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mitigated by the philanthropy of Orlando G. Spence added just so much
to the sum-total of human inefficiency, and it was one of his favourite
subjects of speculation to picture the innumerable social evils that may
follow upon the rescue of one infant from Mount Taygetus.

"We're all born to prey on each other, and pity for suffering is one of
the most elementary stages of egotism. Until one has passed beyond, and
acquired a taste for the more complex forms of the instinct - "

He stopped suddenly, checked in his advance by a sallow wisp of a dog
which had plunged through the press of vehicles to hurl itself between
his legs. Millner did not dislike animals, though he preferred that they
should be healthy and handsome. The dog under his feet was neither. Its
cringing contour showed an injudicious mingling of races, and its
meagre coat betrayed the deplorable habit of sleeping in coal-holes
and subsisting on an innutritious diet. In addition to these physical
disadvantages, its shrinking and inconsequent movements revealed a
congenital weakness of character which, even under more favourable
conditions, would hardly have qualified it to become a useful member of
society; and Millner was not sorry to notice that it moved with a limp
of the hind leg that probably doomed it to speedy extinction.

The absurdity of such an animal's attempting to cross Fifth Avenue at
the most crowded hour of the afternoon struck him as only less great
than the irony of its having been permitted to achieve the feat; and
he stood a moment looking at it, and wondering what had moved it to
the attempt. It was really a perfect type of the human derelict
which Orlando G. Spence and his kind were devoting their millions to
perpetuate, and he reflected how much better Nature knew her business in
dealing with the superfluous quadruped.

An elderly lady advancing in the opposite direction evidently took
a less dispassionate view of the case, for she paused to remark
emotionally: "Oh, you poor thing!" while she stooped to caress
the object of her sympathy. The dog, with characteristic lack of
discrimination, viewed her gesture with suspicion, and met it with a
snarl. The lady turned pale and shrank away, a chivalrous male repelled
the animal with his umbrella, and two idle boys backed his action by a
vigorous "Hi!" The object of these hostile demonstrations, apparently
attributing them not to its own unsocial conduct, but merely to the
chronic animosity of the universe, dashed wildly around the corner into
a side street, and as it did so Millner noticed that the lame leg left
a little trail of blood. Irresistibly, he turned the corner to see what
would happen next. It was deplorably clear that the animal itself had
no plan; but after several inconsequent and contradictory movements
it plunged down an area, where it backed up against the iron gate,
forlornly and foolishly at bay.

Millner, still following, looked down at it, and wondered. Then he
whistled, just to see if it would come; but this only caused it to start
up on its quivering legs, with desperate turns of the head that measured
the chances of escape.

"Oh, hang it, you poor devil, stay there if you like!" the young man
murmured, walking away.

A few yards off he looked back, and saw that the dog had made a rush
out of the area and was limping furtively down the street. The idle
boys were in the offing, and he disliked the thought of leaving them in
control of the situation. Softly, with infinite precautions, he began to
follow the dog. He did not know why he was doing it, but the impulse was
overmastering. For a moment he seemed to be gaining upon his quarry,
but with a cunning sense of his approach it suddenly turned and hobbled
across the frozen grass-plot adjoining a shuttered house. Against the
wall at the back of the plot it cowered down in a dirty snow-drift, as
if disheartened by the struggle. Millner stood outside the railings and
looked at it. He reflected that under the shelter of the winter dusk it
might have the luck to remain there unmolested, and that in the morning
it would probably be dead of cold. This was so obviously the best
solution that he began to move away again; but as he did so the idle
boys confronted him.

"Ketch yer dog for yer, boss?" they grinned.

Millner consigned them to the devil, and stood sternly watching them
till the first stage of the journey had carried them around the nearest
corner; then, after pausing to look once more up and down the empty
street, laid his hand on the railing, and vaulted over it into the
grass-plot. As he did so, he reflected that, since pity for suffering
was one of the most elementary forms of egotism, he ought to have
remembered that it was necessarily one of the most tenacious.


"My chief aim in life?" Orlando G. Spence repeated. He threw himself
back in his chair, straightened the tortoise-shell _pince-nez_, on his
short blunt nose, and beamed down the luncheon table at the two young
men who shared his repast.

His glance rested on his son Draper, seated opposite him behind a
barrier of Georgian silver and orchids; but his words were addressed to
his secretary who, stylograph in hand, had turned from the seductions
of a mushroom _souffle_ in order to jot down, for the Sunday
_Investigator_, an outline of his employer's views and intentions
respecting the newly endowed Orlando G. Spence College for Missionaries.
It was Mr. Spence's practice to receive in person the journalists
privileged to impart his opinions to a waiting world; but during the
last few months - and especially since the vast project of the Missionary
College had been in process of development - the pressure of business
and beneficence had necessitated Millner's frequent intervention,
and compelled the secretary to snatch the sense of his patron's
elucubrations between the courses of their hasty meals.

Young Millner had a healthy appetite, and it was not one of his least
sacrifices to be so often obliged to curb it in the interest of his
advancement; but whenever he waved aside one of the triumphs of Mr.
Spence's _chef_ he was conscious of rising a step in his employer's
favour. Mr. Spence did not despise the pleasures of the table, though
he appeared to regard them as the reward of success rather than as the
alleviation of effort; and it increased his sense of his secretary's
merit to note how keenly the young man enjoyed the fare which he was
so frequently obliged to deny himself. Draper, having subsisted since
infancy on a diet of truffles and terrapin, consumed such delicacies
with the insensibility of a traveller swallowing a railway sandwich; but
Millner never made the mistake of concealing from Mr. Spence his sense
of what he was losing when duty constrained him to exchange the fork for
the pen.

"My chief aim in life!" Mr. Spence repeated, removing his eye-glass and
swinging it thoughtfully on his finger. ("I'm sorry you should miss this
_souffle_, Millner: it's worth while.) Why, I suppose I might say that
my chief aim in life is to leave the world better than I found it. Yes:
I don't know that I could put it better than that. To leave the world
better than I found it. It wouldn't be a bad idea to use that as a
head-line. _'Wants to leave the world better than he found it.'_ It's
exactly the point I should like to make in this talk about the College."

Mr. Spence paused, and his glance once more reverted to his son, who,
having pushed aside his plate, sat watching Millner with a dreamy

"And it's the point I want to make with you, too, Draper," his father
continued genially, while he turned over with a critical fork the plump
and perfectly matched asparagus which a footman was presenting to his
notice. "I want to make you feel that nothing else counts in comparison
with that - no amount of literary success or intellectual celebrity."

"Oh, I _do_ feel that," Draper murmured, with one of his quick blushes,
and a glance that wavered between his father and Millner. The secretary
kept his eyes on his notes, and young Spence continued, after a pause:
"Only the thing is - isn't it? - to try and find out just what _does_ make
the world better?"

"To _try_ to find out?" his father echoed compassionately. "It's not
necessary to try very hard. Goodness is what makes the world better."

"Yes, yes, of course," his son nervously interposed; "but the question
is, what _is_ good - "

Mr. Spence, with a darkening brow, brought his fist down emphatically on
the damask. "I'll thank you not to blaspheme, my son!"

Draper's head reared itself a trifle higher on his thin neck. "I was not
going to blaspheme; only there may be different ways - "

"There's where you're mistaken, Draper. There's only one way: there's my
way," said Mr. Spence in a tone of unshaken conviction.

"I know, father; I see what you mean. But don't you see that even your
way wouldn't be the right way for you if you ceased to believe that it

His father looked at him with mingled bewilderment and reprobation. "Do
you mean to say that the fact of goodness depends on my conception of
it, and not on God Almighty's?"

"I do ... yes ... in a specific sense ..." young Draper falteringly
maintained; and Mr. Spence turned with a discouraged gesture toward his
secretary's suspended pen.

"I don't understand your scientific jargon, Draper; and I don't want
to. - What's the next point, Millner? (No; no _savarin_. Bring the
fruit - and the coffee with it.)"

Millner, keenly aware that an aromatic _savarin au rhum_ was describing
an arc behind his head previous to being rushed back to the pantry under
young Draper's indifferent eye, stiffened himself against this last
assault of the enemy, and read out firmly: "_ What relation do you
consider that a man's business conduct should bear to his religious and
domestic life?_"

Mr. Spence mused a moment. "Why, that's a stupid question. It goes
over the same ground as the other one. A man ought to do good with his
money - that's all. Go on."

At this point the butler's murmur in his ear caused him to push back his
chair, and to arrest Millner's interrogatory by a rapid gesture.
"Yes; I'm coming. Hold the wire." Mr. Spence rose and plunged into
the adjoining "office," where a telephone and a Remington divided the
attention of a young lady in spectacles who was preparing for Zenana
work in the East.

As the door closed, the butler, having placed the coffee and liqueurs on
the table, withdrew in the rear of his battalion, and the two young men
were left alone beneath the Rembrandts and Hobbemas on the dining-room

There was a moment's silence between them; then young Spence, leaning
across the table, said in the lowered tone of intimacy: "Why do you
suppose he dodged that last question?"

Millner, who had rapidly taken an opulent purple fig from the fruit-dish
nearest him, paused in surprise in the act of hurrying it to his lips.

"I mean," Draper hastened on, "the question as to the relation between
business and private morality. It's such an interesting one, and he's
just the person who ought to tackle it."

Millner, despatching the fig, glanced down at his notes. "I don't think
your father meant to dodge the question."

Young Draper continued to look at him intently. "You think he imagined
that his answer really covers the ground?"

"As much as it needs to be covered."

The son of the house glanced away with a sigh. "You know things about
him that I don't," he said wistfully, but without a tinge of resentment
in his tone.

"Oh, as to that - (may I give myself some coffee?)" Millner, in his walk
around the table to fill his cup, paused a moment to lay an affectionate
hand on Draper's shoulder. "Perhaps I know him _better_, in a sense:
outsiders often get a more accurate focus."

Draper considered this. "And your idea is that he acts on principles he
has never thought of testing or defining?"

Millner looked up quickly, and for an instant their glances crossed.
"How do you mean?"

"I mean: that he's an inconscient instrument of goodness, as it were?
A - a sort of blindly beneficent force?"

The other smiled. "That's not a bad definition. I know one thing about
him, at any rate: he's awfully upset at your having chucked your Bible

A shadow fell on young Spence's candid brow. "I know. But what can I do
about it? That's what I was thinking of when I tried to show him that
goodness, in a certain sense, is purely subjective: that one can't do
good against one's principles." Again his glance appealed to Millner. "_
You_ understand me, don't you?"

Millner stirred his coffee in a silence not unclouded by perplexity.
"Theoretically, perhaps. It's a pretty question, certainly. But I also
understand your father's feeling that it hasn't much to do with real
life: especially now that he's got to make a speech in connection with
the founding of this Missionary College. He may think that any hint of
internecine strife will weaken his prestige. Mightn't you have waited a
little longer?"

"How could I, when I might have been expected to take a part in this
performance? To talk, and say things I didn't mean? That was exactly
what made me decide not to wait."

The door opened and Mr. Spence re-entered the room. As he did so his son
rose abruptly as if to leave it.

"Where are you off to, Draper?" the banker asked.

"I'm in rather a hurry, sir - "

Mr. Spence looked at his watch. "You can't be in more of a hurry than I
am; and I've got seven minutes and a half." He seated himself behind the
coffee - tray, lit a cigar, laid his watch on the table, and signed
to Draper to resume his place. "No, Millner, don't you go; I want you
both." He turned to the secretary. "You know that Draper's given up his
Bible Class? I understand it's not from the pressure of engagements - "
Mr. Spence's narrow lips took an ironic curve under the straight-clipped
stubble of his moustache - "it's on principle, he tells me. He's
_principled_ against doing good!"

Draper lifted a protesting hand. "It's not exactly that, father - "

"I know: you'll tell me it's some scientific quibble that I
don't understand. I've never had time to go in for intellectual
hair-splitting. I've found too many people down in the mire who needed a
hand to pull them out. A busy man has to take his choice between helping
his fellow-men and theorizing about them. I've preferred to help. (You
might take that down for the _Investigator_, Millner.) And I thank
God I've never stopped to ask what made me want to do good. I've just
yielded to the impulse - that's all." Mr. Spence turned back to his son.
"Better men than either of us have been satisfied with that creed, my

Draper was silent, and Mr. Spence once more addressed himself to his
secretary. "Millner, you're a reader: I've caught you at it. And I know
this boy talks to you. What have you got to say? Do you suppose a Bible
Class ever _hurt_ anybody?"

Millner paused a moment, feeling all through his nervous system the
fateful tremor of the balance. "That's what I was just trying to tell
him, sir - "

"Ah; you were? That's good. Then I'll only say one thing more. Your
doing what you've done at this particular moment hurts me more, Draper,
than your teaching the gospel of Jesus could possibly have hurt those
young men over in Tenth Avenue." Mr. Spence arose and restored his watch
to his pocket. "I shall want you in twenty minutes, Millner."

The door closed on him, and for a while the two young men sat silent
behind their cigar fumes. Then Draper Spence broke out, with a catch
in his throat: "That's what I can't bear, Millner, what I simply
can't _bear:_ to hurt him, to hurt his faith in _me!_ It's an awful
responsibility, isn't it, to tamper with anybody's faith in anything?"


THE twenty minutes prolonged themselves to forty, the forty to fifty,
and the fifty to an hour; and still Millner waited for Mr. Spence's

During the two years of his secretaryship the young man had learned the
significance of such postponements. Mr. Spence's days were organized
like a railway time-table, and a delay of an hour implied a casualty
as far-reaching as the breaking down of an express. Of the cause of the
present derangement Hugh Millner was ignorant; and the experience of the
last months allowed him to fluctuate between conflicting conjectures.
All were based on the indisputable fact that Mr. Spence was
"bothered" - had for some time past been "bothered." And it was one of
Millner's discoveries that an extremely parsimonious use of the emotions
underlay Mr. Spence's expansive manner and fraternal phraseology, and
that he did not throw away his feelings any more than (for all his
philanthropy) he threw away his money. If he was bothered, then, it
could be only because a careful survey of his situation had forced on
him some unpleasant fact with which he was not immediately prepared to
deal; and any unpreparedness on Mr. Spence's part was also a significant

Obviously, Millner's original conception of his employer's character had
suffered extensive modification; but no final outline had replaced the
first conjectural image. The two years spent in Mr. Spence's service
had produced too many contradictory impressions to be fitted into any
definite pattern; and the chief lesson Millner had learned from them
was that life was less of an exact science, and character a more
incalculable element, than he had been taught in the schools. In the
light of this revised impression, his own footing seemed less secure
than he had imagined, and the rungs of the ladder he was climbing
more slippery than they had looked from below. He was not without
the reassuring sense of having made himself, in certain small ways,
necessary to Mr. Spence; and this conviction was confirmed by Draper's
reiterated assurance of his father's appreciation. But Millner had begun
to suspect that one might be necessary to Mr. Spence one day, and
a superfluity, if not an obstacle, the next; and that it would take
superhuman astuteness to foresee how and when the change would occur.
Every fluctuation of the great man's mood was therefore anxiously noted
by the young meteorologist in his service; and this observer's vigilance
was now strained to the utmost by the little cloud, no bigger than a
man's hand, adumbrated by the banker's unpunctuality.

When Mr. Spence finally appeared, his aspect did not tend to dissipate
the cloud. He wore what Millner had learned to call his "back-door
face": a blank barred countenance, in which only an occasional twitch of
the lids behind his glasses suggested that some one was on the watch.
In this mood Mr. Spence usually seemed unconscious of his secretary's
presence, or aware of it only as an arm terminating in a pen. Millner,
accustomed on such occasions to exist merely as a function, sat waiting
for the click of the spring that should set him in action; but the
pressure not being applied, he finally hazarded: "Are we to go on with
the _Investigator_, sir?"

Mr. Spence, who had been pacing up and down between the desk and the
fireplace, threw himself into his usual seat at Millner's elbow.

"I don't understand this new notion of Draper's," he said abruptly.
"Where's he got it from? No one ever learned irreligion in my

He turned his eyes on Millner, who had the sense of being scrutinized
through a ground-glass window which left him visible while it concealed
his observer. The young man let his pen describe two or three vague
patterns on the blank sheet before him.

"Draper has ideas - " he risked at last.

Mr. Spence looked hard at him. "That's all right," he said. "I want
my son to have everything. But what's the point of mixing up ideas and
principles? I've seen fellows who did that, and they were generally
trying to borrow five dollars to get away from the sheriff. What's all
this talk about goodness? Goodness isn't an idea. It's a fact. It's as
solid as a business proposition. And it's Draper's duty, as the son of a
wealthy man, and the prospective steward of a great fortune, to elevate
the standards of other young men - of young men who haven't had his
opportunities. The rich ought to preach contentment, and to set the
example themselves. We have our cares, but we ought to conceal them. We
ought to be cheerful, and accept things as they are - not go about sowing
dissent and restlessness. What has Draper got to give these boys in his
Bible Class, that's so much better than what he wants to take from them?
That's the question I'd like to have answered?"

Mr. Spence, carried away by his own eloquence, had removed his
_pince-nez_ and was twirling it about his extended fore-finger with the
gesture habitual to him when he spoke in public. After a pause, he went
on, with a drop to the level of private intercourse: "I tell you this
because I know you have a good deal of influence with Draper. He has a
high opinion of your brains. But you're a practical fellow, and you must
see what I mean. Try to make Draper see it. Make him understand how it
looks to have him drop his Bible Class just at this particular time.
It was his own choice to take up religious teaching among young men. He
began with our office-boys, and then the work spread and was blessed.
I was almost alarmed, at one time, at the way it took hold of him: when
the papers began to talk about him as a formative influence I was afraid
he'd lose his head and go into the church. Luckily he tried University
Settlement first; but just as I thought he was settling down to that, he
took to worrying about the Higher Criticism, and saying he couldn't go
on teaching fairy-tales as history. I can't see that any good ever came
of criticizing what our parents believed, and it's a queer time for
Draper to criticize _my_ belief just as I'm backing it to the extent of
five millions."

Millner remained silent; and, as though his silence were an argument,
Mr. Spence continued combatively: "Draper's always talking about some
distinction between religion and morality. I don't understand what he
means. I got my morals out of the Bible, and I guess there's enough left
in it for Draper. If religion won't make a man moral, I don't see why
irreligion should. And he talks about using his mind - well, can't he use
that in Wall Street? A man can get a good deal farther in life watching
the market than picking holes in Genesis; and he can do more good too.
There's a time for everything; and Draper seems to me to have mixed up
week-days with Sunday."

Mr. Spence replaced his eye-glasses, and stretching his hand to the
silver box at his elbow, extracted from it one of the long cigars
sheathed in gold-leaf which were reserved for his private consumption.
The secretary hastened to tender him a match, and for a moment he puffed
in silence. When he spoke again it was in a different note.

"I've got about all the bother I can handle just now, without this
nonsense of Draper's. That was one of the Trustees of the College with
me. It seems the _Flashlight_ has been trying to stir up a fuss - " Mr.
Spence paused, and turned his _pince-nez_ on his secretary. "You haven't
heard from them?" he asked.

"From the _Flashlight?_ No." Millner's surprise was genuine.

He detected a gleam of relief behind Mr. Spence's glasses. "It may be
just malicious talk. That's the worst of good works; they bring out all
the meanness in human nature. And then there are always women mixed up
in them, and there never was a woman yet who understood the difference
between philanthropy and business." He drew again at his cigar, and
then, with an unwonted movement, leaned forward and mechanically pushed
the box toward Millner. "Help yourself," he said.

Millner, as mechanically, took one of the virginally cinctured cigars,
and began to undo its wrappings. It was the first time he had ever been
privileged to detach that golden girdle, and nothing could have given
him a better measure of the importance of the situation, and of the
degree to which he was apparently involved in it. "You remember that
San Pablo rubber business? That's what they've been raking up," said Mr.
Spence abruptly.

Millner paused in the act of striking a match. Then, with an appreciable
effort of the will, he completed the gesture, applied the flame to his
cigar, and took a long inhalation. The cigar was certainly delicious.

Mr. Spence, drawing a little closer, leaned forward and touched him on
the arm. The touch caused Millner to turn his head, and for an instant
the glance of the two men crossed at short range. Millner was conscious,
first, of a nearer view than he had ever had of his employer's face,

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Online LibraryEdith WhartonTales of Men and Ghosts → online text (page 15 of 22)