone, his pronunciamentos. No one,--except perhaps the irrepressible Wilkinson,--and it was with the greatest relief that he beheld Charlie safely out of hearing and engaged in rapt converse with Isabel.

"Yes, those of us who believe, who still hold the immortal things sacred, have a great trust vested in us. It is for us, the few still faithful, to keep the lustral fires pure from defilement by the unbelievers. What would the great draughtsmen of old, the great true colorists among the masters, say if we should betray them to the wild, criminal vagaries of these falsest of false prophets?"

He turned savagely upon Ling Hop, who replied, with entire truth, and with a certain feeling for caution which showed that he could be trusted in any crisis:--

"Yes. What?"

"They swarm with muddy feet through the safest, surest halls of art of all time. They do not hesitate to say that arrangement--arrangement!--is not a necessity in a work of art. They say construction is not vital. They care nothing of whether nature at the moment is right or wrong--whether there is a combination of circumstances worthy of reproduction--but they throw their pictures on the canvas in any way they chance to come. And what pictures! Raw, flaunting things, with no care given to balance, none to line, none to color! It would be unbelievable--if it were not true."

Miss Heatherton, on whom his inspired gaze at this juncture rested, closed her eyes, as though she feared to disturb even by a glance the continuity of this astonishing harangue. At the footstool of Olympus sat Miss Long, in patient ecstasy.

"These painters--anarchists of the craft, I call them--would force us to leave off painting quiet interiors," continued Pelgram, lowering his voice with mournful impressiveness, "because, forsooth, interiors are inane, undramatic things unless relieved by color! Not _our_ color, but the bright, blazing color that roars and raves. Still-lifes they condemn unless they swim in seas of pure emotion. For with them color is emotion, emotion color. . . . To be sure, _we_ know better, but I repeat that a heavy charge is on us. We must march loyally forward, keeping our banners high. We must go on painting a modest lady, dressed in dark blue, sitting on a gray chair with a shiny wooden floor beneath her--to show that these things can sometimes make an artistic harmony worthy of being translated for all time into a picture that shall never die. What if this has been done ten thousand times before? The old gods are jealous gods, and at the ten thousandth time they take their own at last."

"Yes. At last," said Ling Hop, observing that a response was expected of him.

Pelgram turned to the portrait.

"And this!--portrait painting!--to which all the masters finally turn. What would _they_--these colorists--make out of portrait painting?"

Evidently his mind recoiled from the thought, for he turned aside with a gesture of resignation. And Miss Long and Miss Heatherton were never to know what horrid fate awaited portrait painting at _their_ hands, for from the rim of the circle came the cheerful voice of Wilkinson:--

"Money, old chap, money. That's what they'd make out of portrait painting. And after all, that's the only satisfactory standard of success, established for every school of art--what will the picture bring? Now isn't that so?"

Pelgram's upper lip drew viciously back from his teeth; Wilkinson, pleasantly advancing, smiled with content; the flotsam had floated away as noiselessly as youth; and the artist, collecting his forces to reply, saw that, except for the two rapt sycophants at his elbow, he was alone. He laughed a short laugh.

"With many, no doubt it is," he snapped.

His adversary continued his placid progress down the room until he reached the tea table, where immediately he could be heard inquiring whether the diminutive "arrangements in green and white" were intended for lettuce sandwiches.

Pelgram glanced quickly toward where Miss Maitland still sat, surrounded by her attentive friends. It seemed hardly likely that she could have missed Charlie's distressing incursion into a monologue to which he had not been invited, but the girl seemed so wholly occupied that the painter took heart. His ruffled self-esteem preened itself anew, and he moved circuitously toward the object of his concern in as disinterested a manner as he could assume. At the sight of their host, the other members of Miss Maitland's group took occasion inconspicuously to drift away, being moved either by hunger or by good nature or by fear lest the monologue recommence. All but one obtuse youth who neither stirred nor displayed any tendency so to do.

"Before you go I want to show you that full length of Mrs. Warburton," the artist suggested pointedly to Helen. Her only attitude was affable resignation; she accepted the inevitable as gracefully as possible, and they strolled across the end of the studio to an alcove where a number of canvases stood coyly awaiting beholders. Several tall potted plants nearly hid the alcove from the studio at large, and Pelgram noted with satisfaction that the remaining guests were mostly grouped about Wilkinson at the other end. He turned, to gain time for thought, to the pile of frames in the corner, and presently pulled forth the portrait of which he had spoken.

"Not so interesting an arrangement as I made of you," he commented.

"I might just as well have been a sandwich," was the girl's immediate thought, but she replied politely, "No."

"I would certainly have been hopelessly lacking in talent of any sort if I had not been able to do something really fine from the chance you offered me," he went on.

Feeling quite uncomfortable and not knowing exactly what to say to this, Helen said nothing. The artist, assuming that her silence implied her permission for him to continue, cleared his throat for what he felt should be a master effort.

"Miss Maitland," he said, regarding her gravely, "it is naturally not for me to say, but I sincerely believe that your portrait is a work of real merit. And whatever slight ability I may possess has of course been freely spent on it. But there is something else to consider--there is ability, but there is also the element of inspiration, and whatever I may have lacked in the one you have bountifully given me in the other. If others should think the portrait a success, I must thank not myself but you. And beyond the success of the picture itself, which at best can only be for a day, you have given me what no one ever gave me before--you must know what that may be."

"You are entirely welcome, I'm sure," his visitor replied, in considerable embarrassment. It was not exactly what she meant to say, and the egotism of the artist immediately misconstrued it.

"Helen," he said, "the painting of your portrait has been a perilous adventure for me. Up to the time I began it, I lived in a world alone, and I thought only of my art. My model was always a thing wholly subordinate; after the picture was completed I never cared whether I ever saw the subject again. But as you came here day after day, my art seemed of less importance, and you came forward more and more. And finally I have found that nothing matters--nothing counts--but you."

Miss Maitland did not answer. She was conscious only of wondering whether she were going to be able to escape from that alcove before she had expressed to her host her actual opinion of him and all his works, and she rather feared her powers of repression would prove unequal to the occasion. And her opinion of him was at its nadir. With unerring maladroitness Pelgram had chosen the time of all others when his star was burning with its feeblest flame. She continued to sit passively, while the waves of the artist's eloquence rolled over her.

"I will not ask you if you love me--it is enough to tell you that I love you more than all the world. But can you not give me one single word of hope?"

He paused expectantly.

Helen hesitated. Still persisted the naughty longing to break forth and say her will, but she knew it would be wrong. After all, there had been in Pelgram's plea as much genuine sincerity as there could be in anything of his, and she felt that her wish to be utterly candid was a childish and unworthy one.

"Mr. Pelgram," she said at length, "if I should give you any hope, it would be unjust and unkind to you, for I feel that I could never care for you in the way you wish me to. I respect your ability, but that is not enough. Please do not speak of this again. You are an artist, and there ought to be for you enough in the world to keep you happy--even without me."

Pelgram grew a little pale. To him, who had such difficulty in being real, this was very real. And seeing it, the girl softened.

"I'm sorry," she said. "I'm really more sorry than I can tell you."

And then she had cause for repentance, for the artist, with an effort, drew all his pride to aid him. And his proud mood was by no means his best. The only redeeming feature of the valedictory was that finally it was over.

Helen, looking a trifle jaded, walked homeward under the escort of Isabel and Wilkinson. She was quite silent, and Isabel, suspecting trouble, said little for her part.

Not so Charlie, who held forth fluently, with the exhilaration one feels on coming out of a hot church and dashing off in a touring car.

"Well," he said, "certain unfriendly persons have studiously circulated the impression that I am eligible for the Paresis Club--a chucklehead, in fact. But you will have to admit that I never give Private Views. You must concede that I do not inflict on my friends my opinions about crude color. Why, there must be several hundred things I don't do!"

"Thank Heaven you don't!" remarked Miss Maitland.

CHAPTER VII

It was one minute before eleven when the card of Mr. Charles Wilkinson was borne gingerly, by a large youth from South Framingham who served as door boy, into the presence of Mr. Hurd. That gentleman, reading the bit of pasteboard with a grunt which might have been indicative of any one of a dozen invidious sentiments, opened the proximate corner of his mouth.

"Send him in," came from the brief orifice.

A moment later Mr. Wilkinson stood in the presence of his prey. Or perchance--but no, this was to be Marengo, not Waterloo--and above all, not Moscow. Something of this was in his eyes when he lifted them to meet those of his distinguished relation.

"Are you at liberty for a few moments?" he soberly inquired. He took care to delete every vestige of animation from his tone and manner, and so radical a change did this effect that his step-uncle blinked. A man as keen as John M. Hurd could not be blind to a mutation so great. He looked Mr. Wilkinson over with more care than he had ever employed before, for he recognized at once that this was no ordinary visit.

"I am as much at liberty as I am likely to be," he replied noncommittally.

His visitor wistfully and somewhat suggestively eyed a chair, but made no move to be seated. He felt that, no matter how the interview was to close, punctiliousness should begin it.

"Be seated," said Mr. Hurd, briefly.

"I have come to see you, sir," his young relative began, feeling his way cautiously, "with reference to a matter that I have never mentioned to you, although I have been studying it for some time. Perhaps you may be of the opinion that if it were of paramount importance I could have presented it to you without a long preliminary investigation. But each of us has to work in his own way, and this affair was of a sort in which I had little or no previous experience. The result was that it has taken me a considerable time to formulate my idea, and I want you to give it a fair opportunity to sink in, so to speak, before you reach any decision."

With his curiosity somewhat stirred, his hearer grunted a qualified assent.

"I have, of course, fortified myself by the possession of facts,--actual facts, sir,--and without them I should not have trespassed on your time, for I must tell you at once that my proposition concerns itself with the fire insurance of the Massachusetts Light, Heat, and Traction Company."

The knowledge that this was probably the most perilous point in his passage would have caused Wilkinson to hurry past with all possible speed, but his uncle interrupted him with a grim laugh.

"That need give you no concern, my young friend," he said curtly, "for the company does not carry any insurance."

A trace of Mr. Wilkinson's normal impudence returned momentarily to his tone when he replied:--

"My dear sir, didn't I say that I had made a long preliminary investigation of this? You can scarcely hold my intelligence at so low a figure as to think that I didn't know _that_ fact. That's why I'm here--because I _do_ know it."

It may have been the effect of the return to the normal in his step-nephew's tone, or it may have been merely Mr. Hurd's business method, which expelled his next remark from sardonic lips.

"Then you need but one more fact to make your knowledge of the subject complete, and that I will now give you. Not only does my company carry no insurance, but it never intends or expects to. Is there anything else this morning?"

Charlie smiled calmly, unmoved.

"Now we are ready to begin, sir. You have disbelieved in insurance so strongly and so long that such a remark was exactly what I expected you to make. In fact, I should have been not only surprised, but positively embarrassed, had you not made it. Now, I repeat, we are ready to talk business. And I have your promise to listen to my plan."

It did not occur to the magnate that he had made no such promise, until Wilkinson was well launched; after that, he forgot about it.

"Did any one ever call to your attention, sir, the fact that the statistics show that the fire losses on traction schedules in the Eastern states exceed the insurance premiums on those schedules by nearly thirty-five per cent?"

Mr. Hurd shook his head shortly.

"I did not know it."

Wilkinson did not know it either, but it could not be disproved, and served excellently as a gambit.

"And I am not interested in other traction companies' fires," added his uncle.

"No, of course not. But the law of average works in the end. Your properties are subject to exactly the same conditions and hazards as others, and in the end the Massachusetts Light, Heat, and Traction Company will incur more in losses than it would ever have to pay in premiums. In the long run the average wins. So far you have been surprisingly fortunate, and that is another reason why you should begin now to insure. The law of average is perfectly inexorable, and every year of low losses brings you nearer the big losses that are bound to come. You've been gambling, and now is the time to play safe."

"Perhaps, my boy," Mr. Hurd replied with amusement, "you believe these things that you quote so glibly. Perhaps not. Let us assume that you do. Therefore let me ask you this: if the insurance companies pay more losses than they get in premiums on traction schedules, why don't they cut off this loss by ceasing to insure them? Hey?"

"Oh, lots of them do," Wilkinson returned easily. "A few of the others may have had a streak of luck for a few years, just as you have had, but the rest take it all in the day's work, think that the rates may go up on account of the bad record of the class and then it would be an advantage to have the business on their books, or else they try to make it up on other better paying classes. And besides, they have the use of the money which is paid in premiums during good years when losses are light." Not for nothing had he listened to the painstaking explanations of Cole, and whatever his eccentricities, Charlie had a native shrewdness hardly second to that of old John M. himself. Perhaps the older man was thinking of this when he next spoke.

"Then it has probably occurred to you that the Massachusetts Light, Heat, and Traction Company can do the same thing--and does. I use the interest and profits of my insurance fund which I have accumulated by not paying premiums, to pay losses. How about that?"

"That would be all right if your properties were widely enough distributed. But they're not. Some day you'll get a big loss, which will wipe out your interest, profits, and fund all together for twenty years. Your fund's all right for cars that burn on the road or for small fires; but what if something big went? And the insurance money would come in very nicely when you most needed it. You'd have trouble enough on your hands without having to go out and raise money, too, if your new Pemberton Street barn should burn up with half a million dollars' worth of cars in it--which it is quite possible it may do at almost any time."

"What! The new barn?" said the magnate, incredulously. "Why, my boy, that barn is the latest thing in fireproof construction! There isn't a stick of wood in that building from cellar to attic."

"And the cars, are they fireproof, too?"

John M. Hurd looked up sharply.

"No," he said slowly. "No, I don't suppose they are. . . . Still, there's nothing to set the cars afire. They're safe enough in that building. Nothing can happen to them there."

"The building itself is not located on a desert island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean," said his nephew, thoughtfully. "It _might_ be exposed to a serious fire in some of the neighboring buildings--that big paper-box factory, for example, across the alley to the south. There _might_, in fact,"--he paused--"there _might_ be a general fire in that part of Boston."

"A conflagration, you mean? Nonsense! Boston is safe as a church."

"Probably safer than St. Stephen's, out in Cambridge, that burned to the ground last week," returned his visitor, with a smile.

"To be sure," said Mr. Hurd, hastily. "But there'll never be a big, sweeping fire in Boston."

"Why not? There was one once."

"Forty years ago. That's no criterion. Things are very different now. This is a modern city we're talking about--half the buildings down town are fireproof or nearly so. Modern cities don't burn the way older ones did."

"Baltimore did, as you may recall; also San Francisco. And they were modern--as modern as Boston. There _are_ people--not Bostonians, of course--who would consider them more so."

"Come now, do you mean to tell me any one honestly believes there is any danger of another really big fire here?" rejoined Mr. Hurd, almost contemptuously; but under the surface Charlie believed that his attitude of contempt was more or less assumed. He believed he had made a distinct impression, and it was therefore almost with a gambler's instinct that he brought forth his trump card.

"I tell you, sir," he said, with all the impressiveness he could command, "that the best technical engineers--not alarmists, but men who are careful students of such things--agree that the danger here is as great as in any of the big cities of the United States. The conflagration hazard in the congested district of Boston is not a thing one can exactly calculate, but it would be difficult to overestimate its gravity."

Mr. Hurd regarded him with amazement.

"Would you mind repeating that?" he asked at length.

"Certainly not, since I know it to be true. I say that the conflagration hazard in the congested district of Boston is not a thing one can exactly calculate, but it would be difficult to overestimate its gravity."

The traction magnate walked slowly to the window, and looked out. On the sunny pavements below him people were going back and forth on their various concerns. Around the corner came the familiar delivery wagon of a well-known dealer in wholesale groceries. Somehow the sight of these common things restored to Mr. Hurd his ordinary tranquillity of mind, which he now saw had been disturbed by the astonishing utterances of his plausible young relation. He smiled rather grimly when he thought of how near he had come to being impressed by what Charlie had said. Of course, there could be nothing in it; certainly not, from such a source. It was the old John M. Hurd who turned again to face his visitor, who with but one card left to play awaited breathlessly but with outward nonchalance the effect of his cherished speech.

"Well, I've enjoyed talking this over with you, Charlie," the older man said with candor. "There's something in what you say, too. Perhaps our insurance fund isn't as large as it ought to be. But I couldn't consider carrying insurance for the Massachusetts Light, Heat, and Traction Company. And why are you so interested in this, all of a sudden, anyway?"

"Partly philanthropic and partly mercenary," said his nephew, easily. "Philanthropic, because I would like to do something of real benefit to the most distinguished member of my family--who least needs my assistance; mercenary, because I need the money. I rather expect you to let me have charge of the placing of this insurance, sir."

"Well, Charlie, I don't mind saying that you've made a better impression than any of these other insurance men that occasionally get into my office, and if I were going to take out insurance on the traction properties, I believe I'd let you make your commission on it. But I'm not. And now I must ask you to excuse me."

"Oh, I've not quite finished," returned Wilkinson. As he was in for it now, he would see it through. "I think you're making a mistake, sir; and there are still one or two aspects of the matter which you have not considered."

"And what may they be?" inquired his uncle. "Please remember I'm a busy man."

His visitor reflected briefly. He did not know whether to play his last card slowly and carefully or to slam it face upward with enough force to make the table rattle. He decided on the latter method; after all, to succeed with John M. Hurd one did well to make him blink.

"There _is_ such an institution as the Stock Exchange," he said blandly.

Mr. Hurd looked at him.

"Massachusetts Traction has been considered a very substantial security," Wilkinson went on, "so safe that its market value fluctuates very little, and so well regarded that the banks generally accept its stock as collateral at very nearly its market value. They accept it as a matter of course because they know its dividends are fully earned and paid regularly, and they have confidence in your management and don't go into the details. Your company has no bonded indebtedness; the bonds were all converted into stock years ago; if it was bonded, the bondholders would compel you to insure, whether you wished to or not. Perhaps the banks have forgotten that you are not forced to carry insurance, and are taking it for granted that you are exercising ordinary prudence along this line and insuring just the same. Suppose--only suppose--the intelligence should become diffused among certain gentlemen of State Street that you are likely to lose three quarters of a million dollars by fire if your new Pemberton Street car barn should go and the power house adjoining it be seriously damaged, and to meet such a loss you had an insurance fund of thirty thousand dollars. Do you suppose your stock would be quite so popular as collateral as it is now?"

He paused for a reply, but none came.

"Of course none of the directors of the company ever borrow money on that stock. . . . Need I say more, sir?"

It was evident that there was no need. If there were any of the directors who did _not_ borrow money on the stock, Mr. Hurd could not think of them offhand. Once more he walked to the window, and this time he looked long and thoughtfully out over the level roofs.

"Your point is not badly taken. And in one thing you are probably right--State Street, if left to itself, would never raise the question," he said, half to himself. But Wilkinson's reply was ready and obvious.

"There are so many thoughtless people," he said softly. "One never can tell when such news might leak out."

His uncle surveyed him sternly. But Charlie's cryptic gaze met his uncle's, undisturbed.

"Some one _might_ tell," he gently observed, and said no more.

It was some time before Mr. Hurd raised a thoughtful yet somewhat amused face to that of his caller.

"I'll consider the matter," he said tersely.

"I thank you, sir," replied Charles, with graceful humility, which he dared assume since his case seemed won. And a moment later South Framingham's one time pride watched his exit through the grille gate into the descending elevator.

As Wilkinson started blithely across the Common, he caught sight of a familiar figure advancing along one of the diagonal paths. He quickened his already jocund step to meet Miss Maitland at the intersection of their ways.

"Whither away so briskly this hungry noon?" he inquired with enthusiasm. "If it were not for the fact that I am in search of some one to ask me to luncheon, I would ask you to come and lunch with me."

"Then if I were really quite hungry, which I am after an hour in this autumn air, I should decline your gallant invitation with regret, and say that I am on my way to lunch with Uncle Silas at the Club."

Charlie was on the point of telling her his news--but changed his intent. After all, his were incubator chickens at best, and perhaps it would be wiser to postpone a public enumeration of them. So he merely replied, "I trust you will have a pleasant luncheon."

"The same to you, and many of them--consecutively," replied the girl, with a laugh.

"Now, that's what I call a friendly speech," rejoined her escort, and the two went their separate ways.

At the club whose billiard players have the almost unique privilege between masse shots of regarding at close range the tombstones of an aristocratic cemetery, Helen and her uncle were comfortably lingering over their demi-tasses before Mr. Osgood's guest gave speech to the thoughts within her.

"You are a dear to give me this luncheon," she began.

The old gentleman bowed a courtly head.

"I have been envied, I think, by all my more youthful fellow members here," he said. "And that is very pleasant, even when one might be supposed to have passed the age of vanity."

"Thank you, Uncle Silas. No one of your fellow members could have said a nicer thing than that." She fingered her coffee cup. "But I had a reason for inviting myself--practically--to lunch with you. I want to ask your advice."

"I'm afraid I should be inclined in advance to let you do exactly as you liked, my child," said the other, with a smile. "But what is it? I hope it's not trouble of any sort."

"No--it's not trouble, exactly," his niece responded. "It's more like--well, like dissatisfaction. I am awfully tired of being a perfectly useless person, with no definite end and aim. You don't suppose it's because I see every day the girls coming down to work, on the Massachusetts Avenue cars, do you? I went a little while ago to my doctor's because I thought perhaps there was something the matter with me, and he suggested a change of air, but I think he mixed up the cause with the effect. Perhaps I do need a change, but it's a change of interests and a change of what I see and hear and talk about."

"Commonly termed a vacation," said Mr. Osgood.

"Yes, a vacation--that's it. Not a vacation from _doing_ anything, because I've done nothing, but a vacation from the atmosphere I've been living in."

"You mean the artistic atmosphere?" her uncle asked. "You are a little tired of--"

"I'm more than a little--I'm horribly tired of imitations and poses and make-believes. I want to see things and people who really live, who don't exist by the light of crimson-shaded globes and spend their days dreaming about impressions and arrangements and tones and shadows."

Helen wound up this diminutive tirade with quite a little flourish, and Mr. Osgood looked thoughtfully across the table at her.

"Why don't you run down to New York?" he suggested. "I'm sure your Aunt Mary Wardrop would be delighted to have you come for a visit."

"Yes. I thought of that. I should like to go there, and I had almost decided to. But can't you suggest something for me to _do_? Aunt Mary's principal occupation is abusing the _nouveaux riches_, and one merely has to agree with her, which is not at all difficult. If I had anything to _do_ here, I'd rather stay than go. Of course New York is quite a change from Boston--there can be no doubt about that. But--don't you see what I mean, Uncle Silas?"

"I think I do--somewhat, my dear. You are a little restless, and you think that because the things you do are small they are less real. That is not so--small things can be made very interesting if one does them with enthusiasm. Take my own business, for example. It is possibly just a 'business' to you, like any other, but that is because you have not seen it from the inside. To me it is absolutely vital. I don't know of another business so interesting."

"Really!" the girl answered. "I thought it was just getting people to buy insurance policies, very much as you would have gotten them to buy sugar if you had been in the grocery business. If it's so interesting, why couldn't I come down to your office and learn about it? I'm sure I could be of some use--I'm quite quick at figures."

"I fear you'd be disappointed," said Mr. Osgood. "I'm afraid I must admit that adding up columns of figures is very much the same in one business as in another. And as I said, to find the real interest you should see a business from the inside. My office is not the inside--it's only part way in. The real inside, the center of the web, is the home office of some big company. I'm only a local agent, you understand; you would only see one phase of the business in my office. But if you went to New York, I could arrange that you might visit the home office of one of the New York companies, if you would like."

"I think I would," said Miss Maitland.

"Then I will give you a letter to Mr. James Wintermuth, one of my oldest and closest friends and the head of the Guardian Fire Insurance Company of New York. And some morning, if you find time hanging heavy on your hands, you can go down to William Street. And if you don't arrive before ten o'clock, I think Mr. Wintermuth will be pleased to show you something real--and something which has not a purple shadow in its possession."

"Then you really think it would be a good thing for me to go to New York?" his niece asked.

"Decidedly. I'd write your aunt to-day, if I were you. Now that she has your portrait, she would probably like a chance to compare it with the original."

"On the contrary, she may think, that having so recent a copy, the original would be superfluous."

"I fancy I'd risk it," her uncle returned, with a smile, as they rose from the table.

And so it was arranged. Helen's mother entered her expected protest, and was promptly overruled. Trunks were packed and letters were written; among them one by Silas Osgood to James Wintermuth. And at length, as September was drawing to a close, Miss Maitland boarded the Knickerbocker Limited one day, and the town of her nativity was speedily left behind her.

On the very afternoon of her departure the office of the Massachusetts Light, Heat, and Traction Company was the scene of an unusual, and, to most of the participants, a disquieting conference. The shimmering face of the big, dark, mahogany table reflected many a perplexed expression, and its substantial supports found their impeccable varnish menaced by a number of restless and uneasy boots. The directors of the company, assembled for their monthly meeting, found that, instead of the customary conventionality of procedure, a thing strangely impertinent and unexpected demanded their surprised attention.

Ordinarily these meetings were simple in the extreme, being merely ratifications of what the President had done and approvals of what he said he purposed to do. To the somewhat bored group of representative financial figureheads around the table Mr. Hurd would read a sheet of figures telling how many million miles the company had carried one passenger during the previous month--such reports are always reduced to absurdities--and would inform them of such plans as he chose to intrust to their confidence, and would then suggest the declaration of the usual dividend. To this the directors would unanimously assent. Then they punctiliously received each man his golden eagle, and a motion to adjourn closed the ceremony.

To-day had come an astonishing innovation in procedure. Instead of suavely instructing them what they should vote to do, Mr. Hurd was behaving in a most oddly uncharacteristic fashion. He was asking their advice. This amounted to a _bouleversement suprême_ of the usual order of things, and it was no wonder that there was disquietude among his hearers.

"It has been represented to me," he had tersely said, "that if a large fire should involve our Pemberton Street barn and power house, notwithstanding the presumably fireproof construction of those buildings, we should quite likely incur a much larger loss than we would find it convenient to pay at a time when additional financing might be somewhat embarrassing. I am therefore laying before you gentlemen the question of doing what we have never previously done, and carrying fire insurance on our properties. I prefer not to advise you, and suggest an open discussion of the matter."

Mr. Hurd sat down; his directors surveyed one another and the situation with concern. Could the old man be losing his grip, or was this merely a transient eccentricity? In the debate which followed the President took no part; only once, in answer to a question by Mr. Jonas Green, much the most penurious man at the table, as to what had brought the question up at the present time, Mr. Green being an enthusiastic exponent of the doctrine of _laissez faire_ when any additional expenditure was proposed, Mr. Hurd made reply:--

"It is represented to me that if it became public knowledge that we carry no insurance, banking and financial institutions generally may come to feel that our conservatism is open to criticism and that they are rating our stock somewhat too highly as collateral. It is intimated that some of us might conceivably be annoyed by requests to substitute in part other collateral or somewhat reduce loans secured by Massachusetts Traction stock."

"But so far as the banks are concerned, we're in exactly the same position we've always been. How is the fact we don't insure going to become public knowledge now any more than in the past?" persisted Mr. Green.

"It is suggested that news spreads--if not of its own volatility, at least with only the most trifling assistance. And that, I take it," concluded Mr. Hurd, "will be supplied."

Mr. Green's face grew almost purple.

"Why!" he exclaimed, "that's--that's pretty close to blackmail!"

The President's lips half concealed the merest trace of a smile.

"Possibly," he assented. "But I am inclined to think it is business."

The controversy continued. And Mr. Hurd, listening, found himself more and more moved to austere amusement by the effect of Charlie's suave proposal. When he had placed the matter before the directorate, it was because he himself had not made up his mind on the question of its desirability. He had slowly come to feel that his personal prejudice against carrying insurance should not be made forcibly to apply to the policy of a corporation, in which many others were interested, and he felt that he would prefer to shift the responsibility on this point to the gentlemen who presumably were paid for deciding just such things. And as he listened, he found growing upon him the hope that Charlie's plan would be adopted. This hope, unexpressed, was so utterly out of keeping with what he had supposed to be his convictions that he strangled it without a qualm. It was, he supposed, dead, when he sat up at the further request of Mr. Jonas Green to answer a few additional queries.

"Tell me," said Mr. Green, "do you honestly believe there's a particle of danger of a big fire in this city? Pooh!" He dismissed the subject almost contemptuously.

Some odd chord of recollection stirred in Mr. Hurd. Almost unconsciously he responded:--

"The best technical engineers--not alarmists, but men who are careful students of such things--agree that the conflagration hazard in the congested district of Boston is not a thing one can exactly calculate, but it would be difficult to overestimate its gravity."

The sounding syllables passed from his lips with a faint, far echo which he found vaguely but unidentifiably familiar. But into the group around the long table the utterance fell with cryptic, crucial solemnity. Only Mr. Green, stubbornly contentious to the last, and thinking anxiously of both horns of the dilemma at once, found voice or will to reply.

"You don't say so!" he said feebly.

"I do," Mr. Hurd coolly rejoined. "And now, gentlemen, the motion is in order: Shall the Massachusetts Light, Heat, and Traction Company insure its properties against loss by fire?"

And when the motion was put, there was no dissenting voice.

Of this somewhat unprecedented meeting the close at least was normal. But Mr. Jonas Green grasped his ten dollar gold piece more firmly than ever as he passed through the doorway.

CHAPTER VIII

One of the most inexplicable things in human nature is, commonly, the stuff out of which other people carve their fetiches. A philosopher is a man who can understand the incomprehensible selections by other men of the objects of their adoration. But philosophers are uncommon.

To Helen Maitland, leaving Fifth Avenue at Fifty-ninth Street and straying northwestward into the early autumn splendor of the Park, it seemed as though for the first time she could understand the viewpoint of those unidentified myriads to whom New York is a fetich; and as she walked on beneath the trees soon to lay aside their valedictory robes, she appreciated most fully those to whom Central Park is a fetich within a fetich, a guarded flame within the inmost chamber of the shrine.

Partly the spell was that of Autumn, that grave, melodious season; and as Helen went forward, her mind lingered on the "tragic splendor" at whose "mute signal, leaf by golden leaf, crumbles the gorgeous year."

In the past she had never been inordinately fond of New York. In common with most of her fellow Bostonians, she had found it too big, too noisy, too garish, and too unfriendly. To her it was iron and stone and dust and the tumult of a harsh and heartless unceasing struggle. But now, under the alchemic hand of Autumn, she found herself thrilling to the town as never before had she thought possible. Only two days had elapsed since her departure from Boston, but it seemed to her now that she was a participant in some slow-moving pageant, not a hostile critic in the audience, but a minor actor in an unfamiliar yet strangely familiar play. Even the hurrying throng of people who confronted her, when at length she sought again the street on her way homeward, seemed less hostile and alien, less inimical to her and her mood than ever before. As she went southward on the street car--for her careful New Englandism forbade her taking a taxicab in sunny weather--she found herself reflecting with a smile that Boston in her recollection was an astonishing distance away. She also detected with surprise a very slight irritation at the intense preoccupation of the thronging thousands in their own concerns and their utter carelessness of her and hers.

As a matter of fact she had no concerns of her own, or at least none whose vitality would gain attention. And suddenly her friendly sense of being a part of this flowing life dissolved sourly into mockery. She was in it and not of it--again the hostile critic. And then it occurred to her that perhaps momentarily she was a little lonely. And her utter impotence in this huge careless city heightened this feeling. She could make no headway against the current of this life. The remarkable persistent vitality of the thing around her made her feel totally unimportant and quite helpless. The feeling was far from pleasant, but it was salutary, and stimulus for the first remedy at hand, and the natural depression of impotence did not overcome the exhilaration of curiosity.

When she reached Washington Square again, she said something of this to Miss Wardrop, who nodded comprehendingly.

"Every one feels that way for a time," she said; "it's like sitting out a cotillion by one's self. What you need is something or somebody to pull you into the whirl."

"I suppose that is so," agreed the girl,--"but where am I to find it--or him? I don't know anybody who is in. Of course I have Uncle Silas's letter to Mr. Wintermuth, but I didn't really know whether I'd have the courage to use it or not."

"Who may Mr. Wintermuth be?" demanded her aunt.

"A friend of Uncle Silas, and the President of the Guardian Fire Insurance Company."

"Fire Insurance? A fire insurance company? Wait one moment. Jenks. . . . Jenks! Bring me that envelope from the mantelpiece. . . . No," she added, "my policy is not in the Guardian. I thought perhaps it might be."

"What is the matter?" inquired her niece. "Have you had a fire?"

"Yes, I have," returned her aunt, "or rather Jenks has. He burned off the lamp shade from my reading lamp. And Jane Vanderdecken says because he did it out of sheer clumsiness I cannot ask the company to pay for it."

Helen remembered the shade in question, which had been in the eyes of all save its owner a horror upon horrors, a mausoleum preserving, apparently for all time, the ghastly glories of a dead era of alleged ornamentation. So it was with dubious sympathy that she said:--

"I don't know whether Jane Vanderdecken is right or not."

"You can go and find out. Mr. What's-his-name can tell you, even if it isn't his company that will have to pay."

And in this way it came about that Helen found herself, not many days later, descending from the Elevated Station at Cortlandt Street, and turning her steps eastward toward William Street. It was half-past ten when she found herself before a portal on which were the words: The Guardian Fire Insurance Company of the City of New York.

Intrusting herself to the deliberate conveyance of the elevator, she arrived eventually at the top floor, and to a clerk near the door she expressed her desire to see Mr. James Wintermuth. One of the principal assets of this employee was his readiness to assume an expression, when any one inquired for the President, suggestive that in his opinion such a desire could scarcely be expected by the visitor to be gratified, and he was also supposed to decide by inquiry or intuition whether he should so far intrude on Mr. Wintermuth's privacy as to present the stranger's name. He had come to be uncommonly adept at this, but the spectacle of this dark-eyed young woman was quite beyond the gamut of his routine experience. In a sort of charmed coma he surveyed the visitor, and found himself starting to inform the President of her arrival without a preliminary inquisition even to the extent of inquiring the nature of her business with that gentleman. Accordingly, after the briefest of intervals she found herself ushered into the office of an elderly gentleman who rose courteously to welcome her.

"Miss Maitland, I think. You are the niece of Silas Osgood of Boston?" he inquired. "Mr. Osgood wrote that I might expect to see you here."

The girl handed him the letter.

"Here are my credentials," she said, with a smile. "I am also an envoy extraordinary from my aunt, Miss Wardrop, on a diplomatic mission connected with the burning of a long-cherished but doubtfully valuable lamp shade!"

"Won't you sit down, please? You will pardon me if I read your uncle's letter?" Mr. Wintermuth responded.

Helen assented, and the other leisurely read the few lines the letter contained. In the interim the visitor glanced about the room to apprehend the setting of the scene into which she was now come. Presently her host spoke.

"I gather from what your uncle says that you have come not to call on an old friend of his, but to look at maps and daily reports and surveys, and find out what a fire insurance company is really like. And although I am quite old enough to be your father, I would really much rather you had come to see me," he remarked pleasantly.

"If I had known you before, I undoubtedly would have done so," the girl smilingly returned.

"Times have changed since I was a youngster," Mr. Wintermuth went on. "I presume all elderly people say so, and I am afraid we are apt to make it at once a refrain and a lament, but nevertheless it is true. Forty years ago young ladies did not feel any interest in business such as fire insurance, or if they did they kept it to themselves. But," he added, "I am the gainer in this work of time, to-day at least, for it brings me the pleasure of a call from you."

"I'm afraid my interest is rather sudden and hasn't any very deep foundation," his visitor admitted. "I haven't felt it very long. Uncle Silas has been a fire insurance man ever since I can remember, but I never knew what he was actually doing, and I never tried to learn. But now I really would like to find out, and that is what brings me to you. I have lived in a kind of unreal atmosphere, and I'm trying now to learn about something absolutely practical. I hope it won't bore you too awfully to have things shown to some one who will undoubtedly have to ask the meaning of everything she sees."

"Not in the least," the old gentleman assured her. "I shall give you an instructor who likes to explain things." He pressed a button under his desk. "Ask Mr. Smith to come here," he said to the boy who responded.

"Yes, sir. Excuse me, sir, but Mr. O'Connor is going to Baltimore and he says he'd like to see you a minute before he goes."

"Ask him to come in. Miss Maitland, let me present Mr. O'Connor, our Vice-President. Miss Maitland is the niece of Mr. Silas Osgood, and she has come to look over our offices."

"Very pleased to meet you," said O'Connor. "Sorry I haven't time to help show you around, myself. I see now that I was wrong when I decided to go to Baltimore to-day. I felt a little doubtful right along, and now I'm sure I should have stayed here."

Helen thought that he spoke a trifle too glibly, but she made a civil reply, and turned to the window while O'Connor received some final advice from his chief. When the door closed behind him she turned once more, and as she did so she became aware of a young man who stood in the doorway looking expectantly at Mr. Wintermuth.

"Ah, you are here, Richard," said the President. "Miss Maitland, this is Mr. Smith. Miss Maitland is Mr. Silas Osgood's niece, and she wants to know how the Guardian runs its business. Do you think you can show her?"

"I think I can," replied the younger man, pleasantly. Then, turning to the girl, he said, "I shall at least be very glad indeed to try."

Mr. Wintermuth then went on to tell what Smith should show the visitor, and while he was doing this the two younger people looked at one another, Helen swiftly and Smith with a steadier glance. To him she seemed a girl of unusual charm, but whether this could have been guessed from his manner was problematic.

Helen, with discreet but none the less comprehensive scrutiny, saw before her a man of thirty-three or four years, erect of figure, with a clean-shaven face and gray eyes. One thing she noticed about him was a certain odd immobility of carriage, which was not in any way to be mistaken for lassitude or lethargy; on the contrary, it reminded her of a coiled spring. He was somewhat above the middle height, and he had rather lean hands, and he wore no jewelry except an unobtrusive scarf pin--thus far had Helen's assessment proceeded when a question from Mr. Wintermuth recalled her.

"Would you like to start now to look us over?"

"If it is quite convenient to you," replied the girl, a shade stiffly. This impassive young man, who seemed quite different from any one she had met in her Boston set, was a little out of her calculations. She knew it was unreasonable to expect Mr. Wintermuth himself to act as cicerone, but just the same she was not entirely certain that she did not resent being so definitely turned over to this youthfully unexpected substitute. Probably Mr. Otto Bartels would have been initially more acceptable to her.

"Show Miss Maitland everything--begin at the beginning, and don't leave anything out," said the President, and dismissed them both with a fatherly wave of the hand as he pressed the button that summoned his stenographer.

Smith looked keenly at the girl as they walked slowly out into the office; he was wondering what her object might be in this pilgrimage. His mind flitted briefly over the ideas of muck-raking reporters and inquisitive lady novelists; yet surely this self-possessed but quiet young lady suggested nothing of either class, and besides, a niece of Silas Osgood's could scarcely deserve suspicion. At the same time, detecting in her manner what impressed him as a slightly Bostonian attitude of mental hauteur, Smith remained wary.

"This is the Eastern Department," he said, stopping before the first long map desk that stretched along the whole side of the room. Helen assented politely to this information, and the young man led the way through the other departments. Through the lower floors they went, Smith sketching briefly the function of each department as they passed it.

"Here is the City Department," he said, as they reached the ground floor; and for a little while they stood and watched Cuyler in his traffic with the brokers. He was engaged in a spirited argument with a very small and somewhat soiled person who insistently thrust upon Mr. Cuyler what that gentleman had obviously no intention of accepting. Risk after risk was declined, and the turns and _ripostes_ were fast and furious.

Finally the soiled placer presented a binder which called for five thousand dollars to cover Jacob Warbalowsky on his stock of artificial flowers and feathers while contained on the fourth loft of a six-story factory building which Mr. Cuyler knew to be of cheap and light construction, dirty and hazardous throughout, and each floor but one of which was tenanted by a concern whose name indicated that its pyromorality, so to speak, was to say the least questionable. Mr. Cuyler quite distinctly recalled, scanning the names of the tenants in the card cabinet which gave the occupation and tariff rate of each, that a few years before, the concern on the third floor, having manufactured a stock of raincoats which it found impossible to sell, had been strongly suspected of disposing of its goods to the fire insurance companies instead of to the retail trade by the simple expedient of the double gas jet. This popular device was as follows. The proprietor, who was detained at his office after his employees had gone home, would, when he himself departed, leave two gas jets turned on, one at each end of the factory, one burning (as usual) and the other unlit. Long enough afterward so as to establish an alibi and remove all suspicion from himself, the escaping gas would meet the flame, and there would be an explosion and a fire which usually resulted in the desired destruction of the useless but fully insured merchandise. The cause of the fire could almost always be traced to a leaky gas jet, for which, of course, the assured was not responsible.

Mr. Cuyler, regarding the names of the tenants, noticed that the top floor was occupied by a maker of automobile accessories, named Pendleton. He turned cheerfully back to the placer.

"Phil, I'd like to help you out," he said, "but I can't write anything in that building. I know it's hard to get. Why, my brother-in-law's factory is on the top floor, and only last Sunday, when I saw him up at the house, he asked me if I wasn't going to loosen up and put the Guardian on for a small line. His broker can't get anywhere near enough to cover him. And I had to tell him nay, nay. You couldn't really expect me to do something for you, Phil, that I couldn't do for one of my own family."

The soiled placer removed a cigarette butt from his mouth, and threw it on the floor with a gesture of extreme impatience.

"Your brother-in-law like hell!" he remarked, quite disregarding the presence of Miss Maitland in the background. "What kind of a fairy story are you trying to put across on me? I suppose you're claiming that Pendleton, the automobile man, is your brother-in-law. Well, he moved out about a month ago. The card hasn't been changed yet, but the firm in there now is a bunch of Kikes that make boys' pants--Lipper, Loeb, and Kahn. I saw their sign when I went up to get this order from Warbalowsky. Which of them did your sister marry?"

Mr. Cuyler was momentarily discomfited, but his presence of mind almost immediately returned.

"All three," he said calmly to his excited adversary. "All three. You just saw the sign, you say. You didn't meet any of them personally, did you? Well, you couldn't have."

"Why, what do you mean?" asked the astonished placer, pausing in the act of lighting a fresh cigarette.

"Why, Phil," said Mr. Cuyler, kindly, "my sister married a man named Reginald Whitney. His name isn't his fault. And he is a manufacturer of boys' pants. Now, Phil, you understand local conditions as well as nearly any one I know, and I ask you: What chance of success would a boys' pants manufacturer named Reginald Whitney have? Absolutely none. He therefore operates under the name of Lipper, Loeb, and Kahn, and I don't mind saying he is doing very well, but I hope he won't stay long in that building, for some of that bunch of crooks under him--I don't mean Warbalowsky, you understand--will probably touch off the place some night and leave him with a total loss and only forty per cent insurance to value."

While this controversy was going on, Smith, watching his companion shrewdly, saw the light of real interest for the first time dawn in her eye. And when Cuyler finished, she laughed outright, and the two returned to the elevator the better for one shared amusement.

"I suppose Mr. Cuyler was--embroidering the truth a little?" queried Helen, comprehendingly.

"He never had a sister in his life!" nodded her escort, cheerfully.

"I'm afraid, Mr. Smith," Helen said as they regained the top floor, "that I don't really understand the first principles of fire insurance well enough to appreciate what you have shown me. It's a humiliating admission, but I must make it. I don't believe you began near enough the bottom--with the elementary, one-syllable things."

The underwriter surveyed her thoughtfully but with covert approval. Wary though he was, like all idealists, regarding the things near to his soul, it now for the first time struck him that he wished very much that Miss Maitland should understand what meant so much to him. And he felt that he could make her understand; hitherto it had not seemed so.

"I wonder if I could really show you," he answered, half to himself, and there was something in his tone that made the girl reply, "I wish you would try."

"Let's start all over, then," said Smith, buoyantly. "We'll begin right here. Now, this is a map desk in which the maps are kept and on top of which they are laid out when in use. The map desk is really the home of underwriting, just as the stage is of the drama. And just as there are stage conventions, certain things which are taken for granted, such as the idea that a character on the stage cannot escape over the footlights into the audience--that there is an imaginary blank wall between the audience and the players--so we have our conventions and symbols in the maps." He called for Boston One, which the map clerk laid instantly open at his elbow. It was a large volume bound in gray canvas, perhaps two by three feet in dimensions, and weighing several pounds. Smith turned to a page which showed some of the blocks surrounding the Common, and Miss Maitland bent close to look. "All these little colored objects represent buildings, red for brick and yellow for frame; and they are drawn on a scale of fifty feet to the inch. We get so accustomed to them that automatically we grow to visualize the buildings themselves from these diagrams. See, there is the State House on top of the hill; there's Beacon Street; there's--"

"Beacon Street! Where is number forty-five? I want to see what that looks like."

"What number did you say?" inquired Smith.

"Forty-five."

"There it is."

"Why, so it is! What is that queer little wiggle sticking out of the front?"

"It looks like a bay window in the front room of the second floor. Is there one in that house?"

"Yes. . . . Have you got Deerfield Street in this map?"

Smith found the place.

"Number?" he asked again.

"Here it is," the girl said amusedly. "That is where I live. Now let me see how much visualizing you can do on that. Let me see how nearly right you can get it. And why is it brown instead of red?"

"With pleasure," said the underwriter, with a smile. "In the first place, it is brown because it is of steel and concrete fireproof construction. It is an eight-story and basement apartment building with a tile roof and a short mansard of tile in front only. There are two sections, cut off from one another except for a metal-clad door in the basement. The elevator is at the right as you enter; the stairway runs around it. There are two light courts, one front and one rear, both with stairway fire escapes. Which is your apartment?"

"West front, on the fourth floor."

"You have probably seven rooms, with four windows along the street side and four on the court. Well," he finished, laughing, "is that sufficiently visualized?"

"You have told me nearly everything except where we have our piano," Helen returned. "I don't suppose your diagram would show that?"

"Well, no. That wouldn't interest us as a rule, and besides, people move pianos so often. We don't try to keep them all located."

Smiling together, and better friends than they had yet been, the two turned from the map of Boston.

"Here," said Smith, "are the other maps of the Eastern Department, from Maine to Maryland, Rhode Island to Ohio. Also Canada--Halifax, Quebec, Montreal. Over at the other end of the room are the Southern cities, Atlanta, New Orleans, St. Augustine--with some of the old Spanish houses still standing. Do you know it strikes me there is something Homeric, something epic, about a map desk. You can turn to any building in any city on the continent, at a moment's notice. I can show you the Old South Church, or Fraunce's Tavern in New York where Washington bade his generals good-by, or Montcalm's headquarters at Quebec before Wolfe scaled the heights. Or you can see the Peace Conference Hotel outside Portsmouth, or the Congressional Library in Washington, or the new Chinatown in San Francisco, or the great shops of the Pennsylvania Railroad at Altoona, or even the site of the arena at Reno, Nevada, where Mr. Johnson separated Mr. Jeffries from the heavy-weight title of the world."

So engrossed was Smith that he did not notice the almost imperceptible withdrawal of his auditor. Among her Boston friends there was no one who spoke of prize fights; even Charles Wilkinson, whose conversational reservations were certainly few, ignored the prize ring. Smith went unconsciously on, but for his hearer, for the time at least, the spell was snapped. Still, she listened. He told her more of what the maps showed--how they indicated the location and size of the water mains in the streets, of the hydrants, the fire department houses, even the fire alarm boxes--everything, in short, which the fire underwriter desired to contemplate when passing on a risk submitted for the company's approval. By this time they had reached the other end of the big room and were close to O'Connor's office.

"I really must have taken you on a walk of several miles," said Smith, contritely; "and if you are going to let me continue this monologue, I may at least let you sit down. Suppose we go in here; Mr. O'Connor has just left town, and we may as well use his office."

Again Miss Maitland hesitated, although not sufficiently to attract her companion's notice. She was not accustomed to interviews in private offices with strange young men. But she entered, and Smith behind her, and the glass door closed on them both, shutting out the sound of the clicking typewriters. Helen seated herself with her back to the window.

"Go on," she said. "I want to hear everything."

Smith went on.

Briefly but clearly he sketched the foundations of insurance. How, in more primitive times, when a man's house burned, his neighbors used to provide him with materials and come to help him rebuild; but this proved onerous, and instead a communal fund for the purpose of assisting fire sufferers was established. The modern insurance company had gradually come to assume the management of this fund and eventually to undertake the function of insuring against fire. But the people were still the arbiters of the fire cost, and the companies merely barometrically reflected the condition of the community as to fires. When fires are numerous and costly, the price of insurance must advance. Insurance is a tax which the companies collect in premiums from the many and pay out in losses to the few. But the idea remains the same.

"That is interesting," said the girl. "Now will you think me very stupid if I ask you to explain what all the terms mean as you go along? You spoke a moment ago of underwriting: I don't know what underwriting is. I thought big loans and stock issues and things of that sort were underwritten. Is this the same?"

"So they are, but this is another matter. Fire underwriting is a thing all to itself--_sui generis_. Similarly, a fire underwriter is a person like no other--at all events he likes to persuade himself that he is. And frequently he succeeds."

Smith smiled at his own reflection.

"A fire underwriter, to be a real one," he went on, "should be a chemist, financier, mechanic, lawyer, engineer, and diplomat, and a dash of a clairvoyant, too. He should know everybody's business, including his own. Consider what he is expected to know: there is no class of industry which can dispense with insurance."

"Except the Massachusetts Light, Heat, and Traction Company," interposed Helen, quickly.

"That is true up to the present time," Smith assented; "but their wisdom in having done so is not sufficiently proved, and Mr. Charles Wilkinson, whom I met in your uncle's office, is in hopes of being able to change their ideas on that subject. But I have my doubts if he will succeed, from what is said of Mr. Hurd."

"I think Mr. Wilkinson spoke of having met you," the girl said carelessly; which was positive disingenuousness, for she remembered very well indeed. And here she sat, talking to the man whose suggestion, as Charles quoted it, had roused her interest in the business. Helen was not sufficiently Oriental to find anything predestined in this meeting, but it nevertheless seemed a little odd. Abruptly she spoke, to rid her of her own thoughts.

"Mr. Hurd believes in carrying his own risk--isn't that the expression?"

"Absolutely. No life-long fire insurance man could have phrased it more correctly."

"I'm afraid it was mere plagiarism. I think Mr. Wilkinson used it."

"Credit withdrawn," said Smith. "What were we talking about? Oh, yes--about underwriters. Now, the fire underwriter has to pass upon the danger of every risk whose insurance is offered to his company. The company, of course, makes its underwriting or trade profit--or hopes to do so--by receiving more money in payment of premiums than it has to disburse, after deducting expenses, in losses. It must therefore accept its business as scientifically as possible. It must know how much money to risk--that is, how large a policy to write--on every class of risk in the world. When a line on a foundry and machine shop comes in, let us say, from Silas Osgood and Company, the underwriter is supposed to know how much premium, or rate, the risk should pay, and how many dollars the company can safely hold."

"But I thought you said Uncle Silas sent you the risk. Doesn't he also determine the amount the company takes?"

"The amount for which the policy is issued; but he is merely the agent. He exercises his best judgment, but the home office underwriter is the court of last resort. Generally speaking, the agent secures the business and offers it to the company for its acceptance. If, when it comes, the underwriter feels that the rate of premium is not commensurate with the hazard, he writes the agent, 'Rate too low: please cancel.' And there is where his diplomacy comes in. The agent, who must now get back the policy from the assured, must not be offended, or his more desirable business will be placed in some rival and more liberal company. If, on the other hand, the rate of premium seems adequate, but the amount at risk is too great, the underwriter reinsures or cedes a part of his line to another company, paying it a proportionate part of the premium, and holds only what he thinks safe. And here is where his judgment is needed. The company has what it calls its idea of line--which means that it doesn't want to lose more than a certain amount, say five thousand dollars, in any ordinary fire. . . . I'm not boring you?"

"Oh, no," said Helen. "I'm following it all."

"Well, then, what the underwriter is supposed to do is to decide, from the kind of risk he is asked to insure, how much the Company can write, and still not be liable for a greater loss than five thousand dollars in any ordinary fire."

"How can he do it?"

"By knowing his business. When he passes on a foundry, for example, he ought to know, first, the fire record of foundries in general; second, what rate of premium they ought in general to pay; and third, what the dangers, or, as we call them, hazards, are. By looking at the map he must be able to tell where the fire is most likely to start--where, in other words, fires usually do start in foundries. Probably it will be the cupola charging platform or the core ovens. Then he can closely tell from the construction of that particular foundry, considering also the protection, extinguishing appliances, public water pressure, nearness of the fire department, and fifty other considerations, how much of the whole plant would burn--probably. If only half, then he feels safe in writing ten thousand dollars on the risk, since only half of it is likely to be destroyed by one fire."

"I don't see how you can tell."

"Well, most companies have quite elaborate line sheets to assist their underwriters in determining how much to hold on various classes of risks, but between you and me, you _can't_ tell surely. But you do the best you can, and the ablest underwriter is the man who tells the closest. A really good underwriter should know the hazards of all the ordinary risks in the world, and be able to tell you offhand what is the danger point in a brewery, a playing-card factory, a paper mill, a public school, a shovel works, a Catholic church, a chemical laboratory--every sort and kind of risk. Of course he has surveys, made by inspectors, to help him, showing details the map fails to show, such as the location of your piano, and where the hazards lie and how they are cared for. But inspectors are fallible, and he must _know_--everything."

"You make my head whirl," Helen said. "To know everything! It sounds colossal. Do you know everything?"

Smith laughed.

"No," he replied. "Decidedly not. I'm afraid I know only a very small proportion of what I ought. But the big men of the business do. There is one man who I verily believe is perfectly familiar with every kind of risk in the United States. If there is a chemical process he doesn't know or can't find out about, I'll eat the thing myself. He knows every explosive mixture, every fulminate, every sort or manner of dust, paste, or grease which burns or explodes of itself."

"But that one man must be a genius! What does the average man do? Doesn't he need some one to help him in all this? It sounds like such a terrific undertaking to keep track of so many things. Doesn't it make your own head swim at times?"

"Well," said Smith, "of course there are a thousand and one things in the nature of aids to the underwriter--things whose proper action he doesn't directly control, although he has to keep a father's eye on them to see that they don't run amuck."

"Such as what?" asked the girl.

"The inspectors I spoke of, for one thing; the map makers who make the pretty brown buildings in Deerfield Street; the rate makers who go around applying schedules to buildings, and from the various hazards of construction, occupancy, and exposure fixing the rate which the schedule brings out; the stamping bureaus that check the rates as the agents send through the business. And then there are the field men, called special agents, who travel from agency to agency, appointing and discontinuing agents, straightening out difficulties, adjusting losses, and making themselves generally useful. All these the underwriter has to help him, as well as information such as building inspections by cities, police regulations, fire alarm systems, municipal rules and vagaries of all sorts--oh, a category of things as long as one's arm, which of course an underwriter doesn't actually himself supervise, but whose accuracy he must be able to estimate--and often repair if they get out of order and cease to run smoothly."

"But--" said the girl, slowly.

"But what?" Smith asked.

"But isn't it awfully technical, this business? I had an idea that fire insurance was done principally by clerks writing endlessly in large books. That's what they always seem to be doing in Mr. Osgood's office. And now you tell me it's like this. This is absolutely different from what I thought it was, and it seems incredibly difficult, but--"

"Well, but what?" demanded her companion.

"Well, then--it seems to me a little dry. Or perhaps not exactly that, but a little too scientific, too technical. Not so vivid, so vital--"

She stopped short at the expression of Smith's face.

CHAPTER IX

"Not vital!" he exclaimed, getting out of his chair and facing her. "Not vital! Really, Miss Maitland, what can you call vital? Fire insurance is as vital as anything in the world of business to-day--or in any world that I know anything about." He paused, and some of the indignation went out of his eyes. "I beg your pardon," he said more gently. "I had thought I was making you understand."

"You were--you were," Helen hastened to assure him; but he shook his head.

"Not if you think, after all, that fire insurance isn't vital."

"I'm afraid I chose my word badly. What I meant, perhaps, was that it wasn't picturesque. It isn't that, is it--as the word is generally understood?"

"You mean it isn't building bridges over boiling chasms three thousand feet below in the Andes river bottoms; it isn't leading ragged armies of half-baked South American natives against a mud stockade; it isn't shooting African animals and dining on quinine and hippopotamus liver. No, there's none of the soldier of fortune business about it. But vital! My heavens! what do you call vital?"

"I don't know," said the girl, humbly. She was somewhat abashed before this flare her words had so suddenly lighted. And she felt honestly contrite, for she saw she had hurt an ideal that was very close and real to the man before her.

At the sound of her reply Smith came to himself.

"I really beg your pardon--again," he said, with a little tremor in his voice. "I didn't appreciate what I was doing, or I wouldn't have blown up with a report like a nitroglycerine storehouse. Will you excuse me?"

Helen looked squarely at him.

"Yes--I will," she said, "on one condition."

"And what is that?"

"That you blow up again. I would really like to see it just as you do, and that is much the best way--carry me along with you."

The underwriter looked momentarily away; then his eyes rested on her thoughtfully.

"All right. I'll do it," he said. "I'll make it so plain to you that you can't escape it. I'll hold you with my glittering eye till you cannot choose but hear," he quoted, with a smile.

"I do not choose but hear," Miss Maitland said.

Smith was silent for a long minute.

"The picturesque things are all very well in their way," he said. "Revolutions and railway building and all that. Let us take railway building for example--I was once in the construction department of a big railroad, myself. But every one can't get into that department, and even there, there is a good deal of routine and very little thrill. It's only once in a lifetime, practically, that a man gets his chance to build the suspension bridge that swings a mile above the chasm. With most railroad builders one day's work is pretty much like another's. Not much excitement, except at long intervals. To plan what you must do is interesting, of course, but the execution is generally a long grind."

"Yes," Helen assented; "I fancy that would be so."

"It is so. But even if it were not, the kind of obstacles that must be surmounted are very much the same, year in and year out. You ford quicksands; you evade granite hillsides; you fight walking delegates. What I mean is that the set of obstacles doesn't change much, and the environment of the railway constructor is always about the same. But that is not so with the underwriter. One moment he is in the construction camp of the road builder, and the next in the palace of the city banker; one moment he is in an Idaho sawmill, and the next in a New England college chapel; one moment he is in a Florida orange grove, and the next in a salmon cannery on the Oregon coast. Ten thousand businesses pass before his eyes, and he must be alert to the local conditions affecting every one. There is no fixed environment for the underwriter."

The girl interrupted him.

"That may be true. But there is no work of original construction about it, is there? Can you compare the vitality of your business with that of the men who create their own ideas? There is no routine about that. And after all, isn't that more vital than anything else can be?"

"Yes," said Smith, "I presume it is. Certainly it is for the genius; probably even for any man of high and true talent, a man able to lose himself in his own creation. Undoubtedly that is the only real elixir of life, the only ineffable exaltation. But isn't that carrying your argument out too far? We can scarcely set a standard for creative geniuses--there are too few of them. You spoke of the men who create their own ideas. How many of them are there? There are thousands of near-authors, near-musicians, near-artists, near-poets, who are painfully remote from the genuine article. Do you understand what I mean?"

"Oh, yes. And that is so. I myself have at least seen that."

"Of course it is so. And do you suppose these second-rate creators get the real thrill? Not they. In their hearts they know they are frauds, impostors, dilettantes at best. There is no vitality to their grip on things, and they know it. They deal with the spurious and fustian from cradle to grave. Why, I myself know innumerable people that spend their lives in trying to persuade themselves into thinking they are doing something worth while!"

Mentally the girl winced; the words went home so close to Pelgram, who had been in her own mind. It was this very feeling of protest, for which Smith now found voice, that had sickened her of Pelgram.

"Such people get little out of life," the underwriter went on, "probably first because they are constantly uneasy in the knowledge that they are charlatans, and second because they do not have anything real, anything alive, to face. They deal in half-tones, in nuances--"

Nuances! Was the man clairvoyant? He had suggested that an underwriter ought to be. Helen felt that this channel had been pursued far enough.

"No one defends dilettanteism as such," she said.

"One can, though, easily enough, if one wishes," Smith promptly responded. "After all, to do things for the love of doing them is the right way. But they must be the right things, and to get the full taste out of anything one must have faced real dragons to attain it. There is no lack of dragons in the insurance business. You're fighting them all the time. If it isn't against time to keep your premiums up, it's against fate to keep your losses down. And of course all your days you're fighting on not one but a thousand battle lines to keep your rivals from getting your business away from you. Now your little artist, your semi-creator, hasn't anything like that. So long as he lives he hasn't any real facts to face."

"No; I suppose not," said the girl, slowly.

"The same trouble, or very nearly the same, exists for your soldier of fortune. To be sure, he faces facts--there can be no doubt about that--but they are facts he deliberately seeks, and not the actual obstacles that the world rolls up before him. He gets color and excitement all right, but the quality of the self-constructed excitement isn't quite so fine; in fact, after a while it begins to pall on one. Then, too, a man wearies of doing things that serve no useful end and that get nowhere; he begins to feel awkward and superfluous in the whole scheme of things. And these soldiers of fortune don't really _do_ anything, they merely put on the canvas a few bold strokes that attract ephemeral attention but which their successors promptly paint out, and they leave the world precisely where it was before they entered it or carried on their living."

"But isn't that much the same with you, too? Fire insurance doesn't _get_ anywhere, does it? Of course it's more useful to provide people with fire insurance than with South American revolutions, but after all it isn't indispensable. The world could move, couldn't it," she said diffidently, "without fire insurance? At least it did so for a good many centuries."

"The modern world couldn't," Smith said promptly. "Insurance is one of the things that the world, having had, could not do without. You do not perhaps realize the trend of the world to-day. It is no longer military; it is along commercial lines. Napoleon and Wellington to-day would be capitalists, either bankers or merchants or manufacturers, and their battles would be fought with money, not men. The world is ruled by commerce and trade--and where would trade be without fire insurance? Nowhere. The foundation of modern trade is credit. Without credit, no trade--or either petty trade limited to cash transactions or trade carried on by great millionaires or trusts who are above the fear of fire--although it is doubtful if there are any such. But for ordinary people, take credit away and trade is at an end."

"How is that? I don't understand," the girl said.

"Business to-day is transacted mainly on borrowed money. Jones, who keeps a corner grocery store, hasn't enough money to buy groceries because his customers don't pay him until the end of the month. So he goes to White and Company, who are wholesale grocers, and buys his stock on credit. But do you suppose White and Company would let him have those groceries if it were not for insurance? Certainly not; that's their only protection. If Jones's store burned with that stock before it was sold, and there was no insurance, who would lose? Not Jones--White and Company could force him into bankruptcy, but that wouldn't collect their bill. As I said, trade would be impossible, except cash trade and that in the grip of interests so vast that the ordinary run of fire losses wouldn't count."

"I never thought of that before," the girl remarked.

"Would the cotton grower ship his cotton north to the New England mills or to Liverpool if he couldn't insure it in transportation? No; he wouldn't dare take the risk. His cotton would remain on his plantation until some venturesome buyer came, paid him cash, and carried it away with him. We should go back to the commercial dark ages."

"You have crushed me, Mr. Smith," Helen said with a smile. "I will admit that insurance is indispensable."

"I was in hopes that you would admit it, not because you were crushed, but because you saw."

"I think I'm beginning to see," she answered.

The underwriter regarded her a little doubtfully; then a whimsical smile crossed his lips, making him singularly youthful and--Helen noted--singularly attractive. By a sudden change of thought he turned toward the window.

"A seaport city is a wonderful thing," he said. "Here come the keels of the world, bringing the tribute of the seven seas. It is a fine place to work, Miss Maitland, this down town New York within sight of the water and the water front. Even if you seldom get time to look at it, you have the feeling that it is there. There is never a minute, summer or winter, night or day, when those keels are not bringing argosies home to these old docks. Merely to walk along the shore front is as though one were in touch with all the world."

"I've seen some of it in Boston," said the girl; "but Boston is not the port it used to be."

"There are places in the world, they say--Port Said is one of them and the Café de la Paix in Paris is another--where all things and all people come soon or late. Those places must be the most interesting in the world."

"You have never been abroad?" the girl asked.

"No; I never had time. I have to get my world travel, world strangeness, world movement, as I can. And I get it pretty well, here in this office."

"Here! What do you mean?"

"We photograph it all, day by day."

"Oh," said Helen, "you mean you get it all from the maps you showed me?"

"Partly that. That is, the maps are part of it. They make the stage, the setting where the insurance drama is played. But the characters come on the stage through the medium of plain sheets of printed paper known as daily reports. The daily report is the link that unites this office to the throbbing life of a thousand cities around us."

"And what is a daily report? Certainly the name of it doesn't sound romantic."

"No, it doesn't. And yet the daily report is as vital a document as there is in the world."

"In what way? I never heard of it before."

"You never asked Mr. Osgood. He has sent us many thousand. As you know, the company receives its business from agents, scattered all through the country, at most of the important and a large number of unimportant points. In New England alone this company has nearly two hundred agents, each one writing policies when people apply for insurance."

"Does Uncle Silas write policies? I thought the companies themselves did that."

"No. Mr. Osgood has a young man in his office--his name is Reed--who does nothing else. And every time a policy is written by Mr. Reed and signed by Mr. Osgood or Mr. Cole and delivered to the assured, this peculiar document, the daily report, is made up and sent in to this office. It is really a complete description of the policy which has just been written."

"But there must be thousands!"

"Of course. One for every policy every agent issues. We get more than two hundred a day in this office."

"That's why Uncle Silas said I ought to go to a home office to see things properly. That's what he meant--it's the center of everything. I begin to understand."

Smith, glancing at her, perceived that there was no question of her interest now.

"Here they come, the daily reports," he continued, "and we open them--dailies from Chicago, San Antonio, Butte, Lenox, Jersey City, Tampa, Bangor. Dailies in English, a few in Spanish, quite a number in French, for a few of our Canadian agents speak nothing else. This current of dailies flowing through this office, never ceasing day in and day out, year after year, is like the current of the blood tending back to the heart, like the response of the nerves to the pulse-beat, reporting at the brain, bringing news of the body's health, even down to the fingers' ends. And we sit here, like a spider in a web, drawing all the world."

"What do they tell you?" asked the girl, absorbedly.

"Everything;--or nearly all. Is a trust in the making? We know of it here, when we see the ownership of scattered factories change to a common head. Is prohibition gaining ground in the South? We can tell by the shut-down endorsements on brewery and distillery policies and by the increasing losses on saloons whose owners can make no further profit. Is there a corner in wheat or coffee or cotton? We follow the moves in the struggle by the ebb and flow of insurance in the big warehouses and elevators and compresses. Is the automobile market overstocked? Our rising loss ratio gives the reply. Are hard times coming? We can tell it when the merchants begin to cut down their insurance, which means their stocks as well, buying what they need from day to day. Is the panic over? We learn it by a rush of new dailies, buildings in course of construction, new and costly machinery introduced in factories, increased insurance all along the line."

"It sounds almost uncanny," said Helen, slowly. "Can you really learn all these things in this way?"

"Not all, of course, or at least not always, by any means, for the Guardian is only one of many companies, and only a small part, a fraction of one per cent, of the country's business comes to us. But we learn a great deal; much of it along rather surprising lines. I learned yesterday, for example, that the scandal which has been suspected to exist between the fair but probably frail Mazie Dupont and her manager is undoubtedly a matter of fact."

"How could you find that out?" Helen was amazed to find herself asking. The actress was a celebrity, to be sure, yet Miss Maitland, in her own self-analysis, should hardly have evinced curiosity regarding the details of her private life.

"Ownership of pretty country house up the Hudson transferred from his name to hers. Endorsement on our policy," replied Smith. "Of course that's not proof, but its pretty good presumptive evidence. We get similar cases every day. Here's a millionaire gets caught the wrong side of the stock market and needs money. We know it because his hundred thousand dollar Franz Hals goes to the art dealer's to be sold, or some big mercantile building that he owns is mortgaged to the Universal Savings Bank. Endorsement for our daily report. So they go."

"Well, I shall be afraid to have our furniture insured ever again after this," said the girl, with a laugh.

"Insure it with the Guardian, and I myself will see that your family skeletons are kept safely out of sight in the closets where they belong."

"That's very nice of you."

"I'm afraid, though, that your insurance wouldn't be very interesting, as regards sensation," the underwriter went on. "But there are lots of people the investigation of whose insurance affairs is in the field of a first-class detective agency. There are people, as you may or may not know, who make their living by having fires. These fires are fraudulent, of course, but fraud is very hard to prove. We can never secure a witness, for no one applies a match to his shop while any one is looking on; and with only circumstantial evidence and an individual pitted against a rich corporation, the jury generally gives the firebug the benefit of the doubt. Most of these people put in a claim for goods supposed to have been totally burned but which in reality they never possessed or which have been secretly removed just before the fire. Usually they have a fraudulent set of books, too, to back up their claim; and we have to keep a close watch all the time for birds of that feather."

"But how can you?"

"Oh, we have a pretty complete fire record compiled from loss experiences sent by every company to the publisher. All companies subscribe to this record. If a man has several suspicious-looking fires, nobody will insure him. If he gets such a bad fire reputation in one town that he can't get insurance there, he moves somewhere else, but the record keeps track of him, and finally he has to turn honest--or change his name."

"Do many of them do that?"

"Not so many as you'd think. You see, it's not so easy to disguise one's personality. The La Mode Cloak and Suit Company may turn out to be our old friend Lazarus Epstein; but we have the service of the principal commercial agencies to aid us in becoming better acquainted with our policyholders. And any one who has no rating in these commercial agencies we investigate very thoroughly, making our local agent tell us all he knows of the man, and sending for a full detailed report by the commercial agency besides. Even then we occasionally get caught with a crook, but not often. The Guardian is very careful; if all other companies were equally so, there would be fewer firebugs in business."

"How do you mean?"

"Well, many companies rely wholly on their agents; they don't send for these special reports, and the result is that they get caught for a dishonest loss, and the crook who is smart enough to make the agent think he is straight gets away with it. Thus encouraging the impostors."

"But are not the commercial agency men fooled too?"

"Oh, yes, they're only human; but at least you have two sources of information to draw on--and three, if the man has a fire record. By the time we've finished we are apt to know a good deal about our policyholder, here at the home office, and sometimes we learn very strange things--sometimes humorous and sometimes quite the reverse."

He stopped, and Miss Maitland, seeing his pause, hesitated with the question she had been about to put.

"I wonder if you'd care to hear about a case that came to my notice yesterday," he said.

"I would very much," the girl replied.

"You know these commercial agency reports are by no means what I should term models of English prose style. They are usually about as dull and dry documents as any I know in the manner of their presentation of facts. Their authors have about as much need for imagination as the gentlemen who compile city directories and telephone books; beside them articles in the Encyclopaedia Britannica are yellow journalism. All the same, they deal with facts, and facts can be more tragic than any romantic fiction ever produced. This case I speak of was simply the story of a harness maker who lived in Robbinsville, a small town up in the center of New York State. A little while ago our local agent wrote a policy on this man's stock, and because he had no rating showing his financial responsibility, the underwriter who passes on New York State business sent for a detailed report, which after some delay came to us yesterday."

Again he paused, and there was silence in the little office until he resumed.

"The rating said--and the manner of it showed that the reporter felt the poignancy of his words--that the harness maker was bankrupt. For nearly fifty years he had kept a harness shop in that same little town, and competition by a younger, more aggressive man had taken away a good many of his customers, his money had gone in ordinary living expenses, his assets had shrunk to almost nothing, and his liabilities had increased to fifteen hundred dollars, which to him might just as well have been a million, and now all he could do was to throw himself on the mercy of his creditors. Which he did."

"And what did they do?" said Helen, in a low voice.

"This is what the old man said--the commercial agency reporter gave it just as the old man said it: 'I have sold harness in this town since I was twenty years old. Now you say I am bankrupt. I want to do what is right. I don't want to cheat any man. I don't know where the money has gone. You gentlemen must do what is best. But I hope you can make some arrangement by which I can keep my business. I have had it so many, so many years. It probably won't be for much longer anyhow. But we don't want to go on the town--my wife and I. A man and his wife ought not to go on the town when he's worked honest all his life and is willing to work still.'"

Smith rose abruptly, and turned toward the window. "I've heard of 'Over the Hills to the Poorhouse' and similar things," the underwriter went on, after a moment, not looking at the girl, "but this somehow seemed different. Perhaps it was its unexpectedness, or finding it in such a way. Do you know," he said, "I felt as though I'd like to write a check for fifteen hundred dollars and send it to that old harness maker up in Robbinsville, just to give him one more chance."

He turned at the touch of a light hand on his arm.

"I'd like to go halves with you," said a voice which Helen's Boston acquaintances would hardly have recognized as hers.

"It's a go," said Smith. "I can't afford it; but five or six hundred dollars in actual cash would probably straighten things out pretty well, and if the creditors don't grant the extension to give the old fellow enough to carry him the rest of the way--by Jove, we'll finance the harness business, you and I!"

"You can count on me for my half. Shake hands on the bargain!" cried Helen, in the exhilaration following emotion sustained, and Smith gravely took her hand in his own. For a moment they stood side by side looking out on the East River which O'Connor's office overlooked, and for a space neither spoke. Then Helen returned somewhat sedately to her seat, and demurely spoke to Smith's back:--

"Well, my present interest in the fire insurance business is all that its most ardent champion could wish."

The underwriter turned back to her.

"I'm awfully glad if I haven't bored you," he said. "I've been holding forth like a vendor at a county fair. But I didn't mean to do it."

"You know you haven't bored me," she replied. "But I must be going now. I thank you very much for the trouble you have taken with my education. I hope it will not turn out to be altogether barren."

"I hope it will not," returned Smith, politely.

She was about to turn to the door. The underwriter made no move.

"Shall I say good-by now?" she asked.

"Here better than elsewhere. Good-by."

And then, to her subsequent surprise, Helen found herself saying:--

"I am stopping with my aunt, Miss Wardrop, at thirteen Washington Square, North. If you and I are to go into the harness business together, I hope you will come--and bring your price lists and things, won't you?"

"Thank you. I will surely come," the underwriter answered simply.

It was not until she found herself once more mounting the steps of her aunt's house that Miss Maitland recollected the lamp shade.

CHAPTER X

There have been in half a century many and significant changes in Washington Square. Of the buildings that defied time fifty years ago, not many remain. On the East especially, where Waverley Place--once more picturesquely called Rag Carpet Lane--links the Square to Broadway, the traditional brick structures have all been replaced by modern loft-buildings, almost as sober but far less austere. Elsewhere around the Square the old-time residences only here and there survive, encroached upon more and more by the inroads of modernity. Only along Washington Square North, east and west of Fifth Avenue, has there been consistent and effective resistance to the tidal march of progress; and it was east of the Avenue and in the immediate shadow of the New that Miss Mary Wardrop had lived for more than three generations.

Now there remained only three of what must not long ago have been a considerable community--those that dwelt on Washington Square at the time when Central Park was being made or when Lincoln called for a quarter of a million volunteers and in prompt and patriotic answer the Northern regiments passed through cheering crowds down Broadway.

Miss Wardrop herself, being by far the most dominant of the three, shall be mentioned first. The second was her ancient butler, whose surname--and apparently his only name--was Jenks, which was always pronounced with ever so slight a tendency toward him of the Horse Marines. And the third, who, like Miss Wardrop, still retained possession of the family mansion, was Mr. Augustus Lispenard, bachelor, aged--in the morning--nearly eighty, although later in the day, when the ichor in his veins began to course more briskly, his appearance was that of an uncommonly well-preserved man of sixty or thereabouts. His residence adjoined that of Miss Wardrop, but there had never been any intimacy between the two households. For this there were a number of reasons, but the paramount one was the fact that Mr. Lispenard was descended from one of the oldest houses among the Knickerbockers, and as such it was extremely difficult for him to become aware of any one not sprung with equal selectness. The Wardrops had arrived on the Square at the comparatively recent period of Miss Mary's babyhood--and even now Miss Mary was only sixty or so.

Miss Helen Maitland remembered very well the occasion of her first meeting with the distinguished personage who lived next door. It had occurred on the first visit she had made her aunt, when she was but a small girl, yet Helen had found few things in after years to etch themselves more sharply upon her recollection. It had been in the holiday season, and, Helen's mother having been sent South by the inclemencies of the Boston weather, the child had been left with Miss Wardrop over the Christmas time. On New Year's Day, wide-eyed, she had beheld the elaborate, old-world, decorous preparations made by Jenks under the eye of his mistress, and with delight she had learned that, while she could not--nor indeed did she wish to--attend the New Year's reception herself, she was to be allowed a seat of vantage above stairs where part, and the most interesting part, of the reception hall lay open to her view.

Miss Wardrop rigidly preserved the old custom as to New Year's calls--preserved even the old blue punch-bowl, which Jenks filled with a decoction of haunting and peculiar excellence; and the dress wherein the hostess received had done duty on more New Years' Days than its owner liked always to recall.

Peering down through the mahogany railings that fenced her eyrie from the world, the youthful Miss Maitland had watched, starry-eyed, a function which in essentials had not altered in very many years. Its hostess had grown more gray, but no less alert, had changed in years more than in age. And it was with a courtly bow, which also had not varied in angle or courtliness, that little Miss Maitland saw Mr. Augustus Lispenard bend low over Miss Wardrop's hand.

A small, slight man was Mr. Lispenard, very erect, very straight of eyebrow, keen of glance, precise of speech. His extraordinary black eyes peered out from beneath his level brows in a disquietingly observant manner. One felt immediately that one's hands and feet were peculiarly large and awkward, or one's last remark hopelessly banal, or one's birthplace in some cheap and innominate region outside of Manhattan. So long as Miss Wardrop remained under forty, Mr. Lispenard had held aloof. Perhaps he feared that by calling on a maiden lady under forty he might arouse hopes which, however chaste, could not, in the nature of things, be fulfilled, he being what he was, a Knickerbocker. But after this danger mark was past, and perhaps stimulated by the removal of almost the last of the other patriarchal residents of the Square, he called one New Year's afternoon, and gravely presented the compliments of the season to the woman to whom he now spoke for the first time in his life.

There was nothing vindictive about Miss Wardrop. She appreciated his viewpoint, and bade him welcome as naturally as though they had been friends for years. And thereafter Mr. Lispenard was an irregular but always gladly received caller in the parlor separated from his own by little more than twelve inches of brick and mortar.

In the days when Miss Mary was growing up to childhood, Mr. Lispenard had been one of those who had marched down Broadway in 1861, not to return for four long years. South of the Potomac he had acquired many vivid and remarkable experiences of which no one had ever heard him speak, and also a pension, incredibly small, which he received in silent dignity each month and equally without comment turned over to a rascally body servant who had run away from more battles than one would have conceived to be possible. This sturdy retainer, having served a short time in Mr. Lispenard's troop and performed him some trifling services, had ten years after the war turned up with a calm and most surprising assumption of his old commander's responsibility for his entire existence, and since that time had lived on his ex-lieutenant's bounty.

One of the chief attractions, in Helen's eyes, of her aunt's old house in Washington Square was the chance of a call or two from Mr. Lispenard. After her third or fourth visit he grew friendly with her, in fact vastly more friendly than he ever became with her aunt. And she, for her part, found this elderly aristocrat all the more fascinating for finding him in New York, through the rushing progressiveness of which he seemed to move in a kind of stately, romantic twilight.

"My dear child," were her aunt's first words after Helen's latest arrival, "you have missed by a single day a call from our next-door neighbor."

"Well, if he doesn't come again," replied the girl, with a smile, "I'll scandalize the dear old man nearly to death by going and calling on him myself."

And this, a few days later, she actually did, to the carefully concealed elation of Mr. Lispenard's elderly housekeeper, who, after ushering Miss Maitland into the high-ceiled parlor, betook herself to the region below stairs, where she definitely expressed herself to the cook.

"Sure it's a divil the masther is wid the ladies till this very day--and him only about four minutes inside of eighty!"

"A lady calling, is it?" inquired the cook, with interest.

"Sure--a young wan. It's the ould bhoys have the way wid them, after all's said and done."

Meanwhile in the old-fashioned reception room with its tinkly crystal chandelier aquiver, as it were, in sympathetic excitement, the old gentleman was greeting his young guest.

"Old age!" he said, with a smile of half-mock ruefulness. "Old age! When ladies come to call on us, we understand, we old beaux, that it is because we are no longer considered dangerous. Yet the bitterness of that knowledge, were it twice as bitter as it is, would be more than offset by my honor and pleasure in receiving you."

Helen beamed on him for reply, and his swift, penetrating eyes observed her.

"You have grown up to be beautiful, my child," observed old Mr. Lispenard. "There is nothing about you of this new generation, which I hate. Indeed, if you would wear crinolines and a curl of that dark hair on your shoulder, you would be quite perfect."

His young caller blushed a little, but she laughingly retorted:--

"Did you say you had ceased to be dangerous? No one of my generation could have said that. You will turn my head, sir--and isn't that being dangerous? For the heads of my generation, the new generation, as you call it, are not easy to turn."

"No. True enough," said Mr. Lispenard, nodding with cynical approval. "Their heads are on so tight there is no turning them; no flexibility about the young people to-day. The maids are sad enough, but the young men are worse. Gallants is what we used to call young men, but they make none to-day that could answer to that term. Gallants! There is no more courtesy in the land than among the fishes below sea!"

Helen felt inclined to defend her contemporaries, but as she looked at the old aristocrat before her and contrasted his manner with that of some of the men in her own set, she did not know quite what to say. Pelgram's poses seemed cheap and shallow, and Charlie Wilkinson's free-and-easy carriage might have its virtues, but it certainly was not marked by dignity, nor did it make particularly for respect.

"They have no reverence for age, none for the great things, the great days that some of us remember. I confess that I do not like them. I am quite an old man, and for some years past I have met scarcely a young man whom my mother would have permitted in her drawing room."

"I know what you mean," Helen said thoughtfully; "and in one way, at least, I'm afraid you're right. But don't you think that most of the difference is on the surface, and the young people of to-day are not really so irreverent as they appear to be? The fashion now is toward plain, blunt unaffectedness; reverence is a polish of manners which implies insincerity, and the young men who are really reverent are most of them ashamed of it and work all the harder to conceal it."

"They are not obliged to overexert themselves," replied Mr. Lispenard. "But perhaps you are right, my dear. I admit that I am out of sympathy with the younger generation. They might possess a thousand virtues, and I could see none of them."

"I'm of the younger generation," said his visitor, with humorous apologeticalness. "I hope you won't be too hard on it."

"One of its few virtues--that it numbers you among its members," her host gallantly rejoined. "But they are not all like you--or there would be fewer bachelors in your town of Boston."

Helen laughed outright.

"No bachelor yet have I unmade," she replied, somewhat enigmatically.

"Indeed?" said Mr. Lispenard. "I may not think very highly of the young men of to-day, but my opinion of them is not so low as that. Come, now--I am an old gentleman and the model of reticence--I will never tell. I'll wager you a box of roses against anything you like that you had a proposal no later than last week. Perhaps you even came to New York to escape him."

Considering that Pelgram's studio tea was barely a week in the past, Helen's face betrayed her confusion.

"_Touché_!" said her host, with a laugh. "Really, I may have to revise in part my idea of modern young men. After all, they're not blind."

Helen found that time passed quickly during her first few days in New York. Miss Wardrop was a self-sufficient personage, with a decided opinion upon everything in heaven and on earth, and a preference no less decided for that opinion over those held by others. She had, however, a great fondness for her niece, whom she honored, as she expressed it, by making not one iota of change in her menage or habits on account of the presence of her visitor.

"It would be a poor arrangement for both of us if I were to put myself out for you," she had once explained to the girl. "I would be certain to regret having done so; and if I did, so would you. So I will pay you the compliment of going on precisely as though you weren't here."

So she continued to breakfast in bed at the conservative hour of ten o'clock; continued to superintend the rehabilitation of two rooms on the second floor which Jenks, to his rheumatic distress, was redecorating in accordance with the latest whim of his mistress; continued in all things to order her life exactly as she had ordered it for twenty years.

It was now the very end of September, and autumn was more than ever in the air. There was none of the chill ocean breath which in Boston had already begun to make itself unpleasantly evident, and Helen found the keenest enjoyment in walking about the city, which heretofore she had seen principally from the windows of street cars and taxicabs.

It was about three o'clock of a Saturday afternoon at the close of her second week in New York that she started northward up Fifth Avenue, casting, as she turned, one backward look at the beauty of the Washington Arch, white in the sunshine. She herself, after the first few blocks, took the west side of the avenue, for the afternoon sun was unexpectedly warm. When she came to Fourteenth Street, she paused to allow the passage of a number of street cars and other vehicles which were figuratively champing their bits till the Jove-like person in blue set them free to move. And as she stood there, she became aware of a voice behind her, which said:--

"You have chosen a beautiful day for a walk, Miss Maitland," and turning, she faced Mr. Richard Smith of the Guardian.

"Why, how do you do!" the girl said, holding out her hand with frank cordiality. "I'm very glad to see you. Would it flatter you if I said I was thinking of you this morning?"

"It would," said Smith, soberly. "It does not do to flatter me. I don't get over it easily. I don't go so far as to forbid it, you understand, to those who know me, but I recognize it as being as seductive and alluring and dangerous as any delightful but deadly drug, and I usually flee from it accordingly."

"Well, there's really no reason why you should flee from it now--unless it is a pecuniary reason," said Miss Maitland, smiling. "But in case you should start to escape, perhaps I had better modify my statement and say that I was actually thinking of that old harness maker and wondering when you were coming to tell me about ways and means of keeping him in business."

"I had hoped to do so before this," the other replied. "I wrote the Guardian agent at Robbinsville on the same day you visited the office, but I've had nothing to report until to-day."

"And have you now? What is it?"

"This morning I received a letter from our agent. He said that the creditors had held a protracted meeting, and there was one irritating old party who kept suggesting that the poorhouse was the inevitable solution; but finally arrangements were made by which our old friend can keep his shop as long as he lives. They trusteed the business, I believe."

Helen was silent, and for a little space the two walked forward without a word. At last the girl lifted her eyes to Smith's a little wistfully.

"I'm glad he can keep his shop," she said; "and yet in one way I'm rather sorry that the creditors agreed. I would have liked to have helped the old man, myself, and I think it would have been rather good fun to have financed a harness business."

"Yes; it would," Smith rejoined, with a laugh. "But I confess I'm a little relieved. I'm afraid that for me it would have meant attaching another mortgage to the old homestead, which already looks like a popular bill board, it is so plastered with prior liens."

The girl did not know exactly what answer to make to this, so she made none. Smith presently went on.

"But I'm sure he would like to know that you would have assisted him if it had been necessary. If I am ever anywhere near Robbinsville, I shall make a point to see him and tell him."

"Why, I had nothing to do with it!" said the girl. "It was entirely your plan--I merely said I'd go halves with you."

"Yes. But I would really have never done anything by myself," Smith replied frankly. "And for a very good reason. But in any event the old man would be much more interested in thinking it was you."

"If I am ever in Robbinsville, I shall see that he knows the real facts," said Miss Maitland, with a slight flush in her cheeks.

"Here is Twenty-third Street," the underwriter said abruptly. "Where are you bound for, if I may ask?"

"Nowhere in particular," the girl answered. She stopped. "Isn't that a wonderful sight, now, in the sunlight?" She indicated the white tower of the Metropolitan Life building, pointing far up into the clear blue of the eastern sky, across Madison Square.

"Wonderful indeed," agreed Smith, so thoughtfully that his companion glanced at him. "By the way, you didn't happen to be here half a century ago, did you?" he asked whimsically.

"No," said Miss Maitland. "If I had been anywhere, it would have been around Back Bay, I presume."

"Then you miss part of this. Unless you had been here then, you can't appreciate how marvelous all this is now," he went on. "Of course I wasn't here either; but I am a New Yorker, and I know how it used to look."

"Do you?" she asked with interest. "And how did it look then?"

"Well, suppose we go back another ten years and make it sixty in all. There was no tower there and no Flatiron building here beside us. And there was no open square before us. Oh, it was open, but not a square--more of a prairie. Broadway came up and intersected Fifth Avenue just as it does to-day. But on this Flatiron corner there stood just one thing. And what do you suppose that was?"

"I couldn't imagine."

"One solitary, lonesome lamp post. And over there, on the site of that monstrous building, was the little frame structure that gave the Square its name--the Madison cottage. And that was the only building to be seen."

"The only one! But when was this?"

"In the fifties--in fact, up to eighteen fifty-eight, when they began to put up the Fifth Avenue Hotel on the same ground. Next year that was finished, and in eighteen sixty came the Prince of Wales and honored it by leading the grand march in its great dining hall."

They had crossed Twenty-third Street by this time, and were standing on the memorable corner. An electric bus whirred by on the east side of Broadway, and Smith drew Helen's notice to it.

"On a post that stood near here," he said, "there used to be a sign that read, 'Buses every four minutes.' And if you wanted to go down town, there was exactly one other way besides taking a bus, and that was to walk."

"And that was quite enough," declared Miss Maitland.

"Well, it served, anyway," Smith conceded.

They walked on up the Avenue. Finally the girl broke a long pause.

"I was thinking," she said slowly, "that I would like to have you meet Mr. Augustus Lispenard."

"And who is he, may I ask?"

"Well, he is an old gentleman who lives on Washington Square, and you will probably never see one another, but he seems to love New York more than anything in the world--and you seem to, also."

"Well . . . it's my town," confessed her companion. "That is, it's not my native town, for I was born out in Iowa, but I've lived here nearly all my life. And it's a good town. Even a Bostonian will have to admit that," he added laughingly.

"Yes--I admit it," said the Bostonian. And it struck her that her admission came more readily than it ever before could have come. "By the way," she returned, more conventionally, "I'm afraid I must be taking you out of your way. What would you have done if you hadn't been kind enough to act as my guide this afternoon?" she inquired carelessly.

Smith looked across at her.

"To tell the truth, I was thinking of going to the ball game up at the Polo Grounds," he said promptly; "but I didn't leave the office soon enough. I'm very much interested in this present series."

"You're interested in lots of things, I should say," his companion commented. "Fire insurance and New York I have found out already. And here is something else. Are you really interested in baseball?"

"I certainly am," said Smith; "and I think every one else ought to be, if he or she has any interest in this country of ours."

Helen glanced at him in surprise.

"What possible connection can those two things have?" she asked.

"Oh, it's not a thing you can understand unless you've seen it. From the way you speak, I presume you've never seen a game of professional baseball."

"No," Miss Maitland replied with docility, "I'm afraid I never have. I've been to a few college games--Harvard mostly--but I've never seen a professional game. Is it very different?"

"Absolutely. You ought to go to one. You can't really understand the United States of America until you do."

"Are you serious? I'm afraid you're just joking with me."

"Not at all. Why, do you know that baseball is the most American thing in America? And it's about the only wholly American thing, as we like to think of America. There is only one other place besides the ball ground where the spirit of genuine democracy shows itself, and that is in politics. There you will find the high and low together--the judge putting off his ermine and getting down from the bench elbow to elbow with Tom Radigan, the East Side barkeep, when the Patrick J. O'Dowd Association of the Eighty-eighth Assembly District gives its annual outing or its ball. But that's not true democracy because it's very largely selfish--inspired by the desire of votes. Now baseball--that's different. Inspired by no desire but to see a good game--and for the home team to win. Nowhere else in the world can you see democracy in its fine flower--at its best. There you can see them all--judges and dock rats, brokers and bricklayers, cotillion leaders and truck drivers, historians and elevator starters, lawyers and the men they keep out of jail, college boys, grocers, retired capitalists, and the lady friends of the whole collection. You'll find them all there. Oh, you ought to go to a game yourself. Then you'd understand."

It seemed to Miss Maitland that this Smith was a very unusual person. And his enthusiasms were strangely contagious. Fire insurance, New York, and now baseball, things in none of which had she ever felt more than a flicker of interest, suddenly, seen through his eyes, assumed a reality, a vital quality she had never dreamed they could possess. Was it all the difference in point of view?

"It isn't because baseball in my opinion does more real good than all the socialistic documents put out by high-browed agitators will ever do," Smith was continuing, "that I go to it. Not at all. I go to it because I like it, and because I like to yell."

"Do you yell?" asked Miss Maitland of Boston.

"You do--that is, I do," said Smith, tersely. "At all events, when things go our way."

"And don't you think I would be likely to--yell?"

"Well, hardly, at first," the underwriter answered. "After a while, probably. If you'd like to go and see, though, whether you'd yell or not, I should like awfully to take you."

Thinking the matter over afterward, Helen was at a loss to discover why she had so readily accepted this somewhat unusual invitation. To see this young man at an office on a matter of business was all very well; it was one thing to meet him casually on the street and walk with him a few blocks up the Avenue--but it was decidedly another to promise she would accompany him to a professional baseball game. Baseball, of all things! Yet she had accepted, and on the whole she could not seem to be quite sorry that she had. But it would never do to tell Aunt Mary. Yet Miss Wardrop must of course be told. Helen was twenty-five years of age and her own mistress, but Boston in the blood dies hard.

It was moribund, however, on the afternoon that Smith called to escort her northward to the field where those idols of Gotham, the Giants, were indulging in a death grapple with their rivals from Chicago in the closing series of the year, with the National League pennant hanging on its result. Her companion had, to be sure, called formally and in due order upon Miss Wardrop and her niece on an evening of the intervening period, so that Helen felt her sharp New England sense of the proprieties lulled to a state of pleasing and comfortable coma.

The elevated train which took them to the grounds was jammed to the very doors with cheerfully suffering humanity, and Miss Maitland, most of whose previous experience with crowds had been with those decorous gatherings in the subway beneath the Common, regarded the struggling multitude with covert dismay.

"If you should find the elbows of the populace unduly insinuated into you, don't worry," her companion advised. "It will merely be part of your general education. Getting back to the soil is nowhere beside the democratic experience you are about to enjoy," he added.

"I--I didn't expect to be quite as democratic as that," the girl said.

"Well, I'll try to see that the more intimate personal demonstrations are spared you," her escort reassured her.

Presently they left the train, and passing down the platform they joined the crowd that was now forcing its slow course along the inclosed runway which led to the Polo Grounds. There was considerable jostling, much talking and laughter, deep trampling and shuffling of many feet. At last Smith reached the window before which for some five minutes he stood in line.

"Of course I could have gotten box seats," he explained as he purchased two score cards; "but I wanted you to get this thing in its entirety."

"You are the doctor," replied Miss Maitland, cheerfully; at which form of acquiescence her companion regarded her in such surprise that she burst into a laugh.

"I heard that just now," she confessed; "and it seemed to fit the case. You know you are really prescribing this game as a cure for acute Bostonitis."

"Right!" said he, laughing, "I fancy I was. But I didn't mean to be unpleasantly Aesculapian."

"You weren't," she said. "And do you know, I think you were correct. Even if you didn't consciously prescribe this as a remedy, I myself admit--or I almost admit--that I was feeling the need of a tonic a little different from any I had ever tried at home. And I believe this is it."

Surely it was. They reached their seats, which they found back of first base, and sat down between neighbors of uncommon parts. Next to Helen was a large red man of Hibernian extraction, with a long upper lip tamed but little by civilization or by razor; on his head he wore a dilapidated cloth cap; he was, to appearances, driver for an ice company or a brewery.

At Smith's elbow was a small, black-haired Jew with a pock-marked face. In front of them were four people who could have been the shipping clerk for a hardware house, his fiancée, who presided conceivably over a switchboard in some uptown hotel, a gentleman who looked like a college professor and who was probably night clerk in a drug store, and lastly a chunky and well-fed person who, from his turning at once to the cotton reports, could probably be put down as holding some responsible position in a Wall Street house. The farther the eye strayed, the more motley became the array, the more difficult any generalization.

"It's really useless," said Smith, guessing the girl's thought. "If any one's missing, it's because he's home sick in bed. Now, tell me how much you need to be told."

Nearly everything, it seemed; so for the next ten minutes her companion held forth in a compendious but concise exordium on the great American game. During this interim the huge concrete stands filled entirely, and the populace began to spill over onto the field.

"That means ground rules--hit into the crowd good for only two bases," said several critics, for the general information of an ambient air fully as well informed as the speakers.

Down on the field the interesting machinery was in process of oiling--the batting and fielding practice of either side in turn, the pitchers lazily warming up, the motley crew on the side lines in their amusing and alert play of high-low. Helen, fascinated by the players' movements, the accurate interception of stinging grounders, the graceful parabolas of long flies to the deep outfield, as well as by the spectacle of the orderly base and coaching lines laid out on the smooth, close-clipped greensward, watched as though in a new medium of sight. This was little like anything she had ever seen.

A yell from ten thousand throats announced that the Giants'--and the crowd's--favorite was to pitch. Another yell, though less in volume, indicated that the opposing pitcher also was named and approved, not from any delight in the selection, but merely that the choice was made. The umpires in their sober blue uniforms took their places; the home team went into the field; the pitcher picked up the new white ball and settled his foot firmly on the slab--and the game was on.

It can serve no useful purpose now, when that game is done and its year's pennant determined, to play over the two hours' traffic of it. Suffice it to say that the tide of battle rose and fell sufficiently to keep forty thousand delirious spectators on their feet at least one quarter of the time. Nothing of Oriental calm about the crowd that day; nothing of passive acceptance of whatever the Fates might have in store. Every soul within that enclosure was a rabid partisan, bound up in the fortune of the fray; and if the concentrated desire of forty thousand minds could avail aught, the home team should certainly have felt the psychic urge.

But apparently they did not, or perhaps the opposing cohorts felt a far-off urge more potent still, for the game wore on to the seventh inning with the home team still one run behind.

"Seventh inning; everybody up!" twenty thousand informed the other twenty thousand. And everybody rose, the forty thousand almost as one man.

"Now then, you Tim!" shrieked a voice behind Helen's ear. And Tim responded with a two-base hit to the left field crowd. Another sharp crack of the ball against the bat, and men running at lightning speed, one to first base, one desperately rounding third and toward the home plate with the run needed to tie the score. But the Chicago team were busy as well. As from a catapult the ball shot home to the catcher, waiting astride the rubber.

A flash, a slide, a cloud of dust. Then the umpire, flapping a flippant thumb skyward. Then a berserker roar of rage, a pandemonium of fury beside which Babel was a soundless desert. And from leather-like lungs four inches from Helen's ear, in a voice which could have brought the glad news from Ghent to Aix without leaving the first-named city at all, came:--

"Hey, you big wart! The bush for yours!"

But the umpire thus unflatteringly described and assigned was obdurate, the run did not count, and the game went on. However, it was won in that inning by the combination of two more safe hits, and the checked paeans rang their fill. If there was a heart in all that great amphitheater not beating to the tune of the forty thousand, it must have been some unfortunate outlander who could only watch, reserving his own delirium until some more fortunate era beneath more friendly stars.

But at last, when all was over and the great crowd reluctantly dissolved, swarming the diamond, Smith and Miss Maitland sought the exit in silence.

"When it puts one in such intimate touch with forty thousand of your fellow beings," said Smith, reflectively, "it seems worth while, now and then, to be what is commonly termed a low-brow."

"Is it really worth while," asked Helen, "to be anything else?"

CHAPTER XI

If Mr. Edward Eggleston Murch had had nothing to do but attend the meetings of the various boards of which he was a director, his time would still have been reasonably well employed and he would have enjoyed an income sufficient at least to keep him in cigars of the standard to which his eminence entitled him. Mr. Murch's private secretary held a position requiring quick-wittedness and suavity in no common degree. Hardly a day went by that the ring of the phone did not serve as preamble for some such colloquy as this:

"Hello. Mr. Murch's office?"

"Yes."

"Mr. Murch in?"

"No. Can I do anything for you?"

"The W., T., and G. have called their annual meeting for election of officers on Friday the sixth. How about ten-thirty? Is that all right with Mr. Murch?"

"Wait a minute. Ten-thirty, you said? No, Mr. Murch has the International Corkscrew meeting at ten. Can't they push W., T., and G. into the afternoon?"

"I'll let you know later. Good-by."

And later it was arranged to suit Mr. Murch. If there were a pie in Mr. Murch's vicinity which Mr. Murch's finger was not in, it was, if not proof positive, strong circumstantial evidence that the pie was of a most inferior order of succulence; and Mr. Murch was a fairly good judge, being himself chairman of the finance committee of the United States Pie Company. He was a director in two banks, three trust companies, several railroads, at least four mining companies of the immensely profitable kind whose stock is never offered to the general public, besides innumerable industrial and general commercial concerns of every sort, color, and description, the sole similarity between them being their translucent money-making attributes. He was, on the other hand, a trustee of an art museum which was liberally assisted by contributors other than Mr. Murch, whose assistance was administrative rather than pecuniary; and he was on the executive committee of a charity organization society which under his astute management bade fair to be more than self-supporting, and there was really no valid reason to the contrary, for it transacted a very considerable business in sawed and split wood which it sold at current prices after paying each of its unfortunate employees twenty-two cents and an indescribably bad dinner for eight hours' hard work in the wood yard. Mr. Murch was also interested in a chain of blue-front restaurants, and a line of South American freighters, and last but not least, he was the heaviest stockholder and most potent factor in the management of the Salamander Fire Insurance Company.

The Salamander was as exactly the antithesis of the Guardian as it was possible to conceive. Where the Guardian was conservative, the Salamander was ultra-radical; where the Guardian wrote a million and three quarters yearly in premiums, the Salamander, though its surplus was rather less than that of the other company, wrote nearly two millions and a half. In short the Salamander gambled, and played to win, and as a matter of fact it usually did win by sheer audacity. It had never made any money out of its underwriting, that real test of company efficiency; but four years out of five the daring manipulation of its assets in Wall Street--politely termed the slight rearrangement of some of its investments--yielded it a handsome profit. Its dividend rate was more than twice that of the Guardian, and in some years, when losses were heavy, it failed to earn its dividend and was obliged to take the money for its payment out of its already narrow surplus.

The President of the Salamander was an obliging, disingenuous, rather weak individual of Mr. Murch's own selection. His name was Wellwood, and the less said of his character and attainments the better. Mr. Wellwood's mastery of the conditions of his business had never been especially deep, and during the past year a swelling penchant for fast horses, and indeed for acceleration of all kinds, had rather gotten the better of him. And Mr. Murch, concernedly going over the figures which showed the present condition of the Salamander's finances, felt a chill of doubt striking into his usually impassive veins.

"You've been losing money for the company faster than I can make it," he said coldly to Wellwood.

"Well, it's been an awfully bad year--losses have been terrific," stammered the underwriting executive, anxious to placate the god of his car.

"They're all bad years with you. Leave these papers with me; I want to go over them again."

Wellwood slunk out. The presidency of the Salamander, involving as it did occasional interviews of a nature similar to this with Mr. Murch, was no sinecure. Mr. Wellwood frequently debated whether it would not be better to listen to the siren voices of the agricultural weeklies with their alluring refrain of "back to the soil"; but the facilities for his favorite dissipations were painfully inadequate in the rural districts, and besides he was a city man born and bred, and while he knew how to take hold of a shovel, he would probably have stood askance and aghast before a scythe. So he hung on, hoping against hope for something--almost anything--to happen. To be sure his own comparative incompetence was to blame for the company's underwriting record, but that was a matter beyond his control.

It was perhaps an hour after Mr. Wellwood's departure when the card of another caller was brought to Mr. Murch by the efficient office boy.

"Show him in," he said.

A man in a light fall overcoat entered the room, nodding to the capitalist as he did so, but turning back almost immediately to attend to the cautious closing of the door.

"Sit down, won't you?" said Mr. Murch, carelessly. He raised his eyes to the door. "Anybody out there?" he inquired. "I mean any one that knows you?"

"No," the caller replied.

"Well, it doesn't matter about any one but Wellwood. But it would be better not to have him know anything about your having been here."

"Why? What do you care?" queried the other.

"No need of superfluous friction and unpleasantness, that's all. If we--agree, he'll find out everything soon enough; if we don't, no call to excite him."

"No doubt you're right," assented the visitor, lightly. He had by this time removed his overcoat and laid it over the arm of a convenient couch. He then selected a chair near Mr. Murch's own but facing that gentleman squarely, and sat down.

"Well, I'm ready to talk business," he said.

"And I," rejoined the other, easily. But he made no move to begin. After a strategic pause wherein it was made clear that he was determined not to open the conversation, his caller began to speak.

"Looking over the figures, I see," he suggested.

"Just running through them. They don't seem so bad, on the whole--in fact, rather better than I expected. Wellwood hasn't done so badly this year, after all, considering how heavy the losses have been all over the country--especially in the South."

The other did not reply. Each man fully understood that the other was temporizing, hoping to gain whatever advantage might accrue from letting the other make the initial play. But Mr. Murch was the older and the less nervous, and had himself better in hand. Finally the visitor spoke.

"Well, I don't suppose you sent for me merely to tell me that," he said abruptly. "Go ahead--make your proposition; there's no use beating about the bush between us." He picked up an ornamental paper cutter from the capitalist's desk and examined it with exaggerated care.

Mr. Murch took his time. He reflectively bit the end off a long cigar, and reached for a match box.

"I'm not sure that my mind's sufficiently made up to put a definite proposal up to you," he said, striking the match thoughtfully. "As I say, Wellwood hasn't been doing so badly--comparatively. And it hurts a company to make a change in its presidency--it disturbs the whole organization, especially when an outsider is brought in over the heads of all the subordinates. We have several promising men that might be disaffected by such a move. No, I don't believe I'm decided, at this time, on such radical action."

"Then I'll come again, when you do decide," said the other, and promptly rose to his feet.

In essence all this very much resembled the way an Algerian curio merchant conducts a bargain.

"Still, it would do no harm to talk the situation over a little to-day," suggested Mr. Murch.

The other man sat down again.

"Look here," he said, "you know what I'm here for. You're looking for a man to take charge of the management of the Salamander. You've looked into the affairs of the company and you know there isn't any one in that office--Wellwood or any of his understudies--that really knows his business. Now you think I'm the man you want, but it's your opener. It's for you to say what you expect done, and how much you'll give to get it done. You tell me that, and I'll tell you first whether I think I'm able to do it, and second whether I'll take it at your price."

For Mr. F. Mills O'Connor was sufficiently shrewd to anticipate that the presidency of the Salamander would be an empty honor unless it could be gained on terms which would free its incumbent from the immediate yoke of Mr. Murch. O'Connor did not intend to be a second Wellwood, with Old Man of the Sea Murch riding him to the grave.

The wisdom of his outspoken decision was proven by the altered tone in which the capitalist now said:--

"All right, Mr. O'Connor. No time like the present. We'll go into it."

And for nearly two hours they went into it. They discussed the subject of fire insurance from top to bottom; the amount of premium a company could safely accept in comparison to its resources, lines in conflagration districts, reinsurance treaties, relations with various unions, boards, and conferences, and underwriting in its relation to finance.

"So far as I can gather--and it's the general impression," said the Guardian official, "the Salamander has lost most of its money in the big cities. And you know as well as I do that the hope of making any money for the company consists in the chance of getting a profitable business from such cities as New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, and St. Louis. I don't believe your five-year record shows a dollar's profit from any one of those places, yet nearly every well managed company has taken good money out of them. Wellwood knows it. He knows the kind of business he gets doesn't pay, but he doesn't know where or how to get the kind that does pay."

"Perhaps that may be so," agreed Mr. Murch, cautiously.

"Well, I do know where to get it," rejoined his visitor, "and I also know--what is much more vital and to the point--_how_."

"And how is that?" inquired his host with innocent curiosity.

"When you've made your proposition, I'll tell you," said the other, with a smile. "I'll amplify at the proper time."

"Oh, very well, then," replied the capitalist, apologetically. "Very well." But at this last sticking point he temporized again. His caller gave him no help, but waited in silence until he was ready.

"Mr. O'Connor," said Mr. Murch, "I have a high opinion of your underwriting ability. It is pretty well understood that you have had immediate charge of the underwriting of the Guardian for some years past, and they have been much more profitable years for your company than for ours."

He paused.

"The figures show that," said the other man.

"I do not conceal from you the fact that we are not wholly satisfied with Mr. Wellwood's operations. I have talked the matter over unofficially with two or three of my fellow directors, and I believe they would ratify officially the offer which I am going to make you. This offer is made upon certain agreements, restrictions, and presumptions. It is made contingent on your ability to carry out these agreements--in short, to deliver the goods."

"I understand," said O'Connor, with composure.

"The offer of which I speak is based on your taking the presidency of the Salamander, with a five-year contract, at a salary of twenty thousand dollars a year. You will be required to purchase as a matter of good faith--backing your entry, as it were--a certain amount of the company's stock; indeed, I presume you would wish to do so, and that is a feature that can be easily arranged. And we, of the Salamander, want a man qualified to turn the company into a money maker, and who can assure us at the same time of a reasonable increase in our premium income--say in the five years, from two and a half up to three millions."

O'Connor smiled rather cynically.

"You don't want much, do you?" he observed. "Those are modest requests."

"And," continued Mr. Murch, disregarding the interruption, "we wish to be assured by reasonable show of proof that the new business will be of a class that will be more profitable than the old--in other words, that it will not increase the company's present loss ratio."

"Which is quite high enough already," commented the other, dryly.

"In short, Mr. O'Connor, we must be assured not only that you can secure this increase in income, but we feel that we are entitled to be shown where it is likely to come from, and how you are going to stop the loss on our present business, before the matter goes before our directorate."

The Guardian's Vice-President rose, and stood looking down at Mr. Murch from across the table.

"You need me, Mr. Murch," he said. "I don't have to tell you that. You're supposed to be an expert in picking winners, although you made a bad break on Wellwood. I'm the right man for your job, and you knew it when you sent for me. And your offer is a handsome one--I'll admit that. I'll admit it so willingly that I'll come out and lay my cards--and yours--on the table. I'll put it to you straight."

"Yes?" replied the capitalist, inquiringly.

"Yes. What you mean is this. I've had charge of the underwriting of the Guardian for seven years. Many of its best agents look on me as the company; the Guardian is just a name, but the man they do business with is F. Mills O'Connor, and I'll guarantee that a lot of the best of them will keep on doing business with me, no matter with what concern I'm associated. Now the Guardian has as fine a class of big city business on its books as any company of its size in the field, and I'll bet that in the big cities, where you've lost your money, its business is not only better but larger than the Salamander's. In New York and Boston and Philadelphia you couldn't beat it to save your life. What you want to know is whether I can get equally good stuff for the Salamander, and I want to tell you that I can. And in some pretty important places I can get the identical business, you understand. You want to know how I'm going to get it. Well, what I just told you about a lot of agents keeping on with F. Mills O'Connor is one factor, but there are several others, and I'd rather not mention them until I take charge. But you need have no fear that they cannot be successfully utilized. Do I make myself clear?"

Mr. Murch smiled a deprecatory smile.

"Quite," he said. "In fact, you put it a little more bluntly than I had expected."

"Well, then, if you want to ratify this arrangement at the next meeting of your board, it will be all right with me, and moreover I'll guarantee you personally that within a year the Salamander will be taking over the Guardian's business in at least three of the principal cities of the United States."

"The next meeting is on Monday," said Mr. Murch.

"Very well. Ratify it then, but keep it strictly under cover for two months. If I hear from you that the deal has gone through, I'll start laying my wires. This is the first of October. Don't let anything out until the first of December. Then I'll resign, and come to the Salamander the first of the new year--possibly before that."

"How so?"

"Oh, I've a notion that when I resign, Mr. Wintermuth will say that I needn't remain the customary thirty days; I fancy he'll let me out at once."

A smile, none too pleasant, crossed the lips of the Guardian official. Business was business, of course, and a man was entitled to use his personal influence to advance himself; but he scarcely relished the idea of practically looting the company for which he had worked for a good many years. O'Connor's fiber was not of the tenderest, but he had his intervals of conscientiousness, when his brain saw the correct ethics, even if his hand did not always follow.

Mr. Murch got up from his chair.

"I'll call you on the phone Monday, after our meeting," he said.

"I shall be at the office until five."

They parted.

Criminologists assert, from many years' observation of many men in many lands, that no man positively desires to become a criminal. So little does the average man wish it, that it is usually difficult, even in the case of the most confirmed lawbreaker, to persuade him that he actually is or has been criminal in intent, no matter what his acts may have been.

This state of affairs is equally true in those higher grades of society where instincts are less passionate. Just as the man who kills his king or his father holds himself absolutely innocent of any wrong intent, so the unhappy parasite who steals his wife's earnings for drink, or the bookkeeper who makes away with the contents of the firm's cash drawer in order to play the races, believes himself to be unfortunate only, and more sinned against than sinning. No matter how much of a scoundrel a man may be, his self-analysis brings him far short of the correct degree of turpitude.

Mr. O'Connor was not a villain or a criminal. He was not, according to the standard of many, a dishonest man. But he was not an honest one. He had several weaknesses, the chief among which was venal ambition; and of courage, that quality which makes all other qualities seem just a little tawdry and futile, he had none except in a broad, physical sense. He was not, of course, afraid of the dark, but he was decidedly afraid of James Wintermuth; and when on Monday noon the telephone rang at the call of Mr. Murch, it is not too much to say that he was momentarily shaken.

"Suppose you drop around to the Club in about twenty minutes," was the suave suggestion of the man at the other end of the line.

"For a moment," the Guardian's Vice-President agreed hastily. "For a moment," he repeated, as he replaced the receiver on its hook. It were much better that he and Mr. Murch be not seen together in public until the meat was ready for the fire. And so it was the briefest of interviews that took place between them in the big smoking room. A few words, concluding with a handshake and a "Congratulate you, Mr. President," and the incident was closed. Even had the lynx eyes of Simeon Belknap himself perceived this meeting, he could hardly have found significance in the episode. And an event in the insurance world without significance to Mr. Belknap was a rara avis indeed.

Mr. O'Connor betrayed that night, aside from his customary lack of the refinements of courtesy, the first indication of human weakness that his household had noted for some time past. For a considerable part of the night he lay awake, tossing about in his bed until his long-suffering wife thought he must be ill.

"Is anything the matter?" came her solicitous voice through the dark doorway. And her husband answered irritably:--

"No. Don't bother about me. I'm all right."

Whether this nocturnal disquiet was the last throe of an expiring sense of honor and decency, or whether it was ambition burning in the blood, it is impossible to say. Quite likely it was a little of each. Mr. Wintermuth had been a good friend to O'Connor; still, a man must needs look first after his own interest; no one was apt to butter his bread for him. Sophistry old as the world.

Nevertheless, when morning dawned, the travail of the night had left no mark on Mr. O'Connor's brow. His wife, accustomed from many years of sky searching to look for trouble there, saw the unwrinkled expanse and took heart. Her husband answered her polite morning inquiries with sufficient attention, although he was palpably preoccupied and in no mood for casual conversation.

The fact was that his mind was made up and his plan of campaign chosen, and he was now bending all his thought and energies upon the manner and details of attack. There was no time to lose, and the iron would never be hotter than now. Accordingly, when he had disposed of the accumulation of morning mail at his desk, he walked thoughtfully over to President Wintermuth's office. In response to that gentleman's invitation he entered and seated himself near the desk, holding in his hand a number of papers pinned together. From his expression it would have seemed that disquieting reflections occupied his mind.

"What's the matter? Loss?" inquired his chief, taking the cue O'Connor had proffered.

"No," said the Vice-President, slowly. He glanced down at the papers that he held. "Mr. Wintermuth," he said, "what is your opinion of--or no, let me put it another way: how deeply are we committed to the Eastern Conference?"

"What do you mean--how deeply are we committed?"

"Just that. We were among the original subscribers to the Eastern Conference agreement, as you are aware. What I want to know is whether we are bound to a more rigid observance of its rules than other companies that are members of it."

"We are not, sir," returned the President. "Of course we are not. Why do you ask?"

"Well, sir, I hardly like to say so, but for a long time I have been growing to feel that our strict adherence to our obligations was affecting our business unfavorably at some points. In other words, I have been growing more and more sure that we are too honest--comparatively."

"How is that? How is that?" said Mr. Wintermuth, sharply.

"Perhaps I should say that some of our associates in the Conference are not quite honest enough, at least in the construction they put upon _their_ pledges."

"You will have to be more specific, sir," returned the President, somewhat sternly.

"Very well, sir; I will be as specific as you please. Bluntly, then, I know that at least three of the leading Conference companies are violating the conditions of the Conference agreement, which they are pledged to observe, in no less than four cities in New England, and probably a dozen in New York and Pennsylvania. Some of them are in agencies where the Guardian is represented, and it's hurting us. I know it to be a fact."

"But I thought we went into this recently in New York State. I remember there was a lot of talk about crookedness, and Smith went up to find out what was going on. We made some charges, didn't we? And didn't we get a satisfactory answer?"

"Satisfactory, I presume, to the companies that made it. And possibly satisfactory to Smith, who seemed to me at the time, I confess, a little too easily satisfied for a man with his eyes open. But not to me. I wasn't satisfied at all, or rather I was entirely satisfied in my own mind that we were being sacrificed to our own uprightness."

"What companies are these that are breaking their pledges? How are they doing it? And where?"

"Mr. Wintermuth, I am absolutely convinced that three Conference companies in the Nolan agency, who represent us at Syracuse, are paying at least ten per cent excess commission on preferred business without going through the formality of demanding even a receipt for it. I know it to be a fact that at Trenton, New Jersey, the special agent of one of the biggest American companies--also a Conference member--makes a monthly visit for the purpose of putting into the agent's hands spot cash equal to the amount of the agent's illegitimate excess commissions for that month. The agent deducts his regular commission in his account, and gets this additional amount in cash, so that he gets a good deal more than what we can pay him under the rules. Is it any wonder, then, that our business is dropping off in these offices? And these are two cities only. I could name a dozen. That is why I asked you how deeply we were committed to the Conference."

The President rose, his eyes flashing.

"If these are facts capable of substantiation, we will be committed only until our resignation can take effect. I believe it takes thirty days' notice for a company to terminate its membership. If these cases are typical of others, and you can prove them, exactly thirty-one days later the Eastern Conference will lack one of its charter members."

"Oh, I can prove them, all right. Proof is pretty easily secured--circumstantial evidence enough to hang a man with any jury. But I didn't really think you'd look at it in quite this light, sir. I had not come to the point of recommending that the company withdraw from the Conference. It struck me that before we made that move, certain expedients might be tried."

"Expedients? Such as what, sir?"

"Well, I thought possibly you might be willing to--meet a few of these most open cases of competition with similar methods--"

He stopped, at the expression of his chief's face.

"You thought, did you, that because these men, my competitors, have no respect for their publicly pledged word, I would be willing to be equally indulgent. Mr. O'Connor, you have served a long time under me, and I am surprised at you! When James Wintermuth gets to the point where he is unable to live up to his promises, it will be time for him to quit. We are not in that business, sir."

The Vice-President summoned a forced smile to his lips.

"I think you misunderstood me, sir," he replied smoothly. "I would not myself suggest special commission deals at these places. Of course I agree with you that we should always respect our pledges. But at the same time it struck me that--"

"I don't want to hear what struck you," retorted Mr. Wintermuth, with unwonted asperity. "Let me see the proofs--I will take the necessary action. Is that what you have there--those papers?"

"One or two of them, sir. My principal ones naturally come from word of mouth. For example, I have talked with responsible men who have seen the Trenton agent's bank deposit slips for certain sums, dated, month after month, coincidently with the visit of a certain special agent. I can give you all the proofs any one could wish--if you need any more after what you have in your hand."

Mr. Wintermuth turned to his desk to indicate that the interview was over and he wished to be alone. And it was a well-satisfied conspirator who retired to his own office. Privately reflecting that the deed was as good as done, Mr. O'Connor returned almost instantly to his ruling passion of caution. Now to conceal or to make vague as far as possible his own intent in the matter.

"Ask Mr. Smith to step here a moment," he said to Jimmy, and a shadow of a smile crossed his face. The idea of using Smith to help serve as a foil for himself had an element of grim humor to which Mr. O'Connor was not entirely blind. Smith, of all men, by all means.

With a troubled expression on his face he turned to meet his subordinate.

"I've been talking to the chief about the crooked work in the Conference," he said. "Trenton and Syracuse and some of the rotten spots. I'm afraid I made it a little strong. I swear I didn't imagine he'd take the thing so much to heart or I believe I'd have kept still entirely."

"What did you tell him for?" asked the General Agent, not especially impressed.

"Well, I was getting pretty tired of seeing some of those fellows put it over us, and I thought perhaps he'd let us fight fire with--well, fireworks. Instead of which, he flew up to the ceiling. He wants to get out."

"Get out? Out of the Eastern Conference?" Smith inquired with more interest.

"Yes. And such a move might be justified, strictly speaking, but it seems to me a little extreme--just a little uncalled for. There are a few crooked companies in every agreement, concerns that take advantage of the good faith of the rest--like the Protection of Newark--but after all, even under present conditions, we're getting about as much business as we're entitled to, and pretty nearly as much as we're willing to write. What do you think?"

Smith looked sharply at his superior officer.

"Why do you put it up to me?" he asked. "If the President has decided to get out, that settles it--out we go."

"Oh, he hasn't absolutely decided. I thought I'd tell you about it, in case he asked you what you thought."

"I see," replied the General Agent, thoughtfully, and said no more.

"Well?" queried O'Connor, expectantly, after a moment.

"If he asks me, I'll tell him what I think. Is that all, sir?"

"Yes, that's about all."

The Vice-President, gazing a trifle uneasily at Smith's departing back, somehow felt that he could not flatter himself on having done what he wished toward the covering of his tracks. But, as it chanced, Mr. O'Connor's elaborate mechanism for befogging his trail was entirely wasted, for the President, so far as could be learned, said not a thing on the subject to anybody. He took home the papers O'Connor had left him, and studied them, presumably alone, for several days. He did not seek to cross-examine O'Connor's witnesses. From something that gentleman had said, he had gained the impression that outside parole evidence would probably be prejudiced, and he felt that the documents in his possession were sufficient to govern his verdict. He conceived that here was a matter for calm, deliberate judgment, for the exercise of the critical, judicial faculty, which he felt he possessed in a high degree. This was not precisely vanity; it was rather the long habit of undisputed dicta. He felt that here was an excellent opportunity for justifying his reputation for independence of decision and action.

So Mr. Wintermuth, pondering in silence for nearly a fortnight, left his Vice-President stretched on the rack of uncertainty without a glance in his direction. To all the tentative efforts O'Connor made to reopen the subject, his chief returned a curt refusal. There was nothing to do but to wait, and O'Connor, with increasingly bad grace, waited.

Not until the close of the second week was his suspense ended, and then not by any intimation from headquarters. Mr. Wintermuth had acted overnight, and had given his verdict directly to the press; and thus it was that the Vice-president, opening one morning the _Journal of Commerce_ to the insurance page, found himself confronted by the headline:--

"Guardian Quits the Conference."

Mr. O'Connor sank back into his chair with a sigh of relief, and carefully read and reread the article from beginning to end. It was very brief, stating simply that Mr. Wintermuth had sent to the Conference the resignation of the Guardian, for "reasons which could be better imagined than discussed," and proposed henceforward to conduct the operations of the company without reference to any "unequally restrictive restrictions."

It was with positive buoyancy that the Vice-president delivered the paper into the hands of Jimmy, for its processional through the office.

CHAPTER XII

It was late afternoon in the drawing room of Miss Wardrop's house in Washington Square. The short November dusk was fading into night, and outside in the old Square, the street lights gleamed in the frosty air. In the fireplace, before which two people were sitting, a wood fire crackled, throwing fantastic shadows about the old room.

Dinner at Miss Wardrop's was at half after seven. Just why Mr. Smith should have considered it necessary to drop in, on his way home from the Guardian, could no doubt have been better explained had his face not been shaded by his hand. The face in the room best worth seeing, however, was not so shaded, and Smith manifested no displeasure at the fact. He himself sat on the chimney seat, and he appeared to be less talkative than usual. His reticence may or may not have been understood by Miss Maitland, but if it were, she chose to pretend otherwise.

"Why are you so very silent?" she finally asked. "Do you know, it isn't at all flattering. One might think your thoughts were a thousand miles away from here."

"Well, perhaps some of them are," Smith confessed. "And I must really ask your pardon for thinking far away, when I am with you. And yet," he smiled slightly, "perhaps you also came in as an important factor in the background of those far-off thoughts."

"If you are trying to stimulate my curiosity, you have been quite successful," said Miss Maitland, and she waited expectantly.

"Do you remember Mr. O'Connor, the Vice-President of the Guardian?" Smith asked abruptly.

"Yes. He was the one, wasn't he, who came into Mr. Wintermuth's office for a minute?"

"Yes."

"You say he is Vice-president of the company? Is he a great friend of yours? Perhaps my first impression was wrong, but I don't believe I liked Mr. O'Connor very much--not nearly so much as that amusing Mr. Cuyler, or nice, polite Mr. Wintermuth, or queer, silent Mr. Bartels."

"Well, between you and me, I don't believe your first impression was far from correct. I don't like O'Connor much, myself," said Smith. "More than that, I know he is unfriendly to me. But that is not the point. The point is that he is up to something, and I don't know what it is. And I've got to find out what it is. That's what I was thinking of."

"What kind of a thing do you mean? And what has he done to make you think so?" the girl asked.

"He has succeeded in persuading the President to take the Guardian out of the Eastern Conference. And I can't figure out why. He's got some ulterior motive, but I can't guess what it is."

"What is the Eastern Conference?"

"It's a sort of association of insurance companies doing business in New England, New York, and other Atlantic states. Most of the best companies belong to it. It's a sort of offensive and defensive alliance. It keeps down the general expense of conducting business by limiting the rate of commission its members can pay to any agent, and it supplies inspections to its members and does a lot of other things. But it really isn't a question of what the Conference does for its members so much as a question of what it may do to the Guardian, if the Guardian gets out. There's considerable quiet coercion about such a union, you see--the Conference companies can make it very interesting for an outsider, if they choose to do so. And after a company has been operating on the inside for a good many years, it's hard to jump the fence and make so radical a change. It upsets your organization."

"But why should the Conference try to make you belong? And will they attempt to hurt you if you resign?"

"I don't know. Possibly not. That will soon be seen. But what I can't fathom is why O'Connor, after all these years, should now lay his wires to get the Guardian out. He never does an important thing like that for nothing; he's got some idea in the back of his head. I feel certain of that from the elaborate pains he took to make me think it was not at his instigation that the thing was done. But I know better, for I know O'Connor."

"Haven't you any clew at all?"

"Not really. They're all too vague. I can't for the life of me see what O'Connor has to gain by getting the Guardian out of the Conference. What good can it possibly do him personally?"

"I feel sure you'll hit on the correct solution at last," Helen said thoughtfully, "because I have a distinct remembrance that one of your chance shots went right to the mark when Charlie Wilkinson was trying to get Mr. Hurd to insure his street car company. Charlie thought it was tremendously clever of you. It was the first time I had ever heard of you."

Smith looked at her quickly. Feeling rather than seeing the glance, the girl hastily continued:--

"I wonder whether Mr. Hurd ever decided to carry insurance."

"I wonder, too," the underwriter agreed, with amusement. "If cool nerve counts for anything, your friend Wilkinson ought to have come out all right. I must ask Mr. Osgood about it the next time I go to Boston."

"If he does succeed, I'm sure he'll feel it was quite largely due to your suggestion. And that is why I think you'll eventually solve the mystery of Mr. O'Connor's conduct."

"I wish I could believe it. But I seem to be as far away as when I began to speculate. The only things I can think of don't appear to me to be reasonable."

"What are some of them? Could I understand them?"

"Better than I, very likely. Since I've gotten you so far into this horribly businesslike affair, I may as well go all the way through. As I said, I can't see how O'Connor can personally get any advantage out of this in any conceivable way, so long as he stays with the Guardian."

"But suppose he himself resigned--what then? Or don't people ever leave the Guardian?"

"Oh, minor employees, of course--they're always shifting about. But no one of any importance has left the company, except by old age or death, for a good many years. Nobody knows exactly why, but it's a good company, and every one just stays. And besides, if O'Connor got out to go with some one else, what good would this move have done him?"

"Isn't it just possible that he has gotten the impression the company has treated him badly, and he is trying to do something to hurt it before he leaves?"

"Pure malignance? Hardly that. And besides, if that were so, why should Mr. Wintermuth accept his suggestion? No, I can't believe that is it."

"What could Mr. O'Connor do, supposing that he left the Guardian and went with some other company?"

"That's another thing. As things are now, I don't see how he could do much to hurt us. It would be a bit awkward for us, I don't mind saying, if he went with some Conference company, for some of the insiders are none too scrupulous in their methods against non-Conference competitors. Of course, if the Conference should pass a separation rule--but no, that's impossible."

"What is a separation rule?"

"Why, it's a kind of boycott. The Conference might pass a rule reducing the commission of any agent who also represented non-Conference companies. You see, most agents represent several companies--a good, big agency may perhaps represent fifteen or twenty--and the Conference companies are in the majority in most of the agencies where the Guardian is represented. It would mean that those agents would have to choose between resigning us and having their commissions reduced, and there is very little doubt as to which course they would take. The Conference might even forbid its companies to be represented at all in mixed agencies--where both Conference and non-Conference companies were located--and then those agents would either have to throw us out or lose the bulk of their companies."

"But couldn't they get other non-Conference companies to fill up their agencies and keep the Guardian?"

"No--hardly. There are only a few really high-class companies on the outside. And most of the agents couldn't afford to change. They would simply have to let us go; and that would mean that we'd have to make our agency plant practically all over again."

"And that would be hard to do, I suppose?"

"It would be just about equivalent to building a new company, for the company's agents are the company."

"But you say it's impossible they should pass this rule. Why?"

"Several reasons. It's pretty arbitrary--it looks a little like a combination in restraint of trade, although company organizations in a lot of states have separation rules. But I doubt whether the Eastern Conference has the backbone to put such a rule in effect. Besides, it's scarcely worth while as things now stand--almost all the good companies are in the Conference, and as for the rest, they're either used to them or they feel they're hardly worth bothering about."

"But the Guardian is, isn't it?"

"Yes," said Smith, thoughtfully, "I suppose it is. Still, what good would it do O'Connor? That's what I keep coming back to, because I'm absolutely certain he wouldn't have put this thing through without some personal end in sight."

"Might not he be disinterested, for once?"

"Not O'Connor," said Smith, dryly. "But good heavens! haven't we talked intrigues and cabals and plots long enough? There are one or two other things in life, you know--I've hardly given you a chance to speak, and I've been holding forth like an unsuccessful detective reporting to his superior officer."

And the conversation drifted into other channels.

A great city is a wonderful place in a thousand ways, not the least of which is its magical influence upon human relationships. Perhaps its mere size, the multiplicity of its sights and sounds, its effect of isolating an individual in the midst of an almost impenetrable throng--perhaps these things are chiefly responsible. But it is certain that, in common with the desert and the sea, a city like London or Paris or New York carries in its very atmosphere a sense of almost devotional reality, of almost the pure essence of life. In the very shrine of the unreal and the artificial, reality grips with a power elsewhere unknown. Beyond all the curious striving for the immaterial, the sense of the utter futility of that very effort becomes wholly clear. Follies and affectations may be sought with added fervor for the mind and the body, but the want of them is stilled in the soul.

Since this is so, in the very home of conventions and conventionalities these artificial ideas become more palpably ridiculous. Surrounded by needless man-made fetters, one sees them to be inane. The wind that blows between the worlds blows in the world's great cities, and it blows, for their lovers at least, the cobwebs from the heart. What is natural is seen to be right, and what is real is seen to be true.

To Smith, lover of his city as he was, these truths were peculiarly obvious; and to Helen Maitland, seeing them largely from the angle of Smith's vision, they became the truth no less. She remembered with some surprise her quite recent dislike of New York, and her even more recent chill of distaste and dread, when she came from the Park, which had checked for the moment the liking she felt springing to life. Of course it was loneliness; but here was a man who had told her that New York's loneliness was one of its greatest charms, and who regarded the apparent heartlessness of the city as one of its most inspiring tonics. Somehow, and apparently most naturally, she found it was coming to seem so to her.

If a man wishes to interest a woman, he does well to speak to her of his enthusiasms; and if he desires to alienate her interest, he will do well to forget them. Smith, who cared deeply for New York, and who was moving unconsciously along the sunny way that led to Helen Maitland, found that never two enthusiasms welded so readily as these. Part of this, no doubt, was due to the city's own influence, but probably the greater part was due to his own genuine understanding and affection for the town itself.

And Helen had not been the readiest of converts, for in the first place, coming as she did from Boston, her sympathies were not with the larger city. She had found its confusion rather tiresome, its contrasts perhaps a little crude, its poverty somewhat distressing, and its wealth a trifle vulgar. With Smith, a new viewpoint was hers, and her old conceptions, which now seemed hopelessly provincial, melted like mist before the sun.

Smith knew his city as a maestro knows his instrument, and their voyages together were like incursions into an enchanted space where time was not. He seemed to know exactly what had been in every nook and corner of the town at every period of its career. Once they stood on Broadway near Columbia University, on whose granite wall was fixed the plate which told of Washington's muster upon those very heights; and Smith had built up for her, not as an historian, but as an actor in the drama, the picture before her eyes. He showed her the old Jumel Mansion farther up town, and they went back together a century and a half to all the strange sights those old halls had seen.

Perhaps the softest spot in Smith's sympathies was held by the Knickerbockers--those sturdy old citizens who seemed all of them somehow to have taken something of the mold of their redoubtable leader and the greatest of them all, Peter Stuyvesant. Smith was familiar with them all, from Peter down. And old Minuit, the Indian, selling his island for a song, was so much a matter of reality to Smith that Helen came to believe in him also as a real individual.

"There he is now!" Smith once suddenly remarked, as they turned a corner and found themselves almost in the arms of an exceptionally spirited cigar-store figure.

"Who?" Helen had asked in surprise.

"Why, old Peter Minuit himself, in the very act of reaching for the proceeds," Smith explained. For which piece of simple levity it is to be feared that he was neither properly ashamed nor adequately rebuked.

It was in the old city, below Twenty-third Street, that the work of time had been most diverse. Here four full eras had left their mark--the aboriginal, the early Dutch, the English-American, and lastly the modern age of granite canyons and sky-seeking towers and marvels of high air and below ground. Smith knew all four, and if one knows where to search, there are plenty of interesting relics of the first three still to be found. He knew how the southern end of Manhattan looked when Hendrick Hudson moored the Half Moon in the lower harbor; and where the shore line lay when the old Dutch keels with their high poops and proud pennons rode at anchor in the river; and again later on when the English flag had replaced the Dutch, and the towering masts of frigates and brigs and schooners made with their threaded rigging a constant etching of the water front.

He guided Helen through old streets where a century's relics still persisted and where one could still find an occasional cornerstone which the flight of a hundred hurrying years had not displaced. He was familiar with most of the old street names,--how West Broadway was once Chapel Street,--many of them long since abandoned for modern changelings far less effective. For the first time Helen realized the origin of the name of "Bouwerie," and how far into New York's and the nation's traditions reached some of the mossy gravestones in Trinity Churchyard.

The city, during the progress of the Civil War, of which Helen had heard Augustus Lispenard speak, was clearer in her vision than ever before, for Smith's grandfather had marched down Broadway in '61, and, unlike Mr. Lispenard, he had not come back.

"They were just starting Central Park," Smith said; "because I have heard mother say often that her father's letters from the front asked several times how the Park was getting along."

"It seems odd, doesn't it? I had always looked on the Park as something which must always have been where it is," Miss Maitland commented. "But I suppose there must have been a beginning some time."

Now all these wanderings and this companionship could not go wholly for naught. Smith was not at all a sentimental person, and Miss Maitland was not in search of emotional adventure, but they were on hazardous ground, and it was hazardous because it was very pleasant to them both.

Miss Mary Wardrop was a lady in whom discretion was held in but lukewarm esteem. Had this not been so, she would have doubtless interposed, for convention's sake at least, in the swiftly developing friendship between her niece and this young insurance man. But Miss Wardrop had long since ceased to care what the world said, and her satisfaction with her own views was sufficient to permit her ignoring those who disagreed with them. She saw nothing objectionable in Smith, and if she speculated on the affair at all, she probably reflected that Miss Maitland was now twenty-five years old and if she didn't know her own mind at that age, it didn't much matter what happened to her.

So Smith, who was blandly ignorant of the fact that propriety as strictly measured in Boston would have been aghast at his candid manner of following his inclinations, met with no obstacles save from Miss Maitland herself. She, it is true, now and again drew back when it seemed to her that their friendship was perhaps progressing too rapidly; but she was not used to men like Smith. There was nothing of the Puritan about him, nothing of the false idea that if a thing is pleasant, it must therefore be somehow sinful. On the contrary, Smith believed that with a normal person the gratification of wishes was the natural result of their possession. If he felt hungry, he ate; if he wanted to see Helen, he went and saw her. Against this hopeless lack of affectation ordinary feminine weapons were badly blunted; in fact, they came to strike Miss Maitland as rather silly. After all, if he wished to see her, why shouldn't he do so? The mere fact that he had seen her the day before was not germane. The one germane thing would have been a lack of inclination on her part to see Smith--and curiously enough, this lack did not manifest itself.

Thus it was that only a few days after their long talk about O'Connor, the same fire saw them together once more. It was Thanksgiving Eve.

"Please don't tell me you have any engagement to-night," said Smith; "for by almost superhuman effort and influence I have managed to reserve a table for three at the Café Turin at eight o'clock. May I call the Honorable Jinks and request Miss Wardrop to come and be invited to dine with me?"

"You might try," said Miss Maitland, smiling.

"Then I will."

When the dignified Jenks had limped upward on his mission, the conversation took another turn.

"You are looking very cheerful to-night," Helen remarked.

"More so than I usually do when you see me?"

"More so than the last time I saw you, at all events. Does this mean that you have correctly solved the O'Connor mystery? You really got me very much interested in it."

"No, I haven't solved it. But I have a clew--the one you gave me. If it is the right one, we shall learn very soon."

On the stairs came the sound of Jenks's returning feet, followed a moment later by the rumor of Miss Wardrop's own approach.

"Good evening," she greeted Smith.

"I've come to ask you a favor," he answered. "I once happened to save the life of a head waiter, and he has now repaid the obligation by reserving a table for me to-night at the Café Turin, and I want you and Miss Maitland to come and dine with me."

Miss Wardrop wavered; she looked at her niece inquiringly.

"Then you'll come," Smith said.

The old lady laughed.

"Apparently I will, if Miss Maitland has no other plan for the evening."

Helen signified that she had none; and thus it was that eight o'clock found them seated in an eligible corner of the big, gay restaurant, watching the animated holiday crowd, and themselves in no somber or taciturn mood.

A restaurant may be the resort of strange people, but it is an institution of peculiar attractiveness, for all that. All the other tables in the room were occupied by merry parties, jewels and demigems glinted back a thousand lights, men and women of society and out of it laughed and talked, there was the clink of a myriad of glasses, the hurrying of anxious and expectant waiters, the tinkle of silverware on china, mingled with the ignored strains of an orchestra invisible and sufficiently remote not to dictate offensively the tempo of mastication of the diners. It was nothing if not a cosmopolitan gathering. In the crowd were, to judge from appearances, foreigners of many races; but all were masquerading as citizens of the world.

"A conglomerate crew," Smith observed. "They like to convey the impression that last week they dined on the terrace at Bertolini's in Naples, or at Claridge's, or Shepheard's at Cairo, or the Madrid in the Bois, or the Poinciana; while as a matter of fact most of them are like myself and get into this sort of game about twice a year."

"Where do you suppose they all come from?" Miss Wardrop inquired. She affected the newer haunts of modern society very little, and this sort of gathering was strange to her.

"Nobody knows," said her host, lightly. "Rahway, Yonkers, Flushing. Probably Harlem would actually account for the majority, if my theory is correct that most of them are as new to this as I am myself."

"Why don't you include Boston in your humble category?" Miss Maitland asked, laughing.

"Because I would be surprised if there were another Bostonian in this room this evening."

"But why do you think so?" the girl persisted.

"Oh, this isn't their style; they don't like this sort of business. No, I'll wager you three macaroons against a lump of sugar that you are the only child of the Back Bay in this place to-night."

"Done!" declared the girl.

"How can the question be decided?" Miss Wardrop inquired. "I don't see how you can either of you prove your contention."

"I will show you," replied her niece. She turned to a waiter, hovering paternally near by, and said, "Will you please go over to that third table where the very light-haired young lady in the blue gown is sitting, and say to the young gentleman whose back is turned toward us that Miss Maitland wishes to speak with him?"

Smith turned, in time to see the young gentleman in question rise at the waiter's message, cast a look at Miss Maitland, and then come cheerfully forward.

"Do you know, I never dine at a place where I hope and expect--and select--to be absolutely unknown, without meeting anywhere from five to nineteen friends, relations, and acquaintances of various degrees of intimacy," he said, shaking hands. "I'm really delighted to see you, Helen--upon my word, I am; but I sincerely hope you are discretion itself."

"Mr. Wilkinson," said the girl, introducing him to her aunt; and with the briefest of glances at Smith, she added, "of Boston."

"I remember Mr. Smith," said Charlie, easily. "There is an epic quality of justice in his being here, because he is indirectly responsible for my presence. At least," he explained, turning to Smith, "if you hadn't made a certain pregnant suggestion of the susceptibility of a trolley magnate to the opinion of the stock market--"

"You don't mean--?" Helen exclaimed.

"As sure as eggs is incubator's children! They hatched. My esteemed uncle listened to my siren voice--and here I am on a celebration trip! By the way," he said to the underwriter, "I asked Bennington Cole, who's handling the schedule for me, to put as much of it as he could in your company."

"That's very good of you," Smith replied; "but it will be a comparatively trifling amount, I'm afraid. The Guardian has just about as much as it is willing to risk in the congested district of Boston, and Silas Osgood and Company are under instructions to keep our liability down to its present amount and take little new business."

"I congratulate you, Charlie," Helen said. "But why did you come here, hoping to be unknown? Is it your beautiful lady? Is she some one you shouldn't know?"

"Well, hardly that. She's not precisely an undesirable citizen--she's all right enough--but you scarcely want to meet her, I'm afraid. You see, Isabel went South and left me in the lurch, and I had to celebrate somehow--hence Amye."

"Amye?" said Smith, with amusement.

"Yes. With an ultimate 'e.' Amye Sinclair on the program; Minnie Schottman in the Hoboken family Bible. She's a nice girl but a trifle unintellectual. She threw me a papier maché orchid once in Boston."

"Young man," said Miss Wardrop, speaking for the first time, "are you a typical example of the young men of to-day?"

"I am," Wilkinson promptly answered. "I am energetic, entertaining, an opportunist, a eudaimonist, and a baseball fan. Yes, I think I may concede I am typical. Do you agree with me, Helen?"

"I always agree with you, Charlie," said the girl, with a smile. "What possible good would it do me if I didn't?"

"Oh, you could--but you'll excuse me, I'm sure. I see the waiter is preparing to serve my table with real food, which is something I have a confessed predilection for. Good-by--I'm perfectly charmed to have seen you all."

And Mr. Wilkinson returned to Amye and the Cotuits.

"Don't look so scandalized, Aunt Mary," said Helen to her relation. "He is really much less abandoned than he would have people believe; and I think Isabel will bring him out all right yet. I rather fancy she has decided to."

"Isabel Hurd, you mean?" responded Miss Wardrop. "You don't mean to say so! But, bless your heart, I'm not scandalized--I've heard boys talk before. Still, if your friend Isabel knows what she is about, she won't stay South too long; she'll come North and let Amye go back to Hoboken."

"Probably she will. But I have not seen the three macaroons which I won with such ease and finesse."

"Waiter," said Smith, disregarding the fact that they had not finished the entrée, "bring three macaroons--exactly three--right away."

An expression of slight mystification appeared on the broad brow of the waiter, but he was inured to eccentric gastronomic requests, and fulfilled this one with his accustomed dignity.

"There!" said Smith. "There's my bet paid, though strictly speaking you couldn't have held me for it, since you were betting on a certainty."

"May I pass the spoils?" replied the girl, with a laugh.

The memory of those three macaroons had to stand Smith in the stead of other things for the last days of November. On his arrival at the office on the morning following Thanksgiving Day, Mr. O'Connor requested him to go down to Baltimore on company business requiring some little time to transact, and not until after the first of December did he set foot again in New York.

He arrived at about eight o'clock in the morning; and as he was obliged to go home first, he did not reach William Street until nearly ten. As he entered the Guardian office, he was aware that something unusual had happened. Business seemed somehow to have been oddly interrupted. Around the map desks and file cases little groups of clerks were gathered, talking in low tones.

Smith watched them in silence for a moment, and as no one volunteered to enlighten him as to what had occurred, he walked over to Mr. Bartels's office and went in.

"What's the matter here this morning? Is there a conflagration anywhere?" he asked the stolid personage at the desk, who barely ceased his figuring to make response:--

"Go and see the boss. He and O'Connor have had a quarrel--funny business--I don't know anything about it, that's all."

Smith went. Mr. O'Connor was in his room, busily engaged at his desk; the table beside him was heaped high with papers and books, which was an unusual sight, for O'Connor was a methodical man and the room was customarily bare of litter. The General Agent walked thoughtfully over to the other side of the office, and glanced through the President's door. Mr. Wintermuth was walking up and down, his hands behind him and his face a little flushed. Smith hesitated, then deliberately opened the door and entered.

"Good morning, sir. I have--" he began, but his chief, with an expression in which anger was still the predominant characteristic, said abruptly:--

"Do you know what has happened?"

"No, sir, I do not."

"Mr. O'Connor has tendered his resignation, as Vice-President of the Guardian!"

Smith stood still a long minute without answering, and then he saw suddenly and clearly all that for so many weeks the darkness had hidden from him.

"And did you accept his resignation, sir?" he asked at last.

The President turned swiftly to face the question.

"He tendered his resignation as of December thirty-first. I told him his resignation was accepted as of nine-forty-five this morning. And I told him to pack up his stuff and get out of here and never show himself in the Guardian office again."

CHAPTER XIII

In the course of his extended career Mr. Wintermuth had been called upon to face many serious and unexpected crises. Conflagrations; rate wars; eruptions of idiotic and ruinous legislation adopted by state senates and assemblies composed of meddlesome agriculturalists, saloon keepers, impractical young lawyers, and intensely practical old politicians;--all these he had lived through not once, but often, and had always piloted the Guardian's bark to port in safety. In fact, he had done this with such aplomb that long ago he had dismissed from his mind such a thing as the possibility of a wave insurmountable.

In his first flush of anger against O'Connor's betrayal--for by Mr. Wintermuth the action of his Vice-President could not otherwise be regarded--he had but one thought, and that was to make O'Connor's act recoil upon his own head. At that time, however, he was still in ignorance of the full scope of the betrayal, and when the element of bitter personal resentment had largely faded out, his pride and dignity reasserted themselves and bade him choose a different course. Let O'Connor go his way--inevitably justice would overtake him. After all, the first duty was to the company, and the first thing to be done was to fill O'Connor's place.

The cardinal principle of Mr. Wintermuth's administration of the Guardian, during all the years he had been chief executive, had been that all vacancies be filled by promotion of the company's own men. All those who occupied positions of responsibility with the Guardian had come up from the ranks, and it was one of the President's favorite themes for self-congratulation that it had always been possible to fill every opening without going outside the home office.

Unfortunately, however, of late years the current flowing toward the top had been rather clogged by the unusual pertinacity of the incumbents of important places. O'Connor, Bartels, Wagstaff--for years undisturbed all these had held their positions. Even Smith, the youngest man to occupy a place of trust, had been in his present capacity for quite a while. And the natural result of this was that new material in the company, or at least material capable of advancement and development, was painfully scarce.

Bartels was not an underwriter at all, but an accountant, and it was inconceivable that he would ever be anything else. Wagstaff, who supervised the Southern and a part of the Western field, was a good enough machine man, capable in a routine way and within his limitations, but helpless outside them; he had no initiative, wholly lacked dash and imagination, and it was out of the question that he be given charge of the general underwriting of the company, even under such a chief as Mr. Wintermuth. Cuyler, the head of the local department, was a city underwriter pure and simple; his knowledge and his interest stopped short where the jurisdiction of the New York Exchange ended; he knew no more, nor did he care for anything else.

There remained but one possibility--Smith. And Smith was very young. There had been few or no cases in the annals of fire insurance where the underwriting of such a company as the Guardian had been placed in the hands of a man scarcely turned thirty. Mr. Wintermuth, going over the situation carefully, began to wish that he had looked a little farther into the future. A sharp sense of indecision came disagreeably to him, and very reluctantly he reached the conclusion that he did not quite know what to do.

By his order a special meeting of the directors had been called for the next morning, and for the intervening hours he possessed his soul in what patience he could command. If the reflection occurred to him that perhaps it would have been wiser to retain O'Connor until his successor could be selected, he dismissed it at once. The company would have to go on as best it could without a vice-president until such time as the proper man could be found.

It was ten-thirty to the minute when Mr. Wintermuth took the chair and looked about the table at his board. Eleven directors in all, including the President, were in attendance; and although no one except Mr. Wintermuth knew why they had been called together, there was an undercurrent of concern among those present. This was soon crystallized, for Mr. Wintermuth's opening words wakened the active interest and lively perturbation of every man.

"Gentlemen," he said, "this meeting has been called as the result of my having received the following letter. 'James Wintermuth, Esq., and so forth--I hereby tender my resignation as Vice-President of the Guardian Fire Insurance Company of New York, to take effect on December thirty-first or on such earlier date as may suit your convenience. Signed, F. Mills O'Connor.' That is the letter, and so far as I am concerned, that closes the matter, except for the vote whereby I ask you gentlemen to confirm my action in accepting Mr. O'Connor's resignation--as of yesterday morning."

There was no discussion, and the vote was taken.

"Now," continued Mr. Wintermuth, "the office of Vice-president has been declared vacant, and I will request your consideration of the filling of the vacancy. As you know, it has always been the policy of the Guardian to fill all vacancies, official and otherwise, by the promotion of its own men. It is my own belief that this is the only satisfactory and in fact the only honorable system. But Mr. O'Connor's resignation was so unexpected as to leave us unprepared--perhaps more so than we should have been--and it now seems as though a deviation from our usual course might be forced upon us."

He then very briefly acquainted them with the qualities of the men under O'Connor in much the same way that he had reviewed them in his own mind. The directors listened in silence. In short, silence was their only possible attitude, for the contingency which now confronted them was one which took them wholly by surprise.

"To sum up the situation," Mr. Wintermuth concluded, "there is only one man now in the employ of the company who is qualified to fill the vice-presidency, and that is Richard Smith, our present General Agent."

He hesitated. Personally he would have been glad to go farther and recommend Smith for the position, but in his own mind he was not convinced of the wisdom of this.

"Isn't he pretty young?" inquired Mr. Whitehill, of Whitehill and Rhodes, the large real estate operators, who sat at Mr. Wintermuth's right.

"Yes, he is. I'm afraid he's almost too young," was the frank reply.

"How old is he, anyway?" another director asked.

"Thirty-two or thereabouts, I believe. But he's had good training."

"He won't do," said Mr. Whitehill, tersely. "The man for that job ought to be more seasoned--at least forty. Don't you agree with me?"

"I'm afraid I do," the President conceded, rather reluctantly. "At least I am afraid that Smith, good underwriter as he is, needs--as you say--a little more seasoning before being given so responsible a position."

"What's the alternative?" inquired Mr. Griswold, from the other end of the table.

"The alternative," answered Mr. Wintermuth, "is one which I like little better. It is to go outside and hire an underwriter from somewhere else."

"Do you know a good man--one we could get?"

"There are always plenty available if you look in the right place--and back up your invitation with a sufficient monetary inducement," said the President, a trifle caustically. "Little as I myself fancy the idea, it seems to me that it is what we shall have to do. Unless," he added, "you gentlemen should decide to risk giving Smith a chance."

"I'm in favor of going outside," Mr. Whitehill announced. "I've met Smith, and he's a nice clean-cut young fellow, but it would be an injustice to put him in such a place and expect him to make good. He's too much of a kid for such a job with a company like the Guardian."

There was a murmur, whether of approval or of passive acquiescence could not be told.

"Thirty-five is the minimum age for the President of the United States," suggested Mr. Wintermuth, detachedly.

"Well, thirty-five is quite young enough," retorted Mr. Whitehill. "Give the boy a few years' time. I say, hire an underwriter outside."

The President turned to face the table.

"I take it, then, that it is the wish of the Board that the company's rule regarding office promotions be waived in this instance. But we must remember--as I have always maintained--that it has a discouraging effect on loyalty and ambition, to import material to fill important places. However, it is for you gentlemen to decide."

"Have you thought of anyone for the position?" inquired one.

"Not seriously," responded the President. "I have scarcely had time. There are of course plenty of men we might get, but I have really not felt like considering the question of their relative desirability before submitting the matter to you."

"I heard a speech last week," said Mr. Griswold, "by some man who wanted to reduce the fire waste of the whole country. It was delivered before the Chamber of Commerce in Plainfield, New Jersey, where I live--I occasionally attend their meetings. He's got something to do with a Chicago company. I think his name is Lyon. He impressed me as being a clever talker. Do you know anything about him?"

"Oh, yes," replied Mr. Wintermuth, with a smile. "You mean Charles Lyon. He is President of the Liberty Fire--quite a new company. He _is_ a clever talker--they say he can talk a bird out of a tree. To have organized the Liberty and gotten it started with real cash paid in was a distinct personal achievement. But I'm afraid he's a better promoter than an underwriter; the Liberty has been losing money at an astonishing rate ever since it actually commenced to write business. If he succeeds in cutting the fire waste of the country in two, his own company may survive and may even share in the benefits, although probably not to a disproportionate extent. But I'm afraid he's too much of a philanthropist--a little too unselfish for us. We want an underwriter, not a philanthropist--some one more interested in keeping down the losses of the Guardian Fire Insurance Company than those of the United States of America. And I imagine that Lyon at present would stick to the Liberty anyway, although I fancy he will be open for a new position before very long."

"Well, I move that the President be empowered to hunt up the most likely candidate he can find for Mr. O'Connor's position," said Mr. Whitehill, and the motion was carried. An adjournment was taken for a week, or until such time as Mr. Wintermuth should have a candidate ready for consideration.

There was one decided drawback to the successful accomplishment of the task to which Mr. Wintermuth now addressed himself. This was the fact that the Guardian was not disposed to pay exorbitantly for an underwriting head. It was willing to pay a reasonable salary, but it was not a corporation of unlimited resources or gigantic income, and the expense ratio had perforce to be considered. Plenty of men whose names occurred to the President would have been competent and in every way eligible, but they were men of recognized standing in the profession, and already occupied positions of trust. It is not often that highly capable men are open to change without unusual inducement, and Mr. Wintermuth, scanning the ranks of possibilities, found them dishearteningly scanty. All the men he wanted, he knew perfectly well could not be detached from their present allegiances, and the men who were detachable he didn't want. Moreover, it had been a good many years since Mr. Wintermuth had been actively at work in the field. The men with whose character and ability he was most familiar were too advanced in age; the younger generation he did not know.

Virgil and several others of the early classic authors have commented upon the surprising swiftness with which common rumor travels. If its speed was provocative of comment in those bygone days, which lacked most of the accelerating features now found on every hand, it should certainly fare far faster at the present time. At any rate, no tidings ever spread through the subliminal Chinese empire, warning of Magyar hordes beyond the Wall, with greater celerity than the news of Mr. Wintermuth's quest through the insurance world. The waves of it rolled echoing from office to office, from special agent to special agent, from city to city.

Like vultures out of an empty sky came the effects. Circumspect as Mr. Wintermuth had been, keeping the object of his search as secret as might be, it was not more than four days before he was driven ruefully to reflect that he might just as well have put an advertisement in the paper. Apparently everybody in the insurance world, including especially the insurance editor of the paper in which he did not advertise, knew he had decided to go outside his own office for a managing underwriter; and apparently every person within reach had some one--usually himself--to recommend for the position. Mr. Wintermuth finally found it necessary to deny himself to aspiring applicants who besieged his office, and went out on a still hunt in the lanes and byways where he was less likely to meet people with axes to grind. It was on one of these excursions, in a most natural and unpremeditated manner, that he found himself confronted by Mr. Samuel Gunterson.

Mr. Gunterson had, it was true, been suggested as a possibility, but through an outside source which Mr. Wintermuth felt sure was most unlikely to have been stimulated to the suggestion by the person most interested. The President was in a mood of despondency, incidental to the painful discovery of how frail a tissue of truth most of the recommendations of his applicants' supporters usually possessed. He had spent four days investigating the records of men whose names, enthusiastically presented to him, proved to be the only commendable thing about them. Now, after this discouraging experience, he hailed the prospect of independent selection with relief. It was with much lightened depression that he recognized that Mr. Gunterson was not--actively, at least--endeavoring to secure for himself the Guardian appointment, but seemed, on the contrary, quite well contented in his present position, and Mr. Wintermuth settled down to overtures with almost his customary cheerfulness.

Mr. Samuel Gunterson was, at this period of his highly variegated underwriting career, some forty-six years of age. A life whose private character no journal had as yet been tempted to divulge had left no trace upon the impassive contour of his face nor on the somber dignity of his bearing. He was of middle height, and somewhat stout, his hair was iron-gray, and he carried himself with a sort of restrained or reflective optimism, as though he forced himself to be cheerful and companionable at the cost of untold anguish to an inner ego that no one knew. It was an effective carriage, and few people attempted to take liberties with its possessor.

During his experience in the fire insurance business Mr. Gunterson had contrived to become connected with and separated from more different concerns than could be readily computed. He had averaged somewhat better than one change bi-yearly, and the history of his peregrinations could never have been written, for no one but himself could have furnished the necessary material, and on all matters concerning himself Mr. Gunterson was as cryptic as were the Delphic oracles of old. He chose to consider himself a victim of an astonishing series of circumstances, and in a certain sense this was true, although the circumstances were largely of his own creation. Good companies and bad, established concerns and promoters' flotations, auspicious ventures and forlorn hopes--he had been associated with them all, and from each one he emerged with untroubled calm while the unhappy machine, its steering gear usually crippled by his hand alone, went plunging downhill over the cliff into the soundless waters of oblivion.

Mr. Gunterson had been either President or underwriting manager of the Eureka Insurance Company of Pittsburgh, whose demise scarcely surprised those who were aware that its remarkable popularity with its agents was mainly due to the willingness with which it accepted their bad business in almost unlimited quantities; of the Florida Fire and Marine, whose annual premium income of about eight times the amount warranted by its resources attracted the thoughtful attention, although scarcely the respect, of some of the leading underwriters in New York; of the United of Omaha, whose heavy investment in the bonds of a subsequently exploded copper company promoted by Mr. Gunterson's brother-in-law precipitated its insolvency even before its underwriting losses could overtake it; of the Planters of Oklahoma, which the Insurance Commissioner of Massachusetts one day examined with the interesting discovery that its liabilities were nearly three times its assets; and of the Constitution Fire of Washington, D.C., which ceased to issue policies by request of the United States Government. From each of these unfortunate endeavors Mr. Gunterson had emerged with unblemished reputation, and even enhanced gravity and authority due to his wider experience, and with his air of slightly melancholy urbanity diminished not at all.

Four years prior to the time when fate led Mr. Wintermuth to his door, he had been the nerve if not the brains of the general agency of Hill and Daggett of William Street, representing in an extensive territory a fleet of some seven small companies with more sporting spirit than assets, and his astute helmsmanship had resulted in running all seven soundly and irrevocably upon the rocks. From the wreck he emerged, in the first lifeboat to leave, with his broad white brow as untroubled and serene as ever. The collapse, however, left him without visible means of support, so he took a short trip abroad, returning in a month or two as the American manager of a large German company which was just entering the United States.

It is doubtful by what, if any, method these Continental-European companies select their representatives in this country. Ability and probity seem to be regarded lightly--as scarcely worth careful investigation. But no well-known man whose lack of success has left unimpaired his fluency of speech need despair. So long as new foreign companies continue to establish American branches and appoint managers, any amiable detrimental with sufficient verbosity may secure for himself a comfortable berth. Mr. Gunterson had now for almost two years been in charge of the United States business of the Elsass-Lothringen on a loss ratio so surprisingly satisfactory that he himself was absolutely at a loss to explain it. For the first time in a considerable period he felt himself to be in a strong strategic position, and he received Mr. Wintermuth in what only his extreme courtesy prevented from being an offhand manner. It was obvious that he had no intention nor desire to meet any one halfway.

Now Mr. Wintermuth had always held that a man too anxious to change his affiliations was no proper man for the Guardian, and this indifference of Mr. Gunterson pleased him. It further developed that Mr. Gunterson had at last, in the Elsass-Lothringen, found almost what he had always been seeking; his company gave him an entirely free hand,--a highly desirable thing for an underwriting manager,--and he did not know whether he should ever care about looking for anything else. At the psychological moment he nonchalantly displayed to Mr. Wintermuth's interested gaze his twenty-two per cent loss ratio for the Elsass-Lothringen, but in the next breath, recalling a few recent preliminary tremors unpleasantly suggestive of other catastrophes through which he had passed, and not to overlook a link in his entangling chain, he stated that after all, though, he was an American, and intimated that as such he sometimes felt he would a little rather devote himself to the interests of an American underwriting institution. Only occasionally did he have this feeling--still, it was there, and he must needs admit it.

Such was the man to whom Mr. Wintermuth had come, and to whom he ultimately extended an invitation to present himself for the consideration of the Guardian's directorate. And Mr. Gunterson, uneasily suspecting that the structure of the German institution might at any moment collapse at some quite unexpected point, and calculating that he might secure the managerial berth for his equally inefficient brother-in-law, and thus keep the salary in the family, cautiously accepted the invitation. So this was the man who, a few days later, faced the full board, who with affable confidence in his own abilities won over even the somewhat skeptical Whitehill, and who was, on the ninth day of December, 1912, elected Vice-President and underwriting manager of the Guardian Fire Insurance Company of New York.

He guaranteed to free himself from his Teutonic engagements and alliances in time to join the Guardian by the first of January. Suave and profound, with his grave glance suggesting unutterable depth, he bowed himself out of the presence of Mr. Wintermuth and the other directors. And the ruminative elevator carried to the street level the best satisfied man in New York.

At once the appointment was made public, and newspapers and individuals alike refrained from expressing what the better informed among them feared and expected. Mr. Wintermuth heard nothing on every hand but flattering comments on his own acumen, and praises of the sterling qualities and experience of his new appointee. In fact, the insurance press as a whole spoke of Mr. Gunterson almost as kindly as though he had died, and it was--unofficially--understood that Mr. O'Connor realized that he had made a great mistake. Mr. O'Connor, however, having with considerable satisfaction moved into the Salamander's big room with "President" in brass letters on the door, ably restrained any irritation he may have felt. Privately he assured Mr. Murch that things could not have turned out better if he had ordered them himself.

"Gunterson is the very man for our purposes," he said. "He's a stuffed shirt if there ever was one. I couldn't have made a better appointment--for us--myself. We can bleed the Guardian of every desirable agent they've got, and he won't know how to stop us."

And Mr. Murch, smiling, suggested that the bleeding begin as soon as possible.

In the Guardian itself, opinion was divided. No one in the office knew much, if anything, about the new underwriter, and most of the men were inclined, in view of Mr. Wintermuth's recommendation, to take him at his own assessed valuation. But not so Wagstaff, and not so Smith. Wagstaff because it hung in his memory how, many years before, this same Gunterson had by rather questionable methods worsted him in a transaction affecting a schedule of cotton compresses in Georgia; Smith because he believed Mr. Gunterson to be a fraud of such monumental proportions that he deserved a place among the storied charlatans of the world.

His company and its reputation being more to Smith than almost anything else, he felt this thing very nearly in the light of a tragedy. Gloomily regarding the prospect, all he could see ahead was trouble and disgrace. And he knew that his own hands were tied. He was of course only an employee of the company, which could select as officers whom it chose, and any protest from him would very properly be disregarded--and worse than that, he would naturally and inevitably be suspected of speaking once for the company and twice for himself.

It was a rather troubled face that in spite of himself he presented in Washington Square North an evening or two after that eventful ninth of December.

"What is the matter with you? You look too discouraged for words," Helen told him, when the conversation was barely begun.

"Do I show it as plainly as that?" he replied, somewhat ruefully. "Well, I'll admit that, funereal as I may look, it's not a circumstance to the way I feel. That's partly why I came here--to see you and be cheered up."

Somewhere down in the still, chill Boston archives of Miss Maitland's supposedly well-schooled emotions a little quiver awoke and stirred. This was quite without warrant or suggestion from the girl herself, and she strove to convince herself that no stir had been felt. Unfortunately, however, she had received that day a letter from her mother bringing her to a decision which she must now convey to the man before her, and she felt a flash of almost reckless curiosity to see how he would receive it.

"If I were a horrible egotist," she said lightly, "I should think that a little part of your depression came from anticipating that I was going to tell you I am going back home next week."

Smith looked at her in silence. He looked at her until she felt the pause and broke again into speech.

"You see, I have to get back to be with mother at Christmas, and there are a lot of things to do before then--" she began, but he interrupted her.

"I said I came here to be cheered up--and that is what you tell me!" he said. "I came up here half hoping to be soothed back into my customary optimism--and this is what I get! This is certainly an accursed month in an accursed year!"

It occurred to Helen that, regarding the matter strictly from a standpoint of gallantry, the year wherein a young man met her and successfully won her friendship should not properly be termed in all ways and wholly accursed. She scarcely felt like pointing this out, however; and the compliment of Smith's real concern at her departure would compensate for a little gaucherie of expression. As though he had read her thought, Smith spoke again, this time with all trace of the sardonic gone from his tone.

"I beg your pardon--I didn't mean that," he said. "It has been a fine year. I won't revile it just because it ends with a double catastrophe. How soon do you expect to leave?"

"The end of next week, I think," the girl answered. There was an expression in his eyes which she did not quite understand, and therefore distrusted; and she hurriedly turned the conversation into another channel.

"If you flatter me by regarding my departure as one catastrophe, what is the other?" she asked. "What has happened? Is it something to do with O'Connor?"

"Well, it's all part of the same thing, I suppose," he said. "I had almost forgotten O'Connor, though, since Gunterson drove him out of my head."

"Who or what is Gunterson, please?"

Smith told her.

"If O'Connor can get the Eastern Conference to put through a separation rule now, we're absolutely helpless," he concluded. "Gunterson wouldn't have the vaguest idea of what to do--and wouldn't let any one else tell him. I can pretty nearly see the Guardian, under Samuel Gunterson's suicidal direction, setting sail with all flags flying, and heading straight for the bottom of the sea."

Helen could think of nothing to say.

"And you are leaving for Boston!" Smith added. "Well, it looks to me as though I might be out of a job before long, and perhaps I'll come up to Boston and strike your Uncle Silas for one. I think Mr. Osgood always rather liked me. And Boston's a pretty good town--or will be after next week."

He spoke a little bitterly, for it seemed that the possibility he mentioned was perhaps not so remote, after all. Even if the Guardian survived the staggering load of its Vice-President, he felt that he could not serve very long under such a man as Gunterson. And if such a thing should come to pass, he would be in no position to hope as he was now hoping, or to dream as he was now dreaming. Yet, after all, no wall that was ever built can shut out dreams.

CHAPTER XIV

The second day of January, 1913, was marked by the installation of Samuel Gunterson as underwriting head of the Guardian and by the announcement of a radical separation rule by the combined companies of the Eastern Conference. Each was likely to have a far-reaching effect.

Smith read the news with stolid eyes. He did not credit O'Connor with having had sufficient influence to carry the separation act through the Conference, but all that the astute President of the Salamander had hoped for, and in anticipation of which had laid his plans, had come to pass--the Guardian was out of the Conference, the separation rule was to take effect almost immediately--and Gunterson was at the wheel. Smith well knew what a leverage would be used against his company. He was still brooding over the fateful item when Mr. Wintermuth sent for him.

"Have you met your new chief yet?" asked the President, in a friendly manner.

"Yes," said the other, shortly. He held out the paper. "Have you seen this yet?" he inquired, in turn.

"_The Journal of Commerce_? No. Is there anything especial in it?"

For answer Smith laid the paper open on the desk, pointing silently to the item which meant so much to the Guardian--and to every company outside the Conference.

Mr. Wintermuth adjusted his glasses and read the article carefully.

"Well, well!" he said thoughtfully. "So they passed it, after all! I never believed they would dare. It's a little too much like a boycott--it gives them too much the appearance of a combination in restraint of trade. Tariff and rate-making associations are proper and necessary, but to attempt to dictate to agents what companies they shall not represent--or at any event penalize them for so doing--is going pretty far. No, I didn't think they'd dare."

"Three months ago perhaps they wouldn't have," Smith suggested. "It looks like a reprisal aimed at us, more than any one else. All the other outsiders are old hands and can take care of themselves, but we haven't gotten acclimated--we're liable to have a bad time. And I think I know who accelerated the whole movement, sir."

"Yes--I understand whom you mean," said the President, compressing his lips. "No doubt this was part of his plan. Well, you seem to have followed this thing pretty closely, Richard--what do you think we had better do?"

"Isn't that rather a matter for Mr. Gunterson to decide now, sir? I don't want him to start with the idea that I am trying to dictate the underwriting policy of the company. Of course, I have my own idea of what would best serve the interest of the company to do--although in some ways I'd hate to see us do it."

"And what may it be?"

"Go back into the Conference."

"What! Go limping back with our tail between our legs? Put O'Connor in a position where he could say that we were strong enough to go out and stand alone when he was with us, but after he left we were too weak to stick it out? Never! I won't go back into the Eastern Conference, if it costs the Guardian every agency in the field. . . . Boy, ask Mr. Gunterson if he will be so good as to step here a moment."

In the brief interval before the new Vice-President put in his dignified appearance, neither of the occupants of the office spoke.

"Ah, Mr. Gunterson. Good morning once more. You know Mr. Smith, our General Agent, I believe?"

Mr. Gunterson bowed with urbanity. Courtesies exchanged--a matter of some little time--the President again spoke.

"Did you notice, in this morning's _Journal_, that the Eastern Conference has passed a separation rule, Mr. Gunterson? I do not know whether you are aware that the Guardian is not a member of the Conference; shortly before the resignation of your predecessor we withdrew--largely upon his recommendations. There is no reasonable doubt that at the time Mr. O'Connor believed such a rule would go into effect, and very likely he was more or less instrumental in getting it adopted. At all events it is clear that he wanted us to get out, and here we are--out! And almost any time, now, we are likely to be put out of nearly every agency in the East where Conference companies predominate--which means ninety per cent of our agencies."

"I see," observed Mr. Gunterson, sagely. "I see."

"Now the question is: what are we going to do? Mr. Smith here advises that we confess our inability to operate in an open field without the invaluable assistance of our late Vice-president, and go back into the Conference. By merely sacrificing our self-respect we could save our Eastern agency plant. I have put you in charge of the underwriting of the Guardian, Mr. Gunterson, and I would like your advice on this."

The attitude to be assumed by the Vice-president was too obvious to be creditable to his sense of perception.

"I would not give them the satisfaction of seeing us reverse our policy and confess ourselves defeated--surrender before a gun was fired. We can fight and win," said Mr. Gunterson, promptly.

It was rudimentary cleverness; a babe could have perceived what reply Mr. Wintermuth desired.

"Good!" said that gentleman, much encouraged. "I'm glad to hear you say so. That's exactly the way I feel about it, myself. I'll see O'Connor damned before I'll let him think he has forced our hand. I think your attitude is quite correct, Mr. Gunterson--I like the way you begin."

"Thank you, sir," said the Vice-president, modestly; then, deprecatingly nodding toward Smith:--

"Probably from a strictly conservative viewpoint Mr. Smith's advice is good. And the Guardian is a conservative company. But a little properly placed radicalism is not a bad thing at times--is not that true, Mr. Wintermuth?"

To which Mr. Wintermuth assented with a smile.

"At all events the fight, if there is one, will be confined to the smaller places. They can't touch us in the big cities, can they?" pursued Mr. Gunterson, following up his advantage.

"No," said Smith, shortly. "The rule won't affect us here in New York, nor in Boston, nor Philadelphia, nor Buffalo, nor Baltimore. At least those places, and some others, have always been excepted cities--making their own rules. Unless the local agents through the local boards vote for separation, we're safe there. I'd hate to see a fight started in those towns, though."

"You seem a little reluctant to get into any controversy, Richard," said Mr. Wintermuth, kindly. "To be sure, you haven't been through so many as we have. But sometimes it is necessary to fight--and fight hard, too."

"He has not weathered as many storms as you, sir," Gunterson interpolated with a smile. "Nor," he added, "as many as I myself, perhaps."

"Perhaps not," said Smith, dryly. "Is there anything else you want of me, sir?" he turned to the President. "If not, I guess I'll get back to my mail."

"Go ahead," returned his chief. "Mr. Gunterson and I will plan this thing out together."

And Smith left the office with as much numb despondency in his heart as he had ever felt in his thirty-odd years. He knew--what the others did not seem fully to appreciate--that there was an animus in this attack of O'Connor's which would stick at nothing. He saw, or he believed he saw, the excepted cities of Boston, Philadelphia, and the rest, under the polite coercion of the Eastern Conference, passing similar separation rules of their own. He foresaw the Guardian forced out of Graham and Peck's agency in Philadelphia, out of the Silas Osgood office in Boston, and losing its long established connections in other cities where the Guardian's business was as well selected and profitable as that of any company of them all. He looked gloomily down a long vista of losses and disappointments, and it appeared to him there could naturally be but one end. However, it was no doing of his. He was there to obey orders and to transact the company's business as the management desired it to be done, and in the press of other crowding matters he was glad to forget everything but the tasks before him.

The days succeeding the Conference announcement brought very little in the way of further developments. So still was the insurance stage, indeed, that Mr. Gunterson began to think that there would be no trouble, after all, and Smith to speculate on the ominous stillness and on what new moves would flash from behind this seeming curtain of inaction.

Almost at the very time of this speculation on his part, a train was carrying toward Boston no less a person than F. Mills O'Connor of the Salamander. Almost at the very hour of a Tuesday morning, when Mr. Gunterson was gravely assuring Mr. Wintermuth that he believed he would be able, in spite of the Eastern Conference, to preserve the company's agency force without the loss of a single important agent, Mr. O'Connor, after more or less indirect preliminary conversation, was presenting his desires quite bluntly to Mr. Silas Osgood.

"To be perfectly frank, Mr. Osgood, the Salamander has never gotten the premium income it should get from Boston, and worse than that, it has always lost money. Now you've got a place for us in your office, and it's the Guardian's place. No--hold on a minute--let me finish. I know that Mr. Wintermuth is an old friend of yours, but Mr. Wintermuth is about finished with the fire insurance business. Now you know that your relations with Gunterson, who is a hopeless incompetent, will never be satisfactory, and you also know that Gunterson will probably put the company out of business within two years. You appreciate also that the Salamander is a bigger company than the Guardian--it has twice the Guardian's premium income--"

"And half the Guardian's surplus," interrupted Mr. Osgood, softly.

"No matter about the surplus. Edward E. Murch and his people are back of us, we've got the premium income, and we're in the game to stay, while you as a practical insurance man know, no matter how far your sympathies may go in the opposite direction, that the days of the Guardian are numbered. I'm offering you the chance to take on one of the livest companies in the field to-day in place of a concern that's headed for oblivion by the most direct route. It's a chance I would jump at if I were in your place, but I understand the sentimental consideration enters in,--it does credit to your heart, Mr. Osgood, and I respect you for it,--and in view of all that sort of thing I came here prepared to give you certain inducements to switch the Guardian's business to the Salamander."

"Inducements? Of what sort do you mean?" inquired Mr. Osgood, mildly, although his face was a little flushed.

"Well, increased latitude on lines and classes--a larger authorization in the congested district--those are some things. Possibly also," he suggested delicately, "a little extra allowance--let us say an entertainment fund--to be used in cultivating brokers with an especially desirable business."

"But," said Mr. Osgood, "we are members of the Boston Board. We cannot offer any greater inducements to brokers than any of our fellow members offer."

O'Connor saw his suggestion had not been taken kindly.

"Of course not," he agreed. "Although I know one Boston agent who once a month plays cards with his best broker, and curiously enough he always loses exactly five per cent of that broker's account with him for the previous month. Such things are sickening--and they put at a disadvantage those of us who live up to our agreements. But I don't suppose any Board could make a rule preventing an agent from taking a good customer out to dinner and perhaps the theater once in a while--that was all I meant to suggest."

Mr. Osgood, who felt considerable doubt as to this innocent limitation, rose.

"I presume you would like my decision, Mr. O'Connor," he said, in a low voice.

"Why, yes--as soon as convenient--the sooner the better," the other man replied easily.

"Well, then, I will give it to you now," said the Bostonian. "Mr. O'Connor, I am an old man; I have lived in this city for nearly seventy years, and during those years I do not think I ever made a bargain which I would have been ashamed for the world to have seen. I am too old to begin to be either disloyal or dishonest now--for I do not see what else you can call what you have proposed but disloyalty to my friend Mr. Wintermuth and his company and dishonesty to my associates in the Boston Board. If I thought you intended to insult me, I would ask you to leave my office, but I do not think you intended your proposal as an insult, for I do not believe that by your own code you are doing anything which that code would condemn."

His visitor started to voice a protest, but the other man stopped him.

"Let me finish," he said. "I have known your former chief, Mr. Wintermuth, considerably more than half my lifetime. When I resign the Boston agency of the Guardian, it will be either at his request or because my day in the insurance world is over and I can no longer give the company a sufficient business. That is all. And now, Mr. O'Connor, I do not ask you to leave my office, but I hope you will never come into it again so long as I am here."

The President of the Salamander got to his feet, and his eyes narrowed.

"All right, Mr. Osgood," he said. "Don't worry--I won't stay where I'm not wanted. But my offer was made in good faith, it would have been advantageous to your firm, and I'm sorry you turned it down. I wanted to give you a chance, in a way that I admit would have been a good thing for me, to keep your own office organization intact--for the impression seems to be gaining ground that the Boston Board will pass a separation rule, and in that event you will have to give up the Guardian agency, anyway."

The Bostonian turned back to his desk.

"That is too remote a contingency for me to discuss with you," he replied, somewhat curtly. "Good-day, sir."

"Good-day, Mr. Osgood," said F. Mills O'Connor. He paused at the threshold. "I don't believe you've heard the last of this yet," he remarked, as he closed the door behind him.

It is a common saying with regard to any especially clever criminal: what a great man he would have made of himself if only he would have applied all this cleverness to legitimate ends! This is probably untrue in nine cases out of every ten, and perhaps in even a larger ratio, for the successful crook is successful only along crooked lines; his mind will work only in forbidden channels; it needs the spice and flavor of the illicit to stimulate its brilliancy. Let him address himself to a legitimate problem, ethical or commercial, and his efficiency evaporates--or rather it is non-existent.

Although not a criminal, F. Mills O'Connor was, to a limited degree, a demonstration of this fact. Mr. O'Connor had been competent but never particularly clever along strictly legitimate lines; it was always and only along ways just a little devious, a little tricky, a little sophistical, that his acumen mounted above the ordinary. His greatest successes with the Guardian had always been gained by methods which had been kept secret from his chief, for Mr. Wintermuth's keen sense of business honor would have prevented the fruition of every one.

He was now in the right company. The Salamander took its key from its leading director, and Mr. Murch's code of ethics briefly consisted of a belief that it was advisable to "stay inside the law"--unless he were absolutely certain that transgression would be undiscoverable or unpenalized. Into this scheme of things Mr. O'Connor fitted like water in a skin. Hence one need not have been astonished, half an hour later, had he overheard one end of a conversation conducted from Mr. Bennington Cole's private phone in the office of Silas Osgood and Company.

"Yes--this is Mr. Cole."

"Yes--I know who is speaking."

"Yes--I presume I could come over. Young's Hotel, did you say?"

"I understand. Room forty-three. I'll be there in about twenty minutes."

In twenty minutes room forty-three saw Mr. Cole being suavely greeted by Mr. O'Connor, and then it proceeded to furnish the scene for a little drama of business intrigue that would have been very interesting to an audience of law-abiding Conference companies who believed in living up to their pledges.

In the course of this undivulged conversation it developed that Mr. O'Connor was satisfied with what had just gone before; that Mr. Osgood had done exactly what both O'Connor and Cole had expected he would do, making it possible for Cole, by the proper playing of his cards, to succeed almost immediately to the management of the Osgood agency, and that aided thereto by the fact that the scrupulous Mr. Osgood would doubtless hesitate to interfere in any way with any act of his successor, the fuse was all laid for the introduction of the Salamander into the Osgood office by means of the passage of a separation rule in Boston at the very next meeting of the local board. The interview must have been a satisfactory one, for Cole's step, as he walked back to Kilby Street, was buoyant, and Mr. O'Connor bore himself as a deeply satisfied man.

Among the local agents in Boston there had never been any marked sentiment either for or against the adoption of a separation scheme. Some of the agents believed in it and some did not; but as most of the principal offices represented, with a few unimportant exceptions, only Conference companies, it had never been really a vital issue up to the time Mr. O'Connor came to Boston for the Salamander. By what means he contrived to bring the agents into line will never be known. Undoubtedly the time was precisely ripe, and he had the very influential cooperation of many of the strongest Conference companies. At all events, however he went to work, that way proved efficacious. The passage of the rule through the Board was assured. After its vote on the coming Wednesday, no agent in Boston representing a Conference company could, at the expiration of thirty days, continue to represent an outsider.

The effect that such a rule would have on the local interests of the Guardian was at once apparent. Representing, as the Osgood office did, a number of Conference companies, three of which it had represented almost as long as the Guardian, Mr. Osgood would have no practical choice. It was a case of one against the rest--and naturally the one would fall. Of all this, however, Mr. Osgood himself knew nothing as yet, save for the vague menace conveyed by O'Connor's valedictory address. Of this also the Boston insurance fraternity at large knew almost nothing, for the matter was to be jammed through the Board, and those behind it were sworn to secrecy.

Outside the inner ring who were back of the move, only one man in Boston caught wind of the matter which now only waited the coming of Wednesday to take its place among the rules of the Boston Board. This man was Mr. Francis Hancher of the Boston _Index_, the most alert insurance-news gatherer of New England. If anything of moment went on in the insurance world that centers in Boston, without coming under the attention of the inquisitive Mr. Hancher, it had to wear felt slippers and move about only at night. He had as unerring an instinct for insurance news as any ward boss for graft, and he was a man of humanity and bonhomie besides. Into his ears came the first faint rumors of things astir, and he began to work on the almost impalpable scent. Silently he worked, craftily, without arousing suspicion in the minds of those he questioned. Bit by bit, fragment by fragment, he gathered the makings of a Story, until at last, on the Saturday morning before the fateful Wednesday, he happened into the office of Silas Osgood and gained the last link in his chain.

"What's new?" was his greeting to Mr. Osgood.

"Could there be anything new that you do not know?" replied the other, with a smile.

"I see O'Connor's in town," said Hancher, abruptly, and his interest quickened when he saw the sudden change of Mr. Osgood's expression. "You've seen him, I suppose?" the journalist pursued nonchalantly.

"Yes," Mr. Osgood rather stiffly admitted.

Mr. Hancher took a sudden resolution. He drew up his chair a little closer, and leaned forward.

"I think you'd better tell me what he's here for--all you know about it," he said bluntly. "You know me--I won't use what you tell me unless I have your permission. And I've got an idea that you ought to know what's going on."

"I would very greatly prefer that it should not become common knowledge," Mr. Osgood replied with some hesitation; "but I may tell you, Mr. Hancher, that Mr. O'Connor came to see me with a proposal that we take the agency of the Salamander and turn over the Guardian's business to them. I told him--were you going to say anything?"

"No. That's it, then. Go on--what did you tell him?"

"I told him no. I didn't care to consider the matter," said the older man, simply.

"Mr. Osgood," said the other, "you've given me what I need to make what I suspected stand on a solid bottom. I can see the motive now for what's being done. It's the fact that O'Connor wants the Guardian's business. Now, I want to tell you something--or rather ask you something. Do you think your refusal to consider his proposition closed up the whole business completely?"

"Well, no," Mr. Osgood replied; "I suppose not. In fact, when he left, he rather intimated that I might look for further developments."

"That was temper," Hancher commented judicially. "Not good judgment, at all. Ordinarily he'd never have said such a thing. But he meant it, all right--you can believe that. If he can't get the Guardian business one way, he'll try it another. And the second way he has chosen is this--after the meeting of the Boston Board next Wednesday you will be obliged to choose between resigning either the Guardian or all your other companies."

"You mean that a separation rule will be put through?" Mr. Osgood inquired quickly.

"Surest thing you know," the journalist declared. "That is, unless somebody puts a little sand on the slide pretty all-fired soon. I say, Mr. Osgood,--I'm a non-combatant, but I like to see fair play,--why don't you write the Guardian people?--or wire them? I think this is something your friend Wintermuth ought to know."

Mr. Osgood reached toward the button that summoned his stenographer, and then drew back his hand.

"No," he said slowly. "What's the use? If it's decided, I can't stop it. And I fancy the best of my fighting days are over. That's for the younger men to do. I'll talk to Cole about it, and see what he thinks we'd better do."

The journalist glanced at him somewhat skeptically.

"Well, you needn't fight, yourself--let the Guardian people attend to that. And if you take my advice, you'll write Wintermuth. Good-by."

Mr. Osgood wrote, and on Monday morning his letter came to the hand of Mr. Wintermuth, whose eye brightened at the sight of his friend's signature. But there was no pleasure in his tone when a moment later he sent for Mr. Gunterson.

"Look here," he said, "I'm afraid these Eastern Conference people mean trouble. We've been assuming that the excepted cities were safe--nothing could happen there. Well, I don't believe they're as safe as we thought. Read what Osgood says about Boston. Boston! where we've got as fine a business as any company of our size in the field. Look at that!"

With a dignified reticence Mr. Gunterson took the letter, and in a rich silence he perused it. Then, with a calm smile, he gave his decision.

"Mr. Osgood's evident alarm may be well founded--perhaps not. But at all events, I believe our interests at Boston should be protected by some one of authority, and I shall go up myself on the five o'clock this afternoon."

On the five o'clock Mr. Gunterson left New York, and at a seasonable hour on Tuesday morning he started forth upon his travels from his Boston hotel. In search of a target at which he could aim, he went first to Mr. Osgood, to ask his aid in locating that target. Mr. Osgood, who had hoped that Mr. Wintermuth himself would come, felt a tremor of premonitory dismay at the sight of this deputy; and his subsequent talk with Mr. Gunterson did nothing to allay his apprehension. In fact, it was his covert reflection that if Hancher was right, it was all over; the man whom Wintermuth sent was of no assistance.

In point of truth, it _was_ all over. It was barely possible that a strong and determined man could have effected something had he known how to set about it--but Mr. Gunterson did not know how. No hack actor suddenly confronted with a strange and difficult part felt more inept than he. He conceived that within him was the power to deliver a tremendous blow--but he could not find its mark. Aimlessly he consulted his acquaintances along Kilby Street. The agents of the influential Conference companies, primed to resist interviews, greeted him affably, congratulated him on his new connection, and blandly denied all knowledge of any radical move in process. That night Mr. Gunterson, having accomplished absolutely nothing, returned to his hotel with an uneasy feeling of dissatisfaction with the day.

Wednesday came. Gunterson, hesitant, undecided, in need of help, early sought his only ally, Mr. Osgood. At the door of their offices he met Mr. Osgood and Mr. Cole on their way to the meeting of the Board. The Vice-President of the Guardian fell meekly into step. At the Board rooms the agents were gathered; the meeting came to order; the order of business began. After the transaction of a few routine affairs Mr. Spence of Spence and Hardiwick rose and moved that the Eastern Conference separation rule be extended to cover Boston. His motion was seconded. There was no debate, and the only speaker was cut short by a call for the question.

In the chorus of ayes, Mr. Osgood's negative went unheard and unnoted. The motion was carried almost unanimously, Cole not voting, but permitting the senior partner to cast the vote for the firm. And all this time there sat at Mr. Osgood's side the restless but impotent form of Mr. Gunterson. Twice he started to speak, and then repressed himself, his face a little flushed with helpless shame. Beside Mr. Osgood he sat until the meeting concluded, and not a word did he say.

The meeting adjourned. In the hum of conversation Mr. Osgood turned to his junior partner.

"I'm through, Ben. You will have to go on without me. I cannot dismember my whole office organization; but James Wintermuth is one of my oldest and dearest friends, and when Silas Osgood and Company resign the Guardian--some one else must be in command."

Cole did not answer. The three moved slowly toward the door, and there in the doorway stood the author of their perplexity and distress. O'Connor saw them coming, and held out his hand to the veteran underwriter.

"How do you do, Mr. Osgood," he said. "I hope you don't bear any ill will to me for what has just happened. I said I thought the rule would go through, and you can see for yourself that it was passed almost unanimously. Perhaps we may be able to do business together after all. Let us consider this as two sensible business men. Of course I'm glad the rule went through; but please don't think that I did it. I don't own the Boston Board."

The other man regarded him steadily.

"Probably you are right, Mr. O'Connor," he replied. "I do not seem to have correctly estimated the sentiment of to-day. No doubt you used your influence on the side of your company's interests. But I do not care to do business with you, sir--on that point my mind is unchanged."

"Well, I'm sorry you feel that way about it," said the other, with the good nature which as victor he could afford to maintain. "Good-day, Mr. Osgood."

Mr. Osgood passed through the doorway, but Gunterson, following him, smitten with vague valor and sudden fury, turned.

"You--you!" was all he said, at a loss for words in his anger, and the President of the Salamander met him with a smile of humorous contempt.

"Why, hello!" he said, "here's Gunterson! Come to Boston to find a new agent, I suppose. So did I, to tell the truth. Good luck, old man."

Mr. Gunterson turned his back on his tormentor, and passed on. He could think of no appropriate retort. But the situation could not be saved by any degree of repartee. Boston had voted for separation; Silas Osgood and Company must resign the Guardian; and Samuel Gunterson had made a humiliating failure of his quest.

Into his throbbing brain, however, a new idea had come, suggested by O'Connor's taunt. A new agent! Why not? If the Osgood office, consisting largely of Conference companies, was obliged to resign the Guardian, there must be some other agency where non-Conference companies predominated and where he could place the Guardian upon the withdrawal of a Conference company. After all, the Osgood office was not the only good agency in Boston. A new vigor fortified him--he would find an agent for the Guardian who should excel the Osgood connection as the sun outshines the moon.

In one office of perhaps more notoriety than prominence, though Mr. Gunterson knew it not, at that very moment the matter was being discussed.

"Well, Jake," said Sternberg, of Sternberg, Bloom, and McCoy, "they've passed it."

"What did I tell you?" demanded Jake Bloom. "Didn't I tell you them Conference companies would get what they wanted? They got it, all right. Now the question is, what do we get out of it?"

"What do you mean?" asked Sternberg, slowly. He was large and bald, and had a dead-white, soft-looking, pock-marked face, while Bloom was short, black, and untidy.

"Well, I mean for one thing, the Guardian gets thrown out of the Osgood agency. They're on the street. Why shouldn't we get 'em?"

"Sure! Why not?" Sternberg rejoined with enthusiasm. "We've got to get some one else in here before long or we'll be up in the air. I'm afraid we've been salting some of our people too hard. It sort of jarred me when the Spokane left us. We've got to do something pretty quick. Now, how will we get at Gunterson? He don't know us."

"And a blame good thing he don't," said McCoy, with perfect frankness. "A swell chance we'd have of landing the Guardian if we'd had the Elsass-Lothringen! There's no use of talking--we've been writing too freely. We must cut out the skates. Now, let's get together and land Gunterson."

"That's all right, too. But if we cut out the skates, what'll we have left? Anyhow, the main question is how'll we land Gunterson?" Sternberg persisted. The mind of this large man moved as slowly as a house in a small town being transported from one lot to another by one mule, a rope, and a windlass. McCoy's mind more resembled the agile and evasive flea.

"I bet my cousin Billy Gallagher knows him. Come to think of it, Billy was special agent up here for the Florida Fire and Marine at the time Gunterson was running them. We can square Billy all right, and I believe Billy can put it over."

"It looks like a cinch to me," said Bloom, lighting a cigarette.

"It is," said McCoy, briefly.

It was. And so it came about that in the forenoon of the following day a solemn trio of men, two Hebrews and an Irishman, were bowing a polite welcome to the distinguished Vice-President of the Guardian of New York, who, in company with his friend Mr. Gallagher, now an independent loss adjuster, had honored them with a call. Mr. Gunterson confessed that he was considering a change in the Guardian's Boston representation; he had not gone so far as to commit himself, but he was looking around--of course among the few agents with whom non-Conference companies predominated.

It had been agreed by the trio that McCoy should do the talking for the firm, and McCoy came from an island where the art of persuasive conversation is far from extinct.

"Well, Mr. Gunterson, I want to say right off the reel that Sternberg, Bloom, and McCoy would like very much to take on the Guardian. The Guardian's got a good name, and its policy sells well; and in the last few weeks, especially--" he threw out suggestively.

"What's the last few weeks got to do with it?" inquired the innocent and obliging visitor.

"Well, I meant the company's desirability from the agent's point of view. You see, they've never had a really broad-gauge man directing their underwriting before you took charge. Nice people, but narrow, you understand--not a company that an agent would feel drawn to. O'Connor never had no nerve--or if he did, Wintermuth never let him show it. Now, no really progressive agent can do business with a petty piker. To get the best results you've got to let your agent run his field. Take your time, make the best appointment you can, and then give your agent a free hand--that's the only way to get a liberal income and make money too."

To these sage but scarcely original observations Sternberg and Bloom gravely assented.

"In case you found a place for us in your office, what kind of an income do you think we might expect?" Mr. Gunterson asked.

"Well, we wouldn't take you at all unless we could satisfy you," replied McCoy. "And I swear I don't quite see how we could take on another company just now. How much are you getting now from Osgood? Well, if we couldn't do better than that, we'd rather pass you up--although I don't know of any company that looks better to me than the Guardian under its present management. How about it, Jake?"

Mr. Bloom considered deeply.

"New business of the class this office writes is hard to get," he said thoughtfully. "It don't fall off the trees into your lap. But we might do it if we gave up a couple of our smaller companies. If we threw out the German National and the Spokane Fire, we might do something."

The two companies named had removed their policies and supplies from the office only the previous day, their respective special agents, after an underwriting experience too painful to describe, having descended in grief and rage upon their Boston representatives when patience had ceased to be a virtue and self-preservation had become the salient motive.

"There's thirty thousand apiece, easy--say sixty thousand the first year. Yes, we could let them two go, and if you were in any kind of way liberal--if you wrote a fair line in the congested district--we could guarantee you sixty thousand, and I believe we'd make it seventy-five."

Mr. Gunterson calculated this with deliberation. It was a great deal more than the Guardian had been receiving from Silas Osgood and Company; it sounded too good to be real.

"What kind of a record have you had?" he asked cautiously.

"Record? Well, good for some of our companies and not so good for others. We've had some pretty hard knocks, but we don't write practically nothing but first-class business, and of course we write pretty good-sized lines; and when some sprinkled risk or a brick apartment house or a wool storage warehouse makes a total loss, it hits us pretty hard. Still, if you keep on taking on the best business, you're bound to make money in the long run. I suppose we turn down two thirds of what's offered to us over the counter."

"What commission would you expect?" Mr. Gunterson inquired.

"Whatever you're paying now is all right with us," McCoy responded promptly. "And we'll guarantee you a liberal increase in premiums the first year."

The heart of the Guardian's Vice-President swelled in his breast when he anticipated O'Connor's chagrin over this development.

"The Spokane's man is in town," Bloom said, as if by an afterthought. "Put it in the form of a contract, Mr. Gunterson, and I'll notify him to-day that we're holding his supplies subject to his order."

The contract was promptly drawn, signed, and witnessed, each party retaining a copy, and Samuel Gunterson, with the sting of defeat removed by this brilliant achievement, and with his self-esteem and confidence wholly restored, turned blithely toward the South Station on his way to New York.

CHAPTER XV

Contemporary historians point out that in Egypt, more than four thousand years ago, those who bore bad tidings to the reigning monarch were in the habit of meeting death so swiftly that they could scarcely have been incommoded by the circumstance. In fact, they had all the satisfaction of inevitable demise with none of the discomforts necessarily attendant on lingering annihilation.

Mr. Samuel Gunterson, returning from Boston with the signed contract of Sternberg, Bloom, and McCoy, presently found himself in the position of sensing all the restlessness and unhappiness of an expiring frame with no hope of an early easement by carefree and cheerful decease. For the news of his first important agency appointment was received by William Street in a manner not at all calculated to flatter the man who had made it. Of the numerous opinions expressed or unexpressed, ranging from polite incredulity to unholy joy or open contempt, the only quality which all these opinions held in common was their invidiousness.

The appointment received perhaps its most kindly treatment from those most directly concerned. Mr. Wintermuth did not know anything about Sternberg, Bloom, and McCoy--in fact, he had never heard of them. And so, when Mr. Gunterson, in his most convincing rhetoric; explained the merits of the new agents and the increased income which he felt confident the Guardian would receive, the President gave his assent, merely expressing his deep regret at concluding his business relations with Silas Osgood.

"But Mr. Osgood is retiring from the firm, anyway," said Mr. Gunterson.

"Indeed? I am glad to hear it," said Mr. Wintermuth.

With which comment the matter came to its discussion's end between them. Nor did the President learn for a long time the real truth regarding his Boston appointees, for with increasing years he had grown increasingly difficult of access and intolerant of ideas conceived on the outside and not in accord with his own. The men who once could have come to him and frankly told him that the Guardian's Boston appointment was a colossal blunder were, like himself, grown insensibly out of the true current of underwriting affairs, while those who knew the truth lacked either the purpose or the opportunity to lay before him the exact state of affairs.

Among those who could not carry out their inclinations was Smith, for he saw very little of Mr. Wintermuth in these early days of the premiership of Gunterson; and he felt, moreover, that the President, knowing his opinion of Mr. Gunterson, would be inclined to discount his criticism on matters connected with the administration of the Vice-President. So Mr. Wintermuth lived in ignorance until the results began to show on the surface--which was not a far day.

From William Street, however, the busy and irreverent Street, soon came the slings and arrows which pierced even Mr. Gunterson's almost impregnable self-esteem. Only a few days after his return he overheard a conversation between Mr. Cuyler and a placer, in the Guardian's own office, which showed how the Street regarded the Boston appointment.

"Sorry, but I can't take that, Eddy; we don't write the shoe polish manufacturers at all--there's too much naphtha used, and they all burn eventually," were the words that caught his attention, and in the shadow of the door he waited for the reply.

"Ah, come off, now--loosen up! I know the Guardian does write the class, for this same concern's got a factory in Boston and I got a Guardian policy on it only yesterday. That's why I'm giving you this. Your Boston agents, Sternberg, Bloom, and McCoy, place the Boston end for us. What's the matter--don't your agents have any prohibited list, or do you let them do things you can't do in your own office?"

"Eddy," said Mr. Cuyler, sternly, "you're talking nonsense. I tell you we don't write the class in my department, and I don't believe the agency department does. The Boston firm you mention has just been appointed, and probably they don't know our underwriting policy yet." He handed back the binder.

The placer, realizing that the decision was final, and irritated at the declination of a risk which he had found impossible to place elsewhere, laughed loudly.

"Don't know your underwriting policy, hey? Well, they don't need to--they've got an underwriting policy of their own. Do you know what it is? It's to take a line on anything that's not actually on fire. They're the slop bucket of Boston, the standard lemon of Kilby Street; they've got a loss ratio of three thousand per cent, and they've burnt the hide off every company that's ever touched them. You make me tired. You're a fine, consistent bunch, you are--to pose as a conservative company in New York and write every skate in Boston through Sternberg, Bloom, and McCoy! All right--good-by."

And in his exit his coat sleeve almost brushed against the man in the hall who in his haste and folly had appointed Sternberg, Bloom, and McCoy to represent the Guardian in the good city of Boston.

This was but the beginning. After this overture the stings and slurs came thick and fast. It seemed to the dismayed Vice-President that every one in New York took delight in recalling to publicity some detail discreditable to his Bostonian discovery. From all over the East he began to receive applications for agencies from men whom even he knew to be unworthy of trust; and he realized that he had encouraged their approach like vultures on the unhappy Guardian. Within a fortnight of making the Boston appointment he had seriously considered revoking it; but this would have necessitated the admission of his initial error, and he lacked the courage to carry out his better judgment. So, with a shrug of his mental shoulders and a cynical reflection that good luck might perhaps avert the results of his imprudence, he let the matter stand.

But good luck failed to materialize, and it was not long before the expected began to happen. Sternberg, Bloom, and McCoy's business appeared outwardly passable, but curiously enough it almost always seemed--after the loss--that the risk was one on which the company should never have been committed. And there were two unpleasant incidents where the Guardian was "caught on a binder"--where the loss occurred before the agents could issue the policy or report the acceptance of the risk to the New York office; and though Smith investigated these, and in each case was obliged to hold the agents blameless, the experience left an unfortunate impression. However, Sternberg, Bloom, and McCoy undoubtedly controlled an unusually large volume of business. If losses were heavy, so were premiums, and the relatively small losses which naturally attend a growing business where no policy has been in force more than a month or two, postponed, for a time at least, the worst of the evil days. But long before they came the heavens had grown dark with trouble in numerous other quarters.

The general ruling of the Conference, providing that, except under almost impossible qualifications and with reduced compensation, no agent could continue to represent both Conference and non-Conference companies, was now in effect. And it seemed as though never before had there been such precision and unanimity in Conference methods; and Smith, gloomily regarding the grim spectacle of the Guardian's decline, could only curse under his breath the act of O'Connor that had brought about this state of affairs.

Certainly there was no hesitancy about the Conference campaign, and the results became at once apparent in the non-Conference offices. Hardly a day passed which failed to bring to the Guardian the resignation of one or more of its agents, with none to take their places except the vultures, many of whom Mr. Gunterson remembered to have assisted in accelerating the downfall of some of the other underwriting institutions with which he had been connected. With a chill of dismay he read of what a splendid opening awaited the Guardian in the general agency of Henry Trafalgar and Company of Memphis, or Bates and Newsome of Atlanta.

From the Guardian's own agents the letters of resignation were very much alike, for the company was popular in a modest way, and most of the writers had represented it for many years.

"We are notified by the committee in charge of this district," they wrote, "that in order to secure the customary graded commission scale we must resign our non-Conference companies. We are extremely sorry to let the Guardian go, but the difference to us financially is such that we would not feel justified in declining the Conference offer."

And so, one after one, they went. Many an agent wrote bitterly attacking the Conference procedure and asking whether the Guardian could not arrange to take care of his entire business, and stating that if this could be done he would retain the Guardian and let the others go. This, however, in nearly every case was out of the question, and eventually all these agencies went with their fellows. During the first month of the new year almost one hundred agents, some of them among the most satisfactory and profitable of the Guardian's plant, had been compelled to resign. The income from these agencies reached to the neighborhood of one hundred thousand dollars annually, and Mr. Wintermuth began to take decided notice of his strategic position.

Of course, whenever an agency was lost, there was the possibility of replacing the company in some non-Conference office; but this was not so easy a matter. The non-Conference agents were principally lower grade, cut-rate concerns, and not of the standard either professionally or financially to which the Guardian was accustomed. The company's field men, continually confronted by the discouraging task of finding in a town a satisfactory agent, when none existed save in Conference offices, became disheartened. Their letters to the home office indicated their demoralization and Mr. Gunterson could not think how to direct their campaigns for them.

At this juncture the hand on the reins needed to be both delicate and firm, and the hand of Mr. Gunterson, while it may have had its moments of inflexibility, was never delicate. And it was firm with less and less frequency as the days went by. Never any too well convinced, at the bottom of his heart, of the soundness of any course he elected to pursue, the apparent necessity of sitting helplessly in his office and watching his agency plant disintegrate before his eyes robbed him of much of the assurance that had always been one of his predominant factors. Outwardly his manner remained as impressive as ever, but it was retained with an ever increasing difficulty.

In this dark hour his only sustaining reflection was that this rule, which was working such havoc among the Guardian's smaller agencies, did not apply to the larger cities whence came a large proportion of the company's premium income. Boston, of course, with a local rule even more radical than that of the field generally, had gone the way of the small towns; but in New York separation was out of the question since most of the important companies maintained their own local departments, dispensing with agents altogether; in Philadelphia the local underwriters had never been able to agree among themselves on any drastic measures and there seemed no likelihood of a change; while in Buffalo, Pittsburgh, and Baltimore soothingly sepulchral silence and calm reigned.

As the month of January gave place to the briefest of his brothers, a temporary lull in hostilities appeared to have arrived. Mr. Gunterson, drawing a long breath, was wondering if it could be possible that the worst of the tempest had passed, when eruptions from three craters burst forth almost simultaneously, and by the light of their flames it was seen that all which had gone before was of minor moment compared to that which was now to come.

It was about the third week in February that a Conference war was declared in Philadelphia, Buffalo, and Baltimore. In the ears of Mr. Gunterson the triple detonation rang terribly, like the very voice of doom, and it was with the desperation of hopelessness that he addressed himself to the solution of this new problem.

He no longer trusted himself as direct mediator; his Boston experience had cured him of all personal meddlesomeness; it was much more dignified to remain quietly in New York directing the efforts of his subordinates and criticizing them when they failed to accomplish the impossible. He did not care to expose himself to another Sternberg, Bloom, and McCoy triumvirate. So he sat in his office, dictating letters and giving endless pieces of impracticable advice to special agents who inwardly cursed; and to Mr. Wintermuth he bore weirdly distorted versions of situations and crises beyond any power of his to unravel or even to explain.

Even on matters of fact he was pleasingly vague.

"How many agencies have we lost?" the President demanded on one occasion.

"Really, I could hardly say exactly," Mr. Gunterson responded. "You see, some that haven't actually resigned have stopped sending us business--to any extent. But," he added, "we can more than make up such losses in income when our new appointments show the full results of their business."

"How long do you calculate that's going to take?" abruptly inquired the usually courteous Mr. Wintermuth.

Mr. Gunterson did not know, but he was decidedly of the opinion that it could not be very long before the tide was stemmed.

But as the days went by the tide continued to run in the same direction. Baltimore, threatening dire things, hung trembling in the balance; Buffalo had already gone over to the enemy; Philadelphia was as yet hesitating before the final irrevocable leap. So February wore away, and March entered.

James Wintermuth was more disturbed than he had been at any time covered by what was now a good and had once been a miraculous memory. His company had so long been his pride, his reliance, his solace, and almost his gospel that he had grown to think of it as a sort of fixed star, whose light perhaps might be exceeded by some larger and more pretentious luminary, but which would nevertheless shine steadily on, beyond the fear of any cosmic upheaval.

Now he beheld it not only overclouded, but even menaced--beheld its light in danger of being dimmed if not utterly extinguished. It was absurd, it was tragic, it was unbelievable--yet it was so. And when he was confronted with the fact, there crept back into the old gentleman's heart something of his old fire, as well as a slow, brooding sense of angry injury against the men or forces responsible for his present difficulties. His elder resentment was of course against O'Connor, who was taking advantage in every way of the Guardian's misfortunes; but as the palpably weakening hold of the company brought him more closely in touch with its underwriting affairs, as the questionable losses from Boston and other similar agencies began to arrive in faster and faster succession, and he clearly perceived the weakness and incapability of Gunterson's management, his irritation rightly directed itself more and more against the luckless Vice-President.

One other thing of recent occurrence had shaken--perhaps out of proportion to its consequences--what little confidence he still felt in the judgment of his underwriting manager. That related to the attempt of Mr. Gunterson to inject his advice into the Guardian's affairs financial. Early in February he had suggested to Mr. Wintermuth the advisability of purchasing for the Guardian some bonds of an embryonic steel company then erecting a plant in Alabama. Mr. Gunterson knew personally some of the people back of this, the bonds seemed remarkably cheap, and the bonus in common stock made the proposition in his opinion decidedly attractive. Mr. Wintermuth's investigation of the concern and its prospectus had quickly convinced him that its officers were of far more capability in the industry of disposing of what, by a polite extension of the term, might be called securities than in manufacturing steel, and a skeptical investing public evidently reached the same conclusion, for within a month after Mr. Gunterson's friendly suggestion, the Birmingham Bessemer Steel Corporation was in the hands of a receiver, who, after some hesitation, issued a statement to the effect that the bondholders might eventually realize fifteen cents on every dollar they had paid in.

On the second day of March an unusual thing happened. Mr. Cuyler entered the elevator and mounted to the top floor of the Guardian building, crossing the floor toward Mr. Wintermuth's office.

"Hello! What are you doing up here?" Smith inquired, knowing the stars must be strangely out of their courses to attract Mr. Cuyler to this unaccustomed altitude. A true local department man is always uncomfortable, never at home, above the grade floor. "Has the Sub-Treasury or the Aquarium made a total loss, or what's the matter?" he cheerfully proceeded.

"No," said Cuyler, sourly. And without further answer he passed on into the President's room.

"Good-afternoon, Mr. Cuyler," said the President, amiably, but the local secretary with a glum face stopped him.

"Well, we've lost O'Brien," he said.

"What's that?" demanded the other. "Lost O'Brien? What do you mean? Not O'Brien of One Hundred and Twenty-fifth Street?"

"That's the man. The best branch manager we ever had--the man we kept when the Exchange made us close all our branch offices but one. Well, he's thrown us."

"Thrown us! O'Brien? Why, he's been with us for fifteen years! Tell me about this at once, sir."

"There's nothing to tell, or nothing much," replied the local secretary, bitterly. "The business he's been giving us has been dropping off,--we haven't got a new risk out of him in a month and we've been losing a lot of our renewals,--and yesterday Charlie saw his placer going into the Salamander office with a bundle of binders."

"The Salamander? O'Connor!"

"Yes, sir, O'Connor. So to-day I went around to the restaurant where he eats when he comes down town. He was there."

"O'Brien, you mean? Well, what did he say?"

"He said," replied Cuyler, slowly, "that he had no complaint to make of the way we'd treated him, but that the Salamander was offering him facilities which we didn't offer him, and he felt obliged to do something for them."

"He means they're paying him excess brokerage or something of that sort," said Mr. Wintermuth, acidly.

"Yes, I suppose so, but of course that's a thing you can't say unless you're in a position to prove it. Anyhow, he's gone--and about twenty thousand dollars worth of preferred business with a thirty per cent loss ratio for ten years has gone with him."

The President rose and walked up and down his office. This was bringing the fight to his very door, with a vengeance.

"What can we do about it?" he said, stopping in front of Cuyler and fixing on that dismayed person a vaguely furious gaze.

"I don't know. I suppose we'll have to hunt around and dig up another branch manager in O'Brien's place. It'll take a lot of hunting, though. You don't pick up a business like that every day in the week."

The President could make no better suggestion, and in this instance he did not call the Vice-President into conference.

"Do the best you can, then," he said shortly; "and let me know how you're getting along."

Mr. Cuyler descended gloomily to his proper milieu, and took up the task of finding a branch office manager to replace the recreant O'Brien. But agents like O'Brien were few, and most of the best of them had their own old-established connections with other companies. Again, the Guardian's reputation for conservatism made Cuyler's task the harder. One or two, after considering the matter, were frightened away by their dread lest the Guardian accept nothing but their more desirable risks, making it all the more difficult for them to place those that were not so desirable. The Guardian's local secretary had as wide an acquaintance as any man on the Street, but he found himself confronted by an exceedingly difficult problem.

Meanwhile a branch manager must be secured. The company's local income was dropping behind in a way that had not happened within the memory of man. In this state of affairs it was not long before Cuyler again sought Mr. Wintermuth, and this time the advice of Mr. Gunterson was solicited.

It had been nearly a week since Mr. Gunterson had been impaled upon any very serious dilemma, and in this interval he had regained much of his shaken confidence, so that he addressed himself to the solution of Mr. Cuyler's difficulties with much of his pristine assurance.

"Why not get Joe Darkner? He's got a fine class of business and a lot of it," he suggested at once.

"Yes, but he's sewed up body and soul with the National of Norway," Cuyler responded shortly.

"Well, what's the matter with Hart and Leith?"

"Nothing but East Side stuff. Besides, they're dead ones--won't last out the year," replied the local underwriter, somewhat impatiently. As though he had not canvassed such obvious possibilities as these!

"Why not try Schermerhorn and Snow?" was Mr. Gunterson's next suggestion.

The President broke into the discussion.

"They've been uptown managers of the Inland for twenty years. And Snow is a big stockholder in the company. We would be wasting our time to approach them."

There was a hint of contempt in his tone. A man who volunteered helpful advice about a difficult situation without being in possession of the most rudimentary information bearing on it was hardly worthy of serious attention. Perhaps the keen ear of the Vice-President detected this, for he flushed slightly, and was silent for a moment.

"I'll give the matter my attention," he said reassuringly to Cuyler. "I'm a little out of touch with local affairs, but I know plenty of first-rate uptown brokers, and I guess I can locate us to good advantage. I'll see you about it later."

And he made his majestic exit.

The matter being now under his august advisement, it might have been supposed that relief was in sight and a new and desirable connection as good as made. But in less than a week from the time of this conversation Mr. Cuyler again sought the President, and the expression of his face could not have been misinterpreted.

"Well, what's the matter now?" Mr. Wintermuth inquired, as the local underwriter seated himself.

"Who do you think is gone now?" said Cuyler, abruptly.

"Who?" demanded his superior officer.

"Jenkinson--and Hammond, Dow, and Company."

"Gone!" repeated the President, slowly. The brokers in question were known to be on the most friendly terms with the company, and it was generally supposed that the first choice of most of their business went to the Guardian. "Gone! What do you mean? Nothing has happened to either of those people! What are you talking of?"

"I mean they're gone, so far as the Guardian is concerned. We've taken as much as ten thousand a year from each of those offices. And now O'Connor's got them."

The President looked at him in silence.

"I knew something was the matter, and to-day I saw O'Connor and Jenkinson at lunch, laughing and talking as familiar as though they'd been friends for years. It's no use, sir--he's going after every really good broker that we've got attached to us."

"But the Salamander can't take care of all their business. Why, those two firms must do business with nearly every office on the Street, anyway."

"The Salamander will take all the best of the business we get now, or most of it, and help them out, I suppose, on a lot of tough risks that I've never been willing to write. O'Connor's a plunger, you know, when he's got a gambling company back of him. It looks to me as if we'd only get what he left--targets, and big lines where Jenkinson and Hammond Dow have enough to go round."

Mr. Cuyler's oldest friend had never seen him more troubled than at this moment. So deep, in fact, was his gloom that the President put aside his own concern to try to reassure his old counterman. In this he succeeded not at all; Mr. Cuyler's dejection was settled.

"What about a branch manager in place of O'Brien?" inquired Mr. Wintermuth at length, thinking at least to change the subject, and hoping to touch a brighter theme. Mr. Cuyler's face darkened still further, if such a thing were possible.

"Nothing doing," he said inelegantly but comprehensively.

"Hasn't Mr. Gunterson--?" the President began, but he stopped short. "What's that?" he asked sharply. "What were you going to say?"

"I guess I'd better not say it," responded the local underwriter with deliberation.

"Go ahead," said his chief.

"Well, then," the other answered, "I was going to say 'To hell with Gunterson!'"

Mr. Wintermuth leaned back in his chair, with his eyes fixed on his subordinate.

"Cuyler," he said, "Mr. Gunterson is your superior officer, and that was an entirely improper thing for you to say. But I've known you, Cuyler, for forty years, and I don't mind telling you that that is exactly what I have been wanting to say about Mr. Gunterson for the last three weeks."

A rueful smile broke through the gloom of both.

"Well, I'm glad you feel the same way about it, and I'm glad I got it out of my system; but I don't see that it helps things much, does it?" the local underwriter replied.

"I'm not so sure of that," said Mr. Wintermuth. "It helps me, and possibly the assistance will spread to the whole situation later on."

Meanwhile the gentleman who was thus summarily consigned to the infernal regions was doing his vague utmost to cope with three situations at once, any one of which would have been entirely beyond his capabilities to control. New York, Philadelphia, and the Eastern field as a whole,--each was a problem in itself, and each was getting farther and farther out of hand. The Guardian's field men were demoralized, beholding the fine agency plant of their company crumble and melt away while they stood helpless to hold it together. And Mr. Gunterson, when asked for remedies, could reply only in nebulous words of even more crepuscular and doubtful pertinence. New York was admittedly beyond him, and Philadelphia, harkening to siren voices that promised great things, was presently to vote on the separation rule for that city.

It is a depressing business, this watching the burning of one's own ancestral house, the sinking of one's proudest ship of all the fleet. It was altogether too much for Mr. Wintermuth. For nearly a week he was missing from the office, and no man at the Guardian knew of his whereabouts. With the decline in volume of the company's business, the amount of routine work in the office became unbearably, demoralizingly light. The map clerks loafed and the bookkeepers joked with one another. Smith found time hanging heavy on his hands; but by Mr. Gunterson's orders he stayed at his desk, although he could have done much, had he been permitted to go out among his agents in the field, to stem the tide.

In the local department the atmosphere was charged with the contagious mourning of Mr. Cuyler, who with funereal face sat contemplating the shrinkage of his business. For with the loss of his branch manager and his two best brokers, there was a deficit in his premium returns which he could not overcome. And certainly his melancholy countenance did not attract business; it was a bold placer indeed who tried with quip and banter to secure Mr. Cuyler's acceptance of a doubtful risk. His world was awry, and all who ran might read it. His brow became unpleasantly corrugated, his smile a thing of the past. If Mr. O'Connor had wanted evidence of the success of his local campaign, he could have gained it from one look at Mr. Cuyler.

Above stairs, however, doom being still a matter of immediate prospect rather than a thing accomplished, Mr. Gunterson still held forth, maintaining a sort of fictitious calm. At times he was even cheerful, and did his best to rally his dazed and despondent subordinates. But Bartels, seeing slip away accounts of agents he had audited for twenty years, was in a state of stubborn, uncompromising rage which closely resembled the dementia of a dumb animal, and Mr. Gunterson could do nothing with him. Still the Vice-President struggled manfully to keep his head above water, to seem cheerful and optimistic. He came from his room one morning, and spoke briskly to Smith.

"I notice that some of your clerks leave their hats around loose instead of hanging them up," he said. "That should not be allowed in a well-conducted office. Please give the necessary orders."

Smith looked at him. This was the closest Mr. Gunterson had come to real contact with the vital problems before him. A company in his charge was disintegrating under his hesitant and futile hand--and he talked about clerks' hats which should properly be hung up!

"Yes, sir," said Smith, quietly. "I'll speak about it."

The weeks followed one another with intolerable slowness. March began, and dragged its weary length along, and still the darkness increased in the Guardian's skies. From Boston the Sternberg, Bloom, and McCoy losses were beginning to come with the frequency and regularity of the shots from a rapid-fire gun. The East was thoroughly disorganized, and even the West, apparently by some subtle psychological influence, was beginning to experience a sympathetic slump. Philadelphia still hung on, the local agents not having been able to agree on any plan of compensation for separating its Conference sheep from their alien goat associates.

Mr. Wintermuth, silent and noncommittal, had returned to the office, but took little part in the conduct of his company's underwriting affairs. And in this manner March wore itself almost out--and it seemed as though the Guardian's span of life were growing rapidly shorter.

On the last day of the month there was a meeting of the directors in the closed room off the President's own. It was a short meeting, and Mr. Wintermuth did the most of the talking, while Mr. Whitehill, who had advocated the election of Mr. Gunterson, had little to say. And so it befell that the directors, after voting him salary in advance for a liberal term, accepted the resignation from the Guardian of Samuel Gunterson; and to fill the vacancy so created, there was unanimously elected to be Vice-President and under-writing manager, Richard Smith.

CHAPTER XVI

Smith took office at nine o'clock on the first business day of April. The fifteen minutes following were spent by him in patiently listening to Mr. Wintermuth's diagnosis of the various ills with which the Guardian was afflicted, related supposedly for his education. When the first pause was reached, the new Vice-President said:--

"I've followed things pretty carefully, sir; and with what you have just told me I think I know about where we stand. We're certainly in bad shape at present, from the agency standpoint, but it's by no means hopeless. And financially we seem to be well off. I looked over the statement Mr. Bartels gave me last night, and since the first of the year some of our investments must have appreciated handsomely; I see that Ninth National Bank stock is selling away above the valuation we put on it in our statement."

"Yes; it is thought that some of the Duane Trust Company people are trying to buy a controlling interest," the President responded more cheerfully.

"But of course that is not in my province," Smith continued. "The question with me is what immediate action to take with reference to the agency plant. Now, Boston is gone--there's no hurry there. Buffalo is lost, too. It seems unlikely that New York will get in any deeper trouble this week or next--although of course you can't tell. But Philadelphia and Pittsburgh need attention right away." He glanced at the small clock on Mr. Wintermuth's desk. "If you'll excuse me, sir," he said, "I think I can make the ten o'clock on the Pennsylvania. I brought my suitcase down here, thinking that I might want to start in a hurry."

"Go ahead, my boy. Good luck," said his chief.

And so Smith caught the ten o'clock express from the Pennsylvania station, leaving behind him in the Guardian office an elderly gentleman in whose breast an undefined cheerfulness had awakened. But it was to neither Philadelphia nor Pittsburgh that the Vice-President's ticket read; he had taken a ticket to Harrisburg.

Many years before, the Attorney-General of the state of Pennsylvania had been a famous football player at the state university; whether his gridiron career had any bearing on his legal equipment or not was a question, but it certainly did not make him a worse man. His name was James K. Prior, he stood six feet one, and weighed two hundred pounds.

Mr. Prior was a believer in modern government, although in fighting his way up to the attorney-generalship he had seen enough of the Pennsylvania variety to have given a lesser optimist his doubts. He also believed in modern business conditions, and so far as he properly could, he officially encouraged what he regarded as being legitimate commercial combinations. But he did not believe in trusts. He had followed local legislation long enough to be very sure that there was in it far too much sophistry and too little equity, and he was a strong upholder of what he termed fair play, whether it came peacefully along statutory lines or whether it had to be jerked raw from the shambles of a hundred confused and specious lawyer-made laws.

All in all, he made an active and satisfactory attorney-general.

Now it chanced that during the last session of an unusually prolific legislature a political opponent of Mr. Prior's had contrived to secure the passage of a bill designed to give a certain latitude to certain rather questionable combinations of capital, known in the vernacular as trusts. Senator McGaw, Mr. Prior's antagonist, had managed this bit of special legislation very craftily indeed. The bill was so innocently worded as to disarm the most vigilant and radical trust-buster; it appeared as though its purpose was exactly the reverse of that for which it had been subtly designed; in fact, in an excessive effort to avert suspicion a couple of clauses had found their way into this document which gave Mr. Prior some of the keenest pleasure of his career.

"You are perfectly safe in signing that bill, Governor," he had said to the State's chief executive, who had asked his advice in the matter. "I'll bet my professional reputation that the courts will hold that it gives us more than it takes away. McGaw's people think it ties the State's hands from proceeding against concerns which operate in restraint of trade by restricting their distributing centers. Instead of which we'll have them on the hip--that section four went a little too far. Just let one of them try to keep his product exclusively in the hands of his sole distributers, and I give you my word I'll have the responsible officer of that concern in jail! Go ahead and sign the bill, Governor--it's all right with me."

It was the draft of this bill, now signed and recently become a law, which occupied the attention of Smith during a large part of the ride from New York to Harrisburg. And the more he studied it, the more hopeful became his expression. And it was with the most buoyant of steps that he made his way from Harrisburg station to the office of Mr. Prior. To that distinguished gentleman he sent in a card whereon he added after his name two things: first, "Vice-President Guardian Fire Insurance Co. of New York," and second, by a whimsical but considered afterthought, "I saw you kick that goal from the field against Cornell."

Mr. Prior was thoroughly inured to conversing with corporation executives,--they were no novelty to him,--presumably, therefore, it was the second memorandum which caused Smith to be ushered almost immediately into the presence of the Attorney-General, who regarded his visitor with a good-humored smile on his clean-shaven lips.

"Mr. Smith, I presume?" he inquired.

"Yes, sir," the other answered.

"I gather from this card," Mr. Prior pursued, glancing at it, "that you remember having seen me--elsewhere."

"When I was fifteen years old," Smith replied. "And I've been to a good many games since, but I don't think I ever saw any one else kick a goal from the field at a mean angle on the forty-yard line with a stiff wind quartering against him."

"Perhaps not--at least in the last two minutes of play," the Attorney-General agreed reflectively; and the New Yorker could easily pardon this embellishment.

It was some little time later when Mr. Prior somewhat reluctantly returned to things mundanely legal so far as to ask his caller's business.

Smith explained.

When, on the following afternoon, he walked into President Wintermuth's office, if there was in his manner a certain undertrace of elation, it must be forgiven him, for this, his first stroke in his broad horizon, seemed thus far up to every expectation of success.

"Well, what did you do?" was Mr. Wintermuth's greeting, as he looked up to find Smith before him.

"The Attorney-General of Pennsylvania," said Smith slowly, "is going into court to-morrow to ask for an injunction, alleging conspiracy and restraint of trade, forbidding the Eastern Conference from enforcing a separation rule anywhere within the boundaries of the state."

"What's that?" said the President, sharply. "A restraining order, you say?"

"Yes. Mr. Prior, the Attorney-General, thinks he will have little trouble in securing a temporary injunction. Later on he will move to make this permanent, and there will doubtless be a fight on that; but he thinks he can beat them under the new Anti-Trust Law. In the meantime it ties up the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh boards, and I think we can get back most of the smaller Pennsylvania agents we've lost. Most of them are well disposed toward us; other things being equal, they'd be glad to restore the status quo, and none of them are anxious to be made joint defendants with the Conference companies in a conspiracy suit."

Mr. Wintermuth said nothing for a long minute; then his face broke into almost the first sincere smile which had been seen on it since the opening of the year.

"That's very well done--a good idea and well executed, Richard," he said.

"Thank you, sir," said Smith.

There was more discussion to follow, and the two went over the situation as a whole more fully than had been hitherto possible.

"Of course," Smith pointed out, "this is just a beginning. But Philadelphia and Pittsburgh are safe--that's something. And Baltimore will never dare make a move after this, for Maryland always follows Pennsylvania. No, our chief problem at present is New York and New England."

"Yes," agreed the older man. His face darkened. "Boston! How about Boston? What can we do up there?"

"I don't know," returned Smith, slowly. "But there's one thing we can do, and do at once. We can close the Sternberg, Bloom, and McCoy agency. We can decapitate that crew in forty-eight hours, and with your permission I'll go up there and do it myself."

"Go ahead," said the President.

That night Mr. Wintermuth enjoyed the first peaceful rest for almost three months. Smith, on the contrary, perhaps through his anxiety to put his Boston agency house in order, remained sleepless far into the small, still hours. Nevertheless he departed next day for Boston on the three o'clock express, arriving in Boston at eight, although he might as well have taken a later train, for it was certain that neither Sternberg, Bloom, nor McCoy would be apt to remain in their offices until that hour of night. Doubtless it was for this reason that he left the train at the Huntington Avenue station and turned west toward Deerfield Street.

Fifteen minutes later he was waiting in the reception hall of an apartment house, the construction of which he had once, in the Guardian office at New York, quite minutely described for the edification of a certain young lady visitor. In due course of time he was conveyed to the proper floor, and a moment later found himself shaking hands with the identical young lady.

"Mother, this is Mr. Richard Smith of New York, a friend of Uncle Silas, of whom I told you."

Smith found himself bowing to a little gray lady whose manner was so gentle that he unconsciously lowered his voice in speaking to her. She was dressed all in gray, and her hair was gray, and the silvery lights that glistened in it moved through the folds of a tiny lace object which might, had it been developed, have proved to be a cap. To call so filmy and nebulous a thing a garment of any kind was perhaps absurd; but if this premise was once granted, it would have been correct to say that Mrs. Maitland clung to caps. Certainly no article could have better suited her, and in her single person she had done almost as much as all the rest of Boston to revivify a dying but delightful institution.

The little lady, for all her mildness of manner and appearance, proved to be as wide awake as any one of the three. She even found a way to discover, without Smith's being aware of it, whether he possessed the typical New Yorker's attitude toward her native city. Mrs. Maitland lived in the firm and fixed belief that all New Yorkers, dwelling as they did in a restless and artificial milieu of restaurants and theaters and dollars, had for Boston and Bostonians a kind of patronizing pity. The fact that she herself regarded New Yorkers in very much the same light had never occurred to her.

Smith, however, was not a typical New Yorker. He had too real and intense an interest in all created things to fear Mrs. Maitland's gently suspicious inquisition. In addition to this he was so genuinely interested in at least one of the Bostonians before him that he naturally and easily escaped the pitfalls into which another might have tumbled. So thoroughly, indeed, did he win approval and disarm suspicion that before very long he had his reward in being left, before the small but cheerful fire, with the daughter of the house.

This tactful withdrawal did not lessen the attraction of Mrs. Maitland in Smith's eyes, and it was with real admiration in his tone that he said to Helen:--

"I think your mother is charming."

"I have thought so," returned Helen, with assumed loftiness, "for thirty or forty years."

"So long?" queried Smith, thoughtfully. "That merely goes to show how one can be deceived."

"Deceived!" said Miss Maitland. "Unless you mean self-deception, I would like an explanation of that remark."

But her visitor said that in his opinion to explain anything, however occult, to a Bostonian, savored of intellectual impudence, and was, at the least, a piece of presumption of which he hoped he should never be guilty.

"And yet I can remember," said the girl, laughing, "an occasion when explanations _were_ made to a young lady from Boston--and explanations that took some time, too. I--even I--can bear witness to that."

"My life," Smith rejoined, "has been like that of a candidate for office, such that he who runs may read--and he need not necessarily be a ten-second sprinter, either. Only one dark, shameful page is in it, and that is the record of the day when I talked deaf, dumb, and blind the helpless stranger within the Guardian's gates."

"Are you really sorry?" Helen asked more seriously.

Smith looked at her.

"It has been more than three months since you left New York," he said. "I have been glad of it--and sorry for it--every day of that time."

"And which are you now?" inquired the girl, with interest.

"If I should start on that subject, I should probably regret it. Hadn't we better talk of something else?"

"As you wish," Helen returned lightly. "But you can at least tell me about the Guardian, and what has been happening since I left. In an occasional letter which I have received from an insurance friend of mine in New York, there has never been a word about his company."

"Your correspondent no doubt wanted to be cheerful when he wrote to, you, and for that reason it has been necessary for him to omit all reference to the Guardian's affairs."

"But I heard indirectly about them, just the same--from Uncle Silas. I know of course that he retired from the active management of Silas Osgood and Company because he was humiliated and chagrined at being obliged to resign the agency of his old friend Mr. Wintermuth's company, and I know that, although he would not interfere with Mr. Cole after Mr. Cole took charge of the business, he disapproved of Mr. Cole's accepting the agency of the Salamander."

"Well, if you know as much as that, you know that our suspicions of Mr. O'Connor proved all too true. He not only engineered the scheme to get us out of the Eastern Conference, but after we got out he has tried to steal all our best agents and business for his own company, and, thanks to the lack of any resistance on our part, he has been able in many cases to succeed."

"But why didn't you resist? I don't quite understand. Couldn't anybody--couldn't you stop him?"

"I--I didn't have a chance," answered Smith.

"Indeed? And why not?" continued his inquisitor.

"From the series of pointed questions you are putting me, I might almost imagine I was being interviewed by the representative of a muck-raking magazine," countered her visitor, in covert concern.

"From the lack of actual information in your replies one might almost imagine you were," Helen cordially agreed. "Now are you going to answer my inquiry?"

"Well, the Guardian directors selected another man to take charge of its underwriting affairs, and we didn't hit it off very well--naturally he did things in his own way."

"I know," said the girl, nodding her head; "Mr. Gunterson."

"Good heavens!" said the young man, "is there any use in my attempting to give information to some one who already has it all? If you know all about this and what has gone on, why ask me?"

"I wanted to hear what you'd say. It is a natural desire, I'm sure, and you ought to be willing to help gratify it. You see, you are responsible for my interest in the affairs of your insurance company, and you have almost a parental responsibility."

"How is Wilkinson?" said Smith, engagingly.

"Presently it may be that the conversation can be diverted to Mr. Wilkinson. But not now."

"Well, then, to go back to the affairs of the Guardian, how is Mr. Osgood? It's rather dangerous for a man who's been in harness so long to get out of it so suddenly. It's not good for a man--in my opinion."

"More adroit--for I really want to tell you about Uncle Silas. But business first--then pleasure."

"Well," said her visitor, with resignation, "go ahead, Miss Portia."

"I wish to know all about what happened in the Guardian while Mr. Gunterson was in charge," said Helen, simply.

And finally, with a few evasions which were immediately detected and some omissions which were possibly suspected, Smith told the story of the decline of the Guardian.

"So Mr. Gunterson left," commented the girl, when all was said. "What happened then?"

"Why, that's substantially all, to date," returned the New Yorker, dishonestly; "except that I've been sent up here to see what I can do to improve our position in Boston."

"Ah! Who sent you? Who is in charge of the Guardian now?" continued Miss Maitland, calmly.

"Mr. Wintermuth, of course," replied her victim.

"And under Mr. Wintermuth? Has no one been elected to fill Mr. Gunterson's place?"

"Well, you see, Mr. Gunterson only resigned a few days ago. Boards of directors don't as a rule move very rapidly. There hasn't really been a great deal of time."

"Who has been elected to fill Mr. Gunterson's place?"

"Are you under the impression that--?"

"Do you wish me to say it again? Who has been elected Vice-President of the Guardian?"

"A man," said her visitor slowly, "by the name of Smith."

Helen leaned back in her chair in mock exhaustion.

"That was certainly awfully difficult," she said, with a little laugh of triumph. "I thought you would never admit it."

"I suppose you'd have found it out sometime, anyway," Smith said philosophically.

"No, you're wrong," his companion denied, "for the very good and simple reason that I already knew it."

"You knew it! And yet you put me through this cross-examination?"

Helen nodded complacently.

"Uncle Silas told me this afternoon."

"But how did he know? No announcement has been made."

"Mr. Wintermuth wrote him."

"Well," said Smith, "no ring master with a long, cracking whip ever made a reluctant poodle jump through a series of hoops in a more professional manner than you put me through my little story."

"Yes," said Helen, demurely. Then, growing suddenly more serious, she said, "And won't you let me congratulate you, Mr. Vice-President?"

"I will," said Smith. "There is no one I know by whom I would rather be congratulated."

He took in his own her offered hand, and for just a moment an enchanted silence abode in the room. Then, with no effort on Smith's part to detain her, Helen withdrew her hand.

"Now I can tell you about Uncle Silas and Charlie Wilkinson," she said. "And both are so interesting as topics that I hardly know where to begin."

"Begin with Mr. Osgood, please," her visitor suggested.

"Very well, then. I have been seeing quite a little of Uncle Silas lately. After he turned over the management of his business to Bennington Cole, it seems as if he hardly knew what to do with himself. For many years he has been such a busy man that this leisure has left him at a loss to pass his time. So he has been playing around with me to some extent. We have had lots of long talks together; among other subjects we have even discussed you."

"So I learn," Smith responded.

"Don't be saturnine," the girl rejoined. "Seriously, though, while I've enjoyed Uncle's Silas's society, I don't believe this idleness is good for him. In fact, I'm rather worried about him--I think having nothing to do makes him despondent, for it makes him feel as though his day's work was over. And there's no reason why it should be. He's not really old, although he looks rather frail, and I believe he'd be better and happier if he went back into business now."

"Why doesn't he, then?" the other asked. "He still retains his interest in the agency, doesn't he?"

"Yes, I believe so. But it's largely a matter of pride with him. He retired because it was necessary for the firm to resign the Guardian, and I doubt whether he would go back unless it could be arranged that the Guardian go back too. Can't you arrange it?"

"Well, hardly--that is, right away," Smith replied. "Present conditions are about the same as when the company left the Osgood agency, but I feel more encouraged, myself, to believe there may be a way around. I'll call on Mr. Osgood to-morrow the first thing I do--no, the second."

"What is the first?--if I may ask."

"To close the agency of our present Boston representatives, Messrs. Sternberg, Bloom, and McCoy. And now tell me the news about Mr. Charles Wilkinson, the hero of the Hurd trolley schedule."

"Mr. Wilkinson is about to extend his responsibilities in connection with the Hurd family."

"You don't mean that old John M. Hurd was so impressed that he--?"

"Quite another thing. Undoubtedly Mr. Hurd was impressed with Mr. Wilkinson's talents as an insurance broker, but scarcely to the extent of desiring him for a son-in-law."

"A son-in-law! You mean--"

"That Charlie got a trolley schedule and a fiancée out of the same family."

"Well, well! So Miss Hurd is going to marry Wilkinson! Well, she'll acquire an ingenious and enterprising husband, at any rate. And what does John M. say?"

"Not a great deal--he's quite laconic, as usual. But what little he says is very much to the point. He says he had supposed a daughter of his would have more sense. However, since she hasn't, he can merely state that he withholds his consent to the match. Isabel's of age, and if she chooses to marry Charlie she can do so, but without approval or assistance from her father."

"Meaning," said Smith, "an unpleasant codicil in the paternal last will and testament, providing that instead of a previous bequest, his beloved daughter be paid two hundred dollars a month as long as she lives. What does Wilkinson say to Mr. Hurd's attitude? One might gather that it would make a certain difference with him, for, although Miss Hurd is certainly very attractive, I somehow gained the general impression that your friend Charlie had a very clear eye on the main chance."

"Isabel doesn't seem a bit disturbed, for I think she anticipated her father's point of view; and as for Charlie, seeing that his chief source of income at present depends wholly on the favor of a man who is angry enough to disinherit his daughter for wanting to marry him--well, one would expect that Charlie would be depressed, or at least thoughtful. But not at all. He's in the highest of spirits, and says that the mere rumor that he is going to marry into the Hurd family will establish a line of credit good enough to last ten years."

"But really--isn't the young man a bit mercurial?"

"Oh, awfully! To tell the truth, I was a little surprised when Isabel took him, for under her society manner she's very sensible and self-controlled. And yet Charlie's very attractive and amusing and really clever at times, and she is just the kind of girl that ought to take hold of him and tactfully make him amount to something. She'll be the best thing in the world for him."

"I wonder why a man almost always falls in love either with a girl who is just the sort or not at all the sort he should have selected. It's always one or the other--never any middle course. I wonder what kind of girl you would say was just the sort for me."

"One would have to know a man extremely well to venture a suggestion on such a point, don't you think?" Miss Maitland parried.

"Perhaps," Smith agreed. "And after all, since I can't myself say exactly what sort of girl would be most perfectly suited to my special peculiarities, it would be a little unreasonable to expect any one else to do so."

His companion gave a suppressed sigh of relief that a subject which might have developed elements of high hazard seemed now to be avoided. She was not quite sure what she thought of the man before her, but she knew that he seemed strong and vital and sincere. From Mr. Osgood she had learned that other people of considerable discrimination held a like opinion.

It was quite strange. Superficially, introspection would have led her to believe that she would have been attracted by some one nearer to her own enthusiasms, her own breeding, her own ideals. This young man was alien to her in birth, and his education had been along totally different lines, and logically they should not have been in sympathy one with the other, for he made her ideals seem somehow bloodless and her enthusiasms sterile and hardly worth while. It was certainly perplexing, for after three months in which she had not seen him, the attraction he exercised upon her had not noticeably lessened. She oddly felt that it would have been more considerate in Smith had he reappeared a little weaker and less vivid than her remembrance of him.

Nevertheless she was distinctly glad to see him again. That was a fact to be faced, and when, at parting, he inquired whether Boston would be scandalized if he were to call again the following evening, since he would probably have to leave on the next day, she found herself impelled to yield so ready an assent that she felt swift need to disguise it. Yet she gave him the answer he wished.

Next morning Smith's first visit was to Mr. Gunterson's discoveries. Only one of the partners, Mr. Bloom, had reached the office at the time the representative of the Guardian was announced, and it became necessary to wait until Mr. Sternberg and Mr. McCoy arrived. This they presently did, and a brief meeting took place in the same room in which, three months before, this precious trio had signed a Guardian contract with Samuel Gunterson. But the present interview was far less meandering and much more to the point than its predecessor.

"Gentlemen," said Smith, "the jig is up. I've come here to close your agency for the Guardian."

The three partners looked at him. Sternberg was first to recover the power of speech.

"Why, Mr. Smith," he said unctuously, "you're acting very hasty! Do you think this is fair and just to us? We haven't had enough of a tryout to really count."

"And I bet you we're giving you fifty per cent more business than Osgood did," Jake Bloom broke in. "Just because we've been a little unfortunate right on the go-off on a few losses is no reason for closing us up. You're making a mistake to leave us. Give us a year at least--we'll make good for you."

"The losses you've got through this office is on business any company would be glad to write," interposed McCoy. "Any company would take it right over again."

"I'm sorry," responded the New Yorker; "but in accordance with the conditions of our contract, either party can terminate it at any time, and I consider it best to take this action for my company. I regret that it is necessary, but there is no alternative. If it's a mistake, we all have to make mistakes now and then, and I guess I'll choose this for mine."

Sternberg, Bloom, and McCoy regarded him in hostile silence.

"Furthermore," Smith continued, "the Guardian feels that it would prefer to cancel all policies written through your agency. I hope that this can be arranged without trouble to your firm."

Bloom laughed, and directed a stream of tobacco juice into a convenient cuspidor.

"Sure it can, Mr. Smith," he said, "because this firm absolutely declines to have nothing to do with it. If you want any policies canceled, cancel 'em yourselves."

"Well," said Smith, "if we cancel all these policies we will undoubtedly inconvenience the brokers that placed the business with you, and they'll come back at you. Now I tell you what I'll do. If you'll cancel these policies and replace the lines in one or more of your other companies, I won't demand any return commission. By just substituting other policies you can square yourselves with the brokers and make a double commission besides. Isn't that fair?"

The three partners looked at one another inquiringly.

"That seems all right," Sternberg finally said. "But you're making a mistake to leave us, Mr. Smith. I tell you that straight. No one else can give you what we can."

Probably the last statement was absolutely true, but it did not alter the New Yorker's decision.

"Well, we won't go into that," he said. "I shall expect our canceled policies to come along as soon as you can get at them. Meanwhile, please give me your commission of authority and unused policies forty-one twenty-seven to forty-five hundred inclusive. You can send back the rest of the supplies by express collect, or destroy them."

A few minutes later, Smith, with a large bundle under each arm, might have been seen leaving the office of his late agents and making straight for an express office from where he shipped the Guardian's supplies back to New York. To Mr. Wintermuth he sent a telegram which read concisely, "Closed Sternberg, Bloom, and McCoy agency. Smith." He then sought a telephone booth.

"Hello. Is this Mr. Silas Osgood? Yes, I'd like very much to see you. That's very good of you to say so. Yes, last evening--I called for a few minutes. Can't you take lunch with me at the Touraine? Good--in about half an hour."

It was a very cordial meeting between the two, and when they sat down to luncheon in a peaceful corner where their talk would be uninterrupted, Mr. Osgood was more alert and cheerful than the veteran underwriter had been since the bleak day when O'Connor and the Eastern Conference moved on Boston; and as Smith went on, his companion's manifest pleasure increased.

"So I think I am justified in saying that even if the courts do not absolutely hold the separation feature illegal, they will come so close to it that the Superintendent of Insurance will take a hand," Smith said. "I'm mighty glad you didn't sell your interest in the agency, for I believe that things are going to break our way, and when it's possible for the Guardian to go back into the Osgood agency, I hope to see Silas Osgood in command--opening the front door to let us in."

"I'll open the door to admit myself and the Guardian together--I'd rather have it that way," the older man replied. "But I hope that this can be accomplished before very long. I dislike idleness intensely. When I was in the harness I often thought I had too much to do; but any excess amount is better than nothing at all. How long do you suppose all this will take? I expect to spend the summer in Europe--do you suppose that it can be fought out within a year?"

"It's rather hard to say," the other responded. "There appears to be no clear-cut law under which we can proceed directly, as we did in Pennsylvania. I suppose you heard that the Attorney-General over there had taken up our battle for us. Still, it ought not to take a year here. Meanwhile my hands are rather tied here in Boston. I can't appoint another agent, because it wouldn't be fair to close up his agency and go over to Silas Osgood and Company when you were ready to take us. Meanwhile the Guardian will be doing no business at all in Boston, and I hate to be getting no premium income whatever out of the town, but I guess I'll have to be patient. You haven't any one to suggest, have you, that would give us exclusively a suburban business so that he wouldn't interfere with your congested district lines when we appointed you?"

Mr. Osgood reflected for a moment.

"That sounds like a difficult question to answer," he said; "but I believe I know such a man. There is a very live young fellow named Greenwood who has a nice business out toward Dorchester mostly. He's a sort of protégé of mine, and if I had remained in the agency I think I should have offered him a junior partnership. He doesn't represent any company except as a sub-agent. If you appointed him, his risks wouldn't conflict at all with ours later on. Perhaps, even, I might carry out my original intention toward him."

"An excellent idea," Smith said. "When do you suppose we could go and see this Mr. Greenwood?"

"I think," said Silas Osgood, with a smile, "that we could go this afternoon."

CHAPTER XVII

Mr. James Wintermuth had just finished a luncheon of such unusual proportions that evidently it had attracted the respectful attention of the Down Town Association's waiter who usually served him, and who of late had grown almost to despair of being able ever again to bring his client anything more substantial than a half portion of crab-flake salad.

"Nice day, sir," the waiter suggestively remarked, as if Mr. Wintermuth's appetite were in some curious way governed wholly by the vagaries of the weather.

"Yes," agreed his patron, with almost a touch of embarrassment; "a very nice day, indeed."

Mr. Wintermuth was feeling uncommonly cheerful, and the cause of it was quite largely the oblong yellow missive then reposing on his desk. He knew he would have to wait a day or two before he could learn the details of Smith's doings in Boston, but it was at least a relief to feel that some decisive action was being taken.

When, two days later, Smith returned, his report seemed eminently satisfactory to his chief.

"I'm not a lawyer, so I can't tell you exactly what kind of court proceedings will have to be brought," he said; "but so far as I can make out it's a sort of action for conspiracy against the companies belonging to the Eastern Conference, joining them all as defendants. The Insurance Commissioner of Massachusetts comes in, too, in some way, and I believe that under the state law as recently amended we will finally win out."

"Finally!" said the President. "That sounds rather remote. How long do you expect it will take? Protracted litigation is both expensive and unsatisfactory."

"Oh, it won't cost us anything; the Insurance Commissioner nominally brings the suit, as I understand it, and I'm sure it won't take more than a year. But in the meantime I feel positive that we will suffer no further annoyance or injury in New England. We've already lost about all the agents that could be shaken loose, and with this suit pending I fancy the Conference will go very slow before forcing the issue further--for fear of civil actions for damages from all the non-Conference companies if we win our conspiracy case."

"That sounds reasonable."

"It is. So I really think we need not worry much about New England for a while. I fancy I managed to stiffen up the backbone of Crowell, who's a first-class field man, and I'm going to circularize the local agents, telling them the facts."

Mr. Wintermuth looked at Smith thoughtfully.

"All right, Richard; go ahead," he said. "I am quite content to leave it in your hands."

"Now for New York," pursued Smith, inclining his head in acknowledgment of his superior's commendation. "In New York State we shall have to accomplish our purpose mainly by means of bluffing, to put it plainly, for I can't find any law that covers the point; but perhaps we won't need a law. Mr. Ferguson, the Superintendent of Insurance, is, as you know, not unalterably opposed to being nominated for Governor this fall. He has listened before now to the siren voice, and Albany seems very attractive to him. And this is an anti-combination year. I don't think he'll need much persuasion to be convinced that much credit and capital will be gained by a spirited attack on something that more than faintly resembles a trust."

"That correctly describes the Eastern Conference, in its present activities," said Mr. Wintermuth. "But what do you expect Mr. Ferguson to do?"

"Oh, I haven't any idea," said his subordinate, with a smile. "He hasn't any law on his side; but as you are aware, his office carries with it very arbitrary and radical powers, and if he thinks that he can climb into the Governor's chair over the prostrate body of the Eastern Conference, he'll find some excuse to sandbag it and make it a stepping stone. He'll do something all right, or I miss my guess."

"Probably you are right, Richard."

"The next thing I do will be to go up to see him and talk it over. New York's an important factor with us to-day. With a little watching Pennsylvania and Maryland will take care of themselves. New England is safe to hold its own, I think. I believe we've covered the high spots, sir."

"How long have you been Vice-President of the Guardian, Mr. Smith, if I may ask?" inquired the head of the institution in a tone of affectionate raillery mixed with genuine pride.

"Oh, about a week," said Smith, laughing; "but I've been sitting around so long, spoiling for a chance to do something, that there's several months' stored-up energy which I've got to get out of my system."

"Well, I hope you get around to the local department pretty soon," said Mr. Wintermuth. "Poor Cuyler has worried himself nearly sick, and the city business has been hit very hard; premiums are away off for the year so far."

"Yes; I want to talk that over with you, too. But I think Mr. Ferguson comes first."

"Very well, Richard; use your own judgment," said his chief. "So far, I think you have done good work for us."

"I'm glad you're satisfied, and I'll try to keep it up, I assure you," said Smith. He hesitated a moment. "But there is one phase of all this thing which I haven't forgotten and which I don't think you have, either, and that is how we came originally to be dragged out of the Conference and exposed to all these attacks."

"I have not forgotten it," said Mr. Wintermuth, stiffly; "but I think there can be no advantage in discussing it."

"I beg your pardon, sir, but I do not agree with you in that--and for this reason," rejoined the other. "Just one man is responsible for most of our trouble. He caused us to resign from the Conference, he tried to steal our agents and our business when we were out and succeeded in some pretty important cases, he got our branch manager away from us, and alienated some of our best local brokers, and--I have no proof of this last and perhaps I should not discredit my predecessor--but I can't help feeling that he induced some mutual friends of yours and his to suggest Mr. Gunterson's name to you."

"No," said the President, shaking his head. "The man who mentioned Gunterson to me is a real friend of mine--it was merely his judgment that was at fault."

"Well, I'm glad to hear it," the other responded. "But the point is this: is O'Connor likely to stop now? That's what we've got to consider."

"It is no particular concern of mine what Mr. O'Connor does or where he stops," said the President, with magnificent but impractical dignity.

"Well, it is of mine," Smith retorted, "because I want to know what he's going to do next. O'Connor has played several very shabby tricks on you and on the Guardian--things that must, even in his own eyes, seem discreditable. The fact that we know what a rascal he is doesn't help us much if we just sit here with our hands folded. And the fact that at last we have begun to defend ourselves will not endear us to him the more--on the contrary it will make him even more vicious toward us. No, he won't stop where he is; we shall hear from him again."

Smith was possibly correct in his conclusion; but for the moment all was very quiet along the Salamander battle front--if battle front it were. So he went off to interview the vigilant and ambitious Ferguson; and for four days the home office saw him no more.

In the many years during which the Guardian had conducted its sane and conservative business life, it had gathered into its grasp a great many desirable adjuncts and aids to the smooth and proper operation of a first-class fire insurance company. Its agency plant, while not one of the largest, was second to none in the character and ability of the agents themselves; its force of office and field men was adequate; even its stationery was simple and dignified and well adapted to the ordinary uses of the management.

Perhaps at no time had Mr. Wintermuth's good fortune served him better than when he secured the Guardian's principal reinsurance treaty. Nearly every large company has contracts with one or more reinsurance companies, usually foreign, and whenever an agent writes a policy for a greater amount than his company thinks it prudent to hazard on the risk in question, it cedes to one or more of these reinsurers such a proportion of the risk as it feels disinclined to retain, paying to the reinsurers an equal proportion of the original premium. The larger the policies a company is willing to write, the higher the esteem in which it is held by its agents, as a rule; and the Guardian had always, thanks to the excellent reinsurance facilities it enjoyed, been able to take care of very liberal lines on all acceptable classes of business. Moreover, since the treaty company paid the Guardian for its proportion of the premium a higher rate of commission than the Guardian paid the agent who wrote the risk, the transaction was profitable to the Guardian. The reinsurance company could afford to pay the higher commission, because it had no expensive agency plant to maintain, it did not need conspicuous offices, it employed no field men or inspectors, and in fact, except for the inevitable losses, this commission paid for the business was its only important expense.

Mr. Wintermuth had, in the mist of years past, discovered on one of his trips abroad a reinsurance company rejoicing in the name of the Karlsruhe Feuer Rückversicherungs Gesellschaft, or more briefly, the Karlsruhe Reinsurance Company. With the managing director of this worthy institution he had taken the unspeakable waters at an almost obsolete German spa, and although the waters did him no good, the reinsurance treaty that he incidentally arranged with Mr. August Schroeder made a very satisfactory termination of the treatment. It was a masterly contract--for Mr. Wintermuth--and its acceptance by Mr. Schroeder only showed that his experience with American business was very limited or that the waters had sapped his vitality to a degree more than was perceptible. It allowed the Guardian to do almost everything it pleased, restricted it not at all, never protested any action however unexpected, waived every possible right and privilege, paid a liberal commission and a share of the profits besides--in short, it was an ideal treaty and one which was the admiration of those few privileged characters who knew its merits. Nevertheless it had also proved to be a good contract for the Karlsruhe, for such business as the Guardian ceded had paid a modest but unfailing return to its Teutonic connection year after peaceful year.

One can therefore only faintly conjecture Mr. Wintermuth's surprise and genuine anguish upon receiving, one bright April morning, a communication in German, which, being translated by Mr. Otto Bartels with something more than his customary stolidity, proved to read, stripped of all superfluous verbiage, substantially as follows:

"The managing director of the Karlsruhe, in accordance with the conditions of the contract, hereby gives six months' notice of the termination of the reinsurance arrangements now existing between the Karlsruhe and the Guardian."

When, the following day, Smith returned, Mr. Wintermuth's first greeting was silently to hand him this letter. The younger man, with a little assistance from the President's recollection of Bartels's translation, managed to decipher the tangled German, and sat for a long minute without speaking.

"Why do you suppose they're canceling? And why didn't we get this through their London managers, I wonder?--they're the people we've done business with for the last ten years," he said at length.

"What difference does it make?"

"None, perhaps. Still, it strikes me as rather odd. Almost as though some one had planned that this should look as though it emanated from a point less in touch with William Street than London is."

"Then you think--?"

"Who else could it be but O'Connor? And these German underwriters are perfect babes in the wood--they're just idiotic enough to cancel a profitable contract merely to take on an experimental one with a bigger premium income in its place. Now, nobody outside the office knew the conditions of our contract with the Karlsruhe--except O'Connor. No, there's no question about it. He probably offered them a little better commission arrangement and a bigger business--and they fell for it."

"Very likely that is so," agreed Mr. Wintermuth.

"The only question now is: what can we do?" Smith continued.

"Schroeder has been dead six years. And I don't know the present managing director at all; I've never even seen this man that signed the letter."

"It would have done us no good if you had known him," said the younger man, slowly. "This is a cut and dried affair. All we can do now is to look for another treaty. We must try to get a contract as good as the one we have with the Karlsruhe."

"I'm afraid we can never do it," the President responded.

"Perhaps not--and again, perhaps we can. Still, I admit it won't be easy." He fell thoughtfully silent.

"Cuyler tells me he's lost another broker--Spencer and Carrick have begun to drop their expirations with us," remarked Mr. Wintermuth, with an irrelevance that was more apparent than real.

"Does he think the Salamander's getting them?" Smith inquired, his eyes narrowing.

The older man nodded.

The other rose from his chair.

"I think," he said deliberately, "that I will go and see Mr. F. Mills O'Connor. I will give him just one chance to let up in this campaign of his and restrict his energies to ordinary business competition; and then, if he refuses, I will ask you and the other directors of the Guardian to let me open things up and fight him on his own ground, if it costs us every dollar of prospective profit for the next three years."

Mr. Wintermuth's face assumed an expression of manifest concern.

"Don't be hasty, Richard," he said quickly; "the fault with all you younger men is that you're apt to go too fast. I myself have confidence in you, you understand, but I don't know that I could promise the support of the directors for any campaign of reprisals. I'm afraid the idea of spending three years' prospective profit wouldn't strike them with any degree of favor."

His perturbation was so sincere that Smith turned back in the doorway to reassure him.

"Well, don't worry," he said lightly. "Probably my remarks will so abash Mr. O'Connor that he will immediately promise to be good. I guess I'll try it on, anyway."

Fresh in his determination, he went straight to the Salamander office, and it was but a moment later that he found himself confronting the man he had come to see.

"Mr. Smith, I believe," said O'Connor, neutrally. "Won't you sit down?"

"Mr. O'Connor, I feel quite sure," said the other, taking the proffered seat.

"Yes. And to what do I owe the pleasure of this call?" responded the President of the Salamander, swinging around in his chair to face his visitor.

"If I can take up a few minutes of your time, there are quite a number of things I'd like to say, and a few that with your permission I will."

O'Connor waved his hand for the desired assent.

"Go ahead," he said.

"Mr. O'Connor," said Smith, "you owe your position in the fire insurance world to the Guardian of New York more than to any one other influence, and your recent acts seem to show that you've forgotten your obligation. You committed the Guardian to withdrawing from the Eastern Conference, for one thing, and after the company got out, you took advantage of its position to raid its agency plant for the benefit of the Salamander."

"That's most of it nonsense--but what if I did?" asked O'Connor, curtly.

"I am merely here to ask your personal assurance that from now on you will discontinue your active efforts directed especially against my company."

The other man looked at him.

"That's cool enough, I'm sure. And what'll you do if I don't grant your surprising request?"

"If you do not, the Guardian will be obliged to take such steps to meet you as seem advisable. So far we've been entirely on the defensive; but we are going to protect our interests, and if the best way to protect them necessitates a complete change of tactics from the defensive to the aggressive, we shall make that change. And if we do, I give you warning that we can make things unpleasantly interesting for you and your company."

O'Connor laughed, toying with a pencil.

"We don't want to be forced to attack you," Smith continued, "and I admit we would far rather not; but I warn you that if we are unfairly injured, the man responsible will be held personally liable. You understand what 'personally liable' means, don't you?"

The President of the Salamander did not reply for a moment, but Smith saw a flush come into his face when he answered.

"Pshaw! you're talking of things you know nothing about. I haven't injured your company--you've done it yourselves. If you don't like it, being outside the Conference, why in the devil don't you go back? I'll propose the Guardian for membership, myself, and you'll be reinstated within two weeks. I haven't done anything that any business man wouldn't have done. Some agents have decided that they'd rather represent the Salamander than the Guardian; in my opinion that's only the exercise of good judgment. If people prefer to give risks to us rather than you, they've a right to exercise the privilege of their choice. My feeling toward the Guardian is exactly what it has always been. If Mr. Wintermuth thinks he's been unfairly treated or that he has a grievance against me, let him come to me with it himself, and I will be glad to show him that he is wrong. But I don't care to go into the matter any further with any one else."

"That is your answer, then?" Smith asked.

"Yes--it is," the other responded shortly.

Smith turned to the door.

"Sure you've nothing further to add?" he asked, his hand on the knob.

"Nothing whatever," said the President of the Salamander, and he turned back to his desk.

"I'm afraid we'll have to fight," Smith reported to his chief. "O'Connor says," he added, with legitimate malice, "that if you imagine you have a grievance and will come to the office of the Salamander, he will graciously consent to give you a hearing."

Mr. Wintermuth looked up, and a flash of his pristine shrewdness gleamed in his eye.

"You're saying that--putting it that way to get me into a controversy with the Salamander people, Richard," he said.

"Yes," admitted Smith, honestly; "but I wouldn't do it if I didn't believe that eventually we'll have to fight that man on his own ground, and beat him, too, before he'll leave us alone to conduct our business."

"Perhaps that is so."

"Then you'll let me close in on him when it becomes necessary?" the other persisted.

"Possibly," said Mr. Wintermuth, cautiously; and more he would not say.

During the next few days Smith found himself a very busy man. There were a thousand and one matters demanding his attention, for in the three months' regime of his predecessor many things had come to loose ends. All through Conference territory agents had to be reassured; there were certain legal preparations to be made; definite instructions for a new plan of campaign had to be given to field men and office force. Smith found very little time to consider the two questions which most interested him--of which one was the next probable move of O'Connor and the other the securing of a new reinsurance contract.

To be sure this latter task was officially assumed by Mr. Wintermuth, but Smith felt reasonably certain that ultimately he himself would have to find the treaty. And this would not be an easy task, unless he should resort to the obvious and fashionable method of consulting Mr. Simeon Belknap and abiding by his selection on his own terms; and since the market was limited and Mr. Belknap's facilities in these delicate and complicated matters were unique, his services naturally were not cheaply held. Smith, with youthful self-confidence, decided that he himself would make a preliminary canvass of the reinsurance market; and so, when the first rush of new duties had abated, and his legal affairs were safely in the hands of counsel, and the interrupted agency machine of the Guardian was beginning to turn normally once more, he undertook this matter of a new reinsurance contract with all the energy at his command.

The one man in New York, aside from the eminent Mr. Belknap, who was the most powerful figure in reinsurance affairs and who best understood the situation on both sides of the Atlantic, was a solid, silent, almost venerable Teuton by the name of Scheidle. Mr. Scheidle occupied an anomalous position, but one of absolute authority, since he had been for many years the United States Manager of no less than three of the largest foreign reinsurance companies. He was unsociable, apparently uninterested in anybody save possibly himself, and disinclined to be lured by any call or beckoning whatsoever from his William Street office. An outsider would have said that most of his time was employed in crossing the ocean, for it seemed as though the _Journal of Commerce_ reported every few days either his arrival or departure. Perhaps he reserved his loquacity for his native land, but at all events he exchanged in New York no converse with any one save in the strictest necessities of business; he had no intimates except a few anonymous Teutons as difficult of access as himself. He positively declined to make new friends, and it was evident that he had all the friends he desired to have; and in the same way he declined to consider any new business proposals, as all his companies were long established and all were in possession from numerous treaty contracts of premium incomes sufficiently large to satisfy their conservative manager.

This was the man that Smith, after careful deliberation, set himself to ensnare. But unfortunately, the more extended became his researches, the more impregnable appeared the cloudy barriers which Mr. Scheidle had raised between himself and the English-speaking world. At the end of a week of consistent effort Smith found himself precisely where he was when he began.

And then, just as his chances of success seemed faintest, the whole scroll suddenly unrolled itself before him. A chance inquiry of Mr. Otto Bartels provoked an answer of gutturals not especially euphonious in themselves, but which fell with vast and soothing solace on Smith's troubled sense.

"Sure do I know him," said Mr. Bartels. "Except when he goes to Germany, with him I play pinochle on Tuesdays always."

Smith surveyed him, speechless.

"To-day is Tuesday," he said at last. And for the next half hour he proceeded to explain to Mr. Bartels exactly what it was that Mr. Scheidle now had a chance to do for his old friend with whom for so many years he had played his nocturnal pinochle on Tuesdays always.

"You'd have saved me a lot of trouble if you'd ever said you knew Scheidle," Smith remarked after the explanation was concluded.

"I would have said if any had asked," replied Mr. Bartels, simply. However, the same commendable reticence being a characteristic of all his human relations, there really was no cause for Smith's criticism.

Mr. Bartels, moreover, now that he knew what he was expected to do and had his duty set plain before his methodical feet, advanced along the desired way in a most encouraging manner, and with considerable celerity. So successful was he in his negotiations with Mr. Scheidle that not long afterward he was able to bring Smith the most welcome of tidings.

"He says that one of his companies has a treaty with the Majestic of Cincinnati, and he has lost money by it. The Majestic gives him bad business. He will perhaps cancel this contract, and that leaves a place for another."

"The next time I want anything, I'll come to you first," said Smith, cheerfully. "Now I'll go and see the chief and ease his mind--and also find out what terms he is willing to make with Scheidle."

Mr. Wintermuth proved to be no stickler for terms; his anxiety to replace the lost treaty was too great. And Mr. Scheidle, after analyzing and studying the results of the business which the Guardian had ceded to the Karlsruhe, made a very fair offer. And so the Imperial Reinsurance Company of Stettin, with assets nearly twice as great as the once lamented Karlsruhe, agreed to pay as much commission to the Guardian as the Karlsruhe paid, on an almost equally liberal form of agreement.

It was only a short time after this matter had been so satisfactorily arranged that Smith met one morning at the office door the gloomy face of the once optimistic and combative Cuyler. The mind of the young Vice-President had been so cheerfully inclined by the events of the last fortnight that he had almost forgotten there still was depression in the world.

"For heaven's sake!" he said, stopping the disconsolate one, "you don't mean to say that you start in a pleasant day feeling the way you look?"

"Yes, of course I do, and why shouldn't I?" returned the misanthrope. "Business all shot to pieces; the only chance of getting back the brokers we've lost is to open up a little and fire off a few roman candles, and the old man won't let me do that; and no sign of a good branch manager. What more do you want?"

He eyed Smith so hostilely that the younger man, for all his regard for the veteran, felt inclined to laugh.

"Well, that sounds pretty bad," he agreed; "but absolutely nothing warrants a face as sad as yours. Those are simply a number of misfortunes that may be overcome, but your face implies a regular catastrophe. I don't see how a broker dares to tackle you; I wouldn't, if I were a broker."

"Oh, it's all very well to be cheerful, if you can," retorted the other, gloomily; "but I've been a good many years building up this local business, and I admit I can't take much enjoyment in watching it float out the door and disappear down the street."

"No, one would hardly expect you to," Smith conceded. "But cheer up, just a little. I've been waiting for the directors' meeting to tackle the local situation, and you know they meet to-day."

This was the first directors' meeting since that at which Smith had been chosen Vice-President. Had there been in the minds of those who had voted for him any doubt of his dynamic force and ability to cope with the situation before him, that doubt must have been dispelled by the brief but satisfactory report upon what had been done, presented to them by Mr. Wintermuth. Upon the conclusion of this there was a pause, and Mr. Whitehill spoke.

"That's a good statement, and I think our Vice-president is to be congratulated on taking hold of things in such an energetic and business-like way. We shall of course ratify the action Mr. Smith has taken on these matters; and now I want to ask Mr. Smith what he thinks our prospects are and what he has in mind for the immediate future."

There were two things Smith wanted, neither of which could he get alone and unaided; and accordingly he went to the point with the utmost directness.

"I believe that we have passed a kind of crisis and that things are fairly well started, gentlemen," he said. "I see no reason why the Guardian should not go on and continue to be the successful underwriting institution it has always been, and certainly I shall try my hardest to make it so. I am very much obliged to Mr. Whitehill for his expression of confidence in me. Now, there are two things which you gentlemen can give me and for which I ask you to-day. One is authority to double our liability on Manhattan Island, and the other is an uptown branch manager."

Smith stopped, glancing at Mr. Wintermuth and rather apprehensive of the reply he might receive. But all that gentleman answered was:--

"We've always tried to keep down our liability in Manhattan--especially in the lower end, between Chambers and Twenty-third Street."

"Yes," said Smith; "and I believe, sir, we've kept it down too far. In the last ten years the construction has been greatly improved, a high pressure water supply has been introduced, the fire department is bigger and more efficient, and yet our liability is very little greater in the dry goods district, for example, than it was ten years ago."

"That's true," the President agreed. He turned to the other directors. "I think perhaps that in our city business we may have been a little too conservative, but I have always preferred to err on that side, if I erred at all. I should not oppose a rather more liberal policy in New York."

"Thank you," Smith replied. "Mr. Cuyler and I will take care that the company does not get involved for dangerous amounts in any well defined district, and I hope that the larger part of our increased business will be uptown. And it will, if we can secure the right branch manager."

"But how can we help you there?" another director asked. "None of us is familiar with insurance conditions."

"I thought," the other said, "that some of you might have influence with some of the better uptown agencies. The competition for that class of business is tremendous. Mr. Wintermuth, Mr. Cuyler, and I all know most of these people, but a mere acquaintance is nothing--to get into a first-rate office and get their best business means that you've got to have a strangle hold on the agent--nothing less will do."

Mr. Whitehill leaned back in his chair.

"I don't know exactly what constitutes a strangle hold," he said with a smile; "but there's one firm up town that handles all my trustee business, and I think they would hardly like to disoblige me. I fancy the commissions on it must amount to rather a handsome amount, year in and year out. And I think they must have an agency, because once or twice I've noticed their name signed to policies they've sent me."

"Who are they?" another director asked. "Perhaps Mr. Wintermuth or Mr. Smith may know them."

"Evans and Jones," replied Mr. Whitehill.

The President and his young subordinate looked at one another. Even Mr. Wintermuth, who for some years past had given little attention to the details of the local business, knew that the firm in question was one of high standing.

"Of One Hundred and Twenty-fifth Street?" Smith asked.

"Yes. You know them? They have an agency, then?" Mr. Whitehill responded.

"They certainly have," replied the other. "They are as desirable agents as there are up town, and they represent the Essex of England, the Austrian National, and," he glanced at his chief, "the Salamander of New York."

Mr. Wintermuth found no words.

"Now, Mr. Whitehill," said Smith, "they are the people we want as branch managers. Our interests would be safe in their hands. But to take us and do us justice they would probably have to resign one of the companies they now represent. Do you think your influence with them is sufficient to get them to do that?"'

Mr. Whitehill smiled somewhat grimly.

"My boy," he said, "I don't like to extol my personal influence; but if I asked Evans and Jones anything within the bounds of reason and they declined to do it, I admit that I should be surprised--very much surprised."

This was the reason why, on a busy corner of the Street, only a week later, two men came to a stop face to face, the elder regarding the younger with a malignity that was indifferently concealed.

"Well, how's the boy underwriter?" said a sneering voice. "You think you turned a pretty trick when you took my branch manager, eh?"

"I told you we'd have to get back at you," the other replied. "But," he added, "I should hardly think it would be a subject you'd care to discuss."

The blood came into the face of the first speaker.

"Well, I do, just the same," he said; "and I want to tell you that you've gone too far. You've made a personal matter of ordinary competition. All right--have it as you like. But you take it from me, this fight's just started, and I'm going to see it through, and I'll get you and your Guardian yet."

"Is that all you wish to say?" Smith queried in a level tone.

"Yes," said O'Connor, shortly; "that's all. Remember it."

And he turned toward the office of the Salamander.

CHAPTER XVIII

"27 Deerfield Street.

"DEAR MR. SMITH,--You never come to Boston any more, do you? Or when you come, do you see some other lady? Assuming for the sake of argument that you don't come, I can't help feeling rather relieved, for if you ever thought my mind at all above the deadest dead level of my sex--a sex that most gentlemen either secretly or openly believe to be vastly inferior mentally to their own, anyway--you would receive a fearful shock if you should arrive and see me now. For no girl could more enthusiastically have thrown herself into the combination of things with which the comic papers most dearly love to associate the conventionally idiotic feminine--clothes and weddings. In this case the wedding has not yet occurred, but the clothes are in one way or another occurring nearly every twenty minutes; and far from being ashamed of my interest in such petty and ephemeral things, I have actually enjoyed the campaign--in which I have taken both an active and advisory part--toward completing a trousseau for the prospective bride.

"However, one thing gives me courage to confess this to you, and that is that I have merely followed out my natural tastes and inclinations, and I think you have a theory that anything absolutely natural has a right to exist. I hope I'm not wrong and that you really have such a theory, for it has cheered me up quite a lot, because I don't believe any one ever took a more vivid interest in clothes than I have done for the last ten days.

"I suppose by this time you are thinking I have talked so much about it that I must be acquiring this trousseau for myself, but such is not the case. The bride-to-be is Isabel, who has finally decided to marry Charlie Wilkinson at once, and without waiting longer for a change which may never occur. Miss Hurd, who inherits some of her father's sagacity, has always acted on the theory that if you consistently neglect to do things which absolutely have to be done, some one else will always do them for you,--and in this affair I am the some one else, doing most of the real work while Isabel placidly speculates on whether her father will or won't relent at the eleventh hour.

"I could save her the trouble of her speculations, for I know John M. pretty well, and the number of times he has changed his mind in the course of his life cannot be more than six! But Isabel argues that he reversed his decision once before on a matter in which the ingenious Mr. Wilkinson figured, and so he may do again. But up to now there are no signs of any such happy conclusion, for Mr. Hurd stands on his promise that if Isabel marries Charlie, her doom will be on her own head, so to speak. He has more than once thrown out the fine old conventional paternal threat--'not one penny, and so forth'--which would give me, I admit, far more concern than it seems to occasion either of the interested parties.

"Certainly Mr. Hurd has thus far given an excellent imitation of a very fair grade of adamant, as Charlie puts it. He concedes nothing that he doesn't have to. He says Isabel is of age and can legally marry whom she pleases, but if she pleases to marry Charles Wilkinson, the Hurds' roof shall not be the scene of the function. Charlie's obvious retort to this was that this didn't cause him very much disappointment, as Mr. Hurd's or any one else's roof seemed a curious and somewhat inappropriate place for a marriage ceremony, anyway, and he didn't think the prospect of himself and his ushers being obliged to reach the altar by crawling out of a scuttle would lend to the occasion a dignity strictly in accordance with his well-known reputation for always doing things in correct form.

"So the pair of them are now trying to decide whether to have a church ceremony or to run away--practically--and be married without any society annex whatever to the affair. I myself rather favor the latter, but Charlie is quite keen for the church. He is really very proud of Isabel, and so far as I can make out he would like a big wedding to advertise, as it were, his achievement in getting her. And then he adds as usual that his tailor and other similar friends ought to be considered, and the more important the function the firmer his future credit will be.

"Meanwhile time flies, and poor Mrs. Hurd is torn by conflicting desires. All her life, you see, she has subordinated herself to every whim and opinion of her husband and repressed every natural inclination and desire. How you would love her! And now she finds to her surprise that her natural affection for her daughter is in danger of taking her off her feet. I really believe there have been some painful scenes between the poor lady and John M.--and there may be some more if Mrs. Hurd's newly awakened self-assertiveness grows more positive and Mr. Hurd remains inflexible.

"Through all of this I keep the comparatively noiseless tenor of my way, and plots, counterplots, and cabals seethe deliciously round me. I've been having a simply splendid time, and I've discovered that the actual cause of my enjoyment is the most primitive one imaginable,--I love a romance, and a real romance ought to end in a wedding, just as this one is presently going to do. I can hear your comment on this: 'Good heavens! that Maitland girl is exactly like all the rest!' Well, perhaps I am; cut my acquaintance if you wish--but I have confessed the truth to you.

"Charlie is much improved, I think. He is as cheerful and as inconsequent as ever, and his plans for the future seem to me, although I am not a practical woman of business, more sketchy than well defined. Sometimes, after listening to him, I have come to the conclusion that even so attractive a quality as absolute optimism can be overdone, and that the principle of never crossing a bridge before you come to it can reasonably be modified by observing before you actually get to the water whether there is any bridge at all or whether you will have to swim for the opposite bank. However, one saving grace is the fact that Charlie seems genuinely in love with Isabel, if I know any of the signs, and in contemplating the future he even talks of going to work, if the need should ever arise for that radical departure from his whole life scheme. Of course, as says, he probably wouldn't do it, but that he should even think of it he conceives to be a sign of inherent nobility.

"Were it not for this excitement, I am afraid Boston would be a little dull. I am reluctant to put such a confession in writing, for some one has quite truly remarked that to say of any place that it is dull is too often a confession of one's own dullness, but I am going to be honest about it. Do you suppose it is because New York, after being denied by me so long, will have its hour?--or is this a permanent thing? Somehow I cannot get away from the feeling that Boston is small and narrow and cold. Perhaps it is because of the wonderful life that thrills through almost everything in New York--even through the things one dislikes. But I don't expect you to answer that, because I don't believe you dislike anything thoroughly characteristic of New York; I remember you once took me to a Broadway musical comedy and said you enjoyed it.

"It is a long time since you were in Boston. Are you likely to come here again within a month or two? If not, I wish you would write me all the news of the Guardian and all about the great legal fight which you and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts are waging against the octopus. I try to keep in touch with it through Uncle Silas, who of course is intensely interested and who seems another man of late, but he has not your gift of explaining in words of one syllable. Have you ever thought of getting out a textbook of 'First Principles' of anything, for juvenile intellects of all ages? I am not wholly making fun.

"Yours faithfully,

"HELEN MAITLAND."

"It is," wrote Smith in reply, "one of the most soothing things imaginable for a person who is about to admit a human weakness to find his confession forestalled. Just as I had determined to confess to you my possession of frailties entirely incompatible with the conception of Richard Smith in the eyes of his ordinary acquaintances, I received your letter. It was with the delight of the reprieved client of a painless dentist that I read your admission that when such vital things as trousseaux and weddings are in question, you are very much like other girls--and perhaps even a little more so.

"I really breathe a huge sigh of relief. And with positive cheerfulness I can now proceed to divulge the secrets I have learned about one Richard Smith, Esquire, in the months which have elapsed since a certain traveler from the Far East--relatively--returned home from New York. As my somewhat cryptic rhetoric may not be clear, and appreciating your fondness for words of one syllable, permit me to state that this means you.

"Self-satisfaction, self-absorption, self-sufficiency, have had a sobering shock. For I find that for the full and perfect enjoyment of my city I myself am no longer enough. I need company--curiously, one specific and particular individual whom, having once named, I need not name again.

"Do you suppose all this can be a sort of vanity? Do you think it was my delight in the sound of my own voice, booming through the crowded streets I love like the bittern across his lonely marshes, that makes me wish you would abandon even such thrilling traffic as trousseau planning, and come back and let me boom some more? For I have found it truth absolute that New York with Miss Maitland in it is a better place than the same city peopled only by Richard Smith--and some millions of others. Do you object to my telling you this? If your mood is unusually Bostonian when you receive this letter, you will very likely hurl the fragments of it into an ashcan omitted from the map of the brown building on Deerfield Street. However, I am counting heavily on the mood and influence of the approaching wedding to help me out.

"For nobody--that is, no real girl--is inflexible when there is a wedding in the air, and your letter only proves you are a real girl--which I always thought you to be. And I'm awfully glad you are! Only think how icily unhuman you would seem if you could hold yourself superior even to a wedding, and especially to one so romantic as this of Miss Hurd's promises to be, with all the melodramatic settings of a possible elopement, a distracted mother, and the thunderously raging paternal parent of the disinherited heiress to add zest to the occasion! If you remained unmelted by all this, my next visit to Boston--which I am sorry to say cannot occur as soon as I would like to have it--would almost certainly see my calls confined to insurance agents and lawyers--or perhaps to the mythical other person referred to in your letter.

"For the other person is purely mythical, as you must some day know. Only in Deerfield Street is there the type of brown building that irresistibly attracts me. So beware of stray rings at the doorbell, for any moment it may be I. Do you believe in telepathy? And if so, do you believe in it sufficiently to think it can ring a doorbell all the way from New York to Boston? If you do, listen--and you can hear it now!

"You asked me about the onslaught upon the octopus, and I am happy to say that things are going as well as the most ardent muck-raker on the most active fifteen-cent reform magazine could wish. The suit has been put on the calendar for trial in Massachusetts, and in New York State the Superintendent of Insurance is causing more trouble than we ourselves could possibly have created. There haven't been any actual results yet, but the moral effect for us has been immense. The Eastern Conference people are no fools, and they can read the Mene-tekel on the wall even if they don't know Assyrian.

"If you have talked with Mr. Osgood, you doubtless know that we are agreed on our Boston plans. At the proper time he is to go back into his office, taking the Guardian back with him--and probably the first thing he will do after taking charge again will be to resign the Salamander. Meanwhile we sit as tight as a couple of dynamite conspirators--and at present the Guardian appoints no Boston representative and accepts no Boston business except from a few suburban agents.

"Elsewhere things are looking very much more cheerful than when I saw you; and when the rush begins to let up a bit, I shall have no difficulty at all in persuading myself that a conference with Mr. Osgood and our Boston attorneys is necessary. Until then I must do my best to forget that New York is less delightful under some conditions than--others.

"I hope you will be good enough to write me all about the wedding of Miss Hurd and Wilkinson. Somehow I cannot help regarding it as a fundamentally humorous happening--I think the picture of Wilkinson as a man of responsibilities in any actual sense is probably the cause of my amusement. But I wish them both the very best of luck, and if you think it a suitable match, I am quite willing to accept your judgment. Wilkinson always seemed to me to look quite happy and contented, and it is the popular belief that any young bachelor of such an appearance needs a woman to take care of him.

"Do you remember the old print of the Madison Cottage that we discovered in the print room of the Library one afternoon? I found a copy of it in a second-hand book shop down town a few days ago. In case you don't object to having it I am "inclosing it herewith," as we say in our office correspondence a hundred times a week. Except that the people to whom we send the inclosures usually don't want them, and I am hoping that you will care something about this.

"Very sincerely yours,

"RICHARD SMITH."

It was at the close of a pleasant afternoon in the good town of Boston, only a few days after the arrival of this letter, that two girls and a young man rather hastily descended the front steps of a certain substantial and dignified dwelling in the Back Bay district. That something a little out of the ordinary had occurred might have been guessed from the expression of guilt on the faces of certainly two and perhaps all three of them, and possibly by the half-embarrassed alacrity with which the young man escorted his companions down the steps. No one of them apparently cared even to glance back at the building they had just left, although its occupancy was as respectable as its appearance indicated; and each one seemed oddly reluctant to look at either of the others. It was not until their feet stood soundly on the flagged sidewalk and the house was well behind them that the tension snapped and the young man spoke.

"Well, Isabel," said he, "I'm awfully glad I've done it, but that ceremony was certainly terrific. I believe that to go through such a thing twice in a span of life would unhinge a mind like mine, whose hinges creak slightly at times, anyway."

"Very well, Charlie," responded the young lady addressed, smiling. "I think I can arrange that you shan't have to, for the Hurds are a notoriously long-lived family."

"But what was so terrific about it, Charlie?" inquired the other young lady. "It didn't seem to me to differ much from any other marriage ceremony--and you must have heard dozens at one time or another."

"Oh, I suppose I have," was the reply; "but somehow that man made me feel like a worm--and a worm that's only by the most extraordinary luck managed to keep out of jail. I felt like a cheap political hack accepting the nomination for an important office that I was perfectly certain I couldn't fill acceptably."

"Well, he did look a trifle severe--not very cheerful," conceded Miss Maitland.

"Cheerful! He looked about as cheerful as a firm believer in infant damnation during a bad attack of dyspepsia. But never mind." He turned to the other girl. "Now that it's all over, how does it feel, Isabel, to be Mrs. Charles Sylvester Wilkinson?"

"I really don't know," said his wife, considering a moment. "It's the Sylvester part that seems most unfamiliar. I had honestly almost forgotten that you had such a decorative middle name. And when I was told that some one called Charles Sylvester had endowed me with all his worldly goods, I admit I felt somewhat surprised."

"You would have been even more so if, at the same time, you had been given a list of them," replied the bridegroom. "I think--to go back to the Archbishop--" he said reflectively, "that the trouble with that man was that he was too high-church. Now my leanings have never been toward high-churchness. Ordinarily my inclinations toward church at all are discernible with difficulty. My enthusiasm regarding it is continually, under normal conditions, at low ebb. And this, I take it, makes me a low-churchman."

"It's a most encouraging sign, to see you embracing any kind of ritual," said Miss Maitland. "Isabel, I have hopes of him yet."

"That is very good of you," replied the bride, smiling amiably at her lord and master--to speak academically.

"Very strange feeling it gives one to be so suddenly married in this way--without any of the conventional preliminaries," Wilkinson continued. "I always imagined that when my time was come, while the grape scissors and sets of Jane Austen and cut glass berry bowls were pouring in on my happy fiancée, I should have one last, lonely, sentimental hour set apart for maiden meditations and twilight reflections over my dead life and half-forgotten past. Also to recover from the effects of my ushers' dinner. An ushers'--girls, have either of you ever given or even attended an ushers' dinner?"

His companions' reply was a laughing negative.

"Well," said the young man, gravely, "to have escaped giving an ushers' dinner is assuredly worth an almost innumerable number of pairs of grape scissors and several entire editions of Jane Austen. Yes, I am certainly to be congratulated, for an ushers' dinner should be shunned like the Bubonic plague. To begin with, the cost is simply colossal. The food, of course, counts for practically nothing, and the drink is only an incidental, though a large one. But repairing the broken furniture, and repapering and redecorating the room in which the function has been held, and purchasing another piano in place of the one which your guests have playfully torn to pieces--those are a few of the things that count."

"They sound as though they did," agreed Miss Maitland.

"Moreover," Wilkinson continued, "if the dinner is given at the club to which you belong, you always put the board of governors in an awkward position, for at their next meeting after your entertainment they can never agree on whether to expel you outright or merely suspend you for three years, and quite often there is bad feeling created by these dissensions; while if you hold the affair at a public restaurant, you risk the friendly ultimate intervention of the police. And then the favors! Why should I present several gentlemen with pearl stick pins, when I have none myself? To be sure I might give my best man the ticket for mine, and he could redeem it whenever he had four dollars, but generally speaking, the answer is in the interrogative."

"On the whole, then," said his bride, "you ought to be reconciled for the loss of your twilight reflections."

"When I look into your eyes I am repaid for everything! There!" he turned to Helen, "could any one have said a perfect thing more perfectly?" And Miss Maitland agreed that, although his grammar might have been criticized, his sentiment and delivery were flawless.

"Well, it's over now, so I'm glad you accept it gracefully," she said. "You're committed, temporarily at least--unless you wish to start for Nevada at once."

"Really, Helen, I think it's most indelicate of you to refer to such a possibility," the other girl remarked. "I've only been married fifteen minutes, and to be deserted by one's husband even within a week or two is not considered flattering."

"No, I think I'll stay," Wilkinson replied. "But if I were to start West at all, I should say the sooner the better to avert the wrath of your esteemed but irascible parent."

"I think father has said all he has to say; he expressed himself most thoroughly," Isabel rejoined thoughtfully.

"I should say he did!" her husband agreed. "With elaborate precision, if I may so express it. He told me enough about my family and antecedents to make me wholly ashamed to belong to them. His presentation of myself was simply masterful; it would have moved one of his own trolley cars; I didn't wonder a bit that he objected to me as a son-in-law. In fact, I told him that had I known all these things I should have sought a fitting helpmate from the State Reformatory, but that I could not withdraw--my word was pledged."

"What did he say to that?" Helen asked, with amusement.

"He intimated that, as I seemed susceptible to reason, perhaps his daughter also might be. But I assured him that he failed to calculate correctly my undeniable personal charm--that I was an acquired taste, but one for which there was no cure."

"An odd one, but mine own?" suggested Isabel.

"That was not quite the idea I intended to convey, but I am bound to admit it was just about the way it seemed to strike your respected parent. That is, he said, 'I suppose if she's been idiotic enough to decide to marry you, it would be impossible to bring her to her senses now.' I cordially assented."

"Do you know, I believe I really _am_ married," Isabel said reflectively; "for I certainly object most decidedly to my father's way of talking to you. Heavens! If I have to go through life resenting the things people say of my husband, I shall certainly lead a checkered career."

"It is the common lot of wives," remarked her husband philosophically. "But here we are, hard by the gilded food bazaar wherein a head waiter with drawn butterknife guards a table for three, reserved in my name. We are about fifteen minutes early, but personally I could look with resignation on the idea of nourishment."

"The voice of returning nature," said Helen, with a laugh. "Charlie married is the same man, in one respect at least, that we have always known. Isabel, you may be disturbed over what people say about your husband, but you will never need to be disturbed at his lack of appetite."

"The main disturbance will be in providing for it," Wilkinson responded. "The securities I own bring me in a revenue of thirty dollars a year. That is two dollars and a half a month, or about eight cents a day. I read only yesterday an article about some ingenious person who contrived to support life on something like that sum, but my recollection is that his menu consisted almost entirely of peanut butter--of which I am not particularly fond--and besides that, there was only one of him, while there are two of us."

"Yes, that's true," Miss Maitland conceded.

"I had begun to think I had gotten financially on my feet, when my father-in-law turned over that trolley insurance to me, but he says he'll see me considerably below the equator before he gives me the renewal of it. Deeply do I regret that I did not succeed in getting him to take out three-year policies."

"Why wouldn't he?"

"Well, he just wouldn't. And I was unwilling to force the matter for fear of losing entirely that coy and canny fish. I did get him, though, to let me rewrite the line last month, so as to include some property not at first insured, and that ties it up until next April. And maybe before next April comes around, the hard-hearted John M. will have relented toward his gifted son-in-law, and all will be well. Meanwhile we will live on our principal."

"Meanwhile we will do nothing of the sort," said Mrs. Wilkinson, with a smile. "I may not have inherited all father's talent for finance, Charlie, but there are one or two things I know enough not to do, and that is one of them."

"Madam," said her husband, sternly, "there is in your speech a hint of definite purpose which is at once encouraging and disquieting to me. May I ask if your plan contemplates the labor of your consort? Do I make myself clear? In other words, are you suggesting that I shall go to work?"

"It may come to that," smiled his wife.

"Well, well! Charles Wilkinson a wage earner!" He shook his head silently, and the trio walked on.

It had been arranged that Helen was to dine with them. The sudden marriage, which had been forced by a swift access of hostility on the part of John M. Hurd, had left little time for preparations, but the dinner was merry enough, and the health of the bride and groom was pledged with the utmost fidelity to tradition; and after that, Charles and Isabel escorted their guest home, and left her at the door of the apartment on Deerfield Street.

Mrs. Maitland found her daughter but silent company the rest of that evening, and at a comparatively early hour the Maitland apartment grew dark. In Mrs. Maitland's room all was quiet, and in due course, presumably, sleep; but Helen found that slumber was alien to her eyes. So, opening her window to the little breeze that came hinting of summer although speaking of spring, she looked out wide-eyed into the starry night.

It was warm, even for the time of year, and the cool breath of the ocean which Boston knows so well was not in the air. Instead the breeze moved slowly in from the westward, bringing the imagined odor of apple blossoms from unseen orchards. The city's sounds were dying to a mere rumor of sound. Now and again a light went out suddenly in some window of a near-by building; the reflection of the street lamps on the night became more and more clear. For a long time Helen gazed out into the darkness.

Across the water to the northward shone the lights on the Cambridge shore. Seeing them her memory went back to the time when first she had really seen New York by night. Smith had volunteered to show her the night city as it should be seen, and never was she to free her imagination from the sight. They had gone first to the South Ferry, in the gathering dusk, and taking boat for Brooklyn had witnessed from its rear deck the golden pageant of the thousand lighted buildings of the lower city--had watched them gleam in a thousand ripples across the dark river, ripples that lay and moved like silver and golden serpents along the water. Back presently they had turned, approaching once more the stately towers that touched the sky, and this time they had sought a new angle. Over to the Jersey shore their blunt-nosed ferryboat had taken them, and thence north along the river to Twenty-third Street, seeing the gold and velvet-black city slide southward as in a dream.

On all this Helen was now indefinitely reflecting, and of the man with whom she had seen it first she perhaps thought a little. But those were oblique thoughts, and hardly worth the name. All the experiences and impressions of the day--Isabel's departure from home, the wedding, the grave face of the old minister, the silence of the dim room in the parsonage, Charlie's subsequent comments, the dinner _à trois_--all these mingled in her mind, and somehow seemed a part of the great night into which she gazed.

Yet there was an undercurrent of vague dissatisfaction in her reflections. All these things were true and vital, and she had been only a spectator, a visitor at the fair. Life had surged around her, but had touched her not at all, or lightly at best. Unconsciously her thoughts toward the sleeping city were as though she offered herself to it and to the life that bound it and swept through its veins. Presently, across the water, a clock began to strike the hour--midnight--and softened by the distance, the chimes came gently across the intervening space.

Helen roused herself a moment: midnight! Yet the blood that flushed her cheeks showed that sleep for her was still afar off. And so she sat, unmoving, while in the darkness above her the myriad stars moved slowly in their majestic courses.

CHAPTER XIX

The bringing of order out of chaos is one of the most interesting and also one of the most satisfying employments a person can have. Likewise it is usually one of the most exhausting, if the chaos has been really chaos and the order be really order. But the satisfaction of seeing, as the clouds break and the skies clear, the salient outline of the thing appear as it ought to appear is sufficient compensation for all the effort. Even if the work be no more elevated than washing up a trayful of soiled china, a certain thrill is there at the successful completion of the task; and the greater the Augean stable, the purer is the pleasure of him who cleans it.

When in the spring of this, his most eventful year, Smith had taken charge of the slipping, wavering, demoralized Guardian, the stable of Augeas there confronting him would perhaps have dismayed a less enthusiastic and a less determined man. Everything was at loose ends; under the shiftless hand of Gunterson even the fine insurance machine built up by Mr. Wintermuth in his best constructive days had suddenly grown to creak painfully in its joints. The heads of departments, seeing no inspiring or even efficient leadership above them, had become discouraged, and there had been no one to brace their failing spirits. Mr. Cuyler and Mr. Bartels in particular had felt the altered fortunes of the company more keenly than they had felt any business crisis in all their previous experience.

When Mr. Cuyler had witnessed his local business, his pride and his life, the fixed star of his professional soul, begin slipping away, his gloom, as has been told, was not to be lifted. But the case of Mr. Bartels was even more sad. Year after year had that painstaking official made up the current statement of the company's position, to be presented in silence to Mr. Wintermuth on the first business day of every month. Year after year had he carried this balance sheet to his chief and stolidly waited for the word of satisfaction which was always forthcoming, save in exceptional cases. For there had come to be a kind of sacred formula about it, and if that formula failed to materialize, the world was all awry for Mr. Bartels, until another month put matters right once more. And this, so placidly prosperous had the Guardian been, the succeeding month had seldom failed to do.

"Holding our own, Otto?" the President would inquire.

"Poohty good; losses is bad but premiums is up some, too," Mr. Bartels would usually reply; and Mr. Wintermuth, appreciating the impossibility of ever reaching a loss ratio low enough to meet the approval of his Teutonic subordinate, would scan the statement with little fear of the result. And then, after another little exchange of courtesies, this monthly playlet would end.

When the Guardian had first met the rough water, Mr. Bartels had not been able to understand that anything was amiss--that anything could be amiss--with the company whose inconspicuous prosperity had been an axiom of the Street. When, on the first day of February, he had taken off his first summary of January results, a little cloud of puzzled suspicion had gathered in his still blue eyes. After carefully checking his own figures he had rung for Dunham, the chief accountant, and it had been a querulous and angry summons.

"Here, dese figures is all wrong. You have January premiums pretty near fifteen per cent behind last year. Fix 'em."

But Dunham, chill as the Matterhorn, assured the excited little man that the figures were quite correct and that he had checked them twice to make certain.

"But--but--" said Bartels in bewilderment, "we cannot be going backwards like that! We have never gone back like that in January."

"Until this year," incautiously rejoined the other.

"No; nor this year, neither!" cried Mr. Bartels; and only his own thrice repeated checking of the premium sheets would convince him. Shaking a puzzled and resentful head, he at last sought his chief; with a hang-dog air he handed over his statement, and with heavy heart he waited for the President to speak.

Speech was longer than usual in coming.

"Not quite so good?" the President said at last.

"No," said Mr. Bartels. "Rates must be off, I guess?"

"No, Otto," returned Mr. Wintermuth, slowly. "It's not a rate war. It is that we have had to give up some of our agencies in the East on account of the Conference separation rule. I am afraid we shall have to expect a certain decrease for a little while until things get readjusted. But it won't last; you needn't worry about that."

Unfortunately, however, it did last; and not only that, but it became more and more marked with each succeeding month. With the third statement, when the greatest inroads had been made into the Guardian's business, Mr. Bartels became like a living sepulcher. So heavy and sad was the heart he carried in his breast that not all the consoling words of his chief could stir him.

"I have seen agencies whose accounts I have passed for twenty years fall away to almost nothing or nothing at all. From Silas Osgood I get no March account; from Jones and Meers I get none. Every month for fifteen years have I written Jones and Meers to correct their adding; now I write them not at all." And there were many more.

Finally, when at last it dawned upon Mr. Bartels's Bavarian mind that the Guardian was really in peril and that unless something were done quickly, a large part of the remainder of the agents in the East would follow those already gone, his blind anger and resentment knew no bounds. He could not, however, understand the real facts in the case, and no one ever took the trouble fully to explain them to him. So his impotent rage, lacking a target whereat to aim it, became even blinder. He was like a child, being unjustly punished for some wrong which he had not committed, and which he could in no way comprehend. The thought of facing his chief with a semiannual statement made up of a series of months like these, was more than he could bear. Fortunately he was not to be called upon to do so, for Mr. Gunterson left the Guardian when the fat was all but in the fire, and another turn was given to affairs.

And the year now just closing had been a busy year for Mr. Richard Smith. During the most of it he had worked nearly twelve hours a day, and spent a liberal share of the balance in laying his plans. Now, and only now,--as the year 1913 was drawing to a close,--had he time to draw a full breath and look about him.

His Augean stable, if not wholly clean, was at least free from the more dangerous impurities. The Guardian was not yet, it was true, clear of all possibility of disaster; but the tide had been turned, and with strict care there was no further need to fear shipwreck. In Pennsylvania, in Maryland, in New York,--in short, practically everywhere save in Massachusetts, where the fight was still in the courts,--separation had received its deathblow, while robbed of this advantage the Conference companies could do little or nothing to harm the Guardian. And in justice to them it must be said that none of them apparently manifested any abnormal desire to do so, excepting always the Salamander, whose hostility increased in geometrical ratio with the Guardian's recovery of strength and prestige. Most of the agencies which had been lost under Mr. Gunterson's management were either restored to the company's lists, or else their places had been taken by others of equal or superior quality.

Out in the field the special agents had under Smith's aggressive direction recovered their courage and carried out with striking success the details of his campaign. At the few points where the company's loss record had been consistently bad, Smith either kept the Guardian out altogether or made an appointment on such a basis that the agent's profits would be small unless the company itself made money through that agency. Being free and not bound by Conference restrictions, he was able at many points to improve his company's position. And when, in the early days of the coming January, Mr. Bartels should approach his annual statement, it seemed probable that it would show little diminution in the Guardian's resources. The statement would be helped, too, by the fact that the value of some of the securities owned by the company, chiefly considerable blocks of bank and anthracite railroad stocks, had appreciated very handsomely during the year. And Mr. Cuyler, thanks to the increased conflagration line and to the large business he was securing from his new branch manager, was making a record so good that he could scarcely believe the figures which he himself had compiled.

All in all, the showing would be by no means a discreditable one. It had been a remarkable task; and Smith, now that he came to look back on it, remembering the black days of the reign of Gunterson the Unready, could himself only wonder mildly at the way all these things had come about. In the midst of the satisfaction which he could not help but feel, there was always a genuine sense of amazement at the facile way in which Fate had played into his hand. If he had any doubts, however, no one else confessed to any. Mr. Wintermuth frankly gave to his young underwriter the proper share of credit for the results that had been brought about. All this was pleasant, but it was also earned.

In these months of activity, activity unusual even for Smith, who was customarily a busy man, there had been for him only one personal diversion. This was his growing friendship with Helen Maitland; and to this relationship Smith had by this time come to turn as a lost Arab turns to a chance-discovered oasis. Through the days of Gunterson's administration he had not had heart to write Helen or even to think of her--to his darkened vision she seemed increasingly far away. But this could not last, and when the tide turned, he presently found himself writing to her almost as to another self, and found himself awaiting her letters as filling one of the most vital needs of his life. There was a name for this, but as yet he was not prepared to use it, and if Helen were prepared, certainly no hint of any such readiness showed through her diction.

Because men no longer go abroad, as in medieval times, hewing their way to glory and romance with sword and mace, it is no sure sign that the flower has fallen from romance's tree. Merely because that flower now blooms perhaps more quietly, less flamboyantly than it used to bloom in purple and gold, is no reason to think that it does not bloom at all. The singers of world songs find voice to-day, just as they always have, and no lack of all the panoply of old-time chivalry and war can make a friendship slipping into love less than a beautiful and wondrous thing. It is perhaps in some ways to be regretted that the inspiring bombast of the elder days is no longer in vogue--the grandiloquent arrogance that led a man to tie a lady's ribband to his arm and proclaim on fear of sudden death her puissance of beauty throughout the world. This is perhaps unfortunate; but through added reticence beauty really suffers no wrong.

Smith, although he had not as yet formulated his precise wishes or intentions as regards Helen, still knew that he desired a house professionally in order before he allowed himself to think of another kind of house. The Guardian was his company, and the Guardian must be placed in a haven where storms could come not, before he would feel that his charge was sufficiently relaxed to allow of his dreaming dreams.

It was with this idea that, as the old year was drawing to a close, he approached Mr. Wintermuth with a definite project in view.

"We are not going to have such a bad year, after all," he began.

"I fancy we shall come through pretty well," the President agreed. "Although it didn't look much like it at the start."

"No," said Smith; "it didn't. But do you know, sir, that in one way we're not making as much of a profit as we should?"

"In what way do you mean, Richard?" inquired his chief.

"Not in the underwriting," replied the younger man. "I'm not going to suggest increasing our lines or opening up any more than we have. But I don't think it would hurt us if we opened up a little financially."

"How so? In what way?"

"Well, our investments are in high-class securities, but they're not liquid enough. We've always bought with the intention of holding what we buy forever. Now, we've got an exceptionally good finance committee; Mr. Griswold in particular is regarded as one of the strongest and shrewdest men in Wall Street."

"Yes; I know he is," Mr. Wintermuth conceded.

"And there's really no good reason why we shouldn't benefit by his judgment. Now, you know as well as any one that the money to be made out of underwriting, pure and simple, is comparatively little. You know that in the long run, even with the most ably managed companies, expenses and losses together just about eat up all the premiums received--that less than a dozen first-class companies doing a national business have an underwriting balance on the right side for the last ten-year period."

"I admit that unfortunately such is the case."

"Therefore the only chance a company has to make money is from the use of money--from the use of its premiums between the time they are received and the time they are paid out in losses. And as this is really our only chance, we ought to take every advantage--and make as much of an investment profit as we possibly can."

"I trust you do not mean to suggest that we use the Guardian's assets for purposes of speculation," Mr. Wintermuth remarked.

"Certainly not--unless it is speculating to take advantage of what foresight and knowledge of conditions our finance committee possesses. I do not suggest buying on margin or selling what we haven't got. But I do suggest that we carry more liquid assets and a bigger cash balance than we have ever done, so as to be able to take advantage of opportunities that may present themselves. Now, take our Ninth National Bank stock, for instance. The Duane Trust Company crowd are trying to buy the control, and the stock's higher than it's ever been. In my opinion the block we hold is worth more to the Duane people than it is to us; I'd let them have it."

"Why, we've had that stock for twenty years!" the President said.

"Well, we've probably had it long enough," said his subordinate, with a smile. "At least I'd like to have Mr. Griswold's opinion on the point. And you certainly will never lose much by getting out of a security at the highest price it's touched in that entire period."

"Perhaps not. I will speak to Griswold about it," said Mr. Wintermuth.

"I am not a financier, and all this is somewhat outside my province," Smith went on; "but I think we ought to follow more closely the trend of modern business methods. We hold far more than we need of solid railroad bonds that net us four per cent on our investment. With very little extra risk I am sure we can secure a good deal larger return."

It was a rather daring speech to make, for four per cent first-mortgage railroad bonds had been Mr. Wintermuth's idea of finance for almost a generation. It spoke well for his confidence in his Vice-President that he did not regard the remark as an impertinence.

"That may be true, Richard," he said mildly, "although I have held to the contrary for twenty years. Still, times change, and to-day you may be right."

"I think I am, sir," returned Smith, respectfully. "At any rate, why shouldn't the question be laid before the directors?"

"We could do that," agreed Mr. Wintermuth, with, it must be confessed, a covert feeling of relief. After all, the assimilation of new ideas is not the most painless of processes, whatever the age of the assimilator.

"There's no meeting before the January one, is there?"

"No. January fifth--dividend meeting. But that's comparatively soon. I'll lay it before the board at that time."

"Thank you, sir," said his subordinate, rising; "and I think that at least one person present will approve a little more elastic financial policy for the Guardian."

"Mr. Richard Smith?" inquired the President.

"Oh, yes. But I was thinking of Mr. Griswold."

"Well, we shall see," rejoined Mr. Wintermuth; and the conversation concluded.

The year 1914 dawned clear and cold. There had been an almost daily snowfall in New York during Christmas week; and although the street cleaning squad had labored stoutly, a little dusky whiteness still persisted in the less frequented corners of the city. This had come near to being the undoing of Mr. Jenkins, the main reliance of the Pacific Coast accounts and otherwise of considerable importance in the period of stress and toil known as "statement time."

At the beginning of every year comes this period to every company--the time when the accounts department becomes, instead of an active thorn in the company's flesh, the real, essential hub of the whole wheel; the time when the adding machines are never still and the rooms resound with the rustle and stir of a thousand sheets of figures, swung ceaselessly over by practiced and hasty thumbs; when the lights burn late every night for two weeks on end, and the laboring bookkeepers see their families only by cinematographic glances between newspaper and coffee cup in the cold gray mornings.

This time was now come; and the Guardian's men, under the silent but none the less strenuous urging of Mr. Bartels, had begun the grind which could end only when the annual statement of the company was in the printers' hands with proof initialed and approved by Otto Bartels, Secretary. And this, taken in conjunction with the cold weather and heavy snowfall, had fairly undone the honor and the reputation of Mr. Jenkins. For the unusual cold and the night work together had betrayed him into potations even beyond his wont, the slippery pavements had proven very baffling to his dignified tread--and the snowy signet upon the back of his topcoat spoke to a delighted office all too plainly that at last the alcoholic equilibrist par excellence had fallen.

This, however, embarrassing as it was to the individual in question, did not seriously delay the work of the department, which was well under way by the time the directors came together in their private office, to declare the semiannual dividend which for many years the Guardian had undeviatingly paid. A trial balance, from gross figures, had been drawn off, so that the President was able to report with reasonable exactitude on the condition of the company. The dividend was promptly declared, and this was followed by a more or less informal discussion among the gentlemen around the big table.

"The increase in our surplus seems due mostly to the rise in value of some of our securities," Mr. Whitehill commented; "but the underwriting showing is much better for the last six months than for the first. I think our friend, Mr. Smith, is to be congratulated; and at the same time I want to ask what he thinks of our prospects for the coming year."

"Well, from the underwriting viewpoint," Smith answered, "there is no reason why this year should not be better than last, and several reasons why it should; but if you will pardon the presumption of my going outside of my own department, I think our chance for an increased profit lies more along financial than insurance lines."

"Mr. Smith thinks," said Mr. Wintermuth, "that there has not been a sufficient flexibility in our investments--that we could do better with a larger cash balance and more liquid--or easily liquidated--assets."

"And so we could," said Mr. Griswold. He leaned forward with more interest than he had yet shown. "I have felt for some time," he continued, "that our management of our resources was substantial and safe, but--without wishing to reflect on our President, whose conservatism has been a tower of strength to us--I have also felt we were financially just a little old-fashioned."

"What would you suggest that we do?" inquired the President. "My mind is entirely open on the subject."

"Let me see the statement," said Mr. Griswold. He regarded it carefully through his glasses. "Well," he said, "there are several items on this, representing securities of which I advised the purchase. This Schuylkill and Susquehanna Railroad and this Ninth National Bank."

"Ninth National--that's the bank the Duane crowd is trying to buy, isn't it?" asked another director.

"Yes. It's higher now than it has been for twenty years," said Mr. Wintermuth.

"And a great sight more than it's worth," Mr. Griswold commented. "If it were mine, I'd get out at the present price. And I'd get out of Schuylkill and Susquehanna, too. I don't want to be quoted on this, you understand, but there's no reason for its selling at 160 except the expectation of an extra dividend, and in my opinion all this talk of an extra dividend is just rubbish. I believe if we sold what we have to-morrow, we could get it back within six months, if we wanted, at 135."

The gentlemen around the table were visibly impressed, as Mr. Griswold's reputation for sagacity in such matters was more than metropolitan.

"Well, I move that the Finance Committee be empowered to recommend the sale of any of our securities," said another well-intentioned director. "And that on their recommendation the securities be sold," he added somewhat lamely.

"The Finance Committee doesn't need any such resolution passed," said Mr. Griswold, with a laugh. "If I'm not greatly mistaken, it's always had such powers. But I'm glad to learn that it is now the desire of the directorate that we should use them."

It was only a few days after this that Smith, having stopped on his way home to see a Pittsburgh man who always put up at the Waldorf, met Mr. Griswold in the lobby of that hotel.

"Well, our Ninth National stock is sold," remarked that gentleman, casually. "Four ninety-two."

"Good!" said the underwriter. "I think we're well out."

"So do I," returned the other. "By the way, did you notice the market to-day?"

"No."

"Closed weak. Schuylkill and Susquehanna off two points and a half."

"Too bad we didn't get out of that, too," said Smith. "I remember you said it was too high."

"It still is," returned the financier, dryly. "But we got out. We sold every share we had, at the opening, this morning."

Smith looked at him.

"You mean--?" he asked.

"I mean that a good big cash balance is often a handy thing to have. And just now I'd rather have cash than stocks. I don't mean there's going to be a panic, or anything like that, but everything's very high. They may go some higher, but they'll certainly go a good deal lower. And I don't think that we'll have to wait very long. Good-night--glad to have seen you."

"Good-night," replied Smith, thoughtfully.

CHAPTER XX

In the Deerfield Street apartment a young man stood waiting with perhaps less calm than was strictly Oriental. This could no doubt be attributed to the fact that he anticipated with distinct pleasure the coming of somebody, while a true Oriental never really anticipates anything--or if he does, the thought gives him no delight.

But Smith, as he sat in the straight-backed chair, felt very glad indeed that he was about to see the somebody for whom he was waiting. The time which had elapsed since his most recent trip to Boston had somehow gone with unconscionable slowness, and the medium of the mails had proved an alternative means of communication only measurably compensating. He had, in short, discovered that a great deal of his life was concerned with the girl whose footsteps were now to be heard advancing down the hall.

"I'm awfully glad to see you," said Miss Maitland.

"And I you," returned the visitor; and if the words carried only the conventionalities, each found a way to make them more significant.

"Mother will be in to welcome you," the girl continued. "It's a compliment she doesn't pay everyone," she added, with a smile. "She doesn't care, as a rule, for young gentlemen visitors. By the way, we have plenty of time, have we not, before we need to start?"

"Fully twenty minutes," he answered. "I guess I'm absurdly early, but I thought I ought to give the young lady an opportunity to get acquainted with me before starting out alone with me in a taxi."

"Are we ever acquainted with any one?" the girl parried; and a moment later the conversation shifted to meet the entrance of Mrs. Maitland.

Shortly before eight o'clock they set forth for the theater. It was the evening of the twenty-first of February, and the following day, Sunday, was also a holiday in memory of a great man. It was of him that they chanced to speak, almost on entering their conveyance.

"I'm glad to-morrow is a holiday," said Smith. "After a party on the previous night it is always soothing to think one isn't obliged to get up at any particular hour in the morning. But I don't suppose that point of view would appeal to you."

"No," said his companion, with a laugh. "I much prefer having something particular to get up for. But as I seldom have, I presume that's merely another way of saying that every one wants what one hasn't got. I fancy if I had to appear punctually at breakfast every morning, I'd appreciate holidays a great deal more than I do now."

"I used to think we had too many. That was because it tears things up so abominably in an insurance office to get two or three days' work slammed at you at once. But I'm reconciled now. And if we celebrate for any one, we certainly ought to do so for George."

"Seriously speaking, why?" Helen asked. "Probably I should be ashamed of myself, but I've never been able to get up as much enthusiasm for him as I feel I should. Can you tell me any way of doing so?"

"I can tell you how I came to, at all events," said her companion. "The story may not be so romantic, but it made more of a hit with me than the account of the same heroic gentleman nearly freezing to death at Valley Forge, or standing up in a boat while he crossed the Delaware, which is a silly thing to do, even for a hero. Nothing of that sort. But somewhere--I forget just where--I ran across the account of a little episode which showed me that the General was a man of real ability, after all."

"What was it?" asked the girl, with interest.

"Well, it seems that some earnest society of antiquaries had been digging up the back yards of Rhode Island and making idiots of themselves generally in an effort to prove that the Vikings came to America."

"But they did come, didn't they?" Helen interrupted.

"Of course they did; but it wasn't known in Washington's time. However, somebody with a vein of enterprise or malice had salted a Viking mine, so to speak, and under the auspices--and the pay--of the society had contrived to exhume a stone tablet on which were some extremely apropos inscriptions, proving exactly what the amiable old gentlemen desired to prove."

"About the Vikings?"

"Yes. Well, the discovery of this tablet made a deep impression. The society held meetings and passed resolutions and went through all kinds of ponderous and absurd conventionalities, culminating in asking General Washington--at that time I don't believe he was President--to make a speech. He came over from Boston, and they showed him the tablet. And after he had looked it carefully over, he casually called their attention to the fact that the inscription, which was supposed to have been cut in the eleventh century, contained script characters which appeared in no northern alphabet prior to the sixteen hundreds. And what is more, when they looked it up, they found that he was right."

"That is really very interesting," Helen said.

"It gave me a respect for him that I'd never had before, anyway," rejoined Smith. "Think of the old General knowing anything at all about Icelandic sagas--and the offhand way he picked out the anachronism and smashed it in the eye. No--so far as I am concerned, he is entitled to his holiday. Long may it wave--especially as I hope to see you, if you'll let me, while if it were an ordinary business day I should probably have to devote myself to certain distinguished legal gentlemen."

"How is the lawsuit progressing?" asked the girl.

Smith surveyed her doubtfully.

"Have you seen Mr. Osgood recently?" he inquired suspiciously. "One time, you remember, you made me tell a long story all of which you knew perfectly well before I began."

"No--honestly," Helen laughingly denied. "I have hardly seen Uncle Silas for two or three weeks, and the last time we met, he said nothing about it."

"Well, then, in confidence it is my hope and belief that unless our present expectations fall through with a sickening thud, another month or two will see the Guardian and your uncle back in the office that neither of them should ever have left."

"Not really!" said the girl, delighted.

"I have no longer any real doubt of it," Smith said seriously. "It can hardly fail now. I don't mind saying to you that it's about time, too. The Conference has made a good fight; but they were beaten from the start, and they know it now. And I'll be very glad to see some Boston business coming in to us again, I can assure you."

"Haven't you been getting any this last year?"

"Only a little, principally suburban business through a small agent named George Greenwood. Of course we got a lot through Sternberg, Bloom, and McCoy, but it was so bad that I canceled nearly every policy they wrote for us. All the Guardian has left in the down-town district is some building business--a few lines written by the Osgood office for three or five years, and which haven't expired yet. And there aren't many of them, for Cole switched some into the Salamander, and besides, we always tried to keep our congested district business on an annual basis. If Boston burned to-morrow, I don't believe the Guardian would lose more than a hundred thousand dollars."

"That sounds to me like quite a loss."

"So it is, but it's only a small fraction of what most companies have at risk here. I'm really not sure but that a year ago we didn't have more than we should. I certainly know a lot of companies that would sit up and take notice with a vengeance if a big fire ever did occur."

"Do you think one likely?" asked Helen. "It makes one shudder just a little to think of it."

"No--probably not. Still, there's really no reason why one shouldn't happen here as well as elsewhere. And big fires are certain to happen somewhere. The city's improving right along, but it's still got its possibilities."

"Yes," said the girl. "For now that I come to think of it, I remember that the conflagration hazard in the congested district is not a thing one can precisely calculate, but it would be difficult to overestimate its gravity. Isn't that so?"

Smith looked at her, turning in the taxi to do so. By the flash of a street lamp that they were passing he could see she was smiling whimsically.

"Where did you get that?" he demanded.

"Don't you recall?" she rejoined. "Whether it's greatly to his credit or not, I can't judge, but certainly he himself hath said it."

"That's true," her companion admitted, with a laugh. "I remember now. But how in the world did you happen to?"

"Should an humble apprentice--an ignorant pupil--forget the first pearl of wisdom that fell from the master's lips? It was the first speech of Mr. Richard Smith that I ever heard repeated--the first time I ever heard his name mentioned."

"If I'd had any idea it would have lived so long, I certainly would have tried to say something more eloquent," the other returned. "However, I still stand by the sentiment. And incidentally, I don't mind saying that if Boston is going to burn, I hope it does so inside of the next two or three months--before Mr. Osgood puts the Guardian back with a half a million dollars' liability scattered about down town."

"Don't talk of so terrible a possibility as the burning of Boston," said the girl. "There has been one very great fire here. Surely there will never be another."

"Surely not," agreed Smith. "At least for the sake of your fellow citizens and my fellow underwriters I cordially hope not. But here we are, apparently."

The taxi was coming to a stop across the street from the Aquitaine, and in front of the theater where already a crowd was congregating. The avenue between the theater itself and the Common was filled with cabs and motor cars moving spasmodically about under the autocracy of a large mounted policeman whose voice easily defied the whirring motors. In the raw northeast wind there was the unpleasant smell and oily smoke of burnt-out gasolene.

Smith and Helen, disembarking at the curb, managed to avoid the worst of the mêlée; and presently, when their coats were checked and out of the way, they reached their seats just as Christopher Sly began his opening speech. The prologue soon played itself through, and the house, now completely filled, burst audibly into speech, as though a long departed sense had been suddenly and miraculously restored. From all sides the swelling tide surged forth, and Helen listened for a moment before she herself spoke.

"You would certainly suppose that no one of them had been allowed to speak for the last five years, wouldn't you?" she asked.

"Oh, well," Smith answered, "perhaps every one of them has some one he's as glad to talk to as I am to you. Although, come to think of it, I hear several voices not possessed by my sex, and I don't know but that I would really rather listen to you."

"But you won't have the opportunity," the girl rejoined. "No, this is your party, and you must be as agreeable and entertaining as you possibly can. You may begin by telling me all about the actors to-night. Why does the star choose to play such a part as old Sly? It surely isn't the star part, is it?"

"It is the tradition--or years ago it used to be. Very few actors do it now; in fact, this is the first time I've seen the star play it for years. It's well done, too, and I haven't seen it well done since old George Clark had his last curtain. This man is a good man."

"He is indeed. I noticed in the _Transcript_ he was English. Is she his wife? I gathered that she was."

"Yes. They've been playing together in London for several years now, and this is their first trip to America. I fancy that he is the real brains and ability of the combination, and her reputation seems mainly to rest on adding obedience and decorative embellishment to his effects. And she certainly is decorative, don't you think?"

"Yes--in a certain way. Tell me--do they always play Shakespeare? I was in London two years ago, but I don't recall hearing anything about them at that time. I should think I would if they'd been there."

"That's odd. I should surely have thought you'd have heard of them. They've been well known over there for some years. I suppose, though, they play the provinces, like every one else. No, they don't play Shakespeare all the time, by any means; they couldn't do it and live."

"You mean that they couldn't get audiences? Why, some actors do. Mantell, for instance--and Sothern and Marlowe. They seem to go on year after year, and they must be at least moderately successful, or they wouldn't keep it up."

"Mantell ought to; he is a real actor--of the traditional school, of course--but great, all the same. It has always seemed to me that his Lear was one of the fine performances of the stage to-day. But even Mantell has to travel halfway across the country every season; he couldn't stay in New York--no, nor in intellectual and appreciative Boston, either. And I doubt whether a man would fare much better trying to play nothing but Shakespeare in London. No, this man can play virtually anything; he made his first big hit--in recent years, that is--playing Maldonado in Pinero's 'Iris.'"

"But go back to Sothern and Marlowe. They go on Shakespearing, world without end."

"If you can call it Shakespeare. I have never been able to see much in their way of doing it. Marlowe does some things well, but I confess that to see her now as Juliet is too great a strain on me. As for Sothern, he's a good romantic actor, but not a Shakespearean one."

"They play this---'The Taming of the Shrew'--do they not? It seems to me they were here last spring."

"Quite likely. I think they try. One wet and miserable night I went to see. But remembering, as I did, the immortal Katherine of Rehan and the hardly less magnificent Petruchio of Skinner, I never should have gone. There was only one redeeming feature."

"What was that?"

"When the scene comes, watch how this man carries Katherine off. That's one great test. See if he backs her up onto a bench; see if he guides her premeditated fall to the precise center of equilibrium of his shoulders; see if he staggers painfully off with his knees tottering, almost flapping beneath him. By heavens, I have seen Skinner abduct a one hundred and sixty pound Katherine with as little effort as if she had been a wicker basket full of eggshells!"

"Is this dramatic criticism?" asked Helen, maliciously.

"Perhaps not of the academic brand," admitted Smith, laughingly; "but I believe it's good sound criticism just the same. If a man is going to play the swashbuckler, I like to see him able to swash his buckle. But seriously, I shouldn't have objected to that one bad piece of business if it hadn't seemed to me that the whole performance was out of key and wrong. But here's the curtain going up."

The curtain rose on Signor Baptista's house, and for the next half hour farce comedy supreme held the audience in its grasp.

"Katherine is very good, don't you think?" queried Helen, when once more the inane wanderings of the orchestra began to compete with the conversation.

"Very good indeed; I like her rages."

"I have always been sorry that I never saw Ada Rehan; every one who ever saw her says just as you do that no one could equal her."

"I'm sure no one could. I have seen her sit with her hands in her lap and tears--genuine tears--streaming down her cheeks for very rage when Petruchio harries her in this act. Heavens! but she was in a fine fury! Do you know that the only objection I ever had to this play was that I grew sorry for Katherine--sorry to see her proud neck bent to any yoke, so to speak."

"She is made finally to like it, though."

"Yes; she is--in the play. But I never could more than half believe that she actually liked it, for all that. Oh, I've no doubt it's wrong to prefer ungoverned wrath to sane and controlled sobriety; but she was so magnificent in her savagery that it seemed a shame she had to be tamed at all. Like the lions and the other animals that they train to jump through hoops, you miss something, you know; some splendid essence has evaporated, and I for one am sorry to watch it go."

"They tell me," said the girl, demurely, "that under the proper conditions and auspices young ladies are secretly glad to be subjugated."

"I suppose they have it naturally--cradle of the race, and all that sort of thing. Just the same, I still continue to prefer Katherine in her first state."

"You speak of her as though she were an etching."

"She suggests one, in that gown she wore in the last act--or would, except for the color."

"From that rather supercilious remark I should gather that you do not admire colored etchings."

"Hybrid affairs, don't you think?"

But before this subject could be pursued, the play once more resumed the center of the stage.

It is the immortal prototype of farce comedy, this play of the "Taming of the Shrew." In the hands of a lesser author it would have lost its comedy and degenerated purely into farce, restricting itself to more ignoble aims and to a more indulgent public. For farce, after all, is farcical, and the mood for its appreciation is not one which is sympathetic to any great or moving thing. And in the hands of interpreters less than intelligently fine, the play may still descend into the lower class; but this cannot be done without degrading it beyond any likeness to its real self.

Played rightly, however, Petruchio becomes not a brawler, not a kind of damn-my-eyes bully and braggart, but a practical idealist, a man who, happening by chance upon a creature of stupendous undirected power, sets himself to the direction of that power toward nature's, if not humanity's, ends. At the first he cares nothing for Katherine save that the rumor of her fire and spirit has pleased his wild fancy. And never is there the faintest hint of the sentimentalist about him; his is never the softness of the lover, but rather the careful prudence of the utilitarian. Yet he unstintedly admires Katherine; this is somehow felt to be so by his rather pompous implication that he would hardly be taking all this trouble about the woman were she not the makings of a royal mate, fit even for his sky-wide vision and heart and humor.

Perhaps in Elizabethan days most of this was lost; possibly during the author's own life the play assumed rather the wild gayety and license of a farce, and all the comedy had to wait in abeyance for the years to bring it into its own. Undoubtedly very few, if any, of the auditors of Shakespeare's time felt the compunction to which Smith confessed when the pride of a proud woman was seen dragged at a man's chariot wheel. What the women of those days thought about it is not so certain, but probably it was pretty much what they think to-day. Certainly Helen's expressed view was in approximate accordance with the presumably unexpressed opinion of Elizabethan ladies; and to this, in the intermission before the last act, Smith called her attention.

"Do you realize that your belief that Katherine was pleased at being conquered is not at all modern?--it's absolutely medieval."

"Well, we are all medieval--quite largely--are we not?"

"Possibly--in spots. When the girl of to-day is not overpoweringly advanced, perhaps she is quite far behind. But I should hardly have expected so distinctly a medieval opinion from you."

"Heavens! why not? I sound horribly Bostonian. Am I so hopelessly advanced that you can credit me with no human sentiments at all?"

"Well, that," said Smith, "was scarcely my thought."

"It sounded very much like it. However, I'm glad if I were mistaken."

"You know very well," said her companion, in a lower voice, "what I think of you. I think--"

"Oh, but I don't--really," Helen quickly parried. This was getting hazardous; the conversation must be switched at once. "No matter what you think of me, you are almost sure to be quite mistaken. But some things I am willing to confess. And one of them, which may be very primitive, is this--that just because I myself am not a wild, tigress-like creature is no indication that I cannot realize how she would feel. Is it, now?"

Smith said nothing for a long moment.

"I'm very glad that you feel that way about it," he said at last, rather to himself, however, than to her. And for the rest of the intermission he hardly spoke.

It was by this time about half-past ten. Here and there in the house a vacated seat showed that some hopeless and inveterate commuter had felt the call of his homeward street car or train. Never in Boston can an entire audience remain to the close of an entertainment; the lure of the thronging, all-pervading suburb is too strong. Helen, idly watching the exodus of these prudent or sleepy citizens, heard outside what might have been the warning bell that called them forth. She directed Smith's attention to the coincidence.

"They have to go home, you know; and that sounds like the signal they obey."

"It sounds to me like a fire engine," said her companion.

But further speculation was cut short by the sight of "A Road," where presently was to be seen the old man who was so oddly mistook for a "young, budding virgin," and on which soon beat the doubtful rays of the "blessed sun"--or moon, as the case might be. The intermission between the last two scenes of the act was a brief one only--the mere moment required for the rising of a scene curtain upon the banquet hall of Katherine's father. But during that little interval, two things came to Smith's notice; the first being the sound of vague noises in the outside world, and the second the peculiar behavior of a man in evening clothes at the extreme side of the stage aperture.

The seats which the two occupied were in the lower rows of the parquet, close under the right-hand stage box; and from where they sat it was thus possible to look into the wings on the opposite side of the stage. It was in the little opening between the proscenium and the curtain that the man in evening dress unexpectedly appeared. His appearance caught Smith's eye, and he watched curiously to see what was to follow. In his hand this person held a watch at which he glanced hastily, and then made two steps to come before the footlights. But just as he was nearly clear of the scenes, some one out of sight in the wing evidently summoned him, for he stopped short, and then turned back. After a brief colloquy, in which the watch was again consulted, he retired, and a moment later the curtain went up.

It seemed to Smith, watching closely, his curiosity aroused by this half-seen and wholly uncomprehended episode, that the actors in the last act were playing under the pressure of an odd excitement, a sort of suppressed anxiety and haste. It seemed to him they hurried through their lines, and the messengers to the brides came back with an electric promptness more to be desired in real life than in the circumstances of the play.

Finally the whole was done--all except Katherine's final address to the ladies, and this took but a brief moment. Smith, listening tensely to sounds from without, turned and spoke to Helen; and as the curtain fell they started quickly up the aisle. Their seats chanced to be open to the side aisle of the house, and a moment later Smith was handing his check to the cloakroom attendant, with a "Hurry up, please"--and a lubricant to celerity.

The applause was still to be heard in the theater, but after one brief bow the actors appeared no more, and the house began to empty. By this time Smith had reclaimed the wraps, and he and Helen, ready for the open air, moved out through the lobby and onto the sidewalk in front of the theater.

On the sidewalk there was a curious tone of constrained excitement. Evidently something much out of the ordinary had happened--or was happening. People stood in groups, staring northward up Tremont Street; and almost all the passers-by, as though impelled by a nameless, inexplicable force that could not be controlled, were hurrying in the same direction. An ambulance with clattering gong dashed by. The urgent crowds, pouring out of the big theater, were pressing Smith and Helen toward the curb.

"Come on," said the New Yorker, "something's up; let's get out of this." He took the girl's arm, and they crossed Boylston Street and made their stand on the opposite, less crowded walk that edged the Common.

On the sidewalk about them knots of people were eagerly talking, all looking northward as though drawn by the same magnetic force. And as Smith and his companion raised their eyes, they saw in the northern sky an ugly crimson glare that seemed to widen and grow brighter even in the moment as they watched it. From far up Tremont Street, carried by the wind, came an odd murmur of confused noises, and nearer by the sharper sounds of clanging bells and the clatter of galloping horses' feet on the pavement. The crowds were hurrying up the walk, and out in the street, where it was less crowded, men were running in the same direction. The trolley cars seemed to have been blocked; none were coming from the north.

"Great Scott! That must be something terrific!" Smith said, and he felt the beat of his heart perceptibly quicken.

But before he had time to make any further remark, from directly behind them came with the electric unexpectedness of a sharp thunder clap one loud cry, compelling, exigent, almost barbaric.

"Fire!" it said. "Fire!"

CHAPTER XXI

In the eastern sky abode only the pale gold reflection of the city's lights. To the westward, across the Common, the soft blackness under the stars descended even to the treetops. But the attention of Smith and Helen, gazing north on Tremont Street, was fixed on the unsteady glow of threatening, reddish light thrown up against the absorbing fabric of the air.

"Good heavens! Just look at that!" Smith said, pointing.

"It must be a very bad fire--don't you think so?" inquired the girl.

"It looks from here like a corker. It's certainly bad enough to make it well worth seeing," he returned. "Do you want to telephone your mother that you're going?"

"Are we going, then?" asked Helen.

"To the fire?" demanded her companion. "Of course we are going. Fires are my business, besides being the greatest spectacles in the world. Let's go over to the Aquitaine, and we'll telephone."

A few minutes later they came out again; Smith motioned to the driver of a taxi.

"Get in," he said to Helen. "You shall ride to the fire like a lady, in a cab."

As he spoke he noted how the wind was blowing the girl's hair about her face, and for just an instant he gave that vision its individual due.

"Take us as near the fire as you can get," he directed the chauffeur.

From Boylston Street up Tremont to its intersection with Beacon is a ride of barely two minutes. It seemed as though almost no time had elapsed before the taxi came to a stop beside the Palmer House. The two occupants descended; Smith paid the man; the vehicle slid off into space beyond their ken. And at that very moment their eyes sprang to where, barely a block away, great tongues of red fire licked above a wide building's roof--and all else but that thing faded into nothing.

"This way," said the New Yorker, tersely. They crossed School Street, continuing up Tremont until they were opposite the old King's Chapel Burial Ground. From this point, over the top of the City Hall, they could see the flames riding high in air above a big five- and seven-story building.

"My God! That must be Black's Hotel!" said a voice in the crowd behind them.

"Sure, that's what it is," volunteered a policeman who was keeping the fire lines.

"Were any lives lost?" Smith asked.

"No. Every one got out all right. It didn't start in the hotel. They're very careful, and they have a fine fire drill, anyway. There was plenty of time to warn every one."

Out of the north came a crisp wind. Not content with blowing, as it had done before, Helen's hair about her ears, it also whipped her skirts urgently about her. Smith calculated this wind, and shook his head dubiously.

"Twenty-five miles an hour, I should think," he said. "Rather bad night for a big fire. I wonder if we can get a little closer."

From where they stood it seemed that the fire was in the heart of the block bounded by Court Square, Court, School, and Washington Streets. The north half of this block was occupied chiefly by Black's Hotel, one of the best-known hostelries in New England, and the south half by the newspaper plant of the Boston _News_ and by several smaller buildings. Between the two sections of the block ran a narrow lane known as Williams Court; and at the time when Smith and Helen became spectators, the fire was pouring from every window of the big hotel and proving triumphant over all efforts to keep it from leaping the almost imperceptible southern barrier.

"How long has this been going?" Smith asked the policeman.

"About an hour and a half, I guess. I've been here since quarter to ten."

"Do you suppose we could go through the lines?" Smith inquired. "I've got a New York fire badge."

"All right for you, sir--I'll pass you on it--but not for the lady."

This did not admit of an argument.

"Now, aren't you sorry you brought me?" asked the girl.

"Well, no," said her companion. "Hardly--yet. Let's try a little strategy."

In front of them School Street was filled with wild turmoil. Here were hose carts and gray, snaky hose lines stretching along the pavement in weird, curves and spurting tiny streams from imperfect couplings; here were firemen rushing excitedly back and forth, hoarsely calling orders which no one seemed to hear. Along the curb were chemicals, hook and ladders, patrols, all of them now stripped of their apparatus; while at every corner beside a hydrant, each one chugging steadily away like the regular, vibrant pulse from some giant heart, were the fire engines. Out of their funnels poured a steady flare of cinders and smoke; on the pavement beneath them the embers lay crimson; and the scarlet flashes, whenever the fire doors were opened, showed the glowing furnaces within.

Retracing their steps toward Tremont Street, Smith and Helen skirted the Tremont Temple, then east along Bosworth until they came to Province Street. Up this narrow passage, which passes as such only by a courtesy peculiarly Bostonian, they went, finding themselves presently back almost where they had started, but at a point of vantage whence they could see the western face of the fire, which was now beginning to threaten hungrily westward toward the stout old stone walls of the City Hall.

And now the building of the Boston _News_, although protected by a system of automatic sprinklers, was thoroughly ablaze, as was the Miles Block immediately fronting City Hall Avenue. It was from this last building that the City Hall stood in jeopardy.

In Province Street, protected from the surge of activities beyond, the onlookers could watch most of the fight to save the old building. And a gallant fight it was, for the space between the fire and the coping of the old stone structure's eastern wall was a scant thirty feet. Fortunately, however, the wind was blowing almost directly from the north, and this gave the firemen a chance. From the movements of the department and the snatches of orders which could occasionally be heard, Smith gathered that a similar struggle was going on in at least three directions from the blazing block. To west, to south, and to east the flames were leaning, and the narrow streets made the task of holding them additionally hazardous.

Meanwhile the heat, even in Province Street, had become intense. Together with the other onlookers, Smith and Helen found it necessary to take refuge in the doorways and behind an angle of a building which projected slightly beyond the rest of the row, from which point they looked forth in turn, shading their faces and eyes with their hands. All at once, looking upward, they saw a cloud of smoke suddenly replace the glare directly north. The next moment a dull sound from the Miles Block was heard, and Smith saw its western cornice sway.

"We'd better get out of this, quick," he said. "A wall fell then--the west wall of that building there. That ought to save the City Hall, if they handle it right; but it'll make this alley too hot to hold us. Come on!"

Side by side the two hurried back with the crowd along the narrow way. Their departure was taken none too soon. Behind them they could feel a wave of heat radiated from the ruins of the burning structure; it forced its way even through the little street down which they were retreating, and they could feel the hot blast upon their backs.

"Something more must have fallen then," said Smith; but he did not turn his head. Instead he took the girl's arm with a firmer grip, and they continued swiftly on their way until they came safely into Bromfield Street and out of the pursuing wave of heat.

"Let's cross over to Washington," Smith said.

On Washington Street, at first, little could be distinguished, and the police were none too gently forcing the crowds even farther back. But a block to the north, at School Street, which only a moment before these two had just quitted, there was to be seen a wild confusion. Fire engines were here, too, chugging at every hydrant, and the passage was fairly clogged with hose and apparatus of all sorts, with nervous horses, and shouting, swearing, excited men. As Smith looked closer he saw that the firemen were no longer entering School Street to the west from Washington; they were being driven back instead. And a moment later he saw also a lieutenant raise his arm in a signal.

"There comes an ambulance," he said gravely,

"What is it? What do you suppose has happened?" Helen anxiously asked.

"Fireman hurt, undoubtedly. Unless I miss my guess, somebody was caught when that wall fell. That must have been what caused the wave that chased us down that alley. See!--they're bringing them out!"

Three times the stretcher moved back and forth across Washington Street. At last the ambulance drove away.

"All it could carry," commented Smith, grimly.

It was now evident that the department was being forced out of School Street. The wall which had fallen had entirely blocked the narrow passage, and the heat from the blazing ruin was so intense that no man could even obliquely face it. It was also clear that a hard struggle would be necessary to prevent the fire from leaping eastward across Washington Street.

Northward along the street from behind them, clanging its gong with insistence, came now a chief's wagon, its black horses plunging forward, open of nostril, reckless of all. Standing erect in his place, this man took an instant survey of the situation, and then began shouting orders to his subordinates in a way that seemed somehow to make itself felt above the uproar.

"He must have come around from the other side," said Smith. "Now he's taking charge in front."

However so, the effect of his instructions could be noted almost at once. Several of the engines withdrew into Milk Street; others moved northward along Washington; still others southward, but all away from the now threatened point, which was the southwest corner of Washington and School Streets. It was plain that all efforts were to be directed toward preventing the fire from jumping east of this, and it was with this purpose that the street was being cleared--the decks cleared for action. And well might they be, for on the eastern corners, directly across from this point of highest hazard, were two buildings, each an object of peculiar interest and even reverence to Bostonians. One of these was the Old South Church; the other the home of the Boston _Transcript_--palladia both.

"Clear the street--get those people out of the way," came the abrupt order, and Smith and Helen found themselves hastily retreating toward Tremont Street, where for a few moments at least they might hope to be undisturbed.

Not so. Tremont Street was now all that Washington had been a few minutes before; and with a tremendous crowd of onlookers the two found themselves steadily forced back and out into the Common. In the space before Tremont Temple the fire fighters seemed thick as bees, and from their manner Smith knew that they were dealing with a situation very close at hand.

"I bet anything that the Palmer House has caught," he said to Helen.

"You're dead right, Bill," called a voice in answer. "The whole School Street front's going. This is a _fire_, that's what it is--take it from me." The voice trailed off into the whirlpool of sounds, but Smith had heard all that he needed to know.

"This is more than a fire," he said gravely, his lips close to the girl's ear. "It is a conflagration. With a thirty-mile wind like this, blowing right into the heart of the city, no one can tell where it will stop. We had better go home."

"Go home! Why, what time is it?" asked his companion in surprise. "We've only just gotten here!"

"We have been here," said Smith, consulting his watch, "just about an hour and a half. It is now twenty minutes to one."

"Twenty minutes to one?" exclaimed Helen. "My mother will certainly think we're lost. But I hate to go. It is magnificent, even if it is terrible."

"Yes," said the other. "Just the same, Deerfield Street is the best place for you. I wonder if there's a cab in sight."

As it developed, there was none.

"Let us try the subway, then," the New Yorker went on. "Perhaps the cars are still running in there."

It was a silent couple that made its belated way home to Deerfield Street. Helen's eyes were bright with excitement and her face was flushed; but Smith was almost too preoccupied to notice the added brilliance which this gave to the girl's beauty. He parted from her at the door of the Maitlands' apartment.

"You had better go to sleep as soon as you can," he said. "Try to forget all about this business. To-morrow afternoon, when it's over, I'll come around, if I may, and tell you all I know about it."

"I shall be home to-morrow afternoon," the girl replied. "But what are you going to do now?"

"Oh, I expect I shall go back to the fire for a while," he said carelessly; "but I don't intend to stay up all night. Don't worry. I'll see you to-morrow about four--or earlier, if there's anything of importance to tell you. Good-night."

The door closed on him.

Meanwhile, furiously driven by the wind out of the north, the fire had taken a giant's dimensions for its own. Shortly after one o'clock the entire block between Tremont and Washington, School and Bromfield was one vast seething furnace from whose throat the fire burst now southward and upward with a roar. The wind was bringing its element of peril to add to the conflagration's own; it caught the white heat from the blazing mass of buildings and started it sweeping southward in a devastating wave of superheated fluid air.

As the man on the Common had said, this was a fire--but rather was it Fire, the essence of the god, the very burning breath of Loki. The city was in the hand of something greater than chance and more sinister than circumstance.

But the firemen did not realize this. When Smith found himself once more approaching the northern end of the Common, he could see that the fire had changed its humor. It was no longer a gambler, dicing with the fire fighters to determine whether it should live or die; it had taken on surety and become a tyrant, an absolute dictator, a juggernaut--and it would not pause now till all its grim play was played, or its humor changed, or some breath mightier than its own should quell it. But the firemen did not see this.

They were working like madmen now, facing a thousand hazards, unseeing yet noticing all, undirected save by words which they could hardly hear and even more hardly comprehend. There was not, however, even for their stout hearts, any longer the faintest hope of meeting their enemy face to face. The heated blast, borne on the wind's wings, entirely prevented that. All that the department could endeavor now to do was to restrict the conflagration's lateral spread, to keep the daemon in the track he had chosen, and not allow him to stray to east or west. But they reckoned without his whimsy.

There was a stray puff of wind to westward; there was a sudden cry of men mortally hurt, of horses suddenly tortured. Out from the windows of the Phipps Building a flood of flame sprang west; expelled from the tottering structure by some inward impulse, perhaps by an explosion of smothered air, this sheet of heat and flame, of unburned and burning gases, leaped Tremont Street as a rabbit leaps a ditch. Simultaneously the Tremont Street face of the old Park Street Church burst into flame, and along the rear of the buildings which fringed the ancient burial ground the fire crept. Under the eaves of these buildings it ran, and a moment later the line of brick structures on Park Street was briskly ablaze, and once more the fire fighters' flank had been turned.

Quickly this westward adventure proceeded. So unexpected had been this attack that it was some time before the department could adjust its front. Tremont Street, moreover, which was now untenable, held much apparatus, and most of this was burned where it stood. Straight up the slope toward Beacon Street and toward the gold dome of the State House the fire errantly went. Blank walls between buildings seemed to make little difference to it; what it could not pierce it ran around. Only at the extreme end of the burial ground did it pause. Here a seven-story fireproof building confronted it, and proved equal to the task. Against the solid walls of this barrier the impetuous visitor beat in vain, and then, just as suddenly as he had begun his foray, he subsided. The final sputter of his dying, under the hose streams of his foes, sounded for all the world like a chuckle. It was as if this wandering creature had signified that he had accomplished his purpose in giving the department a good scare, and that he might as well stop. The firemen stood for a moment to catch breath, gazing on the havoc wrought by this wild half hour; then, coiling up their hose, they went to await new orders.

It was now almost two o'clock. The fire had been burning for four hours; it had completely destroyed two entire city squares and part of a third, and its course was manifestly just begun. To the north and west it had strayed as far as it was to go, for the north wind made it impossible for it to spread farther in that direction, and its westward swing, as has just been seen, had been checked. The unrestrained main line of the conflagration was therefore almost due south, following the direction of the wind's impulsion, but also it tended toward the east, since all great fires strive, fanlike, to open out. This tendency on the west the Common effectually vitiated, and the firemen's plan of campaign was proportionately simplified.

The obvious course now to be pursued was to mass the opposing forces along the east flank of the conflagration, restricting so far as possible its spread in that direction, for since the wind made it impossible to face the fire, no hope lay in direct opposition save perhaps through the thunderous agency of dynamite. On these lines the defense set to work anew.

After a thrilling struggle Old South Church had been saved; the concentration of the fire fighters around its corner had been efficacious. The stout old structure which had survived so many years of winters out of the east had survived one peril more. Its brick walls stood with their paint cracked and split, its tower tottered, scorched and feeble, but the building itself was intact. Score one to Boston, and to the indomitable forces battling for her preservation.

Not without a fearful cost, however, had this victory been gained, for the east side of Washington Street, from the _Transcript_ down, was now a flowing field of raging flame. Here there were no fireproofs to give momentary obstacles; one risk, it is true, had automatic sprinklers inside and out, but the water from these, while it lasted, only added steam to the confusion and fuel to the fire, while the great roof tank in its falling tore out the very heart of the stricken building. Hawley Street, farther on, was no barrier at all to a fire of such fury as this, and the unprotected windows at the rear of the Franklin Street row added their helpless nakedness to a situation in which nothing was a buckler.

Very orderly, irresistible without vagary, now became the fire's progress. Terrible in its absolute precision, in its measured advance down the wind, this implacable river of flame rolled down the city. Far ahead of the actual fire itself ran its fatal forerunner, the sheet of gases and superheated air, sometimes level, sometimes high lifted at the whim of the breeze, but always fierce, always southward, always with annihilation in its grip. There was no staying this deadly force and no facing it; farther than any hose stream could reach sped this outrider in advance of the devastating thing whose messenger it was.

Men from the United States Navy Yard at Charlestown were dynamiting buildings along Summer Street now, in the hope of gaining a respite by reducing the amount of fuel in the path of the main advance. The air was heavy with smoke, with the odor of charred embers and burning wood and merchandise, and the shock of the dynamiting added new heaviness to an almost unbreathable element. So acrid had the atmosphere become that the men in the front ranks of the struggle were compelled to breathe through rags and handkerchiefs soaked in water. Many men dropped where they stood, to be dragged back by their comrades and revived by the ambulance surgeons.

Franklin Street proved no more of a southern barrier than had the others before it. On the corner of Hawley Street stood an eight-story fireproof, sprinklered building, filled principally with crockery. Upon this the conflagration advanced as relentlessly as fate. Long before the flames themselves had reached it, the windows broke under the heat of the advancing gases, and little fires began to appear on the upper floors. Soon all the windows were alight, and this building too shook beneath the force which there was no escaping. Its frame, to be sure, stood bravely up, and after the fire was still to be seen, almost intact, a tribute to its maker and design; but its contents, alas, were not fireproof, and proved pabulum most welcome to the element which welcomed almost all things.

The firemen along the eastern fringe had been laboring with desperation. It was the seventh hour of steady battle, and many of them were almost overcome by exhaustion; but those who faltered found their places taken by others, and the unequal struggle went on. At this point Smith, with his fire-line badge pinned to his coat in case of challenge, was turning his hand to anything which seemed to need the doing. A solid wall of fireproofs along Arch Street had held the fire from spreading eastward there, but as Franklin Street was passed in the southward sweep, the eastward urging was not wholly to be denied. At five o'clock in the morning the four faces of Winthrop Square were all involved, and the buildings along Devonshire Street had begun to yield. Over at Washington and Tremont Streets the fire had now spread as far south as Bedford--and the wind was still blowing steadily.

Gradually, for the last half hour, the velvet blackness of the upper sky had been fading; gradually the sparks, as they mounted unceasingly, had begun to seem less luminous; and the waves of smoke which had been rising all night into the upper air became for the first time a little dark against the sky. All night had this smoke been flung up from the burning city, and always had it seemed white or reddish or dirty brown, as it rose; all night had the air hung close in its smoky pall, seeming to shut in the sad theater wherein this drama was being played; all night had the fire been torch and lantern and moon and stars to those who faced the fire.

Now, dimly across the eastern sky, was spread the first faint hint of a wondering dawn. Far out over the harbor a lightening could be seen, a prescience of day, and a ghostly half light, like that in a dim cathedral, replaced the flame-lit darkness. There were mists above the water, and the light gained progress slowly; still, it gained, and presently the salt sea odors came rolling in from the bay. The water turned from black to silver-gray, the shadows faded silently into nothingness, the hush that precedes daybreak seemed trying to steal into the tortured air. And men's eyes, turning from the flame and smoke and crashing walls, gave hopeless welcome to the Day.

CHAPTER XXII

The morning broke upon a sight almost beyond imagination. Through the darkness none had been able or had cared to see the city save in fragmentary glimpses, caught by the fierce light that flared and fell. Now, in the gray dawn, the city as a whole appeared beneath a smoky cowl, looking mightier and more austere than ever under the shadow of this dreadful visitation. All sectional sights aforetime had been of single streets, of squares, of stray purlieus--but now appeared the wide, sweeping stretch of the myriad roofs, the sturdy strength of brick and steel, the compelling magnitude and silent, massive power of the whole.

In the north, where all was safe, the sky was fairly clear; but where the fire took its way the smoke haze hung grim and close. From the east the scene was a striking one. Along the water front of Fort Point Channel were the buildings gray and red; down Summer Street, which lay like a canyon between walls of brick and stone, white steam and smoke rode in a seething mist, lighted at odd times and places by keen flashes of crude red fire; over the roofs wavered more steam and smoke, floating in some places like level banners which flapped in the wind, while in others it seemed to wrap itself in dirty folds about some skeleton of what had yesterday been a building. At various points, and suggested by the premonitory roar of dynamite, rose black, sinister columns of the densest smoke mingled with the dust of shattered buildings, like the pictured outburst of some volcanic crater; and through and behind and implicitly within all this the Fire moved upon its way.

It was about half-past seven in the morning when it was seen that all efforts to check the flames at Summer Street had failed. Along the north side of that thoroughfare lay the tumbled ruins of the dynamited buildings, destroyed in a hopeless hope, for the remedy had been too homeopathic and the disease too swift. Indeed, it almost seemed as though the razing of these structures had merely made more easy the progress of that river of unconsumed gases and air which the steady wind drove undeviatingly forward upon the windows and the roofs which the conflagration had not yet reached. It was very much as though this flood of invisible heat and destruction contained the sharp-shooters before an army's van; it was like the cavalcade that rode before a Roman Emperor's triumph two thousand years ago; like the flight of arrows which preceded the thunderous charge of English heavy soldiery on Continental battle grounds.

In the little triangle between three streets just west of Dewey Square stood a solidly built, compact group of five- and six-story structures, one of them of fire-proof construction. This triangle, by a vagary, now proved to be a crucial point. If this could be saved, probably so also could the whole block to the south of Summer Street; but if it could not, then that block too was doomed, and there was grave danger beside lest the district east of Federal Street be also involved. So on this precious spot the combined forces of defense concentrated. In Fort Point Channel four fireboats gave their powerful pumps to aid the engines; the firemen, hanging close to their work, sent stream after stream of water against the attacking flame.

It was in vain. After the most desperate endeavors, this little group went to join the rest, the only fruit of victory being that Federal Street found itself the eastern barrier, the fire north of Summer Street having been checked at that point. Small triumph that! for the buildings west of Dewey Square were now thoroughly ablaze--and the South Station was in danger.

In the open space known as Dewey Square, which is really nothing but the momentary widening of Atlantic Avenue at its intersection with Summer, the elevated railroad has its tracks. These, raised some twenty feet above the street, extend north and south along the western face of the South Station; there is a station at Essex Street, with stairways leading into the great depot itself. It was this elevated structure which now proved to be the compelling menace.

Suddenly, in what manner it could not be said, there was seen to be a serpent of flame swiftly stealing along the Elevated's track. A tiny frill of fire, under a feathery cloud of smoke, ran down the wooden ties; sharp crackling sounds were heard; and a moment later the frame roof of the raised depot burst into light. One would hardly have thought that there was here sufficient fuel to jeopardize greatly the stout stone walls of the South Station itself; even to the firemen, skilled in such matters, risking their heads to drench those walls with water from a dozen lines of hose, the hazard, while grave, seemed far from hopeless. But this was not a day of reason nor of precedents. As the clock in the great facade showed five minutes before nine, the western eaves of the South Station caught.

In this building, which is one of the busiest of the world's terminals, was little inflammable material save that which was movable. The structure was built almost entirely of brick and stone and steel. Much of the steel work, to be sure, was not so protected as to render it fireproof; yet in the building there would ordinarily have been scant fuel for an ordinary fire. But this was not an ordinary fire. Along the western side of the structure, where were baggage rooms, offices, and the like, this irreverent intruder found congenial occupation. In not more than twenty minutes this entire side of the Station was ablaze, and the flames had begun to eat their way upward to the vast iron roof of the train shed, which hung in a tremendous arch some eighty feet above the base of rail. Stretching north and south down the full length of this mighty shed stood at the summit of the arch a raised lantern, or texas. Supporting the weight of this roof, wide spans of steel branched, curving upward from the walls at east and west--and it was one of these walls whose integrity was now so bitterly beset.

A great fire makes its own fuel; it finds food where no food seems to be; stone walls crumble like sugar before it; it devours iron like dry wood, and plays wild pranks with steel. To its grisly power and its reckless humor the Station was now to bear witness.

The west wall had begun to crumble, and cracked and spalled by the intense heat, not alone of the direct fire, but also by radiation from the burning risks to westward, the stone was giving way. Down part of its length, where the cross walls came, it stood stoutly; but elsewhere it began gradually to weaken. Here and there a doorway broke into what might have been a solid section; in one or two cases arches crumbled; in many others inside walls or beams or stairways, falling, carried down with them another modicum of the long wall's resistive power.

Atlantic Avenue near the station was now untenable, and the fire fighters were divided. Part of them were north, but most of them were south of this latest scene in the play. The disaster here had done more than any other single occurrence in the progress of the conflagration to demoralize the department and spread dismay in its ranks. It may have been the fact that this great building had been held to be safe beyond a doubt; it may have been merely that these men had for nearly twelve hours been achieving and repeating the impossible, the heroic, and that this last blow had been more than they could bear. Their faces were gray beneath the smoke and grime, their eyes stung and smarted almost unendurably from the heat and smoke and their long vigil; and now for the first time since this whirling maelstrom had engulfed them, they were finding the opportunity to realize that human endurance is not supernal.

There was another reason why they realized this now, and that was that the bitterness of this last defeat had, for the moment, broken their hearts. So long as they had fought with a gambler's chance, with the barest hope of success, it was easy to forget they were hungry, were weary unto death, were human at all. But under the numbing stroke of this last setback, they suddenly felt all these things.

The most heart-breaking thing, perhaps, in human experience is impotence in the face of trying need. A man can stand well enough the ordinary vicissitudes of life; but to be confronted with an exigency that finds and leaves him utterly helpless is enough to crush the bravest spirit. The Irish soldiery that four times tried to scale Marye's Heights, which were not for scaling by any mortal men, felt this bitterness, and the mere memory of them preserves the image for the world. It is this same feeling that makes the injured football player cry like a child after he is recalled to the sidelines, and that makes a man in the grip of an undertow give up and sink. It is because they are called upon to combat forces against which their mightiest muscular efforts are as futile as the flirting of a fan in jeweled fingers.

Nowhere is this more terribly felt than by men facing a great fire; for here not only have they to deal with a power out of all proportion to humanity, but they confront a power perverse, saturnine, malignant, diabolic. A conflagration is wantonly cruel; not content with the simple panoply of its might, it summons to its aid the evil whims of an enraged elephant. It plays, like a kitten, with hope before it crushes and kills it. The spectacle of a building soaked and saturated in water from the nozzles of a score of hose lines, with the flames driven back from it by the sustained heroisms of a hundred men--and then the spectacle of that building leaping suddenly into light in not one but a dozen places--this is a thing no man can endure, if many times repeated, and this is what these men had been enduring for ten hours. They had done all that men could do--more than men could do--and it was not enough. At that moment all they wanted in the world was the privilege of lying down, never to rise.

Long hours before, shortly after midnight, when it had become certain that help would be needed, the wires had carried to the nearby cities Boston's appeal for aid. As far as Portland and Worcester and Providence the call had then gone forth; and later on the urgent word had been flashed to Springfield, Hartford, New Haven, Bridgeport, and New York. The New England cities had loyally responded; their engines and their men were even now scattered along the battle line and doing brave service. But these weary men by the South Station had not seen them; they found it almost impossible to believe that they were not alone and without aid in this titanic but hopeless task. Help might have come, their aching brains reflected--but not to them. For them there had been no help in sea or sky. Gathered together in the yards below the station, they silently watched it burn.

Of a sudden there came a lurch, a swift sagging of the arch supports at the western face of the arches; the roof quivered a little, then was still. It could now, from the open end, be seen that the supports in several places were wrenched loose from the wall; the steel spans hung free in air, while white smoke lifted unceasingly toward the summit of the vast shed. On the tracks the cars were burning briskly. Presently it could also be seen that the south end of the roof was bending of its own weight. It bent first just a little--then more. Then for a long moment it hung motionless, or with but the faintest quiver of vibration. Then, out of the sightless cavern came the screeching sound of metal scraping upon metal--a wild sound, like the torture of some inarticulate thing; a dull, grinding noise followed, and at last, out of the steaming furnace which the lower part of the train shed was now become, came the dull roar of some great weight falling.

With a crack like that of a gigantic express rifle the western end of the great roof arches pitched down to earth; weakened at the angle, loosened from their laterals, the big roof spans lurched heavily downward. A thrill seemed to run through the whole structure; the roof, strained now to an impossible angle, hung breathless above the abyss. Then slowly, almost in majesty, but with a sound like the crashing fall of a giant tree, the great arch tottered and fell.

On the tracks beneath the shed the cars which there had been no time to remove continued to burn cheerfully, in no wise dismayed by this terrible descent. And far out in the yards, blocked by a mass of salvaged rolling stock, stood a panting Mogul locomotive which had traveled the last fifty miles in something less than fifty minutes, and behind it lay the special train of the New York City Fire Department.

Were it not for the preponderance of the trivial in the affairs of life, all women and nearly all men would believe in Fate. This is borne out by the evidence of great men, who are fatalists one and all--or who were so until these modern, ultrapsychologic days in which overthinking is held to be so dangerously near a vice. Those persons now whose ears are close laid to the breathing of the world all believe in Fate. Not negatively, not foolishly, not in the manner which sets forth that what will be, will be, and any opposing effort is therefore futile; but in the way of the true philosopher, of the man who can look upon the ruin or the loss of all that he held dear, and realize that what is to him a tragedy must, in some light cruelly hidden from him, be conserving some higher, some more inscrutable end.

This is the better fatalism; and the closer one approaches the primitive realities, the nearer this kind of fatalism he comes. Looking on the naked face of life or the crude fact of death, it is obvious to all save the most frivolous that these things were meant to be so. As the Aryan saying has it, looking forward there are a dozen ways, looking backward on the way each man has traveled, there is but one. Crude tragedy carries with it its own conviction of predestination. It would be absurd to suggest that Togral Beg killed thirteen million people by accident or by an extraordinary succession of chances. Admit there is such an element as chance, and between it and Fate is room for a thousand doubts. It is natural enough for men who deal with the tiny, circling ball of a roulette wheel or with the turn of playing cards to deny any power higher than chance; but how of Napoleon, dicing for empires without end?--and how of Columbus, sailing indomitably westward into the wheel of the sun?--how of Shan Tung, surveying the rotting corpses of seven times seven cities of Chinamen slain by the Tartar sword?--and how of Boston, on this February morning, looking white-faced on its own ruin, a ruin which, furthermore, seemed scarcely begun? Whether Fate be Fate or not, Boston believed in it that day.

Only one thing now tended to lift the gloom from the outlook, and this was the fact that the fire seemed to have spread as far from east to west as it was possible for it to do. The Common on the west, and on the east side the Fort Point Channel, held its destructive sweep apparently safe. To be sure, there was just the possibility that where the Common ended, the corner of Tremont and Boylston might be turned and the flames swing west once more; but this, in view of the lower heights of buildings and the fact that the wind had now shifted and was blowing toward the east rather than the west of south, seemed unlikely. Moreover, the combined departments of Charlestown, Cambridge, Lynn, and a dozen other places were massed along Tremont Street to prevent this very thing. It was, however, a significant commentary on the hopelessness of the situation when men could find comfort in the reflection that a strip of city a half mile wide was alone exposed to the direct path of destruction.

Smith had been in the lower yards of the South Station at the time the train shed fell; he had waited only a short time after that, working for a hot quarter hour to save some of the cars not yet exposed to the shed fire. The method adopted was one suggested by a lieutenant of militia from Braintree; his plan, since no locomotives were for the moment available, was to fix bayonets, stick them in the woodwork of the car sides, and then, forty men pushing at once, the car would be rolled out of danger. Dozens of passenger coaches were saved in this way. When the bulk of the close work here was done, the New Yorker turned westward, taking care to keep well south of the burning zone.

"How far south on Tremont has it got?" he asked a passing stranger on Kneeland Street.

"About to the end of the Common," the man replied, without slackening his pace.

"By Jove! the Aquitaine'll be going next," reflected Smith. "I might as well retrieve my suitcase. It's the only one I own."

On his way back to the fire from Deerfield Street, the night before, he had stopped at the hotel, changed his evening clothes for a business suit, and left his suitcase in his room. It had not occurred to him that the fire might spread as far as that. Now, his interest quickened by a touch of amused fear lest he might already be too late, he turned toward the hotel with faster tread.

The scene at the Aquitaine was one of the utmost panic and confusion. Only a little way to the north the firemen had been blowing up buildings in another futile effort to check the fire which would not be checked, and the dynamiting, coupled with the close approach of the fire itself, had demoralized most of the hotel attendants. Almost all the guests had long since taken their belongings and departed. Porters, waiters, and clerks alike were engaged in collecting whatever in the building could be moved and carrying it to trucks which were backed along the curb to receive the property and bear it to a place of safety.

No one was at the desk; Smith found his own key. The elevator was piled full of salvaged furniture and curtains, and he walked up to his room on the fifth floor. There he collected his belongings and returned to the office. Thinking to himself that he would defer paying his bill until there was some one in a mental condition capable of receipting it, he went forth into the street, suitcase in hand.

"Where now?" he thought. The answer was not difficult. There was only one place where he wanted to go, and he had promised to go there.

To Deerfield Street, then, he went. There he found two anxious women whose questions he answered as best he could, and whom, after an hour's rest, he left, having promised that he would warn them if by any chance the conflagration turned in their direction. Warmed at heart, and much refreshed by the luncheon they had insisted on his taking, he left the Maitlands, and turned once again toward the path of the fire.

It had been nearly thirty hours since he had slept; and he found his eyes hot and dry and heavy in his head. Whether it was the smoke he had breathed, or the steady strain of the long night, or the lack of sleep and sheer fatigue, he did not know; but he found developing in his brain a strange, numb sense of remoteness, a want of coordination and identity between it and his body. In remembering this day, he was always afterwards to associate it with a smell of stale smoke in his nostrils and a vague dimness of sight. Even the thousand vivid incidents of the great conflagration were always to come back to him with this haunting sense of unreality, the feeling that it was not actually he but some one else who had witnessed and shared and lived through them--some one not alien, yet not wholly kin to himself. The gray and ochre smoke haze, and the diffused heat, and the sense of intimate danger long faced and hence grown hardly noted, clouded and filmed the facts, the colors, and the emotions of this day in the dim light of a dream.

They were wild facts, too; great deeds; and glorious colors, which would have been worth a clearer recollection. The color of the midnight sky, its velvet blackness shot with crimson gleams. The waves of smoke, now like densest ink pouring up from some unseen funereal funnel--now blindingly white, flung like the plume of Navarre above the tumult of the fray. The tall, cold buildings standing almost defiantly in the winter air, lifting their immobile fronts to face the onrush--and the same buildings a little later, when the flames had passed, leaving only gnawed skeletons and heaped and smoldering ruins in their wake. The grim and terrible anguish of twisted steel girders that lay writhen like petrified snakes among the ashes, or lifted their tortured length to reach some last hold on sanity at the wall which they had once helped maintain. Great heaps and piles of ashes, and half-consumed beams and crushed and broken brick, lying in smoldering humility, punctuated by stray relics and remnants of an unburned world--pieces of furniture, by some miracle left unharmed, or bric-a-brac of some more than usual inanity. Fireproof buildings through which the flood of destruction had passed, burning all that was burnable, and leaving the gaunt frames naked in the air, their exteriors perhaps scorched and defaced, but with their vast strength unshaken and undismayed. The thousand sounds and odors of the fearful night and of the slow dawn; the fire whistles shrilling through the wintry air, the gongs on truck and cart adding their clangor to the mad mellay, the shouts of men, the bawling of orders, the screams of frightened women, the uncanny sound of the mewing of an imprisoned cat in a window, whose instinct told it what its sense could not. The hammer of horses' hoofs on the stones of the street, with the sparks flung out to left and right beneath the flying feet; the steady chug-chug of the tireless engines with their fireboxes seething white-hot in the effort to hold the steam to its figure on the gauge. The far shock and the dull boom of dynamiting that was like the rumor of a distant heavy cannonade. Then the men, the leagued enemies against this arch conspirator--the thousand heroisms of these men who contended without fear against unbeatable odds; the stark, cold bravery that is a thing outside of human experience save in some sublimated essence such as this--men who spanned impossible gaps, bore impossible weights, scaled unscalable heights, died incredibly heroic and unutterably tragic deaths, and who did these preposterous things as simply and unquestioningly as a child falling to sleep. The bitter humors of this prank of fate--the things shattered which should have been whole, the things preserved which no hand but that of error had ever created. The ruthless mixture of the farcical and the pathetic; the fire horse struck to earth by a falling wall, screaming in anguish--and the coal heaver, carrying hurriedly toward safety a gilt and white ormolu clock. And behind all this the swaying, eddying, swirling, but inexorably onward movement of the Fire, and the muffled drum beat that served it for a pulse; behind all this the Fire's voice, the low, purring, sinister roar which never ceased and which was deeper than the sound of any surges on any shore; behind all this the valley of the shadow, with its grim processional of life and fear and death, a processional spurred and driven to a speed which never slackened, under the wind which for twenty hours had hardly tired, but had blown so steadfastly that to the people of the city it seemed to be what in reality it must have been--the breath of God out of the north.

CHAPTER XXIII

It was nearly nine o'clock in the evening when there came a ring at the Maitlands' doorbell. It had not been the easiest waiting in the world, that of the two women in the half-deserted apartment building through the long night and longer day. Helen would have preferred to go out of doors, feeling that there she could see and follow, at a distance at least, the progress of the conflagration; but Mrs. Maitland in a strange and unlooked-for obstinacy absolutely declined to leave the apartment or to permit her daughter to do so.

"I don't know anything about fires, but if this one starts in this direction I want to be here, and not away somewhere," she repeated to her daughter's urging; nor could she be induced to take any other viewpoint. So in their rooms they remained, and their only news from without was transmitted to them from the servants and visitors to the building. The telephone was out of commission, and Helen felt as though she were marooned in full sight of a civilization with which she could not communicate and which afforded her no benefits.

It had been past one o'clock in the morning when Smith had brought her home from the fire. Long after that the excitement had kept her awake; but she had fallen asleep at last, and wakened again only when it was broad day. It was, however, to be one of the longest days in her calendar, and by noon she felt as though she had been waiting for years in expectation of she did not know what. She tried to read, but found it impossible to fix her attention on the book. She began to run over some operatic scores on the piano, but the sound seemed to ring so oddly that she gave up this also. Between her mother and herself conversation languished--and thus the slow hours wore on. She could not but think how infinitely more desirable it was to be out in the streets, even though that might mean a certain amount of physical danger, than to remain in unsatisfactory helplessness thus. If it be woman's heritage to wait, that heritage certainly did not appeal to Helen on this occasion. It is doubtful if it ever appeals to any one.

Only two incidents of relief had marked the passage of the dragging hours. The first was when Smith had called, in the morning, to leave his suitcase and to promise to return in case the fire should come dangerously near; the second was a visit from Mr. Silas Osgood. This latter call occurred in the middle of the afternoon, when the suspense of doing nothing at all had become almost intolerable and the nerves of both women had come almost to the snapping point, and they both consequently greeted him with even more than their usual affection.

"I'm so glad you've come, Uncle Silas, I can hardly speak!" Helen said; and her mother's welcome, while somewhat less extreme in expression, was equally sincere.

"I tried to get you on the telephone, but I couldn't, so I thought I'd better come and see how you were getting on," Mr. Osgood explained. "I'm glad you're all right. This is a fearful thing, a terrible business! Nobody knows where it may end."

"Tell us about it--everything," the girl demanded. "We have really heard nothing all day. What we have heard has been chiefly what we could learn from the servants, and they understand so little of what is actually happening."

"I have been out near the Public Gardens," said her uncle; "and though I couldn't see much, I probably could see almost as much as though I had been a good deal nearer. On the whole, things seem very favorable. I would not go so far as to say that the end is in sight; but in a certain sense the fire is under control, and I believe that the worst is over at last."

"How far does it extend now?"

"Well, they have managed to prevent its getting across Tremont Street; in fact, they have held it on both east and west. You see, most of the railroad yards below the South Station were cleared in time, and that left little or no fuel on the east side. The fire now, instead of having a clean sweep from the Common to the Channel, has a path barely half that width. It is now as far south as Oak Street, and Hollis Street west of that."

"Dear me! Has the good old Hollis Theater gone, then?"

"I don't see how it could very well have escaped. But it wasn't a very attractive theater, though, anyway. Why do you ask about it? They have needed a new building there for a long time."

"Yes--but some of the happiest evenings I have ever had were there. It isn't the upholstery of the seats or the mural decorations or what the theater looks like, but what you hear there. Don't you think that a theater gets to retain some of its traditions and its greatest associations? It sounds as though I were an old woman; but every time I go there, I seem to feel that the theater remembers, just as I do, the thrills that its walls have known."

"Would you rather it had been left to be torn down, then?" inquired her uncle, with a smile.

"Well, possibly not. That would be worse than this. Perhaps it is better to 'give her to the God of Storms,' after all."

"Perhaps," agreed Mr. Osgood, gently.

For a half an hour longer they talked, and he told them as much as he knew of what already had been destroyed, and what the final reckoning would unclose. He spoke as cheerfully as he could, but Helen, watching him closely, saw that back of this there was a profound sadness.

"Is it so very terrible, Uncle Silas?" she asked at last, laying her hand affectionately on his sleeve.

"Very. It is as bad as it could be, my child," he answered. "Bad for Boston--bad for us all. I have been through this sort of calamity before; but that was many years ago. I did not mind it so much when I was a young man. It is different now."

"But surely the city can survive it, can it not?"

"Yes--the property loss, no doubt; and I am glad to say that very few lives have been lost. But it is a fearful catastrophe. The city is crippled--shaken to its very heart! Think of the hundreds of families driven into the streets, the businesses wrecked, the uncountable number of men left without employment, even if the fire cease at once!"

A new idea had come to Helen.

"What difference will it make to Silas Osgood and Company?" she asked, with some hesitation. "It won't injure your firm, will it?"

"Oh, to a certain extent, temporarily, but nothing to be troubled about. Of course the local agent does not have to pay any part of his companies' losses. But--" he paused.

"But what?" asked the girl.

"Well, I have been in the business so long, my dear, that I have come to look at this sort of thing more from the standpoint of my companies than my own. I am ashamed--yes, sorry and ashamed--to have my city hurt my companies so sorely."

"But you couldn't have helped it--it isn't your fault," said Mrs. Maitland, somewhat mystified, but guessing a little of what he felt.

"No," said Mr. Osgood, slowly; "I couldn't have helped it. But if it had to happen in Boston, I'm sorry it didn't wait until I was through."

"Then I hope it would be never!" Helen said, a little incoherently; but the point was plain.

"On the business side there is only one feature that cheers me," continued Mr. Osgood, "and that is the fact that my old friend James Wintermuth and his company, the Guardian of New York, are practically out of it all."

"How do you mean--out of it?" Helen's mother asked.

"You see, the Guardian, when it had to leave my office, lost all its local business. A good deal of it was naturally in this very part of the city which is burning. They undoubtedly have some term lines still in force,--policies written for three or five years,--but not many. They will escape with a very light loss indeed--whereas two years ago this conflagration would have involved them for an amount such as not many companies would care to meet."

"Then there must be other companies now who will lose more in this fire than they can pay?"

"Without a doubt. There has never been a fire of this magnitude that has not absolutely ruined many of the smaller companies. It takes either a very strong or a very conservative insurance company to weather a great conflagration. After each of our big city fires in this country many and many a company has found that after it paid its losses there would be nothing left to carry it to further existence--capital and surplus were both wiped out. And it must be said to their credit that most of them, at a time like this, pay every cent they owe, even if they have to go out of business directly afterwards."

"But if they haven't enough money to pay their losses? Suppose their capital and surplus isn't sufficient?"

"Then they either fail, and the receiver pays what he can to each claimant, or else they call upon their stockholders--assess them. Once in a while you will find a company refusing to pay, on the ground that so great a calamity is an act of God, which no indemnity was ever designed or intended to cover. Quite a few foreign companies took this stand after the San Francisco earthquake-fire; but the leading companies, American and foreign, paid dollar for dollar. The smaller fry tried to compromise a bit; but most of them eventually made pretty fair settlements, in the main. We'll see what they'll do in Boston."

"After the fire is out."

"Yes; and I really must go now, for I'm very anxious to see how they're handling it."

"It was very good of you to come."

"I'll come again, if there is anything of consequence to report. I'm certain you'll be all right here. You haven't worried too much, have you?"

"Well, the waiting has been pretty bad," the girl confessed.

"Then don't worry any more, either of you, for if there should be the slightest danger, I'll come back at once."

Helen hesitated a moment.

"Mr. Smith promised to come and 'save us,' if we needed saving," she said, with the merest trace of a flush.

"Ah," replied her uncle, slowly. "Then I think we may safely leave your rescue to him. I will come as a reporter only. Good-by."

From the time of his departure there had been no visitor from the outside world until Smith's ring came as the clock made ready to strike nine. Helen herself opened the door, as the maid had gone downstairs for further enlightenment from the authorities below; and Miss Maitland found herself confronted by a man whom at first she hardly recognized, so hollow-eyed, so weary, and withal so grimy did he look. Her little start at seeing him was noted by Smith, and he guessed the reason for it.

"Don't be alarmed," he said, with a shadow of his old smile. "Under all the disguises it's really I. I know that I must look like a dissipated coal heaver, but I flatter myself that you'll be glad to see me, just the same, for I came to tell you that the danger is over--the fire is practically out."

"Then you must come in and let me get you something to eat," said the girl.

"Thank you very much, but I don't think I will. Somehow I don't seem to feel very hungry. But I'm horribly sleepy. I don't believe I was ever so sleepy in my life. So good-night."

But she stood with her back to the door.

"Where did you intend to go?" she demanded. "The hotels that are not burned are probably filled to the brim. Besides, your clothes are here. You can't go away. You must stay here."

"That's awfully kind of you, to offer to take me in," the other rejoined; "but you cannot house a disreputable chimney sweep. Besides--"

But she did not give him any opportunity to complete the sentence.

"Don't be absurd; you're usually quite sensible. Mother and I had it all decided hours ago. You're to stay with us. Your room is all ready for you--and your bath," she added.

He acknowledged the touch with an appreciative but weary smile.

"Well, then, if you really don't mind, I'll take you up," he said.

"Will you have supper first?"

"Thanks, no--nothing but sleep. I'm ashamed of being so fearfully tired--you must excuse me. But I don't believe any man can stay awake indefinitely."

"No, I don't believe any man can," Helen agreed.

It was ten o'clock the next day when Smith opened his eyes once more upon a normal world. The sun was shining brightly, but it was some moments before he could assure himself that he was actually awake again. The twelve hours' sleep, during which apparently not one muscle had he stirred, had gone far to repair the ravages of thirty-six hours' steady wakefulness, and a cold bath did the rest. The two ladies were found to be in the dining room, still absorbed in the morning edition of a newspaper whose building had escaped the sweep of the conflagration.

"Why, it's only half-past ten!" was Helen's greeting. "I didn't expect you so early. Mother suggested that we wait breakfast for you; but I said it would be much closer your wishes if we waited lunch instead."

"Well, I think I must have condensed an enormous amount of sleep into the last twelve hours," said Smith; "for I feel as well as ever. Tell me what has happened--I see you have the papers."

"What is going to happen is also important--your breakfast," the girl responded. "Go over there, where you see that napkin sitting expectantly on its haunches, and Marie will be in directly."

"Thank you. I hope you won't be scandalized at my appetite. Is the fire entirely out?"

"Yes--practically. Here's the paper."

"That's very good of you. You'll pardon me if I just look at the headlines?"

"Of course." And for a few moments there was little conversation in the sunny dining room.

"And now will you do me a favor?" said Miss Maitland.

Smith looked at her; a long moment.

"I will do anything in the world for you," he said, "except one thing."

The girl flushed a little.

"I want you to take me out to the fire," she responded.

The other looked at her in surprise.

"Why, of course," he said. "I never thought of doing anything else. If my calculations are correct, it will take me exactly as long to finish those three pieces of toast as for you to get ready. Better wear old clothes--it may be pretty dirty."

Five minutes later they descended to the street.

"Why, it's been snowing!" said Smith, in surprise.

A light fall of snow covered sidewalk and lawns; there were few men this day with sufficient leisure to sweep away snow. As the two went northward through the bright morning, they walked for the most part in silence. All seemed very still, for there were no street cars moving, and most of the customary confusion of a city's streets was oddly hushed. Few people were abroad, at least along where their path lay; it was almost as though they were passing through a deserted city.

"Look at that," Smith said once. "I don't believe you were ever on this corner when you couldn't see a single person."

"Where do you suppose every one is?" asked Helen, curiously.

"At the ruins. Do you know, this reminds me of one of the strangest things I ever saw."

"What was that?" the girl inquired, turning toward him.

"The only absolutely deserted town in America--at least I think it must be the only one. I never heard any one speak of another. But I know this one exists, for I saw it myself."

"Where is it? I never heard of such a thing. It sounds like Herculaneum or some of those Assyrian cities where they are always digging up statues and tablets and things."

"But this isn't a buried town. It's a real town, built perhaps twenty or thirty years ago; and it's located out in northern Indiana. And a perfectly nice little town, with brick stores and a couple of paved streets and other advantages. Everything--except inhabitants. No one lives there."

"Why not? Is this really true?"

"True as gospel. I saw it myself. I walked through the deserted streets. And a rather uncanny feeling it gave me, too."

"Was it unhealthy? Why did the people leave?"

"I haven't the vaguest idea," said Smith; and as he answered he raised his arm to point eastward along the street they had that moment reached. Following the direction in which he was pointing, Helen saw a thin line of smoke rising feebly from a pile of débris upon the ground. Near by were similar piles, sullenly smoldering.

"There's where they stopped it," said Smith.

They walked quickly along until they came to the very corner on which the last ebbing wave of the sea of fire had turned. This corner was at the intersection of Shawmut Avenue with the railroad's right of way. Over the tracks at this point was a raised steel bridge, and to this they now directed their steps. At the end of the bridge they stopped. The bridge was elevated sufficiently so that they could see a considerable distance northward, and for some moments they stood and looked in silence at the sight which lay beyond them.

It was something which is only to be seen once in the course of an ordinary lifetime--the complete ruin of the integral part of a great city. With something too remote yet too bitterly real for any words gripping at her heart, Helen stood looking out over a scene such as she never could have imagined. Here was ruin incarnate, desolation supreme; this was the bitter tragedy of that which once was great turned suddenly into pitiful nothingness before her very eyes.

In the foreground, at their feet, lay the heaped débris of the bricks, timbers, and contents of a whole row of dynamited buildings--the sacrificed buildings which by their own destruction had checked the conflagration at the last. There they lay, still smoldering or blazing in some places, utterly still and lifeless in others, with stray beams and bits of cornice or of tin roofing, twisted into weird shapes, sticking out at odd angles. Here and there unconsumed and hardly damaged articles that had been contained in these buildings lay unheeded; for here where the flames had died, they had not destroyed everything combustible, as they had seemed to do almost everywhere else. On the west side of Shawmut Avenue, where the houses still stood intact, a few men were to be seen; these were the state militiamen in their fatigue uniforms, patrolling the ruins. Smith called Helen's attention to them.

"Why are they there?" she asked.

"To watch the vultures gathering for the feast. See! There goes one of them now--over there to the left."

Helen looked; skulking along in the shadow of a ruined wall was a shabby, rough-looking man who stole swiftly out of sight behind a pile of rubbish.

"One of the scavengers. They come almost automatically after every great disaster--fire, flood, battle, or pestilence. Ghouls, you understand, from heaven knows where. That man's great-grandfather probably robbed the dead grenadiers of the Legion of Honor at Waterloo."

"Thieves?" said the girl, in horror.

"Worse than thieves. Vandals, body-snatchers, murderers, if it came to that. The kind of man who'd cut the finger off a dying woman to get her wedding ring. Unpleasant, isn't it? Well, the militia are under orders to shoot them on sight, if caught in the act. But let's go a little farther on; I think we can get a better view from farther north."

"Wait," said his companion. "I am not ready to go--yet."

Smith heeded her voice, and for another unnoted interval they stood agaze upon their little eminence.

Far to the northward the scene of ruin stretched away. Almost as far as the eye could reach was only the shadow, the terrible and disfigured skeleton of what had been the city. Everywhere were smoldering piles with occasional tongues of sullen, orange flame and their myriad threads of smoke trailing upward in the still air like Indians' signal fires. Here was a brick building, apparently hardly touched or harmed, lifting its lonely height over its prostrate neighbors. Here a partly burned structure, gutted but still erect, stood like a grim, articulated skeleton, a gaunt scarecrow against the skyline. Everywhere were mounds and hollows, hills and valleys, so that the natural contour of the earth, unseen now these hundred years, once more appeared. And over it all, everywhere that the fire had wholly burned out, lay the heart-breaking beauty and whiteness of the snow, and of the ashes under the snow.

"How terribly white it is!" said Helen, in a low voice.

Smith only nodded. Feeling her mood, he left her to speak when she was ready, and presently she did so.

"Shall we go now?" she asked.

"Suppose we do. I want to show you, if I can--and to see myself--what is left of the shopping and hotel and theater district. There can't be much left."

They turned back in the way they had come, for Tremont Street above this point was no thoroughfare. By a somewhat circuitous route at last they reached the corner of the Common; and here, at the edge of the great throng of curious onlookers, they paused.

"There's where I didn't sleep last night," said Smith.

The Hotel Aquitaine, such as it was, stood gauntly staring at them from its dozens of empty windows. The building itself was intact, but every piece of inflammable material in its contents seemed to have been wiped out of existence as utterly as though made of tissue paper. With a little shudder Helen turned away, and they moved onward.

For all Smith's fire-line badge, they were not permitted to enter the patrolled district, and they could only join the throng which was circling about the outskirts. This was not a very inspiring nor even a very interesting thing, although the people for the most part were oddly silent, seeming to have been numbed by the extent of the disaster. Helen found before very long that she had seen enough.

"What a fearful crowd! I think I'd rather go where there aren't quite so many people," she told Smith.

"All right--wait until I see what happened to Jordan's store; then we'll go."

Five minutes later they were heading back southward in the direction of their bridge.

"It is beyond words, isn't it?" observed Smith. "There is nothing at all adequate that a man can say when he is confronted by such a thing as this, and almost nothing that he can do."

"Isn't there something, though?" the girl asked. "There must be hundreds of people homeless, without food or money or anything! Cannot we do anything to help them?"

"No doubt," said the man. "Individually we could scarcely be of much assistance; but I fancy that the local charity organizations or the Red Cross would see that any contribution went where it would do the most good."

Only a few minutes later they found where one of these institutions had opened temporary headquarters in an old church.

"Let us go in," said Miss Maitland.

As they entered they saw that the church was filled with refugees, come in to escape the cold. They were most of them sitting in groups, talking eagerly to one another. Some were lying asleep, stretched out full length on the pews. A woman was going about, serving hot coffee and soup and bread. The refugees ate hungrily, but on the faces of almost all of them rested the same dispirited look of dazed wonder. Apparently they were chiefly foreigners, the majority Italians, and it was evident that they had lost everything they had possessed. Helen stood watching them with a sad heart from the back of the church, and Smith, looking at her, saw that her eyes were full of tears. He laid his hand gently on her arm. "Please don't," he said gravely. But he understood.

"But it seems so unfair for them to have lost everything," the girl said. "They had so little to lose."

She turned her face to his.

"There is no answer to that," he said; "but we can help them a little."

To the woman in charge they gave what they could afford to give, and turned toward home. It was nearly four o'clock, and Mrs. Maitland might be growing anxious about their safety. They walked forward in a silence which neither wished to break.

It was soon broken, however, by a chance occurrence. They were passing by an open street on the edge of the burned district. Across the street, under a none too steady wall, a woman whose distress had evidently touched the good nature of the militiaman patrolling the other end of the block was hunting about among heaps of débris, searching for things which might perhaps have been spared by the flames. On top of the house wall was a battered stone coping, which, as Smith and Helen paused, gave a sudden lurch and seemed about to fall. The woman, her head bent, saw nothing; but Smith, with a startled exclamation, started quickly forward.

"Look out there!" he called sharply. "Come away from that wall!"

The woman, with her back turned, paid no attention to the warning--probably did not even hear him. The coping, poised on the wall's edge, swayed perilously. If it fell, there would be one less of the indigent and helpless for the relief committees to support. With a half angry exclamation Smith sprang forward.

On his sleeve he felt the quick pressure of a hand. At the same moment the crouching woman, having finished her search, or perhaps moved by an instinct of danger, walked slowly on, and out from under the wall. The coping did not fall.

Smith turned to find the girl's fingers closed tight upon his arm, and in her eyes something he had never seen before. She stood still a moment, and when at last she withdrew her hand, she spoke in a voice so low that he could barely catch the words.

"Why did you do that?"

"She didn't see the coping," he said, as naturally as he could.

"It might have fallen--on you!"

"Yes," he said; "I suppose it might. But you see, it didn't."

"It might have killed you," she said, still in a low voice.

Smith turned abruptly, and looked at her.

"How much would you have cared, Helen?" he asked.

Even at this moment the trammels of her ancestry were on her; she made no answer.

"How much would you have cared, dear?" he asked again, gently.

Then at last she raised her eyes, and met his fairly.

"More than anything--more than everything in the world," she said.

The early gray February twilight was closing in upon them when they left the lifted bridge. They had been there long, yet as they turned to go, Helen gave one backward look. There, spread away across the stricken plain, she saw for the last time the prostrate thing which yesterday had been the living city; and over it, like the winding linen of a shroud, lay the white ashes in the snow.

CHAPTER XXIV

On the top floor of the Salamander office in William Street a man stood silent before a map desk on which was laid an open map of the city of Boston. It was late in the afternoon, and the level rays of the declining sun came in redly at the window. The man standing at the desk did not notice them; he was looking stolidly from map to newspaper, from newspaper to map, as from the hysterical and conflicting accounts of the conflagration he tried to measure the extent of the calamity.

The morning papers had told but little, since they had gone to press when the fire was only a few hours old; and as the day was Sunday, and a holiday, there had been available only a few of the usual flock of evening sheets which begin to appear in New York shortly after breakfast. With one of these by his elbow, in the fading light of the late February day, F. Mills O'Connor stood, stonily and with hard eyes, gazing at ruin.

He was alone in the office, since the one other person who had been with him had, under instructions, departed. This was George McGee, the Salamander's map clerk for New England. There was no reason whatever why George should have visited William Street on a Sunday; nevertheless Mr. O'Connor, on arriving, had found him standing aimlessly and undecided in front of the door.

"What do you want here?" he had said to George, coldly.

"Nothing. That is, I came over from Brooklyn to see if any one wanted anything. I thought maybe somebody would be down, and they'd need some one to help take off the lines, sir."

"Well, I don't need any help. You can go," said the other.

"I didn't know. We've got a lot of business in that part of Boston, sir. I know where all the dailies are filed. You'll need me if you're going to go over the lines, sir."

O'Connor considered.

"Well, come up, then," he said ungraciously. "We'll have to walk up; there's no steam on."

It was then three o'clock. At not later than a quarter to four Mr. O'Connor had definitely determined that unless the report of the conflagration's extent had been exaggerated beyond all human connection with the facts, the Salamander had sustained a loss in Boston which was considerably greater than its resources would permit it to pay. In other words, if the printed account were even remotely true, the Salamander was, as the phrase has it, insolvent. To put it even more shortly, the company was ruined. Facing this fact and its string of entailed consequences, the man most directly interested was silent so long that his youthful assistant became nervous.

"Pretty bad loss, ain't it?" he asked sympathetically.

O'Connor looked at him unseeingly. In his busy mind he was running through an imaginary calculation. It was somewhat as follows: Salamander's net liability in the section of Boston presumably destroyed, $600,000--Salamander's net surplus available for payment of losses, $400,000. Inevitably the problem ended: Salamander's impairment of capital, $200,000. And the fire was still burning. Boston could be rebuilt, but could the Salamander?

He turned on the clerk beside him with the savage and melodramatic gesture of an irritated musical comedy star, and the boy recoiled before him.

"That's all. You can go home," he said curtly.

Two minutes later he was left alone in the silent office.

At the best of times there was in the nature of Mr. Edward Eggleston Murch not overmuch genuine urbanity. Urbanity of the surface he had, of course; he called on it at need in very much the same way that he called on his stenographer. But of true courtesy or consideration Mr. Murch's makeup was singularly and flawlessly free. On the contrary he could, on occasion, summon to his face a congealment and to his eye a steely gleam which nobody admired but which all respected. Ordinarily this was either for his inferiors, or for those unfortunates who had come to cross purposes with him, or for those who had made blunders costly to him that his most glacial manner was reserved; but every one about the Salamander office knew of it, either by hearsay or by actual experience. Mr. O'Connor was removed from all danger of running counter to the Salamander's leading stockholder, so long as the company continued to make money. But what might now happen, Mr. O'Connor did not care to consider--and yet the topic engrossed his attention so deeply that darkness surprised him still adrift on the waters of this sea of doubt.

Not until the swift winter nightfall recalled him to himself did he remember the world around him; and when at last he groped his way down the long flights of dusky stairs to the street, his was the slow and inelastic step of a beaten man.

Mr. Murch had spent the holiday and the week-end at the country place of a fellow financier. To this retired spot news penetrated with decorum and conservatism. One was in no danger, at Holmdale, of acting on premature information, for all information which reached this sequestered Westchester chateau did so in the most leisurely and placid manner. For this very reason Mr. Murch shunned Holmdale and resorted to many a subterfuge to avoid the acceptance of divers invitations to sojourn beneath the medieval roof of its host, who happened to be a man whom even Mr. Murch hesitated to offend. In the present case, when on returning to New York early Monday morning he learned that one of the most terrible losses in fire insurance annals had occurred without his knowledge, it did not tend to sweeten his temper.

He did not go to his own office, but with a grim face started directly for the building of the Salamander. Once within its portals he immediately entered Mr. O'Connor's room. Mr. O'Connor was seated at his desk, with a pile of daily reports before him.

"How much do we lose in Boston?" the visitor demanded.

The President of the Salamander had been in the building during most of the past twenty-four hours, taking off the lines in the burned district on a special bordereau. Neither the Osgood office nor his special agent could be reached on the long distance telephone; and the newspaper accounts, even thus long after the fire, were still painfully vague and somewhat rhetorically hysterical. They talked much of the "devouring element," and the word "lurid" frequently occurred; but no reporter had been sufficiently practical to bound the burned district or to state specifically what buildings had or had not been spared. Still, they told enough. To the meanest intelligence it was patent that a tremendous catastrophe had taken place, that most of the section from School Street south to the railroad was leveled, and virtually everything therein was totally destroyed--except the fireproof buildings, which were still standing, scorched and shaken, stripped clean of combustible contents, but not fatally damaged.

O'Connor had the list in his hand. In his heart now was the calm absence of feeling which marks the man who has abandoned hope.

"I should estimate our net liability in the burned district at about $700,000," he said unemotionally.

Mr. Murch leaned forward in his chair.

"And the net surplus of the company is--?" he asked menacingly.

"You know what it is. It's half a million, roughly."

"Well, will you tell me what in the devil you mean by putting this company in a position to lose more money than it has clear?"

O'Connor, beyond caring now, actually smiled.

"Fortunes of war, Mr. Murch. You wanted a leading position in Boston, if you'll remember. I gave it to you."

"I didn't want any such position as my present one," rejoined Mr. Murch, in frigid tones.

"I didn't either, if you come to that," retorted O'Connor, promptly.

The financier's irritation was increased by this unexpectedly reckless attitude on the part of the man who should, he felt, be abased in sackcloth before him. He regarded the other with surprise, through his indignation.

"You take this remarkably coolly, I should say," he remarked.

"There's no use in getting excited--the eggs are smashed now. But just the same," returned O'Connor, with a flash of spirit, "I'm just as sore about this as if I owned every dollar of Salamander stock there is on the books."

The mention of the unit of currency reminded his companion of something else.

"What do you suppose the market is doing?" he said.

"I haven't the slightest idea," replied the other.

Murch lifted the receiver from the telephone at his elbow.

"Hello: give me Broad nine nine seven six. Is this Atwater and Jenkins? Give me Mr. Atwater--this is Mr. Murch speaking. That you, Billy? How's the market?"

He replaced the receiver with a snap.

"Everything off at the opening. Bad slump in Maryland Traction and P. N. T."

"It ought to go off some more when the fire companies in general start liquidating. There will have to be a big unloading to raise the amount of cash necessary to pay those Boston losses. I suppose, though, the British companies will send the money across--they usually do, and that'll help a little. That's the worst of these fires--they hit you going and coming. Suppose we lose seven hundred thousand; well, before we get through we'll have to sell eight or nine hundred thousand dollars' worth of securities, at present prices, to pay it."

"How much cash have we on deposit?" Mr. Murch inquired.

O'Connor handed him the last weekly statement in silence. The fact that the other man had expressed no definite intention was to him encouraging. It might be that all was not over yet.

"Roughly, our surplus," commented the financier. "Now, how about our other assets? Stocks and miscellaneous securities, $1,500,000. Only it won't be a million and a half by the time we get rid of them. Probably a couple of hundred thousand less. Encouraging, isn't it? In other words, this fire is going to cost us $900,000 before we're through. And the present question is, how are we to get through?"

O'Connor looked him over with an appraising glance.

"Well, the Salamander has paid good dividends for years," he said. "Probably more than most companies would have thought it prudent to pay--they'd have put a larger amount into surplus to take care of such a smash as this. And I've made the company a better money-maker on the underwriting side than it's ever been before--you'll admit that, I think. There's no reason why we shouldn't go on. My suggestion would be to assess the stock."

He awaited the answer nervously, toying with a penholder, not daring to glance at the other man. He did not have to wait long.

"Not much!" said Mr. Murch, coldly. "I'm going to get out of this as fast as I can, and I'm going to stay out, you understand. No more fire insurance business for me. It's the only business I ever made a complete mess of. The Salamander would have done better if they had never issued a policy--if they had merely let me invest their money for them. Now the next question is, how to get out. You are an insurance man and supposed to be a competent one--possibly you can tell me how to set about it."

"Do you mean to liquidate the Salamander--close up the company?"

"Whatever one does to extricate himself from this kind of a hole. What's the usual method?"

"The usual method," replied O'Connor, his face somewhat flushed at the other man's tone, "is for the stockholders to authorize an assessment on their stock, and continue. That apparently does not appeal to you; and if I understand you correctly, you wish to terminate operations and wind up the company."

"Exactly so. You catch my meaning perfectly."

"There are two ways, then," the other said. "One is to let the risks in force expire, paying the losses as they occur; that will take about five years. The other, which is the usual way, is to pay some other company to assume the liability on all our outstanding policies--to reinsure us. We pay a lump sum, and the other company pays the losses as the risks expire, instead of our doing so."

"I see the idea. But what company would do that? And wouldn't it cost a small fortune to get any one to? And isn't this a bad time to approach any company with such a proposition?"

"No, I don't think so. Some company might be glad to get hold of a large amount of cash which it could use to pay its own Boston losses, and then it could pay the losses on our outstanding business, which would come along gradually for several years, out of its own normal profits in that time."

Mr. Murch looked at O'Connor with more respect.

"That sounds plausible. How much would it cost--in round numbers?"

"Our reinsurance reserve is about $1,500,000. I should think a company might be found to take it over for about two thirds of that sum. You see, we have a valuable agency plant and a good business, and although you want to get rid of it, it would be considered by most companies as well worth having. The company that took over our risks wouldn't let them expire; that company would hold on to them and secure them on renewal."

"How can this be arranged?" Mr. Murch inquired.

It was like cutting off his right hand to reply, O'Connor reflected, but he did so.

"Mr. Simeon Belknap usually manages such matters," he said. "Naturally he doesn't manage them for nothing; but he does the trick, and he's much the best man for it. He has probably engineered four fifths of the important reinsurance deals that have gone through in this country. No one has ever discovered why these things gravitate so unerringly to him--but they do. He will undoubtedly be pleased to find you a reinsurer for the Salamander."

He rose from his seat. It was perfectly evident that the game was over, and only the tumult and shouting remained to die away. But Mr. Murch was not entirely through.

"Suppose we ask Mr. Belknap to come and talk it over," he proposed.

O'Connor shook his head.

"Don't do it. It would hurt your market. If he were seen coming in here at this time, the whole Street would know we were in trouble and getting ready to quit. It would be better to make an appointment with him somewhere else."

"As you say," agreed Murch. "Please arrange one for us as soon as possible."

"All right," said the man whom this operation would leave bare of position and prestige alike. "I'll get him on the phone at once."

It was late that afternoon when a three-cornered interview took place in a down-town office somewhat outside the customary espionage of William Street. Most of the talking was done by Mr. Simeon Belknap, who talked crisply and to the point.

"The figures you have given me, Mr. Murch," he said, "indicate that the Salamander's capital is impaired to the probable extent of several hundred thousand dollars. I assume from your coming to me in this way, that you have decided that it is not worth while trying to put the company on its feet. Is that correct?"

"How much would it cost to keep going?" asked the financier, bluntly.

"I should think you would have to assess your stock one hundred and fifty dollars a share. Yes, it would take $750,000 to put the Salamander in a position to continue in business with proper resources."

"Eliminate that possibility from the discussion," said Mr. Murch, tersely; and O'Connor's last faint hope died.

"There remains, then, to find some company willing to take over your outstanding business. Your present reinsurance reserve is about $1,500,000. Your available assets over capital, including your real estate and everything, will bring approximately $1,800,000. Mr. O'Connor tells me you will pay in Boston about $700,000. This leaves you $1,100,000. For this sum, or perhaps a little less, you can probably reinsure all your business now in force, leaving you, let us say, with your capital stock intact and perhaps $100,000 over."

"In other words," said Mr. Murch, "we'll get for our liquidated stock about 120;--stock which sold last week at 210!"

"Precisely. If I can get you a reinsurer on the terms I mentioned. And I think you'll be getting out pretty well. You're impaired right now, you know."

Mr. Murch's financial vanity was touched.

"After all," he said, with an effort, "I probably averaged only 150 for mine. I've got pretty fair dividends on it for some time. That'll get me out pretty nearly even. Well, Mr. Belknap, if you can arrange to reinsure the Salamander on those terms, go ahead."

"The directors of the company--?" said Belknap, suggestively.

"I either own or control a majority of the stock," replied Mr. Murch.

There was no more to be said. The President and the majority stockholder of a corporation whose days were numbered walked back to the office with hardly a word spoken between them.

These were troublous times in William Street. The Salamander was not the only company which had been hard hit in Boston. Many of the smaller underwriting institutions were tottering very close to the wall. Already two failures were known; a dozen others were suspected. But in Boston, where the stricken city lay impatiently waiting, most of the companies already had men on the ground, adjusting and paying claims. The Boston insurance district had fortunately been left untouched, so that the local records were intact, making the work of the adjusters much simpler than it would otherwise have been.

Whence was the money to come--this golden flood which now began to pour from a hundred coffers into the empty pockets of the sufferers? The large companies, for the most part, were paying without discount or delay, and the line of claimants at the Boston offices and adjustment bureaus never ceased. In New York, in London, in Hartford, wherever insurance companies had their home offices, securities were being converted into cash to meet this tremendous demand. And the golden stream that flowed toward Boston knew no stop.

Of all the companies doing a general business in the East, the Guardian had come through least scathed, its withers unwrung. Thanks to the raiding of its Boston business by the Salamander, the Guardian's loss, which was confined wholly to three-year and five-year lines unexpired, would not much exceed, according to Smith's computation, $100,000, even if all its claims were adjusted as total.

Smith's first work on reaching the home office had been to compute the actual liability of the Guardian; his second was a similar calculation for a corporation in which he had no financial interest whatever. He was engaged in this task when Mr. Wintermuth entered the office.

"Ah, Richard," said his chief, "I'm glad to see you safe. An insurance man in a fire is like a duck in a pond; but I'm glad to see you here, just the same. A terrible calamity!--a really terrible calamity! How much did we get? Wagstaff estimated it at one hundred and forty thousand, but of course we can't tell how far the fire actually went."

"He was pretty close to my figures," said Smith, with a smile. "It was a terrible calamity, sir, but not so terrible as if the Guardian had a half a million loss--instead of $107,500 at the outside limit."

"Are those the figures you have there?" inquired the President, glancing at the list on his subordinate's desk.

"No. I sent that list with the daily reports to the loss department. This is another one--even more interesting on some accounts. This is a list of the lines we didn't get."

"Ah! You mean--?" said Mr. Wintermuth.

"These are the lines that we have lost since we went out of the Osgood office."

"Indeed! What is the total?" asked the other man, with interest.

"I haven't quite finished, but I should say it would come close to $350,000."

"Which I suppose the Salamander got. I don't like to rejoice in other men's misfortunes, Richard, but there is a certain element of justice in that," said the older man, gravely.

"What interests me is, how much more than that they got," Smith returned. "Don't forget that Cole is clever, but not the careful underwriter Mr. Osgood is, and that O'Connor was out to make a record for premium income. If the Salamander's loss up there is less than $600,000, I shall be surprised."

"Their surplus isn't as much as that, is it? That will impair them."

"On the first of January their surplus was a little less than half a million."

"Oh, well," Mr. Wintermuth returned, "I suppose they'll assess their stockholders. That man Murch will probably get up an underwriting syndicate to handle it."

"But suppose he doesn't. Suppose they decide to reinsure and quit. Murch has the reputation of being a bad loser," said Smith, slowly.

His chief looked at him.

"Let them reinsure, then. But how does that affect us?" he said.

"Why shouldn't we reinsure them?" said the Vice-President.

"What!" exclaimed Mr. Wintermuth. "What's that you say?"

"I say," returned Smith, "that the Salamander is far more likely to reinsure than to stand a heavy assessment. And we want that business of theirs. We have a little score to settle with the Salamander, sir."

"Yes, yes," admitted the President. "O'Connor has treated us very badly; still, it has worked out very fortunately for us. And at any rate," he added, "I do not believe in allowing personal animus to govern one's business acts or policy."

It was a sounding phrase, although not quite new.

"Neither do I," said Smith, promptly; "but this is more than an act of poetic justice. Of course there's a certain satisfaction in finding that one of the packages stolen from us contained a bomb which blew up the burglar--but how much more appropriate it would be if the same explosion hurled the rest of the stolen property into the hands of the original and rightful owners. And besides that, the Salamander business is well worth putting on our books--and there's a lot of it."

"Yes. Too much, in fact," said his chief. "Our resources are not sufficient to permit our taking on such a load."

"I admit that," replied the younger man. "We will have to increase our capital a half a million. And now's the time to get it. We can issue it at 200, which is rather less than the present stock is selling for, and the premium will take care of our surplus when we take on this new business. I believe our stockholders will back us up. While other companies are asking their stockholders for more money to pay their Boston losses, we are asking ours to put us in the first rank of underwriting institutions in the United States."

Mr. Wintermuth looked at the young man before him, a long, grave look.

"Richard," he said at last, "I am fond of you, and I suppose that having no son of my own to be proud of, I am proud of you, too. But sometimes you make me feel a hundred years old."

"You needn't," answered Smith, affectionately, "for you've taught me almost all I know. If I am a little more aggressive than I might be, perhaps you were too, at my age. The question is, what is to the best interest of the Guardian?"

"That is a question," said Mr. Wintermuth, "for the directors to decide."

"Of course," returned the other. "But I should be surprised if our directorate didn't take a broad and liberal view of it. Immediately following this conflagration, when so much insurance capital has been wiped out, there will be a need for more. We will need our share, for we're going to do a bigger business. Even if we don't take over the Salamander or some other company, we're going to swing a much heavier premium income this year than last."

"Well," said the President, "since you have brought up the question, I should fail in my duty to the company if I should let an opportunity for extending our business pass by without submitting the matter to the directors. If you find that the Salamander business is for sale, and they want us to make a bid for it, I will call a special meeting of the board and lay the facts before our friends."

It was not for some little time that there was any palpable result of the meeting, when secured, for neither Smith nor Mr. Simeon Belknap was a man to hurry a matter to the prejudice of his interests. Following his conference with O'Connor and Mr. Murch, Mr. Belknap spent parts of several days moving quietly and almost imperceptibly about on investigations of his own. It was not every company which had facilities for extending its premiums some three million dollars a year; and besides that, most of them were being kept so busy in Boston that they had no leisure to consider so large a proposition.

Both Smith and Mr. Wintermuth were by this time aware that Mr. Belknap was handling the Salamander's affairs, and the Vice-President kept on that gifted gentleman as close an espionage as he could contrive to keep. After observing him casually engage in conversation three prominent underwriting executives, any one of whom might be supposed to be in a position to take over the Salamander, Smith determined to take the bull by the horns. On the third day after the directors' meeting he took pains to meet Mr. Belknap and similarly to engage him in casual conversation.

When, a little later, they adjourned from the Club to Mr. Belknap's office, the matter was practically settled, subject to the ratification of the directorates of both companies.

The Boston conflagration was not quite two weeks a thing of the past when Mr. Belknap signified that he had succeeded in his task of securing on satisfactory terms a purchaser for the Salamander, and if the necessary executives of that company would be in Mr. Murch's office at two-thirty that afternoon, he would bring the contracts for signature.

Over the telephone Mr. Murch said: "All right. Bring them." To his secretary he said: "Ask Mr. O'Connor to be here at two-thirty this afternoon."

At two-thirty Mr. O'Connor appeared.

"Hello--glad to see you," said Mr. Murch, urbanely. Now that the matter was coming out with such a comparatively favorable color, he saw no reason to abandon the amenities. In the first flush of anger they had suffered somewhat, but that was all over.

"Good-day," returned O'Connor, shortly. He had been out on the Street for three days, trying to catch the scent of some foreign reinsurance company ignorant of his impending change, so that his fall might not seem too humiliatingly flat, when the news should be wired every agent of the Salamander to cease writing. He had met, however, with no success, so he cannot be blamed if his response to Mr. Murch was a trifle lacking in enthusiasm.

"You're prompt," proceeded that gentleman, ignoring his visitor's lack of cordiality. "I'm glad you're on time, for Mr. Belknap just telephoned that he was on his way here with the contracts and the representative of the company that's taking us over."

"Did he say what company it was?" inquired O'Connor, with the first gleam of interest he had shown.

"I don't believe I asked him. There seems to be a lot of secrecy about these deals, and I didn't care a hang, myself, anyway. He said it was a thoroughly responsible company, and our policyholders would be fully protected. They'll be here in a minute."

"I wonder what company it is," the other man said, reflectively, half to himself.

"You'll know in a moment, because, unless I'm wrong, the boy is bringing Belknap's card now."

The boy entered with the card in question.

"Ask them to come in," said Mr. Murch.

O'Connor stood looking out the window. His gaze wandered over the well-known roofs of the buildings along William Street, and a momentary pang shot through him to think that under those roofs to-morrow there would be no place for him, and that his venture was all to begin again. He no longer felt any sense of grievance, any animosity against Murch. He was merely wondering vaguely at Fate, and at this latest whim of hers. So deep was he in his reverie that he scarcely noticed the entrance of the expected callers until he heard a voice that recalled him to actualities.

"Mr. Murch, let me make you acquainted with Mr. Smith," Belknap was saying; and O'Connor turned sharply back from the window.

To Mr. Belknap's courteous greeting he gave little heed, but like a charmed canary before a cobra his look rested on the second man of the pair. This was a young man with level, gray eyes, who nodded slightly and cheerfully said:--

"How do you do, Mr. O'Connor."

No word said O'Connor; his eyes neither lowered nor turned aside their fascinated gaze. Each of the four men stood still, waiting for the little drama to end: a long minute.

"Here are the papers, Mr. Murch," said the intermediary, at last, turning to the financier.

"All right; let me look over them," said the other.

Five minutes later the Salamander had ceased to exist.

CHAPTER XXV

The March winds blustered over Boston, and the cold salt smell of the ocean was borne tempestuously in upon the shivering city. Chill and keen out of the northeast came the air that hinted not at all of spring, but urgently of winter. The people in the streets walked briskly, with no laggard steps; they were accustomed to this sort of untimely treatment from the New England climate, and they had no intention of being betrayed thereby into pondering over southern lands or sunny vineclad hillsides where summer always lingered. Boston might not be climatically Utopian, but there was at all events something virile, something manly and admirable about a sort of weather for which no other good word could be used.

Between the tall buildings in Kilby Street, where now for three weeks the current of the insurance world had been flowing with quickened, almost feverish pulse, the activity on this blustering day in middle March was undiminished. Of the hastily arranged adjustment offices which the magnitude of the conflagration had made necessary, nearly all had been given up, and the comparatively few uncompleted adjustments of losses were now being handled through the regular offices.

It had been a titanic task, that of adjusting fire losses extending in the aggregate to between one and two hundred millions of dollars--for there were some indications that the Boston property damage would reach the latter figure. But after three weeks of steady work, when the lines of claimants before the adjusters' doors had hardly slackened a moment, the worst was over. Three fourths of the claims had been settled; satisfactorily to all concerned by the larger and more responsible companies; on a basis of offered compromise by those institutions tottering on the brink of insolvency; dubiously, or with craven and flagrant unfairness by the stricken "wildcats," the irresponsible undergrounders of America and Europe. For every great fire unearths the fact that there are always companies who will gladly accept premiums,--often at surprisingly low rates,--although they are only mildly addicted to the payment of losses. And every conflagration also uncovers the fact that there are many penny-wise citizens who purchase this class of indemnity. A great fire cleans, as nothing else does, the fire insurance stage of all but the fittest.

From this calamity, the greatest which had ever visited the city, Boston had, after a timeless period of uncomprehending and demoralized helplessness, leaped anew into activity and life. From all over the country, almost from all over the world, the need of the stricken city was met by a magnificent and human response. A vast catastrophe becomes nearly worth while by virtue of the humanity it discovers. Food, clothing, money--all were donated with lavish hands, and aid was rushed to Boston by a hundred trains. In comparison with the area burned over, the number of people made homeless was not great; and in three weeks the city had somehow managed to drink up and absorb this surplus without leaving a sign.

Life had now begun to move more normally again; and already the city's gaze went forward toward what was to be, rather than backward at what had been. But in a certain Kilby Street office two men were talking, one of whom still looked somewhat gloomily back, while the other, with a smile of transcendent optimism, was engaged in the cosmic process of turning Boston's holocaust into a fiery but triumphant feather for his own cap.

"Has that draft come in yet, Benny?" he was demanding.

"Came this morning," answered Cole, a trifle sourly. "Here it is."

"Would you mind letting me have it? Thanks. This is the last one, isn't it? They're all here now?"

"Yes," said Cole, curtly; "this is the last."

"If you'll give me a large envelope, I'll take them with me, then," returned the first speaker. "With a golden touch like Midas of old will I go forth into the presence of my distinguished relation. Benny, you are a base soul with no instincts above the commercial. You do not appreciate the situation. We are rapidly approaching what is vulgarly termed the psychological moment. If you had any more feeling than a dying invertebrate, you would want to come along and witness the ceremony, which is entirely private and visitors admitted by card only."

"Thanks, but I don't care to," said Cole, shortly.

Since the change which came over the complexion of matters in his world, Cole was much less assured and less assertive than before. The receipt this morning of the Salamander's final and largest loss draft marked the last public connection between that company and the Osgood office. The Salamander had reinsured, and the news of its fall was abroad on the streets of Boston as in New York, the insurance talk of all the towns. O'Connor, temporarily at least, had disappeared, and no man knew what chasm had swallowed him up. So far as Osgood and Company were concerned, he and his company were both dead issues; and once more in the old office in the corner Mr. Osgood could be seen in his wonted place.

Immediately following the conflagration Mr. Osgood had quietly resumed his authority as active head of the firm; and the Guardian, having taken over the Salamander's unburned business, which was in reality its own, once more acknowledged as its Boston representatives Messrs. Silas Osgood and Company. Of course the separation rule of the Boston Board was still nominally in force; but with the legal decision pending there was no disposition on the part of any agency or of any company to force an action of any sort. In the face of a matter so great as the conflagration had been, the smaller things, the lesser animosities, were allowed to slip peacefully into forgotten limbo. In due time the separation rule, its chief protagonist discredited and gone none knew where, would be repealed, either under legal compulsion or without. When that day came, the Guardian would be back in the position it had always enjoyed until Mr. O'Connor played--and lost--his meteoric game.

In Mr. Cole's office, meanwhile, the small pile of checks and drafts was being counted over with scrupulous care by Mr. Wilkinson.

"They seem to be in order," he said. "Three hundred and fifty-five thousand, six hundred and eighty-seven dollars and fifty-two cents. Benny, a thought strikes me! Why should not an insurance broker get a commission on losses as well as premiums? It seems to me that that is a very reasonable idea--I wonder it has never occurred to anybody before."

"You get your commission when the line is rewritten, of course," Cole responded. "What more do you want?"

"Why, that's so; I hadn't thought of that. I presume that such an operation will be more or less lucrative--unless my sagacious though unwilling father-in-law executes his sometime threat."

"Oh, I don't believe even John M. Hurd would be such a jackal without benefit of clergy as to do that."

"Well, perhaps not. Do you think of anything else, Benny, before I depart?"

"Absolutely nothing. And for heaven's sake get out!--I'm busy, and you lend an atmosphere of inertia to the whole place."

"And yet," returned Mr. Wilkinson, suavely, rising, nevertheless,--"and yet this is, in the plebeian phrase of the world of trade, my busy day. To be sure I have other occasional days when I handle transactions that run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars; but I don't mind admitting to you that these usually take place in the last ineffable hour of slumber preceding the dawn. But to-day--to-day it is true! Benny, I will go to the length of buying you a drink, a short and frugal drink."

"At eleven A.M.? Not for me," responded Cole. "Run along."

"I go," rejoined the other, gracefully, and the door swung shut behind his debonaire retreat.

A few minutes later to the youth from South Framingham he spoke nonchalantly:--

"Mr. Hurd?"

The calm presumption of that rising inflection seemed to indicate the absence of all doubt as to whether Mr. Hurd would receive him. The South Framingham scion regarded him with bovine gaze.

"Yes, I guess he's in," he said dubiously.

"Then tell him, if you please, that Mr. Charles Wilkinson wishes to see him on a matter of important business." The sentence ended so incisively that South Framingham blinked. Any display of emotion more significant was not, perhaps, to be expected. The messenger and his message started vaguely toward the door of Mr. Hurd's private office, and for an awkward moment no sound came forth.

"He says to come in," said South Framingham, reappearing.

"With alacrity but dignity," said Charles to himself; and found himself in another moment in the presence of Mr. Hurd. The traction magnate did not rise. He laid the paper which he had been reading on the desk before him, and looked fixedly across it at the intruder.

"Good-morning, sir," said Mr. Wilkinson, cheerfully.

Mr. Hurd's response to this greeting could only be denominated a grunt, but his visitor had no desire to force an issue of cordiality, so, waiving the doubtful courtesy of this reply, he continued:--

"Mrs. Hurd is well, I trust?"

"Mrs. Hurd is quite well, thank you. Did you come here through any apprehension about her health?" inquired the gentleman at the desk, with some degree of asperity to be detected in his tone by one as well acquainted with him as was Charlie. "I understood from my clerk that you came on business."

"And so I did," said the unruffled Wilkinson, "although I always endeavor that business and courtesy shall not necessarily exclude one another."

The financier looked sharply at the young man; but he felt that he was scarcely in a position to take offense at such a commendable statement.

"My business," continued the visitor, "deals with one of the best single pieces of business you ever did for the Massachusetts Light, Heat, and Traction Company."

"Is the loss finally closed up?" said Mr. Hurd, curtly.

His son-in-law stood dramatically before him; he slipped his left hand into the inner breast pocket where reposed the documents with which his coup was to be made.

"Mr. Hurd," he said impressively, "you permitted me to place the insurance on your trolley system because I convinced you that it ought to be insured. Do you recall what I said about the conflagration hazard in the congested district of Boston? Well, I won't repeat it, but until I called it to your notice you had never given it serious consideration. And even after the schedule was placed, you said that another year you would not carry insurance. You may also recall that you withheld your consent to a certain marriage, which I proposed to contract with a member of your family, and which--"

"Stick to the matter in hand," suggested the traction magnate, tartly.

"I am doing so, because the point I want to make is this. On both these matters, if you'll pardon my saying so, you were equally wrong. You were afraid that as a son-in-law all my entries would be on the wrong side of your ledger. Well, I don't believe I'll overdraw my account with you for some little time, Mr. Hurd, for I hand you herewith--as we say to our stenographers--to the order of the Massachusetts Light, Heat, and Traction Company, checks and drafts to the amount of three hundred and fifty-five thousand, six hundred and eighty-seven dollars and fifty-two cents, in payment of the loss on your Pemberton Street car barn and power house and a few minor items. Here they are, and, to use a colloquialism, I want to rub them in. Not to glorify my own acumen or to minimize yours,--you showed good judgment to insure your property,--but to prove to you that you made a mistake about me."

"A mistake?" said the other man.

"A colossal mistake. Your only objection to me as a son-in-law was on financial grounds. Show me, if you can, any young man you could have picked out as a husband for your daughter, who within a few months could have saved your company three hundred and fifty thousand dollars. No, Mr. Hurd, you've done me a very great injustice. And now, I'm going to ask two things of you."

"And what are they?" inquired Mr. Hurd.

"The first is your order for rewriting the schedule on the traction properties. We'll take up the second when we've finished that."

John M. Hurd gave a half hitch in his chair, and turned his face toward the window, the very casement out of which he had gazed on the day when the fate of Mr. Wilkinson's scheme was first decided. Thoughtfully he looked out and down the busy street. His visitor, by way of gently stimulating his reverie, laid the companies' loss drafts within an inch of his unmoving fingers. Unconsciously those fingers, which had through the long years acquired an inalienable tendency toward the acquisition of legal tender in whatever form proffered--those fingers slowly, almost automatically, but irrevocably, closed upon the little packet.

It seemed as though, from the contact, a soothing hint of balsam-laden pines, of comfort and satisfaction for the soul, must have proceeded from those oblong papers. Charlie, keenly watching, beheld the stony countenance in front of him, as if permeated by some ineffable warmth, stir and become human. The miracle of Galatea was worked in this face before the very gaze of him who had dispensed the beneficent influence. The grim lines around the mouth lost their inflexible rigor; and slowly, unwillingly, almost shamefacedly there stole into the hard old visage the hint, the wraith, the shadow of a smile.

Wise in his generation, Wilkinson left the work to the magic and sovereign forces now at play; he did not risk marring the alchemy by a single word. After a moment which seemed an hour he found himself once more confronted by the direct observation of his step-uncle.

"You can have your trolley schedule," said John M. Hurd. "You are certainly entitled to it. What else you want I dare say I can guess. . . . Suppose you bring Isabel up to Beacon Street this afternoon to take tea with her mother--and me."

If Mr. Wilkinson cut a pigeon wing in the outer office, it was only the scion of South Framingham whose amazement is recorded. John M. Hurd, still smiling faintly, sat reflectively eyeing the little pile of checks which his visitor had left, until at last he rang for his cashier.

"Endorse these and have them deposited immediately, Mr. Walsh," he said.

Meanwhile the telephone wires were buzzing under Mr. Wilkinson's energetic advertisement of the latest society note.

"Extry! Extry!" he announced to Isabel. "All about the reconciliation of trust magnate with beautiful though erring daughter! Extry! All about the soothing and emollient influence of a little packet of stamped paper! No, I've not gone suddenly insane, and I'll come home about four, for we are due for tea at the residence of Mr. and Mrs. John M. Hurd."

To Deerfield Street, also, the glad word presently went, to meet there the sincere congratulations of Miss Helen Maitland, who held the other end of the jubilant telephone.

"You'd better come, too, Helen. We'll stop for you. I really think it would be much smoother if you were along. And besides, Charlie says we ought to get father on record before a witness in case a conservative turn takes him again."

"I was rather expecting to have tea here," Miss Maitland confessed, after a moment's hesitancy. "Yes, Mr. Smith said he would probably come. Very well--I will bring him along, if you'd really like to have him, with great pleasure. You'll call for us, Isabel? Au revoir, then."

It was shortly after five o'clock when the Hurds' butler opened the front door to admit a company of four. These intruders, waiting no bidding and ignoring altogether the fact that one of their number had been forbidden the house, made their cheerful way, headed by Mrs. Wilkinson, into the drawing room, there to greet with effusive welcome a stern-faced, elderly lady, who met them with a broad smile, but who almost instantly, to her own infinite surprise and discomfiture, burst into tears. These rapidly abated, when there was heard a sound in the hall, a sound which the quick ears of Mr. Wilkinson distinguished at once.

"The lion comes!" he murmured in Isabel's ear; and an involuntary hush descended upon the company. Thud, thud, thud--the firm steps approached; the arras was drawn back by a deliberate hand; and into the drawing room, his manner as easy and composed as ever, came Mr. Hurd. Two steps he made inside the room, then stopped. His glance instantly comprehended the little company, and just for a moment the old, cold light shot into his eye. But it was only for a moment.

"My dear Isabel, I am very glad to see you home again."

The greeting which the financier would have extended to his other guests was lost forever in the impulsive rush which landed Mrs. Wilkinson in her father's arms. Any regret which may have lingered was banished in the shock of this impact; and it was a resigned parent who emerged from this embrace to resume his corner in the reunited world.

It remained for his son-in-law to pronounce the valedictory over the vanishing fragments of the family breach.

"Mr. Hurd, ever since the day you flung in my astounded face my character and attainments, depicted in simple but effective words of one syllable, I have felt that there was not only force, but a good deal of truth, in your pungent observations. As I remember telling you at the time, had I appreciated the disgraceful facts as you summed them up, I could only in justice to Isabel have joined my efforts to your own in endeavoring to prevent so fatal an alliance. But it was too late. And now that the thing is done, the child of Mr. Hurd, having inherited some of that gentleman's fixity of purpose and tenacity of idea, is still of the opinion--Isabel, even if I am wrong, please do not contradict me--that she needs the stimulus of my desultory presence to keep her en rapport with life. Isabel has come to find strangely piquant the sensation of uncertainty as to the approaching meal. She has come to feel that certainty in such a matter is a species of bourgeoisie. At all events we are now Mr. and Mrs. Wilkinson; and however deeply we regret the lack of enthusiasm in that connection of my esteemed father-in-law, I can only suggest to him that, although probably no one in the world has as poor an opinion of me as he has, if he keeps that opinion to himself there is no reason why the world in general should ever learn the truth. Certainly it shall be my life work to prevent it; and maybe when in the years to come I am passing the plate in some far suburban tabernacle of worship, all will be forgotten. Helen, may I trouble you to hand me those sandwiches?"

Mr. Hurd emitted a dry chuckle.

"For the honor of the family, Charlie, I'll never tell," he said.

It was dark when at last Miss Maitland, under the escort of Smith, started homeward toward Deerfield Street. And even then, not so directly homeward lay their course as the hour might have warranted. By an impulse which neither resisted, their footsteps turned southeastward toward the place where they had first viewed the land of the fire's reaping. On the steel bridge over the railroad tracks they found themselves at last.

"We didn't really intend to come here, did we?" asked the girl, with a smile.

"Somebody must have intended it," argued her companion; "although I confess that my part in it seemed entirely a passive one. Still, it is a good place to come, excepting for the cinders which fly into one's eyes--as one did then."

Northward, under the pale light of the stars, the barren acres stretched away till they reached the point where the builded city recommenced. The wind, fallen to a breeze, brought still a faint hint of smoke out of the ground, as though in insistent reminiscence of the fire's breath. On the edge of this zone gleamed the city's lights, and Smith was vaguely reminded of the lights on the Jersey shore as he could see them from his window.

"Do you remember the night you showed me the lights of New York?" asked Helen, softly.

"I shall never stop remembering it," he answered. "Some day, when I get to be so valuable or valueless that I can be spared from the Guardian, we will go and see the lights of all the other cities of the world. Shall we?"

"There will be none like yours--like ours."

"As there are no lights for me like those within your eyes."

"But I thought we were going to Robbinsville!" said the girl, "to see a harness shop."

"We will go there, too," he answered. "Oh, life will be all too short for you and me!"

It was some time later when the little bridge was left once more to the cinders and to itself. Behind the backs of the two who walked slowly homeward, the plain, which once had been a city, lay gray-black in its ashes beneath the black and gold of the cloud-flecked sky.