that ought to know - Miss Blessington's guardian."
"Well, if she sailed for Europe on the _Mauretania_, like he
says - how's it come her name wasn't on the passenger list?"
"It's quite possible that a young woman as much sought after and
annoyed by fortune hunters, may have elected to sail incognita. It can
be done, you know. In fact, it _has_ been done."
George digested this in profound gloom.
"Then you don't believe what I'm tellin' you?"
"Not one-tenth of one iota of a belief."
George betrayed in a rude, choleric grunt, his disgust to see his
splendid fabrication, so painfully concocted for the delusion and
discomfiture of P. Sybarite, threatening to collapse of sheer
intrinsic flimsiness. He had counted so confidently on the credulity
of the little bookkeeper! And Violet had supported his confidence with
so much assurance! Disgusting wasn't the word for George's emotions.
In desperation he grasped at one final, fugitive hope.
"All right," he said sullenly: "_all_ right! You don't gotta believe
me if you don't wanta. Only wait - that's all I ask - _wait_! You'll see
I'm right when she turns down your invite to-night."
P. Sybarite smiled sunnily. "So that is why you thought she wouldn't
go with us, is it?"
"You got me."
"You thought she, if Marian Blessington, must necessarily be such a
snob that she wouldn't associate with poor devils like us, did you?"
"Wait. You'll see."
"Well, it's none of your business, George; but I don't mind telling
you, you're wrong. Quite wrong. In the head, too, George. I've already
asked Miss Lessing, and she has accepted."
George's eyes, protruding, glistened with poignant surprise.
"You ast her already?"
"That's why I left you down the street. I dropped into Blessington's
for the sole purpose of asking her."
"And she fell for it?"
"She accepted my invitation - yes."
After a long pause George ground his cigarette beneath his heel, and
"In wrong, as usual," he admitted with winning simplicity. "I never
did guess _any_thin' right the first time. Only - you just grab this
from me: maybe she's willin' to run the risk of bein' seen with us,
but that ain't sayin' she's anybody but Marian Blessington."
"You really think it likely that Miss Blessington, hiding from her
guardian and anxious to escape detection, would take a job at the
glove counter of her own store, where everybody must know her by
sight - where her guardian, Shaynon himself, couldn't fail to see her
at least twice a day, as he enters and leaves the building?"
Staggered, Bross recovered quickly.
"That's just her cuteness. She doped it out the safest place for her
would be the last place he'd look for her!"
"And you really think that she, accustomed to every luxury that money
can buy, would voluntarily come down to living here, at six dollars a
week, and clerking in a department store - simply because, according to
the papers, she's opposed to a marriage that she can't be forced to
contract in a free country like this?"
"Wel-l...." George floundered helplessly for a moment; and fell back
again upon an imagination for the time being stimulated to an abnormal
degree of inventiveness:
"P'raps old Shaynon's double-crossed her somehow we don't know nothin'
about. He ain't above it, if all they tell of him's true. Maybe he's
got her coin away from her, and she had to go to work for a livin'.
Stranger things have happened in this burg, P.S."
It was the turn of P.S. to hesitate in doubt; or at all events, so
George Bross inferred from a sudden change in the expression of the
little man's eyes. Momentarily they seemed to cloud, as if in
introspection. But he rallied quickly enough.
"All things are possible, George," he admitted with his quizzical
grin. "But this time you're mistaken. I'm not arguing with you,
George; I'm _telling_ you: you're hopelessly mistaken."
"You think so - huh?" growled George. "Well, I got eight iron bucks
that says Marian Blessington to any five of your money."
He made a bold show of his pay envelope.
"It'd be a shame to rob you, George," said P. Sybarite. "Besides,
you're bad-tempered when broke."
"Never you mind about that. Here's my eight, if you've got five that
makes a noise like Molly Lessing."
P. Sybarite laughed softly and produced the little wad of bills that
represented his weekly wage. At this, George involuntarily drew back.
"And how would you settle the bet?"
"Leave it to her," insisted George in an expiring gasp of bravado.
"You'd ask her yourself?"
"Ye-es - "
"And let it stand on her answer?"
"Wel-l - "
"Here she comes now," added P. Sybarite, glancing up the street.
"Quick, now; you've only a minute to decide. Is it a bet?"
With a gesture of brave decision, George returned his money to his
"You're an easy mark," he observed in accents of deep pity. "I knew
you'd think I meant it."
"But didn't you, George?"
"Nah - nothin' like that! I was just kiddin' you along, to see how much
"It's all right then," agreed P. Sybarite. "Only - George!"
"Don't you breathe a word of this to Miss Lessing?"
"Because I tell you not to - because," said P. Sybarite firmly, "I
"You - you forbid me? Holy Mike! And what - "
"Sssh!" P. Sybarite warned him sibilantly. "Miss Lessing might hear
you.... What will happen if you disobey me," he added as the shop girl
turned in at the gateway, lowering his own voice and fixing the
shipping clerk with a steely stare, "will be another accident, much
resembling that of this afternoon - if you haven't forgotten. Now mind
what I tell you, and be good."
Mr. Bross swelled with resentment; exhibited a distorted and empurpled
visage; but kept silence.
THE COMIC SPIRIT
Pausing at the foot of the stoop, Miss Lessing looked up at the two
young men and smiled.
"Good-evening," she said with a pretty nod for P. Sybarite; and, with
its fellow for George, "Good-evening, Mr. Bross," she added.
Having acknowledged this salutation with that quaint courtesy which
somehow seemed to fit him like a garment, P. Sybarite smiled strangely
at the shipping clerk.
The latter mumbled something incoherent, glanced wildly toward the
young woman, and spluttered explosively; all with a blush so deep that
its effect was apoplectic.
Alarmed by this exhibition, Miss Lessing questioned P. Sybarite with
her lifted brows and puzzled eyes.
"George is a little bit excited," he apologised. "Every so often he
becomes obsessed with mad desire to impose upon some simple and
credulous nature like mine. And failure always unbalances him. He
becomes excitable - ah - irrational - "
With an inarticulate snort, Mr. Bross turned and fled into the house.
Confusion possessed him, and with it rage: stumbling blindly on the
first flight of steps, he clawed the atmosphere with fingers that
itched for vengeance.
"I'll get even!" he muttered savagely - "I'll get hunk with that boob
if it's the last act of my life!"
Fortunately, the hall was gloomy and at that moment deserted.
On the first landing he checked, clutched the banisters for support,
and endeavoured to compose himself - but with less success than he
It was with a suggestion of stealth that he ascended the second
flight - with an enforced deliberateness and caution that were wasted.
For as he reached the top, the door of the back hall-bedroom opened
gently for the space of three inches. Through this aperture were
visible a pair of bright eyes, with the curve of a plump and pretty
cheek, and an adorable bare arm and shoulder.
"That you, George?" Violet Prim demanded with vivacity.
Reluctantly he stopped and in a throaty monosyllable admitted his
"Well, how'd it go off?"
"He fell for it?"
"All over himself. Honest, Vi, it was a scream to watch his eyes pop.
You could've clubbed 'em outa his bean without touchin' his beak. I
Miss Prim giggled appreciatively.
"You're a wonder, George," she applauded. "It takes you to think 'em
"Ah, I don't know," returned her admirer with becoming modesty.
"He's gone on her, all right, ain't he?"
"Crazy about her!"
"Think he'll make a play for her now?"
George demurred. Downright lying was all very well; he could manage
that with passable craft, especially when, as in this instance,
detection would be difficult; but prophecy was a little out of his
line. Though with misgivings, he resorted to unvarnished truth:
"You never can tell about P.S. He's a queer little gink."
Footsteps became audible on the stairs below.
"Well, so long. See you at dinner," George added in haste.
"Well?" he asked, delaying with ill grace.
"What makes you sound so funny?"
"Laughin'!" protested George convincingly.
With determination and a heavy tread he went on to his room.
When he had shaved (with particular care) and changed his linen
(trimming collar and cuffs to a degree of uncommon nicety) and resumed
his coat (brushing and hating it simultaneously and with equal
ferocity, for its very shabbiness) P. Sybarite sought out a pipe old
and disreputable enough to be a comfort to any man, and sat down by
the one window of his room (top floor, hall, back) to smoke and
consider the state of the universe while awaiting the dinner gong.
The window commanded an elevated if non-exhilarating view of back
yards, one and all dank, dismal, and littered with the dÃ©bris of a
long, hard winter. Familiarity, however, had rendered P. Sybarite
immune to the miasma of melancholy they exhaled; the trouble in his
patient blue eyes, the wrinkles that lined his forehead, owned another
In fact, George had wrought more disastrously upon his temper than P.
Sybarite had let him see. His hints, innuendoes, and downright
assertions had in reality distilled a subtle poison into the little
man's humour. For in spite of his embattled incredulity and the clear
reasoning with which he had overborne George's futile insistence,
there still lingered in his mind (and always would, until he knew the
truth himself) a carking doubt.
Perhaps it was true. Perhaps George had guessed shrewdly. Perhaps
Molly Lessing of the glove counter really was one and the same with
Marian Blessington of the fabulous fortune.
Old Brian Shaynon was a known devil of infinite astuteness; it would
be quite consistent with his character and past performances if,
despairing of gaining control of his ward's money by urging her into
unwelcome matrimony with his son, he had contrived to over-reach her
in some manner, and so driven her to become self-supporting.
Perhaps hardly likely: the hypothesis was none the less quite
plausible; a thing had happened, within P. Sybarite's knowledge of
Even if George's romance were true only in part, these were wretched
circumstances for a girl of gentle birth and rearing to adopt. It was
really a shocking boarding-house. P. Sybarite had known it intimately
for ten years; use had made him callous to its shortcomings; but he
was not yet so far gone that he could forget how unwholesome and
depressing it must seem to one accustomed to better things. He could
remember most vividly how he had loathed it for weeks, months, and
years after the tide of evil fortunes had cast him upon its crumbling
brownstone stoop (even in that distant day, crumbling).
Now, however ... P. Sybarite realised suddenly that habit had
instilled into his bosom a sort of mean affection for the grim and
sordid place. Time had made him sib to its spirit, close to its
niggard heart. Scarcely a nook or corner of it with which he was not
on terms of the most intimate acquaintance. In the adjoining room a
deserted woman had died by her own hand; her moans, filtered through
the dividing wall, had summoned P. Sybarite - too late. The double
front room on the same floor harboured an amiable couple whose
sempiternal dissensions only his tact and persistence ever served to
still. The other hall-bedroom had housed for many years a dipsomaniac
whose periodic orgies had cost P. Sybarite many a night of bedside
vigil. On the floor below lived a maiden lady whose quenchless hopes
still centred about his amiable person. Downstairs in the clammy
parlour he had whiled away unnumbered hours assisting at dreary
"bridge drives," or playing audience to amateur recitals on the aged
and decrepit "family organ." For an entire decade he had occupied the
same chair at the same table in the basement dining-room, feasting on
beef, mutton, Irish stew, ham-and-beans, veal, pork, or
just-hash - according to the designated day of the week....
The very room in which he sat was somehow dear to him; upon it he
wasted a sentiment in a way akin to that with which one regards the
grave of a beloved friend; it was, in fact, the tomb of his own youth.
Its narrow and impoverished bed had groaned with the restless weight
of him all those many nights through which he had lain wakeful, in
impotent mutiny against the outrageous circumstances that made him a
prisoner there. Its walls had muted the sighs in which the desires of
youth had been spent. Its floor matting was worn threadbare with the
impatient pacings of his feet (four strides from door to window: swing
and repeat _ad libitum_). Its solitary gas-jet had, with begrudged
illumination, sicklied o'er the pages of those innumerable borrowed
books with which he had sought to dull poignant self-consciousness....
A tomb!... Bitterly he granted the aptness of that description of his
cubicle: mausoleum of his every hope and aspiration, sepulchre of all
his ability and promise. In this narrow room his very self had been
extinguished: a man had degenerated into a machine. Everything that
caught his eye bore mute witness to this truth: the shabby tin alarm
clock on the battered bureau was one of a dynasty that had roused him
at six in the morning with unfailing regularity three hundred and
sixty-five times per year (Sundays were too rare in his calendar and
too precious to be wasted abed). From an iron hook in the window frame
dangled the elastic home-exerciser with which it was his unfailing
habit to perform a certain number of matutinal contortions, to keep
his body wholesome and efficient. Beneath the bed was visible the rim
of a shallow English tub that made possible his subsequent sponge
A machine; a fixture; creature of an implacable routine; a spirit
immolated upon the altar of habit: into this he had degenerated in ten
years. Such was the effect of life in this melancholy shelter for the
homeless wage-slave. He was no lonely victim. In his term he had seen
many another come in hope, linger in disappointment, leave only to go
to a meaner cell in the same stratum of misfortune.
Was this radiant spirit of youth and gentle loveliness (who might, for
all one knew to the contrary, be Marian Blessington after all) to be
suffered to become one of that disconsolate crew?
What could be done to prevent it?
Nothing that the wits of P. Sybarite could compass: he was as
inefficient as any gnat in any web....
Through the halls resounded the cacophonous clangour of a cracked gong
announcing dinner. Sighing, P. Sybarite rose and knocked the ashes
delicately from his pipe - saving the dottle for a good-night whiff
after the theatre.
Being Saturday, it was the night of ham-and-beans. P. Sybarite loathed
ham-and-beans with a deathly loathing. Nevertheless he ate his dole of
ham-and-beans. He sat on the landlady's right, and was reluctant to
hurt her feelings or incur her displeasure. Besides, he was hungry:
between the home-exerciser and the daily walks to and from the
Brooklyn Bridge, his normal appetite was that of an athlete in pink of
Miss Lessing sat on the same side of the main dining-table, but half a
dozen chairs away. P. Sybarite couldn't see her save by craning his
neck. He refused to crane his neck: it might seem ostentatious.
Violet and her George occupied adjoining chairs at another and smaller
table. Their attendance was occasionally manifested through the medium
of giggles and guffaws. P. Sybarite envied them: he had it in his
heart to envy anybody young enough to be able to see a joke at that
By custom, the landlady relinquished her seat some minutes in advance
of any guest. When P. Sybarite left the room he found her established
at a desk in the basement hallway. Pausing, he delivered unto her the
major portion of his week's wage. Setting aside another certain amount
against the cost of laundry work, tobacco, and incidentals, he had
five dollars left....
He wondered if he dared risk the extravagance of a modest supper after
the theatre; and knew he dared not - knew it in wretchedness of spirit,
cursing his fate....
There remained half an hour to be killed before time to start for the
theatre. George Bross joined him on the stoop. They smoked pensively,
while the afterglow faded from the western sky and veil after veil of
shadow crept stealthily out of the east, masking the rectangular,
utilitarian ugliness of the street, deepening its dusk to darkness.
Street lamps, touched by the flame-tipped wand of a belated
lamplighter, bourgeoned spasmodically like garish flowers of the
metropolitan night. Across the way gas-lit windows glowed like squares
on some great, blurred checker-board. The roadway teemed with
shrieking children. Somewhere - near at hand - a pianola lost its temper
and whaled the everlasting daylights out of an inoffensive melody from
"The Pink Lady." Other, more diffident instruments tinkled
apologetically in the distance. Intermittently, across the gaunt
scaffolding of the Ninth Avenue L, at one end of the block, roaring
trains flashed long chains of lights. On the other hand, Eighth Avenue
buzzed resonantly in stifling clouds of incandescent dust. The air
smelt of warm asphalt....
And it was Spring: the tenth Spring P. Sybarite had watched from that
Discontent bred in him a brooding despondency. He felt quite sure that
the realists were right about Life: it wasn't worth living, after all.
The prospect of the theatre lost its attraction. He was sure he
wouldn't enjoy it. Such silly romantical nonsense was out of tune with
the immortal Truth about Things, which he had just discovered: Life
was a poor Joke....
At his side, George Bross, on his behalf, was nursing his private and
personal grouch. Between them they manufactured an atmosphere of gloom
that would have done credit to a brace of dumb Socialists.
But presently Miss Prim and Miss Lessing appeared, and changed all
that in a twinkling.
"Well," observed Violet generously, "I thought little me was pretty
well stage-broke; but I gotta hand it to Otis. He's _some_ actor. He
had me going from the first snore."
"Some actor is _right_," affirmed Mr. Bross with conviction, "and some
show, too, if you wanta know. I could sit through it twicet. Say, I
couldn't quit thinkin' what a grand young time I'd start in this old
burg if I could only con this _Kismet_ thing into slippin' me _my_ Day
of Days. Believe me or not, there would be _a_ party."
"What would you do?" asked Molly Lessing, smiling.
"Well, the first flop I'd nail down all the coin that was handy, and
then I'd buy me a flock of automobiles - and have a table reserved for
me at the Knickerbocker for dinner every night - and...." Imagination
flagged. "Well," he concluded defensively, "I can tell you one thing I
"What?" demanded Violet.
"I wouldn't let any ward politician like that there _Wazir_, or
whatever them A-rabs called him, kid me into trying to throw a bomb at
Charlie Murphy - or anythin' like that. No-oh! Not this infant. That's
where your friend _Hajj the Beggar's_ foot slipped on him. Up to then
he had everythin' his own way. If he'd only had sense enough to stall,
he'd've wound up in a blaze of glory."
"But, you bonehead," Violet argued candidly, "he had to. That was his
part: it was written in the play."
"G'wan. If he'd just stalled round and refused to jump through, the
author'd 've framed up some other way out. Why - blame it! - he'd've
"That will be about all for me," said Violet. "I don't feel strong
enough to-night to stand any more of your dramatic criticism. Lead me
home - and please talk baseball all the way."
With a resentful grunt, Mr. Bross clamped a warm, moist hand round the
plump arm of his charmer, and with masterful address propelled her
from the curb in front of the theatre, where the little party had
paused, to the northwest corner of Broadway: their progress consisting
in a series of frantic rushes broken by abrupt pauses to escape
annihilation in the roaring after-theatre crush of motor-cars. P.
Sybarite, moving instinctively to follow, leaped back to the sidewalk
barely in time to save his toes a crushing beneath the tires of a
He smiled a furtive apology at Molly Lessing, who had demonstrated
greater discretion, and she returned his smile in the friendliest
manner. His head was buzzing - and her eyes were kind. Neither spoke;
but for an instant he experienced a breathless sense of sympathetic
isolation with her, there on that crowded corner, elbowed and
shouldered in the eddy caused by the junction of the outpouring
audience with the midnight tides of wayfarers surging north and south.
The wonder and the romance of the play were still warm and vital, in
his imagination, infusing his thoughts with a roseate glamour of
unreality, wherein all things were strangely possible. The iridescent
imagery of the Arabian Nights of his boyhood (who has forgotten the
fascination of those three fat old volumes of crabbed type,
illuminated with their hundreds of cramped old wood-cuts?) had in a
scant three hours been recreated for him by Knoblauch's fantastic
drama with its splendid investment of scene and costume, its admirable
histrionic interpretation, and the robust yet exquisitely tempered
artistry of Otis Skinner. For three hours he had forgotten his lowly
world, had lived on the high peaks of romance, breathing only their
rare atmosphere that never was on land or sea.
Difficult he found it now, to divest his thoughts of that
enthrallment, to descend to cold and sober reality, to remember he was
a clerk, his companion a shop-girl, rather than a Prince disguised as
Calander esquiring a Princess dedicated to Fatal Enchantment - that
Kismet was a quaint fallacy, one with that whimsical conceit of Orient
fatalism which assigns to each and every man his Day of Days, wherein
he shall range the skies and plumb the abyss of his Destiny,
alternately its lord and its puppet.
But presently, with an effort, blinking, he pulled his wits together;
and a traffic policeman creating a favourable opening, the two
scurried across and plunged into the comparative obscurity of West
Thirty-eighth Street: sturdy George and his modest Violet already a
full block in advance.
Discovering this circumstance by the glimmer through the shadows of
Violet's conspicuously striped black-and-white taffeta, P. Sybarite
commented charitably upon their haste.
"If we hurry we might catch up," suggested Molly Lessing.
"I don't miss 'em much," he admitted, without offering to mend the
She laughed softly.
"Are they really in love?"
"George is," replied P. Sybarite, after taking thought.
"You mean she isn't?"
"To blush unseen is Violet's idea of nothing to do - not, at least,
when one is a perfect thirty-eight and possesses a good digestion and
an infinite capacity for amusement _Ã la carte_."
"That is to say - ?" the girl prompted.
"Violet will marry well, if at all."
"Not Mr. Bross, then?"
"Nor any other poor man. I don't say she doesn't care for George, but
before anything serious comes of it he'll have to make good use of his
Day of Days - if _Kismet_ ever sends him one. I hope it will," P.
Sybarite added sincerely.
"You don't believe - really - ?"
"Just now? With all my heart! I'm so full of romantic nonsense I can
hardly stick. Nothing is too incredible for me to believe to-night.
I'm ready to play _Hajj the Beggar_ to any combination of
impossibilities _Kismet_ cares to brew in Bagdad-on-the-Hudson!"
Again the girl laughed quietly to his humour.
"And since you're a true believer, Mr. Sybarite, tell me, what use
_you_ would make of your Day of Days?"
"I? Oh, I - " Smiling wistfully, he opened deprecatory palms. "Hard to
say.... I'm afraid I should prove a fatuous fool in George's esteem